I was attracted to Sister Rochelle, my eighth-grade teacher, because she was young, smart, patient, understanding. She was the opposite of other nuns at St. James Parochial School in St. Joseph, Missouri, In the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I did have a younger teacher, Sister Julianne, in second grade, but she never took much of an interest in me. She took less interest and could be critical of me. A child can tell when a teacher finds other children more attractive and treats them differently, better.But Sister Rochelle expected me to be a better-than-average student and was interested in my development.
Unfortunately, I let her down.
Sister Rochelle was a Benedictine nun, as were other nuns at our school. Most were ancient. When I started school, our principal, Sister Mary Michael, had not only taught my older brother and three older sisters, but also my mother. Sister Mary Michael was a tough, little woman, who ran the school as she ran it when my mother attended in the 1920s and 1930s. The Benedictine nuns, all of them, were long on discipline and short on empathy.
Sister Rochelle arrived as the new principal with a different approach. But she was not a pushover. My class had several rowdy boys, and she dealt with them when she had to. But she had a soft side, a compassionate side, that made her pleasant and attractive. She was not great looking, but she was nice looking, at least not marked with the wrinkles of age. She had fair skin, was stocky but not overweight. She wore heavy-black-rimmed glasses that complemented her face and her long black habit.
She also had a physical defect, a limp, the result of one leg being shorter than the other. She didn’t let that bother her, especially when insensitive boys spoke of her as gimpy. I liked her even more because of it, and maybe she realized that. Whatever it was, I felt I was the teacher’s pet for the only time in my life.
But I let her down. I was on safety patrol one day with John Capps, and we started messing around, playing instead of being responsible crossing guards. Sister Rochelle’s disappointment was evident as she suspended me for a month.
A few weeks later, coming in from recess, Steve Eggleston began pushing and slapping me. He could be ornery, but he had never been a bully. I had no idea what came over him, but I fought back. Feisty Sister Rochelle broke it up. She was never as friendly with me after that. Maybe she thought I started the fight.
I ran into her years later, after I graduated from high school. She smiled at me, and I waited for her to ask how high school went and where I was going to college. She said, “Been in any fights lately?”
I was disappointed in myself all over again, not her.
I read The Red Pony in eighth grade, and I instantly became a fan of the author, John Steinbeck.
I’m sure I identified with Steinbeck’s Jody character mostly because he was young, my age. Unlike him, I didn’t live on a ranch and my father didn’t give me a pony to take care of. But my parents were big on child chores and expecting responsible behavior.
And who could not appreciate an author who created the character Billy Buck, who was played by Robert Mitchum in the movie version of The Red Pony? Billy Buck is the classic loner and sage whose dark past begs interest and sympathy.
After that, I read Travels with Charley, Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat on my own. In high school, I read other required Steinbeck readings. More than any other author, except for William Shakespeare, we read Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath, of course, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden.
I know the comparison isn’t apples and oranges, but Steinbeck’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, were troubled and tormented, usually poor, “no-goods and blots,” and they faced appalling predicaments or choices. But then, that’s what makes good drama, an impossible quandary, a petrifying crisis.
Steinbeck was great at drama and why many critics were harsh on Steinbeck. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962 – I was 10 then – he was called a tenth-rate philosopher and his writing was described as childish. The critics seemed to believe if a novel could easily be turned into a popular movie, then it didn’t qualify as literature.
In 1968, my junior year in high school, a television version Of Mice and Men with George Segal and Nicol Williamson in the roles of George and Lennie aired. My English teacher encouraged students to watch the movie. We hadn’t read the book yet, but would soon. I watched the movie, then read the book, and I believe that story troubled me more than any other I read or saw depicted in film.
Of Mice and Menis not The Grapes of Wrath, where the bigger social issue eventually dominates the plight of the novel’s characters. Rather, Of Mice and Men intensely focuses on the choice an individual makes when faced with social injustice or human cruelty. It’s a deeply personal novel. It asks what would you do if you faced a decision that only had bad consequences. I once earned a part in a community production of To Kill a Mockingbird by reciting at an audition George’s lines in his final scene with Lennie.
Steinbeck may not have been the greatest writer who ever lived, but he deserved a Nobel Prize. He was read and is still read in American schools because he wrote honestly about life in a world bigger than America, and he wrote with compassion for the unfortunate and oppressed. Steinbeck disturbed the trickle-down economists of his day, and unfortunately, the ugly economic world and misguided values he called attention to haven’t gone away.
As a child, I thought Davy Crockett was the bomb. Years later, I realized he was a dud.
The movie Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, debuted in 1955, and my family went to the Cowtown Drive-in in St. Joseph, Missouri, where we lived, to see it. I remember it, though I was three, because the theater sponsored a drawing for one lucky child.
I won and received a coonskin cap, buckskin clothes – actually plastic – and toy Kentucky rifle. My family called me Davy Crockett, and the name stuck even into grade school. I was proud of the name and legend. We were taught Crockett was an American hero, and the Disney movie portrayed him as such.
In fifth grade, I was devastated when a kid named Davy Crockett joined my class. He was a direct descendant of Crockett. I was demoted to nothing. One of my cousins remembered my past association with the legend and said, “You only thought you were Davy Crockett. He’s the real thing.”
Being demoted was all the harder because our classmate was a bully and braggart. He may have turned out a decent guy; I don’t know, but my fifth-grade memory is of a loud smart aleck.
The result: I disassociated myself from the legend Davy, but Davy didn’t disappear. John Wayne played Davy Crockett about that time in The Alamo, a highly Hollywood-ized version portraying Crockett as a supremely courageous, patriotic figure.
