When a heart is empty – words from conservative pundit David Brooks

I have shared before David Brooks is one of my favorite conservative pundits. I read his columns and have read two of his books, “The Road to Character” and “The Social Animal.” I even went to hear him speak when he came to town, as he focused on remembering community and community gathering places. Monday’s editorial column by Brooks is called “When a heart is empty.”

Brooks highlights how an unfeeling, self-absorbed author named Emmanuel Carrere is forever altered by a crisis, when he loses his granddaughter to a horrible tsunami. Per Brooks, Carrere “develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others” and he writes about the change in “Lives Other Than My Own.”

Brooks uses this change to contrast it being “opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, ‘Rage’

Brooks goes on to say “Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives (the deceased soldiers he called ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’) – their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.

If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.

The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay COVID-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if he told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place…

It is moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people.”

There is more, but the gist of the piece can be gleaned from these quotes. Brooks said earlier this year, “Donald Trump does not have a sense of decency or empathy.” He reiterates this theme above. And, there is a line from one of my favorite political movies “The American President” with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. “Being president is entirely about character.”

Freedom Summer Project – a needed revisit with a voter suppression and racism afoot

With a president who attacks the voting process (without dearly protecting it) and does not speak out against racism in our country, this past post on a terrible time in history is relevant of what we must not become again. The only change is adding six years to the time elapsed.

Fifty-six years ago this summer, over 700 students from across the country, joined in the Civil Rights battle in Mississippi, where African-Americans had been demonstratively and, at times, violently denied their basic civil rights, especially the right to vote. These students joined together with the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNNC) under the guidance of Bob Moses, who had been slowly organizing SNNC since 1960. These students, were predominantly white, but included all races and ethnic groups.

The fact that many were white helped bring further attention to the ongoing tragedy going on Mississippi, perpetuated by those in power as the young students lived within the African-American community, taught through Freedom Schools young students about African-American history, literature and rights, items that had been absent from their curriculum. The Freedom Summer project can be viewed up close with an excellent documentary shown on the PBS American Experience. A link is provided below.* I would encourage you to watch the two-hour film as it can tell a story that requires footages of violence, overt racism, and brave people who spoke up, like Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rita Schwerner and countless others.

Hamer is the face of the effort as evidenced by her speaking passionately in front of the 1964 Democratic Convention committee about how she was arrested, beaten, and tormented when she and others tried to register vote. Schwerner is the widow of one the three Civil Rights workers, Michael Schwerner, who along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were abducted and killed by the KKK who came to abet the efforts of those in power in Mississippi. The widow rightfully pointed out the fact that two of the abducted (at the time) were white, was the only reason people in America started paying attention. She noted it is a shame that many African-Americans had died or were injured merely trying to exercise their right as citizens. Before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, less than 7% of African-Americans in Mississippi were allowed to register due to ostracization, intimidation, and complex constitutional literacy tests.

Since I cannot begin to do justice to this subject, I encourage you to watch the documentary. It will make you ashamed that this could happen in America, while at the same time making you applaud the magnificent courage of all involved, especially those African-Americans who had lived and would continue to live in this Apartheid like state once the freedom summer students went home. Yet, it took the deaths of these three young folks to galvanize and empower people.

It also took the organization of a more representative Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party of whites and blacks that went to the national convention to unseat the representatives sent by the state party, who were all white. Since morality was on their side, they almost succeeded, but they ran into the politics of Lyndon B. Johnson, who used his power to squelch the effort for a greater good – he could not help in matters if he did not get elected and he saw this as a means to interfere with that mission, no matter how noble the cause. LBJ accomplished great things for African-Americans, but politics is an ugly thing to watch up close and he looks manipulative in the process.

While their efforts fell short at the convention, their efforts were huge contributors to the passage of the Voting Rights Act the next year. But, one of the young folks who went to the Freedom Schools and is now a PhD., noted that learning about their African-American culture and civil rights that had been denied them, may have been the greatest achievement. I applaud their efforts and bravery. We still have a way to go and are seeing some battles having to be refought with several states passing restrictive Voter ID Laws. Three states have had their new laws ruled unconstitutional, while others are in court now. Yet, just because our President is multi-racial does not mean we are there yet. So, let’s keep in mind the battles these brave folks fought and not let their civil rights be stepped on again, no matter how cleverly masked those efforts.

