Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Troubled Regions: Moore, Oklahoma

I often taught one of Adrienne Rich’s fine poems, Storm Warnings, a poem that uses weather outside our safe havens as a metaphor for weather inside our troubled hearts. One of my former students posted the final lines in reaction to the terrible tornado May 20, 2013 in Moore, OK: These are things we have learned to do / Who live in troubled regions.

I believe he posted these lines in tribute to the thousands affected by a second F5 wind dropping from the sky. He is from the area and though he lives far away now, he remembers how the people of Moore think and act. He knows that they will rush to help their neighbors. He knows that they are rooted to that land and most will rebuild there. He knows that many believe God tried and tested them, wrapping His Grace around those who climbed whole from the rubble while calling Home those who did not. They prayed and believe that God answered in His infinite wisdom.

These truths about those who live in Moore have been conveyed by newsreaders, the few true reporters who still actually investigate catastrophic events, and writers with some experiential knowledge of Moore’s citizens. And those citizens have also been subjected to plenty of insensitive clods. One offensive remark was spoken, then repeated so often that it became part of the story, the preface if you will. Folks from other places wanted to know why Oklahomans live in Oklahoma as if an accident of birth is a choice, as if in-state tuition were not a magnet keeping many in the state once they begin their adult lives, as if employment options are so much better elsewhere, as if those folks from Main Street, not Wall Street, have plenty of money to pick and move.

Such a question must then be asked of Africans who continue to live in war-torn nations, Afghanis who endure foreign invasions and religious strife, anyone and everyone who dwells near the ocean where hurricanes and tsunamis swell and destroy. Ask those folks along New Jersey’s shore why they are rebuilding.

We must also ask those who live in homes perched upon hills rising from California’s fire-prone canyons. We must examine the motives of those who choose to live along earthquake fault lines, and by all means, let’s get to the bottom of those folks who’ve allowed fracking on or near their land, only to continue living  there after their ground water has become toxic, even flammable. Yes, let’s ask folks why they live with Nature. Let’s find out why they do not, cannot secure themselves against all potential deadly force, man-made or natural.

They stay because the unimaginable is unimaginable. That two F5 tornadoes would scar the same ground is unimaginable. That a home would be reduced to rubble by a wind is unimaginable. That school children would not survive inside a solid concrete structure is unimaginable. That an earthquake at sea would turn whole Japanese villages into memories is unimaginable. Most human minds skip away from thoughts of their own mortality and certainly do not dwell upon possible catastrophic losses.

Equally irritating is the implied indictment in the question about living in troubled regions. The interrogator seems to believe that blame can and must be placed upon the victim, but to do so is cruel. No one in Moore or Japan or California invited the sky to fall upon them. They are not to blame for being in the path of disaster.

And they should not be asked to pull on their cowboy boots, tuck the cowboy hats upon their heads, pull on heavy leather work gloves, and tame another frontier without the aid of government. They should receive as much help as is available, including but not limited to counseling, construction, and money.

But Governor Mary Fallin doesn’t seem to think so even though she played more nicely with President Obama during his visit Sunday, May 26, 2013 than any of us expected. After all, she’s defied the nation and left thousands of constituents suffering by taking a firm ideological stand against the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. She’s also on board with ALEC’s collaboration with the national Chamber of Commerce to slash personal income taxes, another ideological posture antithetical to President Obama’s initiatives to invest in the nation through raising revenues. Consequently, OK’s education, highway, and bridge repair funds shrink while schools, highways and bridges crumble.

So it was not much of a surprise when Governor Fallin spoke for Moore’s citizens and refused $1,200 debit cards to be given to those who need to find a kennel for their pets, pay a deposit on an apartment to live in while their homes are rebuilt, buy bottles of water and hot food for their children, rent a car to drive. That $1,200 would have been put to good use, and for many of those middle-class working families, $1,200 would have granted to them a measure of independence at a time when Moore’s citizens are dependent upon insurance agents, First Responders, road crews, contractors, and elected government officials who seem bent upon making an example of them with or without their consent.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Baby Girl!

My only grandchild, a beautiful girl, is one year old today. I have been lucky enough to hold her when she was but an hour old. I’ve cared for her as a newborn, an infant, and a child about to toddle off without aid. At all times, in all moods, in all states of health, she delights me.

Her thoughtful consideration of the yapping nervous dog that held her place before her birth suggests that she’s busy discerning the differences between humans and four-legged critters. Still when she crawled for the first time, she slapped her hands upon the wood floor and panted. She’d seen babies her age crawl, and she’d seen her little dog prance. She preferred to prance.

As a babe on laps, I noticed her study the furniture in the room. She watched people make use of each piece, keenly attentive when folks opened and closed drawers. Guess where she went when she’d mastered crawling: straight for the lower drawers to work out how to open them for herself. Her curiosity must have been bursting until she could maneuver and satisfy it. Now those accessible drawers hold her toys instead of electronic cables, chargers, and such. She needed her own drawers, it seems.

