Saturday, December 31

The Future of Us: We the People

China got a little miffed that Trump reached out to Taiwan. Russia is waiting for Trump. Israel's Netanyahu thinks the US has betrayed him. Pundits and political prognosticators are having a field day anticipating the good, the bad, and the unpredictable of a Trump administration. I've read those who anticipate his will be one of the shortest reigns, er, administrations because he'll be impeached or his will be marked by the shortest amount of time before the US is at war. There's lots of other potentials in between, but those are two of the more frightening.

So here's the thing. I'm a moderate Republican (fiscal conservative) and voted for Hillary Clinton. Before you excoriate me, it's the first time I've ever voted for a Democrat in the presidential election. While I didn't think she was the best candidate for president, Trump as commander in chief terrifies me. On the other hand, he kinda fascinates me. I know I'm not alone.

I've said it to friends and I'll say it here. Though I think Donald Trump is a horrific choice for president, I get why he was elected. While I would love to have seen a woman president and hope to see one in my lifetime, I completely understand why Hillary Clinton would not be the people's choice even if she won the popular vote. (I'm not getting into a civics lesson about the Electoral College, but your vote does matter.)

But my bigger point is this: in some profoundly weird way, Trump as president will be good for the country. Before any Trumpeters start gloating, hear me out. I don't think he can "drain the swamp" in D.C. because he's too familiar with a swamp as a wheeler dealer. But it was a good campaign sound bite. I also don't think he's going to do too much to upset the business opportunities for his own empire or his billionaire buddies so I think the middle class and the poor will still find themselves in a world of hurt. Trump concerned about the welfare of others? Get a grip. Take advantage of business opportunities even if he has to wait four years (even if his kids don't)? No doubt. He wouldn't be the first and won't be the last.

However, because he is who is and what he is, because he is disruptive, thin-skinned, reactive, and unpredictable, he will force the Democrats and the Republicans to rethink essentially everything. Not a bad thing.

Lifetime politicians and party loyalists may finally be on notice that there is a world outside of the 68.34 square miles of Washington, D.C. and, if I may quote Network, a lot of people are "mad as hell" and they're just not willing to take elitist privilege and condescension any more.

I'm not surprised that hate crimes spiked after the election. I'm not surprised that white supremacist groups thought Trump's election was an invitation for them to get busy with their agendas. I'm not surprised that people started reacting in big and emotional ways.

Finally. People responded. People reacted. People paid attention and felt something.


Trump is and will be disruptive.

The status quo is on notice.

I'm not okay with Donald Trump and with what I think I know of Trump's anti-immigrant, anti-religious, anti-gay policies. I find some of his alleged economic policies thought-provoking. I'm not a fan of baiting enemies and toying with friends.

As we look over our collective shoulders at 2016 and bemoan its toxicity and the loss of the luminary celebrity lights, we are compelled to turn towards the potential of 2017.

And so, just as the president-elect and many of his cabinet and White House nominees could use to review the Constitution, so could the American public, especially the Bill of Rights and particularly Amendments 1 and 10.

Amendment 1 reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Read it carefully and thoughtfully. Think about the implications that every single one of us has the right to freedom of speech. We don't have to like what others have to say, but we have to respect their right to say it. Chiding and bullying others for their beliefs is not cool, no matter who does it. Those in positions of power and leadership should know better.

Amendment 10 reads:  "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."

Read that one even more carefully and even more thoughtfully. It is my opinion (based on hopefulness rather than actual fact, by the way) that when James Madison crafted the draft of the Amendments, he was sagacious enough to think beyond his own wants and needs. He was thoughtful enough to recognize that even those inaugural states had differences in their populations and their economies. I like to think he was wise enough to anticipate that future states would also have their individual differences that required options.

Finally, let's look at the Preamble of the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
We the people: not the Republicans nor the Democrats; not the liberals nor the conservatives.

We the people want a common defense for all of "we the people," not just the people who look and sound and believe like us. We the people want justice, domestic tranquility, general welfare (meaning general health and happiness), and the blessings of liberty for all of "we the people," not just the people who look and sound and believe like us.

It is my hope that 2017 will be a wake-up call for all Americans. For too long we have seemed to slide into some cockamamie belief that the government will provide for us while we sit on our duffs and complain when someone doesn't do what we want and do it exactly the way we want it. We have become a nation of whiny, self-centered toddlers.

It's time to grow up.

And here's a fun fact: "We the people" are the government.

It's time to think about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as it applies to all of "we the people," not just the people who look and sound and believe like us. The diversity of the United States has long been one of its strengths and I think we are foolish to disown that heritage.

On the other hand, I think we have spent too much time and energy trying to be all things to all people. Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time." Truth.

