Summer 1957

Tags

, , , , , , ,

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.

Image0269.jpg

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.

Image0317

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.

Image0090

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.

Image0092.jpg

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!

Image0091

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

Image0098

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.

Image0323

Ruth, Ida and Elma

Image0322.jpg

Mylo School, Mom on right (I think)

img283

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.

Image0324.jpg

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.

Image0129.jpg

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

The Backwards Hat

Tags

, , , , ,

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.

backwardscap

When I see this I first am struck by the total ridiculousness of the act. A baseball hat has a brim, 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.

bbcap-22

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.

Catcher in the rye coverklugmane19a6db516b47d8388d2b99bdf5f80ee

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.

Hewitt_WM16_(12)_(28385918786)

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

Tags

, , , , ,

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.
sears-catalogue

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.

1_thumb
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.

jc-higggins-glove

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.

silvertone6356front
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.

img_0200
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”

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.”

aipac2560

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.

wiping-palestine-off-the-map

“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.

tip-hasbara-project-screenshot

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.

usisrael

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.

hitler-would-be-proud

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?

jvp-poster

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.

icc

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.

guantamano-shutterstock_16545199_0

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.

hrw-palestinian-chair

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).

leadferguson

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”.

israeli_soldiers_and_palestinian_old_woman

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.

twitter-cover-trump-bibi-2

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.

img_0330

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.

donald-trump-cabinet-exlarge-169

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!

1713199_1280x720

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.

stephen-miller-and-steve-bannon

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.

US-POLITICS-TRUMP-STAFF

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?

Tags

,

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.

one-way-conversations

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.

friends

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.

me-me-me

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.

051b460eb3ba43873603c02b8e17d6339c0f32-wm

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.

My Hank Williams Movie

Tags

, , , , ,

i-saw-the-light-movieI just read another review of the recent movie based on the life of Hank Williams, “I Saw the Light”, written and directed by Marc Abraham and starring Tom Hiddleston. And like most other reviews, it said that the movie was not worth seeing. The Rolling Stone review (one star) encapsulated the movie perfectly – other than the good performance by Hiddleston, the movie is “completely bogus”. And a review from Variety noted that, “Despite a thoroughly committed, impressive performance from Tom Hiddleston as Williams (and an even better one from Elizabeth Olsen as his first wife, Audrey), the film tackles the life of one of the 20th century’s most seminal musicians with all the passion of a stenographer, making for a dull, unfocused slog through what should have been an effortlessly cinematic story.” And finally having just seen the movie, I heartily agree with the reviews quoted above.

This is very disappointing because there are not many musical lives that could make a more dramatic movie than Hank’s: poor childhood in the deep south, absent father, strong mother, chronic physical ailment, loneliness, musical influence and growth, songwriting, multiple marriages and relationships, alcoholism, musical stardom, tragic early death, unfulfilled promise, rich musical legacy.

62711-your-cheatin-heart-0-230-0-345-cropBut even with Hank’s life providing such rich material for a great movie, there have been only three other movies about Hank, all at least as seriously flawed as “I Saw the Light”. The earliest, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, made in 1964, made the fatal mistakes of casting ever-preppy George Hamilton as Hank and engaging the services of Audrey Williams, Hank’s wife, as advisor. Audrey strove to make sure she was portrayed favorably throughout the movie, even magically showing up on the night he died. Despite Hamilton’s lip-synching, the music, performed by 15 year old Hank Williams Jr. is the movie’s best feature.

mv5bmjcwmduxoduyml5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzkymzezmq-_v1_uy268_cr40182268_al_“Hank Williams: the Show He Never Gave”, a low-budget Canadian film made in 1980 and shot in 16mm portrayed Hank on the night he died actually making it to the concert in Ohio and singing his best songs. The star, musician Sneezy Waters, actually did a great job of depicting Hank and singing his songs. It was nominated for the 1983 Tex Ritter Award at the Country Music Awards Show but lost out to Robert Duvall’s “Tender Mercies”. The movie never made it to the big screen and was limited to television and as a mythical tiny slice of Hank’s life fell far short of showing us the real Hank Williams.

unknown“The Last Ride”, made in 2011, failed also as a fitting portrayal of Hank Williams. This low budget movie of Hank’s last three days alive, ending with the fatal car trip from Alabama to Canton, Ohio on New Years Eve 1952, is a cacophony of coughing, drinking and fighting that adds absolutely nothing to our knowledge of Williams and his music.

Obviously it seems that no one with a real love and understanding of his music and its roots has made a movie about Hank. Unfortunately all seem like cheap efforts to capitalize on the man’s legendary and tragic life without paying sufficient tribute to that life and awarding it the value it deserves.

I first heard Hank Williams when I was a 10 year old kid in New Jersey on “The Hometown Frolic” on Newark station WAAT deejayed by Don Larkin and was deeply affected by his voice and his songs. Hank’s music perfectly depicted loneliness and sadness and as a lonely boy in a huge, very confused and chaotic family his music touched me deeply.

