Celebrating the love she leaves behind.

(Eulogy for my grandmother – delivered December 12, 2018.)

IMG_0573When we were kids, there was almost nothing that Mommom wouldn’t let us do.  Jump on the bed?  She’d lead us in a rousing game of “Chop Chop Timber”.  Play in the mud?  She’d draw a bath and make sure our clothes were clean before we went home.  Drink Pepsi for breakfast?  “Just don’t tell your mother.”  If we broke something, she’d just shrug and say, “No one got hurt.”  And if we did get hurt, she pull out the band-aids and assure us that we’d be better before we were married.  I didn’t even know that she knew how to be angry until that one time I used her sewing scissors to cut paper.  (One time.)

Her patience with us as children was indicative of her patience with everyone.  She accepted that people made mistakes, and she forgave easily.  Where others held grudges or distanced themselves from people in their lives, my grandmother would forgive and find the good.  She didn’t always understand the decisions other people made, but she didn’t have to understand someone to love them.  She accepted that everyone was flawed, and she loved them anyway.

She opened her home to anyone who needed a place to stay – for a night or for a year.  There was nothing that she had that couldn’t be borrowed, and nothing that she owned that was more important than the people in her life.  Mommom was embarrassed by nothing and allowed herself to enjoy life without worrying about what others might think.  She literally danced as if no one was watching and sang as if no one was listening.

If you didn’t know her well, you might begin to see the picture of a woman without flaws – but most of us know better.  And the things that I loved about her the most were those perfect imperfections that made her who she was.

She was stubborn.  She didn’t think that she was always right, but right or wrong, she was going to do things her way.  She was a selective hoarder – of buttons, scraps of fabric, jars of jelly far past their expiration date, and 10 year old poinsettias that looked like barren collections of twigs but still produced a flower every once in awhile.

While it was my Mommom Amond who had the vocabulary of a sailor, it was Mommom Burd who taught me to curse creatively – taking every day words and infusing them with the spirit of profanity.

IMG_0560 2She believed – above everything else – in living her life, rather than striving for perfection.  She appreciated what she had, and she never wanted anything more.

Her legacy will continue to impact the world for many generations to come.  She shaped and helped to raise four strong-willed and independent granddaughters, and two great-granddaughters coming up behind. My dad has her goofy sense of humor and her inability to be embarrassed by much of anything – and her ability to accept the imperfections of others.  And it is my aunt who has inherited her endless generosity and caring, her compassion, and her heart.

As you leave here today, we ask you to reflect on and celebrate the impact that she had on you.  Maybe it is as simple as a favorite recipe that she shared. Maybe she helped to care for your family when someone was sick.  Maybe she gave you a place to stay, a loan, or just the gift of her time.  Or maybe she taught you to forgive easily, forget quickly, laugh often, play without embarrassment, and love without conditions.

Live your truth. Tell your story.

I have been feeling a bit lost for the past few months, and I’ve struggled with the things that typically feed my soul.

I stepped away from political conversations for a little while. I couldn’t reconcile the commonly held belief that the time for civility and compromise had passed with my own need to engage, understand, and find the common ground we all know exists.

I felt like my footing in the social justice movements was shaky; I was uncertain how to speak from a place of privilege without drowning out the marginalized voices that deserve to be heard.

I came dangerously close to giving up on my dream. I became overwhelmed with the effort and sacrifice required to get there, and I forgot about the purpose and passion that made it all worth the climb.

Needing, Seeking, and Finding Inspiration

I had lost my way and many of my former sources of inspiration had become sources of confusion and stress.  It was time to find inspiration in unexpected places.

The “Comedy” Special that will bring you to tears

If you have not yet taken the time to watch Hannah Gadsby’s entire Netflix special, you need to make time.  Make time.  Don’t put it on the in background while you are doing something else.  Sit.  Listen.  Laugh. Really listen. Cry. Laugh again.  I dare you to come away uninspired.

The Six-Hour 12-Hour YouTube Black Hole that Hasn’t Actually Ended Yet

I fell into a YouTube hole that I have not quite emerged from after discovering a speech delivered by writer/producer/director Dustin Lance Black. If you aren’t familiar with him, Lance won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Milk, and his recent TV mini-series When We Rise is definitely worth 8 hours of your time.

