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 kmow

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.

 

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

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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: 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.

What we need in these difficult times

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As 2020 has evolved into the most chaotic and divisive year I’ve ever seen, I have often seen it compared to 1968, the year I was born. In fact, I was born just over a week after Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles. Only two months before, he had delivered the news of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination to a group of African Americans in Indianapolis, and pleaded for peace with them in an oration that everyone should listen to today. A portion of the speech appears below:

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

May these wise words be read and internalized by all of us on the anniversary of his death. Robert Kennedy wanted us all to say a prayer for this country in 1968. And today, another Robert is asking for the same thing. May Kennedy’s vision of love and compassion carry us through these most difficult of times.

Here’s what I want for my birthday this year

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One of the best things about joining Facebook is that once a year, on your birthday, you hear from dozens of people, from just about every stage in your life. And all of them want to celebrate the day you were born, in one way or another.

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Facebook makes it easy, too. Not only do they ask you to provide your birthday in the first place, but they also put a little gray reminder box in the top of your feed each day. It’s enough to make you feel like a jerk for not wishing someone that your friends with a happy birthday. It’s somewhat akin saying “No, I didn’t forget about your birthday. I just didn’t feel like doing anything about it.”

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My birthday is coming around the corner, in a week and a half. And rather than having everyone—or anyone at all, really—take 30 seconds out of their day to wish me well, I have a specific request, instead. It would mean far more to me than any short greeting ever would.

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You see, my birthday falls on June 14, also known as Flag Day. It’s also the birthday of the U.S. Army, which I never served in but have a great amount of respect for. So find someone who served in the Army and wish them a happy birthday on June 14, instead of me. They will most likely appreciate the gesture.

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But I went through most of my life, blissfully unaware that I also share a birthday with Donald Trump. I can’t think of a single person, living or dead, that I want less to do with than him. And yet, there it is. So if anyone presents him with a cake and sings “Happy Birthday” I don’t want to think about it, especially not on my own birthday.

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There’s no round number being celebrating this year, and the recent death of an old classmate of mine is a reminder that every single birthday from here on out is an accomplishment unto itself, and the start of still another trip around the sun, aboard this crazy blue marble that I call home.

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So this year, here’s what I want from everyone, from my brothers and sister to the students that I once taught in the classroom, and everyone else in between (and don’t worry, all of you mean a whole lot to me! I just had to put the fenceposts down somewhere.)

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Find a picture of Barack Obama. I have offered a few here, but any picture or image of him will do. Share that image on Facebook or any other social media platform, and say that you either miss his presidency or that you look forward to seeing him on the campaign trail this fall, and in Washington, DC next year for the Biden Inauguration. Twitter users trolled Trump in this fashion back in 2019, so why not do it again, on the final birthday that he will spend in the White House? A going away reminder, I guess you could call it.

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Nothing gets under Trump’s skin more than Barack Obama, as he’s proven time and again. And nothing would make me feel better on my own birthday than to provoke Donald Trump on his. So thanks in advance, my Facebook friends. This is your ten-day notice.

Trump will never be another Lincoln

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The photo op at the White House yesterday was perhaps the most absurd and unsettling moment I can imagine.

Peaceful citizens standing in front of the White House, doing nothing more than peacefully assembling as the First Amendment allows, were tear gassed and shot at with projectiles, so that the national disgrace that is Donald Trump could hold up a bible and try to project whatever strength he thought that moment provided him with.

By now, it must be obvious to all that Trump is a small, weak, and cowardly man. For all of his bluster and Alpha male instincts, he’s just an emotionally bereft child who never made the difficult (but necessary) adjustments to adult life. And this nation is paying a severe price for having elected him as president.

As Abraham Lincoln was about to board a Washington-bound train in my hometown of Springfield, Illinois on a winter’s day in 1861, he stopped to say a few words to the assembled people at the scene. There were no cameras, no microphones, and no way for his words to be shared with anyone who wasn’t within earshot at the time. He had no prepared words at the ready, but he spoke from his heart. The version of his words may or may not be his exact words at the time, since he wrote them down while on the train.

Here’s what he said:

My friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Beginning the remarks with “My friends” tells me a lot. Has Donald Trump ever called anyone a friend? If he has, I’ve never heard it. Friends are a rare and precious commodity, and Lincoln no doubt had many of them. His well-known line that “Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?” is something that everyone could learn from.

Donald Trump does not have real friends, that I can see. And if he does, he probably treats them in horrific ways. But Abraham Lincoln had many, many friends. Carl Sandburg even referred to him as “the friend of Man.”

Getting to the heart of what Lincoln was saying (the nub, as he would call it), he says that he would need the assistance of “the Divine Being” in order to succeed as president. He returned to this theme in his second Inaugural address, a few weeks before he was killed in 1865. There’s a higher power, Lincoln said—without naming it in a way that any specific faith could claim as their own—and that power alone will determine what things lie ahead.

I’m not religious in any conventional sense. As Thomas Paine once wrote, my own mind is my own church. But the higher power concept carries enormous weight with me. There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, as Shakespeare pointed out in Hamlet and Lincoln himself was fond of saying. Just yesterday, I closed out an insurance claim for a car accident where I could have died, but walked away without a scratch. It wasn’t my time yet, fortunately. But that decision was not mine to make.

