Wednesday, November 19, 2014

When Did Kindness Come to Be for Special Occasions Only?

A dear old childhood friend (reconnected with on Facebook in recent years) posted a link to an idea for children leading up to the holidays: a calendar with suggested random acts of kindness.  This friend is a person who embodies kindness every day in every moment with everyone she meets; an exemplar of the cheerful goodness to which I aspire but only approximate on my best days.  She is the kind of person that does not need such a calendar to remind her to bestow kindness on those she meets.
The heading on the graphic does not say that this is for children, but that is the intended audience. There are many admirable ideas on this calendar, that would be good for adults to follow through on as well: donating books to a public library or hospital, doing yard work for a neighbor, donating toys to a charity, calling a distant relative, donating food to a local food pantry, paying for a stranger's coffee, taking supplies to the local animal shelter, taking cookies to the fire station. 

What concerns me is some of the other suggestions, things that I think should be happening many times a day every day, 365 days of the year with both adults and children: like smiling at everyone, giving compliments, picking up litter, feeding the birds.  

I am reminded of another occasion, a year or so ago when someone else I know (sadly no longer on my Facebook friends list), when given the task of engaging in a daily single random act of kindness, proudly announced on day one that she had smiled at someone she did not know well, and on day two that she had opened the door for someone else.  Two behaviors that I practice multiple times a day, every day and have since childhood.

I thought at that time, as I think today on seeing this list of ideas, how has it become that behaviors like smiling, being polite, being helpful, that should be part of every one's normal every day behavior, are now being treated as special events that have to have a special holiday designation or done as some random kindness project.  

It seems that kindness like grades has become inflated, one gets more credit than one is due for what should be common daily behavior. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nuclear Nightmares

When I was growing up in a blue collar neighborhood in California I was aware that my experience of the world was very different than that of the children around me. I was preoccupied with issues and concerns to which most of my neighborhood playmates seemed oblivious.  A few decades ago I read Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, and was taken aback to discover that Dillard too had little awareness as a child of the international and national economic and political issues of the 1950's and early 1960's.  

One topic obsessed me more than any other between 1956 and 1963: nuclear war. My father possessed a huge volume of photographs collected by Life Magazine that included thousands of pictures of the death and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (it also contained many photos of the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe but that's a story for another day).  The images of cities utterly flattened by atomic bombs, and picture after picture with piles of bodies haunted me day and night.
Along side my father I watched dozens of television documentaries on the use of atomic weapons in World War II, the current testing of atomic weapons, and the future possibilities of nuclear weapons. Supper conversation often involved discussions about the cold war and the likelihood of nuclear weapon use.  Sometimes family Sunday drives in the late 1950's and early 1960's included visits to local bomb shelter retailers.

Every week when my parents took me to the public library, in addition to the children's fiction I checked out each week, I would sneak copies of all the pamphlets on the librarians desk about how to recognize the signs of nuclear attack, what to do in case of attack, and how to fashion a bomb shelter in your garage. I read each of these pamphlets repeatedly and memorized every smidgen of information they contained.  (I am grateful that I did not know as a child how absurd and futile such advice was). 

Each night, I would lie in bed awake, wondering if each plane that flew over head was an enemy bomber carrying nuclear weapons. Since my house was positioned near the landing approach for San Francisco International Airport, there were dozens of planes passing overhead every night.  I would freeze motionless, listen to the sound of the engines, trying to guess which one might be delivering death from above.  Any flashes of light, or distant rumbles made me imagine that a bomb had been dropped nearby. 

As I lay awake I thought my way through constructing shelters from lumber and plywood (which we had) and sandbags (which we did not).  Sometimes I would hunch in bed under the covers in the "duck and cover" position that we were taught in school during earthquake/bomb drills.  

At some point, after the nuclear scare of October 1962, the intensity of my fears faded.  The sleepless nights and nightmares slipped away. But I never lost my anti-nuclear, anti-war convictions, which translated in adulthood into political action and advocacy.