Becoming

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My guess is that many women received Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, for Christmas. I know that I did and it has been a joy peering into the life of the woman who once served as our First Lady. I’ve enjoyed biographies and autobiographies from the time that my reading skills went beyond tales of Dick and Jane or David and Ann. I’ve devoured hundreds of them and it little matters whether or not the subject of each book is accomplished or ordinary. I simply enjoy learning more about people, and from my reading I have concluded that most people are similar in their hopes and dreams, even those who lived long ago. For that reason it was fun to learn that someone as brilliant and highly regarded as Ms. Obama is really not all that different from any of us. the honesty and humanity with which she told her story is surely the reason that she is beloved by so many, and why she ranks at the top of the most respected women in the world.

Michelle Obama’s life began in the most ordinary of circumstances. She was born into a loving Chicago family and spent her youth living in a rented upstairs apartment on the south side of that city. Her mother and father encouraged her and her brother to pursue education as a way of leveling the playing field of life that is too often difficult for minorities and those of lower socio economic status. Her journey was wrought with challenges that she overcame with a feisty spirit and determination to work hard and prove her own worth.

I thought of my own circumstances as a young girl as I read of the times that Michelle Obama fought to show the naysayers that she was indeed highly capable. While I will never know the horrors of racism, I can identify with the kind of negativity that was often hurled at women as they attempted to compete in a male dominated world. I also knew the roadblocks created by living in a low income single parent family where advantages were mostly nil.

I found myself understanding Michelle Obama’s frustrations and fears as she undertook the journey of becoming the person that she is today. Hers was not an easy path to follow even though on the surface it may have appeared to onlookers to be charmed. Time and again she worried that she might not be as good and strong as she wanted to be, and then set her sights high and did all of the hard work that her dreams required. Luckily, like me, she had parents who convinced her that she had everything that she might ever need to be a resounding success. She chose to believe them rather than those who discouraged her.

As I read the pages of Ms. Obama’s book I found myself considering the idea that each of us face difficulties and setbacks as we strive toward particular goals. We are told that certain aspects of what we hope to achieve may be impossible, sometimes even by well meaning persons. How we react to the negativity determines so much of the trajectory of our lives. How we allow the circumstances of our situations to define us often colors the results of our efforts.

I grew up in a world in which powerful women in the work force were a kind of rarity, and yet I met some remarkable role models along the way, not the least of which was my own mother. A next door neighbor was an artist and architect who recognized my talents and  encouraged me to use them. Another neighbor was a lawyer who often invited me to her home to discuss the world in a very adult fashion, something that she believed that I was quite able to do. I was charmed by these women who were trailblazers in a world where women still mostly stayed at home caring for families. They taught me that I might be anyone that I chose to be.

When I first began high school the principal told me that he did not think that I would be able to keep up with my peers in the honors classes, but that he would give me a short probationary period to demonstrate my abilities. Like Michelle Obama I accepted the challenge with every bit of fight that I had inside. I worked twice as hard as I might have just to prove that I was equal to the others, and I not only secured my place in the prestigious academic program but graduated with honors four years later.

In the same school my college counselor insisted that I choose a state school rather than one of more exclusive institutions. He pointed out that my low income would stand out among the wealthy and powerful sons and daughters from a class well above mine. He worried that I would feel far too uncomfortable in such places, and suggested that I set my sights a bit lower. Since few in my family had even attended college I heeded his advice unlike Ms. Obama who determined that she would shoot for the stars and then lasso them with her intellect and work ethic. As I read about her own forays with those who felt that she was unsuited for a university like Princeton I cheered her for choosing to take the risk. She possessed one the most important character traits that one might have in this world, grit.

Becoming is an important book for all women to read regardless of political preference. It is not so much about beliefs regarding the essence of our country as it is about the very personal values that a woman or perhaps anyone must cultivate to enjoy life on one’s own terms. It is the story of a girl who used the very best of the talents with which she had been blessed to became an accomplished individual in her own right and then the equal partner of one of the most powerful men in the world. Her story is one of hope built on determination and a willingness to ignore the voices of negativity that have always seemed to abound in our world. Michelle Obama is indeed a role model for the ages and a mentor for helping each of us to become our very best.

