Anger, bad conduct mimic permission giver

stick

Our president waved the permission stick over his crowds, freeing them to replicate his insults.

In the wake of angry, racist boils bursting on the face of our public persona, those charged with keeping social order urge restraint in response.

“This is not America,” they say, implying that if we will just calm down and come to our senses, we can again paint a veneer of societal peace over our burbling disruptions and return to our true national sensitive nature.

It’s hard for me to admit the ugly truth, but this IS America. We are a nation in which racial, ethnic and class tensions have bubbled beneath the surface of our society for generations – maybe since our first days when dreamers who couldn’t afford the price of passage traded several years of their lives as indentured servants in exchange for a lottery ticket on a ship to the New World.

But our diverse human hive found ways to co-exist by mutually agreeing to a set of unwritten standards of conduct. Among the many learned behaviors that govern our daily lives, we agreed that racial identity should neither hinder nor promote opportunity; that personal space should not be infringed without permission; that insults do not promote peaceful co-existence; that those who enforce the law are not above the law; that private conduct between consenting adults be kept private; that you don’t stiff the waiter.

Within these basic, mutual agreements we generally live day to day in harmony. Outbreaks against these societal mores make news precisely because they grate against the norm. Highlighting them says, in effect, “this is NOT acceptable conduct and our fragile social construct will break down if it continues.” Perpetrators of the most egregious insults are judged verboten and spend time isolated from the rest of us behind steel bars.

This “acceptable conduct” is ingrained in us through the sometimes exasperating efforts of instructive parents, teachers, bosses, friends, colleagues and strangers and instills in us subconsciously the behaviors that keep our society humming with minimal disruption.

Although basketball pro Charles Barkley declared he “is not a role model,” the conduct of high profile public figures often affirms or dissolves commitment to these behaviors.

My wife is still mad at Bill Clinton for interjecting “oral sex” into the common vernacular of our kids. On the other hand, “born again Christian” didn’t become a commonly understood term until Jimmy Carter spoke it in an interview and people scrambled to figure out what he meant.

Now the fabric seems torn. The fragile cloth of our peace frays like the edges of a flag flapping for too many miles on a car antenna.

Agitated people who for years have tamped down their personal rage in reluctant agreement to abide by social expectations suddenly feel free to vent, scream and insult and claim privilege earned by their race, age, education, position or size of their truck.

What sharp knife sliced the fabric? Apparently those who have felt left behind, even abandoned, in a world of shrinking opportunity needed only a permission giver to release their frustrations, someone to say it’s OK to act out in public the rage and prejudices they’ve kept bottled. It seems that our permission giver walked into the national consciousness with a grandiose ride down an escalator to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.

As a candidate Donald Trump employed crass language to invoke brazen images of the “little guy” prevailing, riding their airboats through “the swamp” in Washington DC, shooting alligators from the gun whale. He applauded harsh treatment of protestors, mimicked disability, bragged about his peccadilloes, scape goated immigrants, denigrated leaders of the international order and encouraged caustic behavior.

He waved the permission stick over his rallies and gave the crowds freedom to act out their rage. Of course, everyone is personally responsible for his or her own conduct. But in a society where rage, fear and prejudice have been building pressure like air in a balloon, a single prick in the surface brings an explosive result.

My friend Jim was a high school principal and school superintendent for many years. He told me he would not hire our current president for any position in any school he supervised – from teacher to janitor – because most of the problems he dealt with among students and their parents had to do with breaks in the common social contract that Mr. Trump so easily disregards.

In the course of a single day a friend of mine had a friend called a “faggot,” another’s son was told to go back to “where he came from” and another friend was called a “nigger” by someone hollering out the window as he drove past his house.

Did that kind of thing happen before? Yes, but not with the freedom and frequency it’s happened since our president has cast “the other” as the source of our nation’s ills. The incidents of hate crimes, hazings, defacements and ostracizing are rampant since people feel they’ve been given permission to talk and act this way – since the president has drawn moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose them.

We each are responsible for our own behavior. But when someone in authority – whether a parent, teacher, school crossing guard or president – says by word and deed that it’s OK to treat “the other” with disrespect, our social fabric will quickly unravel.

 

 

 

When can 9/11 pass without ceremony?

It’s coming. The sun’s daily rising and setting prompts the inexorable turn of calendar pages and guarantees it.

This Sept. 11 marked 16 years since the day the world stood still as 19 terrorists commandeered four huge jets and flew them into New York City’s World Trade Center towers, into the Pentagon and into the ground.

More than 3,000 people died, and a nation took to its sick bed.

