The 100 Days

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Whew! By tomorrow we will have made it through Donald Trump’s first hundred days and in all honesty very little has happened one way or another, which is what I predicted all along and probably is for the best. Washington is far more complex than the analysis that President Trump made of it during his campaign. He’s gone through the big buzzsaw known as separation of powers and I suspect that he is somewhat surprised by his own inability to remake the government in only a matter of weeks. Just getting his cabinet approved was quite an ordeal and it seems that one of his original picks who was forced to leave rather quickly is in a heap of trouble. I truly wonder if Trump has had one of those “be careful what you wish for” realizations or if he would just as soon be back in Trump Tower enjoying the good life as a private citizen. He hasn’t exactly been welcomed to town with open arms by either Democrats or the media. It must feel very lonely at the top, but in the spirit of giving the man a chance I have a few suggestions which I am rather certain he will ignore, but here goes anyway.

It’s way past time to continue speaking of the election. Everybody has moved on and you need to as well, Mr. President. It’s obvious that Elizabeth Warren is already gearing up for a run in 2020. For that matter so are Cory Booker and Julian Castro. The Democrats smell blood and they will not back down. It’s time for you to concentrate solely on achieving some of your objectives but be ready for a big fight because not even your own Republicans are all in for you. Perhaps it’s time for you to learn the art of the deal in Washington. A bit of compromise might go a long way and I can tell that you are already rethinking a number of your big plans like that silly wall that so many appear to like. It’s actually a good sign that you may be beginning to realize that it was a mistake to be so wed to such a foolish idea. Maybe there is hope after all.

The whole Obamacare deal is a fiasco, and I must admit that I somewhat agree with you that it was inevitable even if you and the Republicans had done absolutely nothing. Now for the sake of the country it’s time for you, the members of your party and even the Democrats to figure this thing out lest our entire healthcare system collapse. A little give and take here and there is in order along with a very honest analysis of what it is going to take to keep the majority of folks happy without raising the costs to untenable levels. If you make a misstep on this I predict that it will be your undoing and don’t think that you can just foist all of the blame onto Speaker Ryan or the Democrats. You need to man up and take responsibility, something that I suspect is very hard for you.

I actually like your pick for the Supreme Court. While I don’t agree with all of Justice Gorsuch’s political beliefs I think that he is a fine and honest man in the vein of Justice Roberts. I believe that he will rule for the good of the country and in support of the Constitution without deference to certain political points of view. He doesn’t worry me. Now consider finding more decent men like him to help you run the government. (That’s a broad hint to rid yourself of Steve Bannon who in the end will lead to your demise. Just thank him for his help in your campaign and send him on his way. He serves no purpose anymore.)

I think that you could have done way better for Secretary of Education than Betsy Devos. She knows little or nothing about the vast system of public education in this country. When you get a chance you should replace her with someone who has a better grasp of the situation. She is a distraction and will do more harm than good. Surely there is someone with better qualifications.

I have mostly avoided political discussions on Facebook or Twitter for quite some time now. It is a very freeing experience. I suggest that you try it. Refrain from those weekend urges to say something that you will later regret. It really is time to be more presidential. When you act with restraint you actually become believable. It appears that those who voted for you still love you and those of us who did not have yet to be convinced that you know what you are doing. Show us a bit of maturity. Quit resorting to the habits of a thirteen year old. When you feel the urge to tweet an unfortunate message call Tweeters Anonymous or a trusted family member or friend to talk you out of embarrassing yourself and the country.

I am a tiny bit afraid of your trigger finger with regard to world affairs. I suppose that someone needed to show the Syrian president that his inhumane tactics will not be tolerated. I reluctantly applaud you for sending him a loud and clear message. I’m not so sure that you need to be as aggressive with the crazy kid in charge of North Korea as you have been. We already had one hopeless war over there and we don’t need another. Besides, I’m not so sure that anyone can reason with little Kim.

I know it’s been rough for you and your family of late. I’ve actually found myself feeling a bit sorry for all of you. I doubt that I would be able to take the daily drubbing that you receive and there are times when I actually think that the press is being way too hard. I think that they would be well advised to acknowledge some of the good things that you have tried to do. They can’t hate you every single moment and then expect you to listen to their concerns. Maybe it’s time for a truce and who better to lead it than you? Wouldn’t it be interesting if you ended up being the man who managed to bring all of the disparate groups in the country back to speaking and listening to one another? If you’d like to achieve that you will have to begin to set an example. So far you haven’t been so good at that but I am the supreme optimist. Hope springs eternal in my heart.

