It’s all hands on deck

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On the first day of this new year, I met up with a cousin I hadn’t seen in a very long time. He was in Chicago with his family, and we met up to see a few sights and–in true Chicago fashion–have some deep dish pizza. It was a great day, and I was happy to begin 2017 by renewing an old acquaintance.

As we were talking over dinner, I mentioned that I write a blog. My cousin asked if it was political, and I replied “It can be.” I didn’t start writing this blog for that reason, and baseball and family and rock and roll–the things that really matter to me–are my principal writing muses. But here in 2017, politics  appears to have crowded out everything else. These times don’t allow for much else besides a discussion of our government system and how to protect it against a despot. For progressives like me, this is our moment of truth.

The fact remains, no matter what is said to the contrary, that Hillary Clinton received millions more votes than Donald Trump did. He entered the presidency with that hanging over everything else, and the tens of millions of people who saw Donald Trump’s name on the ballot and voted for somebody else have a right to feel betrayed by the electoral college. We all were.

The ties to Russia and the hacks directed by Putin and the Kremlin on Trump’s behalf further clouded the matter of Trump’s ascension. How many votes would Trump had lost if this information had come out before the election? We’ll never know for certain, but it’s fair to say at least a few Trump voters may be feeling some buyer’s remorse at their decision.

And then there’s the actions Trump has taken since that dark and desolate Friday, just ten days ago. The immigration ban is by far the worst one, striking at the heart of what America has always been for the rest of the world. Those tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free have been replaced, inside Trump’s warped mind, with a bunch of angry jihadists. The countries where the terrorists actually came from–Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and a couple more–are left alone, while seven countries that are far less of a threat statistically are left out. So what if those seven nations aren’t lucky enough to have a Trump golf course or high-rise within their borders? That’s just a happy coincidence, isn’t it?

Trump’s nominees, from Jeff Sessions on down, must now receive “extreme vetting” by the Democrats in the U.S. Senate. And what about the Supreme Court nominee, who is expected to be announced as early as tomorrow? That needs to be a war like none other that has ever been seen. Clarence Thomas should wince by the time that process is over, if it ever does come to an end.

I love the sight of protests in airports and peaceful marches through cities and towns of all sizes, and all around the world. Trump’s presidency has awakened something that I had always hoped was there: the defiant mood of a people who realize that America is worth fighting for. And fight we must. Resistance is the watchword of whatever number of days or weeks remain in Trump’s presidency. I’m not suggesting violence in the streets, because Trump and the strongman facade will spring into action if that happens. More restraint will be needed, instead. But the cause couldn’t be any more important.

The time for remaining silent probably ended before Trump’s inauguration address. As Thomas Paine once wrote, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the struggle, the more glorious the triumph.” A Mike Pence presidency doesn’t seem like too much of a triumph to me, but we have to get Donald Trump removed from office. Every day his presidency reaches new depths, the likes of which Jefferson and Franklin and the others in Philadelphia could scarcely imagine.

I long for the day when this blog goes back to trivial things like guitar solos and baseball games. But on January 31, 2017, we aren’t at that point. A hard struggle lies ahead, and I’m in for whatever happens along the way.  The continued viability of America is at stake.

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Pick up a pen, start writing

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My heroes are writers. I’ve come to realize this in recent years, probably in some small part because of my experiences with this blog. It will be five years next month that I took the plunge and started collecting my thoughts and stories in one place. And I wish I had started it earlier than I did. But it has taught me a couple of things.

The first thing is that it takes a willingness to open up with yourself. Finding an idea to explore is not hard, but turning it over and spinning it around takes some time and some extra thought. The time is something I don’t always have, and that’s the main barrier to writing more often. But going beyond surface-level thought isn’t easy, either. And writing that which deserves to be read, as Pliny the Elder once called it, requires this step to occur.

The second thing I’ve learned is that inspiration is a funny thing. It strikes at odd hours, and it doesn’t linger for too long. It’s essential to capture a thought and preserve it in the moment, because going back to it an hour later doesn’t work. The thought, whatever it is, won’t wait until you decide to address it. Like a deer staring at you from a distance, once it takes off you won’t be seeing it anymore.

The other day I had occasion to meet a fellow left-hander who enjoys writing. I told her I find writing to be therapeutic, and she indicated that it’s cathartic for her. These ideas both come from the notion that writing is beneficial. As the Beastie Boys and Nas once counseled, if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out. My experience is this is reason enough for writing a blog, or anything else.

When I suggested that writers are my heroes, I was asked for examples. I mentioned Lincoln’s name, along with Alexander Hamilton’s. The amazing musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has inspired me to pick up an old copy of the Federalist Papers, and his writing is exquisite. But there are many more that I wish I had also mentioned, and here are a few: Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Muir, Ernest Hemingway, and Rachel Carson. There are hundreds more, and in three hours I would come up with a list of different names than the ones here. That’s the nature of writing, after all.

