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Toward a More Perfect Union

“Let us not talk falsely now. The hour’s getting late.” Bob Dylan (All Along the Watchtower)

Perhaps, with the title of this post, I’m setting the bar too high, implying that we are anywhere in the same galaxy, let alone neighborhood, of something approximating a true democracy, a swamp-less America. On the other hand, at this point almost any little uptick in our nation’s health, unprompted by greed or outright corruption, would be a step toward a better, if still far from perfect, union. It’s gotten so that when I hear some pundit put two coherent sentences together, I find myself thinking they could be president.

Well, if any clown can grow up to be president, as TheRUMP proves daily, then I feel it’s only fair that I get my 2¢ in and deliver my own State of the Union address here. Without the hyenas who applauded every syllable, garbled or not, out of the OrangeOne’s mouth. Without their annoying, puerile chant USA, USA, USA!

Actually, my SOTU is not so much about what is (sad, as our twittering POTUS likes to tweet), but more about what could be. Therefore, having established my right to blather on (isn’t that how things are done these days?), I’m delivering my 10-point plan for an America that represents the many rather than the few, a more humane and democratic nation and, by extension, a better world.

1. Number one, front and center, VOTERS RULE, and everyone gets to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be fully restored, Citizens United will be dumped outright, and anyone caught gerrymandering districts or closing polling stations (as happened with Dodge City in the 2018 elections) or “tinkering” with voting machines will find themselves booked on a one-way trip to Deep Space. Byeee! The days when a thug like Brian Kemp could delete  some 800,000 voters from the rolls as Georgia’s Secretary of State, thereby stealing the governorship for himself, are OVER. In my America, Stacey Abrams is the rightful governor of the Peach State.

One person, one vote. No more electoral college (which, hilariously enough, was designed in part to prevent “unqualified” persons, like the one we have now, from becoming president). No more voter suppression: No impossible/ridiculous ID requirements. No lines out the door and around the block at polling stations. No intimidation tactics.

And I want to see a big, clear PAPER trail. No white-out.   


2.  We can achieve #1 because all citizens will be first-class citizens, and everyone will enjoy EQUAL RIGHTS and OPPORTUNITIES. Gay, black, brown, Muslim, female, Jew, atheist, transgender, teacher, garbage collector, unemployed steel worker, 7-11 counter person. We will stop this nonsense about a level playing field, and officially recognize, and legislate for the fact that billionaires and their kids, jetting off from their private helipads to one of their many homes, don’t quite face the same hurdles in life that, say, a single mom working at Mickey D’s and her kids must navigate. We will do everything we can to knock the support props out from under the privileged few and level that damn field for the struggling many.

Equal rights for everyone also means that everyone enjoys EQUAL PROTECTION under the law. The next racist cop who shoots a black teen for looking at his cell phone funny, that cop is going to Sing-Sing for life. Without parole. [I do want to note that I have met many a decent cop, most touchingly, a couple of officers in New York’s Little Italy, who were very protective of and sympathetic to the poverty, addictions, and visible struggles of their peeps. If we want good community policing, we should use them as our model.]

3. FREE PUBLIC EDUCATION for everyone through college or trade school. If we throw up our hands at people so ignorant/uninformed that they continually vote against their own true interests, consider this: We are a country who puts up road blocks to a literate, thinking citizenry at every juncture of education. Underfunded public schools. Overcrowded classrooms staffed by underpaid teachers. Ridiculous college costs, which leave students staggering under debt for years, and prevent many more from even attending.

And it’s getting worse. The push for charter schools at the expense of public schools by the DeVos wing of TheRUMP regime has closed many of our public schools already, and tends to favor no separation of church and state. At least six states—Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia—have pending legislation that would make “Bible literacy classes” part of the public school curriculum.

An uninformed electorate may be easier to control through prejudice and baseless fears, but it doesn’t make for a strong, innovative society, and it doesn’t make for happiness either, if our high rates of depression and substance abuse are anything to go by.

4. We need to stop monkeying around and slap on MASSIVE MANDATORY ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS NOW. Nothing else matters if we don’t do this. Without this, we might as well be ordering donuts for our last cup of coffee.

The Green New Deal outlines broadly how the U.S. should combat climate change over the next decade, but we need specifics today. Here’s a few:

Zero tax breaks for companies who 1) directly pollute our land, water, or air; 2) whose production methods harm the planet (think anything that uses palm oil, which is created by destroying large swaths of rain forest and animal habitats); 3) whose end products pose peril to the earth and its oceans—plastic bags or straws, for example.

All corporations must transition 20% of their total operation each year to green energy and green/sustainable practices, for a 100% transition within five years, or we SHUT THEM DOWN.  No more drilling, fracking, coal production, or factory farms. No more toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of so many products from foods to plastics to cosmetics. We need stuff we can eat, handle, and wear without fearing for our lives.

It’s insane that we’re not already doing these things, considering scientists are saying we have only a decade left to avert the worst climate disasters (our extinction being one of them), and ice at both poles is melting like a DQ snow cone at the height of July.

What gives with these high-pollutin’ fossil fuel billionaire morons, anyway? They could have transitioned to solar and wind power and every other green thing forty years ago. Become leaders in the green-tech field, and still raked in the big $$$. (QED: Being rich does NOT equal being smart.)

But they (and many other corporate entities) seem to be stuck in the 1950s, when steel was “king” and coal was the leading fuel for generating electricity. Stuck in the time-warp of a fabled all-powerful America where (white men) ruled the roost while (white) women fixed their dinners and birthed their babies, and all people of color rode under the bus.

Wake up boys. The heyday of the steel mills that employed 700,000 workers in 1948 is over. Today, those mills are down to 83,000 people. Other countries, less afraid of introducing new, more efficient technology, got the jump years ago. And burning coal, besides being an environmental nightmare, is no longer economically feasible. In mid-February, against TheRUMP’s expressed wishes, the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to close a large coal-fired power plant, Paradise #3, in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky—a plant made famous by John Prine’s song “Where Paradise Lay.”

