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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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Now that it’s happened again, I remember how it felt the last time.  I remember feeling  like the nerves on my skin were burned, jangly, hyper-sensitive.  I remember how I startled easily.  I recall looking out the window more often, gazing up at the sky…although back then, I also remember the eery quiet that came from no planes flying overhead.  I remember hoping there would be answers soon, cranking out as much work to update the UUA website as I could manage before I collapsed in exhaustion for a few hours.  And I remember how calm it all felt here in my town, thirteen miles away from downtown Boston.

That was in the minutes in hours and days that stretched on, following the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country, some of which originated in Boston.  Now, of course, is the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing that occurred on Monday afternoon.  And while the circumstances are different, and the loss of life much less, it still feels like a punch to the gut of every person who calls Boston their home.

It was Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen who, interviewed the other day on the television news, said, “Bostonians care about only three things:  sports, politics, and revenge.” And, he continued, in this case, revenge is about carrying on our lives, and not letting whoever perpetrated these acts change what we do and who we are. In a demonstration of solidarity, we saw the reviled New York Yankees raising a banner that had both teams’ names on it, and playing our beloved baseball anthem, “Sweet Caroline,” after the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium.  Way to go, Evil Empire.  Maybe we’re not so far away from each other, after all.

And in that spirit, last night the Boston Bruins held the first major sports game since the attacks (two other Celtics games were cancelled) and the entire Boston Garden joined in singing the National Anthem.

Bostonians — and I count myself as one now, having lived here for well over twenty years — are in general scrappy, intrepid, and prone to keeping on, no matter what.  In these days following the attacks on the Marathon, story after story has come to light, of strangers opening their homes to stranded runners and tourists, of people who ran toward the blast, not away, to help those whose legs had been torn off or who lay on the ground, bleeding, of people who are donating to relief funds set up by area banks to help those whose injuries are so severe they will require extensive long term care.

Today, the President of the United States will come together with interfaith leaders at a worship service to remember those who died, those who were injured, those who came to aid the fallen.  Meanwhile, the investigation into the crime goes on, painstakingly, relentlessly.  I have every confidence that the answers will be found, that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.  And that our city will recover.  Again.

Way to go, Boston.  In so many ways, by acts mundane and huge, our people show what they’re made of.  And each time the Red Sox win (and Saints preserve us, they seem to be on a roll again) and our other baseball anthem, “Dirty Water,” pumps out of the Fenway Park sound system, I’m proud this is the place I call home.

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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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Much has been written over the last few days about the “Harry Potter generation”: those children — now teens or young adults — who grew up with J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novels as part of their lives, and who now face the wrench of discovering what life will be like without the continuing adventures of Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, and the rest of the Hogwarts gang.

My daughter, Abigail, is 17 and she is one of these children.  Tonight she will go to the 12:01 AM screening of the last part of the Harry Potter saga, dressed as Hermione Granger, just as she did many years ago, for Halloween.  Then, Abby’s Hermione appeared as a young witch, complete with Hogwarts patch on her robe, custom-made broom and wand in hand.  Today, our Hermione will wear the dark skirt, Oxford shirt, grey cable-knit sweater, knee socks, and Hogwarts scarf that we have seen the teen Hogwarts pupils wear in the movie.  She’ll be accompanied by one friend dressed as Dolores Umbridge (a vision in pink, no doubt) and another portraying Harry Potter.  Snape may also make an appearance, I’m told.

What Ben and I are painfully aware of is that this is the beginning of the end of days.  Days of having a teenager living in the house, a child in public school, a dependent who we are charged with watching over.  A week ago, we marked the official beginning of ‘the year of lasts,’ as Ben calls it:  Abby’s last summer on Star Island as a member of a children’s program group.  She’ll be back to Star, gods willing, but it will be as a young adult, an employee, a woman with her own family – a child no more.

It’s the last summer before college, the last summer of free-and-easy, and, yes, the last opening of a Harry Potter movie. Abby decided to re-read the entire Rowling series before she saw this last film;  she is home as I write, finishing the final chapter of the final book.  It has been marked by laughter and many tears, as beloved characters meet their fate. These characters are her friends, her muses, and she will not say goodbye to them easily.

Years ago, Ben and I started reading Abby these books as bed time stories.  At first, she didn’t want to hear them.  She had somehow decided that they were math textbooks, and refused each time we tried to lure her into the books.  But we were eventually able to convince her that these were uncommon stories… about a magical wizard and his friends, about minotaurs and house-elves… and she, and we, succumbed to the magic.  We took summer trips to Canada listening to Jim Dale tell the stories; we queued up in line at bookstores or pre-ordered new books online so that they would arrive on the legal publication release date. Ben created a wand-making business, Preston and Wickes Wands of Distinction, which sold beautifully made, hand-crafted exotic wood wands to wizards and muggles alike.  We went to sleep dreaming of visiting Diagon Alley, we yearned to try chocolate frogs.

Now, Abby has mourned the end of the book and the series.  And, we all know, it’s not just because the story’s over.  It’s a piece of her life, and ours, too.  These kids may be known by demographers as “The Harry Potter Generation,” and they should be, for this amazing set of stories has shaped their years and their viewpoints, made them dream and believe and wonder in wondrous ways.

