Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.

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The Wedding of a Die Hard Democrat and a Die Hard Republican

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One of my cousins recently posted a commentary about his parents that made me smile. He remarked that one of his folks was a die hard Democrat and the other was a die hard Republican. They used to joke that when they went to vote they canceled each other out. Mostly though they were good people who taught their son to be tolerant and to love his country. He served proudly in the military and learned how to be a  good person in his own right by following their example. He wonders, however, what has changed to cause so much derision, division and incivility today. He wants to know why it is increasingly difficult for people with differing philosophies to get along.

His post got me to thinking about my own parents. In all honesty I don’t really know what political persuasions they had. I only recall my father arguing about a political topic on one occasion and that was with his father. Since I was only privy to the noise of their voices rather than the actual debate I will never really know who advocated what position. It was not any easier to discern what my mother’s thinking might have been. She was an enigma when it came to voting and such. She often told me that she considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the greatest of all the American presidents, insisting that he had saved the nation in more ways than one. She broke into tears when remembering how she had once seen him when he visited Houston. She always spoke glowingly of Harry Truman and John Kennedy as well, but on the other hand, she felt almost as much allegiance to Ronald Reagan as to Roosevelt. In all honesty I can’t think of many times that she even spoke of politics or her feelings about them. To her a vote was a sacred and private thing between her and God. She didn’t discuss her leanings nor did she find it necessary to know about those of anyone else. Her only commentary was that it was glorious to have such a right, even if the elections didn’t always go her way.

Mama was from an immigrant family that was not always treated in the most welcoming way. She told us that her father insisted that in spite of a few prejudices here and there the USA was still preferable to the land that he had left. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the opportunities of being citizens and in turn pay forward the favor by demonstrating their pride in being Americans. When my mom and her siblings were taunted as being foreigners, their father urged them to just ignore the slights. He taught them that there are ignorant folk everywhere, and they need not nurse their anger. Instead he wanted them to become educated and fully involved in the culture and ways of the country. All eight of his children were patriotic, and his sons confirmed their love for the USA by enlisting in the Armed Forces and serving during World War II.

I suspect that my mom would be both confused and amused by the craziness on display these days, but she would have also insisted that everyone has a right to voice their opinions if they so choose. She would often tell us how important that cornerstone of democracy was to her father and ultimately to her and her siblings as well. It was something all too often denied in their homeland of Slovakia, so they were quick to welcome all ideas.

What would have most baffled my mother is the way that so many people are now determining friendships based on political beliefs. She would have first noted that it is none of anyone’s business to judge others, especially with regard to their political beliefs. She would have also wondered why we are talking about such things so openly and so much. Mostly she would have been utterly appalled at the idea of friendships and relationships being based on how people feel about particular hot button topics. I suppose that she had the same high level of tolerance as her older brother who was so fittingly described by his son in the Facebook post.

I often muse that the media is too much with us. There was a time when there was a news hour around dinner time. Thirty minutes were devoted to national events, and thirty to local happenings. Most stories merited only two to three minutes of discussion, rather than the twenty four hour blathering on and on that is possible today. Something has to fill those hours and unfortunately there is a great deal of sensationalism used to attract our attention. We have become news junkies and can’t even escape the grasp of the drama when we are away from our televisions. Our phones and computers constantly alert us to the latest breaking story. There is little or no rest and after a time we become so emotionally involved that we can’t seem to turn off the feelings that send us into emotional frenzies. It sometimes appears as though we are puppets being manipulated by some unseen master.

The reality is that we don’t really need to see every single kook who does something outrageous. The truth is that on any given day most people are busy going about their lives. They are not sitting at home plotting ways to make other’s miserable. They are not evil or uncaring or hoping to undermine the government. Most people are just trying to get by and get along. They do their duty as mothers, fathers, friends, employees, and citizens. They appraise the issues and make choices, and unless they do something illegal or hurt us in some way, it really should not matter to us what their political philosophies may be. Instead we should be focusing on what kind of people they are and admitting that if it actually is possible for a die hard Democrat and a die hard Republican to have a beautiful and loving marriage then maybe we also need to try harder to get along. 

