Plow On

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My home is decorated for Halloween just as it always is. I have a skeleton hanging near my front door and some fall colored lights scattered over the branches of one of my plants. A little witch greets visitors from a wreath on the door. A string of ghosts light the sidewalk leading to my porch and a cute little guy named “Spooky” welcomes all who come in search of treats. 

There will be no tricks from me this year, only a large tub filled with sweets for the children who decide to visit just as they always have in spite of the virus. I will be missing from the festivities. I usually don a costume of some sort or wear a silly t-shirt and hang spider earrings from my lobes. This year I will not take the chance of bringing illness into my home by greeting the little ones as they come. I will have to depend on the honesty of children in taking only a handful of candy from the tub so that others will have some treats as the night’s festivities occur. 

I really do not know what to expect. I am unsure that I will have the hundreds of visitors who normally come my way. It will be very different and I will miss all of the joy and delight that this annual celebration always brings. I usually purchase bags and bags of chocolates and sweets of every kind and spend a long evening smiling and laughing at the unadulterated cuteness of the children. By the time the crowd has thinned and my supply of treats is almost depleted the teens show up, often wearing their school colors and demonstrating their impeccable manners. Who knows what this year will bring.

Everything has been so very different and yet I have managed to have a subdued but lovely time during the last crazy months. I suppose that my childhood and my mother’s influence taught me how to be flexible and how to find joy in the smallest of  things. My mother quietly struggled after my father died but she hid her worries well. We might not have cookies in the house or sodas but she would turn a batch of cinnamon toast grilled to a delightful crispiness into a luxury. She even knew how to make a drive across town feel like a grand adventure. When times were tough she was as flexible and creative as Play doh and she taught us that we might not always have our way but we had the power to control how we felt. 

When I was teaching at KIPP Houston High School we had a principal who regularly signed off on her emails with the phrase, “Plow on!” I must admit that I did not like the metaphor in conjunction with education. It made it seem to me as though teaching and learning was back breaking, unexciting work. I even told the principal how I felt. Now in this year of 2020 with so many horrors all around I find myself understanding her rationale for using that phrase. Sometimes in life there is a job to do that may even become difficult but we have to keep plowing on to create something beautiful. Sometimes that job of plowing provides us with a purpose bigger than our own desires. It actually makes life more meaningful and bearable. 

There is a time for some sacrifice in every person’s life. From time to time that sacrifice becomes a common goal for all of society. I think that is where we are now as a nation, but when I see and hear so much grumbling and refusal to honor one another I worry that we as a people have become too self centered, too focused on our own selfish demands, tone deaf to the needs of our fellow citizens. Sadly some among us express their wants with a demeaning kind of crassness that was once the domain of playground bullies. Now it is commonplace in the mainstream to insult people with whom we disagree with epithets and sometimes even threats. How this was translated into so much divisiveness in a time when we should all work together is beyond me. 

I do not mind at all if people choose to follow a different way of doing things from my own. I have walked a different kind of pathway for most of my life. Still, I would like to see us all show more respect to one another than is presently the case. If I say that I have found a way to please the children who will come to my door hoping for a treat on Halloween night, I do not need to be engaged in an argument about all of the ways that my plan is wrong. I am not afraid, so do not think that of me. I am simply choosing to be cautious, maybe more than some and less than others. We each know our own limitations. If someone worries about their children grabbing candy from a giant tub of unattended goodies on my porch, then I would expect them to simply pass by my house. I respect their concerns just as I hope that they respect mine. 

I would like for all of the second guessing and judging and anger to end. I am fine and from what I can see so are those who are responding differently to the pandemic. I have found a tiny slice of happiness even in this very distressing year of 2020. I have created ways to enjoy each day just as my mother taught me to do. I have maintained my connections with people from afar and that is not as bad as it may sound. I have changed my ways for the time being believing that my adjustments are temporary. I have released myself from routines that were not necessary to guard my health and happiness. I have found a way to make my life good for now. Just as my Mama told me I know that how I feel is my choice. For now I intend to happily plow on.


