Archive for July, 2009

In recent days, three unrelated and irritating experiences have become linked in my mind. They seem to say something about the world in which we now live.

The first happened while driving into town a few days ago. A driver ran the red light to my left, cutting me off as she turned into my lane of traffic. At the next light, I rolled down the window and, at the fear of being flipped off, quietly said to the young woman, “You know, you ran that red light.”

“I did,” she said, “but I’m late for work.”

That response somehow seemed OK for her as she sped off, committing three moving traffic violations as she went; speeding, illegal lane change, no turn signal.

A day or two later, while driving Interstate 5 north of Roseburg, OR, I watched a guy standing in his pickup bed on a parallel frontage road, throwing empty cans, bottles and other junk onto the right-of-way. When I came back a few minutes later, he was gone but the garbage was still there.

The third experience has been watching a family a few blocks from our house leave garbage cans out permanently and, with a garage full of adult toys, park two cars on the narrow street night after night. I’m told this violates a couple of Roseburg city ordinances. The resident, not a newcomer, probably knows that.

So, where am I going with this? Well, one common thread here is a seemingly shared contempt for the authority with which we all live, whether driving, littering or violating garbage and parking ordinances. A second commonality we can likely assume is that all three of these violators knew what they were doing was wrong but, for their own purposes, did it anyway.

So what? Nobody was hurt. Well, maybe not. Then again, where do the Bobby Knights, Darrell Strawberrys and Pete Roses come from? Why do parents get into fistfights at Little League and soccer games while their 10-year-olds watch? Why do otherwise law-abiding citizens cheat on their taxes?

There is another connection in these three scenarios and the questions just asked. That would be a lack of personal responsibility coupled with faulty thinking that no one else was injured by what they were doing so it didn’t really matter: “The rules don’t apply to me.”
But such behavior does matter. And it does hurt. In the case of the red-light-runner, it can kill.

Maybe in their early years, no one held any of these people to a level of expected behavior and followed through with immediate punishment for not meeting it. I can tell you that was not the case in our house when I was growing up. There were rules and swift punishment if those rules were broken.

Oh, I don’t mean physical retribution. No, my wise old parents had better methods. Denial of privileges like riding my bike or later, driving my car. Grounding. Reduced or eliminated allowance. Added chores.

At the time, I was sure the rules were too tough, my world would be forever changed and I would never be “socially acceptable” again! I didn’t have to live by their old rules!

Then, one day, the light dawned. I suddenly saw the reduced allowance as a traffic fine. The denial of my bike or car was driving privileges taken away by the “court” for misbehavior. The added chores were the costs of probation and punishment. It took awhile. But I finally got it.

If someone didn’t do the same for participants in the above examples, those people missed something important. But, as adults, they should have at least heard of the concept of personal responsibility somewhere along the line.

So, for those who have heard and believe the rules apply, and for those who have not, here is a reality. Before getting all hot and bothered about what our kids watch on TV, listen to in their headsets or spout the kind of rotten language they suddenly come up with out of nowhere, maybe we should be more aware of what they watch and hear at home where the rules are.

And that would be … us!

Given the sorry state of most commercial journalism in this country … both print and broadcast … I often turn to stories about (and views of others concerning) the good ol’ US of A as found in the foreign press.

My latest intercontinental information-seeking has been highlighted by the farce called a “confirmation” hearing for Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the US Supreme Court.

Overseas media largely have seen that political circus as a national embarrassment. Which it truly was. Never have so many said so much about so little would be my appraisal.

Here we are after a week of faux questions and faux answers. As a result of that daily puppet theater, do you have any better understanding of the appointee? Aside from besting a bunch of showboaters in verbal ping pong, do you know more about her judicial temperament? Is she where she is because of some affirmative action allocation at her law school years ago or because she has a good legal mind and fought her way professionally to the top like her peers?

We know an awful lot about a group of preening senators … more than we need to know … but not much more about the nominee than when the process began.

