Archive for the ‘Thinking Allowed’ Category

TV Talk Shows Serve a Need

Childhood’s “formative years,” as they were referred to, included nightly, televised-in-living-black-and-white news stories of the war—battles, injured soldiers, taps playing near a flag draped coffin; racial conflicts in the South and angry demonstrations against both; and rebelling “anti-establishment” hippies all over the place. 

Back in 1978, when the Top 40 music was still pretty good and the Vietnam War was over, I was pregnant with my first child. 

I saw many pictures on TV of battles and dead soldiers over there and battles where armed police threw teargas and used fire hoses on black people “to control” them. Their main weapons were words and rocks. 

I heard lots of words and saw “film at 11” pictures with verbal captions but no clear explanations on the WHY of what happened. 

News programs are no different today. 

Yes, we have more immediate pictures available and seldom have to wait hours to see the action. Yes, we have live phone calls accompanied by Smartphone video from civilians to show the live and up-close action. Sometimes we can be duped, learning later videos were staged or otherwise falsely altered. 

Even with all the advances, we still have little deeper understanding of current events. 

During my pregnancy so long ago, I became jobless early on and knew no one in my new neighborhood. I’d never had so much time on my hands that wasn’t regulated and scheduled. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. My friends didn’t live in my new town or were working, as were my neighbors. 

I found Phil Donahue on the TV and a window on the world opened wide for me. The guests and subjects were diverse. The audience asked questions. I felt like I was seeing the world as it was for the first time in my adult life. I ate it up like contraband potato chips. 

In the mid-80s I was in the audience for a show about human sleep apnea and a dog with narcolepsy and I stood to ask a question!  A big adventure in the Big Apple. 

I had no idea about left/right wing, liberal/conservative viewpoints. I weighed everything. It turns out Phil Donahue is a liberal as is his wife, Marlo Thomas, an actress I enjoyed as “That Girl” on TV years before they even knew each other. 

I still appreciate Donahue and the view of the world his show offered. I still explore and weigh everything. My personal political motto is, “Issues, not Parties.”


Ten years before Donahue, I occasionally watched a talk show in the afternoon, with my mother, hosted by Virginia Graham. Graham’s show didn’t delve into newsy subjects and it wasn’t trashy with too much Hollywood gossip. Graham was an older woman, a real lady who watched her manners and speech. She had a natural gregarious manner, a great raspy voice and wasn’t shy about using it and facial expressions to make her point or show amusement. She was clearly entertained by her guests and happy to be a voice for women, to women. There were few women hosts on TV and she was great, even to my teenaged mind. I learned from her and her guests about the larger world around me. 

As a new teen, then young adult, I read a daily local newspaper and watched local TV news and “news magazine” shows such as 20/20 and CBS Sunday Morning, which offered more information about worldly issues and events. A little more was explained or clarified but so much more was left to the imagination without further personal investigation. Their stories teased curiosity or titillated toward gossip. 

Before the Internet it was not easy to follow-up on subjects of interest.  They also offered stories about subjects I’d never known existed. I stopped watching when the stories emphasized the sick and weird among us instead of tweaking our understanding or compassion to common challenges. 

CNN’s debut was unique–all news all day (and still is). I saw stories about strange murder cases or forest fires or drought in the West or politics or Hollywood. I discovered that the news looped the same stories over many hours so there was no need to stay glued to the TV. The channel’s premise was helpful—I didn’t have to wait for only 6, 7 or 11 p.m. to see the news. Yet, the reporting was incomplete. 

The Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 was telecast live on CNN every night. In an eerie green night-vision light, bombs called scuds glowed in lit up lines in the sky. A hit or miss was known almost immediately. 

All that game playing hadn’t been for nothing. Home computers were relatively new and there was barely an Internet, but some people bought them because of the promise of games at their fingertips. From the cockpit of a fighter jet, we saw the pilot’s view, which looked like the newly popular video games for kids.

