Category Archives: Personal and family life

Well Scripted

laurielipton_brave_new_world“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World[i]

Back in the mists of the early seventies for about a year I was a correspondent for a regional daily paper in Boston. I remember well the cigarettes smoldering in our ashtrays and cold coffee and typewriters at eleven at night trying to beat a deadline with coverage of a local town’s selectmen or planning committee meeting or a story about a local politician’s failings. Two fingered typing rapidly to fit in with the newsroom – men typed two fingered staccato; women reporters used all ten. They were faster.

The editor was young, male, and long haired, as was I. He wielded a good red pencil and sharpened our writing skills. He was also an ideologue who made it clear that stories favoring progressive issues would be given a pulpit; those that did not would suffer a brutal red pencil until we left out anything favoring opposing opinions. We took the message quickly to heart without it ever being clearly stated. It was not that we fabricated facts, but that we selected those facts that helped the cause and neglected those that didn’t. Since at that time I was sympathetic with the editor, I found no fault with the editing.

One of my most vivid memories of the job is a phone call I received from the wife of a planning committee member and local prominent conservative with whom I had had some run ins. Her husband was a condescending patrician with his reading glasses normally perched on top of his fashionably cut blond head and possessed of an expensive private school whiny drawl. I’d long harbored an aversion to the type. As he was a local developer, I found a conflict of interest in his decisions and comments during meetings when they jumped another builder through many hoops. The applicant was a rival of my planning board guy and was trying to get a subdivision approved that would compete with one in which the committee member was selling lots. Predictably, in my judgmental crusader persona, I savaged him in a couple of articles while my editor cheered me on.

His wife called my home, not screaming, but hurt, outraged, and in tears about the generous unpaid long hours and expertise that her husband graciously donated for the well-being of the town. And how could I do that to him and tell those lies so publicly? I didn’t understand his refined nature or his decency and goodness. Now, I didn’t share her view of him, but she did whole heartedly believe it.

I learned viscerally that while I was feeling self-righteous and clever, real people were affected and embarrassed. She was a good-natured, unpretentious woman with whom I had shared pleasantries before at an event; she thought we got along well. My ideological convictions conflicted with my feelings. But I soldiered on, nonetheless. My facts were right. The goals of my ideology overtrumped my emotions. The ends justified any necessary means. If I could short circuit the nascent political career of this man, well, all’s fair. Objective journalism was not my intent, nor my ideal. I may have been able to string together cogent sentences, but I was a bad reporter.[ii]

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free –to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel and act.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A Gallup poll[iii] this week chronicled the level of public trust in the media (or rather the lack thereof). It was the second lowest such poll ranking for this metric on record. Journalists compete for truth telling trustworthiness with back of the truck health supplement hawkers. Thirty six percent of the public retains a “great deal of” (a meager7%) or a “fair level of” (29%) trust that what they read in the newspapers or see in their evening news is reliable and accurate. Which, of course, means that sixty four percent do not trust what they read or see to be truthful, unbiased, and free from ideological distortion. The breakdown is more revealing: thirty one percent of independents, eleven percent of Republicans, and sixty eight percent of Democrats have confidence that what they see and hear in the mainstream media (MSM) is honest and factual. That seems to show that Democrats are dimwitted, incredibly credulous, or that their confirmation bias is operating on full wattage. I believe the last explanation to be most likely among them.

Other data show that over ninety percent of MSM reporters and editors that contribute to political campaigns contribute to Democrats and progressive causes. The seemingly obvious conclusion is that what we read and hear and see that passes for news is progressive indoctrination – we are regularly and consistently submitting to what Huxley called a “conditioned” state. No doubt this suits sixty eight percent of Democrats just fine. And sixty nine percent of independents and eighty nine percent of Republicans are not happy about it.

But the indoctrination gets worse, much worse. More to follow in the next post.

“The question is whether privileged elites should dominate mass-communication, and should use this power as they tell us they must, namely, to impose necessary illusions, manipulate and deceive the stupid majority, and remove them from the public arena” Noam Chomsky

[i] [Image credit: (“DELUSION DWELLERS”, charcoal & pencil on paper, ©Laurie Lipton)]

[ii] I was not a bad reporter because I was telling lies – I was not. I was not a bad reporter because I was deterred by the hurt feelings of a subject – I was not. I was a bad reporter because I allowed my ideology to determine my subjects and the facts that I chose to include and not to include. There were plenty of other target subjects available and plenty of other facts. As the cliché goes, watching local politics is a target rich environment. But I focused that week on this planning committee member because I didn’t like his politics.

[iii] October 7 Gallup poll on the public’s trust of the media.

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I Met a Guy

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”  Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights

Hope - Flower in a parched landHow many of our stories start with “I met a guy?” Just as this one will. We were in the backyard of my daughter’s home in California earlier this spring during a birthday block party and cookout in the cul-de-sac out front for a neighbor turning ninety. One of their neighbors drifted in to see some of the yard improvements completed to adapt to the needs of two small active girls during a pandemic. Rodney’s daughter came as well, and the three girls ran helter-skelter testing the limits of swings, water tables, trapezes, trampolines, and slides. While the children joyfully yelped and played, we became acquainted in the way strangers sometimes do in unplanned encounters.

