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We Could Be on Lesbos

by on September 16, 2015 6:00 AM

It was a gorgeous, breezy evening, made sweeter by the knowledge that there aren’t many such nights left in the year.

The talk turned to academic politics, as it sometimes does in this company town.

The conversation was both light-hearted and heated. Whatever we were talking about was a sore subject, but how sore can you be when you’re sitting around an umbrella table at nightfall drinking beer and wine with your friends?

Still, somebody thought it was time to remind ourselves of how lucky we are to be college professors.

“We get to do what we love,” he said. “I mean, we could be on a beach on Lesbos.”

There was momentary confusion. Until recently, a beach on Lesbos meant sun, sea, sky and good food in a Greek taverna.

Now, of course, it also means being a refugee from a war-torn place heading toward an uncertain future in Europe.

The collision of tourists and refugees on the tiny island of Lesbos is the story of our time, written in a grain of Aegean beach sand.


Last month, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune became a human piñata when she wished out loud for a Hurricane Katrina to wash away all the municipal rot that afflicted her city so it could make a fresh start.

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans rebuked her thus:

“…no one who went through it would ever wish for another Katrina — not for ourselves or for anyone else. No city should have to go through such heart-rending losses, and certainly not in the name of change.”

Some critics read Kristen McQueary’s column as a case study in white privilege – the idea being that only someone who was completely insulated by race and class from the harsh realities of life could write so cavalierly of human suffering.

Other critics connected McQueary’s column to her occasional self-mocking tweets about so-called “first-world problems.”

“My enormous, new wine glasses don't fit in the dishwasher” is one example.

As I write this, I’m being distracted and irritated by a lawn mower outside my office window: another example.

How many columns have I written about such petty nuisances? A dead battery in the car. A live bat in the house. A flooded basement. A delayed flight.

All comfortable people tell such tales, usually to elicit laughter more than sympathy. We may be furious in the moment, but when we calm down we always know that if this was the worst thing that happened to us today, this week, this month, this year, our lives must be amazingly wonderful. (My less-senior colleagues across the hall don’t even have windows.)

Of course, privilege is largely a matter of luck, and we’re only lucky until we’re unlucky.


My friend Sandi lives on a ranch in California with 35 goats, five horses and five dogs. Sounds like a nice life. She’s one of the lucky ones.

Last Saturday, she had to round up goats, horses and dogs and flee a 100-square-mile fire that was bearing down on her property. Now she was one of the unlucky ones.

On Sunday afternoon, she knew that all of the houses around hers had been destroyed. She didn’t know about her own house. Her brother Michael described the situation to me in a text as “worry on a bone-grinding level.”

On Monday afternoon, Sandi learned that the fire came within 300 feet of her house and that a water dump from a helicopter probably saved it.

So she was one of the lucky ones again.

On Tuesday morning, the wind shifted. Michael: “She was told that her ranch was more than likely destroyed after surviving yesterday. I doubt that you get lucky twice.”

But then she did get lucky twice. On Tuesday night came word that the house was still standing!


Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the work of Hallie Bateman, a graphic artist in New York who was my daughter’s best friend when they were little. One of Hallie’s cartoons is titled “Coming to Terms with Your Happiness.”

The first step, she writes, is to “recognize the warning signs”:

-       You are alive.

-       Beauty surrounds you.

-       You are loved.

-       You possess all or most of your teeth.

Lest you be rolling your eyes, Step 4 is “Quiet the Cynical Jerk within You.” One way to do this is to eat a strawberry: “Cynical jerks are powerless against strawberries.”

Funny that she would pick strawberries. I used to say that the strongest argument I could think of for the existence of God was the existence of strawberries.

Theology and strawberries aside, though, we who are alive and loved, (toothiness  and beauty might be secondary determinants) would do well to remember how lucky we are.

Please read all of my future gripes with that implicit asterisk in mind. 

Note: Google is matching donations up to $11 million for refugee relief efforts here.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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