Thursday, October 26, 2017

Name Your Fears, Then Mock Them

Image result for magnum pi home from the sea

 In the Home from the Sea episode of the 1980s series Magnum PI, Tom Selleck spends many hours abandoned, treading water in the Pacific. He is stressed, but buoyed by memories of his father teaching him to swim. Then the shark starts circling.

     “If you give funny names to the things that scare you,” he remembers his father saying, “then they won’t be half so scary.”

     So, Tom names the shark Herman. He talks to the shark, jokes with the shark, yells at the shark, and doesn’t panic. The shark is curious, but doesn’t attack. Tom miraculously survives, is rescued, and moves on to the next season.

     I was reminded of this episode when chatting with my cousin, affected by Hurricane Irma. Who can be terrified by something named Irma? It was a massive storm with a grandmother’s name. Irma was a big inconvenience to many, deadly to some, destructive, and horrendously expensive, kind of like cancer.

     Panic is not an effective response to a hurricane. People need to be able to think clearly - to evaluate their personal priorities and threats, protect their property, avoid deep water, and seek shelter. So, naming hurricanes not only helps to distinguish one from another, but gives people a psychological advantage in difficult situations.

     I’ve named my breast cancer Donald, in honor of the biggest stressor of the last year, a scary presence, over which I have little control, other than my personal response. I have chosen to resist this threat, but not obsess over it. I will not panic; I will be strong. I will handle Donald the way comedians do, by mocking him. I’ll also handle this threat as warriors do, by fighting it.

     And yes, I may sound flippant. My diagnosis won’t change because of this – the cancer monster won't be offended and take revenge because I didn’t give it enough respect. I have always respected this disease, and I’m grieving the loss of a friend who recently died from esophageal cancer. But Holly didn’t let cancer stop her feisty attitude, and neither will I. Every cancer is different, and each story has a different ending or humans would give up hope, and stop reading.

     Cancer diagnosis and treatment is stressful. There are many ways to relieve stress, and my favorite is laughter. The endorphins released by a belly-laugh have got to be healthy.

     The naming of Donald D. Lump has had multiple benefits. I smiled during my first biopsy, at the thought of his squalling head getting pierced by a needle. The doctor who came in with his serious ‘cancer’ face chuckled and relaxed when I shared my attitude. People who don’t like to say words like ‘breast’ or ‘cancer’ (including me) are more comfortable talking about Donald. And when Donald Jr. was discovered hiding behind dense tissue, I was ready for him too. Hopefully Eric, Ivanka, etc. won’t be joining the party, but if they do, they’ll be named.

     The jokes and metaphors keep me smiling. Dump the Lump. Impeach the Lump. Trump the Lump. Get his tiny hands off your girls! Donald will be tagged with a radioactive tracer before the Pink Army goes in for a surgical strike. After that, we’ll try chemical or nuclear weapons. If other cancer survivors want to use the Donald metaphor, I won’t mind a bit. In fact, this might be a fitting tribute to our misogynist-in-chief.

     I realize I am extremely lucky – I can have this attitude because Donald was caught early, before his tiny hands could invade more of my body (we think). I live in a city not devastated by hurricane, or war, or poverty, or fire, so the hospitals and doctors are ready with modern treatments. I have insurance, savings, and a powerful support network of friends and family. Part of my cheerfulness stems from survivor’s euphoria, recognizing that I’ve had a close call, but should be okay after treatment.

     Even if my diagnosis were more serious or my situation direr, I would give my fear a funny name, and resist it, and keep treading water, and look for the funny side, because there is almost always a funny side, as long as you are alive. If MASH could make jokes about war for 11 years, I can make jokes about cancer. I need to make jokes about cancer. 

     Remember Rudolph the Reindeer's friend, the dentist? Laughter and friendship can pull the teeth from a monster, and defuse a bully. They are important weapons.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Survivor Mentality

   “Shooter on Campus” was a required training video for my job as a community college writing tutor. After avoiding the assignment for several days, I watched with another tutor during a slow period, and bit my fingernails during the scary parts. Welcome to 21st century reality.