He was a tall African immigrant with an open demeanor and a pleasant face well accustomed to an easy smile. In early remarks, Rodney told me he was a field implementer for a large software company who pre-COVID travelled frequently to help customers install their manufacturing and business controlling software. He educated owners, trained managers, and taught line employees how to get the most out of their expensive investment.

I told him I had worked with folks like him and been involved several times in my career with traumatic “go live” transitions to new company operating systems. We agreed immediately that the most vexing challenge was employee resistance to the whole trying process of redoing almost every aspect of how everyone does their job, accesses the data they need, and controls what they need to control. Even if their old operating system was obsolete and nearly useless, line employees and managers developed their own “work arounds” for its deficiencies and were comfortable with, proud of, and dependent on those accommodations. His is a tough job. A positive outcome, despite huge investment and commitment from owners, is not guaranteed and can fail, causing no end of unhappy employers and employees.

We struck a quick and mutual understanding with that short, comfortable chat, and he decided to open the door to a deeper conversation, for which I will be grateful for a long time. Rodney emigrated from the United Kingdom when he enrolled at Boston University, majoring in finance. After graduating, he took a job with Fidelity researching corporations and evaluating potential investments. He told me he was disheartened in an aggressive and highly competitive position; after three years of difficult paid post graduate education in the ways of business, he found a new job as a trainer and manufacturing software implementation project manager and enjoyed it. All a typical exploratory career path story — understandable given his laid back, sunny personality, and obvious strong communication skills. He relished engaging with real people and helping them.

Then came the rest of the story. He grew up in a prosperous home in Uganda, one of twelve children of three wives, and the son of the man who occupied the desk analogous to the one held by the Chairperson of the Fed in the United States. His father’s boss was Idi Amin, one the cruelest of African dictators and a murderous psychopath[i]. Complicating his position, his father remained grandfathered in his job from when his tribe and religion (Catholicism) had held sway prior to the coup and takeover by Amin’s tribe and Muslim religion. He precariously balanced there for a while due to his merit, experience, and profound understanding of the complexities of currency and finance.

Rodney explained to me that in Uganda, as in many African countries, tribe and religion were defining characteristics that established all relationships. If your tribe and religion were in power, your job, lifestyle, prosperity, and social position were comfortable. Corruption is a given, and to survive you must acquiesce in it. If you were not well connected to the current government, you were lucky to feed and shelter your family at a subsistence level. When politics and power changed hands, often violently, prospects could transform overnight, not just those at the head of the government, but everyone down the line.

Amin accepted Rodney’s father because of his reputation and skills, but incrementally ratcheted up pressure to increase the money supply and leverage in an inflationary, ruinous manner to fund Amin’s vision of power, armaments, and control. Rodney’s father advised, cajoled, and ultimately refused to ruin the country’s economy. Shortly afterwards, he was disappeared. Rodney never saw his father or two of the wives again. His own mother and all twelve of the children fled in the middle of the night with the clothes on their backs, running for their lives. He was ten years old.

They shuttled from sanctuary to sanctuary in small Catholic parishes, traveling on foot always at night for several hundred miles until they finally crossed into Kenya and found relative safety in a crowded refugee camp. For the next year, they met with authorities and worked to find a permanent home. Several times his mother was offered the option to split up the children – four to the UK, four to Canada, and four to Australia. Each time she insisted that they stay together. Eventually her determination won out, and they emigrated intact to England. From there he rebuilt his life, pursued his education, and began his career, eventually meeting his wife in the United States, and together settling with their children in California.

“Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”  Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

When next I am tempted to self-pity or whining about some petty inconvenience or slight, I will recall his story. Rodney’s inner joy, trust, and upbeat demeanor are not put on, nor is it a pollyannish denial of the cruelty and alienation inflicted so often on the defenseless. He has seen it in person. Not flimsy optimism, but hope, and hope as a virtue and a soul deep choice in how he faces forward each day.

We talked for another half hour or so. He remains a practicing Catholic, and his faith and trust is not just a Sunday habit; he has a devotion to the Eucharist that sustains and strengthens him. He and his wife volunteer at a local refugee center affiliated with his parish, ministering as best they can to the flood of immigrants, documented and otherwise, that live in Southern California. The distress and fear he encounters do not dishearten him; they ennoble him.

The previous week a Somalian[ii] man came to him for help pursuing a refugee status. Should he be deported back to Somalia, where persecution and murder of Catholics and other Christians is commonplace, he would most likely be killed and die in a prolonged and painful way.

Somehow the Somalian had cobbled together enough for an unorthodox plane ticket and managed passage to Brazil in an overcrowded plane. Once in Brazil and COVID desolation, he found no further aid or direction for a new life, so he started walking. And how he walked. He walked through the rest of South America to Columbia, crossing each perilous border. Pressing ever northward, he traversed the entire span of Central America: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally across the heavily guarded border into Mexico. At every juncture, he risked prison, deportation, further exploitation, or death – foraging for food along the way – over 4,300 miles. Once in Mexico, there followed another 1,900 miles of dusty, hot roads through that dangerous country, always headed toward his dreamt about promised land of the United States. Rodney told me that after he and his wife heard the harrowing details, they arranged for another friend, an attorney, to try and help the distressed man stay, but his new friend’s security is far from assured. Rodney told me that he had to leave the room soon afterwards so his tears could not be seen.

