Terror at Christmas

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Christmas past…

Every Christmas I waited for one gift.  It would usually come a few days before Christmas, and it was never wrapped.  But I knew it was coming, when I heard my uncle bound up the stairs, rather than plod one step at a time. “Is she here?” he’d bellow.  I was always there. Where else would I have been?

As the only boy in his family, growing up with two sisters, one my mother, and a father who was more into gardening and puttering, than hunting or big physical exercise, I imagine he was thrilled when my mother was having a baby.  I imagine he was a little disappointed when it was a girl.

But quickly he figured that it made no difference at all.  And he would simply treat me like a boy.  So, gifts of clothing, of which there were very few, were often blue sweaters or orange and black gloves and brown boots bought in the boy’s department. As I said, he didn’t buy clothing very often.  What he did buy, though, was pretty spectacular.  Especially for an “only child” being raised like a princess (as a recall). Barbies!  Carriages!  Baby dolls!  All were plentiful. But they never came from my uncle.

No, when my uncle would come bounding up those stairs, I would just wait for it!  What magical toy would it be?  Lincoln Logs.  Those little plastic Indians and Soldiers in their war stances.  We’d play and make forts and have some big battles! Sets of tinker toys. And we’d build giant spaceship type structures. One time there were racing cars, complete with a curving roller coaster track.  There was the police car, all black and white and heavy, that you could rev up by running it back and forth and then letting it go and the red light would shine and the siren would shriek.  There was the police gear. And a badge I could wear. And we would play and run around the house. Never for very long, though. We’d start to play and then he’d run off to do some adult thing that he needed to do.

My mother would say “Sonny!” (what we always called my uncle) “Sonny! She’s a girrrllll!” But, I loved it all.  The gun shot caps.  Then he bought me real caps – the kind you stepped on and it sounded like pistol shots.  There was a science kit or two, and then, one day, there was a “pearl” handled silver gun.  It was big and heavy.  You could cock it back and it would snap out a loud POP.  I can still remember how it felt in my hand and how there were ridges on the inside of the hammer.  Better, yet, this gun went into a holster – a black holster that went around my waist.  Eventually I got a cowboy hat to go with it. And bullets on a cross strip.  And boots.  I was banned by my mother from playing outside dressed up like that because the neighbors might see.  So I played inside.  Lost in a world of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Even Andy Griffith carried a gun!  And, for that matter, Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies prided herself on her shooting prowess.

As growing up will do to you, it changed things.  And the Christmas came when the boy-toy didn’t get such a gleeful response from me; and it stayed unopened.  “Hey, you didn’t open it… yet” he said, a few days in a row. Eventually the boy-toys stopped coming.  Eventually we didn’t play together anymore.

These memories are vivid this year; the same year my uncle passed away at 92.  I remember it because of how things have changed. And also for how they have not changed very much at all.

Christmas present…

Today, gun toys for young children are not cool.  But yet, they are on our shelves…waiting to be bought for little boys and little girls this Christmas.  The violent video games target the slightly older children, whose unformed minds bounce between fantasy and reality. This December begins with terror. Terror from San Bernardino – but living inside all of us today. When we’re shopping at a crowded mall.  Eating in a restaurant. Attending a concert.  Now, when we’re at work at a holiday party?

Gun control.  It seems an impossibility.  The little tweaks are purposeful, but in fact, all the guns we will ever need are already out there.  Guns are forever, but ammo degrades. It has a shelf life.  Ammunition is gun food. If we can starve the guns a bit, or change the way ammunition sales are regulated and controlled, perhaps we can change the way guns are used. As Marc Ambinder wrote in The Week in 2012, “Guns need food. Starve them”.  We can be distracted by all the focus on gun control – let us ask ourselves, what else can we do?

Here’s another thing we can do – we can ask to have these toys removed from our shelves. We can stop buying them. These are some of the gun type toys available for purchase on this one day in December in Rhode Island. They are at Benny’s, K-Mart, Toys ‘R Us, and Walmart stores.

