Sunday, December 31, 2006

Jerry Ford, Forgiveness, and Seventies Liberalism

In the mid-1970s, when Kathleen and I were students, we subscribed to the New Republic. We either got a really low rate, or, more likely, my dad paid for the subsciption. Before 1975 it had been THE magazine of American liberal politics. But when Martin Peretz took over the magazine that year, things began to change. In addition to becoming unquestioningly pro-Israel, the magazine often espoused a hard-edged liberalism that was difficult to distinguish from neoconservatism. Stephen Chapman, now on the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, wrote in its pages that we should scrap Amtrak. His solution to intercity ground transportation: what he called "the humble bus."

But the article that convinced us that the New Republic had abandoned its liberal heritage was a column about Gerald R. Ford. The columnist--I don't remember his name--lambasted Ford for something he did as a teenager. He forgave his father.

Ford's biological father, Leslie Lynch King, left the family 16 days after Gerald was born, and divorced Ford's mother a few months later. The future president, originally named Leslie King, jr., became Gerald R. Ford, after his stepfather. King visited Ford while the future president was working at a restaurant. One of the first things Ford told his father was that he forgave him. That one simple statement outraged the New Republic columnist. It was, I recall, couched in Jewish vs. Christian language, conveniently ignoring that Judaism has a tradition of forgiveness. My feeling was that the columnist was deeply into the pop psychology of "let it all out." You don't forgive someone until you've spilled out all your angry feelings. The columnist essentally called Ford a wimp for forgiving his father right away.

This was also the era of "The personal is political." Kathleen remembers being told by a strident Seventies feminist that she couldn't be a true feminist if she was Catholic or married. So Ford's forgiveness of his father was a political act which foretold his pardoning of Nixon. Maybe it did, but to me, it showed Ford's maturity. And while I still disagree with Ford's pardon of Nixon before he was ever charged with a crime, I can sympathize with him wanting to get the past out of the way.

The column was a sign that at least some liberals had strayed from their roots in the Social Gospel Movement of the early Twentieth Century. We liberals had dethroned Nixon and Americans had elected one of the most liberal Congresses ever. With power came arrogance. And perhaps that arrogance helped sour the American public on liberalism.

After years of arrogance and meanness by the Right, we liberals have at least a modicum of power. Let's hope we don't mess it up.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gerald R. Ford, R.I.P.

Last October, when I had a week of vacation, my wife Kathleen, my son Jim, and I took a day trip up to Grand Rapids to visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. We came away with a new respect for the nation's only unelected president. Kathleen and I had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. We had both been angered when Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974. But we were reminded that this was a very decent man who came into office in extremely difficult circumstances.

I'm afraid I bought into myth of Ford as a not-so-bright guy--not so much from the Saturday Night Live routines about his supposed klutziness, but Lyndon Johnson's quip that he had played too much football without a helmet. And the only time we ever saw Ford, he was on the floor of the House, arguing against letting strikers get food stamps.

But the Ford we saw and heard at the museum was remarkably thoughtful and compassionate. Of course the museum isn't likely to show Ford in a bad light, but its curators had the integrity to include letters, both angry and reasoned, opposing Ford's Pardon of Nixon. And the recreation of the Cabinet room had an interesting interactive program which invited visitors to make decisions about major issues during Ford's presidency. We watched the video about New York's financial crisis. Yes, I voted to bail out New York, which Ford didn't do. New York survived and prospered in spite, or perhaps because of Ford's "tough love" approach.

The museum also pointed out that Ford was an internationalist, and a protege of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, also of Grand Rapids. Vandenberg's support for the Marshall Plan was critical to its passage.

The museum is certainly worth the modest admission fee. It's closed right now, of course, as its curators prepare for Ford's funeral.

I don't regret my vote for Carter in 1976, but I do respect the man he defeated.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Enthusiasm

"Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people."
-Acts 6:8 (NRSV)

"He was a good Christian, and never enthusiastic in his religion."
-18th century English epitaph, possibly apocryphal

I was reminded of the supposed epitaph (the source is the late Laurence Lafore, who taught British history at the University of Iowa, and occasionally told some whoppers) when I attended Christmas Eve service at a local Episcopal Church. The service itself was beautiful--the music, the liturgy, and the elaborate ritual--what we sometimes call "smells and bells." But the sermon was another matter--a very intellectual but very dry talk about the oxymoronic nature of Christmas. There was nothing theologically wrong with what the rector said. But he wouldn't win any converts with it. In short, he showed no enthusiasm.

Before all the controversy over women priests and gay bishops, Episcopalians argued about churchmanship. Because the Anglican church is both Catholic and Protestant, there almost had to be a dispute between the two approaches to the liturgy. The Anglo-Catholics, or High Church, emphasized the sacraments, while the Evangelicals, or Low Church, stressed the Bible and conversion by the word. (In Britain the distinction between High and Low Church gets complicated, but here in the States, you can pretty much equate High with Anglo-Catholic and Low with Evangelical.)

And the High Church has triumphed, especially here in the Midwest. And as a Midwestern Episcopalian, I'm High Church. But it's unfortunate that that in adopting the High Church position, we've too often discarded the best of Evangelicalism. Especially its enthusiasm.

The Evangelicals included William Wilberforce, who spearheaded the movement to end slavery in the British Empire. And the Wesley brothers: Charles, who wrote some of the most beautiful hymns in the English language, and John, whose preaching converted thousands. (John Wesley died a member of the Church of England. Only after his death did his followers break with the church and become Methodists.)

But the enthusiasm of preachers like Wesley was too much for some staid Anglicans, who helped push Wesley's followers into breaking with the church. Thus the epitaph, which declared enthusiasm anathema.

We all know of situations where religious zeal has led to fanatacism of violence. But the word enthusiasm literally means "having God within." Martin Luther King, jr. was enthusiastic in the same sense as his fellow martyr St. Stephen, whose feast day is today.

Personally, I suspect that the decline in membership of the Episcopal Church has less to do with women and gays in the clergy than with a lack of the evangelical spirit in both the clergy and prominent laity. We can have the most awe-inspiring music, the most beautiful vestments, and the most elaborate ritual--but if the rector can't preach an inspiring sermon, we're not going to attract new members. That's right. We need some enthusiasm.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Advent Gift, or Return of the Exile

Sometime this month or next month, I'll be returning from my thirteen-year exile.

From 1989 through early December of 1993, I was an Amtrak ticket agent in Elkhart, Indiana. In the early 1990s, Amtrak management closed the ticket offices in dozens of stations, including the one in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was by then just an office in a strip mall from which buses to trains in nearby Waterloo, Indiana departed. I was "bumped," and I didn't have the seniority to hold a job in Elkhart or South Bend. But because I had transferred from Chicago, I still had seniority there.

From Pearl Harbor Day of 1993 to early December, 2003, I worked at the Chicago call center. I still lived in Elkhart, and did the long commute to Chicago every day. While I was home every night, I didn't see much of my family except on weekends. The Chicago call center closed at the beginning of 2004, so I followed my job to Philadelphia rather than risk bidding for the limited number of station jobs in Chicago. The original plan was for me to work lots of overtime so we could fix up the house in Elkhart, sell it, and all move to Philadelphia. But the post-9/11 recession was still on, and there was little overtime to be had.

By the time the recession was letting up, I had decided I was, in the words of Hamlin Garland, a "son of the middle border," who belonged in one of those three contiguous states beginning with I. In July of last year, I took the swing shift at the Bloomington-Normal station. I could usually get home every "weekend," which meant Wednesday and Thursday.

A few months ago, I learned that one of the station agents in South Bend would be retiring this November. So I put in for another transfer. After several weeks of anxious waiting, I was offered the job. I don't know exactly when I'll be leaving, but I'm looking forward to ending my years of exile. Appropriately, I received my good news during Advent, that season of hope and expectation

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Heartbreaking

"Heartbreaking"--that was the banner headline of today's Elkhart Truth. Four children: Jennifer Lopez 8, Gonzalo Lopez,6, Daniel Valdez, 4, and Jessica Valdez, 2, were found in their house on Hester Street in Elkhart November 14. Their mother, Angelica Alvarez, was initially thought dead, but paramedics found a weak pulse. At this writing, she is in critcal condition at Elkhart General Hospital. The deaths have been ruled homicide by asphyxiation. So far no arrests have been made, but it's likely the result of a custody battle.

Neighbors said the children were sweet and helpful. I don't really know what to say, except to offer my hope and prayers for Angelica Alvarez. Elkhart has had more than its share of crime lately, but the killing of children is the saddest of crimes. I can't imangine a sane person doing this.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Looking for Rexroth's Daughter

Back when I was living in Philadelphia and discovering the the blogosphere, I came across a comment on another blog--perhaps it was a line cast, a hope followed-- by a blogger who called herself rexroth’s daughter. I was intrigued. I had been interested in the poet, critic, translator, and essayist Kenneth Rexroth since the late 1990s, when I learned that he had spent much of his childhood in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana. And I knew that Greg Brown, who comes from Iowa City, the town where I grew up, had written a song called “Rexroth’s Daughter.”

I didn’t expect that she was Mary (Mariana), Rexroth’s first daughter by his third wife Marthe Larsen. (A second daughter, Katharine, died in 1996.) But I asked her, just in case. She had, as I suspected, taken the name from Greg Brown’s song. And so I got to know Rexroth’s Daughter, along with her husband, Dread Pirate Roberts, through their blog, the new dharma bums.

Recently, both of them have been writing under their own names. Of course they’re still the same people, and I still love their blog, but I miss the wonderful pseudonyms.

Anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie The Princess Bride knows about Dread Pirate Roberts. But what of Rexroth’s Daughter--not the elusive, mysterious woman of the song, who was the inspiration for Robin Andrea’s blog name, but the original Rexroth’s Daughter, who may or may not have inspired Greg Brown to write his lyrics.

