Monday, July 25, 2011

Hey, Mr. Smith, Where Are You?

My husband and I recently sat through a four-day, six-hour class that promised to challenge Hollywood history. The course did not live up to its promise, but we saw some old film clips about D-Day and Omaha beach followed by a series of Japanese planes strafing Pearl Harbor. We also watched an hour's worth of Recount, followed by a Q and A session in which the teacher did not know the answers to questions about Florida election law. The third session was about JFK and the Cuban Missile crisis, and the fourth a series of clips starring various celebrities in the role of statesmen. Thus, we listened to Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) grow hoarse and passionate about the little guy, especially those boy campers. He called out corruption in the guise of corporate influence, and using scripture, he pricked the conscience of Claude Rains in the role of Senator Joseph Harrison Paine. After hours of callous disregard, stoicism, and obfuscation, Paine cries: Expel me! I am the corruption. Yeah, right. Like that could happen.

We also saw President Andrew Shepherd admit to being a proud, card-carrying member of the ACLU, then slap his opponent with a metaphorical glove, challenging him to a duel over upholding the U. S. Constitution. At the close of this speech, one that never fails to make me a bit verklempt, Andy admits to being so busy keeping his job that he forgot to do his job. Oh, how I wish a few in various national elected positions would say those words. Instead the bombast conflates until it looms overhead like a giant mushroom cloud full of storm and fury, signifying nothing.

Where are the 2011 Mr. Smiths and President Shepherds, men of courage and conviction who fight against might for right? Where are the statesmen who stand for what we say we believe in: a greater good? Not political power, not corporate deregulation, not a military-industrial complex, not pledges signed before knowing the issues, and certainly not a soulless government that holds all the money in the palms of the few while the rest of the nation struggles.

We need big ideas. We need commitment. We need informed legislators, not men given partial and even slanted truths by lobbyists and businessmen. These men and women expect teachers to know the content they teach; they expect doctors to be skilled and trained. They demand that soldiers in the chaos of battle rise above their own and their enemies' hearts of darkness to draw the shadowy lines between defense, offense, and brutality. Yet they demand so little of themselves; their puny mewling cries are:

• I don't have time to read the bills.
• I have staff to research the issues.
• I must answer to a pledge exacted by a man not elected to office rather than my constituents. Please don't challenge me about the ethics of answering to a businessman instead of my constituents.
• I cannot be expected to discriminate between ethics, morals, and privilege. Washington is a murky place.
• Elect me or re-elect me because I'll change things, but I never do, especially because being a legislator quickly goes to every head, and we want to stay to play.

We need an Atticus Finch. We need Jefferson Smith. We need Andrew Shepherd. But we need the living, breathing, three-dimensional types, not the ones of fiction. I call on you and me and them to step up. Above all, I call upon all of us to care more about our neighbor than we care about ourselves. When his lot in life is secure, mine will be as well.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Farewell to Atticus

In the month of June 2010, one year ago, one of my favorite novels celebrated fifty years in homes, libraries, classrooms, and hearts. As a classroom teacher, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one of the students’ favorites; I learned to love it long before I taught it. Lee’s characters live and breathe. They are people I have known or would like to know. Some are petty and selfish, but many are compassionate and courageous, traits this blog celebrated for a full year by remembering characters, films, and icons. All the while, I tried to insist, that iconic compassion and courage should thrive within each of us, that, in fact, they do. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary feats.

My mother is such a person. Her life and upbringing were anything but extraordinary. Her father deserted her mother when my mother was an infant. She may have seen him—at least in photos, but whenever he returned to his home state, he asked his kin not to tell my mother, his first child, that he was nearby. They complied.

Perhaps their cowardice stirred some guilt in them for a few of them tried to build a bridge to my mother. They invited her to visit them, but they were not brave enough to defy my mother’s father. They elected to let a very little girl grow into a woman at a time when single parenting without the benefit of a dead spouse was scandalous. Even widows and widowers were pitied as if they had somehow misbehaved in order to be left without a partner.

Mother’s mother worked. Again, this was uncommon in the 1930s and 1940s, at least until World War II made it necessary. There was no day caregiver just down the street. Women had to rely upon strangers, unlicensed by any regulatory agency, or family to care for children while they worked. My mother was left in the care of the only grandmother in her life or when she grew older, she was left on her own.

Thus, Mother became self-sufficient quickly. She learned to cook and clean before other kids had those responsibilities. And she learned to travel alone early on. She rode the train between her hometown and her grandmother’s home; apparently without any hesitation, Mother jumped aboard in order to see her cousins and the grandmother whom she loved dearly. It would seem that Mother has always been fearless to the point of stubborn sometimes.

Once when we were in Hawaii together, we found ourselves awake too early because we had not kept ourselves awake until Hawaiian bedtime. Mother decided she wanted to walk the beach. I tried to talk her out of it. As a twenty-something, I thought I understood the dangers of cities and tourism much better than she, but Mother was adamant so I joined her.

Ahead, at least a long block away, stood about a dozen guys. Pre-dawn, 3:00 a.m. in fact, on the sidewalk along the beach, a dozen guys in various states of casual clothing—a gang. I told Mother we needed to cross the street or turn around, that under no circumstances should we continue on course to walk directly into the gang of boys. Mother said, “I will not live with fear!” I tried to reason with her, advising her that being sensible and safe are not cowardly choices, but Mother had staked out her turf and true to her character, she would not back down.

Spunky is perhaps the kindest term for what ran deep within her. Whatever drove her, she marched through the middle of the boys, saying “Excuse me, please” as she did so, and they parted for her like Moses parting the Red Sea. No one said an unkind word, and no one pursued us. Of course, this just gave her more reason to boss me for the rest of our trip.

Today, Mother is still spunky, but she could never walk with confidence along any sidewalk anywhere. Recently, when the doctor’s assistant administered a mental acuity test, she failed, answering only three questions correctly. She knew her city and her state, but not the month, year, or season. She could parrot three simple words when asked to do so, but thirty seconds later, she had no idea that she had even been directed to do so and she certainly could not remember the three words. She cannot write her name; she cannot call people because she cannot sort out the numbers or remember them long enough to punch them in. The mother who marched along that sidewalk is gone.

Mother remembers her childhood, and she remembers much of it fondly even though, as she says, I did not have a father. She remembers my father, her husband of sixty-one years, the man she cared for in the last two years of his afflicted life. She prepared meals, cleaned a house—because she needed the exercise, she said, drove him to oncologists, radiologists, dermatologists, podiatrists, internists, and hospitals. She tried to help him stand when he fell. She kept him clean because she was the only person he wanted at such personal moments. As best she could, she preserved that thin wall of dignity that exists between a person and the world. Doing so cost her some time. How much? None of us knows.

But Mother was once outgoing, active, and forever busy socializing, joining, giving, learning, and organizing. While caring for Dad, each of these were set aside to be picked up again after his passing, but when he passed, she was no longer able to pick them up.

At first, she thought grief stood in her way. Then, she began to believe that depression blocked her recovery. Finally, she had to surrender to the truth: the Alzheimer’s that claimed her own mother’s life (as well as siblings in that generation) had come to claim her own.

Recently, Mother said to me: I’m just here, watching my old movies. I may have seen them over and over again, but they are always new to me. (Thank you, Turner Classic Movies) There is fearlessness in that statement because she is, right now, today, conscious that her short-term memory is gone, that her long-term memory is unreliable. Still she has seasoned that knowledge with a dash of optimism.

How can anyone not feel compassion for such a woman in such a state? That is why I must now assuage my grief by writing. This time, the subject will be personal—my mother. She will serve to illustrate both courage and compassion as ordinary people do every day. Please join me in following her story and mine at

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hoover's Philanthropy

President Herbert Hoover swore to uphold the U. S. Constitution in early 1929 and was at the helm when the Stock Market crashed seven months later; citizens blamed him for the terrible economic conditions that followed, and they were more than ready to give another man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to stall and stop the Depression. Roosevelt may still be remembered fondly because programs and policies that he oversaw put Americans to work and put food on their tables. Hoover should be remembered fondly as well for truly, his story is the American dream fulfilled.

Born into a humble Iowa farming family and orphaned by the age of ten, Hoover still rose to become President, philanthropist, and world traveler. He worked his way through Stanford to a degree in engineering. Upon graduation, according to the film shown at Hoover’s Presidential Library, Hoover learned about a mining operation in Australia and set his sights upon becoming the lead engineer for the company. Without any prior contact, he set sail for Australia, arriving with little more than the hope of success, and hope was enough. He worked in Australia, then for the Chinese Imperial Bureau of Mines until the Boxer Rebellion, and invested wisely.

