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Sharing my concerns about a Confederate statue in Chicago (Updated x 4)

OakwoodsCemeteryMonument

Image source: TheGlitteringEye.com

Dignity Memorial operates more than 2,000 burial sites, including one not far from where I live. But a site that they operate on the South side of Chicago, Oak Woods Cemetery, is notable for being the final resting place of more than 4,000 Confederate troops who were captured on the battlefield and sent Up North for the remainder of their lives. This action closed off a source of fighting men for the Confederate cause, and helped the Union to prevail in a what became a costly war of attrition.

As Confederate statues are being toppled throughout the South, it seems odd to me that such a monument exists within a city that remained loyal to the Union cause, and in the state that gave rise to Abraham Lincoln, the president who ultimately brought down the Confederacy.

I had known about this site for many years, since I first came upon it back in 2013. However, for some reason I considered it as a Union soldier atop the site or, at the very least, a sufficiently defeated Confederate soldier that bows his head in reget for having fought the war in the first place.

But today I learned that the staute was not as I had imagined it to be. Yes, the soldier in the painting which inspired the statue is dejected in his appearance. However, the artist who created this painting, John Adams Elder, seems to have made a cottage industry after the war of painting Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other images from the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. According to a curatorial assistant for a display of Elder’s works in Virginia, “Elder’s work played a significant role in postwar America, helping to perpetuate the idea of the glorious Old South and the ‘Southern mystique’…”

With this in mind, I sent the following message on today’s date to Dignity Memorial, via their website:

“As the ongoing protests over the death of George Floyd have forced a long-overdue examination of race relations in this country, I am writing to call your attention to a most incongruous monument to the Confederacy within the walls of Oak Woods Cemetery: namely, the statue which is modeled on the painting “Appomattox” by John A. Elder, which now stands at the site commonly known as “The Confederate Mound.” (see https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Illinois/Confederate_Mound_Oak_Woods_Cemetery.html)

As a life-long resident of Illinois I am concerned that, at a time when Confederate statues are being toppled in Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee, (see https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/6/7/21283003/protesters-tore-down-confederate-statue-virginia-monuments-alabama-new-orleans) a visible reminder of the Confederacy remains standing here in the Land of Lincoln.

I have read about the history of the statue and of the site itself, and understand that it has stood in its current location for more than a century. However, the cause for which thousands of Confederate troops lost their lives in a far-away prison camp was wrong in 1861, and it remains wrong today.

By continuing to leave this statue in place, Chicago—and the state that Abraham Lincoln called home—risks missing this historic opportunity to right a very old wrong.

I have been given to understand, from a September 2017 article in Chicago Magazine (see https://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/September-2017/Chicago-South-Side-Confederate-Mound/) that the statue itself is under the control of the National Cemetery Administration, within the auspices of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Please forward this concern along to them, as I believe that they will have the final jurisdiction over what is to be done with this statue. However, as the operator of the cemetery which houses this monument, I cannot imagine that a comment originating from your office would not draw a reply of some sort.

The legacy of slavery, and the bloody conflict that was fought to end this terrible practice, remains with us to this day. If the former states of the Confederacy can take action to address how this legacy is presented to the public today, surely the city that nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1860 can take a positive step in this direction, as well.

I appreciate your consideration of this request.”

Whether Dignity Memorial will respond to this message, I have no idea. I hope that they will, but I’m just one man with an opinion about something that can be done, and should be done, as the national focus on the injustices of the past continues to evolve. But I’m also sharing my request here, to create a record that I did speak out on this issue, in an attempt to redress a symbol that few are aware of, in the first place.

While I can’t do much more than this, I can take this step, and so I will. Updates will follow, if and when they become available.

UPDATE 1: On Tuesday, June 9 I received a phone call from a representative of Dignity Memorial. I’m not disclosing any names, but we had a substantive conversation, and I was told that my request was being passed along to the National Parks Service (NPS) for their review. So that’s certainly a positive first step. Hopefully there will be more to come later.

UPDATE 2: On today’s date I spoke with the representative from the company that manages the cemetery, who indicated that there has been no response from the National Park Service on the matter. I did learn, however, of an interesting detail which I won’t comment on any further until I can confirm it for myself.

Having researched the acting Director of the NPS—because there hasn’t been a Senate-confirmed Director of the agency since Barack Obama left office—I’m not real hopeful that any positive response is forthcoming. He was the director of the Southeast district of the NPS for the 150th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War, and let’s say he seemed pretty comfortable with allowing the Confederates to celebrate as they wanted to. This doesn’t bode well for the type of change I’m looking for here.

UPDATE 3: On today’s date (January 3, 2021) I sent an email to the NAACP Atlanta, the operators of the website Invisiblehate.org after reading a story about them in the New Yorker. I had given up on the Trump administration doing anything in this regard, but hope–in the form of an incoming Biden administration–is now less that three weeks away. I shared this link with them, and invited them to consider adding the Confederate statue standing over the Confederate mound to their interactive map. If anything comes of this I will write about it here.

UPDATE 4: On today’s date (March 9, 2021) I provided feedback to the Chicago Monuments Project. The city of Chicago has identified 41 pieces of art, sculpture, and statues and invited public commentary about whether they are deserving of continued public display. Five are statues of Abraham Lincoln, and my comments about them (and some of the others) will be forthcoming before the April 1 deadline. But I made a statement that the representation of a Confederate soldier on public land was inappropriate in Chicago, and that raising awareness of this statue will be the first step towards its removal.

The full text of my statement reads as follows:

Although not listed on your website, the statue that stands in the northeast corner of Oak Woods cemetery is worth of discussion. The site is on private property operated by Dignity Memorial, and is administered by the National Park Service, but is especially problematic in that it is modeled on a paining named “Appomattox” by John Adams Elder, who became one of the leading artists of the “Lost cause” imagery of the Confederacy. The sympathetic portrayal of a Confederate soldier is wholly inappropriate in Chicago, and whatever awareness can be raised about this issue will be the necessary first step toward bringing about its removal.

Looking at it now I can count at least two typos, and those always drive me nuts, but I’m still hopeful this will receive some attention.

As I can see that my initial description as to the location was both vague and geograpically wrong, I offered an additional response on the website, as follows:

To follow up on my comment from earlier in the day, the monument I am referring to is at the site of the Confederate Mound and is located in the southern and western sections of the cemetery, just north of 71st Street and east of Cottage Grove Avenue. A link to a map and more information is at https://www.theclio.com/entry/97398. Thank you again for your consideration.

Any updates will follow, as conditions allow.

A story I couldn’t make up

A high school classmate of mine passed away suddenly over the weekend, and the shock of hearing this news made we want to do something. But the question is what, exactly?

My first instinct, in good times and in bad, is to look for a story to share. But the story I want to share about my departed classmate–who I will freely admit I didn’t know very well–forces me to go back to 1982, a year I wouldn’t relive for all the money in the world. But shock, and a sense of duty to those who knew him better than I did, is pushing me forward at this point, so here we go.

In the ten years that I’ve been putting this blog together, I’ve built up a digital library with thousands of images, some of which were cribbed from the internet, and some which are photos that I snapped of my old photos, with the hope of giving them new life on the internet. And try as I might, I wasn’t able to find anything else that I could reliably say was dated from 1982.

The blue zip-up sweat jacket that I’m wearing was something I got around the time that I graduated from grammar school and started high school. That kid, with the hair everywhere and the prescription glasses that changed color outdoors, will be the one who I’m channeling as I tell this story.

I had a growth spurt at the beginning of eighth grade, and in what felt like about a week I stood six feet tall and was more awkward than I had ever wanted to be. But as clumsy as I was, I still wanted to play on my school’s varsity basketball team. And unlike the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade versions of myself, the eighth grade me actually made it onto the team.

The problem, which quickly became apparent in our pre-season practices, is that while I was noticeably taller than most of my teammates, I lacked any real basketball talent. I also needed to wear glasses to see what was happening on the court, but wouldn’t wear anything to hold them on my face as I was playing. I chose the vanity of playing without glasses over the ability to see the court, or even to read the scoreboard. So I played on a very limited basis after the season started , and sometimes I never played at all.

The school that I played for, Christ the King elementary school, won most of our games pretty easily, but there was one other team, Blessed Sacrament elementary school, that gave us all we could handle. They had some very good players, including one guy named Mike who kept hitting long jumpshot after long jumpshot.

In 1982 there was no three-point shot in our league, which was the only thing that kept the score of that first game close. Several of the shots that Mike made that day would have been three-pointers, if only there had been such a thing.

There was a playoff series coming up at the end of the season, which I’m guessing was in March or April of 1982, but the Blessed Sacrament team laid down a marker against us during the regular season. The games were played in the gym of the high school that many of us would be attending in the fall of that year, so there really was no home-court advantage to speak of. And again that was a good thing, because they frankly outplayed us in the regular season.

