I usually create a Hall of Infamy for my last column of the year. This year I realized what an almost impossible task that was unless I had a book length space to fill. Otherwise I would surely do a disservice to some worthy idiot who annoyed us all in 2012.
The Republican nominees for president alone could take up veritable Dickens’ length chapters detailing their idiocy, bumble footedness, ineptness and inability to not say something so horribly insensitive that it left most of America looking dazed and confused.
Of course, the candidates at least were paying their own way to one extent or another. People or corporations…. oops, that’s a redundancy, isn’t it? Corporations are people, god bless their gold plated souls. At any rate, if you were a candidate, the people backing you financially were people who actively made the choice to throw their good money away on your candidacy. At least the money was used to maintain the trappings of democracy in America.
On the other hand, the US Congress is paid through our tax dollars and I, for one, would like us to have an annual evaluation done on its performance with any future paychecks tied to actually getting better than an F minus as a grade. Because this Congress seems to have truly pulled out all the stops in trying to be the most useless and pathetic group of people sucking on the public teat since Reagan’s welfare mom picking up her check in a Cadillac.
But all others paled in comparison to the NRA, which recently announced that the way to protect our children from gun violence in schools is to have armed guards at all schools. Isn’t that how they do it in Afghanistan to protect girls who want an education? I thought we were trying to teach them our way of doing things. Instead, we are being told that the answer to gun violence is more guns. Schools should start looking like armories, guarded forts keeping out crazies with semi automatics.
What a great lesson for our school children. They might as well learn from kindergarten that in America, they are not safe anywhere because guns are everywhere. So their school isn’t safe. Their church isn’t safe. Their grocery store isn’t safe. Their movie theaters aren’t safe. If they’re lucky, that armed guard will get off a warning shot before the killer with body armor and an assault rifle takes him or her out. Because unless we arm these guards as though they are in an active combat zone, they are next to useless against someone dressed for battle.
I recently went to a local cheese store in town to pick up what was to be my contribution to Christmas Eve dinner. I stood there in front of a counter full of cheeses and various salamis and the aroma of it all brought me right back to 6 North Mississippi Avenue in Atlantic City, right back to my father’s grocery store, right back to the aromas of hanging provolone and dried salamis and sliced prosciutto. There were guns in that neighborhood, though I didn’t know it at the time. My mother was very careful to keep all knowledge of street life from us.
I walked into our grade school every morning fearing nothing more than disappointing the nuns who taught us and, by extension, disappointing my mother and father. I never once had a drill in which I practiced hiding from bad men with guns. Ok, I did spend an inordinate amount of time in the hallway with my hands over my head to protect me from nuclear attack, but honestly, I was only vaguely aware of what a nuclear attack even was.
Our kids deserve schools in which they are safe. And if that means that adults have to give up assault weapons and clips that fire hundreds of rounds without reloading, then so be it. No, it’s not a complete solution. But it’s a start. And it beats hell out of armed guards at every door at every school in this nation as though we are a nation under siege from ourselves.
So despite the wealth of nominees available for induction into the Hall of Infamy this year, I think the NRA deserves that honor all by itself. Congratulations.
I’ve been staring at a blank page for about thirty minutes. It’s supposed to contain a happy holiday column but somehow the happiness eludes me. For starts, I realize that simply using the term “Happy Holidays” is fraught with danger. Despite the fact that for many of us it represents a cheerful greeting to friends of all persuasions, to others it apparently represents some sort of war on their religion.
Given that the radio station my birds listen to all day has been playing nothing but Christmas music since the day after Thanksgiving, I’d suggest that those folks not waste their energy on a war they won a long, long time ago. I suggest that they use a little of that Christian charity so often spoken about during this season to acknowledge the legitimacy of other celebrations happening at the same time. Perhaps they can view the phrase “Happy Holidays” as a way of offering people observing those other celebrations cheerful wishes.
Of course, that massacre of innocents in Newtown last week also casts a long and heavy shadow. It could be viewed as a chance for those children to enter heaven while still young, pure and free of sin. But that’s hardly a comfort to families looking at already wrapped presents under a tree that will never be unwrapped by eager little hands. Although spirituality can help through times like this, nothing really fills the holes left by an assault rifle in the hands of someone lacking all reason, compassion, compunction and humanity.
That, of course, leads to the next most heated debate after the one over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays. I’m referring to the debate over gun control or, as some might term it, sensible firearm legislation. There are the people who will argue that if the teachers had been armed, they could have protected the children better. Of course, anyone even slightly familiar with guns and body armor know how ludicrous it is to think that a teacher with a handgun could take down a shooter with assault weapons dressed in body armor. Unless, of course, you are talking about arming our teachers like we arm our Special Forces.
On the other hand, the shooter’s mother, an apparently respected middle-aged woman, owned the guns that the shooter used. Under almost any law in which assault rifles could be bought, she would have qualified to buy them. So gun control would not have kept him from those weapons. On the third hand, if all assault weapons were banned, would only criminals own assault weapons? It’s about here that my brain goes into a painful freeze that can only be undone by holding my two dogs tightly and rubbing my forehead on their soft fur.
The last little bit of holiday cheer I possessed ran screaming from my body when I read that the pope thought this was a good time to mention that same sex marriage is an abomination and threatens all of civilization. Ho! Ho! Ho! There is nothing that keeps the milk of human kindness flowing more during this season than the pope pointing out that as far as he’s concerned, gay people are the cause of the downfall of humanity. I’m sure it’s exactly what Jesus would have said had he ever said anything on the topic.