The first store I visited was Toys R Us and while there were a few gun-like, nerf-type toys available, I didn’t see the more realistic looking, AK-47 types.  When asked, the department manager told me, “I haven’t seen them here in this store in about 10 years.  We stopped carrying them after Columbine.”

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Christmas Future…

What will be our Christmas future? What terror will hold us close?  How will we harden and adapt?  Is this our new normal?  I think about my children.  My grandchildren yet to be. I hope they can find the answers.  And we – the elders now – must stay engaged.  Let us bring our memories of our own childhood and see what we can do to our tenuous hold on happiness and peace in our loved ones’ future.  As Scrooge said at the final ghost appearance, “the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will!”  Let us pray there is truth in this tale.

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I saw Jesus again today.

little-boy-walks-road-curb-sepia-high-definition-video-fps-sec-please-look-another-footages-my-train-arrival-account-45180160-1The first time had to be about five years ago.  He was walking slowly down a city sidewalk, parallel to the four lanes of traffic – he walked against the two lanes closest to him. So, the drivers could easily see his face as he walked.  You couldn’t overlook him or let him meld into the background, much as we often like to do when we’re disturbed by a person’s physical appearance. This man walks with his head slightly down, long, black, slightly wavy hair, parted in the middle.  Thick black eyebrows.  He is slim and tall.  He wears khaki cargo pants, the kind with lots of pockets and a little polyester so they have a bit of a swish to them as he takes his strides.  They fit close to his body, and hang low on his hips.  A black jacket hangs from his broad shoulders, past his thin waist. He did not walk on the main part of the sidewalk, but similar to the cars being driven in their thin lanes, he walked on the cement curb, one foot in front of the other.  He is barefoot.  The walk reminds me of that of a runway model and how they place the toe of one foot precisely behind the heel of the foot in front of it.  He didn’t totter.  Not at all.  Neither did he raise his hands out to the side to balance like a tightrope walker. He simply walked, in a steady, strong, slow cadence.  He walked with – grace. I remember thinking that the straight posture and balance came from something – dance classes? Fitness or core strengthening exercises? Gymnastics? Modeling, perhaps?  It was a trained walk.

Years before I had seen this man in my neighborhood. The neighborhood is not known for having homeless people walking about. Almost never. There was an occasional disheveled looking person walking to a bus shelter, carrying a white plastic bag, with little in it. You could tell by the way it hung from the wrist. I’d imagine toothpaste, toothbrush, maybe a bottle of water? Over the last few years there were just a few people with these white plastic bags. You knew only a fraction of their story by seeing them – the part of their deep, convoluted, complicated story – the part they could no longer hide.

This man stayed in the neighborhood season after season.  He would just appear one day. If the weather was cool he wore that long black coat – similar to an oilskin duster worn on a ranch – and work boots.  In warm weather he would walk without shoes. That’s when he took to walking toe to heel on the cement curb rather than the sidewalk.

One day my daughter said she thought he looked like Jesus – Jesus walking so gracefully, so quietly, with a presence that belied his obvious present lot in life.

There have been a few times when his eyes have met mine as I looked out from behind my steering wheel. And there was the unexpected meeting in the supermarket.  He was picking out a few pieces of fruit and I saw his eyes as he looked up at me with his head still bent downward. I was startled. Kind, deep, filled with “knowing” – and, somehow, familiar. I did not know him, yet the familiarity factor was there, and it startled as it commanded to be seen.  It wasn’t like the wild eyes of the deranged, but a kind and steady, sure look. A “don’t look over or around me” look. A look “at” me look.

I watched him walk through the fresh produce section, and maneuvering slowly around displays.  Grace.  An athlete’s grace.  A dancer’s grace.  Maybe an angel’s grace. This Jesus was food shopping.

It was then for several years that he was absent .  When I would see a person panhandling for donations at the end of an off ramp, I would often think of Jesus. Where had he gone?  Had it been time to move on?  Had he died?  Was he sick, in the hospital, or more likely, in prison? He would never have been standing at an off ramp. That I knew.

