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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Quiet, Rainy Day Meanderings

Bubbling in the pot

One of my resolutions for 2020 was to make my rhubarb chutney closer to the time of cutting the rhubarb, rather than waiting until fall to dig it out of the freezer, and Tuesday was the day. (I started to type “Saturday was the day.” Why did Tuesday feel like Saturday? I can’t tell you.) First batch now neatly in jars, second batch will follow on another day at home. Because I did stay home on today-Tuesday-that-felt-like-Saturday. Home with rain on the roof, fire in the fireplace, dog stretched out close to the hearth. Being at home has become a habit, and one to which, for now, I cling. 

Daisies that seemed to float in the sea of tall grass are looking bewildered today, not lifting their faces to the sun but gazing confusedly in all directions. The grass is equally confused and discouraged, bending this way, drooping that way. Only the jewelweed maintains its posture, and its leaves hold forth raindrops like offered pearls.

This morning I finished my reading of The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power, by Garry Wills, and the impression I formed halfway through the book was only strengthened by the remaining chapters. Wills shocked me with the realization of how much the Kennedy presidency presaged that of Donald Trump: disdain for experts and professionals; placement of yes-men and toadies in important positions; exaggerations, lies, and coverups; attempts to manipulate the press, whenever possible; impatience with normal channels of procedure; decision by impulse and instinct rather than knowledge and reflection; intolerance of disagreement; and, always, first and foremost, overwhelming concern for personal image. The big difference was that the Kennedy family and in-group were more successful at manipulating and controlling their presidential image than the current president has been.

Democratic Party? Republican Party? Philosophy and ideology ride in the back backseat when demagoguery is at the wheel.

No one goes into the presidency prepared. (In that respect, it is like parenthood.) While wise presidents make it their business to learn on the job, as quickly as they can, one who enters office as if he has, by winning an election, conquered the country and become its reigning prince does not recognize that being chief executive is a job and that the job carries duties and responsibilities. He sees only his privileges and his authority over others. It is a quasi-solipsistic L’état c’est moi state of mind. Has anyone with that perspective ever wakened from his dream of absolute power? Wills aptly notes that such power does more than corrupt: it self-destructs. 


To shift topics rather abruptly and radically, another realization that’s been on my mind in the past few days has to do with the collegiality of bookselling. The very word ‘collegial’ calls up the Ivory Tower, the quadrangular greensward, and men and women in medieval gowns and mortarboards, a world in which I did spend a few years. What I realize now, however, is that not only is bookselling very much a collegial line of work – I believe it to be a more collegial world than that of acadème. 

Because a bookstore is a business venture, one outside the bookselling world might be excused for thinking that bookstore owners would regard each other primarily as competition. In general, I have not found that to be the case. Other than the online behemoth who wants to put all others out of business (all retailers, not just bookstores), we booksellers applaud one another’s successes. We want to see all indie bookstores, not just ours, flourish. We see each other and treat each other not as competitors but as colleagues. 

In the Ivory Tower of the academic world, such collegiality is the ideal, but I saw something very different on the inside. It may have been otherwise fifty years ago, but nowadays, when colleges and universities are being pushed more and more into a “business” model, each department is in competition with all other departments, and each faculty member not yet tenured (tenure much rarer these days than formerly, with adjunct instructor positions replacing tenure track positions, as adjuncts are so much cheaper) in competition with every other faculty member and wannabe-hired, making for a rather cutthroat world. Harsh. Catty. Unkind. Unforgiving. Pretty depressing.

In contrast, we booksellers know from the start that we will never have guaranteed tenure. We will never have a guaranteed salary or benefits. We went into this with our eyes open, we’re on our own, we know it from the get-go – and so we recognize other booksellers as being in the same fragile, easily swamped kind of boat, and when our boats get close enough, we salute each other with encouraging smiles. “Hey! Still sailing? Great!” 

So I have no regrets about the world I have chosen. None of us is seeking world domination. Each her or his own little bit, and we’re happy to share the pie.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What Happens When We Buy the Sizzle

This weekend I’m reading a deeply fascinating and unbelievably depressing book, The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power, by Garry Wills, published in 1982, and this morning, having progressed beyond the midpoint of the book but still far from the end, I find myself coming to a rather startling conclusion, one that, in its specificity, would have been impossible in 1982. Simply stated, I have come to see that the presidency of John F. Kennedy had much in common with and in many ways presaged the presidency of Donald Trump.

