Big Brother: Presidential Edition

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reality_tv_collageBased upon the most recent presidential election, it’s clear to me that the American electorate needs more entertainment value in its politics. Therefore, I propose we run future elections like a reality TV contest.

We could, for instance, model our presidential race on the granddaddy of all reality shows, Survivor. Democrats and Republicans could form two tribes of presidential hopefuls who would be forced to compete on a remote island wearing nothing but loincloth, eating gross food, and completing arduous tasks until the fittest survived.

The refreshing part of a Survivor– style competition would be that all the political machinations and back- stabbing would be in the open for a change.

Or maybe the campaign could be run like The Amazing Race. Here we’d have pairs of candidates running around the country completing challenges such as stomaching the horrible food at various state fairs and pretending to love it. (Actually, this is pretty much what our current candidates do.)

The first pair on The Amazing Presidential Race to get to the winning destination would become our next President  and Vice President.

But I think the most entertaining way to choose a president would be to subject them to a Bachelor/Bachelorette type of contest. Each week we would select random citizens to be wooed in hot tubs by the scantily clad presidential hopefuls. Each week an unlucky candidate would get a rose and be unceremoniously shown the door.

We might not get a smart or capable president, but at least we’d get some eye candy to cheer us up.

So who’s with me? Is it time to give up the idea that a sober, thoughtful, and qualified individual is the best choice to be leader of the free world? Hasn’t the U.S. electorate shown itself to be more interested in a person of the caliber to be seen on The Real World?

At this point I’d settle for a contest resembling the old game show To Tell the Truth. 

The New Republicans: Pitbulls in Lipstick

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I haven’t missed Sarah Palin. Seeing her on TV news today in response to word that her former running mate John McCain has brain cancer was an unwelcome reminder of her existence.

As I listened to her speak, I was reminded of her coarseness, her lack of knowledge, and her family drama that rivals anything seen in an episode of Jerry Springer. And it hit me: Sarah Palin helped usher in the era of politics as reality TV.

Her famous comment about hockey moms as “pit bulls in lipstick” was eaten up by a certain segment of the American electorate, and the Republican Party took note.

Of course, we have seen an intertwining of politics and entertainment in the past. Our rash of “celebrity” governors – Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger – has contributed to the idea that one need not have stellar credentials to be elected to high office.

And the entertainment-oriented nature of the news media has not helped. It was a sad state of affairs when a comedy show, The Daily Show, was considered by many to be a better source of news than any of the network or cable news programs. Daily Show host Jon Stewart was even encouraged to run for office.

But the Trump campaign took politics to a completely new – and unfortunately low – level. He initially sparked interest because of his larger than life persona and celebrity due to the reality show The Apprentice. Once news outlets saw how crowds were eating up his crude and outrageous statements, they started covering Trump’s campaign slavishly.

It is depressing to me that a sizable number of Americans were willing to elect as president a reality show star with no political experience and questionable business dealings who routinely puts down women, immigrants, war heroes, and the disabled. Yet a recent report indicates that despite all the apparent conflicts of interest, possible collusion with the Russian government, and a petty penchant for tweeting insults and threats to those who oppose him, Donald Trump’s fans continue to support him and to delight in his boorish behavior.

This is not simply the dumbing down of American politics but the lowering of standards of acceptable behavior for no less than the President of the United States.

Far from making America great again, our 45th president is managing to make America mean.

 

 

 

 

Keep the Change

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IMG_1357When my husband and I got married, I had a small nest egg and he had no savings at all. What’s odd about this is that I was a school teacher and he was an attorney. Until he married me, he had no concept of saving for a rainy day. Now he is even more frugal than I am.

Common wisdom says that you should never go into a marriage thinking you will change a person. Certainly it was not my overt intent to “fix” my husband. But over time, we have each taken on some useful and positive traits of each other. Indeed, it is possible and even likely for people to change throughout their lives.

Although there is a popular conception that our personalities are fixed, evidence shows that people can and do change based on their circumstances and sometimes the sheer force of their will. The work of behavioral psychologist Walter Mischel, for example, showed the importance of physical, social, and environmental forces in shaping behavior.

My own life experience bears out the idea that people’s personalities can change over time. When I was young, I was terribly shy to the point of seeming aloof. That perceived aloofness kept others from approaching me, leaving me even more lonely and reticent in social situations. When I became a teacher, though, I was forced to lose some of that timidity in order to thrive in the classroom. Over time, this more outgoing manner extended outside of the classroom and into my personal life.