My daughter recently moved to the city over from mine.  This morning it was quiet in my kitchen as a text message came over my phone from her.  “I just saw Jesus! Walking near TGI Fridays – he’s down the highway. He’s making his way south!!” So, he was back, but had moved on a little further away from me.  It isn’t warm enough yet for him to walk barefoot.  Will he stay close by, or is he steadily moving south – a little late in the season for a RI snowbird migration. Do the nomadic homeless go south for the winter? Do they walk all the way to Florida?

Now my daughter will look for him, this Jesus walking.  A little more disheveled, and looking a little bit older. With the perfect posture and the dancer’s cadence.  Walking with grace.  Maybe she will see Jesus food shopping.  And he will look up at her with his deep kind eyes – eyes that held his life’s story behind them. Eyes that simply say, “I am here.”

“I am fearless now….”

th-2There are different kinds of memories. Events and happenings. Climactic moments. Hallmark days, such as a wedding, a funeral, a graduation. There are other memories that run deeper.  Memories of…scents…sounds…sight. Memories of emotion and feeling are perhaps the strongest.  The overwhelming moment when something happened inside of you; it changed the way you thought or felt about something. Like you could almost feel your brain morphing. The light bulb went on. The “aha” moment. The door shutting – for good this time – on a path of the past, a path that had been worn down and was going nowhere, and you struggled to get out of its rut, and now you can. These moments are, as they say, more ’emblazoned in our memories’ – because they go to our core – our heart and soul – they become more memorable because we were changed in that moment, that moment that we’ll always remember. We are different going forth.

This week the President gave an interview on radio which was somewhat controversial – but he stood rock solid, with a smile to his critics.  Something had changed in him.  A light bulb moment. An “aha” moment. A door shutting, or perhaps opening.  He put it simply when he said it: “I’m fearless now.” With that familiar jaunty full-faced smile we see more of these days.

This week I listened to a speech made by our new “fearless” President, this new Barack Obama.  And as he was expected to do, but no one could have truly anticipated, he gave a rousing one. But he went beyond rousing. He made a substantive one. He used high emotion, tragedy and deliverance to talk about issues that our country has yet to solve – poverty, poor educational systems, unfair housing, gun control, mass incarceration, jobs, racism, subtle prejudice – and he couched it all in the word “grace”.  Not “hope”, but “grace”.

And as natural as the gently waving program books in that church of 5,400 people – and in our homes and offices as we listened – our President began to sing. Low and deep he began. With the words, “Amazing grace. How sweet the sound…”.

Amazing-GraceI closed my eyes. I wanted to remember this day. Friday, June 26, 2015.  I wanted to emblazon its memory into my mind. I wanted it to change me. I wanted to call my children to gather and listen, but I was frozen watching this all transpire.  And as I thought of my children, grown and working now, I remembered Tuesday, January 20th, 2009.  My daughters were 20 and 22. Just coming of age in this adult world. We sat in the living room with snacks. Dip and chips, Guacamole, Nachos, and fruit. We wore our baseball caps of red, white and blue – one for each of us – with the word “HOPE” stitched right on them. And we watched our President take the oath of office. He delivered another speech that day – and it was a rousing great one, too.

getPartI remember thinking back to another day – September 11th, 2001.  The day when hope died. When ‘future’ seemed grim and hard to imagine. My daughters were 12 and 14. I knew on that day as I watched them come home from school, that their lives had changed. Forever. 2001 began a time of war and fear in our country – faded only somewhat into the hope and change promised to us in 2009.  Things seemed so bright. There was hope again.

Six years we have walked this path with the first black president in our country’s history.  We have seen polarization and stagnation – and yes, we have seen change, and progress. Healthcare. Immigration. Employment. Yesterday we watched as same-sex marriage become the law of the land – and in a moment of glory and grace it became – just – “Marriage”.