Thus, as a young man, with a fortune already made, Hoover was able to retire. He turned his Quaker, contemplative mind to the plight of other world citizens and became a public servant, called upon more than once to organize efforts to feed the hungry, especially children displaced by war. Rather than making more and more money, Hoover, with enough to live out the rest of his days, gave his time and expertise to help others.

Where are today’s Hoovers among the top 1% of the nation’s wealthy? Certainly Bill and Melinda Gates have undertaken good works, especially in Africa. Warren Buffet, another mid-westerner, gives away most of his wealth, and many other entrepreneurs have proven to be generous and compassionate. Even celebrities have used their status and wealth to make the world better: Brad Pitt in New Orleans, Sean Penn in Haiti, Matt Damon for clean water. Few of the most giving philanthropists are Wall Street-rich, however. Scanning the list at, I found the names of men and women who built companies, made products, provided services, and invented new technologies. I did not find the names of Wall Street bankers and investment counselors.

Where is the Hoover spirit among the Wall-Street geniuses that claim to deserve and command multi-million dollar bonuses and paychecks? Perhaps these men and women attend charity functions, spending hundreds or thousands for a seat at the table. Maybe they buy items at charity auctions. But have they retired in order to feed the world’s hungry? No. Have they said, "I have enough," or have they said, as one man did on radio: "I worked hard for my money; I want every penny to go to my family, not someone who has not worked hard."

Hoover so excelled at organizing rescue efforts to feed the hungry that he was called back into service after World War II in order to heal and make healthy the European children who were gaunt and hopeless after bearing witness to man’s world-wide ideological clash and callous disregard for the sanctity of life, especially if that life was of the Jewish faith, a gypsy, or anyone disabled or different. Hoover was grateful to serve. He believed that the lives of children are especially important, that “Children are our most valuable resource.” He would, I think, be an opponent to kicking problems down the road for our children to solve. Does Corporate America believe the same?

I cannot believe they do when insurance companies wish to deny health care to the vulnerable and needy. I cannot believe they do when mining, oil, and manufacturing shirk their responsibilities to the water we must drink and the natural resources we must protect. I cannot believe they do when their allegiance is to their own paychecks, dividends for their investors, and great pots of money such as pension funds and Social Security with which to gamble.

Hoover is an example of public service and accountability. May we all aspire to be so generous.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summing Up Truman

I entered the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO prepared to judge the man harshly. After all, he ordered the use of atomic weapons to deliver the final blow and utterly crush Japan, already quite literally decimated by six months of firebombs that transformed cities and people to ash. Even Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Johnson and an architect of the Japan firebomb offensive, came to believe that proportionality must become a rule of war (Fog of War) after he calculated the Japanese dead.

Scientists directly involved in creating the atomic bomb also believed in restraint, stating in 1945 that unleashing the power of the bomb was wrong and unnecessary. Albert Einstein admitted to Linus Pauling that he had made a mistake when he signed a letter to President Roosevelt that advocated the U. S. development of atomic weapons. Leo Szilard, the scientist who first understood how to build the bomb, thought it unwise to use it, especially because doing so was unnecessary and would alert the world to the U. S. possession of weapons of mass destruction.

General Eisenhower also believed that a weapon of mass destruction was inappropriate and said so: ". . . first on the basis of … [his] belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because . . . [he] thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was . . . no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. . . . Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face'.”

Eisenhower, Szilard, and Einstein, each a dispassionate, somber voice, each a man well-respected. History has upheld the character of these men, and hindsight has informed us that atomic weapons are too horrible to use. Still, Truman failed to heed their counsel. Instead, he ordered the use of Fat Man and Little Boy at Hiroshima and Nagasaki because he feared the loss of more American lives, a motive that I understand and appreciate even if I cannot agree.

I also knew that Truman later sent other lives to be lost on Korean soil in one of many stand-offs between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. He feared the rise of Communism, an
-ism with many tentacles that plagued this nation and the world for decades to come.

Truman’s library taught me that at home Truman was more concerned with the quality of life than the quantity of lives. He presented to Congress the Fair Deal, a proposal with three key aims:

• Health insurance for all Americans
• An increase in the minimum wage
• Equality under the law

Sound familiar? Indeed it does. Before and after Truman’s administration, elected officers have been trying to foster health and health care among Americans as a basic human right, one that helps citizens pursue that ever elusive happiness by protecting the life they have been granted. We have yet to achieve that worthy goal, but we may be closer.

The Health Care Reform Act, recently fought over bitterly, is taking hold, and it appears to be modeled after Massachusetts’ health care for its citizens. Vermont is now trying to develop state-wide health care. Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, foremost among Western developed nations, have universal health care and citizens ranked healthier than America’s. Their so-called socialized medicine did not oppress them nor did it bankrupt them. Wall Street did that. Speculation, de-regulation, and an absolute absence of ethical or moral standards caused the economic collapse world-wide. It’s just business has cost people their lives, liberty and pursuits of happiness.

Truman also sought an increase in the minimum wage, something our own Congress, in its many hues of red and blue in recent decades, has fought, being characteristically contemptible and stingy (Mark Twain, 1885). From 1997 to 2007, Congress said it just could not afford to saddle small businessmen and women with increases in minimum wages. In 2007, workers received the first bump, but then 2008 hit. A living wage—not just a minimum wage—became the cry, especially after corporations laid off workers, businesses closed, banks foreclosed, British Petroleum ruined the Gulf entrepreneurial spirit, and Nature herself blasted through in the form of tornadoes.

Although Truman’s vision for health care and the minimum wage were not well received by Congress, his efforts to guarantee equal opportunities under the law for employment regardless of race or religion began a federal effort that has made our nation richer. African American men, veterans returning from World War II, could not secure jobs or even enjoy security. Truman believed that they should have the same opportunities, especially because they had proved themselves brave and patriotic. Jews faced similar discrimination as did anyone of Asian or German ancestry. Truman understood that we grow and blossom when we have multiple minds as resources, when everyone has a chance to pursue his or her dreams.

We are still fighting Truman’s fight, however. Prejudices on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and more affect workers everywhere in this nation. Some small-minded, raisin-hearted people have even tried to punish those whose skin is darker and suppress those whom they perceive to be a threat. Those people have little appreciation or understanding of the gifts that differences have brought to us.

Those same fears and ignorant prejudices have plagued recent debates. A group of well-dressed, middle-aged men threw dollar bills at a seated, humble protestor in favor of universal health care. Their intention was to belittle him, to cast him in the role of a beggar at the government teat. They shouted their unwillingness to let him share in the wealth of this nation, and their faces were twisted and ugly.

Posters and signs have denigrated and demeaned the man who holds our highest office, President Barack Obama. Lies have been whispered suggesting he is not one of us, but foreign-born, that he is sympathetic to Islam and a believer in another -ism, socialism. No other president has been so doubted and caustically condemned in spite of sure, compelling evidence contrary to the libelous, scurrilous rumors.

To some extent, Truman and Obama share this legacy. Each has proposed policies and programs at which Congress balks. Each has asked healthy, wealthy Americans to let other classes into the club, and each has endured his share of spittle-flecked loons (Frances Fox Piven).

Let us have the courage to specify what we mean by American values. Do they include respect for our elected officials and conversations about policy and practice?
Will we put our money where our mouth is and actually act on the words that appear in the Preamble to the Constitution?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence[sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

How do we promote the general welfare of the nation? That is the question and the heart of the debate. May we have the courage to answer it with specificity as Truman did. May we have the compassion to listen with our hearts and minds, not just for angles and openings to win the battle while losing the war.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Just Say "No" to Censorship

As president, Eisenhower spoke to the graduating class at Dartmouth College, advising them not to “. . . join the book burners. . . . [not] to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.” He told them “. . . to go in your library and read every book....” He spoke these words because the State department, during the domestic terrorism sculpted by Eugene McCarthy’s fear-mongering, was engaged in removing books about Communism from the shelves of libraries. (To hear Eisenhower's speech at Dartmouth, visit

Eisenhower seemed to understand that in knowledge lies power, in knowledge lies understanding, in knowledge lies strength to make decisions for the greater good. Unless we are fully informed, we cannot critically examine the positions of our enemies and we cannot discern the truth.

