A Few Earth Day Observations (from eight years ago)

The following post has been briefly edited from its origin eight years ago. It remains pertinent today. Progress has been made, but some progress has been waylaid. We need to move more rapidly than before.

Today is a good day to reflect on what more we can do to protect our planet and make it a life-sustaining environment for eons to come. Below are a few odds and ends for your review as well.

It is all about water and air

These are our dearest resources. We must be vigilant on how we use and impact these resources. I have written recently about “water is the new oil.” We can not only avoid polluting our precious resource, we have to be very thoughtful about its overall supply. Do not let anyone tell you this is not a major issue.

On the air side, we must guard against the emissions that come from the mining, collection, use and disposal of fossils fuels and petro-chemicals. For those who want to protect our kids from future debt problems, this will impact their health and the debt in far greater way, with the high cost of fixing problems and tending to those impacted mentally and physically.

Some skeptics will see the word “mentally” and say that is overblown. Yet, one of the key tenets of Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s books “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah” is most environmental models look at the impact of pollution on a 50-year-old man. The models need to look at the impact on children who are of lesser weight, closer to the ground, mouth breathe more, put hand to mouth more, and have developing brains. The data are showing the impact of various chemical pollutants heightens the propensity to certain mental and physical challenges such as autism and its various manifestations, asthma and other breathing disorders and more premature births which creates a vicious cycle for future health issues. Her data are very compelling and her voice needs to be heard.

Global warming will accelerate many bad things

In her books, Dr. Steingraber, who is an ecologist, biologist, and bladder cancer survivor, also notes that a problem we do not talk enough about in the discussion of global warming is its impact on the toxins that are in our air, water and environment. She says it is like a chemical crockpot. As the earth warms, so will these toxins and our ability to reduce them will be challenged. She highlights her bladder cancer as a bellweather cancer, as it is typically caused by environmental issues. She had other relatives nearby who also had bladder cancer – the key is she was adopted, so it was environmental not hereditary.

We are already seeing worse things in the global warming models than forecasted, so as one of the US’s political parties is fiddling, Rome is burning. Last year at this time, I read a report that showed hurricanes will more significantly impact the coastal regions with the higher sea levels. The analogy used is it is easier to dunk a basketball when the court is raised. This was before Hurricane Sandy which many scientists note was heightened by the raised sea levels. In addition to lives, livelihoods, and homes, the cost to fix is at least the $50 billion the federal government provided in January.

The other predictions in the model are heightened forest fire prevalence and intensity, worsened droughts in the drier areas along with more stalled weather systems. So some areas get way too much precipitation, while others get way too little. The human and economic cost of these worsening conditions is huge says Mercer Investment Consulting and major pension trust sponsors around the globe. This study done in 2011 talked of these increasing forest fires, worsening droughts, and intensifying hurricanes, which had already been occurring and are now more prevalent around the globe.

Already too much carbon in the air

People like to talk about global warming as a future event, yet as noted above, it is already impacting our lives. We have too much carbon in the air today and it will only get worse. China is firing up more coal plants and Beijing is coming closer to being an inhabitable city. If you do not believe this, then ask why it is getting harder for companies to get their ex pats to move and stay there.

There are solutions in addition to moving more quickly away from fossil fuels. We need to adopt older ways of grazing cattle that will let the grasslands flourish. We need to plant even more trees than we are doing now and stop taking them down at such an accelerated rate. And, we need to move more food growth and distribution closer to the sale and consumption of food. The greener areas will absorb more carbon at of the atmosphere and coupled with more renewable energy sources, will move us down the right path.

And it is not just humans

Finally, our ability to survive on this planet is not just in human hands. We are seeing the impact of global warming and environmental toxins on animals, fish and insects that matter to us. The honey bee population continues to fall and the culprit is most likely the pesticides sprayed on adjacent crops. These bees cross-pollinate a non-inconsequential percentage of our food and farmers and beekeepers are worried.

Our coral reefs are dying off in greater numbers. The Great Barrier Reef outside of Australia is shrinking for example. This is of vital importance due to the numbers of fish and other species that swim and grow there. And, species we do not eat are eaten by species we do. So, it is a major concern. And, closer to home the populations of cod are much smaller in Cape Cod, so the fishermen have to go further out to sea.  The US Fisheries Department has been tracking the impact of global warming on fish populations for over ten years, while the fiddlers still fiddle.

And, in the animal species, it is not just polar bears who are being impacted. The huge amount of fracking going on in our national parklands is impacting animals there. In Pennsylvania, small animals and birds are impacted by drinking the chemically laden water that cannot be kept out of the water supply. There is a domino effect that will impact us humans at some point, either directly, or through the animals, fish and insects we come in contact with.

Conserve and advocate

Now that I have scared the crap out of you, what can we do? Continue to conserve, compost and reuse. Do small things and big things. I wrote a post on last year’s Earth Day about conservation. But, also advocate. Change the conversation with others and leaders. Write them and be matter of fact. If someone starts a conversation about their doubts over global warming, say “that train has left the station, we need to talk about what to do about it.” If they insist, say “97% of scientists believe it to be so and only 26% of Republican Congresspeople. I choose to believe the 97% of scientists.” My advice is to not to debate the obvious, but discuss what to do about it. It will change the tenor of the conversation to be action-oriented.

