trains on Thanksgiving

Very early tomorrow morning, my fiance is arriving in Pittsburgh on a train to spend Thanksgiving with my family. I am already here at my parents’ house, benefiting from a work schedule that I admit is almost embarrassingly privileged (I get the whole week off) and the fact that I finished up last week at a conference in Baltimore, about 3.5 hours from my parents. Jordan, who had to work this week like a normal person, is taking an overnight train and then hitching a ride back to the Midwest with me on Friday.

Although it means waking up at an ungodly hour, I am excited to see Jordan at the station. (I’m thinking about making a little sign with his name on it.) There seems to be something inherently romantic, or at least heartwarming, about meeting loved ones at transportation hubs on holidays–just watch the end of Love Actually. Bonus points if it’s in a train station, which is inherently more romantic than an airport–just watch the middle of White Christmas. But my mom and I both went to a different movie reference today: We imagined being late to the station tomorrow morning (a distinct possibility; let’s be honest) and finding Jordan sitting forlornly on a bench with his mittens on and all his worldly possessions (or, you know, his overnight bag) sitting next to him, like Del Griffith at the end of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a movie that is actually about Thanksgiving and that I have written about twice over the past year. (This post is about the movie’s theme of “radical hospitality,” as I put it; this one consists mainly of an embarrassing story about something dumb I did, but it does reference the film several times and is also of historical interest since I wrote it shortly after meeting Jordan).

I don’t think I’m saying anything profound here: There’s something special about picking a beloved face out of a crowd. There is something special, too, about the look on the face of the person you have come to pick up. I know from my own experience that even if, unlike Del Griffith, you know someone is coming for you, there’s still a moment of relief: “Oh, they didn’t forget me.”

Keep those feelings in your heart as you celebrate Thanksgiving this week. Don’t take for granted the beloved faces around you. And don’t forget about the people who feel like they have been forgotten. Fred Rogers used to remind us to look for the child in each person we speak with. I would add: Look for the child who is afraid of not getting picked up after school. I think there’s a little bit of that child in all of us still.

grain-free stereotypes

I meant for the title of this post to be a joke, not clickbait, but if you did click on this hoping for a discussion of grain-free diets, I sincerely apologize. (I can, however, recommend Garden of Eatin’ grain-free cassava tortilla chips, which I tried for the first time today.) My title refers to the commonplace that there’s “a grain of truth in every stereotype.” I’ve recently had several conversations about whether this is true. One such discussion was about the stereotype that people who identify with nerd cultures tend to have poor personal hygiene habits. Apparently, though I would never want to make it a generalization, this stereotype is at least anecdotally true, on average, in certain nerd cultures, as expressed to me by a person involved in these cultures (or “by a person close to the situation” as they say in news articles). But what I want to talk about right now is those baseless, irrational stereotypes that we nevertheless sometimes allow to shape how we live our lives. You might want to grab some tortilla chips–this could be intense.

I’ll start with a story. Today after getting my hair cut, I sent a selfie to my boyfriend with the accompanying text, “Just so you wouldn’t worry that I changed my hair too much.” Somewhere during the course of my life, I had heard and practically, if not intellectually, accepted the truth of two related stereotypes: 1. guys freak out if their partners change their physical appearance and 2. guys don’t like short hair. (I have rather short hair, and I know my boyfriend likes it or at least doesn’t have a problem with it, but the looming presence of this belief causes me to be more cautious about #1 and more meticulous about looking feminine than I perhaps would be otherwise.) I am a little bit disgusted with myself now that I’ve stated all this in such matter-of-fact terms. I like to think I’m liberated from what others, especially men, think of the way I look, but I’m not, and I could list countless more stories as evidence.

Here are some other stereotypes I’ve encountered or thought about recently:

  • Yesterday, I heard people talking about the “conventional wisdom” (more like conventional foolishness) that two firstborns shouldn’t marry each other. I mentioned this to my hairstylist today, and her response was a snappy rhetorical question: “Is that in the Bible?”
  • On Friends (by the way, I’m on Season Three now), frequent use is made of the trope that men are afraid of commitment in relationships. In my own experience, I’ve found that tend to be the one who balks at commitment (but only if it’s not a good relationship). I know this truism is based on faulty generalization, yet it makes me anxious.
  • After I started thinking about this post, I remembered another completely nonsensical stereotype that actually did briefly affect some decisions I made during a formative period of my life: Smart people shouldn’t become teachers. (I know! This would be a good time to throw those tortilla chips across the room.) It was a high school classmate who said this to me, and she framed it as a compliment (“Oh, you’re too smart to be a teacher”). Even though I’m pretty sure I identified it as hogwash even at the time, it was powerful enough to prevent me from declaring myself an education major, at least at first, even though I had enjoyed envisioning myself as a teacher since early childhood. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to overcome this false belief, but clearly, I haven’t forgotten it.

