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    Sunday
    Jan252015

    How Schools Enable Income Inequality

     

    Years ago television options were few and there was no easy way to skip through commercials. As a result we watched them; many were tiny pieces of visual art, sometimes shocking us, sometimes pulling at heartstrings.

    One in particular has always resonated for me. It was an ad for Cracker Jack, that caramelized popcorn-and-peanut treat (“Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts, and a prize! That’s what you get with Cracker Jack!) starring the talented character actor Jack Gilford and a small gap-toothed boy. The spot shows Gilford sitting in a living-room chair reading the newspaper and eating Cracker Jack. As he hears the boy, playing son to Gilford’s father, return home from school, Gilford quickly tucks the candied treat inside the paper and forces a noncommittal expression onto his face. The boy walks up to his father and leans slightly forward. When Gilford asks the boy what he learned in school that day, the boy, with a subtle grin, replies, “Sharing….” Gilford puts on the awkwardly guilty expression he was so famous for, and tries to shift the topic, asking instead if the boy played any games in school that day. The boy nods and says “Yep.” Gifford asks what kind of games, to which the boy again replies, “Sharing….” At this point Gilford reluctantly pulls out the large box of Cracker Jack and hands it to the boy, who starts to walk away before Gilford himself asks the boy, “Sharing?” The boy turns and pours some into Gilford’s open hand.

    The reason the ad (which won the Gold Lion award at Cannes’ Festival for Creativity) resonates so strongly is not only because of its warm familial approach. It resonates also for pointing out something we all knew as children but somehow seem have forgotten as adults: the power in sharing.

    And how badly have we forgotten about sharing? As of this moment, the United States has an income inequality gap that is wider than any time since 1928. That’s 87 years!  There are currently only three other countries with income gaps worse than ours: Turkey, Mexico, and Chile.

    We just don’t like, apparently, to share money. And why don’t we like to share? Blame it on our educational system, which spends years training us not to share.

    And how has that happened? Well, funny you should ask….

    One of the things you were taught quite early on was that it wasn’t right to hog the toys you loved most. If other kids also wanted to play with those same items, you either had to take turns or learn to play together, sharing both the toys and the experience. This sharing wasn’t just a nicety but an imperative, part of our quickly developing moral compass.

    Well before you reached kindergarten, it’s likely that you had some exposure to the “rightness” of sharing. Perhaps you had a sibling or a cousin close in age that you played with frequently. If so, your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles probably all told you more than a few times that you needed to “play nice” with someone or to let “your little sister take a turn.” Sharing is what we were told to do, what we were expected to do, and what we needed to do. Sharing, we were told in many different ways, is a cultural norm.

    Combined with that cultural norm was another, equally powerful, norm that we were all taught: the norm for being independent, for “standing on your own two feet,” for “being responsible for your actions.” If we drew with crayons on the wall, or left a muddy palm print on the kitchen cabinets, or found ourselves standing next to a younger brother crying and holding his arm in pain, we always heard the same thing: “Did you do that?”

    On the surface, these two imperatives—sharing and independence—don’t seem in conflict. Sharing with others doesn’t in any way mean that we are not being responsible; one could argue, perhaps, that the opposite is true, that sharing is a way of being responsible by helping others to learn, play, work, etc.

    But then we graduated from kindergarten into the mainstream environment of our elementary grades, and slowly the ideas of sharing and independence slip into competition, as if you can’t really do one and be the other. And it’s this dichotomy that continues into our adult lives.

    It begins very early, during the time we transition from a sharing-based play/learn environment to a more learning-centric environment in school. As we move through the grades, each progressive world we are led to relies more on individual measurement, usually in the form of grades. We are tested on what we know.

    In elementary school there is still a fair amount of sharing—working on various projects together in art or history or music,  for example—but we also experience our first tests. We learn about “A” through “F.” We understand—and very quickly—that we are expected to learn as individuals and to report what we’ve learned, also as individuals. We understand—and very quickly—that what is required of us is independence, and that this has somehow become the opposite of sharing, of working together, of jointly succeeding. No longer is there value in three or four of us constructing something interesting out of a pile of block; we may still engage in those kinds of activities, but the real value is within us, alone, and measured in red pencil marks.

