Diner Revisited 2020

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Art Institute of Chicago

“A poet could write volumes about diners because they’re so beautiful. They’re brightly lit, with chrome and booths and Naugahyde and great waitresses.” David Lynch (Interview with Brian Hiatt in “Food and Wine,” March 2015)

Josef Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, while a million are a statistic. I thought of that this week when I read that New York City restaurants are suing the city for two billion dollars due to the losses incurred by the COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Estimates are that forty-five to fifty percent of restaurants here on Aquidneck Island will not be able to reopen when the dust settles over the corona demolition explosion imposed, necessarily or excessively, by a flourishing bureaucracy. Months, maybe years, and much analysis may determine eventually the wisdom of all the moves. Lives and businesses are holed and many shipwrecked by the torpedoing; some will recover and heal over time. Some will not.

We also heard recently that Reidy’s Family Restaurant in Portsmouth, which closed temporarily in March when the state shut down restaurant dining, will not reopen. Two years ago I posted on this blog a piece titled simply “Diner” on our first visit to Reidy’s and our affection for all good diners. We enjoyed quite a few breakfasts there, especially after Mass on Sunday, so their demise is a bit personal, as it is even more to many others. Crowded, hectic, friendly with a special regard for military veterans and with a crew of regular servers and customers.

While not a ‘regular’ daily visitor as some were for morning coffee and muffin and reading the Newport Daily News, a closed restaurant leaves a hole, especially for the owners, but also for the customers who frequent them and build a stop into their routine. Conversations with other first name regulars, sharing intimacies sometimes not even shared with family. Some of the NYC restaurants signed on for the lawsuit are large corporate affairs, but many are not. However, a place like a fifty something year old local diner has neither the resources nor wherewithal for such legal strategies.

Each such enterprise has an ambiance, carefully designed, or evolved; a vision, someone’s dream and fruit of long, exhausting days and nights. A neighborhood gathering place. Exhilarating days with a collapse into bed afterwards. Hopes rewarded. Years of challenges, disappointments and recoveries, victories, anxiety, and obstacles overcome; persistence rewarded. Friends made with familiar faces. The nearby Dunkin Donuts has a group of its own regulars, who while they cannot yet go inside to their accustomed booth, still gather every morning for an hour or so outside in the parking lot sitting in lawn chairs they haul over in their cars. Reidy’s familiars do not have that option. There is no facility or room for a drive through to sell their great coffee to go. So, what was a large part of a schedule, for some a lonely schedule living alone, is no longer.

As ol’ Joe said, each death is someone’s tragedy, and I wonder today, if with more prudent management and attention to some of the collateral damage from a state bureaucracy and progressive governor,[i] how many of these little deaths were essential to public safety.

“I just feel like the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have been at a diner counter.” Ramy Youssef

[i] The state of Rhode Island despite hour upon hour of public relations daily press conferences is fifth in COVID mortality in the country and worst in the country with over 80% of COVID deaths taking place in nursing homes or assisted living facilities among its most vulnerable when 94% of COVID deaths occur with those having one or more comorbidity factors. All the sanctimonious posturing notwithstanding, the state remains the only state in the northeast still on other area state’s mandatory quarantine list. Meanwhile, so many local businesses are shuttered. It seems the governor paid attention to the wrong vulnerabilities, both among its businesses and citizens.

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Unconventional

“This was the bursting of the dam of potential trouble that had been building for years. The collapse of families and communities leaves in its wake unsocialized young people…[who are the products of] a tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West, saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.” Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, (as quoted in “The Handwriting on the Wall “, George Weigel, “Fragility of Order,” Ignatius Press, 2018)

Kenosha Sunset

Rabbi Sacks was commenting upon the violent 2011 riots that swept major British cities in August of 2011 after the shooting of a black man, Mark Duggan, by police. Looting expensive shops, destroying whole sections of London by fire, pelting police with thrown objects, and burning buildings and cars, the rioters distinguished themselves with their viciousness, not unlike Milwaukee, Seattle, Chicago, Portland, New York,  and now Kenosha.

I am reminded of some of the peaceful demonstrations and some of the riots in 1968 here in the United States, in Chicago, but quickly metastasizing across many campuses and cities. Protests with many of the same causes began with signs, marches, speeches with hand-held amplifiers, prayers, chants, and songs: legitimate issues of concerned citizens that needed redressing and attention. Demonstrations of the heartfelt passions of citizens then too were co-opted by bad actors, many of whom had a Marxist agenda. They too diverted the protests into looting, riots, and violence, planting social unrest, fear, and chaos. Social unrest that manipulation of the media feeds by design; far Left activism grasps for power as is its nature.

Disillusionment with leaders like those from the Weather Underground[i] and Black Liberation Army drove some, maybe many, of my naïve, romantic, deceived, and idealistic generation to opt out of continuing to battle for necessary reform, retreating into a dope smoking perpetual “summer of love” haze or other more comforting options like joining the cadre of the privileged Baby Boomer generation repurposed into the unprecedented opulence of eighties greed and material acquisitions. Swap that VW bus with the tie die paint job and hand painted protest signs for the Benz, vegan restaurants, and health spas.

Bob Dylan, bard of the Sixties, wrote many protest songs in the sixties that became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war protests. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “A Hard Rains a gonna Fall,” and others. As he matured in his experience, genius, and craft, Dylan regretted some of them and the purpose to which they were put by others. He saw them as less nuanced and more simplistic than the understanding of the culture into which he grew later, and he was disappointed by their exploitation. He said this in interviews and in some of his later songs, most notably in “My Back Pages:”[ii]

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, “rip down all hate, ” I screamed

Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed

Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now….

 

A self-ordained professor’s tongue too serious to fool

Spouted out that liberty is just equality in school

“Equality, ” I spoke the word as if a wedding vow

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

“When I was at the Academy,” I said, “we had to read about it (Battle of Waterloo). The Duke’s[iii] army was full of riffraff, a lot of them had been grabbed off the street by press gangs, a lot of them let out of prison to fight.”

Virgil nodded, watching the horsemen.

“So,” I said. “Somebody asks the Duke before the battle how he feels about his army. And he says, ‘I don’t know if they will scare the French, but they scare the hell out of me.”  Robert Parker, “Resolution,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons, London, 2008

Kenosha Sunrise

The words “unconventional” and “convention” as well as “convent,” and even the derivation “coven” originate in Latin roots that mean “coming together.” Some irony exists in what political conventions have become: gatherings of the like-minded to feed division. The latest iterations, even with the COVID remote restrictions, were no exception, and there are far too many examples to cover in a blog post.

We will benefit from looking at just one.

The Democrat party convention avoided discussion of its complicity with, tacit approval of, and even advocacy for two notable and unpopular instances of violence. The tame press corps did nothing to call them to account. No surprise the Republicans sought to exploit the vulnerability.[iv]

The first instance was to ignore almost entirely the riots, looting, chaos and violence that still is rolling like a stormy tide over city streets, destroying businesses already barely surviving from COVID stress, invading residential neighborhoods, and attacking police with thrown rocks, improvised explosives and vision damaging lasers. Very few Americans irrespective of their positions on the protest issues support the violence, yet the party remains mute, fearful lest they displease the most radical elements of their base.

The second ignored violence was worse. The Biden/Harris ticket is the most radical ever of any major political party in support of abortion “rights.” Even with Roe v Wade and other Supreme Court decisions usurping all legislative prerogatives and costing the lives of sixty million tiny Americans, upping the toll remains high on the list of Democrat priorities. The Democrat platform supports abortion for any reason at any stage in human gestation up to and even past birth as well as pushing for government funding for these grotesque procedures.

