Monday, June 18, 2012

Listening to dissidents

Manal Al-Sharif
A woman with the simple demand:
I need to drive in my daily life.
Before coming to Little Rock, I had had dissidents on the brain due to the first award of the Vaclav Havel Award for Creative Dissent. I was moved by Vaclav Havel and his friends' simple desire to live in freedom when I lived in the Czech Republic. Now, a generation later, I was fascinated by the lady who so eloquently described what the simple ability to drive in her daily life would mean to her. I find the idea that anyone would deny her that, unimaginable.
Dan Choi
Former U.S. Army Officer and
American dissident
who worked to end
'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'
the policy demanding gays lie about their identity
while serving their country
I thought about Dan Choi, the gay West Point-educated Arab linguist, who had the simple desire to serve his country in the American military. He was discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for being gay at a time when our country could have used every single Arab linguist available.
Elizabeth Eckford's dignified and quiet demand:
"I want to go to a good school."
Live in freedom and safety, drive, serve one's country. Another simple wish from history, this time from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957: go to a good school. Regular people asking their society to grant them dignity and equality. It's stunning what humanity puts them through when they ask for it.
Global Dissident Eve Ensler
demanding that people
all over the world
rise up and change the global paradigm
on violence against women.
Who are the dissidents pushing buttons in your country or culture? If they are pushing for change and meeting resistance, what is they want that seems so outlandish? How do you and I evaluate whether or not our own attitudes are on the right side of history? For example, I find the American political party, the Tea Party, often 'pushes my buttons.' But if you boil down their demands to one thing, "live within our means as a nation," that doesn't seem outlandish, does it?

I always want to make sure I'm on the right side of history. Their single demand deserves respect in my book, even though I don't always agree with how to get there.
6th generation Iowan and Eagle Scout
Zach Walls
demanding the State not discriminate
against his family
I leave you with the message of one last dissident asking for respect. He's from my home state of Iowa. All he wanted, was for Iowa lawmakers not to write discrimination against his parents into the State of Iowa constitution. His name is Zach Walls. Seems like a simple enough request, doesn't it?

What dissidents 'push your buttons' in your country? Do you agree with their cause or disagree? How do you decide whether or not you are a barrier to progress (one way to look at it) or a steward of traditional values (another way to look at it)? I ask to learn. This difference between these two ways of seeing things is at the heart of so much of our political hearthaches. Let's listen to each other.

I see what the people of Little Rock achieved when they thought of themselves as "us:" together they built the most beautiful high school in the United States of America the year it was built. When they chose to think of themselves as "us" and "them" what did they achieve?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Geocaching in Little Rock, Arkansas

The Test Square!
My oldest daughter and her fiance love to go geocaching. I had never tried it before this trip and it was fun to have her show me how it works. I thought it would be a wonderful tool for helping people discover the historic places and natural beauty around them, but my daughter told me it isn't allowed on National Park properties or other significant sites.

Instead, what you end up discovering is some of the quirkiest places. We pursued one cache that started to make me giggle even before we got there and the laughs just kept continuing while we enjoyed the absurbity of it all during the hunt. Here's what the geocacher wrote:
Once upon a time, someone had the idea to create a celebrity walk of fame, similar to the one found outside Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, in downtown Little Rock. Apparently the idea really grabbed hold in the 1980's, as anyone with a drop of celebrity that passed through Little Rock was asked to scrawl a name into cement. Now, the project remains forgotten on the sidewalk outside an unexciting parking garage.
I happened to be looking down while walking to lunch several years ago and found this little piece of history. I spent about 30 minutes giggling and being amazed that day, and I've purposely walked by dozens of times over the years to remember (and mostly giggle) some more. Some of the highlights (and lowlights) you'll see:
  1. President Bill Clinton (although one of the most illegible squares)
  2. The infamous Orval Faubus (governor during the 1957 Central High School crisis)
  3. Just a few squares down: Daisy Bates, civil rights leader
  4. Yogi Bear (including fake footprint)
  5. Ronald McDonald
  6. Bert and Ernie
  7. Half a dozen ballet artists(?)
  8. The Concorde (yes, the airplane)
  9. The 150th anniversary Little Rock commemorative coin (no coin included)
  10. And my personal favorite: Jeckle the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull (complete with hoof print)
You are looking for a baby soda bottle containing only a log, so bring your own pen.
This cost nothing as an activity and we giggled non-stop! The squares were fun to look at and enjoy and it was the kind of quirk that only a local would know about and notice, not a visitor. While I don't intend to take up geocaching, I appreciate the fun of hiding something and the fun of hunting something down.
All in all, Little Rock was as bright and shiny as a penny with a beautiful, safe downtown full of new buildings and revitalized historic ones. The Presidential Library had obviously had a huge impact on the city. My family and I could easily have spent three of four more days there because there was so much to see and do. I know my youngest daughter is excited to go back and run the Little Rock marathon. Why? Because the medals are as big as dinner plates!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A near spiritual experience at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas

The stately
Central High School in
Little Rock, Arkansas

Chosen as "the most beautiful high school"
in America the year it was built
by the American Institute of Architects

When my girls and I decided to go down to Little Rock, Arkansas to see the Clinton Presidential Library, I went to to see what else there was to do in Little Rock. I was surprised to see that the Presidential Library was actually rated #2 on the list of things to do.

What people had rated even higher was going to see the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and Visitor's Center, where the gigantic American desegregation battle got a very visible push in 1957. As a lifelong learner, history buff, and former grade school student in the years that followed, I thought my family should devote a day of our trip to see it.
The building itself is so wonderfully grand.
A mix of Art Deco and Gothic Revival styles.

You can see why anyone
would want their child to attend this school.

You can also see why any teenager
would want to attend this school.

It's a universal desire, isn't it?
To go to a good school.

Little Rock Central High School is recognized for the role it played in the desegregation of public schools in the United States.  The admission of nine African-American students to the formerly all-white Central High School was the most prominent national example of the implementation of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
We caught a tour just beginning
for tweens and teens
at the Visitor's Center
We tagged along with a tour by the park ranger for a group of Arkansas school kids because the reviewers on Tripadvisor had raved about the park ranger-led tours. As Brian Schwieger, our tour guide began to tell the story of what happened in Little Rock, I was awed by what superb metaphors he used for explaining the thoughts and roles of all involved in a way that didn't demonize them.

The park ranger asked, "have you ever had to share with your brother or sister and you didn't want to? That's kind of how the folks felt who protested the integration of this school." Everyone instantly understood that feeling.

Then he asked, "how many of you are married? When you get married, you're forming a union. Imagine all the ways we have to change when we get married. Some times, we have to compromise and do what we don't want to do. To form a more perfect union, each person has to give up a little of life the way they knew it before to create something even stronger and better in a union. When I got married I had to start doing a few more chores or going to bed earlier or doing things that help both of us succeed. This is how we formed a more perfect union.

He continued, "integration and sharing schools was deemed one of the ways America could form a more perfect union. Separate and equal schools did not end up being equal and without changing we would have a less perfect union."  These were such perfect analogies! Every kid there could relate to these metaphors.
Our ranger
telling us about Elizabeth Eckford,
the young woman who faced
the crowds alone.

I was shocked to learn that the 1957 crowd who assembled to prevent integration hadn't done that on their own but had actually been incited into it by a Governor who took control over local decision-making and directly challenged the Federal Government's authority to tell school boards to integrate. The Governor called in the National Guard to supposedly "protect" the students, but really it was to prevent their admission. That stunned me.

Governor Faubus did it because he faced an upcoming election challenge from someone more conservative than he and he wanted to be proactive about presenting a tough face on the subject of integration. But what Governor in their right mind would take on the WWII hero and President, Dwight Eisenhower?