Since then, I’ve read about Davy Crockett, and I’ve had time to reflect on his life because he meant something to me as a child.
Crockett was a resourceful person. He learned to make it on his own while very young. He was also humorous. His ability to tell a good story and fire off verbal zingers earned him popularity and a seat in Congress.
But he was not stable. He did not accept criticism, nor did he care about compromise or other views. He was what we now would call a political maverick, and he was proud of it.He was so sure he was right about everything that when he lost re-election to Congress that he told everybody off and left for Texas. He left because he thought Texas would be an independent country where an American could get away from the politics and responsibilities of being an American citizen and do and say whatever he wanted – but only after stealing Texas away from Mexico.
Crockett had no qualms about that as his opinion of Mexicans reflected the one he had of Native Americans: They were worthless people undeserving of the land they had. They were better off dead.
Today some say of Davy what they say of other famous figures: Well, he was a person of his times. They say that as if it’s an excuse for ignorance and cruelty.
Ironically, Davy thought of himself as someone above his times. But he wasn’t. He was a sore loser; a troubled, egotistical individualist; and a racist.
Galileo is my favorite among great Renaissance figures.
Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael are immortals with their wild creativity and extraordinary artistic skills. Copernicus is a supermagician, pulling a heliocentric universe out of a bag of astronomic observations and thin ethereal air.
But Galileo, he’s human through and through.
Galileo was talented and beyond intelligent. He was no slouch when it came to art or ideas, but he was a struggling, suffering figure that I identify with.
First, he wanted to be a priest. Of course, in the Sixteenth Century, most young men because of the persuasion and pervasion of the Catholic Church were pulled toward a religious vocation. But Galileo changed his mind and told his father he wanted to be a doctor. He went to medical school, then something else happened. He told his father he wanted to be a mathematician.
I imagine his father saying, “Come on, son, make up your mind.”
And off he went to mathematics school, out of money, still an extremely religious person, and got a woman pregnant, not once, but thrice.
He was no deadbeat though. He had exceptional observational skills and created great things from simple things. He created the compass, not the thing that points north, but a device for solving mathematical calculations, the precursor to the slide rule. Others worked on the same thing, but his was the best, and he usually is given credit for being its creator.
He invented the thermometer, and by simply watching a hanging lamp swing in a church nave, he laid out the law of the pendulum, leading to the invention of clocks.
And then he did something even more stupendous and crazy. He hauled balls of different sizes up the leaning Tower of Pisa, dropped them off, and disproved the notion of the greatest scientist of antiquity, Aristotle, wrong about the rate of falling bodies, that they fall at different rates.
No, Galileo said, everything falls at the same rate, and he said it so smugly he was fired from the University of Pisa.
Galileo’s career was not over though. Inventors were playing with a new creation, a spyglass, that had a power of magnification of three. In six months, Galileo created a telescope with thirty power of magnification. He pointed the device at the night sky, determined the Catholic Church erroneously held the Earth was the center of the universe, and the people who once loved and supported him, now turned on him. He was hauled to the Inquisition, and he ended his life imprisoned in his own house, where he continued correspondence with his living daughter who had spent her life in a nunnery and encouraged her father in his work.
What a great tragedy, only Galileo’s life wasn’t a tragedy.
He changed the way we view the world – well, for most of us.
Somehow, some people today, like those idiotic Catholic leaders of long ago, refute Galileo’s insights and scientific advances, and claim the world is flat and still.
Lily Tomlin is the only celebrity I’ve ever written.
I wrote her the spring of my college freshman year. She first appeared on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” the previous year, 1969. I was a devoted Laugh-In fan. Nothing like it had been on television before, and I loved the madcap format of one-liners and bizarre comedic situations.
The program was loaded with great comedians, but my favorite was easily Tomlin. She replaced Judy Carne, and established herself as the most talented, most versatile, and funniest regular.
I don’t know what led me to write her since I had never done that before. I do admit I found Tomlin attractive, but I did not write out of a romantic interest. I just wanted to let her know how much I appreciated her talent.
So I wrote that she was my favorite on the show and that I found her characters, especially Ernestine and Edith Ann, to be the most amusing of any portrayed on Laugh-In. At the end, I added that she was also a beautiful woman.
I addressed the envelope to Tomlin in care of Laugh-In, Burbank, California, and I looked up the zip code for Burbank in the postal code guide at a post office. I didn’t know if my letter would make it without a street address, but it turns out in those days, Post Office workers went out of their way to deliver letters with incomplete addresses.
Tomlin responded the following winter, a few months later. I received a note card with no return address, only “Lily” written in the upper left-hand corner. And, oh yes, the card was strongly scented with perfume. Inside, Lily wrote simply, “Thank you, you’re sweet,” and below that she made two X’s and two O’s.
I kept the notecard while I was at my apartment for the rest of the year. But when I moved out for the summer, I tossed it with other papers and things I didn’t want to haul to my next apartment. I have never been terribly sentimental, although my next roommate made me wish I had kept Tomlin’s notecard. He had a letter from Jonathan Winters that he had framed and hung on his wall. My roommate had written Winters after he appeared in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Winters had replied with a three- or four-paragraph letter.
But my letter had had a note with two X’s and two O’s, which seemed to count for more. Ironically, Lily is gay, which wasn’t public knowledge in those days. However, it wouldn’t have changed my opinion even if I had known, although I didn’t follow Tomlin much after Laugh-In. I haven’t seen any of her movies, even “Nine to Five.” She was so good in Laugh-In, I couldn’t picture her in anything else.