    As we move through the latter half of elementary school and on into middle school and high school, we become less and less connected with classmates. We are reminded that our work is our work and, slowly, what used to be sharing is given a new name: cheating.  And cheating overrides everything. Cheating comes with a penalties. Worst of all, cheating becomes, in this artificial environment, synonymous with sharing. If you share with others or have others share with you, you're a cheater. Period.

    For the years and years spent in K-12 environments, this lesson endlessly repeats: you can only “share” so much before it’s considered too much, before it’s considered cheating. It’s the way we were trained, and the way we still (for the most part) train others within our educational systems.

    For those of us who go on to college, that training becomes even more intense. Now you’re not just going to be graded on what you know, you’re also going to be graded on what other people don’t know.

    It’s called the curve, and it means, simply, this: Too score well, to get a good grade, you must be better than the average within your class. Inherently that means that you must know more than other people around you in order to truly succeed, and so for these four years of baccalaureate pursuit, you will be further trained to hold on to what knowledge you acquire, to resist the urge to share anything you’ve learned from all but you’re very closest companions—and even to those you share what you know with some reluctance (and generally in exchange for what they know that can help you).

    This experience, for many, is the point at which we become conditioned to believe that not sharing is the preferred cultural norm.

    And so we go off to live our lives. To marry, raise kids, join churches, have careers. And we look around at our country and we see the greatest income inequality since 1928. But those who have the most don’t do anything about it. No surprise. Those that have so much and don’t want to share? Well, they’re just doing what we taught them to.

     

    Sunday
    Jan182015

    An Apology to the Next Generation

    Every generation thinks it will do better than the last; every generation leaves something to be desired.

    Martin Flavin, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Journey in the Dark, has a character remark, on his return from World War II, that it was the older generation that caused the war, though it was his to fight. And it’s always that way. Always has been that way.

    Somehow, though, it seems worse this time, for this generation, for this legacy. And so I feel compelled to apologize—

    —for leaving so many of you to face weather disasters unknown since the dawn of time, with storms stronger, more frequent, more devastating. Each day the news begins and ends with the weather, the accidents, the downed power lines, the leveled houses. Meteorologists are the new Cassandras, ignored as she was.

    —for creating levels of hatred across religious and racial and economic lines not seen since the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, but with economic and political Sees replacing Rome, while drones and tanks replace steeds and swords.

    —for allowing illness, disease, and epidemic to regain its foothold on our children. In the interests of “freedom” we’ve ignored the needs of society as a whole, allowing an insane few to risk us all with their conspiracy theories and false “medicines.”­

    —for asking children to grow up too soon in a world where we’re convinced everything and everyone is dangerous. They can’t be sent out to play in the neighborhood, can’t be left alone in a department store’s toy section. Instead we buy them electronic games that encourage isolation, or smartphones that pretend communication.

    —for worshiping the golden calf of money and forgetting that it’s not a thing to own, but a tool to be used. With income gaps at rarely seen levels and money mythologized, we bequeath you the carousel without telling you the brass ring has long since been removed.

    —for leaving you with crumbling communities: streets and bridges and highways and buildings barely holding on, the burden left to you because we believed there would always be time to take care of things later.

    —for creating an instantaneous network of fear, and for marketing it as a product. Each day what passes for “news,” isn’t, replace instead by packaged, ratings-oriented fervor delivered by people who once wished to be journalists but have since been reduced to reading facile copy while presenting a YouTube video that millions have already seen and ignored.

    ­­—for building a war machine that is so entrenched in our economy that disabling it would be virtually impossible, creating economic chaos and throwing millions out of work.

    —for creating a culture that conflates a hunting rifle and an AR-15 and calls them the same thing, meant to serve the same purpose, and then collectively cowers to a lobby that is so powerful that nearly every single politician in America cares what they think.

    I could go on and on and on. Anomie, as we sadly know, is self-supporting….

    Most of all I want to apologize for letting science become an option, and for letting facts become opinions. For letting “education” and “intelligence” and “logic” become four-letter words. This last, it seems to me, is the worst of all.

