Friday, October 29, 2010

Stop Shouting!

The Scene: Tommy and Dickey Smothers - strumming away on guitar and bass violin in the 1960’s, swapping political barbs for our edification and entertainment. Back and forth they would go, tit for tat, see-sawing their way through both sides of a current event, until finally Tommy could no longer hold his own. His arguments inevitably faltered. Backed into a corner, he would swell up, contort his face, and unleash his best game-ending attack, “Oh yeah?!”

From there, knowing he’d won, Dickey would simply pluck his bass, letting his brother’s feeble, emotional display speak for itself, and the music would go on.

A similar scene played out at some sort of political gathering in New Jersey recently, except with a twist, and not nearly so funny: With the Governor at the podium, a heckler from the crowd raised his arm and angled an accusatory finger at the speaker. Veins distended in his neck, arm pulsing to the beat of his words, he shouted until neither the Governor nor the other audience members could ignore him.

This is our unfortunate truth: More and more people, out of arguments and moved by anger, shout out in public settings, hurling unanswerable blurts, derailing the moment. It is the method of the frustrated and powerless. Take a cheap shot and see if anyone else around you will pile on. “I don’t have a well-formed argument. I don’t have a platform, or forum. I’m hurt. I’m afraid. I feel defeated. And you stand for what I’m mad about. Let me attack you in public where I am free to act this way, but you, in your position, must obey the rules of decorum.”

But this time, the speaker didn’t smile and wave his hand, hoping to dissuade the heckler. He didn’t shake his head and wait. He didn’t surrender. Governor Chris Christie turned to his heckler, pointed back at him and in a forceful but calm voice said, “It’s people like you who scream and yell that divide our country. I’m about bringing our country together.”

With the breath knocked out of the red-faced man and order restored, the Governor returned to his business. No one could deny the truth of his response. Folks from that room will not likely break out into unbridled rudeness again anytime soon. If they’re going to flail in helplessness and fury, they will most likely chose their targets more carefully, or retreat to the safety of the internet. There they can join forces with others dug-in and disenfranchised, persuading no one, but righteous in their vehemence.

Now, will I vote for Chris Christie if he runs for president? Don’t know. Don’t know much else about him. I’m just glad he stood up to the crackpot.

I don’t know that any similar event took place in California around Proposition 19, the legalization of marijuana. Yet it seems, incredibly, that we’re going to vote on this extremely controversial issue without opposing forces standing toe-to-toe, wailing, wringing hands, or gnashing teeth. Nobody got all blood-pressure-y! (Of course, it’s not too late --- we have a few days left before the election.) Still, in the mean time, business people, educators, law enforcement, newspaper editors, and ordinary citizens expressed their views in a remarkably civilized manner. The fate of the Proposition remains to be seen. But it appears the outcome will be derived from voters’ consideration of the issue sans drama.

Maybe we could use such a model for a discussion of immigration. Maybe folks could just start talking about it; other folks could listen and respond with alternative viewpoints, and so on and so on and so on.

I’ll bet there are some really good ideas out there that could begin to unravel this knotty issue. Maybe we could take turns, offer suggestions, and ask questions without ridicule. Maybe even immigrants could join in.

Of course, Arizona will be in a time out for the first round. They must sit quietly while the rest of us begin a thoughtful conversation, thinking about laws, and human beings, considering what was, what is, and what should be.

Oh, if I could only play the bass fiddle. I would strum away while we talk, offering a measured rhythm to the tune of the times.

Friday, October 22, 2010

What's a Voter to Do?

I married into a nest of Republicans. In this family, a game established by the patriarch entails a set of questions of his device, always about events of the day and politics. After every holiday meal, all generations debate the answers, singing out in happy banter, voicing their insights, opinions, and assertions, all decidedly to the right of center.

My beloved father-in-law and his three children, including my husband, all have advanced college degrees. The same for their spouses, and their children, and now even their children’s spouses, our son being the only exception. (He went to technical school and remains single, thank God.)

It makes an impressive collection of conservatives working on pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

Arriving from a blue collar family in Oklahoma made up of teachers, oil refinery workers, deputy clerks in the county office, and postal employees, I kept quiet at the California dinner table for a long time. My mom and I are the only ones with any college on the Oklahoma side of my life. Back there, we were the sages. But if we mentioned our bachelor’s or master’s degrees, we’d only be showing off. And the conversations on Aunt June’s floral velvet sofa after an orgy of mashed potatoes and gravy heaped on turkey and green beans never approached the erudition of my West Coast family.

