Flim Flam

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One of my all time favorite movies is The Rainmaker. It’s one of those timeless pieces that focuses on family life and the meaning of love. Burt Lancaster stars as a film flam man who travels from town to town peddling dreams. In the movie’s story he promises to create rain for a place that is suffering from drought. During the course of his stay he manages to pull a troubled family back together and to help a woman gain confidence in herself. It eventually becomes clear that all he really did for everyone is help them to see the truth of what was always inside of them.

We have far too many hawkers of this and that idea doing everything possible to convince us that they somehow know all of the answers to providing a better life for everyone. Print, electronic and televised media are filled with people hoping to create the next buzzwords and soundbites. Once something catches on we all too often rather sheepishly begin quoting it as though it is truth and wisdom. We sometimes align ourselves with people and ideas without doing a great deal of thinking. The hucksters of old who banged their drums and spun a good story have become the gurus of advertising and political operations. We find ourselves enchanted with quips and pretty faces, audacious lines and promises.

Now we seem to enjoy quantifying and labeling virtually everything and everybody as though all the world is a commodity. A great deal of the modern ways of selling products and ideas began when I was just a child. That’s when television became both a source of entertainment and a way of hawking ideas, not the least of which was naming an entire generation of children as Baby Boomers and then labeling them with generic traits that somehow define them in many minds to this very day.

I suppose that somebody actually thought that it was a brilliant idea to attempt to generalize about millions of people within a certain age group and so they even went backward in time honoring the parents of the Baby Boomers with the title of The Greatest Generation. Next came the Generation X group followed by the Millennials. Somehow the negativity of the descriptions of each classification became more and more extreme until we were pointing fingers and blaming one set of people or another for the difficulties that we face today. In the meantime there are those who began to delight in shaming the post Millennials as uniformed, lazy “snowflakes.”

My entire life has been spent working with people from all of the aforementioned generations and while I see certain environmentally induced differences from one group to another, I find that in the long run people are far too individual to turn them into cardboard cutouts that are all alike. We are not a row of identically dressed Barbie dolls regardless of what the sellers of words may attempt to make us think. In fact, the key word here is “think” and when we step back just a bit we see the truth just as the folks in The Rainmaker eventually did.

I suppose that I got riled up a bit about the idea of stereotyping people based upon the decades in which they were born after having a conversation with a young man who had been told that many employers prefer hiring Gen Xers rather than Millennials because the thirty something set is lazy and inclined to complain.

I was shocked to hear such a thing but in my heart I do understand that there are many who allow misconceptions and ridiculous stereotypes to become their truths. It goes without saying that I have worked with some incredible Millennials who are dedicated to hard work and high standards. In fact, those who are not are the exception rather than the rule. The very idea of drawing conclusions about an individual based on age is abhorrent to me, and yet our society has become driven by the idea of making assumptions based on very unreliable indices.

Someone recently floored me by remarking that a person that we saw passing by us was probably a redneck who had guns in his house and voted for Donald Trump simply because he wore a gimme cap and drove a pickup truck. I wondered how it was possible to jump to such judgmental conclusions with rather skimpy evidence and yet such non sequiturs have become more and more common. We hear about people being identified as being of a certain type because of where they live or what they wear or which church they attend. It’s even gone so far that some advocate for getting rid of the color red for clothing as though it is some kind of secret sign of a person’s political leanings.

It’s long past time that we regain our senses and quit falling for the salesmanship of those would sell us lies. We can’t create rain by banging a drum and we can’t properly think by spewing canned responses. We should also steer clear of any situation that asks us to believe an idea that feels ludicrous or that leaves entire groups of individuals nameless and faceless. We have to have enough common sense to see that the purveyors of shady shell games are continually trying to captivate our thinking. Perhaps a bit of caution and disbelief is what we really need.

Look for the Helpers

look for the helpers

I suppose that I am showing my age by admitting that much about the world today feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. I hear a constant refrain of complaining about virtually every aspect of society. Gratitude for what we actually have is rarely mentioned. Instead grumbling about every little thing is the mode. I find the whining to be contrary to my nature and unlikely to bring answers to the real problems that we face.

