Shaken, Not Stirred

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” — James Branch Cabell

With apologies to James Bond for borrowing his famous tag line, I would say that despite the deep divide within our Congress today, when put into historical perspective it’s bad, but not historically bad.  We are shaken in our belief in the ability of the system to accomplish anything meaningful, but we are not stirred to action to undo it or, seemingly, to even vote for someone new.  It is however, no less frustrating that important, if not easy, issues get side-tracked over partisan political bickering.  (Of course like many of us that take to the internet to blog, I think that all right thinking people will agree with my view of things.)

Recent opinion polls rating Congressional job approval are abysmal with an average across five different polls of 15.8% approving and 76.2% disapproving of the job that our representatives in Congress are doing.  The President’s approval ratings are better (46%) but still historically lower than average for this point in a president’s term, at least since Gallup began polling in 1938.

But keep it all in perspective because we often forget as a nation that the absolute worst period in our history has to be the years leading up to and including the Civil War.  We may have a war of words in the political circles of our capital, but no one is talking about secession.  Or at least no one that the main stream citizenry takes seriously.

It wasn’t just the Civil War.  In the period immediately following our independence serious disagreements existed among our Founding Fathers as to how the country should be run.  Washington and Adams were Federalists with a distinct view of how government needed to operate to preserve our hard-fought independence.  The Republicans (a different flavor of political party in those days),  represented by Jefferson, avowed that as president he would undo nearly everything his predecessors had implemented in forming a new government and differed greatly on how it should operate.   (As with many politicians, reality set in once in office and he found that much of what took place before him could not, and should not, be undone without hurting the country more than the sting of  his distaste for some of their policies — also true today.)

When did this letter arrive at the White House?

“You have brought the government to the jaws of destruction. I do not undertake to say whether by supineness, timidity, or enthusiasm. The effect is certain.”

According to Jon Meacham in his award-winning biography of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power) those words were written in  February 1809 to the President as he was preparing to leave office.  There were more from people of many walks of life that were even more critical of his time in office.

Even our Founding Fathers found that politics in the United States is a full contact sport.  The nature of our democracy (often grossly misunderstood by adversaries past and present) is that we are a contentious people as we strive to make our country better.  Our history and current events support that view.

But, come on guys and gals.  Seriously.  I think you can do a lot better than 16%.

Is This A Turning Point?

Even though it has been over two weeks since the jury acquitted George Zimmerman of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the discussion about the trial continues in a variety of ways.

I do not intend to discuss the pros and cons of the trial process or what the jurors subsequently said of their deliberations or any of the legal issues at stake.  The bottom line (or lines) remains the same.  A young man is needlessly dead.  The trial was, by all accounts, fair and conducted in a professional manner.  The verdict stands.  Two families’ lives have been changed forever.

What I initially struggled to understand was the role that race may or may not have played in the emotional reactions that followed the trial.  Followers on both sides were passionate in their reactions, but clearly this touched a raw nerve in the African-American community.  And I didn’t quite get it.  I got that some people disagreed with the verdict and thought (rightly or wrongly) that Mr. Zimmerman “got away with murder.”  That would definitely create an impassioned reaction.  But the intense reactions across nearly the entire political and socio-economic spectrum of African-Americans told me that there was more to it than that.

What helped me to understand why the African-American community saw this as one more time that the justice system let them down came from an unlikely source — the President of the United States.  President Obama’s unexpected remarks at the White House on 19 July was my “now I get it” moment.  I thought his remarks were fair — he didn’t question the trial or its outcome — and helped to put into perspective what many African-Americans experience in their daily lives and, as he said, the context within which those reactions are formed.  In my view, he did it in a facts-of-life kind of way without placing direct blame on one portion of America or another.  He also acknowledged that statistics show that young black males are more likely to have some contact with law enforcement, sometimes due to their own actions, but also sometimes because of where they happen to be or who happens to see them.

So back to the question at hand — is this a turning point in the discussion about race in our country?  Can we move forward from this and have a real discussion about the causes of the intense feelings on both sides of the issues?  Actually talk and more importantly, listen and see where common ground exists?  The answer:  a weak “I don’t know.”  I’m not particularly convinced that this will be a turning point — or at least a turning point where anything dramatically changes.  Things are changing — as the President and others rightly pointed out — and changing for the good of all Americans.  But that doesn’t mean that the work is finished.

