Some Progress Is Always Better Than No Progress

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.  (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Along with debates, campaign speeches, and a slew of primaries, election years seem to bring out the cynics among us, all of them asking, “What’s the point?” Undoubtedly, there are some born-to-be-negative cynics, but I suspect most cynicism springs from disappointed idealism. People who hold a much-cherished Big Picture of a perfect world, and feel cheated and angry when it fails to materialize. All measures short of complete victory are tantamount to failure.

In all this, the Little Picture—the stories of real people in real time, their welfare, their fate—tends to get lost.

AUG 24 2 mlk_march_on_washington-PLet me be clear: Having a Big Picture view is essential to progress. Big Picture thinking allows us to see the connections between seemingly disparate events. It enables us to consider the extent of a situation: Is it local, national, global? An isolated incident, a series of coincidences, or a systemic issue? Grasping the Big Picture is key to formulating long-term goals and strategies. As the folk song says, it’s about keeping our “eyes on the prize.”

But, the Little Picture is where we live.

It’s where those featureless pixels in the Big Picture become recognizable faces, grow names, sprout human needs. Where a family of refugees tugs at your heart because you have a family, or have lived through a disaster, or are the child of immigrants. It’s the picture in which we recognize our humanity in the faces of others.

The Little Picture is not a selfie. It’s not about viewing the world from the comfort of your own armchair and asking “What’s the problem? I’ve got mine, Jack.” Not the egocentric attitude expressed by Mel Brooks’s character in The 2,000 Year Old Man: “Let ‘em all go to hell except Cave 76!”

It’s about seeing the actual lives behind the numbers. It’s about the significance of helping someone even when you can’t help everyone. It’s about remembering that someday, somewhere, that someoneAug 24 3 mlk_shaking_hands-P in desperate need of immediate aid may turn out to be your child, your parent, you. It’s the answer to “What’s the point?”

I was reminded recently of the significance of the Little Picture—how far its ripples on the larger pond can travel— in an e-mail from North Carolina Policy Watch. It seems that Americans tend to be pretty blasé about the routine nuts and bolts of our democracy, such as the selection of federal judges (which, by the way, is directly related to who’s in the Oval Office and who has the majority in the Senate). The federal judiciary is not the stuff of pumped-up passion and fireworks. Many of us would be hard-pressed to name even one federal judge. Yet, it wasn’t the Supreme Court, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that struck an “… immense blow for the future of democracy, inclusion, and the effort to combat discrimination” when it ruled North Carolina’s voter suppression law unconstitutional on July 29 of this year (NCPW). Similar U.S. Court of Appeals decisions have come down recently in Texas and Wisconsin.

Are these individual state rulings as good as Congress restoring the Voting Rights Act in its entirety? No. Are these decisions, which enable several million students and non-white voters (both targets of voter suppression) to have a voice in our elections, better than waiting for Congress to restore the VRA? Undeniably.

Waiting for Godot: The Perfect vs. the Good

Aug 24 4seniors_march_on_washington-PVoltaire wrote: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Big Picture is often the image of an ideal: Health care for everyone. Adequate housing and education for all people. Environmental standards that not only halt damage to the planet but actually reverse the destruction to our air, water, and soil. An end to all violence worldwide.

These Big Picture goals are admirable, majestic, profound. But the roughly 20 million Americans who now have health insurance, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, are not just numbers. They are diabetic teens and adults who did not die due to a pre-existing condition. They are children who did not die from a strep throat or a ruptured appendix because their parents cannot afford to pay $800 a month with a $3,000 deductible—in essence, paying an insurance company $10,000 a year and then having to pay for most or all of their healthcare expenses. They are people working 2-3 part-time jobs, whom no one will hire full-time because that would mean giving them benefits, including healthcare coverage.

So, is the ACA a failure because 30 million Americans still remain uninsured? As one of the millions of self-employed workers for whom it made healthcare possible, I am grateful every day. As one of the 7.4 billion human beings on this planet, I know we still need to do more.

But waiting for a perfect world, a perfect system, the perfect candidate—it’s like waiting for Beckett’s Godot. It just ain’t comin’. And nothing in history supports the idea that it ever will. So we can sit on our hands in protest at the imperfect or we can dive into the fray, do what we can to improve things for more people, and make good with what we get. In truth, I’m convinced it’s the only way to achieve anything. The journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step. We start with the Little Picture and strive to paint a larger, wider canvas from there.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 speaks to this eloquently.

The CRA came about:Aug 24 5 core-P

Because in 1961, black and white civil rights activists rode interstate buses into the segregated South. These “Freedom Riders” wanted to highlight the Interstate Commerce Commission’s failure to enforce earlier Supreme Court decisions that had ruled segregated public buses unconstitutional (Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 1946; Boynton v. Virginia, 1960).

Because in 1960, four black students held a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Within a week, the movement grew from four to 300, and the sit-ins fanned out to other segregated lunch counters in Greensboro, then to other cities and states across the Jim Crow South.

Because in 1957, the “Little Rock Nine”—nine black students, registered by the NAACP and escorted by federal troops—became the first black pupils to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School.

Because in 1955, Rosa Parks sat down on a bus and refused to give up her seat to a white woman when the whites-only section was full, thus sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Because a woman named Sarah Louise Keys had done something similar in 1952, as had Bayard Rustin in 1947, and Irene Morgan in 1944. Back and back to Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.

