Monday, June 27, 2011

Grandkids and Turtles and Oil

It was exactly one year ago this week that I posted the first of these blog notes. I was inspired to start the blog by the oil spill in the Gulf. At that time the oil well was still pouring the slick brown fluid into the ocean, with little sign of relief. It was a pretty frightening moment for many, many people. Jobs were lost, beaches closed, marshes ruined. And no one knew when the crisis might end.

Well, it did, later last summer. And while many things have returned to normal, there are still those who are struggling to get back on their feet. And while the Gulf seems to be doing much, much better, there are those who wonder if we just can't see ongoing damage.

I was struck by the lead article in the Sarasota newspaper this past Friday, that reported greatly increased bookings at resorts and hotels on Siesta Key, another coastal island to the north of us on the Gulf. The beach had been named the #1 beach in the country by Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman in May, and the article suggested that the publicity resulted in the increase in business. "Last summer," the reported noted, "Siesta and other SW Florida beaches suffered from significant tourism losses amid incorrect perceptions that the area had been tainted by BP Deepwater Horizon oil." (Herald Tribune, 6-24-11)

Here on Sanibel business has also improved this spring. And that is well and good. Truly! But I worry a bit that a return to normalcy will bring with it new apathy. This past weekend the Hands Across the Sand event was held, protesting offshore drilling, and it drew a very small number of folks. Do people no longer care--or have they been lulled into complacency?

Last year in that initial post I wrote, "I hold out hope that we can learn some valuable lessons from all this." And I still do. I still hold out hope. But in this day and age of short news cycles, I also worry a bit. I worry for my children's children, and their children as well.

Saturday, my oldest son took his two boys on a beach walk hosted by a naturalist from the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. They all learned much as the naturalist showed them a turtle nest, measured eggs, and instructed them in how important it is to be careful of their cordoned off nests. The turtles are here on Sanibel as well. And we also have their nests cordoned off.

Unfortunately we can't cordon off the whole Gulf--but we can do a better job of taking care of it.
And we must. For the turtles, and the dolphins, and the mangroves, and the pelicans and the children. All of them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The ABC's of Life

My wife Linda and I were looking at some old pictures this weekend, when we came across some things her mother had saved from Linda's days in elementary school. Among them were her report card from kindergarten, and a certificate she received in first grade. It was complete with a gold star, and it acknowledged that she had successfully learned her ABC's.

"Isn't it amazing," I said, "today most children know their alphabet by the time they get into kindergarten! Kids learn so much more so much earlier these days!"

"I know," said Linda, "we didn't study much in kindergarten we just played and learned to share."

Later I went back and looked at that kindergarten report card again--and discovered she was right! The various things she was graded on were all listed in the first person. Things like: "I sing well with the group." "I enjoy stories." "I use materials with care." "I work and play well with others." "I keep my hands off others."

As I looked over that report card from over fifty years ago, I was reminded of an essay Robert Fulgham wrote many years ago called "All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." And I couldn't help but wonder if it might be a good idea to step back and reexamine our growing emphasis on academics in the earliest of years--after all, you can only do so much in the course of a day.

Maybe before children learn to recite the alphabet and count numbers and identify shapes and colors, maybe before they learn to write their names we need to make sure they are learning some of the basics needed for getting along in society and in the world. After all children who sing well with a group and who use materials with care and who keep their hands off others may just grow up to be concerned about things like living with others in peace, and caring for our planet.

And maybe, if we were to choose just one of the old categories to make certain is included in kindergarten lesson plans today, we'd do well to consider "I listen when others speak." Come to think of it, most of us adults would do well to take a refresher course in that one.

(Photo: Linda Bradbury-Danner on her fifth birthday, just before starting kindergarten.)

Monday, June 13, 2011

No More Cards

I was in the card store recently and I suddenly realized I don't need to buy any Father's Day cards this year. My grandfathers have been gone for many years now; my father-in-law almost three, and my own Dad died a year ago last September. It was a funny feeling as I stood in the aisle realizing that as the oldest son I'm the patriarch in my family.

I didn't know either of my grandfathers very well, but I suspect they were pretty special. My mother's Dad loved Dickens, he even owned a set of his complete works. I have it now, onn the top shelf of one of my bookcases. I love Dickens--and I love to read. Something got through to me!

My father's Dad was a bit of an enigma to me. I only met him two or three times over the years. He lived in Florida all his life--but on the other coast. Mostly in West Palm Beach. I've lived in the Northeast most all of my life. Heavens, I was born in Bangor, Maine and have degrees from places like Boston University. You don't get more yankee than that! Still, moving here does feel like something of a homecoming!

