Make Change, Not War

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The looting and rioting in the city of Chicago early Monday did not happen in a vacuum. It was a response to the police shooting of a black man in the Englewood neighborhood earlier the night before. While it in no way excuses the violence and destruction, it’s important to understand the root of black citizens’ anger. No amount of peaceful protesting seems to move the needle at all on police abuse of black Americans.

That said, scenes of destruction in America’s cities are playing right into the hands of Republicans and Donald Trump, who is using fear to shore up his dismal ratings among voters ahead of November’s election. If we don’t want four more years of Trump, we need to stem the violence now.

In 1968, Richard Nixon, an eminently unlikable candidate and human being, rode to victory on a “law and order” platform that attracted voters tired of the rioting and civil unrest of the Sixties. Today we have the danger of history repeating itself. We have a grossly unfit president with no moral compass and an outsized ego that has made him a disastrous leader of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, we are seeing 24/7 coverage of looting, burning, and violence in so-called Democratic-controlled cities on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. These images are powerful and scary. No one wants to see our public spaces defiled or our communities descend into lawlessness.

Donald Trump has already shown his willingness to send in federal agents to quell unrest. It’s important that we not give him four more years to sink America further into autocratic rule. Let’s dump Trump and then hold Biden’s and other Democrats’ feet to the fire to make the changes they are promising.

America is in this state because of racism and an income inequality that continues to widen. This won’t get better under a continued Trump administration. Let’s put down our weapons and use the most important one at the ballot box in November.

Read Me a Story

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If you’re in need of a little TLC, why not have Tom Hanks tell you a story? With just a smart phone and a library card, you can listen to everyone’s favorite Bosom Buddy read an audiobook such as my current title, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.

Audiobooks are the ideal way to spend long hours driving or walking. In the past few  years, I’ve had occasion to make out-of-state trips by myself and decided to “read” a novel along the way. I listened to an Irishwoman voice the many characters in Maeve Binchey’s Minding Frankie. I loved Claire Danes’ dramatic rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I’d read many years ago and wanted to revisit. I even managed to complete such must-read titles as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, all while clocking the miles.

I can listen to an audiobook while accomplishing other tasks. Chopping vegetables or folding laundry are mundane and repetitive activities that are much improved by listening to a good story. And audiobooks have even improved my fitness. If I’m listening to a gripping book such as Emma Donoghue’s Room while out walking, I am much more likely to want to walk farther and for longer periods of time. I also prefer listening to watching TV when I am on a treadmill. It’s hard to focus on a screen with my whole body in motion but easy to listen to a disembodied voice while learning about The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

The key to a good audiobook is, of course, a good reader. Sometimes authors read their own work successfully. Malcolm Gladwell has a great voice and reads all of his own books. But many authors are great at creating the written word but not so gifted at speaking it. A good reader – essentially a voice actor – can bring their work alive. Such is the case with Tom Hanks’s wonderful narration of The Dutch House.

I hadn’t been planning to read Ann Patchett’s newest novel. I’d read one of her books in the past and hadn’t loved it. But Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a piece on recommended reading, and Hanks’s audiobook was one of her suggestions. The Dutch House is a story of a family and the centrality of the house to their development, trials and tribulations. Hanks has that warm and folksy timbre to his voice with just enough sass to enliven the first person narration and the brother-sister dynamic in the book.

There is a reason that being read to is such a cherished childhood memory for so many people. The warmth of a story cascading over us, allowing our imagination to conjure worlds while safely tucked under the arm of a loved one. Currently my daughter is rereading the Harry Potter series by listening to a succession of actors and ordinary readers voice the likes of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Snape and the rest. I fondly remember reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to a couple of my kids when they were younger. I’m sure that listening to the series recaptures some of that childhood for my youngest.

So if you have no time to read or your eyes are just too tired at the end of the day, give an audiobook a try. In these troubled times, it can’t hurt to be lulled to sleep by the likes of Tom Hanks.

 

TMI

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Living in the information age is not all it’s cracked up to be. We are constantly bombarded with stories, but I fear we are not always being fed the truth.

Recent events have highlighted the ways in which our media bubbles reinforce our world views. Take the coronavirus. Since news of the pandemic broke and the world began to grapple with its realities, there have been conflicting reports on its severity, the mortality rates, and most importantly, how best to combat the virus. On the one hand, we had disastrous reports from places like Italy and New York, urging the rest of the world to take heed of their overburdened health care systems and shut down. On the other hand, we had leaders downplaying the severity of the outbreak and insisting COVID-19 isn’t much worse than the seasonal flu.