(If you believe only books written contemporaneously with events are worth reading -- that they have in them somehow more truth -- you would bypass The Kennedy Imprisonment, because it was written years after the JFK’s assassination. In my years in the secondhand book business, I have heard more than once from readers who reject out-of-hand any kind of secondary research and any account offering historical perspective. I believe, to the contrary, that perspective is exactly what we could use in much larger helpings. The more time elapses, the more can come to light.)

Wills, I need hardly say, was not offering a comparison of the two presidencies, since in 1982 the election results of November 2015 could hardly be imagined, but the subtitle of his book, A Meditation on Power, encourages me in making the comparison and offering it today.

Obvious similarities are not necessarily unimportant for being obvious: 

o  Both Kennedy and Trump had influential, larger-than-life fathers who gave their sons much more than example to put them on the road to success. 

o  Both families downplayed their ethnic backgrounds: the Trumps claimed to be Swedish rather than German until the 1980s, and the Kennedy family did everything it could to appear English rather than Irish. (Only to win the Irish Catholic vote did JFK claim his ancestry and even then refused to wear a hat, because, according to Wills, hats were symbolic of Irish-American politicians.) 

o  Both presidents, while campaigning and while in the White House, distorted and even falsified numerous facts of their own lives, exaggerating or even inventing achievements for themselves while sweeping under the rug (and attempting to nail down the rug’s edges) unsavory actions and events.

o  Both surrounded themselves with family guaranteed to be loyal to their images and swelled the ranks of courtiers with other yes-men and toadies. A parallel to Mafia organization is not inappropriate in either case.

o  For both Kennedy and Trump, appearance trumped substance, and attempts to control appearances were (and are today) for them the most important aspect of being president. 

These, as I say, are obvious similarities, and while obvious they are far from trivial, but there are other ways Kennedy and Trump presidencies mirror one another that speak more directly to the executive function of the presidency itself. 

o  Both presidents placed friends and relatives in key positions, rather than relying on more qualified, experienced men and women. Career diplomats were particularly despised.

o  Both shunned meetings of any kind, especially Cabinet meetings. These presidents were not interested in consulting others and informing themselves but in “shooting from the hip” and making decisions on the fly.

o  As for established governmental departments, both felt challenged to bring them to heel rather than work with them, let alone learn from them.

o  Congress, when it failed to fall into line with the president’s wishes of the moment, was regarded by both these presidents as the enemy.

For all the above-listed reasons, these two presidents tended to move (‘govern’ seems too grand a word) from crisis to crisis, unprepared for each as it came along. They were thus “exciting” presidents, always in the news, dominating American life with larger-than-life personalities out front and, behind the curtain, a woeful grasp of the duties and responsibilities of the office of president.

I grew up in a Republican household, where even we three children wore “I Like Ike” buttons. We – and I say this in full recognition that, as children, we tended to parrot our parents’ views – were unaffected by the charm of “Camelot” as applied to JFK. Still, my mother and I cried when he was killed. He was the president, assassinated! It was a terrible, fearful time. 

I bring my family background in only to say that Garry Wills did not destroy a grand illusion for me with his book. He did, however, show me depths and details I had never suspected in the darkness that preceded Kennedy’s death, a terrible darkness behind the glamor and style of that era’s White House. And now – this glaring similarity I see between the showman of the 1960s and the showman of today. A “cult of personality” is one in which personality rather than accomplishment takes center stage. We had it in the 1960s, and we have it again today.

President Kennedy wanted Americans (in a speech written by Theodore Sorensen) to ask what they could do for their country, but everything he did was for his own image. 

President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but has only introduced a new cast of swamp creatures – and again, he is in service primarily and always to his own image.

What lesson do I take away from this? Primarily, that while the two major political parties of this country have very different ideologies, neither party is immune to the dangers of a cult of personality and the way it erodes government, that of the United States no less than any other country. And unfortunately, “strong” personality is easy to sell. 