But beyond his work in Hollywood, he’s an activist and an advocate. Lance doesn’t just write scripts about the critical history of social justice movements, he makes history in those movements.

The common theme that resonated so strongly for me across both Hannah and Lance’s messages was the need to tell your story.  YOUR story.  YOUR truth.  From privilege, from oppression, with laughter, with tears… your story has value.

live your truth. tell your story. tattoo.Ironically, this message that I needed to hear is a message that I had tattooed on my arm earlier this year.  This is a message so important to me that I literally had it embedded into my skin.  I see it every day.  And yet I forgot the essential truth:

read. listen. engage. do good. do right. cry. laugh. dream. accept. love. live your truth.

tell your story.

But why did he run?

antwonroseOn Tuesday, June 19th, Antwon Rose was shot and killed by police in East Pittsburgh.  He was 17.  He was Black.  And he was unarmed.

Vox and the New York Times both have good summaries of the facts.  (If you are more of a Fox News person, their article is okay, but not quite complete.)

Here are the facts of this case:

  • Antwon Rose was running away from the police after the car in which he was a passenger was stopped, because it matched the description of a car that had been involved in a fatal shooting earlier that evening. (There is bystander video of Antwon fleeing the scene with his back to the officers when he was shot.  This fact is not currently being disputed by the Pittsburgh Police.)
  • Antwon was unarmed, but police did recover an unused clip of ammunition from his pocket.
  • Two firearms were recovered from the car in which Antwon was riding; however the driver of the car was released by police. (I personally conclude that this means the firearms were registered and that no other charges were pending, but I have also not independently verified that.)
  • The officer who shot Antwon was sworn onto the Pittsburgh Police force hours before the shooting, but he had previously worked in suburban police forces for several years prior.

The officers had no evidence that Antwon (or the others in the vehicle) were involved in any crime.  The question that I keep hearing over and over again is, “But why did he run?”

Why did he run?  Because he was a 17 year old Black teenager pulled over by police.

I can provide the researchI can tell you the facts.  I can even debate with you over alternative interpretations of the data.

What I can’t do is to make you understand the reality of living a life in a body that is instinctively seen as a threat.  I can’t possible understand that reality myself, but I know that it is true.  I know that it is true, because when I see a Black man approach me on a sidewalk, my instinct is fear – and every day I have to fight that instinct, knowing that I might not be personally to blame for the existence of that fear, but I am responsible for not acting on it.

Why did he run? 

Maybe Antwon ran because he knew that Philando Castile was shot while he sat in a car with his girlfriend and her daughter, for doing nothing more than reaching for his driver’s license.  Maybe Antwon ran because he knew that Kalief Browder was held in jail for 3 years awaiting trial for stealing a backpack (a crime for which there was no evidence and he was ultimately found not guilty), because the criminal justice system was never designed to provide justice for boys that look like him.  Maybe Antwon ran because there were firearms in the car, and if 12 year old Tamir Rice can be killed for a toy gun, it’s not a stretch to think that he might face the same fate.

And maybe Antwon ran because he was a scared, 17 year old kid who was just afraid of getting into trouble.  Maybe he was a teenager who made a mistake.  Maybe he was a good kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The maybes don’t matter.  What does matter is that regardless of why he ran, he did not deserve to die.

Justice Stevens forces me to eat my words. And I’m annoyed.

Last night, I finally had enough of the false narrative that pro-gun control liberals who support the March for Our Lives movement were out to repeal the Second Amendment.  It’s just not true, I insisted.  And I posted this:

fb2ndamendment

12 hours later, I was eating my lunch and browsing the news sites – and I see this headline: John Paul Stevens: Repeal the Second Amendment.

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Let’s start by saying, I stand by my statement that the overwhelming majority of people do not support a repeal of the Second Amendment.  (Former Justice Stevens is, in fact, a Republican.  Not that this makes any difference whatsoever, but it feels like it is worth mentioning.)

I cannot, however, deny that I owe someone an apology.

Is there any validity to Justice Stevens’ recommendation?

