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Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

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I got a call tonight that just crumbled me.  Our friend, Reinhard was on the line, from his lovely home near Reno, NV, to tell me that his beloved wife, Margarethe, had died in October after battling cancer for more than a year.  He’d received our ‘seasonal’ card – the one we never manage to get out before Christmas – and wanted to let me know the news.  I was crushed as I heard his voice, struggling not to break, as he told me of the passing of his wife of more than fifty years.

Reinhard and Margarethe were once strangers in this country.  They had met at a tuberculosis sanitorium in Germany; he from the former East Germany – as a youth he had been forced into the Hitler Youth movement – and she from the Black Forest.  She had tales of going outside with her mother to bury the dead English soldiers on their property; stories of what the second world war was like as a child and youth – a terrible time.  Together they had decided to make a new life in America.  Reinhard was a chemist and worked for Dow and other large chemical companies; Margarethe was a bookeeper and met my mother at the real estate agency they both worked at.  The social connections grew;  my father – son of two Orthodox Jewish immigrants – quickly developed a close friendship with Reinhard and Margarethe.

christmas-candlesAs a child and a teen, I found them fascinating.  Margarethe taught me how to make gooseberry and currant jam and homemade spaetzle; Reinhard taught me how to decorate a Christmas tree with real candles, which they carefully lit.  And then I would listen to my father and both of them sing “Stille Nacht” in German, as the tree sparkled with magic.  We’d sit down to a supper of homemade baked beans (New York-style, as my mother made them) and German sausages and later, enjoy shots of homemade bootleg brandy (made by my mother’s uncle in a copper still during prohibition) to chase the food down.

When I married, I introduced my husband and my children to our friends, and some years ago, we took my mother on her final airplane trip, out to Nevada for a lovely German Thanksgiving in the mountains.  It was smashing.

And now, Margarethe is gone, leaving me with these memories and all of us with the footprint of her life, well-lived, in America.  Reinhard and Margarethe came to this country for a better life – in search of stability, democracy, opportunity.  They received it, were sponsored into American citizenship by my parents, and have loved and supported this country.  Their story, of course, is one that has been – and hopefully will be – repeated, over and over again.  I say this, while knowing that the new American President is busy building a wall that we are all going to pay for – not just in money but in so many other devastating ways.

Margarethe lived a life of love, of generosity, of friendship.  She embodied the warmth that one hopes will come of any friendship.  She shared generously of her life, her culture, her perspectives which enriched my own.  I loved her.  Tonight I just might pour a small glass of some clear liqueur and raise it to her memory, and to Reinhard, her beloved husband.  Downstairs in my pantry there is still a jar of Kiwi and orange jam that Margarethe made…a jar I had been holding on to, waiting for some really special occasion.  Maybe that time is here.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll open it up, and remember her sparkling smile, her warmth, her friendship – the second mother I always adored.  It’s a legacy that will live on in blessed memory.

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What’s amazing is that it feels like it was just yesterday.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to be a real time traveler, to be able to go forward or back in time by decades or more, and wake up and know where you are because you’ve lived it all before.  That’s how I’m feeling about the anniversary, tomorrow.  I’m the cajillionth in a line of people talking about this anniversary (and I won’t talk that much, I promise).  But I keep shaking my head, because the memories are SO present.

I remember not only what I was doing, but what it felt like to be on the school bus coming home, to see my mother crying when I walked in the door, to spend the wierdest Thanksgiving ever, with my aunt and uncle in a smoke-filled den, watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, for hours on end.

There were breaks for food, breaks for the adults to make drinks, breaks to get more tissues, and the sense that this was some bizarre drama in which we were the bit players. No one could remember when the last time was that this had happened;  all they could do was talk about Lincoln’s assassination, “Camelot,” and the beautiful young widow and the two small, adorable children in blue coats.  All I could do was watch them, and watch the TV.

And it was the end of some kind of innocence for me, and probably for many other pre-teens of my generation:  the time when it all seemed to go a little whacky, when the young hero I’d stood and waved to in Hyannisport the previous summer had been ‘disappeared’; the start of the time when people decided that if they didn’t like someone, they’d blow them away to make their lives better and fulfill some promise in their minds about how to change the world.

I started writing slogans that I found inspirational, writings from Anne Frank and Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley even, on the bedroom shades.  I’d lie there in the half-dark, looking at those words, wondering how they had been moved to write those things and wondering if I’d ever be a writer or a great thinker, or how one survived tragedy and disappointment so deep it hurt in my heart.

I started peppering my childhood minister, Rev. Wayne Shuttee, with questions about how there could be a loving God in the face of insanity and rage.  About why there was a world where such bad things happened. About how people find courage and strength to carry on in the face of such stuff.  Wayne answered some, helped me struggle some, and — with my church youth group — helped me believe that together, we could find the resources inside us to carve a new path… so that our lives, and maybe those of our children, wouldn’t be etched with the violence that wiped out those we looked up to and adored (even though we’d never really known them).