Rodney told me if ever he ever went back to Uganda, he would necessarily have to adapt to living a corrupt life of bribery and kickbacks as the only means of survival, so absent unimaginable cultural transformation there, he will never again return to the magnificent geography and biological diversity of the land of his birth. 

Remarkably, he carries no burden of bitter resentments over the murder of his father or the ordeal of hundreds of miles of fear filled night walking. He nurtures only gratitude for the strength and courage of his mother and the help given along the way of their desperate pilgrimage by poor rural parishioners risking their lives to provide shelter. The opportunity and promised freedom in the country that adopted him drew them ever onward, was real, and they made it[iii]. And our country is better for welcoming him.

 Most especially, he treasures the miracles of his wife, his family, and the faith that saw him through. He is compelled by love to give back some of the love he received and serve those who are suffering similar calamities. He recognizes in them a yearning for freedom, a yearning with which he can empathize in his heart as few others can.  

“The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.”  Richard Rohr

[i] Supreme Commander/President Amin assumed control Uganda in a military coup in 1971 when his military record of corruption was about to be investigated by the first Milton Obote administration. One of Amin’s favorite methods of “fraternal correction” was personally administered with a three-pound hammer, which he would wield with his strong arm until there were very few square inches of unpulped flesh left on the poor soul being disciplined. Or the screams stopped. Whichever came first. During his reign of terror, Uganda was appointed to join the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, joining China, Russia, Pakistan and other stalwarts of human freedom.

[ii] Persecution of Christians in Somalia: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/somalia/

[iii] The latest Homeland Security data compiled through 2019 shows over 549,000 immigrants from African nations were granted permanent resident (green card) status in the United States from 2015 to 2019, and an additional 816,000 primarily minority green card holders from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti. At an average of 1.1 million total green cards issued per year, just these two predominantly black demographic areas account for about 25% of all new legal permanent residents in that five-year period. Apparently both the immigrants and immigration officials seem to be blissfully unaware of the “systemic racism” for which the U.S. is so often condemned in academic lounges and political rallies. https://www.dailysignal.com/2021/05/13/coming-to-america-africans-caribbeans-flock-to-systemically-racist-us/

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Maximum Benefit, Minimum Wage (Part One)

“The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.” Elbert Hubbard

The greatest legacy from my parents was watching them do their jobs, whether that was in a formal workforce or at home. They did not raise any lazy kids. We were all blessed with a variety of humble jobs when we were young. For me, I started as a paperboy, then shoveling snow for neighborhood driveways. After caddying at the local nine-hole golf course for a summer, I had a relatively miserable weekend job bagging groceries at the grocery store in the center of our small town.

 I enjoyed much more some side cash jobs cleaning dead bugs off and waxing airplanes at the local airport, splitting the per plane fee with my friend, and unloading railroad cars piecework with the same friends on weekends for a local lumber wholesaler. All cash jobs. Boxcars fully loaded with fir gutters were the hardest challenge to “break the car” (get started by sliding all the way into the car on your back at the top to kick out to your buddy the first few forty-foot pieces jammed up against the roof.)  OSHA and Department of Labor enforcement and the nanny state was not as omnipresent then. We learned about planning to attack the load and how to remove splinters from various parts of our anatomy.

Next followed by a wonderful six weeks before turning sixteen on a dairy farm during haying season. A buck an hour cash in an envelope on Friday evening – never – before or after – was I richer. We would follow a relentlessly moving flat wood trailer being pulled by a slow-moving tractor, passing bales of hay from the rows on the field to the foreman, who stacked them high. When the trailer was stacked high, we hopped on the back to ride to the barn. We then reversed the process, handing the bales up to the foreman in the barn to be stacked for winter forage. Going home sunburned and covered in itchy hay dust and sweat after a day in the company of similarly tired, affable friends, I do not know if I have ever since experienced as full a sense of pride, job satisfaction, and a foretaste of manhood.

When I turned sixteen, the work rules allowed me to get an “on the books” job that my dad lined up for me through a friend at a local family-owned fence company, paying minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. A quarter more an hour than haying, but much less after taxes. It is the first job that shows still on my social security history statement. I worked there summers and weekends through the rest of high school and my first two years of college. Over the many years since, the indelible lessons learned there and on those early jobs helped form me for tree climbing arborist jobs, truck driving, newspaper reporting, and ultimately lumberyard work from the bottom up in a millwork shop to executive jobs managing multiple yards with hundreds of employees.

 “We work to become, not to acquire.” Elbert Hubbard

The fence company was a small conglomerate run by a father, Vito, and three sons, Bobby, George, and Dickie (affectionately nicknamed “Space” for his cranial volume without any noticeable filler). Vito’s brother, Crazy Charlie, hung around and lived up to his name. Charlie enjoyed bossing everyone about without any defined authority to do so. Bobby ran the fence company, although his handsome visage, easy charm, and capacity to party occupied his most focused attention. He was as likeable a character as one could hope to meet. Bobby was very competent to run the place when he chose to do so. Bobby was a good friend to the Songin brothers, one of whom frequently stopped by the shop. Butch, Queey, and Harold were local sports heroes and gifted natural athletes. All of them played minor league professional hockey with the old Providence Reds. Butch was the star hockey player, although all three were very good. Butch was also the first quarterback for the old Boston Patriots before they had their own stadium.