    It’s our legacy. And we leave it to you.

     

    Photo courtesy of: / 123RF Stock Photo

    Tuesday
    Dec232014

    Profile of a Police Officer

    [Editor's Note: In the midst of all the ugliness, tragedy, point, and counterpoint risen from recent events, we have once again fallen into an "us-and-them" attitude, categorizing police as one or the other. In an unsettling irony, we've created a police line that we will not cross, and too many of us--regardless of which side of the line we're on--have become stubborn and set in our thinking. 

    Today's guest post by New Hampshire author Carrie Cariello reminds us of a truth that our emotions often allow us to forget: those serving as police are humans, with sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, friends, pastors, teachers, partners, wives, and husbands. They are not just like us. They are us. --MC]

     

    *****

     

    I happen to know a police officer. He’s forty two years old, and he is six feet, four inches tall.  He has blue eyes and sandy brown hair that he keeps very, very short. His name is John.

    One morning when John was about two, he was walking with his mother in the vegetable garden they had in their back yard. She warned him not to eat one of the ripe red peppers because they were spicy, but when she turned her back to him, he was overcome with temptation and took a bite of the shockingly hot flesh. He cried.

    He was a terribly shy boy. He hated having his picture taken, and in every school photo I have ever seen of him, he is tearstained.

    He didn’t love guns as a kid. He wasn’t a boy who fashioned everything he got his hands on—sticks or rolls of paper towels or Legos–into a homemade weapon. He was gentle and kind, watchful and quiet.

    He loved basketball. After school he stood in his driveway, dribbling and jumping and making shot after shot in the hoop that hung above his garage.

    He was about eight when his parents’ marriage disintegrated. Or, more accurately, exploded. It changed his life forever because both his mother and father expected so much more from him. Somehow, even though there were three children in the family, it was John who was caught in the crosshairs of their vicious divorce.

    They were hard on him, this young boy who was tall for his age.

    When he was about fifteen, he got a job bagging groceries at the store down the street, and later on, he worked as a groundskeeper in a cemetery. For some reason, the men he worked with called him Clarence.

    How do I know all of this about a 42-year old police officer?

    Well, I know because he is my brother.

    I wasn’t there for the pepper. I wasn’t born yet. It is a timeworn story my mother has retold over the years. I hadn’t thought about it in years—decades, even—and I remembered it one morning last spring, when I was walking through the wet, dewy yard with my 5-year old son, Henry, and our new puppy, Wolfie.

    Slowly, the three of us made our way around the house and onto our front porch. I sat on the porch swing, and Henry plopped down next to me and piled the pillows on his lap.

    “Come here,” I said, pulling Henry’s chubby body closer to mine. “I want to tell you a story, about a little boy named John. One morning, he was walking with his mother in the garden, and he saw a pepper that looked so delicious.”

    From that point on, it became sort of our routine, walking the puppy through the grass after my older kids got on the bus. And each time, Henry insisted we sit on the porch and share “stories.” Like me, he adopted the pepper memory as his own.

    “Mommy, wisten. I want to tell you a story. About the boy and his hottest pepper.”

    And like a moth to a sizzling hot fire, my mind is drawn to other memories, deeper, darker childhood scenes of humiliation and shame and rage. But just before I reach out a finger to touch the flame, my subconscious shrinks bank, and I’m left with only the smoky remnants of a spicy pepper.

    John went on to play varsity basketball. He played for the Dover Dragons, and his uniform was black and orange. Although he was never the most aggressive player, his height made him a natural at the sport.

    As a teenager, he made all of our birthday cakes; Duncan Hines golden vanilla with chocolate frosting.

    We were so surprised when our gentle giant of a brother decided on a career in law enforcement after college. Mild-mannered and calm, it was hard to picture him driving a patrol car and chasing criminals.

    But the day he crossed the stage and accepted his diploma from the Police Academy, I noticed something in his tender blue eyes. I noticed the way the memories of a father who accused him of being weak and a mother who begged for him to be stronger swirled together like a snowstorm, until the flakes settled into a combination of power and pride and love and commitment.

