Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On My Dime

I’ve long been a news junkie. I have lived in places where it was a matter of life and death to have access to credible news sources. These days my less adventurous life allows for less hypervigilence. My main sources of news are NPR,, NY times and Jon Stewart – not necessarily in that order when it comes to integrity or credibility. I listen to NPR when in my car. I can’t access it from inside my home with any clarity. The other day I heard a tidbit that piqued my interest; apparently the IRS, not known for its innovative thinking, is considering the provision of a receipt for taxes paid. The belief behind the idea is that Americans need to feel a sense of patriotism and citizenship when they pay their taxes and a receipt would go a long way towards showing individuals how much money they have contributed to various government functions by paying their taxes.

Sounds like a plan, possibly even a good plan, as long as they actually print receipts that show the truth. I suspect there would be a surge in anti-war sentiment if we actually knew, with accuracy, how much of our tax dollars go to conducting our multiple wars. There might even be a bit of a peak in the desire for a reduction in Pentagon spending – after all how many more obsolete weapons do we need to manufacture considering that we currently have the world’s third largest airforce parked near Tuscon, Arizona, each plane carrying a multi-million dollar price tag while it earns a few dollars as a tourist attraction ( Perhaps we might also experience a little embarrassment, even shame, when we see how small the percentage of our tax dollars go to provide international aid -less than 1% of GDP. You would think the Christian right who like to tout the moral and fiscal value of tithing at a rate of 10% would be outraged by our collective miserliness in this respect.

Perhaps we might get to learn the multiple places and services where our government sends financial support. Personally I would like to see an end to corporate welfare. I don’t know how much of my money goes to places like Exxon and Shell and even British Petroleum – how do they qualify for my tax dollars? Bernie Sanders has done us a great favor by publishing the list of the top ten corporate Welfare Queens. And none of them are driving up to the supermarket in cadillacs – they are sending their personal shoppers to Washington to bring home the cash.

Is there anywhere I am willing to send my money? Of course there are a myriad of places.

Recently I had the privilege of applying for my first American passport. After living here for almost 20 years, the 2008 elections inspired me to go forward with my application for citizenship. I knew it was time to vote.

The process of passport application has changed somewhat since I stepped my American children through the process. I guess they want to make it appear that the process can weed out the nefarious types who might have the audacity to apply for an American passport.

Once the photo, my original citizenship certificate, the application, and the check for $110 was placed carefully into the packet by the Post Office employee all I had to do was wait. The $25 check I had to write for the Post Office seemed like a small price to pay to get the passport and my original certificate returned. Presumably it also paid the young woman who was filling in for the usual passport person. She had to field five phone calls to deal with hostile inquiries while I sat in her office completing paper work and ultimately swearing that what I said was true and I truly qualified for an American passport. Would that it would be so easy for our President to put to rest the persistent birther bovine scatology.

Life has a way of flipping over on itself sometimes bringing us into places we may have witnessed but not experienced first hand. When that happens we hope that those who have walked paths of treachery or despair have done so with dignity leaving us a trail to follow. Within a week my sister in New Zealand suffered two strokes followed by complications that left doctors few options but to wait. I was stunned that my younger sister with whom I had just planned a summer vacation was now unable to communicate and in a very serious and unpredictable condition.

There are many things that must be tended to before taking off for a long vacation, especially if you plan to leave in a hurry. A new suitcase was purchased, the winter clothes were laundered and stacked in piles ready to go into the new suitcase, the neighbors were informed, the process for shutting off the water and securing my little townhouse was discussed, rides to and from the airport were arranged, care for the yard and my plants negotiated, mail hold at the post office put off until the last minute. The greatest concern was my passport. It was not due back for another four to six weeks.

