Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why I've used my full legal name on Facebook and for publication, or I'm not into kinky, thank you

It all started some time in the 1990s, when I got a call from my father, who was living in New Mexico. He had received a call from a collection agency, which was trying to find the whereabouts of one Stephen Wylder. My dad knew I wasn't the one the agency was looking for, as the the said Stephen Wylder had lived in New Mexico as an adult. I lived in Albuquerque from 1958, when I was six, until 1965, when I was all of 13. He wisely didn't tell the representative any information about me, because the agency probably probably would have gone after me anyway.

It was a bit unsettling to know there was somebody else out there with my name—especially somebody with a credit problem. There just aren't that many Wylders in the United States. Most are descended from Wiley Wylder, son of Moses Wilder. There are different stories about why Wiley changed the spelling of his name. One tale is that it was a dispute over some land. My wife thinks Wiley just couldn't spell. In any case, Wiley changed the spelling to “Wylder” and moved from North Carolina to Illinois. In 1861 his son, James Robert Melton Wylder, the grandson of a Virginia slaveholder, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 61st Illinois Infantry Regiment. It's possible I'm a distant relative of Douglas Wilder, the first (and so far the only) African American governor of Virginia, but that's another story.

It must have been around 2000 when I found Stephen Wylder again, thanks to the Internet. I “Googled” my name, though I suspect I used Alta Vista or Dogpile back then, and found there was a Stephen Wylder in California, who claimed to be a priest in the “Preterite (Anglican) Church” in California. While I know nothing about the Preterite Church, I am an Anglican (Episcopal Church—not one of those sects that broke away over the ordination of women and/or gays). There was also a Stephen Wylder in the San Diego area who posted on a message board for men who were in search of a dominatrix. (I kid you not.)

Given the possibilities for confusion, I began using my full name, Stephen Crews Wylder, when I wrote for publication. I also used it on for my Facebook page. The trouble is, it looks as though there should be a should be a Roman numeral and perhaps a title of nobility after it, though my wife, Kathleen Crews Wylder (I changed my middle name to her maiden name a la John Ono Lennon.) is the one who can trace her lineage to nobility. She's a descendant of John, Lord of the Isles, of Scotland.

Recently I learned that a Stephen Wylder had died in California. He was the same age as I, and whether or not he was the same Stephen Wylder who had me worried in the past I haven't seen any references to the Preterite Church or dominatrices attached to my first and last name in many years.

So I'm going back to plain Steve Wylder on Facebook, if I can figure out how to change it, but I'll stick to Stephen Crews Wylder for publication.

Meanwhile, if I'm ever in North Bay, Ontario (and the only reason I can think of going there is to ride the Polar Bear Express up to Moosonee), I can stop in at Wylder's Bar and Grill. Maybe I'll get a free drink.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

My bizarre employment history, or how On the slow train became Home in the railroad earth

In April of 2005 I was living in an efficiency apartment in Northeast Philadelphia, while my wife and son were in Elkhart, Indiana. It was the fourth phase in my career with Amtrak, which began in Chicago in 1984, and contiunes today in South Bend. I started at the Chicago Reservation Sales Office in February, after working for the Franch National Railroads' Chicago office and then for CIT Tours, the agency representing the Italian State Railways.

Kathleen and I lived in Oak Park, Illinois at the time. Our two daughters were born there, and by 1989 we had a third chid on the way. Rents were high in Oak Park, and inexpensive places to live in the Chicago area often came with second-rate schools. So we were looking for a smaller city, where the cost of living was lower. We were hoping for something near Iowa, where we both grew up. I had put in for a voluntary transfer to work as a ticket agent in numerous cities in the upper Midwest. Elkhart, Indiana wasn't one of them.

But Frank Stoy, the station supervisor in Toledo needed an agent in Elkhart. We looked at the town, liked it, and I made the transfer. We bought a house and moved while Kathleen was eight months pregnant. Our son Jim was born October 10, 1989--a little over a month after we moved.
Four years later, after Amtrak closed the station in Fort Wayne, I lost my Elkhart ticket agent job. But because I hadn't yet worked five years under the voluntary transfer, I still had seniority in Chicago.

For ten years--from December 1993 until December 2003--I was back at the Chicago call center, commuting from Elkhart on Amtrak and/or the South Shore (the latter involved a drive to South Bend or Michigan City). In the last few years I had enough seniority to work a four-day, ten-hour shift.
That all came to an end when Amtrak management decided to close the Chicago call center. I still believe that was a mistake, but upper management had made the decision. Even Richard M. Daley's offer of giving us a rent-free lease in an upper floor of the Carson's building did not sway the top brass. I had the choice of staying in Chicago or transferring to one of the remaining call centers.