George was the most visibly competent of the owner’s sons and built sound houses, which he framed himself; he was even tempered and a good trainer. Dicky was, well, he was Dicky, and he installed swimming pools, paved driveways, and occasionally had a contract for a tar and gravel commercial roof. While I spent most of my time at the fence company, the workflow for the family businesses sometimes moved us to framing houses with George or paving driveways with Dicky for a week or two. I especially liked nailing off spruce roof board sheathing for George and the challenge of humping bundles of roof shingles two at a time up a ladder.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The fence company, though, was the incubator for many skills. My first job was dipping fence posts in the creosote bucket buried in the ground next to the wood drip drying rack. Both the rack and the buried bucket have long been EPA banned, and the stuff permanently stained blue jeans and boots in a few hours. I soon moved up to feeding the other end of the posts into one of two also now OSHA banned machines by hand. One was a high-speed router that we would spin the posts into to cap them with an eased edge all around. No guards or impediments to touching the blades should one be careless. The second post cap machine was a heavy honed blade on an eccentric wheel that turned the longer posts for picket fences into a semi sharpened rough design like a pencil sharpened with a pocketknife. The machine ran like an automated guillotine, and we would feed and turn the post until all sides were hit. I never witnessed anyone feeding an arm into the thing, but there was nothing to prevent someone from doing so.

I learned to run the press to drill properly spaced holes into the posts according to the size of the fence they were to accommodate. Different spacing for different heights with marks on the table as visual stops to position the top of the post. Small posts had two. Over four feet high had three holes or six at right angles for corner posts. Posts for the middle of the line were drilled through. End posts stopped halfway. After a week or two, I learned all the jobs and could perform them reasonably efficiently as needed to produce enough pieces a day to keep the boss happy.

Making the fence panels was a step up. I learned to properly crown the rails with the flat side up and fit their doweled ends into a slotted metal table with the proper spacing for each panel height. We placed the cedar pickets and hand nailed them on with six penny galvanized nails. Twenty-two-ounce framing hammer. One stroke to set the nail, and one to put it away flush.  The key to speed was the left hand feeding the nails, a skill that was also essential to nailing off George’s roof boards later. One to set, one to put the nail flush without dinging the picket. Spin and set up the next nail between your fingers with the head ready while the right hand swung with power. Six nails to a picket to fix it to all three rails. Each picket was about three inches wide, so an eight-foot fence panel needed about thirty leaving small spaces between them and the doweled end of the rail left unpicketed to slide into the posts during installation.

Spread the pickets a bit at the top because there was a slight taper from the bottom to the top of the picket so that they stayed plumb.  A hundred and eighty nails approximately a panel. One to set, one to put it away. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Four or five panels an hour. Feed smooth with the left-hand fingers. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Arm strength builds up until there is no more soreness at the end of the day. Find the rhythm. Keep focused and the day goes by with concentration, not distraction. Eye hand coordination developed to perform the work without destroying your feed hand. Immediate gratification when I pulled a finished panel off the table and stacked it ready for the job site trucks. Find the rhythm. Spin, tap, bang. Spin, tap, bang.

The next summer I was the second man on a field crew working for Elmer, the most experienced and talented crew chief. You were lucky to get one outing with Elmer. If he perceived any laziness, you never got a second. I was fortunate to work the whole summer for him and weekends after school started again. I learned to dig post holes narrow and thirty inches deep through New England rocky clay soil with a sharpened bar, shovel, and post hole hand scoop digger. Secure the posts in plumb and true with a homemade welded tamper. Nail in the panels. Hang the gates. When I turned eighteen, I ran my own crew and drove the truck to the sites. We were paid by the foot installed with a varying rate for type of fence and extra for gates. A hundred and fifty feet a day, and I made an adult’s weekly wage in the summer, a wage capable, if full time, of supporting a small family or paying fall tuition with a summer’s work. Not minimum wage anymore and never again in my life. I could install a fence today without a hitch, albeit a lot slower.

In those early jobs I learned to wield framing hammers and sledgehammers, five or six different kinds of power saws and handsaws, hatchets, wrenches, shovels, picks, a welding torch, and various types of drills – power and hand bit braces, even a machete and many more. But the more important skills were even more transferrable to becoming an adult: how to get up in the morning every day and get to work on time. How to cooperate and get along with co-workers of all personality types, intelligence levels, and moods. What it is like to work for a great mentor and boss. What it is like to work for an unreasonable, volatile, self-important tyrant, who sometimes throws hammers. How to persevere through occasional twelve-hour days and sixty-hour, six-day weeks in reasonably good spirits, resolute. How to solve a hundred problems a week. How to satisfy unhappy customers, even when they are clearly in the wrong. How to supervise and motivate, encourage, train, discipline, and praise authentically. And maybe most importantly to value and respect the work and those who do the work. So many lessons.

