Monday, June 29, 2009


I am breaking one of my sacred rules. Talking politics. I avoid politics, I think my grandfather, Opa, had the same temperament. There was no talk of his political life before immigrating to America and I don’t know anything about his views. The only memory I have of his political views was seeing him on the verge of tears when President Kennedy died.

Politics and environmentalism have had a long affiliation. I am an environmentalist. You wouldn’t want your home, that sat on the bottom of a hill for over eighty years undisturbed, washed into the river because a developer bent the rules and built a development on a slope above it that caused a collapse of the entire hillside when heavier rains than usual arrived. Those that chain themselves to trees and protest the bulldozing of entire tracts of land bring attention to the problem, but no solution. Those that harvest trees and denude the area of natural vegetation have those chained to the trees arrested, but offer no solution. It is a vicious cycle. Both sides lose.

In the environmental community and the development community, there are now some looking for a middle ground. They are communicating, sitting down together, and working on solutions. It is not about winning and both sides now realize that working together is a benefit. If you follow the rules, I believe that there is always a political middle ground that meets the needs of both sides.

I have been receiving messages from friends in the South about Obama and his politics that border on hate mail. These anti-Obama messages are unbelievable. Unbelievable to me that, in this day and age, that there are those who never will see the forest because of the trees. There is a naïve, almost childlike tone to these messages. I am concerned, these messages seem to try and divide us. We don’t need less government and we don’t need more government. We need a government that is for the people, by the people, and of the people. Yes, it is a cliché. But government has forgotten that the people and the government were formed as a partnership. Obama does have the skills to be a good president. Obama was not my first choice, however he will be a good president, as good as we make him. In this day and age, our presidents don’t preside, they are project managers. It is up to us to make sure that our representatives in Congress carry our message to Washington. It is up to all of us to stop taking sides and to sit down and look for common ground and work on solutions.

Solutions must have eluded Opa. My brother has always puzzled about why Opa and Oma left Europe late, just before the WW II implosion, and lost most of their wealth. They left Eger,Czech in October of 1938. Relatives and friends immigrated much earlier and seemed, monetarily, to be in a much better position than Opa and Oma. I can only speculate. Staying until it was almost impossible to leave may have been fueled by the political climate in Sudetenland.

Sudetenland was a historical region of the northern Czech Republic along the Polish border. Long inhabited by ethnic Germans, it was seized by the Nazis in September 1938 and was restored to Czechoslovakia in 1945, after which the German population was expelled. Formerly part of Austria, the predominantly German-speaking area was incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I. Discontent among the Sudeten Germans was exploited in the mid-1930s by the Nazi Party and its local leader Konrad Henlein. The inflammatory situation convinced Britain and France that, to avoid war, Czechoslovakia must be persuaded to give the region autonomy. Adolf Hitler's demand that the region be ceded to Germany was initially rejected, but the cession was later accomplished by the Munich agreement. After World War II the region was restored to Czechoslovakia, which expelled its German inhabitants and repopulated the area with Czechs. Just politics?

We have political opportunities given to us by enlightened men who founded this nation. As a “closet” German Jew, I can only imagine what Opa thought while watching, from America, his Sudeten homeland disintegrate. In 1940, the family made it to America and were safe with relatives, and after the war, there were no longer any political solutions and no chance to ever return home.

Immigrants made America a melting pot of cultures and races. George Washington's financial advisor and assistant was a Jewish man named Hayim Solomon. Hayim loaned a lot of his own funds to the cause. He is considered the financial hero of the Revolution. In 1783, after the war, a fraction of the money was actually repaid. Practicing Episcopalian Alexander Hamilton has at least half-Jewish in his ancestry. If we count Deism (and Unitarianism), there were some big names among the non-Christians -- Tom Paine, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The anti-Obama messages being sent to me hint of the man not being suitable for office because of his familiarity with Muslim culture, because he isn’t Christian enough to lead this nation. I could quote some scripture here, but I am on a political quest.

Our founding fathers gave us the political tools to develop solutions. How do we get our government back to the fundamentals? How do we make people see how far away from the principles that defined the beginning of this democracy we have come and to sit down together to look for solutions?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Back and Forth (2008)

By Ann Lee

Back and forth, up and down; this summer I am painting a long-neglected outbuilding. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I watch the carefully chosen color cover the white primer. Neither the small electric paint sprayer nor the roller gave me the result I was looking for, so brush stroke by brush stroke I work to curb my irritation with the slow pace and to appreciate the process. Little sound bites invade my thoughts.


Up and down, with each stroke of the small 2” wide brush I imagine a homeowner living in a time when houses were built in seven months not seven days. A time when they only way to paint was brush stroke by brush stroke. As a society we expect, no we demand, that things are done quickly. I wonder what we have lost.

Brush stroke by brush stroke, I recall school required reading that included literature of times long past. I recall literature that spoke of summer vacations spent white washing miles of fence. What child of today would have that patience, that focus? My own patience and focus is tested with the couple of hours a day I have reserved for this task.

Back and forth, up and down; the brush moves across the building as I climb up and down the ladder on an elastic bandaged knee that would have faired better if the building had been blasted with a spray gun. Dragging a bucket up a ladder is testing more than my fortitude, perhaps my sanity.