We need to be training coal miners and other displaced workers for the clean-energy jobs of the future. A future we must adopt NOW if we don’t want life on the planet to be just a memory tomorrow.

And no whining about how unaffordable it is to retool for a green planet. When Joy Reid asked Senator Ed Markey how the Green New Deal would be paid for, he reminded her that the cost of cleaning up from the rising number and worsening damage of climate-caused disasters will be in the trillions. And that doesn’t include the indefensible cost of lives lost. In short, we can’t afford not to go green.

I also don’t want to hear any lobbyist yammering about free enterprise or government interference in corporate rights. As far as I’m concerned, their rights end where endangering our lives begins. Clean energy. Clean water. Clean air.

5. UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE. I feel like I have been shouting this for 40 years (probably because I have been shouting this for 40 years) but AMERICA IS THE ONLY DEVELOPED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD THAT LACKS UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE.

Everyone else is free to sleep peacefully and go about their day joyfully in these other countries, at least when it comes to knowing that they won’t be dumped by the wayside and left to rot, or completely bankrupted and made homeless if they develop something more serious than, say, a cold.

The U.S. ranks the highest in healthcare spending among the developed nations. Universal healthcare will bring down the cost for everyone. I’m betting the increase in my tax bill wouldn’t begin to equal the increase in my healthcare premiums since TheRUMP’s monkeyed with the ACA.  And I’d rather pay taxes to fund healthcare than the slaughter of children in Yemen or building TheRUMP’s “mini-nukes.”

By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why our healthcare is so expensive, I have a little story a friend told me some 20 years ago. He was playing piano in a trio at a dinner bash for insurance company execs, who were merrily washing down their filet mignon with bottle after bottle of cognac—at $750 a pop. I’m guessing with inflation, those bottles now go for a grand-plus. 

So, no more Big Pharma billing us twice what we earn in a month for a drug they sell elsewhere in the world at a fraction of the price (nearly all countries except the U.S. have policies, price controls, and regulations limiting drug company profits). No more pushing drugs on us we don’t need, thus rendering half the country opioid addicts. (The US makes up 5 percent of the world’s population and consumes approximately 80 percent of the world’s prescription opioid drugs.)

Our reps and senators enjoy stellar healthcare and we foot the bill for it. The way I see it, what’s good enough for them is good enough for the rest of us.

6.  It’s beyond appalling how many two-faced GOP duffers, themselves the children and grandchildren of immigrants, are railing on about the (bogus) “threat at our southern border,” backing ICE, and denying people their legal right to apply for asylum. Way beyond appalling that thousands and thousands of children were ripped away from their families (with little or no record-keeping or a plan to reunite them). Unconscionable that ICE is dumping people in prison camps hastily erected by, and highly profitable for private company buddies of TheRUMP—an outright crime that has resulted in the deaths of several children.

So, listen up, we are having a total rededication to old Lady Liberty. In the words of Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

As for anyone seeking asylum, if you can make a reasonably compelling statement, whether it’s in English, Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna or Ewokese—say, Because U.S. foreign policy and CIA knavery of the past 60 years have made my country a hellhole—well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re in. Welcome to America. Care to learn the skills for a new green-energy job? We need you.

7. The issue of immigration, as I suggested in #6, brings up the whole question of foreign policy. So listen up, mighty OrangeOne and Blackwater and Exxon: No, you can’t take another country’s oil, topple their elected officials, suppress their protests, or cut off their trade with other countries. You can’t bomb other nations so you can steal their wealth or install your own dictators. After a century of talking up the right of nations to self-determination, we will finally walk the walk, honor self-determination, and keep our hands to ourselves. And our hands will not sell bombs and guns to nations who suppress other nations, commit genocide, or behead journalists.  

8. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Well, begging the trigger-happy NRA’s pardon, the more than 1.5 million Americans who have died a gun-related death since 1968 might wish to differ, if only they could. One-point-five-million. That’s more Americans than have died in all the wars we’ve fought, including World War II.

There were 346 mass shootings in 2017—not 346 deaths, but 346 mass shootings. Another 340 occurred in 2018. Night clubs. Schools. Movie theaters. Concert venues. And then there’s those little domestic scenarios where the toddler shoots her mother, or the brother shoots his baby sister. Or Dad shoots the entire family. So, hear me good: No assault rifles. No handguns. No open carry. No concealed carry. No “stand your ground” laws. NO GUNS. AT ALL.

9. Total government TRANSPARENCY. No one we elect and/or pay the salary of hides from us what they spend our money on, or the findings of special investigations into, say, the corruption of the president, his cabinet cronies, fellow criminally-inclined congresspersons, and their various fixers. We are your constituents. We are your BOSSES. We elected you to represent us and to serve our best interests. We demand to know exactly what’s going on. And if you were appointed rather than elected, you were appointed to serve the interests of the country and uphold the Constitution, NOT to massage TheRUMP’s rump. Got that, William Barr?

One More Thing

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Geeze, Ame, you sound like the Green New Deal on steroids. How many decades and decades of Congressional sessions would it take to write up, introduce, and vote on all these proposals, and would there be anyone left on Earth by the time we got all this done, even if Mitch McConnell only lasts another 200 years?

Good question. Of course, we could knock most of this into a hat if we just adopted my tenth proposal, and went global with it:

10. NO ONE gets more than a million dollars until EVERYONE on the planet has a decent home and full healthcare. Until EVERYONE receives as much education/job training as they care to pursue. Until EVERYONE has clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, and plenty of healthy food. Until EVERYONE has some fun money, time for regular vacations, and a secure retirement.

The main reason we are in such a huge mess domestically and globally is because a handful of billionaires are dictating the terms—no taxes for the rich, freedom to pollute the planet to death, low wages for workers, endless war—and choosing who gets into office and how they will vote. I guarantee you that if NO ONE is allowed to have more than a million dollars, our campaign finance problems—the Koch brothers/Shel Adelson/DeVos-family et al.—will be solved. You can’t donate $300 million or even $30 million if you have zero millions.

A couple of stats to underscore my point here:

  • The 400 richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the nation.
  • Globally, 42 people have as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest folks. Yes, 42 people have as much wealth as the poorest HALF of the WORLD.