We have watched our President age and turn grey. The memory of that promised hope has tinged grey, too.  But he has moved beyond hope. As legacy looms in his mind and for history, he has moved the conversation along and called upon ‘grace’.  He says he’s fearless now. He carries this new state of being with him, as he carries forth with a song from deep inside. He’s making new memories. With new words. Grace. Fearless. Legacy. He says he would have been a better president – today – than he was. Self-awareness is not lacking here.

520976963_295x166But what can we learn? Have we learned that “hope and change” is not a plan? Do we need to conjure up some grace to lead ourselves along? And, if we can conjure up being fearless…think what we might do? Legacy looms closer at my age. The older-agers that 20 year olds grow weary of having around, are so important to moving hope and change along. The young-invincibles with a lifetime ahead of them, with things we need in this country – spark, energy, new ideas, and yes, hope.  But fear stalks the young. It limits them. It holds them back. Fear of speaking out. Of repercussions. Of loss of friends, colleagues, or opportunities. Of career short-circuiting. Of brass-ring missing.

But with the legacy years comes a sense of fearlessness. And that is power. Yes, it’s time to perfect the chocolate chip cookies – to be remembered forever for.  And to try for that hole in one.  But let’s not drift away too far. Together, wrapped in hope, wrapped by grace, together, think what memories we could make. Think what legacies there could be, not just for us as people, but for these United States.

Swimmingly Disruptive

Heat. Water. Poverty. Children. Bureaucracy. Politics. Convening like a perfect storm in the summer of 2013. A community pool was empty. In the heart of the inner city of Providence. More than empty, it was riddled with damage. Rusted and old and hot, the sun reflecting off its chipped and peeling white paint. A pool shouldn’t be hot. It should be an oasis. This one had a history of being more than an oasis. It was a lifesaver. A veritable lifesaver to children who had nowhere to go in the heat of the summer. Adults remembered learning the lifelong, lifesaving, skill of swimming. For others it was a diving board out to a pretty cool life of success.

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Last summer, in the throes of heat and humidity, the absurdity of the situation steamed to a flashpoint. Open the pool. Fix the pool. When would it be done?  A poor neighborhood with small children who wanted to swim in the heat of the summer waited. And then the answer came – it would not be opened. It would be destroyed by a city administration hellbent to make a “cement pond” (to paraphrase Ellie Mae Clampett) out of the whole thing.  Maybe make a water “park”, with little fountains spraying up out of concrete. Or, as one radio talk show host said – let’s watch the kids get their crotches spritzed instead of learning how to swim.

It seemed like an outrageous injustice that would bring so such negative press that surely the administration would see the error of their ways and reverse themselves – maybe even throw a pool party to prove their mea culpas – and ‘what were we thinkings’.  But alas, the wingtips of a politician, and maybe more than one, who all should have known better started to grind into the sand. The more the people asked ‘why’, the louder the silence from the brick office space became. A grinding, seething silence that grew deeper each day. The incredulity of it all was shocking – almost to a one.

Figuring out the ‘why’ is usually what happens next.  But there was no time – there was no time.  Cement trucks were hovering in the dark people thought.  They might have been.

What happened next happened without plan, yet it was exquisitely executed.  It did not involve parading young sweating children out to beg for their pool.  The tactic was a classic disruptive model for change.  For those visual learners, here is a graphic to illustrate the paradigm.  (Credit here to Ted Santos, CEO of Turnaround Investment Partners).  What happened could have been planned out but it wasn’t. It happened by instinct, and was fueled by expediency – and the injustice of it all.leadership_disruptive_model_ts

People began to talk – each coming from their own perspectives and interests. There were advocates for the black community, one coming with a historical perspective who began to organize under the banner of Swim Empowerment.  He even put his own money towards a comprehensive study of why many African-American children and adults do not know how to swim as compared to their white neighbors. He held a community meeting. More people came and talked. The director of the department of health attended and shook his head. Local legislators came. Swim professionals from the “Y” and coaches got involved.  All establishing the bottom of an effective disruptive change pyramid – people with integrity, responsibility and accountability.