An act of faith, of any sort, would have been very meaningful yesterday in front of the church that Donald Trump used as a backdrop. The tear gas and the flash bangs were awful in their own right, but an act of faith in a higher power at the end of it could arguably have been a redeeming act on some level. But no, that’s not what happened. In Trump’s diseased mind, there is no power higher than his own. So he held up a bible and glared at the cameras, instead.

If Lincoln has not wept for America in the Age of Trump—as I’m sure he has, many times over—he must have done so yesterday.  We all should. There truly are some dark days ahead, and we need a light more than ever before. But that isn’t going to come from Donald Trump.

 

America’s troubled days

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I took this picture on a beach in Evanston, Illinois a number of years ago. It was a cold and windy day, with the wind whipping in off of Lake Michigan and not another soul around me. The red sign on the empty lifeguard’s chair reminded me that I was on my own.

But that day passed, and the sun came out again and life continued on. If only things could be that way in the post-COVID, post-rioting America that we’ll see at some point in the future. But for now, we’re in the thick of both fights.

On the day that Donald Trump was sworn in as president, I found a way to avoid the television and judged a middle school science fair, instead. I knew that he didn’t have any words that I wanted to hear. And indeed, he spoke of “American carnage” to the very people he was about to lead.

The term “American carnage” seems to fit this moment perfectly. A virus that arrived on our shores has taken 105,000 American lives, and counting. There truly is no end in sight. Whenever the vaccine comes, hopefully we can move beyond social distancing and the need to wear masks in public. But Trump’s February prediction that it would miraculously disappear when the warm weather arrives obviously hasn’t come to pass.

On top of this catastrophic virus is now the worst civil unrest that has happened in my lifetime. For the first time in my life last night, I was subjected to a mandatory curfew. It was warranted, because people who were ostenstibly mourning the murder of George Floyd in broad daylight on the streets of an American city turned into a rampaging mob, instead. So much for re-opening the American economy anytime soon.

The mayors and governors, local police and National Guard, are doing their best to deal with this unrest, but centuries of injustice and generations of hurt have been unleashed. As Malcom X once noted, in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the chickens have come home to roost. And so many places in this country, including in my city, now resemble a war zone more than anything else. It’s American carnage, of another sort.

Through all of this, the leader who spoke of “American carnage” on day one of his presidency has been powerless to address these threats. He gave himself a “ten out of ten” when it came to addressing the coronavirus threat, and took no responsibility for anything that has happened, although a Columbia University study found otherwise. Likewise, he called protestors in the streets THUGS (a racial code word, and in all caps, to boot) and threatened to unleash dogs and weapons against anyone who would seek to do him harm. Once again, as we’ve seen throughout his presidency, Trump looks out for Number 1 only. The proverbial lifeguard of this nation has abdicated his post, leaving all of us to fend for ourselves.

What can such a man say to calm this nation’s troubles? To protect the nation that he was elected to lead? It’s  painfully apparent that he doesn’t have any inspirational words, nor does he want them. Should he make any public announcement on the issue, it will be to congratulate himself and make threats against those who imperil his re-election in November. That will be the make-or-break moment for this country. Either Trump will be made into Donald I, king of the nation formerly known as the United States of America, or he will be denied the validation he so desperately craves?

Will the lifeguard’s chair that currently sits empty be turned into King Donald’s throne on November 3? I sure hope not. But for now, it appears that there’s a lot more American carnage ahead.

The root as a metaphor

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With all of the troubled times that are happening in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it helps to have a point of reference to draw on. Similes are good because they can take an everyday idea and make it relevant to a particular circumstance. “Cold as ice” works because, well, everyone knows what ice feels like.

Metaphors are even better, because instead of comparing one thing to something else, you are saying they are the same thing. Saying “Racism is poison to society” means it’s not “like” poison, but that it can actually be deadly. It’s like taking out the middleman, in a linguistic sense.

I say all this because I found myself in the backyard of my house yesterday afternoon. There was some assorted overgrowth that I wanted to cut back, before the inevitable growth that the summertime always brings. There was a smallish tree in the alleyway, and I used a pruning saw to take most of it down. All that remained was about six inches of a very short tree-trunk looking growth coming up from the ground.

Rather than call it a day with that small victory in hand, I understood that it was not over yet. It might take one year or five years or maybe even longer than that, but whatever I had cut off was bound to grow back someday, since it grew there once before, didn’t it?

So I decided, with pruning saw in hand, to go after the root of the tree itself. The only way to eliminate dandelions at this time of year is to pull them up from the ground, root and all. So the same approach was warranted with this tree that I wanted to get rid of. So I started sawing away at the root.

After about three minutes or so, I realized this was not going to be as easy as I first thought. I could make out a line where the saw had cut, and could see some sawdust coming up from the root. But there was no sign of victory quite yet.

When the saw appeared to have reached its limit, I went to get a gardening tool with a sharp surface on one side. The angle of the root was tricky, and a chain link fence older than I am prevented too many solid blows from being landed on the root.

The next step was to grab a heavy, flat rock with a point at the end that was laying in the garden. After landing a series of sharp blows at the place where I had been cutting, the root didn’t appear to be any closer to breaking apart.