The Texas Board of Education has, for many years, sought to suppress thought and limit knowledge, including Darwin’s research regarding the origin of the species and the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a separation of church and state. The Board also wishes to stamp its conservative ideology on history, even going so far as to rewrite history if necessary, in order to create an America that satisfies conservative Board members’ faith and perspectives. We must eschew such efforts and embrace the full Monty of knowledge in all its raw and naked truth so that people can evolve toward good rather than be legislated in some version of good.

Intelligent design or creationism are words used to describe another way of looking at the origins and history of the universe. Sadly, few people have actually read Darwin's Origin of the Species (Unabridged) or a full analysis of Creationism. Most people simply take the word of others without troubling themselves to actually know, but how can anyone judge the merits of an argument unless he has certain knowledge of each? Yet many people do just that: they announce the winner without every having competed, and they reduce the debate to a simple either-or fallacy without contemplating or appreciating how utterly complex this amazing world is.

When presented with compelling, incontrovertible evidence that evolution operates in this universe, the non-reading book burners are often taken aback. They have no argument and clearly founder in the boggy, uncertain ground of new information.

And what is this compelling, incontrovertible evidence? Flu germs. Mosquitoes. They are but two pieces of evidence. Take your pick.

Every year, the CDC makes its best guess about what the flu will be in the coming flu season. They build a vaccine to immunize us against the flu of years past and years to come. Yet the flu rebounds and returns every year, sometimes more virulent than other years and sometimes barely a blip on our radar screens, but return it does and never in the exact same construction. The flu evolves and so does our medicine.

We are now so hygienic that bacteria have less impact upon us, but when a bacterium mutates (another word for evolves), we scurry to mutate anti-bacterials and prescription drugs in order to combat the new, revised version of disease-carrying germs.

For this reason, mosquitoes continue to plague us. They carry more than one debilitating disease, including dengue fever, malaria, encephalitis, and West Nile. We try to eradicate those pests with slow-burning chemicals, sprays, and pesticides. Still we have no single, long-term solution except to cover our flesh so securely and thoroughly that a mosquito cannot bite us. And why? All those preventive barriers and off-putting smells must evolve with the mosquito’s resistance to them. Both human warrior and insect are engaged in an ongoing battle to evolve faster than the other, and to do so, humans try to understand and manipulate the DNA of mosquitoes or more recently, mask odors that attract mosquitoes to humans. We tinker with creation in order to preserve creation while mosquitoes respond to our endeavors by unconsciously changing themselves because of the biological imperative to endure and survive.

Darwin himself was reluctant to publish his findings from the Galapagos aboard the Beagle. He knew that his observations would shake the foundations of faith. Yet scientists still manage to worship the Divine and live moral, spiritual lives. Some people have reached a different conclusion, but their presence among us has not debased or destroyed our existence and they are no less moral. They do not threaten me as I make my own way toward the truth—as I should.

I want to know what has happened in the past. Not to know makes me gullible and vulnerable. Those in the know or those who wish to manipulate me can easily do so if I am uninformed. For example, without having been forced to read The Constitution in public school or without books such as Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates, I might have fallen victim to a man who announced that Congress could not publish the first Bible in the United States because some conspiracy, but certainly not the Founders, had forced the notion of Church and State as separate bodies upon us.

A simple timeline makes the claim specious. Religious founders and Bibles were on American soil before Congress existed. Furthermore, this one man’s analysis of the Founders’ true intent runs counter to hundreds of scholars and my own eyes upon The Constitution. Books and knowledge allow me to dismiss this one man’s untruth. Books and knowledge allow me to discern truth.

Have the courage to read the words and see the films presenting ideas that you believe to be antithetical to your own worldview. Be not afraid of the truth. Our world will evolve toward the good and away from disharmony if we make knowledge our aim.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Honoring President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower

On a seven-state 4,000 mile tour, my husband and I toured two presidential libraries along our route: that of Presidents Clinton in Little Rock, Arkansas and Carter in Atlanta, Georgia. We enjoyed recalling events and learning more about the men. We promised to make more Presidential libraries a destination. When our daughter and son-in-law’s birthdays drew us north to Kansas, we extended our stay to visit three libraries: Eisenhower’s in Abilene, KS; Truman’s in Independence, MO; and Hoover’s in West Branch, IA.

The first in Abilene, KS is a campus of five buildings, including a visitor center; the mausoleum where Dwight D. Eisenhower, his beloved Mamie, and infant son rest; Dwight's boyhood home; a museum; and the library. More extensive than either Clinton’s or Carter’s libraries, Eisenhower’s differed also in its focus. More rooms and displays explain his role in World War II than his years in the White House.

Upon reflection, this seems appropriate for Eisenhower would not have been drafted as a candidate for both the Democrat and Republican parties unless he had overseen D-Day, the assault that led directly to the end of the European campaign during World War II. Without his military credentials and experience, Eisenhower would not have been elected so handily, and surely, he could not have governed during times of prosperity and hope unless he had helped to bring the war to an end.

For a man familiar with the wrath and ravages of war, Eisenhower was an outspoken proponent for peace. In more than one place, we read these words: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” They were the words prominently inscribed in the mausoleum, suggesting that they are Eisenhower’s abiding message after death.

His words have weight and credibility because Eisenhower had so much direct experience with waging war and the costs of it. These costs include lives lost and futures altered as well as limbs and faculties left on foreign soil. The hopes and dreams of many men and their loved ones were forever redirected by the events played out in war. As Eisenhower notes, labor that could have built a better quality of life instead builds instruments of death. Scientists who might have cured dread diseases instead devise agents of death. Children who longed to sit upon their fathers’ laps instead found cold comfort in a grave marker or medal.

Eisenhower counseled that money was better spent in feeding the hungry and clothing the needy. He warned us to beware of the military-industrial complex (MIC) that would influence Congress and reshape corporate interests toward a permanent war-machine. In the currenr debate to balance the budget, something that Eisenhower did three times during his presidency, we should reflect upon Eisenhower’s point-of-view. When we consider how much longer we should or must stay in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, we would be wise to ponder Eisenhower’s thoughts: “When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war. War settles nothing.”

Each of those engagements—Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011—was undertaken to prevent something, including terrorist attacks on U. S. soil, the escalation of age-old schisms in Muslim sects and class structures, the spread of (fictional) weapons of mass destruction, and the suppression of freedom. None of these has been successfully prevented. Terrorists, both home-grown and foreign-born, continue to be dangerous. We will never make every alley, boulevard, or building safe from all intruders intent upon doing harm. We can only cultivate egalitarian precepts and provide avenues by which men and women can thrive. War, by its very nature, can never teach egalitarianism, and it creates an environment in which many individuals cannot discern the subtle differences between conviction and megolomania. Indeed, “war settles nothing,” and we should heed Ike’s advice.

Even though Eisenhower had earned the right to offer his thoughts on war, he must have summoned some courage to tell the world that war is the worst possible course for men to contemplate. Ours is a proud, patriotic nation, one devoted to the revolutionary sensibility. To advocate peace is sometimes to be thought a coward, but Eisenhower dared the “conventional wisdom” and argued for a more peaceful world. May we all have such courage.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Do the Math: Find Your Humanity

Across the land, tea aficionados and union-busting rhetoricians have been busy, busy, busy vilifying teachers for their cushy deals, including short workdays and great benefits, especially those holidays. These speakers and writers, full of sound and fury, seem to believe or at least wish to persuade you that teachers are hogs swilling the seven seas of sloth, incompetence, ineptitude, recalcitrance, greed, neglect, and pride.

I must agree, given the math skills of the average American adult. Apparently, high school graduates leave calculation in the classroom, never again caring to check their work to see if 2 added to 2 really does equal 4. Here is why I say this.

Sixteen percent of the women among us--more than twenty-five million women--do not have health insurance. Planned Parenthood serves these women, providing obstetrical-gynecological examinations to check for ovarian and uterine cancers. These check-ups can also help to slow the spread of HPV, a disease acquired by about 5.5 million people each year. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease. By offering counsel about birth control and sex, some women may not become infected; others will know how not to pass along the disease to a partner, but without knowledge, diagnosis, and treatment, people will continue to infect each other.

Given the spread of HPV, just say no does not seem to be the wisest, most effective course of treatment. Medical care seems more prudent, and Planned Parenthood can play an important role in shrinking the number of women without access to health care and perhaps, with access, the number of people afflicted with HPV.

