07 December 2015

The New Donald Trump Campaign 2016  


Every so often, a pariah pops its ugly head in presidential politics. We've had George Wallace and Strom Thurmond; creatures so vile as to play not simply to the lowest common denominator, but to conjure up false fears of our own citizens.

Donald Trump's latest call to ban all Muslim travel to the United States is the lowest kind of rhetoric. It is pond scum on the back of pond scum. It is the branding and commoditization of xenophobia. I wish I could say it would be the death knell of his campaign, but who knows which of his outlandish contortions of air will end up being, in retrospect, the end of him.

Donald Trump cares about one thing: Donald Trump. There is no thought of the Constitution, no thought of American citizens, no thought of American values; there is just the Donald Trump Index, and he is content to pump up it share value whenever he can. 

Make no mistake: Donald Trump is no Republican. He is no Democrat. He is no Independent. He is his own constituency; his own party; his own liability. 

Every picosecond of time he spends doing interviews on major news networks; every visit a giddy news anchor takes to any of his properties; every Tweet and long op-ed spent admonishing and condemning Donald Trump is public relations gold for Donald Trump. It's another private jet; another gold-plated skyscraper; another designer clothing line.

Here is what it is not: worthy of American politics. The same politics that have seen citizens such as Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan and James Stockdale grace the spotlight. No, our politics are not perfect. We are nasty, we are base, we are grossly misleading every two-to-four years to score cheap points.

But at the end of the day, we are American. We respect the Constitution, though we may disagree on its precise interpretation on issues; we respect our fellow citizens, though we may disagree on social programs or political matters; and we respect American values, though we may disagree over which ones make us truly exceptional.

Donald Trump does none of those things, and therefore has no place in American politics. He is not angling for votes; he is purveying the most public Ponzi scheme in the history of our republic. After more than two centuries, he is all the fears our founders wrote about in The Federalist Papers incarnate.

Therefore, the most important campaign of 2016 will not be for President of the United States; it will be this:

Ignore Donald Trump 2016

30 October 2013

Berry from Columbia, TN  


Erosion, as it turns out, isn't just affecting our soil and rocks. It's also affecting our motivation to partake in the political process.

For the past several weeks and months, as Americans ask what the future of government might look like, there is one question that has been left largely unanswered (and unasked): What about the future of our environment?

Berry is a sustainability advocate and student at the University of Michigan. She has worked on environmental issues domestically and in Mexico. And she's got her finger on the pulse of an alarming trend.

"Today's young professionals who are environmentally and socially motivated often spurn the political process and turn to the direct, tangible world of business.

For people who claim to embrace systems thinking and complexity, most of the Generation S I know is willfully ignorant of politics as a channel for change. I can't say I blame them. After all, I'm doing the same thing myself. Influencing policy seems messy, slow, and unglamorous. I don't want to wait around for a brief window of opportunity on the political agenda. I want to get out there and do something."

The most recent government shutdown has only exacerbated this reality. When hundreds of thousands of Americans can be forbidden from coming to work by their own government, what incentive is there to put time and effort into the political process?

Advocacy is a skill, and an essential part of the national debate. How can you have honest debate without professionals arguing points for each side? Without them, we're left with the shrill shouting match that we have grown accustomed to. For Berry, the atrophying of this skill is particularly damning.

"My Generation S colleagues and I like to think of ourselves as innovators who push boundaries. We are proud of being change agents who push businesses to think outside the box.

But when few of my sustainability friends can tell me what COP19 is or what the Farm Bill has to do with biofuels production, it might be a sign we've gone too far away from the policy realm. Maybe it is time to return to some of the boxes we've ignored. Being engaged and informed advocates of positive public policy might be one box we want to check."

Being active in the political process does not mean you have to be either a slimy politician or a crooked lobbyist. There is a big difference between an advocate and a politician--namely, education versus campaigning or pandering. In order to be a successful advocate, Berry has a few key traits in mind:

"They take people seriously, even if they disagree with them. They listen without judgment. In my experience, many who think of themselves as advocates are unsuccessful because they think less of or dismiss those who disagree with them. As a result, they speak but don't listen and preclude the possibility of conversation.

I've never seen someone change their mind who felt defensive or attacked. I began to change my own views of certain environmental and social issues in college when I became friends with a couple of people who explained their beliefs while at the same time taking my differing views seriously.

