Monday, October 31, 2016

Voting in the Election. Private. Public. Priceless.

“Interdependence is a fact. Not an opinion.”                         --Peter Coyote

What’s the big deal if I want to sit in the privacy of my own house, light up a marijuana cigarette, and just get stoned?  Who is it really hurting?  What difference does my one personal choice really make for the rest of the world?

Those are some of the questions asking for an answer, on ballot Question 4, come next Tuesday, when Massachusetts voters will decide whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana. Now before you conclude that I’m a “No” vote or a “Yes” vote, think again. My vote is my private choice, your private choice too, on this and many other important issues and races. 

Who will be our President for the next four years?  Will kids have access to more charter schools or will public schools retain their level of funding? Is it time to build more gambling facilities in Massachusetts or is enough, enough? Do farm animals need better living conditions or is this instead government regulatory overreach? 

I decide. Choose. Yes. No. Hillary. Donald.

There is something so powerful about the fact that when we as citizens cast a ballot, we do so alone, on our own. No one looking over our shoulders to make sure we vote the “right” way.  No one forcing us to vote for just one political party, as in so many other not so free nations in the world.  Many years ago I was in Guatemala on their national election day and when I returned to my hotel, a voting location, I had to walk by a tank parked by the main entrance. It was the government’s way of intimidating its own citizens.  On November 8th, other than having to run a gauntlet of folks holding signs for their candidate or issue, I will walk into my polling place free and unfettered, confident in the legitimacy of my one vote.   

My vote is my vote.

Yet there is a community aspect to my vote too and I think voters can easily forget this truth. We decide that voting is just about “me”: my rights, my life, my freedom alone. That’s wrong.  How I vote, if I vote, is also about “we”.  I vote in independence but my vote is also about interdependence, the fact that we are all in this construct called democracy together. Who is the best leader for all of America, not just for some of our nation? Is it Clinton or Trump? Or what will it mean for our schools, the safety of our roads, the quality of our life in the Bay State, if pot becomes legal? Will that make Massachusetts a better place to live?  Contribute to building up the common good?

It might seem obvious to state but how we vote matters. It matters. How we vote will change my life, your life and just as important, change our life in community. On November 9th the nation and state will be a very different place for all of us, because of how we collectively vote. 

So my vote is also our vote.

A vote is not just personal. A vote is communal. The best vote balances private rights with public responsibilities to our neighbors.  The best vote decides not just for this generation but the next generation as well.  We vote on behalf of the young, our children, and the world we will one day hand over to them. The best vote always remembers that freedom is not just about doing whatever I want. Freedom also entails thoughtful, compassionate consideration about how my individual actions ripple outward into the wider world, for the good, for the bad, for sure. 

That’s what my faith teaches me. Interdependence. I need you and you need me and we all need each other. The body politic is like a human body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” nor can the heart say to the brain, “I’m going to go it alone”.  Voting is one of the few nationwide experiences we still share with each other.  It’s exciting. It’s important. Voting makes a difference, for me in my self contained little home, and for all of us in the neighborhood called the United States of America.

So here is my official endorsement for November 8th.  Vote as if your one individual life depends upon it.  Vote as if our interdependent life depends upon it too.

Now get out and vote!




Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In Praise of, In Hope For, The Underdog: GO CUBS!

“I'm a poor underdog
But tonight I will bark
With the great Overdog
That romps through the dark.”
--Robert Frost, "Canis Major", 1928

Hard to believe that it was it really twelve years ago this week, when a perennial also ran, a team that perpetually broke the hearts of its fans for decades: our Boston Red Sox: they finally, finally, won it all.  It was October 27th, 2004, a Wednesday, at exactly 11:39 pm Eastern Standard Time; a chilly autumn evening, featuring a lunar eclipse, with an oversized bright yellow full moon hanging over the skies of New England. 

Millions of us remember exactly where were, what we were doing, who we were with, as we waited for redemption, after almost nine decades of futility. As Joe Castiglione called it on the radio: “Swing and a ground ball stabbed by Foulke! He has it, he underhands to first – and the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox have won baseball's world championship! Can you believe it?!”

From underdog to top dog, with one swing of the bat. Believe it. 

The Sox have gone on to win two more championships, in 2007 and ‘13, and those were great too, but I’ll confess. A nostalgic part of me misses those days and nights before ‘04, of cheering for our loveable losers. So many summers of hope followed by inevitable September swoons, when the underdog Sox couldn’t quite make it. A ball trickled through the legs. A hitter swung and missed.  It always hurt to watch them lose yet there was a romantic dependability to their underdog struggles, their epic failures somehow binding us all together here in New England.  They were masters at finding ways to lose but they were our underdogs. 