Often pointed to in the foreign press as the chief embarrassment among inquisitors has been Sen. Sessions of Alabama. He sits now on at the right hand of the Senate Judiciary committee chairman as ranking Republican. But his first experience with that committee came some years ago when, as a hopeful appointee to the federal bench, he was refused confirmation because, among other things, he was a racist. After listening to him hogging the spotlight for five days, it appears he still is. Even the National Bar Association wouldn’t support his nomination.

Honest liberal or honest conservative, the fact remains no one on that committee has interviewed a more experienced, literate or qualified appointee than Sonya Sotomayor. Period. It’s also safe to say they don’t know much more about her now than they did going in.

Some committee Republicans seem hellbent on ignoring her superb qualifications and will vote against her on nothing more than their own ignorance and a play for folks at home.

They have no idea how she feels about abortion, a subject that should have never come up. But some will vote “no” because “she supports Row vs Wade.” Funny. She never said.

Others have pigeonholed her as anti-gun and the ever-lovin’ National Rifle Association is beating the drums and passing out the bucks. Funny. She never gave a position on gun “rights.”

I don’t know how she’ll turn out as a supreme court justice. But it’s safe to say she has already achieved a level of judicial competence beyond that of any recent nominee. And there have been a few good ones.

This sorry episode is just the latest in many that, to folks living in other lands, makes them wonder how we have survived these 230 years or so. They often ask journalistically, “Why don’t you operate on the same sort of “vote of confidence” system we do?”

Frankly, it’s episodes like the Sotomayor “hearing” that makes me wonder the same thing.

Why do so many of us let ourselves care so much for dog and cat members of our families?

Most journalists are taught leading stories with a question is a weak lead. But, when you’ve just “put down” a 15-year member of the family, questions fill your mind in the hours that follow.

Her name was Mowse; all-white, indoor cat of medium size. Nothing unusual about her. Typical feline. Spent most days by herself, washing, napping wherever she wanted. Spent most nights prowling the house. She intimidated Rat Terrier Winston just being in the same room. Mowse seemed to realize she was here first and didn’t let Winston forget it. They got along grudgingly and traveled well together in the motor home but they weren’t buddies.

Humans and animals share a commonality: life support systems wear out as we get to our senior years. The last few months, she threw up a lot, didn’t move around much, spent her time mostly sleeping behind a rocking chair. She still demanded meals on time and purred when petted. She still intimidated Winston. But you could tell life was hard.

The vet diagnosed renal failure and several other infirmities of old age. The choice was several expensive tests to confirm or to stop the suffering. What would you have done? We chose the latter.

We say we “kill” insects or mice or rabbits. But we can’t bring ourselves to say “we killed” our cat/dog/horse. We use the word “euthanasia” or “put down” to describe the process. Like saying “passed away” rather than “died.” We try to soften the blow by word substitution. But death is still death . Loss is still loss.

So we are asking that attachment question. Why let it happen? Why let ourselves in for heart break when we take these animals … these creatures … into our homes and our personal lives? We know, if things progress in a natural way, we’ll out live them. We will suffer loss and grief. But we do it any way.

We had working horses on the Wenatchee, WA. ranch many years ago. My grandfather, a John Wayne-type, “put down” more than a few. To a kid watching, he was tough about it; no tears, no sentiment. One shot, dig the hole, shove the body in, cover it up.

But after he died, my grandmother found pictures of some of his favorite horses; even a few locks cut from old manes near the end of life. All in a bureau drawer she dared not open in his lifetime.

My folks in Bend, OR, had two English Bulldogs. In each case, after a few years, cancer developed and they had to be “euthanized.” My normally rugged father responded the same way in the days following each death: sitting in his chair, watching the birds on Mirror Pond, saying little and eating almost nothing. Good old healthy grief.

As a hospice volunteer, I watched a number of end-of-life stories play out between patients with dogs or cats. In every one of them … every one … the animals seemed to know what was happening. They’d sit in the patient’s lap for hours instead of running around the house or yard as had been their habit. They’d get on a lap or a bed and lie quietly for days on end.