They make it personal. I believe the most influential advocates are those that live out their beliefs, even in small ways. How can I advocate for local food reform if I don't support my local farmer's market?

Finally, they're happy and excited when they talk about what they're advocating for. When I find myself smiling after someone's enthusiastic description of their idea, I admire the passion, and I'm probably at least sympathetic to the idea."

Despite the paralyzing politics of our time, progress still needs to be made on issues such as conservation and the environment, health care, poverty, and housing. While the latest round of partisan brinkmanship has shown that politicians might be incapable of sustaining such progress, Berry makes it clear that a dedicated, growing, and positive band of public advocates are absolutely essential to a healthy, prosperous nation.

(Want more Berry? You can read her work on GreenBiz by following this link.)

25 October 2013

Colleen from Danvers, MA  


In our time, there are no faceless names.

Colleen Ritzer wasn't just a math teacher from Danvers, Massachusetts. She may not physically have been my neighbor, or biologically been my sister, but she was still those things to me. We were both Americans.

In our time, we are all inextricably linked. And the life and spirit of one woman can have a profound impact on our lives, even if we don't know her.

I don't know how long it has been since I wept, and I don't think I could tell you what the reason was either. It wasn't necessarily the news of the unspeakable tragedy that befell Colleen that got to me; I wept when I realized who she was.

Colleen was a 24-year old math teacher from Danvers, MA. She taught algebra and geometry at the freshman and middle school levels.

There has been too much senseless tragedy in our schools this year, and it might be easy to write off Colleen as just another statistic. But in our time, she is so much more. One only has to visit her Twitter page to see her words and her legacy still living, or listen to her friends and family to know that she was--and always will be--a special part of our larger American community.

Colleen loved her job, performing it with passion, care, and zeal. If everyone in America was as dedicated to their job as Colleen, we would be the happiest, most energetic, most productive nation on Earth! She was exuberant, kind, and dedicated to every single student, no matter their shortcomings or stereotype. She used social media as an outlet to reach her students, posting homework assignments and helpful hints or words of encouragement.

I'm struggling to find the right words to say, but to honor Colleen and those like her in this world, I'll let her do the rest of the talking:

"Geometry - here is the link to the review packet answer key as well as extra problems if interested..."

"Good luck to sophs/juniors on PSATs tomorrow :) I hope there's a proof on there...that would be so much more fun!"

"Now that the school year is in full swing, so are my weekly Target visits. #obsessed"

"Yay math!"

"It's almost the long weekend :) #youcandoit #justkeepswimming #excited"

"Find something good in every day :)"

"Tonight is Meet the Teacher Night!! Encourage your parents/guardians to attend and check out the brand new DHS and meet the awesome staff :)"

"Came home to find Boy Meets World on TV. Happy weekend :)"

"Always thinking of the innocent victims of 9/11 and the loved ones left behind who live in their light every day."

"Full school week ahead. That can only mean one thing: lots of math fun :)"

"No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind."

Tonight, I cried for Colleen from Danvers. 

Like parallel lines, Colleen, we'll never meet. But those you leave behind will keep going, in your honor, upholding your legacy, your joy, and your exuberance every day. If we can do this even fractionally as well as you did, the world will be so much brighter.

Thank you.

24 October 2013

Love Thy Neighbor, But Only After He's Been Drug Tested  


Jesus was a radical.

Today, he is the head of a Church, but when he was among man, he was a radical. He claimed to be the son of God, and mankind put him to death for that.

Billions and billions of men and women from nearly every civilization since his crucifixion have modeled their lives to His in their own way. Faith, for better or for worse, has been the driving force of human history.

In the eighteenth century, a bunch of religiously persecuted travelers from Old Europe emigrated to a New World. They made compacts, pledges, and promises to one another. They dumped tea, survived the British onslaught, and shed blood. And in the end, a new nation was formed, whose framers imbued with the best qualities of Judeo-Christian values.

There are many today who use the example of a "Christian nation" to shout down rights for gay and lesbian Americans, the omission of prayer in schools, or the choice of programming on cable television.

Yet when it comes to the most basic Commandment--"love thy neighbor as thyself"--Americans today are tragically lacking. The most recent debate on our Facebook page is case-in-point.