I know my examples are laughably mild compared to stories that some people could share of, for example, racial stereotypes that are far less rational and more damaging.

My overall point is this: Be careful what you say, because you never know who will hear it and take it to heart. And generalizing groups of people, whether there’s a grain of truth or not, is lazy. Instead, get to know people as individuals, and when you speak about them, speak of them as individuals. Does this sound like something you’ve already learned in a teen afterschool special or even on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? The thing is that I’m afraid a lot of people have heard all this hundreds of times but haven’t actually learned it. I’m saying this to myself as well. Everyone is different, and everyone is worth getting to know. Don’t mess up somebody’s life with your careless words.

What do you do with the mad that you feel?

The title of this post is the title of a song by Mr. Fred Rogers. Last Friday, I wrote about two important lessons I learned from Mr. Rogers. Today, I would like to write about another lesson he taught: It’s okay to express your feelings, even if they’re not the “good feeling” immortalized in the closing song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But because I’ve never, personally, had trouble expressing my feelings, I’m going to talk about this issue in the voice of one of my fictional characters, Sam Larson, who appears in my zombie apocalypse work in progress. Here’s what Sam has to say:

I had a weird childhood. I was an only child; I didn’t have any relatives who were close (in proximity or in relationship), and I didn’t have a really good friend until high school. My mom was deeply depressed; it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that she spent most of my childhood in a catatonic state. My dad did a remarkable job raising me, considering the circumstances, but he wasn’t much of a talker to begin with, and he especially avoided talking about feelings. (His own father had been a silent northern Minnesota farmer. I didn’t know my grandfather well, but “silent” is definitely the right word for him.) My dad’s typical response to sadness, anger, or any other negative emotion in himself was to eat something, watch TV, or go to sleep, and I learned the same behavior from him.

So I watched a lot of TV, and a wide variety of it, as a child. One day in the summer when I was 11, when my mom was feeling okay enough to come out in the living room but not enough to make recommendations or strictures about what I should be watching, she and I ended up sitting through the first two Godfather movies, which took pretty much all day with the commercials. I still consider those brilliant films, but I shudder to think of the messages about being a man that I was probably absorbing unconsciously while watching them at such a tender age!

On the other end of the spectrum, I watched a lot of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, even after I was probably way too old for it. I was fascinated by this man and his friends (mostly puppets), whose response to feeling mad or confused or out of place was not to eat a plate of chips and dip but to tell someone else about the feeling, perhaps in the form of a song. I think one reason that my dad tried to avoid feelings is that he equated emotion with drama (maybe he, too, had watched the Godfather movies as a boy!). But in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, you could talk about your feelings in a calm, rational way, knowing that it was normal to have them and that the person you told wasn’t going to start screaming at you.

When I was a younger kid, I used to have trouble identifying my emotions. I might say that I was hungry when really I was lonely and wanted to spend time with my dad. That’s not unusual; it takes a while for children to develop emotional intelligence (though I think that whenever I would have an overwhelming, generic “bad feeling,” it was probably my depression, which I now believe I had even then). Mr. Rogers also helped me learn how to label my emotions so that I could then deal with them appropriately.

By the time I reached high school, I was still an odd, quiet kid, and, yes, I was clinically depressed, which is a different story. But I had learned that if I felt worried about my mom, or embarrassed because I liked to draw or because I was the biggest kid in my class, or mad at my dad for not talking about his feelings, I wasn’t experiencing something wrong or weird; I was just feeling like a human.

If I am a kind and gentle man today, which I hope I am, I certainly owe some of that to my dad, but I owe a lot of it to Mr. Rogers. And if I’m a man who’s cool with talking about his feelings, which I know I am–well, counseling has helped, but I owe that to Mr. Rogers too.

