Sometimes You Just Need A Hero

Sometimes, when the fear sweeping the nation spills from the front pages of the papers and TV and into my psyche, I take refuge in the TV shows and heroes of my youth – when all things were possible and so much of today was impossible.

I find reruns of “Gunsmoke” or “The Rifleman” or “Have Gun Will Travel”. The vistas were clean, serene and endless, even if they were black and white. The good guys always won. Love overcame evil. Children did stupid things, but came away stronger every time.

One of the best “mid-century” movies was “High Noon”. Its story structure, directing, and cinematography were so terse and focused, they are still taught in film classes. The tension came from a sheriff’s fruitless effort for community help against four thugs who were coming to kill him and take over the town. There wasn’t a shot fired until the last 15 minutes or so. There were some bruises and a little blood, but Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly left the story and us secure in their happiness and the future. 

I miss other icons of the era, too. Like Andy Griffith and his son Opie. The worst thing they had to deal with was a well-meaning idiot of a deputy. Can you imagine that today?  

What I miss most about those shows wasn’t their reality. It was their aspiration. The lives they presented weren’t anywhere close to real, but they gave us some good examples to follow: honesty, loyalty, courage, gentle humor, a hopeful future.

I take refuge in the non-fiction heroes of that era, too, especially President Dwight Eisenhower. 

He was born in Denison, Texas and grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He loved the outdoors and reading the history books his mother had collected. He graduated from West Point in 1915, part of “the class the stars fell on”, because 59 members eventually became general officers

He applied for, but was rejected, for European duty in WWI. 

In 1919 he commanded an Army convoy that traveled from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. 80 vehicles, with breakdowns and natural roadblocks, took 62 days to get there, an average speed of 5 miles per hour. 

The Supreme Commander of the Allies in Europe during WWII, he coalesced a military from widely divergent countries, from Russia to Britain to the US, and aimed them unerringly at the Third Reich.  

He made tough decisions and always took responsibility for them. In the event the Invasion of France had failed, he drafted a memo ahead of time: “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

His convoy to San Francisco and his post-war visit to Hitler’s Autobahn combined to inspire his bill authorizing the Interstate Highway System, which we are dependent on today.

In his first State of The Union address: “I propose to use whatever authority exists in the office of the President to end segregation in the District of Columbia, including th the Federal Government and any segregation in the Armed Forces”.

He expanded Truman’s integration of the Army to include the Navy: “we shall not take a single backward step. There must be no second class citizens in this country.”

He proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, and, when Governor Faubus of Arkansas refused to integrate schools, sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to do it for him. That was the first time federal troops had been used in the South since the Civil War.  

He got us out of the Korean War, and kept us out of any war for both of his terms. He was the last President to do so.

Those were the days when most people felt the next generation would do better than they did. And we did. I’m not so sure of that for my kids or their kids.

Eisenhower, and the fictional heroes of the time, had integrity, compassion, and courage. We called that “character”.  And the country soared.

It may be wishful thinking, but I don’t see why we can’t have that kind of a leader again. 

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Remember Life Before Global Warming?

The wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington, the triple digit heat waves in those states plus Arizona, Texas, and others – it all takes me back to those days of yore when we first learned about global warming.

Remember Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth? Remember all those people who called him an alarmist tree hugger and worse? Remember the Paris Climate Agreement, when so many countries got together to prevent Global Warming (or Climate Change. Potato to you; potato to me) ? Those were the days, right? 

When I was a teenager, you could go for a hike in the mountains and, if you were thirsty, simply drink from a stream. The only caution was to drink the water that bubbled through rocks – less mud that way. 

No one drinks from streams nowadays – too risky for your health.  

The smog in LA and, to a lesser extent, New York or Chicago was the big environmental worry in the mid-20th century. The term “smog” came from England, combining “smoke” and “fog”. LA appropriated it to describe their combination of air (ozone) and auto exhaust. In the 1940’s it blocked LA visibility as throughly as a dense London fog.

In 1969, I was in Cleveland, Ohio when the chemicals in the Cuyahoga River caught fire and Cleveland became a national joke. I left soon after for a new job (and a less humorous address).

Starting in the 1960’s, Congress enacted various Clean Air Acts, each one a bit better than its predecessor. Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Clean Air Act of 1970 established some environmental regulations with teeth, cleaning LA’s air and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River on the way. The rest of the country benefitted too. The EPA has helped clean the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the waste we create, as well as protect wildlife. It didn’t take us back to the days when nature ruled, but it has helped slow the path to global warming.  

Until recently. 

Among other policies designed to cut regulations, the Trump Administration has seriously cut or weakened environmental protections. The National Geographic recently published a list of 15 changes he’s made just to the EPA. 

Here are a few:

Criminal prosecutions by the EPA are at a 30 year low.

In June 2017, he pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, thereby weakening the worldwide effort against global warming.

In August 2017, he weakened the 1972 Clean Water Act which governs pollution of our water ways, effecting, not only our drinking water, but wildlife habitats across the country. 

