Monday, December 31, 2007

RFK's Indianapolis speech

In Chapter 4 of Things Done and left Undone, I quoted from Robert F. Kennedy's April 4, 1968 speech in Indianapolis, in which he had to announce the death of Martin Luther King, jr. For me, it's one of the most moving speeches I've ever heard. YouTube has at least three videos of the speech: the first has original footage, which cuts off at the middle. The sound quality isn't good, but it gives you a feel of the atmosphere. A second video, which has Italian subtitiles, has better sound quality and more of the speech, but also contains audio of RFK's assassination. A third video plays the entire speech, but features a photomontage instead of video from the scene, which, in my opinion, doesn't really work.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Roar For Powerful Words

Szelsofa, the most articulate tree in the blog forest, has honored me by awarding me the Shameless Lions Writing Circle's "A Roar for Powerful Words" award. Thank you, Szelsofa. Seamus Kearney, a writer living in Lyon, France, began the award, just last November, and it's gone to literally thousands of blogs around the nation. Here is Seamus's explanation of the way it works:

Those people I've given this award to are encouraged to post it on their own blogs; list three things they believe are necessary for good, powerful writing; and then pass the award on to the five blogs they want to honour, who in turn pass it on to five others, etc etc. Let's send a roar through the blogosphere!

Here are my three things that make writing powerful:

1. Resonance. Charles Gramlich, a fellow Shameless Lion winner, did an interesting post on this subject. He writes of resonance: "The power of this approach is that it is all about the “reader” and not the writer. The reader feels the currents passing underneath..." Resonant phrases remain with the reader. In an example I mentioned in a recent post, Leo Durocher actually said, "The nice guys over there are in seventh place." It had no resonance. The sportswriters eventually changed it to "Nice guys finish last." That, Charles commented, had resonance.

2. A lack of pretension. George Orwell, in his essay, "Politics and the English Language," decries "pretentious diction," and goes on to translate a passage from Ecclesiastes into modern English:

“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

And Orwell's modern version: “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

The King James translation is resonant; Orwell's parody demonstrates the kind of pretentious diction that seems to dominate business and political writing.

3. Personality. Even in nonfiction writing, the personality of the writer comes through, or ought to. It's why Norman Mailer's coverage of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention is so readable, even when we're not comfortable with some of his views. In fiction, the writer not only needs to present his or her personality, but that of the protagonist, and of other characters.

Here are five blogs which roar with powerful words:

Oliver's Offerings: Jana Oliver, whose time travel novel Sojourn contrasts a dystopian future world with Jack the Ripper's London, writes of the conventions and forums she's attended as a fantasy writer. Her rants on the political scene are not only entertaining, but well-reasoned. Jana was a classmate of mine at University High School in Iowa City, but she makes the list on the strength of her writing.

Simply Wait: Patry Francis, author of The Liar's Diary, is a writer of elegant prose. Her most recent posts tell of her recent battle with cancer, and what we all hope and pray is her victory over it. Her writing has been an inspiration to me and to many others,, including the author of:

Eudaemonia, Lisa Kenney's blog is just a delight to read. (The current post, "When Kids Get Life," is more sobering than her usual posts, but she bravely addresses a controversial subject.) While I've never heard her voice, I can hear a gentle, compassionate, yet persuasive presence when I read her work.. Her site also features artwork by her very talented husband, Scott Mattlin.

Slow Reads, by Peter Stephens, is just that. You need to read his posts slowly, but you'll almost always be rewarded. Check out "freshman comp" for a devastating critique of the way schools teach writing. And his Blogstroll links to interesting posts on many different blogs.

The Virtual Journey belongs to Julie of Kent, formerly of the English North Country. It's a blog with a very British accent. Scroll through the photographs of Britain's landmarks and countryside, and find fascinating essays on subjects ranging from Blenheim Palace to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Actually, Julie has four connected blogs, which can be reached through VJ.

I'm sorry I'm limited to five. Quite a few blogs deserve it, including Karen's Beyond Understanding (Sustenance Scout), Rebecca Burgess, and a new blog on my blogroll, Stress Management and Other Things, ( Tea N. Crumpet). In fact, I'd give it to every other blog on my roll if I could.

The green lion above is in thanks to Szelsofa, "the tree that stands on the edge of the forest."

One more thing: No obligation from any of the recipients to pass on the awards. I hope some do, but one or more of them may not be in a position to prepare such a post.

Were The Puritans Right? Or, How to Save Christmas from the Marketplace

"For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."

