Smarter, kinder and living in 2017

Laughs are precious these days. I turn on the news or open my computer with a vague feeling of dread. It’s always nice to be surprised by a little humor instead, so today I’m sharing a few of my favorites from Facebook. Links to like are at the bottom of the post. Please do.

Along with my growing appreciation of anything that gives me a smile, I notice that I am also becoming bolder in expressing my opinions. This week I had my first letter to the editor published in our local newspaper. Encouraged by how easy that was, I just sent in my first ever Op-Ed piece, a guest editorial on North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill. In case you haven’t heard, you are watching NCAA championship games being played in South Carolina right now because North Carolina has a law that so blatantly discriminates against the LGBT community that even the NCAA will not hold games in our state.

These days I find myself compelled to share my true beliefs with friends, relatives and strangers once they confront me with theirs. I’ve never been one to argue politics, and I still won’t be the one to bring the subject up first. I like getting along with people. But I’m also finished pretending to be disinterested, uninformed or hard of hearing when others express opinions with which I don’t agree, or worse yet which I find abhorrent. I wish to treat people gently and to listen to them with respect, but allowing myself to thoroughly disagree has improved my state of mind almost as much as the humor.

Part of my growing politicization is that I have decided that I do not have to apologize for thinking the following:
1. Education is a wonderful thing. However you make your living, knowledge makes you a better person.
2. Open mindedness is a wonderful thing. What ever your religious beliefs, being hateful to any group does not please anyone’s God. I think every holy book on the planet is pretty clear about this.

This does not make me an elitist or a snowflake. Education makes us smarter. Open-mindedness makes us kinder.

Finally, the past few months have brought me back to reflecting on two of my favorite topics: time and change. I am astounded that a large group of Americans (larger than I thought) believed that they could live in the same town they grew up in and do just what their parents did and they were somehow guaranteed that would make them a good living. This is basically an assumption that society won’t change over time. Of course it will. Moving, learning new skills and adapting to a changing world are part of survival.

Furthermore, much of this same group seems to believe that someone promised them that their culture, ethnicity, religion or social beliefs would always reflect the majority view just because they once did. Demographics and societal norms change. It makes more sense to work to improve the world that it is, than to fight to make it the way is used to be.

Most people like their cell phones and enjoy their iPods. I suggest that they wake up to the fact that that those are not the only ways that 2017 is different from 1957 and consider embracing this new millennium. They might find that it has a lot to offer everyone.

(If you enjoyed the humor, please go to Facebook and visit and like Neil Degrasse Tyson Fans, Paid Liberal Troll, and Liberal Progressive Democrat.)

Have you ever broken a law?

I used to teach a class in ethics as part of a training program for my company. My co-instructor liked to start off with this question. Have you ever broken the law? Most people would shake their heads.

Didn’t borrow any of the down payment for your first house from you parents? Never tried recreational drugs? Underage drinking? Never saw any of it occur and failed to report it?

By this point much of the class was shrugging or looking sheepish.

guidelinesNever ran a stop sign? Crossed the street on a red light? Exaggerated the value of your clothing donations on your income return?  Never double parked or jaywalked or even drove a single mile over the speed limit? Ever?

She had their attention then, and we generally went on to have a pretty lively discussion about what it means to be a law-abiding citizen. I liked to talk about Jack Sparrow’s famous quote that his pirate code was really more of a “guideline.” The fact is, we all consider some laws to be guidelines, particularly when we believe that consequences of our breaking them will not hurt anyone. The perception of which laws this applies to changes over time

In this class we talked about bank robbery versus littering. When I was young my parents would never have considered robbing a bank, although they did habitually take towels from hotels, assuring me that it was included in the price of a room. I later learned otherwise. My parents certainly considered laws against throwing trash out of the car to be a suggestion, along with any requirement to wear a seat belt. Like I said, times change.

