Wednesday, June 25, 2008

That's Just Crazy Talk

So, my son (who is in college, which may account for the tenor of this story) told me about an upcoming catastrophe. It seems that there is a dark planet hurtling towards Earth. Planet X – or if “Planet X” lacks sufficient credibility for you, we’ll call it by its proper name, Nibiru – hangs out beyond Pluto for about 3,600 years, and then careens into our neighborhood like a drunk driver on a New York sidewalk. This close encounter will cause earth quakes, volcanic eruptions, as well as tsunamis and other violent weather (let’s just call it “yesterday”). The Sumerians (the Ancient ones) knew about this planet. In fact, they believed it was not merely a wayward neighbor, but the Homeworld of aliens (the Ancient ones) who manipulated our DNA, presumably to remake our ancestors in their image or improve us in some other tangible way that we would never have achieved on our own.

Nibiru is scheduled to move close enough for us laymen to detect it next year. Beginning in 2012 (yes, the year of the cataclysm according to the Maya calendar, astrologers, psychics, and George Bush), the dark planet will come close enough to wreak havoc with our planet. Come 2014, Nibiru will go its merry way, leaving us to deal with the destruction it has visited upon us. If you ask me, that stinks. At least it could magically reverse all the chaos it has caused, like that Jumanji game.

Just like in the movies, the governments of the world know all about it. We know; the Russians know; the French, the Brits, the Israelis and the Japanese know. Hell, even the Portuguese know. NASA knows too. But, do you know who doesn’t know? The man and woman on the street (unless they read the same web sites that my son does), that’s who. Yes, just like in the movies, the government has classified this information in the interest of national security and not creating the mother or all panic/riot/suicidal/planet-worshipping/loot-fests. Do they believe we will become unhinged if we hear that 2/3 of Earth’s population will die in the chain of disasters, and that 1/5 of the remainder will starve? How it stings to be so underestimated.

So, what do we do now (or, in roughly 39 months)? I say we get tough, and get busy. The Sumerians survived, so can we. Wait – what ever happened to the Sumerians? (Googling …) Damn those Amorites! Anyway, they thrived after the passage of Nibiru. Certainly with all our sophisticated knowledge and post-apocalyptic WMD shelters, we should be able to put our collective minds together and build a survival plan without giving up shopping and Sports Center. C’mon, people! Are you with me?

Oh wait! Did I mention the part about the Earth shifting on its axis?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Summertime ...

I am always surprised by the changes of the seasons here in Pennsylvania. Rolling emerald hills give way to blazing autumn glory dissolving into to grey haunted forests reborn in warm kaleidoscope meadows relaxing into emerald rolling hills …

And, it’s more than a change in temperature and shift in light. You can feel an alteration in the rhythm of the earth. A slowing down in autumn, a slumbering in winter, a quickening in spring, an arrhythmic riot in summer. And, we ride the cycle ‘round and ‘round.

Now summer’s come, and that inner shift we did not feel with the prematurely steamy days, clicks just as the sun reaches its northern zenith. Summer is a measured dose of possibility. It is a dangerous mixture of expectation, emotion, and chance. Summer is brimming with the obvious and the concealed. Summer is an ephemeral opportunity, offering growth or somnolence. In summer, sometimes, you get what you do. Until you don’t. It is that one more day, one more lazy day in which anything could come down the road, over the hill, around the corner.

And, then it’s gone.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Phoenixville, PA

Tonight, I went with a friend to a movie at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA. Phoenixville is one of those old factory towns in the Philadelphia area that once thrived, but was hit hard when the American industry went into decline. The steel factory failed, the jobs dried up, and the commercial district was on life-support. Yet, like a few other towns in the area, Phoenixville has worked to reinvent itself over the past ten years. You can’t keep good people down.

Some of the downtown businesses survived, and are now joined by interesting restaurants (I had the BEST tomato basil soup at the Artisans Gallery and CafĂ©), assorted pubs, funky shops and galleries. On Friday evenings, live bands play at both ends of the main street. I hear that the nightlife is hopping. Whether you want to party, shop, or stroll the streets, it’s a nice place to be.

Phoenixville is one of the locations shown in of the classic film, The Blob. In one scene, people run screaming from the Colonial Theater into the street. To commemoration the making of the movie, the town holds an annual Blobfest over a weekend in July. In addition to the contests, films, food and vendors, the signature festival event is the “Running Out”, in which participants re-enact the scene, and run screaming from the theater into the street. Too funny! Maybe I will go and take photos.

So, tonight I saw the film, “The Visitor.” It related the story of a professor who is at-sea after his wife’s death. He befriends an immigrant couple, and begins to rediscover himself. No spoilers, but it is set in Post-9/11 New York, so suffice it to say that the issue of illegal immigration dominates. One of the reviewers thought the film heavy-handed in its message. I disagree. The writer’s opinion on the issue was quite clear, but the subtlety of the acting, and the manner in which the story unfolded were engrossing.

