Saturday, June 30, 2018

Turning 72: I Dwell in Possibility

This blog hasn't been active in awhile, but I did post on significant birthdays here: turning 60 and turning 65.  Now I've gone past the 60s.  So although I've posted this on my more active blog (Captain Future's Dreaming Up Daily), I thought I'd add this "turning 72" piece here, since it relates to the others.

It was a pretty good 72nd year.  No one close to me died, or came down with a serious illness or injury, though I certainly know people my age with significant health challenges.  The exception is our beloved cat Pema--we're currently nursing her through a terminal illness, making this a sad and anxious time. But as for my health, I'm looking forward to my annual trek up Trinidad Head later today. Yesterday I set my home court record with 7 straight midrange baskets (I can't in good conscience call them "jumpers") and 9 out of 10, before I missed two in a row.

 I'm pleased with writing I did this past year, including what amounts to drafts of two short books which I have cleverly hidden within my blogs on the Internet.  My recollections--first of books, but especially of my senior year of college fifty years ago-- went very well, by my own lights anyway.  The process was fascinating. Reclaiming context through factual research seemed to evoke and free memories, some of which came to me in the act of writing.

 Lately I've had episodes of visual memories, which have been rare before now. I'm not good at visualization.  "Imagine yourself on a beautiful beach" etc. has never worked for me as a meditation or relaxation technique, for example, if it depends on seeing it.  But lately, visual memories have come almost unbidden, and once I've had them (usually on the edge of sleep but not always), they more or less remain accessible.

 The past, both culturally and personally, remains my focus, my fireplace (which is what "focus" means.)  I'm interested in depth, reiteration, a more thorough exploration, rather than new places and experiences.  Fortunately I don't have to defend that choice.  "Don't Want To, Don't Need To, Can't Make Me, I'm Retired."

 At the same time, I am exploring new ideas, though they tend to be more like going farther along a path I darted down for awhile before.  Some of these bear upon that other area of concern, the future. The future has looked dark many times in my life, probably most times.  There was always an idea or two that suggested the possibility of light coming into being. That is less so now.

 The newest ideas I'm still learning about are actually 20 or 30 years old.  It was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, that the scientific ideas informing the Gaia hypothesis were percolating.  Its basis was formulated even earlier, in the late 1960s when I was in college (but it was so unorthodox that it never would have been mentioned in a science class.)

 In studying the atmosphere of the planet Mars, James Lovelock discovered that the physics and chemistry of that planet predicted what it was like.  But the physics and chemistry of Earth does not describe its actual atmosphere.  There is another element determining and regulating Earth's atmosphere, and keep its temperature fairly constant despite changes in the heat coming from the sun.   That element is life. The Earth is self-organizing and self-regulating through its specific lifeforms. Living systems, from the smallest bacteria to the entire surface and atmosphere, self-maintain.  By some definitions, this makes the Earth itself a kind of organism.

The implications were vast, and go beyond ecology--the study of the Earth as our home--to the study of the Earth as our body.  The idea of Gaia was an immediate magnet for various New Age enthusiasts but in the late 1980s, William Irwin Thompson and the Lindisfarne Association published a couple of collections of essays derived from conferences the Association had held since the early eighties. (Gaia: A Way of Knowing, and Gaia 2: Emergence).

 The authors were serious people, including James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, the scientist who helped him develop the hypothesis, as well visionary cybernetic pioneer Gregory Bateson, visionary neurobiologist Franciso Varela, physicist Arthur Zajonc, botanist and popular writer Wes Jackson, economist and futurist Hazel Henderson and W.I Thompson himself, who promoted the idea that Gaia could be the guiding idea of cultural transformation in the 1990s.

 As far as I can tell, there didn't turn out to be a guiding idea of cultural transformation in the 1990s, nor do I know of any guiding idea since.  At best, large segments of society sort of caught up to ecological ideas of the 1960s and 70s.  At worst, they got sidetracked by computer technology to contemplate bogus ideas like "the singularity."

But lately I have been reading Slanted Truths, a book of the mid-90s, a somewhat shaped collection of essays by Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan. (He is also the son of Carl Sagan, and has taken on his father's job of popularizing science, though he's much more his mother's son in the science he attempts to popularize.) Their essays are repetitive (which is actually good, since the ideas are still new and the science unfamiliar) so it is an immersive experience.  (These writings are however more coherent than either of the authors speaking: Dorion does not have his father's skills and both are pretty unorganized in the events YouTube has preserved, though Margulis is nevertheless magnetic and occasionally mesmerizing.)

 Margulis herself transformed life sciences by concentrating on microorganisms, and showing the crucial role they played in evolution.  She also showed that these are the organisms upon which Gaia's ability to self-regulate depend, more than any other.  Bacteria is the essential lifeform to maintain the life of planet Earth, including its atmosphere.

 I am reading this in the context of a year in which it seems that the collapse of civilization within the next century, and perhaps the fall of the American Republic much sooner, seems more and more likely.  On a somewhat longer timeline, the fate of the human species is in question.  If the climate crisis and mass extinction are as bad as they seem they will be, homo sapiens may be facing enough reduction that extinction is possible.  In a previous climate crisis, homo sapiens were down to perhaps 2500 beings in one small location.  Coming back depends on how extensive the changes are, and for how long.  Nuclear weapons complicate this further.

 Mass extinctions may wipe out all large mammals and perhaps too many keystone species we don't even know about.  But the ultimate threat to life seems to depend on what happens to the oceans, and whether we end up killing them. Margulis and Sagan leave me with at least this hope for the future of life: that bacteria are likely to endure and adapt, and since from them in time came all of the species we know, they can just start again.  Raccoons or rats or even ants may be faster to develop but then, does the planet want to go through all this again?  I sometimes wonder whether a species that invented helicopter gunships even deserves to survive.  Maybe evolution will settle next time on a scenario like that in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Galapagos, in which descendants of humans are more like porpoises, who frolic in pools with fins, incapable of building anything.

For the near future, Gaia offers some possibility of offsetting the worst effects of global heating, in that we don't understand exactly how life regulates the atmosphere.  Perhaps that self-regulation can overcome excessive global heating, although it seems there is unlikely to be enough time to adapt.  But maybe.