Abby as Hermione - Halloween, 2002

Ben and I can’t bring ourselves to run to the movie theatre right away to see the last film.  We want to string it out a little.   Probably, because we want to string out our younger daughter’s childhood a bit, too.

Oh, I will miss these books.  And I will miss that little girl I’ve loved for so long,  too.

Abby as Hermione, July 14, 2011

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We’ve been subjected to the big news stories lately that focus not on how the US economy is doing in its painful recovery, or whether peace in the Middle East is finally being achieved, but instead, on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scuzzy affair with a member of his domestic staff, and on the International Monetary Fund head’s attack on a hotel maid.

While these might make for just another week of “ho-hum” headlines in People Magazine and other celebrity and gossip publications, the revelations seem to have also resulted in more college students coming forward to say that, when they were raped or taken advantage of on college campuses, their concerns were met with disdain or just plain ignored. This is hardly a new situation.

When I was a college student at a women’s school in the early 1970’s, I found myself seduced by an attractive college professor.  I was invited to go look at church pews with him in Bennington, Vermont, that he said he wanted for his house or for the college’s black box theater.  Thrilled to be asked, I said yes.  We went back to his house afterward, and — his wife away on business — he mixed me a drink that was full of frozen fruit and a lot of alcohol.  Before I knew it, he was all over me, and I succumbed.  I was young, inexperienced, eager, unsophisticated, and a lot more.  I didn’t report the encounter, because I felt that I had been complicit in allowing it to happen and that nothing would be done.

Several months later, another professor, who periodically invited his students to dinner at his home, invited me to such a meal.  I was thrilled and dressed up, thinking it was one of those dinner parties.  He picked me up at my dorm, and I was surprised — and concerned — to find that no one else was at the house… a house far away from campus, out in the woods.  Nervous, I chattered away, and we had dinner — a Mongolian Hot Pot, as I recall.

As he showed me around his house, I was somewhat relieved when we got to the bedroom and I saw the bed turned down, with a book on the bed.  “Phew,” I thought to myself.  “Your concerns were taking over.  This guy is planning to go to bed, alone, and read.  No problem.”  Wrong.  Before I knew it, as I turned around to leave the room, I was pushed down on the bed, and raped.

I didn’t report it.  I felt as though I should have known better, should have realized what was going on, should have asked more questions, should have…. Stupid, stupid, stupid.  It was a different time, and I was naive, and very young.

But still, I ask myself as I read about the situations college students continue to encounter, and the unsatisfactory response colleges make to their claims of harassment or rape:  why has nothing much changed?  Why do students still find that they are demeaned or ostracized if inappropriate behavior is encountered?  And why do jokes about ‘rape’ get thrown around, even — in some social situations — by children in their early teens?  What is it that makes a man — a man as powerful and well known as Dominique Strauss-Kahn — think that it’s OK to walk out of the shower, chase the hotel maid around, and force himself on her?

All of these situations — whether they involved a movie star and a housekeeper, a financial magnate and a hotel maid, or a college professor and his student — were, at some level, also about the use of power in situations where both players were not on a level field.  People of influence and authority engaged with, and used their authority and power over, people in subordinate positions.

I was never a big part of the so-called ‘women’s liberation’ movement as it grew in this country.  Nor was I a ‘stand by your man, no matter what’ kind of woman.  I have always believed that individuals deserve to be treated with respect, whether they are hotel maids, housekeepers, college students, or kids on a playground.  Why is that so hard to embrace?  And why does it seem that we are doomed to continue to read headlines that show us, over and over again, that ‘respect and dignity’ is something we must wish for, rather than embrace as truth, in our lives?

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I went into my chiropractor’s office last week.  I like my chiropractor – he’s a nice guy, we usually chat about his children, the weather, or how my back is feeling.  On this particular morning, I walked in and he said to me, “What do you think about Donald Trump running for President?”  “Donald Trump for President!,” I exclaimed.  “Now there’s a stupid idea.  How dumb does he really think we are?  This birther stuff is ridiculous,” I blathered on, referring to Trump’s stated obsession with the idea that the State of Hawaii’s “Certificate of Live Birth” for Obama is not good enough.  “Who the heck believes this stuff?”, I exploded.  One look at his face told me the answer:  he did.

Deciding to dig myself in completely, I continued, “And Michele Bachmann’s just as bad:  giving a speech in Concord, New Hampshire about the ‘shot heard round the world’ that started the American Revolution…in Lexington and the other Concord (Massachusetts).  Please,” I continued, “Can someone ask these people to just get their information straight before they sound off?”  Not content with the amount of damage I’d done myself, I suggested that it would be nice if these supposed candidates for President showed that they had a clue about matters of foreign policy and government relations before they decided they should make a run for the nation’s highest office.

The exchange, among other things, proves that one really shouldn’t have discussions about politics with those whose views we don’t know in advance (yes, the chiropractor started it, but I shouldn’t have taken the bait).

