This week, President Obama issued a controversial, three-part executive order preventing the deportation of over five-million illegal immigrants.

Presto! You are legal!

In Thursday night’s pathos-saturated speech to the American people, the president relied heavily on rhetorical questioning to appeal to our hearts and our patriotism,

“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?”

“Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together? Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us, or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America? That’s what this debate is all about.”

No, Mr. President; we are not. We are a nation which has famously welcomed the “tired, the poor,” the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the statue 2“wretched refuse” of other nations.  The Statue of Liberty calls, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

But once the immigrants get through that golden door, what happens? What becomes of them? In the case of the illegals who snuck in a golden back-window in the dead of night and then lived in constant fear of deportation, they may remain here, though they don’t necessarily have a path to citizenship just yet. They are assured that their family can and will thrive in the land of milk and honey, and if they cannot, their adopted Uncle Sam will see to it that they have what they need.

Yeah. That’s exactly how it works. Just ask the people in Appalachia, many the ancestors of the Scots-Irish and Europeans who waited in long lines to trudge through that golden door to mine black gold in the hills of West Virginia, Virginia, southern Ohio, and eastern Kentucky. immigrants2

When King Coal was dethroned, our nation expanded and extended support to the poorest counties of these states, via government social programs that were intended to get people on their feet. Fifty years after LB Johnson declared his  “War on Poverty, the poverty rates in rural Appalachia average slightly over 30%. In some areas as many as 47% of the people live on government support (Gabriel).

Consider, too, how this nation has provided for  the people who had already claimed this continent when the Europeans began colonizing. Our Native-American communities, confined within awkward reservation boundaries, fit the true definition of ghetto—there  is little escape from the cycle of poverty. One in four Native Americans and Native American Eskimos survive below the poverty level, with proportionately less government assistance than other American-poor (A Quiet Crisis).


Yet, Obama essentially has allowed millions of people who have bypassed the golden door to stay on and get an even bigger piece of the shrinking American pie, without any regard for the generations whose ancestors we welcomed centuries ago, nor for those who were here long before the United States of America existed.

President Obama’s bold action last week further taxes this nation’s resources and even further reduces its ability to improve the lives of America’s forgotten poor.

Signing that executive action, then asking us to be compassionate is akin to the neighborhood crazy cat  letting one more sad-eyed kitten in the door, crazy cat ladythen



another, then another, even though she hasn’t the time nor the resources to properly care for the ones she is already housing.

This laughably loose analogy doesn’t account for the fact that people can and, for the most part, want to work. But it does describe how taking too many people in as a compassionate act can have unintended consequences.

While I am a staunch advocate of our duty to care for, provide for, and fight for people throughout the world, I wonder why our president is more concerned with making things easier for people who disregarded American laws instead of investing in programs and industries and businesses that could boost the economic potential of rural Appalachia. The citizens of this region are among those Obama referred to in his address, who

“…go back generations in this country, with ancestors who put in the painstaking work to become citizens.”

I wonder why our president is not instead advocating for real change for  the Native Americans and Native Alaskans who live on resource rich territories with as high as 54% poverty rates, according to the 2010 US Census? I wonder why our president is not brazenly crafting and signing legislation that would extend loans to businesses willing to set up shop in coal country, bringing more jobs to some of the nation’s poorest areas.

America already cares for these people, you say? Sure! The people in need in these areas get Food Stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, government-subsidized education yet, wonder of wonders, they are still exceedingly, excruciatingly poor. Some areas could be described as  third-world poor. Almost 15% of Native American homes and schools on American reservations have no electrical service, though they may have wiring. A staggering 20% have no plumbing, and 18% have inadequate sewage-containment systems (US Census). poor-native-american-indians-shelter-shack-dilapitaed1



There are homes in rural Appalachia without connections to a local water service. No pipes, no toilets, no sinks. I’ve seen homes there with no windows. I once met a 19-year-old woman there who had not tasted a peach or a pear until I shared with her.

Is this the America the president closed his speech stating that “we love?” Is this the American Obama spoke about the other night, the one with a

“… shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will”?