Another set of numbers again suggests that math reasoning is not a life-long skill that people practice. Consider these numbers:

• The average monthly Social Security benefit is $1,076.40.
• Rent, utilities, and garbage and trash collection for renter-occupied homes averages $755. (2007 U. S. Census data)
• $1,067.40 - $755 = $312.40
• The average cost of a Medicare supplement insurance plan exceeds $312.40.
• Zero is the number of figures above that includes the costs for food or transportation.

Yet the House of Representatives, in its infinite inability to fathom the lives of poor and lower income citizens, sought to eliminate or cut by 50%, as President Obama recommended, the 2011 budget for LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), a program for federal dollars that helped the poor, disabled, and elderly stay warm in winter. Federal dollars that saved lives. If LIHEAP cannot help them, how will the elderly stay warm and pay their bills when home heating costs rise along with the costs of oil and coal?

I guess they should have planned better. I guess they should have negotiated with their employers for pensions and better wages so that they could save for their old age. I guess they should have remained healthy, given birth to fewer children, and lived frugally all their days so that they could fend off spending cuts. Perhaps they should have used the actuarial tables and simply offed themselves before the financial pain set in.

Tea aficionados and union-busting rhetoricians, do the math while considering this story problem from the math class:

Johnny has 12 apples. He gives one apple to each of his 12 best friends, but he does not ask for any payment in return. He tells his friends to plant the seeds, grow a tree, and let the apples trickle down to the hungry below. How much money does Johnny have after giving away his revenue source?
Bonus: What are the odds of twelve apple seeds sprouting a fully grown tree? How long will it take for a seed to become an apple-producing tree? How many people will be fed well by a single tree?

Do the math, high school graduates, to find your humanity for surely you will be judged by the manner in which you treat the least among you, and that includes teachers!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Legacy of 9-11

Catastrophic loss. Unimaginable sorrow. Incomprehensible motives. Nearly 3,000 dead. Thousands more displaced.

Feet unaccustomed to long, forced marches walked the sidewalks and bridges, winding their way homeward without taxi cabs, subways, or trains. Soon public surfaces were plastered with photographs of loved ones, lost in the rubble.

Nearby in a Pennsylvania field or at the Pentagon, passersby tried to take in the inconceivable: death and destruction. Further on in the nation and around the world, people wrote checks and organized donations for fire fighters, police officers, and rescue workers. A Victim Compensation Fund was established so that people could reclaim some measure of normalcy and begin to rebuild their lives.

The First Responders drew their breaths in a toxic world of death, decay, building materials, and explosive residues. I feared for their futures and even doubted the wisdom and motives of my government when it announced that New York City’s air was safe. After all, governments, even our own, have been caught misrepresenting the truth, downplaying health hazards, and engaging in abuses. If you doubt my truth as just stated, read about the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments begun in 1932, exposed in 1972, and acknowledged with an apology in 1997. Tuskegee is but one blight upon the enlightened progress this nation holds so dear.

As we now know, the air in and around Ground Zero was anything but safe to breathe. Many First Responders became too sick to work and lost their jobs. With their jobs went their health insurance. Without health insurance, their families were devastated by the costs of treating cancer and an array of pulmonary disease. Some lost their homes. The government promised to help, but help was slow in coming. In fact, only after Jon Stewart on The Daily Show exposed the U. S. Senate’s inattention and inaction did the funding bill for First Responders pass.

Even then, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn held out to reduce the amount. Senator Coburn’s motives were, he said, in behalf of the American people. His interest was the budget, but when human life is in the equation, we must calculate differently.

We bear the costs of catastrophic losses as a result of raging, miles-wide fires. We underwrite the start of new life after tornadoes have decimated the foundations of our lives. We foster new growth with federal dollars after Hurricanes such as Charley and Katrina, especially because the Army Corps of Engineers was culpable and because insurance companies declared the causes of the devastation to be flood, not wind or Nature, but flood, the one category that insurance refuses to cover because—well, flood is just so darned expensive, so common, so unprofitable.

Recently, the plains have been afflicted by drought. As I drive the interstates and turnpikes criss-crossing the state east and west, north and south, I feel my heart constrict and my breathing arrest. Ponds, once level-full, cooling places for cattle and watering holes for all livestock and wildlife, are little more than puddles. Some are even dried red mud depressions, suggesting some mighty meteor has just splashed them dry. Fires, both intentionally set and an unintended consequence of human action, have seared the soil, charring homes and livelihoods in its path. The governors of affected states have been quick to file for remedies in the form of federal dollars for emergency assistance just as they have been quick to file after tornadic storms lashed states from Oklahoma to North Carolina and Alabama during a prolonged show of Nature’s might in mid-April.

What makes these dollars so available and so easy to accept? Why are people quite content to see their tax dollars spent to rebuild communities, offset the costs of additional manpower, and clean up after devastating storms? And why did Oklahoma’s Governor Mary Fallin extend an open palm for these emergency federal dollars while spurning the $54 million grant available to implement health insurance exchanges?

Are those First Responders afflicted with lung disease less devastated than those who have lost their homes to fire? Are those children beset with autism less valuable than children whose homes were blown away by tornadoes? Are those whose genes lead them inexorably to Lou Gehrig’s end somehow responsible while hurricane survivors are not?

The number-one reason for declaring bankruptcy is medical cost, followed by job loss, uncontrolled spending, divorce, and catastrophic loss as a result of fire or water or wind. We help the latter without hesitation, but if a man is felled by illness and disease or disability, whether caused in the service of this nation overseas or in New York City at Ground Zero, our national will recedes.

Shall we not be a nation willing to help a man, woman or child become strong again? Shall we not bankrupt the family because one member falls? Shall we not care when an invisible germ or gene twists a man’s fate as much as we care when a very visible force of Nature stunts his growth?

I think we must help all people grow strong, straight and true even if we must bear more of the cost ourselves. As I said in this blog last week, please give and give generously. Our desire must be to give the best that we have within and without. Our desire must be to extend a hand, through tax dollars as well as personal investments, so that those living in hard times can stand again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Help Teachers Fight for Your Children

I am a teacher, proud to claim the profession now besieged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (Hamlet). I began in this profession in 1970, a mere two years after women began to assert their rights for equal treatment under the law and equal pay for equal work. Although many might assume that a woman in a profession dominated by women earned the same pay as her male counterpart, they would be wrong.

When I began teaching, I earned less than my male counterparts because “as heads of households and bread-winners, they needed more money.” I guess I did the same job for “pin” money as they used to say—as a bit of a lark in order to enjoy a new dress or hat, to fix myself up nicely for my man.

I didn’t have a man at the time. Every penny I earned put a roof over my head, food on my table, money into savings, and professional clothes on my back. The government deducted money for taxes, Social Security and such; the school took money to pay for my health insurance. I struggled, especially because I only received a paycheck from mid-August through mid-May. The other weeks in the year were on me. I could save 1/12 of every pay check to see me through, or I could find a temporary job.

Many of us competed to teach summer school. The pay was even less than the regular contractual pay, but it could be stretched very, very thinly so that it spanned the weeks. We had a piece of paper that promised us a job in August if enrollment warranted the position. The future was murky, security like a poorly built bridge.

When the average income was between $7,000 and $8,000, I earned $6,000 as a first-year teacher with a college degree. As I said, men with the same education and experience earned more, but I did not know that then. We still signed Loyalty Oaths and promised not to discuss salary with each other.

Of course, my salary increased over the thirty-seven years that I was in the classroom, Legislatures came and went as did public support for public education. I earned two more degrees, both at the Master’s level, and some hours beyond that as I pursued interests and needs to become a better teacher. This added education was rewarded, but as most teachers know, the actual cost of acquiring advanced degrees is not rewarded dollar for dollar.

I also joined the ranks of teachers who strive to work harder and achieve more. I trained to become an Advanced Placement teacher, thereby giving my students the opportunity to be better prepared for college and perhaps earn college credit as high school students by scoring well on a national exam administered by the College Board and ETS. I also became a graduate of a state Writing Project, a six-week summer investment that transformed my teaching for the next decades. Even in the last years of my career, I still sought to become better by submitting myself for the rigorous examination known as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The analysis and reflection necessary to earn this level of professionalism made me a better teacher, one that served my students well, better than they had been served prior to that level of rigor.

I am a teacher whose students performed well on District, State and national exams. I am a teacher who loved coaxing, guiding, coaching, abiding, and nurturing students. I am a teacher who took work home at the rate of 10-20 hours every week. Add those to the 37.5 contractual hours, and you will see that I, like most salaried employees, worked beyond the stereotypical 9 to 5. A 40-hour week really does not exist for public school teachers.