But I have always been a fan, and in 2003, I was pleased Tomlin was the second woman awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. She deserved it.
Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are not for the faint-hearted. He was a troubled man, troubled by an incomprehensible, cruel world, and troubled by his own identity struggles. But Vonnegut always was a dedicated humanitarian, concerned that selfish behavior could eventually be turned to alleviate suffering and initiate justice.
We grew up with dystopian novels in the 1960s. Common required secondary readings included Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, among others.
So Kurt Vonnegut’s novels naturally attracted many people to them, including me. I didn’t know who Vonnegut was until nearly twenty years after he began writing. My older brother introduced me to Vonnegut’s novels, giving me a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five.It was easy to identify with Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s protagonist in that work, his most popular. Pilgrim was a man who walked into a maelstrom, which was somewhat akin to being a young person in the 1960s with its civil rights struggles, assassinations, and political and social turmoil.
Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim is a World War II American soldier captured by the Germans near the end of the conflict. Pilgrim survives his capture and the Allied firebombing of Dresden to be forced into digging the bodies of civilians out of the rubble. The inhumanity and senselessness of the bombing, and the world war, weighs heavily on Pilgrim, who is a fragile character to begin with.
From that brief summary, it is easy to see the appeal Slaughterhouse-Five made on a generation struggling with the Vietnam conflict, which spread to two other countries and included inhumane bombings. More than 7 million tons of bombs, three and a half times what the US dropped during World War II, were dropped during the Vietnam conflict, leading to the deaths of 3 million people.
Of course, it is easy to say, “Well, they were the enemy.”
It’s harder to say, “Still, they were people, people whose lives were just as important as ours,” and that is, in part, Vonnegut’s point.
Following his writing success with Slaughterhouse -Five, Vonnegut became a leading humanitarian spokesman, a task he accepted even though he probably was not the “most qualified.” Vonnegut could be very pessimistic, which is found in his novels. He accepted an inevitably of depravity among humans reflected in one of his most popular, and oft-repeated, sayings, “So it goes.”
At the same time, Vonnegut promoted kindness and humility, values that softened the blows of the dark humor in his books. That was hard for some people to see. They said Vonnegut was crude and anti-American. Several school districts in the United States banned his books, which eventually led to a Supreme Court decision that books cannot be removed from a library just because a school board does not like their ideas. The court also stated that boards could not prescribe orthodoxy.
Unorthodox probably best describes Vonnegut and his writings. His plots and characters were some of the most bewildering and disoriented plots and characters invented, definitely not for the faint-hearted.
He could be corny and old-fashioned, and his songs were sentimental and conventional, but several songs I sang frequently in the 1970s and still sing today are John Denver songs.
John Denver popped onto the American music scene the same year I was graduating from high school. Then before I dropped out of college two years later to work on a cattle ranch in the mountains of West Texas, John Denver was a star.
Some of the blame for my leaving school and heading out had to do with John Denver. He sang about the great expanse of the west, the mountains and the streams, and being free of civilization and its curse, and I took him literally. Of course, his compositions were about more, but John Denver’s legacy is a love of nature and a life devoted to environmental and humanitarian issues.
“Poems, Prayers and Promises,” a 1971 album by John Denver, was the first album I purchased. I bought a guitar and learned to strum it, too, which is all I can do still, but John Denver was the impetus for that. I had never been inclined to music much before even though my older sisters and brother had piano lessons and could play.
My mother became a John Denver fan, too. I’m sure many older women, despite the generational gap, found him attractive and entertaining. He was a product of the 1960s revolution, but in an odd way, he was also a throwback to the crooners of the previous era, a sort of Bing Crosby or Dean Martin. He seemed to be drawn to entertainment as much as songwriting, so he ended up on television with his own shows, even hosting an annual Christmas program that drew millions of viewers. His show was ABC’s highest rated show for a number of years, and when I was home for the holidays, I sat with my family in the living room watching John Denver each year.
Despite his popularity, John Denver never won a Grammy for any of his songs, well, not until after he died in a plane crash in 1997. The next year, he received a Hall of Fame award posthumously for “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Critics and other songwriters had long counted him as a lightweight composer, writing soft, cheesy, simplistic ballads.For a long time, I disagreed with them. I still do, to some extent, but they were right about some songs, especially “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” which is almost painful to listen to with its maudlin lyrics and slow, slow delivery even for the type of song it was. More than sunshine on your shoulders, the song wants to make you cry.
But John Denver penned one of my top ten favorite songs ever in “Perhaps Love.” In the 1980s, I listened to that song on tape and CD more than any other song I listened to. Just call me sentimental and cheesy.
We called him Uncle Walter. His associates called him Iron Pants. But no contradiction exists between the two terms describing the life of Walter Cronkite.
My family called him Uncle Walter because he came into our household every evening. We trusted him. His associates called him Iron Pants because of his reluctance to leave his newscaster’s chair during a big story, outlasting the most dedicated of his fellow journalists.
Cronkite was born in the same city that I was born in, St. Joseph, MO. But when I was born, he was 36 years old, had worked for United Press International for 14 years, and worked with CBS for a year.
Cronkite hadn’t lived long in St. Joseph. His parents moved to Kansas City when he was a year old and then to Houston when he was ten. So his childhood influences had little to do with our shared hometown. But St. Joseph residents claimed him for their own because he was a character worth claiming. He was honest, hard-working and smart. He didn’t necessarily make sense of the world every evening, but he brought the world into perspective.
