Unexceptional Americans

What would the United States be like today if France, Spain, and Britain had held on to their territories in North America, except for the thirteen British colonies that became the United States after the American Revolution.

Suppose: Napoleon didn’t cash out the huge chunk of North America we call the Louisiana Purchase; Britain folded what our history books call the Northwest Territory (but today we think of as the Upper Midwest) and Oregon, Washington, and the neighboring states to the east into Canada; and Spain and Mexico worked it out so Spain or Mexico got California, Texas, Florida, and the Gadsden Purchase.

Imagine if the entire United States of America was a contiguous landmass that included the Atlantic coast from Maine to Georgia and west to roughly the Appalachian Mountains. It would not be long before some of those newly minted, post-Revolution U.S. citizens would push away from the Atlantic coast and into the piedmont region until they bumped up against French, Spanish, and British territorial lands. In this scenario, the U.S. citizens would be neighbors with Spanish-Americans, French-Americans, and British-Americans. If and until those North American colonies broke from their respective empires to establish independent nations, the United States would be the least robust of those countries in terms of our economy, military, landmass, and resources.

Given its Atlantic location, America’s immigrants would be primarily Europeans who would come to North America voluntarily for economic opportunity and security from oppression and warfare. The next largest group to arrive would be Africans brought here as slaves.

France abolished African slavery in 1794; Britain in 1833; and Spain ended slavery in North America and the Caribbean by 1886. However, in addition to African slaves, we need to consider the history of enslaving indigenous people. Spain was the most egregious of the European powers holding colonies in the Americas. France had a more egalitarian view than either Britain or Spain and was more accepting of indigenous people. The British and we Americans generally resisted embracing the indigenous people. In all cases, though, the indigenous people in North America and the immigrants to their territories would either accept or resist sharing the land – and would do so either peacefully or through warfare.

I wonder if the American impulse to Manifest Destiny would have been curtailed if over half of North America had not been available for westward expansion? If European empires had held their North American territories, the United States would have tidied up its limited available territory into states, probably following the borders established by the former colonies and – here comes some wishful thinking – given Post-Revolutionary War immigration and internal migration patterns, most of the inhabitants of those new states would not have a tradition of slave-owning. By 1804, slavery was banned in the original northern Colonies, and in 1808, the importation of slaves to the United States was banned.

But if the United States did expand its territory westward, what would it do about slavery? By the middle of the 19th century, America faced a significant cause for the Civil War: would slavery be allowed in the new states created from some of the territories acquired by the United States by the mid-Nineteenth Century? If, as I consider above, those territories were not available for the potential expansion of slavery, would slavery in the United States have survived the European abolition of slavery and our home-grown abolition movement?

If the northern senators did not have to compromise with the southern Senators on slavery in order to bring new states into the union, would abolitionist sentiments have prevailed and would slavery have been outlawed nationwide by 1808? If slaves were freed before the massive plantation economy took over the southern states, would land-holdings have been smaller, thereby extending land ownership to more people? This expansion of land ownership could have slowed the pernicious class divides in the south during the 19th and 20th centuries. The concentration of wealth into the hands of relatively few white southerners, supported by the unregulated, unpaid labor of millions of captive black Africans structured the unequal power of the classes in America, both black and white.

This inequality contributes to racism by giving disenfranchised white Americans motive to scapegoat black Americans. Extending by 50+ years the legal enslavement of black Americans after the 1808 law forbidding the importation of slaves, and continuing the Jim Crow subjugation, humiliation, and terrorizing of black Americans for another 150+ years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, has created a country so divided by racial bigotry that it is hard to imagine that it can ever be unified.

So, here we are. In a country divided by class and race. In a country which, when we had the chance to believe our rhetoric about equality, chose instead to codify and institutionalize racism. A country that, when European competitors for North America chose to step away, raced to fill the land from ocean to ocean, brutally displacing indigenous people and spreading slavery whenever there was an opportunity and perceived economic advantage to do so.

We Americans are no more entrepreneurial, inventive, stalwart, courageous, or intelligent than anyone else. But we have been taught that we are exceptional and that we are entitled to take what we want; be it territory, resources, another’s labor, another’s dignity,  another’s life.

