Caring Cara

I don’t have a car. Other than the fact that automobiles are expensive to buy and maintain, I just prefer not having one.

In addition, I got used to public transportation while living in Europe so I don’t miss the personal mode of travel. I get around using the public version in the US just fine. That sets me apart from many Americans .  Cars are a form of worship here.

One of the consequences of my choice of movement is that I am exposed to folks I might not otherwise encounter if I drove. For example, there are the old age pensioners, people of different cultures and races and less well off who take the bus. Furthermore, I meet a lot of transportation service workers.

Having lived like this in the US for a few years now, I have grown comfortable around people who may have  a different background than I do. As a result, I tend to converse with them as “fellow travelers” (pardon the pun) in life. In fact, these days I am more like them than the humans I hung with in a previous version of myself and enjoy our talks.

Two such conversations took place yesterday as I was returning home from an overnight trip to the big city. Like Barney Fife I like to “go up to Raleigh” occasionally to get away from small city life. Otherwise I go stir crazy. In this case, I also left town because I had to see a specialist for a medical issue in the biggest metropolis in my state. I used the time to go to an NBA game and enjoy a decent hotel.

As I was waiting to buy a bus ticket home yesterday afternoon, a young African-American man was at the counter in front of me talking to the clerk. He wore a bright jacket containing patches celebrating national basketball championships of the major state university.

The ticket clerk, also African American, called me up to the counter. I looked at the fellow next to me and said,”I like your jacket.” He replied,”I appreciate it” and added,”I don’t like them.” That remark seemed incongruent to me, as did his personality. The guy seemed to be a little agitated and self absorbed.

What happened next caught my attention. The clerk said to him,”This is your ticket. Don’t lose it. Pay attention.”

After he left, she said to me,”Hi, my name is Cara. How can I help you?” I said,” ‘Cara’ as in ‘caring’. That’s what you are.” She smiled.

I added, “Sorry. I’m an English teacher so I like adjectives.” Cara answered,”Oh, I need people to teach me how to talk.” She then provided me some examples of what she saw as faults in her speech.

I told her,”Don’t worry about it. You talk just fine. I mainly like to teach people how to write.”

Cara exclaimed,”Oh, I’m a writer. I love to write.” This wonderful young lady then told me a story that both amazed and deeply saddened me.

“I was in on a journalism team in high school,” she said. She mentioned that her school was in a town most people know as the roughest place in our state.

“But then, one night I was at a football game,” Cara continued. “I was with my best friend from the journalism team. She was pregnant. I was too.

But there was a fight outside the stadium that night. She was shot through the stomach and died and another friend of mind was shot through the hand trying to protect her. After that, I was too shook up to return to school.”

So here I was  in the presence of a talented young woman working at a bus station selling tickets who seemed to have missed her chance at being a “somebody” in life through no fault of her own.  Who knows, she might have been a future Oprah Winfrey or Maya Angelou but for her tragic experience.

When I got back to my town, I hopped a local bus to go to the WalMart and resupply. As usual, I over-shopped and lugged too many plastic bags full of groceries onto the return bus.

I also wasn’t quite with it. The driver, a nice man who in a previous life was a police detective, said to me as I sat nearby,”Do you have a pass?” I apologized and inserted my monthly ticket into the gizmo that processes such things. My lack of mindfulness delayed our departure and a woman about my age got onto the bus, also seeming a bit hurried and out of it, and also searching for the means to pay.

As the bus lurched forward some glass bottles fell out of my bags and hit the floor. Thankfully they didn’t break. But this aforementioned woman, now in the back, saw my predicament and offered me one of her sturdy grocery bags that usually cost about a buck in the store.

I thanked her and stuffed my loose products in said bag. After a minute, I yanked a dollar out of my pocket and went back to offer it to her. The lady said,”Oh no no. We’re a community. We need to help each other.”

I replied, “I agree”and told her of my experience that day in the big city bus station.” She asked,”Was her name ‘Cara’?”  I was again amazed.

This young lady Cara, working at a seemingly unimportant job, was serving the public in her state and making a name for herself through her character. Cara truly WAS ‘caring’ and used her lowly position to minister right where she was.

As I have been mulling over my seemingly chance meeting with Cara and another normal citizen on my local bus that showed some love to me, I thought of others I had met who were like them. To be honest, such people are few and far between, but they are there.

I recalled an African-American cleaning lady at a college I once worked at who was a woman of renowned on campus. Her job brought her to our building in the middle of the night. She did conscientious work.

If I remember correctly, this lady even brought me breakfast once. That might have actually been another cleaning lady, but if so it still makes my point. There are loving people in every walk of life. I also remember her as an intelligent, well-spoken woman,

One day I learned she was gone. Her male partner had been killed in a motorcycle accident. This catastrophe may not have normally mattered to the faculty and staff at this small school. After all, she was “just” a cleaning lady.  But her reputation on campus was such that her tragedy mattered to US.