In June 2001, I tuned into FoxNews for the first time. I worked at a newspaper then—most of which are notoriously liberal; this one was more centered, leaning left or right per issue, as far as I could tell. It differed some as staff changed. The reporters were young, fresh from college and mostly liberal, and I often heard someone at Fox quoted or mocked and I’d never heard of it. After the first week, I was hooked on the analysis shows, such as The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes

Yes, I do like the fact that more than one side’s viewpoint and analysis are represented by the guests who are discussing serious issues on Fox.

I had only recently discovered that I am a conservative, with occasional leanings toward liberal. I have voted for Democrats when I was a registered Independent. I’ve been a registered Republican in protest since Clinton won his second term. I’ll probably go back to Independent, which is another story altogether.   

These days, if something really awful happens (such as 9/11 or the more recent events in the Middle East), I’ll switch back and forth to CNN and FoxNews to see what all the educated talkers are saying, using their best analysis skills to unravel events as complicated as a giant sticky ball of government red tape. 

Understanding is comforting in a small way even though I’m well aware there is nothing I can do alone to change events. But I may learn about things to which I will lend my voice and support or objection.  

I definitely learn what needs discussion among “we the people”—and prayer.



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Grammy’s story

June 26th, 2010

This story was originally published here on June 24, 2010. Due to a change in the blog’s technical settings and in the website, http://www.ellenmccourt.com, this revised copy is repeated here.  emcc062610

I became a grandmother in 1999 at the age of 46. How could this happen? My two daughters and I had had “the talk” more than once and my eldest one commented several times during the teen years, “After I finish college…” or, “If I get married and if I have kids…” I assumed she got the idea of how life was to progress.  That same daughter, at 19, called me on the phone, speaking through thick, sobbing tears, to report that she’d been to the doctor for symptoms new and foreign to her and was given a pregnancy test, which proved to be positive. She had been at college for just four months.

Ordinarily a pregnancy is ultra wonderful news. But she wasn’t married, and she and the man did not intend to marry each other, at least not at that point. She was afraid, confused, angry with herself, perplexed, worried about herself and a baby, perhaps even a little concerned about how her family would take the news, not to mention the boyfriend. But it was a very good sign that she felt she could tell me.

It’s heady stuff realizing you have a new human being growing inside you and to bring a human being into the world…or maybe you will not. Options are certainly open if not just fodder for even more tumultuous thoughts already racing around in your head.

It occurred to me early on that these are the same feelings and runaway thoughts that can plague other women who find themselves pregnant — married or not, young or old, considering or regardless of financial and emotional security or a stable relationship with the father.

When I was 23 I was told to bring a urine sample to the doctor’s office for a pregnancy test, to confirm or rule out a pregnancy as part of the investigation into symptoms I was having that I’d never before had.  I had been married for three years but I was a crying wreck when I told my husband what the doctor wanted. He hugged me and was reassuring but just the thought of having a baby put me into a tizzy of emotion. I wanted children; that was not the problem. But if I was, indeed, pregnant, it wasn’t the way we wanted it to be, it didn’t happen according to our timetable – it wasn’t planned and planning parenthood was the order of the day.

In the 24 hours that passed while I awaited the result of the test, my mind was on a fast and nauseating roller coaster that nothing could slow down, short of a crash, it seemed.

The test was negative and the symptoms were due to something much less dramatic. But I learned something about myself while waiting. I had come to believe all the 60’s and 70’s hype about the necessity for each pregnancy to be planned; for each baby to be “wanted” at that moment by the parents and not simply accepted and enjoyed as an unexpected gift.

When my daughter told me she was pregnant, I asked a coworker to tell our boss that I had to get home for a little while. I drove home mid-morning to talk about it, through her tears and my hugs; her jumbled words of disbelief that this could happen, my assurance that it would be alright and the comic relief that she was making me a grandmother when, in my mind, I was so young. It turns out that 46 was the average age for a first-time grandmother.

My daughter came home to live with her father, 16-year-old sister and me during her pregnancy and stayed for five years, moved out to her own condo, and moved back home again two years later. Our grandson has been a welcome addition to our family and he is well loved and very much wanted.