There is no substitute for what we learn in those early jobs.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”  Plato

 

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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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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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Transitions

Guest blog post – Rita Parquette

In the mid-seventies, I worked as an obstetrical nurse in the labor and delivery rooms of Augusta General Hospital in Maine. Post Roe v Wade, the transition was well underway from abortion as a rare medical necessity to save the life of the mother to common. We witnessed the practice grow from rare to wildfire – sixty million in the U.S. since those early days. The near religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby seeking ever fewer constraints placed on killing their offspring, at first was a small minority, but well financed. They rode a wave of ironically named ‘liberation’ and ran over all compunctions and objections. Roe was the most liberal decision regarding abortion in the world at that time.  It allowed abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

During that time, nurses were sometimes demeaned by a few doctors, but they held firm as they were able. One firm stand for many of us was abortion. We observed with justified concern the decreasing empathy and hardening treatment of both mothers and babies from those doctors who shared one characteristic in their practices: they added abortion provider to their resumes. The doctors plying the termination trade were having difficulty finding OR nurses to attend them in the Augusta General operating room in the basement; at one point the head nurse on the upper OB floor asked us to “help out our doctors.” We refused. Our job was healing and preserving, not deliberately taking life. This was not a religious decision, but a humanitarian one and conformed to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

“Those eyes that had hardly opened to the light of the earthly sun forever and ever were closed to the light of the earthly sun…” From “God Speaks,” “Holy Innocents” Charles Peguy

One anecdote remains always vivid in my memory and haunts me to this day, nearly forty-five years later. On a typical busy evening, I was helping two young mothers in labor. We had moved on from the scopolamine doping of women to more humane and dignified obstetrical practices. My practice was to try and calm their fear, then guide them through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.  One of my patients was only about sixteen weeks pregnant, and we had no neo-natal intensive care facilities in Augusta. Optimally we would attempt to arrest her sporadic and weak contractions. Standard practice was to start an IV. Hydration and improved electrolyte balance at times could stop premature labor, and the pregnancy could proceed to term. Not that night.

Dr. R, one of the more zealous of the pro-abortion OB/GYN practitioners, entered the labor room and spoke briefly to the young mother; I was busy with another patient and not privy to the conversation. He then strode over and instructed me curtly to put an ampule of Pitocin into the IV.  Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, which is a natural powerful hormone that induces more rapid and stronger contractions to intensify labor.  We were trying to retard labor or stop it to give the baby her best chance, so I was surprised, then aghast. I refused and told him that if he wanted Pitocin into that IV, he would have to do it himself! We used metal folding clipboards for medical charts. While I was busy standing at the nurse’s high station writing my own notes, he flung this patient’s metal chart about five feet, hard, and hit me on my left side in the ribs. I never saw it coming. Then he added the Pitocin into the IV. The labor intensified.  I was there for the mother and her baby.  I monitored the babies heart beat with a fetal stethoscope and told the mother I was getting a good heart beat and added that information to my notes.

Inevitably she was ready for delivery and wheeled into the delivery room. At this point, Dr. R’s friend, an anesthesiologist entered the scene.  We had many wonderful doctors at our hospital, but Dr. R and this particular anesthesiologist were not among them.   This anesthesiologist’s favorite way to summon a nurse was to whistle with two fingers in his mouth.  He put my patient deeply under, something rarely done because of risk to the newborn infant. The Pitocin accelerated labor, delivery ran its predictable course, and the unconscious mother delivered her tiny baby girl.  Dr. R dropped the baby into a stainless-steel basin nearby normally used to receive the placenta. He finished up quickly and left the delivery room before the mother awoke.

Immediately, a nursery nurse, whom I had already warned about the coming of this small baby, rescued the baby from her cold metal refuse bucket, wrapped and carried her to the newborn warming station where she suctioned her in a futile attempt to clear her breathing passages and stimulate breathing. She then rubbed and did her best to comfort this tiny girl. After over ten minutes without a breath, her heart ceased its beat.  The scene felt surreal to me; I was out of sync with the events and with the doctors – like a dream, a disturbing dream. I did not know what else I could do. Something like this had never happened to me or the other nurse.

Epilogue reflections:

When the mother woke from the anesthesia, I told her that her baby was born with a heartbeat but was unable to breath. Still somewhat drowsy, I tried to comfort her, but she seemed hard to reach.  I think she too might have felt like she was in a surreal world and not sure how she got there.  After her discharge, the mother called a mortician and a funeral was held.  The funeral home director received the doctor’s notes, my nurse’s notes and the notes of the nursery nurse who had done her best for the baby. Both doctors described the little girl as macerated, born dead, indeed they agreed she had been dead for a while. Both sets of nurse’s notes described her true condition. Since medical notes can wind up as legal documents, the funeral director notified the hospital administrator of the discrepancy and conflicting narratives. When the nursing supervisor for our shift came to me for an explanation, I assured her the nurse’s notes were the accurate ones and explained exactly what happened. She gave me a knowing look, and I never heard another word.

A couple of years later, when we had returned to the faith of our youth, I confessed this incident to our pastor, who remains a dear friend to this day. He suggested lovingly that in the circumstances I tried my best and that I needed to forgive myself. Father Joe further suggested that I should name the baby and pray for her mom and for all that had happened around that difficult night.  I named her Gabriella and do pray about this still. I hope to see her again some fine day and have a conversation.