The park ranger then told the story of local heroine named Daisy Bates, who had been president of the local NAACP chapter and a publisher of a newspaper widely-read in the black community. She was the adult who helped choose which teenagers would take on the daunting task of integrating the school. She also was the supporting adult for the Little Rock Nine.
Before the days of cell phones
and Twitter, the national press
had to call in the story on a pay phone
from this gas station
across the street from the school.
The actual first day of integration was delayed one day. Ms. Bates was able to reach all of the students to tell them to stay home, except for one young woman who didn't have a phone and showed up for school all by herself. The tour really helped me imagine what that young woman went through. When I listened to her story, I wept. I could not be more thankful for brave people like this young woman who dealt with all of the disorder and hate that day.
The gas station has been preserved as it was then
and will be turned into a classroom
for visiting field trips.
The tour made me so thankful for President Dwight Eisenhower who called in overwhelming force (the 101st Airborne) to get the job of integrating nine students done. I was shocked that Governor Faubus would even think of taking on the man who was the Supreme Allied Commander in charge of defeating the Nazis now that the General was President. Did the Governor honestly think he would be successful?

Governor Faubus, not only did not want to implement this desegregation but he actually closed the school in the following year, just to spite the President and the Federal Government. So now he was wrecking everyone's high school years, black and white alike! I wondered what would have happened if we had had a different President who wasn't as comfortable using force to make this happen.

Our park ranger has to go home at night with incredible job satisfaction. I could not help but think that sharing this story with Americans, especially young people, was sacred, sacred work. He made every child on our tour think about the leadership various people exhibited in 1957. He talked about the young white men at the high school who chose not to be violent, the white students who chose to reach out in welcome to the black students, and the brave African-American nine who took on this challenge. It was soooo moving to hear him make every single person on our tour, young and old alike, feel the leadership they themselves could show when faced with such a challenge. Sacred work!

If I was black, I would be so fed up with America's slow pace of change. This school actually wasn't fully integrated until 1972, but it's probably the same at other schools across the land. Imagine, if you were one of the Little Rock Nine and had undergone all of this hardship just to go to a good school and white school boards kept finding a way to keep the decision from being completely implemented.  How black people must ache!

Martin Luther King said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." If you were a black mom or dad wouldn't you want justice now? Long justice isn't good enough. Everyone wants the best for their child. The slow arc of justice is just not satisfying if it your child.

Reflecting on my own experience

In the month since we were there, I've reflected a lot on my own family and whether or not we have done our share of work to form a more perfect union. I am proud to say that my girls went to an inner-city high school. While my daughters were in a gifted program with less diversity than the overall high school, it was still housed within this inner-city school where the African-American male graduation rate stood at 17%. Don't think I didn't want the best for my kids too, the graduates of the gifted program scored in the top 1% of the nation on the ACT.

 I'm especially proud of the role my youngest daughter took at her high school. The freshman orientation had been cancelled for some reason her first year there so she went in on the first day of school cold. She felt students in the years to follow would do better armed with more information on their first day.

The summer before her senior year she made hundreds of phone calls to her fellow seniors asking them to voluntarily staff a freshman orientation for the students. Dozens of seniors came in and the freshman loved being able to tour the school and see where the classes would be held. The new class learned the school songs, met the administration, and did all of those standard orientation activities.

 Daughter #2 didn't stop there. She created an 8-page color magazine to be given to each freshman with tips on how to be successful at the school quoting those who had made it to the senior level. She raised the thousands of dollars for that magazine herself too.

"The equal dignity of all persons is...a vital part of our constitutional legacy, even if the culture of the framers held them back from fully perceiving that universal ideal." ~ Justice Ruth Bader Gingsburg, 2000

As a citizen, I want our nation to form that more perfect union. I don't want to live in a country where people just tolerate each other. I want our nation to enjoy each other. I believe it is the work of the white people of my generation and my children's generation to make up for those past wrongs and reach out in kindness.

