23&WE: The Democrats Debate (With apologies to Chaucer for imperfectly borrowing his rhyme scheme)

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From The New York Times:

“Two nights, four hours, so, so many candidates: the first Democratic presidential debates will be like nothing we’ve ever seen. A former vice president on stage with a self-help author. Three female candidates on one night, three female candidates the next — more than have ever been on the debate stage at once. A 37-year-old squaring off against two septuagenarians.”

******

Now listen, friends, as I unveil the chorus
Of those I’m calling 23&WE.
We’re not discussing folks who came before us;
It’s those who say what this country should be
And how they’ll make enough of us agree.
They’re poised to set out from the starting gate,
And one of them may well decide our fate.

How do they call attention to their vision
And talents that will make them best to lead?
So many voters now voice skepticism
Re: turning those fine words to solid deeds
To build a worthwhile new American creed
That knits together vastly different types
Of folks who harbor vastly different gripes.

The polls agree the leader’s now Joe Biden,
A man well known who was a fine VP.
Experienced in world affairs, he’s ridin’
On hopes he’ll bring us back to normalcy
And thus is safe to take down Covfeve.
But some say Uncle Joe is just too dated,
And can’t forget Anita Hill deflated.

There’s Bernie S., who never seems to waver;
In 40 years he hasn’t turned the page.
He’s moved the Dems on issues gaining favor:
Medicare for all; a $15 wage.
But others now are acting on that stage.
A Democratic Socialist with pride,
If he falters, would he just step aside?

Someone to watch, the pundits say, is Warren,
On each issue she has a plan, for sure.
An ultra-millionaire’s tax could be transformin’
With free child care for all and so much more.
For inequality she has a cure.
But will pro-banker, moneyed folks resist,
Despite her self-description: “capitalist”?

One candidate whose fame has come quite quickly
Is South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor Pete
(Trying to rhyme his last name is quite tricky)
His scholar/military resume is neat,
But politically he fits into a tweet.
Still, he has generational appeal
And messaging that sounds both wise and real.

Kamala Harris, tough in prosecuting
Won plaudits for her querying Bill Barr.
She says in office she’d be executing
Punishments for employers who’re sub-par
In the male/female equity pay bar.
A woman of color, bona fides deep,
She’s on a lot of short lists for the Veep.

Amid the current tones of acrimony,
Cory Booker’s words sound so very nice.
He talks of love, civic grace, and harmony
And exhorts men to protect women’s rights.
And cares a lot to end our urban blights.
This Rhodes Scholar who’s certainly no fool
Has Wall Street ties and supports charter schools.

Amy Klobuchar is praised quite highly
Across the aisles in a once true blue state
She’s also known to view events quite wryly,
And humor’s in too short supply of late.
Some feel her plans don’t carry enough weight.
But one’s important, not just symbolically:
Her push for statehood for Washington, DC.

Beto leapt to fame by losing narrowly;
In Texas that was seen as quite a feat.
His campaign started off quite powerfully
And then began to lose a bit of heat,
Though he engages each voter he’ll meet.
His message is important as can be:
Immigration: with “respect and dignity.”

I’ve long thought that the job of governor
Makes President a ready move to make.
There’s Hickenlooper, Inslee, and another:
Steve Bullock, who will miss next week’s debate.
Each has records touted as first-rate.
And each has worked to combat climate change
With Inslee’s speech most often in this range.

It’s time, say many Dems, to crack that ceiling
Re: healthcare, equity, diversity,
To all these goals the party is appealing
And I believe that voters sensibly
Will weigh their thoughts while seeking to agree
And try to find which candidate’s around
Who’s most likely to find that common ground.

I see I’m in trouble here numerically,
And fear my rhyme is starting to grow weak.
I’ve gone through less than half the twenty-three.
There’s still a dozen more of whom to speak,
And showtime’s coming middle of next week.
But since to verses’ end you’ve still held tight,
You’ll find all contenders’ pitches through this site.