For the next half hout I used the saw, and the gardening tool, and the rock, and even tried kicking at the root a number of times. I sweated and I swore and gave up more than once, deciding that it was a fool’s errand to begin with. What did I care if there was a short little stump in my alley, anyway?

And that’s when it hit me what the word rooted means. It means dug in and entrenched, so familiar in its surroundings that it’s been a long time since it wasn’t actually there. And the more time and growth that a root has had in the same space, the more difficult it becomes to take it out, once and for all.

The root, after all, is literally on its own turf. This root made it clear that my intentions alone weren’t going to be enough to sever it. My hard work—at angles which my back found less than agreeable—weren’t going to be enough to get it out, either. And as appealing as giving up felt in that moment, it would mean that the root had won. And I could not allow that to happen.

George Floyd’s being pinned to the ground and then suffocated by a police officer’s maneuver felt like a root. An imposing, entrenched root that was defying my efforts to, literally, root it out. Racism and the devaluing of people based on their skin color has existed for generation upon generation in this country. It’s even written into our Constitution, where a black person was once counted as only a fraction of what a white person was.

The officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck didn’t invent the idea of a black man being valued as something lesser than himself. He was merely the latest manifestation—the outer layer—of a mindset that allowed Africans to be transported across the Atlantic Ocean and sold in a marketplace as though they were cattle. Racism is the deepest and most pernicious root that this nation has to offer. But once that root is engaged, its complete destruction can be the only acceptable outcome.

When the root in my alley finally cracked, revealing its size as two or three times bigger than I had originally imagined, I felt a sense of satisfaction that is hard to describe. I had taken on a mostly hidden foe and emerged victorious. But it was a hard fight, and one I probably would have passed on if the full size of the root had been clear to me from the beginning.

The root is an effective metaphor for my thinking about racism in this country, and perhaps in many other countries, as well. It will put up a fight, and expects to defeat the efforts of those who seek to take it out. Giving up appears, at all times, to be the easiest way to admit defeat. But winning the battle feels oh so good in the end.

The battle against racism seems to have begun anew, in Minneapolis and other places around the country. I’m not condoning—not now, and not ever—breaking widows and setting fires in the name of  vengeance. We can’t descend into chaos and anarchy, not as long as we’re in possession of thousands of nuclear weapons that could end all life on this planet. But the point can be made that digging up a root is hard work, which tests the commitment and the ingenuity of those seeking to destroy it. But it’s an effort that must go forward, if “All men are created equal” is ever going to have the meaning that it should.

There’s a war out in the streets

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The death of George Floyd is an American tragedy. The image of a white police officer putting his knee on the neck of a black man—until that man’s life has been literally snuffed out—is painful to watch. Like every right-thinking person in this country, I am saddened for this man and his family an friends, and for the community that has suffered a similar loss, over and over again stretching all the way back to the birth of this nation and even before that.

The rage that has taken over the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder (and it can’t be called anything but that) must be addressed. Arresting one of the officers is a start, but the announcement that charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter feel terribly insufficient to the terrible crime that was committed . The other officers who stood by and allowed this to be done are guilty as well, and the loss of their jobs must not be the end of the punishment that is given to them. Much more needs to be done, including a trial of each of these officers, in full and clear view of the people of the Minnesota and the United States of America.

None of this will bring back what was stolen from George Floyd, for the supposed crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. But what can be done, must be done. And all of us will be riveted on this case, as the justice system (hopefully) does what it is supposed to do.

Donald Trump’s outright refusal to utter George Floyd’s name in person, or to take any questions at the end of his supposed “press conference” at the White House this afternoon, is entirely in keeping with his cowardly demeanor. He faked bone spurs to avoid serving in Vietnam as a young man, and now—with the power and the responsibility to address this issue head on—he walked away, instead. That’s simply unforgivable.

The president’s job, in a nutshell, is to lead this nation. And scapegoating China and the “previous administrations” (read: Barack Obama) for the current pandemic does nothing to accomplish this. Nothing whatsoever.

Pointing a finger at China, and throwing some bellicose language their way, is akin to ignoring an infection and hoping it will go away on its own. Trump tried that approach with COVID-19, and it failed miserably. But this infection, this stain upon our history that almost everyone agrees is the “original sin” that America has committed, won’t simply go away. It took an awful civil war to finally end the practice, but the legacy it left behind is something that all of us—white, black, and every shade in between—live with every day of our lives. And the smoking ruins of Minneapolis are a powerful reminder that we, as a nation, haven’t made much progress on settling this account.

The “but I never owned any slaves” dodge that I’ve heard so many white people use rings hollow to me, because the happenstance of where and when we were born might be the only reason why that’s true. Anyone whose lineage on American soil goes back to 1860 and before is descended, with almost zero exceptions, from people who either willingly owned slaves, or were content to keep any reservations they may have had about this “peculiar institution” to themselves.

Unless we know of an ancestor who fought and shed blood on the Union side during the Civil War, or who spoke out and acted out in favor of the Abolitionist cause or the Civil Rights movement, and then lived with the aftermath of this opposition, we’re all complicit with the long American tradition of devaluing Black Americans. And smashing out the windows of a police car doesn’t count as settling this score, either. In fact, this behavior only makes things worse.

