Monthly Archives: October 2019

Striving for a Simplier Life

If a simple life were merely a journey to SIMPLICITY, would we be happier beings?

If we could make life less complicated by pushing the “pause” button, many of us would reach for it immediately! No hesitation. The complexity of living everyday with our quotient of 329 million American humans can be overwhelming. Add the constant roll of small, medium, and large computer screens to the drone of “authoritative” words emitting from the televisions and ipads attacking our eyes and ears. It’s a wonder we can hear the voice of a significant other requesting a minute of our time or a child wanting a drink of water.

Our overloaded brains scream for a ceasefire, an adult time-out, but the continuous pull of endless detail takes us away from life’s essential quiet moments and into a sea of chaos. Sometimes we forget that WE are the arbitrators–the ones who decide how to parcel out the 24 hours gifted to us daily.

The screens can be seen as an antidote to daily life’s immediate crisis of the moment, job stress, and/or father-mother-hood. Soon enough when one show becomes a binge, it’s just another time-suck, robbing us of one-on-one time or contemplation about potential solutions to our conundrum.

Can we slow down enough to restore our eqilibrium to begin to feel the joy, ease the pain, and digest the anger of our fellow travelers? Could we swiftly realize life’s too short to deny ourselves the experience of basic empathy–without being pulled into the extreme emotions and unending debates of now?

Simplicity can mean stripping life down to its most basic parts to separate the necessary from the near-necessary, and the just-wanna-have-it from the rediculous, over-the-top luxury. Sifting through belongings can be a seemingly thankless task, but it could help determine the priorities in our lives. Are we ruled by the clothes and shoes we wear, homes we inhabit, cars we drive, or the meals we eat at trendy restaurants?

We’re all different in our wants and needs. Books are my guilty pleasure. Cut the cord in half when I moved west. Once I had 250 cookbooks acquired over two decades of travel–though they never lifted my culinary skills, I just WANTED the books to read and see the pictures! I’ve culled them to under 100, but can’t get myself to rely completely on online recipes.

I’ve transferred my loyalty to Hulu and have a nearly nightly habit that I try to limit to one daily tv show and a movie once a week. But sometimes on a long weekend, I binge a program and hear it’s entry music in my head for days. So I still struggle in that and other aspects of the simplicity realm, but I keep wacking at it trying to dull the noisy aspects of life.

I tell myself watching tv episodes helps me put together story arcs as I write, but I’m kidding myself. It’s just a way to relax after my evening walk, when I should be reading the stacks of books I purchased for “research” on my book that I continue each morning. I know as I work towards simplicity, I get closer to sifting my values–thinking more about what I want from life–and I make more room for ideas, instead of stuff. I come closer to achieving my values.

Game of Life: Time and Money

Life boils down to time and money–we all get the same amount of time. The money is parceled out based on our birth circumstances. Our financial bounty expands based on how hard we work, or the contacts we make, or we operate a deficit depending on how hard we played to fritter it away. There’s a third element that we forget–we can schedule or time and plan how to use our time and money, spending some of each to benefit the people around us. There’s a benefit that others might not see, but we can feel it in the community around us.

Priorities Matter

Several questions arise about how we use the resources we’ve been given. What will the planet receive in value, purpose, or beauty as a result of our efforts? Our priorities matter. Focus first on what you do well. For me that means “learning to paint” is further down my list because I’m realistic. But play also provides pleasure to the brain, opening it up to make better decisions later on, so it shouldn’t be ignored. Multi-tasking is for the business phoenoms. I require focus in order to achieve key goals.

After establishing your priorities, join me in setting a date to tackle one item on your simplicity plan. The walk-in closet review begins Monday am–to remove the weight of its burden from my belated to-do list and deliver to Goodwill several “useful-to-someone else” items. The books can wait.

