Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Educating the Souls of Our Children

“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” (G. K. Chesterton)

Many voices shout about the current state of American education. They have told us that schools are dysfunctional, populated with unruly, unwilling students overseen by incompetent teachers. They hold up international test scores as proof that the U. S. has fallen far behind its competition and will suffer the fates of once great empires if it does not act and act now.

One solution was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a Bush family initiative, first imposed upon Texas, then across the entire nation when George W. Bush became a two-term president. As a teacher in the classroom when No Child became law, I can attest to the changes I experienced. At first, they were not onerous. States needed to prove that the person imparting information and evaluating America’s youth had actually completed college coursework in the subjects they taught. States also had to declare its curricular objectives and creates proofs that they were making progress to achieve them, leaving no child behind as they did so.

The district in which I taught spent dollars to hire substitutes and to pay teachers a stipend so that they could collaborate on an integrated curriculum, one that facilitated common goals. Teachers acquired thick notebooks full of standards and model lessons designed to address those standards.

These were good meetings during which teachers discussed not just what is important for their students to know but why. More significant, however, is the fact that these meetings were teacher-driven and teacher-led. Men and women stepped from their classrooms, and they were the resident experts, empowered to make good choices in their students’ behalf.

Today’s national discussion often does not invite classroom teachers into the debate. National figures are university academics; most have never actually taught in a public school. Some of these folks have a very personal investment in outcomes. Robert J. Marzano, for example, is co-founder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory. He conducts professional development, writes and sells books, and provides classroom materials--all at a profit for him.

Another national figure with a very personal investment is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, brother to former Presidents George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush, Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Like his brother George’s efforts in Texas, Jeb Bush initiated programs to improve accountability and school choice in Florida. He now travels the nation explaining these to hearers willing to pay for his expertise; he also has ties to curriculum-for-profit companies, including Ignite! Learning, once his brother Neil’s company. http://www.

Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor for the Washington, D. C. public schools, now founder of the non-profit Students First, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates, focus upon the teacher in the classroom. Rhee’s foundation has the goal of ending teacher tenure, and Rhee herself is the poster-child for firing teachers and principals on camera after using test scores as her primary evaluation tool. In fact, No Child Left Behind, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Gates, and Rhee share a love of testing in the name of accountability. In their analyses of American education, budget cuts, rising rates of hunger and poverty, and an inability to climb out of one’s social class at birth are minor intrusions, almost irrelevant factors. What trumps all these, what dwarfs all these is a dynamic, well-prepared teacher, and he or she can be identified and retained through standardized testing.

Certainly, we teachers and consumers of public education have a right to be satisfied that our children are surrendered into the care of educated, well-trained adults, knowledgeable in their fields and proficient in effective teaching and learning strategies. Asking teachers to meet the needs of children and the nation is not unreasonable, but asking teachers to be superheroes, able to heal wounds both physical and psychological, to feed the minds and often the bodies of children, and to insure the safety of all while delivering discrete content lessons designed by testing companies receiving multi-million dollar contracts in order to be judged competent or incompetent on the basis of a single year’s scores is not.

Those testing companies choke the life out of public education, in part by requiring testable items be measurable, quantifiable. Unwilling or unable to invest the time and manpower in scoring writing samples, for example, instead companies test a student’s knowledge of grammar and correct usage and thus, transform students from creators of messages to proofreaders checking for surface inaccuracies with little or no regard for the merits of the argument. Testing companies furthermore eschew all learning outside the parameters of the core: computation, social studies, language arts, and science, yet many students excel as artists, athletes, musicians, and community volunteers. These matter little in the pursuit of scores, however; the teachers who help students grow in these become bit players in a huge, expensive production, their insights and contributions crowded out by more and more core courses, more and more hours devoted to testing.

Many would argue that art, competition, music, and governance are as much a part of our national psyche and heritage as are math, history, language arts, and science. Many would argue that the non-core subjects are the very soul of our society. Yet these subjects receive short shrift while standardized testing consumes more of our public dollars, time on task, and student development, both cognitive and affective.

