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Knitting in the Reign of Trump

In January 2017, taking a cue from Madame DeFarge in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I resolved to knit fifty lace love shawls while The Donald occupied the White House. The identification with DeFarge’s incessant knitting and implacable determination to use her knitting to record the names of all the aristocrats she intended to consign to the guillotine may seem incongruous to my purpose to offer love instead of the fear that the real estate magnate sold to his American voters. But in other regards, the connection to Dicken’s novel struck me as highly relevant in several ways. The juxtaposition of the purpose of my relentless knitting with Madame DeFarge’s provides a stark contrast. Like Madame Defarge, my obsessive knitting channels my raw emotions of consternation, shock, and grief; however, unlike Madame Defarge, it transmutes these emotions into acts of love, into gifts for others to wear around their shoulders. Madame Defarge focuses her knitting on vengeance and hatred toward the aristocracy, particularly the Evremonde family, responsible for the deaths of  her sister, her brother-in-law, and her sister’s unborn child. Working with one’s hands is also a vehicle that Doctor Manette uses to deal with his imprisonment for eighteen years under a cruel regime. He hammers single-mindedly at his shoemaker’s bench to assuage his anguish.

Charles Dickens exemplifies a writer with a social conscience who considers it his role to direct the issues of the day in his novels, and so do I. Writers are observers and recorders of the trends and events of history. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens looks backward at the Reign of Terror and reflects on the how the lives of Englishmen and Frenchmen are connected. What happens in France reverberates across the channel just as the events in the American colonies had repercussions in France. Integral to the plot is the redemptive quality of love, best illustrated by Sydney Carton’s sacrificing his life to save Charles Darnay from the guillotine and to ensure the future happiness of the woman he loves, Lucie Manette. Where there is fear, love cannot exist; and Carton rides fearlessly in the tumbril to the guillotine, holding the hand of the seamstress also condemned to die that day with fifty-two other victims of the revolutionary tribunal.

Knitting is a domestic craft, usually associated with women, and an activity that binds them in a communal group. Counting is basic to keeping track of stitches and patterns. The women spectators at the executions count the beheadings as they knit, presumably not dropping a stitch. It is both a mental and a physical exercise in control. Hands and mind work together to maintain focus. Knitting strikes me as particularly appropriate to count the days until The Donald departs the national scene. In the process I am producing an article of clothing that will be both useful and attractive for someone else to wear. Instead of wringing my hands in despair and wallowing in pessimism and doomsday proclaiming, I can use my energy and time to express love instead of to spew hate and disgust.

I am finishing my fourteenth love shawl. I may not reach my goal of fifty lace shawls or I may exceed that number after January 20, 2021. Granted, I am counting on the present occupant of the White House being evicted on that day. Fifty is a good number like Dickens’ fifty-two guillotined prisoners, perhaps representative of the weeks in a year. My number can represent the fifty states in the union subject to the Reign of Trump. It is no coincidence either that the nation-wide march organized on January 21, 2017, to protest his inauguration adopted as their liberty cap the pink pussy hat the marchers hand-knitted to wear for the event. Dickens depicted women intimately involved in the combat for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Miss Pross and Madame Defarge in one of the final scenes of the novel are pitted against each other, one symbolizing the force of love and the other the power of vengeance.  Sydney Carton as he ascends the platform to be guillotined envisions a future where a better world emerges from the blood and turmoil of the Reign of Terror. I, too, choose to envision a better day for the United States when the purge of prejudice, ignorance, greed, and venality is completed, which the current regime inevitably will spawn. Americans will finally be sated and have enough of corruption, braggadocio, and injustice. The country will have learned that ignorance, inexperience, and dishonesty cannot produce good governance and that preservation of democracy depends on an informed electorate. Misinformation cannot be banned from the air waves in a democracy in which snake oil salesmen have the freedom to hawk their goods. Its only antidote is a citizenry that insists upon the facts and solid evidence and will not tolerate being played for fools by con men feeding them what they want to believe rather than the truth that will keep them free.

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Return to Vietnam

Ken Burns’ PBS Vietnam documentary featured twelve heart-reaching episodes that must have been excruciatingly painful for veterans of that combat as well as for their civilian contemporaries who watched the war at home on their television sets as those tragic years unfolded while others took to the streets in protest. I was one of those college students who marched on Washington, D.C. of 1967, but returned to campus, disgusted, that those peace demonstrators were exhibiting the same violent behavior they sought to oppose. I was conflicted. I saw many of those demonstrators as children of privilege, of the eastern establishment, who had no experience of poverty or oppression. The country has elected to office the last group of people who lived through that tempestuous period and to have preserved in their memories both the idealism of the period and the subsequent disillusionment with government policy both domestic and foreign. Ironically, the nation has a Commander-in-Chief in 2017  who neither served in Vietnam nor marched against the war. When great issues face a nation in any era, the sideliners and bench-warmers are not the ones I look to for leadership in the future. In that respect, I admire both Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry who has the distinction of both serving and protesting.