My patrician British South African boss in a Middle Eastern country used to like to say to me after an event,”What can we learn from this?”.  That’s been my question after yesterday.

The immediate answer is that I too can seek to be a minister where I am in my current circumstances. I’m not that important, really. But I can be to somebody.

I am informed by my Christian faith on this subject. The Apostle Paul taught that believers in Jesus  should lead the life God has assigned to them. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t seek a better spot and take it if it becomes available.

However, Paul noted that even if they were indeed slaves, they were actually free in God’s view. But they were free in the sense that they could use this freedom to serve Him.

The total message of the Bible indicates that to serve God well involves loving the people He created.  The folks I ran into yesterday exemplified in the flesh how that could be done every single day.

 

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Today’s newspaper surprises me with inspiration

The last place I would ever expect to get spiritual inspiration is from my morning newspaper, but that’s what happened today.

I don’t subscribe to the local rag, but I still occasionally like to read it when I can, usually at the library or restaurant. There is something about the feel of crinkly newsprint between your fingertips.

So this chilly weekend morn I opened up the Star Press, anticipating the normal fare of meth busts, break-ins, and high school sports news. After quickly reviewing an article about the financially strapped school district, I somehow found myself on the obituary page. It was here that the uplifting of my morale began.

I suppose anyone reading this might wonder why I was reading an obit. I don’t have an answer for that except perhaps it is because I am getting older and have might have some latent prurient interest in the death of people near my age. I am finding that those who are passing on these days aren’t necessarily old age pensioners. The statistics are beyond me at the moment, but I would not be surprised if the life expectancy in America has declined. Our country’s infrastructure isn’t the only thing on the skids. Personal frames don’t seem to be too healthy either.

I think what attracted me to the death notice was not only the photo of a vibrant looking woman, but also the lead. It might be the most unique opening to an obituary I have ever read. The text revealed that this lady with the gleaming eyes had been the “awesome” mother of eight, grandmother of seven and the wife of a minister. More touching was the seemingly odd statement which noted that she had “won” her battle with a fatal disease and “crossed the finish line into eternal life.”

I have never read an obituary which referred to someone’s death as a “win”. However, if you believe like I do (and obviously like the author of the obit, the woman herself and her relations do as well) the Bible, the comment makes a whole lot of sense. The deceased lady is described as a “dedicated follower of Christ.” Therefore, she believed that she would follow Jesus, who the Apostle Paul described as the “firstfruits” of the men and women who are to be raised to eternal life after death.  The apostle likened life to a race at times. In the same passage, he referred to the truth of the following saying:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

From the brief summary of her life, it is clear this woman committed herself to sharing her belief in the efficacy of the work of Christ to others around the world. She went to 41 countries on seven continents to bring the hope of immortality and a heaven free from the sin of this world to others. The lady seems to have been a normal, average person with a big heart who accomplished a lot in her less than five decades on this planet.

Having had my heart warmed and challenged by her story, I turned to an editorial by the president of a local food bank.  Entitled “You Can be Seven Years Old and Make a Difference”, the piece discussed a little girl who raised funds for food for poor children by drawing and selling her work on Facebook. The child had noticed the numerous kids in her school who got their main source of nutrition from school lunches and she decided to help them. According to the author, in two and a half weeks of work the young lady had raised enough funds to provide a meal to 3,200 people in need.

The charity’s president writes of the lesson learned. “We all have the ability to accomplish much more than we think we are capable of doing.”

Then there was the column by a former hospital chaplain. This man gave an account of his work in a pediatric ward. After beginning with the upbeat story of his meeting with a playful five year old girl ready to discharged, the pastor’s narrative became more serious. He related his encounter with the Mom of a 13 year old boy in intensive care. The mother explained that her son’s cancer had returned.

While there the child’s oxygen level decreased dangerously, setting off alarms. The chaplain described what happened next.

“Mom was the wife of a military officer, and she found her voice by issuing an urgent motherly command. ‘Breathe. Breathe. Take a deep breath.’ Her son followed the orders and we watched his chest rise and fall a few times.”

The hospital chaplain added that the mother told the sick boy to “take one more” even though his oxygen levels had come back to normal. She then “placed an approving hand” on his forehead and said,”There. That’s perfect. Just perfect.”

Prior to entering the hospital, the pastor had thought his day was perfect because it was sunny and clear and  he had an earworm of a pop tune circulating through his head. Observing the mother, the pop tune was replaced by the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” His idea of a perfect day had been changed dramatically.

“A perfect day is not what happens around you,” he writes. ” It’s what happens within you.

If you spend your days loving someone and being loved, then no matter how difficult the circumstances, the day will always be a perfect day.”