Consider a May, 2012 report by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post http://www.washington html about Florida’s evolution from testing for the purposes of accountability and decision-making to a Draconian overseer of content and personnel, excerpted below:

•    “Florida’s standardized testing program is being misused and has ‘severely impacted student learning,’ according to … ‘The Ramifications of Standardized Testing on our Public Schools,’ … just released by the Central Florida School Board Coalition, a group of top officials from 10 school districts.
•    “While the specifics are about Florida, the general conclusions about the negative impact of state standardized programs are relevant across the country — not only because other states have their own version but because some looked to Florida as a model as they developed their own school accountability systems. …”
•    “An enormous increase simply in the sheer quantity of testing has occurred in the State of Florida within the last decade and a half. [And] …  the use of the results of tests has changed. For example, as of 1999, FCAT results assign school grades. In 2001, the Florida State Board of Education established the FCAT passing score as a requirement of the regular high school diploma. In 2002, AYP (as part of the NCLB law expectation of one hundred percent proficiency by 2014) was added to as part of the school score. Student performance bars have been subsequently raised to set passing scores for class. Students are required to have a passing score for class credit in Algebra 1, Geometry, and Biology, and required passing scores for college class placements. Arguably, the standards have become too high to actually meet, for example, in 2011 only 39% of 10th grade students passed the FCAT 2.0 Reading. This has also come to include mandated grade retentions, mandated additional instructional time, and mandated intensive remediation classes for students in middle and high school levels. Additionally, school grades now include FCAT Science grades, learning gains within the lowest twenty-fifth percentile, graduation rates, and accelerated coursework offerings. Within the last fifteen years, the sheer quantity of testing, the standards of passing, and the use of testing have increased well beyond their initial beginnings and limits.”
•    “The Florida Department of Education’s stated purposes of student assessment testing programs do not align with the current actual uses of its programs. According to the FDOE website, FCAT ‘was designed to measure achievement of the Sunshine State Standards.’ Moreover, the stated primary goal of these assessments is to ‘provide information needed to improve the public schools by enhancing the learning gains of all students and to inform parents of the educational progress of their public school children.’ Neither of these goals refers to assigning eligibility or grades for the students or assessing the public schools based on these assessments; they only discuss the informing of students’ progress and achievements. …”
•    “The current data on schools and their subsequent grades reveals that the high stakes testing is not corresponding to high performance across the board. …”
•    “Florida’s state assessment and accountability program expends disproportionate fiscal and human resources on the production of tests, testing materials, distribution, scoring, dissemination of results, school grading, prep materials, and supplementary test materials to support the retake process, and communication and enforcement of stringent testing protocols. Excluding the costs related to equipment, printing, and related school staff hours of prep, testing, scoring and reporting, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt approximates the annual cost of testing at $424,000 with Pearson approximating the annual cost of their tests at $59,000,000. Given the extensive requirements surrounding state assessment, these tests and their mandates would cost schools and districts in more than just the fiscal cost of the bare test themselves. …”
•    “Schools and districts must utilize personnel and financial resources to prepare, schedule, store, transport and administer state assessments. Additionally, the state requires that school districts identify and continuously utilize progress-monitoring and diagnostic assessments, purchase computers for testing, upgrade existing hardware and computer infrastructures, provide certificated test administrators and assign proctors in each testing environment. Schools and districts must purchase instructional materials to support the testing format, schedule and execute test administration training, identify available staff and facilities for test administration, reschedule classes and employee work schedules, and assign special couriers to deliver and retrieve tests. Florida’s extensive testing program and its highly-controlled testing protocols force school and district leaders to tap resources created to support students and use them to comply with state testing directives. To begin with, the State of Florida does not fund high stakes testing or it’s [sic] accompanying testing requirements. As a result, schools and districts must divert funding once used for hiring teachers, providing academic support for ESE, ESOL, and struggling students, offering summer learning programs, maintaining school facilities, training teachers, establishing competitive salaries to attract and keep good teachers, etc. in order to meet excessively strict testing requirements. In addition, schools incur a tremendous loss of instructional time, which impacts those students already performing below grade level most severely, resulting in even greater deficits for these students compared to their peers. …”

In other words, standardized testing, however well-intentioned in the beginning, has stolen the soul from education. What our children need is a full and comprehensive understanding of the reasons for and ways of governance. They need to be given information to discern and practice in discerning truth from lie, fact from opinion. They need to be given the power to communicate their ideas and the confidence to share them. They need to uncover then hone their innate gifts by playing musical instruments or playing on grass fields or playing with pen and paint or playing with words. They need to learn to persevere through difficult text and delight in beautiful expression. They must know how to compute and apply technology in the service of design and communication. They need to examine, evaluate, enjoy, and engage, and all these needs require time now stolen by darkening circles and shapes with a number-two pencil.

