Monthly Archives: January, 2011

Trying to Make Sense of It

Two weeks after the rampage in Tucson, survivors struggle with ‘what if’…

So does Suzi Hileman, who days after the shooting awoke in her hospital bed shouting: “Christina! Christina!”

That Saturday morning, Ms. Hileman picked up Christina-Taylor Green, her 9-year-old neighbor, and promised the girl’s mother that they would return in three or four hours.

Ms. Hileman, 59, had simply wanted to take Christina to meet their congresswoman. They would make a day of it — going for lunch and a manicure after the “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a local Safeway. Instead, a gunman opened fire, killing Christina and wounding Ms. Hileman.

“I never got to bring Christina home,” Ms. Hileman said. By now, her voice is almost matter-of-fact. But her sadness is betrayed by the long pauses she takes, the way she buries her face in a throw pillow when the tears start to fall.

The guilt comes in waves. It was there in the hospital. It still lurks, threatening to return at any moment. When someone asks about it, she calls her husband over to hold her hand as she answers.

Another survivor, Joseph Zamudio, had a gun and came within a second of shooting one of the bystanders who was trying to stop Jared Loughner. It was a scene of mass confusion.

After the disaster ended, we were no less confused about who to blame, what to do.

What if we made treatment for mental illness as accessible as treatment for physical illness, instead of cutting mental health services? What if we demanded more accountability from people who buy and sell guns? What if we limited bullets as strictly as we limit how many pseudophedrine tabs we can buy? What if we re-instated the ban on assault weapons?

Since the Tuscon shootings the background noise of gun violence continues. More children have been shot, four police officers shot by a man who walked in with a gun drawn and ready.

Guns don’t make you safe if you don’t know how to use them. If you don’t keep them out of the hands of children. If you can’t ensure they won’t get stolen. If someone in your family is having a mental breakdown. There’s such a thing as responsible gun ownership, but it’s not politically correct to support stronger gun laws.

We can’t make sense of it until we recognize that glamorization of guns, loose gun laws and a culture of hate speech makes it certain that susceptible and troubled individuals will try to achieve fame and glory with a mass shooting– a crime that we are almost getting used to.

Standing on the Side of Love

Inspiring sermon today from the Reverend James Ismael Ford, posted on his blog, Monkey Mind Online …

Out of the horror that took place in Tucson on Saturday the 8th of January, amidst the fear and blood, there were several notable acts of heroism. I think of Dorwan Stoddard the seventy-six year old retired construction worker who as soon as he realized what was happening, threw his wife to the ground and his body over hers. She survived. He didn’t. I picture that event and cannot get out of my head. I am glad I can’t.

And who is now unaware of Daniel Hernandez, a twenty-year old junior at the University of Arizona, in his fifth day as an unpaid intern for Representative Giffords, and his actions in those awful moments? He wasn’t standing very close when the boy put a bullet through the representative’s head and then began spraying shots into the crowd. By his own account maybe forty feet away, Daniel simply started running toward the shooting. He ran toward the shooting. Another set of images I cannot get out of my head and am glad I cannot. Pictures naturally took shape in my mind of those firemen and policemen racing into the Twin Towers. Asked about this, Daniel who had limited nurse’s aid training in High School, felt, it really all happened too fast to say he thought, felt he could put that training to good use.

He had already assisted a couple of people when he found the congresswoman lying on the ground. He propped her up on his chest to stop her from choking on her own blood. At first he tried to staunch her wounds with his hands. Then took smocks someone brought out from the Safeway and created makeshift bandages that more or less did the job. Staying with the representative, holding her up, holding off the bleeding, at the same time he advised others how to help those they were tending. Medical authorities say it is almost certain that Daniel’s actions saved Gabrielle Giffords’ life.

Hernandez is gay, he is an example of the best of America. He deserves the right to legally marry and enjoy all the rights and responsibilties that marriage brings.

There’s much more to say, you can read the rest here.

Blessing the Union

Today’s Huffington Post reports that Pope Benedict has laid down some standards for priests counseling engaged couples…

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI told priests Saturday to do a better job counseling would-be spouses to ensure their marriages last and said no one has an absolute right to a wedding.

Benedict made the comments in his annual speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that decides marriage annulments. An annulment is the process by which the church effectively declares that a marriage never took place.

Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counseling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a “vicious circle” of invalid marriages.