So yeah, trying to come up with something positive to write this holiday season has been all but impossible, except for one thing. On Christmas Eve I’ll have dinner with a pretty amazing family. Not my family but amazing nonetheless. And I’ll speak to my sister who will be spending the holiday with a friend who has been her BFF since kindergarten. And I’ll call my brother who will be with the whole crazy group who are actually my blood relatives back East. And then on Christmas Day, I’ll eat dinner at a family table with two members of the greatest generation, the generation that simply did not know how to give up no matter what the odds.
With all the sadness and pain that this holiday season brings, those of us lucky enough to still be surrounded by love and family should be very grateful for what we have. God knows the recent past has shown us that it can all be lost in an instant.
I recently spent two days in New York City remembering why is was the greatest city in the world for my youth and the worse city in the world for my extremely advanced middle age. If you want to really know what feeling out of place is like, go into Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue in New York City wearing your $15 winter coat from Value Village and your lovely aqua wool gloves and sweat suit from Costco. The entire time I wandered around the various display cases I could feel the eyes of the security guards on me.
It’s not something I ever thought I’d be suggesting. But I am. If you want to experience the true spirit of Christmas, and the true extent to which the human spirit can rebound from any depth, then go to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center this Saturday and listen to the Women’s Prison Orchestra.
This will be the first year in many that I will miss the concert because I won’t be in town. Between missing the Nutcracker and this, I’m not sure how I’ll ever generate any Christmas spirit this holiday season. Because all the lights and canned music and wrapped presents and eggnog do not do for me what this concert at Hiland Mountain does. As far as I’m concerned, it’s where the true spirit of the season resides.
The women who fill this orchestra are not all innocent victims, no matter what their lawyers are saying in their appeals. Some have done very bad things and will be there a very long time. Others are victims of circumstance that left them with what they perceived as no other choice but to break the law. Some were abused and some came from good homes. What they all have in common is daily life inside a prison where their every move is monitored and their future can look as grey as the winter sky.
I’m not really a music person. Ten years of piano lessons left me no nearer being able to play than the average person trying to sound out the notes to Chopsticks. While I’m usually enthralled by the violin or cello, I can go days and weeks without any music except for the oldies playing on the radio I keep on for the birds. I don’t own an iPod or home music system. Probably the only music I really enjoy is that which accompanies ballet or modern dance.
So the first time I was invited to go to this Christmas concert, I went because it seemed to support a little beauty and joy in a place that can be woefully short of both, especially during the holiday season. That I enjoyed myself as much as I did was not necessarily due to the level of music being played as much as it was due to the faces of the women playing that music. You could tell at a glance that for just a little while they were far away from the drab reality of their everyday lives.
This year the orchestra is celebrating an amazing first. Sarah Coffman, who began with the orchestra as all the others have while serving time, will return to play with it again. But this time she truly will return, not just in the sense of a return performance, but in the very real sense of someone who did her time and was released. She is coming back on her own to continue to participate in an activity that clearly has great meaning to her. Meaning enough to cause her to voluntarily walk back through those doors that once shut so firmly on her freedom.
Every Saturday Coffman returns for rehearsals despite the fact that she has established herself outside those walls and now has a life with little resemblance to the one that got her incarcerated in the first place. She walks back through those doors and takes her seat with her former fellow inmates and plays the viola. She spends her Saturdays practicing for this concert because this concert holds meaning for her. Perhaps more importantly, she clearly realizes the great meaning it holds for those still behind closed doors.
It sometimes seems as though rehabilitation gets lost in the miasma of punishment in our penal system. Society gets so caught up in getting its eye for an eye that it forgets the corollaries of mercy and forgiveness. If there is ever a season when those qualities should be remembered, it has to be this one which celebrates the birth of a man who walked with prostitutes and forgave criminals with his dying breath.
So get your tickets while you can. This concert has become so popular they now have to have two shows. Both shows are on December 8 and tickets can be obtained at http://www.artsontheedge.org. Trust me, you’ll be missing one of this season’s premiere events if you don’t.
Across from my sister’s house sit two white trucks. Emblazoned on their sides is the sign, “Boos – Cleaning, Hauling and Demolition”. Welcome to New Jersey post Sandy.
It’s morning and the sun is shinning so brightly I’ve had to lower the blinds to see the computer screen. The weather is just about perfect. Sixty degrees. Cool breeze blowing off the bay. Birds from the preserve across the bay flying overhead. If it weren’t for the constant sound of hammering, trucks and men at work, even on a Sunday, you’d be hard pressed to believe that Sandy roared through this island just a few weeks ago.
I wondered as I traveled here for the holiday what I would find. Interestingly, as you walk the streets of these quiet little beach communities, you’d never know that anything untoward had happened. From the outside most houses look intact. There’s an occasional water line visible but not that often. Windows are where windows should be. Doors are where doors should be. The sand that overwhelmed the streets and sidewalks has mostly been returned to the beaches.
Look a little closer, though, and you see that most buildings have huge dumpsters in front of them filled with trash bags. Some have a whole life strewn on their front lawn, from beds to bureaus to children’s toys and cribs. The water damage so invisible from outside is clearly present inside.
