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Music to “Stretch Our Ears”: Beethoven, Beatles, Blues…

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I can’t carry a tune, and no one would ever accuse me of having perfect pitch. But I love music—so many different kinds of music, preferably live. At some point in my life, I’m determined to see Bruce Springsteen in concert—even though I hate crowds.

But one type of music really transports me: the fully realized magnificence of a fine symphony orchestra. Fortunately,  there is such an orchestra that performs fairly close to my home, and my husband and I have had a series subscription with friends for the past few years. 

Thursday night was the season finale—and it was a whopper, appropriately titled the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale.” For those of you who don’t love classical music, imagine attending a concert given by your very favorite band, and I think you’ll get the mood.

First of all, the conductor is a wonder: a tiny slip of a woman who exudes energy, power,  and artistry with her every move and gesture—sort of a woods sprite with a baton.

This was the only time she’d appeared this season, as there were guest conductors, and when I told my husband I wished I could have seen her more often, he said, “Just put her in your pocket and take her home.” She’s really really tiny.

I’ve been told that the orchestra loves her, and it’s clear she returns the favor. So from the time she reaches center stage, everyone is happy and optimistic.

The program featured Mendelssohn, Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which begins very softly and ends with The Wedding March, which you’d recognize immediately.

According to the program notes, the young Mendelssohn had been sitting with his family as they entertained an astronomer, their guest describing the contents of the sky far above.  When Felix went out for a walk, he headed for the garden 

“to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation at the dinner table. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night.” 

Four evening breezes were purportedly the inspiration for the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The delicate violin string segments were his “musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere.”

Years later, Mendelssohn said, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

That lovely piece was followed by a Rachmaninoff symphony: No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Absolutely breathtaking. Apparently, it took the composer years to complete, as he was filled with self-doubt. 

The program notes state: “The music is lush and relaxed. This is an expansive symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt, emotional and long.” (Not long enough for me!)

As is often the case with classical music, one of this symphony’s themes has made its way into popular music: it appears in the song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit in 1976.

I find that one of the delights of listening to a beautiful symphony, in addition to the aural pleasure, is being in such a civilized environment. As those of you who are familiar with my blog know by now, I’m always seeking common ground. Sitting in a large group of people enjoying a common experience—away from all politics and divisiveness—is a joy in itself.

But here’s the rub. Entering and leaving the concert, I see a vast number of people with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s inspiring to see folks who don’t let their infirmities stop them from participating in these events, but I wonder how viable this orchestra, and others, are when I’ve read that the average age of symphony orchestra attendees is 60. (I suspect in our locale, that average may well be considerably higher.)

I’m not the only one to express such concerns, of course, and it’s not a new one. I did find one optimistic note from a 2004 article titled: ”Probing Question: Is classical music still relevant in today’s world?” According to George Trudeau, Director of the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State, 

“Classical music is alive and well. What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the internet, and other digital technologies.”

Penn State’s Center was actively seeking to stimulate appreciation of classical music in students, faculty, and community members through a diverse program involving artists in residence and such efforts as “experiencing the music in alternative venues and informal settings such as our Classical Coffeehouses.”

Trudeau said then that attendance at the various classical music performances by Penn State students had risen from 26% of total sales to 40% in three years, and that students told him “exposure to classical music was enriching their lives.”

So perhaps there’s hope that coming generations will still find their way to the symphony. I have noticed that when a very young guest performer appears at the programs we attend, many very young people show up in the audience. 

Similarly, several months ago, my husband and I attended a One Day University lecture on “How to Listen to (and Appreciate) Great Music,” given by Orin Grossman of Fairfield University and featuring several incredibly talented young musicians from a local arts public high school. 

There the emphasis was on chamber music, and Grossman discussed melody, recurring themes, the dominance of the piano, the way the composer would get himself far out on a limb and then musically work his way back, and other elements.

He demonstrated his points by asking these gifted musicians to pick up the relevant pieces of the classics and play them—and they did, flawlessly. It was a joyous occasion—and wonderful to see these young symphony performers in the making.

Yesterday, I found that One Day University had a revised version of Grossman’s lecture available online. The title was the same, and the purpose was once again to encourage active listening “in order to ‘stretch our ears’ and get more pleasure from the musical experience.”

While I’d been worrying about the diminishing presence of symphony orchestras, Grossman was underscoring how much luckier we are than people long ago, who had little or no access to great music.

“We have the opposite problem,” he said. “It’s so accessible we try to tune it out and become very passive.” It’s fine to use music as background and simply to relax, but he was stressing how much more gratification we get when we “stretch our ears.”

In contrast to the live lecture with Grossman that we’d attended, the selections of great music this time were more varied–and he was the sole performer. The focus was on melody and how the composer treats it. Yes, there was Bach, who’d either combine two melodies or, more commonly, create a “dialogue” of melodic fragments, as in the Concerto for Oboe and Violin.

Grossman easily segued from Bach to the Beatles, whom he considers the best musicians in decades and whose music he believes “holds up very well.”

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The Beatles, holding up very well!

Using John Lennon’s song “Girl,” he illustrated how Lennon pushed the boundaries by introducing second melodies, returning to the melody with a guitar backup.

Next, he spent time on Duke Ellington, saying he had been misunderstood as merely a bandleader when he was “one of our greatest composers. From the 20s to the 70s, he gave a name to the Swing Era: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” Grossman played and stopped a recording of the song several times so we could hear the call and response as the brass swings.

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Duke Ellington: Composer, musician, bandleader

“The harder you listen to where it’s going—you’ll be tricked,” he said impishly.

For no reason I could discern, he returned to the classics and Beethoven at this point, which was fine with me once I got accustomed to the temporal whiplash. He pointed out that in the movie “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth as King George VI must address the nation despite his stuttering. As he gets to the microphone, in the background we hear the chords from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in a repeating rhythm. 

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Ludwig van Beethoven

The intensity and power of Beethoven’s music are often built through fragmentation of the melodies, which finally explode into heroic sounds, as “metaphors of victory through struggle,” Grossman said. Perfect reinforcement for the King’s message to his people.

He ended with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which combined elements of life in New York–and by extension, America–the Blues, Latin rhythms, ragtime, and Broadway band ballads, to illustrate the “clashing and blending” of the various cultures.

“The imagery interlocking the piece is trying to show one version of the United States,” he said. “At heart, it’s a good mystery: you wouldn’t want everything explainable.”

No, we wouldn’t. And if you have an extra 17 minutes and would like to test your active listening skills for discerning the various elements Gershwin intertwined, go to YouTube’s video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” (You can skip the ads.)

I return to the sense of civilization and common ground that I feel when I listen to the soaring music of a symphony in concert with fellow music lovers (a little pun here). Regardless of your taste in music, at any live venue, there’s always a sense of community, of sharing your enjoyment with others. And music is so often tied to memories that such a sharing can be a part of your pleasure even when you’re listening alone. I felt that way watching the video of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which Bernstein both conducted and played the piano.

Do you like to “stretch your ears” with active listening to music? If this is a new idea to you, is it appealing? What type of music do you prefer, and what role does music play in your life? Do you/did you play an instrument? How often do you hear live music? Would you go more often if it were more convenient? Less financially burdensome?

I look forward to your comments. In fact, I’m all ears.

Annie

My Journey From DNA Test Skeptic to Participant

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Not so many months ago, I wrote a post about the “Wild West Marketplace” of consumer genetic testing. That description came from Laura Hercher, a highly respected genetics counselor whom I interviewed for the piece. Though our focus primarily was on the entertainment aspect of consumer DNA testing (tracing one’s ancestry, etc.), we also discussed the more serious health implications. I find the topic fascinating, but I thought I’d leave it there. Hercher pointed out many of the flaws and potentially false results that these tests may yield.

