Saturday, July 18, 2009

That's the way it was. And isn't any more.

"If you could pick any living person to sit in the seat next to you on a trans-Atlantic flight, who would it be?" It was a question asked as an ice-breaker exercise at some group planning session I attended years ago. Most people named some hot actor or musician. One or two named a spouse or friend.

My answer was easy, and none of those: Walter Cronkite.

My interest at the time was to ask the guy what he really thought about the world events that defined my formative years. He'd been in my living room every evening of my youth, delivering the day's news with calm and measured demeanor. His was the voice that alarmed my parents - I was too young to understand why - about missles in Cuba pointed in our direction. His words were the soundtrack to somber pictures of a president's flag-draped casket pulled by horses through the streets of Washington.

From him I learned about the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. ... civil rights demonstrations... confrontations between Chicago police and protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention... the Vietnam War and protests against it... the break-in at the Watergate hotel and its subsequent ramifications.

Never did I discern that he had any opinion about any of these events, save for two. My 7th grade classmates, glued to a black and white tv in the junior high gym waiting for follow-up reports to shocking news from Dallas, witnessed a moment of emotion when he announced that President Kennedy was, indeed, dead. We'll likely see that moment a lot over the next day or two, its rarity coming from the normally composed Cronkite making it all the more memorable.

And too, there was his coverage of sending people into space, especially (40 years ago Monday, matter of fact) setting foot on the moon. My physicist father was intensely interested in space and flight but seldom allowed his enthusiasm to show. So I was attuned to hints of passion in the voice of a dispassionate man, and in Cronkite's coverage of America's adventures in space heard something akin to the excitement of a little boy on Christmas morning.

Having seen these glimpses of something like an opinion from the avuncular news anchor, and realizing he had a front-row seat to every important event of my formative years, I wanted to know more about what he really thought about the events he conveyed to us for all those years. If he'd been stuck next to me on a long plane ride, I'd have welcomed the chance to pry that out of him.

That never was likely to happen, of course, and now it certainly never will.

But it points out what we have lost in the passing of Walter Cronkite. Clips of his broadcasts in today's retrospectives stand in stark contrast to what passes for tv news today.

He asked questions to get answers with intent to understand and inform or evince his subjects' true point of view, not to goad them into a sensational soundbite. He stated that it was the journalist's job to put personal viewpoint aside and give fair hearing to all sides, not to seek out the most extreme views, report from the flame-throwing fringes and define the result as balanced.

His words were spoken, not shoulted. They were well-crafted and presented in a calm, authoritative way, with confirmed facts behind them. Entirely unlike the live, late-breaking, shallow speculation (or fabrication) hurled at us today.

He delivered more useful information in a 30-minute newscast than anything we get on 24-hour cable today. Quality does indeed trump quantity if the goal is an informed public capable of self-governing.

He didn't seek stardom, but he was a star, at least in my universe. He represented what I thought journalism was supposed to be about when I chose it as my course of education. As quaint and lonely as that point of view now seems, he still does.

RIP Uncle Walter. Sorry I never got to share a plane ride with you. But now that I think about it, maybe I'm better for it. Because your opinion was not as important to me as your example.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sister Berta

Getting to work yesterday was a challenge. We had a first-of-the-morning division meeting for which I needed to be on time, and events were conspiring against me. Aerobics class had gone a little long. Had to wait in line for my latte at the coffee shop. Couldn't find one of my shoes. I made it, but just barely, and in one of those grumpy things-just-aren't-going-right-for-me moods.

On the agenda was a presentation by the employees organizing our division's United Way pledge drive. Their plan to engage us in ante-ing up this year was to bring us face-to-face with one of the agencies that receives United Way support, and they had chosen Operation Breakthrough, a school/child care facility serving 600-some children in our city's central core. We received a list of school supplies needed by the youngsters whose families are hard-pressed to supply supper, let alone pencils and crayons, with a request to purchase and donate the necessary items.

Sure, happy to help.

Then Sister Berta, the agency's founder and director, came to the front of the room to speak. She expressed appreciation for our willingness to help, for our company's longtime support, all the requisite good-citizen attaboys. And then she told us a little about the families her organization serves.

The single moms who go to work every day, cleaning hotel rooms or serving fast food burgers, pick up the kids from school and take them home, wherever that is and whatever they can afford on a $14,000 annual income. A relative's spare room or a domestic violence shelter if they're lucky. A car, abandoned building or under a bridge if they're not. Sister Berta spoke of one mom who never missed a day of work and got her kids to school, dressed and on time every day, from living quarters in a sheltered bus stop.

I thought about the time I used to spend helping my kids with their homework, and wondered how on earth we'd have accomplished that from a bench in a bus shelter.

She spoke of the fragile network of services that get families from one day to the next. Operation Breakthrough provides some -- a dental clinic, a food pantry, a GED program for parents -- and others are patched together as resources allow. What's for dinner tonight? When the utilities are turned off and there's neither refrigeration or the means to cook, the choices are limited.