Is writing a blog post going to do anything to right these injustices? Of course not, but it’s all that I can do, at least until Election Day comes around. Peaceful, nonviolent protest is all that we have until then. I can promise that mayhem in the streets will be broadcast into the homes of fearful white Americans, who will instinctively turn to who they perceive as the strongman who can quell all this dissent. And Trump has spent his entire term in office building up the image of himself as a strongman.

He’s anything but strong, and everyone who watches his actions knows this to be true. But the violence will help him politically, and he’ll continue stoking fears of black and brown people, along with “Radical Left” white people like the mayor of Minneapolis. And, I suppose, people like me.

So call me Radical Left, or whatever other name Donald Trump wants you to use. But understand that I know what has been done to George Floyd, and to black and brown people across the totality of America’s existence, is wrong, and that November 3 is an opportunity for all of us to address these in an orderly and peaceful manner. And I, for one, am not going to be deterred.

(NOTE: The title for this post comes from an old Sammy Hagar song. Have a listen, if you’re so inclined. I think it fits in well with the tenor of this moment.)

Indifference is not an option

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Three months ago, there wasn’t a single death from COVID-19 in this country. The first death was reported on February 29 (Leap Day, how ironic is that?), and it made some news but only in a glancing fashion, because it happened far away in Washington state.

But it couldn’t come here, right?

As everyone now knows, it did come here. All fifty states have now lost people to this virus, with New York bearing the brunt of the carnage. And carnage is an appropriate word, because it’s the equivalent of suffering a 9/11 event every day for over a month. And the end is nowhere in sight, either.

When an article from an online source was posted to Facebook today—noting the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19—there was somebody who remarked “so what?” And I called him out on this, which doesn’t change a damn thing or give the author of that comment the empathy that he so clearly lacks. But there are so many people now suffering from the loss of an important person in their lives. For anyone to dismiss these deaths, on any level, is simply wrong.

The number of losses from the virus has spiraled ever upward, throughout March and April and now into May. The misleading comparisons to influenza have fallen apart by now, and never should have been offered in the first place. 61,000 deaths (spread out over a 12 month period) is always going to be the number that was once laid down as a marker, one which the coronavirus could not hope to match. But nobody throws that number around anymore. We’re far beyond that figure.

When I read through the names that were printed on the front page of the New York Times over the weekend, one of the names stopped me cold. It was on the left hand side of the page, below the fold. The name escapes me right now, but everything else about this man—his age, his home town, and the description of him as a husband and father—matched me to a T. And I had to catch my breath, realizing that the luck of the draw favored me in a way that it did not favor him.

I didn’t know this man personally, or any of the other names that actually stretched out from the front page and across three more pages as well, but that does not mean that I have been unaffected by the spread of this virus. Far from it.  One hundered thousand people, from all walks of life, were here with us on New Year’s Day, and now they’re gone.

And the people who have been lost is one terrible thing. But another, and far more insidious, loss has been absorbed by the people they left behind. The restrictions of social distancing mean that large funerals are now a thing of the past. Small services are now the best we can do, and many people are concerned about even doing that much. The grieving process has been upended, and that will linger on with the ones who must carry on without those we have lost.

And it’s not just the ones who have died from COVID-19, either. Nobody who has died, for any reason, has been given what we might consider a proper send-off over the past three months. That only spreads out the misery even further. So the 100,000 deaths, as horrible as that number is, doesn’t begin to tell the story of the toll that this virus has taken on our country.

So let’s not, even for a moment, act that this is not a tragedy of immense proportions. The cover of today’s USA Today, as shown above, gives a sense of just how large the death toll  has been.

America is now suffering from more cases, and more deaths—and thus more misery—than any nation on earth. The ones who would downplay this or put up any sign of indifference to it are doing it for one reason: they believe it allows Donald Trump to escape any responsibility for what has occurred. And they are wrong in this.

The words I have written in this space will be nothing, when compared with the cosmic reckoning that must surely await these COVID deniers someday. There’s a tremendous loss that they have disgracefully chosen to ignore.

A message to my younger self

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When I found this picture in a box of old photos a few days ago, I knew right away it was going on my blog. I’m 22 years old in this moment, fresh out of college and ready for whatever Life throws at me.

The much older man who is sharing this image from the past is here to tell him: Everything’s gonna be all right.

The scary parts about marriage and kids and owning a house one day, all of that is going to happen. But they aren’t as scary as you think.

You’ll see some parts of the world you’ve only read about, before this picture was taken.

You’ll work in a variety of jobs in a range of different fields, but they’ll mostly be engaging and provide you with some sense of fulfillment.

And maybe the best part is you’ve already accomplished your one goal in life. So everything from this point on is all just gravy, anyway.

Are you going to conquer the world? No, but you aren’t really interested in that anyway. And believe it or not, someone who does conquer the world is a person you won’t think too highly of. It sounds crazy, but you’ll see.

You have no idea what an SUV or a minivan is, but in time you’ll own one of each. And a hybrid car is something your 1990s mind won’t be able to understand, but you’ll own a couple of those, too.

