Archive for September 2009
Anger is a staple of modern public discourse. Perhaps, some people will say, that’s always been so. The fact that a mean spirited element has long existed makes it no less toxic.
Most of us have freshly burned in our memories people shouting down members of congress at August town hall meetings. And, in some cases, members of congress shouting back down their constituents. Fresher still are images of a member of congress shouting down the President during his address to a joint session of Congress. Immediately after, there was a spike in campaign contributions to the offending member of congress as well as his opponent.
In the social media sphere it is not uncommon to see anger filled political comments sprinkled among the updates on newborn nieces, vacation photos and business updates. Perhaps we share some of the anger we read in our respective news feeds. Perhaps some posts make us angrier still because we disagree – especially if we have not carefully filtered out all those who think differently.
In my community, I see anger expressed on a daily basis in our local newspaper. There is a section in the paper in which people can express anonymous sentiments about any subject of their choice. Each morning I read people sniping back and forth at one another over everything ranging from the Apostle Paul, to whether the President should make a speech to school children, to health care, to who knows what else. It’s like a car wreck. So many people I know feel sad by what they read but look religiously.
So many of us feel sorrowful about the current state of public discourse and yet the toxicity persists even amplifies. We listen to calls for civility with a cynical ear. We implore political candidates for office to be more civil not believing that they will. What we don’t often consider is that, perhaps or even probably, the conduct of political candidates is a reflection of their communities and that civility begins with each one of us.
Don Haddad, Superintendent of St. Vrain Valley Schools, suggested at a recent school board meeting that each of us can contribute to a more civil public realm. Here is what I took away from his remarks:
It has become a habit when we read, hear or see something which we don’t like to immediately express anger without thought or care for the consequences. We don’t consider how we might be stirring the cauldron of toxic public discourse.
We need a new reflex; a new habit. When we read, hear or see something which triggers an angry feeling inside, we must resist the temptation to express those emotions immediately, unfiltered. Instead, the feelings of concern should trigger each of us to ask questions, to learn more, to channel our feelings of anger into a learning opportunity. We may find where there is smoke there is no fire. Or, perhaps we will find a situation with enough complication that shouting each other down will do nothing but fan the flames and impede progress further. In either case knee jerk reactions of anger are not useful.
I appreciate Mr. Haddad’s remarks because I can act on his advice. I don’t need to wait for anyone else to take action first. And though I may find it hard on occasion it is a good standard to strive for.
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Also published in www.johncreighton.com
Ada Grace Creighton was born Grace Ann Creighton on December 18, 2001.
Grace Ann is a fine name. Everyone in the family was fond enough of it. But it was clear from the beginning (at least to me) that it may not fit just right.
I kept my concerns to myself because I could think of no good alternatives. I like the name Grace a lot. Ann is fine, too. I have cousins and good friends with the name Ann.
It was the combination of the two that didn’t work quite right for me. You see, to me, Grace Ann – especially said very quickly – sounds a lot like Greason. Jimmy Greason was my next door neighbor when I was growing up. From the moment Grace was born I think of Jimmy every time I hear Grace Ann said together.
I called my parents to tell them about Grace’s birth. “We have another girl,” I said. “Her name is Grace Ann.” It was an uncontrollable reflex. In the next instant, I just blurted out, “Jimmmmy.”
Again, I did my best to hide my misgivings about the combination of Grace Ann and my peculiar speech reflex.
Joni is fond of the name Grace, too. She has no special attachment to Ann, it just seemed to go well with Grace (clearly we did not communicate well on this point).
Joni, though, was thinking of her own childhood neighbor when it came to names. Ada Wederski was a special person in her life. She very much wanted to give Ada’s name to one of our children. She just couldn’t seem to come up with a good way to work it in.
It became clear soon after Grace’s birth that she would be our last child. There would be no more opportunities to honor people by giving their names to our children. But, that didn’t stop Joni from thinking about Ada.
Some friends of ours, when Grace was about three, had a daughter of their own. Ava Grace, who lived a short but special life, was the name she was given. She was the inspiration Joni needed.