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They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not

For the Fallen

BY LAURENCE BINYON

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

Peter Jackson, perhaps best known for his brilliant work on The Lord of the Rings, has produced a stunning documentary using remastered film from World War I. He was given privy to hundreds and hundreds of hours of old films from that era along with a mandate to create something stunning, different. His final product, They Young Shall Not Grow Old, is a moving homage to the young men who so gallantly volunteered to fight in a war that they so little understood. It boldly demonstrates their bravery and their innocence in heartbreaking scenes that remind us of the treasures that are lost when we send our youth off to war.

Jackson had to first create a unified story from the millions of images that he found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. He chose to focus on the stories from British men who had told of their personal experiences during World War I in an oral history project created in the nineteen sixties. Using only their voices and actual footage from the time of the war Jackson paints a portrait of bravery and fear as we follow the young men who began as naive innocents in support of their country only to learn how horrific battle can actually be.

Jackson’s challenge was to make the old footage more modern and easy to watch. Most of the film was in terrible shape, almost unusable in many instances. It was too dark or too light, blotchy and prone to appear jumpy. Using modern techniques Jackson and his team were able to adjust the speed, add appropriate colors and even create sound. The result was a stunning portrait of real individuals who brought the feelings associated with that war to life.

Jackson’s own grandfather participated in World War I and so his film was a labor of love for a man who in many ways became broken as a result of his participation in that awful chapter of history. The documentary demonstrates the humanity of the ordeal in the faces and voices of real people. Many of the men appear to be barely within reach of adulthood and yet they were to endure unbelievable horror in days spent in the trenches and the battles. Jackson pictures one group staring at the camera with obvious fear in their eyes and later notes that virtually all of them would die. It would be the last image of them alive.

Jackson brilliantly brings both the glory and the brutal reality of war to life in a way that no amount of acting is able to do. It is a stunning feat that will not soon leave my mind. Sadly the documentary will only be shown twice in December, at least at this point in time. I believe that it is such an important work that it will eventually become available to a wider audience. It is a film that every one of us should view.

The Universe Awaits

DannyI truly love all of the young men and women who were once my students. Still, now and again there are those who stand out just a bit, making me certain that they will have a glorious life ahead. One of those is Danny Martinez. I have written about Danny in previous blogs. His faith is a beautiful thing to witness and whenever I need a special prayer I always make certain that Danny is on my prayer chain. His earnest belief in the power of God is quite special. He likes to remind me that I should already know that God is caring for me, and in every case I find his words to be true.

Danny is also a person filled with optimism and determination, a man who is not willing to give up no matter how difficult things become. It has been said that grit, or the willingness to persist, is one of the most important adult qualities. If that is so, and I believe it is, Danny will go far in life.

Danny is the first to tell the stories of the time in which he made a dramatic change in his life. He was only in the fifth grade but already having scrapes with the law. He was going nowhere fast, and somehow he peered into a dreary future and decided that he needed to become a better person. He saw education as the pathway to the kind of existence that he wanted. He yearned to be an engineer and maybe even to one day be selected for a job at NASA so that he might have a shot at being an astronaut. In pursuit of that goal he buckled down and became the kind of student that every teacher dreams of educating. By the end of his high school years he was admired by his classmates and all of his teachers, earning him the highest honor that the faculty give to one senior each year.

Danny headed to the University of Texas Permian Basin for college. His struggles continued. His family’s car broke down on the way to the campus and lacking the money to stay in a motel his loved ones slept inside their car. Danny had few opportunities to travel home because the cost of doing so was too much. He might have complained about his fate, but in characteristic fashion he looked on the bright side of things and soldiered on without mentioning his travails. His optimism and sense of purpose impressed those he met, and so he made many friends at the university and caught the eye of his professors as well.

At one point Danny finally managed to get an automobile to drive back and forth but sadly had a very serious wreck that might have severely injured him save for what appeared to be a miracle. Danny was certain that God had a plan for him and so he was not discouraged even when it took him longer than he had anticipated to earn his degree. He kept working hard and believing that God’s grace would pull him through. In the process he became beloved on campus and just last year was named the outstanding student. Everyone saw his indomitable spirit just as we had when he was back in high school.

Danny graduated this month and I suspect that he is only at the beginning of what will surely be an incredible future. Danny is not one to give up, nor is he likely to forget his humble beginnings and all of the people who have encouraged and supported him along the way. He already knows that God is by his side, and he proclaims the joy that his relationship with the Father has brought him.

