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?

Does Marvin Gaye know what’s going on?

I’ve enjoyed blogging about each of the forty-five songs I refer to in my five books, and today I am writing the last of these posts. For no particular reason, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” has that distinction. It occurs near the end of z2, when much of the group comes together for New Year’s Eve, and the words to the song provide impetus for solving part of the puzzle of the mysterious Maya artifact.

cmkqowgweaeubypIn fact, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a song about hope. Written in 1966 by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, it became a hit in 1967 when it was recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It basically says I’ll be there to help you , because no force is big enough to stop me. It’s the last part of the that message that gets my attention; the idea that nothing can be so big and so bad that it can’t be overcome by someone who wants to make things better. I’m not feeling terribly hopeful these days; I guess I really need to hear this sort of thing. I must not be the only one, as I and over a hundred thousand other people have enjoyed this simple and classy early video posted a few years ago.

Looking up more information on Marvin Gaye (who is usually associated with the song) I found a wonderful fan page for him and learned that in the tumultuous year of 1969 he became frustrated with the type of music he was writing, wanting to turn towards topics that were more socially relevant.

The timing makes sense. In 1968, twelve elections ago, two fairly unpopular presidential candidates ran against each other while their policies sharply contrasted with a controversial war and a good deal of racial and political unrest. I would guess that Marvin Gaye didn’t want to only sing happy, hopeful songs for lovers. He wanted to weigh in on the social issues of the day.

According to the fan page

… in 1971 What’s Going On was released; the first song Marvin Gaye produced himself. The album explored topics such as poverty, discrimination, politics, drug abuse and the environment. Barry Gordy was reluctant to release the album because he doubted its potential commercial success. Despite the reservations, What’s Going On was an instant hit and groundbreaking work in the soul music genre.

It’s easy to see why. In a unique sweet and sour style, the title song contrasts a cocktail party sound with harsh words about the times. The song opens with … (From Metrolyrics)

Mother, mother there’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying

Let’s face it, these are apt lyrics for today, and they got me thinking about how much 1969 and 2017 have in common. They had an unpopular war, we have unpopular wars complicated by global terrorism. Racial tensions then had grown out of the fight to eliminate legal segregation, today many of us of all colors are reeling from a plethora of incidents with the police that make us question how far we have really come towards racial equality. Two high profile assassinations, police brutality during the 1968 democratic convention and the sight of 250,000 war protesters marching in Washington left the people of 1969 angry and confused. Today, we face the inauguration of a president whose election was aided by a longstanding enemy nation and fueled by groups chanting about building walls and talk of registering members of a minority religion. Times change, but sometimes they seem to circle back around, and revisit the feel of a bygone era.

I sought out a video of “What’s Going On” and found this one which has been enjoyed by almost NINE MILLION people recently. I guess I’m not the only one who thinks that Marvin Gaye understood something about the problems of 2017.

Father, father we don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer for only love can conquer hate

Of course, he went on to write and perform many more songs before his tragic death at age forty-five, and he left a wide and varied legacy in R&B, soul, funk, jazz and pop genres. As I enjoyed researching and learning more about him, I realized that I like all of his music, although the hopeful song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the wisely prescient “What’s Going on” are my two favorites.

You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

As the background characters say in the video, “right on.”

Stand By Me: loyalty versus all kinds of other things

Does anyone doubt that a real friend is someone who will stand by you, no matter what?

Does anyone doubt that there are times to walk away from a friend?

maybe 1We hold both statements as self-evident truths and seldom trouble our souls with the contradiction that is implied. Yet in personal and public life we see this interplay at work, and never more than in an a messy election year.

Publicly, word has it that the Bush family places a high value on loyalty, and an insult to one is an insult to all. Witness the family banning together to shun the current GOP nominee, and almost unthinkable act for a blood line that has produced two presidents for that party. I’m no  great fan of any of them, but I remain oddly moved by their loyalty to each other.

The coin falls on the other side with the Trump family’s former butler and current unpaid historian, who was quickly described by Trump’s campaign as some crazy old guy the family barely knew after the “crazy old guy” was discovered to be posting really crazy stuff on Facebook. Hard to find an admirable approach in that mess, but walking away from the friendship was probably better than standing by it.

And in our personal lives? Yes, there are friends we no longer click with or enjoy. There are people we thought of as friends who it turns out we didn’t really know. There are friends who would take too much of our time or money, or at least more than we care to give, which makes us wonder how the strong the friendship was to begin with. Would they even ask that much of us if they were really our friends? And then there are those who do bad things, sometimes even awful things, to us or others and no matter how sorry they are we can’t let it go.

Plenty of people in the news these days that leave me wondering what are their friends thinking right now?

True voice 3And yet — in spite of growing apart, and selfishness on either side, and ethics and screw-ups — there is something so simple and compelling about the idea of “I will always be there for you.” The very concept takes us back to our childhoods. Does it have a place in adult life?

To me it is the essential kernel of a romantic relationship. It is the baseline of parenthood, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and of other close family relationships as well. It is what separates true friendships from social relationships, and it makes it apparent how unusual true friends are. Having someone, anyone, who will stand by you is rare and precious.

Maybe that’s why we all enjoy the simple lyrics and hypnotic base of the 1961 Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me”. I referred to the song in z2, and just finished updating the music page on this blog to include the following. It’s still running through my head. Enjoy the video at the end.

ben-e-kingMy character Alex is a nice man, and he loves his wife, but he isn’t particularly romantic, at least not in the classical sense. When he thinks of their relationship, in many ways he is more impressed by their enduring friendship than he is by their romance. And when in Chapter 18 he needs to reach Lola with a song, and enlist her cooperation with a plan he has, he turns to this classic, as shown in the excerpt below.