 Which suggest another source of hope: our ignorance.  We think we know a lot, but all we've learned are a few limited mechanisms and how to do some stuff, mostly through trial and error.  We've just done too much of it, on too large a scale. Because in part there are too many of us.

 In fact we know almost nothing about our world and our universe.  Steven Wright used to make a joke: "I bought a packet of powdered water but I don't know what to add to it."  We don't really even know what water is.  We certainly can't make the stuff.

 We've made up all these categories and theories that soon reach their limits, though we insist they are universal, they are "laws."  Science has at least acknowledged that Newtonian physics doesn't apply in all realms. (And that's because we know how to do some stuff using the math of quantum mechanics, but we have no idea why they work.)

 It took recent scientists like Lynn Margulis to begin showing that Darwinian evolution in its traditional definition doesn't apply to everything alive, or even to the origin of species.

 We use definitions as tools and then get captured by our definitions.  The most interesting philosophical essay I read this year, by Galen Strawson, suggests that the conundrum of consciousness as a non-physical phenomenon may lie in a restricted definition of "physical."   The universes of the very small and the very large have shot down a lot of our middle-range assumptions and definitions.  With dark matter, dark energy and all the other more or less theoretical aspects of the universe, exactly what "physical" means is (or should be) in doubt.

 For those younger than me who will live in the future, hope is a daily commitment to make things better.  It isn't what you feel, it's what you do.

 For me, looking at a future that extends beyond imagination, I am buoyed by possibilities we can begin to imagine but can't quite imagine, way beyond anything fantasized in Silicon Valley. So I greet the beginning of my 73rd year with a poem by Emily Dickinson.  She was a favorite of Lynn Margulis (though admittedly not of mine)--I saw a line of this one that was sort of quoted by Dorion Sagan.  The whole poem however is what I want to say:

  I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –

Monday, November 02, 2015

Remembering John Lindsay

New York Magazine's website has an article celebrating 50 years since John Lindsay was elected mayor of New York City.  It briefly describes what made him different and memorable, backed up by some testimonials from now famous or influential people who worked on his campaigns or mayor's office.

I met or at least heard John Lindsay when he was a member of the US House of Representatives, before he ran for mayor.  I must have read an article about him, describing him as the Republican's JFK.  (In the above mentioned piece, Bob Dole talks about serving with him in Congress in the mid-60s, the time of Civil Rights and the War on Poverty.)  Lindsay spoke at a college near me (Seton Hill) and I went, and shook hands with him afterwards as I recall.  (But I could be wrong, because I think I took a date.  Who takes a date to a speech by a congressman from another state? In high school, me.)

This article describes Lindsay as frustrated by New York unions as well as unsympathetic administrations in Albany and Washington, but excelling in personal leadership--walking black neighborhoods almost every day, talking to people, getting involved personally in a jail hostage situation and thereby preventing bloodshed.

Lindsay was the Republican JFK (though he later switched to the Democratic party) also in that he inspired a generation, and is remembered with such gratitude and lasting admiration.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Washington Sticking It To Seniors (With Surprising Update)

This hits home, literally. The recent announcements from Social Security and Medicare raise multiple issues, but the very local bottom line amounts to what for me is a hefty cost, as my medical insurance monthly rate will increase by 50%.

 As per stories like this one in the Washington Post, Social Security announced there will be no cost of living increase in payments next year, because the Consumer Price Index formula they use says that costs haven't gone up.

 Then in the very next breath, the Medicare branch of Social Security announced that medical costs have gone up for them so much that the charge for Medicare part B (covers doctors) will be raised from around $100 to over $150 a month.

 The logic of this is incredible. Cost of living hasn't gone up, and mine has just gone up by $50 a month. First of all, anybody alive in California and most places in the US know that costs of almost everything essential have been going up all year--you know, little things like food, clothing and shelter. Just about the only thing that hasn't increased lately is gasoline.

 So where does gas figure in the costs of seniors I wonder? Except for the RV crowd, not very high--certainly not as high as food, clothing and shelter--and medical care.

 The situation is crazier because not all seniors will feel this Medicare increase--just some of those collecting Social Security, and all of those of us who aren't yet but have Medicare. We're waiting to claim when the benefits get a little higher. They will still be inadequate, but they'll be a little higher. Except thanks to this increase, they won't be even as much as they would have been--because this premium raise will be deducted from those monthly checks, which otherwise haven't been increased because the cost of living hasn't gone up. Right.

 So let's review: Congratulations, the cost of living hasn't gone up so neither does your Social Security check. And incidentally, we'll be deducting an extra $55 or so from your check because our medical insurance costs have gone up by 50%. It's a new definition of fixed income.

 I'm paying Medicare B even though I've yet to use it but that's perhaps beside the point. It's insurance. Still I'm one of the unlucky ones who gets to pay even more--a lot more.

 As this Post story indicates, some people in the federal government--in the White House, even in Congress--recognize the multiple injustices in these announcements. But thanks to our non-functional Congress, the chance of something actually being done in a timely fashion to correct any or all of this, approaches the vanishing point. Like an indecent proportion of my limited income.

Update 10/30: A unique set of circumstances--the retiring GOP House Speaker leaving a "screw you" as he walked out the door, to the rabid rightists who made his life hell being the main one--allowed for swift passage of a budget deal through both houses (with mostly Democratic votes--a situation that could have happened anytime in the past several years.)  Part of the bill was a provision rolling back this $54 a month price rise for Medicare B, though there is a larger than usual uptick--$18 a month.  Still not nothing, and still not fair, but better than it was.  And totally unexpected.   Democrats, by the way, pushed for this provision, and Democratic votes passed it, with a relative few Republicans in the House especially.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Year That Was, The Year That Is

They are called the 60s, a single ten year lump to praise or blame. But those of us who lived through them know that each year of that decade was different, had its own shapes and smells, and each was filled with momentous events sufficient for a decade, so the 60s were as crammed and as various as a century.

 Those of us who were young then were a big part of those events--as participants, victims and instigators as well as observers and receivers. Those events--those arcs and moods, revelations and confusions--marked us, influenced the flow of our lives in the crucial decades of our teens and twenties, and to one degree or another determined our fates.

