Sunday, December 28, 2008

Redefining Wealth

I've become ever so much wiser since I became a grandmother. In the past almost eight years, I've learned so much about how little I know (and "I don't know" is always the start of wisdom), and I've learned to listen carefully to my little ones, because their views of the world always bring something fresh to my life. Sometimes it's just being around them that teaches me something profound.

A few months ago, I was visiting one of the Cohen households in our family, and my three-year-old was having a melt-down. She was looking for her mother, who was busy with her baby brother, and her father was busy with yard work, so she came running to me and scrambled onto my lap. I was only too happy to offer a cuddle and ease her heartbreak (whatever it was at the moment). But as I rocked her, I realized what she'd done. She'd gone from one loving adult to another, and while she couldn't find comfort with her first two tries, she succeeded in try #3. And I realized that true wealth comes with laps. The more laps you can count on to comfort you, the richer you are.

It's long been a truism that money can't buy you happiness. John, Paul, George and Ringo once observed that money can't even buy you love. While those without wealth might echo Tevye's observation that "it's no shame to be poor, but it's no great honor either - so maybe, God, a small fortune?" in truth wealth measured in dollars is an empty wealth. We have only to read the papers (while we still have them) or surf the gossip sites to read about wealthy parents who've given their kids everything but love and stability. Even wealthy people lose loved ones to disease, accident, or violence.

In this bleak economic time, it's become commonplace to consider wealth, since it's become such a rare commodity. Between the 50% downturn in stock value, the failure of so many venerable banking institutions, and the Bernard Madoff disgrace, so much wealth has vanished that we are nearly breathless. Where can we turn?

Those of us who are lucky can find a lap, and if we're even luckier, we have more than one. Now, if you're bigger than a 3-year-old, you might hesitate to leap into someone's lap and start crying on their shoulder. I sure would.

But let's think about what laps are. They're places of comfort. And they're safe. They belong to people who love us unconditionally, who will put aside everything else going on at the moment to comfort us. When we're cold, they're warm places. When we're hungry, they're places where we hear, "Would you like a cookie?"

A truly lucky loved child is one who has a multiplicity of laps. Parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Family friends they call "aunt" and "uncle." These children aren't spoiled, they're strong, because they feel safe. As I look around the world today, I think that one of the greatest tragedies is that too many children don't have a single lap to crawl into.

And for the rest of us? How lucky are we? How wealthy are we? Perhaps we should start counting the laps in our lives: our spouse? our closest friends? parents? perhaps (if we're very lucky) our grown kids? But here's where we differ from children. We begin collecting laps by offering our own to those we love. We demonstrate our love for those closest to us by saying, "Come, sit by me. I will hear you and I will comfort you and I will not condemn you, and if you're cold, I'll warm you, and if you're hungry - would you like a cookie?" Because unlike material wealth, the wealth of laps grows as we share it.

Charles Schultz of blessed memory wrote a book over 40 years ago called "Happiness is a Warm Puppy." If I had the graphic talent of a Charles Schultz, I would author a new book: "Wealth is a Lot of Laps."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thinking About Home

[Note: this is an effort to reconstruct my d'var Torah to my synagogue's sisterhood Wednesday night. Those who were there might remember things I've forgotten, but such is life.]

Home. It's a subject I've thought about a lot over the last couple of decades. Since leaving my home in Anaheim to pursue ordination, and then to serve a number of congregations on the east coast, I've wondered what "home" really means. I've even written a number of poems, the first titled "Home," then "Home II" and then "Home III," trying to sort out what the word means, objectively, and to me. I'm still not sure I've come to a comfortable place. My head is satisfied, but my heart is still unclear.

This is a good week to consider "home." In the parasha this Shabbat morning, Jacob finally returns home, after 20 years of working for his father-in-law and amassing family and livestock. Homecomings should be a good thing, right? But let's consider: Jacob returns with trepidation - he is still fearful of his brother, whom he cheated badly long ago; we learn his mother's nurse has died, and some commentators believe this is a euphemism for the death of Rebecca herself; Jacob's beloved Rachel dies in childbirth; his daughter Dina is raped and kidnapped; and when he finally returns home, he and his brother Esau must bury their father Isaac.

Welcome home, Jacob.

I suspect many of us have tried to go home, perhaps for a visit to the old neighborhood, and found it completely changed. Or you've changed and it hasn't. I remember a trauma to my old community in Anaheim, and two years after, when I returned from school for a summer visit to my children, I found the congregation still stuck. I had moved on, the person at the center of the trauma had moved on, and the community was still talking about "The Thing." Sometimes you can't go home again. Sometimes you can and wish you hadn't.

