Tightrope: A Challenging and Compelling Book for our World


                        by Neal Lemery 1/17/2021

            If you are concerned about kids in your neighborhood, or you worry about your community, or the future welfare of the country, then Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is a must-read book for these challenging times.

            A sobering and emotional (and very well written) read, Tightrope tells the stories of Kristof’s classmates and neighbors in rural Oregon, and stories of impoverished Americans across the country, in today’s world, which the authors call “America’s social Great Depression”.  The stories are the stories of the people most at risk in our society. They can be, as Kristof points out, the kids you rode the school bus with, the decent people who are still your mom’s neighbors. 

            “We need economic change, but also cultural change, and ours would be a richer nation if it were more infused with empathy, above all for children,” say Kristof and WuDunn.  Kristof, a New York Times columnist, and his wife look deep and compassionately into the lives of good people, the heart and soul of this country, and tell their stories of struggle. 

            Their previous four books, and many of Kristof’s newspaper columns, have taken deep and hard looks at social issues in what we would call the Third World. Yet, this book compels us to look at the urgent issues we Americans face today; our many problems are Third World problems, or worse.

            We need to “look at our society through the lens of moral grace,” is their heartfelt message.  

            The deep and bloody holes in our social fabric are revealed, along with tales of courage and determination, as well as hope.

This is a book of heartbreaking stories, but we hear about innovative solutions.  “Solutions are difficult and imperfect, but the right programs make a big difference.  “There is a path out of the inferno,” the authors write.  

This book was often painful, and at the same time offers hope and resources.  If you want to be a force for change, the book is both a wake-up call and a great resource.

Why I Volunteer


                       

                                    by Neal Lemery

“Putting years of experience to work in our community on behalf of the arts brings excitement and joy. We take on unimagined projects that engage us intellectually, physically and socially. In addition to a sense of purpose, we find connection and friendship.” – Mary Corey, President, Hoffman Center, Manzanita, Oregon

            One of the organizations where I volunteer has a computerized volunteer reporting system, and I track my volunteer hours and mileage.  As tax time approaches, it provides me with some interesting numbers.  At the most, I think I only spend a couple of hours a week doing small tasks, but it adds up. The numbers go up as I realize I also volunteer in other ways, though I’m definitely a poor record keeper.  

Then, I mentally multiply that number by the approximately one hundred other volunteers in our organization. And that’s just one organization in one rural county. There are 1.8 million nonprofits in the USA, and over 65 million Americans volunteer. The number of hours and the value would be truly impressive; my calculator is not up to the task.

            Volunteer work has value.  The US Government calculates the hourly “rate” of volunteer value at $27.20/hour.  All that volunteer work really is value added to our economy, and our work provides service to the general public and to the operations of virtually every organization in the country.  

            Most volunteers don’t lend a hand as a way of improving the economy. So why do we volunteer?

            For me, there is both a sense of purpose and a sense of obligation.  For my entire life, I have benefited from the community, with countless organizations involved in my life and providing me almost every service and opportunity to improve myself that I can imagine. I’ve received a publicly funded education through high school, at very little cost to my family.  I’ve enjoyed the services of public libraries, police and fire services, transportation, communication, public health facilities and services, and the myriad other governmental and non-profit services and materials I have taken advantage of in my life.

            Yes, we’ve all contributed to those good works by paying taxes, and making some monetary donations, as well as paying many services out of pocket.  Yet, I certainly haven’t “balanced the books” by paying the full value for what I have received.

            Now that I’m retired, I have more time to return to the community what I have received in my life, a form of “payback”.  It is time to balance the books and to be generous with my time and abilities, and make my community a better place.  “Pay it forward” is a good motto to help guide our lives. 

            Volunteering and giving back is part of what citizenship requires of us.  Each of us is part of the whole. If we are able, we give back, making our community just a little better.  The work can be as simple as expressing a kind word, or lending a hand to someone in need, or offering some comfort and support.  Volunteering also means helping out when a group is taking on a task, performing some small task, and lightening someone else’s burden as we come together for an event. 