The idea that people can change has important implications. For instance, believing convicted criminals can change will affect attempts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society. In families, we can hope for and be open to positive change in our loved ones.

Yet psychologists have also found that experiences in early childhood can be indelibly imprinted upon an individual. Researchers studying the phenomenon of synesthesia, wherein people see letters as having colors, found that the exact color for each letter was remarkably consistent from subject to subject. They discovered that the colors corresponded exactly to the colors of Fisher-Price magnetic letters many people had as young children.

In my own life, I have often felt that the loss of my mother at 13 months of age has given me an almost unshakable fear of abandonment. I also recall listening to an interview with the mother of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.  Kaczynski became a loner who lived in the woods and sent bombs through the mail to people he had grown to despise. His mother said that Ted became very ill as a baby and was hospitalized. His mother was not allowed to stay with him in the hospital. After Ted was released, she said, he was never the same happy baby he had been.

It gives me hope to believe that people can change. While we may struggle with childhood wounds or develop destructive patterns of behavior, we can become better, more functional, and happier people. That’s change I’d like to keep.

(Information in this post comes from NPR podcast Invisibilia.)

‘Til We Meet Again

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IMG_1148My husband’s beloved aunt passed away the other day. Although her death was not unexpected (She had fought a valiant battle against cancer.), it nevertheless has been a shattering blow to her loved ones.

Auntie Sue was a beautiful, happy, gentle woman all her life despite the heartache of losing a child and the untimely death of her husband. She remained extremely close to her children throughout her life and was a constant presence in the lives of her grandchildren.

I myself was the recipient of many kisses, warm words, and love from this woman that I came to consider my aunt as well. I remember when my first child was just a baby, Auntie Sue urged me to hurry up and have another one. From someone else I would have considered this interfering. But Auntie Sue had such a sweetness about her, I could only smile.

Towards the end of her life. Auntie Sue endured much suffering. But she still embraced her life and her family with arms wide open. I honestly can’t even picture her without a smile on her face.

Her suffering is over now, and I have no doubt she is being held in God’s warm embrace. Still, those who love her now abide with a heavy heart.

Although we will miss her warm smile and generous heart, we who love Auntie Sue must commend her spirit to God and keep her memory alive in our hearts until we meet again in God’s heavenly kingdom.

 

What Makes a Family? Love

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(photo courtesy of Gift of Adoption Fund)

The gift-wrapped package looked like it contained a pair of shoes. Teenaged Lauren watched while a special man in her life, Joe, opened her gift. Joe is not her biological father but has cared for her like one since she was a tiny girl. Inside the box were adoption papers. In a twist on the marriage proposal, Lauren was asking Joe, “Will you be my adopted father?” Of course, Joe and Lauren collapsed in tears and hugs. They recognized a simple fact. Being a family is not about blood ties.

Fourteen years ago on a hot July day in Hefei, China, my husband and I adopted our beloved fourth child, a daughter. We brought her home to her sister and two brothers on the other side of the world. The first weeks were rocky. She had her days and nights mixed up and would regularly awaken my daughter, with whom she was sharing a room. Invariably in the morning,  I would find my oldest child in a sleeping bag on the living room floor where she had decamped to escape the crying. Our new baby was also afraid of our boys and, to a lesser extent, her new dad. We reasoned that this was because in the orphanage where she had spent the first 11 months of her life, there were no males.

Before long, though, she was understanding us, laughing, playing, and walking. Her sister doted on her, and her brothers could make her laugh like no one else. Each afternoon after I had dropped my son off at preschool, I would take her to Panera Bread, where we would share a bowl of soup. Occasionally, we would have to suffer an ignorant or obnoxious question about her being adopted and whether she was really ours. Mostly, though, she just fit into the life of our family and became one of us. When I now look at my 15-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever having lived without her.

The adoption journey is not without its struggles. Sometimes unknown physical or emotional issues come to light. Some adoptees have identity crises or feelings of abandonment. The adoption process is anything but simple itself. Between the home studies and paperwork and waiting, it took us two full years to adopt our daughter. And the cost of adoption can be prohibitive.

Here in my hometown of Chicago, an adoptive couple in the north suburbs started a nonprofit to help families defray the many costs of adoption, particularly overseas adoptions, which require all kinds of fees as well as travel expenses. Gift of Adoption Fund has helped countless families grow through financial assistance that prioritizes families adopting children in the most urgent cases, such as those in foster care or with special needs. (Gift of Adoption Fund is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.)

