Saturday, December 26, 2009

A cheapskate's Christmas gift to his wife

From the Parkville Luminary

I have no skills.

This stark realization is especially apparent this Christmas day. You see, this year, because we’re cheap and broke, my extended family decided to draw names, and to make inexpensive gifts for the drawee, rather than buy them. My crafty wife, for example, is crocheting a scarf for her father, while my talented son is painting a bird house for his lucky gift recipient. As for me, I can’t crochet, draw, paint, knit, sew, sing, dance, or rhyme; I can’t use a hammer, screwdriver, nails, a glue gun, stapler, or any kind of saw (unless I want to risk losing some useful body parts).

I pity the person whose name I drew, knowing that they would be doomed to gift-recipient purgatory, since the only thing I can remotely do (with remote being the operative word) is this: write a Christmas column as a gift.

As I drew the name, I was hoping to select my mother in law, Joan. Pronounced Joanne, her misspelled name is only the first thing that I can give her trouble about. Suffice it to say that she’s an easy target, and would’ve been the subject of an entertaining column. I have been teasing her for years. My favorite gag was the time that I sent in a business reply card with her name and address on it to a funeral home. The guy from the funeral home—the undertaker!!—actually showed up at her home, unannounced, to discuss her “arrangements”. I’m thinking he had a tape measure in hand, even though he wouldn’t need to use much of it, since Joan is comically short. Unfortunately, I didn’t draw Joan’s name, so I guess I can’t write about her.

I could have also drawn the name of one of the 274 Park University international students for whom we serve as official or unofficial host family. Had I drawn Nadia, for example, I could have made blonde jokes. Now, she’s no longer a blonde, but that doesn’t preclude jokes about how the blonde dye soaked into her brain. (She’s actually very smart, but I don’t think I would have mentioned that). I could have written about Ana, or, as we call her, the “Cleaning Nazi”. You see, Ana has a dictatorial passion for house cleaning that borders on fanaticism. When she starts cleaning, my son and I wisely evacuate the premises, afraid that she will make us scrub toilets with a toothbrush. Had I drawn Aziz, I could have analyzed at length why he doesn’t lead when he dances. Sadly, I did not draw any of these students, either.

My father in law would also have made an interesting column. Actually, all I would have to do is have him repeat one of his entertaining tall tales, and it would have filled an entire column, perhaps two. But alas, my wife drew her father’s name, and, fortunately for him, he got a cool red scarf, rather than a lame column.

So, as fate would have it, I was surprised when I unfolded the slip of paper to reveal the name I drew—Barbara, my wife. Now, if you are regular readers of this column, you’ve already read a great deal about Barbara, and probably remember that she sent me to the Republic of Georgia a few years back with only three pairs of holey underwear. You may also remember that she and I like to play “Scrabble” frequently, although, at our age, we don’t get as many double word scores as we used to. And you probably recall that she cries at anything and everything. For example, she cries every year during the “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings” conclusion of her favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. My son and I roll our eyes at all this corniness and her balling, which, in the past, has included tears shed over a movie of the week wherein the hero dies and is reincarnated as a dolphin. Canned tuna, anyone?

Though she is irredeemably corny, we love her anyway, largely because she’s really, really sweet. Barbara works with kids who have autism, and we think this makes her somewhat of a saint. She also works with the boy and I, and this definitely makes her a saint. She would pack up and leave tomorrow to join the Peace Corps or work at Mother Teresa’s orphanage if she could. (Actually, this is what we’re going to do when we retire).

So, Barbara, wipe away those tears, and accept my heart-felt wishes for a wonderful Christmas and a Happy Birthday (Dec. 31). Let’s draw names again next year. Maybe I can get Joan.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A holiday wish: Keep church, state separate

From the Parkville Luminary

Of the thousands of things I love about America, the separation of church and state, and our freedom of and from religion, is near the top of the list.

We are particularly blessed this holiday season to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989). The case involved two different displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a nativity placed at the county courthouse, and the other a broader seasonal display on the grounds of a city-county office building with a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a sign trumpeting the city’s salute to liberty. The court ruled that the nativity was unconstitutional, while the broader display was permissible. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that the nativity was an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.