Joni always imagined Ada as a middle name never a first. Grace Ada just didn’t roll off the tongue. But, Ada Grace, that just might work.
Joni kicked around the idea in her own mind for quite a long time. Grace was five years old before we talked about the idea together. Was Grace too old to change names now?
I thought why not. Grace wasn’t yet in school. School is what sets a kids name in stone – at least while they are at that school.
Joni and I agreed it would be okay to make the change. We asked Grace but she didn’t warm to the idea immediately. Joni told her the story of her neighbor Ada and that helped a little. But Grace wasn’t quite ready to change identities.
Scheduling issues and preschool desires led us to send Grace to a different elementary school for kindergarten than Emma and Joe. She would switch back to Central Elementary in first grade.
The second week of kindergarten a strange thing happened. Grace, without consulting anyone, began to sign all of her papers with Ada. That is sort of Grace’s way. She does things quietly with little or no fanfare.
Grace’s teacher was confused. Where did this name Ada come from? All of the school supplies, name cards at the desk, coat hook and locker said, “Grace.” Let’s go by “Grace” this year. We all agreed.
First grade, back at Central Elementary, provided another opportunity for Grace to decide if she wanted to be Ada Grace or just Grace. She still wasn’t sure. Her teacher, Kelly Sanseverino, said, “We need to decide so I know what to call you.” So Grace took the plunge and declared herself to be Ada Grace. And, that’s how all her classmates know her now, as Ada. At Central Elementary, there is no turning back.
Old friends still call her Grace. At home, it’s a mixed bag. I hardly ever call her only Grace. It’s either Ada Grace or Ada for me. Emma and Joe go back and forth. Joni tends to call her Grace in the summer and Ada during the school year. It’s a name that is still taking shape.
But, I like it. It’s unique. It’s a pretty combination, Ada Grace. It makes a connection between generations of people who were special to Joni. And, it saves me the embarrassment of reflexively shouting out “Jimmmmy” when some says Grace Ann.
“Look, look,” Joe, barely five years old, shouted from the back seat of the car.
I turned to see what the commotion was about and realized Joe was pointing out the car window at the hayfield we were driving by. I didn’t see anything unusual. It was just like the thousand other hayfields I’d seen in my life.
“What is it, Joe,” I asked.
“Giant fried tofu squares,” he shouted back excitedly.
It was at that moment I thought our kids might be spending too much time in Boulder.
Joe went to preschool at a place called Alaya while we lived in Boulder and continued there after we moved to Longmont. I can’t say enough good things about the school save for their choice of snacks. The kids were often given tofu, cut in the shape of rectangles, lightly fried in olive oil. To the eye of a five year old it might look like a miniature hay bale.
Joe loves tofu to this day. I can’t stand the stuff.
Hey, I was raised in northwest Kansas. There are just some things that make me uncomfortable. Beans dressed up to be meat is one of those things. I like my meat to be meat.
Early in our marriage, Joni tried to get me to eat something called a “tofu pup” without telling me what it was. I wasn’t fooled for a second and refused to take a bite. It tastes just like a hot dog, Joni protested – further evidence that Joni never appreciated a good hot dog. The tofu pup was grey, skinny and scary. I’ve never completely forgiven Joni for this attempted ruse.
People commenting on my choice of clothes is another thing that makes me uncomfortable. Not long after I began working in Washington, DC a male coworker – originally from L.A. – stopped me in the hall and remarked, “I like your outfit.”
I just looked at him. I had no response. We’d become good enough friends I decided to tell him what was racing through my mind. “Where I grew up,” I began, “men don’t wear outfits. Please don’t ever say something like that to me again.”
Now, he didn’t know how to respond. This is a man who freely admitted that he had his hair cut by a hair stylist – again, he was from L.A. I suppose he too felt as though we had become good enough friends that he could say what was on his mind. After an awkward silence he said, “You’re weird.”