Whatever struggles my daughter has with herself about mistakes and blessings that accompany his existence are on her conscience and heart and she has or will deal with them as life goes on. The parents did not marry but the father is in his child’s life with regular visits and pays child support willingly. Their system works much like that of a divorced couple.

As for me, my first thought was that her baby was to be my grandchild and I knew that I loved him before I saw him and that, of course, I still loved her. Faith at work.

There was a time in the history of the world when the realization that a baby was going to join a family was almost always considered to be a joyful thing to celebrate. I now have three grandchildren – oh yes, the plot thickens — who are equally loved and welcome in our home and hearts. They are not responsible for how they got here and they are definitely not responsible for the actions of their parents. While I cannot agree with their parents’ behavior and lack of whatever – foresight, maturity, plain old self control – and regret, somewhat, that there will be no storybook tale, there is still the possibility for a happy ending.

The daughters and the grandchildren are part of me – genetically, consciously, heartfully and wonderfully. While they make their way in the world that’s full of challenges, chaos, and great potential and wonder, this nonna, abuela, grand-mère, meemaw, grandmother, GRAMMY, will love them and cheer them on with joy.

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Old Friends, New Friends

June 30th, 2010

It may seem silly to have to mention it, but making friends is a lifelong goal. Not only is it necessary for good health but it’s one of the more pleasant relationships we have throughout our lives.

If you’ve been blessed with long and strong friendships that started in childhood, you know those relationships are precious. “As friends together watch their childhood fly,” sang Elton John in 1971. However, geographic distance has probably set you apart.

America’s transient society does not offer the social support of the steady, mid-century communities. Today’s women may have a career, children, a spouse — one or all three. We lose touch with each other due to complications in scheduling.

I had jobs for 10 years before having a child. Five years after getting married, we bought a house in June in an entirely new area where I didn’t know anyone. My sister and old friends were a thirty-minute drive away. I had great ideas for fixing up my new little house and garden. In September I was excited to discover I was pregnant, due in May.  Immediately we planned for me to work through March, save my entire salary and then stay home to be a full time mother. In October, I was abruptly laid off. I was devastated at the change of carefully thought out plans. I worried about money. Could we pay the mortgage? What about diapers and other new baby stuff? What if the car broke down? My mind was overwhelmed with thoughts run amok. I painted her room and a hand-me-down dresser that was solid but needed refreshing and borrowed a crib. Friends gave me a baby shower where I received almost everything I would need for months.

My daughter was indeed born in May. In June I went to the first Newcomers Club meeting in my new town. At their potluck, forty women warmly welcomed my baby and me. It turned out to be their last meeting until they started up again in September. I was disappointed, thinking I’d have to wait so many weeks to start over.

But no; I was invited to join a play group where mothers and children got to know each other, which offered many chances for new friendships. When my daughter was nine months old, the car did break beyond our ability to repair, but my new friends made sure I had a ride to the play group — and the sorely needed sanity of socialization.

In Newcomers, members and spouses could meet monthly at one house for a dinner planned on a theme, such as Mexican or French food. Each dish, from salads and entrées to wine and desserts, was prepared from recipes the hostess planned and supplied and were brought by the attendees. The host couple supplied dishes, serving bowls, utensils and napkins, soda and mixers, ice, seating and an oven for reheating. It was great fun and not very expensive because the cost was shared and everyone ate a gourmet meal. Though primarily a women’s club, if a husband was away on business or a member was single, they were welcome to a night out as well.

The “Friends” TV show’s theme song sang out the maladies we all experience at one time or another with, “So no one told you life was gonna be this way / Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA…I’ll be there for you.” When life tosses you around in the storms, you need a local friend to help you through it, listen to your woes, relate to your daily grind. You need encouragement from a real person with a smiling face you can see and a hug you can feel. Conversely, sharing the good report card news, a promotion at work or losing 10 pounds are equally important.

When my eldest entered kindergarten, I suggested to friends that we have a Diner’s Club. Moms left the kids home with Dad on a Sunday night and met at the local diner for a couple of hours. One woman worked until 7 p.m. or so and would often order a light dinner. Others had a soda or coffee and some splurged on dessert or shared a platter of French fries.