But even if you could return home, what would that mean? Where is home? Is it where you live today? Where your books and dishes are? If you've moved a couple of time zones away from your children, is home where you are or where they are? Is home where your memories are, fuzzy as they may be? And if home is where your stuff is, and your stuff is in a warehouse in Memphis, where then is home?

I saw a sign in the window of a gift shop in Ventura a few years ago: Home is where you are right now. OK, maybe that's what it is. And like Hillary Clinton says, "Grow where you're planted." Stop "dreying your kup" - stop making yourself crazy about semantics and just be, in this moment, where you are. Maybe.

Our sisterhood program tonight is about relocation. The women on our panel were all born somewhere else - France, Siberia, Israel, Cuba, Uruguay, Iran. They came here when they were old enough to know they were leaving what they thought of as home. Was that a good thing? Were they fleeing persecution and grateful to be here? Were they happy where they were and miserable here? We'll soon learn. But I wonder: where is "home" to them? Where they were born? Los Angeles? And at what point did "home" change meaning for them?

I must tell you, though, that two years ago I had an "aha!" moment. I had come to this synagogue to observe my mother's yahrzeit [anniversary of her death]. I'd never been here before, and when I came to morning minyan [daily service] I didn't know a soul in the room. But I stood to say Kaddish and realized something stunning - I'd been here before. There was an ark with a Torah scroll in it. There was a ner tamid [eternal light]. The words I was saying, I'd said in communities around the world. And everyone knew where to respond "amen."

We Jews are turtles. Home has become such a transitory notion to us, having been expelled from one country after another, then having had to flee persecution from countries who didn't expel us so much as make the water too hot for us to stay, that we have had to narrow the definition of home. And we carry our homes with us. Our candle sticks, our Torahs, our talleisim [prayer shawls] and prayerbooks and Bibles, our values and our national memories are all portable. And wherever we are, we can reconstruct our homes with the things we brought with us. I live in a house where nothing speaks of my history and memories. Yet, in my room, there's a mezuzah on the door (and I can tell you who gave it to me) and candle sticks on the dresser and a prayerbook and Tanakh [Bible] in the book case. They go everywhere with me. They create my home for me. And the blessing of being Jewish, born of the curse of our constant wanderings, is that we do rebuild our home, wherever we are, as individuals and as communities.

The sign was right: Home is where you are right now.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How Do Children Learn About Real Kindness?

Someone asked once whether our kids and grandkids will have the same sweet memories of their childhood as we had of ours. He was reflecting on his New York childhood - stick ball in the street, hanging out on the stoop - all that kind of stuff. The next time I saw him, I pointed out the realities of life in the '50s - segregation, back-street abortions, women "knowing their place" ... but he said that he wasn't talking about the greater world, just the insulated world of a child. And by the time our little group had finished talking about this, we decided that every generation has its own way of entertaining itself, and each generation grows up with fond memories of how it did just that. The details change, but the soft lens of nostalgia remains the same.

That may be so (and I believe it is), but sometimes I look at the world we have given our children, and I mourn my own childhood.

This reflection comes out of a class I taught a few weeks ago, to my fourth graders one Sunday morning. We were talking about Rebecca, Isaac's wife, whom we are told was known for her compassion because she took the time to water the camels Abraham's servant brought with him on his search for a wife for Abraham's son. So I began the conversation with, "Do you know anyone who is kind? What does that mean to you?" And the students all had answers - a parent, a close friend...and we thought about how to define kindness.

OK, so they're fourth graders - 9 years old, maybe? And they're suburban kids, so their lives are defined by school, Hebrew school, other activities, and mom's car. But as I thought about that morning, I realized something was missing.

Had you asked me or my cousins when we were young about someone who was kind, we would have answered, "The woman in Diamond Bakery who always smiles and gives us a cookie." My own kids (I hope) will remember some of the seniors at our synagogue in Anaheim, who smiled at them and always had a kind word for them.

I don't know if kids today are finding kindness outside their family and circle of BFFs. And that's an enormous loss.