He was the first to tell us about most everything that happened in our time. Of course, the most notable and infamous thing that happened was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The shock and disappointment in his face and voice mirrored the pain we felt.Cronkite’s other painful job was informing America that the Vietnam War was a mess and a mistake. A World War II correspondent, Cronkite reportedly agreed early on with the necessity of the conflict in southeast Asia. But after a visit there, he recognized the futility and brutality of the conflict. When Uncle Walter broke the news that Vietnam was a lost cause, we knew for certain it was.
I especially remember “The Twentieth Century,” one of Cronkite’s innovations. It was a documentary television program that Cronkite hosted about recent political and cultural events. At that time, there was nothing like it on television and he set the standard for the evening news programs that would follow.
Cronkite was big on technology too, especially the space program. He devoted himself to explaining it to Americans, and NASA recognized the effort. The space agency gave him an Ambassador of Exploration Award in 2006. He was the only non-astronaut or non-NASA employee to receive the award.
I often wonder how Uncle Walter would rate in today’s skeptical-of-the-media climate. In his time, he was repeatedly named the most trusted man in America. Once he was fired because he refused to report a story that had not been verified.
But nothing about Uncle Walter was fake. He earned the loyalty of honest people, and the political career of Johnson ended when Cronkite reported on the Vietnam War and Nixon’s career was doomed when Cronkite wouldn’t let Woodward and Bernstein’s undercover journalism die. If Cronkite said it, it was true because he was devoted to the truth.
We only knew of two Frenchmen in the 1960s when Jacques Cousteau and The Undersea World aired on television.
One was Maurice Chevalier, who sang the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” on American variety shows. The other we heard about occasionally was Charles DeGaulle, the French president who, like US President Eisenhower, had been a military general in World War II.
In those days, everything on American television was strictly American. So it was different and strange to see foreigners other than The Beatles, Herman Hermits, or Tom Jones, make appearances on American TV, and especially find a foreigner there with his or her own show.
Then add another twist. Jacques Cousteau was not a singer, comedian, or actor; he was an environmentalist. We didn’t know what an environmentalist was then, only that they wanted, according to American corporations, to take away all the good things that gave us cancer and asthma.
But by the mid-1960s, the environmental movement had begun making inroads into American consciousness. Still television lagged behind; all we had was a nature show, Wild Kingdom, which though good, gave us mostly a Disney version of the natural world. Jacques Cousteau began to change that. He talked about protecting marine environments when the oceans were considered beyond polluting. He saw what others did not and advocated restrictions on dumping waste in the sea, including nuclear waste. He knew then what we only began to realize twenty or thirty years later, the oceans were not too big to fail.
Cousteau was an interesting character with his red stocking cap, sunburnt face, and ridiculously thin body. He looked like someone the ocean’s cold water could send to his death by pneumonia or squish with a few atmospheres of pressure.
Not many people were going down in the ocean depths then. Scientists were exploring and discovering new things about forests, mountain ranges, and deserts, but few were sucking bottled air in salty water and providing us visions of life under the waves.
I say that, but that is not exactly true. Five years prior to Cousteau’s breakthrough on American television, a program featuring a scuba diver finished a five-year run. Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges, however, was not an environmental program. It was an adventure program with plots that included at times undersea exploration or scientific experiments.
Still, to us growing up in the 1960s, the oceans were a Jules Verne mystery. Every episode of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau provided a glimpse into something we had never seen before and knew nothing about. Each week, there were Cousteau and the crew of Calypso sailing like Captain Cook to far flung places, except unlike Cook, they didn’t come to destroy native culture and exploit the natural world. They came to protect all that they discovered.
And they did it with their sexy French accents that drove my mother crazy. She never learned to swim, but Jacques helped her appreciate the water.
Students were taught no other American president came close to the moral and egalitarian stature of Abraham Lincoln when I attended elementary school in the 1960s.
Today someone claims to be as good as and even a better president than Lincoln.
Don’t worry, the claim is obviously bogus.
But it’s worth noting that Lincoln was just a man, not the demigod he was made out to be after his assassination and during the next 100 years. Lincoln had his faults.
He did not consider the welfare of Native Americans to be of great importance, and Lincoln advocated at one time sending black Americans to Africa to live. He seems to have believed that blacks and whites belonged on separate continents.
Another fault of Lincoln was that he was a tried-and-true Republican. As an attorney, he worked for railroad corporations, defending their interests in land and money grabs and against employee and citizen injury lawsuits.
And finally, Lincoln didn’t always stick to his principles. As a congressman, Lincoln called President Polk a liar when Polk lied about the start of the Mexican War. Lincoln said he could not support the war. But when it came time to vote, Lincoln voted for war funding, afraid to appear non-supportive of American soldiers. Lincoln forgot if you’re going to be against a war, you vote against it and vote to bring soldiers home.
Still, even in today’s cynicism, most Americans would agree Lincoln was a great man and our greatest president.
Most will say Lincoln was great because he rose above his dismal and impoverished upbringing. Or they will say he was great because he held the union together, which he did, but he did that with the help of many other strong leaders at the time.
But Lincoln’s real greatness is in his humility. He rose to a position of power at a time when character was intensely challenged. Yet Lincoln remained the good-natured, honest, open-minded and sympathetic person he had been before he became president.
And though the Civil War shaped his presidency, he did not allow the war’s ferocity and cruelty to drag him into savage name-calling and calls for revenge.
He also was willing to admit his mistakes. After being rebuked by Frederick Douglass and others for proposing to send black Americans to Africa, Lincoln accepted the folly and injustice of the proposal and dropped it.