Some years ago, still enjoying Hank’s music as well as that of Hank Jr. I bought Colin Escott’s fine “Hank Williams: The Biography” which I happily digested, and later seasoned with a lovely illustrated biography by the same author and Kira Florita titled, “Hank Williams: Snapshots from the Lost Highway”. These books contained details of Williams’ life that I would consider essential to understanding him and consequently including in any movie about his dramatic life. Abraham’s film claimed to have been based on Escott’s book, republished under the title of “I Saw the Light”, but the most important features of the book, essential to understanding Hank’s life and music were obviously ignored. I have often speculated about what a really good movie about Hank Williams ought to include in order to really capture a life as special and as tragic as his. What kind of movie would I make about his life if I ever had that opportunity?

hank-williams

Young Hank

First, my movie would emphasize his boyhood much more. Hank’s childhood was a time of intense loneliness for him, having essentially an absentee father who was away working in lumber mills and on the railroad for weeks and months at a time. And when Hank was a young adult that same father, Lon, was still absent from his life, spending several decades in a VA hospital recovering from injuries received in the World War I. I would have included scenes of a very lonely little boy and a very lonely young man missing his father, sitting or walking alone, with some of his music in the background and scenes of him playing guitar and singing alone.

irenehankHank also suffered from a painful congenital back condition called spina bifida occulta. Because of this condition he never involved himself in sports as other kids his age did, and as a youngster in an area of the country where physical strength and coordination was greatly valued, this weakness and frailty caused even more “apartness” and loneliness for Hank as a young boy and teenager. Take a look at some of the photographs of Hank as a young boy and observe the way he held himself, always standing somewhat crookedly in group pictures, likely because of this problem.

hank-and-irene

Hank and sister Ireneof this problem.

This back condition grew worse over the years and was probably as responsible for his heavy drinking as his aloneness and disappointment in love. So my Hank Williams movie would have paid much more attention to his physical condition and pain which exacerbated his isolation and loneliness. And I would have included scenes of him wistfully watching other young kids participating in sports and perhaps some scenes of he and his mother visiting a doctor seeking treatment and relief for the condition.

I also would have devoted much more script and screen time to his early musical experiences. Although neither parent was particularly talented in music, his mother, Lillie, did play the organ in church and Hank could recall with pleasure sitting with his mother as she played and singing along with her. Also as a boy, Hank became acquainted with Rufus Payne, a well known black street musician in Georgiana, his Alabama town, known as “Tee Tot”, who was said to have taught Hank his first guitar chords. These experiences, along with obtaining his first guitar, would have been essential parts of my movie. Scenes of little Hank singing with his mother and getting some lessons from Tee Tot would have been quite dramatic as would his commitment to music as a substitute for physical activities.

170px-hankwilliams1938-cropped

After his musical tutelage and experiences with Tee Tot, Hank began singing outside his mother’s boarding house for pennies, nickels and dimes, a great scene to include in a movie. Incidentally, some of Hank’s biographers have suggested that this house of his mother Lillie was perhaps just a little bit more than a “boarding” house and that other kinds of business transactions between lonely men and willing women were conducted to enhance her income. This possibility I would have subtly included in the movie as well – young Hank’s observance of such a sideline business would also have exacerbated his loneliness and feelings of being left out, and contributed to the passion and artistry in his future songwriting and performing.

hank-williams-about-age-thirteen-joins-his-mother-lillie-his-sister-irene-and-his-cousin-j-c-mcneil-in-front-of-one-of-the-w-t-smith-log-trains

Hank, Lillie, Irene and cousin J.C. McNeil

Biographer Escott also tries to shed some light on Hank Williams’ superb word-smithing skills, quite remarkable for a young man who did not even finish 8th grade. Escott claims that he obtained the inspiration for many of the words and phrases in

real-love-comicshis songs from romance comic books that he read as a young man and continued to read into his adulthood and his prime songwriting years. In my movie about Hank I would have included key scenes of young Hank reading these sources, then writing and singing some lines. Some scenes of a young Hank in church soaking up some old gospel hymns also would have been very useful in explaining Hank’s passion for music and the well chosen word. The centrality of Hank Williams’ songwriting in his life would have been emphasized in my movie. And a singer performing and recording mostly his own songs was unique for the time since other country singers generally employed songs written by others. In this sense, Hank was certainly ahead of his time, since country singer-songwriters are now quite common.