The video focused on developing a Survivor Mentality, so you can react efficiently and effectively when crises arise. You can apply a Survivor Mentality to many life events.

Life hands all of us the occasional nasty surprise, like fierce storms, traffic accidents, health issues, and threatening intruders.  Thinking constantly about potential threats isn’t healthy, so we protect ourselves the best we can, put up mental walls, and try not to dwell on negatives we can’t control. Denial helps us sleep at night.

But in a scary situation, denial and the fear-mone rush of panic can prevent untrained people from responding well. Someone trained with a Survivor Mentality recognizes the threat quickly, and feels anxiety, but does not panic. (S)he:

·                assesses the situation
·                decides on a course of action
·                works with others to flee, hide, or fight
·                looks for ways to help others survive

For instance, a classroom of students can spread out, throw things at a shooter, and overwhelm the intruder with their collective power.

I didn’t realize how quickly I’d need my Survivor Mentality training to face a panic-inducing threat. But I’ve worked hard not to panic, and relied on friends and experts to help me assess the situation and decide the best course of action.

My current crisis is Breast Cancer. It’s not my first tough challenge, and will probably not be my last. But since I was diagnosed at the beginning of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m taking this as a sign to use my writing ability and share this experience – to increase awareness among others, to give hope and thanks, and to help me process this journey and make the most of it, as a human and as a writer. There are lessons I’m supposed to learn, lessons I’m supposed to share, and lessons my allies will learn from helping me through this. Suffering can build character and compassion, and the world can always use more of both.

Within a week of diagnosis, my husband and I were introduced to the cancer team at Wesley Long hospital. They had already assessed my biopsy and mammogram reports and could give me a diagnosis and plan for treatment. New 3-D mammogram technology had discovered my lump before it could be felt by me or the doctors, and it does not appear to have spread to my lymph nodes. I’ll have more tests, surgery, probably radiation, and hopefully not chemo. Mine is the type of breast cancer diagnosed in more than 80% of cases, so they have lots of treatments. It’s not life-threatening these days, just a bit life-altering.

The physical therapist was the last team member to visit me, and she described another therapist as a ‘survivor.’ I asked when to call myself a survivor.

She smiled and said, “You are one now.” 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why Don't We Love Charter School Betsy?

The new US Secretary of Education is a big supporter of charter schools and religious private schools. Some may ask why this is a problem. Here's my long answer with personal experiences.

When the movie “Waiting for Superman” delivered its message on the 'superiority' of charter schools, our local Guilford Education Alliance held a focus meeting to analyze the movie and the realities of charter schools. The meeting included a teacher from one of the “successful” charter schools in the movie. The teacher said the movie didn’t show the discipline methods used at the school, which included forcing students to wear dirty t-shirts and be shamed and ostracized if they got into trouble.

The movie did include statistics showing that some charter schools are very successful, but others are not – the range is similar to public schools. Yet, NC Republicans jumped on the charter school bandwagon. Why? 
1. The schools were shiny and new.
2. Republican Party support for public schools has gradually and deliberately eroded since Integration.

Note: NC does not have teachers’ unions. We have a lobbying and support association, but they do not require membership, negotiate contracts, or call strikes.
Reasons I’m not crazy about Charter Schools –

1. They don’t have central administration oversight, so parents and students have little recourse when crazy stuff happens. 
2. They give public tax money to private companies, some of which operate these schools for profit. 
3. They are not required to provide busing, free lunches, or special services for students who need them. This means they cater to two-parent affluent families, and pull these families, their volunteer support, and their public tax dollars out of the public schools.  The more charter schools you have, the more public schools will dwindle.

I love all the FB posts about public school experiences! I’ve been a huge supporter of public schools with central administration oversight, partly because I’ve experienced private schools.
In 4th grade, I moved from a tiny, elitist private school in SC to Guilford County Schools in NC. It was SO much better – less bullying, no religious indoctrination though people could express opinions, stronger academics, more diversity of all kinds. I loved my neighborhood high school with all the energy and activities to choose from. (Go Hornets!)