Then events made me take a second look at the feasibility of genetic testing in my own life: my sister died of pancreatic cancer, only 43 days after she’d been diagnosed. (Despite our grief, in view of the horror of this disease, we all realized that the brief time period was a blessing). Knowing that my mother had had bilateral mastectomies for breast cancer, and that her mother had died in her 50s from what we thought was liver cancer but could have been a metastasis from breast or other site, I began to think about my likelihood of developing a heritable cancer. 

And—even more to the point—I thought about my daughters. My gynecologist had told me years ago that I owed it to my daughters to find out if I carried variants in the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 genes, which are associated with cancers of the breast and ovaries and—it turns out—pancreas as well. At the time, genetic testing cost more than $5000, so I never followed up on her recommendation. It’s worth noting here that the preponderance of women who develop breast cancer have no known risk factors.

As a former health writer/editor and continuing catastrophizer, I immediately felt I needed more information about pancreatic cancer. The heritable component ranges from 5% to 10%. But I knew that unlike some cancers, which are now being regarded as chronic diseases, pancreatic cancer carries a prognosis that is usually dire. The American Cancer Society reports that pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3% of all cancers in the US—and about 7% of all cancer deaths. That high mortality rate is because it’s nearly always diagnosed late, after it has metastasized. 

But I wondered: if I tested positive for the pancreatic cancer variant, were there any monitoring programs that might make it possible to find the disease at an earlier stage? And were there medical genetic tests that were more reliable than some of the “consumer DNA” ones that Hercher had discussed?

My research led me to Johns Hopkins, one of the medical centers doing considerable work in this field, and they did, indeed, have a surveillance study for those who’d tested positive for heritable pancreatic cancer. Knowing that gave me a sense of control in the midst of my personal concerns and while my sadness at the sudden loss of my sister was still quite raw. The people I spoke with there suggested that I have heredity genetic cancer screening done—and they recommended as a reliable company Color Genomics.

I contacted Laura Hercher, told her about my sister’s death and my family history, and sought her advice. She and a friend/colleague who specializes in cancer counseling agreed that my family history of breast cancer merited testing and was more likely to be associated with a positive test result than the pancreatic cancer: “likelihood of a positive test result there is 10% times 1/2, since there is a 50% chance you share any gene your sister had—but I would say less than that because the cancer occurred over a certain age.”

But she also included a link to an article suggesting that every pancreatic cancer patient should consider genetic testing. Although she had been skeptical about pancreatic cancer screening because there’s no proven way to do it, this article suggested that screening may be effective for both patients and families.

However, she added a caveat: “Understand that our track record with screening for cancer is pretty dismal. Many things that sounded great on paper didn’t result in fewer deaths…but still worth considering.”

She recommended Color Genomics, the same company that Johns Hopkins had suggested, so I felt confident with those dual recommendations from trusted sources. I’m not suggesting they are the only reputable firm, of course.  A friend who works in cancer education for oncologists said she’d heard positive things about Invitae, and I’m sure there are others as well. 

I encourage anyone who is considering this action to do some research and talk with medical sources you trust.

I spoke with my physicians. My primary care physician was skeptical, asking me to think through what I’d do with the results. Both my gynecologist and gastroenterologist thought testing was a good idea in my circumstances and offered to write the medical requests necessary to get the test (more on this shortly). My gynecologist said that although many of her patients who test positive for these mutations opt to have their ovaries removed, if I chose not to do so, I could have half-yearly ultrasounds and Ca-125 blood work, which indicates the presence of cancer.

I also had intense interest in joining a pancreatic cancer surveillance study—for myself and my family, as well as to add to scientific understanding of the disease that took my sister’s life and is occurring with greater frequency.

But I had to think long and hard about my mental mindset. Which way would I worry more—if I had the test and received positive results, or if I didn’t have the test and was left to wonder? Of course, as Hercher had stressed in my interview with her, and we all should keep in mind: testing positive for a cancerous genetic mutation does not necessarily mean an individual will get that cancer, and testing negative doesn’t mean that individual won’t. We’re advancing our knowledge of genetics all the time, but so many other variables may play a role in specific cancers—diet, lifestyle issues, environmental aspects, and plain dumb luck among them. 

I also did some due diligence: checking resources from the American Cancer Society, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the National Cancer Institute. The latter carried this caveat about using Direct to Consumer (DTC) genetic tests:

“Even when people have DTC genetic tests for gene variants that are known to be associated with inherited cancer susceptibility syndromes, there are potential risks and drawbacks to the use of DTC testing. For instance, some DTC genetic tests look for variants in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are associated with Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome (HBOC). However, this testing looks only for three specific variants out of the thousands that have been identified. Therefore, someone could have a negative result with this kind of test but still have a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene variant that was just not identified by that test. In particular, without guidance about the most appropriate genetic testing to do and interpretation of the genetic test results from a knowledgeable health care provider, people may experience unneeded anxiety or false reassurance, or they may make important decisions about medical treatment or care based on incomplete information.”

This is an important reminder that if you opt for inherited cancer genetic testing, you must be cautious about the source you select.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get past the idea that if I didn’t get tested, I wasn’t doing everything I could to protect my daughters. What they did with the information would be their decision, but I felt I needed to get it for them.

I bought the Color Heredity Cancer Test from Amazon for less than $200. It tested for 30 known gene mutations associated with breast, ovarian, pancreatic, stomach, colorectal, and uterine cancers, and melanoma. 

Here’s where the doctor issue arose. My physicians were right that a doctor’s authorization was needed, though that information wasn’t provided on Amazon or on the Color site—until I registered to proceed. Then I was told that I needed my doctor’s approval. Color company representatives were accessible by phone and said that since I didn’t have that approval, one of their doctors would review my personal and family history and the final results at no extra fee.  I also knew a genetic counselor would be available for me to talk with once I received my results.

It was time to act. After reading the directions not to eat, drink (even water), smoke, or chew gum for 30 minutes before providing the saliva sample, I followed the three simple steps as described: 1) Activate your kit online; 2) Provide your saliva sample [tube included, and a clear video available to answer any questions]; 3) Return kit via the US Postal Service. 

I was promised results within four weeks. I then did an amazing thing for a catastrophizer: I put all thoughts of the test and its implications out of my mind and didn’t agonize at all.

Two weeks later, an email arrived informing me that my test results were attached. I felt fortunate that the timetable was earlier than stated: I didn’t have time to anticipate the arrival.

I took a few deep, cleansing breaths, relaxed my tense shoulders, and opened the email.

I had tested negative for all 30 genetic variants. 

I breathed deeply again—this time with considerable relief—read all the disclaimers (which I knew: results meant no guarantees one way or the other), and decided that I’d avail myself of the talk with the genetic counselor just to see whether there was additional information I could learn. 

The woman I spoke with said my findings “didn’t give us much insight.” There was a possibility, she said, that my mother had a genetic mutation that I didn’t inherit—or a gene that hasn’t yet been identified as playing a role in these diseases. 

And she observed that since new genetic information is becoming available all the time, it’s probably a good idea to be tested every two to five years. That recommendation struck me as having a bit of a marketing tinge. 

As far as I can see, I’m done now. I’m grateful for the results, which mean I won’t have to worry about what I might have passed along to my daughters in this regard. And I won’t need extra monitoring myself—or to enter into a pancreatic cancer surveillance program.

Time to remind myself of mindfulness meditation: not to regret the past or worry about the future—just savor the present, each and every minute of it.