Our first game came down to the last possession of the game, and they trailed by a single point but had the ball with a chance to win. Everyone in the gym that day knew who was going to get the ball and take the final shot. The only question was if it was going to go in to seal their victory, and hand us our first loss of the season.

Even though it’s nearly forty years later, I can still see that ball arching toward the basket as the buzzer went off. It hit against the backboard, then hit the front of the rim, and somehow bounced off. We jumped around in celebration, while Mike and his teammates hit the floor in shock. The line between victory and defeat rarely gets any thinner than it was on that day in the winter of early 1982.

But then the playoffs rolled around, and it seemed like we two teams were fated to have a rematch in the title game. The stars lined up as we expected, and the rematch was set for a Saturday afternoon in the same gym as before.

Again, I watched the game from the deepest reaches of my team’s bench. There wasn’t any way I was going to get in the game, but it was still my team and my school, and if I had to be an observer, so be it. I wanted to win that game as much as anybody else, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

The game see-sawed back and forth, and came down to a tie late in the fourth quarter. My team had the ball with one second left to go, and three-quarters of the court away from our own basket. As fate would have it, it was the exact same basket that the Blessed Sacrament team had been shooting at in our game during the regular season.

The best player on our team caught the ball and immediately heaved it at the basket. Again, it’s been nearly forty years since it happened, and I can still see the ball rising and falling through the air, and coming down with a swish that meant both of our seasons had come to an end.

In a repeat of our game from just a few weeks before, my team jumped around in celebration, while Mike and his teammates looked on in utter disbelief. It seemed as though the same basket had swatted their very makeable shot away, while allowing our totally implausible shot to break their hearts all over again. If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I never would have believed it could happen.

I never discussed this crazy series of events with Mike, or anyone else on either team, because I didn’t feel that I had sufficient involvement with the outcome of the games. And now, all these years later, I wish I had done that. Not to be picking away at any old wounds, although it could very well have felt that way. But it would have been nice to remember an old battle, and to remind us all that win or lose, the sun always comes up the next day. Until one day, many years down the road, when it doesn’t.

On the first day of March in 2020, just a few days before the COVID pandemic brought all of our lives to a sudden halt, I was inside the old high school gym for a fundraising event. I looked up at the basket which had brought so much joy to one team, and so much heartbreak to the other one, and smiled at the memory. I’ll never know whether my classmate Mike Brahler ever did the same thing, but I thank him today for the memories that he forged, not quite forty years ago.

Godspeed, Mike.

Stuck in the Middle with Bruce

The Super Bowl, in earlier days, was as much about consumerism as it was about football.

With the largest TV audience of the year watching, the network airing the game could charge millions of dollars for a 30-second spot. And the companies who were paying these top-dollar rates spared no expense to put the WOW factor into their ads, too. And the next day in the papers, the best of the best ads would get the type of residual publicity that made the winner of the game seem irrelevant.

But in 2021, everything was different. The stadium was filled with more cardboard cutouts than big-money ticket buyers. Super Bowl watch parties were scaled back too, in response to the ongoing effects of COVID-19. In some ways, the game itself–and all the hype surrounding it–were really nothing more than a placeholder, or an attempt to keep things going until better days arrive at some time in the future.

There seems to be just one Super Bowl ad that matters in 2021, and it’s a two-minute commentary on where we are in America right now. Two minutes plus of ad time during the Super Bowl broadcast was a huge financial outlay on the part of Jeep, but it’s paying off because it deliberately avoided the WOW factor that once seemed so necessary for Super Bowl commercials to have.

Is this ad trying to get us all to buy a Jeep? I don’t really think so, since there’s nothing but a 30 year-old model that appears for just a few seconds onscreen. It’s not about building the brand, at least in a direct sense. It’s more about meeting us where we are at this fraught moment in our nation’s existence.

The idea that a literal middle point of this nation (or at least the lower 48 states) is the spot where a small Christian church stands is something that I never considered before. I had heard about the population midpoint for many years, and how it keeps moving westward and in a southerly direction each time a new census is completed. If it doesn’t reach into Arkansas or even Oklahoma for the 2020 census, it will get there soon enough.

But the physical center hasn’t moved in several decades, I would imagine. It’s also very unlikely that it ever will move again. So the church at the literal center of this nation isn’t going anywhere, either.

Does it matter that it’s a Christian church at the spot? Not really, at least not to me. I’m not religious today–and haven’t been since the early 1980s–but I was raised a Catholic, just like Bruce Springsteen was. Organized religion is on the decline in terms of its overall presence in society, but the clear majority of Americans will continue to identify as Christians, certainly for the rest of my lifetime and probably for as long as America exists.

In the commercial itself, Bruce Springsteen is driving toward this small church, as he ruminates about how hard it is to find the (figurative) middle in America these days. While the literal middle of the country is tangible and fixed in one place, the figurative middle is far more difficult to pin down. But the point of the ad is to recognize that it’s out there, so long as we’re willing to look for it.

Bruce arrives at the church in the Middle, says a short prayer, and lights a candle before heading off toward someplace else. Jeep then puts up a tagline touting “The ReUnited States of America” and it’s back to the football game. But a marker was laid down by Jeep and the Boss, and it’s one that’s worth saying a few words about here.

The Trump era is now over, whether all of Trump’s people want it to be or not, and it’s as good an opportunity as any to think about where we are as a nation, and where we want to go from here. It’s clear to me that standing still and complaining about How Things Are is not an option at this particular moment.

It’s no secret that I hold Bruce Springsteen in very high regard. I’ve seen him play live a couple of times, read his Born to Run memoir, and purchased most of his music in some format or another. I also identify with his politics, and for many people that seems to render the Jeep ad as something to disregard or even ridicule. But I’m going to offer another take on it here.

Bruce Springsteen has been a national treasure for two generations. His song The Rising provided a moment of healing for this nation in the dark days following 9/11. Watch Sting play that song at the Kennedy Center and tell me that’s not real. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit.

He also paid tribute to David Bowie and Glenn Frey and Prince onstage. He brought Broadway into territory it had never seen before, and might not ever see again (but I hope it will). He has raised money and awareness for food pantries, and showed the possibilities of rock music to bring blacks and whites together, in a way that doesn’t happen as much as it could or should.

Anybody who wants to hate on Bruce is free to do so, but they also must turn a blind eye to all the good things he has accomplished through the years.

So let Bruce and Jeep make their pitch for all of us to find a better place than where we are right now, or at least have us believe that it’s worth searching for. And if there’s someone with more standing than him to make that case, then bring it on and I’ll listen to them, too. Because we’ve had the alternative for many years now, and it’s a road we simply can’t travel anymore.

This should be an interesting matchup (but actually, it really wasn’t)

Age is playing at home and getting a few points, too.

I haven’t cared about the Super Bowl in a long time, but I’ll probably never get away from watching it. And this year, there’s the truth of an old saying that will be tested out:

“Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”

On the Age side is Tom Brady, who could become just the second quarterback (Peyton Manning was the first) to win a Super Bowl quarterbacking two different teams. And the Youth side features Patrick Mahomes, who is 25 and already has a Super Bowl ring to show to anyone who wants to see it.

Age is getting three points, and playing on his home turf. So we’re about to see if the old saying is a good one. I’m thinking (as an old guy myself) that it is.

UPDATE: Bucaneers 31, Chiefs 9. ‘Nuff said.

More Incalculability in 2021

Does anyone remember this cover of the New York Times? I sure do.

The precise date that COVID-19 arrived on these shores might never be known, but the first known death from the virus occured on February 6, not quite one year ago.

At that time, our government was busy telling us that everything was under control, or that the common flu was much deadlier than the coronavirus. I remember distinctly, before the proverbial shit started to hit the fan in March of 2020, these claims being made by a president who plainly disregarded the threat. He knew how dangerous it was when he spoke to Bob Woodward, but to the rest of us he, as he himself said, “played down” what the virus could actually do to the people of this country.

By the time Memorial Day weekend rolled around, we didn’t hear any more comparisons to influenza. 100,000 death was a shocking number, equivalent to 33 terrorist attacks of 9/11 proportions, and more than the number of American battle deaths in any war besides the Civil War and World War II. And all of that in just four short months. I wrote about the death toll at that time, with clearly no clue how bad things were going to get.

And now, in just the 33rd day of this new year, we Americans have lost another 100,000 of our parents, friends, colleagues, and neighbors to COVID-19. A staggering number have been ushered into the next world. before they were ready to leave. The word “incalculable” was used by the Times eight short months ago, and it still applies today, as the losses continue piling up.

The virus cost Donald Trump re-election, but that does nothing to slow the spread of the suffering in this country. The virus doesn’t care who is in charge, it just continues to spread. And now there are several variants that have been identified in this country as well, further complicating the effort to get things under control.