Maybe that’s one reason why we let ourselves become so attached; so involved; so vulnerable. We know, on some level, the attachment is very often two-way.

We watched Winston, our normally active pup, during my mother’s last weeks at a Roseburg, OR, nursing facility. She was frail, weak and had pain with movement. At first, when she asked to see Winston, we feared having him on the bed where he felt he belonged would be hard on her. We hadn’t counted on Winston.

He would trot into her room and stand by her bed for a second. Then, without being able to see what was up there, he’d leap to the foot. Not once did he come even close to landing on her aching feet or legs. Sounds strange to say, he always knew where she wasn’t. Then he’d snuggle in next to her hip and stay absolutely still for her petting. How did he know? Where did he learn?

Some of you will wonder “what’s the big deal?” Some will say “I know the feeling.” To the former, if you don’t understand now, you never will. To the latter, we know it is a big deal.

Mowse is gone. The house is emptier. There’s a vacant spot in our lives. It’s grief now. But there were 15 good years; a cat’s lifetime. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Robert Strange McNamara died this week at the age of 93.

To some, especially many Viet Nam veterans, the response to that headline may have been “so what?” After all, McNamara was widely seen as the architect of that lost war, the one who kept advising presidents to throw more lives and treasure into the doomed conflict. Including theirs.

That’s true to a large extent. As Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, McNamara justifiably wielded a lot of power. He got that power because he earned it. He surrendered that power in 1967, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, when he resigned, telling Lyndon Johnson the Viet Nam war was a civil war which could not be won from the outside.

But there was more to the former Ford Motors chairman. I had several opportunities to watch him up close when he visited the Strategic Air Command underground command post near Omaha.

Some of his visits for updates on the force were with Pres. Kennedy; some were not. When he came, Kennedy was taken to the balcony above the command post where he was given what we used to call “the eyewash” televised briefing. Lots of colorful charts and graphs were accompanied by sonorous, anonymous voices of senior staff who were always very nervous. The briefings were mostly general military information.

Meantime, McNamara would be taken to a small office under the balcony where, behind draped windows, surrounded by top staff and brass, he would receive a more detailed briefing on warhead targeting. There, he sat in a straight-backed chair, absorbing hundreds and hundreds of statistics without taking notes.

Every so often, he would stop the briefer who was reading from large, thick flip charts, each page containing dozens of target codes.

McNamara would say something like “That last target is a duplicate of one on line three, four pages back.”

A very flustered bird colonel would flip back and always … always… found the Secretary was right. The man had a memory and concentration like no other I’ve ever met.

In 1962, there was the Cuban missile crisis; the closest this nation has come to disappearing from the earth. That is no exaggeration. I was in that command post. The call would have been made six feet from where I was at that time.

Gen. Curtis Lemay, former SAC commander and then USAF chief of staff, was pushing Kennedy to bomb Cuba and, if necessary, Russia. He wasn’t alone but his was the loudest and most persistent voice.

During that time, including his day-to-day personal direction of the naval blockade we put around Cuba, McNamara prevailed. More than once, he told a general or an admiral his was the final decision on the matter at hand and pointed to the door out of the war room if they couldn’t take orders. His was the last word. Always.

Whatever else McNamara did during his seven years at the Pentagon, I firmly believe he was the most responsible for keeping us from nuclear war. And in that kind of war, there would be no winner.

As Viet Nam dragged on, McNamara, deservedly or not, became the lightening rod more than the presidents he served. His became the name on most of the anti-war signs, cursed by marchers, condemned by students he tried to speak to. He once had to sneak off the Harvard campus by being led through underground utility tunnels. A pacifist protester set himself on fire outside McNamara’s window at the Pentagon.

Shortly after, McNamara resigned.

While not becoming a pacifist himself, McNamara took to his duties at the World Bank with the same drive and concentration as before. He focused on developing countries, spending billions to bring technology and improved communications to otherwise dark corners. He came to believe only through everyone sharing in prosperity would we ever see world peace.