Watching the documentary reminded me of the question that I had posed previously to Vietnam veterans I know. I asked them if they would ever return to Vietnam in order to see what the country is like now and to revisit the places they remember. One man answered succinctly “no.” I did not prod him further. The other veteran replied that it was a beautiful country and if given the opportunity he would go, but really had no great urge to do so.  The third veteran unhesitantly affirmed he would go. Burns’ Vietnam documentary interviewed a few veterans who return, meeting with Vietnamese they had fought with. Before I saw this documentary, in a short story I had imagined an aging Vietnam veteran who intended to return to the scene of combat to fulfill an item on his bucket list.

It is well-known that many World War II combat veterans have returned to the Normandy beaches and visited the American graveyards in Belgium and France, a painful pilgrimage, but one that they felt necessary in order to sooth their souls. Their youth perished on those battlefields. They left something of themselves behind on that bloody ground as well as their fallen comrades. Death will get us all in the end. Before that we must make peace with ourselves and everyone who has ever touched our lives. That is what I think a soldier does when he goes back to the killing fields.

Here is the short story I wrote before watching the documentary:

April

It was her husband’s birthday. They were having a small dinner party and the invited couple would be arriving soon. Marian did not feel in a party mood, but she put a good face forward not to dampen the celebration. He was wearing a fresh navy-blue polo shirt with a white stripe across the chest. San Francisco was stitched on the left corner diagonal to where his heart would be.

“Why are you wearing that shirt? You haven’t worn that in a long time,” she said.

“No reason. I can change if you don’t like it.”

“No … don’t. It’s just that Claudia gave you that shirt … remember … when I went with her to California.”

Why of all times did he pick that shirt of all the clean shirts in his closet? She burst into tears. Through her tears, she said, “Nothing happens for nothing. You subconsciously picked it in memory of her.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you.”

“Why do all the people I love die in April when everything comes to life again?” she looked out the dining room window where a few piles of snow lingered along the long driveway to the road. Juncos and red-breasted nuthatches flittered around the bird feeder suspended from a tree limb.

“Who was it,” her husband asked, “said ‘April is the cruelest month of all’?”

She folded like a paper parasol into the easy chair. “I knew her since I was eight-year’s old. She was a second mother to me. She was always there for me—when my parents died, when my daughter took her own life. Why couldn’t I be there with her niece and nephew holding her hand when she closed her eyes for the last time?”

“Because you live in Washington and she lived in Illinois. You have a job you couldn’t leave. Be thankful you made the last trip with her to Germany.”

“Oh, that was prophetic!” Marian daubed her eyes. “When I awoke New Year’s morning and I had the vision that I must visit her native country and celebrate her eightieth birthday with her in Dusseldorf after making one excuse after another for years why I couldn’t travel—the kids, my job, no money—I always had something.”

“Marian, if you’d rather not have this party …”

“Ridiculous. We can’t call it off now. They’ll be here any minute. I just can’t believe she’s no longer on this earth. And to die on Good Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

“She had cancer throughout her bones and lungs. Did you want her to suffer longer?”

“No, it’s not that. She went too fast—diagnosed in October and gone in April—a month to the day after her 81st birthday. It’s like the end of an era.”

“We are at the age when this sort of news will not be unusual until it’s our turn.”

Marian fell silent. Her husband had spoken the unvarnished truth. To be born was to begin to die. Vince, the realist, was trying to console, unaware the balm he thought he was applying to her fresh wound was really salt.

But she was a survivor herself, a realist too after her own fashion, and the show must go on as long as there was a live audience to play to. Life was full of ironies and synchronicities. After the party there would be time to grieve alone. We die alone. No one can do it for us, she thought. We can’t hire someone to do that dirty work. She could not then expect anyone to participate in this grief for a woman who had first treated her as an adult, who had first opened the world up to her, and talked to her about history and politics with the passion of a university professor. Claudia had experienced first-hand the crucible of war in Europe, the bombshells, the sirens, the air raids and the hunger that the drawn-out battles brought. She told stories of how her and her neighbors had hid Jews. Crossing through a forest behind her family’s house, she discovered a downed British pilot and escorted him to her home where her father, a doctor, had treated his broken arm and sheltered him in the cellar until April 1945. Touring Belgium and western Germany some vestiges of war remained—the grass-covered bunkers and the cemeteries of row upon row of white crosses. But by-and-large the countryside had returned to orderly fields bordered by well-pruned trees. The cities, cleared of rumble, had been rebuilt. Pleasure boats plied the Rhine River and the Gothic churches welcomed tourists. Perhaps time heals all wounds, Marian had thought, as she knelt before the ornate altar in the Cologne Cathedral.

Claudia met and married an American serviceman stationed in Paris where she had been studying economics. After his Army discharge, they came to live in the United States. In 1965 they moved next door to Marian, who first met her when she was a freshman in high school. That’s when her education really began about the outside world. Claudia spoke with a heavy foreign accent never mastering the English diphthong th either in its voiced or voiceless variant.