I hope and pray that the greatest suffering is now behind us, but that seems naive at this point. Are a million deaths the endpoint of all this? And would that even be enough to convince the anti-maskers? If anything, they seem to be getting even more insistent. Until they contact the virus themselves, that is.

Where is all of this going to end? I don’t know, but the trendlines right now are not promising. And this new year’s 100,000 casualties likely won’t be the last time I write about this, either.

Choosing my new icon

According to Mirriam-Webster, there are several definitions of the word “icon.” I bring this up because WordPress gave me the opportunity to change the icon associated with this blog yesterday, when I decided to change the theme for the first time in several years. I don’t know what the theme was called. or what the new theme is called either, but inertia had definitely set in with the blog for quite a while.

The end of the Trump presidency feels like the start of something new, and hopefully something much better than what we’ve seen since 2016. Such was the thinking as I listened to an old Santana CD yesterday, when the song “Primavera” came on. The lyrics are written in Spanish, but several years of taking it in high school and college afforded me the opportunity to hear them and make sense of them. Anything further than this would overtax my abilities, but I was grateful for what I have, as always.

The gist of the song is that it’s Springtime (that’s what “Primavera” means in English) and seeds and sunshine are now bringing life to places where it did not exist before. The black earth is turning green, and in the mountains and the desert there will now be a beautiful garden. The words that made this most clear are “una nueva era,” or a new era or epoch. And I hope that’s where we find ourselves at today.

Over the past nine years and some months that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve tried to set free some of the thoughts and images and stories that have always been inside of me, but didn’t have anyplace to be expressed. The natural result is that some themes kept coming up, over and over again. I’m always happy to break new ground when the opportunity presents itself, but an examination of just a few posts here are enough to get a sense of what topics interest me the most: baseball, Chicago, rock and roll, news, the U.S.A. and, above all else, Abraham Lincoln.

I freely admit that Lincoln has had an outsized influence on the topics I have explored here. Yes, Lincoln is my middle name and I did spend the formative years in the city that he called home for most of his adult life. But the events of the past two months are enough to show me that Lincoln’s words and actions can inform all of our lives, in the 21st century America we are all living through.

Time and again we have been told of “our better angels” which Lincoln spoke of in his first inaugural address. And President Biden’s inaugural address of a few days ago referenced the signing of the Emancipation Praclamation and his words that “his whole soul was in it.” As Donald Trump will be impeached in a few days for the second time, I suspect the words and deeds of Lincoln will be invoked in this process, as well.

In the weekly poetry group that I’ve been involved with since the pandemic shutdown began, I’ve shared poems both by and about Lincoln with the others. Lincoln appreciated poetry in a way that not too many others have, and this probably has helped bring me to something that I’ve avoided for most of my life.

The first flash of inspiration that caused me to write down a thought and launch this blog involved baseball and childhood nostalgia and my fondness for searching for objects at garage sales. And each of those subjects has been explored in depth in earlier posts on this site, too. But time and again, my writing here has returned to Abraham Lincoln and the ways that his life has shaped or guided my own.

The picture above was taken a number of years ago, either by my sister or one of my two brothers, outside of Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield. The common belief is that rubbing Lincoln’s nose, as I’m doing in the picture, is supposed to bring good luck. It’s a strange belief to have, given that Lincoln was assassinated in a public place in his moment of greatest triumph. But then the rise of someone from extreme poverty to the highest elected office in the nation–and also in its hour of greatest need–required a whole lot of good fortune, didn’t it?

I’ve spent many an hour trying to describe this over the past nine years, and I can’t imagine how that would change over whatever time I have left writing this blog. So choosing one image to represent the spirit of this most personal undertaking wasn’t very difficult, at all. I suppose I could do without the chubby face that it presents, but I won’t let that override the overall meaning, either.

Am I searching for luck by rubbing Lincoln’s nose? I suppose so, because luck can be all that separates us from catastrophe or good fortune. Sister Luck has screamed out my name many times through the years, and I’m hopeful this will continue in the years ahead.

But in a larger sense (a phrase of Lincoln’s that I have used on several occasions), I’m more interested in remembering the lesson that honesty, integrity, and humility can carry a person to places where they might not otherwise have expected to go. Or, as Lincoln said in early 1860 when he was gearing up for his presidential run, his belief that “right makes might.” I could surely do a lot worse than aiming at that target, whenever I have a moment to gather a few thoughts together and then share them online.

So whenver a page from this blog is opened up in a window, there’s a very tiny, and almost impercepible, image appearing to the left of the text associated with that page (the title of the actual post, I think it is). That’s me and Lincoln, looking back at anyone who cares to see us. And it’s a reminder that well-intentioned deeds will always matter, and that words can help to understand and influence what those deeds are. If that’s all that comes out of this exercise, which could soon reach to a decade and more in duration, then it will be more than enough for me.

Meeting the Moment

In the terrible disaster that has befallen this nation since early 2020–and continues unabated to this day–there have been moments of hope. For me, a moment of hope comes each Thursday night, when I gather with friends from both the real and virtual worlds to share poetic selections with each other on Zoom.

Poetry was introduced to me, like so many others, first through children’s books like those by Dr. Seuss, and then as assignments that I had to read in high school. I couldn’t understand poetry as a teenager, and resented those who attempted to make me try.

But writers have always interested me on some level, and poets are just another form of writers, really. They each use the same medium, which is the words that we speak and write and immerse ourselves in on a daily basis. I’ve always believed that without words we’re lost, and I began writing this blog many years ago to remind myself of this,

But everyone comes to writing and poetry in their own way, if at all. The uneven progress that I’ve made toward appreciating poetry across years and even decades has infused it with a meaning that it certainly didn’t have when I was in my 20s and 30s. If someone had told me even two years ago that I would one day spend any amount of time looking for, and then sharing, poetic works with others on a regular basis, I would have thought it impossible. But then, such discoveries are the stuff that makes life so interesting.

This is a roundabout way of saying I’m not sure how Amanda Gorman came to be such an amazing poet while still in her early 20s. Watching her deliver words of hope and inspiration at the inauguration ceremony for President Biden today, I realized that everyone has poetry inside of them–whether that means creating our own or reading and appreciating (or at least trying to) that which has been created by others.

Hearing her words today–and then processing them in a way that makes sense–was an opportunity that not everyone took advantage of. Some are no doubt still upset that Donald Trump is no longer the president. Others, like the person I was for most of my life, would likely view her words (like almost every other type of poetry) as a silly and pointless exercise.

But for others, like the person I have somehow recently become, her words provided a framework for putting this event, and this world that we find ourselves in right now, into some meaningful context. I’m grateful that she shared her words today, and grateful that my eyes and my ears and my brain are now willing to take her words–and those of thousands of others from across the centuries–to heart for an hour or so each Thursday, and all the other days in between, as well.

Why there was more than just a “riot” on January 6

The Capitol dome in Washington D.C is a place that every American needs to see for themselves. And as one who has seen it, the scenes of mayhem from inside the building are all the more unsettling.

The entire scope of American history–the whole of this nation’s collective experience, really–are found within those walls. It’s a religious shrine, for those whom the American nation is something to believe in and cherish. And while reverence is not officially required, it’s still a good idea to practice it while inside.

So when a pro-Trump mob invaded it by smashing windows and marauding around inside, looking to capture and possibly kill elected officials, a desecration took place. It’s not too strong a word to suggest that those who were inside the building on that day defiled the premises.

It doesn’t matter, at least not to me, what any particular person did or did not do inside the building on that day. Each and every one of them violated this nation, by merely setting his or her feet down inside the Capitol dome on January 6, 2021.

Joe Biden has some heavy lifting to do when he takes office later this week, but he cannot look beyond what was done by a lawless and unAmerican mob on January 6. Those who chose Trump over the U.S.A. must be identified and face consequences for their behavior. Chanting “USA!” while inside the building does not change the fact that these people identified themselves as enemies of the orderly transfer of power in this nation.

Modern technology will make identifying these people much easier than it once was. In most cases, their cellphones alone will be enough to prove that yes, they were inside the building on that day. And once a person is placed inside that building on that date, their legal woes will have only just begun. And that’s exactly as it should be.

The Peppermint Patty solution, and why it won’t work this time

There’s a cocktail of despair and outrage that has been building inside of me since January 6. And with each passing day, that mix becomes more potent.

The video above was posted onto Parler on the day that it happened, and was somehow retreived from the archives. I won’t pretend to know about the technology involved, but my guess is that the treasonous asshole who shot the footage from inside the lawless mob and wanted to show the world what a good thing he had done (and there’s no way that it wasn’t a “he” either) had second thoughts, and subsequently tried to delete the evidence of his outrageous and unAmerican behavior. Like those who ransacked the Capitol building that day, and then went back to the airport the next day, content to fly back home and pretend they weren’t complicit in what happened. But the evidence remains, and always will. The internet is forever, after all.