As we were  reminded Thursday night, “we are and always will be a nation of immigrants.”  Ah, the romance. Then the roses stop coming…

America hasn’t made good on its promise to all of its immigrants. The country hasn’t even treated its native populace with honor and respect. It is ludicrous to  allow so many more people in, with so many more to follow, without ensuring that those that are already here can prosper.


“A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country.” US Commission on Civil Rights.  Report. July 2003.

Gabriel, Trip. “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back.” New York Times. April 20, 2014.

Krogstad, Jens Manuel. “One-in-four Native Americans and Alaska Natives are Living in Poverty.” Pew Research Center. FactTank: News in the Numbers. June 13, 2014.

Obama, Barack. Immigration Speech: Transcript. Washington Post. Nov. 20, 2014.

US Census Bureau (2000). US Census FactFinder. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Images from Native American Poverty in the US., The, US Immigration Archives.


All The World Is a Stage

A friend posted film-critic Roger Ebert’s commentary on yesterday’s mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

I side with Ebert on his major premise–that this horrific event is not reflective of a “violent nation,” but instead, the actions of a warped individual who created an opportunity for attention. Agreement ends there because Ebert insists that this phenomenon can be solved by taking guns out of the hands of American citizens. He points out that we are the only crazy nation that allows its people to own guns.

Banning guns will not solve this problem, because as Ebert has said, mass murder isn’t a violence problem…it is something else entirely. Before I present my analysis of just what that is, consider what former President Bill Clinton had to say in a CNN interview two days about his guilt over not taking action to stop the civil war in Rwanda: “Most of the people who were killed here were killed with machetes, so I don’t think that there was anything we could have done to stop the violence.”

And then consider the eerie coincidence of one of the victims of James Holmes’ shooting spree:  Jessica Ghawi happened to survive a similar shooting in a Toronto, Canada, mall just last month.  I’m not up on Canadian gun laws, but I assume that they are more restrictive than ours, which are based on a single, yet powerful sentence in our Constitution. Or we have more in common with our neighbors to the Great White North than we realize….

A friend once told me that she did not allow her kids to play with toy guns. So, her son made one by nibbling the edges of a slice of toast and pointed it at his sister. If people want weapons, they will make them.
If people want to hurt people, they will find a way, law be damned. If people want to hurt people to generate an audience, they will create the means to do it.

We are not a violent nation, influenced to take our own lives at the beckoning of a rock song, or to shed blood because we’ve annihilated zombie armies day after day on our X-Boxes. Study after study has posited that being exposed to violence in the media, or in our neighborhoods and in what should be the sanctity of our homes, however, has desensitized us to violence, creating a nation less empathetic to the harm done to others, and a nation less likely to draw a  distinction between fictional violence and real violence.

While this desensitization may play a role in Holmes’ actions, it is only part of an obviously much greater  problem. While he may not be able to feel for the victims of his murderous spree, the fact that the rest of us are so strongly affected  demonstrates that we have not suffered deep damage from all the bloodshed we have seen –an  instinctive compassion and respect for life remains at our very core.

Logic eliminates our access to firearms as the root cause of Holmes’ attack. If that premise were sound, these horrific displays would be much more frequent.  And if Holmes wasn’t simply desensitized to violence, or lacking empathy, or a video-game junkie seeking revenge on the bullying world, what, aside from an almost certain  diagnosis  of mental-illness, could explain this?

Ebert points out that this 24-year-old with a strong record of academic success wanted attention of the worst kind. He may have been angry, or frustrated in some way with the hand that he’d been dealt–we do not yet have any clue about this just yet–and for some reason, he decided to either seek revenge  on this cruel world, or seek an audience.


James Holmes wanted and got an audience.

He stole the stage in a sold out show. He said, “I am more powerful than this movie. Notice me.”

Mental illness is surely at the root of his choices, but the desire to take the stage and be noticed fueled the fire.

And for this, I do blame  our media, and specifically, the media celebrit-ization of the average American citizen, a transformation I have witnessed in my students over the 15 years I have been teaching.

