Ironies

“It is innocence that is born and experience that dies.

It is innocence that knows and experience that

does not know.

It is the child who is full and the man who is empty.”

From “Innocence and Experience” in “God Speaks,” Charles Péguy

 

“That’s not fair!” screams the fuming child. And sometimes they’re right. An outraged young child is quick to spot hypocrisy and irony, and it is the adult who points out in our maturity how sometimes it is necessary to tolerate a bit of it, to comprehend the subtlety, to live with the accepted cruelty and how life isn’t always fair. And sometimes we’re right. And sometimes we’re rationalizing the irrational.

Several stories and threads have prompted a “that’s not fair!” reaction from me, and perhaps the adult in me must learn to adjust my expectations of justice and accommodate the irony of that adjustment. Comes with maturity and experience, I’m sure.

Cecile Richards, the million-dollar compensated president of Planned Parenthood, complained, “I’m infuriated. “I’m heartbroken,” when describing her reaction to President Trump’s decision to put immigration reform back where it should be with Congress by reversing the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive actions of President Obama. Let me state up front, I have great sympathy for the plight of immigrants and Dreamers, and profoundly hope for a just and compassionate permanent resolution and have written to my representatives and senators in support of a solution. But to get back to Ms. Richards, she continued, “Here at Planned Parenthood, we firmly believe that every person has the right to live….” Huh? Her organization profits greatly by taking the lives of over 320,000 pre-born humans each year, presumably with their own “right to live.” Irony doesn’t seem to quite cover it.

In a somewhat related irony, the New York Times, among others, made it a campaign to excoriate and ruin David Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress. If you can remember and stomach the videos, the CMP published on line a series of exposé videos of Planned Parenthood showing PP executives bargaining for better prices to sell baby parts and laughing over cocktails about some of the amusing incidents that occur when they diligently apply their skills to crush skulls to save hearts, livers and lungs or crush hearts, livers and lungs to save intact skulls and brains to maximize the profits. At the same time, the NYT’s ran a whole series based on undercover videos about the gratuitous cruelty of Big Farming slaughterhouse practices. Perhaps the quote of Ingrid Newkirk (founder of PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” should at least infer that the boy might have the same rights as the rat, dog and pig, but I suppose that asks too much. Great article on this by Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “Why Animal Lovers Should Abhor Planned Parenthood.”

 “Truth is too simple for us: we do not like those who unmask our illusions.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Occasionally public figures inexplicably give us an unexpected glimpse into their inmost thoughts. Such was the case in 2009 when in an interview with Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this about the archetype judicial activism decision, Roe v Wade, in 1973, “Frankly I thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” Ah, so it is revealed. Margaret Sanger, the founder of the country’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, made no secret of her eugenics agenda and her disdain for the poor, the immigrant, the minority who so heedlessly breed children. [i] Apparently, Ms. Sanger’s intellectual offspring have retained her biases and her program.

“Not so!” you protest. “Current practitioners of the craft of baby dismembering are not eugenicist and racist!” Just so. Since over 78% of Planned Parenthood clinics are within walking distances of minority neighborhoods, and over thirty percent of abortions are perpetrated on the eleven percent of the population that is black, one must reflect if Sanger’s successors are just more adept in hiding the motivation behind their campaign.

The intensity and animosity between the ideologically estranged seems to deepen by the week.  “Repugnant Cultural Others” are group defined, self-defined. We use them as a mechanism in our human predisposition for what Cass Susstein named “global polarization” in 1998, that tendency to become increasingly radicalized in our opinions and proposed remedies as well as self-limiting our choices for conversation and reasoned discourse. Circumscribing our lives by drawing an inclusion/exclusion circle by meticulously defining our RCOs and taking great care to leave them out in the cold.

So those opposed to (or who favor) gun control (or abortion or for quelling global warming) talk only to each other, become more convinced of the righteousness of their position and move more radically towards the poles pushing for drastic action.[ii]   Since the kindling of the social media wildfire, this phenomenon has exponentially intensified. Only a few minutes reading posts about opinions with which the posting disagrees proves the point, using terms like “moron” or “hopeless idiot” or “evil” or expletive deleted. Tallying “Likes” has replaced moral debate.

Subsequent generations also seem to worsen incrementally. Sometimes the apple falls from the tree and rolls way down the hill. Such seemed the case with a previous Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., son of the esteemed poet and professor of the same name. Justice Ginsburg was not the first Supreme to promote a draconian solution for those troubling other human beings who were not worthy of breathing the same rarified air as the self-satisfied elites. Justice Holmes advocated publicly for “sterilizing idiots.” Since his father, I expect, never imagined a society in which he would live that would contemplate such things, there is one final irony for today, and not a comforting one.