Time for A Change

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As we near the end of a very painful and unusual presidential election year I remain hopeful about the health of our country and our freedoms. We have heard a great deal regarding the power of the media to influence our thinking and in turn the choices that we make as we vote. I have often noted my concern whenever I hear soundbites being repeated over and over again. Such utterances almost always smack of rhetorical devices used as propaganda. Now as I await the final rendering of the people I find myself parsing all of the sound and fury to which we have been inflicted during the past year. I think of the way campaigns are run and I truly wonder if we actually make our choices based on facts or if we are too easily swayed by cults of personality. 

Many months ago a childhood friend confessed her disappointment in President Trump, a man that she had supported in the election of 2016. She had come to believe that he was unfit for the job based on the daily Covid-19 briefings that he held during March and April. She said that she literally ignored news programs, editorials, newspapers, speeches at rallies and other methods for distributing information about the president. She only wanted to hear his words, see his actions in a moment of national importance. She told me that from one day to the next she witnessed him fumbling to keep the nation safe from the virus. She saw him as an incompetent executive and she based her assessment only on her own observations of his behavior. She decided that she must vote him out of office for the good of the country. 

I was rather impressed with her methodology. She did not allow herself to be influenced by the way others viewed the president, but simply by using her own observational skills and expectations of how a national emergency should be addressed. As she outlined her concerns I saw the rationality of her approach. She told me that she would not need to listen to stump speeches or watch debates because she had seen and heard and all that she needed to make a reasonable decision. She would not vote for President Trump this time around.

I have thought about my friend long and often as I and everyone else have been bombarded with a spate of election year frenzy. I realize that it is rather absurd to make a momentous decision based on a single debate or rally or speech. We need to peel away the frills and concentrate only on what the candidate is doing and saying, not just during the election cycle, but all of the time. We should quietly and patiently observe just as my friend did. If we strip away the flags, the music, the bombast what do we see? If we forget the lofty promises and look only at what actually happens we might ask ourselves if the candidate’s actions have been satisfactory or sub par. If we listen do we get a vivid picture of what kind of person the contender actually is? What kind of references does the applicant for political positions have? Who are the people who support him/her?

I would love to see changes in the ways that we run our presidential primaries and elections. I believe that the present methods are flawed and do not always result in finding and rewarding the best qualified candidates. I have studied the history of the electoral college and realize that the methods by which those votes are doled out has changed over time. They were not always a matter of winner take all, but used to be divided based on proportion of votes. For example if a candidate won in a state by fifty one percent instead of getting 100% of the votes he/she got only 51% of the electors and the other candidate received the rest. It seems rather tragic to cancel out the actual votes of the people with a system of winner take all and yet since the end of the nineteenth century it is a method that we have accepted as though it is written in the Constitution. The fact is that the Constitution does not address how the electoral college votes should be allocated. 

I also find that we get way more information about a candidate from a town hall than a debate. First of all, the debates really are not true debates at all. Secondly they have turned into a kind reality show that is more annoying than informative. I like the idea of having two forty five minute back to back town halls shown on all of the major television stations in which each candidate must answer the same questions about issues without commentary or argument or even analysis. Let the voters get the information from the mouths of the contenders and then let those same voters decide what they like and do not like. 

I would love to see an end to the pompous conventions that trot countless speakers across the stage that have little or nothing to do with providing us with factual information. I find these events to be a total waste of time and money that would be better spent elsewhere. Introduce the candidate and allow him/her to speak to the nation. Leave off the decorations and images of smiling supporters standing in the background. We do not need the distraction from what should be the message that we need to hear.  

No matter who wins the current election I believe that we all know that things have gone off the rails with both parties. We have turned over the elections to Madison Avenue. They have become expensive advertising ventures designed to sway our emotions rather than to inform us. It’s long past time to make some very necessary changes.  

Yep! We Are All Tired!