 And as this decade of fiftieth anniversaries for various events of the 1960s, it is well to look at the context of an entire year--like 1965. There's a book about that year that centers on the music but includes other elements, called 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson. The possibly inflated claim of the title notwithstanding, it suggests how much was happening.

 Slate further emphasized this recently by selecting a single week from 1965, that included the recently commemorated Selma march, but also the release of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home (almost every song was great, but one side of the albums also had Dylan singing his songs backed by a rock band--and that much was revolutionary.)

It was also the beginning of a less well remembered but vital at the time phenomenon, the first "teach-in" on the Vietnam war. The teach-ins set a certain standard for debates on college campuses, and an anti-war movement grew out of factual information and reason as well as principle and emotion. That kind of nuance is missing from the three-word, three-note push button references to elements of the 60s. 

There's even more about this year at the blog The '60s at 50.

 This Slate article and probably the book also bring to light another aspect of remembering the 60s, which is the 60s weren't and aren't the same for everyone. Some events may unite us in a single year, but the flavor of a year for each us depended on when we got "turned on" to a particular record or musicians, book or author, etc. and what our particular enthusiasms were, as well as those of our friends.

 The author's contention that "technology was the root cause underlying all the changes" may pander to today's worship of new technologies, but seems to me to be way overstated. Yes, technologies like television and some invented drugs (The Pill, LSD) played big roles, but they were not the root cause of much of anything about 1965. (It's also a stretch to call pharmacology "technology." If it is, almost everything is.) I will stipulate however that without electricity for microphones and electric guitars it certainly would have been a different year.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Paul McCartney takes the subversive power of rock and roll into the post-human future, but with a poignancy at the end that speaks for all human music.  Watch it, you'll appreciate.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Flame Still Burns

A little inspiration for boomers from the 1998 film "Still Crazy:" one of the two great songs in a movie about 70s rockers reuniting a couple of decades later.  This isn't the best picture but the sound is pretty good.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Aging, Forgetting and Remembering: The Insistence of Memory

In The Nostalgia Factory (Yale), history of psychology professor Douwe Draaima deals with both aspects of memory in the aging mind: the forgetting, and the remembering. He is reassuring on the forgetting. After reviewing various memory techniques (most of dubious value) he writes: “However active your lifestyle, however varied your existence, your memory will gradually decline with age. This is perfectly natural. Anyone who still has the memory of a twenty-year-old at the age of seventy is not entirely normal.”

 Everyone is annoyed by not being able to remember something, but the worry has increased with more awareness of various forms of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Draaima reiterates the statistics—for people over 65, less than 5% are likely to be stricken, and even having a parent who has suffered from dementia still doesn’t get you to 10%. The difference in symptoms is the difference between forgetting where you put your car keys and forgetting what your car keys are for.

“The vast majority of people who turn up at memory clinics give such a detailed account of all the things that have slipped their minds recently that it is clear they have no reason to worry.”

 On the remembering however, Draaisma carefully reviews a number of studies (his and others) to conclude that yes, the old tend to remember the distant past better than the recent past, and more specifically, their most vivid memories cluster around their 20th year. Other memories that often remain vivid are of “firsts”--first love, first eclipse, first day of school, etc.

   He is thorough on the phenomena: how the focus on the past increases with age, for instance. He writes about residents of an old folks home in their 80s and 90s who no interest in their present, not even people around them. Their listlessness turns to vibrant interest when shown obsolete artifacts and photos from their youth. They even begin to interact—members of such group found that they came from the same town and even went to the same school around the same time.

 His research affirms that “as the reminiscence effect attains its full force, memories will return to which you have long been denied access. These are memories that really do slumber.”

 His research also suggests that as time goes on, memories emerge more and more as stories. He interviewed centenarians who hadn’t written autobiographies, “yet the stories of their lives have the usual cast of characters and twists and turns that we see in the autobiographical genre. The event that started it all, the moment that brought a complete change of course, the meeting that was to have important consequences, the lesson for life, even the insults that seem to make so much more of an impression in youth—they emerge of their own accord when the centenarians look back over their long lives.”

 Draaisma recognizes that evolutionary explanations for this phenomenon are inadequate, but doesn’t offer a persuasive alternative. A different kind of psychologist (like James Hillman) would suggest a search for meaning, a deepening of soul, a completion.

 But this research does affirm what I have come to accept: as we grow older, our job—like it or not—is remembering. We don’t really have much choice in the matter. But we can try to think about it all, apply whatever wisdom we can derive to the future, and otherwise ponder the mystery of existence, while we still have some.

In future posts I'll come back to some of Draaisma's conclusions with specific applications to the Boomer generation.  If I remember.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Smaller, Deeper World

The recent deaths of writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Peter Matthiessen bring home a truth about those of us in our 60s now: our world is getting smaller.

 The deaths of our near contemporaries is always sobering, and they represent a loss even if they are people we used to know and haven't even thought about for years.  There were also two such deaths in my life this past week (or actually I became aware of two.) But older writers like Marquez and Matthiessen are different--they are giants in our world.  We shared the same world with them for all our lives. And although they were perhaps unlikely to produce new work, we do feel the loss of that potential contribution to renewing our world, and especially, their presence in it.

This goes hand in hand with the diminished interest in much of the completely new--new writers, new music, etc. which is to a great extent a withdrawal from the concerns they represent.  My eyes skip through the tech news, reporting every new wrinkle and complication involving devices and services I don't use.  I scan a political site like TPM and on some, maybe most days, I feel like I should be reading with a bowl of popcorn in my lap.  It's entertainment level repetition, political versions of the Three Stooges mostly.

There is an urge now towards deepening rather than skating along the superficial and the social.  Reading becomes re-reading, watching re-watching.  And there is some subtle shift when much if not most of that reading and watching and listening is of contributions by people now dead.  In the abstract at least it seems to make the prospect of death easier, the sense of rejoining your world that is fading away from this plane of existence.