From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony May 11, 1659

I've been known to say "The Puritans were right," after being overwhelmed by the commercial demands of Christmas. Of course, the Massachusetts court wasn't complaining about commercialization. Any gift-giving would occur at New Year's. I learned the reasons for the Massachusetts ban here. What the Puritans didn't like was excessive drinking, merrymaking, and wassailing. The wassail--a sort of adult trick-or-treating, in which people would go from house to house and demand food and drink--could become violent if the wassailers did not get what they wanted. A familiar wassail song echoes this:

Come master, give us a bowl of the best,
And we hope that your soul in heaven may rest.
But if you do give us a bowl of the small,
Then down will come wass'lers, bowl and all.

The ban, which lasted only 22 years, really had nothing to do with Christmas as it is celebrated today. While I may still say "Bah, humbug" occasionally, my wife did things to make Christmas more meaningful--if just within our family.

She reminded us that the month leading up to Christmas is not the true Christmas season, but Advent--a time of hope and expectation. We light Advent candles at dinner, and sing a vese of "O Come Emanuel."

When the children were young, they would put their shoes outside the door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 6, and we'd fill them with candy. St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was known for gift-giving. A legend about him says that he anonymously gave three bags of gold to three girls in a poor family, so that they would have dowries for marraige and not be forced into prostitiution.

On December 13, St. Lucia's Day, we adopted the Swedish traditon of baking the braided St. Lucia bread. And for a while, our daughter Sarah presented it wearing a wreath of lighted candles. Anne made the bread last night--it's different from the one on the link, but it's very good.

And on Epiphany, January 6, Kathleen would make the Spanish Three Kings Bread. You had to be careful with it, as there was a bean (for good luck), a penny (for wealth), and a ring (for love and friendship) baked into it.

This was, I'll have to admit, a lot of work (mainly for Kathleen), but it did help put Christmas into context as a religious holiday in contrast to the commercial extravagnza that it has become.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Middle Name Meme

While I haven’t been tagged to do the middle name meme, I’ve decided to take up Julie’s invitation to do it. And like her, I won’t tag anyone. I changed my middle name from John to my wife’s maiden name of Crews, thus following the examples of the Czech patriot Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and John Ono Lennon. Here are the rules, two of which which I intend to break (no tags and two facts for three letters) :

1. You have to post these rules before you give the facts.

2. Players, you must list one fact that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your middle name. If you don't have a middle name, just make one up...or use the one you would have liked to have had.

3. When you are tagged you need to write your own blog-post containing your own middle name game facts.

4. At the end of your blog-post, you need to choose one person for each letter of your middle name to tag. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

C--Children: Anne--back home right now, waiting to go to India to be the official representative of the family at Sarah’s wedding. She’ll be resuming her studies once she gets back--most likely in Museum Studies. Sarah will be marrying Vainateya Deshpande in January. She’s at the University of Maryland right now, working on a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. James--high school senior, who’s also planning to study creative writing in college. Chronology--No “H” for history, so it’s the closest I could get. I’ve always been fascinated by the past, and spent two years in graduate school before quitting and finding a career in the travel business. Someday I hope to write a biography of Edward Bonney, the miller and hotel manager who became a celebrated bounty hunter in the 1840s, and who tracked down the killers of Colonel George Davenport, for whom the Iowa city is named.

R--Railroads. I loved trains from an early age. In the 1950s my parents would take me to the Rock Island Lines depot in Iowa City to watch the trains. I became an avid railroad fan during my high school days. I’ve worked for U.S. offices of the French National Railroads and the Italian State Railways before being hired by Amtrak. I recently published “Time Passages” in Remember the Rock Magazine. Rexroth--Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his early years in Elkhart, wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the twentieth century, but is not well-known.

E--Episcopalian. Even though my work schedule makes it impossible to attend Episcopal services, I still count myself an Episcopalian. And I am very sad at the efforts to break up my church--and upset with such non-Anglicans as megachurch pastor Rick Warren who have aided and abetted the schism. Anglicans have always (well--almost always) been able to tolerate our differences. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the brilliant theologian Richard Hooker argued that the Church of England should be a “middle way” between Puritanism and Roman Catholicism. A church that could accommodate Puritan evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics ought to be able to live with a disagreement on the role of women and homosexuals. Elkhart--I’m still holding on to the fading hope that I can get a ticket clerk position in South Bend and live in Elkhart full-time. The city has fallen on hard times, but it’s been the home of so many creative people--Ambrose Bierce, Kenneth Rexroth, architect Marion Mahony Griffin, and Pulitzer Prize Winners J.N. “Ding” Darling, Howard James, and Charles Gordone (the first African American to win the Pulitzer in drama). I have a real love for the place.

