Friday, November 11, 2022

No Longer Angry at the Old Vets


Growing up in the 1950s veterans were part of my landscape. My father, four uncles and one aunt served during World War II. Almost everyone I knew had a father who served during that war or Korea. As a child, I was in awe of these veterans and often wondered how any of them survived what I imagined was a constant hail of bullets. Despite their ubiquity, the veterans themselves did not make a big deal of it. After all, just about everyone served so any one person’s service was nothing more than what everyone else did. Oh sure, a few heroes stood out but they usually dismissed their actions as something any other service member would have done had they been in the same situation. As a body the veterans of the 20th century wars represented a high standard of dedication and patriotism

That changed for me during the Vietnam war. By the late 60s patriotism seemed to demand that I fight in a war that looked increasingly dubious. There was no actual threat to the United States; the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were not attacking my country but rather fighting in an obscure corner of Southeast Asia. As the war escalated, more questions arose about both the morality and practicality of the war. The politicians’ and generals’ assurances were often at odds with the facts on the ground and I, like many of my generation, called for an end to the war.

But the veterans I admired as a child and, particularly their veterans organizations, branded our objections as unpatriotic and cowardly. I came to resent them, old men demanding that we serve simply because they had done so. They saw Vietnam through their own lens which brooked no question to the government’s decision to fight a war. The old vets were still numerous and their their collective voice carried great weight. Even though I disagreed entirely with their view, my objection was insufficient to overcome the the sense of duty that I owed my country. When my student deferments ran out and war was still on, I went to Vietnam.

During my year in-country, the Pentagon Papers were published and documented the many misjudgments, lies, and obfuscations about America’s war in Vietnam. When I returned I was angry about the entire experience and the people who sent me there, among them the old veterans. I had no interest in joining any veterans organization. I couldn’t imagine that I would have anything in common with those guys.

My anger slowly dissipated over the next decade and allowed me to realize that I did in fact have something in common with the old veterans. The realization became particularly clear when I found a collection of Edward Steichen WW2 photographs. Steichen was an established fashion and fine art photographer in his 60s when the war broke out. He had served in the Army as a colonel during WW1 but was refused enlistment because of his age. The Navy invited him to serve as director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit and his work, along with a coterie of photographers he recruited, documented the carrier war in the Pacific. Those photographs showed a lot of very young men whose young faces looked a lot like us in Vietnam.

Those faces spoke to me in a very different way than my previous characterization of the old veterans. Whatever our differences about Vietnam, I recognized a common experience that overrides those differences. Instead of advocates for a dubious war, I saw men who were little different from me, just doing what the country asked of them. Seeing those faces reminded me that despite our different experiences we were very much the same.

That realization defused my anger toward the old veterans. We may still differ in our assessment of the American war in Vietnam but I believe that they came to their opinions honestly from their experiences in war. They were “fortunate” (if that word is ever appropriate to describe serving in war) enough to serve in a war that had genuine meaning whereas my generation faced a war that was conceived in ignorance and continued under lies. If you have any doubts about that difference, consider the consequences America suffered by its defeat in Vietnam (little to none except for the service members and their families) to the potential consequences of defeat by the Axis forces.

These days I know a great deal more about war and its consequences for those who serve than I knew in my youth. The veterans I first saw as childhood heroes and later as blind advocates for an unnecessary war are now simply comrades.


Sunday, January 30, 2022

Some Years Ending in the Number Two

This year being 2022 memories from previous years ending in the number two are on my mind. 1972 is the earliest. In January of that year I was fresh off the plane home from Vietnam, happy to be alive and looking forward to beginning life after the Army and war. I had plans but it took some effort to get back into civilian life. I soon discovered that much of the war came home with me. Not in the sense of flashbacks and nightmares but rather just sheer dumbfoundedness at the whole experience. But those thoughts, while ubiquitous, were compartmentalized—always there but not particularly controlling over my life. As it turned out, I was accepted into the public administration master’s degree program at the University of Virginia and even landed an research assistant position at the university’s Institute of Government. By May I was back in Charlottesville where I had spent four years as an undergraduate before the Army and Vietnam