Yet these undiminished voices still speak here and now.  I am re-watching a seminar by James Hillman.  I am re-reading a book by Marquez, and there are many more in my library.  The newness may be partly a product of aging memory, which may be to look a gift horse in the mouth.  But it isn't just that, because it wasn't just that in years past--re-reading always revealed something new, because there was something new in me.  And that doesn't end.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Miracle of '64

There was so much hype for so long about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, that I missed the actual anniversary days. The first Sullivan show was February 9, 1964.

 Though I saw that Sullivan show and liked them well enough, I personally didn't have my Beatles satori moment until 1965, when I sat in a near-empty movie theater in Manhattan (behind either Bob Dylan or one of many lookalikes) and watched their second film, Help! Now I still score pretty high on the Beatles quizzes that were floating around this month.

 But from the January Rolling Stone cover story I learned that I wasn't alone in initially missing the Beatles significance--neither did his record company. (Of course, I was in high school and this was supposedly their professional expertise.)

 Here's a few key graphs from that story (this is the link but not all of it is online.)

 The story quotes Jonathan Gould in the book Can't Buy Me Love concerning the clueless executives of Capitol Records, who owned the U.S. rights to release Beatles records but didn't think it was worth their while. Then one of their executives read an article in Variety:

 "...Variety reported that the Beatles' most recent single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand," had become the first British record to sell a million copies before its release. The band's previous single, "She Loves You"--which had been rejected by Dexter on behalf of Capitol--had also surpassed a million sales, and the group's second album, With the Beatles, sold 500,000 copies a week after its release.

 'This meant,' writes Gould, 'that in a market one-third the size of the United States, the Beatles had released as many million-selling singles in 1963 as the entire American recording industry.'" 

 So Capitol decided to release some Beatles tunes, but in due time. But people took matters into their own hands. From the RS story (by Mikal Gilmore):

 "On December 10th, Marsha Albert, a 15-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, saw a rebroadcast of the CBS Morning News report from November 22nd disparaging the Beatles and the frenzy they inspired in England. Albert wanted to hear more of the music. She wrote to a local station, WWDC; the disc jockey there, Carroll James, located a flight attendant for a British airline, who brought a copy of the 45 rpm "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on her flight to Washington, D.C.

 After the record arrived, James invited Albert to WWDC's studio. In the early evening of December 17th, Albert announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in America, here are the Beat­les, singing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.' " "The switchboard just went totally wild," James later told Bob Spitz in The Beat­les: The Biography. Callers – apparently not all of them teenagers, since WWDC was an MOR station – wanted to hear the song again, and again."

 And 50 years later, again and again.

The Beatles were a phenomenon throughout 1963 in the UK but America discovered them just over two months after the unspeakable trauma of the assassination of President Kennedy, who symbolized hope and the future.  The Beatles did not replace that exactly.  But they did offer another kind of hope for a future with a different kind of joy in it.  Especially for those who were young then--the early and middle boomers--it was a Way.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Our Icons and Their Stories

In the 1960s it was becoming clear that pop culture was becoming American culture.  By now that seems perfectly normal.  The media covers pop music and movie stars as our royalty, television shows and movies like the latest artistic and cultural events.  Scholars study Beatles lyrics and Doctor Who scripts.  The new myths of gods, goddesses and heroes are the scifi and superhero sagas.  But that didn't seriously begin to dominate until the 60s.

Early boomers will remember the roots of this change in the 50s and 60s, especially as icons of those decades and earlier reemerge in the news one last time.

The death of Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers reminds us that aspects of pop culture are really refinements of folk culture.  I've just been rereading William Eastlake's early novels and came upon this sentence: "The secret in creating anything new seems to lie in borrowing all you see and hear about you and adding one small touch."

That's often true in music particularly. Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon talked about the Everly Brothers both in terms of the music they transformed and their effect on the music that followed theirs (like Simon & Garfunkel.)  (Ronstadt was even better in this Time Magazine piece, which requires registration.)

Adapting folk culture in a different way is seen in the life of Pete Seeger.  He only slightly changed folk songs (though his strengthening of the lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" helped it become immortal) but he applied them to contemporary issues with roots in the past, such as civil rights, an end to war and preserving the natural environment.  Here's Josh Marshall's remembrance, one by Bruce Springsteen,

To put it another way, as Marshall McLuhan did, each new medium (or form) at first adopts a previous medium as its content.  So we've seen in our early boomer lifetimes how television took program models from radio and movies, which had earlier adapted them from the stage.  As this essay says, the now classic early TV comedians brought sketches and approaches they adapted from vaudeville.  This was true of one of the great TV comedians and comic actors of the 1950s who died recently, Sid Caesar.  Here's more of what I've written on him and his innovations and contributions.

The death of actor Ralph Waite is an occasion to recall how deeply and for a long time he has been part of establishing a cultural image, first as the young father on The Waltons and most recently as a father and grandfather figure on the TV series NCIS and Bones.  I will also remember him for a little known but culturally evocative fantasy film about JFK called Timequest.   Here's a biographical obit.

Finally, the little girl who helped a country and a culture through the dark days of the Depression has passed away.  One of Shirley Temple's proudest moments was that in one of those movies, she held the hand of the immortal dancer Bill Robinson--perhaps the first time a white female had touched a black male on the silver screen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day Everything Changed

When President John F. Kennedy was murdered on November 23, 1963, the course of the future changed in the U.S. and around the world. Fifty years later, that's clearer than ever. On that day I felt that the course of my life would change, and fifty years later, with that course nearly run, it is a certainty. It was the day that everything changed for me. My life would perhaps not even resemble what it is today had President Kennedy lived and completed his second term. Not just because of him but because of what he would have done and not done, as opposed to what others did and did not do.

 I've avoided nearly everything on the Internet about this anniversary, and absolutely everything on TV (since I don't have it to watch.) I have video from that past, but I haven't watched that either. I've confined myself to two new books--two of the many published this year, and the tens of thousands published over the years about JFK.

 JFK's Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke ( Penguin Press) is a day by day review of those 100 days in 1963, with lots of background from earlier years. Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration. He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library. He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history. So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK since the first generation of biographies, this book turned out to be the right book to read.

 The second book is If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam), an alternate history built on the premise that President Kennedy did not die on this day fifty years ago. However it is basically built on historical fact, and much of it is about pre-11/22/63. These parts of the book match Clarke's book almost exactly. There are a few pages based on recorded conversations that are nearly identical.

