In Memoriam

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Memorial Day is always a pensive time for me on so many levels. This year I felt the spirit of all of the souls who lost their lives in the service of our country more than ever. I also thought of those who made it through wars but whose lives were forever changed by memories of battles that they fought. War is a terrible thing and we have generally tried very hard to use it as a last resort. Nonetheless even now we have soldiers serving in war torn countries knowing that they may lose their lives at any moment. Such courage is difficult to understand but many who served in the military have told me that in the heat of a battle the focus becomes the preservation of the members of the corps. It is all about attempting to insure that everyone survives and leaves the battlefield alive. That profound human instinct to protect takes over to create magnificent acts of heroism.

I am a pacifist by nature but I understand that there are indeed times that require humans to defend themselves, their families, their country. If I had my way diplomacy would be rational and powerful enough to end war forever but I know that somehow people have a very difficult time setting aside their differences in a spirit of compromise. Throughout history we have found ourselves engaged in combat again and again and our young men have been called upon to fight. On Memorial Day we remember those whose lives were cut short and while we honor them, we also silently wonder why they had to much such a profound sacrifice for the rest of us.

I spent time this past weekend watching some movies about the brave men who have fought for our cause. First I viewed Glory, one of my all time favorite films. I cannot watch it without ultimately sobbing. It encapsulates the mixed emotions that surround the history of our country including perhaps the worst political mistake we ever made in allowing slavery to coexist with the ideals of democracy. While the nation was growing and prospering the politics of slavery that divided the people became more and more inflamed ultimately pitting state against state, region against region, brother against brother.

My great grandfather who was living in Kentucky chose to fight for the union forces. He spent four years first as a foot soldier and then a calvary man. The war placed a toll on his health. Somehow he was never as robust as he had once been and surely the horrors that he witnessed must have haunted him. His unit was tasked with collecting the bodies of the dead and wounded soldiers after the battle of Shiloh. It had to have been a gruesome sight that haunted him even as he settled into a somewhat normal existence had began a family. I think of them often and feel both pride for his service and regret that he had to endure such a thing. 

I also watched We Were Soldiers another film that brings out emotions from my youth. It takes place during the Vietnam War in the year when I was a senior in high school. Seeing the brutality of the battle it depicts only reinforces the sorrow that I felt whenever I learned of the death of someone who had been a classmate or a friend. While many of them had enlisted, others were drafted into service. The country was conflicted about the necessity of our involvement in what was essentially a civil war in a place so far away from home. While it was touted as a stand against communism it became clear over time that somehow we were outsiders attempting to protect Vietnam from a war that the Viet Cong was determined to win no matter how long it took.

The wall in Washington D.C. lists the names of all of the almost sixty thousand souls that we lost in that effort. I am haunted by the humanity of it each time I visit and run my fingers over the names of those that I knew. They were brave individuals who believed that theirs was a just cause but to this very day I wonder if losing them might have been prevented if we had known beforehand how the conflict would ultimately end. How different would their lives and the lives of those who loved them be if they had never gone to Vietnam? 

History, and particularly military history, is riddled with questions. It is easier to see the might have beens in retrospect. An armchair general can consider what went wrong with great clarity but the reality is that we will never really know what would have happened if we had chosen different routes. Wars are caused when humans cannot agree on how the world should be. Our young people go out to fight the battles for the philosophies of politicians and sometimes tragically lose their lives. I consider how wonderful it would be if we never had to engage our youth in such horrors ever again while realistically understanding that such an ideal will never come to pass.

This Memorial Day was haunted by the growing divide amongst us regarding Covid-19, a virus that has taken close to one hundred thousand souls in a span of  only three months. While the disease stalks the world in search of bodies to invade we argue with one another and point fingers at those who are attempting to lead us. We choose sides and sometimes even viciously attack those whose beliefs differ from our own while our courageous essential workers have been drafted into the role of keeping us safe. It is a new kind of battle with so much uncertainty that none of us can truly know exactly how to react.

I cannot understand why we humans choose to argue with one another so often and why we so seldom choose to find a road that eschews hostility. Perhaps it is in our natures, something that we have never been able to totally control. We have gone to war with one another in an endless loop of death and destruction that rears its head more often than we wish and yet we still work at odds with one another and follow those who actually encourage us to do so. We repeat the mistakes and the sins of our ancestors because in the end we are not so different from them. Memorial Day should always remind us of the cost of disagreements that become so entrenched that we no longer communicate. The spirits of all of the lost humanity should spur us to find ways of loving instead of fighting. 