As a nation we have to try to remember what we really stand for. Not along party lines and party platforms. Not along special interest groups. Not based on race, ethnicity, age, gender, or religion.

When I think of what it means to be an American, I think of the Constitution--that brave document that begins with those words "We the People." I think of all of the people I know who are represented by those words and do not think of them in terms of race, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, or party politics. I think of them as people who have informed my life in myriad ways and who have influenced, for good and ill, what I think and believe and how I think and believe.

Yes, protect your own values but recognize that yours are not the only values, and figure out how to respect the values of others.

Yes, protect your beliefs but recognize that yours are not the only beliefs, and figure out how to respect the beliefs of others.

Don't look for legislation. Don't look for government intervention or legislation or sanction.

Just be one of "We the People" and stand up for America and all of "We the People."

Wednesday, December 21

Holidays and Family: Sometimes It's Just Hard

My memories of Christmas as a kid are not great. My dad was an alcoholic. My mother was frustrated for that and other reasons. While I remember looking forward to Christmas, I also recall that moment of tension until it seemed to be all right. Dad hadn't made any mistakes. My sister and I had responded well to gifts. Mom was reasonably satisfied with her gifts.

That's not to say every Christmas was horrible. I remember the year my sister got her playhouse. Dad had been up until the wee hours finishing building it. It was big. Maybe 10' by 10' and big enough for us to stand it with windows that opened. It was quite a thing. It wasn't until much later I realized how much work it was and that my dad was a pretty good craftsman to have built it from scratch. I was excited for my sister as she followed the string outside to her playhouse, but then my folks had also gotten me a gold 3-speed Schwinn that was hidden behind the playhouse. Yea, that was a pretty good Christmas.

But the truth is that most holidays, and birthdays, at least in my recollection, were hard.

This Christmas is hard for different reasons. My dad has been gone for a while, my stepfather passed away this past June. My mother is in memory care.

Last week she had a bad incident with her blood pressure that landed her in the hospital. It's eerie that my stepfather's precipitous decline began with an incident with blood pressure.

My mother is back at the memory care facility and I've been able to see her a few times. She seems to fade more each day.

I think she recognized me but I don't think she really knows who I am.

Today she told me her heart is heavy. She is frail and so very weak. Every movement seems hard and painful though she moves little.

As I've told my family and some friends, as aggravating as she has been all of my life and as difficult as our relationship has been, it is still hard to see her this way.

In these moments, I can easily set aside the resentment and anger and frustration to wish her comfort and peace.

That is what I'd like to share. Yes, holidays and family can be hard for so very many reasons. Depending on your tradition and traditions, perhaps it's harder to transcend those emotional challenges. I hope you are able to do so.

I hope you are able to celebrate any moments of peace and joy.

I hope you are able to celebrate any moments of laughter and light.

Mom. I know you can't read this and I'm fairly certain you had trouble hearing me or even knowing me when I visited. Please know I wish you nothing but peace and light.

Blessings to you all, and best wishes for an amazingly wonderful 2017.

Friday, October 28

Civility Lost: Leaders Behaving Badly

2016 has most certainly been the year of outrage. Every time I listen to or try to read the news, I'm slapped in the face by someone's outrage over something. Yes, there has been plenty in the world about which to be outraged. And legitimately so. But now outrage seems to be the kneejerk emotion. It's as though no one bothers to listen or bothers to think through anything. It's as though everyone simply responds through outrage.

Because no one bothers to listen but simply gears up the outrage machine, no one could possibly think through a response. Everything, and I do mean everything seems to be at a heightened emotional response.

Last night I read that some are threatening a revolution if Hillary Clinton is elected president. I read last night and again this morning that the GOP is already threatening lawsuits if Hillary Clinton becomes president--Republicans: No Honeymoon if Clinton Wins. Nice. So mature. So civil. Such a wonderfully grown-up response.

And we wonder why our kids behave the way they do?

We wonder why our kids have such a sense of entitlement? We wonder why our kids expect to get their ways if they pout, scream, kick, and punch enough? Really? We wonder that?

It does not help that so many of the media insist on poking the outrage machine.

It does not help that adults who should be smarter than that take the bait and allow themselves to be outraged, which provides additional fodder for the speculators, which provides additional "reason" for outrage.

Republican Representative Jason Chaffez of Utah said this:
It's a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we've got two years' worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain't good.
Really? How grown-up. How delightfully civil and mature. How revolting.

So please don't be surprised when your children respond in like manner.

Please don't be surprised when children or young adults (or anyone) watching anyone on either side of the political aisle OR the media starts talking and behaving like this.

Please don't be surprised when kids start having fist fights over the most ridiculous of things because they will no longer be able to identify what's really important from anything else that sparks outrage. Why fist fights? Because they can hear and feel the violence in the words. Because they can see and feel the violence in the facial expressions and the body language.

