Saturday, September 30, 2006
Monday, September 25, 2006
Many, many years ago, I used to take short road trips with a friend named Marty. He'd come down from NJIT on a lark, pick me up at my Rutgers dorm and we'd head down Route 27, which eventually became Nassau Street and downtown Princeton.
Acutely aware of the ancient history between Rutgers and Princeton, we'd gone down there a few times at night, plotting the revival of the college rivalry which had died years before. In truth, I think we were a bit in awe of the place. We were both bright kids, good grades and College Boards and all that, but had ended up at state schools. Rutgers has its share of ivy covered walls, but it had long before cut its ties to the Ivy League, and few of its students seemed to care about tradition. I, on the other hand, knew all four verses of the Alma Mater. Marty did, too, even though it wasn't actually his school. Plus I'd just read This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald's chronicle of an angst-ridden Princeton boy. So... it wasn't out of character for us to travel the half hour distance to get some of the tradition back.
One late afternoon, in particular, we found our way down the road and began the unusual (for us) task of wandering around campus in daylight. We decided that we'd see if we could get into Old Nassau, the first building the college constructed. We'd long joked about what we'd do if we were able to break in.
Surprisingly enough, the front door opened when Marty tried the old doorknob, and we found ourselves in a large entryway with marble walls. We walked from one panel to the next, reading the names of the Princeton graduates who'd lost their lives in every American war since the Revolution. The room was quiet for a few moments, but for the footsteps of a campus policeman.
I apologized for being there, figuring we'd gone into forbidden territory, but he said it was okay. "I'm just closing up for the day." He led us out to the front step, asking us about our interest in the building. We chatted for a bit, and then he said he had to finish his rounds.
"They'd kill me if I lost this," he said, pulling a large, centuries-old key from his pocket. As the policeman inserted it into the keyhole and turned it, Marty's eyes met mine, and we shared a smile. He knew what I was thinking: at Rutgers' main building, Old Queens, they'd probably replaced the original lock with a new one. Not long ago, I checked and found it to be so.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
On meeting people on my random wanderings around, I sometimes get perspective I didn't expect to receive.
Last year, when I went to an event at the Thomas Edison National Historic Site, my impromptu tour group included an inquisitive New York Times photographer. As we went through various aspects of the site, he continually asked questions, taking more than the usual bored reporter's interest in the subject. Later, when the park ranger was demonstrating how phonograph cylinders were recorded, the photographer practically became part of the story, wedging himself in near the musician and the phonograph technician.
Later on, I noticed him outside one of the buildings and remarked to him that he appeared to truly enjoy his job. As we chatted, I got a quick glance at his press badge and saw his name was Dith Pran. Almost on impulse, I said, "Oh, you're Dith Pran... Sidney Schanberg!"
If you've seen the movie The Killing Fields , you're familiar with their story. During the Vietnam War, Dith had worked as a freelance photographer with New York Times reporter Schanberg. When all the Americans were getting out of Cambodia, Dith was in peril because he had been working with Americans. Schanberg got kicked out of the country but couldn’t get passage for Dith, leaving him to make his way through the Cambodian wilderness for three years, trying not to be caught by the marauding Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, a guilt-wracked Schanberg tried to find his friend and bring him to the US. Eventually they were reunited, and Schanberg helped him get the Times job.
Dith nodded at my mention of Schanberg and told me he really likes his job because he learns a lot of interesting things and meets nice people. He asked me about my interest in Edison, and where I live, mentioning that he has taken a lot of pictures at a park near my home. We chatted for a few more minutes and then parted ways, agreeing that we might cross paths again.
Food for thought. He seems like a happy guy ... taking human interest photos around New York and New Jersey for the Times, perfectly content with the direction his life has taken. I unwittingly gave him the perfect in to start commenting on the miseries of his life -- miseries that few of us could ever conceive of experiencing -- but he didn't. Kinda gives you pause about how great it is that people can come here after such horrible life experiences, and enjoy having a “normal,” mundane life.
His kindness and apparent lack of bitterness made me curious, so I Googled him to recall the whole story. What I found truly struck me. He has created the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project , to bring the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge to light. I was truly awed by his directions of How you can make a difference. In addition to a call to boost Congressional awareness of the injustice of letting the genocidal maniacs get away with their reprehensible acts, he takes a truly Buddhist approach to hatred:
- Don’t react to other people’s anger. When you react, it makes the situation much worse. Anger is a very powerful, negative emotion. Emotion is not the equivalent to logic so no matter how hard you try to reason with people whose minds are filled with anger, they cannot listen to you. Use your energy for something positive instead! When the situation calms down, hopefully then you can work things out.
- Have tolerance for people of different races and backgrounds. There is no benefit to dislike people just because they are different than you. You heard that wise, old saying, "United we stand, divided we fall." After all, we all share the same planet. Let’s make it a better place. Hatred is not the way.
It definitely makes you realize that, as the Buddhists say, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not." Dith takes peace and tolerance as his guiding principles, after all he's seen and experienced. He clearly believes in the potential of personal action, as well. As individuals, we may not be able to change the world with grand gestures, but we can make an impact on our immediate surroundings. Who knows where that can lead us?
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Five years ago, on an idyllic late summer day turned surreal and so tragic, I can remember my fear that those who attacked us just a few miles away would take everything I hold dear as an American. The attack on our native soil, the death of thousands of innocent people who were just trying to earn a living ... what would the then-unknown murderers deny us, just because of where we happened to be born? What would we have to do to protect our rights, our freedom?
As an American, I have always treasured my right to think what I want, to say what I want, and to associate with those I want to. Though it's often painful and a bit scary, I've always respected the right of others to speak their minds, however unpopular their opinions. It's part of the equation. With the right to free speech comes the responsibility to let others say what they want. Perhaps to disagree, but always to let them speak.
Patriotism isn't blind allegiance. It's knowing what's right and good about one's country, and having the courage and strength to speak up to protect it, no matter the assailant. That was both the fear and the rage that burned in me that day: rage against the enemy and fear that I would have to channel it into action.
What I never expected on that September day was that my own government would be the biggest threat to our liberties. I never expected to be told that if I disagreed with the president, I was an enemy of the state ("If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists."). I never expected that our fear would be cynically co-opted to divert our attention from the real enemy to settle a personal grudge against a despot who had nothing to do with the attack.
The hijackers hated America enough to kill themselves in the attack. Now even more people hate America with a passion, and we brought it on ourselves. What good does it do?
More people have died in Iraq in the past three and a half years than did on that September day, and it's only put us in greater danger. When will it stop?
Meanwhile the real enemy is out there. And perhaps he wraps himself in the American flag.
Where's Osama, Mr. Bush, and why don't you care?