Our latest info wars about coronavirus have involved whether to open schools in the fall for in-person learning. No matter what your position, you can find experts and studies to back up your opinions. The outcry from desperate parents on the one hand is met with resistance from the frightened teaching community on the other. Searching for answers involves wading through a morass of conflicting theories. We are flying blind, yet many of us are certain we know what the best course of action is.

Even with so-called news – that is, factual reporting of real events – we can find stories tailor made for our political and social stances. The unrest in Portland, Oregon, and other big cities is a perfect example. Conservative media outlets portray the protests as lawless nightmares of left-wing anarchists bent on destroying the American way. Left-leaning media depict outrageous militaristic and abusive behavior on the part of police and federal agents against unarmed and defenseless protesters. We can’t even trust the images we see with our own eyes because they are selected with a particular bias.

Lately my husband and I have been arguing about voting by mail, him insisting that voter fraud is a huge problem in America while I argue that reports of so-called fraud are exaggerated by Republicans bent on voter suppression. We are, of course, certain we are right and can trot out stories to bolster our claims. It’s just exhausting.

As a responsible citizen and thinking person, I try my best to stay informed. But with so much information out there, it is a constant and thankless task.

 

Bye, George

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3103107_origGeorge was a fixture at my hometown church. Every Sunday my kids and I would see him dressed in a suit as he ushered parishioners into pews and up to the altar for Holy Communion. A slight man, he always wore a big and friendly smile. My son called him George Bush because he thought George resembled the president.

I met George in a Bible Study I attended. He had a quiet and deliberate way about him. I could tell he thought deeply about the things we studied, but he wasn’t one to pontificate. He expressed himself quietly and eloquently.

Over the years, I lost touch with George. I no longer attended the same evening Bible Study, and I seldom saw him ushering at Mass. Like many people who come and go in our lives, I rarely thought of him.

Recently, though, I started seeing George out walking. He would occasionally pass by my house, a good three quarters of a mile from his home. In inclement weather, he was bundled up in a warm jacket. More recently, I’d see him in his shirtsleeves, always by himself, never in a hurry.

George passed away on July 22. When I read that news in my local paper last week, I regretted that I hadn’t gone out of my way to say hello and reconnect with this quiet, kind man. He was so very much alive as he dutifully walked outside in all kinds of weather. I couldn’t imagine that he would be gone just like that.

In the same newspaper, I read that my dear friend’s brother Paul had passed away as well. As with George, I had seen Paul recently at a memorial service for their mother, shortly before coronavirus made large gatherings like that verboten. And like George, he was very much alive.

We can’t imagine when our time will come to leave this world. It’s a sobering thought. But it can also give new purpose to our days. For my part, I intend to make more effort to keep in touch with the people I cherish – and to try not to forget about those special ones who pass through our lives briefly but meaningfully.

Goodbye, George. And goodbye, Paul. I am better off for having known you.

I Don’t Care Anymore

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Catching snatches of the Bill Barr hearings this morning, all I could think of was that Phil Collins song, “I Don’t Care Anymore.” I wish with all my might that I could truly feel that way about the state of our union in 2020.

I am sick and tired of politics, corruption, lies, and hate. Sick of the manipulations of truth, the selective reporting of crises ranging from the coronavirus to unrest on the streets of America’s cities. I am sick of the fact that perhaps you and I have polar opposite opinions on what is happening in our world and that there seems no likelihood of a meeting of minds on these issues.

I remember when I was young the jokes about the “apathy vote” and how we’d never know how large it was since they wouldn’t bother to come out and vote. How I wish I could just ignore it all, stay in my bubble, and get fat, dumb, and happy.

But apathy just isn’t an option. We have to care, have to try to stay informed, have to advocate for justice and peace, and a better world. Not to do so is to abdicate our responsibility as citizens of this democracy. So as painful as it might be, I will have to keep following the news and speaking out on issues that I care about. I will need to vote this November. I will need to care.

I’m just so tired and discouraged. I keep trying to hold onto that elusive wisp of a feeling, hope. Maybe tomorrow I will catch it.

Name-Calling the Refuge of the Weak

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I like Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot. She is a tough and no nonsense leader, and I think she will be good for Chicago. So I was disappointed to read yesterday that she had called the head of the police union a “clown,” a “fraud,” and. a “liar.” Lightfoot was angry that FOP President John Catanzara supported having federal troops come into the city to help quell unrest. (“Lightfoot defends insulting text messages sent to FOP president: ‘I don’t take back one word that I said,'” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 24, 2020) Instead of a reasoned and even impassioned disagreement, Lightfoot lashed out with an ad hominem attack.