All that is hopelessly idealistic, of course.  And it was unfulfilled:  the men who wiped out Martin, Bobby, and a string of lesser heroes made sure we learned that lesson, again and again. Yet, we endure.  We continue to believe, with undying hope, that our world might be different some day.  Which brings us back, in some ways, to the unfulfilled promises of the young man who died fifty years ago.

Tomorrow, I’ll be the kid on the bus again, walking in the door and seeing my mother crying and trying to understand why the world had gone mad.  Just like yesterday.

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We’re midway into April, the month when my husband and I live on verge of going meschugah because there is just too much to do, every single moment of every single day.  And this year is no different.  It’s Patriot’s Day weekend here in Lexington, the town where the first shot of the American Revolution was fired on our historic Green, which stands about a mile and half from our house.  The town’s draped in bunting and there are tons of visitors in the area — you can tell because they wander out into the middle of the road and there are tour buses everywhere.  Down the street, I heard the muskets going off an hour ago as the Battle Road re-enactments took place, showing folks what the running battle that took place from Concord to Lexington to Arlington was like, following the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord.

Tomorrow my catering company will be serving a Colonial Lunch to all who want to sample the real deal — New England Fish Chowder, baked beans, pot pie, and more — and the afternoon parade will come marching down Massachusetts Avenue, leading to more activities and a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s Ride at  midnight on Sunday and The Battle of Lexington early on Monday.  And this year, even more:  Lexington celebrates its 300th birthday – so the events have even more hoopla attached to them.

This historic stuff all seems charming — it’s really a slice of small town New England life at its’ nicest — but along with it, we’re looking forward this spring to demonstrations in support of second amendment rights. organized by gun enthusiasts who refuse to acknowledge that some changes in the nation’s gun laws might be in order to prevent the next school tragedy or mass shooting.  While the parents of some of the tiny victims of the Newtown, CT massacre continue to bear witness in the nation’s capital to the need for debate and a vote on gun laws that might protect the innocent, folks will be coming to Lexington next Friday to ‘stand up and be counted.’  The local clergy association has organized a peaceful public witness event as one response, and many folks in town are left shaking their heads, wondering why, once again, the debate over the right to bear arms has landed on our town Green.

Year after year, as Middlesex County, Massachusetts, celebrates the beginnings of the Revolution, people also show up to raise the flag of fear: if we give any ground on the gun debate, the government will take over our lives and all our freedoms — those that the Patriots fought and died for — will be lost.  But I doubt that Jonas Clarke and the Sons of Liberty imagined ammo clips for their muskets and the need for assault weapons in their homes.  While we celebrate the best of America during events like this weekend’s in Lexington, some people will be looking over their shoulders, to see what freedoms the government is going to take away next.

But who is the government?  Are we part of it?  What role do we all play in determining our fate, and why would we believe that assault weapons are the way to protect our liberties?  Where does “the pursuit of happiness” come into the mix (as articulated in The Declaration of Independence, or, for that matter, the embrace of life itself as one of the freedoms we defend relentlessly?

This weekend in our little town, we celebrate the lives and sacrifices of the patriots who were inspired to fight for their independence from Great Britain, some at great personal cost.  Their struggle is worth remembering, particularly since it lifts up those who held on to the values that the founders had for America…a country affirming not only freedom, but safe harbor and protection for its citizens — even its most vulnerable.

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People of my generation will remember the famous TV show which (in its original version) had Monty Hall bursting forward to holler at the audience, urging them to stand up, in their bizarre costumes, and bargain with him for prizes shown off by “the lovely Carol Merrell” for all to admire.  People would shriek when chosen for the honor and would do anything to make that deal and walk away with something good.

photo of Monty Hall

Monty Hall, original host of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

But was it such a great deal?  Sometimes not.  The bargaining could consume the players, and bidding successfully became the objective, so that you could say you WON that round.  Whether you actually wanted what you got was another story.

And so we find, buried on page twenty-five of The New York Times on Thursday, March 14, 2013, the story about how a “Congressional Committees Makes Some Gun-Rights Provisions Permanent.”   The fact that the story is placed so far back in the newspaper rather than on the front page starts to tell the story.  The decision to place a story on a violent gun battle that killed four in Herkimer, New York, which is found two pages later (but has more ink devoted to it), helps flesh out the problem.

Three months after the catastrophe that killed so many tiny children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, we’re back to reporting on killing sprees and the deals of lawmakers that help make them possible, and editors are burying the story deep in the U.S. Newspaper of Record.

