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Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2000/ 14 Elul, 5760

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

So wear, oh wear,
are we headed? --
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 may be.

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 future.

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 nonhips.

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 discreet clues.

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 hopes.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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