Our society today is characterized by anonymity and super-sizing. We no longer go to the local butcher or bakery - we go to the Supermarket (or better - Costco or Wal-Mart). Sometimes we see the same checker twice in a row, sometimes not. The butchers are in the back, you pick up something from the showcase, and you move on. You have no one to yell at, "Take off all that fat!" You might find lots of employees eager to help you find your items, but I think that's less the people than the policy of the store, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's institutionalized kindness rather than spontaneous kindness. It comes from corporate, not the heart.

Our kids don't know what it means to walk into one shop for one item, another shop for another, to hear the owner (because if it wasn't the owner behind the case, it was an offspring) ask after your mother's family. They don't know what it means to run into people on the street (because after all, who walks?) and to stop at a bus stop (bus stop?) for a moment of rest and chat with an acquaintance. Meetings today are arranged. We don't run into anyone any more. Our social encounters are arranged by our PDAs or (for the tech-challenged) our Day-Runners. Further, our kids aren't exposed to people we don't arrange to expose them to. Their lives are very ordered and insulated and planned, and they aren't learning how to be spontaneously kind to a stranger because there are no strangers in their lives.

I mourn the loss of the richness of my childhood (who'da ever thought my childhood was rich? but it was), with its cast of characters from my block, the shopping strip on Fairfax, and the people I saw every day on the bus. I miss the accidental encounter that might have affected the rest of the day - when a boy gets up to let a pregnant woman sit in his seat, or the bus driver is especially kind and patient to an elderly passenger struggling to climb the stairs in the days before kneeling buses. I miss the days when we weren't always the center of every event, when sometimes we were observers and we learned from people we might never meet again. I miss the days when we were truly part of a community, a sweet little world where everybody knew your business and gave you their opinion whether you wanted it or not. I miss the days when every mother was every child's mother, and if you messed up (of course, I was perfect, but so I hear...), your mother knew about it before you ever got home.

How nice it would have been if my students had offered as examples of kindness, "The man who helped the woman with the cane across the street," or "The candy-striper who visited my grandma in the hospital." There's something about the kindness of strangers that always moves me, because it's done without any sense of obligation to a friend or relative (just the obligation of one human being to another). How often do our kids see that? And how did we let our world become so insulated that our kids see only the impersonal on the one hand or the warmth of family on the other, and nothing in between?

What will our children and grandchildren remember when they're grown up? Will they have warm memories of their childhood? Undoubtedly. They'll remember what brought them pleasure. But how sad that what brings them pleasure doesn't also teach them something profound about human relationships.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What Torah Expects of Leaders and Citizens

When I created this blog, I promised more Torah than politics, but the election kind of got in the way. So now that the dust is beginning to settle, I expected to find something in Torah or our liturgy or some other issue of Jewish interest to chew on. But guess what? I looked in one and still found the other.

While the Torah reading of Dina is still 3 weeks away, I've been asked to chant it at my synagogue, so I started preparing this afternoon. After all the times I've read it and chanted it and taught it, I found something new there today that deserves noting.

To summarize: Jacob's daughter Dina wants to take a stroll in the town where her family has just settled, to see what's going on. The prince of the town, son of the ruler and apparently the real power in that family, sees her, "takes her and humbles her." Presumably, he rapes her. He takes her to his home and goes to her family with his father to demand her hand in marriage. Enraged that their sister has been defiled, the brothers plan their revenge. They say that their sister will not be given in marriage to anyone uncircumcised. Further, if the prince and his father want their families to intermarry, all the men of the town will have to be circumcised as well. Fine, say the men of the town. (And privately, the prince and his father make the circumcision attractive because it will be the way they will acquire the wealth Jacob and his sons have brought to town.)

The men are circumcised, and when they are weakened, Dina's brothers Shimon and Levi attack the town, killing all the men. They find their sister and take her home. Not a pretty story.

But here was the aha moment. Why did Shimon and Levi kill all the men in the town? Why not just exact their revenge on the rapist? The sons of Jacob despoiled the city because they had defiled their sister. (Gen. 34:27)

While it might be said that this is a desert style of vengeance - attack an entire city for the sin of one of its citizens - I think there's a much more profound lesson to be learned. In parashat Shoftim (in particular, Deuteronomy 21), we learn that if a corpse is found in a field between two cities, the elders of both cities must be brought to the field and attest to the fact that neither is responsible for the person's death. This is an important lesson about the nature of society and the role of leadership. It isn't necessary for the elders to ever have actually seen the individual - only to attest that their society was not one that would have let a stranger pass through without feeding and sheltering him. The elders take public responsibility for their cities. In the story of Dina, on the other hand, the people of the city seem to be held responsible for the actions of their prince.