How does all of this strike you? Aside from ancestry testing, if you know you have a family history of cancer, have you, would you, will you consider cancer heredity genetic testing for future medical issues?  If so, under what circumstances? (I certainly understand the thinking of those who choose not to know.)  Your insights, opinions, and stories are, as always, most welcome.

Annie

 

How Do We Talk About Race in America? An Unfortunate Update…

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In these highly partisan and polarized times, there’s been a fair amount of talk denigrating what’s referred to as identity politics. Why should we be talking about the needs of individual groups when we really should be finding ways to unite us as a country?

Many well-meaning people stake out this position, and as my blog is devoted to finding common ground, I understand that sentiment—and feel we must pursue both goals simultaneously. I long for the time when we are all so comfortable with one another that we embrace our differences, while those differences recede in importance in the ways we respond to each other. But we sure aren’t there yet.

In Part 2 of my exploration, “How Do We Talk About Race in America?,” I spoke with Doug Glanville, a friend of my daughter’s whom I’ve known since they were children. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, Glanville has gone on to do great things in his life: his rich and varied career, which included nine years of playing major league baseball (twice with the Chicago Cubs), now involves being a sports commentator, writer, podcast co-star, and lecturer at Yale University, teaching a course titled “Athletes, Activism, Public Policy, and the Media.” He is a uniter and optimist by nature—confronting racial injustice when needed but always trying to put it into perspective and not overreact.

In my previous post, we discussed his being profiled by a police officer from a neighboring town while shoveling the snow off the driveway of his Connecticut home. His response was to work toward what eventually led to a change in state law governing police jurisdictions. He received an apology from the governor, who appointed him to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council.

Somehow, due to his largeness of spirit, he retained no animus toward the police officer who confronted him, viewing the episode instead as an opportunity to work with the police to improve their procedures. He told me when we spoke that he likes to “take lemons and make lemonade.”

Well, life just handed him another big lemon, which he described in The New York Times Sunday Review. (He’s also a contributing opinion writer for the Times.) I hope everyone will read his entire Op-Ed: it’s a powerful, nuanced, sophisticated view from a very thoughtful person about issues we should all be aware of and thinking about. Here’s the beginning:

“Ambiguity has always been a friend to racism.

On May 7, during a television broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I was on camera doing in-game commentary for NBC Sports Chicago when, unbeknown to me, a fan behind me wearing a Cubs sweatshirt made an upside-down ‘O.K.’ sign with his hand.
The meaning of this hand gesture can be ambiguous. It has long been used to simply say, ‘O.K.’ Some people also use it to play the ‘circle game,’ where you hold your hand below your waist and try to get others to look at it. And most recently it has been co-opted to express support for white supremacy. The man accused of committing the New Zealand mosque massacres flashed this sign during his first court appearance.

Because I am a person of color, the fan’s gesture suggested its sinister meaning.”

He wasn’t aware of what had happened until after the game, when he noticed his Twitter feed “overrun by strange avatars, unrecognizable handles, aggressive trolls and a heated debate about racist imagery.” There was considerable discussion about whether the man’s actions were or were not sinister.

And that ambiguity is precisely the point, Glanville writes.

“According to the Anti-Defamation League, users of the online message board 4chan originally introduced the idea that the ‘O.K.’ sign was a white supremacist prank to get the media to overreact to innocuous gestures—but the sign soon morphed into a genuine expression of white supremacy as well.”

In other words, we are all being gaslighted by the most racially extreme elements among us. But for people of color, including those like Glanville who still manage to be optimistic about race in America, this gaslighting is particularly odious and exhausting—the degree of fatigue varying with the extent of racism they’ve experienced in their lives.

Glanville seeks to explain what it’s like by depicting a coordinate graph in which people of color might plot the various episodes that could be racist that have either happened to them or they’ve heard about.

“The x-axis represents the passage of time and the y-axis represents the degree of racism of an episode—from someone’s assumption that you’re a valet when you’re parking your own car to the burning of a cross on your lawn. For each experience, you mark a dot.”

The pattern that emerges when those dots are connected, Glanville says “allows you to notice correlations, to make predictions. You are learning from evidence, in part for your self-preservation.”

Then comes the tricky part, when someone who has learned from such evidence meets with an individual who hasn’t had similar exposure.

“He sees evidence of racism only from time to time, and when he does, it tends to be stark and unambiguous—the use of racial slurs, an explicit avowal of hate.”

To this person, “racism seems to be a rarity, maybe even invented.”

Glanville, who teaches courses focused on communication, wonders how he can convince such a person of the pattern he sees, when the listener is inclined, based on his own experiences, to depict subtle racism as an “isolated incident” and even accuse Glanville of “playing the race card.”

How often have we heard that phrase in our political rhetoric?

Equally troubling, the person may say all this talk about racism is just making things worse.

Glanville stresses that he, and most people of color, continually look for the innocuous explanation, trying not to think the worst of people. He recognizes that despite the overwhelming evidence from the data he’s experienced, he can be wrong in a particular instance.

“An ‘O.K.’ sign means nothing on its own. But racism thrives in ambiguity, in shadows. In this form, it is cowardly with double meanings.”

Despite his instincts, he didn’t immediately condemn the Cubs fan who made the gesture. He waited until the facts were in. Indeed, the Cubs quickly did an investigation, found that the fan’s intent was malicious, and banned him from Wrigley Field.

The Washington Post (May 8) quoted the Cubs’ president, Theo Epstein: “We’ve made clear how egregious and unacceptable that behavior is, and there’s no place for it in our society, in baseball, and certainly no place in Wrigley Field.”

Said Tim Elfrink, the Post writer:

“The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.”

It bears repeating that ambiguity is precisely the point. The Post quotes Salon writer Amanda Marcotte, who observed that the O.K. sign was to serve as both white supremacist symbol “and also one that is just ordinary enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”

And as Glanville points out, the impact of ambiguity on people of color can be profound, making them feel…

“That their sanity hinges on a single verdict. If the Cubs fan was flashing a white nationalist sign, we are in danger; if he was not, we are ‘politicizing’ things or ‘race-baiting.’ This is an incapacitating position to find yourself in, especially when you are just an innocent bystander. You are thrust into the public eye and forced to relitigate the existence of racism. Before you know what has happened, you find yourself on the defensive.”

And Glanville draws the very straight line from such soul-bashing episodes of racism as symbol to racism as system:

“…institutional power that can crush neighborhoods, generations of children, stripping people of validation, self-worth and opportunity. Those who have been on the losing end of this power are never certain that they will be O.K.”

Still, he holds out hope that we as a society will “choose the path of empathy and hope.” pointing out that baseball “is played by teams of people from all walks of life, following universal rules, competing on a level playing field.” Acknowledging that this image may be part mythology, he still sees it as an “aspirational ideal, a goal for us as a society.”Doug Glanville 56ff1f7494371.image

But only if we are willing to acknowledge

“that racism operates not only with fire hoses and police dogs but also in whispers, in fine print, in invisible ink, in coded language. Until we are fully against it, we are letting it fester, and while we try to sort out the ambiguities, people are suffering.”

His closing sentence: “They will still suffer once we have our answers, no matter what we find out.”

Though that is more hard truth than optimistic conclusion, I know Doug Glanville will continue his work of building bridges, teaching and writing about social justice, guiding his own children to focus on the good around them and rise above the rest.

Of course we’ve made progress since the Jim Crow era, but with the current trends, including deliberate attempts to deny or make it nearly impossible for people of color to vote, and the far too numerous killings of unarmed black people by police officers—many of whom are not held accountable—how can we possibly expect people of color to ignore racial slights or “put them in perspective” when, regardless of their accomplishments, they know how close they are to the next indignity—or worse?