And the internet? Where to begin with that? It will be a few more years before you hear anything about it, but it will forever upend the world you’re living in. In some ways that will be good, and in other ways not so much. But it will give you an opprtunity to share some old pictures like this one, and do some musing on life and family and the state of the world in general. And you’ll enjoy doing that—whenever you can find some time to do it—so that’s something to look forward to in the future.

Yes, young man, life will be an interesting ride in the years ahead. But you’ll find all that out for yourself. Just keep on smiling, and make sure to enjoy it at all times.

The hirsute look

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It’s now been nearly two months since the lockdown order was issued for my home state. Much has happened during that time, including an action that I never took before and expect that I never will again: growing out the hairs on my face.

I have added a picture here for posterity’s sake. With a directive to be clean-shaven at work, and a natural preference for looking that way in the first place, my routine over the course of my adult life has been shaving on Monday, Wednesday, and usually Fridays, and leaving it alone on the other days of the week. Shaving usually takes about three minutes to accomplish, but I can’t say that I enjoy doing it.

When the lockdown started in March, I realized this was a chance to let my facial hair breathe a litle bit. March gave way to April, and then April to May, and now I have a mangy tangle of mostly gray hairs all over my face. The discomfort of what felt like dozens of worms crawling all over my face is now gone, and I don’t mind the look, either.  I’ll never write like Hemingway, but having a beard lets me at least borrow his look a little bit.

With the impending arrival of a long holiday weekend, I should have ample opportunity to lather up and finally take this thing off my face. It could be a difficult process, since  I’m not getting rid of the little stubble that I’m used to dealing with. Its removal will likely serve as a closure of some sort, but nothing lasts forever, and that goes double for my ronabeard.

I’ll post something again once the deed is done, and there’s a small chance that I’ll just let it ride until I go back to work in an office again. But at this point, a clean break (or perhaps a clean shave?) is what I need the most.

Some advice for the Class of 2020

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Pick one goal in your life. Just one.

Don’t think about what your parents want, or society wants, or even what your friends want.

Make it something that will make you feel happy. Proud of yourself, even.

And then, go out and accomplish your goal.

Spend a month, or a year, or even twenty years (or more) if you need to.

There is no timeline for achieving success, on your own terms.

Once you reach this goal, whatever it is, remember how good that feels.

Remind yourself, whenever things aren’t going so well, that you reached that one goal you set.

Understand that success breeds confidence, and without confidence you’re lost.

Now choose your goal and start chasing it.

Good luck!

 

 

 

“By necessity, we all quote”

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Yesterday I wrote a post in this space about the passing of my dog, and I opened with a picture of my dog and a quote about how regrettably short a dog’s life can be. I’ve always been one who enjoys a good quote, something so profound that I wish I had said it myself. And the search for such a quote is always enlightening, in one way or another.

The book shown above dates to 1955, the same year that Little Richard went into a recording studio in New Orleans and changed the world with “Tutti Frutti.” Whoever purchased this book in hardcover that year may have paid four or five dollars for it, but they received centuries worth of insights and wise words, all of them arranged by subject in an appendix that makes finding a topical quotation an easy task. Perhaps not as easy as going to the Google and entering a keyword or two, but in the mid 1950s nobody could expect any better than this.

My daily routine, on the days when I’m working from home to help flatten the curve, is to pick up my Bartlett’s, page around in it for a few minutes, find something to fit whatever suits my mood on that day, and share it with those who keep track of my work hours. It sure beats having to pile into a car, drive 45 minutes on city streets and an interstate highway to get to work, and hope that there’s still space available in the parking lot when I get there. Paging through a book for something I can put into an email feels like a pleasure, compared to all of that.

And on some days,  I’ll even have a few minutes to learn something on the Google about the person who the quote was attributed to, which never fails to intrigue me on some level. With so many fascinating people, and all the thought-provoking things they either said or wrote through the centuries, I feel as though I got my money’s worth (whatever amount I spent on it) for this book a long time ago.

There’s an app for the iPhone that offer’s Bartlett’s for the sum of $3.99. That’s much more than I paid for my physical hard copy of the book, and whenever an app has more 1 star reviews than anything else, it’s a pretty good sign that purchasing the app is probably a waste of money. My advice, for what it’s worth, is that if you ever come upon a copy of Bartlett’s, whether at a used book store or especially at an estate sale (assuming we ever see them again), pick it up and spend whatever the seller is asking for. Few investments will ever pay off as much, if only in an intellectual sense.

NOTE: The tile of this post is taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Letters and Social Aims” (1876). Have I read the whole thing? Of course not. But Bartlett’s makes it so that I don’t have to, either.

Working through the grief

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“Dogs’ lives are too short.  Their only fault, really.”  – Agnes Sligh Turnbull

One of the things I’ve been doing during the COVID-19 lockdown is finding interesting quotes from people, about all manner of things. I send an email every morning to sign in for work, and I’ve become very fond of hunting for quotes to share with them, whether in an old copy of Barltlett’s Familiar Quotations, a volume of poetry that may be laying around the house, or even an Internet search for whatever topic strikes my fancy on that day.