The young woman at the Post Office had highlighted a number to call for any emergencies or just to track the passage of my passport. Much to my surprise I could call any time between 8:00am and 10:00pm. Imagine that, a government office open until 10:00pm. About eight o’clock one Wednesday evening I called the number. After determining that I wanted the English option I got to speak to Roberta right away. I explained to Roberta that I needed to expedite my passport. She checked and was able to tell me it was being processed in Chicago, another surprise. She then carefully and succinctly explained my options. If it was possible to expedite, they may be able to get it to me within two to three weeks. If it was a life and death matter and I had a flight arranged within the next 48 hours, they would get it to me. There would be a charge.

I was not concerned about the charge. I didn’t have a flight arranged until June but thought my passport would be the first thing to arrange. I then explained to her my situation. She listened attentively, expressed her concern and then asked me to pick a date by which I wanted my passport. I dithered. She gently made it clear that she couldn’t pick the date for me; I had to pick. So I chose a date that fell just after the Easter holiday and within that 2-3 week period. She summarized everything for me, expressed again how sorry she was that my sister was ill and I reciprocated by saying how pleased I was that this could be done and so late in the evening. She chuckled a little and said that I had picked the right evening to call.

On Friday morning I received a phone call from an unknown number. I was keeping my phone in my pocket and switched on. I was talking with my principal at the time of the call. As soon as we finished speaking I listened to the message. It was a very clear message from a young man in the Chicago passport office telling me that my passport application had been approved and expedited and my credit card charged. He informed me that the passport would be sent out in that day’s mail, express mail. It was less than 36 hours since I had talked to Roberta. I was impressed.

I suspect that the receipt from the IRS will contain a “miscellaneous” category. In it will probably be lumped all the places that receive less than one percent of our tax dollars, places like National Public Radio, the Environmental Protection Agency, International Aid, Research and Development (most of the money goes to military R&D), the Department of Energy, the Small Business Administration, the National Endowment for the Arts – all these areas currently being slated for huge cuts in their already meager budgets. I’m sure that the department that issues passports will not even feature on the receipt. But, as far as I’m concerned, that is one government department where they do deserve a raise, and they are welcome to it on my dime.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Images of Libya

I don’t want to go to Libya. It's 1979 and we are still recovering from the evacuation of Iran in the midst of the revolution. My first stony act of rebellion takes place 20,000 feet in the air. The entry form for admission to Libya is a full page long and we are expected to fill in every gap. Beside Religion I carefully write “Agnostic.” My husband of slightly more than a year pitches a fit. He was the one who pushed to go to Libya.

“It’s filled in with something. That’s all they want.” Turns out I’m right.

The airport is a low white building, almost empty except for a few baggage handlers and the occasional man in Arab garb and sunglasses. We have to identify our bags before they are taken from the runway to the building. It is a routine, one of the few I will ever appreciate in Libya that we will get used to. It becomes somehow reassuring to place my hand on my bag on the runway before it is loaded onto the plane; it is more reassuring to watch my fellow travelers do the same.

The hotel is a throwback to one of the more recent periods of colonialism in Libya. It is a mix of Italian design and British proclivity to pretension while in lands that have a better climate and belong to people other than the British. It suffers from benign neglect and old age. The balcony overlooking the Mediterranean is the size of a large ballroom. We are not allowed to use it while Billy Carter and his henchmen are guests. They have arrived as guests of Ghaddafi for the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the revolution. There will be fireworks.

There are always fireworks, haphazard displays of the supposed bright lights of freedom. There’s a display for the kicking out of the Italians, the British, and the arrival of the revolution courtesy of Muammar Ghaddafi and members of the military he apparently coerced into deposing the elderly and western friendly King Idris. One of the displays will coincide with our wedding anniversary. We will take ourselves up to the roof of the apartment building where the crosshatching of rope clotheslines serves to dry both laundry and sheep intestines.

Young thugs sit on every street corner, revolutionary youth in American style garb and mirror sunglasses. They apparently also have access to western style porn. Their English is limited to short sentences with permutations of the words “fuck” and “whore.” I learn to keep my shopping forays to well populated streets. It doesn’t do me any good in the end.