How does it feel to hear TV commentators focus on how important it is for Democratic candidates to appeal to the white voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc., when the water situation in Flint, Michigan, has still not been fully resolved five years later, and we don’t even know how many other predominantly black cities are similarly affected? What will it take for us to care—as if they are our own—about the children being poorly educated and poisoned by environmental pollutants that are getting worse as the EPA standards are lessened or removed?

And why does the shocking data that African-American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—regardless of their income and education levels—not cry out for national attention?

With so many hate crimes and “anti-isms” against various groups on the rise in this country, some may be tempted to belittle the kind of assault Doug Glanville recently experienced. After all, he wasn’t physically injured.

I don’t use the word “assault” lightly: when someone so accomplished—a good-hearted, caring individual with a long history of trying to ease tensions among groups—lets us in on how devastating the accretion of these insults can become, we dare not ignore his words.

Yes, we must strive to overcome our differences and reduce the terrible polarization that threatens us now. We must always seek those things that unite us, rather than divide us.

But we’ll never do so until we realize that the original sin of slavery still hovers over us, and in 2019, we have much more work to do. I am grateful to Doug Glanville for so eloquently sharing his pain with us. He’s still ready to do the hard work to make our country better for us all. Are those of us whose lives aren’t disrupted by the types of incidents Glanville and so many others continually experience ready to do the same?

I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories.

Annie

NOTE: You can hear an audio interview in which Glanville describes the episode and its aftermath on WBUR’s Here and Now (May 29).  Notice that he ends with a positive observation, as he always tries to do.

 

“I Thought of Her as Leonardo da Vinci’s Descendant”

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I’ve found, on occasion, that some of the most life-affirming experiences I’ve had have occurred at a funeral or memorial service for someone whose life has been well-lived.

I had that honor today (Sunday), attending a memorial for a 92-year-old woman whose friends’ recollections often included the phrase “Renaissance woman.”

The woman being memorialized was not someone I’d known for many years or been extremely close to. I had actually been introduced to her by a mutual friend who knew her much better. But she had such a warm, enveloping nature that I felt our friendship was longer and deeper. That, in itself, is a gift, but this woman’s gifts were bountiful.

Her energy level was one. We belonged to the same gym, and I would see her, when she was well into her 80’s, scrambling up climbing devices and lifting her small frame in successive pull-ups—a strenuous task that requires using one’s full body weight.

One of today’s participants whom I hadn’t expected to see was the terrific personal trainer my husband and I work with once a week. “Pat was one of my clients,” he told me. “She came to me in her 80’s because she wanted to be able to go back to canoeing.”

He’d put her on the treadmill wearing a backpack, and she’d complain, “It’s too light; I need more weight.” He’d add 10 pounds, then 20, then…And before long, she’d returned to her canoeing, even carrying the canoe when necessary.

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“Pat was an adventurer with a particular love of the outdoors, canoeing, and camping,” read her obituary. She traveled widely, and one of her two daughters recalled a canoe trip when she was no longer strong enough to paddle.

With her daughter at the stern, they found themselves heading toward whitewater. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I’m going to kill my mother!’” the daughter said. “But she just laughed and laughed, having the best time.”

She was a PhD psychologist who’d had a private practice for many years. Her own life was not easy. There were suggestions of a stormy relationship with a difficult, demanding mother. There was a happy marriage that ended too soon with the death of her spouse, followed by a marriage ending in divorce. There were many health challenges. But still, as one friend, a fellow therapist, said: “She was always a glass half-full person. And she knew when she needed to talk to someone, and she found the best person to talk to.”

When she retired at age 62, she hooked up with Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit organization that builds homes for people in need. This wasn’t her first experience with hammer and nails: she’d been one of the first women to teach shop in a public school in the Bronx, New York. A natural organizer, she brought together fellow Habitat volunteers in her home—a group subsequently called “The GreyHeads.”

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As she told a regional reporter who wrote an article about the group, “My work with Habitat has been the most important experience of my life. I love working with tools and building houses. Every minute is a total joy, and walking through a finished house is the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience.”

A number of the Greyheads spoke about Pat at today’s gathering. It was clear not only that they cherished and respected her, but also that the presence among them of this tough, small, and tenacious woman had profoundly affected their views of women’s roles and capabilities.

And the hands that hammered and sawed also fashioned delicate, beautiful sculptures made of clay, stone, and bronze. Many were nudes—some more sensuous than others. One of the Greyheads said that, raised as a good Catholic boy, when he first saw her sculptures, he headed to confession. “They were better than those magazines,” he said with a big smile.

images-34What else did those incredibly versatile hands do? They played the piano and harpsichord, and the organizer brought together like-minded musicians for Friday evening musicales in her home. She was known to play with passion, and she was especially fond of baroque compositions. “I knew never to call Mom on Friday nights,” her daughter said.

Is it any wonder that one of the speakers said he always thought of her as a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci’s?

She was also deeply concerned about both her community and the larger world. She marched for civil rights, worked to make the playgrounds in New York’s Central Park safer, and sought to obtain an emergency alert system in her home town following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

A few years ago, when it became evident that she could no longer remain in the house and town she loved, she moved to an independent living community near one of her daughters. For a while, she was deeply unhappy, finding little to occupy her time and few like-minded people to talk with.

But in true Pat fashion, that funk didn’t last for long. As one speaker said, when asked what had made her spirits brighten, she responded: “I went to the lumber yard.” Soon she had translated her Habitat for Humanity experience to make Habitats for Wild Birdity: she organized a group to make little birdhouses to hang around her new environs. This action was totally in keeping with yet another aspect of her nature: her love for animals.

When we visited her, her sculptures were in various stages of completion, and she pointed with pleasure at the small garden outside her residence. Before long, we heard about several gentlemen who were vying for her attention. Eventually, her glass seemed more than half-full.

Listening to all the tributes today, I felt as I had when I’d heard her health was failing: regret that I hadn’t had the opportunity to know Pat better and longer. But I felt even more strongly a sense of gratitude that I had been able to spend time with and appreciate this diminutive but huge, indomitable and loving, and truly remarkable woman.

As always, please let me know your thoughts and reactions, and share any stories of your own that this post brings to mind.

Annie

I’M SO PLEASED TO HAVE BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD

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Dracul Van Helsing recently nominated me for The Versatile Blogger Award.
Thank you so much, Dracul, for your support of my blogging efforts.

Dracul’s blog can be found at https://draculvanhelsing.wordpress.com.

He writes fantastical and incredibly complex (often hilarious) tales interwoven with past and present world events, each story closing as follows: “—A vampire novel chapter written by Christopher.” He also writes some very good poetry.
I encourage everyone to visit his blog; I believe that, like me, you’ll marvel at his versatility.

WHAT IS THE VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD?
“The Versatile Blogger Award was created to celebrate blogs that have unique content, strong writing, and beautiful images or photographs.”

[A brief divergence from the format: Writers are generally advised to “write what you know,” and to find a niche and develop expertise, so I thought I was being undisciplined by just following my curiosity wherever it takes me—sometimes well beyond my comfort zone. But that’s what I wanted to do, and I love learning about new topics. Since I’m the boss here, that’s what I’m doing. And now I’m being honored for my versatility. Who knew?]

RULES
-Thank the person who gave you the award.
-Include a link to their blog.
-Select 7 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly.
-Nominate those bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
-Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.

[I stress that these nominations do not imply that I agree with all the sentiments expressed by these bloggers. Often, I strongly disagree. But I feel they have interesting things to say and frequently include wonderful photos, and I enjoy reading their blogs.]