There are some usual sources that can always be turned to in a pinch. Not surprisingly, Lincoln is always good for a timely or an interesting quote. The same goes for Emerson, Thoreau, and even Carl Sandburg. But sometimes I have found really deep pearls of wisdom from sources I never though possible, or even from someone I have never heard of before. Such is the case with the writer quoted above. She wrote something for publication in seven different decades, from the 1920s all the way up to the 1980s, when she was in her 90s. So there’s no doubt that she could string a few words together in a compelling fashion. And her words about dogs are very comforting to me right now.

My dog Dooney left us just over two weeks ago, and I’m still struggling with this loss. Many people are suffering from losses these days,  and their losses are compounded by the reality that grieving—at least in a traditional sense—is not permitted right now. So on one level I feel selfish for trying to put a dog on the same level as anyone’s father, brother, friend, or neighbor.

But in a larger sense, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, writing is one form of grief that doesn’t run afoul of social distancing guidelines. I can express my grief, and throw these thoughts out to the whole wide world, and perhaps someone will read the words and understand. A treasured companion of mine for over ten years is gone, and a container of his ashes is all that I have left of him. I can’t change that, so I’ll just have to do what I can to get along without him.

Even losses that have nothing at all to do with COVID-19 are being treated the same way in these times. “Death doesn’t discriminate” as a line from the musical Hamilton goes. (See, I really can’t help it with quotations sometimes.) That has to be beyond frustrating for someone like my friend George, who recently lost his mother. We’ve all been to funerals before, and we know that wakes and funeral processions and words of condolence uttered at the graveside can be a powerful reminder of how much the now-departed person was loved and appreciated. And few, if any, such services are carried out for a dog or a cat or any other type of companion animal. I know the limitations of what I’m trying to say here. But there are many, many people who would show up and offer support, if only they were allowed to do so. And that, too, is a feeling of sadness for untold numbers of people.

The coronavirus has cut a vicious swath through our world, whether we have loved ones who were taken away by the virus or not. I’m very sorry for their losses, and I hope that they can somehow find a way to work through them.

Going back to Lincoln, at least in some sense, here is a poem that he committed to memory, and recited for his friends on several occasions. It’s called “Mortality” by William Knox, a Scottish poet who, ironically enough, died at the very young age of 36.

The Irony of Abraham Lincoln's Favorite Poem – The Log Cabin Sage

These words comforted Lincoln—who knew something about personal loss—and my hope is that they can provide comfort for others, too. Whatever it takes is exactly what all of us need right now.

Teach them how to say goodbye

 

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While the COVID-19 disaster grinds on, with no real ending in sight, everything seems to be getting harder. Although there’s been lots of songs written in the past about Hard Times, none of them could ever foresee the world we’re in right now.

33 million Americans have now applied for unemployment benefits, and the unemployment rate today is higher than it’s ever been before. And the truth is, a considerable percentage of those jobs are probably gone for good. When businesses and restaurants shut down because they can’t bring in customers, everyone loses. The customers lose a place where they could go and spend their money, but the owners and employees of the business lose a lot more than that.

But the people who owned or worked in a restaurant or other business can still go and share their talents someplace else. The building where the business operated can find another tenant to come in. And the customers of the place, the regulars and the one-timers alike, can find some other place that will meet their needs. Some of the best businesses I’ve ever been to have already shut down, or will do so by the time all this is over, whenever that may be.

But life is another story. When a person dies, or even a loved animal companion, there’s a hole in the lives of everyone who is left behind. I wrote about this with my dog Dooney, who was put down two weeks ago. The arrival of his cremated remains earlier this week served as still another reminder that life with him, as much as I enjoyed it, is never coming back.

While trying to process this loss, I learned this week of the sudden passing of a classmate of mine, Jerry D. Lemmon II. I had spent thirteen years as a classmate of Jerry’s, in elementary school and high school, and am providing a picture of he and I, along with a nun and about two dozen other six year-olds, to prove that we went back a very long way. And for the record, he’s on the far right side of the top row, standing next to the nun who was our teacher.

In the years since Jerry and I graduated from high school together, he went his way in life and I went mine. It’s hard for an 18 year-old to understand this, but the majority of the people you go to school with will effectively disappear, once that school bond has been severed.

Facebook has since provided us all with a new avenue for keeping in touch with one another, and that’s something previous generations didn’t have. They have built a very large and successful business by linking us together in ways that weren’t possible at the beginning of this century.

But even with this innovation, an old-fashioned class reunion is still the best way to share a few moments with old classmates. I’ve been to one class reunion, for my 25th anniversary of high school graduation a number of years ago. I saw Jerry there and we spoke for probably a minute, at the most. We weren’t really friends in school, and reunions aren’t meant for making friendships where they didn’t exist before. But it was good to know, after a quarter century had gone by, that he and I were both out there somewhere in the world, doing our respective things. Or, as The Big Lebowski phrased it, abiding.

2020 has, in just a few short months, brought a level of death and disruption that none of us have seen before. And despite the recent calls that we should all venture back out into a literally untested society, where the coronavirus could be lurking in any number of places, we haven’t yet seen how all of this will end up. Until there’s a vaccine, these losses will continue to mount.