Let us educate our children about the hubris of our ancestors, an arrogance that allowed them to commit genocide against the Native Americans and enslave Africans. Let them also recognize the context in which these hideous assaults took place and the evolution in humanity that has made us ashamed of those acts.

Let us celebrate the great, grand gestures of coming to a new continent in order to create a better, more noble society. Let us acknowledge the missteps while opening our children’s eyes to the wonder of new frontiers and new ideologies tried, tested, tempered, discarded and defended.

Let us insure that our children have the pleasures and insights afforded to us all through literature. Let them discover a sense of belonging and shared purposes by experiencing the artistic expressions of intellectuals, and let them admire the laborers who dreamed of better methods, better means, and better lives.

Let us inspire our children for only then will their promise flourish. They cannot now do so if they are sick without care, hungry without nourishment, poor without hope, and tested beyond measure. We must care for their souls more than we care for their scores. Then this great empire shall not fail.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Beauty of Women

Being a woman is more than a biological distinction, so much more than filling in the space beside the letter “F” on a form required. We are more than the sum of our unique parts, especially our maternal gifts.  We are so much more than beauty. We have fine minds, capable of discerning truths and imagining brilliant futures. We make the nests, weaving together the moral fiber of a nation, transforming selfish creatures into selfless ones, nudging them over the edge, teaching them to soar. We give comfort, nurture, entertain, inspire, and lead. And we may also be the noblest of the noble creatures. Yet we often do not love ourselves enough, sometimes not at all.

Some of us are artifacts from an earlier age when women were cultivated to be pretty and coy. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, women had little value if they were plain. Even a loving, intelligent grandmother, Lady Mary Montagu, recognizing how plain her own granddaughter, advised the child’s mother to cultivate a love for reading because a plain girl, especially one whose parents could not provide an attractive dowry, could not hope for marriage. Plain women needed to steel themselves for the life of a spinster, living at the mercy of a relative, with little more than books to comfort them through longs days and nights. Lady Montagu asserted that “No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting.” A plain spinster “… will not want new fashions nor regret the loss of expensive diversions or variety of company if she can be amused with an author….”

I’d like to believe that our national psyche has evolved since the eighteenth century, but alas, women and girls in the twenty-first century still compensate. Plain girls with low self-esteem may put on weight, finding reassurance in food, guaranteeing what they believe to be their destinies. They may let their hair hang in order to mask break-outs and acne. They may bear stooped shoulders if they happen to be taller than the tallest boy. They may also resign themselves to their role as a plain girl, choosing modest, unflattering clothing that masks shapes and sometimes even gender. Others may choose outrageous outfits, defying convention and fashion in an effort to prove that being girly and pretty does not interest them. So pervasive are these phenomena that How Do I Look aired for nine seasons, proving show after show that some women’s style choices put off more people than it attracted.Beauty of a Woman Blogfest

Other women make war with self-doubt and the plain or unattractive label, relying upon gyms, trainers, diet fads, Spanx, hair dyes, highlights, Botox, collagen, make-up, lotions, tanning booths, and plastic surgery to transform themselves into something they like when they look in the mirror. These women sometimes become so gaunt that we can map veins under their skin or count ribs through thin, gauzy tees. Some of these women sport lips that enter a room before their noses—lips so enormous that they parody Marilyn Monroe’s pout. Others have eyebrows arched so high up their foreheads that we whip our own heads left and right, looking for the interloper who just frightened them, only to find there is no one else, just a woman who has become a cartoon of her former self.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I am not a woman familiar with gyms. I joined one for a time. I even reached the thirty-minute mark on a recumbent bike, but each of my muscle groups lacks definition. I have Crow’s feet although I prefer laugh lines, a much prettier term for what exists at the outer edges of my eyes. My neck is crepey, or as some younger folk might say, creepy; consequently, I love autumn and winter when turtle necks and scarves may be worn daily. Around my lips are wrinkles, the ones that I abhorred on older women when I was young, the ones I dreaded to see in a mirror. I am also overweight, a state I cannot recommend, and I have struggled to find clothes that are comfortable and fashionable, clothes in which I feel attractive. Thus, I often step into the demands of the universe feeling everything except pretty.