The building is on Abdul Nasser Boulevard. The street is a wide well made sweep that brushes past the Mediterranean for the full length of the city. There are strangely placed and unnecessary overpasses. Ghaddafi’s attempt to have Benghazi look more city-like. The overpasses act like speed ramps for the impulsive and inexperienced Libyan drivers. Their accidents create a panoply of the impossible. One car is impaled from stem to stern by the guardrail on one overpass. The car sits swaying like a weathervane on top of the overpass, the guardrail protruding from its rear in a twisted tale of speed.

The apartment is on the sixth floor. There is no elevator. The head of a department at the university lives across the hall. One evening he comes to the door in his striped nightgown and Willy Winkie nightcap. I never meet the couple who live at the end of the hall but I know they lose a child to miscarriage. A candle burns outside their door. A bowl of salt sits beside the candle.

Inside the apartment a small entry room leads to a hallway and the kitchen. On the left is a room we use as a dining room. The kitchen is minute; I can touch both walls standing with arms outstretched. There is no counter space, just a sink with a space for dishes and a cupboard under the window. The window overlooks the back of the building and a narrow balcony. We sit out there most evenings as it begins to cool. We watch the rats, as big as cats, wander among the rubble and rubbish at the back of the building. They have no fear. There are rumors of the plague in eastern towns near Tobruk.

We sleep in the back room that has only one small high window. It is cooler in the dark. The two fans whirr us through the night. One night we are awakened by the sound of water. We awake to the sight of small waves rippling down the hallway. The overflow pipe of the water cistern for the building is sending a torrent of water splashing onto our tiny balcony, rippling under the door into the entrance room and down the hall towards the bathroom. The torn rag that was once used as a plug for the pipe has jettisoned into the rat’s nest below.

I teach at the British School. It was once the British School for British Petroleum employees’ children. The school consists of three older villas side by side at the dusty end of an unpaved street on the outskirts of town. The villas are the same dun color as the dust that surrounds them. I teach the second year kindergarten students. By the time they have been through their first year with Sylvia they are wonderful readers and have learned how to sit quietly on hot days.

Sylvia is the quintessential English school marm. She wears a long-sleeved dress and pantyhose every day no matter how hot the day. She remains cool and calm under every trying circumstance and simply continues with her focused pursuit of educating the young. She teaches every one who is willing how to play the recorder in all its variations. At the end of each year her students give a concert that is stunning in the level they have attained, a musical miracle in the dust. She teaches them how to cross stitch bright colors on rectangles of burlap. They take their projects home to their grateful parents.

Mo brings me a runner and matching rectangular doilies. They are beautifully cross-stitched in shades of violet and beige and yellow onto a soft aida cloth. The back is lined with a silky smooth polyester attached with meticulous neatness. The set was made by an eight-year-old Palestinian orphan in the tradition of the crafts he brought with him from the place he once called home. There are many orphans.

There are many Palestinian refugees. Mo has them in his classes at Garyounis University. Young girls eager for an education, desperate to be heard, longing for a place to call home. They have no home. They are captive in Libya; their travel documents removed from them as soon as they arrive, their men forced to become revolutionaries or part of the forces Ghaddafi sends to places like Chad or Uganda or they disappear into the camps in the dessert; camps for terrorists in the making. American and Israeli mercenaries train those who arrive at the camps. It is not a rumor. Ultimately they are all doomed. To the Palestinian students, Mo is America and freedom. Little do they know. They write heart-wrenching poetry of their plight. Their words drop into the dust at the edge of the University.

There are rumors that students, not considered revolutionary enough, have their throats slit before the student body. The sleek black limousine brushes past us on the way out of the university. Ghaddafi on his way back to Tripoli. Carefully selected members of the unrevolutionary populace are left kicking their last breath in the public squares.

There are rumors that soldiers captured in Uganda are defaced, literally; their noses, ears and lips removed. Their deepest wound is shame. They are not seen. Families of the fallen are sent a bag of rice and a sheep. No telegram.