******

I clearly gave only the briefest attention to the candidates I covered, and none at all to the rest. Here is how they present themselves to voters:

  1. Joe Biden: JoeBiden.com
  2. Bernie Sanders: BernieSanders.com
  3. Elizabeth Warren: ElizabethWarren.com
  4. Kamala Harris: KamalaHarris.org
  5. Pete Buttigieg: PeteForAmerica.com
  6. Cory Booker: CoryBooker.com
  7. Beto O’Rourke: BetoOrourke.com
  8. Amy Klobuchar: Amy-Klobuchar.com
  9. Andrew Yang: yang2020.com
  10. Jay Inslee: JayInslee.com
  11. Julian Castro: JulianForTheFuture.com
  12. Tulsi Gabbard: tulsi2020.com
  13. Kirsten Gillibrand: 2020.KirstenGillibrand.com
  14. Marianne Williamson: marianne2020.com
  15. John Delaney: JohnKDelaney.com
  16. Tim Ryan: TimRyanForAmerica.com
  17. John Hickenlooper: hickenlooper.com
  18. Bill de Blasio: BilldeBlasio.com
  19. Steve Bullock: SteveBullock.com
  20. Michael Bennet: MichaelBennet.com
  21. Eric Smalwell: EricSwalwell.com
  22. Seth Moulton: SethMoulton.com
  23. Wayne Messan: WayneForAmerica.com

I know it’s early, but if you’re committed to the idea that we need new leadership in 2020, these debates are important in winnowing the field, and you may find yourself wanting to support someone who hasn’t yet gained much public attention.

So I hope you’ll watch the debates, review the candidates’ positions as they state them on their web sites, and support the candidate(s) of your choice. Small donations will be vital for qualifying for subsequent debates, so please consider even minimal financial support of candidates as well.

FIRST DEBATES: JUNE 26, JUNE 27 ON NBC, MSNBC, AND TELEMUNDO

Annie

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

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’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.

________________

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

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.

The Constitution: Can It Help Us “Replace the Jeering With Productive Conversation”?

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No matter what your politics, you may well be troubled, as I am, by the efforts on college campuses—as well as in many other arenas—to stifle dissent by preventing people with unpopular views from being invited to speak—or interrupting them so that they can’t be heard. Short of falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater, the First Amendment to the US Constitution should be a protected and revered part of all our public dialogue—from colleges to the White House.

And it seems the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) college entrance exams, has decided to do something about that problem, reports Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. They determined to ensure that the next generation really learns what the Constitution is all about. 

It was part of an effort to define the skills and knowledge that best correlate with success in college and beyond. “Their answer: the ability to master ‘two codes’—computer science and the US Constitution,” states Friedman.

The emphasis on the Constitution came about because the folks who run the College Board concluded, Friedman writes,

“that if you want to be an empowered citizen in our democracy—able to not only navigate society and its institutions but also to improve and shape them, and not just be shaped by them—you need to know how the code of the US Constitution works.”

As David Coleman, president of the College Board, put it:

“Our country was argued into existence—and that is the first thing that binds us—but also has some of the tensions that divide us. So we thought, ‘What can we do to help replace the jeering with productive conversation?”

And Stefanie Sanford, the College Board’s chief of global strategy, said:

The First Amendment lays the foundation for a mature community of conversation and ideas—built on the right and even obligation to speak up and, when needed, to protest, but not to interrupt and prevent others from speaking.”

I read their comments shortly before watching a highly informative One Day University lecture titled “The Constitution: Enduring Myths and Hidden Truths.” The speaker: Andrew Porwancher, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma who teaches constitutional history. 

Porwancher set the stage for the Constitutional Convention in 1787: the delegates were trying “to salvage a country whose very existence was mired in doubt.” (Some have expressed the same concerns about the US today!)

The Continental Congress was “impotent”; “the Articles of Confederation were failing.” Americans who were wary of centralized government had gone too far in the opposite direction: there was no executive branch or judiciary, and a single state had veto power over any actions.

This document the framers came up with wasn’t all that popular; in fact, an effort was under way to throw it out and start from scratch. As the ratification effort proceeded, there were pro-Federalists on one side and anti-Federalists on the other.

(The Federalist Papers, a group of 85 essays, had been written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, using the pseudonym Publius, the Roman statesman who helped establish the republic. More on their impact on us today follows.)

So the vote went to New York. Though there were already nine votes, ostensibly enough for passage, Hamilton knew that New York’s prominence meant its position was critical to passage—and thus to the continuation of the republic.