COVID-19 didn’t kill my dog, nor did it kill my classmate, so far as I know. But in a society already dealing with so much loss, the cause of these deaths is secondary to the fact that they’re now gone. Who or what will be the next thing to go away from any of us? That we can’t know, and the uncertainty of it is something we can’t change, either.

A large part of the reason I write this blog is to recognize and act upon the mortality of us all. There will come a time I’m not here anymore, and I don’t get to select the date and method of this ending. So while I’m still here, and have a means for doing so, I’m creating a time capsule here on the internet.

It’s not possible or practical to put everything and everybody into this time capsule, but my old classmate Jerry, by virtue of his sudden passing at an early age, is now a part of it. So too are all of my classmates shown above, whether they want to be or not. I may not ever have the occasion to write about any of them by name, but whoever reads this post, at whatever point in the future that will happen, will be able to see their faces and know that they were all here on this planet.

May each of us appreciate the people and things we have in our lives, today and every day that we can.

 

 

The American giant, and a pathetic little man

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The “town hall” meeting that Donald Trump filmed for Fox News (because who else would think this up?) yielded a hilariously bad image for a president who cares about little else besides that. He claimed the setting was Fox News’ idea, but a smarter and less vainglorious man than Trump would have nixed the idea. But Trump went along with it–and in fact he suggested it in the first place–because he’s just foolish enough to believe himself to be Lincoln’s superior. In his diseased mind, he’s everyone’s superior.

The Lincoln Memorial is a fitting tribute to the greatest American president–and perhaps the most consequential American–who ever lived. You really can’t appreciate the magnitude of it until you set eyes on it yourself. It’s always crowded, as it should be, and everyone wants to have their picture taken with the Great Emancipator. The sight of Lincoln rendered in such a resolute pose, and at such a massive physical scale, is truly an experience nobody should ever miss when they find themselves in the nation’s capital.

Trump is always the victor in his version of reality. He’s the smartest, the richest, the most powerful, and whatever other superlatives you want to think up. They all apply to him, and him alone. And yet, he’ll never command the kind of admiration and respect that Lincoln still enjoys, to this day. But Trump will tell us all, with a straight face and the bravado we’ve seen so many times before, that he’s the best president there’s ever been. And it’s because he knows there’s some segment of the population that accepts his every utterance as fact.

Trump should know better than to compare himself with Abraham Lincoln in any meaningful way, but he goes ahead and does it anyway. And in the process, he reveals a smallness–in both a literal and a figurative sense–that he’ll never be able to overcome.

April is National Poetry Month, and it just ended but I wanted to close by sharing a poem about Lincoln that was penned by Berton Bellis. And as you read it, ask yourself if any of this could ever apply to Donald John Trump.

Down thru endless ages,
Came a soul from others apart-
Incased in a body of awkward appearance;
But in a true heavenly made heart.
He was born in a hewed log cabin,
Grew up simple and plain;
This life-on earth a sacrifice,
To remove from liberty a stain.

No pen can give him due credit-
No words the good of his mind;
But his love is forever burning,
In the hearts of all human kind.
The world now bows to his honor,
And hail this emancipator’ name;
Columbia is proud of his memory,
He lives in everlasting fame.

His life of bitter sorrow,
Hard work and saddened tears,
Has made happy millions of humans,
And will for the future years.
O, Father, hear us in heaven!
May his reward increase ten-fold!
To repay for the great good he did us,
While his clay on earth lies cold.

His life is a lesson for the living,
Shows democracy is strength and sand,
That a good mind no matter how humble,
Can spread peace and love o’er the land.
“In God we trust”-our nation all-
Our reward was grand and kind,
For we’ll always live and never fall!
By following this wonderful mind

Those who love and respect Lincoln must not allow this present-day charlatan to usurp anything more than he already has.

 

Farewell, my sweet boy

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In these COVID-19 days, there’s so much loss and disruption going on that it feels overwhelming. Much of this comes from the virus, of course, but the things that happened before the virus took hold continue happening, too. Such was the case today when I said goodbye to my beloved schnoodle, Dooney.

My family brought Dooney home from a rescue shelter in the summer of 2009. For the entire decade of the 2010s (or whatever we’re going to call them) we all lived together, under the same roof and at one address. I don’t doubt that it will be the happiest uninterrupted stretch that I’ll ever know in my lifetime. And Dooney was the oil that made our family unit run the way it did. Whatever disagreements or hardships we encountered, all of us agreed that our dog was what we called “the best boy in Illinois.”

One of the reasons I have enjoyed writing a blog so much is that it allows me to capture moments and feelings that are otherwise terribly fleeting. I recently came upon a passage written by Nathaniel Hawthorne about the “transitoriness of all things.” It’s a bit of a clunky phrase, but it’s also unalterably true.

As much as we might like to, none of us can stop time and freeze things just as they are. The worst situations in life, along with the very best ones, will eventually give way to something else. The planet keeps on spinning, either way.

I went through my media files as I began writing this post, knowing very well that images of my dog Dooney lay hidden away inside. And I’m sharing the ones I found here, to appreciate and remember the years we shared together.

I recommend that anyone who has never read “Eulogy of the Dog” before click on the link, to see if their own experiences line up with what George Vest once told a Missouri jury. It captures my thoughts in this moment perfectly.

Goodbye and thanks for everything, boy. I won’t ever forget all the happiness you brought to me and the ones I love.

