Tuesday, October 29, 2013

An Everyday Hero, An Overdue Thank You

I had two tasks to do: replace my cell phone and pick up a second hand shirt for my Halloween costume. I parked on Vine and began walking toward the Goodwill shop when I saw an elderly man sitting on a bus bench. It was his cap that caught my attention: World War II Veteran. 
Every time I see a veteran, I take the time to thank him or her for their service. Some were drafted, but most, like my brother Javier, enlisted to serve their country, a sacrifice I don't take lightly.

"Thank you sir for your service," I said. He nodded and said, "You're welcome, young lady."

I went into the store but as I began looking through the racks, I realized I needed to know more about this man. He was living history, but not for long. According to the US Veterans Administration, approximately every two minutes a WWII veteran passes away, around 600 a day. Our time to hear about their experiences in the trenches, and to thank them for their service will end too soon.

I decided to head back out to get to know this veteran. I asked if I could sit down and chat with him for a while. He said sure. I learned his name is Elijah Walker and he's 89 years old. Born and raised in Arkansas, he enlisted in the Army because he didn't have much family and wanted a better life for himself. The year was 1944 and he was sent to work the supply lines in France and Germany, as were most African American service members. The military was still segregated, Mr. Walker told me, "Blacks over here, whites over there. But we was both getting shot at."

A little research yielded the probability that Mr. Walker may have been part of the famed Redball Express, a supply convoy that stretched across France to the frontline. Historian David Colley writes inThe Road to Victory, "Although three-fourths of Red Ball drivers were black...African American troops represented less than 10 percent of all military personnel in World War II...African American troops, in large measure, kept the supply lines rolling."

Eisenhower has credited them with helping to win the war.

While Mr. Walker said he didn't directly see combat, he said he faced danger every time he worked the supply line. Were you scared, I asked him? 

"Oh yeah, we knew the Germans were aiming right at us. We had everything the soldiers needed. Gunshots, bombs, it was an everyday thing. But we had to keep going. We had orders," he said. 

Mr. Walker said he was still working the lines when the Germans surrendered in 1945, "I remember everyone saying it was over, everyone hugging. They put down their weapons and that was it."

When I asked about the mood, "oh you know we were happy. They were tired. That's about all I remember."

But Mr. Walker's time at war was not yet over. 

"I was transferred to the Pacific theater, to the Phillippines. The war was still going there," he told me. 

He stayed until the Japanese surrendered, and finally came home in 1947 to an America that was still very much segregated, regardless of his service. 

"That must have been so hard for you," I said. He replied, "Well, I grew up in Arkansas, I didn't know anything else different at those times."

Mr. Walker crisscrossed the country, looking for work, and started a family, fathering two daughters and two sons, before ending up in California.

"I ran out of money, so I guess I just stayed," he laughed. 

That was 30 years ago. Today, as we sat on that bus bench, teenagers walked by playing with their phones, cars passed blaring the latest hits, oblivious to the man who'd fought for their freedom so many years ago. 

"That's the sad part," he said. "The young ones, they don't seem to care. They don't know what it was like. You tell me, what would have happened if we hadn't won?" 

I told him I didn't want to think about the outcome. "We'd have been slaves. Germany's slaves," he replied. "That's why we knew, we HAD to win. It was about freedom."

He gestured at the people walking near us. "They live free because of what we did."

He enjoyed hearing my brother had served two tours of duty in Iraq. "That must make you proud," he said. Absolutely, I replied. So proud. 

I asked him what lessons he'd learned over time. He smiled and said he wasn't sure. "My brain's not working so well anymore, you see. Sometimes I remember things that happened 50 years ago, but this morning I couldn't tell you where I put my cane." 

We laughed and I admitted I often don't know where my keys are. I noticed Mr. Walker was wearing pajama bottoms under his trench coat. He said he was recovering from pneumonia and had trouble breathing, so he'd walked a block to his favorite bench to sit in the sun. 

Do you need anything? I asked. 

He smiled. "Oh no, no, I'm fine, just enjoying the sun and our conversation." 

I was, too. I was so thankful I'd met him, and heard his stories of being on the frontline. I was grateful I
could thank him for what he did so long ago that enabled me to live the life I do, one in which I don't have to worry about my freedom or my future. It wasn't too late to let him know his sacrifices were appreciated.