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

[i] See prior post, Maggie, Part Two

[ii] See “The Law of Global Polarization,” Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago Law School, John M Olin Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91 12/7/1999 Available free on line: http://www.law.uchicago.edu/Publications/Working/Index.html

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Rockee Sing, Dad, Do Rockee Sing

“it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me.” From “His Last Game,” Brian Doyle [i]

We read to our youngest girls every night at bedtime, as we had with our older children, and when they were still of fit on my knee age, I would hold both, a book held between them, in the chipped, painted black frame wooden rocking chair with the woven wicker seat and back. As they grew sleepy, and so did I, we would rock together, and I would sing softly. Sometimes a slightly misremembered song my father sang to us. “Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. Hush, now don’t you cry. Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. It’s an Irish lullaby.” [ii]

Another regular lullaby was “Lord, You are more precious than silver. Lord, You are more costly than gold.  Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares to You.” When Angela was three and Meg was born, I brought Angela to meet Meg now outside Rita’s womb. As we were leaving Women and Infants Hospital in Providence to go home after the introduction, Angela, our koala bear hugger, was wrapped around me. Walking back to the parking lot, she sang in a clear, but sleepy voice, “Lord You are.”  [iii]

Thousands of nights, week over week, year over year. I have a vivid memory of one night, while smelling their freshly washed hair against my cheek and gently rocking, a memory filled with longing. I remember thinking that there would be a last night I would do this, and I wouldn’t know when it ended. I don’t remember the last night.

When they were little, we started with books like “Cat in the Hat” with Sally and the troublesome house wrecking Thing One and Thing Two. “Maple Hill Farm” with its multiple, memorable animal characters. Beatrix Potter’s “Tale of Peter Rabbit” with Peter, the fearsome Mr. McGregor and Flopsy Mopsy. So many books now in boxes or with granddaughters.

As they grew, we moved to the couch or pillows on the floor. The whole Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series with a house on the prairie built of cut sod and thatched roof or a house in the woods built of logs. Dreamy, restless, loving, hardworking Charles. Resolute, long suffering, cheerful Caroline. Mischievous, adventurous Laura and kind, quiet Mary who loved her little sister and was struck blind during an illness and eventually became a teacher. The bargain Caroline negotiated with the terrifying Plains Indian in full war paint when Charles was away. “The Long Winter” we read in a cold New England winter, and we cuddled and shivered under blankets. The rope Charles strung from house to barn so that during one of the many, interminable blizzards, he would not lose his way to drag down hay for the animals and milk the cow, essential daily chores. Without the rope we were told, he could easily miss the barn in the blinding snow, although it was only ten yards from the house. And in missing it, perish to be found in the spring when the melting came.

The entire Chronicles of Narnia series with the handsome Prince Caspian and the heroic mouse, Reepicheep: Unhand the tail! No fear! No retreat!  The Dawn Treader. The Magician’s Nephew. Marvelous, unforgettable C.S. Lewis stories. Most of all the first: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” with Peter, Lucy and the traitorous Edmund sent to live with the professor to escape the London Blitz. Through the magic wardrobe: The White Witch, Ice Queen. Poor friendly, brave, frozen Mr. Tumnus. And the noble, suffering, then triumphant Aslan, Lion: kind and terrifying; sacrificed, humiliated, then resurrected to redeem with overwhelming power the ice-covered, bleak land from the White Witch’s cruel spell.

Later we read Lewis’s dear friend J.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” with pleas each night for just one more chapter. Bilbo and Gollum, goblins, hobbits, dwarves, elves, a dragon and wizards. Literally wonderful. One December, we read Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” with chains, doorknobs, ghosts, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge, Tiny Tim and small crutches enshrined in the corner of the simple kitchen, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Future. And tombstones. Reawakening and miracles. So many books, so many years

We continued to read aloud each night as a family into their pre-teen years. One summer, when Angela and Meg were older, college and high school, we rented a cottage on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, near my brother Martin’s summer home. Rita and I couldn’t travel up there until Sunday, but Meg and Angela wanted to go up and open the camp on Saturday when the rental period began. The nights were still chilly. While the invitation was open at Marty’s to stay there, the sisters wanted to stay with each other in our camp – listen for the night call of the loons and watch for the reflection of stars on the water like they did so many times at the other Maine camp on Webb Lake in Weld, where we vacationed for a decade every summer. When the moon rose, and the night grew quiet over Great Pond, they curled up on the couch and read to each other.

