Several weeks ago I was traveling in Texas to do a professional workshop. The following essay is a short reflection on a small part of that experience. It’s not a professional essay, but just a personal reflection on an interesting social experience. If you’re just following this blog for professional information, feel free to skip this . . . there will be more professionally-oriented posts later this week.
Fox News was flickering in the background in the fitness room of an unnamed Austin, Texas hotel. I hadn’t noticed. I was busy concentrating on peddling the exercise bike and balancing myself on its loose handlebars.
Hotel fitness centers are like that. They require focus and planning. My next move was to climb aboard what appeared to be the first treadmill ever built on the other side of the room. Watching television wasn’t on the agenda.
Before I moved to the treadmill, a White man about my age entered the room. He grunted and stretched. Then that I noticed Fox News. They were about to cut to the White House. President Obama would be announcing his plan to close Guantanamo. I silently wished I’d changed the channel while I’d been alone in the room.
The White guy climbed onto the elliptical machine immediately to my left. He decided to strike up a political conversation.
“I know how we should shut that place down,” he said. “We should line everybody up and shoot the fuckers.”
My brand new exercise buddy was celebrating our first special moment together.
Mostly I felt anxiety. Images of firing squads do that to me. Two words escaped my mouth before the communication system locked down. “Uh . . . yeeeaaahh,” I said in a long moan. There was no eye contact. He went on:
“That’s all those people are worth. Just line them up and shoot them all.”
I pedaled. But I also felt a natural social pull his direction, as if I should agree with him. This was combined with an equally natural impulse to leap off the bike and flee the scene.
Thoughts bounced around in my head, but no words came. He kept talking, but more quietly. He said something else about shooting. Then he described the worthless prisoners of Guantanamo. Then he trailed off into inaudible muttering. Finally, there was silence.
Five more minutes passed. I moved to the treadmill on the far side of the room and ran for 15 minutes. He stayed on the elliptical. A part of me worried I might have offended him. There was only silence with the television in the background.
Maybe he mistook me for an ally. After all, I was alone in a fitness room and tuned into Fox News. Maybe he was looking for a fight. Maybe he was just talking to the television out of frustration, as many people do. But he got nothing of substance from me.
Several rejoinders nearly made their way out of my mouth.
“That’s not how we do things in America” was closest to surfacing.
In second place there was a flood of sarcasm:
“Oh. So you must be in the CIA. You sound like you actually know something. Have you been there? Have you met the Guantanamo prisoners? Or have you somehow come to this informed opinion from a distance?”
Back in my room, I expressed a mix of disappointment and pride to my wife, Rita. I was disappointed in my silence. Perhaps I should have engaged him. But the other side of me was proud of maintaining silence. As a psychologist and counselor educator I know there’s no better extinction schedule than ignoring someone 100%. Besides, I had a feeling he wasn’t the sort of guy who was open to other perspectives.
My wife was reassuring. She commiserated with me on how difficult it is to think of something clever to say on the spot. She expressed support for my “That’s not how we do things in America” idea. She suggested an amplified version:
“Right. That’s how ISIS would handle things. Only they’d probably behead them.”
And that’s just one more reason why today I’m grateful to be an American in Austin, TX.