* http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/freedomsummer/

A boyhood crush passes away

Many great people have died in the past week, Congressman John Lewis, leading the pack through his advocacy and courage. Yet, someone this old fart had a crush on passed away over the weekend – Olivia de Havilland. Here is a brief snippet (courtesy of Wonderwall) of an article that tells more about her to those with whom her name is not familiar.

“Olivia de Havilland, an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the last living star of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ has died at 104. The five-time Oscar nominee, who twice won the Academy Award for Best Actress, passed away “peacefully” in her sleep at her home in Paris, her publicist announced on Sunday, July 26. De Havilland became a household name after starring alongside Errol Flynn in films including 1935’s ‘Captain Blood’ and 1938’s ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood.’ As she took on more serious roles, like that of a patient at a mental institution in ‘Snake Pit’ (1948), awards poured in for the actress. That continued through the end of her career and included a National Medal of Arts honor in 2008. Shortly before her 101st birthday, Queen Elizabeth named the star a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. De Havilland was also known for a long-running feud with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine, and for her historic 1943 court victory over Warner Bros., in which Hollywood’s unfair suspension clause was deemed unlawful.”

While she won her two Oscars for Best Actress in “The Heiress” and “To each his own,” this young boy remembers de Havilland for her work with Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood” and as Maid Marian in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” She said in an interview, she was smitten with Flynn, but never acted on it. This is apparent when Flynn’s Robin Hood climbs up to her room and her Maid Marian blushes way too easily. For little boys, we were Errol Flynn, and she was the object of our affection.

While she is best known for playing Melanie in “Gone with the Wind,” she won her awards when she demanded better parts. However, playing Melanie was so well done, I remember my mother saying how she did not like how Melanie’s husband Ashley Wilkes treated her. Melanie deserved better than the wishy-washy Wilkes’ inattentiveness. De Havilland made us pull for Melanie even more. Please note, I am setting aside the disservice this movie did for how it portrayed slaves.

I recognize fully de Havilland is not a John Lewis or a CT Vivian. But, for this grown-up boy, she will forever be the woman blushing in the window with Robin Hood.

Eight habits of the heart – a quick review

Recently, I revisited an old post about “The Porch People.” This was a summary of the book called “Little Cliff and the Porch People” by Clifton Taulbert. One of his other books is called “Eight Habits of the Heart.” It’s subtitle adds “Embracing the values that build strong families and communities.” When I met him, he was meeting with executive groups to go over these eight habits.

Below, I will summarize these eight habits and repeat the phrase Taulbert uses on each chapter page. The book is a quick read, so please do not let this summary get in the way of picking up or downloading the book. Each chapter has questions at the end for self-reflection and the end of the book has an outline on how to pass along these habits in small learning groups.

1. Nurturing attitudeIn the community, a nurturing attitude is characterized by unselfish caring, supportiveness, and a willingness to share time.

2 and 3. Dependability and responsibilityWithin the community, dependability is being there for others through all the times of their lives, a steady influence that makes tomorrow a welcome event; and responsibility means showing and encouraging a personal commitment to each task.

4. FriendshipWithin the community, friendship is the habit that binds people together when they take pleasure in each other’s company, listen, laugh, and share good times and bad.

5. Brotherhood or sisterhoodWithin the community, brotherhood or sisterhood is the habit that reaches beyond comfortable relationships to extend a welcome to those who may be different from yourself.

6. High expectationsWithin the community, high expectations involves believing that others can be successful, telling them so, and praising their accomplishments.

7. CourageWithin the community, courage is standing up and doing the right thing, speaking out on behalf of others, and making a commitment to excellence in the face of adversity or the absence of support.

8. Hope Within the community, hope is believing in tomorrow – because you have learned to see with your heart.

Whether you agree with these eight habits, they provide a great foundation to better understand yourself and become a better community citizen. I like the inclusion of high expectations, as we look to lift each other up. A spouse, parent, grandparent, friend or mentor can inspire someone to be better than they would otherwise be, settling for a lesser plateau.

Each of these habits, if practiced and reinforced, will make our communities better. As Gandhi said, a community’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of its least fortunate. Thinking of the classic movie, “It’s a wonderful life,” do we want to live in Bedford Falls or Pottersville? Do we want to emulate George Bailey or Mr. Potter?

As you think of these habits, also consider paying forward good deeds done for you. I recall the story of someone paying for the college education for a young person in poverty. She asked how could she repay him and he said, pay it forward doing the same for someone else. And, as noted under “Nurturing attitude,” if you don’t have money, the gift of time is so very valuable.

