Generation Gap

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WoodstockThe other day my teenage daughter sat at the kitchen table and started reading off a list of 100 famous movie lines: everything from “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” A few were vaguely familiar to her. But for the most part, she had no idea where most of the lines came from or what they meant.

“How is ‘Rosebud’ such a famous line?” she demanded. She also wanted to know why Humphrey Bogart was the speaker of so many famous movie quips. As she went down the list, occasionally she asked me to replicate the intonation of the line as it was spoken in the movie. But it’s hard to convey, say, the hair-raising quality of the little girl in Poltergeist when she turns away from the television and says, “They’re h-e-e-e-re.”

My husband and I realized right then that we had failed to indoctrinate our children in the all-important canon of memorable films. Indeed, in so many areas – music, theater, television, history – there’s a generation gap between our own experiences and knowledge and that of our kids.

Much was made of the so-called generation gap during the 1960s. After the hardships and deprivations of two major world wars, members of the “Greatest Generation” were cautious, conventional, and level-headed. They enjoyed the economic well-being of the Fifties and saw it as a result of hard work and sacrifice. Self-expression was not valued as much as order and peace.

The Baby Boomers, children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, were born into relative peace and prosperity. As they grew up, they chafed at the older generation’s insistence on conformity and favored freedom and experimentation. Hence, the social unrest, drug use, and wildness of the hippie generation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the famed three-day music festival in the farmland of upstate New York. There have been all kinds of retrospectives on Woodstock and what it represented to the people who were there. Interestingly, my daughter has been captivated by Woodstock and has spent hours with my husband watching a PBS documentary on the subject. She even had a conversation with a family friend who was at Woodstock, and I’m sure in her mind she was comparing his experience with her own immersion in Lollapalooza a couple of weeks ago.

The friend explained that he and many of his friends had planned to meet at the festival, but that, in the days before cell phones, there was really no way to connect with them once he’d arrived at Woodstock. There were hundreds of thousands of people amassed on the Yasgurs’ farm. Security consisted of volunteers with no weapons at all simply trying to convince the crowds to be cool. When food ran out, people from nearby farms contributed produce, and festival-goers themselves prepared and served the masses.

Although it’s definitely not my cup of tea to attend a huge music festival, there was something magical about the way Woodstock unfolded. Many of the greatest musicians of all time performed there. The PBS documentary showed footage of Jimi Hendrix rocking “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed live for only their second time on the Woodstock stage. It was music history in the making.

It’s hard to describe to young people what it was like growing up in a different era. Mine was one less saturated with media and technology. My kids can scarcely believe that my husband and I would be out and about on our bikes all day long without any contact with our parents. Now if they don’t pick up their cell phone on the second ring, I immediately go to DEFCON 1!

I think it’s great that my 18-year-old daughter has become interested in the past, especially the recent past as experienced by her own parents. After all, we are not only creatures of the present but of the accumulated past, the men and women and events that came before us. And learning about that past is one way to bridge the inevitable gap that each generation experiences with the one before.

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Last First Day

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This morning my daughter rose before dawn to catch the sunrise over the football field at her high school. It’s her last first day of school – and ours. Senior Sunrise is one of the many traditions we will experience to mark this important milestone in my child’s life. Soon she will be starting a new chapter in college. And my husband and I will face a new future together as empty nesters.

For nearly 29 years, my identity has been wrapped up primarily in my role as a mother. From the moment my oldest child took her first breath, I have been holding mine. It’s scary, this parenthood stuff. Late night fevers, scrapes on the playground, friendship drama, homework crises, fears about what our teens are up to on the weekends. “No rest for the weary,” my husband would often quip as we sat up waiting for one of our children, the ticking clock reminding us that in time, all this shall pass.

But there has been infinitely more pleasure than pain in shepherding our four kids through childhood. Those first smiles, warm hugs, late nights cuddling an infant have given way to fun excursions, adult conversations and joy in their achievements. As my daughter leaves for her last first day of school, she is tall, confident, and strong. Like my other children, she has been given a foundation from which to grow and mature.