When the House of Representatives took up the matter of impeaching Donald Trump for his role in setting this mob loose on the workings of our constitutional government, most Reublican lawmakers backed away from doing the courageous thing.

“Let’s heal as a nation” they told us, with a straight and serious face.

“Let’s come together a nation” they counseled us all.

They had all the magnamity of a bully who tries to escape accountability by appealing to the weakness (as he sees it) of the one who was victimized.

A strange but relevant example of this is the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special where Peppermint Patty (who I never liked very much as a character) complains about Charlie Brown’s efforts to provide her and the others with something resembling a Thanksgiving meal (or a “Friendsgiving” as we might call it today). Her friend Marcy then shames her into realizing that Charlie Brown was doing his best, and whatever dim inner light Peppermint Patty had was activated, just long enough to extend her hand to Charlie Brown and declare “apologies accepted, Chuck old boy?” Never mind that she failed to offer an apology, or any sort of real contrition, to begin with. The best she could do is have Marcy articulate some mushy attempt at remorse on her behalf.

Peppermint Patty merely wanted to put the episode behind her, and so she put the onus on Charlie Brown to forgive and forget. He did, of course, because that makes for better television than his telling her off and pointing out that rude behavior like hers is the antithesis of the fair and just society that every decent person wants to live in.

The hollow platitudes and self-serving calls for national unity made by the vast majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives are bullshit, and they must be called out as such.

Those who voted to give Trump a pass on impeachment must realize that their own constituents are the ones who either literally sacked the U.S. Capitol (and what an outrage it is to even type those words out!) or don’t have any problems with the ones who did. And they haven’t got a Marcy around to point out the harm their behavior has caused, either.

So I’m going to take the path that Charlie Brown should have but didn’t. The behavior seen in this video is wholly unacceptable to anyone who considers themselves an American. Chanting “USA!” as you go marauding through the People’s house (and that includes you, too!) doesn’t give you any right to declaim your actions at a later date, nor does it give you any room to look the other way to protect the brittle ego of the man who has you so thoroughly in his thrall.

Every last person inside that Capitol building that day should be denounced for the traitor that he is. No political leader who swore an oath to preserve and protect the Constitution has any business sweeping this behavior under the rug, either. And the truth will continue to come out in the weeks and months ahead, too. To do otherwise is a disservice to everyone who ever fought for this nation, whether on a battlefield or in the realm of everyday life.

The Peppermint Patties of that mob are going to have to face up to their transgressions against the nation they so laughably claim to support. And their ringleader, Donald John Trump, must never again occupy any position of honor or trust. Since impeachment and conviction is the only orderly way of making this happen, it must be pursued at all costs.

What a mobocracy means for this nation

Abraham Lincoln served a single, two-year term in Congress, as a representative who opposed the war with Mexico. He was in the minority who realized that the addition of vast new amounts of land would lead to problems over what to do with slavery in that territory. By the time he returned to the nation’s Capital in 1861, he had to confront these problems head on. He conquered them, but lost his life in the process.

But before any of that happened, Lincoln was a young man tying to make his way in the world. As an attorney practicing law in Springfield, Illinois, he had an opportunity to mingle with others who shared his interests.

And so it was on the evening of January 27, 1838. Lincoln attended a meeting of the Young Men’s Lyceum, which met that day to discuss the perpetuation of political institutions. Lincoln’s speech that night deserves a read, and it contains one of my favorite quotes: “Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” But I have pulled a small section of the speech out, and am presenting it here to attempt to put the terrible events of January 6, 2021 into some context. Lincoln’s words are in bold, and my commentary on them is in italics.

When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.”

In other words, people make mistakes, and a mob of people is no different.

“And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.

The mob does what it wants to do, and innocent people will get caught up in its path. People who did nothing wrong will be powerless to head off an unthinking, remorseless mob.

But all this even, is not the full extent of the evil.–By such examples, by instances of the perpetrators of such acts going unpunished, the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice; and having been used to no restraint, but dread of punishment, they thus become, absolutely unrestrained.”

When participants in a mob action suffer no consequences for what they do, they will feel that they can do whatever they want to do going forward from that.

“Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation.”

Where government is viewed as being the problem, being part of a mob offers the chance to overcome this problem by making whatever rules it wants to.

While, on the other hand, good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country; seeing their property destroyed; their families insulted, and their lives endangered; their persons injured; and seeing nothing in prospect that forebodes a change for the better; become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection; and are not much averse to a change in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.

The people who want nothing to do with a mob will need to be sheltered from the mob, or else they will lose their attachment to a government that is too weak to protect them.

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed–I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.

Here’s the real nub, as Lincoln would call it. When the mob is allowed to run free, the consequences are severe for anyone in its path.

When Donald Trump called for violence on January 6–and make no mistake, that’s exactly what he did–he turned the mob loose on this nation. His Constitutional oath to protect the nation went out the window on that day, and six people are now dead as a result. And even more grievous than that has been the image that America has sent to the rest of the world.

Will any nation on earth ever again view the United States as a model for anything, other than mayhem and societal collapse? I can’t imagine it will. I sure wouldn’t take anything away from these scenes of mayhem, other than America is now nothing more than a global paper tiger.

Even if Joe Biden does become president on January 20, which I’m not at all confident will happen, the damage has already been done. Lincoln understood this danger as a young man, and now we have all seen for ourselves just what a mob can do.

Haiku for the Insurrection

President Lame Duck

Incited an ugly mob

And must be removed

Last summer I wrote a limerick in response to the clearing of Lafayette Square, when Donald Trump held up a Bible and glared at the cameras. And I truly believed that was rock bottom, for him and our country. But since then, he’s shown us over and over again that there really is no bottom with him.

Yesterday was an American tragedy. There is no other way to describe it. Trump has unleashed an evil on this land which may never be lifted. I pray that it will, but I don’t think my prayers will go very far. So instead I’m using words as a form of non-violent protest.

If only those crazed Trumpers had done the same thing yesterday….

The Modern Confederacy Has Failed

If you’re a Republican who doesn’t support Trump, and especially if you do, this one’s for you:

It’s over. That is all.

Once upon a time, I would have spent an hour or more going on about this subject, but at this stage in life I realize how futile that is. Whatever therapeutic effect I once received from saying what I do is now overwhelmed (trumped, one might say) by the time and effort required to say it. So I’ll just finish with this:

Trump lost, and democracy endures. God be praised for that!

Tails and Legs and “Fraudulent” Presidential Elections

There’s no single subject I’ve written about more often on this blog, in the nine years I’ve been doing this, than Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps that’s because time and again, examples from Lincoln’s life and times bear a striking relevance to our own.

The disputed (by some) presidential election of 2020 reminds me of a story (as Lincoln would often say, to the consternation of those around him sometimes) that I once read about Lincoln and his young son, Tad.

Lincoln asked his son one day this question: How many legs does a dog have, if you call its tail a leg?

Tad responded, as many people would, that the dog would have five legs in this instance.

But that answer was wrong, Lincoln noted, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg. The dog would have four legs, as most dogs do.

That story has been told many times through the years, and for good reason. Simply calling something by one name does not make it so.

And yet Donald Trump and his band of misfit lawyers have been doing exactly that, ever since the November 3 election was called for Joe Biden nearly one month ago. They have been calling a tail a leg in courtrooms across this country, but in only a few states where they think a reversal of fortune is possible.

No voter fraud exists in the states he won, of course. Nor could there be any fraud in states like California, New York and Illinois, each of which are more populous than any of the states that Rudy and his band are now contesting.

Fraud! That’s the claim, but there hasn’t been a single example that has yet been proven in a court of law.

There was a lawyer from Florida who claimed to have registered to vote in Georgia for the upcoming Senate runoff election.

And there is also a man in Pennsylvania who requested a mail-in ballot for his mother, even though she died in 2015.

And how about the man who lives in publicly-provided housing in Washington DC, but claims a voting address at a private club in Florida, instead.

But wait, the perpetrators in each of these cases are Republicans. The third example is the president of the United States, if only for a few more weeks. But how could they ever be guilty of voter fraud?

Trump’s lawyers have been claiming that “Democrat-run cities” have fraudulently turned what would otherwise be red states into blue ones, instead.

Never mind that Chicago turns Illinois blue, or that Seattle and its surrounding areas are what makes the state of Washington blue. Those states aren’t a part of Trump’s schemes, nor would they ever be.

Time and again, in each of the states that Trump and his lawyers have targeted, the courts have refused to call a tail a leg. The judges in these states have continued to point out that there are no modern-day Tad Lincolns among their ranks. We should all be grateful for this bulwark against Trump’s authoritarian bluster, but it’s not over yet.