The surroundings were familiar but I felt detached from them, especially since everyone I knew from my undergraduate days was long gone. Meeting new people during the slow days of summer was difficult. I spent a fair amount of time on my own hiking and camping in Virginia’s mountains where it dawned on me that I was unlikely to ever walk in the woods without thinking about walking in the jungle. It also dawned on me that I was unlikely to be actually be at risk in those mountains except due to inexperience or carelessness. I did find a couple friends from my undergraduate days still in town, Peyton Coyner and Gordon Kerby. I hung out with Peyton a lot that summer and to a lesser extent with Gordon. Both kindly listened to my Vietnam stories and we have been close friends ever since. Once school began in September my world opened up considerably and I began to feel more like a normal person rather than a war veteran.

Ten years later, also in January, I wrestled with the decision to move to Arizona. By that time I had long ago finished my master’s degree and worked over seven years as an analyst for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in Richmond. It was interesting work in a good environment. By late 1981, though, future opportunities within JLARC were limited—the senior management positions were not likely to turn over any time soon. I was restless and looking about for other opportunities in Richmond when a colleague returned from a conference and told me that the Arizona Auditor General was looking for a performance audit manager. I was definitely interested although it would mean a big change. That opportunity fell through when the position was filled before I could arrange an interview but the director suggested I might consider a Senior Auditor position at a decently higher salary. I was less interested in simply doing the same work in a different place but decided to interview anyway even though I would have to pay my own travel costs. I figured that, if nothing else, I would get a chance to see another part of the country. I flew out to Phoenix for an interview and they were sufficiently impressed to offer me the position at an attractive salary. That meant I had to make a decision.

At first, I was not inclined to take the offer. Phoenix did not impress me—it looked like an endless procession of strip malls and housing developments stretching into the desert infinity. Even worse, moving to Arizona would mean leaving everything and everyone I knew. But I was restless in my job and my life. I was recently divorced and I had no family remaining in Virginia; my mother died a few years earlier. Several things finally convinced me to make the move. A brief excursion into the Verde Valley, Oak Creek Canyon and Flagstaff during my interview visit gave me a glimpse of Arizona’s grandeur beyond Phoenix. So did looking an Arizona map and seeing vast swaths of national forest and the Grand Canyon. I figured I could do some bodacious hiking there. Ten years earlier I had considered moving to Washington State after being impressed with what I saw there during Army training at Fort Lewis. I chose not to make that move and wondered ever since where that would have led. In 1982 I was more open to taking a chance so I accepted the position and made the move. It was emotionally difficult. It was also one of the best decisions of my life.

Fast forward to early 2002 and I was preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail—2,000 miles north from Georgia to Maine. In January I had relocated back to Phoenix after working as a audit manager for the Navajo Nation Auditor General for almost five years. Life was much more complex than 20 years earlier and figuring out how to just step away from it all for eight months was daunting, especially the part about making a living without a job. As it turned out, I didn’t actually figure it out so much as I just made it work—with much help from my partner, Maggie, many friends along the way and even some complete strangers. Many loose ends remained when I departed Phoenix in late March for the trailhead in Georgia. I never entirely escaped them on the trail but I did make it all the way to Maine. Along the way I had my share of trials but I also met many amazing people and experienced many moments of joy and wonder.

As with every hike since Vietnam, my thru-hike brought back memories of walking in the jungle carrying a weapon. Unlike those previous hikes, the lengthy duration and many hours walking alone on the trail gave me an opportunity (or forced me)  to sort through those memories and come to terms with that experience in a way that had eluded me for three decades. Intrusive war memories not withstanding, my thru-hike remains one of my most memorable life experiences.

Not all of my major life decisions occurred in years ending in the number 2 but these three sure did.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

2021 Favorite Books


Of the books I read in 2021these are the ones that stand out in my mind as the year comes to an end.



Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, Ty Seidule (2020)

Ty Seidule grew up idolizing the Lost Cause and Robert E. Lee. The infatuation lasted until somewhere in his Army career when he began looking at the Confederate symbols and traditions embedded in American life and the institutions he served. This memoir provides extensive detail about how those symbols and traditions became part of the the American story rather than evidence of treason. Writing as a retired general with 40 years of service, Seidule contrasts the idealized history of his southern hometowns and the Antebellum South against the brutal reality of slavery and the lingering consequences of racism into the the following centuries. He does the same with his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, which he describes as “the shrine of the Lost Cause” and the Army which continues to glorify Confederates up to the present day. He notes especially how the myth of Robert E. Lee is woven into the atmosphere of the US Military Academy at West Point where Seidule served as history professor in the years prior to his retirement. That chapter is particularly interesting in that Seidule details the hostility in the decades following the Civil War (memorialized in those years as the “War of Rebellion”) toward the graduates who betrayed their oath of allegiance to the US when they served the Confederacy and shows how that hostility faded into accepting treason as less than consequential. Seidule also shows that, contrary to the traditional biographies, Lee’s choice was not ordained by family and geography. The Lee family was far from wholly secessionist and many of his fellow Virginians serving in the US Army remained loyal. If you are a Southerner who grew up steeped in Confederate traditions and cannot understand why that history is no longer acceptable, Robert E. Lee and Me provides a well-documented examination of why that change is taking place.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, Tony Horwitz (2019)

In the mid 1850s, as the US was fracturing through the years leading to secession and civil war, Frederick Law Olmstead traveled through the South looking to explore the growing divisions with the leading men of the region with the hope of finding some common understanding that would bridge the divide. His travels were documented in a series of articles published by the New York Times and offer a picture of a nation at odds with itself. His journals also reveal his appreciation and understanding of landscape that later informed his later career as a pioneering landscape architect. Author Tony Horwitz follows Olmstead’s routes in 2016 with much the same intent: to look across the divide that separates Americans in the second decade of the 20th century. Like his predecessor, Horwitz examines the American South in some detail, spending much time meeting and talking with people very different from himself. He writes with empathy and understanding, willing to hear out what others think and believe without judgment. He often disapproves of what he sees and hears but follows their logic and context to see where the ideas come from. He also quotes liberally from Olmstead’s writings and is especially cognizant of Olmstead’s attention to the details of nature and humans’ interactions with their environment. Spying on the South fascinating, both as history and a snapshot of modern America and the link between the two.

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, Heather Cox Richardson (2020)

An illuminating history of the enduring paradox of American history, where the liberty and equality for all espoused in the nation’s founding documents is based on the subordination of some. While the Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” that equality is limited to white males and is based on the denial of equality for certain classes of people: women, Blacks and other minorities. The paradox flourished in the early 19th century as southern planters and their political allies asserted the superiority of their slave labor system and ultimately refused to accept election results in 1860 that threatened the survival of that system. Along the way, southern oligarchs accorded some privileges for lower class whites who were warned that any change in the system would come at their expense Although the South lost the military conflict and the federal government made serious efforts toward supporting equality and political participation of the newly freed slaves, the trope continued into the west under the guise of the hard-working independent westerner and hostility toward foreigners and labor organizers who would redistribute the wealth in their own interests. It waned considerably after the New Deal and WW2 when Americans saw the value of active government but found new momentum during the Civil Rights era and blossomed under Ronald Reagan and Movement Conservatism. Richardson’s analysis is thorough and well-argued and points to the conclusion that Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of a “new birth of freedom” at Gettysburg remains unfulfilled more than 150 years later.

Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy The Nazis, Jeffery H. Jackson (2020)

Riveting story of Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, avant-garde French artists and lovers living on the occupied Channel Island of Jersey off the French coast during WW2. Although the Channel Islands were British territory, proximity to France enabled German troops to occupy the islands in 1940. Schwob and Malherbe had relocated to Jersey after actively participating in the robust and iconoclastic artistic movements that emerge in France after the first World War. The two women were openly lovers in that environment and and developed an intimate, gender-fluid body of work that was well ahead of its time although not widely recognized beyond their artistic community. Their life on Jersey removed them from that milieu to a more isolated life. Once war broke out and German troops took control of the island, they began their resistance by leaving small notes, leaflets and photmontages in German (Suzanne was a fluent German speaker) addressed to rank and file German soldiers questioning the war, mocking Nazi leaders and urging mutiny. They were not the only resisters on the island but they were fortunate to have the wealth and privacy to conduct their campaign and made effective use of their tresources to challenge the occupation for four years until caught by the Germans. Imprisoned for almost a year and condemned to death for their activities, Schwob and Malherbe took full responsibility for their work and managed to confound the Germans with their matter-of-fact acceptance of their fate, refusing even to ask for clemency, which was granted over their refusal, as the war was coming to its inevitable end in the spring of 1945. Author Jeffery Jackson presents a lively account of the two women drawn from a variety of sources, clearly linking their resistance activities to their art and their interpersonal relationship. Although history has tended to recognize Schwob as the primary artist, Jackson describes a full partnership and collaboration that made their work so effective. The cover quotes historian Douglas Brinkley describing “every page” of Paper Bullets as “gripping”. This book lives up to that praise.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, Fred Kaplan (2014)