Because they easily interpret all of this appalling behavior by Democrats and Republicans and media of all channels and political stripes and types to mean this: "If I don't get my way, all bets are off and I can behave any way I want until I get my way."

Am I outraged? Yes. But mostly I'm so very sad that this is what we've become. And I weep for what has become of my country and its "leadership."

Wednesday, October 26

Election 2016 Reflection

I’ve thinking a lot about this election because, quite frankly, it’s hard not to. We have what might be the most exhausting, revolting, terrifying, and yet fascinating election ever. What intrigues me is the nature of the rhetoric in this election, how so many seem to be voting against one candidate rather than for another, and how very many simply will not vote for Hillary Clinton. Period. Even if their choice is Donald Trump who is, in my opinion, a narcissistic, egomaniacal bully who rarely thinks before he speaks. But lets talk about gender.

Early on some were excited because the United States finally had a woman candidate for president. We learned or were reminded about how very far behind we are when it comes to women in leadership. And that’s leadership period. Not just corporate or political leadership, but any leadership.

In 1968, Virginia Slims launched an ad campaign with the tag line “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Maybe not so far after all.

So I've been thinking a lot about responses to Hillary Clinton because so many of the criticisms have been leveled at her simply because she's a woman. I should also say that I'm not a Democrat; I am a moderate Republican with some distinct anti-Democrat leanings.

However, in thinking about the anti-Hillary rhetoric, I did some research. I wanted to get some more information on the women’s movement even though I’ve lived it. I remember being told by a man that I would never be more than a secretary, which was a catalyst to prove him wrong. I remember being told by a man that certain work was too hard for me because I was a girl and girls don’t “think that way.” He didn’t say that to the female Purdue grad, and I’ve some speculation about that.

For all the progress we’ve made, why haven’t we made better progress?

We have long talked about the wage gap between men and women. We could also talk about the gap between genders for leave when a family has a child, adoptive or birth. Why do women get more time than men? If we claim to value a father’s time with his children, why do we make it hard for men to have paternity leave? Because it’s not manly? Because that’s women’s work? Because we haven’t really thought about it and don’t have a good reason but it’s a social kneejerk response?

In a March 2016 report, the United States is not the worst offender for wage gap, but we certainly aren’t very good at setting any examples for forward-thinking.

We have to stop with all of the “women are wired differently” claims. Yes, some women are wired differently and those are the women who do not aspire to the C-suite. And some men are wired differently and don’t have to be the leader of the pack or who truly partner with their partners when it comes to the care of their families and their homes.

When I read and hear about the evangelicals sputtering about biblical references of men and women I want to scream. Far too often they are selective about their verses and particular about the way they choose to present their viewpoints. I get that. We all select information, facts, and data that support our positions. That’s human nature. But genuine and kind people are also willing to listen to the other side and be honest that their interpretation may be skewed. Ugh. Too much to try to say here about how awful we are at being kind and honest, about listening well, about being willing to hear the other side, about being willing to step away without outrage when no agreement can be found. But I digress. . .because it’s hard not to.

Just as the evangelicals are selective and protective, so is every other agency. They want to present and represent only their sides of the story and everyone else be damned.

So this woman thing. CNN showed us all the countries that had women leaders long before the United States. In the 1960s there was Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir. Isabel Peron and Margaret Thatcher among the women leaders in the 1970s. There are some interesting observations one could make about some of these women and their leadership. I wade into this recognizing my treatment will be in no way complete and in no way represent the myriad viewpoints of any of these individuals, but I’ll leave you a trail to do follow-up research, if you’re so inclined. But, as is often the case with this sort of endeavor, I have an agenda.

My questions are these: 1) If Hillary Clinton had not been married to Bill Clinton but had similar professional political experience (minus the First Lady bit, of course), would response to her be different? 2) If Hillary Clinton had dumped Bill when the scandal of Monica Lewinsky and others broke, would response to her be different?

I heard two women talking today about the election. One woman said she was worried about Bill Clinton being in the White House again though they agreed that Hillary is the smarter of the two and they figured that Hillary has likely threatened him if he messes up her presidency. I chuckled because I've said the same thing. My theory, by the way, is that she stayed with him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal because she a) is smarter than Bill and b) knew she'd be able to use that for leverage because c) she's always been ambitious. However, they both said they were finding it hard to stomach voting for either candidate, which is what I've heard others say and post.

I also have to wonder if people actually look (read and/or listen) beyond the outrage rhetoric. Benghazi has become a trope even though many have shown time and time and time again that the outcome probably would not have been different and, oh, by the way, it’s not as though Benghazi is the first instance that U.S. embassy personnel have been attacked and killed. I don't mean to sound flip because any U.S. casualty is a reason to mourn, but there are some who seem to think that no other bad decisions have been made with regard to U.S. personnel overseas. Vietnam anyone?