And, that is precisely what is needed – action. We really do not have any time or resources to waste. Happy Earth Day.

Internal Bleeding – Be your own Health Care Advocate

The following post was written about nine years ago. Since that time, some of the changes noted below have taken shape, but the message remains important. Be your own health care advocate.

A few years ago, two doctors looking to improve the quality of health care in the US, wrote a book called “Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes.” Since Drs. Robert Wachter and Kaveh Shojania wrote their book, improvements have and continue to be made, but with the concern over the US’ 38th position in health care quality, while being the most expensive system in the world (according to the World Health Organization), I think it is appropriate to belabor a few of their key points, in particular, being your own health care advocate.

In today’s world, we must be the navigators of any customer service we receive whether it is at a bank, the driver’s license office or in a retail store. We must be diplomatically relentless in trying to gain the service we expect and need to resolve an issue. Service providers, in particular those in a Call Center, need to stay on script as much as possible. When your problems get them off script, then your navigation diplomacy skills are needed the most.  I mention this as context for what we also must do in gleaning good health care service.

A few years back there was a study conducted by a combined group called the “Leapfrog Group” to improve the quality of health care in hospitals. Leapfrog came up with three major ideas – (1) Electronic orders were a must (poorly written prescription orders were killing people), (2) Intensive Care units need to always have a doctor on site and (3) Medical procedures of import need to be done in centers of excellence, not where a hospital may have done only a handful of surgeries in this area. “Internal Bleeding” echoes many of these same issues, especially the one on electronic order taking. Yet, they also go beyond these Leapfrog issues.

They noted that often times in hospitals, fewer critical questions are asked closer to the time of the procedure. Sometimes, the critical mistake may have occurred very early in the process. They used the analogy of all of the holes in Swiss cheese aligning to allow a mistake to pass all the way through. They used the example at Duke University where a famous heart transplant for a minor child occurred. The doctors at this very fine medical center, one of the best, were so excited when a heart of a young deceased donor became available, that they assumed others had checked that the type of blood of the donor matched the patient. It did not and the patient died. Similar examples occurred when doctors operated on the wrong leg, arm, kidney, lung, etc. The doctors failed to ask the very basic of questions and assumed these issues had been resolved.

In addition to the above and related to the Rx orders, the authors advocate the patient understand fully what is being done to them in the hospital or before they get there. They recommend you introduce yourself to every care giver who comes into the room, ask questions of them relative to medications you are being given and make them fully aware of other medications you are taking. They recommend if you cannot speak for yourself or are uncomfortable in so-doing, to delegate this important role to someone you trust. In other words, they are recommending being your own health care advocate. This will help minimize mistakes.

Health care is both a science and an art. It also is a trial and error business, so the doctors may not know for certain what is wrong with you and have to figure it out. They will do their best, but they do not know you very well or at all. So, you have to play the role of information provider and advocate.  Using the authors’ recommendation supplemented by other sources of information and experience, you must be your own health care advocate and do the following to get the care you expect and need.

– Write as good a summary of your and your family medical history as possible. Make it available to others you trust who may need to speak on your behalf.

– Before you see the doctor, write down your symptoms and questions as you may get stage fright when you see the doctor’s white coat.

– Do not be scared to ask questions, especially if you do not understand the diagnosis or remedy – he or she is there to serve you. I tell my kids you show your intelligence by asking questions, not by failing to ask.

– Get a second opinion on major diagnoses. For example, it takes a lot of practice to read a mammogram correctly and a non-inconsequential percentage of misdiagnoses occur. Using this example, computers cannot take the place of human fingers in doing a self-test. If you feel a lump and the first mammogram shows negative, get a second opinion.

– Make sure you inform your doctors and pharmacists what drugs you are taking. There are a number of drugs that contraempt the drug you need (make its use less effective) and some which are toxic when taken together. I ask my pharmacist questions all the time about some over counter drugs that may be harmful when taken with the prescriptions my family is taking, including me.

– Take your medications as prescribed and through the dosage. Many people stop taking their meds when they start feeling better.

– Be truthful with the doctor about your drinking and extra-curricular drug use. Doctors tend to believe patients understate their drinking, so help them out and tell them the truth. You drink more than you say you do.

– Make sure you get treatment for a major problem at a place that does a lot of what you need – a center of excellence. This is especially true with back or spinal surgeries and surgeries on any major organs. If you are having heart surgery, do you want it done where they have done 25 in the past year or 250, e.g? I have two friends who are having major back complications after spinal surgeries were done poorly.

– Get all the information you can around procedures to make informed decisions. In some cases, living with a mild discomfort with medication may be better than invasive surgery. Ask the doctor what are the options, what are the chances for success and what are the risks. If he/ she doesn’t know, ask him/ her with whom you can speak.

– Be diplomatically relentless with Call Center personnel at insurance companies. Mistakes do occur and sometimes you may be allergic to a substituted generic prescription. So, you can appeal a claim if you feel under-served.

– This one comes courtesy of Dr. Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, biologist and cancer survivor. Family history needs to recognize your environment as well. She was adopted, but her bladder cancer at the age of 21, also occurred in other family members who lived nearby (as well as other cancers). Bladder cancer is a bell-weather cancer. It is largely caused by environmental toxins. If your family, neighbors or community has some longevity in an area and more than one or two bladder cancers have occurred, start doing some fact-finding. It may be more than a coincidence. Since people move around, showing environmental causes is difficult as the exposure may have occurred years before.