An impressively detailed biography of America’s sixth president. JQ Adams didn’t get much attention in the history I learned as a child, I got a bit of appreciation of him in my college diplomatic history of the US course but can’t say I was in any way knowledgeable about him beyond that and the disputed 1824 election that made him president for a single term. Fred Kaplan rectifies that deficiency with a thoroughly documented history of Adams’ life. Kaplan presents Adams as a man whose destiny was set by his birth but also a man who rose to the occasion during a life of public service. Adams was a dedicated diarist throughout his entire life, beginning at age 14 when he accompanied his father to Paris when the latter served as an American representative there during the Revolution. The diary entries, along with his prolific correspondence, provide an unvarnished view of Adams’ hopes, fears, beliefs and tribulations the early years of the American Constitutional experiment. Adams life was unique in many ways and while he is remembered as the sixth president, those years rate only 38 pages out of 570 total. I come away from this history thinking of Adams as a cross between two other one-term presidents: James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Like Buchanan, Adams brought a wealth of experience to the office, although Adams’ tenure is not regarded as the disaster that Buchanan made of his time in office. Like Carter, Adams left office poorly regarded but earned a reputation for integrity and service in his post-presidential years. Aside from the depth of his research, Kaplan presents the story in an easy to read style that always left me looking forward to the next chapter whenever I had to put I down.

The Gun, The Ship and the Pen: Warfare Constitutions, and the Making of the Modern World, Linda Colley (2021)

Although the United States has one of the world’s oldest constitutions, it was hardly the first and certainly not the last. Linda Colley explores the rise of the constitutional era that began in the late 18th century, starting with Corsica and ending with the Japanese Constitution of 1889, a period that continues to influence aspiring nation builders into the modern era. She notes that the nature of warfare that emerged in the late 18th century involved both large land armies and powerful navies, both expensive and difficult propositions. Constitutions provided rulers with the ability to raise revenue and call on citizens/subjects for service. At the same time citizen/subjects could assert some claim to their own rights in return for their treasure and blood. Some constitutions, as in the US, were formal affairs while others, like the system of government for Pitcairn Island were drafted by outsiders. In all cases, constitutions formalized powers and rights but in to widely varying degrees. Constitutions were also a means of defense—a nation with a formal governing document could assert its legitimacy and independence in a world of predatory great power colonialism. Some were more successful than others. Hawai’i managed this feat for decades but in the end still fell victim to US annexation. Linda Colley presents all this in a lively and thorough history that makes easy reading of what would otherwise be a rather obscure and dry topic.

The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and he Forging of American Science, John Tresch (2021)

This biography of Edgar Allan Poe puts him in the middle of the philosophical and scientific debates of the early 19th century. In this telling much of Poe’s work reflects the emerging knowledge and discoveries that expanded human understanding beyond the traditional religious/mystical beliefs that were accepted wisdom in earlier times. Not only did Poe incorporate much of this emerging knowledge in his stories and poems, he also engaged fully in the scientific debates during a time when the difference between learned scientist and well-informed amateur was ill-defined. Author John Tresch illustrates Poe’s active participation in scientific discussions with extensive citations from and analyses of his works and notes that while Poe respected the scientific method of observation and measurement, he also advocated using imagination and creativity as an important element of scientific discovery. Among the ideas that Poe theorized or advocated were the nebular theory of star formation, the impact of industrialization on the earth and an early version of the big bang theory—all refined and more fully developed by scientists in the century following Poe’s death. While recognizing Poe’s personal shortcomings that have tarnished Poe’s reputation, Tresch’s biography balances that narrative with much evidence that Poe was well-regarded by many and recognized as a talented genius even by his enemies during his lifetime.


