Elvis Lives?

Forty years ago today, Elvis Presley died while sitting on the toilet in his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee.  Or so the story goes.  Elvis would, or might, be 82 today.

I am old enough to have listened to Elvis in my formative years and to appreciate his larger than life story of a poor Mississippi boy who wandered into Sam Phillips little recording studio to make a record for his mother, only to become the King of Rock and Roll.  The first time I went to Graceland, I passed by his grave and saw a big-haired – and also big – woman on the ground next to the flowery grave crying real tears.  Just for fun, my wife and I renewed our vows at the chapel there a year ago.

I remember hearing the news of his death as I turned into my driveway that August morning in 1977.  I found it hard to believe, and it seems that more than a few continue to doubt his death.  You can find a chronicle of the conspiracy theories around his death here.  There are almost as many Elvis conspiracy sites on the Internet as there are cat videos.  I even have somewhere – please don’t judge – a copy of a National Enquirer with the headline, “Elvis Abducted by Aliens.”  Who could resist?

There are more than a few movies claiming that Elvis’ death was faked.  Elvis is Alive is one.  The Identical claims that is stillborn brother actually lived and took over Elvis’ identity after his death.  You can access descriptions of other bizarre films at the same link.  One example is Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Elvis and John F. Kennedy are said to be kept in a nursing home, where they find an Egyptian god who rises from the swamp nearby.  Actually, it is worth seeing.

Far and away my favorite is Finding Graceland, starring Harvey Kietel, who goes about being, or believing, he is Elvis, while helping the downtrodden that he comes across.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it is poignant.  But then there are so many tales of Elvis that still touch hearts today.

I suppose we still miss you Elvis, wherever you are.

 

 

 

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A Look Back and Perhaps Forward

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

 

On this day, August 8, in 1974, Richard Nixon became the first and, so far, only U.S. President to resign from office.  It was a tragic moment for the nation, regardless of one’s politics, age or persuasion.

It had been a long two years since the Watergate burglary of June 11, 1972.  The Senate had begun an investigation in February of 1973.  Following the resignation of his Attorney General at the end of April, Nixon was forced to allow the new A.G., Elliot Richardson, to name a Special Prosecutor.  In October, he fired Richardson and the Deputy A.G. for refusing to fire Cox.  Robert Bork, the third in line at the Department, did fire Cox.  Interestingly, Bork was later nominated by the next Republican President, Ronald Reagan, for the Supreme Court, but was rejected due to controversial positions he had taken in certain publications.

Historians, with the advantage of hindsight, tell us that the firing of Cox made Nixon’s departure inevitable.  It’s hard to say whether that was true, but, having lived through those times, there seemed to be a public consensus that Nixon’s action was beyond any standard of justice, propriety or decency.  This sense was reinforced in April of 1974, when the Supreme Court forced Nixon to release the transcripts of Oval Office conversations.  Apart from the legally damning portions, the ranting and abusive language used by Nixon troubled even his remaining supporters.

This period reminded me of a time I have written about earlier, when the tide of public opinion turned against Joseph McCarthy and his campaign of accusations meant to tear down others for his own benefit.

American was deeply divided in 1974 over many things that were centered over racial and generational divides, relating to everything from the Vietnam war to racial equality.  We are also divided today in an almost tribal conflict between polarized political identities.  We now have a President who boasts of sexual groping and has claimed he could get away with murder.  He seems to measure loyalty by the extent one believes his obvious lies.  Once again we have a prosecutor that the President has threatened to fire.  In fact, this President has even mulled publicly about pardoning himself.

History may or may not repeat itself, but Nixon’s case offers two valuable insights.  First, it took a terribly long time for justice to prevail and for Nixon to leave office, facing certain impeachment and conviction in a Senate that could no longer support him.  Second, public opinion, long tolerant of his conduct, did ultimately turn against him.

We are living in a time remarkably similar to those days.  None of us knows what will happen when all is said and done.  It is wise though to stop and think about the past, because the perspective may be something of a guide today.  As for me, I think of Welch’s words to McCarthy, “Have you no decency?”

 

 

 

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A Thought Experiment

A thought experiment is a way to test an answer to a question too big or small for science to verify.  Einstein’s speed of light train and Shroedinger’s cat are two examples from science, though you will find others in philosophy and mathematics.  It is, in a sense, a way for man to play God.

In that context, a theological thought experiment came to my mind recently.  It bears a relationship with the fifth proof of God’s existence by Saint Thomas Aquinus (his argument by design ), but with a different purpose.