W--Writing. What I’d really like to do for a living.

S--Spouse Kathleen Crews Wylder, the bright, lovely, and funny young woman I met in college and who is still the center of my thoughts and concerns after nearly 35 years of marriage.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

JFK and Right-Wing Revisionism

Thanksgiving Day fell on November 22 this year, so there were few news articles about the forty-fourth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. One exception was a piece by National Review editor Rich Lowry, which appears to have been written back in August, but showed up in newspapers on November 22.

While the National Review is a very conservative journal, it is a thinking person’s conservatism, and Lowry’s piece provokes a lot of thought. It’s right-wing revisionism, of course and actually a review of Jim Piereson’s book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. Piereson argues that the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath marked the end of the optimistic and patriotic liberalism of the postwar years and the beginning of a new cynicism on the left:

Until this point, 20th-century liberalism had tended to see history as a steady march of progress. Now, the march had been interrupted by the country’s own pathologies. “Kennedy was mourned in a spirit of frustrated possibility and dashed hopes,” Piereson argues, and that sense of loss came to define the new liberalism.

American history no longer appeared to be a benign process, but a twisted story of rapine and oppression. “With such a bill of indictment,” Piereson writes, “the new liberals now held that Americans had no good reason to feel pride in their country’s past or optimism about its future.”

I haven’t read Piereson’s book, so what follows is based on Lowry’s article. My own take is that the Kennedy assassination was not the impetus for turning liberals into pessimists and progressive historians into revisionists, but the Vietnam War and the events of 1968: what journalist Jules Witcover called “the year the dream died.”

Lowry portrays Kennedy as a conservative, a sort of George W. Bush with charisma: “From a distance of nearly 50 years, the liberalism of 1960 is hardly recognizable. It was comfortable with the use of American power abroad, unabashedly patriotic, and forward-looking.” He goes on to say that Kennedy was “friends with Joe McCarthy… vigorously anti-communist, a tax-cutter and a cautious supporter of civil rights.”

And he’s right--or half-right. JFK had been a friend of McCarthy, but distanced himself from the Wisconsin senator after McCarthy had accused the Army of Communist leanings. His tax cut was in line with Keynesian economics; it was nothing like Bush’s massive tax cuts for the very wealthy. While he was cautious about supporting the civil rights movement, he embraced it wholeheartedly in 1963. As for using American power abroad, Kennedy had sense enough not to use American troops to invade Cuba. And if his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is right, Kennedy was planning a gradual withdrawal of the American military advisers from Vietnam.

Liberals are and were patriotic. It's more of a perception problem. In the early 1960s, civil rights workers wore American flag lapel pins. Segregationists wore pins with the Confederate battle flag. It was only later, in protests against the Vietnam war, that some radicals not only abandoned the national symbol, but desecrated it. Theirs was a stupid and foolish action, which hardened the resolve of those supporting the war. (Those of us who oppose the Iraq war have, for the most part, embraced the U.S. flag. A popular button in 2003 read, “Peace is Patriotic.”) When radicals desecrated the flag, or used the German spelling “Amerika” (to identify our nation as Nazi), liberals bore the onus of these acts (probably because we argued, on very American First Amendment grounds, that they had the right to do so). But we foolishly allowed the right wing to claim the flag as its own in the late 1960s--not during the civil rights era of 1964-65.

For Richard Goodwin, who had been a Kennedy aide, the Sixties ended with Robert Kennedy's assassination. His memoir, Remembering America : A Voice From the Sixties, is a fascinating book, which takes us from the quiz show scandals of the Fifties to 1968. Witcover makes the same point in The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968 in America .

Lowry's point about American history deserves its own post. I plan to deal with trends in history in a more personal article about my two-year stint as a graduate student in history.]

For a nation of “rugged individualists,” we Americans look to leaders as much as anyone else. JFK captured our hearts and imagination and made us proud of our country. We liberals have not elected such a leader since. Robert Kennedy had the potential to unite America, but he too was cut down by an assassin. Lowry concludes by writing:

One day a Democratic politician will emerge who is compelling enough to vanquish the foul spirit of JFK’s assassination from the left. [One of Lowry’s points is that Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist--to reinforce his idea that Kennedy wasn’t a liberal. For me, the motives of this disturbed young man, which we‘ll never know, are not relevant to a discussion of Kennedy‘s politics.] Until that happens, JFK has to be remembered, in Piereson’s words, as “the last articulate spokesman for the now lost world of American liberalism.”

With, "the audacity of hope," I believe Barack Obama may be that Democratic politician.