Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2000/ 14 Elul, 5760
So wear, oh wear,
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. | This must be how my
parents felt when I came home from college looking like
I'd visited another planet and adopted an alien culture.
I'm walking down the street on a Friday night and see
almost no one who looks like me -- your basic
heterosexual white woman with a husband,
wedlock-produced offspring and no tattoos.
Thus attired and acquitted, I feel bizarre. I haven't felt so
different since standing bare-armed in the Marrakech
marketplace 25 years ago, and noticed that I was
exposing more skin than anyone else in the entire nation,
except perhaps for the barefoot guy dancing on broken
glass next to his cobra.
Not unlike the marketplace, Northampton is seething
with diverse life forms, which seem mostly to be
characterized by constellations of body piercings and
couples who will not be producing children without
laboratory equipment, or kitchen apparatus as the case
This is not Kansas, I keep reminding myself. This is the
heart of our nation's intellectual corpus -- home to such
elite institutions of higher learning as Smith College and
numerous others nearby -- progenitor of America's
I look around and wonder, which of these is a
professor, a vagrant, a student, a wastrel, a philosopher,
a dolt? Is the woman with a swath of sheets wrapped
turbanlike atop her head a homeless woman or one of
the curb huggers protesting sanctions against Iraq? Is
the Goth with green Mohawk, studded cheeks and an
ankle-length black patent leather coat a renegade from
traditional values or chairman of the poli-sci department
at Smith? Beats me.
For the thing is, you can't tell who's who or what's what.
You can't even tell what sex people are. Two adults are
walking ahead of me with their arms around each
other's, followed by two young girls. One of the tykes
calls out "Mom," and the adults -- both women I now
see -- turn around. Oh, cool.
This is the new America where the usual clues, the
physical signs we used to depend on for basic
information -- friend or foe, male or female -- are muted
by the camouflage of diversity. Bottom line: We don't
know wassup, and heaven forbid anyone should ask.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting everyone should
look alike, nor am I passing judgment. I enjoy a carnival
as much as anyone, though I draw the line at the
unsmiling little girl in the starry wizard's hat playing violin
while keeping a Hula-Hoop swiveling around her tiny
Nope, I'm just a middle-American looking to name
things so we can talk. Maybe these observations, rather
than foretelling cultural breakdown merely suggest a
new evolutionary phase. Absent reliable information,
survival depends on adapting our instincts to more
Unable to make judgments based on physical
representation -- do I walk past this group or cross the
street to avoid danger -- we have to develop keener
senses of discernment, as well as hearts and minds more
open to differentness.
The latter seems a loftier goal, but I'm not optimistic.
Using admittedly outdated 20th-century monitoring
equipment, I worry that we're in the process of creating
not so much a diverse culture as isolated clusters of
steadily diverging cultures that seem bound to clash.
On the other hand, as my parents must have thought
back when I was looking a tad unfamiliar to their
generation, perhaps this too shall pass. Instinctively, one
JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.
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