Another America?

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When my son was in high school, he was with a friend who stole something from a local store. The friend was seen and apprehended by police in a calm and completely nonviolent manner.

I was thinking about this incident after the grand jury declined to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The main difference between the two incidents? My son and his friend are white, living in a predominantly white town, and Michael Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were black and lived in predominantly black Ferguson.

It made me wonder. Are there two Americas, one for whites and one for minorities?

I am grateful that my son’s friend was not physically harmed. But in another America, an 18-year-old boy is dead.

Some will say there is no comparison between the lily white enclave where we reside and the streets of Ferguson. They will say the shooting was not racially motivated, but justified by the threatening nature of the suspect.

If so, then explain to me why my own sister knows black parents – residents of a quiet, racially mixed suburb of Chicago – who are  afraid for their sons. When asked, these African-American parents unanimously said the biggest fear they have is that their sons will be stopped by the police.

My son and his friend were able to learn from a youthful indiscretion. They have grown up safe and secure in a privileged position due mainly to the color of their skin.

But in that other America, the Brown family is mourning the death of their son. Michael Brown was denied the due process that was his right as an American citizen, and now his family is being denied justice in the death of their son.

 

 

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A Nation of Immigrants

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As the public debate rages on what to do about U.S. immigration policy, we would do well to remember the strength of a nation built by immigrants. Most of us have stories of our ancestors coming to America from Europe, Asia, the Middle East. Even the Daughters of the American Revolution had ancestors who came over on a boat – the Mayflower. And although Native Americans might claim to be the original inhabitants, they most likely have distant ancestors who originally hailed from the land mass now known as Asia.

Together these immigrants created the country in which we now live. Immigrants farmed the land, built railroads, populated factories, and brought new ideas, cuisine, and culture to America. Each successive wave of immigrants faced hardship and often discrimination. Americans felt threatened by their presence and their differences.

I have met many foreign-born Americans who are underemployed. They were doctors, professors, or engineers in their home country but are unable to practice these professions in America. I also know hard-working laborers from poor countries who moved thousands of miles from home for the chance to put food on the table for their families.

As the public debates immigration policy, they need to realize that immigrants are not a threat to their livelihoods or safety – at least not any more than many American-born citizens are.

My own children are first-generation Americans on their father’s side. Yes, my husband was processed through Ellis Island in the 1950s. By dint of hard work and sheer will, he and his family were able to rise up and become productive members of the middle class.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – Emma Lazarus

These words should not just be a sentimental quote on the Statue of Liberty. They represent what is best in the American spirit and the human soul. May they inspire us to fashion an immigration policy that is sensible, yet humane.

Sweat the Small Stuff

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We’ve all heard the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I take it to mean that we should not get ourselves into a tizzy over every little problem that arises in our lives. And it is generally good advice. However, there are areas of life in which it’s beneficial to worry about the little things.

A popular notion in law enforcement is the “broken window theory.” This theory asserts that small instances of law-breaking or disorder, such as a single broken windowpane in a building, encourage more lawlessness. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani used the broken window theory as the cornerstone of his  law and order policy, and the results were a steep decline in crime along with an improvement in the quality of life in public spaces.

Although there is some controversy over whether Giuliani’s emphasis on cleaning up the city and enforcing the law on minor issues was responsible for the drop in crime, there were some studies that confirmed the connection between order and crime prevention.

And it makes intuitive sense to me. As a former teacher, I know that if I acted swiftly to quell minor disruptions in my classroom, negative behavior would be less likely to escalate. The expression “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile” certainly holds true with people’s behavior.

There is also the matter of incremental increases in bad behavior. A small white lie, cheating in a game, taking something small or insignificant that doesn’t belong to you – all these behaviors can make a person feel more comfortable committing more serious offenses over time.

My parents were scrupulously honest. They would never accept too much change back from a cashier, use an item and then return it to the store, fudge on their taxes, or – heaven forbid – steal something outright. Once my mother and a few of us kids were shopping at a department store, and my mother got distracted. She walked out into the parking lot with some clothing draped over her arm that she had forgotten she was carrying. Of course she marched right back into the store with the merchandise and gave it to an incredulous store clerk. I learned at an early age that there is no such thing as a small offense.