When considering the (rather humiliating) imposition by the state of mandatory drug testing as a condition of receiving welfare payments, here were the "pro" comments:

"If you have to be drug tested to work for your money, you should be drug tested to be handed money that others work for."

"heck yes drug test them to give them free money"

"Has nothing to do with the right to vote or receive protection, it has to do with government spending money on a bunch of "lazy" people."

When are we a "Christian nation" and when are we not? Are we only Christians on Sunday? Are we only good people if we get to choose exactly who gets our sacred "charity?"

We declared our freedom from British rule by declaring some self-evident truths, "that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Those who have little money--whether through their own "efforts" or unfortunate circumstances--are less free than those with more.

If we were a Christian nation, how would we look on the issue of welfare? What does the Good Book say about doing with those "pesky" poor or "lazy" among us?

"If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks." Deuteronomy 15:7

"Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it." Ezekiel 16:49

"Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights... Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar?" Isaiah 10:1-3

"And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same." Luke 6:33

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money." Matthew 6:24

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." 2 Corinthians 8:9

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46

We may think: "Of course God loves the poor; he loves everybody." But it's not so simple as that; God's character is presented as a model for our own. If God values the poor, we have to think about what that means for us.

What we do for the least among us says a lot about who we are. What we do as a society through our government for the least among us says even more.

What do we gain from shaming our fellow man? Who gives us the right to pass such haughty judgment? If outrage on behalf of the lowliest and the laziest in society makes one a radical, at least you know you're in good historical company.

23 October 2013

Mary Ellen from Germantown, MD  


My father worked two jobs his entire life, both in service to the United States. My mother is self-employed and works as a schoolteacher. Let me qualify this post by saying that we have never needed, nor have we accepted, any form of welfare or any of its sister programs.

Does that make my family qualitatively "better" than those families who do accept welfare payments? I knew quite a few of these folks growing up. Certainly, from a quantitative standpoint, we have more money than those families. But how do you judge a family? How do you "rank" a person? And when it comes right down to it, what right do you have to do so?

Mary Ellen is something of a conundrum in the modern sense. She is a 34 year old professional with a hard-working husband and no children (yet). She works in the service industry during the day, while her husband manages a large-scale farming company (their actual identities and the extent of their occupations are being hidden upon request).

They do exceedingly well for themselves, and they take great pride in the American flag that flies in their front yard. Mary Ellen volunteers her time to welcome troops home from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They both donate a sizable percentage of their take-home pay to The Fisher House, the USO, and local SPCA and children's charities, including buying enough baked goods from the nearby school to single-handedly fund the middle school's spring field trip.

But to really get to know Mary Ellen, you have to know where she came from. And when you do, you realize how remarkable it is that she is able to drive a shiny Nissan Altima to a good-paying job every day.

Mary Ellen is the third-oldest of seven children. Her family spent their lives in rural West Virginia.

Their lives, however, consisted of the most abject, back-breaking poverty you can imagine.

"My parents weren't interested in parenting. My father worked logging--when he could hold a job--and my mother sat around the house all day long. When he wasn't working or ignoring my mother, my father was obsessing over making moonshine. I never really knew who he was."

Mary Ellen's father died in a drunk driving accident when she was eight years old. Nobody stepped in to take his place.

"There was just a void. My mother couldn't fill it. We lived off of welfare. Welfare bought us clothes, school supplies, and food. But mostly it bought her prescription drugs."

Mary Ellen's mother suffered from severe addiction to painkillers. Although it's probably more accurate to say that Mary Ellen and her siblings suffered the most.

"She was never really 'there.' She would cook for us sometimes, but the food always tasted nasty. She would burn things and then let them sit in the sink, which was also disgusting. My brothers and sisters and I took to cooking and cleaning for ourselves at a very young age. We had to do this on the sly, of course, because she would scream and scream if she knew we were doing this. I think she eventually became convinced that she was wealthy and had a maid."

Welfare was a way of life for Mary Ellen. "It got to the point where Mom wouldn't even want to leave the house. So we kids knew when the check would come in and we taught ourselves how to drive and went out to get the staples, the essentials."

As soon as she could start working, she did. Mary Ellen first started babysitting when she was 14, and held down a job as a waitress and assistant librarian by the time she was 16 years old.

"It was a way to get out of the house, and it was exhilarating. I know it sounds terrible but I'm afraid if my father was around, I would have been forced to sit at home. I probably would still be in West Virginia right now."