Some memories dim and become blurry like a hazy, slightly out of focus special effect in an art film.  Some do not.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem — “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.”  Epitaph – Cardinal John Henry Newman  

[i] Lovely, lyrical, poignant, simply and profoundly true. Written upon his brother Kevin’s death. https://notredameclassof1969blog.blogspot.com/2017/05/his-last-game-by-brian-doyle-78-for-his.html?view=flipcard&m=1

[ii] Toora, Loora, Loora. Bing Crosby.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aw9B49epS_M

[iii] Lord You Are. Paul McClure, Bethel Church. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2hGhWiAMQk

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Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells

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Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.

 

[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter

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Tough Guy

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”  Dylan Thomas

When I first told a friend six years ago I was thinking of going to work for a family owned company in Southeast Massachusetts, he paused. Deeply experienced and well placed in the lumberyard network, his knowledge and wisdom is highly regarded. He told me it was a great company with strong ownership, well established and financially sound.  Then he asked with a slight hesitation, “But have you met John yet?”  John, as it turns out, headed purchasing for his brother’s company and was a well-known terror of the vendor community: cynical, tough, quick to criticize in colorful language. At any perceived slight or error that cost John’s company time or money or service to its customers, a supplier could quickly be locked out of new business and roundly bad mouthed to anyone who would listen.  A supplier was either in or out; the line could be easily crossed and difficult to traverse back in the other direction. John could be vindictive and harsh.

John emigrated from the Azores in 1968 with his younger brother Joe when they were teenagers. Both quickly established themselves through intelligence, incredible work ethic and proving themselves to be men of their word. However, their personalities were very different. Joe was quieter, a serial entrepreneur, who started several companies and assembled a business conglomerate in Dartmouth: first a gypsum commercial installation outfit with a hundred employees, later a building material supply company to supply the first, then branching out into residential and commercial real estate development companies, and others. John went to work for Berkshire Hathaway at their textile mill in New Bedford, and with his skills quickly moved up the ladder into supervisory and management positions.

When his kid brother called and asked for his help in his start-up building material company, John, who loved his brother, came there in the nineteen eighties, when Dartmouth Building Supply was a couple of trailers full of sheetrock. Together they built it, inventing it as they went. John was the shipper, truck driver, forklift operator and soon the yard foreman, shipper, receiver and warehouse manager all rolled into one. Tireless, John opened and closed the place. Through the years they built a fifty-million-dollar company with millwork, all manner of building materials and a kitchen cabinet showroom. Over a hundred and ten employees and their families have come to trust Dartmouth Building Supply for their livelihood and a thousand builders and customers trust it to keep their jobs supplied.

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” Robert F. Kennedy

John died in May at the young age of sixty-six after months of a courageous and dignified battle against cancer. My experience with John was not what I expected when I learned of his hard ass reputation. John would stop by my office to talk, sometimes about the lumber market or an issue in the yard, sometimes about fishing on his boat or a trip or his kids and grandkids. Never once in the six years we worked together did he fail to come through when I needed help:  current commodity pricing for a large job, an update on what to expect in the market, buying out a large job to cover the company’s exposure. And while I saw his rough treatment of suppliers and sometimes employees, I never experienced the wrath or the scorn. I was always treated with respect and kindness. John would share his lunch in a minute if it was something he thought I would enjoy.

The company has the benefit of being family owned, and kids, grandkids and pets are frequent visitors to the offices. When John was with his grandkids, the vendors would not recognize the big teddy bear clearly loved unreservedly by his grandchildren as they ran to greet him for a hug and to be carried around.

Joe told a story to a friend and co-worker about when he and John were kids near on St. Michael’s and Joe took pity on his grandfather’s dog, which was always chained to a tree. He released the dog, which bit someone, and John took the blame, catching a beating in the process. I’ve come to believe that much of John’s irascible ways and impatience at work was rooted in the same protectiveness he felt towards his brother. An underperforming employee or supplier was a personal affront, someone taking advantage of his brother’s generous nature. And that is something John could not and did not abide.

At his funeral, a beautiful and well planned Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s in South Dartmouth, there were two large new Dartmouth Building Supply trucks heading up and following the hundred or more cars making the journey with John from the funeral home. The outpouring of genuine, impossible to falsify love from his family moved me to tears. His wife of nearly forty-three years, Fatima, was inconsolable, his son Shawn and daughter Laura stunned and unashamedly weeping. John fought with extraordinary valor against an implacable foe to make sure he could be there for Laura’s wedding in January.

The reputation and the man, complex like all of us, will be remembered differently by many, and surprising to some. With all due respect to my friend who gave to me his best advice out of kindness, the rest of the business world saw a truly tough and sometimes abusive guy.  Those of us, who came to know him, saw glimpses of another John, a guy who liked nothing better in this world than to take the boat out with his son and catch a striper or tuna, and a son who felt the same way. Therein lays a legacy, an obituary worth writing and a life worth living.