Laws change, too, as do penalties and enforcement. When society begins to deem that “this law is serious” the hope is that the increased scrutiny and greater fines are made public first, not used as gotcha fundraising, and that the changes are uniformly enforced among all income levels and ethnic groups. (I know. That’s the hope.)

insider-tradingMuch of the purpose of our particular class was to end up in a discussion about business ethics. My company worked with many different countries, all of which had laws against bribery, but many of which had cultures that considered those laws as guidelines. We also talked about insider trading, and how its acceptability has changed over time. I like the example from the 1980’s movie The Big Chill, when Kevin Kline tries to help his close friend William Hurt by tipping him off that a company is about to be acquired and its stock will shoot up. A friendly gesture? Or ten years in jail? You be the judge.

nutshell I’m remembering those lively discussions and wondering how my former co-workers back in the Houston area are feeling about illegal immigrants. It’s an emotional topic, today more than ever. Because z2 is partly about immigration, I did a fair amount of research on the subject as I wrote. My main source was a wonderful book called “Immigration Law and Procedure in a Nutshell” by David Weissbrodt and Laura Danielson, which used humor and antidotes to help illustrate the changes in both law and perception over the decades.

My one grandfather was brought here at two years old and never knew the country of his birth. I’m pretty sure that all eight great-grandparents of mine arrived from Russia with no paperwork; some of them didn’t even know what country they were going to. Half of one family ended up here, half in Argentina. Oh well, at least they weren’t in Russia, where authorities were cracking down on them for having immigrated from Germany a century earlier.

taboojive2You see, at one time the world was a place where people fled danger, hoping and expecting that those elsewhere would allow them to start a new life if they just worked hard and didn’t make trouble. Paperwork was a guideline. As long as they didn’t hurt anyone, it was really okay.

We live in a different sort of world now, but not everybody has caught up. We have people who were brought here as children by well meaning parents who didn’t think they were doing something that awful. We have those who came here even recently believing that the worst a generous and kind country like ours would do to them would still be far better than what they were facing from tyrants where they were.

We have every right to make our borders completely non-porous today if we so choose. Cost versus benefit, compassion versus safety; these are debates worth having. But when it comes to how we treat those already here, it would serve us well to remember.

choicesThe text we used for our ethics class was a wonderful  book called How Good People Make Tough Choices by Rushworth Kidder. It talked about the main ethical dilemmas facing moral people. Loyalty versus truth. Short term thinking versus long term thinking. Individual rights versus social responsibility. And my personal favorite, mercy versus justice. Our most passionate discussions were about this last one, as we tried to get our participants to understand how often we as humans want mercy for ourselves, our loved ones, and those like us, and how stridently we demand justice for everyone else.

I’ve been thinking about that class a lot these past three weeks, and wondering if I could try just teaching it to passing strangers on street corners. Would anyone stop to listen?

Bring back the good old days?

I get a lot of ideas for blog posts while I’m doing yoga. Some would say it is because my brain relaxes and stops talking. Others might guess that I’m lucky enough to have uncommonly profound yoga instructors. Normally I’d go with both of the above, but not today. This post comes from my mind’s refusing to agree to do what it was told.

The pastToday, I was instructed to be totally present in the now. This is a common prompt in a yoga class, but the problem started when we were asked to reflect on what kept us from being so. “I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamored.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But another voice in my head spoke up, and it was less anxious to please.

“No,” it corrected. “For starters, you are not just replaying scenes in your head, you are spending time processing what has happened. Processing is not a bad thing. You do “after action reviews”, just like the military. You try to learn from your past mistakes, like every historian says we need to do. Replaying events in order to be wiser in the present is a valuable activity.”

Hmmmmm …. It looked like a rebellious section of my monkey mind was staging a coup. I managed to hush it for the duration of the class, but I picked up the train of thought as I drove home.

It was true. My sincere contrition for poor behavior is seldom spontaneous.  It often comes after a hard look at the past, hopefully the very recent one. My gratitude is often the fruit of this inter-cranial after action review process, as is my forgiveness, and my recognition of a job well done by myself or others. Monkey mind had a point. I would not want to live in a world where I didn’t review the past and grow. Some of my best behavior comes from that.

So what was the problem? Well, there is such a thing as an unhealthy obsession with what has occurred. Each of us has a thing or two we’ve spent far too much time reviewing. Often we are still angry with someone, or still trying to justify our own less than stellar actions. I know that I spend time there. Let’s face it. There is “learn from” and there is “fixate on” and they are two different things.