I firmly believe Trump would sooner die than be cast out of the White House to answer for his financial and personal wrongdoings. His desperation will only increase, as the new year approaches and January 20 marks the end of his time in office. Let’s wait and see what develops between now and then. But time is definitely on the side of those, like me, who voted him out just over one month ago.

Hanging on in quiet desperation may be the English way, but it will never be Donald Trump’s way. This means we’re going to be in for a ride like none of us can imagine right now.

Dancin’ in the street

It’s been a difficult four years in this country, but better times lie ahead.

At my age, any new experience is something to savor. And when the term “dancing in the street” actually comes to life, it’s damn year impossible to resist. Such was my experience on Saturday, November 7, 2020.

When the AP called Pennsylvania, and thus the presidential election, for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, a wave of euphoria set in. And the best way to experience that is to set out and share the moment with others. It happened for me in November of 2016 when the Cubs won the World Series, and again when the victory parade happened two days later. But just a few days later, Donald Trump was elected president, and as Vincent Price said in his Thriller rap, darkness seemed to fall across the land.

On January 18, 2017–just two days before Donald Trump took the oath of office–I wrote the following words in this space:

On Friday, January 20, 2017, America plunges into a deep, dark abyss….I wish I had a glimmer of hope to offer up in this space, but I don’t know what it might be.

As it turns out, Trump was every bit as bad as I thought he would be. What made it even worse is that nobody seemed to be able to stop him, either. Not the press, or the Congress, or the norms and traditions of American government that had been built up over the centuries. Trump steamrolled over all of it. Even impeachment didn’t get in his way, not with the supine Republican senators who refused to do their duties to the Constitution.

But in the end, the people had their say. Trump has vowed litigation, and he seems to feel that the Supreme Court will ultimately gift him with another term in office, which would essentially make him into a monarch.

But there’s a reality that Trump can’t overcome, Electoral College or no Electoral College. That reality is that if the people don’t support you, you can’t continue to hold onto power.

I did some research online this week, and learned that Trump was the fifth president to take office after losing the popular vote. Three of those presidents–John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Harrison, and Trump himself–ran for a second term and were defeated. Another one–Rutherford B. Hayes–didn’t seek a second term. And the fifth one–George W. Bush–did get re-elected, but with a majority of the popular vote in 2004, proving that the Electoral College may be a one-time fix for a presidential candidate, but it won’t be there for them a second time.

Earlier today, I put something on Facebook that said Donald Trump never acted like he owed anything to the people who didn’t vote for him. He played to his Fox News base first, last, and always. And the people like me who didn’t support him had just one chance to do something about it. I’m so grateful that we did not throw away our shot on November 3.

After the celebrations in Chicago and throughout America today–which are still going on as I type this out–there can be no going back to Donald Trump as president. He can kick and scream and bluster between now and January 20, but we have moved on from him as a nation. His children and his hard-core supporters will never know what breaking free of his grasp feels like, but the rest of us got that feeling today, and man, did it ever feel good.

Farewell to the King

There will never be another like Eddie Van Halen. It was always a thrill to hear his music and watch him perform. He did things no one else could do, and made it look like he was having a blast while doing it. Fortunately, his music will endure forever.

The avocado test

Saturday night, 9 PM

I had dropped off my little one at a friend’s house, and was picking up a few items on my way home. The ALDI store that I stopped at didn’t have any baskets available (due to COVID, perhaps?) and I wasn’t getting enough items to justify using a cart.

This will only take a moment, I told myself.

I picked up some bananas and tomatoes, some cilantro and green onions, and a couple of containers of something called cauliflower dip. As I was comparing the carbs and fiber and protein in the dip to the hummus that I would normally buy, astore clerk informed me that the store was closed.

I checked out, made some small talk about being the last customer of the day with the cashier, and loaded everything into a box to carry out to my car. I paid the total, wished the cashier a good evening, and she let me out of the store.

When I got to the car, I placed the box in my backseat, and was getting into the car when I felt a weight in the left pocket of my blue zippered sweatshirt. Fall isn’t here yet, but it does get a bit nippy after the sun went down.

And a routine trip to the grocery store had just become an ethical dilemma.

I remembered that I had placed two medium size, well-ripened avocados into my pocket as I was shopping, to free up some more room in my hands for the other items I was carrying around. Stealing is not something I would ever do. Intentionally, at least.

I was looking forward to having some avocado or guacamole with the dinner I was planning to make myself when I got home. And I was also thinking about having some with some scrambled eggs the next morning. The doctor I’m seeing about weight issues tels me that avocados are all right to eat, and I’m happy to follow that advice because most of the other foods in that group are ones I have no desire to eat.

Taking the avocados back into the store meant two things: Admitting that I had walked off with them unitentionally, and that avocados would not be on the menu for dinner that evening. But there was never any doubt about what the right thing to do was in that moment.

I walked up to the door, knocked to get the attention of the store clerk inside, and she initially made a motion to indicate the store was closed. If I wanted an out for keeping the avocadoes, that was it. But I was not going to be deterred. I held up the avodcados and pointed to them.

The clerk unlocked the door and opened it. I explained that I had put the avocados in my pocket, and was sorry to have walked out without paying for them. She smiled and thanked me for my honesty. I gave them to her, asked her “What else was I going to do?” and wished her a good night. I then walked to my car and drove home.

Abraham Lincoln once defined religion as “When I do good, I feel good, and when I do bad, I feel bad.” And as I drove home, I did feel pretty good. It was easy to think of reasons why driving off without doing anything about the avocados would be justified: ALDI makes enough money already; I’ll pay them back the next time I’m there; the avocados will probably be overripe in the morning; the total cost was under two dollars, and so on. But the bottom line is that ALDI sells items for people to buy. Someone who walks off with something they haven’t paid for hurts that business, and reveals themself to be nothing more than a thief.

I asked myself, of the two candidates running for president in 2020, who would return the items, and who would find a reason to get back in the car and drive off. I know the answer to this, and I expect anyone reading this does, too.

Of course, neither of these men shop for the food that goes into their mouths. But that dodge hides the fact that one of these candidates appears to have a solid moral core, and the other one, well, we all know what his moral compass would tell him to do.

My vote has been decided long ago, and nothing at all will change that, certainly not a trip to an ALDI on a Saturday night. But the reason I’ll be voting as I am was made clear to me, and I wanted to capture the thought while it was still fresh in my mind.

The avocados will have to wait until another day, I suppose. But my conscience is clear and, fortunately enough, still functioning. But millions of my countrymen are eager to throw their support behind someone who, by any possible measure, has no conscience at all. I hope that they will reconsider over the coming few weeks, because a lot more than avocados will be at stake.

What Trump’s really offering is thirty pieces of silver

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As I’ve stated here on many occasions, I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school through the end of high school. The teachings of the Church didn’t match my worldview, and it’s been decades since I attended a church service that wasn’t a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral.

But some of the stories from the Bible have remained with me since then. Good stories can offer us some guidance about the world that surrounds us today. And in this moment of national peril, when so many people are facing eviction, foreclosure, and the complete loss of any sense of stability they may currently have, the story of Judas Iscariot comes to my mind.

Judas has become a term synonymous with betrayal, and for good reason. He agreed to turn over his friend and mentor, Jesus of Nazareth, in return for thirty pieces of silver. This act set into motion the crucifixion of Jesus, and all of the events that happened thereafter. Again, I don’t subscribe to any of it, but the story itself is what I’m getting at here.

By accepting those pieces of silver from the Roman authorities, Judas sold out a man he had followed and professed belief in. The modern inclination is to try to convert the value of those pieces into current monetary value, to give some sense of what the amount would be for us today. But whether that amount would be a thousand dollars or a billion dollars isn’t really the point. It’s that a person’s ideals can have a price, for those who are willing to compromise such things.

With the $600 dollars in weekly unemployment benefits approved by Congress having run out, and the rent coming due (and it never really stopped being due in the first place), many people are freaking out, as they should be. Congress hasn’t been able to reach a compromise about how much help should be given to those who are out of work, but that’s the system of government our founders put into place more than two hundred years ago. Congress, and only Congress, has the power to appropriate (or spend) money.

By signing an Executive Order yesterday—symbolically enough not on government property, but at a golf club with his name on it—Donald Trump offered further proof, as if we needed any, that he does not understand the Constitution he swore to uphold. In return for a $400 weekly cash payment, the first $100 of which comes from the states themselves, Americans of all stripes are being asked to throw the Constitution itself out the window.

I am fortunate enough to still have a job, and to not need the unemployment payments that Trump is offering. I’ll freely admit to being in a situation not nearly as desperate as many of my countrymen are. In that sense, it’s easy for me to say that the additional unemployment payments should not be offered or accepted.

But Donald Trump is arrogating to himself the powers of a king. He’s not offering his own money (and I don’t think he has any such money to offer), but rather putting the states on the hook for money which many of them simply don’t have. And the Federal portion of this payment comes from money that Congress has not agreed to spend.