None of these actions freed all black Americans forever from discrimination and the savage violence of racism. Sadly, more than 50 years later we have ample proof of that. But that doesn’t diminish the Aug 24 next to last crop Aug 24 5 core-Psignificance of these advances or the courage of the participants or the outcomes of their actions. Taken separately, they are all Little Pictures. But they are also pieces of a much larger picture, one we are still painting. And despite setbacks, despite backlash, they have added up to real change for many, many Americans. That we still have a long way to go does not negate the lives improved, the lives saved. Each of them is, after all, someone’s only life.

The Starfish Story

I first heard the Starfish story when I was doing my M.Ed. It goes something like this:

A man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach where thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees a young woman picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But,” the man says, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The young woman bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the sea. “It will make a difference to that one.”

Everything we do that makes life a little better for another person matters.

And that’s the point.

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Source: All photos from the March on Washington, August 28, 1963:




One Disaster At A Time

“Life is just one damn thing after another,” American writer Elbert Hubbard once observed. Ah, if only it were that simple. In my experience, life is usually dozens of damn things, converging all at once like a bad pile-up on the Interstate.  But somehow, we’ve got to manage all the craziness bombarding us, so I’ve put together a little blueprint for meeting the challenge.


Two things to know here: 1) Life is always chaotic. 2) As humans, we are always trying to order this chaos. But how do you manage a thing like life? As with some fantastical dragon of yore, it seems to sprout two new heads for every one you slay. Revisions of one book teeter atop a stack of research for the rough draft of another, e-mails pile up in the Inbox, there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner, you’ve got a dental appointment, and your body is threatening mutiny if you don’t get to the gym soon. Over it all, dust settles on every surface and rolls in drifts across the floor like tumbleweed. A good day is when nothing arrives in the mail requiring your immediate attention.

Prioritizing, that mantra of you-too-can-be-organized gurus, is useful and arguably an absolute necessity when you’ve got a deadline (especially the sort involving contracts, lawyers, and money). But let’s be practical—sooner or later, someone’s gotta unload the dishwasher.

Posit #1: It is not possible to do everything at once. It is not even possible to always do the most important thing first. If you’re rushing to get edits done and the pipe bursts under the kitchen sink, are you going to finish Chapter 12 or call the plumber and start mopping?

This is where perspective comes in handy.


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In the 2015 film, The Martian, during a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets struck by debris, then lost, in a whammy of a dust storm. The biometer on his spacesuit is now busted and quits chirping, leaving the rest of his crew to assume he’s dead. In peril themselves, they boogie out of there. Watney regains consciousness to find himself alone, on Mars, with no working communications gear, a length of antenna lodged in his gut, and a limited supply of food in “the Hab” (the crew’s martian living quarters). His only hope is to survive until the next scheduled crew lands at the Schiaparelli crater 2000 miles away in four years.

I would argue that life doesn’t get more challenging than that.

Posit #2: If you’ve got most of your body parts, a working mind, and you haven’t been stranded on another planet, then there’s hope.  

But it helps to recognize and respect our human limits. Multi-tasking, that great savior of the ‘80s, turns out to be more myth than fact. Our computers may be able to open 12 windows at once, but we cannot. And trying to do so just results in a lot of stress, silly mistakes, and badly-burned dinners.

Which leads to the necessity of developing some basic life philosophy about our limitations and how to deal with them.

Basic Life Philosophy

When I was raising kids and teaching school and writing a book and doing the cooking, laundry, et cetera, I realized I would go right smack out of my head if I didn’t figure out some way to juggle the chaos. As with most things, necessity proved to be the mother of invention. One evening, with dinner bubbling on the stove, two dozen cupcakes baking in the oven for a fundraiser, and a pile of federal tax forms waiting on my desk, my daughter informed me we needed to do a science experiment that night for her class project the next day. She began listing the many items we would need. Wiping a strand of hair from my (tired) face, I gave her one of those smiles parents employ to keep from committing hara-kiri before their children’s eyes. “One disaster at a time,” I told her. Thus was born my succinct philosophy for managing the impossible.

Posit #3: You don’t need a 48-hour day (though if you know where one can be obtained, please write me immediately!). You need to exercise your power of choice.

Making Choices

CHOICE rHBf1lEaSc2nsbqYPQau_IMG_0177

A few weeks ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the stuff that needed doing RIGHT NOW.  And a tad cranky about how this was affecting the overall quality of my life. In a fit of take-charge/can-do, I made a list titled “Life Crushers.” (Okay, I was feeling very cranky.) On it were 11 items that felt like five-ton weights around my neck because it seemed: 1) I had to do them and there wasn’t time; 2) I wanted to do them and there wasn’t time; 3) I was just generally consumed with anxiety about them. Weirdly, I felt better as soon as I finished the list. Looking it over, I began to see choices rather than musts. I could work on two books simultaneously, or focus solely on the revisions for one, or take a break from writing. I could allot one day a week to deal with routine house stuff, tackle it in small doses daily, or wait until we have our next party. I could blog twice a month, once a month, never again. I made a list of 3-4 alternatives for each life-crusher. In most cases, my choices reflected my original goals, but the exercise helped me to see that I had more control and flexibility in my life than I’d realized. And that very little has to be done by any particular date.

Posit #4: You can slow the merry-go-round any time you want, rearrange the horses, or get off it completely. Yes, there are consequences for your decisions. Choice is not about escaping consequences. It’s about deciding what things you’re willing to pony up for and how high the price you’re prepared to pay.

At the close of The Martian, Matt Damon’s Watney (safely back on Earth) explains the reality behind their dreams to a class of wannabe astronauts. “At some point,” he tells them, “everything’s going to go south on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin … You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Hey, it’s one disaster at a time. It’s what we all do. It’s really all we can do.

It is enough.