A Tale of Two Cities, A Tale of Two Countries

This past week I learned that our city’s high school spent $140,000 on a coffee bar. And that teachers and students alike can order drinks on a mobile phone app, to be delivered to the classroom. I suppose the Carmel students deserve no less.

The very next day I read about the suicides in Madison, Indiana, just a two-hour drive south. According to the New York Times story, captioned “Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football,” Madison has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis. Jefferson County, where Madison is situated, has the highest suicide rate for any Indiana county — a rate that’s more than twice the state average and 3.2 times higher than the national rate.

On the surface, Carmel High School and Madison High School couldn’t be more different. Parents of Carmel students worry whether their sons and daughters will be accepted by Harvard and Stanford Universities; parents of Madison students worry whether they’ll find their sons and daughters hanging from a tree.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course. Not all Carmel students are headed to the Ivy League or other elite university, and not all Madison students are addicted to drugs or headed off to prison or the mortuary. Yet the contrast is real. Stark, in fact.

The Madison story took me back, to the days growing up in one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania. It’s not that we thought of ourselves as poor. We didn’t, and we weren’t. But we didn’t have a lot. Most of our parents had working-class jobs or were farmers; very few were professionals or had extra cash to spare.  We never took vacations. We didn’t even dream about Ivy League schools — in fact, I don’t think I even knew what the Ivy League was. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough. Fortunately, one of the things we didn’t have was drugs.

I suppose there were some around, but, honestly, if I had wanted to use drugs, I would have had no idea where I would have gotten them. I didn’t know of anyone who took drugs, much less anyone who was addicted to them. Hell, I barely knew anyone who drank. I suspect it’s different today, even in that secluded, rural county I knew as home. No, I know it’s different today.

I never returned home to live after heading off to college. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how detached I had allowed myself to become to the reality of so many of the kids who were growing up in places like my small rural high school.

I had become a professional and lived in areas populated by professionals and corporate types. That had become my new normal and, unbeknownst to me, I had become blind and oblivious to the transformation that had been taking place all around me. It wasn’t until I was appointed by Governor Rendell to be Secretary of Community and Economic Development that I become aware of the scales that had formed on my eyes.

It was then I traveled to the far reaches of Pennsylvania. To places I hadn’t been in decades. Or had never been. It was then I saw the depth of rural poverty in my native commonwealth — in America. And encountered the plight of the multitudes who had slipped into a life of chemical dependency. I wondered how I could have been so blind.

And now I’m living in a city that delivers lattes to its high school students. While Madison parents are trying to keep their kids out of prisons and graves. And while parents are being bankrupted by the crushing cost of rehab. (See this Wall Street Journal article titled “After Addiction Comes Families’ Second Blow: The Crushing Cost of Rehab.”)

But it’s not only Madison, of course. People are doing drugs everywhere, even in upper-crust Carmel, Indiana. And kids are dying by their own hands everywhere. Perhaps not at the rate that Madison is experiencing. But at an unacceptable rate just the same.

And so I wonder, what is happening to America? What is leading to such widespread drug addiction and abuse? Why is our country’s death rate increasing?

It’s not happening everywhere. In fact, I’m aware of no other developed country that is experiencing an increase in its death rate. America is an outlier. Something is going on here that isn’t happening elsewhere.

I have my own theories as to the root causes of this decay. And you probably have yours. But they’re just theories. They’re not solutions.

Things like this are hard to fix. Very hard. But I worry that we’re not trying. Or that our efforts are feeble at best.

I fear we’re more concerned with our ideologies than solutions. I worry that we simply don’t care about each other enough to try to fix what ails us.

Meanwhile, the contrast between the two cities — between the two realities — becomes more stark by the day. And the casualties mount.

How will it all play out? I don’t know.

What can I do about it? I don’t know. But I know we should be trying. Harder than we are.

What is our future as a country if these trends aren’t reversed? I don’t know.

But it’s hard to think it will be good.

Why Do Americans Think It’s Right to Deny the Vote to Fellow Citizens?

Americans say they value democracy. But often they don’t act like it. In fact, often they try to deny the vote to fellow citizens (e.g., poll taxes) and, frequently, try to delute the votes of their fellow citizens by gerrymandering. Frankly, it’s despicable. And shameful. Yet most of these people feel no shame. That’s the tragedy.

I doubt there is any worse example of shameful conduct than found in my native state of Pennsylvania. I’ve dealt with the Republican leaders in that state when I was a cabinet secretary. On the surface, they seem like reasonable people. Yet when it comes to drawing congressional boundaries, they’ve not been reasonable at all. They’ve been rabid partisans. They’ve intentionally diluted the vote of minorities and Democrats in general. As a result, the congressional caucus in Pennsylvania does not resemble the voting citizenry. It has been heavily skewed in favor of the Republicans.

In essence, the Republicans have acted cowardly. They have not tried to win office fair and square. Rather, they have actively worked to retain power through trickery. If you don’t believe me, pull up the last congressional map developed by the Republicans.

They should be ashamed. Yet apparently they don’t have sufficient character to feel shame.

Now lest anyone think I’m picking on Republicans, I’m not. It’s possible Democrats in other states have been just as shameful in their practices. I don’t know; I haven’t researched it. But as for Pennsylvania — a state for which I have a particular familiarity and affinity — it’s been the Republicans who are the culprits.