I was even energized by the comics.

Even the most mundane day can be turned into inspiration. The local paper did that for me today.

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Film Review: LA LA Land is at heart the story of us all

Many feel called but few are chosen in the chase for stardom. For most of American history, Los Angeles has been the place where people flock to achieve their dreams of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry. Some make it and others experience heartbreak. Two such people are Sebastian Wilder and Mia Dolan, two lovers in the film “LA LA Land.”

This acclaimed movie is a throwback to the classic musicals of the 30s and 40s, where boy meets girl and tell of their love story in song. Sebastian is a penny ante club pianist with a dream of opening a jazz club. Mia works as a barista and auditions for film roles in between dishing out coffee at a studio lot to those who have already made it.

“LA LA Land” is like watching two people who are riding in separate cars on different roller coasters. Occasionally their tracks meet up, sometimes with positive and at other times with negative results. You’re pulling for them in their professional and romantic lives, but you can’t help but wonder if the two will crash and burn, especially when they meet up. Some people ride roller coasters for the amusement. After all, they’re located in amusement parks.  However, LA LA Land is primarily not a fun film.  There are too many emotional ups and downs.

Mia is young, enthusiastic and rebellious. The young lady, played by Emma Stone, is a no nonsense type. Stone’s face and personality conjure up images of a sharp talking Bette Davis. Like Davis, Stone is not a stunner, but she captures the screen.

Mia seems  to be quite sure she is going to get cast somewhere. She is the quintessential actor described by Dionne Warwick in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” In a week maybe two she thinks they’ll make her a star.  The  coffee shop gig is clearly not very important to Mia. It’s just a short stop on the way to the mountain top.

Sebastian , portrayed by Millennial heart throb Ryan Gosling, shares many of Mia’s traits, except he has made resistance an art form. He is unhappy with the state of modern jazz and resents having to pound out a prescribed playlist at his club gigs. What makes it difficult for him is that he is  not silent about it. While Mia is sweet to the public, Sebastian doesn’t care how he treats people. His initial encounters with her reflect this and foreshadow the  future of their relationship.

As the story unfolds, both Sebastian and Mia get off their roller coaster rides altogether and opt for a less threatening yet unsatisfying journey in the kiddie area. Mia begins to think like Warwick in longing for the peace and quiet of home while Sebastian begins to sell out musically. But when each of them experiences these setbacks and begins to believe that they are fantasizing about making it big (thus living in LA LA Land), their partner draws them back into their dream. In this respect, the couple are made for each other. It’s nice to have someone who loves you and knows you better than you know yourself. The rub is whether or not the aspiring celebrities can climb the thrill ride of success together.

Having lived in Los Angeles, I appreciated the occasional glimpses of the city’s culture the movie provides. In fact, if anyone knows anything about the town, it is what Warwick sang of: it’s a great big freeway. The movie opens with a humorous song and dance right in the middle of a traffic jam. I also grew nostalgic while Mia and Sebastian stood on a spot overlooking Los Angeles and its mountains at night. While the couple, in the midst of the early bumps in their romance,  did not appreciate the view, I did. As I spent my time in LA as a student or mainly unemployed, I also liked experiencing some of the other night life I could not afford while living there: the indoor clubbing and the eateries.

As a huge fan of Turner Classic Movies, I was somewhat disappointed by the music and dancing in “LA LA Land”.  Stone and Gosling are nothing special as hoofers and only have passable voices.. They’re not exactly Eleanor Powell or Fred Astaire. Having said that, Stone’s simple performance of “Audition (Here’s to the Fools that Dream)” was quite moving. The song’s lyrics sum up the lives of the two lovers and also our own. We can all relate.

“Here’s to the ones who dream. Foolish as they may seem.  Here’s to the hearts that ache.  Here’s to the mess we make.”

To Gosling’s credit, he did an amazing job on the piano, especially since he did not even play the instrument prior to his training for the film.

Going in, I thought that perhaps LA LA Land was over-hyped by Hollyood celebs for Oscar glory because it is somewhat biographical for them.  The Academy is nothing if not self congratulatory. Thus,  my expectations were low despite all the ballyhoo. I pretty much had decided that I would be pulling for “Manchester by the Sea” for Best Picture.  But I now think it’s a tie and I am surprised I think that way.

LA LA Land, lacks the old time song and dance inspirational religion of the classic movies, but the story is superb. It’s a tale of heartbreak mixed with love and ambition.  LA LA Land is every man and woman’s saga. Who could ask for more from a film?

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Facebook Is No Longer My Thing

Bartlett Finchley, a snobby food writer depicted in an episode of the old “Twilight Zone” television series, is experiencing his own “deus ex machina” (literally “god from the machine”). Finchley’s machines are not doing what they are supposed to do, which is to make his life easier and solve his problems.  The technology surrounding him in his upper crust home is rebelling. Supposedly lifeless inventions have a mind of their own.