So there it is. You have managed to make it without being impeached or run out of town. I suspect that there are still countless individuals playing detective in the hopes of nailing you to the wall. In the meantime, show all of us that you really care about the people more than you do about yourself. I know that is very difficult for an old dog like you to learn knew tricks but, hey, we all have to change from time to time.

Anyway, I believe that it is in the best interest of all of us for you to really learn how to master your job, so good luck to you in the next hundred days. Feel free to use some of my ideas and please do your best not to get us blown off of the face of the earth. Concentrate on improving rather than tearing down and follow the mantras of the charter school where I once taught, “Work hard. Be nice. Leave everything better than you found it.” 

When Happiness Is Lost

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I often write about being optimistic and choosing to be happy. Of course such prescriptions are fine and dandy for those of us who are not afflicted with clinical depression, but for those who are it is virtually impossible to simply will away dark feelings.

My mother was one of the happiest people on the planet as long as she was not in the throes of her bipolar disorder. When the illness hit, she was literally unable to just wish its debilitating symptoms away. One of the characteristics of her disease was a profound sadness that would overtake her with life changing consequences. She often sat in the dark, drapes drawn tightly closed, crying and worrying for no real reason at all, unable to even venture into her front yard. It was both frightening and heartbreaking to see her in this condition. It was so contrary to the person that she really was.

Mama had shown early signs of her illness that my brothers and I failed to understand. There were times when she would suddenly take to her bed for several days. We always just assumed that she had a bad cold or a virus but it was far more sinister than that. She was fighting away the melancholy that paralyzed her. In the years before her disorder became full blown and noticeably chronic she would feel down for a few days or a week and then somehow return to the person that we knew so well. Unfortunately, in 1969, she experienced a psychotic break that began with crying jags and paranoid fears. Eventually she literally believed that the FBI was trying to frame her for selling drugs. She was convinced that all of us were going to be sent to jail. Her anxiety was so acute that she was in terrible physical pain and even thought that she had died and then miraculously come back to life.

I remember one of my very sweet uncles coming to visit her during this time. He pleaded with her to pull herself together. He reminded her that she had children for whom she needed to care. He argued that she had a wonderful life, filled with love. He felt that she only needed to choose to be happy and all would finally be well. Of course we all learned that such wishful thinking was not going to materialize. It was only after a long hospital stay and medication that she was able to return to us as the person who had always possessed a sunny disposition.

My mother mistakenly believed that her illness had been an anomaly, something that would never happen again. She insisted that she was cured and that she knew how to care for herself in the future. We naively agreed with her, thinking that the worst was behind us. Little did we realize that her condition was chronic, a never ending series of ups and downs taking over the chemistry of her brain. Only with the continual help of psychiatrists would she be able to function. It was a bitter pill for her and a challenge for those of us who loved her. We had to monitor her life to an almost invasive extent because whenever we became lax so did she, and the symptoms would return even worse than the times before.

My mother was known to her doctors as a noncompliant patient. She never admitted that she had a psychological problem, instead blaming me and my brothers for her condition. She wanted desperately to prove that she never needed psychiatric care and that her illness was a figment of our imaginations. Her reluctance to accept her diagnosis and continue her therapy on a regular basis lead to one relapse after another. Her life became far more difficult than it had to be.

Mama had brilliant and caring doctors who became frustrated with her unwillingness to follow their directions. They knew as we did that as long as she followed their instructions she was able to work and be like a ray of sunshine in everyone’s lives. Sometimes her medications had to be changed, but the results were always miraculous. To her detriment and our frustration she chose to discontinue her treatments again and again. As she did so the magnitude of her depression and mania increased. It was as though she was stressing her brain to the point of bursting.

I always understood that my mother wanted to feel normal, and visiting psychiatrists and taking numbing medications with troubling side effects was annoying to her. She gained enough weight from using her drugs to go from being a slender woman to one who was rather heavy. She experienced involuntary tongue flicks and other nervous system twitches. Her ankles would swell to three times their normal size. She hated those things and would quit taking her pills in the hopes of ridding herself of their effects. Of course she would ultimately become very sick again and her doctors would have to restart her therapy from ground zero. It was a hard way of living and I always empathized with her. I tried to imagine what it was like to feel so seriously sad as she often did. I wanted to understand her pain.

Depression is a very real disease for many unfortunate souls. It is not related to an inability to see the glass as half full. Nobody consciously wants to endure its effects. Happily there are ways of improving as long as one is willing to ask for and accept help. It can be a tricky process with a great deal of trial and error in implementing a viable plan. Because it is often a lifetime disorder it can become overwhelming. The important thing is for the depressed person and those around him/her to understand that it is a true medical condition much like diabetes or heart disease. There are treatments that will ultimately work, but they often take time.

