Live and learn

Photo by Maik Garbade on Unsplash

The person with burnt fingers asks for tongs.” Samoan proverb

There’s one thing for sure you can say about Americans: no two are exactly alike. (If after that line you expect me to drop in a political “snowflake” joke, don’t worry. I’ll leave that up to opinion writers who waste their words with name-calling.)

Back to the topic at hand: all you have to do is look around and you’ll spot the differences. We are individuals with unique talents. Each of us has strengths in certain skills but less so in others.  

Success is measured in knowing how to get the job done right, usually with the help and expertise of others. Let’s be honest: you and I can’t do everything. So we use our God-given wisdom to find the right people for the right job… even though sometimes we make hiring mistakes.

P.O.V.

A few decades ago, country singer Hank Williams Jr had a major hit with the song “A Country Boy Can Survive.” In the lyrics, the narrator makes it clear that he doesn’t care for urban areas, stating various ways that life in the “little towns all around this land” is preferable. He’s right, of course, IF you only look at it from the point of view of someone born and raised in a rural area. Folks who spend their entire lives in city environments would have the same opinion about their homes while looking down their noses at those in the country. 

It’s all about perspective. What you see and what you do determines how you feel about those whose lives are markedly different. That’s okay, as long as you remember to maintain respect for others despite those differences. And that’s where we fall short.

Williams’ song lists a few ways that people living in rural areas are superior, needing little or nothing from their opposites. Hunting and fishing are two such points, reflected in the lyric, “We can skin a buck and run a trotline, and a country boy can survive.” Those are very practical skills, no question, but they are only useful in areas where wild game and open waters are available. Take that guy and plop him down in the middle of Times Square and he’d probably wander for hours just trying to find a decent cup of coffee. 

The lesson is simple: you may be a genius in one way and a hopeless amateur in another. Smart people know how to tell the difference. I’ve made the point before that we need to trust those who have taken the time to be knowledgeable and experienced in their perspective fields. You don’t become an expert overnight, and you certainly can’t be considered an authority figure without first developing those skills.

Too bad our president doesn’t understand that.

Least likely to succeed

He has zero medical education, so he doesn’t know more than the doctors. He has no scientific training, so he doesn’t know more than the scientists. He has no military experience, so he doesn’t know more than the generals. But in each case, he brags otherwise.

He’s a paper tiger, trying to convince his followers that he’s smart and powerful when in reality he’s ineffectual. He’s all hammer and no nail, able to make a lot of noise but has nothing to show for it. 

America elected him because they bought the empty promises (and because of an antiquated, nonsensical system that gave the grand prize to the second place finisher). What did he give us? There’s no wall… not that there was going to be one anyway. There’s no Republican health care plan…despite promises going back over ten years. America’s economy has certainly not grown at least four percent per year, another windbag promise. And that $4000 annual pay raise that the average American would receive as a result of the huge tax cuts for the very wealthy? That didn’t trickle down, did it?

Look, all presidents make promises and can’t deliver on every single one. But it’s fair to say that they are able to show a few successes. Just about the only thing Mr. Trump has managed to do is funnel government money into his golf and hotel properties. In that, he’s done gangbusters.

(And I thought he said he’d be too busy to golf. Another broken promise.)

Underachiever in Chief

I’ll say this about the president: he did a great job selling an inferior product. He had nothing to offer but a lot of bells and whistles, yet he managed to convince millions of Americans to hire him for a job that he didn’t want and couldn’t perform.

By electing Trump, America played with fire and got its fingers burnt. This time, let’s turn the job over to someone who won’t send everything up in flames.

(Originally published in the October 1, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

What is Truth?

“A young man sittin’ on the witness stand

The man with the book says “Raise your hand”

“Repeat after me, I solemnly swear”

The man looked down at his long hair

And although the young man solemnly swore

Nobody seems to hear anymore

And it didn’t really matter if the truth was there

It was the cut of his clothes and the length of his hair

And the lonely voice of youth cries

“What is truth?”

A few months ago in this column, I mentioned that I was feeling a little nostalgic for the music of my youth and had been digging through my library of LPs. I have a rather large collection of vinyl, ranging from must-haves like “Live at Fillmore East” and “Are You Experienced” to the I’m-ashamed-to-admit-that-I-bought-it Leo Sayer and Barry Manilow records. (I’d like to say that I bought the latter ones because my girlfriend liked them, so let’s go with that.)

I also recently stumbled on a box filled with vinyl 45s. Nestled in that stash were some classic country hits like the Johnny Cash song that inspired the title of this column. Released 50 years ago, “What Is Truth?” was a rare bird in country music in those days: a protest song. Much of the song was a criticism of war in general and the Vietnam War in particular, but Cash also was admonishing older people to quit dismissing the opinions of the youth simply because they looked different or didn’t act the way old folks expected. Although it isn’t directly mentioned in the verses, Cash’s message could also be interpreted as a condemnation of all forms of social disharmony, including political tribalism and race-based prejudice. The song may be more than a half-century old, but its message carries the same importance today.

Keep looking, Diogenes.