In October, 2017, he rolled back the Clean Power Plan, which  required the energy sector of the country to cut carbon emissions by 32% by 2030.

Also in 2017, he narrowed the definition of what constitutes a federally protected river or waterway, endangering not just wildlife, but our drinking water too. 

In December, 2017, he removed climate change from the list of national security threats.  

In July of 2018, he redefined the Endangered Species Act to favor economic and commercial considerations over wildlife.  

In August, 2018,  he rescinded regulations about the release of methane flares. Methane traps heat, so even a little more methane in the atmosphere adds a lot more warming to the planet. 

Also in August of 2018, he lowered fuel economy targets from 54 miles per gallon by 2025 to 34 miles per gallon by 2034. Higher fuel economy would have brought lower car emissions, which would have slowed global warming. 

In August, 2019, he weakened the Endangered Species Act, which had brought the bald eagle, the American alligator, the California condor, the humpback whale, and the grizzly bear back from the brink of extinction. His action gave oil and gas companies access to more areas for drilling. 

These are just a few on the National Geographic list. And remember, their list is just a few from the whole list. Environmentalists from Rachel Carson to Al Gore, have been warning of the dire consequences of this kind of action for years. 

If you wonder why Trump hasn’t given more credence to environmental scientists from here and around the world, just tune into one of his press conferences about Covid19 (or Hannity, Carlson, or Ingraham). 

If you like hunting or fishing, boating or hiking, gardening, or just clean air and water for yourself or your family, you might want to think about four more years of this.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

Changing The Role Society Made For Us

On April 4, 1968 at 6:01pm (or 6:05 p.m. depending on your source),  Martin Luther King was assassinated by a white man named James Earl Ray.

The next day, Jane Elliot, a third grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, decided to teach her kids about racism. For the next week, third graders with brown eyes were given privileges, extra time at recess, front seats during class, that sort of thing. Kids with blue eyes sat in the back of the rooms, had shorter recess and less respect. 

“I watched wonderful, thoughtful children turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating little third graders,” she says of the experiment. 

The following week the kids switched roles: the blue-eyed third graders became privileged; the brown-eyed kids became under-privileged.

Each week, those with privilege were happier, more confident, and did better in school. Those without privileges became depressed, lost confidence, and performed poorly in school.

Jane Elliot continues teaching her “Blue-eyes/Brown-eyes Exercise”, in various ways and to all ages, to this day. 

You’d think that would have changed the country, right? 

Look around.

Three years later, in 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo got a grant from the US Office of Naval Research, to conduct the Stanford Prison Experiment. He had a mock jail constructed in the basement of one of the school buildings and divided 24 Stanford students into two groups: prisoners and guards. Each student was paid $15/day. The prisoners were placed into eight cells, with three people in each. The experiment was designed to last two weeks, just like Elliot’s.

Zimbardo encouraged the “guards” to establish an atmosphere of oppression and tyranny, duplicating prisons across the country. As with Jane Elliot’s third graders, the Stanford “prisoners” immediately became depressed; some became rebellious. The experiment was so traumatic that five “prisoners” were released within four days, the entire experiment cancelled after six days. 

”Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency;” said Zimbardo later in his book The Lucifer Effect”.

You would think that, so soon after King’s murder, the clear proof of what unbridled power and racism – for those who have it and those who are subjected to it – does to humans in those two events,  would have swept the nation and brought about immediate change, right?

Look around again. 

Both stories have appeared in books, on TV shows, and a movie, for years. Did they change anything? Nope.

So that’s pretty scary. 

But the key to these two stories, to me, is not the cruelty; it is the speed with which cruelty was implanted in these students. It didn’t take months or years or generations, as we all tend to assume when we talk about racism. It took a day, maybe. And reached down into the very soul of those involved.

Humans have always been pack animals. It’s an instinct that saved us from the predators, not to mention pandemics… and wars. 

When students start in a new school, they immediately become loyal to the new school and student body. When we move from one city to another, we become loyal to the new city’s sports teams. We become loyal to our company, our clubs, our new friends’s friends. Leaders, whether education, military, corporate, or political, count on that loyalty to fuel success. 

It’s why many of us have so easily been turned into racists. 

That’s the bad news. And the good news.

Richard Yacco, one of the student prisoners, who teaches at an inner-city school in Oakland, California said, “One thing that I thought was interesting about the experiment was whether, if you believe society has assigned you a role, do you then assume the characteristics of that role?”

His answer: people “fall into the role their society has made for them.”

If society’s leaders – be they schoolteachers, college professors, corporate CEO’s, or US Presidents – can assign us the role of racists, they can just as easily assign us the role of non-racists. 

Good leaders can influence societies, can assign us new roles. It may have taken 400 years for white Americans to see our racism. But it doesn’t have to take that long to turn it around. Philip G. Zimbardo and Jane Elliot have already proven that.

