Still a Sunrise?

Going for a stroll in Kenya

I arrived back from Africa on Saturday, and the first thing I encountered was more people from Africa. Specifically, I had two Uber drivers. One, from Ghana, took me to where I was staying overnight en route and the second, from Sierra Leone, took me back to the airport at 6 am to catch my final flight home.
I had been visiting Kenya, which sets about 3500 miles away across a continent from both of these men’s homes, yet their faces lit up when they heard where I had been. Both had been in the US for years, trying, in their own words, to make a better life.

My travels had added a new layer of understanding to what they meant.

Sun on the horizon in Kenya

I had spent some time talking to my Kenyan guide, learning about his life and his hopes for his four-year-old daughter as she grows. He is determined to see her become well educated, even though such an opportunity was beyond his reach.

What would you have studied?
“I wanted to become a lawyer,” he laughed. “Obviously that was impossible in my situation.”
As we traveled, I couldn’t help but notice the way he negotiated his way through the problems we encountered. Your instincts were good, I thought. You’d have made a fine lawyer. But I kept my thoughts to myself.
“What do you hope your daughter studies?” I asked.
The question seemed to make him sad.

The U.S. presence in Kenya

“She won’t have so many options to choose from,” he told me. He’d been careful to keep most of his opinions to himself as we traveled, and this is probably a wise thing for any travel guide, anywhere, to do. But for just a moment he spoke from his heart.

“It doesn’t bother me that you don’t appreciate all the opportunities that you have in your country. What bothers me is that you don’t even recognize that you have them.”

He’s right, I thought. We don’t recognize it. Most of us have done little to nothing to create those opportunities and yet we not only see them as normal, we act as though they are our birthright.
Perspective is one of the many and better benefits of travel.
This week, it introduced to me three men. One is working hard to provide his daughter a better life. Two have left their families, friends and cultures behind to seek better lives for themselves.

George Washington’s chair

Stop me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t this sort of hard work and goals that we are so proud of in the United States; the very thing we believe built this nation?

I ask because while I was doing all this listening and thinking, white supremacist groups in my country were carrying on to a frightening degree. Others are still clamoring to cut immigration way back to keep all these “undesirables” from coming in.

I once heard a story that George Washington had a chair decorated with a sun along the horizon and that Benjamin Franklin said “I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I… know that it is a rising…sun.

Sunrise at Dulles

I thought of that story as the cab driver from Sierra Leone dropped me off at the airport and I was treated to the sight of the sun rising over Washington D.C.

Hey America, do  you think that it is still a rising sun on that chair? I think it can be, but only if we are smart enough to recognize the things we take for granted and strong enough to refuse to let fear and bigotry be our guide.

Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place

I remember visiting Yellowstone as a teenager and being upset that I was not allowed to take even one tiny little insignificant rock home as a souvenir.  Up to that time, I always brought a rock home from places I enjoyed. What difference could my little memento make?

Then I looked around. Thousands of people were here with me, and if I was the only one who ever took a pretty stone, there would be no problem. But what if half of them wanted rocks, too?

It was something of an epiphany to realize that while a never-before-seen insect or two on ones front porch is interesting, ten thousand such insects on the porch is frightening. Maybe even a plague. It was more of an epiphany to understand that it works pretty much the same for humans as for bugs. Take one or two of us out of our home environment and put us somewhere else, and we’re interesting. But if thousands of us suddenly plop up somewhere new, we become a problem. Maybe even a plague.

Today, I am an adult who loves to travel, and my books and my blogs reflect my belief that peace and compassion are byproducts of visiting places far from our own. However, in a world where many now have the means and desire to explore far away places (which is good), we risk harming every place to which we swarm (which is bad).

Back when I wrote z2, main characters Alex and Lola had to visit Guatemala and Belize as part of the plot. As I researched their vacation, I came upon the concept of ecotourism and immediately wanted my characters to embrace this idea. This was the result.

As the van from their lodge left the lowlands the next morning and entered the mountainous area of western Belize, Alex thought that the vacation portion of this trip had pretty much ended. So he was surprised by the breathtaking beauty.

The lodge itself was nestled in between two small waterfalls and surrounded by tropical forest. Even just standing in the parking lot Alex could see wild orchids growing and brightly colored parrots flitting about. It was a fantasy set in a version of paradise.

“Why don’t you tell the world that this place is so gorgeous?” Lola was exclaiming.

“Many tourists are a mixed blessing,” the driver smiled back at her. Of course, Alex thought. We bring money, something the region sorely needs. But we also bring us.

