Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I dare you to say the wrong thing

This week I took my son Patrick to the dentist to get his 12-year-old molars sealed. He's been going to Dr. Jones, a pediatric dentist, since he was three. This visit went much better than the first one. Patrick bit him! Patrick didn't understand that it's OK for the dentist to "tickle" his teeth.

The billing clerk, a woman I've seen at least twice a year for the last 13 years, was dressed all in pink--a pink ballcap, a pink hoodie, and the telltale buzzcut to go along with it. I asked her, "What's with all the pink?" Turns out she's being treated for cancer, and wearing pink is a way, besides the hairstyle, to begin a conversation. Apparently, her tactic isn't going as expected. A lot of people glance at her and literally run the other way. Others come back the second time around and ask after her health. Most say nothing.

Cancer sucks. And, it turns out, it's lonely. It would be easy to ascribe the worst motives to the "currently able-bodied," as one of my yoga students recently put it, as a skulking, cowardly lot who act as if cancer's contagious. Maybe that's true in a very few cases. But it's more likely that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they opt to say nothing at all.

But that's exactly the wrong thing to do. It's like the co-worker whose child was killed in a car accident. You don't know what to say. You might say the wrong thing and make things worse. You don't want to provoke a grief response. But come on, who are you really protecting? So many people are facing life-threatening illnesses or have suffered losses that you'd have to be living in a bubble not to have met someone going through bad times.

So I dare you: Go ahead, say the wrong thing. At least you'll show you care. Better yet, start the conversation, and let them talk. The worst that can happen--you might learn something. And someone who hasn't felt OK that day, or in the days previous, might feel better.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wall Street Occupiers Are Onto Something

One Tuesday morning a month, I have the privilege of serving a group of septu- and octogenarians who come to Cheese Importers for our petit dejeuner consisting of excellent coffee from Unseen Bean, baguettes from Breadworks, excellent French butter and assorted preserves. They are a delight--smart, politically engaged and good tippers. They are also what I aspire to be in my later years--yeah, yeah, I turned 50 last week, it's closer than I think--not a cougar, but a Gray Panther. One man in the group is reliably conservative, doing what conservatives do--putting the brakes on change perceived to be accelerating too quickly. Conservatives can't stop progress. They can only slow change, and there's a need for it. Sometimes change needs to ripen a little before it's ready.

In February they were discussing the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and this man said, "I don't know what these demonstrators stand for. I do know what Mubarak stands for. What they're doing scares me, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood is involved." Interesting point. At the time, though, I thought, why is one dictator tolerable, when another was deemed intolerable and removing him from power was a stated goal of the Iraq War?

So it is with the Wall Street Occupiers, and the other occupiers that are sprouting up around capitol buildings in the U.S. and elsewhere. Five weeks into their protests, the media accuses them of not having a coherent message. U.S. House Majority whip Eric Cantor calls the protestors "thugs" and "Un-American." My question to Rep. Cantor is the same as to my guest at Cheese Importers: Why is one group of protestors (The Tea Party) called patriotic, while the Occupiers are called Nixonian epithets?

To me, the Occupiers' message is loud and clear. The only thing that surprises me is that it took this long for people to have their "Network" moment--"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it any more!" about post-bailout Wall Street prosperity when Main Streets across the land are shriveling up. As I understand it, the message is that our elected representatives need to stop failing we the people and feeding us promises that trickle-down economics will work for all of us, some day. Just be patient, and trust your leaders. Go back home, even if it's to the back seat of your car. The so-called "job creators," who are unelected and therefore unaccountable to anyone but their shareholders (and even that's questionable), need to start investing in a country that is crumbling around us as they keep stockpiling profits for some future rainy day. That day is here, folks.

It doesn't help when the governor of my state, John Hickenlooper, is quoted as saying in response to Occupy Denver: "What they feel is the government has let them down and Wall Street and the big corporate banks and trade companies have run roughshod over the federal government. We hear that. I can't control that."

Bullshit, Gov. Government can control whether they allow investment banks to engage in the same shenanigans that got us into this mess in the first place. And government didn't get the job done. I could say it was Republican obstructionism that kept the Dodd-Frank law from having any real impact on preventing future catastrophic investment schemes. But that would only be half right. President Obama could have shamed Republicans into supporting a law that would make unscrupulous investing a crime. Instead he settled for a law that practically guarantees that history will repeat itself.

Our government and our financial institutions and corporations continue this dance to everyone's peril. We don't need to look any further than the Arab Spring. All the young Tunisian street vendor who immolated himself was asking for was the opportunity to sell his produce in the market. The Tunisian dictatorship put so many obstacles in the way of this kind of commerce that despair overwhelmed him. Those who survived him were emboldened to begin openly protesting the dictatorship that was preventing them from making a proper living. I risk sounding like a pop culture Wurlitzer when I quote Bob Dylan: "When you ain't got nothing/ You got nothing to lose/After they took from you everything they could steal." It is in any country's best interests to make sure its people can earn a decent living, that each person has the dignity of a decent education, and a decent chance to earn a living and care for their families and make whatever contribution they are able to make.

I'm not advocating a welfare state. It's about making sure people know how to fish for themselves, instead of shaking their hand before you throw them overboard and expect them to swim.