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.