We are living in a time when truth and facts are all but ignored. While the current president is a significant offender, this trend of refusing to accept reality can’t be blamed solely on Donald Trump. You can only tell lies as long as someone else believes you. Even if most of the world knows that the words you speak are nonsense and without a shred of honesty, all it takes is a handful of believers to keep the lie alive… and to make it spread.

Years ago, one person telling a lie usually only affected a small number of listeners. Today, with the help of social media, even an insignificant guy like yours truly has the power to reach out from a keyboard to influence a wide audience, and I’m just trying to share the facts. Using that power to knowingly spread falsehoods? That’s nothing less than evil, especially when telling those lies can cause lives to be jeopardized.

Sharing that dishonesty on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other internet follies often creates a snowball-rolling-downhill effect: the further it travels, the bigger it gets. As novelist Terry Pratchett said, “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

A click here, a click there…

I know, I know… I’m sounding like a broken record. (And for a guy who enjoys his vinyl, that’s a real tragedy.) I often write about the horrors of social media, how it could be a tool of entertainment and creativity but is mostly a destructive device that tears friends and families apart. But if you think about it, it is very easy to unleash the worst of you onto a computer screen. We can easily type and post words that we would never dare to say face-to-face. And, just as easily, those words of anger and hostility attract like-minded souls that we welcome into our circle of virtual ‘friends’. With that nudge of acceptance, we are then motivated to turn up the heat, encouraged to wade deeper and deeper into the darkness.

Before you know it, you’re feeling more and more comfortable with spreading deceit. You grow to like the online embrace of your newfound friends, and you are just as willing to take their words as gospel as they seem to be of yours. Truth no longer matters. It’s the number of times your words are shared and the size of your following that counts. Honesty would just get in the way, so you cast it aside.

No truth. No consequences?

We’ve gotten to the point that we don’t dare trust people that we used to call friends because of the outrageous nonsense that they’ve come to accept as truth. Once upon a time, we could turn to our neighbors for guidance, a kind word, or maybe just a simple wave across the street. Now? We find out that those people believe in some of the craziest conspiracy theories invented by a make-believe ‘expert’, a cult that is growing in popularity. Some of our highest elected officials are giving credence to these nonsensical tales, and even the president repeatedly shares this garbage with his followers.

This column is pretty dark, huh? But this is where we are, both as a nation and as a planet. Four years ago America elected a serial liar, someone who only knows one thing about truth: it doesn’t make as much money as a lie. 

Elevating someone like that to a seat of power has proved to be a tragedy. Keeping him there for another four years would be a disaster.

(Originally published in the September 2, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Do as I say, not…

Resolving an argument on Twitter and leaving everybody satisfied will happen as soon as Sisyphus gets to the top of the hill.  — Dave Weigel, Washington Post columnist

It’s hard to admit it, but I’m not perfect. Yeah, yeah… I know that comes as a shock. After all, I fill these columns each month with so many admonitions and encouragements to my fellow Americans to be kind and empathetic toward each other, therefore I most certainly must practice what I preach, right?

Er… ah… um… no, not really. Not that I don’t try my best, but I often fall short and fail to follow my own advice. 

In our current society, we tend to take sides on both important matters and the most trivial ones: sports, religion, politics, etc. We seem to want to enter into conflict on these and many other topics. Sometimes we’re driven by a desire to convince others to come over to our point of view, but most of the time it appears that all we want to do is engage in a battle of words. And I’m no better than the rest. But I’m working on it.

You can’t start a fire without a spark

When it comes to how each of us developed a taste for arguing, you probably need to go way back to our first experience with socializing in a group of our peers. For most of us, that would be Day One of elementary school. In that moment we were all The New Kid, dealing with the anxieties of trying to fit in while also trying to stand out. It didn’t take long to figure out which were the quiet kids and the ones who were likely to be a major topic at the family dinner table that evening. 

We also learned very quickly who among us would be the bullies and the usual victims. Of course, it typically started with good natured teasing — “Wow! You sure have a lot of freckles!” — but it often advanced to the point of hurt feelings and shedding some tears. Those who found themselves on the receiving end had to soon learn to laugh it off or, if they were brave enough, come up with a response that was as least as creative as the first round.

I was The New Kid three times as I moved and changed schools. Each time I found ways to develop a thick skin (so the taunts would mostly bounce off) and build up a hefty supply of comebacks that I was sure would put the other guy in his place. Like everyone else though, sometimes I’d take it too far and I’d find myself isolated as one of the bullies. Man, trying to say you’re sorry when you’re a smartmouth kid is tough, even when you are sincere in your apology.

Looking back, there are a few words I wish I’d never said. While you can’t change the past, you can do better moving forward. But even with good intentions, we all stumble from time to time.

True or…?

While our feelings are often the result of having direct knowledge of someone’s feelings by witnessing their words or actions, there are times when we allow ourselves to be taken in by false perceptions. We can be too easily influenced into accepting as truth something for which we have no personal experience, often because we allow a person we trust to shape our attitudes rather than figuring things out for ourselves. That’s peer pressure, where we willingly accept what we’re told. We relinquish control over our thoughts and feelings.