I’M FORWARDING THIS AWARD TO:
https://jpcavanaugh.com
https://lensdiary.blog
https://www.juliaelizabethblog.com
https://leavingfootprintseverywhere.wordpress.com
https://myexpressionofthoughtsblog.wordpress.com
https://creativityoverloaders.wordpress.com
https://ginisnaturenews.com

7 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am one happy blogger: I love the writing, the research, the dialogue with my readers, and the sense of being part of this wonderful international blogging community.
2. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be surrounded by caring people: my immediate family, extended family, and friends from various times in my life—some of whom I’ve reconnected with via this blog.
3. My musical tastes are diverse, including (I’m mixing composers and performers) Beethoven and Chopin, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald and Lady Gaga.
4. The most extraordinary non-fiction book I’ve read recently is An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn.
5. The most enjoyable novels I’ve read recently are The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (author’s true identity remains a matter of controversy, but who cares?).
6. I’m an unabashed bleeding heart liberal (now progressive) who weeps at the thought of babies torn from their mothers’ arms and of the senseless ending of so many innocent lives by people armed with grudges and automatic weapons that should only be in the hands of the military.
7. I am deeply concerned about the apparent fragility of our democracy and the polarization that divides us, but I continue to believe that deep down—beyond the fear and anger—we humans all have similar needs and wants. And I fervently hope we find leadership that will inspire us and focus on the things that unite us: that vast area of common ground.

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Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts, comments, and likes as always.

Next week, with gratitude to Christopher (aka Dracul Van Helsing) for nominating me for not one, but two awards, we return to our customary format, covering a topic that will once again demonstrate my lack of discipline/versatility.

Annie

‘Tis a Mystery: I Have Been Nominated for the Mystery Blogger Award

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I am honored to have been nominated by Dracul Van Helsing for the prestigious Mystery Blogger Award.

Dracul’s blog can be found at:
https://draculvanhelsing.wordpress.com

His blog bears the subtitle: “The Life, Thoughts, and Reflections of a Vampire Hunter,” but if that topic turns you off (my initial reaction), don’t let it. An enormously creative and well-informed mind weaves together past and present, real and unreal, mythic and surreal into well-crafted stories that are often hilarious and frequently pointed observations on the foibles and wackiness of our time.

Thank you so much for this nomination, Dracul.

WHAT IS THE MYSTERY BLOGGER AWARD?
“Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.”
-Okoto Enigma

Dracul, I am delighted that you think I deserve this award.

RULES:
1. Put the Award Logo/Image On Your Blog. Here I feel justified in patting myself on the back. As those of you who have read my descriptions of my technical snafus well know, the fact that I have actually pulled together sufficient technical knowledge to have a functioning blog is amazing enough.

One of my first posts was published with nothing on it, and my scramble with the help of the WordPress Happiness Engineers to find the mysteriously disappearing text devolved into what I’ve described as a clash between my reptilian brain (the part that governs fight/flight/freeze, as well as hunger) and my prefrontal cortex (the part that governs complex thinking and behavior). On that particular night, I still vividly recall, the ole lizard ran rampant across my computer.

So I had little hope of actually capturing that image and importing it onto my post. But voila! There it is, in the place where I believe it belongs. And maybe, just maybe,  by accomplishing this task, I’ve forged a couple more neural synapses in this non-techie brain…

2. List the Rules.
I believe I am in the process of doing that at this moment.
3. Thank the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
I think I’ve checked that box as well; see above.
4. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself (Here’s where the challenge begins. See below).
5. Nominate 10 to 20 people (See below for this one too).
6. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog (I promise to do so).
7. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question.

3 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am seriously dog-deprived at present, so if you have a floppy pup or any kind of retriever, you should keep your distance from me so that I don’t accidentally walk off with him/her/them. I readily acknowledge my preference for long snouts, so you bulldog and sharpei owners needn’t worry.

2. I try to practice mindfulness meditation, but I still haven’t learned well how to deal with my “inner critic,” the judgmental voice in my head. Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness teacher, suggests naming one’s inner critic and then simply accepting the criticisms with kindness and interest. She calls her inner critic Lucy, after the Charles Schulz character who said to Charlie Brown: “The problem with you, Charlie, is that you’re you.” She gave me permission to borrow Lucy, whom I evoke when I remember. (You see, Lucy, we’re all friends here; it’s gonna be OK.)

3. I’ve long harbored the rather modest goal of wanting my words to change the world—preferably for the better. These days, if I can just make people smile, I’m happy to do so.

DRACUL’S QUESTIONS
1.
If you were stranded on a desert island and the film projector you miraculously managed to rescue from your sinking ship only had 5 movies available on its reels, what 5 movies would you wish they be?
Well, here we turn to mystery—or certainly miracles—presupposing that a) I could swim to safety carrying a film projector (I lift weights, but I’m not such a strong swimmer); and b) I’d have the technical expertise to run the darn thing once I got to dry land (or perhaps to a luxury yacht…that would solve concern b). And would I have to rescue the large screen as well?
North by Northwest
Casablanca
The Lives of Others
Cinema Paradiso
Midnight in Paris (I know, I know, it’s Woody Allen, but I still love it.)

2.
What would be an ideal dinner for you?
One of my most memorable meals was rijstaffel in Amsterdam: I loved the variety and deliciousness of all the small dishes. I’d really like a redo—perhaps in Indonesia…

3.
If you could have coffee with any person in history, who would it be and why?
Eleanor Roosevelt because she was such an extraordinary person and had such a positive influence on her husband. I would have questions, though, such as: How could you have let Franklin exclude African Americans from the benefits of the New Deal? How could you have let him turn back the St. Louis, carrying Jews fleeing Nazi Germany? Did you try to stop the Japanese internment camps? Variations on these questions unfortunately resonate in our time.

4.
What person in literature do you wish had actually lived in reality?
One or more of Shakespeare’s strong women: Rosalind in As You Like It; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; or Viola in Twelfth Night. Lady MacBeth? Not so much…

5.
What type of water do you prefer to swim in? Fresh water or salt water?
Any water that when I stand up, the bottom isn’t slimy and little critters aren’t nibbling at my toes. I am not one who wishes to swim with the fishes, literally or figuratively.

MY QUESTIONS:
1.What is the single thing about blogging that you value the most?
2.What episode or aspect of your life would you be most eager to “do over,” if you could?
3.What brings you the greatest personal satisfaction?
4.What musical instrument best describes your personality—and why?
5.If you could perform a single act that you felt would contribute to world peace, what would it be?

A few items before I note my nominees.

1) I know there are many wonderful bloggers out there whom I’ve never had the opportunity to come across, in part because you are so numerous; in part because I’ve been so busy writing and learning the technical aspects of this new adventure that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of your acquaintance. Thus, my nominees are people I know about because for the most part they found me–or we found each other.

2) My nominations do not necessarily mean I endorse their views. In fact, sometimes I emphatically disagree with them. But I believe they display lively minds, often tackle difficult issues, and are effective in conveying their thoughts, and I enjoy reading their posts.

I nominate:

J.P.’s Blog: https://jpcavanaugh.com
Fictionista-Flash Fiction/Musing: https://darnellcureton.com
Stuart Perkins: https://storyshucker.wordpress.com
https://leavingfootprintseverywhere.wordpress.com
JSchuman: https://dividedwefall.com
Joseph Urban: The Old Liberal, https://josephurban.wordpress.com
https://thecontroversialindian.wordpress.com
Doug Gilbert, Poet Laureate of the Primitive Planet: https://xytgeist.wordpress.com

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Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts and comments as always.

Annie

My “Freeze” Moment

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When the world is too much with us—as it occasionally is for me lately—we often turn to nostalgia. My fellow blogger JP recently wrote a delightful post about a childhood “Freeze” moment: while playing a piece in a piano recital, he lost his place, couldn’t find it, recovered as best he could, and somehow lived through the humiliation.