My sister’s friend walks with me and discusses the fun of getting to know FEMA personally as she addresses the flooding of a low room in her house. She’s already dealt with insurance over the two cars that were destroyed by the saltwater and sand that rose all over the island. But she’s still one of the lucky ones. She’s replacing one room, not an entire house. Her mementoes and memories sit safely atop her tables and in her drawers, not out on the street soggy and ruined.
Most of these low lying coastal communities first boomed as homes for city folk wanting to enjoy the beach in summer. There were few building regulations in place then. Enduring storms and the damage they could bring was a danger you accepted as the price for living so near the ocean; the price paid for getting out of the city in the hot sweltering summers; the reward of the American dream for working hard and not spending frivolously.
Over time those regulations changed. If you build or renovate now, you are required to build up and off the land. The open space under your house is there for many reasons but mostly to allow flooding to swirl around and through your piece of the shore without getting into your house.
Those homes that were built up survived Sandy with little water damage. Those planted solidly on the ground didn’t.
Thanks to insurance and FEMA, most will be able to salvage their homes in one fashion or another and rebuild or renovate as needed. Which, of course, leads to the inevitable question of whether that should be done at all. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of rising ocean levels, would it not make more sense to relocate these homes a safer distance from the sea?
But relocation is a disruptive and discombobulating occurrence, even if it’s only your summer home being moved. People get attached to their little piece of paradise. I once watched the North Slope Borough try to buy out some homeowners on the bluffs over the Chukchi Sea that were eroding at a rapid rate. Where once there had been enough land behind them for a road, now pilings hung in midair.
Yet despite the offer to move them to lots inland that would be twice the size of the land they had left, none of the homeowners would sell. This was their land. This was their lot. This was their home. They were not going anywhere unless their houses literally fell into the sea.
Given the economy generated by summer tourism and beachfront property, I’d have to guess that even Chris Christie, despite riding a wave of goodwill over his handling of the storm that has shot his favorability rating up almost 20%, is not going to be able to accomplish this. So as the debate continues over the wisdom of rebuilding, the work of rebuilding continues.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I get to eat a wonderful meal with my family without the stress of gift shopping first. No trying to guess if Junior wants some specific video game that makes you blush to pick up. No attempt to figure out if Sissy wears see through tops that also make you blush. Nope, just a wonderful day of overindulgence in food followed by tryptophan induced naps.
This year I’m spending the holiday with my East Coast family. Given the devastation that Sandy created, I’m very grateful to have everyone in one piece with homes that, if damaged, can be repaired. We have two new family members to celebrate, two little babies to be passed from one loving set of arms to another as everyone proclaims them the most perfect baby girls ever. Our table will groan with traditional dishes, new age dishes and family favorites from the many different families that now make up one.
There will be a lot of laughter despite the recent losses we’ve suffered. This will be the first Thanksgiving without any Zeccardi elders. I guess my generation now comprises the elders since the generation above us has moved on to a different feast in a different location.
Laughing has always come easily in my family because many of us are blessed with a sense of the absurd and refuse to let those who are not take control of the conversation. Tears may occasionally be shed and sadness permeates the table as we realize that some familiar faces will never be there again. Those moments tend to fade quickly as we laugh over the wonderful and insane memories of them we’ve banked over the years.
We miss Aunt Adeline but find it hard to stay sad while recalling the story of the time she baked the dish towel in the turkey, thus creating a Thanksgiving dinner that had everything but turkey. Apparently when you cook a dish towel in a turkey for four hours, the dish towel tends to infuse the otherwise mouthwatering taste of the meat. No amount of prompting convinced our uncles that hot dogs were a good substitute. It was the one and only time Aunt Adeline was allowed to host Thanksgiving.
Of course, that didn’t stop her from bringing her very own sensibility to other Thanksgiving dinners. You haven’t really tasted cranberry sauce unless you tasted her homemade version of it. She didn’t like sugar or sweet things. So she made cranberry sauce without any sweetening agent at all. It gave a whole new meaning to the word “pucker”.
I remember childhood Thanksgivings with my father making his Clams Casino for appetizers. This wasn’t the Clams Casino you order in restaurants. This was his special recipe Clams Casino. They would come out of the broiler and onto the table and the hardest part of the whole meal was waiting for them to cool enough to slam down. My mother would hover around the periphery of the table telling people to slow down because she’d cooked a turkey and they had to save room for that too.
If I had one wish for the world on Thanksgiving it would be that everyone could have their own wonderful memories. And, even more, that they would be sitting down at dinner with family and friends, continuing to create even more wonderful memories. I would wish that everyone had a day full of laughter and love ahead of them that would start their holiday season off on just the right note.
But we all know that’s not reality. There are a lot of people for whom this day is just another one to survive, whether in the streets, in jail or in a soup kitchen. Memories are all they have, if they even have that, of the wonderful time this day can be. We should all spend a moment thanking whoever we believe in for giving us so much. And we should ask that those who have so little will be able to know even a scintilla of the happiness we enjoy and, all too often, take for granted.
The holiday season is starting. While you’re fighting your way through the Black Friday crowds, remember to pick up a little something extra for those who have nothing. Bean’s can always use another turkey.
It’s over. No more lying ads. No more fake smiles. No more polls upon polls, each insisting the other poll is biased. No more giant heads – think Dick Morris, Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh – explaining to us how they won when they lost. No, for just a very brief and blessed moment, there will be silence.
