Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Day for America

I wanted the girls to understand what was happening today. I sought to somehow express the immense historical significance of what they would be seeing.

It started over a year ago, when we began to watch one of my favorite TV shows, "Quantum Leap," in which Dr. Sam Beckett traveled through time, "setting right what once went wrong." In one particularly powerful episode, Sam "leaps" into the body of Jesse Tyler, a black servant in 1955 South, and gets into trouble when he dares to sit down in a "white folks" diner.

After we watched that episode, I told the girls how it used to be -- how people were segregated by their skin color, forced to attend different schools, eat in different restaurants, drink from different fountains. I explained that brave people in that time stood up and resisted these "traditions", and sought to bring equality to all people.

In fourth grade Meikina prepared a paper on Rosa Parks, a woman who refused to sit at the back of the bus. They also discussed Martin Luther King, and how he rallied African Americans to the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama buses, a boycott that changed the tide of racism in America.

At dinner over the past year we have had frequent discussions about the Presidential campaign, what the main issues were, what Obama meant when he said he wanted to bring "Change" to America. Each of my girls in turn cast their vote in their school election for Barack Obama, and we all rejoiced as he was elected the 44th President of the United States.

Last night, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's birthday, we sat and listened to his amazing speech, "I have a dream." As I listened once more to the words of Dr. King in that speech, I could not help think about two-year old Barack Obama, unaware that he would one day rise to fulfill King's dream: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Today, we are much closer to that dream, but progress must still be made.

And so this morning we didn't go to school at 8:00am as we usually do. Instead we gathered around our TV and, like children in Kenya and Indonesia, and millions of families across this country, we watched as President Obama raised his hand to the square, and with his other hand placed on the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln, repeat the oath of the Presidency. Hard as I tried, I could not hide the tears -- tears of joy, tears of pride, and tears of redemption.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Being Part of History

I don't have any memories of the political world I grew up in. I don't remember anything from my youth about Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, or the fall of Richard Nixon. I don't remember a single conversation around the dinner table discussing the morality of the Vietnam War. I asked my mother the other day whom she voted for in 1960, the year I was born, and she couldn't remember.

I decided long ago that Meikina, Meigon and Meilan would not have the same experience. Meikina was with me in her first Presidential election vote in 2000, and both Meigon and Meikina were with me in the voting booth in 2004. This year, however, we took political participation to a new level.

Early on political discourse became common with the Primary last February. Meikina came home asking who she should vote for in her class mock election. This question started her and her sisters on a road of educational experiences that culminated last Tuesday.

Meigon was especially attentive, constantly scanning the newspaper and noticing any article with a picture of Barack Obama. All asked how Obama was doing throughout the campaign. "Is Barack going to win?" was a common inquiry.

I began traveling to Grand Junction in early October to canvass for Obama. As I talked to the girls each night, I would explain how the day went (reminded me of tracting as a missionary!) At every opportunity I pointed out that good people were of differing opinions, but that I was convinced we needed President Obama.

On the final weekend of October, I took the family for one last journey to Colorado. The girls and Lan walked Grand Junction's streets with me, meeting fellow Obama supporters, encouraging them to vote early. We also met not a few McCain supporters, which again prompted discussions of why people voted for the two candidates.

Finally, last Monday, I sat down with the girls after dinner to talk about our plans for Election Day. "This election is important." I began. "It is an election that your children will ask you about. 'Do you remember when Barack Obama was elected Mommy?'" I told them that when I was a child, America had segregation -- whites ate in different restaurants than blacks, blacks went to different schools, sat in the back of buses. These lessons were especially important to Meikina, who had researched Rosa Parks for a fifth-grade report. I emotionally implored them to remember this election, one that I feel was the most important of my life.

Tuesday morning we arose at 6:00 am and went in the dark to our polling station. The girls "rock-paper-scissored" to determine who would get to push the electronic button to elect President Barack Obama. Meigon won. It was perfectly appropriate given her excitement over the past months.

After school, each girl proudly told how they had voted for Obama in their school election. "Only two ther kids voted for Obama," Meigon and Meilan reported. John McCain won handily in their school, but I assured them that the story would be different that night.

We gathered with some family and friends Tuesday night. I had purchased "Obama for ?" buttons for each state I felt would vote for Obama, and had them all lined up along with their "Meikina for Obama", etc. buttons. At 6:00 pm they received their first button, for New Hampshire.