A final related episode comes to mind. The equally troubled nursery room nurse had a discussion with an experienced and humane pediatrician the next day. She explained to him what had happened and asked if we had done the right thing in trying to save her and delivering all the professional care we could muster for that little girl. He smiled sadly and looked into her eyes. He assured her, “Where there is life, there is always hope.”

 “I AM says God, Master of the Three Virtues.  Faith is a faithful wife. Charity is an ardent mother. But Hope is a tiny girl.” “God Speaks, “Hope” Charles Peguy

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Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

“The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.” “The Order of Time”, Carlos Rovelli, 2018

In 1972 we lived with our toddler Amy and our infant Gabriel in a winter rental on Mashnee Island at the north end of the Cape Cod Canal across from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We had very little money and an old flat head six-cylinder Chevy pickup truck painted with house paint that we bought in Boulder, Colorado when we lived there. Our next-door neighbor was Fred Cheever, who was in his sixties. John’s brother and Susan’s uncle, Fred befriended this young couple, told us of local must sees and gave us his copy of the New York Times Sunday paper after he finished with it. Fred ran the advertising department of a local radio station.

 That year I worked for Newell B. Snow, a third-generation land surveyor in Buzzards Bay. Newell was in his early eighties and had original surveyor’s notebooks from his grandfather in the Civil War era. Old school and meticulous, he required a cane to get from place to place, but cognitively had lost nothing off the two-seam fastball. He remembered half-buried marble markers to help in laying out old boundary lines. Finding these markers and proving boundaries by cutting a line and researching the old books could mean the difference between a land locked piece of property and one that was accessible and much more valuable to the owners. Detective work was the fun part; sometimes I would be allowed on a rainy day to help do the math to close the traverses, which had to be proofed within a narrow percentage. If one didn’t tie out, it meant going back into the woods to remeasure until the trigonometry of angles and measurements closed back to the starting point of the lot.

Newell’s son-in-law, Charlie was the crew chief, and Bob, a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer in his late forties was second man on the crew. I was the third man, held the dumb end of the hundred-foot metal tape and cut brush and trees out of the line. Newell eschewed the use of noisy and expensive chainsaws, which regrettably for me, was one of the few things I was good at when I first started my year as a land surveyor. The century old design brush hooks cut the lines so that we could shoot and measure them with the manual transits. I soon learned how to keep brush hooks sharp and use their keen ability against tough, stringy vines and scrub shrubs. When working exposed to the onshore winds in January, maintaining core body heat was an ongoing struggle. Bob gave me a woolen Navy watch cap, a kind gift that helped. Twenty below in the Maine woods was not as numbing as North Atlantic wind that cored through and was impossible to ignore. The hard work of a brush hook helped to keep me warm.

Eventually I convinced Newell to buy a small Stihl chainsaw, and while it was less effective against vines and thick underbrush, it significantly improved the crew’s efficiency on the numerous scrub white oaks and red pines that blocked the sight lines of the transit.  The Stihl immediately increased our daily production. Instead of detouring around larger trees with four short ninety-degree shoots and measurements as had been done for prior centuries, I’d quickly drop the old scrub oaks or red pines into the adjacent woods and leave them. I regretted my recommendation and its ramifications. A twelve-inch diameter tree that may have been forty years old was too daunting to attack with a brush hook, but a chainsaw put it down in five or ten minutes.

“And because Your years do not pass, Your years are today… All our tomorrows to the end of time You shall make to be in this Your day; and all our yesterdays from the beginning of time You have made to be in this Your day.” St. Augustine, “Confessions,” Book One, Chapter Six

Long cut lines through bramble-clogged Cape Cod woods made up two legs of what we called “spaghetti lots”: an elongated rectangle with two hundred feet of road frontage and a half a mile or so into the trees and vines on each side. A lot of hills, measuring, shooting the lines and cutting.  The other surveyor’s skill that is mostly lost with encroaching technology is the plumb bob. Charlie would spot a wooden stake that we cut out of two by three studs sharpened with a hatchet on rain out days. I’d drive it into the exact location defined by the transit with a five-pound short handled sledge hammer, then nail a small tack into it as a temporary line marker for measurements. We used a metal hundred-foot tape stretched to an exact tension with a spring-loaded scale to make certain as exact a measurement as we could manage. Plumb bobs on both ends of the measurement with the other end of its string held against our tape suspended exactly over our tacks.

On inclines the tape had to be held level as well as with the proper tension. On steep hills, we could manage much less than hundred-foot measurements. Sometimes as little as a horizontal ten foot pull and we would need to place a new stake. The high end of the tape would be held precisely on the tack, the low end held high and level with straining arms and a nearly fully extended plumb bob string, the point of the plumb bob without a quiver held over the tack. The bob could not touch the nail because both the plumb and the exact dimension would be lost. On a half mile traverse, any accumulated small errors of inexactly taken measurements would ruin the closing back in the office.

Now, of course, all this is gone, along with four transit leveling screw gauges, meticulously adjusted by the crew chief at every set up. Electronic self-leveling laser transits and corresponding electronic target poles not only accomplish the exact measurements, the rectangular (or any other angled) multi sided traverses are closed and calculated as the surveying teams go along within the programming and screens of the transits. Plumb bobs, wooden stakes and tacks are forgotten accoutrements.

