Cuba for Christmas

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Old_Havana_CubaKen was pretty upset when he discovered that somebody had broken into our van and stolen, among other items, the leather satchel that he had bought in Cuba.

Ken Brown was the longtime head of the Peace Studies program at Manchester College and a good friend. Over the winter break at the college he often took a few of his students on a foreign trip. I’m imagine when he got a group to Cuba it was through Mexico.

I’m sure if he were living today, he’d celebrate President Obama’s move to restore relations with the island nation, just 90 miles off our shore.

The year of the theft I had joined Ken and Manchester students to attend a huge peace conference at Riverside Church, whose minister then was the noted peace advocate, William Sloan Coffin, model for Rev. Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip minister.

That year the issue at the New York conference was nuclear disarmament. What calls this to mind now was that years earlier, Soviet Chairman Kruschev attempted to introduce nuclear missiles to Cuba. I was in graduate school in Cincinnati at that time. I clearly recall President Kennedy breaking into the regular TV program to announce a “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from entering Cuban waters and delivering the nuclear missiles.

I believe it was that same week I drove to a suburban school after class to receive my polio vaccine. Of course, the Cuban missile crisis dominated the news. Another thing that sticks in my mind was the news coverage of U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson displaying aerial photographs of prepared missile sites in Cuba.

Stevenson then declared to the Soviet ambassador that he’d “wait until hell freezes over” for an explanation of the presence of those missile sites in Cuba. I’ve rarely seen such drama in all the years tuning into U.N. proceedings.

Americans, of course, had egg on their face too. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, in planning under President Eisenhower, turned into a rout by Cuban forces. After the Kennedy assassination, pundits speculated that Castro had taken revenge. That was yet another way Cuba has broken into our consciousness. Never mind that the conspiracy buffs have always been unable to show proof.

Our many years of the trade embargo has helped devastate the Cuban economy, although central planning has played a major role in the island’s economic problems. And this, after Cuban Americans have been sending billions of dollars to families still in Cuba. I read that it was $3.5 billion last year.

I suppose American politicians’ reluctance to restore normal relations with Cuba has a lot to do with Florida politics. Thousands of Cuban refugees and their children live in Florida. Many are politically active. The older generation remains fervently anti-Castro. They vote accordingly in this crucial swing state.

But that generation is dying out. I understand a majority of younger Cuban-Americans have welcomed President Obama’s overture to Cuba. Meantime, throughout the hemisphere, Latin American countries, including the once anti-American Venezuela, have been celebrating the president’s move.

I still haven’t found my copy of Old_Havana_Cuba‘s Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952. When I taught English, I often assigned the novel. The Pulitzer committee cited the novel awarding Hemingway the prize in 1953 and, shortly later, the Nobel Prize. To me, the novel, set off the coast of Cuba, seems strangely relevant to me now.

In this brief yet remarkable story, we read of an old fisherman being pulled by a marlin he hooked for hours after days of failing to catch any fish. But old Santiago finally got his big catch to shore, the marlin destroyed by shark on the way in.

As Hemingway put it, “Defeated but not destroyed.” Which now could be said of the American-Cuban relationship. Obama’s opening is a good thing for both countries.

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Map to a better world

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screen568x568I know there are lots of publications that promote worthy causes. Many church and other religious magazines feature people who are doing well by doing good. Every issue it seems of our Unitarian Universalist “UUWorld” spotlights such folk and champions such causes as the homeless, safe drinking water in faraway countries and prisoners of conscience.

Yes, there are lots of publications out there. But I discovered a new magazine at Barnes & Noble this week that surely must rate as one of the slickest and most compelling publications promoting good causes. It’s named “Unite 4: Good.”

I did a double-take when I first noticed the magazine. I wondered why pick November for the first issue, although I suppose the timing has something to do with the busy holiday shopping season coming up when book stores fill with customers.

An almost life-size photography of actor Forest Whitaker appears on the cover. Inside the magazine, Whitaker is shown with children in South Sudan. That’s the newly created country following the Sudan’s civil war. The inspiring article that accompanies the photographs is one of hope for this impoverished part of the world.

In his introductory essay, founder Anthony Melikhov writes about his hopes for new publication. Here’s a guy who wants to change the world. I’m all for him!

Indeed, the magazine is an ambitious undertaking. Inside this inaugural issue, you’ll find stories with compelling photographs of animals recently removed from the Endangered Species List. There’s a rating of the world’s top health care systems. The United Kingdom rates Number One. You guessed it. The United States didn’t make the list. Obviously there’s still work on this issue for Americans to do. President Obama’s plan isn’t the last word.

Unite 4: good offers practical ideas for all kinds of people. On this page you’ll see ways to improve your relationships with family members. In another section, you’ll find college programs that prepare you for jobs where you can help make it a better world. You’ll read about ways to try out your talents. Then another story features “Moth” bars. I hadnt heard of them. They’re in 14 cities. These cozy looking bars invite customers to entertain people with a five-minute story. Now that’s cool.

Founder Melikhov believes such articles can inspire readers to give back to their communities. His argument is that getting ahead at others’ expense no longer works. Rather, he and his stable of writers and photographers are committed to the idea that “we’re all in this together.” So here it is. It’s a publication that promotes a happier world. About time for the Bible to have some competition.

Even when you close the magazine and start for the desk to pay or to return the publication to the shelf, the visuals on the back cover challenge you to good words. You glance at the back and there they are, logos for 13 good causes, affiliates of the magazine. These include unicef, DO something.org, Feeding American, Boys and Girls Clubs and Points of Light.