In less than an hour, my daughter will join her fellow members of the Class of 2020 as they head into their first period classes. It will be a year full of “lasts” for us, but I’m not sad – just looking forward to the vistas opening up before her and all of us as we head into our futures.

 

Beloved Author

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The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.

 

Summer Song

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A summer morning is the best time to hear the birds. High up in the trees, they tweet and trill and shriek their secret language while I walk along, out early to beat the August heat. Summer mornings in suburbia are quiet. Many of my neighbors are off on summer vacations. Kids sleep in, and parents enjoy the unaccustomed hush. The only other sounds I hear on my morning walk are the hiss of lawn sprinklers and the occasional whoosh of a car on asphalt.

The sounds of summer are pretty much the same ones I remember from my childhood. As the day gets going, lawnmowers roar, garbage trucks squeak by, and air conditioners hum. (Well, I guess some sounds are newer. No air conditioning in my childhood!) Kids come out and play, and their laughter and chatter can be heard on the breeze, as well as their splashing at the local public pool.

One of my favorite summer sounds is the rumble of thunder in the distance as heavy clouds roll in and a storm heads our way. Of course, I only enjoy these storms when I am safe inside with a good book. But when we lived in California, thunderstorms were one of the natural phenomena I missed most. They’re so fleeting, yet so dramatic.

As the sun goes down on a late summer day, the symphony takes to the trees once again. This time the sound is the pulsing whistle of hundreds of cicadas hidden in the upper reaches of our giant maples and elms. It’s so mysterious. You seldom actually see one of these hideous creatures other than the occasional cicada carcass that falls on the ground or the shell left behind as one grows. Yet they are undoubtedly there, singing and mating and enjoying their too-short lives.

By the time darkness falls, I am usually safely ensconced indoors, away from mosquitoes and their blood-sucking ways. Inside I’m surrounded by the sounds of modern life: the drone of TV voices, the hum of the fridge, the gentle clinks and sloshes inside the dishwasher, and nowadays the occasional ping of a smartphone receiving a text.

Tomorrow there will be the same nature songs to enjoy even as summer starts to wane and my daughter heads back to school.

Thinking about the sounds of summer reminds me of an old Chad and Jeremy number titled “Summer Song.” “They say that all good things must end some day,” sing the pop duo. So let’s enjoy them while we may.

America’s Forgotten War

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The front page of this morning’s Chicago Tribune reported the death of U.S. Army paratrooper Michael Isaiah Nance of Chicago. He was killed in combat in Afghanistan, a country whose war the United States has been active in for the past 18 years. (“‘The worst day in our family’s history’,” Chicago Tribune, August 1, 2019)

Americans have all but forgotten that our soldiers are fighting and dying in this protracted war on the other side of the world. A recent deployment of National Guardsmen to Afghanistan has reminded us. So, too, have the deaths of our young soldiers. More than 2,000 service members have died in Afghanistan since 2001. It’s time to rethink our involvement there.

When President George W. Bush ordered troops into Afghanistan on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, there was near unanimous support for military action against the heinous group of al Qaeda members hiding out in the mountains there. Justice for the lives of those lost in the cowardly attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania demanded it. And while al Qaeda still poses a terrorist threat, it has greatly diminished over the past couple of decades. Many of the masterminds of the 9/11 attack, including Osama bin Laden himself, have been captured or killed.

Afghanistan, unfortunately, is still a dangerous and unstable place. But history should teach us that it is also an unconquerable place. Just ask the former Soviet Union, whose bloody war there in the 1980s cost them 15,000 lives and caused massive displacement of the Afghani people. Ironically, the Muslim insurgents who bedeviled the USSR for nine years were supported militarily by the United States. Now we are engaged in a war against Muslim insurgents ourselves.

No matter the direction of U.S. policy, however, let us never forget the human cost of sending our loved ones into harm’s way. Twenty-four-year-old Isaiah Nance had wanted to join the Army for years before his mother finally relented and let him sign up. He was deployed to Afghanistan only a couple of weeks before being shot to death, possibly by an Afghan soldier. (Tribune, Aug. 1, 2019) Also killed was a 20-year-old Ohio soldier named Brandon Jay Kreischer. As Nance’s uncle put it, “It was the worst day in our family’s history.”

