08 December 2008

Earliest Childhood Memory

I call it my earliest childhood memory, but to be honest I have no means to prove it. I say I’m three and my sister, Renee, is seven, but those ages were arbitrarily attached some time later. Perhaps we were older.

It’s 1968 I believe. The place is my grandmother’s house in Eight Mile, Alabama, just outside of Mobile on the sandy, humid Gulf Coast – which is in equal parts antebellum aristocracy and impoverished backwoods.

We’re outside playing. It must be summer. Renee’s skinny suntanned legs are poking out from blue jeans cut off to make shorts. Her hair is almost white. We are searchers – hunters for roly polies and caterpillars and centipedes. We turn up brick and concrete slabs and look under garbage can lids for our prey. We hold them captive for a while in an empty Folger’s can Grandmother gave us, and then let them all go free.

The images are gray and grainy, like fading black and white photographs. But the memory of the cool, moist Alabama earth between my fingers is clear. Black dirt under fingernails. Curiosity emerges as we carefully pass a snail back and forth between little hands, its slimy body retreating into a delicate shell. Renee instructs me on bits and pieces of knowledge she has gained during her one year of elementary school and lifetime of exploration. Everything she tells me is indisputably truthful, as in my mind her wisdom is unquestionable.

Dusk settles in. Lightning bugs and bats fill the sky. Aunt Clista and Uncle Fred in their tiny house across the street call out our names. There is a smell of frying chicken in the muggy air, which mingles with a perfume-sweet fragrance – honeysuckle maybe, or mimosa. There’s another man. Who is that man? His face I see, but time has taken his name from me forever. Gospel music plays from a white box on Aunt Clista’s kitchen table.

I’ve wondered why this memory stuck. What characteristics of this typical afternoon experience caused it to be etched into my brain for 40 years, while other more significant events have fallen into the vast void of lost memory?

Perhaps that’s just the random nature of the human brain. I would like to believe, though, that somewhere in my subconscious I recognized this moment as special. And chose to store it away as representative of a boy’s first wanderings outside the close guard of his parent’s eyes – tasting freedom in the front yard of his grandmother’s house, yet secure within the parameters of his family’s call and older sister’s guidance. Knowing that it might somehow come in handy, as I try to figure out who I am and where I come from.

24 November 2008

On Bailouts and Priorities

Predictably, once the federal government agreed to cough up some 700 billion dollars to bail out Wall Street, it wasn’t long before the next failing industry came crawling. This time, it’s the auto makers. I wonder who will be next. Interesting isn’t it, how big business wants government out of their hair until they hit rock bottom. Now they're first in line for a handout. Just think of it as Medicaid for the white-collar set. "Welfare Queens" revisited.

Certainly, there are arguments to be made whether these bailouts are necessary to salvage our economy. I’m not smart enough to figure out that one. But what I do know is that the feds don’t have billions of dollars to spare. That’s debt my children and their children will inherit and be repaying to China the rest of their lives.

But I’m thinking, if money really is no object then who else deserves a bailout? If the government can arbitrarily decide that some problems are so big that we can just write imaginary zeroes onto imaginary checks and that the ends justify the means, that opens up a world of opportunity for a do-gooder like me.

If that’s the standard, why can’t we just write a check with a bunch of zeroes and bail out all the overcrowded, underfunded, poor performing public schools in America? If that’s the standard, it seems unconscionable that there’s even one elderly person in America who can’t afford her medication. If that’s the standard, why are their hurricane victims in New Orleans still waiting for federal help to rebuild their homes and lives?

On top of the bailouts, Uncle Sam finds 10 billion dollars each month somewhere to destroy and rebuild a foreign country. Again, this may or may not be justified. Only history will tell. But if we can use Monopoly money for war, your telling me we can’t find the money we need somewhere to fund a high quality early childhood education system in this country (which every economist in America tells us is critical to developing economic viability in the future, by the way)?

If the NIH and all the major university hospitals in the country had a blank check to fund their research, how quickly do you think we could find a cure for cancer?

I’m just not sure I fully understand the definition we’re using for “crisis.” Isn’t a War on Poverty as important as a War on Terror?

I guarantee you that if money were no obstacle, I could sit down with a handful of my colleagues and we could figure how to dramatically reduce homelessness, juvenile delinquency, high school drop-out, substance abuse, teen pregnancy and any number of other crises facing our country which many of us believe are big ones.

You see, there’s no shortage of bright ideas, effective interventions, proven methods and workable solutions to the social problems we’re faced with today. It’s always about resources. And resources always come down to priorities. I just happen to believe that we need to do a lot of soul-searching about our priorities.

Here’s the point that a few corporate CEO’s may finally understand now: nobody wants government in their lives. But when your house is floating belly up in the Pontchartrain or you don’t have a thing to feed your hungry children or your multi-billion dollar company is going down the drain, a little government intervention doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.

19 November 2008

What do the Crips, the Lutherans and the Cheese Heads up in Green Bay all have in Common?

I’ve come to believe that the drive to affiliate is one of our deepest, most primitive instincts. This “pack” mentality reminds me that we humans are, in fact, animals moving along the evolutionary process (some more slowly than others).

To me, an allegiance to a football team, gangs, church denominations, political parties and racism all come down to the same fundamental dynamic: the allure of “we.”

