Snow Globe

Today we are ensconced in the snow globes of our lives. Shook up. Fleeting flakes of conversations speckled in the glow. Words tapping against the glass. Floating. Short strings of thoughts abruptly spit. Press send.

Messages received without a face. Letters etched upon a screen. Content pruned back. Character limits.

Limited character. Restricted. Endless waves splashing on shores of buried thoughts. No time to dig them out. A communication tsunami. Hand-held. Clipped-on. Ear-buds. Plugged-in. Tuned-out. High-volume. Press delete.

Can you see my face? Can you touch my hand? Can you hear my voice? Can you taste my meaning?

Come here. Sit down. Let’s dine together. Refresh yourself. Talk to me. I want to see your crinkled face, taste your tears, feel your trembling limbs, hear the space between your words. No dropped signals.

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Love vs Hate

The massacre in Norway on Friday was carried out by a man who believes that his conservative, fundamentalist religious values are morally right. He believes that liberal values of tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness are wrong. He believes that he is privileged to have the truth, to have God’s approval as a Freemason, a Christian. He believes that he must do everything he can to preserve the purity of his national heritage and the purity of his race. He strongly condemns multiculturalism.

On his Twitter account was a quote by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, that said, “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.” Yes, belief is a powerful force. When it is coupled with religious fervor or political self-righteousness, it can be deadly. Remember what happened in Tucson?

Back in the ‘90s, Sweden noticed an increase in right-wing extremist activity. Jorn Madslien noted in an article today on the BBC’s website that, “at its peak in the mid-1990s, every national newspaper in the country published identical editions with photos of every known neo-Nazi in the land.” This caused the movement to shrink for a time. Now, according to Madslien’s article, the right-wing agenda is going mainstream where “politicians have openly been voicing concerns about how the country’s culture might be diluted by immigration from countries with different religions and values.”

A friend of mine, who has traveled the world many times over and lived with people of many cultures, once told me when I asked him what country was his favorite, “Be careful. It doesn’t matter where you travel. Always tell yourself, ‘this place is different, not better.’”

Let’s apply that to one another. We are all different. We are all unique down to our DNA. Each one of us is capable of contributing something wonderful to the world – and – each one of us is capable of destroying our world.

News commentators have labeled the Norwegian murderer as a madman. But how many of us are mad enough to hate? How many of us right here in America hold conservative right-wing views that harbor intolerance? How many of us think that poverty is a choice? (before you answer, please be aware that nearly 23% of American children live in poverty – the highest rate of any industrialized nation.) How many of us resent immigrants? How many of us fear multiculturalism?

On this very sad day when our global neighbors in Norway are in such unimaginable national pain, we know that love will heal their wounds eventually. “All you need is love,” as the songs says. But what is love? Is it just a salve for our wounds? or is it a force for good? Love is an action word. Like the newspapers in Sweden that published the faces of hate, we need to recognize the hate in our national rhetoric.  Those of us who believe in love, need to use its power to negate the hate in our society.

Our country was not founded on hateful nor selfish principles. Neither was Norway, nor any democracy.

Today is a good day to be reminded of Emma Lazarus’ poem that hangs over the entryway to the Statue of Liberty:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.

“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

~

This is America’s promise to the world. America is supposed to be the global example for tolerance, acceptance and inclusiveness.

As I write this post today, the U.S. Congress is battling to cut spending to relieve the national debt at the expense of those who can least afford to make the sacrifice: the young, the elderly, the sick, the poor. Those whom Lady Liberty would protect. Those who can afford to make a sacrifice are refusing to do so. They have a point. Why should anyone be forced to share what he has worked so hard to amass? Is there something to be said about the overall well-being of a community? If your neighbor is unhealthy and causing a contagion to spread, should you be concerned? Oh, well, you say, that’s what he gets for being so poor and lazy that he can’t afford to go to the doctor. That’s his problem, you tell yourself, not mine.

President Obama said that we are all in this together. Isn’t that the essence of a democracy? By the people. For the people. Individual affluence is contingent upon a nation’s ability to sustain a quality of life that holds out promise for everyone. The gap between the rich and poor in our country is causing a social disparity that is getting stretched too thin. The ranks of the working poor are growing day by day. The top 400 richest Americans hold more wealth than the bottom half of our population. That’s 150 million people! Is that the example we want to hold out to the rest of the world? Where is the love?