Now the title of America’s underdog goes to the Chicago Cubs who this week begin their quest to finally overcome their October demons.  Think 86 years is a long time? Try waiting 108 years for a championship.  The last time the Cubs captured a World Series, Teddy Roosevelt was President, Henry Ford unveiled the Model T, and for the first time ever, women were elected as delegates to a national political convention, the Democrats’ gathering in Denver. 

Cub’s fans: we get your pain.  We’ve been there. 

But…what if the Cubs actually win? Who will then be our next underdog? Because there is something about an underdog that so appeals to us as humans. Makes us want to root for the team or the person or a cause that is supposed to lose, but then somehow triumphs. Slays the giant.  Overcomes impossible odds and the pull of history.   

David versus Goliath. Harry Truman beating Thomas Dewey for the Presidency in 1948, the biggest political upset of the twentieth century. Two twenty something computer geeks working in a suburban garage in 1970’s southern California, who took on IBM, the biggest technology company in the world, and eventually won.  A scrappy and cranky socialist Senator from Vermont who almost took down a political family dynasty. 

Underdogs somehow manage to capture our hearts and break our hearts simultaneously, with stories that are beautiful and bittersweet. Underdogs are just more fun to cheer for, more exciting, as they dance on the edge between ignominy and victory

According to the Oxford English Dictionary “underdog” was first used in the unsavory world of dog fighting in the nineteenth century. At fight’s end, the losing dog inevitably ended up underneath the winning top dog. The origin of the word may be crude but our response to the mismatch is clear. 


We love underdogs. They embody the myth and hope that if they can do the impossible, then maybe we can too. If they can come from behind and streak by the favorite, maybe every dog (and every human) just might have its day, some day. Anything can happen in the competition called life.

That’s what we want to believe. In a way, that’s what we need to believe. About ourselves. About the world. That good eventually triumphs over evil.  That the downtrodden will rise up and overcome their oppressors.  That in a just world, if we work hard and long enough, our day in the sun will come.    

So this week I’ll be rooting for the Cubbies, as they play against the Cleveland Indians. And to my long suffering friends who are Cubs’ fans, who knows? Maybe, just maybe, this year, is the year, your year. 

You gotta love the underdog. GO CUBS!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What's More Creepy Than a Clown? A Pseudo News Story.

“And where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Don't bother, they're here.”
   --Stephen Sondheim, “A Little Night Music”

Clowns are just clowns. Right?

Like Bozo the Clown, the one with the flaming swirl of bright red hair. Or Emmett Kelly, America’s most famous clown. His “Weary Willie” character headlined circuses for years. My favorite clown is “Willie Whistle”, a sailor hat wearing clown who hosted a kid’s cartoon show on Boston TV in the nineteen sixties. Willie never spoke but whistled and squeaked to an at home audience of kids like me who adored him.  

He was funny. He was harmless.  He was nice. He was a clown. 

That’s what clowns are supposed to be: symbols of human foolishness, clowns as the fools who make us laugh.  Clowns have been around a very long time in various guises, throughout history: the court jester, the trickster, the buffoon, the comic relief. Nothing out of the ordinary.

That is unless we encounter a “Creepy Clown”.  Have you heard? So called “Creepy Clown” sightings and scares and rumors are currently all a’twitter on Twitter and Facebook, even the lead on mainstream news sites. This “story” is causing lots of cultural chatter and energy. Consider an October 10th NBC “news” story: “America Under Siege: Creepy Clown’ Reports and Hoaxes Keep Coming”.

How’s that for a creepy headline?

Correspondent Alex Johnson breathlessly reports about: “a spate of clown scares across the country….sightings of [creepy clowns] have spread to two dozen states.” So a Connecticut school district bans clown masks. A creepy parent in Auburn, Massachusetts is charged with disorderly conduct for wearing a clown mask while following a school bus in his car. A false clown scare locked down a New Hampshire college dorm.  Google “Creepy Clown” and you’ll discover almost 7,000,000 results. My unscientific poll of several parents confirmed that fears about creepy clowns are now scaring lots of kids in schools and on playgrounds and at bedtime.  

But dig deeper and you’ll find most of this “news” is not really news, not in a traditional sense. Not based on fact, but instead mostly fear.  Much more heat than light, more rumor than reality. The overwhelming number of police reports about malevolent clowns are hoaxes, really bad practical jokes. Yet the reports continue and so a fake story becomes a fear story that just won’t quit, like a dog chasing its own tail.

Until the media finds something else to scare us with, or scare us about.  Reminds me of the cliché about TV news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  If you want higher ratings, more views on your website, more hits on your digital headline, just frighten folks. Makes me wonder if maybe I am the rube in falling for this kind of tale. I’m not afraid of clowns, not yet, but maybe I should be!

We are living in strange days in America and yes, there are some realities to be feared.  An out of control and bruising election season that seems to never end or just shut up.  Gun ownership at historic highs, so many folks, so afraid. Hurricanes churning up the coast.  If we really want to be scared all we need to do is turn on the TV or turn on the computer or scroll through our phones’ news feed. Then we’ll easily find lots of reports about everything that is supposed to frighten the heck out of us.

But as a person of faith (the polar opposite of fear) I’ve learned that if I seek and expect to see the bad in the world, I will absolutely find some bad news. The scary. The awful.  The threatening.  But so too: if I choose to seek some good news, I can find that as well.  Acts of kindness.  Glimmers of hope. The reality that most people are good at heart.  Even clowns! As the blogger Seth Godin writes, “The real question is: what's our goal? Every time we hook ourselves up to a device that shocks us into a fear-based posture on a regular basis, we're making a choice about the world and how we experience it.”

So while the media may continue to send in the clowns, I, for one, refuse to take the bait.  Better yet I think I’ll silence my phone, click off the news and instead take a nice long walk under a canopy of technicolor leaves. Say a prayer of thanks for all the good in this world, in my world. The good is always there to enjoy and appreciate. 

I’d be a fool not to look for it. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Democracy Says: Do Your Job. Will We Step Up?

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.”           --Ralph Nader

April 26th, 1968.

Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy spoke before a group of medical students at Indiana University Medical Center, and laid out his plan to increase federal funding and programs to care for the most vulnerable in the nation: the poor, the elderly, and the sick.  The crowd was scornful of his vision and their skepticism was summed up in a question asked by one of those young students.

“Where are we going to get the money to pay for all these new programs you’re proposing?” Without hesitation, Kennedy replied, “From you…you are the privileged ones here. It’s easy for you to sit back and say it’s the fault of the Federal Government. But it’s our responsibility too. It’s our society too….”

Can any of us imagine a present day candidate for office having the courage to push back so strongly against a group of voters? Having the idealism and the fire to actually call citizens out? Challenge folks to step up and to do their part for democracy, in such stark and clear rhetoric? I’m hard pressed to find such leaders in our current political climate. 

Instead, so much of the time in our frantic run up to the election on November 8th, what I mostly hear from candidates at every level of government is this: “I promise that I will do this and this and this for you!”  Voters eat it up because their questions often seem to be: “What are you going to do for me? For my tribe?  For my special interest group? For my tax bracket? For my one life?”

Lost in this rush of civic narcissism and political pandering, is one forgotten democratic ideal: we, collectively, are the society, the government, the community, and the neighborhood.  We.  We are responsible, one to another, in building up the nation and creating institutions that reflect the will of the people. We. Us. All the people.  Therefore it is each of our responsibilities to do the work of democracy, to step up and ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but instead, “What can I do as a citizen to contribute to the common good?”

Yes, I know I’m going all idealistic here. I know to suggest that democracy can and still and must work somehow, is swimming upstream against a tide of wearied cynicism and ugly public language that marks our current political dialogue. Guilty as charged.  I’m a wide eyed cheerleader for democracy. I still believe that the best society always balances individual rights with communal responsibilities.  That like it or not, we are all common passengers on the ship of state called the United States of America and so, somehow, we need to figure out, together, how to journey as one.  And for me, that work begins when every single citizen does their part, their job, in our democracy. 

I’ve learned these citizenship lessons in many settings: from my faith that teaches me the best life is one always devoted, in part, to being a good neighbor, making this world a better place.  I learned it from parents and grandparents who sacrificed their individual good for a greater good. I learn it from neighbors who volunteer as a regular part of life: in a soup kitchen, on a Habitat for Humanity site, on a town board, tutoring kids, teaching prisoners.  I’ll relearn it on November 8th when I take my place in line and cast my vote. 

The key learning in all of this is one simple transformation: getting from “me” to “we”.

So here’s a charge. It is less than four weeks until Democracy Day.  If you’ve not yet done so, register to vote and encourage others to do so too.  The deadline in Massachusetts is October 19th.  Study the issues, especially the four ballot questions that have been largely overshadowed by the Presidential election.  Attend a public forum like the one I am helping to organize in my home town on October 20th, about legalizing marijuana.  For it? Against it? Do the research. Become informed.  Remember that all politics is local.  Town and city citizen-led boards are always in need of members.  Volunteer.  Campaign for your candidate. Make phone calls, ring doorbells, and help get out the vote.

Democracy says to us: “Do your job.”  Democracy works if we work it; of this I am fully convinced and convicted.  Democracy works, but it needs us, workers, to make it work.       

See you at the polls.




Monday, October 3, 2016

What Makes a Hero? It's About More Than Home Runs

Hero (noun) 1. a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character; a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal   --Merriam-Webster Dictionary

David Ortiz: he will be missed. 

After playing in 2,408 games for the past twenty major league seasons, sixteen of those for our own Boston Red Sox baseball team, this past weekend Ortiz played in his final regular season competition. That’s not breaking news. His impending retirement has dominated sports and news reports all summer and into this fall.

Ortiz will certainly be missed for his athletic prowess: 541 home runs, 1,768 runs batted in, three world championships, so many clutch hits and walk off homers. Ortiz has an uncanny ability to step into the most high pressure of situations and then deliver. He’ll be missed for his outsize personality and joyful smile too, his leadership on the team and in the community, his philanthropy. Ortiz’ foundation has raised millions of dollars to help care for sick children in his native Dominican Republic and New England. 

But here’s what I think so many of us as fans and New Englanders will most miss about Ortiz, as he walks off the field, puts down his bat and hangs up his spikes. Ortiz is a good man, a good person, in the deepest sense. His legacy will be about so much more than highlight films or statistics. He was strong of body, yes.  Big of ego, sure. Not perfect: he was named in a 2003 Major League Baseball report as a suspected performance enhancing drug user, a charge he vehemently denies. He had a wicked temper too, could blow his stack at a bad call, a missed swing. Some don’t like his post home run swagger.

Yet at a time in our culture when the folks we lionize seem so "unheroic", so tainted, so flawed, so vapid, so disposable, so weak of character, Ortiz will be missed (at least by this fan) for his essential goodness.  That’s his rep among all who knew him, played with him, watched him.  He always stops to greet an adoring kid or give advice to a young teammate.  He’s perpetually positive.  He embraces the great responsibility that accompanies being in the spotlight. That’s why Ortiz is a true hero: not for what he did merely on the field, not because he’s larger than life, but because of how he lives, in relationship to others in this life.

Take his farewell speech, delivered on Sunday afternoon before 36,787 fans at Fenway Park, in a cold and raw October chill. For five and a half minutes, he spoke.  Not about his achievements.  Not to puff himself up.  Instead, the whole speech was one of thanks. Thanksgiving. Gratitude. First to God. Then to his family, his teammates, the media, the organization and finally to the fans. He even thanked the anonymous clubhouse folks who washed his uniforms for all those years.  

These are strange, disquieting days in our land when it comes to the women and men we so often deem as “heroic”.  Billionaires can brag about their ability to not pay any taxes and then be applauded by so many. Politicians can spend most of their time with the privileged and the powerful, portray themselves as “just one of the people”, and we actually believe them.  Athletic icons get hits on the field and then hit their spouses, and still, we cheer them on. We are drowning in a social media flood of celebrity culture, where the famous are famous, not for their decency, but instead for their infamy.     

Whom should we admire, look up to, respect, and seek to emulate in our world? What kind of moral lessons do our children and youth learn when they watch TV or go to a game or surf the internet or delve into Twitter or Facebook? When we select our heroes and heroines, what does that say about us as humans, as a society, as hero worshippers?

So farewell David. Godspeed.

Have no doubt that you will be missed by millions of us. We’ll miss the hits. Miss the enthusiasm and fiery spirit you brought to every game.  Miss the victories you so often were able to secure, by just one swing of your mighty bat.  But most of all we will miss you, you.  The person.  A child of God, who took the gifts you were given at birth and then used them well, used them wisely, used them in the service of others. We’ll miss the kindness you showed.  The generosity you embodied.  The grace with which you play the game of life. 

That’s what makes you a real hero to so many. That’s why we’ll miss you. Thank you.