To Infinity and Beyond

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Dear Mr. President,

I hear that you want to create a Space Force as the sixth branch of the Department of Defense. I’m not sure what particulars that you have in mind, so I wanted to make a few comments and ask a few questions. First and foremost I simply wonder why such a step even seems necessary. I mean it’s not as if space is suddenly crowded with military type drills that threaten the world. The International Space Station is perhaps one of the greatest and most peaceful joint ventures ever attempted, a scientific research lab for the world if you will. It appears to be doing fine without need of defense, and I don’t see enemy nations attempting to overtake it any time soon. It takes quite a bit of public effort to get there, so we shouldn’t have to worry that there will be some sort of stealth invasion in the near future.

Does this mean that the Pentagon will have to become the Hexagon? Can we really afford to spend taxpayers funds to rebuild when we have a perfectly good space campus right here in Houston, Texas called NASA? In case nobody told you we actually have a nice layout that is already staffed with engineers and scientists and even some well trained astronauts who are tan, fit and ready to travel into outer space. The unit has been a bit neglected of late with lowered funding curtailing their activities, but they have a fairly impressive resume of accomplishments. They’ve sent men to the moon more than once and they have already managed to get live photo feeds from Mars. Would these guys become the first Space Cadets? As the originator of the Space Force might you become Space Cadet in Chief?

I hear that your generals are against this plan. It seems that they are up to their eyeballs in wartime efforts here on earth and don’t feel that they have either the manpower or the finances to begin such a daunting project. Besides, they are not totally sure about the purpose of such a grand move. They are a bit befuddled by the suddenness of the announcement and the vagueness of the details. They worry about using human and monetary resources when the need might be better met by other governmental agencies. Is there really a demand to defend space, and do you understand that the universe is a really big place. Are you willing to expand our military to infinity and beyond?

I find myself wondering if you know something that the rest of us don’t know. Is there finally proof that aliens have indeed been to visit earth? If so, are there plans to include rules for them in future immigration plans? Will we need to confer and collaborate with other nations since this would be a worldwide problem? If so, then perhaps you may want to make nice with the members of G7 since you dissed them a bit at the last conference. Then again I wonder if you are attempting to keep aliens from coming here or if your plan is to keep most of the world from going into space. Will all of this necessitate a wall? What will it look like and what are your enforcement plans?

My guess is that there may actually be young people who would like to become members of the Space Force since becoming an astronaut is so difficult. Will there be local recruiting stations or will the troops be created from those in the five branches of the military that already exist? Has anyone come up with an idea for a uniform, a song, and maybe even an academy? Will there be annual football games featuring Army vs. Space? It sounds as though there is some potential for a great deal of fun along with the hard work.

I know that our veterans are struggling in so many ways. Do you think that you will be able to improve life for them while still generating enough interest and funding for a whole new branch? Just sayin…

My understanding of the Constitution is that Congress will have to approve such a change. Have you discussed the issues and possibilities with them or was this simply one of your spur of the moment ideas that popped out of your mouth without aforethought? I’m not trying to be rude, I was just taken by surprise and I wonder if the members of the House and Senate may have felt the same way. With so many real issues to tackle does this actually appear to be the right time for something that surely can wait until things are a bit calmer? I mean, we are rather overwhelmed these days paying for seven hundred dollar a night shelters for immigrants among other things.

Finally I just have to ask because it is driving me crazy. Is it even remotely possible that you are in fact a representative from another planet? I’m a very observant person and there are times when you don’t seem to be one of us. You struggle with the English language and your ideas are often way out there. I often find myself scratching my head in wonderment that you are so disconnected to the realities right here on earth. There is a different kind of nature about you that I at first attributed to the fact that you grew up in a kind of bubble inside a wealthy home in New York City, but what if you are indeed the first of many from a world to come. After all you do have a kind of hypnotic effect on many people who are willing to support you almost mindlessly. It reminds me a bit of old sci-fi movies like The Invasion of The Body Snatchers”

Anyway, I would love to have a few more details about the Space Force as I’m sure most Americans and citizens of the rest of world would as well. Please keep us informed insofar as possible. Be aware the big moves done too quickly tend to freak us out. Also remember that you are not supposed to be singlehandedly changing the face of the nation. Your job is to manage what is already here and to work with the duly designated lawmakers in Congress. I sometimes think that you have become a bit confused in that regard.