            Volunteering really has a very wide-ranging definition, and includes small acts of kindness.  Some tasks take less than a minute, and, over time, add up to our larger commitments to the common good. The work of the good neighbor, or a compassionate friend are all part of doing the work of the volunteer. 

            I also meet some nice people who are like-minded, giving and kind. They are good influences on me, and I am able to learn about their lives, and their charitable, good-hearted thinking. Being around them, and doing satisfying tasks gives me purpose.  I feel productive. And, I often gain new friends and am surrounded by happy, smiling people.  I feel I am part of the community and have a valuable role in bettering my community. Helping others also helps me. 

            Yet another benefit is learning more of what goes on in our community, how vibrant our institutions are, what services are available, and, most importantly, the wealth of talent and intelligence of my fellow citizens.  I become much more aware of the struggles of others and what are our community’s unfilled needs. Volunteering brings out the best in all of us.

            During the Pandemic, we can continue to be good volunteers.  Virtual gatherings and classes have been satisfying and informative.I write notes and letters to those I’m not able to safely visit.  One of my friends is a talented poet, so we swap poems and other writings, and act as editors and supporters for our creative efforts.  I post photos of nature and fun activities on social media, and try to keep my other postings upbeat.  When I see a funny joke or an inspiring quote, I’ll repost those, too. I also like to send a colorful and cheerful card, knowing there will be a smile at someone’s mailbox.  

            At the grocery store or post office, I’ll make it a point to say hello and have a pleasant and uplifting conversation. And, if someone needs a little help, I’ll make the effort.  A few pleasant words and a cheerful hello and nod behind my mask takes little effort, but can brighten someone’s day.  

            All of these tasks really take very little time and effort.  Doing something for someone else makes for a brighter world. I’m often reminded of the saying that you get back ten times what you give. Lives have been improved, and I have been a small part of a bigger effort. And who knows how many others’ lives will be uplifted, even in small ways. 

When I help out, when I do something nice for someone, a smile shows up on my face and life seems brighter. That’s a really nice paycheck to receive at the end of the day, more than the $27.20 an hour that the government says it is worth.

1/5/2021

Acting with Kindness, at the end of 2020


                                    

                                                            By Neal Lemery

(published in the Tillamook County (Oregon) Pioneer 12/27/2020_

            “A tree is known by its fruits; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.” – St. Basil (329-379 AD)

As the old calendar comes off the wall and the fresh, unmarked calendar of 2021 takes its place, I marvel at all the events written on the old calendar.  Most of them are crossed off.  This year was the year of the Great Postponement,  the year of cancellations and re-dos, of reforming events and projects, to fit the times of contagion, “personal distancing” and self care. And, for most of us, a time of “society care”.  

            2020 was the year we didn’t plan and we didn’t want.  The comfortable, predicable and expected simply didn’t happen, and we had to adjust.  The old and familiar changed, and we have had to change with the times, whether we wanted to or not.  The inner child, the inner toddler in me wasn’t a happy camper, and my tantrums often played out where others could see what a naughty kid I could be.  I’m not alone in all that acting out. 

            Like most of us, I’ve discovered the satisfaction of having the time to focus inward, to take on and complete home projects, to savor experiences with myself and the people I live with, and to reshape our experiences in the greater community.  I’ve grown in many ways, and learned to appreciate the simple pleasures of a safe meeting with friends, a collective effort made possible by technology, and some peace and quiet in nature.

            While there have always been angry, selfish outbursts of social rage that are often based upon fear, ignorance, and anxiety, this year that ugliness has been fueled by a collective access to social media, and the often unpenalized human trait to act out and rage in public. This year agitators have thrown the proverbial gasoline on the coals of unrest, frustration and the impotence of not being in charge of our lives.  Society is changing, and the change is being forced upon us by the pandemic and the resulting economic and social events.  We’ve been asked to adapt and to be tolerant, but that doesn’t mean we like it, or can adapt willingly or with the best interests of the community in our heart.