Katharine Rexroth Leavitt led a very private life. I don’t think she could have been Brown’s inspiration. Mary, who changed her name to Mariana in 1975 (to get rid of the “excess baggage” of Mary Delia Andree), is a more likely candidate. Born in 1950, she was named for Kenneth’s mother Delia Reed, (though every legal document I’ve seen lists her as the more prosaic Della) and his first wife Andree Schafer.

She certainly had a difficult early life, with a lot more excess baggage than her name. While Rexroth doted on Mary, he was, to put it mildly, less than an ideal husband. Marthe, tired of his extramarital affairs and his demands that she serve him as an unpaid secretary, finally moved out of their San Francisco apartment, and fled with her daughters to New Mexico with poet Robert Creeley. Mary was about five at the time. Marthe later returned to San Francisco, but their attempt at reconciliation was not a success. In 1958 Kenneth made a cross-country tour, leaving his wife and daughters behind. Later that year the family went to Europe, making another attempt at reconciliation.

When the couple finally split in 1961, Marthe went first with her mother. When Marthe moved in with Stephen Schoen and his three children, Mary was miserable. In September, 1962, she showed up at Rexroth’s Scott Street apartment. Though Kenneth Rexroth was the quintessential avant-garde San Franciscan, he expected his daughter to be very proper. According to Linda Hamalian’s A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), Mary was not allowed to come to the breakfast table in her bedclothes. He had exacting standards for any potential suitor: the sleeve vent on his shirt had to button, the moons on all ten of his fingers had to show, and he should know how to cook a light supper in formal evening dress. “No beatniks for his daughter,” writes Hamalian. “He wanted Mary to attend Radcliffe and marry a Harvard man.”

Mary’s return to Scott Street led to the arrival of Carol Tinker, who served as secretary to Rexroth and caretaker to Mary. Tinker became Rexroth’s fourth, and last wife. In late 1966, Kenneth, Mary, and Carol embarked on a round-the-world tour. By this time, Mary was an accomplished dancer, and would continue to study ballet on their return to San Francisco.

Her dance studies led her to earn money belly-dancing. And in the early seventies, she starred in several triple-X films, and posed for the Playboy article, “The Porno Girls,” (October 1971) which portrayed porn stars as “the girl next door.” As recently as a year ago, you could still purchase a couple of her films over the Internet. You probably still can. (That’s capitalism for you: You can’t get DVDs of a classic 1970s TV series like “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” but “classic” porn from the same era is readily available.)

Does the line in Brown’s song, “I can’t believe your hands and mouth did all that to me/And they are so daily naked for all the world to see,” refer to Mary’s stint in the skin trade? Possibly. But since most American women don’t wear gloves and a veil, the reference could be a simple juxtaposition of the private and public.

She was married to John McBride at the time of Kenneth’s death in 1982, but was no longer married to him when Hamalian’s book came out.

Brown won’t say whether “Rexroth’s Daughter” actually refers to Mariana Rexroth. So we can only speculate. I’ve wondered whether he might be referring to Jack Kerouac’s daughter Jan, who did a lot of wandering in her too-short and troubled life. But “Kerouac’s daughter” just doesn’t work with the meter

A few years ago, I looked for Rexroth’s daughter. I found her, or at least I think I did. I was working on an article about Rexroth in Indiana--something which I’ve put aside because of my moves to Philadelphia and Bloomington-Normal. She was adult education coordinator at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. (Kenneth Rexroth had been an Anglo-Catholic for most of his adulthood, but converted to Roman Catholicism near the end of his life.) I sent her an e-mail, asking her for any anecdotes her father had told her about life in South Bend and Elkhart. I didn’t get a reply. I’m sure she’s deluged with requests, both literary and otherwise.

Kenneth Rexroth wrote a number of poems to and about Mary. My favorite is “Halley’s Comet,” because I can imagine four-year-old Kenneth, in the duplex on West Marion Street in Elkhart, watching the spectacle:


When in your middle years
The great comet comes again
Remember me, a child,
Awake in the summer night,
Standing in my crib and
Watching that long-haired star
So many years ago.
Go out in the dark and see
Its plume over water
Dribbling on the liquid night,
And think that life and glory
Flickered on the rushing
Bloodstream for me once,
and for
All who have gone before me,
Vessels of the billion-year-long
River that flows now in your veins.

Kenneth Rexroth, "The Lights in the Sky are Stars",
from In Defense of the Earth (1956)

Friday, November 03, 2006

"May we always remember"--a historical view of Half of a Yellow Sun

“May we always remember,” writes novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at the end her Author’s Note, which she places at the end of her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Thus it’s her last word in the book, and it tells us her reason for writing it. Adichie, who was born in 1977, a decade after the birth of Biafra, was profoundly affected by that short-lived republic and its war with Nigeria, from which it seceded. Both of her grandfathers died in the conflict. An uncle fought with the Biafran Commandos.

Here in America, most of us have forgotten. In Iowa City, where I lived for most of that time, I remember expressions of support for the Biafrans, especially after former Writers’ Workshop instructors Verlin Cassill and Kurt Vonnegut, jr. appeared on national television (I believe it was on the Dick Cavett Show), to ask for aid to the Biafran refugees. But the plight of Biafra was dwarfed by the issue of the Vietnam war, the American civil rights movement, and the “Dump Johnson/Dump Nixon” campaigns.

The book’s title refers to the Biafran flag, which features a rising sun. It centers on twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene Ozobia, daughters of a wealthy Igbo chief. The beautiful Olanna takes a position at Nsukka University to be with her idealistic lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, who calls herself “the ugly daughter,” manages her family’s business in Port Harcourt and takes Richard Churchill, a shy English journalist, as her lover. Churchill takes up the cause of Biafra with all the zeal of a convert. A fifth main character, Ugwu, whom we first meet as a thirteen-year-old, comes from a rural village to become Odenigbo’s houseboy, and forms an important strand in the narrative--though we don’t know how important until the very end of the book.

Adichie assumes her readers have a basic understanding of Nigerian history and geography. While one can appreciate the book without it, it was important for me to do some reading on the history. A map and a timeline would be helpful to the book.

Nigeria was an artificial construct--a creation of the British Niger River Trading Company, whose status as a British colony was ratified by the Treaty of Berlin in 1884. Ken Wiwe summarizes the colonial-and post-colonial situation in his book, In the Shadow of a Saint (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2001):

“Behind Nigerians’ political desire for independence was an economic imperative--to take control of our resources from the colonialists. The British had kept the independence aspirations in check with good, old-fashioned divide and rule. So the majority ethnic groups--the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east--competed with each other for favors from the imperial master. After the British decided to sail with the winds of change that were sweeping through Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s (by granting us our independence), the majority ethnic groups, popularly known in Nigeria as Wazobia, carried on their pre-independence rivalry, competing with each other for control of economic privileges. The three major ethnic groups contrived to make nonsense of the pre-independence dream of Nigeria as a federation of multi-ethnic nations united for the commonwealth of all its peoples.”

Wiwa is Ogoni--one of the many ethnic groups outside the Wazobia. Adichie is Igbo, and her novel is very much from the Igbo point of view. (Note: Many sources use the spelling Ibo, including Microsoft Works, which puts a little red squiggly-mark under Igbo, but not Ibo. When I heard Adichie use the word, on the Diane Rehm Show, it sounded to my American ears like Ibo. I suspect the problem is one of trying to render an African language into the Roman alphabet.). The Igbo are sometimes known as “The Jews of Africa,” for their entrepreneurial success. But like the Jews of Europe, they were resented.

The following summary of the Biafran war owes much to John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: Knopf, 1998):

The Igbo felt they were coming off third-best in the competition. On January 15, 1966, a group of army majors attempted a coup. In Lagos, then the capital, they seized and executed the federal prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Chief Akintola, premier of the Western region, was killed in a gun battle. And the rebels killed the Sardauna of Sokoto, premier of the northern region, at his residence.

The army commander, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, took control of the situation, accepted the surrender of the conspirators, and assumed power. But he did nothing to assuage the fears of the northerners and westerners, who perceived an Igbo takeover. Ironsi went on to declare a the end of the federation, and imposed a new constitution.

In the north, anti-government demonstrations resulted in the deaths of several hundred Igbos. Ironsi tried to assure northerners that no constitutional changes would be made without consultation, but his assurances were too late.

A counter-coup led by northern officers took place in late July. Ironsi was captured, flogged, and executed, and many eastern officers were killed. Another round of killings in the north targeted thousands of Igbo living in the north. Adichie portrays the horror of the massacre through Olanna, who has gone to the northern city of Kano to visit Mohammed, a onetime fiancee. Only because of Mohammed’s protection is Olanna able to escape the slaughter. But she witnesses the gruesome aftermath. Richard, arriving at the Kano airport from London, meets a charming young Igbo man, only to see him gunned down by Nigerian soldiers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, considered a moderate Northerner, emerged as the new leader. Gowon, with the support of the northern and western regions, reestablished the federation. But the Easterners, reeling from the massacres, were unsatisfied. In Adichie’s book, Gowan is accused of reneging on a promise to make Nigeria a confederation at a conference in Aburi, Ghana at the beginning of 1967. Most likely, there was a difference in interpretation. Toyin Falola, in The History of Nigeria (Westport, Coonecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999) that “Gowon thought there would be a weak federation while Ojukwu assumed the country would become a confederation…” In any case, Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern Region, declared the eastern region to be virtually autonomous on March 30, 1967.

By May 30, Ojukwu declared the independent state of Biafra. At first, people in the new republic believed Nigeria would allow them to leave peacefully. But as Kanene says to Richard, when he expresses surprise that the Nigerian government had declared a "police action against the Biafrans, "It's the oil. They can't let us go that easily with all that oil."