The doorbell rang. The birthday guests, Joe and Sylvia Martin, had arrived. Vince and Marian had known the Martins since they had moved to Seattle twenty years ago, becoming fast friends as soon as they discovered they shared similar ages, political opinions, and interests. Marian put on a cheerful face and welcomed their friends into the living room while Vince poured two glasses of wine.

“Here’s to a happy birthday and many more,” Sylvia toasted, raising her glass. Decked out in jewelry from her ears to her fingers, she sparkled as always with geniality. A bracelet on each wrist, rings on almost every finger, Sylvia valued taste in fashion and hair style, proving that with the correct accessories and cosmetics a short, plain woman can be transformed into a beauty queen. Jim, her consort, reserved flashiness for his wife, preferring a subdued, unostentatious white polo shirt and tan slacks. His face was unassuming—a male face similar to any other in the crowd of business men with short, clipped greying hair boarding a commuter train for a downtown office. In short, he was a tall, lean, washed-out looking man about ready for retirement.

The table was already set. The white layer cake, one fat candle, stuck in the cream cheese frosting, captured Joe’s attention.  Although his slimness belied the fact, Joe possessed a sweet tooth of huge proportions. Regarding the cake, he said, “No room for sixty-two candles.”

Sylvia sidled over to Joe and poked his side. “But you’ll find room for a slice, won’t you?” she said.

“Chicken cacciatore is ready,” Marian announced from behind the kitchen counter. “Everyone take a seat around the table. Help yourself to salad and vegetables,” she said as she placed the serving dish in the middle of the table. Of the foursome, Marian preserved a younger appearance in contrast to Sylvia’s well-made up face, salon-tinted hair, and flattering dress. A slight streak of gray colored her right temple but otherwise her shoulder-length brown hair had not faded. Her complexion had an outdoor glow, which she had no need to embellish with cosmetics. She wore no lipstick. Meeting Marian for the first time, a person would not call her pretty, but rather think she was unremarkable, perhaps lost in a crowd, likely to happen as well to Joe.

But not Vince, who was robust, full jowls, broad-chested, meaty with a full head of salt and pepper hair brushed back from his forehead, making it difficult for Marian to conceive he was sixty-two. Where had the time sped? Surely, it was rushing past them as they, passengers on a train, watched through the window. Fasten your seat belts, Marian thought, the ride was going faster and faster every year. Hadn’t her grandparents and her parents told her it would seem so the older she grew?

“I imagine you’ll be retiring this year?” Joe remarked to Vince.

“No, I don’t think so; I’ll just drop dead at my desk one day.” Vince laughed, and then added, “Hey, I love my work. I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet. We’re still working on a new passenger jet design.”

“Well, I’ve notified management that I’m retiring,” Joe said. “I’ve had it. I’ve hated corporate finance since I started with the company. I’m sick of the office politics and the finagling. I did what I had to do to make a good living. Any time left I have, I want to spend on the golf course.”

“Good for you, Joe. Congratulations. We all have to make choices. If it’s right for you, go for it,” Vince said.

Marian studied Sylvia’s face. From what she observed, Sylvia’s smile testified to her concurrence with her husband’s decision. Vaguely, she wished that Vince would follow suit. He appeared as vigorous and as healthy as ever, but she wished for their lives to slow down. She felt as if life was flowing too fast through her fingers. It seemed as if they had just finished celebrating Vince’s birthday last year and here it had rolled around again. She hesitated upon voicing her opinion. After some reflection, she decided to give it.

“Vince, that’s not a bad idea. I wonder if you shouldn’t start thinking about retiring also.” She brightened and said, “The four of us could travel together. See more of the world before we kick the bucket. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Sylvia gleefully agreed. “That would be a blast. Count me in. I want to take some cruises. Joe can golf his way around the world.” She laughed.

“Sounds like great fun,” Vince said, “but I’m not quite ready to call it quits. I want to work just a few years more.”

Marian stood up. “It’s time to cut the cake and sing Happy Birthday.” The celebration continued with more good conversation and wine. The evening ended with the two couples agreeing to meet for dinner next time at their favorite restaurant.

After Joe and Sylvia left, Vince grew somber. His glum expression perplexed Marian. How in a space of a few minutes had his mood changed from happy to morose? She peered curiously at him and was about to ask him what was bothering him when he took her by the hand and led her to the sofa where they both sat down. He looked seriously at her and began to speak slowly and deliberately.

“I didn’t what to spoil the party with bad news.”

“Bad news?” Marian stared at him perplexed. “What bad news?”

“This could be my last birthday party—”

Marian cut him off. “Don’t be silly. I know we’re all thinking we’ve lived pretty long so far, but—”

“No, I’m not being melodramatic. I’ve been keeping this news from you because I didn’t want to upset you, particularly, with your thinking so much about Claudia lately.”

“What does Claudia have to do with anything?”

“Everything.” He paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

“Marian, I have pancreatic cancer. The doctor couldn’t give me more than a year.”

“Oh, my god, you should have told me.” Consternation then denial rapidly reflected in her eyes. “No, it’s not true. You’ll beat the odds. He’s wrong.”

