Thankful Tree

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With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’ve been reminiscing about a little tradition I tried with my children when they were younger. I’d find a leafless branch in my backyard, stick it in a small terra cotta pot filled with pebbles, and voila! We’d have a thankful tree.

I didn’t make up the idea of the thankful tree. I’d read about it and thought it would be a nice way to make the holiday a little more meaningful and encourage gratitude in my children. Before Thanksgiving, I fashioned colorful paper leaves out of construction paper, punched a small hole in each one, and tied a ribbon through the hole. Then on Thanksgiving, I encouraged family members to write something they were thankful for that year on a leaf and hang it on the tree.

The thankful tree made a cute centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table. Its starkness fit into the season when fall was giving way to winter. Its leaves gave it color and made it a conversation piece as family guests read about the things their loved ones were thankful for.

Thanksgiving can be an overwhelming holiday. There’s so much food and the endless preparation that goes with it. Family members who haven’t seen each other in a while are suddenly in close quarters. Forward-thinking types are plotting their Black Friday shopping for the next day.

The thankful tree gives people a chance to pause and take stock of their blessings and to realize how many things there are to be truly grateful for. I’d encourage families to give it a try and hopefully establish a tradition of gratitude and togetherness for their many Thanksgiving holidays in the future.

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Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

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Sheep-in-Wolfs-ClothingBack in 1971, the musical duo Loggins and Messina came out with “Danny’s Song,” an innocent ballad about love and the future. I remember listening to the lyrics, “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey, everything will bring a chain of love.” My response? “Oh, sure. What are you going to do? Live on love?” Yes, I had become a 13-year-old cynic.

Maybe cynicism is a phase that teenagers go through in order to seem cooler than they are. But mine carried through into adulthood, and it still hovers in the background of my personality. And I think I finally know why.

A cynic is a disillusioned idealist. My 13-year-old self had so many romantic notions. I devoured romance novels and fantasized about being swept off my feet by a Mr. Rochester type. I carried a photo of Michael Jackson around in my wallet and dreamt of one day being Mrs. Michael Jackson. Yet already at that tender age, I realized that life is hard and one needs money to live. If love really meant never having to say you’re sorry, we’d all be in trouble.

Cynicism is a kind of mental and emotional armor. If I mock something, I can mask the fact that I really care about it. A case in point is the way my sisters and I would provide running commentary while watching beauty pageants. We were ruthlessly critical of the women parading around in swimsuits and spouting platitudes about world peace. For me, the sarcasm masked the fact that I would have loved nothing more than to be so prized for my beauty that I was part of a national or worldwide contest to proclaim the most beautiful.

Being cynical is also common in the arena of politics. The disillusioning effects of dirty campaigns, corrupt officials, and the need to be rich in order to have a chance at winning elections all serve to make many people turn away from politics altogether – or to look at every politician as a con artist. This might explain, at least in part, the very low turnout for most U.S. elections. For instance, Illinois’ governor’s race this year was a case of holding one’s nose and choosing between a billionaire who had done very little to improve the state in his previous term and another billionaire whose previous dealings smacked of corruption. It’s no wonder cynicism flourishes in modern society while idealism languishes.

I’m not knocking realists. It’s important to see things as they are and not always to be viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. If we don’t acknowledge our failings and those of our leaders, we won’t make any positive changes. But I miss the youthful enthusiasm I used to have for causes. I miss dreaming big. Perhaps as I get older, I will return to my childlike state and become a hopeless romantic once again.

 

Judging Elections

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I worked as an election judge for the first time Tuesday, and the experience opened my eyes to many issues with our current system.

First of all, election judges get minimal training and are both overworked and underpaid. We judges showed up at the polling place by 5 am and were not able to leave until after 8 pm. There was scarcely any opportunity to use the restroom or grab a bite to eat.

As the polls opened, our epollbooks, which are used to look up voters’ information, were not working. We were scrambling to post voter applications and get voters into the booths to vote before they headed to work for the day. Not having actually ever performed the task, I was uncertain exactly what to do and sometimes which form to use. This despite the fact that I had attended training and had studiously read the entire election judges manual for a couple of days before the election.

There is no boss at a polling place in Illinois. All judges have equal weight in seeing to it that voting takes place in the proper manner. But this can create confusion. One of our judges insisted upon asking people for IDs even after I told her it was not allowed in Illinois. It took a couple of poll watchers and someone from the election commission who came to our precinct to set the judge straight.