Lincoln’s Simple Approach Won in 1863

Now that we have a physical plan for living a little simplier, let’s think for a moment about putting our thoughts on a simplicity binge. Seems the “more is better” philosophy has entered our correspondence, news, and daily conversations. Sometimes the more words we hear or say, the angrier we get, and the less likely we communicate successfully one-to-one.

Speeches from the past might strike you as “so many words” equally difficult to decipher, but the Gettysburg Address (signed copy) has a mere 270 words. Despite Lincoln’s suggestion that it would be soon forgotten, for 156 years his message has rung true. Today we are struggling to carry through on his words that “all men are created equal” and his promise of a “new birth of freedom” ushering in a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

A few short paragraphs of strong pithy words. That’s all it took to set the standard. Hard to live up to Lincoln’s words. I know my writing fails short. Far short. See if simplier isn’t better for you the next time you use the printed word to get a message across.

Civility: Can We Bring it Back?

Man with paint roller attempts to cover danger and division with a fake background of blue sky and white, fluffy clouds. 740 imgcache.rev.le74eobe66fbeA6

Returning from the 100th Anniversary celebration for the League of Women Voters in San Antonio, I thought about the relentless struggle of the women who fought for the right to vote,–something we take for granted today—but many forget to exercise. Now the League works to register America’s voters and ensure we have the same right the women fought years for and finally received when the 19th Amendment was ratified by 36 states in 1920.

What does voting have to do with “civility”? One answer might be: everything. The ability to conduct a fair election without verbal use of people, places, or things has become a challenge. One might be tempted to chalk it up to the last election cycle, but if we’re honest, we’ve been sliding along the slippery slope of bad manners and “saying almost anything to get elected” for some time now. Window dressing, painting the situation over with a fake azure blue sky and white fluffy clouds will not solve our problem.

A dose of civility could be in order. Some say they learned how to behave in public from their parents—how to introduce themselves, pass the plate to the person on the right, how to be excused from the table, listening before breaking in with your two cents. And saying nothing if you have nothing “nice” to say. In Texas and other Southern states, children learn respect when they’re taught to respond to adults: “Yes, Mam,” or “No, Sir”– a practice that irritated me at first, thinking it pertained just to elders. Now I’m proud that this act of civility continues to hold, at least here in Texas.

Many of America’s seniors remember “Civics” class as the place we studied about mayors, governors, and presidents, acted out the steps in passing a bill through Congress, and often learned that our public schools, parks, and rec centers were paid for mainly by state or local taxes. Now that these classes are gone, basic knowledge about government has disappear from many states, making it much easier for shifty candidates to sway the opinion of unschooled and sometimes lazy Americans, who do not double check politicians’ statements or question their promises.

Yet demonizing the opposition does not serve our purposes. India’s former leader Mahatma Gandhi reminded his followers: “We must resolutely refuse to consider our opponents as enemies.” That serves only to strengthen their resolve, doing nothing to bring us together after the election.

When Being Civil was the Civil Thing to Do
If we look back to another time of political stress prior to the Civil War, we find surprising examples where people of opposing political perspectives were willing to help each other in time of need. When Jefferson Davis (future President of the Confederacy) served as Secretary of War under President Pierce, Varina Davis became critically ill late in her second pregnancy. A paralyzing snowstorm hit Washington, preventing her nurse from reaching her. New York Senator William Seward, who strongly opposed slavery and would serve as Lincoln’s Secretary of State during the Civil War, picked up the nurse in a horse-drawn sleigh pulled by his own fine horses and delivered her to the Davis residence. Both survived and Varina, who would become a journalist after the war, had three more children with Davis.

The Founders’ descendants and their families, struggled at times to maintain decorum with opposing politicians. Firebrand Abby Adams, married to Charles Francis Adams– the son of President John Quincy Adams and grandson of President John Adams–became a popular guest in Washington with many political friends, including staunch anti-slavery proponent, Charles Sumner, prior to the war.