Here's the lesson, then. Neither citizenry nor leadership can pass the buck and say they are not responsible for a failure of government. If leadership leads, really leads, the society will be such that the most vulnerable will be safe. If this society does not function so that all are safe, it is the leadership that is at fault, whether they ever lay eyes on the homeless or the hungry (although, if they never see the vulnerable, how can they say they are fit to lead?).

On the other hand, if the citizens of a city or a state or a country allow their leaders to be lazy or careless or corrupt, they will also be held accountable. Because a citizenry gets the leadership it deserves.

Government is thus a partnership, and sometimes we forget that. The people need to know its leaders are trustworthy and honest. The leadership needs to know its people will share in their vision. If leadership envisions a holy society and the people rebel, it's not the leaders who are at fault. But if the people demand a holy society and the leadership resists, the people have a responsibility to change leadership.

Who says there's no political wisdom in Torah?

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Huxtables Go to Washington

I really hate people who gush. I try very hard not to gush. I don't like being a groupie, and I try hard to see all the warts on what others claim is perfection.

That having been said, I am sitting here in a glow having just watched the Obamas' interview on 60 Minutes last night (thank you, TiVo). It's been a long time since I've seen a couple function so - uh - functionally. No one was trying to upstage the other. No wife was trying to be self-effacing, or staring into the camera, clueless as to what her future would look like. I loved that they held hands during the interview. I loved the gentle back-and-forth over dishwashing ("I find it soothing" "When do you ever wash dishes?" "When I have to, I find it soothing.") I loved that each spoke without having the other step all over their words. I loved the respect Obama showed his mother-in-law. I loved that when Steve Kroft asked about whether Michelle would really be a mom-in-charge for the whole time she would be in the White House, given her education and professional C.V., her husband never said, "Well, that's where she belongs," or "That's what's really important." He said that he had no doubt that she would carve her own role in the White House but that being the girls' mother was indeed her first role. What a role model to women everywhere! That while a professional career was not a wrong choice, neither is mothering. And that Michelle Obama will teach women what it means to be a full-time mom and still have a voice in the marketplace. OK, so she'll have help with the kids. Big time. But I love that this mother will place her kids first.

I've stumbled across some really ugly stuff on the Internet that has been disguised by its writers as "humor." Really ugly, and I won't repeat it, but it talks about the fact that a black family has come to Washington. Really? A family that presents itself as a loving couple in a healthy relationship, with two children whose welfare they put before everything else, and a love and respect for the generation that came before? This is bad? A woman who was assistant dean of the U of Chicago Law School and a man who's now "reading a lot of Lincoln, because there's so much wisdom there." This is a bad thing? Frankly, we've had 43 white men in the White House, with varying degrees of dignity and literacy. I'm thrilled that we have this articulate (read: can walk and talk at the same time and speak in complete sentences), graceful (I can't remember a man who walked with such easy grace since JFK) man about to move in.

Watch out, crackers. This family is going to raise the property values.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

About Proposition 8

Whether you live in California or not, you undoubtedly are aware of Proposition 8, that odd piece of democracy in action that sought to overturn California's Supreme Court's condoning gay marriage. Thanks to a campaign of fear, the proposition was passed, and after the glow of five months when same-sex couples enjoyed the benefit of marriage, the door has once again been shut firmly.

There are many difficulties with this example of "the people speak," but there's one issue that I don't think has been raised.

While I would never take away the people's right to lead its leaders, to introduce legislation (read: initiatives) to push the state legislature in directions they're not ready to go, there's a fundamental problem with the initiative process. It allows pretty much any initiative that gets a given number of signatures on a petition to be put before the voters. And sometimes, the voters are invited to march into an area where they have no business going.

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals, her monumental examination of the Lincoln presidency and how Lincoln turned his rivals on the road to the presidency into allies by inviting them to join his government. The time is a century and a half ago. The feelings about blacks were complicated back then. The South, of course, demanded that slavery not only be allowed to continue but to be spread to the new territories about to become states. In the North, abolitionists were agitating for outlawing slavery everywhere. And in between, there were those who wanted to leave slavery alone in the South, where they believed it would die an inevitable death, while prohibiting slavery in new states. What I did not know was that the issue was only freedom for slaves. There was nothing in any piece of legislation about voting, access to juries, or even the freedom of living where they wished. Black laws (read: Jim Crow laws) were still on the books and no one (even Lincoln) foresaw removing those laws. In the spirit of the times, the only issue was slavery versus simple freedom.