Kamala Harris, when she was Attorney General in California, conspired with Planned Parenthood to prosecute and bankrupt David Daleiden[v], who published undercover videos revealing Planned Parenthood’s illegal sale of fetal body parts for profit[vi]. Harris has openly stated she favors prosecuting pro-life activities as hate speech. The convention tried to project her as moderate.

Only 17% of Americans support this radical position. Over 75% support at least some restrictions after the first trimester. Sadly, many Americans believe those restrictions are in place and are dismayed when they learn they are not. No dismay at the Democrat party, however. Their political war chest is well provisioned with funds from the wealthy abortion lobby and its allies.

In the closely scripted theatrics of the 2020 convention, they thoroughly avoided mention of the extreme methods to which they subscribe. No doubt, polling, focus groups, and highly paid consultants advised a low profile on that one. The consultants were right to try and hide the agenda; they were tragically wrong on the unfiltered agenda’s intended purpose.

Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” John F. Kennedy, Presidential inaugural address, 1960

[i] Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, spoke openly on tape of her and fellow founders being ‘trained Marxists.’ They were protégés of former Weather Underground member, Eric Mann. The Weather Underground was a Marxist terrorist organization with a string of convictions for cop killing, armed bank truck robberies and murders. Their name was derived from a line from the Bob Dylan song Subterranean Homesick Blues:  “Don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”

[ii]My Back Pages,” Thirtieth Anniversary concert with Dylan, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Roger McQuinn and others.

[iii] Duke of Wellington, who’s British forces defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, ending a bloody war and ending the string of victories for the “Le Petit Caparal” and his aspirations for empire.

[iv][iv] Four speakers at the Republican convention were explicit in this: Daniel Cameron, Attorney General of Kentucky, Abby Johnson, former Employee of the year at Planned Parenthood who now directs an organization dedicated to helping employees of that organization to extricate themselves, and Sister Dede Byrne, surgeon, retired Army Colonel and now a member of a religious order dedicated to serving the poor. Perhaps most moving was Ann Dorn, widow of retired police captain David Dorn, who went to his friend’s small store in St. Louis to try and protect it from looters. He was murdered, and his murderers posted his killing on Facebook.

[v] Webinar on Daleiden persecution by Harris from Thomas More Society, which defends religious freedom and pro-life work. https://youtu.be/tHH9Y40jikE

[vi] Watch the videos yourself and make up your mind if disclosing the illegal Planned Parenthood activity merited coverage by Daleiden. http://www.centerformedicalprogress.org/cmp/investigative-footage/

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Transcendent

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo Buonarroti

On Pentecost Sunday in May of 1972, Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, attacked with a hammer and seriously damaged Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City[i]. He was never charged with a crime, but in a pretrial hearing he was found mentally incompetent. Sentenced to two years in an Italian mental institution out of “One Flew Out of a Cuckoo’s Nest,[ii] he underwent twelve electro-shock treatments, was eventually released, and immediately was deported back to Australia where he faded into obscurity. The Pieta had one exquisite eyelid and the nose of the Blessed Virgin smashed off, her right hand broken to pieces and her left arm and hand smashed and knocked off. A painstaking restoration that took eight months ensued with over a hundred pieces, including many tiny chips carefully collected at the site. Some pieces stolen by tourists at the scene were never recovered and had to be reconstructed.

Why such a massive endeavor of many skilled artists and art historians to fix a busted-up statue[iii] that a madman took a geologist’s hammer to? In just one aspect of the effort, to perfectly match the stone, like a graft in a careful reconstruction of a damaged human being, a small block was removed from her back to reconstruct her nose from the exact mold made of the statue before the attack. Donations from around the world funded the rescue project[iv].

Michelangelo only signed this one sculpture in his life and told others the large block of marble he located after a long search in Tuscan Carrera quarries was the single most perfect piece of stone he had ever found. He began an almost two-year project with a broad chisel and chipped away large pieces of marble. Slowly, carefully with exquisite attention to the least detail, he refined his work to tiny careful strokes with small tools and polishing until, as he once said, only the piece in his vision that had been potential in the stone from the beginning was revealed. From the folds of her garment, the veins in the dead Christ’s arm, the realism of her eyes and suffering of her soul, the Pietà is unique in skill, conception, and accomplishment. Considered by many the most important sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, this marvel merged the classical ideal of beauty with the astonishing naturalism and skill that made his art priceless and irreplaceable. This fortuitous marriage of the natural beauty of marble and genius is unique. No effort at restoration could be too diligent.[v]

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling

Why would the anger and insanity[vi] of an extremely bright troubled man express itself in such radical iconoclasm with a mad passion to destroy beauty? Perhaps that can never be answered either in our current batch of angry iconoclasts or ever. Beauty evokes the transcendent, and beauty is objective in the hearts of human beings. There are subjective modes and varying ideas of what exactly is beautiful, but Beauty itself resonates whether in nature, sculpture, painting, music, or the eyes of our beloved.

“Transcendent” derives from the Latin meaning “climbing over.” From what, we ask? To where, we wonder?  I read recently that we mistake heaven as “somewhere” else, and the more accurate insight is “somehow” else. Not a different place, but a different manner of being entirely outside of time or space.

In a time long ago when Michelangelo, Dante, and Shakespeare roamed the earth, the “transcendentals” were three: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. All were aspects of the nature of God to those who understood themselves to be creatures fashioned in Love. Now we understand ourselves to be lucky sentient conglomerations of organized protoplasm and beneath that random collections of molecules, atoms, quarks, quantum variations and energy fields. Accidentally sentient. Protoplasm organized by Whom, we dare not speak.

As to the True, that has disappeared into a pit of radical skepticism. “There is your truth and my truth and who knows?” The Good has melted away into the miasma of the “dictatorship of relativism.”[vii] “Who are you to tell me how to pursue what I desire, etc.” But Beauty still holds its own, and desecrating beauty still offends some deep aspect of our humanity. And Beauty draws us to God.

Bishop Robert Barron describes this far better in a passage from his newest book, “Renewing Our Hope,”[viii] which I advise you to buy immediately and explore in depth:

”Following Dietrich von Hildebrand, we should say that the truly beautiful is an objective value, to be sharply distinguished from what is merely subjectively satisfying.[ix]  This means that the beautiful does not merely entertain; rather it invades, chooses and changes the one to whom it deigns to appear. It is not absorbed into subjectivity; it re-arranges and re-directs subjectivity, sending it on a trajectory toward the open sea of the Beautiful itself.”

 Well before the war that defined him, Winston Churchill wrote an essay in which he imagined a future where mankind had secured a life of great pleasure, wealth, and convenience. But, Churchill wondered, would that be sufficient for happiness?

Learning to infuse our souls with the reality of the transcendentals Beauty, Goodness and Truth and their Author is the basis for our final happiness.

“What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” Winston Churchill, 1931

[i] https://youtu.be/QmngGZmkPKI

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332613.One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo_s_Nest

[iii] http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelos-pieta/

[iv] Reuters article on the damage and the restoration.

[v] Controversy surrounded the restoration. Some maintained the marks of violence should be left unrepaired to signify the violence of the times. Others said restoration should leave lines and signs of repair for authenticity, but finally due to the uniqueness and precious nature of the work, the decision was to make the restoration as flawless as possible.

[vi] While striking twelve blows with his hammer, Toth alternatively screamed he was Jesus Christ and Michelangelo.