The rest of her brothers and sisters aren't so lucky. Of the seven, Mary Ellen is the only one to have escaped the welfare circle. Two of her brothers died like their father--in senseless drunk-driving accidents where they were the culprit. A sister died giving birth. Of the two brothers and one sister she has left, Mary Ellen is more reserved, "I don't know where they are. I'm pretty sure my sister is in West Virginia. My oldest brother, the last I heard, was living in Los Angeles. I'm pretty sure he's homeless. My kid brother is...you know, I don't know. I haven't heard from him in six or seven years."

It turns out that working in the library was one of the best things that ever happened to Mary Ellen. "I read. What else could I do? It was an escape. I read nearly all the books on that shelf. I might not have had one, but Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway were like the fathers I never had."

She went to college to be a writer. "I didn't know anything about college, so I read about that, too. The guidance counselor didn't really think I had a prayer. I had my college mail sent to the high school because I was afraid of what my mother would say, and I think I was embarrassed, too. But the day that acceptance letter came in was pure bliss."

She never did become a writer--"although I learned some pretty darn good calligraphy!"--but she did continue to read and explore. She met her husband, John, got married and eventually settled in to the job she has today.

"I love it. I feel like I'm doing some good for people."

Our roots say a lot about us, but they don't define us. Mary Ellen excelled in spite of her difficult upbringing. And that should give all people hope.

Today, Mary Ellen is an avid Tea Party supporter. "This nation needs to get back to the fundamentals. We were founded by people who were willing to work hard and not accept handouts. The welfare state has killed the American Dream."

When I asked Mary Ellen whether Welfare was worth the positive aspect it provided to needy families, she tersely replied, "No. Welfare needs to be replaced. The needy can be helped by charity. Welfare encourages dependency, and we can't afford millions of people who are dependent on government anymore."

Mary Ellen has overcome so much in her life, and for that I am grateful. I wish that everyone in America could be fortunate enough to have her success.

It is easy to leave our past in the rear-view mirror. Take a look at a similar story from one of Congress' own, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and his family benefited from Social Security payments when he was a young man after his father's untimely passing. Today, Ryan is a leading proponent of gutting Social Security and those very payments.

There is a difference between need and a free ride. For the majority of individuals living off of Welfare or similar payments, following the rules and attempting to scratch out some kind of existence with their lot, life is not all roses. The real and unnecessary harm those of us who are well-off can do to them, through drug testing and other various forms of public humiliation, is a classless way to highlight class barriers.

In a big country with good people and the best of intentions, the good that we do will inevitably be taken advantage of by the weak and the desperate. Judgment, however, is a slippery slope.

Take a Polaroid--or iPhone picture, or whatever--of America right now; of all the families, of all the men, women, and children living here right now. How many Mary Ellens and Paul Ryans are there out there that we don't know about? When we humiliate their potential and their worth, what damage are we really doing to the future of America?

For a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values, the notion that "he without sin" should "cast the first stone" is lacking in our politics and treatment of one another. I don't condone the abuse of good-faith government programs, but I cannot stomach the wanton disrespect of an entire class of American citizens. There is a better way.

20 October 2013

The Mystery Man and Tyler from Spartanburg, SC  


I live by routines. I have a morning routine and a before-bed routine. When I sit down to eat, I have a routine.

Likewise, when I'm in my car, I have a routine. Trash goes in a plastic bag in the back behind the passenger seat. When I stop at a gas station, I empty the trash. Sometimes, it piles up.

After my most recent roadtrip, it was getting pretty dire back there. I finally pulled up after a long run to fill up the tank and empty the mound of trash that had accumulated.

I'm in running shorts, a singlet, and running shoes, obviously still sweaty from seven miles of torture, bent over the back seat of my car when a man approaches me. He's wearing a red checkered shirt with the top button undone, no tie, tucked into freshly pressed grey dress pants. He is middle-aged, with a smart comb-over, and slightly stocky.

"Here," he says, "You look like you could use some reading material."

He hands me a small booklet, about the size of a checkbook, and walks away. I call after him with a half-hearted, "thanks," but he had already disappeared.

I look down at the booklet in my hand. "This Is Your Life!" it declares, in bright red block letters.