We also can hide in a glorified past, afraid of change and not wanting the future to bring that which we don’t understand. But it will, it always will bring it.

growing bolder 9I think that society has the same dilemma. Certain periods fascinate us beyond all reason. Too often we use historic events to perpetuate hatred and prejudice, not to grow and be better. And there is this insane obsession with returning our country, or our religion, or culture or world to some “good old days” of the past. Forget that those days were never as good as the hype. The real problem is that those days are gone, they are always gone. You cannot recreate them. You can make a better future and use some of the best ideas of the past to do so, but the obsession with making things just like they once were is only a way to waste your precious present.

I was sort of warming to this meld of ideas when my monkey mind, which is very good at digging up facts, reminded me of something. I suspect that every author has a scene or two in each book that they consider their favorites.  I know I do. This one from z2 takes place after Kisa discovers that Kyle is of a nationality that she has always despised. My yoga mind and monkey mind both reread it together and the good news is that they now agree. We do all need to learn from the past, and then we need to let it go.

Kyle asked more seriously. “Kisa, what do you think is a reasonable time limit for hate?”

“I don’t believe in hate.”

“No one does, but we all do. If someone kills my kin, hurts my friends, ruins my life, I may be able to forgive and move on. But if a large group of people does such a thing? Then I almost certainly don’t. I call my hatred lots of things. Justified anger. Revenge. Forcing this group to behave better. Even self-defense. But for how long do I get to punish all the people associated with or descended from those who caused the harm?”

“In parts of the world feuds are centuries old,” she remarked, “with a staggering list of injustice and cruelty on both sides. Once it gets to that point, forgiveness or even just acceptance between two groups seems impossible.”

“That’s what I mean. And each fresh insult keeps the fire going. To stop hating appears to dishonor the sacrifices made by those who came before. Who wants to let their ancestors down?”

“So we keep it going and let our children down instead, as we let the circle grow ever wider,” Kisa said. “Immediate blood relatives of the perpetrators? Those who look like them? Pray like them? Dress like them? Anyone who shares a city, or a nation, or a continent with them?”

“Exactly. In other words, how would you like to let one Spaniard who thinks that the burning of Tayasal was an abomination buy you dinner and start over?”

“I’d love that.” She thought a second. “Do you know who said ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind’?”

Kyle shook his head. “Gandhi? John Lennon?”

Kisa laughed. “Good guesses. Albert Einstein.” Her anger and even embarrassment at not recognizing Kyle’s heritage was gone. “I think that it’s a good time for you and me to grow up.”

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about my never ending focus on performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. For thoughts about focusing on the future, see Prepare for the Worst? on my d4 blog. And find out what my yoga instructor thought the problem was at Are you performing, or performing? on my y1 blog.)

 

 

 

This year October 10th lasted almost all month

I’ve taken a lot of classes in creative writing, but only one in writing poetry. The class gave me two things. (1) It firmly established that I am not a poet.  (2) It gave me Oct. 10.

Rather, it gave me a poem called “Oct. 10” about the bright blue sky of autumn and the importance of wrapping the memory of that sky close around you to bring comfort on a white winter day.  For whatever reason, that phrase stuck with me and from it I created my own personal holiday.  Every year, on or around Oct 10, wherever I have lived and whatever I have been doing, there has always been one of those gorgeous cool clear autumn days. I’d call in sick. I’d ignore household chores. It was my own personal day off, a celebration of all things beautiful, and every year I found a way to take at least part of the day and make it mine.

autumn crop for blogUntil this year. I’ve moved to a location with colder weather and far more trees. October started out cool and rainy and I was worried that my special holiday might not even happen here. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once the rain passed, the daytime sky settled in to bright blue while the leaves around me danced from golden to orange to burgundy, and I went into holiday mode. And couldn’t come out of it.  I mean, I knew it had been over two weeks since I started celebrating, but it still felt like Oct 10 and so I spent day after day on my front porch staring at a deep blue sky. I intended to be writing, I really did. I had plenty else that needed to be done. But damn, it was Oct 10 and I needed to enjoy every bit of it.