Those whose hurt hasn’t healed, and media who excavate a trove of emotional stories from pain cannot allow an anniversary of such magnitude to pass without notice.

Alan Sherouse, a pastor in Greensboro, NC, was pastor of Metro Baptist Church in New York City on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. He said it is often outsiders and media who manufacture the pageant of pain around such anniversaries. New Yorkers are too busy in their daily lives to give it much notice until the din of forced recall becomes so loud they all must pause – and remember.

Sometimes we are too self-absorbed in our own hurts to realize the enormous pains endured by other occupants of our shared planet.

Not to diminish either event but for the sake of some perspective I remind us that Nazi Germans exterminated an average of 3,618 persons every day from Dec. 7, 1941 when Chelmno became operable until the armistice was signed May 7, 1945. It was a 9/11 every single day for 1,247 days.

The blow America absorbed on Sept. 11, 2001 was mighty. But twice as many Americans died in the first 10 years after the event while executing our military response. We briefly enjoyed the world’s empathy, expressed by the French headline Sept. 12, 2001 that said, “We are all Americans today.” But we spent that currency in a shockingly frivolous manner.

The hazard of the pending national remembrance day for 9/11 victims and their families is that rhetoric and fervor will increase anti-Muslim sentiment. Politicians, fear mongers and television evangelists have used the event to raise alarm – and money. Politicians and war material manufacturers use reference and remembrance to justify our misguided involvement in wars to which there is no end and for which there is no tangible goal.

Since 9/11 is the sole reference point of some in regard to Islam, they use the event to claim we are in danger as a nation of becoming subject to sharia law. Do you really think Muslims in America want to be ruled by the strict Islamic sharia law they fled in other countries?

Islam did not create the disaster. Terrorists flew the planes – misguided, evil men who happened to claim Muslim identity. In the same way misguided and evil Anders Breivik claimed a Christian identity when he killed 77 people in Norway in 2012. Who doesn’t recoil to hear Breivik referred to as a “right wing, Christian fundamentalist?”

Will we use the anniversary day to extend a hand across the religious and cultural chasm between whatever we claim as our own identity and the person on the other side who describes himself or herself with other terms?

New York City pastor, author and stand up comic Susan Sparks was volunteering with the Red Cross the day after 9/11 taking inbound search calls. A woman called looking for her husband, and described what he wore when he left for work in one of the towers.

The woman started to laugh and said, “Oh, he left with the worst tie on.” Sparks didn’t know how to respond.

Then the woman said, “I’m sorry if humor seems inappropriate, but it’s all my family and I have left now.”

Laughter is always a lifeboat in the rough sea of grief and loss. As we face each anniversary of this tidal wave, we’ll know we are healed when the next anniversaries simply come and go, and our tears are dried by smiles.

 

Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.

 

 

 

Yes, the train stops there

Early in my journalism career I spent two weeks in New York City, first at a conference, then working with Religion News Service as free help while staff there oriented me to religion news writing beyond my Baptist perspective.

After the first week, I thought, “This is great. I love New York. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops.” By the end of the second week, I was silently screaming, “Get me out of here. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops!”

But it was a broadening experience for a small town guy in his mid-twenties, trying to navigate concrete canyons instead of cornfields. During the first week my group attended a live performance of Shakespeare in the Park. A sudden rainstorm cut the performance short, so during the second week, when I was on my own, I went back to Central Park to pick up the play to the end.

My biggest fear as a New York novice was getting onto the wrong train and ending up in a part of the city where I didn’t belong and not knowing how to get back to where I did belong. I studied the train schedule as best I could understand it and knew that the play would end just about the time the train I needed would be leaving the nearest station.

So while the final curtain was still fluttering down, I left my seat and raced through the park, to the train station. Much to my palpable relief, the train was there, idling at the station with the doors open, and the engineer sitting by an open window, his arm resting on the sill.

To be certain I wouldn’t jump onto the train to nowhere, I ran up to him and asked, “Does this train stop on 68th Street?”

He said, “Yes it does.”

Then he shut the doors, and drove off, leaving me on the platform, instantly affirming every bad thing I’d heard about New Yorkers.

Do you think he somehow didn’t know the intent of my question? Do you think he didn’t know that I did, in fact, want to go to 68th Street and wasn’t just inquiring about the train’s route?

I still can’t comprehend the engineer’s actions, but they gave me a great story to share that night when the slow movers from Central Park congregated on the platform, waiting for the next train.

There was no reason for me to get incensed. I was simply dumbfounded. I couldn’t chase the train and clamber onto the back car. I couldn’t shout or curse or wave my arms in anger and effect any change. I’d simply wait for the next train.