Alex had learned to tolerate Lola’s telepathic abilities, but as the group gathered up their work to head back to the tiny hotel in Punta Gorda, he realized that he could do better. Why not actively use her talents at times to make both of their lives easier? According to what she had told him, all humans project emotions and to some extent also project the thoughts that drive those emotions. In other words, everybody talks. But hardly anyone listens. Some one percent of the population had vague, undeveloped receptive abilities, Lola had said, and some tiny fraction of that, through desire, practice and circumstance, crossed over into being fully adept receivers.

A little over a year ago, Lola had made just such a crossing. Which meant that now he could send information to her, but not get an answer. Think about it, Alex laughed to himself. In some ways isn’t that every husband’s dream? He can tell his wife things and not have to listen to a word back?

Alex supposed that was a less than admirable thought… but hey, a man thinks what he thinks, and fortunately Lola’s ethics were such that she generally stayed out of his head and let him think in peace. But knowing how much his people-avoiding wife was going to hate the idea of having three unexpected houseguests, and how much better she would deal with it if she had all the warning possible, Alex tried for the first time to actually get Lola’s attention. She said images worked well, so he imagined a picture of himself jumping up and down waving a large bright yellow flag. Look. Look over here. I need to tell you something. This is important. I’m going to totally mess up the rest of your holidays with the kids there and everything by bringing three strangers and two ancient artifacts home with me and I really need you to flow with this.

Then he remembered. Music was one of the easiest items to transmit and receive. What was a song that Lola liked? That he liked? His subconscious mind found it for him, and he hummed and whistled Ben E. King’s anthem of loyalty “Stand by Me” over and over as he helped to load up the car. Of course, he’d follow up with an honest-to-god phone call once he got to the better reception at the hotel, but with any luck by then Lola would already know and be in a frame of mind to help him.

I’ll bet you can’t sit still, or keep from smiling, as you watch this video that celebrates both Ben E. King’s original song and the movie of the same name.

 

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.

A Lot of Pissed-off People ………. (thoughts from Belgrade)

The city of Belgrade Serbia has been conquered 100 times since its founding in 100 BC, our guide tells us, then DSCN1001 croppedlaughs as he offers to give us a sixty second history lesson. He begins reciting. “Romans, Byzantines…….. Turks, Hungarians, Turks, Austrians, Turks, Germans, Russians …”  Turks are clearly a big part of this recitation. As he sing-songs his way through 100 invasions we are driving by the bombed out buildings still standing from the United States intervention in 1999. Clearly most of us on the bus have never seen a bombed building before, but a sense of respect prevents us from pulling out cameras.

Our tour guide is a nice man, but he is still angry about so many things from the past and his anger creeps into the words he chooses.  His perspective is at least ninety degrees away from the historian who gave us a lecture earlier today and who was less angry but not without his own bitterness as he tied WWI into WWII into the problems in the Balkans today.

As the guide walks us by the tanks preserved from both world wars, I remember Lola in my novel z2 quoting Faulkner’s famous line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

spring croppedDinner tonight is in Belgrade’s Bohemian district. We drive through a modern downtown, past the blooming spring flowers.  Once there we are surrounded by live music. Liquor flows freely and food is ample and all of it has touches of Turkey, Austria, Russia, Hungary, and yes more Turkish influences. There is something for dessert called walnut pie that would make an average baklava weep with envy. So yes, there is joy to be shared here as well in this city of 100 conquests.

I think of home and am glad that my fellow Texans don’t harbor the kinds of deep animosity that I’ve glimpsed here. Oh wait. There are a lot of pissed-off people in Texas too. They don’t like this thing that’s happened, and they don’t like the way that went. The difference? They don’t have nearly as many good reasons for their anger.  In fact, compared to the Serbians, many of them have no good reasons at all.

If you would like to read other posts from this trip check out  “That which does not kill us …. thoughts from Budapest” on my blog for the novel x0. Also check out “One person’s tourist destination is another person’s home ….. thoughts from Bucahrest “ on my blog for the novel y1.

And that’s the way it is…..

I’m old enough to have once been a fan Walter Cronkite, whose calm and mostly objective delivery of the evening news earned him the title of “most trusted man in America.” Today, I grab my news from my email provider and supplement it with Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” which is often great fun but technically neither objective nor news. I know this but I consider it my news source anyway.

Has life gotten better since the days of Walter? Or worse? In the spirit of Cronkite, let’s take a look at today, April 9th.

In 1241 the Mongols defeated the Polish and German Armies.  Seriously. On April 9.  After that it appears that there was a whole lot of fighting by a whole lot of people, although on this date in 1454 the city-states of northern Italian signed a truce that lasted for almost 50 years. Go Italy. And on  April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and ended the civil war.

Click to visit the National Film Preservation Foundation

Click to visit the National Film Preservation Foundation

It was 74 years ago when  the Daughters of the American Revolution decided that Marian Anderson’s ancestry made her unfit to sing at Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR as a result, and on April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson sang instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a live audience of seventy-five thousand and a national radio audience of millions more. Click on the image to see the video.

Today we had stabbing attack on a campus of Lone Star Community College, easily within twenty miles of my home.  Fourteen people have been injured, several very seriously, and as of last report no one has any idea of why.  I sit on my front porch blogging and waiting for more news to make it on to the internet.

And that’s the way it is, on April 9, 2013.