9766045_f520

Early “Drifting Cowboys” band, L-R Pee Wee Moultrie, Charlie Mays, Sue Taylor, Hey Adair, Hank

That Hank Williams was an alcoholic and that this condition damaged his career and his relationships is well known. What may be less well known is how his drinking habit began and how it was fostered. Scenes of a young Hank having his first drink at age 11 and drinking with young friends would be essential to my story as well as his later drinking as an adult being related as much to the physical back pain he suffered as well as the explosive relationships with the many women he knew. I would have included far fewer of the the arguments, fights, physical abuse, cursing and name-calling that constituted so many scenes from the recent “I Saw the Light” and more focus on the inexorable decline of his artistry.

young-hank

Young Hank

My Hank Williams movie would have given much more attention to the influence of strong women in his life. The role of his mother Lillie would have been thoroughly explored, from her being essentially the sole support of the family during the absence and eventual incapacitation of his father Lon, to her playing the role of his first “manager” during his early success as a performer. His relationship with his first wife Audrey would have been more thoroughly considered as well. Audrey’s self deception as a talented singer would bear some deeper examination as well as the extended and painful conflict between Hank and her when she insisted on performing with him on the road and accompanying him on recordings. This conflict was completely disregarded in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” since she herself played an important role in the production of the movie, but emphasized ad nauseam in “I Saw the Light”. Really, Hank should never have compromised his artistry by including Audrey, but his struggle with the control of strong and influential women was integral to his life.

hank-performing

Hank Performing

My Hank movie would also have developed a fuller picture of his rapid physical descent before his death. His being fired by the Grand Ole Opry, not showing up for many of his concerts, all symptomatic of his increasing reliance on alcohol and addiction to prescription painkillers, could have been portrayed much more sympathetically and clinically than in other movies of his life. The shame of his separation from the Grand Ole Opry to resuming Louisiana Hayride appearances to playing in small clubs like the ones he was headed toward in Charleston, West Virginia and in Canton, Ohio, in the days before he died, would have been dramatically  related in my movie. Connected to this descent, the rapid, almost simultaneous, collapse of many of his sources of support – music publisher Fred Rose  finally giving up on him. the departure of his own band, “The Drifting Cowboys”, leaving him to accompany other artists, would have played an important part as well. Furthermore, Hank’s forays into Hollywood and national television shows may have prompted sudden and  serious feelings of inadequacy. Except for his driver, Charles Carr, Hank was truly alone on that last trip in the light blue Cadillac on New Years Eve 1952.

hank-and-young-fan-circa-1950

Hank and a young fan, circa 1950

Throughout my Hank Williams movie there would somehow have been included an ongoing recognition of and tribute to the popularity and immortality of his songs. Rarely has a songwriter been so often paid the ultimate tribute of having other artists record his songs. As examples, a recent check of “Jambalaya” on the iTunes store revealed no fewer than 30 versions of the song by different artists. My own digital music library features 14 recordings, from the gorgeous lilting rendition by the Carpenters, to a distinctly ’50’s pop version by Jo Stafford to more traditional versions by Freddy Fender, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. Consider “Cold, Cold Heart” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and  try to count the myriad recordings of these songs, which include not only dozens of country artists but also notable interpretations from the likes of Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Norah Jones and Beck. Of course, Hank’s timeless “I Saw the Light” is by far his most recorded song and has become such a staple of the pop, gospel, country, folk and rock repertoires that quite often, listeners forget Williams wrote it and attribute it to a “traditional” origin instead. Over 150 songs are listed as having been written by Hank or Hank and an occasional collaborator, an amazing number for anyone, much less someone with such a limited education and painfully abbreviated life.

hankwilliams

Audrey, Hank, hank Jr., Lycretia circa 1950

Finally, in my movie about Hank there would be a footnote collection of scenes about the death of Hank, his funeral and the legal tussles over his still substantial estate of song royalties. There would also be some of the inspirational story of his “lost” daughter  whose acknowledgement and legal right to a share of this legacy was only recently established.

 

bobbie-jett

Bobbie Jett

At Hank’s funeral, somewhere among Audrey, Hank Jr., sister Irene, mother Lillie and 25 thousand other mourners paying their last respects was Bobbie Jett, nine-months pregnant with Hank’s child.  The baby girl was born two days later and immediately given to the care of Hank’s mother who after two years gave her up for adoption. This story, worthy of a country song or two by itself would be featured in this “footnote” as well. Perhaps my movie could begin with Hank’s death, his funeral, a flashback to the affair with Jett, something about te little girl’s adoption and life and finally discovering her famous father. Then the movie could proceed with the account of Hank’s early life.

 

audrey-lycretia-hank-jr-and-hank

Hank and family, 1949

So yes, Hank’s tragic life and his incredible music have been sold short in the several clumsy and exploitative attempts to successfully put it on the big screen. I wish terribly that I had the talent to write a proper screenplay about his life and even more, I wish I had the entertainment world connections to sell it to a producer and hire the right director to finally get a real Hank Williams movie up on the screen.