Mass Confusion

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When I was still a pup of a teacher I decided to construct an elaborate system for managing the behavior of the students in my class. I created a bulletin board sized list of rules with consequences for those who chose not to follow them. I spent days attempting to drill my demands into the minds of my pupils. I tried to stop immediately to apply the proper warnings or punishments for infractions. Before long I was spending so much time on classroom management records that I was struggling to keep up with the lessons I had designed. My only way out was to begin ignoring or changing my original ideas or risk drowning in management paperwork. The atmosphere in the class was strained and a kind of student led anarchy became the mode of operation. With great frustration I went to my principal for guidance. What I learned from her would prove to be effective for all of the days of my career as an educator

Her first bit of advice was that I keep things simple by listing only the rules that were essential and then applying them uniformly. She told me that once I allowed students to take over my classroom it would be extremely difficult to get back control of the situation, so she suggested that I think long and hard before putting anything in writing. She cautioned that wavering would mean that my students would just do whatever they wanted to do and not listen to me ever again. She also promised to back me up once my new and improved system was in place. 

I took her advice and limited my behavioral guidance to four basic rules. I went over them with my students explaining the reasons for each of them and allowing the kids to ask questions. Then I made certain that they were followed. Things settled down and before long my management system was on autopilot and we were all much happier.

I’ve thought about that with regard to the directives that we have received from both the federal government and the state and city administrations regarding how to proceed during the pandemic. Sadly the chain of guidance has broken down. One day we are told that masks are worthless and the next the instructions tell us to wear them. Certain businesses have been closed but when someone protests by opening up despite the decrees the powers that be who initiated the closures don’t enforce their own regulations. The federal government outlines a remarkably sensible procedure for opening states and cities but when those guidelines are ignored the president almost seems delighted. Our country feels like the wild west with maskless groups protesting with guns, Confederate flags and disgusting signs in defiance of the edicts. Little wonder that there are actually people who believe that the danger is over and that probably it was never there to begin with. The government has created a state of citizen anarchy much like the one that developed in my classroom when I kept changing and overlooking rules.

Even I was beginning to question the safety measures that I have been dutifully following. When I go out wearing my mask I am lucky to encounter anyone else who is buying into the idea of using protective gear. At least for now most stores are still requiring such things but I wonder how long they will be able to hold their customers to their demands when the government pronouncements are literally ignored from one day to the next.

I was beginning to feel as though somebody was gaslighting me and I honestly could not decide who it might be. I questioned my own thinking so I finally contacted some doctors that I implicitly trust to see what kind of advice they had. It was like asking for counsel from my principal of long ago and I was ultimately comforted by what they told me.

According to my doctors, who are highly regarded professionals in their specialties, the numbers of cases in my area continue to rise and they are concerned by the numbers of  people who are refusing to adhere to the guidelines of wearing masks and avoiding close contact with others. For that reason they have advised me to continue to mostly shelter in place until further notice. They believe that the number of cases and deaths that we are seeing are being fueled by people who ignore the guidelines and leaders who look the other way when they see that happening. Local governments where numbers are still higher than they should be are being left holding the bag. The buck is being passed from one person to the next with nobody wanting to get caught with it when the music stops. The coordinated efforts and supports from federal to state to local government are lacking and it is causing massive confusion, especially when guidelines are continually being tossed aside only days after they have been enacted.

Add to that, there is a growing ugliness surrounding the massive confusion that has become far too prevalent. People are being ridiculed and insulted for doing what they think is right or need to do. I’ve been told that I should leave Texas and take my ideas to California or Washington State just because I mentioned that I wear a mask when I go outside of my home and make contact with others. I see women holding signs that suggest that wearing a mask is like a muzzle that should only be worn by slaves and dogs and I am horrified. I truly worry for my country when there is no leader willing to be the adult and rein in the disgusting demonstrations by calling them what they are rather than giving them a thumbs up by noting that such folks are good people. 

The doctors tell me that there will be more illness and death to come. We may have to deal with it while also attempting to repair our ailing economy. People need to pick up the pieces of their lives while staying relatively safe at the same time. This can be done in tandem if our leaders model the behaviors that they want us to follow. They must create a plan, stick with it and encourage unity not just among the citizens but in the halls of leadership as well. Our future may depend on how well or how badly they manage to do that.