I have known others like me, and I have known women who are cute, adorable, pretty, and gorgeous. Without exception, these women are self-deprecating. One hates the shape of her nose. Another thinks her ankles too thick. Many despise their hair as too flat or curly, too dull or frizzy. We are like Goldilocks, it seems, forever looking for hair that’s just right, and we envy each other, too: the blond next door, the gal with big blue eyes, a colleague with long, graceful fingers, and a sister with Audrey Hepburn’s neck. Our envy rarely looks good on us either.

Lady Mary Montagu also observed, in one of her finer moments, that “A face is too slight a foundation for happiness.” Few of us would disagree. Happiness is what we build within ourselves through our good works, through love. Neither books for our lonely days nor looks for all our days, often bought at great cost, grant happiness. So please, love yourselves so much that you create happiness for yourself. Cultivate more than a pretty face and a lovely form. Let go of self-deprecation and envy. Embrace your nobility by loving yourselves, warts, weight, worries, and all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Scratching Backs

I’ve always been troubled by the old axiom: You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours, especially because that old axiom describes so much of what happens in the seats of power:

•    I’ll support your bid for office if. . . .
•    I’ll vote for your bill if you add an amendment favorable to . . . .
•    I won’t stand in your way if you give me
. . . .

Such tit for tat legislation is, I fear, what many people regard as compromise, collaboration, collegiality, and bipartisan work. Worse, such tit for tat legislation is exactly what deep-pockets donors and lobbyists depend upon for their livelihoods and futures. They expect something in return, and government delivers. While the rest of us held our breath and wondered if Congress would indeed drive the nation over the clich├ęd fiscal cliff, back-room deals virtually nullified the fiscal savings by inserting a single paragraph that would benefit a single company, Amgen (, a pharmaceutical company responsible for a drug used by kidney dialysis patients.

The paragraph allows Amgen to dodge price controls imposed by Medicare for two years, its second two-year reprieve, by the way, so that the company can plan for diminished profits before they arrive. Amgen’s CEO estimated that the company will take in $500 billion, money that will come from Medicare. Wall Street seemed to agree because once Amgen announced its reprieve, Amgen’s value in the marketplace rose.

What makes this tale more troubling is that Amgen has a history of making untruthful claims. In fact, Amgen agreed to settle a case brought by the Department of Justice by paying $762 billion dollars, an amount that sets a record for penalties resulting from fraudulent marketing--except, of course, that only days later, the government voted to refund $500 billion of that penalty in the form of that two-year reprieve.

But who would set aside questions of ethics and fairness in order to help a tiny segment of the corporate community, Amgen, the sole proprietor of Sensipar? Most likely, the top recipients of Amgen’s largesse, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator from Kentucky, a key figure in talks to avert the fiscal cliff, making the final legislation look like tit for tat politics. Someone scratched government’s back, and government scratched back. Others who have scratched back are those who have received support from Amgen: the minority and majority leaders on the Senate Finance Committee, Senators Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat. McConnell, President Obama, Hatch, and Baucus have received campaign donations and advertising favorable to their campaigns, paid for by PACs underwritten by Amgen.  

And this is my fear brought to life, the fear that many Americans harbor in their hearts: the fear that money buys access to power and money speaks to power, but the money may not relay a truthful message--certainly not the whole truth, perhaps only a piece of it. Amgen, for example, claims special circumstances that require four years (remember, they’ve just secured their second two-year exemption) to be ready for the brakes that Medicare will eventually put on the price at which Amgen can provide Sensipar. That those special circumstances may include or exclusively be Amgen’s self-proclaimed desire to bring down great profits is a portion of the truth omitted or played down until it has little effect.