The rain and cold finally came back of course, and today I made a nice detailed list of everything I have got to get done.  It felt good to get organized again; I’m one of those people who likes that feeling. It’s November, and time to move on. But what a great Oct. 10! I hope it lasts as long next year.

(If you like the idea of declaring a personal holiday, check out my post for 2012, when Oct 10 didn’t come until Oct. 28.)

If I’d only known…

star trekIt you had to pick one thing out of the original Star Trek series to have in your own life, what would it have been? Beam me up, Scotty? The replicators? Warp drive? Well, we didn’t get those, did we. At least not yet. Face it, we got the equivalent of the com badges, those marvelous communication devices that let the whole crew talk to each other all the time no matter where they were.  No, it wouldn’t have been my first choice either.

Yesterday, I finally finished reading Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s 1952 science fiction satire The Space Merchants and its sequel, Pohl’s 1984 The Merchant’s War. I enjoyed the first novel quite a bit and the second only somewhat. The Merchant’s War had so damn much potential that I felt cheated when Pohl left so much unaddressed, unexplained and unsaid.

But back to the first book, because that is what I want to talk about here. I could find no date at which the story takes place. We only know that it’s far enough in the future that a man has been sent to Venus, and laws and government structure are substantially different. Pohl and Kornbluth create a world that is believable enough, if one lives in 1954, and that is the trouble with writing science fiction. Things change, even over the lifetime of a book. Twenty or thirty years after a book is written, we do have a better sense of the trajectory we are on. Yesterday’s future world looks unrealistic and even silly today.

growing bolder 6The Space Merchants biggest failure to predict has to do with electronics, which plays almost no role in the story.  There are no computers, there is no internet. Communication is essentially what it was in 1950, only the characters are talking about rocket ships instead. You have to ask yourself how could they not have known? Then you ask yourself, how could they have?

Think quick. Your new novel takes place sometime around 2090, although you aren’t going to give a date. Let’s say it’s a medical thriller.  Or an alien invasion.  It doesn’t matter. It’s the future. I’m going to read your novel in 2055. I really am. Now, you take a good hard look at society today and tell me what the most significant unexpected change in direction is going to be over the next forty years. No extrapolating current trends. This has to be something that is basically new or in its infancy now. The world will center around it by 2055. Any story of 2090 will seem silly if you leave this out.

Got it? Me neither. There are definitely days when I think writing romance novels would be easier.

(For more about The Space Merchants, see my posts on this amazing book at I Know Sexism When I See ItThe Kinky of the Future, Through the Eyes of Another, and Predicting the Future or Shaping It.)

If you’re going to be an old car ….

small plane“If you’re going to be a pilot, be a good one.” My dad said it in a matter-of-fact tone, as he handed me all the pamphlets and books he had used years ago when he studied for his own pilot’s license. I was twenty-two years old and immortal, using the pay from my first real job to fund the expensive flying lessons I had yearned for throughout my childhood.

Years later, I found out that my dad never really got his pilot’s license when he was young. He had a student’s license to fly, and shortly before I was born he flipped a plane while trying to land in a crosswind.  He walked away from the accident and never set foot in a small plane again. “I got too busy to keep it up,” was only his more convenient story.

I think of the courage it must have taken for him to watch me learn to fly. I also never got my license, but in my case job changes and marriage and children put a stop to my airborne extravagance. I still remember the feeling of being alone in the cockpit, and of landing the plane and stepping out it safely. And I still remember my dad’s words, and the odd look on his face when he said them to me. Perhaps it was his expression that made the words stick.

200000A couple of months ago my beloved 2000 Camry Solara convertible turned over 200,000 miles. I took pictures and wanted to blog about it, but I was in the middle of packing up a house and time got away from me. I’m very attached to this car. It and I fly down the road together with the wind in my face, and I don’t have to look for a runway on which to land. After we returned from the odometer-changing drive, I gave it a loving pat on the hood. “If you’re going to be an old car now, be a good one.” I think it understood.