    I noticed how something that could have easily set him back instead propelled him forward.

    John is married now, and he has two tiny daughters—one blonde and one dark—and every night after work he dances with them and sings to them and laughs with them. He searches for the lost stuffed animal and coaxes them to bed with a book.

    He calls our younger sister Gertie, even though her name is Sarah.

    And our second son—our unusual boy on the autism spectrum—is named for my brother, although we’ve nicknamed him Jack in order to avoid confusion between nephew and uncle.

    Despite his shyness, John is one of the funniest people you will ever meet. He can imitate our parents with perfect timing, and he will surprise you with a joke so shocking–so wicked–that you almost fall out of your chair laughing.

    These days, his uniform is navy pants with a white shirt. He is one of the youngest to make Captain, and every once in a while you can see him on television, giving an interview on behalf of the department.

    His favorite meal is spaghetti and meatballs, and he loves Halloween.

    Maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you all this; random stories about vegetable gardens and nicknames and vanilla cakes.

    I am telling you as a way to honor the men and women who wear a uniform and serve, who put our lives and our safety ahead of their own. I pray for their safe return home every night and renewed strength every morning.

    I am telling you because to me, the message in this story is so strong. It is a message of rage and fear, compassion and change. I offer it to a nation that is divided and confused and maybe a little bit lost. It is all I have to give.

    But mostly, I am telling you because I want you to be able to put a name to the face of “cop.” His name is John. He has blue eyes and sandy brown hair that he keeps very, very short.

    He is a two-year-old biting into a fiery pepper on a warm summer morning, his eyes watering.

    He is the gangly boy in high school who grips an orange ball between his sweaty palms, closes his eyes, and takes a shot.

    He is a tall, reserved man who is gentle and kind and watchful and quiet. He is a husband and father, brother and son. He is patriotism and loyalty and security and freedom.

    He is a police officer.

    These days, it’s too cold to sit outside on our front porch. On Sunday morning the sky was cloudy, and sparkly snow flurries drifted in and around the swing’s faded cushions. So I sat on our red couch instead. I pulled my 5-year old close to me and whispered in his ear, “I want to tell you a story. About a boy who played basketball.”

    --Carrie Cariello

    Sunday
    Nov162014

    The Myth of Free-Market Health Care

    “9-1-1. Please state the nature of your emergency.”

    “My husband has just collapsed on the floor! He’s breathing funny and gripping his arm! I’m afraid he may be having a heart attack!”

    “Can you please describe the symptoms and what he was doing just prior to his collapse?”

    “He wasn’t doing anything! He’d been sitting and reading. Then he got up and walked into the kitchen and he just started feeling faint. He slumped to his knees, starting breathing erratically, clutched his arm, and worked himself down to the floor! He’s like that right now!”

    “What is the location of the emergency?”

    “We live at 555 Main Avenue!”

    “Thank you. We’ll send an ambulance right over.”

    “Uhhh…. Hold on just one second…. Is there more than one ambulance company?”

    “Excuse me?”

    “I know how important it is that we participate in our own health care decisions these days as a way to keep costs down for everybody. I just want to make sure I’m choosing the best alternative.”

    “I thought you said your husband was having a heart attack?”

    “I think he is, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be responsible about our health care decisions! Is there more than once ambulance provider in my area?”

    “I don’t know. We just use a central dispatcher. I assume they just send whomever is closest.”

    “Would you happen to have that number? I just want to check. Thanks.”

     

    *****

     

    “Central dispatch. Henry speaking.”

    “Hi, Henry. Hate to bother you, but my husband is having a heart attack and….”

    “Oh my God! Did you call 9-1-1?”

    “Yes, but they didn’t know which ambulances you use, so they sent me to you. I’m trying to make the most responsible health care decisions that I can. For myself and my husband.”

    “And you don’t think the most responsible decision for your husband is just to have an ambulance come right away and save his life!!???”

    “Well…. I used to think that, but apparently that’s not the way it works anymore. It’s a free market approach, as I understand it, and it’s up to me to be an informed consumer. So tell me, which ambulance services do you use?”

