An Historical Footnote

Anthony Trollope, if you don’t know, was a Victorian era novelist who was less than successful in other pursuits, including practising law, because of a somewhat bad temper.  The author of 47 novels and other works, he ironically earned a reputation for a comic bent, which is still appreciated by critics and readers today.  Perhaps fittingly, his best novel, The Way We Live Now, was a satire. It was published in serial form and told of greed that let to financial scandals of the era.

 

Trollope died on this day in 1882 of a stroke after reading the comic novel Vice Versa by a contemporary, F. Antsey.  It was said that the stroke was brought on by a “fit of giggles.”  If there is any truth to the story, then he literally died laughing, a distinguishing footnote that he shares with Cleopatra and a few others.

 

Perhaps there is a joke somewhere in this anecdote, but it might be a stretch to include it here.  Suffice it to say, that if you must die, Trollope chose the best way to go.

 

 

 

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Mitzvah

Mitzvah

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

Augustine

 

Seated in Atlanta’s Temple for the Bar Mitzvah

of the son of a friend,

my eyes wander in search of scars

from its bombing now sixty years gone by.*

 

While her son, who in a moment will be a man,

reads in Hebrew of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau –

the Jacob who became Israel and fathered the twelve tribes,

 

I note that Germany’s Kristallnacht

terror began on this day,

some eighty years now passed.

 

As the Rabbi stands to speak

Of the future of promise for this child-man,

 

I recall that his Bar Mitzvah long ago

was held in the Pittsburgh synagogue

where a dozen were killed by a shooter,

one for each tribe, only a dozen days now gone.

 

I do not belong to this temple, to any other,

nor even to the children of Abraham.

But sitting here in a place

choosing to look forward and not back,

in a world darkened by sibling spite

hope is still a flickering candle,

a child becomes a man,

and of such small promise

all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

 

*The story of The Temple Bombing is chronicled in the excellent book of the same name by Melissa Fay Green.

 

 

 

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Mirrors in Memories

Fifty years ago today, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games.  They had taken gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meters and wished to make a statement against racial inequality in South Africa, Rhodesia and the United States.  A raised black gloved fist was a symbol for the Black Power movement in the US.  According to the story they told, they shared the one pair of gloves they had between them, one raising his right hand and the other the left.

Both men were American track competitors, each with significant records in the event from prior meets.  They were also members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a recognized but ineffecual organization permitted by the Olympic Committee.  The silver medalist, Peter Norman from Australia, also wore the insignia of the organization and supported their protest.

Avery Brundage, the American head of the IOC, dismissed Smith and Carlos from the American team, declaring their actions political and not in the spirit of the Games.  (Brundage had approved the Nazi salute at the 1938 games.)  The careers of Smith, Carlos and even Norman suffered for their stands, but their connection and committment remained firm.  Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.  In 2008, Smith was awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage by ESPN.  Carlos went on to work for the host committee of the 1084 Los Angeles Games.

In subsequent years, other arguably more offensive acts – burning draft cards and even burning the flag – were ruled protected speech by the courts, though it may be worth noting that both were largely acts by white Americans.   And yet, in 2018 a quality black NFL quarterback who chose to kneel during the National Anthem cannot find a team that will employ him.  Colin Kaepernick and others like him are ostrasized for protesting racial injustices that remain with us today.

I find it hard to know what to say.  In 1968, I thought that my generation of Americans would be different.  We would offer opportunity to all and would accept, if not honor, the right to protest.  I know that many do, but the roar of disapproval from those I hoped would be wiser is as loud as I recall from my youth.  What’s more, not only the same examples of police and public brutality continue, but the disparity between those who have wealth and those that live day-to-day has grown enormously.

We may never cure racial wrongs, but until then, we must never silence the last acts of protest.

 

 

 

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If You Knew Peggy Sue

Amid all the noise the pretends to be news, I learned today that Peggy Sue has passed from this life.  Peggy Sue Gerron Rackham, still of Buddy Holly’s Lubbock, Texas, died Monday at 78.

According to Wikipedia and Peggy Sue’s memoir, Peggy Sue had broken up with the Crickets’ drummer, Jerry Allison, shortly before Holly and Allison wrote her song.  To coax her back, Allison changed the lyrics from Cindy Lou, Holly’s niece, to Peggy Sue.  The two were later married, if only for a time.

