Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Grand Resolutions

Here comes 2011! Resolutions are in order:

First, I resolve to dismiss all my servants and household help. Following the example of the King- and Queen-to-be sets a proper tone for the New Year. Not so much austerity, but more frugal living.

Seems like Prince William’s dad and step-mum might consider at least whittling down their service staff of 149. With 25 of those assigned to personal duties for Prince Charles himself, it makes one wonder if he remembers how to brush his own teeth, but I’m sure it’ll come back to him. It’s like riding that proverbial bicycle. Except of course, someone else may be doing that for him too.

I resolve to make a pie. I mean to make an excellent pie, a cherry pie, or lemon meringue, with a crust that I made too. I resolve to keep trying to make a satisfactory pie crust until it is properly flaky. I hope it doesn’t take too many iterations, or that achievement could interfere with my next resolution.

I resolve to…I resolve…oh! It’s so mundane. I resolve to get even thinner in 2011! There. That’s a good way to say it. I’m getting thinner. I got a little thinner in 2010. Thinner still in 2011! I got un-thin by smidgens over time. I shall get thinner that way as well. That’s all I’m going to say about it, probably until sometime in January.

I resolve to keep my desk more orderly. As it stands, my desk provides a secret window into an unruly part of my otherwise well-arranged self. In a tidy universe, my desk orbits within a debris field of newspaper clippings, magazines, read and unread memoirs, binoculars, pens, pencils, highlighters, sunglasses and visors, (need to get shades on the windows up here!), and of course, my computer, keyboard, iPad, iPod, cell phone, and Aztec ritual wedding mask. Surely, I can do better.

I resolve to be less clumsy socially. I will answer phone calls and invitations promptly. Even though it’s never too late to say “thank you,” in 2011 I will not be saying thank you so late that it must be accompanied by an apology, an explanation, or worst of all, a white lie.

Oh yes, and I resolve to make the world a better place. Oh yeah, you say? Oh yeah? Well, yes. I will. I admit it was easier to claim this when I worked in the schools. I had the Garrison Keillor principle working for me there: Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. So I could argue that even when I had the sidewalks at the school steam cleaned, I was doing something worthwhile, something good for kids. Now that I’m retired, it may not be so straightforward. I’ll have to be more pointed in my efforts at better world building.

Maybe I should establish criteria. Otherwise, how will I know if I have, in fact, made the world a better place? Let’s see: can’t stop people from killing each other, much as I would like to. That certainly would make the world a better place, but realistically, out of my hands.

Can’t end the world’s hunger, though I hope my drop in the Food Bank’s bucket helps someone.

Looks like I’ll have to set aside the grand criteria for world improvement. Following the Royals’ example would have its limits as well. I’d better stick to the small stuff.

Therefore: I resolve to make someone smile every day. Every day. Friend or stranger. Every day I hope to make note of a smile on someone else’s face with my name on it.

I resolve to be generous with my manners, stepping out of the way, holding the door, freeing up the lane even when I don’t really want to. I don’t think I’ll be any worse off for it. I may lose a few seconds in my travels, but hope to gain miles in goodwill.

Along with that, I resolve to forgive the small transgressions of impatience or stinginess that so often abound on our bustling planet. I will rein in my righteous, long-suffering, wry, and witty self, allowing other human beings a bad day without piling on.

So the criterion is this: The world might be a better place if I behave like a better person.

Not the whole wide world of course, but the tiny sphere close by could be a tiny bit better. I’m going to try it. See me this time next year. I’ll let you know how it went.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cyber Christmas

So I bought a web cam. Or is it webcam? Spell check accepts both. It’s kind of a “to me, from me” Christmas gift. I went ahead and opened it and everything.

I had a Blackberry once and ultimately had to admit to myself that I had no business with a Blackberry. I was working then and believed the calendar feature would be so great. Never again, so I thought, would I go to the wrong place for a meeting, or show up at the right place on the wrong day.

Turns out those tiny, shiny, infuriating nubs on the Blackberry’s keyboard are all buttons with multiple functions. So an “A” isn’t only an “A” but also a “~” and a “%” depending on if you are using caps or not, which is of course another function on another nub. I found I most wanted to use those nubs to create a line of cursing:!%~@##^&*!! But even that took too much concentration and the pinpoint mechanical fingers of a futuristic droid, which I most certainly am not.