In the simplest of terms, accepting $400 a week today amounts to admission that a president—Trump and any who follow after him—can do anything they damn well please. Congress may as well shrivel up and float away if this should come to pass.

Trump has said that anyone who challenges his actions in court does not want people to have the money he is offering. But that’s the wrong way to think about this offer. A challenge to Trump’s actions has to be swift and vigorous, in order to preserve the separation of powers that is enshrined in our Constitution.

The Constitution’s separation of powers won’t put food on the table and help to pay off the landlord when the rent is due, but it’s what the soldiers who go into battle for this country have bled and died for. The United States doesn’t have a king, and that frustrates Donald Trump to no end. He considers himself as King Donald I, and is offering some of our citizens a small amount of money in order to make this into a reality.

This $400 weekly payment is being offered to us as a modern-day equivalent of the silver pieces that were once given to Judas Iscariot. And we must, through the courts and whatever other means are available to us all, reject this offer in its entirety. Our Constitutional system of goverment is worth more money than Donald Trump could ever afford to pay.

The cruel certainties of 2020

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The year 2020 started off in the typical fashion: champagne toasts and fireworks at midnight, together with untold numbers of resolutions to be different—and better, if at all possible—in the coming 12 months.

On New Year’s Day, which happened on a Wednesday and was therefore smack dab in the middle of the workweek, my family and I piled into our car and drove to the beach. I’m old enough to remember when a trip outside on January 1 in a Northern city was nothing short of lunacy, but that world doesn’t really seem to exist anymore.

There was some snow on the ground, but not much more than a dusting. More importantly, it was sunny and bright. It felt like a harbinger of good things to come in the weeks and months ahead.

We hadn’t gone too far away from our house when I mentioned, for no particular reason, that not everyone who had rung in the new year a few hours earlier would still be with us when the next year rolled around. It was simply an acknowledgement of Benjamin Franklin’s insight that nothing is certain but death and taxes, and over the course of 365 days—plus one extra for the Leap year—some people would inevitably pass over into whatever realm follows after this one.

My older daughter didn’t like the way that sounded, though. I can recall her asking me, rather pointedly, “Why would you say that?” I hadn’t expected any pushback, but I stated that it was simply the truth. An argument didn’t necessarily follow, but we had a few moments of back and forth about whether the sparkling new year deserved being tarnished by my pronouncements about mortality and the inevitability that attaches to it. But we arrived at the beach soon enough.

My two daughters got out of the car and immediately began walking ahead of the rest of us. We had brought our dog Dooney along, and needed to hook up his leash before starting out on our own walk. Never in a thousand years would I have believed my statement about mortality would apply to him in a few short months. Had I known it would be our last New Year’s together, it would have made our walk on the beach that day almost unbearable. But in matters of life and death, advance notice rarely happens this way.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. If what is now known as COVID-19 was on these shores on January 1, it was laying low. I had never heard of the virus, and I imagine that only a very few people had at that point. When the sun went down on February 29, for only the thirteenth time in my lifetime, I mused openly about whether I would be around to see the next one arrive. And the total number of deaths from COVID-19 in this country could be counted on one hand.

But it was only a passing moment before things started turning ugly. As I write this today, shortly over five months later, more than 160,000 Americans have died from the virus. In fact, the real number is probably even higher than that. We may never know what the actual death toll will end up being, but the end result is a horrible ocean of suffering caused by the loss of family members, friends, classmates, mentors, colleagues, benefactors, and people of all ages, races, and descriptions that we did not have the good fortune to meet. My New Year’s prophesy has been verified on a level which I scarcely could have imagined, and certainly did not want to see.

But it’s more than the COVID-19 deaths that have made this year so heartwrenching. Deaths from causes other than the virus—which I was intending to speak of during the New Year’s Day car ride—have themselves become a casualty of this massive death toll.

As I type this out, an elementary school classmate is grieving the death of her young son. As heartbroken as I’m sure she must be, the traditional rituals of grieving won’t be available for her, either. Those who would be otherwise inclined to attend a wake or a service won’t be able to, either by governmental orders about the number of people who are allowed to gather in one place, or through a reluctance on their part to either spread the virus or receive it from another mourner. Her devastating loss is further compounded by the absence of people who would otherwise join her, if it were legal or advisable to do so.

This stunning death toll brought about by COVID-19 seems to have taken over much of our society in the past five months. Hearing talk of  “getting back to normal” seems outrageously naive because, for so many people, there is no “normal” anymore. The virus has either claimed the life of an important or irreplaceable person, or it has robbed countless others of their ability to grieve in a way that helps them to cope with their non-COVID-related loss.

My heart goes out to many people right now, from my classmate and her family to people who are far away that I’ll never get to meet. Whether we know someone who has passed away in 2020 or not, we’ll all carry the effects of this terrible year for a very long time. The best thing we can do in this moment is look inside our hearts, and reach out our hands, in a spirit of love and kindness.

Mick Jagger once wrote a song lyric that says “A smile relieves a heart that grieves,” and there are many, many grieving hearts in this country and around the world right now. So let’s get to work.

 

Down goes Columbus!

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I grew up in a world where Christopher Columbus was seen as a brave man who took great risks. But that world doesn’t exist anymore. And I’m glad that it doesn’t.

The first time I ever really had an idea that Columbus wasn’t universally loved was at a parade in New York City in the early 1990s. Even though I had been  a history-minded student all the way through college (and an American History major, no less!) it was a new concept to me that Columbus may have done lasting damage to the part of the world that he had “discovered.”

But now that I think about it, the idea makes sense. People who had inhabited the land prior to the arrival of Columbus and his ships were literally wiped out, by a combination of biological murder and enslavement. Nobody told me that Columbus brought human specimens with him back across the ocean to show his Spanish patrons. Nor had anyone told me of the promises of gold and slaves that Columbus had made to the Spanish crown, in the hopes of securing more financing for the purposes of additional plunder. No, Columbus was still a noble explorer who had changed the world for the better, in those pre-internet days of the late 20th century.

But the world in 2020 can never again be what it was back then, and neither can the reputation of Columbus himself. Today Columbus is viewed by many—including myself—as someone who would do anything in order to advance his own personal ends. And if innocent people were killed or enslaved in the process, that was just too bad.

The statue of Christopher Columbus—which was located just off Columbus Drive, of course—became a flashpoint of violence just over a week ago. It was the scene of a pitched battle between protestors and police, and it revealed just how silly it is to honor a man who, in addition to never having set foot anywhere in the current United States, led to so much human suffering and misery. So the statue came down the other night, removed not by force but by a mayor who decided that it was not worth the cost of defending it anymore.

Arrigo Park is located in the Little Italy neighborhood in Chicago, just off the Eisenhower Expressway, and it too had a large statue of Columbus. It wasn’t up on a tall pedestal like the one in Grant Park was, and it was not nearly as well-known. But removing the other Columbus statue would have made this one into a target, and so it was removed as well.

Since I don’t work too far from this “other” Columbus statue, and had walked by it several times in the past, I drove over to the site on Friday morning. There were news camera trucks parked nearby, and a police vehicle with its lights flashing, and a helicopter hovering overhead. I parked the car, walked to the scene, and saw a large void, encircled by a chain link fence and draped by red, green, and white streamers, and an American flag on a wooden stick, perhaps left as a mark of counter-protest by someone who might have considered Columbus to be one of this country’s Founding Fathers in some sense.

I circled the now-vacant base where the statue had been, took a couple of pictures for posterity, and was grateful for the change that had taken place. When that statue was put up in late 1980s, Columbus was held in a regard that he really didn’t deserve. And the changing view of him over the past three decades means that he wasn’t granted this place of honor for the rest of time.

As the old saying goes, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Columbus himself learned this during his lifetime, having been arrested and sent back to Europe in chains during his third voyage to the “New World.” His fourth voyage was a failure because, after all, when you promise rivers of gold where there aren’t any such things to begin with, the deceit will eventually catch up to you.

As I was standing at the base of the statue, I saw a man muttering a prayer to himself before making the sign of the cross and then walking away. I realized that his purpose for coming to the statue’s base was far different than mine was. I also thought of the Knights of Columbus, a large Catholic organization that my grandfather had belonged to. For them, the removal of Columbus by the city of Chicago probably feels like a slap in the face.

But perhaps this event can lead all of us to reflect on some uncomfortable truths for a moment. Columbus brought more to the “New World” than simply the faith of the patrons who were financing his expedition. He also brought death, in the form of diseases that the native peoples had no natural defenses against. This suffering had terrible consequences, both for those who died and for those who were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to work on the plantations that were carved out of the newly-vacated lands that Columbus considered to be a divine gift to himself and to the Spanish crown.