As we ate pizza and cheered each new state, the question wasn't "if" but "when" the race would be called. With the shirts covered with State buttons at 9:00 pm, we broke out in cheers and tears as California, Oregon and Washington's polls closed and made Barack Obama our next President.

We remained to listen to John McCain concede, a speech marked with grace and dignity. At 10 pm we all excitedly listened as President-Elect Obama spoke of America's future.

As we went up to bed I once more reminded my girls how important what they had witnessed and taken part in was. "Today history was made. Thanks for helping make it happen."

Tonight we will box up the buttons, shirts, the election edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, and a Time magazine signed by Michelle Obama and store them away. Perhaps one day my girls will pull out their box of mementos and share their memories of this election with their children.

I know I will!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Birth Certificate of the United States

It is one of my priorities (in case no one has noticed) to teach my girls the responsibilities that they have to be good citizens of this country. In the past few years I have taken them to protests, conventions, home gatherings, and of course to the voting booth.

This past Saturday we "started school" as the girls called it. We drove to the State Capital and stood in line to see an original copy of America's birth certificate, the Declaration of Independence. The basic history of our country is familiar to the girls due to Meikina's recent studies in Fifth Grade and our viewing of HBO's miniseries, "John Adams."

As we stood in the two-hour line to get our chance to look at this original (purchased by Normal Lear after being discovered behind a $4 painting), I took the opportunity to try and make this document pertinent to my daughters.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I explained that the Founding Fathers meant "men" in a literal sense, a point made by Morgan Freeman in a film introduction to the showing. They didn't mean women, or blacks, or Native Americans. They meant white men. But, I explained, since 1776 brave and passionate people -- citizens -- have fought hard, and sometimes died, to broaden the application of the these words to everyone. As Freeman pointed out, the spirit of the Declaration on Independence is broad, but its application has at times been limited.

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

I explained to my girls that the Founding Fathers were extremely suspicious of any government, that they believed that the power of government belonged firmly in the hands of the citizens, and that it is our duty to constantly monitor and guard against any encroachment by the Government on our rights.

One of the most egregious violations of a citizen's rights in colonial times, I explained, was King George's decision to monitor rebellious colonists by placing British soldiers in their homes. It was the King's way of watching and listening. I asked my girls if they thought it was any different when our own President decides he must monitor the citizens by listening in on our phone conversations, reading our e-mails, or getting information on what books we read at the library. It was this kind of encroachment that the Founding Fathers distrusted, and hoped the citizens would be vigilant against.

"How do we change our government?" I asked. Almost in unison they replied, "By voting." That is very true, I said, but it is not just voting that is important. You must be educated, study the issues, understand a candidates opinions and ideas. "It is not a simple matter of voting for a Democrat or Republican," I stated. "Would you ever vote for a Republican?" Meikina asked. "Of course," I replied. But I went on to explain that my personal philosophies of communal and environmental responsibility, my belief that we are all responsible for our own bodies, and my belief that we as a society have an obligation to the poor differentiated me from most Republicans. "I make my voting decision based on a study of each candidates ideas, not the letter behind their name."

But voting isn't all there is to do. If we feel things are not going right, we must engage in the cause. We can attend meetings, circulate petitions, participate in protests. "Today many people, not understanding our own history, feel it is wrong to protest against the government. But protest is the very foundation of our government."

"That mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

We are all generally lazy members of society. We see actions being taken by our leaders which we feel are wrong, but we do little to get involved to make change. The Founding Fathers recognized that. But the Declaration of Independence was a call to arms, a declaration that the colonists had had enough. It was an act of rebellion that put their lives and family at grave risk. I explained that all societies in human history had eventually failed, and most had failed for one reason -- apathy. It is thought that the great Mayan civilization, which we saw remnants of on our recent trip to Belize, simple disintegrated when the religious leaders were thought to no longer represent the majority of Mayans. The people simply walked into the jungle and never came back. "Fight against that from happening with our country by being active members -- voting, protesting, being engaged."

When we finally arrived at the display case holding the Declaration of Independence, there was an information sign that pointed out that John Hancock and his secretary were the only two people to sign the original on July 4, 1776. "Meikina, do you remember why John Hancock's signature is larger than all the rest? Because he wanted the world to know that he was signing this declaration of freedom, that he wanted King George to know that he, John Hancock, was prepared to die for this. He refused to hide behind a small or illegible signature. That is the reason even today we say, 'Put your John Hancock on this letter.'"