When Hamilton began to speak, two of the three members of the New York delegation were opposed. But, Porwancher reported, “Hamilton spoke with eloquence and passion and moved them to tears.” Still, the vote for ratification was 30-27—pretty close to ending this American experiment.

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Alexander Hamilton

I won’t go into all the common myths that Porwancher covered in his talk, but here’s one relevant to our discussion:  the Bill of Rights was an integral part of the Constitution from the start. Not so.

In fact, it was ratified years later. There was worry—and Hamilton was one of the worriers— that if certain rights were enumerated, others might be considered unimportant; without specific mention, they might later be encroached upon. 

But Porwancher says the American people did want fundamental rights enumerated. Patrick Henry disagreed: he opposed the Constitution because he feared a strong central authority, and he fretted that the Bill of Rights would, Porwancher says, “sweeten that bitter pill.” The Bill of Rights was finally ratified four years after the Constitutional Convention.

Interesting fact: The First Amendment we revere—guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, petitioning the government—often cited as our most significant freedoms, actually started out in third place. It followed two amendments that failed to be ratified: one to determine the size of Congressional districts; the other pertaining to Congressional salaries. So it’s by default that those critical freedoms moved up two notches to their current place of prominence.

Another interesting fact: The Federalist Papers were not important in their day. Porwancher says there’s no evidence “they moved the needle back then.” But in the last few generations, they have played what many consider an outsized role in the selection of judges at all levels of government. Consider that President Trump operated almost solely from a list provided by the Federalist Society in determining his Supreme Court picks. 

Says Porwancher:

“We can debate the merits of whether they should be so important today.”

Indeed, many who are concerned that the federal judiciary is becoming far to the right of the majority of Americans’ views believe this debate is overdue. See, for example, Jane Mayer’s discussion in her book Dark Money about the role of the Olin family (whose fortune is tied to DDT), working with the Federalist Society to create a conservative agenda at law schools throughout the country to turn back federal regulations against toxic pollutants.

In many of the major questions that divide us, such as the separation of church and state and the implications of the Second Amendment, some are always asking: What was the framers’ original intent? But Porwancher points out that we can’t always know. “There were big gaps,” he observes. “The framers disagreed on the meaning of their own words, and on clauses they themselves wrote.”

On the question of whether originalism is possible, he says partial originalism is—on matters pertaining to freedom of the press, speech, rights of accused, free exercise of religion, and balance between liberty and national security. (I would imagine many people may find this view debatable.) “The framers understood the threat to national security but still valued liberty,” he says. 

Disagreement concerning original intent versus a living Constitution adaptable to its time began with the framers.  Hamilton posited that the Constitution must be adaptable so that it can be relevant when unanticipated circumstances arise. Madison’s view was more limited: we have the amendment process to address such issues; they shouldn’t be decided by judicial fiat.

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James Madison

Of course, we want the Constitution to provide clear guidance, not to harp on conflicts but to remedy dilemmas. But “The framers’ time was as toxic and fragmented as our own,” Porwancher says. They suffered no illusions that human beings were without flaws. 

Porwancher points out that there’s always been tension between the role of the state and the role of its citizens, and that tension will go on.

“We are a young country, but no other nation has such extraordinary longevity—not in resolving conflicts, but in institutionalizing them. As long as debate endures, the Constitution has succeeded.”

”What they [the framers] understood was that when debate ends, carnage begins. When people stop yelling, violence begins. They drafted the Constitution to keep the conflicts going. When politics ends, violence begins.”

But today, we are hearing political speech that seems to encourage violence. We appear to be witnessing a blurring of the lines between politics and violence that the framers probably also experienced, but don’t seem to have offered guidance about handling. So how do we react? How can we ensure everyone’s right to be heard while keeping everyone else safe?

Several questions from the audience concluded with one from a woman who identified herself as a descendant of slaves. She said she is optimistic in general, but asked: “Will we survive this [the years of Trump] also?” 

Porwancher’s response:

“Our remarkable resilience: a republic with little chance of surviving becoming the greatest superpower in the world. I can’t help but be optimistic about our future.”

After viewing Porwancher’s lecture, I reread Friedman’s article about the College Board’s efforts. And I checked the changes being made in the AP curriculum. In addition to focusing on college skills such as analyzing, comparing, interpreting, and communicating political information, there will be

  • More emphasis on the U.S. founding documents and other primary sources. A specified set of 15 Supreme Court cases and 9 foundational documents—including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—is now required study.

