Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Good Story

Friday morning on my way to work, I was in a line of cars making its way west. It was that early morning traffic--everyone hurrying to a destination--one car in too much of a hurry. It anxiously idled on a side street waiting to cross the flow of traffic. When it pulled out, my danger sensor went off because there wasn't enough space for it to fit through. I slowed, and watched it swerve and nick the innocent car just moving along. A burst of plastic, glass, and steel erupted like a firework, but it brought no joy. I came to an almost complete stop and watched the offending car speed past. Not only did they make an irresponsible driving mistake, now they were speeding away from what would now be a crime scene. I wondered if I should make a quick u-turn, follow and get the license plate number. But then I remembered I wasn't a police officer, a private eye, but a school teacher who needed to be at school.

The hit car pulled to the side of the road; my student emerged from the passenger seat! Instant gratitude for her safety and for a minor collision. I pulled over to make sure she was okay and to see if she needed a ride to school since her brother was the driver.

She was a little shaken, but fine.

Both she and her brother were trying to call their parents but hadn't yet made a connection.

"You'll need to call the police since it's a hit and run and that's a crime."

Having done as much as I thought possible, I hopped into my car and headed to school--the first class on this half-day Friday was storytelling and I had a story to tell.

I started with the lesson and part way through, I mentioned the car accident. The class phone rang.

"Excuse me class, hello?"

The secretary on the other end of the line said, "We never interrupt teacher's classes with outside calls, but this woman says it's an emergency." It was my student's mother who was standing at the scene of the crime with a police officer.

I turned to my students, "The police are on the phone and want to talk to me." They all inched forward in their seats.

"Could you describe what happened?"
"Yes." I did.
"Can you describe the color of the car."
"The make of the car? Was it a Ford, a Chevrolet, a...."
"A Chevrolet."
"Can you give me your name?"
"Phone number?"
One student pulled out his notebook and pencil.
"Can you give me your date of birth."
Here is where I hesitated.
"Officer, there are 20 students all waiting to learn how old I am."
Justice doesn't deal in sympathy, but he did chuckle.
"5-5," and then I pretended to whisper into the phone. The students strained and leaned. I laughed and said with pride, "1960!"

Yet, another good, albeit rather long, story to tell.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

History of the Cold War #15--The Players, The Strategies That Ended Communism

Leonid Breshnev was in power from 1964-1982. The parody below stars Mr. Dursley and makes fun of Soviet society.

Even though the Soviet people started to see the weaknesses in their country, they still couldn't talk about it--at least in public. Public opinions were scrutinized and monitored: a person's public facade was different than his private behavior, his conversations among friends and family. It was called Marxist-Lenin talk in public. People started living a double life. How long would people tolerate this double life?

"The split between the public and the private self, official and unofficial language, outward conformity and inward dissent...I applaud conduct by the state I would never endorse in private life." Timothy Garton Ash, historian.

The Prague Spring of 1968

I marvel as I walk and drive through the most beautiful spring I have ever seen. The trees bursting with pink, purples, and yellows are everywhere. The redbuds are stunning.Yet, is it really the most beautiful I've ever seen? Probably not. The feeling is because spring goes so fast. We are not ready for it to pass.

The unrest started in Poland triggered by concern over declining growth rates, agriculture failures, and keeping up with Western growth. Intellectuals spoke out, but most were arrested. The voices died out.

Alexander Dubcek was the leader of Czechoslovakia and vowed to give socialism a human face. His country too was faced with economic stagnation and so he implemented changes, and planned to implement the "democratization of the entire socio-politico system." Censorship, eased, dialogue began. Revolting students were placated. Hope emerged.

The hope made its way to Poland, and Moscow got nervous.  The Soviets feared a break in the communist block. Brezhnev met with Dubcek and demanded re-implementation of censorship and media control.

Warsaw Pact troops moved into Prague on the night of August 20, 1968. Dubcek was arrested along with other Czech reformists and taken to Moscow. The rise to democracy ended as quickly as it started--like spring. Yet there is a perceivable shift. When the troops entered the country, they are booed. Protests in Yugoslavia, Romania, China and even a small demonstration at Lenin's tomb, reveal a united, eastern world discontent with the way things are.

