Life is What Happens…

JFK
This is a terrible analogy to use, but it’s been like watching a car crash. You just can’t look away. That’s what it’s been like for the past few weeks of continual JFK coverage on TV. How many times have we seen the Zapruder film? Each time it’s just as gut-wrenching. How many times have we seen Walter Cronkite deliver the heartbreaking news? It never gets easy. Just hearing the crack in his voice, the attempt by this veteran correspondent to hold back his emotions, brings me to tears every time. For the past few weeks many people of all walks of life have been sharing remembrances. Here’s a brief personal reflection…
My grandparents met with President Kennedy in Philadelphia a few weeks before he was killed. My grandmother had been a delegate to the convention to nominate JFK. My grandfather was a dynamic Democratic Party Leader and judge in Philadelphia who helped spearhead a fund raising dinner on October 30, 1963 in honor of Kennedy. The president was in Philly for the same reason he went on to Dallas – to raise money in support of local leaders and to warn against the political right in order to strengthen his bid for a second term. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
We are left with so many questions and so many what ifs…John Kennedy’s assassination certainly set into motion a series of terrible cataclysmic events that forever changed our country, but through his idealism and good works over a very short period of time, he also set into motion a vision of hope and a greater humanity.

Triggers

mmm2

In 1999, I was invited to a small informal gathering of moms in Princeton, New Jersey to meet with a fellow NJ mother, Donna Dees Thomases. A week after a shooting rampage at the North Valley JCC in Granada Hills, CA, Donna, who worked in public relations and whose own young daughters attended her local JCC, was motivated to apply for a permit for a march on Washington for gun violence prevention. She was calling it, the Million Mom March. The California shooter was a white supremacist who walked into the lobby of the JCC and opened fire with a semiautomatic weapon, firing 70 shots into the complex. The gunfire wounded five people: three young children, a teenager, and an office worker. Shortly after, he murdered another adult. This shooting occurred four months after the massacre at Columbine High School, which left 12 students, one teacher, and the two murderers dead; plus 21 injured.

I was so inspired by Donna and so appalled by the statistics on gun violence and frustrated by our government’s inability to enforce commonsense gun safety legislation, that I became a local coordinator for the movement. Being immersed in the cause,  I became very conscious of how guns not only permeate our physical culture, but the English language as well. With an interest in linguistics, I was keenly aware of what I’m calling for lack of a better word gunspeak. There have been many times when I’ve had to stop myself in mid-sentence trying to avoid using particular arms-related words or idioms, but it’s so natural, it’s nearly unavoidable.

This list will no doubt trigger more thoughts on the subject: jump the gun, loose cannon, armed with the facts, going great guns, go off half-cocked, be on target, getting loaded, shotgun wedding, shoot your wad, fire with both cylinders, straight shooter, staring down the barrel of a gun, fire back, riding shotgun, gun shy, under the gun, shooting from the hip and the smoking gun.

The Million Mom March was a true grassroots movement, organized through word of mouth. After a nine-month gestation period, on Mother’s Day, May 14, 2000, approximately three quarters of a million people showed up on Washington’s National Mall to advocate for stricter gun laws (150,000 to 200,000 people across the country held local marches). One of the founding beliefs of the Million Mom March was that, “Gun violence is a public health crisis that harms not only the physical, but also the spiritual, social, and economic health of our families and communities.” Displayed on the mall that day was a “wall of death,” which included more than 4,001 names — all people who’d been victims of gun violence. Today, approximately 30,000 people die from gun violence a year in America (it breaks down to someone every 17 minutes).

In 2000, the year of the Million Mom March, the stats were that every day 12 children are killed by gunfire in the U.S.; one out of every 17 high school students had carried a gun in the past month; a gun kept in the home was four times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense. Fifteen years later, statistics from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, show that every day 48 children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention; seven children and teens die from gun violence a day. Overall, 297 people are shot a day; 89 of them die from gun violence. In a year on average that adds up to 17,000 children and teens and 108,000 Americans in general getting shot. These days it’s more difficult for students to bring guns to school, but when it comes to having a gun in the home, well, the numbers documenting the likelihood of those guns harming innocent people, are off the charts. And while some background checks have been instituted in the intervening years, because they aren’t comprehensive enough, they haven’t been bulletproof.

Through the Million Mom March, the power “of a few good moms” propelled the subject of gun safety into the spotlight and literally onto a national stage. President and Hilary Clinton were very supportive of the march and the mission. When the coordinators and our families met with them at the White House prior to the march, there was a great deal of hope in the air. But in all these years since Bill has been out of office, nothing significant has been done regarding this issue.

I am blown away and feeling up in arms at how our legislators have been complacent about every day people walking around with semi-automatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and about instituting background checks, which according to CNN, 93% of the American people support. We need to keep shooting off our mouths and stick to our guns, so they’ll give it their best shot and make legislative decisions to enforce sensible gun laws that represent the will of the majority of law-abiding citizens.

Let’s bite the bullet and get it done!

Will We Ever Give Peace a Chance?