My father-in-law was a lovely guy. He was kind and quietly supportive. He loved a cup of coffee with a donut, and ate candy like it was going out of style! He was a hard worker throughout his life, holding down a job well past retirement. And he volunteered at his church, with the Boy Scouts and for the local meals-on-wheels program where he lived. And the man knew how to hug! I was privileged to have him in my life for almost twenty-five years.

And then there was my own Dad. He was a preacher too. And while we often disagreed about theology, and sometimes about politics, he always really listened to what I had to say. He didn't just blow me off. Other than a few conversations in my teen years, our discussions were always marked by real civility and mutual respect. And I never once doubted if he loved me. He loved God, my mother, his four children, the church, ice cream, Scotland and licorice, probably in that order. Some days I miss him so much I almost cry. Some days I do.

No, I won't have to buy any cards for Father's Day this year. But as the family patriarch, I can make sure I pass on some of the things I learned from Dad and the others to my children and their children as well. I can pass on a love of reading, a sense of home, a good hug and a reminder that they are truly loved.

(Photo: John Danner and his father, Howard, circa 1987)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dr. Death Is Dead

Dr. Death is dead. (It sounds like something out of an Ingmar Bergman movie.) He is said to have helped over one hundred folks commit suicide, and was eventually imprisoned as a result. Apparently, though, his own demise was unassisted. And so one of the more controversial figures of the last few decades, Jack Kevorkian, has breathed his last.

The controversy he sparked, however, is far from over. And the basic question his actions prompted is as old as humankind. Do we have the right to take a life--even if it is our own? In some traditions, suicide is viewed as a mortal sin. Others see it as the result of some mental imbalance. Kevorkian asked us to see it as a viable option when life becomes fraught with incurable pain. But what if, as some contend, pain is a great teacher?

And should doctors, those sworn to preserve life, ever be involved in actively ending it? Is physician assisted suicide totally contrary to the role doctors play in our lives--or an extension of their efforts to help people cope with the physical and psychological challenges that come along the way?

I know a man who helped his father commit suicide. His father was in his late eighties at the time. He had terminal cancer and wanted to be free of the pain that wracked his body. He wanted to die with a measure of dignity. My friend loved his Dad deeply, and when he begged his son to help him die, he reluctantly agreed. He said it was the hardest thing he ever did--but he knew it was right.

Whenever my friend brings up the subject, I'm never been sure how to respond. Part of me is horrified. Part of me knows what it means to love a father so dearly you'd do most anything to help him out. Part of me says, "You shall not kill." Part of me says, "Honor your father and your mother." I just don't know. And as the various opinions and laws around the country demonstrate, neither do a lot of other folks.

Dr. Death is dead. But the controversy he engendered is, indeed, far from over.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

And Miles to Go . . . .

Thirty years ago this month in June of 1981 the Center for Disease Control issued a report about five young men in Los Angeles who had contracted a very rare form of pneumonia, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). This turned out to be the beginning of public awareness of what would in time be called AIDS.

Initially, it appeared to be an illness restricted to gay men, but it soon become clear that others could and did contract it as well. At the time, rumors, half-truths and even vicious lies were spread about the disease--and those who had it. No doubt, it was fueled by homophobia. I had one friend who was evicted from his apartment when his landlord discovered he was sick. And there were all sorts of reports of others who met the same fate or worse.

Over the years, like any preacher who takes on controversial issues, I have been criticized for taking this or that position. But I've only been publicly heckled once. I was the president of a group forming a hospice in upstate New York, and one of our board members had just lost a son to AIDS. The situation had been made all the more difficult because of the stereotypes and prejudices that faced him and his family. So I decided to speak to the issue in my keynote address at our annual meeting.

I didn't say anything that I thought was all that radical. "God doesn't punish us with heart disease," I told the audience of hospice supporters, "and gays do not 'deserve' to get AIDS." Suddenly there was some rustling at a back table in the dining room. "That's not true!" I heard someone say. "A major piece of the solution to the AIDS crisis," I went on to say, "rests in setting aside our moral judgement of gay persons." At that, the couple in the back of the room stood up. Muttering to folks as they made their way to the door, and throwing a glare in my general direction, they stormed out.

That was the late-eighties--and things have improved since that time in terms of our knowledge of and ability to treat HIV/AIDS. And homophobia, while still very real, does seem to be less rampant. Still, some one million people in this country alone have the disease--and 56,000 more contract it every year. And in other parts of the world, it is still seen in pandemic proportions.

The mother of that young man whose death prompted my speech, once told me that what bothered her most about the whole situation was the ignorance people displayed in the face of such tragedy. It bothered me too. That's why I spoke out. That's why we need to continue to speak out until the day comes when HIV/AIDS is a thing of the past.