The lodge that Lola had selected advertised its allegiance to sustainable ecotourism. In the past Alex had honestly paid very little attention to that concept. But now, looking at the array of spectacular plant life in front of him, and remembering the clear struggle for life he had seen while diving around reefs only a few days ago, he was proud and happy that Lola had persuaded him to spend the extra to be staying at a facility that at least gave some conscious thought to the problem.

A few days ago I got introduced to a documentary being made by relatives of a friend of mine. He is from Easter Island, and they are working to finish a film about the challenges caused by having a massive number of humans decide to put a visit to Easter Island on their bucket list.

It looks like it will be a thought-provoking look into how our common yen to visit far away places has consequences, and how we would be well-served to keep them in mind. Enjoy the video below and check out their Kickstarter page to learn more.

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see As Far Away Places Edge Closer, Caring About Far Away Places, The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places, and Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door.)

Good people doing what?

triumph“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” has got to be the best quote that no one actually ever said. That aside, most of us are looking at ourselves in the mirror these days and thinking that we are good people who are wondering what it is that we are supposed to be doing.

About what? Come on, you know. We all know what is happening out there. We just don’t want to think about it.

For one, the election is only about thirteen weeks away now and we sort of hope this will mostly go away after that. Some of us support Hillary with enthusiasm, other accept her as the best choice and think she will be okay. Most of us can’t imagine that she won’t win. After she does, this nonsense will stop, right?

Photo published for Protesters plan to build a wall to prevent Trump from speaking in DetroitAnd the people you know who support Trump say it is no big deal. Oh, come on, you do know some of them. Acquaintances, neighbors, relatives, probably nice people too. They don’t go to the rallies and scream obscenities at minorities, and they like other things about him that you kind of understand. He speaks his mind, he’s not slick. They say most of his supporters don’t focus on hate and that Trump himself doesn’t really feel that way. He won’t really act that way if he’s elected. The nonsense will stop then, right?

Will it? The Southern Poverty Law center calculates that the number of hate groups rose by 14% in 2015. Former KKK leader David Duke has announced that he is running for the open Senate seat in Louisiana to stop the “ethnic cleansing” of white people. The New York Times has just published a compilation of uncensored expressions of hate from Donald Trump supporters at his rallies. You can view it here.

Okay, so maybe we do have a teensie weensie bit of a growing hate problem in this country. What is is that good men (and good women) should be doing?

I’ve been struggling with this question for awhile. It seems to me that one good start is to seek out objective sources of information. Independent fact checkers do exist. In aggregate, they approach providing actual truth. Then, when we have real facts at our fingertips, we need to share the information. We all need to vote our consciences and help others get to the polls to do the same.

I think we need a zero tolerance policy for demeaning humor in general, and particularly for humor that targets those whom are forced to play the game of life on a more difficult setting. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about check out the link.) We need to remove name calling from our speech patterns. Check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website on teaching tolerance. (Of course, they’d love a donation from you while you are there.)

change2We need to take a few slow breathes and say “this is not the world I want.” Whatever our personal politics are,  surely we can agree that throwing rocks at each other is a bad idea. As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we wish to see.

In 1770 the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke did say “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one.”

In 1867 the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill did say “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Okay, maybe neither one is quite as pithy as the fake quote at the beginning, but we all get the point.

 

 

 

Happy Honesty Day

Seriously. Would I lie about this?

book of liesToday is Honesty Day in the United States, thanks to author M. Hirsh Goldberg who created the holiday in the early 1990s while researching his The Book of Lies: Fibs, Tales, Schemes, Scams, Fakes, and Frauds That Have Changed The Course of History and Affect Our Daily Lives. Why April 30? According to Wikipedia, he intended it as a balance to April Fools day, and it is also the anniversary of the first inauguration of George Washington in 1789.

It is a shame it never really caught on, given that the lofty purpose of the day is to encourage honesty in politics, relationships, consumer relations and historical education. It was also intended to urge politicians to stay away from lies and tell the truth.

Good luck with that one. I would consider it an excellent start just to get politicians to not restate obvious lies which no one believes, not even their supporters. It’s this little dance they do, saying “oh no I never meant that” when even the people who like them are pretty sure that was exactly what they meant.

beautiful life4I recently became aware of one such historical example that really bothered me. Right after Ronald Reagan received the GOP nomination in 1980, he spoke at the Neshoba Country fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi where three civil right’s workers were murdered in 1964 and the ensuing cover-up by local authorities forced the federal government to intervene. Then-nominee Reagan devoted some of his 1980 speech to the importance of state’s rights and the evils of federal involvement in local issues. He never mentioned the murders or civil rights and columnist Bob Herbert of The New York Times wrote, “Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair.”

