Norman Lear’s work was an integral part of American life in the second half of the 20th Century. Television programs like Maude, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons dragged television out of the 1950s and into the real world. As Variety states: “Lear’s shows were the first to address the serious political, cultural and social flashpoints of the day – racism, abortion, feminism, homosexuality, the Vietnam war – by working pointed new wrinkles into the standard domestic comedy formula. No subject was taboo: Two 1977 episodes of All in the Family revolved around the attempted rape of lead character Archie Bunker’s wife Edith.”
All in the Family, which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979, typified the clash of generations. Middle-aged bigot Archie Bunker – played by Carrol O’Connor – was a right-wing King Lear in Queens, raging at the radical changes in society. Archie didn’t let ignorance get in the way of his opinions; once he argued that people who lived in communes were communists. The thing is, the old dog was actually capable of learning new tricks. Archie never evolved into any kind of saint. But over the nine seasons "Family" aired, experience taught Archie the benefits of listening to (and respecting) viewpoints far different from his own.
All in the Family was the jewel in Lear’s crown, but don’t forget the highly popular shows One Day at a Time (which featured Bonnie Franklin as a divorcee raising two daughters in the Midwest) and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (with Louise Lasser as the titular figure in a parody of soap opera conventions). Good or bad, Lear’s work was never indifferent.
More recently, you may have heard about Lear’s lively activism. His TV shows were themselves arguments for free and unfettered speech, and Lear supported a slate of liberal causes. In 1981 he founded People for the American Way. The organization’s website describes the ways that PFAW has “engaged cultural and community leaders and individual activists in campaigns promoting freedom of expression, civic engagement, fair courts, and legal and lived equality for LGBTQ people.”
Lear’s life was a long and fulfilling one. In 1978 he was given the first of two Peabody Awards, the most prestigious award in television. “To Norman Lear,” it reads, “...for giving us comedy with a social conscience. He uses humor to give us a better understanding of social issues. He lets us laugh at our own shortcomings and prejudices, and while doing this, maintains the highest entertainment standards.”
A pioneer, a gadfly of the state, a mensch. To paraphrase a lyric from All in the Family’s theme song, “Mister, we could use a guy like Norman Lear again.”
What Water Holds – on memory, perseverance and action
A mother's reflection in the wake of yet another school shooting.
Several months ago, I heard an interview on NPR with a woman who said that water carries memory. When the water freezes, the memories it carries are held in place, and when the ice melts, those memories are released. I don't remember which NPR show this was, nor do I remember the woman's name or what she was being interviewed about, except that she was in the arts, perhaps theater, or music, and she was talking about her most recent project. But, I remembered this one thing she said; that water carries memories, which are held and released, and held and released with the cycling of seasons.
I took a walk this morning. The biting chill in the air was giving way to a cooling thaw, and it felt as if spring might be coming early this year. At Bear Mountain park, near where I live, a grayish white vapor rose off of the frozen surface of the man-made lake, hovering, stretching out like an altostratus cloud. It was early, and I was the only person on the trail. It was so peaceful – the sounds of the breeze through the still bare trees, their fallen branches reaching out from the underneath the veil of ice like giant hands and the smell of the wet earth, ready to release new life.
In the Bible, water is mentioned over 700 times. It symbolizes cleansing, but also creation and God's awesome power. In Genesis, before there is light, sun, earth, plants, leaving creatures, there was water—it existed before existence itself. In Chinese Taoist philosophy, water is home to our essence. It represents wisdom, and great force, as well as perseverance.
Everywhere I looked this morning, ice was melting, becoming liquid. Bubbles formed underneath the surface of the frozen water on the rocks, sliding and turning over and around the bumps and crevices like tad pols in a stream. The sound of the melting release was everywhere. The applause of the filling streams running down off of the mountain, the rain storm of the current under my feet. In the distance, there was the crack-crack sound of something breaking --- a giant tree falling, or perhaps the roll of a machine, clearing a path Today, however, it reminded me of gun fire.
I often work from home on Thursdays and Fridays, partly to give myself a break from a grueling two-hour commute to work, but mainly to be home to drop off and pick my daughter up from school and to be present. My child is the most important thing in the world to me. Her infectious laughter, the feel of her cheek against mine when I kiss her goodnight, the furrow in her brow when she's worried, how proud I am of all she has achieved and my hopes for all that is yet to come --- this, and everything else about her is part of me, like the heart in my chest or the soul that lives someplace even deeper.
Six years ago, when she was in second grade, I watched images of grieving, broken parents of Newtown, Connecticut on CNN. I lived in a small town very much like Newtown, and I had a daughter who was exactly the same age as those children who were murdered with an assault rifle. Not a day has gone by since when I don't, at some point, worry that I might drop my child off at school in the morning, and not see her alive in the afternoon. After February 14, 2018, I watched CNN again, and, again, the same images of broken and grieving parents as they endure what no parent should ever have to; the senseless murder of a child.
It is said that everything is cyclical. There are some cycles that ground us; nature, aging, good times and bad. Some that challenge us; sickness and health, success and failure. These can't always be controlled – we just have to go with it. And then there are the cycles of another sort; violence, insanity, corruption, dishonesty, dereliction of duty. These are the kind of cycles that, if not controlled, if not broken, will break us. These are the cycles that Lori Alhadeff, the mother of 14-year-old victim Alyssa Alhadeff inveighed against when she pleaded into the camera, "President Trump, we need action. Now!" It's the cycle that sophomore Isabella Gomez took on when, in response to President Trump's declaration that We are here for you. We are here to ease your pain, that "He really needs to take into consideration gun control."
Memories are our foundation. This is one of the things that is so cruel about Alzheimer's --- it robs a person of their past, and with it, their identity. After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and the rest of the now over 150 mass shootings*, as a country, it is tempting to say that these horrors keep happening because we are suffering from collective Alzheimer's. But that's not it. We do remember. Who could forget? But what does that matter? Is that the point? We'll never forget you? I am reminded of Susan Sontag's brilliant post-9/11 piece in the New Yorker; "Our country is strong, we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all American has to be." Who doubts that we will remember mass shootings? If our thoughts and prayers are really with the victims in Parkland, Florida, we need to offer them a lot more than a place in our memories.
Water, like life itself, is full of contradiction. We develop and thieve in a watery womb, yet once we are born that same water will drown us. Rivers and oceans are sources of peace and tranquility, but also of flood and devastation. Of the many qualities water has, perhaps the one that most comes to mind after this latest mass shooting is reflection. In the words of 17-year-old survivor David Hogg, "This is a time for our country to take a look in the mirror and realize there is a serious issue here."
Note: *This is an approximate number, at best. As pointed out in a recent piece in The Atlantic, "The lack of reliable information on school shootings and other gun-related mass violence isn't just a matter of inconsistency in definitions; political factors have also played a role in limiting access to information. Under pressure from the National Rifle Association, Congress in 1996 prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding public-health research on issues related to firearms. These prohibitions have largely persisted, and there is still no comprehensive federal database on gun deaths, let alone on school shootings."