Summers are not really “off” either, but it would be okay if they were. Teachers are not well paid, considering the responsibilities and education and hours that they must put in. Still, most teachers use summers for institutes, workshops, training, college hours, and committee meetings where they develop tests, programs, and plans for the coming year.

In OK in 2010, a first-year teacher could expect to earn $31,600 for a 185-day contract. In other words, that teacher, with college degree in hand, could earn $170.81 per day or for the minimum 6.75-hour day, $25 per hour. Sounds good, right? Sounds rich? But that teacher makes a contribution to the State Teacher’s Retirement Fund, mandated by law, and loses 7% of his/her annual compensation from that salary. By the way, annual compensation is salary plus fringe benefits such as pay for serving as department chair or District contributions to health insurance.

In OK, teachers do not receive health insurance fully paid for by their districts or the State so teachers must find about $1,000 monthly to pay for insurance for themselves and their families. Then, taxes, Social Security, and all the other stuff that every other employed person in the U. S. must pay comes out of the total compensation package.

No, teachers are not getting rich, and they are not bankrupting states. They pay for their retirement pensions. If States had kept the faith and not used retirement funds, as Congress used Social Security funds, then pension funds would be healthier. But there is one other thief in the pension fund crisis: Wall Street. States took the bet just as many 401Ks, investors, and Average Joes did. They put money into funds and money-making opportunities recommended and backed by Wall Street. In 2008, we all lost huge amounts of our savings, our investments. Wall Street walked away with bonuses equal to or greater than their malfeasance. Everyone else sighed and put off retirement.

Now States cry foul. Now States wish to rewrite history. Now the voters, who have the shortest of short-term memories, heed the crisis call and wonder if we shouldn’t punish the big, bad unions for having the temerity and wit to organize and ask for a living wage as well as improved working conditions. I ask voters to recall:

• The teacher who told you it’s okay to color outside the lines
• The teacher who complimented your choice to color the sun bright green
• The teacher who gave you wings by teaching you to read
• The teacher who had faith in your talents
• The teacher who taught you to calculate and reason
• The teacher who suggested the life’s work that you do today
• The teacher who remembered your birthday when your grieving father, just weeks after he lost his wife, your mother, forgot all about your day of birth
• The teacher who gave you a second, third and fifteenth chance when you had lost your way
• The teacher who was firm and steady so that every student in the room was safe
• The teacher who listened to your dreams with a sparkle in his/her eye
• The teacher who nominated, recommended, and endorsed you so that you could reach another level
• The teacher who stayed after school to help you
• The teacher who sewed your graduation-gown collar in place just before Commencement when you and your family forgot all about it
• The teacher who sent you a get-well card or a sympathy card when sorrow touched your family
• The teacher who taught you a lesson, maybe even one outside the curriculum--a lesson such as stick-with-it or persevere or you can do it, whatever it is
• The teacher who smiled
• The teacher who laughed
• The teacher who made a mistake and admitted it
• The teacher who wanted your success more than his/her own

For the last fifteen years or so, I asked my high school seniors to adopt an attitude of gratitude and write a letter to a person who helped them reach the milestone of a high school diploma. At least one wrote to himself. A few chose brothers or sisters. Several thanked a youth minister or coach. Many thanked at least one parent. Just as many thanked a teacher.

Public education is not a failure. There may be some bad teachers just as there are lousy lawyers, incompetent physicians, corrupt officials, and sinners masquerading as holy men. There are schools without the best resources and schools that do not or cannot offer advanced courses. There are lazy, self-absorbed people everywhere, some in student desks and some behind teacher desks.

What we lack as a nation is a public will to insist upon equal opportunity to excellence for every child. Each of our children deserves nutritious foods to eat, health care to keep him strong enough to learn, parenting that is nurturing and loving, safety at home, school, in cars, and on public thoroughfares. To accomplish excellence for our children, we cannot vilify teachers, blame organized labor, and separate kids by voucher. Doing so is simply to wage a class and race war with the only losers our children, our international reputation, our future as inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Doing so is to be devoid of genuine courage. Doing so is to fail as adults.

Let us not return to the days when parents were so desperate and children little more than a commodity, when parents sold their children to become chimney sweeps and die long before their promise had been realized. Let us not return to days when children did not matter for if we do, we have made a bargain with the devil and sold him our country.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Give What You Would Like to Receive

In 1999, I taught in a community leveled by an F-5 tornado. Our students went home from school on Monday afternoon, May 3, and did not return to school until the following Monday. The intervening six days were fraught with desperate attempts to find alternate housing for all those displaced. Most of those affected had only the clothes they happened to be wearing when they ran for shelter. Many had no shoes so the need for medical treatment included tetanus boosters for victims who had to walk on broken glass and metal to find a place to rest. Everyone needed shelter, power, and water, and the world met those needs as it is doing now in Alabama and earlier in North Carolina and all recently affected states.

Here, in 1999, churches organized food banks overnight. Drop-off locations for clothing and household-goods sprang up like fungus after heavy rains. Rescue squads from near and far worked through the night, and both the Salvation Army and Red Cross were on the scene so that needs did not go unmet. Volunteers stepped up to help in any way they could.

Some of those volunteers were people who had lost everything. Several of them said that they had their lives and they had each other so they were helping those who had lost more, those who might not recover from the trauma and fear, those who were broken in mind and spirit. Reports honoring these humble servants made me proud of the human race for they were the living embodiments of what we are capable. They proved that we can and do triumph over tragedy.

I knew several women who lost all their material possessions. One, choosing her words carefully, deliberately, said that she did not want charity from others, going on to say that many of the donations were items she would have to throw away. I pondered that comment before understanding that a fair share of the donated goods were so used or dirty that they were another insult, this time not Nature’s but their neighbors’. Since then, whenever I have dropped off charitable donations, I have observed torn and frayed fabrics, three-legged tables, and cracked dishes. I can only imagine that the donors thought someone would be grateful for anything they could get or that someone else would patch and repair what was broken before distributing it.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver writes about the women of the Congo who were indeed grateful for any and every scrap given to them. They had developed talents for re-purposing cast-offs. Old hub caps became cooking pans. Striped pants, perhaps thin and patched, met polka-dots, each standing out against the predatory forest. Style and fashion did not exist because basic biological survival was the single most important business of every day. The people spent all day getting and preparing food or in finding water and nourishing children.

If I believed that donors understood this and gave in the full knowledge of the conditions in which receivers struggle, I could find no fault. I do not believe that donors understand at all.

Walk in the shoes that Atticus tells little Scout to try on. Close your eyes, if you must, but imagine your favorite article of clothing. It’s the one that makes you feel pretty. It’s the one that never fails to gin up at least one compliment. It’s the one about which you are sentimental, remembering when you acquired it and from whom.

It’s gone. The wind or the water or the fire or decay snatched it from you. In its place, a stranger offers a dull fabric, worn slick with years of use, its hem sprouting threads, a button gone and a safety pin in its place. This is what someone thought could or would make up for what you lost? No, this is what someone was more than willing to part with as it is no longer of any use to him or her. This is what someone can release without a backward glance or tear of regret.

Play along just a little longer please, this time imagining that piece of furniture that mattered to you. Perhaps it is the first item that you and your husband saved to buy. You used the envelope system, each payday depositing a few dollars until you had enough. You were so proud. You are proud still even though many years have passed, and it no longer resembles its former beauty.

Perhaps the item is one handed down to you through the generations—a legacy from a great-aunt you barely remember. What you do remember is how comfortable you were in its presence. You used finger paints for the first time, swirling and slapping on that table, or you fell asleep in its soft chair shape, your cheek resting against the velvety fabric.

That piece of furniture is gone. It’s water-soaked and swollen. It’s broken, charred. In its place is particle board, scarred by chunks missing along the raw, unpainted edges. Cobwebs and some sort of cocoon droop below. A good dusting will not make it clean. This has spent its last days in a storage shed or a forgotten corner of the garage. This is something the first owners simply forgot to put on the sidewalk during the city’s clean-up days.

This is the spirit in which budget reform and assistance programs have been undertaken. Little is good enough for those who want. Nothing is good enough for those we suspect of malingering. Our advice to you malingerers is: Bundle up in the winter, baby; it’s cold outside.

Our desire should be to give generously, to give the best that we have within and without. Our desire should be to extend a hand so that those living in hard times can stand again. Please give. So many, especially those in Alabama right now, need your best.