 Clarke's premises is that,even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood. He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes. On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme.

 The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty. He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

 Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

 None of this surprises me, nor would any of it had surprised me on November 23, 1963. I learned that he'd been shot by a p.a. announcement from our high school principal. Then I had gym class outside. I learned that he was dead from a boy coming down the stairs to the locker room as I walked up. Hours later I was walking home with three friends, two of whom remain just about my only friends from high school. Clayton and I usually walked across the fields from Central to Carbon Road, where he would go down towards his grandmother's house and I would go up and across to my house. Johnny V. was with us that day--he lived on the street above mine. And as it happened, my debate partner Mike and I had previously arranged to work on our debate case, so he was coming home with me rather than taking a school bus to Latrobe where he lived.

 As we walked and talked we could not believe it was even possible that Lyndon Johnson could be President of the United States. That turns out to be the Kennedys' view as well. JFK is quoted in both of these books as believing LBJ would be a disaster. In our shock, and forgetting all constitutional provisions, we speculated on how Bobby Kennedy could take over for his brother. Surely that's what voters wanted.

 Everything changed in America because of the assassination itself. For me, it was the first significant death I had experienced. There hadn't yet been one in my family. But beyond the losses that arguably changed the psyche of the country, I saw a major focus of my life begin to fade.

 In my own very small way I had organized classmates and worked on the Kennedy campaign in the 1960 election. I got myself to Washington for the Inaugural and through luck and pluck managed to be one of the first ordinary citizens to shake President Kennedy's hand, two days after he became President. By 1963 I had already participated in another campaign and had very interested contacts in the local Democratic party and the still powerful unions. I was writing on world affairs (and from a very Kennedy perspective) for the school newspaper. I followed every scrap of news in print and on TV I could about the administration, wrote letters to officials and generally felt I was practically part of the Kennedy administration.

Though I tried to continue the Kennedy legacy and remain involved in politics, even working for LBJ's campaign against Goldwater in 1964, that first impulse on November 22, 1963 gradually came true. Without JFK's judgment, without his ability to communicate, without his style, things fell apart. And everything else began to change.

On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained. But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining.

 Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues. Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car. So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President. But he survives.

 In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected, and much of what Clarke's book suggests would happen does happen. The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass, JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power), he begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China. And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam. There is no Vietnam war.

 But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of these policies, and of the difference it would have made with Kennedy in office when various cultural changes occur (as represented by the Beatles, Tom Hayden, Gloria Steinem, etc.) There would be an Students for a Democratic Society, campus protests, etc. But they would not be so violent in any sense. Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer. But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves. Politics and government as public service was a Kennedy tenet, and one he wanted to emphasize in his second term. But LBJ destroyed that, temporarily for some, pretty much permanently for me.

 The Vietnam war, more than any single factor, deformed my life and in various ways and to various extents changed the lives of my friends and contemporaries. Vietnam plus LBJ plus the draft gave the 60s the edge of anger, desperation, despair.

 There were right wing crazies in the early 60s, saying about JFK pretty much what they say about Obama. But they were marginal. There were dangerous currents in the U.S. reacting to racial issues, but JFK was a quick study, and in 1963 he was aware of the new realities of the inner cities and suburbia. There was press horseshit then as now, but despite political dangers (JFK knew the South was lost for a long time because of his support of Civil Rights) the arc of history was strongly progressive. With a different 60s, there very well might have been a very different 70s, 80s and 90s. And a quite different 21st century so far.

 There's so much about why JFK could have been especially effective in a second term (while neither Clarke nor Greenfield expect he would have piled up the electoral votes that LBJ did against Goldwater in 1964, they agree that JFK would have won comfortably against Goldwater, and brought with him a Democratic congressional majority) that is hard to explain without knowing how different a time it was (though Clarke's book does a pretty good job of this.) But that's precisely the point: he was right for the times.

 As things turn out, I find myself in no position to be heard even if I tried to explain this. But I was there, and I know it. It was the turning point of my times and of my life.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

An Altered State: My March on Washington (50 Years Later)

I was 17 and a Catholic high school student when I participated in what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. I  heard my own beliefs expressed by President Kennedy in his television address that June: “We are confronted primarily by a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

 In the weekly newspaper for the Greensburg diocese, the Catholic Accent, I read about an organization called the Catholic Interracial Council that was inviting people to go to the March. I contacted the priest who was named, who talked to my parents. He must have been convincing because I got permission to go. But I got my first indication of just how small this group was going to be when I attended a meeting, and it was two priests—and me. A photographer from the Catholic Accent snapped our picture as I pretended to paint the already completed banner we would carry.

 As it turned out, we were the only three people from the diocese to march under that banner. We would meet many other people from the Pittsburgh area, organized by religious groups of various denominations as well as by labor unions and civil rights groups. Many traveled to the March from all over the country by bus, and a few by plane, including celebrities from Hollywood and legendary entertainer Josephine Baker from Paris. I boarded a special train from Pittsburgh, one of the twenty or so originating from various places that were added to take people to the March.

 Recently reviewing video from that day posted on YouTube, I was amazed to see a few frames of my 17 year-old self arriving at Washington’s Union Station, walking towards the camera and trying to look appropriately serious, in my dark suit, white shirt and tie. (I'm on the far right at 11:32 or so.)

 I also looked alert. Vigilance to the possibility of violence was universal that day. From police commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, to the murder of Medgar Evers outside his home in Mississippi, it had been a brutal summer in the South. It’s been estimated that over 14,000 demonstrators across the South (including high school students) were arrested during those months, with at least one death.  But the March was very well organized along principles of non-violence.  It was the template used for demonstrations afterwards.

 When I got home I wrote of the “dedicated and dignified fervor” around me at the march. But high spirits were also part of that day’s rhythm. From Union Station to the Lincoln Memorial there was always singing. For me it started even earlier, when I restlessly explored the train, wandering through one quiet car after another until I suddenly pushed open a heavy door to a car literally packed to the rafters with young people. Some were perched in the luggage racks. Several at the far end of the car were playing guitars, and everyone was singing.

