Eleanor Roosevelt’s enduring presence

English: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Li...

English: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum ID #65732 Eleanor Roosevelt at United Nations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the agonies of a too-long and too-bitter campaign were drawing to a happy — for a winning percentage of us at least — conclusion, another milestone slipped by: the 50th anniversary of the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. The great writer/ speaker/ activist  and long-suffering (though few knew at the time) wife of New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt died on November 7, 1962. She and FDR moved into the White House a few months before I was born. When she moved out after his death nearly a dozen years later, she never skipped a beat in her own career of promoting justice for all. I remain a fan.

It’s heartening to find she has new generations of fans, including adventure/travel blogger Lesley Carter, who runs this ER quote across several pages: “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” Eleanor’s experiences, which included riding elephants in India and exploring the mysteries of Africa, Asia and beyond, nearly always highlighted her passion for promoting peace and justice at home and abroad. At the time I met her, global peace seemed a far more attainable goal than it does today.

It was the fall of 1953. I had just turned 20, graduated from college, settled happily into an apartment in downtown Richmond, VA with my sister Mimi and college roommate Pat, and landed my first full-time job with a local public relations firm. Mimi was dating a dashing young reporter for radio station WRNL named Roger Mudd; I was dating a dashing young political cartoonist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch named Hugh Haynie. The world was our oyster.

My PR firm had landed the job of arranging for Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech in observance of United Nations Day, an event planned for Richmond’s Mosque Theater and made somewhat controversial by the fact that it would be open to anyone – since she did not speak to segregated audiences. This, among other things Rooseveltian, did not sit well with James Kilpatrick, the arch-conservative segregationist editor of the afternoon newspaper, The Richmond News Leader.

I snagged the plum assignment of meeting Mrs. Roosevelt at the Richmond Airport, which at the time consisted of a Quonset hut beside several runways, out in Henrico County farm country. There were several of us in the delegation; it did  not hurt that my father was then chairman of the Virginia United Nations Association.

In the time it took Mrs. Roosevelt to travel from New York for the one-night visit, Kilpatrick had published a vitriolic editorial, condemning just about everything she stood for beyond motherhood and apple pie. We took a copy of the paper to the airport so she could read it on the way into town, since there would only be a few minutes to spare between her arrival at the hotel and the press conference scheduled just before dinner and the event. I remember being introduced to her, and subsequently being called by name every time she spoke to me, a small but extraordinary gift I think she conferred on everyone she met.

We had seen a draft outline of Mrs. Roosevelt’s speech. It was all about international friendship and cooperation, the importance of education, global health needs – essentially the same issues she would probably be addressing today. How, I wondered, would she possibly get to her significant national/international subjects in light of the unavoidable local hostility? The press conference was barely underway when hands went up all over the room, and questions were shouted, asking for a response to the News Leader editorial.

She smiled broadly at the writers and reporters who packed the room.“I understand,” Mrs. Roosevelt said, “that your new editor is very bright, very talented – and very young.” She paused. “Over the years, I have learned to have great patience with youth.” Then she smiled again and took the next question.

Ah, so. But Mrs. Roosevelt, I suspect, would approve of the youthful President just re-elected to the job her husband held eight decades ago.

More on mortality: living strong, dying well

It’s hard to think about the death of my sister Jane (below) without thinking of another death we faced together.

Our father, in his 90th year on the planet and his 20th year of widowhood, started putting the pressure on Jane and me to come to see him one Thanksgiving. As we were in different states and had families and other things needing attention, getting to Virginia required some doing. Our dad had two daughters in between Jane and me, but she was the executor of his estate and I was the one who brought comfort because I closely resemble my mother. We four daughters usually visited at different times in order to stretch out the audiences for his story-telling and generally keep an eye on him. This time he was adamant. He wanted the two of us there together.

In mid-January we got it worked out. Jane and I met in Atlanta, having to spend the night there because the Richmond airport was snowed in. We managed to get on the first plane to land in Richmond the next morning. After picking up a rental car for the drive to Dad’s home in Ashland we took him to lunch at the only place open in town. He was impatient to get back home. Once there he did his traditional monologue about his 12 flawless grandchildren, a reassurance, of sorts, of his posterity. Then he shuffled off to his room for a nap.