This is the Church doing its job. The Catholic Church, or any religious group, can and should make it clear which life events it will celebrate, and who it will accept into its membership.

Also, the Pope is telling priests to offer the best pre-marital counseling, with a goal of preventing marriages that are likely to bring grief and breakup. This is religion helping people to live better lives.

Most people who seek pre-marital counseling from a priest didn’t just wander in the door. They want a Catholic wedding. They could just go to a Justice of the Peace, and make it legal, but they want the blessing of the priest, and for that they have to follow the rules of the Church.

We don’t demand that non-Catholics follow the rules of the Church. The Church has a moral stand that divorced people can’t re-marry, but we don’t expect the State to conform to that. Saints be praised.

I’m no longer a Catholic, so it’s as an outsider that I say that the custom of ‘annulment’ seems less respectful of marriage than legal divorce. To me, claiming that vows made in good faith and a marriage attempted never existed is to deny that we are fallible, and sometimes make promises we can’t keep. It also denies that most marriages that break up had some good times, and some ex-spouses are loving and unselfish as parents.

It’s got to be painful when after the trauma of divorce an ex-spouse receives a Church summons for annulment. It’s a protection for them that the State recognizes a legal marriage contract apart from any actions by the Church. The Diocese of Providence requires that couples obtain a legal divorce before they will consider an annulment petition, in line with standard Church practice. The legal marriage cannot be legally disolved by the Church, and the religious vows cannot be undone by the State.

My good friend, after a painful divorce, asked her Rabbi for a Jewish ceremony for healing and to put to rest the vows that could not be kept.

The State recognizes and validates a union. Religion meets spiritual needs. Both have their place.

If we accepted that the Catholic Church should influence divorce law, because a majority of Rhode Islanders are Catholic, we might please the majority– who might see this as defending marriage. But it would be a mess for the rest of us.

The Pope is absolutely right to focus on good premarital counseling as a way to protect marriage in his Church, and the Church should bless only those unions it considers valid.

They should let the State be the State, legal protection for all citizens regardless of religion. They should let same-sex couples, divorced, inter-religious, non-Catholic– go to City Hall. Or to a church that will welcome and affirm their union.

Shot a Coyote

With a camera, that is. Mary Grady at One New Thing Every Day was following some tracks in the wilds of Pawtuxet and came face to face with the wild dog. She thinks the pix came out fuzzy but I think it came out very good. You can see it here.

Sexing Up Geothermal Energy

Some good green news from Wednesday’s Providence Journal…

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — When The Charlestown Package Store reopens this spring, customers will see that the original hole-in-the-wall business has been replaced by a much larger structure with a two-story, timbered lobby.

What will be less obvious is the specially designed geothermal system that will heat, cool and dehumidify the new building without burning a drop of oil or gas.

The system will rely on three wells that will draw water from 450 feet underground, where the temperature is 45 to 55 degrees year-round.

It’s not new or radical. In fact, one reason our houses in New England have cellars is to keep us from freezing our feet in the winter. It’s a big cost up front, but once it’s working it’s inexhaustible. Why don’t we use this more?

“The sexiness of solar and wind — it just isn’t there with geothermal,” says Connie McGreavy, executive director of the Rhode Island Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. “Maybe people have trouble grasping it because they can’t see it.”

Even those in the industry aren’t sure why geothermal doesn’t get more attention.

“Nobody ever talks about geothermal,” says Hazard Stewart, owner of Newport Geothermal. He says his company has installed about 20 systems in Rhode Island. Customers range from the owners of single-family houses to larger commercial buildings. It’s easier to install a system with a new house, but Stewart says he has retrofitted old houses as well.

With federal tax credits, a geothermal system can pay for itself in two or three years, Stewart said. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions that this is all more difficult than it is.”

The Charlestown Package store also made a point of hiring local workers for the renovations.

I’m still using 19th century technology myself, wishing I had the bucks to re-make my house, and waiting for prices to come down.

I wonder how this would apply to buildings like elderly high rise? There could be huge savings if it works. If I win the Megabucks (I don’t buy tickets, but my odds are as good as if I did) I’ll build a tiny, Japanese-style beach house with geothermal heated floors and huge windows, and sit watching the snow on days like this. Drinking sake from the Charlestown Package Store.

That was actually a 60′s fantasy of clean electric heat. Remember the ads? Electric, of course, is expensive, but I loved the children playing on the white wall-to-wall watching the blizzard through the picture window. It’s still sexy to me.