Abby accepted invitations from popular Washington hostess and Southern sympathizer Rose Greenhow, whose views were well known from her articles in the New York Herald.   Mrs. Adams voiced her own views at one of Greenhow’s soirees and “waded right into the hottest political topic of the day,” declaring John Brown of Harper’s Ferry a “holy saint and martyr.” Rose, equally quick on the draw, shot back, “he was a traitor and met a traitor’s doom.” Such was dinner conversation in the late 1850s. Gossip moved along at a dramatic clip. Widow Greenhow would spend time in the Old Capitol Prison, which held Confederate spies.

While no American forts are under fire or cannons lit today, civil words are at a premium and distaste for the actions of an opponent are turning politics from a natural component of life into a blood sport, where the vitriol saps voters’ interest in participation. Democracy’s future waivers in a country where 59 percent of the people are turned off by politics and the number of voters declines. (2017 Civility study by Weber Shandwick Powell Tate and KR Research)

Too easily we forget that the Constitution revered by Americans grew out of The Great Compromise of 1787, imperfect in its own way, but a point from which the nation could begin. Those at the Constitutional Convention kept their eyes on the nation they wanted to create. More than two centuries later, the stakes have risen with a population that has grown from 2.8 million (1780) to 329 million people (2019), bringing a complexity of education, transportation, health care, commerce, agricultural, social service, and government issues beyond the scope of Colonists.

Taking the first steps
How do we start to roll back from the brink? In Maine, Craig Foster began a “Make Shift Coffee House,” where people with opposing views meet to learn from others and drink good coffee. Citizens for Reviving Civility in Arizona believes that listening to others is the key. Reflection, not reaction, works well to avoid debating issues and eventually move on to solving more difficult problems over time.

Better Angels, a national citizens’ movement works to reduce polarization by bringing liberals and conservatives together, face-to-face, to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, and teach practical skills for communicating across political differences. (More than a thousand people have participated in over thirty states).

Founder David Blankenhorn says the group’s goal is not to get people to change their views, but to get people to listen well to one another. “If you listen well,” he explains, “and if you try to understand—and if you’re confident that people are going to listen to you—you become a human being, friendship develops despite the political differences, and the rancor goes down.”

In Duluth, Minnesota, Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project began in 2003 to address political tensions caused by economic decline, plants closing, and rising anxiety. Proponents were quick to point out it was not a campaign to end disagreements, but one to improve public discourse by reminding the community of the basic principles of respect. They are inclusive, welcoming all groups of citizens working for the common good. The group looks for opportunities to agree, encouraging participants to avoid contradicting others’ because they can, to accept individual responsibility by looking in the mirror before pointing fingers at others.

Phillip Browne, vice president-communications, offered tips to help restore civility in the National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin:
• Seek out a variety of news sources with different perspectives
• Allow others to speak and listen closely to build mutual understanding
• Seek common ground in your conversations
• Avoid rumors and don’t jump to conclusions or assume you know another person’s
perspective or next word will be.

Wehner in The Death of Politics mentions Calvin Coolidge, who warned his countrymen not to just ward off the dangerous elements that threatened government, “Our hope lies in developing what is good.” Interestingly enough in that 2017 survey of Civility 94 percent reported they “always” acted in the interest of “civility,” which may indicate we are almost there or have even farther to go than we thought! Here’s to drinking coffee or tea together, toasting “civility” . . . then working slowly to come back from the brink.


——————
Peter Wehner’s book, The Death of Politics (New York: HarperOne, 2019) inspired this column and included stories not just about America’s problems, but ways we can work together to solve them.
“New York Senator William Seward picked up the nurse..” Cokie Roberts, Capital Dames, (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 59. The week after Roberts died it seemed appropriate to remind myself this NPR trailblazer also studied and wrote about the roles of strong American women in history .
“Holy saint and martyr,” Ibid. p. 69
“Our friends who positively hate him…” p. 76
Better Angels Help Communities Ease Political Tensions,” CBS This Morning, March 26, 2018, on YouTube, https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mLDgtUuK34
In Duluth, Speak Your Peace, Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, “Speak Youth Peace: A Civility Project,” http://dsaspeakyourpeace.org/index.html
Civility tips from P.M. Forni’s book: Choosing Civility.
Phillip Browne, National Notary Association’s Notary Bulletin, October 2017 Members routinely notarize documents for clients of all backgrounds, across all issues.
https://national-notary.org/notary_bulletin/civility-in-crisis/
“How to Teach Civics in School,” The Economist, July 6, 2017,
https://www,economist.com/democracy-in-school

Democracy: What is it? Do we want it?