However, almost no one said so. “Oh no, he didn’t mean that,” was the a common response. Really?

Fast forward thirty-six years to now, when GOP candidate Donald Trump agreed to address the Suffolk County Republican Committee in Patchogue, a small village on Long Island which was the scene of a notorious hate crime eight years ago when a variety of incidents of escalating hostility towards immigrants culminated in an immigrant being stabbed to death.

Given the extent to which Trump’s campaign targets immigration, I don’t think anyone believed that his appearance at this out the way place was random.

TrumpThe day of the event, news sources reported that about a hundred people assembled before a small memorial to Marcelo Lucero, the murder victim, while anti-Trump protestors gathered at another spot. Trump gave his usual sort of speech, including his “Who’s going to build the wall?”  shtick that appears to delight his fans and makes the rest of us want to puke. Luckily the speech was short and everyone went on their way with no violence. Word was that it felt like police outnumbered attendees and protestors.

I was made aware of the similarity of these two incidents on the Rachel Maddox show. What struck me was the irony of how obvious the purpose of the choices were in both cases, and yet how easily the truth was denied when it was apparent to all. Have we gotten that used to lies in politics?

I thought maybe we had, and that set me off on an internet search with results that surprised me. Are you curious which politicians tell the biggest lies the most? It turns out that professional fact checkers can shed some light on that. Check out this article in The Rolling Stone.

What do you know…. The truism that all politicians lie equally turns out not to be the truth either.

Happy Honesty Day!

 

Picking a President: “Holding Out for a Hero”

So I am adding to the music page on this blog, and come to “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler and suddenly current events sort of click for me. I confess that watching this presidential primary process has left me disturbed like never before. What does an 80’s song have to do this? Walk with me here, because I think I’m on to something.

superheroWhy is the protagonist in a novel, or movie, or TV series usually called the hero of the story? We love our heroes (male and female) because we not only love to cheer them on, we also live through them vicariously. In fact, we are so used to being entertained by heroes that I think we’ve evolved into a society where many of us don’t want our politicians to be leaders.  We certainly don’t want them to be politicians. We want them to be our heroes, and that’s a different thing.

Some politicians thought to have a good shot at the presidency are having a hard time fitting the hero image. Hilary Clinton, Mark Rubio and John Kasich are all struggling with it, and Jeb Bush failed at it along with eleven other GOP hopefuls.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has risen as a hero to the left. It’s fair to tell you that I like a lot of Bernie Sanders ideas and if he wins the primary I will vote for him, even though I do not think he would be particularly good at the business of governing these United States. My point here is that I don’t think his followers are focusing on his abilities as a statesman. He is a hero to them for speaking out against the injustice in our nation.

fractal 6On the other side of the aisle are an array of heroes to chose from. Does your hatred of the federal government run so strong that you cheer on a man willing to shut the entire government down if he doesn’t get his way? Have we got a candidate for you. Fancy a quiet neurosurgeon whose medical feats don’t qualify him for politics but sure are impressive? Step this way. Or is your idea of a hero someone who is wildly rich, terribly confident and never backs down? Ohhhh boy, you are going to love what we have for you.

I’m afraid that as a nation were not looking for the most capable leader we can find. We’re each looking for our own particular kind of hero out there. We want someone we can rally behind and yell “hell yes”, the country be damned. It makes sense in a very visceral way, even though I don’t think this is what the founding fathers had in mind for democracy. However, as our society has become ever more entertainment-saturated, this might have been inevitable.

I think it would be a good idea to be more aware of what we are doing, and to ask whether heroes have historically made good leaders. What do you think?

While you ponder that question, enjoy this 1984 video of a young Bonnie Tyler and her 80’s hair as she sings “Holding out for a Hero.”

(Learn more at bonnietyler.com/. You can buy this song at Amazon.)

z2 is a story about becoming a hero when necessary. Enjoy this short excerpt about one of the moments when my protagonist has to act like a hero. And no, I do not think that being able to handle a situation like this qualifies one to be president.

“It’s probably just the cat,” he muttered, mostly asleep.

“It’s NOT the cat!” she said. “It’s coming from the front lawn.” Lola stepped into the hallway and could see a bright glow coming in through the front windows. “Oh my god, Alex.”