I’m not hiding from reality here. I’m aware that the Twitter universe continues to abound in statements best suited for the trash heap, written by people best suited for that same destination. Think Donald Trump, a man whose borrowed and indebted millions still can’t seem to produce enough discernment in him to get a good haircut.
But generally speaking, the campaign that seemed to threaten to take over all existence on this earth from now until time immemorial is finished. And finished not in a raggedy, hanging chad kind of way. No, finished in a huge Electoral College majority kind of way. No recounts needed this time. No Supremes called upon to make the decision. The American people have spoken.
To my mind, what the American people said with this election was not that they identified with one party or another. Nor did they seem to espouse one philosophy over another, at least not on the national level. Individuality reigned supreme in a good way, proving once again that you should never assume you know what American voters will do in the privacy of that little booth.
What I heard the electorate say in this election was that the American public couldn’t be bought. No amount of money is going to convince them that an apple is a sneaker, no matter how slick and incessant the ads might be trying to prove otherwise. Americans seem to understand that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, they’ll put their money behind the concept that it actually is a duck.
This was the first campaign where the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court allowed unlimited money to flow into both state and national campaigns. It seemed as though reality took a second seat to what the people paying for those ads wanted to say and wanted us to believe. Over $2 billion was raised and spent on this effort. Facts became roadside kill, as the concept of “my facts versus your facts” took on a life of its own.
And it produced, for those most heavily invested in it, little to nothing. No matter how Karl Rove tries to spin it, he took $400 million and blew it with little to show in the end but a red face and sputtering explanation of how math facts aren’t really facts.
Yep, $2 billion later, we end up at the same place we started except for one outstanding fact – women and minorities have come into their own in America today and have found their voice and their vote. All four right wing Republican men with extremely interesting views on rape were defeated in states where Republicans otherwise won majorities. An openly gay woman was elected to the Senate. The majority of voters in multiple states approved gay marriage. And the call for sensible pot laws that would eliminate the resoundingly failed War on Drugs finally saw the light of day.
America was never a monolithic white society. Women and minorities have been here since the beginning of this great nation. But only with this election have we finally seen these groups assert their right to be equally seen and heard in this country. Granted, given that our population tends to be 50/50 male and female, it’s a stretch to claim that 20 women in the Senate is some historic moment of women’s equality, but it’s a good start.
For those reveling in the silence that accompanies the end of a long, harsh presidential campaign, enjoy it while you can. I’ve already heard some music on the radio that suspiciously evokes the Christmas spirit. That means Inauguration Day can’t be far behind. And that means that the kickoff of the 2016 campaign season is but a few months away.
So embrace the momentary silence. Revel in the relatively benign lies of televisions ads selling you stuff you don’t need for needs you didn’t know you had. It will all end far too soon.
I’m writing this before Tuesday’s votes are tallied. I’d been worrying for weeks about creating a column the day after a presidential election that wouldn’t refer to an outcome I didn’t know before deadline but still be relevant enough for people to want to read. Then Sandy happened and I realized that while on a macro scale the election held great portent for my country, on a micro scale, nothing mattered as much as my family’s safety.
The picture that made it most real for me was the one of the reporter standing in thigh deep water in the middle of Atlantic City. I had to blink twice and really focus to recognize that he was standing about two blocks from where I’d been raised. In fact, he was standing right where I’d been standing six months ago as I searched Atlantic City’s outdoor discount mall for a place called Dress Barn so I could buy something to wear to my aunt’s funeral. And now, all that was visible for as far as the eye could see was water.
Most of my family still lives in Philadelphia. It’s the dream of almost all the cousins of my generation to retire out of Philadelphia and “down the shore”, which in Philly terms means the South Jersey beach area. I had family in the direct path of the worse of Sandy. As the storm became more real and the devastation more personal, the whole presidential election fled my mind and the only thing I could focus on was how an area of America I still dearly love would survive this horrible event.
There’s been a lot of chatter amidst the political classes about Governor Christie’s sudden appreciation of President Obama’s leadership in getting relief to New Jersey. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows what Jersey boys are really all about. Christie can play politics with the best of them, but when you hurt Jersey, it quickly gets very personal because being from Jersey means knowing that there is no better place on this planet to be. Being a Jersey boy means defending your state against all who would laugh at your accent and attitude.
The Jersey shore, and by that I mean the reality not the piece of trash TV that has sullied its name, is iconic for all of us who grew up in that northeast corridor of the country. If our families had any money at all for a vacation, the Jersey shore was the only place to go. One of the pictures my sister sent me after she was allowed back on Absecon Island was that of a home in a tiny little bedroom community at the end of the island called Longport. The house in the picture had originally been built by one of my uncles. For many of us, that house represented our childhood summers as no other could. It’s where the family picnics and barbecues happened. It’s where we got to stay overnight with our cousins from Philly. It’s where those of us from the Atlantic City end of the island could get the feel of suburbia for the first time.
My aunt and uncle sold that house many years ago, yet seeing it emerge from that storm totally unscathed tells me that the spirit of the “aunts” still hovers over it and protects it. It’s proof, as though any of the cousins needed it, that even the good lord himself walks a respectful distance around those ladies and fears to cross them. It’s the same way we all felt about them growing up. Loved them dearly, feared them almost as much.