Once MTV’s Real World. reached cult status among the college crowd (around 2000 or so), I noticed a disturbing phenomenon in essay content. Students began writing confessionals, decadent  tales of their prom-night escapades, drug use, nights out with friends, criminal behavior, gossip-soaked dialogue.   Yes, people have always written these things in their diaries and journals, but they did not create them for public consumption.

Reality TV saturated the listings just as young people were expanding their lives in MySpace…a place where they could be seen.  Then, began the practice of self-photography. Young people began pointing the camera at their own faces, and capturing themselves in the restroom mirror, and sharing with the world, perhaps because they could.  Our technology allows us to be  pseudo-models, too.

Facebook provides yet another even bigger stage  for us to perform, get noticed, and achieve a pseudo-stardom, at least among our 1,189 pseudo-friends.


Our technology has proved the perfect vehicle for this reality-show rhetoric to eek its way into our life narratives.

And while we are achieving celebrity on the World Wide Web, reality TV continues to make stars out of the most unlikely, if not despicable, characters. Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi wasn’t  discovered in a drugstore and transformed into a Hollywood legend,  a la  Lana Turner. She didn’t work her way up the celebrity ladder with talent and moxie, like Madonna. She is a nobody just like the rest of us, whose ridiculous, bawdy behavior appeals to our prurient interests. Every one of us could be a “Snooki,” if we were willing to put on a show.

James Holmes chose to put on a very different show and cast himself as the villain. He used guns, armor, and tear-gas as his props. If they had been banned, he would have found or fashioned his weaponry. As every actor knows, the show must go on.



When the Roll is Called Up Yonder….

Learning to play the banjo has been on my “things to do before I die” list since  the halcyon days of the Nixon Administration. It’s been on my Christmas List for at least 12 years–even Santa thought I was joking.

The desire to play stretches back to elementary school days when I first saw George Segal use his banjo in a comedy routine on  The Tonight Show. Joking has always been my way of dealing with crisis, so I can only believe that I was drawn to Segal’s unique way of generating laughter.

My shift in interest  from the minstrel-ragtime sound to the mountain music or Old-time banjo manifest over a couple of decades as I found myself drawn to learning about the Appalachian music tradition. I find a beautiful honesty in that music’s tales.

Life has a way of passing …and those of us who make it through another day seem to appreciate the blessing more and more as we rack up  the years , I’ve found myself awfully sentimental, nostalgic,and most of all, aware  that younger I am not a gettin’.  This life–this present–has no permanence. If we are lucky, it will transform over time, but we all tuck away the secret fear that it could possibly change in an instant. Over the last year, I have been making a point to appreciate each and every day and to quote the Grass Roots, Lalalalalala live for today.

So that brings me to why I bought my banjo , and what I am struggling with as I wrestle with time and obligations to learn to play it.

First came the opportunity in the form of a side-job at work that gave me the extra cash to afford a step up from a beginner model. Then, came the elimination of my summer work from the university budget, allowing me time…or at least the false  promise of some extra time.

I told my colleagues that the banjo was coming. I told my husband and kids. I don’t think any of them truly believed it would happen.

But after my spring courses came to a close and I had cash in hand, the banjo was delivered, and the fun began.

I started with Clawhammer Banjo from Scratch–lesson one, learning all the terminology, how to hold the instrument, and fretting the notes. I worked around baseball games, tournaments, other people’s sleep schedules, our pre-schooler’s schedule, housecleaning, errands…let’s just say life is getting in the way of living for today.

I practiced the right arm “clawhammer drop thumb” for an hour each day on the banjo for a week, and replicated the movement  while shuttling kids here and there in the car, hoping to make the move second-nature. I started learning some basic chords and how to make a smooth transformation between them. Then, I moved on to Lesson 2, which required that I put my banjo in Double-C tuning.  Plink, boing, Plunk–three strings were snapped and coiled in ten minutes time. I broke my toy!