So, I repeat. No one gets more than a million dollars until everyone has what they need. All income over $1 million will be taxed, retroactively, at 99.99%. So sell those extra dozen houses, private jets, helipads, and pay up, you billionaires. There will be no more off-shore accounts. No tax havens. No tax loopholes like the ones that gave Amazon a free pass for federal taxes this year, despite the $11.2 billion in profits the company reaped for 2018.  

The billions and billions and billions that we who work have made for the planet’s richest 42 people? That money comes back to us. Then we won’t have to worry about Social Security or Medicare or public school funding or the cost of infrastructure. The people in the world’s poorest countries will have running water and homes and schools and healthcare—a chance to live their lives rather than merely trying to survive starvation day to day.

Perhaps it is the Green New Deal on steroids. I make no apologies. Instead, I’ll sign off with the words of George Bernard Shaw, tweaked by Robert Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

Why not, indeed?

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The Joy of Grousing: 10 Things I Can Live Without in 2019

In the depths of winter, watching my cats chase their tails, and regretting that I have no tail to chase, I ponder how I’ll survive still more months of boots and snow and frigid gray, knowing dark day after dark day remains before I can break out my flip flops and tank tops, before I can roll down the car windows and crank up Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone.

And TheRUMP’s still sitting in the Oval.

Gary Kramer: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

As Thomas Paine noted, These are the times that try men’s souls.

So, this month I’m blowing off some steam, indulging in a grouse-fest. No, not those funny little birds with the nifty tails, but grumbles about what are, admittedly, First World problems. We have not yet surrendered our right to kvetch.  

Here, then, in no particular order are: 

 10 Things I Can Do Without in 2019

1. Sloooooow right-turning drivers. I don’t know if this is endemic to my little town in the Northeast or if it’s a national epidemic, but what is so complicated about making a right turn? I’m sitting there, four cars back, say, when the light goes green. I rev my engine hopefully but nothing happens. No one moves. Is the driver at the front breezily chatting on their phone? Chowing down on a take-out taco? Are they napping? Dead?

Just as I’m fantasizing about mounting a loudspeaker on my car roof like Jake and Elwood in The Blues BrothersOkay folks, let’s whip it up here. Turn! Turn! Turn!—the green light changes to yellow, and I see the front car slowly, slowly making that right turn, a maneuver it completes just as the light goes red.

2. Clueless and/or surly salesclerks. Okay, I’ve worked my share of humdrum jobs and I’m familiar with the adage Minimum work for minimum wage, but when I ask what aisle the gingerbread is in, I don’t want a smirk and a shrug. I don’t want to be told “Beats me.” I want clarity: You’ll find that in aisle three. I want a pro-active attitude. I’m not sure but I’ll find out. I want you to live up to the snappy words on your company tee-shirt: Friendly, Helpful, Knowledgeable, Courteous. (And what kind of acrostic is FHKC???) 

3. Retail Seasonal Disorder. While we’re dealing with retail, why is it that when I’m searching for Halloween decorations in September, the seasonal aisle is filled with Christmas stockings? Then two months later, when I want Christmas stockings, I’m greeted by shelves stacked high with Valentine’s candy boxes? Better grab one now (however stale the candy will be on February 14) because by mid-January, the only thing on offer will be plastic picnic tablecloths and citronella candles. Chill, retail people. Don’t rush the seasons. Be where you are.

4. Password Frenzy. Speaking of the need to chill, what is it with all these websites that demand you change your password every time you log in? Don’t they realize that the average Internet user already has something like a zillion passwords to juggle, each of them with a dozen characters—numbers, capitals, ampersands and pound signs? Okay, maybe this level of hyper vigilance makes sense for credit card accounts, but Rewards card sites? Box-office aggregators? Healthcare billing systems? The stated purpose for this ever-shifting quicksand of passwords is to keep cyber-thieves in the dark. Well, I’m in the dark. My passwords are a mystery to me. And if some hacker really feels like picking up the tab for my dental insurance, I say let them go right ahead.

5. Wise-a$$ printers. Since we’re in the land of cyberspace, I’ll mention a recent come-on I received from Staples, a sign-up for something called “Smart Ordering.” Ink and toner automatically ordered by your printer before you run low, the promo ran.

Ink and toner ordered at the whim of my printer? Charged automatically to my credit card? I’ll give this the same response I gave my (former) pets’ vet team when they suggested I leave my credit card on file at their clinic—a clinic that loved nothing more than to think up all the possible tests, lab work, procedures, et cetera it could perform on my cats. After collapsing in a helpless heap of laughter, I told them: Not. On. Your. Life.

6. Auto automatons. Following up on the mania for granting technical gizmos human powers, is anyone else hyperventilating about all this near-future hoopla over self-driving cars? And not only self-driving cars, but TheRUMP is now pushing for self-driving buses and trucks. Big trucks.

According to the Washington Post, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is “extremely concerned” about the impact these autonomous vehicles will have on the nation’s workforce. Hell, I’m concerned about the impact they’ll have on human life. The day 18-wheelers start cruising the Interstate under their own steam is the day I burn my driver’s license and become a full-fledged pedestrian. A pedestrian who avoids the shoulder. Who maybe cuts through backyards and wooded lots. I read Stephen King’s Christine.

Okay, take a deep breath. Onward.

7. Days full of errands and appointments. Do I need to say more? Is there anyone out there who jumps out of bed and shouts Whoopee! I’ve got to go to the hardware store and the supermarket, then straighten out that billing mess with the electric company, and after lunch, it’s the dentist!

rawpixel

My idea of nirvana is a blank calendar. A month of pristine days, unsullied by boring places to go and annoying things to do. Don’t worry—I’ll think of some way to fill those long, lovely hours.

8. Life revisionists. The tendency to paint a picture-perfect life in holiday letters, or on Facebook and Twitter has reached epic proportions. You know, the gentle fictions where the writer goes from success to success—a volley of promotions, a whirlwind of exotic vacations. All is happiness and the kids are geniuses, enrolled at Harvard or Georgetown.