Would that McConnell, Hatch, Baucus, and others cared as much about the big picture, the big truths they espouse, as they seem to care about the message from a lobbyist whispering in their ears just because he had more money to push his way to the head of the line. Would that my phone calls, letters, and electronic messages could capture the ears, hearts, and minds of power. They should, but they don’t, and we know they don’t because

•    Most Americans believe that women should have sovereignty over their bodies but State and federal candidates and elected representatives turn a deaf ear to that truth, instead listening to the small but loud, Right-to-Life primary voter.
•    Most Americans believe we should close Gitmo and respect human rights, the ones that require us not to use enhanced interrogation, but Gitmo remains, primarily because the conservative party decided to oppose any and all Obama-led initiatives and no Senator or Representative stood to argue in favor of imprisoning alleged terrorists in his or her home state’s prisons.
•    Most Americans believe that wealthier individuals should man up and pay a larger percentage of their income without hiding behind privilege, exemptions, or special favors, but the conservative party brought us to the brink of a fiscal cliff more than once in order to protect and serve the wealthy.
•    Most Americans believe that guilty, greedy, self-serving Wall Street men and women and bankers are not too big or important to escape justice or the law but since Enron, Kenneth Lay, Bernie Madoff, and the fall of Eliot Spitzer, one percent has held a Get-Out-of-Jail free card.

I could go on, especially in light of the current Second Amendment debate. The President argued forcefully and effectively in favor of reforms and regulations, but Senator Marco Rubio announced to CBS This Morning (February 13, 2013) that he has yet to see any proposed legislation that would have saved those children at Sandy Hook. He skittered away from any commitment to try to protect life if guns are part of the equation and suggested that gun regulation just does not work. Data suggest otherwise, and one fact in particular lends itself to my claim: “Prior to 1996, the Center for Disease Control funded research into the causes of firearm-related deaths. After a series of articles finding that increased prevalence of guns lead to increased incidents of gun violence, Republicans sought to remove all federal funding for research into gun deaths” (

I don’t know about you, but I want to know. I don’t want facts suppressed, denied, or hidden because they happen to be unfavorable to a cause. Wouldn’t we censure an attorney who simply ignored facts to press for a conviction? Wouldn’t we wish full disclosure before entering into a contract for employment, financing, or a relationship? So please, let the CDC conduct research and tabulate results for all to see. What they will show, as they did prior to 1996, is that more guns equals more gun death. (Please refer to the post for this blog on June 5, 2012 where you will find some of the information that the CDC has provided.)

Yet back-scratching may destroy any hope of changing the gun death hazards in this nation. Let’s buy back-scratchers from the Dollar stores and send one to legislators so they can relieve their own itches without being indebted to any one else.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Violence and Torture in Zero Dark Thirty

According to many critics and news pundits, Zero Dark Thirty shows the efficacy of enhanced interrogation, an Orwellian euphemism of which former Vice-President Cheney must be fond, one that substitutes for the plain, old, ugly word, torture. In fact, from the first reviews to current ones, many critiques have begun and closed with comments upon the early scenes depicting torture. I’ve heard and read that some people had to look away, some covered their eyes, and some quelled nausea with deep breathing or tiny sips of soda. I too must admit that the indignities and abuses heaped upon the prisoner were hard to watch, but no more difficult than fictional and non-fictional re-enactments of predators inflicting horrific damage upon victims, innocent or guilty. Have you seen the first episode of The Following? I didn't watch the second.

I must also declare that I was prepared for what would unfold on the screen. I had followed the newsreaders when they echoed each other about Abu Ghraib. I saw that poor girl, Lindy, cigarette dangling from her lip, holding a leash that will forever connect her in the minds of the masses with sadomasochism. I saw Rendition (2007) and read about real-life rendition and CIA black ops. I also know that the U.S. has an ignoble past and present. We assassinated Patrice Lamumba, a duly elected leader of the Republic of the Congo, after deep-pockets persuaded Eisenhower that Lamumba was a threat to Western interests in Africa, and Lamumba's death is not the only blood on our national hands. Much of what we now reap, we have sown in political intrigue and betrayal.

I grant that what Kathryn Bigelow dramatized is a sorrowful portrait of recent history, but it should not be shocking or even the most memorable portrayal of violence in the film. Bombs blast bodies, bullets pierce flesh and bone, and bureaucrats order deaths from the safety of their desks while Navy Seals and Maya, the protagonist, carry the stains of the blood spilled. Whether good guys have good reasons for their actions or bad guys deserve to be hunted and executed does not diminish the enormity of those decisions and actions. Men and women, for good and evil purposes, stand as judges, juries, and executioners.