As a lawyer, I’ve long been extremely disappointed in our Supreme Court, which has tolerated this tactic of disenfranchisement. Frankly, there aren’t many areas of jurisprudence that have been so contaminated by partisan politics as this one. The court’s tolerance for rampant gerrymandering has been inexcusable. Shameful.

Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in and is trying to rectify the wrongs perpetrated by the Republicans. We’ll see if they’re successful in restoring full voting rights to the citizens of the Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the issue again. I’m skeptical but hopeful that a sense of justice and fairness will trump the partisanship that too often dictates the court’s rulings.

It’s been said that power corrupts. The Republicans in Pennsylvania are living proof of that. Of course, there are many other examples, including many involving Democrats and people of no particular political affiliation. But it’s corruption no matter how you spin it.

I am hopeful that justice prevails in my native state. The people deserve no less.

 

Place Matters: Today I Became A Hoosier

At the risk of laying claim to a derogatory term, today I embrace Hoosierism. Well, maybe.

What’s inarguable, however, is that, today, I became a Hoosier. We closed on the purchase of a house in Carmel, Indiana this morning.

But part of me knows that I’ve always been and always will be a Pennsylvanian. It’s the land of my and my family’s roots. Every time I think I’ve shaken it, I return home to the Commonwealth to visit friends and relatives and realize it’s not something one can shake. It’s in my bones.

But on the surface, I am now a Hoosier.

I came here after living the past five years in a blue state: Colorado. Indiana is a red state. I take a tiny bit of solace in knowing it’s just a bit less red today than it was yesterday.

Hoosiers are friendly people I’m told. However, I’ve learned over the years that friendly comes in different packages, some more authentic than others. I hope Hoosiers are authentic people. I find authenticity to be far more valuable than friendliness.

Regardless, I am so lucky to be here. We came here to be near you, Vera. That’s the power you possess. Try not to let it go to your head. Or to take advantage of your grandparents.

There are collateral benefits of course. We’re near your parents, too. And nearer to the rest of our family (sans your uncle on the west coast).

And we finally live at a place that’s within walking distance of just about everything we need in life. And we’re a stone’s throw away from a trail that will take us, by bike or foot, to downtown Indy or north into the countryside.

My goal is to burn as little gas as possible. And to walk, hike and bike as much as possible.

So now we go about the business of nurturing place.

Place is something that resides in our subconsciousness more than our consciousness, which is odd considering how important it is.

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate the importance of place. I lived not in a place but in a cutthroat world — a world of competition, domination, discontent and violence — primarily violence against oneself and one’s soul.

I now think place is paramount.

The place we envision will be an enclave of love, peace and grace. Our home will be your home, Vera. And your parents and uncle’s home. And a home for friends and family to commune. A place to laugh. A place to cry. A place where precious memories are created.

Outside, your grandmother will take the lead in creating a tribute to nature and humanity’s connectedness to the earth. She will play in the dirt, as angels are inclined to do. It will be a place of peace and tranquility. And of beauty. I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. It will be glorious.

Beyond the borders of what we naively think of as “our property” will be the larger place. My place in that place is yet to be defined. I’m counting on the rhythms of life to show me the way. Some people call it “the hand of God.” I’m no longer sure I believe that. But I don’t disbelieve it either.

I try not to delude myself however. I know that, for many, place is hell. Daily, some are forced to walk into or through the valley of death. It’s hard to create place when confronted by harsh realities.

Perhaps my place will nudge me forward, to hold their hands, to carry their loads, to help create place in the midst of pain and suffering. Perhaps my place will go with me wherever I may go.

Place can do that. Place has incredible power. But only if we allow it. Only if we allow place to thrive and become a living force within us.

On my journey, I have been blessed to live within the beauty and grandeur of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and, now, Indiana. I have absolutely no idea where my journey may take me in the years yet to be lived. But, for now, I am attending to important work. Holy work. I am allowing place to do its work.

What I Hate About Politics

I hate politics. Mainly, I hate it because it has failed us miserably and now it seems to be bringing out the worst in us. It’s even brought us to a place where we’re willing to install a crude, narcissistic megalomaniac in the White House. That’s how bad it’s gotten.

But even without our new president-elect, it was bad. Very bad. In fact, that’s how he got elected. It was like a hail-mary pass. Even people who don’t like or respect him voted for him because it was “worth the shot.” There wasn’t anything to lose in their minds, for there was no good alternative. And they were right: there wasn’t a good option. Indeed, the same old, same old neoliberal policies and militarism of the Clintons weren’t the answer (although it was a far less reckless gamble than electing Mr. Trump).

But why? How did we get into this mess? How could politics fail us so? Why do I hate it so? Continue reading

Halloween Is Worth Dying For

halloween85It’s no secret to anyone who knows me well, Vera, that Halloween is my favorite holiday. By the way, here’s a pic of your dad and uncle from when we lived in Bridgeville, Pa. Your grandmother made their costumes. You can tell the boys were up for the occasion.

This is the first Halloween for you — well, not actually the first, but last year doesn’t count because you were still a four-month-old slug just lying around sleeping most of the time. Now, you have wheels on those legs. I wish I were there to see you experience this wonderful holiday for the first time. Continue reading