It’s not my intent to let Robert McNamara off the hook for his part in the Viet Nam war. His participation, his advice and leadership, his personal and professional responsibilities are well-documented and will largely define his place in world history.

But, as in most things, there is a bit more to the story than what we normally read or hear. There is the all-too-often missing human element that most of us never know. I will always be grateful for the years spent having an unusual opportunity to see that side of many situations and people.

In this case, those situations were the 60’s in a tormented America. The people included Robert Strange McNamara.

The date: July 3, 2011.

The place: The Vice President’s Office, Washington DC

The speaker: Vice President Sara Palin.

“People who know me know that besides faith and family, nothing’s more important to me than our beloved (America). I am determined to take the right path … even though it’s not the easiest path. Once I decided not to run for re-election, I felt that to embrace the conventional ‘lame duck’ status in this … climate would be just another dose of ‘politics as usual.’” Etc. Etc. Etc.

With that, she’s out the door and President John McCain and the American people are in the market for a new vice president.

Back to now. And reality. The Lindsey Lohan of American politics has again come up with a rambling, somewhat unintelligible, distorted line of thinking that amounts to shooting herself in both feet.

Using a basketball analogy in her “quitting at halftime” speech must have put Kobe Bryant and Shaq to shaking their heads. Can you imagine either one, after half a game of tough play and hard elbows, walking off the floor?

It’s not surprising much of the harshest criticism for her self-serving action has come from (a) real Republicans and (b) folks in Alaska. She campaigned for a four-year contract as governor, promised to change things for the better, then walked out on her promises, party and supporters.

Palin’s shot at the media for an imagined attack on her Downs Syndrome child was one of her dumbest moments. No national media did any such thing. There was one idiot on You Tube (a private citizen idiot) who posted a caricature using his likeness. Not the media. Idiots … in office or not … are protected by free speech even if you don’t like what they say.

Remember also, from the moment McCain plucked her from her wilderness, she put her family front and center at her national debut, GOP convention and the campaign. No media outfit tracked them to Alaska and dragged them out of the house.

Palin’s excuse for walking out on her contract as governor is one more amateurish and immature action in her short life on the national stage; a blessedly short national life filled with many such moments.

There’s much speculation she’ll run for president in 2012. Not a chance. She most likely will write a confusing book and highlight the right-wing “rubber chicken” circuit for a year or two. She’ll make a few million dollars before her star burns out.

The people I feel bad for are those who put their hopes and votes in this caricature. They looked for simple answers to complex problems in a world where none exist. They wanted to believe that this was an “every man-woman” who could “speak truth to power.”

There will still be some … a very few … who’ll cling to the image of her only they see. They’ll waste both pity and angst for a person who deserted them. Though she never had a real shot of succeeding in national politics with her simplistic, disjointed thinking, she represented something they could empathize with.

Now they have another false prophet. Instead of leading them from the wilderness, she quit on them and went back into it herself.

There are still some shoes to fall in this soggy saga. There are some puzzle pieces missing. I have no idea what they are. Nor do I really care. As time goes by, we will hear less and less of her and the soap opera she lives.

Running for political office at any level, espousing what you believe and holding yourself up as someone who can make this a better world is tough, hard work. You’re always contending with opposition; opposition of ideas, political philosophy and people that just don’t like you without even knowing you.

To be successful in such an environment, you’d better be the real thing. You’d better be tough. If you’re not, sooner or later, you’ll be unmasked.

It’s a sad commentary that our politics is such a cutthroat, nasty business. It doesn’t have to be. But we’ve allowed … even encouraged … divisiveness and nastiness at all levels. We’ve made rich the voices that spout such hate. We’ve supported ignorance and false charges by calling it “free speech” rather than what it really is: hate speech.

Holding political office of any kind is a public trust. It’s hard, largely unappreciated work. An elected term is not a step toward lifetime job security. It is not something to be sought to appease one’s ego.

Palin didn’t understand that. We are better off without her.