So the waiting set in. No nearby music store had banjo strings in stock, so I turned to Amazon and ordered three sets.  I turned to YouTube and felt fairly confident that I could –and should learn to –complete this routine maintenance.

A week later, I had strings and time to string and tune. The stringing was the easy part; the tuning took an hour with an electronic tuner. BUT, I never could get it in Double-C. So,I gave up and tried to get it back into the original  G tuning. Just when I thought I would never “get it” and hear those strings sing as sweetly as they did the day I took the banjo out of the box, I  tweaked a peg just right and heard by ear–not by the tuner readout–that I had nailed it.

At first I saw this as one huge setback, but now I feel satisfied at  accomplishing this important step in the learning process. I’m not an expert at stringing and tuning, but someday….

Tonight I should have time to get back to learning a few chords and focus on finally learning to play a song. Maybe I should try ‘When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”   I hope I can  play by the time that my name is called, oh that’s provided my name  is called! At this rate, I might be able to cross this off my ”  things to do before I die” list before my hands are too arthritic to hold a pen.

Health Care: Right or Responsibility?


It’s an expense.

Health care is an economic commodity, just like food, clothing, shelter, cell-phones, cable television, and X-box 360s. And the health care system is simply an industry, or rather, an amalgamation of industries that provide preventative, emergency, maintenance, and palliative care; pharmaceuticals and supplies, and insurance coverage.

It might seem a bit of a stretch to compare a “need” such as health care to a video game system, which is clearly a “want.” But consider that most of us put those wants ahead of needs like health care, and instead of putting aside money from each paycheck to cover for unanticipated medical calamities, choose to invest in the latest Blackberry, which like an automobile loses a requisite amount of its value the minute you step out of the Verizon store. Putting money aside for health maintenance and emergencies is the furthest thing from our minds, which is why culturally we have come to rely so heavily on health insurance.

When the rainy day comes, as it is bound to do by the laws of nature, we are quick to curse the weatherman for his faulty forecast when we could have seen the clouds rolling in and carried the umbrella.

We don’t consider food, clothing and shelter “rights” that we are all entitled to. They are, in fact, expenses…needs that we have access to through the labor exchange. If a citizen is unable to exchange work for money, and cannot afford housing, clothing, and food, there are means—some government, read: taxpayer supported—to provide.  There is no need nationalize the food-manufacture and delivery system (although we do subscribe to an interesting system of government implemented agricultural price controls, but that is a topic for another blog). No one in Congress is calling for the nationalization of clothing manufacture, sales, and distribution so that the poor can afford what the middle-class and wealthy can.

OK, I admit that I am stretching the analogy and comparing apples to oranges. The fact is Americans need access to affordable quality health care. They can live with the Wrangler jeans donated by a charity or purchased for $5 at the Goodwill, if need be.  They cannot live well without preventative care and without a physician’s care for maladies. That doesn’t mean that we are entitled to that care. It doesn’t make it a right.

 That doesn’t mean that we can have the Xbox and insist that someone else pay for our child’s immunizations.  It means that we have to live within our means and we have to view medical bills as costs of living.

After talking with my students last night after they read two articles on the subject, I’ve  worked out a therapy plan for the crippled system.

Helen Wheales’ Health Care Plan

Reform the current entitlement programs: All sides in this argument agree that the health-care system in the globe’s most free and wealthy society is not working as it could and should. I know that some on the Conservative side of the aisle and my Libertarian pals will cringe at the suggestion, but the government should start reforming Medicare and Medicaid by expanding them to cover those 45 million people that they claim are currently underserved. This, of course, is in opposition to HR 3299, the Health Reform Act that aims to cure the nation’s malaise by mandating coverage to all citizens, currently covered or not, and creating a utopian, public-sector program.

Ideally, I’d like to see the big-Ms  privatized, which would iron out a lot of wrinkles, specifically where doctor access is concerned. Physicians are increasingly refusing Medicare/Medicaid patients not only because payments are slow in coming, but because they are low. This can’t get any better under the Obamacare consolidated insurance system—a single-payer system—in which salaried physicians are forced to accept a government-agency-determined pre-payment for delivery of care.