Our laws prevent us from forcing adults to accept psychiatric care unless they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. While this protection prevents innocents from being falsely forced into therapies that they do not need, it also sometimes makes it very difficult to get a recalcitrant patient the care that they require. All too often families simply look the other way when their loved ones refuse to accept the treatments that they most certainly need. Such situations create very uncomfortable relationships that are painful to everyone concerned. Still I am convinced that it is up to those who love the sick person to insist by hook or crook that they receive the medications and therapies that they need. We can’t just walk away and hope for the best for them.

Mental illness and particularly depression too often results in dire consequences if left untreated. It is a lifetime battle but it need not overcome those who are afflicted. Each of us must learn to see the symptoms and guide those that we know and love to find the help that they need. Perhaps if we all agree to become more educated about the effects of such chronic diseases we will be more likely to deal with their effects more openly. There is nothing about depression or mental illness that should make us feel ashamed. Just as we would seek the best possible treatments for cancer or heart disease so too must we learn how to properly react to mental health issues. We can all be happy but some of us require a little push to get there. Our happiness and that of others need not be lost.

Keep On Trucking

Burning-HouseOn Good Friday I was preparing food for our family’s Easter celebration when a heavy cloud of dark smoke suddenly poured from my oven. As I ran across the room to turn down the heat a small flame erupted in the bottom corner of the appliance. I called for my husband to come help with the situation and just as he raced down the stairs an inferno engulfed the entire cavity. We reached for the fire extinguisher that we store in our pantry but when we attempted to open the oven to apply the fire retardant it was latched shut. Our only option was to yank the appliance out of the wall just enough to create a small crack that allowed us to spray away. Luckily our efforts worked and the blaze was soon out leaving behind a rather nasty mess and an oven that was undoubtedly ready for the scarp heap.

In the same week my daughter was happily driving her new car when she approached a red light. Of course she halted as required but sadly the youngster behind her was so busy texting that he didn’t notice that the traffic was at a standstill. He plowed into the back of her auto with full force. Her beautiful car was a shambles of its former self.

Meanwhile across town a friend went to bed admiring the wood flooring that had just been placed in his home. He was proud of the dramatic and lovely change it had made in his abode. When he arose the following morning expecting to see the gleaming planks he was instead greeted to a most disastrous sight. Water covered the area that had looked so wonderful only hours before, ruined by the overflow from a toilet that had run all through the night.

Each of these incidents were maddeningly inconvenient and costly. It would take days, even weeks to repair the damage that was so unexpected, but eventually all would be set right once again. All three of us were fortunate to have the ability to overcome our disasters, unlike so many whose lives spin frighteningly out of control. While these examples were fixable they demonstrate the importance of keeping the events that occur in our lives in perspective.

My house didn’t burn down as it might have. My daughter walked away from her accident unscathed. My friend’s home was not flooded so badly that it was rendered uninhabitable. Sadly I know people who have faced far worse.

One of my aunts who was in her nineties at the time watched helplessly as her home burned to the ground, eliminating everything that she owned including irreplaceable family heirlooms and treasures. I have known several people whose loved ones have died in car accidents, including myself. I have friends who used to live in New Orleans who came home to total devastation after hurricane Katrina. Such losses are indescribable. They haunt the psyche for years and leave scars that tend to quietly inflict pain. 

We all want to think that we have a modicum of control over our lives but reality demonstrates time and again that the possibility of the unexpected happening is always there. At any given moment our lives might be thrown into utter chaos. We don’t dwell on such facts because we would be immobilized with fear if we did. Instead we go about our daily lives sometimes sweating a bit too much about the small stuff instead of focusing on our blessings. We take the food on our tables for granted. We forget to tell our family members and friends how much we love them. We grumble and complain.

Of course my husband and I were upset over the prospect of having to purchase a new oven and repair the damage to our cabinetry. We certainly might have used the money in other ways, but once the smoke had settled so to speak we began to realize how fortunate we were. Had we both been in another room our kitchen might have been far more damaged, perhaps even destroyed. In another time in our lives we might not have had the money to purchase a new oven and would have had to scramble to find a way to fix the problem. As it was, we had just received a tax refund that essentially covered the costs.