One surefire way to recognize that in ourselves is whether we get caught up in stereotypes. I’ve written a few times about our tendencies to label people, especially those who have opinions or belief systems that seem to be the opposite of our own. You don’t have to actively categorize people yourself. You’re caught up in the trend if you silently approve of another person’s use of labelling as a means of dividing and attacking.

It’s pretty easy to spot it in action. Look and listen for a few key descriptive words, especially those ending in -ist or -ism. Most of the time those words are used to attack people, to lump them into a category of unsavoriness, as if they should not be welcome members of society. But I encourage you to look more deeply into those comments. Often the attack is wrongheaded, built upon something other than facts and truth. Our country suffered through that during the McCarthy Era when half-truths and out-and-out falsehoods were employed to cause otherwise good people to be falsely accused. Careers and lives were ruined all because the loudest voices in the room (in that case, Sen. Joe McCarthy and his cohorts) were allowed to run the show.

We see much of that today. Commentators on radio and TV and opinion writers in print can and do use those -ist and -ism words to persuade you into believing something that your logical mind would otherwise reject. You have to ask yourself: is this argument worth all the trouble?

Well? Is it?

Look, you have every right to disagree with me. I welcome that, as long as you do so with a clear mind and a solid foundation for your argument. But if your opinion is based solely on what other people pressure you to believe rather than taking the time to decide for yourself based on the facts, then I’d suggest you stick to debating the nearest fence post. At least then it would be an even matchup.

(Originally published in the August 6, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Team Work

Photo by Pille-Riin Priske on Unsplash

“He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a good leader.” ― Aristotle

I am neither a child of the Sixties nor of the Seventies. I was born in a moment of time that results in my youthful personal development spanning both decades. This meant that I was too young to participate in much of the counterculture movement and too old to be drawn into a commercial-driven need to possess everything in sight. Then again, I can see how both decades have left a lasting impression on me 

For better or worse, the Sixties in America is greatly remembered as a time when many people were trying to find an alternative to what they saw as oppressive rules dictated by an out-of-touch and old fashioned society. Although much good came from that period — the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations come to mind — the decade had its share of downsides, not the least of which was irresponsible drug use. 

The Seventies, meanwhile, developed into an era of crass commercialism. Trends popularized by flashy television commercials came and went almost faster than people could snatch up the newest gadgets. If it was out there with a price tag, America lined up to buy it… leading to such poor investment choices as The Pet Rock and polyester leisure suits. 

I want to focus on the evolution of what we experienced in the Seventies to that which we’re seeing today, and it all comes down to a little pronoun.

Me

In a 1976 article published in New York Magazine, author and journalist Tom Wolfe (the guy who wrote “The Right Stuff”) declared the Seventies to be The “Me” Decade. He saw American society as transitioning from a philosophy of communitarianism — in which the ideals of the community are given higher regard than those of particular persons — to one of individualism. Everything became centered on the greedy desires of the individual, regardless of any greater need of the society as a whole.

If there was an urge, there was a product designed to provide satisfaction. And we were willing and eager to buy it on impulse. Possessions were the primary drivers of our economy, even if much of what we bought was disposable… or became so once the initial excitement died down.

The “Me” Decade was flooded with the attitude of taking care of oneself first, leaving scraps to the others. The sense of charitable feelings toward neighbors took a back seat to the need for personal gratification. Not that we became completely Scrooge-like, of course, but there certainly was a palpable shift from the needs of “We” to the requirements of “Me”.

In the years since, those from my generation have settled into a routine that seems to fall somewhere between the two philosophies, a tug-of-war between wanting to give and to receive. But not so much now. I’m beginning to think we should refer to the present time as The “Me, NOT You” Decade.

As the world continues its battle with COVID-19, it’s become more common to see that folks across the USA just don’t feel as inclined to be considerate. We’re asked to limit close physical contact, reduce the size of social gatherings, and change how we work and shop. Much of our nation’s economy has suffered, with some businesses and even entire industries pushed to the point of no return. This coronavirus hit us hard and continues to kick us where it hurts. For some, the challenge has been met with… if not enthusiasm then stubbornness as we try to maintain as much of our normal lives as possible. And that, dear reader, has meant becoming accustomed to wearing masks.

And that’s the point where I just lost a bunch of readers. They don’t want to hear any more about covering their faces. They either don’t believe the science or they refuse to accept authority. Too bad, because they could learn a thing or two from the next few paragraphs.

You see, whether we like it or not, we all need a helping hand to fight this pandemic. We simply can’t ignore the obvious, and we can’t stomp our feet and refuse to do what’s right. That’s sad because we’ve done it before.

Come Together

I wasn’t alive during World War Two, but my parents and grandparents shared plenty of stories, both about their military service and life changes here at home. Once our nation was drawn into the fight, we the people had no choice but to pitch in. Literally no choice. To make sure that needed supplies were available to our troops, folks learned to do without many things that otherwise they took for granted. Rationing of food like milk, butter, and bacon was mandatory. (BACON?!? Yes, the mainstay of dads everywhere was limited.) Other goods like rubber, shoes, paper, and so many more common items were either hard to come by or impossible to find.