Columbus represented one thing to Europeans, and something entirely different to those on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s clear that Columbus forever altered the course of human history but, as Chicago’s actions indicate, the interpretation of these changes is far from a settled issue.

 

 

Try a little kindness

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In the winding road that my life has taken, I’ve held a variety of jobs. The old story about someone who worked for the same company for forty years and then retired with a watch died a long time ago, and the result is that all of us are career nomads, moving from one place to another—and even to a whole new industry—as the job market ebbs and flows.

I like to think that I’ve enjoyed most of the things I’ve done professionally, but none gave me a bigger battle than my years as a classroom teacher. They began at the tail end of the 20th century, in a public school building on the South side of Chicago in a neighborhood known as Oakland.

Over the Labor Day weekend in 1996, I and a few other brave souls began the work of converting a portion of a one-time elementary school on South Lake Park Avenue into a high school. It was a small school, that had designs on becoming a charter school in its own right some day. The name of the school was Future Commons High School Multiplex, and the principal of the school was Constance C. Montgomery, who we all knew as “Connie.”

I loved and respected Principal Montgomery, and she had a sunny disposition that never seemed to wear off. Although I was a new teacher in every sense of the word, she was never anything but kind and encouraging to me. Even so, I struggled mightily to adapt to life in the classroom. The first year of teaching is a challenge that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but with the support I received from her I just barely made it through. And then I went back for another year in the fall, followed by two more years after that.

Each year I tried new things in the classroom, and some of them worked but many of them did not. I embraced the experimental nature of the school, which sought to challenge the idea that big schools and their one-size-fits-all approach were the best way to educate children.

The school itself was located in an interesting spot, just off of South Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. The school was in the shadow of several large high-rise buildings known as the Lakefront Properties, which had stood vacant for over ten years by the time the school opened its doors. In my first few days on the job, I would look up and tell myself there were snipers just waiting for the right moment to open fire and kill us all.

This feeling of impending doom went away in time, but it wasn’t long before the buildings themselves came down. They were imploded in one fell swoop in late 1998, and it felt something like watching the Titanic hit the iceberg. They’ll clear all the rubble away, I told myself, and whatever is built in its place won’t have any use for an experimental public high school.

The school never received the charter school status that it wanted, and in some ways it was simply ahead of its time. There’s certainly no shortage of charter schools in Chicago at this point in the 21st century, but at the end of the 20th century it was a step the city wasn’t yet ready to take.

In any other type of environment, and with any other type of leadership, I would have failed miserably in the classroom. But as it was, I was able to hold it together just long enough to see the first incoming class graduate in the summer of 2000. In some sense, it felt like I went to high school for a second time myself, only this time as a teacher instead of as a student. It was an experience that I’ll remember fondly for as long as I live.

The picture above isn’t the best quality, but it reveals the way I’ll always think of Principal Montgomery. My wife and I were expecting our first child, and the staff and students of the school threw us a baby shower one day. It was very touching that they did this for me, and I enjoyed being the center of attention for something other than a classroom activity or a homework assignment.

Principal Montgomery is tying a set of ribbons around my head, and the joy on her face outshines any deficiencies of the camera itself. I was scared beyond all comprehension at the thought of becoming a parent, but the outpouring of support I received from her and the rest of the school made me think that maybe parenting wouldn’t be so bad, after all. And twenty-one years later, I can unequivocally state it’s the most meaningful thing I have done with my life.

I know that she is looking down upon me today—and at everyone else whose path ever crossed her own—with a glowing smile on her face. Thank you for sharing your light and your love, Ms. Montgomery. Your memory will serve as an inspiration for everyone who was fortunate enough to know you.

 

He deserved better

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Today I witnessed a retirement send-off for several people who gave decades of their life to an organization. At this stage of the 21st century, anyone who has worked for the same outfit since back in the 20th century either loves what they do, or has just been mailing it in to collect a paycheck for much too long. And the difference between these two types of people is pretty easy to see.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman has been serving this nation in uniform since the late 20th century. He wasn’t born in this country, but having come here from someplace else he has an appreciation for what America truly is. Since I was born in this country, I’ll never get to see it through an immigrant’s eyes. But I can imagine it’s a pretty special perspective to have.

And Donald Trump, who hasn’t ever viewed the office that he holds—or the country he’s lived in all his life—through anything other than a lens of personal enrichment, has now stomped out the Lt. Colonel’s long and distinguished military career. He retaliated against Vindman for following his conscience and testifying at the impeachment trial earlier this year. Whether Trump violated any laws through this treatment of Vindman remains to be seen, but the path forward for the Lt. Colonel in the military ended by his requesting a retirement today.

Retiring when you’re ready to leave seems like a blessing to me, from the reception that I attended today. There were smiles and cake and remembrances of a worthwhile career. And the people who were being honored walked out the door feeling valued and appreciated for the work that they’ve done. And while Lt. Colonel Vindman may be “retiring” in a technical sense, he won’t be geting any of that, although he certainly deserves to. He’s effectively resigning from the only professional career he’s ever known.

He’ll get hired in the private sector, to give two-minute soundbites for one cable channel or another. Or maybe he’ll hit the speaking circuit, making better money than he ever received from Uncle Sam. And let’s not forget his book deal, which will surely fetch seven digits or more. So financially he’s going to do fine. But the military is what he knows, and where I’m sure he still wants to be.

The best way—maybe the only way—to have Vindman’s back in all of this is to retire Donald Trump in November. We get to decide that, after all. Donald Trump deserves no cake, no send-off, and no words of appreciation from this nation that he’s been lying to and abusing these past three and a half years.

Sending Trump back into the private sector is all that we can do to show our gratitude to Lt. Colonel Vindman.

So let’s do it.

 

 

Dear Mr. President

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I fully expect you are unaware of the origin of the title of this post, or that you will ever actually read it. You don’t read much of anything, and we are all poorer as a result. Reading is for eggheads, or to use your language, for “elites.” So I’m writing for myself, more than anything else. So here goes:

The title for this post comes from a song by an artist named P!nk, and she tore into President George W. Bush a number of years ago. He got re-elected anyway, as you probably already know. But assuming any knowledge on your part is a sucker’s bet, I would imagine.

You don’t know me, and don’t want to know me, either. But you’ll demonize me, in an abstract sense, as a “radical” and a “leftist” and whatever words you’re told will resonate with your base. So long as you get the Electoral College vote you need, you’ll tell any falsehood you can. The culture war paves your road to re-election and the validation that you so desperately seek. The reputations of myself and all of the other anti-Trumpers in this nation are just collateral damage, in your view.

I know, like every other American does, that you have a real complex about Abraham Lincoln. Your strategy appears to be that if you can convince enough of your party that you are in fact Lincoln’s superior as a president, you’ll win a second term. But you couldn’t be more wrong in this assessment.

Today, on the Fourth of July, I went to the tomb where Abraham Lincoln is buried. I placed a penny, as a sign of respect, on a large bust of Lincoln, where popular legend holds that rubbing Lincoln’s nose brings good luck. Imagine that, Mr. President. Will anyone ever seek out your tomb, a century and a half after your death, and seek to get any form of good luck from touching a representation of you in any way? Or will they leave a coin with your likeness on it as a sign of respect?

You can comfort yourself, if you want, with the knowledge that you’ll be dead, and who cares what an elite loser like me would do in 150 years, anyway? Go ahead and think that if it helps your brittle ego, but I can assure you that the answer to both questions will be a resounding “No.”

At best, you’ll be viewed as an error, or a mistake in national judgment that America had to spend decades digging out of. And at worst, well, the name Donald Trump will be forgotten in the way that so many others have been before. Call me a loser if you want to, but I’m guessing that’s what will happen. And, hopefully, my rubbing of Lincoln’s nose today will help to make that happen, too. I very much doubt that Lincoln would want you occupying the bedroom that carries his name for another four years.

May the next Fourth of July find you anywhere but in the Oval Office.

 

Calling out an act of betrayal

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One of the things I can definitively say is that I never have, and never will, serve my country in uniform. Time has effectively closed that window, and I can’t say that I exactly regret this fact. But I wonder sometimes about how life might have been different if I had taken the step of induction.

I came of age in the 1980s, when the shadow of the Vietnam war and the messed-up veterans it had created loomed large in American society. When the first Gulf War broke out in the very early 1990s, I was fresh out of college and trying to find a career path for myself. I never truly gave any thought to enlisting, and the all-volunteer military meant that it never became an issue, the way the Vietnam draft had been for the generation before mine.

I’m aware of the fact that the men and women serving in uniform are required to follow orders, and they don’t have rights to freedom of expression that a civilian like me enjoys. Speaking up will get them court-martialed, so they don’t do it.

But if ever there was an occasion to speak out and throw some chairs around the room, the recent New York Times story is it. As I understand the story, Russian intelligence offered cash bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. service members in Afghanistan. This is an act of war, because anyone who offers to reward the killer of a a soldier in uniform is participating in a murder-for-hire scheme. And, as I understand it, money has indeed changed hands as a result of this offer.