–Let market forces work their magic

It’s Econ 101- supply and demand.  Demand is a want or need backed by the almighty dollar. Supply is the ability to keep up with demand. The market equalizes when supply and demand intersect. In the case of health care, this creates a consumer-driven market. Prices should fall for things like a standard physicians visit when physicians are allowed to compete for patients by lowering rates, packaging services, and offering monthly fees and packages.

Insurance prices would be considerably more competitive with carriers competing for consumer dollars in a way not unlike Allstate, State Farm, Geiko, Safe Auto, and Progressive insurance companies compete to cover our autos.

This situation currently does not exist BECAUSE of government intervention in commerce, which prevents interstate competition in the health-care insurance industry. Eliminating this roadblock would be akin to tearing down the Berlin Wall, freeing us to shop around, to use the Internet, to create a la carte plans not unlike what the aforementioned car insurance companies offer. Consumer choice would drive the market.

–Shift away from discussions of Rights and toward discussion of Responsibilities

All of us need to take charge of, take responsibility for, our own health care. That might mean we invest in health care savings plans, and it might mean changing our diets, getting the suggested exercise.reventative care and healthy lifestyles as a matter of choice could (and should) affect insurance premiums, just as our driving record affects our auto insurance rates.
–Tort Reform

Nothing would lighten the costs of most doctors more than an overhaul of the tenuous relationship between the legal and medical professions. Tort reform lifts the heavy load of the excessive malpractice-insurance and liability premiums, which are passed on to the health-care consumer. Instituting reasonable protections, such as an early settlement system for claims against doctors, a “safe harbor” system which protects them from non-evidence based lawsuits, and special “health courts” where judges specializing in medicine would afford speedier trials, lowering overhead and creating a more open medical malpractice system that could even weed out those physicians who shouldn’t be practicing in a manner not unlike that which strips members of the legal community of their licenses when they are deemed unfit to serve.

 It is clear–major widespread changes are needed, but the current proposal making the rounds on Capitol Hill will not solve the problem and create affordable care that maintains, if not exceeds, the current quality of care we expect in the world’s most developed nation. Modest improvements won’t do the job, but neither will nationalizing the system.

On Pandora, ‘The Giver of Gifts”

Nothing shifts my mood like music–my favorite music.  This morning  I settled in to my seat to finish off some grading in a less-than enthusiastic state. Sigh… another day, another round of student writers to coach.

I sign on to Pandora, an automated Internet music site, then toggle back to the student-essay file. Named after the Greek goddess who “sends up gifts,” it lifts my mood by launching into Led Zeppelin’s Traveling Riverside Blues, followed by the live version of Whole Lotta Love.

With this soundtrack lifting my spirit, not only do I breeze through the day’s workload, but I also start some writing that I hadn’t quite been able to push myself to do.

I discovered Pandora Radio about a year ago, while shackled in the silence of grading student essays.  Unlike those students, my entire music catalogue is not housed in mp3 files, but on CDs and vinyl shelved in alphabetical order in my home office/family room.

Just as I need music to step up the pace and keep me moving toward my goals when working out, I need rhythm to move me from paper to paper, some harmony to inspire my feedback. But pushing that desk chair away from the screen, and poring over the possibilities in my music canon,  can and does distract me enough to throw me off from the grading task.  So, Pandora is a great alternative—she pulls the tracks that keep me moving.

The goddess Pandora has a bad rep in our mythology–she is, after all, credited with opening a box from which escapes all the evils and misery that plague us. In fact, there is much controversy over the interpretation of the Pandora myth that is wrapped up in semantics. Some say releasing evil was a bad thing, yet others claim the story has been  misunderstood and that she really released blessings onto the world, rather than ills.

  I take the more optimistic reading of the myth and see her as Hesiod does in Works and Days, as an innocent and curious woman who holds one last thing in her box—hope for humanity. I guess it all depends on how you look at it. Is your Pandora’s  box half full, or half empty? 

I feel blessed today. I’ve got another round of student writers to coach while listening to my favorite music.