Monday, July 16, 2018

Go Ask Alice

What is the bright side to a tragically lived  life, with the last thirty years spent committed to an insane asylum, only to die without your true story every being told? Finding someone almost 100 years later to tell it! I realize it sounds a bit far fetched, but that is exactly what I plan to do.

The idea struck me during a tour of Flagler’s Whitehall Museum in Palm Beach.  Whitehall was a wedding gift from Henry to his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan after his second wife, Ida Alice Shourds, was institutionalized in 1895. Gilded Age ‘buffs’ know that the reason that the Standard Oil magnate came to Florida in the first place was due to the poor respiratory health of his first wife, Mary Harkness. And that Whitehall was a gift to his young new bride Mary Lily Kenan. But little is known about his second wife Ida Alice, and her brief marriage to Henry between the two Marys.

The docent led us up the staircase of the Grand Hall to the second floor exhibits informing us “after the death of his beloved first wife, and having to put his second wife in a sanitorium, he finally found love again in Mary Lily… this is the Lace Room.” That was it - after the entire first floor dedicated to his first wife and family life, the second floor was going to be about his third wife, and wife # 2 was presented as an unfortunate setback between the two. I was immediately intrigued. I’m pretty sure I was googling information on my phone throughout the rest of the tour. I had to know more about this woman who served as a nursing aide for the first Mary, went quickly insane and was replaced by the next Mary shortly afterward.

I’ve been researching madly ever since and have developed several theories, none of which fit nicely into this commonly told narrative. She was an actress before she became the nurse of Mary Harkness Flagler. She traveled back and forth between New York and Florida with them caring for the ailing Mrs. Flagler. Two years after her death, Henry married Ida Alice and they moved to Florida where Henry embarked on his Eastcoast Railroad ambitions. During this time, Henry was very occupied with developing Florida as a summer retreat for his wealth friends and development in Florida consumed most of his time. In the meantime, Ida Alice, relatively new to her socioeconomic station, lived an extravagant and increasingly reckless lifestyle. She threw many parties, dabbled with the Ouija board and likely became addicted to drugs and alcohol, which were readily available to the wealthy socialite set in the day. Another thing that was common in the nineteenth century was committing women to asylums when they became difficult.

There must be more to these stories that go mostly untold. Perhaps I will break out a Ouija board and ask Alice to help me find the answers I’ve been unable to unearth so her story can be told completely. I’ll ask Alice. I think she’ll know.

With Liberty, and Justice, and Love for All

The Beatles had it right from the git-go: Love is all you need. An early American promoter of Love Is All You Need was actually the first woman to run for president of the United States. No, it wasn’t Hillary Clinton! Victoria Woodhull was a Lady of Liberty back when actual liberty was reserved for those with political power. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for President of the United States, nominated by the Equal Rights Party, with Frederick Douglass as a running mate (although Douglass never acknowledged he was on the ticket). The Equal Rights party of 1872 sought to forgive and reunite the suffragists with the African American civil rights activists after the disappointing exclusion of women from protection under the 15th amendment just a few years earlier. It was a tumultuous time politically. After years fighting the same battle for universal suffrage, the 15th amendment pitted men against women. Unfortunately, and sadly, unsurprisingly,  the powers that be at the time finally recognized that all men are indeed created equal, but they still were not ready to enfranchise the other half of the citizenry. African American men couldn’t pass up their chance, so they broke with the women’s rights activists of the time and asked them to wait patiently for their turn. One has to dig deep to find forgiveness and love in the face of such betrayal. But that is what the Equal Rights party was trying to do and they were certainly ahead of their time.

A quick google search may leave some skeptical about the merits of my chosen exemplar Lady of Liberty due to her eccentric life being mired in scandal, however, much of the most sordid accusations headlined newspapers during the time she was running for president. Considering how scandalous it was simply to throw her hat in the ring, I take these character attacks with a grain of salt.  She definitely presented a challenge for people who preferred the status quo. She came from nothing, her mom was illiterate and her dad was a petty criminal. Victoria only had about 5 years of formal education, was married to an abusive alcoholic husband at age 15 and bore a child with learning disabilities. And yet, she persevered. Here is a shortlist of her many careers during the 19th century: traveling clairvoyant, first woman to run for president, first female stockbroker on Wall Street, opening her own firm with her sister, first woman to address congress on the issue of universal suffrage, editor of her own newspaper, founder of an agricultural school in England and Red Cross volunteer during World War I. Yet she is largely ignored in history books and was disowned by the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement due to her philosophy of free love and her willingness to practice what she preached, at one point living with her ex-husband (divorce was also radical), her husband and her lover at the same time. She once said, “It makes no difference who or what you are, old or young, black or white, pagan, Jew, or Christian, I want to love you all and be loved by you all, and I mean to have your love.”  Her radical stance in this regard is not everyone’s cup of tea (much less in the Victorian times in which she lived), but her message of love and equality is definitely something we still need to be reminded of, even as we turn 242 years old.