I wonder in a world where twerking takes up way too much space in the media and our conversations, where having a nice car and wearing designer clothes seem like something worth bragging about, are we failing each other? Are we forgetting too much? Are we honoring the generations that put service before self? 

I wish kids knew the name Elijah Walker the way they know Kim Kardashian. I think it's our duty to make sure they do. Mr. Walker and countless others, too soon forgotten, did their duty. Let's do ours. 

- XO, D

Monday, October 14, 2013

I'm not that cool. Neither are you. And that's totally cool.

Tonight, I was catching up on what my friends and family are up to on Facebook. Reading tweets. And browsing Instagram pictures. And it suddenly occurred to me: it felt like everyone was at a party to which I was not invited. Perhaps that’s because I’m sitting on my couch, wearing pajamas and Uggs and watching tv. There is nothing fabulous about that previous sentence. Nothing.

I’ll admit, I am a prolific user of Facebook. Translation: I’m on the damned site way too much. It’s fun to share pictures of what you’re doing or where you are, fun times with family and friends. Or literally update everyone on what you’re doing at that very moment. However, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this culture of constant connection. For starters, it’s not real.

It’s not. Most of us usually only update when we are doing something cool. Or are visiting somewhere awesome. Or are meeting super cool people. What we don’t share are the mundane, not so cool things that occur much more regularly. Arguments with significant others. Stresses over job security or money. Worries that we aren’t following our dreams, we’re just working to pay the rent. Or times when life is kind of boring and not much happens. Take me for example. Lately I’ve spent several nights watching tv. Or reading online gossip. Or dying my roots (which I have to do way more often than I’d like). There I am, total rockstar, watching way too much OWN, wondering why I am not more productive or fun or accomplished. Like my family and friends. Or colleagues. Or acquaintances. Who are clearly, by the looks of their Instagram photos or tweets, busy being awesome.

Well, I’m not alone. FOMO. Fear of Missing Out. Apparently, it's an epidemic. And it’s all our fault. We are totally complicit in making each other feel like crap. Because all that stuff we’re posting is carefully curated to look like we are The Most Interesting Person in the World. Perfectly posed selfies, always taken from a high angle because we know that’s the most flattering. Checking into restaurants to show we are fabulous foodies. Don’t get me started on the endless pictures of Machu Picchu (although when I actually do travel there, I’m totally posting a picture of myself at Machu Picchu).

I’m calling myself out for this very behavior. Believe me, you’re never going to hear about my silly habit of hauling myself out of bed at 11 pm because I need one more spoonful of almond butter, my craving having totally hijacked my dietary good intentions. I’m not going to post status updates on days that I can’t shake my negative body image or my worries over money or what my future holds. Or days when I'm feeling just plain sad. I won’t share these things because they make me feel too vulnerable or exposed. Frankly, sharing these things would make me feel like a loser. Although I guess I just did. Oops. Hello world, meet me: unvarnished and terribly uncool. Who eats almond butter straight from the jar?! (It’s just so tasty!)

I save that stuff for my close family and friends because I know they won’t judge me. One of my biggest hang ups is worrying about what people think about me. It’s silly, I know, because I know everyone’s too worried about their own lives to care about what I’m doing. So my personal challenge lately has been to be as authentic as possible. If things aren’t great, then I actually tell people. And I actually let them help me, something I never could allow before. I was so afraid of asking for help - I thought it was better to tough things out because I could not bear the idea of anyone thinking I was actually scared or feeling small or weak or ashamed. And yet, I would never ever judge anyone for asking for help. I want to help! If I want to give, than I must be willing to receive.

So I think I’m going to try something different. I think I’m going to make a few more calls, and catch up with the people I miss. Or make plans and spend time with faces I love - phones IN the damned purses, people! I would like to make an effort to truly CONNECT, and not just post.

I’m not knocking social media. I think it’s one of the greatest things to happen to society. It’s revolutionary in the truest definition of the term. And it’s so cool to see what happened to the people you grew up with or worked with or met along your travels. However, real connection comes from one on one interaction. There’s nothing better than sitting around a table with your beloveds and laughing your asses off. No status update could ever connect your hearts the way looking into someone’s eyes can. And on difficult days, a hug from someone who cares about you beats any number of "likes".

It’s corny, I know, and guess what? That’s one more quality that makes me uncool. I am one of the corniest people you’ll ever meet. But I promise, I’m only corny when I care about you. I’ll prove it to you...over coffee.