Matt Lamers@lamerbrain

These narratives remind me of Garrison Keillor’s fabled town Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” For anyone out there who feels the temptation to gild the lily, know that we’ll still love you even if you admit to being warty humans like the rest of us. In fact, we’ll probably love you more.

Kreefax fotolia

9. Robotic interrogation. When I call a company regarding a problem with their product or service, I want to talk to a REAL PERSON. I do not want to suffer an hour of robotic interrogation, while shouting YES! and NO! into my phone, only to be disconnected (arrrggghhhh!) during the transition to an actual person (if such a person exists) who might have helped solve my problem.  

Jason Bedrick

10. Rudy Giuliani. I want him to stop explaining why Mueller and/or Hillary should be investigated. I want him to stop bragging that he can produce 20 witnesses to defend TheRUMP’s hush money payments (he can’t). I want him to stop pretending he has a working brain. Just … shut … up.

My daughter Lauren wrote a scathing letter to this charlatan when she was in second grade and he was mayor of New York, lambasting him for his reactionary racist policies. If an 8-year-old can see through you, it’s time to stop the charade and remove yourself to some remote island where you can’t annoy anyone.

Okay, I’m stepping down from my soapbox. As the patient in one of my favorite cartoons says (having just tossed his shrink out the window), “Gee, I feel better already.” Spring is nearer than it was when I started this post. I can almost smell the lilacs blooming. Feel the warm, gentle breezes caressing my toes.

And Mueller is closing in.

To Cast a Wider Eye

How little do they see what is, who frame their hasty judgments upon that which seems. (Robert Southey)

As a kid growing up in the Baby Boom that followed World War II, I was indoctrinated in what was to become the “official” American view of the French in that devastating conflict. The narrative went something like this:

With Hitler on their doorstep in the summer of 1940, the French turned cowards at Dunkirk, leaving in dire peril the 350,000 or so British soldiers who had come to their aid. Too lazy to fight for their country, the French let the Germans overrun Paris. But what could one expect, really? They were pretty much Nazi-sympathizers and collaborators, who after the war hid their cowardice and complicity by claiming some mythically high number of French Resistance members.

The anti-democratic and collaborationist policies of Marshal Pétain’s Vichy government, who signed an Armistice with Germany in June of 1940, only served to reinforce this unflattering portrait of cowardice and collusion.

Of course, this neat narrative, like all pat explanations, is woefully simplistic and more than a tad xenophobic. Whole libraries have been written about World War II, and to read even a small portion of this documentation is to quickly grasp the thick tangle of issues and personalities involved.

Nazis March into Paris (AP Photo)
  • The rapid and unexpected collapse of the Maginot Line, which the French had built in the 1930s, believing it would significantly slow any invading force and protect their industrial basin in Alsace-Lorraine.
  • The struggle for control of France’s overseas empire between the collaborationist Vichy government and the Free French forces aided by Britain and the United States. A sort of war within a war.
  • Concerns about preserving Paris from the utter annihilation that artillery, tanks, and bombs would bring.
  • And, of course, the continual disagreements among the various political and military leaders—French, British, and (eventually) American—about best responses to any and all these issues.

A description of Oxford historian Robert Gildea’s book Fighters in the Shadows illustrates the knotty muddle of just one part of this mix:

“[The] French resistance was part of a Europe-wide struggle against fascism, carried out by an extraordinarily diverse group: not only French men and women but Spanish Republicans, Italian anti-fascists, French and foreign Jews, British and American agents, and even German opponents of Hitler. In France, resistance skirted the edge of civil war between right and left, pitting non-communists who wanted to drive out the Germans and eliminate the Vichy regime while avoiding social revolution at all costs against communist advocates of national insurrection.”  [My italics.]

So, what are we to believe here? How do we separate the strands of fact from fiction? Is there some larger question we should be asking before we rush to judgment?

This past September, I viewed an exhibit, “Renewal: Life After the First World War,” at London’s Imperial War Museum. A section of the exhibit focused on the impact of that war on France. Like many people, I’ve seen countless movies about the fighting in the Somme, at Verdun and Amiens. The endless stretches of gut-ripping barbed wire. The hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. The shell-shock and gassing. Brutality on steroids. But it wasn’t until I saw the dozens of photos in the IWM exhibit that I understood how thoroughly France had been devastated. They took a drubbing like no other country in that war. The photos looked like the images we see of Syria today. Whole towns and cities reduced to rubble. Acres and acres of farmland and countryside blackened, barren.

Gazing at these photos—casting a wider eye—a light bulb went on. I realized the deeper, pertinent question was not were the French cowards in the face of the Nazi onslaught, but given the utter devastation to their country, the mind-numbing loss of people and towns, the years and resources it took to rebuild after that first war, who in their right mind would be eager to rush into a second annihilation?

To cast a wider eye in search of a deeper understanding is not to court “alternative facts,” but to consider the full scope of a situation, what the law calls the “mitigating circumstances.”

Mitigating Circumstances

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a case worker in social services, told me about a Vietnamese family she knew, a single mother and her ten-year-old son.

The family came to her attention after an incident at the child’s school. The boy became ill in class one morning. When the school called the mother’s workplace, they learned that she had not been employed there for the past four months. No, there hadn’t been a problem with her work. Staff had simply been cut by a third. It was 2008. People were being laid off everywhere.

Mom wasn’t at home either. When questioned as to where she might be, the boy eventually said she was with “Uncle.” What was his uncle’s name? The boy shook his head. “Uncle” was what his mother called the man who paid their rent and gave her some money for groceries. Pressed further, he admitted she left him alone 3-4 days each month to go off with “Uncle.” She left food for her son and told him not to let anyone in the apartment, but he got scared sometimes at night when she was away, he confessed. 

Clearly, this was not a good situation. And the first response of many might be to call social services and report the mother as a delinquent parent whose child should be removed to foster care.

Fortunately, the person—a former teacher—who made the call cast a wider eye over the situation. Why would this woman—a devoted mother who never missed a parent-teacher conference, whose former part-time job had allowed her to be home when the boy returned from his after-school program each day, who slept on the sofa in their tiny apartment so that her son could have the single bedroom—why would this woman leave her child alone for days at a stretch to go off with some man?