In a clear demonstration that this effort is already bearing fruit, Friedman writes:

“Kids are getting it. An AP US Government and Politics class at Hightstown High School in New Jersey was credited in a Senate committee report with contributing content to a bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which was signed into law last month.”

Reading that gave me chills. Once again, as I have in the past, I was buoyed by hope that the next generation of Americans will do far better than we are doing now.

An important related question: Should we be pushing to ensure that all students in American high schools receive training in civics classes?

Please let me know your thoughts, stories, other resources, and anything else that this post brings to mind. I love to hear from you.

Annie

How Do We Talk About Race in America? A Serendipitous Part 3

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Greetings, welcome back, and best wishes to everyone for a very happy and healthy New Year.

I hadn’t planned this additional post on race, but I came across what I feel is a wonderful piece of Op-Art on the topic in The New York Times. Some of you may recall it, but even if you do, I hope you’ll use the link above to revisit it. It’s worth several readings, I believe.

And it’s followed by another serendipitous example that I find enriches the topic.

Writer and illustrator Henry James Garrett has created a wise and amusing morality tail/tale that’s titled “The Kernel of Human (or Rodent) Kindness.” I’m pretty sure the fair use police will prevent me from reprinting the piece in its entirety, as I would love to do, so I’m including a few screen shots (if they work–I’m getting better at this technical stuff, but each new challenge is fraught with the fear of mishap).

Please keep in mind that this is just a sampling, probably unfair to the creator because it doesn’t capture the richness of the artwork and messaging in its entirety. But here we go…

 

 

 

 

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Please do click on the green New York Times link above to see Garrett’s entire work. It will just take you a minute, and I really think you’ll enjoy it.


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Before we leave the topic of race for now, I’d like to add the second serendipitous piece. One of a number of special friends I’ve reconnected with as a result of this blog is a Master Gardener. I was unfamiliar with this term, but I’ve learned that Master Gardeners are volunteers who have undertaken considerable training in the science and art of gardening. They, in turn, share their expertise by educating the public on gardening and horticulture.

My friend had the additional responsibilities involved in serving on the Board of Directors of the Master Gardeners organization in the area in which he lived. He had a lot of experience in organizational work as well, having had a long and successful career as a Manufacturing Manager for a major US corporation, where his responsibilities included diversity training.

But my friend, who is African-American, grew tired of his fellow board members’ failure to listen to his ideas (as well as impatient with their lack of organization).

He was comfortable with what he had to offer but felt his presence on the board was that of a “token”: he was there for show, but not for substance. So he resigned his position–and received a very gracious letter from one of the few board members who clearly recognized that his absence would be felt.

In an email explaining to me what had happened, he wrote of the other board members: “I really don’t think they know the difference between Affirmative Action and Diversity. Gardeners generally practice diversity every time they plant a flower, but they probably wouldn’t make the connection. There are a number of reasons we plant a diverse garden.”

I found his words both poetic and a fine metaphor for why our society is strengthened by our growing diversity.

So from rodents to gardens, I feel we’re surrounded by lessons about how much we have to gain by being empathetic toward one another and celebrating both our differences and our commonality as human beings.

I hope to hear from you about whether my serendipitous finds resonate. As always, I depend upon your thoughts, experiences, and stories…For those of you who are new to this blog, you must go way down the page to find the comment box in which I hope you’ll enter your response. Thank you!

Annie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navigating “The Wild West” Marketplace of Consumer Genetic Testing–and Other Needed Information About Our DNA

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In an article in The New York Times Sunday Review, genetics counselor Laura Hercher described a man named Matthew Fender, who—after searching for heredity data through 23andMe—had placed his genetic test results into Promethease, a DNA search engine that probes such data for variants cited in the medical literature. 

Fender had sought to learn his risk for developing a pulmonary embolism, the condition that had killed his sister, a seemingly healthy young woman of 23. The report didn’t mention that, but it did provide the alarming news that he carried a mutation (PSEN1) strongly associated with early onset Alzheimer’s, as well as two copies of a gene variant (ApoE4) that indicates greatly increased chances of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s.