In this episode, called “A Thing About Machines”, Finchley’s television (via a female Latin dancer on its screen), his typewriter, his landline telephone, and his radio, all modern technology in the 1960s world of Rod Serling’s magnificent science fiction and fantasy series, are all telling him the same thing: “Get out of here, Finchley.”

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The curmudgeonly author, described by Serling as a reclusive malcontent, responds by busting up his appliances. Finchley throws a chair into the television screen, tosses his radio down the stairs and rips his telephone out of the wall, all to no avail. The machines keep sounding off.

Some of his devices use more non-verbal behavior to get their point across. Finchley’s electric razor menaces him with its rotary blades, and even chases him down the stairs. Eventually he is killed when his own car goes after him on the street and pushes him into a swimming pool, where he is so frightened that he puts up no fight and drowns.

The theme of technology turning against us has been a common theme in the last several decades. Movies such as “Star Wars” and “I, Robot” and other technophobic flicks abound. Serling’s Twilight Zone episode with Finchley,  called “A Thing About Machines:” is brilliant in that it foreshadows this trend.

Most modern humans aren’t about to become Luddites, the 19th century folks who were so anti-technology that they did things like bust up factories. These films have had little effect on us as we march ever onward in our development and use of our conveniences.  We seem to be more and more tied to our mechanical and electronic contrivances.

Not everyone is a technofreak. There are indeed neo-Luddites out there, but they are on the fringe of society.  Most seem to be fed-up academics, students environmentalists and religious folks. However, they don’t appear to be organized and thus don’t show up in the media.

My critique of technology’s effect on our culture is not novel. It’s no secret that there is  a love-hate relationship between humans and their inventions today. On the one hand, older generations believe that our young people are becoming listless, addicted automatons who lack critical thinking skills due to their overuse of  mobile phones and laptops. On the other hand, these doohickeys have become such a fact of life and seeming necessity that none of us, including those who are aging, can seem to function without them.

This leaves all of us in a quandary. What do we do about protecting ourselves from the ever  encroaching storm of electronics, software and overbearing machines?

In a free society, the answer to that question is not black and white. Like with many things in a democratic culture, we are left to decide those things for ourselves. That it is the beauty of our form of government. However, given that we are already overwhelmed with choices in our society, it’s not a nice thing to have another decision put on our plate. But I think we have reached a point in our culture where we have to begin making individual informed decisions on what to do about the impact of technology upon us.

This week I made a decision of this ilk. For the umpteenth time, I ditched Facebook.

Like my previous attempts at running from Mark Zuckerberg’s creation, this choice was somewhat of a knee jerk reaction. But I think the call I made this time is more informed. My will was educated by both my intellect and emotions.

My brain has been mulling over the Facebook issue for some time. I have come to realize several facts. Most of my couple hundred  or so “friends” aren’t really my pals My friends list is made up of people with whom I was in a relationship with at one time, but no more. In a normal life, friends enter and exit. This is not true of Facebook. I have culled my list over time, but this method of trying to make some semblance of reality has not worked for me.

What is worse is that I have added people I don’t even know. As a result, when I log on to this social media behemoth, I am now subjected to the opinions, interests, friend and family life of people I don’t really care about.

I have also joined or followed  various interest groups, meme producers, joke sites and news outlets.  I’m don’t think I am alone in this, as the New York Times recently reported that about half of my countrymen use Facebook as a news source. But I also have my own set of other sites where I get entertained and informed.

In essence, I am now officially overwhelmed when I go onto  Facebook.

Then there is the issue of how I feel while I am on the site, or after I leave it. This concern is not new. I am familiar with a study which revealed that people are depressed while they are scrolling through Facebook. One reason is that we compare. Let’s be honest. No one posts their dirty laundry on social media.  (Well, a few people do, but it’s a bit unseemly.)  It’s all peace, love, dove all the time. If you currently have little or no life, or even if you do,  it doesn’t make you feel good when you see the pics of your “friends” in exotic locales or hugging their latest love interest as if they were on the old “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” program.

At the moment  though, I don’t think depression is exactly what I experience when  I am  am on Facebook.  Of late I have have felt more like Finchley did with his rebelling machines. I become agitated, angry and perhaps even fearful.

Thankfully, I have figured out why I feel the way I do. For many, social media has become a place where they can express their political views for all to read, if these folks choose to, or even if they don’t. Some of their opinions are put forth in the form of banner-sized pithy quotes and memes, all taken out of context of course.