Finally, Lincoln was a manipulator. He knew how to get what he wanted out of people, which is what Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent best-seller, Team of Rivals, reveals. Even one of Lincoln’s greatest accomplishments, the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in the Confederacy, was a play to appease residents of non-seceding states and the Northerners who favored abolition, as well as disrupt Southern war efforts.
Yet despite being manipulative, Lincoln was an extremely honest person throughout his life. He even earned the handle “Honest Abe,” which despite repeated scrutiny over the years, has endured. You can’t say that about many politicians.
During the presidential election of 1976, opponents of Jimmy Carter said, “Jimmy Carter wears his religion on his sleeve, but Jerry Ford wears it on his heart.”
I’m not commenting on Gerald Ford, who lost to Carter that year, but what was said about Carter was wrong, very wrong.
Jimmy Carter was vocal about his faith, but he was no empty-sounding drum. Carter backed his words with a devotion to many causes, especially, the work of Habitat for Humanity. Carter has been associated with the group so long that I can’t hear Habitat without automatically thinking of Jimmy Carter.
Last year, at 95, Carter was helping build homes, 21 of them, in Nashville for low-income people through the nonprofit. Carter worked despite suffering a fall days earlier at his home which left him with a black eye and 14 stitches in his head.
Ironically, the criticism of Carter in 1976 came from other, alleged, born again Christians. They did not like Carter’s liberalism or Carter’s proposal to tax the book companies, radio and TV programs, colleges, and other lucrative businesses run by megachurches and TV evangelists who claimed their businesses were religious and exempt from government taxation.
Sadly, Carter lost the election because of the hypocrisy of those fundamentalists along with the hypocrisy of those in his own party who opposed his pork barrel cuts. Only months after taking office, Carter criticized 19 federal projects in a spending bill, and fellow Democrats who had proposed the projects never forgave Carter. Democrats failed to support Carter’s economic reforms which led to disillusion with his administration.
Carter also lost the election over a ridiculous issue. During the second half of Carter’s term in office, the US faced an oil shortage due to the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Domestic oil producers were in no position to make up for the loss of imported oil, and gas prices rose.
Carter encouraged a 55-mile-per-hour highway speed limit, which was passed by Congress. Driving slower burns less fuel, and the action did, in fact, help to provide some relief from the shortage.
But just as during today’s coronavirus pandemic, people were reluctant to do the simple thing to alleviate a crisis. Drivers didn’t want to drive slower to make more fuel available for others, just as some people today will not wear a mask to protect others from coronavirus.
Carter did accomplish something no president before him had been able to do: bring together Israeli and Arab leaders and get them to agree to a wide-ranging peace plan. Carter hosted Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat at a Camp David summit that ended with the peace deal that still holds today.
I know Carter is often referred to by many as the worst American president since the early Twentieth Century. But that is said by those who don’t understand what Carter attempted to do and the hypocrites who undermined his presidency.
I have been guilty, like many men, of objectifying women.
I admit years ago, as a budding, hormone-seething teenager of the 1960s, I looked upon Raquel Welch as only an object of sex.
In 1966, when I was 13 years old, Raquel made an appearance in One Million B.C. — giving only three lines in a nearly two-hour movie.
My thoughts about sex were a little ill-defined and nebulous then, but there was nothing ill-defined or nebulous about Raquel’s physical appeal. She was all well-defined curves, sharp facial features, and dark skin that spoke directly and unmistakably to my male curiosity and budding libido. Her curvaceous and well-endowed frame covered by a negligible skin-of-an-animal bikini spurred an already active imagination and drive.
After her big breakthrough, Raquel began receiving more roles and leading roles, usually as a sex symbol, until the 1980s when older, but still beautiful, she began to flag in popularity and she was cast in a made-for-television movie that attempted to portray her in a new role as a smart, inquisitive reporter/investigator/writer. Despite being clad in pantsuit, suit jacket, and blouse buttoned to the top of her neck, Raquel provoked in me memories of the gorgeous woman in a bikini made from the skin of an animal.
Some today will say it’s a shame, and it is, that she was treated mainly as a symbol of sexual appeal. And it is a shame that she made her way to stardom predominantly on her shape even though she had enough acting ability to be more than a body; otherwise, she would have been relegated to low-budget movies with limited exposure.
What I grew to appreciate about Raquel, however, is that she never submitted herself to gratuitous sex scenes or puerile nudity. She was discreet about the roles she took, and I would wager she was as tough in the movie industry standing up to men as the roles she played on screen.
She was not a fragile, mixed-up megastar who needed cajoling, preening, and extra attention. She didn’t make a mess of her life with drugs, alcohol or sex despite being subjected, most likely, to the sexual harassment and mistreatment of the day in the movie industry.
I last saw Raquel on a Seinfeld episode. The episode came out in 1997, but I wouldn’t have seen it then. I caught it on a rerun, probably five to ten years later. When the episode was made, Raquel would have been near 60 years old, but the curves were still there.
And not only the curves. All the sass and spitfire of her younger days were showcased too. She took the Seinfeld writers’ quirky, fun-poking characterization of her in stride and good humor.
Or maybe she helped to create the character she portrayed.
If she did, I would appreciate her even more.
I was not quite three years old when Albert Einstein died, yet his face, figure and accomplishments became so much a part of popular culture that I feel as if he lived well into my manhood.
Even today my nine-year-old grandson recognizes Einstein’s immortal face and the brilliance of his life and mind. Even after other giants of physics followed Einstein – Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, Freeman Dyson – they have not come close to displacing Einstein as the epitome of intelligence and the ability to peer beyond the visible or established.