As I think about plumb bobs, straining arms held high to mark their precise locations to establish reliable borderlines, I ponder the lost plumb bobs of our bewildered culture, the objective moral norms held true and plumb for centuries, pointing by gravity towards the center of the earth, exactly defining with rigor and wisdom the boundaries we seem to want blurred. And I wonder about how human nature, unchanged, mocks both the convolutions and the ubiquitous noise of our technology, and marks as silly our fatuous, doomed attempts at materialistic perfectibility.

“Thus, He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people….”  Amos 7: 7-8a

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Father’s Day

“This is the price you pay for having a great father. You get the wonder, the joy, the tender moments – and you get the tears at the end too.”  Harlan Coben

I heard my father sing last night, which is infrequent since he died on his birthday in 1982.  We have only three recordings of his voice, all done by my brother Barry with a tape deck brought up to the choir loft at Blessed Sacrament Church when my Dad sang at my cousin Mary’s wedding. Here’s one of them in a footnote:  Sacrament Divine.[i]

He sang many times at that church. My earliest indelible memories of church are sitting in that loft alone with him and the organist as I watched the Latin Mass unfold below from a privileged vantage point. In last night’s dream, possibly prompted by visiting some new friends, one of whom, Caroline, still possesses the lovely Irish lilt of her girlhood near Derry in Northern Ireland. Or possibly my dream was a most welcome Father’s Day gift with a promise of singing once again with my Dad.

Dad had a rare Irish tenor with a good range and steady, but never a voice lesson that I know of, unless his mother taught him some things. He bemoaned excessive vibrato and would have been appalled at the current fashion of so many superfluous notes and flourishes that bedevil modern interpretation. The ability to hold a single note without unnecessary side adventures was a valuable attribute for my father. Mario Lanza and later the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti were favorites of his. To put it into his perspective, Bing Crosby passed muster, but Frank Sinatra was a bit too creative. And Elvis, well, Elvis was a pretender and a heretic. I’m happy for him that he missed Tupac.

He loved to sing to the crowd at any opportunity, especially the old Irish and Irish American songs. From “Mother Machree” and “Wild Irish Rose” to “Clancy Lowered the Boom.” After a few drinks he might venture to the piano and belt out an exuberant “Blue Moon” with some inexpert, but enthusiastic chords. But the show stopper of course was “Danny Boy.” There would always follow a silence with long stares and even some tears after his “Danny Boy.”

His mother was an Irish immigrant of the County Galway Lannons; she was a professional singer in touring vaudeville shows. She died young of tuberculosis, and he never knew his father, who disappeared into the mist during WWI. The Irish aunts never spoke of the father. Neither did my Dad. There was an interpretation that senior died in France in the trenches, but there remains the possibility he returned to his wandering ways as a vaudeville show manager. Despite some effort, I have not yet found out the truth, and all that know have long since left the stage. The aunts and uncles took her in and her baby in 1917, so the culture in which my father was raised with a French name was thoroughly Irish.

World War Two killed my father but took thirty-seven years to finish the job. Like many other combat veterans, he became deeply addicted to tobacco with the habit reinforced by free cartons of Lucky Strikes passed out by the American Tobacco Company and the U.S. Army. Captured in the Ardennes at the Battle of the Bulge, he endured terrifying threats from his captors. Twice he was lined up in the late winter snow with fellow prisoners, and his mocking guards dropped the tailgate of the truck that led them into the field, unveiled the machine gun behind the canopy and jacked home the first round. After a tense half a minute, they would laugh and move out. The second time, his captors simply left the prisoners in the field and drove off with Patton’s army in close pursuit, and my father was free.

He married his sweetheart within a few weeks of returning home. She was the twin sister of his closest Army buddy, my uncle Sonny Laracy, my Dad’s partner on scouting missions in a Jeep for the Ninth Armored Infantry. He finished up as a sergeant. With his love, Betty, now ninety-seven, they parented six children who love them still and miss their Dad.

Happy Father’s Day, Pop. You sang wonderfully in my dream – note perfect. I hope to sing with you again.

[i] .

 

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Spring Dance

“I am going to try and pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.”  Anne Lamont

In New England, spring always surprises. Not so much at its coming or pace or progression of blooming, which I’ve come to count on as the annual fulfillment of winter hope, but with its intensity. The utter greenness and resurrection, lush, with those fragile hues of new leaves that soon harden into the deeper, more lasting, larger leaves of summer. Welcome chores soon follow:  planting gardens, fertilizing, then mowing the lawn. Perhaps cutting down and digging out roots from a disappointing shrub or planting that we tolerated through the summer, fall and winter, but could not abide when contrasted with the glory of rebirth.

With the colors and morning sounds of the returning doves and sparrows comes the smell of spring, a rich mixture of soil, flower scent, abundant varied pollens and rain at dawn. When nearby Escobar dairy farm workers spread cow manure on the corn fields, and the wind shifts from the east and Narragansett Bay, the moist, fecund odor offends some, but not me. The heifer yard fills as the late winter calves mature into adolescence but are not ready yet for breeding and the beginning of their lives in the big western field with the other milk producing cows – the daily rhythm of leisure, hanging out with the other girls, feeding and milking. On our sunset walks past the yard, they are curious, friendly, hoping for a treat and run to welcome us when I greet them.