TabooJive2As of two months ago, the car and I both live in the mountains of North Carolina, a thousand miles away from steamy old Houston. I’m retired, and for the first time in forty-some years I choose how I fill my days. It’s a thrilling, daunting challenge, this making a new life with all these choices. I need to eat better. Exercise more. Find a social circle. Take some time for introspection.

I can still see my dad’s face. “If you’re going to be an old person, be a good one.” Good advice, dad. I’m working on it.

(For more thoughts on retiring early and pursuing a dream, see my posts Wise and Quiet, Am I a Shape Shifter Now? and Greener Grass.)

What the hell happened in 1968? (race relations edition)

Funny how forty-seven years can melt away in an instant.

I am going through the last bits of china and art from my mother’s house. I am used to the memories that the old things bring, and the pang of how my mom once loved this vase or my father once showed me that book. But I am not prepared for the newspaper. Still stark in its faded shades of charcoal and cream, it is a relic of communication that I almost never see these days. The Wichita Eagle. It whispers to me from a place I once lived, and from a Friday August 23 of long ago.

“What went on in 1968?” I ask, as I pick up the front page of the newspaper. “Oh dear.”

IMG_1624It looks like the national guard has been called in after days of racial violence in the city, according the large headline on the top of the front page. The governor has put Wichita in a state of emergency, enacted a curfew, closed bars and stopped the sale of gasoline in containers. I scan the front page for information on why.

A story immediately below provides some answers. It gives a laundry list of robberies and crimes committed by “Negroes” over the past few days including the robbery of an IGA grocery store, looting, burning and vandalism to automobiles. A white boy was actually shot in the wrist at the IGA, but it looks like he will be fine. Perpetrators are named and their arrests and their charges are detailed. Looks like Wichita Kansas is a scary place to be white.

editorialWhat is wrong with all these out-of-control black people? The editorial page on 4A asks this question in the form of a guest editorial from the Wall Street Journal called “Statistics Point to Progress by Negroes”. Points made by the article include the alarming fact that in 1968 non-white incomes are rising faster than white incomes, a reminder that Negroes in Northern slums are still far better off than they were on farms in the south, and a note that the existence of Negro mayors in Cleveland, Washington D.C. and Gary Indiana show our nations progress towards racial equality. Unlike the other editorials, there is no rebuttal or editorial presenting any other perspective.

whole storyOne has to go to on page 9A, well past the story about how K-State has the radical idea to use a computer to make its air conditioning system more efficient and past the ads for the latest in transistor radios, to find a story about the “neighborhood” perspective. The vague headline only says “Violence Mostly Brings Fear” but in the body of the text I learn that a 19-year-old black youth was shot while leaving a presentation by a local Black historian. Witnesses saw four white men in a car flee after firing the shot. The article does not even mention whether the young man lived and if so, what his condition is. I am only told that the situation has made “racial tensions flare.” I’ll bet it has.

“We’ve been through all of this before” the former secretary of the Wichita NAACP is quoted as saying near the end of the page 9 article. “I want to know when we are going to stop kidding around and get to the root problem of what is causing this trouble.”

Good question, ma’am. The headlines from around 2015 would probably make you cry. Perhaps they are making you cry if you are still alive to read them. Yes, there has been progress. We do now get a more complete story, so we generally know the fate of the young black man or woman in question. It is generally not good. The editorial page will present opposing opinions these days. Those who still ask “why aren’t you black people satisfied by now” will now point to a black president along with several black mayors. You know. Progress.

lessonslearned1My thirteen year old self never crossed paths with Jo Gardenhire, former Secretary of the Wichita Kansas NAACP. If I had, we probably would have had very little to say to each other. Times change. Today, I’d like to shake her hand, and to echo her question.

When we are going to stop kidding around and get to the root problem of what is causing this trouble?  And isn’t five decades far too long a time to be asking this same question?

[Images and excepts are from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle]

For more notes from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle, see my other blogs about World Peace and Vietnam, What Makes for a Glamorous Week-end for a Woman, Is it a good thing to know the future and the George Wallace Standing Ovation report.