As I read through, I realize that this is a religious pamphlet written in cartoon format. A man who declares "I've been a good man!" is taken through the process of dying and traveling through space (?) to stand before God, who goes through everything the man has ever done, said, or thought throughout his life. The first part of the pamphlet ends with the man being thrown in the lake of fire, i.e. Hell, by God for either failing to live a perfect life, or not becoming a "born-again" Christian.

In the second part of the pamphlet, the man awakes from what it seems was a dream. He goes to church and asks his priest how he can become born-again and dedicate himself to Christ. The rest of the booklet is full of pictures of the man doing charitable things, like visiting the elderly at a retirement home and working at a soup kitchen, and at the end he accepts death and is welcomed by God into Heaven.

I put the pamphlet down, still sweaty but now sitting in the driver's seat of the car. The small cartoon strip had an impact on me, because I'm well aware that I have not lived a perfect life. My church attendance has fallen off, but I do not view myself as someone who has turned his back on God or faith. Christianity--or any religion, really--is more than simply going to church. In my view, the majority of Christians in America go to church on Sundays but do not put that faith into practice in their daily lives Monday through Saturday, anyway.

But the pamphlet from the unnamed gas-station man brought up a good question, and reminded me of a conversation I had with a good friend a few years back:

Is God really vengeful?

If I was in the business of "ranking" Christians, Tyler would rank light-years ahead of me. I'd guess he has been doing bible study since the day he was born, and he is an easy quoter of obscure biblical passages. On top of that, he is a legitimately good guy. He's not born-again, but he is a Christian, and for the sake of this column, his particular "sect" is irrelevant.

"What does 'vengeance' really mean?" he asks. "And more basic than that, how does Christianity actually fit into human history?"

Christianity was not the first faith, nor was it the first monolithic faith. Before it, human beings from around the world prayed to, sacrificed for, and lived in fear of gods they saw as judging their daily acts. Everything "bad" that happened to them was viewed as punishment from the gods, which is where our concept of religious vengeance comes: if you do X, and X is bad, then god will do Y, where Y is punishment for X.

"That's the belief system that Christianity was brought into. And while it supplanted a lot of the old pagan rituals, it's tough to really eradicate the millennia-old belief that you will be punished by god. Even after the concept of the Christian God came along and was revealed through Jesus Christ as being something greater, people still held this belief."

God, Tyler argues, stands opposed to punishment. "If you consider the passion story, you realize that God proved he was like us by sending down his son. He did this to prove a point, because what happened to Jesus? He was crucified, because we had made the very act of being God a crime! And what did God do after we had essentially killed Him?"

Nothing. Through that act--the most profound in human history--he proved that there is good, and there is evil, and it is up to us to act in accordance with the former without resorting to the latter.

"God allowed himself to be slain by man, and did not slay man in return. There is no such thing as a vengeful God. When I hear people call themselves "God-fearing" I think, why aren't you God-loving? Why don't you love your fellow man, without judgment and without malice? That's the message. Everything else is false, I think. And when you accept that reality about God, about man, and about life, the world brightens up. It becomes a really beautiful place."

Human beings aren't perfect. But through the example of Christ--which, consequently, is an example that permeates all faiths and all people--we can work towards a better life for all people.

So while the mystery man from the gas station and the printers of the small pamphlet aren't evil, I don't think they are fully correct. The message of the day is acceptance, with malice towards none and love towards all. 

This is not easy; in fact, that last sentence may be the most difficult concept in the world to grasp. One of my favorite biblical passages is Matthew 18:21-22: "Then came Peter to him, and said, 'Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?' Jesus saith unto him, 'I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.'"

When you consider how astounding that is in today's world, you might be discouraged. But realize that there is no punishment if you fail at perfection, so why not try? This is not to be dictated by a government program, or left only for Sundays in a pew somewhere. With His example as our guide, we hold the power to change the world for the better and make our dwelling here on Earth a little more like His kingdom up in Heaven.

Kira from San Jacinto, CA  


In Shakespeare's Richard II, the title character exhorts, "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings."

Gone are the days of the monarchy, with the king or the queen as the sole focus of power and concern. Today, in our federal republic, the people exercise the government's power.

Except that no one has bothered, as Shakespeare did, to say, "For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of dreams."

Kira is a decidedly petite 19-year old Latina. At just a smidge over 5-feet tall, with dark brown hair and a perky smile, she could pass for someone much younger than even 19.