Kainene, like people on both sides, believed the war would be brief. Instead, it went on for three years. Initially, it appeared the Biafrans would win. Israel gave them captured weapons from the Six-Day War. South Africa, Portugal, Rhodesia, and France gave them covert military assistance, as they all had reasons to fear a strong Nigeria. A few countries--Haiti, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Tanzania--actually recognized Biafra. But the support was not enough for Biafra, which was facing a Nigerian army armed with new Soviet-made weapons. While the Biafrans continued to win some battles, Nigeria imposed a blockade around the country, and pushed the frontiers back. As the Nigerians advanced, civilian refugees fled into the remains of Biafra. Perhaps 2 million Biafrans died of starvation and disease.

In the end, Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, whild his vice priesident, Philip Efiong, was left to negotiate a peace with Nigeria. It was a generous settlement. Those who fought for Biafra were given amnesty. While the Biafrans who survived lost property and money, and there were some reprisals by soldiers, there was nothing like the mass killing which precipitated the secession. I suspect it was Efiong who made the radio address on Page 412 of the book. Efiong, in my mind, was one of the true heroes of Biafra. I wish Adichie had mentioned him.

Adichie acknowledges that she has "taken many liberties for the puposes of fiction; my intent is to portray my own imaginative truths and not he facts of the war." Still, her story does not deviate radically from the historical record. She did extensive historical research on the subject.

Wheh I heard Adichie on the Diane Rehm Show, I was amazed that there were so many expatriate Nigerians who called in--many of them who spoke fondly about Biafra. And there was one man who accused Adichie of trying to revive secessiionism. And there are organizations today which openly call for the restoration of Biafra.

But in spite of her sympathy for the Biafran cause, Adichie is a personal example of what Nigeria ought to be--in Ken Wiwa's words, "a federation of multi-etnic peoples united for the commonwealth of all its peoples." English, not Igbo, is her first language. One of the most sympathetic characters in her book is the northerner Mohammed, who saves Olanna. Witnessing the aftermath of the killings, he cries out, "Allah does not allow this. Allah will never forgive the people who made them do this. Allah will never forgive this."

Whether or not we forgive, we must always remember.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The "Pulley System" and Writer's Envy

I've been reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie along with other members of the Third Day Book Club, and I've had a case of writer's envy. Here's somebody a quarter century younger than I am, and she's writing better than I ever will. Worse than that, she's writing in a genre that I would most love to write well in: historical fiction.

The feeling reminded me of a Sydney J. Harris column in which he talks about the "pulley system" of evaluating people:

"On the pulley system, when we go up, someone else goes down, and we go down when somene else goes up. We have no inner stability, because our emotional position keeps shifting in relation to the outside world.

"If I meet a man who writes better than I do, this does not diminish my talents. I still have exactly what I had before, no more and no less. His own gifts do not devalue mine, nor do mine devalue somebody else's."

In our capitalistic world, it's hard not to evaluate ourselves and others accoring to the pulley system. But Harris is right. And I need to be reminded of that when I feel envious.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lincoln, Springfield, and Bloomington, or Geographical Illiteracy in Action

RecentlyI had a group of four come in off the 5 p.m. Trailways bus from Indianapolis, booked to Lincoln, Illinois on the 7:29 p.m. train. A woman from the party asked if there was an earlier train. I told her yes, but that the fare would be higher. They opted to wait for the later train. About half an hour later, she came back, saying she had told the reservation agent she wanted to go to Lincoln, Nebraska. It was one of the busiest times of the day, but it was Friday and there were two of us working the ticket counter. I called the Passenger Services desk in Chicago and talked to a supervisor, who agreed to put the group up in a hotel at Amtrak's expense. I gave them a Conductor Carry notice, which allowed them to ride the 6:11 p.m. train to Chicago. After the train left, I rebooked their reservation from Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska for the next day, and back from there to Indianapolis, and then priced it for the remaining value of their tickets.

Amtrak got them to the right Lincoln, but it would have been a lot easier if the reservation agent in Riverside, California had booked them to LNK instead of LCN. And it amazes me that the agent didn't wonder how a train could get from Normal, IL to Lincoln, NE in 30 minutes.

It's a given that millions of Americans are geographically illiterate. You have to work in the transportation business to find out just how ignorant some of us are--including some of us in the travel industry. When I worked for CIT Tours, the travel office of the Italian State Railways, a travel agent asked for oceanfront rooms in Paris and Rome. Regularly, people wanted to take a train from Italy to France. Asked what cities in Italy and France they wanted to travel from and to, such people were clueless.

Of course, the vast majority of Amtrak reservation agents know the difference between LCN and LNK, or LSV (Las Vegas, NM), LVS (Downtown Las Vegas, NV), and LAS (Las Vegas, NV Airport). But with Internet bookings, there are a lot more errors. While the station I work at is in Normal, IL (subject of endless jokes), it's actually called Bloomington-Normal (BNL). So about twice a year, someone shows up looking for Indiana University at Bloomington.

And just down the track from Bloomington and Lincoln is Springfield. It's no accident that the Simpsons live in Springfield. There's one in nearly every state. Perhaps because of the Simpsons, the Springfield, IL station rarely gets people looking for Massachusetts. On the other hand, I've fixed several reservations booked from Pontiac MI (PNT) instead of Pontiac, IL (PON).

I'm hoping to transfer out of BNL soon, to South Bend, IN. It's the only South Bend in the system. And the Amtrak city code is unforgettable: SOB.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Boiled Leaves, or Confessions of an American Misfit

I didn’t realize how far outside mainstream America I was until last February. And I’m not talking about politics. Approximately half the voting public was for Kerry in 2004--maybe more than half if there had been a clean count with no voter suppression in places like Ohio and Florida. I’m a little more left of center than the average Democrat, but not really out of the mainstream. No, I’m talking about that bitter brown liquid most Americans can’t live without.

I was working the early shift that February day. My supervisor, who had not yet met me, came up from St. Louis to check out the station and its relatively new employee. He brought two huge cups of coffee--one for him and one for me. I was a bit nervous at having the boss there for the first time, and I knew that drinking coffee would make me sick. I declined politely. (Even if I had been able to drink it, it would have gotten cold--it was a Friday morning, and the first train--No. 300, the State House to Chicago, was busy.) I got everyone ticketed, and we went out to meet the train. The lounge car attendant had two cups of coffee for us.

There was a slow time between the two trains when I did the station sales report from the previous day. Then it was time for No. 303, the Ann Rutledge, to St. Louis and Kansas City. And the lounge car attendant gave us--you guessed it--two more cups of coffee. I didn’t normally work the early shift on Friday, so the attendants weren’t expecting the only non-coffee drinker in the district to be on duty. (Since then, one very nice attendant has brought me tea.)

I made a pretty good impression on my boss that day, in spite of turning down the coffee. But ever since then I’ve been aware of just how weird I am for not drinking the stuff. I drink a lot of tea--most of it iced, but some hot. And now Patry Francis, the writer and waitress whose blog, simply wait, is home to some of the most elegant prose on the web, has declared the tea drinker to be the bane of the waitress’s life. That blow was softened a little by the fact that many of simply wait’s regular readers, along with Patry herself, drink what Douglas Adams called “boiled leaves.”

While I drink a lot of tea, my favorite morning beverage is chocolate. For health and financial reasons I usually drink artificially-sweetened powdered cocoa, but if I could, I’d drink real hot chocolate. I still dream about the chocolate I had at the Bernini-Bristol Hotel in Rome, where the waiter brought a pitcher of thick, unsweetened chocolate and another of hot milk, which you mixed and sweetened to taste.

If I lived in Britain, or Sri Lanka, or China, where tea is the beverage of choice, I wouldn’t be such a misfit. But I live in America, where most people assume that all adults drink coffee. Maybe the American addiction to coffee dates back to the Boston Tea Party and the tea boycott. Or perhaps it was the Civil War, when Union troops received coffee as part of their rations. (The cigarettes in military rations certainly got a lot of Americans hooked on tobacco.)

I suppose we non-coffee drinkers could get together in support groups, declare ourselves an official minority, and demand the right to order tea without getting rolled eyes or dirty looks. We could picket outside Starbuck’s and spread stories about the dangers of coffee. Tea and chocolate drinkers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your (stomach) pains! But we won’t. We’re pretty mild-mannered. After all, we’re not jittery from too much coffee. We don’t want to ban coffee, or even make it unfashionable. But it would be nice if people who provide beverages--waitresses, well-meaning bosses, lounge car attendants, hotel managers, etc., realized that not all of us drink coffee.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Huckleberry Queen and her Legend

While digging through the files from my days compiling "The Way We Were," (see previous post), I came across this article from the September 23, 1902 Elkhart Truth, by way of the La Porte (IN) Argus-Bulletin, headlined, "Once Famous Huckleberry Queen Is Dying:"

"The 'Huckleberry Queen,' a woman once famous throughout this section of the country, whose reckless will reigned supreme over a motley horde of criminals, is dying in a hut near Valparaiso.
"There is not a resident of northern Indiana who does not remember the existence of the strange aggregation of criminals that constituted a unique and terrible colony which was accustomed to assemble for three months of each year as regularly as the summer season rolled around in the center of the stretch of wild marsh country near the town of Walkerton, which forms the huckleberry regions of that section of Indiana. Who they were, whence they came, what they did during the remaining nine months of the year--these things the outside world has never learned. It was not safe for outsiders to venture into the marshes during the months 'Huckleberry Queen' held her court. The temporary colony was a band of reckless, daring criminals. They held the law in mockery and placed no higher value on an officer's life than the brass on his buttons. Hardly a crime existed but what was of daily occurrences within the swampy domains of the 'Huckleberry Queen.' The law was laughed at and openly defied."

I did a Google search on the Huckleberry Queen and found this site from the Starke county Historical Society. (Scroll down until you get to the Huckleberry Queen link.) She doesn't appear to be the head of a criminal gang, but a strong-minded woman who didn't hide her sexuality. She could be violent when drunk. There appears to be no record of her killing anyone.