Discrimination in this country exists.  It is unreasonable to pretend that it doesn’t.  Everyone of us likely has  been discriminated against at one time or another — it’s basic.  Life isn’t fair.  It may have been racial discrimination, or gender based discrimination, or maybe based on religion, or perhaps our social or economic status.  It happens.  It doesn’t make it right — it just is.  And that may be where some of us come from when we claim that other groups are “playing the race card” or are being “politically correct” or “over reacting” or whatever.  We think we know what’s going on because of our own experiences.  But to state the obvious, we don’t know unless we’ve lived it.  As someone close to me pointed out, subtle discrimination plays out in quiet and perhaps even (sometimes) unconscious ways.  The problem is not necessarily what happens or who it happens to, it is a matter of the frequency that an individual experiences discriminatory behavior.  How is it conveyed that they are “not one of us?”  This, I believe, is the point of the President’s remarks, the “context” that he talked about.  It’s not that it happened to him, it’s that it happened a lot and over and over.  It was a fact of daily life and it altered his (and others) behavior in ways that most of us have never experienced.

And now I get it.  Or at least I get it a little bit more.

The Royal Baby

Okay, honestly?  I never thought I would comment on anything that has to do with the royal family, much less comment on anything of the entertainment news variety, barring some modern-day crisis.  But all of the excessive coverage aside, I noticed something watching the evening news.  Prince William is just like any other new father.  Not exactly earth shattering news, but let me explain.

Note: Before I go any further I have to assure my “old salt” seagoing friends that I am not talking about THAT Royal Baby — the one that all of us trusty Shellbacks know about.

What I mean is that like any new father I’ve ever seen, this one included back in the day, Prince William holds his baby son like his (William’s) life depends on it.  Take a look at the video (it’s everywhere!) and notice the wrestling envelope hold that he puts on that poor child when Kate hands it over.  Moms never use that hold — there is something much more natural about the way that they hold a newborn than the dads do.  Probably something in the genes.  Dad’s aren’t afraid of the child, they are afraid they’ll drop it or do some other hideous thing through no fault of their own.

And no, I’m not going to talk about new age fathering or which sex is better suited to be a better parent or any of that.  I just thought it was interesting to see and it occurred to me that I’ve seen it many times before.

And let’s give the guy some credit.  His first time in public with his wife and new son, and the whole world (seemingly literally from all the media coverage) is watching and critiquing his every move.  He got the baby in the car seat (check!), buckled him into the car (check!), in the back seat (check!), put the bags in the trunk (okay, the boot) (check!) — all the right moves.  And better yet, after all that concentration and serious attention to detail, he didn’t drive off and leave Kate standing on the sidewalk.  Well done Captain Wales.

Keeping Some Perspective

As a news junkie, especially political developments and political opinion pieces, it is sometimes easy for me to lose my perspective on just what is really important. When we are able to keep things in the right context, the news of the day over some political maneuver or another is really quite unimportant in the larger scheme of things. And sometimes it is just as important to remember how lucky we are to be living in the good ol’ US of A.

This was brought home to me yet again on Sunday night while watching a piece on the CBS news program 60 Minutes.

Sunday night the program re-visited the “Lost Boys of Sudan” 12 years after the original report on their travails. The segment sought to catch up with the many young men airlifted to the United States to find out how they are getting along after living in the United States for many years. The catch-up piece originally aired on 31 March 2013 and was re-aired last Sunday (21 July). You may remember the lost boys — the roughly 5.000 children that left Sudan during that country’s murderous civil war to walk nearly 1,000 miles over the course of five years to refugee camps in Kenya. Extraordinary. And heart-breaking — their stories are incredible and many did not survive the journey.

What struck me was their unfailing optimism and faith that things would work out. In particular during the piece, one of the boys (now all men) was asked about how he and the others could keep going against such overwhelming odds. With a smile on his face, he replied that even though people called them the “lost boys” he knew that he wasn’t lost because God knew where he was. Even today, despite the fact that not every one of those airlifted to the United States was successful in his life here, all of those interviewed in the piece were uniformly optimistic and eternally grateful for the opportunity to come to our country.

Their story reminded me of my time in the naval service in the early 1980’s operating in the South China Sea (map) on transits between the Philippines and the Indian Ocean. On several different occasions we came upon single boatloads of Vietnamese refugees adrift at sea. Entire extended families and friends would load up a small boat (usually a wooden junk about 40 feet or so in length with 40 or 50 people of all ages and both sexes) and set out to sea in the hopes that a US Navy ship or a friendly merchant captain would spot them and pick them up. Many did not make it and are presumed lost at sea. Not every merchant captain was keen to pick them up either as it could become a significant bother to take care of them and because of the need to divert to an acceptable harbor to drop them off. Some of the ship’s Masters just looked the other way and kept going. Many did the right thing. US Navy ships always stopped — when we saw them. I often wonder how many we inadvertently passed in the night or in poor weather because we simply did not see them. (Small wooden boats don’t show up well on radar and in that part of the world there are nearly always numerous small fishing boats at sea so, without a visual cue, those on watch would have no idea that they were passing someone in need.)