Demolition Politics

Just about three years ago, Kmareka reported on a press conference organized by PRYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement). High school students invited state officials and the press to hear testimony about the work of three Southeast Asian interpreters and their vital role in the community. Governor Carcieri eliminated the interpreter positions as a cost-cutting measure, and declined to speak with the students.

Carcieri should have listened. Federal money comes with strings attached, and one requirement is that interpreters be available so that no qualified person will be denied service due to a language barrier. This was clear at the PRYSM meeting…

Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU, spoke last. He said the cuts are a violation of Federal law. It seems likely that there will be expensive lawsuits, and much wasted time before the interpreter positions are finally reinstated. By then, the three experienced interpreters may have taken other jobs, and the costly process of training new ones will commence.

Interpreters do so much more than translate language. They are a bridge to the immigrant community, helping new Americans to integrate into our society. They get to know hospital staff, patients and clients, and all the complicated systems of each agency. Three respected and hardworking interpreters were laid off, and now we’re back to square one.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says an agreement the state struck with federal officials to improve language services to those who speak little English is thorough, and now the key is whether the state complies.

The agreement announced Tuesday requires the Department of Human Services within 30 days to either hire, contract with or find volunteer interpreters for people seeking help from the department.

I hope the DHS will first try to rehire the three experienced interpreters who were doing such good work before Governor Carcieri decided to impress the base with demolition politics. True to form, he left it to the next administration to clean up the mess.

DC Marriage Equality Law Stands

An important legal victory for marriage equality– from today’s Washington Post…

The Supreme Court has declined to revive a lawsuit intending to allow a voter referendum on the District’s same-sex marriage law.

Local courts have said the District’s Board of Elections and Ethics was justified in denying attempts by opponents of same-sex marriage to put the issue to a vote. Without comment, the justices said they would not review the latest decision upholding the board’s decision by the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Religious and conservative legal groups had sued to put the issue of same-sex marriage to a ballot.

Putting the rights of a minority to majority vote is not democracy. Democracy is more than majority rule– the will of the majority is tempered by rights that belong to each citizen regardless of social status.

Today, interracial marriage is a personal decision, not a political controversy. But if the Supreme Court had not decided in 1967 to abolish laws forbidding it, where would we be? Would we be watching a vicious battle state to state that only demagogues would win? Reading history– the kind we would like to forget– gives a stomach-turning dose of the hysterical accusations of ‘miscegenation’ and the imminent fall of the ‘white race’.

The Supreme Court spared DC a divisive and distracting battle that would only have brought out the worst in American politics…

The D.C. appeals court majority said that the board “correctly determined that the proposed initiative would have the effect of authorizing” discrimination.

And the court said the council “was not obliged to allow initiatives that would have the effect of authorizing discrimination prohibited by the Human Rights Act to be put to voters, and then to repeal them, or to wait for them to be challenged as having been improper subjects of initiative, should they be approved by voters.”

Again, demagogues and extremists would have been the winners if this issue had been dragged out.

Forty-three years after the Supreme Court declared interracial marriages equal, marriage endures and most people, as always, choose to marry within their own race. A glance at the New York Times wedding page on any random Sunday shows happy couples, the vast majority same race, opposite sex. And that’s in wicked New York.

Rhode Island is getting ready to consider a marriage equality bill. There are groups locally, and nationally, like NOM, that will be disappointed if we don’t have an acrimonious fight. If we recognize the unions of committed couples, and let them take legal responsibility for each other in the contract of marriage– my prediction is that nothing much will change for most of us. A minority will gain legal equality, and the rest of us will focus on our own families.

Long Road to Healing

Neurological researcher Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke twelve years ago and became her own experimental subject as she fought her way to recovery. She documents her journey in a book, ‘My Stroke of Insight’.

Although the sporadically discontinuous flow of normal cognition was virtually incapacitating, somehow I managed to keep my body on task. Stepping out of the shower, my brain felt inebriated. My body was unsteady, felt heavy, and exerted itself in very slow motion. What is it I’m trying to do? Dress, dress for work. I’m dressing for work. I labored mechanically to choose my clothes and by 8:15 am, I was ready for my commute. Pacing my apartment, I thought, Okay, I’m going to work. I’m going to work. Do I know how to get to work? Can I drive? As I visualized the road to McLean Hospital, I was literally thrown off balance when my right arm dropped completely paralyzed against my side. In that moment I knew. Oh my gosh, I’m having a stroke! I’m having a stroke! And in the next instant, the thought flashed through my mind, Wow, this is so cool!