The song, with its simple lyrics and the infectious beat that brought Holly instant fame, became a hit in 1957, the year that Buddy Holly and his music leaped into the national spotlight.  A year later, he wrote and recorded a demo of a pensive sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married.”  It was later produced, released and also became a hit.

Buddy Holly and the music died on February 3, 1959, in a plane crash near Cedar Lake, Iowa.  The fate of a coin flip had Richie Valens on the plane as well.  Waylon Jennings, Holly’s then bassist, gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson.

Peggy Sue was the girl, Holly wrote, “in nearly every song.”  She inspired the Kathleen Turner film, “Peggy Sue Got Married” that featured the comical over-acting of Nicholas Cage.  There was something about Peggy Sue that we could not let die.  She was from a time when we thought the world made sense and when love was simply true, whether wishful or wistful.

Only now the muse, Peggy Sue, has died.  We are left with a song, a memory and a wish that Buddy Holly could write just one more song.

If you knew Peggy Sue
Then you’d know why I feel blue without Peggy
My Peggy Sue

 

 

 

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The Whole World’s Watching

Reflecting back on history associated with this week offers an odd and troubling perspective for our times.  Fifty-five years ago, Martin Luther King delivered his  “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It was a moment of triumph for him and hope for millions who followed him.  Five years later, he was assassinated.

It was also fifty years ago that we saw the unrest of a generation gathered at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  The New York Times published a thoughtful retrospective on this event this week that is well worth reading.  These events were part of a year of unrest across much of the world.

I remember watching Walter Cronkite report, in a remarkably evenhanded way, on the tumult both within and outside the convention.  The protesters, buoyed by the protests in Europe and beyond and angered by the tragic and misguided war in Vietnam, had placed their hopes on the candidacy of George McGovern.  Salon has an excellent article on the convention that focuses on the experiences of Hunter S. Thompson as a journalist there.  Their efforts, however, had fallen far short of gaining him the nomination.  Had Robert Kennedy, who was an earlier icon of change, lived the convention’s results – and history might have been different.

I was 14 in 1968 and was discomforted over the events in Chicago that year.  I appreciated the need for order to allow the democratic process to operate.  At the same time, I appreciated the spirit and purpose of those calling for reform.  It was a muddy and polarized time, and perhaps I too reflected the fact.

Sadly and perhaps in reaction to the unrest of the time, we saw the return and rise of Richard Nixon, a cynical and tormented opportunist who perpetuated the war and broke the law to maintain his personal interest.  Today in a similarly polarizing time a similar, and almost certainly worse, demagogue sits in the White House.

What seems odd in comparing 1968 to today is that much of the extremism in our present time now comes from those who claim to be from the right, rather than the left.  Some of these, who are of my generation, once shared the ideals of the 1968 protestors, but have grown to resent being left behind economically.  Many have even been willing to support the political party of the wealthy, effectively cutting off their own wellbeing to spite their fate.

Chicago today sheds more lives in a weekend than most of the riots of 1968.  These, no doubt, are partly the result of residents who no longer believe in a better future.  What is sadder still is that the rest of us seem to have grown so numb from it all that we accept the violence as normal.

After the fall of Nixon and the end of the war, the nation seemed exhausted and settled into a quieter time, or so it seemed to me.  My generation began to marry and do traditional things, like have children and a career.  I read recently that Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers.  As we fade away, perhaps the discord we have sown will as well, and our children will find a better path than the set of extremes that have marked our time.

 

 

 

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Perhaps They Have (Something of) a Point

Traditional conservatives have been skeptical of the ability of government to solve society’s problems, or at least to do so efficiently.  This is to distinguish them from those conservatives today who define truth as what they believe or that is in their perceived personal interest.  An example of the latter is surely the author of the recent meme, “truth isn’t truth,” who is no doubt the heir to either Pontius Pilate or Yogi Bera.

Those conservatives I am thinking of are more in the tradition of pragmatists, like Edmund Burke, Milton Friedman, and Russell Kirk.  It is hard to think of any present day examples to add to this list.  I suspect they still exist, but have been silenced or shamed by those who define right by their own short-term self-interest.

I have been thinking recently about the implications of all three branches of our Federal Government being in the control of persons more conservative (by either old or current definitions) than the substantial majority of the country.  The New York Times recently looked at the same trend in the context of the Supreme Court.  Although the press and predictors suggest that the House of Representatives may turn toward the left in the coming election, the Senate and other branches of government are not apt to change materially.