We swapped coupons, talked about the trials and joys of our kids, work issues, husbands and ourselves. We lauded accomplishments, shared housekeeping or time management tips, and scheduled babysitting swaps. We offered comfort and encouragement for big problems among us – a cheating husband, a looming divorce, a sick or difficult child. We liked to think we solved the world’s problems over coffee at the diner. We did ease the problems of our smaller world and we laughed – a lot.

It may take a little juggling of time and cooperation from husbands, but women of all ages need to be together and share life. Experts agree that a husband should not, and cannot, be the only person depended upon for regular companionship. Each person needs a variety of people as friends for a more healthy life.

Back in the high school or college years, women nurture a social life. There seems to be a plan for at least one weekly night — a shopping jaunt, meeting for coffee or a long lunch. Taking on the first full time job may change that drastically. Suddenly, you’re the new employee at the bottom rung of the corporate or retail ladder and meeting new people who are potential friends can get complicated. Throw in a kid or two and less time is available.

At-home moms are busier with kids after school and may be able to carve out morning time to meet friends for coffee and connection, whereas, the mom at work gets just a lunch hour, or less.  Running errands or squeezing in a dentist appointment for herself or a child isn’t the same as socializing. If both kinds of women are friends with each other, getting together for anything is a challenge.

When children are young, any time after five o’clock is busy for an employed Mom, starting with her trip back home from work, picking up kids from daycare or schlepping them to and from after school activities. Evenings are packed with making dinner, bath and story time for the preschoolers. Then it’s round two with older kids — chores, talking over a problem or victory of the day, helping with homework, and then bed. This leaves parents with maybe an hour or so to unwind before they are off to bed.

An old friend may be able to demonstrate the words of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” — “You just call out my name / And you know wherever I am / I’ll come running to see you again.” But chances are family needs, work time and financial limits will prevent even a dear, old friend from accessibility for the length of time you may need.

Maybe yours is the new family in the neighborhood. People move around because of marriage or divorce, ailing parents, job opportunities or layoffs, changes in finances, retirement and yes, death.

To take care of yourself, expand your life and interests a little bit each year.

The elders of our communities need companionship as well.  Whether they are called seniors, old folks or the Greatest Generation, our oldest neighbors still have a lot of life in them.

Wives tend to outlive husbands. Women may live with other, often younger, family members or alone after widowhood, but that doesn’t mean they need to be or will be lonely. Even seniors have a peer group.

Some locations say age 50 is a senior while others say it’s 55, 62 or 65. No matter which age is called the beginning of senior living, chances are your town has a place where older people may congregate to enjoy a meal together, play cards, sing, dance, exercise, or take a bus trip to the big city for a day’s fun.

As I roamed the country on the Web to see what different area’s senior centers newsletters have listed for activities, I came upon a wide range of things to do, to learn and to see. See the sidebar for a list. Suggestions for meeting people include taking a class at community college or a community center; hiking or biking; house of worship activities; needlework; crafting or scrapbooking, and theater or museum group trips.

The centers also offer holiday parties, birthday celebrations and trips to museums, plays, movies and shopping at discount or outlet stores.

Older people can enjoy everything as usual, though maybe at a slower pace. It’s certainly safer to go out in groups and practical to save on fuel and wear and tear on the car by filling a bus with like-minded shoppers or theater lovers. My grandmother took cross-country bus trips from New York to California even in her eighties — she had things to do, people to see.

Getting around has challenges as we age. Too much sitting or standing, canes or wheelchairs, gravel versus paved paths, hiking versus walking, the effects of medications on stamina, fatigue and mobility become important day-to-day. Senior centers are aware of these challenges..

There is no shame in needing to change how or how often you do something. It’s always better to keep going than to sit down and give up.

The goal, no matter what your age, is to feel support and encouragement as life rolls along. Take a plunge and invest the time in your quality of life so you can sing along with Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana:

True friend / You’re here till the end; / You pull me aside / When somethin’ ain’t right. / Talk with me now / And into the night / Till it’s all right again.

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