It’s advertising. You don’t sell the steak (substance) but the sizzle (desire). By the time the buyer figures out his plate is empty, you’ve already captured his vote, and he won’t want to admit later that he was hoodwinked.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

See Other Blog

See the current story over on Northport Bookstore News. I'll be my usual discursive self again on this blog in the near future.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Tiny Bookseller Claims Title

(This was just to lure you in!)
One of the occasional hazards of baring one’s soul passionately on serious subjects is that it can invite hostile comment. After I allowed myself a blogging outburst recently – sick and tired of holding back diplomatically in the face of continual and repeated public outrages, I should add – a hostile comment came my way from an anonymous source. In that first comment from Anonymous, I was called an “agitator” and a “nihilist leftist.” Anonymous also called me a “book enthusiast,” which would not be my own chosen self-descriptor but one I don’t find offensive. “Nihilist leftist,” though? That's just plain not who I am. A little left of center, maybe. Nihilist, never! As for agitating, maybe I should do more, but generally I try to be take a diplomatic route. The post in question was a departure from my usual public persona. It was a cry of anguish. 

That’s all background to what I want to say today. Because today Anonymous came back with a second comment, which in a roundabout way seems to imply that I am a “slave” to some kind of “circular rhetoric” promulgated by some unnamed group of “masters.” 

Anonymous is difficult to answer – impossible to respond to directly, as s/he makes only unsupported assertions, not arguments, and does not make clear any of the connections vaguely implied. And why would Anonymous bother to argue with me, since s/he clearly believes I am not an independent thinker but a mental “slave”? Okay, so Anonymous doesn’t argue. More to the point, though, why does Anonymous bother with me at all? Perhaps the idea is to convince my handful of readers to throw me overboard? We few, we happy few!

Well, the best events in my sequestered, self-quarantined life this past week have been a few private, personal, honest, heartfelt and respectful exchanges with people whose views are very different from my own. We spoke to each other. We heard each other. We felt respected by each other. As different from potshots from an anonymous source as June is from January. 

But it isn’t the anonymity that’s so bothersome, because some people don’t have Google accounts and don’t want Google accounts, and I don't have a problem with people who comment as Anonymous. What’s so troubling is the lack of context, absence of argument, and omission of any citations or examples to help me make sense of the accusations against me, so that what could be genuine dialogue remains instead a hollow mockery. And surely, I think helplessly, the fog of name-calling from Anonymous hides some deep hurt. There is a person behind the veil of anonymity, after all, someone who is hurt and afraid and angry, as well as someone who doesn’t know me at all. Someone I cannot reach, don't know how to connect with. That is the sad part, the part that troubles me.

One little laugh brightened the gloom, however. Anonymous referred to me as a “tiny book seller.” Tiny! Not as tiny as I used to be, many long years ago! Now in my eighth decade of life, I might just as well be called a “little old lady bookseller.” Perhaps, though, “tiny” refers to my business rather than to my person, and it’s true that I have never been able to afford paid employees and have struggled along for years with a single part-time volunteer. Yeah, that’s pretty tiny. 

Tiny but independent! Not subject to a corporate straitjacket, not held back by a board of directors, not burdened with business debt (although offers to plunge into debt have never been lacking), and certainly not shackled to any particular viewpoint other than my own, which has shifted and evolved over the decades and may yet enlarge and mature as long as I have my marbles. 

Once a customer from France asked me the secret of my success (i.e., survival) in the age of the online behemoth’s world domination. I told him I am stubborn. 

So let me claim, here and now, the title that Anonymous has foisted on me and declare myself to the world as the Tiny Bookseller! Tiny -- and fiercely, stubbornly independent. As a little third-grader I tutored once in reading said to me once, so memorably, “That’s what I am, and I’m proud of it!”

Stubbornly, independently yours, 

The Tiny Bookseller of Northport, Michigan

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Of Little Girls and Cocktails, of Dogs and Hotels

June roadside, northern Michigan

With my first cup of Saturday morning coffee, I finished the last few chapters of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, a runaway bestseller when it was published in 2016. I have yet to read the author’s first novel, another bestseller, Rules of Civility, so how the two may compare I will not be able to say. As for A Gentleman in Moscow, the impression I had early in my reading of the novel remained with me to the last page. It is this: that although Count Rostov carries out a complicated plan for the story’s dramatic finale (actually, two plans -- one for himself, another for Sofia), the real main character of the book is the hotel.