We must surely dread the machinations of our enemies, and we are surely indebted to our defenders. We need people who will undertake the unpleasant acts that foster a civilized society. We need men and women who will scrape animal carcasses from the roadways. We need those who will wash human blood and sweep broken glass from those same roads when one of us dies there violently. We need morticians to gloss over the brutal truth about decay. We need fire fighters and policemen who will stagger over rubble to find pieces of us, and we need soldiers who will set aside their humanity to kill in our names.

But we need to be deliberate and slow to send these people off to work. We must not require their sacrifices without having tried all other means, and Bigelow portrays those other means as well. She does not omit the mind-numbing hours spent watching hours and hours of taped interviews. She includes the tedium of reading and re-reading notes and files collected by unseen, unfamiliar hands. She reveals the intuitive leaps and gut-calls that put people on a path, sometimes to their own destruction. These techniques are as necessary to the assassination of bin Laden as is enhanced interrogation; indeed, those other techniques spread over more than a decade, are more important to the solution than torture itself. Enhanced interrogation is but one small piece of a challenging puzzle, and it is a method set aside once that picture of Lindy appears.

We must take care not to be misled by shocking portraits of our worst selves, thereby missing the other, more effective methods in our arsenals. We must demand a greater respect for human dignity without also placing blinders on our faces. We can and should be better.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Special Post: The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Today’s post is the second post this week. It’s a special edition of In Atticus’ Shoes as a result of a fine human being alive and well in cyberspace, one Jeanette S. Andersen. Her blog is available at She has included this week’s regular post “Recovery in the Heartland” (February 6, 2012) among her nominations for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award, and I am grateful.

With the nomination come certain responsibilities which I will now fulfill and they are:

·      Display the award logo on your blog.
·      Link back to the person who nominated you.
·      State 7 things about yourself.
·      Nominate 15 bloggers for this award.
·      Notify those bloggers of the nomination by linking to one of their specific posts so that they get notified by ping-back.

I’ll confess right now that upholding my responsibilities may take awhile. I am not of the generation that finds adding and subtracting things from a blog site easy, but I’m honored and have no doubt that I’ll learn a thing or two as I work through the five requirements.

For example, I discovered that adding the logo was a walk in the park, a piece of cake … easy--easier than I imagined. Tra-la! Now to choose just seven things about myself. Hmmm…

1.     I can’t remember an extended time when a dog or cat or both or several did not command my time and love. I’ve even shared my life with Parakeets, Cockatiels, fish, and one lone hamster.
2.     My husband loves me, cherishes me, cheers for me, and tolerates a parade of pets very well.
3.     Our daughter and son-in-law are the proud parents of an eight-month-old girl, and we are absolutely smitten.
4.     I just don’t understand the power of Twitter. So many messages, one tumbling over another. How does anyone keep up?
5.     I do not believe that grown men will discover Big Foot while the TV cameras roll, but I do believe that sweepstakes prize winners walk among us. I’m one. I won a prize in the JCP Holiday sweepstakes many, many, many years ago. My share was just $10, but I won. I really did.
6.     A favorite vacation destination is a Presidential Library. Yep, I’m an introvert (and some would say, a nerd) who loves to learn about our past. We often go to places prominent in our memories, places such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL and the Art Institute of Chicago. Who doesn’t dream of walking the path that Ferris Bueller walked?
7.     And finally this, above all else, is true: First do no harm. Even though I’ve done my share of harm while living and learning and failed often, I believe in giving others the benefit of the doubt and sparing their feelings whenever possible.

In closing, I offer for your consideration 15 blogs that deserve a nomination to The Very Inspiring Blogger Award roster.