But in the late nineteenth century she must have been shocking. By 1902 she was proclaimed the head of a ruthless criminal gang. Both the legend and the real woman would make great characters in a novel or movie.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Perils of "What Happened Here" Journalism

From December 2001 until late 2003, I edited a column called “The Way We Were” in the Elkhart Truth. It involved going through issues of the paper from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago, finding interesting stories, and condensing them into a few sentences. Most of the stories were local, though I did include major national and international stories, such as Lindbergh’s flight in 1927 and Stalin’s death in 1953. I tried to include sports and society news along with hard news. And I avoided stories that might embarrass people still living. For me, that meant being careful about the 25 and 50 years ago entries. What happened 75 or 100 years ago, I figured, wouldn’t upset anyone. I found out I was wrong.

Right before Christmas, 2002, I received two letters about my column. The first, from Charlene Potterbaum, was a sweet note from a gracious woman, in response to this December 11 item:

“In 1977: Charlene Potterbaum has the ability to laugh at herself, and she knows how to share the laughter with others. Her new book, ‘Thanks, Lord, I needed That!’ has hit both the humor and religious sections of the bookstores, a rare feat for any work. The Walden Book Store refers to her as ‘the religious Erma Bombeck.’”

But the other letter was scathing: “Dr. G. [I’ll omit the name] made a mistake when he was young but paid his dues. My brother called me about the article and thought it was in poor taste. He [Dr. G.] was my father-in-law and my son’s grandfather. The older generation all know about it and the younger couldn’t care less, In the name of God, let him rest in peace.”

Here’s the December 19, 2002 entry she was referring to:

“In 1902: Dr. H. G. was brought into court at Goshen this morning to be arraigned on the charge of shooting Miss L. B. with intent to commit murder. He pleaded not guilty when the indictment had been read to him. His bond was fixed at $1,500.”

It was a pretty sordid affair. Dr. G., who had been rejected by Miss B., shot her twice with a revolver. Luckily for both the doctor and his victim, L. B. survived. Dr. G. was convicted in January, 1903, and received a sentence of two to fourteen years in the state reformatory. In a bizarre postscript to the affair, Miss B. said Dr. G.’s sentence was too harsh and pleaded for an early reprieve.

Obviously Dr. G. not only got out of prison, but married, had a son, and stayed in Elkhart. I didn’t print any more stories about the case. But it never ceased to amaze me that a 100-year old story was the only one that got a negative comment. Especially considering the 1927 entry on that same day:

“In 1927: BENTON HARBOR, Mich., (AP)--Benjamin Purnell, ’king’ of the House of David, is dead. He died at 11:30 last Friday morning, and today, the third day after his death, the body still lay in the bed where he died. Colony officials, believing in the teachings of Purnell that the faithful could not die, have refrained from summoning an undertaker…”

Sometime I’d like to do more research about the House of David colony. It was a multiracial, even international cult based in Benton Harbor. Purnell really did die, and his followers finally buried him. (The 1929 date of death in the Wikipedia link conflicts with the AP story.) And the colony is still around. People from the House of David used to solicit donations in front of my local Kroger store in Elkhart. But my December 19, 1927 entry, along with earlier entries about the sex scandal concerning Purnell, provoked no response from the House of David. Go figure.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Us and Them

I've been attending Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington. Although I'm an Episcopalian, the Episcopal churches here don't have evening services, and I work Sunday mornings. The big Art Deco-Gothic church is within walking distance and has a Saturday afternoon vigil mass. I started going during Lent, but have kept going in large part because of the Father Doug Hennessy. If he were Pope, I'd convert. I was reminded of one of Fr. Doug's sermons when I received a forwarded e-mail from a cousin by marriage. It showed pictures of a demonstration in London by a group of Muslim extremists. The demonstrators carried signs reading "Behead Those Who Insult Islam," "Europe, You Will Pay, 9/11 is on its Way," and the like. Underneath the pictures was the following:

"Why would anyone think that we should be at war with such nice, peaceful Moslems?! Americans need to Know - You need to forward this one to everyone in your address book!"

On Saturday, September 9, Fr. Doug talked about 9/11. The people who crashed the planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he said, were people who viewed the world as Us and Them. Sadly, he continued, we responded by seeing people in terms of Us vs. Them. But that is not the Christian way to see humanity. Christ told us even to love our enemies.

The e-mail which portrays all Muslims as terrorists is totally at odds with Christianity. Even George W. Bush distinguished between the terrorists of 9/11 and the vast majority of Muslims.

Seeing people as Us and Them leads to seeing Them an less than human, and often to expanding the category of Them to an entire group. It's a simple solution to a complex problem. And as H.L. Mencken said, "For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Hoosiers

Last week, National Public Radio aired a segment about the privatization of highways--specifically the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road. Republican Governor Mitch Daniels bullied his 75-year lease of the Toll Road through the GOP legislature, just as he pushed Daylight Savings time through earlier. (Indiana is split between the Central and Eastern time zones. Until this year, most of Indiana stayed on Eastern Standard time, so that we'd be on the same time as Chicago and western Indiana for seven months of the year. Now people in South Bend get 10 p.m. sunsets in June.)

NPR correctly stated that many opponents of Toll Road privatization were from northern Indiana, although there was quite a bit of opposition statewide. ("Ditch Mitch" and "Pitch Mitch" bumper stickers abound.) But many of us in north see it a transfer of wealth from northern Indiana to Hoosierland. (Yes, some of the northern counties are getting a sop from the deal, but it's a pittance to what will go to the central and southern part of the state--especially Marion County, home of Indianapolis.)

Northern Indianans, especially those of us in the tier of counties bordering Michigan, are often uncomfortable with the label "Hoosier." Nobody really knows the origin of the term, but the most plausible explanation is that of historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who traced it to the word "hoozer," from the Cumberland dialect of English. It means anything big, and was often applied to mountains and hills. (The root of "hoozer" is the Anglo-Saxon "hoo," meaning hill.) Thus, Hoosiers are hill people. And it explains the lower-case meaning of the word--an uncouth rustic--which prompted then-Senator Dan Quayle's battle with Merriam-Webster.

Most of northern Indiana is pretty flat. We're not hill folks, at least not literally. Nobody likes to be called a hillbilly. But educated, urbane folks from Indianapolis and Bloomington proudly call themselves Hoosiers, while a lot of us northerners wince at the term.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with transportation. For the most part, the major highway and rail routes lead to Chicago, rather than to the south. Because of that, we go to the Chicago museums, root for the Cubs, Sox, Bulls, and Bears, and make our shopping excursions to Marshall Field's (now, sadly, Macy's). It's just not that easy to get to Indianapolis.

But you really know you're a northern Indianan if you watch the movie Hoosiers and find yourself rooting for South Bend Central. The Hickory High School team of the movie was based on the Milan (rhymes with smilin') High School team of 1954, which beat Muncie Central for the state boys' basketball championship. Milan had actually lost the championship to South Bend Central the previous year. But the filmmakers decided on South Bend Central--an urban, racially integrated team--as white, rural Hickory's opponent. If you're from Muncie, you're a Hoosier, even if you're a professor at Ball State. But South Bend, a city which would be in Michigan had Congress not taken ten miles from Michigan Territory to give Indiana a port on Lake Michigan, isn't really Hoosier. (The border shift is why Michigan City is in Indiana.)

One thing Mitch Daniels says he's going to do with all that cash he got for leasing out the Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium, is to upgrade U.S. 31 from South Bend to Indianapolis. Perhaps his secret plan is to try to make us northerners into Hoosiers.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A time of hope as well as madness

It was the spring of 1973 when I knew the Sixties were over. I was in Kathleen's dorm room late one night when we heard crowd noises outside. "Panty raids," she said. Only a year before, those sounds would have meant an antiwar demonstration. But now that the Vietnam war was over, at least for American combat troops, the mindless college antics of the Fifites had returned. While it didn't dawn on me at the time, I would not have be spending the night in my fiancee's dorm room in the Sixties, when parietal rules were strict and strictly enforced.

What are we to make of the Seventies? Tom Wolfe called it the "Me Decade." Many popular historians see it as just a transition between the Sixties and the Eighties.

In his new book, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, historian Andreas Killen sees the decade as one of national paranoia. The book's final chapter is titled "Conspiracy Nation." An epilogue about the Patricia Hearst kidnapping follows.

Killen focuses on 1973 as the pivotal year of the decade--the year of Roe v. Wade and the Arab oil embargo. Yet he discusses these subjects only in passing. Instead, he focuses on the PBS series, An American Family, Andy Warhol, the returning prisoners of war, the New York Dolls, cults and deprograming, the films American Graffiti and Badlands, airline hijackings, and the novels Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong and Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. One chapter focuses on Watergate, primarily to further Killen's argument for the "Conspiracy Nation." Killen devotes more space to the Comet Kohoutek than to the energy crisis. Remember Kohoutek? It was supposed to provide a spectacular light show between Christmas, 1973 and New Year's 1974. Some religious cultists thought it would usher in the Second Coming. In fact, it was barely visible to the naked eye.

I'll admit that my experience of 1973 is not an unbiased one. Kathleen and I were married August 1 of that year. I was young, idealistic, and completely in love. We went to Washington, D.C. on our honeymoon (on the train, of course). I had worked for Dick Clark (not the Bandstand guy, but the Iowa senator) the previous summer, so we had no problem gettiing to see Congress at work. We got to see the representatives lounging about the House floor, drinking bottles of soda while Gerald Ford was arguing that strikerr didn't deserve food stamps. We skipped waiting for hours in the Capitol basement to see the Watergate hearings for half an hour. It was more important to see the National Gallery.

I didn't watch An American Family. It seemed too voyeuristic. I didn't want to watch a marriage and family fall apart. I saw American Graffiti years later. Ditto for Fear of Flying. I had never heard of the New York Dolls, and I've never read Gravity's Rainbow. I haven't ever seen The Exorcist. So when it comes to 1973 cutlure, I'm definitely deprived.

