Don't like it? Leave it? Lump it? Change it?

I have to admit that living in California (and working for a university in the UC system) these days leaves me wondering why I’m in this handbasket, and where exactly it is we’re all going. The nice Christians who periodically knock on my door to evangelize seem to be capitalizing on this theme. Unfortunately, my own theology doesn’t include a diety who intercedes in the lives and fortunes of individuals*, so their messages are not places where I find hope.

*(As an aside I have to note that any such figure who responds to personal pleas for aid that I could fathom would probably spend all his time shouting “if you children don’t stop your whining and bickering, I swear I’m going to turn this universe around. I mean it!”)

My hope, then, comes from my faith in humanity. Which is to say, people got us into this mess so people are going to have to get us out. It’s small hope indeed but I maintain it by willfully not thinking too much about the messes we make and instead focusing on the good and the beautiful. I studied inequality and poverty long enough that I’d be an ugly person to be around if I didn’t compartmentalize my knowledge of human ability to build ugly hierarchies into a neat little box with a label reading “really not our best quality but not the sole defining bit of human nature.”

And so, this brings us to lunch. Whatever horrible things you may be able to blame on humanity, you have to admit that the invention of the burrito makes up for it just a little. And so I sat with my burrito at my normal lunch hangout when a Spanish-language version of “Unchained Melody” began playing on the radio. This lead the gentleman at the next table, who I mentally refer to as Westwood Local Crazy Dude, began regalling the women at the table in front of me with the story of how the song was written about Chino prison. WLCD works for a local small store–if one of the previous rants of his I overheard is to be believed, I haven’t taken to fact checking–and is fond of harping on the negative aspects of current U.S. society and economy. Today was no exception and his lecture on “Unchained Melody” soon devolved into commentary on incarceration rates in the U.S. (higher than any other industrialized country and many fascist regimes as well), the ranking of California schools compared to other states (last, according to him) and divorce rates (68%, again according to WLCD). Fortunately, since I was sitting behind WLCD I could giggle to myself at his ramblings (none of which ever really strike me as patently false, just inappropriate for the setting) without getting drug into engaging with him. Meanwhile his audience just wanted to get back to their lunch but he continued on his tyrade on the ills of America. One of the women pointed out “well if you don’t like it, you can leave.” This lead him into a line of criticism beginning with “no one else wants us” and ending in some horrible world in which 1/3 of American teenagers are drug addicts.

Meanwhile it lead me to thinking about the “if you don’t like it you’re free to leave” response to political criticism. While I think it is perhaps a perfectly reasonable answer to negative diatribes from a neighboring table while one is lunching, it isn’t typically a reasonable answer in real discussions. Of course there are situations where leaving really is the right response to unhappiness with a system. But too often both the directive “if you don’t like it leave” or the threat “Screw you guys, I’m going home” are used to block–or in the case of the threat to avoid the effort of making–actual constructive criticism.

And so my thinking circles back to California and the question of where exactly it is this hand basket is heading. The current state of the budget, paired with other doomsday thinking (like how long can we survive on borrowed water), does have me wondering about how badly I really want to stay here. I think in at least the short term B. and I are committed to staying. If nothing else, home ownership makes the prospects of leaving more complicated. The current state of the state, though, has me wondering if I shouldn’t be giving some serious thought to where else I might be happy. At the same time, though, if I feel so strongly that “if you don’t like it leave” isn’t the right answer to criticism, does that perhaps suggest that there might be better ways to respond to my fears about the state’s future than looking elsewhere. A thought to consider, I suppose, as I continue to ask myself what I want to be when I grow up.

p.s. I’m getting over a nasty cold. To help fight off some remaining congestion (primarily in my ears, which is worrying me since it feels much like the early stages of an ear infection) I took some Sudafed this morning. Of course because I am otherwise thinking of myself as no longer “sick” I consumed exactly as much caffeine as I normally do on work days (2 to 3 cups of coffee in the morning and a diet coke with lunch). The combo has left me a touch, uh, wired. So if this post is touch flippant and scattered it’s because … oooh, shiny!

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