The Hotel Metropole, in the heart of Moscow, “was a residence hotel par excellence, an oasis for the worn and weary.” In June of 1922 [June – the very month in which I am reading the novel] Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who grew up on a country estate called Idlehour in Nizhny Novgorod and who has been residing at the Hotel Metropole for almost four years, is declared by the authorities to be a Former Person and sentenced to permanent house arrest at the hotel. If he is caught setting foot outside the door, he will be shot. The only reason he is allowed to live at all is because of a poem published under his name, a poem for which he is still regarded as a hero of the pre-revolutionary cause by certain high-ranking Party members. While under house arrest, Rostov, with an intrepid little girl in a yellow dress as his guide, manages to invade every nook and cranny, from cellar to attic, a Former Person spying on others much more than anyone ever spies on him, and as he explores the hotel the reader is introduced to it in loving detail.

That hotel! It is a whole world! Rooms, suites, restaurants, bar, ballroom, barbershop, florist. Rather than being obviously part of Moscow between the two world Wars, the Metropole seems to exist not in Russia at all, perhaps not even on earth, but in a land of fantasy, with its continuous, smooth-running operations, elaborate menu offerings, and seemingly inexhaustible cellar of fine wines. Another realm altogether!

In the novel the years 1929 and 1930 come and go without desperation or even any serious scarcity visiting the hotel, and from the beginning political horrors are so muted as to seem very distant and abstract. Intelligence, quick thinking, urbane wit, and instances of timely good luck dispel danger and conquer petty annoyances.

Apple tree, pruned and blooming

[It has been interesting to read this book in the time of coronavirus and protest demonstrations, while we are self-quarantining at home for 14 days after a harrowing five-day drive across the country. Self-quarantine is hardly equivalent to house arrest, but there are some similarities, the most obvious being the constraints on movement. But also, I must admit, a sense of safety and almost luxury in isolation, very like what the Count enjoyed at the Hotel Metropole. It is hardly prison, after all, being confined to one’s home with plenty to eat and, in our case, honeysuckle and apple trees in bloom.

How, though, I keep wondering, is the count paying for all those meals and all those bottles of wine? Surely he was not producing one gold coin after another from the hidden compartment sin the legs of his grandmother’s tea table! That would have brought the authorities down on him instantly to demand the source of the coins! So what is he doing for money? In real, historic Moscow, such a question would have to be asked and answered. In a fantasy hotel, it does not arise.

[The Artist and I, on the other hand, are very aware of financial resources, bills to be paid, provisions to be purchased, and limitations on what we can spend, with future income so uncertain.]

Nine-year-old Nina comes suddenly into the Count’s life.

“Where did they go?” she asked, without a word of introduction. 
“I beg your pardon. Where did who go?” 

She tilted her head to take a closer look at his face.  
“Why, your moustaches.”   
The Count had not much cause to interact with children, but he had been raised well enough to know that a child should not idly approach a stranger, should not interrupt him in the middle of a meal, and certainly should not ask him questions about his physical appearance. Was the minding of one’s own business no longer a subject taught in schools?

[At home, at the moment, I have both the burdens and the luxury of isolation. Luxury, because I was not ready on Monday morning, the first of June, to re-open my bookstore or to answer again and again the curious questions of friends and strangers. “Were you gone for the winter?” “Where did you go?” “How long were you gone?” “What do you do out there?” “How was the trip back?” “Are you glad to be home?” One person at a time I can handle. Thinking of more, I feel overwhelmed. Because ever since early March, when businesses closed across the country and shelter-in-place orders came down, we have all been living in some kind of alternate reality, riding an emotional rollercoaster in limbo, separated from one another by much more than 2,000 miles.] 

First comes Nina, a child. Then Anna, a beautiful woman. Later, Sofia, Nina’s child who gradually becomes his own. (And finally?) 

Besides these, the Count becomes a member of "the Triumvirate" when he joins the ranks of hotel employees as headwaiter, responsible for careful seating arrangements to ensure frictionless dining in the hotel’s premier restaurant. In a word, he has close friends and important relationships, although he can meet his friends only within the confines of the hotel.

[I have seen three friends since our return. With one the conversation was conducted with my car between us on the street. Another visit took place in my yard, with the friend in his car while I stood at a distance. A third visitor came onto our front porch, but we sat so far apart that we often had to repeat parts of the conversation that the other had missed hearing.]