Such discourse has become all too commonplace in society today. Our current president actually insulted his way right into the Oval Office by coining nasty nicknames for his opponents (Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Crooked Hillary”). He referred to Mexicans as “criminals and rapists” and protesters as “thugs” and “sons of bitches.” Once in office, Trump has continued to denigrate his political enemies, minorities, and women. For instance, he recently retweeted a post referring to Hillary Clinton as a “skank.” There seems to be no level too low for our Name-Caller-in-Chief.

In the Trump era, we have seen a true degeneration of discourse in the public sphere. This has been aided by social media, where vitriol and insult can explode across the internet universe. But while it may be upsetting to see ordinary Joes on Facebook or Twitter making nasty remarks, it is far more serious to see prominent elected officials resort to name-calling.

Yesterday Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an eloquent speech in the House of Representatives after Republican Rep. Ted Yoho verbally assaulted her on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, calling her “disgusting, crazy and dangerous.” Worse, out of earshot from AOC but within hearing of reporters, Yoho called her “a fucking bitch.” The Democratic women who spoke pointed out that this kind of defamatory language is part of a larger culture of “‘violence and violent language against women.'” (“On House floor, Dems call out verbal assaults against women,” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 24, 2020)

Name-calling is the refuge of the insecure. We wield it when our arguments are shaky or we don’t care to listen to an opposing point of view. It is also a form of bullying, a way to strike fear into our perceived enemies so as to silence them. And it is extremely detrimental to a civil society. As psychiatrist Ronald Pies points out, “When the most powerful man in the world provides an example of bullying by repeatedly deploying offensive nicknames, this ought to concern us all.” (“Trump’s Nicknames and the Psychology of Bullying,” psychcentral.com, July 8, 2018)

We need to demand more of our leaders at every level. They should be our role models. And when they fail to live up to that standard, we should let them know we are not pleased – at the ballot box.

 

Mid-Summer Moods

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IMG_2411In Michigan, the corn has grown taller than me, and that means we are past the mid-summer mark here in the Midwest. I always have mixed feelings at this time of year.

On the one hand, I long to shake off the heat-induced lethargy of the “dog days.” As the temps and humidity hover in the 90s, I feel like an old-time Southern belle languishing on my settee. Yet it’s also bittersweet to know the days are growing shorter, and that can only mean the inexorable march toward the gloom of November.

Mixed in with these feelings is my excitement as the school year looms ahead, this year with plenty of angst and uncertainty, to be sure. But my daughter will be starting college, a new chapter in her young life, and I’m thrilled for all that means for her. It won’t be the freshman experience my three other children had. Only a quarter of the student body will be on campus, most classes will be online, and masks will be required everywhere. Yet my daughter will be meeting new people – hopefully lifelong friends – and learning new things, most especially a greater sense of independence and the joy of deep thinking.

By mid-summer, I have made great headway in my reading list but very little in my to-do list of projects I routinely put off. Because students are on vacation, I have the sense that I too have been given permission to loaf around, eat too many sweets, and drink wine with dinner every night. This feeling suits me just fine – until it doesn’t. I get restless and suddenly spring up from my couch, put on my sneakers, and head out for a little exercise.

Last week, my husband and I hosted our first social engagement since the coronavirus hit the United States. We had another couple come over, bringing their own wine and even wine glasses, and we sat six feet apart on our screened-in porch. It was so pleasant to catch up with our friends on a warm summer’s night.

Next up on the reading list is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. On TV, I’ve been watching a light confection called Sweet Magnolias. It has been a good counterbalance to the dystopian nightmare scenario of Brave New World, which my daughter and I recently binged on the new Peacock streaming service.

My husband has been cooking on the grill, and I have been baking in the early morning before the heat of the day sets in. Soon it will be time to purchase items for my daughter’s dorm room and make our plans to travel out of state to deposit her safely at school.

The sweet corn will soon be harvested and the fields laid bare. Watermelon will be on its way out and Honeycrisp apples on their way in. I plan to savor the remainder of summer in the Midwest and look forward to the glories of fall.

Thanks, But No Thank You Note

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I suspect that the writing of thank you notes is going the way of the mastodon.

Every time there has been a gift-giving holiday, I have had to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy haranguing my children to write small notes of thanks to relatives and friends who had generously given them a gift. Why such an easy and relatively painless task should be met with so much resistance is beyond me.

I grew up in an era when it was simply expected that if someone gave you a gift, you would respond in a timely fashion by writing a thank you note. In fact, I can distinctly remember visiting a stationery store to pick out an attractive pack of 8 thank you cards for that purpose. Ah, the stationery store. That is also a kind of dinosaur of the retail world, its fate sealed by the blinding light, not of a meteor, but of modern indifference to this social nicety.