Happy Birthday, America. With liberty, justice and love for all.

From Bootstraps to Bubble Wrap

Grit, resilience and rugged individualism are components of our collective American identity. We are warned that replacing “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps” with participation trophies and helicopter parenting has robbed this generation of the skills needed to succeed in a ‘dog eat dog’ world. To an extent that may be true. But is that the kind of world we necessarily want to live in? Can’t humans evolve from this Darwinian way of relating to one where allowing ourselves to be helped by others in times of weakness is a strength that propels all of us to a brighter future?

An eternal optimist at best, and a bit ‘Pollyanna’ at worst, I realize this thesis leaves me open to criticism from those who will accurately point out the historical evidence to the contrary. Evidence to the tune of about the past, say…. forever years. But I love to imagine the possibilities of a compassionate, tolerant, nay, accepting, free-from-fear civilization where mutual respect for our differences transcends our outdated defensive, competitive one.

Right now this debate is being played out on college campuses all over America. A recent LA Times editorial titled “Enough of the Bubble-Wrapped College Student” lamented the snowflake-esque fragility of some students on college campuses today. I think people are too quick to jump to one side of the argument or the other. On one hand, as an educator, I do not agree with changing curricula to accommodate sensitive subjects. I believe the subject matter needs to be left up to the professors and the decision to participate left up to students. I couldn’t have a biology minor because I wouldn’t dissect a cat. That made me uncomfortable. And some could argue it is against their religion. But there is a need for that education as well, thus it is my option to choose a different path. I would apply this across the gamut from religion to literature and especially to history.

On the other hand, I also understand the spotlight on “microaggressions,” a term used to explain how marginalized groups are impacted by comments or actions done, often times unconsciously, by majority populations (such as locking your door when you see a person of color, or greeting a woman by looking at her chest instead of her eyes). College campuses above all other spaces should be a free marketplace where ideas are debated, parsed apart and where all students feel safe to share information, gain perspective and develop self-awareness so they can go forth and rise to their full potential. If ‘safe spaces’ are helpful for some students to feel free enough to participate then so be it.

With that said, some are arguing that free speech is being censured when what they have to say is offensive or even hateful to other groups of people. It is true, we have demonstrated that free speech in this country has been almost absolute (short of the age old yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater example). As provocateurs push the envelope, college campuses have become the petri dish for how this will all shake out as we move forward.

When pendulums swing too far in either direction the balance is off. Both sides have their merit. Free speech is part of what it means to be an American. And, liberty and justice for ALL is also what it means to be an American. Grit, resilience, and maybe helping someone else adjust  their bootstraps once in a while might be a way for us to meet in the middle.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tune In to Tune Out

Life is noisy. In the beginning, were amoebae saying, “What’s all that racket?!”  as each new species emerged on the planet? I bet they were. This spring we had a colony birds in our backyard that kept me up to the point that I was ready to buy a shotgun. The rosiest of shades were no match for this band of 3 a.m. squawkers! The only bright side was that some dear soul invented foam plugs which I promptly stuffed into my ears and cursed the bird gods for not getting this one right.  It’s not easy to tune things out.