Given the unstable situation in Chicago, I went to Philly. The girls were both in college by this time, but Jim was still in high school. The original plan was for all of us to move to Philly, but it's not easy to sell a house and Jim really wanted to graduate from Elkhart Memorial. So I ended up commuting back and forth, usually riding down to Washington on the Northeast Regional and switching to the Capitol Limited back to Elkhart. Because the Capitol winds its way along the river valleys of Maryland and Pennsylvania, it was very much the slow train. I had a recording of the King's Singers performing the Flanders and Swann's song, "Slow Train, and I remembered Bob Dylan's rambling poem on the album cover of Highway 61 Revisited beginning, "On the slow train time does not interfere." "On the slow train" seemed an apt name for my blog.

I kept it after I transferred to Bloomington-Normal. Illinois, and began driving every week between there and Elkhart. In the spring of 2009 we were in the process of moving to Bloomington when, after getting indigestion from eating a toasted tortilla with Pace 3 Pepper Salsa, I went to the computer and checked the Amtrak job website and saw a job opening in South Bend. I was supposed to have been notified of the job, as I had a transfer application in. Once I got hold of the station supervisor, the job was mine. Since July of 2009, I've been living in Elkhart and working in South Bend, some 15 miles away. So I haven't been "on the slow train" for some time. I also haven't been blogging much, as other things have taken precedence. Still, I'd like to blog more, and changing the name to "Home in the Railroad Earth seems appropriate. It's a variation of lines from Jack Kerouac's prose poem, "October in the Railroad Earth," which has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it, with Kerouac reading the poem to Steve Allen's piano accompaniment.

Elkhart, a railroad town for more than a century, and still the home to one of the Norfolk Southern's biggest rail yards, is surely of the Railroad Earth.

Of course, the Republican Congress would like me to be unemployed. Not personally, of course, but because I work for Amtrak. And while it doesn't look as though it will succeed in killing my employer, it may very well force Amtrak to cut its long-distance service. I still have seniority in Philadelphia, so I could end up moving back. But Kathleen would be going with me. And with no slow train to ride, I'd have to come up with a new name for the blog.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

To Althea, who rode the train

Checking a passenger list recently, I came across the name Althea. It's not a common name, and it brought to mind Richard Lovelace's poem, “To Althea, from Prison.” And it prompted me to revisit the poem and to look up Richard Lovelace on Wikipedia. The poem is a familiar one, if only for the first few lines of the last stanza. It was well-worth rereading, especially after learning that Lovelace actually did spend time in prison:

When Love with unconfined wings
Hovers within my Gates;
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates:
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fetter'd to her eye;
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with Roses bound,
Our hearts with Loyal Flames;
When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,
When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deep,
Know no such Liberty.

When (like committed Linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my KING;
When I shall voice aloud how Good
He is, how Great should be;
Inlarged Winds that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron Bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage;
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free;
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

Lovelace, born in 1618 into a well-to-do family, was the son of Sir William Lovelace, a member of the Virginia Company, and Anne Barnes Lovelace, daughter of Sir William Barne and a granddaughter of a Lord Mayor of London and an Archbishop of York. Given his circumstances, he grew to be a strong defender of the King Charles I and the Royalists in the conflict between King and Parliament.

He fought on the Royalist side in the 1640 Bishops' War, after Charles imposed bishops on the Church of Scotland. It was a precursor to the English Civil Wars. In 1641 he led a group of men to seize and destroy a petition for the abolition of episcopal rule in the Scottish church. The following year he presented the House of Commons with a pro-Royalist petition, which was supposed to have been burned. These actions landed him in Gatehouse Prison on April 30, 1642, but he was released on bail on June 21 of the same year on that condition that he avoid communication with Parliament.

Yet that brief incarceration inspired one of the most well-known poems in the English language. For Lovelace, the power of human love transcends the confinement of the stone walls and iron bars. The sublime eroticism of the first stanza: “When I lie tangled in her hair,/And fetter'd to her eye;/The Gods that wanton in the Air,/Know no such Liberty.” ought to be as well-remembered as the first lines of the last stanza. His use of the “fetter'd” “bound” reminds us that there can be freedom in the bonds between lovers.

Was there really an Althea who visited Lovelace in prison? There is no evidence for it, but I'd like to think there was. While Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Reginald Frampton paints her as a redhead (with what would later be called a Princess Leia hairdo), I imagine her as having long, dark hair and sparkling brown eyes, and looking very much like the woman I married.