“Of course, I intend to fight this thing. It will be treated aggressively. But facts are facts. I didn’t want to tell Joe that I have put in for retirement. I had to wear a good face today. Our friends will know soon enough.”

“What’ll we do?”

“All that we can.”  He put his arm around her. “Chin up, girl. There’s nothing we can’t survive together, right?  What does anyone do in a case like this?  Make the best of the time they have left. I intend to do exactly that.”

“What do you mean?” She looked quizzically up at his oddly happy face.

“I’ve had it on my mind for some time. I want to see Vietnam again. I want to see the country I was sent to as a young man to fight something I did not understand. The jungle had its beauty and dangers. The beaches were gorgeous. They say the ravages of war are gone. They say the people hold no animosity toward Americans.”

Marian was plainly shocked. She had thought Vince was one of those Vietnam veterans who were able to put the war behind them and live normal lives without visible signs of post-combat trauma. He had not forgotten his youth. Who could not forget his youth, those formative experiences that shaped and colored his life ever afterwards?

“I’ll visit Vietnam, north and south, before I die,” Vince affirmed, making it indisputable to Marian that he would fulfill this wish. She sat quietly, absorbing the reality of Vince’s terminal illness and full import of what he desired to accomplish in view of his prognosis.

Both of them sat silently, finding speech difficult. What words could express the enormity of what loomed and how drastically the birthday mood had altered? After a while, Marian took her husband’s hand and whispered, “I’m going with you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mother of All Virtues

If I were to choose one virtue to put at the top of my list, it would be honesty. The importance of being honest affects all walks of life, all personal interactions, and professions. When emotional or deep-seated psychological problems develop, the individual often is diagnosed as having been in denial. The truth has been buried or suppressed somehow to the detriment of mental health. It is healthier to confront truth no matter how painful as a purgative process in order to evolve spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Writing is a method to work out the psychic knots. The verbalization of feelings clarifies and purifies. Cutting through the brambles and briars with words that name the emotions and describes the experience clears a path to move forward. The writer’s eye refuses to deny anything; his vision takes in beauty, ugliness, heroics, and villainy in equal measure. Of necessity storytellers are truth tellers. In the intricate webs they weave, they look honestly at the essence of a situation and relate in fictional terms what it is to be unutterably human. The baseness, the guilt, the love, the compassion, and the sorrow the characters display in a story have emerged from the writer’s consciousness and recognition of those qualities in his own experience. To be honest is to tell the truth. What transforms the truth-telling into art is design. Honesty cannot be blunt; it must be carefully told, unfold in a way that enlightens and expands and does not leave the reader in despair or despondency.

Am I saying that all stories must have a happy ending? Not at all. Rather I am suggesting something akin to the platitude that honesty is the best policy, that honesty does set you free to live a better, fuller life. The ending may not be happy in the usual sense that no one dies or is left forlorn, but that revelation of some kind has dawned on the reader, if not the main character, and entailed in that denouement is the truth of the matter. Throughout his plays from Iago in Othello to Gertrude in Hamlet, Shakespeare works the themes of lying, deception, and dishonesty. The deficiency in honesty creates the conflict. Whether in literature or in life, this failure to be honest either with oneself or with others is the source of disruption and unhappiness, instigating war between family members or between nations. Modern literature gives ample examples of lies and self-deception. For instance, more than one character in The Great Gatsby is living a lie.

Intellectual honesty deserves a sphere of its own. It seems to be in sparse supply in a media world of spin doctors, apologists, sycophants, and defenders of political stupidity and hypocrisy. An intellectually honest person conscientiously avoids deception of any form. This includes the omission of relevant facts from an argument, twisting the facts to support his preconceived views, and not letting his predispositions interfere with the pursuit of truth. An intellectually honest person does not present flawed defenses to support friends and business associates. An intellectually honest person concedes the good points of alternate arguments. In the current American environment we have witnessed countless examples of these forms of intellectual dishonesty: 1) plagiarism, 2) double standards, 3) false analogies, 4) overgeneralization, 5) straw man arguments, that is, gross misrepresentation or oversimplification of the opponent’s view, 6) poisoning the well or smear tactic, that is, associating negative emotions or derogatory adjectives to the opponent. The last example of intellectual dishonesty was on stark display in the denigrations hurled during the 2016 election: “low-energy Jeb Bush,” “lying Ted,” “little Marco,” and “crooked Hillary.” The barrage of the ad hominem continues from the Oval Office.

Intellectual honesty also entails the responsibility, in fact, the duty to speak the truth. To remain silent while the rain of lies continues is dishonorable, if not downright cowardly. I call upon all members of Congress and all Americans today to practice intellectual honesty. There are some who have spoken the truth–notably, Representative Maxine Waters of California, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, New York Times liberal columnist Charles Blow, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, New York Times Republican columnist David Brooks, and Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. These come to mind; you may think of many more. Intellectually  honest citizens like the ones I name here keep me optimistic that our democracy will not succumb to an autocracy under the rule of lies.

