LAKE GENEVA, Wis. -- Since I was a child playing in these gorgeous Wisconsin lakes, I have had the pretentious idea that lying in the water on a plastic raft clears one's head of the drivel of exaggerated issues we worry about all year long.
Lying there, I can almost feel the bad things in life and love and libido drift away in the waves.
I am now supposed to admit that I have found, as an "adult," that I am wrong in this childish supposition. I am supposed to wring my hands and whimper (whimpering always helps) that this was nonsense and I regret my infantile foolishness.
Except that I'm not going to do that. Unregenerate fool that I can be, I still believe that a reasonably thoughtful person can gain considerably by an honest encounter with water in August!
So this year, what came to me? Well, everyone seems to be complaining about everything and everybody. But it occurs to me, as the day grows longer and my head sinks deeper in the waves, to think back to my youth. When I was growing up on Chicago's South Side and on these lovely Wisconsin lakes, we young idealists were mostly concerned about three things: (1) civil rights and equality for black Americans, (2) the liberation of women, and (3) building a world where wars, violence and the hatred that fed them could be contained in some manner.
Perhaps young Americans today cannot remember what it was like for the races in the '50s and then the '60s, when things really began to change. There had been vicious race riots at my high school, Calumet, in Chicago. If a black person ventured into our white middle-class neighborhood on the South Side, he confronted the danger of violence.
The newspapers, which I loved, did not cover the black community; so after I became a reporter, one day I walked into the office of my editor at the Chicago Daily News and said, "Larry, we're not covering half the city." He agreed, and we later printed a 36-part series on the African-American community. It was a real breakthrough.
Women? There were two of us who were the first women on general assignment -- i.e., the real news desk -- and it was wonderful. The men treated us as comrades and introduced us to sources of information. Some people thought that Lois Wille, my talented co-worker and rule-breaker, and I should resent writing "Our Girl at ..." This was a front-page feature of us doing strange and goofy things. Lois and I had the last laugh -- the "Our Girl" features often got a quarter of the front page. Everyone knew our bylines, which is what getting ahead on a newspaper is all about.
The movement of women into all professions and careers is a major accomplishment of the 20th century. It was, in many ways, the last holdout, the final trial of equality. But the movement has been simply breathtaking. The rise of American women -- and the scope of their power, with three recent female secretaries of state -- is vastly important to women around the world.
Women in Rwanda, or Burma, or Brazil can call upon our example to make their demands. It is little less than thrilling that these women can now begin to move across borders and away from men caging them in the conservative Islamic countries, men using them as pack animals in much of the Third World, and men burning their "wives" to death in India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And building a world of peace? It's always fun to make fun of the United Nations, and it's true that a lot of bombast and foolishness issues from it; but it has also stood as a kind of filter of the claims of the leaders and countries of the world. It puts all the leaders -- wise or silly, men or women, black or white, educated or malcontent -- up against a kind of screen where we can see them exposed for what they are.
Because it is so uneven, the development in what was the Third World -- Africa, Asia, Latin America, Central Asia -- is often difficult to assess. But the fact is that this development suddenly speeded up in the 20th century, with "stars" such as Singapore, Oman, China of course, and certain others, now standing as examples for others. Even when Poland, a poor European country, was finally freed from the Soviet yoke in 1989, its leading economists told me how they studied all the developing countries that had "made it," and, applying their lessons, swiftly added Poland to the list.
So as I find myself climbing out of my beloved water, yes, I do find many of my dreams have come true. We have big problems: American debt, the death of manufacturing, the breakup of the family as women rise to other challenges, the lack of fathers in the African-American community. We have challenges, above all, the rise of the new international faith called Islamism, Salafism, or a dozen other terms that only mean its adherents intend to take over the world in the name of a bitter, brutal Muslim faith wholly unrooted in history.
But as we face Labor Day, with children already back to school, I think it commends us to face the future, and to be strengthened and enlivened by what we already have done. It will make change so much easier if our minds and hearts are clear about how far we've come.