Many of my more liberal friends despair over calls within the government to end welfare, privatize schools, and eliminate other services long seen as properly within the role of government.  They also fear bans on abortions, gun controls and deregulation of many industries.  While those currently in power have shown their inability to accomplish many of their goals, my friends’ concerns are legitimate, and I too share them.

For most of human history, people lived in a larger family unit and cared for each other’s needs.  There was no government to provide services other than perhaps the common defense against enemies.  Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, individuals moved en masse to urban areas, lost the society of their families, and with it their social safety net.

In its place and because of prevailing government policies that promoted the growth of business over the individual, private charities were formed to provide care for those in need.  Tellingly, some of these organizations still exist today.  The economic collapse of the Great Depression put so many in poverty that even traditional conservatives acknowledged the need for government to supplement the work of charities and even families in some extreme cases.

All this is my own sense of history, and there is plenty of room to disagree.  What I want to suggest, however, is that those of us who care and feel a duty toward the less fortunate may have come to rely too much on our government and not enough on our own ability in caring for others.  The National Philanthropic Trust has a history of giving that provides a useful context.  If you look back at our own history, charitable giving has grown in times of need and in which we have had a greater awareness of need. Above is a chart of the Depression era and the trends in recent decades have also shown increases, though there have been increasingly fewer donors who have given greater amounts.

If we truly care about others and if the government is unwilling or unable to provide or protect, perhaps action and not despair is called for.  A great deal could be accomplished if we took our personal tax savings from the recent tax cut (a rather small amount for most, but a great deal for a few) and donated it to the charity of our choice.  Hands-on service can be of even greater value.  I’ve tried to do both this year, but I should be doing more because the need is there and our government is not.

In time political change can occur, but until – and perhaps even – then, charity is needed.  By any measure we are the most giving people in the world and have been since de Tocqueville wrote of it generations ago.

Perhaps change does begin with me.

 

 

 

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Happiness is a Warm Puppy

A classmate in college wrote a book while a student.  I was quite impressed, since I did my best to avoid courses where even term papers were required.  I haven’t kept up with him, but the first line of his book stayed with me, “Times are hard, but then times are always hard.”  It had a Dickensian ring to it, and also the air of truth.  Times are, indeed, always hard in some way or another.

Too often, when I set out to write, my subject is a reflection on troubles.  There are many to choose from, but fortunately, they are not all there is to life.  Beauty, hope, and even joy can be found beyond the shrill drone of cable news, the daily commute, and the many things that occupy more space and time in our lives than they deserve.

Yesterday, a grandchild came to visit for a time.  He learned to use scissors (sorry Mom) and shared the joys of dinosaurs, stencils and eating sprinkles off the sides of a pop cycle.  This morning the neighbors’ child proudly announced, as he bounced to the car, that today was his first day of Pre K.

For our own part, we have added a new puppy to our home.  She is a Golden Doodle mix, which makes her a Goodle, Google, Pootriever, or just simply cute.  At eight weeks and three pounds, she has quickly become the center of attention and activity.  She may believe her name is No!, Stop That!, Not Again!, or Trouble (as in here comes…), but her curious innocence usually carries the day for her.

At rest, when not in someone’s lap, she sleeps on our now-older dog’s tail.  The elder was a bit at sea after her sister died some months ago. She seems to appreciate the new company and even keeps a motherly watch over her a bit. It is a testament to the unique evolution of dogs that they can adapt almost instantly to a new household, carving a place for themselves and achieving acceptance by innate skills that humans often lack.  Dogs even house train more quickly than children, though this particular dog hasn’t caught on quite yet.

Happiness is hard to define and often too brief to notice.  When it is there, you don’t stop to recognize, much less reflect, on it.  You can see it in others and share in their moment.  A puppy lives in an almost constant state of happiness, and as with happy others, it is contagious.  Something to think about.

The times are whatever they are, but Charles Schultz captured the word best when wrote, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

 

 

 

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Red and Blue, Left and Right

An interesting demographic set me to thinking recently.  Half of the US population lives in just nine states: California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia and Florida.  This aggregation is actually much more dramatic.  Half of the country lives in the darker counties below.  Fully eighty percent of the population live in urban areas and the suburbs that surround them, and this number is growing increasingly larger.

If you happen to be one who sees the leaves, and not just the forest or the trees, The New York Times has a detailed 2016 election breakdown that zooms in on even greater detail.

