Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy WalMart (or The Holiday Spirit)

It’s all starting to be too much for me to process. While some Americans are being sprayed in the face with pepper spray by the cops for sitting peacefully to register their rage at the greed and corruption of corporate America symbolized by Wall Street; other Americans are being sprayed with pepper spray by fellow shoppers for battling their way through mobs of crazed consumers just to buy a waffle iron on sale, contributing to the corruption of corporate America symbolized by WalMart. The irony of this juxtaposition is a bit overwhelming. When I step back and attempt to look at my country through the eyes of a Haitian, Iraqi, Colombian, or Nigerian, I can only imagine how decadent, disturbed, and dysfunctional American culture must seem. Well, heck, it is.

WalMart is the antithesis of the Occupy Movement and I’m proud to say that I have not stepped inside one in probably 15 years or more. May I remind you that WalMart contributes large chunks of its profits to campaigns for Republican candidates and agendas that perpetuate corporate rule. May I also remind you that WalMart’s labor practices are abysmal, and include policies that allow them to maintain (within the law) legions of employees nationwide with no benefits whatsoever. Few WalMart “sales associates” can support a family on what they earn. ($7 an hour and no health plan? What is up with that?)

If we wish to constructively direct our anger about the injustice and unfairness of our economic system then the thing to do this Christmas is to not buy anything that puts money in the pockets of the corporate giants, including not buying anything on a credit card that we can’t pay off as soon as the bill comes due. My gift to myself this holiday season is that I have now closed out my Chase and BofA credit cards and converted them to credit cards through our little local credit union. Of course, none of us can be completely pure and untainted. After all, I just filled my car up with gas; and not much contributes more to corporate bloat than buying gas. Sigh.

I’m totally burned out on all of it. This Christmas, I’m giving my children homemade gifts exclusively. They’re getting applesauce made from apples off the tree in the back yard, cuttings from my aloe plant, CDs of their dad’s radio show, a photograph of the house at McNab Ranch (that they grew up in), a foot massage, a promise of a free copy of my novel when it comes out in the spring, and sock puppets.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Frog Story

For several weeks, Ron was hearing a frog croaking in front of our house in the evenings. Not a delicate creaky frog, but a big loud frog. This frog was driving Ron crazy. He would just be settling in to listen to music, read the newspaper, watch a movie, or play his trombone, and this frog would begin making a racket. Ron kept going out on the front porch and looking for the culprit. But frogs have this habit of falling silent the minute a human gets too close. “It’s so loud,” Ron complained, “that it sounds like it’s right inside the living room.” My book group met here on Wednesday and that frog started croaking, and they could hear it where we sat at the dining room table. It really did sound as if it was inside the house. Well, as it turned out, it was. On Thursday morning I noticed Golda (my orange tabby cat) studying a little one-inch square white-green object in front of the sliding door to the deck. I went over for a closer look and sure enough, it was a frog. I managed to rescue the frog from Golda before she ate it and I released it out onto the deck, where it hopped merrily on its way. My guess is that it was living in one of the cold-sensitive plants I brought in for the winter a few weeks ago. They are in the front hallway. It was such a tiny frog, I can hardly believe it made such a loud croak. But the house has been blessedly quiet in the evenings now so it was definitely that little fellow. Hop softly and carry a loud voice.

Now, and this has nothing to do with frogs, I want to share a quote that resonated with me this week. I just finished reading Suite Française by Iréne Nèmirovsky. She was a well-known French novelist, Jewish, who was deported to the camps and killed when the Nazis occupied France. She had written nine novels by the time she died, at the young age of 39. Her husband also perished. Her daughters were hidden and managed to survive and one of them (only 10 years old at the time) packed her mother’s manuscript for Suite Française in her suitcase to remind her of her mother when they fled after their parents were arrested. Nèmirovsky’s work has been compared to that of Tolstoy. (She emigrated to France from Russia when she was young.) At the end of Suite Française, there was an Appendix that included some of Nèmirovsky’s notes to herself about the book. This is the note from Iréne I wanted to share: “What lives on: 1) our humble day-to-day lives, 2) Art, 3) God.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ann and Tom, Colombia and Haiti

Earlier this week I was visiting my father in New Jersey and he took me to lunch with his friends Ann and Tom, who are activists who work for peace and justice in the developing world. Tom works to improve conditions for the people of Haiti and Ann does her main work for the people of Colombia. They are elders, in their late 70s or early 80s (couldn’t tell exactly). Tom spoke about the need for a paradigm shift in the way Americans approach Haitians in their efforts to help. American aid organizations are inclined to send food to Haiti to the exclusion of exploring ways to reestablish the means for Haitians to produce enough food to feed themselves. Tom says we need to think about how to partner with the Haitians, to collaborate with them to provide assistance that will make a lasting difference and not just address an immediate need. At one time the people of Haiti were able to grow enough rice and beans to feed themselves. Tom says that helping Haitians restore their rice paddies would be the most significant step toward ending hunger in Haiti. We talked about the fact that Americans are often patronizing when providing aid to the developing world, assuming that we know what people need; when in fact they know what they need better than we do.

Tom’s wife Ann founded the Colombia Accompaniment Program and she says she started the organization after she asked Colombians what was needed. They told her they needed American witnesses to come and stand beside them in solidarity to stop the violence in their country. So Ann went home and created a program (like Witness for Peace) that sends witnesses. Their presence reduces the violence experienced by Colombians. I didn’t know before reading some of Ann’s materials about Colombia that it has produced the world’s fourth-largest uprooted population, with over 2.6 million Colombians now refugees or internally displaced. The country remains trapped in a civil war waged between guerrillas, the Colombian military, and paramilitary forces (many formerly military). The war there has raged for more than 40 years, with deep roots in political exclusion and economic injustice. Just over 1% of the landowners own 55% of the land, the top 10% of the population receives 44% of the income, and 55% of the population lives below the poverty line. (By-the-way, Ann encourages people to buy Equal Exchange coffee from Colombia because your purchase benefits the indigenous Colombian coffee farmers.)

I could learn so much from Tom and Ann given more time to spend with them, but we only had an hour at lunch, so I absorbed as much as I could in the short time allowed. One of the things that stands out for me from our conversation was the discussion about partnership, about asking what is needed instead of assuming or dictating. To truly offer help as one person to another or one nation to another, the one offering must be willing to base the assistance on what the recipient really needs. What the recipient really needs may turn out to be quite different from what was anticipated, much more difficult to provide, and something with which the donor does not feel quite so comfortable. I admire Ann for asking the Colombians what she could do and then going home and finding a way to do it. In the end, we need to be prepared to learn from one another and to be changed in the process.