To do that we need good leaders, more and more of them, until we all take on the same role and race: human.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

How I’ve been dealing with Covid19

Like all of life, there are goods and bads about isolating from the Covid19.

The bads are obvious: I’ve had to stay out of movie theaters, bars, and the gym. 

Actually, I don’t go to the movies that much anyway. The theaters are frequently filled with hard-of-hearing old people who like to talk as loudly watching movies in the theater as they do watching TV at home. 

So, I decided to just stay home and watch TV. The dog doesn’t seem to mind my talking loudly at all.

And I miss the bars, but they are really loud, don’t you think? All those “Gen -whatever’s” talking and laughing so loudly. No respect for us elders.

And what’s with all these new wines?  What happened to “scotch and soda… jigger of gin”?

As for the gym… I was just kidding. 

I haven’t seen my kids in forever, which has not been easy. On the other hand I don’t have to hear my questions from  their college years coming back at me. Are you getting enough sleep, Dad? Did you remember to change the oil in the car, Dad? You didn’t call last night, Dad; where were you?  

Speaking of which, I’ve discovered a new diet. Eating my own cooking. 

I’ve also been watching a lot of old TV shows, like Andy Griffith, Cheers, Friends, etc. 

It’s fascinating. People were so naive then. They sat next to each other on the couch, on the subway, and in restaurants. They even walked next to each other – side by side – and nowhere near 6 feet apart! 

Some people actually stood and wrapped their arms around each other – and smiled! Or held another person’s hand in theirs …and… shook it! 

You know what was the most shocking? Some people pressed pressed lips with each other then… on purpose!  

Those old 20th century customs were so darned weird. 

Although, strangely, I felt a subtle kinship. Must be proof of a previous life.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)

How About Taking A Gap Year, America?

During my sophomore year at a college far away from home, I visited a friend in El Paso for spring vacation. On the last day of vacation, instead of going back for the spring semester, we impulsively (and very sophomorically) pooled our meager cash and went to Mexico (Note to any imlulsive or sophomoric readers: This was WAY before Mexico got dangerous). In those days, you could get chicken soup (with lots of chicken) and tortillas for a peso, roughly 25 cents at the time. That was our meal of choice…for nearly every meal. By the end of the trip I could cluck with a Spanish accent.

We met all kinds of people during this gap semester, from hookers on a train (who taught me the real meaning of Mexican word “casa”. And no, dirty minds- we just talked) to a guy who owned the third biggest liquor import/export business in Mexico, and helped make Kahlua world famous. We rode in 3rd class sections of buses and trains, stayed in cheap hotels or worse, and had a ball. When we got back to the border, we not only couldn’t prove we had had small pox shots, we didn’t have enough money to pay for them. The border patrol gave us the shots anyway.

We learned more in those three months than I ever have expected. No lectures. No classes. No homework. Instead, all three in one never-boring, always fun (if scary once or twice) three month learning curve. The lark had turned into a lesson. 

But you know what was really weird? Once we got back to school my earlier C’s and B’s became almost all A’s. And I took as many extra courses as I could.  

A gap semester, a gap year, can be good. There’s a lot to learn outside of the classroom. Get out in nature, read, take on-line courses, listen to Ted Talks, volunteer, journal, paint or draw, watch Youtube or other other streaming sites, learn about everything from drawing to knitting to insects, birds, rivers, lakes and oceans, to history, to writing your first great novel. Play games, like bridge, checkers and chess, even backgammon. It is all good for the intellect and the soul.

And the best part: no grades; it’s like going back in time to when you were a kid and learning anything – from whether dog poop was edible to… how to escape a really angry mother – was pure fun.

Who cares if kids graduate a few months or a year late? The school of life will make up for it; I promise.

In the early days of the country and for generations before, students frequently had one mentor who gave them lists of books to read. That was it: books. That’s how people from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln became so smart. They read books, by themselves, without chalkboards or team learning or SAT exams.

And think of the lives you might save by taking a gap year. Until we have a vaccine or a treatment for COVID19, we’re nearly helpless. Despite every avoidance trick in the book, from just closing our eyes and refusing to accept the danger of Covid19 to trying to reopen the economy, seeing a spurt of new cases followed the inevitable “Oops!”, and shutting it back down, we can’t make this disease go away. 

Distancing and masks are the only options. The only ones. 

Now, if you think it’s your right to go without a mask, be my guest. Please. Hang out at the nearest bar or concert. Take your like-minded friends with you. Have fun. Hug each other. Slap each other on the back and raise a glass to your American exceptionalism. And, after you’ve had so much fun, go home to your family and friends and give them them hugs, too. And mentally or otherwise flip-off people like Cuomo and Fauci, because of their total lack of macho.

But remember, macho doesn’t allow tears when that crowd you hang with, the tight-knit family you cherish including your favorite grandparents, thins out permanently.

No tears allowed when, instead of a gap year, you have a big, yawning, gap in your life.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)