I guess we all have “Freeze” moments when we wish we could turn back the clock and get a do-over. JP’s post reminded me of mine, which occurred when I was a high school senior. My current self finds all this quite amusing, but those decades ago, my sensibilities were different.

First, some background: In my junior year, I had been a member of what our school called the “Marching Corps.” During half-time of the football games, we marched onto the field carrying large white flag/banners, which we twirled in unison to the band’s music. We assembled ourselves into various choreographed formations—sometimes spelling our high school’s initials, a welcome to the opposing team, or a similar visual. At the same time, the baton twirlers performed their routines. It was great fun.

Then an astonishing thing happened. At the end of the school year, the music director, a very tough-love but inspiring educator, selected me to be THE DRUM MAJORETTE for our senior year.

This was truly a big deal. The drum majorette led the color guard carrying the flags, the band, marching corps, and baton twirlers. It was an honor and a responsibility. My selection also evoked some envy and consternation—Josie Gorman, for one (not her real name) let me know that she was far more suited for the position than I was.

It had never occurred to me that I’d be chosen. All my predecessors had been tall, leggy, statuesque, and usually blonde. I was (e): none of the above. The uniform I inherited required extensive alterations.

And then there was the high hat, topped by a large plume. The rim rested on the frames of my thick eyeglasses. My nose was fine, but the full set of metal braces that uncomfortably filled my small mouth glistened in the sunlight in a manner bereft of any esthetic value. I sometimes worried flocks of birds would be attracted by me, shiny object that I was.

What did that heroic music director see in me when he made his decision? He certainly was far ahead of his time in terms of female stereotyping, bless his heart!

Though I never knew his reasoning for sure, I concluded it was based on his confidence that I knew my right from my left, which may not have been a universal skill among my fellow marchers. He could therefore depend upon me to get the band to its destination in a safe and timely manner. And yes, I could strut up a storm and twirl a baton, though I faked that part in a way that the baton twirling squad never could get away with.

I could do nothing about the braces—they remained with me throughout most of my senior year—but I persuaded my parents that contact lenses were essential. I’m pretty sure I paid for them from my previous summer’s earnings, but that could be a false memory arising from my sense of drama about my plight, as in: Desperate kid scraped up enough to save self from mortification.

Anyway, they agreed, and voila! I got my contacts. I not only felt better—I could also see better, thereby improving my chances of keeping the band intact. (As anyone who’s severely myopic and has been fitted with contact lenses knows, contacts—positioned closer to the eye—can sharpen vision more than glasses do.)

It was a glorious time. On Saturdays during football season, we would march from the high school to the stadium about a half-mile away. Children would line the streets to cheer, and elderly veterans would take off their hats and salute as the American flag passed by. That scene remains vivid to this day and often brings tears to my eyes. To my mind, it was a slice of Americana that holds up in retrospect. We were oblivious to the outside world; all was right in ours.

The final game of the football season was held each Thanksgiving Day, and our rivals were the team from the local parochial school. That game always received the largest attendance of the season, as many alumni returned to see old friends and cheer on their local team.

I was psyched. The weather was great, as I recall, and our practices had been terrific. Everyone looked snappy in our crisp, clean uniforms; we were all dressed up with someplace really special to go.

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The actual image from the back of my jacket, still intact all these years later.

The first half of the game ended, and the players left the field for the locker rooms to rest. The cheerleaders, having energetically bolstered the team with physical and vocal stamina, also got a chance to recharge.

This was our moment. I blew my whistle and marched the band onto the field. Strutting my stuff, I blew my whistle again and held my baton high and to the left, signaling it was time for us all to turn and begin marching into formation.

And then it happened.

I dropped my baton. In front of the crowd in a stadium with nary an empty seat, I dropped my baton.

I quickly bent down to pick it up, but as I did, the band kept marching toward me. That’s when I froze.

Instead of turning around and continuing my strutting and twirling, I spent the rest of the time marching backward. I faced the band while holding my baton in both hands, moving it up and down to slow their advance and prevent them from trampling me. It was inglorious. My magical moment had turned into a self-preservation scramble.

Though I felt that I had disgraced myself and ruined the band’s performance, I don’t recall anyone saying anything to me afterward. Perhaps the crowd assumed I had intended to march backward, directing the band. Maybe they even thought: Look at that drum majorette—she can lead the band marching backward!

Or maybe not. But one thing was clear: nobody cared about it as much as I did—not even the music director whom I felt I’d failed.

These days, I try to practice mindfulness meditation, which encourages focusing on the moment—looking neither forward with worries nor backward with regrets. Mindfulness also urges us to respond to our “inner critic”—that merciless self-judge residing in our heads— with kind acceptance: “OK, so that happened. Interesting, isn’t it?” Though I didn’t know the term at the time, my inner critic was in full mode berating me for my personal catastrophe while most of those around me were oblivious to it.

Obviously, in the scheme of things, my youthful disappointment from dropping my baton was a small blip. And with the passage of time, it hasn’t sullied that happy memory of leading my fellow students through the children’s cheers and veterans’ salutes, never confusing my left from my right, and bringing us all—safely and on time—to our destination.

Please share your reactions, thoughts, and, best of all, your own “Freeze” moment(s) and any lessons learned. I appreciate, enjoy, and often learn from your responses.

Annie

Only Connect!

 

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This title is a bit of a come-on to encourage you to stay with me to the end of a post that is important to me, responds to concerns I’ve heard from some of you, and will, I hope, be of interest to even more of you. You may recognize that imperative from E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

Although you’ll occasionally find some of the elements in that quotation in my posts, and I’m using literary license to suggest that my emphasis on finding common ground among us applies to the last sentence, this particular post focuses solely on the first two words, in their most literal sense. I want to make it easy for you to get in touch with me directly by sending a private message.

When I began what I call my “technojourney” less than a year ago, I had no idea how many ways this blog would enrich my life. Though I’ve been a writer throughout my professional life, I was never able to fuse the time, motivation, and ideas into a sustained, coherent body of work that was solely my own. Until now. The opportunity to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me—unfettered by the demands of an editor—and to write what I choose is wonderfully freeing. 

The idea of a blog originated with my children. And based on the pleasure I’m getting, and a good deal of very gracious feedback and support from you, I think they were more attuned to their mother’s needs than I was. This isn’t the first time I’ve learned from my children, and I continue to be grateful for their caring and wisdom.

Here’s how I explained my motivation for this blog in “Backstage in My Blog World: An Explanation—and an Apology,” which I wrote early on, after my first technical snafu. Though the glitch seemed horrendous at the time, I had fun describing it shortly thereafter. I’ll give you a hint: the first line read: “The title of this post might also be ‘Blogging While Aging Ain’t for Sissies!’” 

“So my venture into the blogosphere is taking some effort. I’m not whining here; nor am I suggesting the effort isn’t worthwhile. I’m committed to building a blogging community because a) I love to write; b) The New York Times doesn’t seem to think all the letters I send them are fit to print; c) there are so many issues that I want to learn more about, and this format allows me to delve into them and share what I’ve learned; and d) most importantly, I am deeply committed to the idea that dialogue undertaken with respect for opposing views is an essential component to our democratic process—and its rarity is one of the many serious problems we now face as a nation.”

What I didn’t anticipate was how vast—and at the same time tiny—the blogosphere is, or at least the portion of it in which my WordPress blog resides. It has been thrilling to connect with bloggers from nearly every continent: to learn from you and have you join me in dialogue right here. 