Inevitably there were issues with voters. Some had moved but not changed their address. Others were at the wrong polling place. Some voters had become inactive after not voting for a few years. Even with the opportunity to hand out provisional ballots, it took me the better part of the day to learn how to follow the proper protocols for all of these special situations and make sure everyone had the opportunity to vote.

Our election system needs an overhaul. It should be much easier and less complex to vote. In Washington State, for instance, all voting is done by mail or drop off. There is no scrambling to get to a polling place or need to stand in a long line to vote. There is no need to recruit citizens to sacrifice a long and exhausting day at the polls. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout in the state was over 50%.

Don’t get me wrong. My day as an election judge was not all bad. I enjoyed meeting my fellow judges, who hailed from all different walks of life and were eager to do their part to participate in democracy. I loved seeing the great turnout at the polling place to which I was assigned. It heartened me to see so many citizens, many of them young people, determined to cast their vote.

I would love to see Illinois and other states work to make voting more streamlined and ultimately less costly than the wieldy system we currently have. Short of that, election judges need to be paid better and required to receive more training and supervision before being allowed to work at a polling place. They should also not be required to work an entire 15- hour shift on Election Day.

Voting is one of our most cherished rights and responsibilities as Americans. Let’s make it easier to participate and encourage citizens to vote in every election. It will make our democracy more vibrant and representative of all the people.

The Patchwork Quilt of America

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America is not so much a melting pot as it is a splendid patchwork quilt of all the races, cultures, religions, and traditions of the native people and the millions of immigrants who journeyed here over the past few hundred years.

The melting pot imagery took root during a time when complete assimilation into the dominant culture in America was the only road to prosperity and acceptance for new immigrants. Learning the language, of course, made sense. But what of subsuming one’s own cultural and religious practices under a sanitized, “apple pie” vision of what America should be?

Luckily, over the past two centuries, our Constitution has protected our right to be different – to practice different religions, dress differently, celebrate our unique holidays, and wear our cultural identities with openness and pride. As a result, America has been gifted with a plethora of colors and patterns. We have cuisines from all over the world. We have the ability in our big cities to spend the morning in Chinatown, the afternoon in a mosque or synagogue, and our evening at an Irish pub.

Far from being dangerous to American values, immigrants are often more patriotic because they take their freedoms less for granted than those of us who were born into a vibrant democracy. Their willingness to work hard, often at jobs most Americans would decline to do, make them assets to our society, not detriments.

Of course, when cultures clash, it can be unnerving. And there are practices that may be common in some societies that are illegal here in America. The rule of law in these cases should prevail.

The president’s attempts to demonize those people clamoring to come into our country fly in the face of reality. Immigrants are no more likely than native citizens to commit crimes. They are not eligible for welfare or other public assistance that detractors claim creates a strain on our resources. Most of us are the descendants of “aliens” who brought many things to this land – most especially hope.

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The crazy quilt was popularized in American during the Victorian age. Crazy quilts are hodgepodges of shape, color, and design. They don’t seem to go together until a skilled artisan takes the various pieces of fabric and makes something unique and beautiful out them.

America is a gigantic crazy quilt that at times can feel jarring but that ultimately makes our country beautiful and unique too.

NOel

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Yesterday a station on Sirius XM radio started playing Christmas songs. Mind you, not just the occasional festive holiday tune thrown in among other popular offerings. Nonstop, 24/7 holiday treacle. Is it cliche to scream, “TOO SOON!”?

It’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around the fact that our society could take a  feast honoring a poor, imperiled Christ child in a manger and turn it into a shameless commercial bonanza. (Of course, the ancient Romans and Celts are rolling over in their graves at their “pagan” festivities being coopted by the Christians.)

Take something lovely and pure, and someone will try to monetize it. Romantic love? Let’s sell pricey roses, candy, and jewelry and make those items stand in for our feelings. Love your mom? Nothing says devotion like an overpriced all-you-can-eat hotel brunch, a $7 greeting card, and yes, more flowers.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a holiday involving the ritual of gift-giving would eventually get over the top. When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes buy our tree on Christmas Eve! Nowadays, people put their artificial Christmas trees up in early November, and I still see them in the windows on Valentine’s Day.

One of my favorite Christmas specials to this day is A Charlie Brown Christmas. In it, Charlie Brown is frustrated by the hoopla and commercialization of Christmas. Finally he cries out in frustration, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?!” His friend Linus, of course, adorably quotes the gospel of Luke, which describes the scene of Christ’s birth.