Food becomes more and more scarce. It is being sent to the forces in Chad and Uganda. Ships languish at sea waiting to unload their cargoes, food rots in containers at the port, store shelves empty even of the ever-present olives and tuna. There is a near riot over tomatoes at the central market. The souk, centuries old, is closed. A forlorn woman stands outside one of the shuttered stalls, holding out her wedding silver to me. She looks ancient; life in Libya is harsh for its women.

My favorite chicken store in the main square just closes down overnight. I still owe him $1.40. I didn’t have the correct change. He gave me what I wanted and trusted I would return tomorrow with the money. There was no tomorrow for him. The shoe store across the square is still open. He no longer offers shoes for me to take home for my husband to try. There are rumors that children are turning in parents and family members for not being revolutionary enough. There are reports of crime, unheard of break-ins and theft. Trust begins to slowly leak into the dust. A way of life begins to disappear.

There are demonstrations of a sort in the streets. A television camera in the back of a flat bed truck slowly sweeps over the faces of the small crowd of paid revolutionaries who shake their fists and shout slogans to demonstrate their belief in the revolution in general and Ghaddafi in particular. There are plenty of unemployed survivors who have pushed a barrel of water across the dessert to reach Libya in the hope of work and a better way of life. Shouting their pretended allegiance to Ghaddafi is an easy way to make a living. The odd procession makes its way up Abdul Nasser Boulevard. The majority of the people on the streets barely glance at the strange display. They will get to watch the carefully edited version on television.

Villas are taken over by the military. Foreigners are sent to Bennina, a compound built for the military. Bennina becomes a United Nations of Russians, Italians, Czechs, Scots, English, and a hodge –podge of the world’s travelers. Reagan, ignorant of all that happens in Libya, will bomb Bennina. By some miracle it does not kill foreign nationals nor start a war.

Each New Year’s eve we go into the dessert. We travel south to Ajdhabiya then at Brega we make a left turn into the Sahara. Brega is just a small oasis in the middle of nowhere. There are date palms, surprisingly short and stumpy but heavy with dates. The dates are harvested, pitted and compressed into sacks. Chunks are cut from the solid mass of nutrition that has sustained the dessert tribes for centuries.

We pass duck rock, a massive outcrop of mica shaped like a duck that forms one of the gatekeepers to the Sahara. We pass mountainous dunes and camp under the heavy stars beside the remains of a WWII tank. Its turret and muzzle are slanted toward the stars as it makes its creeping descent into the sands of the Sahara. In Benghazi the war cemetery holds the young remains of the soldiers who died here, in the dessert, in the dust. A long empty opened can of army rations lies perfectly preserved beside the dying tank.

The dessert holds and preserves that which it destroys. I find a perfect sand dollar. It’s young, probably from the Jurassic period, a mere 300 million years old. On one occasion we stumble across a wadi completely filled with brilliant color, flowers on flowers, on flowers. Wild flowers sprung suddenly from the open empty wadi, from seeds long dormant, long waiting for the rain that had finally released them into a brief and beautiful life.

Ghaddafi spends enormous amounts of money trying to reclaim the Sahara. The dessert is more than equal to the task of accepting his largesse and good intentions and sucking them all dry. Mostly he spends money on weaponry. Franco tells the story of the five fighter planes brought in from Italy. On a demonstration flight the lead plane experiences some difficulty and smoke begins to pour from the engine. The lead pilot ejects to safety. The four pilots following him mimic his example and the dessert claims all five fighter planes.

Each New Year brings another repression of the Jamahiriya, the people. Ghaddafi devalues the currency. The people swarm the banks as their life savings disappear overnight. Surely there will be a counter revolution! But no, the people accept whatever new scheme Ghaddafi dreams up to press them to the edge of their ability to survive, and then appears to give them some small reprieve, some gift from his fatherly benefice. And they are grateful. If they are not, they lose their homes, their stores, and sometimes their ability to walk.

