Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hard truths

I’m writing this because the time has come to make some hard choices. I know the readers of this blog expect me to level with them, and the time has come to stop ducking the choices and instead spell out what we need to do. It is not enough, after all, to just keep talking about it. We’ve been doing that for a long time—and I’ve done as much talking as anybody. The time for talk is gone. It’s time to make it clear what we need to do.

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to stop talking and start making some tough choices. I’m going to be very clear about this, because making tough choices isn’t easy, and spelling them out is even harder. It’s much easier to just avoid them, and that’s what we must not do at all costs. We can’t avoid the hard choices. We have to make them, and make them clearly.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You live with the results of choices every day. Those choices have been made for you or by you or despite you, but they have unquestionably been made. That is hard. It is much easier to duck making choices and to talk about them instead, until people begin to believe you’ve actually done something, or have a plan to do something, or know what you’re talking about. So I’m here to tell you that I’m not going to duck any of those choices. I know you expect me to level with you about this, so here’s the truth: Hard choices need to be made. Hard truths need to be heard. That’s the truth. It’s hard. But it’s also true. That’s the thing about truth. How hard is that?

You all know people who don’t level with you. I know you do. When things are going well, that might be OK, but things are not going well, so you need people to level with you. You need them to stop talking and tell you the truth. That’s the truth. Then you need them to make choices. Hard choices. You need them not to duck those choices, but to make them, even though they’re hard.

That’s what you can count on me for. I’ll never duck those choices, and you’ll always know I’m not ducking them because I’ll tell you about them. Just like I’m doing now.

Trust me.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Barbara's Gift, Part 2

It poured cats and dogs yesterday, and today was that rare August day in Texas when the sun shone bright and the temperature never rose above the high 80s. Classes start tomorrow, and since one child is away at college and the other is at work, I took a 5-mile hike by myself this afternoon in Waco's Cameron Park, in the shade along the Brazos and Bosque rivers. I felt truly good and in possession of my life—more so than I can remember at any time since Barbara's stroke tore my world apart exactly eight months ago today.

Our trip to Hawaii last month was definitely a watershed. We packed as much of life and  renewal as we could into the seven and a half days we were there, and that was surely an important thing to do. There was something else going on, though, and I will try to write about it impartially, even though it is the most personal subject of all.

Barbara and I went to Maui for our honeymoon in January of 1989. Her lawsuit over the death of her first husband had just been settled out of court and she received a payment of nearly a quarter of a million dollars a few weeks before we were married. We had money to burn, and we also packed as much as we could into that week, including a day-long private plane tour that took us to all four major Hawaiian islands. I watched in astonishment as we flew directly over the active volcanoes on the south end of the Big Island, then savored lunch on Kauai, at a restaurant with covered outdoor seating around a central courtyard. We enjoyed mahi-mahi burgers at Kimo's in Lahaina, then ate dinner at Chez Paul, the five-star French restaurant down the road. We snorkeled and swam and savored a relaxed dinner cruise on calm seas.

I decided to go to Kauai this time because I had been there for only two hours and had few memories to distract me. Nevertheless, I puzzled the whole time we were there over the location of the outdoor dining site I remembered.  On the final day, I was craving one more dinner at a fine restaurant with the kind of food you just can't get in Waco, and Jennifer located one using a mobile app that sounded perfect. We phoned in reservations and showed up at 5:30, our rental car vacuumed and ready to return as we tried to prepare for the red-eye flight to Los Angeles and the two connections that would land us back in Texas the next afternoon.

It was **the place,** and it seemed for all the world as though Barbara had led us there as a final blessing on our week of catharsis. I returned with a deep inner peace that has never entirely left in the three weeks I've been back.

I don't want to claim too much here. Barbara told me that a few weeks after her first husband died, she distinctly heard his voice saying "It's OK; I'm happy." Knowing how much that meant to her, it is easy for me to suggest that she led us back to this place so I could have a similar moment of preternatural closeness with my departed spouse. Skeptics will scoff, of course, and I don't blame them. After all, we crave such revelations, and are all too eager to read purpose and meaning into chance events.

Still, I will say this: I have kept with me a strong sense of Barbara's inner peace, which allowed her to trust and slough off the burdens of stress and uncertainty through circumstances that would have brought most people to their knees. Her deafness and her profound difficulties with balance, both of which I have written about on this blog, were the ongoing symptoms of the radiation damage that ultimately led to her death. How does one maintain trust and faith when visited with such perverse afflictions? How does one find the strength to continue through the daily round of petty challenges and victories that makes up the better part of most human lives?

I don't know the answer, but I do know that in the wake of Barbara's death I have internalized that strength in a way that I had never been able to do before. In the face of bereavement, I have treated myself to spiritual calm, and have let the stresses and worries fall away from me as that source of unknown strength, latent within my inner being but too rarely tapped, has slipped from her shoulders onto mine.

Monday, August 6, 2012

We Beat the NRA in Texas

They said it couldn't be done. Session after legislative session the NRA-backed bill to create a legal right to carry fully loaded weapons into college classrooms had been stealthily blocked by a handful of sensible Democratic legislators. Now all of those legislators had gone down to defeat in the Tea Party bloodbath of 2010, and the bill was coming up again. It was a foregone conclusion that it would pass.