There is value in reading Stevens’ op-ed in the Times, which outlines how he landed at his “repeal the Second Amendment” conclusion.  It’s interesting.  Interesting, but not valid.

Stevens argues that for the first 200 years of our country’s existence, it was generally understood that the Second Amendment did not preclude the government from passing gun control legislation.  (Curious about my take on the origins of the Second Amendment?  Of course you are.)  The NRA became a powerful lobbying force only within the past 20 years, at which point “gun control” became thought of as the antithesis of the Second Amendment.

Okay, Stevens – so far, so good.

He then points to the 2008 Supreme Court decision in the District of Columbia v. Heller as the turning point – a decision that enshrined the right for an individual to bear arms for any reason – as the moment that the NRA took over the narrative.  Stevens dissented on this ruling, and continues to believe that this ruling should be overturned.

But this is where the Stevens takes a weird turn.

If the 2008 ruling was incorrect, the solution – which Justice Stevens refers to as “simple” – is to repeal the Second Amendment.  It’s a bizarre conclusion in the best of times, but in our current political environment where the country is so divided – particularly on this issue – it’s just irresponsible.  You can have whatever personal opinions you want to about the Second Amendment, but to distort the current movement into one of a full repeal of the Second Amendment is counterproductive.  It’s either an effort to deliberately derail the movement, or a naive and idealistic understanding of politics.  Real political and cultural change comes in compromises.  It comes over time.  Positive change is never achieved by making the worst fears of a large chunk of citizens come true overnight.  (The irony of that statement given the last election is not lost on me, y’all.)

I know I have some liberal friends who are reading this and thinking that I’m a sellout and a centrist.  Maybe I am.  Maybe in another ten years, I’ll look back on this blog post with embarrassment.  But for now, I’m going to remain the pragmatist, striving to find the common ground and looking for the solutions in the space between.

 

 

 

Oh, SNAP.

33921116_sA couple of nights ago, I posted a link to an article on my Facebook feed about the SNAP (or “food stamps”) program.  The NY Times article, “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda” (written by Anahad O’Connor), suggested – and was reinforced by the headline and photo used – that families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spend their benefits on junk food and soda.

I had linked to another Facebook post by a gentleman named Joe Soss.  Mr. Soss provided a rebuttal of that NY Times article, suggesting that the original study was misused in the article.  Since then, Talk Poverty has also picked up the story and expands on Mr. Soss’ original post.  While the article seems to question whether families receiving SNAP should be able to purchase “junk food” with their benefits, the underlying USDA survey actually found very few differences from the spending habits families on SNAP and those who are not.

Passion and Productivity sometimes don’t mix

My post sparked the passion of several of my friends, and I have a huge amount of respect for the amazing women who shared their feelings.  They came into the conversation about SNAP benefits from very different backgrounds, and those experiences created the strong feelings that they have on the topic.  Unfortunately, sometimes that passion can cloud our ability to address each other with empathy and respect, and it was the first time that I felt compelled to delete a Facebook post.  

Having deleted the post, though, I still wanted to present their viewpoints (to the best of my ability) and provide my thoughts.  There were two big issues that became contentious:

  1. How much fraud happens within the SNAP benefits program – and how much does it matter?
  2. Should those who receive SNAP benefits be restricted in what they are allowed to purchase, limiting junk food and other non-essential food items?

Food Stamp Fraud?

There was a heated discussion about the prevalence of SNAP benefit fraud in the Facebook thread.  One individual has witnessed individuals who have sold their benefits (or food purchased with their benefits) for cash, and suspects that those individuals have used the money to support a drug habit.  For this reason, it is extremely hard for her to feel positively about the program, particularly as an unemployed mom who struggles to make ends meet for her own family and does not qualify for the benefits.

It’s really hard to argue with that experience.  The official statistics on food stamp fraud show that there is a 1.3% rate of “trafficking” in SNAP benefits, according to a 2013 USDA report.  (These appear to be the most current numbers.)  What is critical to understand is the definition of this fraud:  “Trafficking” is defined as users who trade their SNAP benefits to food retailers for cash, typically at a discount.  Individuals who may purchase and then sell the food for cash would not fall under this type of fraud, and these incidents are likely not captured in the total fraud statistics.