Of course, Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity and discovery of the photoelectric effect were not arrived at in isolation. They came about as the result of the work of physicists before him; as Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
But if anyone in science or philosophical thought skipped beyond the principles of known natural law and reasoning into a completely new universe of principles and behavior, Einstein is the human who did it.
I started college taking physics and calculus because I thought I had a good grasp of mathematics and mathematical reasoning.
I did fine in Calc I, getting an A, and I went into Calc II thinking I would conquer it too.
But halfway through, as we began revolving various curved and jagged lines around an axis to determine the volume of the 3D shape the spinning made, I lost my way. My grade dropped from an A to a C, and if the semester had lasted longer, I would have failed.
So, Einstein’s accomplishment is far beyond my paltry comprehension and the comprehension of most people.
But we can appreciate the benefits his work, theoretical as it was at the time. If relativity were not accounted for in the orbits of GPS satellites today, for instance, their navigational value would falter within two minutes, and the plane you may be in would not be able to land safely.
But we can appreciate Einstein’s dedication to his craft, his wonderment at the universe’s existence, and his burning curiosity toward the natural world. All those earned him the highest respect from others.
He also earned high marks as a human being. Even though his theories led to the realization of the atom bomb, Einstein did not take part in its development, nor were his first inclinations at e=mc2 that they could lead to an ultimate weapon.
Einstein did sign his name to a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt encouraging the development of uranium research leading to the possibility of a bomb. But Einstein said years later he signed his name only because he had been assured the Third Reich was developing an atomic bomb. That was not true, and Einstein regretted signing the letter written by another scientist.
Einstein lived and died a pacifist. His last years were about encouraging an end to war and the bomb his theory engendered.
Elections in your locality and state are probably the same as those going on here in Tulsa and Oklahoma with some candidates proclaiming themselves exceptional candidates because they are persons of business.
The idea is that government is another business. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The ultimate object of business is not the ultimate object of government. Businesses are started by a person or a group of people to make money for those who own it; government is a contract among a group of people to look after the best collective interests of the group. Business is about expending the least amount of money to earn more for a select group of people; government is about collecting a reasonable and adequate amount of money to ensure the most benefits for society as a whole.
I am not trying to paint business as an evil ogre with no redeeming qualities. Business does attempt to improve society by offering new and better products and services and there are business people who have the interests of others in mind as they run their businesses.
But when a capitalistic society goes awry as it often does because of the profit and greed, business does not even aim to look after the best interests of its workers, let alone the broader group of people that business serves. History tells us that as workers have had to continually barter and fight over the centuries for fair wages, fair retirement benefits and safe working conditions. Even now business aims to reduce the cost of production of goods or provision of services even if it means cutting pay and benefits to its workers and cutting corners on safe working conditions.
Look at what some government leaders are proposing in their latest emergency relief for the economic disaster caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They want to ensure businesses suffer no liability if their workers contract Covid19 while on the job. This means, if the bill passes, businesses will not be held responsible if they do not impose proper controls for reducing the spread of coronavirus. This proposal comes about from the pressure exerted by the business sector which hardly ever wants to accept the liability that comes from putting workers, and the public, at risk of injury and death. And the business sector is usually able to find accomplices in government in the business people voters approve for office.
Without question, some business skills can be found in the skill set of a good congressman, senator, governor or president. But it does not necessarily hold that a good business person makes for a good public servant. A public servant looks after the public, not the bottom line.
by David Gerard
If there was a daily comic strip I did not miss during its running, it was Calvin and Hobbes. While other strips have been just as inventive and unique — think Peanuts and The Far Side — no other comic strip carries the same intensity of human pathos or presents complex life issues and paradoxes in such an effortless and elementary way.
Watterson had encouragement and direction for his strip. He submitted a query that had Calvin as a minor character, and Universal Press Syndicate encouraged Watterson to make Calvin and his stuffed tiger the main characters in a revised strip. Here is a case of critics making the correct call regarding artist creativity — which is an example why people should listen to expert opinion — they can be right.
Of course, Universal Press Syndicate did not develop Calvin and Hobbes. The credit goes to Watterson, although there are precedents, especially for Calvin.
Calvin is reminiscent of Dennis the Menace and other mischievous and sardonic characters before him: Think Woody Woodpecker or Bugs Bunny who played the trickster, the sarcastic commentator, the hedonist.
But Calvin, personality-wise, is much more rounded than Dennis, Bugs or Woody. Calvin’s vanity is countered by childishness, his impulsiveness by creativity, and his moments of disrespect by his inquisitive mind.
And despite his sometime crass nature, he is vulnerable. At those times Calvin and Watterson are at their best. When the sick baby squirrel that Calvin finds dies, Calvin cries in his mother’s arm and reflects on the meaning of life and purpose of death.
Watterson also created an enduring character in Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who comes to life in Calvin’s imagination when the two are alone. He balances Calvin’s excesses and enlarges Calvin’s sense of wonderment.
My daughter as a child had an imaginary friend. He wasn’t a stuffed toy or a definite object, just someone who hung around and who she talked to at times. We made allowances for the imaginary friend; then one night I pulled a chair to the dinner table for JoJo and my daughter said the extra chair wasn’t needed.
“What about JoJo?” I said.
“He’s gone,” my daughter said.
“He gone. He’s not coming back,” she said.
I was not heart broken, but I had a several-month investment in JoJo. I was disappointed at my daughter’s callous display of indifference at his departure.