I participate in ballet lessons lead by a waif like creature from Romania. We waltz to Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty in the “theater” villa of the British school. I take over teaching an aerobics class from Cici, the Italian physical therapist after she and her husband leave. On Thursdays I participate in a yoga class. Most other days I play tennis under the hot sun and stares of some of the Libyan men who dare to be so flagrant. One masturbates up against the fence around the tennis courts. He follows us home, assuming that his display is as perfectly acceptable as our display of legs and arms.

We visit the ancient remains at Cyrene and the port at Apollonia. There is one lone archaeologist working under constant threat of dismissal. The remains are astonishing in their breadth and degree of preservation. Even the paintings have been preserved in the almost complete dwellings. Everywhere we look there is another mound of discovery of our collective history. I slip between the cracks in a rock and find myself in the baths of Diane, perfectly preserved. I sit in the hollowed rock and feel the centuries wash down the water troughs. The Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations flourished here, their amphoras of olive oil still sit in the bays at the port, their temples still stand, the doors to their homes forever opened.

There is an influx of Korean workers. They are constructing high-rise buildings near the tennis courts. Maybe it will be a hospital. Benghazi’s medical services are primitive at best. Tall, slender men and women from Cameroon or maybe Chad argue with the manager of the “peoples” store that is now on the ground floor of our building. I am sure the argument is about money, about something owed. The women are extraordinary creatures, tall and graceful they float along the jagged pavements of Benghazi wrapped in the beautiful colors of the cloth from their home country. They have crossed the dessert to be here.

Western ex-patriots begin to leave in droves. Life is becoming more and more difficult. Reagan orders all Americans to leave. On summer vacation we talk with the person in charge of the Libyan desk. He admits that he had to look Libya up on a map when he got the job. He has no idea what is happening in Libya. He doesn’t seem very interested in learning about Libya. We return for another year.

Another year of picking our way across the beach trying to avoid the clumps of oil, another year of scouring the stores for something to eat, another year of enduring the hot red dust of the gibli’s as they sweep up from the dessert, another year of watching and waiting for the counter revolution that never comes, another year of dodging the traffic on Abdul Nasser Boulevard, another year of brewing our own beer and wine, another year of increasing hostility on the streets of Benghazi from the revolutionary thugs. But, in our building, Mo’s Libyan colleagues are grateful we have returned, appreciative that we have stayed despite Reagan’s orders, kind to us in ways that only those who know how to survive the dessert are kind.

In the end we are paid well for our three years of service. The bonus for our endurance is more than the jihad tax we have had to pay. There is almost nothing of Libya we take with us. There is nothing Libyan left to buy. A silver wedding bracelet Mo bought for me in the souk before it closed, the runner and placemats from the Palestinian orphan, some photos, and these images of Libya.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Magical Thinking

"We are shaped by each other. We adjust not to the reality of a world, but to the reality of other thinkers."

Joseph Chilton Pearce author of The Magical Child

Many years ago when my children were still very young I took them to the Catactin zoo. It was relatively nearby and although small as zoos go, I thought it would be an excellent day trip.

We learned the difference between crocodiles and alligators – it’s all in the teeth – and inspected the reptile and spider collection. The high point of the day came as we watched an orangutan sitting in a tree on a small island in the middle of a man made lake. The orangutan watched us back. One of my children commented on how human it looked. The educator in me saw the teachable moment and I gave a brief lesson on evolution pointing out that we as humans did in fact descend from orangutan like animals.

My children, ages six and four at the time, watched the orangutan swing through the trees, fascinated. They were reluctant to leave. My son began to be more than reluctant and pitched a full-scale temper tantrum, an unusual event for him. He was a very curious four year old with a wild enthusiasm for other creatures.

When our neighbors captured a chipmunk in a humane trap so they could take it far away into a field where it could dig all the holes it wanted, he begged me

“Can we keep it mom, can we, can we?”

He had to learn the sad but humane lesson that some animals are meant to be free.

The orangutan did not look happy swinging around in its tree on the island in the middle of the lake. It looked even less happy as it sat still and alone and quiet watching my son pitch a fit. Finally, like a typical exasperated parent, I demanded to know why he didn’t want leave.