Civility

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I do my best to be “woke” as the modern vernacular calls someone who is up to date with regards to modern progressive thinking. I’ve done my share of using the big “F” word, and will admit to being quite imperfect more often than I like. I am fairly permissive in a number of ways and often accused of being too liberal by my conservative friends and family members. That being said, I find myself grappling with the growing incivility of current communication. I wince at the public commentaries that are so raw and mean. They bother me in a visceral way that I am unable to overlook.

I learned long ago that we have multiple ways of communicating that are generally governed by somewhat unspoken but understood rules. The language registers that we used operated one way in public and quite another in private. We generally agreed that in the workplace, schools, churches and such we should talk to one another in a more formal manner. We addressed people with a level of respect that was occasioned by the need to be able to work effectively with one another. The kind of honest speaking that leads to cursing and insults was thought to be inappropriate in the public sector.

We all realize that in the more relaxed domains of home and close friendships we are more often than not inclined to use phrases and expletives to express ourselves. The idea is that in good relationships we sense that it is okay to be more open and honest. Those who truly care about us are generally more forgiving of outbursts. It is less likely that we will be punished for a slip of the tongue.

These kinds of mores have mostly been in effect for most of my lifetime. Some may believe that they are somewhat hypocritical, and I suppose that there are arguments for that thinking. Mostly though we have tended to agree that we have to insist upon a certain level of decorum in public lest we devolve into a kind of linguistic anarchy. So it has been for the most part until recently, and sadly the tendency to express frustrations and anger in the vilest terms is gaining traction.

It would be easy to blame the current tendencies on media or even our president who has a very bad habit of tweeting and uttering whatever is on his mind regardless of how distasteful it is. There are many who applaud the so called honesty of such outbursts. Other become so incensed that they resort to fighting fire with fire. Thus we find ourselves watching an awards ceremony only to hear an actor shouting, “F—-“ the president and then he is given a standing ovation. As a society we have become less and less embarrassed by a form of verbal assault that would have been unacceptable in the past.

There are many arguments from both conservatives and liberals that we have been forced into a battle of words by political events. The cheerleaders for such incidents insist that the fight for justice requires that we speak as openly and honestly as possible. They note that those who have been polite have been unable to actually get things done, and that now is the time to be as forceful as needed. They claim that the uncivil war of words is a battle for the very heart of democracy, and so it must be.

Sadly I find the outbursts to be without merit. They are simply gross and violent expressions of anger that do little more than to incite even more rage, when what we need are solutions. Those will only come from a more rational approach to the many problems that we face. Right now all we are managing to do is create divisions that will remain unhealed until we return to a way of speaking to and about one another that demonstrates respect. An argument built only on emotions generally goes nowhere. Relationships are rent in two when the parties are only yelling at one another. Marriages end. Friendships die. Countries wage war.

Children often cry and scream and throw tantrums when they do not get their way. We have to teach them how to control such emotions, and how to properly express their hopes and desires. It is a huge part of becoming an adult, and our youngsters are constantly watching and learning from us. What are they to think when they hear political leaders and icons of art and industry ranting like spoiled brats? Why would they agree to change their own behaviors when they see so many examples of insults being hurled like school yard taunts by prominent adults?

It is time that we insist on a return to civility, and that will only be accomplished if we remain in our seats and refrain from applause whenever someone chooses to speak from the gutter. We need to make it clear that this is not who we wish to be, nor the kind of behavior that we wish our children to witness.

I once had a student who was attempting to defend the efficacy of violence and cursing. He insisted that the best way to get something done was to be the person with the loudest voice and the biggest gun. I debated him until I had reached a point of frustration and I wrote the word A N A R C H Y across the blackboard. I explained that such battles always lead to a state of lawlessness, chaos, disorder that rarely ends well. It is only when we are willing to honor one another and work together that we have accomplished great things. Sometimes that means defeating those who would resort to ugliness as a way of accomplishing goals. Hopefully we will be able to do that within the confines of civility, because history has shown that when we cannot horrible things happen. 

The Banquet Table of Anthony Bourdain

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(It’s taken me a bit to consider what I wanted to say about Anthony Bourdain. I suppose that is okay, because all too often we mourn the loss of someone and then seem to move on to other things. I think that he is someone worth remembering, and we would do well to model his approaches to learning about and loving people. His suicide will never define the incredible person that he was. Mental illness all too often steals some of the best among us away.)