[vii] Phrase from Benedict XVI. “In recent years I find myself noting, how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak — if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.” Without Roots, Joseph Ratzinger, New York, Basic Books, 2006

[viii] Renewing Our Hope, Robert Barron, Washington, DC, The Catholic University of America Press, 2020, https://bishopbarronbooks.com/renewing-our-hope

[ix]  Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand, New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1953

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Quaker Hill

“There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island, called Quaker Hill, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and of the adjacent islands, and the Continent for many miles. The many fine and well cultivated islands, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms and cultivated lands intermixed with Woods, together with the many vies of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this (even at this bleak season of the year) the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America…. In the beginning of Summer this must be a delightful vista, and I should think hardly to be equalled in America, or any other Country. Major Frederick Mackenzie, British Army occupying Aquidneck Island, 1778[i]

When we do not have the time for one of our favorite longer excursions on the beaches or wildlife refuges, we will walk to the bottom of Pine Tree Street and turn north on Middle Road past our bovine friends in the heifer pen at Escobar Farm. We turn back home after a mile or so at the Friends Evangelical Meeting House and old cemetery. The Friends Meeting House was founded in 1658, and the current building constructed in 1700.  There is a small group of Quaker Friends who thankfully have been doing some meeting and renovating to this marvelous building.

We live on the back side of Quaker Hill and walk by most of it on the way to the Friends Meeting House. Unwavering men battled and died on Quaker Hill in the August 29th dénouement of the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island when an expeditionary force was sent from Fort Barton in Tiverton to free Newport from British occupation. Led by General John Sullivan, the Americans were forced finally to an orderly retreat. After a full-blown hurricane had devastated the allied French fleet that was to have aided the Americans, the better positioned and dug in British forces held the advantage.

Sullivan laid a trap for the British 22nd Regiment luring them with collapsing skirmish lines on the north end of Aquidneck Island, and after repeated assaults on Butt’s and Quaker Hills, the combined British and Hessian troops eventually deserted the field with heavy losses abandoning their dead and wounded. Major Samuel Ward commanded a division of black troops promised their freedom; they repulsed at least three desperate concentrated attacks by the much-feared Hessians, fighting bayonet to bayonet. Lafayette rode seventy miles in seven hours to Boston to convince the French Admiral d’Estaing to return to the battle, but to no avail. Without the French fleet to prevent British ships from cutting them off, General Sullivan had no option but to retreat to safe mainland positions lest they all be trapped. The only major battle of the Revolution in the state, it was one of the largest of the war. The Battle of Rhode Island saw 211 Americans killed or missing; 1,023 British and Hessian troops died or were captured.

Thus, Newport remained in British hands for another two years and through the terrible winter of 1778-1779 when Narraganset Bay froze over.  Those that could fled to the mainland to avoid freezing and starvation. Many did not. The thousands of occupying British troops looted and destroyed homes, stealing firewood, livestock, vegetable stores, clothing, and furniture. They displaced occupants who had been generations in their homes and moved in. Burning about 300 cords of wood a day, not a tree remained standing within five miles of the harbor. No fence post or wooden grave marker escaped the campfires. Scarcely a tree survived on the entire island. Of the thousand or so buildings in the once prosperous trading city, about half were destroyed. Many invaluable books from the Redwood Library were brought to England. Occasionally, they forayed to the mainland and burned and ransacked the towns of Bristol and Warren. At the end of the war, when the Brits moved out two years later, they burned more buildings and filled the wells with dirt and garbage; they scuttled many of their own ships in the harbor to render it impassable and deny use of them to the remaining citizens. The Newporters who lost most of what they had built for 150 years, never lost their resolve to be free.

It took a hundred years for the once major city to begin to recover, and Newport never regained its former prominence in commerce or general prosperity, even with the famous mansions of out of towners on the southern end of the island.

“It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth.” Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights, 1977

 The Newporters were Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Jews and even a few Papists. The first synagogue in America is still there. Newport’s founders fled the Puritan excesses of Massachusetts, and Newport was one of the first true hubs of religious freedom and tolerance.  What they shared along with the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a common understanding: that human beings found true happiness in and aspired to virtue and in a relationship with the transcendent Creator. However they varied in their specific interpretations from Deists like Thomas Jefferson to devout Christians like John Adams, all agreed that the democratic experiment was possible only with a people willing to sacrifice their own pleasure and prosperity for the good of all and to forgo immediate comfort for the future well-being, freedom and security of their children.

“No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and . . . . their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice . . . . These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” Thomas Jefferson

“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” James Madison

“Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people. The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.” George Washington

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Benjamin Franklin

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams [i]

Yes, Jefferson and Washington were slave owners. John Adams was a poor father to his sons. Franklin was a libertine. All of them had quirks, foibles and flaws. Are we better prepared to address the new challenges that face us by ‘cancelling’ them or studying them in their complexity, both the good and the bad? How do we benefit from deconstructing and revising our history from the true with all its blemishes to the tokenism that mirrors current politics?  What have we lost by dumping the objective reality of ‘the good, the true and the beautiful’ as ideals and ditching the pursuit of virtues like prudence, fortitude, temperance, and blind justice without grievance politics?  How does splashing paint, burning books and tearing down monuments to saints elevate necessary conversation? And how do those things differ from the Taliban destroying ancient Buddhist monuments or brown shirts burning books in pre-war Germany when ideology overpowers reasoned thought?

As we walk along Quaker Hill, we reflect on our current state and wonder how our current citizens, bickering over trivial inconveniences like hunkering down a bit to protect one another’s health or grocery stores running out of toilet paper, would bear up to the deprivations of 1778. Mired in splintered ever shrinking groups, each with their own complaints real and imagined and self-serving remedies, is there still a cohesive vision for us as a society? [ii]Can a post-modern culture of entitlement, pleasure seeking, radical subjective individualism, shattered common truths, and abandoned moral guideposts hold together a still experimental project and vision called America? Does such a vision even still exist? Questions we and our children must ponder and resolve.  Or not.

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther

 [i] Quote taken from Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639-1969, Rockwell Stensrud, © 2015 by Lively Experiment LLC and Rockwell Stensrud, D Giles Limited, London, in association with the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, RI

[ii] And many others, including those of luminaries of democracy in other countries:

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsel of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Edmund Burke

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/20/opinion/the-fragmented-society.html

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Magnanimous

“There is nothing like looking if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

In two of my favorite Oscar winning Peter O’Toole movies he played the same historical figure, Henry II of England. In the first, “Becket,” the young Henry eventually has his former close friend St. Thomas Becket, played by Richard Burton, murdered in the cathedral. Both O’Toole and Burton were nominated for Best Actor for the film. In the second, “Lion in Winter,” late in life, Henry bickers bitterly and poignantly with his exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wonderfully portrayed by Katherine Hepburn; they spar brilliantly over succession among the sons Richard the Lionhearted, Jeffrey and John. John, of course, eventually becomes king after the death of Richard and is the villain of the Robin Hood legends. Battles, conspiracies, crusades, and palace intrigue follow all of them all their lives.

King John, devious, adulterous and with a vindictive pettiness that alienated the nobles of the land was forced by the barons to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter), a foundational document of the Western world. The king for the first time acknowledges that a king too is subject to the law and that his subjects have rights, including a trial by jury and the beginnings of what evolved into a representative parliamentary form of governance.

“Be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.”  St. Pope John Paul to thousands of young people in Krakow, Poland, June 1979

The word “magnanimous” is a combination of the same Latin root from the Magna Carta, “magnus” or great and “animus,” meaning soul or mind. “Animus” also gives us animated and animal (self-locomotive as opposed to a vegetable). Magnanimous is ‘great souled’ and has come to connote generous and forgiving. A thesaurus gives us noble, benevolent, and altruistic.

“Pusillanimous” is similarly derived from the Latin root “animus,” but the preceding root “pusill” comes from the Latin meaning “very small,” so the combination produces “small minded” or “tiny souled.” Today it has come to mean “lacking determination” or “lacking courage.”  The same thesaurus suggests spineless or cowardly.