My granddaughter holds up her end in conversations. Like most babies, she found vowel sounds first and practiced the feel of them as they bounced off surfaces and faces. When I joined in, adding the alphabet of consonants to her early vowels, I had her attention. She watched my mouth. She studied my face. During one meal, she made sounds loud and soft, sounds that I matched as closely as possible. This enchanted her. I predict when she works out all those sounds and matches them to words, she’ll have a lot to say.

In her earliest weeks, I praised her for how well she exercised her legs and arms while on the changing table. She seemed to delight in the feel of air upon her skin and muscles unbound by arms or swaddling blankets and diapers. Now when I visit and stand over her on the changing table, she kicks and waves, looking at me for the anticipated celebration. She remembers.

Similarly, I showed her a hand opening and closing into a fist. This worked well to distract her when storm clouds built upon her brow because fingers opening into “jazz hands” never failed to surprise her. Now when I feed her, I see one hand opening and closing, a sly look upon her face. I confirm that I remember, and she smiles broadly. We have a history together. I like that.

The novel that gave birth to this blog celebrates children. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird is delightful if read only to enjoy stories about playmates, siblings, and family. Each of us should treasure such stories, and grandchildren open floodgates to memory.  Thanks, Baby Girl. I’m grateful for your grace upon me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Superheroines, Saving Us All

Where has Wonder Woman gone? She’s right here among us, past and present.

Bill Moyers recently featured a woman who believes she must live with purpose. Sandra Steingraber, a scientist, cancer survivor, and mother, will go to jail for trespass as a result of her efforts to call attention to the harms of hydraulic fracturing. Her imprint is to teach her children that we can and we must stand up to power in order to solve problems and leave the world better for them

Leymah Gbowee and Eileen Sirleaf, both of whom have been featured in this blog, are Sandra Steingraber’s sisters. They too stood up to power, the brutal Charles Taylor of Liberia, in order to bring peace to their homes, a peace not only free of war, but also war’s devastating weapons: rape and deprivation. These women believed their duty to be returning childhood to their children, . They shared a Nobel in recognition of their peaceful disobedience to bring a tyrant to justice and restore a nation.

Another woman, Vandana Shiva, who also appeared on Bill Moyers’ program, is a descendant of Rachel Carson, the fine scientist who first sounded the alarm about our environment. Carson was criticized during her lifetime, called an alarmist, a woman who doth protest too much, but history has judged her otherwise. She is now held in high esteem for her ability to see through the thicket of corporate interests to a truth that those interests may not serve people and the planet well.

Shiva now faces the same criticism for warning us against governments that collaborate with corporations at the expense of the individual. The EU, for example, has criminalized seed holding so that companies including Monsanto may hold farmers hostage, forcing them to buy seed annually rather than cultivate seed from the harvest. For the small farmer in India, the need to buy seed each year is overwhelming, leading many to abandon their farms and even commit suicide.

Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, and other companies will profit in perpetuity for what they deem to be patents and intellectual property rights on seed. Allowing no interlopers, even Nature and God, these companies claim to have created seed that is distinct and unique through genetic modification, through chemical use that programs seed to fight weeds, and through genetic code to prevent seed from sprouting from plants grown the previous season. These companies consider themselves to be inventors of seed.  

The recent budget bill carried over a section from earlier bills related to budget and/or agri-business that prevents courts from injunctions against products, including seed, previously approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Such a clause betrays the founding principles of this nation: checks and balances. U. S. courts function as the last resort for citizen petitioner who cannot sway Congress to initiate or overturn legislation. Our courts are our arbiters, and their authority to uphold the rights of citizens should not be abridged.

We need Vandana Shiva and Rachel Carson and Eileen Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee and Sandra Steingraber to be our voices, to advise us about threats to our nations, its citizens, and our planet. We need the tireless efforts of those in search of a greater good, and we need to embrace them, thank them, and support them.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Even Cliches Speak Truth: Power Corrupts

Nicotine, at least in its current incarnation blended and enhanced by tobacco companies, binds men and women. It calls them to their own destruction. Smokers, snuff-users, and tobacco chewers dismiss sores in the mouth, chronic coughs, persistent bronchitis, and the presence of skulls and crossbones on the packages they pick up many times every day. They die prematurely at the rate of nearly half a million each year because of nicotine’s addictive powers.

In the early decades of America, prior to Prohibition, public drunkenness was pervasive, so much so that proponents of a Constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of alcohol used public drunkenness and domestic abuse as primary reasons to amend the Constitution. Yet alcohol’s seductive properties easily overrode the domestic agenda. “Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse – instead, the ‘drys’ had their law, while the ‘wets’ had their liquor."

Power must be as addictive as nicotine and alcohol. We bear witness to its thrall in Congress daily. Men and women who surely entered the political arena to lead and serve the needs of the nation later vote against those needs in order to sink their teeth deeper into the marrow of power as if it were their life’s blood. These men and women merely follow upon thousands who have gone before them.

In 1770, William Pitt observed that "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."

And in 1848, Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine declared thatIt is not only the slave or serf who is ameliorated in becoming free... the master himself did not gain less in every point of view,... for absolute power corrupts the best natures.”