If there is unmeasured fraud within the system, is it enough to warrant major changes to the SNAP program?  It’s really difficult to tell taxpayers struggling to make ends meet that even though they see abuses, this program is far more valuable than it is wasteful.  However…

There will always be some individuals who seek to abuse the system; creating a 100% fraud-proof system is impossible, and we’ll spend far more taxpayer dollars trying to eliminate fraud than the cost of the fraud itself.  The SNAP program is one of the most efficient federal programs in terms of administrative overhead (~7% of total budget, with 93% going directly to beneficiaries) and in error rates in distribution.  And the benefit that it offers to our entire society by reducing extreme poverty and providing a safety net for families and individuals to get back onto their feet during difficult times is significant.

Limit the Grocery Items Available?

38611885 - detail of a person shopping in a supermarketThe second issue, and possibly the more contentious one, was an issue of whether or not SNAP recipients should be more restricted in the grocery items that they may purchase.  Should someone on SNAP be able to purchase junk food and soda?  What about steak and lobster?  How about exotic and expensive fruits and vegetables?  Organic items that are more costly?

There are rules established on SNAP benefits that  limit what can be purchased to food items, excluding things like prepared foods.  However, beyond that, the individual beneficiary makes the decisions about what foods to purchase.  Here is where things get complicated.

  • Are there some choices that would appear better than others?  Of course.  I will admit to having judgement if I see someone buying expensive food items using their SNAP benefits.
  • Can such a purchase be justified for special occasions, or if the individual has truly saved up for something?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  
  • Should I be allowed to have an opinion because I’m a taxpayer?  I understand why the answer feels like it should be yes, but no.  We all deserve the dignity of personal decision making, and even if you are receiving government assistance, you are an individual with the ability to make decisions for yourself.  

Setting limits becomes a slippery slope.  If we don’t allow the purchase of lobster, should we also take away expensive fresh vegetables?  If we start limiting items based on cost, then junk food is more attractive, because it’s cheap.  If we also limit food that does not provide high nutritional value (and that has been proposed in Tennessee), we start to narrow down the choices exponentially.   We end up with a program that provides almost no value, and has higher overhead costs to manage the regulations.

Accountability?  Of course.

Should the SNAP program – and all government benefit programs – be continuously monitored and held accountable for results?  YES.  So many people are opposed to “big government” because of the waste and inefficiencies in the programs, and they are not wrong.  Many government programs are poorly managed, with little oversight and no accountability.  We need to stand up as voters and demand that oversight – and insist that we fund programs that work – and change or remove programs that don’t.  We also have to admit that no program is without issues – cracks that folks can fall through, and loopholes that others can sneak through.  We do the best to patch those holes and keep moving forward.

SNAP works in a highly effective and efficient manner.  This is one of the good ones, and we really need to work to protect it.

A note on fostering the conversation

PLEASE keep talking to each other and sharing your point of view.  If something makes you angry, help the rest of us to understand why.  I know you don’t all agree with me – and I hope you will tell me why and help me to learn.  Comment, ask questions, provide links, or suggest further research!

The Electoral College is Not the Problem

voteI have a controversial and unpopular opinion to share: I think the Electoral College is a valuable institution and should remain in place as a part of our republican government.

Democracy versus Republic

Most of us have probably been taught at some point that the United States is a republic and not actually a democracy, but it’s hard to keep that fact straight when we (myself included) use the word “democracy” with such reverence.

Democracy: A true democracy is ruled by popular vote. Everything is ruled by popular vote.

Republic: Representatives are elected by popular vote, and they go on to create laws and structure under which the masses agree to live.

A democracy is impractical for any organization with more than a few members, because it’s not reasonable to expect a popular vote to be taken on every decision that impacts the members. And so we create a republican framework within which to operate.

(The party names of “Democratic” and “Republican” have little to do with the meaning of the words. The parties have, in fact, essentially switched their key principles since the mid-19th century.)

The Electoral College

Of course, we could still be a republic without the intervening system of the Electoral College. Popular vote could elect a President, who is then the representative of the people. Instead, we vote for electors, who then go on to vote for the President. How the electors vote for the President is a matter that is up to the individual states within the union of the United States.

