Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Citizens Get What They Demand and Are Willing to Pay For

I lived almost all of my years on this earth in Oklahoma, and I can tell you that everything you think about Oklahoma is true.
  • Oklahomans are generous. In fact, the State’s benefactors place OK in the national number-eleven spot for giving: “The state’s typical household claimed charitable contributions totaling about 5.6 percent of its discretionary income. Donations were fueled by the residents of Oklahoma City, which ranks No. 7 among metropolitan areas with the most-generous residents." They are also resilient, adjusting to droughts and tornadoes that destroy relentlessly.
  • The stereotype about obesity in the Midwest and Bible Belt is factual for OK. About one-third of the population weighs too much.
  • Oklahomans bleed red politically, and all that red translates into low scores for human development; e.g., the “…process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their well-being.”
  • The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a strong presence in OK: the Executive Branch, including Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, Senate President Pro Tem, Majority Floor Leader, House Speaker, Speaker Pro Tempore, and Director of the OK Department of Human Services, is dominated by ALEC. In Washington, five of the seven Senators and Congressmen are ALEC devotees. In the State’s Senate, 31% are ALEC affiliates; in the House, 28%. Consequently, the ALEC agenda thrives in OK. For example, abortion restrictions are in place and were put in place with almost no protest or consequence; Conceal and Carry firearms laws became Open Carry laws, allowing Okies to carry firearms almost everywhere; tort reform of all kinds has blocked the common man’s access to judicial remedies; Medicaid was not expanded, leaving about 1 in 5 citizens uninsured; and public schools are being tested, then replaced by private charters that receive public tax money.
  • OK also practices unfunded mandates, especially in schools. The State slashes budgets while adding increased costs in the form of standardized testing and cutting property as well as income taxes. This too is an ALEC/National Chamber of Commerce initiative, one that fulfills the unelected but influential Grover Norquist’s dream of shrinking government at the expense of pensions, raises, health, and education. 

What baffles me above all else is the Oklahoman’s tendency to vote against his or her own best interests. The Oklahoman cheers Right to Work legislation, believing that some one else will be let go--until, of course, he is let go. And the average Oklahoman seems surprised that Right to Work has undercut collective bargaining, employer benefits, and pension security.

He also bristles at the notion that everyone could or should have access to quality health care--even though one in five Oklahomans has no secure health care benefit. Above all, the typical Oklahoman believes government is too big and too costly and that folks, especially nineteen percent of them classified as poor, just need to work harder, and if they can't, the Lord will provide. But the Lord hasn't been listening because poverty and hardship are widespread in OK, important reasons causing business and industry to look elsewhere when choosing a home office location.

Oklahoma's stretch of I-44

Oklahomans are also content to drive across bridges that are unsafe and upon roads that are rough. Anyone who’s ever driven into Oklahoma from Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, or Arkansas knows that he has crossed into Oklahoma without a State-line marker. Oklahoma interstates and highways look as if some Highway Jackson Pollack worked across the state end to end and north to south, flinging tar upon asphalt.

In Oklahoma, on I-44

More annoying, of course, is the number of highway projects as Oklahoma’s Department of Transportation grinds down the truly wretched stretches in order to resurface them. Signs warn of work zones ahead and terrible fines if caught speeding in those zones (an unlikely occurrence because every aspect of the judicial system is being systematically choked and squeezed, forced to complete more tasks with fewer men and women).

 Oklahoma, I-44

Orange cones appear for miles before drivers glimpse a small contingent of workers actually working on the roads. Big earth-moving equipment and huge empty trucks stand ready along the shoulders, but few men labor. On my way from Oklahoma City through Tulsa and beyond into Missouri by way of I-44, I slowed repeatedly for long work zones--at least four times on the Turner and four more on the Will Rogers turnpikes, each of which is under 100 miles in length.

One of the reasons for the need to repair and repair again is the original roadbed. It sets upon the hard red clay-dirt in OK, the same bedrock that makes digging tornado shelters difficult. Still like all ground, red dirt dries and cracks without rain and swells with it; thus, the foundation for the road shifts and the asphalt above cracks.

Missouri, I-44

Many states invested in man-made roadbeds and concrete lanes. Many looked to the future when first building or ponied up the funds for a better infrastructure if the old, first work began to fail. And Oklahoma is joining them, adding concrete inch by inch. Nevertheless, progress is slow in spite of a steady stream of revenue from gasoline taxes in a State that enjoys oil and gas in abundance. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has a very long list of needs to prioritize: 6,800 bridges to repair, 750 of which were deemed structurally deficient; 31,000 miles of laned roads upon which double and triple-trailer trucks move America’s goods; and 850 miles of railway.