I am afraid that my girls might grow up feeling that their father didn't love his country, or was never happy with its government. But on this day, I think I communicated my deep love for the principles that this country is founded on -- individual liberty, collective responsibility, and the responsibility of all of us to be actively engaged in a good cause.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Raising an Educated Voter

I have taken Meikina with me voting since she was three years old, but it is only this year that she has started to understand what it was we were doing in those lines. Her assignment in her fifth grade class was simple enough: Put together a poster board with the leading candidates from each part. We could do that. "Oh, Daddy," she added, "I need to pick one and make a speech about them."

Who do you want to campaign for? I asked her. "I don't know," was her reply. I was encouraged. I fully expected her to support Mitt Romney, since he was the favorite son of our area here in Utah. "How about if we study each candidate," I suggested, "and see who most agrees with you."

The first step in her education was a questionnaire developed by WQAD Television out in Mississippi. The questions started with a bang: "What is your opinion on the war in Iraq?"

This one was pretty easy for her, since she has heard me curse and shout about the War in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. But I wanted her to not just answer the questions, but understand them -- to understand the issues involved, the ideologies at play. So we chatted about the war, why we ostensibly went into Iraq, why I felt it was a fool's errand, and what we should do at this point. Meikina selected option "C": "I favor immediate and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops."

We moved one by one through the remaining questions, allowing us to discuss the problems with immigration, the hopes and concerns behind stem-cell research, abortion, and many other deep and important subjects. We had an interesting and engaging discussion.

I'm sure she didn't understand all of the issues, but she answered all of the questions as best as she could, and hit the "Find Your Candidate" button at the end of the questions.

The candidate that best represented her fifth-grade views was Barack Obama. I congratulated her, telling her that she now understood the issues more than most of her peers in class. She was excited to begin preparing for her class presentation.

Meikina came home the next day very excited, proudly proclaiming that the class had had a vote, and 22 of the 25 students had selected Mitt Romney as President. "Only three people voted for Barack Obama," she exclaimed with a definite gleam of pride in her eyes. "What did most of your class give as a reason for their support of Mitt Romney?" I asked. "He's Mormon," she replied.

I asked her if she felt one's religion was a good reason to vote for someone; I asked her if they had discussed any of the issues espoused by Mitt? "No," she replied, "we just voted." But, she went on, we are going to be able to campaign for our candidates over the next few days.

I told Meikina that the most important question to ask someone in politics (and in life) is "Why?" "Why do you believe that person will be the best President?" "Why do you believe that issue is important?" I told her that many voters select a candidate based on their religion, their sex, their race, or some other criteria. "Voting for someone because they are Mormon is silly," I explained. I gave her the assignment to ask her classmates why they selected their candidate, and what ideas they thought were important.

The following afternoon Meikina's teacher approached me at the school. She excitedly recounted for me how Meikina had asked each of the presenting students why they supported Mitt Romney. "Did you know," Meikina had asked one student, "that Mitt Romney supports drilling in the Arctic for oil, endangering polar bears and caribou?" The poor student answered with only a stare. Meikina's teacher was so thrilled that someone in the class had actually asked a question about a candidate's position, since it fostered a broader discussion. I was a very proud Daddy!

As "Super Tuesday" approached, I took the girls to an Obama support meeting, and were told about Michelle Obama coming to Salt Lake City. Over the following week the girls overheard their father calling hundreds of voters in Utah, urging them to vote on November 5th. The day before the primary, I took the girls from school and we headed up to the Salt Palace in Salt Lake and heard Michelle Obama speak.

Election night was spent watching some favorite TV shows, all the while flipping back to election coverage to see how "our" candidate was doing. "Did he win in Utah" Meigon asked? "Is he the President now?" was another question. My kids, in a limited but growing way, were becoming politically involved.

I don't know how my girls will vote in future elections. I don't know if they will end up espousing the progressive values I am teaching and demonstrating for them in our home. I hope they do. But most important for me is that they reach their decision smartly, that they study the candidates, their positions and ideologies, and cast educated ballots. If they do that, whether they vote left or right won't matter, they will be an engaged member of American democracy.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Experience in Climate Change

"Make sure you drink some of the water before you get back in the vehicle" our guide yelled to us as we debarked from the mammoth six-wheeled "Glacier Transporter" on top of the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada. I had pushed my family to make it to this point so that they could witness a dying phenomenon -- glacier ice formed when Asian nomads crossed the Bering Straits into North America 10,000 years ago (this point was repeated a week later when we took our girls white-water rafting for the first time on the Athabasca River downstream in Jasper. Our guide encouraged us to take a dip in the frigid water in order to experience "swimming in water that three days ago was 10,000 year old ice!).