I never used the calendar. Not once. I got email on the thing and it just felt like I was being pestered and pursued. And I paid that exorbitant rate for the mandatory two years! Why, I could have had lots of new shoes for the money I wasted on that glitzy gadget.

Which brings me back to the webcam: I bought it because a friend of mine went to Zurich for Christmas to visit a mutual friend of ours who now lives there. We three agreed how much fun it would be to go to the next level of chat while they were there and I was here. We wouldn’t just IM on FB, we’d SEE each other while we talked! Doesn’t that sound GREAT?!

In honesty, the webcam connected without snafu. Loading the software – no problem-o. It’s what comes next that is so disconcerting. The thing offered to take my picture for the profile it would post in contact books around the world. Okay.

Now, I’m with the crowd that wears “readers” – those half glasses you can get at Target after you guess what your prescription would be if you went to the eye doctor and got real glasses. I use them when I’m on the computer. I’m wearing them now and feel perfectly happy. But this thing took my picture as I leaned in and tilted my head back to get the proper angle so I could see the shutter button on the screen.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s the standard, old, funky-person pose. When your head tilts back, your jaw juts forward, and your mouth must open. If in vanity, you picked the weaker power on your readers, you still have to squint, which, as a final insult, exposes your front teeth. That’s the pose. My new webcam took a picture of me peering at it as though it were something gooey stuck on the mirror. Here, I’ll just get that with a tissue.

So that seems unfair at the very least. Here I am in the 21st Century and my own stuff is making fun of me. I think I deserve better.

To cap it all off, the three of us have yet to overcome the time difference between Zurich and Benicia, so no one has called anyone on the webcam phone. We’ve just been sending emails back and forth. So turn-of-the-century!

As I review this debacle, it seems pretty clear; they should be out enjoying Zurich anyway. Why call me up and prattle on about how cool it is to be there. I know that already!

I guess if we were love-struck and separated by fate, a webcam could provide us the screen to place our fingers on, ever so tenderly, as though actually touching, instead of virtually.

As it is, my new toy mocks me in cruelest techno-cyber sort of way. Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it never blinks, but waits for me to squint again. I know I can unplug it, dismantle its cyber-mind. But that seems like surrender. Defeated by a Blackberry, I will not concede victory to Skype!

Merry Christmas to Zurich! And to all a good night!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Angle on Immigration

I heard an inspirational speaker once talking about the introduction of ramps for the handicapped into public places - banks, shopping malls, airports. The expense was enormous and because of this, many able-bodied folks shook their heads as they passed the construction, thinking of all the other things the money could be spent on.

But as the ramps were completed, he observed all manner of people using them. Many able-bodied folks apparently found the ramps preferable to the stairs --- gentle, less taxing. No rules restricted the use of the ramps, so anyone who wanted to could angle up or down the way, stress free. And of course, those who couldn’t use the stairs before now gained unfettered access to a myriad of services previously held at bay. Everybody benefitted.

Thus, the speaker inspired us to help those in need, even if only for the selfish reason that we would benefit from our own largesse. Stinginess so rarely pays.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service says that to be a legal immigrant into our country, you must enter with a passport and/or a visitor’s visa or a work visa. That’s it. That’s the difference between legal and illegal.

It seems funny that so many come into the United States from Mexico without one of those two documents, a passport or a visa. I think what it means is that many Mexican citizens do not have passports or visas. And, they don’t have the basic information or the means to acquire them. That makes them illegal. That is their crime.

Most Mexican immigrants come here to work. And they do work. We have nearly eight million undocumented immigrants employed in our country now. With numbers like those, deportation is unrealistic, as is prosecution. And in truth, these folks are not true criminals, but rather our neighbors and friends, our colleagues and helpers. Like most everyone around us, they are hard-working, honest people seeking better lives for their families. They abide by our laws; improve their lives and ours by making every day contributions as we do.

When I was a high school principal, the Mexican Consulate apprised me of more than 400 adults in my community, many of them parents of students at my school, who had no identification at all. No driver’s license, nothing. The Consulate came to my school on a Saturday and set up remote communication with Mexico City, enabling those who had birth certificates to acquire their matricula cards, a form of identification that banks across the United States accept for establishing checking and savings accounts. Certainly, a matricula card would be a key component in the process of acquiring a passport or visa. Evidently, in Mexico, a person can move into adulthood without such a thing.