Danny grew up in the north side of Houston, in a place where there are many temptations to take the easy way out. He chose instead to put in all of the effort he needed to demonstrate his heart and his abilities. Not once did he make any excuses, even when times became tough. He simply carried on taking one day at a time, convinced that he would be able to achieve a life that had at one time seemed almost impossible when he spoke of it to those who would listen. In the process Danny has influenced members of his family and friends to make the kind of changes that he has. He is not only propelling himself forward, but also bringing others with him. He is indeed an exquisitely beautiful soul.

I am bursting with pride over Danny’s accomplishments. I still recall the first time I met him when he was a freshman in my second period Algebra I class. He was so welcoming, and he encouraged the other students to behave and take advantage of the opportunity to learn. Even then he was extraordinary,

I know that my friendship with Danny will continue and I look forward to watching him navigate adult life with the same aplomb that he has always shown. “Congratulations, Danny Martinez. The universe is waiting for you, and we know that your impact will be as incredible as you are.”

The Best Medicine

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It’s easy to lose perspective of what is most important during the holiday season and why we even celebrate it. I suppose that’s why I keep harking back to the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush. There were many lessons in the days of celebrating his life, and one of the most touching for me was the character of his friendships. He was a man who seemed to bring out the very best values in the people closest to him, things like loyalty, humility and fun. I was particularly taken by the eulogies of James Baker and Alan Simpson, longtime work associates and devoted pals who knew President Bush so well that they had long ago eschewed formalities with him.

Alan Simpson delivered a humorous monologue about his relationship with President Bush that spoke to the fun times that the two had shared. It lightened the somber mood and brought laughter into the gathering, something that had obviously appealed to the playful nature of President Bush and served to balance the seriousness of his life’s work. Senator Simpson made me smile as I imagined the two buddies guffawing like a couple of school boys even as they shouldered the weight of the world’s problems. There is something quite intimate about good friends sharing jokes and inside stories that bring merriment. Laughter is one of our most essential human traits as long as it is not tinged with hurtful barbs. It not only heals our souls, but has also been known to assist in making our bodies feel better as well.

I’ve been a fan of Alan Simpson for some time mostly because he reminds me of my husband Mike. Both men manage to find humor wherever they go, and in my own life Mike keeps me laughing even when events threaten to take me down. The two of us not only exchange daily hugs and expressions of love, but rarely allow a day to pass without a hardy guffaw that rumbles from the depths of our bellies. It surely makes things better and keeps our minds young.

It does not surprise me that Mike and Alan Simpson are actually distant relatives joined in their family trees by Burnetts. The mother whom Alan Simpson so lovingly spoke of in his eulogy was a Burnett, and the common ancestor that he and Mike share was a pioneer of Wyoming. The Burnetts are a hardy lot whether they lived in Wyoming or Texas, and I often tell my daughters and grandchildren that they bear the genes of some very tough individuals. Now I know that they also possess a tendency to enjoy a nonstop sense of humor as well.

I sometimes worry that our ability to poke fun at the world is taking a dark turn. Instead of finding delight in humorous situations we tend to focus on making fun of individuals. Jokes are too often used as darts to wound people. Bullies badger the weak with crudeness. The funniest men and women have a way of making us howl without ever purposely hurting or demeaning anyone. Carol Burnett was a genius at bringing such great joy to the world with the simple use of facial expressions and body language. Her show was a kind of curative hour for the nation when it aired each Saturday evening.

I grew up with comedy front and center in my home. I recall my father savoring jokes to relay to his us and to his friends. Evenings at the dinner table were laced with his wry deliveries of the funny things he had seen and heard at work. Our first television always seemed to be tuned to comedic programs featuring geniuses like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton. While my Uncle Jack was a western man, my father was pure comedy right down to some of the books that were tucked in his library. I missed his humor when he was gone, and I suppose that it is not an accident at all that I eventually married a man with a similar bent toward outrageous laughter.

We’ve also become a bit Puritanical in our society when it comes to judging humor. So many topics have become taboo that it must be somewhat frightening for comedians to open their mouths. I imagine them being attacked from the right and the left for even a minor slip of the tongue. They have to be more careful than their predecessors which no doubt makes them rather nervous. The odds are rather good that even the most innocent of jokes might offend. We’ve become a rather censorious society in which the only free game seems to be President Trump, a rather easy and boring target because it is so overused.

