Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is kindness catching? We can only hope so -- Nov. 27, 2013, column


It’s not just a bumper strip slogan. Some Americans actually do practice random acts of kindness.

At fast food restaurants around the country, some customers are paying for the orders placed by strangers in the next car.

“Drive-through generosity is happening across America and parts of Canada, sometimes resulting in unbroken chains of hundreds of cars paying in turn for the person behind them,” Kate Murphy reported last month in The New York Times.

“We really don’t know why it’s happening but if I had to guess, I’d say there is just a lot of stuff going on in the country that people find discouraging,” Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality at Chick-fil-A, told Murphy, adding, “Paying it forward is a way to counteract that.”

“Pay it forward” refers to repaying a kindness by doing something kind for another person.  The concept was popularized by a 1999 novel by Catherine Hyde Ryan and movie starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. A high school teacher challenges his students to change the world. One boy helps three people and asks each of them to help three more people…You see where this is going.

Moraitakis is onto something.  People like helping others – on their own terms. Compulsory kindness doesn’t cut it.

You don’t see many people paying it forward in Washington, a city famous for pay backs. But when legendary comedian Carol Burnett came to town last month to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, she showed how it’s done.

Burnett asked that Rosemary Watson, a comedic newcomer who does dead-on impersonations of Hillary Clinton and other prominent female politicians, be given the chance to perform at the Kennedy Center awards gala.  The two had never met. Watson had written Burnett a fan letter, and Burnett had watched Watson’s videos on YouTube. Impressed, she wanted to give a boost to the younger woman’s career.    

“The thing is, you pay it forward,” Burnett said.”Because when I got started, somebody gave me a break when I was 21 years old, and I wanted to go to New York.”

Paying it forward can be as simple as letting someone go ahead in line at the grocery store. Many people pay it forward with their time. It turns out there are special benefits for people who volunteer.

The December issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine touts “Four Amazing Health Benefits of Helping Others.”  Studies show that volunteers may live longer, be happier, manage their pain better and lower their blood pressure more than non-volunteers.

Many people prefer to pay it forward with cash. Individual charitable giving rose almost 4 percent last year but still lags its pre-recession peak. This is one area where young people are a shining example.

Nine of 10 kids between the ages of 8 and 19 give to charity, according to a recent study by the Women’s Philanthropic Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Parents, take note:  Moms and dads who talk to their children about giving to charity significantly increase the likelihood that the children will give. Talking may be more influential than parental role-modeling of charitable giving, the report says.

We all have a chance to pay it forward on Giving Tuesday -- the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It’s a day to give back at the start of the holiday season, after our two biggest days of getting, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday was created last year by Henry Timms of the 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community nonprofit center in New York City.  He’s the son of one of my closest friends, but I’d be writing about this brilliant project anyway.

In its first year, Giving Tuesday raised $10 million for more than 2,500 nonprofit groups. More groups are participating this year. Giving Tuesday doesn’t collect the money. Its genius is that it encourages each person to choose a favorite charity and publicize the choice on social media.

If you’re interested in paying it forward, join the movement. It might make you feel as good as those you help.  

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The endangered art of writing by hand -- Nov. 21, 2013 column


When President Barack Obama composed his thoughts about the Gettysburg address, he wrote much as Abraham Lincoln did 150 years ago.  He used pen and paper.
The White House Tuesday released both the handwritten and typed versions of Obama’s essay. Had Obama, or more likely an aide, simply typed the tribute on a laptop and hit Send, the text would have been just another news release.  Instead, many people stopped to read the handwritten page.

In our aggressively digital age, the handwritten note or essay may be as practical as a top hat, but no writing is more personal.  (OK, writing a check for the electric bill is hardly personal, but online banking has freed people from most check-writing.)
When we handwrite a letter, we send something beyond the words. Holding the same paper, the reader glimpses the fallible human being who held the pen.  For example, the president sometimes forgets to cross his Ts. This may not come as a surprise.

It’s rare for most adults to take the time to find pen and paper, wait for thoughts to flow and put them down – although we can. Sadly, we’re in danger of losing the art of writing by hand.

Schools long ago let penmanship slip. Cursive writing is so foreign that some children can’t read the handwritten letters their grandparents send.  Parents have to translate.

The Common Core educational standards for grades K-12 dropped penmanship in favor of keyboarding as an important skill. Everyone needs to use a computer keyboard, of course. Word processing is the inelegant term for what we do at the keyboard. We produce a commodity called content.

We moderns talk and type constantly, but our tweets and status updates are often out of our hands before our brain has registered the meaning of our words.

Must our choice be keyboard or pen? Why not both? Among the 45 states that have adopted Common Core standards, seven want to reinstate cursive writing instruction, the Associated Press reports. They are California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Utah.  

In North Carolina, the “back to basics” educational movement means that students are learning to write by hand and to memorize the multiplication tables.  Proponents say cursive writing helps eye-hand coordination and improves reading and writing. Critics say practicing cursive script is irrelevant, similar to using an abacus or slide rule. 