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Harsh vs Humane

Julia Roberts was interviewed a couple of weeks ago on the CBS Morning Show about her new movie with Tom Hanks. The interviewer asked her about having Tom Hanks as her co-star and director. Is it true that he is the nice guy that everyone says he is? Her answer hit home with me. She talked about the two ways that directors get the results that they are looking for from actors. Harsh vs humane. Ms. Roberts said that she has worked with both types. She pointed out that you can get good results either way, but that it’s so much easier when the route is taken with love, laughs and kindness rather than pain, abuse and criticism. Yes, she said, Tom Hanks takes the way of kindness and it is indeed a pleasure to work with him.

Afterward, I thought about parenting in light of Ms. Roberts’ remarks. Strict vs lenient. To spank or not to spank. Tough love. These are the words that are at the center of debates on parenting. Some say that any of the above should be viewed only as parenting styles or choices. In other words there is no room for debate. I beg to differ.

Parenting is a skill mainly gained as an apprentice. Like a craft handed down from the master, children absorb and mimic parental behavior.

A few years ago in Cleveland, I heard Geoffrey Canada give a presentation about his organization, “The Harlem Children’s Zone.” In case you have not heard of Mr. Canada and all the good he is accomplishing for children and families in New York City, here is the link: http://www.hcz.org. The homepage states, “Through a coordinated effort by hundreds of devoted men and women, The Harlem Children’s Zone has established a new method to end the cycle of generational poverty. By addressing the needs of the entire community, HCZ isn’t simply helping children beat the odds, it’s helping to change the odds.”

At the presentation in Cleveland that day, Geoffrey Canada used an example of good vs bad parenting that I will never forget: a two-year-old child takes a glass of water and deliberately pours it onto the kitchen floor. Two scenarios play out. The parents without a college degree immediately lash out, “What did you do that for?” and slap the child on the head. The educated parents smile and take an opposite reaction, “Well, look at this! Let’s see how the water is spreading on the floor.”

As a mother of five children and five grandchildren, I can speak from experience on the above illustration. Small children do things out of a sense of wonder. Their thoughts go something like this, “Gee, I wonder what would happen if I did _____ .” As a parent, you can go with it or stifle it. It’s your choice. You’ve got all the power. The case of the spilled water shows how parents can encourage their children to explore possibilities. How do you suppose the scene should end? Maybe the parents included the child in the process of learning what happens when you place a towel on spilled water and how the water is absorbed into the towel and the floor is magically dried. However a situation like that plays out, children who are lucky to have parents who understand them, will grow in an atmosphere of love and will learn how to treat others with love and compassion.

Harsh vs. humane. We have a choice as to how we treat one another. Immediate results come either way. Lingering repercussions last forever.

In that same talk that I heard in Cleveland that day, Geoffrey Canada pointed out that the United States has the highest rate of imprisonment than any other industrialized nation. Gee, I wonder what would happen if we started to treat our children with dignity and respect? Clearly, our current system of parental apprenticeships is not working. I know that The Harlem Children’s Zone has a solution. It begins with education. Baby College is the place to start. If you haven’t heard about it, please go to the HCZ’s website. Find out how you can help.

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Street Smarts

Yesterday I was walking down I Street in Washington, D.C. trying to find my way back to the Metro station. Being new to this town, and lacking street smarts in a literal fashion, I was studying my small google maps printout. It was around 7:30 p.m., the sidewalks were crowded with workers rushing home. At the crosswalk, I was surprised to hear a voice come alongside me, “Need help finding your way?”

I looked over to see a young woman with a kind smile, “Yes, I’m trying to find the Metro. Should I turn right on 18th?”

“Farragut North?” she replied.

“Yes, that’s it.”

“I’m going there myself. It’s straight ahead.”

As we walked along, we found out a few things about each other. We both had lived in Northern California. Mia had moved to D.C. several years ago for family reasons. I had moved here for family reasons as well. Her husband had smartly bought a home on Capitol Hill two years ago just in time to see the neighborhood go through significant improvements. I also live on Capitol Hill. At the Farragut North station, we parted ways, only to meet up again on the street outside Union Station. It seemed like fate was telling me that our conversation needed to continue.

I had mentioned to Mia while walking on I Street that I was returning from an event at the Arts Club of Washington, D.C. She continued our conversation by asking why I had been there.

“It was a birthday celebration for Walt Whitman. I thought it was going to be a poetry reading, but it turned out to be a poetry operetta of sorts. I don’t know much about opera, but it was enjoyable. It was my first visit to the Art Club. Beautiful place – used to be James Munroe’s house, and for a short time served as the Whitehouse while the first one was being rebuilt after it burned during the War of 1812. I love the history in this town.”

“What other events have you been going to?”