Instead of proving that there is a God, let’s begin by simply assuming that he, she or whatever does exist and was responsible for the Creation.  Stay with me if you don’t believe in God, because my little experiment may have still something meaningful to say.

Let’s assume as well that what one creates says something about the creator.  That should be a simpler premise to accept.  The posts in this blog, for example, would probably lead you to conclude that I’ve been around a while, try to view issues with a bit of perspective, am not that conservative – at least in today’s context –  and want to share my thoughts while remaining relatively private.

Aquinus drew certain conclusions about the nature of God: that he is perfect, infinite and unchanging, but I wonder if the universe and world we live in offer more subtle insights to consider.

Given the size of the universe, God must have a vast imagination and power.  God must also value simplicity and consistency, if you consider the mathematical precision of the laws of nature that we continue to discover.  At the same time, the fact that God chose to allow events to unfold and creatures to evolve seems to say that he is both curious and satisfied not to intervene in creation in at least most respects.

I think God must have a sense of wonder and a joy in beauty, because the majesty of a sunset and the beauty of a bluebird cannot be things that we alone appreciate.  He must also have a playfulness and sense of joy, because so many of his animal creations display those emotions.  If we reflect something of God, he must also grieve as we, and even many animals, do.

There is another side to creation, evil in its natural and human forms, that we struggle to understand.  Where that fits and how it relates to God forms the unsolvable problem of evil that we live with and see the results of daily.  If nothing else, it tells us that God is ultimately incomprehensible for mere humans.

God must also have in mind an end to his creation.  The arrow of time exists for a reason, and the the fact that disorder in the universe or entropy always increases means that, at some point in the long away future, creation will reach an end.

As a sailor, I often look at the sea and wonder.  It is, in its own way, alive – constantly in motion and beyond our ability to tame.  It gives life, provides livelihoods and can take both away without warning.  Still, it draws many to it for reasons too deep to grasp.  Almost like we, or at least many, are with God.

Is there a God?  When all is said, we only answer for ourselves.  Still, creation may say much about him.

 

 

 

 

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A Hero By Any Standard

“I’ve been through worse.”

John McCain

 

As we all know by now, Arizona Senator John McCain was diagnosed this week with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.  Ironically, this is the same disease that felled to last person known as the “Lion of the Senate,” Ted Kennedy.

I stopped after hearing the news to reread McCain’s account of his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.  His courage and integrity through life threatening injuries and torture seems something from another time, and indeed it was.  He almost broke down at one point, but held on through five years of abuse and torture.

As the son of the Admiral over the Pacific Fleet, McCain could have avoided combat like another who ran for and was elected President.  The North Vietnamese offered to release him because of his father’s position, but he refused to leave because there were others who had been held longer.

He still walks with a limp as a result of his injuries, but he held no malice against the nation that held him.  In fact, McCain was instrumental in the normalization of relations between our countries.

Our current president insulted McCain in 2015, saying, “He is no hero…I prefer people who weren’t captured.”  McCain did not respond publicly, to his credit and as seems his style.  I have read that some of his Senate colleagues aren’t fond of McCain because he speaks his mind and heart to anyone, which can be harsh and impolitic.  Unlike our present president though, he makes sure he knows what he is talking about.

I wrote a previous post about another hero of a different type and persuasion, John Lewis.  What they both seem to share is an uncanny ability to turn the other cheek and to rise above the hatred they have every right to feel.  That kind of humility in leadership was once more common.

Post Script:  John McCain returned to the Senate bearing a scar from his recent surgery in time for its health care debate.  He voted in favor of proceeding with debate, but ultimately voted against the final measure apparently because he did not agree with some of the terms and did not trust the assurances given him that the Senate would be able to vote again once the House had acted.  It seems perhaps that he believed there is room for integrity, even in sausage-making.

 

 

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The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

 

Declaration of Independence

 

Thomas Jefferson adapted his famous list of rights from the works of John Locke, a philosopher of the era.  He substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for Locke’s more conservative “property.  His phrase survived to become part of what defines us as Americans.

The funny thing is that we all pursue happiness, but most of us don’t know what it is.  Some pursue fame as their form of happiness.  Others think of it as wealth, which Jefferson certainly did not intend.

For the moment, let’s go with that definition.  If so, how much money does it take to be happy?  The answer, if you believe the experts, is not “more.”  The pollsters have studied Americans of all stations and have concluded that any amount over $75,000 a year does nothing to increase the markers of happiness for most Americans.  Indeed, more money often leads to more worries and no greater satisfaction with life.