My kids attended public magnet schools, partly because our neighborhood elementary was crowded, and partly because I wanted to try the Montessori method. It was great for our family. Magnet schools have the oversight of central administration, which means parents have recourse if there are problems that can’t be solved at the school level. As a PTA president in a brand-new school, I saw the problems that can occur, and learned how to use public school channels to improve things.

Our biggest problem was the over-emphasis on standardized testing imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by George W. Bush. While the NCLBA gave more attention to students with disabilities and language issues, it flattened language arts, history, and science instruction for students who learned more quickly – in eighth grade, one of my daughters spent a lot of time waiting for other students to catch up, and teachers limited themselves to material that was tested. So for high school, we moved her to a ‘Christian’ private school, where she was promised writing instruction in ninth grade. (The public English teachers said they weren’t ‘allowed’ to teach essay writing until 10th grade. This changed with the new Common Core Standards.)

The ‘Christian’ school was a decent size, had decent athletics, and people were nice to my sweet blonde child. But the religious indoctrination was constant, and this was a Tea Party school. We had many critical thinking conversations at home, when, for instance, the principal stood in front of several hundred teenagers and announced that anyone who was gay would go to hell. Bullying was common. Peace signs weren’t allowed because someone thought they were associated with the Devil. Evolution was taught in Biology because it’s required for AP tests, but it was scoffed at as only a theory. Ken Hamm’s ‘Young Earth’ interpretation was taught, including the idea that the Devil planted dinosaur bones in the earth to fool disbelievers. My child had to do a project on Creationism. We combed through the Bible for passages that countered the close evangelical reading she was getting at school, and found plenty, but our faith in ‘Christian’ churches was damaged. I was relieved when we moved to Dubai after two years.

Dubai doesn’t have public schools for its expat population, so we had to go private, and found a terrific International Baccalaureate school, where my kids were the only Americans in most of their classes, and I substitute-taught and participated on the principal’s advisory board. My girls both blossomed. Though the majority of the school was Muslim, no one ever tried to convert me or my kids. We did have plenty of open-minded conversations about religious differences, and learned a lot about Islam. The school was new, so sports and the arts programs were just getting started, and we were involved. This school did have central oversight, because it was part of a group of schools, and the consultants who visited, tested, and guided our school were knowledgeable and reasonable.

When we came back to the US, our younger daughter had her last two years in a large public high school that also had a strong IB program, marching band, and all the benefits I had at Western Guilford.

Setting up a new school takes time, money, and a lot of work. Most charter schools will not be better than the public schools they replace, but they will diminish the effectiveness of the local public schools. They will take public money and put it into the pockets of private companies and individuals. They will decrease educational diversity. And they will disproportionately hurt poor and special-needs students. Public school teachers recognize this, which is why they have lobbied against having a charter-school proponent in charge of our country’s public schools.

Photo Credit:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

He's Talking about All of Us

Image result for donald trump stalking Hillary picture

Trump's response was to scoff at the physical appearances of his accusers and opponent

Maybe it’s a woman thing. When Predator Trump talks about groping women, or the women he’s groped tell their stories, I feel personally violated and threatened. I feel sick to my stomach. And every male human seems a little more foreign and scary. Trump reminds me that we’re only a few generations evolved from the days when Genghis Khan and his type raped their way across Asia and Europe. The Daesch, Boko Haram, and the flourishing world-wide sex trade are proof that our daughters are not more safe than we were in the 1970’s. When one man says it’s okay to use superior strength or power to overcome women’s bodies, he’s talking about all of us…and all of them.

Regardless who wins this presidential election, we should prepare for more attacks on women. If it is Trump, more men and boys will adopt his attitudes. If Clinton, women will be derided the way Barack Obama has been. We will all appear more threatening, once the presidential glass ceiling has been broken. The congressmen who vowed to obstruct Obama’s progress are still in office. The voters who embraced Trump’s sexism, racism, bullying tactics, and xenophobia will still be among us. Self defense and self-esteem classes for young women should be mandatory. Men whose ideas have evolved will need to step up and be strong allies, because the next four years may not be easy.