– Finally, take care of yourself in a sustainable way. Walk more. Reduce portions. Eat more slowly and ingest more calories earlier in the day. These measures can be sustained whereas diets cannot.

These are just a few ideas, but the key message is be your own health care advocate as you are the only constant in any equation about your health. If you feel you cannot serve this role well, please take a trusted friend or family member with you. Doctors and nurses are marvelous care givers, but they are not perfect. You have to improve their service by being present in the conversations. It is only your or your children’s lives.

Rocket Girl – the story of Mary Sherman Morgan (a reprise)

The following post was written about eight years ago. It bears repeating to honor our first female rocket scientist.

Per the description of the biography called  “Rocket Girl” by George D. Morgan about his mother on the Amazon website: “This is the extraordinary true story of America’s first female rocket scientist, told by her son. It describes Mary Sherman Morgan’s crucial contribution to launching America’s first satellite and the author’s labyrinthine journey to uncover his mother’s lost legacy – a legacy buried deep under a lifetime of secrets political, technological, and personal. Blending a fascinating personal history with dramatic historical events taking place on the world stage, this compelling narrative brings long-overdue attention to a modest but brilliant woman whose work proved essential for America’s early space program. In 1938, a young German rocket enthusiast named Wernher von Braun had dreams of building a rocket that could fly him to the moon.

On the opposite side of the world, a young farm girl named Mary Sherman was attending high school in Ray, North Dakota. In an age when girls rarely dreamed of a career in science, Mary wanted to be a chemist. A decade later the dreams of these two disparate individuals would coalesce in ways neither could have imagined. In a vivid narrative, Morgan relates how World War II and the Cold War space race with the Russians changed the fates of both von Braun and his mother. When von Braun and other top engineers could not find a solution to the repeated failures that plagued the nascent US rocket program, North American Aviation, where Mary Sherman Morgan then worked, was given the challenge. Recognizing her talent for chemistry, company management turned the assignment over to young Mary.

In the end, America succeeded in launching rockets into space, but only because of the joint efforts of the brilliant farm girl from North Dakota and the famous German scientist. While von Braun went on to become a high-profile figure in NASA’s manned space flight, Mary Sherman Morgan and her contributions fell into obscurity.” You can see more about the book with the following link:

http://www.amazon.com/Rocket-Girl-Sherman-Americas-Scientist/dp/1616147393

I learned of Mary Sherman Morgan the other day while watching PBS Newshour. They interviewed her son George about his book about his mother, the rocket scientist. Many things strike me about this story. First, her talent could not be restrained by the social limitations of the day. She succeeded in spite of being the “only woman in the room” on almost every occasion. To do what she did with the constant push back, both verbally and non-verbally, speaks volumes of both her ability and character. Whether due to race, ethnicity or gender, to always be the lone different one in a group of people, takes some chutzpah to succeed that many don’t have.

Second, she was an unassuming woman. Her family and friends had little, if any, understanding of the huge role she played in the US space program. She did not wish to be in the limelight and because of her gender, no one pushed her into it. So, others took her portion of the credit for the glory and she was OK by that. Her son wrote this book to tell the real story. He had to do a lot of digging. His mom made a difference and others need to know about it what she did.

I am a father of three, with my daughter the youngest at age 16. I want every opportunity for her and do not want anyone to limit her because of her gender. That is grossly unfair to her and society. Unfortunately, women do not get these opportunities in many places around the globe. I have said often, on top of the gross unfairness, it is economically suicidal for a country to limit the opportunities of at least half of its intellectual capital. What if they have a Mary Sherman Morgan in their midst, but deny her educational opportunity? They would never realize the potential of her ability.

This is why it so important for all of us to push and keep pushing for equal opportunity. It is imperative that all people be treated with dignity and be in a safe and secure environment. I personally do not care what religion you follow, but if your group’s interpretation of your scripture puts down women and treats them like possessions, then either you need to get a better interpretation or maybe find a new religion. Social justice is a moral imperative. We must treat all with respect and just because you’re a man, does not mean you should get more than your fair share.

To flourish, we need more Mary Sherman Morgans in our world. If we have them and let them be successful, our world will be a better place. You go, Rocket Girl!

32 million fewer words – a reprise from nine years ago

While reading David Brooks’ excellent book called “The Social Animal,” I was alerted to a key result of classic study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas. One of the conclusions of the study is by the age of four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than those raised in professional family households. Breaking this down to an hourly basis, children of poor families hear on average 178 utterances of words per hour as compared to 487 words per hour in a professional family home.

And, it is not just what they hear, it is the emotional tone. There tended to be far more encouraging words than discouraging words in the professional home setting. Translating this to today’s time, there is a greater propensity to see single head of household families in impoverished families, so with one less adult and with the greater stress of earning a paycheck, doing housework and raising children lends itself to fewer conversations to hear those missing words.

In my volunteer work with homeless families and tutoring underprivileged children, I witness this first hand. I see kids who are having to overcome more obstacles than the very difficult one of coming from a homeless or impoverished household. They are starting school even further behind than the other children and will have to work hard to catch up. Just using the tutoring example, the two 5th graders I tutored were smart children, they just needed more time, targeted explanation and encouragement. The encouragement is as or more important than the first two needs.