It didn’t stop there. Families in cities and small towns were ordered to use heavy drapes or cardboard to cover their windows at night so that enemy aircraft wouldn’t be able to see lights from inside. Civil Defense would declare drills and halt all traffic. Even in the middle of Nowhere, USA… far, far removed from any potential target of the Germans or Japanese.

And you know what Americans did? They went along with it, because the government told them it was necessary to overcome a common enemy. There was a spirit of community back then that was stronger and more important than petty selfishness. But that was then.

Today, you’re asked to cover your nose and mouth… to protect others. And you won’t.

Do what’s right

But what do we expect? People have decided that lying… or denying obvious truth… is their preferred lifestyle. Why waste time and energy learning the facts when being stupid is so easy? They won’t take their thumbs out of their… ears… long enough to listen.

They’ll watch the president, the supposed leader of this country who refuses to follow the advice of medical experts — except those who have sold their souls and will tell him only what he wants to hear — and do what he says and does even if it goes against whatever shred of common sense they have left. They’ve been cheated out of the truth by this president so much that they’re afraid to be exposed as a victim of the con. They voted for the guy and, by gum, they’d rather go down with the ship than admit they made a mistake.

But maybe enough of them will open their eyes this year. It might take personal illness or a tragic loss of a family member to get their attention, and that’s unfortunate. So much of the spread of COVID-19 could be reduced if people would just be courteous enough to wear a mask — covering mouth AND nose — that is proven to help cut down on the bodily fluids you exhale.

Be patriotic. Protect your fellow Americans.

(Originally published in the July 2, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Be kind. Rewind.

Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the days of old, across this great land of ours there were these wonderful places called video rental stores. These wondrous locations popped up seemingly overnight in shopping centers, strip malls, and stand-alone buildings. The largest went by such names as Hollywood Video, Movie Gallery, Family Video and the granddaddy of them all, Blockbuster… but there were almost as many small, independently owned stores that offered the same service. All you needed was a membership card and some cash and you were granted the freedom to take home all forms of entertainment to enjoy in the comfort and privacy of your home.

Comedy, drama, adventure, cartoons, science fiction and fantasy, mystery… all these and more categories of movies on videotape for your pleasure. (Plus, a few outlets offered behind-the-curtain titles for… ahem… a mature audience.) No matter your selection, that tape likely featured a brightly colored sticker with a simple request to rewind the tape before returning it to the store.

Yes, boys and girls, there really was such archaic technology as movies on magnetic tape in plastic cases. If the previous user failed to rewind the tape to the beginning, you could easily find yourself forced to wait an extra few minutes until your machine performed that service for you. Smart stores invested in countertop devices called rewinders, and employees would often need to pop the tape into that machine before returning it to the shelf for the next customer.

As annoying as that sticker’s admonition was to some, it really didn’t take much effort to provide that simple act of kindness. But, perhaps not surprisingly, each store’s staff could predict which tapes would come back in need of that rewinder… because certain customers just couldn’t be bothered with even that little courtesy. Was that a harbinger of things to come? Perhaps.

The battle continues

The United States continues to wrestle with a pandemic that has a death toll climbing into six figures. With over 40 million Americans unemployed as a result of COVID-19 and many businesses either permanently closed or on the verge, the economic impact is horrendous. Naturally, when faced with a combination of medical uncertainty and loss of income, people all across the nation are doing the best they can to hold their lives together. But, also naturally, many of us are struggling to keep our emotions under control.

As if we weren’t dealing with enough, an African American man named George Floyd died of asphyxiation on a Minneapolis city street in police custody, four officers applying what appeared to be significant pressure on his throat and upper torso. Video of the event circulated around the world, leading to immediate calls for the arrest of the officers. (At this writing, one officer is facing homicide charges and others may follow.)

It should come as no surprise that cities large and small quickly became the scene of protests as people of all races gathered to condemn the incident, calling for swift justice. Unfortunately, as will happen with any large gathering – whether a protest or a celebration – many bad actors saw an opportunity to wreak havoc. Buildings and vehicles were damaged, fires were started, looters targeted abandoned stores, and violent clashes with police flared. If you looked closely, though, it has been clear that those intent on disorder are a small percentage of the whole, but the actions of the few make it seem as if all are bent on destruction. Keep that in mind.

We’re not all bad

You might be looking at these unfolding events with a mixture of disgust and dismay, and there’s nothing wrong with those feelings. But I hope that you are strong enough to keep everything in proper context. Yes, four police officers are connected to the death of Mr. Floyd. But you can’t come away from that incident and say that all police are equally to blame. Far from it. In fact, I’ve seen many moments during these protests where officers and demonstrators have together taken a knee, offering prayers and peaceful conversation.

In the same way, don’t allow yourself to be conned by those who want to use this moment as a way to further divide us on racial grounds. We’re bombarded by politicians, TV and radio talkers, and Facebook posts from your crazy uncle… all trying to make us hate one another. Trying to draw us into believing phony stereotypes. 

Be the one who rewinds.