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Social media began to flicker as social media does. The conversations rose to a din. The din rose to outrage. People felt passionate and didn’t hesitate to say it.  A “Save the Pool” page on Facebook was born and hashtags developed.  A solid core of people were “in” – they were a committed core, giving this life. The next tier – commitment.

The engagement of a local talk show host quickly won an ally to the cause. Daily he raged on and on, and was joined by others – demanding the official who was ultimately responsible return his calls. No return calls. Silence. More talk show chatter. Support came as a gushing splash, spurred on by the silence from the hot brick building downtown. The community had taken its stand. (see tier 3 of our pyramid).

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Compromises began to be discussed.  “How about filling in part of the pool so it wasn’t deep enough to dive in?” No, the group said. You can’t learn how to swim in a wading pool. “No money to fix the pool.”  Legislators and contractors and community leaders rose up and said – we’ll fix it for free.  “We need to study this whole thing.” “And, oh, by the way, we’re going to fill in the other pools in the city.” By now it was clear the short summer season was passing by. Don’t touch the other pools, the group said, not to everyone’s agreement – but if you don’t touch them, we’ll agree to a [dreaded] commission to “study this”. The goal was clear – the only purpose of the commission was to get the pool open for 2014. We will “study” how we will do this, but we WILL do it. A declaration was made.

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Early in the process – the action step – began. The pool would reopen. Not to be fooled again – and recognizing the devilish details, questions were asked – when, where, how, who. Pressure. More pressure.  July 1st. The pool will be repaired and it will open on July 1st.

Construction began this June, and it was watched diligently, for any possible delays. In the last week of June, the repairs were completed. The water flowed into the pool. And it waits now – warming up – for its debut as this community’s oasis.

It will open tomorrow with a press conference. This year, the talk of making more water parks or cementing in of deep ends is gone – the whole crazy no-pools issue has had a complete breakdown.  There is talk of swim lessons. Around the city. And BBQs for families around the pool. There have been no apologies or explanations – still silence. There will be a lot of people to thank, but for fear of omitting, perhaps it’s best to say this: the story is about the kids smiling, happy to be swimming in the pool, not about the politicos who will want to claim victory or credit in a big splash. Not about any one person really.

This spontaneous, informal, beautifully executed disruptive model – one where people risked possible retaliation, their jobs and votes – bolstered by historical data and facts – spurred on by the urgency of it all and permanency of any failure – with its effective use of the raising of voices and the disruptive media of talk radio and digital news – what can we learn from this stunning success? I don’t propose an answer, but I do pose the question – and I think we should pose it more often.

It is said – “The Disruptive Leadership Model™ empowers organizations to purposefully reach that point which is outside of the business as usual current instead of depending on hope and luck. It is a very effective model for empowering people and organizations to responsibly come out of a comfort zone and produce results that would have never occurred in the paradigm of business as usual. In fact, most breakthroughs change the future of the person or company [or organization] forever,” – Ted Santos.

In this year that has witnessed the loss of Maya Angelou and before that, of Nelson Mandela – what causes speak to you?  What change do you want to see? Make a little noise. Tweet a louder tweet. There are great tools today to bring disruption into very staid systems. Think less about the same ol’ way of doing things if you want to see big change in this, your, lifetime.

Try being more disruptive.  Once you dive into that pool and you learn how to swim – you might very well have changed your own future – and society will be the better for it.

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I saw the Angels when NEMO came…

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NEMO came to town, and stayed for awhile.  As I write this I have a good deal of concern about the ice buildup on my roof, and I am listening to the school closing list being read over and over again on the radio.  My legs hurt in odd places and my body is weary from, not shoveling, but sitting too much.  My daughter’s boyfriend did the yeoman’s share of shoveling us out from our little igloo during nature’s “come to call”.  Amidst cooking all kinds of food to warm the body, I looked for soul warming, too.  My busy, sometimes frenetic world of “PR” doesn’t usually take a break – not for nighttime or weekends, not at 3am when I can’t sleep, and not when I’m sick and sit in flannels with a cup of tea and sound just like – me.  But NEMO did bring other moments to bear.  He/she came with bright blue thundersnow, that had me gazing out the window like my cat, with head moving from side to side.  What is this?  I wrote a post on Facebook about Mother Nature being very unhappy with us all – and this time she came with a little something ‘extra’ to get our attention.