So I'm thinking: if freedom for slaves had been put to a vote by the people of the United States - even only in a Northern state, say, Illinois - the issue would have died a quick death. When the rights of a minority, indeed a minority that is suspect at least, despised at worst, are at the mercy of the electorate, the results of the election are sadly a foregone conclusion unless the winds of change have already begun to blow. And for the gay population of our country, like the black population of 19th century America, unfortunately, the winds of change have not yet become much more than a breeze.

Some things should not be put to a vote, and primary among them, the rights of others. Keith Olberman reminds us that the right of blacks and whites to marry was denied as recently as 1967. Had the people been asked to vote (since only whites had the freedom of the ballot box, even though suffrage was supposedly universal), I am sure that the status quo would have stood. Had the people been asked about whether separate schools were really equal, they would have responded with a resounding yes - but we didn't give the people a chance to vote. The Supreme Court took care of that issue, to its great credit. Imagine if a national initiative had been sparked after Brown vs. The Board of Education, and the decision had been overturned. Imagine.

And yet, in California today, the electorate claims the right of overturning judiciary rulings because, after all "the people had spoken" during a previous election. The problem with democracy, it seems, is that it relies on the voice of the people, and the people are often too easily led by fear and ignorance.

Isn't it time we thought twice about allowing any issue to be placed on a ballot? Isn't it time we placed restrictions on initiatives that seek to take rights away from others? Or do we have to wait until an electorate led by fear takes away rights from people like us - whatever "us" looks like?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Feeling Comfortable Talking about Faith

This can't be possible. Two blogs in one night, one on Bush, now one on Sarah Palin, and both are going to be sympathetic. As a lifelong Democrat, I feel very weird speaking words of defense on behalf of either of these two, but this whole flap about Sarah Palin and her trust in God have pretty much had me throwing up my hands in despair.

Liberal that I thought I was, I was pretty disgusted at Chris Matthews' derision of Palin's invoking of God's guidance in her career. This isn't an issue of the separation of church and state. This is an issue of a woman for whom faith is a very important part of her life. She didn't say "God told me to run for VP." She prayed, "If there's an open door, God, please don't let me miss that open door." I can relate. I know how it feels, not knowing where I'm headed and asking God to please remember me and not let my spiritual flashlight batteries run down.

But somehow, the language of prayer is frightening to a large number of pundits. That's discouraging. I would hate to think that thinking voters have to make a choice between liberal politics and the language of faith. Must I leave my faith at the door in order to talk about politics? Especially given the fact that so much of the liberal agenda finds its roots in the pages of Torah.

Sarah Palin antagonized a lot of people during the campaign, and I'm not apologizing for that. I'm just wondering whether she's become less a person and more a symbol to be demonized and satirized, and frankly, while I wouldn't vote for her, I'm not so threatened by her language of faith. Maybe it's because I'm a rabbi, and I talk about God on a regular basis. Maybe it's because I believe I'm doing what I'm doing because God wants me to do it. And maybe it's because I have permission to say that because I am a rabbi, but politicians can't invoke the "G" word. That's really a shame. We want our politicians to be honest, and when they are, we get itchy.

Easing Up on Dubya

Let me start by saying I'm no fan of President Bush. From the election from hell in 2000 through two terms that went from disappointing to frightening, I've had an on-going headache that's only now beginning to lift, with the approaching inauguration of his successor. I've got a Countdown Calendar on my wall. I've regularly used Molly Ivins' terms - first Shrub, then Twig.

But I've had an epiphany. And I've stopped making fun of the president. And now my tolerance of political satire is at zero. While I know that satire is what political comics do, I think I've had enough. And here's why.

I was watching David Letterman a few weeks ago. He has a bit he calls "Great Moments in Presidential Speaking." He has clips of presidents known for their speaking skills - JFK, Reagan, even Eisenhower - and then he juxtaposes them with President Bush, and of course it's an easy laugh because George Bush will never be remembered for his oratorical skills.

So this particular evening, I see JFK declare "Ich bin ein Berliner," and Ike speaking about the military-industrial complex, and then Bush comes into a room and greets a group of people, presumably reporters, who are standing in front of a bank of microphones. Bush takes his place behind the mikes, smiles at the group of people, and invites them to be seated. What follows broke my heart. It apparently occurred to him only then that there were no chairs and there was no place for the people to sit. The look on his face seemed to say, "Damn. I stepped in it again." It was at that moment that I stopped laughing at George Bush.