CNN, a news outlet that manages to retain the occasional sense of objectivity, reported on this in March 2015. Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize winning news outlet, reported on U.S. embassy andconsulate deaths prior to Benghazi. The report isn’t just about the deaths, but about the way such attacks are handled and investigated, or not.

Would Benghazi have been handled differently had someone else been Secretary of State at the time? Would the investigation and the howling by the Republicans have been more muted, just different, or even non-existent had John Kerry been Secretary of State when the Benghazi attack occurred? And let's also recall that the 114th Congress (January 3, 2015 to January 3, 2017) is controlled by the Republicans and has the largest Republican majority since the 71st Congress (1929-1931). There is, according to the Congressional Research Service (I kid you not), the most women in Congress in history.

Back to Benghazi. In doing more research into what happened or what we think might have happened in Benghazi, I found a report by an organization trying to be objective in fact checking. Their research led them to sift through a number of reports by a number of sources to try to get to something more concrete. I hesitate to call it “truth” or “objective truth” because I’m not sure I know what those are any more. I’m not sure any of us can handle the real truth so we have to find our own and that just leads to chaos and outrage. I digress, again. Back to Benghazi.

So the group appropriately called published this on July 1, 2016; it was updated from the original report on June 30, 2016. The fog of war. It’s a new concept for me. Is it plausible? Well, I want to say no but I’ve never been the Secretary of State trying field calls from who knows how many people to try to get specific, actionable, and actual information rather than CYA-information from people who might have screwed up and are trying to stay clear of the mud-slinging. I’ve never been any sort of political administrator getting information from several sources, some of which are trustworthy and some of which are not for various reasons, and then trying to sift through reports from other governments as well as whatever spin/damage control or bs shields they’re putting up so those governments don’t look like they have any fault in whatever it is that just happened.

And then there is the actual report by the Select Committee on Benghazi. At the outset of the 800-page report, which the average American is not even going to think about trying to read, Chairman Trey Gowdy writes "Now, I simply ask the American people to read this report for themselves, look at the evidence we have collected, and reach their own conclusions. You can read this report in less time than our fellow citizens were taking fire and fighting for their lives on the rooftops and in the streets of Benghazi."

Please note he asks people to read the report, review the collected evidence, and draw their own conclusions. Now, if a student of mine gave me a researched report that was supposed to provide insight into a posed question or point and let me to draw my own conclusion, that student would be very unhappy with the final grade. In fact, I might be tempted to flunk that student.

However, in reading just the first parts of the information provided to and by the Select Committee, it seems evident there was failure at many levels by many people. It seems to me the military screwed up big time just based on these three bullet points never mind the text that support them:
  • The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff typically would have participated in the White House meeting, but did not attend because he went home to host a dinner party for foreign dignitaries. [pg. 107]
  • A Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) sat on a plane in Rota, Spain, for three hours, and changed in and out of their uniforms four times. [pg. 154]
  • None of the relevant military forces met their required deployment timelines. [pg. 150]
What. The. Heck.

Then it occurred to me to wonder about the actual job description of the Secretary of State. I’m familiar with Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright traipsing around the world meeting with diplomats and heads of state and countries. Kissinger made “shuttle diplomacy” a thing. I found the job description for the Secretary of State of the United States and noticed this: “Ensures the protection of the U.S. Government to American citizens, property, and interests in foreign countries.” That’s a big statement and could be interpreted in a lot of ways.

Digging deeper I learned there is an Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights who has seven interesting bureaus “reporting to the Under Secretary to advance the security of the American people by assisting countries around the world to build more democratic, secure, stable, and just societies.” As I read some of the information about and reports by the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, I started to wonder how many people are involved in the process of reporting all that is or might be going in 50 to 60 countries in the world at any given time. And then I wondered how many of those people really work for us, how many of those people we pay for information, how many of those people risk their lives to give us information, and how many of those people we can really trust but whom we have to hope we can trust because American lives depend on it. Maybe I watch too many movies and read too many books.

Where does that leave me on Benghazi? The administration, led by the president, made some bad choices about how to convey information. HOWEVER, if they were trying to present this in a light other than a terrorist attack—on September 11, 2012—there might have been a good reason for it. Or maybe the spin doctors were spending so much time spinning they just couldn’t or didn’t tell the truth. Too many people too bloody concerned about optics. Is Hillary Clinton to blame? No. Could she have made different decisions? Yes, of course. So could they all including the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any those folks who are or should be the actual boots on the ground.