But if Clinton wins, progress will be made, as it has been under President Obama. The next time a minority or woman runs for president, it will not be such a hurdle or insult to white men who have dominated our nation’s politics and economy since its inception. Women and people of color will receive more respect in all areas of business, academia, home-life, and politics. As our children grow up, the idea of a woman or minority in charge will not phase them; it will be as common as the personal computers we carry in our pockets.

Evil gives good people an opportunity to define themselves. Donald Trump has verbalized much of what is wrong with our country, starting with fear and lack of respect. He’s been so obvious that many people have felt compelled to speak up. And ultimately, he may do more good for American women's progress, by blatantly illustrating what we’re all fighting to put behind us.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dividing NC - Phil Berger

Phil Berger
     This is Phil Berger from Eden, powerful leader of the Republican majority in the NC legislature. From 2006-8, I served as advocacy chair for the Guilford County Council of PTA's. Along with other education leaders from Guilford County, I went to Raleigh to lobby our representatives to protect public schools from looming budget cuts. Because Mr. Berger represented northwest Guilford County, he was included in our delegation meetings.

     At that time, Democrats were in control of our legislature, and representatives like Pricey Harrison, Don Vaughn, Alma Adams, and Maggie Jeffus were quite receptive to our concerns. Republican Laura Wiley was sympathetic, and John Blust was friendly, though wanted mostly to talk about his flat tax idea.

    At the first meeting, Mr. Berger said he couldn’t help us, because Republicans were in the minority and had no power. During our second visit, he left early saying, “We don’t listen to teachers.”

     A couple of years later, the NC Tea Party swept Republicans into control of the NC legislature for “the first time in 100 years.” (Note that Democrats and Republicans switched ideological positions between the FDR presidency and the Civil Rights movement.)

     Not long after coming into power, Mr. Berger helped raise the Charter school cap, in a bill which divides and reduces support for NC's public schools. He didn’t listen to teacher or school system concerns about this bill. (You can read my editorial at:

     A year later, Berger and Thom Tillis brought us Amendment One, cleverly designed to divide our previously peaceful state over a controversial social issue. Again they ignored the concerns of teachers, law school professors, ministers and the public. Of course I wrote editorials…J

     The most recent insult is HB2, passed without listening to opposition from business people or teachers, meeting actual transgender people, or even watching a few seasons of Glee. “We don’t listen to teachers” Berger apparently doesn’t listen to anyone who disagrees with his far-right agenda.

     Unfortunately this deaf legislator seems immune to being voted out of his district. But we could limit his power if we change the majority or vote more moderates into the state legislature. We could also give veto power to a governor who understands constitutional law, and won’t use his office to promote discriminatory legislation. Roy Cooper might even listen to our teachers and school systems.

     The GOP can no longer claim to be the party of Lincoln or the authority on Biblical truth, because they have forgotten a most important sentiment expressed by Matthew, Mark, and Lincoln – “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Republican infighting and lack of support for our president at the national level is reflected at our state level by divisive and unnecessary legislation. NC and the country need to come back together over all we have in common, and stop using our minorities and children as political pawns. Our differences and our children make us stronger if we treat them as resources and build upon their strengths instead of using them to divide and conquer.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Building a Coalition against Daesh-bags

 King Abdullah II of Jordan meets with President Obama on 2/3/15

Why is this meeting significant?

King Abdullah II of Jordan met with President Obama on February 3, after the Daesh burned alive a heroic Jordanian pilot. On behalf of his people, King Abdullah vowed revenge and war against Daesh, and asked for increased support from America. After this vow and request, Abdullah has become a leading figure building the Islamic world’s opposition to Daesh.

I prefer to use the term Daesh for the group that currently calls itself Islamic State in Syria or Levant (ISIS, ISIL). Daesh is an Arabic term that means “to crush underfoot,” and the extremists apparently hate it. It implies that they are not a ‘state,’ and they do not represent Islam. They are cutthroat Daesh-bags. (Excuse my terminology, but you'll remember the name now, won't you?) They have declared war on the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East. The rest of us are next.