    “We use RightAway and AlwaysThere. Whichever one is closest is the one we send.”

    “I see. Do you happen to know what insurance plans they’re part of?

    “Excuse me?”

    “Well, it’s a big difference if I go in-plan or out-of-plan, so I’d like to know.”

    “I’m not sure. I guess… I guess you’d have to call your insurance carrier. But, ma’am, doesn’t your husband need an ambulance right now?”

    “He seems to be holding on.  I’ll check with my insurance carrier first, then get back to you.  Thanks.”

     

    *****

     

    “If you are calling regarding about making a payment, please press ‘1.’ If you are calling regarding types of coverage in your plan, please press ‘2.’ If you are a health care provider, please press ‘3.’ For all other calls, please press ‘4.’”

    [Beep]

    Your wait time is approximately…. four…. Minutes.

    [Pause]

    “Thank you for calling AllYourNeeds Insurance. How can I help you?”

    “I’d like to know if either RightAway or AlwaysThere ambulance services is in my health plan.”

    “Very good. I can certainly help you with that. May I have the first three letters of your plan ID?”

    “YGQ.”

    “Ahhh.  I see you’ve come through the National Health Care Exchange. You’ll need to talk to a different department. Let me give you that number.”

     

    *****

     

    “9-1-1. Please state the nature of your emergency.”

    “Yes. I called earlier? About my husband having a heart attack?”

    “You must have spoken with someone else. Did an ambulance arrive?”

    “Well, that’s just it. The person I spoke to wasn’t sure about which ambulance I should use, or which one was in my insurance plan. And I know it’s my responsibility to know these things because it’s a free market and everything and I’m supposed to be an informed consumer.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Anyway, I did find out what I needed to. AlwaysThere is in my plan, and I get 80% coverage to the nearest hospital provided it’s not more than 50 miles away, and if the hospital is also in my plan.”

    “So you haven’t had an ambulance yet??!??”

    “No.”

    “I’ll dispatch one right away!”

    “That’s okay. It’s not really necessary anymore.”

     

     

    Artwork Copyright: unkreatives / 123RF Stock Photo

    Sunday
    Oct192014

    Voter ID Laws Redux: The Non-Problem That Just Won’t Go Away!

    Much of today’s post was actually written two years ago, about a month before the 2012 presidential election. (Hence the “redux” in the title.) But we have a problem that just won’t go away, and so it seems an update is timely.

    Though I know I can sound like a broken record sometimes, certain points are worth making over and over again.  Here’s one of ‘em: some things are simply not about right and left, but about right and wrong.  This whole Voter ID “initiative” strikes me as one of those things and, sadly, as we come up to the very important 2014 mid-terms, the problem deserves center stage once more.

    How prevalent is the issue still? Here are two examples:

    A few years back I was a member of the Bedford Republican Club, a smallish but official group that meets monthly in the town’s library, and which I left because it had taken a decidedly extremist swing to the right. However, I’m still on the email list, and just yesterday received the minutes from their most recent meeting. The key topic that night? Voter fraud. Here are a couple of “facts” that were given to the audience by the speaker, Ed Naile, from the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers, a group that claims to be (and may actually be) “grassroots”:

    • Illegal immigrants have been caught voting in New Hampshire
    • Democratic legislators are “gutting our election laws” to make it harder to find these cases
    • Democrats are “rigging the election game” in North Carolina
    • The IRS is targeting voter-fraud activists

    None of these are substantiated other than through innuendo and convenient opinion, of course. But, Lord! do they get the blood boiling and the extremists to the polls!

    The second case is the SCOTUS decision regarding Texas, where the Supreme Court allowed to stand a federal judge’s ruling that election laws shouldn’t be altered so close to an election. The ruling means that identification will be required to vote in the upcoming mid-terms, a situation which Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says “means [that] hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in Texas will be unable to participate in November's election because Texas has erected an obstacle course designed to discourage voting."

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Every single eligible citizen should be allowed unhindered access to the voting booth. If your party cannot win on the merits of position and argument, then that’s your problem, not the problem of those people whom you are punishing through limited access to the polls.