She asked herself what were the mother’s choices? Laid off from her job, with a child to house and feed, as an immigrant with little education, what alternatives did she have?

And that question made clear the path forward. That the way to help this struggling family was not to tear it apart. That the relevant question here was not parental fitness but basic survival.

The mother was given help in finding a new job that would work with her son’s school hours. She was also encouraged to enroll in a GED program—which she did—with an eye toward doing a two-year degree at the local community college. She and her son moved to a new address, one unknown to “Uncle,” and she was advised she could get a restraining order if he ever approached her again.

The Complicated Sticky Stuff of Life

Many people would not take an action that put their job at risk. And fewer still would trust a roomful of six-year-olds to keep their secret. My first-grade teacher did both.

Back in the day when teachers ran copies of math problems and spelling worksheets on something called a mimeograph machine, we had three holiday parties each year in my school: Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s. Leave-it-to-Beaver type moms called “room mothers” baked cookies for these occasions, and we played games. They were the three best days of school, and every kid eagerly awaited them. Except Tim.

Like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, Tim didn’t get to join in any holiday games. His parents were strict Seventh Day Adventists and celebrating holidays was a no-fly zone. They kept him home while we played Musical Chairs in our Halloween costumes. They kept him home while we ate fancy Santa Claus cookies and drank cocoa. But they didn’t keep him home for the Valentine’s Day bash. That was because our teacher did not tell them about the Valentine’s party. And, with a finger to her lips, she asked us not to tell anyone about her omission.

Yes, yes, I know this is so not kosher. When I recounted this story during seminar in my M.Ed. program, I thought the instructors would faint on the spot just hearing it. We are talking a “fetch the smelling salts” level of horrification here. And I get that. The parents’ wishes must be respected. Kids should not be asked to keep secrets. It is serious stuff.

And yet. 

When my teacher asked for our complicity, she explained it was so Tim could join in our Valentine’s celebration. If we blabbed, Tim would miss yet another party.

Six-year-olds are more savvy than they are often given credit for. There wasn’t a child in the room who didn’t understand the stakes for Tim. There wasn’t one of us who hadn’t felt the yoke of adult choices crushing our own power to choose. I believe no one said a word.

What I recall about that Valentine’s party is that it was the best of all my elementary school holiday parties. A normally quiet child, Tim laughed out loud throughout the festivities and hooted joyfully when he won the egg and spoon race. It was his day. And we were all witnesses to this miraculous event—the rebirth of a classmate.

Was the teacher right to ignore the parents’ wishes concerning their child?

Was she wrong to give a child a day of happiness and a sense of belonging?

Life is frequently much more complicated, more tangled, than yes and no. Rules do not admit of extenuating circumstances, and yet what of consequence does not involve extenuating circumstances? What are the exceptions and who decides?

Not the Whole Story

On my first—and last—summer home from college, I worked at the local mall. My favorite co-worker was a girl named Marion. Buoyant and bubbly like a 1960s sitcom Donna Reed, she made me laugh and I made her laugh and it was a very jolly way to pass the hours in a minimum-wage prison. After my last shift before returning to college, we hung out for an hour or so at a Labor Day weekend fair, set up in the mall parking lot. We rode the Scrambler, the Tilt-a-Whirl, and some other ride that took us stomach-lurchingly high in the air and turned us upside down. Then I gave Marion a lift home. We would not be seeing each other again that summer. And though I didn’t give it any real thought at the time, in all likelihood we would never see each other again. Which is, perhaps, what made the next thing possible.

As she got out of the car—moving quickly, beyond reach of a comforting hug, beyond hearing any possible reply I might give—Marion whispered over her shoulder, “My grandfather used to rape me every night.” With those words, she was gone, up the walk, onto the porch, the screen door banging behind her, leaving me stunned.

So much seems simple and clear—until you dig a little deeper. Until you pull the camera back and cast a wider eye.

Casting a wider eye doesn’t always make things clearer. In fact, it tends to muddy the neat narratives we seem to prefer, with their clear steps leading to tidy conclusions. In the judgments we make, we are often like the fabled blind men describing an elephant, drawing overarching conclusions about the whole from a limited experience/knowledge. What we have heard or seen may be part of the story, but not the whole story.

Judgment involves a willingness to look beyond what seems obvious, the patience to gather and sift seemingly contradictory facts, and compassion.

Above all, compassion.

Be Kinder Than is Necessary

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”  (Winston Churchill)             

I was driving along in August—98˚ in the shade, rush-hour traffic inching forward, some Cars tune on the local oldies station—when I noticed a bumper sticker on the Honda to my left: Be kinder than is necessary. Something lifted in my heart. A breeze penetrated the mug. At the next opportunity, I pulled over to the side of the road and jotted down those words on the back of a grocery receipt. Be kinder than is necessary.

To say we live in divisive times is like saying arsenic will kill you. Duh. And there are real issues we must confront attached to these divisions—racism, immigration, misogyny, healthcare, the environment, democracy itself—but that’s in the aggregate. On a molecular level, each of us deals with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—our neighbors and fellow community members. Not cardboard demographic representations. Not a frenzied TheRUMP rally mob screaming “Lock her up!” Or a deluge of polls dividing us 60/40, 40/60, 50/50. But real people with real faces. If we want to build a better world, this is an excellent place to start.

Wax and Wane

Homo sapiens are a quirky little species. We are both caring and cantankerous. Principled and sheeplike. Social and self-absorbed. Among our many tendencies is the kindness we demonstrate in moments of major crisis—natural disasters, wars:

Texas Military Department

Houston resident Jack Schuhmacher rescued numerous people trapped by the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, ferrying them to safety in his 17-foot fishing boat. 

Hermine “Miep” Gies, her husband, and three other Dutch citizens risked their lives for more than two years to hide Anne Frank’s family and four other Jews from the Nazis. It was Miep who grabbed Anne’s diary in the mayhem of the arrests, keeping it safe until Anne’s father returned from Auschwitz in 1945.