Hoping For the Best

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When I was a teen there was a song that advocated living for today. The whole idea was to set aside worries and enjoy the moment. It was a kind of rebellious chant against the work ethic that seemed to be driving our country into a state of anxiety and materialism. Many young people, myself included, began to question the way things had always been done and wonder if there were possibilities that might create a more equitable and prosperous life for everyone, not just the power elites.

Of course there was nothing really new about youthful indulgence into utopian thinking. It’s something that has characterized teens and twenty somethings for centuries. Some of the most revolutionary and profound ideas in history came from young people who had grown weary of the status quo. So too did I envision a world free of prejudice, poverty and artificial hierarchies. I was more than ready to rebel against the lack of freedoms and opportunities for minorities, women and the poor. In some ways my generation lit the fires that evoked change for the better but as so often happens we became distracted and burdened by the responsibilities of life. Soon enough we were the people over thirty whom we had distrusted. Like so many before us we settled into the rat race and focused on our families and our occupations. We had little time for philosophizing or inventing new ways of doing things.

Now my generation is old and only tenuously maintaining a hold on the power to influence. Yes, our president is from my age group and so is his presumed opponent for the job, but it is apparent that a younger group will soon enough be taking over the reins. In the meantime most of the folks my age have retired from work and are spending much deserved moments enjoying however many years they may have left on this earth. With more time to consider such topics we sometimes ponder our accomplishments and worry that perhaps we might have done more to leave a kinder more promising legacy to our children and grandchildren. After all, what is really the purpose of our day to day existence if not to make a difference?

The last twenty years have been plagued by terror, wars, economic turmoil, extremes of climate and the emergence of hate groups that had been long festering underground. We are as divided as a nation as we were in the sixties and seventies of my youth. Perhaps we are even beginning to understand how life was for our great grandparents who found themselves engaged in a civil war. It has been challenging to watch the deterioration of our relationships that is often fueled by the very people who should be bringing us together. It is particularly sad for those of us who invested so much energy into the idea of making our country an inviting place for everyone regardless of who they might be. Now without warning we are dealing with what may well be the most damaging moment of our history.

Covid-19 has further accented our rifts and made it more clear than ever that we have issues that are still to be resolved. As I sit inside my home at the age of seventy one I grieve for the world, but most implicitly for my nation. I can see that we are not united at all and that our differences seem to be widening rather than mending. We are too much guided by fear and basic needs to work for a self actualized version of our nation. Because we want quick fixes we appear to be placing bandaids on our wounds rather than attempting to understand and heal the root causes of our problems.

When we only react rather than create rational plans we are bound to overlook the pitfalls of our decisions. I feel certain that the vast majority of people want what is best for everyone but in our hour of uncertainty we appear to be allowing those who are the loudest and most aggressive to determine our fates. Instead of putting the best medical and business minds together we are pitting them with one another as though we can’t be safe from the ravages of Covid-19 while also keeping our economy moving as robustly as possible. It has become a them against us free for all in which we witness people hoarding and scrambling for crumbs, all while taunting and insulting anyone who disagrees with whatever they happen to believe.

I have seen this kind of behavior before. It was very much a sign of the times during my youth. Then it was called the generation gap. It meant choosing sides between those who served in Vietnam and those who were against the war. It involved a pretense of fairness when certain races were segregated from the freedoms that the rest of us enjoyed. It kept women from thriving in engineering schools or colleges of architecture. Anyone who disagreed with the status quo of the country was told to “love it, or leave it.” It was not the romanticized era to which so many want to return.

We made some progress for many people but we became weary of the fight. We let down our guard and became self satisfied while new difficulties emerged. Our children and grandchildren kept warning us that there was till much work to be done but we only laughed at their intensity and reminded them that we all feel that way for a time and then get over it. Now I see that getting over it can be a dangerous thing. It leaves us unready and vulnerable when we do not work together to build and repair the foundations of our nation. We revert to partisan thinking and the hateful ways engendered by fear.

I am worried but not so much for me anymore. I am fearful of what my children and grandchildren will have to endure because we appear to be so incapable of setting aside our differences in a time of need. I am worried because so many are unwilling to sacrifice to get us all through of our difficulties. I worry when I see protestors threatening with guns. I worry when I hear insulting and racist comments fall so easily from people’s tongues. I worry because I see fear and ignorance and politics guiding decisions.

I have always been both fascinated and inspired by a story about the great depression in my city of Houston. Unlike other places the banks here never closed. As the tale goes the movers and shakers of the city met with Jesse Jones in the Rice Hotel and they agreed that instead of working in competition with one another they would join forces to make certain that nobody would have to go out of business. While times were nonetheless tough they indeed managed to keep most of the commerce working if only in a lesser form of itself. It was the understanding that saving as many people as possible was better than attempting to emerge as a single victor that kept the Houston economy working better than in most locales.