Monday, April 25, 2011

We Need More Foxes!

Once upon a time, in a tale attributed to Aesop, a monkey walked beside a clever fox. As the pair passed a cemetery, the monkey boasted that the finest tombstones, monuments, and mausoleums had been built to honor his ancestors who were, when alive, free citizens of some renown. In reply, the fox observed that the monkey had chosen wisely when staking his claim because none of the ancestors could object or set the record straight.

Oh, if only there were more foxes among us. Instead we are beset with elephants, buffoons, and asses, all behaving as monkeys, full of bombast and bluster:

• We must do something today to bring down the national debt, to reign in government spending.
• No, we should not raise the debt ceiling even if this causes Wall Street to quake and brings lenders to our shores.
• If these budget constraints cause people to lose their jobs, so be it.
• We can no longer afford to keep our promises to those who have paid into State pension funds, teacher retirement accounts, Social Security, and Medicare.
• We cannot heal the sick, clothe the needy, or feed the hungry.
• We cannot afford to fix our roads--not at this time, during this crisis.
• We cannot afford to catch up with Europe by investing in high-speed rail and wind power in order to free ourselves from our dependency upon oil--not at this time, during this crisis.
• How dare you, sir, suggest that my taxes should pay for someone else’s health care!
• No, nada, nyet. Can’t be done!
• And, oh, by the way, the other guy is to blame.

Where were those nay-sayers and doomsday prophets when the debt began to climb long before 2008 when bundled home loans and usurious interest rates threatened to sink us all, when our debt was 64% of our GDP--before bailouts and stimuli.

Even early in our nation’s history, the United States was deeply, dangerously in debt. The first incident was after the Revolutionary War. The federal government acted quickly to pay off this debt, and as the nation grew, its economy was sound--until the Civil War. Again, at the end of five long, bloody years, the federal government acted to bring down the nation’s indebtedness.

Are you sensing a theme here? Can we afford to make war? The simple and only answer is no. The cost in lives lost and dollars spent to provide every necessary resource to win the war is enormous, unaffordable, a luxury we cannot charge on the credit card. No wonder the Iraq war was “off the books,” not tallied into the budget, until 2010.

During WWII, the debt climbed to 122% of GDP, but celebrities and ordinary citizens bought war bonds to help the nation recover. In other words, we all pulled together--big earners and the little guy--to stabilize this nation, and in 1980, our national debt was 33% of GDP.

The year of 1980 also brought us Reagan, Trickle-down Economics, and the Laffer Curve or as candidate George H. W. Bush called it, Voodoo Economics. Yet, the future 41st President of the United States failed to achieve the nomination, becoming Reagan’s vice-presidential candidate instead and thus, a defender of what he had once called voodoo. As Reagan took office and the Laffer Curve became the model for economic policy, the debt began to rise higher, above 33% to 64% at the end of the 1980s, a decade in which the U. S. did not wage war. This time, this decade, the debt rose because of a shift in thinking: from taxation or bonds to retire our debt by providing revenue to decreased taxation to provide jobs.

The Clinton decade, the 1990s, brought another shift away from tax cuts to a renewed emphasis upon balancing the budget, even at the cost of shutting down government in order to bring about a compromise. The debt percentage of GDP fell 7%, but by 2008, in spite of five years of budget surpluses, we took in .4 trillion dollars less than we spent. We borrowed the rest from other countries or as we have for 30 years, from Social Security funds which have had surpluses all that time.

Let me repeat that fact for you: the federal government used employee and employer Social Security funds for other stuff. They did not save or invest that money for the rainy day when Baby Boomers arrived at retirement’s door. They spent, spent, spent. Now the monkeys cry “Wolf, wolf at the door! Run.” Now the monkeys want you to believe that Social Security is bankrupting this nation, and sadly, there are no foxes with a bark loud enough, a mind critical enough, or a will strong enough to call the monkeys out.

According to I.O.U.S.A, a documentary (for a Byte-Size 30-minute version, see and a resource for the data used in this post, by 2017, Social Security will not be able to pay according to promises made years and payroll deductions long past. Others project that Social Security will remain sound until 2026, nine years further down the road. But let us not panic like little piggies on the other side of a flimsy door standing between us and the wolf. Let us remember that citizens paid in to the system as was their duty. Government failed to keep its hands out of the cookie jar. We must work together to make this right, to honor our promises both foreign and domestic. The wage-earner should not suffer alone as a result.

Yet we cut revenue again in December 2010. Everyone celebrated this compromise as a victory, but what did we actually gain? We gained a peace on earth for all men while Congress is not in session. The elephants stopped jeering at the asses, and the buffoons stopped condemning the elephants and the asses.

Did we gain jobs? No. Did we find our way to bear the cost of promises made? No. Did we make the rich richer and the poor poorer? Yes.

Should we continue to cut revenue and hope that the economy improves? No. Consider the changes in jobs and the economy since trickle-down economics began. Corporate profits have risen and jobs have been created, but most of them are overseas because of the tax advantages and cheaper labor forces outside the United States. The American worker has not seen an improved quality of life. Since 1980, tax cut after tax cut has simply proved that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.

Some people think that’s grand. Some people believe that capitalism--the rule of the marketplace--the Ayn Randian philosophy--is a god to which we must all bow down. These people wish you well in your endeavors to become wealthy. They celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit, but they usually do not share. They simply look upon the poor, needy and sick beatifically, hoping that the meek will get some spine and work their way out of poverty, need and disease.

I prefer those who have the courage to understand that I and they are but one terminal diagnosis, one colossal Katrina failure in will and insurance, one tsunami, or one misjudgment by the Army Corps of Engineers or GE’s nuclear plant design from poverty, need, and disease. There but for the Grace of a divine and geography go I. There but for the Grace of a divine and geography go they.

All that I possess is a fox-like capacity for critical thinking. All that I gain from critical thinking is empathy, and that, I believe, is worth more than wealth. I also gain a willingness to work with rich and poor in order to solve the debt crisis. Won’t you join me? Perhaps we should all buy bonds again. Are there any celebrities who will lead the way? George Clooney, where do you stand? I think you’re with us. Can you gather your resources, make those phone calls, and lead us? Our elected officials are surely not.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lessons from April 19

Tomorrow, April 19, we remember the sorrowful day in 1995 when domestic terrorism struck upon U. S. soil, killing 168 men, women, and children. Tim McVeigh, aided by Terry Nichols and at least three others, constructed a mighty bomb to strike a blow at innocent people who just happened to be in an Oklahoma City federal building. Misinformation, paranoia, suspicion, and some twisted sense of rebellion fueled McVeigh’s scheme to kill people who had no blood on their hands. They were not perpetrators of injustice except in the minds of their slayers, and in taking their lives, McVeigh made a mockery of Patriot’s Day, April 19, commemorating the first battles of the American Revolutionary war.

From 1882 through 1968, a different form of domestic terrorism known as Jim Crow racism slaughtered 4,000 citizens of this nation, most lynched at the hands of other U. S. citizens. Osama bin Laden’s blow against the World Trade Towers felled 2,977, some 1,023 precious lives fewer than were lynched. As I have said before in this blog, domestic terrorism—that is, terrorism designed and carried out by U. S. citizens against other citizens—has claimed more lives than a foreign invader.

Indeed, twelve years ago, on April 20, 1999, two sullen, angry teens shot to death 13 at Columbine High School in Colorado. Another disturbed young man, acting alone on January 8, 2011 in Phoenix, AZ, took a high-powered weapon to a public forum where people could exercise their First Amendment rights and gain access to their Congresswoman in the House of Representatives. That young man killed seven; his victims spanned the ages from a small girl just beginning to realize she had a voice in this nation to senior citizens and public servants with decades of experience voicing their opinions.

The past 50 years have been stained and spattered with single disturbed assassins harboring grudges and madness. They were also armed with high-powered rifles or hand guns to strike down powerful voices, including those of President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and in 1968, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Several of these victims had security to protect them, but even the highly trained Secret Service is no match for the lone gunman, anonymous in the crowd. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford were within inches of the same fate as both Kennedys.

According to statistics from 2009, 9,136 citizens died as a result of gun homicide in this nation. These 9,136 represent 67% of the total number of homicides: 13,636 homicides from all causes; in other words, most homicides in this nation are committed with a firearm.