May their sacrifice be remembered and appreciated, and may their loved ones take comfort in the knowledge that they died for something they believed in.

 

 

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

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Donald Trump’s entire strategy for defending himself against any charges is to go on the offensive. Essentially, he lobs at his critics the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

In the past few weeks, the president has actually told U.S. citizens of color to go back where they came from. More recently, he decided to attack his critic Rep. Elijah Cummings by denouncing Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comment was akin to his description of certain African nations as “shithole countries.” The more blatantly racial Trump’s attacks become, the quicker he is to label his critics as racist or un-American.

And instead of calling on the president to refrain from such remarks, his apologists get into a dissection of the victims. First they analyzed and called into question every statement made by the four Congresswomen who were the subject of Trump’s vitriol: women of color, all of them U.S. citizens and only one of them born outside the U.S. And as pundits pointed out, even that naturalized citizen had been a U.S. citizen longer than Trump’s own wife, Melania.

In the case of Trump’s attack on Baltimore, Rep. Cummings’ home turf, pundits started in on the Democratic failures to solve endemic poverty in big cities. Again, all this serves as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that they support a small-minded racist.

The Trump strategy of counterattack is a brazen and shameless one. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence he obstructed justice in his attempt to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump has managed to turn the investigation against itself, demanding that U.S. justice and intelligence agencies be investigated for pro-Hillary/anti-Trump bias.

Aside from the fact that the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is the mark of a man with stunted emotional maturity, the repeated attempts on the right to distract the American people from legitimate concern and criticism of this president are disturbing and dangerous. It seems clear that the Republicans in power, their media mouthpieces, and Trump’s diehard base will ignore any level of impropriety, dishonesty, and meanness from this president.

It’s up to the rest of us to keep focused on what we see right in front of us: a divisive, mean-spirited, and narcissistic bully who must be called to account – in 2020, if not sooner.

Man on the Moon and Other Milestones

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In a person’s life, there are many memorable events: births, deaths, marriages, rites of passage, and historical events. One such event from my childhood was the sight of Neil Armstrong stepping out of a space module and landing on the moon with the famous words, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

It was July 20, 1969. My family was visiting my father’s brother and his brood of nine kids. We were clustered around a small television set in the living room, and although the summer day beckoned, we were riveted to our seats. Space travel was a feature of my early years. Ever since the USSR had beaten the US into space with Sputnik, we were in a Cold War competition to travel farther and dare more than our Communist foes.

Seeing footage of the moon landing, the flag planting, the gravity-defying leaps of the astronauts, the deep craters that from Earth looked like holes in Swiss cheese: it was awe-inspiring.

Other things about that summer of ’69 stand out for me. The Chicago Cubs were in a rare race for the National League pennant. In those days, you could go to the airport and watch planes land and take off just for fun – no boarding pass required. My dad used to take us on occasional Sunday afternoons to greet our heroic Cubs on their return from an away series. We got to see the greats up close: Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams, and, of course, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. On these trips my dad, still dressed in his Sunday suit and tie, was sometimes mistaken for a Cubs manager and once even asked for an autograph.

That magical season ended in a defeat at the hands of the New York Mets, a team I detest to this day for “stealing” the pennant from my beloved Cubbies. Still, I cherished the baseball cards I’d collected and reiterated in my head the lifelong Cubs mantra, “Wait ’til next year!”

We all have unique milestones in our lives such as those I recall from 1969. There was the Blizzard of ’67, for instance, when record snowfall paralyzed the city of Chicago. There were the riots in ’68 that occurred at the Democratic National Convention being held in Chicago. Later in my life I witnessed a rare sighting of Halley’s Comet, saw the Berlin Wall get torn down, and lived through the Y2K scare of the new millennium. Most of us alive today got to see the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama. And, of course, my consolation prize for the disaster of the 2016 election was the Cubs’ winning the World Series – after a 108 year drought!

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has created a renewed interest in space travel. There is even an entire line of gear with the old NASA logo to purchase. Still, there’s nothing like being able to say, “I was there.” I hope the newest generations of Americans get to witness some spectacular and inspiring events in their lifetimes.