I told Mia about the lecture given by Todd Kilman, author of “The Wild Vine” at the Folger Shakespeare Library last Friday. It’s a true story of intrigue in the world of wine and about a grape that I had never heard of, the Norton grape. The author wove it well – from it’s wild beginnings in the early 1800s as an experiment on Dr. Norton’s farm in Virginia to its demise during prohibition. Thankfully, along the way, a couple of bootleggers, a hog farmer and a pilot interceded on behalf of this humble grape to keep the wild vine alive. In the ’70s, an interesting character by the name of Jenni McCloud took the Norton under her wing along with her six children and brought it back to fruition (pun intended). I learned how Missouri was positioned to become the Napa Valley of the Midwest until the temperance movement and prohibition brought that to an end. After the lecture, I enjoyed a small tasting. The wine is full of character – just like its story.

As we parted ways for the second time, I couldn’t help but smile as I finished my walk home. How unusual, I thought, for a stranger to reach out like Mia did – a woman willing to share her street smarts – but more importantly, a woman of social smarts as well.

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Socially Unadventurous

DW TV (Deutsche Welle – German international news source – which, BTW, is very refreshing – you get a varied picture of what’s going on in the world as opposed to American news sources which focus on a limited number of news events and repeat them over and over 24 hours a day, as if that’s going to make me a smarter person) has an interesting program called, GLOBAL 3000, where you can learn how globalism is affecting ordinary people. It’s a program that could easily make you smarter. Here is a description of the show from their website:

GLOBAL 3000 – DW-TV’s globalization magazine looks at the issues that are moving us today, and shows how people are living with the opportunities and risks of globalization.

American toddlers learn Chinese. Afghans study Thai ways of doing things. Mapuche Indians from Patagonia want to take Benetton to court. And what do sheep in New Zealand have to do with climate change? We live in a globalized world. Events in Asia have repercussions in Europe. European reactions have knock-on effects in South America. The situation in the Amazon Rainforest concerns us all.

GLOBAL 3000 – widening horizons by examining the global consequences of local actions – and vice-versa. We bring you news, reports and portraits on globalization issues. Viewers can contribute to the program by sending in their personal stories and experiences, helping shape a weekly broadcast that gives new insights into the world-wide community to which we all belong. Globalization is all around us – and every week we give it a face with GLOBAL 3000.

~

A segment aired last year where they interviewed a man from Prague who runs a news stand. The interviewer asked him questions like: What do you do for a living? What do you hope for your future? What worries you? What makes you happy? What is your favorite food? His most interesting reply was about his future. He said that he does not want to grow old, live alone, get sick, and have no one to take care of him.

According to the latest U.S. Census, more than half of American households have only one occupant. This is a new trend. The majority of us are living alone. Hmm… why is this? Should we accept this as simply a new direction in our cultural evolution?

Living alone has its pros and cons. The pros that I hear usually have to do with the freedom to do what you want when you want. The cons, on the other hand, are problematic and profuse. Aside from the obvious trouble that could happen to anyone regardless of age, like injuries, illness, or intruders, living solo can create other problems much more subtle in nature, but with more far-reaching consequences.

You’ve probably known of people who have lived alone for years and years, sometimes referred to as being, “set in their ways.” Their daily routine has little room for flexibility. An uninvited guest is never welcome. Their world is socially unadventurous.

What would the world be like if no one was adventurous? social or otherwise. The word adventure comes from the Latin word adventurus, ‘about to happen’ from advenire, ‘arrive’. Without adventure, life would be restricted to happenings already had, ventures already anticipated, arrivals already taken. Nothing new. No way to grow. Static.

Life is supposed to be an adventure. We’re supposed to venture out of our comfort zones. We’re supposed to advance. That is the beauty of evolution.

Is our new single life style restricting social progress? Is our species threatened by this? Should our main social interaction be with television, radio and the internet? People can get so attached to television personalities and virtual friends that their sense of a social reality becomes a fantasy.  When something is not real, we do not feel responsible toward it nor have a reason to care.

Should we care about the news stand merchant in Prague? His fear of growing old and suffering illness alone is real. Can our civilization advance if we continue to ignore* such social disconnections?

* have you ever noticed that ignore is the root of the word ignorance? Ignore comes from the Latin word, ignorare, which means to “not know or disregard.” I’ve got more to say about this topic. Stay tuned.

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Build-A-Brain

Studies have shown that taller people are generally more successful in life, e.g., higher income, status, etc. Scandinavians have surpassed Americans as the tallest with an average height of 5’10”. In yet another area, America is falling behind. Our average height is 5’9″.

Richard Steckel, professor of economics and anthropology at Ohio State University, conducted the research. His report is in the Journal of Economic Research Literature. You might be wondering what the connection is between prosperity and height. OSU’s research page on their website explains it:

“Research has shown that average height is significantly associated with a country’s per capita income. But studying height has some advantages,” Steckel said. “For example, researchers have records of average height that go further back in history than do records of national income. Height also tells a slightly different story about the standard of living because it measures consumption of basic necessities, rather than output. Moreover, because growth occurs mostly in childhood, it allows researchers to look at how resources are allocated within families.”