As we walked around on top of Athabasca Glacier, I could hear the trickle of water everywhere. Steamlets criss-crossed the ice field, slowly eroding the huge body of ice upon which we stood. Inside the deep crevices we could see the blue of tinted ice, the result of thousands of pounds of pressure over thousands of years. Above us on the plateau was the massive Columbia Icefield, a 325 square kilometer sheet of ice which exudes eight major glaciers.

But Athabasca Glacier and the others are slowly disappearing. A photograph taken in 1919 shows just how rapidly the Athabasca is retreating, and witnesses all along the "Glacier Highway" from Glacier National Park in Montana to Jasper National Park in Alberta repeated the same assertion: soon, these will disappear. In Glacier National Park, the number of glaciers has fallen from 150 a hundred years ago to 27 today. In the next 20 years all of these are expected to disappear.

In Banff we hiked to the Valley of Six Glaciers and spoke with the owner of the teahouse in the mountains above Lake Louise. When I asked her how large the glaciers were when she was a child, she said that they flowed past her teahouse. Now we stared out at a nearly empty valley. "Anyone that doubts global warming is real needs to come to here," she flatly stated.

As a father of three young girls, it saddens me to watch this world change. The children of my daughters will never see a glacier in Montana. By the time their children reach adulthood, the fabled Polar Bear will be endangered if not extinct. The Grizzlies of Yellowstone, one of which we saw this Summer on our trip to that Park, will be gone, as will the Colorado Marmots we saw two years ago in Rocky Mountain National Park. If predictions about sea levels are correct, my grand-children will see only pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, the Space Needle, the Golden Gate Bridge, and many other coastal historical and cultural landmarks.

I am pessimistic that we will be able to change things before these predictions come true. Whether it is the millennial expectations of many of our citizens, or a feeling of powerlessness among others, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to move the world's citizens to make drastic changes. Even now a significant percentage of Americans respond to global warming change with a shrug of the shoulders and a "So what?"

As we toured Glacier, Banff and Jasper National Parks this past month, I made sure to point out to my daughters the beauty of the formations, the rivers of ice imperceptibly flowing down the mountains. I admonished them to record the images in their minds, to remember their beauty. As we drank the 400 year old water on Athabasca Glacier, and rafted in the 10,000 year old water on the Athabasca River, I realized that in a small part we were witnessing evidence of dramatic change.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Witnessing a Dying Miracle

Since I was a boy I have been fascinated with butterflies. As a kid I would search my Southern California neighborhood for caterpillars, and feed and nurture the ones I found until they molted into cocoons. Once I watched the miracle of their transformation into butterflies, I would release them back into the "wilds", and start my search all over again.

Monarchs were my favorite for several reasons. First, they are beautiful and graceful fliers. But most importantly, I loved the way I could see the butterfly developing through the transparent cocoon shortly before the butterfly emerges. It was amazing to watch.

This winter I decided my girls and I needed to witness something that I have wanted to see since I hunted caterpillars as a kid -- the Monarch butterfly gathering grounds in central California. Each winter, all of the Monarchs that live West of the Rockies (including our own Utah) fly, float or otherwise move from as far north as Canada to the Eucalyptus groves of California. One of the major destinations is Pacific Grove, near Monterey.

We arrived at the grove around 1 pm, the time when the sun and rising temperatures allow the butterflies to begin flying around. As we walked onto the two-acre grove of trees, I noticed that like much of California it too was surrounded by houses. At first we looked around and saw no butterflies, but soon we came upon a docent with a stationary telescope, and she bid us to peer through the lenses at a cluster of a few hundred Monarchs hanging in a nearby tree. It was astounding! Much like a swarm of honeybees, these beautiful insects were hanging onto each other in a curtain of color, forming a ball of wings. As the warmer air reached them, they started flying around the grove, filling the air.

We walked further down the path we came upon a couple gazing intently into another tree. As we followed their gaze we saw a much larger grouping of butterflies. As I looked at the "swarm" through my camcorder's telephoto lens, I gazed excitedly upon nature's stain-glass window -- the wings of thousands of butterflies illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.

As my children hunted for a few dead butterflies for their scrapbooks, I engaged our docent in conversation. Sally told me that sadly, the number of Monarchs returning to Pacific Grove (and the other nesting sites in California) was declining. I stared at her butterfly counts from previous years -- numbers that reached the hundreds of thousands a decade ago were now only in the low tens of thousands. The primary reasons, she explained, were habitat loss and pesticide use. Each year homes are built on the empty fields that contained the milkweed plant, vital for Monarchs as a caterpillar food source. Thus, fewer weeds mean fewer butterflies. Experts are fearful that one day in the not-so-distant future, butterflies will no longer return to Pacific Grove.