The next morning, I grabbed my coffee and the dog and headed out for my morning walk. In the early morning light, the noises that were my nemesis just a few hours before became music to my ears. Even the loudest squawker! I decided, if this were an orchestra, he’d be the oboe. There were caw-caws and cute little high-pitched chirpers; ducks and blue heron; and some of the happy noises were coming from squirrels running around in the trees. Which then helped me tune into the palm fronds rustling in the breeze, making a song all their own. Tuning in a little more, there was the crunch of the sticks and acorns under my feet, and the gentle smack of my flip flops recording the rhythm of my steps. Far in the distance the hum of motors on the highway, and even more man-made rumblings: planes in the sky; an urgent siren in the distance. I walk the dog every morning and never pay attention to the sounds. I’m too lost in my own thoughts to notice what is right around me most of the time. On that morning walk, I didn’t think about anything but the individual sounds. It was a form of meditation because I was just present with the sounds and nothing else at the moment. And I realized that this is a choice. I can choose to tune in and in doing so actually am tuning out as well.

Think about all of sounds vying for our attention on a daily basis: family, work, advertisers, politicians, cable news!!, TV shows, books, movies, ideas…. This attempted colonization of our consciousness is constant, but we are not defenseless. We can decide who or what gets our attention. That is power! Naturally circumstances predict how easy or difficult this may be. But the fact remains that our reaction to all things is a choice. The inspiration for Rosey Shades and this column (over 15 years ago!) was the onslaught of the 24 hour news cycle, which, at the time, was new. I was so tired of constant negativity that I thought about wearing rose colored glasses all the time. The contest for our attention from the media has only gotten more severe, but the fact that you are even reading this article now in the Happy Herald speaks volumes about the choices you make. I’m glad you took some time out to look at the Bright Side today!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Seatbelts, Everyone!

Our world is changing at a pace we simply are not accustomed to. Just when we figure out how to use some piece of innovative technology, a newer version comes around making the old one obsolete. On a larger scale, the same is true for many of the jobs and institutions that have stabilized advanced societies since the end of World War II, making it difficult to keep up. The increased speed with which we humans are being asked to adjust to is shocking to our collective system. Future historians will analyze the forces at work at the turn of this century and, with the benefit of hindsight, will write books, teach classes and update curriculum so that future generations can learn from our mistakes. We, on the other hand, are living through it. Every day we are inundated with loud, frustrated, even angry people yelling at each other and blaming each other for something that, I believe, is really bigger than all of us. No one has “the answer” for how to “fix this” because, once again, we humans are entering unchartered waters.

I am not afraid. Fear is the darkest human emotions. It causes us to do all kinds of horrible, selfish, senseless things. Fear requires us to protect ourselves from some force that will hurt us. Fear is the root of all ugliness. Fear forces an ‘us vs. them’ game that does nothing but divide us when united we could be so much stronger. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Jimmy Carter said, “The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.” I want his words to be true. In fact I believe them to be true. In the end, love does always win. But for some reason, as intelligent as we humans can be, we still seem to lack the wisdom not to wreak havoc on each other before returning to love.

Throughout history, during times of immense conflict, millions have died gruesome deaths defending their cause. And sometimes we do have to fight to survive. That time may be upon us again, I don’t know. And I don’t know who will live and who will die, but I do know that for those that do survive, a new way of living in the world will be created…and it will be better.  But I also know this is a temporary state, riding a wave of prosperity until the next great sweeping societal change rears its head again, ushering in a new era of fear. The tide of human progress ebbs and flows.

Time and time again we learn that out of darkness comes light. And in such times there are those filled with hope and those with dread. So, in this modern eclipse of enlightenment, what role will you play? Will you be on the side of fear; building a defensive wall around yourself, your kinsmen, your religion, your “team”?  Or will you remain brave in the face of fear and strive for openness, compassion, gratitude and generosity, even to those unfamiliar and ‘foreign’? Will you show up with flowers or guns? Because after all, we are born alone and we die alone. Who we are in between is always a choice. Which side of history will you be on?