And for the Althea who rode the train, my thanks for reminding me of this beautiful poem.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011



Out of the east window a storm
Blooms spasmodically across the moonrise;
In the west, in the haze, the planets
Pulsate like standing meteors.
We listen in the darkness to the service of Tenebrae,
Music older than the Resurrection,
The voice of the ruinous, disorderly Levant:
“Why doth the city sit solitary
That was full of people?”
The voices of the Benedictines are massive, impersonal;
They never fear this agony nor are ashamed of it.
Think...six hours ago in Europe,
Thousands were singing these words,
Putting out candles psalm by psalm...
Albi like a fort in the cold dark,
Aachen, the voices fluttering in the ancient vaulting,
The light of the last candle
In Munich on the gnarled carving.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Return ye unto the Lord thy God.”
Thousands kneeling in the dark,
Saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”
We listen appreciatively, smoking, talking quietly,
The voices are coming to us from three thousand miles.
On the white garden wall the shadows
Of the date palm thresh wildly;
The full moon of the spring is up,
And a gale with it.

--Kenneth Rexroth

This Wednesday, at 8:00 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Elkhart will be celebrating Tenebrae, an ancient Holy Week service of psalms and readings. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows.” Fifteen candles are lighted in a stand called a hearse. At the end of each reading one candle is extinguished, until all but one candle is left burning. And that candle is hidden behind the altar, putting the church sanctuary in total darkness. A loud noise (Latin streptius) is made, usually by slamming a book shut or stomping on the floor, to symbolize the earthquake after Jesus' death. After the great noise, the single lighted candle is returned to the hearse, signifying the light of Christ's resurrection.

Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his early childhood in Elkhart, was an Anglo-Catholic or High Church Episcopalian, and he deeply appreciated the service of Tenebrae. In 1943, depressed about the war and uncertain of whether his conscientious objector status would be approved, tried to persuade an Episcopal or Roman Catholic church in San Francisco to offer the service, but without luck.

But three years earlier, Rexroth and his second wife Marie listened to Tenebrae broadcast on the radio from a Benedictine monastery somewhere on the east coast. The early spring of 1940 was the time of the “Phoney War,” in which the Germans and their Soviet allies were busy consolidating their conquest of Poland while the Western Front was relatively quiet. In fact, French troops had penetrated a few miles into Germany but then withdrew behind the Maginot Line.

Everyone knew a German attack on France was coming—the question was when, and Rexroth juxtaposes the dark service of Tenebrae with the tensions in Europe and the approaching storm outside his window. Rexroth mentions three European cities in the poem.

Albi, in southern France, was once the center of the Cathar Christians, deemed heretical by the Catholic Church and all but wiped out in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) under Pope Innocent III. (Like other crusades this one had as much to do with temporal affairs as theological ones. The French monarchy gained control of southern France by participating in the crusade.) In any case, Albi brings to mind we now call genocide.

Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle in French, was the seat of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, and represents the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Many Nazi leaders wanted to exchange Christianity for a kind of neo-paganism. (I wonder whether the pre-Christian Germanic tribes would have recognized it as their religion.)

Munich, the principal city of Catholic southern Germany and Hitler's base of operations during the 1920s, was also the home of Cardinal Archbishop Michael Von Faulhaber, who spoke out against the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return ye unto the Lord thy God,” Rexroth pleads, quoting from the liturgy.

While we do not stand on the brink of world war today, the service of Tenebrae gives us an opportunity to reflect on the dark side of history and to take solace in the Light of Christ.

Image: Tenebrae hearse from Mainz Cathedral: Wikimedia commons

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

"A Reagan Book for his 100th"

Thank you, Mark Souder. I'm not in the habit of thanking the former representative from the Third District of Indiana, but because of a column he wrote in the Elkhart Truth (“Pick up a Reagan Book for his 100th,” 5 February 2011), I have reason to thank him.

Souder, some of you may remember, was the Christian Right congressman who resigned after the public learned of his affair with a married woman on his staff. He resurfaced last month to urge Elkhartans to read a book about Ronald Reagan to celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Clearly, Souder idolizes Reagan: nearly all of the books he recommends are either hagiographies or extremely sympathetic to their subject. To give Souder credit, he does mention books by Lou Cannon, with the warning, “He does not share Reagan's worldview.”

