Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reclaiming September 11th

That anniversary will be here again soon and it’s time we took it back and reclaimed it, not as a day when someone did something bad to us, but a day when we do something good for ourselves. September 11th should be declared a Day of National Service.

As horrific as 9/11 was, in many ways I’m embarrassed by how our country reacted to it. We played along as politicians fear mongered to get elected or keep us obedient. We shrugged our shoulders as our leaders twisted the threat to justify things they wanted to do long before that fateful day ever occurred. And we hardly noticed the many ways we compromised on our American values – from torture, to illegal wiretapping to invading a country that wasn’t involved in 9/11 and wasn’t supporting terrorism.

But most of all I’m sick of the annual hand wringing and wallowing in victim-hood

In an era when it seems all news is shaded to be sold as drama, 9/11 is the ultimate drama. While it should feel like we’re honoring the sacrifices of victims and heroes, it instead feels like the media trivializes them by relentlessly replaying and repackaging the day’s events for dramatic effect.

The anchorperson breathlessly asks, “Do you feel safer?” If not, “Then what are the dangers?” Let’s talk about it and talk about it and talk about it until we’re afraid to get on an airplane or trust anyone with dark skin or a foreign name. The crass motive to titillate viewers with mayhem or tug at our heartstrings to keep us tuned in lies beneath the surface of relentless, solemn news pieces that will soon run about 9/11.

Of the mistakes our government made after 9/11, perhaps none was so great as not having asked the American people to do something, to contribute or sacrifice in some way toward victory over those who seek to harm us. Asking people to support the president or the troops or to be patient with the war would have been a lot more effective if people were actively involved. But we weren’t and still aren’t. While our soldiers are still under fire, we’re still watching Dancing With The Stars and eagerly awaiting the start of the NFL season, barely aware of their sacrifice. We’ve been repeatedly asked to feel a certain way about the war on terror, but not to actually do anything of real meaning. Bush didn’t ask us, and as we ramp up our offensive in Afghanistan, neither has Obama.

During WWII in northern Indiana, my father sold war bonds on his paper route. People planted Victory Gardens, rationed gasoline and many other commodities so they would be readily available for the war effort. Women sewed socks and turned old cloth into bandages. Folks recycled iron, copper – you name it, for the war effort. A gospel song from that era even called on people to help the soldiers abroad by using “the weapon of prayer.”

Instead, after 9/11 President Bush told us to, “go out and shop.” Get on down to Starbucks and Abercrombie and Fitch; that’s how you can help.

The war in Iraq alone has cost us $10 billion a month. There must be something we all could have been doing these past 8 years to help out besides shop and wave flags.

The best thing we could have done is take back September 11th from the terrorist and claim it as our own. Not as a sad day for America, but a day that makes America stronger every year.

September 11th should be declared a Day of National Service.

If I could, I would replace every tearful bell tolling on 911 with citizen-driven projects to rebuild inner-city parks. I would pre-empt every TV and radio replay of the terror of the day with information about where to volunteer to give blood, help the illiterate read, take out a shut-in, clean a fouled stream, mentor a struggling small business or rebuild a burned-out church. I’d cancel every politician’s 9/11 commemorative speech so there would be more time for volunteers to carry-in a thank you meal to their local fire and police departments. And I’d ask people to stop wringing their hands in fear of terrorists being put in American prisons and instead use those hands to send a care package to an American soldier abroad with something in it of real use they could share with the 3rd-world children they serve near.

We couldn’t let the, “Go out and shop,” people get a hold of this day. If they did, NASCAR would schedule a race and soon we’d be drinking beer and grilling brats every 9/11 and as on Labor and Memorial Days, eventually forget why we got the day off.

I challenge readers to expunge their sorrow this September 11th with a random act of kindness. Go out of your way to do something positive. What do you have to offer your community that goes unused? What does your community need that goes untended? Instead of reliving the pain of that day, set aside some time to lift those who are down, to enrich those who are poor, or to fix something broken.

Two years ago, my daughter and I gathered supplies for the local animal shelter. Last year, a group of men in my neighborhood spent the day painting the home of a single mom with two kids. It can be that simple. Find something that needs doing and do it on September 11th.