We should also commemorate the 10th anniversary of an appeals court ruling in ACLU vs. Schindler. The case involved a Nativity scene, a menorah and a holiday tree owned by Jersey City, N.J. “The court ruled a holiday display entirely consisting of religious symbols violates the establishment clause. But the court said if religious symbols were placed in a secular context -- the city added Santa Claus, a 4-foot-tall plastic Frosty the Snowman and a red wooden sled after losing the case at the trial level -- then the display was permissible.” (UPI, 11/15/09).

This December, we also need to commend the North Kansas City Council, which just this month decided to stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer before every council business session. This decision respects everyone who lives in North Kansas City, yet does nothing to prohibit the Lord’s Prayer before, or after, official business.
These cases hinge on the establishment clause of the first amendment, which “not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.” ( ).

The establishment clause is wise indeed, for it protects the rights of the non-Christian minority in this country, as well as preventing the country from sliding down a slippery slope away from the rule of law and towards the abyss of intolerant religious rule.

In fact, that’s what the father of the constitution, James Madison, worried about. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”, Madison wrote, “…Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

The establishment clause, and protection from and for religion, should be appealing to Christians, adherents of minority religions, and non-believers. Do Christians really want an official stamp of bureaucratic approval for their religion? What would be the price of that stamp of approval—federal regulations? Political endorsements? Wouldn’t this inevitably lead to corruption? As Madison said, which denomination gets the official designation anyway? It’s unimaginable that any religion would want to slink into the swampy morass of politics, even if it meant some governmental blessing or sanction. Organized religion doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a courthouse for their nativity displays, and shouldn’t have to water down their message with Frosty or Santa. (See Schindler case, above). Those sacred displays have a hallowed place—on church property, or at a synagogue or temple, and not at a place where they can be regulated by a court or bureaucrat.
For those who practice non-Christian religions, our system offers them the freedom to worship as they choose without discrimination. For non-believers, the benefits of our secular society are even more palpable—the freedom from having a religion imposed from above (as it were!), and the freedom to raise your children without religion, if that is your choice.

So, as you’re celebrating this holiday season, or not, say a little prayer, or alternatively a kind thought, for the wisdom of America’s founders, and particularly for those who defend the establishment clause.

--As always, check out my Peace Journalism website at:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Missouri: Support familes of children with Autism (and, ban texting!)

From the Parkville Luminary

You’d love to take your child to a restaurant, or maybe to a Royal’s game, but you know you’d better not try, given what could happen.

This sad reality is faced today by hundreds, if not thousands, of Missouri parents of children who have autism. A proposed bill being considered in the Missouri General Assembly aims to help make life a little better for the dedicated, tireless caregivers of children with autism.

The bill, filed in both the House and Senate last week, requires state regulated health insurers to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism. These state regulated health insurers make up about one third of the overall market. The bill requires insurers to cover up to $72,000 annually for behavioral therapy for children. This kind of therapy helps kids with autism interact more positively with the world around them.

The bill deserves quick, unanimous passage.

As a parent of a child with autism, State Sen. Eric Schmidt of St. Louis knows how important insurance-covered therapy will be for Missouri’s families. “What the therapies really mean for families…is the difference between whether or not a mother can take her daughter to a movie, or a dad can take her son to a ball game,” Schmidt told the KC Star (12-04-09). What Schmidt means is that without intensive therapy, children with autism often don’t react well to unfamiliar environments like movie theaters or stadiums or restaurants. This can result in panic attacks, screaming, or other difficult-to-manage behaviors.

Of course, the heartless insurance companies are lined up against the legislation. Missouri Insurance Coalition Executive Director Calvin Call groused that the bill "sounds very expensive, sounds like a full blown mandate, sounds like special interests may get served at a very high price tag while others who are struggling to pay premiums may get priced out of the market." ( ) If by special interest he means differentially-abled children and their heroic parents, then I guess he has a point.

Insurance lobbyists claim that requiring autism coverage could raise premiums by more than 3 percent and force people to drop health coverage. But don’t believe everything you hear from the Scrooges in the insurance industry. An analysis by the advocacy group Autism Speaks ( estimates that an autism insurance requirement would result in a less than 1 percent increase in the cost of premiums. (

How many children are diagnosed with autism (1 in 150, or 1 in 91) depends on which source you ask. What is crystal clear is that autism, or at least the diagnosis of autism, is a rapidly growing phenomena. That’s why immediate passage of this legislation is crucial if we are to give Missouri families caring for children with autism the support that they so desperately need.