I felt an even more desperate loss when after 10 years, Watterson abandoned his creation. But maintaining a daily comic strip, especially one with the level of creativity Watterson displayed, is a demanding, draining work. Knowing when to quit something is as valuable as knowing when to start something.
So when I am reminded of Calvin and Hobbes, and I feel a wave of nostalgia, I go to the collections of Calvin and Hobbes strips I have and read a few weeks’ worth. Calvin and Hobbes are not just enduring characters, but they have become imaginary characters I cannot live without.
by David Gerard
I read an interesting discussion this week between two Americans about American exceptionalism.
One held the view that American exceptionalism meant that Americans believed their country and people were and are superior to other countries and peoples.
The second said no, the idea only meant that the form of government set up at America’s founding is superior to all others. The second American did not believe Americans as a whole were so conceited as to believe they were superior than any other country or culture.
The second is sadly mistaken, which is very evident.
All anyone has to do is listen to American political rhetoric to hear the promotion of US exceptionalism in everything from academics to sports and technology. We will be second to none.
This being an election year, the exceptional rhetoric will heat up as the November election grows closer. No candidate runs for office proposing to keep America average or a little better than average. Americans want to hear they are better off economically, socially, and intellectually than any other nation on earth. This is not just a goal, but an idea culturally and politically indoctrinated into citizens’ heads.
And if there are dissenters, those who question America’s exceptional status, then those people will be called un-American, as politically conservative candidates have done through the years and continue to do now.
Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency was birthed in extreme exceptionalism. Trump is so conceited personally and politically that he will not concede either he or country fails at anything even though his own slogan, Make America Great Again, implies something is wrong. But even his idea of what is wrong with America is exceptionalism at its core.
Trump believes that un-American ideas – less superior ideas – have infiltrated our country, leading to a slide toward mediocrity. His presidency may survive another four years on the strength of that propaganda.
But exceptionalism is a dangerous idea.
Feelings of superiority give a false sense of security, a denial that anything is wrong and nothing can be learned from others.
Trump provided a dark example of this recently during a Chris Wallace interview when he vehemently denied that the US coronavirus mortality rate was not the lowest in the world. The US has, in fact, one of the highest. Trump would not accept the truth even when his own doctored mortality chart demonstrated it.
Naturally, Trump had reason, a selfish reason, to deny the truth. He led the way in easing imposed social restrictions that would have prevented Covid19 infections and deaths. If there is blame for America’s high mortality rate, then he shares a huge part of the blame.
That’s the way of selfishness and conceit. They obscure reason, good sense, and the truth so much so that pride, not any other factor, leads to a fall.
by David Gerard
I worked a few years recently with a young man who claimed he was a better weather forecaster than any meteorologist.
In fact, he thought he knew more about any subject than any expert on the particular subject that caught his fancy at any time. And as you would expect with that kind of person, he would not listen to facts, logic, or scientific methodology.
He was/is a prime example of what we are now hearing from a certain segment of the American population. This segment of the good old USA believes that its opinion is as good as the opinion of any other segment. That idea, that right, they say, has been bought for us by our Founding Fathers, the Revolution, and the blood of every fighting, true-blooded American.
Of course, they overlook that our Founding Fathers were not big on diverse opinions. Our Founding Fathers were part of the Great Enlightenment, which promoted reason and facts as the sources of knowledge. For the most part, they were not people like my former fellow worker who leaned on superstition and subjective feelings to determine if it were going to rain that day. They were interested in science, which is what led Benjamin Franklin to experiment with electricity and Thomas Jefferson to compel Lewis and Clark to document accurately the flora and fauna of the West.
Now, Jefferson had some flawed theories – he proposed that mammoths still lived hidden in the Mississippi Valley – but he was able to distinguish between wishful thinking and hard facts, and his desire for accuracy led him to send out explorers to determine the rightness or wrongness of his and other scientific theories.
Unfortunately, we do not live in those days any longer.
“It’s going to rain today,” my fellow worker used to say with authority, and if you asked him why, he would say, “I just think so, and I’m more right than X,” X, being the particular TV meteorologist he had it in for that day.
If you asked him how many times he had been right or wrong compared to the accuracy of the forecaster he mentioned, he could not tell you. He could only tell you that he and his feelings were better at weather forecasting than a meteorologist, scientific instruments, and the observations, facts and data at his or her disposal.
Ditto that for a host of other subjects. He thought he knew as much or more about climate change, vaccinations, human or child psychology, criminal behavior, and epidemiology, to mention a few, than any person with a degree and a lifetime of study.
And I suspect today he is still at it, telling everyone what he thinks about coronavirus, as if a right to have an opinion is the same as being right.
by David Gerard
I strongly disagreed this past week with someone I thought I would strongly agree with on anything.
I know people are complicated so that’s bound to happen, but still, it was disconcerting.
I have listened for years to Radiolab, a radio show on many NPR stations, and its host Jad Abumrad. I think he’s great.
He recently taped a TED talk, and I listened to it to find I disagree with him completely on his topic: Dolly Parton.
We both appreciate her music and generosity, but Jad believes Dolly’s music provides a platform that potentially bridges America’s great right-left, conservative-liberal divide.
Jad says that he started his career covering science, programs that ended in a sense of wonder at nature’s structure and beauty.
He tired of that and moved on to Radiolab, programs on touchy social and political issues that he says ended without resolution and despair.
And here is where Dolly comes in. Jad says her concerts support a fan base that doesn’t think or act alike, yet they come together to listen to and sing Dolly’s music. Jad says Dolly’s music can lead to resolutions healing America.