Somewhere during my acclimation, I remember hearing that only Democrats have hearts, and only Republicans have brains. There I found my rationale for becoming independent of party affiliations. I have a heart and a brain, and I vote all over the ballot.

Lately, though, neither my intellect nor my conscience can find comfort.

I listen to the debates; I read the stuff in the paper and the voter’s pamphlets. I put x’s and o’s on the chart in the “Election 2010” section of the Times like a gridiron coach developing a play book, choosing quarterbacks and defensive linesmen. I try not to be a one issue voter. I think about the economy and education and jobs and taxes and immigration.

But my guts count for something. And this candidate makes my shoulders sag. That one makes me hold my nose. Too many candidates seem like more of the same self-serving do-nothing office-holding politicos, unwilling or unable to do more than join the pack and play self-righteous. Any candidates who do seem fresh and selfless also seem doomed to be swallowed into the belly of the business-as-usual whale.

It’s crazy making! What’s a voter to do? Choose a stinker, or throw your vote away in feeble protest.

What I’d like to do is grab the table by its edge and flip it skyward. Start over. New game. New players. New strategy. New plan. I understand why some people don’t want to play at all.

Yet I marked my vote-by-mail ballot and sent it off to be counted. Why?

Maybe I voted because 21 people were killed in Karachi, Pakistan, during elections there. No one’s going to shoot me to keep me from participating in our frustrating democracy, though my exasperated brother-in-law sometimes shakes his head at me.

Maybe I voted because in the face of seemingly fossilized opinions and limited enlightenment, we elected a black man; and now we are mad at him not because he’s black, but because he hasn’t solved our problems fast enough.

Maybe I voted because I want to be heard. The action of voting says I do not give up and become a conspiracy-theory survivalist living in a commune with shotguns, “keep out” signs, and trip wires. I use the system to improve the system. I will not slink away in bitterness and retreat.

Maybe I voted because I’m just now starting to get it. At sixty, I’m finally beginning to understand enough of the intricacies of human nature, of complex systems, of long-term change, and yes, of politics, that by voting, my hope and belief are renewed.

Wow. Who knew? Renewed hope. Renewed belief. Voting: a shot of B-12 for the campaign weary.

In fact, now that I think of it, no nest of Republicans or Democrats can keep me from voting.

I voted...Will you?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Condoleezza Rice and Me

I have long suspected that I had a little Condoleezza Rice in my make up. Oh yeah. She rocks. I rock…on occasion.

You can be sure I was feeling it when I saw her on the Today Show this week. Of course she was pitching her newly released memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I joined a local “Writing Life Stories” group this week. My memoir’s in its early stages.

Some people who know a lot more than I do are wishing she had told the story of her time in the Bush Whitehouse. I am touched that she instead chose to tell the story of her remarkable youth, growing up black and brilliant in Birmingham, Alabama.

When my book is on the editor’s desk, it will tell the story of my growing up skinny and stringy-haired in Tulsa; running like a heathen with my stringy-haired cousins, popping tar bubbles on the shimmering pavement in the searing Oklahoma heat.

Condi (that’s what she likes to be called) was a prodigy on the piano. My mom couldn’t afford lessons for me after she and my dad divorced. She was too proud, or too angry, to ask him for the money for me. So I learned to read the treble clef and pick out melodies on my own when I sang in the church choir. That’s why it’s such a thrill now for me to own a digital piano, to be playing with both hands, to have lessons lined up. I’m playing for my own amazement, uh, amusement. Condi might appreciate the effort.

My mom was a teacher, just like hers. I talked to her everyday until she died, just like Condi did with her mom. My mom encouraged me too, but somehow, I didn’t become the “sleek, heat-seeking success-driven missile” that Condi did, as described by the New York Times. I haven’t been described by the New York Times. Still, stepping delicately here, deliberately there, and luckily many times, I made it this far…that’s good isn’t it?

My family is white. We didn’t fear much in the 50’s and 60’s except the commies and the bomb. They were pretty far removed from urgency until the Cuban missile crisis, and even that passed. My cousins and the neighbor kids and I played hide and seek in the neighborhood until it was so dark on a moonless night you only needed to stand still to be hidden. Condi recalls sitting on her front porch in Birmingham with her dad and his gun, anticipating a visit from the Ku Klux Klan’s Night Riders. Okay, I’ll give her that one.

