Nobody told him he couldn’t

Last week, my sister and her family said goodbye to a gallant dog named  Cypher.  Part pit bull and all heart, Cypher was the sort of calm, intelligent, companionable fellow who has earned dogs their reputation as humankind’s best friends.

Recently, Cypher developed cancer.  My sister thought long and hard about his treatment options.  She wanted to keep her beloved companion with her, but she didn’t want him to suffer.  Finally, she agreed to radical surgery, which removed his tumors – and one of his front legs.

And here’s the thing:  Within weeks of his surgery, Cypher was running around the yard, chasing sticks and an old, much-chewed frisbee, nearly as well as he ever had.  It was as though he’d been born with three legs.

I asked my sister how he managed.  She grinned, a trifle fiercely – that trial lawyer’s grin she inherited from our father.

“Nobody told him he couldn’t.”

Which, if you don’t know her, will tell you a lot about my sister.  She believes in that old-fashioned, American “can-do” spirit.  

I admire this in my sister.  She is, and always has been, a get-it-done individual.  She expected the same of the four kids she raised, and she expects it from her pets.
Except cats, of course.  She’s wise enough not to expect anything of a cat.  

I was thinking of this the other day, because – like my sister – I relish that can-do spirit.  As a teacher at Midlothian High, I founded and sponsored a Key Club which taught kids to plan and execute ambitious projects.  Many of the kids who learned project-planning in that Key Club have gone on to impressive careers – and I still hear from them.  

I’ve done things that got me more public recognition, but nothing I’ve ever done was as satisfying as that Key Club.

While I was teaching at Midlothian, I became aware that one of my figures of speech had become popular with my students and Key Clubbers.  I didn’t realize this, but it turns out that my highest praise – of anyone or anything – was, “He/she/it gets the job done.”

I would never have guessed that.

I mention these things because, by the time this piece sees print, we’ll have elected a new President, a new House of Representatives, and one new third of the Senate.  And whoever wins – whether we voted for them or not – we need to send them a message.

It’s time to get the job done.

During the recent campaign – as with most campaigns over the past forty years – both parties played mainly on our fears.  Each party seems most comfortable when it digs in its heels and refuses to discuss anything that might turn out to be a solution.

Republicans won’t consider any new tax, on anything.  Democrats won’t consider any reduction of benefits in any social program.

Republicans resist paying teachers more, and prefer standardized testing to treating teachers like competent professionals.  Democrats reject school choice, and prefer standardized testing to treating teachers like competent professionals.  (Yes, that epimone was intentional.)

Both parties have dug in their heels on abortion, and the inability of either side to compromise has distorted our politics – and our jurisprudence – for four decades.

Meanwhile, serious problems, challenges and opportunities remain unaddressed by our elected leaders, all for the sake of politics.  

It’s gone on for far too long.  And here’s what I think about it:

If a three-legged dog can chase a frisbee or run down a thrown stick, America’s leaders – from both parties – can stop their eternal pursuit of tactical advantage and start working out mutually satisfactory solutions.

It just takes a can-do spirit.

We’ve seen some examples of that in the past week.  Over a vast area, Americans have been rolling up their sleeves to deal with the aftermath of the SuperStorm.  New Jersey’s tough-talking, Republican governor has been touring damaged communities with President Obama.  It’s heartening to recall that – when we have a common problem, and recognize it as such – Americans have routinely made the impossible possible.

So, here we are.

Objectively, we’re a nation in decline.  Our economy will soon be second to China’s.  Our national debt, and our annual deficits, will someday crush that economy.

Our schools are producing students better at memorization than critical thinking.  Jobs are fleeing overseas, never to return.

Perhaps most important, we are doing next-to-nothing to address an impending global catastrophe, which will make the recent SuperStorm seem like “the good old days.”

Yet none of those trends is irreversible.  It’s simply a matter of making up our minds to solve problems, rather than keep kicking the can down the road.

This fall, I watched a three-legged dog running around the yard like he’d been born that way.

Nobody told him he couldn’t.

We need to start thinking that way again.  Who says we can’t?

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