By the same token, there is no such thing as too small a gesture.  All the smiles, polite “please”s and “thank you”s, holding open of doors, and friendly “hello”s we bestow on others can have a profound effect on the people around us. As the holidays approach and the pressures mount to get our holiday errands done, there is no greater gift you can give someone than to be gracious and friendly in your day-to-day dealings.

If we focus on the positive “small stuff” in life, we won’t have to “sweat” the bad so much.

Morning Rush

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Last night I had the foresight to prep the coffeemaker before I went to bed. So a touch of the button was all it needed to perk up and start brewing that black gold, that elixir of life. The outdoor temperature read 11 degrees when I got up at 6:30 this morning. Brrrr. What a good day to stay inside and read a good book. Instead, it was time for the morning rush.

For me, the morning rush is a carefully orchestrated symphony of movements – from making breakfasts; to trotting upstairs and down multiple times as my family’s live, personal alarm clock; to getting lunches made and packed – with sips of life-saving coffee in between. There is no time for wasted actions or human error.

Which is why the Monday morning rush can be so filled with angst. I decided to take pity on my bus-riding daughter this morning and give her a ride to school. This is problematic, however, as she and her brother need to be at different schools within fifteen minutes of each other.

Now, my daughter has two speeds, lounging and relaxing. Getting her to move quickly in the morning involves a lot of threats and shouting on my part. This morning, of course, we had the crisis of the printer that would not print her paper. This involved a lot of shouting on her part. By the time we were ensconced in the car and moving toward school, we were both on edge.

A sane person under these circumstances would be silent and nonconfrontational. I, however, chose to spend the drive haranguing my child about her lateness and chronic inability to be prepared for school the night before. She, of course, replied, “Why don’t you just kill me?!” (Oh boy, the temptation)

Back at home, my teenage son was waiting for the motherly chauffeur to get him off to school. In contrast to the bitter words between my daughter and me, my son and I did not speak at all on the ride. After battling the insane traffic around the school, I finally pulled into my garage and just sat in my car, enjoying the peace and quiet.

The morning rush is not quite over, though. There is still a husband to get to the train, and God forbid that we should leave ourselves a few extra minutes to get across the train tracks. I once told my husband as we frantically pulled up to the station, “This is the most stressful part of my day!”  His reply was that I had a pretty nice life if the most stressful part of my day was over by 8:30.

Indeed. At least until the after school crunch!

Be Thankful – for Christmas

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Almost as common as the sight of store Christmas displays these days are the complaints about how retailers are rushing the season, how Thanksgiving is given short shrift, and how we should all slow down and enjoy the seasons as they unfold.

I agree with some of these sentiments, and I am especially appalled at how many stores and other businesses are open on Thanksgiving. I do believe that this least commercialized holiday of the year needs to be appreciated fully by all Americans.

I also find it a bit jarring when I go to the store and find Christmas decorations and candy going up right next to the Halloween clearance items. But I have to admit that it’s not all bad to get a jump on Christmas preparation. I myself have started my shopping in earnest as December 25 approaches, however distantly.

You see, I like to enjoy the Christmas holiday season. From the very first day of Advent, when we open the first window on our Advent calendar, I want to be in the sometimes festive, sometimes reflective mood of this waiting time leading up to Christmas. And getting prepared way in advance helps this along.

There is nothing so spirit-crushing as battling the last minute crowds at shopping malls or searching in vain for an extra string of Christmas tree lights in late December. Each day after Black Friday is one day closer to frenzy and mayhem as people ramp up their preparations for the biggest holiday of the year.

So as I make my shopping lists and start checking holiday items off my list in November, I feel a sense of joyful anticipation for all the fun I am going to have once Christmas is actually near. While others are out getting those last minute gifts or pints of egg nog, I will be in my kitchen listening to Christmas Sing Along With Mitch Miller and baking Christmas cookies with my kids.