 A narrow, rural lane in Missouri without shoulder or curb, but also without tar-tracked repair.

I submit that OK will never attract business as it promises and needs to do with roads so shoddy and policies so antithetical to the average citizen's best interests. Those roads are noticeable--as noticeable as the weight, health, and readiness of the work force. OK should look to those seven surrounding states, the ones that have better roads for their drivers, both tourist and resident, and attempt to learn from them, at least with regard to road repair. It’s one small step toward a better future.

"The Guardian," A Sculpture by Enoch Kelly Haney selected to grace the Oklahoma Capitol Building, the seat of government, is now in disrepair, its facade crumbling as a consequence of political ideologies that refuse to raise revenue even for good causes. According to former Representative Haney, "The Guardian" was intended to exemplify “…the valor of Oklahomans and their ability to overcome the most horrific catastrophes such as the bombing at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. The Guardian is a reminder that just below him within the halls of our grand Capitol, the true guardians of Oklahoma, our legislators, are working everyday to improve this already magnificent state.” Surely, "The Guardian" now sheds tears because the so-called guardians labor instead to dismantle the infrastructure and social nets in Oklahoma. (Capitol Dome Photograph by Al Griffin.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On the Cover of Rolling Stone

I’m weighing in on the cover of Rolling Stone a bit behind the curve. That happens when a blog posts weekly rather than daily. Weighing in may annoy some followers, but not to wade in would compromise me as Atticus Finch felt compromised if he did not stand up for Tom Robinson: I simply cannot remain silent about Dshohkar Tsarnaev's photo on the cover of Rolling Stone; I must act according to my abilities.

I assert: all who are insulted, outraged, and moved to boycott or protest should calm down. We need another of those long overdue and long awaited conversations about the culture in this nation. We need to restrain our hostilities and outrage, hold in our raw emotions in favor of contemplation about that Rolling Stone cover. We need to ask:

How does a nation as grand as our own create a Timothy McVeigh? How does it nurture Dzhohkar Tsarnaev to join his older brother in a killing rampage? What inspires such violence? How do these two and others like them suffocate their empathy? How can they live with the collateral damage they have done?

Timothy McVeigh's Mug Shot

These are the questions that we must address, and these are the questions that Rolling Stone set before us. Their purpose, as communicated by an MSNBC report, follows.

“Titled ‘The Bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster,’ the cover story offers a deep account of the one-time UMass-Dartmouth student who went to high school in Cambridge, Mass.”

The covers of magazines and front pages of newspapers often baffle me. Fear splashes cold water in my belly when I see and see again the face of Charles Manson. The madness in his eyes matches the monstrous deeds he set in motion, and I well remember that face on the cover of a newspaper in New York City the morning after the crimes were uncovered. I feel the same fear when photographs of Richard Speck surface. As a girl, I saw the Life magazine story and the shadowy photographs of the rooms he invaded and soiled with the blood of women in the profession of healing. The face of Timothy McVeigh weighs heavily upon my heart as well for I lived and worked close enough to downtown Oklahoma City to see the plume of deadly smoke rise from the ashes. I remember well the words of his first attorney, Stephen Jones, who explained McVeigh’s deeds as the result of a mind incapable of critical thought.

Charles Manson's Mug Shot

As a consequence of being near on April 19, 1995, of living in the Oklahoma City area during that infamous EF5 tornado in 1995, and owning property there when the more recent EF5 cut vacant lots through Moore in 2013, I understand the raw wounds and invisible damages that Bostonians bear. They feel with and for those whose injuries are very visible, and they know the fleeting thoughts about safety when they venture into the marketplace to conduct business, compete, or celebrate.

Richard Speck's Mug Shot

I know that these feelings will never fade completely. The dates in April when so much domestic terror has taken place, the infamous 11th day in September when thousands were forever changed without their will--these dates and events leave scars, but we must discover how to heal. One path to healing is to understand how such designers of terror develop.

We may never completely comprehend the human mind or its beating heart. We may discover that all mass killers lack empathy or the ability to think critically and grant that we will never completely prevent tragedy, but we can evolve to understand and heal. Let us do so. One way to begin is to read what Rolling Stone has reported instead of letting rage or sorrow or fear blind us to what we need to know.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Contemplating the Unimaginable

Stephen King said Pet Semetary, a novel about resurrecting a child after a terrible road accident, was conceived because he let his mind drift and rest upon the unimaginable horror: losing one’s child. Some never finished the book because of that dreadful scene when a toddler just barely in command of his limbs runs toward the highway; some read in fits and starts, peeking a bit further and ever further into King’s nightmare; and some braced for the pain and read on, following King down the Rabbit Hole.