People also rip her to shreds over the Clinton Foundation. Um, can we talk about the conservative Supreme Court and its decision to muck around with campaign finance non-reform? Can we just for a moment make note that the conservative Supreme Court opened the flood gates for organizations to fund political campaigns in embarrassingly grandiose ways. And can we talk about lobbyists who are paid gazillions of dollars to represent organizations that contribute still more gazillions of campaign dollars? You’re worried about corruption by the Clinton Foundation? Small potatoes, people. If you’re not familiar with the revolting practice of lobbyists, you can check out the Brief History of Lobbying. And if you want to know more about lobbyists and how they work for corporations, you should read “How Corporate Lobbyists Conquered American Democracy” or “When Lobbying Was Illegal.”

Am I saying that the Clinton Foundation is completely aboveboard? No, I’m not and I doubt it is. I doubt any such agency is completely pristine in its dealings. I’m quite confident that there are people in every such charitable foundation who are tasked to find loopholes or who find loopholes or who find ways to skirt the law.

I am saying that if you level charges against the Clinton Foundation or voice adamant outrage against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Benghazi, you had better be willing to speak the same way about other organizations and individuals who have done as much or worse, Democrat and Republican.

Now back to those women leaders. As we look at the posted biographies, it appears that most of their opposition came not from their gender but from their policies. Makes sense. But we also know that part of the reason Gandhi, Peron, and Bhutto were relatively attractive to their people is because of their family history. There are people who believe that if this one thing acted and believed in this way, then this related thing might also act and believe in the same way.

I’m not going to do a close analysis of each of those women—at least not now and not for this post—because I don’t think it matters. Even if we looked at today’s women leaders we might see little similarity between them and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and certainly very little if we looked only at the size of their countries and the complexity of issues they each face.

So after all of this and other stuff I’ve not included (you’re welcome), I’ve concluded that my gut is on the right track. Far too much of the anger, angst, and antagonism leveled at Hillary Clinton is because she’s a Clinton. I’d be willing to bet there are some would might say they’d vote for a woman, even a Democrat, just not that woman.

I vaguely remember all of the brouhaha with Whitewater and the years of investigations. And how much money it cost American taxpayers. There are those who refer to Whitewater as evidence that Hillary Clinton is a “congenital liar,” something she is called during the Whitewater investigations. Is there evidence of bad judgment? Yes. Do we expect more of our president and the first lady? Of course. Should we? Maybe. They are, after all, people and buffeted by more than we can imagine. But it’s not as though the Clintons are the first First Couple to demonstrate bad judgment and bad behavior before, during, and after their stints in the White House.

At the end of the day people will vote for whichever candidate for whatever reasons. I am saddened by the number of #NeverHillary people who are in that camp simply because she’s Hillary Clinton and who may have no other reason for that decision, or not one they can easily articulate. I think there are far too many in the anti-Hillary camp because they haven’t forgiven her for not dumping Bill during his impeachment hearings, or who hated Bill Clinton and don’t want him even close to the White House. They seem to forget he’s not running for president, she is. And if they think Bill Clinton is going to get to have the kind of input the First Lady’s seem to have had for their husbands, get real. You’ve seen Hillary Clinton in action, haven’t you?

Regardless of one's position, this election has been informative in ways we could not and can not predict. We will all think differently about what it means to be a leader, what the Republicans and even the Democrats stand for, how outrage--real or otherwise--has shaped how we think and how comfortable we feel about sharing what we think. The election is shaping what we believe made or makes America great. The rhetoric, the anger, the ugliness of far too many people and the kinds of things they have said shed light on what we believe to be true about a democracy, about how willing we are to be vile to one another and how hard it has become to be kind.

Whoever wins the White House has a daunting task to try to begin to build bridges, lots of bridges. The Republican Party, regardless of the results of the election, has got to figure out what it stands for and who it represents. . .and I'm hoping it's more than wealthy, old, white men.

As for the rest of us? You know, so much of what happens in Washington, D.C. is really foreign to us. We shouldn't be surprised that the demagogues behave the way they do when we keep electing and re-electing those who seem to cater to our particular self-interest and we shouldn't be shocked or outraged when their positions change to cater to the most recent political expediency. And yet far too many are surprised by that, which perplexes me. Are we that naive? that foolish?

Even so, what happens in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our communities is something we can help manage and control. Regardless of how we choose to vote, my hope is that somehow we can begin to find our ways back to kindness, civility, and mutual respect. My fear is that is longest shot of all.

Friday, September 2

Safe spaces and trigger warnings: Growing up is hard

The University of Chicago really stepped into the maelstrom of public opinion with its letter about safe spaces and trigger warnings. For those of you who do not follow the goings on of academia, well, good for you: you have better things to do with your time. For those of us who have some peripheral awareness, such eruptions of angst and outrage can be quite informative and often entertaining.

