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.