Our nation is in pain. We are afraid of a virus, afraid of our financial future, afraid of violence in our streets. But if we remain strong and smart, we will come through all of this. And we will be better.

Be kind. Be respectful. Be patient. And choose leaders who would do the same.

Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”― Terry Pratchett

(Originally published in the June 4, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Knowledge is the Foundation

Photo by JodyHongFilms on Unsplash

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

Harsh? Maybe. But true nonetheless. That paragraph is a key excerpt from an essay penned by famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov. Published in a 1980 edition of Newsweek magazine, Asimov was expressing his disgust at the growing lack of respect for education in America. Then, just as now, a populist movement was exploited by politicians and others of power to brand the more well-informed among us as “elitist”. That word, Asimov wrote, was used to brand as untrustworthy “anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around.”

As an accomplished writer – educated in biochemistry, in which he earned a Ph.D. – Asimov was not one to tolerate willful ignorance. He saw education as both a necessity and an object of desire. After all, why would we choose to be ignorant of the world around us when knowledge is available at our fingertips?

Sadly, millions of us are perfectly fine with being told what to think. It’s easier to be led around like livestock than to invest time and energy into learning the difference between fact and falsehood.

The numbers game continues

A month ago in this column, I pointed out the undeniable fact that over 3,000 Americans had died as a result of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Today, despite urgings from medical professionals and clear-thinking political leaders to limit close personal contact, that death toll has skyrocketed to over 70,000 with about 1.25 million confirmed cases nationwide. As I wrote this column, predictions from the president’s own administration point to the virus claiming at least 100,000 lives in the USA, although that seems a low estimate considering the rapid spread of the disease.

Further complicating the fight against the pandemic are the rising calls by many who want an immediate end to restrictions imposed by their local and state governments. They want all limits reversed, opening up all businesses and resuming all activities that we are used to enjoying.

The problem, however, is that the spread of COVID-19 has intensified despite those restraints. It doesn’t take much effort to consider how much greater the numbers of victims would be if controls had not been mandated.

And yet, we see protests in large metro areas and small towns. People marching in the streets, demanding that all restrictions be lifted at once. As much as I find it disturbing to see my fellow Americans storming government buildings waving signs and weapons, none of those events are surprising. We’ve come to expect seeing angry crowds finding any excuse to use threatening words and actions, even more so if they know the television cameras will be there.

To many in those mobs, nothing matters except their own selfish desires. I’ve watched grown men scream in the faces of nurses and police officers. I’ve heard grown women cussing a blue streak because they wanted a haircut and a manicure. Really? People of all ages are dying at a rate far greater than anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and all you can think about is getting frosted tips and gel nails?

Sure, local economies have suffered. Unfortunately, many businesses have shut down permanently and others will likely follow. Such is to be expected in a situation like this. We can and we will see things return to normal one day, but it won’t come overnight.

Listen to those who know

Our top leaders have failed us. They ignored the early warning signs, rejected advice and assistance from professionals, and sat idly by rather than taking action. Then, as the virus took hold, they tried to blame everything on their enemies and predecessors. And, thanks to media outlets that specialize in propaganda, the pandemic is seen by many as a political football rather than a health crisis.

Preachers and pundits are pushing conspiracy theories, telling their eager audiences that this is all “fake news”. But if we take the time to think, if we ignore the politicians’ smoke and mirrors and focus on what the experts say, we can and will make personal decisions that bring healthy outcomes.

Don’t be afraid to learn.

In his essay’s conclusion, Asimov longed for an America that stopped thumbing its nose at knowledge: 

“I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.”

Unfortunately, we are no closer to Asimov’s dream than we were forty years ago. In many ways, we are losing ground. Too many of us put our trust in foolishness, even when the facts are as plain as the nose on your face.

(Originally published in the May 7, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Don’t panic! Plan ahead.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

That famous line, first published at Christmas 1776, opens the first of a series of essays collected under the title “The Crisis” that author Thomas Paine hoped would provide encouragement and inspiration to the average citizen during the war for independence. Paine’s goal was to show his fellow Americans that the battle against tyranny was moral and just. 

Today, the crisis isn’t breaking away from a leader who abuses us for personal gain. (NOTE TO SELF: Actually, it kinda is. But I digress.) These times, the misfortune we face is contagion.

A game of numbers

Americans, like our neighbors around the world, are currently in a struggle with a virus that attacks indiscriminately, threatening the lives of young and old, weak and strong, rich and poor. As I write these words, nearly 785,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 worldwide, over 163,000 in the United States. Almost 38,000 have died – more than 3,000 in the USA – and those numbers continue to rise. Of course, those are confirmed cases. We can’t possibly know how many more are affected, since tests are still hard to come by and those afflicted can’t be diagnosed without lab results. If somebody – like, say, the president – tells you that he knows someone who had it but didn’t see a doctor and never got tested, that’s simply not true.

While medical professionals are doing amazing work at treating the victims of this pandemic, the response from our government’s leaders has been mixed. Some have called for drastic measures to restrict public exposure, while others have been slow to act. A uniform and proactive system of decision-making would make sense, but that hasn’t happened. That’s a big disappointment, because we’ve been through this before.