In this same book, Mr. Brooks introduced me to a Greek term called “thumos.” We apparently don’t have an identical match in our language, but the word explains a lot of what we all need, but especially children. Thumos is the desire for recognition and union. People want to be recognized for their contributions, but through such recognition they want to have a sense of belonging. Translating this to the 5th graders, the children reacted well to the recognition of their efforts and especially the successes. When they “got it” it was like giving them the keys to the kingdom. It truly exhilarated me as much as it did them. To see their faces light up at the moments of clarity was truly joyous. High fives and fist bumps seemed to be insufficient to celebrate the moments.

I mention the tutoring as I see the resolution to this effort as “taking a village to raise a child.” This African proverb is very much on point, as parents, teachers and counselors all need our support to help these children climb their individual ladders out of poverty. Why is this important for everyone? Education is probably the greatest challenge for our country as we have fallen asleep at the switch and will not be able to compete as well in the future. I do not have any statistics for what I am about to state, but I believe our best can compete with others’ best students. I think other countries have caught up and made this echelon highly competitive. Yet, when you get beneath this small sliver of talent, I think other countries are kicking our hind end all over the place.

The jobs of the future are not the jobs of the past. Even manufacturing jobs and high skilled blue-collar jobs require an understanding of technology that may not have been required to the same extent before. If our children are not educated we will continue to be left behind. There are too many examples of where the United States is not in the calculus of whether to invest in a facility, but the one I like to use, is Mercedes had to dumb down their manuals on how to build their car for the plant they built in Alabama. They had to use more pictures than words. If we cannot offer an employer a capable workforce, they will find it elsewhere and they do.

So, what do we about finding those 32 million words? And, what do we do from that point forward? In this age of budget cuts, which are totally understandable, we have to be zealous in defending educational investment. We have to invest in pre-school programs to help kids get off to a better start. The “Smart Start” and “More Before Four” programs do pay dividends and we need to find more ways to reach kids. And, we need to invest in our teachers – we need more and higher quality of teachers, but we need to give them the freedom to tailor their teaching.

We need to continue the focus on providing resources to parents through the various “Parent Universities.” To my earlier example, we need more volunteers to help tutor, mentor and baby sit while the parents attend self-education or teacher conferences, etc. In my work with helping homeless families, the significant majority of whom are employed, I come across a contingent that cannot be swayed from their belief that all homeless people are bums and addicts. I have argued until I am blue in the face to dissuade them from this erroneous belief, but the one area I do get some nods of approval, are to say let’s set aside the parent(s) and focus on the kids. They did not choose to be homeless. If we help them, we can break the cycle of homelessness. Quoting a forward-thinking minister, he said “we have no idea of the untapped intellectual capital that may reside in these kids in poverty.”

So, spending in the area of helping children is not only the right thing to do, it is the smartest investment we could possibly make. I need only look at the second prize winner in a recent Intel science project who was a former homeless child. Yet, we also need to spend money on organizations like “Planned Parenthood.” This organization has become a pawn in an idiotic political game. As an Independent voter, this pariah status placed on such an important organization makes me ill. There are numerous studies that show causal relationships between family size and poverty in the US and abroad. In the work on homeless families I do, I tend to see larger families than in non-poverty settings. I place a lot of criticism on the churches for this. Birth control is used by many women and men, but it is not as available or universally understood as needed in all segments of our population.

One of my old colleagues who is an African-American woman told me how frustrated she was at her minister and church leaders. She said the teenage kids in her congregation are so misinformed about pregnancy and STD risk. As an example, some told her they heard you could not get pregnant if you had intercourse standing up! When she went to her minister to see if they could offer some guidance she was scoffed at.  Abstinence is the only thing they will teach. Well, as a 53-year-old let me state what everyone seems to know but the church leadership – kids are going to experiment and have sex. You can preach all you want, but it will not stop that train. So, we must embrace planned parenthood and the use of birth control. And, to me what better place to teach than in church. In many respects, I think some ministers and church leaders are misusing their authority to not be forthcoming with these kids. Please note through all of this discussion, I did not use the word abortion; I see that as its own issue with its own debate. I am speaking of birth control which is used by well over 90% of Catholic women, a fact the Catholic church tends to overlook.

You probably did not expect a discussion on education to include planned parenthood and birth control. Yet, I see them linked with the causal relationship I noted above between poverty and family size. Having an unfettered number of children, will put the family and children at risk. I love children, but with the cost of raising a child the way it is, I don’t think I could afford a fourth child. Yet, my wife and I have access to birth control and governed our family size to a manageable level. We would have loved a fourth child, but we have the family size we want. I think many church goers would say the same thing.

However, I would prefer to end on a more targeted note and that is the volunteerism. I described the need for the help, but also the joy to the giver. The gift of your time is immeasurable to those in need, but it will lift you up as well. At our agency that helps homeless families, where we do not permit the proselytizing to those in need, our executive director likes to say “who is witnessing to whom?” Our volunteers get as much out of the experience that the families do. The families are witnessing to the givers. So, find some way to give back. It will be a fulfilling experience. Match your passions with the needs in the community. My wife likes to say on her involvement “I am giving these kids a soft place to land.” Let’s all provide these soft places to land and help find the missing words in the children’s lives. You may even find a few words for yourself.