Cuyahoga, Pete Beatty (2021)

A lively tale set in the frontier towns Ohio City and Cleveland in the mid-1830s. Told mostly in the local vernacular from the Ohio City side of the Cuyahoga River, the story features a cast of unique characters, including a horse and a good-natured ox, who fit well into the raw, undefined spaces of a still developing country. Much of the focus is on the extraordinary feats of Big Son and his quest to find a place in a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with him. His brother Meed (short for Medium Son) narrates the story and fills in the detail for all the others. The two towns are rivals but also understand their interdependence and there is much debate bridging the river that separates them—whether it should be one bridge, two bridges or no bridge—along with some humorous but practical observations about the utility of coffins. The plot twists and turns among characters and events and unfolds imperceptibly into a surprising but not unbelievable conclusion.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, V.E Schwab (2021)

Desperately seeking escape from an arranged marriage that would consign her to the confines of her small, early 18th century French village, Adeline LaRue makes a deal with a “god that answers after dark.” She gains her freedom and never-ending life at the cost of her identity: fated to not be remembered by anyone she meets. Adeline becomes Addie because she can no longer even speak her given name. She exists across the succeeding centuries free of all entanglements save for occasional visits from the dark god who is always seeking her surrender, which she stubbornly refuses to give, until she is unexpectedly recognized and remembered by Henry, a young book store clerk in 21st century New York. V.A. Schwab builds this narrative through the centuries in parallel with the unfolding relationship between Addie and Henry who has his own dark secret. The historical interludes bring Addie into the present, establishing her as a resourceful woman, able to navigate both the advantages and tribulations of near invisibility and her ongoing relationship with the dark god. When the stories come together in New York, Addie is both vulnerable, wily and able to engage the dark god on his own terms. A clever story, well-executed that compels the reader’s interest.

Big Girl, Small Town, Michelle Gallen (2020)

A week in the life of Majella O’Niell in Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. The Troubles ended a few years before but not so long ago. It’s still a presence. Her father disappeared during the violence and his brother died assembling an IRA bomb. People still get “lifted” by the security forces. Majella’s life is mostly simple—work, her alcoholic enfeebled mother, their house in the Catholic sector, her bedroom and the unanswered questions about her grandmother’s murder. Work is an eight hour or longer shift to 2 AM taking orders, frying chips, talking with and reacting to customers and the goings on outside of a fish and chips shop named A Salt and Battery, and interacting with co-worker Marty (including the occasional post-shift shag in the storeroom). The shop gives author Michelle Gallen ample opportunity to introduce a wide variety of characters whose lives chronicle life in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. The town and landscape are also well-rendered. It’s all kind of gray and worn but still full of life despite an uncertain future. Best of all, Majella is likable, practical, dedicated, irreverent and in one memorable scene, strong enough to eject a drunken “lover” threatening violence against her mother from their house. Time flows naturally so the story feels like you are sharing Majella’s week from inside her head.

How Much of These Hills is Gold, C Pham Yang (2020)

Lucy and Sam are the young (early teen) daughters of a itinerant Chinese miner and prospector during the California Gold Rush, about the lowest caste in that society. Their mother, Ma, is long gone and when the father Ba dies, the two girls abandon the hostile mining town/camp environment on a stolen horse with their father’s remains. With that murky beginning the story begins to emerge. Each sibling develops essential survival skills. Younger sibling Sam learns to pass as a boy and is proficient and clever. Lucy is smart and practical. Once what’s left of Ba is buried, the story shifts to an earlier time where we learn how Ba and Ma came together and how Lucy found an education. The parents make plans, and accumulate savings which are all lost to an angry anti-Chinese mob when times go bad. Another time shift fills in Ba’s story, including how he met Ma and their dark secret. A final jump in time finds Lucy hovering on the edge of acceptability and Sam returning form a log absence and hounded by creditors. Throughout this odyssey, author Yang demonstrates that Lucy, Sam, Ba and Ma are outcasts from society, at the mercy of whatever society wants from them. The book’s epigraph says it clearly: “This land is not your land”

The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2021)