I felt as though I was suspended in a peculiar euphoric stupor, and I was strangely elated when I understood that this unexpected pilgrimage into the intricate functions of my brain actually had a physiological basis and explanation. I kept thinking, Wow, how many scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain function and mental deterioration from the inside out? My entire life had been dedicated to my own understanding of how the human brain creates our perception of reality. And now I was experiencing this most remarkable stroke of insight!

When my right arm became paralyzed, I felt the life force inside the limb explode. When it dropped dead against my body, it clubbed my torso. It was the strangest sensation. I felt as if my arm had been guillotined off!

I understood neuroanatomically that my motor cortex had been affected and I was fortunate that within a few minutes, the deadness of my right arm subtly abated. As the limb began to reclaim its life, it throbbed with a formidable tingling pain. I felt weak and wounded. My arm felt completely depleted of its intrinsic strength, yet I could wield it like a stub. I wondered if it would ever be normal again.

In a recent interview with reporter, Cassandra M. Bellatoni, Professor Bolte Taylor was asked what advice she would give to the family of Gabrielle Giffords…

CB: What is the most important thing you would tell her family and friends?

JBT: Let her sleep. Speak softly and leave your emotional baggage at the door. They must not bring fear, pity, anger or worry into the room. From my experience with left hemisphere brain damage, I was very much aware of body language, tone of voice, anxiety — these are the abilities of the right hemisphere and these were very active for me. They should think of Gabrielle as a vessel that they need to fill up with their love and caring.

CB: Why is sleep so important? I noticed the doctors said they are waking her regularly.

JBT: This is necessary at first but sleep is the most important thing needed for the brain to heal itself. Sleep is when the body repairs itself including and especially brain connections.

CB: Obviously you have a pretty complex job as a neuro-anatomist. How long did it take you to begin working again?

JBT: At about 4 months after the stroke. I was able to perform simple tasks for about 30-minutes per day — computer database kinds of things. Like I mentioned before, everybody has to let go of who you used to be and embrace who you are now, including Gabrielle.

While it is almost miraculous, and a victory of courage and caring over destruction, that Gabby Giffords can reach out and touch her husband, I am wary of the Great American Heartwarming Recovery Story. Recovery is a credit to the survivor and friends, it does not make the injury ok.

Gabrielle Giffords has been robbed of part of her brain. If she is able to return to Congress, she will be pushing uphill, struggling with tasks that would have been easy before the assault.

We have been robbed of her representation. Hers was a unique voice, she voted her conscience, she is not replaceable. She should be serving in Congress now. Arizona has been robbed of a representative.

It’s a long road to healing for the survivors of the shooting, and for our country.

From Despair to Courage

Several years ago, the Green family held a reunion in Montgomery, Alabama. My husband’s parents grew up in the nearby town of Selma, in the heart of the segregated South. They both traveled North in the late 1940′s, separately, to Louisville, Kentucky. They had grown up on adjoining farms, and after finding each other in a new city, soon fell in love and married. They were together more than fifty years.

They were not inclined to talk about the past, but gradually I discovered that both of them had left their homes as internal refugees– that their lives would not only have been blighted, but taken from them if they had stayed. It’s not my place to tell their story here. It’s a story told many times by refugees and survivors, and still held in living memory.

My husband’s cousin, Robin, had organized a tour of Montgomery for us out-of-towners, with a trip to the Rosa Parks Museum. The museum contains video screens and exhibits, including a city bus from 1955, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“It takes me back,” Mrs. Green said.

I tried to imagine my gracious mother in law growing up in that Selma, where ‘back of the bus’ was not history but everyday misery.

It’s consistent with human nature that when physical pain ceases, we are able to forget. Emotional pain is harder to let go of, but the demands of the present draw us away from dwelling on the past. Forgetfulness is a blessing as much as a curse. It’s consistent with human nature that we don’t want to believe how bad things really were. Living in a more integrated society, where most people most of the time don’t run a gauntlet of danger and humiliation feels normal. They say veterans of battle don’t talk about it much. Re-living the violent and painful aspects of the civil rights struggle takes a toll on veterans of that struggle and on the innocence of younger generations.

But it’s necessary, in order to understand the civil rights movement, to know how bad things really were.