Capitol image in Reflecting Pool behind Congress. Freeart photo.

Let’s start with “civilization.” A place where people come together.” Webster’s Dictionary goes much farther, indicating that those people have made time to advance in the arts, science, and government affairs. Talented people expressing their gifts, leaving the bickering behind.  

Democracy is different from civilization. Webster says that democracy is “government by the people, where the supreme power vested in the people under a free electoral (voting system),” but adds that the people exercise their authority by direct action. (Since it is difficult to vote everyone simultaneously in a population of 329 million people, we have “elected agents” or representatives (Congress and the State legislatures and the President).  

The sticking point for some: Democracy is also characterized by “formal equality of rights and privileges: political or social equality—democratic spirit.” This last element in its simplest term—the ability to extend voting rights across races, gender, income, social position and castes—has been a stumbling block from the Greeks throughout time, nations, regions, states, and local communities.  

Lincoln Began to Extend Voting Rights

After the Civil War when Lincoln wanted to provide the vote to black men (not women, no women would receive the vote in America until the 20th century), he started with men who had fought with the Union to preserve it when the prospects were bleakest. These were the survivors, the men who had lived through attacks by both Confederates and certain angry white Yankees who believed black’s ascent would infringe on their white privilege.

Lincoln moved forward after the Emancipation Proclamation despite the clamor among white men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Lincoln mentioned this plan to extend the vote to black Union veterans in a speech from the White House after the Confederate Surrender at Appomattox.  John Wilks Booth stood on the perimeter of this crowd, already angered by the Confederate surrender, it infuriated him that the President would give the vote to blacks. On the spot, Booth decided his plan to kidnap Lincoln would turn into an assassination, changing the course of American history. Southern Vice President Andrew Johnson, formerly a senator from Tennessee, has been cited as one of America’s worst Presidents in part for his slanted approach to Reconstruction, ushering in Jim Crow laws, setting the nation backwards for as much as a century.

The Long Wait on Voting Rights

While many boast of America’s Democracy, some are little different from the men who in 1865 were not willing to share the vote even with their wives, many of whom managed the home, the business or plantation, and the children while their spouses were away fighting the Civil War (and even World War I, since the Nineteenth Amendment was not enacted until 1920). The Voting RIghts’ Act followed many years later in 1965, ensuring blacks no longer would be punished with a poll tax or poll examinations that many of the examiners could not pass themselves. But the further we are from enactment, the more the rights of registered American voters of color are being challenged. 

Today Hispanic Americans are being lumped into politically realigned Congressional Districts in such a limited number that their votes may never elect a representative. Or their votes are marshalled into a single district, so they will elect one Hispanic candidate but never be able to have a majority or impact the outcome in another district, despite their growing number of registered voters in a state like Texas. 

Politics Becomes a Blood Sport

Redistricting, the division of a state into Congressional voting districts, can be done by the state courts or by the state’s legislature when the state’s population increases based on the US Census. In Texas, the second largest voting body in the country, redistricting takes place in the legislature. By winning the largest number of seats in the state legislature, a political party can take charge of redistricting—re-dividing the size and composition of the state’s Congressional Districts—with the “possibility” that these districts might be composed as “safe” seats for members of their party. This process is referred to as “gerrymandering” (see This could extend their party’s influence and voting power for years to come. See: https://past-becomes-present.blog/2019/05/14/gerrys-irony-insists-on-bill-of-rights-father-of-gerrymandering/ 

This political prize turns politics into a blood sport rather than the communal gathering (sometimes practiced) of our Colonial ancestors. (In all truth the Presidential contest between Federalist (think Larger Government) John Adams vs. States’ Rights/Smaller Government) Thomas Jefferson may have been one of the most ruthless on record, but that’s another story.  