My daily prayer is that we will find a way to emulate cooperation and send a loud message to those who would have us fight among ourselves. We can emerge with cuts and scrapes or we can risk being mortally wounded. The difference will be determined by how willing we are to work together. I hope we find a way to make that happen.

The Numbers

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I’ve spent my life teaching young people about numbers. I enjoy demystifying mathematical processes and watching my students grow in confidence when faced with numerical challenges. I don’t believe that there are really individuals who are bad at math. I think instead that some folks just never encountered the right person to help them find an understanding of the logic and processes of math that underpin the workings of nature and the modern world.

Of late we’ve been bombarded with charts and graphs and statistical data of all sorts regarding Covid-19. We hear discussions regarding death rates of the virus and comparisons of this disease with others. It can become confusing and even a bit overwhelming but a few strokes on a calculator reveal some rather interesting information about the effect of the pandemic on our country.

Last week, using the latest information from the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 site along with a few references from Google I decided to do a bit of investigating of my own. I began by determining what percent of the world’s population resides in the United States. There are approximately 7,994,000,000 humans living across the globe. Of those about 382,200,000 are in the United States of America. A little bit of division showed me that our nation is home to about 5% of the people on this earth.

Next I noted that there have been 4,400,688 recorded cases of Covid-19 throughout the world. Of those 1,400,500 have been here in the USA. Another quick bit of division revealed that we have about 32% of the known cases of the virus. I was confounded by the fact that a nation with only 5% of the total population would have almost a third of the cases but I suspect that there are any number of logical explanations for that astounding number. We tend to be a rather mobile population that travels to all parts of the world and is continually on the move within our states and cities. Additionally we have a very modern medical system and in spite of its problems it is generally known for its capability to quickly and accurately diagnose disease. Nonetheless our rate of infection compared to the rest of the world is abnormally high and yet we still have people who are underplaying the effect of Covid-19 on our population.

Perhaps it is because the general story making the rounds is that this novel coronavirus is not any more deadly than the seasonal flu. With that in mind I ran the numbers and found that if I divided the number of US deaths from the virus (84,985) by the number of cases (1,400,500) I got a stunning 6% mortality rate. That is a number far larger than the under one percent figure that many claim is the average fatality rate for this virus. Furthermore the figures that I am using have been recorded in only two or three months as compared with an entire year of flu. We have now lost more citizens to Covid-19 since the beginning of 2020 than we did in all of the Vietnam War. Our percent of deaths does not fare too well when compared with the rest of the world either. In fact our figures represent 28% of all deaths from Covid-19 so far.

I find my calculations to be interesting because they appear to put a lie to a number of claims by individuals and groups who seem to think that what our country is enduring is little more than a grand hoax designed to make our president look bad in an election year. Somehow the numbers tell me that the truth of the matter is that the danger is very real and for some reason our country is not faring as well as we might hope. To believe that anybody would be capable of creating a deception so complexly horrific is incomprehensible.

The numbers regarding the destruction of our economy are just as appalling and maybe even more so, but the fact is that if we don’t very carefully consider the consequences of both dealing with the virus and keeping our country working we will surely face an even bleaker future. We indeed must be willing to talk about the facts without cover up or  recriminations The only undeniable truth in all of this is that we will have to work together, not just with each other here in this country but with our fellow humans across the globe.

Every nation is wounded and hurting. This is hardly the time to boast about our own country’s accomplishments or to isolate ourselves from the great thinking and solutions that are occurring in different corners of the globe. Our battle to save our country and our world is not a matter of who is best or first. Our leaders will have to make difficult decisions that should be based on what is right for the common good rather than what may garner votes in the coming election. All of us must be willing to sacrifice and endure privations and changes for which we are not accustomed. In the end it will not matter who was wrong or who was right in predicting the future, but what will be of paramount importance is how well and willing we are to respond to any new emergencies that arise.

People tell me that they are weary of talk of Covid-19. They want to go back to work, to shopping, to eating out, to going to church, to having parties. They want the coming school year to be business as usual and they look forward to a fall that includes football games and Halloween celebrations. They hope to soon have all of the broken pieces of our lives neatly put back together so that we can bid adieu to all of the suffering and chaos. It’s a dream that we all harbor and with God’s grace Covid-19 will leave us as mysteriously as it came into our midst. Unfortunately based on the numbers it is doubtful that things will be quite that easy.