But I remember it as a time of hope--a hope that America's madness was coming to an end. The Watergate hearings were exposing Nixon and his aides for the criminals they were. The Arab oil embargo made Americans reconsider their lifestyle. People began trading in their gas-guzzlers for small cars. Mass transit systems stopped shrinking and somtimes even expanded. When the Nixon Administration proposed to slash the Amtrak system, Congress said no.

By 1974 there was a liberal Democratic majority in Congress. Yes, America went back to its madness late in the decade. By 1980, conservation was out and waste was back in. President-elect Ronald Reagan called the Vietnam War a "noble cause."

But during 1973 and 1974 there was hope for a sane America. I was reminded of that hope last week, when Ned Lamont defeated Joe Lieberman in Connecticut. Once again, some Americans are rethinking the status quo. Perhaps this time, we can overcome the waste, corruption, war, and, well, madness which dominates American government.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

An occurrence at Rehm Park

Oak Park, Illinois was in the news recently. The village (yes, this city of 60,000 is, by law, a village) authorities managed to prevent a Lane Bryant store from opening in trendy shopping area at Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue. The story was featured on the Today show some weeks ago with all the righteous indignation that upscale New Yorkers could manage.

Kathleen and I lived in Oak Park for eight years--from 1981 to 1989. We didn't live in the trendy part of town, but in the apartment corridor of Washington Boulevard. Two of our three children were born there. (Our daughter Sarah was born at West Suburban hospital about the time Alice Cooper's daughter Calico was born there. Cooper's father-in-law was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Oak Park. Honest. We never saw Cooper, though.)

In the late spring of 1989, Anne and Sarah were five and four years old respectively, and Kathleen was pregnant with our son James. As often as I could, I'd take the girls to a park so Kathleen could get some well-deserved rest. My favorite place was Rehm Park. It had a conservatory which had some amazing plants, incluting a century plant which had bloomed that winter. (It's called a century plant because that's how often it blooms.) There was a a little railroad in the park-very narrow guage--on which children could ride on handcars. And there was a large sandbox, which the girls liked more than all the other attractions.

I was at the sandbox one day when a young woman struck up a conversation with me. She had three small children with her. Kathleen and I were reading a lot of detective fiction in those days, and I may have had a Rex Stout book with me. In a few minutes we were having a fascinating discussion of the mystery genre--of Stout, Doyle, Christie, Sayers, and others. She was too young to remember the television series, "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes," but she said her father had talked about it. I told her about Max Carrados, the blind detective, and Dr. Thorndyke, the detective who held both law and medical degrees. I don't know how long we talked. There was nothing remotely sexual in this interchange--neither of our spouses had anything to worry about. It was just some intelligent conversation, and I wondered whether she was starved for it.

Kathleen had actually met this woman I'll call Rachel, at Rehm Park, and had a similar conversation about fictional detectives. A couple Kathleen had met through a preschool knew Rachel. They loved Rachel, but couldn't stand her husband. He was a lawyer, and apparently fulfilled all the stereotypes of the lawyer jokes. They were reluctant to have a get-together because Rachel's husband was just too unbearable.

In August of 1989, I accepted an offer to be Amtrak ticket agent in Elkhart, Indiana. Over the years we've lost track of our Oak Park friends. But I still think about Rachel, and our conversation in the sandbox. I hope that her husband has proved worthy of her, and that she's been privy to more intelligent conversation.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Sex and the Singular Church

I've been an Episcopalian since 1978, when I was baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City. The following spring, on Trinity Sunday, Bishop Walter Righter confirmed me. I hadn't met the good bishop before, but he made a positive impression. His staff was an ordinary wooden shepherd's crook, which had come from a shepherd's supply store in Virgina. He told a little story about a girl who had gone to church by herself, and then returned home. Her parents asked her about church, and she said, "The bishop visited, and I learned what a crook is." I couldn't help but like the man after hearing that line.

In the fall of 1990, Bishop Righter's name showed up in the news. He was no longer Bishop of Iowa, but Assistant Bishop of Newark. And he had ordained a gay man, living in a comitted relationship with another man, to the diaconate. A few years later, Bishop Righter was accused of heresy and put on trial. In a decision that shocked Episcopalians, the church court ruled that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.

In the last thirty years or so, whenever the Episcopal Church is in the news, the headlines are usually about sex. Not necessarily what fantasy writer Terry Pratchett calls the "athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two" sense of the word, but what people now call "gender" and "sexual orientation." First it was women's ordination, then the ordination of gays and lesbians. And while this isn't a debate on the nature of Christ or the Trinity, or any of the more traditional reasons to divide Christians, the controversy over the ordination of gays and lesbians seems more likely to divide both the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion than anything else.

Of course, the ordination of women was supposed to split the church, and it did, sort of. A group calling itself the Anglican Church of North America did break off over women's ordination, and it split again over other issues. The ACNA and its successors never managed to achieve the great scism they anticipated. The Antiochian Orthodox Church tried to lure conservative priests away from the Episcopalians. (In the town of Goshen, Indiana, the priest of the very conservative and Anglo-Catholic St. James Church converted to Orthodoxy, splitting the parish and leaving many bitter feelings. ) The Roman Catholics even offered to accept married Episcopal priests into the Latin Rite. In other words, they bent their own celibacy rules in order to accept priests who agreed with them about the ordination of women. (Eastern Rite Catholic churches have always had married priests, so Rome's celibacy rule was never universal.) Neither church effort was very successful.

While the Episcopal Church lost a few members over women's ordination, it was in line with the membership losses for most mainline Protestant churches. And it did not split the worldwide Anglican Communion.

This time, the chances of a schism look much higher. There's just too much enthusiasm for a split on both sides. If the split comes, I will go with Walter Righter and those who support the ordination of gays and lesbians, but I won't do so with any joy. The Anglican Church has sought the "middle way" since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Then it was a dispute between the Catholic and Protestant wings of the Church. The compromise was to have a very Catholic service (though with a lot of penitential language included, such as "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.") and a very Protestant, even Calvinistic Thirty-Nine Articles. In the Episcopal Church, the Articles are now considered historical documents, which reflects the ascendancy of Anglo-Catholicism in the American church.

Over the centuries, the Church has avoided major schism by following the middle way of compromise and inclusion. I hope and pray that such a compromise can happen now.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Confessions of a Christmas-and-Easter Episcopalian

Note--this post is a reworking of an article I wrote for the South Bend Tribune three years ago. I'll follow it with a post about the recent General Convention in Columbus and relations with worldwide Anglicanism.

For the last year I've been very much a marginal Episcopalian--a "Christmas and Easter man." I work the swing shift at the Amtrak ticket office in Normal Illinois--midday on Friday, mornings on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday and Tuesday evenings. And the Episcopal churches in Bloomington and Normal don't have evening services, except for Christmas and Easter. When I do attend church, it's usually at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, which is within walking distance of my apartment, and offers a Saturday afternoon vigil mass.

When I became an Episcopalian more than a quarter century ago, I was very much an active parishioner. I have served as an acolyte, a lector, and as a member of the vestry (that’s Episcopal for church council—traditionally it met in the room where the liturgical garments, or vestments, were kept).

I had all the enthusiasm of a convert, which I was. The Episcopal Church was within the Catholic tradition, but was also open to change. Every three years, the church holds a general convention, in which representatives of the laity and clergy meet to decide the issues of the national church.
In 1976, three years before my confirmation into the church, the General Convention, meeting in Minneapolis, approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and introduced a new Book of Common Prayer. The fact that it had been willing to make such momentous decisions attracted me to the denomination.

The church went out of its way to accommodate those who could not accept the church’s decision. Bishops who would not ordain women did not have to, so long as they allowed a neighboring bishop to perform the ceremony. The new Book of Common Prayer introduced services in modern English, but gave congregations the option of using the traditional Prayer Book language, such as the following:

“Hear what the Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

That brief, elegant summation of a Christian’s duty can be found only in the older, (Rite I) version of the Eucharistic liturgy. Had the church refused to compromise with conservatives, we would have lost it as a part of the service.

Three years ago, the General Convention met again in Minneapolis, and made two controversial decisions. It voted to confirm the selection of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire. And it agreed to permit American dioceses to continue offering blessings for same-sex unions.

Many Episcopalians, including Bishop Edward Stuart Little of South Bend, were and are adamantly opposed to the convention’s decision. I believe the convention made the right decision. Bishop Little and his allies are sincere and decent Christians, with whom I disagree on this issue. I supported the decision largely from personal experience. When I worked at Amtrak's Chicago call center, many of my co-workers were gay or lesbian, and I had come to respect them. I believe that same-sex partners are entitled to a legal recognition of their partnership, and that a church blessing of such a commitment is appropriate. Sexual orientation, at least according to the most recent science, appears to be determined more by genetics than environment.

I also spent eight years in the Diocese of Chicago, where gay priests were almost the norm, and where there had been at least one gay bishop. Not openly gay, of course. And that was the problem. There was an environment of hypocrisy and deceit which was, to put it mildly, unhealthy for a Christian church. Priests, who were often married and with children, carried on affairs with gay lovers, to the detriment of both their ministry and their families.

“Were there no legislative items on the table in Minneapolis,” wrote Bishop Little in a “pastoral word” explaining his vote against Robinson’s confirmation and the blessing of same-sex unions, “I could easily maintain a holy silence as I walk the pilgrim’s journey with gay and lesbian Christians, allowing God to sort things out in his own wondrously surprising way.”
Bishop Little is a man I admire and respect. But a “holy silence,” maintained by people without the integrity of an Edward Stuart Little, can degenerate into “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

And it’s just possible that God is sorting things out “in his own wondrously surprising way” in the wake of the General Convention. Bishop-elect Robinson, interviewed after his return to New Hampshire, said that he “had any number of people come up to me and say, my son or daughter is going back to church for the first time in years.”

Saturday, June 24, 2006

"The past is a foreign country"

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," wrote British novelist L.P. Hartley. It seems obvious enough when that past is centuries ago. But when it is within our memory, the past can also be foreign. In fact, Hartley's novel, The Go-Between, which begins with that memorable sentence, is written in the form of a reminiscence.