My kids are out of school now, but I can still make a difference by breaking bread with those different than me. I can still make a difference by reading and viewing someone else's stories and putting myself in their shoes. I can still make a difference by having conversations with people who are different than me on this topic. As Congressman John Lewis said back then when he was a young Freedom Rider, "if not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

You might also be interested in:

The Springfield Race Riots of 1908

Why the Obama Presidential Library should be built in
Springfield, Illinois

Touring the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas

Geocaching in Little Rock, Arkansas

Listening to Dissidents

and this from Turkey as I watched the Turkish protests:

Polarization is a Choice

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Touring the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas

A typical Ozark road sign
We took a scenic route
It wouldn't do to fly back to America without spending more time with my girls than just graduation weekend. I picked their brains about what we could do that was in the area because who knew when we would be back in the center of America again.

Should we go to St. Louis and see the Arch? One of them had already done it. Go to Hannibal, Missouri and celebrate Mark Twain? My girls failed to see how that would be interesting (obviously, they need to read more Twain as he's hilariously funny). Drive the river road along the Mississippi? Go see the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Salina, Kansas?
The gorgeous Ozark Mountains
on the way to Little Rock, Arkansas.
They reminded me of the Lubéron in Provence.
All they need is their own Cézanne to paint them.
Of course, then the real estate prices would quintuple.
We settled on driving down to Little Rock, Arkansas to see the Willliam Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library. All three of us love American presidential libraries because they are so evocative of the times and teach us so much about the American political experience.
Small town riverside dinner view
in Allison, Arkansas
When I first visited my youngest daughter at Mizzou her freshman year, I couchsurfed with a fun couple in Columbia, Walt and Mary. I joked then that I would be back in four years when my child graduated. I was!
Mammoth Spring
See how the water springs up out of nowhere?
My girls and I took the route Walt recommended down to Arkansas because he had suggested such outstanding local history sites during my last visit.
One of the highlights on the trip down was stopping just across the Arkansas border to see Mammoth Spring State Park with a beautiful natural spring. My girls had both loved their geology courses in college and so it was fun for them to see the water come pouring out of the ground there.
The beautiful Arkansas river trail
perfect for runners and walkers.
Eventually it will be 17 miles long.
Isn't it beautiful?
Blessed to share
American democratic heritage with my girls -
like my Mom and Dad did with me
The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library -
First Federal building certified by the
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) program
The next day we woke up bright and early to devote the day to the museum and library. I remember when the museum was first built, critics derided it for having the appearance of a 'double wide' mobile home. I snickered when I saw pictures of it on TV because it did sort of look like one.
Having been to it in person now, I consider that a cheap shot. President Clinton wanted the old historic railroad bridge, built in the 19th century, to represent the bridge to the 20th century. His library and museum, right next to it, represented his administration of America as a bridge to the 21st century. The metaphor works. Listening to him explain it on the audioguide, I was grateful for politicians who think in 100-year cycles rather than to the next quarter or election. Where can we find more of those?
There's that 100-year cycle again.
Diagonally across from the museum
is this magnificent old railroad station
where the University of Arkansas
Clinton School of Public Service
is housed.

Let's all say this gorgeous phrase together
from the building:
"The Choctaw Route."

Even more gorgeous,
the name of the passenger train
that did this route was:
"The Choctaw Rocket."
A glorious view of the Railroad Bridge
from "42,"
the elegant cafe in the library.

A pretend shiny dime to whomever can guess
why the cafe is named '42!'
Clinton's stump speech
What's not to like?
I was Bob Dole's Story County, Iowa campaign co-chair in one of his presidential campaigns. I admired Dole's wartime service to his country, his moderate Main Street Republican views, and his biting sense of humor. It was fun to host Elizabeth Dole for a coffee at my mother's home. That was when I was still a Republican.

Even though Gov. Bill Clinton beat Senator Dole in the presidential campaign, Bob Dole was later asked to give the Inaugural Lecture at the University of Arkansas Bill Clinton School of Public Service. I love that about American politics. I admire the stature of Bill Clinton inviting him to do so, and the equal virtue of Bob Dole accepting. As citizens, we should demand our politicians not polarize us and find the common ground.
It's easy to understand why librarians
would support Clinton.

He is a famous practitoner
of recreational reading
(reading for the fun of it).

The library showcased the books that influenced him.
One of them was "Creating a Nation of Readers."
A nation of readers can continually renew themselves.
I came around a corner
 and had my breath taken away
by this fine assemblage
of young American talent.
How can we not have hope for the future, America?