And now, permit me to leave the more important aspects of the novel for a tangent. Willowy Anna, the actress, first appears at the Metropole with two borzois on leashes. The dogs do not play a large role in the story as it continues – theirs is but a cameo appearance – but these lines jumped out at me:

You may accuse a dog of eating without grace or of exhibiting a misplaced enthusiasm for the tossing of sticks, but you may never accuse one of giving up hope. 

The hope of the borzois in the passage quoted is that they may have a chance (they do not) of catching the one-eyed cat. 

Sarah, back in Michigan, in the front seat again

[Our dog, Sarah, was with us all winter and spring and traveled twice across the country in a very small space in the back seat of our small car, with never a complaint. When one motel clerk would have turned us away, saying they did not accept dogs, the Artist said simply, “We can’t live without her,” and she was allowed to share our room. She has impeccable motel manners, by the way: never a bark, never an accident. Sometimes we think about dogs that spend their days chained or fenced without companionship of any kind. How does a dog survive that kind of isolation? I contend that the dog’s undying hope is what gets it through each day, the possibility that at any moment life might change for the better. But how can a dog bring about change? Its repertoire and opportunities are dreadfully limited.] 

We human beings are more fortunate than dogs in the exercise of our free will and self-determination. What we imagine and desire we can often bring about.

And that’s where I want to leave you today, with a suggestion author Amor Towles gives us from the movie “Casablanca,” that 

… in setting upright the cocktail glass in the aftermath of the commotion, didn’t [Rick] also exhibit an essential faith that by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world?

Radish sprouts, tiny but determined

Friday, June 5, 2020

We Are Home Again. But We Were Always Home

We Came Home to Apple Blossoms

It seems much longer than a week since we left the little Arizona ghost town where we spent the winter and, as it turned out, spring. Five days on the road (by the calendar) felt about a month long. In light of what was happening in cities across the country, we abandoned the plan to travel I-80 and instead took old U.S. highways, mostly through farm towns, back to Michigan through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and we arrived at our old northern Michigan farmhouse after sunset last Sunday evening. 

Only six days ago? Is that possible? Those six days feel as if they have been a second long month, maybe two months. -- Now my sister tells me today is Friday, not Saturday. It was only five days ago. Even harder to believe....

As we initially prepared to leave Cochise County, Arizona, crossing the country in the time of coronavirus had been our most serious concern, and that never went away. (With restaurants closed, we made the trip on granola bars, trail mix, dried fruits, apples, and string cheese, with a couple treats of chicken from gas stations and one day a bag of fast food cheeseburgers obtained via the drive-through lane.) But we waited until after Memorial Day to leave, with Wednesday the designated departure day after a Tuesday of laundry and packing the car and cleaning up the cabin, and then the murder of George Floyd occurred on the evening of Memorial Day, which was already the strangest and most surreal Memorial Day in living memory, due to coronavirus….

Important demonstrations. Legitimate protests. There were also, in and near some of the crowds of protesters, opportunistic looters and even outsiders who came into Minneapolis or New York or Chicago bent on destruction. There were bursts of violence from more than one source, and while it was sometimes hard to know what was happening, it certainly seemed that the country, already as politically divided as it has been short of the Civil War and already strained by imposed isolation and shuttered businesses in an attempt to prevent the spread of a global pandemic, was now falling apart altogether. No, not falling -- imploding. 

So while the Artist was at the wheel, as busy as I was consulting the road atlas, I was just as often busy on my phone, looking for news or texting with family, especially family in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and when it was my turn to drive he kept trying to find a clear radio station with news. Had we been here before? In 1964? 1967? 1968? 

Then our little car began to run badly. It is still running badly, but it got us home, limping across the prairies and up along the Lake Michigan shore. Just one more thing to worry about.

So, a stressful trip? But friends, we had it easy! Eating gas station chicken in a parking lot somewhere on the Great Plains, we recalled American history and the days when Black Americans had to travel with the Green Book in order to plan their routes to be assured of finding meals and lodging at all. “And there was no food in gas stations back then,” the Artist remarked. As for staying in motels along the way, we are sometimes challenged to find one that will accept our dog (with or without an exorbitant added fee), but we are never turned away. No, we have it easy there, too. 

(In case you’re wondering, motel clerks were usually masked and gloved, but almost no one else was, in motels or at gas stations, once we left New Mexico behind.)