I have no doubt that we are always in need of improvements, but I think we would get a great deal more accomplished if we would stop all the trash talk that is hurled back and forth and just get down to observing what is right about the world and using that information to correct the difficulties that need improvement. Instead we can’t even seem to get through a natural disaster or tragedy without folks ramping up our divisions instead of highlighting our goodness. The true test of our mettle is not to be found in the mistakes that we humans are bound to make, but in the positive contributions that we offer over and over again.

These days we allow the media and people with an ax to grind to create a number of self fulfilling prophecies of doom. When horrific events occur we spend far too much time highlighting “might have beens,” angry mobs, unintended slips of the tongue, and other such mistakes rather than looking for the helpers, finding the light. The truth is that from the beginning of humankind’s adventures on this planet there has been a kind of duel between those who would hurt us and those who would sacrifice for our welfare. In truth the later far outnumber the former but we tend to give more attention to the ugly side of life, especially of late.

When I was in a classroom I found that each group of students that I encountered was a microcosm of reality. The vast majority of children were well behaved and willing to learn. Invariably I encountered a kid who was filled with venom and determined to run the show with his/her unacceptable behavior. When I was somewhat inexperienced with such things I tended to engage in battles of wills that rarely ended well. It took me quite a while to learn that focusing on the goodness of the youngsters in my classroom was a far wiser thing to do. I took away the very attention that the trouble makers desired and instead heaped it upon the students who always tried to do the right thing with only minor lapses now and again.

I did not totally ignore the young people with major problems whose cries for help were masked in aggressiveness. I understood that their ugly behaviors were indicative of needs that had to be somehow met, but I also did not engage in public combat with them. I refused to turn my classroom into an unending debate over what was wrong. Instead I continually highlighted what was right and good. I looked for the goodness and embraced it publicly while working on the troubles quietly.

I suppose that we almost naturally pay more attention to outliers than to the average. A story of a single doctor who hurts patients trumps one about the thousands of miracles taking place every single day with the help of dedicated physicians. We see the flaws more quickly than the overall appearance of a situation. When a disaster strikes somewhere the big story is what the victims did not get rather than the overflow of kindness from countless strangers wanting to help. We make the mistake of lumping entire groups of people into baskets of “deplorables”  when a single gunman shoots up a venue. Like the first year teacher we yell at the entire class and punish them for bad behavior even as we know that most of them are not guilty of anything at all.

I am still haunted by memories of hurricane Harvey that hit my city of Houston with a vengeance. I was terrified during those days of unremitting rain. I watched images of the city filling with water as though some heavenly presence had forgotten to turn off a giant faucet. What I loved most about the local news coverage is that every single story focused on the helpers. We saw everyday heroes rescuing people that they did not know. There was a joint effort both during and in the aftermath of the disaster to reach out to anyone in need. While there might have been mistakes made it was not the time to belabor points about what should have or could have been done differently Instead we were treated to a vision of the very best of people and it helped us to weather the storm. By looking for the helpers we realized that we would ultimately be okay.

I don’t mean to paint an unrealistic picture of the world that does not include evil for it is most certainly present. What I do know is that horrific people and horrific acts are an aberration. Most immigrants are good, Most teachers are dedicated to their students. Most police officers are working to keep us safe while risking their own lives. Most teenagers want to become outstanding adults. Most humans try to be the best possible versions of themselves. While we have many imperfections they are not the whole story of who we are and yet they are the ones that we see in every headline and newsflash. They bring notoriety to the few who are bad while ignoring the good. Maybe when we see them our first inclination should be to avert our gaze and look for the helpers. It is in the goodness of people that we will find the answers to the problems that we hope to solve.     

Without All the Drama

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Photo by Artem Beliaikin @belart84 on Pexels.com

If I pay too much attention to the news these days it feels as though the whole world is engulfed in a dumpster fire. I’ve had to learn not to get too emotionally involved with the stories that I hear and read about until I do a bit of background checking. To say that journalism has become a bit too hysterical these days is hardly a stretch. I suppose that there is so much competition and so many hours to fill that news organizations have to become a bit salacious just to keep interest alive.

There are indeed many problems in our world today, but all too often our news agencies focus more on personalities, slips of the tongue, and ideas than facts. They give far too much exposure to persons and events that might best be left ignored. They choose to do such things because they know that it inflames people and creates enough stir to bring their stories notoriety. In some ways today’s reporting tends to resemble chatty posts on Facebook rather than attempts to get to the truth of various situations. Reporters argue with individuals as though they are participants in a debate rather than interviewers interested in facts.