Monarchs from East of the Rockies face similar problems as they migrate to Central Mexico. There, deforestation of their wintering grounds threatens their numbers, although thankfully much is being done.

As we exited the "Monarch Grove" I asked the girls what they had liked about our excursion. After talking about the butterflies, I admonished them to remember this experience. "The way things are going, your children may not be able to see what you saw today" I told them. As I gazed back at the Monarchs flying around the grove, I was filled with a sense of wonder and amazement at this display of nature's miracles. I can only hope that it will be around to be experienced by my grandchildren.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

We Protest Because We Are Patriotic

The woman's voice on the radio chilled my blood. "I'm going to die, aren't I? I'm going to die." Hearing Melissa Doi's last words from the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center, minutes before it collapsed, haunts me to this day. In my mind, I turn away, unable to contemplate the horror she felt, along with the thousands of others who died on September 11, 2001.

President Bush will be in town this week, and much is being made of the protests that are planned to welcome him to this, the reddest of States. I plan on being there, with my daughter Meigon, who also accompanied me last year to a similar protest. We go there in memory of those who have died in this nation's wars, and in memory of those who died on September 11.

We protest because we are patriotic.

I wrote an essay following a visit I made with my family to Philadelphia in 2003. We visited Independence Hall, stood where the Founding Fathers argued and battled in the formation of our government. I was impressed, and deeply humbled by the great gift those men bestowed upon this nation, gifts of individual sovereignty and protections against abuse by a tyranical government. My travels in China has shown me how precious those rights are.

It is known that the greater the price one makes for a belief, the more committed one will be to that belief. In Mormonism, those that serve 2-year missions have an extremely high activity rate throughout their lives. Soldiers who serve in the military work under the same paradigm. They have placed their lives at risk for a cause, and they remain fiercely committed to that cause. Whether as a missionary or a soldier, it is in their emotional best interest to continue to believe that their cause was just, even when those around them try to show that it wasn't. To change their perspective means that their sacrifice was in vain.

It is this tendency that explains the vitriolic response most in the military have against those like Cindy Sheehan and others who have come out against the war in Iraq. Questioning their patriotism is one strategy, asserting that their protests aid and abet the enemy is another. The Bush administration are experts at declaring that those who oppose the war in Iraq will bring more terrorism upon us. The administration stifles debate on the subject, refusing to consider opposing ideas and strategies, stubbornly pushing forward a demonstrably failed policy. I admire Cindy Sheehan, a woman who was able to make the leap into the emotional abyss of realizing that her son died in vain. I admire her courage to speak out, as a person who can speak out because she has personally paid the price. Her voice speaks louder to me than those of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al, who have never faced death, either personally or in their families.

I view the actions of the Bush Administration in relation to the "War on Terror" as reprehensible. On September 12, 2001, top military officials convened to discuss plans to invade Iraq. Although there was no link between the government of Iraq and the September 11 perpetrators, George Bush and his administration cherry-picked evidence to convince Congress and the American People that it was justified to attack Iraq.

The spirit of the U.S. Constitution is the belief that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Founding Fathers recognized the inate desire of all political leaders to increase their power, to insure their position, even if it involves conspiracy and dishonesty. For that reason they constructed a government with built in checks and balances -- Frequent elections, a free press, a judiciary branch. Anathema to the spirit of the Constitution is the idea that the government can with impunity monitor the actions and speech of its citizens, that the government can send its citizens to other nations to be held without bail, and out of reach of Constitutional protections.

I live in a culture that is taught not to question authority. We are told every Sunday that the leaders above us will never lead us astray, to do wrong. We are given to understand that the political battlefield is clearly marked between good and bad. For that reason, most Mormons continue to support President Bush, even as they quietly voice concerns over his policies.

But as President Theodore Roosevelt stated, "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public" (http://www.quotedb.com/quotes/1730).

Wednesday Meigon and I will protest the policies of George W. Bush. I will join thousands of others who passionately feel that the war in Iraq was based on deceit and misguidance. We will protest not because we hate America, but because we love it. It is my hope that these protests will grow in intensity, until the voice of peace drowns out the hawkish ideology of this President. Only then will we be forced to change course. It happened with Vietnam. It can happen today.