I should note that I’m a former academic. I taught literature, among many other things. I introduced my students to a range of novels that were typically among those in college curricula. My college was a small private institution. Some students came from a very sheltered background; others were far more worldly than many on the faculty cared to imagine or know.

I remember teaching The Color Purple and a female student commenting that she wished we’d warned them about a particular portion of the text. I’d read the book several times and was usually pretty good at trying to read from the perspective of my students, but I’d miss that or forgotten about it or just hadn’t thought it warranted any specific note. I registered my surprise and acknowledged her comment. She wasn’t mad. She was just surprised by it and wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond. So we talked through that. I learned something as did my students. What we learned was not mutually exclusive.

After that incident I might warn students about “earthy language” or some scenes that might make them a bit uncomfortable. I’d always say that I hoped they could step back from their immediate emotions to ask why the author wrote that incident or using that language, and to consider the time and place in which the author was writing as well as the possible purpose for that particular work. In other words, I asked them to contextualize what they were reading but also to examine carefully what they were feeling and thinking and why.

There were books I chose not to teach again simply because it seemed clear the work was too “difficult” for most students. It’s not like I didn’t have options. I didn’t think then that I was caving to students’ need for any kind of safe space, though I suspect I was striving to stay clear of the administrative spotlight. But, again, because I had choices, I had plenty of options. There were times I might tell students that I used to teach a particular book and explain why I chose not to teach it this term. Inevitably a good number of students would go find copies of that book to read on their own. Some would question why I no longer taught it—and pose those questions in class. Heh heh.

And we would always talk about why some language, some scenes, some plot points, some themes were uncomfortable or difficult or offensive to some, and we would honor that. In some ways, maybe, because of those conversations, I was better able to teach them to respect the ideas and perspective of others. I can’t be sure of that.

The University of Chicago letter to its freshmen was published in the August 25 edition of the Chicago Tribune. In the letter the Dean of Students states “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Welcome to the world.

Remember when Howard Stern was labeled a “shock jock” and people wanted him off the radio? His response was, essentially, “If you don’t like what you hear, change the station and don’t listen.”

The Tribune also offered some definitions for those left scratching their heads over these terms: “Trigger warnings — used to alert students of sensitive material that might be uncomfortable, offensive or traumatic to them, such as discussions about race and sexual assault — and safe spaces, designed to shelter students from certain speakers and topics, have become more common and controversial on campuses across the country.” Professors have the option, of course, of including trigger warnings in their classes which, based on my limited experience, has some value. At the same time, I’d want to be sure professors clarify the reason for the text(s) that seems to prompt said trigger warnings.

Now the University of Chicago letter has prompted responses, as you might well imagine. Some point to the students’ needs; others point to students’ self-perceptions of fragility; others point to how easily students misunderstand, confuse, or twist words.

In June 2015, Judith Shulevitz wrote “In College and Hiding from Scaring Ideas.” It’s a very good piece. Well, I enjoyed it but I can imagine why some students might find it less than appealing.

TIME published an opinion piece by RaeAnn Pickett in which she asserts “Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces Are Necessary” because students should have an idea of what they’re getting into; without trigger warnings and safe spaces, the onus is on the students “to leave or endure the situation.” Yes. She spoke of a time during which she avoided certain situations to reduce the lack of safety she felt. The onus was on her to pay attention and make as informed a decision as possible.

The Atlantic invited people to respond to the University of Chicago letter and I was pleasantly surprised that most of the responses were thoughtful and well-considered, the majority lacking what is so often the typical hysteria or intellectual condescension in such responses.

I found myself agreeing with elements of both sides of the discussion and therein lies the complexity of this issue. The University of Chicago doesn’t say it is banning trigger warning and safe spaces, but it is saying that if the university chooses to invite a potentially controversial speaker, they won’t cancel that speaker if a bunch of students claim to be offended or scared or whatever. They will, in effect (and I’m surmising here) suggest the students not go to the event.

If students have legitimate reasons they are willing to share with a professor about why a text of any sort makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, I agree that student’s concerns should be honored to the best of the professor’s ability. But there is the other extreme in the possibility of a professor having to be aware of every potential shadow and phrase that might cause a student to feel a bit uncomfortable or a bit unsafe.

Then today I read a piece by a high school English teacher who had some parents come after him because he was teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a deeply provocative and disturbing text meant to be provocative and disturbing for some very good reasons. The teacher wrote a letter in defense of his choice. His concluding sentence reads thusly: “I would add only that one of the functions of literature is to shed light into the corners of our world, even if what we find there is unpleasant.”