I’m sure I won’t get everything done in time to avoid the lines and chaos completely. There is always the one gift that is hard to find or the person I inadvertently left off my list. But I will be able to approach these last minute errands with real Christmas cheer and a hot peppermint mocha, knowing that I had the foresight to plan ahead and get the lion’s share of my tasks completed long before I get sick of hearing Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

So I say get out there, and get started. Pace yourself, and enjoy the holiday season.

Snow Job

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I was visiting family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this past weekend when I learned that the first major snowstorm of the season was headed for the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis, there are two seasons: snow and no snow. So this news came as a warning to Minnesotans that they should bid a fond farewell to their grass and ground cover until next spring.

The snowstorm news also felt apropos as I sat in a movie theater watching Force Majeure, a movie set in the French Alps that features a life-changing avalanche. But Force Majeure is no traditional action thriller. A winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Force Majeure is instead a devastating closeup of a damaged marriage.

In the movie, rather than burying people, the avalanche serves to unearth the discontents of a wealthy Swedish family trying to enjoy a holiday together. It brings up issues of gender roles, freedom and responsibility, and moral values. After the incident, the couple grapples with their shame, disappointment, and fear for the emotional safety of their children.

The term “force majeure” is a legal concept whereby the obligations of both parties to a contract are nullified by, among other things, “acts of God.” In the film, one party temporarily abnegates responsibility in the event of the avalanche.

The snow in Force Majeure is almost another character. The forbidding walls of white loom over the little ski village where the family is staying. Rather than creating a feel of wonder, the Alps possess a smothering claustrophobia that deepens the viewer’s discomfort and even dread.

I have seen reviews of Force Majeure that refer to it as a comedy. True, there are some very funny moments. But the main thrust of the film is dark and serious. I recalled the early years in my own marriage, when the bloom was off the rose and we grappled with our real limitations as partners, parents, and people.

Here in Chicago we are dodging this first big snowstorm of the impending winter. Still, in the oft-quoted line from Game of Thrones, it is all too clear that “winter is coming.”

Since the weather outside is turning frightful, I highly recommend curling up inside and watching a good movie like Force Majeure.

Sacred Cows

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This afternoon I was listening to an old Beatles’ song and thinking about sacred cows. It wasn’t because in their later years, some members of the band subscribed to Eastern mysticism. It was because I tried to imagine anyone having the audacity to claim that another rock artist or band was better than the Beatles.

The Beatles are like sacred cows – those ubiquitous cattle that can be seen roaming the streets in India because they are not allowed to become Big Macs. There are quite a few people in arts and entertainment that seem to be equally immune to attack. Some that come to mind are Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen. No matter what they do, they are presumed to be brilliant even before their work comes out.

And it goes without saying that an actor who died tragically and suddenly is a sacred cow. It just seems like bad form to give a negative review to the work of a Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman, especially if it airs posthumously.

In the political sphere, there are many sacred cows. Former presidents, for example, largely get a pass or are even viewed more glowingly than when they were in office. For instance, I have only heard one critic have the nerve to speak ill of Ronald Reagan since he left office and most especially since he passed away.

That critic, Bill Maher, has made a career out of attacking sacred cows in the political sphere. Other political sacred cows that Maher has had in his crosshairs include religion and the military. But Maher’s outspokenness has come at a price. He was fired from his breakout series “Politically Incorrect” after his comments regarding 9/11 outraged viewers.

Herein lies the problem with sacred cows. It is a threat to free speech to in essence declare certain subjects off limits to criticism. A robust democracy needs to allow for open discourse about all subjects, no matter how contentious. And it’s wrong to accuse people of being unpatriotic because they criticize these hallowed aspects of American society.

So I reserve the right to voice my belief that Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson always just act like themselves in movies; to opine that “Midnight in Paris” is one of the worst movies I have ever seen; and to come out against abuse of power and injustice no matter where they may come from.

But let’s face it. The Beatles are the best rock band ever.