Sticks and Stones

Globalization. Scholars weigh the pros and cons. Politicians take sides about how it impacts ‘us.’  You would think globalization is a 20th century concept but, really, it’s been happening since the beginning of time. When you think about it, the center of anyone’s universe begins with the self. The extent to which our world expands and interacts with others depends on the transportation technology of the time period. We started on two feet, and now we have rockets. You get the picture.
Roughly 2300 years ago, Alexander the Great traveled outside of his world and found that, in fact, there were some other pretty sophisticated places out there. He found powerful kingdoms in Egypt, Persia and India, sharing (and imposing) Greek culture with those he encountered and bringing with him some very cool items and ideas he found in each region. His travels and conquests resulted in a blending of cultures historically referred to as Hellenistic and it was the largest example of globalization to that date in history. Next came the Roman Empire. The famous ‘Silk Road’ between China and the west became the next era of world trade, with it own set of pros and cons. Fast Forward to Christopher Columbus - two worlds collide, ringing in hundreds of years of conquest, genocide, cultural blending, cultural extinction, imperial wars and a flourishing of ideas about how to address this ‘new era’ of globalization.
Revolutions in technology determine winners and losers, causing revolutions in thought about what to do about it. Imperialism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, militarism, pacifism, nationalism, globalism..
We are living smack dab in the middle of the birth of a new era and no one knows what it will look like. No one has the answers. All we can do is postulate. In uncertain times there is a tendency to look back to see what worked before or at least for some guidance on how not to repeat the same mistakes. And when we don’t learn, history does repeat itself. Challenges of the past present themselves in new ways for a new generation to grapple with. Issues change. People don’t. In each new era there are those who advocate for interaction and cooperation and those who advocate for a more defensive position. In each new era winners and losers emerge. Love, hate, war, peace, left, right, rich, poor, us, them.
But what also repeats itself is a new tide of progress, prosperity and peace. A new Golden Age somewhere emerges and there is relative peace. Pax Romana, Pax Mongolica, Pax Americana. Might we finally achieve Pax Globica?  The pendulum swings between peace and revolution. Looking backward, the writing’s on the wall. We are more interconnected than we’ve ever been and our weapons of mass destruction are just that - weapons of mass destruction. Einstein once commented that we may not even know yet how World War III would be fought, but World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones. The question is, will we essentially ctrl-alt-delete the world as we know it and start over? Or might we be the first generation to find a way to find peace before another great war because the cost is too great? The history has yet to be written.

Virtually Yours

I have joined the ranks of what is commonly known the “Sandwich Generation.” My mom and dad are, fortunately, still very healthy, but they are midway through their seventies and the clock stops for no one. At the other end are my almost grown kids. Both in their twenties and living away from home, but nowhere near flying solo just yet. While they may not need me on a day to day basis, they most certainly still depend on my paycheck and health insurance. And my parents live in New York. They used to come visit me and my busy life, but they aren’t as foot loose and fancy free any more, so visits from them are less and less frequent. Ever wanted to be in two places at once?

So I took a leap of faith and made a gigantic career move. I left the brick and mortar classroom for the virtual world! Technically I still have to work from Florida, but at least I can leave mid-day on Friday and come back early morning Monday and not miss a beat. This would have been impossible to do twice a month with a traditional teaching job. Being able to visit my parents on a more consistent basis, rather than for just one month over the summer,  was a no-brainer. But the teacher in me was not so sure. Would I really be able to walk away from the classroom environment? Is it possible to reach kids in the same way over the internet? In short, the answer is ‘No,’ but thankfully I’m finding the one-to-one connection inherent in the individualized ‘classroom’ experience to be just as helpful, if not more so in some ways.

From a classroom teacher perspective, it’s like trading off the magic that can happen when the chemistry of the room is just right and the lesson takes on an energy of its own for the individualized attention you can offer someone when you tutor them one on one. The dynamic classroom is awesome, but in a room of 30 there are bound to be moments when kids are not engaged. It’s nearly impossible to keep everyone’s attention at all times. Kids leave to go to the restroom, day dream, text someone… the challenge in that environment is 100% engagement. The challenge in the virtual environment is fostering connection. But just like the magic in the classroom, there is the same kind of spark when working one on one with a student and the proverbial lightbulb goes off. There’s nothing more exciting in a teacher’s world than the “Ah-hah!” moment. And my teaching day is full of those now.

Just like any job it has its own downsides. The record keeping is exponentially greater. Rather than having 6 classes of 30 students, I now have 180 classrooms with one student. It’s a really different approach. But the fact that the students work at their pace and I work at mine means that when we do meet - usually on the phone, but occasionally in a virtual classroom with other students for live lessons - we are present. Ready for the learning agenda of that moment. I think that is the beauty of virtual school. Finding a life/work balance that maximizes joy and results is something that benefits us all. Virtual school offers this for both students, their families and teachers and their families. The key is finding the groove that works for both the teacher and student. As with anything, it takes a little time and flexibility, but ultimately weaves its way into a system that works for everyone. It’s win-win-win all the way around.