Families come to be in so many different ways. Just as Lauren learned over the years that Joe was in every meaningful sense her true father, we have learned that what makes a family is the love and commitment to care for each other and to be there no matter what.

Ike Is a Highway

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obama+i55The news that the State of Illinois just designated a stretch of Interstate 55 the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway could not be more timely. Having returned from a recent trip to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I was musing on the ways in which residents of different cities refer to their expressways.

Twin Cities denizens are logical and matter of fact. They refer to their highways by number: 94, 394, 494, 694 etc. Outside of Highway 35, which is a north/south route that branches off into an East side road and a West side road, such references make it easy for the out-of-towner to get around without confusion.

Out in Los Angeles, where I lived for a number of years, residents also use numbers to refer to their expressways, even though many of the highways have names, such as the Santa Monica Freeway and the San Diego Freeway. The twist is that for some reason, Angelenos like to put a “the” in front of the highway number. So it’s the 10, the 405, the 5, and so on. The only major road known by its name more than its number is Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, known to locals as the PCH.

Here in the Chicago area, we like to call our expressways by name. I-290 is the Eisenhower, I-55 the Stevenson, I-294 the Tri-State. I-94 is variously called the Dan Ryan or the Edens, depending upon what part of the city it is headed toward.  I-90 changes its name from the Kennedy Expressway to the Rockford (or Jane Addams, if you prefer) Tollway as it heads northwest away from the airport. As you might imagine, this can make things a bit confusing for people from out of town. To make matters worse, we’ve nicknamed the Eisenhower Expressway “the Ike,” so a newcomer listening to a traffic report of congestion on the Ike might have no idea what road is being referenced.

The only interstate that is consistently referred to by number and not name is 88, the Reagan Memorial Tollway. (I have my theories as to why that might be.)

I like to think it’s our friendly folksiness that makes Chicagoans so chummy with our roadways that we like to call them by name. On the downside, the gridlock faced by commuters on most of these roadways can give the historical figures for which they are named a bad rap. Let’s just say that in Chicago, I don’t like Ike.

It might not be fun driving in heavy traffic down the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway through Springfield. But it will be entertaining to start hearing the radio news choppers reporting, “Traffic is heavy on the outbound Obama” or “A crash has shut down two lanes of the Obama.” Who knows? Maybe before too long we’ll be calling it “the Barry.”

America the Beautiful

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At Sunday Mass, our closing hymn was “America the Beautiful.” It is by far my favorite patriotic song, and like many people, I think it should be our national anthem.

As we sang the familiar hymn, I really paid attention to the words in the song, and some of them particularly struck me in light of our current political climate.

“God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” We Americans certainly have our share of these. Yet we look to our system of government to right every wrong, address every injustice. It’s a lot for our Constitution to live up to. Americans on both sides of the political aisle disagree as to what those fundamental rights, freedoms, and privileges should look like. The song goes on, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,/Thy liberty in law.” Americans everywhere would do well to remember the limits we impose upon ourselves in the name of decency and respect for others.

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,/Who more than self their country loved,/And mercy more than life!” Most Americans cherish the self-sacrifice that members of our Armed Forces make to protect us and keep us free. What jumps out at me in the lyrics above is the value placed on mercy. We are a tough, individualistic culture. We value hard work and self-determination. But sometimes we forget to have compassion for those less fortunate. We fail to understand that even in America, everyone does not have equal access to the American Dream.

“O Beautiful for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years.” Unfortunately, living for tomorrow is not our strong suit in America. We look for instant gratification, get rich quick schemes, and creature comforts for now. We seek the easiest path without looking at the long-term consequences. This is especially apparent in the way we approach environmental issues. Our leaders would do well to “see beyond the years” when forming public policy. As Americans, we can forgo some present pleasures for future security.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea.” There is so much packed into this iconic line. Our concern for our fellow human beings is not what it should be and what we as a nation have been known for in the past. I think about the government of France reaching across the ocean with the beautiful gift of the Statue of Liberty, as a token of its admiration for American heart and generosity. But here within our borders, there are hatred and prejudice, selfishness and greed. Our sense of brother (and sister) hood is lacking.

The words “from sea to shining sea” struck me with special resonance after this last presidential election. There was so much pitting of urban elites against ordinary rural citizens, liberals on the coasts against seemingly more humble Middle Americans.  The fact is that our American values apply to all of us, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, rural, urban, suburban, black, white, brown – the list is endless.

This week as we bask in our Independence, let’s take to heart the words of the song and work to make this truly America, the beautiful.