            In all this, there is a renaissance in personal and community kindnesses. Cordiality, compassion and community caretaking have taken on a new importance.  Now, I cherish the chat with the barista as I drive through for a cuppa, or have a properly distanced lunch with a friend.  Zoom meetings have become a staple of community gatherings.  I’ve acquired new skills and have been able to be part of rich conversations from people from around the country.  In many ways, we’ve been able to accomplish a lot in virtual gatherings. We are more efficient and more organized, while protecting our health and coping with the absence of “presence” and side conversations.  

            We are more gentle in our conversations, more apt to express our appreciation, and extend courtesies and patience.  Sending thoughtful messages and showing respect for others have enjoyed a new vibrancy.  Meeting for coffee seems like a spiritual celebration. 

            Personal encounters have become special, deserving of my full attention and a mutual exchange of good wishes and small acts of courtesy.  Life has slowed down, and I no longer feel compelled to rush through the day’s errands and transactions. I have found that I have time to be kind.  

            Despite the nastiness of political rhetoric, headlines and the seemingly unending social media posts, we have become kinder.  We have realized that kindness matters.  The pandemic and the “Great Pause” have given us some mental space to appreciate and celebrate the small things that make life sweeter.  

            Often, practicing kindness doesn’t get our attention, but it is the undercurrent, the “fuel” of our society. We are all hurting, we are all adjusting, and we all cherish those small, sweet moments where one person does nice things for someone else.  This isn’t glamorous, nor does it gather much attention.  But, it is the fresh spring breeze that comes at the end of a cold winter, and we are all part of it, the “Great Kindness”.  A simple act, kindness, yet so powerful it changes the world. 

            “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” — Jane Goodall

Inspiring Quotes from 2020


PROMISE YOURSELF …

To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.

To make all your friends feel that there is something special in them.

To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.

To think only the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.

To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.

To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.

To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.

To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

To think well of yourself and to proclaim this fact to the world, not in loud words, but great deeds.

To live in faith that the whole world is on your side so long as you are true to the best that is in you.

–Christian D. Larson, “Your Forces and How to Use Them”

                                    Other Good Quotes

            “Get exposed to other people’s truths and attitudes change.”

                        –Barack Obama

            “People do what they want to do.”

                        –Dear Amy (advice columnist)

            “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”

                        –Dolly Parton

            “A candle is a small thing. But one candle can light another. And see how its light increases, as a candle gives its flame to the other. You are such a light.”

            –Moshe Davis

“Writers write the books they need to read.”

            A modern proverb, repeated by Kathleen Parker

I Am Filled With Gratitude


                                    I Am Filled With Gratitude

                                                            By Neal Lemery

            Others may believe that Thanksgiving is radically different this year, that we are separated, socially distanced, and at odds with tradition. I hear people saying that how we will celebrate this very American holiday in 2020 is somehow a burden, an obstacle to our desire to want to be normal, and “back to reality”. 

Thanksgiving is a time of going inward, contemplating our lives and our community and counting our blessings. That mindset is all that is expected of us today, a day literally being a day of giving thanks. Thanksgiving as a holiday has no other expectations: no gifts, no parties, no special events except a shared meal with loved ones, and time to simply reflect and be grateful. I enjoy its quiet and its peace.

In that simplicity is a message for these times: gratitude. The pandemic reminds me of that fundamental value in our lives. We are reminded that simply being alive and breathing without a ventilator is good fortune, not to be taken for granted. We are dealing with economic and educational challenges being magnified by the times, yet we shall persevere and emerge stronger. 

When we have faced other difficult times, of wars and economic crises, we Americans have always paused to celebrate Thanksgiving. Locally, we’ve endured floods, power outages, and landslides. And, we have persevered. 