And that’s where we found him when he didn’t answer a call to dinner. Keeled over, on his knees at the head of his bed, where he had said his prayers for 90 years. Having  departed this realm in the midst of a conversation with God, all arrangements complete. He and God had long maintained a strong, conversational relationship.

Not all of us can engineer our departures so efficiently — you had to know my father. Or so gently as Jane’s closing days with her family around, singing hymns. But there are millions of such stories (some of which are in the book, Dying Unafraid, that was motivated by the first story above, if you’ll pardon a little blatant self-promotion here; it’s still in print.) The great majority of those stories happen not because the central character had an unshakable faith in some deity or other (although that does tend to help matters) or because he or she had mystical powers or superhuman strength and determination, but because the central character accepted his or her mortality. We’re born, we live, we die. The facing of, and preparation for, its eventual end often makes dying better and always makes life richer.

That’s the lesson of these two stories. Dying unafraid tends to happen to people who live unafraid. And who talk to their families and friends, and complete their advance directives, and make it clear what their choices are. This is equally true for the young and the old, the fit and the infirm.

What are you waiting for?

Time flies when… or does it really?

In case you’re wondering what happened to 2009 — personally, I misplaced December, and have some real doubts about several weeks in March and August — maybe you were indeed having fun. Or having too much caffeine. According to an article seductively headlined “Where Did The Time Go? Do Not Ask The Brain” in the New York Times our perception of time can be linked to good times or bad, and the nature of events we peg time’s passage to affects whether it flew like the wind or dragged like a wet mattress. Science Times writer Benedict Carey assembles enough esoteric theories, along with the down-home speculations, to make a few moments vanish while reading.

That most alarming New Year’s morning question — “Uh-oh, what did I do last night?” — can seem benign compared with those that may come later, like “Uh, what exactly did I do with the last year?”

Or, “Hold on — did a decade just go by?”

It did. Somewhere between trigonometry and colonoscopy, someone must have hit the fast-forward button. Time may march, or ebb, or sift, or creep, but in early January it feels as if it has bolted like an angry dinner guest, leaving conversations unfinished, relationships still stuck, bad habits unbroken, goals unachieved.

I think for many people, we think about our goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” said Gal Zauberman, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

Studies of what makes time fly, or seem to, come up with opposite views: too many events that you’re pegging the past 30 days to might telescope them into 20 days. Or maybe your brain does have some control over your perception of time. You didn’t get that project finished on deadline? Well, the day just zoomed by.

In earlier work, researchers found a similar dynamic at work in people’s judgment of intervals that last only moments. Relatively infrequent stimuli, like flashes or tones, tend to increase the speed of the brain’s internal pacemaker.

On an obvious level, these kinds of findings offer an explanation for why other people’s children seem to grow up so much faster than one’s own. Involved parents are all too well aware of every hiccup, split lip and first step in their own children; whereas, seeing a cousin’s child once every few years, without intervening memories, telescopes the time.

On another level, the research suggests that the brain has more control over its own perception of passing time than people may know. For example, many people have the defeated sense that it was just yesterday that they made last year’s resolutions; the year snapped shut, and they didn’t start writing that novel or attend even one Pilates class. But it is precisely because they didn’t act on their plan that the time seemed to have flown away.

By contrast, the new research suggests, focusing instead on goals or challenges that were in fact engaged during the year — whether or not they were labeled as “resolutions” — gives the brain the opportunity to fill out the past year with memories, and perceived time.

My father, who spent his entire life in academia, used to speak of time as “the element that doesn’t exist.” Maybe he was right after all. Maybe that’s what happened to December.

Mind – Research on How the Brain Perceives Time – NYTimes.com.

Thinking about the Bush think tank

Why am I not encouraged by reports of the official launch of the George W. Bush Institute on the campus of Southern Methodist University? According to Dallas Morning News reporter Lori Stahl,

Former President George W. Bush will make his first scheduled Dallas appearance at SMU today when he and wife Laura unveil plans for the Bush Institute before an audience of 1,500 people at McFarlin Auditorium.