Correction from last week’s column:
In last week’s column I said that Republicans controlled the House and Senate in Washington for the 12 years previous to January 2008. I was a year off. Their 12 years of control ended in January of ’07.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dear Conservative Friend

Dear Conservative Friend,

You worry me. As you show up at town hall meetings to protest health care reform, I’ve gone from simply disagreeing with you to genuinely worrying about you.

I know, you’re sighing heavily and rolling your eyes, but hear me out.

During last year’s election you sent me emails claiming Barack Obama was a Muslim who wouldn’t wear a flag lapel pin or say the Pledge of Allegiance. Both liberal and conservative news outlets found these accusations to be utterly false. But a couple months later you sent the same emails to me again.

You sent another email claiming Obama wasn’t an American citizen. Twice now Hawaiian officials have verified that Obama was born there. But you keep insisting otherwise.

Though I often disagree with you, your basic, reasonable conservative beliefs should be enough to make you disapprove of Obama. Why do you need conspiracy theories?

The mortgage industry collapse began in July of ’07. Economists say the recession started in December of ’07. You told me last year that our collapsing economy was Bill Clinton’s fault though he left office in ‘01. If that’s true, what was your party doing for the 12 years immediately prior to December of ’07 when they controlled both the House and Senate? And in the 6 years leading up to the recession your leaders had complete control, as Bush was President. In that time they could have enacted or struck down any law. But just a couple months after Obama took office, you told me the economy was Obama’s mess.

Listening to you one would hardly know your party controlled our government for so long.

The pundits you listen to on radio and television say that Obama is a fascist and a socialist and is taking all our rights away. I ask you for hard evidence, but your answers are weak.

You told me Obama would take our guns away. You and your friends flocked to buy firearms. But this May Obama instead signed a law expanding gun rights – allowing them in National Parks.

A few nights ago I saw a hero of yours, Glenn Beck, on his FOX news show claiming that Obama’s legislative record proves he’s pursuing “reparations” for African Americans. The accusation was delivered with breathless outrage, and with no rational evidence.

You’ve been holding “Tea Party” protests because you believe current debt spending will lead to higher taxes. Yet, when your party’s leaders doubled the national debt between 2001 and 2008, I never heard you utter a word of complaint.

Now you and your friends are protesting health care reform at town hall meetings. I’ve seen the posters held up outside these events – doctored photos of Obama shaking hands with Adolph Hitler and Obama with a Hitler mustache.

During one of President Obama’s town hall meetings on health care last week, I turned on your favorite channel, FOX News. They showed a fleeting moment of the President explaining health care reform, then went back to regular programming, promising to return to the President, “if there were any fireworks.”

It worries me that you think that’s fair and balanced reporting.

Conservative friend, you keep telling me horror stories about Canada and England’s health care systems, even though no one in Washington is considering a system like theirs.

You applauded at Sarah Palin’s resignation speech when she implored the media to, “Stop making things up.” A few days later she made the unfounded claim that health care reform would result in, “Death panels,” that would decide who lives and dies. It worried me that you saw no contradiction.

Though most hospitals across the country already offer end of life counseling, you claim that such counseling paid for with federal dollars would lead to euthanizing elderly people. It worries me that you find that claim rational.

You say a federal health insurance program is socialism that must be stopped. Puzzling, because during the Bush years the leaders you elected reinstituted welfare-style “subsidy” checks to farmers and devised a drug benefit program for the elderly. Both programs took money from those who had it and spread it around to others. Why didn’t you protest that socialism?

My Conservative friend, back then, when I protested, you told me I was un-American to criticize the Commander and Chief while our troops were at war. Well our troops are still at war. I don’t see that stopping you now.

Yes, friend, you worry me.

You seem averse to introspection. You insist that every problem is the other side’s fault, and in fact would have turned out fine if things had only been done your way. And when you hear things that conflict with your point of view, it’s dismissed as a liberal news media lie. Therefore, you never have to reevaluate your beliefs.

You worry me because you seem unable to agree to disagree. How do we have a rational political discourse in this country when anyone who disagrees with you, from Clinton to Sotomayor to Obama you angrily label as racists, fascists, socialists, communists, or America haters?

You don’t seem to realize that it’s possible for someone to love America and disagree with you at the same time. You have no monopoly on patriotism and no exclusive claim to moral values – and you don’t know it.