I’m not far from the library at Nothwestern where I worked when I was in college. “Library” in an abstract sense for me is pretty much what the old Deering library looks like. But it’s a repository for the work of thousands, if not millions, of writers who managed to create something that endures. I used to handle books written on vellum in the Middle Ages, as well as comic books from the 20th century. The creators of these books, and all the others, committed their ideas to paper, and created something that endures after they’re gone. That’s what writers do. And for five years of my life, I’ve been doing that in this new electronic medium of a blog. It’s been an enjoyable, therapeutic, and cathartic experience, and I’ll keep on doing it for as long as I can.

Beauty with a side of thought

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Last night, I was watching my older daughter’s play at an outdoor venue in the suburbs. The previous two shows had been cancelled because of rain (such are the perils of outdoor performance), and it looked questionable whether last night’s show would meet with the same fate. But the huge puffy clouds in the sky held no rain, and the show went off without a hitch.

At one point during the first act, I noticed that the sunset had started to change the colors of the towering clouds that remained in the sky. I wandered closer to the water, since we were not very far from Lake Michigan, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset, as shown above. The camera didn’t do the scene justice, as it never can in such a beautiful scene. But it was all I could do to capture the moment.

I wanted to be post this picture with a nod to what Henry David Thoreau called “the Great Artist.” Most people consider it to be God (or G-d to those who don’t want to spell out the full name), but I prefer the concept of “The Almighty” which appears in some of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.

I’m not religious in a traditional sense. I like the way Thomas Paine put it in The Age of Reason: My own mind is my own church. Nobody needs to tell me of creeds and prophets and holy books, because I’ll dismiss all of them. Organized religion has always felt like some way for people to claim a kinship with a deity that can never be fully understood. And giving money is always, always, at the root of this kinship.

Tithing and other forms of religious giving might make someone feel closer to their concept of a supreme being, but for me that money goes to put nice suits on the backs of those who profess their kinship most fervently. I have no quarrel with those who do this, but it’s not something I’m comfortable with doing myself.

Am I cynical to believe this? That could be a fair accusation. But organized religion has no place in my world, and never will. I can recognize the hand of some great power in the beautiful sunset I saw last night, but I don’t relate that recognition with the need to sit in a church, listen to a sermon, and drop some money into a basket.

To repeat what Paine said, my own mind is my own church, and my own church exists wherever I can find a nice sunset. No admission fees are required for that.

Paying the price

Over the weekend, my young daughter had a swimming lesson at a park district pool here in Chicago. As she was in the water, I had a chance to do a bit of wandering, and before I knew it I found myself in a used bookstore that I hadn’t known about before. My love for books in general, and used bookstores in particular, has been well-documented in this space, so I went inside and started to look around.

The store’s square footage was limited, since it’s on a busy street in a gentrifying area. I imagine that the rents are very high where the store is, while even five years ago it would have been far more reasonable than it is today. But better to have a bookstore, or any business really, than to let the space sit empty.

The store was a labyrinth of books, literally stacked from floor to ceiling in order to maximize the space they did have. How anyone can browse for books that are far off the ground I never bothered to ask. I figured my time was too limited to get into any of that. I’ll ask about it next time, if there is one.

I had engaged a few of my old friends from high school in a discussion on Facebook earlier in the day, and I had invoked Thomas Paine and his Age of Reason. It occurred to me that I was familiar with the work in a general sense, but hadn’t actually read it before. And what better place to remedy that than in a used bookstore? It was as if I had gone there for exactly that reason, even if it seemed like I was just trying to kill some time during a swimming lesson.

I somehow managed to find a copy of Paine’s work, but there wasn’t a price written inside, as there were with many of the books in the shop. So I took the book to the checkout register, presented my find, and asked what the price was. The proprietor of the shop gave me a price of six dollars, tax included.

The price seemed a bit high, since I’m used to going to garage sales and picking out books for a quarter or fifty cents, at the most. There was also a public library nearby, and I could have probably found a copy of Paine’s book there, for free (that is, once I pay off whatever overdue fines are on my account). The bottom line was that six bucks for a book seemed a bit high to me.

But then I realized that the cost of the book also took into account the rent on the space, and the electric bill, and the heat, when the winter sets in. Used bookstores are a rare treat, in the world of Amazon.com and Wal-Mart selling books and titles on Gutenberg and e-readers proliferating every day. If I want to help keep this bookstore in business, I need to pay a premium to do it. So I dug out the money, handed it to the shop’s owner, and walked away with a couple hundred pages of Thomas Paine’s take on matters of faith.

On my way back to the swimming pool where the lesson was finishing up, I felt good about supporting the cause of bookstores like this one. They’re an endangered breed, with all of the pressures that are building up on them every day. And if I have to kick in a little bit more to get a book that I want, I’ll do that because I’d hate to consider what a world without these types of shops would be like.