 “In that other room, I shall be able to see.”  Helen Keller, speaking of her imminent death.

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Pastoral Pools and Quiet Eddies

“In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight. Not people die, but worlds die in them.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I noted last month with passing sadness the passing of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He died in Tulsa, having taught there and in New York City for many years. His was the first volume of poetry I can recall buying, before Yeats or Eliot or Robert Frost, I read Yevtushenko. The 1962 paperback sits somewhere among many other books in a box in our basement. Yevtushenko was never a full blown Russian dissident like Solzhenitsyn, but he contributed to the awakening of Soviet Union freedom in the sixties. Babi Yar was his breakout poem[i], and it described the Nazi murders of 34,000 Jews in a ravine outside of Kiev that foretold of millions more. Written as a protest of the Soviet Union’s pogroms and history of antisemitism, and its refusal to erect a monument to those who died at Babi Yar, Yevtushenko cried out an appeal to the Russian conscience:

 

 

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

  Yevtushenko is forever linked to Dmitri Shostakovich, censored by Joseph Stalin, whose Thirteenth Symphony is entitled Babi Yar after Yevtushenko’s poem, which is recited with other Yevtushenko poems during the performance. The most well-known recorded performance of which in America was with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony with Sir Anthony Hopkins reading the narrative. All of this started me thinking about some recent reading and the decline of poetry, which is little read today even in universities and is increasingly the province of an esoteric small community and obscure journals. And rhyme is infrequently employed, nor has it been in many years.

“Simple human beings like rhyme better than prose, though both may say the same thing, as they like a curved line better than a straight one, or blue better than grey; but, apart from the sensual appetite, they chose rhyme in creating their literature for the practical reason that they remembered it better than prose. Men had to carry their libraries in their heads.” Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams

The marginalizing of poetry has a price. Permit me an inept analogy and story. Dick Leary was the Information Technology Manager for my first lumber company before we called such a person an IT Manager; Dick was the computer guy. We had seventeen locations and seven hundred employees and ran what was a precursor to the cloud – dumb terminals at a hundred work stations all logged into a one lung old remote Sperry mainframe, Unix based with green screens and menus. Dick was a true eccentric and an aficionado of craft beers a few decades before that became fashionable. He lived near Meredith in the lakes country of New Hampshire. The Sperry lived upstairs in the offices at our Meredith store.

Over a beer or two, Dick would bemoan the coming of Windows, GUIs and related technological advancements. He was a lover of concise code back before the rapid growth of storage enabled programmers to ply their craft almost without regard to memory limitation.  He thought that this profligacy lacked imagination and the genius of the early code writers, when every byte was carefully planned – a wasteful proliferation of dead code layered upon dead code like vestigial organs. Dick was admittedly obsessed with what he perceived as a degradation of brevity and elegance, a distinction that escaped the rest of us.

“Again, and again we are told by all sorts of priggish and progressive persons, that mankind cannot go back. The answer is that if mankind cannot go back, it cannot go anywhere. Every important change in history has been founded on something historic: and if the world had not again and again tried to renew its youth, it would have been dead long ago.”  G.K. Chesterton from his book on Robert Lewis Stevenson

The analogy to computer programming breaks down as all analogies do at some point, however, at the risk of seeming a cranky eccentric, the underlying point of Dick’s complaint is more than mere nostalgia and resistance to change. And neglecting history and the wisdom of centuries has more import and impact than forgetting FORTRAN and COBOL.

Our poems and songs were necessary to human memory of who we are for ten thousand years or more. They enabled us to learn and grow. Technology for information storage started slowly with the Guttenberg press, advancing to linotype and typewriters, which was the state of the art when I was in high school reading Yevtushenko sitting on the floor of a bookstore, not so long ago in history really. Currently with the development of nanotechnology and the “internet of things,” the sum of accumulated human knowledge, much of it layered on like Dick’s superfluous programmer’s code, doubles every twelve months, and is projected to double every twelve hours.[ii] Take a deep breath and think about that: the sum of all human knowledge that took us twenty thousand years to accumulate will double every twelve hours. How much of that data is useful or edifying or gifts us with wisdom, counsel, truth and beauty is a matter of concern and doubt, but the volume is imposing.

Trying to “drink from a firehose” has become a favored cliché of news commentators. In the last twelve hours, it has become woefully inadequate. Perhaps the appropriate metaphor is more like trying to drink from the uncontrollable rapids of a flooding river.[iii] Caution must be taken by every person to drink from pastoral pools and quiet eddies: to seek quiet, to think and read what is truly worth our increasingly finite time. Elegance and brevity and the carefully chosen word needs to be honored and preserved in mind and soul or we endanger some of what makes us human, washed away in the deluge.

