Maybe We Know Too Much

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The world sure seems to be a scary place. In the news this week I’ve read about 13-year-olds shooting 10-year-olds, police officers being shot, an increase in sexual assaults reported in the military, a Chicago cathedral being robbed, another news luminary being accused of sexual harassment, and the fact that security at the local mall has been scanning my license plate when I park there. Last week a horrific accident on a Southwest Airlines flight caused the death of a woman and served to terrify the countless Americans who are already afraid of flying. Americans recently learned about a deranged man shooting up a Waffle House in Tennessee and a different killer driving his van into a crowd in Toronto, Canada.

Not only is the steady stream of bad news demoralizing, but it gives us a skewed impression of the risks we face in daily life. As much as I’m appalled by gun violence and want to see common sense gun legislation enacted, the vast majority of Americans are much more likely to die in a car accident or from heart disease than by being shot. The statistics are worse for children, however, in that gun violence is now the third leading cause of death in America. Nevertheless, children also are more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident, and yet how many people take pause before strapping their kids in and taking off in a car?

As scared as we all are of terrorism, the individual risk of being killed by a terrorist in America is statistically insignificant. The same is true of airplane fatalities. Yet we obsess about such fears while downing our Big Mac, fries, and large Coke, despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America.

The internet and social media have only made this problem worse. In the past, a person would hear or read about news of national significance and possibly incidents in their own city or town. But nowadays we see articles about crimes and mishaps all across the country and even the world, despite the fact that those incidents are unlikely to have much impact upon our lives – except to scare us.

One of my favorite movies as a child was The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart. It was a thriller about an ordinary family who unwittingly witness an assassination, which puts their lives in peril. Well, I feel like the woman who knows too much, and it’s stressing me out. No doubt the stress will kill me and not the horrifying events I’m unfortunately privy to on a daily basis.

 

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Spring Has Sprung

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The birds are back! This morning I awoke to the merry sounds of chirping outside my bedroom window. Outside the kitchen window, robins were industriously searching for insects. In fact, I’ve been seeing robins everywhere. Those harbingers of spring have come out in full force as if to say, “It’s finally here!”

In front and back yards all over town, magnolias and daffodils are blossoming. I’m seeing the ubiquitous yard maintenance trucks on the village streets and hearing the sounds of mowers and blowers as gardens get back in shape. And that elusive star, the Sun, is making ever more frequent appearances.

It has been a long time coming. Just the other day, my brother-in-law from Minnesota was showing me a picture of his snow-covered yard and bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t been able to remove the thousands of Christmas lights from his trees. Meteorologists are saying that the widespread snow cover over portions of the Midwest may mean a cool spring and early summer.

My husband and I have spent the last two months huddled under blankets and wearing a full complement of winter gear as we’ve watched our daughter’s high school soccer team play at windy, cold stadiums across suburban Chicago. I’ve never been to a Chicago Bears game, but I feel as if I now know what it’s like to weather a late winter game at Soldier Field.

But the change in the weather and the signs of spring make me hopeful. I’ve resumed my walks outside with a spring in my step. I’m getting the sprinklers ready for spring planting and the air conditioner ready for warmer temps. With any luck, I will be able to sit out at a high school soccer game in my shirtsleeves.

Spring has truly sprung, and I plan to make the most of it.

B.F.F.

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It’s my best friend’s birthday today. (No, my best friend was not Adolph Hitler although my kids do think we were contemporaries.)

I met my best friend at the beginning of eighth grade. I was a small, insecure teenage girl who was new to town and the intimidating junior high in which I found myself. She was tall and blond with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile. Finding ourselves in every single class that eighth grade year, we became fast friends.

Over the years we shared secret crushes, had numerous sleepovers, and spent many of our high school weekends inexplicably dressed in 50s costumes. I was from a family of 13 while she had only her mom, dad, and one brother. We spent many hours in her quiet house, where she annihilated me at the game Stratego.

We stayed friends through college, rooming together freshman year. Our only real arguments were over what music to play on her record player. She favored Aerosmith and Peter Frampton while I enjoyed Elton John and Linda Ronstadt. And even though we pledged different sororities, we still managed to keep in touch.

We have had one major falling out over these past several decades. When we were in our mid-twenties, she became involved in a romantic relationship, and I felt left out of her life. Out of spite, I failed to inform her when my path took me on a move out of state. I’m still ashamed of being so unkind. But true to form, my best friend forgave me, and we reconnected. She even went so far as to visit me during my short sojourn in Florida in the mid-80s.

My best friend has stood up at my wedding, and we have traded photos and stories of our children and our married lives. Time and distance haven’t really changed much about how we relate to each other and how easy it is to be in each other’s presence. At our 40-year high school reunion a couple of years ago, it was almost as if we were still roaming the halls together and gossiping about boys.

So happy birthday to my best friend! You know who you are. I predict that we truly will remain Best Friends Forever.

 

 

No Comment

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I have been avoiding the comment section of Facebook posts lately. Other than wishing my friends a happy birthday or anniversary, or sending a complimentary word about a family photo, I have tried to stay out of the fray of these comment threads – especially political ones.