You’ve got to be carefully taught – one more time for emphasis

With yet one more racially motivated mass shooting, this time toward Asian-Americans, the need to bring out this old reference to carefully teaching bigotry seems sadly, still appropriate. Fear of the unknown has been a powerfully seductive and horrific teacher. We need to call it out and teach the opposite, the stuff that Jesus fellow taught.

For those of you who have seen the play or movie “South Pacific” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, you may recognize part of the title as a pivotal song in the story – “You’ve Got to be CarefullyTaught.” The play involves a woman who falls in love with someone and then realizes his children are half islanders. She has a hard time coming to grips with her bigotry as according to the song, we are not born hating; hatred has to be carefully taught. A sample of Hammerstein’s lyrics follow:

“You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught, from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little head. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late. Before you are 6 or 7 or 8. To hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

This play was written in 1949 based on excerpts from James Michener’s novel “Tales from the South Pacific.” Rodgers and Hammerstein knew precisely what they were doing with this novel and lyrics as America was full bore in its civil rights crisis and more reasonable people were questioning why? Bigotry, hatred, bias – it has to be drummed into you before it’s too late. Before you can think for yourself.

Yesterday, I saw a picture above a story about the Boy Scouts and their delaying a decision to allow gays in their ranks. As a father of three, this picture was very disheartening as it showed young scouts holding up signs which were derogatory to those who are gay. For all the good the Boys Scouts does for young boys, teaching them to be bigoted toward others who happen to have different sexual preference, is not something worthy of a merit badge. For all of the teachings about responsibility, accountability, advocacy, and civility, to carefully teach them it is OK to hate these people because they are different from you is not in keeping with the mission of the Boy Scouts, nor is it in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus said it in many different ways per the bible I learned from. The two that are burned in my memory are “love your neighbors as you love youself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There are no exceptions about being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. And, for that matter, there are no exceptions about them being Atheist, Muslim, Jewish or Agnostic. Words are easy. I have seen people who can inspire with words. Yet, the proof is in the action. What do you do each day? How do you interact with others? I see people everyday treat customer service people or perceived subordinates poorly and treat others in more cordial way.

However, these scouts are learning from us adults, both parents and leaders. I have noted many times before, it disturbs me greatly when spiritual leaders promote bigotry. This is one of the greatest betrayals of their responsibilities I know. Yet, our civic leaders are not much better and tend to be worse on occasion. Right now, Congress cannot pass an act which will make it easier to protect those who experience Violence Against Women. The primary hold up is the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the bill.  Violence against anyone is crime, unless it is self-defense. To distinguish who should be protected more than others based on sexual preference is the height of hypocrisy, especially since the push comes from the evangelical right.

Hatred has to be carefully taught. The Congressional leaders who are against the bill to stop violence against loved ones, should truly be embarassed to be on the wrong side of this issue. Domestic violence is a horrible crime because it happens routinely and consistently until a tipping point occurs. Unfortunately, the tipping point may be a death of a loved one. Women and children are the primary targets, yet others are impacted and should be protected. I have written before about an acquaintance whose sister was killed by her husband and he and his siblings had no idea she was being beaten. They learned the kids, on occasion, would have their father pick them up and beat their heads into the ceiling. What difference does it make if the target is gay or lesbian? This is not right and those Congressional leaders who are against the inclusion of all are “not on the side of the Angels.”

What should and can we do about it? We need to strongly encourage our leaders to think like parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts on most issues. Stop thinking like politicians. When GOP Governor Bobby Jindal says “we need to stop being the stupid party” this is an example of what he is talking about.

But, if we cannot alter the bigotry of the adults, please let’s focus on teaching the kids not to bigoted in their views. By word and deed; by encouragement, mentoring, or by corrective action or admonishment, please encourage people to do their best to follow Jesus’ examples and treat others like we want to be treated. The most important thing of all, is to walk the talk. Do everyday what you are telling them to do. That is what they will remember most.

Let me leave you with an encouraging story, which I may write more about later. The Western-East Divan Orchestra is a highly successful orchestra. But, that is not newsworthy by itself. The news is the orchestra consists of Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranis and Iraqis. The news is the orchestra is right in the hornet’s nest of danger. These teens and young adults come together at great risk to play and collaborate. Many of their friends and relatives judge them harshly for so doing. Yet, they continue because it is important. By working side by side toward a common purpose, they see that the person they are supposed to hate is just like them. They are being carefully taught, this time not to hate, but to get along and play as a unit. We could learn a great deal from these young people and those who lead them.

You’ve got to be carefully taught. My question as a parent – what do you want to teach them?

A Path appears – Women and Children need our help (a reprise for Women’s History Month)

The following post was written almost six years ago, but still holds relevance. On the good news side, more women are running for office and winning elections. And, the US just voted in its first female Vice-President. Yet, these three powerful books remain tough, but essential reads.