On the other hand, Trump and the birther devotees have reminded me, on this day when we are noting the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, that such down and dirty arguments connect back to the racist history of the United States — and so, I suppose, we really shouldn’t be that surprised that the birther argument — and similar arguments about Obama’s heritage, religion, what-have-you, have taken hold.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the seeds of this behavior were sown long ago, when the country’s Declaration of Independence was being written. New England communities were built off the proceeds of the Triangle Trade to Africa.   Thomas Jefferson, statesman and slave owner, included references to slavery in early drafts of the Declaration, James Madison supported the repatriation of slaves to Liberia and the Caribbean, and the Civil War ripped the country apart as battles raged over slavery, as Katrina Browne and James DeWolf Perry discuss.

So even while many rejoiced at Obama’s election as President, many others focused on all the reasons why this man of mixed race and heritage could not, should not, be President of the United States.  Which brings us to Candidate Trump.  I find Trump’s bombastic blathering outrageous and obnoxious, and I can’t take him seriously.  Unfortunately, my chiropractor, and thousands of others, do.  Trump is, I believe, just one more face that shows us the racist history of our country — a man who will swear that his pursuit of the ‘truth’ about Obama’s heritage has nothing to do with racism, but with the laws of the United States.  And those laws can not, surely, allow a black man to be president.

Back in September, I wrote a piece focusing on the fight Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck were having around Beck’s so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, which compelled Sharpton to stage a “Reclaiming the Dream” event. The two threw mud at each other, and it was not a pretty scene.  At its core, the fight occurred about race and class, I believe.

And here we are again.  It is the anniversary of the Civil War. Yet, 150 years later, we are still wrestling with pigs.  I fear we are doomed to keep engaging in such wrestling matches until we confront the realities of this country’s racist past, and the huge challenges of building a future of equality, together.

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At the risk of being condemned by my friends for being shallow — not to mention dismissed by those I wish to connect with professionally for being an airhead — my thoughts have recently turned to Charlie Sheen and Moammar Khaddafy.  Khaddafy, long known as a vicious dictator and at least an extremely quirky man (if not completely mad) now finds himself in a battle for control of his country as rebels and those who yearn for a different sort of government struggle for change and perhaps, freedom.  Khaddafy has been in power in Libya since a military coup in 1969.  Referred to as “The Leader,” Khaddafy is known for his acts of oppression, his disconnected speeches (or rants), his protection of known terrorists, and his threats against forces who suggest that Libya’s people be liberated.

The uprisings which resulted in the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and led to demonstrations and a revolution in Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world, also moved to Libya, and in late February, 2011, it appeared that Khaddafy’s grip on the country might be at an end.  But not so fast:  as of this writing, Khaddafy had managed to retain hold of Tripoli, the capital, and troops and ammunition had been dispatched to retake Zawiyah, 30 miles away from the capital.  Meanwhile hospitals are reported to be overwhelmed with the injured, reports of violence and intimidation against the Libyan people are widespread, and worldwide, oil prices are soaring.  Khaddafy is not giving up without a battle — perhaps to the death — and the outcome of the unrest is far from clear.

And what about Charlie Sheen?  Sheen, the actor who had so much potential and who was the highest-paid actor on television (over $2 million per episode — can anyone be worth that much?) has, after months of highly publicized rants and bizarre acts, been given the gate by CBS.  Fired from the television series “Two and a Half Men,” Sheen continues to spout about having “tiger blood”; about life with the “goddesses” who live in his mansion (oh dear, one of them left him a few days ago, just as Khaddafy’s Ukrainian nurse deserted him last week); about “winning” in this battle he’s engaged in with the network.  Last night footage was shown of Sheen on top of a building with his minions, waving a machete and reportedly drinking ‘tiger blood’ from a bottle.

Thanks to advances in communication technology, we can receive Sheen’s tweets on his new business plan (over 2 million people currently following).  We can see live reports from Libya, even though Colonel Khaddafy has pulled the plug on the power and internet service in many parts of the country.

In the case of Khaddafy, I can understand why we care:  we have had, and continue to have, the opportunity to see what a transition in government looks like, as we’ve observed the downfall of Mubarak and unrest in many parts of the Middle East and Africa.  On the other hand, why are we so fascinated with Sheen’s outbursts and bizarre behavior?  He is an actor.  He is a drug abuser and, clearly, mentally ill.  He behaves erratically.  He needs help.  He is like many people in the US and in other parts of the world:  an individual with an illness, in need of treatment.  This, Sheen shares with Khaddafy, long considered a madman.

In his poem, “The Second Coming,” written nearly 100 years ago, William Butler Yeats wrote:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The words from this remarkable Modernist poem, written by Yeats to describe the Apocalypse and reflect on Europe following the first World War, can also be seen, through our twenty-first century lens, as a mirror of the chaos wrought by these two men.  On the one hand, we observe Khaddafy’s insane grip on his people and his country’s resources, and — in a far smaller sphere — we are treated to daily reports of the wildly spinning madness that spouts from Charlie Sheen’s lips and BlackBerry.  No telling what the next news cycle will bring, but millions will surely be watching to see what new chaos has emerged as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” again.

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