As a news and commentary junkie, I find that I can’t help myself when it comes to getting involved in these posts.. I “must” read and even comment.  This has bred even more negativity in my life. My fellow social media types comment back, and many come at you with uninformed, knee jerk and personal attacks. And I don’t even really know these people. Facebook for me has become an interactive microcosm of our media environment as a whole: extremely toxic.

Because I am such a media freak and due to my current life circumstances, I find myself on Facebook a lot. Add this poisoning to my already insane addiction to the news, and I get the feeling I am on my way to a slow death. One of these days, like Finchley, I am going to find myself in a deep pool, pushed there by the force of the computer machine. It is time to regain control of my life and spiritual, mental and physical health.

I think the trigger for my decision to relinquish Facebook  was a message I received from a blogger whose work I follow there. I tend to comment a lot on his site. I think this is mainly because I agree with him for the most part. We share a lot of the same political and religious views.

What he said to me was, “Dial it back.” He was cordial about it, but I realized I had become like the dominating student in one of my language classes who wouldn’t let the others get a word in edgewise. He meant well, but to he honest, it just added another negative emotion experienced on Facebook: embarrassment.

I had already determined that I was going to back off of media, and Facebook in particular. This man’s request just sealed the deal.  He and my own thinking  were telling me,”Get out of here, Fowler.”

I have been away from Facebook for a few days now, and I have to admit it has left a void. The way I feel now makes me wonder if I had become a Facebook addict. Perhaps.

I now realize I have to  “face” outward into the real world, not the computer screen.  I heeded the call and  I got out of there. I am now in the very beginning of a process to decide where to go. I am hoping I will eventually hear and respond to a voice that says”come hither”  and it will lead me into a more enjoyable lifestyle.

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Teddy and Trump

As is to be expected, Donald Trump is being compared to past presidents (or  previous foreign leaders-like Hitler). I am reading a biography concerning Teddy Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin,  and through her portrayal I see some unique similarities.

Like Trump. Roosevelt had a  brash personality, was thought by some to be crazy, and was full of energy. When he became governor of New York, Kearns-Goodwin writes that he was “ever on his feet” during meetings, moving back and forth restlessly, carrying a scowl and punching the air with his fists. She notes that despite Teddy’s explosive and impulsive nature that he maintained a precise, to the minute schedule. Even during breaks at the White House as  president, TR would take visitors on physically demanding hikes in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. After the first week of Donald’s presidency, it would be impossible to think that he does not share the same dynamism that propelled Roosevelt.. Thus far, every day and even the weekends have been filled with breathless activity.

Both Trump and Teddy share a trait not commonly found among Republicans: a concern for the plight of the working class. For example, Kearns-Goodwin discusses how TR worked to improve the lot of Pennsylvania coal miners who were under the thumb of elitist owners. He convinced these recalcitrant tycoons to settle a coal strike with miners .Had he not, the labor dispute might have crippled much of the nation during the upcoming winter since coal was the main heating fuel at the time. Roosevelt’s efforts not only benefited the whole United States, but also improved the miner’s working hours and wages.  Donald Trump, even before he took office, persuaded one Indiana company heading abroad to leave a thousand jobs in the state. He has shown a desire to help the people who helped put him in office, the white proletariat.The Donald has wasted no time in meeting with union leaders in the White House, earning their praise for his efforts to keep jobs in the United States.

In addition to being joined at the hip in temperament and outreach to the labor class, both Roosevelt and Trump fooled their opponents. Neither man was expected to become president and they were actively opposed by leading men of their own party. Kearns Goodwin reveals that Roosevelt was seen to be such a loose cannon by the Republican establishment of his day that they shunted him into the vice-president slot under William McKinley. They thought  they could bury him in a job  which the vice-president of Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin later called “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” The GOP bosses drew on his popularity with the American people to help McKinley win re-election, but they did not count on the president getting murdered by an anarchist in Buffalo. Of course, in the same way many leading Republicans dismissed Trump as an anomaly and refused to support his candidacy, but he won anyway.

When it comes to workers, both Teddy and the Donald are connected in their low opinion of the civil service system. Roosevelt was charged with reforming the patronage system  in which favored political friends were appointed to federal posts when he became a US Civil Service Commissioner in 1889. A new law required that a quarter of all civil service hiring be made by examination. Teddy began with a bang by exposing a scandal in which New York federal applicants could buy civil service exam questions beforehand. Roosevelt continued his investigation of federal civil service corruption as president. Trump promised throughout his campaign that he would root out corruption in the federal government when he became president. He pledged to “:drain the swamp.” The new president has already made waves by dismissing top State Department officials and the holdover Obama attorney general who defied one of his executive orders on immigration. Another executive order in his first days bans lobbying on behalf of foreign governments when they leave office. Other ethics reforms are in the works.