There’s so much to love about the Christmas holidays, so many fun and beloved traditions. But let’s wait until the leaves have fallen off the trees and I’ve gotten sick of pumpkin products. Let’s enjoy a fallow time between the excess of Halloween and the folderol of Christmastime. Let’s tramp through the leaves and enjoy hot apple cider by the fire with a good book or a good friend. Let’s plan our feast for Thanksgiving without the distraction of Christmas songs and pre-holiday sales and peppermint mochas.

Luckily there are dozens of other good stations on the radio to listen to during this wonderfully uncommercial season of the year. Beatles channel, anyone?

Let Them Eat Candy!

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I’ve had a Come to Reese’s moment about Halloween. Since having kids, I’d become a bit of a Halloween Grinch. The whole holiday is exhausting for parents of young children. The costume dramas, the school parties, the candy wrappers all over the house, the kids hyped up on sugar. I couldn’t wait until November 1 each year when I could turn my mind from goblins to saints.

And I had a hard and fast rule about trick or treating. My kids were done after eighth grade. I found it obnoxious for hulking teenagers to show up at my door with their giant pillowcases, begging for treats. Many of them didn’t even dress up! Of course, I always gave them candy. I’d learned from Larry David’s experience on Curb Your Enthusiasm what happens to homeowners who refuse teenagers treats.

But this fall I’ve seen a plethora of articles and memes on Facebook imploring people to give teens a chance to go out with their pint-sized brethren and snag a few Snickers bars. After all, trick or treating is an innocent and harmless activity. More importantly, it brings out the child in our adolescents who are trying in so many other ways to be too cool for school.

Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age. Now that my youngest is 17, maybe I’m just nostalgic for the days when my little princesses and pirates were dumping out their hauls of candy on my family room floor, excitedly chatting about their trick or treating adventures. Let’s face it. My adult children are more likely to be downing shots than M&Ms this Halloween.

So when my 17-year-old mentioned that some of her friends were going to trick or treat, I suggested she join them.

“Who are you?” she demanded. Like my other kids, she had internalized the “no trick or treating in high school” rule. (Who says I’m not an effective parent?)

“Sure,” I encouraged her. “I’ve had a change of heart about the whole thing. It’s a fun, wholesome activity. You should go.”

I even offered to make her and her friends our traditional Halloween snacks of wienie dogs and Bagel Bites. (Who says I’m not a provider of healthy food?)

Will she take me up on my offer to let her be a kid for the day? I hope so. And I hope to see fun-loving teenagers at my door tonight. With one caveat: I draw the line on trick or treaters who don’t wear a costume. So teens, put on some devil horns or cat ears and come on over!

Trump Can’t Lead Without Moral Compass

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President Trump chose to mark the loss of 11 lives due to white nationalist terrorism by traveling to Southern Illinois for another political rally. His visit was ostensibly to campaign for other Republicans, but really it was just to talk about himself and take jabs at Democrats and Hillary Clinton. These are not the actions of a leader.

Sure, Trump made a few remarks about his supposed intolerance for anti-Semitism. But in the days since the devastating attack on Jewish members of a Pittsburgh synagogue, the President of the United States has managed to do what he does best: make it all about him. He even complained that he was probably attacked more than anyone. Gee, Mr. Trump. Is that how you plan to comfort the loved ones of the deceased?

In the past two weeks, we have seen a series of attacks on the part of disgruntled white men who love everything Donald Trump stands for. First, law enforcement officials arrested the man accused of sending pipe bombs in the mail to prominent Democrats. He was a white nationalist whose actions gelled around his support for Trump and the politics of hate. Trump used the arrest not to appeal for peace and understanding, but to call for a renewed use of the death penalty.

Now we have one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks committed on U.S. soil in decades. But far from being able to rely on our president to lead us away from such violence, we have one who calls white nationalists “fine people” and uses dog whistle politics to appeal to their racism. Besides, he has to get back to his relentless attack on the caravan of undesirables heading for the U.S. border. It’s the only way to get Republicans elected these days apparently.

That Donald Trump has no sense of decency was revealed way back in 2015 when he started to campaign for president by claiming that the current one was an African-born Muslim. Throughout the campaign, he hurled insults and slurs, fomented white rage, and even suggested he’d hit on his own daughter if they weren’t related. He bragged about paying no taxes and grabbing women’s genitalia. Did we really expect him to get in office and suddenly start acting “presidential”?

Donald Trump even mocks the notion of being presidential by imitating a robot and garnering a few laughs at his omnipresent political rallies. No, we can’t expect leadership from a man who lives in a moral vacuum. And our country is much the worse for it.