Our friend Debra (see link below) has written a review of the much-needed book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn called “Half the Sky.” This is one of the toughest reads you will ever take on as it discusses how women are maltreated around the globe. In addition to how awful it is to the women and children who are subject to this maltreatment including rape, sex slavery, genital mutilation, fistula due to births before the body is able, and domestic violence, it discusses the economic detriment to those communities. The book is based on the Chinese proverb that women hold up half the sky, so if you treat them poorly, you are devaluing your economy, competing with one arm tied behind your back in a world that will leave you behind.

https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/who-cares-about-poor-women/

Kristof and WuDunn have followed up their first book with one called “A Path Appears,” which expands on these issues, but discusses how we can make a difference. We can find a path forward to help women, children and communities in need and how it will do the giver as much good as the receiver. Attached is a New York Times review which provides a review and summary of the book. I have yet to read this book, but have seen the two authors interviewed on PBS Newshour as they discuss how each of us can play a role in helping others.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/a-path-appears-by-nicholas-kristof-and-sheryl-wudunn.html?_r=0

An additional book worth reading on this subject is penned by former President Jimmy Carter called “A Call to Action.” It leverages further the work of Kristof and WuDunn, but brings the arguments home to America as well as speaking to the global problem. While we are only beginning to give notoriety to sexual abuse in the US military and on our college campuses after long ignoring the problems, while we are finally highlighting the impact and prevalence of domestic violence toward women that occurs in our society, we are still largely unaware that we have a non-inconsequential sex trafficking industry within America. We have sex slaves being brought in from other countries in addition to the women stolen from within our own communities.

I have read Carter’s book as well and find his arguments and anecdotes compelling. It is also a difficult, but must read. Carter has been one of the best ex-Presidents we have ever had. He has done more good for humanitarian causes and his voice is a powerful one and full of substance. We should heed his, Kristof and WuDunn’s messages and begin to better address the maltreatment of women.

Our world needs stronger positioning of women. We see the wonderful examples with Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, Christine LaGarde, Director of the International Monetary Fund, and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Prime Minister of Denmark, to name only a few, but need more. When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, while not the first female, she was the most widely known ambassador of the US and made a huge difference to the issue of helping women.

But, we cannot wait on more women to get in power. We all need to see the wisdom of treating women and children fairly and as we would want to be treated. We all need to see that if we devalue women, we are limiting idea creation, market opportunities and good governance in our country and communities. We all need to see that treating a human being like property is not in keeping with the overarching messages of religious texts or answering well the Christian question of WWJD? What would Jesus do? He would treat women like he would want to be treated.

The quotable John Adams

Per Wikipedia, “John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was an American statesman, attorney, diplomat, writer, and Founding Father who served as the second president of the United States, from 1797 to 1801. Before his presidency, he was a leader of the American Revolution that achieved independence from Great Britain, and he served as the first vice president of the United States. Adams was a dedicated diarist and regularly corresponded with many important figures in early American history, including his wife and adviser Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson.”

Since he was prolific as a writer and thought leader, Adams left us with many quotes to demonstrate his thought process in context of such an important part of our history. Here are only a few courtesy of “The Quotable John Adams” edited by Randy Howe.

“I am a mortal and irreconcilable enemy to monarchy.”

“My fundamental maxim of government is never to trust the lamb to the wolf.”

“You ask, how has it happened that all Europe has acted on the principle, ‘that Power was Right’…..Power always sincerely, conscientiously….believes itself right. Power must never be trusted without a check.”

“The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever, but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, and they ought to be separated.”

“Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.”

Is there no way for two friendly souls to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off. Yes, by letter. But, I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts.” (note from one of many letters to his wife and best friend Abigail).

“I cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator….We have too many high sounding words, and too fee actions that correspond with them.”

“I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and like the grave, cries ‘Give, give!'”

The above covers concern over power to a limited few, to the need for separation of church and state, to admonitions of the need to have a thirst for learning. HBO did an excellent mini-series on Adams derived from the many letters between John, played by Paul Giamatti, Abigail, played by Laura Linney.

The most impactful part of the mini-series is when John impressed his more rambunctious cousin Samuel Adams that the rule of law is important. This came to a head when John defended in court some British troops who had been unfairly accused of killing some rabble rousers before the American Revolution. Samuel wanted them to hang, but John said they must get a fair trial.

Doing things the right way matters. The rule of law matters. Even in times of strife.

Martin Luther King’s advice on avoiding violence – a reprise

The following post was written about nine years ago, but still resonates today.

Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very things it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, it merely increases the hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

These aspirational words ring true even today. A historian made a comment on the news the other day, saying the only thing man has been very good at since the beginning is killing people. To many people have died when leaders say I want what you have or you are different from us or you worship the wrong way. On this latter point, one of the keys to our founding father’s separation of church and state in the US constitution and bill of rights was a comment made by Thomas Jefferson who noted that Europe had been awash in blood due to religious zeal and he did not want religious zeal doing the same in our country. This runs counter to self-proclaimed constitutionalists who want a national or state religion and don’t realize they are advocating against the constitution.

My blogging friend George Dowdell has written a thought-provoking post about “No More Us and Them.” A link to his post is below.* When religious leaders exclude, they create this kind of divide. Yet, when religious leaders are inclusive, religion is at its finest. Just witness the actions of the people’s Pope Francis to see what one leader can do. We should follow his lead. We must do our best to be bridge builders. We must do our best to condemn intolerant thinking and action. We must do our best to not condone violence. We must do our best to control the proliferation of violent tools to people who should not have them and govern all owners of them well, as these tools are designed to kill. We must do our best to work toward civil discourse when disagreements occur. And, we must not tolerate treating women as second class citizens or even assets, which is even further demeaning.