Admittedly, that’s what kept me up past 2 AM on election night, long after the electorate had overwhelmingly picked a new president. I so desperately longed for my adopted state of North Carolina to go “blue,” I outlasted Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and John King (even as the wizard of the CNN electoral map conceded that it may take days to call the Tar Heel State).

Since I identify myself as a North Carolinian, it seemed incongruent that “my” state could favor someone so diametrically opposite my own values. Fortunately, we went Democrat for the first time since Carter and I started making plans to market “Blue State” tee shirts. Go team.

This drive, how else can you explain the frenzy of sports fans? I’m not talking about cheering when the fullback plunges into the end zone. I’m talking about the despicable behavior of overzealous fans who somehow rationalize suspending all semblance of decency toward players wearing colors opposite the home team.

When Alabama football coach Nick Saban returned to Tiger Stadium last week to face LSU, a team he once coached to its first national championship in decades, it took throngs of State Troopers surrounding him to ensure his safety. How can a man who was once so revered become so vilified in just a few short years, based solely on a career decision he made?

Simple, human instinct doesn’t follow the rules of logic. In Louisiana, Coach Saban willingly went from one of “us” to one of “them.” Enough said.

Politics is football, really. Rules of logic are suspended. The desire to win supersedes all else. Imagine two scenarios during the next four years:

(1) Under the leadership of President Obama and a Democrat congress, the financial crises eases and the nation enters into a period of economic prosperity… balanced budgets, deficit reductions and tax breaks for all. The wars end with no more American or foreign casualties and the Middle East stabilizes. And with our newfound wealth and clout the US is able to lead a worldwide effort to dramatically reduce world hunger, AIDS, terrorism, genocide and global warming. We’re well on our way toward implementing innovative domestic energy alternatives which will eliminate our dependence on foreign oil and are certain to bring about hundreds of thousands of new high paying jobs -- the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the industrial revolution. Our streets are safer; school test scores are up and, just for good measure, let’s say baseball players all stop taking performance enhancing drugs.

Obama is recognized as a brilliant leader around the world and the Democrats get to say “See, I told you so.”


(2) The economy continues its downward spiral and the country is mired in a painful recession with no end in sight. Unemployment and inflation soar. Obama pulls troops from Iraq which leads to an escalation of violence and instability in the region. Gas prices top $10/gallon in some places. Taxes are raised in every bracket in an effort to somehow fund any number of failed domestic initiatives and to put out fires in trouble spots across the globe.

Internationally, the President is viewed as ineffectual and the US continues to lose clout and respect. Oh, and baseball is cancelled.

The Republicans are certain to regain the White House and control of both houses and they get to say, “See, I told you so.”

Now, really think hard about this: Which scenario do you honestly believe a majority of Republicans would pick?

I hope I’m wrong, but the cynic in me thinks scenario #2… for this simple reason: people would rather be “right” than “happy.”

And, ultimately, that’s what blind allegiance is all about: “we’re right, you’re wrong,” despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s human nature. It’s the power of “us” against “them.”

I'm not trying to pick on the Republicans. I'm sure most Democrats wanted President Bush to fall flat on his face at every turn, even if the consequences were to the detriment of the country. See, if he's "wrong," then, obviously, we're "right."

Racism is merely us against them based on skin color. And as long as there are those who identify “us” based on physical distinction, prejudice and racism will live on. Every “ism” follows the same pattern.

At the risk of seeming irreverent, I would also suggest that church affiliation is mostly about identification, the affirmation one gets from congregating with others of a like-mind. It’s about a need to belong. Fundamentalists pick orthodox churches to attend. Gays and lesbians seek tolerant ones. It’s about a need to be right.

Most of us are who we are. For the most part, we come into the world with a blueprint and follow it pretty closely throughout our lives. Along the way, we find others who share characteristics with whom to flock.

To be honest, I've never known many people who changed their behaviors or attitudes because of the church they attended. Instead, they get enough reinforcement on Sunday morning to sustain their belief that they are, in fact, right, for another week.

When the sermons become incongruent with assumptions to which we are predisposed, we find another flock.

I’m not pointing fingers. Here’s my own ironic example: I deeply value diversity (in the myriad ways the word can be defined). I seek it in neighborhoods I choose to live, in the schools I send my daughters. And, I want to be around others who share an appreciation for diversity. My “them” includes those who don’t, which seems contradictory, I know. We have our banners and tee shirts, too, diversity being particularly sweet when we all think the same about it. Hmmmm....

Reminds me of the self-identified non-conformists in college who all wore black from head to toe.

So, where do we go from here? Should we fight to overcome prejudices and injustices that result from all our dichotomous us/them ways? After all, the greatest harm comes when the “us” holds the power and the “them” is power-less. Division makes it easier to dismiss the disenfranchised.

Maybe we should just accept human nature for what it is? Coach Saban has thick skin, after all.

Still, wouldn't it be a better world if "us" simply meant all of us?

10 November 2008

Transformation or Status Quo?

Question: Will President-elect Obama successfully unite the country? Or will divisiveness and blue state/red state politics as usual continue to tear us apart at the seams?

It's easy to be cynical and expect the worst in people. But for me, this election signified such a sea-change of historical significance that I truly am allowing myself to hope, for once, that we rise above the differences that divide us and pull together, collectively, for the greater good. Obama clearly is a transformational figure and the country is at such a low point, I actually believe that this is the best opportunity in my lifetime for real change. So, I'm optimistic (albeit cautiously). You?