Photo by Bobbrooky, "Wild European Rabbit,"

Another book that has inspired the same dread and horror in readers is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. In this novel, two Afghani women live with danger: a brutal, abusive man. After the women try to flee, he punishes the mother of his child by locking her and her baby in a closed room without food or water and closes the windows, sealing in the rising heat. She lies as still as possible, desperate to save her child, helpless to do so, and hoping that her abuser will free her in time.

Photo by Al Griffin, 2011, Al Griffin Photography on Google+ and FineArtAmerica

Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold recreates the devastating grief that cripples and alienates loving parents, driving one from the other after they lose a child, abducted and slaughtered by a stranger. The words selected to convey their pain are visceral, leaping from the page and twisting the hearts of readers.

 Photo by Al Griffin, February 2013, Al Griffin Photography on Google+ and FineArtAmerica

These books are as close as I have come to a parent’s unimaginable grief for I, like most people, turn from the notion that I might outlive my child. It is a fear that I keep at bay, but Trayvon Martin’s parents know that sometimes Fear opens the door and walks right into the light. It forces itself into lives and relentlessly pursues the living until they accept its presence. Then they have nothing but time in which to accept and believe that the promise they brought into this world will never be fulfilled.

I cry for them. I ache for them. And I marvel at their grace. I do not believe that in my grief that I could achieve their dignity and reserve, especially if required to grieve with cameras and bloggers and pundits feeding upon my words.

But I don’t know what they know. I have not lived what they have lived. I have never, for example, stepped from the safety of my home into a world that mistrusted and even despised me. I have never sent my child into harm’s way every day simply because my child was born into a race that has been oppressed and abused to slake the thirst of men and women who must justify their economic gain and moral decay by rendering others as the undeserving, unqualified, unequal residents of this planet.

Photo by Rob Mcclean, "Boy's Comfort Hood,"

I have never been required to summon the courage to walk among those who mistrust and despise me. I have never been called upon to challenge injustice by protests, speeches, and marches because those are the last weapons in my arsenal for peaceful change. I have also been able to enjoy opportunities denied to so many others: the opportunity of a good public education in a well-funded district and the opportunity to compete for work and good housing in any neighborhood in any city.
I also don’t know how Trayvon’s parents will live with the jury’s verdict. I would be bereft, adrift in the country I call home because the judicial system that I hoped was, as Atticus Finch said, the great leveler turned out to be rigged and unequal as the arrest and imprisonment rates for Black Americans prove.

For those of us not in the courtroom, the verdict was not justice. Trayvon Martin was just seventeen years old. A boy. And as a boy, his judgment was imperfect. He would have been wise not to confront his stalker, but he did. George Zimmerman, on the other hand, was an armed adult; we expect more of his judgment because of his age, experience, and license to carry a firearm. Yet his judgment was imperfect, so much so that he defied the advice of the 9-1-1 dispatcher and stalked a boy. That fact seems to have escaped the jury. 

Zimmerman’s trainer says George was soft, not strong or muscular, but he still outweighed Trayvon. That fact seems to have eluded the jury.

Furthermore, Zimmerman’s weapon tells us that he feared for his life and his property, so frightened that he trained and qualified to carry a weapon against the dangers surrounding him. But he had nothing to fear from Trayvon until Zimmerman initiated a confrontation by stalking the boy. Zimmerman was the catalyst, his choices the fuel in an engine that exploded. He alone is responsible for the tragic outcome, but that fact seems to have eluded the jury.

And then, according to the defense team who persuaded a judge to allow it, Zimmerman confronted a sidewalk-wielding boy who probably pushed George to the ground and began to fight off the only danger on that sidewalk: George Zimmerman. This terrified the already frightened Zimmerman so much that he brought a firearm to a fist fight. He shot and killed an unarmed boy. This fact appears to have been ignored by the jury because the defense team, aided and abetted by an imcompetent prosecution and judge on the bench, convicted the victim, not the perpetrator

Vigilante Zimmerman killed one, and the courtroom sanctioned domestic terrorism by finding Zimmerman not guilty. The jury has also killed a nation’s faith in justice. Black men and women have long mistrusted their chances to obtain justice; now a majority of White, Latino, and Asian Americans must acknowledge that no one is safe if innocent men and women are found guilty while guilty men and women walk free, terrible truths brought to us in living color through our televisions.

Photo by Valentin Armianu, "Justice Balance,"

Television cameras brought the Vietnam War into our living rooms and helped turned public sentiment to peace. Cameras also helped change the world by showing the savagery practiced to insure that civil, Constitutional rights were denied to Black Americans. May television cameras facilitate another change in another failed institution: our judicial system.