Among my most recent “followers” (a word I dislike, but I guess we’re stuck with it) are individuals from India, South Africa, Poland, and Bosnia Herzegovina. I am abashed that so many of you live in a multilingual world and can artfully express your views in English, but I’m also grateful for the translating devices on your blogs that enable me to read your work when you choose to write in your native tongues. 

And to those of you who haven’t received a personal welcome since joining me, please consider this my thank you for your vote of confidence. I value each and every one of you.

My emphasis from the beginning has been on dialogue: hence, “annieasksyou.” Once I’ve given you some information and/or my opinions on a topic, I relish exchanging ideas—albeit in a civil way. I am so very grateful when you take the time to provide your ideas, insights, and personal stories, as well as links you find to articles or videos that further enrich our discussions. 

But I’m also deeply appreciative if you just come along for the ride. I have learned that many people whose opinions I would love to have on a particular post prefer not to express themselves publicly. When something strikes me as especially relevant, I occasionally include it attributed to “Anonymous,” but please reserve that option for rare occasions.

And please don’t hesitate if you’d just like to leave a comment that says you’ve enjoyed a post, rather than providing an in-depth response. Of course, if you haven’t liked something, and you want to let me know that, I hope you’ll explain why.

My main point in this post is to make sure you’re able to communicate with me in whatever way you choose. Most of the information that follows is more likely useful to those of you who aren’t experienced bloggers—and that applies to a good proportion of the folks reading this post.

A number of you have told me that you’ve had problems leaving comments or “likes” for a particular post, and some have even given up after wasting time trying and are discouraged from trying again. I’m not only very sorry for your inconvenience; with dialogue as my goal, I’m as frustrated as you are that I’m not benefiting from your insights. I also know how annoying that is because it’s happened to me on other blog sites.

I have spoken with the WordPress “Happiness Engineers” (I think of them as the HEs, a gender-neutral term) about this issue a number of times. On occasion, I have found your comments in my spam file; something triggered the guardians there, though to this day it isn’t clear what did it. If you sent a comment that I didn’t receive, and you let me know, I can check for it there.

Sometimes comments don’t go through because you’re not sure whether you’re an email follower or a WordPress follower. If the latter, you have to sign on to your email account, insert that password, then sign onto your WordPress account and insert that password. (Cumbersome, I know.) Once you’ve done that, you should have smooth sailing to enter your comment in the reply box, but that clearly doesn’t always happen. Temporary technical glitches do occur.

I can offer a few possible ways to address this problem. Although WordPress insists it doesn’t have a timing function on the reply box, several people have told me they now type their comments separately, then copy them and paste them into the reply box. This is particularly helpful if your responses are lengthy. It breaks my heart to be told: “I spent hours composing a response, but it disappeared.”

I’ve also found that a comment or “like” may not go through the first time. If you wait a few seconds (or minutes, or hours) and try again, it often will. You can tell if it does by watching for the blue line that moves across the top of the text (below “Done”) and seeing the comment appear outside the reply box, directly on my blog.

If any of the more experienced bloggers have encountered similar problems with comments/likes that haven’t gone through, I would greatly appreciate hearing how you resolved them.

Sometimes you don’t get the email informing you of a new post; I’ve received word that some people read my posts by stumbling on them on WordPress Reader, not having been notified. I am trying to publish a post once a week—on Sunday or Monday evenings—so if you don’t get an email announcement then, please let me know.

I also realize that the font is light when you enter your comment on your phone. That is apparently a function of the “theme” I’ve selected for my blog. Though I like it a lot, I’m considering choosing a new theme so that it’s easier for you to see your words as you type them.

All of the above leads me to the new Contact page you’ll find linked to my Home page (see above photo). If you want to get in touch with me about any issue at all—a communication problem, a suggestion for a topic you’d like me to explore (I’m happy to consider all ideas, though I can’t promise I’ll delve into each one), a comment you don’t want to make publicly for some reason—please click on Contact and enter your name, email address, and web site (if applicable). This information will not appear publicly. And do let me know if you’d be more likely to leave a comment if the text you enter is easier for you to read. Then write away. I’ll respond to you as soon as I can.

Only connect!

Annie

PS: If you’re viewing this post on your mobile phone, Contact is at the very bottom of the menu on my Home page.

Respect Your Mother…

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Today, April 22, is Earth Day. Above is a photo of my favorite T-shirt, with a message that is always worth a reminder, 365 days a year–unless it’s Leap Year. [Note to my darling daughters: you should in no way assume this is directed at you!]

The fact that due to numerous washings, the vividness of that image is fading gives me pause. But as I always seek a note of optimism, I think of all the kids throughout the world who recently staged a school walkout to stress their concern about climate change. They, too, are a reminder to us that it’s their world we’re screwing up–and we’d better get moving–for their sakes.

My fellow blogger Julia Elizabeth, at juliaelizabethblog.com, notes the following:

“Forty-nine years ago, millions of people took to the streets to protest the negative impacts of industrial development, giving birth to an international environmental movement. Today it is estimated that over one billion people across 192 countries take part in this global event, binding together to fight for our planet and our future.”

In commemorations of this day, you’ll probably read and hear tons of things that we mortals should be doing in the face of the huge challenge looming ahead of us as a result of climate change. (I’m assuming my blogging community believes in science, and therefore I don’t have to persuade you about the existential threat we face.)

Julia Elizabeth, who calls herself a “nomad,”  offers “19 Small Ways to Celebrate Earth Day 2019 From Anywhere.” Her suggestions include the easily accomplished, such as “Turn off the tap when brushing, shaving, and shampooing,” and the slightly less convenient: “Bring your reusable bags, water bottles, coffee cups, cutlery sets, and so on wherever you go.”

She adds the more challenging but equally important: “Say no to plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic straws…basically anything and everything made from plastic.” And some that are especially aimed at travelers, such as: “Opt for eco-friendly accommodation…”

To remind us what’s at stake, here are some beautiful and devastating photos in a slide show from National Geographic. I thank Gini’s Nature Notes for alerting me to these.

Julia Elizabeth concludes with a quotation from chef Annie-Marie Bonneau:

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

I think that’s a perfect ending, one that I hope leads to new and better beginnings in this journey that calls upon us all to be activists to ensure our future.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, stories, and any suggestions and anecdotes about your own efforts and/or recommended reading related to our topic: “Respect Your Mother.”

Cheers!

Annie

UPDATE: An astute member of our community posted a link to an invaluable resource from the Union of Concerned Scientists. I encourage anyone who wants to know more about climate change–including skeptics–to go to the Comments section and scroll down til you see the link from frankaufman. Thank you, Fran!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Do We Avoid the Pitchforks and Achieve Greater Economic Equality?

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I am extremely fond of someone whose politics and world view differ significantly from mine. One text exchange with him really brought me up short. I had written what I consider a self-evident truth: unless we do something about the growing economic inequality in this country, it won’t be only the poor and struggling middle class who will suffer. Eventually, our fraying social fabric will tear completely, and the .01% will find society inhospitable to them as well.

My correspondent’s response stunned me. He said that what I’m suggesting will mean the end of a nation based on merit, and my grandchild will face a dismal future. I responded that I do worry about my grandchild’s dismal future, but it’s because of the ravages of climate change—not efforts to reduce inequality. And so our discussion ended.

I didn’t launch into all the evidence demonstrating that our society has never been based solely on merit—from the Original Sin of Slavery to the very 21st Century scandal of famous people bribing coaches to get their kids into the best colleges.

But the idea that any mention of redressing inequality could evoke such a reaction made me think that it’s time to talk about why the wealthiest among us should welcome steps to close the ever-widening economic gap, why some of them are advocating for just that, and what approaches might be feasible for us as a nation.