Since human beings are uniquely in possession of souls, it matters whether ours are great or tiny. Inextricable from our bodies, we are not ghosts imprisoned in machines. Souls are without material existence, and their fusion with material bodies causes no end of complication and sin, original and actual. Our bodies crave food, comfort, pleasure, protection and retain a controlling drive to propagate other bodies a lot like our own. Our long-suffering souls contend with our material cravings all our short mortal lives seeking wholeness and holiness. Our bodies consist of the same elements that comprise the rest of the universe, forged in the stars and spewed out in vast volume every millisecond of the thirteen billion years of known time. We are spirit and material: stardust and soul.

Pusillanimity and tiny souls seem to govern our public discourse and especially in media, social or otherwise. Whether the ‘cancel culture’ or COVID controversies or environmental crises or proper governance or religion or even what is good for us to eat, our predilection for unreflective rote, rancorous and repetitive talking points in lieu of thoughtful discourse in pursuit of an objective understanding of our perilous situation is disheartening and portends no good outcome.

We have a desperate want for some more great souls: some new beginning with the magnanimous, starting with our own tiny souls and then among our leaders on all sides.

Our ephemeral and ever-changing challenges flood in from every streaming stimuli and seem daunting enough, but that ain’t the half of it. Some recent articles suggest we have more pressing long-term challenges that make COVID, destroying and denying history, neo-Nazi white supremacy, neo-Marxist Black Lives Matter, and defunding police seem like easily resolved minor troubles and soon to be footnotes.

 

“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began,

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire…” Rudyard Kipling

 

 To quote the great philosopher Ian Malcolm in the movie “Jurassic Park”: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should. Indeed, “should” or “ought” appear to have lost their cache altogether. Moral relativism and a narrow material view of our existence without metaphysics have the podium and the gavel and no inclination to give them up.

One article on Science.com laid waste to the soothing idea that CRISPR technology gene tinkering with human embryos was the work of a single rogue Chinese scientist a couple of years ago. And he conveniently disappeared as inconvenient people tend to do in the People’s Republic. Read CRISPR Gene Editing Prompts Chaos in DNA of Human Embryos about recent experiments on human embryos at the Francis Crick Institute, Columbia University and the Oregon Health and Science Institute. The researchers were concerned that although the experimenters were able to successfully ‘fix’ some troubling genes, there was significant disruption and damage to adjacent gene pairs that were unpredictable in their impact. Maybe future tinkering will make us better at it and avoid the troubling unintended collateral damage? They were careful to point out that there was care and concern that the embryos should not be allowed to develop further into larger specimens of human beings, so destroying them after the experiments was essential. Of course, the underlying assumption that experimenting on undeveloped human beings and destroying them was not particularly morally problematic. We have been destroying human embryos routinely for forty years and calling it woman’s healthcare.

In another article[i] and website[ii], the progressive future of humankind was proposed to offer a way forward to a new perfected kind of human being: immortal, always healthy, more brilliant, and stronger. Perfecting CRISPR was only part of the solution; a hybrid human being with some experiments already underway for embedding chips providing us with ready-made super memories crammed full of immediate access to all manner of useful information. Combined with corrected genes helping to make the vexing protoplasm portion of the mix more perfect, we will create a progressive vision of human perfectibility and utopian society. We have tried this many times with murderous results, but we will get it right this time[iii].  Our future children will have just cause to sue parents who do not optimize their genes when they had the chance in the Petrie dishes prior to implantation.

[iv]“Brave New World” is an anodyne fairy tale compared to this. Tilt back the recliner, make some popcorn, pour a cold beer and watch “Jurassic Park” or “Young Frankenstein” for some laughs.  Maybe listen to Ian Malcolm again.

Or pray for a return of a magnanimous, courageous, and determined moral leadership.

“Look not in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with your hand on the helm! Turn not your back to the compass…” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

[i] Give “Covid-19 Is Accelerating Human Transformation—Let’s Not Waste It: The Neobiological Revolution is here. Now’s the time to put lessons from the Digital Revolution to use.” a quick read.

[ii] The futurist idealists have a perfected super race in mind for us. I think we may have seen this before, perhaps in mid twentieth century Germany. Browse this site or buy the book if you want and see what they have in store for us: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species.

[iii] The overly familiar line about not forgetting history because we will be doomed to repeat it is often misattributed to Winston Churchill. It originated with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in “The Life of Reason, Volume 1.” In context, Santayana cautions us that retention of learning is necessary, as is “plasticity” to use that learning to adapt to new situations. When we are young, the tendency is to radical intemperate change without considering the wisdom of the past. And when we are old, the tendency is to hold on too rigidly and not be open to self-criticism, reflection, and necessary beneficial change. The ideal is mature adulthood with a balance of both he states.

Churchill was less optimistic that we learned our lessons. In a 1936 speech to the House of Commons, he warns of the coming cataclysm: When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.

 

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Truth Over Facts

“We choose truth over facts!”  from a former Vice President Joe Biden campaign speech[i]

Mistakenly believed to be one of Joe Biden’s frequent verbal gaffes, his talking point is instructive and defines the reality of political life across the ideological spectrum: the narrative is all encompassing. The truth is what we say it is, and the facts be damned. Facts, particularly statistics, [ii]are leavened, kneaded, baked, and circulated to influence the social media mob and especially voters to push us to get off our recliners and out of our summer hammocks. Confusion thrives: what has suffered most is universal credibility. We do not believe much of what we see and hear. We strive to discern what to believe out of the onslaught of data and information that hits our screens and speakers every day. But more often, we filter what we read and hear through our “mythscape,” our accepted narrative, retain what fits it and reject what does not. We give that filtering a serious sounding name: “confirmation bias,” but attribute it as a shortcoming of others and never one of our own.

A project manager with two large apartment construction contracts going once emailed me[iii] on a Friday afternoon after an exceptionally outrageous week, “Would someone please throw a tent over this circus?” It stuck immediately as the motto of our group, and it seems to me suits our current situation.

“Would someone please throw a tent over this circus!”

George Weigel in his excellent 2018 book, “Fragility of Order,” comments on the historian Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the First World War that in so many ways was not only the first act of the bloodiest century  of human history, but like all good plays, was what spawned so much of  what followed. “Christopher Clark usefully reminds us that, in seeking to understand how such a cataclysm could have begun, we must reckon with the fact that all the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections, and interests masquerading as maxims.” When we filter our new experience through our “mythscape,” we merely render social media debate farcical. However, when our leaders will not (or lack the ability to) put in the hard work, study, and introspection necessary to understand complex reality and then offer us their banal wisdom as predictable regurgitation of their narrative, disasters inevitably follow.

”Order, it has become clear, is a very fragile thing; and order is especially vulnerable under the cultural conditions of a postmodern world unsure about its grasp on the truth of anything.” George Weigel from the introduction to “The Fragility of Order.” Ignatius Press, 2018

We tend to hold our beliefs as binary: One predominant narrative without exception or the other. Is it not possible that reasoned arguments could be made, listening could be our first response, and the purpose of discussion is to put aside our embedded presuppositions and work mutually to discover some objective truth about these matters? Every issue seems to bleed over into rote political diatribes and expands quickly into all the contending issues.  We start out talking about racial injustice and within a sentence or two we are citing the talking points of Trumpism or anti-Trumpism, transgender pronouns and abortion. As an exercise, sticking to one subject means examining some of the assumptions of both common narratives regarding one complex emotional issue.    

The current frenzied muddle of destroyed statues, looted stores, brutally slain arrested men, sincere non-violent protestors, and pandering politicians wearing Ghanaian Kente ceremonial cloths is just the most recent version, albeit a poignant and troublesome one. Because it has become a circus, does not mean we just can wait it out until the next headline grabbing tragedy pushes it below the fold of the front page.