The Emily Post Institute provides the following guidance on thank yous:

All gifts should be acknowledged with a note, unless the present was opened in front of the giver—then you have the chance to thank them in person. An important exception: Many of an older generation expect a hand-written note. Providing them with one is an appropriate gesture of respect and consideration. Also, send a hand-written note for gifts received at a shower, even if you said thank you in person at the time. (emilypost.com, emphasis added)

Despite these guidelines, the younger generation seems resistant to the idea of thank you notes. But to me, thank notes serve several functions. First of all, they assure the giver that the gift was, in fact, received. This is important when the gift is a monetary one sent through the mail or any gift that was shipped to the recipient. Sure, this notification could be accomplished by an email or phone call. But a handwritten note signifies a higher level of care and thoughtfulness in acknowledging the giver’s kindness and effort.

Modern methods of communication have been a boon to society. I love the ease of email, texting, or picking up the phone. Yet something has been lost in this era of e-cards and instant messaging. It is enjoyable to sift through the daily snail mail and find a handwritten note from a friend or loved one. One’s personality comes through in their handwriting, and it is pleasant to think of them sitting down and taking the time to think of you.

Emily Post suggests that writers make the thank you note chore more pleasant by carving out time, having a glass or wine or cup of tea, and listening to music. “Above all, try to enjoy yourself. Giving thanks shouldn’t be a chore—and doesn’t have to be if you make the effort to keep it interesting.”

Sincere gratitude is not only a gift we give others. It is a gift we give to ourselves because it makes us happier with our lives and with what we have. Writing thank you notes is a wonderfully concrete way to practice that gratitude and put a smile on the face of people we care about.

Evening Stroll

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On a hot summer day, the best times to go out for a walk are early in the morning or in the evening, just before dusk. Tonight after dinner, I ventured outside. A pleasant breeze was blowing as I made my way down familiar paths.

As I walked, I saw a shock of bright purple flowers rising from dense green foliage. A blur of red went by as a cardinal took wing in front of me. A teenage girl gave me a smile as she passed, AirPods playing a secret soundtrack in her ears. I could smell dinners being cooked on barbecue grills and hear the shrill cadence of cicadas high in the trees above me.

In midsummer, the hydrangeas are everywhere, huge white snowballs gaily swaying in the breeze. They looked especially apt in front of a huge old white frame house with a sparkling chandelier gleaming in the window. Its owners have spent years lovingly restoring the home with its stained glass windows and wrap-around front porch. Around the corner is brand new construction, not quite ready for the new life of the family that will soon move in. Across the street sits a vacant, shabby, forlorn structure that will no doubt soon have a date with a bulldozer.

The only constant in life is change, and we are borne on its cleansing tide.

As I made my way home, soft lamps in windows and on front porches lit my way, along with lazy fireflies flitting across lawns. Soon my town would be enveloped in darkness, the only sounds the rumbling of trains and the swish of car tires on asphalt.

I am home now, safe within strong walls, happy to be alive and to reflect on an evening stroll.

The New Normal

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I have started to get used to the new normal in the age of coronavirus.

When the pandemic first made its way into the US, causing a massive halt to all normal activity, I was filled with anxiety. Every other day I would swear that my mild asthma was flaring up and worried that I had been infected. I stocked up on groceries, fearful that stores would be shuttered or that my family would be totally quarantined.

When I ventured out once a week to the supermarket, I had a feeling of being on another planet, one that looked like Earth but was eerily quiet and devoid of cars and people. I felt like a figure in a Pac-Man game, dashing down alternate aisles to avoid other shoppers. Coming home, I’d collapse in an exhausted heap as if I’d just run a perilous gantlet.

Nowadays, I feel more comfortable venturing out for an extra run to the store if I’ve forgotten something. It has become routine to don my mask and accomplish my errands. Not having contracted the virus to this point, I feel a little calmer and less apt to interpret every cough as a sure sign that I have caught it.

I am still very cautious. I only go places I need to go to and have strictly limited the number of people I see. My husband and I have always loved to go out for breakfast, but we are resigned to home-cooked omelets for the foreseeable future. I have yet to brave my local library, and movies on my TV will have to do. I can make my own popcorn!

This is the new normal, a somewhat circumscribed but manageable one. I lack for nothing here at home, and I am blessed not to be totally alone. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my life and my health. And I pray for the day when coronavirus becomes an illness we can reliably prevent and manage – so that we can once again shower our friends and family members with our bountiful affection.