I often mention this study to my students, and I find their reactions telling.  Many show signs of disbelief, and I make a mental note that they may be pursuing something other than happiness in their law careers.  Some though find the study intriguing.  They, I believe, are more likely to enjoy the practice of law for itself, and thus find satisfaction in life.

I can’t find the source now, but someone once studied high school athletes to determine which were the happiest.  You would think that football stars, with all their popularity and praise, would be the clear winners.  That, however, turned out to be wrong.  The happiest athletes turned out to be soccer players, who participated for the joy of the sport and the camaraderie that the team bred.

The gold standard for defining happiness seems to be the 75 year and still running “Harvard Study of Adult Development.”  You can listen to its director’s TED talk here.  Over the term of the study, researchers regularly assessed the mental and physical wellbeing of thousands of Harvard graduates and a corresponding number of poor Bostonian youth.  The one defining marker of happiness, and even physical health, was satisfaction with one’s relationships.  The richer one was in this one area, the happier he was with his life.  (The study began with young men, but has expanded to encompass women as well).

All that begs the question, “How happy are you?”

And as a postscript:  Todd Lombardo has written a thoughtful piece, entitled, “You Don’t Have to be Famous to be Great.”  It is well worth your reading.

 

 

 

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Why Do We Vote Against Our Own Interests?

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Winston S. Churchill

Why do poor voters side with politicians who pledge to cut welfare?  Why do middle class voters support those who promise to cut taxes on the rich?  Why do many wealthy voters choose candidates that promise to raise their taxes?  Is voting even a rational choice?

These are not new questions, but I have been pondering them afresh, in light of the current healthcare debate in which those that voted for Republican candidates have enabled those in power to take away Medicare and other funds in order to cut taxes for the rich.  While some of these voters are showing buyer’s remorse, many still support legislation that will directly hurt their interests.

Certainly there are many issues to prioritize in selecting a candidate, and no single representative can align fully with any one voter, much less all those who select him or her.  Some voters go so far as to ignore a candidate’s extreme position on an issue, believing that the government would never actually go through with something so radical.  In a polarized electorate like ours today, that becomes a dangerous gamble, as we can now see.

Some who have studied this paradox suggest that emotions sway many voters, rather than reason. Anger is often cited as one factor.  Many feel left behind by government, the economy and society as a whole. As a result, they lash out against the system and side with candidates that present the same rhetoric.  They are much like those that game theory describes who prefer that no one get anything, rather than have to share.  In a world in which a voter’s economic well-being has been declining for decades, this attitude may not be as irrational as it seems.

Fear is a related explanation.  Regulations and taxes that affect employers prompt fear that jobs will disappear, and so voters judgment is tainted by a simplified view of self-interest.

In a complex world, simple stories often sway voters, even if the stories are patently untrue.  The unfortunately perfect example of the regularly repeated “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton is as good, or bad, an example as one could find.

Values seem often to sway voters more than self-interest.  Many times, extreme values take on undue weight.  Guns, abortion, immigration, and bathrooms come immediately to mind.  The unique American value of self-determination prompts many to reject candidates that offer government lifelines for those in need.

One interesting observation I have read is that people select candidates based on their self-image, and not their true interests.  They see themselves as the members of a common group or “tribe,” and vote accordingly.  Few are willing to identify themselves as middle class, much less poor.  They would rather believe they are part of a group that reflects their goals or ideals, even if the group fails to help them get there.

I happen to be a (somewhat) old, white man, whose demographic would put me firmly among traditional Republicans and within the disaffected group who found Trump’s rhetoric appealing.  The first category doesn’t really describe my politics, and the latter could not be further from my views.  You could say that I too do not vote in favor of my personal interests.  The truth, in my case and perhaps for a great many, is that we are all too complex to put in boxes.  When all is said,  we can’t say enough to predict other’s views.

 

 

 

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Living Every Day As If…

“May you live every day of your life.”

Jonathan Swift

 

I fell down something of a rabbit hole this past week, and the experience was enlightening, if not a bit frightening, as well.  I got up in the night, passed out and ended up in the hospital, where I went through two days of every test they could think of.  End result:  I’m in much better health than I have any right to be, and the doctors had no clue as to what happened or why.

As I reflected during a few days of rest, two thoughts took root in my mind.  First, the human body is immensely complex, and there are so many things that can go wrong that I am surprised it doesn’t break down more often.  Modern medicine, despite its flaws, has advanced to the point that we take our health for granted and are reminded only in the fairly rare event that something like my experience happens.  Even then, we expect our doctors to patch us up, so we can return to our assumed state of blissful ignorance.