I’m taken back more than 50 years to a small religious college in Michigan. It’s the first chapel service of the semester. I’m a freshman, sitting about halfway back from the piano and pulpit. The speaker for this inaugural service is evangelist Jack Anderson of South Carolina. He’s in the area to conduct evangelistic meetings.

“Students,” he begins, “There are a lot of good people in the world.”

It’s one of the few lines of any chapel speaker in all my eight years in religious colleges that I remember. Maybe I remember because Anderson’s words were about the best. I have no idea what else he said.

These days, I’m hardly alone wondering why there’s so much meanness and violence, so much hatred and cruelty. I’m at a loss to understand people responsible for kidnappings of young girls in Africa, for beheadings in the Mideast and for pointless executions in otherwise quiet neighborhoods in American cities. That’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.

The facts are worth repeating. Horrible things often dominate the news because they are the exceptions. You have to look for the evangelist’s good people in the profiles of the feature sections. Or, most likely, you can look next door. In all likelihood, folks there are helping make the world a better place.

If you’d like to jump in, check out this new magazine, November issue. It’s called Unite 4: good.

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Democracy muddles ahead

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Thad Gerardot
Thad Gerardot

Election Day our precinct was voting at our Unitarian church. Every day I walk or jog through the church parking lot. Tuesday, I stopped to get in line to vote. My wife Toni met me in the lobby to check me in. She usually works at the polls. But this day she had only to drive across our subdivision at some ungodly hour of the morning to get her assignment. Daughter Robyn was working at another polling site. It seems our family just enjoys getting involved in the nation’s affairs.

No matter what outcome I expect, I never hesitate to head for the polls. All my adult life I’ve never understood why some many Americans don’t bother. When we lived one year in Washington D.C., we voted absentee ballots. This day I struck up a conversation with a young black woman in front of me in line. I had just started telling her about interviewing hundreds of candidates when I was writing editorials for the morning newspaper in Fort Wayne, The Journal Gazette. Then, she was summoned to vote as one of the three voting machines had become open.

I looked around at the gathering of voters. I couldn’t help wondering how many bothered to read the newspaper’s election editorials. How else could they get an impartial, informed take on the candidates? Surely, few people take the paid TV and radio political commercials as fair or even truthful. Apparently, candidates and their advisers believe the ads work. They sure spend lots of money on them.

I stepped behind the voting machine. In that instant, I realized I had skipped reading some of the endorsement editorials in my old paper. I didn’t remember to carry the list of endorsements along to our voting precinct.

I turned page after page on the machine. Of course, I saw lots of names I recognized. I quickly marked my ballot for a few of them, including a judge up for retention. We graduated from high school together and he did some legal work for me. But I saw names for state offices that I didn’t recognize. What a handicap so many voters confront, not only those who never interviewed candidates but also those who never researched the office or the candidates’ qualifications.

As a long-time news junkie, going back to my school days, I had been reading the stories and the opinion columns so the election night results didn’t surprise me. For weeks, opinion polls had been finding that voters nationwide were telling pollsters how turned off they were to politics, indeed how angry they were at Congress and the president.

Still, the Democrats took an almost historic drubbing. Republicans picked up more than a dozen seats in the U.S. House. Even more important, they won enough Senate seats to give them the majority in that body, making one of my least favorite politicians, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader. I will say that the day after the election, I saw photographs of the man smiling. That’s new to me.

The pundits put a lot of the blame for the Democrats’ losses on President Obama.
After listening and watching him for six years, I understand some people would be weary of the man. I got tired of George W. Bush long before that. But that’s hardly sufficient reason for turning the U.S. Senate over to the opposing party. There’s more to it than dislike of President Obama.

Start with the gridlock in Congress. No progress on climate change. Scientists say that imperils our very planet. No progress on immigration reform. Nothing on entitlements. Or the tax code. Or a reduction in the income gap between the middle-class and the rich. Who to blame for the failure to act on such issues? Much of the blame belongs to the Republican majority in the House.

In fact, national Republicans ran a nearly agenda-free campaign. Election night Sen. McConnell said he didn’t want to give away the game plan before the first play of the game. But then why put the Republicans in charge of both houses? Go figure.

I confess that I’ve liked President Obama since he was a junior senator from Illinois. He was our luncheon speaker one day at an editorial writers’ conference in Chicago. I’ve voted twice for him. I think he’s brought dignity back to the office of the president. For my money, he’s a fine speaker. He’s been a decent president.

Naturally, I haven’t always agreed with his decisions. I haven’t supported drone wars in the Mideast and Africa. I think the spying on citizens has encroached on our civil liberties. It has not kept our country safer. But in the meantime, Obama has been a strong supporter of causes I believe in, a higher minimum wage, cuts in the overblown defense budget and judicial appointees who are not ideologues.

Fortunately, the Republicans didn’t win enough Senate seats to give them the votes to prevent Democratic filibusters. The Republicans are far short of the 67 votes to override a presidential veto. There they are, folks, checks and balances. Thank our Founding Fathers for that.

On a personal note, I was very sorry that our young friend Thad Gerardot lost to the Republican incumbent in one of the more closely watched Indiana House races. Toni had worked hard and made lots of calls on Thad’s behalf. I found him extremely qualified and fair-minded, quite knowledgeable about state and local issues and a darn good listener, a rarity among politicians.

I hope we’ll hear more from Thad. I sure hope so. Even when a terrific candidate loses, that person has performed a vital public service, giving a voice to his or her supporters and assuring that our democracy will remain vibrant and durable for many years to come.

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