One narrative’s axiom is that the police are hunting and shooting black men, so the cops should be defunded and gutted with the money being redistributed to social programs. A common statistic cited is that a black man is 2.5 times more likely to be shot by a cop than a white one. Is that a valid reading of the numbers? On first look, black men comprise 6% of the population and are consistently year after year 23% to 25% of those killed by police while being arrested,[iv] so that makes sense. On a second look, black men account for 53% of the murder arrests in a year and 52% of robberies. [v]Most of those crimes are black on black. An in-depth Harvard Economics study in 2018 by Roland Fryer, found no evidence of racial trends in those killed by police once arrest statistics were factored in.[vi]

Perhaps what needs to be looked at is how the poverty and desperation and alienation of black men account for such a high percentage of violent crime. A major contributing factor is that over 72% of black children are raised in single family homes, up from 21% in 1960. [vii]While children in single family homes are up across all demographics, in black families, it is a catastrophic rise. Another study found that for every 10% increase in the rate of single parent households, there is a 17% rise in crime rates. Study after study shows the best environment for children regarding educational and career success as well as lower incarceration rates and almost all other indices is a household with both a father and a mother. Not even close. A single mother is five times more likely to wind up below the poverty line than one with a spouse.

As we redistribute funds from police services to social programs, we must try to anticipate the unintended consequences of those programs.[viii] After Lyndon Johnson’s poverty and welfare programs became institutionalized with their “no man in the house” rule as a qualifier to  receive aid, the single-family rate among the poor in general and especially in black families soared.   Great care must be taken in designing salvation from the government, and most of all with programs that have a hidden agenda to secure votes.[ix]

Surveys also show most law-abiding black citizens with high violent crime rates in their neighborhoods do not want to see a lowered police presence.[x] When terrorists with semi-automatic weapons start killing dozens in night clubs in Miami or country concerts in Las Vegas or someone is cruising our streets murdering our neighbors in drive-by shootings, do we really want the best option to be sending in the community organizers?

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” –- Helen Keller  

 Now fairness demands an examination of one of the alternative narrative’s truisms: that there is no evidence of systemic racism and unjustified excessive police force employed against minorities.  The same Harvard study that finds no racial trends in those killed by police shows remarkable racial tendencies in the use of force, excessive or otherwise, during confrontations with police. So, shootings, no correlation, which is not surprising when we realize that those decisions are made in fractions of a second as a response to a perceived threat. But there is a full 50% increased chance of force being used by police against minorities than against white suspects. Is this due to minorities offering resistance or seeking confrontation? The study found that among those who remain compliant during police interactions, there is a 21% greater risk of force being used against minorities. Black men are not being unreasonable when they are wary about any interaction with police.  Whether that is evidence of rogue cops that are not culled from the troop due to over-protective unions or timid supervisors or whether it is evidence of systemic racism is not addressed by the study, but the statistics are clear.

When we consider that some of the most egregious recent examples of deaths of black men caused by police are not shootings, but arrests gone bad, the propensity for police using force with minorities gives us great cause for concern. George Floyd was killed when a cop knelt on his neck and throttled his breathing for eight and a half minutes. Eric Garner died in a police choke hold in NYC in 2014. Nor are white men exempt from excessive force. Joseph Hutchinson was killed when a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy knelt on his neck, cutting off his breath after he acted erratically in a police station. The rules need to change on proper use of force in every department and police officers with disciplinary actions against them for excessive force need to find another job or go to jail. Some things are one and out.

For those of us sheltered from the black experience, several recent articles call out an inherent bias built into our assumptions if we are not black, no matter how innocent we judge ourselves to be of it. A black Catholic priest tells of being in a grocery store in his ‘civvies’ without his collar and being followed around by security, and that this was not a unique experience for him. A black off duty policeman out of uniform tells of being pulled over by other police several times when he was driving through a white neighborhood and breaking no traffic laws.

The most moving was an enlightening article explaining what is meant by white privilege by a professional young black writer chronicling  her experiences growing up and in school at UCLA and Harvard.[xi] She relates in detail the incidents that are most illustrative, then ends each with a quote to tie them together. Below are a few of those quotes. I cannot do the article’s detail justice; please take the time to read it. White privilege was something I told myself was exaggerated. I was wrong.

  • if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.
  • if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.
  • if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.

A personal anecdote causes me no small embarrassment. Recently I was waiting at a busy discount gas outlet. The lines were long. Two ahead of me was a sparkling luxury car worth five times more than any auto I have ever owned. The line was held up as the fueling of the sedan was taking a long time, and I was growing increasingly impatient. I could not see the person pumping gas. When it was full, the owner moved to return the hose to the pump, and the driver was a younger black guy.  I was resentful of the wait and of the luxury car owner. Was my first thought that he was a partner in a law firm or managed a portion of a hedge fund or owned a real estate development company or was a cardiac surgeon? No. My first thought was wondering if he played for the Patriots or the Red Sox, and if I recognized him. My assumption was not what it may have been had he been a young white guy holding up the line.

I congratulate myself that I’ve never worn a white sheet and pointy hat; I’ve never knowingly discriminated against anyone in the workplace or socially because of race; I’ve demonstrated for civil rights: I am superior to those that do espouse such ignorant and mean spirited beliefs, right? But am I free of innate prejudice buried deep? I think not. I have more listening to do. A lot more listening to do.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. . . . And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn


[i] Jolting Joe and his Freudian slip.

[ii] Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”

[iii] For younger readers, emailing was what we did last century instead of texting or posting pictures on Instagram.

[iv] See Washington Post comprehensive compilation of all police caused deaths. I put the listing into a spreadsheet to make it easier to analyze with a Pivot Table.  Every name, every weapon they carried, if any, how they died and their race. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/

[v] Here is a link to the FBI tracking of crime rates for various offenses by race. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/topic-pages/tables/table-43 Consistent percentages within a narrow range since 2015. The latest complete one is 2018, which I also put into a spreadsheet to do some analysis. I’ll email those downloaded spreadsheets with the totals to  anyone who  wants them.

[vi] Here is the abstract from the Harvard study: This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On nonlethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we find no racial differences either in the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of whom have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.

The full report can be found easily on line in PDF form at this link: https://www.nber.org/papers/w24238

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_family_structure

[viii] When Rita was working as a student nurse at the old inner city Boston City Hospital, the head nurse on her floor with thirty years’ experience was discussing the new Johnson Aid to  Families with Dependent Children war on poverty welfare program with its ‘no man in the house’ restriction on which families could collect. She presciently told Rita that it would be the ruination of the black family. Truer words, etc.

[ix] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/lbj-voting-democratic/

[x] https://www.wsj.com/articles/america-has-a-silent-black-majority-11592348214

[xi] https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2017/09/08/my-white-friend-asked-me-on-facebook-to-explain-white-privilege-i-decided-to-be-honest/

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Dueling Populisms

“What do I mean by “democratic capitalism”? I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism [i]

We rightly have been obsessed with COVID 19 to the exclusion of almost all other topics, but there are other viruses which infect our blood and brains, some of which may have more lasting ramifications.

In a podcast[ii] with Dr. Arthur Brooks, who was featured in a past post here[iii], journalist Jay Nordlinger discussed with him a research paper published out of the University of Berlin. Well referenced, it concluded that financial crises precipitate populist movements of all stripes, but mostly of the radical left. Populism does not inevitably lead to tyranny, but when it does, it is horrific from the National Socialists of the Third Reich and Stalinist slaughters to the “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” gory excesses in France in the late eighteenth century. Dr. Brooks quipped that they sometimes go “real Frenchy” when the economic and political leaders who were once envied and imitated end up in the tumbrils on a public ride to a sharp end dispossessing them of their heads.