The Second Amendment, according to the latest Supreme Court ruling, gives individual citizens the right to own and carry weapons. But it appears that we are unworthy of this right. In fact, 41% of those firearm homicides were committed during the height of passion; in other words, at moments when men and women were terribly jealous, enraged, or desperate. In these moments of heightened emotion, the perpetrators reached for a gun and used it against an opponent. Most often the opponent is a family member, friend or close acquaintance. In fact, 54% of homicides by gun death is committed by someone whom the victim knows and perhaps loves. That is the sort of person who will aim and fire the fatal bullet.

In 2009 alone, 13,636 murders occurred, and most of those were committed by people known to the victim. From 1882 through 1968, 4,000 African-American citizens were murdered by rope; more often than note, the perpetrators were the victims’ neighbors. Bin Laden’s death toll of 2,977 is such a small number when stacked up against these other figures.

All life is precious. No life is more or less significant than another. No manner of death is more or less momentous, but have the courage to stop fearing the foreign invader, be he here illegally or legally. Have the courage to reject xenophobia, paranoia, and scapegoating.

Do not encourage by sins of omission or acts of aggression the harming of any life, and do not trick yourself into believing that those who are different from you are the most dangerous. It’s just not true.

You, I and we are dangerous, especially if we have access to firearms, cannot think critically, and become angry. We are our own worst enemies.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Unsung Heroes

One of my all-time favorite movies, Hope Floats, stars Sandra Bullock as Birdee Pruitt and Gena Rowlands as Birdee’s quirky mother, Ramona Calvert. Both roles, as written and acted, celebrate motherhood, a common condition in that many, many women play the same part. But motherhood, especially single motherhood, done well, demands raw courage and empathy that exceeds every expectation. Birdee and Ramona have both--although Birdee, in particular, must walk a long trail of tears before she can pick up the hero’s crown.

The most heart-wrenching scene stars little Bernice, Birdee’s daughter, played powerfully by Mae Whitman, currently convincing viewers as Amber on NBC’s Parenthood. In the 1998 film, Hope Floats, Bernice struggles to defend her mother from all suitors and herself from total collapse after her narcissistic father allows his new love to humiliate Birdee on national television and abandons his family in order to start anew. He fails to write a note or even console his daughter. Birdee does that, pretending to be the man her daughter needs by constructing a fond farewell and tucking it away where Bernice will surely find it.

The note, written with good intentions, becomes a cruel gesture because Bernice clings to the idea that her mother invented, the idea that her father wants her, misses her, and needs her. Thus, when Daddy finally comes to Texas to mourn his former mother-in-law's passing, Bernice expects to go home with him. This time, Birdee refuses to pretend that her soon-to-be ex-husband is a good man, husband, and father, and she cannot shield Bernice from his self-absorption. She watches stoically as Bernice hurriedly packs and tries to climb into the car. Birdee waits for her daughter’s inevitable return once this man who fathered a child fails to resemble a father. He denies his daughter pleas, even locking the car doors against her.

Little Bernice moves from desperation and disbelief to complete heartbreak. She stands on the sidewalk as the car disappears, sobbing and shrieking “Daddy” and “You want me.” Birdee carries her back into the house that is now their only home.

I cry as Birdee listens to her daughter’s need. I cry for Bernice’s grief, the sorrows of every human who longs to rewrite the truth, spinning it to a different, happier ending. Birdee, overcoming her own grief at the loss of a marriage, her mother, and a future she desired, quells her own tears to dry her daughter’s. She even sustains the lie when Bernice asks why Birdee created the note, signing “Daddy,” not “Mommy.”

Birdee refuses to be seduced by bitterness. She does not say, “Because your daddy is a thoughtless, selfish prick who did not think about how you must be feeling. He failed to provide for us and for our emotional needs. I will never forgive him for failing you--never!” Instead, Birdee allows Bernice to cling to one shred of a dream that once her daddy loved her enough to write a note. One day, she can still dream, perhaps he will write again.

Countless single mothers and fathers are as selfless and brave as the fictional Birdee. Every day they hold their tongues and sigh away their bitter breath. They allow their children to believe because hope, as Emily Dickinson suggested, is fragile. It is a creature with feathers that rises from the depths of despair and carries us higher than our present. Heroic parents let hope live while stitching invisible safety nets to catch their children when they must fall--and they will. We all fall, more than once, yet we wake each morning, hoping for a better day.

Monday, April 4, 2011

History of the World, Part 1 Reconsidered

Borrowing from Mel Brooks’ irreverent satire, History of the World, Part I (1981), for the title of this post, I hereby offer a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Western world, as I see it. Like Mr. Brooks, I think the class divide is at the heart of mankind’s story, and my hunch is that Mr. Brooks also believes, as I fervently do, that the world moves at glacier speed toward good.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a small number of people in the world enjoyed power and wealth, often as a result of birthright, but attainable by bullying and/or conquering folks who did not put up much of a fight. These kings and conquerors did not think of themselves as tyrants, bullies, terrorists, or despots. They thought of themselves as godly. They had enough humility to believe that someone had put them at the top of the food chain, thereby stamping abstract ideas such as Divine Right and Manifest Destiny with the label: Truth.

As a consequence, the Western world’s population could be divided into two unequal halves, those with and those without. Those with power, wealth, and opportunity were very, very few in number. Those without voice, means, access or even shelter and sufficient food were legion. They endured, in part because the religious arm of mankind’s clout told them to be obedient and servile, to suffer the long indignities of filth, cold, hunger, and disease while laboring to please the “overlords” in order to gain access into an eternal life quite different.

Another reason the class divide endured is the little guy’s efforts to change his lot in life often ended horribly. William the Conqueror, he who united disparate Anglo-Saxons and Viking warriors under one government and one church, declared great swaths of land and all animal life thereon to belong to him. A poor, hungry man, desperate to feed his family, could only salivate at the sight of healthy deer on the King’s lands. If he were caught sating his hunger with one of the King’s deer, he would most likely be maimed in some way, his missing limb serving as a deterrent to other hungry poachers. The thief could also be slaughtered, and no one would come to his defense. In brief, the common man lacked organization, unity, and strength to fight an armed foe with greater resources. And again, the Church’s messages helped keep the peace. Men, including peasants who shoveled dung to servants who wiped the king’s arse, were taught that their places in the universe, no matter how miserable, were God’s will; thus, to try to change one’s circumstance was to sin and endure the pangs of Hell for all eternity.

One more reason for a delay in altering the class divide is the presumption that anyone born poor was, by God’s design, unequal, and this judgment extended to anyone different. Non-whites and non-Christians were but a small step above animals such as cattle or swine, but they were certainly not quite human in the same way that kings, queens, church officials, and those graced with the king’s favor were. Commoners could be worked to death, starved, and left to die without compromising the heavenly path the more powerful trod.

Certainly, those in various states of want did not need an education either. No one truly believed that the poor and women of all classes were capable of complex thought and analysis. Therefore, readers, writers, and calculators had the edge in disseminating information.

But ideas cannot be suppressed forever. They have a way of weaving their way into the hearts and minds of men. One of the earliest codified ideas is the Magna Carta, a document that many consider to be a precursor to the U. S. Constitution, both of which grant rights to men deemed free. It is this idea--freedom--that has spurred the unrest, revolution, protest, and challenges in the Middle East. It is an idea that invaded the Middle East through the Internet and social media. Freedom has also sent thousands to Milwaukee just as it incited labor, in earlier decades, to organize against repressive practices in the work place, practices that included long hours, locked doors, unhealthy conditions, unsafe machinery, and low wages, prohibiting the men or women on the production line from purchasing the very product they had a stake in making.

The history of the (Western) world suggests that oppression on the basis of birthright or wealth cannot endure. People overturn tyrants, bullies, terrorists, and despots because history shows us that men and women yearn to be free. History also informs us that education fosters revolution, both the bloodless and bloody types.

Education empowers the poor, disenfranchised, and weak, and therefore, must never be reserved for a privileged few. Education must be absolutely equal for all classes for it is a path to enlightenment regarding all those complicated, sticky, controversial, divisive issues of the day, and its best delivery system is open, frank discussion. It is the way to make people healthy and wise, drip and drop by drop. It must not be forsaken, underestimated, or gutted, and it must be entrusted into the knowing hands of those who care about children and the future, not ideologies and class for we are in real danger of returning to the old, old ways when all wealth and power were in the hands of a very few while the majority of the population fails to thrive.