 The march itself was like one long song. It is more powerful in my memory than the hours of speeches at the reflecting pool. Looking into the faces of the people nearest me, and all of us looking around, my feelings became a reflection of what we felt in common. We were astonished by our numbers, by the fact of us all there, of the reality that was completely new. The overwhelming mood was wonder. It was a sustained altered state, a living dream.

 We had a sense of unanticipated numbers on the march, but the dimensions of the day weren’t clear until we got to the reflecting pool. So many people (since settled at 250,000, the largest demonstration in U.S. history to that date) and yet the transfixing feeling of peace—I don’t think anyone had foreseen this.

 I saw the joy and wonder and the tears as black people of different ages and from different parts of the country saw each other there. I was also aware that in this context they could see a young white face undistorted by hate or contempt.

 We’d marched and sung together, but even as an audience for the program at the Lincoln Memorial, the interactions didn’t stop-- interactions that in the mid-1960s were still rare. Now we stood in line together at portable water fountains and toilets. We bunched and sprawled on the grass together, sweating under the same steamy sun, both drowsy and responsive to the inspiring words and music coming through the not always comprehensible fuzz of the sound system. We felt careful courtesy becoming a release into a common regard. We looked at each other.

 We listened to Dr. Martin Luther King together, quoting an American hymn—“From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” We heard his American litany reach its crescendo: “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!...Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!”

 “And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring... from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’"

 He spoke of a dream that he saw reflected in the water in front of him.

 The official intent of the March was to support passage of the Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy sent to Congress a few days after his June speech. Immediately afterwards I recall commentary in the press calling it a failure because that bill was stalled in Congress (it would pass in early 1964.) Today the march is better remembered than the political reason for it.

 Race has still not been erased as deep separation, nor has full racial justice been achieved. But fifty years after that day, my memories aren’t of politics or even history. They are physical. They are of a future glimpsed by being lived.

Fifty years later President Obama called this day "as important as any day in American history."  In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial he carried the theme sounded by Martin Luther King--of no one being free unless all are free--into the present and the future:

Because they marched, America became more free and more fair -- not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. and the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid."

"But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together. We’ll have to reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling, the coalition of conscience that found expression in this place 50 years ago."

 "That’s where courage comes from -- when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone. That’s where courage comes from.   And with that courage, we can stand together for good jobs and just wages. With that courage, we can stand together for the right to health care in the richest nation on Earth for every person. With that courage, we can stand together for the right of every child, from the corners of Anacostia to the hills of Appalachia, to get an education that stirs the mind and captures the spirit, and prepares them for the world that awaits them. 

 With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise. America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there. Yes, we will stumble, but I know we’ll get back up. That’s how a movement happens. That’s how history bends. That's how when somebody is faint of heart, somebody else brings them along and says, come on, we’re marching." 

 "There’s a reason why so many who marched that day, and in the days to come, were young -- for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream differently, to imagine something better."

[More at Dreaming Up Daily, Blue Voice and Kowincidence.]

Monday, July 08, 2013

Rooms of Nostalgia

From a report in the New York Times on psychological research into the functions of nostalgia:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future."

The research has been conducted over a number of years by Constantine Sedikides.   “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times..."  

Nostalgia has long been identified as an illness or more recently as a symptom of psychological problems, mostly depression.  But this research sees its compensatory and humanizing functions.

“The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America,” Dr. Wildschut says. The topics are universal — reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.

Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing” — researchers distinguish it from reminiscing — helps them feel better. 

A couple of fascinating findings, though not counterintuitive ones: Nostalgia is often sparked by music--the old songs bring it back.  And people "nostalgize" (yes, they wouldn't get any grants if they didn't make up an important sounding word) more on cold days or in cold rooms, and the memories give them a physical feeling of warmth.  They don't feel the cold so much.

The usefulness of nostalgia seems to vary with age, according to Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England. She and her colleagues have found that nostalgia levels tend to be high among young adults, then dip in middle age and rise again during old age.

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.” 

There are dangers, which have prompted the dour diagnosis of indulging in nostalgia:

Of course, memories can also be depressing. Some researchers in the 1970s and ’80s suggested that nostalgia could worsen a problem that psychologists call self-discontinuity, which is nicely defined in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” by Stephen Stills: “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.” This sense of loss and dislocation has repeatedly been linked to both physical and mental ills.

But the feeling of discontinuity doesn’t seem to be a typical result of nostalgia, according to recent studies. In fact, people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity if they nostalgize more frequently...

This research stumbles for me where it usually does: in the dubious details of the actual studies.  I'm not sure how they earn this unsurprising conclusion, but here it is:

Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.” 

"Nostalgia" means the yearning for a lost home.  What that means, and why the yearning, changes according to age and circumstances.  Sedikides suggests that taking the "those were the days" approach is not helpful to, for example, an old person nearing the end.  But it can be helpful in the final quest for a sense of meaning: "what has my life meant?"

But of course such research has to lead to a self-help plan.

Dr. Sedikides, now 54, still enjoys nostalgizing about Chapel Hill, although his range has expanded greatly over the past decade. He says that the years of research have inspired strategies for increasing nostalgia in his own life. One is to create more moments that will be memorable.

“I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. “We call this anticipatory nostalgia and have even started a line of relevant research.” 

He suggests "nostalgizing" two or three times a week.  So schedule that, won't you, along with your pilates, meditation and revising your life plan?  

Once again, the startling findings of psychology are anticipated by many centuries of literature, drama and music. In art, Magritte referred to the "nostalgia for the infinite" (title of the accompanying 1912 painting) that is part of the yearning expressed in a lot of visual art but also in the fascination with vastness and mysteries that leads people into fields like astrophysics and archeology.

  People in general already understood that they are nurtured by memories, find dimension to their lives in the past and in learning about ancestors, and that while even the best personal memories are bittersweet, they are important to who we are.  The dreamy, airy, watery imagery of nostalgia is part of what grounds us. 