And now we have a government which, more than any in my six-decade memory, validates our worst behaviors.

Solidarity … now

In 45 states, the largest private employer is either Walmart, a university, or a medical services system.

In 13 states, the largest employer is a medical services provider. Let’s say there are (just guessing) 1,000 or so top healthcare executives able to direct political contributions via PACs and “research” by industry-funded organizations. This confirms why Members of Congress are eager to gut healthcare (Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid) for consumers in order to fatten profits for the medical services industry.

If the non-C/Suite employees of those medical services corporations joined with consumers to demand State Legislatures and Congress expand, not limit, access to healthcare, maybe the millions of voices/votes would override the millions of dollars of campaign contributions.

Maybe. But only if the reality of votes overwhelmed the reality of dollars.

How many employees – in any industry – belong to unions? How many unions are effective in expanding membership and public respect, lobbying Congress, and endorsing progressive, pro-labor candidates?

Could unions AGAIN be instrumental in rectifying income inequality? Could they become powerful in increasing employment by freeing up money for capital improvements and wages (by highlighting excessive executive compensation and through pro-labor tax incentives) and decreasing incentives for off-shoring? Could unions influence state and federal lawmakers to not just permit but to encourage workers to bargain collectively to restrict work-practices that allow corporations to make more profit for the bosses and shareholders at the expense of employees’ quality of life?

Maybe. But only if unions believe they are relevant, and act accordingly.

Could union members, union organizers, union lobbyists raise up the voices of the majority so that the volume of dissatisfaction with the injustices of Corporate America drowns out the promises of election victories and government sinecures?

Yes, unions can do this. We did it before – in an even more repressive and punitive era. We can do it again.

And there is no better day than today to begin.



My New Life

Though I stopped working in June, I have only begun to feel retired and to understand that this new life is my new reality.  As I was leaving behind work, colleagues, and a paycheck, Sheila was applying for jobs to replace hers, which was ending.  Her company lost their contract in New Mexico and she and all her colleagues scrambled for a place with either one of the companies that won the new contract or with their current employer in another state.

In August we learned that Sheila would be promoted and transferred to Atlanta, effective September 9.  I had made plans before all the uncertainty set in to spend September in Vermont at a women’s fitness facility.  We managed to make those commitments mesh and began our life in Atlanta together in early October.

Everyones’ first months of retirement are unsettled.  What do we do with all the unscheduled hours?  How do we replace the effortless socialization of meetings and hallway conversations?  Can we manage financially?  And then there is the question of identity.  Who am I when I am not what I do?  I experienced all of that plus the upheaval in Sheila’s career.

But now, in a big house in a mock-chateau subdivision in upscale Marietta, Georgia, I am finding my own way into the rest of my life.  I unpacked the last moving box today and guessed at where the napkins rings should go; guessing, really, where I might imagine I put them when it is time to look for them.  I watered the house plants and decided to repot the African Violet.  I put the redwood shavings in the dog houses that Cooper and Lily disdain but I think are necessary for their comfort.  I hung the halloween dish towels on the handles of the double ovens, glad that I had discovered them in that last box on October 31 rather than November 1.  I checked the schedule at my recently joined YMCA for a water aerobics class at a reasonable hour and set an alarm to give myself plenty of time to deal with the epic Atlanta traffic.  On my way home from the Y this afternoon, I’ll stop at the grocery store to pick up a propane tank so that I can start grilling again and I’ll figure out what to do about dinner.  Sheila will come home and tell me about her day while we eat.  She’ll ask about mine and I’ll feel a little less self-conscious today than I did yesterday as I describe the small accomplishments of my new life.

Hemingway’s Cousin Adelaide

My 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Adelaide Truesdell, was Ernest Hemingway’s first cousin. With a little Googling, I learned that she was 60 years old when she was my teacher – four years younger than I am today. I remember her as slight, gray, fey, and gentle. My 10th grade English teacher had once heaved a glass paperweight at a disagreeable student. My 11th grade English teacher was especially fond of the boys in my class. I certainly remember those two and I even remember some of what they taught me about English grammar and literature. But Mrs. Truesdell stands out for me because of a few words in the margin of an essay I wrote for her class. She wrote, “You write with charm. Write more.”