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Election day is just around the corner. In a normal year it would be a relief to learn who the winner of the election is and then just move on to mundane routines, but there is nothing normal about life these days. I have serious doubts that the results of the voting will lead to a quiet acceptance of the winner, a time without an avalanche of political maneuvering. For some time now we have been battered by a seemingly infinite loop of campaigning rather than a running of our country. The blistering trend of back and forth between the parties has become a constant way of doing things that is exhausting. If I were to long for a particular time in my past it would be for the days when we settled down after the votes were tabulated and mostly stayed that way until a few months before the next election. 

President Trump declares that the American people are tired of Covid-19, and there is truth in that. It is also true that we are exhausted from the rhetoric and the seeming lack of concern for the real issues that we face. We know full well that we are not about to turn a corner with the virus. With winter coming it is more likely that we will face many challenges in the coming months. Those of us who have faithfully taken precautions and changed our lifestyles are quite tired of it all, but we also know that we cannot so simply bend the will of the virus to our own desires for the freedoms and pleasures that we enjoyed only a year ago. We are in a battle for ourselves and all of our neighbors that will require steadfast adherence to common sense precautions, sacrifices like those made in generation after generation during difficult times. We can be tired, but we must stay the course.

Virtually every person that I know has at one time or another dealt with a long term challenge. When I was twenty years old I became a caretaker for my mother who developed a repeated cycle of depression and mania each October, February and July. I and my brothers watched over her and cared for her for forty four years. We grew weary and sometimes even had fanciful dreams of just running away from our responsibilities, but somehow we kept finding the strength that we needed to carry on. 

So too is it with people that I know. I have watched them patiently ministering to a parent or spouse with dementia. I have witnessed the depths of their emotions as they virtually lived inside hospitals with children or loved ones who were slowly dying. I have felt the pain and worry of friends and family members who spent years patiently and lovingly caring for a someone with disabilities. Of course they grew tired. Of course they wanted some miracle to free them from the crosses that they bore, but all of them somehow found the strength that they needed to fulfill their promises of love. They found ways to bring snatches of light into their often dark and lengthy journeys. 

We have the power of channeling our tiredness into positivity. There are indeed ways to make the best of a challenging situation. Looking outward is often a great way to start. I do not go many places or see many people these days but I still find ways to fill my hours with tasks that uplift my spirit. I become almost giddy when I present remote lessons to the little band of students that I teach. Watching young people learn reminds me that there is a future and it will be bright. Looking to the children and showing them how to navigate through times that demand them to continuously adapt is a remarkably happy experience.

I enjoy seeing how very creative people are managing to find innovative ways of keeping traditions going even in the face of contagion. I’ve partaken of virtual baby showers and watched weddings from afar. The ideas that I have seen for celebrating Halloween are enchanting and even include drive through “trunk or treat” festivities for the kids. I’ve smiled at little ones zip-lining with masks firmly planted on the faces. I gazed at carefully distanced driveway family parties at which everyone dons a goofy mask. I cheered whoever thought of creating drive-through voting. I even saw a drive in church service where families stayed in the cars but were still surrounded by the word of God. 

Yes, Mr. President, you are right. We are tired but do not underestimate us. We are not so spoiled and inconsiderate of others that we feel the need to just chuck our caution and pretend that Covid-19 poses no danger. We know how to face the realities that are a part of life. We do not intend to run away from the responsibilities that are most surely ours. We are all in this crazy situation together and the best way of making it through to the other side is going to be to plow on with determination to do whatever we need to do to keep the numbers of illnesses and deaths as low as possible. We know we can do this so please do not become impatient. Help us to stay the course. 

There is optimism and there is fantasy. Optimism is a belief that we all have the courage to soldier through whatever lies ahead and that one day gifted individuals will unlock the key to ridding us of the most devastating effects of Covid 19. Fantasy is the false hope that somehow it will all go away if we just pretend that it is no longer a problem that requires our active efforts to keep people safe. Wisdom tells me that it always takes effort to achieve desirable outcomes. Dreams are fine but they must be accompanied by hard work. It’s time for all of us to be the adults in the room. So what if we are tired!