I’m at a loss to respond to people complaining about limiting the guest list for Thanksgiving dinner, an action taken in response to this public health crisis, a problem of life and death affecting all of us.  Like wearing a mask in public places, it is a small thing to ask to enhance the common good.

During World War II, my parents were separated for years, with the only communication being the occasional letter.  They did not experience the miracles of e-mails and virtual gatherings we take for granted today.  During this plague, we have much to be thankful for and can share our gratitudes with little effort. Forgoing a large dinner crowd and characterizing that as an unacceptable burden on individual freedom is an affront to the sacrifices endured by our ancestors, who gave up much for the benefit of all.

2020 has certainly challenged us, and in many ways it has strengthened us, marshalled our talents and intellect to take on new problems, and to work together for a brighter future. For all that, I am grateful. Happy Thanksgiving!

11/25/2020

Winners and Losers: Post Election Thoughts


            

                        By Neal Lemery

The quiet you are hearing today as you sip your coffee is the resumption of normal life after the frantic election season.  The passionate voices and political advertising noise are fading into the past. We can collect our thoughts without being bombarded, manipulated, and offered endless rides on the roller coasters of political hype.  I need to burn off the adrenaline and angst that the marketers and a number of my friends and neighbors have been firing up in our community life.  

            It might even be safe to have coffee with a friend and exchange pleasantries at the grocery store and post office without donning our political armor. I’d welcome a time of not having heated encounters that will erupt into cultural warfare and social media bloodletting. 

            One way to think of the election results is by listing the winners and losers. That’s painful and continues the divisiveness that has marked this political season.  And, remember, the “losers” are still around, still involved in our community. Like all of us, they should be a positive force for building community. 

Labeling and belittling people isn’t productive, to say the least. I, for one, have had my fill of negative politics this year. There will be other elections and other conversations and debates about important community issues.  Those discussions should include all of us, no matter who received the most votes this week.  

            There are real winners in this election:  For one, democracy and voter participation.  80% of those registered made the effort to vote.  Lots of people got involved and talked about issues, policies and goals that are important to all of us.  And, secondly, the community won.  All this energy and passion educated many of us about important questions and issues that affect how we live and where we go from here. Many of us are fired up to get more involved and bring about change.  

            No matter what the election returns mean to each of us, we still live in our community. We still have family, friends, and neighbors whom we value.  We are still together, and we still share our lives, our hopes, and our dreams.  I still want to believe that the vast majority of us are good people, who are living their lives with compassion and a determination to make a better world.  

            Life goes on.  No matter who received the most votes, our community issues are still here, and still need our attention.  We still have work to do.  Not necessarily political work, mind you, but vital work nonetheless. Together we are stronger.

                                    11/4/2020

Taking On Change


Taking On Change

by Neal Lemery

The pandemic is a time of postponement, not taking care of business. Life now has a lot of waiting around, and my frustration and impatience show up in high numbers on my emotional dashboard. The personal “to do” list seems to keep growing and has few check offs.

In normal times, my life’s challenges usually get resolved with me realizing it is a time to change. And that work to refresh is always so productive and satisfying. In these times, much of what we are facing seems out of my grasp to change. Most things get booted down the road. Like the virus, procrastination is becoming the new normal.

I often escape into my music. I pick up my guitar and find some solace, literally tuning out the world. Even there, there is a need for change. In guitar speak, it is realizing it is time to restring my faithful six string acoustic.

There’s a lifespan for good steel guitar strings. All my chord making, strumming and picking literally wears out the wires, as well as providing proof of my labors with bigger callouses on my fingertips. In that playing, oil and dirt from my fingers are rubbed into the strings. My picking and the vibrations becomes tiresome to the guitar (and probably the rest of my household).

I play my guitar for its mellowness, harmonizing tones and its predictability in terms of the sounds that are emitted, consistent with one’s repetition of chord patterns, strumming, and finger picking. One gets to mix it up, of course, by using different sizes and materials for strings, and the qualities that are unique for each guitar.