Had Souder not published his list, I probably would not have reread Reagan's America: Innocents at Home by Garry Wills (Doubleday, 1987). It isn't on Souder's list; not only does Wills not share Reagan's worldview, he argues that it it is not based in reality: “A visit to his past is always a pleasant experience. Visiting Reaganland is is very much like taking children to Disneyland, where they can deal with a New Orleans cut to their measure. It is a safe past, with no sharp edges to stumble against. The more visits one makes to such a past, the better one is any troubling incursions of a real New Orleans, a real racetrack, the real American West.” (p387)
Wills calls the book's first section “Huck Finn's World.” In his autobiography, Reagan calls his childhood “one of those rare Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer idylls.” But Wills reminds us that “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in particular, takes place almost entirely at night, as a series of panicky escapes from one horror to another.” (p7)

Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, just a few miles from my father's hometown of Morrison. While Reagan's family moved many times during his childhood, he regards Dixon—one county over from Morrison—as his boyhood home. Reagan's first regular job was at WOC Radio in Davenport, Iowa. And while I grew up in Iowa City, I married a Davenport girl. So in a sense, Reagan's background parallels my own, though it's separated by some forty years. And while my father, who grew up in the same region as Reagan, voted for Dewey in 1944, but became a liberal Democrat not long afterward. Reagan supported Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, but took a sharp right turn sometime after 1948.

Wills shows how the white settlement of the American Midwest, along with the West, was made possible largely by government: the Hennepin Canal, which benefited Tampico, was a government project. He goes on to remind us that Reagan's father and brother both through the Depression as a result of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

In Davenport, and later in Des Moines, Reagan worked as a sportscaster, transforming telegraphed signals from Chicago Cubs games into play-by-play coverage. And Wills points out that Reagan had spent his entire career as one of the “symbol specialists” Jeane Kirkpatrick attacked in her 1976 book, The New Presidential Elite: Men and Women in National Politics. Reagan went from sportscaster to actor to General Electric spokesman to politician.

“There is nothing wrong with any of these activities,” Wills writes. But it is strange that they should make up the sole background of a hero cheered by critics of mere 'symbol skills.'” (p101)

Wills follows Reagan's Hollywood career from his arrival to his 1942 triumph in Kings Row, to his transition from a movie to a television actor. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan helped engineer an agreement with MCA which allowed the corporation to act both as union representative of television actors an television producer—an obvious conflict of interest.

Reagan, according to Wills, came close to being indicted. Wills believes Reagan just didn't see it as a conflict of interest, but “was always always prepared to think the best of his own bosses.” (p278)

The main premise of Wills's book, though, is that Reagan's America is one of myth—a myth that millions of Americans hold as truth. In his chapter, “Greenfield Village on the Potomac,” Wills writes of Henry Ford's high schools, where students learned from McGuffey's Readers: “Ford kept creating new models of his cars to replace the old, but he would not allow his schools to admit new readers to replace McGuffey's... He could not take his old world with him as he whizzed off in his automobile time machine, which carried him in the wrong direction, forward to the future.” (p374, italics in original)

Reagan's America is one very much defined by Hollywood. Wills points out that the “Wild West” of movies and television is at odds with the real American West of the post-Civil War era:
“...Robert Dykstra, investigating the period of legendary drives through the towns of Kansas, found that places like Dodge City and Abilene averaged only one and a half murders per year, often having nothing to do with cowboys, and usually unconnected with 'shootouts.'” (p89)

In his 1976 primary campaign against Gerald Ford, Reagan repeated a story about a black Navy cook who was stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed: “'He cradled a machine gun in his arms, which is not an easy thing to do, and stood on the end of the pier blazing away at the Japanese airplanes and strafing him and that [segregation] was all changed.'

“Reporters pointed out that segregation [in the military] persisted until Truman abolished it in 1948, three years after the war, but Reagan shook his head and said he did not believe them.” (p165) Wills surmises that he remembered the scene from a movie.

In a movie Wills does not mention, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the old newspaper editor says, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” For Reagan, the legend has become fact. And because the legends are the same ones that Americans have learned from television and the movies, he was able to key into the American psyche in a way that few politicians have: “He is a durable daylight 'bundle of meanings,' as Roland Barthes called myth. Reagan does not not argue for American values, he embodies them.” (p4)

And perhaps the central American value he embodies is one that it is at odds with traditional Christianity: that of original sinlessness:

At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as “having a past.” The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, “has a past.” And much of American thinking has been intended to exempt this country from that stigma. (p384)

Wills contrasts “the doctrine of the Fall” with “the doctrine of the Market:”

Modern capitalism lives by a counter-myth to the Fall of Man—one where benign nature makes everything go, miraculously, right... Individual greeds add up to general gain... Eden was lost by free choice in the Fall of Man. It rises, unbidden, by the automatic engineerings of the Market.