First, I still like Jad, even though he’s wrong. I think Radiolab does a great service highlighting important, even irresolute, issues.
And I love Dolly. She is talented, ebullient, and, like Oprah, generous. I am certain that she is not a racist or egotist.
That said, she is a capitalist. She built an entertainment empire offering mostly entry-level jobs to young people. Her pay and work environments may be better than similar empires, but its operations are no different from others. I went to her Pirate Voyage show in Myrtle Beach, SC. It was a great show with great food and wonderful service. I’d go again.
But Dolly’s worth is $600 million dollars, built on the popularity of her name and the hard work of thousands of employees who deserve a greater share in her empire.
And Dolly’s music? Her early work is revered by feminists for its frank portrayal of male abuse towards women and feminine social inequality.
But Dolly admits she is no feminist. She also admits her dream was to become a popular entertainer, not a social activist.
So her songs do not address social issues or divisions, as Bob Dylan’s have. Even though some are sad-ass songs, as Dolly calls them, her musicology is built on sentimentality and feel-good lyrics.
In fact, Dolly’s music brings about what Jad said he got away from when he reported on science, an upbeat, nice feeling at the end.
Two people with radically opposing ideas on race, war, justice, or government will not resolve their differences singing “Butterfly” or “Islands in the Stream” at a Dolly Parton concert. They are not addressing any issues. They set them aside in order to feel elated for a short time, and leave the divisiveness for another time.
by David Gerard
By most media accounts and recent polling, Trump will be a one-term president.
Before you start cheering, do not think the last of Trump will be when Trump is replaced in the White House.
The effects of any president, especially bad ones, are long-lasting because they have had four years to make many poor decisions and appointments. In Trump’s case, he has made a multitude of misguided and ill-founded decisions and appointments.
One of Trump’s poor decisions, and the decision of another misguided president, became very evident last week. Two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled to dismiss charges against Trump’s former National Security Michael Flynn.
Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about clandestine meetings he had with a Russian ambassador. Flynn’s lies occurred during the Mueller investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election and contacts that Trump’s campaign members and personal advisers had with Russian officials.
But after Flynn’s guilty plea and clear evidence that he lied, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, led court action to drop charges against Flynn.
And it worked.
Of the two judges who approved allowing Flynn to avoid prosecution and sentencing, one was appointed by Trump, the other by George W. Bush. These are two judges who evidently will make decisions not based on justice and jurisprudence, but on political ideology.
This is especially foreboding in the event that important environmental and social issues come before them. If they are dedicated to conservative ideology, as it appears they are, they will likely not make rulings that favor environmental and social justice. They likely will be reluctant to side with the environment and human health in lawsuits brought before them. Rather they probably will side with big corporations, the wealthy, and their party principles.
Even yesterday, the Supreme Court, now with two Trump appointees, declined to hear an appeal of the Trump’s administrations waiving of environmental reviews in order to speed up the construction of the Mexican border wall.
And just as conservative judges are overlooking an egregious action by a public servant, they may overlook an even greater crime in the future by another scoundrel and opportunist at the bequest of their political ideologues.
Trump needs to go. Unfortunately, when he goes, the mess he has created won’t immediately leave with him.
by David Gerard
I live in Tulsa, and several of my family members contacted me before Trump’s rally, saying, “Don’t go downtown and protest. It’s too dangerous.”
They were concerned about three things: me possibly contracting coronavirus, me getting involved in a fracas with Trump supporters, or me getting injured by police if police got rough with protestors.
My family did not have to worry for a couple of reasons. One, Saturday night my younger son and his family celebrated his youngest son’s fourth birthday (I would have been in trouble if I missed the event); and two, Trump’s rally was a pathetic bust. Trump and his campaign boasted a cast of hundreds of thousands of supporters, yet they could not fill a 19,000-seat arena two-thirds full.
That is an optimistic sign heading into the November presidential election.
Trump support is waning – as it should. Trump is as pathetic as his June 20th turnout. His hour-and-a-half harangue was only more boastful baloney from a petty, self-centered, whining spinner of half-truths, out-and-out lies, and bizarre conspiracies.
But pessimism never falls far from optimism.
That anyone would show up to listen to a man who has shown little managerial or mental stability in the last three years – even his entire life – is unbelievable.
But such is our scary world, the world of the folk hero, which is not an American invention, but one Americans have refined to an absurd level, so much so that an American folk hero’s life reflects little of who they were or what they really accomplished. Jesse James was a murderous outlaw, but he’s been proclaimed a Robinhood in many tales. John F. Kennedy is touted by some as the embodiment of a utopian leader when he actually had little time to accomplish much. Ronald Reagan is remembered as a hardline fiscal genius when he doubled the US deficit to a record-breaking level.
And Donald Trump in the mind of way too many people is seen as a development wizard when his only accomplishment is putting his name on what others have created. Trump in the mind of too many is seen as a tough negotiator when he has fawned over dictators and caved to tyrants. Trump in the mind of too many is seen as a man to restore America to greatness through isolation and enmity when America’s greatness over the years has been its willingness, though reluctantly at times, to accept people of all faiths and nationalities into its borders.
Trump’s notoriety has not been built on hard work, intelligence, character, and good judgment. Rather it has been built on his father’s fortune, the illusion created by a TV (un)reality show, and the constant repetition of lies and fables until they wear down the bedrock of truth.
Trump’s rise to the presidency was realized when a political party primed itself to be deceived and abandoned its moral compass for financial gain.
Trump’s political demise will be when Americans decide to opt for honesty and integrity.