A lot.

Try harder

America has quite a history when it comes to hard times and tragedies. Just in the past century we’ve faced some really big ones. The stock market crash and the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl. Pearl Harbor. The Exxon Valdez. Katrina, Maria, Andrew, and many more weather disasters. Challenger and Columbia. The 2008 financial collapse. 9/11. Columbine, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and countless similar attacks. As different as they are, these events have one thing in common: recovery.

Sure, the scars are there. And some of the bounce-backs are incomplete. In some cases, most of the damage remains. But we always find a way to get better. And we will this time. But maybe, just maybe, this time we can learn to do better.

Take our latest calamity. The spread of the COVID-19 virus has led many of us to hunker down at home out of fear of exposure. (That is, after stampeding to our local stores to buy up as much toilet paper and disinfecting wipes as we could carry, lest someone else jump in line in front of us and walk away with one more roll than we have stockpiled.) 

But, as enterprising Americans filled with that can-do spirit, we carry on. We found ways to work from home, take fewer trips to the store, and support our favorite restaurants as they learn new ways to provide take-out meals that don’t taste like… well, crummy take-out meals.

We call up our hometown independently-owned retailers and purchase gift cards for later, giving those mom-and-pop stores some much needed revenue at a time when customer traffic is next to zero.

We combine our shopping lists with our neighbors so we all don’t have to run to the stores at the same time.

We miss going to our houses of worship, but find new ways to bring those services home with livestreaming or on DVDs.

We find ways to entertain ourselves indoors and close to home, knowing that if we just tough it out and use good common sense, this virus spread will stop and life will return to normal sooner rather than later.

And yet…

The one thing we don’t do is plan for the future. To be prepared for the next one. That’s where America could use some work. Look at how schools have been affected. Millions of children are home today instead of in the classroom. Schools are straining to find ways to continue their education at a distance, and teachers are scrambling to adapt technologies to make that happen.

Except… the technologies aren’t there for everybody.

If politicians want to show me that they’re worthy of our votes, I’d like them to put American connectivity high on their agendas. If we are the most advanced, most capable nation in the world, why don’t we have broadband internet access available to all? I don’t mean giving it away for free — sorry, Bernie Bros — but make it affordable and within reach of every household, from the congested urban areas to the wide expanses of our rural lands.

Every home should be able to connect to the web and at a cost that makes sense. A basic service, fast enough for email at least. (You want your kids to play Fortnite and need faster upload & download speed? Then you pay extra.) Same goes for cell service. There shouldn’t be a single square mile in this country that is a mobile phone dead zone.

And then, when the nation finally gives us the tools, we’ll see to it that those in authority do a better job of making contingency plans long before the next unfortunate event. We shouldn’t tolerate delays, and we especially shouldn’t put up with politicians who promise improvements but lie right to our faces and then lie about the lie. 

We deserve honesty. We deserve truth. We deserve the facts. Most of all, we deserve leadership that will provide all of the above. Next November, we should vote for the people who will and not the ones who won’t.

(Originally published in the April 2, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Batting cleanup

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

There are a lot of words that people use to describe me. Some of my recent favorites are: annoying, condescending, moronic, irritating, clueless, and idiotic. I’ve been told that I drive people up the wall, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and my words are enough to try the patience of a saint.

And those are from my friends.

No, not really. Actually, those comments have come in various conversations I’ve had and in ‘fan mail’ that appears on occasion. The list is longer and, unfortunately, much of what I’ve heard and seen is not appropriate for printing in this column.

Watch your mouth, young man!

When it comes to insults and harsh criticism, I’ve got a thick skin. That’s pretty much a requirement if you’re going to share your opinions in public. You have to be prepared for an onslaught of negativity, usually from people you don’t know and likely will never meet in person. As a lifetime member of the ‘Sticks and Stones Club’, I’ve become quite good at ignoring the barbs and put-downs. What’s the point? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, so who am I to insist that everybody should agree with me? This planet would be an awfully boring hunk of rock if we all conformed to the exact same ideals and points-of-view.

But while disagreement is expected and even encouraged in society, the act of being disagreeable should not. There are ways to express a difference in opinion and still maintain a sense of politeness and maturity. But that takes more effort than some are willing to give, choosing instead to use a less complex and much more crude style of debate.

Don’t get me wrong

Don’t think for a minute that I’m some angelic soul, one who never resorts to outbursts and fits of rage. On the contrary, there are times when my tongue offers more salt than the Dead Sea. I’ve been known to pour forward a seemingly endless string of cuss words when the need arose. Smacked my finger with a hammer? Check. Spilled coffee on my shirt right before an important meeting? Double check. And you don’t want to know the things I’ve said out loud when the driver in front of me insists on cruising along 10 miles per hour under the limit in a no passing zone.

But I know my limits. While some would say that there are no appropriate times for a torrent of four-letter words, at least I do my best to unleash my extensive vocabulary when the time and place suggests that little or no harm will come to sensitive ears nearby. The same, however, cannot be said for some of the more prominent people in our society. Most especially – and most unfortunately – the ones at the very top.