“A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly it is a thing of love.” St Augustine

[i] http://remember.org/witness/babiyar

 

[ii] http://www.industrytap.com/knowledge-doubling-every-12-months-soon-to-be-every-12-hours/3950

 

[iii] The irony of writing this on my laptop in one of perhaps  millions of blogs is not lost on me.

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Sticky Butt

Sticky Butt[i]

“I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.” E.B. White

I killed one of the new chicks  a couple of  weeks ago because I didn’t know enough about ‘sticky butt.’ Thinking the intimate task of vent cleaning could be procrastinated and hoping it would take care of itself I neglected basic chick care. Not understanding that something malevolent was backing up, we discovered our ignorance when early one morning our still fuzzy golden Orpington was lying on her side unmoving with hazed eyes, and the other chicks were unmindfully stepping on her having tired of pecking her.

In Maine, we kept laying hens, but they were given to us when they were about six months old by a friend who was moving to Alabama. By six months they are laying eggs every day and the deadly sticky butt is no longer a threat. As we have learned since, hens caring for their chicks keep them warm, show them where the food and water are and clean their little butts. Humans must learn this expertise along with many other forgotten skills necessary to take care of our egg providers.

“The most solid piece of scientific truth I know of is that we are profoundly ignorant of nature. “  Dr. Lewis Thomas [ii]

Rita’s grandparents were first generation immigrants during the Great Depression before the welfare state. Egg laying chickens and broilers were kept along with an annual pig and a large vegetable garden. They knew how to slaughter and dress them, how to make sausage, render the fat and store hams and bacon, preserve meat, can vegetables, and all the intricacies of soil, sun, bugs, composting and keeping the soil sweet where it’s needed and acidic where tomatoes grow. Egg shells for calcium to keep the tomatoes from rotting as they ripen: so many skills and such deep knowledge of the earth and self-provision. Skills and knowledge, we do not have.

Our immediate forebears knew how to hunt, how to field dress, take home, prepare and cook game. They knew where to find tasty edible mushrooms that won’t poison us, what sort of ground hosts wild blueberries, where the black raspberries could be picked. How to repair almost anything in their house was second nature—from basic carpentry, plumbing and electrical to finding, cutting and splitting the wood for their stoves. The relationship of tides to harvesting the plenty of the water, what blooms when, the differences in using and identifying oak from maple and walnut. How an apple tree is pruned and when, a pear tree, a cherry. How to plant gardens and a wide variety of trees, flowering and fruit bearing shrubs. How to grow grapes and make wine. How to put in a good fence or a rock wall. What do we do when the shovel hits a rock or a root or solid ledge? When do we till the soil and how do we put it to bed in the fall to prepare it for the next spring?

Mostly through work experience and home gardens, I have learned quite a bit about some of these things and some about all of them, however, my acquaintance with them is full of gaps, and I had little hands on learning curve around the house when I was young. I was above average mostly at mowing the lawn. Felling trees, heating a house with a woodstove, framing and finishing a house, gardening, raising chickens and fixing a variety of tools and household problems came later with some expensive on the job training. As a friend of mine who managed skills and knowledge teaching for a large corporation once told me: we pay for a training program whether we have one or not.  From what I’ve seen, most Americans, especially the majority who are urban dwellers are similarly disadvantaged.

Most troubling is not the lack of basic survival skills that were familiar and natural to our most recent ancestors and almost all of those before them, but the distancing of ourselves from natural things. We have made incoherent efforts to further distance our children, whose experience of nature is even more bound up in a high definition screen, and a lot of the time transfixed and passive in front of that screen is burnt up with distraction, games, pop culture and worse.

The remedies are simple and difficult: shut it off, learn to lie on the ground and look up at the sky again, to feel dirt, vegetation, rocks and roots under our feet. Reacquaint ourselves with sweat, sun, weather pleasant and adverse, sore muscles not made so in a gym with loud music and large screen TVs. Reacquaint ourselves and our children with the constellations and planets in the night sky someplace with no ambient light from sources having any connection to an electric power plant – just illumination with light that has been journeying toward us for a billion years. Fill our spirits and imagination with real things created by divine Imagination, not disjointed visions written by strangers in bytes, zeros and ones.  Our minds were designed to seek and know natural wonders, beauty and truth. Find them.