The financial crisis does not have to be as dire as that which afflicted the French peasantry[iv] prior to setting up the guillotines. A collapse of the housing and mortgage markets in 2008 and a decade or so of wage stagnation, shrunken opportunity, burdensome personal debt and high unemployment led to the much less bloody “Make America Great” Trump phenomenon and “Feel the Bern” Social Democracy movement here and their analogous movements in many Western countries. Dueling populisms[v], rooted in the fertile soil of discontent, are both feeding on a gnawing sense of helplessness, fear, and a sense that injustice is being done. Both propose solutions that are incompatible with one another[vi], and both perceive the other to be their mortal enemy. For both, most of their proponents believe most sincerely that they offer relief to the oppressed and the best opportunity to right the wrongs in the culture.

We find it difficult even settling on the meanings of the terms we use to describe our disagreements.  Nor do we help ourselves when all sides use the same hackneyed phrases and accusations in social media posts to describe their opponents. [vii] How do we begin to rebuild the trust necessary to hack away the thorny briars with our brush hooks[viii] and clear the path forward?

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.”  George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” (First published: Horizon. — GB, London. — April 1946.) [ix]

Nearing the fifth month of the unprecedented and politically completely unpredictable COVID 19 financial crisis, the question is what form will the next or prevailing populism take? Have our dueling populisms changed through all of this? Have they distilled and hardened? After a hiatus of a quarter or two, or year or two, will the domestic economy resume its decade long period of relative economic improvement? Will we absorb over 100,000 deaths, keep ourselves angry and entertained with futile social media political posts and continue our untidy path to the unknown? Or has there been a tectonic shift that will not resolve without more earthquakes?

That is the unanswerable question, not whether the Trump administration or the Cuomo administration in NY succeeded or failed in managing the pandemic. Swedish model? Florida model? New York model? Hard lessons we must learn, but not the most important ones. COVID 19 will slow down, perhaps recur periodically like the flu or SARS on cruise ships. But inevitably, another crisis of greater or lesser moment will eventually overtake us. How long will we remain in our trenches lobbing mortar shells at each other and calling each other “Fascists?” And what will our new reality look like when we emerge through the smoke and stink into the light and charge over the top of the trenches?

“The future meant nothing to me until it stuck.”  John le Carré, “Legacy of Spies”

[i] The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, by Michael Novak, 1982, Simon & Schuster

[ii] Podcast on Ricochet with Jay Nordlinger and Dr. Arthur Brooks. https://ricochet.com/podcast/q-and-a/the-essential-arthur-brooks/

[iii] ‘Lead Kindly Light’ in a Culture of Contempt

[iv] The French peasants of 1785 spent 90% of their income on just bread to keep their families just above starvation. Their queen’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) response when told her people had no bread was “Let them eat cake.” Not without sympathy, perhaps she thought the lack of bread was due to bad bakery inventory control.

[v] Clear description comparing the two populisms: Dueling Populisms, Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

[vi] Probably nowhere else is the conflict between these movements so stark and irreconcilable as with abortion. One side view it as a necessary component of the reproductive rights of women to end the life of their child for their own necessary benefit: physical health, psychologically, emotionally, economically or socially. The other side sees the intrinsic evil of taking the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable of human beings. Irreconcilable and impossible to compromise those different understandings of the same act.  The child either lives or doesn’t. Solomon settled that one centuries ago.

[vii] As fellow social media posters, can we resolve to never use the following words, which no longer have any coherent meaning: Fascist, moron, despicable, fool… Please feel free to add your own contribution to this list.

[viii] Brush hooks are  much better tools  than chainsaws for briars. Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

[ix] “Politics and the English Language.”

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Divers and Dabblers

Statistically, the probability of any one 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.”  Lewis Thomas

Red-breasted Merganser, All About Birds, Macaulay Library, Cornell University. Ian Davies

Two types of ducks occur: divers and dabblers. The dabblers, compensating for their undignified manner of feeding, oftentimes have plumage more colorfully adorned, at least the males. With their tails up in the air exposed to the world and their heads and upper body submerged, their short legs scramble ceaselessly to maintain their awkward situation while they pick away in the summer and breeding time at insects, larvae, small crabs, worms and the like, often turning up rocks at the bottom of their shallow feeding grounds to dig out their supper. In the winter, dabblers seek the seeds of aquatic plants, feeding in a peculiar surface nibbling[i]. Mallards, and various teals, widgeons and shovelers are among these beautiful, but humble, ducks. Strong flyers and vocal, and because they usually inhabit shallow calm waters, they may be more familiar to us.[ii] Friendly, social ducks, but don’t feed them with your stale bread which stuffs them, leads to dependence on an inconsistent source and provides few of the nutrients they really need.

Divers are a different matter, and fishermen are all too familiar with their skills and appetite.[iii] I have met avid fishermen in Maine who delighted in hunting mergansers in (and sometimes out of) season to reduce their numbers, shooting them in the air or on the water. Too many mergansers, which each eat 15 to 20 fish a day,[iv] are devastating to freshwater game fish populations in some Maine lakes; they more than decimate young bass and lake trout.  Loons, another aquatic diving bird with a similar avian profile, are also voracious feeders, but are protected: shoot them and go to jail. To gain some perspective, wildlife studies estimate that a pair of nesting loons with two chicks in the fifteen weeks of breeding season will consume a half a ton of fish. Loons are prehistoric animals that thankfully still inhabit our world; they lend credence to the theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs. Like diving ducks, they are sometimes found in salt water as well. Diver names are poetic: Red-breasted merganser, canvasback, bufflehead, surf scoter and common eider[v]. Some small ones like the bufflehead nest in the abandoned nests of woodpeckers and can move into your birdhouses. Each species diverged slightly over centuries as circumstances and their genes led them to become unique wonders.

At the risk of anthropomorphic duckery like Donald or Daffy, we can reflect on some human analogy. Are we dabblers or divers? Hunters or gatherers? Perhaps we are both, and our predilections vary according to our personality, our moods and our interests. Diving in some matters and dabbling in others. That is worth some consideration, a self-examination of where we would be better off dabbling and where we need to dive deeper. Are there suspicious creepy crawlers under the rocks in shallow waters that we should avoid turning up whilst we dabble?

 “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.” Lewis Thomas, “The Lives of a Cell”

White tail deer at Sachuest Point

In the rough waves that encircle Sachuest Point Wildlife Refuge, we frequently spot surf riding diving ducks: surf scoters, eiders (also called St. Cuthbert’s duck), red-breasted mergansers, black ducks, harlequins in one of their rare East Coast wintering sites and the occasional loon. A herd of fifty or so white tail deer also permanently inhabit the hilly fields of the point, not quite tame, but not as shy as their unprotected relatives a bit inland. The slow and weak are eaten by coyotes but have no fear of human hunters. I’ve come within fifteen feet of them as they browse in late afternoon. The waterfowl too are immune to human shooters on the wildlife refuge, but the smaller ones live in peril of the large raptors that soar, sail on the winds and hunt. Overwintering snowy owls have been spotted plucking a full-grown unwary scoter out of the water and carrying it back to a field nest or a rock for a leisurely meal. No snowy owl made an appearance this year. The white haunting creature attracts a cadre of two dozen camera laden followers, some coming from hundreds of miles away to take that elusive perfect shot they can sell to the magazines. Too warm this winter, and the snowy owl mercifully stayed north, so we regular hikers of the trails can find a parking spot.