Role models? Ha!

If you take a look around, you’ll see more than a few bumper stickers, yard signs, banners, and even a flag or two, all proclaiming allegiance to political candidates and causes. Most will be fairly simple, just the candidates’ names or a message that clearly shows membership ties to a party or political organization. For the most part they’re harmless. They are short and to the point, seeking not to offend but to inform (and, maybe, convince).

But this year a new message is proudly displayed, one that should be considered offensive by folks on any side of the political spectrum.

Many supporters of President Trump have taken to unfurling a flag that displays, in bold letters, the phrase, “No More B.S.” Only it doesn’t say “B.S.” Instead, the word itself is right there for all of us to see. And when I say “all of us,” I’m not just talking about you and me, but our children. Imagine trying to explain to a first-grader why the name of the President of the United States appears on a red, white and blue flag right above that word. A word you don’t dare say in front of that child out of fear that the little one will repeat it in school… or church.

It’s not just the flags, of course. President Trump often tosses that word out at his rallies, bringing the slobbering crowd to its feet with cheers and laughter. Rallies that are broadcast live in prime time, again subjecting our children to the harshness. Many of the president’s enablers in Congress are following his lead, peppering their public remarks with the same profanity. Such was the case just a few days ago in South Carolina, when Senator Lindsey Graham goosed his speech with that word. Where? At a televised rally.

Again, let me be clear: I’m no prude. I’m far from perfect and I’m the first to admit it. But I thought we were supposed to believe that the Republican Party is all about family values, that the GOP wants to be seen as the “God and Country” party. I mean, aren’t the evangelicals among us all diehard supporters of the current president? And yet, they stand by and do nothing while this president and his campaigners fill the air with language not suitable for public consumption. I guess those are the people on the Religious Right who like to talk the talk but don’t have it in them to walk the walk.

You might think I’m annoying, condescending, moronic, irritating, clueless, and idiotic. But at least I’m not a hypocrite.

(Originally published in the March 5, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Photo by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

My grandfather was a real stick-in-the-mud. To him, everything new was worthy of one of his classic frowns. He was always distrusting of anything that signified a veering away from his beloved status quo. Food was always to be prepared with the same recipe. Clothes – aside from his Sunday best – were to be practical and long-lasting. New neighbors would be quickly “harumphed” as an unwelcome addition while he peered at them through the blinds. The old man liked things the way they were and could see no reason to change.

As much as he would have wanted to do so, making time stand still was not one of his talents. Figuratively speaking, my grandfather had to be dragged kicking and screaming from one decade to another. That’s unfortunate because his life was a witness to so many genius innovations.  He was already a grown man when the first commercial radio station appeared and well into middle age when television sets began taking over America’s living rooms, and yet he considered both a nuisance that he barely tolerated and certainly didn’t enjoy.

He didn’t live long enough to experience personal computers and cellphones, but I’m sure he would have not been pleased with either.

Looking back, I find it fascinating to think of how much progress occurred during the many years of my grandfather’s life. At the same time, I find it sad that he had so little appreciation for these things. 

What’s old is new again

Personally, I’ve found myself turning a bit nostalgic for some of the things of my youth. While I’m hardly the curmudgeon like my grandfather – unlike him, I embrace both technological and social advances – I do crave opportunities to reach back through the years and breath new life into those old memories.

Flipping through the dozens and dozens of channels on my high-definition TV, I’ll often stop on those old black & white comedies and be drawn in to the stories that came from the dirt main streets of Mayberry or the New York brownstone apartment that was not far from the Tropicana. 

I also have rediscovered my old vinyl record collection, spending hours listening to the pops and scratches coming from the decidedly low-fi record player that is not much different than the turntable in my bedroom that blasted “Smoke on the Water” for hours and hours. (My father was quick to buy me a good set of headphones, an investment that likely met the approval of the neighbors.)

While these blasts from the past give me some warm feelings, they inevitably trigger some sadness. Not so much for regrets of bygone days, but because of what has become of us in the present.

It’s not hard to ruin a good thing

Like I said, I am quite different from my grandfather. As much as he loathed anything new, I welcome innovation with open arms (and, often to my financial detriment, open wallet). Gimmicks and gadgets are the kinds of things that catch my eye, and I’m easily distracted by the latest shiny object. (I like to say that the only thing about me that’s Old Fashioned is the whiskey cocktail in my glass.) But there’s a price to pay for progress.

Unless you’re a newcomer to this column, you’re very familiar with my feelings about our internet-driven culture. Sure, the convenience of Google is often preferable to sifting through musty editions of archaic encyclopedias. And I’d much rather check the headlines right now instead of being forced to wait for the evening network news. (NOTE: this is the place where the publisher will insist that I put in a good word for the reliable community newspaper, and I’m happy to oblige. After all, nothing beats the combination of investigative reporting and long-form human interest stories that rise up from the printed page.)