“Statistically, the probability of any of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”[iii]  Dr. Lewis Thomas

[i] As named at the Agway store where we bought the chicks. In the chicken whisperer book the condition is called “pasty butt.” Whatever its name, it cannot be taken lightly when one is responsible for the care of chicks. Probably not all that good for people either, should the symptoms present themselves.

[ii] Lewis Thomas, physician, essayist, poet and more was a profound influence on many, including me. His elegantly written books “Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher” and The Snail and The Medusa: More Notes of a Biology Watcher” taught me many things when I was young that have not been forgotten.

[iii] It has been calculated that the probability of human existence is statistically practically null, ten to an exponential power with 183 zeroes after it. If the temperature of the universe in the first seconds after the Big Bang varied by a millionth of a degree in either direction, no carbon would have ever been formed. Similar limits exist for the formation of free water molecules. No carbon, no water, no evolution, no life. Odds of say, the city of Rome or Chicago suddenly dropping from the sky full born ex nihilo are less. If this “anthropic principle” does not indicate design to us and hence the presence of a Designer, there is a willful blindness, a credulousness based on contorting perceptions of reality to fit locked down preconceptions, at least so it seems to this slogging blogger.

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Brothers in the Morning

“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” Alexander the Great

Last week on a cold early morning with a sharp wind coming up from the bay, I stopped at my favorite coffee watering hole where a small crew has been framing an addition in the back of the restaurant. Two of the carpenters were walking from their pick-ups parked in back, dressed for the weather, gloves without fingers, tool belts over their shoulders, talking quietly with easy familiarity.

I remembered thousands of mornings that began each day with similar working friendships: fence crews, carpenter crews, landscape crews, workshop crews of various kinds for fabricating doors, windows, cement forms, nailing pickets on fences, and most especially and fondly tree climbing crews. So many tree climbing crews, large or only two or three men, in Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Rhode Island. Convivial or occasionally contentious, we mustered each morning in weather fair or foul, and set about doing something together that needed doing.

We rarely spoke of politics or the news and never in meaningless loaded bludgeon words like inclusivity or diversity or multiculturalism; we talked about the coming tasks that day – the seventy-foot dead silver maple hanging over a swimming pool or roof or power lines, and how to get the damn thing safely on the ground without injury to property or persons, about chainsaws and handsaws, peaveys and winches, ropes and knots, solid high crotches in the tree to tie into, safe and central. We spoke of trucks, saws and chippers that broke down and trees that had almost killed us. We talked about wives and girlfriends and children and good looking waitresses and beer. In the trucks on the way to the morning’s job, we planned for and complained about the cold, the heat, the wind, the rain, the snow and ice. Sometimes we bemoaned the previous night’s disaster for Red Sox, Bruins or Patriots, or we celebrated a hard-won victory and the miraculous catch the center fielder made climbing the wall to save the game and how the bull pen finally closed out the late innings with no damage.

We spoke of real things, not in slogans, not cant and constructs, but in clear sentences to convey to one another our thoughts, hopes, fears, lives and plans.

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” Kenyan proverb

The more experienced taught the new guys, and, of course, some mentors rode the rookies derisively for their lack of skills. But they watched out for them, nonetheless. Stopped them before they fell or cut themselves (or their ropes). The rough humor was constant. I remember getting into trouble about forty feet in the air with an ill-advised decision that left me dangling precariously. My foreman Bill yelled up that since Rita was such a beauty he and others on the crew would make sure to go over to console her if I couldn’t get myself out of the mess I was in.  Another day when I was coming down with my rope securely tied in, Bill lay in wait because I was coming down in an open area well clear of the trunk of the tree. He sprung from the bushes and grabbed my rope. With a quick expert roll, he wrapped my feet, preventing further descent. Then he spun me until I was horizontal and my mouth snapped open with centrifugal force.

The jokes were part of the training, training in skills, knowledge and teamwork. When the foreman issued an edict, debate was not considered. The seniors knew what they were about and taught as they had been taught, and their teachers before them. Bill was a gifted athlete and a savant climber, respected and liked. He taught neophyte climbers like me how to fall if necessary (he was a veteran of the 101st Army Airborne) and more importantly to avoid falling. Tension would build in the crew when truly unnerving challenges arose. Bill had a gift for defusing fear and self-focus; it was about the team, covering each other, keeping an eye out for each other’s safety, the ground men making sure the climber’s lines were never tangled in brush should he need to get out of harm’s way in a hurry. Lunch might include rock throwing or axe throwing contests, foot-lock climbing for height and time, arm wrestling or story telling of demented tree felling events in the histories of the more experienced.  The stories always had lessons.