I really don't know why we did it. There was no chance the bill would be defeated. We might as well just accept that it was inevitable and go on and do our best to adapt. Some of our students were probably bringing guns to campus already. They could be hauled into court if they were caught, but they were never caught. That's what concealed means.

Still, we couldn't let it go. Somewhere in the great ledger book in the sky, it would be recorded that we had tried. It might not be remembered as our finest hour. It probably wouldn't be remembered at all, but we would at least know that we had made the effort.

So we began the writing of letters. We began to contact our colleagues and ask them to join us. The letters flowed, and soon they turned into petitions, and the signatures mounted. We would at least be heard. It would be known that there were people in Texas classrooms who really didn't want guns there among the already volatile mix. It would be remembered that we had gone on record with our belief that the answer to the possibility of violence was not the threat of more violence.

Nobody thought we could win. This bill was a bad idea whose time had come. Nevertheless, we persisted. We watched the legislature's moves carefully. We drove to Austin on multiple occasions to wait in cramped committee rooms and speak our minds to stubborn politicians who were legally obligated to hear us. We told them why what they proposed to do was wrong; why we wouldn't stand by and let common sense - which we made our living teaching and defending - be trampled to death. Increasingly, we were joined by students and administrators. Some had had experience with violence before, and wanted no more of it. Some simply wished to lend their support. Our numbers grew.

We made phone calls, and we made them again. We argued with staffers, and we left messages of gratitude with the occasional legislator who changed his or her mind. We received new lists of new people to call, and somehow we made the time to press the phone once more to our ears and speak our convictions into the broad void of indifference.

We wrote Op-Eds. Mine in the local paper provoked a storm of protest, which I ignored. I briefly wondered whether my home was safe, but I knew where such fears could lead and I dismissed them as distractions - temptations from a source that had spawned countless paranoid acts and raised the death toll ever higher. I could not let myself worry. Now more than ever I needed the strength of my convictions.

So we persevered, and again and again it looked like time had run out and the terrible idea was about to triumph. The NRA was behind it - they were there in the hearing room trotting out the usual arguments - and politicians bowed to their will. This was Texas, and there was no way we could fight the NRA here. Ours would go down in history as a lost cause, and we would lick our wounds in defeat and wonder how we could have been so foolish as to hope.

Ultimately, it was the politicians who squashed the bill. As usual, they didn't take the lead; they waited to follow. Only after they saw that our numbers were growing and that we were in dead earnest about our convictions did they start to show signs of wavering. State Senator Jeff Wentworth, who seemed to regard passage of this bill as his life's work, tried every trick in the book to keep it alive, and time and again we thought he had won. But he lost, and, in a crowning irony, he was defeated in his re-election bid this year by a Tea Party challenger.

Of course, the bill may come up again next year. Someone else may step up to the plate to take Wentworth's turn at bat. Rick Perry, no longer running for president and watching the national polls, may decide to give this bill more attention. But we will be there too, because we did the impossible, and we know it can be done again. Whether in Texas or in any other state, the NRA can be defeated, if only the people who care will make their voices heard. The politicians will not do it for us. They will only follow once they hear us loud and clear and realize that we are not going away.

We beat the NRA in Texas. If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere. We are not going away.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Heads I win, tails you ...

It was a wonderful week. After a few days in California visiting my late wife's family, my two adult children and I took off - as many of my Facebook friends know - for Kauai, Hawaii, where we spent the better part of eight days treating ourselves to a relaxing, healing vacation after one of the worst years in our lives.

The mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, happened the day before we flew out, and I tried my best not to think too much about it and about the inevitable political mudslinging that followed. While I was in Hawaii, the flap over Chick-Fil-A began to develop, and it later exploded into the festival of name-calling we've all been witnessing this week.

I have so far avoided commenting on either event, and I've largely avoided obsessing over them either. As the dust begins to settle, though, two things stick in my mind and won't go away:

• The statement from a Second Amendment supporter that any attempt to limit people's ability to buy enormously large magazines of ammunition restricts our freedoms.

• The claim by various people that calls to boycott Chick-Fil-A threaten our First Amendment freedom of speech.

What is so appalling about both of these claims is the complete failure to recognize the corresponding freedoms of those on the other side: the right of those who abhor violence to live without fear of armed vigilantes on the one hand, and the right of those who don't like Chick-Fil-A's president's views on gays to exercise their free market prerogative not to eat there on the other. The clear message in both cases is "I demand that you respect my freedoms, but forget about yours."

And this is a problem, because when freedom only applies to me and not to you, neither one of us is free. I'm not free because I don't have to listen to your views or your concerns, so I am never challenged to emerge from the prison of my preconceived ideas and interact with you or with others. You're not free because I have no respect for your personhood, even though I'm willing to disguise that lack of respect as promoting "freedom." So we are all in prison together.

As we prepare for the endgame of yet another presidential campaign, I greatly fear that we will see a lot of lack of freedom on display. What we seem to have lost is our sense of community - of all being in this (whatever "this" is) together. So I would like to suggest that everybody back off a bit and acknowledge that if any of us is not free, none of us is free. If any of us demands rights that deprive others of theirs, those rights are the antithesis of freedom. If we really want to affirm ourselves as Americans (and all the cheering for our Olympians this week suggests that, at some level, at least, we do), then we must affirm that America is a community: a frighteningly diverse community, perhaps, but a community all the same. In a community, nobody wins, and if hyper-partisanship prevails, we all lose. It's about as simple as that.