We may be haunted by lost homes, but those emotions can be embraced as important parts of our selves. Older people tend to live in the past more, and that past continually expands--more information, texture, clearer memories, deepening memories and more images that feed one another--until the past assumes a bigger presence in the present.  It becomes much more of who we are.  Just as we keep and display photos etc. from our past or of our ancestors, the ever-changing and deepening feelings we get as we return to those   mysterious scenes become rooms in the homes we make each day of our present.

So it's not nostalgia exactly.  Because it's being welcomed back into our present lives, part of our totality again.  It's helping to furnish where we live now.   

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

RFK on The Future

On the 45th anniversary of his assassination, some words on the future, from speeches made at various times and places by Robert F. Kennedy.

 "The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present."

 "The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the great enterprises and ideals of American society."

 "We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be enobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land."

 "If we fail to dare, if we do not try, the next generation will harvest the fruit of our indifference; a world we did not want - a world we did not choose - but a world we could have made better, by caring more for the results of our labors. And we shall be left only with the hollow apology of T.S. Eliot: 'That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all'."

Monday, March 04, 2013


This is one of the videos now on Youtube from a concert featuring James Taylor and his son, Ben Taylor.  The video quality isn't great but the sound is okay, and you certainly get the message.  This is the most fun of the ones I saw.  Ben's voice is so much like James it's almost scary.  But he says he's influenced by his mother, too, who happens to be Carly Simon.  James Taylor is an American Master, probably the best to come out of our 60s generation as a singer, guitarist and performer as well as songwriter.  It looks like another generation is going to get to hear his music live.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Start Making Sense

Through press secretary Jay Carney, the Obama administration today ruled out raising the eligibility age for Medicare.  It was proposed as a deficit-cutting measure.

Ezra Klein has a first take at the reasoning.  But he doesn't mention the most obvious argument against it, and it's me.  I've been paying into Medicare, not only the tax but direct payments because I am eligible for Medicare Part B, and had to sign up for it at 65 or deal with penalties later.  So I'm paying into it and so far haven't used it.

That's the logic of insurance.  Healthier members support it, and the younger members are more likely to be the healthier.  Raising the eligibility age would likely increase costs relative to money coming in.

Because everybody misses this--we PAY either directly or by a hit on Social Security checks for Medicare Part B, which is doctors.  That, plus fairly high deductibles, and this is no free ride.  Right now it's costing me what individual medical insurance cost me maybe 10 or 15 years ago.  Which is good, but it's not free. For me it is a major monthly expense.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Conventional wisdom--what "everybody" believes--is a tricky thing.  When it involves assumptions based on experience, you have to ask, whose experience?  Who shares it?

I'm probably not the only early boomer to notice that "everybody" doesn't necessarily include those of us who had different formative experiences in our youth.  For instance, there's the perception that every American household has always had a handgun around.  It's a birthright.  Right?

I don't know if this is an age related thing, though I suspect it is.  I grew up in western Pennsylvania in the 1950s, and in my neighborhood, lots of fathers hunted.  We all knew when rabbit and pheasant and deer season were. You know, Deer Hunter country. So we saw hunting rifles.  The occasional shotgun.  The only handguns I ever saw were partially disassembled souvenirs from World War II.  Maybe it was the proximity of that war in time that helped make guns rare.  So the idea that houses on my street would be brimming with  assault rifles is as strange as if you told me our neighbors were extraterrestrials.  Stranger, actually.

But here's something I do know.  I heard Ezra Klein talking on MSNBC about the violence of pro football today, and the increasing evidence that it causes serious and permanent harm to players.  Klein, who is a young man, probably surprised viewers who see him as a numbers nerd with the information that he was a nose tackle in high school, and liked hitting people.  The big hits, he said, that's why we watch NFL football.

This is a popular view, especially among sportscasters.  But I did not grow up with that kind of football.  I did not see that kind of football in high school--and where and when I was, high school football was king.  It was way more important than college and pro football.  But even those games did not feature vicious hits.  They weren't rewarded, no one talked about them.  A player injured badly enough to stop play was rare, and a hush fell over the stadium.  It was a shame.  It wasn't football.

To this day I watch football for athletic plays, not big hits.  I watch less and less football, as games are more and more interrupted not only by blocks of commercials but of time spent watching players crowding around a teammate in pain, or watching him be carted off the field in a stretcher.

It doesn't have to be football.  The Constitution does not say everybody has to have a gun, and the biggest gun they can buy.  It wasn't that way, and therefore, it doesn't have to be that way.  Changing what's become a runaway insane gun culture, and a big money football culture, all very difficult perhaps.  But today's gun culture and today's football culture are not written in stone.    

Monday, November 05, 2012

A Vote for the Future

Older people often care passionately about the future, even if--and maybe especially if--it is not a future we are likely to share.  We care about the future of the children we love, and the young in general.  We care about legacy, about the world we will leave behind, and its future.

There are plenty of reasons why older Americans should vote in their own interests to reelect President Obama, and for Democratic candidates to the Senate and House.  Democrats created Social Security and Medicare, and especially these days, only they can be trusted to protect them.  As much as they try to obscure their positions now, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to end Medicare as we know it, and eventually privatize Social Security.  They also threaten Medicaid, which many older Americans will need for longterm care.  It is in our interests--and the interests of our families, we don't want to impoverish just to take care of us--to support these programs by voting for President Obama.

But we care about more than our own future.  Some look at the future of the country in financial terms.  Romney and Ryan say they worry about the burden of debt on future generations.  Yet their proposals only make that debt much larger.  They can't possibly admit the truth: that the federal deficit has been going down under President Obama, despite the Great Recession and the extraordinary programs needed to get America's economy re-started.

President Obama supports the kind of help for students of all ages to obtain the highest education they can, the kind of future-oriented industries particularly in energy, and other efforts to create a better future, with more opportunity.  For everyone, not just the wealthy and privileged.

He does not want to create social turmoil and individual pain by going back on America's promise of equal rights, of womens rights, of a sensible health care system. 

The future was much on the mind of the politically Independent Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, when he endorsed President Obama last week: 

When I step into the voting booth, I think about the world I want to leave my two daughters, and the values that are required to guide us there.

The two parties’ nominees for president offer different visions of where they want to lead America. One believes a woman’s right to choose should be protected for future generations; one does not.