I’m continually amazed at the level of anger in everyday life in our society. The smallest things set someone off and lead to fisticuffs or worse – a simple urge to merge into traffic by an accomplished high school girl prompts the man in the truck next to her to shoot her dead.

Road rage? Give the car some space people. What does it cost you? Relax.

Cycling with my group two years ago we met a woman on a horse. She was riding in the ditch to our left, coming toward us. When we met her, the horse reared up. I admired her control of the animal.

Twenty minutes later a car roared up behind us. The driver pulled sharply in front of our group and slammed onto the brakes. Two riders hit the car, then the pavement. I was in front, but avoided it.

The driver was the woman who had been on the horse and she leaped out of the car, practically foaming at the mouth with anger. She said we had intentionally spooked her horse, and then rode on, not stopping to help.

Somehow she had gotten the horse back to the barn, gotten into her car and tracked us down through several turns, while managing to maintain her white hot anger that prompted her to break the law and endanger herself, eight cyclists and whoever might have approached us on the road.

I don’t understand that level of anger. I basically don’t understand anger at all. I can be disappointed, frustrated and wish things were different. But anger is a foreign emotion.

Unresolved anger leads to ill health and to dramatic actions with horrible consequences.

Take a breath. Realize that next year at this time it won’t matter…probably in the next hour it won’t matter. Smile. Give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions.

Just don’t get on a train in New York City if you don’t know where it’s going.

 

To catch a hero

glove

It’s just a glove, but when you’re having a catch with a child, it’s a dreamcatcher.

I spotted my first baseball glove in the old Gambles store in downtown Rio, WI (population 788) when I was a kid. You could get anything in that store, from baseball gloves to washing machines to a nut and bolt to hold the wing onto the airplane you were building to fly off the barn roof.

If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it.

The glove listed for $4.75 and in my imagination it promised to make me field the ball like Willie Mays, hit like Harmon Killebrew or pitch like Sandy Koufax. That’s the promise I saw in that copper colored, slotted slab of leather.

I actually dreamed about that glove between the time I saw it and when I finally got it. I dreamed about flagging down impossibly distant fly balls; of tossing the glove into the air to knock down a potential home run ball before it cleared the fence; of stretching at first base to snag an errant throw and save the inning.

That glove was going to make me a hero.

When I had saved enough I grabbed the bills and all the coins off my dresser and went to town with mom. I marched into Gambles to claim my dream – I mean, my glove.

I carefully laid it onto the counter and when the proprietor rang up $4.88, my heart sank. I hadn’t accounted for the tax man in my saving. My stomach tense, heart pounding, I dug deep and when I put every single penny I had on the counter, it totaled $4.88.

Dreams come true.

I slid that glove onto my hand with the excited reverence of a woman pushing her finger into an engagement ring for the first time. Its exotic leather aroma conjured up dugouts, strikeouts, shutouts and the hero headlines sure to come my way. I couldn’t wait to find someone with whom to have a catch.

Of course, that glove and a successor found a way to get lost in the ensuing years. But I’ve got grandsons now – and a granddaughter – who always want to have a catch. On Memorial Day weekend Grayson wanted to show me how hard he could throw. No problem, I thought. He’s only 8. I don’t have a glove, but I’ll wear my leather yard gloves and catch a few.

I’m writing this with a severely bruised hand. I also own a new glove.

After the last “ouch” I could tolerate, I hauled Grayson to the sporting goods store. One minute into the store I thought I would not be getting a glove that day. The least expensive glove on the wall was $350. They went up from there.

Then Grayson found the rack for mortals and I scanned the price tags to the bottom where they stopped at $50. Ahh, I thought. “That’s the glove for me.” Its other attributes were irrelevant.

Grayson and I headed back home and had a catch. He didn’t have to hold back for fear of hurting my hands and the snap, pop and sizzle of the ball smacking the pocket was an ear worm of joy.

Fifty dollars is still a lot to pay for a baseball glove. And I’m going to take care of this glove for the precious tool it is. Because I have 17 years of having a catch with grandchildren before the current youngest is out of high school.

And I want to be their hero.

Norman and glove

My cousin Sandy saw this post and found my glove on video! Given the event, I was about in fourth grade. That’s Sandy, trying to wrest it from me…

Smoke, Flame and Memories

relatives

Relatives in one of the many photo albums stored in dad’s office.

Dad’s sudden death in March left a home office crammed to the brim with files of records, boxes of old photo albums, crates of special event greeting cards and birthday wishes he’s received over decades.