The final tally after the storm was that my family got through it relatively unscathed. One cousin had some significant damage to his property but nothing that can’s be fixed with a little elbow grease. Most importantly, no life was lost, no damage incurred that could not be repaired.
In every way that’s really important, my world is back in its correct orbit and my life feels safe and secure again. No matter who won yesterday’s election, my Thanksgiving will be spent in Ocean City with my family. We will all be in one piece and we will be cooing over two new additions.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s all that really matters.
We had a tragedy in my family this week. My cousin’s son was killed in a motorcycle accident as he rode to school. He was a sophomore in college. Someone came out of a driveway as he passed and hit him. He never had a chance.
This young man and his brother had started out life in some of the worse circumstances imaginable. They were adopted from Brazil as abandoned babies. But their luck changed when my cousin and his partner adopted them.
These two babies went from the dimmest of futures to the brightest of futures. They were raised on a big piece of land that had once been a farm but now served as their personal playground. They attended the best of schools. They were loved and spoiled by their extended family, and they had one heck of an extended family. There were always cousins to play with and aunties and uncles who made their lives even richer.
Here’s the thing. My cousin is gay. He and his partner have been together now for almost 40 years. During those years, they worked hard and contributed to their community. They paid their taxes and voted in elections. They raised their two sons to be good men with promising futures. And now they must suffer the unimaginable pain of burying one of their children.
There is a whole segment of our society that would deny to them the basic human right that the rest of us have – the right to express our love of our partner and family within a public and legal setting. But despite their forty years of being devoted to each other and their children, there are still people who call their love unnatural and claim it is abhorrent to their god.
Quite frankly, I don’t care much for any god who would turn from this much love. But that’s not the point. The point is that gay people are not asking for your god to love them or approve their way of life. The last time I looked, religious and civil societies were separate entities in America. In the religious one, you can believe whatever your sacred book or preachers tell you so long as those beliefs do not infringe on someone else’s right to believe differently. That’s the wonder and glory of our country.
In our civil society, however, the issue of what some specific religious text says about marriage or homosexuality should have absolutely no bearing on the rights of people to enjoy the benefits conferred on their friends and neighbors. If your Christian beliefs say that this is wrong, fine. Don’t let them join your church or practice your faith. But if the only argument you can make for denying people their civil rights is that your religion tells you it’s wrong, then you have no basis for denying them the right to a civil marriage.
It’s not about religion. It’s not about faith. It’s about our government treating all people fairly and equally under the law. No study has every shown that homosexuality has harmed America. Most gay couples would be hard to pick out of a crowd. They work, exercise, make supper for their kids, go to the movies and share holidays with their families. They could not be more like us because they are us.
The insanely named “Defense of Marriage Act” is no more a defense of marriage than the war in Iraq was actually about weapons of mass destruction. And please do not drag out that tired old canard that if gays can marry legally, it is but a slippery slope to marriage between a dog and his master. Marriage is the civil recognition of two consenting adults who pledge to spend their lifetime together as partners. Even though on a good day I feel my dogs make better partners than most of the people I’ve dated, I am well aware that they are not consenting adults.
As my cousin and his partner sit Shiva for their son, I wonder how anyone could doubt the love they share, the family they made, or their contributions to their community. Given some of the “families’ I’ve worked with through the years in social services, I find it incomprehensible that anyone could deny them that honorific. They have more than earned it.
My mother used to tell me stories the circumstances her parents faced when they first emigrated from Italy. Signs on buildings stated, “Italians not allowed”. Job postings contained the added words, “Italians need not apply”. So when I moved to Barrow and heard stories from friends there about the days, not that long past, when Natives and dogs were both banned from certain establishments, I thought I had a frame of reference that allowed me to understand their pain. But I didn’t, not really.
I’m not sure anyone can have a true frame of reference for what Alaska Natives faced in the “bad old days” unless they too have been judged by the color of their skin or the slant of their eyes while the content of the mind and soul were totally discounted. It left scars on Alaska’s Native people, just as discrimination left scars on so many other people deemed different in America.
AFN works hard to bring Alaska Natives a far distance from those days. It gives them a political voice and the strength that comes with numbers. After Senator Lisa won her write in campaign against Joe Miller in large part because of the solid block of Alaska Native votes she received, it’s hard to conceive of anyone doubting their clout.
Yet in the same week that AFN was once again drawing Native groups from across the state to celebrate their cultures, their spirituality, their dancing, their arts and, perhaps most importantly, their determination to never be viewed as second class citizens again, we heard about a plea deal to give a women one year in jail for killing a Native man as he walked down the street late at night.
When I first saw the headline that said this deal had been reached in the hit and run death of Hubert Tunuchuk from Chefornak, I thought of how the agreement seemed to merely re-enforce the concept of Alaska Native life as somehow just a little cheaper than non-native life. Because given the circumstances of the crime, I think there would have probably been quite a hue and cry if this agreement had been announced in the death of a non-native.
I know nothing about Ashley Bashore. She looks like a fairly nice young lady. She was texting while driving in the dark early morning hours of Easter Sunday a year ago. When she hit “something”, she not only didn’t stop to see what she’d hit, she continued texting. And even if she honestly thought it was a dog she’d hit, something I quite frankly find hard to believe given how many dogs I’ve ever seen on the Tudor Road overpass, what kind of person doesn’t stop and try to help. Any living creature deserves better than to be left to bleed and die alone on the side of the road.