 

 

 

The NFL and I

Well it’s almost the end of another professional football season. I always complain about not having enough time to read, write and pursue other hobbies, yet I continue to waste many hours watching professional football. I was able to somewhat reduce my football time this past season because of a rash of terrible match-ups which I had little desire to watch. Another factor that reduced my viewing is simply that the NFL’s cachet has been significantly dimmed and tarnished. Bad publicity from errant players, a general overload of games – Sunday, Monday and now Thursday, hundreds of commercials on telecasts and way too many video replays, have caused ratings to plummet. And in addition, I offer the following additional negatives that have reduced my viewing.

  • The NFL has become a cash cow for too many already filthy rich team owners. The league and its owners enjoy sticking it to the taxpayers  by financing palatial stadiums through local taxes instead of from their own deep pockets.
  • And NFL telecasters Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN, enough shots of these obscenely wealthy owners and their families, snug in their luxury boxes, rejoicing or commiserating about a score. Enough already – I and millions of other viewers don’t care!
  • It’s incompetently run by Roger Goodell, an overpaid, awkward and strikingly unintelligent man who got his start in the NFL not through any particular talent or training but reportedly getting the inside track on the job as longtime commissioner Pete Rozelle’s driver. His uneven application of disciplinary measures in the league are disgraceful, the latest being the “deflategate” affair.

roger-goodell-nj-lawmakers-fired

  • The NFL refuses to properly acknowledge permanent physical damage to players: a “use and discard” mentality dominates. Its recent settlement with the Players Union is too little too late. And their recent commercials on football safety and concussion research ring empty, dishonest and self serving.
  • I detest the distasteful, militarized and Nazi-like ultrapatriotic pre-game nonsense which characterizes the modern day NFL. And can you believe – the US military and taxpayers were paying the NFL for all this hoopla. The same goes for the hollow “salute to service” and “support our troops” month with the camouflage caps, towels and military style jackets and other paraphernalia. This rang especially false during the NFL’s tax-exempt years, only recently ended.
  • And, NFL, give me a break and cut out all the pink stuff in the your gaudy and goofy effort to support the fight against breast cancer. Spare us football fans all the pink towels, shoes, gloves, socks, caps and the rest and quietly, unobtrusively and honorably do the right thing and give all the money it costs directly to the fight against breast cancer.
  • I detest the female sideline reporters who do little more than interview coaches to obtain profundities like “well, we have to tackle better” or ”we need to put more pressure on the quarterback” and report on injuries, the former totally useless and the latter much more easily and appropriately accomplished by feeding the same information to the play-by-play and color announcers. Their presence is perhaps an attempt to get more women to watch the games, but for every woman that loves Sunday Night Football’s Michele Tafoya, I’ll guarantee that there are a dozen men who can’t stand her and skip over her pointless reports.
  • And. NFL, please cease the Roman numeral designation of Super Bowls. It’s terribly confusing, it’s not at all distinctive or majestic and it makes recalling specific games almost impossible. It would make much more sense to aid memory by simply naming the event by the year it was played in common old Hindu-Arabic numerals. But I just saw a reference today to the upcoming 2017 Super Bowl game as “Super Bowl LI”. Give me a break.

39bc7c9c943a952e06924b9d3a894847

But nevertheless and unfortunately, I do still enjoy watching NFL games very much and that pleasure is animated as much by my dislike and disdain for certain teams as my loyal and enthusiastic support of others. Here’s my hierarchy of preferences:

  • I am a New England Patriots fan through and through. No matter which team they play, I’m for the Pats.
  • Except when they play my other favorite team, the Arizona Cardinals. If they play the Cardinals, I can be totally neutral and sit back and enjoy the game. And I have enjoyed watching the Atlanta Falcons so much this year that I might be somewhat neutral in this year’s upcoming Super Bowl.
  • I loath and abhor the Dallas Cowboys. No matter whom they play, I am for the other team.
  • I despise the Denver Broncos – whomever they play, I’m for the other team – unless they are playing Dallas. Then I’m a Bronco fan – give me something orange to wave or wear – Go Broncos!
  • I also detest the Green Bay Packers. No matter whom they play, I’m for the other team – unless they are playing Dallas or Denver, in which case, I’m for Green Bay. Needless to say, I was thoroughly pleased at the Packers’ playoff win over the Cowboys.
  • I also can’t stand the Pittsburgh Steelers. No matter whom they play, I’m for the other team, unless they play Denver, Green Bay or Dallas, in which case, I become a rabid Steelers fan.
  • I also dislike the Seattle Seahawks. I always root for them to lose unless they are playing Dallas, Denver, Green Bay or Pittsburgh. I really enjoyed their 2014 Super Bowl demolition of Denver.
  • That’s it. I have a strictly neutral opinion of all other teams – unless they are playing New England or Arizona (I’d always favor the Pats or the Cardinals) or if they are playing Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Pittsburgh or Seattle (in which case I’d always favor the other team).

Why have I developed this complex hierarchy of preferences? I can’t really figure it out. I do have a natural sympathy for the underdog but conveniently discard it where New England is concerned. However, before Bill Belichick became the New England coach, New England was often at the bottom of the heap, plus I lived in the Boston area for 11 years so I must have developed my affection for the team then.

I also used to enjoy watching and cheering for the teams of the upstart American Football League and their exciting wide open offenses and outrageously high scoring games and have usually supported them when they competed against the old NFL teams. I really enjoyed New England (actually the Boston Patriots back then) back in the days of Babe Parilli and Gino Capeletti, the Jets in the days of John Huarte, Joe Namath, and Sherman Plunkett, the Oakland Raiders of Kenny Stabler and Fred Beletnikoff fame, and the San Diego Chargers with their exciting John Hadł and Lance Alworth passing-receiving tandem. I also will never forget the spectacular achievements and amazing longevity of NFL reject George Blanda – quarterback, field goal kicker and general all-round handyman mainly for the Houston Oilers, his scoring records and his phenomenal 26 season career in the NFL and AFLalldecalsAnd with regard to my avid support of the Arizona Cardinals – this team paid its dues while being on the bottom for a long time, suffering from the parsimony of its owner Bill Bidwill. And I still fondly remember the Cardinals in their St. Louis days, with their nonpareil passing quarterback Jim Hart throwing the ball to Mel Gray and Jackie Smith. Also, I’m a bit of a Redskins fan as well (unless they are playing the Patriots or Cardinals) because of fond memories of some of their notables, like paunchy Sonny Jurgensen, who could sling passes downfield with the best, and more recently the indomitable and durable John Riggins plowing his way downfield shedding defensive linemen.

But why the extreme dislike of Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Pittsburg and Seattle? With my natural affinity for the underdog, I detested each of these teams during their periods of great success. I hated the Cowboys’ dominance back in the days of coach Tom Landry and quarterback Robert Staubach and “world’s fastest human” pass receiver Bob Hayes. And I disliked them even more for inexplicably being labeled “America’s Team”. Also presently they are owned by the most detestable owner in professional football, Jerry Jones. In the same way, my intense dislike of the Pittsburgh Steelers began back in the “Steel Curtain” days of coach Chuck Noll and the team’s steady and tiresome success. My disdain for the Packers also began growing back in the days of coach Vince Lombardi and his “winning is everything” mentality. I was sorely disappointed by Green Bay’s victories over Oakland and Kansas City in the first AFL vs NFL Super Bowls and was elated at the New York Jets’ triumph over the Baltimore Colts in the third and last of these inter-league Super Bowls. And in the case of Denver, I have a real problem with their hordes of orange-clad, rabid, arrogant and unruly fans. But….I was really happy when the John Elway-led Broncos thrashed the Green Bay Packers for their first Super Bowl win. And of course, the Seattle Seahawks, with their excitable, fidgety, gum-chewing coach and cocky quarterback always standing in the way of my Cardinals, explains their inclusion on my blacklist.

I also was a New York Giants fan way back when I was a teenager, enjoying Y. A. Tittle’s passes to Del Shofner, Frank Gifford’s running and the exploits of the “Roosevelts” Grier and Brown on the defensive and offensive lines. But this lingering affection was eroded by their Super Bowl victory over the much more deserving Buffalo Bills with their great quarterback Jim Kelly and coach Marv Levy, and then totally obliterated by their fluke Super Bowl win over my beloved Arizona Cardinals.

So considering this year’s playoffs, I spent a miserable “wild card” weekend when Green Bay beat the Giants, Seattle won against the Lions, Pittsburgh prevailed over Miami and Houston beat Oakland. But I had a much better playoff weekend the following week when Seattle lost to the Falcons, the Patriots beat Houston, Pittsburgh sadly eliminated Kansas City and (thank God) Green Bay prevailed over the Cowboys.

And of course my championship weekend was ideal with my Patriots rolling over a hapless Steelers team to again become AFC champions and the Atlanta Falcons blowing away the overmatched Green Bay Packers to win the NFC championship. Now all we need is an exciting, competitive and high-scoring 2017 (please not LI!) Super Bowl where the Patriots narrowly win over the Falcons and a shaky, bumbling, and embarrassed Roger Goodell has to present the trophy to his “deflategate” victims Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. But if the Falcons win, they will undoubtedly have deserved it and I’ll be fine with that.

Wait a second…Tom Brady and Donald Trump are friends and call each other? Pats owner Robert Kraft attended Trump’s pre-inauguration dinner….and they call each other too? A Falcons win looks better and better. I think I’ll just sit back, grab another slice of pizza and another cold one, and enjoy the game.

Election Reflection II

I’m sleeping somewhat better now but the condition is testimony not to US politics getting any better but instead simply to the resilience of the human spirit and my aging body. But I still get very angry and disgusted with my country every time I see Donald Trump’s astonishing flaming florid face and yellow helmet of hair, hear his repetitive streams of “Trumpurlatives” (huge! great! amazing! tremendous! terrific! unbelievable! fantastic! the best!…) about himself, a family member or a new selection for his cabinet of horrors. I am sick of his perpetual “thumbs up” sign (stick it in your ear, Trump, or in your mouth) or seeing him lumber and strut across a stage (don’t have the world for it – maybe should coin “strumber”) applauding for himself.

gettyimages-598188528Well the aftermath of Trump’s election is both the roiling, boiling frenzy of the “transition” and the spreading insidious reeking ooze of racism and ignorance. Both cause me tremendous anxiety and fear, not to mention a great deal of anger. But I have been unable to properly articulate my recent feelings about this terrible election…until I read a marvelous column in Haaretz by Chemi Shalev entitled, “The Unbearable Stupidity of Donald Trump’s Election” and subtitled, “Who in his right mind hands over the keys to the world to an impulsive, narcissistic know-nothing show-off, just to teach everyone else a lesson?”

Maybe the Democrats deserved to lose. In a truly prescient article in The Nation last March, “Donald Trump is Dangerous”, John Nichols noted that “Without a forceful response from Democrats, his populism could win over blue-collar workers”. Well, the Democrats had no response and Trump won them over. I guess Hillary’s bland and anemic “Stronger Together”, “I’m with Her” and “Love Trumps Hate” slogans were no match for “Make America Great Again”. The Party has forgotten its working man and social welfare roots and, led by the Clintons, has become “Republican Lite”, cozying up to the Wall Street plutocrats and selling its soul to an army of funders, pundits and pollsters. President Obama, in spite of his intelligence and dignity, has operated in a bubble and conveniently forgot about labor unions, income inequality and economic justice, not to mention neglecting to prosecute the white collar criminals responsible for the crash of 2008, and those who lied us into the Iraq War and tortured prisoners. He also bailed out the banks while allowing thousands of people to lose their homes. I shouldn’t be surprised that the Democrats lost. And valiant Bernie Sanders, who was the lone real Democrat, could have won but was outflanked by an establishment that nominated the “more electable” Hillary Clinton instead. Joe Biden, another Democrat who never forgets his roots, could have won as well, had he chosen to run.

Personally, I never thought this could happen in our country. I used to read the amazing stories about the Italian billionaire politician Silvio Berlusconi, shake my head at his antics, marvel at his incompetence and wonder how the Italian people could have elected him. And now, unbelievably, Americans have done exactly the same thing. We have elected a wealthy ignorant buffoon to lead the most powerful nation on earth, a nation that fancies itself setting an example for the rest of the world. But now, rather than fighting him, sending battalions of lawyers to the swing states on November 9 to examine how this happened, as Republicans would have done if their candidate had won the popular vote by a margin of almost 3 million votes and lost in the electoral college, Democrats, along with an ever-willing media, are busy acquiescing and “normalizing” this anomaly.

nothelping
For the American people to cut off their noses to spite their faces, to fall for the fake populism of a billionaire con man and crook by electing Donald Trump, staggers the imagination and boggles the mind. And as I noted in my earlier article about this election, there have to be thousands of people now meekly murmuring, “What have I done…?”, as they watch his cabinet being formed and consider the consequences: Nicky Haley, no foreign policy experience, as ambassador to the UN; Jeff Sessions, who has opposed voting rights and civil rights, in charge of enforcing them as Attorney General; Betsy DeVos, a billionaire opponent of public education and avowed supporter of privatization as Secretary of Education; Representative Tom Price, an acknowledged enemy of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid as Secretary of Health and Human Services; “foreclosure king” Steven Mnuchin, former Goldman Sachs executive, as Secretary of the Treasury; Wilbur Ross, billionaire investor and “king of bankruptcy”, as Secretary of Commerce; General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense (actually, despite his nickname, this might be the most sensible pick of all); goofball Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; multimillionaire and Wells Fargo board member Elaine Chao, Mitch McConnell’s wife, as Secretary of Transportation; Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, climate change denier, fossil fuel advocate, outspoken critic of the EPA and no friend of clean water and clean air, as head of the EPA; Andrew Puzder, fast food CEO and opponent of increasing the minimum wage and overtime pay eligibility, as Secretary of Labor; fossil fool Rick Perry as head of the Department of Energy, one of the departments he would have eliminated, if elected president.

Most frightening is his pick for National Security Advisor, Islamaphobe and tweeter of false news, the excitable and unstable General Michael Flynn. And yes, of course, yet another general, retired US Marine General John Kelly, has been chosen as Secretary of Homeland Security. And recently, fossil fuel magnate and Exxon Mobile CEO Rex Tillerson was chosen as Secretary of State. I wonder when was the last time Rex read a history book or a book on foreign affairs. President-elect Trump has not “drained the swamp” as he promised. Instead he has created a reeking cesspool of extreme wealth, exceptional ignorance and reckless militarism. For sure, President-Elect Trump’s new administration is going to be both the richest and most militarized ever. Oh and his latest additions at this writing are Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, a radical fiscal hawk, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus nominated to be, of all things, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Montana Representative Ryan Zinke for Secretary of the Interior, who, in addition to his rather shaky conservation credentials, committed travel fraud when he was a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6.

trump

I know I have relatives, yes, even siblings, that have voted for Trump. And I know I have friends, now perhaps more honestly described as “acquaintances”, who voted for Trump. But I have to shake my head in disbelief at this phenomenon. Perhaps they don’t care about themselves, but what about their children and grandchildren? What will their children say when after a lifetime of labor they find that their Social Security has been privatized and after years on end of paying crippling deductibles and co-pays for their already expensive health insurance, they find that instead of Medicare in old age, they have only paltry vouchers to help them in the private insurance market.

And now, the Republicans, with control of the presidency, both houses of Congress, and two thirds of governorships and state legislatures, along with their sponsors and funders like the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council, and buoyed by a sympathetic Supreme Court, are poised to make an assault on our country unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. These now-unified Republicans will attack civil rights, civil liberties, environmental protections, steps to deal with global climate change, renewable energy, consumer protections, reproductive rights, gay rights, workers’ rights, prisoners’ rights, reasonable and humane immigration policies, aid to the poor, gun control, antimilitarism, and support for public education. They will increase the military budget, lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy, increase the national debt exponentially, abolish the estate tax so that the Walmart and hundreds of other billionaire fortunes will go on and on, and sell off Federal lands in the west to corporate interests. And maybe if they have their way, a cable car to access an amusement park in the bottom the Grand Canyon. Good luck to my Trumpist “friends”, siblings and their children and grandchildren.

gettyimages-488226322_850_556
The most surprising aspect of this election to me is that Donald Trump is no mystery. He has been right out there in all his transparent, vain, ignorant and selfish glory for all of us to observe and learn about for a long time. The most revelatory story about Trump, which should have been national required reading for all Americans (who can and do read), was written for The New Yorker by their notable investigative journalist, Jane Mayer, about Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who penned virtually all of Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal”.

Mr. Schwartz spent 18 months with Trump and got to know him almost as well as members of his own family. He observed him in his offices, traveled with him, stayed at his residences, attended meetings and even listened in on phone conversations. And what he saw frightened him, scared him enough to feel that he should speak up when Trump decided to run for president. Tony spoke up loud and clear but evidently too few were listening….or reading.

tony-schwartz

After all that time studying Trump, Tony “felt that he had an unusually deep understanding of what he regarded as Trump’s beguiling strengths and disqualifying weaknesses.” He felt that he had “put lipstick on a pig” and felt deeply regretful that he had written a book that had brought Trump wider attention and acceptance. Mr. Schwartz started out trying to interview Trump but soon gave up because of what he regarded as one of Trumps most essential characteristics: “He has no attention span”. He considered Trump’s personality “pathalogically impulsive and self-centered” and noted that he genuinely believed that “if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization”. He also took note of Trump’s “completely compulsive” need for attention. After decades as a “tabloid titan” the only thing left for him was to run for president. And author Jane Mayer quotes Mr. Schwartz as saying that people are dispensable and disposable in Trump’s world. ”If Trump is elected President,” he warned, “the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows—that he couldn’t care less about them.”

the-art-of-the-deal

Mr. Schwartz found that it was impossible to keep Trump focused on any topic “other than his own self-aggrandizement”. He regarded Trump’s inability to concentrate as alarming in a Presidential candidate. “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time”, he said. Mr Schwartz noted that Trump was “obsessed with publicity…Trump takes only two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest”. Schwartz asserts that Trump’s short attention span has left him “with a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance…that’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source – information comes in easily digestible sound bites….I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life”. Jane Mayer writes that Schwartz “during the eighteen months that he observed Trump, he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.”

Also revelatory is the last paragraph of psychologist Dan McAdams’ article for last June’s The Atlantic, entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump”. “Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”

We should know Donald Trump extremely well. For decades he has been making headlines for misogeny, narcissism, ignorance, duplicity, egotism, racism, and….bankruptcy. Why then is he our president-elect? Back to the Democratic Party for a moment – what a tragedy. I could review a whole pile of “if only’s” that could have changed the outcome of this election. We still read about them every day. American voters preferred Hillary Clinton by a huge margin, now just short of 3 million votes. Yet our archaic Electoral College system for the fourth time in our history, gave the decision to the minority candidate. If Clinton had campaigned more in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania…if people had not voted for third party candidates Gary Johnson or Jill Stein….if FBI Director Comey had not encroached on the election…..if the media had not given so much free time to Trump….if the media had not inflated Clinton’s email problems and treated them for what they were – mistakes, not crimes….and on and on.