I recognize we all cannot be like Atticus Finch (see Emily J’s post on “The Perfect Book: To Kill a Mockingbird” with the link below **) and wipe the spit away borne from someone looking for a fight, but he shows us what real courage looks like. It takes more courage not to fight back when it would have been so easy to do so. I recognize we cannot all be like Gandhi whose example was studied, admired and copied by Martin Luther King showing that civil disobedience is far more powerful than violence. I recognize we call cannot be like Mother Teresa who just went around helping people and praying with them not caring how they worshiped. And, I realize we cannot all be like Jesus who uttered the words we should all live by and can be found in other religious texts – treat others like you want to be treated.

We must treat others like we want in return. We must elevate women in a world to equal footing with men. We must challenge our historical texts which were written by imperfect men to diminish women. We must be the ones who lift others up. If we don’t then we will continue to be our own worst enemy and do what we are good at – violence and killing.

http://georgedowdell.org/2014/06/10/no-more-us-and-them/

** http://thebookshelfofemilyj.com/2014/06/09/the-perfect-book-to-kill-a-mockingbird/

This is a big effing deal

The swearing in of Joe Biden as the 46th president is a huge deal. We can return to more normalcy in governance as he tries to unite us. But, let me set that aside and say the inauguration of Kamala Harris as vice-president is a big effing deal.

Seeing a woman sworn in as vice president is a long time over due for a country that touts democracy. Other democracies have preceded us with a woman being president, prime minister or chancellor. Angela Merkel, Jacinda Arden, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May all come to mind.

Harris is not just breaking the ceiling as a woman, which is a big effing deal by itself. She is the first African-American, the first Asian-American, and part of the first multiracial couple and family to occupy the home of the vice-president. She is uniquely American, as representative of our melting pot as one can get.

But, as a man, let me attempt to address this walk-in-the-shoes moment and what it means. My wife wore pearl earrings to honor Harris’ alma mater as she watched. And, she was crying after Harris was sworn in. A man does not realize how a woman feels to be treated in an overbearing way. Or, to be condescended to. Or to be belittled. Or, to be sexually harassed or even assaulted.

Sheryl Sandberg wrote the excellent book “Lean in,” which tells women to lean into opportunity or push back. It was and is a great title in that men are very skilled at leaning in. There is a line, I think from this book, that says a man with lesser skill sets will often feel more qualified for a job than a woman with more skill sets.

Then, we must layer into Harris’ make-up the fact she is a multiracial woman of color. In an interview on CBS Sunday Morning, she noted she has been told “no” at every step of the ladder. Then, she smiled and said “I eat ‘no’ for breakfast.” That embodies Sandberg’s theme. Just think of all of the young women and young women of color she will influence going forward. Be a leader, be a scientist, be an engineer, be a doctor….don’t accept no as a reason you cannot.

This is a big effing deal. I wish her, Joe Biden and their families and staffs the greatest of success. We need them to succeed in uniting us.

Class matters, socio-economic class that is – a revisit to an old post that remains pertinent

The following post was written in 2012, but it still remains pertinent. When I hear people chastise people in poverty for not working their way out, I think of this topic.

When you read this title, there are several interpretations that come to mind. While I am a firm believer in acting in a classy way, treating others like you want to be treated, the “class” I am referring to here is socio-economic class. There is a body of work spawned by research conducted by the New York Times, which led to the publishing of a book under this same title – “Class Matters.” It also led to a revolution of thought and I would encourage you to visit “www.classmatters.org for more information.

In essence, the term class matters refers to the tenet that your socio-economic class is a key factor in your ability to ask questions of those who are trying to serve you. The higher strata of socio-economic class is highly correlated with better education and more confidence. This translates into the greater ability and lesser reluctance to question things. On the converse, those in lower socio-economic classes tend to have lesser education and more self-esteem issues. They have a greater inability and lack of confidence to question those in power or who are trying to serve them.  As a result, those in the lower classes often make poorly informed decisions as they are:

  • too scared to ask questions,
  • feel threatened if they do so,
  • feel they will show their ignorance if they do,
  • do not know the right questions to ask, and/or
  • fall into a trusting mode, whether legitimate or not, that the person serving them knows what they are doing as they are wearing a doctor’s coat or suit and tie.

To illustrate this concept using a real life occurrence, the current housing crisis we are facing has many areas of cause from the lenders to rating agencies to investment managers to developers to buyers. At the heart of the problem, we had too many developers and realtors selling houses to people who could not afford that price of house and mortgage lenders providing mortgages to people who should not have that level of mortgage or who did not fully understand the terms of the loan. The buyers did not understand what a variable mortgage is or, using one of the lender’s terms, what a “pick-a-payment” or flexible payment mortgage entailed. The concept of negative amortization is term that was not well-explained or fully understood. In “House of Cards” a line that resonates with me is lenders were providing money to people who could “fog a mirror.” Then, they packaged up all of these poor risks in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors who thought they were buying a less risky product. The rating agencies did not help by stamping these CDOs with a AAA rating.