International Auschwitz Komitee

Sadly, the sense that we’re all in this together tends to go dormant once a crisis wanes. People return to insular mode, making a living and looking after their own turf. Petty concerns predominate and rancorous rivalries erupt. Twitter wars ensue. But the reality remains: We ARE all in this together every day. If anything ultimately dooms us, it will be our failure to recognize the truth of this.

Beyond Necessity

Be kinder than is necessary. But, what is “necessary kindness”?Is it merely good manners—holding the door for someone carrying a child or packages, thanking someone who does the same for us? Is it mouthing the expected platitudes in certain situations? I was so sorry to hear that your father died/ I hope you’ll find another job soon/Wishing you a speedy recovery. Perhaps the word necessary here serves as a synonym for the minimum response required to not be thought rude or heartless. We are busy, busy people after all, and it’s just not possible to extend ourselves to all the need out there.

Until it’s us. Our sorrow. Our disaster. Our need.

Fortunately, being kinder than is necessary rarely involves the sort of mortal risk Miep took in hiding the Frank family. Sometimes it’s just—literally—going that extra mile.

In my student days, while doing a semester at the University of London, several of us decided to go to Paris for a long weekend via the Hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais. Taking the train to Ramsgate was easy, but we had no idea where the docks were once we debarked. This was in the days before satnav, before the Internet and Mapquest. You got around mainly by asking the locals “Which way?”

The woman we asked for directions in Ramsgate could have reeled off a list of street names and left/right turns, as most people do. But she didn’t. Instead, she offered to walk us to the ferry landing, despite the fact that she was on her way home after a day of work, despite the fact that the docks were in the opposite direction of where she was heading. “It’s only a mile or so,” she said cheerfully, and off we went. I have never forgotten her.

A Simple Gesture Can Mean A Lot

Sometimes that extra shot of kindness is as simple as picking up your phone.

When I got into my VW Bug in the summer of 1983 and moved to Boston, I had just written my first novel. I had an IBM Selectric III, but nothing in the way of connections to editors or publishers. About a month after my arrival, I went for a haircut. During the usual salon banter, the hairdresser, Donna, asked what I did for a living. I explained I was the editor of a business publication for retailers, but what I really loved was writing fiction. Then I told her about my novel.

Now, she could have said that’s nice or I wish you luck or how exciting. But instead she said, “My cousin is an editor at Addison-Wesley. They don’t publish fiction but she might know someone working at another house. I’ll give her a call if you like.” I liked and she made the call right then. Her cousin invited me to have lunch with her in Reading (then-headquarters of A-W), at the end of which she called her old college friend, an assistant editor at Random House. My manuscript went out in the mail the next day. I received a lovely, enthusiastic note about the book from this woman. And though a senior editor later decided not to go with the manuscript, I was really grateful to my hairdresser, her cousin, and the RH assistant editor. It was my first experience wading into the often muddy waters of publishing, and their kind support kept me going.  

A double-shot of kindness is walking the walk. Demonstrating our compassion by offering material assistance, or bending the rules when people need help.

After a health emergency put the kibosh on a trip to London and Sicily—just days before we were scheduled to leave—I was faced with cancelling a slew of theatre tickets or losing a lot of $$$. Our Air B&B reservations and flights were refunded because we had trip insurance for those, but theatre tix always come with the disclaimer that all sales are final, no refunds. I wrote the various box offices anyway, briefly explaining our situation and asking if anything could be done. All but one of the twelve theatres refunded our money, and many wrote words of sympathy, expressing hope that Ed would be better soon. I was deeply moved by their kind notes and willingness to respond in a human way to a human situation. 

Paying It Forward: The Ripple Effect

And sometimes kindness with a capital K simply comes down to paying it forward.

Jerry took his first trip to America when he was just 23. Sent by his London employer to represent their firm at a meeting in New York City, he was cabbing to what he desperately hoped was the correct address. Upon sharing his anxiety with the cabbie, he was stunned to hear the man say, “Don’t worry. I’ll wait out front for you while you check it out. No charge.”   

Jerry couldn’t believe it. After everything he’d heard about the stereotypical New Yorker—self-absorbed, indifferent—he was blown away by this man’s kindness. “I promised myself right then that I would always seek ways to do something nice for Americans visiting the UK.” 

He told me this story as I was dining out with two friends in a cozy restaurant off London’s Baker Street. Jerry was a regular—knew the owner, the kitchen staff, loved to mix American-style cocktails for the diners. Overhearing us chatting, he came to our table to ask what part of the States we were from, a conversation that lasted well into the evening. And then he offered to take us to Pinewood Studios and show us around. He worked for Lloyd’s of London in their film insurance wing, and was scheduled for a meeting at Pinewood in the morning.   

We were excited—Pinewood Studios is a legend in British filmmaking. Fiddler on the Roof. The Man Who Would Be King. All of the Bond films. Jerry picked us up from our dorm in Regents Park the next morning and drove us to the studio where we enjoyed a tour of all the major sets and lunch with Pinewood’s director.  I have kept this photo of Jerry for decades, a memento of one man’s generous spirit.

Show a Little Faith

When I finally managed to make it through the drive-time traffic last August, I googled Be kinder than is necessary. The full quote, variously attributed, is Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

One of the bummer side-effects of our deeply-divided society is the suspicion and uncertainty it breeds among everyone. Rather than nodding and smiling at people we pass, we are now sizing them up at twenty paces—seeking clues from their clothing, hair, make of car, accent, job, vocabulary—and making snap assessments. Friend or foe? The anger out there becomes anger everywhere.

Is this making us happier? Is this solving our deepest, most pressing problems?

Categorizing comes easily to our species, but people as individuals are a lot more complicated than that. Yes, we have a swamp of BIG pressing issues and we need to fight for a more humane, just, sustainable world, but if we can’t show a little faith in each other, can’t open our hearts and stand by one another, what hope do we have?

Be kinder than is necessary. We must make that extra effort. Take that extra step. Open our generous hearts. Because we ARE all in this together. Every day.