First of all, I doubt that my arguments with other Face-bookers will change their minds. Whether the subject is Donald Trump, gun violence, sexual harassment or racism, people have their strongly-held beliefs, and I’m just not going to change them. Worse, arguments on Facebook often lead to ill will. Without the social filter of physical proximity to the person with whom we are arguing, we tend to get more strident and offensive.

I’m also trying to eschew online comments because they are bad for my own mental health. Every time I enter the fray of a heated argument on Facebook, my blood pressure starts to rise at some of the responses I get. The only way to calm myself down is to refer to the point above and realize that my righteous indignation will change nothing.

Still, it’s very hard for me to refrain from offering my opinions. I grew up in a very argumentative household where it was almost a badge of honor to shout the loudest and make one’s judgments heard. Yes, family dinners did often give my poor mother a headache.

Also, I like to think of myself as a maven. I fancy myself in possession of lots of knowledge and wisdom, and I just know others would benefit from my sharing it. Well, in the context of Facebook or other social media, not so much.

So I will continue to work on repressing the need to comment on Facebook posts while still being my friends’ online cheerleaders. It won’t be easy, though. I shudder to think what would happen if I got an account on Twitter.

The Cruelest Month

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It has been a long, cold, depressing winter with no real end in sight. As I write this, a blizzard is burying Minnesota in snow while here in Chicagoland, we have been subjected to yet another gray, rainy and miserable day.

All this winter has caused a certain lethargy in me. My energy level is low, and the ideas that usually teem in my brain have slowed to a trickle. I realized today that the bad weather has kept me inside too much. Not being able to take my walks outside has seriously hampered my ability to think and dream.

It is known that physical activity enhances mental performance. So a brisk walk in nature has always been my prescription for writer’s block. Lately, I just feel physically and mentally lazy. It’s hard to get motivated when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind and rain pelt the windows. So I’ve been spending my free time doing crossword puzzles and watching TV, eating carbs and getting sleepy. I feel like a bear in its den surfacing briefly, only to find that it’s not time to come out of hibernation yet.

The daffodils in my front yard have just started to send green stems shooting up from the soil. They look too petrified to open and bloom. There are no leaves – or even buds – on the trees outside my window. I long for inspiration, but all I feel is a dreary heaviness of mind and body.

By now we Midwesterners should be able to expect some light and warmth, some signs of growth in our environment. Instead, April so far has been one very unfunny Fool’s joke.

 

In Praise of Moderation

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America is a nation of extremes. Either we are subsisting on grass and twigs with the Paleo diet, or we are Supersizing our fast food hamburgers and fries. We can’t just use our phones to stay in touch with each other. We have to have them in our hands constantly to check email or go on social media. And watching a television show or two won’t do. We have to binge watch an entire series in one sitting.

Nowhere is our penchant for extremes more obvious – and potentially more dangerous – than in our politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been skewing far to the left and right respectively in the past several years. The Tea Party movement on the right has pushed candidates with views that go way beyond traditional conservative beliefs about limited government. Tax cuts at all costs seems to be the new Republican mantra, regardless of how severely they will impact the national debt. And the election of Donald Trump shows a disturbing trend on the right to vilify immigrants and minorities, roll back environmental protections, and normalize the white nationalist movement.

On the Democratic side, we see the popularity of socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders and such idealistic but impractical agendas as providing free college for all Americans. And while I personally favor a single-payer health care system such as the ones found in most Western European nations, the hue and cry over the baby steps of Obamacare shows that the country is not ready for quite that massive of an overhaul. I believe that Sanders supporters’ refusal to get behind Hillary Clinton in the presidential election was in part responsible for the election of Trump.

The political polarization is being fed and magnified by social media algorithms and the various websites that have sprung up pushing extreme agendas and often fake news. There is no more talking or meeting of minds. We are simply shouting at each other, and our political leaders are, for the most part, perpetuating the great divide we have between the left and the right.

There needs to be a new movement: not the Tea Party nor the Coffee Party. Let’s call it the Milk Party. Milk is a little bland and unexciting, but it’s also wholesome and nutritious. It builds strong bones and teeth. Likewise, we need our leaders to come together and work with each other. Compromise is not a bad word. As Sheriff Hopper explains to Eleven in Stranger Things, it means “halfway happy.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be halfway happy than completely miserable.

After the recent tax bill passed, legislators admitted that they had not even read it. And already the U.S. Treasury Department is being deluged with complaints about ambiguous language and unintended consequences of the new law. We are paying our government leaders well. I think we deserve better than the dysfunction in Washington, which, contrary to the intentions of the Tea Party, has grown worse.

In short, we need the moderates to stop hiding or being co-opted by the extreme right and left. We need the leaders in the sensible shoes and serviceable haircuts to step forward and lay claim to being the voices of reason in the insanity that has grown up around politics in America.

As in most areas of life – including our diet, exercise, religious practices, child-rearing, and the like – moderation in politics may be the key to saving our democracy.

Who Needs Hell?

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The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.