While that debate simmers, we all could learn from the presidents who believed in the power of the handwritten word.

Ronald Reagan was a prolific letter writer, penning thousands upon thousands of letters. In the White House, he turned his handwritten letters over to typists who prepared them for mailing. The former president was 83 when he wrote by hand the poignant letter telling Americans that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” Reagan wrote on Nov. 6, 1994. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” He died in June 2004. His letters have been gathered in several books. 

The letters of President George H.W. Bush, another prodigious correspondent by hand, were compiled in “All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings,” published earlier this year.

Obama has had a habit of reading 10 letters a night from citizens, and he responds by hand to a lucky few.  Some recipients burst into tears and vow to save the president’s missives for posterity. Human nature being what it is, though, others race to see how much the letters will fetch from online auctions.

Speaking of which, earlier this year Obama’s half-brother put two of the president’s hand-written notes for sale for $30,000.

Such commercialism cheapens the seller but not the handwritten word or the writer. 

Obama’s handwritten essay about the Gettysburg address at 150, along with similar essays by several former presidents and other notables, will be on display at the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

You don’t have to be famous to pick up a pen and write. Your handwritten words are just as priceless.  

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thanksgiving -- to shop or not to shop? Nov. 14, 2013 column


Shopping on Thanksgiving Day is a recent – and regrettable – trend, but there’s nothing new about retailers trying to maximize the number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In the 1930s, business interests persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to alter the calendar, and therein lies a cautionary tale.

By the tradition established by Abraham Lincoln, Thanksgiving was on the last Thursday of November, although there was no law. Starting about 1933, the National Retail Dry Goods Association began agitating to advance the holiday’s date to help spur sales as the country tried to emerge from the Depression.

Roosevelt finally agreed in 1939, when the last Thursday fell on Nov. 30, just 24 days before Christmas. He announced in August that Thanksgiving would be on Nov. 23.

The New Yorker explained that “Americans traditionally delay their Christmas shopping until after they have eaten their turkey, and when, as would have happened this year, the period is narrowed down to scarcely more than three weeks, the retail business takes a beating.”

Roosevelt’s proclamation applied only to the District of Columbia and federal workers, but it started a war over those seven days. A front page headline in The New York Times read: “Shift in Thanksgiving Date Arouses the Whole Country.”

Among the aggrieved were makers of calendars and schedulers of school vacations and college football games. Half the governors chose different dates for Thanksgiving, so people were perplexed about when to celebrate. The turkey growers, though, said they’d have no problem fattening up the birds a week early.

Indignant Republicans claimed the president had assumed dictatorial powers.  (Sound familiar?) The mayor of Atlantic City said residents could eat twice – on Thanksgiving and “Franksgiving.”

The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who later would popularize “positive thinking,” preached that it was “questionable thinking and contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with a sacred religious day on the specious excuse it will help Christmas sales.”

Citizens on both sides of the issue flooded the White House with letters and telegrams.  From South Dakota came a letter urging the president to remember that “we are not running a Russia or communistic government.”
For more reaction, take a look at documents in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and the National Archives, including an article in the Archives’ Fall 1990 Prologue magazine by the late historian G. Wallace Chessman, all available online.
So, did changing the date work to boost sales? Not really. Business analysts said retail spending was about the same in 1939 as in 1938. In states with an early Thanksgiving, sales were more spread out; in late Thanksgiving states, spending was more concentrated in the week before Christmas.
Two years later, as confusion still reigned, FDR announced his “experiment” of changing the date had failed. Congress officially made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
That, of course, didn’t fix the shopping dilemma. Thanksgiving 2013 is Nov. 28, which means about a week less of prime holiday shopping. Many who work in retail will have to cut their Thanksgiving celebrations short and head to the mall.
More big chain stores are starting Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving, including Macy’s, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Kohls, JC Penney and the Gap.
So does opening on Thanksgiving Day boost overall sales? Not really. Analysts say it just cuts sales on the actual Black Friday. Last year, when a few retailers took the bold step of opening on Thanksgiving, holiday sales were up 3.5 percent over 2011. That was a smaller gain than in 2011, before stores opened on Thanksgiving, when sales rose 5.6 percent over 2010.
Retailers keep encroaching on Thanksgiving because they face ever stronger pressure from online merchants. And, let’s face it, some people do like to shop on Thanksgiving. They tend to be between 18 to 34, which is also the largest group of Black Friday shoppers.
Some marketing analysts predict that in five years Thanksgiving will be just another shopping day.
Enjoy your pumpkin pie while you still can – before galloping commercialism triumphs over tradition.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Gettysburg address still powerful at 150 -- Nov. 7, 2013 column


“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here…” So Abraham Lincoln predicted in his
We laugh about long-winded Everett, but, historian Garry Wills reminds us, in the 19th century lengthy dramatic speeches were a kind of performance art.

here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”