Posted by: MC | May 17, 2010

Listening Across Difference — We’re all in this together, Pt.2

“We’re not as divided as the media tell us we are.”
“Good luck.  We need this — to know what
Americans are really thinking.” 

baristas at the Starbucks in York, NE

Only two days into the EX:Change road trip the Mini Cooper’s front end came between me and the sturdy steel pole of a highway sign.  At the time, I was blissfully if distractedly motoring south on U.S. Route 97, the stretch of asphalt connecting Klamath Falls, OR with Weed, CA.  Then came the crash, the adrenalin blast, and the astonished relief.  I could call it sorta stupid.  What it was for sure was a wake up call (EX:Change blog, “Wake Up Call,” 02-04-2009). 

The problem was Mt Shasta being more gorgeous that any mountain ever, especially against the blue of that early February sky.  On the heels of six months of gray and rain in Portland the view was dazzling.  That led to the true problem – taking just one more picture at 70 miles per hour on a two-lane with the window down.  Yep, pretty much qualifies as stupid.

That and lucky!

The sturdy Mini seemed relatively nonplussed.  It didn’t look so great.  The brand new dent ran an inch or so deep and three or so wide from the left bumper directly up to the fan of cracks and chips spreading across the driver’s side windshield.  But the motor never stopped.  The tires still turned and the brakes still worked.  I drove on with a new mantra playing involuntarily across my lips:  “Pay attention.  This is a wake up call.  Thank you, thank you that it is no worse.” 

The guy who answered the phone at Safeco was great.  He took all the info and got jazzed when I told him about what had me on the road in the first place.  He took down the url and said he was going to tell his office mates.  “This is too cool,” he said.  “I’ve always wanted to do something like that.”  I said, “I’m just at the first of it, but even with this mess it’s only great so far.  I say, ‘Do it!’”.

I’d planned to be in the Bay area for a bit and all my interviews were accessible by BART, so the next morning I drove into Mike’s Autobody in Walnut Creek feeling like I had plenty of time for repairs before I headed south.  Of course, it turned out I was naively expecting insta-fix.  The best that could happen in the next few days was a windshield replacement – in fact the state of CA required that.  Broken windshields are a no-go on CA highways. 

Everything worked out.  The dent went with me for the rest of the N to S leg and all of the W to E leg of the EX:Change journey.  Made for a good story (as if one was needed with all the beyond-good stories I was hearing along the way).  Also made for an exquisite reminder:  “Pay Attention.”  Then there was the other exceptional benefit of the whole fiasco; getting to meet and listen to Tara and Brett.

Tara is a receptionist at Mike’s.  At that time, she was about to turn 23 and was the single white mom of a 4 year old.  Within the first few minutes of chatting about my car situation, she’d mentioned she was off the next weekend for a birthday trip to the mountains with her fiancé.  After we dealt with scheduling for an appraisal, Tara asked about the EX:Change project.  Then she agreed to an interview. 

When I showed up the next day at the time we’d agreed on, Tara said, “I asked my friend Brett to come with me.  Is that ok?”  Brett is a freelance bodywork professional specializing in dimples.  You know, like the ones from hail.  He’s a married white man in his early 30’s, and uses his independent contracting as living money in support of his real love:  being on whitewater. 

As Tara and Brett responded to the EX:Change questions they offered unique perspectives on the participation and engagement of younger working people in the political process.  Neither had taken any interest in elections or influencing public policy prior to the recent Presidential election. As they spoke that morning these two friends also provided a model for how friendship can be big enough both to contain ideological differences and to give room for lively and respectful conversation about them.  Tara and Brett were unintentional masters at listening across difference.

Brett:  “I have barely a high school education.  She didn’t graduate high school.”

Tara:  “I’m a drop out.” 

B:  “Exactly, so for the two of us to feel involved, to look into national issues and have this much interest; that’s where it needs to be.  The level of ignorance blanketing the United States before this campaign is the reason we haven’t changed up to now.”

T:  “I agree.” 

We sat in a barren meeting room upstairs from the reception area at Mike’s.  The few empty coffee cups and one candy wrapper gave the impression that this space doubled as a break room, but inside the white walls on the white linoleum floor and under the bright fluorescent lighting there were only a few rectangular folding tables and chairs.  Tara and Brett sat side by side.  I put the flip camera on one of the tables.

Tara:  “I truly think that we’re going to try something new in this country.  As people, we’re changing.  Our day to day life compared to 100 years ago is very different, but we were going off the same rules.  That’s kind of crazy. 

“When Obama talks about change, I hope he really means it.  I hope he’s not just a good talker.  Instead of just going with what they think inside the government, he’s trying to get outside and listen to regular people.  He’s trying to do something different and that’s exactly what change means.”

Brett:  “Along the same lines, change now days relates to politics.  It’s a political statement about what people don’t want.  We don’t want the government in gay marriage, in steroids in baseball, in religion and all these things.  The situation has spun out of control to where we just need to change everything.”

T:  “I hope people stop caring so much about other people’s personal issues.  You know like, really there are so many bigger things.  This is the first election I’ve ever watched because I’m 23 and this is the first time I’ve ever been interested.  The whole time I kept hoping that we will get more focused on what we as Americans need instead of helping everybody else.”

B:  “But there’s a catch 22.  If we just focus on Americans and don’t focus on us as a global tribe, we miss that we’re all in this together.  Trade touches every part of the globe.  Every single person is a part.  We’re all going to end up being the same color.  It’s a global tribe.  If we don’t act as a human race, we’re going to fail as a species. 