We need another straw that breaks the camel’s back. Justice denied for Trayvon Martin could be that straw. Let us contemplate the unimaginable: justice blind . . . justice for all.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Losing and Gaining

Elizabeth Bishop advised readers of her poetry that “The art of losing isn't hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster” (“One Art"). She’s right!

To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch lost even though his defense of Tom Robinson was logical, impassioned, and persuasive, but he vowed to appeal. Jem Finch lost his innocence about his neighbors when his father’s case failed to free Robinson, but he endured. Scout lost her naïveté when she walks in the shoes of Mr. Arthur Boo Radley, seeing her neighborhood through the eyes of another, a recluse so different from herself, and enriching her understanding of all others. Miss Maudie also lost when a fire claimed her home, but she vows to rebuild, grateful that she has the opportunity to reinvent her home in a style more suitable to her age.

Like these fictional characters from To Kill A Mockingbird and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetic speaker, we all will endure loss. Even when we are right, as Atticus was about Tom Robinson, we may fail to win the day, and even when we want to believe, as Jem and Scout Finch did, we may discover that we must find a new faith, one that relies less upon the reality we wish for and more upon the reality that is.

And sometimes, we may not get what we want, but fate will conspire to bring us what we need—as the Rolling Stones sang so well and wisely.  I know this to be true for I have often failed to get what I want, but just as often, I’ve received what I seem to need, gaining something unseen, unimagined as a result of losing.

Today I lose a home, the fourth one and the one I enjoyed the most. The first one was the smallest, a humble little place on a forgotten street on the side of town that once bustled until marketers and developers who owned land far from that home pushed the town, further and further away, year by year. When we sold, the buyer was a landlord, one of many to transform our old neighborhood into the unforgiving decline of rental property.

Our next home taught me the truth in the old axiom, buy in haste; repent at leisure.We fell for tree-lined streets and S-curves leading through our new neighborhood, but the division was built upon landfill where once a streambed swelled and dried with the seasons. Our home’s foundation did the same. We replaced a shower pan three times, patched the mortar annually, and watched the driveway crack into uneven portions. Still we landscaped and planted, laboring to make beautiful the place that needed so much support. Arches spilling over with Fourth of July roses persuaded a buyer to take the lemon that had squeezed us for nearly twenty years.

Our next place was a rental because like the first small house, the old home in need of constant repair sold quickly. We had no place to go, and soon, we had no will to move again. Being able to pick up the phone and call for repair was delightful. It spoiled us, and we vowed never to buy a big place again. We also planned to avoid big, sprawling yards. And in this we succeeded, unaware that even tiny spaces cry out for adornment, walkways, borders and beauty. We threw ourselves into the tasks; our daughter painted every wall, earning money for her big move halfway across the country to a graduate school far, far away.

I found renewed delight in serendipitous finds: just the perfect color lamp base, a print that suited one wall as if it had been designed and conceived for it, furniture that comforted us as we rested. But the home was large and the upkeep unrelenting. We lived there, our fourth home, for six and one-half years, more than a year after we agreed to downsize. This one too, we believed, would sell quickly. Our limited experience persuaded us to believe in quick sales, and this home was our favorite, our showpiece, the largest. Surely buyers would hasten to our doors, offers in hand.

But it was not a favorite in the eyes of others. The countertops were manmade, not natural granite. The door handles were the wrong color. The paint on the walls too dark or too light or too bright or not green enough. The window treatments too plain, the yard too small, and the price never quite right so we waited, and in waiting, we acquired perspective as we, like Miss Maudie, reinvented the place we call home in a style more suitable to our age and taste.  We moved to a condo where our responsibilities are indoors, not out.

In waiting, I lost all affection for the home I once loved. It no longer looms large in my nostalgic moments. I think of the place as an albatross rather than a peacock arrayed. All those rooms, paint colors, Knockout Roses, and even the Japanese Maple no longer belong to me; they are scenery for a staged event: the sale of a home.

And this has carried over to my affection for the condo. I enjoy the views, the floor plan, and my neighbors, but I could let go of this place tomorrow if circumstances required that I do so. A home is just a blank canvas, a surface upon which to design, a space into which I fit. There have been and may be many more, and that’s just fine, certainly no disaster.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Guilty, But Not Responsible"

I enjoy watching The Contender (2000), a film about gender equality, double sexual standards, the Siren called Ambition, power and its abuse, missing moral compasses, ethical lines in the sand, and so much more. In that film, four words that serve as the title of this post, "guilty but not responsible," focus the viewers’ attention upon the venal and mortal crimes committed by characters. The film's President Evans, portrayed by Jeff Bridges, runs Senator Shelly Runyon up a flag pole and leaves him twisting in the wind, a political maneuver for which the president is guilty but Runyon himself the responsible party. Runyon initiates a smear campaign against the President’s appointee, Senator Laine Hanson, and even suppresses evidence proving the accusations he makes are lies.  So President Evans merely employs a bit of his own dissembling to bring about Runyon’s ruin.