The United States protested the Soviet stop to freedom in Czechoslovakia, because they feared nuclear confrontation. From the Cold War, by Isaacs and Downing:

Events in the mid 1960s blurred the image of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to see the US as freedom's champion when race riots protested inequalities, and police clubbed and tear-gassed anti-war protesters outside the hotel where the Democratic leadership was gathering. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed the Soviet people without grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a government that claimed to rule on the people's behalf. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended for decades a possible third way in East Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the communist bloc.

John Gaddis, professor of Cold War History at Harvard University writes, “Brezhnev’s problem was that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union like all other ruling communist parties, drew its authority from its claim to historical infallibility: that left it vulnerable when events failed to follow the script. Once it became clear that that was happening, there was little left—apart from a morally and legally indefensible use of force, as in Czechoslovakia—to justify the party’s existence. Its legitimacy rested on an increasingly implausible ideology, and nothing more.” 

Little pockets kept the faith in Prague--one of those pockets held the playwright Vaclav Havel. The story of the spirited writer doesn't die. When he is imprisoned, he writes. For four years, it is he who puts a face on his country through his writings. John Gaddis writes: “That (prison time), gave Havel the motive and the time, through his essays and plays to become the most the most influential chronicler of his generations disillusionment with communism. He was, it has been said, a Lennonist rather than a Leninist.— He did not call for outright resistance: given the state’s police powers, there would have been little point in that. Instead he encouraged something more subtle, developing standards for individual behavior apart from those of the state. People who failed to do this, he wrote, “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” But people who were true to what they themselves believed—even in so small a matter as a brewer deciding to brew better beer than the official regulations called for—could ultimately subvert thee system.” 

I love that the spirit of the revolution, what has been called a great part of the cumulative effect in breaking the back of communism, came from the power of the pen and not the force of the sword--that it's greatest influence emphasized the best of the spirit of man.

This spirit was set into motion by the Conference on Security and co-operation in Helsinki in 1975...continued in CW #16.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Locked Doors

The concert is open seating. The doors will open at 7:45.

Just before 7:45 I walked into halls surrounding the auditorium. If it was open seating, I knew the good seats would go fast, and I'm tired of neck straining seats. Tired of the speaker far to my left, tired of the singer too far away to see her lips. Jumbotrons don't offer the same experience. I would do everything in my power tonight to get a good seat.

Sure enough there was a long line of people waiting at the auditorium doors, but the doors were still locked. I passed women who kept checking to see if the doors were yet unlocked. I kept walking around the building to avoid this line, and then another. Keep going, I thought to myself. There has to be another door without such a line.

Soon enough, I found an open door and entered, and to my amazement, all of the front and center good seats were already filled. I thought of the people waiting behind the locked doors, and the others: the people who'd found a way in, who'd found their way to a good seat.

I thought about all the times I'd waited behind a locked door when I perceived there was no other way in. I thought about the present locked doors I wait behind and the ignorance I accept, when in reality there are doors unlocked. I just have to keep walking until I find them. I wondered most of all, how many doors I lock myself.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

History of the Cold War #14 --The End of Communism Continued

In 1969, relations between the two great communist powers China and USSR diminish. When China joined the communist push in Korea, Soviets supplied weapons, but they required payment from the Chinese. This put a long lasting thorn in Mao's side. Border skirmishes erupted, and China wonders, "Should we open the doors of negotiating with America?" Henry Kissinger makes a secret visit to China; he is a harbinger of Chinese-American relations to come, and Nixon makes his historic visit to China in 1972. Since history isn't always cold details and images, what I remember most about this event, was how impressed my dad was with Nixon when he opened this once-sealed door. His visit to a communist power country was unprecedented.

 While in China, Mao and Nixon seemed to get along well with one another. Mao joked with Nixon that he had voted for him and he'd read his book and it wasn't all that bad.
The USSR took note of the historic visit and saw it as another threat to USSR--China relations--from the Western viewpoint, it was a much needed break of communist strength.

And then came Watergate...

“To the Soviet leadership such a precipitous collapse…came as an unpleasant surprise..there was perplexity in the minds of the Kremlin leaders, who were at a loss to understand the mechanics of how a powerful president could be forced into resignation by public pressure and an intricate judicial procedure based on the American Constitution—all because of what they saw as a minor breach of conduct. Soviet history knew no parallel"~~Anatoly Dobrynin

We will never know the true loss of Nixon's great national debacle. We do know the effects in Vietnam were devastating. The North Vietnamese feared Nixon and when he was gone, they started their move into South Vietnam.