And so I have.

Here is the essay that earned Ernest’s cousin’s praise.

Woodrow Wilson High School, Section 124-4. November 4, 1965

“Autumn is my season of serenity. In Spring, I feel restless; wanderlust grips me. Winter and Summer eke out unreckoned angers. Crisp air and brightly hued leaves tumbling end-over-end fill me with a deep awareness of the grandeur of God.

I have a perfect seat for viewing the unlimited splendors of Autumn. The window of my homeroom opens onto a corner of the campus with trees, streets, cars, buildings, and people — all subject to the winds, leaves, and briskness of Fall. The streets and buildings remain stolid in the face of beauty. Never still, the trees vibrate, the branches whip about, and the leaves fall to earth.

Throughout the last weeks of onrushing Autumn, I have seen the gradual changes of the shifting seasons. The trees, once green, became a symphony of reds, oranges, and yellows.

The people change, too. They wear coats or sweaters and walk more quickly, as if they were afraid of the season and must hurry out of its reach.

The sky looks colder. Even when the sun shines, there is a darkness. A darkness that invades the being of the world.

The season of death is approaching.

In this time prefacing the inevitable slowness of winter, the world seems to want to increase its tempo. As if to make up for the time soon to be lost, all processes speed up. The living process is quicker, the aging is quicker, but the dying process is the quickest of all.”

Citizen Legislators

I had just arrived at work today when a colleague asked me, “Aren’t you sick of politics?” I made a polite response, something about being tired of the meaningless wrangling, lying, and general bad manners, but no, I’m not tired of the process of trying to identify – and then elect – folks who have the welfare of the people – all the people – at heart.

I’m encouraged that Americans do seem to be paying attention to the current, unsettled state of the relationship between citizens and our government. And it is very unsettled. We have the ironclad partisanship of Obama and Romney supporters, with the full-throated baying about 47%, birth records, religion, race, the economy, Libya … and whatever the 24/7 news cycle has spun up for us to fear today.

More damaging even than that, I think, is the well-deserved opinion we hold about the gridlocked Congress, those representatives who are more directly responsible for the state of our nation and its individual States than the President. The Gallup organization reported at the end of last year that a new record-low 11% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, the lowest single rating in Gallup’s history of asking this question since 1974.

So what could possibly be encouraging about that dismal statistic? Well, in the past three days, I have received a number of emails from friends about something called the Congressional Reform Act of 2012 (actually not a legislative Act but rather a proposal to amend the Constitution). The emails begin with a quote from a CNBC interview with Warren Buffett: “I could end the deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election.”

Based on the Gallup numbers and my personal email traffic, it sounds as if we may be ready to change something fundamental about the way we allow our Senators and Congressmen/women to serve us.

Here is the emailed text of the Congressional Reform Act of 2012.

  1. No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman/woman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they’re out of office. No “entitlements.”
  2. Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.
  3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.
  4. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise. Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
  5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.
  6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
  7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen/women are void effective 12/1/12. The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen/women.

The email also says:

“The 26th amendment (granting the right to vote for 18 year-olds) took only three months and eight days to be ratified! Why? Simple! The people demanded it. That was in 1971 – before computers, e-mail, cell phones, etc. Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven took one year or less to become the law of the land – all because of public pressure.

If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S.) to receive the message. Don’t you think it’s time?”

Does the Congressional Reform Act of 2012 (or the 28th Amendment) look like the solution? Not exactly, but it’s a good-enough place to start talking about fixing our broken legislative process.

By the way, Amendments either originate in the States (in an Article V Convention) or by a vote by two-thirds of each house of Congress. Congress will only call for an amendment-proposing convention, “on the application of the Legislatures of two-thirds of the several States.” That means 34 State legislatures would have to submit applications. Once an Article V Convention has proposed an amendment, then the amendment has to be ratified by three-fourths of the States (i.e., 38 States) in order to become part of the Constitution.

And if effectively having to get Congress’ permission to propose an amendment didn’t make it even more challenging to rein in Congressional perks, Congress also has the power to choose between two methods of ratification: ratification by the State legislatures, or ratification by State conventions called for that purpose.