“In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”  Margaret Atwood

 As May slips into June, and summer beckons, the traffic on Aquidneck Island picks up on East and West Main Road with beach comers and Newport boating and dining visitors; Fort Adams hosts the Volvo sailing races, and Saturday evening polo matches commence in Portsmouth. The annual chowda cook off and contest are the launch: Newport is a foodie city. Soon will come the music festivals – jazz and folk at Fort Adams, and classical ensembles in the mansions. The clubs and restaurants host everything from quiet piano bars to hot, open window country rock, and sweaty dancers seeking an off-shore night breeze spill out on the sidewalk between sets.

For us, however, June and music carries with it a ballet recital at Portsmouth High School. When our daughters, Angela and Meg, were young, recitals and performances were in Providence at PPAC and the Veteran’s Auditorium: Festival Ballet and School: Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Firebird. Here, though, it is the Island Moving Company, Newport Ballet School and granddaughters. Three so far: Gianna, Ellie and Mary, but watching three-year-old Josie last night, swaying, laughing and jumping in tempo as her sisters danced, she will soon follow. Most likely, so will Adelaide, Meg’s baby daughter, in Southern California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As their mother Angela and Aunt Meg before them, the sisters learn that music is not broken and is far richer than hip hop, computers and synthesizers can deliver: more complex, transcendent and cohesive with the true and the beautiful. The joining of their bodies to the grace of the music, as they experience and develop their own grace, is a spring wonder of its own, a planting and a greening for a lifetime.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed…Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”  Henry David Thoreau

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Diner

“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia.”  James Wolcott

We have long favored funky short order breakfast diners in small towns. Eggs over easy with crisp bacon and superlative home fries, especially accompanied by a ‘never empty’ cup of better than average coffee with the good company of diner regulars, is one of our favorite dates and has been for fifty years. Only a slightly overweight waitress with a quick, knowing smile could improve upon the experience, and often does. Not sure why. This may indicate a skewed character with some undefined deep flaw yet identified. But I’m comfortable with the risk.

Earlier this week we stopped at a local diner we had not previously tried. Another guilty pleasure is checking out new diners. One stop is sufficient to rate the home fries and coffee; the rest of breakfast is hard to ruin. Whether we ever go a second time is almost entirely based on those two criteria. The parking lot was full of clearly local cars with only a couple less than five years old. A good sign.

The menu was on the chalk board and one simple sheet of paper encapsulated in plastic. Each item was unembellished with elaborate description. The specials included an omelet with a spicy Portuguese sausage. The odor was coffee, bacon with a faint overtone of old grease and a combination of worn wood and linoleum curled in the corners. White eight by eleven notices were pinned to a bulletin board and taped on some windows advertising local handyman services, school plays and an upcoming meeting at town hall regarding changing rules at the transfer and recycling station.

The waitress was just this side of indifferent, but wary and quick to our booth. Perfect. Most of the tables were occupied and almost every round red Naugahyde stool on a stainless-steel post at the counter had a behind on it, ranging from skinny to ample with even a few plumber’s cracks. Knowing laughter at the counter with a well-known customer. Our waitress pretended shock, smiled lasciviously, and proclaimed for the room, “And you kiss your mutha with that mouth!” She was not crabbing over towards a safe space.  We were for the most part ignored by the regulars, but it was a benign neglect. Catch an eye and get a quick smile, but the furtive eye was not easily caught. Most were involved in conversation with two or three fellow diners, conversations that started twenty years ago with daily or weekly updates.

“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” William F. Buckley

In my experience, the regular customers of a local diner are the same everywhere, just different in specifics. This week’s morning crowd was mostly north of sixty, more men than women, some seventies carry over long hair, a couple of beards and a few unshaven, but clean faced maybe a week or so ago. Although the place didn’t allow smoking inside, quite a few of the diners sported a pair of nicotine stained fingers and looked like they’d be more comfortable with a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray near their coffee mug.  Without taking a poll, I assume most did not have many letters after their signature. A half dozen or so looked well educated in their green youth, but their schooling was not at Brown or Rhode Island School of Design, more likely in the Mekong Delta or Khe Sanh.  Three or four of the tin ceiling panels had been replaced with posters honoring diners who no longer could eat breakfast there, grease dimmed posters with names, ranks, nicknames like Doc and Gunny, medals, military outfits and mottos. One customer sat by himself wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and a thousand-yard stare, drinking coffee, but had no breakfast on the counter.

The most recent candidate of the people famously classified the diner’s good folks as deplorables, and the remark may have cost her the presidency.  Their hands are calloused, and their backs stooped a bit with wear and tear. They believe in a functioning border, but for the most part lack xenophobia; working hard was valued, not working was not.  Marriage and family, even though some failed at it, was assumed to be the basic unit of a well-ordered society, and marriage is between one man and one woman with children the natural expectation and responsibility.  Almost universally, they knew something vital was bleeding out in a culture they wanted desperately to preserve. Maybe it couldn’t be well articulated, but they would vote to try to stem the loss. I prefer their company to the sophisticated most of the time.

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”  Harper Lee

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