After getting no satisfactory guidance from his primary care doctor and other professionals, Fender checked out a competing genetics company, Ancestry DNA,  to see what his results there would say about the PSEN1 variant. They said nothing. He then persuaded his doctor to order the test, which proved negative.

End of story for Fender, although he said the experience led him to improve his diet and to consider using his technological skills to develop an app to assist people with dementia through voice-activated devices such as Siri and Alexa.

It’s worth noting that both companies claimed their tests were 99.9% accurate. Yet a 23andMe representative told Hercher that “a 99.9% accuracy can still mean errors.” And apparently, not every variant in their chip is even validated for 99.9% accuracy.

“The direct-to-consumer genetic testing marketplace is a regulatory Wild West,” wrote Hercher, who is the director of research at the Sarah Lawrence College Graduate Program in Human Genetics.

She’s also the host of an informative and entertaining podcast, “The Beagle Has Landed,” (named after Charles Darwin’s ship—not Charles Schulz’s Snoopy), designed for both professionals and “curious patients,” according to its introductory press release. One of her interviewees was Matt Fender.

Hercher explained that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced in November a new regulatory approach that will allow companies like 23andMe to market some tests to determine health risks without premarket review. That change, Hercher observes, “is expected to usher in a rapid expansion of the consumer genetics industry.”

That means we consumers will need to better prepare ourselves to function in this new ”Wild West” by getting a better education on the important topic of genetics and the role it plays in our health—even as the field itself is changing all the time.

With that backdrop,  I spoke with Hercher to elicit her opinions on how to view all these genetic data at this stage. 

First, to her, the quest for information about one’s heritage, which she calls the “ancestry craze,” is a “mixed bag.” The positives she underscores are that people enjoy and are intrigued by learning about their forebears, and the process brings science and genetics into people’s lives.

But when people ask her if these quests yield legitimate information, she responds: “It’s accurate-ish. People think of this as their genealogy, but once you get past Mom and Dad, there’s a lot of randomness—you could inherit something important, or not.”

“People like to tell a story they can understand, a narrative that can explain why people turned out certain ways. Genetics also tells a story, but the risk we run is that when hearing it, we put aside other stories—involving culture and heritage, for example.  It’s very hard to weave it all together.”

If we’re interested in our predecessors’ story, then their story is ours, she notes, and that’s valuable to us. “Genes are a part of that, but not all of it. Even among siblings: one person could have 34% Southern European heritage, while his brother registered 15%. Would that make sense? No. The tests don’t gather with that level of precision.”

Hercher analogizes a swimming pool, with some blue substance for African ancestry, red for Chinese, etc. “The testers scoop a sampling from a spot of genomes into a net, and they’ll get red, green, yellow,” she says.  “Different tests reach down and get the same mix, but it’s not identical.”

To Hercher, the ancestry tests also tend to encourage a kind of tribal thinking and ignore the overriding message: 99% of our DNA identifies us as human and is genetically shared among us. “The DNA story is our commonality as a people—as well as with other living things. I wish these companies presented the data in a way that made that clear.”

And this commonality has great implications for the subject of race. “No quality geneticist will tell you that the concept of race does a good job of describing our shared genetic ancestry. Race isn’t a scientific grouping; it’s defined culturally. There’s more mixture within groups than between groups.” In a point that is probably obvious to all but the most rabid white supremacists, she says: “Racial purity is a myth.”

Those in the genetics field are disturbed by the current efforts to bring back eugenics, or “scientific racism,” which was once believed even by serious scientists who felt they could, by controlled breeding, create an increase in desirable heritable traits and a decrease in undesirable ones, thereby improving the human race. 

The concept was easily manipulated and became discredited after its use by the Nazis in Germany. “Now all these things are widely talked about,” Hercher laments. “The white nationalist movement has adopted the language of hate ideology and put a scientific gloss on it.”

This is the background for the hot water that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has gotten herself into by taking a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry. With this action, critics say, the possible 2020 Presidential candidate has played into the concept of “racial science”–validating the alleged link between blood and race, which The New York Times calls “a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies.”

That’s not, I trust, the way most of us view genetics. We may remember how we were introduced to the subject in school: with Gregor Mendel and the 29,000 pea plants he cultivated that formed the foundation of the field. But even among the experts, “we never knew how complicated heredity is,” Hercher says. Single gene inheritance, such as blood type, is fairly straightforward and rare—as are diseases attributed to a single gene, the so-called “Mendelian diseases,” which include sickle cell disease, as well as cystic fibrosis, Huntington disease, muscular dystrophy, and a few others. 