Related to that thought was my second realization that, whether life is short or long, every day is unique and is something to live as best you know how.  While in the hospital, I received a message that a friend, younger and by all accounts healthier than me, had died of a heart attack.  It was completely unexpected and highlighted for me the importance of living “mindfully,” as Buddhists say.  I believe a similar saying among actors is “being in the moment.”

Of course, you can sometimes hear one living “fully” though the words, “Hold my beer.”  Another version of the same refrain from here in the South are the typical Redneck’s last words, “Hey y’all, watch this!”  I’m thinking of a more meaningful approach to living each day to its fullest.

With that in mind and having some time on my hands, I went back to an early post from this blog and found a personal manifesto I had crafted for myself.  It went like this:

 

Be Kind.  The world can be a cruel place.

Live Small.  Make room and save resources for others.

Seek Peace.  Both within yourself and with others.

 

In light of my recent experience, I could add a few other maxims, such as,”Eat well, exercise and don’t forget to floss,” or “Avoid hospitals like the plague.” Kidding aside, the important thing, I believe, is that one thoughtfully find his or her own values to live by and keep them fresh and actively in mind.  I certainly have renewed reason to do so, beginning today and until all I have to say is said and I am done.  I hope that will be a long time from now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Two Americas

Once upon a true time in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln’s election divided the country, not just politically, but physically.  The division is depicted in the electoral map here, although there were dissidents in the minority on each side.

In many ways, this division haunts us still today, only now the party of Lincoln has turned from that of unity to one of division, by embracing a raft of fringe groups and their sometimes radical positions.  These range from gun rights, climate change denial, and abortion opposition to tacit acceptance of white nationalism.

A look at the 2016 electoral map  reflects several trends worth noting.  First, the Republican party has replaced the Democrats in the South.  It has also come to fill in most of the states that had not been formed in 1860, which I often refer to as “square states.”  Added to the Republicans’ tally in this last election are also a number of the Rust Belt states whose disaffected working class sided with the party, although the vote was close in those states.

The county-by-county results are a bit more revealing, as you can see here.  The blue or Democratic counties roughly paint an outline around the continental U.S, particularly if you add in the pink counties, representing areas where the Republican majority was narrow.  Our nation is now divided, not north to south, but by the border regions versus the midsection.

 

Geographically, the image above is dominated by red.  What is not reflected is population density, which is shown in the next image.  The deepest red areas above are generally sparsely populated, while the blue are largely urban, as shown in the yellow to deep blue range of colors.  If you presume that each person’s vote should count equally, the straight popular vote would favor Democratic leaning candidates.

History, however, had another issue that affected the map.  In the negotiations that resulted in our Constitution, the less populous states, largely in the south, feared domination from the others.  Three compromises gave them more power, which still affects us today.  Each state received two Senators, regardless of population.  Slaves, who had no right to vote, were counted as 3/5ths a person for purposes of representation in the House – the “Devil’s Bargain.”  These same considerations contributed to outsized roles for less populous states in the Electoral College, a result that largely remains the case still today.

These compromises fortunately no longer protect the institution of slavery.  Instead, they provide a protection for minority views on a number of more modern issues.  If that sounds like a criticism, I don’t necessarily mean it that way.  In parts of the country where one’s nearest neighbor might be miles away, owning and being proficient with guns makes a lot of sense.  Self-sufficiency and individual responsibility are not just preferences, but necessities in these areas.  Limited government and other conservative views are naturally part of the fabric of this culture.  These are stands that may deserve protection, even if they are minority points of view.

In our more urban areas some of these views make less sense.  The role of government in peoples’ lives has greater relevance.  Things like guns become problematic when people are packed more closely.  We find ourselves, as I’ve said, living in entirely different cultures, or, if you will, two different Americas.  We need to recognize the fact and find a way to live without imposing one position on others whose lives differ.

That is not all there is to say on the subject, but I’ll stop here for now to ponder a bit on what we might do in the face of this reality.

P.S.  A Washington Post poll has underscored the rural/urban divide.  It notes, interestingly, that urban responders do not sense the difference in values as strongly as those in rural areas.

 

 

 

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We Can Still Always Have Paris

I have tried, with limited success, to avoid politics in these periodic thoughts because the
airwaves are saturated with the subject, and I believe there are more important issues in life to reflect on.  The recent news that we have withdrawn, as a country, from the Paris Climate Accord was an unfortunate train wreck in the crossroads between politics and the well-being of life for all.   The plain truth is that the earth is not flat, and climate change is real.  God may have promised not to destroy the earth again by flood, but we still can and are well on the way.