I think young adulthood is where she truly left me behind. I got married at 19 mostly because I wanted to get out of the house and didn’t know another way to do it. I moved to California with my first husband, a drinker and a Navy ensign, and gained the confidence to divorce him during the time I lived on my own in Long Beach, while he cruised the Gulf of Tonkin on the USS Wichita.  I started college six years later, graduated at age 27, and finally began teaching high school English in Tulsa Public Schools. I got my master’s degree with the express intent of getting a raise.

Condi seems to have had a larger vision.

At more-or-less the same time as I was teaching full time and working part time in the University of Tulsa library, Condi was getting her doctorate after hanging out with Stokely Carmichael, Josef Korbel (Madeleine Albright’s dad), Brent Scowcroft and George Shultz. I guess it makes sense that our paths diverged about then. She went on to the National Security Council and Secretary of State. I…? I became a high school principal --- a noble calling as well. We were both high profile fish, I was just swimming in a much, much, much smaller pond.

While we would have disagreed about many things, when asked about retirement from her power-packed position in the Bush administration, Condi answered much as I have on leaving the principalship: “It’s good to be out of the pressure cooker. I can observe from afar, like any citizen. I can say, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’”

She’s optimistic about the state of global affairs, as I am about public education. On both fronts growth is complex and comprises a long arc. We’re glad to be cheering from the sidelines, Condi & me.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Goldilocks Can You Hear Me?

I’ve taken particular note of two news items this week that seem to have slipped the attention of many.


  • From the Christian Science Monitor - Astronomers have found a “Goldilocks Planet,” designated Gliese 581g. Not too hot; not too cold; just right to support LIFE.

  • From the Associated Press and Wired News - The United Nations appointed the one person who will be the official liaison should planet earth be contacted by extraterrestrials
Okay, I want to be the one who gets to talk to them. I’m open to coaching of course. Everything doesn’t have to be my way. I just want to be the one who says the words. And the position is open.

The UN originally picked a Malaysian astrophysicist named Mazlan Othman for the job. I’m sure she’s good, but off the top, I’m going to say she’s out of touch with the mainstream. She’s been cloistered in the United Nations’ Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA, really.) off and on since 1999. And now she has retracted her statement that the UN (she) should coordinate the international response to extraterrestrial contact. How can she be the right person for the job if she’s already backing away from it? The UN itself now denies the story, a clear lack of confidence in their first, knee-jerk selection.

Therefore, I humbly submit my pertinent qualifications: A. Worked thirty years with adolescents.

What other life form is more akin to an alien? Most of us know the experience of bringing up baby only to find, after thirteen or so years, that we don’t recognize baby at all. My thirty years interacting with partially formed humanoids makes me uniquely adept at listening and understanding when communication comes in the form of grunts and gestures alone. I actually love the little buggers. They respond to that. Maybe aliens would too.

B. Navigated the bureaucracy of public school policy, again for 30 years:

Should our guests arrive with a complex set of expectations, protocols, assessment, red tape, invisible tape, and duct tape, who better to side-step the adhesive and get right down to the bright shiny faces of our new immigrant friends, find their skills and interests, and acclimate them to our way? Why, I could have them moving from room to room every 55 minutes and eating government-issue cheese in no time.

C. Good manners and good sense.

If we get to Goldilocks first, I understand we must offer them a sign of our peaceful nature and inherent good will. The best gift would be something we’ve researched and know they want and need. Something superfluous here, and scarce there.

God, I hope it’s fat. FAT! YES! They want all the fat we can give them and they have the means to suck it out fast and pain free. Goldilocks is a beautiful blue planet populated by skinny ET’s. All they really yearn for in life is to fill out. And we can help.

NO! Politicians! That’s it! Goldilockians have a need for air—hot air. And they have too many trees and need more and more ways to consume the paper before it overtakes them. Their paint is all dried and their glaciers melted. They are desperate for something else to move slowly, imperceptibly. We can unload, er, offer our politicians.

Their welcoming gift, in exchange, we will accept --- oil? Too easy an answer, but okay. It might be nice to have a deep well with no strings. But that is so crass.

Is it too much to hope they might offer up their surplus of common sense, collegiality, and team work? Maybe they have tons of it bottled up on shelves in all their grandmas’ basements and can’t wait to share it like last season’s tomatoes before the new crop comes in. We’ll bring home cases of the stuff in Mason jars, tie ribbons on it, and distribute it at the holidays.

We could take intergalactic truckloads to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Wouldn’t that be something?

Soon, we’d be overrun with a functional government, working selflessly, in concert, toward the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Some say I’m a dreamer---I prefer visionary. I’m in touch with the needs of the people. I could fit right in at UNOOSA. Vote for me.