If you haven't guessed yet, this is a sad story.

Do you remember those "claw" games at the arcade? The ones where you had to steer the claw around using a diminutive joystick in the (usually) futile attempt to snag a plush toy at the bottom of the machine and bring the claw back in time to have it drop into the winner's chute to take home with you? 

Walking out of Wal Mart after a quick bathroom break during a road trip, I spotted Kira near the exit of the store. She was playing anxiously on the claw game, which didn't strike me as odd at first. Then, as a small boy rushed up to her shouting "Mommy Mommy!" I realized that next to her were two carts packed higher than she was tall, full of kid's toys and other staples.

Kira, looking defeated, turned away from the game that had given her so much joyous anticipation just a few seconds earlier and warily eyed her two carts. I'm fairly confident she thought I was a creep when I offered to help her to her car, but I wanted to find out who she was.

Kira lives in the shadows of American life. She works two jobs, as a waitress and a babysitter, in order to provide for her son, Julio. Nobody writes stories about Kira because her life is "really not that interesting," in her words.

I didn't have to ask if she was a single mother. "We are lucky to be here today, aren't we Julio? Our check came in the mail today, and those don't ever hardly come around."

I asked Kira if she played any sports in high school. "No, no. Well, soccer for a while. I studied too much. But I was on the honor roll!" She says the last line proudly, almost defiantly, and I can see a person inside who is much different, with much more potential, than her exterior belies.

Sensing my thoughts, she says, "When I had Julio, things changed. They have to, you know? When he grows up, he'll be on the honor roll,too."

I closed the trunk with a slam, wished her a nice night and good luck, and that was it.

I don't know if it's called "guilt of the fortunate," but since that day I have not been able to shake off the feeling that I could have done more--should have done more--for Kira. In this country full of plenty, there are still too many with so little. But the type of incremental good that those of us with marginal means can do is maddeningly inadequate when measured against the harsh reality of the world.

Langston Hughes once asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?"

As I think about his famous poem, I think about Kira:  the too-young embodiment of a dream deferred.

18 October 2013

Our Children, Our Communities, Our Destiny  


We all have a vested interest in the education of our children, whether we have them or not; whether they are our children or the kids across town.

Yet, when we see a child in our community who plays heavily in drugs and violence, who makes us shake our head every time we see him, our first natural inclination is to think, “Where are the parents?”

The real question should be: “Where were you?”

Education begins before the first day of school; it begins the very moment a child is brought into the world. And because of this, most children today are either “won” or “lost” before they become school-age.

Early childhood education is so vital—not only to see if Tommy can play well with others—but because it is when a child will develop his first and potentially most important routine: what to do after school.

I was lucky enough to have loving and strict parents. After the school bus dropped me off, I sat down at the kitchen table to do my homework—maybe not because I wanted to, but because fear of my father’s wrath outweighed any positive effects I'd gain from playing with my LEGOs for the thousandth time.

Contrast my anecdote with a family of three children, one mother and a drug-dealing dad in jail in Baltimore. The kids get home from school and mom is usually nowhere to be found. Sometimes she is there, of course, but oftentimes it’s with another man or she’s screaming her head off at them. They don’t stay inside long, even if it’s raining.

These kids start out playing hopscotch, maybe eventually exploring beyond their city block. New friends come along, and hopscotch becomes a pick-up game of ball, becomes a few pushes and shoves and hurt feelings, becomes rival gangs, becomes drugs and foolish violence, becomes a too-young casualty of the streets, becomes just about anything we can’t stand on the evening news.

There is an old saying that goes, “there is no substitute for good parenting.”

Except maybe, there is:  a good community.

I wish the world was full of good parents; it is not. Yet our willingness to curse the bad parents also curses the children, and one bad parent with five kids may unfortunately become five bad parents with twenty-five kids.

Throughout America, there are streets we don’t feel safe on. We call them eyesores, ghettos  slums. Yet children are there, born and created equal, that will quickly and quietly lose that equality before they have the chance to learn that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

In this country, a child is born with at least two families:  her immediate one and her community. So while it is true that parents have a responsibility to their children, so does a community to all its young ones. This encompasses the simple--remembering birthdays, dinner invitations, time at the library--and the potentially difficult--giving Johnny a place to sleep at night when things are rough at home or taking Suzy to the hospital when we notice bruises on her skin.