Another proposal currently being considered by the general assembly also deserves passage. Several bills have been filed for the 2010 session that would ban all texting while driving in Missouri. Currently, only those under 21 are prohibited from texting while driving.

It’s absurd, of course, that texting while driving is dangerous only for those under 21. This must mean that the rest of us can capably drive and text at the same time, right? Wrong. There is a mountain of data to support a texting ban, including one study that showed that texting truckers were 23 times more likely to have a collision, and a second that showed that about 6,000 people were killed and 500,000 injured last year by distracted motorists, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Once the texting ban is in place, the next step should be banning cell phone use in vehicles, including hands-free cell phones. Even with hands-free phones, drivers who are yakking on cell phones are still distracted drivers.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that as a college professor, I am especially sensitive to the ubiquity of cell phones and other odious IDP-type devices, particularly when they become an annoyance in my classroom. In fact, I may be writing my state representative, and ask for an amendment to the texting ban that would extend it to the university classroom.

--As always, check out my Peace Journalism website at:

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hotel Rwanda hero inspires students, teacher

From the Parkville Luminary

CHICAGO--Today, my students and I met a real superstar, and I don’t mean some plastic “American Idol” or steroid-pumped athlete. Paul Rusesabagina doesn’t sing or dance or shoot hoops, but he is the biggest hero I’ve ever met, or likely will ever meet.

Don’t recognize the name? Rusesabagina’s story is the inspiration for the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. His character was played (in Oscar-nominated fashion) by Kansas City actor Don Cheadle. In the movie, and real life, Rusesabagina shielded 1,268 people from certain death during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. He bravely risked his own life to do this, but insists that anyone else put in his position would have done the same thing. In fact, his gripping autobiography is titled “An Ordinary Man”. However, after hearing Rusesabagina speak, it’s impossible to conclude that he is anything but extraordinary.

Rusesabagina recently addressed delegates at the American Model United Nations conference in Chicago, including 16 Park University Model United Nations students.

Rusesabagina said it is ironic that he was speaking to a United Nations conference, since it was the UN that failed him and his countrymen in 1994 during the “madness” that took 1-million lives in a country of just 7 million people. That’s the equivalent, in terms of population percentage, of an American genocide taking 45 million lives. He said that the UN “abandoned the country to gangsters and thugs.” Rusesabagina said that a “lack of political will” from the UN and the rest of the world doomed his small country in 1994. “Silence is agreement,” he noted, implying the complicity of the world in the slaughter in Rwanda.

Sadly, Rusesabagina believes that little has changed since 1994. “So far, we have not learned the lessons from the Rwandan genocide,” he noted, citing ongoing strife in Congo and Darfur examples of the continuing struggles in Africa’s great lakes region. The UN has certainly not learned much, he said, observing that it has been as ineffective in protecting innocents in Darfur as it was in Rwanda.

The media also continue to operate much as they did before 1994. “The media can help us save lives, but their silence is a complicity,” Rusesabagina said. While the western media are silent, the African media continue to inflame conflicts rather than advocate for peace. This fact that became abundantly clear as I taught peace journalism in Uganda last summer. The media, particularly radio, helped to fuel the Rwandan genocide. Yet, 14 years later, the same type of radio-fueled violence left 800 dead in Kenya in 2008, and threatens to do the same in Uganda as presidential elections approach.

One solution, one way of helping to institutionalize a memory of those tragic lessons, is to convene truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions in the great lakes region (including Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda) to facilitate the healing process. Rusesabagina said the goal of such commissions would be to put people around a table who would say, “I hate you and you hate me. But, what can we do so that one day our children can live together?” To help spur the establishment of these commissions, Rusesabagina launched the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation in 2005. ( The foundation is committed to securing lasting peace and international human rights, facilitating justice, and serving the victims of genocide. The HRRF always welcomes donations and volunteers.

Rusesabagina discussed several ways that the student could address peace and justice issues and “stand up and make a difference”. First, he recommended that students raise awareness of African issues since the western media won’t. (He said there’s not enough money to be made covering human rights issues). Secondly, he urged the students to write their congressmen, and let them know that the status quo in Congo and elsewhere in Africa is unacceptable. He also encouraged them to volunteer or donate to his foundation. Rusesabagina concluded his remarks with a powerful quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

That’s certainly not a fate that Paul Rusesabagina need concern himself about.

--As always, check out my Peace Journalism website at: