Bring Back the Joy

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The best football game that I saw all year was the Texas 6A high school championship game that was a nail biter until the very end when Galena Park North Shore won with a Hail Mary pass in the final minutes. In fact, most of the high school games are a great deal more fun than even the college efforts these days. Sadly the whole football experience is about  money, and in today’s world that boils down to a few usual suspects with everyone else left behind. The fun and the possibility of surprises is mostly not there anymore. as coaches get lured by incredible salaries and players use universities to launch careers sometimes before they even graduate. Somehow the joy and the luster has worn off just a bit for me and nothing was a more obvious example of what I’m feeling than last Sunday’s Super Bowl game.

There was a time when that gridiron rivalry had something for everyone. Even if the game itself wasn’t particularly inspiring the food at the parities, the halftime show, and the commercials were enough to keep the excitement going for days. This year not one of those things seemed to spark the kind of enthusiasm that was so often generated in the past, which makes me wonder if the Super Bowl experience needs an overhaul, something to make it a bit more worthwhile. I find myself thinking that we may have just grown weary of the tried and true formulas or maybe we have just become so picky and even political that we can no longer be as easily pleased as we once were. We tend to shroud almost every aspect of our society in controversy these days and the game of football is feeling the blows of our discontent.

We grumble about the fairness of selecting the teams who will play. We scream about who should sing the national anthem and whether or not there should even be a performance of it. We preach to the fans about choosing healthy snacks rather than chowing down on chicken wings, pizza and beer. We watch the advertisements searching for reasons to become angry about them if they do not appear to represent America the way we think that they ought to do. We grumble about the performers in every manner from their choice of music and wardrobe to whether or not they honor the demographic realities of the country. We pick the whole event apart as if it is a presidential contest, or something that really matters.

There was a time when a kid from nowhere had a shot at glory in a particular sport, and that is generally still true, but virtually every kind of athletic endeavor is now driven by big money. The wealthy programs dominate and the fairytale of Cinderella teams becomes less and less believable. I wonder how many young souls are eaten alive in the competition to reach the top. When politics are added to the mix things get really messed up. Sport becomes distorted and used to satisfy the unrelated desires of businessmen, advertisers, and politicians. The Super Bowl becomes a circus of craziness that leaves us less and less satisfied over time.

It feels as though almost all aspects of life have become mega competitions to get bigger and better with each passing year. It’s not enough for our schools to produce students with the knowledge and skills to find success in college or work, we want to constantly improve the numbers. If everyone passes a test we push for all of the scores to increase. We exert more and more pressure on virtually every phase of our existence and when it’s not enough to satisfy us we grumble. Little wonder that we seem to have an epidemic of discontent. We have become like the poor rich kid who expects more and more for Christmas each year and pitches a fit of rage when his desires are not fulfilled.

I suspect that I am not alone in wishing for a return to a simpler way of doing things, a time when we focused on the games themselves and not the celebrity or distractions. Perhaps if we kept things simple and didn’t debate about every tiny little detail surrounding the actual performances on the field our enthusiasm might be energized. As of now we’ve gone off the rails.

I suppose that our reactions to the Super Bowl game are just another bit of evidence that we’ve lost our way in the present social and political climate. In general we are tense and irritable about almost everything. We’ve turned our nation into an anxious nail biting caricature of itself and that spills over into everything from football to who will host or not host the Academy Awards. In our efforts to become infinitely fair we have actually become a bit unfair. Our expectations for perfection are so high that we are stressing out our kids and driving good people from their jobs. The tendencies are everywhere and they are infecting our relationships with one another. Voicing an opinion is akin to hurling a live grenade.

Perhaps we need to scale back on almost everything, including the way we deliver the news and how much time we spend doing so. Maybe we were better off before we had a twenty four hour cycle of real time videos and discussions of the world around us. Maybe we don’t need so many pyrotechnics and analyses, but rather just a few lights, an enthusiastic crowd and two teams playing their hearts out. That may be enough to bring back the joy.

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Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there. 

Saturday Mornings

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I can still recall those glorious Saturday mornings when I was still a child. My mom often slept late after a hard week of working, but my brothers and I anxiously awoke to watch the cartoons and shows made expressly for children. We’d sneak quietly down the hallway in our pajamas hoping not to disturb Mama’s slumbers and then tune in our television to our favorite programs in glorious black and white. We had to be careful to keep the volume low because the house wasn’t that big and too much noise would alert our mother that it was time to do the weekly chores. As long as she was snoozing we were free to spin the dial in search of wondrous shows that kept us glued to our seats for hours.

I’m too old to remember the exact order of the shows that we watched but some of our favorites were My Friend Flicka, Kit Carson, Superman, Sky King and Rocky and Friends. Television was still in its infancy but the programmers had already realized the power of devoting hours for children. We’d watch the advertisements for cereals and toys and then urge our mom to purchase them for us. Our mother was never one to be swayed by popularity, so it mostly never worked in our case, but we were nonetheless as enthralled with the silly rabbit longing for Trix cereal as we were with the latest adventures of our favorite heroes. Saturday mornings brought us unadulterated joy, and if Mama was especially tired we reveled in the freedom to just glue ourselves to the screen.

I enjoyed by own childhood memories of Saturday mornings so much that I taught my daughters the wonders of lounging in front of the center of entertainment for a few hours on weekend mornings. By the time they were enjoying the fare designed for their generation everything was in living color and most of the shows were cartoons featuring characters like Scooby Doo. They too found the magic of those early morning dalliances with fantasy while me and my husband enjoyed the luxury of a few extra winks while the electronic babysitter kept our children safely occupied.

Life isn’t quite as simple these days. For one thing there are hundreds of channels from which to choose and most of the big three of my childhood offer very little aimed toward children even on Saturdays. Kids now have to tune in the the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon which feature twenty four hour programming that doesn’t seem to be nearly as fun as what we got to see. Most of the shows are variations on the same themes with “hip” youngsters making fun of their elders and seemingly raising themselves. I grow weary of them after only a few episodes. The writers don’t appear to  be making any great effort to create stories that inspire. There is an inanity about them and a kind of condescending attitude toward young people that assumes that they are incapable of understanding stories with deeper meanings.

As a parent today I would have to install controls and be present to monitor the dialogue and the themes to be certain that they are in keeping with our family’s values. It’s a far more challenging world than the more innocent one that I experienced as a child. Back then care was taken to be certain that children were not exposed to material that was unsuitable. Of course I laugh when I think of Soupy Sales from my generation or PeeWee Herman from that of my children. We kids secretly knew that there was something not quite right about some of their jokes but we kept our thoughts to ourselves because it was exciting to live dangerously without our parents knowing what we saw and heard on those programs.

I still have a difficult time going into action on Saturday mornings. I don’t watch television anymore. I enjoy the quiet and I lounge in my pajamas for hours. Sometimes it might be noon before I choose to get going with the routines of life. Saturday has always been the one day of the week over which I have been able to rule without demands from school or work or my mom or even my children. These days I sit with a cup of tea and read or just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood in my favorite room. Saturdays make me nostalgic. I remember how easy it was to be a child when my innocence made me fall in love with the whole world. Soon enough I would grow and learn of the ugliness that lurks around us, but back then I didn’t have to worry about such things.

I truly believe that those Saturday mornings taught me more than most people might think. My brothers and I learned to be more self reliant as we made our own breakfast and chose our own programming. I found out how to care for animals and what justice is really about from my shows. I enjoyed laughter as a way to relax and feel good inside. My independence was rooted in those long ago mornings and the characters whose stories I watched are still my heroes. They widened my horizons and taught me about honor. I feel quite lucky to have had such experiences that brought happiness and routine to me at a time when I was still feeling uncertain about life without my father.

I suppose that today’s children have their own way of doing things, but I truly wonder if all of those scheduled activities that they do are as wonderful as the leisurely times that I enjoyed. In truth I suspect that when we are young we adapt to whatever is our reality, but I would sure love for youngsters to enjoy a taste of what we had. It was glorious.

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?

“Shut Up He Explained”

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“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.”