And we are not homeless. We don’t have to live in our car or in a motel. (One motel where we stayed seemed all the home many people there had.) Our mild ordeal was only five days long, and we are home now.

Friends congratulate our safe return -- by e-mail and text and phone, of course, not in person. Because even alongside demonstrations and protests and political commentary and speeches and outbursts there is still coronavirus, and so we must self-quarantine, which means we remain dependent on others to collect our mail and pick up groceries for us. But we have it easy in that respect, too, with more volunteers than necessary offering to help us. And the weather is lovely, perfect for working outdoors, always my solace in times of stress.

Yes, we are tired. Stress, lots of it. Utter exhaustion. But I know we are not the only ones feeling it because it has to do with much more than five days on the road.

While few people were crossing the country by car last week (on larger highways, trucks seemed to outnumber cars by at least an 8:1 ratio, but traffic was still light), all across the land a relentless tidal wave of news and the weight of our country’s entire history bore down on us all. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” 

“I’m tired of the hate,” one Facebook commenter wrote. I believe, from other things she said, that she referred to hate she feels is directed toward the occupant of the White House, not to hate coming from the White House, which is what disturbs me the most. If only we had a calm, encouraging captain at the wheel of state! But we don't, and what we have there is exhausting, too. The current president, when asked difficult questions, calls the press “enemies of the people” and – well, let’s not review all the name-calling and finger-pointing from the White House. Let’s just remember that it is part of the job of the press to ask difficult questions, and it is the job of the president to deal with that, whether he likes the questions or not. 

When you are president – pretend for a moment that you are -- and you are the one in the Oval Office, the buck stops with you. You don’t shift blame by pointing the finger in every other direction. The buck stops with you. That is the job.

But yes, we all get tired! Overwhelmed! And we are tired of feeling angry and defensive and misunderstood or ignored and insulted. Tired of feeling outraged. The never-ending onslaught of news and the cacophony of Facebook posts is sometimes just too much. There is an exhaustion of spirit, discouragement brought on by repeated failures of a country we love. 

Reminder: There’s nothing wrong with turning off the news for 24 hours. Take a break when you feel overwhelmed. No law requires any American to watch and/or listen. And surely, even acknowledging the addictiveness of scrolling through Facebook posts, you have absolutely zero responsibility to follow that on an hourly or even a daily basis. Or at all!

I received a text the other day from one of my sisters that former President Barack Obama was going to be speaking on MSNBC, so because we don’t have television here at home in Michigan (gave it up years ago), I used my phone to make a hotspot and got online and watched and listened, and it did me a world of good! You can watch it on YouTube (or other places, too, if you missed it last night.) President Obama is an encourager, not a blamer or a punisher. He is calm. And he is optimistic! Good heavens! No one can accuse him of being a Pollyanna -- he gives reasons for his optimism, and as I listened I began to smile, and I thought again, yes, we can. We can be better. I really needed his encouraging, inspiring words.

Because here’s something else that occurred to me yesterday. I’d just read an essay from 2016 by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, a black woman, answering a white male friend’s question about what constitutes white privilege. And then I read comments elsewhere (not on that post) from people who are tired of the news and/or fearful and/or certain there is no hope for the country or the world. And two ideas – the question of what constitutes white privilege and the idea of giving up hope – came together in my mind, and I realized that giving up and retreating to one’s own little world is the supreme white privilege. Not everyone can do that. 

Let me be clear. I’m not saying anyone needs to be out on the barricades every day -- or even at all. You don’t have to join a public demonstration. There are countless ways to make a difference.

And who doesn't need a break now and then?

So when you feel the need, turn off the radio or television or whatever device connects you to the news. Take a break. Eat ice cream. Take a walk. Soak in the tub. Whatever helps you relax.

But don’t give up hope, and don’t stop looking for whatever small ways you can find to contribute to fulfilling hope’s promise. Because we cannot afford the luxury of some self-indulgent, extended period of mourning. There is too much that needs to be done.

It is not saintly to be hopeful or to try to make a difference. It’s human – at least, it’s the better nature we need to summon up in ourselves if we are to deserve at all the gift of life on this planet. Because this is our home, this earth. For Americans, this country. Our home. We are many different peoples, with many different ways of looking at the world, but we must share our home if it is to survive.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“Have You No Sense of Decency?”