However, despite their many similarities, Roosevelt and Trump do have their differences. The most glaring one between the two thus far is their approach to the media. Teddy  was very friendly with the press.  Kearns-Goodwin focuses on this aspect of his political life during “The Golden Age of Journalism”, a time when reformist writers like Lincoln Steffens exposed the corruption of the government and trusts. Roosevelt had long, private talks with journalists, sought their opinions and saw them as a tool to get his message out to the American people. Trump on the other hand sees the media as his opponents. Even this weekend he called them “the opposition”, describing them as dishonest. He has few allies among the press, though he does maintain good relations with conservative pundits like Sean Hannity. To counter this weakness, The Donald has taken to Twitter to get his views across to everyday Americans, much to the dismay of the mainstream media.

Theodore Roosevelt has left us a lengthy historical record which reveals a politician who was a one-of-a-kind. We know little about Donald Trump’s  political acumen except for the coup he pulled off in surprising most of us and winning the presidency. He has been a businessman and TV star to date, which in and of itself brings us all into uncharted  territory, but does make him special.

Teddy Roosevelt thought large. He was determined to reign in the entrenched capitalists who put a damper on the American economy through their monopolistic practices,  despite the opposition of his own party. Teddy was able to do so in a way that allowed these business magnates to keep their dignity. Further, his legacy includes an amazing conservationist accomplishment. TR set aside 15o million acres of public land as national  forests. However, TR was not just a progressive reformer. He sent the US Navy on a round-the-world voyage to “show the flag” and demonstrate American might. Roosevelt’s own major pride was the building of the Panama Canal, connection the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

We really are not sure what we can expect from Donald Trump, except perhaps a lot of surprises. However, it would be unwise to miscalculate his potential as a politician. After all,  in his 1987 work “The Art of the Deal” he said that he “thinks big.” He certainly has rattled Washington in his first days with his immense flow of executive orders and other decisions.

It seems from the viewpoint of 11 days into his presidency that Trump has a huge fight on his hands with opposing Democrats and  some Republicans who are still disenchanted with him. But if he can keep a majority of the American people behind him, especially those in the majority of the states that elected him, the new president could very well pull off a Teddy Roosevelt and shock us all with his own landmark achievements.

While he has not yet had time to demonstrate substance, Trump certainly has some of the style and the language of a Teddy Roosevelt.

“Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.”-Theodore Roosevelt

Sounds a little like Trump’s “politician’s are all talk and no action” statement, doesn’t it?

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Civility Involves a Change of Heart

One night recently I went to the top floor of the local university library. The sign below is next to the elevators. Beside this sign there is a huge placard as you come off the elevator that repeats the rules for using the area.

 

 

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I go here when I really need quiet and to think. However, as you can well guess, some people think the rules do not apply to them. While I was there I called people out twice.

Alas, before I get too high and mighty (that’s coming), I realize I have my own blind areas. But, basic civility would be nice in our society. We seem to have lost it, if we ever had it.

This experience in a library was annoying, but not that big a deal when compared to widespread rudeness in more important venues. The reason this little skirmish has become more pronounced in my mind is that the I think my senses are heightened to rudeness after the recent American election season and its aftermath. As a news and poltics junkie, I have seen our public discourse filled with out-of-the-ordinary base statements from political leaders, protesters and would-be amateur pundits on social media.

.I really don’t have high expectations from politicians and protesters when they open their mouths, but the things emanating from them have reached a new low. Rock bottom does indeed have a basement.

If you follow the news at all you are aware of the profanity, ad hominem attacks and even physical violence of political opponents and of youthful protesters and celebrities upset about the outcome of the vote in November.

Discourtesy and ill behavior in our society has not been limited to politics. My little library excursion example is indicative of a certain lack of courtesy on the American university campus. The squelching of dissent has led to  a Stalinistic atmosphere. Most recently I wrote about a confrontation I had with a student over her discomfort with my viewing choices in a public location at my local school. The girl took issue with a scene from a classic movie which I saw as history and she observed to be insulting. She got heated right away without any degree of politeness and shrilly demanded that I turn off what I was watching.

In addition, during warmer months on campus I have been subjected to more nonverbal effrontery. I have come close to being pummeled by passing skateboarders who speed by out of control, with little thought for the mass of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Once one of these sidewalk NASCAR wannabes silently came up from behind me and without any regard for personal space engineered a wild hop on their board in a noisy fashion. It scared the daylights out of me.

The causes of this lowering of respectful behavior towards our fellow humans are too numerous to expound on here. However, I think Rev.  J. Vernon McGee hit on something decades ago when he was discussing a passage from the Bible. In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is having a debate with the religious leaders of his day over the importance of a rite involving the washing of hands.

Jesus said to these leaders and His followers:

“Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”

Jesus’s disciples asked him to explain what He meant by this statement.

“Don’t you understand yet?” Jesus asked. “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.  But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you.  For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.”