The Institute has been described by foundation officials as a scholarly forum that will conduct research and promote dialogue on four core principles identified by the Bushes.

These core principles, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, include education, global health, human freedom and economic growth. Hmm.

My father Earl Moreland, who grew up to be, among other things, president of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA for 28 years, died in 1987 without voting for either of his fellow Texans. He was in the first class ever to enter what would become SMU, and one of my fond memories is of accompanying him to Dallas for his 60th reunion.  I believe it is safe to say he would not be proud to have a Bush think tank on the campus of his alma mater.

For my part, I am just stumbling over those “core principles,” and their connection to our former president. Education? Global health? Embodied by someone who condemned millions throughout Africa and beyond to sickness and death through his ill-advised policies? Economic growth? Hello? Times are surely tough today, ten months into Barack Obama’s presidency, but did he create this mess or inherit it?

Some of my favorite people voted for George W. Bush. All of them are, in my humble opinion, smarter than he is. One of them did graduate work at SMU years ago, but does not support placement of the Institute on campus.

During our trip to Dallas for his reunion (the school opened in 1915, you can do the math) my father remarked that he would come back for his 65th if there were anyone around to reune with. Turned out he never made that return visit. If he were here today I’m not sure he would be making plans for his 100th.

My father had a favorite response to all things he considered outrageous (often applied to his daughters) which sounded like “Poosharisha!” It was from his second language (which I sadly never learned), adopted during a 12-year period in Brazil at the Instituto Porto Alegre. Long after he died I learned it was a Portugese expression that  translates, roughly, “That is beyond anything within the natural order of the universe.”

Somewhere in the ethernet I hear my father contemplating the coming of the George W. Bush think tank, and clearly also hear his voice. Poosharisha.


George W. Bush to unveil Bush Institute programs today at SMU | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Latest News.

The Peace prize & the 20th Century

While applauding Mr. Obama, I’m among those who wish the Nobel folks had waited. I do hope peace might actually, some day, happen in the world, but given last century’s record, things are chancy at best.

My father, born in 1897, used to talk a lot about world peace. His father, born just after the end of the Civil War, lost two of his five sons to World War I, but he took comfort in the certainty that peace would abound from then on. He died in the mid-1930s, presumably not looking very closely at Germany.

My father was an eternal, though not unrealistic, optimist. The afternoon we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed we gathered around the Philco radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt, and my father talked about what a terrible thing war was. But for a few years we had that one, the last ‘good’ war. There was optimism after it ended but not much peace, because we plunged right into the Cold War.

In 1953 my father — Earl Moreland was his name, he was a good guy — was president of the Virginia United Nations Association and brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Richmond to speak on — world peace. It was a plum for my fresh-out-of-college first PR job and a memorable time for me, since I got to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt at the quonset hut that passed for Richmond’s airport at the time and watch that singular lady in action. She was eloquent and reservedly hopeful. For a while in the 1950s peace seemed dimly possible, if you could look beyond SEATO and the Geneva Accords and a few issues with Communism, and ignore (as many of us did) the plight of the Palestinians.

Then came Vietnam. If that war seemed endless, which it was, at least after we made our ungraceful exit there was another tiny hope that somehow there might be a little peace… as long as you ignored the North/South Vietnam problems and weren’t looking at Israel and Palestine.

My father was a big fan of Anwar Sadat. When Jimmy Carter managed that little sit-down with Mr. Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, I was visiting my father at his home a hundred or so miles south. This time we hunkered in front of the little living room TV set, and I remember my father saying “By George! I think we could see peace over there one day.” Well, we did hope. Of course, by then it was getting close to time to start looking at Afghanistan, a country many Americans (certainly including this one) thought of more as a storybook land than a real place where one bunch of people have been fighting with another bunch of people since time immemorial.

The rest is (more recent) history. It will be evident that this space is not the History Channel, but more precisely one woman’s view of the 20th century and the peace in our time that didn’t exactly happen. American Nobel peace laureates Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger — MLK, definitely a peacemaking sort but Henry Kissinger? — and Jimmy Carter didn’t formulate much 20th century peaceable wisdom for their 21st century follower.

Barack Obama is a believer, in hope, and peace, and possibilities. I wish him well.