Monday, September 28, 2009


While trying to stay within the lines and not tearing the the pictures of baby Moses in the weeds with my crayon in Sunday school, I remember hearing that if you talk up the fact that you did a good deed, points get deducted from your naughty or nice permanent record. So, I'm going to take a minute to talk up the artwork created by Debbi McCullough,
my artist and activist cousin who (among other good deeds) makes art from trash discarded by immigrants in the desert. The faces mounted in shoes and tuna fish cans which the travelers carry and drop along the way. Behind the faces in the cans are pages from the Spanish Bible. The sculpture on top is mounted on a section of cactus and in memory of the five people last month who received a death sentence for trying for a better life crossing the desert between Tucson and Nogales. Her work is beautiful and puts a human face on the tragedy of desperation.

I come from a family of do-gooders. It's true. That phrase has been tarnished of late by hateful folks who spit do-gooder out with scorn while stockpiling ammunition, but that's what we are. In order to do my small part in the world of inequities, in April 2008, (this is the part that's going to get me the point deduction) I checked a box to make a monthly donation to an organization Women for Women International, a flagrantly do-gooder group that is worth mentioning despite the fact that I'm a small contributor.

This organization provides an allowance for women in desperate situations to help get back on their feet. It connects each do-gooder with one woman, translates letters, and distributes the checks. The first woman I was connected to was and Afghan widow, I wrote to her and sent her a picture of my daughters and me in April 2008, but I never heard back. Monthly when I saw the $27 hit on my credit card, I'd wonder if she and her two children were even alive.

And then out of the blue (or out of the mailbox, as it were), I received a new partner abroad. Her name is Anastasie and she lives in D.R.Congo in a refugee camp where she has been since 1997. She is married and was born in 1969. She and her husband have two children ages 4 and 4 months. Under my cozy desk lamp, in my dry and warm house, compliments of the internet, I was able to search images of Mugunga Camp II. I studied Anastasie's letter and the translation. So, I looked up the phrase "jina lake" in Swahili to find that it means: name is (seems to work for my name is, her name is, his name is).

Somehow these images came together for me this weekend, voices from a wilderness of need and insecurity -- travelers who remind us to be grateful every time we turn on a water faucet or a light switch. Last week I also had to get my auto license tag renewed and had to stand in the inevitable line -- I even took a minute out to be thankful that I had a line to stand in, one that moved and ultimately worked. I didn't have to pay a bribe or a coyote to be legal.

We are all travelers looking for that place called home, that place where Frost reminds us "they have to take you in." But for too many, there is no one to take them in, no one left or never was. And that rather than building walls to keep those travelers out, isn't it safer for everybody if simply, in whatever way we can, we help one another along the way?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

First: Kill All the Teachers!

This past weekend provided a luxury of reading time as we visited with our friends Sarah Willis and Ron Antonucci in the vicinity of Chautauqua, NY. Hiking, naps, reading in the hammock – a restful way to welcome in the fall for three writer/teachers and a head librarian. Suzi even stretched her stick-fetching skills plunging Phelps-like into the pond, getting a paws-on education in how to gauge the shortest route from the edge and how not to leave shore before knowing where the stick has landed in order to avoid swimming endlessly in circles.

So, I had time to read Luong Ung’s book First They Killed my Father, about her childhood in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide that resulted in the deaths of 2 million of its citizens. It is a powerful story of survival including the author’s child’s eye view of the absolutes taught by the Khmer Rouge.

Their first dictate was to kill the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals – basically anyone who was educated was under suspicion. “Children in our society will not attend school just to have their brains cluttered with useless information.” (p.61)

Last week, Michael and I watched The Kite Runner, after both having read it. It was a stark reminder of the restrictive view that the Taliban takes regarding education (particularly of girls). Literature and daily news reports are constant reminders that teachers and students alike put their lives in jeopardy for even learning to read under Taliban rule.

One of the most vivid books I have read about the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao is a YA book, Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang. Guess who the revolutionaries picked first for public humiliation and execution? Teachers. Stalin, Lenin, Hitler -- similar mandates.

It's impossible not to draw parallels. I know the Khmer Rouge and Mao banned religion and the Taliban uses religion as a justification, but the results are the same – dictators using young zealots to help limit access to education as a means of controlling a populace – and the first thing you have to do to limit education is kill the teachers.

Teachers are a hard-headed lot. They taught kids in holding camps on their way to the gas chambers during the Holocaust. They teach in refugee camps. They teach drawing numbers in the dirt in Africa and Afghanistan. They teach in places right here in this country where many people would be afraid to traverse the parking lot.

So, whenever I read something like this account of college conservatives making a hit list of professors they (in their mature wisdom) think are liberal, it scares the la la la out of me. (you know the la la la, that’s what you do when you have your fingers in your ears and don’t want to listen to what’s being said).

Or how about those creationist museums that seek to limit any study of what happened in this world if the hieroglyphic or rock is over 6000 years old? Teachers haven’t been killed for teaching evolution in this country – but they can lose their jobs.