Their teacher told me they were the
"The Gentleman's Club,"
2nd and 3rd grade
from Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Norman Rockwell, did I
"do good" with this picture?
Look at those faces!

Two future leaders
thoughtfully take in
a reproduction of the Cabinet Meeting Room.

The pace of change can seem so slow in America that I forget how much things can change in one generation. Examples from the library include: it was during the Clinton Administration that gay people were first eligible for security clearances. The introduction and benediction to Clinton's inauguration seemed so overtly Christian. America would be much more inclusive now. There were photos from the Little Rock school desegregation episode that said, "race mixing is communism." Laughable. Everything seems to get labeled communism or socialism these days. This is a long tradition of over-the-top political rhetoric.
Three stellar staff members at the museum.

The lady on the right told me
that she was halfway through a PhD
but never graduated from high school
because she was a member of the senior class
of Central High School that lost their senior year
when the Governor chose to shut the high school down
rather than integrate.

 2,914 other seniors lost their senior year as well.
Zany gifts to the Presidential family
 are always a popular exhibit at these libraries.
Hillary Clinton and a bench!
One of the things you could look up
 was the Presidential Daily Schedule
and see what the President did on any given day.
I looked up the days surrounding Vaclav Havel's State Visit.
The menu for the Czech Republic State Dinner
with President Vaclav Havel
The best description of this whole event is in
Hillary Clinton's book, "Entertaining at the White House."
While Presidents have to consider things on a level beyond the personal, one thing the Museum brings home is how the personal stories of those from foreign countries inform the President about their nations.

I know President Clinton knew far more culturally about the Czech Republic than necessary (given the 10 million population) simply because of his friendship with Vaclav Havel. Havel had taken President Clinton to the Reduta and even to Czech novelist Bohumil Rabal's favorite pub "The Golden Tiger." The pub keeps Clinton and Havel's picture on the wall.

Nelson Mandela gave the Clintons a personal tour of his prison cell at Robbins Island and described to them what it had been like there. Do Presidents still have the time to invest in that level of personal narrative in understanding a country? I hope so. The Robbins Island visit is detailed in the museum.

One thing I felt the Library and Museum couldn't do justice to was President Clinton's biggest success. His fiscal discipline resulted in the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history. That discipline unleashed a period of enormous creativity in American business. How do you exhibit fiscal restraint in a museum? Maybe the best exhibits of the output created during this time of fiscal restraint are out in the Computer History Museum in California!
President Clinton wanted his library
to echo the bones of
Trinity Library in Dublin.

My one disappointment with the library was the temporary exhibition space was devoted to promoting a corporation instead of hosting an exhibit that would teach us as citizens more about politics. I appreciate that the majority of the population loves sports, but what do the St. Louis Cardinals have to do with a presidential library? It seemed wierd that there were season ticket promotions as a sidebar to the Cardinals exhibit. Respectfully, our experience could have been that much richer with a political exhibit.
You might also like:

An Evening of Jazz at the Reduta

Entering the Land of Lincoln

What Inspires Stories?

The Springfield Race Riots of 1908

Sites outside my blog:

C-Span's coverage of Clinton's Presidential Library

William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library website

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Enjoying Neil DeGrasse Tyson at the UW Senior Sendoff on the Union Terrace

My oldest daughter Allison has always made it a point to listen to rockstar astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It so happened that the senior class of the University of Wisconsin had asked him to come speak at their Senior Send-off at the end of their semester. She suggested we go hear him speak.

I too enjoy hearing Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I adore the UW Union Terrace and have many happy memories there, but most importantly, I could not wait to have a pork bratwurst from their outdoor grill.

Not having had pork in over nine months, I was more than ready for a piping hot, freshly-grilled pork bratwurst with ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, and fresh chopped onions. I spent a considerable amount of time leading up to my trip home daydreaming about whether or not I would put saurkraut on it too, but had decided in the end to just let the other condiments speak for themselves.