“Average stature is an important indicator of a country’s health care, nutrition and standard of living,” said Steckel, who since 1975 has studied the height of people around the world.

“One of the keys to understanding why America is falling behind other countries in terms of stature has to do with access to health care, particularly for children,” he said.

“I suspect there are pockets of poverty in the United States where the lack of medical programs and nutritional programs may be factors in poor health, and the reason some people aren’t growing as tall as they might.”

An important factor to consider in conjunction with this report is the lack of prenatal care for underserved women in America. I did a little research. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in October of 2008 which stated:

“The United States’ international ranking fell from 12th in 1960 to 23d in 1990, and to 29th in 2004. The U.S. infant mortality rate is higher than those in most other developed countries, and the gap between the U.S. infant mortality rate and the rates for the countries with the lowest infant mortality appears to be widening.”

The CIA’s World Factbook estimates for 2011 rank the United States #176 out of 222 countries. Most of Europe ranks higher as well as East Asian countries.

The wealthiest nation in the world is neglecting its most vulnerable citizens.

I remember my first pregnancy in 1970. I was lucky to have access to good care and education on the importance of superior nutrition. I didn’t know that dark green lettuce like romaine, had substantially more nutrients than iceberg lettuce. I didn’t know that whole grains contained high concentrations of vitamin B-6 and folic acid – essential components to building a strong nervous system. I didn’t know the importance of eating regular balanced meals. I learned all of this from my obstetrician.

Well, of course, I wanted my son to have the very best of opportunities to develop a healthy body and mind, so I carefully followed my doctor’s advice. At his early well-baby check-ups, the pediatrician always remarked on what a healthy baby boy I had, in fact, one time he said, “This little guy is textbook perfect!” All because I had access to good prenatal care.

The report from OSU also got me to thinking about mental health. If height is affected by poor nutrition, what about your brain? Do you suppose that there is a link between the dumbing down of America and substandard healthcare?

Last fall we elected a majority of public officials who are determined to take down the healthcare provisions that President Obama worked so hard to put in place. One newspaper quoted John Boehner, our new Speaker of the House, as saying he would dismantle the monstrosity of Obama’s healthcare plan. I looked up the word, “monstrosity” in the dictionary:  “something that is outrageously or offensively wrong.”

I think it is offensively wrong for any American to be without healthcare, either because you are denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition, or simply because you do not have the means to pay for the outrageously high premiums.

Build-A-Brain. Build-A-Body. Build-A-Democracy.

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Expected to Fight

Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, led a panel discussion on the state of public education in America during a lunch session at the Council on Foundations’ conference I attended in Charlotte last year. He cleared up a few matters of social ignorance in his short presentation. Needless to say, I was impressed, while at the same time, becoming aware of my social ignorance about our public school system.

I didn’t know that there are hundreds of high-performing schools in densely impoverished districts. I had assumed that poverty dictated low performance. You’re a product of your environment, right? I used to think that children could not excel in a school where the buildings were decrepit, the neighborhood dangerous, and the teachers feeling hopeless. Not true. Hundreds of schools in our country’s worst pools of poverty are in the top percentage of performance standards.

Duncan said that a failure to educate is what perpetuates poverty. Education is the great equalizer. Poverty does not have to be a destiny. He went on to say, “Poor quality education will never build strong sustainable communities.”

Secretary Duncan gave an experience of a school in Philadelphia that had been considered one of the worst. Graduation rates were the lowest in the state, fights broke out daily, and the environment was deplorable.

I need to pause here to tell you about Arne Duncan’s background so you can appreciate what he accomplished with the school in Philadelphia. He has the distinction of being the one school superintendent in America that served the longest continual term – a little over five years, (the average is two years).  This was in Chicago. When he started, the school system was at the bottom of the ranks. He brought them out of the basement. Today, five of the top ten performing schools in Illinois are in Chicago.

Back to Philadelphia. As in Chicago, Duncan gave his full attention to Philadelphia’s plight. In less than two years, the school’s graduate rate had risen to 85%, far above the national average of 75% and double for African American students. The environment had changed from hopeless to hopeful. All the fighting stopped. While walking through the halls one day, Duncan asked a student why the fights weren’t happening anymore. The student replied, “Now we’re not expected to fight.”

~

There are lots of ways to measure the success of a school. In recent years, test scores have become the sole measuring stick. I have a question: on what test would you find the answer, “Now we’re not expected to fight?”

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