Finally, all 27 amendments to the Constitution have happened in a procedural sense by going through Congress and not through proposal by State legislatures.

So … I’m going to forward the email, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for a national body of citizen legislators.

50 Shades of Greeen

We spent last weekend with friends at their lake-front home. Given the state of the drought in New Mexico, it’s a meadow-front home this year. The water that would fill the lake was released downstream. I didn’t mind the altered view at all, in part because at dusk a herd of female and juvenile elk moved out of the tree-line and onto the meadow. Bill set up the telescope on the deck and we watched the slow, grazing procession. The elks’ daily trek brings them from the Jicarilla Apache reservation onto New Mexico Parks & Recreation land, making them as safe from trophy hunters as any wild animal can be in the American West.

Off and on during the weekend we talked about retirement – Alane’s and Bill’s, and mine. They cut their final ties to work last year. I will finish up in July 2014, if all goes according to plan. For them, their retirement is ideal. They live in their northern New Mexico home from April to November, and move to their house in Sun City West, Arizona for the rest of the year. Two very different lifestyles, both of which they love. When I try to imagine myself in either place, I falter on my own Goldilocks conundrum. Sun City is too social and busy and their rural retreat is too remote and quiet. I need to figure out what is just right.

Sheila would like to live outside the city – and I think I would, too. But not too far out. I would like to rest my eyes on fields, trees, and 50 shades of green. But I want organic grocery shopping in town. I want to hear birdsong more often than I hear traffic. But I want a library close by. I want to watch storms roll over the hills and hear the thunder echo through the valley. But I want medical services within 30 minutes of home.

One thing we’re considering is scheduling vacations over the next couple of years in places we might like to settle. Huge swaths of America are already ruled-out, which limits our choices in a good way. We are not living north of the 37th Parallel, which is roughly at the northern edge of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. It cuts California in half right around San Francisco. While I could settle in Portland or Seattle or actually any East or West Coast northern maritime region, Sheila, with her Mediterranean nature, would need to be on Prozac to survive the chilly, gray, rainy climate.

Cultural activities—and more importantly—cultural attitudes matter to us, too. Any community that says with pride that it is the “buckle of the bible belt” won’t work for us. I’d like a college nearby, for the performing arts and drop-in classes. A local historical society would be good for me. A cineplex, a mall, a Thai restaurant close enough to go to without having to pack a bag seem important, too.

So, just at the moment we think that a semi-southern small town or the far-suburban edges of mid-size city might work. We’ll plan a few vacations to explore our choices.


I learned last week that a friend’s mother has cancer. She is quite elderly and the prognosis is not good. I was told of her illness via a text message and I expressed my sorrow for her and my friend by text, too. With that exchange, I started thinking about the ways in my lifetime we learned of deaths and our customs for delivering our condolences.

When I was young, people would place a wreath on the front door of the deceased’s house to signal that the residents of the home were in mourning. I remember my father wearing a black band on his coat sleeve when his father died. At the end of 7th grade, my friend Libby moved to Laos with her diplomat father and French mother and grandmother. Several months after they left, I received a stiff card, bordered in black, printed in French, that announced her grandmother’s death. The Philadelphia Inquirer called us when my father died to get details for his obituary. I subscribe to a magazine that includes brief articles on the passing of women who have been active in — and loved by — their communities. Over the years, I have received word of family, friends, and acquaintances passing by personal visits, letters, telegrams, phone calls, and emails. I see memorial messages on Facebook now.

In the past, when I heard of a death in my community, I went to the family’s home or wrote a note or sent a sympathy card. I’ve made phone calls, brought casseroles, written eulogies, boarded pets, attended wakes, viewings, visitations, funerals, and celebrations of life.

I thought when I began to consider this subject that I might fall into the notion that there are right ways to honor death; and that our modern, technological ways are not the right ways. My grandmother might have thought that a telephone call or a printed sympathy card was unfeeling and inappropriate. My mother was even more Victorian than her mother, and I am sure that text and Facebook condolences would have appalled her.

But I believe that however we learn of someone’s passing, and however we acknowledge and commemorate it, the support we bring with our attention, affection, and assistance is what matters. Not the manner of our communication, but the message that we care and that our world has dimmed a bit by the loss.