Unfortunately, the accessibility of the internet has done more than put instant information at our fingertips. It also gave birth to the dreaded forked-tongue monster that is social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… these and others could have simply been another device to bring us all closer, sharing old photos and cat videos. But just like how a sharp blade can be a useful tool or one that creates destruction, Americans take to their keyboards and manage to fill empty spaces with a little good and a lot of bad.

Sadly, much of social media is overwhelmed with self-appointed social justice warriors, people with unique interpretations of what is and isn’t acceptable, and they spend a lot of time making sure everyone and everything conforms to their standards. What’s even more disturbing is that most of these keyboard jockeys would never have the courage to repeat to your face all the vile comments they happily post online.  

Change for the better?

I don’t know why my grandfather was so reluctant to accept change. Perhaps he was confused by it all, so intimidated by forward leaps of progress that his only comfort was found in rejecting it all. But in some ways I can understand how he must have felt.

Progress led to great improvements during my grandfather’s life. In my time, some of the advancements of recent years may have made things worse despite any good intentions of their creators. I guess some of us can’t be trusted to play nice with our toys.

(Originally published in the February 6, 2020 edition of the Morrisons Cove Herald.)

Making Plans?

resolutions

A new year means making resolutions, those weak promises you make to yourself that you have no intention of keeping. You’re probably not going to exercise more, or lose the weight, or watch less TV, or spend more time with family, etc. I hate to burst your well-intentioned bubble but if you didn’t make all the lifestyle changes you had on your list last year, you’re not about to fulfil those wishes this time around. 

But go ahead anyway. There’s no harm in making an effort toward self-improvement. That is, as long as the goals you set are healthy, uplifting, and not designed to lead to mass murder.

There’s something happening here

There’s a disturbing trend making waves in recent weeks: the notion that a civil war is on this nation’s horizon. That’s right, we’re apparently heading toward a bloody, destructive real shooting battle pitting American against American. Everybody’s talking about it, from television preachers to the President of the United States. 

As devastating as another war on the homefront would be, it seems this war won’t have as clear-cut battle lines as did the North vs South conflict of the 1860s. No, this one will be impossible to define in geographical terms. Rather than separate armies made up of regiments from this or that state, the civil war that might be on our 2020 calendar will truly see neighbor challenging neighbor. While the ultimate reason depends on who you talk to and their mood at the time, it sure seems like the majority of the crowd that is breathlessly calling for the shooting to get starting has one thing in common: a feverish devotion to President Trump.

Oh, you’re overreacting, you tell me. It will never get that bad. Sorry, but I don’t share your false optimism. Remember, we’re talking about people who laughed when this president made fun of a disabled journalist. People who follow the lead of the president and refuse to believe what our law enforcement and military experts tell us. People who repeat the president in questioning the patriotism of battle-wounded soldiers and Gold Star families. The same people who would never have accepted any of this coming from the previous president.

So if a civil war is inevitable, we need to know the rules of engagement.

I’ve got questions

Who will you shoot? Can you at least provide a simple answer?

How do you decide who amongst your fellow Americans is the enemy? Is there going to be a Sign-up Day? Do we all have to declare which side we’re on? Or are those of you who are cheering for a bloodbath get to be the ones who make up the rules as you go along? 

Do you grab a voter registration list and separate us purely along party lines? Do you monitor our posts on Facebook or Twitter? Do you look for political bumper stickers or identify us by whether we wear one of those silly MAGA ballcaps? 

Will we be declared as Good Guys or Bad Guys because of the churches we attend? Or where we were born? Or the color of our skin?

Do your enemies have to wear badges or would you prefer tattoos or brands?

You might think these are silly questions, but threatening a domestic war just because we don’t all align politically is a matter that calls for serious thought. The NRA puts it right on top of their gun safety rules: “Know your target and what is beyond.” Let there be no doubt when you aim.

These aren’t water balloons, after all. People are calling for a real-life killing war if they don’t get what they want, and they’re getting ready. Take, for example, the angry guy at the Trump rally in Pennsylvania last month who insisted that the president would not be removed from office by impeachment and backed it up by saying, “My .357 Magnum is comfortable with that.” Relax, cowboy.  No one believes the Mitch McConnell-led Senate would ever convict the president on any articles of impeachment, no matter how obvious the wrongdoing.

And then there’s the Oath Keepers, the extremist militia group that brags about its abundant weapons and willingness to use them, which seems to be begging the president to give them the go-ahead. They don’t need a reason to aim their guns. All they want is someone to tell them that their thirst for blood is justified.OathKeepers

We all know people who can’t control their anger. For some, white-hot hatred has led them to the point of solving every problem with violence. Are these the people you can trust to be on your side? To follow your orders, or to lead you into battle?

A grim reality

It’s just talk, you might say. They’re only joking, you claim. No one wants violence, you insist. Take this as a warning: it’s more than words, no one is laughing, and it’s clear that a growing number really do want to start shooting. Whether you choose to believe what the rest of us can see or you prefer to continue denying the truth, that’s on you. 

If you’re willing to shoot to kill, you better be able to legitimize that decision. And if you’re willing to stand by and let things get to the point of random murder in the name of politics, you need to make sure you can live with that as well. If they let you.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald January 2, 2020.)