I think his story is our country's latest national tragedy, a man of no towering intellect, who presumed to hold the most powerful office in the world, wanting only to impress his father and never quite succeeding. I may not like his politics. Change that: I do not like his politics, nor the people who have surrounded and influenced him. They have produced a handful of crises, any one of which would have sounded the death knell to any hope of a positive legacy. But this is a profoundly flawed man who consistently fails, and no one has the right to point a finger and laugh at someone who fails, since none of us would have done any better in his shoes.

Further, he has the great misfortune to be followed in office by a rock star, someone who has inspired the imagination of the entire world. While the Obamas do not exhibit the glamor of the Kennedys, they are so very different from the Bushes. And I'm watching the clip of the two men walking to the Oval Office for their first meeting, and I can't help but smile at the sight of the young, energetic incoming president, walking with easy grace toward his future office.

I might have wondered what was going through Bush's mind at that time. But as I watched the clip being re-aired on the Daily Show, I hear Jon Stewart doing what he does best - poke fun. But a point came when it wasn't funny. Stewart made the point of the "young, healthy Black man, striding down the corridor, next to the short, aging [excuse me?] little white man." It wasn't funny.

My reaction surprises me. I have laughed as loudly as anyone at the humor that has helped get us through the past eight years. Maybe knowing those eight years are nearly at an end is helping me stop laughing - I don't need to cope anymore because, uh, change is coming. But I really think it's more than that. We've been unfair to Bush. There's nothing wrong with attacking a man's choices and his political style. But we continue to hit below the belt when we satirize George Bush, and I hope it stops soon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In Defense of the Boomers

I guess it all began with Garrison Kiellor. I'm very fond of him and his Lake Wobegon crew. People driving next to me must think I'm nuts because I'm either laughing out loud or singing along with his guests - of course, with no one else in the car.

But on his broadcast following the 2008 presidential election, he made the observation that this was probably the last election when his generation (i.e., my generation as well) would run a candidate. It's over, he said. We'd given the world Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and now the torch had been passed. (OK maybe he didn't invoke the torch. I heard it anyway.) He then proceeded to reflect on his generation, the partying at Woodstock, the greed of the 80s, and how what we'd given the world was self-absorption and whining.

In truth, I'd been reflecting for some time about what my generation had given the world. We came of age shaking our adolescent fists at our parents, accusing them of having done poorly in transmitting a world badly in need of repair. We would fix the world, we declared.

And then as I held my first grandchild, nearly eight years ago, I found myself whispering an apology to her for the world we were giving her, and the prayer that her generation would do better.

So my friend Garrison really only articulated in a joking manner what I'd been thinking for a while.

But while we may never be called the Greatest Generation (although doesn't every generation have the opportunity to rise to greatness at some point?), I don't think we've done so badly.

Ours was the generation that stopped the tide of complacency. We were the ones who demanded answers. Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, born technically two years before the official start of the Baby Boom, died for the cause of civil rights. Our generation boarded the buses and rode through the South, literally taking their lives in their hands, to further the rights of the descendants of slaves.

Ours was the first generation to refuse to go to war. Sure, there have always been conscientious objectors or pacifists, but we looked at Viet Nam and said no. We knowingly broke the law by hiding or fleeing the country, because we refused to support a war we believed was wrong.

We were the generation who read Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and decided that there was more than one kind of inequality that had to go.

Our children and grandchildren have rights they take for granted because we stood up and said no - to de facto segregation, to an illegal war, to sexual oppression. And I do believe that subsequent legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act can trace their roots to the drive for civil and sexual rights that saw their greatest expression in the 60s and 70s.

We weren't all partying at Woodstock. We didn't all listen to Timothy Leary. We didn't all crash on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. Some of us got educations and got married and raised children. But we learned to think and to question and to challenge, and we made questioning and challenging not only acceptable but a requirement for a functioning society.

Our country would be very different if the 60s had been just a continuation of the 50s, when we accepted life as it was (remember the photo of all those movie-goers wearing 3-D glasses? Quick: how many blacks do you see in that photo? I'll tell you - none. And we never thought there was anything wrong with that). We accepted that no photograph was ever shown of FDR in his wheel chair. We accepted that it would have been a problem if such a photo had been shown. We accepted a lot. And then we stopped accepting and started questioning. And I think our society is more open and more healthy for that.

I think I've stopped being ashamed of my generation. I hope Garrison Kiellor can agree with me.