Finally, in 1887, Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

These men and many more observed that those who have great power tend to become corrupted by the power they wield. Certainly they had sufficient proof. History informed them about once noble Roman emperors, profligate kings who inspired an American revolution, an overly ambitious French military leader named Bonaparte, and brutal crime lords who oversaw unspeakable acts in the name of power.

We have used these historical figures as cautionary tales against hubris. We have reminded children that lacking a cardinal direction on one’s moral compass leads to ruin. Still men and women fail to pack a compass when venturing  forth.

Senators recently ignored public opinion about closing Guantanamo. They refuse to hear the arguments against austerity while clinging to a single flawed study by Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff. And most heart-breaking of all, in my opinion, is the Senate’s inability to find sixty of their members to support expanding background checks for firearms purchases in spite of the fact that the expressed desire of the nation would require that they vote yes instead of no.

One Republican Senator, Pat Toomey, recently admitted that the bill he co-sponsored with Democrat Senator Joe Manchin faced opposition because senators were advised that supporting expanded background checks would be a victory for the president so some votes were about winning, as Charlie Sheen might use the word. The votes were not about justice or fairness or public opinion or public safety; they were motivated by a self-serving grab for power, especially when their own upcoming primary battles are a factor in the equation.

But leaders in Australia dared the voters and bore the consequences, including not being re-elected because as the Honorable Rob Borbich, former Premier of Queensland, Australia, said about his job: he served to make “society a better place” whether he was re-elected or not. John Howard, former Prime Minister (1996) and Tom Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (1996) agree. Political death, in Howard’s opinion, is noble.

Power taints the man or woman who wields it. Power betrays us, leading us astray. Countless true and fictional tales remind us of these truths. May the Senate awaken to them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hazard Pay for Us All

My all-time favorite read is a mystery, the thriller. Give me a British cozy and a cloudy day, and I’m happy. Direct me to a finely drawn police procedural, and I’ll stay up late to read just a little bit more. G. W. Malliet, Elizabeth George, Tana French, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, P. D. James: each and all have challenged and delighted me.

Reading a number of police procedurals suggests the human price that some pay for turning over the rock to look at what’s hidden from the light. Most of us don’t care to look, but that’s the job of the police. They must look and deal with what they find, not just by bringing the slimy thing to justice, but finding a way to heal their own hearts and minds after coming so close to a thing so vile.

Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, a character conceived by Elizabeth George, eats and drinks too much. She’s disheveled but dogged, single but a loyal friend, a woman filled with love unrequited.

Detectives invented by Tana French tend to have fragile relationships. In fact, they are often divorced as an effect of being driven and committed to the job.

Other detectives drink too much. They dull the ache and pain of their work with copious amounts of adult beverages. Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone is an excellent example of needing drink to cope and of drink ruining relationships and careers.

Television has seized upon the troubled police. Southland, now on TNT, is an unapologetic look at the egos, secrets, and mistakes made by Los Angeles police. USA’s Common Law did not survive for a second season. I wish it had, but when it aired, the series showed police partners with very different temperaments engaged in couples therapy in order to exorcise their demons and work well together. Chicago Fire proves that police are not the only servicemen and women who suffer as a result of the service they perform for the rest of us. And The Following, FX’s brand new sinister portrait of killers and the people who pursue them, proves that few people can do such work without being irrevocably altered in spirit, faith, and hope. Kevin Bacon plays a broken man barely holding on to life itself.

Clearly, print and film characters, including John McClane and Axel Foley, prove the one story we believe in: those who serve a city will pay a high price. Why then do we expect so much more of the men and women who have experienced the unrelenting risks of war, its physical burdens, and its vile circumstances? We seem to believe that they can return home, step back into the rhythms of civilian life, and sleep peacefully. We enjoy a collective moment of celebration, relieved to see him and her return alive, whether whole or with damaged limbs, but quickly return to our routines, certain that our ex-warriors will find the routine comfortable?

We must make the short, logical leap between what we know to be true about policemen and women, firemen and women, and soldiers in war. We must offer them counseling when they have been involved in a shooting. We must grant them leave when blood has been shed. We surely can provide them with medical care for their wounds even if we cannot see them. And above all else, we must recognize that art puts before us a mirror of the human experience and it reflects this truth: those people who serve all of us are not superhuman. They bruise and break as do we. We must heal them with our understanding and patience.

Last month, the people of Boston confronted an ugly truth: sometimes we are not safe in our own cities. Like little Jem Finch, Bostonians had to acknowledge that the faces of their neighbors may be the faces of monsters. For the few broken families, several hundred injured, and hundreds more First Responders and caregivers, One Fund Boston was born. Donations to that cause will

  • retrofit houses to accommodate wheelchairs and lifts,
  • buy prosthetic devices,
  • make counseling available,
  • provide job training, therapy, and more.

In brief, One Fund Boston recognizes that trauma requires an investment in the future of the city and its citizens, especially those who were affected and who served to meet the needs of the city. We should do no less for returning veterans, for Hurricane Sandy survivors, for New Orleans, for First Responders. We should never hesitate to make whole what man has torn asunder.