#38: What NOT to Change

I’ve been blogging for over a year now about being the change you wish to see.  But today I’m writing about something the I hope never changes.

When I was a little girl, the whole family gathered at my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving.  And I do mean the WHOLE family:  Grandma, Grandpap, their 4 children, 3-children-in-law, 7 grandchildren, Grandma’s sister and brother-in-law and their 3 daughters (until all 3 of them entered the convent), and often a random fellow Teaching Assistant that Uncle Fred brought home from Duquesne University.  As many as 22 people in one 1920s foursquare bungalow. 

The aromas of cooling pumpkin, apple, chess and mincemeat pies mixed with the singed-wool smell of the electric heater in the butler’s pantry.  The kitchen was a sweaty hive of whirring mixer and chattering women.  Steam radiators burped and clanged and clouded the windows.  Bored cousins slid down the stairs on our butts while the dads smoked in the living room in front of a football game on a black-and-white TV. 

Then, finally, the meal was ready: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, whole and jellied cranberry sauce, crescent rolls, little dishes of pickles and olives.  And all that pie!  Sometimes Uncle Fred went all bohemian on us and bought a couple bottles of wine for the grownups.  The adults crammed elbow-to elbow around the dining room table.  The children sat at card tables in the living room, where our less-than-perfect manners could be ignored. 

After dinner, the moms continued their chatter in the kitchen while they washed dishes (1960s! No dishwasher!).  The dads smoked some more in the living room.  The kids alternated between annoying our mothers in the kitchen and sliding down the steps on our butts some more.

It was pure joy.

As I created my own Thanksgiving dinner this year, I couldn’t help but remember those 1960s Thanksgivings at 1124 Wayne Avenue in McKees Rocks.  We were expecting 16 for dinner, and our house is even smaller than my grandparents’ was.  Pumpkin pies were chilling in the fridge, the carving knife buzzed, the microwave beeped that the mashed potatoes were finished reheating.   Al was busy setting up the folding table in the living room, while Ben ran back and forth with a pitcher filling water glasses, and Chuck and Dan fetched beers from the back deck.

It was perfect chaos, just like my grandmother’s house, and in the midst of that whirlwind I experienced a moment of deep peace and joy.  I felt exactly as my grandmother must have felt, surrounded by the people she loved most in the world, capable of bringing them together and abundantly feeding them.  And I felt proud to have been carrying on her tradition for the past 32 years. 

In these dark times, when Americans are so divided and it seems that everything that we thought we could count on is crumbling, family traditions are one of the things that unite and sustain us.  Women are most often the keepers of those traditions, and the providers of the feasts.  This doesn’t feel like a burden to me at all, but instead a sacred charge that it is my privilege to fulfill. 

Some things should never change.

Be the Change #37 – Examine your prejudices

I live in what I would consider a nice middle-class neighborhood.  The houses are older, but well-kept, and the residents are small business owners and a mix of blue and white-collar workers.  Most of our kids go to college, and crime is almost unheard of. 

Many years ago, when I was a young mother, I learned that not everyone saw us the way we see ourselves, and the experience started me on a journey to examine my own prejudices.

My daughter was a member of a Camp Fire Girls troop in our community, and we were spending an overnight in a cabin with another troop from a more upper-middle class community.  I didn’t see myself as different from them in any significant way.  They doubtless had bigger houses and more expensive cars than mine, but in terms of values, morals and education, I felt myself to be their equal.

Late in the evening, as we were cleaning up, I was looking for the bag that a dish of candy had come from, with the idea of dumping the candy back in the bag.  I walked the perimeter of the room, glancing into totes, looking for the candy bag. 

“Are you looking for YOUR bag?” someone said from behind me. 

“Oh, no,” I replied, at first not even turning around to look at her, “I’m looking for where this candy belongs.”

Then, something in the emphasis on the word “YOUR” caught my attention and I turned to see the very suspicious face of a Camp Fire mom from the better neighborhood.  In the same instant, I remembered noticing an expensive-looking camera in the most recent tote I’d glanced into. 

It was one of those moments of instantaneous, wordless communication.  All in a fraction of a second, I realized with horror that she’d thought I was poking around the bags looking for something to steal, and that she thought it because we came from a neighborhood where she thought people did that.  And in the same second, she registered the shock on my face and realized that she’d made a wrong assumption. 

I don’t remember how we disengaged, but I remember not being able to sleep that night.  I felt so humiliated that anyone would assume that I was a thief, and that they would make that assumption based on my living in a neighborhood that I thought was perfectly respectable.  What’s more, even though I’d done nothing wrong, I FELT wrong: dirty and unworthy in some way.  And, for some reason, it hit me:  the way that woman treated me is the way white people treat black people.  

Admit it:  if you’re sitting in traffic and a couple of African-American boys saunters down the street, you lock your car doors.  If you work retail, you watch your black browsers more carefully than your white browsers.  It’s certainly well-known that black drivers are stopped by the police more than white drivers.  White people make negative assumptions about black people all the time, often unconsciously. 

Do you think they don’t know this?

How do you think it feels?