When I think of good times with family and friends it almost always involves food. My grandmother Little was a country woman through and through whose dishes focused on things like fried chicken, fresh fish that she caught herself, pot roast and oodles of vegetables from her garden. Eating Sunday dinner with her was more than just a consumption of cuisine worthy of the Pioneer Woman. It was a communion of love that was special from the Happy Village dishes on which she served her recipes to the strawberries and cream that she spread on thin slices of cake. We understood that those gatherings were a gift from our grandma that we have never forgotten. Our senses somehow manage to recall the bounty that she spread on her mahogany dining table with clear detail. Even decades later we are able to recover the tastes, aromas, and sights from the memory banks of our brains. They serve as a the trademark of the wonderful moments that we shared with her. Those memories keep her alive in our minds decades after she was gone.

We so often associate food with our relationships. My mouth waters just a bit when I think of Ed’s “fancy” that included oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice and conversation that I will never forget. I smile at the thought of Linda’s perennially delicious dishes over which we sat for hours raising our families together and building  lifelong relationships. Bieu’s pig roasts and crawfish boils always bring a diverse group of people together even when we sometimes have no idea what everyone is saying. Monica gives us a taste of Europe and a feeling of welcoming warmth. Michael grills his burgers as the children play and we reminisce about times past and celebrate those yet to come. Granny’s tea time was a backdrop for serious discussions. Uncle Paul’s  green eggs and ham were the stuff of our jokes that in truth were somehow strangely delicious. The tangerines and nuts that filled bowls at Christmas time reunions represented the bounty that our crazy immigrant family had achieved. Grandma Ulrich with her weak, milky, sugary cups of coffee taught us how to bring elegance and joy to the most simple fare. Food is most certainly intimately intertwined with family, friends, relationships.

Anthony Bourdain was one of those people who understood the power and symbolism of sharing food. He traveled the world, breaking bread in places where many of us would not dare tread. He introduced us to the loveliness of our humanity and also taught us the importance of being respectful to all cultures. He truly loved people not for how he wanted them to be, but exactly the way they really were. His enthusiasm for the unusual was always apparent in his stories and interviews. He understood that there is not one right or wrong way of doing things or being. He was a beautiful man in that regard. There was a complexity of his intellect and ability to use words, but there was also a simplicity in his delight over very small joys.

We need more people like Anthony Bourdain, a man who appeared to be judgement free. One of my favorite stories of him was about his defense of an older woman who wrote a restaurant review column for a newspaper in North Dakota. She became the butt of snarky commentary and jokes after she published an earnest piece about the opening of an Olive Garden in her town. She was polite and complimentary of everything from the decor to the professionalism of the server. For her efforts she was virally ridiculed. It was Anthony Bourdain who came to her rescue by noting quite gallantly that she was providing us with a portrait of a part of our society that we sometimes don’t see, and doing it very well. He eventually invited her the New York City and encouraged her to publish her best work. He took the time to get to know her better over coffee in a moment that so special for her. Ultimately her book became a hit with his help, but what was most telling about this incident was his compassion and understanding that each of us has something to offer, something new that will enrich lives. This I believe was the key Anthony Bourdain’s success.

The best people, like Anthony Bourdain, not only regale us with good food and exciting stories. They also show us how to treat one another. My grandmothers and my mother both modeled the same kind of behavior for me, demonstrating how to find the beauty in every single person. They encouraged me to open my heart free of preconceived notions. I have been all of the better because of that and I have attempted to pass down that way of embracing the world to my children and grandsons.

I often recall a time when I took my eldest grandson to a small neighborhood grocery store that often attracted an odd assortment of characters. As we pushed our cart through the narrow aisles we heard a gaggle of languages and witnessed some rather odd forms of dress. All the while music sung in a multitude of foreign languages blared over the loud speakers. After we had been there for a few minutes my grandson beamed his most glorious smile at me and exclaimed, “I like dis place. It’s happy!” His comment swelled my heart with pride.

Anthony Bourdain continually challenged us to move out of our comfort zones so that we might find the enriching experiences that truly make life so much more interesting and enjoyable. He showed us that the way to do that is to sit down and enjoy a meal with strangers who in the exchange might even become friends. There’s a whole world of people out there who very likely would love to spend a few hours sharing their stories while supping on the stuff of life. Anthony Bourdain showed us how to do that and how to really live. May he now rest in peace with a special seat at the great heavenly banquet table.