Most of genetics, Hercher stresses, is more multi-layered. Heredity, and the traits and illnesses that are in our DNA, involve the interaction of genes with both our external environment and the internal environment comprised of our hormones, metabolism, and other factors. So when we find out we have certain genes—and their variants and mutations—there’s no straight line to determining how our bodies will deal with their existence.

One important issue that stirs debates among geneticists involves ApoE4—the gene that denotes a higher risk for Alzheimer’s and carries both individual and societal implications—for care and economics—as our population ages. Approximately 25% of Caucasians carry this gene, but Hercher points out that an individual at somewhat increased risk may not develop the disease; while someone with decreased risk may still get it. 

And currently, without a cure, that raises questions. “There’s a faction in the genetics counseling community that says we have no business giving out that information,” says Hercher. Indeed, when Matt Fender initially sought guidance from his primary care doctor, Hercher reported in her Times article, the doctor responded: “What the heck do we do about it, once we know, other than create high anxiety?” However, says Hercher, “a growing faction says that whether or not to provide the information is not really our call.” In other words, it’s the patient’s decision.

So if we’re deciding to search out our ancestry–or to be tested for a possible disease– the important thing for us, the consumer/patient, is to seek education before we even consider being tested. 

How will we regard the potential results? Do we need the information to inform our choices about health decisions that must be made—before a pregnancy, for example, or to assess our odds of developing certain cancers?

On such matters, Hercher stresses, both factions in the genetics counseling community agree: if the information is to be given, good counseling should be involved to help patients think through the implications—and then to support them once they’ve decided whether or not to act on the findings.

What do you think? Have you had any experiences you’d like to share? Please enter them in the Comment box near the bottom of this post.

Annie

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How Do We Talk About Race in America? Meet Doug Glanville (Part 2 of 2)

Doug Glanville 56ff1f7494371.image.jpg

As soon as I determined to address this topic in my blog, I knew the person I should turn to for guidance. Doug Glanville, who’s been a friend of my daughter’s since childhood, is one of those all-around amazing people. It was evident when he was young:  academically gifted, terrifically athletic, warm, funny, and friendly, he was clearly destined to make his mark in the world.

And so he has. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, he had an illustrious nine-year career as a major league baseball player—a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. From there he became a commentator for ESPN. He wrote a book, The Game From Where I Stand, contributes frequently to The New York Times, and has written for The Atlantic.

Recently, he’s added “college professor” to his personal biography. Returning to Penn, he researched, developed, and taught a course on Communication, Sports, and Social Justice. He’s now refining the course to teach it at Yale in a combined political science and African American Studies effort that may also involve Women’s Studies and Yale Law School.

And yet…and yet. In the winter of 2014, shoveling the walk of his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Tiffany, an attorney and Hartford Board of Education member, and their four children, Glanville was stunned to be approached by a police officer from the next town. 

A woman had complained that a man who had shoveled her walk had been menacing her for money, and Glanville fit the description: a black man in his 40s with a shovel, wearing a brown coat (though his coat was black). The officer approached Glanville with the words: “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

Glanville has written about the experience in The Atlantic, (“I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway”), and it’s well worth reading the entire article. Here’s a bit of it: 

Instead of providing the officer with his impressive personal and family background,

“I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question…After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.”

That episode eventually led to the passage of a new Connecticut law that prevents local police from crossing into another jurisdiction to pursue what they believe are violations of local ordinances. (A good description of the law’s broad impact appears in The Huffington Post.) At the signing ceremony, the Governor issued Glanville an apology.

Glanville explains his motivation for shepherding the legislation through to passage:

If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?

He has since been appointed by the Governor to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council, where they deal with accreditation issues, certify and decertify police officers, and develop and adopt “a comprehensive standards program for local law enforcement units.” Glanville says: “I am proud to serve on the curriculum committee.”

And although he never received an apology from the police officer, rather than demonizing him, he saw him as presenting an opportunity—to help build bridges between communities of color and law enforcement through open engagement about the pitfalls of bias in community policing.

