May 11th, 2008

barack obama

Mother's Day!

It is important to remember that the tradition of Mother's Day began in the United States in 1872 at the suggestions of  Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."  It began as a day dedicated to peace.

Let's remember that, as we honor that each soldier has a mother and mothers should be devoted to a world that allows their children to safely and in full emotional and physical health outlive them.

We are all hurt by damage to any one of our children.  Let's return Mother's Day to its origin, a day to recognize the necessity and fermentation of peace.


The Suffering of Soldiers

Published: May 11, 2008

Several years into a pair of wars, the Department of Veterans Affairs is struggling to cope with a task for which it was tragically unready: the care of soldiers who left Afghanistan and Iraq with an extra burden of brain injury and psychic anguish. The last thing they need is the toxic blend of secrecy, arrogance and heedlessness that helped to send many of them into harm’s way.

“Shh!” said the e-mail in February from Dr. Ira Katz, head of mental health services for V.A., to a colleague. “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”

Dr. Katz’s hushed-up figure was nowhere near the number he gave to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee last year; he said there had been 790 suicide attempts in all of 2007, and denied there was a suicide epidemic. The veterans affairs secretary, James Peake, apologized for Dr. Katz’s “unfortunate set of words” and promised more candor and transparency.

Give some credit, anyway, to Mr. Peake for realizing that there is no hope of denying or wishing away this problem. As the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes made clear in “The Three Trillion Dollar War,” their analysis of Iraq, the medical toll of a war rises in a swelling curve for many decades after the shooting stops. The current suicide figures include a large proportion of aging and ailing veterans of Vietnam. Suffering for that long, on that scale, will not be covered up.

A study by the Rand Corporation last month found that nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or about 300,000, have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. About 19 percent reported having a possible traumatic brain injury from these bomb-afflicted wars.

Alarmingly, only half have sought treatment, the study found, and they have encountered severe delays and shortfalls in getting care. The V.A.’s inspector general has faulted the agency’s case management of brain-injured veterans, and a federal lawsuit by veterans’ groups in San Francisco seeks to force the V.A. to streamline and improve treatment.

Fortunately, the solutions are clear: more money for mental health services, closer tracking of suicides and more aggressive preventive efforts, more efficiency at managing veterans’ treatment and more help for their families. If this country gave back to wounded troops even a fraction of the commitment and service that it has received from them, they will be well cared for.

barack obama

Mother's -

This is my third Mother's Day without my mother.  It is not the same, doesn't feel quite right.  I feel sad when I look at the flowery pink cards and I want to buy one.  I think Thomas Friedman says it well.  I love what he says about being so short, you see the glass as half-full, because that is the half you see.  :)

May we all celebrate the fullness of life as it is given to us, and I know it is hard as mother's age and suffer dementia, and it is also hard when they are gone.   There is a stronger cord than we might be able to admit when they are alive.

Op-Ed Columnist

Published: May 11, 2008

The ad popped up in my e-mail the way it always has: “1-800-Flowers: Mother’s Day Madness — 30 Tulips + FREE vase for just $39.99!”

I almost clicked on it, forgetting for a moment that those services would not be needed this year. My mother, Margaret Friedman, died last month at the age of 89, and so this is my first Mother’s Day without a mom.

As columnists, we appear before you twice a week on these pages as simple bylines, but, yes, even columnists have mothers. And in my case, much of the outlook that infuses my own writings was bred into me from my mom. So, for once in 13 years, I’d like to share a little bit about her.

My mom was gripped by dementia for much of the last decade, but she never lost the generous “Minnesota nice” demeanor that characterized her in her better days. As my childhood friend Brad Lehrman said to me at her funeral: “She put the mensch in dementia.”

My mom’s life spanned an incredible period. She was born in 1918, just at the close of World War I. She grew up in the Depression, enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, served her country in World War II, bought our first house with a G.I. loan and lived long enough to play bridge on the Internet with someone in Siberia.

For most of my childhood, my mom appeared to be a typical suburban housewife of her generation, although I knew she was anything but typical. She sewed many of my sisters’ clothes, including both of their wedding dresses, and boy’s suits for me. And on the side, she won several national bridge tournaments.

My mom left two indelible marks on me. The first was to never settle for the cards you’re dealt. My dad died suddenly when I was 19. My mom worked for a couple of years. But in 1975, I got a scholarship to go to graduate school in Britain and my mom surprised us all one day by announcing that she was going, too. I called it the “Jewish Mother Junior Year Abroad Program.”

Most of her friends were shocked that she wasn’t just going to play widow. Instead, she sold our house in little St. Louis Park, Minn., and moved to London. But what was most amazing to watch was how she used her world-class bridge skills to build new friendships, including with one couple who flew her to Paris for a bridge game. Yes, our little Margie off to Paris to play bridge. She even came to see me in Beirut once, during the civil war — at age 62.

The picture of her in Beirut makes me think back in amazement at what my mom might have done had she had the money to finish college and pursue her dreams — the way she encouraged me to pursue mine, even when they meant I’d be far away in some crazy place and our only communications would be through my byline. It’s so easy to overlook — your mom had dreams, too.

My mom’s other big influence on me you can read between the lines of virtually every column — and that is a sense of optimism. She was the most uncynical person in the world. I don’t recall her ever uttering a word of cynicism. She was not naïve. She had taken her knocks. But every time life knocked her down, she got up, dusted herself off and kept on marching forward, motivated by the saying that pessimists are usually right, optimists are usually wrong, but most great changes were made by optimists.