The question that came to my mind at 3 a.m., words so memorably uttered by attorney Joseph Welch in 1954, when the infamous McCarthy hearings, a.k.a. witch hunt, had gone on already for far too long. If you’re too young to remember it (and I was too young at the time to pay attention), what happened was that Senator McCarthy’s demagoguery had until that moment run virtually unchecked, as he whipped the country into a state of hysteria over suspected “internal enemies.” In the course of those Senate hearings, McCarthy destroyed reputations and sometimes lives. He must have felt all-powerful and thought nothing could stop him. Then one lawyer uttered the fateful words:

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.  
  I beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. 
  You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

To read the long exchange between McCarthy and Welch, from which these lines are excerpted and which I recommend you read in full, find it hereNow look at our country today in May 2020, through the lens of 1954

I want to ask all Americans who continue to support the man in the White House, a man who has demonstrated every day since his campaign that he has no sense of decency and who becomes only worse every day, in these difficult, difficult times when we need real leadership:

“Have you no sense of decency? Have you no conscience? Would you sacrifice your country to allow this national shame to continue?”

My parents were Republicans. My mother and I voted for John Kasich in the primary of 2016. (I should note that my father had been dead for several years and thus voted for no one.) No, I am not a registered Republican, but I wanted to vote against the man who won the nomination, in hopes he could be stopped before the race began. I could have lived with a President Kasich. What we have now is intolerable.

If the Republican Party is not to become one of the sorriest footnotes in American history, it is time for party members, especially those in the Senate, to get their act together and to renounce this man as candidate for re-election, to show the country that they have not utterly sold their souls for what can only be short-term political gain.

Monday, June 1, 2020

I Am in Mourning For Our Country

In Minneapolis, many bookstores were already closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now more have been damaged in rioting following demonstrations over the brutal murder of George Floyd, but you will not find self-pity in the words of these booksellers. As one of them acknowledged, property damage is the "least tragic" aspect of the story. So while I feel sympathy for bookstore owners and employees, most of my sympathy has to go to the murdered man's family -- and to our country at large.

Since March, we have been reeling under a global pandemic that reached our shores. One hundred thousand Americans died of coronavirus. Businesses across the country closed, and people lost their jobs. High school and college graduates had no graduation ceremonies, and children's birthdays had to be celebrated with drive-by parades of friends waving from their cars. That alone has been difficult. A long haul. Unprecedented, to use a word that has never been used so many times in so short a period in my lifetime.

The absence of meaningful national leadership has been appalling and tragic, but unsurprising. Who could have expected anything different or better, given the last three and a half years? Queen Elizabeth, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and past presidents George Bush and Barack Obama stepped forward with calm words of comfort and encouragement. We could have used comfort and encouragement on a daily basis, but we did not get it.

Then came the murder of yet another black man by a police officer, murder committed by someone pledged to protect citizens, murder captured on video for all the world to see. Rage is understandable. Don't you feel it, too? "Violence doesn't solve anything," many people say -- but tell me, what has? Peaceful demonstrations? Cases of brutality and murder brought to the courts? More extensive police training? Body cameras? 

[Update: Here is what we got from the White House today, since this post first went up.] 
[Update 6/2: Houston police chief weighs in.]

I am in mourning for this country. 

I understand the rage. I understand the impulse to destruction, even knowing it "won't solve anything." When nothing reasonable has worked, what is left?

And yet -- from so many credible reports, much of the destruction was not caused by demonstrators from the Twin Cities but by outsiders who came in for the sole purpose of, it would seem, discrediting legitimate protest. What could be more reprehensible? I do not understand that.

And I do not understand disrespect taken to the extreme of causing death. I don't understand how it is allowed to go on and on. I don't understand why so many white Americans fail to get the message of "Black Lives Matter," misinterpreting it by inserting an "only" that was never there. Black lives matter, too. How can anyone not see? I don't understand the lack of understanding.

Another thing I don't understand -- and some of you may disagree with me on this -- is why the launch of a rocket into space is supposed to fill us with hope for the future of our country. "The heavens are opening"? Great! So now we can go mess the heavens up, too? While the mess here on earth worsens? How is that supposed to make anyone feel good?

I am in mourning for this country. My country. Your country. Our country.

But mourning by itself solves nothing. It is a luxury we cannot afford.