Walking back to my car, I thought about the revitalized downtown of Phoenixville. I thought about the immigrants who had built the town and this country. I thought about the ebb and flow of commerce and development, how we prosper, and falter, and rise from the ashes – like Phoenixville. Such a rebirth never happens without the injection of new blood, new hopes, new ideas, new dreams. We should consider that when we seek to bar the door to immigrants.

Without that new blood, America would be a weaker nation. Without the constant influx of those seeking a new life, our growth would have been stunted. Without new people now, we threaten to destroy the very conditions in which we have prospered. We should embrace new peoples for their own sake, but at a minimum, we must realize that our rejection of immigrants damages us, siphoning off our value and strength. And, a weakened phoenix cannot rise.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Children of Summer

My clearest recollections of childhood live forever in summer. The smell of cut grass, sunlight streaming through the woods, cold creek waters, lying in dandelion fields, watching the clouds tumble slowly through the sky. Summers (through the glass of memory) were heaven, and all my friends were there. We played baseball and kickball during the day, and chased fireflies through magical blue evenings. Our parents were there as well, always watching, sometimes scolding, calling us to chores, to lunch, to dinner, calling us in for the night.

Day after day, I played in those summers past, knowing that I had only to run inside and open the refrigerator to quench my thirst or still my rumbling belly. My parents fed me, clothed me, and kept me well. And, if I did not receive all that I desired, I certainly received everything I needed. Summer was freedom – safe, comfortable freedom.

Today, I read in the local paper about children who look forward to a less-than-perfect summer. As gas and food prices rise, the economic margins within which their families exist are narrowing rapidly. Salaries that supported a family last year, fall short this year, Prices are up, and resources are low. For these children, this summer is not idyllic; it is distressing.

This year, assistance has become an unhappy necessity for far too many. Yet, the very programs created to provide such assistance have also been affected by the sluggish economy. At no time is this more evident than in the summer. It seems that charitable giving evaporates as the weather warms. The emotional tug of Thanksgiving and Christmas has diminished, along with the alarming reports of freezing families. Donations fall precipitously.

So, just as greater numbers seek help through social programs and charities, they find that the cupboards are bare. And now, the school year is ending, and the free lunch programs with it. Families stretching to pull together one or two meals each day must now provide three. The children of summer grow hungry in America. And, their parents watch, and worry.

If you’re in Pennsylvania:

If you’re in the US:

If you’re on the planet:

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day

To all the fathers who love their children, and show it every day with time, I wish you the happiest of Father’s Days, every day.

Random Quotes:

"It is admirable for a man to take his son fishing, but there is a special place in heaven for the father who takes his daughter shopping." -- John Sinor

He didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it. ~Clarence Budington KellandMy father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say, "You're tearing up the grass." "We're not raising grass," Dad would reply. "We're raising boys." ~Harmon Killebrew

"I never got along with my dad. Kids used to come up to me and say, 'My dad can beat up your dad.' I'd say, 'Yeah? When?'" -- Bill Hicks

"When I was a kid, I said to my father one afternoon, 'Daddy, will you take me to the zoo?' He answered, 'If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.'" -- Jerry Lewis

"A truly rich man is one whose children run into his arms when his hands are empty." – Anonymous

"Fatherhood is pretending the present you love most is soap-on-a-rope." -- Bill Cosby

"My father is one of my favorite parents." – Unknown

"Fathers send their sons to college either because they went to college, or because they didn't." -- L.L. Hendren

I am determined that my children shall be brought up in their father's religion, if they can find out what it is." -- Charles Lamb

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years." -- Mark Twain

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Falling Water

Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

We seem to be in the middle of a flood year.

Storms began to hit the Midwest, recently, causing significant flooding. This week, the storms returned, flooding great swathes of communities up to their roofs and treetops. Tens of thousands fled, and at least nine died. Neighbors came together to save each others' lives and property, and charities responded with efficient, practical support. Governmental agencies sprang into action, as well, with a speed that seems to indicate they have learned something from the Katrina disaster.

Now, as the waters recede, they leave filth and disease and fouled water supplies. Badly needed corn crops may be ruined, thousands are homeless and afraid, and hundreds of businesses are in jeopardy. Levees have buckled in Iowa and Illinois, and some rivers have yet to crest. More storms are expected this week.

Through all this, we look for reasons. Is it climate change, or just another cycle? Are people building in risky areas, or ones just periodically susceptible to flood? Is this just another trial of life, or are we witnessing the beginning of darker days? It is hard to place the floods and quakes and hurricanes and volcanic eruptions and tornadoes in perspective, when the pattern of natural history is clearest when viewed across centuries or millennia.