We must not withdraw the freedom to shape our futures by withdrawing the opportunity to bargain collectively. We must not retreat from the evolutionary progress already made. We must, each of us, summon the courage to make a stand for equality and education. If we do, we will insure our own and our brothers’ freedom.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Standing Against Bullies

Once upon a time, in Tulsa, OK, 1963, a young man took a chance and a stand against a bully. He survived, and I have been better all my days and all these years since because he did.

Oklahoma peacefully integrated its schools when the courts advised it to do so, thanks, in large measure, to the governor at that time, Raymond Gary. Unlike our country cousins east, where Governor Faubus whipped his Arkansaw-yers into a froth, Governor Gary used his influence to set a high expectation for Okies. His mailbag filled with venom, but the streets did not, and it cost him a second term.

Other kids may have felt the change in student population when their schools integrated. I did not. I lived in Tulsa, one of the larger cities in OK. There, property lines and neighborhoods segregated schools, and busing had not yet been mandated. Busing was for the rare, gifted student, just like the poor, white, very smart kid who joined the Class of 1966 at Edison High School during my sophomore year. His district high school offered only basic survey math and science classes, and someone, somewhere in administration understood that a great mind is a terrible thing to waste.

This guy with glasses and plain clothes was unassuming and reserved, especially during the more social part of the class, also known as Homeroom, a fifteen-minute block at the beginning of every first hour class when students collaborated on school-wide projects such as candy sales for extracurricular activities or yearbook sales. The transfer-boy never participated when we spent Saturday afternoons in someone’s home filling Easter baskets for orphans, and he never ever purchased tickets for school plays and special events. In fact, he was the sole reason that our homeroom never earned the Intercom announcement or cookie incentives for having 100% participation.

This 99% completion rate galled our Honors English teacher. Whenever she spoke of deadlines and expectations, her mouth became a flat line and she peered over her half-moon reading glasses, her eyes boring lasers into the top of that smart boy’s head. He pushed her over the edge at last:

“We need one more person to pay for his yearbook, to bring us to 100% in yearbook sales—the same person who failed to bring a donation for the needy.” She stepped closer to his desk, the one in the exact center of the room, up front, under her watchful eye. She seemed to believe that he would cheat if she ever relaxed her gaze. She stood so close above him that he could not look up without appearing to take too much interest in her anatomy.

At the back of the room, our own Hubbell Gardner, destined to become the quarterback and Student Council president, the boy for whom everything came easily, stood and spoke.

“Stop. Please. What you’re doing is wrong. It doesn’t matter if we win the 100% prize.”

Mrs. English teacher, fashionably dressed, knowledgeable and intellectual, opened her mouth to put Hubbell in his place. The head of the boy seated below her exposed his neck a bit more, waiting for the final blow that never came because right then, someone said, “He’s right. Stop.” Someone else said, “We do what we can.”

Mrs. English teacher, mouth agape, said nothing. She whirled 180°, flaring the hem of her perfectly pressed shirtwaist dress. At her desk, she peered over those reading glasses at us—all of us while feeling for her red ink pen before dismissing us in some show of defiance by lowering her eyes to a set of papers. We breathed again and settled back against our desks, proud of our Hubbell.

We let go of our covetous feelings inspired by his successes. Now we understood that he had the right stuff, that he deserved success. We understood that he had courage, but more important than courage, he also had empathy for the victims of the worst kind of public school bullying—the kind that some teachers dish out, safe behind their lecterns.

Wherever you are, Hubbell, well-done!

Monday, March 21, 2011

May the Miso and Cranes Sustain

After World War II had crushed the Empire of Japan, the United States implemented a program that brought some of Japan’s finest minds to this country through the Fulbright program, created “September 1945, [when] the freshman senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that called for the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the ‘promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.’ One year later President Harry S. Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. . . .

“From its inception, the Fulbright Program has fostered bilateral relationships in which other countries and governments work with the U.S. to set joint priorities and shape the program to meet shared needs. The world has been transformed in ensuing decades, but the fundamental principles of international partnership and mutual understanding remain at the core of the Fulbright Program’s mission” (

In 1996, to honor the 50th anniversary of the U. S. Fulbright and to show its appreciation for the benefits extended to its citizens, Japan implemented the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund (JFMF) Teacher Program. For twelve years thereafter, U. S. primary and secondary teachers applied to become a JFMF honoree. Once accepted, the teachers bore no cost whatsoever for a three-week cultural experience. I was one of those teachers in 2003, and I continue to be grateful for the education I received.

The tragedies unfolding in Japan seem more personal as a result of my experience there. In addition, the news makes more sense. For example, when reporters praise the Japanese preparedness, I understand that this is not overstated at all. For example, during one of the three weeks that I traveled in Japan, I was in the city of Okazaki, home to approximately 360,000 people. There, I saw the Japanese investment in infrastructure extended beyond the highly organized, crowded Tokyo to a quieter, smaller city against a backdrop of beautiful, deeply forested hills to the east. There, streets are as wide and clearly marked as any in Tokyo where 1,500 may cross at a green light. Okazaki’s sidewalks feature brightly colored tiles set into the concrete so that visually impaired citizens have adequate warning that the sidewalk’s end is near. Then, when it is safe to cross, chimes sound as a signal for blind residents. Flashing signs and lights let sighted and deaf residents also cross safely. Curb cuts allow people in wheel chairs or with impaired mobility to move from street level to sidewalk level easily. The bridges even have inclined entry rather than a single set of steep steps. Outside the city, hillsides are strengthened against rock slides with a material that looks like dark granite so that the aesthetic of the hills is not destroyed with heavy-duty black plastic and orange cones. Certainly, all this careful construction, designed to protect a small number of citizens, comes at a cost, one that Japan has paid.

We all know now that Japan has also prepared for dire possibilities in construction codes. I saw this is microcosm when I walked past a multi-story building under construction near the hotel where I stayed in Okazaki. Lives and resources were clearly a priority because safety netting enclosed the work areas, thereby preventing work place accidents as a result of falling or dropping heavy equipment. All this forethought and safety is expensive, but during the 9.0 earthquake, fewer people died as a result of crumbling or broken buildings. Even with a mere one- minute earthquake warning--about all that anyone in any culture can expect--people were able to protect themselves from falling debris.

Forty minutes is all the citizens of Sendai had before the tsunami struck. At the epicenter of the quake, the city’s citizens were already displaced, yet approximately one million residents had to move quickly to higher ground. As anyone can imagine, forty minutes is simply not enough time for that many people to exit by the few roads leading from the shore to hills beyond. The loss of life is staggering.

The “perfect storm” of an 9.0 earthquake and a tsunami overmastered the Japanese foresight. Nuclear meltdowns continue to endanger the residents and the world, and that is a terrible twist of fate. Japan sustained 5 ½ months of fire and, in August 1945, back-to-back nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki dropping from U. S. bombers flying high above. Now fires from below--from their own industry--and radiation--molded by their own hands--threaten their futures. For all their foresight and readiness, they still elected to dance with the demon of radiation as we have 104 times. Shall we continue this dance that comes with a death warrant?

As I grieve for Japan, its tumultuous present, and its frightening future, I think of two features of the Japanese culture. Both give me hope.

The first is miso, a blend of fermented soybeans and rice, used to make soups, most often eaten for breakfast. Miso factories are impeccably clean, as spotless as any OSHA officer might demand. There miso brews in huge vats until ripe and ready to be packaged, and there, during a tour, I learned that miso is thought to have cancer-fighting properties. This cancer-fighting power is more than anecdotal. Studies have shown that laboratory animals given a diet that includes miso have a lower incidence of cancers. In fact, after the Chernobyl event, the U. S. S. R. bought tons of miso for those who lived near the reactor. I only hope that Japan has stockpiled or is still able to produce miso for its own citizens.

The second cultural icon is the crane, often beautifully crafted from origami paper and now a universal symbol of peace, especially after the U. S. inflicted fires and bombs in 1945. Emerging from the rubble, reminiscent of the Phoenix, the crane stands, proud, solitary, and tall. Rising to fly, its wingspan, power, and grace amaze. Using the crane’s origami form, children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki craft a sort of lei to present to honored guests, and after tragedies, these same paper cranes hang as ornaments from ceilings and trees in places around the world. With each fold of the paper, the craftsmen, women, and children utter a silent promise to keep the peace, to heal and bind, to overcome and triumph over disasters, both natural and man-made.

May the cranes fly and the miso sustain in the days to come!

To learn more about making an origami crane, visit your local craft store, book store, or To learn more about miso’s properties and promise, take a look at