What is not said above, is practicing these habits has a psychic income for the person so doing. Being a better person, being a better community citizen, being a friend to many, will be rewarding in and of itself.

Toxic Charity – revisiting an important book

About eight years ago, I wrote this post based on my reading of “Toxic Charity,” conversations with the author and my volunteer work to help working homeless families. The book remains relevant today.

I have made reference on several occasions to a must read book written by Robert (Bob) Lupton called “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt those They Help and How to Reverse it.” I had the good fortune to hear Lupton speak about his experiences and how he came to this view on toxic charity. To those who do not know his story, he felt called to move into the impoverished areas of Atlanta to live near and like the people he was trying to help. From this vantage point, he witnessed and gleaned a far better and more impactful way of helping people in need. His premise based on this first hand anecdotal evidence is well intended volunteers and donors often do more harm than good in their outreach.

In essence, they do for people what the people can do for themselves, both here and abroad. His mantra is we should help people climb a ladder, but do it in a way they can maintain their self-esteem and their efforts can be sustained. He notes that true charity should be reserved for emergency situations like Hurricane Sandy. A few examples may help.

– From the feedback from those being helped and his observations, it is far better to provide a discount store of donated goods which caters to those in need as customers. When clothes are just given away it creates an entitlement society and the relationship can be adversarial which is counterproductive to all parties. He told the story that everyone likes to find a bargain. So, why should we deny that opportunity to those in poverty. This will help people in need with budgeting and the pride in saving up money to purchase a good deal on something they need.

– Rather than giving food away, he has witnessed it is far better to have food cooperatives. They would have each family pay a weekly stipend such as $3 to join a food co-op. These funds would be used to buy discounted food to pool with the donated food. The co-op begins an association with others that usually proves fruitful with recipe sharing, neighborhood dinners, restaurant development, etc. It also allows the deployment of better food for the recipients.

– Rather than have parishioners donate time and energy on projects that are mis-prioritized, mismanaged and misimplemented, use the volunteers for more employment and entrepreneurial activities such as helping people set up a small business, learn a trade, understand a business plan or network to find a job. This will use the skills of the volunteers in a more impactful way. He also notes we should let the community leaders decide on what is most needed (community initiated), actually lead the efforts (community led) and allow time for mutual information sharing (how their faith is important to both giver and recipient).

– Find ways to invest in the community to improve on assets in existence. This Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is critical to leveraging what is there (such as a school, playground, golf course, clinic, etc.) and works well with the community. Schools for example, are critical not only to the education of the kids, but after school programs for kids and adults, and a place where communities can gather. He noted an example where a developer in Atlanta bought a golf course and improved the neighborhood around it using a 50/50 mixture of market based and affordable housing. The golf course provided jobs and recreation to these mixed income families and gentrified a run down neighborhood.

The charity I am involved with for homeless families follows his empowerment model. We try not to do for the families what they can do for themselves. The families receive rent subsidized housing based on their ability to pay, meaning they must pay a portion of the rent. They must also save money for their eventual exit from the program. We help them buy a car on more favorable terms than 23% interest, yet they have to pay for car, insurance and upkeep. They must work with our social workers to make better decisions, improve their education, attend career development and budget more wisely. We are helping them climb the ladder, but they have to do it. We cannot and will not push them up the ladder.

Lupton speaks of “The Oath for Compassionate Service” which builds off the Hippocratic Oath for Doctors and is as follows:

– Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

– Limit one way giving to emergency situations.

– Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.

– Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.

– Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.

– Above all, do no harm.

One of the things I have observed about people in need is their network of people with connections or skills they need is very narrow or non-existent. In fact, homeless families or individuals may have exhausted their only network of friends and family. I often help friends or relatives of friends and family network to find a job or resource. Others would do this for my friends and relatives in need. Yet, who can someone in poverty reach out to except people who are also in poverty? So, church goers who sit in the pews every Sunday have an abundance of knowledge and connections that is better suited to help those in need. Following Lupton’s example, if we can provide more intersections of those in need and those who can connect the dots for them, more success would be witnessed. There would be more ladders out of poverty.

Lupton made a telling observation in his speech. We are a very generous nation of people. We donate billions of money and time to help, but what do we have to show for it? Poverty has increased. The key is to help people find the opportunities, the ladders out of poverty. We can look for ways to help them climb the ladders, but they have to do it to make it sustainable.

The music of The Bridges of Madison County

A few months ago, I rewatched the movie “The Bridges of Madison County.” The movie stars Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep and is directed by Eastwood.