The deal that the Senate is about to allow is one that comes from the cynical behavior that is so commonly found these days in our legislative bodies…that of tacking on onerous provisions to budget bills.  In this case, Democratic leaders have to suck it up and agree to the add-ons if they want their budget bills – the ones designed to keep the government running – to go through the Senate.

The Times reports, “…any legislation that comes to the Senate floor could be undermined by the riders on appropriations bills like the one being debated on the floor now, which would keep the government running through the end of September.”  The story goes on to say, “Even though the gun-rights provisions are long standing, making them permanent is ‘counterproductive,’” according to the director of a violence prevention research program in California.

Yet, here are our duly-elected legislators – the same ones who stood passionately on the floor of the Senate chamber not so long ago, decrying the tragedies that occurred in Connecticut – holding their noses and agreeing to the garbage that comes with the prize they really want.

When my children were younger, they would negotiate for things they wanted and try to drive a hard bargain with my husband and me.  Sometimes it worked, but generally, we held to our position and tried to bring them around to see it our way, and we wouldn’t make what we considered to be a deal not in their ultimate best interest.

When our younger daughter was bargaining, she’d push ever-higher for the prize she was after, and then be astonished when we would make the counter-offer even more restrictive than the ‘original offer.’  Generally she would end up at the point we were originally willing to go to, realizing that this was all she was going to get.  When our older daughter was into the chase for ‘winning’ a debate, she was compelled to be “the first one “ to do whatever would make her ‘win,’ even if – as happened one day – she became the first one to punch herself (albeit gently) in the nose.

But with these actions, buried deep within budget bills, Democrats in the Senate have just punched themselves in the nose, and in so doing, they’ve delivered quite a blow to the country.  As Gabi Giffords goes around the country making halting but heartfelt speeches designed to encourage legislators and citizens to “Be bold, be courageous” in their efforts to pass gun control legislation, it seems like those we elected to represent us in Congress have instead been lured by the voice of the “let’s make a deal” man, hoping that what ends up in their take-home bag will be something they really want instead of a piece of junk.  Too bad that so many of our country’s children, and adults, stand to lose in the bargain they’re about to make on our behalf.

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It’s winter, a time when — at least if you aren’t into skiing or snowboarding or tobagganing — people like me  tend to hole up, make lots of soups and stews, try to stay warm, and — as Susan Cooper’s poem The Shortest Day says, “Light candles to drive the dark away.”  Sometimes it feels like there’s cold not only in the air but in my bones as well, and these days, the cold seems to extend to our hearts and minds, too.

Today, one month after the horror of Newtown, CT, where we had to watch the faces of beautiful first graders flash on television as commentators announced their massacre, the National Rifle Association has taken aim at the President of the United States’ daughters, doing their best to lodge an argument that Obama is a hypocrite for wanting gun control when his daughter go to school in a protected environment.

The same organization argues that, in order for us to be safe, we shouldn’t restrict the sale or use of assault weapons, but instead get armed guards into every school and show our teachers how to handle firearms.  Rambo goes to school is the image that floats in my head, and it’s not one I’d want to share with the children I know.

Paranoia has permeated the minds of the NRA and those Second Amendment defenders who have now decided that a proposal to conduct background checks and perhaps even restrict assault-style weapons will take away our hard-fought civil rights.  I truly believe they have lost their perspective on reality and become the Paranoia People…folks who are caught up in thinking that government is out to get us, and that the right to bear arms is so essential that it can not be modified with any restrictions or conditions.

Several years ago I recalled the era of McCarthyism, including its own brush with my family when I was a very young child.  And I decried the fact that it seemed as though the government was permeated with such gutless leaders as those who – like Rush Limbaugh and his cronies – want to denounce all who disagree with them, scare and intimidate everyone into agreeing with their beliefs.  Funny, but things just haven’t changed much since I wrote that piece.  If the NRA’s current ad is any indicator, it’s all slid further downhill into a pile of very bad smelling stuff.

I remember, as a child, visiting my grandparents and my aunt, uncle, and cousins in a rural part of New York State.  My uncle Fred — a really nice guy who farmed for a living, worked hard, and occasionally went hunting — went out and shot a deer.  My cousin, Linda, posed with it, and I suppose (although I do not recall) that our family ate it for dinner and for quite a while thereafter.  I don’t question my uncle wanting to hunt, and recognize that there are many people in this country who like to shoot rifles at targets, go skeet shooting, or kill game to put on the dinner table.  I also recognize that there are some people who feel that they want, or need, to keep a gun in their home for protection.  My own husband has had one at times, although it’s a musket that shoots black powder, used for his colonial MinuteMan activities.