Science for a Better Future

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I was never particularly good in science classes. I muddled through and faked it enough to make more than passable grades but I had little interest in any of it. Still, I suppose I have always been in awe of those individuals who unlock the secrets of how things work, particularly when it comes to practical aspects of living. I was one of those little kids whose Mama was fearful that I might contract polio until Dr. Salk created his vaccine which I dutifully took as a six year old. I’ve spent hours struggling to compose a paper on an old school typewriter where one wrong stroke of a key meant either starting over or blemishing the appearance of my presentation with a white splotch of correction fluid. Now I can edit entire paragraphs in the blink of an eye and nobody is aware of the mistakes that I made. Science has enhanced our lives in more ways than we might ever enumerate. 

I suppose that as I have moved ever closer into the winter years of my life I have better and better understood my grandfather’s optimism about the future. Until the day he died he marveled at the wonders concocted in the human mind. As he always noted he had witnessed the advent of the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, movies, television, and space travel in his lifetime. This was thrilling for someone like him who as a boy had lived in a home without glass on the windows, refrigeration for the food or heat from any source other than a wooden stove. He scoffed at those who longed for the good old days and was particularly insistent that scientific progress was the hallmark of human ingenuity. 

I suppose that in between the influence of my father’s collection of books and my grandfather’s optimistic support of science I have always held a fascination and respect for those who toil away in the world of experimentation and discovery even when I did not always fully understand what they were doing. Over time I actually came to enjoy learning about how things work, especially with regard to our human bodies and ways of keeping them healthy. I take great pride in living in a city filled with dedicated individuals who are changing the universe in space and medicine and the environment. Many of them are members of my own family or among my circle of friends.

As we host a multitude of difficulties that almost seem insurmountable at this juncture in our history I find great solace in our scientific communities. Covid-19 began with more questions than answers and so at first it appeared that we were at a loss for how to deal with it. In typical scientific fashion the initial precautionary warning was to be exceedingly careful while more information was compiled and analyzed. Over time our doctors and researchers were able to share a mountain of data and in carefully noting trends they realized that certain very basic behaviors had the positive effect of lessening, if not totally eliminating, the dangers of becoming infected with the virus. At the same time they began to realize the efficacy of certain treatments that appeared to be effective in reducing the number of deaths. Meanwhile never in the history of the world have so many experts been working to potentially find a vaccine for Covid-19. 

Because of the dedicated efforts of science the horrors of Covid-19 have been more and more mitigated than in the beginning of the pandemic. This is not because the virus is going away or because treatments are cures or even because of her immunity, but because the scientific method has demonstrated what appears to be working and what is not. The population of the world that is following the science is complicit in helping even those foolish enough to ignore it. I can only imagine how much safer we would all be in going about our daily routines if everyone were to follow the guidelines of our scientific community. 

I have listened to doctors and researchers and all of them agree that we do not have to wait for a vaccine to be safe. In fact they are uncertain if and when one will be available on a scale grand enough to protect the entire population. They point out that the virus may be with us for years to come and that a vaccine may have to be given annually as with the flu. It may also be that in spite of efforts, just as with HIV, there may never be a single inoculation that prevents it. What they do know is that masks are doing the most important work right now and we need to become accustomed to wearing them whenever we are outside of our own households. They are also finding more and more promising treatments that make them believe that one day anyone who tests positive for the virus may be given prescriptions that will help to reduce the incidence of horrific and deadly symptoms. There is hopefulness from the scientists but that hope is predicated on cooperation from the majority of people.

Just as with climate change, space travel and technology those of us who are barely literate in science should listen to those who have dedicated their lives to learning about how things work in the physical and sometimes invisible world. If the pipes in our home are leaking we call a plumber and stand back while he/she repairs the break. Why do we think we can do without the expertise of our scientists? What do we know about viruses and treating them that would make any of us better equipped to make important decisions about public health? Following science does not mean ruining the economy. On the contrary, it is the most likely pathway to a faster return to normalcy. Watch, listen and learn from the experts. They have no agenda other than keeping us all well. Science, not politics is the route to a better future.