Men have learned and worked together in such crews, each person with a necessary role in the team, since they hunted with spears and clubs. Worker’s guilds and medieval artist guilds evolved from those groups. The first universities were born of these patterns of order based on experience and talent; the teacher’s organization and the masons who constructed the buildings were so modeled. Men relate differently to and with each other in such crews than they relate to women or in mixed gender gatherings.  For those who have not experienced that brotherhood in crews, teams, the military, it cannot be fully understood.

“The anthropologist Lionel Tiger, in Men in Groups, earned the wrath of feminists when he suggested that men had been primed by the exigencies of the hunt to form hierarchically organized groups, with each man performing a particular task, all of coordinated in a team movement to bring down the mammoth or the wild boar. Some feminists countered by saying that women too had to form groups in order to locate and gather berries, which was a strange way of proving Tiger’s point. Berries do not run forty miles an hour. Berries do not have antlers, hooves or fangs.” From the section, “The Triumph of Brotherhood” in Dr. Anthony Esolen’s latest, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”, which I highly recommend.

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Milk Run

“There is no better way to understand an animal than to milk a cow twice a day. Every day.” Anonymous

 cows-loungingRay Hall was a spare, reticent, tall man, slightly stooped with practical plastic framed sturdy eye glasses and a baseball cap. He was a dairy farmer on the North Road in Mount Vernon, Maine, who, when he chose to deploy it on necessary occasions, had a warm smile. His farm was clean, well-organized, closely scheduled and had many cows with breeds I can’t remember; I think Guernsey and Holstein. They decorated the fields and hills behind the barn in paintable pastoral beauty.

The Halls were generations deep in Mount Vernon; Ray’s son built a ranch house on the property with his wife, preparing to continue the traditions. Milk was collected each day in a separate small room off the big barn into a spotless chilled stainless steel tank that had an interior slowly rotating mixer to keep the cream from separating. Fresh cold milk has the improved character that new eggs with tiny feathers stuck to them have for those who have raised hens (as we have) or have had the good fortune to live near an egg farm. The taste, the color, the wholesomeness is qualitatively better than the stored, pasteurized, homogenized factory product.

Several of us might gather in Ray’s milk room and catch up on gossip while we waited our turn to refill our bottles. In a town like Mount Vernon, we enjoyed every opportunity to stay current with the goings on of our neighbors; most of the talk was benign. Folks wanted to be able to help if needed, or at least be aware of the sensibilities.

Ray sold his milk to Cumberland Farms, which would send the tank truck to haul off the day’s production for processing and bottling. For the locals, however, who brought their own clean bottles, there was a spigot on the tank and an honor system cash box nearby. Seventy-five cents a gallon, as I remember, but it was a long time ago. The milk had to be shaken before pouring to blend the cream back in unless we let it rise to the top and skimmed some for coffee or whipping or recipes. We’ve never had better milk before or since.

 “My father..liked to be a farmer. He enjoyed his dairy farm and felt the calling. So there was a dedication. I was dedicated as a child to the service of God, and so there was this continual centering of a greater purpose than your own.”  Phil Jackson

In the spring of 2010, armed federal marshals and state troopers raided the Amish dairy farm of Dan Allgyer called Rainbow Acres. Almost a year of expensive investigation preceded the raid. The customers were not deceived, understood the potential risks, trusted the farmer and made the informed decision that raw milk unprocessed by machinery was healthier and tasted better; some people cannot drink milk that has been heated, bagged and tagged in a factory. The Federal government thought differently, showed up with a warrant, then bagged and tagged Dan instead.

Two aspects of this struck me; they are closely related, perhaps ‘inextricably entwined:’

We have been distanced incrementally from the sources of our food and consequently from authenticity. We are increasingly an X Box, artificial intelligence (oxymoron?), virtual reality culture. Rita’s grandparents on both sides raised their own vegetables and fruit, made their own wine, raised, slaughtered and dressed chickens and an annual pig, making sausage, bacon, hams and the thin sliced cured ham miracle called prosciutto; neighbors would line up at their house for it. The skills commonly known to our grandparents to milk cows, grow gardens, hunt or raise our own animal protein or merely wander at leisure in fields and forests are being stripped away to be replaced with LED screens and speakers. Much time and energy is spent to entertain and distract ourselves from the human contact, work and real life dirt, calluses and sweat necessary to sustain us.

 bureaucracy-cartoonSecondly, we surrender ourselves and even welcome a self-perpetuating huge bureaucratic Federal apparatus which has been granted more and more free rein to rein us in. The monolith desires to protect us from any freedom that could possibly cause us harm as perceived by a progressive nanny state. We far too frequently don’t get to decide what level of risk we are willing to pursue to live more closely in touch with real things, events and places. In this usurpation of liberty, we drift ever closer to the Borg and distance ourselves ever further from the vision of the Founding Fathers for an independent, virtuous and knowledgeable electorate.