I realize once again I’m taking on a “you can’t cover such a mammoth, complex topic in a blog” subject. That’s why I won’t mention world economic inequality right now. I have some awareness of my limits, for goodness’ sake (!?). I must add a disclaimer, however: my formal education in economics is practically zero, so you should be skeptical of anything I write that I don’t attribute to others.

What I do have is a heart that hurts when I see so much suffering and anger in this land of plenty, a conviction that this growing economic inequity is unsustainable, and—I’ve been told—an analytical mind in addressing problems. And my blessed blog gives me a bit of a forum to try to evoke discussion of these views.

So here we go.

We’ll start with Nick Hanauer. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with him and his work, but I’ve attached a link to his 2014 TED Talk: “Beware, Fellow Plutocrats: The Pitchforks Are Coming.” It’s worth “eavesdropping” on Hanauer’s speech, which lays some of the groundwork for the reasons and ways to bring about positive economic change. (I’m not endorsing everything he’s ever said or written—simply focusing here on ideas that make great sense to me.)

I think this is especially important as the Democratic Party internally debates how moderate, progressive, or even (gasp!) socialistic its policies should be. Polls show that most voters—not just Democrats—want policies that are moderately progressive—though the word “progressive” may worry them (worries bolstered by the Trump-Republican push to make even the desire for healthcare sound like we’re racing toward the “evils of socialism.”)

Hanauer describes himself as a “plutocrat” and “proud and unapologetic capitalist” who has made a fortune. (He was the first non-family investor in Amazon, co-founded a company that Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion, etc.) But he says he’s neither the smartest nor hardest working person and was a mediocre student.

“Truly, my success is the consequence of spectacular luck, of birth, of circumstance and of timing. But I am actually pretty good at a couple of things. One, I have an unusually high tolerance for risk, and the other is I have a good sense, a good intuition about what will happen in the future, and I think that that intuition about the future is the essence of good entrepreneurship.”

“So what do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.”

To me, that evaluation resonates strongly, and I hope his message is reaching at least some of his fellow plutocrats.

Hanauer stresses that although he believes some inequality is essential for what he calls a “high-functioning capitalist democracy,” inequality today is historically high and worsening daily. If this trend continues, he says, our society will become more like what 18th-century France had “before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

“So I have a message for my fellow plutocrats and zillionaires and for anyone who lives in a gated bubble world: Wake up. Wake up. It cannot last. Because if we do not do something to fix the glaring economic inequities in our society, the pitchforks will come for us, for no free and open society can long sustain this kind of rising economic inequality. It has never happened.
There are no examples. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state or an uprising.” [All the passages bolded for emphasis are mine.]

What’s more, he says, this inequality is bad for business. Throw out a belief in “trickle-down economics,” which never worked, Hanauer says, because economies aren’t efficient and don’t tend toward fairness. He advocates what he calls “middle-out economics,” which views economies as complex systems that can be effective only if they’re well-managed.

He gives a cogent illustration of why trickle-down economics can’t work.

“I earn 1,000 times the median wage, but I do not buy 1,000 times as much stuff, do I? I actually bought two pairs of these pants…I could have bought 2,000 pairs, but what would I do with them? How many haircuts can I get?…a few plutocrats…can never drive a great national economy. Only a thriving middle class can do that.”

How do we achieve that thriving middle class? One way, which Hanauer sparked, is to raise the minimum wage. Less than one year after his article “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage” was published—and Forbes called it “Nick Hanauer’s near-insane proposal”—Seattle did just that: raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than twice the existing federal rate.

“It happened because a group of us reminded the middle class that they are the source of growth and prosperity in capitalist economies…that when workers have more money, businesses have more customers, and need more employees…that when businesses pay workers a living wage, taxpayers are relieved of the burden of funding the poverty programs like food stamps and medical assistance and rent assistance that those workers need. We reminded them that low-wage workers make terrible taxpayers, and that when you raise the minimum wage…all businesses benefit yet all can compete.”

To those who insist this approach is economically disastrous, he points out that Seattle is doing very well, thank you, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, with a booming restaurant business, where the restaurant workers can afford to eat where they work (despite restaurateurs who had said they’d have to close their doors).

Hanauer acknowledges these issues are more complex than he can depict in one speech but says there’s simply no evidence that increasing wages will harm both workers and the economy.

“The most insidious thing about trickle-down economics is not the claim that if the rich get richer, everyone is better off. It is the claim made by those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage that if the poor get richer, that will be bad for the economy. This is nonsense.”

When President Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over,” we had already been on a trajectory that sees government as a necessary evil at best, or pure evil at worst. (Notably, Clinton had added: “but we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.”) Without mentioning those sentiments, Hanauer calls for “a new politics, a new capitalism”:

“Let’s by all means shrink the size of government, but not by slashing the poverty programs, but by ensuring that workers are paid enough so that they actually don’t need those programs…Government does create prosperity and growth, by creating the conditions that allow both entrepreneurs and their customers to thrive.”

“Balancing the power of capitalists like me and workers isn’t bad for capitalism. It’s essential to it. Programs like a reasonable minimum wage, affordable healthcare, paid sick leave, and the progressive taxation necessary to pay for the important infrastructure necessary for the middle class like education, R and D, these are indispensable tools shrewd capitalists should embrace to drive growth, because no one benefits from it like us.”

He concludes with a message to his fellow plutocrats that it’s time to “recommit to our country”—and to a more inclusive and efficient capitalism…

“…a capitalism that will ensure that America’s economy remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. Let’s secure the future for ourselves, our children and their children. Or alternatively, we could do nothing, hide in our gated communities and private schools, enjoy our planes and yachts — they’re fun — and wait for the pitchforks.”

Since this speech, Hanauer has continued to push for change. His podcast, Pitchfork Economics, is widely available. I listened to a segment in which US Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Cory Booker discussed his proposed bill concerning stock buybacks, explained here. May sound dull, but I found it fascinating.

Before 1982, I learned, stock buybacks were illegal: using corporate profits to buy back stocks, thereby raising the price of those stocks, was viewed as market manipulation. Doesn’t that make sense? But now it’s standard practice, contributing nothing to economic growth except what goes into the stockholders’ pockets. The workers whose increased productivity made those profits possible receive zilch; their wages remain stagnant, as wages have since the late 1970s.

Even worse, there are disincentives to corporations trying to be fair.

Booker cites American Airlines. After having a great quarter last year, he says, “they announced long overdue pay raises to the pilots and flight attendants.” But analysts looked askance at this move, and Morgan Stanley downgraded American’s shares, complaining its action established a worrying precedent for American Airlines and the industry.

So they were essentially punished for trying to be fair to their workers. Is that not an example of an economy gone seriously awry?

Booker’s bill, the “Workers Dividend Act,” says that if corporations plan to engage in stock buybacks, they must give a commensurate share to their employees. He stresses that this bill is not intended to “vilify” wealth, but simply to ensure that everyone has more.

Importantly, he points out why it’s needed:

“We make moral and value decisions with how we structure our tax codes, shortchanging workers, adding to wealth disparity, and weakening our democracy as a whole.”

To me, the big question is: How do we get the plutocrats to change direction before our democracy is further weakened—and/or the pitchforks are activated?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Tomasky’s Op-Ed, published today in The New York Times: “Is America Becoming an Oligarchy?,” which echoes the concerns expressed here. Tomasky writes:

“Democracy can’t flourish in a context of grotesque concentration of wealth. This idea is neither new nor radical nor alien. It is old, mainstream and as American as Thomas Jefferson.”

Many writers have examined this topic lately, and I think it’s one that we must face as a nation. I plan to explore some of the ideas in subsequent posts.

Are you with me in having this discussion—whether you agree or disagree?

Annie