But that is a far cry from the purchase and sale and possession of assault-style weapons by people like you and me.  I can think of absolutely NO reason why any private individual needs to own such a weapon…none.  And the argument that any restriction on gun licensing or change to the review that individuals might undergo in order to purchase a gun constitutes infringement of second amendment rights, is hogwash.

When people get caught up in the idea that the government is there to work against them, not for them; when individuals start arguing that this president, or any president, is going to take away their rights and so they have to stock an arsenal of weaponry to defend their homes, we’re into dangerous territory.  A month ago, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, there was a lot of talk going on about the need to be kind to one another…to embrace good will and the pure wonder and joy that those slaughtered first graders had, and bring it into our lives.  That didn’t last very long, at least if the NRA’s current media campaign is to be taken as an example.

Yes, there are a few little glimmers of hope.  Yesterday, parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School children announced the creation of Sandy Hook Promise, which calls on people to “choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger” and to believe that “this time, things will be different.”  What would happen if the paranoia people let go of the fear that’s driving them and decided, instead, to sit down at the table and have an honest conversation with these heartbroken parents about violence and its impact on their lives and our society?  What a radical thought that seems to be.

I continue to hold to the belief that our country can do better, be better, than it is now.  Evidently the parents who began Sandy Hook Promise believe the same…that we have an opportunity to turn tragedy “into transformation.”  But first, the paranoia has to be set aside.  Even for just a few moments…long enough, perhaps, to bring us all to the table to look into one anothers’ eyes and search for the compassion that we all hold, somewhere deep in the too-cold heart that waits to thaw with the promise of love, trust, and healing.

 

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Last night, in one of those interesting confluences of events, I found myself at my church, helping to mentor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who are part of our Coming of Age class.  This program, one of the crown jewels of the Unitarian Universalist religious education program, guides high school students as they contemplate their personal ethics, morals, faith, and vision for themselves, both now and in the future.  And, in an ironic and timely coincidence, the evening’s theme was on good and evil.

Is there inherent good in the world, we were asked?  Or inherent evil?  Or does it take people for either, or both, to exist?  Why do people do good things, and have you ever experienced them?  And why is it that evil occurs?  The youth, and we, their advisers and mentors, wrestled with those very big questions, all in light of the tragedy that had occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After class was over, Ben and I went on to meet our nephew and niece at the movie theater to escape the weekend’s headlines.  There, we watched “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” and I was pulled in once again to the story of Gollum, the tormented creature who engages Bilbo Baggins in riddles and struggles with his inner selves…part good, part evil…unsure which way to go.

Face of Gollum

Gollum, who struggles with good and evil in Tolkien’s stories.

I do believe — have always believed — that it takes people to cause good in the world, that good exists because of what we do, because of how we experience it through our eyes.  And I also believe that people cause evil to exist in the world.  The sick or twisted mind loses its way, causes pain and suffering and hatred to be visited on others.  If a tree falls in the forest, it must be witnessed in some way to be known.

So while Gollum, alone on his island imagines what he might do to feed his lost soul, it requires the presence of another — in this case, Baggins — to push him to action.  And, returning to the realities of our own nightmarish existence of the last several days, it seems clear that Adam Lanza’s warped sensibilities sought out the lives of innocents to carry out his mission in the horrible, desperate way that he did on Friday.

In the Coming of Age class on Sunday night, the question was asked:  “What have you done that was good?”  People thought hard as they struggled to answer that question.  My own response was pretty simple:  This weekend I wrote a letter to a very good friend who lives in Newtown, telling her that I was thinking of her.  And at church yesterday, I sought out a woman — with two beautiful children of her own — who teaches kindergarten in our town, and thanked her for what she does.

Someone I know wrote, in an email to others, that we might not be able to do much right now for the people of Newtown, but that we can be kind to one another.  True, we can sign online petitions to the White House, the National Rifle Association and public interest lobbies — and that is important.  We can write to our elected representatives and the President of the United States, and that is required, I think.  But if we do those things and we are pushed, in a moment of anger, to scratch the door of someone at the parking lot because they parked too close, or to cut someone off in traffic, or push to the front of the line at the movie theater, we might have missed the bigger point.

Child lighting candle Make no mistake:  I am no Pollyanna.  As my friends — and some who are not — will tell you, I have been known to proclaim someone an ass—e on plenty of occasions, and I certainly don’t get it right every time in my life.  But long ago, I resolved to try to treat people with kindness; to live out what I held on to when I was a teenager, about the same age as these kids who I now seek to mentor:  I chose to believe that people are, as Anne Frank once said, really good at heart.  And that we should try to treat one another with kindness and do good where we can, even in small ways.

Right now, as we thread our way through the thorns and blossoms that reside next to one another in the garden of good and evil, that seems like it might be a pretty important goal — and the one that we can all work toward, no matter where we are on our society’s power ladder.

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