Last year I entered the White Wolf Novel contest with an idea for a vampire novel set in part in the Chicago of August, 1968. It didn't make the first cut, but the idea of a fantasy/time-travel novel involving those interesting times stayed with me. And it was better without the vampires or White Wolf's World of Darkness setting. So I've been doing a lot of reading about the 1968 Democratic Convention. I was 16 years old in 1968, and I followed the news very closely. Still, I'm dealing with a foreign country. Take the first paragraph of the Chicago Tribune's August 25, 1968 lead editorial:

"It will probably occasion little surprise among readers that in his former days around the family drug store in Huron, S.D., Hubert Horatio Humphrey was known to the clientele as Pinkie. But if the readers jump to the logical conclusion that this appellation had something to do with Hubert's political coloration, which is socialist, radical, and left-wing, if not precisely Red, they will be wrong. The tag was hung on him simply because of his complexion."

That's what the Trib thought of Humphrey--the Establishment candidate. Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern didn't fare any better. While Gene McCarthy was pursuing his noble campaign, the spirit of Joe McCarthy seemed to prevail in the Tribune. More precisely, it was the spirit of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, longtime publisher of the Tribune, who died in 1955. Along with McCormick's right-wing politics, the paper was still promoting his spelling reform--cigaret, thru, tho. I don't know if it still used "frater," for freighter, but it spelled aides "aids," though that would not have meant anything to the 1968 audience. While the paper's editors heaped praise on Nixon and Agnew, they defended Democrat Richard Daley's use of the police to beat "hippies," though they did express objection to the clubbing of Tribune reporters.

I've been listening to oldies radio stations recently. They present the 1960s nostalgically, as though it was some halcyon era. There was great beauty, incredible creativity, and the kind of idealism which may just be blooming in some of today's college students. But at the same time there was the madness of 1968. Writer Jules Witcover called it "The Year the Dream Died." Two assassinations, riots in virtually every major city, the brutality in Chicago, the triumph of Richard Nixon, and behind it all, blatant racism and a shameful American war. While I've heard the oldies stations play Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," about the 1967 Sunset Strip riots, I have yet to hear "Universal Soldier" or "Eve of Destruction," or even the Stones' "Street Fighting Man," which was banned from Chicago radio stations during the '68 convention. Just as Clear Channel and other media giants wouldn't play anti-Iraq war songs (or even the Dixie Chicks), they don't want to remind people of an earlier illegal, immoral war.

And there was a spirit of confrontation which seems almost alien to present times. An excerpt from Paul Schultz's No One Was Killed provides a good example:

"There were a series of confrontations inside the Convention and outside it. The challenger could either turn away from the impending confrontation and hope the gesture would bring about a desired response, depending on the good will of cops and politicians, and it never did, or they could go smack into the confrontation. Every time a confrontation was avoided, in the Convention or on the streets, the challenger, on the terms of his own aspirations, made a mistake. (Emphasis in original, pp. 36-7)

"In another time, another situation, possibly even another convention, this might not be the case. But here in Chicago all the cells of good will and common sense were turned off in The Pig."
And what was "The Pig?" Schultz again:

"The Yippies were running a pig for president, and the cops were pigs, and the politicians were pigs, and the Pig was a proliferating force and growth in the mind and the soul and in the society. Like cancer in the way it grows, the Pig sickens and hardens all cells of common sense, compassion, responsibility and sense of consequence, and turns them to greedy, self-protective, oppressive ends." (p. 34)

A foreign country indeed. If I can re-create the moods, atttitudes, and events of August, 1968, in some (not all) of their complexities, it will be worth the effort.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Coover's Cockroaches and the Power of a Single Incident

I've never read anything by Robert Coover. From what I understand, he's a fine writer. But whenever I think of Coover, I think of cockroaches. In the fall of 1966, I was living with my mother and younger brother on Hudson Street in Iowa City. My parents had divorced the previous year, and my mother was working as an instructor at Iowa while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts. We weren't financially well-off. Hudson Street, which lay right under the flight path of the Iowa City Airport, was an inexpensive place to live, and seemed to attract single parents. The ex-wife of poet W.D Snodgrass and their daughter lived right across the street. For some reason, our rented house either had no stove, or the existing stove no longer worked. The landlord told my mother to buy a used stove, and she'd be reimbursed.

Robert Coover, a visiting faculty member at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, had a stove for sale. I remember that it was a Roper--a brand I had never heard of before. One Saturday he came by with the stove He seemed like a nice guy. My mom bought the stove.

Several days later, we began seeing cockroaches in the kitchen. Hundreds of them. It couldn't have been a coincidence. Robert Coover had sold us a stove with a major roach infestation. To be fair, it's possible Coover didn't realize the stove was full of roach eggs. But because of that one incident, Coover and cockroaches will always be linked in my mind.

Fast forward to the fall of 2002. My daughter Sarah is a senior at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She's at the student health office to get her medications. An attractive, dark-haired woman comes in from the outside. She's left her rented SUV running while she takes care of her daughter's medications. She's very demanding, and expects special treatment. Because she is Demi Moore, she gets it. Her daughter, Rumer Willis, is a freshman. (She's not at Interlochen now, i.e, 2006). Just about everyone has an opinion of Demi Moore. (When Kathleen saw the cover of Cigar Aficianado showing Moore with a cigar and headlined something like "Demi Moore's secret," she said, "Demi Moore has no secrets.") But for Sarah, Demi Moore will always be the pushy woman who fouled the pristine Michigan air with exhaust fumes.

Another fast-forward, to May, 2003. We're back at Interlochen for Sarah's graduation. Bruce Willis, Rumer's father, is there. I'm prepared to dislike him His movies were mostly violent ones. More important, he had been a vocal supporter of the American invasion of Iraq. Virtually no Interlochen student (including Rumer) supportes the war. But for all that I dislike about him, he's far more likeable than his ex-wife. Sarah's roommate, who wears socks with images from Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, says Willis complimented her on her socks. Later we see him at the Melody Freeze (the school's ice cream stand), standing in line with everyone else. No pushing, no asserting his privileges--just another parent. At commencement, when the valedictorian makes a strong antiwar statement, he applauds with everyone else (maybe a little too loudly, but I'll forgive that). And when he has to leave early, he does so as unobtrusively as possible.

Single incidents, like first impressions, are sometimes unfair. But they do have staying power.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Radio Days

In the 1960s the closest thing to surfing the Internet was tuning the radio. There was television, of course, but in eastern Iowa before the advent of public broadcasting, the options were pretty limited. But radio, especially in the late-night hours, had so many possibilities. Clear Channel didn't mean a corporation with a near-monopoly on broadcasting, but certain AM radio stations which were allowed to broadcast at the maximum 50,000 watts.

I had a transistor radio which could pick up AM, FM, and short wave. The short wave was fun, but had a limited range. I could pick up the Voice of America and Radio Havana. Radio Havana would tell of every U.S. helicopter the National Liberation Force shot down. If they weren't exaggerating, it made me wonder whether helicopters were just too vulnerable. Voice of America, on the other hand, celebrated every U.S. victory and multiplied the enemy body count to the point that I wondered how there could be any Vietnamese left. It's interesting to hear propaganda for a while, but it gets tiresome.

The really interesting stuff was on the AM band. Talk radio was just beginning, and the king of talk was Joe Pyne. He was an ex-Marine who had lost a leg fighting in the Pacific. People remember him as a conservative, but he was really a Cold War liberal, who supported the Vietnam War but had absolutely no use for racial bigotry. Unlike Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, he didn't cut off people who were getting the better of him in an argument. He could be loud and abusive--the working-class Philadelphia accent made him sound even more abusive--but he didn't hide. A lot of people listened to Pyne, hoping to hear someone get the better of him. And we sided with him when he had a racist for a guest. I had a grudging respect for the guy.

For a liberal, antiwar alternative to Limbaugh, there was Dale Ulmer, who hosted an evening call-in show on WHO Radio in Des Moines. Unlike Pyne, he didn't yell or insult, but used logic and reason in his arguments. People rarely, if ever, got the better of him. Even though WHO was a clear-channel station which could be heard from the East Coast to the Rockies, few remember Dale Ulmer. His tenure as a talk show host was short, and he wasn't outrageous enough to be memorable, except to me, and perhaps a few others.

There were a lot of religious programs, but the strangest one whas hosted by the Reverend Curtis Springer. "This is the Reverend Curtis Springer, coming to you from the shores of Lake Tunedae, in the beautiful Mojave Desert." He spoke in deep but oily voice, in the manner of Senator Edward Dirksen (The Wizard of Ooze), and pronounced Tunedae something like Too-Wenda-Wee. In between recorded gospel tunes, such as "Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb," he'd advertise his miracle remedies and invite people to visit his resort. The resort was called Zzyzyx, which Springer claimed was the last word in the English language. It was clear that Springer was a flim-flam artist, but I wasn't aware of the extent of his rascality. His crimes were certainly not on the scale of many of today's televangelists, but he was surely a scoundrel of the first order. (Check the link on his name for details.)

And late at night on weekends, there was Beaker Street, on the KAAY, "The Mighty 1090," a clear-channel station from Little Rock. I was never a great fan of what people later called "Progressive Rock," but I listened to it more for the atmosphere than the music. "This is Clyde Clifford, from Beaker Street," he'd say in his deep, slow, voice. He always sounded stoned, though I suspect he wan't. "That was 'Astronomy Domine,' by Pink Floyd, from their album, Ummagumma." He often played "Friends of Mine," by the Guess Who, which was not great poetry, but did make you listen. Strangely enough, Beaker Street is back on the air, though not on KAAY, which is now a religious station, but on FM, and downloadable on the Web.