Yes, she was only 19 and probably panicked. But she was calm enough to continue to text. And 19 is not a child. At 19 you should have some sense of responsibility, some sense of the value of life, some sense that there are things in this world more important than you are. So to my mind, the judge was very right to reject a plea deal that belittled the life that was taken.
The picture in the paper of Hubert’s mother hugging Ashley’s mother after the judge rejected the plea is heartbreaking. Both have experienced terrible loss. The difference is that Ashley will eventually go home to her mother. Hubert’s mother will never hold him again. It is a tribute to the strength of Native women that she could reach out to Ashley’s mother at a time when the entire justice system of this state was about to diminish the tragedy of her son’s death. It is entirely in keeping with my experience of so many Alaska Native women I’ve been privileged to know.
AFN was in full progress here in Anchorage when this case came before the judge who rejected the plea deal. It seems serendipitous timing. His ruling reaffirmed that Native life is as valuable and sacred as non-native life. His ruling held at bay a justice system that would belittle Chefornak’s loss. He acknowledged that the dignity and worth of life cuts across all cultural lines.
Good for him.
Although I find myself on the cusp of Romney’s 47% in that I’ve worked my whole life and paid taxes but now do indeed draw a government pension and use Medicare, I can’t shake the feeling that I would fall on the distaff side of his equation. It’s probably best I do. That’s where I’m most comfortable.
The other feeling I can’t shake is that Mitt Romney’s 47% comment itself doesn’t bother me as much as the context in which he made it. There he stood, speaking in front of people for whom $50,000 is an evening’s meal as opposed to an annual salary. When he made those horrible comments about half of America, the people surrounding him seemed to nod or murmur in agreement. Marie Antoinette would have felt comfortable with that crowd.
If America ever descends into true class warfare, those are the people who will be on the other side of the equation. They eat their $50,000 dinner while ruefully acknowledging that the rest of us do nothing but try to suck off their success. They’ll never truly understand why we don’t take our caps off, tug our forelock while bowing and thank them for the scraps from their table.
I saw a quote recently by William Blum explaining trickle down economics as, “The principle that the poor, who must subsist on table scraps dropped by the rich, can best be served by giving the rich bigger meals.” I have no idea who Mr. Blum is or in what context he made that statement. But it certainly rings true. And I’m guessing all those people at Romney’s fundraiser would view it as a simple statement of common sense as opposed to a condemnation of an economic theory that has all but destroyed America’s middle class while elevating the top 1% to levels not seen since the days of the robber barons. And we all know how well that turned out.
There was a time when a politician could forcefully state “Ask not what your country can do for you. Rather ask what you can do for you country” without being labeled a pinko socialist. Since those days we have gone from being a country with an understanding of the common good and the need for us to pull together as one community to a country where the loudest ethos seems to be, “I got mine and I don’t give a damn if you get yours.”
The Preamble to our Constitution speaks to government’s responsibility for the general welfare of its people. In a time when kings ruled and nobility treated everyone else as being put on earth to serve their needs, these two words made America unique among nations because it required the government to work for the common good of all and not just protect the narrow interests of a very specific class such as the rich nobility.
We became a great nation for many reasons but one of the most dominant was that, on paper at least, all people were treated equally, protected equally and viewed equally by their government. Whether they made $100 a year or $100, 000 did not matter. In that voting booth they were equal. When a politician ran for office, he needed to court the poor as well as the rich for that very reason.
So how does a presidential candidate get to state before the voting even begins that he only plans to represent those segments of American society that fit his criteria for deserving representation? And why would anyone believe him when he apologized for the remark after it went public? Common sense seems to make it obvious that Mitt was merely saying something during what he perceived as a private moment that he really thinks but understands can’t be publicly expressed.
I think Romney truly believes that half this country sucks off the benefits available to them due to the wealth of the other half, with no desire to earn their way. I think he is now even more aware than ever that he shouldn’t say those things aloud, no matter how strongly he believes in them.
The reality is that Mitt was raised in a privileged world most of us will never experience or understand. And vice-versa.
I’ve written before about libraries and the part they played in my childhood. I figured that role no longer existed because of the huge amount of media access now available from birth through death. Why go to a library when you have the world at your fingertips? I watch my friend’s three-year-old grandson manipulating her cell phone and iPad and think that books and libraries will soon be a thing of the past.
Since I grew up in a family without a lot of disposable income, a library was critical to my insatiable reading habit. I can’t remember not having a library card, though I don’t ever remember attending programs there. I don’t know if libraries even had programs for children back then like they do now. My library buddy Grace and I both came from families running their own businesses, so our mothers were busy at our fathers’ sides helping customers and didn’t have time to take us to library programs if they did exist.
Nonetheless, Grace and I loved books and that meant we loved the library. The librarian only had to show us once where our section of books was located and we took it from there. We read every Cherry Ames, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and Oz books we found. In a day when media meant a TV with, at best, three channels, this was where we went to explore a world beyond the confines of our little neighborhood.
There are great differences between the library of my past and the libraries of the present and future. Some of those differences are simply mindboggling. For instance, in my day a library card meant I could go to a room with a stack of books, choose which I wanted to read and have the books stamped by a nice lady at the desk. Then I got to walk out of the building with my arms full of treasure. Now, a library card means you can sit in the comfort of your own home and download e-books that you can keep for about three weeks before they “return” to the library shelf. How cool is that?