This year the main attraction was the almost as spectacular Northern harrier with her 40” wingspan. She hunts low, frequently gliding ten or so feet above the field looking for small rabbits, voles and mice. Short eared owls show up as well and attract some photographic attention, but the beautiful, smaller and common red-tail hawk remains much higher, mostly unmolested by photo snapping enthusiasts.

Our walk around the point is always restorative and always new after hundreds of repetitions, new with the many moods and seasons of ocean and fields. The three miles of trails are occasionally crowded (we pass ten or fifteen people along the way); many times, though, we’ll see only a few or in cold winds sometimes none. We dabble with everyone, almost universally pleasant and friendly. I am reminded of E.B. White’s memorable eighteen inches of both connection and separation in his classic “Here is New York” [vi]essay. Occasionally unbidden will come an instant of connection as we pass along the trail. We dive unexpectedly into their lives with authentic snippets of the overheard unguarded conversation of strangers, and our imaginations fill in the blanks. Our lives intersect for a passing moment.

  • I saw the harlequin and got my shots. Been looking for weeks for a clear photo for my mother.
  • They still have to dislocate my hip of course, and that will be difficult.
  • I think they are sending me to New York for a project. I’ll be gone a while.
  • I’m not expecting him to change, really, that’s probably impossible. But I do need an acknowledgement.

We dabble and we dive through our time here, and like the ducks we do the best we can to avoid the predators, raise our young and teach them our ways. We teach them to pay attention to the lives that we encounter along our way: to dabble pleasantly, to proffer friendship to all, and occasionally to dive deeply, risking our eighteen inches of separation when we hear the soft cry of loneliness or hurt or confusion. Knowing that often we will be inadequate with our own resources to heal or make whole, we try anyway as best we can.

“It is in our genes to understand the universe if we can, to keep trying if we cannot, and to be enchanted by the act of learning all the way.”  Lewis Thomas.


[i] From the Beauty of Birds website.

[ii] Dabbler ducks feeding

[iii] Diving ducks feeding

[iv] Red-breasted merganser (also called sawbills) from All About Birds, Ian Davies, Macaulay Library, Cornell University

[v] Common eider, from All About Birds

[vi] Here is New York” E.B. White

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Sufficient Wisdom

“It takes a husbandman with spade and hoe

To teach the learned, who profess to know…”

       from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” in the eponymous book of poems by Father Arthur MacGillivray S.J., 1943, Bruce Humphries, Inc., Boston

 

Robert Frost and Father MacGillivray on right

Someone once told me that part of all of us remains nineteen for the rest of our lives, which I think is true. For many in my generation, that time of greatest disillusionment and the shock of early adulthood occurred in 1968 in the terrible three months of the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. For other unfortunates, the amber in which they stuck like fossils was the “summer of love” and Woodstock in 1969. For me, at only seventeen years old, it was 1963 outside the book depository in Dallas[i], and my freshman year at Boston College. On the afternoon of the assassination after the university cancelled all the classes, we drifted in the streets of an almost silent Boston, stunned like everyone else. Small eclectic groups of neighbors and strangers gathered around car radios or televisions in homes, bars and shop windows following the events in disbelief.

There are much happier memories though of that year after high school. Father MacGillivray with whom I studied for my first two semesters is one of them[ii]. I was recently reminded of him through a conversation with my brothers about E.B. White, author of beloved children’s books like “Charlotte’s Weband “Stuart Little,” and one of the most accomplished essayists of the American mid twentieth century. We studied White with Father MacGillivray, especially his “Elements of Style” and an extensive analysis of his definitive long essay about the Big Apple, “Here is New York[iii].” To say he opened worlds and gifted us with an irreplaceable formation previously unimagined would be a woeful understatement.

Before we started, we were assigned a freshmen summer reading list, including Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain,” James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” There was a fourth book, I think, which eludes me.

He was somewhat dramatic with a trained theatrical voice he would employ to great effect doing readings of plays, essays and poetry. On winter mornings, he would sweep around campus in a red lined black cloak greeting all with an ironic smile, sparkling eyes and a friendly nod. We read and analyzed in some depth Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” which we memorized and recited. I still remember parts of it. “I fled Him down the nights and days; I fled Him down the arches of the years: I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter…” .

We studied among many works “Macbeth,” Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man” and the “Road Not Taken.”  We spent almost a month on T.S. Eliot’s[iv] “The Hollow Men,” “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” “Ash Wednesday” and finally “The Wasteland,” many of the allusions in which were wasted on me.

“He seemed to know that all the choicest fruits

Mature by early tugging at the roots,

That once the earth is clear of stick and stone,

‘Tis wisdom to leave well enough alone.” 

          from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” as above.

 

After a series of emails with my brothers and sister, I grew curious and regretted not having done research earlier. Father MacGillivray had published his own poems in 1943 in his book “Sufficient Wisdom,”  which he never mentioned to us. I learned he had exchanged letters with Eliot and knew Robert Frost well from a series of lectures Frost delivered at the college, facts also previously unknown to me. I found a picture (shown above) of him with Mr. Frost cutting an 82nd birthday cake, which was Frost’s last. The Boston College archives has a book left to it in 2000, when Father MacGillivray died: a first edition of Frost’s inscribed to him and with some lines in Robert Frost’s own blocky hand printing. At first the book generated great excitement, as it was thought the short stanza was an unpublished Frost poem, however it turned out to have been from his earlier work, “Kitty Hawk”:

 

“But God’s own descent

Into flesh was meant

As a demonstration

That the supreme merit

Lay in risking spirit

In substantiation.”

 

Father MacGillivray’s own book was long out of print, but I was able to locate a used copy, which I promptly bought for $12.50, through Abe Books in a small bookstore in Ohio. In wonderful condition with the original dust cover, a first (and probably only) edition, it found its way to Ohio from the library of Admiral Richard Byrd to whom it was inscribed by the author. He met the famous explorer  and Medal  of Honor winner on a train trip to Connecticut in 1956 six months before Byrd’s own death in March of 1957. The inscription in Father MacGillivray’s strong cursive was on the inside flyleaf: “For Admiral Richard E. Byrd with grateful remembrance of our train-meeting on your way to Bridgeport – October 19, 1956, Fr. Arthur MacGillivray, S.J.”  I fantasize a brilliant serendipitous conversation between the two, wiling away the monotony of a three-hour train ride.

 

His poems are full of tree and farming metaphors, of seasons and weather and nature’s gratuitous order and beauty. I will persist as time allows to learn why. I marveled at some of them, harkening back vivid memories five decades old. Father M was a miner of minds. He cunningly and carefully placed his charges and detonated them with perfect timing. When the noise quieted and the dust cleared, he exposed clean veins of insight in the ego encrusted bedrock of our seventeen-year-old selves. Veins that have yet to be exhausted.

A small treasure of a book that I never knew existed. Makes 2020 already a good year.

 

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”

–Thomas Merton

 

[i] I once wrote a blog post on the Kennedy assassination. November 23, 1963, if you have interest. The same day was also the date of the deaths within hours of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis. That coincidence was the subject of a book I enjoyed by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is a longtime professor of philosophy at Boston College: Between Heaven and Hell, A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Between-Heaven-Hell-Somewhere-Kennedy-ebook/

[ii] The English Literature course with Father M was three of the eighteen credits that were considered full time. For me in addition were a lab biology intensive (my initial major), French, Old Testament theology, Logic as a prelude to Epistemology and Pre-calculus/calculus.