Moderation: Democratic Virtue Lacking

We’ve forgotten that the American Revolution was not like the French Revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who visited America in the 1820s, noted the revolution in America “was the result of a mature and reflecting preference for freedom (from England), and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence.” Anarchy did not play a part, instead a love of law and order centered the nation.   

But to return to moderation Americans need to consider weighing competing principles and exercise a wee bit of humility to tame our passions—difficult tasks at a time such as this. While it might seem arcane today when divided philosophies are at fever pitch, but the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi was Moden Agan, “nothing in excess.” May seem out of kilter in modern times, but even a little movement might make a difference. 

Could We Try a Little Civility?

How can we remove ourselves from this tangled spaghetti to return to a more civilized society? 

P.M. Forni lists nine rules for practicing civility in his book Choosing Civility that could start us down the right path if we’re willing to make an effort.

  • Pay Attention. Be aware and attend to the world and the people around you.  
  • Listen. Focus on others to better understand their points of view. 
  • Be inclusive. Welcome all groups working for the greater good of the community. 
  • Don’t gossip. Reject the stories that circulate about others. 
  • Show respect. Honor other people and their opinions, especially during disagreements. 
  • Be agreeable. Don’t become a contrarian—contradicting for sport. 
  • Apologize. Be sincere and repair damaged relationships. 
  • Give constructive criticism. When disagreeing, stick to the issues. Don’t make a personal attack. 
  • Take responsibility. Don’t shift responsibility and blame onto others or share disagreements publicly. 

Repairing what’s broken in national politics will take more than a fortnight and require all the innovation and courage Americans can muster, but at the local level, it is possible to move forward at a slightly more rapid clip. The Civility Project in Duluth, Minnesota in 2003 helped the community work through economic decline, plants closing and rising anxiety. The Civility Project and Better Angels are examples of what public intellectuals like editorial writer David Brooks refer to as “constructive localism.” It’s the local issues where discussions can get heated, but you come to know each other and have a better chance of working through issues using these principles.

Don’t Kid Yourself–Voting Still Works, if You Just Do It!

Still there is no remedy that can go to the heart of political issues in support of democracy like getting out to vote. With just 55.7 percent of eligible voters making it to the polls in the 2016 Presidential election, we have a long way to go. 

(Ironically of this popular vote, the split was 46.8% for Donald Trump and 48.2% for Hillary Clinton. Based on the number of electoral votes per state, the Electoral College awarded the Presidency to Mr. Trump., thus making it more challenging to convince some voters to show up in 2020. Although we constantly hear about the Republican landslide in 2016, the fact is just 25.7% of all eligible voters cast a ballot for President Trump. It wasn’t a landslide, don’t be confused by what you hear.     

These suggestions above may seem overly simplistic solutions for Americans working to counteract the political and social poison being injected into our Republic. Do we want to be a democracy? Some do, some have no idea what they are wishing.  

Yet for the sake of our nation, ourselves, our children, we must begin to bring Americans back into civil discussion, slowly, carefully, but absolutely. Only then will America be able to return to the fair, operational political process that we hope and pray to achieve. 

Moden Agan, Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics, (New York: HarperOne, 2019) p. 152

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in Americaed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage Books, 1945), 1:73. 

“Better Angels Help Communities Ease Political Tensions.” CBS This Morning,  March 26, 2018, available on You Tube, https://youtube.com/watch?v=5mLDgUuK34

 

How Politics Could Change

Individual achievement–could be a voter standing up to be counted. Free stock art.

I’m feeling whiplashed and seriously discouraged by the political news. The chaos escalates, making me want to switch it off and return to gardening, kayaking, cooking or anything else to avoid hearing about what’s going on nationally.  