    To be clear: I’m not against the fundamental concept of providing identification when you vote; I actually think it makes sense.  Back in 2006, when I first had occasion to vote in New Hampshire, I was surprised when I tried to hand my driver’s license to the poll volunteer (an elderly woman who liked to chat a bit if the line wasn’t too long). She waved it off with a cute little, “You don’t need that, honey.” (Seriously.  She said, “honey.”)

    I’d always used my ID to vote in the past, so I thought this was just one of those New Hampshire live-free-or-die things, an exception to the rule.  Turns out I was wrong.  All those years when I’d been handing over my license, the volunteers had apparently just been using it to check the spelling of my name.  It wasn’t a requirement at all. (Now it is, by the way. In New Hampshire, too, we’ve fallen for a well-told story….)

    Ah, but what if there’s no real purpose to it?  Just because something feels right doesn’t mean we should do it, particularly if it serves no purpose.  It’s sort of like bathing in Cool Whip. Perhaps the experience would be soft and refreshing, but if it doesn’t actually do anything, then why bother?

    If there’s no purpose, no real problem to be solved, then I’m just fine with this fundamental concept remaining just that: a concept.  It’s nice and all, but I’m okay with believing that an ID should be required yet also believing that there’s just no need for it.

    Unless, of course your problem is that you might lose.

    And that, apparently, is what the GOP continually fears: that those perfectly entitled, perfectly legal, voting citizens who just happen not to be Republicans are going to go vote. That the continual demographic shift (and concurrent demise of old, white Republicans) will eventually augur the death of any real conservative influence. And so a strategy aimed at disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters rolls across the landscape. It’s simply heinous. Abhorrent. Detestable. Loathsome. Vile. It makes me more embarrassed to be a member of the Republican Party than any single event in history—and that includes nominating Sarah Palin for veep.

    And let me just say that the arguments in favor of voter ID basically, well, suck.  Here are the two most common examples, just so you can see what I mean:

    • You have to have ID to buy a car, don’t you? Or to get a fishing license?  So why not an ID for something much more important, like voting?  The answer to that one is simple:  the Constitution doesn’t guarantee you the right to buy a car or go fishing. The Constitution doesn’t even guarantee you access to public lands.  The Constitution does, however, guarantee you the right to vote—and without obstruction.
    • But voter fraud is a real risk!  Don’t you know that there are thousands and thousands of dead people on the voter roles!  I love this one.  The first half of the objection is easily dismissed: there have been roughly a dozen or cases of voter fraud—a dozen—since 2000.  The second half is trickier, but quickly falls apart. Having a deceased person’s name on the registration list is only a problem if a) someone knows that the person’s name is there and b) someone decides to impersonate the dead person.  And it just ain’t happenin’.  What all those deceased people are actually doing is not voting.  That’s because they’re, well, deceased.  Where’s the fraud there? Sloppy bookkeeping, I’ll grant you.  But fraud?

    This battle, though it should be over, is not. So what can you do?  A few things:

    First, if you want to vote, don’t stay home.  That may sound overly simplistic, but it means making sure that you’re properly registered, that you have ID if you need it, and that you’re willing—if necessary—to put up with some inconvenience and delay in order to cast your ballot. And please, please, please, PLEASE vote! The phrase “important mid-term” is NOT an oxymoron. This election is a chance to set the stage for the remainder of Obama’s presidency and the 2016 elections. There are many, many qualified moderate Republicans running and many, many thoughtful Democrats. Go to the polls. Elect these people. Send the crazies home.

    Second, do not leave the polling station without voting.  Even if you are challenged, you can and must vote, even if it means using a provisional ballot, or signing an affidavit, or filling out a form in order to do so. And get the name of the person who challenged you.

    Finally, know your rights.  Visit www.866ourvote.org for up-to-the-minute information on voter ID issues, or contact them at 866-Our-Vote.  Don’t be afraid to call them straight from the polls if you need to—they will have staff ready to answer your questions and defend your rights. They have been and are still there for one reason only: Election Protection.

    Ultimately, though, it’s got to be about you.  This is your country, your right.  If you want it badly enough, then let nothing deter you.  And all of us should want it badly enough…