“I want to watch him turn into a human.”

Lesson learned. Four year olds operate on magical thinking; it’s what helps them survive our often miserable attempts at parenting. They create a world from their observations and experiences that is both hedonistic and pragmatic to them and frequently bewildering to us.

I had to explain that the change occurred over many thousands and millions of years, a time completely inconceivable to my four year old. I had to explain that it happened at a time when the change was needed in order for survival and that it wasn’t going to happen again. This orangutan was going to stay an orangutan. He watched and waited a little longer and then reluctantly took my hand as we went in search of the zebras. He trusted part two of my lesson on evolution but just to be sure, he kept checking over his shoulder.

My son continues to be one of the only 16% of Americans who believe that the process of evolution is historical, provable, fact. Now in his mid twenties, he does, like most of us, indulge in magical thinking from time to time but he has an understanding of events that occur over long periods of time and an appreciation and acceptance of the role of science in establishing fact from fiction. He still has a lively curiosity but somehow the disappointments of the world have curtailed his wild enthusiasm and warped it into a cynicism too deep for his youth.

Like me, he is challenged by the thinking processes, or lack thereof, of religious zealots and those who insist, or are not convinced of, the reality of the process of evolution. What is the obstacle for 84% of the American public to acceptance of evolution? This lack of acceptance is the highest in so-called developed nations. This happens in a country where our president insists the best institutes of higher education exist and thrive. An assertion I would certainly question.

My friend, Harriet, wonders if evolution is taken as a personal insult. In a country where the populace has to loudly reassure itself on a regular basis that it is “Number One” at just about everything and certainly anything that is considered important, the fragility of American self confidence could easily be shaken by an assumed relationship, even kinship, with primates in general and monkeys - also in general. But wouldn’t that assumed close kinship require some magical thinking? The kind of thinking that a four year old might indulge in when presented with an abstract process such as evolution before his brain is capable of processing such an idea?

Perhaps it is a function of the religiosity of American life. America is at its heart is a very parochial collection of church going communities. In order to belong, attendance at and membership within a church community is almost a necessity. There are many within big city environments who do not act in the same way on the need to belong and there are small groups of us out in the American heartland who simply refuse to. We stumble into each other, perhaps drawn together by a different set of beliefs and the same need to belong. In order to belong to most church communities, the prevailing belief is that creationism, not evolution, is responsible for our human presence on earth. Again, perhaps this relationship to monkeys is just too primitive for our germophobic natures and presumptions of cultural superiority to accept.

But don’t most religious beliefs, particularly but not exclusively, of the Judeo-Christian heritage require a hearty measure of magical thinking? Burning bushes, parting of the seas, virgin births, walking on water, resurrection after death all require some suspension of critical analysis at least not mention a good measure of magical thinking in order to accept. The kind of thinking a four year old might use to construct a paradigm of meaning around to incorporate new and possibly conflicting information into his belief system?

Maybe it is the education system. Maybe the means by which we attempt to instruct our children in the scientific method are insufficient. Maybe the usual 12 years in institutes of learning is not enough to equip our children and youth with processes of critical thinking so they are able and willing to question beliefs that do not meet criteria of evidence and proof. *

The problem with questioning widely held beliefs is that it renders the questioner open to personal criticism even exile in communities where there is a lack of maturity of communication. We fear reprisal, we fear being cast out of communities to which we want to belong, and so we remain silent and acquiesce to the steady drumbeat of ignorance. Sadly in America we often confuse the message and the messenger and instead of listening carefully to and inquiring deeply into what might be an opinion in opposition to our own, we continue to crucify the messenger and become lost and dangerous in our grip on ignorance and self-righteousness. To paraphrase Herman Spencer, contempt before investigation cannot fail to keep us in everlasting ignorance. Evolution not only as scientific theory but also as a process of human development seems to be part of the life process of the dwindling few in America.