We Can’t Keep Looking Away

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I have a grandson who is a runner. Seeing him gracefully striding around a track is a thing of beauty, the ultimate vision of human endurance and grace. He has a particular racing style that reminds me of a gazelle and I never tire of watching him in action.

This would have been a record breaking year for him but sadly after only a few track meets the season ended when schools were closed due to the virus. He has continued to run each day nonetheless. Those moments when he is able to feel the wind on his face and achieve a feeling of being totally in sync with the world have been good for him. They allow him to forget about the troubles we are facing if only for a few minutes each day.

I thought of my grandson when I first heard of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by two men claiming to have taken him down under suspicion of being a thief on the run. When I eventually saw the video of Ahmaud in his last moments I was stunned. I saw his jogger’s stride before he encountered his attackers. This was not the furtive motion of someone evading capture. It was most certainly the pace of a seasoned runner who was pursuing a most innocent pastime. He must have been terrified as he realized what was happening and he struggled unsuccessfully to get away from the danger. Watching the film is exceedingly difficult and heart wrenching but we cannot look away from it because it holds a truth that we must face.

Of course there is a difference between my grandson and Ahmaud that is striking. Ahmaud was a black man while my grandson has blonde hair and blue eyes. Ahmaud had a lovely smile that lit up his face, but those vigilantes who became judge, jury and executioner without even a consideration of evidence would never have seen his sweetness. The color of his skin and the fact that he was running was all they needed to know.

Sadly they got away with their crime for a time. Law enforcement accepted their story and seemingly decided the case was closed. Ahmaud might have been just another casualty of racism, the victim of a lynching, had not his mother continued to question the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. Eventually videos of the scene that had been filmed by passersby emerged providing an unavoidable clarity for determining what had actually happened. Over seventy days later the two men were arrested.

My daughter says that she does not worry when my grandson runs in the neighborhood. He is a good boy and almost everyone knows him, but she understands that if she and he were black she would be terrified each time that he set out from home with his track shoes. We still have far too many in our country who seem to believe that color, not character defines people. They are suspicious of anyone who does not fit the stereotypes of their minds and sadly too many among us excuse their flawed thinking. It is easier to look away when people spew their hate and sometimes even our leaders attempt to cover the ugliness of such actions by insisting that those who spread their foul beliefs are really just good people who are frustrated or feeling left out.

As humans we often feel so uncomfortable confronting truth. When athletes kneel during the National Anthem to shed light on the racism that still exists we tend to ignore or insult them. On the whole we are unwilling to admit that there is a double standard that lurks beneath the veneer of our society. Groups among us will become enraged when a white hairdresser is jailed for flaunting restrictions during our pandemic, but they can’t see the reasoning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. If groups of minorities protest it is often called a riot but if gun toting white men scream in the faces of state troopers because they do not want to be restricted by pandemic rules even our president applauds them for fighting against tyranny. Then those same folds scratch their heads in wonder when any minority feels beset upon.

I’ve been having a difficult time maintaining my usual optimism for the past couple of weeks. I am witnessing a level of anger and ugliness that I have not seen since my high school and college days when we were engaged in a struggle to end segregation and a war in Vietnam that had gone so very wrong. It was a frightening time during which the curtain that had been hiding the rot that festered in our nation was drawn wide open. A schism rocked the country and we all found ourselves either choosing sides or averting our glances and joining the silent majority. When the dust finally settled we were eager to just go back to a more normal state, but far too much had simply been swept under the rug where it has been sitting ever since becoming foul. Somehow our nation’s biggest mistakes have never been properly faced and rectified. We are still too afraid to admit that while we have freed the people whose ancestors were wrongfully enslaved and even given them the rights that we take for granted they are still struggling to be free from judgement and persecution. We have yet to adequately call out the racism that exists in corners of our society and because of that it only tends to grow.

I realize that we will never be able to eradicate hatred. It is been a part of the human experience since Cain killed Abel. All across the globe one group fights with another. What we can do is call out those who flaunt their racism in the public square. We must insist that our leaders deride any person or group who discriminates and foments violence against a particular group. We have to quit categorizing individuals based on the characteristics of color or ethnicity or sexual preference or religion and we need to voice our disdain for those who do.

Our future in the coming weeks and months is uncertain but while we are rebuilding our economy we would do well to consider insisting that our leaders understand that we have grown weary of accepting a status quo that still allows stereotyping. We need to finally speak up. Looking away is no longer an option.