I have also come to understand that more than 20 American troops were killed in Afghanistan during 2019. That’s nearly two dozen service members who swore to defend this nation, only to lose their lives in the process. They left behind family and friends, as well as children who will grow up without the presence of a parent and protector. It’s a tragedy that I cannot begin to comprehend, for the families as well as for the armed services that sent them into harm’s way.

But it’s even worse than it first appears to be. The Times reports that Donald Trump was advised of this bounty scheme in March of 2020, and that the military presented a number of retaliatory actions that could be taken. So what has Trump decided to do? Nothing. I feel as though this deserves a paragraph in its own right:

Donald Trump is fully aware that the Taliban has murdered American troops, and collected cash bounties from Russia as a result, but has done nothing to Russia in response.

Congress was not informed of any of this, but the Armed Services committees in both houses must now spring into action. There are currently 96 veterans serving in Congress, and each and every one of them has an interest in keeping those who presently serve in uniform safe. Capitulation to Donald Trump is simply not an option this time.

But more importantly, members of the military come from every state and every Congressional district in the nation. And if those currently serving in uniform have reason to feel they are not protected, it acts as a powerful deterrent for anyone thinking about enlisting in the future. Why should anyone agree to serve in a military that won’t protect them against becoming the next scalp on Vladimir Putin’s already blood-drenched wall? I don’t have a good answer to that question.

In the three years he has been president, Donald Trump has never said or done an unkind thing toward Putin. But now he has every reason to. There cannot be any offers of invitation to visit American soil, or any talk of advocating for Russia’s admission to the G8, in the wake of this reporting. Trump is afraid of Putin, and Putin knows this. But remaining silent and submissive to the Russian dictator is not an option, either.

It’s an election year, and the Republicans in the Senate have already shown that they will not turn against Donald Trump. Many of them are seeking re-election in the fall of 2020, and my hope is that more than a few of them will be punished by the voters in November. Nevertheless, a two-thirds majority vote to remove a sitting president from office is probably an insurmountable task for a closely-divided Senate. But these actions must not be allowed  to wither away, as many other stories have since Trump took office in January of 2017.

Our troops can’t say this, so I will: Donald Trump has betrayed our country by failing to take action against an enemy who has paid for the murder of American service members. This must be investigated and dealt with by Congress and, ultimately, by the American people in November. 

 

An original poem for these times

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This photo was taken a few years ago at Duck Harbor Beach in Wellfleet, Mass.

I have found great comfort over the past few years from reading poetry. The way I see it, there are hundreds of poets, and thousands of works that they’ve created—who knows how many there are, even?—and even if I can only make sense of a small fraction of them, I’m still better off than I was before.

A poetry group I’ve been taking part in over the past few weeks has even inspired me to dabble in creating new work of my own. Art is a peaceful and enduring form of protest, after all, and there’s so much going on that’s worthy of a stanza or two.

But that wasn’t on my mind last Saturday morning, as I laid in bed knowing that the day was going on and I would have to force myself to get up and be a part of it.

So I got up to brew myself a pot of coffee, with the poetry assignment was sitting at the front of my brain. I decided that Love was maybe the best muse of all, and every great expression of language has love at its core, so that was going to be what I wrote about.

I then put pen to paper, tweaked a word or two along the way, and by the time the coffee was finished brewing I had a new poem on my hands. It’s definitely not the best that has ever been written, but it really doesn’t have to be that, either. It came from my heart through my brain and out onto a sheet of scratch paper, and now I can type it out to have it breathe on the internet forever. So here goes:

Acting Out Love 

I love so many things in life

Or at least that’s what I say.

I love drinking coffee and sleeping in late

And I love seeing shades of gray

But these are just material things

That I know don’t love me back.

Perhaps loving a living thing, instead

will carry a far more powerful whack

Loving a dog, or a child, or even a friend

Ay, there’s a far more productive act.

And to love someone you do not know

Requires a heart that’s supremely intact

Sharing the words “I love you”

Is an awkward or foolish thing to do.

But acting out this timeless feeling

Means the world to someone and, perhaps, to you.

Sleeping and coffee make an appearance, but they aren’t what the poem is really about. The world needs love in these crazy times of anger and distrust, and if a few words scribbled on a sheet of paper can address this need, then it was a few moments well spent.

The cynical political calculations of President Donny Reb

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I’ll be the first to admit that the quest to find a good nickname for Donald Trump has been a long one. Ones like “Cheetolini” and the “Orange Menace” and even “whiny little bitch” have all felt good at various moments, like how a cold drink cools you off on a summer day. But a day or two later, they seem to have lost their effectiveness, or their bite.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump seemed to throw outnicknames like “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hilary” with abandon. They’re cruel, in the way that a bully is cruel to anyone he perceives as being unable to stand up for themselves. Hillary Clinton turned the tables on Trump at one of their debates by suggesting Trump was a puppet of Vladimir Putin, which set him into a furious spell of projection about the term “puppet.”

And Trump’s ever-faithful base continues to follow him—just like Crabbe and Goyle always followed Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter books—because his cruelty activates their darker instincts, as well. That’s why every time Trump calls Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” they will eat it up with a spoon. Polite society doesn’t allow any of them to call her that directly, but once Trump does it they laugh right along at the sight of something that cruel and stupid actually being done by anyone.

So the desire to turn this malevolent impulse around on Trump is very strong. Powerful, to use a word he seems increasingly fond of. Right or wrong is beside the point, in his mind, as long as someone projects power. And he’s the most powerful one of all, at least in that macabre world he has invented for himself.

But the last couple of days have opened up an opportunity to find a good name for Trump that might stick. When the idea of renaming U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals—like Georgia’s Fort Benning and Texas’ Fort Hood—gained momentum with the publication of a piece written by General David Patraeus, Trump quickly shut down this talk via twitter. Commanding us all to “Respect the military” that he never actually got around to serving in, Trump declared that it would be offensive to the HEROES (in all caps, of course) who were trained at these bases.

Which makes not a single bit of sense, at all.

The idea that a soldier who now trains at Fort Hood would care one bit if it was renamed  overnight is laughable. But the president’s spokesperson made that exact case today in a press briefing. And with a straight face, too.

But John Bell Hood and Henry Benning and Ambrose Powell Hill and the other Confederate generals have had their names glorified for far too long. Benning, for example, helped to draft Georgia’s secession ordinance after Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election. He even traveled to Virginia to make the case that they, too, should not wait until Lincoln was sworn in before leaving the Union. Virginia denied this request from Benning, but the language that he used is as unapologetically racist as anything I’ve read. In the end, Virginia decided to hold off until after took the oath of office in March of 1861.

President Trump truly seems unaware that Benning and the others took up arms against the United States of America in the 1860s. They commanded troops that fought against and killed Union soldiers. In so doing, they did all they could to perpetuate the practice of holding human beings in captivity forever. I’m glad that they failed, and that Lincoln’s resolve was strong enough to withstand the forces against him.

Maybe these military outposts were named in a spirit of national reconciliation, in the late 19th or early 20th century. Let bygones be bygones. That sort of thing. But the predations that slavery visited upon millions of humans over more than two centuries were overlooked in this bargain. And now is maybe the best moment to revisit this decision that we’ll ever see in this country.

Confederate statues are now being toppled, by mob action in some cases and by official directive in others. Hood himself has had a rough time lately, as two junior high schools in Texas that were once named for him have gone a different way, instead. If two junior high schools can shake off reminders of the Confederacy, why can’t the U.S. military do it, as well?

Enter Donald Trump. This a culture war issue for him. Those that relish the Southern way of life, subjugation of black people and all, will not allow these symbols of their “heritage” to be taken away from them. And Donald Trump, as a lifelong New Yorker, has no affinity for the Southern cause, whatsoever. I promise anyone reading this that Trump has zero interest in this matter, except that he understands that the votes of those that it does matter to will make or break his re-election in five months’ time. So he’ll court their votes by pretending to care about this “affront” to Southern honor.

Call this the Southern Strategy 2.0.

The mythical embodiment of Confederate soldiers in the Civil War was known as “Johnny Reb,” and for Union soldiers it was “Billy Yank.” By throwing in with the Southern cause—with nothing but his own political survival at stake—I propose calling the president “Donny Reb” from this moment forward. Let’s make it clear, as the Lincoln Group has already done, that Trump represents the antithesis of the United States of America, not withstanding the oath he took to uphold its Constitution. It’s now clear that he didn’t mean any of that. He stands for Donald Trump, and nothing more.

And if that means wrapping himself up in the Confederate cause, 150 years after it was defeated by the nation he was elected to lead, then so be it. Because dead Union soldiers don’t vote, but modern-day Confederate wannabes do.