Uniformed

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Watching crowds watch big ball games in big sports arenas has become one more way for me to feel like an oddball. Spectators now seem required to wear teeshirt uniforms as outward and visible signs of their inward devotion to the team. Now and then it’s possible to spot a deviant in the stands sporting a plaid or polka dot shirt, but deviants seldom cheer or smile. They sit there standing out.

Their devotion is suspect, for it’s obvious they haven’t signed the unified teeshirt loyalty oath that requires them to swear they never have been, are not now, and never will be members of the party that wants the Cornhusker, Blackhawk or Miami Heat enemies to win. I too have lots of colorful teeshirts with logos on them, and now and then I watch a game on TV. When I do I usually pull the shades, a little worried about what some fan hot-rodding past might say about my failure to color-coordinate myself with the sports franchise of his choice. Actually, I prefer being in jockey shorts.

Grandstands full of uniforms (and waving hankies, as if everyone is saying farewell to themselves) seem at odds with a nation of ordinary folk so deeply at odds with each other. The individuals who inhabit the uniformed blue, red, white, yellow or teal teeshirts during a big game probably would be duking it out with each other if they weren’t cheering for the same team. Try talking about abortion, government spending, global warming, immigration, same-sex marriage, birth certificates, raptures, or gun control, and things are likely to get out of control: My way or the highway as the American way.

I spend enough hours on the road to wonder where I really live, and I’m not sure where I am when I spend a lot more hours at a desk or on a sofa in front of the TV. Divorce rates suggest that even moms, dads, and kids routinely fail to co-exist in homes where so many cold wars are waged. When I’m landlocked and blue with Minnesota cold I begin dreaming of Caribbean beaches, and then surfing comes to mind. But because the planet is tangled in the wily wires of the worldwide web it takes less than half an hour for me, like Melville’s little Pip, to feel insignificant and lost in all that on-line immensity. I walk down the street, passed by faces texting, cell-phoning, Face-Booking––being, in short, somewhere other than where they really are––and then too I feel the urge: Why not pay good money for a ticket to a Vikings (or Cornhusker, or Golden Bear, or Blue Devil) game? Maybe if I were doing a color-coordinated wave during a time out I’d feel less at sea.

Meanwhile, most of us spend a few hours in the real places we call home. Near those places a Bible-believing fundamentalist lives next door to a liberal agnostic, a Republican goes to the same church as a Democrat, an African/American walks down the same street as a white supremacist, and a gun-toting NRAer drinks at the same bar as an off-duty cop who favors gun control. When solid facts about any issue don’t much count––maybe because they’re lost in a democratic crowd of freely expressed opinion––opinions more easily congeal into the hard-core beliefs we take home to sleep with us. As we snooze these beliefs burrow deeply into our guts. There they know what they’re all about: They want to win.

We wake, convicted winners and losers, to a house divided. A nation full of citizens holding diverse views is painted red and blue with broad brushes on color-coded political maps. We cheer for our team, blue or red states, as if they’re states of mind. We take our made-up mind-set to the big game with us, expecting to pick a good fight and win, and when we don’t win little riots begin to stir in us that sometimes spill over into the streets. I’ve been close to such scenes and have had the urge to join the revelry, my anger drunk, unable to walk the straight line that will help it find its way to a place where a home team lives. I know the hung-over feeling that kicks in, the nausea we want to wish away to a good sleep that calls time out from the nasty issues, those hard-core beliefs that keep shouting that it’s my way or the highway time.

The millionaires who own the teams say it’s a good thing for all of us to keep going to their games. Winning teams make winners of us all, they say, so we have to pay the price for teeshirts, winning teams, and a new stadium with fancy grandstands. Meanwhile, in the grandstands the issues that divide us remain homeless, unspoken for, lost in the crowd.

I too want something to cheer about, but winning teams aren’t enough. I’m not alone. A close Presbyterian friend (who also happens to be a gay Republican) confided to me the sad loneliness he feels. He attends church but is made to feel like a hypocrite. He doesn’t feel he belongs in either a gay bar or among his fellow Republicans. He’s afraid to have a frank conversation with anyone except the few who know him well. He wears his work uniform––suit and tie––religiously, and hides behind sad smiles. He keeps his opinions to himself, doesn’t want to win or lose. He just wants to live peacefully someplace and make a decent living for himself. “I feel homeless,” he says.