So why have the Electoral College?

The founders recognized that a popular vote for the Executive Branch of government posed a challenge. The areas of the country with the highest number of voters would control the office of the President. Voters, being white, landholding men, were not evenly dispersed – and the President would consistently not represent the disparate interests of the entire United States.

Yes, it is true that for many of the founders, this meant that slave holding states with fewer eligible voters would not be represented by the Executive Branch. And while that background is abhorrent, the concept continues to have value in our country today.

The Electoral College forces a candidate to listen to the entire country

43018293_sThe Electoral College concept forces a candidate to listen to the needs of the entire country. While gaining vast majorities of the popular vote in highly populated areas could win the popular vote, a candidate has to win the popular vote in more than just a few places within the larger country. A candidate can’t focus on the needs of coastal cities, for example, without considering the needs of the agricultural and industrial Midwest.

There are a lot of reasons to deny the legitimacy of a Trump presidency. The Electoral College should not be one of them.

Mrs. Clinton lost the election, because she failed to win the trust and address the concerns of voters across the country. That is not the fault of the Electoral College system, but rather illustrates why it exists.  She needed to better understand and address concerns in the rural and industrial areas.

The challenge, in this particular election year, is that Donald Trump did not win fairly. While he won the election, he did so by lying to the public, refusing to provide critical information, and through the interference of a foreign government. And his insistence that he won “by a landslide” is such a ridiculous notion that it makes it hard to argue in favor of his Electoral College victory.

The Electoral College is granted the power—at least in some states—to vote their conscience and refuse to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in their state. Should they have done so in this election? That’s a matter of opinion at this point, because the investigations into the foreign influence, financial conflicts of interest and other issues were not completed when the vote was held. It could also be argued that voting against the popular vote in those states won by Donald Trump would have caused violence and conflict that might be more destructive than a Trump presidency.

There are a lot of reasons to deny the legitimacy of a Trump presidency. The Electoral College should not be one of them.

 

Respect and the Office of the Presidency

10331725 - president clintonIn the movie The American President, Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen) refuses to call President Shepherd (Michael Douglas) by any name other than “Sir” or “Mr. President”, despite having been friends for years.  As long as President Shepherd is in office, he will be addressed as “Mr. President” and never “Andy”, because the office of the Presidency deserves that respect.

That idea of Presidential respect has stuck with me for more than 20 years.  The office of the US President deserves a level of reverence that goes above and beyond the man behind the office.  I am careful to always use appropriate titles and to bestow respect that is due, regardless of my personal feelings and political leanings, to the man holding the Office of the President.

After a great deal of consideration and internal turmoil, however, I have come to the decision that I will not be able to address Donald Trump with the title of President.  

There are certainly a lot of reasons why you might question the validity of a Trump Presidency, from foreign interference in the elections to the confusing role of the Electoral College versus the popular vote.  My decision, however, comes down to a very simple reality: Donald Trump does not deserve the respect due to any previous President of the United States, because he has repeatedly proven that he does not respect the Presidency or the people of the United States,  and he refuses to treat the role with the level of seriousness that it requires.

Recently, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton and the leader of Inequality Media, addressed the topic in a Facebook post.  Mr. Reich was responding to a politician (whom he had chosen not to name) who told Reich that he would be attending Trump’s inauguration and festivities, because he believed “in promoting unity over partisanship and supporting a peaceful transition of power”.   Mr. Reich responded,

…It’s not matter of Democrat versus Republican, or left versus right.

The issue here is how former presidents and other politicians should respond to someone who has shown himself to be a dangerous demagogue.

Donald Trump became president by lying, demeaning women, denigrating racial and ethnic minorities, denying intelligence reports of foreign intervention in our election, excusing violence against opponents, and undermining the freedom and independence of the press. And since being elected he’s held rallies and issued tweets in which he’s continued to tell big lies, retaliate against critics, call opponents “enemies,” avoid press conferences, and dismiss conflicts of financial interest.

I told him that, in my view, attending Trump’s inauguration gives tacit support and approval to someone who poses a clear and present danger to our democracy.

The word “resistance” feels scary and reactionary, but it does not feel wrong.  My resistance starts with my language.  #notmypresident