My siblings and I sorted through cassettes of his favorite polka bands, remembering polka tunes like “Fortunes of War” by Ray Budzilek, “Red Wing” by Marv Herzog or “She’s Too Fat” by Frank Yankovic. Video cassettes of movies, and promotional pieces I’d done for clients through the years filled boxes but would never be seen again because no one has a video cassette player.

We found thick newspaper files of cousins’ high school graduation notices, boys going off to war and anniversary announcements. He saved confirmation programs and programs from funerals. Dad was executor for the estates of several relatives who died decades earlier and all their paperwork was still there in the cabinets.

Over every dusty file we shook our heads and asked dad why in the world he saved all this stuff. I never knew he was such a collector of this memorabilia.

We went through everything because we dared not miss clues we needed to settle eventually his affairs. Of course, we saved not one percent of the items, which included old National Geographics and lovely calendars from the last century.

Because my sister who is estate executor didn’t want anything taken to the dump that had on it people’s names or personal information, she insisted we burn them. After an aborted attempt to incinerate the goods in the cornfield on the old home place – an attempt that quickly attracted an audience that for some reason arrived on fire trucks – we scaled down the conflagration to a pleasant, hand warming experience in the backyard barbecue pit of my cousin Bobby, who coincidentally is the local fire chief.

As I’m feeding the pit with decades of detritus I voice my frustration with dad’s having saved all this stuff – a practice over decades that now requires my attention to dispose it.

“Our parents save this stuff because they think it will mean something to us someday,” Bobby said. We acknowledged the simple reality – with a healthy dose of reverential head nodding – that it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t register meaning to us at the level our parents probably thought it would.

I later expressed that thought to my wise and insightful niece Stacy who said we were doing exactly what dad expected us to do. He knew we wouldn’t save all of those items, but he knew we wouldn’t just haul a truck up to the door and start pitching drawers and files into it, either.

Stacy reminded me that we went through every file and photo page by page, each page a memory. Some we flipped through, some made us pause and share and talk about it, laughing or crying as we recalled that moment, friend, or relative.

We were kids again, each sharing incidents the others didn’t recall, expanding our memory banks with new deposits. When finally we made our way through the last of them, determining which to save, and with which to feed the fire, we were able to close a chapter, like the slap of a leather cover against the last page of the last album that we saved.

Thanks for the memories dad, and thanks mom, for putting all those photo books together years ago.

Our children will enjoy going through them.

March of the boxes

Dad's hands

My hand over dad’s in his final moments. 

Where do you stand when they wheel your shrouded father from his nursing home room? It’s awkward. The next time you see him he will be wearing his best suit, hands folded across his chest, toes up, wearing his glasses even though he’s “sleeping,” never having looked more like his own father.

Tight lipped, my sister, her husband, my wife and I nodded at the mortician and his assistant, and followed them with our eyes on their familiar path down the carpeted hallway to the door where their hearse waited. They’ve made this trip before, harvesting one by one the carcasses of giants who once roamed the earth. But family never is ready.

Then we slid back into the room where dad spent his last week and packed his paltry possessions accumulated during the travails of his final days shuttling on “the system’s” money mopping monorail between hospital, nursing home, hospital, nursing home and hospice.

My sister Denise and I were with dad when he breathed his last. She sat on the bed, hand on his leg; I sat next to him, hand on his arm.

We chatted with our unconscious father’s labored breathing a constant, disquieting rumble in the background. Her own life has been very difficult the past two years, with cancer in both her and her husband. Living a thousand miles apart, such moments of sharing are precious and rare.

Suddenly, silence boomed through the room. Denise stopped in mid-sentence and we turned toward dad. He was gone and we were immediately grateful and sad. We lingered for nearly a half hour before we called the nurse.

After hospice workers and the coroner verified the obvious, and the mortician wheeled dad’s body out the door, we carried our packed boxes down the hallway like ants following a trail of ketchup.

That trail led past the dining room where a couple dozen residents prepared for dinner. Their eyes lifted to our quiet convoy and immediate, unspoken recognition passed over their faces. We walked the hallway down which someday soon they will be wheeled.

Our small boxes and sad faces reminded them starkly that one day their own children would shoulder the remnants of their lives and move quietly down hallways real and figurative to fill the holes they leave behind.

Through all the sad events of my dad’s final days, the flash of recognition on those faces stands apart. Life recognizing death. Antelopes sharing a watering hole with a lion.

One day they’ll be too tired to run. Or the lion will be too hungry to give up. But today, they’ll live in uneasy proximity.

Our march of the boxes reminded the residents that one day the watering hole will dry up and they will lose the race. But not today.

One eye tuned to us until we turned the corner, their heads dipped again as they returned to their meal.