The movie is about a weekend tryst between a photographer who traveled to the area to take pictures of the county’s covered bridges and a woman in a routine marriage. Her husband is away with the kids camping.

The movie is very good, but is bathed in wonderful music of the 1950s and early 1960s. Eastwood is very musical, so he took time to select music that accentuated the romantic scenes between the two.

Johnny Hartman and Dinah Washington are featured several times. If you don’t know Hartman, think Nat King Cole with a deeper voice. Irene Kral appears a couple of times and Barbara Lewis sings “Baby I’m Yours,” her biggest hit.

My kids bought me the soundtrack CD for Father’s Day. It is smooth listening music. If you are looking for a birthday present, it is a nice treat. And, it is not just for older people, as my oldest son in his late twenties knew who Hartman was.

We have several soundtracks that well-accented the movie they were in. They range from “The Big Chill” which has artists’ songs to “The Last of the Mohicans” whose score is marvelous. And, if you want to get a selection of themes, John Barry has a CD of several movie themes he wrote such as “Born Free,” “Somewhere in Time” and “Out of Africa.”

What are some of your favorites soundtracks?

Trump Environmental Protection Agency makes it easier to harm infants

The dramatic headline is designed to get your attention, so please forgive the theatrics. Yet, while the president distracts us with his chaotic, incompetent and untruthful actions and words about more headline issues, his misnamed Environmental Protection Agency has struck again.

Amanda Mills penned the following article on June 23, 2020 in the online publication “Nation of Change,” “Trump’s EPA rolls back regulation of chemical linked to brain damage in infants that can be found in drinking water.” I will include her entire brief article below.

“Last week, Trump’s EPA decided to roll back regulations of a chemical that causes brain damage in infants. This chemical, perchlorate, is found in rocket fuel and can also be found in public drinking water.

Environmental experts and Health professionals have been fighting this deregulation that was created during the Obama Administration.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler claims this move ‘fulfills President Trump’s promise to pare back burdensome ‘one-size-fits-all’ overregulation for the American people.’

According to Associated Press, perchlorate from runoff contaminates the drinking water of as many as 16 million Americans, the Obama administration said in 2011 when it announced the EPA would act to set maximum limits for perchlorate for the first time.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior strategic director for Health Erik D. Olson says this decision is ‘illegal, unscientific, and unconscionable. The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening the health of pregnant moms and young children with toxic chemicals in their drinking water at levels that literally can cause loss of IQ points. Is this what the Environmental Protection Agency has come to?’

According to Common Dreams, the NRDC plans to challenge the order in court, claiming the consent decree did not allow for deregulating the chemical.”

I truly wish I were making these things up and kids will not be harmed by the president, but as evidenced by previous EPA actions and his blatant lack of empathy for COVID-19 victims, this is not really a stretch. As conservative pundit David Brooks has said, the president “lacks a sense of decency or empathy.”

These roll back of environmental regulations have been deliberate efforts to make it easier for industry to not worry about pollution. Environmental protections cost money. Sadly, when industry has not been permitted to get away with harming people, animals and the environment, it becomes a major motion picture as “Dark Waters” was last year or “Erin Brockovich” years before.

And, the troubling part is people who live in more rural or town areas near these facilities are the ones who get screwed or killed. These hard working folks make up some of Trump’s voters. The ecologist and biologist Sandra Steingraber has testified in front of Congress and the European Union parliament. She is has authored several books, her first being “Living Downstream” and her second “Raising Elijah.” In these books, it shows how industry outguns and outspends local people harmed by their pollution. It takes a Herculean effort to fight this injustice, hence the heroic movies when it does happen.

One thing Steingraber points out is our pollution metrics tend to measure the impact of pollution on a 50 year old man. That is the wrong metric. Kids have developing brains and lungs, mouth breathe more than adults, put their hands in their mouths more frequently, play outside more and are lower to the ground. They are more susceptible than adults are to chemical pollution. Plus, pregnant women are caring for two lives (maybe more), so we need to be extra careful with them.

So, this is why the Trump EPA’s decision to permit easier pollution is so over-the-top callous. Please question this move. Make people stand up and explain why this is a good idea. As I have mentioned before, I knew of Trump’s negatives, but what I feared most is what Trump would do to our environment and climate change actions more than anything. This is just one more example.

A unifying person – a tribute to Carlos Santana, the person (a reprise)

The following was written and posted in 2014. The theme is so very relevant today as a much needed approach to emulate. Carlos Santana is known for his collaboration with singers and other performers.