A community is more than color of skin, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. It is strongest when every child, without exception, is included and encouraged. Our great destiny as a nation relies on our ability, even in the smallest of towns, to reach out, swallow our fears or excuses and ensure that every child can see the light of day.

Every time we lose a child, we lose a good soldier in the Army. We lose a role player in the local economy. We lose an emergency worker who will save the lives of others. We lose a good citizen, and we lose a good parent. And once we lose the parent, the cycle is far more likely to repeat itself—and there we are again, asking, “Where are those parents?”

17 October 2013

Beau from Dallas, TX  


As a deal to end the shutdown and stave off large-scale economic destruction is reached today, it is clear that Republicans have gained virtually nothing from their faux-apocalyptic stunt. Already, many talking-heads are foretelling the end of the Republican Party and the doomsday they will surely see at the polls in 2014.

And while the Grand Old Party is hardly the same Old party, what with their new Tea infusions and such, one thing is certainly clear:  they are far from finished.

In 2008, the Republican Party fielded one of their best candidates for president since Ronald Reagan in war hero John McCain. He went on to get trounced in a national backlash against the war rule of a Republican White House. Shortly after the polls closed and Barack Obama was announced as the 44th President of the United States, every major media outlet was running pieces on "the end of the Republican Party."

Which, of course, were all foolish.

"Republicans of this age are high-stakes, tactical thinkers who are more than willing to immolate themselves in order to gain an advantage in the next election."

This provocative thesis is one Beau has held since those early days in 2008. Faced with a popular, charismatic figure, politics had changed. Republican tactics had to change, too.

"Republicans have proven adept at preserving their party interests despite public sentiment otherwise. Like Mao, the GOP's '5-Year Plan' is driven not by people, but by rigid ideology. This works well at first, but as the national debate moves forward, the GOP loses a lot of credibility by failing to compromise and seeming unreasonable."

Beau is a self-described "libertarian, like your grandfather told you about." He claims his political heroes are William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson, two popular figures who were plagued by multiple disastrous runs for the presidency. Beau has learned from their mistakes, and has his thumb on the pulse of larger errors within the political community.

"When we organize as only Republicans and Democrats, it's about ideology. What's gotten lost is the fact that governments aren't instituted among ethereal ideals; they're instituted among people. Party politics, then, is at its best when it governs by the dictates of people. We've lost that in this century."

As we face another round of blindfolded, cliff-diving-without-a-parachute economic and political rhetoric in a few months as a consequence of today's shutdown deal, it is clear that Americans need to reorganize themselves around he right people--not the right ideals.

While we argue about health care and spending, this may seem like a provocative hypothesis. But it is a basic, elemental return to our roots that is essential to re-awaken our political process. We must ensure that Abraham Lincoln's words are not lost in our time: "That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not vanish from this earth."

15 October 2013

It's a Sprint  


"It's a marathon, not a sprint!"

This is a familiar refrain for those who wish to encourage folks to "take it easy" or "pace yourselves." But it ignores a certain relativistic reality.

Just a few weeks ago, Wilson Kipsang of Kenya broke the marathon world record, clocking in at 2 hour, 3 minutes, and 23 seconds at the Berlin Marathon. That's 4 minutes and 40 seconds per mile--for 26.2 miles. 

I don't know if you noticed, but marathons these days are sprints.

And so is the world around us. Fast food, fast connections, fast cars. All of these things make it easier for the operator to lay back, put his feet up, and relax. We think we can afford to slow down and work less.

But we cannot take our foot off the gas pedal. The innovations we have made as a society don't mean that individuals should choose less--it means we should do more with what we've got! If we have more time thanks to the inventions of the Information Age, we should use that time to right the wrongs and cure the ills. Find synonyms of "create" and "serve," and do just that.

We can't go looking for meaning on the Information Superhighway. We can share ideas, keep in contact with friends and family, and enjoy a new form of leisure. But we cannot live our lives to serve the machine--the computer, the car, the television. We must master it, and use it to foster a real peace in our time.

On the right hand side of this page, you'll find a few causes to support. This is not an exhaustive list, and while you should consider donating your treasure to support them, I'd like to be audacious enough to tell you to do more: support them with your time, your weekends, your weeknights. Volunteer, campaign, and convince people to do the same.

Off the couch, on your feet, to the people! Let's do good work.