“That’s the good old boy mentality that the last Administration had.  The guns blazing, stay the course mentality, the lack of respect to other cultures and countries.  That’s the change in consciousness that is needed.  It’s not all about us.  We have to sacrifice for the better of people all around.  Global trade has changed everything.  We’re all connected.  Look at the internet.  We were always connected anyway, but we’re realizing how connected we really are.  Diseases stretch across the globe in a day.  It’s just nuts.”

T:  “Well, whatever.”

B:  “Are you saying we’re spending money on the world when we should be spending money on our schools and our education?” 

T:  “Yeah.”

B:  “You’ve got a small child.”

T:  “I just watched the news yesterday and they said that in San Quentin prison they’re going to add a bigger death row unit.  They are going to spend huge amounts of money adding a new unit because the inmates are crammed in death row.  If they’re in there, I don’t really give two shits, sorry, if they’re crammed.  

“When I was having a child at 19 years old, I made a little bit over $1500 a month which, living in the Bay Area, is nothing – nothing.  I couldn’t get any public assistance help for making over $1500.  So, I hope they change by not just helping people that don’t want to help themselves.  All this talk about “government help.” (makes air quotes)  It didn’t help me at all.  I didn’t get approved for anything.  My rent was probably $1100.  I could barely work, but I did work.  It just sucks because they only help people who are mooching off the system, sucking the money up.  Then people who really want to work (points to herself) are struggling.

“It was my choice to have the child at 19, but the Child Care Council’s publicity says, ‘We’re here to help you.’  They’re not.  I want to see a change in the rules to fit more hardworking Americans’ lives.   You don’t work, you live on the streets and you get help.  You do work and you don’t qualify.  That needs to change.”

B:  “I think the need to change a lot of things at once is pretty apparent.  The nation electing a black man was a powerful message that everything needs reform across the board.”

T:  “Um hum.  Everything.”

Later, the twosome responded to the question of what is important to them to have stay the same or constant.

Tara:  (Brett whispers something) “I was thinking about that.  I swear to god.  He whispered, “Family values.”  I hope that stays the same and gets better.  The last 20 years, my whole life I hear divorce, divorce, divorce.  Family feuding.  I am divorced, my parents are divorced, but thank God I grew up in my dad’s Italian family.  We are all very close and still have traditions. 

“You know what I seriously hope stays the same?  Christmas.  I’m tired of saying, ‘Happy Holidays,’ because we have to fit everybody’s need.  Why are we ashamed to celebrate Christmas?  You hear people saying, ‘Quit saying Merry Christmas.’  I know this sounds small to some people, but I think that’s silly.  I hope that God doesn’t get taken out of some schools because God gives people hope and that’s tradition.  It didn’t screw up any of my aunts’ and uncles’ lives up because they heard, “God.”  If you have your own personal belief, that’s alright.

“I know you don’t like that (to Brett).  I think they’re trying to change too much of everything to fit everybody’s needs.  Sometimes things don’t need to be changed.

“Sometimes I feel like I do sound a little racist.  That’s why I don’t say things because you don’t know who’s going to get offended.  I think we should stay how America – not stay like because that’s contradicting what I said about change.  I think we should (long pause). I don’t know.”

B:  “We generally agree to disagree.”

T:  “Yeah.  We agree to disagree.”

Brett smiled.  Tara punched him playfully in the arm.  I asked Tara if she was concerned that speaking about her own traditions and values meant she would be heard as racist and exclusive.

Tara:  “Probably.”

Brett:  (to Tara) “You see everybody else being politically correct and so you try to be too so you don’t hurt anybody.”

T:  “I think that’s because I’m in my twenties I’m really confused about everything, to be honest.  I want people to have all these rights and freedom.  At the same time I want to make sure not to lose some things.  For instance, my grandparents came here from another country – from Sicily.  When they arrived, they changed.  They adapted to what America was in the 1910s.  They learned to speak English.  They learned the values of Americans because they wanted to live in America.  I just don’t like when so many people come here and try to not do that.”

B:  “I think the change we’re looking at will be physical and subconscious thing.  You’ll feel more free.  Tara will be able to speak more freely.  People won’t have to be as guarded.  It will be a general turn in consciousness. 

“I read a quote on the wall of the Wooden Knife Café, this place in the Badlands of South Dakota.  Author unknown, but it said, “I’d rather my mind be opened by wonder than closed by belief.”  For some reason, that rings through a lot of different things for me.  I like the change.  I like the flow.  I like what both of those have to offer as far as adventure. 

“To me, that’s the way.  Just because it’s been said by so many people, things in the country are going to change.  Truth is it was going to already.  Obama’s getting everybody enthusiastic about it might allow the facilitation of positive change as opposed to the more negative changes that have been happening.  If that happens, we’ll have a more open minded community.  The wars that pertain to religion won’t need to happen.  Our outlook on foreign policy will be more open minded.  There are other cultures that are a lot more open minded than we are.  We think we’re open minded, but we actually have a pretty decent sized stick up our ass.”

There was more.  Tara and Brett continued to tell stories about their experiences and articulate their desires for change.  Volleying ideas back and forth, they influenced and learned from one another. 

When we finished the interview, they both took their lunch breaks to help me get to the windshield shop and back to where I was staying.  Their stories and laughter continued as free flowing and comfortable as their kindness to a stranger.  It’s who they are.  And like the baristas 8000 miles later in York, NE suggested, it’s really who we all are.


  1. And there is an omnipotent theme of a shift in consciousness as humanity’s next step of evolution. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, both in the physical existence and the subconscious realm. Here again are two more people who I would have little in common with that know the shift is coming. Amazing the revelations coming from this project!

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