I was watching an excellent documentary film on HBO about Carlos Santana, which included the lead up to and concert in his birth country of Mexico at the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The music is terrific, but the stories from Santana and his fellow performers, friends and family are enlightening and confirming. Santana received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Obama in December, 2013 for his life’s work and devotion to making great music and sharing it with us and his fellow performers.

As one of the best guitarists around, Santana has a gift of working well with other performers and using their talents to make beautiful music. In the documentary, he was described as a “unifying person” which may be one of the nicest compliments you could pay to someone. The story-teller said Santana had a gift for unifying diverse music and musical talents to make a unique and wonderful sound. Three quick stories, two from Santana and one from his wife Cindy Blackman, will provide great glimpses into Santana’s make-up.

Someone asked Santana how he was able to collaborate so well with other musicians in recordings and in performances. He said, “I just show up with a smile on my face and a willingness to work together with others.” If we could bottle that and give it to everyone to drink, what a difference that would make. A simple example of this was when Santana was talking to his fellow musicians about “not playing too loudly, so as not to drown out the voice of the singers.” I had heard him earlier describe that you have to provide some space for people to listen to the various subtleties of the music. To me, this is giving of himself to make the whole sound better.

The last example comes from his relatively new bride, Cindy Blackman, whom he married in 2010. She was describing how at the Kennedy Center Honors banquet, Santana went back to the kitchen to thank all of the chefs and wait staff for their help that night. He noted later in the documentary, many of us immigrants came to America and took jobs to have a chance to live in a great country. They work hard and we should acknowledge them.

I purposefully did not make this about his wonderful repertoire of songs. His music will live on. I was so moved by this quote of him being a “unifying person” I felt the need to share his example for us all. Muchas gracias, amigo.

A famous actor whose scenes were cut entirely

The other day I was watching the last half of the movie “The Big Chill” which is a favorite movie of many as well as me. The movie also has one of the best sound tracks as it features several Motown hits.

The cast is amazingly deep in recognizable names now, but they were just starting out then. As I recall, Lawrence Kasdan, the director, got everyone to hang out together before the movie filming to bond as friends. Since the movie is about old friends reuniting, he wanted them to have a basis to start from.

One of the later famous names never made the cut – Kevin Costner. Costner played the friend who committed suicide that caused the sad reunion. But, all of his scenes were cut except for his body being zipped up in a body bag at the start of the movie. Costner would go on to star and direct a number of movies rivaling that of any of the uncut stars of the movie – Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Meg Tilly, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams and Mary Kay Place.

That was the right call, as it added to the movie for his friends to remember him, celebrate his life and lament his passing. If we had seen him, some of that mystery would have been lost. We learned he turned down a great scholarship which gave him notoriety, but he lamented that decision later.

To me, William Hurt and Meg Tilly steal the movie. Tilly plays the younger girlfriend of Costner’s character. Her perspective adds to the movie as when she responds to a question if her boyfriend was happy and says “I don’t know that many happy people. How do they act?” Yet, each actor is allowed to shine and offer both comedy and drama.

Do you agree with the directors’ decisions to cut these scenes in the movie? What are some of your favorite parts of the movie? What other actors and actresses have been cut out of movies to your knowledge?

The Last Movie Star

Burt Reynolds starred in a movie late in his life called “The Last Movie Star” which is surprisingly poignant. Reynolds plays Vic Edwards, an aging movie star, who accepts a lifetime achievement award from a movie lover’s group in Nashville. But, he comes to the conclusion the first night, the group waa over-advertised and beneath his dignity. So, you won’t start out liking this man.

But, stay with it. Not trying to give away too much plot, he asks Lil, the sister of the group’s leader who serves as his driver, to detour from driving him to the airport and go to Knoxville, where we find out he is from. Suffice it to say, we learn a lot about him on this journey.

The movie uses actual footage of Reynolds earlier movies. He talks with his younger screen self as a means of sharing what is going on in his aging confusion and reflections on past decisions.

The movie was directed by Adam Rifkin and stars a largely young cast – Ariel Winter as Lil, Clark Duke as Doug, and Ellar Coltrane ss Shane. Chevy Chase plays his friend Sonny and Kathleen Nolan plays Claudia, his first wife.

If you have seen this movie, let me know what you think. If you have not seen it, avoid the temptation to give up on him. Also let me know what you think, once you have. The movie was rated as OK by the rating agencies, but 93% of Google users liked it.

Note, the movie was made in 2017 and released in early, 2018. Reynolds died in September, 2018.