“We all have bias,” Glanville says, “but the stakes are exceptionally high in law enforcement. It is critical that we all invest in managing bias in our policing.” 

He attributes his ability to work with police—and his broad social vision—to his upbringing in Teaneck, New Jersey, the first community in the United States to voluntarily integrate its schools. “It was such a validating experience to live in a community where people from all walks of life saw each other in a united camp.” He went to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, he recalls. “In Teaneck, you had real embedded experiences.”

A white police officer, with whom he became close, was his summer league baseball coach, and his father, a psychiatrist who was well-loved in the community, often treated police in various places for the stresses of their jobs. When his father died, “They paid their respects to him as if he was one of them.”

 A large contingent of police, in uniform, did a walkthrough at his funeral to greet his family, waiting in line to pay their respects. Three police cars accompanied the hearse to the cemetery, where they stopped traffic to allow the procession to enter.

Those experiences enabled Glanville to be “caring and collaborative” in working with the police in Connecticut to formulate the legislation.

As a result of those formative years, as well as his close relationships with his fellow baseball players, he says, “As a black man, I see the power in the “#Me Too” movement,” for example. “We all want to be validated, treated fairly, given opportunities, have our pain recognized—to overcome generation after generation in the land of opportunity.”

But achieving social justice takes effort. “It’s easy to want to take your ball and go home,” he acknowledges. “That’s concerning: how can we grow when we’re in our own echo chambers? We need to be brave and step across the aisle and realize we have common work to do.”

In getting the Connecticut legislation through, “I took lemons and made lemonade. But that requires patience, and where is patience? It goes hand in hand with the way we digest information. There’s not a lot of patience to digest the long form. It’s more like: ‘If I didn’t see it, it isn’t real.’”

He has criticisms of social media for creating more doubt and manipulation, and he wishes there were greater balance in the television commentary programs. Bias is profitable, he notes.

“Where is the show with people who have different suggestions talking with one another? I do think at times the media business is not helpful; it just reinforces opinions.”

Referring to the current political divide, he observes: “For starters, I’m not a fan of the blanket political labels, conservative/liberal. We all can be better.

“In the realm of social justice, conservatives get wholly painted as intolerant, just as we tend to overlook the arrogance in people who consider themselves liberal and believe they are completely right. Guess what? No one gets a hall pass here. Holier than thou is not effective in this climate. When the only counter-argument is ‘I’m right,’ we get nowhere.”

When he teaches his course, he stresses the importance of communication. “How you say things and present things matters. You have to have a message and tell stories to engage the listeners.”

For example, he discusses the impact of newspaper racial bias, citing a Huffington Post article that underscored how “white suspects and killers often get positive media spins, while black victims get more negative spins. Words truly matter,” he emphasizes. He also brings in both conservative and liberal views because he feels we all need more measured perspectives.

Is it ever helpful to call someone a racist? “Probably not,” he says. “Some people may be beyond repair. But there are ways to approach others.” When he hailed a cab in Washington, DC, to go to the Washington Nationals Stadium and the driver said, “I don’t know where that is,” he responded: “It’s 2018; you have a GPS.” But, he acknowledges, you have to assess the threat. “I do dive into things that aren’t comfortable—when I’m in a safe space.“

Glanville speaks of the different types of energy required to make the societal changes we need: marching, organizing, people working on policy—all of which he calls “slow work.”

We need both community development and social action, he stresses—“to understand how the game is played, how the system works, at the same time that we challenge the systemic issues needing bold change.”

And then, “It starts at the ballot box,” finding leadership that help us heal as a people and address hate, “but not with armed guards.” He underscores the importance of legislatively backing up the words on those pieces of paper with action.

Acknowledging the abuses in our history concerning the vote—the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and lack of follow-through in behalf of people of color—he points hopefully to the newly elected class of Congress: “There is something to be said about having people more representative of our country. It matters to get into the room, to be engaged in the process to make the system more fair and representative.”

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that we’re in challenging times. To Glanville, the challenges provide everyone with “the opportunity to be their better self for the collective good. We must think about the positive things and organize around them. We must find ways to be constructive.”

Please let me know your response to Doug Glanville’s challenging ideas and hopeful message. Can you relate to them? Do they encourage you to act? Do they generate stories or ideas from your own life? I am eager to hear from you.

Annie

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