Sunday, January 16, 2011

California Dreamin’

Writing about Rwanda, I have used some pretty strong adjectives, ALL TRUE. Rwanda is stunningly beautiful,... simply majestic. But in all fairness, I must give credit wherever credit is due.

During this recent visit to Southern California, I was reminded that So.Cal. may be the second most beautiful place in the world, and for those not able to reside in Africa, it may be the very best place to live. I arrived in early December to be greeted by 80°+ weather, and I now depart and leave behind 80°+ and crystal-clear weather. (There was some more interesting weather in between.) I spent decades bemoaning the bad air quality in Los Angeles, but I now realize that great gains have been achieved through proactive initiatives.

Driving along Palos Verdes Drive has been simply dreamy, indeed, surreal. The Santa Monica Mountains and the “HOLLYWOOD” sign appear as a fake, photoshopped postcard. Catalina Island seems so close that I have been tempted to swim to it. The ocean has been deserving of its name, The Pacific. Hiking with Gerald from the Peeke’s front door, up the Portuguese Bend Trail, to the top of Palos Verdes Peninsula, brought working out to a new level of joy,… but there is nothing quite like the daily workout at Gold’s Gym with David Starr and Tom Storer and friends,… unless it was a spectacular clifftop ocean run with Steve Watts. Everything just seems to sparkle brilliantly, with new clarity as if I were just provided with my first pair of “readers” long after I needed them. So, to my So.Cal. family and friends, I urge you to celebrate the blessings and the great privilege of where and how you live. This is “as good as it gets."

And sunlight setting ablaze the water fountain at Malaga Cove Library. And the sunsets…

At the same time, I find myself growing more and more aware of the curious distinctions between Third World Problems and First World Problems. It is tempting to trivialize and criticize, but that would be wrong. At the very deepest level, problems are problems, struggles are struggles. It is not really about too much or too little ice in my Diet Coke, or my Starbucks Latte being somehow “off”, or about the Waxing Salon raising prices to $100 (four months earnings in Rwanda, and NO, I do not "wax"). It is about something much more basic, so basic that I dare not be so presumptuous as to even attempt to tackle it. It is so basic that it exists in the United States and Rwanda and Outer Mongolia alike. But going “cross-cultural” hopefully gives one clearer vision of their own native culture and reveals things that simply make no sense. I do not offer up any condemnation or even criticism as I urge you to watch a few episodes of The Kardashians and/or TMZ, and as you do so be aware that these are enormously popular programs which would surely baffle most people of the world (because they are all about First World problems). I am also now fascinated (perhaps baffled) by our culture’s affection for weapons and violence. We raise our young on rubber band guns, squirt guns, laser tag, and then paintball guns. Our idea of a great family outing is to go do laser tag or paintball and kill each other. We obsess for hours on violent video games, and we are delighted by films which depict violence so graphically that others in the world would categorize it as “obscene.” And then Tucson happens, and everyone including our President is flummoxed, pretending that there is “simply no explanation.”  The courage that we demonstrate on the paintball field quickly dissipates when it become time to face and dialogue on a serious problem. In Rwanda, a fistfight, even a shoving match is unthinkable, a punishable crime. If a 10-year-old boy were to point a stick at a classmate, even his best friend, and exclaim “BANG!”, he would be decisively disciplined. Any thought of perpetrating physical violence upon another is considered an obscene threat to all, and is therefore extremely rare. Perhaps Rwanda has something instructive to offer US.

Most certainly, US has much to offer Rwanda and the Developing World. But in order for US to offer our very best, we must first rekindle and reclaim that which made US so great: good governance with vision and a sense of destiny; a belief that reasoned ideas, principles, words, and programs matter; a deep sense of community that is balanced with an appreciation of the individual.

“… that is what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.”