Remember that the open sea is very much like the wasteland that the lost boys crossed — very little chance of getting food or water except what you bring with you. And like the lost boys, they were beset by many dangers stretching from terrible weather to pirates that would board the boats and take whatever (and whomever) they wanted with them. When we would find the refugee boats — and I need to point out that our mission was not to look for them, we would come across them purely by chance — they would be so grateful that it was gut wrenching. They had literally nothing, yet were indescribably happy knowing that they now had a chance at a better life.

Like some of the lost boys, some of those Vietnamese refugees made it to the United States. In my later years in the service, Sailors would report for duty on my ships that were Vietnamese and of an age and background where it was possible that I and my shipmates, or others like us, picked up their parents or even they themselves as children at sea those many years ago.

I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone to leave their homeland like those in Sudan and to set off on a walk of unknown duration, or to put my family in a boat and head out to sea knowing that if the right ship did not find us, we would all perish. They had no way of knowing that they would survive, much less dare to hope that someday they would make it the USA. Yet, they all remained positive, put their faith in a higher power and are eternally grateful for what help they got along the way.

What a powerful statement about the hopeful and determined nature of mankind and a testament to the basic humanity that knows no racial, national or ethnic boundaries that so many of us exhibit when given the chance. What a powerful lesson about our nation and how lucky we truly are to be citizens in this land. Sometimes we just need to keep things in the right perspective.

This Is Your Life

Have you ever had your life flash before your eyes? I have. Well not exactly “flash” if that means you are in danger and in an instant you remember all the things that you’ve done and should have done.

My “flash” took place over the course of about a week. And I wasn’t in danger. Let me explain.

I’m a hoarder. Not the kind that will ever get his own reality show or that you will read about in the morning paper when the police finally have to knock down my door to save me from myself. No. I’m the kind that collects files, especially personal files such as bills, cancelled checks, receipts that go with tax returns, that kind of thing. Oh. And notes and cards. And maybe key pieces of paper from volunteer Boards and Committees that I’ve served on. I’ve learned that there is really nothing that doesn’t come back around again and it helps to not have to re-invent everything every time. If I throw it away I’ll probably need it. (And please remember that I’m sooooo 20th century.) But sooner or later, reality — not a TV show, but the real thing — catches up to you and you realize that those cancelled checks from 1980 probably aren’t necessary anymore.

So I decided to clean out old files and get rid of everything. Well almost everything, some things you really do need to keep for future reference. Realizing that this is the 21st century and that much of it can and will be used against me if found by the wrong person, I needed to shred everything that I was throwing away. You would be surprised what additional personal information was collected in the “old” days before everything was automated and you could actually rely on the neighborhood banker or business not to sell your information.

Shredding checks takes a long time and is terribly boring as well. As a result, I actually started looking at specific pieces of what I was shredding. A big mistake, I know, efficiency experts really would not approve. What I found was that the events of my adult life could be traced by those checks. Who they were made out to and where they were written sent me careening down the road of my past. Fortunately, it was about 98% positive. But it was all there. Courting and marrying my wife. Establishing our first home. The travels that we took. Moving around the country as job requirements dictated. The birth of my son. The many schools that he attended and the subsequent school events we supported. Dealing with reliable child care or after school care. Sports (his and mine). Family vacations. Splurges. All of it there and it was an amazing, untapped, unknown accounting of nearly every key event in my life.

A mind-numbing process as much as could ever be turned into a pleasant and nostalgic review of the highlights of my life so far. A surprise and a lesson in taking in and enjoying the little tasks that pop up with unexpected treasures.

Welcome to My Blog

This is the start of a new blog — mine. Some might say that the world is already saturated with blogs — perhaps. But given that there is really nothing new under the sun, a blog isn’t much more than an open letter to anyone that cares to read it. The real value of a blog — at least I hope this one — is a chance to articulate one’s views on a variety of issues and have them tested by others with an interest in the topic whether or not they share the same viewpoint.

So, why this blog? Primarily because I have things to say, observations to make, and points to bring home that I think are important in my life. Perhaps you, the reader, will agree or disagree but we may both grow a bit in our outlooks and thoughts and we may even come to change our views.

So, what is this blog about? Just about everything. I have a wide background and have been fortunate in my life to experience and see a large swath of things that make life interesting. I’m sure that like most bloggers, over time I’ll find that my posts focus on a particular topic, but to begin I hope to make observations (with luck, including a bit of humor) on sports, families, neighborhood foibles, cultural developments, politics and whatever else defines our lives today.

Here we go on another most excellent adventure. I hope that we both enjoy it.