There are some who firmly believe in the concept of “let the buyer beware.” In their minds, the people who bought these houses and took out these loans should have been more aware “like I would have been.”  As a consequence, they believe the buyers should be held entirely responsible for the housing crisis. This school of thought has some merit, but misses two greater issues. First, if you have ever bought a house, you are asked to sign more papers than in any other transaction. I would wager that an exceedingly high percentage of buyers do not read every word of what they are signing. The legalese is too complex. More often than  not, they will ask the attorneys to explain simply what they are signing. I would also wager that in these transactions people actually sign papers they do not fully understand.

Second, with that context, people in a lower socio-economic class will be even more trusting of those in suits and ties. They would ask even fewer questions and understand even less of what they are signing. When the American Dream is to own a home and people in suits and ties paint a picture that you can afford this home, the buyers believed them more times than they should have. In some cases, the seller put “perfume on a pig” to dress up the sale as best as possible. Individuals were shown monthly payment numbers and did not realize those numbers could dramatically change every two years. In some cases, their income and wealth numbers were inflated to show they could afford a house and mortgage they otherwise would not. The buyers trusted people showing these numbers and signed on the many dotted lines.

Two true stories will embellish these points. The poster child for one extreme end of what happened was a builder based in Atlanta. The CEO and CFO were convicted of criminal and unethical actions they helped perpetuate with home buyers. In essence, the company-realtors representing  new developments did not represent they would make an extra bonus if you bought in this new neighborhood. They did not represent the inspector was being paid off to inflate the price of the house and show no problems existed. They did not represent that the mortgage lender they recommended was affiliated with the developer. So, along comes the buyer who does not know this, does not know to ask these questions and who sees a financial representation that they can afford this house. Even people above the lower socio-economic classes were taken in by this criminal behavior, yet the lower class people did not stand a chance.

The other anecdote took down a bank of which I was shareholder. This bank bought  a mortgage bank who had developed the concept of the “pick-a-payment” mortgage. This flexible payment mortgage concept was geared for a very astute buyer, not the masses of people who bought it. Mortgage people at this bank wondered why the CEO of the acquirer was pushing these mortgages even up to six months before the bank was destined to fail.  A mortgage person for that bank said we are having “pick-a-payment parties” to promote the sale of these mortgages. We are selling these mortgages to people who do not know what they are buying. They do not understand when they do not pay enough, their mortgage principal increases. Like with the above example, the lower socio-economic class buyers did not stand a chance. The people in higher classes suffered as well.

Yet, the class matters concept goes beyond these examples. It happens in everyday life, whether it is visiting the doctor, buying a car or something on credit or being served by the bank on other issues. We have people who will go into debt as they do not know the exposure they are adding with each purchase. In today’s world, there is a dearth of customer service. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service experience. Many people do not realize this as the case and tend to delegate the responsibility to the customer service person. We don’t ask enough questions of doctors seeking alternative treatments or payment plans. We accept the terms of a store credit card without knowing that if we fail to make one of the 30-60-90 day payments, we will pay back interest to the point of sale. We do not understand that we need to pay more than the minimum credit card payment as it will take 30 years to pay off a washer and dryer purchase. We do not ask the question, do I really need yet another credit card? We do not realize we have the power to say “no.”

I tell my children “people want your money, so you need to understand that.” Sometimes, they want it by legitimate means. Sometimes they have enticing commercials which are too good to be true. And, sometimes they will try to steal it from you online or by lying to you in person. You have to guard against this. With this backdrop, someone in a  lower socio-economic class will not ask enough questions to be served. They will take that extra credit card that arrives in the mail. They will sign up for the 30-60-90 day store plan to get a 10% discount not knowing the full ramifications of the transaction. I have also witnessed in helping homeless families, budgeting skills could be improved and asking questions about “must have” purchases are not done often enough. Sometimes these “needs” are actually “wants” and could be postponed. They do not know how to zealously navigate the use of coupons or the best times to buy products. They do not ask for the manager or supervisor when being ill-served.

This week I read a series on the inability of hospitals to uniformly offer reduction or the abatement in cost to those without health insurance and in an impoverished state. Someone wrote in that they successfully navigated payment options from one of the studied hospitals asking why couldn’t others have done that. When I read the letter critical of the people short-changed, the concept of class matters entered into my head. The people in need did not navigate the system as they did not know or have the confidence to ask the right questions. They did not relentlessly pursue options. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency of the payment system, so it takes a concerted effort to understand what is happening even for people in higher classes. There are other examples in our society where you have to make a concerted effort to understand the details.

In closing, my hope is for more people to understand that class matters in getting proper help and service. We have to make it easier for people to ask questions, search for answers and be better served or, at least avoid being ill-served. It is OK to ask questions. As the teachers often say “the only dumb question is the one not asked.”  Please help others remember that. Offer to go with someone to the doctor to help ask the right questions. Or, encourage people to write their questions down beforehand. Encourage people to not get into credit exposure beyond their means.  Share your wisdom of purchasing or not purchasing items. Sources like Consumer Reports, BBB , Angie’s List,  http://www.cars.com are vital tools, e.g. Yet, I guess the big take away is to not assume people are like you. You may have avoided stepping  in the hole, but you would have asked more questions. Not everyone will. Offer them your help and understanding.