You worry me because amid all of your shouting and bizarre accusations there seems to be no meeting the opposition half way. In your world, compromise and statesmanship are dead. All that’s left are winners and losers.

Neither a friendship nor a marriage can survive on such terms. And I worry, neither can a country.

I'm not afraid of Obama, I'm afraid of you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Trials & Tribulations of a Bald Man

The indignities of being bald arrive early and stay late.

One afternoon in college – this was the early ‘80s, I ran into Randy, a clueless preppy jackass who studied in my department. We chatted a minute on the sidewalk, clad in our backpacks and down vests. Just as the conversation ended and we were about to each head our own way, Randy stared at my forehead, puzzled, and suddenly spat, “Oh my God, Dude, you’re going bald.”

Thanks Randy. Did I mention he was a jackass?

As the next decade wore on, I proceeded to truly go bald. It was all for the best I guess. When I had a full head of hair it never did what I wanted it to do anyway.

There were some positive signs early on, signs that maybe hair was way over-rated. On a flight to Phoenix with my sister, Cindy and her first husband in those early receding hairline days, a cute young flight attendant gave me way more than normal attention, frequently stopping and chatting. When the young gal wondered off to fill someone’s coffee, Cindy leaned across the aisle and gave me her dry, familiar, dismissive smirk, gesturing toward her forehead, “Must be a father-figure thing.”

“What do ya mean?” I asked.

“The receding hairline,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “You must remind her of her father.”

When I was a schoolteacher, boys would try to put me on the defensive with passive-aggressive questions about being bald. Out of left field and in front of the entire class, one would raise his hand and ask, “ Does being bald ever get you down?”

I’d respond with, “Yeah. Sometimes. Then I meet somebody with an embarrassing haircut like yours and I don’t feel so bad.”

Score one for the bald guy.

The Hair Club for Men commercials in the 1990s didn’t help with my self-esteem. Somewhere between the clips of formerly bald men running their fingers through new hair as thick as 1970s shag carpet was a clip of a busty blonde in a bikini chirping, “I don’t know why, I just like guys with hair.”

Thanks, Hair Club.

As I lost more and more hair, I tried to accept it by cutting what was left shorter and shorter. When I was a teacher I had a principal who did just the opposite – he wore a toupee. But it was clear he was self conscious about it, as well he should have been. It was a damn ugly, ill-fitting hunk of hair. When we talked, he’d stare at my receding hairline. I’m sure he was trying to imagine how he would look without the rug. It helped me understand how women feel when men stare at their breasts in conversation. I wanted to draw a downward arrow on my forehead and write, “My eyes are down here.”

Once you get a toupee, I figure you’re kinda trapped, and he was. But cruel reality intervened for my old principal. He fought cancer and of course the chemo gave him little choice but to throw the toupee away. After surviving that terrible journey he never wore it again.

Fellow bald man, Dave Kimmel, a North Elementary 4th grade teacher gets the same kind abuse the rest of us bald men get. Recently a small child asked him what was wrong with his skin. “What to you mean?” he asked. The little girl leaned closer and said softly, “It’s all over your head.”

Out of the mouths of babes. Yes, Virginia, once you go bald, the skin is “all over your head.”

I myself joke about being bald as a way to break the ice. On rainy days, I tell people, “I hate days like this. I spend all morning getting my hair just like I want it and then it rains.” But when I’m teased by somebody about being bald, I usually say something like, “I’ve as much control over this as a person in a wheel chair has over their handicap. Do you make fun of people in wheelchairs?”

Well, that shuts them up, but of course it’s not the same thing, and I know it. I’m just trying to turn the tables in the harsh way that is my habit. While it’s true that both bald and handicap people can’t control their condition, handicap people have real obstacles to overcome while we bald men have only wounded vanity to deal with.

Some men overcome their wounded vanity with grace. Think Noblesville legend Murphy White. If there’s a man on this earth who looks better in a hat than Murphy, I haven’t met him. Anytime I try to cover my baldhead with a hat I look like I’m going to a costume party as, well, somebody who looks stupid in a hat.

How’s that for diminished expectations? I’ve quit envying men with hair and started envying men who look good in hats.