A great statesman was gone, but not before opening foreign doors and closing doors of trust in America.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Mystery Box

UPS delivered a well wrapped and labeled package to my front door. When I looked out the front door window, I saw the delivery truck turning up the hill. This is an important piece of information to the mystery. The package was from Backyard Beehive company. I was expecting a package, but it was a bit smaller than anticipated.

I opened the package and was supremely puzzled when its content was clean stacks of used clothing. I took photos of the different clothes and the shipping label, and sent an email to Karen, an employee at Backyard Beehives. She didn't reply and after three days of mulling over the strange package, I decided to send the package back and warned Karen in an email. Finally a response: We are a bee company and wouldn't send used clothing. Furthermore the shipping label is from a year ago.  You need to check with your post office.

Still stumped and frustrated, I gave up on solving the mystery, closed the box, put it in my car with plans to drop it off at goodwill. But I started to wonder. What if questions swirled and haunted my thoughts. What if a company employee was embezzling and in danger of being caught, and stuck the evidence in a box of clothes and shipped it off? Was there really an insider who was dealing in espionage? Was Guito going to land on my doorstep looking for the computer chip? Was I in danger? Illogical, I know, but I was looking for any explanation to the package of used clothing.

Sitting in my car before driving to goodwill, I realized I hadn't carefully checked through the clothing, so I took out each piece, searched through pockets and voila! In one pocket, I found a student ID. I didn't recognize it at first, but it belonged to my neighbor's daughter in law. The mystery was about to be solved.

Hypothesis #1: my neighbor must have needed to send a package to her son and daughter in law who were doing an internship in Chile. She grabbed a box out of my recycle bin, readdressed it and sent it off. Somehow, the label must have been torn off revealing only the original label, which then was delivered to me.

Hypothesis destroyed: She knew nothing about the package. But her son and daughter in law surely would know, and they'd just returned from Chile.

It took two days of trying not to bug my busy neighbor, before the couple came to dinner and solved the mystery: the real story with a twist no one could have guessed.

When the couple left for Chile, they had to pack up their apartment in a hurry. They had indeed needed boxes and took the Backyard Beehive box out of my bin. That box was filled with clothing, taped up, and carried into the basement of my neighbor's home. Six months later, when the couple returned, they started moving boxes from the basement to a truck, to their new apartment. Somehow, the mystery box was left on my neighbor's front porch. In the meantime, the UPS delivered another package and sat it on top of the box of packed-up clothing. When they picked up the new, legitimately delivered package, they found another box with a delivery label addressed to me, underneath. Assuming, it was just delivered, and to the wrong house, failing to recognize their own package, they acted like good neighbors and promptly brought it to my front porch.

They had put their own package on my front doorstep! To think their clothing was minutes away from never seeing it again!

There isn't much of a moral or sustenance to this story; the only value is the irony, the mishap, and a good laugh.  And the strange coincidence of the UPS driving by when I opened the front door to retrieve the package.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

History of the Cold War #13

In 1944, the Soviets moving from the east, came upon their first concentration camp in Majdanek Poland. They were appalled, equipped with cameras, and recorded the atrocities. When they reported their findings to the allied British, the British doubted their words, because the Soviets were known for exaggerating other countries' war crimes. Their hatred of the Nazis for their invasion and consequent sufferings, were figured to have fueled these exaggerations.

When the British entered Bergen Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, with their own camera crews, they realized the Soviets had been telling the truth. When the British filmed, they insisted on filming Germans present at the camps. They wanted the world to know the Germans were aware of what they had been fighting for. They filmed the SS officers dragging emaciated, decomposing bodies in mass graves; they filmed happy villagers marched to the camp and the devastating change that came upon them when they saw the truth and the lies.The film footage played an instrumental role in  Nazi convictions during the Nuremberg trials--the trials that changed the world, that changed Americans.

For the first time in history, war trials were televised. Americans learned the extent of evil. American and world conscious was raised. New phrases such as crimes of humanity were coined. People everywhere could no long sit still and let evil of such magnitude happen without protest.