I remember the days when there was a morning news report, another at the dinner hour, and a final one at bedtime. The newscasters projected an aura of fairness and seemed intent on providing us viewers with information that we might then formulate to make decisions. Now there is a decided effort to persuade rather than to simply inform. Frankly I have grown quite weary of such methods and I find myself feeling as though I am surrounded by little boys crying wolf. In other words there is so much panic and self righteousness in the voices of the national reporters that I tend to ignore them as much as possible. They have jumped the shark one too many times for my taste, and so I prefer culling through sources that are less inclined to inciting the kinds of rancor that are tearing our nation apart.

I’m a rather moderate person that one might find to be somewhat boring. I rise at about the same time each day and have a set of daily habits that I follow. I attempt to eat a healthy diet and get a bit of exercise. I abhor large crowds and loud noises and tend toward quiet gatherings. I like to spend time with family and friends and in the solitude of my own thoughts. I am a healthy mix of liberalism and conservatism which some say makes me a person with no real compass. I live on a very nice street with wonderful neighbors who represent many ethnicities and beliefs. It rarely bothers me when someone disagrees with my religion or my politics. I tend to think that I am in truth representative of most people. If pollsters and lawmakers want to really know what is on the minds of the nation they would do well to talk with me.

I truly believe that most Americans are very good people who want to be compassionate and open. We are taught from our youth to dream big dreams and very often we see our hopes come to fruition. We love our country even though we know that it has never been perfect, but then what country can lay claim to never having made horrendous mistakes? Each of us face difficulties and tragedies during our lifetimes and often the hard moments require our full attention, leaving us unable to worry about the rest of the world until we are better. Unlike most places in the world ours is a blend of many different cultures and somehow we have generally made our differences work for our betterment.

The problems that we face are real, and not all that different from those in other parts of the world. On personal levels we worry about issues like health, jobs, education and addictions. We know that we are doing the best we can in those areas but believe that we still have a way to go before we will be satisfied. Improvement is a good thing, but we are cautious about changes for change sake. 

On a national level we have different ideas about how to approach immigration, abortion and the violence that seems to be growing more prevalent. Sadly we argue more than we listen. We choose sides and refuse to budge even an inch from our preferences. We search for diplomats, peace makers, mediators and feel as though there are none. We sense that the squeaky wheels are running the show while those of us who are just doing our jobs the way they are supposed to be done are being ignored.

I am and have always been a quiet person. My voice is soft and it gets lost in the uproar of life. I have at times felt invisible. I have come up with ideas that were later claimed by those more boisterous. I have never known how to toot my own horn, nor have I really wanted to do so. I express myself with words and sometimes I am actually heard. I believe that I represent the true silent majority, a group of people who essentially enjoy living rather ordinary lives with a sense of peace. I’ve never wanted fame or notoriety, but I have grown weary of being sidelined by obnoxious persons who pretend to know how my life should be run. I am rather certain that I am but one of a very large group of people who are essentially like me.

I’ve turned off my television and tuned my radio to more soothing channels. I follow news sources that operate from a calm perspective. I spend a great deal of time listening to the sounds of life in my neighborhood. I take more and more time to reach out to people on a very personal level. I enjoy the birds that flock in my backyard and meditate on the goodness of life. I give of my time and talents to those who need me. I have found a semblance of contentment by ignoring the madding crowd. I do not classify people as this or that. Instead I see each person as a wondrous being who is simply trying to find a bit of happiness and a feeling of importance. I choose to see the world as a collection of humans who are more alike than different.  Our cultures, languages, religions and political beliefs may seem to be at odds, but when all is said and done we each just want to be allowed to be ourselves without all the drama.

Working On The Inside

Tricia's Podcast

I have a dear friend, Tricia Miller, who is a brilliant and talented woman. I met her when she and I taught together at KIPP Houston High School. I eventually became the Dean of Faculty there and she became one of the College Counselors. We shared a special kinship from the very first and became close friends. Even after we had both the left the school we worked hard to maintain a close relationship with one another that has only grown stronger over the years. At first we mostly got together for celebratory occasions with other women who had also once worked at KIPP. Eventually Tricia and I called upon one another for advice, knowing that together we usually found the wisdom that we needed to tackle the problems that invariably crop up in everyone’s lives.