This follow-up to Nguyen’s acclaimed novel, The Sympathizer, finds the nameless narrator of that novel, a confession written in a re-education camp, writing a confession about his life as a Vietnamese exile in Paris. Free of the re-education camp, the narrator is still haunted by the ghosts of his victims and the French colonialism and his uncertain place in the world. No longer the committed cadre double agent of The Sympathizer, the narrator becomes part of the Vietnamese diaspora in Paris and enters the world of “the Other”, living in France but not French. The colonial mentality that gripped his native land remains a fact of life as he wrestles with the contradictions that are readily apparent to a man “with two heads” who is able to see both sides of any situation. Filled with subplots and well-crafted characters, The Committed explores questions of identity, colonialism, racism and ideology in a taut, engaging narrative.



Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sleepwalking Into Oblivion


The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow has come and gone. The presidents, prime ministers, delegates and fossil fuels lobbyists have all departed along with any real hope of actually avoiding the worst consequences of global warming. The conference’s major accomplishments seem to be the usual pledges to reduce carbon emissions by mid-century or so (with little specific commitment actually fulfill those pledges) and a final statement that explicitly mentions fossil fuels for the first time ever.

It’s hard for me to disagree with the many climate activists and developing nations when they argue that the wealthy nations remain unwilling to address what is arguably the most serious threat to the planet’s health and welfare in human history. COP26 was billed as the last chance for meaningful action to keep global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Little in the reports I’ve read about the final agreement suggests meaningful action. Lots of promises, though but right now the world is on track to warm about 2.5 degrees C by 2100. Looks pretty clear to me that we’ve blown that last chance.

The result is not at all surprising. The world, led by wealthy nations that have growth fat and happy burning fossil fuels over the last two centuries, has been kicking this can down the road for decades. Researchers for oil giant Exxon identified the impact of releasing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in 1977. Exxon claims that the research was not definitive but the company spent a great deal of time and money denying that impact even after research in subsequent years further confirmed that impact. An Earth Summit held in Rio de Janerio in 1992 led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calling for stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system." That framework became effective in 1994 after ratification by 197 countries. The Kyoto Protocol, asking both industrialized and developing nations to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997 but due to co complex ratification process, entered into effect in 2005.  The 2016 Paris Climate Accord attempted to elicit specific reductions in carbon emissions but has largely failed to meet expectations.

So we’ve known about this problem for at least 30 years but have done little to address it. The fossil fuel interests and their allies have managed to create sufficient doubt and fear that wealthy nations have been and continue to be unwilling risk their economies by making the changes needed to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. On the other side developing nations are reluctant to forgo the benefits cheap energy that served the industrialized nations so handsomely. These diverging interests and national myopia have brought us to the point where the world is on the brink of catastrophic climate change. We are already seeing that impact in the frequent and more massive wildfires, intensified hurricanes and extended heat waves but even in the face of that reality, the best we can do is recommend eliminating “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”

I’d like to think the world can do better but the past 30 years offer little basis for optimism. The industrialized nations grew wealthy by exploiting energy their own energy resources and. when those proved insufficient, went abroad to exploit the resources of undeveloped nations, usually to the detriment of the local inhabitants. Those undeveloped nations are now experiencing the worst impacts of climate change caused by the industrial nations emissions and are seeking aid to deal with those impacts. The best COP26 could do was offer a “dialogue” rather than real assistance.

Future generations will not judge us kindly for wasting three decades of opportunity to find a solution to a problem of our own creation.

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Thursday, November 04, 2021

The View from 2900 Miles Away



Four decades have passed since I last voted in Virginia but the Commonweath’s politics still have a hold on me. Virginia was just emerging from decades of political and racist oligarchy under the Byrd Organization (read: machine) as I became politically and socially aware in the late 60s and early 70s. Change was all around then, even in Virginia, and the political campaigns of that era left an indelible impression on me that has never worn off.

So it’s not surprising that I paid close attention to this year’s election for governor. And as in many previous elections, I was disappointed in the outcome. Glen Youngkin managed to excite the Trump base without frightening the suburbanites while Terry McAuliffe seemed to offer little more than “I was a not terrible governor during my previous term” and “Trump = BAD!” Although I preferred McAuliffe, it was largely a matter of keeping Trumpism at bay and my general dislike of wealthy investors parachuting into political office.