I have had the good fortune to visit some of the world’s great ocean reefs over the years, and I have seen them slowly fade to bleached white.  Last week I visited Belize, home of the world’s second longest reef.  So much of the coral has died that local tourism now boasts access to sharks and turtles, rather than colorful coral reefs, or at least that was my experience.

I lived for a time in South Miami and recall rare occasions when weather and tides combined to flood some low lying areas near Biscayne Bay.  Now it is common enough to take a name, “King Tides.”

Humans, as a species, are remarkably adaptive to a wide range of climates.  We inhabit barren deserts, the highest mountains and even areas where we have rendered the air and waters nearly uninhabitable to nearly all creatures other than vermin and roaches.  Some  may be resourceful or wealthy enough to live on with the remaining rats after we have wasted the earth, but billions of individuals and countless species are apt to die out.  It will not be pretty.

Our current government may have rejected the majority preference to stand with Paris, but that doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, are without options.  It crossed my mind that nothing prevents me from living within the Accord.  Consider what might happen if enough of us took the same step.  Already, a number of cities and states have pledged to act within the agreement.  If you compare the GDP of any one of our states to that of other nations, the comparison is often telling.  Georgia, for example, equals the economy of Belgium.

Michael Bloomberg has offered to pay our portion off the administrative costs for the pact. This prompted me to consider ways that I might reduce my carbon footprint, as an individual.  The Internet is full of suggestions and examples.  Some are as simple as making sure your tires are fully inflated.  Raising the settings on your thermostat at home is another.

The list of opportunities is long and environmental change truly can begin person by person and home by home.  We should all take the time while there is still time.

P.S.  Bill Moyers has an article on what states can do to follow the Paris Accord.  Also, the illustration above is from The New Yorker.  I try to be respectful of others copyrights, but this online cartoon was truly topical, as is the weekly publication.  If you don’t subscribe, you are missing out.

 

 

 

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Living in History

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

John F. Kennedy

During this month in 1917, John F. Kennedy was born – one hundred remarkable years ago.  It was truly a different time.  Women could not yet vote.  The U.S. had just been drawn into a World War (the first).  Russia was experiencing its Communist Revolution.  The best selling car of the time was Ford’s Model T.  The flu pandemic that ultimately killed over 20 million was spreading across the world.  Mary and Jack Pickford won the acting Academy Awards in its fourth year, and presciently, The Little American won the award for best picture.

I was in the first grade when JFK was elected.  I (would have) voted for Nixon, echoing my father’s opinion that Kennedy did not have enough life experience.  Ironically, I ultimately did vote for Nixon when I turned 18 in 1972, a fact I soon and have long regretted.

Kennedy’s election came at a turning point in history.  The Baby Boom generation was coming of age and his vision inspired them to believe in ideals and in change in ways that their more conformist parents did not, bearing their childhood memories of the Great Depression.

Some of that optimism suffered when Kennedy was shot three years later.  While he had experienced mixed results in foreign affairs, he had set the country on a path toward equal rights for all races.  He has even set our sights on the moon itself.

There are events in life when you remember where you were when they happened.  Shuttle disasters, September 11th, and even Elvis Presley’s (alleged) death come to mind.

The first such occasion for me was November 22, 1963.  I was in Mrs. Wilson’s third grade class when the Principal made a cryptic announcement over the loud speaker.  Word of the shooting began to spread and we saw Mrs. Wilson cry, which left us confused and disturbed.  As the afternoon passed, the school office placed its microphone next to its radio, and we heard the news as it transpired.  There was no school the next day, but everyone’s shock dampened any joy we might have had.

A reporter who followed in his father’s path asked his dad on his 75th birthday if writing about JFK’s death was his favorite story.  “No,” he said, “It stunk.”  As a lawyer, I can also say that having to do my job on days when the outcome was unfair and stunk in the same sense, even if my client won as a result.

The first unforgettable event for my children was the explosion of the space shuttle.  When I learned of the disaster, I went home to be with my young daughter.  I sat down with her and asked what she had heard.  She replied, The space ship blew up and all the people cried.”  With young children, it is important to explain things at a level they can understand.  I could not have said it better.

When JFK took office he was as far off in time from Teddy Roosevelt as we are now from Kennedy’s time.  Much has changed for us, and change itself has become our norm.  The key now, as it was then, is to know yourself and to live expectantly.

 

 

 

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The Last Word

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

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