Humans and monkeys are actually cousins. We share about 95% of DNA, the genetic code that makes us who and what we are, and 98.4% DNA with chimpanzees. Although there is still some controversy about exactly where the split occurred, we most likely evolved from a common ancestor, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, about seven million years ago. Our similarities in appearance and behavioral characteristics are not an accident; they are a matter of relationship and DNA correlation. I wonder if part of the deeply held resistance to acceptance of our primate cousins is in some way related to our deeply held and sometimes repressed resistance to our acceptance of people of color in this country, people who have often been referred to as monkeys in a derogatory way.

Americans hate to be called racists, yet we continue to behave at a personal, social, emotional, and political level like racists. We don’t really understand what it means to be racists, but we are sure we’re not. It just makes us feel better about ourselves. Just as a refusal to accept our kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom somehow supports our belief in our own superiority and lends a rational justification to our beliefs and actions while we destroy the home of that kingdom, our home, our planet.

At what point will the clash between knowledge and belief lead to serious questions being asked in serious conversations? At what point will we rely on critical thinking to investigate information in search of truth rather than support for belief? What will it take for Americans to truly begin an educative process both for ourselves and our children that will dispense with contempt before investigation and lead us out of our own ignorance?

Perhaps we need a collective visit to the Catactin Zoos of America. Perhaps we need to spend more time in nature observing and learning its ways. Perhaps we need to lend our magical thinking and imaginations to work on behalf of actions that might restore balance to our planet, to our conversations about our planet, and our relationships to all sentient beings that inhabit it. Most of all, we need to begin to adjust to the reality of our world by exploring the reality of thinkers other than those whose opinions and beliefs reflect merely our own.

* Future blogs on education and critical thinking are to come.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Superlative Nation

My friend Kathy drives a bright red Toyota Camry. She looks like your average middle aged, middle class American woman. Kathy doesn’t scare easily; her response to her fear of flying was to earn her pilot’s license. She graduated top of her class.

Kathy’s bright red Toyota Camry is neat and clean inside and out. The large hammer with the worn wooden handle and solid iron head seems out of place on the floor of the passenger seat. Kathy was involved in a serious car accident some years ago that left her with a broken foot and a fear of being trapped in her car. The hammer and a strong flashlight are her responses to that fear. They seem reasonable once the story is known.

Given the events of January 7 in Tuscon AZ, the responses of our leaders to the understandable fears the shootings have generated cannot be considered as reasonable. In fact, the responses are almost laughable were they not suggested with the serious intention of precipitating action. At least two of our elected congressmen stated they intend to carry weapons when meeting constituents. Other elected officials have suggested that they carry arms while on the floor of the House of Representatives. As one congressman, more measured and wise in his response pointed out, “Congressmen have trouble controlling their tongues, I hate to think of them trying to control guns.” And now there is the suggestion that teachers and students be permitted to carry concealed weapons in class.

Guns, particularly handguns, are responsible for the majority of deaths by homicide, suicide and accidental shootings in the USA every year. A very small proportion of those deaths result from shotgun or rifle shootings, the kind of weapons that most hunters would have in their homes.

Americans own more guns per capita than any other nation on earth. America has the highest rate of death by deliberate or accidental shooting than other nation on earth. Most of those deaths, 16,907 in 2009, are by suicide. More than 10,000 are considered accidents that come about as the result of a gun being in the home. Americans are more likely to kill themselves using a gun or kill someone else, usually a family member, with a gun than any other nationality.

It’s a list of superlatives that should give Americans pause for thought and an even longer pause before taking action.

America is in love with superlatives, there is no such thing as too little hyperbole. Americans love to believe in the idea of being Number One! The biggest economy, the strongest military, the greatest possibility, the land of plenty and the land of the free – as if freedom was somehow invented in America, this young and often impudent nation. Sadly the positive superlatives cover a dark and rarely discussed reality that also bears the burden of being “the most.”

Here are some superlatives America owns that do not often find their way into the news or the public conscience. They are the kind of superlatives denied and ignored, for acceptance of their veracity would shame us all.