Or how about the folks who constantly discredit teachers on the radio and television? The campaign against teachers has been one of the most focused and successful public relations campaigns on record. Ask the average person what the state of education is today and they’ll say it’s awful. Then ask the same person about how her kid’s teacher is and she’ll say, “Great.” It's not as if anyone is calling to kill teachers, but you kill all respect for the profession, if you kill the teachers' self esteem, if you marginalize teachers, shaming them publically and relentlessly, what does that say about our collective position on education?

I don’t know if this organized attack on teachers is designed primarily to break the unions or to privatize schools into profit centers for the crooks on Wall Street, but as in Mao vs. the Taliban, it really doesn’t matter what’s behind it. The net result is to straightjacket those who seek to educate through inquiry and wonder, those whose life’s work it is to help the next generation to not just jump in the pond and swim around in circles until you sink like a pooped out Papillion – but to think.

My wish for this school year is for every citizen. The next time you hear someone spouting off about wanting to limit education in any way, from banning books to underfunding schools to standardized tests designed to clutter up the curriculum with mandates that keep teachers from helping kids to think on their own, ask yourself: What is this person’s agenda and why doesn’t he/she want our kids to grow up to be independent thinkers?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Obama's Speech to Students

Obama is the leader of this country, homegrown like my vegetables, and elected by a clear majority. He is not a foreign power or running for office. A lot of kids look up to him, as they should. As I did to Eisenhower and Kennedy when I was growing up. I didn't know about the President's politics, I just knew he was an important guy and if he took time out to talk to us, that was special. Heck, when the towers fell on 911 Bush was in a classroom talking to kids. Nobody insisted on reviewing his words in advance.

And to those worried about a socialist agenda, guess what? You already live in a country with socialized fire departments, roadways, police departments, medicare, educational systems and we are protected by a socialized military. Socialized means society chips in to pay for common programs that benefit citizens and that are chosen by our elected representatives. It is the antithesis of being dominated by a culture of personality, which would be a dictatorship.

The only human services function that is NOT socialized in this country is medical care and that is sinking us both as individuals and corporations, which are struggling to compete in a world economy where the USA stands alone insisting that large companies bear the burden of health care expenses.

I can't imagine in my childhood being asked to support Kennedy or Eisenhower and people objecting. Supporting the president means to support the country. People need stop all this hate speak and suspicion before a lot of people get hurt.

You know that poem that begins: First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me." attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)?

I have not spoken up about all the hate email I've been copied on since Obama's inauguration. The whackjobs who call themselves birthers. I've not spoken about health care, as I have been one of those left out in the current system. I didn't say anything about the outrageous lies perpetuated by the media. I've not spoken about the mean-spiritedness and media's over coverage of the violent, ignorant few. And I meant to write about Obama's speech, but it took a conversation with Kelly and reading her blog to realize how upsetting all this hate talk and suspicion is.

So, let's start here. Here is a true health care story, not dramatic except to me. I am self-employed and too young for medicare and old enough that insurers don't want anything to do with me. I currently have a $5000 deductible for which I pay $4000 per annum. I have a pre-existing condition (who doesn't) so most companies legally can turn me down. Kaiser has one month of the year, mandated by the state, (unpublished, unadvertised, you have to know someone inside the company to find out that it is October, and that person will swear you to secrecy because they could lose their job if they tell) during which they would sign me up with the pre-existing condition, for better coverage (not great, but better) -- the price tag on that is $16,000 per year. My current coverage does not pay for mammograms or any other tests and I pay an amount for prescriptions and tests that is four times (4) what insured people pay since I do not qualify for the "insurance negotiated amount" until I satisfy my deductible. If I fall ill, Kaiser can cancel me at any time.

I know from when my mom was deathly ill, under insured, and almost but not quite broke at 61, that in order to qualify for medicaid, you have to have no resources for a period of three months before you can apply. Longer until it kicks in. That means if I ever got seriously ill, after I sold my house and all possessions, there would be a three month period before I would qualify for any assistance. This is the kind of thing that would keep me up every night if I thought about it, so I don't. I pay my premiums, eat healthy, exercise, and hope for the best.

And for me, the best would be a public option. For those who oppose or feel threatened by that, I say, what part of option do you not understand? We already pay for the very poor to get healthcare through taxes, it is just the middle class under-insured and uninsured who are vulnerable. Public option would mean that people like me who are willing and able to pay would be paying into the system.

As far as I'm concerned, Medicare is guilty of age discrimination. Fine for those over 65, but what about those who are 50+. Why can't we buy into medicare? That's what public option means to me, any of us being able to buy into medicare. As an option.

So, maybe the controversy over the Obama speech has a good side. Maybe it will motivate more people like me who have been trundling along, shaking our heads, to say something. So, there. I'm saying something. And the something is, ENOUGH.

Enough with the hate. We are all in this together. And kids, listen to your president. Stay in school. The previous generation is leaving you a big mess to clean up. You need all the skills you can garner.