 

 

 

It Happened Here

When clearly a demagogue blustered his way through the 2016 campaign many people chorused, “It can’t happen here,” meaning the electorate in our democracy could not be that stupid to fall for a con-man’s snake oil. To their everlasting dismay, it did happen here. In pointing out the fascistic characteristics of this man’s appeals, commentators often mentioned  Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here along with the apocalyptic or distopian works Brave New World and 1984.  Previously, I had not known that Lewis had written that type of book, so I determined to read it. Hardly a great novel in the usual terms, it does paint a picture of the rise of the  demagogue Berzelius Windrip (Buzz), carrying marked similarities to what just happened in the United States.

Windrip appeals to the masses by promising every citizen a guaranteed income of $5,000 per year and proclaiming white Americans are better than Mexicans or Bolsheviks. The enemy is Mexico that must be attacked. Extreme militarism and nationalism dominate his rhetoric. The protagonist Doremus Jessup appropriately is a small town New England newspaper editor who quickly experiences suppression of the freedom of the press, typically the first move of an authoritarian regime. At the same time there is a rise in militarism in which Minute Men groups begin to patrol the streets and squelch opposition to Windrip’s agenda.  In the same manner, we see attacks on the press and on journalistic integrity emanate almost daily from the current occupant of the White House. Likewise, military action is used to bolster support for his flagging credibility, ineffectual leadership, and vacuity in all areas of domestic and foreign policy.

Doremus accepts some responsibility for the election of a fascist. In many ways he is a self-satisfied, complacent intellectual who felt himself better than the ignorant, economically distressed populace who rally around Windrip. The editor realizes he failed to rub shoulders with the poor and to address their needs. This could be said also of liberals in the aftermath of our recent election. In Doremus’s words, “It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt ourselves superior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord! Is it too late?”

The descriptions of Berzelius Windrip apply equally well to the winner of the White House last year. Windrip was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.” Doremus further dubs him the Professional Common Man, saying, “Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. He believed in the desirability and therefore the sanctity of thick buckwheat cakes with adulterated maple syrup . . . And in Henry Ford . . . And the superiority of anyone who possessed a million dollars. He regarded spats, walking sticks, caviar, titles, tea-drinking, poetry not daily syndicated in newspapers, and all foreigners, possibly excepting the British, as degenerate.” In line with this description, The Donald has appointed more billionaires to his Cabinet and staff positions than any of his predecessors.

Doremus laments that there were not enough principled party members, in this case Democrats,  at their presidential convention to stop Windrip’s nomination, similar to what occurred at the Republican Convention last July.  He asserts that Windrip was chosen “not by the brains and hearts of genuine Democrats but by their temporarily crazed emotions . . . in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions, for the peppery sensations associated, usually, not with monetary systems and taxation rates but with baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon, thirst in a desert and quenching it with spring water–all the primitive sensations which they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” Substitute The Donald here.

Doremus argues politics with his friend Karl Pascal who tells him:  “Why Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still fermenting in the stomach–quack economists with every sort of economic ptomaine! No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to–the sickness of more than 30 per cent permanently unemployed, and growing larger. Got to cure it!” Pascal pinpoints exactly the problem as it was in the 1930’s and as it remains today–the existence of a permanent underclass. Windrip exploits the fears and economic distress of the underclass in the same way The Donald did with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” President Windrip delivers a speech exhorting, “To you and you only I look for help to make America a proud, rich land again. You have been scorned. They thought you were the ‘lower classes.’ They wouldn’t give you jobs.”

As the authoritarian regime begins to imprison and to torture its political opponents, Doremus joins the underground resistance movement. When the police state threatens to endanger his family, they attempt to escape to Canada but are stopped at the border. How many Americans have considered or are still considering the option to move to Canada? Fortunately, the border is still open–at least until the time when fascist forces coalesce, tighten the screws, consolidate their power, and even begin to build walls to keep dissidents from escaping to freedom.

Windrip is a con-man and rumored to have been a medicine-show doctor before going into politics. He has a vulgar past similar to the real estate salesman who recently sold the American electorate a bill of goods. Doremus is disturbed that his son has bought Windrip’s snake oil. In a debate over the president, his son admits that Windrip is crude and adds “Well, so were Lincoln and Jackson.” And who should The Donald admire? Andrew Jackson. Similarly ignorant and uncouth, Jackson was guilty of genocide and deportation of Native-Americans.

Those who voted for an unfit candidate believed that no political experience whatsover was an asset, that, in fact, business success, although of a dubious nature, qualified one for a government job. In Sinclair Lewis’s novel, this belief holds sway also. The idea arises that anyone can successfully practice statesmanship and international diplomacy. “. . . Though foreigners tried to make a bogus mystery of them, politics were really so simple that any village attorney or any clerk in the office of metropolitan sheriff was quite adequately trained for them; and that if John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford had set his mind to it, he could have become the most distinguished statesman, composer, physicist, or poet in the land.” Those who voted for The Donald apparently thought a billionaire with no experience in government could run the nation.

We are all finding out to our detriment and dismay what billionaires running government can and will do.