Americans use more of the world’s resources per capita than any other nation and produce the most trash while in the process of the fastest and greatest amount of consumption. America has slipped from the number one position of economic growth but Americans continue to consume products, mainly imported products, at an alarming rate. In the process, our number one export is now trash, usually shipped to China then sold back to us in numerous forms.

Americans spend more on health care than any other country. We are the fattest people in the developed world with a 30.6% obesity rate and yet we are more likely to die from malnutrition than in any other developed nation on earth. Our doctors earn more money than they do in other developed countries yet we have the highest infant mortality rate and premature death rate (death before the age of 64) and the lowest percentage of the population covered by public insurance. We spend more for less than any other developed nation – no wonder we get angry. No wonder the mentally ill are overlooked.

We have the greatest disparity between CEO and worker wages, the least number of vacation days, the highest poverty rate, and come in at 9th on the size of the middle class. The wealth of that middle class has fallen considerably since 2008. We have the highest percentage of families earning two paychecks, the highest credit card debt per capita, are 11th for household savings and are top of the income inequality index. The top corporate executives earn about $500 for every $1 the average worker earns. No wonder so many Americans are angry. No wonder so many Americans reach the bottom of the place where hope is held.

In what has been long considered the wealthiest nation on earth, we have the highest poverty rate of industrialized nations. More then 50 million people rely on food stamps in order to eat. On any given day, three million people are estimated to be homeless while an astonishing 25% of the world’s incarcerated population is in the United States. The design and building of massive prison complexes, is one of the few construction industries that continues to thrive in a poor economy.

America spends more money on defense weaponry and the military than all other developed nations combined.

In 2008 America spent 79.8 billion dollars on research and development – in the department of defense. The 2011 budget will contain some restraint due to the poor economy but research and development will get about $111 billion and 80 billion(72%) of that will still go to our most profligate industry after the creation of trash – the creation of weapons that kill people. Waging war costs money, money that was not always reported in our budget, money that is often hidden under misleading titles but the cost is real. This year we will spend somewhere between $114.8–$454.2 billion in interest incurred on debt in past wars.

Funding of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts is miniscule in comparison to arts budgets throughout Europe. Less than 1% of funding for the arts comes through government funding. A mere $124 million, with an “m”, is allocated for funding of the arts at the national level as well as for programs in all 50 states.

So far any investment, true investment, in developing and creating industries such as renewable energy and sustainable smart growth has been miniscule in comparison to the amount of money spent on the destruction of life. The availability of money and credit for the working and middle class over the past two years has amounted to zero by comparison to the amount of money given to Wall Street investment brokers and bankers for their super-sized bonuses. No wonder we lead the world in the consumption of anti-depressants.

The gap between the hyperbole and reality is an enormous chasm that threatens to swallow any real political solutions to the increased intensity and frequency of the problems that beset the majority of Americans. Political will, integrity, and imagination long ago disappeared over the edge of the chasm. In its place we have an arena covered in layers of bombastic rhetoric, demonization, ignorance, and superlative lies all of which serve to polarize a terrified populace grasping for something to believe in, something to save them. And this is where we begin to grasp at unrealistic and over-the-top solutions like carrying a gun to meet with constituents, like the insanely expensive and ineffective “Star Wars” program, like giving money to the rich while denying the poor basic life necessities. This is where our striving to be the best in some undefined category makes us very dangerous. Like the drowning man lunging at a would be rescuer, we are oblivious to the violence inherent in our increasing panic.

My friend Kathy is relieved that car technology has finally caught up with her fears. She has become increasingly aware that the big old hammer in her passenger seat would become a dangerous missile if she should ever be involved in another accident of the severity of the previous one. She says she is just about ready to remove it but for now, until she can buy a car that will allow her to escape in the event of an accident, she will keep it there as a kind of psychological safety blanket.

Would that we have the luxury of time to have some solution present itself. Would that we indulge in some courageous, honest, self-reflection that allows us to see beyond the veil of superlatives into the nature of the reality we have created. Then maybe, we might truly grow beyond our fears into a well defined best.