McGee said of Jesus’s words,”We are seeing that working out in our contemporary society today. We’ve come to a period of what is known a ‘New Morality’. We’ve reached the day that (the prophet) Isaiah talked about. He said the day is coming when they’ll call evil good and good evil. And they’re doing that today.”

Decades ago McGee decried the dropping of biblical standards for “freedom”.

“The lid has been taken off and man today can express what’s in his heart. What comes out? New morality? No, same old thing. Evil thoughts. Murders. Adulteries. We hear a good amount about sex today. That’s what you would expect. Fornications. Theft. False witness. Blasphemies. Great day of freedom. But my friends, if you don’t put the lid on the bucket you have opened really a Pandora’s Box  and we’re in trouble.”

McGee even in his time called for some controls on mankind’s behavior.

“Man has to be controlled,” he said. “Man is the most vicious animal on this earth and yet we put other animals in cages. And yet we’re talking today ‘man must be free to do his thing’. And here’s what he’ll do. It’s not new morality at all. Our Lord said this sort of thing was evil and these things defile a man.”

The Internet did not even exist as a public tool in McGee’s day, but he still blasted the media and schools for pushing immorality on to youth.

“These are the things that are defiling young people and yet it is all being done in the high, lofty-sounding terminology of ‘freedom of speech’ and that today ‘we must express ourselves. And this is the way we are doing it.The thing that is in the heart is now coming out.”

Solutions to the problem of incivility are not easy. As McGee noted, man does not want to be controlled. This was easy to see in the 60s, one of the most revolutionary decades in American history.

Stephen Sills wrote “For What It’s Worth” after a protest in 1966 in Hollywood. Residents were upset at the late night congestion caused by the numerous young folks who flooded the Sunset Strip area to hit the clubs and bars. So when the government put their foot down and enacted ordinances to curtail their outlandish behavior, the youth protest. This protest became civil unrest.The song opens this way:

“There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down (?)”

What Sills complained about in his lyrics is that the authorities were able to tell him and his fellow “children” (how apropos) what to do for the sake of others who were affected by their actions. But I don’t see his complaint as valid. If we are going to live in a civil society, we must have some common standards of decency for the sake of all. With freedom comes responsibility to others.

When human beings don’t voluntarily submit to some sort of standards of good behavior, then I am afraid they must be provided with incentives, even negative ones. I once heard of a new prison warden who asked an aide,”How much power do I have in this prison?” He was told that he had what amounted to dictatorial powers. When he heard this, the warden issued a fiat that there would be no profanity allowed in his prison. I imagine any rule breaking was punished. Over time the enforced manners resulted in a sea change of positive behavior in this jail.

Despite a huge swing toward incivility, I’m not asking for a fascist state to control all words and actions in America. I am not in favor of, for example, extreme self restraint of the media as new White House adviser Steve Bannon suggested when he said that it should “keep its mouth shut.” The Founding Fathers allowed for a free press as a watchdog on corrupt government. In our current society, however, the more recognized media companies have tended to be selective about which party’s corruption to expose.

This tendency of the press to shut down points of view it does not agree with has resulted in a media civil war. The battle has flooded over to the Internet and its social media sites, where every Tom, Dick and Harriet can have a say. Unfortunately, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, these interactions on Facebook, Twitter and other sites are filled with meanspirited, cowardly and selfish behavior.

The consequence of all this online heat has been the fracturing of relationships. During a concise and balanced discussion on media bias on CNN this week Christiane Amanpour said,”We should be able to have a huge variety of views without calling each other and treating each other as enemies.” What Amanpour says should apply not only to media types, but to we rubes on social media and individual friends, individuals and even strangers as well.

All I am asking for is some heart change that leads to obeying the laws, rules and principles developed by those who went before us to create a civil society. In order for that to happen we are going to have to quit being so self absorbed and start thinking about the welfare of others.

In addition to looking within for refinement, there are some things we can do. We can learn to listen. We can learn to listen ro understand. We can learn how to debate logically and ethically.  We can begin each interaction with goodwill. We can be kind. We can stop assuming that those with whom we disagree are inherently evil, bigoted, and criminal.

There are those who think that there are more important things than civility. Vann R. Newkirk II in a post in The Atlantic on December 5, 2016 notes that in matters such as racism that shaming can be an effective tool toward pushing whites in America toward confronting their bias. He writes:

Civility is not the highest moral imperative—especially in response to perceived injustices—nor is hand-holding and guiding reluctant people to confront their bigotry gently. American history is full of fights, including the ongoing struggle for civil rights, that have been as fierce as they are ultimately . Civility is overrated.

With the extremely marginalized, I can see Mann’s point. I don’t imagine a Jewish politician from 1930s Germany getting anywhere in persuading a Nazi counterpart to drop their racially stained views. Sometimes there is no other resort than war.