Adieu to 2016 and All Hail to 2017

On the last day of this momentous year when the fragility of American democracy and the danger of not directing the existence and the problems of an underclass in a nation purported to be the richest and most equal in the world were displayed, I mark its end by posting the very same meditation I wrote at the close of 2015. Those ideas remain pertinent and uppermost in  my mind. I contemplate the issue of the reality of progress and philosophize over the possibility of peace. I lament the continuing violence at home and abroad and view with alarm the rise of a demagogue on our soil. Today these concerns and ominous clouds persist. Nevertheless, as the sonnet sequence in the concluding sections presents, hope also still endures. Saints, heroes, and courageous spokesmen for love, justice, and peace continue to speak out.

I wonder if the activism of my generation, the anti-war demonstrations of the sixties, and the civil rights movement made significant differences in our politics. My generation came to power with the elections of Bill Clinton and George Bush. The baby-boomer generation has its last hurrah to make a significant difference in the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency. I have no doubt it will be significant, but I doubt it will be a beneficial one. Too late I admire the prescience of a Lyndon Baines Johnson, who recognized the cancer a permanently depressed poor class poses in a supposedly egalitarian society. Sadly, his vision to fulfill the American dream for all citizens has not been realized to this day. Yet it was a vision that Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, sons of wealth and privilege, first presented to the American people.

Fifteen to End the Year 2015

I
Another shooting, the innocent slain,
The slaughter mounts upon the screen
As it was in the past rings the refrain
So must it be that laws can’t vaccine
The insane from seizing a guiltless gun
And empty upon strangers rounds of rage;
So the rampage will recompose and re-run
Until minds imagine a better age
When gun ownership is restricted
And the surplus turned in and thrown
Upon the pyre, the metal conscripted
For purposes far from the killing zone.
So sing, we, in the silent, serene brain
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain.

II
Of America’s peaceful fields of grain
I dream, abiding still in Fantasia
For the very hour I sing the refrain
I falter, stricken by strange aphasia;
On December second, fourteen are dead
And twenty-one innocents are wounded.
I stagger to retrieve language that’s fled,
Its syntax ripped and torn, all sense shredded
While nabobs hold the right to a firearm
Untouchable, ensconced in sacred space.
If, as they say, guns keep us from harm,
The United States is the safest place.
Shall I go to Christmas-shop at the mall
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall?

III
Or stay today behind my bedroom wall
Because walls indeed protect (don’t they?)
As of late many say they do, from illegal
Aliens, refugees or Muslims who may
Conceal in backpacks bombs or bacillus
For who knows what other peril or plot
They could concoct as soon as sneeze at us;
Thus mind the mindless ranter’s godless rot.
But if a higher road than wall is sought,
Ascend the Mount where the vista is wide,
The one where the Master blessed and taught
The truth, the vulnerable at his side.
There hear the angels sing “Be not afraid;
For fear is the monger we must upbraid.”

IV
For fear is the monger we must upbraid
Like a dirty joke at a wedding feast
Although panderers of hate would trade
Every draft of love for the feckless beast
That fear unleashed wreaks upon the earth.
For fear is to be feared because it feeds
Upon itself, enlarging its reach and girth
While seas separate and brotherhood recedes.
Yet if the breach is to be sealed, then reach
To the elixir still sitting upon the shelf
In pure vials, undefiled, for each
To drink a toast for others and himself.
When mongers hawk fearsome wares of war,
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear.

V
Offer foreigners lovely shawls to wear
Though I worry if progress has been made
At all upwards on history’s tortured stair,
Questionable, when corpses are displayed.
Homo sapiens brain is the same since men
Of the steppe broke horses and rode to war
Ever now the ingenious devise the engine
To multiply a faceless gunner’s gore,
Even when they chorused “the end to horror”
After spitfires, trenches, mud and gases
Yet others aren’t loathed less or loved more
Than when captains killed with cutlasses;
Where have the sixties flower children gone?
The wind wails: gone to graveyards every one.

VI
The wind wails gone to graveyards every one
And three-pronged pitchforks mark the gate,
Upside down peace symbols the war hawks won,
All devil’s due for those who make hay of hate;
Yet gusts uproot as well as disperse seeds
That will weave fair flowers in children’s hair
Anew like happy hippies, decked in love beads,
Proposing love less exotic in the open air
Though peace is scarcer than yesterday when
The folk songs stopped and guitarists fell
Asleep the second the shot hit Lennon,
Whose music imagined better gospel.
The drones buzz on; dumb to loads they drop,
Regardless robots without minds to stop.

VII
Regardless robots without minds to stop
The garbage-mouthed mogul in obvious lies,
Who name-calls and insults his way to top
The polls even though his success relies
On utter absence of critical thought
In favor of ad hominem ad nauseam,
Heated harangue witless voters have bought
From dealer quite adept at trumping them
That dolts don’t detect the cards are marked
Against their winning a millionaire’s game;
Yet “Deal me in,” deluded dogs barked,
The pack that fear makes rabid—Il Duce’s aim.
The dens of madness and mayhem grow still
When mercy enters in hand with good will.