Wouldn’t it be quite amazing if instead of responding emotionally to what we think someone might have said, we first check our facts and then spent even a few minutes examining why we’re responding the way we are. And then, even as we marshal our arguments for or against, we think about what we want the outcome to be: what do we want to happen?
Sometime later I had a student tell me her parents didn’t want her to read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This was a college student; I reminded her she was of age and could make her own decisions. She sighed and said that since she still lived at home it just wasn’t worth the aggravation. Then she confessed she’d already finished reading the book anyway and precisely because her parents didn’t want her to read it. When I asked her why she told me about the whole incident anyway since it was moot and she’d already read the book, she told me she was hoping I could help her broach the subject of her parents’ discomfort with the book. I suspected I already knew but I suggested she invite her parents to come to campus. We’d meet somewhere neutral—not my office—and have a chat. I was right about their concerns. I heard them out. They heard me out. They acknowledged that having her at home gave them the opportunity to balance anything “in the world” that was problematic to them but they also noted that they’d had certain expectations of to what their daughter might or might not be exposed given the reputation of the school.

That’s when those labels of “liberal” and “conservative,” “religious” and “Christian” come back to bite us. Because we cannot ever predict how people interpret those terms, what people read as the subtext of an organization’s reputation.

At the end of the day, I think much of the noise about the University of Chicago letter is a result of people failing to read the letter themselves and relying on second, third, and even fourth parties to get their information. The chair of the Committee on Freedom of Expression stated “While the university doesn't support, require or encourage trigger warnings, it does not prohibit them. . . . Professors are still free to alert students to certain material if they choose to do so.”

That’s what academic freedom, freedom of speech, critical thinking, and growing up are all about.

Monday, August 1

An airport reflection

Charlie will be 88 in November. He is a Navy vet, married to his wife Laura for 62 years. I learned that today.

They were walking towards a gate at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. It's a daunting airport for many but he trundled along though slower than she. His hands were swollen and twisted with arthritis. He stopped to put down his suitcase and switch hands. His wife toddled on determinedly. He tried to hurry a bit to catch up, but soon slowed.

After a few minutes, he again stooped to put down his suitcase and switch hands. I stopped and lingered a few feet behind him, unnoticed.

Several yards later, his wife stopped to review the signs as the concourses split. He caught up with her. I eased up next to them to ask if I could help them find their gate, and then gently asked if I could carry something.

Charlie willingly gave up his suitcase. It was an old suitcase--small, hard sides, no wheels. And it was surprisingly heavy.

Because I really was traveling in their direction--and had time--I offered to walk with them to their gate and carry Charlie's case. She wasn't too pleased to get the help until she realized how hard it would have been for them to find and get to F3 on their own.

As we walked, Charlie told me where they were headed and why, that they didn't travel much any more, that he had had knee replacement some years ago but sometimes they just gave him fits, and that he had had rheumatoid arthritis for about 12 years. "But what are you gonna do about it?", he asked as he rolled along beside me.

We got to their gate and they found seats. We exchanged names. They both thanked me, and warmly. Laura, who had warmed up to me, was tickled to tell me how long they'd been married and "yes, he's been stubborn all those years."

I wished them a safe journey and then headed to my own gate, partially blinded by tears.

Sunday, June 26

How we remember: Thinking of Jim

James Pinkston, my stepfather died on Tuesday. In the wee hours of the morning. He had been declining after a fall and a weird blood pressure thing, failing slowly.

My mother has dementia and has been moved to memory care. She acts out in unpredictable ways. I got a call yesterday that she took a swing at one of the staff workers and tried to punch the staff member in the face. I've repeatedly warned the staff that she can be a hitter and hitting in the face was the default when I was a kid. Needless to say they'll have a psychiatrist evaluate her on Monday.

I don't know if they've told Mom yet about my stepfather's passing. When they were separated over a week ago (Mom kept trying to take care of Jim but was at risk of hurting herself and him, and Mom had taken to wandering so memory care was the best option), Mom didn't ask about him for a while but then she told a visitor that he'd been kidnapped and she needed money for a ransom. I'll get more information about her situation on Monday.

In the mean time, I find I'm processing in odd ways. I'd been able to see Jim a few times before he died but I was surprised by how it hit me. Then there are the post-death details which are constant reminders of the finality as well as the changes. And now I have new worries, considerations, concerns about managing finances depending on what happens with pensions. Mom's behavior can lead to her being asked to leave unless they can medicate her sufficiently to mellow her out, and that worries me, too. Those are wearing and stress-inducing. After a long, difficult year, I was reluctant to give up my vacation.