My mother lived on the economic edge for most of her life but she nonetheless always remained optimistic. She used to brag that God loved her so that He somehow took care of every problem that arose for her. Such was her faith that she told us when we were children that she had a money tree from which she would pluck funds when they were needed. She herself lived without an oven for several years because hers had quit functioning and she did not have the funds to get a new one. Rather than complaining she made do until she had accumulated enough to get a new one. She joked that by the time she finally had a way to bake again she realized that she really didn’t need to roast or broil. She didn’t allow herself to worry over things that were in reality inconsequential.

The truth is that there are people on this earth who will never have an oven or a car or a wooden floor. They live in places racked by famine, disease and war. Their lives are so out of their own control that they only have the freedom to exist, and sometimes even that liberty is taken from them. We on the other hand enjoy luxuries that we take for granted, worrying over problems that in reality don’t matter as much as we may think.

I am an admitted control freak even though I have learned time and again that so much of what happens is beyond my reach. The only thing over which I have total power is my own attitude. I can choose to stew over the randomness of occurrences or I can choose to roll with the punches and take the actions needed to set myself aright. There is little point in crying once the milk is flowing across the floor.

I take heart from the courage of the incredible people that I know such as the mother whose six month old son was diagnosed with leukemia who kept a smile on her face throughout her years long ordeal. I think of the friend whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She has channeled her grief into counseling others and spreading healing by sharing her own story. I marvel at the woman who had to reinvent herself after hurricane Katrina at a time in life when she should have been retiring comfortably. I am daily inspired by a former student whose brother was murdered and her fight to bring justice for him and all individuals marred by violence. I think of a dear friend who daily cares for a husband sidelined by a severe stroke and dementia. All of these individuals have risen from the ashes of their circumstances in triumph. They have found new meaning for their lives and new appreciation for even the smallest of blessings just as my mother always did.

I know not what challenges will come my way. None of us ever do. My only hope is that I will find the inner strength and positive attitude that will allow me to keep my footing and keep on trucking along. It is after all the best that we might do regardless of the circumstances.

A Cosmic Perspective

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Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective precious…In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.  — Carl Sagan

When we are young we often disdain the idea of being different from others. As we grow older we revel in the idea of being unique. It is a lovely thought indeed that each of us is as individual as a snowflake. There is one and only one of us in all the universe, which makes each person a treasure not to be taken for granted. What a wonderful thought it is to be so special, so why is it that we sometimes engage in self hate and negativity?

There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves. We study so that we might increase our knowledge or learn a new skill. We eat well and exercise to make the most of the bodies that we have. We have fun trying new things with our hair or using makeup to highlight our best features. We involve our minds in spiritual pursuits as a way of finding our inner essences. With the right attitude we grow in wisdom and grace and become better versions of ourselves.

Of course we are never quite perfect. Each of us has flaws, but those things need not define who we are. I once read an interview with Kiera Knightly in which she laughed at the idea of being beautiful. She pointed out all of the physical imperfections that she has, none of which I had ever before noticed. The sum total of her parts are in fact lovely, and those little problems that she notes as she gazes in the mirror matter little to those of us who think of her as being a very pretty woman.

We are all influenced by popular culture. We strive to be in style even when doing so is not particularly comfortable. We wear ridiculous clothing and shoes that almost deform our aching feet. We diet to the point of starving ourselves lest someone see us as a bit too full figured. We engage in group think, fearful of developing our own ideas. We wonder what others are thinking about us when in all probability they are not thinking of us at all.

I used to be so self conscious, believing that somehow I might become the subject of ridicule. I was once going to perform in a talent show and I almost became sick with nervousness even though I was part of a large chorus. My mother quite wisely told me that in all likelihood the only people who would even see me would be my family and a few of my closest friends. Of course, she was right. As I think of events over the years I realize that the only people that I actually remember are the ones that I already loved and cherished. There was no need for me to worry at all, just as she said.

Most of the time what makes someone appear to be outstanding has very little to do with appearance or even level of intelligence and more to do with how they interact with the people around them. Someone who is generous, kind, and interested in others becomes beautiful and exciting in our minds. Just seeing them smile at us or listen to our cares and concerns makes them wonderful in our eyes. True beauty is actually much more than skin deep.

Approaching the world with optimism and genuine concern for others brings out the best in each of us. We need not follow the crowd. In fact, we always seem to admire those who march to their own drumbeats, unwilling to conform to the demands of society. Each of us should be proud of our uniqueness. It is what makes us special in billions of galaxies. It is in our differences that we are at our very best. Celebrate who you are every single day.