Shoulder rubs by acquaintances… definitely makes me uncomfortable. The traditional handshake suits me just find when it comes to body contact with a people I don’t know well.
The guest speaker at our Rotary Club a couple of weeks ago asked the group to do a warm up exercise before he began his program. I was forced to participate. I was sitting too near to where he stood. I couldn’t slip away to get a second cup of coffee without being obviously rude.
“I would like everyone to stand up and get into a circle… no closer,” the speaker directed.
I knew that whatever was coming next couldn’t be good.
“Turn to the left,” he continued.
I waited in momentary dread.
“Rub the shoulders of the person in front of you,” he said too cheerfully for seven in the morning.
“Argggg,” I thought hoping I wasn’t audible; and it wasn’t because it was talk like a pirate day.
I try to keep an open mind. I try to look at the world from other people’s perspectives. I try to have new experiences.
But please… don’t ask me to eat soybeans in a meat dish; don’t talk about my clothes (unless you’re talking behind my back), and don’t ask me to rub an acquaintance’s shoulders.
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Picture credit: From Oklahoma State Divisions of Agriculture Sciences and Natural Resources
I never knew and to my knowledge never met Ada Wederski. My first memory of hearing Ada’s name was the day Joni told me of her death. It was 1987. I was in London attending summer school. Standing in the hallway of a school dorm, I tried as best I could to listen on the payphone as Joni, fighting back tears, told me the news.
Ada was one of the special people in Joni’s life. Ada and her husband Lee lived across a dirt road from the Mickey’s in Blakeman, a few miles west of Atwood. She and Lee were one of just a few neighbors within reasonable walking distance.
A visit to Ada’s meant that Joni could do all the things she wasn’t allowed to do or simply weren’t possible in her own home. She and Ada kicked back on the sofa to watch soap operas. Joni drank strawberry soda and ate Swanson’s pot pies – true luxuries in the eyes of a young girl. And, for an hour or two, she could be an only child not having to share attention with two sisters.
Ada and Lee lived in a simple home. Two rooms and a kitchen. There was running water in the sink but there wasn’t an indoor bathroom. Ada wore a plain house dress each day to do her daily chores as well as to lounge in between. She often kept her teeth in a glass by the sink. On the rare occasions that Joni smells denture cream, it brings back memories of being near Ada.
Ada and Lee worked hard. They grew, harvested and canned their own produce. Ada kneaded dough for bread on the Hoosier that stands in our kitchen today. It’s easy to see from the worn area were so much work was done. Lee raised chickens and pigs.
Ada and Lee were not wealthy by any measure save one. They had unlimited love to share with young neighbors. This love was shared without condition whenever the girls ran across the road conveying a lifetime lesson of how special it is when one opens their home to another.
Joni visited often after school, on weekend and summer afternoons – as soon as the chores at home were done. The visits included activities of no particular note. Joni would help Ada in the garden and kitchen. She would follow Lee in the yard and do what she could to help with the chickens and pigs. If she returned home on any particular day and was asked, “What did you do at Ada’s?” “Nothing much,” would be just about accurate.
Grand activities aren’t what Joni needed when she went to Ada’s. It was many days of doing “nothing” in the garden, in the kitchen, on the worn out sofa watching TV that forged a lasting bond between a neighbor and a girl. It is a relationship that will be cherished for at least another generation and is celebrated in the name of our youngest daughter.
My Uncle Joe Wilson – no, not the husband of Valerie Plame and, no, not the South Carolina Congressman who yelled, “You Lie,” just Uncle Mac – and his wife Marty are planning a trip to Colorado in October. We don’t get to see Uncle Mac as often as we’d like. He’s always lived on the coast East and Left. But, we’ve had some memorable times together.
We spent the most time together when we were both students at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Mac was in the mid-career program. I was in the more rigorous two year Master of Public Policy program. We MPP students liked to think of the mid-career program as the reason our tuition was only outrageous rather than extremely outrageous. The “cash cow” program subsidized the next generation of leaders.