Other variables are at play: the type and age of the wood, the thicknesses of materials, the design, humidity, and how precise you are in tuning each string. You add other variables, too: the methods and styles of finger picking, flat picking and slides, plus little touches like pull offs, hammer ons, and chiming; not to omit the likely dozens of other techniques and styles I’ve yet to hear about, let alone begin to attempt. Guitars become “sweeter” with age, the wood conditioned by time and playing to evolve into an even more expressive instrument. It is a metaphor that I appreciate more the older I get.

Yet, it all goes back to having strings in good shape. It really is the simple things that make a big difference in how my guitar sounds in a day. Aside from all the complexities and sophistication of the accomplished musician, it is the act of restringing and putting on a set of new strings that makes my guitar come alive again. Sometimes, you just need to get rid of the rust and dirt and the “worn out” aspects of life.

I procrastinate, doubting myself that it really might be time to change the strings. I’m good at the kind of self-talk that talks me out of making a needed change. I’ll bargain with myself, offering excuses like time, or effort, or thinking it really hasn’t been that long since I put on the strings that are there now. I ignore the principle of guitar strings that age and wear out are a function of how much you play, versus what the calendar might say.

It’s not like I have to run down to the music store for a set, or that the cost will break my budget. For all their magic, guitar strings are a bargain. I almost always have on hand good to high quality strings, engineered for a long and vigorous life, with promises of crispness and high-quality tones. And, I have all the little tools, wood cleaners, and the other gizmos of the specialized world of guitar string replacement. I learn by trial and error in my music. My string changing regimen is a product of years of redoing and reliving most every mistake you can make, plus having some exciting adventures along the way.

Today, for instance, was the reliving of the occasional crisis of having a wooden peg pop out and plummet into the depths of the guitar box. These little pegs, which I want to think are insignificant, are really essential. They secure the little “ball” end of the string snug in the hole in the body of the guitar. They grasp one end of the string, so you can then tighten it, eventually giving enough tension on the string that it will vibrate and produce a note.

When pegs run wild, I feel helpless and inept, adding salty language to the experience. The peg then plays hide and seek, rattling around the inside, and getting caught in nearly every crevice of the various wooden bracings inside. I do the dance, holding and shaking the upside-down guitar in every angle and configuration, hoping to maneuver it to come out of its cave and rejoin its companions on the face of the guitar. There is the added chance of having the peg flying through the air and lodging under the nearest piece of furniture, prolonging the chase. More excitement comes when the cat decides to help.

This game is sometimes played with a guitar pick. My personal record for chasing the reluctant and shy guitar pick inside the guitar is a (now) laughable three weeks. At best, the usual plastic pick is worth, maybe fifty cents, but still, it’s the principle of the matter and a personal challenge. Man vs guitar pick. I WILL prevail.

The string changing ritual offers other challenges, such as squinting sufficiently in order to thread the thin wires through the holes in the tuner pegs at the other end of the guitar, so you can then wrap the wires around the pegs and begin to tighten them. The shiny wires blend in well with the chrome tuner pegs. In this stage, it is easy to qualify for a Purple Heart for Guitarists, by giving yourself a substantial poke in the finger. My guitar is frequently sanctified by my sacrificial efforts, accompanied by that now well used salty language.

You have to put the strings on in the right order, of course. Each string has a different diameter, with lower notes produced by thicker strings. That seems simple and logical. But, we’re talking me and mechanical tasks. Disasters can occur, with a brand-new string in the wrong place that’s tightened too much, accompanied by the unexpected loud twang of a broken string. Then there’s that deep feeling of ineptitude. Another box of strings is now on the table, adding to the potential confusion. I’ve learned to practice rituals of how I lay out the paper string packets and the manage the order of installation, much like a priest officiating at a high mass.

It is even more fun with a 12 string guitar. String changes on a 12 string increase the challenge by several magnitudes of difficulty, where the rubric requires the lowest four pairs (courses) to be tuned in octaves, but the top two courses are tuned in unison on the same note. Doubling the number of strings and the number of pegs that can go wild more than doubles the fun.