The Old Is New

In The TrenchesIt was a dark time in history. The world was engaged in a heinous war whose purpose seemed unclear to most who tried to understand why millions of young men were dying. The brutality of the battles was unimaginable. Modernity had changed the nature of fighting in truly horrific ways. Mankind had not yet outlawed the use of chemicals as weapons. Nothing, it seems, was taboo, and so young men were permanently mutilated by agents like bombs and sarin gas. Never before had there been such murderous activity in mankind’s seemingly relentless quest for power. World War I is a war that we often ignore when in reality its effects continue to plague us to this very day.

The United States initially watched events unfold from afar. It’s hard for us to believe but our nation was very much a kind of backwater region at the onset of the twentieth century. Most of the world powers still thought of our government as a fluke in the annals of history, hardly worth noticing when compared to the vast influence of Austria-Hungary, Germany or Great Britain. Militarily the United States was ranked number seventeen, just behind Serbia. Few paid much attention to our still very young country as they engaged in an epic struggle in Europe.

At the beginning of World War I the United States was in debt and still far more rural than urban, but it had incredible natural resources and manpower which became a lifeline for nations like Britain and France during the fighting. With so many of their young workers unable to farm or work in factories it fell to the United States to supply the food and material needed to survive. The USA became a beehive of activity all while insisting on a neutral stance regarding the war. Initially most Americans were disinclined to become involved in a dispute that seemed to be more of a disagreement between royal relatives than a meaningful cause. Instead they enjoyed the fruits of commerce that were occasioned by the war.

The war that was supposed to be resolved in a matter of weeks dragged on with horrible consequences for European nations. The citizens watched helplessly as their youth were killed or maimed in heretofore unseen numbers. After almost four years of fighting France was on the verge of capture and collapse. Britain was little better. Russia was boiling over with a revolution that would dramatically alter the course of that country for the next hundred years. It appeared that Germany would soon dominate Europe. The United States enjoyed its relative safety and newfound prosperity while Europe burned.

Germany believed that it might break the will of Britain and France, thereby winning the war, if only the United States were prevented from sending supplies, and so they boasted that ships traveling across the Atlantic toward Europe would no longer be safe. Their gamble backfired and resulted in a declaration of war from the United States. Within months hurriedly trained American soldiers and weapons, began arriving to bolster the Allies, breaking the stranglehold that Germany seemed to have on the continent. By turning the tide of the war and helping the Allies to win the United States earned the respect of all the world. Suddenly our country had become a superpower and a king maker. For better or worse we have played that role ever since.

A hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson justified our country’s involvement in war as a way of spreading liberty and democracy. It is an idea that is bandied about to this very day, but then as now a sizable number of people question the arrogance of interfering in the affairs of other nations. Such thinking was again used successfully as a rationale for World War II but lost its luster during the engagement in Vietnam. Presently the world finds itself in a confusing quagmire in the Middle East, a part of the world many of whose problems began with the peace negotiations at the end of World War I. One hundred years later we are seeing the results of arbitrarily dividing the spoils by redrawing colonial maps in a manner meant to punish the losers rather than consider the needs of the people living in the areas once ruled by European monarchs. The roots of today’s problems were unwittingly planted by power brokers whose intent had little to do with spreading freedom.

The world changed dramatically a hundred years ago particularly for the United States. We took on a mantle of responsibility back then that has always had an aura of discomfort. By nature we want to be the good guys, the heroes, but tiny voices of caution echo inside our heads. Part of our nature wants to be left alone, just as our forefathers who fought for their independence from an ever invasive government. Another side of our personalities feels compelled to constantly fix whatever we see as being broken including other governments. The tension between these two points of view are as prevalent today as they were back then. Our divisions are in reality nothing new.

One hundred years ago even as we appeared to be saving the world conditions were ironically far from ideal in our own backyard. Women were still fighting to win the right to vote. Race riots broke out in cities across the country in the summer of our victory. Many of those who had spoken against going to war languished in prisons. We still had much to do at home before serving as advisors to the world. Hypocrisy quietly reigned much as it often does.

Everything old becomes new again. After a hundred years much of the idealistic thinking of those who supported World War I has been tarnished by reality. We find ourselves feeling anxious as the world smolders as though coals of discontent from our past have once again caught fire. We ask many of the same questions and silently worry that a truly peaceful world is a pipe dream, the stuff of fools. We wonder if our warlike natures will always and for all time inevitably take hold. We would sometimes like to wish ourselves back to a time when we were number seventeen in the world and nobody expected much from us, but we know that our ship has sailed and now we much pray for the wisdom to find answers that will do the least harm. As we do so we would do well to remember the lessons from history.