Tricia became a licensed therapist and did private counseling along with continuing to work with students while I began living the life of retirement. I know from personal experience how good she is at seeing both the pain and joy that lingers in people’s hearts either propelling them forward or holding them back. On more than one occasion she has helped me to find answers that I was seeking and encouraged me to have the courage that I needed to be my personal best. She is what I call an active listener who knows how to pose important questions and then sit back and truly hear the true meaning of what is being said. She is quite good at understanding the essence of people, sometimes even more than they do themselves.

This past summer Tricia decided to develop a podcast that would feature short stories of people who had overcome daunting challenges. I was honored to be one of the guests that she chose to interview, and so I one day found myself sitting in her sunny kitchen talking as friends while she posed guiding questions and recorded my answers. I had been a bit nervous about speaking into a microphone and I worried that I might stumble and stutter as I spoke, but Tricia created such a relaxed atmosphere that I soon forgot that my words were being saved for posterity. I was able to speak from my heart and not worry about how I might sound.

Tricia worked with intense dedication for months to interview individuals, edit their responses, and create a series of quality podcasts with topics intended to inspire listeners. Her efforts resulted in thirty minute episodes in a podcast called Working From the Inside that is currently listed on Google Play, Spotify and Apple iTunes. Her guests are diverse and earnest in sharing their stories of overcoming challenges and finding empathy and support in sometimes unexpected places.

Tricia decided to launch the episode that featured my interview as a gift to me just before my seventieth birthday. The theme of the spot focuses on the mentoring and compassion that I encountered in the sometimes winding journey of my life, particularly with regard to my career. Happily she edited my chatter to include the expressions gratitude that I have always felt for certain individuals who helped to guide me in my work and in navigating through the difficulties that invariably arose along the way. I was able to honor important people like my English teacher, Father Shane, the members of my neighborhood, school and church community, professors who inspired me, principals who helped shape me into a real educator, and elders who demonstrated sacrifice and love when I most needed it.

I hope that the listeners will be able to look past my soft, slow drawl that comes from my Texas background as they hear me speak. It is a trait that sometimes marked me as someone who was insignificant and perhaps also weak. I wanted people to know that even a seemingly shy and sheltered female is able to find grit when given enough encouragement from caring people, and I certainly had my share of kind souls who helped me to become the person that I am today. My story is one of countless moments in which I found good people who understood me and helped me to overcome my weaknesses and fears. Of course, Tricia Miller is one of those very special souls who took the time to really “get me.”

I’d like to invite everyone to look for Working On the Inside with Tricia Miller, M.Ed.,LPC on Google Play, Apple iTunes, or Spotify. Subscribe today and then sit back and enjoy Tricia’s creative talent and the stories of her incredible friends. I have little doubt that you will be inspired and will become a fan.
Tricia has created a kind of oral history of the life and times of our era. Her guests are diverse and from many walks in life. The common thread that binds them together is a determination to overcome even the most horrific difficulties that life throws at each of us. Tricia has such genius and empathy that she is able to bring uncommon honesty to each episode. I’m certain that listeners will find nuggets of wisdom and hope from meeting Tricia and her guests.

“Shut Up He Explained”

woman in gray formal coat sitting near black full glass panel window
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

“Shut up he explained.” —-Ring Lardner

Words, words, words.,,they matter, but sometimes we get so caught up in them that we place more meaning and importance on them than they were ever meant to convey. As an English major in college I was privy to a number of academic conversations in which the peers of my chosen field of study derived strange meanings from the writings of noted authors. I recall countless discussions focused on interpretations of what various writers actually meant when they chose certain phrases. Sometimes those discussions devolved into silliness, and I found myself wondering how much of our own thinking is responsible for the meanings that we derive whenever someone says or writes something to which we become privy. Perhaps what we think is being said is not what the originator meant at all.

How many times have you found your statements being misinterpreted? I know that as someone who spent a lifetime speaking publicly in front of countless audiences I often had to explain my intent to people who had ascribed some profoundly insulting meaning that had never even crossed my mind. We bring lifetimes of experience to every situation and often how we hear something is based far more on the kinds of experiences we have had than on any maliciousness from a speaker or an author.