AM Radio, with few exceptions, has become the domain of right-wing ideologues and Christian fundamentalists, while most of FM is niche-marketed and controlled by mega-corporations such as Clear Channel. I haven't follwed the "Net Neutrality" debate closely, but I'm wondering whether there are people in the boardrooms who'd like the Internet to be more like what commercial radio has become.

Friday, April 21, 2006

An Easter Message from the Vampire Corner

In spite of what the TV weather people assume, not all of us crave the sunshine. And a lot more of us can't stand the glare of artificial light. In the mid-1990s, when I was working at Amtrak's Chicago Call Center up on the 38th floor of the Mid-Continental Plaza building, those of us who didn't like the glare congregated at the back of the former training room, where most of the overhead lights were turned off. The Vampire Corner, we called it. In those days there were slow times during the early afternoon and most of us vampires got to know each other pretty well.

I worked with a delightful young woman I'll call Julia. We often sat together and had amazing conversations about current events, art, philosophy, and religion. She was a former Roman Catholic who had converted to a fundamentalist sect which believed that the King James Version--and only the King James Version--was the inerrant Word of God. I appreciated the KJV for its poetic images, but preferred the New Revised Standard Version for meaning. We remained friends even though our religious views were poles apart.

One spring, she told me that Easter was actually named for Astarte, the Semitic goddess of fertility. I replied that it had been named for Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Julia was originally from South America, so I asked her about the Spanish word for Easter. She acknowledged that is was Pascua, or Passover. But she stuck to her belief that Easter was named for the goddess often associated with sexuality, and appropriated by modern Satanists in their rituals.

I never understood why her denomination insisted on associating the principal holy day of Christianity with a pagan fertility goddess. After doing some research, I learned that a number of fundamentalist sects, such as the Restored Church of God, reject Easter as a pagan festival. They celebrate Passover, and believe Christ was resurrected on a Saturday. Their association of Easter with Astarte, or Ishtar, is folk etymology. Eostre is Germanic and Indo-European in origin, while Astarte is Semitic. And while there were cults of Ishtar in Rome and the Hellenic world, they did not exist among Germanic-speaking peoples. The name Easter is a borrowing from pre-Christians, but a rather benign one.

Nonetheless, Julia believed the word Easter was derived from Astarte, and nothing I or anyone else could say would shake her of that belief. In spite of this, she was beautiful person, and brought her spiritual light into that pleasant darkness.

I lost track of Julia after she left the office. The pressure of working at the call center was getting to her. And it was going get worse. The slow times when agents had time to chat were decreasing. She had young children and needed to spend more time with them. Her husband was a Chicago police officer, so she didn't have to worry about losing health benefits. The last I heard, she was working at a small health clinic.

Whenever I want to declare a blanket condemnation of fundamentalist Christians I try to remember her. Julia was a fundamentalist and had what I considered to be wacky beliefs, but was (and, I'm sure still is), a sweet, caring, and altogether wonderful human being.

This does not mean I can't oppose the fundamentalists when they want to tear down Jefferson's "wall of separation" between church and state, or try to impose their dogmas on the rest of us. It's just a reminder that when we attach labels to people, we can't forget that they're still human beings like ourselves.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Wet Monday

From the Wikipedia article, Dyngus Day:

Dyngus Day or Wet Monday (Polish Śmigus-dyngus, lany poniedziałek or Oblewania) is the name for Easter Monday in Poland. In the Czech Republic it is called Velikonocni Pondeli or Pomlázka.

Both countries practice a peculiar custom on this day. Traditionally, boys will awaken girls early in the morning and douse them with water and strike them about the legs with long thin twigs made from willow, birch or decorated tree branches (palmy wielkanocne). This practice is possibly connected to a pre-Christian, pagan fertility rite, although the earliest documented records of Dyngus Day in Poland are from 15th century, almost half a millennium after Poland adopted Christianity.

Most recently, the tradition has changed to become entirely water-focused, and the Śmigus part is almost forgotten. It is quite common for girls to attack boys just as fiercely as the boys traditionally attacked the girls. With much of Poland's population residing in tall apartment buildings, high balconies are favourite hiding places for young people who gleefully empty entire buckets of water onto randomly selected passers-by.

Here in the U.S., the spanking element has pretty much disappeared, and the liquid most common on Wet Monday is beer. Dyngus Day is mainly an occasion for eating sausage and quaffing brew. In South Bend, it's also the traditional kickoff for political campaigns. In 1968, the last time the Indiana Democratic presidential primary had any significance, Robert Kennedy was at the West Side Democratic Club on Dyngus Day. He won South Bend and Indiana handily.

Tonight, I expect Joe Donnelly to be at that same club. He's running against Chris Chocola, the plutocratic Republican congressman from Indiana's Second District. Two years ago Donnelly, a virtual unknown and without support form the national Democratic party, lost to Chocola by eight percentage points. This year, Democrats are taking the Second District seriously. MoveOn.org has been running ads against Chocola. Donnelly is a fairly conservative Democrat, like former Congressman and 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer, who represented what was then the Third District from 1991 to 2003. But compared to Chocola, the guy's a godsend.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

James Frey and Kenneth Rexroth: Memoir vs. Autobiographical Novel

"One of the most disturbing things about the whole James Frey brouhaha this week is that the book that sold 3.5 million copies was turned down by nearly every major publisher when it was offered as fiction." -Patry Francis, simply wait, January 14, 2006

When I first read about the controversy over James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces, I thought about Kenneth Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel, published in 1964. Rexroth is a far better writer than Frey, but he also blurs the line between fact and fiction. As in Frey's book, some of the questionable incidents take place in what the Chamber of Commerce types call Michiana--north central Indiana and southwest lower Michigan.

From 1998 to 2003, I wrote a column in the Elkhart, Indiana Truth which focused on local history. Rexroth, who was born in South Bend and spent his early years in Elkhart, was a fascinating subject, but An Autobiographical Novel. made research frustrating. For example, Rexroth says both his grandfathers were named George. I spent hours looking for maternal grandfather "George Reed." Finally, I located the obituary for Charles Reed, whose daughter was a Mrs. Charles Rexroth. Had Rexroth forgotten, or was he uncomfortable with the fact that his mother had married a man with the same name as her father? Freud was gospel in those days, and Rexroth may not have wanted to give his mother an Oedipus/Electra complex.

Sometimes Rexroth exaggerates events. A flour mill explosion he claims to have witnessed, "killed everybody in the place." In fact, the explosion took place in the wee hours of the morning, and the only casualty was a cat. He can also make people more interesting. In 1912 Charles and Della (Kenneth calls his mother Delia, though official records list her as Della) lived on South Second Street in Elkhart, two doors down from the Winchester/Knickerbocker mansion, "....the home of an elderly couple named Knickerbocker. They manufactured a galvanic battery health device which made them a fortune." They claimed the device could cure "cholera morbus, rabies, paralysis, galloping consumption, or cancer." The truth was more prosaic. William Knickerbocker was a banker. (After William died in 1937, his widow, Nellie Winchester Knickerbocker, became more interesting. She drove around Elkhart in an ancient electric car, with flowers in vases on either side of the seat. Her ghost is said to haunt the mansion.)

But in spite of all the factual errors, Rexroth's book is provides a fascinating look at Elkhart in the years before the Great War. Chicago in the Twenties, and San Francisco in the Thirties and Forties. Unlike, say, Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, or Sherwood Anderson, he sees progressive values in the upper Midwest:

The towns in northern Indiana lying along the Michigan border had been the last stops on the Underground Railway. They had a good many Negro freedmen living in them. Elkhart became one of the centers of the Ku Klux Klan some fifteen years after that, but in my days there if you called a man a nigger in the street a white man would very likely walk up to you and knock you down.

While Frey's memoir is not in the same league with Rexroth's, reading (or rather listening to) it gave me an insight into the mind of an addictive personality. I'm willing to forgive a few factual errors, or even outright untruths. Rexroth, in the preface to the second edition, writes:

How much of it is true? Substantially it's all true. The title was the first publisher's notion of one way of deflecting possible libel suits. Some of the people are divided up into two or three characters and then opportunely die. Now everybody of whom anything the least unpleasant is said really is long dead. Names have been changed throughout to avoid any embarrassment to the character or heirs; otherwise, this is all pretty much the way it actually happened. It will never happen again.

And in one sense he's right. In spite of factual errors, it's one person's memory of times events that "will never happen again." It's unfortunate that Frey's publisher did not subtitle A Million Little Pieces An Autobiographical Novel.


Monday, March 06, 2006

How I Passed Bonehead Math

Just about the only commercial television program I watch is Numb3rs. I like the program in spite of the fact that I've never been good at mathematics. For people like me, math is a very difficult subject to learn, for the perplexing reason that its teachers are good at math. In eighth grade trigonometry, I was totally baffled about what to do with the sines, cosines, and tangents. The teacher would give formulas on how to calculate them, but not what to do with them once calculated. Once I learned how to use them ( as I recall, it involved multiplication), I had no problem. But the math teacher didn't bother explaining things that were obvious to mathematicians. Nor did my math text explain it clearly.

I managed to get through high school math with mostly Cs. When I took the ACT, I did better in math than I expected, but not well enough to test out of the University of Iowa's core math requirement, informally known as Bonehead Math. And a recent episode of Numb3rs reminded me of how I got through the course with a C, thanks to antiwar violence in the 1970s.

The episode began with black-and-white footage of antiwar protesters, then cut to an unidentified person making a bomb. The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" played in the background. The bomb goes off at an Army recruiting office, killing a bystander. It appears to be a copy of a 1971 bombing at an ROTC office, and a retired FBI agent, who worked on the 1971 case, is brought in to assist. I won't get into the details, but math whiz Charlie Eppes uses network analysis to solve both cases.

I took Bonehead Math during the spring semester of 1970. By May, I was still holding on to a C, but I wasn't confident about passing the final. On May 4, the Ohio National Guard opened fire at Kent State University, and four people died. That night, the protests at Iowa turned violent. I was living at home in North Liberty, six miles north of Iowa City, so I didn't witness the rioting. On the morning of May 5, I saw the aftermath. Many of the downtown stores had their windows broken; the legend KENT was writ large on a concrete underpass. The Iowa National Guard arrived later.