The Assumptions We Make

We see the world not as it is but as we are. Most of us see through the eyes of our fears and our limiting beliefs and our false assumptions. (Robin S. Sharma)

Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions. (E. T. Bell)

Assumptions are made and most assumptions are wrong. (Albert Einstein)

Let’s start with a basic truth: We all make assumptions. Assumptions are “corner-cutters.” They save us time from having to ponder every little thing in the universe. We can reliably assume the sun will rise in the east each morning, that spring will follow winter, and that you can’t make a dollar out of ninety-nine cents. If we couldn’t make assumptions, we’d be nuts by noon.

But assumptions about the behavior of the sun or the order of seasons are founded on FACT (no Kellyanne, you cannot have alternative facts, now quit your whining). To riff on Neil deGrasse Tyson, the good thing about facts is that they’re true whether or not you believe them.

ASSumptions pigging out emotional_eatingWe also make assumptions based on collective human experience: You don’t extend your hand to a snarling dog. You don’t dive into water that’s over your head unless you can swim. You don’t eat the Giant Bag of Hershey’s Kisses and expect to lose weight.

Generally wise and good advice, but this is where the slippery slope begins. Collective wisdom slops over into wishful thinking, oozing down from there into a quagmire of pestilence—racism, homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, and other nasty prejudices.

Wishful Thinking

Wishful thinking encourages us to believe there are magical, no-fail formulas out there. To assume that if we follow a prescribed set of behaviors, the promised result is guaranteed. For example: Hard work and talent will be recognized and rewarded. ASSumptions person working hard Capture

We want to believe this because it promises we’ll get the promotion, the contract, the luxe house, and loads of recognition if we just apply our natural gifts and devote our life to the grindstone. But a random stroll through any number of small live-music venues on a Saturday night will show you dozens and dozens of singer/musicians to rival Ed Sheeran or Lady GaGa. Community theatre is bursting with aspiring actors, directors, and set designers who will never see Broadway except from the balcony. And corporate cubicles are packed with dedicated folks who will never get the windowed office in top management. Why? Place, timing, luck—the vagaries of life. Or  perhaps they didn’t go to Andover with the CEO.

Hard work and talent are good, but they’re not definitive in any individual case. And there’s a dark side to buying into believing they guarantee worldly success. What happens if you pull out all the stops, pour your heart and soul into your work, but the phone never rings, the promotion doesn’t happen, the glowing reviews fail to materialize iASSumptions dreaming of successn The New York Review of Books? Should you despair that you lack ability? Beat yourself up for not having worked 25 hours a day? For taking time “off” for family, friends, your health? Believing that the big payoff lies entirely within your control makes you the fall-guy no matter how gifted you are or what you’ve sacrificed.

So if some or all of the rewards for hard work and talent fall your way, revel in your good fortune, but do the thing you love because you love it, whatever the outcome.

More Wishful Thinking  

Psychologist John Cohen, author of Chance, Skill and Luck, says, “Nothing is so alien to the human mind as the idea of randomness.” Our brain, it seems, continually seeks cause and effect, to the point where we routinely twist two unrelated events into the most far-fetched correlation: I didn’t wear my lucky red shirt today, so of course I didn’t get the ASSumptions i ate bread, got sick, bread made me sickwinning lottery number. This constant quest for patterns is known as apophenia, and you can actually see evidence of it in magnetic resonance images.

Neuroscientists consider this search for cause and effect to be one of our most significant cognitive strengths, but like most strengths, it harbors a weakness: The assumption that everything happens for a reason.

Randomness feels threatening, so we employ Everything-Happens-for-a-Reason to explain and mitigate disasters that befall us, both personal and societal. To pair a disappointment or difficult struggle with a happy outcome. We want to believe there must be some positive point to all our suffering.

Example: I got dumped by my boyfriend so that I could meet someone better. Well, if your boyfriend was a mean-spirited SOB, hopefully you will meet someone better. The ASSumptions falsity of a reason for everythingodds might even be in your favor. But you were not dumped by Mr. Wrong so that you could meet Mr. Right. There is no guarantee Mr. R’s in the wings. Whoever you meet next is random, although your decision to act or not on any potential relationship is within your control, and (hopefully) informed by prior experience.

On a really dark note, I have heard “everything happens for a reason” used to rationalize the gun death of a child: “She was just too beautiful for this world, so the Lord took her to be with him.”  (Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall, screaming NO, NO, NO!) Fatal shootings of children in the home are the result of one or more factors—lack of gun safety laws, a failure to properly lock away weapons, no one’s watching the kids—but they do not happen so that something desirable can occur, so the Lord can take a child who is “just too beautiful for this world.”

Addressing our innate need to assign every event a purpose, Paul Thagard, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today: “As In history, economics, biology, and psychology, we should always be willing to consider evidence for the alternative hypothesis that some events occur because of a combination of chance, accidents, and human irrationality.”

That’s Just the Way It Is  

Here, that slippery-slope slide picks up a little steam. These are the assumptions we make because our particular culture says they’re true and so we seldom bother to challenge ASSumptions Competition standing on othersthem. For example, the widely-held notion that competition brings out the best in people. That competing, rather than collaborating, puts us on our toes, thus raising our performance.

The underlying assumptions here are several: 1) That our drive to best others, to make ourselves look better, is our dominant drive. 2) That our highest achievements are reached when we work in opposition to others. 3) That collaboration stymies top talent by forcing the most capable to work with those of lesser ability. 4) That clever, competent people don’t need help to achieve.

Well, look around you. Is this world an example of the “best” that we can be?

Solving problems is almost never the work of an individual besting others in competition. Finding solutions and advancing knowledge usually result from one of two collaborative models:

1) Developing a solution over time through a chain of individual contributions. The germ theory of disease gained acceptance in the late 19th century, but it was first proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546 and was advanced by degrees over the next 350 years through the work of numerous physicians and scientists.