As one hits the home stretch, with all six new strings in place, you get a sense of impending success. When you finish up the tuning ritual with the electronic tuner and the seemingly never ending turning of the pegs on the tuner machines, the transformed guitar begins to sing its songs with a fresh, much improved voice. I’m always struck by the sweetness of the new strings.

“Wow, I should have changed these long ago. The new ones sound great,” I usually proclaim to the household, causing my wife to mutter that I always say that when I put on new strings. Still, it is continually a fresh and delightful discovery, each and every time. I am, perhaps, a slow learner.

I coil up the old strings, and attempt to put them in the garbage can, along with the handful of snipped off string ends, from both the old and new sets. This tangle of wires always resists me, usually breaking free and uncoiling onto the kitchen floor, attempting to evade my thick-fingered efforts to corral them and restuff them into the can. After all our quality time together, they just don’t seem to want to leave. It can be another perilous time for exposed fingers and toes, another opportunity to earn a Purple Heart for Guitarists. Now, though, I can see them in all their dirt and grime, the finish worn off and dull, any new effort to bring forth any decent sound doomed to failure. Tired and worn out, they are ready for a rest.

The rules and the pleasures of guitar string changes applies to other parts of my life, as well. I learn a lot from this occasional task. Familiar jeans well past their prime and faded, torn t-shirts and flannel shirts, with ripped sleeves, deserve similar replacements. Shoes, however, are the worst. I can easily wear out a pair of my favorite hiking shoes, my daily attire, until every last aspect of padding and support are long gone. A new pair tells me immediately that the old shoes were at least several months past their lifespan, and that familiar phrase again crosses my lips, “I should have changed these a long time ago.”.

These discoveries can be applied to other aspects of my life: toothbrushes, cracked glassware, chipped plates, bent forks, even one’s favorite chair. I can apply these lessons to my community life, as well: overly familiar places to hang out and tiresome, sometimes toxic people who refuse to grow in their thinking and experiences.

My guitar teaches me a lot about life: perseverance, consistent practicing, having a regular time to focus on some quality “me time”. And, change.

We can wake up in the morning, engage the world, and remark to everyone within ear shot, “I should have changed this a long time ago.”

9/30/2020

Hunkered Down


 

 

Grey, round and wet on the windshield

Before the wiper swipes, the squeegeeing

Seeping into my bones, dank and cold

Sopping, slogging, splashing,

Slowly dripping onto

Everything.

 

Piles of sloppy Gortex, boots and coats and hats

Freshly tracked in floors, patterned in rainboot waffle

Stuck on bits of leaf mold and mud

Everywhere you look.

 

Dry now means less damp, relative

Humidity always close to a perfect 100, we must be in first place

In rainforest championships and synonyms of rain.

Sidestepping squalls, all fifty shades of grey,

Our world now just ponds and roaring creeks on once green land,

Everything seen through the eyes of a duck,

We are all becoming paddlers.

 

–Neal Lemery 2/13/2020

My new book is published! Building Community: Rural Voices for Hope and Change: An Oregon Perspective


Neal’s new book is out and available on Amazon.

 

Building Community: Rural Voices for Hope and Change: An Oregon Perspective, by Neal Lemery

 

How are rural American communities working to build a better world? These are the stories of building a stronger rural America. These are the stories of a resurgence in diverse talents and work in progress to improve community services, relationships, and to further collective societal values and organizations. Active community involvement engages everyone, to address social conditions and improve our collective lives. In part, this book gives voice to diverse points of views and experiences, and shows the strengths and talents of rural Oregon communities. Numerous community members from rural Oregon offer their perspectives and describe their work, building better, more vibrant communities that are meeting the difficult challenges of rural America in the Twenty First Century.

Available at Amazon.com  https://smile.amazon.com/Building-Community-Voices-Change-Perspective/.

Also an e-book, also available on Amazon.DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL