Rx for a Sick Democratic Party

 

 

“Wake Up, Liberals: There Will be No 2018 ‘Blue Wave’, No Democratic Majority and No Impeachment”,
“There’s no quick fix for Trump or our damaged democracy—and the Democrats still look hopeless”
“Beyond Opposing Trump, Democrats keep searching for a message”
“Democrats in the Dead Zone”
“Can Democrats Fix the Party?”

Not a day goes by that I don’t read yet another article about the problems in the Democratic Party – no presidency, neither house of Congress and only a third of governors’ offices and state legislatures – and also not a day goes by that I don’t encounter another exhortation or reason or strategy to “resist” Trump and his agenda. It appears that all the Party can do is lick its wounds, point fingers at who or what they think was responsible for its devastating losses and oppose Trump, all totally insufficient to generate the enthusiasm and the votes needed to take back the House or the Senate in 2018, much less the presidency in 2020. “Not Trump” or “Resist” might be rallying cries for the Democratic Party but they are not strategies for winning.

And despite Trump’s record unpopularity and obvious incompetence and millions of dollars poured into them, the Democratic Party is 0 for 4 in recent special congressional elections. How can this be? While it’s obvious that Democratic victory in these four traditionally solid Republican districts would be difficult, another reason for the losses is simply that the Democrats no longer have a clear message other than opposition to the president and the Republican Congress. The latest disappointment, the contest in Georgia’s Sixth District, the lame Jon Ossoff and his DCCC supporters erred seriously with a campaign right out of the vanilla Hillary Clinton playbook – fight government waste, trim regulations, support Israel, promote “civility in politics”, “personal responsibility”, etc – nothing for the guy who’s working two jobs, can’t pay the electric bill, has a chronically sick kid and a pregnant wife and just had his used car repossessed.

Clearly the party needs to stand for something and truly, when I ask myself what the Democratic Party stands for today I am at a loss. This point was perfectly illustrated in the 2016 presidential campaign when what the standard-bearers of the respective parties stood for were in sharp contrast to each other. The authors of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” painfully describe the difficulty the campaign had in even coming up with the reason Mrs. Clinton was running for president. The best the campaign could manage was – “I would have had a reason for running or I wouldn’t have run.” In addition the authors describe a board in the campaign’s Brooklyn office totally covered with sticky notes listing “what Hillary is for” – actually so many that the net result was nothing. So it should be no surprise that the Democratic candidate lost the election. It would seem that at the very least it should be clear what a candidate stands for and why s/he is running for office. And during the the campaign there was never any doubt as to where Hillary’s Republican opponent stood and why he was running. He was going to bring manufacturing and mining jobs back, keep Muslims out of the country, build that wall and “Make America Great Again”.

These thoughts have prompted me to reflect on my own political convictions. Since my early twenties, when I finally shook off the last vestiges of the parental cocoon of Republicanism in which I had been wrapped since childhood, I realized that the Democratic Party best represented what “I am for”:

  • concern for the health and welfare of my fellow man;
  • concern for the working man and the union that represents him;
  • a living wage for a full day’s work;
  • limiting the power of corporations and big business and ensuring that they paid their fair share of taxes;
  • progressive taxation for individuals with the wealthy paying their fair share of taxes;
  • a dignified and comfortable retirement for everyone;
  • affordable and adequate healthcare for everyone;
  • good public schools and and an education for everyone who wanted it;
  • a reasonable “floor” under our society beneath which no one could fall, meaning unemployment insurance, welfare for the poor and Social Security for the elderly;
  • a safe and healthy environment through regulation and conservation;
  • accepting that we are a nation of immigrants that requires laws that foster a steady flow of new blood and energy from foreign lands;
  • a belief that the government can be a force for good in people’s lives;
  • promoting the importance of voting, that this right should be guaranteed to all citizens.

It seems that these personal convictions have always been staples of the Democratic Party but if so, why is it so difficult today to shout them loud and clear? Obviously the Democratic Party is ill. Its symptoms are obvious: no clear message, ossified leadership, forsaking its working class roots, selling out to Wall Street, economic issues eclipsed by social issues, writing off the working man and relying instead on the minority vote, representation by corporate Democrats like the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Shumer and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the “Republicans in Democrat clothing”, cross dressers like Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitcamp. What prescription can we offer to address these symptoms? What can we administer to the Democratic Party to get it well? It doesn’t need some expensive drug to treat or mask symptoms or that produces negative side effects, like identity politics,  cultural issues, opposing Trump or defending Obamacare. What the Democratic Party needs is a robust return to the basics of good health – fresh air, good food and lots of exercise. And what are those for the Democratic Party? A return to the principles articulated and espoused by the greatest Democrat of all  –  Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On January 6, 1941, President Roosevelt gave his “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress, “a vision of the world that would be worthy of our civilization”. He announced simply and eloquently that the United States should dedicate itself to advancing these four freedoms everywhere in the world:

  • Freedom of speech and expression, the best defense against the corruption of democracy;
  • Freedom of worship, our shield against the forces of bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism;
  • Freedom from want, a commitment to erasing hunger, poverty, and pestilence from the earth;
  • Freedom from fear, a freedom dependent on collective security, a concept carried forward with our leadership in the United Nations.

Certainly, the Democratic Party, in reviving and resuscitating itself could start here – embrace of these “four freedoms” certainly compels a robust Democratic response to Trump’s attacks on the press and the environment, his recklessness and ignorance in foreign policy and his racism and bigotry.

Another place for the Democratic party to start should be reviewing and dedicating itself to Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights”, those principles having been included in of all places, the Charter of the European Union. It might be useful to go back to the speech in which they were outlined. In Roosevelt’s words spoken to the nation on January 11, 1944:

“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:

—The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
—The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
—The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
—The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
—The right of every family to a decent home;
—The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
—The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
—The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

Incredibly meaningful meaningful principles, aren’t they? Surely here in the wealthiest nation on earth, we ought to be able to guarantee everyone a home, an education, a decent paying job, medical care and a dignified and worry-free retirement. These are principles that the Democratic Party has forgotten and that if they were embraced anew,  the Democratic Party as party would regain its rightful place as the party that really cares about people, the party that for decades stood up for the common man.

Everything in FDR’s “Four Freedoms” and “Second Bill of Rights” can be readily extended and translated to what should be the major tenets of the Democratic Party today – including strengthening Social Security, strengthening unions, increasing the minimum wage, and endorsing single payer healthcare. And all of what the Democrats should stand for is supported by the American people. Poll after poll have indicated that most Americans support the principles enumerated above and oppose the cruel Republican agenda of Trump, Ryan and McConnell. The following statistics tell the story:

  • 64% are significantly worried about global warning;
  • 71% want the US to honor the Paris Agreement on climate change;
  • By a ten point margin (49% to 39%) voters polled oppose removing regulations on businesses and corporations;
  • Oppose removing regulations specifically intended to combat climate change by a margin of 61% to 29%;
  • 58% want federally funded health insurance for all; 85% of black voters and 84% of Latino voters favor placing the government in charge of managing the health care system in the United States;
  • a sizable majority — about three in five Americans — say the government has a responsibility to ensure everyone has health care;
  • 64% would pay higher taxes to guarantee healthcare for everyone;
  • 60% of Americans would favor replacing Obamacare with a federally funded national health plan;
  • 74% are opposed to cuts in Medicaid;
  • 61% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would maintain or increase funding for health care in general;
  • a majority of Americans support “expanding Medicare to provide health insurance to every American”;
  • a plurality of voters support “a single payer health care system, where all Americans would get their health insurance from one government plan”;
  • 61% percent of Republicans and 93% of Democrats would maintain or increase spending for ‘economic assistance to needy people in the U.S;
  • two thirds of the American people say that the government should care for those who cannot care for themselves;
  • 70% want nuclear disarmament;
  • 72% want the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • 73% want the government to maintain or increase government support for green energy;
  • almost 70% favored Obama’s Clean Power Plan;
  • 80% approve of Planned Parenthood receiving federal funds for non-abortion health assistance for women;
  • 70% of Americans support a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy;
  • 60% of Americans support doubling the national minimum wage to $15 per hour;
  • 60% are favorable toward unions;
  • 63% of Americans say money and wealth distribution is unfair;
  • Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to tax policies that benefit corporations and the rich;
  • 90% agree that there are already too many tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans and corporations;
  • 80% agree that it would help grow the economy if the country made sure the wealthiest Americans paid their fair share of taxes;
  • voters broadly agree that Republicans in Congress put the interests of corporations and the wealthiest Americans ahead of average Americans;
  • 61% say that the wealthy pay too little in taxes;
  • 80% feel strongly that Trump should release his tax returns;
  • about 80% of voters from both parties want to reverse Citizens United and get money out of politics;
  • 70% say that the government should regulate financial services and products “to make sure they are fair for consumers”;
  • 79% say Wall Street financial companies should be held accountable with tougher rules and enforcement for the practices that caused the financial crisis;
  • a broad majority (77%) says that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations;
  • by a 10-point margin (49% to 39%), voters oppose removing regulations on businesses and corporations;
  • 66% of Americans believe there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor, an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009;
  • three-quarters of all American adults favored Mr. Obama’s decision to re-establish ties with Cuba;
  • a plurality – 39% of Sanders supporters backed Palestinians while just a third backed Israel; support for Palestinians has tripled among US youth;
  • 92% favor universal background checks for gun purchases;
  • 80% favor letting undocumented immigrants stay here legally;
  • 60% favor legalization of recreational marijuana;

So, with the American people solidly behind a progressive agenda, my fellow Democrats, let’s get well. Let’s flush the dangerous and corrupting drugs of Wall Street big money and Clintonian centrism down the toilet and get out into the clean fresh air. Let’s stop supporting already doomed Obamacare, get profit out of healthcare and support Medicare for All; let’s support unions and collective bargaining; regulate big corporations and eagerly “welcome their hatred” as Roosevelt did; let’s support public schools and get corporations out of education; let’s fight to get money out of elections; let’s fight for fair taxation for corporations and individuals; let’s reject the cruelty of the Republican budget and support the Progressive Caucus’ “People’s Budget” ; let’s promote peace, negotiate with our enemies and put the military-industrial complex out of business; let’s support women and their right to control their bodies; let’s reject the influence of the pollsters, idea people, analysts and fundraisers like Neera Tanden, Robbie Mook and John Podesta who helped blow the last election; let’s stop beating around the bush with “identity” messages, “stronger together” banners and advocacy of social issues and get down to the reality of supporting our base with an economic message that will bring our voters together – the original Democratic base of American workers, plus our more contemporary base of minority voters. Let’s support all the traditional Democratic issues mentioned above but let’s wrap them all tightly in an economic message that everyone can support and everyone can understand – President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Second Bill of Rights. If the Democratic Party is brave enough to do this, to eschew the money and resultant influence of corporations and billionaires and rely on common people as Bernie Sanders so successfully did, we can look forward to a Democratic House in 2018, the House and Senate and the presidency in 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Trump Voters…

When you pulled that lever, connected that line or drew that X for Donald Trump as President of the United States, when you delivered that sucker punch to the “latte liberals” you can’t stand, when you stuck your finger in the eye of those hateful Hillary minions, did you realize what you voted for? Oh yes, you voted for the misogynist, the serial liar, the narcissist, the only candidate in the last 40 years not to reveal his tax returns, but that was ok because he was going to “drain the swamp”, provide “better and cheaper” health insurance for everyone, bring back the coal mines, revive manufacturing, and “build a wall”. Oh sure, right.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads the lyrics of Al Wilson's song "The Snake" during campaign event at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York

Well, how do you feel now, after six months of this gasbag buffoon president and his billionaires’ club “cabinet from hell” who are destroying that which they were sworn to preserve and protect? Some of you who have watched closely, done your reading,  kept track of what’s happening in Congress and know what’s in the latest healthcare “reforms”, who realize what’s happening as rules are cancelled or “delayed” and regulations are shredded, may be having second thoughts and may have joined the swelling “disapprove” ranks counted by the pollsters.

But others of you, some of whom I know, have actually doubled down on your reckless choice. You’ve clenched your fists, stiffened your back, closed your eyes and ears to anything else but Fox News and talk radio, continued to lamely chant, “lock her up, lock her up” or “I hate Nancy Pelosi”, and excused this clown president’s disgraceful behavior with feeble excuses like, “Oh well, he’s just being bombastic”.

Well Trump voters, in addition to governing by tantrum and tweet, and a general coarsening and cheapening of public discourse, here’s some more of what you have so far and your leader has only just begun. Ask yourself – is this truly what I want for myself, my loved ones, my country and my planet?

  • United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, which is embraced by virtually the rest of the world,
  • Decimation of Obamacare which, however imperfect and based on the shaky foundation of corporate profit, did extend coverage to millions, now to be taken away,
  • Attacks on reporters and an undermining of a free press, absolutely essential to a democracy,
  • Planning for an infrastructure program based on corporate investment and profit and that aims to privatize what should be public,
  • A planned tax program that will reduce taxes on the wealthy and on corporations,
  • A childish and cynical reversal of our fifty years overdue improvement in relations with Cuba,
  • Implicit approval of racism and prejudice against Muslims and Muslim countries,
  • Retarding efforts to resolve the immigration question and establish policies that provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants,
  • A spawning of the most significant graft and corruption at the presidential level in history,
  • Presenting an ignorant, undignified and selfish national face to other nations and the world,
  • National parks and national monuments attacked in the hope that they will be opened to corporate exploitation,
  • An accelerated pace toward privatization of public functions, the latest example being air traffic control,
  • Privatizing and corporatizing public schools, making them profit centers instead of learning centers,
  • Disdain for and erosion of the rule of law – attacks on Federal judges, the Justice Department and the FBI,
  • Gutting Dodd-Frank, hastening the day for the big banks and corporations to cause another economic meltdown,
  • Emasculating the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau,
  • Increasing limitations on voting rights, making voting more difficult, not easier,
  • Bringing back the futile “war on drugs” along with discredited mandatory minimum sentences,
  • A crippled federal government riddled with vacancies because candidates are reluctant to work for a reckless chief executive who could harm their careers,
  • Rolling back of civil rights enforcement in the Justice Department and Education Department.

Trump

And from the New York Times a couple of days ago – “Are you really ready to abandon protections of your drinking water? What about that school hamburger? Is it O.K. to eat? Can you depend on Medicare or Medicaid? Are toys safe? Can workers fight overtime violations or discrimination? Will government agencies be there to police mortgage, student-loan and retirement-savings abuses? Will the education of special-needs students be protected?”

God help us all….and thanks again, Trump voters.

 

 

Home Sweet Home

“Home is where the heart is”; “there’s no place like home”; “it’s so good to be home”. Yes, a home is important. In the words of George Carlin, it’s also a place to hold our “stuff”. And it’s also a place to sleep, to eat, to keep you out of the rain and cold, a place in which to feel secure, a space to share with loved ones, a place to enjoy and love. A home is cozy and comfortable.

Over my 75 years I’ve lived in many homes and looking back on them each place had an influence on me and was significant for me. And each home in which I have lived has provided indelible memories, mostly good. And when I visualize each place where I have lived I realize that it has provided something special to me – the unique experiences, the people with whom I lived, the feelings generated by daily life in that home. As such, the homes in which all of us have lived form an important biographical thread in the fabric of our lives. What follows is that thread for me, a narrative of places where I have lived, divided into three parts: Part I 1942 to 1972, Part II 1972 to 1983 and Part III 1983 until now. Here’s the first part.

Part I

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Barbara and I at Sunset Farm 1942

I was born in Somerset Hospital in Somerville, New Jersey and as an infant lived on Sunset Farm, a residence and farm buildings owned by the church of which my parents were members. This place preceded my memory but visiting it as a young adult and seeing pictures taken there when I was very young enables me to speculate on what life was like there for my mother, already caring for four year old Barbara, with infant me and shortly after, another pregnancy and my sister Elaine, to be born while we lived there also.

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Barbara, Elaine and I 1945 (note the wartime wood construction of the stroller and wheelbarrow)

 

In 1945 or so my family was assigned by church authorities to live at a church home in Oakland, California, where my brother Robert was born. At this house my memories began, with hazy impressions of a trip on the Oakland Bay Bridge with its multiple suspension spans, a tunnel and then multiple truss spans. I recall seeing somewhere from this bridge a Sherwin Williams sign with neon animation spilling paint down over a neon globe.

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Elaine and I, 1946 or so

And at our house I recall spotlights filling the sky, maybe having something to do with the war with Japan. And I remember looking for pretty stones in an area between the rungs of a ladder lying where rain fell from the roof. I also recall as a little boy marching around an oval rug chanting “round round Hitler’s grave”. Apparently this ditty came from an Almanac Singers song in 1942 but I don’t remember how I came to know it. I also have a memory of clouds of fighter planes flying overhead, probably from a nearby Air Force base.

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Barb, Elaine and I

 

 

 

 

 

The next home to which my family moved in 1946 or ’47 was a church home called “Lock Haven”, on Canal Road about a mile east of the little church community town called Zarephath, between the towns of Bound Brook and Manville, New Jersey. We shared this large rather ramshackle house of graying and peeling white wood siding with several others – an elderly couple, the Schisslers, and an elderly single man, Mr. Wittekind. We occupied the two floors in the main part of the house, with the Schisslers in the lower floor of an addition and Mr. Wittekind in a single room above.

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Me, Rob, Barb and Elaine, forsythia and swings in background 1947 or so

Outside was a long cinder driveway meeting a gravel main driveway that went left to the barnyard of a large gray barn and to the “bee house” where Mr. Wittekind kept his bee equipment: some “smokers”, extra hives, beeswax frames and a large centrifuge. (I knew about this paraphernalia because after Mr. Wittekind’s passing, my Dad tried to take over and learn the bee business.) The gravel driveway to the right went downhill to Canal Road which to the left took you to Zarephath and beyond to Weston, Manville and Somerville or to the right to Bound Brook, South Bound Brook and towns beyond, like Dunellen, Plainfield or New Brunswick.

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Robert outside the Lock Haven house with the forsythia

Around the house were maple trees, forsythia bushes, grass lawns and a large lilac bush, which you could actually enter and navigate little paths among the stems and branches. Adjacent to some large forsythias was a rusty and old but still serviceable set of swings which we kids enjoyed. There was also an incongruous small hexagonal building with maroon shingles on its exterior which my sister Barb used to raise her flock of ducks. The big barn was used for storing some church farm implements and stacks of bales of hay in the haymow. The haymow had that wonderful unique smell of old wood and hay, not readily describable but instantly recognizable and known only to people who have experienced barns in their lives.

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Charlie and Elaine, Lock Haven barn in background

The driveway left extended beyond the beehives and bee house and eventually met a dirt road which left would take you to the Tabor (another church home which anchored the farm operations) peach and apple orchards and right would take you to past some hayfields on to Zarephath, our “church town” which I will describe elsewhere. That right turn would first take you over a culvert containing our little creek, in which I occasionally “fished” for non existent fish with a stick, a string and a piece of wire “hook”, while letting my mind run on about fishing and a thousand other things.

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Me, Columbia bicycle and our ’49 Chevy

Across Canal Road from the house was “the canal”, our simple colloquialism for the Delaware and Raritan Canal, an old formerly important transportation artery constructed in the 1830’s connecting the Delaware River and the Raritan River and used for about a hundred years to transport cargo between Philadelphia and New York City. It was only later that I realized that the path on the canal bank that I knew as the “toe path” was really “tow path”, the path worn by the horses and mules that had towed barges on the canal. “The canal” played an important role in our lives during those years in Zarephath. I learned to swim in the canal, as well as doing my first real fishing. And in the winter, when the canal froze, you could ice skate all the way to Princeton, getting off the ice to walk around the bridges and locks between.

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Elaine, Rob, me and Charlie, lilac bush in background

It was at Lock Haven that big sister Barbara raised her flock of ducks  and Dad and Mom raised several flocks of chickens to sell. For some reason both Mom and Dad frowned on pets so there were never any dogs or cats to pet, love and take care of. But one time when Dad had a flock of speckled  Plymouth Rock chickens there was one all-black chicken among them that got picked on all the time by the others for being different. I used to protect this chicken, put him under a crate to keep him safe and gave him his own food and water and he became, believe it or not, my pet, even coming to me when I called his name, “Blackie”. So, Tommy Smothers, you weren’t the only kid who had a pet chicken!

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Me, Blackie,  Elaine

The tall chimney over the kitchen and dining room of the Lock Haven house went down during Hurricane Hazel in 1955, thankfully not penetrating the roof, which likely accelerated our move to another church residence – “Morningside”, about a mile west of Zarephath. This house, which also served as the home of another family, the Chambers, was located among some flat, fertile fields, the floodplain between the Canal and the Millstone River, a tributary of the Raritan River.

This house was small for a family of our size. At Lock Haven Charlie had arrived, born at home and Richard also, right before we moved, making eight of us to fit into three upstairs bedrooms. Later an addition was built onto the house and Mom and Dad’s bedroom moved downstairs, making it a bit more tolerable for us six kids upstairs. Of course, while in this house, Glenn and Stan were added to the family making the final eight, so it was always crowded. I initially shared a bedroom with Robert and Charlie so the three of us became quite territorial, in order to share the space and the drawers of one dresser. Barbara and Elaine were in another bedroom.

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Richard, Stan and Glenn at Morningside

The childhood memories that accumulated in this house were many, and included assembling serviceable bicycles from the pile of accumulated parts in the garage each spring and riding them on the many dirt roads in the immediate area, to participating in Dad’s truck farming operation, which blossomed into running a roadside stand on the “Weston Causeway”, the road between Canal Road and Weston Road into Manville. The stand was run by the younger kids, namely Charlie and Richard, while Rob and I and sometimes the girls helped with the planting, cultivation and harvesting of strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

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Elaine outside, Millwood across the fields

Another fond memory was rocking my little brother Richard asleep in his wheeled baby basket while I listened to The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny and other popular radio shows from the 1950’s. Also I remember my Dad’s “It’s a girl!” joke when my brother Stan was born. After four boys in a row, all of us older kids had hoped for a little sister. But it was not to be, it was our last sibling, dear brother Stan instead.

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Rob in back, Glenn, neighbor Celeste Chambers, Richard and Stan in front

While living at Morningside I made my first foray into radio and sound reproduction. It was there that I assembled a mail order crystal set, a rudimentary radio that picked up a signal from a connected bedspring antenna and was listened to on a set of headphones. I could not believe at the time that this little gadget actually picked up WOR from New York City as well as our local religious station, WAWZ. It was also at this house where as a teenager I assembled my first really good sound system – an Eico amplifier I built from a kit, a 15 inch Jensen coaxial speaker that I mounted in an old wooden radio cabinet, and an old Garrard turntable. It was on this system that I used to blast Rossinni’s William Tell Overture and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as well as Fats Domino and Little Richard.

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Elaine and Charlie in front of Morningside house

The yard of this house also contained several symmetrical and eminently climbable maple trees, in one of which I fashioned a nice seat-back from baling twine in a fork of three branches high up in the tree. This became my redoubt in which to escape from the noise and chaos of my little brothers. Today looking back I can think of nothing more relaxing than climbing that tree with a sack of tomato sandwiches in my belt and a good book in my hand and settling back in that comfortable seat, reading my book, eating my sandwiches, feeling the tree gently sway and hearing the leaves rustle from a warm summer breeze, above it all, away from it all, in total privacy and relaxation. Yes, I could still hear the noise but I was above it all and thus quite removed.

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Glenn, Richard, Stan, Murphys’ house in background

Other memories I associate with this house are a unreliable heating system which allowed the glass of water by my bed to freeze one winter night, and the several early spring floods we had. Being in the floodplain of the Millstone River, the area was vulnerable to flooding and we did experience a couple of these, when water ran down the cellar steps in a waterfall, causing havoc with Mom’s jars of canned fruit and vegetables and presenting a huge cleanup job when the flood subsided and water was pumped out. The house looked like an island in the middle of a huge lake and it was exciting to work with my brothers making rafts and then floating out into the deeper water.

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Charlie among the maple trees 1960

“Morningside” was located about a mile away from the church headquarters town, Zarephath, and was conveniently reached on the Weston Canal Road or on the “back road” a road past “Millwood”, another church home, through the woods and over the dike (an earthen structure to protect Zarephath from the occasional Millstone River flooding and down into our little church “town”. And halfway along our long cinder driveway from the Weston Causeway was the home of the Murphy’s, another church family.

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All six Friedly boys at the Morningside house, ’56 or ’57

In the fall of 1958 I was sent to the church school in Westminster, Colorado for my senior year of high school, got into some trouble there and in November was sent to live with my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil in Wooster, Ohio. The Wooster High School chapter of my life will be discussed elsewhere on this blog but in terms of a home, I lived in a really nice house, the first family home that my uncle, a general contractor, had built for his family. Built on a hillside in the farmland outside of Wooster, the basement of this beautiful house with real redwood siding was exposed in the back where you could enter and exit through a basement door. It also had a two car garage attached to the house by a breezeway. While there I lived in a comfortable basement bedroom with access to my own bathroom. I was with my Aunt and Uncle through my graduation and into most of July when my parents picked me up to return home to New Jersey and start college at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick. Before I left that summer I was able to work for Uncle Emil and receive firsthand a valuable introduction to basic carpentry skills, which I have used my whole life. I also painted, actually stained, the entire house before I left in August. I could not find a picture of this 1958 – 1959 home in my files.

During my first two years of college I again lived at home but obviously spent little time there since conditions were never appropriate to promote study and deep thought. I loved my little brothers but study there was impossible, so I spent most of the day and evening at Rutgers (see “Chaos: My Undergraduate Education”, to be published soon).

After my second year at Rutgers and after some disagreement with my father, I moved to Denver, Colorado and lived in several different apartments at 3001 Umatilla St. From here I could easily get on Speer Boulevard and then on Interstate 25 to get to my job at Navajo Freight Lines on South Santa Fe Drive. I began living there in a one room efficiency apartment where I slept on what was my couch during the day. After a couple of months I moved to a one bedroom unit with a roommate, John Griego. Later, having befriended a couple of Regis College students, Rich Byrne and Ken Adams, I moved into a three bedroom unit with them, all the while working at Navajo. Later that year, a couple of girls in another apartment whom we had befriended, Jerrilyn Rickey and Janice Goddard, joined me in deciding to leave the apartments and rent a furnished house. We did so in south Denver. I cannot remember the address but the experience of being in an actual house with these roommates was rather pleasant. Janice had a little baby girl so Janice, Jerrilyn and I seemed like an interesting little family. Eventually Janice and her little girl moved back to Alaska, Jerrilyn back to Montrose, Colorado and I rented my fourth residence during that year and a half in Denver, a small furnished apartment in central Denver. I don’t remember too much about this little place except that it was comfortable, furnished and conveniently located. Nor could I locate a picture of it in my files or elsewhere.

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3001 Umatilla, Denver, Colorado

I returned from Denver in 1962 to live at home for awhile, found a job and resumed my education at Rutgers at night. After getting married in 1963, my wife Elaine and I lived in a one bedroom apartment adjacent to the Rutgers New Brunswick campus – 85 Easton Avenue. A half block away was a Rutgers gathering place called Olde Queens Tavern, very convenient for a quick hamburger or a take-out pizza. Adjusting to marriage, Elaine and I had some loud differences of opinion while in this apartment and I remember being shocked once, when lying on the bed during the day, that I could hear a phone being dialed by my next door neighbor – yes, the walls were that thin and I am sure my poor neighbor had heard all the anger and profanity that had passed between us. For awhile, my brother Robert, who had just started at Rutgers, lived around the corner from us in a small empty store-front that had been turned into a small apartment.

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85 Easton Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ

About the time I graduated and began teaching, we moved into a new apartment complex at the junction of Route 18 and US 1 in New Brunswick – 200 Hoffman Boulevard. This apartment was convenient to my job at Irwin School in nearby East Brunswick but also convenient to a number of part time jobs I held at that time. Elaine had started work for a pediatrician, Dr. Hyman Gelbard, at about this time, whose office was also readily accessible. The apartment complex had a swimming pool perched right above the noise and exhaust from US Highway 1 which we used to enjoy, despite the fumes. I have not seen these apartments in many years but we entertained many guests while there, both friends and family.

While staying in the same complex, we later moved from our apartment in order to escape the noise from college student neighbors underneath us to another in the next building, only to find the same problem, this from the neighbor above us, forever fixing a powerful aversion to living next to, above or below anyone at all in an apartment house. It was at this time too when through Elaine and her contact with drug detail men, I began to take pills to sleep or pills to keep me alert (see “My World of Work”) as I worked a number of part time jobs, in addition to my full time job of teaching, to help make ends meet.

In 1968, after obtaining the job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we moved to Pinon Boarding School in Pinon, Arizona, a million miles from nowhere, right smack in the middle of the vast Navajo Reservation at the end of a 45 mile paved road west from Chinle. I recall vividly the Mayflower truck drivers’ comments when delivering our furniture to our primitive cinder block duplex on a mud-filled alley (can’t call it a “street”) in Pinon – “Are you guys out of your minds?” These were the same drivers who had picked up our furniture from our significantly more luxurious apartment home in New Jersey.

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Pinon Trading Post 1969

One of the Navajo Reservation school complexes that one passed on the way from Chinle to Pinon was a new day school called Cottonwood, which had, in addition to new school buildings, a dozen or so brand new individual houses for teachers. Actually I had initially thought that this was our Pinon destination on the road from Chinle; it was disappointing that it was not and we had to go on – to old Pinon Boarding School, with the main school building a WPA – built structure and other buildings – the dormitories and residences – painted cinderblock. But our time in Pinon was indeed exciting and memorable. It was at Pinon Mercantile, the local trading post where I met a lifelong friend, Bill Malone, his lovely Navajo wife, Minnie, his stepson and his three little girls.

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Bill Malone and daughters 1968

I had read about and finally got to meet the notable BIA school administrator, Wayne Holm, who at his school, Rock Point Boarding School, had formed the first functioning Navajo School Board and had instituted a number of innovative instructional strategies so I applied to be transferred to his school, close to a hundred miles from Pinon. Wayne said he wanted me so we packed up and moved again, this time at our expense and this time in a U-haul truck or a borrowed pickup truck. We moved to a nice single family 3-bedroom house, similar to those I had noticed at Cottonwood, in the residential area of Rock Point School, which cost us, as I recall, about $24 per bi-weekly paycheck. We paid for the utilities.

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Rock Point School, housing in background

We were at Rock Rock Point for just one year, since I had applied for and was admitted to a post-masters program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. So we sold all of our furniture that had been carefully transported from New Jersey to Pinon and less carefully transported a year later from Pinon to Rock Point, packed what was left in our new VW Kombi and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we had been fortunate enough to get into Harvard married student housing, a high-rise near the Charles River called Peabody Terrace.

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Peabody Terrace, Harvard married student housing

Our home here for one year, 11 Peabody Terrace, apartment 412, was a partially furnished studio apartment on one of the upper floors, where we had a table and chairs, a mattress on the floor, stereo equipment, LP records and books in a brick and board bookcase, a couch and a desk. I can’t really remember what we brought with us in our VW but it could not have been much – we certainly had stripped ourselves down to the bare essentials – maybe the desk and the table and chairs since we had sold our living room sectional couch, coffee and end tables to my friend Bill at Pinon and sold our beautiful Spanish “distressed finish” dark wood bedroom set to someone at Rock Point. Everything that mattered to us at that time was packed into our vehicle – essentially clothes, music and books. Also, our dog, Seymour, from the Rez, must have come with us because he was with us in Marshfield and Plympton, our next two residences, but I don’t remember traveling with him at all – must have been because he was such a good dog. Nor do I remember him in Cambridge. Maybe he was somewhere else at that time? But where? Did someone take care of him for us? I simply do not remember.

Finishing my year of school, I obtained my first school administrative job as Assistant Principal at Duxbury Elementary School in the south shore community of Duxbury, about 30 miles south of Boston. Our first move to this area was to a small furnished rental a couple of blocks from the beach in Marshfield, the next community north from Duxbury. A small two bedroom house without a garage, this place was ideal as we tried to settle down after the year of school in Cambridge.

After my first year in Duxbury, we bought our first house at 69 Ring Road in Plympton, Massachusetts, about a twenty minute drive to my job in Duxbury. The house was built by a local contractor and landowner who also sold building lots. It was quite modest sized, three bedrooms and one bath with attached two car garage, although to us it seemed very spacious. It was basically a ranch style and was covered with attractive New England style cedar shingle siding. We enjoyed this, our first real house, the first home that we actually owned. It was built on a two acre wooded lot and was located well off the road, hidden back among the trees. I recall a pleasant walk behind the house among some lovely hemlock trees, especially beautiful after a winter snowfall had decorated the branches. It was here that we replenished our furniture, buying much of it from Jordan Marsh warehouse in Quincy. Having built my first stereo amplifier made by Heathkit and the pair of KLH speakers bought while at 85 Easton Avenue in New Brunswick, it was at this house that I finally assembled and finished a beautifully designed music component console made by Furn-a-kit which held the amplifier, tuner and turntable with shelves and sliding enclosures for our LP records on each side.

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Our house at 69 Ring Road, Plympton, Massachusetts

It was at this house where my brother Robert visited us from Germany, where he had made his home after serving as an officer in the Army. Accompanied by his girlfriend Helma, we enjoyed his visit very much. Rob also pitched in to assist in some landscaping outside and uphill from the house. As I remember it was a sort of rock retaining wall by the garage. Another memorable occasion was a surprise visit was from my cousin Sandy. We took him into Boston for a superb club concert by the incredibly rich-voiced blues singer Tracy Nelson.

This concludes the first section of “Home Sweet Home”. My memory, though pretty good for a guy my age, may have provided some inaccurate information, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if something needs to be corrected. All articles on this blog are really works in progress, anyhow. My second and third sections are written and will be published as soon as they can be illustrated.

 

 

 

Summer 1957

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I don’t really know how it was planned, maybe spur of the moment, but I don’t think I was heavily involved, maybe just expressed some interest, but I spent the summer of 1957 on the Baxstrom farm in Mylo, North Dakota, the little prairie town where my mother was born and raised.

In the spring of 1957 my Grandmother Friedly passed away from cancer at the age of 59. My father and his brother Gene, also living in New Jersey, Mr. Mark Tomlin, a young Pillar of Fire church minister, whom my grandmother had asked to conduct the funeral service before she died, and I, traveled by car from New Jersey to Missouri, leaving in the morning, driving all night and arriving at midday.

The funeral itself was conducted in a local church with Mr. Tomlin giving a very heartfelt eulogy, recounting my grandmother’s life, her conversion and relationship with the Pillar of Fire church. Details of the service I cannot remember clearly but I do recall joining in singing one favorite old country hymn that she had requested – “The Unclouded Day”. The funeral was attended by many relatives – my Dad’s surviving siblings Ada, Burton and of course, Gene, and a host of grandchildren who lived in the area. Also attending were many of Dad’s cousins from both the Friedly and Arnold sides of the family.

One cousin, whose name I cannot remember, drove me and my decrepit suitcase, to Kansas City, where he lived, and put me aboard a Greyhound bus, bound for Minneapolis, Minnesota. I rememberer the bus trip quite well – the overwhelming acrid smell of cigarette smoke in the bus, to which I, as an occasional teenage smoker, contributed. I remember catching little naps on the way and arriving in the Minneapolis bus station in the evening. My next bus connection, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, did not leave until the next morning, so I was stuck in Minneapolis for the night. I put my suitcase into one of those coin operated storage units and spent some time sitting on the benches in the bus station, reading magazines, dozing occasionally and killing time. Then, my first, and later, second, encounter with a predatory gay man occurred. An old man sat down next to me and asked me where I was going and proceeded to try to strike up a conversation. I put him off and he soon left me to my magazines. Seeking to kill more time, I left the bus station and walked toward a nearby all night movie theater that was showing “Gunfight at the OK Corral”. On the street I met the same man and he inquired as to my welfare, and actually reached up and brushed my hair back. This freaked me out so completely that I literally ran all the way to the theater, enjoyed watching the movie, came back to the bus station and resumed my long wait for my morning bus to Grand Forks. Thank God, I did not encounter this man again.

Reaching Grand Forks, I bought a ticket (honestly I don’t recall whether I made the arrangements or my parents or my Dad’s cousin, nor do I recall how I got from the bus station to the railroad station) for a train on the Great Northern Railroad from Grand Forks to Rugby, where my Uncle Clarence would pick me up. The train I boarded was not the fabled “Empire Builder”, which as an express train went right on by Grand Forks and Rugby, but the lesser known, more “local”, but still somewhat famous “Western Star”. I took this train in the afternoon, I think, got off in Rugby and was cheerfully greeted by my Uncle Clarence, the eldest of the Baxstrom siblings, of which my mother, Ida, was the second youngest. (Some typical  scenes of North Dakota from the “Empire Builder”, now an Amtrak train)

After the long drive in Uncle Clarence’s truck and being greeted warmly by Grandma and Aunt Ruth I settled into to my new life in North Dakota. I slept in the same room as my Uncle Clarence, where we kept a “thunder mug” between the beds in case nature called during the night. There was a radio in the room also that we both listened to every evening – he to the local news and I to a music station from Winnipeg, Canada. I will forever remember the songs i heard that summer, among them Paul Anka’s “Diana”, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy”, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Hollly, and “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis. Terribly homesick for my parents and especially my little brothers, these songs and others kept me company that summer.

The assortment and the arrangement of the buildings on the Baxstrom farm was interesting. Adjacent to the house was a cistern which collected rainwater off the roof. My uncle and I used this water to clean up in a nearby wood frame building called the “wash house”. Here were tubs and basins for sponge baths, a mirror for shaving, the wringer washing machine for washing clothes and various other items related to keeping us and our garments clean. I don’t think I took a bath or a shower for the whole summer but kept clean, as did Uncle Clarence, with just sponge baths in the wash house. Oddly, the house did have a full bathroom and bath tub, installed there by Uncle Emil and (I think) Uncle Vernon, in 1953, when there was a family reunion held there. But the bathroom was evidently exclusively for the use of Grandma and Aunt Ruth. I never asked why, but looking back on it, that circumstance was indeed rather strange, not to mention, inconvenient for my Uncle and me.

Another building was the “cook car”, an oblong wooden building on wheels which used to be towed out into he fields during harvest time as the place where the women prepared the meals for the workmen to eat at a long table in this structure. My mom had many stories about what it was like to prepare and serve meals to a dozen or so hired men in the cook car. There was also a large coop for Aunt Ruth’s turkeys and nearby was a large garden area for vegetables. And across the road north of the farm was a large granary building in which bags of grain and seed were stored.

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Barb and I in 1953

South and a little east of the house was the barn, which when my Mom was little, was used for milking the dairy cattle the family owned. I can remember when I was visiting in 1953, standing with my sister Barbara on top of a wagonload of hay waiting to be lifted and dumped in the haymow of the barn. At this time, my uncle had no dairy cattle but he did maintain a herd of beef cattle, Herefords, to be exact, in the pasture “out west”.

Another notable building was the outhouse, actually a rather modern and sturdy structure, apparently built by the WPA during the Roosevelt administration, which was a “two-holer” constructed above a very deep concrete lined pit. Real toilet paper holders by each place were a vast improvement on my Friedly grandparents’ Missouri outhouse’s Sears catalog, as were the hinged wood covers for each hole. Screened ventilation openings near the roof kept the air fresh inside and I do remember a haunting whistling noise from these openings from the constant prairie wind. This was the “bathroom” my Uncle and I used. A nice concrete sidewalk, constructed by my visiting Baxstrom uncles in 1953 and starting at the front gate connected the house, wash house and outhouse.

Directly west of the house was a workshop kind of building where tools were kept and tractors and other vehicles were parked when they were being repaired. The place had a very pleasant smell – a combination of gasoline, oil, grease, old wood, soil, and creosote. I can remember during one of our summer visits watching Grandpa Baxstrom sitting at a concrete grindstone, turning it with two oscillating pedals and sharpening an axe. A tin can of water with a hole punched in it with a 16 penny nail hanging out of it was suspended above the turning wheel and the water dripping from the nail onto the wheel kept it and whatever was being sharpened cool during the process. Otherwise, the activity produced a potentially dangerous shower of sparks.

When I first began helping Uncle Clarence, there was a hired man there also, living in a cabin west beyond the workshop, a hired man quarters on the west side of the main drive, back among some trees. Joe Martel was a Chippewa Indian from the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation near Dunseith. He had worked off and on for my uncle for a few years, I was told. Joe ate his meals with Uncle Clarence and I in the small dining area in the entryway of the house. One of the first tasks the three of us shared was to rebuild a long length of the fence in the pasture “out west”, as it was called. This quarter-section pasture was virgin North Dakota sod – about a foot thick tangle of grass roots, that you had to penetrate to sink a fence post. I remember Joe, peering down the fence, saying “a little nort” or “ a little more sowt” as a post and hole were located to be lined up with the others.

A week of so after my arrival, Joe was dismissed by Uncle Clarence, evidently because I was now the “hired man”. I felt pretty good that I was being counted upon to fill Joe’s shoes but some years later, I had heard that Joe who, like many other native Americans in the area, had a serious drinking problem, was found frozen to death in a snowstorm. I couldn’t help but think that I somehow shared some responsibility for this tragedy, having put him out of this job in 1957.

I enjoyed mealtimes that summer in North Dakota, not only because my Aunt Ruth was a good cook and made fabulous homemade bread and other baked goods, but also because there were four meals a day, not three. To this day I don’t know if it was a Baxstrom custom or a North Dakota farm custom but in the early morning you had breakfast, then at noon it was dinner, then around three or four o’clock, you broke for lunch, then after all the work was done for the day and you cleaned up, you had “supper” around seven. Breakfast, dinner and supper were full square meals, whereas “lunch” was more a few snacks – something to drink, maybe coffee or iced tea, and a sandwich or some summer sausage and bread. Sometimes a piece of Aunt Ruth’s rhubarb pie was served, or a few of her cookies. Anyhow, this mid-afternoon “meal” was most welcome as a break from a long afternoon of work. Interesting that Uncle Clarence and I always ate together, without Grandma and Aunt Ruth. They apparently always ate together at a table in the kitchen. I don’t remember ever sitting down as a whole “family” to a meal the entire summer I was there.

The dynamics of life there were interesting. My Uncle and Aunt, respectively the oldest and second oldest siblings in the Baxstrom family were never married. I don’t know why – aside from them both being properly crotchety and short-tempered as an old maid and bachelor are supposed to be, they both seemed entirely normal and certainly nice enough to attract a potential spouse. Uncle Clarence had worked a variety of jobs in his younger days, mainly as an oil field trucker, and apparently had returned home to keep the farm going after my Grandfather died in 1955. I know little of Aunt Ruth’s history, other than also becoming a fixture on the farm after Grandpa’s passing, to care for the house, plant and maintain the garden and see to Grandma’s needs. My Grandmother, a wonderfully warm and loving person, whose eyesight was compromised from cataracts, used to look at me close to her face and even feel my face and hair to “see” what I looked like.

The relationship between my Aunt and Uncle was tenuous. For the most part tolerant, it sometimes erupted in a storm of reproach, accusation, anger and raised voices, and in the case of my Uncle, a flood of colorful profanity. My Aunt raised a flock of turkeys that summer (and evidently every summer) whose presence around the farm would greatly irritate my Uncle, particularly when they would roost on his farm implements and soil them with their droppings. I can remember hims chasing the turkeys off his equipment with a handful of gravel and a hail of curse words mixed with the frenzied wing-flapping and loud gobbling of the fleeing turkeys.

Other dynamics were noticeable as well. Another of my mother’s siblings, my Uncle Arnold, and his wife Alvida (actually I remember her name spelled Alveda but this spelling was featured in her obituary) lived in Mylo and farmed several quarters of land that he owned adjacent to the Baxstrom family farm land. There seemed to be some “bad blood” between Grandma, Ruth and Clarence and Arnold and Alvida. A couple of times that summer, when Uncle Arnold and I were on tractors on neighboring fields, he would stop his tractor, as did I, and we would walk across the field to greet one another and have a short conversation. While I was there Uncle Arnold was never invited to join us for a meal, nor did anyone in our household visit with him and Alvida. To this day, I don’t know precisely why because he was a very bright, educated and wonderfully warm, soft spoken and dignified man, but I would imagine it had to do with his wife, Alvida, who maybe was never really accepted by the rest of the family, or maybe it was the other way around. Aunt Alvida seemed to envelop and smother Arnold with her unseemly enthusiasm for religion and effusive and active love for her husband. I remember our family receiving snapshots of the two of them, with endearments written all over them and signed “The Mylo Lovebirds”. Perhaps some of this unseemly passion could be explained by their 17 year difference in age, Arnold 37 and Alvida 20 when they married. And maybe some of the estrangement could be explained by some likely sibling jealousy from Clarence and Ruth concerning Arnold and Alvida’s publicly passionate and happy marriage. They never had children and I never knew why. Uncle Arnold passed away in 2001 and Alvida in 2013.

The work I did for my Uncle varied from day to day but always included turning on and off the windmills – one near the barn in the small pasture where several younger cattle were kept and one in the big pasture “out west”, but the best, most exciting work, was sitting on a tractor pulling a harrow. Shortly before I got there that year, Uncle Clarence had bought a brand new John Deere 720 , a big, powerful two-cylinder diesel, for his field work. It was indeed an very exciting and pleasurable experience to drive this machine. First, it was huge, and to feel so close to its throbbing power, was thrilling. Second, it was easy to drive – it was the first tractor I had ever driven that had power steering, making a huge difference in how it handled. Also mentioned in the article were the two big John Deere model D’s we had – old but very powerful and still reliable. Also Uncle Clarence had a John Deere A which we used to bale hay and to cultivate a nearby field of corn. I earned a rare compliment from Uncle Clarence when, after we turned the row cultivators inward just a little and I used a daringly high gear to cultivate the corn, sufficient soil was thrown up against the cornstalks to completely choke out the weeds.

Pulling a huge, harrow up and down those expansive North Dakota fields, the ones we kept fallow, was indeed a thrilling experience. Often it would take as long as a half-hour to do a full course up and down the field. When the work was done you were often covered with a layer of black North Dakota soil which had settled on you from the cloud of dust which often accompanied the cultivator. North Dakota farm fields, very flat, present a broad endless vista and a glorious feeling of liberation and freedom. But their general lack of drainage results in their being punctuated with sloughs, occasional low, wet grassy areas, sometimes with a pond or small lake in the middle. These were areas around which you had to be very careful, in order to cultivate the arable land around them as closely as possible while avoiding getting so close as to get into the mud. Well, in one of our fields about a half mile from home, I was trying to get as close to the edge as possible to cultivate the maximum amount of soil but unfortunately got too close and suddenly saw the tractor’s tire treads filling with mud and the big wheels starting to spin. I raised the cultivator immediately reducing tractor’s load but it was a too late, the tractor sunk in right up to the drawbar resulting in absolutely no traction at all. I broke out into a cold nervous sweat, turned off the engine and walked all the way home with the bad news for Uncle Clarence. Wow, talk about the air turning blue with profanity. My mistake had evoked a real torrent. In a rage, with wheels spinning and dust flying, my uncle drove us back out to the tractor in the pickup truck, somehow unhitched the harrow, freed the tractor and then pulled the harrow out of the mud with a chain. After hitching back up, Uncle Clarence, still enraged, drove the tractor and harrow back to the farm at full speed with huge globs of mud flying from the deep tire treads while I slowly and ashamedly drove the truck back. After such incidents my punishment was a day or two of silence and no work assignments – retribution not easily borne in the limited confines of the farm.

Being banished to idleness was tough to take but the same thing happened more or less naturally on rainy days. Really on those days, if there was work to be done out in the barn or shop area, fine, I did it but usually any work out there was a little more technical and beyond my ability. So on most rainy days when I could not work outside I stayed inside and read. There was no shortage of reading material there on the farm. Uncle Clarence was an inveterate collector of National Geographic and Esquire magazines, which were stored in the washhouse attic and out in the hired man cabin. So I used to enjoy going through stacks of these during times I was idle. Particularly pleasurable in the old Esquires, especially for a 15 year old boy, were the gorgeous pinup pictures by the famed Alberto Vargas. Also in the living room of the house was a set of World War II photo books that I loved leafing through.

Another memory relating to my time on the tractors tilling those expansive fields of rich black North Dakota prairie soil was enriching the experience by smoking a cigarette or two. I remember vividly how I lit my cigarette by placing it in my lips, then leaning close and sucking in while touching the end to the extremely hot exhaust manifold of the tractor engine. As a surreptitious smoker all through my teens, sneaking off with friends for a few puffs, that first taste of the smoke was uniquely rich and something I will never forget. I started smoking habitually in my late teens as a college student and office worker and through my 20’s and 30’s as an educator as well, finally kicking the habit in dramatic fashion at age 39 while a doctoral student in Arizona. Of course I never smoked openly in North Dakota, assuming my Aunt, Uncle and Grandmother would disapprove and share this news with my mother and father. This in spite of the fact that my Uncle was a devoted cigar smoker, smoking one end and chewing up the other of at least one each day while he worked around the farm.

The mention of Uncle Clarence and his cigars brings me to our Saturday nights, when Uncle Clarence and I would go out “on the town”. These occasions were quite special, starting with getting really cleaned up, shaved, dressed in “go to town” clothes, i.e., for me clean jeans and shirt, or as with Uncle Clarence, dress pants and shoes, a nice ironed shirt and a new cigar. Also, we spritzed ourselves with some Old Spice. Then off we’d go to Rollette or Rolla for a restaurant supper, maybe a haircut, some gossip, usually weather or crop price news exchanged with farmer neighbors, some shopping, some ice cream and then the trip home. I think Uncle Clarence had usually used these occasions to visit a bar or two in these towns and maybe visit a female acquaintance, but my presence probably cramped his style so his nights on the town with me were quite staid and simple. He probably felt some responsibility to his sister, my Mom, to keep our town visits toned down.

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Uncle Clarence ready for a night on the town

Uncle Clarence made a living on the farm for himself, Aunt Ruth and Grandma Baxstrom by raising wheat and cattle. That summer there was an extended drought that limited the supply of grass on our “out west” quarter section of virgin sod pasture. Accordingly Uncle Clarence scouted around for some additional pasture to rent and found some available land near Dunseith, in the “Turtle Mountains” a small town right next to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Mind you, these “mountains” would hardly qualify as hills in any other state than mostly flat North Dakota but the area was a little higher than our farm and therefore better watered. So Uncle Clarence rented a large area, maybe a quarter or so, already fenced and we moved the cattle, mostly Herefords, there for the rest of the summer. I remember when we were walking the borders of the new pasture land, good grass and a lot of scrub oak, we came upon a concrete pylon upon which was vertically engraved on one side “United States of America” and on the other “Dominion of Canada”.

One chilly clear summer night I was utterly dazzled by my first and only glimpse of the Northern Lights. Looking back I still marvel at this phenomenon – undulating pink-purple ribbons of light dancing across the sky in random patterns. If the daytime sun and the moon and stars of the night sky defied rational understanding by early mankind and gave rise to to mythological explanation, I can only imagine what the otherworldly sight of the northern lights provoked in their attempts at explanation. Truly I was thrilled beyond words at this sight, which occurred only on that particular night. It’s likely they appeared on others as well but that particular night I happened to be awake and outside.

It was while I was in North Dakota that I used some savings money for that great mail order that I described in my recent article about Sears and the clothing I got was perfect for my work. The engineer boots were perfect for farming as were the sturdy “Roebucks” jeans. And the girl I wanted to impress so badly that summer was Sharon Anfinson, whom I spotted at the Mylo Post Office one day and maybe caught a glimpse of a couple of other times. Blond haired and beautiful, I pined, ached and yearned for her all summer but to no avail. I understood that she and her family attended the Lutheran church in Mylo but we never went. And my feeble fantasies about getting introduced to her or introducing myself to her went nowhere. Uncle Clarence used to tease me about her occasionally, but why? Sadly I never even had the chance to meet her or talk with her.

North Dakota is a spring wheat state, in contrast to many states to its south which plant their wheat in the fall. Wheat is planted in April or so with it maturing and ready for harvest in mid August to early September. I participated in our harvest time that August, a time, if the weather was right, when every machine, every person, every pair of hands is focused on one thing – getting the wheat harvested and safely to sale or storage before the weather changed. And the harvesting operation began in the morning as soon as the dew dried and ended late at night before dew formed. Looking back on that important time I cannot remember whether Uncle
Clarence used his own, rather old tractor-pulled combine, or contracted with a self-propelled combine equipped neighbor, Mr. Niemeyer, to do it, or employed one of the many “custom combine” operations that followed the wheat harvest across the country from south to north. At any rate, I know we didn’t use the really old power-take-off belt-driven threshing machine that was still on the farm, perched on its steel wheels. At any rate, we began in the morning and the harvested wheat was transported to Mylo in my uncle’s dump truck and behind a tractor in a towed wagon. The bright lights of the harvesting operation blazed in the fields until late that first night and the operation continued throughout the next day, completed in just two days. By the way, the combine earned that name because it combined the operation of the old reaper-binder machines and the threshing machine.

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Me and my dear brothers and sisters August 1957

In late August on the summer of 1957, I was working in the granary across the road north of the house, when I saw the Friedly family’s brown and tan 1954 Chevy station wagon coming up the road and turning in at the gate. So excited that I burst into tears, I left what I was doing, bolted across the road and ran to greet my family, who had come to pick me up and take me home. I had known they were coming but didn’t know precisely when. I was so excited to see Mom and Dad and once again and embrace my dear little brothers – there they all were – little Glenn, Richard, Stan and the larger little brothers Rob and Charlie, plus sweet sisters Elaine and Barbara. Yes, they were all there – with me in North Dakota. Thank God.

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Little brother Glenn and Uncle Clarence on the 720

One little incident before we left together in the 1954 Chevy wagon, should be related. I was on the tractor, cultivating one of the huge fallow fields for one last time with my brother Charlie with me on the tractor. After finishing, I realized that I was missing my wallet out of my back pocket. Why I even had my wallet with me is a question I cannot answer, much less, how I had lost it. And why then, why not earlier in the summer. At any rate, since it had my money in it and a check Uncle Clarence had presented me with for the summer’s work, I was faced with looking for it among the acres of furrows of turned black earth. Charlie volunteered to help so up and down the long field we walked looking for my wallet. Who knows, it could have been buried by the harrow. But persistently up and down we went moving a little further in each time, like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But suddenly Charlie hollered, “ There it is!” And there it was. My sharp eyed little brother Charlie had spotted my wallet among those many acres of freshly turned soil. Unbelievable!

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Glenn with the calf bottle, Stan in front seat with the real thing

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Mom 42 and Grandma 77 in 1957

Before closing this article I should say something about our little North Dakota town of Mylo. I guess when the Baxstrom children were young the town was quite prosperous. I have seen pictures of my mother and classmates at her Mylo school. And I have heard from other Baxstrom relatives about the town many years ago. In 1957 when I was there, it was still bustling. There was a general store, a post office, a very active Lutheran church, a couple of dozen homes in the town, which included that of my Uncle Arnold and Aunt Alvida, and very important, a John Deere dealership right there on Main Street. Owned by a huge man called “Tiny” Wiemeyer, it served customers from many neighboring towns. My Uncle’s John Deere 720 was bought from “Tiny”. And in 1957 there still was a huge wooden grain elevator on the south side of town right next to the tracks of the Soo Line, the railroad that ran through town and from which I could hear occasional passing freight trains and train whistles. And that grain elevator did a thriving business, and not only at harvest time, for it was the place where local farmers purchased their seed, fertilizer, weed sprays and other items. On one of his visits, my brother Robert, who in his teens, incredibly had learned to ride a unicycle, shook up the little town when on a visit, took his unicycle out and rode it up and down main street, causing the locals to stop in their tracks, cease what they were doing, emerge from their vehicles and from their businesses to stare open mouthed and dumfounded at this incredible curiosity. Nothing quite like that had ever happened in this modest and quiet little town.

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Ruth, Ida and Elma

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Mylo School, Mom on right (I think)

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Baxstrom family, Mom on left by her mother

Today the town of Mylo is depressingly empty. No more Lutheran church The John Deere dealership had long ago moved to Rollette. The general store is long gone as are many of the residential houses in town. The grain elevator is no more and the Soo Line has disappeared, although on Google Earth, its old route through town can still be clearly seen. The present population of Mylo today is perhaps a dozen people, maybe that is even generous. So sad that this little prairie town, so dear to my mother and her siblings, is now for all intents and purposes, simply gone. Google Earth shows the “streets” in town, clearly labeled, but there is nothing on those streets. The north-south main street can be seen, as can the the farm itself (someone else’s now for the last 50 years or so, directly in line with main street, about a mile north from town. Actually, the farm’s attitude from main street reminds me that my Aunt Ruth used to use a pair of binoculars to peer at main street several times a day and would comment on who was where and doing what in town, with a memorable “Huh, there’s Mr.______ at the post office again – I wonder why two trips today….Huh, there’s Mrs.______ at the store, why she was just there yesterday, I wonder what she’s buying this time….Huh, there’s old Mrs. ______ at the post office…I thought she was still sick…” Etc. etc.

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Ruth, Elma, Mom (Ida) and Grandma

A search of the Mylo cemetery shows these Baxstroms interred there. Interesting that Uncle Vernon, who spent most of his life in the state of Washington, chose (or his family chose for him) to be buried in the town where he was born. Aunt Alvida’s grave is in the Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran cemetery in her hometown of Adams, N.D. I was unable to discover where Uncle Arnold’s grave was located.

Baxstrom, Anna Christina Jonsson b. 1880 ~ d. 1967 (Grandma Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, Nels b. 1871 ~ d. 1955 (Grandpa Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, J. Clarence b. 1903 ~ d. 1981
Baxstrom, Ruth I. b. 1904 ~ d. 1977
Baxstrom, Vernon E. b. 1905 ~ d. 1979

Uncle Clarence and Aunt Ruth were in their early fifties when I was with them in 1957. Grandma Baxstrom was 77.

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Aunt Ruth 61, me and Grandma 85 in North Dakota, 1965

The Backwards Hat

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When I started this blog a couple of years ago I was happy that I could write about whatever’s on my mind, instead of always having to write boring routine communications, rationales and reports as a principal or superintendent. Well guess what’s on my mind today for some reason? The fact that the sight of a kid, teenager or adult (or tennis player or rap singer) wearing his baseball hat backwards really offends me.

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When I see this I first am struck by the total ridiculousness of the act. A baseball hat has a brim, visor, or bill if you wish, in front to shade the eyes from the sun, a bright sky or lights. That’s why baseball players wear them. And that’s the reason, presumably, the rest of us wear them. Then why on earth would any reasonable person turn the hat around, depriving it of its basic purpose. Heavens, the bill is shading the neck and the sun is shining in your eyes. To do this doesn’t make any sense to me.

But wait, there’s more. Not only do I wonder about the sanity and rationality of anyone who does this, but there is a definite quality of insolence, rebellion, rudeness and disrespect conveyed by the act that I find grating and irritating. Also, there is a definite quality of immaturity implied by wearing your baseball hat backwards. All this is much less so when a five or ten year old wears the hat backwards, but still, it conveys a naughtiness, impishness or contrariness even when a child does it. But my God, when older people do it, it really looks stupid and is truly offensive.baseballcap

The “Urban Dictionary” defines a “backwards hat” in this way:
1. The calling card of a moron
2. Something that white kids took from black kids and ruined
3. How to identify the true loser in the crowd
4. I can easily single out who is the real dope of the group because he has his hat on backwards.
I couldn’t agree more. The story is told of a foreign visitor who kept seeing Americans wearing their baseball caps indoors, and at times backwards. He determined this style indicated a direct correlation to the wearer’s apparent I.Q. Wearing a baseball cap indoors meant an I.Q. was reduced by 50%. Wearing the cap backwards meant an I.Q. was reduced by another 50%… so what’s left? Not much. Again, I agree.

Not long ago this photo of our supposedly dignified and intelligent “policy wonk” House Majority Leader Paul Ryan ran in the media. I didn’t think he was mature before, but take a look at the photo and decide what the backward hat and the biceps show connote. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri describes him perfectly – “It’s the hat. It’s really the hat that does it….He looks like the 30-year-old actor pretending to be a teenager in your ninth grade health class video about Making Better Choices.”

Paul Ryan and weights

At the gym where I regularly work out there is a guy, probably in his early 60’s, who occasionally occupies an ellyptical trainer near the one I have selected. This guy, flabby arms and all, is wearing not only a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off exposing those pitiful arms, but also his baseball hat is turned around backwards. What the hell, I say to myself, who or what is this guy trying to be – a teenager? Or really macho ? Please, come on, grow up!

Early in my life I learned that the only people who wore a baseball hat backwards were baseball catchers, who of course could not properly wear their mask unless the hat was turned around with the bill in back. Later I realized that other professions, like welding, were included – tough to wear that mask too, with the bill frontwards. And I am sure there are other situations when turning the hat around is actually required, like when you are riding in the back of a truck, on on your motorcycle or in a convertible. Hey, I have no problem with this – if you didn’t turn it around it would blow off your head and you would lose it. But when you get off the truck bed, park the motorcycle or put the top back up on your convertible, turn your hat back around.

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I am not alone in my opinion. None other than the notable conservative columnist, George Will feels the same way I do. In fact, Mr. Will, with whom I agree on little (but his articles on baseball are wonderful!) wrote a column some years ago condemning this act and labeling it “a bit of contemporary infantilism”. In speculating about where this habit came from, Mr. Will suggested that it began with the J. D. Salinger novel, so popular with teenagers, “Catcher in the Rye”, in which Holden relates in Chapter 3, “…I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning.  It was a red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks…..The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back — very corny, I’ll admit but I liked it that way, I looked good in it that way”. Doubtless, all the teenagers who follow Holden’s example think they look good too. Mr. Will may be right but both Walter Matthau, playing the part of Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple” on Broadway in 1965 and Jack Klugman as Madison in the later TV series both wore a backwards baseball cap and consequently may have helped.

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And I have significant additional support in this opposition to backward hats. The inimitable, always irreverent and profane late George Carlin, also shares my opinion.

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As I noted in a previous article, I love tennis. Tennis players practice their precise and painstaking skills in the sun or bright lights of a tennis court. Some are purists and play without the benefit of a sun visor or a cap. But many others do indeed ply their craft with their eyes protected by the bill of a sun visor or a hat. But, good heavens, there are those fools, those imbeciles, who insist on playing tennis with a turned-around baseball cap. When I see this, that tennis player is automatically reduced to a teenager, to an unserious player, to someone whose cultivation of a teenage image is more important than being a serious professional. Foremost among these is Leyton Hewitt, the recently retired Australian pro. While I have always loved Hewitt’s enthusiastic and reckless win-at-all-costs game, I have always hated the turned around hat, which to me has always detracted from him. And I am convinced that he would have been a much more successful professional had he chosen to wear his hat the right way and shade his eyes from the sun and lights.Obama wearing hat backwards

Feeling the way I do about people choosing to wear their hat backwards, you can imagine the shock and the disappointment with which I reacted when I saw a photo of our very own President Barack Obama, the epitome of maturity and dignity, wearing his hat backwards at some kind of vacation cookout with Richard Branson. There he was, my own President, looking like a fool, like a doofus teenager, wearing his hat backwards. That did it for me and I resolved to someday write this article, trying to explain what it means to others when you choose to wear you baseball hat backwards. And so again, for yet another reason, thank you President Obama!

 

 

 

Sears, Roebuck and Company

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I was very distressed to read a recent article on Salon about Sears teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Actually, it’s a story that I’ve seen repeatedly over the last five or ten years. Sears is indeed having serious problems. Its sales figures and profit have been in free fall in recent years, facing wilting competition from Walmart, Kohl’s and other department stores. In an age of “niche” retailers, Sears has failed to carve out a defined place for itself. It’s not the bargasearsin store like Walmart, it’s not the hardware store like Home Depot or Lowe’s, it’s not the clothing store like Dillard’s or Macy’s, or the home store like Bed, Bath and Beyond, it is not the high-volume store like Costco and it is not the mail order store like Amazon. Sears has tried to be the “everything under one roof” store but has not been successful in carving out a successful and distinguished niche in the retail community. However, if Sears does eventually fail and closes all its stores, I will be very sad. Sears has been part of my life for many years, in fact for all of them.
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The arrival of the new spring and summer or the new fall and winter Sears mail-order catalog was a huge event in the family when I was young. The appearance of the annual Christmas catalog, thinner but so very exciting to leaf through, and thoroughly tattered by the time the holiday itself finally came, was another important moment in our family life. These catalogs were indeed the “dream books” in our home, always perched in a prominent place for convenient access and easy perusal.

2131258175_2cd7affdc5_bAnd the catalog was not only a “dream book” but a helpful and readily available price reference. If you were trying to find out how much something cost, even though Sears was not to be the source  of the purchase, there it was, pictured in the catalog, with a reliable median price attached.

The Sears Catalog had serious competition in my childhood from the catalogs of Montgomery Ward and to a lesser degree from Spiegel. It was a sad day when they both closed mail order operations and their catalogs stopped coming, because they too always afforded a goodly share of childhood dreams. Sears’ mail order business lasted a little longer but it too eventually stopped, apparently for good in 1993.

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220px-spiegel2It was so exciting to actually order some items from Sears and wait for the order to arrive. When the order did come, securely wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with twine, or in a plain brown box, it seemed like Christmas right there and then, regardless of the actual time of year. My father even used to order his baby chicks through the Sears catalog. One hundred fluffy cheeping little chicks would arrive in an excelsior-lined four compartment cardboard box with air holes punched in the sides, from Sears, mind you.

Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs played an important historical and economic role in the late 19th and early 20th centuries especially in rural American by breaking the hold of the local “general store” on customers. Finally a plethora of “ready made” items became readily available for a set price and with a “money back” guarantee. There was little that the catalogs of the day did not contain and remarkably at one point, Sears was selling a package of pre-engineered and precut materials for a complete house, even featuring several different models from which to choose.

engineer-boohsWhen I was fifteen years old, while in North Dakota for the summer with my grandmother Baxstrom and aunt Ruth and working for my Uncle Clarence, I conducted the greatest Sears catalog mail order in my memory. The order consisted of a pair of dream-come-true engineer boots, replete with big heel, oiled black leather, round toe, strap and buckle over the foot, and a strip of metal embedded in the back to keep the high top straight. Also in this order was a chambray shirt, always the perfect color and fabric to wear with bluejeans, and a nice light blue sweatshirt with warm fleece inside. Roebucks pocket.jpgMaybe the most striking item, next to the engineer boots, was a sleek pair of “Roebucks” jeans, made of heavy 11 ounce denim material and featuring their distinctive upward curved top front pockets and keystone-shaped center belt loop in the back. I don’t remember a pair of jeans ever fitting as well as these great “Roebucks”. I certainly enjoyed swaggering around in my stylish new jeanroebucks-belt-loops, chambray shirt, and engineer boots, waiting for a comely member of the opposite sex to notice me. (They never did, but I could dream!)

One of the aspects of Sears that I remember most vividly, was its own quality brands of categories of merchandise. The “JC Higgins” brand of outdoor and sports equipment always meant sterling quality and fair price. The first fishing reel I ever owned was a JC Higgins model for $1.99, that was later attached to a JC Higgins metal fishing rod from my father. A dream never realized was a JC Higgins bicycle sporting a large “tank” with fake portholes mounted in the cross bars and a spring loaded front fork, that I must have looked at hundreds of times in the catalog. Actually quite cumbersome by today’s standards, this bike was then to me the “Cadillac” of bicycles and would have certainly dazzled all of my friends, had I been fortunate enough to own one.

bike_jchiggins_550hOne dream finally attained but cut a little short was the saving for and eventual purchase of a top of the line JC Higgins baseball fielder’s mitt from Sears. It was the perfect size and shape, with leather lining and the thumb and finger loops in just the right places and when broken in, was unbelievable at scooping up infield grounders or snaring fly balls in the outfield. But my little brother Richard borrowed it (with my blessing) to take on a school outing where a ball game was to be played and accidentally left it there, lost forever, now the valued possession of the lucky finder. Richard was so upset about his carelessness and losing his big brother’s prized ball glove, that I really couldn’t get very angry with him. But I was certainly saddened at the loss of such a prized and valued possession as this marvelous example of quality JC Higgins sporting goods.

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Other Sears brands come readily to mind. “Silvertone” radios were a permanent and prized part of childhood. And of course Silvertone televisions came along as well, although their price precluded their presence in our modest household. The “Silvertone” brand was applied to a range of high quality Sears musical instruments as well, mainly a line of guitars although I think my sister Barbara played a Silvertone clarinet.

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And of course another famous Sears brand was “Allstate”, first applied to the lines of tires sold by Sears and then to insurance, when Sears decided to sell auto insurance through its mail order service. Allstate insurance maintained a lofty reputation and still uses its “you’re in good hands” theme in present day advertising. Allstate remained part of the Sears operation until 1993 when it was spun off as an publicly owned independent company.

allstateOther trusted Sears brands that have always meant extraordinary quality, are Kenmore and Craftsman. The Kenmore brand of appliances has always connoted great value and lasting utility and I have never owned a Kenmore appliance, from refrigerators to washers and dryers, that ever disappointed. And I have to say the same for Craftsman tools. They have always been of the highest quality, whether made in the US as they used to be in my childhood, or made primarily in China as they are now, and have never failed me.kenmore And if they did, there’s the famous Craftsman lifetime warrantee, which now may actually be in doubt, for earlier this year, it was reported that Sears had sold its Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker for almost a billion dollars, to raise the cash it needs to survive additional store closings and declining revenue.craftsman-2 And of course the fabled Sears DieHard batteries have earned a well deserved reputation of superb reliability, always ranking among the most reliable batteries in Consumer Reports tests.

spin_prod_246710301I myself am the proud owner of a Craftsman riding mower which I bought because of the reasonable price and consistent high reliability ratings. Easy to maintain and repair with readily available replacement parts, it has served me well mowing my acre of Vermont grass every week or so during the summer months.

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So indeed if Sears does ultimately go the way of Mervyn’s, another chain of stores, headquartered on the west coast, that I still miss greatly here in Arizona, what will happen to these trusted brands? Kmart, whose parent company is now Sears Holdings and Ace Hardware, both sell Craftsman tools. If Sears and Kmart both finally fail, I assume that the new owner of Craftsman, Stanley Black & Decker, will carry on. And how about the Kenmore brand? Kenmore appliances are made by a variety of other manufacturers including Whirlpool, Bosch and others, so this trusted brand may simply disappear. But this will be a serious loss because Sears has made sure over the years that the Kenmore brand means quality, value and dependability, regardless of who the manufacturer was.

I hope Sears never leaves us and that its corporate heads find a proper niche for it and keep it going. Because if it does go under, it will be not only a loss for shoppers like me, who have always trusted Sears and the Sears trademarks, but it will be a serious cultural loss for the entire country because “Sears” and “Sears, Roebuck and Company” have deservedly earned true iconic status in our country and its history.

“Shared Values”

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After reading a really flimsy fluff piece in a recent New York Times by former Jerusalem Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren about Israeli-American “shared values” vis-a-vis the “cribbing” (aka “plagiarizing”) of sentences and phrases of the American Declaration of Independence to insert into Israel’s 1947 declaration, and having recently heard more nonsense from Netanyahu and Trump about “shared values”, I began thinking about those values shared between Israel and the United States. Yes, we all know them, don’t we, because they have been trumpeted for decades, in order to cultivate support for Israel. In case you’ve forgotten, here they are, directly from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) website:

“Commitment to democracy, the rule of law, freedom of religion and speech and human rights are all core values shared between the United States and Israel. Both nations were founded by refugees seeking political and religious freedom. Both were forced to fight for independence against foreign powers. Both have absorbed waves of immigrants seeking political freedom and economic well-being. And both have evolved into democracies that respect the rule of law, the will of voters and the rights of minorities….Israel has an independent judicial system, which protects the rights of individuals and operates under the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” Israel also features regularly scheduled elections that are free and fair and open to all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or sex.”

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Let’s think again – “rule of law” in Israel is a bit shaky and certainly depends on whether you are Jewish or Arab. Also, what law? Israel routinely flouts international law and thumbs its nose at United Nations resolutions. Contrary to international norms, Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and submit its atomic program to IAEA inspections. “Freedom of religion” in a “Jewish and democratic state?” I don’t think Muslims feel all that comfortable. “Independent judicial system”? Yes, it works well for Jewish Israelis, not so well for Palestinian Israelis. “Waves of immigrants”? Not so much a “shared value” – you are welcomed to Israel if you are Jewish. So all this is tripe, nonsense, mere propaganda to garner support for Israel.

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“America’s staunchest ally” and the “only democracy in the Middle East” are cliches used constantly by the pro-Israel media to characterize this rogue nation. Frankly I don’t see much value for the US here. How has “America’s staunchest ally” supported US efforts in its ill-advised wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in fighting the Islamic State? And how democratic really is this “only democracy in the Middle East”, a state that is more an “ethnocracy” than a democracy; a state that relegates its Palestinian citizens to second class status; a state that has been a serial violator of international law and human rights, and a state that has imposed apartheid on the people and the land it has occupied for fifty years. And “America’s staunchest ally” has tried to influence American elections and to undermine American foreign policy, inserting its paranoid and myopic worldview into US foreign affairs. Interesting that before Israel, America had no enemies in the Middle East. And this “democracy” that touts freedom, has deprived the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank of their freedom for fifty years. And Israel, always crying about the “existential threat” of Hezbollah, Hamas or Iran, strives every day to obliterate what little still exists of Palestine.

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This whole concept of “shared values” between the US and Israel is a clever bit of propaganda, or “hasbara” promoted by Zionists and, interestingly, carefully laid out in a book published by the Israel Project some years ago. This book, written by star Republican marketer, Frank Luntz, contains instructions like, “Draw direct parallels between Israel and America – including the need to defend against terrorism” and, “the language of Israel is the language of America: ‘democracy’, ’freedom’, ‘security’ and ‘peace’. These four words are at the core of the American political, economic, social and cultural systems, and they should be repeated as often as possible because they resonate with virtually every American”. The AIPAC statement above follows these instructions quite well.

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But are there other shared values between the United States and Israel? You bet there are, but these are not often discussed because they don’t exactly place us and our “staunchest ally” in the best light. Let’s take a look at a few of the salient but rarely discussed shared values.

One of the most glaring examples of “shared values” has to be the historical removal of indigenous populations and taking their land. Appropriating the land of American Indians is a time-honored historical tradition in the United States. Along with broken treaties and systematized slaughter, was the reduction of Native Americans to uncivilized “savages” and “animals” who did not use land appropriately, i.e. for hunting and gathering instead of for agriculture like the interloping Europeans.

The parallels in the founding of Israel  are obvious. First was the propagation of the myth of “a land with no people for a people with no land” to justify the relentless theft of Palestinian land. And in a similar way, the Israeli thieves “making the desert bloom” was superior to Palestinians’ natural use of the land. And in a similar way, Palestinians have been dehumanized and devalued. Much has been made in the media about an Israeli life being worth much more than a Palestinian life, highlighted by “prisoner swaps” like the 2011 swap of 1000 Palestinian prisoners for Israeli prisoner Gilad Shalit.

Another “shared value” is “might makes right”, the reliance of both the US and Israel on militarism and brute force to resolve conflict or impose control instead of diplomacy and negotiation. When has Israel tried to negotiate with the enemies it talks about all the time? And did we ever try to negotiate with Iraq when we claimed that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction”? Did we negotiate with the Taliban when it became known that they had sheltered the terrorists responsible for 9/11? Of course not, American reliance on military action instead of negotiation has deep historic roots. Our “peace-loving” nation has a history of useless bloodshed, from the Mexican War to the Spanish-American War to Vietnam to the endless “war on terror”. And related to this, both the US and Israel share a mutual love affair with “air strikes” – cruel killing and destruction that is far removed from the eyes of the perpetrators, and quite sanitized since the devastation and loss of life is limited to the victims.

Yet another related “shared value” is the fact that the US and Israel always seem to need an “enemy” against whom to fight. The crumbled Soviet Union was quickly replaced by Iraq, Iran, and now the shadowy ill-defined multiple enemies in the US’s “war on terror”. And Israel has thrived on the enmity of its Arab neighbors. But since the peace treaty with Egypt and Jordan, Iran is the focus, in spite of the fact that this country, unlike Israel, has never had expansionist ambitions and still occupies the same land area it has occupied for centuries.

Another contemporary “shared value” that goes unacknowledged is the eerie similarity of US and Israel’s practice of “targeted killings”—extrajudicial executions of “terrorist” suspects and bystanders. Once condemned by the United States— it became the signature policy of President Obama, the only president in history known to keep a “kill list”, which included some US citizens. Israel has been conducting these kinds of killings for decades and, appropriately, is now the world’s leading manufacturer of military drones. I have always thought that “bad guys” should be captured and tried but both Israel and the US remain two of the world leaders in state sponsored murder. It is commonly acknowledged that Israel’s Mossad and Shin Bet have murdered dozens of people since the 1950’s. The list is incredible and can be seen in the Wikipedia entry “List of Israeli assassinations”. The authors of “How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower” boast that Israel has earned the distinction of “the first country to master the art of targeted killings”. Some art…congratulations Israel.

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Yet another element of the shared value of “might makes right” is a belief and practice in unprovoked aggression. The US is now conducting unilateral air strikes, acts of war really, in seven locations around the world, without actual provocation from an “enemy”. For decades Israel has routinely violated international borders and airspace with its own air strikes, whenever and for whatever reason it deems appropriate. Its 1982 invasion of Lebanon was one such act of aggression, as was its unprovoked surprise attack on Egypt and Syria which started the “Six Day War” of 1967. Of course the most egregious example of the US’s unprovoked aggression was the Iraq War. So the US and Israel are forever intertwined as partners in gross acts of aggression against other nations, all egregious violations of international law.

This shared value is further reflected in the US and Israel’s military “defense” budgets. The U.S. outpaces all other nations in military expenditures. World military spending totaled more than $1.6 trillion in 2015 and the U.S. accounted for 37 percent of this total. U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined. As a percentage of GDP the US military budget is fourth in the world while Israel is second, right after number one Saudi Arabia. And, both the US and Israel do their best to spread military weaponry around the world. Of course, the United States occupies the shameful position of being the world’s largest arms exporter. But Israel is swiftly catching up, earning billions each year as the world’s sixth largest arms exporter through the sale of military equipment to buyers from China and India to Colombia and Russia. And remember, the United States supports Israel’s military with 11 million dollars a day from American taxpayers. What in heaven’s name do we obtain in return for this massive investment? And how has Israel and its supporters managed to convince our government to do this?

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And of course the US and Israel share a common disdain for human rights. Just as we have populated prisons, most obviously at Guantanamo with “detainees” who are held for months and years without being charged or tried for a crime, Israel commits the same violations, holding hundreds of Palestinian prisoners as “detainees” without charge or trial. Both countries talk a good game about “human rights”, with the US constantly judging other countries’ human rights records without examining its own or that of its “staunchest ally”. There are over 7000 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons, with 10 percent of these declared “administrative detainees”, held indefinitely without trial. And some American practices at the prison at Guantanamo Bay have been adopted by Israeli prisons – Israel has now authorized the force feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, really just another form of torture, not the humanitarian practice it is advertised to be.

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These two “staunch allies” also share the value of selective application of law. Both share disdain for international law. Remarkably, both Israel and the United States stand out from the rest of the world in their shared refusal to support the International Criminal Court. The ICC was established as an international court that has jurisdiction over certain international crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes that are “committed by nationals of states parties or within the territory of states parties”. Member states are legally obligated to co-operate with the Court when it requires, such as in arresting and transferring indicted persons or providing access to evidence and witnesses. One might wonder what “shared values” have caused this non-support. Could it be the fact that both the US and Israel have committed war crimes and therefore have much to fear from the Court? Among other examples of this shared disregard for international law is our continuing to market outlawed “cluster” munitions for Israel to use in their periodic slaughterer of civilians in Gaza, heartlessly called “mowing the lawn” by Israeli politicians.

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Israel and the United States also share an interest in torture and the various means to dehumanize and terrorize captives. The notorious “Palestinian chair” is one horrible method of torture, exposed and described in Joe Sacco’s graphic novel, “Palestine”, published in 2001, and more recently in Eric Fair’s confessional, “Consequence: A Memoir”, about his time as an interrogator during the Iraq War, especially at Abu Graib. Israeli authorities trained the US military and US contractors in how to use the “Palestinian chair” and other methods of torture including ‘hooding” prisoners. In 1997, the United Nations Committee Against Torture had concluded that hooding constitutes torture, a position it reiterated in 2004. Interesting how hooding, now forbidden by the US Army Field Manual, is still being practiced by our proxy militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are probably still using the “Palestinian chair” as well.

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There’s an additional dimension to these shared values regarding torture. Similar to the US practice of maintaining secret prisons across the world in which it tortured detainees, Israel maintains the notorious “Camp 1391” for exactly the same purposes. Inspectors from the from the Red Cross or other international organizations have never been allowed into this secret facility, not to mention the press or even members of the Knesset. But it’s there, it’s real and it employs torture. Just ask the Palestinian, Lebanese and other Arab prisoners who have been incarcerated there.

Systemitized institutional and national impunity is another shared value. Both nations routinely break international law and place themselves above any responsibility. The US invades other countries, destroys and kills at will and declares itself immune to rebuke, sanction or prosecution. So does Israel. Israel routinely “investigates” the many crimes committed by the IDF (really should be the IOF, Israel Occupation Forces) and security forces but rarely punishes with more than a slap on the wrist. Israel itself is not held accountable by the rest of the world for war crimes and violations of international law. The 2014 Israeli high tech destruction of 20,000 homes and the slaughter of over 2000 people, including 490 children in Gaza elicited but mild opprobrium from the world community.

Nobody was held accountable for the killing of 23 year old American peace activist Rachael Corrie  by an IDF bulldozer. The Israeli police officer responsible for the videotaped beating of Tariq Abukhdeir , a 16 year old Palestinian US citizen was punished with 45 days of community service. An Israeli court recently sentenced Elor Azaria, appallingly a national hero for the cold-blooded execution of Abd al-Fattah al Sharif in March after al-Sharif had already been rendered helpless by being shot and injured following an alleged attempted stabbing attack in Hebron. The murderer received 18 months in prison, one-year probation and a demotion of his military rank – “a sentence fit for a bicycle thief”, in the words of Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy – yet another instance of the systematic impunity Israel affords its personnel who kill or injure Palestinians. The United States has held no one accountable for the sadistic horrors of Abu Graib save a few lowly ranked guards, or for torture, or for lying to the country before the Iraq war. Nor has our country held anyone accountable for the crimes leading up to the financial collapse of 2008.b82a81cdfd1cef748d430653c728a226

Another value shared by both the United States and Israel is hypocrisy. The US has always pontificated about its support of democracy, and Israel boasts about its “Jewish and democratic” state, yet the US has been responsible for the removal of many democratically elected heads of government, among them Salvador Allende in Chile and Mohammed Mosaddegh in Iran and replacing them with dictators. And the US sides with Israel in condemnation of Hamas, the democratically elected government in Gaza, and supports Israel’s denial of any semblance of self-determination by the Palestinians in the West Bank. Big talk about human dignity and personal safety become outright lies as the US supports Israel’s blatant violation of the personal safety and dignity of Palestinians humiliating them with hundreds of checkpoints and threatening their lives and safety with roving bands of violent armed settlers destroying crops and threatening lives. And interestingly, the US made a huge deal about Iraq violating a UN Resolution or two and proceeded to invade and wreck death and destruction in a trillion dollar war. Israel has violated dozens UN Resolutions, yet we have done nothing. Oh yes, and the Israeli Air Force just shot down some kind of drone from Gaza, trumpeting that Israeli airspace will not be violated, while, as noted above, Israel routinely violates the airspace of other nations – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, to name just a few. And Israel, justifying its behavior to combat terrorism, hypocritically forgets its own convenient use of terrorism during its founding and blatant use of terrorism today. It might be useful to take a look at the definition of terrorism – “unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. And finally, Israel and its enablers insist that it has to “defend itself”, never defining Palestinian resistance to the occupation as Palestinians “defending themselves”.

Another shared value between Israel and the United States is a commitment to employing militarized police forces. We have witnessed this repeatedly in the US, especially obvious in the police actions in Ferguson, Missouri. How did this come about – why do our police forces more resemble the military, equipped to kill and maim, than the neighborhood police dedicated to “serve and protect” communities? This trend began during the tenure of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff (also an Israeli citizen), who mandated that American police forces be trained by Israeli police teams in crowd control, counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering. Since that time, thousands of American law enforcement personnel have been trained in Israeli tactics courtesy of JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) and the ADL (Anti Defamation League).

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Also since that time, shootings of unarmed civilians have gone up 500 percent, attacks by police on legal political protests have become a scandal and huge stockpiles of ammunition and military heavy weaponry have been distributed to law enforcement groups all across America. Journalist Max Blumenthal has called this the “Israelification” of American police forces and cites violent police suppression of peaceful protests like the “Occupy…. “ movements as examples, blurring the lines among protesters, common criminals and terrorists. It is important to note that these Israeli experts have long functioned in an environment where killing civilians under cover of a rigged racist system of government has been official policy for over six decades and are trained to violate human rights on a daily basis.

Yet another shared value between Israel and the United States is the privatization of state functions, especially security and incarceration. US privatization of military and security functions has been occurring for a long time, from protection of US Embassies abroad, which used to be solely a US Marine function to the contracting with multiple private companies assisting in the Iraq War, including the notorious Blackwater. Eric Fair, whose recent book is mentioned above, conducted his activities as an employee of the private security company CACI. Privatization of government functions is conducted under the guise of saving money, usually ephemeral, but privatization does allow a government to conveniently shift blame for abuses and absolve itself from violations of international law – “a contractor did it, not the government”.

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In a similar way, the state of Israel is now privatizing many of its security functions that involve abuse of Palestinian human rights and violation of international law. Private Israeli companies like Modi’in Ezrachi and Magal Security Systems are building the barriers and running the checkpoints for much the same reason they have been employed in the US. They conduct the same repressive and cruel activities and enrich their owners. And they also participate in administering Israeli justice to “suspected terrorists” – killing them on the spot.

Another shared value between the US and Israel is a national arrogance manifested in the US in such notions as an “American exceptionalism” and Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” and in Israel as “God’s chosen people” and “God gave this land to us” (and of course, “the only democracy in the Middle East”..etc, etc). This national hubris has, especially in recent years, been readily translated into the nativism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry and racism so prevalent now in both countries, exemplified in protectionism, the construction of barriers and walls and also in strong anti-immigration and pro-deportation policies as well as, shamefully, a cruel anti-refugee bias. Regarding Israel, I have always found it quite interesting that in an age where a state’s maturity can often be measured in the quantity and quality of its pluralism, Israel is a throwback to “racial and ethnic purity”, à la Nazi Germany. Please note – Israel does not accept refugees, period….unless they’re Jewish. In 1950, Israel enacted the Law of Return, giving Jewish people the right to freely immigrate to Israel and receive Israeli citizenship while simultaneously denying indigenous Palestinians their right of return to the homes and lands from which they were exiled.

This shared value has been amplified by the ascendance of Donald Trump as the US president and his railing against immigrants and illegal “aliens” and massive push for deportation. This is quite similar to Israel’s prejudice and discrimination against “dark-skinned people” and the other non-Jewish people in their midst. Netanyahu has proposed a “Jewish Nation-State Law”, thankfully shelved for now, that would have officially enshrined group rights for the Jewish majority as superior to the the individual rights of minorities, making privileges for Jews and discrimination against non-Jews explicit in the country’s legal code.

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And finally, another shared value between the United States and Israel is making the rich richer and the poor poorer – income inequality. According to the 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US and Israel have the worst inequality in the developed world. While the gap between rich and poor is at record levels in many of OECD’s 34 member countries, numbers one and two, the US and Israel, stood out from the rest. In the US the richest 10 percent of the population earn 16.5 times the income of the poorest 10 percent. In Israel, the richest 10 percent earn 15 times that of the poorest.

So, AIPAC and the rest of you organizations, individuals and other entities peddling this “shared values” stuff between the United States and Israel, please drop the false cliches about democracy, freedom, rule of law, peace, human rights and refugees and tell the truth about what these two countries really hold in common.

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Thank you, Jewish Voice for Peace

Thank You, Trump Voters: Amateur Hour and Executive Disorder in the White House

Well, how do you all feel now? Are you happy you gave your country and your children’s future the finger? Are you happy that you sucker punched your country and stuck your thumb in its eye? Are you happy now that your president, your country and its electorate are the laughingstock of the world….until fear, uncertainty and danger set in?

I still can’t bring myself to put those two words together “President” and “Trump”. Yes, you elected him fair and square, with the Electoral College being what it is. But his opponent won the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who won that vote but lost the election and 54 percent of votes cast were against Trump. But all that being what it is, just take a look at your leader: Ignorant, vacuous, amoral, dishonest, narcissistic, egotistical, reckless and arrogant.

President Trump in the Oval Office, signing an executive order on oil pipelines, January 2017

And if that wasn’t enough, take a look at his Cabinet, described in a recent Washington Post headline as “the worst Cabinet in American history”. Yes, every president has been guilty of nominating a cabinet member or two with very shaky qualifications: Eisenhower’s choice of GM CEO (“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”) Charles Wilson as Secretary of Defense, President Kennedy’s own brother as Attorney General, Nixon’s choice of John Mitchell as Attorney General, Reagan’s Secretary of Interior James Watt, George W. Bush’s Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez all come readily to mind.

But the Senate hasn’t formally rejected a Cabinet pick since it voted down President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of John Tower for defense secretary in 1989. And no new president has gotten all of his nominees confirmed in the last 30 years – those that have been very controversial or had something questionable in their backgrounds revealed usually have withdrawn before a vote. However, never in our history have we been asked to accept a crew as universally controversial or as incompetent or as idealogical or as downright destructive as Trump’s menagerie of nominees. Cabinet members nominated by other presidents have usually had some experience and expertise in the functions of the office for which they are being considered. These have apparently been nominated simply because of early support or loyalty to Trump.

Barely acceptable because in comparison to others they seem somewhat sane and sensible are Trump’s Secretary of Defense, General James (Mad Dog) Mattis, perhaps chosen by Trump because of his nickname, and Nikki Hayley, former Governor of South Carolina, as Ambassador to the United Nations, Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife), retired General John Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security, Kansas Republican Congressman Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, and Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture. Whoa, here “sane and sensible” may not hold up – as governor of Georgia in 2007, Mr. Perdue made national headlines for holding a public vigil to pray for rain in the middle of a crippling drought. But these are the best of a bad lot. The rest are described below.

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Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State. This former CEO of Exxon Mobile perceives the world through the myopic vision of an exploiter of the environment. What little experience he has in dealing with foreign governments has been limited to striking deals to extract petroleum. This man’s education has been that of a petroleum engineer, not a diplomat. His suspect ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin obviously did not slow his Senate approval. Good luck to us and the world – an oil executive is now our Secretary of State. And if this choice was not worrisome enough, Tillerson and Trump have just chosen Elliot Abrams for the powerful position of Deputy Secretary of State. Abrams has been labeled a “war criminal” by more than one columnist and in fact was convicted of willfully withholding information from Congress. For those who thought the the neocons would be exiled from the Trump administration are simply wrong. This unilateral interventionist and Israel cheerleader who wants to spread “American values” around the world is back. God help us. Oh wait a minute, Trump just turned down Abrams, evidently for negative comments about him during the campaign. But the recklessness of this consideration is still cause for grave concern.

Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury. The “foreclosure king” never served in government and has never set economic policy of any kind, but he is from Goldman Sachs and has great experience in throwing people out of their homes. Because he ran against Wall Street and the “rigged system” Trump’s choice of this man is the ultimate betrayal. Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for her Goldman Sachs speeches – how can he choose this Wall Street insider who got rich there? But of course Trump hailed Mnuchin for his business savvy in making a boatload off IndyMac at the depth of the Great Recession, so that’s all that really matters.

Senator Jeff Sessions, Attorney General. In his 1986 hearing before the Senate, witnesses testified that Sessions referred to a black attorney as “boy,” described the Voting Rights Act as ‘intrusive,’ attacked the NAACP and ACLU as “un-American” for “forcing civil rights down the throats of people”, joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was ok until he found out they smoked marijuana, and referred to a white attorney who took on voting-rights cases as a  “traitor to his race.” This “southern gentleman” is a shocking choice for Attorney General, an office expected to enforce the laws of the country. Perhaps the best way to describe Sessions is to quote from the Coretta Scott King letter read by several Senators at the debate of his Senate approval, ”Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge…” And that’s when he was candidate for a mere Federal judgeship not Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.

Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services. One of several of Trump’s picks that perfectly illustrates the “fox guarding the henhouse” – an avowed enemy of Medicare and Medicaid, not to mention Obamacare. He supports Paul Ryan’s longstanding desire to convert Medicare into a voucher program and replacing Medicaid with state block grants. He also has become very adept at sponsoring and supporting healthcare legislation, especially that which deals with companies in which he has invested. As of this writing, this dreadful nominee has indeed been approved by the Senate.

Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education. Arguably the worst pick of all, billionaire DeVos has spent much of he life trying to destroy public education in America and decimating the public school system of her home state of Michigan. The approval of DeVos will likely spell the end of public schools in America, which have been on life support during 16 years of neglect and assault by our last two presidents. And during her hearings, despite her self-declared interest in education, she demonstrated shocking ignorance of basic issues in educational policy. If DeVos is approved and has her way, all American schools will end up as private corporate, for-profit schools.

Andrew Puzder, Secretary of Labor. Another example of the fox-henhouse, this shameful nominee has gone on record opposing the minimum wage and increased overtime pay. If Trump had searched everywhere for the most anti-labor Secretary of Labor, he could not have found anyone more apposed to the rights and fair treatment of workers than Mr. Puzder. If you have any doubts about my assertions, read this article from CNN. As of this writing, Puzder, facing lagging support among Republicans, has withdrawn his candidacy, but his original selection again demonstrates the serious lack of judgement of Trump and his close associates.

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Oklahoma Attorney General Pruitt has a track record of putting the business interests of the energy sector before the environmental and health interests of the public. He has spent his career fighting the rules and regulations of the agency he is now being nominated to lead and his expected confirmation threatens to make America great for polluters again. Mr. Pruitt could be the worst nomination of all in this disgraceful array of destructive incompetents.

Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Another incredibly stupid pick – Carson’s only claim to expertise for this position is that he lives in a house that’s maybe in an urban area. His own spokesman explained after the election that, “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency”. Well, he has and his performance will certainly help.

Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy. Despite once saying that, if president, he would scrap this department, Rick was elated to learn of his nomination to this office because he thought he would just continue to bounce around the world extolling the virtues of oil and gas. But he was brought up short to find that a major function of the Secretary of Energy is to manage our atomic arsenal and its vast security apparatus. We should also be brought up short to have this simple and shallow good old boy Texas politician placed in such a demanding position. Remember, he was preceded by Obama appointees nuclear physicist, Nobel laureate and MIT professor Ernest Moniz and by Stanford physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. Good luck filling their shoes, Rick!

Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of the Management and Budget. Yes, this guy just admitted to have employed a nanny without paying over $15,000 in payroll taxes for her. But this is minor compared to his other shortcomings. A founding member of the ultra conservative Freedom Caucus in the House, a deficit hawk and a supporter of a balanced budget amendment, Mr. Mulvaney almost singlehandedly brought down the Hurricane Sandy relief effort and has opposed federal spending on infrastructure. In addition Mulvaney still calls Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”, wants to “end Medicare as we know it”, called the 2013 government shutdown “good politics and good policy.” and questioned the need for federally funded disease research. And this guy might be our new Budget Director?

Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce. One of the several billionaires among Trump’s cabinet picks, Mr. Ross also broke the law, hiring an undocumented worker as one of his dozens of household staff. More importantly, Ross’s nickname, the “king of bankruptcy” was a nod to his legendary knack for buying troubled companies on the cheap and selling them for billions of dollars in profit, just like a certain presidential candidate from four years ago. He also matches up nicely with future colleague Steven Mnuchin as a fellow profiteer of the 2008 meltdown, profiting from the real estate and foreclosure crisis.

Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior. While his conservation bona fides are still largely a mystery, Mr. Zinke’s honesty is not. While still a Navy Seal, he was caught repeatedly billing the government for trips home which he falsely claimed were for the purpose of scouting new training sites.

Michael Flyn, National Security Advisor. This excitable and unstable Islamaphobe and purveyor of “Flyn facts” like “Iran killed more Americans than Al Qaeda”, “Islam is not a religion but a political ideology”, and “fear of Muslims is rational” was fired from the Defense Intelligence Agency by James Clapper “because Obama disagreed with my views on terrorism and wanted to hide the growth of Isis”. His assignment to an important and sensitive position like this is downright moronic. His new boss had earlier enlisted him in the fight against both the Republican and Democratic establishments and it was actually Flyn leading the Republican Convention in chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Flyn also has promoted and posted lunatic conspiracy theories and fake news like “Islam wants 80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated” and “NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w/Children, etc. . . MUST READ!” Seeing this guy with that wild look in his eyes recently informing us that Iran was “on notice” was a truly horrifying experience. At this writing, Flynn has resigned but his original selection underscores Trump’s serious lack of judgement. I wonder who he will come up with for the position now?

Even considering all the above, perhaps the most frightening aspect of the Trump presidency is the sinister presence and behind the scenes influence of Vice President Mike Pence. There he is again and again, ominously lurking behind Trump at the signing of every “executive order” (which seems to have become the standard governing procedure for this president), and then yet again, swearing in each of these reprehensible cabinet members approved by Congress. He even had the temerity to break with long standing vice presidential norms and tradition to appear personally at a recent “Right to Life” rally to push the retrograde agenda that he promoted as governor of Indiana, an incredibly blatant act. Let me tell you, for those Democrats who secretly hope that Trump’s dangerous and incompetent behavior will eventually get him impeached, please think again – that would make Mike Pence our president. And after him in the line of succession is, my God, Orrin Hatch and then, my God again, Paul Ryan!

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Pence’s political career in Indiana was in a downward spiral because of his regressive stances on abortion and LGBT rights and passage of sponsored legislation which got him into hot water with Indiana’s education and sports power brokers who did not wish to see Indiana become another North Carolina. Mr. Pence’s reelection chances were virtually nonexistent when Trump picked him off the “political trash heap” to be his vice presidential and resuscitated his career. For more clarity on Mr. Pence, read this great article from Rolling Stone.

And let’s not forget his motley crew of close advisors. First, the frightening, sinister and malevolent presence of Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, with a seat on the National Security Council, called sometimes “President Bannon” because of his closeness and great influence on Trump. Recently the head of flame-throwing right wing website Breitbart News and with connections to alt-right, white nationalist elements, Bannon is now one of the most powerful people in Washington, serving as Trump’s intellectual guru and chief source of advice and information.

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Miller and Bannon

Bannon’s closest ally in Trump’s frightening inner circle is Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller. Mr. Miller got his start in Washington working for Representative Michele Bachman, one of the craziest conservatives ever to serve in the House. From there he worked for former Arizona congressman John Shadegg, another radical conservative. His latest DC position, before joining the Trump campaign in January of 2016 was serving as communications director for Senator Jeff Sessions, now our US Attorney General. In the Trump campaign he served as Trump’s speechwriter and as his “warmup act” during campaign rallies. Mr. Miller has been at the epicenter of some of the administration’s most provocative moves, from pushing hard for the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico to threatening decades-long trade deals at the heart of Republican economic orthodoxy, to rolling out Mr. Trump’s travel ban on seven largely Muslim nations, whose bungled introduction he oversaw. Miller’s appearances on several nationally televised political talk shows on the weekend of February 11 went viral because of vituperative attacks and totally incorrect claims about the power of the president.

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Conway, Kushner and Bannon

And of course his son in law Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, he of the extensive background in politics, governance, statecraft, foreign affairs and economics, resplendent in his new suits and ties, meekly stumbling along after the comparatively unkempt Bannon and gaffy, Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, she of the “alternative facts” who recently put her foot in her mouth (again) and violated ethics rules by illegally extolling the virtues of the Ivanka Trump line of merchandise. All of them are giddy with influence and drunk with power and must pinch themselves daily to realize the reality that they of such shallow resume and abnormal substance have achieved such lofty heights.

So, Trump voters, what do you think? Read more details about these individuals yourself. Google their names and read, read, read. You will find little to counter what I have written above. How could Trump have picked people like this when most represent a gross betrayal of what he promised during the campaign. Well a clue might be found in a short description of his first week in office from a recent New York Times editorial, “As his first week in office amply demonstrated, Mr. Trump has no grounding in national security decision making, no sophistication in governance and little apparent grasp of what it takes to lead a great diverse nation.”

One of my favorite writers, now-retired novelist Philip Roth, was quoted in a recent New Yorker by Judith Thurman. Roth, with his usual impeccable choice of words, offered this about Donald Trump: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type—the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist—that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States…..I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

And, Trump voters, another thanks for the smooth, dignified, rational and sensible first several weeks of our President’s tenure, during which he:

  • Hung up on the Australian Prime Minister,
  • Declared war on the free press, calling it an “opposition party”,
  • Ordered restart on the construction of the Keystone SL and Dakota Access pipelines,
  • Announced plans to reinstate “black sites” and torture abroad,
  • Issued an executive order targeting immigrants from seven Muslim countries, conveniently leaving out the worst – Saudi Arabia,
  • Ordered plans for a wall along our southern border,
  • Issued an executive order to systematically begin the dismembering of the Affordable Care Act,
  • Scrubbed climate change efforts from he White House and federal agencies websites,
  • Demanded investigation into non-existent voter fraud for an election he already won,
  • Threatened Iran through a belligerent and frightening rant by National Security Advisor Michael Flyn,
  • Approved a ham-handed, disastrous and senseless raid in Yemen resulting in nothing more than the death of one of the perpetrators and the deaths of seven civilians including an eight year old girl,
  • Announced threats of violence and military action at the annual National Prayer Breakfast,
  • Announced a freeze on Federal regulations and federal hiring (and what’s this – some kind of new game – for every one new regulation, two must be cancelled?),
  • Established a global “gag rule” on abortion,
  • Signed an executive order withdrawing the US from the TPP,
  • Violated our recent “net neutrality” decision by appointing Agit Pai, an opponent, as new chairman of the FCC,
  • Declared a communications blackout for federal agencies,
  • Reappointed James Comey (happily I am sure) to head the FBI,
  • Continued his incessant flood of “tweets”, very unseemly for a president, continued to “short out” normal policy of thoroughly considered and carefully thought-out announcements,
  • Unsuccessfully challenged the Court ruling on his immigration executive order,
  • Insulted the judiciary when it dared challenge him,
  • In most regards, behaved incredibly unpresidentially, leaving eyes rolling and mouths agape,
  • Defamed out intelligence agents and used the CIA headquarters as political prop,
  • With Kellyann Conway’s help, invented a fake terrorist attack (“the Bowling Green Massacre) to frighten Americans into supporting anti-Muslim efforts,
  • Began an all-out assault on financial and corporate regulations, a systematic dismantling of Dodd-Frank,
  • Complained about leaks revealing that he secretly contacted Russian authorities during the campaign while publicly praising Putin’s leadership,
  • Engaged in potentially illegal post-election communications with Russia, causing the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn,
  • and lots more.

Well, again, thank you Trump voters for bringing us so much excitement and anxiety. Trump’s presidency is not going well and it’s only the very beginning. And unfortunately corporate news just loves what’s happening. MSNBC, CNN and Fox are undoubtedly still swimming in high ratings because of the erratic and disgraceful performance of this new presidential administration.

But as I mentioned in my second Trump article, I am deathly afraid for the survival of our democracy. The stage is set, the dominoes are arranged and poised. All we need is another 9/11 or a Reichstag fire to spark a deathly succession of emergency power grabs by Trump and his lieutenants to extinguish American democracy. We are not the same as we used to be. A rash of important norms have been violated. Key institutions have been fatally weakened or perverted. Our elected representatives are spineless unless campaign money is at stake. The people have their noses buried in their iPhones, iPads and TV’s. We are at this time more vulnerable to autocracy than at any time in our history. I just read a very frightening article in the latest issue of The Atlantic by David Frum that validates my opinion. His introductory paragraphs sketch a portrait of an autocratic America in 2021 that is not at all unrealistic. We all need to be concerned, vigilant, do our reading, be active and hold our elected officials accountable.

The Sounds of Music

Do you know what fascinates me about music? Sure, it’s part of us all, one of those things that makes us all human, like the visual arts, like movement, like eating and drinking. But what fascinates me most about music and causes me to focus like a laser on a new artist or new sound, is just that…the newness of it. Leonard Bernstein wrote a book that I read years ago called “The Infinite Variety of Music” in which the point was made that yes, music is truly infinite. Where a creative artist could draw a line, use a color or blend textures in a way that had never, I repeat, never been done before, so could I or anyone else, compose a melody or invent a sound that has never been duplicated in the long history of time. This is an incredible concept to absorb, is it not, that you or I could sit down and compose something absolutely original. Yet this is true and is happening every day.

I was challenged some months ago by a dear friend, an aficionado and former professional critic of classical music, about unique sounds in popular music. He argued that the symphony and other classical forms, with many more and varied sounds, take you on a much deeper and richer musical journey going from the beginning to the end, encompassing many emotions and impressions along the way, for example from a harsh dissonant beginning to a gentle melodic second movement or from a rhythmic and pulsating movement, to a relaxing and somnolent finale. He’s right, my friend, for classical composers from Bach to Glass, from Adams to Zelenka, have indeed provided us with an “infinite variety” of music that induces and fosters an equally varied range of feeling and emotion. I have always loved classical music and have always been deeply affected by it. Listening to almost anything by Mozart brings tears of joy to my eyes and the the music of so many other composers gives me the chills, makes me swoon, want to get up and move or my heart to pound. And some classical music can banish all my worries and relax me completely. But in my opinion, popular music, and by this I mean multiple forms of “non-classical” music, can do much the same thing but song by song, artist by artist and genre by genre.

Sit back if you will and listen to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs or Reno and Smiley. When I first heard bluegrass music as a child in the 1950’s on Don Larkin’s “Hometown Frolic” on WAAT from Newark, New Jersey, I was electrified by a sound that I had never heard before but which stirred something very deep and basic inside me through not only the chord progressions but through the instrumentation and the harmony of the vocals. To this day I am excited and stirred by bluegrass, not only the traditional sounds but also by more modern bluegrass artists like Rhonda Vincent, Peter Rowan and Trampled by Turtles. This music is tied together not only by the common use of guitar, banjo, base and mandolin and fiddle but by the plaintive country themes in the songs, sometimes a bit maudlin but still sufficient to tug at my heartstrings and stir basic feelings of love and loss, God and religion, field and farm, family and fellowship.

A specific type of bluegrass music that thrills my heart and soul is bluegrass gospel that features tight harmonies and touching hymns. Many are performed a cappella without the typical bluegrass instrumentation. Early Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs features some great songs of this type but the very best are the flawless harmonies of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

Today, in listening to music, discovering new artists, following up on a new artist written about in Rolling Stone, or discovering an older artist with whom I was not acquainted, I am amazed at the variety of music, of voices, of instruments and their unique blend that stirs my soul, makes my heart pound, brings tears to my eyes, then settles into a special niche in my musical brain, right along side those first encounters with bluegrass when I was a child.

The sounds of the ’50’s will always be very meaningful to me, bringing back certain people, places and times, and those feelings of dizzy adolescent love and confusion and s blur of voices, ducktails and crinolines. The frenetic voice and piano of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly“”, the simple and basic rock and roll sound of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”, Fats Domino’s piano and Herb Hardesty’s saxophone in “Blue Monday”, the Teddybears’ “To Know Him is to Love Him”, Bill Justice’s “Raunchy” and Danny and the Juniors’”At the Hop”, along with hundred’s of others, all propel me backward in time very rapidly.

So many popular songs are forever part of our culture because of the special sound or the melody that has lodged itself permanently in our musical brains. Many come to mind immediately. The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is such an iconic melody, as is the old Dean Martin song “Memories Are Made of This” with the rhythmic refrain of the Easy Riders in the background. Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” is another that we all instantly recognize. Of course, classical music has perhaps provided even more iconic melodies. The familiar beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one such iconic sound, instantly recognizable, as is the tune “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (or Baa Baa Black Sheep or Alphabet Song if you wish), actually the French folk tune “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”. Another is the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, known the world over as “Here Comes the Bride”. And the last section of the William Tell Overture, plus some parts of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” will forever remind me of the childhood experience of listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio.

When I am especially taken with a particular sound or combination of sounds I am always aware of the possibility that the record producer might be just as responsible for it as the artist. It is the producers, with their keen creative ears who along with performer(s) choose the instrumentation, mix the sounds, blend the voices, and determine the dominance of certain sounds or harmonies. Pop music has always been full of legendary and iconic producers. Dave Bartholomew was as responsible for the distinctive New Orleans sound of Fats Domino as the Fat Man  himself. Sam Philips correctly determined what accompaniment worked best in early Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash recordings. Phil Spector wrote the song and determined the arrangement for the aforementioned Teddybears’ “To Know Him is to Love Him”, as well as his trademark “wall of sound” for his “girl groups” The Crystals and The Ronettes. Spector was also responsible for John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the Righteous Brothers’ huge hits “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” and “Unchained Melody”.

Other notables are Rick Rubin, responsible for much of the distinctive sound of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash’s late work and of course T Bone Burnett, who not only worked with musicians such as Natalie Merchant, Alison Krause and Robert Plant, Diana Krall, the BoDeans and the Wallflowers, but also produced some memorable soundtracks for such movies as “Crazy Heart” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”. Through the success of his movie work, Burnett was also responsible for a resurgence of the popularity of bluegrass and folk music.

Some additional producers who deserve mention are Daniel Lanois for his work with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson; Jimmy Miller, responsible for the unbelievable sounds of the Rolling Stones – I mean, who but a clever producer would have included the magnificent choral introduction and concluding crescendo in what I think is their best song ever – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”? I have always appreciated Leonard Cohen’s albums which seemed to be so well produced (except “Death of a Ladies’ Man” disastrously produced by Phil Spector) and supported by such perfect accompaniment, including Cohen’s staple sweet female voices, produced mostly by John Lissauer, Roscoe Beck, Sharon Robinson, himself, and most recently by Patrick Leonard. And finally, performer, writer and producer Jack White, whose production of Grammy winning “Van Lear Rose” revived and rewrote Loretta Lyn’s career with fresh country sounds accompanying her marvelous familiar voice.

The aforementioned esteemed friend and accomplished music critic asserts that non-classical music affects emotions and feelings because of the dominance of meaningful lyrics. This is true to a degree. I am deeply affected by poetic and sensitive lyrics and realize that yes, often the remarkable sounds in pop music expressively frame the lyrics and maximize their effect, as he noted. But I disagree with his contention of the “prominence of lyrics” and insist that quite often, lyrics are rendered powerless and reduced to insignificance when enveloped in an exceptional sound.

While idly surfing around on iTunes I discovered “schlager musik” and, despite The Guardian labeling it “Germany’s most embarrassing musical genre”, have found this music quite enjoyable. The infectious rhythms and melodies from artists like Helene Fischer and from the foremost schlager music exemplar, (and coincidentally the most popular German artist of all time) Andrea Berg, really tend to grab me. A perfect example of Berg’s appeal can be seen on a video of her singing “Du hast mich 1000 mal belogen” both to and with one of her typically huge, devoted and enthusiastic audiences. And since I can’t easily understand the words, it’s got to be the distinctive “schlager” sound that embraces and excites me.

A special personal category of pop music for me are songs I have heard while traveling. And in these instances it was always the sound, not the lyrics, that made the  indelible impression. On our first trip to Germany to visit my brother Robert and his family, we sat in a sidewalk cafe on the Hauptstrasse in Heidelberg, quaffing some tasty German beer and heard an enchanting song. Inquiring of some friendly natives at the next table, I was told it was Nena singing “Wunder Geschehen”. Soon I had bought the CD containing this song and it never fails to recall that special event in our lives.

On our first trip to Ireland while touring in our rental car, struggling to drive on the left side and avoid colliding with the huge tour buses and lorries that we met on the narrow hedgerow-lined roads, we heard a lovely song on the radio. Thank God the station announced the artist and the song which we quickly wrote down. Then when in Dublin we stopped in a record store and bought the CD – “No Mermaid” by Sinead Lohan. The magical song we had heard was the title song. Another song associated with a special time and place we first heard at a resort in Malindi, Kenya, right on the Indian Ocean, at which we stayed after a marvelous safari in a huge game park much further inland. At the resort the same tape of African songs was always playing over (and over) the speakers at the pool and in the dining room (even on Christmas Day, I might add!), one of which was especially memorable. The catchy tune, musical arrangement and harmony, once I found the song on iTunes and made it part of my library, has never failed to bring back memories of that special time in Africa – “Kilimanjaro” by the Safari Sound Band.

Another of the marvelous things about music is an irresistible urge to share. So if you wish to join me, plug your headphones or earbuds into your computer, or connect your computer with your amp and speakers, hit the hyperlink (thank you, YouTube) and enjoy some marvelous examples of distinctive and unique pop sounds, chosen from among hundreds of my favorites, that I hope will fascinate and enchant you as much as they have me.
Alan Parsons Project “Prime Time” – easy listening, soft rock, a very relaxing listen.

Amanda Lear “Follow Me” – mysterious disco music with Lear’s androgynous voice, from “Dallas Buyer’s Club” bar scene

Ane Brun “She Belongs to Me” – One of the most haunting Dylan covers I’ve ever heard.

The Be Good Tanyas “Nobody Cares for Me” – I can’t believe this mix of voices and instrumental sounds – so beautiful.

Beck “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – the most sublime rendition of this Hank Williams classic I have ever heard.

Bonnie Prince Billy “I am Goodbye” – great song by alternative country artist Will Oldham.

Callaghan “Love Me for Awhile” – One of the most lovely, enchanting love songs I have ever heard. Don’t know what happened to Callaghan, no recent recordings.

Camera Obscura “Keep It Clean” – Scottish band with such a clean, subdued, melodic sound…and such lovely instrumentation.

Cat Power “Empty Shell” – song made lovely by Chan Marshall’s distinctive airy, breathy voice and echoing voice accompaniment.

Chastity Brown “After You” – remarkable sound from this Minneapolis artist.

Chitlin Fooks “If One Day” – unique American country sound by this band from Belgium.

Chris Smither “Never Needed It More” – extraordinary music by old Cambridge, Massachusetts folk artist.

Cindy D’lequez-Sage “The Moon’s Lament” – from the soundtrack of “The Lovely Bones” – no one knows who this “google proof” artist is, (maybe Brian Eno?) but the androgynous voice is as haunting and mysterious as the instrumentation.

Cowboy Junkies “Misguided Angel” – one of the best by this Canadian group.

Dion “Born to be with You” – Yes, the same Dion who did “Runaround Sue” but a beautiful and different sound for the old Chordettes classic, and produced by none other than Phil Spector, but this time with a “curtain”, not a “wall” of sound.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros “Man on Fire” – great assembly of rowdy instrumentalists and vocalists.

Eric von Schmidt – “Stick to Rum” – alternative sound from another old Cambridge, Massachusetts folkie.

Felice Brothers “Whiskey in my Whiskey” – interesting sound from a band that got its start playing in NYC subway stations.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals “Ah Mary” – great band from Vermont.

James McMurtry “See the Elephant” –  one of renowned author Larry’s son’s many great songs.

Jay Farrar “Barstow” – One of consummate musician/arranger Farrar’s best.

Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter “Drinking with Strangers”– What a voice, what instrumentation, harmonies, arrangement!

Jim Boyd & Sherman Alexie “Reservation Blues” – Boyd is by far the best Native American artist I know.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore “Headed for a Fall” – fabulous production and a truly unique voice.

Justin Townes Earle “Harlem River Blues” – superb and memorable in every way.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle “Baltimore Fire” – phenomenal music by the McGarrigles including Kate’s husband Loudon Wainwright III and children, singers Rufus and Martha.

Katie Malua “Red Balloons” – sweet voice, lovely arrangement and beautiful song.

Low – “Back Home Again” – sweet, slow and magical version of the John Denver classic.

The Low Anthem “Keep on the Sunny Side” – Gorgeous version of Carter Family classic, with trumpets even!

Mark Lanegan “Strange Religion” – also strange song, strange arrangement and strange voice.

Mazzy Star “Blue Light” – Dreamy soft guitars and organ and soft lovely voice of vocalist Hope Sandoval  will relax you completely.

My Morning Jacket “Lead Me Father” – Very interesting blend of voices for this apparent demo.

Moby “Dream About Me” – featuring lush voiced vocalist Laura Dawn.

Monica Tornell “When I Paint My Masterpiece” – strange, singular voice of Swedish artist on this Dylan staple.

OMC “Right On” – from the New Zealand group, recited lyrics and immortal refrain “When we were young we just had fun…” Trumpets too.

Phosphorescent “I am a Full Grown Man” – unique instrumentation and percussion (are those beer bottles?) by Matthew Houck and his group.

Pink Mountaintops “Plastic Man You’re the Devil” – very distinctive sound.

Ray LaMontagne “Gone Away from Me” – nice blend of brass sounds in this lovely song.

Robert Plant and Alison Krause – “Please Read the Letter” – sublime arrangement by producer T Bone Burnett for these two remarkable talents.

Susan Werner – “(Why Is Your) Heaven So Small” – superb arrangement of sounds and voices by singer-songwriter Werner.

Terry Allen “Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy” – great song and sound by Texas artist and singer/songwriter.

Tres Chicas “Heartbeat” – memorable song by this group of sweet-voiced ladies.

Valerie June “Tennessee Time” – very different sound from June and accompanists.

Walela “When It Comes” – glorious voices of Rita Coolidge, sister Priscilla and Laura Satterfield, Priscilla’s daughter.

The War on Drugs “Lost in the Dream” – distinctive tremelo guitars, haunting voice.

The Waterboys – “Killing My Heart” – unique voice of lead singer Mike Scott of this British Isles group, never heard a guitar sound quite like this either.

Wazimbo “Nwahulwana” – Incredibly powerful voice

Is This a Conversation?

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Have you ever experienced a personal or phone conversation with someone after which you realized that the conversation was not a conversation at all? You think about what was said: what you heard the other person say and what you said, and you realized that you did not have a conversation but simply listened to a monologue, a long and detailed soliloquy about that person, his or her children or grandchildren, and what’s been going on in their lives. Perhaps you heard something about their political opinions or an especially good meal they had in a local restaurant or a bargain that they got in a local retail establishment. Or maybe something about that new car that they had just purchased or the new addition on the house or the new roof just put on or the new living room furniture.

one-or-two-way-engagementDuring all this time you never heard a question addressed to you. You never experienced, heard or felt any interest in you, your home, your children, or what’s been going on in your life. Absolutely no questions were addressed to you. And if they perhaps did finally ask something, the correspondent never paused to hear your response so you could not continue. Or maybe if you were given an opportunity to respond, somehow your response was never connected to the friend’s life by their next response. You asked yourself when the visit or phone call ended – what happened there? I never discerned any interest in me, but did I maybe did that same thing? Did I ever ask a question about this person’s loved ones, opinions about anything at all, even the weather? Thankfully, you recall that you had. You did ask questions about loved ones, you did ask questions about feelings or impressions, or health and you did listen intently to the answer.

Maybe this person already knew all about you. Could that be? Or perhaps this person didn’t care to learn anything more about you than they already knew. If this was the case, was this person really a relative or friend? Are relatives and friends supposed to be this way? Or more likely, you were not even considered – this exchange, if that’s what could be called, was all about them. You didn’t matter, you didn’t exist.

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But the feelings, the concerns and questions remain. Was this a conversation I just had? And if not, what was it? And if not, why not? What drives people to sit with you or talk on the phone and ramble on and on about themselves and their incredibly exciting lives while never exhibiting the slightest interest in you, your family or home or what you think about anything.

Well, what you just had was an exchange with a “conversational narcissist”, a term coined by Boston College sociologist Charles Derber in his book “The Pursuit of Attention”. These are the people who never ask you a question and if perchance you are provided an opportunity to interject something about yourself, they turn it away from you and toward them so they can continue talking about themselves.

Conversational narcissists are smart – they know what they are doing. They turn the conversations back to them in all kinds of ways. Have you ever had or heard a conversation that went like this? You – “I’m thinking of taking a road trip this summer”. Them, rather than asking something like, “Really, how exciting, where are you thinking of going?”, you get – “That’s great….I took a road trip last summer, blah, blah, and I’m thinking of taking another one, blah, blah. This time I’m thinking of going….blah, blah” You’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.

Or, you get a more passive response like this. You – “I’m thinking of taking a road trip this summer”. Other person – “Really, how exciting, where are you thinking of going?”. And then when you respond and get to the details you might get a few “Uh-huh”s and “Hmm’s”, maybe some yawns, but no comments or questions, all indicating that the other person is not really interested in your response or is not really listening. So eventually you stop talking and the other person starts in again about themselves. The conversational narcissist has won.

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A good conversationalist practices support-responses which can take three forms – the first is the background acknowledgement mentioned above such as “yeah”, “uh-Huh”, “hmm,” “sure”. Or he or she can offer acknowledgments that indicate real active listening, like, “That’s great”, Wish I’d done that”, or “That’s not right”. Best of all of course are supportive questions that show that you are not only listening but are really interested in hearing more, e.g. “Why did you feel that way?” or “What are you going to do now?”. These support responses are generally offered by people who generally care about the other person. But what is wrong with the person so tied up, so repressed, so uncomfortable, or so self-centered that they cannot participate in a real conversation?

Is it simply a strong and pervasive conviction of oneself’s own importance, preeminence, superior erudition or confidence that induces a person to talk endlessly about himself or herself? Does this person really have absolutely no interest in you or your life? Or has this person simply no idea of what a conversation is, no idea of how to be polite, how to ask a question, no idea of how to make the other person feel valued or validated.

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Or is this person, this relative, acquaintance or friend just so lacking in confidence and unsure of himself of herself that they must prattle on and on about the trivialities and endless details concerning a routine, barren and boring life in order to give it some semblance of meaning and significance? Is this long monologue an attempt to fill the void in which they live, to give meaning to a meaningless life?

Maybe these individuals truly think that their existence, their lives, the challenges they face, their accomplishments, are of such importance that anything in another person’s life is truly transcended and overwhelmed by theirs and therefore not worth inquiring about or considering.

Or perhaps it’s just pride, arrogance or plain old lack of respect bourne by some people that obliges them to think only of themselves and never of others and for whom a conversation is always a monologue and never a dialogue. Or maybe it’s just a singular lack of curiosity that precludes questions from some.

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Regardless of whether it is an exalted notion of one’s own self importance resulting in a total lack of interest in others, or it is just the opposite, an inferiority complex that has focused this person’s attention on covering up this sad lack of accomplishment with a torrent of words and meaningless details about a barren life, it’s really painful to experience.

Then there are those people, those friends, relatives and acquaintances, whose reminiscences, whose observations, whose insights, and whose accomplishments are of such consequence to me that you want to listen to every word and every detail of a conversation. And interrupting with a question might seem inappropriate, unless it’s a question probing for greater detail or depth. These people are like the professor, the pastor, or the philosopher, whose education, whose knowledge or whose convictions you truly respect, and whose words, statements and observations are so persuasive that you can do little more that sit, rapt with admiration and riveted attention and listen to wisdom, not only entertained but actually learning something of value.

This takes us to perhaps the best kind of conversation – when two people who have extensive knowledge about a topic and are willing and eager to share information and opinion, to politely argue for their points of view, discuss a topic removed from themselves – maybe a book, an author, an idea, a theory, or an opinion. These are great conversations, when you really feel that you are leaning something and that, wow, perhaps you are giving the other person something valuable and important as well.

What am I saying here, why am I writing this? I guess that I have had some really bad conversations and I look back and ask myself what could I have done to make them better. I want to ask questions, to listen, to understand, and to reflect on someone else’s views. And I want the same for me. There are few social exchanges worse than a bad conversation and few better than a really good one. I long for more of the former and fewer of the latter.