A few weeks ago, driving through Tolono on a census enumeration mission, I tuned in the popular WDWS talk radio program, Penny for your Thoughts. The host, Jim Turpin, took a call from a Champaign resident with familiar townie whines. First, the caller complained about the liberalism of Urbana residents. He then continued to express astonishment that he’d heard some lecturer or speaker refer to the Champaign population as “unfriendly.”
“What?” exclaimed Turpin, incensed. “We are the friendliest place in the world! Very friendly! Very, very friendly.”
The caller agreed and the two of them proceeded to pat each other on the back and talk about how friendly the two of them were when they meet each other in church on Sunday. All their comments were interspersed with Turpin repeating, “Very friendly! Very, very friendly!” After some long commercial breaks, Turpin returned and the first words out of his mouth were, again, “Friendly! We’re friendly.”
Well, maybe as long as you’re not from Urbana.
All in all, it was more than a little scary, and I quickly turned off the radio before Little Miss Sunshine himself, Rush Limbaugh, followed with his own particular brand of happy talk.
I drive slowly. I can’t help it. Maybe it’s because there have been one too many incidents of deer ambushing my car from the side of the road. Four times, to be exact. Deer are the highwaymen of the 21st century. Or perhaps the Midwest version of suicide bombers.
Not that I drive all THAT slowly, but whenever I drive from St. Joseph to Urbana on Highway 150, I’m invariably followed by people who cruise right up to my bumper, eager to pass me. Sometimes they are barreling along without lights, in the fog, anxious like crazy to get to Wal-Mart or the Hometown Buffet.
I poke along, content as a turtle doing 55 miles per hour. Nine times out of ten, I catch up with the speeders at the stoplight at High Cross Road, where they are waiting, their fingers tapping on the dashboard, trying to make the light change. I’m often tempted to jump out of the car, run up to their window, and school them on the fact that if they had driven more slowly, they probably could have breezed through the intersection with the light on their side and saved gasoline at the same time. As someone who drives a Prius, and gets a continuous on-the-dash display of my MPG, I know very well how to save gas. But such a move probably would not be seen as a friendly act.
Sometimes people honk. Honking your horn in America seems to signify, I will kill you if you don’t drive faster. A few years back in Guatemala, my son Ernie and I were driving through the State of Quetzaltenango when I was mystified by the number of cars honking at us. What were we doing wrong? What local customs were we defying? It took a while to realize that people were honking “hello.” We don’t do that here, even if Jim Turpin thinks we are the friendliest people in the world.
My niece has gone to a couple of Tea Party events. She insists they are very friendly get-togethers. No rants, angry lunatics, hilariously misspelled signs, or bigots anywhere to be found, so says she.
“Were there any black people at these congregations?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she said. “We live in Kansas. But everybody was friendly.”
I don’t know if you managed to catch Glenn Beck squirming under what seemed to be sincerely friendly questioning of Katie Couric recently.
She took a tweet from a viewer who wanted to know how Beck defined “white culture” when he said President Obama had a “deep-seated hatred for white culture.”
Beck is utterly stymied. “Why am I the target?” he complained, refusing to define the term he had used. Maybe he should have taken a cue from Sarah Palin and just made up some new words to cover the definition, as in “White culture is obviously whatever is the bestestest in the whole universe, of course.”
Lee and I drove north to Fisher on Sunday in search of a tree that, we were told, has nailed to it a poster of President Obama, his face in the middle of a gunsight target symbol. Supposedly it was just down the road a bit from the house with the Good News Radio (“God listens. So can you”) and Tea Party signs in the front yard.
I was going to take a picture. This was a compromise measure for Lee who wanted to organize a vigilante party to go tear down the sign and report the owner to the FBI.
“You’ll get yourself shot,” I said. “And it won’t be friendly fire.”
We never found the poster, which is just as well. The country today may be at a more widely divided place at any time since the Civil War. Here in twin cities in the middle of the country is the heart of a veritable yin-yang of polarities. Champaign and Urbana sometimes seems split down the middle. We aren’t Siamese twin cities, but more Hatfields and McCoys, and not just demarcated by the dividing line of Wright Street.
I don’t have easy answers for making us all BFFs. I did hope to address the problem of the useless labels that hamper our ability to make sense to each other. I hoped to come up with a new paradigm beyond liberal or conservative, beyond Republican or Democrat, beyond black and white. I tinkered with including terms that reflect those who choose what they think best serves themselves and those who elect to work for what they consider to be the best for others, those who work hard to be friendly to those different from themselves and those who insist on being friendly with people most like themselves.
Maybe next time. In the meantime, words from the masters:
Luke 14:12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”
Tao te ching, from Verse 61
A great man thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.