So it may seem weird that in the aftermath of all that's going on, including the passing of my stepfather, that I'm on vacation. Well, I was getting up to get ready to leave for vacation when I saw that I had a message from hospice. They don't usually call in the early hours of the morning so I knew immediately that Jim was gone. Because he and my mother had already taken care of cremation arrangements and I believed the decision of what to do with Jim's remains was one his kids needed to make, and because there was really nothing I could do, and because Mom's move was too recent and I thought we shouldn't tell her yet, I decided to go on vacation anyway knowing I could head to an airport and be in Florida within a day if really necessary.

I talked with two of Jim's biological kids a day or so after his passing. They too were continuing on with their lives for many of the same reasons as I. Kyle and I discussed having a memorial celebration around Jim's birthday when folks can get together and share stories. It's the kind of thing Jim would enjoy.

Hiking in Yellowstone and being mostly disconnected has been one of the best therapies ever and a surprising way to remember Jim. In Cody there was a BNSF truck in the parking lot of the hotel where I was staying. Jim used to work for the railroad and specifically BNSF. "Hey there, buddy. I hope you're okay now" I thought. There's a small Union Pacific monument near the West Gate of Yellowstone, so every day we drive into the park through that gate I think of Jim.

I realize I'm not really mourning his passing. It's not grief I feel. It's not like we were close, but I was fond of him. So it's weird yet nice that I see these things that remind me of him in gentle ways. He was, after all, a gentle man.

Saturday, June 4

"My name is known. I think."

Muhammad Ali died Friday, June 3 at the age of 74. The internet is churning with people remembering him, a man who wondered if people will remember him. It's hard not to remember Ali if you read stories of him, or watched his boxing matches in person or on TV, or even if you saw him light the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Ali will be long remembered because of his style, his athleticism, his greatness as a boxer. He will be remembered through his children and his grandchildren as well as his photos, newsreels, and films of his boxing career.

My mother has dementia. My stepfather is in hospice, failing for reasons that are unclear following a fall and then a spike in his blood pressure they were able to stabilize. My mother has become very attentive towards my stepdad, which is good to see. She puzzles in frustration over what happened to him and why. When I was with her recently she said, "My name is known. I think." And then she murmured, "I think people will remember me."

It was an odd, heart-breaking moment as she contemplated, I think--and I can't be sure--her own mortality. But then she looked up and said, "People do know who I am, right?" and I thought perhaps she'd been in the present and had been thinking about her own challenges for recollection. I assured her that people know who she is and that seemed to satisfy her and we moved on to something else.

"My name is known. I think." has haunted me a bit. There was a distinct pause between the two thoughts as though she believed the first statement to be true, but then wondered a bit. Maybe wondered because she didn't know if others were as forgetful as she, or maybe wondered because she didn't know if her name is really known.

It made me think about what we do and why we do it. I've often thought about how we go about our days, being concerned about our time and whatever it is we're doing. As I travel in bumper-to-bumper traffic in various cities, people in a rush to get wherever, I wonder about their stories. What is so important to get to? A dance recital? A business meeting? A soccer game? An illicit tryst? I wonder about the person who weaves in and out of traffic trying to get wherever faster than anyone else, or because the driver is a daredevil. I wonder which is true.

I think about the people at airports and wonder where they're going and why. I see people get off planes and hustle or mosey down the concourse. Some are clearly on vacation and others are obviously trying to catch another flight, while others might be in a hurry to get to a business meeting or are just in a hurry. Not too long ago I saw a woman greeted by another woman; the arriving woman collapsed into the waiting woman's arms and they both started to cry. The waiting woman was trying to console the other. Their grief was raw and palpable.

I was walking to a gate at an airport recently, talking with a social worker from hospice. She wondered about the background noise so I told her I was at an airport. She said something to the effect that we wonder about who others are talking to as they walk through an airport. "I bet not too many are talking to social workers." Well, you never know. . .except for the loud talkers who let you know they're having Important Business Calls.

I think about how we are small moments in the world. We are here for a time doing whatever we do, perhaps to make the world a better place, and then our moment is over. Perhaps we are remembered; perhaps we are not. Perhaps we are remembered for a time and then, those who remembered us are no more and we are forgotten.

I think about the people who waste their valuable time on rage and hate, who waste their time on power struggles because of ego or whatever it is that moves them. I think about people who offer little to make the world a better place because they are busy trying to see what they can get or take from the world. I think about how some of them will be remembered because some of their names are known and will be known, but not for good reasons.

Will Gloria H. Pinkston be remembered when she is no longer with us? Will James C Pinkston be remembered? Yes, for a while. By their kids and stepkids. By their friends. By some of the people at their church.

My mother may be remembered by some of her former Girl Scouts or the people she taught to swim or the people to whom she taught first aid. What she and he will never know is in what ways they made a difference in peoples' lives.

So perhaps the best most of us can hope for is to know that we've done the best we can and worked as hard as we can to do well.