Equally important, perhaps, in a time when we are more and more isolating ourselves from our family and friends through use of electronic media, the library remains a place of vibrant community where ideas can be accessed and shared, discussions held and knowledge gained whether you are rich or poor. It is the ultimate democratizing institution available to everyone in this country.
Today’s reality is that if you can’t afford a computer, you are at a distinct disadvantage in a very competitive world. Go to the library and find free computer access to anyone with a library card. And that card is also, as always, free. In a world where having information at your fingertips is more critical than ever to succeeding, the library is the one place anyone can go to level the playing field.
When I first saw the Loussac Library building completed, I remember having two thoughts. One, it reminded me of my childhood library. The Atlantic City library was also a large, imposing building made of stone. Luckily for us kids, the entrance was a lot easier to find. It sat on a street in the middle of the city, which also made it easier to use since we could simply walk there and back from home. And two, the Loussac looked like the fortress William the Conqueror would have built after the Battle of Hastings to secure his foothold in England. It was, to put it mildly, not a very inviting place. And let’s be honest here, anyone who remembers his or her first attempt to find the front door and then actually locate the library in the building knows that it can be a challenge.
But none of that really matters to someone for whom that library stands as their chance to learn, compete, and be part of our country and economy. Whether reading a newspaper they could otherwise not afford or accessing a computerized small business program that will help them launch their own enterprise, libraries today are as vital a part of our community as they were in my youth. Given the critical role of media in today’s world, maybe even more.
Forty years ago yesterday, Oct. 3, 1972, I first set foot in Barrow. I’d signed up for a two-year tour with Indian Health Service. After a whirlwind one-day orientation in Anchorage at ANMC, I was sent directly to Barrow to relieve some nurses who had their vacations on hold due to a shortage of staff. I didn’t leave Barrow again, except for some medivacs to Fairbanks, until the following July. For someone who a week before had been enjoying dinner and a play on Broadway, the culture shock could not have been greater.
I’d spent the past two nights at the old IHS quarters off Third Avenue crying myself to sleep. I was travelling with a very unhappy parrot that was not doing anything to make my life easier. Now I’d arrived in the dark at a place where my luggage was unceremoniously dumped near a railing outside a shed that I was expected to believe was the Wien airline terminal. The fence looked like it was waiting for Little Joe to ride up and tether his horse.
I remember going into the “terminal” and asking where the restroom was. I’d been loath to run the gauntlet of pipeline workers sharing the plane with me in order to access one during flight. This was the early pipeline days when one flight twice a week went to Barrow on its way to and from Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline workers, all fine people I’m sure, used the flight as their last opportunity to drink before reaching Prudhoe. Needless to say, the airplane restrooms were well occupied during the flight.
The doc and nurses who greeted me looked at each other when I made my request and then smiled grimly as one stated, “She’ll have to find out sooner or later.” That was my introduction to the famous bush honeybucket. I can only assume I did not jump back on that plane and demand it return me to Brooklyn because the fumes from the honeybucket had clouded my judgment.
Despite the fact that my family still asks me when I’m moving home, I must confess that home is now here and, for so long as I can function independently, will remain so. I may have had to leave Barrow for health reasons, but I don’t have to leave Alaska. For that I am immensely grateful to the oil companies whose investment in this state brought us kicking and screaming into the modern world, including the world of medicine. You no longer hear people explaining how they have to go to Seattle for health care. We can get it here now. That wouldn’t have happened without the pipeline, the oil and all its attendant pluses and minuses.
Over my forty years here, I’ve seen the changes brought about by money flowing into an economy that had been woefully short of it for a long time. Some changes are good. Some are questionable. And some are just sad – sad because they mark the end of the Alaska I found when I first arrived and the University Mall at 36th and New Seward pretty much marked the outer boundaries of the civilized parts of the city. After that, you might have still been in Anchorage but you were considered to be in the wilderness.
I’ve been privileged to live here when the likes of Wally HIckel, Jay Hammond and Eben Hopson, Sr. were alive and kicking. They were some of the pioneers of what is now the shape of this state, both politically and philosophically. I also had a front row seat as drugs and alcohol followed money into our villages and wreaked havoc on the fabric of indigenous societies. And I’ve lived long enough to watch as people in those villages have fought long and hard to hold on to their cultural values while adapting to their changing world.
It’s been a fascinating, sometimes bumpy, always interesting, frequently exhilarating and never, ever boring adventure so far. I’ve made friends who have become family and I actually have family who now somewhat understand why I stay here.
I chose Alaska as my home a long, long time ago in a world far, far away. It was, and continues to be, one of the best decisions I’ve made in a life filled with some pretty crazed choices.
In March 1962, a freak storm hit Absecon Island in New Jersey. Absecon Island is most famous for being the island on which Atlantic City is situated. But it also has three little bedroom communities that line its down beach area called Ventnor, Margate and Longport.
This storm was unlike anything seen on the island in a long, long time. Hurricanes were something that happened in the fall and islanders expected them. But March, while usually a little windy and cold, was not supposed to bring with it a storm that would flood the island, cause the Million Dollar Pier to be torn in half by a rogue barge and sink my school’s cafeteria under multiple feet of sand washed in from the beach.