Today, October 9th, would have been John Lennon’s 72nd birthday, also dubbed Peace Day. And speaking of peace…The next presidential debate on October 16th will focus on both foreign and domestic policy and then the last debate on October 22nd, will be devoted exclusively to foreign policy. Besides addressing global financial woes, much of these discussions will be directed toward policy in the Middle East. Today, the Mideast region “is in a state of flux perhaps more volatile than it has been since the end of the Ottoman empire…” (tabletmag.com)

There are so many things said along the campaign trail. The question is: What kind of sustainable action would a President Romney take regarding the unrest in the Mideast when really faced with these critical decisions? What about President Obama? He’s been in the hot seat. Does he believe there are truly viable solutions? Secure in a second term, will he attempt some bold moves?

When it comes to the seemingly endless trouble in this volatile region and the reality that it’s one step forward and two steps back, how do we move forward? Human beings are responsible for the many horrific occurrences, and we’ve witnessed that human behavior is impossible to control and predict. 

John Lennon implored us to, “Give peace a chance.” But with each passing year that quest seems to be getting tougher and tougher to imagine.

Lincoln, Lincoln, I’ve Been Thinkin’

My grandmother, Myne Freed, was born on February 12th. I always thought it was fitting that she was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My grandparents were involved in politics in Philadelphia; my grandfather, M. Phillip Freed, held several political posts. When he was appointed to the bench as a judge in 1957, he asked Nana to finish his term as Democratic Chief of the 20th Ward, a post she held for 10 more years. She probably wouldn’t have thought of it this way, but that was quite a feminist thing to do!

In a simple blog post, I could never encapsulate how special a person she was, how much she meant to me and my family, or all the good she did as an engaged citizen with a sense of duty on both a large and small scale. But in thinking about Abraham Lincoln, one apropos story to share is that Nana served on a social welfare committee that was part of President Truman’s Commission on Civil Rights to end segregation and break down the barriers that were keeping African Americans and Jews from purchasing houses in certain “restricted” neighborhoods. She and my grandfather met with the Truman’s when the Democratic Convention was held in Philadelphia in 1948. In fact, my mother tells the story that she had gone to the movies with a date and when the newsreel came on, there were her parents seated on the dais right behind President Truman who was speaking from the podium. A few years ago, I documented this anecdote and much more in my short story, “Nana Buys a Pants Suit.”

I recently found a speech made by historian and Lincoln biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, for the Society for Human Resource Management, on the subject of Lincoln as a leader. My grandmother exuded humility and would never have thought of herself as a “leader.” But after reading the 10 qualities Kearns thought contributed to Lincoln’s great ability to lead,” it really solidified my theory of Nana and Lincoln sharing some similar human traits by virtue of being born on the same day. These include: 1) Capacity to Listen to Different Points of View 2) Ability to Learn on the Job 3) Ready Willingness to Share Credit for Success 4) Ready Willingness to Share Blame for Failure 5) Awareness of Own Weaknesses 6) Ability to Control Emotions, 7) Know How to Relax and Replenish (including the importance of humor as a way to replenish oneself) 8) Go Out into the Field and Manage Directly 9) Strength to Adhere to Fundamental Goals and 10) Ability to Communicate Goals and Vision.

Doris Kearns Goodwin ended her keynote address with the following words from Leo Tolstoy about Abraham Lincoln: His greatness consisted of the “integrity of his character and moral fiber of his being.” Ditto for my grandmother. With each passing year, I appreciate more and more what an inspiration and role model she was. Happy Birthday Nana!


Vote Early and Vote Often

My grandfather, M. Phillip Freed, was arrested in Philadelphia in 1950 on a complaint that he had been “interfering with orderly voting” and for inciting a riot of about 500 people outside of a polling place. At the time he was the Democratic Ward Chief of the 20th Ward. The main complainant was his GOP counterpart, who my grandfather had accused of voting irregularities in past elections.

Last week I heard a NPR report about conservative poll watching groups, Efforts to Prevent Voter Fraud Draw Scrutiny. Some allege that these ad hoc citizen groups are part of a Republican-backed effort to suppress the Democratic vote. It brought to mind, not only my grandfather, but the cynical phrase, “Vote early and vote often,” which is attributed to three different Chicagoans (all notorious for their manipulation of the democratic process)—Al Capone and mayors Richard J. Daley (1955-1976) and William Hale Thompson (1915-1923 and 1931-1935). These poll watchers feel this kind of policing is imperative because “they are concerned about the integrity of our election process.”

In my grandfather’s case, he explained to the judge that the reason he felt compelled to make his presence known at the polling place was because earlier that day a Republican judge of elections had been charged with “giving illegal assistance and unlawfully interfering with a voter.” At another site in the same division, a retired bricklayer said that on three different occasions while he was waiting to vote, he saw a man slip into the voting booth with other people who were voting. A woman clerk of the election division board reported on intimidation tactics saying that Republican workers actually walked into booths despite objections of the voters and helped them to vote. My grandfather asked that all the votes in that division be thrown out. An investigation was ordered, which revealed that 100 more votes were recorded than persons who voted. The court later discharged him.

It was FDR who first inspired my grandfather to want to practice law and to enter into politics. In the midst of the Depression he saw that the country was in dire need of political reform. Voter fraud was just one area of corruption that motivated him to become a judge. He was elected to the bench in 1957 and was in fact, the first magistrate in Philadelphia to hold a law degree. (This didn’t make him too popular with a young, hard-hitting police chief named Frank Rizzo or a young, brash Assistant D.A. named Arlen Specter, but I’ll reserve those “politics” for another time.)

As for this Election Day, despite all the cynicism, negative campaigning and corruption—all of which are as old as democracy itself—I plan to vote early…but not often.