[iii] https://www.amazon.com/Here-New-York-B-White-ebook/

[iv] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/t-s-eliot

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Pharming for Profit Part Three

“First you make people believe they have a problem, and then you sell them the solution. That’s how advertising works. Every snake oil salesman knows that.” Oliver Markus Malloy, Bad Choices Make Good Stories – Finding Happiness in Los Angeles[i]

In 1951 Margaret Sanger had a dream and met her willing partner Dr. Gregory Pincus. They solicited funding from some of the biggest foundations in the world by riding the perfect wave driven by three powerful winds: the large group of  post WWII women in the workforce who wanted to pursue careers, the feverish concern of an  influential lobby about population growth and eugenics [ii](to rid the world of less than perfect people and undesirable breeders – minorities and the disabled). The Rockefellers, Ford Foundation, Shell Oil and others signed on; Sanger and Pincus had the money to build their wagon.

Fortunately for the entrepreneurial Pincus, the Federal Drug Administration of the late fifties was an underfunded paper tiger.[iii] When Pincus had his prototype, they needed some testing. One of their enabling funders, Katharine McCormick, International Harvester heiress, wrote to Sanger at the time that they needed a “cage of ovulating females to experiment with.” Sanger wrote back that they had their cage amongst the poorest of the poor in Puerto Rico: uninformed and exploited guinea pigs for a dangerous drug. They tested their new wonder drug on 132 unsuspecting women in Puerto Rico in 1956 who were not told they were part of a test, just that this magic would help them to not have children.  Five of these women died and were buried hastily without an autopsy. As a result of their very limited testing they got their miracle pill Enovid a quick approval just before the thalidomide controversy erupted. A drug that has grown to millions of users and billions in sales that is taken by some daily for decades and may take 8 to 12 years for side effects to show up was tested for twelve months on 132 subjects with negative results ignored or minimized to the regulators. With millions of users currently taking the Pill, more than 132 die each year from blood clot induced stroke and heart attacks

By the time the many years of the Nelson hearings in the Senate started in 1967 that exposed the dangers of the Pill, the suppression of evidence, smearing attacks on those presenting it and a tsunami of cultural influences from the so called Sexual Revolution made arresting the growth of its use impossible. But wait, of course, the modern pill has a lower content of the synthetic estrogen that affects almost every biological system in the human body, right? True enough, and Bayer the manufacturer of the most widely used versions of the Pill, Yaz and Yazmin, has settled over 18,000 lawsuits for over $2 billion for blood clotting incidents for Yaz, some of them fatal.[iv]

“This is the first time in medicine’s history the drug industry has placed at our disposal a powerful, disease-producing chemical for use in the healthy rather than the sick.” Dr. Herbert Ratner, Senate “Nelson Pill Hearings,” 1970

Big Pharma’s spin machine has never been more effective than in covering their trail (and posterior anatomy) concerning the dangers of the Pill. Their political and media allies, the deep pockets of Planned Parenthood and their bedfellows in the medical profession (who have a vested interest in their own backsides) all work in harmony to keep this under many wraps.  This is far too limited a venue for any comprehensive expose of the proven health risks, so I recommend if you have interest (are a women or love a woman who may be taking this stuff) that you read investigative reporter Mike Gaskins’ excellent book published last year, “In The Name of The Pill.”[v] If you have interest in the cultural impact of the Pill, a brilliant resource was written by Mary Eberstadt[vi], “Adam and Eve after the Pill.”

Since estrogen is a powerful hormone that affects virtually very function and system in the body, it is not a surprise that a wide variety of potential side effects exist. Many of them are debilitating or life threatening.  A brief bullet point list may give you pause based on many studies published in Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet and other prestigious medical publications:

  • Estrogen based oral contraceptives are listed as a Group 1 (definite) carcinogen by the World Health Organization.[vii] Especially breast cancer.
  • Known in many studies to:[viii]
    • Increase the risk of thrombosis (blood clots that cause strokes, heart attacks and death).
    • Higher risk of diabetes and arterial sclerosis.
    • Higher risk of lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
    • Increased migraines.
    • Increased risk of genetic damage.
    • Risk of permanent infertility. The lining of the uterus ages at almost twice the rate of non-pill users and changes occur in the cervix as well. Not to count the sterilizing effects of STD’s, which unsurprisingly have exploded since the advent of the Pill.
    • Increased risk of multiple sclerosis.
    • Increased risk of Crohn’s disease.
    • Higher incidence of depression along with a decrease in libido and a higher suicide rate.

This toxicity is handed out to single women, teenagers, married women and anybody who walks through the door to maintain career paths, limit or prevent childbearing and even to treat premenstrual cramping and acne. The Pill is prescribed to kids with or without notice to or the agreement of parents because as a sacrament of progressive ideology, they can be prescribed without telling or even over the objection of parents. Some parents, of course, fear an unplanned pregnancy that could short circuit their aspiring scholar’s career path and seek these chemicals for their children. How many are aware of the risks?  However, a teenager can get this stuff almost as readily as they get a package of Skittles at the pharmacy.

Possibly the best is yet to come and has already shown its effects on the water supply. Millions of women taking the Pill urinate into wastewater, and the minuteness of the passed through unmetabolized estrogen molecules bypasses filters in older treatment plants and gets into the aquifer, streams and rivers. Fish fertility[ix] and human male sperm count has been drastically altered as a result of higher levels of synthetic estrogen in our water. One study showed human male sperm count has dropped by half since 1973 and the wide use of the pill. Synthetic estrogen as found in the pill has been shown to make profound biological changes at levels 50 to 100 times less than natural estrogen. These are extraordinarily powerful chemicals.

Please before I get angry emails and comments, I invite you to do your own research, get the documents from the Nelson hearings, or read some books on the subject. The perfect multiple partnership of the profits of drug companies, the medical professionals who receive perks from big pharma and keep their patients contented with magic pills, the ideology of woman’s rights and even the environmental advocates of population control all conspire against the real health of women. And men.

“You cannot long knock any natural system out of balance without doing some harm – whether it shows up immediately or years later. Furthermore, many of these pill-caused metabolic disturbances are progressive. The longer a woman stays on the pill, the more her laboratory tests are altered.” From Barbara Seamans – Nelson hearings.

[i] Picture is from the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore,” (Potion of love) Wild West interpretation.

[ii] Read older posts from this blog, Maggie 1 and Maggie 2 about Margaret Sanger. Or read Angela Frank’s terrific biography of the “hero of Planned Parenthood”: Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy

[iii] This changed in the early sixties when the thalidomide disaster that swept Europe and to a much lesser degree in the United States precipitated a vastly more robust agency. Only the heroics of Dr. Frances Kelsey at the old FDA prevented the American approval of the morning sickness prevention drug that caused thousands of birth defects and babies without arms and legs. She was slandered repeatedly by the drug industry and their political allies for refusing to sign off on thalidomide.

[iv] See: https://www.drugwatch.com/yaz/settlements/

[v] In The Name of The Pill, 2019, Mike Gaskins

[vi] Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution, Mary Eberstadt, Ignatius Press, 2012

[vii] https://althealthworks.com/13353/26-carcinogens-according-to-the-world-health-organization-you-need-to-know-aboutyelena/

[viii] Aware of Mark Twain’s precautionary remark that “there are lies, damn lies and statistics,” I’ll point out the typical defense of the spin masters. While those with concerns will state accurately that the risk for clot induced stroke and heart attack is doubled in women taking the Pill, defenders will state that double the risk really means increasing the incidence from 1 in 10,000 to 2-4 per 10,000, which is also true. How do we interpret such radically opposed presentation of the same facts? How about this? With thirteen million Pill users just in the U.S. that tiny increase in risk translates to an additional 3,900 women a year stricken. 3,900 mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters and sisters. Acceptable risk? Sure, no medication is without risk they’ll tell us. Unless, perhaps, you know and love one of them.

[ix] One USGS survey in the Shenandoah found 20% of male fish growing eggs in their testes and much evidence with the feminization of the male and a radical male and female imbalance, threatening to wipe out whole species in some local environs.

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