I was a high school sophomore. I was old enough to understand how scary something like this storm could be in its potential to wreak havoc, and young enough to still believe that so long as my daddy was there, everything would be all right.
We had a sign that hung between the first and second story of my dad’s building. The first floor was our grocery store. The second floor was the apartment in which we lived. The sign was a heavy neon sign hanging from an iron bar proclaiming “Sereni’s Groceries”. I sat in a chair in our living room during the storm and watched as the wind blew that sign from perpendicular to horizontal as though it were made of nothing more than cardboard and held it there.
If I looked out the window to my right, I could see waves crashing on Atlantic Avenue, a street normally two blocks and a beach away from the ocean. If I looked left, I could see the bay creeping up on Arctic Avenue, a bay that was normally at least three blocks away. My mother said that my father was so smart he’d picked the highest point on the island for his store so that we would not be flooded. My belief in my father’s invincibility was re-enforced.
I was never frightened during that storm. In fact, I think that storm led to my lifelong passion for storms and stormy nights. I love the sound of the wind and the beating of the rain on my window. I love it because I am as warm and safe now as I was then. My little dogs huddle against me, my birds grow quiet, the fireplace roars and we spend the evening in an almost enchanted atmosphere.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in a storm like that and have no place safe from which to watch its fury. But we have a large population here in Anchorage for whom that is reality. As winter once again approaches, this population runs greater and greater risks from storms, cold, wind and all the forces of the elements against which man has spent millennia building shelters and safe places. From the first caves to the first castles to the first fall out shelters, man has attempted to build bigger, better and stronger fortresses to keep nature at bay.
But the homeless have no such protection. So we will very soon be hearing pleas from shelters in the city to help so they can provide protection from the elements for this at risk population.
I know for some people this population represents a group they would just as soon ignore in the hope it will go away. They feel that people who don’t have homes should simply suck it up, get a job, get an income and rent a place to stay. Unfortunately this is not a problem so easily addressed. As Christ said in Mark, “You will always have the poor with you.” Even he knew that this was a problem with no quick solution.
So the next time we have a storm and you are sitting in your living room watching the trees blow and the rain or snow fall, remember that we have a lot of people for whom the approach of winter doesn’t mean cozy fires and warm beds.
Find out what your local shelter needs and donate your extras. Then enjoy your fireplace with a heart at peace knowing you’ve done your part to help others.
My cousin Joe’s son, Joe 3, decided after a brief stint as a city reporter for a small town newspaper that he wanted to go into a career with greater potential. So he went back to school and got a doctorate in philosophy. I believe his father best expressed his feelings at this choice when he opened a newspaper to the want ads and declared, “Do you see an ad saying, ‘Wanted: Doctor of Philosophy for high paying job.’”
Despite my cousin’s concerns, we apparently need philosophers because the world continues to be a complicated place. Despite what some might believe, not all is writ large in black and white. The amount of gray area in-between fills the universe of our minds.
I recently heard from a reader who posed this question to me. How should we regard good that comes from something we consider bad?
At one extreme this begs the question that if Hitler developed a cure for cancer using unwilling human subjects who suffered and died to produce the cure, would we be ethically obligated to shun that cure? Or would we be ethically obligated to use it to end other human suffering while admitting its source was obscene?
In Alaska we are constantly confronted with a much milder version of this question. It is generally accepted that oil companies are the engines fueling our economy and they can do no wrong. There are some, though, who view the oil companies as despoilers of the last pristine wilderness left on earth. No matter which view you subscribe to, you need only look around the state to know that the oil companies have tried to be good neighbors. They fund charitable causes of every ilk. They are some of the first to sign on for any worthy event. They buy tables at auctions for the library, they fund scholarships for rural kids, they are on the front lines of every walk/race/hop/skip and jump-athon we can invent.
Do they do all that for altruistic purposes? I think they might do some of it out of a sense of communal obligation to a society in which their presence looms so large. But they are businesses and what they do, they do to enhance their business. So all these charitable endeavors probably have some bottom line objective. If you doubt this, let me ask you a question. Do you really think that Shell or BP will be funding charitable programs here when they and our oil are gone?
So if you consider Big Oil bad, how do you view the good they do here? If that good is coming from something you consider bad, do you accept it and just shrug or does it keep you awake at night wondering if you’ve just sold your soul for the cost of 100 more meals at Bean’s Café?
The Pebble Project is about to cause us to once again revisit this thorny question. For many, the Pebble Project is evil writ large – a company that wants to endanger the pristine waters that supply one of Alaska’s most famous products. But they are also underwriting a full week’s educational residency here in Anchorage by one of the world’s finest jazz bands.
Are they doing this to try and buy some goodwill? Of course they are. Does this change what they want to do at Pebble? Of course it doesn’t. So if you think the Pebble Project is the answer to the unemployment and economic woes of the Bristol Bay area, this program merely serves to confirm your belief in corporate goodness. But if you think the Pebble Project is inherently bad and your kid is in that part of the school district where this band will spend a week, do you let your kid participate? Does the good coming from something you view as bad cause you to think twice about letting your child be part of it?
My cousin Joe was wrong. His son’s profession is greatly needed in today’s world as we try to work our way through questions like this. Of course, his son will never make a lot of money. But philosophers find their reward is usually not monetary. It’s the ultimate effect they have on history. Which, as my cousin Joe will all too willingly point out, does not buy groceries.