·      For encouraging words, understanding and several good tips for writers:
·      Each of us stands on the shoulders of others; each of us owes a debt to those who went before us, truths that Letters of Note reveals with this post:
·      For all would-be parents and veteran parents, this father’s joy renews our own:
·      Although the last post was in 2011, this blog, from first post to last, will help those, especially young twenty-somethings, who must call breast cancer the new normal:
·      For joy and gratitude in all things: Be sure to read “About the Author,” then enjoy several posts.
·      For optimistic messages after receiving yet another rejection letter from an agent or publisher:
·      For honest insights and to embrace our own challenges with joy:
·      For anyone who doubts that joy exists in all things, everywhere:
·      For timeless advice said simply:
·      For those who dream about shedding their outer skins and reinventing themselves, this blog is for you:
·      For those days when inspiration, joy, and peace of mind elude you:
·      For those who seek affirmation:
·      For anyone who cares about our children’s educations:
·      For those who need to be reminded that life really does get better:
·      For the poetic soul and a smile:

I’ve tried to provide variety in the 15 blogs listed above. Some have been recognized by others in the online community; that’s where I learned of them. Others came to my attention through I hope that you will consider following some of them and that you will join my blog as well. May you find words of inspiration here and some food for thought.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Recovery in the Heartland

I’ve recently moved from a large city in the Heartland, population nearly 600,000. Adding all the suburbs and bedroom communities nearby, Oklahoma City is just a bit under one million, conservative citizens. We left them behind and moved to a recreational, rural area outside three small Midwestern Missouri towns with a combined population of 5,100.

Because the closest grocery is several miles away and small, I now plan my menus and shopping trips more carefully, especially if I need fresh fruit and vegetables, products that seem to wither more quickly here. They’re just a day or two shy of overripe when I buy them, perhaps because local grocers cannot compete with the volume that larger, urban grocers command. Here, I also have fewer brands available with generic labels prominent, perhaps because customers cannot afford a few pennies more.

This, I believe, is what an economic downturn and slow recovery look like: too soft pears, bruised apples, and bananas that turn dark overnight. I see other signs as well. More men, once members of thriving construction crews, have turned entrepreneurial. They are start-ups with names like The Other Husband or Honey-Do. For an hourly wage and sometimes for whatever the homeowner offers, they will clean gutters, repair what’s broken, and build fences.

Other signs of downward spirals are the traffic patterns. Those readers in big cities will scoff at our modest traffic problems. After all, you may witness a stream of cars in numbers too high to count while I wait upon a mere ten vehicles before I can cross traffic to be on my way, but trust me, ten or twenty vehicles in a row in this place is a rush-hour.

Frequently, these long lines of cars and pick-ups are turning into and out of parking lots surrounding Dollar Generals or Wal-Mart and into and out of flea markets or second-hand stores. Dollar General and Family Dollar have even announced plans to build several hundred more stores across the country because their profits are up. Big-name, higher priced stores are not expanding as rapidly.

I’ve also observed that two of the most popular shopping spots are not-for-profits that support no-kill animal shelters. There, huge, chest-high bins leak denim jeans where mothers lean in to dig deep in search of their child’s current size. The price tag? Twenty-five cents--a single quarter, a testament to just how many kids outgrow their denim allotment each fiscal quarter and to capitalism. The denim supply is large, the demand steady, but consumers are willing to buy genuinely worn denims, not just the high-end, stone-washed ones.

Saturdays in town show me where the full-time, year-round residents shop and eat. Restaurants will turn away customers in spring and summer during the lake season, but now, in the off-season, restauranteurs have stowed their pagers. Parking spots are close to entries, and diners can choose from a number of available tables, even at peak hours. Similarly, close parking is always available at the shopping hot spot, a row of stores anchored by Lowe’s, Target, Pier 1, and a high-end grocery store. But the flea market and animal-shelter thrift store are ozone-busting with vehicles in a holding pattern, waiting for an open parking space on the asphalt lot.

So I suggest that times are still hard. Here, real estate moves as slowly as icebergs. After all, how many people can afford a second, vacation home? Those who bought high, only to lose value after 2008, have lost their lake homes to foreclosure, and many condo units stand empty. Consequently, the folks born and trained around the lake must look elsewhere for work and clothing until the economy rebounds.

Admire those people who endure in the face of these hardships, the ones who remain hopeful that things will get better, the ones who have babies and believe, as they must, that their futures will be bright. Where would they find comfort if they failed to believe in a brighter future? So they live in this “time of vague optimism . . . [with] nothing to fear but fear itself” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 1, citing FDR), and they thrive because they are resourceful and humble and hard-working.