When I write blogs each day I expose myself to constant criticism. Quite often someone will twist my words into contortions that had never occurred to me. Without the ability to immediately correct the misconceptions, I have made an enemy or two. Writing or speaking publicly is risky, but attempting to cloak words in cautious sentences sometimes backfires even more. Honesty is required to be believable, but such willingness to be true to ones’ self has its price, particularly in a world in which people are parsing every single word that is uttered or written down. Anyone who says something deemed to be unacceptable may find themselves losing friends or even jobs. We seem to be in an era that categorizes everyone in one way or another, and woe be the consequences for anyone who chooses to utter the wrong kind of statements regardless of what he/she may have really meant.

A few months back The Atlantic magazine hired conservative writer, Kevin Williamson, to balance out the staff which was mostly composed of liberals. Kevin is a Texan who has a rare gift for writing. He chooses vivid and colorful words and phrases that bring his work to life. I enjoy reading his columns just for the sheer appreciation of his craft in a world where true artistic talent with the written word seems to be quite lacking.

Kevin Williamson has strong points of view. He has had no problem speaking loudly against Donald Trump since before the man was even elected. His critiques of the President have not abated. He has made it quite clear that he sees Trump as a rather ignorant buffoon, thus I suppose that The Atlantic may have seen him as a good candidate for giving the periodical a veneer of diversity of thought. Unfortunately trouble ensued from the moment that Mr. Williamson became a member of the staff, mostly because of his unwavering view that abortion is murder. The reality is that Williamson was adopted as a baby, given up by a mother who did not have the wherewithal to raise him. He has often expressed his thanks that he was given a chance to live a wonderful life rather than being denied that opportunity by experiencing death before he was even born. His comments regarding abortion have angered many people over the years but he has steadfastly stood by them. Once he was hired by The Atlantic a furor arose that resulted in his being fired within days. It was a sad commentary on freedom of thought and speech regardless of what one’s views on abortion may be. More recently we have seen others relieved of their public duties for various and sundry slips of the tongue. Among them is Megan Kelley. 

I have admittedly never been a big fan of Megyn Kelley. She is bright and beautiful and appears to be quite sincere, but I never quite understood the admiration for her journalistic skills that were so prevalent. I suppose that my respect for her grew by leaps and bounds when she was willing to openly criticize then candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election. I understood how much courage it took for her to voice her concerns given that she worked for Fox News. She stood her ground even as Donald Trump hurled unseemly insults at her, and her popularity among conservatives took a plunge. I was happy for her when NBC hired her to host part of the Today Show lineup. I found her programs to be far more informative than the drivel that most of the morning entertainers provide. She attacked difficult topics with honesty and I slowly came to like her. At the same time I sensed that her coworkers still held it against her that she had at one time worked for Fox. 

While I was off camping last week Ms. Kelley had a segment on Halloween and the idea that some costumes are deemed to be offensive because of cultural appropriation. She had a panel of guests to discuss this rather recent phenomenon. She made the cardinal mistake of insisting that there may actually be times when wearing blackface is not as egregious as it may appear and her guests soundly disagreed with her premises. Admittedly her arguments were thin and I do understand how some may have found them offensive, but after much thought she reversed her thinking and apologized first on Twitter and then on air the following morning. Sadly it was too late for her. The executives at NBC decided to let her go in spite of her mea culpas. She has become yet another pariah in a world that allows no mistakes even knowing that erring is human.

Any magazine or studio has every right to hire and fire whomsoever they want. Still it bothers me that people who disagree with the general thinking of the organization are let go with very little provocation. There seems to be a fear that contrary thoughts and utterances should be quickly excisized rather than allowed. It is as though we are no longer able to accept ideas counter to our own. Rather than debating the merits of one argument or another, we prefer to shun those who do not think like ourselves. Such lack of reasoning is dangerous and we should all be concerned that it is happening more and more frequently both on the left and on the right. There is no room for differences or even for changes of heart. We must march in cadence with a particular group or leave the ranks.

I had not really thought of writing about this until I read a plaintive comment  from a dear friend regarding her sadness that Megyn Kelley had been fired from NBC. She spoke of how much she admired Ms. Kelley and how she would miss her program. My friend is such a sweet and compassionate woman that I began to think of how sad it is that very talented people are being forced to toe the prevailing line rather than being encouraged to think, debate, pose questions, suggest alternatives. We really should not want to become people who think like one of Ring Lardner’s characters, “Shut up he explained.”