The earlier myth called for a repenting awareness of sin. The later one called for a dutiful innocence and optimism.

Jimmy Carter, though a far more devout and orthodox Christian than Reagan, lost the evangelical Christian vote because he believed in the Fall of Man: “religious voters found that Carter lacked the higher confidence in man, man's products, and America. He talked of limits and self-denial, of tendencies toward aggression even in a sacred or 'saved' nation like America. He believed in original sin.”

Reagan's ability to identify himself with that American counter-myth, Wills argues, is the reason Americans twice elected him to the nation's highest office. More recently, Tea Party activists have accused President Obama of not believing in American exceptionalism. It seems to be a myth that, however untrue, all American politicians must subscribe to. And Reagan articulated the myth better than anyone else.

Reagan, who misquoted John Winthrop's 1630 “city upon a hill” sermon, by adding the adjective “shining” to it, distorted Winthrop's message of caution and turned it into an optimistic declaration of a new Eden. Winthrop uses the line from from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14): “...for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world...,” as a warning to his Puritan followers that their colony would be watched and judged by the world. Reagan's “shining city on a hill” had no such cautionary message; only the shallow optimism of “Morning in America.”

Mark Souder, who, I hope, has repented of his sins, ought to read Reagan's America. And I pray that he and his former lover can repair their respective marriages.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sarah Palin and "Second Amendment Remedies"

Demonizing or ridiculing one's political opponents can be fun. I enjoyed calling George W. Bush an idiot and Dick Cheney an evil genius. Nixon was paranoid, Reagan a Grade B actor, and Gerald Ford played too much football without a helmet. Yes, we liberals have done some name-calling. But with the exception of the “Where is Lee Harvey Oswald Now that We Really Need Him?” buttons, which, as far as I know, never inspired anyone to try to kill Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, we never talked about “Second Amendment remedies,” as did Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle.
We've now seen a Second Amendment remedy in action, with Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in critical condition, and six people dead, including a 9-year-old girl.

Rep. Giffords, a moderate Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, was one of those targeted for defeat by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in the 2010 election. And I use the word “targeted” almost literally, for one of her political action committee's advertisements showed Giffords' district in what appears to be the crosshairs of a gunsight.

Palin has expressed shock and sadness at the shooting. I'm sure she never expected anyone would take her literally and try to kill one of her targets. But Palin and her supporters were having too much fun playing the political demonization game to think there might be consequences to putting their opponents in a virtual gunsight.

Palin loves the political game. So do I. In the summer of 1972 I worked on the staff of Iowa Democratic senatorial candidate Dick Clark. Four years later I knocked on doors for presidential candidate Morris Udall, and did the same for the Democrats in 1980. Since then, employment and family have kept me from devoting a great deal of time to political action, but I'm still very much a political junkie.

As we all know, the outcome of the political game has far greater consequences than the outcome of, say, the Super Bowl. While I've always been politically liberal, I know very well that many conservative Republicans want to cut Amtrak funding to zero, thus depriving me of a job. (Still, I don't plan to kill any right-wingers because of it.)

Palin seems to like the political game a lot more than she does the business of governing. Otherwise, why would she resign as governor of Alaska in order to be the Tea Party's Number One cheerleader? I'm sure Palin's advisers told her that her best strategy for winning the presidency in 2012 was to stay in the governorship, make a reputation as someone who can govern effectively, and begin full-time campaigning in 2011. But the lure of the campaign trail and the adulation of the Tea Party crowds was too great for her, and she succumbed to temptation.

And until now, it's been fun for her. Even though some of the wackiest candidates she backed, such as Angle, Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell, and Alaska's own Joe Miller, lost, she picked up enough victories to celebrate. But now she has to face the consequences of her crosshairs ad, along with the Tea Party's view of opponents as The Enemy.

I hope Palin and her Tea Party followers have realized, if they hadn't before, that their opponents are just that—opponents—loyal Americans who disagree with them on many issues, and that they are real people, with real husbands, wives, and children who love them. They aren't enemies or traitors, just as the Republicans aren't my enemies. I just happen to disagree with them.

And there are simply too many people in this country who don't understand that hyped political campaign rhetoric is not meant to be taken literally. We saw that Saturday in Tucson. Please, no more crosshairs, no more talk of “Second Amendment remedies,” and no more likening one's political opponents to traitors or enemies. From my position on the moderate left, I'll strive to do the same.