VIII
When mercy enters in hand with good will
The two tiptoe, at first they’re dimly seen
Then mankind is chiseled with keener skill
Like saints with huge heart, empty of spleen,
Like the seven sleepers roused from the cave
Into light angled to grasp peace and give it,
As Christ, defenseless, unjudging, forgave
The thieves, non-germane if they deserved it,
Awake to where love is, there is no fear
Or vengeance vying to meet blow for blow
Even though we reap what we sow is clear:
The law levying love on supposed foe.
Down through the ages, history has shown,
It signifies naught who threw the first stone.

IX
It signifies naught who threw the first stone;
What matters is who throws away the sling,
Opening arms to fling wide love alone,
For blessed are the peacemakers who bring
An end to blame, who forbid heads to roll
Emboldened by truth as old as it’s true
That eye for eye only blackens the soul,
While guilt demands penance jurists argue.
The sage rebuts with dictum there’s no crime
So foul to warrant the electric chair
Since error is mere blindness over time
To bonds of blood and brotherhood we share
Even though the injured choose to insist
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist.

X
Nothing requites quite like the iron fist
Conjures Pyrrhic victories dependent on
Memorized line that the delvers resist,
Those in radiant white robes who reason
They must halt the vicious wheel in its spin
Before no patch of earth is clean of gore
Where bands of brothers, singing, can march in,
The jubilee commenced to fight no more.
Is peace but read as romance, far-fetched dream,
Moonbeam and fairy dust pragmatists scorn
And all timid rowers against the stream,
Those hecklers of magic and unicorn?
In teen-aged century tattooed and proud
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud.

XI
I ponder, bemused, our progress aloud
Because at times it seems minds are mired
In muck of sophists and bigots who becloud
Ideals the enlightened choir inspired;
But other times the sun pierces through
The murk when spokesmen arise who awake
Those better angels guiding us to do
Unto our brothers for salvation’s sake,
If not virtue, what the sane prove is right
Unless in circles, like the mad, we run
Endlessly in pursuit of the next fight
Then, the lunatic fringe indeed has won.
Of those today who awaken that hope,
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope.

XII
The world agrees, is the Catholic Pope,
The Francis of benediction and of peace,
Whose correctness lifts the spirit to hope
The incessant fear-monger’s rant will cease
For milder speech is heard amid the din
Of kinder hands and gentler tones that mend
Divisions recognizing we are all kin,
Deceived by ego, saved when we extend
Empathy and compassion as he bids
In Congress, Liberty Hall and skid row,
Regardless, he picks up and kisses kids
Then turns and blesses the grotesque also.
Even amid violence, violets will bloom
With delicate pastel lips defying doom.

XIII
With delicate pastel lips defying doom,
Their gifts of spirit evaporate hate,
Their virtues set off lanterns in the gloom
Making way to declare war out-of-date
Because writers and artists still survive
Revealing emperors who wear no clothes
In nations where the free press is alive
So I strew roses on words they compose,
Their clear prose, unadulterated truth,
Their harmony and logic sound a note
Quieting cant of politics’ uncouth,
On wings of morning aloft from dovecote.
All praise and homage to thinkers like them
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn.

XIV
Globally, the chorus carols the hymn
And no pipe organ of dreams to conceive
Possible, if hearts filled to the brim
Overflow with compassion and receive
In turn the same measure of other’s store;
For let it be known here and now that I
Do not succumb to argument for more
Personal arsenals for those who cry
They’ll shoot the man who dares to take away
Their armaments—their divine right of guns.
Illogic of mass shootings serves to lay
In premature graves more daughters and sons.
The mind that devises deadlier slings
As well from chaos makes loftier things.

XV
As well from chaos makes loftier things
For intellect yet formulates the great
Society gilded with fellow feelings
And artists impelled by paint create
A venue for truth and beauty to meld
Even now when crazy rhetoric rules—
No small solace to view unparalleled
Creations, graphic and written jewels,
Genesis and genius of divine urge,
Superior imprint of man’s sterling coin
In which all finer impulses converge,
Trinity of faith, hope and love conjoin.
The art consoles after killings by Cain:
Another shooting, the innocent slain.

A healthy, prosperous, and hope-filled New Year to my “How Public Like a Frog” readers!

What is Oratory?

The glaring absence of this art in the political arena today gives cause for reflection on how its presence is immediately recognizable to listeners. We know we heard it in Martin Luther King’s speeches; we know we heard it in John Kennedy’s speeches; the world heard it in Winston Churchill’s speeches, but we don’t hear oratory in the GOP presidential candidates of 2016 and maybe just little glimmers in Bernie Sanders; none in Hillary Clinton’s because her words fail to aspire.