But, going back to my third paragraph, I should extend and develop the notion of the Democratic Party’s essential blindness to the real concerns of voters. Most revelatory and prescient was a little known and little read 1998 book by Richard Yorty, that was discussed in great detail by New York Times writer Jennifer Senior. Professor Yorty predicted the 2016 election perfectly. Right after the election, Ms. Senior notes, an “astute law professor” tweeted three slightly condensed paragraphs from the book. They were retweeted thousands of times and I offer them to you here, from Senior’s article:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will
find an outlet.

achieving-our-country

The Times writer then goes on to offer additional quotes from Yorty’s book, “Achieving Our Country”, that are equally prophetic about this disastrous election, such as, “This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900” and, about intellectuals’ overweening attention to identity politics, “Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies or trail-park studies…” Perhaps Hillary Clinton or her patrician campaign people like John Podesta or Robbie Mook should have read Professor Yorty’s book.

Yes, the Democrats have messed up. Trump and his advisors were smart. It’s really quite interesting to look at his very limited but effective vocabulary, words chosen and used to inflame and create distrust. “I know words, I have the best words,” he trumpets. According to “My Dictionary”, the twenty most used words by Donald Trump have been: “win/winning, stupid, weak, loser, we, they, politically correct, moron, smart, tough, dangerous, bad, lightweight, amazing, huge, tremendous, terrific, zero, out of control, classy.

There are some real dangers related to this election. Our national government, with Donald Trump as president and surrounded by nervous and paranoid sycophants and generals, is a coup waiting to happen. Oh, you say, but our institutions are so strong, that couldn’t happen here. Think again. Those institutions have been seriously altered or weakened over the last decade or so. Civilian control over the military has been reduced. The power of the president has been increased exponentially. The press has been reticent and has relinquished its traditional watchdog role. Police forces have been militarized. There has been complete dereliction of duty by our Congress. The government spies on us. All we need is another 9/11, then watch out.

Before I close this article it might be wise to remind ourselves of how much the world looks to the United States as an example of leadership and good government. What we say and do on the world stage matters. And with “President Trump”, we have massively let the world down. We now have our own Silvio Berlusconi and a cabinet of secretaries and directors dedicated to destroying that which they have been charged to guide and protect.

One of those world citizens that is astonished at what we’ve done to ourselves is Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, who wrote shortly after the election:

Donald Trump is on a new campaign.
It’s to make himself appear sane.

He’s saying he’s a sober person
with a very good demeanor
and the best temperament.
He’s saying it in a very sedate and mild-mannered way,
he’s sitting still and trying to look humble.
Sort of.

Since he’s spent the last year
running the nastiest campaign in living memory
using racist appeals,
making promises
that he can’t keep,
lying to our faces
and claiming he didn’t say things
that we heard him say 10 minutes ago,
this is a very good idea.
For him.

Not for us.

We should remember
that he’s got a track record
of conning people,
defrauding people,
bullying people,
groping women,
going bankrupt and sticking other people with the bill,
without ever showing shame, regret, or remorse.

So his new campaign to appear sane
is a good idea for him.
Not for us.
Especially since his opponent actually got more votes than he did
and he’s going into the presidency with a disapproval rating of 61 percent.
Meaning that more than a few people who voted for him
know he’s a bad person.

The media is largely,
bizarrely,
co-operating in this venture.
They see him as, and I am quoting,
“subdued,” as the “enormity and gravity” is sinking in.
They tell us he’s changing from campaign mode to governing mode
“dealing with realities”,
that “the office is transforming the man”,
and “we should root for him to succeed.”
Because “if he succeeds, the country succeeds.”

They’re normalizing him.
Is it because he’s becoming normal?
No. It’s because now he’s in power
and when you have a media
that is completely entwined with the elite,
whatever power says and does
well, it must be normal.

Let’s keep our eyes, ears
and our minds
clear,
this guy wants to deport
two to three million people.
Right away.
He wants big, huge, tax cuts
in order to be “the greatest jobs president God ever created”.
George W Bush did exactly that a mere 15 years ago
and got a “jobless” recovery,
the biggest crash since 1929
and the Great Recession.

The American military now bases its plans
on the certainty that rising temperatures are making the seas rise.
That’s the Pentagon,
Not the Environmental Protection Agency. Not Greenpeace.
But Trump insists that’s a hoax,
that it’s Chinese disinformation intended to undermine the American economy,
so he intends to withdraw, immediately,
from the Paris agreement on climate change.

So he’s going to have a new, mild-mannered demeanor?
Maybe get a tweet watcher,
to hold down his thumbs
at three o’clock in the morning.
It’s not his tweets you need to fear.
It’s his policies
because they are mostly dangerous, bad, and frankly, mad.

If he succeeds, it will be the ultra-nationalists, racists, fascists that will succeed
And, of course, as always, the super-rich, the world over…