Alex could recognize genuine panic when he heard it and he went from barely awake to completely awake in about two seconds. This was his job. He protected this house. He strode into the front hall and saw through the glass panels on either side of his front door an angry and probably drunk mob of white hooded people on his front lawn, most waving burning torches and chanting something about his house, shelter and Satan.

“Call 911,” he barked to Lola, heading back to the bedroom to grab some pants. “Then see if you can make it out the back door and get to a neighbor. Bring back some help if you can. I’m going out there to see what they want.”

It was an indication of how serious the situation was that Lola didn’t even pause to discuss his plan with him.

He opened the door, and saw that a cross about the size of a grown man had been erected on his front lawn and was being doused in liquid from a metal can. As he opened his mouth to speak, the crowd noticed him, and the chanting was replaced by a plethora of epitaphs.

 

Time and Hate

This is a blog about time and hate. Maybe intolerance or bigotry would be a better word than hate, but I like the punch in my word choice. Group hate is really what I’m trying to say.

hippiepeace3Group hate rises out of incidents and situations, grows, sometimes to horrible proportions, and then it passes like a bad winter. With time, it looks ridiculous. Who didn’t react with disbelief upon hearing that 150 years ago signs saying “Irish need not apply” were common? Why wouldn’t you hire the Irish? Everybody loves the Irish. Or at least I though that they did.

While researching z2 I learned about how unwanted Italians circumvented the immigration laws of the day by crossing the Rio Grande and coming in as more welcome Mexicans. I was astounded to learn of the extent to which Asians were denied entry into the early U.S. under any circumstances. My own ancestry is largely German and, yes, there was a time when some states tried to keep out the undesirable Germans, too.

I don’t talk about this to make light of the group hate that plagues us today. I don’t think society will ever look back on our racism and xenophobia and laugh. I least I hope not. Rather I want to point out how ultimately petty and harmful our biases of today will someday seem. And I want us to consider that, sadly, new group hates will likely keep forming until we as a species learn to be far more vigilant about this.

weird2My point is, I wrote z2 in 2012. That is not very long ago. The examples of group hate that I turned to were ones that have plagued my home state of Texas for a long time; race relations between whites and blacks, and immigration issues with Mexico. Although the book was written eleven years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, it did not even occur to me to discuss animosity between Christians and Muslims. Why? Because it wasn’t something I heard all that much about.

Here we are, not even four years later, and this new group hate is taking hold fast. I have no reason to think that white people in Texas are doing all that much better empathizing with the challenges faced by African-Americans or recent immigrants from anywhere, documented or otherwise. Rather, for many the vilified Muslim has just been added to the mix of people of whom to be afraid.

On online news magazine The Week reported this story yesterday

A Muslim woman was removed from a Donald Trump rally in South Carolina on Friday. When the Republican presidential hopeful said Syrian refugees “probably are ISIS,” Rose Hamid and a few other people silently stood, sporting badges made to look like the stars worn by Jewish people during the Holocaust. The crowd chanted “Trump!” and Hamid was escorted out as some supporters shouted and booed at her. “This demonstrates how when you start dehumanizing the other it can turn people into very hateful, ugly people,” Hamid said. “It needs to be known.”

Rose Hamid is now a hero of mine. Not because of what she did, although it was heroic. No, she has my full admiration because she understands. When any of us, all of us, no longer think of one part of our brothers and sisters as human, we lose the capacity to empathize. Once we lose that, we are capable of atrocities beyond belief.

I learned the story of Mary Turner while researching x0. Mary Turner was a twenty-year-old black woman, lynched in 1918 in Georgia. She was eight months pregnant when she publicly denounced the killing of her husband by a mob. I quote what happened from the website Remembering Mary Turner :

To punish her, at Folsom’s Bridge the mob tied Mary Turner by her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, poured gasoline on her and burned off her clothes. One member of the mob then cut her stomach open and her unborn child dropped to the ground where it was reportedly stomped on and crushed by a member of the mob.

I have a question for you? Do you think that the people who behaved with this unthinkable hate, considered themselves good people? I bet most of them did. I bet most went to church, were good to their own children, and cared kindly for their elderly parents. Some may have regretted their actions eventually, but I bet many of them hardened their hearts and somehow found words to justify the horrible atrocity to their dying day.

How do you begin to explain this? All I  can think of is that to this mob, Mary Turner, and her child, were not human. Every time we peel a group of people off and denounce them across the board as being “dangerous” we lessen our ability to feel compassion for them and set ourselves up for mob behavior.