The Terrace was as exquisite as ever. It was a gorgeous sunny day. There were a few sailboats out on the lake, but in the main, it was glassy and calm. The weather wasn't too hot, it was enjoyably and perfectly warm. We came early and found a front row seat. Allison had brought travel Scrabble to keep us company as we had arrived four to five hours early to make sure we could find a seat. A Chicago cop sitting behind us, who laughingly explained he had a "man crush" on Neil DeGrasse Tyson, also had arrived in Madison early from Chicago to get a seat. When folks all arrive that early, community forms.

Alas, the gigantic outdoor grill at the Memorial Union Terrace was turned off! 5,000 people assembling and no one thought to fire up the grill and sell them some beer and bratwurst. I was sorely dissappointed. I had to settle for a Reuben Sandwich from the Rathskeller. I hadn't had a Reuben sandwich in probably three years so it was a delicious consolation.

Now if this seems like a lot of detail about what I had for lunch, you haven't felt the depth of food craving of your average expat. I once read a headline on an expat blog that said "expats miss their own favorite food tastes from back home more than they miss their Mom." I cringed but understood his food longing.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Neil DeGrasse Tyson shared entertaining examples of America's math illiteracy. I was particularly interested in his derison for the America superstition of not having a 13th floor in buildings. He found that laughable. 

He's not the only one. In Turkey, Turkish politicians have that same mystification over this silly Western prejudice. A Turkish MP had stated that the absence of the number 13 in public places is a Western superstition “which has no place in Turkish culture,” emphasizing that Turkey should not imitate Western practices and should add the number 13 as soon as possible." From now on, Turkish Airlines will have a row 13 where it didn't have before. Can any of my fellow Westerners argue that this '13' superstition is defenseable?
He had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
Another amusing example of America's math illiteracy was our lack of veneration for those who are experts in it. He asked the crowd, "who owns the stereotype of producing superb engineers? Which country?" The crowd offered up "Germany," to which DeGrasse pointed out that "Germany reveres mathematicians and engineers so much Germany puts them on their currency - with their equations - no less!" Later, I noticed that Turkey does too.

"Is there so much as a key or a kite on the 100 dollar bill to celebrate Benjamin Franklin's experiments with electricity?" he asked.
His frequent asides made it seem more like
we were all out for a beer together
rather than him giving a speech.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson made an excellent case that investing in NASA and the innovations that result from that are what could drive the American economy forward. He walked the crowd through examples of the impact NASA's space exploration had on the greater culture, for example, fins appearing on cars in homage to rocket fins. Another example, in 1971, Doctors Without Borders began. He asked if that would even have been a concept without the famous moonrise photos taken of Earth from the back side of the moon. Without borders, indeed. 
"Have we stopped dreaming?" he asked.
"When the shuttle program ended where you feeling nostalgic?" he asked. Everyone in the crowd nodded yes. "Nostalgia he said is what happens when there is nothing to look forward to. No one was nostalic at the end of the Mercury program. There was another one right behind it.  If we're not careful, the 2010s will be remembered as the decade of the 50-year anniversary of cool stuff that happened in the 1960s."
What it looked like to one side of me.
It was standing room only behind me.

It was uplifting to be around educated young people
excited to get out and change the world
and "make tomorrow come."

Tyson ended on a high note and had them
whistling, clapping, and rarin' to go.

What a delightful memory we created together, my daughter and I, of a splendid day on the Terrace. I love hearing a public intellectual with my family or friends and discussing new ideas together. I'm still waiting on that grilled bratwurst, though!

You might also enjoy:

The Marvelousness of Madison

Wonderful food eases newly empty nest

The Legend of Starved Rock

Friday, June 1, 2012

Engaged to be Married

The young couple

This week my oldest daughter told me that she and her boyfriend are now engaged to be married. It was exciting to hear of their commitment. I'm grateful she is marrying a great guy whom I admire and respect. Her fiance is funny too. And supportive of her. And full of common sense.

One daughter engaged and another a recent graduate makes me realize my time as an Empty Nest Expat is passing quickly! The milestones just keep coming.
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