From the Backseat: New Traditions, Holiday edition

I visited my niece at school last week. She’s nine and in the fourth grade. It was a holiday open house, and family was invited. Every student in the class had put together a diorama on holiday traditions, and families were welcome to come walk around the room to see how different households celebrate holidays. There were Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, strings of Christmas lights, elves on shelves, and more. Each diorama included a short history of the tradition highlighted, a smattering of interesting facts about it, and a personal narrative about how it looked in that student’s particular home.

And it wasn’t just Christmas — one little boy’s tradition was tacos on Easter. Another boy wrote about snowball fights. Another wrote about his birthday, which falls the day after Christmas. A little girl wrote about raking leaves in Autumn and jumping in the leaf pile. This was a celebration of all kinds of holidays and all kinds of traditions.

Several students chose to highlight their favorite holiday food, Eid cookies and Eid cake, sweet treats to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

I was familiar with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, but I’d never heard of Eid al-Fitr. And I’d certainly never heard of purpose-built cookies or cake to accompany it. But for several students, it was their chosen tradition. One family brought in two Eid cakes for people to sample. The student, a little girl, sat smiling as her dad offered everyone a second and third slice. Her mom stood on the other side, also smiling, her head wrapped in a hijab.

I remember my own versions of these elementary school dioramas. It wasn’t that long ago, in a school much like my niece’s. But in 1990s Maine there were far fewer brown and black faces, and even fewer Muslims. Almost every featured tradition showcased a Christmas theme — wreaths, mistletoe, Christmas trees, etc. Maybe someone would stretch so far as to highlight the Fourth of July or share a New Year’s tradition, but in all the years no one shared anything about Eid al-Fitr, Ramadan, or the Hajj. Before last week I’d never heard about or seen, much less tasted, an Eid cake. A teacher might bring up Hanukkah, but the only Jewish student was a grade below so even those traditions remained a mystery. The worlds of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-European religions never made an appearance — my first introduction to Islam didn’t come until I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. Buddhism came around the same time, through Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Other religions like these were always embodied by books, not people. It took until adulthood for them to become as real as the people I would meet throughout my life.

My niece, however, will be spared such ignorance. Her world is more diverse than mine. Her best friend, whose diorama was set up right next door to hers, is black. A number of her classmates are Muslim. Several of the girls wore headscarves, as did parents and family members who came in to visit. To her, these differences in culture and religious belief have faces. They are people, not just ideas. She interacts with them every day, plays with them at recess, collaborates with them on assignments. They are her friends. It is a level of diversity I would not have imagined existed inside a Maine classroom, the sort of cultural education Mainers a generation ago could not access. It gives me hope. I walked into my niece’s classroom and saw the promise of mutual appreciation, the possibility of a shared interest in the diverse cultures.

Because what is school for but to learn? To learn about the world around us. Few books are as interesting as learning from life. And that is the gift my nine-year-old niece gets — a global education, right here in Maine.

That might be my new favorite tradition.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

CDS Column: Reality Politics

CDS Column: Reality Politics

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 9.41.37 AMDonald Trump’s popularity is sagging.

Or that was the news story in New Hampshire last week: Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers climbed to more than a dozen percentage points over the Republican nominee in the Granite State. True, some respondents voiced concerns about whether the former first lady is fit to be president, but their concerns were eclipsed by the same question regarding Trump.

Polls are only a snapshot though, one of those things that flare up suddenly like wildfire, make their rounds and scorch everything in their path before they disappear.

The only poll that really matters is in November. Everything before then is a cupped ear to the whispering mood of public opinion, a national game of telephone guaranteed to amplify distortion by the time it ends.

And that’s in a normal election year. This year is anything but normal. A little over a year ago, Trump’s candidacy appeared an extension of his television career, a shot of reality TV drama dumped into politics. It didn’t register as real, left no hint it might transform the entire presidential debacle into reality TV.

But maybe it should have. Maybe Donald Trump is the candidate we’ve been asking for all along. Other countries elect leaders in a matter of weeks; American presidential elections last years. They unfold in campaign events choreographed for the cameras and polls that track competitors’ progress like runs per inning in a baseball game. Candidates campaign on words like “Hope and Change” and “Make America Great Again” rather than policy positions, and scandals and affairs unfurl like celebrity gossip. Democracy has turned into daytime drama. No wonder Trump does so well.

Clinton, meanwhile, makes something of an easy villain for the television narrative. Or the persecuted heroine. It all depends which side of the aisle you stand on. She has certainly had to bump her way to the top, and such wrestling leaves bruises. The reality of candidate Clinton is likely somewhere in the middle, however, neither nemesis nor innocent. She is a politician, one with hands dirtied by history.

But as a former senator and secretary of state she knows the system and has been an integral part of it. Is that what we need at this moment, one of the cooks long in the kitchen?

No? OK, then consider the alternative.

What a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Anything but a normal election year. A frequent complaint of America’s two-party system is that it leaves voters to choose between the lesser of two evils. But not this year. This year, the choice is between the distasteful and the absurd. Would you prefer the consummate politician or the TV host? It brings to mind the famous Winston Churchill quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

But Churchill never saw democracy made for television. Celebrity democracy. Production democracy. Campaigns run for the cameras, voters transformed into consumers, candidates as packaged products rather than people. It’s democracy’s latest form, and the worst possible.

It is distasteful, but it’s definitely ours.

It often appears America is prepared to “snap out of it,” ready to let go of its fetish with things flashy and loud in favor of substance, but it never quite happens. Politics is just the latest version.

Remember the days immediately following 9/11? Journalists left behind celebrity-styled reporting to reorient readers and viewers to America’s place in a complex world. And for a brief instant we cared. We spent time listening, learning, treating our news like information rather than entertainment.

It happened again in 2008 after the financial meltdown: As Americans watched their banks fail and their investments disappear they stopped watching financial news modeled on Sportscenter and started looking for stories and sources that actually explained what was happening. Again, for the briefest moment, the character of the conversation changed.

Perhaps we are in another of those moments now. The two major party candidates are both deeply disliked, and yet they rose to the top. Many Americans, including those who took part in the nomination process, are dissatisfied. We watched as one candidate was considered for investigation by the FBI and the other got in a public tussle with the family of a fallen soldier. This does not seem American democracy’s finest hour.

When the dust clears, once either Trump or Clinton is president, will we reflect on this election? Will we look at our political conversation the way we looked at our approach to foreign affairs and finance in those moments after more immediate disasters? Will we have the wisdom to revisit our celebrity fetish, to let go of the flash version of modern democracy in favor of something more concrete, long term?

Or will the cleared dust mark the moment we forget about all this? Will we never ask what went wrong, what led to a race between an obviously unfit candidate and one so divisive?

If our recent past is a guide, then we are in trouble: The lessons of history are able to blind us, but only momentarily. We reverted to national conversations devoid of historical perspective in the post-9/11 days. We returned to the “too big to fail” practices of the pre-meltdown era. Our slow-moving political disaster, one without the same immediacy as those, will likely suffer the same fate. Reinvent ourselves? No, not so long as our elections are entertaining, like game shows with only the slightest twist from “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Or “American Idol.”

Or “The Apprentice.”


This piece appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.