But as General Sherman said,”War is hell.” Those “ongoing fights” Newkirk speaks of were quite costly to America and Americans at times. Real change in these United States has only come it seems from either such conflicts or from persuasion.  It would seem to me that persuasion should be attempted at all times until there is no other recourse because of the insanely damaging effects of war.

Was war necessary to free the slaves in the United States? Perhaps. But there were some who believed that America would eventually be persuaded to ditch slavery. Instead, the opponents opted for civil war. After the war, the winners eventually made a political bargain to give control back to the losers. These people instituted Jim Crow, which carried racism over for almost another century. Thus, before we go to war it would seem to me that a long-term strategy for dealing with its effects be developed.

What is telling is that Mann believes there are other goals in argument besides persuasion. He writes:

Sometimes the goal of argument is to vent. Sometimes it is to simply tell the truth. Sometimes it’s just to loudly proclaim one’s own humanity.

Mr. Mann and I could have a civil debate on such a statement. I would take the position that shouting is not an appropriate method of argument, at least from an Aristotlian perspective. Furthermore, those “telling the truth” may think they are, but like us all these folks are subject to their own limitations. What they believe to be the truth may indeed not be.

What Mann’s discussion of the goals of argument has done for me, though, and why his comments above are telling is  that it explains why there was such profanity and base statements coming from speakers at the recent Women’s March. Those speakers represent a point of view which says that their opponents will not listen to reasoned argument. Only stigmatizing the opposition will do. My one complaint of this approach is that I am doubtful that Madonna or Ashley Judd had attempted accepted modes of persuasion prior to their profane rants.

Even though I don’t agree with many of the points in Mann’s article, it is well supported with academic research and nods to the arguments of opponents. That kind of argumentation I can respect. Thus, it makes his piece well worth the read.

Abhorrent perspectives like racism are a matter of the heart. I am afraid there will always be people with evil views. Where it gets dicey for all of us is when these folks begin to act on their beliefs. So there must be some control of evil.

If we don’t transform ourselves, I am fearful that the outcry will be so great that we could lose our hard-won freedoms. If we don’t do this as individuals on a voluntary basis, then I am afraid others with powerful institutions behind them will MAKE us behave.

When they do they won’t be bringing lollipops to persuade us; they’l be sporting hammers.

 

 

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Farewell, Mr. and Mrs. Obama

16130178_10212089417493411_113502149_oI am surprised at myself today. I find myself reflecting on the 8 years of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. What is surprising is that I am doing it at all and that I have some positive thoughts about their time in the White House.

That I am willing to publish some sort of affirmation of Mr. and Mrs. Obama is unusual in that I have a huge disagreement with a lot of their political views. Normally, these differing beliefs and values would keep me from writing anything. After all, there is a wise proverb our parents gave us which says that if you have nothing nice to say don’t say anything at all.

It’s not that I am 100 percent opposed to their politics. I hold at least a nugget of agreement on a lot of things with the Obamas. Some of my disdain for them politically has to do with what I see as the poor implementation of their policies.

But that’s all behind us now. Today on the eve of their departure as leaders of the free world, I would prefer to separate the man and woman from the issues and look at how I feel about them now.

That’s a difficult task, as it is not easy to look at a political leader and compartmentalize them. For example, most people don’t think about Hitler and say,”Well you know, he was a monster and murdered millions, but he was a nice friend to many.”

And puh-lease, I am not comparing my views of Mr. and Mrs. Obama with that of Der Führer! But they have supported some ways of thinking that run contrary to my own and in my view have definitely resulted in harm to many. Let me just say, though, that if I think long and hard about it I can understand why they think the way they do. Resolving such conflict in my mind is complicated.

Like most Americans and others I really don’t know Barack and Michelle. I can only construct my opinion of them by what the media feeds me. When it comes to politics it of course depends on which media outlet I am listening to as to which Mr. and Mrs. O I get fed. For example, CNN mostly gives me adulation while Fox News provides me  with a lot of criticism of them.

But what HAS filtered through all the bias is this: I think at root that the Obamas are decent people. They appear to be good parents. In addition, it is to their credit that they have a nuclear family at all in our society today, and what seems to be a loving one. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors as well, but their marriage has an air of solidity about it.

Both Barack and Michelle also carry with them an aspect of their personalities that is important to the American people. They are nice, at least publicly, which is of course all I get to observe of them. We US folks hold niceness dear. We would rather buy from and work with nice people than not, and probably will choose who we do business with based on that quality, not competence.

So I might not have been particularly happy with a lot of the things Mr. and Mrs. Obama said and did during their two terms. But I was never ashamed of the way they carried themselves. For the most part, they did so with class.

Farewell, Mr. President and First Lady. Thank you for your service. My prayers are with you.

 

 

 

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