The experience that I had on that sleepover started me on a journey to acknowledge my own biases.  Before that, I wouldn’t have called myself prejudiced.  I didn’t think African-Americans were inherently  inferior to European-Americans in any way.  I felt that we were all entitled to the same rights. I would no sooner have used the N-word than the F-word.  But, like many white people, I thought we lived in a society where we all had the same opportunities and everyone had the same chance to get ahead in life as long as they worked hard and stayed out of trouble.  The epiphany that I had that night didn’t change me by the next morning.  But it opened my eyes,  and I started paying more attention to big issues like unequal treatment under the law – and small issues like the hurtful impact of my own preconceived notions. 

The first step to getting along better is to acknowledge our biases.  It took being on the wrong end of a bias to inspire me to do that. 

This week, think about some negative assumptions that you have about a gender , ethnic or economic group different from your own, and how hurtful they might be to the objects of your prejudices. 

Be the Change #36 – Green Energy for the Miser

I am what is politely called “careful with money.”  I live by the old Depression-era maxim “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  I love keeping our cost of living down.  So, even though I am very concerned about climate change, and I could easily afford to put my money where my mouth is, we still drive gasoline-powered cars and I kept postponing signing up for the green energy provider.  I kept telling myself I wanted to research it, and understand how much our bill would go up.  But I never did anything about it until a couple of Sundays ago. 

Al and I are members of the Phipps.  We never miss a flower show and, being who I am, I ran the numbers and realized that we would spend less on an annual membership than we were spending on individual flower show admissions.  During our visit to the fall flower show a couple of weeks ago, they were running a promotion with Green Mountain Energy: 6-month membership extension for anyone who signed up for Green Mountain.  We talked to the young man at the Green Mountain table, and I started to say (again), “We’ll think about it.”  Then, I had a moment of honesty with myself.  I’d been thinking about it for years.  We can afford a higher electric bill.  What more is there to think about?  And then, of course, there’s the 6-month membership extension.  That $45 appeal to my thrifty little heart finally sold me.  We signed up for the 100% wind plan. 

Then I went home and ran the numbers.

We just reduced our carbon footprint by 20,000 pounds per year.

And here’s the joke on me:  By not doing that research that I always promised myself I would do, I was throwing money away.  Turns out Duquesne Light had us signed up with a high-cost carbon-based fuel provider.  By switching to wind, we’ll SAVE about $17 a month!

The moral of the story is this:  Don’t put off looking into green energy.  It could end up saving you money.  And even if the dollars don’t work out for you the way they did for us, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to save the planet. 

Be the Change #35 – The D+ Tax Bill

Sorry, but this one is pretty political  It’s a plea to call your member of Congress to ask for a better tax reform bill than the one they just introduced.

That postcard some Republican congress members are waving around is the best thing about the tax bill.  It’s true that, by raising the standard deduction, most taxpayers should be able to file their taxes on a single page, maybe even a post card.

But don’t think that raising the standard deduction means your taxes are going down.  In the current version of the plan, the $4000 personal exemption is going away, which nets it out for most families.   This bill offers almost nothing to the middle class. Some of us will see our taxes go down a bit.  For some, they will go up a bit. In aggregate, we are getting crumbs.

I was glad to see that the top tax rate isn’t being reduced.  With rising income inequality, the last thing this country needs is lower tax rates for rich people.  But the rich still gain from the bill in two ways.  First, the federal inheritance tax is being repealed.  The tax currently only applies to estates larger than about $6 million (for a single person) or about $11 million (for a couple).  So, repeal doesn’t help family farms and small business, as purported.  Only the super-rich benefit from it.

The Alternative Minimum Tax is also being phased out.  The AMT  is a brake on high-earners being able to reduce their tax bill with numerous large deductions.  So, only the well-to-do benefit from this as well.

Finally, the bill fails to do away with the carried-interest loophole, which benefits only hedge-fund managers.  Literally, hedge-fund managers will continue to pay a lower tax rate than teachers, nurses and policemen.  During the 2016 campaign, President Trump promised to do away with this outrage. He should make good on his promise by signaling to Congress that he will not sign a bill that does not repeal the carried-interest loophole.

Now let’s talk business taxes.  I’m not against lowering taxes on business, but this bill lowers taxes on big corporations, while doing almost nothing for small business.  It should do exactly the reverse.  I work for a big corporation, and it’s my bet that corporate tax breaks will mostly fund stock buy-backs and bigger executive bonuses. Small businesses are the big job creators.  They’re the ones who should get the tax breaks. 

But my biggest objection to this tax plan is that it will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years.    Now, while times are good, we should be paying down our debt, not running up more, against the day when another significant war or serious recession make deficit spending a necessity.  If we keep running up debt, we will eventually be face with horrific choices.  Cuts to defense (including Veterans Benefits), Medicare and Social Security will be inevitable.  Decades into the future, our grandchildren will be paying for tax cuts for the Mercers, the Kochs and the Trumps of the world. 

The tax bill is a D+ at best.  Send Congress back to the drawing board on this.  Call your representative and your senators, and insist that they come back with a bill that is deficit-neutral, and is targeted at the middle-class, not the rich.  Here’s a LINK to help you find contact information for your members of Congress.

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