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My daughter had a swim lesson at a swimming pool this afternoon. The heat seems to have broken, for now, and it was actually nice to have a summer day without all the sweat.

As my daughter was in the pool, kicking and stroking and generally having fun, I went to the fieldhouse of the park and spotted the box pictured above. It was a tangled mass of exceedingly ugly trophies, medals, and other detritus from a baseball awards ceremony. It made me think about, and want to describe, the trophies that I won when I was a kid.

The first trophy I ever won was when I was nine years old, the same age as my younger daughter is now. There was a batter following through on a swing, and it was gold-plated. There was also a golden eagle next to it, and a nameplate that read “HORACE MANN 1977 CITY CHAMPS.” It was the coolest thing I owned at that point in my life, and I put it on my dresser to make my brother jealous. Sibling rivalry at its finest.

But I got the trophy because my team actually won something. Had we not had a better record than the other teams we played, and won the year-end playoffs, we wouldn’t have had a trophy to get. In other words, just showing up and playing hard wasn’t enough. A trophy was a symbol of accomplishment.

Now fast forward to today. My children have dozens of trophies between them. Soccer, t-ball, skating competitions, whatever. Everybody gets a trophy. Win or lose. The trophy makers love that approach, I’m sure, but it’s far different than it was when I was a kid.

In the depths of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine saved the day when he wrote the American Crisis at the behest of George Washington. Paine’s words inspired the soldiers under Washington’s command to fight on, and it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t be Americans today without those words. Paine wrote, in those dark moments of December, 1776, that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Although Paine was writing about the cause of freedom and liberty, the same sentiment could be applied to a kid and his trophies, two hundred years later. My trophy mattered to me because I won it, while my kids now have participation trophies with a thick layer of dust on them. And so we end up with a box filled with plastic baseballs,  bendable arms and hamburger helper gloves as a result. Call it progress, if you want to, but I’ll have to differ with you on that.

My favorite founder, and a place that shares his name

Friday morning, Paine Hollow, Wellfleet, Mass.

No American ever had a better year than Thomas Paine did in 1776. That’s a pretty presumptuous thing to say, but I believe it, all the same. And since I’m the jury on this one, nobody’s going to change my mind about it, either.

Paine was plucked out of obscurity in England by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is someone I’ve always admired, simply because he was the most prominent American at the time of the Revolution. The king would have loved to make an example out of Franklin for his treason against the British crown. But Franklin added his name to the Revolutionary cause, and that took a lot of courage which I’ll never take for granted. But his suggestion that Paine should cross the Atlantic was an even greater gift to the cause of independence from Great Britain.

I’m on Cape Cod for another week, and even if it’s not where the battles of 1775 were fought, it’s hard not to feel the history in this place. And so, as I’ve driven by signs on Route 6 pointing motorists toward Paine Hollow, I knew I had to come and see it at some point. And this morning I finally did it.

I don’t know for certain that Paine Hollow is named after the author of Common Sense and the man who is thought to have coined the phrase ‘The United States of America.” I’m going to act on this assumption, though, because the name isn’t a very common one. So, as far as I know, someone once appreciated Paine’s contribution to the American cause–that of writing words that were traitorous and treasonous and could have resulted in his execution had the Revolution gone a different way–enough to name a shell bed on Cape Cod in his honor.

Old Paine Hollow Road resembles a driveway more than anything else. You drive along it, hoping that you haven’t wandered on to someone’s driveway by mistake. And eventually it just comes to a dead end, high up above a scene that I wish I could properly describe. I’ll do my best, but it won’t do it justice. Not even close.

The tides come in here on Cape Cod, and they go back out again. And when they do, they leave behind sandy beaches filled with hermit crabs. The crabs scurry away at the site of anyone coming, which gives them their name, I suppose. There’s a line of dead grasses to mark where the water was the night before, and as you walk on the beach you try to imagine what it must look like when the tide is in and there’s water everywhere.

Nature calls the tune at a place like this, and people just have to live with it. They build houses–very large houses, that I could see–up on bluffs, overlooking the hollow itself. But there’s no disturbing what nature does in this space. Not only are shellfish harvested and sold to markets and restaurants, but the cycle of life perpetuates itself, day after day, century after century, for as long as we’re all fortunate enough to be here.

I live in a city that raised itself up, literally, out of a swampy marsh. I also live near a place where the flow of a river was reversed, so that sewage could float away from the Great Lakes rather than into it. I work in an office building that defines urban sprawl, meaning that a parking lot sits where birds and other wildlife once roamed free. So this type of cooperation with nature, and even deference to it, is refreshing to me. And it just happens to be named for my favorite founding father, to boot. I like it.

Paine may or may not have ever seen this particular place, but he would probably identify with it if he had. Suburban sprawl around Houston or Phoenix or Las Vegas, he wouldn’t recognize. But this place he would. And I have to believe that’s the best tribute to him of all.