Groups like Daesh are to religion what rape is to sexuality. They twist and pervert something which is meant to be beautiful, a gift from God, weaponizing it into a tool of oppression, power, and criminal violence. Don’t be confused by their name; this is about politics, not religion.

Jordan’s alliance with the US has been strong over the years and King Abdullah’s father, King Hussein married American Lisa Halaby in 1978. Halaby, now Queen Noor al Hussein, is widely respected in Jordan and has occasionally served as an advisor to King Abdullah since his father’s death in 1999. When our family visited Jordan two years ago, we found the people well-educated, friendly toward Americans, and benefiting from medical centers and other assistance the US has provided. Jordan's leader is one of the best-positioned in the Arab world, to bring this request to America and create a coalition against Daesh.

Jordan is bordered to the north by Syria, to the east by Iraq, to the south by Saudi Arabia, and to the west by Israel/Palestine. This beautiful though poor country has accepted refugees throughout history; for example, Moses brought the Israelites to the banks of the Jordan River, and a group of the first Christians fled to Jordan after Jesus’ crucifixion. Millions of Palestinian refugees have made Jordan their permanent home, and they have also provided safe haven for Iraqi and Syrian refugees in recent years. A moderate Muslim country, Jordan does not tell its people how to worship or dress; in fact, we stayed in a town of Christian Arabs who celebrate Catholic mass. Jordan could easily be the next country targeted by Daesh.

The ancient Roman city of Jerash, recently excavated in Jordan, could come under attack by the iconoclastic Daesh.

The US acts like a modern Roman Empire in the rest of the world. We provide stability, infrastructure, and a pervasive culture. We also flex our military might to funnel profits back home. Like Rome, the American Empire is resented, especially when we do not act in the best interests of all people and when our culture overshadows local traditions. But we are the best option when alternative super-powers like China and Russia are considered. At least we have concern for human rights, and do not officially take over other governments. Our democracy and freedom of speech inspire idealists around the world, and foreign students want to attend American universities.

America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as our support for Israel, have made the US less popular in the Middle East. We are seen as interfering and blundering, yet we have also been criticized for doing too little for Syria as their civilian population has been decimated by civil war. I think this administration has tried to help on a smaller scale there, so we are not seen as imperialists for a change. We have waited for an invitation to add more fire power. On February 3, that invitation was delivered personally by King Abdullah. I hope Americans can pull together and accept this challenge, providing both military support and internal stabilization (such as job creation) for countries fighting Daesh.

I hear weariness in the words of moderate Muslims such as Dr. Yousaf Butt:  They are tired of Wahhabism and the extremism it engenders. Simply because the Saudis control Mecca and a wealth of oil does not mean they speak for all Muslims. Even in Saudi Arabia, many of the women are ready to drive and men want to let them.  Perhaps the new Saudi ruler can acknowledge the dangers of Daesh extremism and gradually distance his government from Wahhabi philosophy. Perhaps King Abdullah can encourage him in this effort.

The internet is allowing more moderate and progressive Muslims to speak without persecution, but they need support from American democracy and freedom of speech, as well as our military. It cannot happen overnight, but perhaps ultimate progress is being made, thanks to Daesh’s crimes against humanity and King Abdullah’s diplomacy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Compassionate Dolphins

              Musandam, Oman,                                               February 15, 2014

Compassionate Dolphins

Her calf was dead.
She nosed the baby to the air, but it would not breathe.
She carried it to the bottom, tried to lodge it under a shelf,
But the body kept rising to the surface.

Her pod surrounded her, grieved with her,
And dove with her in funereal formation
Over and over and over. 

We in the boats were not of her pod, or species
But the drivers observed the rite, and would not race that day.
We watched, transfixed, and held the dolphin family in the Light

As they rose to the air
and dove to the blue depths together in an elegiac procession
Over and over and over.

~Sharon S. Shepard

Compassion is the heart’s response to sorrow.
We share in the beauty of life and in the ocean of tears.
The sorrow of life is part of each of our hearts and part of what
connects us with one another. It brings with it tenderness, mercy,
and an all-embracing kindness that can touch every being.

~Jack Kornfield