Brush stroke by brush stroke, I am reminded that half of my friends expect communication by personalized snail mail that takes days to arrive while the other half embraces the Internet and technology, confused when queries are not responded to instantly. Those in the snail mail genre would probably be fascinated by the painting of this building. I was born in a complex era. Stroke by stroke, I try to rationalize why a slow pace may be better. This building was long-neglected and my excuse was of a lack of time. Things to do, people to contact, work to do, the Internet to surf, I embrace technology, irritated with snail mail.

However, I now have time to paint, sip tea, and not worry about the pace that I have chosen for this project. I had always expected to leave Corporate America on my own terms. A reduction in force is what they called it. Corporate restructuring they tell shareholders. Increasing shareholder value is what my brother calls it. Two jobs and a three hour daily commute left no time for outbuildings. One job I left for personal reasons, the other soon after that because of “a reduction in force.”

To get my severance pay, I signed a waiver that I was not let go because of age. I received a federally mandated spreadsheet of the ages of those let go in my department and those remaining. Let go were a 38 year old first time mother who went to human resources and begged to be on the list, a 45 year old, the rest were in their 50s and 60s. Age discrimination had never entered my thoughts before the required waiver. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I focus on the paint filled bristles of the brush.

Up and down, side to side, the brush moves in a controlled rhythm as I try to control my impatience. I contemplate the irony of choosing to paint my building this way. As someone who kept their e-mail always open; expecting and giving immediate, instant responses, the method of painting this structure is the antithesis of my corporate life. And as a single woman in her fifties, I wait for the panic attacks that plagued me in my youth, but they show no signs of appearing.

A time out from the brush to visit my friend. Another displaced employee who is normally frugal, we went downtown to an uptown shoe store. With severance pay and confidence that a new position would easily be obtained, she picked out two pairs of shoes and left the equivalent of one month’s rent on a counter that would have only held the fingerprints of a daydreamer the day before. I think about coping strategies and return to my building.

Up and down, back and forth, for a couple of hours a day, my brush continues to travel across the building as the summer wanes. I am not checking my e-mail as frequently as I had at the beginning of the summer. Roommates suggest that a roller would be more efficient, I tell them this is therapy. Brush stroke by brush stroke, I think about the job boards I have resisted signing up for, the corporate sponsored classes that I am entitled to but have avoided, but mainly I think about former colleagues who are also disenfranchised. I worry about those that are challenged by technology, who have been left behind through their choices. Choices define us and the narrow 2” brush moves effortlessly across the building.
Brush stroke by brush stroke, I now know that the lattes that I buy on impulse when I am driving around will now be purchased only on special occasions. Up and down, back and forth, the brush layers Whispering Pine green over the white primer. I also realize that the primer is not being covered by the green, but is an important part of the process, a silent partner. Life is like the paint on this building, layered. What is underneath is important because the top layer is molded and shaped by the layer underneath it. I am still bothered by the waiver I signed, that I would not claim age discrimination as the reason that I was chosen to be part of the corporate restructuring.

My grandmother was old when she was in her fifties. I do not feel old. Choices. In the waning days of summer, with the building almost complete, I will make sure that there is wood for the winter. I will search for books collected over the years to befriend me over the winter. The next layer will not look the layer it covers, of that I am sure.

Back and Forth, Up and Down (2009)

I am approaching the one-year anniversary of my release from a corporate empire. It is interesting that, at this junction in my life, I am once again painting. My daughter and her tribe are packing and after living with me for two years, they are moving into their own home. I am painting the bathroom for her. Back and forth, up and down, the paintbrush goes just as it did a year ago. I wrote an essay about my adventures last summer and shared it in my New Year’s message to some of my friends. I am repeating it for those who are interested.

The house that I am painting has been around for more than eighty years. My thoughts frequently wander as I brush paint over cracked molding that has more paint layers than I care to count. I have let my imagination wander with each brush stroke, who put this first layer on in this tiny little cottage? Perhaps the “man” of the house, or the builder. I am sure it was not the “lady” of the house. From the books that I have read about home life in the 1920s, she would not done this work herself. If her husband was unable to do it, then she would have found a handyman to do it.

The 1920s and 1930s are a fascinating period. The British television versions of “Hercule Poirot” and “Miss Marple” by Agatha Christie on PBS showcase the best of the eras. I love old movies like “The Thin Man”. The style of the houses, the clothing, and the cars always captivate me. It seems like a simpler time with an invisible, hidden current of excitement and exploration underneath that facade. I wonder if I could have lived in a time that restricted women, but I do know that there were many women that worked around those restrictions.

Even now, we place restrictions on ourselves. It doesn’t matter if the influences come from outside pressures or from our own minds, how we restrict ourselves defines us and the result is the same. One of the many books I have enjoyed reading is “Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists” by Marcia M. Bonta. These women defied restrictions placed on them, but many didn’t receive the credit due to them. We have come a long way. I use the word we because I am sure that “I” have not come as far as I should have come.

Thanks to the Gregoire – Obama stimulus package, I do not have to worry about the overhead lights and the gas for my car at this time. However, there will be an end to that benefit and the day will soon be here when I will need to look at how and why I restrict myself. I need to appreciate that walking into a hardware store is something I probably wouldn’t have done in the 1920’s, but, thanks to women who rose above society’s expectations, I have the privilege to do it now and not to be embarrassed. There are many other opportunities that I should take advantage of. In an era when men explored the world and women stayed home and kept the home fires burning, one of the women naturalists I read about bought a huge Dodge truck, sixteen gears, loaded her lady friend and gear up and headed for Baja to do research. SHOCKING BEHAVIOUR by all accounts!!