James Michener writes in his 60s novel, The Drifters, “The burden of those trials (Nuremberg) was that conscience has an obligation. If our young people decide that they must exercise that conscience, we must help them do so in legal and constructive ways.”

From this new conscience developed an underground to aid young men who objected to the Vietnam War.

Nixon's campaign promise to end US involvement in Vietnam was slow in coming. After two years, he felt his only way to defeat the Viet Cong was to stop the route of arms and men coming through Cambodia. Cambodia was a country without an army. The US started heavily bombing Cambodia.

As an impressionable sixth grader in 1972, I had been afflicted with a disease that put me in the hospital three or four times for routine care. On one occasion, the pediatric ward was full, and I was placed on an adult patient floor. I shared a room with a woman who was dying of cancer. She told me about being in Cambodia and helping to pull babies out of the bombing wreckage. Even in her weakened state, she was passionate about protesting American involvement in Vietnam. She wasn't alone.

College campuses across America erupted in protests. The most devastating outcome happened in Kent State Ohio. What happened exactly is not what I want to detail, but that a protest happened, an ROTC building burnt down and the National Guard was called in. It was May 4 1970 when four students were shot and nine others were injured. 

What was happening in America was also happening around the world. What was different about this generation? 

More people--the baby boom was coming of age. More people were college enrolled than ever before. Enrollment tripled between 1955-1970. In the USSR 2.5 more students were going to college; in France the enrollment quadrupled. Education brings enlightenment; it requires people to think; people were gaining the power to stand up and express their outrage of the status quo.  Only China didn't progress in education--they were still recovering from the great setback to education from the Cultural Revolution.

The spirit and age of questioning and revolt had begun. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Revealing Oneself

Oh how lovely was the Ladies' Literary Society Gala!

The venue was an Art Museum--a classic Spanish style mansion filled with artistic treasures. We gathered in an upstairs gallery, its walls lined with paintings, its corners adorned with sculpture.

The music was sublime: a pianist, a cellist, a violinist.

The women were lovely! Marcia in her sea green dress, Lisa in cowboy boots, Nicole focused and organized, Tresa with her camera, Brandi with her grandma, Kay with her elegant demeanor, and Cathi--the purveyor of beautifully presented food.

And the speakers! Our first guest, Dr. Bennet, an expert in manuscripts, admonished his audience to go to primary documents when looking for truth. He talked about forgeries, records, the collecting and preservation of original sources. He shared personal experiences from his many years of devotion to truth.

Our Imaginative Leap: Making Connections through Literature and Conversations, theme was enhanced by a panel of people chosen to teach us what it is like to walk in their shoes. Mr. and Mrs. Bond taught us what it was like to live in a partial and non-hearing world. Diego shared his story of an Ecuadorian man coming to work in the United States and having to adjust to a different culture. Maysa spoke of her life as a minority in America, a Muslim woman.

It was my role to introduce our panel of guests. My introduction: "In the early 90s Tony and I were waiting for a cab. The head valet dressed to clearly show his position, whistled for the cab. We could see the expected cab but his trunk was open and he was conversing with other cab drivers. There was a short delay before he rushed to the driver seat and pulled up next to us. The valet verbally attacked the man for his delay; it was forceful and over the top. Tony and I were uncomfortable watching the valet berate a grown man who appeared to be guilty of such  a minor infraction. When we got in the back of the cab, the discomfort continued. The man was visibly shaken and then he opened up.

'He doesn’t know who I am,' were his first words.

'I am a doctor who escaped Afghanistan because I would have been killed.'

Those words have stayed with me for more almost two decades.

In the spirit of human connection, our guests will share their stories to help us see and know who they really are."

After their incredible presentations, I had the privilege of closing the gala with my conversation with Syrian refugees in Athens. It was a tender experience (posted in January).

Probably the greatest lesson I learned was from the three most important people sitting in the audience. My children.

Normally I wouldn't have invited them. If I am speaking, even dancing (just twice), I keep it to myself.  I don't want the focus to be on me. Yet, after their attendance at the gala, I saw a different side to my position--it now seems selfish. Why shouldn't they have the chance to learn about me, to see a different side of their perceived MomIt hit me that I won't be alive forever; I need to give in a different way than I am used to giving.

Generosity isn't all about material things; it's about experience and the revealing of oneself.