If the conventional wisdom that more populated areas tend to be more liberal is the case, the United States should be much less conservative than our current political climate seems to be.  Voters in denser areas should be electing representatives that promise more government, and yet our Congress has grown anything but friendly to such traditional liberal ideas.

The conservative control of the House of Representatives is attributed by many to the gerrymandering of district lines to maximize the number of predictably Republican districts.  How predictable?  Over 90 percent of Representatives who run again are reelected.  You can well say that one thing Congress is good at is taking care of itself.

Even when voters have to compete with self-protective incumbents, change can occur, and we may be on the cusp of such a moment in the upcoming mid-term elections.  Certainly, Democrats have done well in special elections in recent months.

The Senate, however, is a much different matter.  Each state has two Senators, regardless of that state’s population.  Currently, 39 states’ voters are more conservative than not, and if population trends continue as they have, this number is apt to grow.  Conservative control of the Senate is thus likely to prevail for as long as one cares to predict.

Indeed, the Founders had something like this in mind when they devised the Senate.  During the negotiations leading to the Constitution, less populated states demanded a way to protect their interests from the will of the majority.  In that respect, their compromise still does what it intended.

Now, that is not to say that change never occurs.  Only two years ago, 44 states’ voters leaned right.  Still, a liberal Senate is unlikely in the lifetime of any voter alive today.  And the Senate not only must approve any law but also controls the appointment of judges and the Cabinet.

Perhaps all this begs the question of where I stand in the political spectrum.  I am a sailor, and my compass, like all, has 360 degrees. It does not by its nature distinguish between left and right.  I do have a few positions on issues deemed political, as should we all.  Most of all though are two things I believe.  No one has a monopoly on the truth, and the louder one’s voice the more likely one is to be wrong.

Of course, I could be wrong, but then….

P.S.  A thoughtfully critical article concerning the Electoral College, which is perhaps the least democratic institution in our Constitution can be found at this link in The Week.

 

 

 

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

As is well-known but often forgotten, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on this day in 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of their signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Adams’ last words were purported to be, “Thomas Jefferson lives,” reflecting their friendship, rivalry and differences over those many years.  Tony M. Hodge wrote yesterday of their mutual story in the Charleston Gazette.

The two men could not have been more different in temperament, and their political views diverged as well in the early years of the republic.  Adams was outspoken and suspicious, while Jefferson was prickly.  They chose opposite political sides, and Jefferson actually ran against Adams for President.

The correspondence between the two men transcended those differences, and they ultimately developed a mutual, but still competitive, respect for each other.  Such is perhaps the sign of truly great men, and certainly of women as well:  to have strong views, but to respect those with whom one differs.

I would offer their relationship as a lesson for our times, but I wonder if we have become so divided that truth and decency has been sacrificed on the altar of hate.  Perhaps the celebration that we share today is a reminder that the freedom to differ is a rare one in this world but that such freedom also requires responsibility from those who enjoy it.

 

 

 

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1984

George Orwell’s 1984 was published in the UK on this day in 1948.  The transposition of years in the title was probably intentional, because the book was in part a reflection of his view of the world after World War II.  He once described the book as a depiction of what the world would be like if atomic war did not wipe out mankind.

I read the book and others like it growing up, and it helped to form something of an underlying skepticism of government for me, along of course with the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and Watergate.  At the same time, I also recognized that 1984 was written as a warning and with the encouragement for us to do better.

When the year 1984 came and went, the then-waning Cold War was the only genuine comparison that I saw between the book and the actual year.  The book seems much more prescient today, now 70 years later.

Certainly, two-way video now pervades our personal space.  Technology has rendered personal privacy less and less an option, often without our knowledge.  Outright lies presented as truth are today’s doublespeak.  Government seeks to control sex by limiting it to procreation.  Distant war is now taken as the norm.  The very book itself has been banned at times and in places. And we seem to go about our daily lives as if we accept all this, or at least as if we are powerless in its face.

Orwell wrote 1984 after his wife died during a routine operation.  Much of the book was written during a time on the Scottish Isle of Jura, which included one of its coldest of winters.  While there, Orwell was diagnosed with TB, still then incurable.  His struggles with writing the book while in this condition are described in a Guardian article from ten years ago.

Orwell died on January 21 of 1950.  He is buried in a small churchyard under his true name, Eric Blair.  Given his latter days, it is little wonder that his last book is so bleak and seemingly hopeless.  And yet still, we are here to mark today.  May there be many more days like this to stop, reflect and perhaps to make 1984 more fiction than fact.

 

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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