I wonder if, as a part of our response to illegal immigration, we could assist Mexican citizens working in our country in gaining their matricula cards, their passports, and visas. That is to say, instead to trying to keep our fingers plugged into the porous dikes of our borders, instead of building fences and walls, instead of investing in razor wire and weapons, maybe we could consider working with the concept instead of against it.

What might be our benefit in such a scenario?

Millions of dollars now spent on border patrol might be reduced or redirected. The time, manpower, and money expended at and between the portals along the Mexican-American border could be focused on those we truly want to keep out, the real criminals. It’s the drug dealers and thieves, looking to disappear into our country, and to ply their unlawful lifestyles here, that we truly want to identify, apprehend, keep out, or deport. They represent a tiny portion of those crossing the border.

The rest pay sales tax on their purchases, but not income tax because of their lack of documentation. Maybe if we assisted with their documents, we would benefit in tax revenues collected from another eight million employees.

I know it’s not simple. The issue is complex, multi-faceted, and has years of neglect adding to its recalcitrance, not to mention the attendant, boiling emotion. Folks will shake their heads at the expense of such a process. But whatever package of policies we ultimately combine to create immigration reform, we should consider building bridges and ramps, not only fences and walls.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

WikiLeaks for You & Me

I don’t know if we truly need to know everything WikiLeaks thinks we need to know to be good Americans.

Do we really need to know that Hilary Clinton called Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi “odd”? Apparently he is odd. Eccentric at best. Creepily so. Is it a threat to national security that Mr. Gaddafi now knows she called him odd?

So what if the Turkish Foreign Minister now knows his peers in the Middle East consider him “extremely dangerous”? Does anyone suppose he’s surprised by the revelation? Has he been left alone in the henhouse up to now? Or haven’t we been watching him pretty closely? He must have noticed folks taking the eggs with them when they left the room.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now knows other world leaders think of him as a little Hitler. He’s probably proud.

No one in the world arena is truly surprised by these revelations. Nor should any of us be surprised. Caring parents say things about their children that their children should never hear. Teachers vent about students, and go on to serve them well and faithfully. Bosses kvetch about their employees…you see.

We might be surprised if we knew the exact language used by diplomats around the world to describe Mrs. Clinton, or Condi Rice before her. Or George W. Bush. We might feign shock if we heard the descriptors applied to Barak Obama or the United States Congress. But the shock would be only a response to a particular word choice, not that others speak frankly, vent frustrations, or express concerns about the behaviors of those with whom they must put on the good face and deal.

It’s closed-room stuff that is not for public consumption, but now we know. There is no Santa Claus and our parents probably wanted to leave us at the campground at least once when we thought we knew everything.

I certainly don’t envy Hilary having to face those who’ve now heard the blunt references to their personalities and private lives. Part of what’s on in their minds though, has to be, “if she only knew what I said about her!”

This stuff is covering a big portion of the media plate, but it is not the meat of the meal.

We truly need to be concerned that a sad, bullied, and now vindictive private in the US Army could so easily access and share a trove of confidential and secret documents as his gotcha for the State Department. He needs consequences, and likely will get them as a first level scapegoat for the embarrassment much bigger wigs are suffering thanks to him. Clearly, folks in security and defense have some explaining to do, as well.

I don’t like that Julian Assange at WikiLeaks feels free and justified in publishing information that might put even one United States citizen in real jeopardy. Of course, the New York Times and other more traditional outlets published the documents too. Somebody close to the top needs to review the definition of “need to know” and even treason, and decide how bright a line to draw and how swift and clear a response to make.

I don’t like it, but I see the point about an informed citizenry when it comes to our government turning a blind eye to human rights abuse here (where we stand to gain), but condemning it there (where we have little to lose). At some point, we’ve got to stop kidding ourselves about ourselves and our government.

I don’t like it that the United States and its citizens (you and I) look two-faced, but I guess we are. We’re human. We want to believe we’re better than we are. We do believe it until someone like Assange comes to our party with a great big mirror and a klieg light. The release of some of this information might serve to get us off our tall white stallions and our penchant for preaching to those who may know us better than we know ourselves.

But does all this muck make us a bad country, a bad citizenry? No. I don’t think so. The United States is good, and we are good Americans. We just need to be more sober in our self-assessments, and more generous in assessing our colleagues at the world table. We’re not so different. We all have a lot to forgive, and a lot to learn.