But, here’s some perspective: Should you feel that dark forces gather on our horizons to visit disaster upon us, think of China, where a major flood has taken over fifty lives, and caused the evacuation of a million people. One of the flooded regions is Sichuan, where 70,000 lives were lost in the recent earthquake. Over 17,000 souls are still missing. The forecast in that area calls for 10 more days of rain.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Community: When We Touch

Everyone is familiar with the human interest stories that appear in newspapers. They are offered as a counter-balance to the crime and despair that pollute the pages. These stories connect us, tweak us, uplift us, and help us to feel a part of the human community. They are meant to remind us that we are all of one people, one family, inexorably linked to each other in this vast, grey world. Hope lives, if we can only come together for each others like the people who inhabit these stories.

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed a story about a mother of ten who had moved from New York to Philadelphia in an effort to escape an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. Her husband had died two year prior, and she struggled to keep her family above water. The story focused on how the family was struggling in the first heat wave of the season. Living in a brick row house with no air-conditioning, the family had first spent the day spraying each other with water, and then endured the still sweltering evening with imprudently open doors and windows. The vain attempts to find a cool breeze were exhausting, and in vain.

The mother was optimist. Both she and her eldest daughter were seeking employment, and seemed confident that they would find it. Local churches provided assistance to help bridge the gap between survival and collapse. And, the only thing the mother wished for in the article was a hose with which to spray her children to relieve the heat.

On blogs, we commented on the state of society, and the cause of such struggles, in general. We dissected the life of this mother, looking for the root of the problem or a target to blame. Ten children? A single mother? Obesity? The failure of community? The failure of the family? What was the root cause such a sad circumstance?

Meanwhile …

Others read the story in the Sunday paper, and thought not why, but what. The next day, a man heeded the mother’s one wish, and left a hose on the front stoop. Someone else came by, and left an air-conditioner. Another left an air-conditioner at one of the churches mentioned in the article. The landlord then came by with two new air-conditioners, and a portable pool. Because of the article, the church was inundated with gifts, and queries on how best to help the family. Because of that article, the churches have received so much bounty that they can help others in the neighborhood.

The mother (who calls herself peaceful now, based solely on the contentment of her children) is bowled over by the City of Brotherly love, as am I. For every act of disdain and violence we read of, there is at least one person who, touched by a newspaper article, reaches out to help a stranger. For everyone, like me, who pursues the intellectual cause of suffering, there is someone else who buys a hose to relieve it. For every one who insists on the big solutions, there are five who know that we cannot get to the dream of tomorrow until we make it through the practicality of today.

I am duly and gratefully ashamed.

Monday, June 9, 2008

International Americans

When times get tough, there have always been Americans who seek greener pastures, whether westward (Ho!) or abroad. Now, our current unfavorable economic environment is driving a significant number of US citizens to seek opportunities in booming economies overseas. I do not belittle these expatriates, as some do. We can no more call their going “unpatriotic” than we could label the pioneers “deserters” for abandoning their eastern towns. The man who sets his sights on a new horizon IS America, and we have never required a reason beyond the tug on our hearts to coax us onto the road.

The American expatriates of the 1920s left in search of a fertile environment within which to explore art, philosophy and novel ideas. They also sought an escape from the disillusionment of post-World War I America. They did not – or could not – believe in their own ability to repair the problems they saw in their native land, and opted for elsewhere. Likewise, Americans are beginning to leave the United States today in search of different opportunities.

Here, the job market, housing crisis, credit woes, oil prices and the faintness of light at the end of the tunnel converge to suppress the economic opportunities we have long considered our birthright. There, the European Union is thriving, and both China and India have become economic powerhouses. The American Dream seems to have gone overseas, and Americans are dusting off their passports in record numbers to follow it.

Those who claim European citizenship through parents and grandparents can settle in any country in the union. Spanish citizenship is as valid in Prague as it is in Barcelona. Others with familial connections, a talent for languages, or valuable business skills, are migrating to China and India. The shining opportunities call to them with promises of prosperity, just as America has called their parents and grandparents to our shores for centuries.

But, what happens next? Will we re-establish our prosperity and standing in the world? Will we stagnate with this loss of talent, and continue to employ the same old models and strategies? Or will we find new roads, attract new talent, grow more talent? Have we taken a wrong path, or is it just that we are on a great wheel of fortune, rising and falling in turn?

I think we must be careful as we head off into this new wilderness, lest we lose sight of the horizon.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Role Models

I have been thinking about role models this week, in light of two news stories. One was an affirmation; the other, a warning.

In the first, Barack Obama spoke of a teacher from an urban school who reported that the attitude of black males toward their class work had noticeably improved since the Senator had begun his run for the presidency. These students are hampered by behavioral challenges: educational gaps, emotional problems, poverty, and crime – the litany is familiar. Yet, this man from Chicago had come to their attention, impressed the not-so-easily impressed, and earned their admiration. He was impacting their attitude regarding education simply by his own example of success.