We need laughter in our midst. Even as a teacher I found the comedians in my classes and instead of punishing them for their outbursts I gave them brief moments on the stage in the hopes that a bit of fun might diminish some of the anxiety that so many have toward mathematics. A bit of hilarity often broke down the emotional barriers that my students brought to class. I was always so grateful to the funny boys and girls who knew how to insert joy into the seriousness of my work. To this very day I appreciate people who have the ability to keep the world from sliding into a valley of moroseness. God bless the comics for they remind us that there is always light even when things seem darkest.    

Quiet Dignity

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I suppose that many of us long for an ideal society in which we all get along and work together side by side for the common good. We’ve had very few moments in history that worked out so well. There have been some events that have drawn us together, but for the most part there is no place on earth where people are continually in general agreement with one another. It’s a sad fact that those who attempt to be kind and understanding are often misunderstood and thought to be weak and wimpy. So it was with George H.W. Bush, a man so recently revered for his sterling character who was in many ways reviled as someone who did not have the backbone to be a leader when he was in office. The same was true of Jimmy Carter. Sadly both men were one term presidents because the voters saw them as ineffective when the truth was, and still is, that it sometimes takes far more courage to stand for honor and conviction than to wield power like a bully.

I was struck by the Bush family’s ability to bring disparate sides together in the hour of their sorrow. It was apparent that every great leader was ultimately in awe of George H.W. Bush’s character, charm and humility. He understood the need for our leaders to support one another and to put petty grievances aside for the good of the country. He was a man who always did what he believed to be best for all of us rather than for himself. That is a somewhat rare trait in today’s super charged political atmosphere where political grudges run deep.

I loved that the Bush family was so willing to take former President Clinton into their fold, treating him like a member of the family. It made me smile to see George W. teasing Michelle Obama even in his hour of deep sorrow. I was deeply moved that former President Carter and his wife came to honor a man who had once been his competitor. Even President Trump managed to maintain his dignity for the occasion, and the Obamas set aside their differences to show him respect. This was as it should be, not just at the end of someone’s life, but in all instances.

We seem to have lost our way, but occasions like the funeral of a great man reminds us of who we are as people and how we should behave. It was the hope of our founding fathers that we would find ways to compromise and get along for the sake of the nation. We have struggled with that concept again and again, even going so far as to split into a civil war. If not for the determination of another good man, Abraham Lincoln, we might not be such a prosperous country today. We might never have become a haven for people searching for better lives like my grandparents.

While I saw a glimmer of hope in the unity on display at the Bush funeral, I also witnessed the cracks that still need to be filled. I was disappointed that Hillary Clinton was unable to find it in her heart to be somewhat civil to President Trump. It would have been a triumphant move for her to demonstrate that she was the better person, but instead she refused to even acknowledge him. I was also disturbed by commentaries that took place almost before Bush was even buried that continued the rabid fighting between our two political parties. I realized that there is still so much rancor in our country that it will take some rare individual or event to pull us back together. Perhaps somewhere in our midst is a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt type figure who will one day bring us the kind of leadership that we so desperately need. I shudder to think that it will require a tragedy or a war to bring us back together.

I believe that most of us desire a quiet, kind and gentle way of doing business. We have instead allowed fringes on the left and right to call the shots. They are the loudest because the rest of us don’t operate their way. They are encouraged by pundits and journalists hoping to make names for themselves rather than finding the courage to be fair and honest. We have been emotionally manipulated for some time now, and I suspect that most of the people of this nation have grown weary of the tactics, but don’t know how to make them stop.

It is sad that we sometimes have to be faced with tragedy before we are able to see truths that are right before our eyes. We are not better off with extremes. It was never the intent of those who created this country to accept incivility and unwillingness to compromise as the way of doing things. We have to take a deep breath and think about how we really want to be.

It was said that George H.W. Bush was a great manager, but not quite as good as a politician. In truth this is exactly what a president is supposed to be, the person who helps to run the many systems of the country. We have far too many executive orders and ways around the intended processes these days. Our Congress should be making the laws, not a single individual. We desperately need to be reminded that the running of our country should not be the domain of a one person, no matter how charismatic or strong willed he or she may be. The president should be striving to be reasonable with all sides of an argument, not just the ideas of a political party. Always decisions should be made with a wide scope of opinions in mind.

I can only pray that we will one day remember who we are as a nation, admit to our mistakes, and move toward a more all embracing way of doing things. The fighting and snubbing and name calling will ultimately do us no good. Dignity must become our goal again. George H.W. Bush and his family have shown us the way. Perhaps it is time to follow.