Information overload numbs the senses, which can move into “I don’t care-ness” that spells disaster for our democracy. From there it’s a small step before less mindful politicians read our disinterest as a signal allowing them to make all the choices—themselves. Soon they believe the public will ignore elections, thinking their votes don’t matter. . . until too late they realize that they do.  

Why are people disillusioned about voting? The nation’s demographics profile is changing, personal income for the middle class is stagnating, political parties are leaning left or right neglecting the middle– the traditional home of American parties, trust has eroded in government, education, religion, and political parties—once the anchors of American life. As humans we move forward without a crystal-clear vision of the future.

The good news is that we have come through such darkness before,” American historian Jon Meacham, points out. “There is a natural tendency in American life to think that things were always better in the past . . . Nostalgia is a powerful force and in the maelstrom of the moment many of us seek comfort in imagining that once there was a Camelot—without quite remembering that the Arthurian legend itself was a court riven by ambition and infidelity.”  

Human failings occur in every generation, but we need to guard against one person’s human frailties undermining our democracy. We know, as did the Founders, that no one person holds all knowledge necessary to run a country that now stretches to 329 million people. One person is not capable of making all the decisions. But we are linked together, no matter our position in life, for better or worse. 

Linked together as one people and one nation. The week before he died in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this unity while preaching at the National Cathedral two weeks before Easter.  

“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of  mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King Jr. 

Government of the People

The concept of “government by the people” traces back at least to John Locke (Second Treatise of Government (1690), which formed a foundation upon which our Founders stood. (Before that the “divine rights of kings” ruled as monarchs, who owned massive amounts of land and forced others to work for them growing and harvesting their food, making the land productive while the serfs remained in poverty. 

In “Democracy,” a fancy word for “we the people,” we together make the decisions, not a single person or body of people. But democracy can be endangered without constant attention and support, through decisions that limit registered voters from the deck against candidates or voters of either party, or lock out new candidates through intimidation.  

In this American Republic, we elect people to represent us since we can’t all gather in one place, like the Colonists in New England once did, to make our choices known. To protect the nation from the fallibility of future leaders, the Founders built in a system of checks and balances to help ensure that leaders would not ignore the Constitution or the will of the people. In order for that system to work, we need to vote our choices and communicate with our representatives. Standing up to be counted during local, state, and national elections is vitally important and a key responsibility for all citizens. Democracy can be challenged, trampled upon, and experience tough times, but now is not the time to quit. Our combined power can yield a government that will serve us.  

Working to Achieve a Future Built on Hope

Building a future on hope and effort yields a better outcome than one based on sedentary fear—Action vs. Inaction. Act using the website: www.Vote 411.org. By putting in your zip code, you can learn where to register and receive a sample ballot for your precinct, no matter where you live in the United States.  

The deadlines for the 2019 November elections are coming up in the next few days in Texas and other states. Once you’re registered, you can vote early in many parts of the country—check your state’s Election Commission website for dates, times, and locations. Where it’s possible, consider early voting. Don’t risk missing out—this is what you do for yourself and for your country. If these words do not move you, listen to Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady during World War II:  

“The course of history is directed by the choices we make and our choices grow out of the ideas,  the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that  determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voice of the  people themselves.”     Eleanor Roosevelt, Tomorrow is Now. 1862

One action, your vote, can impact a nation. 

Notes:

  1. The nation’s demographic profile is changing.”  Peter Wehner, The Death of Politics, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019) 43-45. 
  2.  “The good news” Jon Meacham, The Soul of America, (New York: Random House, 2018) p. 5 
  3. 329 million—2018 U.S. Population Clock, U.S. Census. 
  4. “We are all tied together” Martin Luther King Jr. , A Testament of Hope: Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by James Melvin Washington. San Francisco. HarperOne, 2003 
  5. Eleanor Roosevelt. Tomorrow is Now. New York: Penguin Books, 2012. First published in 1963, the year after she died.