Guilty but not responsible seems, to me, an apt phrase for much of what passes as human interaction these days. Paula Deen admits that she’s guilty of having used the N-word, but omits how supercilious her deeds have been, then excuses her racist tendencies as a product of a bygone time. In other words, she admits to certain guilt while forgiving herself as not responsible.

Edward Snowden is another who falls back upon the guilty but not responsible defense. He admits to being guilty of outing a government program that was, in fact, never a secret--if one listened to and read a wide array of news releases. Still, Snowden shirks the consequences of his actions; he wishes to dodge responsibility, evident in his flight from Hong Kong to nations less likely to cooperate with the strong, long arm of the law in the United States. He's guilty of the crime, but doesn't wish to do the time.

Furthermore and more important, we citizens are guilty but not responsible as well. We enjoy the conveniences of GPS location services, pride ourselves on our Google Fu, and delight in having vendors pitch savings at us after we’ve searched online for an item. We are guilty of consummate consumerism. We tuck in for a day with our Smart phones, electronic notebooks, Kindle feeds, and navigators, smiling at our newly found efficiency, tacitly endorsing all invasions of privacy in favor of convenience. We are guilty, but not individually responsible for the direction that technology has taken us.

We are also guilty of not lamenting the loss of our privacy. We let others know what level we’ve reached in the latest online game. In fact, we boast about our Candy Crush prowess. We share the nittiest and grittiest details of birth, and we mourn the death of everything from restaurants to loved ones quite publicly. We announce what tunes we’re hearing in earbuds that prevent us from hearing oncoming buses. We stare at our screens instead of watching out for oncoming concrete posts or the edge of subway platforms.

Still we decry the government when it collects a list of numbers we call frequently, and we look for remedy when someone adds up all the personal data we post in order to steal our identities. We are guilty of releasing those telephone calls and identity details into the great world wide network of data, but we’re sort of alarmed when someone gathers it to create a picture of us. We are guilty, but prefer not to accept responsibility.

I wonder just how far we are willing to go to shoulder responsibility. Would you give up Facebook in order to take a slice of its off-shore profits, downloaded in the form of an endless stream of advertising becoming more and more prominent in the stream? Or would you remain guilty but not responsible by nattering about your personal life online? 

Would you join the Constitutionally legal peaceful protests known as Moral Mondays in North Carolina at the risk of having your face, city of residence, age, and occupation posted online? Or would you shrink into invisibility in order to preserve some modicum of anonymity and perhaps even job security?

Some of our greatest national Civil Rights figures have chosen to be guilty AND responsible. Medgar Evers is one. He made public the blockades to voting rights and brought national attention to the horrific crimes against Emmett Till. His actions literally put his life on the line in Mississippi as he had willingly done during his World War II service, and his actions at home killed him--a bullet fired at his back as he stood on the most domestic of all places, the driveway access to his own home. Martin Luther King, Jr. also comes to mind. He practiced civil disobedience and accepted the consequences of his actions. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail has helped us learn just to what extent he was responsible, so much so that he continues to inspire.

And surely, on this day, July 3rd, 2013, two hundred and thirty-seven (237) years after a revolution to found a nation free and independent of British rule and one hundred and fifty (150) years after the Blue and Gray met on a Gettysburg hillside to fight for the unity of that free and independent nation, we take pride in the guilt of all those who stood to fight for a noble cause because they were responsible to an idea that has endured. We owe the Founders and convicted more than we can repay. 

In their shadows, we should ask ourselves: to what should the rest of us aspire? Should we step aside and hold others accountable, or should we share the burden of responsibility even if it means surrendering some of the conveniences we hold dear or paying more for the privileges and opportunities we enjoy? Should we re-read the Constitution in an effort to comprehend what it is we stand for and which branch of government is truly responsible instead of laying blame on anyone and everyone except the party responsible? Will we shirk our responsibility to understand the Constitution and continue to let others interpret for us? Will we act to preserve privacy or sacrifice privacy in favor of the illusion of safety? And above all, will we demand that our elected officials have a solid understanding of the Constitution, including the utmost respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? More important, will we demand that our elected officials secure life, liberty and paths to happiness for the many, or just the few?