Bubble Boy

I recently realized that I have lived my life as a bubble boy. Not like the one John Travolta portrayed in the 1976 TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble whose weakened immune system could not fight off any viruses and he had to protect himself by living in a plastic bubble. Not like the angry, mean-spirited one who berated and humiliated George Costanza from inside a bubble on a funny Seinfeld episode.  But I have been a bubble boy of sorts nonetheless. I lived much of my life in a bubble that protected me from having to deal with first-hand harmful outside influences like anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, hate, and discrimination. I lived in a bubble that protected me from conflict..

As the child of Jewish immigrants who escaped Hitler and the Holocaust by quick thinking and good timing, I grew up in Seattle among similar families. Most of our family friends were Jews. Most had heroic, frightening stories of survival in their journey to America. And like the children of these friends, I was a first generation American.

While my childhood neighborhood and early schoolmates formed a homogenous white, Christian, Republican environment, my family’s social life generally consisted of emigrated Jews who shared similar histories, philosophies, political viewpoints, and minority status. Socio-political discussions between my parents and their friends rarely became arguments. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded people when we separated ourselves from average Americans, provided safety and security. That may have been unnecessary because, in fairness, I must say I do not recall any blatant violent or insulting Anti-Semitic incidents as I grew up in Seattle. But, we, nevertheless, stuck together and lived in a protective bubble.

Certainly, we knew there were people who disagreed with our views and hated us. Certainly, we understood many Americans could only think of us Jews as a general label, and not as individuals, not as humans. This was a bit puzzling, a bit of a contraction because American forces fought Anti-Semitism in the recent war.  But we knew people like this were out there and tried to avoid them in the outside world. They weren’t a real threat in America anyway, we had been taught, as America was the land of liberty, freedom, justice for all, opportunity, and equality. That was our expectation. Nevertheless, we stuck together, believing in the good in man and the good in America. We lived in an optimistic, hopeful bubble.

I grew up and went to the University of Washington in the late 1960s where the vast majority of students and staff were united against the racism and wars both at home and in Southeast Asia. Although my generation had to fight these battles against a powerful, entrenched establishment, we felt united because we believed our positive goals would eventually be attained. We also thought, because the number of young people who did not join our ranks was small, we would be the generation to end racism, aggressive US-led wars, and unfairness. We lived in a bubble.

I belonged to a Jewish fraternity at the UW, a bubble of its own. But Greek Row was changing. Previous discriminatory practices and attitudes were dying. Houses were accepting racial minorities and Jews. My fraternity, founded as a Jewish one, now had a Japanese American member, a Black member, a preacher’s son, and the president of the campus Youth for Christ organization. While our members now reflected diversity in many ways, we still shared a hopeful vision of the future. We believed we would change the world for the better. We lived in a bubble.

I came out as a gay man in 1970 at the end of my college days. Everyone I met and knew during my first years as a homosocial was excited about the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement. Everyone I met seemed to share the same progressive, hopeful political views, those of the Democrat Party. I could not, for the life of me, imagine a gay or lesbian Republican. Then, in 1979, as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan campaigned for the presidency, I heard gay people say they would vote for Reagan “because Carter couldn’t get the hostages out of Iran.” (When the hostages were released like 47 seconds after Reagan was elected, we realized that Iran had just been fucking with America and its political system. Can you imagine a foreign country interfering with an American election? That just could never happen today.) I was dumbfounded that those gays and lesbians who backed Reagan were just like other Americans, no more dedicated to their party’s core principles and basic philosophies than they were to a breakfast cereal. I was dumbfounded that these gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were siding with Americans who viciously opposed them in their struggle for equal rights. What had Reagan and the Republican Party ever done for you as a gay or lesbian? I asked them. What few political victories the then-called Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual community had gained in the 1970s had been led and had been affected by Democrats. Republicans had blocked any and all attempts at equality and respect for tax-paying GLB Americans. How can any self-respecting gay or lesbian vote for or align themselves with the Republican Party, I asked myself. I realized then that during the 1970s, my first decade as a gay man, I had been living in a bubble.

I watched as Seattle became one of the United States’ most progressive, liberal cities. I watched as fewer and fewer Republicans were elected to any office in Seattle or Western Washington for that matter. I didn’t have to worry about getting into political arguments in Seattle because the number of opponents to the progressive cause was so small one was hardly aware of them. Seattle became isolated from other parts of the country, even other parts of the State of Washington. Seattle was living in a political bubble.

When I became a Seattle high school special education assistant in 1992, I immediately became aware of the number of extremely smart and articulate staff members that surrounded me. And I realized that by and large, these bright people shared a vision of diversity and inclusion for the future and for our nation’s children. They also shared a vision of teaching people to think, to analyze information, and to challenge alleged questionable statements made by people in power, like politicians and government officials. They taught students to “consider the source.” I knew schools in other parts of the US did not have the exact same goals; I knew many school districts had much more restrictive, conservative attitudes than I saw thriving in Seattle, but I believed the good teachers in those areas would manage to instill that message, if only in small bits, to their students. These messages, I thought, were also being taught through the World of Entertainment in films, television shows and music. The election of November 2016, however, taught me again that I had been living in a bubble.

I now live in a small working class Mexican town, a charming, beautiful place filled with American and Canadian ex-pats and émigrés. I have met countless people here, whether through my writing, the Jewish congregation, teaching English, neighbors, or my immediate crowd of friends. And, again, I find myself intuitively surrounding myself with like-thinking people. I’ve put myself in a protective bubble again.

When I first moved to Ajijic, I thought the other Americans here and I were kindred spirits. Our reasons for coming here may have been varied, but, I thought, we were linked politically and philosophically, if not perfectly, close enough to make it work. Civility, respect, and an appreciation for other peoples and cultures were part of our mantras. But now, in the aftermath of November 2016, I no longer make that assumption. As I see people climbing out of cars with red state license plates, listen to nearby diners speak with southern drawls, or overhear Americans announcing proudly that they are from unsophisticated rural towns where a gay Jew like me would be perceived as a threat, freak, or sinner, I immediately determine that I do not want to chat with, meet, or become friends with these people. The odds are against their belonging in my bubble. I have learned that in Trump’s America I have so little in common with so many Americans, I must avoid them to maintain my sanity and protect my life. I must keep them out of my bubble.

Some might say, I’m being a hypocrite, discriminating against people based on a label, people who are different from me. But then I realize those people have lived in their own bubbles as long as I’ve lived in mine. In the past, however, living in my bubble apparently blindly shielded me from the real world and real America. Now, it protects me from the worst of America.

One thought on “Bubble Boy

  1. My bubble feels much smaller now than ever before, and you are so right about it now just protecting us from the worst of America. 45 has changed our “internal” climates. Thanks for this article, Tom.

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