Six years ago, I was in Israel at a dinner with the editor of the Haaretz newspaper, which publishes my column in Hebrew. I asked the editor why the newspaper ran my column, and he joked: “Tom, you’re the only optimist we have.” An Israeli general, Uzi Dayan, was seated next to me and as we walked to the table, he said: “Tom, I know why you’re an optimist. It’s because you’re short and you can only see that part of the glass that’s half full.”

Well, the truth is, I am not that short. But my mom was. And she, indeed, could only see that part of the glass that was half full. Read me, read my mom.

Whenever I’ve had the honor of giving a college graduation speech, I always try to end it with this story about the legendary University of Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant. Late in his career, after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple — just a little music and Coach Bryant saying in his tough voice: “Have you called your mama today?”

On the day of the filming, though, he decided to ad-lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said: “Have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine.” That was how the commercial ran, and it got a huge response from audiences.

So on this Mother’s Day, if you take one thing away from this column, take this: Call your mother.

I sure wish I could call mine.


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dispelling stereotypes on mother's day -

I seem to single-handedly be filling a car control clinic with males and females.  I was surprised then this morning to receive this email from my husband who I perceive as more enlightened and who I believe to be more enlightened than this.

"It occurs to me that if you enjoyed the car control clinic, you might write to them and suggest one which is solely for women. This can take the intimidation out of attending for many women, worried that they will be lost in a haze of testosterone-induced tire smoke..."

What I noticed at the car control clinic is that the women were often the wild ones, and maybe it is a select group that takes it, but there were many timid males, and the guys who taught it were all soft and gentlemanly.  Actually more donuts were probably done by the female instructors.  I think Hillary has shown us that we no longer need to disguise the strength of women.  She has gone down and dirty as much as any man.  Barack has held the high road.  It is not about male - female.  Each one of us resided in a female for nine months.  We know female.  We then come out into an external world.  Men have a part that waves around and makes them very vulnerable.  They are more aware of the outside, more able to touch it, and women have an inner place that is interesting to contemplate, a place to dwell, but I think gender roles and stereotypes have with this election campaign been  dissipated.  We all have passion and energy, enthusiasm and care.   In the East, the female energy is honored for its wisdom, and the male energy for its compassion.

I think the armor that has been put on males and the fragility that was set on females has harmed us all.   This campaign has set new records in all sorts of ways, but perhaps the biggest will be the total dissolution of racial and sexual stereotypes.  I applaud Barack and Hillary for that.  

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changing our genes

There is a fascinating article in The Economist called Silencing of the Lambs.  Scientists have learned that abuse in childhood can change the way genes work.  The field is known as epigenetics, so new my spell check underlines it in red.  This is the study of "the interface between our genes, which are fixed, and our environment, which is ever-changing.  Although people are born with a complement of genes that they are stuck with for life, those genes can be switched on and off - and this can make a world of difference.  All the more harrowing, then, what simple things like dietary supplements  and stress have been shown capable of throwing the switch."

Maternal neglect in rats, lack of attention, chemically altered a gene controlling an important stress hormone.  In studying those who committed suicide, they learned there, too, something had been switched off in their brains, something related to mood, and scientists are determining this is a response to childhood abuse.  I don't know that it is good to generalize, but I do see that some I know who feel they have an unnatural response to stress and a too-sudden reaction of feeling attacked were abused as children.  It is an interesting to consider.  Now, they are trying to figure out how to turn the gene back on.   They are hoping that if hypermethylation is caused by childhood abuse and can be detected in blood samples, that they can reverse it with social interventions, nutrition, and/or drugs.  I think of Rosen work now.   We say it works at the cellular level.  I think it may be a huge tool.

I am reading, at Joan's suggestion, Earthdance, Living Systems in Evolution, by Elisabet Sahtouris.

I was just going to quote from it when my husband walked upstairs, having read my male-female comment saying in a high voice, "There's a rat in the house."  It is true that he is the one usually called on to deal with dead rats that are in the house, offered as gifts from our cats.    I still live in some sexual stereotypes.  I must also say that I have shoveled many a rat into the trash or buried it in the yard or set it out for the crows who are quick to respond.  I admit that Steve is very gentlemanly about dealing with the our rat cat gifts when he is around.

Steve also says he was simply implying that women sometimes like to do their own thing which is true, just like men.   All is well with our sexual roles, as they do and do not exist.  

Okay, back to Earthdance.

    "We can easily see with modern microscopes that bacteria DNA is a very long complex molecule formed into a loose loop inside the tiny creature.  We can also see that bacteria come very close to one another and then dissolve parts of their cell walls long enough to create a hole through which they exchange bits of DNA.  One or both of them leaves this encounter with a new combination of DNA from the two though no reproduction has taken place.

    This information exchange, or communication system, of ancient (and modern) bacteria is at least as remarkable as any of their other inventions and no doubt is what made the rest of their innovations possible. We are just beginning to learn how it works and to recognize it is original sex! - something we thought had been invented much later in evolution.

    Sex is by definition the production of creatures by a combination of DNA from more than one individual. Every time bacteria receive bits of DNA called genes from others, they are engaging in sex by making themselves the product of two bacterial sources even though they are not reproducing. This sexual communication system apparently belongs to virtually all bacteria of all strains, so that bacteria can - and do - trade their DNA genes with one another all over the Earth to this day!"

    Well, surely you see it coming.  The words continue.

    "Thus these tiny ancient beings actually created the first WorldWideWeb of information exchange, trading genes as we trade our own messages from computer to computer around the world.  We have speeded up their web by carrying them around the world on our ships and airplanes, to make contact in far places they might not have reached by wind and waters so quickly."

    So, there is something to contemplate.  I am over to the East Bay for a day and night of revelry and celebration and spreading the bacterial web.