There was more, but you get the picture... of a spoiled, vastly over-privileged woman (that would be me), considerably chastened by the juxtaposition of Sister Berta's words and the memory of my morning meltdown over assorted inconveniences.

As I travel in my little bubble midst people similarly privileged, it is easy to forget there is another whole world out there where getting through each day is a genuine struggle. I forget what luck I had to be born to parents who had educations and jobs and set me on course for the same. There may have been bootstraps in the past -- my dad, actually, pulled himself up out of the dust storms with some -- but there sure aren't enough to go around these days. And even if there were, it's hard to get to Square 1 when you start at Minus 50.

I have my shopping list for the 5th graders at Operation Breakthrough and I'll be buying school supplies this weekend.

I'll also be a lot more patient, for awhile at least, waiting for my latte. Or better yet, skip a latte for a day or two and buy an extra box of crayons instead.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


A storm came through this morning and knocked out our cable service for most of the day. It cut me off from my Sunday morning political programs on tv, which was annoying, and from the internet, which was surprisingly disconcerting.

It seemed like everything I planned to do, I couldn't. No email, Facebook or Twitter. No online bill-paying. No blogging or catching up on blogs I follow. No Weather Channel online or on the iPhone (no wireless either) to check out the temperature.

It took forever to unearth the phone book to find the number to call Time Warner to report the outage. I've come to depend on Google to find phone numbers, and don't use the old phone book much any more.

I was cut off from my connections.

So, I went to the gym and the grocery store. Got the political commentary I was missing on tv from the newspaper's opinion page instead. Took the dog for a walk. Actually went through some of the stuff I haul to and from the office to read "sometime." With other distractions unavailable, today became a pretty good "sometime."

Tonight, with both the cable and my world order restored, I'm thinking about what I've learned from today's moments of disconnection.

Not that long ago, I didn't even know what the internet was. Now I depend on it, and the access it brings to people, information and ideas. What new capabilities will I depend on, or even take for granted, 10 or 20 years hence (if I'm still alive by then), that I don't even know I'm missing today? The possibilities are exciting, and I am eager to learn the answer.

At the same time, it's not such a bad thing to be sent back to the basics now and again -- disconnected from some of my expectations, but reconnected to the real world.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

No peeing on the flag

I'm not much of a flag-waver. Don't get me wrong, I am most thankful to have been born in this country and I believe in its ideals. I understand that the flag is a symbol of those ideals, and I respect it as such, particularly the ideals of freedom of thought and expression in civil discourse.

I understand the emotional power of the flag as a symbol, having come of age at a time when the stars and stripes were commonly seen upside down on the backside of bluejeans as an expression of protest against the Vietnam war. I have in my possession a folded flag presented as a token of appreciation for my mother's service as a Navy WAVE during World War II, and I value it beyond measure.

But I also understand that others bring their own interpretation to the flag's symbolism, often far different than mine. Those who use it as cover for hate crimes, or as a rallying cry to "take America back for white people," for example, see in it something I find reprehensible - the opposite of the meaning it holds for me.

So, wishing not to be mislabeled or my views misinterpreted, I don't wear flag pins (clearly, I have no political aspirations) or t-shirts. I don't put flag decals on the car. My mother's flag remains folded in a protective box displayed inside the house.

I respect the flag as a symbol of values I hold dear and a political system that, while imperfect, I wish to be preserved. But I don't wave it around in public. Ultimately, I see it as a symbol, and only that, not as the ideal itself. Much like the letters I type here allow me to express opinions, but are only symbols representing (with varying degrees of proficiency) the beliefs in my head and heart.

Which brings me to this morning. It rained last night, so Mr. James and I took a dry sidewalk course for his daily constitutional rather than the probably-muddy hiking trail at the end of the street. As we rounded a corner, we passed a house with miniature flags on sticks in the yard alongside the walkway, presumably placed there in celebration of today's July 4 holiday.

Mr. James, who doesn't know a flag from a fire hydrant, spied one of the stick-bound banners and began to lift his leg. I was sufficiently in the moment to notice and quickly yanked on his leash, pulling him away and averting disaster. "NO," I said firmly. "No peeing on the flag."

I steered him clear of the rest of the yard decor, and as we continued on our way, I reflected upon my instinctive reaction to the possibility of my dog relieving himself on that little piece of patriotism. The flag-on-a-stick was just a symbol, and a cheap dime-store version of it at that, the red, white and blue stamped upon a scrap of polyester, then stapled to a dowel rod by a 12-year-old in China.

Does it really matter, I wondered to myself, what Mr. James does to it?

Ultimately, I concluded that it does, for the same reason I believe I should be able to write these words -- the symbols of my ideas and opinions. You may have different words for different ideas and opinions, and I invite you to share them freely and debate them vigorously, but without vitriol or violence - a courtesy I grant to you as well.

It matters because the symbol stands for something that deserves our respect, appreciation and commitment, even if it means something different to you than it does to me.

Or, perhaps, because of just that.