After more demonstrations, the University decided to shut down. Students had the option of taking the grade they had at the beginning of May or taking an incomplete. I had my C, and I had passed the math requirement. Even though I had avoided the final exam, I had a recurring nightmare of having to take it, and being thoroughly unprepared.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Weird Habit No. 5: Violent Movies? I Can't Even Handle Sitcoms.

I didn't realize I was a Highly Sensitive Person until my daughter Anne was diagnosed with the condition. In fact, I had no idea it was a recognized condition. But, after Anne got the label, I took the HSP self-test. I answered yes to all but four of the questions. One of the questions was: I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows. That I do. In fact, I even try to avoid situation comedies in which people are embarrassed or are put in emotionally painful situations. Recently, I started watching The Terminal. It was just too upsetting to watch the Tom Hanks character's ordeal. Being of a practical bent, Kathleen asked me if I'd rather wash the kitchen floor. I washed it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Weird Habit No. 4: I'm Oppositionally Defiant

It's one of those psychobabble terms, but I'm afraid it applies to me. When I hear something, I automatically think of objections to it. It can be maddening for a spouse, for instance, but on the whole, it's served me well. Both my parents were smokers. I never even tried a cigarette. I didn't try the other kind of smoke that some of my friends were doing. Or those other drugs that were supposed to expand the mind. When I lived in Iowa City, one of those places the right-wingers call a "people's republic," a lot of people thought I was a conservative. In Elkhart, Indiana, I seemed to be a radical. (Actually, in both places, I was a liberal Democrat, so maybe oppositional defiance didn't have anything to do with it.)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Weird Habit No. 3: Lost in a Fog

"Like a ship at sea, I'm just lost in a fog," begins that beautiful song by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. I remember listening to a recording of it with Kathleen. (I think it was sung by Connee Boswell.) Whether she pointed at me, or just gave me a knowing look, it was obvious that the song applied to me. Too often I'm just oblivious to my surroundings. In the early 1980s, I worked for CIT Tours, (Compagnia Italiana Turismo) in its Bensenville, Illinois office, as the Rail Coordinator. I finally got to go over to Italy for a familiarization trip, and finagled a way to take Kathleen with me. We were in the Sforza Castle in Milan, when we walked through a room which seemed to be completely empty. I said something to that effect, and Kathleen (probably with a roll of her lovely brown eyes), told me to look up. Of course she, as an art student, knew exactly what was there. Leonardo da Vinci had painted an incredible fresco on the ceiling. I, being lost in a fog, just thought it was an empty room.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Betty Friedan and McCarthyism--What if?

I've become a regular listener to courses on tape and CD. Last week, Kathleen, who works at the library, saw a course she knew I'd love and checked it out for me. It was "American Inquisition: The Era of McCarthyism," presented by Professor Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University. It's part of Recorded Books' "The Modern Scholar" series.

It was one of those odd coincideces that I was listening to Schrecker's final lecture on the legacy of McCarthyism just after the death of Betty Friedan. Schrecker talks about the era's influence on the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the American Left, and feminism. And while she emphasizes that McCarthyism wasn't the only factor in changing these institutions, she makes a persuasive case that was an important one.

During the 1940s, Friedan worked for the United Electrical Workers, writing pamphlets--at least one of which dealt with the double burden of working women who had to work a full day and handle most of the household chores. The Electrical Workers were a left-wing union and a target of the anti-Communist crusade. The union, weakened by the attacks, had to lay off a number of people, including Friedan.

Schrecker points out that when Friedan emerged as the "mother of the second wave of feminism," she was writing and speaking primarily about middle-class housewives and professional women.

It's one of those perplexing "what if" questions. Had there been no McCarthyism, would the second wave of feminism have been more inclusive of working-class women? Too many of America's blue-collar workers have been seduced by the Right, religious and otherwise. Yet there was a time when progressive causes, such as feminism, civil rights, universal health insurance--the list goes on and on--were workers' causes.

It's been a long time since I read The Feminine Mystique, but I remember being impressed with her arguments--especially her comparison of popular women's literature of the 1930s versus that of the 1950s. She certainly left a strong legacy. But still, what if...

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Weird Habit No.2: I'm still a hopeless romantic.

A recent post in simply wait shows an Indian wedding with the caption, "come live with me and be my love." Of course, that's the first line of Christopher Marlowe's poem, "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." I've always loved that poem. And even though I usually read the parody first, and often appreciate it more than the original, I've never much liked Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd," which is sort of a parody. Raleigh's heavy dose of stark realism gives me the feeling that he knows it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and he wouldn't have it any other way. The ballad "The Golden Vanity" is based on a broadside naming Walter Raleigh as the heartless captain. Somehow, I have an easy time believing it.

While I grew up reading Bierce, I don't see his cynicism in the same way as I do Raleigh's. While Bierce's Civil War stories are often gruesome and seem to celebrate death, they often show his passion for the beautiful countryside of western Virginia. "A Horseman in the Sky," is a good example. In his later years, Bierce fought the barons of the Southern Pacific, who were trying to get out of repaying a loan to the U.S. Treasury--a noble campaign if there ever was one.

My causes often seem hopeless ones--what Howard Dean called the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," railroad passenger service, and the Episcopal Church (particularly struggling urban parishes like the Memorial Church of St. Luke in Philadelphia and St. Martin's in Chicago). And I've been married to the same woman for 32 years--and I still think she's amazing. I may often sound cynical, but underneath I'm a hopeless romantic.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Weird Habit No.1--I Read the Parody First

Patry Francis, of simply wait, tagged me with the five "weird habits" meme. I pretty much asked for it. I'll start with the one I mentioned in my earlier post--I tend to read the parody before the real thing. This probably comes from finding a copy of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary as a child. I now appreciate Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," but I got Bierce's version first:

The cur foretells the knell of parting day;
The loafing herd winds slowly o'er the lea;
The wise man homewards plods; I only stay
To fiddle-faddle in a minor key.

And like a lot of baby-boomer kids, I subscribed to MAD. Rarely did I see any of the movies it parodied, but in most cases, the parody not only pointed out the flaws, but pretty much explained the film.

Jay Ward and Bill Scott gave me Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, Tom Slick, and Super Chicken. I'm afraid I saw a lot of the fractured tales before knowing the originals. The same people (I think) produced a show called "Fractured Flickers," which took old silent films, cut them up, and added narration. Hans Conreid was host. Before I saw the classic Lon Chaney "Hunchback of Notre Dame," I saw the fractured version, in which Chaney is the head cheerleader for Stanford University. (At the end, he transfers to Notre Dame).

In 1969, while staying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while my mother did research for Paul Engle, who was writing a book on American women, I discovered the Harvard Lampoon. The issue that summer was a parody of LIFE Magazine, which proclaimed "The End of the World." And there were advertisements for the next issue: "Tolkien Will Never Be the Same." Of course, I had to get Bored of the Rings. The book is as much a satire of America in the late 1960s as it is a parody of Tolkien's trilogy. I finally did read Lord of the Rings--some 30 years after reading the adventures of Frito Bugger, Goodgulf the Wizard, and Stomper (later known as Arrowshirt of Arrowroot).

And I have yet to see "Shakespeare in Love." "George Lucas in Love," I've seen.

Monday, January 30, 2006

My brief stint as an SDS member

SDS is back! The Students for a Democratic Society, which began in the early 1960s as a coalition of liberal and radical students, imploded in the last years of the decade. By 1969, SDS had abandoned its goal of participatory democracy and split into two factions: the Revolutionary Youth Movement, or Weatherman, and a faction affiliated with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party.

The revived SDS appears to be pursuing the ideals of the early organization. I for one, am happy to see they're back. As in the late sixties, the United States is pursuing an undeclared and unjust war. And the influence of multinational corporations and wealthy individuals on government, the environment, and human life itself is now truly frightening. I applaud those of the millennial generation who are taking up the good struggle, as well as those older SDS members who are assisting them.

My own brief SDS membership came in the fall and winter of 1966-67, when I was a sophomore at University High School in Iowa City. Alan Soldofsky, a budding poet (now professor of English and Creative Writing at San Jose State), organized the chapter. There weren't many of us--mostly misfits like ourselves. I attended a couple of University of Iowa SDS meetings. The memorable one happened to coincide with the Military Ball. As the ROTC cadets and their dates left the Iowa Memorial Union, we serenaded them with "We Shall Overcome."

In December, 1966, I went with my mother and brother to to visit family friends in Elgin, Illinois. One day during that vacation, I took the Milwaukee Road commuter train into Union Station, Chicago. I knew the SDS headquarters were on West Madison Street. I figured the easiest way to get there was to take the L (There's a rhyme which begins, "In Chicago El is L"), so I walked up to the Lake Street L, and boarded a westbound train. I didn't know about A and B stops, so I ended up at Lake and California, on the big, bad West Side.

I walked down California to Madison and caught an eastbound bus. The neighborhood changed from black to Asian as the bus rolled along. When I got to my block, most of the faces were white, male, and middle-aged. The SDS headquarters were on the western edge of Skid Row.

It was a second-story walk-up office. I didn't meet Carl Oglesby or any other high honchos of the movement. A young woman was there, too busy to talk. I picked up a few leaflets and a copy of the Port Huron Statement and took the bus back to Union Station. Naive 15-year-old kid that I was, I had just gone through what were reputedly some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago without receiving so much as a sidelong glance.

I wore my SDS button through the spring, but the group was beginning to abandon nonviolent resistance. By the fall of 1967, when I left Iowa City for Cedar Falls, SDS wasn't talking much about participatory democracy.

But my hopes are buoyed by the group's revival--especially since these younger members are looking to the SDS of the Port Huron Statement, with its ideal of participatory democracy, as its grounding.