Oratory is formal speaking, although at points in an address an orator may modulate his key from a lofty to a folksy tone for greater intimacy with his audience. Franklin Roosevelt did this in his fireside chats. The Latin root ars conveys the meaning that oratory is the art of eloquence, of eloquent speech. Then what is eloquence? How is eloquence recognized? Eloquence is fluid, forcible, filled with crafted sentences, analogy, metaphor, and colorful language. It is rhythmic, musical, and paced like carefully placed rests in a musical measure. What about the speaker? He is confident; his gestures are graceful and purposeful. He is not wooden or robotic.  He enunciates his words, varies his pitch, volume, and tone consistent with his meaning.  He avoids perpetual shouting and the canning of lines he delivered hundred of times before.  He chooses the precise word, in fact, every word deepens and broadens understanding of his argument. He does not have to resort to vulgar language in a weak ploy to add force to his speech, which only appeals to the baser instincts of his audience.

There is substance to oratory in contrast to the platitudes that comprise the usual political speech. Substance is achieved through a well-organized speech that has been written out and planned in advance but delivered as if it were extemporaneous. Good orators know how to read from a text naturally. Churchill wrote his speeches in psalm format. “The Finest Hour” speech appears like typed lines of poetry on the page.Finest hourEach line builds upon the other. Progression is paramount, thus enabling the audience to follow the argument easily. Repetition is used meaningfully.  Contrast the orator’s organized speech to the ramblings of our current candidates or the jumbled blather of Sarah Palin.

Oratory is an art form because it encompasses many disciplines: knowledge of literature, history, the ability to construct balanced sentences, an ear for rhythm and harmony, control of voice and body movement. Great orators are great readers. They are conversant with the world’s literature and with the sacred texts of the world, including the Bible. They would not be stumped to quote a favorite passage from the Book of Proverbs or elsewhere in the New or Old Testaments. Forgive me, if I cannot conceive of any of our candidates reading more than a few books of any substance since they graduated from college.

But a stump speech can be oratory if it demonstrates these qualities of eloquence. Unfortunately, what I am hearing on the campaign trail is harangue. What distinguishes harangue from oratory? Often Adolf Hitler is given credit for oratorical skills, but his was the talent of the haranguer. The haranguer is a great shouter. The emotions the haranguer stirs up are fear and hatred while the orator inspires the audience with nobler qualities of faith, hope, courage, love, and the brotherhood of man. He is encouraging his audience to believe and to act better than they have previously thought they were capable of doing.

Often cited as the presidents who possessed oratorical skills to one degree or another are John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. One of the reasons attributed for the election of a junior senator like Obama was his oratory. Similarly, Ronald Reagan greatly benefited from his early days as a radio announcer and his acting career. He won also because his speeches inspired the country to believe that the United States was that shining city on a hill, the New Jerusalem.

I look for inspiration with substance backed up with sound reasoning, precision of language, and coherence of argument. Bombast is not oratory. A grocery list of platitudes is not oratory. Senseless repetition is not oratory. Oratory is inseparable from the speaker; for the speaker must be confident, truthful, sincere, principled, and dedicated to ideals beyond glorification of self.

 

Writing Book Reviews

After reading the lists of notable books of 2015 that major newspapers publish, I’ve discovered that I have not read any of the titles on their lists. During the past year, I was too busy reading the notable books of the last century. I like the dust to settle on the dust jackets of the currently acclaimed books before reading them. Now, in my sixth decade of life and having stood the test of time myself to some degree,  I prefer to devote my time to reading books that have also shown some staying power.  However, I do like to read reviews of current books, and I will store those titles that strike my fancy away in my memory bank for future reference. Thankfully, my memory bank still has some resilience.

Book reviews whether of books that first appeared years ago or of ones recently published can be valuable in deciding to read the book now or never.  Sometimes the review helps me make the decision. Reviews that either overpraise or harshly criticize are not helpful. They are suspect. Understandably, who would want to review in the first place I book that he did not enjoy reading? Reviewers want to share a good experience, which accounts for the rave review. Is there a way to write a neutral book review in which the reviewer did not indicate his dislike, indifference or outright distaste for the book? Granted, a literary critic has a responsibility to point out flaws in execution, but this can be done without excoriation.  Thus, I tend to give more credence to the review that maintains a less effusive and more objective tone, tacitly acknowledging that literary judgments are subject to the tastes and proclivities of the reviewer.

I like a book review that is written with the prospective reader in mind. My method of writing a book review concentrates on identifying the reasons why anyone would want to read this particular book in the first place. I describe what themes are developed and what insights are offered on the subject. I examine the elements of fiction and of style so that the potential reader can decide whether this book deserves eight or more hours of his life. I state whether the book is plot-driven and action-oriented for those who dislike lengthy descriptions, drawn-out development of setting, and paragraph after paragraph of narrative. If the writing style distinguishes the book, I cite this for those who love playfulness with language, poetical prose, and rich sensory detail. Book reviews that concentrate on plot and character summaries do not interest me. I want only tidbits of information about conflict and main character to whet my curiosity, and I certainly do not want the resolution of the conflict revealed. Basically, I want these questions answered: what kind of reader would read this book and why.  The short, sweet review of approximately 500 words or less can do the job. This review of my taste in book reviews runs to 497 words.