The following paragraphs on the Montgomery Bus Boycott come from the book ‘At the Dark End of the Street’, by Danielle L. McGuire…

There were at least thirty complaints by African Americans in Montgomery in 1953, indicating a growing sense of impatience with the grim conditions on city buses. Most of these complaints came from working-class black women who made up the bulk of Montgomery City Lines’ riders, over half of whom toiled as domestics. With a median salary of just $523 per year, domestics could not afford automobiles and had no choice but to ride the city buses to and from the white homes in which they worked. Their workplace could be just as dangerous: domestic workers faced sexual and physical abuse by their white employers.

African American women constantly complained about the atrocious treatment they received on the buses. Gladys Moore remembered that Montgomery’s bus operators treated black women “just as rough as could be…like we are some kind of animal.” Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State and member of the increasingly militant Women’s Political Council, argued that the mistreatment on the buses was degrading, shameful and humiliating. “Black Americans,” she insisted, were “still being treated as… things without feelings, not human beings.” Bus drivers, Robinson recalled, disrespected black women by hurling nasty sexualized insults their way. Ferdie Walker, a black woman from Fort Worth, Texas, remembered bus drivers sexually harassing her as she waited on the corner. “The bus was up high,” she recalled, “and the street was down low. They’d drive up under there and then they’d expose themselves while I was standing there and it just scared me to death.”
At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle L. McGuire, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, p.59

This book is one of many on the civil rights movement. McGuire focuses on the role of women who organized for justice against rape of black women by white men, which was a constant menace and seldom investigated, never mind prosecuted. With the police more likely to be offenders than protectors, black women lived in a community under siege by terrorism, with no end in sight.

There’s the lite version of the civil rights movement, that says ‘back of the bus’ was a seating arrangement, but Martin Luther King had a dream and the nonviolent marches so impressed white people with their moral authority that equality happened. The reality is complicated, and confronting it opens old wounds, and reveals how recent and fragile is the foundation of racial justice that supports us today. How easily it could all collapse.

Dismantling the most outrageous and visible institutions of segregation in the South was a work of decades, a battle fought on many fronts, with allies in many places. It was brought to the court of public opinion, not only in the US but internationally. It was expedited by black veterans of WWII, who had fought fascism abroad and could no longer resign themselves to oppression here. It was fought by women and children on the front lines. It was fought with a tough, pragmatic non-violence– not just because it was led by Christian ministers, but because armed resistance would have brought mass murder as a response.

Studying the past is painful, but necessary if we are to understand the present. The use of language as a weapon against the black community has something to teach us now when we face denial about the power of words. The complacency of a white majority, who were manipulated by fear and lies, who allowed atrocious acts to be committed against their neighbors and fellow Christians, shows a truth about human nature we would rather not see.

But if we are to make sense of the actions of the civil rights marchers–ordinary people, who were willing to risk their lives for a seat on the bus– we have to understand the state of despair that sparked such courage.

Danielle McGuire has a website here, for more on her fine book and historical research.

MORE: I’m reading a news story on Yahoo about the President and Attorney General giving speeches about the nonviolent work of Dr. Martin Luther King, calling for tolerance and giving to the community– then I check the comments– a solid wall of hate and racism. Let’s hope the trolls will stick to their keyboards and not pick up guns, but reading the comments shows me why Dr. King’s work matters so much and why his work is not done.

Faith vs Guns

Today’s sermon by Rev. James Ford was dedicated to the life of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King.

I understand when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, after the police and FBI arrived, during all the confusion, people running around, agents trying to get a handle on what had happened, one agent informed his superior on a walkie-talkie how he just heard Coretta Scott King say that Martin’s dream would never die. There was, I gather, a pause. Then the agent’s superior instructed him to, “Find out what that dream was.” So, what was that dream? And what might it mean for us? I think these are terribly important questions, and finding some sense of their meaning is critical for us in these hard, hard times.

Dr. King was surrounded by danger and threats every day of his public ministry. The forces of law worked as much to thwart him as protect him. What dream inspired him to face guns with truth, knowing the risk he took?

Do our representatives think of this, when they speak to a crowd? Is it some kind of faith that our national sanity will prevail that allows them to stand before us without bulletproof glass? Will they get our vote for that, or will we rush to arm ourselves and let the right to speak fearlessly recede into history?

What kind of courage led unarmed people to march for rights, in the face of weapons and the mis-use of law? What dream of America did they value more than life? Can we find out what that dream was?


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