Since I was a kid I have always followed the news. I remember watching the local morning news news while making my sister and I lunch as we were getting ready for the school bus. One summer I sat captivated by the Iran Contra scandal- although I didn’t understand it.
In 1988, my freshman year of high school, a computer teacher, Mr. Schultz recommended Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem when I told him politics of the Middle East interested me, but like Iran Contra, I didn’t understand it either.
The three years I spent at UC Santa Cruz, I volunteered and worked in the news department at the college radio station KZSC. During my junior year-abroad in Cairo, most days I happily paying about $3 for a two day old International Herald Tribune to read between classes, or before basketball practice. I was scared when classmates quietly told me Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. If his murderer was Egyptian would all the American students be evacuated? It was a self-centered relief when I learned his mudererer was a Jewish nationalist.
Over twenty years later I still feel anxious if I don’t know what is happening elsewhere in the world. As peaceful as my parents houses are for mini-vacations in Lake Tahoe or Newport Beach, I need to check in with CNN, or a radio news show to feel calm.
As counter intuitive as this sounds-disconnecting stresses me out.
Monday through Friday, I listen to two hours of NPR before going to work and then alternate between the news and sports talk during the short commute to to the Light Rail Station, I then flip between those news and sports stations driving home.
Three days ago, I spent the day at work depressed thinking about the Syrian sarin gas attack I read about the night before.
After work that day, I knew I was one of (now granted formerly anonymous) panel of judges at a Toastmasters area speech contest, so I made a conscious effort to listen to familiar eighties music instead of the news- I tried to disconnect. As selfish as this sounds, I was trying clear my mental pallete. I didn’t want to think about this gas attack or the victims while listening to speeches.
I was almost successful.
As I pulled into the parking lot, a heavy drizzle turned into a pelting rain. I tuned back to the local news talk hoping for a weather report on the spring storm for the drive home- instead I heard:
“President Trump just announced he approved the launch of sixty missiles at a Syrian airbase responsible for the sarin gas attack.”
No! No! No! Assad is a maniac and I did not vote for Trump. Was America was going to war in the Middle East ten weeks before I fly to Beirut? After parking, I sat in the parking lot, listening to the rain, as checked my phone where the Washington Post ran a breaking news story with more details.
I walked into the contest in a daze. I tried to think of some song, any song. I complimented a random young woman on her cute green heels. I nibbled on pizza and cheesecake and spilled punch on myself, but my mind kept refocusing on the Middle East. A few well meaning Toastmasters friends I had not seen recently offered condolences about my dog.
Now I’m thinking about the gas attack victims, the American response on Syria and missing my dog. I started to cry.
I sent a quick Facebook message to Sadika, a Toastmasters friend. In ten weeks, I would be staying with her and her family.
Was she, her family, her country OK? I waited two beats, no response. I’m now panicking and I’m supposed to judge two speech contests.
The Chief Judge, gave me and the other judges the pre-requisite judges briefing and the contests started. A few contestants made me laugh- some guy yodeled for a minute. Most told personal stories. However one speaker stood out that night.
Keerthi, the stranger with the cute green shoes, but more importantly, the would-be-winner of the International contest shared her inner psychological battles about using her fear to fuel her strength. Keerthi helped me for seven minutes forget Hooka in doggy heaven, war with Syria or possibly cancelling this vacation. At the end of her speech, Keerthi challenged us to use our strengths and passions to face our fears.
Immediately after the results were announced, I had brief chat Sadika, 7,212 miles away via Facebook Messenger.
I had forgotten the time change. While it was 6:30pm Thursday night in California when I heard the news, it was 3:30am Friday morning in Damascus (the beginning of the weekend in the Middle East which is Friday and Saturday) and we chatted three hours later.
While I wrote this blog at 3:30am on a Saturday morning, listening to what else- the news- (thank you NPR Weekend Edition), in retrospect, maybe it was a little unreasonable to expect an immediate response in the early morning hours at the beginning of a weekend.
Sadika in her kind way also reminded me of another important detail. In ten weeks, I will spend eighteen days learning about her, her culture and her country- not Syria.
That night, I let my fear fuel my ignorance when I panicked in response to the news reports. I need to use that fear to remind me of what I’m passionate about.
If there was ever a time to hear Keerthi’s speech, that time was Thursday night. If there was ever a time to apply Keerthi’s message, that time is now.