Whole countries have waged war on us in the past, and we on them. We inevitably demonize their looks and their culture and they do the same to ours and then we manage to go at each other, killing away. It’s sad, and fifty or a hundred years later it finally looks that way.

wake up worldAre individual sometimes dangerous? Of course they are. We have laws to deal with this, and it is worth remembering that those laws are also in place to keep us from collectively losing our heads and setting ourselves up as executioners. Those laws are in place to keep cruelty separate from justice.

We know in our hearts that group hate is wrong. It’s embers are fanned by fear and its strength grows when we see it accepted by those around us. There are things we can do. Spend time leaning more about those who make us uncomfortable. Turn on both our hearts and our brains when we hear outrageous claims being offered as truth. Speak up when others are silent in the face of fear-mongering.

Today I saw this wonderful article from the Detroit Free Press called How to Truly Support the Muslim Community. It has several practical ideas, but it was most interesting to me for the following reason. It suggests talking to people like they are the living, breathing individuals that they are. You know, humans with heartbeats like your own. What a fine idea.

 

Is it an honor to be person of the year?

Watching a “year in review” news program, I was surprised to hear the comment that both Stalin and Hitler had once been named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. No, I thought, they are making that up.

spirit science 5It turns out that they weren’t. What’s more, Stalin actually got the title twice (in 1939 and 1942). My problem was that, like a lot of people, I thought that being named “Man of the Year” was an honor. It isn’t, and these newscasters went on to have a serious conversation about how Donald Trump should probably have won for 2015. They had a point. You see, Time Magazine is clear that this designation is not an indication of merit or of contribution to the human race. Rather, it is bestowed on the person believed to have most affected the news of the past year.

Don’t believe me? This year’s list of eight contenders included Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, and Vladimir Putin, who already got to be person of the year back in 2007. Other past winners who raised my eyebrows included Nikita Khrushchev (1957), US commander in Vietnam William Westmoreland (1965) and Ayatollah Khomeini (1979).

And about that “Man of the Year” thing. In spite of the fact that it was called “Man of the Year” all the way up until 1999, three and half women received the designation including the woman who King Edward VIII abdicated his throne to marry (1936), Queen Elizabeth (1952), president of the Philippines Corazon Aquino (1986), and Soong Mei-ling who shared the honor in 1937 with her husband Chiang Kai-shek.

But not only didn’t you have to be a man to attain the designation, you didn’t even have to be a person. The first group to be selected was “The American Fighting Man” in 1950, referring to our men in uniform in Korea. Since then, Hungarian Freedom Fighters (1956), U.S. scientists (1960), Middle Americans (1969) and, interestingly enough, American Women (1975) have all been named “Man of the Year”. Recent years have seen a lot of groups selected, including protesters (2011), American soldiers (this time in Iraq in 2003), and whistle blowers (2002).

The oddest winners were certainly “You” (2006), “The Computer” (1982) and The Endangered Earth which was designated planet of the year in 1988. (Not a lot of good competition for that title.)

Time Magazine began this exercise in 1927 by dubbing Charles Lindbergh as the Man the Year. It surprised me that Franklin Roosevelt and every president after him (except for Gerald Ford) was named such at least once and most of them got the designation twice. (Roosevelt got it three times). Whether you think they deserved the recognition for their contributions, as opposed to just their influence on the news, depends of course on your politics.

On the other hand, winners such as Mahatma Gandhi (1930), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963), The Apollo 8 astronauts (1968), Ebola fighters (2014) and possibly all three popes named for the title, seem worthy of the sort of honor I originally thought this was, as do the groups designated “The Peacemakers” (1993) and “The Good Samaritans” (2005).

Now it is called Person of the year, and in 2015 Angela Merkel became the first female to gain the title after it was given non-gender specific wording. She not only beat out the head of ISIS (who came in second) and Putin (who came in last), she bested Black Lives Matter activists, transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner, the president of Iran and the CEO of Uber, all of whom were either gracious or silent about the outcome.

She also beat out Donald Trump, who took third place, and responded with a childish tweet that read “I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favorite. They picked person who is ruining Germany.”

sungazing1Sounds like The Donald was also under the mistaken impression that the title Person of the Year is some sort of measure of worth. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps Donald Trump knows exactly what the honor is about. It is about who has gotten the most attention in the past year, and he might have been miffed that someone thought it wasn’t him. So he tweeted something nasty to get even more attention.

Do we really want a president who craves being noticed that much? I personally resolve to do my part to see that he receives even less attention in 2016.

For more year end fun see some of the oddest predictions for 2016, read about my best New Year’s resolution yet,  take a look at the top women of 2016 and catch 2016 plans for world peace.