I try consoling him: Read the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The concepts in those documents are large. They contain multitudes.

I say this knowing that I get small consolation from pledging allegiance to the flag. As I look at the many nasty polarizations all around––the brutal partisanship in state government, the divisive and routinely dishonest loud-mouthing of public discourse, the hard-headed hard-lining of religious belief––I begin losing faith that anyone can agree about what’s American about America or Christian about Christianity or humane about humanity. The word “polite” seems rootless too, having divorced itself from “politics” and sometimes the “police.” The wellness doctors tell me that a body dies when it destroys itself from within, and that a mind that hates part of itself begins conjuring violence and suicide. When I think about the future of the American body politic I check my wallet to be sure my Social Security card is still there.

I know where I feel most comfortable: Where people like me and are like me too. I want to be a soloist but also want to belong to a choir that sings hymns with words I can truly believe. I want other voices there to back me up when I sing out of tune, and I’ll do my best to zip my lip when it’s not my turn to sing.

But I don’t want to wear a choir robe. Uniforms narrow my mind’s view of how wonderfully and naturally colorful the world is. They make us members of parties that tear us apart. When I look at uniforms I see veils and shrouds useful to people with something to hide. A local school board member, convinced he has the key to bad test scores, says he wants all public school children wearing uniforms. There are more than enough uniforms to go around. I see them on children in private schools, on postal workers, on devotees of religious cults, and on kids attending day care centers. Employees of certain firms also adhere to the dress code costumes that signal to the public that the wearers equally belong to the same tribe, even if secretly they’d rather not. Most troubling are military uniforms that take hard left and right turns toward the totalitarian. These uniforms form themselves into stiff, symmetrical marching columns required to obey command chains, their dogmatic orderliness poised to unleash the full fury of its latent disorder on those who prefer to dance to their own tunes.

If I’m young (or old), free spirited, free thinking, open-minded, a little gutsy, tentative, and very curious––I’m needy. Needy, that is, to connect with others who share my untidy, open and general view that life is large enough to contain multitudes. Where do I find a like-minding community in a real place? Where are the well established institutions, and vast arenas, where hundreds or thousands who share my view can routinely, even ritually, come together to affirm each others’ values, commitments, and identities? Such places exist for true-believing religious folk. Their church buildings are actual places offering programs, choir robes, and rituals important to identity, renewal, solidarity, and service. Though pro football has become the nation’s mandatory varsity Sunday ritual, mega-churches, with their hi-tech entertainment menus, still professionally stage manage the corporate glory sessions that sanctify an empire inclined to decline and fall.

What’s there for the rest of us? The shopping mall? Certainly more Woodstocks won’t do. The naked truth about such happenings is not pretty to contemplate.

So where do I go when the public library’s doors are closed and the intellectual and moral dishonesty of churches becomes intolerable? I remind myself that humans are uniformly made from flesh, bones, and blood. Then I remind myself that we live in neighborhoods, real spaces with permeable boundaries. In a neighborhood there is usually a park, where I can just sit and gaze, or talk to someone who also wants to enjoy a little time out. A few others are starting a pick-up softball game in this park, or a game of Frisbee, and I’ll stroll over to watch, hoping to get in. Or I’ll challenge someone to a game of H-O-R-S-E at a desolate netless hoop, maybe a kid who needs someone to talk to about his dreams of making it to the NBA instead of school. Around the corner there’s a coffeeshop where a group of talkers return every day at roughly the same time to agree to disagree. Next door there’s a neat little place where the Mexican, Thai, or Chinese food is prepared by someone who doesn’t speak English well but has seen neighborhoods I know nothing about. Two blocks away there’s a front porch stoop, where I watch over a mother wheeling her baby past on the sidewalk across the street. There’s a front porch too, with three friends, a bottle of wine, and someone I’ve never met before. If we’re lucky there’s a community garden within walking distance, where someone may be willing to trade me some tomatoes for my beans.

The neighborhood, where two or three gather together here and there. Routinely. Ritually. Where the solidarity of community adds up like bricks, one relationship at a time. Where uniform needs, fears, desires and hopes learn each other’s names. Where winning is not the important thing, and nobody is required to wear a uniform.

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