Our shared experience that Uncle Mac remembers best is not our time in Cambridge. It was the 1976 Rose Bowl between UCLA and Ohio State. Dad, Alec, Uncle Mac and I scalped tickets the day of the game right after the Rose Bowl parade. Dad and Alec took one pair of tickets. Uncle Mac and I took another in the opposite side of the stadium. For an eleven sports fanatic – me – it was a thrill to attend such a big game. It was, for my uncle, life threatening.
The Woody Hayes/Archie Griffin led Ohio State Buckeyes needed only to defeat the Bruins, who they had manhandled earlier in the year 42-20, to complete a perfect season and claim a national title. The Buckeye fans were confident. The Ohio State band marched into the stadium chanting 42-20.
I didn’t know much about UCLA. I had never heard of their coach Dick Vermeil. But, I did know I was going to cheer for UCLA and cheer my heart out. I loved an underdog!
No one took much notice of my proclamation that I would be cheering for the Bruins on that day. That is until Uncle Mac and I found our seats – right in the middle of the Ohio State cheering section. Still, there wasn’t too much to worry about. The Buckeyes were heavy favorites – 15 ½ points. Bruins fans wouldn’t cheer much that day.
It was one of those games that breathes life in the old cliché, “That’s why they play the games.” The Buckeyes got off to an early 3-0 lead in a defensive first half. But, in the second half, the Bruins reeled off 16 straight points – a field goal and two touchdowns. I cheered louder each time UCLA drove down the field. When they tied the score 3-3, I was just annoying to the Buckeye fans. When they built up a 13 point lead, my cheering was beyond the pale. A big fan in a plaid shirt who had been soothing his anxiety with alcohol turned around to my Uncle and said, “If you don’t shut that kid up, you’re going to get it.”
The Bruins matched the Buckeye’s only touchdown of the day with another of their own. The final score, Bruins 23, Buckeye’s 10. Oklahoma beat Michigan later that night to win the National Championship.
I left the stadium happy that day. My Uncle left a little pale but happy to escape alive. I don’t know if he’s completely forgiven me yet or not. I’ll have to ask him in October.
Providing support has its limits. No matter how much we might want to do more for someone we love, when we’re in the cheering section, there are many moments we can only watch while our loved one does the hard work.
I learn and relearn (but never completely master) this lesson often as a parent, husband and son.
The lesson was never more harshly taught than during the untimely deaths of my parents. Mom passed away at age 64 of recurring breast cancer. Dad, a nationally competitive marathon runner in his 40s, died at age 73 of pulmonary fibrosis. We were fortunate to be at their bedsides, to hold their hands, during the last days and weeks of their lives. But at the end of each day, the hard truth was, Mom and Dad had to face their illness and ultimately their mortality alone.
A far more joyful, recent event again reminded me of the limits of providing support to a loved one. Joni, Emma, Ada Grace and I cheered for Joe at an IronKids Triathlon in Avon, Colorado. I stood at the edge of the swimming pool as Joe lined up with 80 other kids each waiting their turn to swim. I thought to myself we arrived here together but now, Joe is his own journey. Joe and only Joe had to master his nerves, fight through the pain of a side ache (he gets every race) and muster a second wind to finish the run. There was nothing more his family could do except cheer – and cheer we did.
Playing a support role is not always easy. When we’re at our loved one’s side during times of illness it often means sleepless nights, gut wrenching tears and suppressed emotions. Supporting our kids presents different kinds of sacrifices – spending money, long hours standing around waiting, and getting up at absurdly early hours to, in this case, set up a bike and lay out a towel. But the stresses of those of us in the support role are trivial compared to the challenges of being a competitor – whether it’s competition against illness, in sports, or taking on the fear of starting middle school.
It was a privilege to be witness to my parents’ final hours. It is a privilege to watch my children take on the challenges of growing up. In times sad and happy, there are many days I would like to do more for the people I love. But, I have to settle for holding a hand, saying “I Love You” or shouting ‘til I’m hoarse, “You can do it.” That’s all one can do when they are sitting on the sidelines.
It is, indeed, a privilege.