Becoming A New Greatest Generation

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I suppose most of us are battling fatigue from Covid-19 and a national election. Putting all of the trials of 2020 behind us would be a wonderful thing, but the odds of that happening anytime soon does not appear to be in the cards. We long for a semblance of normalcy and would love nothing better than to wake up one morning to find our lives returned to freedom from the sacrifices we have made.

For me, the journey through the past many months always calls to mind the ravages of World War II and the impact that it had on daily life across the globe. It’s difficult to imagine the years of death and deprivation and fear that became an unthinkable way of life in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945. For a span of almost six years uncertainty and death hung over the continent while a twin tragedy was playing out in Asia and the Pacific. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been just to make it from one day to the next, and yet somehow the world’s people soldiered forward with a determination to rid the world of the evils that caused the deaths of millions across the globe. 

My parents were not yet even in high school when it all began. My mother often spoke of her father’s attempts to determine what was happening in his native country of Czechoslovakia. He would quietly listen to the radio with an unemotional countenance that was unable to hide the concerns that he had for the people back home. The news programs became a daily fixture in houses across America as everyone prayed that our country might be spared from war even as it became more and more evident that such was not to be the case. On December 7, 1941 the die was cast and the USA would battle alongside most of the rest of the world for the next four years.

Think about that. Years and years of shortages, attacks, loss of lives and property. Even the end of the war required a decades-long rebuilding process. We had a friend who was born in Bremen, Germany shortly after the surrender. As a child he suffered from vitamin deficiencies due to lack of proper nutrition. He played among the ruins of his city as a boy. It would be decades before a true sense of normalcy returned all over Europe. 

I wonder if those of us living in the present day would have the same kind of determination and willingness to endure years of sacrifice. I wonder if we would have been as willing to give of ourselves for the good of all as my grandparents, parents and aunts and uncles would have been. I wonder when so many became so spoiled that the thought of wearing a mask or sharing the riches of this country became unacceptable. Why is it so difficult for large swaths of the nation to be compassionate? When did meanness and hate become acceptable in so many quarters?

There is so much talk of making America great again, but the vision that such folks have of greatness seems shallow and lacking in compassion. They are led by a narcissistic individual  who craves their adulation while abusing those who disagree with him. He spews so much hate and acts as though he is just being funny. There is nothing humorous about his jokes. He pretends to be religious but he never seems to go to church. He wants credit for everything while actually doing little or nothing. He is the poster boy for a distorted view of freedom and love of country. 

Patriotism has nothing to do with waving flags or singing songs. Those are rituals that only have meaning when they are accompanied by an earnest intent to bring freedom and security to all of the people regardless of how different they may be. Those who love this country will endure hardship if that is what is needed. They will sacrifice for a better future. They will fight to right wrongs. They will make suggestions for improvement with love, not hateful banter. They will attempt to bring us together not purposely drive wedges between us. They will accept responsibility for past mistakes, learn from them and strive to improve rather than blaming everyone else. 

World War II was a time of intense contrast between good and evil. People overcame horror with courage and grit. If there was ever a moment of greatness that we would do well to have again, it might be found in those long years during which the common cause was more important than individual wants. It would be grand to find that spirit once again. 

It is said that we might stop this virus from its determination to spread if ninety five percent of the people just wore masks and kept those social distances. We might help those who have been impacted by the virus if we were to all agree to a bit of sacrifice whether it be in accepting lesser salaries so that more might retain their jobs or contributing more in taxes. Getting out of ourselves and learning to empathize with others is the key to greatness, not hoarding our good fortune. Understanding the hopes and the fears of one another and allowing all of our differences to be honored is the way to a better world for all.

We are not yet out of the woods. There may be more suffering to come. Let us consider emulating the generation of World War II that demonstrated the right way of doing things. Let’s be like the people who understood that evil was unacceptable and were willing to do whatever it took to eradicate it. We can be better than we have been of late. Let us become the new Greatest Generation as we build for the future instead of longing for the past.