Journey down to Washington, DC and walk past the astonishingly large gray office buildings housing the minions and machinery of the bureaucracy. It just might give you pause.

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint… But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in cleaned, carpeted, warmed and well lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy…” C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters.”

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Alternate Facts

Alternate Facts

“The lowest form of popular culture—lack of information, misinformation, disinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism.” Carl Bernstein

newspapersPaul was an officious stiff, unattractively convinced of his own self-importance, as lawyers can be sometimes, but I did feel guilty when his wife, whom I had never met, cried over the phone when she tried to make me understand that he was just trying to do the right thing for the town and how could I write such awful things about her husband?  Didn’t realize a guy like that might have someone who loved him. So maybe I didn’t have the stomach for it after all.

The night before, working as a stringer for a daily paper, was typical. Attend a local planning board meeting; take copious notes in my official reporter’s pocket notebook, secure in the back of the hearing room as a cocky upstart of the fourth estate.  Run back to my 1956 Chevy pickup and drive to the newsroom office and join four or five others beating a midnight deadline for the morning paper. Bad coffee out of the machine with chemical cream, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray and banging away with two fingers, we raced to keep it short with few adjectives, none of them purple, and long on finding some sort of headline to draw the reader’s interest and the advertiser’s money. Controversy was desirable, if not mandatory[i]. Though in high school and college I had gained typing proficiency with all hands-on-deck, in the newsroom only women reporters exhibited those skills. The guys eschewed full fingered participation, so I quickly revised my technique and picked up speed on the old shared typewriter using twenty percent of the digits available to me. Macho vanity has few limits. Editing was red lined, then cut and pasted with actual paste and scissors, sentence by sentence and paragraph on the final copy submitted to the typesetters.

I forget the details, something about a set-back requirement for an addition that was being infringed by a foot or two, and the board, led by Paul, barring a zoning appeals board effort, was about to cost the homeowner a large amount of money. I turned up what I saw as a conflict of interest from a previous kerfuffle between Paul, in his law practice, and the homeowner, while rummaging through the files at the newsroom doing a quick background search on old stories (real paper files way before Google or Lexis Nexis were even imagined, much less verbs). Throwing that perhaps unrelated story into the second paragraph, heedless of what effect the unproven connectedness of the two issues might have on the parties involved, I submitted the story, pleased the local news editor and went home. I had, after all, called Paul’s house for a comment, but for some reason they didn’t answer their phone at ten thirty.

I had established early on that to please an editor with his brutal red pencil, one had to write cleanly, try to get the facts straight, but be careful about which facts were included and which ones were avoided, especially if they conflicted with the editor’s ideology or preferences about local personalities. I was a fast learner. After a year or so, I understood I truly didn’t have the stomach for it and needed a real job for my small family.

“When I started working for Rolling Stone, I became very interested in journalism and thought maybe that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t true. What became important was to have a point of view.” Annie Leibovitz

Recent polls have public confidence in news media at an all-time low. About fourteen percent of the population believes that they can believe what is in the papers or on the screen. I grew up thinking that although the New York Times and Boston Globe and CBS might have a leftward bias in their editorials, they strove to get it right in their news coverage. The “Gray Lady” wouldn’t tip the scales in their reporting of events, of facts, of actual happenings, right? Look at all those Pulitzers. As it turns out, I was wrong then, which was verified in my brief dalliance with the business, and now the public has such deep skepticism, we have no bulwark against propaganda, no filter for what is true and what is a campaign. Then we had at least the comfort of journalists being circumspect, but subtlety is no longer a veil that is even pretended: not even a pretense of objectivity nor an apology for the vacuum. The gloves are off, and no one has faith in anyone’s facts.

To our great detriment, the media feeds on disinformation and distrust, which in turn fans the flames of divisiveness and anger. Where do we turn? Whom do we believe?  Who do you trust? (With apologies to grammarian readers). Facebook rants and 140-character flatulence fills the void.

“Journalism, as concerns collecting information, differs little if at all from intelligence work. In my judgment, a journalist’s job is very interesting.”  Vladimir Putin [ii]

                                                                                       –30–

[i] The pressure on periodicals, newspapers and electronic media to attract readership and viewers has only  gotten more intense with a life and death struggle with social media competition for advertising dollars. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/the-mark-zuckerberg-manifesto-is-a-blueprint-for-destroying-journalism/517113/

[ii] [ii] Ask Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov how interesting Putin thinks journalism is. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/01/29/kremlin-inc

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