Arizona state of mind
IN PHOENIX Last Saturday, Jan. 8, began sunny and crisp in a tangle of leotards and tights, as I hustled my little girls across town and into the dance studio - as always, just a few moments late.
I collapsed in a chair near another ballet mom. We agreed we were ready to get back into a routine after the Christmas break. And she was more than ready, this mom said, to be rid of 2010. We'd talked politics before, and I knew how frustrated she was with the mood here in Arizona. She'd sampled a liberal Coffee Party meeting not long ago and wondered if that was the answer. Or maybe it was enough to simply start fresh with a new year, the national spotlight off our tongue-tied governor, our anti-immigration law, all the hate in this state.
"You know, I just want this year to be . . ." At a loss for words, she swept her hand through the air - the universal sign for smooth sailing.
I nodded. Then, as if on cue, my phone rang.
As the day unfolded and the details of the Tucson shootings came together and the horror set in, I vacuumed up every scrap of information about the tragedy. My obsession went beyond the odd coincidences - I'm Jewish, a Democrat and a Scripps College graduate, like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and years ago, I worked on Capitol Hill. And I have a 9-year-old daughter. This hit home in a different way.
I am a native of this place. A restless native, to be sure, but whether I like it or not, Arizona is home. And this past week, I haven't liked that much at all.
What Jared Loughner allegedly did has nothing to do with Arizona - that's become the mantra. It was an isolated incident, people are saying. But it's exactly isolation that defines him, that defines this tragedy - that defines this state.
Arizona is the 48th state; we're not even 100 years old. Most people from here haven't been for long. According to census figures, the state's population grew from 3.6 million in 1990 to 6.5 million in 2008. People move here for a fresh start. For open spaces and hot-pink sunsets and new opportunities, to leave their troubles behind.
Once they get here, many hide. And those of us who are already here don't come knocking with a plate of cookies. We hide, too.
It seems that much of what we as Arizonans, as Americans, break over so bitterly is not whether President Obama is a socialist or whether Sarah Palin is fully cognizant of the derivation of the term "blood libel." Those are just shorthand ways of distracting and distancing ourselves from the real fights we are having in these unsettled times, fights about inclusion and exclusion.
Who should have citizenship? Health insurance? An organ transplant? A gun? Why should the guy across the street get his mortgage payments lowered when I've been working hard all these years and doing the right thing? Who is in and who is out?
And the truth is that few places are as exclusionary as Arizona, where butt-kicking cowboys and Barry Goldwater politics still rule the day, where anyone of Mexican descent better follow the speed limit, or risk getting pulled over and grilled over their right to be here. We are libertarians. Stay out of our big green back yards irrigated with water we can ill afford to use. Don't even come close. And don't you dare ask for help.