FU Coronavirus (Part 2)

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I’ve been thinking about the Michael Jordan Era in Chicago a lot lately. It technically started when the Bulls drafted him out of college in 1984, but for many years it didn’t happen because, well, the team just wasn’t any good. But the team slowly got better over time, and the hated Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons finally moved aside and then it was time to rock and roll.

Gary Glitter’s song Rock and Roll Part 2 was undeniably a part of the experience inside the Chicago Stadium during the Jordan Era. Nobody went there to hear that song, of course, but when it would come over the loudspeakers during a timeout, everybody knew the melody, and everybody shouted out “HEY!” when the time came. And the crowd inside the Stadium rocked along with the music and enjoyed being alive.

I was a part of that thriving, singing mass of humanity just one time, in February of 1993. The Chicago Bulls were the two-time defending NBA champions on that date, still a few months away from the epic showdown with the New York Knicks which cleared the way for what was, in my mind, the most satisfying of the six NBA titles they ultimately won.

Bulls tickets, in those days, were impossible to get. The official stated capacity for a basketball game at the Chicago Stadium at the time was 18,676, with the vast majority of those being season tickets in the hands of people who could afford to have them. The Bulls were the best show in town back then, maybe even the best show anywhere.

The man at the center of it all, of course, was Michael Jordan. If I live long enough to have grandkids (which is still a few years away, I hope) I will tell them at every opportunity that I saw Michael Jordan play basketball at the old Chicago Stadium. They will roll their eyes, of course, but I’ll tell the story anyway.

I somehow got my hands on a standing room ticket which cost (appropriately enough) $23. I stood in the highest reaches of the Stadium for hours on end and had an experience that I can’t quite think of a parallel for. Personal experiences like marriage and childbirth, as incredible as they are, happen on an individual level. There are a few people around, but not a lot. And outdoor experiences like concerts and a Cubs victory rally are also great, but having the open sky above tamps down some of the vibe.

Put 18,676 people together in an indoor space, and get them rocking along to Michael Jordan’s basketball artistry and Gary Glitter’s music, and you’ve really got something special. I’ve spent 27 more years on this earth, hoping to find something that electric, and I haven’t yet done it. I don’t know if I ever will, either.

The Madhouse on Madison wasn’t big enough for the Bulls’ party, so it was torn down in 1994 and the United Center was built across the street. It seats upwards of 20,000 for basketball games, and a few thousand more for concerts. I’ve been to both at the UC, and while the extra capacity is good for the bottom line, the intimacy of the old Stadium just isn’t there anymore.

There’s a generation of people who never had the chance to experience what I did at the Chicago Stadium on a February night back in 1993. And the ones who were in their prime years at the time are getting older now, and some have undoubtedly died off. As Journey once sang, the wheel in the sky keeps on turning.

In the NBA, Kobe and Shaq and Lebron and all the rest have come on the scene, creating whatever magic and memories they can for their fans and the teams they play for. But anyone who ever packed into the old Chicago Stadium to watch Michael Jordan play in the 1980s and early 1990s knows what a unique experience that was.

The news that the United States has just passed 18,676 deaths due to COVID-19, as of the day I’m typing this out in April of 2020, gave me pause. Many people, unless they’ve been inside a concert hall or professional sports arena or maybe a megachurch, have never been part of a throng of humanity that large. And I’m exempting outdoor arenas from this category because, as I’ve said, the open sky changes the experience.

A throng of 18,676 souls, from all walks of life and from every conceivable group that humanity divides itself into, has been taken away by a virus that we can’t see. And there’s no end in sight either, since more than 2,000 Americans, in all but a small handful of states, left us just yesterday.

Donald Trump, who bears more responsibility for these deaths than anyone else, drew a line in the sand at 100,000 deaths, or maybe even more than that. Any death toll under that amount, in his eyes, is a testament to his great leadership. But, as always, he’s full of shit for saying that.

I’ve been in a crowd of almost 19,000 people before, and I know the enormous personal scale that a crowd that size has. To lose that many people in less than two months time is a severe blow, not only for the families of the afflicted, but to all of us as a society. It’s a national catastrophe, and most certainly not a testament to whatever leadership Trump thinks he is providing.

I mourn for those we have lost, and for all those we still will lose in this moment of great national (and global) peril. And a final death toll of under 100,000 Americans will not entitle Donald Trump to crow about anything, although he most certainly will do that. He goes wherever he wants to go, and dares anyone to stop him. And so far, no one has.

I’m not a religious person in any conventional sense (more of a Thomas Paine-styled freethinker, actually), but I am praying that America gets it right in November of this year. The alternative is simply too much to contemplate.

Some People Ain’t Kind

RIP to John Prine. I’m only now discovering his music, and that’s certainly my loss for waiting so long. But those who were in the know about these things are mourning his loss today. It’s such a tragedy that a virus that was officially written off long ago was what finally did him in.

His music stands as his legacy, and we must keep it alive. I nominate the above song, as a microcosm of the thinking that got us to where we are today. Maybe John Prine mentions “some cowboy from Texas” at the end of this song, but “some jerk from New York” would work just as well.

Thank you for the songs, and the insights into who we are.