2) Myriad talents, faced with a puzzle, work out various bits of a solution and share their ideas/findings. French philologist Jean-Franҫois Champollion is often credited with deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone, while the British Museum likes to point out that it was British scholar and physician Thomas Young who gave him the key clues for that decoding. But digging a little deeper, research shows that “as important as Young and Champollion’s research was, it emerged in dialogue

Lorenzo Gritti

with other famous linguists and Egyptologists, such as A.I. Silvestre de Sacy, who both taught Champollion and tipped off Young that cartouches might be an interesting place to look.

Our penchant for competition is strangling the world on many fronts. If, for example, we are going to slow the rapidly escalating dangers of climate change, halt the savaging of our oxygen-producing rainforests, and clean up our polluted rivers, lakes, and oceans, we must cooperate because the problems are bigger than one country, one corporation, one set of regulations. It’s global collaboration that will rescue the planet, not Pepsi competing with General Mills for who can burn down the most square miles of rainforest for palm oil plantations.

Related Nonsense

Another pervasive assumption is that private is superior to public. Private colleges versus public universities. Private health insurance versus universal healthcare. Private transportation versus public—the subway, Metro, Tube. In the minds of many, anything privately run, i.e. for profit, is assumed to trump all public versions of the same.  ASSumptions public lands

Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S. Returning to the States in 1984 after six weeks in Europe, I was horrified by how hard and beat up middle-class Americans looked. Heads down, shoulders hunched, a sea of scowls. Did they realize how unhappy they appeared? Did they acknowledge the toxic pressure of trying to survive in a society that values neither the social nor the public, a society that, as one friend put it, is really just a get-rich-quick scheme? Everything for a buck—it just wears people down. We could really use a break. But can we get one?

Most countries, including Slovakia and Romania, have government-mandated minimums for annual paid vacation, often 3-5 weeks. The U.S. leaves the question of paid vacation up to individual employers. Paid maternity leave is another important perk mandated by all the industrialized countries—except the U.S. (although California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and recently New York have enacted laws for this).

Of the top 51 highly-developed countries, only the U.S. lacks some type of universal healthcare systems. Is it any wonder that in a list of life expectancy by country, the U.S. comes in a shocking #43?

ASSumptions People enjoying public events ther-sq1_origTraveling abroad, I am always impressed by the wide array of free cultural events, the vast number of beautiful parks and public gardens, available for the enjoyment of all. A society that collects and spends money for the public good has always seemed to me to have a better public, a more literate, happier, healthier people.

As we in the U.S. face the prospect of losing our public lands and national parks to private companies for drilling, the closing of our public libraries and schools, the privatization of Medicare and the abolishment of Social Security, we need to take a long, hard look at this assumption that private is superior to public, and ask ourselves: Where is the evidence?

Danger: Deadly Bias Ahead

That slippery slope where our assumptions cartwheel freestyle from the fact-based down, down, down into a nasty quagmire of prejudice? We’re here.

Perhaps, the most pernicious—and human—assumption we make is that we are the norm. Human, because we are all locked inside our own skin. While we can (and should) empathize with others, make the effort to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, by default the view we see most clearly, and continually, is our own. ASSumptions prejudice discrimination 392592

This biological/psychological tendency, however, does not make you or me “the norm.” There are 7.2 billion of us on the planet. Clearly, there cannot be 7.2 billion “norms.” And thinking we are the “norm” is dangerous because it’s a short hop from that assumption to believing who we are is the one true “right way” to be. LGBTQ people become “deviants” because one is not gay or transgender. Women can be treated as objects and denied equal rights or fair pay because one is not a woman. People of color don’t deserve access to education, jobs, or decent housing because one is not a person of color. It’s okay to rip immigrant families apart and jail their infant children because one is not an immigrant. People with pre-existing conditions can be tossed under the bus because one doesn’t (yet) have a pre-existing condition.

This is too often the world we live in, and it’s not working out so well, is it?

The Assumption of Privilege

It’s easy for people who have grown up in countries untouched by war and unravaged by famine—who have always enjoyed comfortable shelter, access to healthcare, and free sunbathing on the beachpublic schools—it’s easy for these people, which likely includes most everyone reading this, to assume that just because they’ve always had these things, this life of relative privilege, they always will.

Wrong.

 

Regular readers of my scribblings here know I’m a BIG fan of history, and if history proves nothing else, it underscores the lightning swiftness with which one’s circumstances can change. Wiped out overnight with the whoosh of a tsunami or hurricane. Devastated in the space of a few days or weeks—the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii, the Great Plague of 1665 that killed 100,000 Londoners, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or annihilated in the slow but steady (two years, five years, ten) drip-drip of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, the evictions of Jews from their homes, the loss of their businesses, and the violence of Kristallnacht as thousands, then millions of Jews, gays, Communists, Romani, blacks, and the mentally disabled were rounded up and sent to the gas chambers.

SYRIA-CONFLICT
Agence France-Presse

CNN’s Sheena McKenzie writes of “How seven years of war turned Syria’s cities into ‘hell on Earth’”: Syria’s civil war, which marks its seventh year on Thursday, has transformed ancient cities into scenes of apocalyptic devastation… Architectural masterpieces dating back centuries have been annihilated. Bustling marketplaces turned ghostly quiet. And basic infrastructure — hospitals, schools, roads — has been pummeled into dust.

Everything you have can be taken from you. Healthcare, pension, breathable air, safe drinking water, a free press—the list goes on, grows daily. And if the right to protest in Washington, D.C. is outlawed, as TheRUMP would like, the way is paved for our voices to be silenced everywhere.

Perhaps the most dangerous assumption we can hold in this moment is that others will save our democracy. That we need do nothing. Someone will stop the threat—the courts or activist/advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Amnesty International. ASSumptions people-voting_5

When we assume that others will take care of things, however, we run the risk that no one will.

As I was doing the final edit on this post, news broke, first, of the bombs delivered to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, Maxine Waters and eight others (so far), followed by the shooting deaths of 11 members of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Anyone who doubts we live in perilous times (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) needs to have their head examined, as my dear old Ma used to say.

Two words: Go VOTE.

Yes, the Far Right is cleansing voter lists of blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans, and college students. All the more reason to double down.

VOTE. VOTE. VOTE.