So, yes, my world stopped a bit.  I made lots of food, and provided warm clothes, and cranked up the heat to a rare sauna level, afraid of losing heat.  Cards were played over a bottle of white wine.  There were giggles from overworked graduate/law/med school students, and they were lovely to hear.  We negotiated a long-time-boyfriend sleepover, my, my…  I watched my cat sit in odd little places, listening to the ice chunks fall first against the window and then off the trees…  I paid attention to Twitter more than usual, and remarked at its ability to provide news up to the “second”, with the “minute” not being barely good enough anymore…

But I also watched as my neighbor with a large snow blower got her driveway right down to the pavement, while carefully avoiding looking up to see my daughter’s boyfriend, shoveling like the proverbial bunny, all 5’6″ of him. Her driveway faces mine.  About 10-15 feet of road between us.  I watched as he would occasionally glance in her direction.  I watched her keep her head down.  And turn her back.  Hmm…

Then!  About 2 hours before sunset I heard a scraping in my driveway and there was a white pickup truck with a plow and a man at the wheel I’d not seen before.  He was tackling the unshovel-able last 5 foot wall at the end of the driveway.  He didn’t stop long enough to talk.  He scooped and shoved it all over, and then he was gone.  A white angel with flashing orange lights!

This morning, at 6:30am, my younger daughter was called into work so prescriptions and necessary items could be bought.  No electricity, no heat.  Cash only.  Ushering in customers and staying with them, 3 at a time.  I drove over to see her, to see if she needed anything.  There was my little frozen angel, perched on a stool in front of the on-sale paper towels, ready to help me shop – “oh, mom…”.

I played on Facebook for awhile, and then there was a post that stopped me.  It was from a not too distant neighbor – handsome, young, strong man….but battling cancer for at least the 2nd or 3rd time.  He couldn’t shovel.  He had a treatment appointment to go to.  Could anybody help?  Ever one to hold social marketing’s toes to the fire on ROI and content-rich effectiveness, I put the word out – FB, Twitter, and I went for gold – I started with a public “ask” to my US Senator from my city; then went right to the City Mayor.  Got an answer from the mayor that ‘he would do the best he could’ – whatever that meant.  Then I went to the secret stash – cancer survivors.  Facebook is a place they share their joys, and fears, medical information, and support.  And friendships are made.  I went to one in particular.  Also a neighbor, and a reporter.  I asked her what she could do to spread the word.  Then I waited.  I wrote back to my handsome, young neighbor and told him ‘not to worry’.  I waited again.  In less than an hour, I could see a private Facebook message.  My friend, “our” neighbor, and cancer survivor had found not just one person, but a couple.  They would be at his house in the morning.

And surely, they came.  They came with shovels.  And a snow blower.  And Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and donuts, to warm the body!  I received a public thank you from handsome young man.  And I passed on my thank you to my cancer survivor network tree shaker.  Two more snow angels – this couple.  I see them glowing in pink and orange – Dunkin’ Donut colors 😉    And my treeshaker, well, she is always aglow in pink…with maybe a little gold around her on this evening.

But the best snow angel was the handsome young neighbor, who reached out, who made me forget my snow blowing lady neighbor, and the ice on my roof, and the missing of work, and certainly my aching body from too much rest.  He was the white snow angel – and together – we moved his fair gossamer wings in a powerful, and wide wing span, up and down in this new virtual world.  And it brought out more angels.  It warmed my heart.  It warmed me deeply.  I wish you Godspeed for renewed health.  I don’t know if Mother Nature would be pleased to know that I saw the Angels when NEMO came, but I kind of think she would.