Our children choose their heroes, without our advice or consent. Athletes, musicians, poets, parents, teachers, preachers – all have the capacity to plant a seed, for good or ill, in fertile minds. The reaction of the inner-city boys to Senator Obama clearly illustrates the good that can come from a positive, connectable role model. The students see a man who looks like them, who came from circumstances not dissimilar from their own. He is running for President of the United States, successfully. And, he is behaving well while doing so. How is that for a role model?

The second story involved the Palestinian Fulbright grant winners. These students worked for a solid year to win extraordinary educational opportunities in America, and succeeded, only to see their opportunities vanish. State Department officials determined that the students were ineligible for the grants because of Israeli travel restrictions. Without the ability to travel to the US, the scholarships were useless to the intended recipients, and would be given to others with lives less limited.

The students were understandably distraught.

Happily, Condoleezza Rice intervened, requesting the reinstatement of the grants, and sending representative to petition the Israelis for travel waivers. Israel quickly agreed. They had not been consulted before action was taken. Further, the Israeli saw only an upside to Palestinian students who are exposed to education in the outside world.

Clearly, the Palestinian students view the United States as a national role model. With a level of admiration sufficient to warrant significant effort, they worked to study here, in the land of opportunity. We are the good guys, the land of freedom, of solid work ethic, champion of the weak, defender of justice. Yet, in spite of our expressed ideals, we snatched away opportunity. Neither the injustice, not the desires of the students for progress factored into the initial decision. Were it not for high level intervention, I wonder what damage the students' disenchantment in the US, the role model, might have wrought.

Those who step into the spotlight, taking the role of leader, in whatever manner, hold a special kind of power. Tacitly, they ask us to follow, offering the promise of a better something, a brighter someday. And, we who follow are changed, simply by the high regard in which we hold our role models. A role model leads us to think, “Hey, maybe I can do that too.” A hero answers, “Yes you can.” Anyone who is not willing to wield such power honorably, to hold it as a sacred trust, must yield the spotlight to a more perfect hero.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

We Are Family

Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee.

Can we come together now?

Our country needs so much. The world needs so much. We have talent, power, courage and generosity of spirit in abundance. We have the capacity to lift each other up, to improve the lives of those who just need a little help to stand on their feet and thrive. People in this country and beyond have looked to us with hope, but of late, we have been preoccupied with the shadows. We were injured, and became afraid and angry. Some capitalized on our fears, leading us further from ourselves. And, we were left open to all manner of evil - things and attitudes that we believed long gone.

Today, it is time to come out of our corners, stand up, look each other in the eye, and recognize the power of good in each of us. We are brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. We come from everywhere, and we are one family. It is time for a reunion.

Reach out.

We have much to do.

Monday, June 2, 2008

As American as Motherhood ...

“A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.”

–Sophia Loren, Women and Beauty

I am on the fence here.

I remember when the news broke about a polygamist ranch, and the abused teenage bride who called for help. I was thrilled at her imminent rescue. Then I heard that they bused away over 400 children, along with all the mothers who would come with them. The state classified the children as endangered, identifying a pervasive pattern of abuse within the community. Shortly thereafter, the state separated the mothers from their children to eliminate undue influence during the investigation. They also announced that they could not identify the teen-aged bride who had sounded the alarm, but that the ranch constituted a dangerous environment, and they were keeping the children.

I watched as these mothers, who had been raised to fear and shun the outside world (with special emphasis on the media) went on national television, braving Larry King, Anderson Cooper and other assorted inquisitive, cynical interviewers to demand the return of their children. They all seemed earnest, and profoundly odd. I remember a feeling of discomfort creeping down my spine.

In these United States, we do not force girls into marriage. In this country, we try to protect the weak from abuse. It is a no-brainer that boys should not be raised to victimize women. We champion freedom, and freedom ends when your desires trample my freedom. Yet, to confiscate 400 children, on the basis of broad-based perceptions of an alien culture is clearly suspect. When we make judgments without facts, we invite boot-strap tyranny. Apparently, the courts found the state’s case underwhelming, and ordered the children’s return to their parents.

The courts have imposed strict guidelines. Parenting classes, travel restrictions, and unannounced physical and psychological examinations act as a safety net. For their part, the sect has banned under-age marriage. How rational. It seems all will be well.

And, still I am uncomfortable. Strong case or weak, parents who have experienced an epiphany or not, abandoned prejudices or those kept safely in our back pocket, how do we safeguard the children? Short of placing the compound under surveillance, or permanently camping out in living rooms, how can we guarantee against systemic abuse? Frankly, how do we ever - anywhere?

Do we rely on the mothers? And, hope?