Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cultural Diversity

Let's pretend for a minute that it's not almost another weekend. So, here's what we did this past weekend.

On Saturday night, we went to a Pro Bull Riding competition at the Patriot Center at George Mason. I dug out my 1984 Rodeo de Santa Fe Rodeo Princess belt buckle to wear for the occasion. (Nope, not kidding. I was the Rodeo Princess in Santa Fe in 1984. The youngest Princess ever, thankyouverymuch. And yes, it's pretty much like Miss America but on horses and without bathing suits or evening gowns and with color-coordinated cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, Justin roper boots and spurs.)

The pungent smell of bull manure in the Patriot Center brought me back to the annual July rodeo in Santa Fe. We usually went all of the four nights - I've been to a lot of rodeos in my life, but I think the total number is under 100. I haven't been to a rodeo event in years, and all I needed was a can of Sprite, a Frito pie, some cotton candy and a couple of drunk cowboys getting in a fight and tumbling down the bleachers in a wave of spilled Coors to make it all complete.

It didn't disappoint. Friends who had never seen bull riding were amazed at how hard it is to just stay on the bull for eight seconds. The good Colosseum Romans that we were, we cheered loudest for the bulls that didn't just trot right back in the pen after bucking their cowboys off, but charged snorting around the arena, chasing cowboys and looking for a nice kidney to gore.

I'm not sure I really get bull riding, or the allure of it. In the event program, there was an article about one of the top riders, and he talks about how he had to take five months off last year to recover from injuries from one ride, including all kinds of broken ribs and a lacerated liver. And of course he's back riding bulls. The injury report on one of the pro bull riding sites is enlightening. I mean, you're all beat up after the marathon, but a lacerated vital organ is something else entirely different to sacrifice for your sport. It's not like they make all that much money, relative to the risk level. The top all-time earner is just under $5 million. Just wondering how the cost of hospital bills figures into that.

On a completely different note, we got up on Sunday and went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I've wanted to go for awhile, but it's hard to get really, well, excited about the Holocaust Museum. It seems not suitably somber to be too excited. Middlebury College's alumni group had arranged for a special presentation at the museum, including a lecture with a Holocaust survivor.

While the Holocaust Museum's exhibits were horrifying, nauseating, gut-wrenching, they were also fascinating. The sheer amount of information that has been gathered about the Holocaust in the museum is impressive. We all have a generalized idea about what happened in Europe during Hitler's rise to power, World War II, and the Holocaust, but this museum really delves into the details. It details the differing experiences of Jews in Poland versus Jews in France. It talks about the persecution of the Roma (Gypsy) people during that time. And the names, faces, photographs, and individual accounts are, of course, the most riveting and haunting. So much detail has been amassed about the lives of Holocaust victims before, during and after that time. I was surprised to feel that I could have spent more time there; we didn't really get to see all of the permanent collection before it was time for the lecture to begin.

The speaker, Manya Friedman, is a survivor from Poland. She was 13 when she was sent to a work camp. She has only in recent years decided to speak about her experiences publicly, as it is difficult every time; she said the Holocaust is always with her. Her parents and siblings were all executed. She only had a cousin or two left. Towards the end of her lecture, she spoke of being at her son's wedding. When the family photos were taken, there were only three people in her son's photo: Manya, her son, and her daughter. Her husband (also a Holocaust survivor) had died years before. She described how bereft and alone she felt - her son had no grandparents, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins. And his bride's family had dozens of relatives crowding into the photo.

Tears ran out of my eyes when Manya told that story. My husband has a large family, and at our wedding, the family photos for his side were loud and boisterous, and the photographer had to keep rearranging to make sure everyone was in the photo. When it got to mine, we were only three: me, my mom, and my sister. My father died suddenly from a heart attack just two weeks before my wedding. I can understand how Manya felt, at least a little. My entire family was not systematically murdered; the sadness of that I can't fathom. We were overwhelmed by the end of the lecture.

I've been trying to come up with some brilliant link between these two experiences of our weekend. Survival of the fittest - one willing, one most unwilling? I don't know that there's a way to put these two things together without getting really attenuated, so I think I'll just stick with feeling pretty darn good about living somewhere that I can do both of these things in two successive days. A toast with Coors and Slivovitz for all the living and the dead.

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