That difference, given the likelihood of Supreme Court vacancies, weighs heavily on my decision. One recognizes marriage equality as consistent with America’s march of freedom; one does not. I want our president to be on the right side of history.

  One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both found success while their parties were out of power in Congress -- and President Obama can, too. If he listens to people on both sides of the aisle, and builds the trust of moderates, he can fulfill the hope he inspired four years ago and lead our country toward a better future for my children and yours. And that’s why I will be voting for him.

Monday, October 22, 2012

R.I. P. George McGovern

George McGovern died Sunday at the age of 90. I remain proud that my first vote for a presidential candidate was for him in 1972. I covered aspects of his campaign for the Boston Phoenix, and met him briefly. I've never seen as devastated an election night headquarters as I did in Boston that November, even though Massachusetts was the only state he won.

During that campaign I wrote about what reporters were digging up about Watergate, and about the Nixon administration which McGovern rightly called "the most corrupt in history." Not that anybody listened, until later when everyone was forced to listen. And so for years I proudly carried on my guitar case the bumper sticker, "Don't Blame Me, I'm From Massachusetts."

In his remembrance of George McGovern at Daily Kos, Meteor Blades (who is one of my touchstones for my generation) quoted this passage from McGovern's last book, which he published when nearing that age of 90:

"During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I've been labeled a 'bleeding-heart liberal.' It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy towards others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to be stirred, even to tears, by society's ills. And sympathy is the first step toward action. Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction "Love the neighbor as thyself." —George S. McGovern, What It Means to Be a Democrat (2011)

This was his faith, the faith of a liberal. It's always seemed more than ironic to me that the original bleeding-heart liberal was Christ. That's the source of the phrase--it's the bleeding heart of Christ. George McGovern, a World War II bomber pilot from South Dakota, ran for president in 1972 to end the war in Vietnam. Because of the extent of his electoral loss, he became something of a disgraced figure. Yet he served honorably in the Senate--a stalwart public servant--for decades more. He continued to represent a flinty goodness--a faith in the better aspects of our nature, which don't really need or depend on the religious imagery. "You'd do the same for me" is a human faith, regardless of any injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself, which is psychologically dubious anyway.

  The other side of that leads to a vital sternness of principle. There is nothing mamby-pamby about this 1970 McGovern statement in support of his Senate amendment to end the war, which MB also quotes:

"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us."

Only Bobby Kennedy could have been so forthright and eloquent, and McGovern had been forced by his assassination to take up his banner. It was a terrible time. But his brave voice spoke for many in my generation, including me. And for that especially I remember him.  (Here's another summation of his career.)

Rest in peace, George McGovern.You led an honorable, thoughtful, courageous public life, and this country is better for your service.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Among the Forgotten

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It's not often that the decisions young men had to make in the 1960s about Vietnam and the draft come up, and almost never is the decision  to oppose both and refuse to participate in either given any respect. But Lawrence O'Donnell does it here, in the context of highlighting the amorality of Mitt Romney in actively supporting the war and the draft, and taking a deferement that apparently only Mormons got, so he was not drafted and did not risk participating in the war he advocated.

It is all still a very sore subject.  Soldiers returning from that war felt disrespected.  Perhaps for that reason alone, although probably for others as well, it has been harder for many Vietnam vets to make peace with protestors of that war than it has been for them to make peace with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers they fought against. 

It has been decades now since anyone has experienced anything like what we experienced, being subject to the draft at the height of the Vietnam war.  Once again there are the naive proponents of a new draft as a way to solve the very real problems of those who serve in the military today.  They don't know what they're talking about. 

How America treats its military veterans is criminal.  But First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President, have persistently highlighted their plight, and advocated for them.  O'Donnell is right to point the finger at Mitt Romney, who sees the military, and the horrors of war, only in terms of money.  All he can say is that he wants to increase military spending.   It is money that largely fuels war--money that people like Romney make in huge quantities, while poor young men and women suffer and die so those "builders" can become richer.  That's the brutal truth of it.

In the meantime, there remains another set of young men who made moral decisions in the 1960s who have been disrespected ever since.  O'Donnell's words are rare, and welcome.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Magical Again

Martin Amis is a writer I've admired mostly from afar. I've enjoyed the novels I've read and the non-fiction collection about the 80s, The Moronic Inferno, a title that describes the 80s and a lot of the ever since. But I haven't read a lot of his work, for often his most urgent concerns are not mine--at least not of the same moment. Maybe it's just that his life has been so different from mine.

  But he was quoted making an observation that I've not only never read anybody else make, I've never heard anyone else say. He was describing something that happens to him, that I thought that for all intents and purposes, only happens to me. He said that he is often caught offguard by a memory of something that attacks him with regret and chagrin, seemingly out of the blue, just walking down the street or in any daily situation. A small regret would emerge unbidden but with such power that they stop him in his tracks, literally, as he walks down the street, and he involuntarily winces and mutters to himself because of some small memory that had the peculiar force of shame and the pitiless, bottomless thump of regret.

Now he's done it again, in a recent interview (published at Smithsonian online and flagged by Andrew Sullivan's site.) He has identified something I am dimly aware is happening to me--that in recent days I've become more conscious of.

Here's what he said: "Your youth evaporates in your early 40s when you look in the mirror. And then it becomes a full-time job pretending you’re not going to die, and then you accept that you’ll die. Then in your 50s everything is very thin. And then suddenly you’ve got this huge new territory inside you, which is the past, which wasn’t there before. A new source of strength. Then that may not be so gratifying to you as the 60s begin [Amis is 62], but then I find that in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance, that it’s not going to be around very long, this world, so it begins to look poignant and fascinating.”

Yes, there is that "huge new territory inside" which is "the past." But especially, "in your 60s, everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again." It does. It's a bit easier to appreciate the moment. I'm very aware that this is a golden time--I'm reasonably healthy, I am without physical pain, temporarily secure--well, the sense that it is certainly all temporary. But it is, right now. And the day is easier to appreciate. People, relationships that are good--and the blessings I have here, of this lovely air, especially in the sunny autumn of the North Coast. It is fascinating and it is poignant, and it's sharpened by the awareness not only that it will all soon end, but you don't know when it will start ending, or how.