It’s such a good feeling

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching a documentary about an American icon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers, from here on, since it feels really weird to call him by his first name). I remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a young child, and I enjoyed Idlewild Park’s (in Ligonier, PA) Neighborhood of Make-Believe trolley ride as an older child and even a teenager, but not until now have I understood the depth of what Mr. Rogers was trying to do through his show. I want to write about two aspects of the film that struck me in hopes that you, too, will see him as more than a geek who talked to puppets.

love and acceptance

There’s a clip in the documentary, which I know is not in context and may not represent the real tenor of the conversation, of some smug news commentators calling Mr. Rogers “evil” and blaming him for the sense of entitlement that is supposedly so pervasive among the younger generations today, because he told children they were special without having to try to be special. I’m not entirely convinced that Generations X, Y, and Z are really as entitled as conventional wisdom would have it, but that’s another topic. What I want to focus on is this: How could you look at Mr. Rogers’ sweet face and call him evil??? No, that’s not what I meant to say. Here’s my more objective argument: Those who blame Mr. Rogers for causing children to feel entitled weren’t really listening to his message. A message that led to entitlement would go something like this: “You are the best at everything you care to attempt. You deserve for the world to give you whatever you want.”

But that’s not what Mr. Rogers told children. He never talked about being “the best” because he didn’t believe life was a competition. He did tell children they were lovable and acceptable no matter what. There’s a clip in the documentary of Daniel Striped Tiger asking Lady Aberlin if there’s something wrong with him because he is different from everyone else. Lady Aberlin doesn’t say, “Well, of course you’re different because you’re better than everybody else.” In the song she sings to Daniel in response, she uses the simple word fine, saying something like, “I like you fine just the way you are.” Telling kids they are “fine” doesn’t lead to entitlement; it leads to security, which is essential to basic human development. If a person feels secure, accepted, and loved, that person is free to love others, live a moral and responsible life, and try to make the world a better place. Mr. Rogers talked about those things too.

And he never claimed that the world would give children whatever they wanted. He talked about the truth that the world is a hard place. He did episodes on death, divorce, and difficult current events. He also talked about how making mistakes is part of life, and how that’s okay. There’s a wonderful clip in the documentary of Mr. Rogers trying to stand up on a pogo stick. I don’t think he ever got on that blasted thing! But he didn’t berate himself; he just said, “This is hard!” and kept trying.

make-believe vs. real

There was a part in the documentary that was strange to me at first. It seems that Mr. Rogers got upset about the rash of children getting killed or injured by attempting to fly off a roof like Superman. He got so upset, in fact, that after he had briefly walked away from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to work on other projects, he decided to return to the show and do a whole week on the pretend-ness of superheroes. My first reaction was that he was over-reacting. Kids know the difference between reality and fantasy, right? But the youngest children, who were always Mr. Rogers’ main audience, don’t necessarily know that yet–hence the Superman accidents.

The morning after I watched the film, I started thinking about this in a new light. I thought about how much I’ve always appreciated the fact that my parents never told me that Santa Claus was real. Santa was always just a fun story in our house. I know that millions of children every year lose their faith in Santa Claus and grow up to be well-adjusted adults, but I know what a sensitive little kid I was, and I think that if I had gone through that experience, I may have had some serious confusion and even issues with trusting my parents. So I’m thankful that while my parents always encouraged me to use my imagination, they made a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s make-believe, just like Mr. Rogers did. After all, as someone in the documentary pointed out, Mr. Rogers himself never appeared at King Friday’s castle or X the Owl’s tree. His home in the real world (leaving aside the fact that it was on a set in a studio) was separate from the world of make-believe.

And Mr. Rogers showed us that we don’t have to escape into fantasy to find delight; the real world may be a hard and sometimes scary place, but it’s also a wonderful place, where you can visit a pencil factory, bounce on a pogo stick (if you can get on it!), and cool off your feet in a pool on a hot day. In fact, I think maybe one reason I get so much joy out of the simple acts of getting the mail and feeding fish is that I watched Mr. Rogers do those things every single day–with a smile. Maybe this is what he was talking about when he sang, at the end of every episode, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.”

Next week, I want to write about one more lesson that Mr. Rogers taught, but I’m going to do it in the voice of one of my characters.