That plus McAuliffe has never been my idea of a good candidate. Like Youngkin, he’s a rich, white man, a corporate Democrat hard-wired into the status quo. I paid some attention to the Democratic primary this year and thought several other candidates seemed better aligned with my values. I probably would have voted for one of them if I voted in Virginia. But name recognition and big money gave McAuliffe the Democratic nomination and, for the longest time, a seemingly comfortable lead.

But Youngkin ran a smart campaign. He kept his distance from Trump while still dog whistling to the Trump base. He talked about local issues that seemed more consistent with the governor’s duties as the state’s chief executive. He presented himself as a completely nonthreatening suburban dad, not at all like Donald Trump. Meanwhile McAuliffe sounded petty and arrogant, seemingly entitled to another term in office. After the upheavals of the past four years, Youngkin is comfort food for a Virginia electorate that has seen the foundations of its mythology challenged.

The dust has settled and Virginia will have a Republican governor for the next four years. I can only hope that he will govern in the tradition of his predecessor Linwood Holton who became the first Republican elected governor of Virginia since Reconstruction. I think that will be unlikely in the Age of Trump but would be happy to find that I am wrong about that.

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Thursday, October 28, 2021

When I Pay Attention to Professional Sports


As a kid I was a big Dodgers fan, first in Brooklyn but mostly in Los Angeles after the team moved west. I may have picked up that affiliation from my mother—I have a memory of her favoring the team in some passing way—but I don’t really remember her being particularly interested in baseball except in 1960 when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League pennant and the World Series. (She grew up in nearby Johnstown, Pennsylvania.)  Whatever the impetus for my Dodger fandom, the team’s success and players in the late 50s and early 60s was more than enough to engage me. That was the era of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Maury Wills.  Not many years passed during those years that the Dodgers were not in the World Series. As I grew older my interest waned and I stopped paying attention to baseball. The Dodgers’ fate each year was no longer a matter of great importance. 


As an adult I’ve never been much of a sports fan. Games and standings don’t make any real difference in my life so I pay little attention to them. I usually take note of the World Series due to that vestigial interest from my childhood and it’s impossible to ignore the Super Bowl but don’t have any great stake in the outcome. In recent years, though, I find myself paying more attention, mostly because I have good friends and a brother that do and I’m curious to see how their teams fare. Back when the local paper carried baseball standings (which apparently don’t fit in the slimmed down daily editions) I would glance at them to see how the the various favorites—Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs—were doing. And since I live near Seattle where people I know follow the Mariners and Seahawks I would follow their progress almost by osmosis. 


I bring all this up to note that I am rooting for Atlanta to win the Series this year. It’s simple enough. My brother is a fan so I hope his team wins. During the playoff with the Dodgers I was largely ambivalent. My vestigial loyalty to the Dodgers meant I pulled me in one direction but my brother’s loyalty to the Braves (which go back to their days in Milwaukee and reinforced by four decades living in Atlanta) meant that I would not be disappointed if they won the National League pennant which, of course they did. It’s also pretty easy to root against the Astros since they cheated their way to a Series win a few years ago.


In the end, it won’t make any difference in my life but my brother and probably many of his friends and neighbors will be happy.


Friday, October 01, 2021

I Read the News Today--Oh Boy



One of my routine activities is reading the news each morning. For many years, that activity involved a newspaper. In the past few decades I’ve been reading news sites online which is not quite the same as sitting down with a paper but it is convenient and gives me access to a wide variety of news sources. The weekday ritual was often sporadic during my work years but Sunday mornings with a big Washington Post or even the Sunday local paper kept the ritual alive. Now that I am retired, I engage daily. I am finding, however, that keeping informed is a less pleasant task these days. I skim headlines to get a sense of what’s happening but often skip going to storie for details. So many of those headlines tell me of events with which I am already familiar and, while the actual article might add something to my understanding, that information is relatively marginal and not worth the time it takes to read. Rather than the typical litany of daily events I much prefer analytical articles that provide context and background for those events.


Part of the problem is that many of the headlines and articles tell me about things I find appalling, distressing and lead me to fear for the future. As an adult I have strongly believed in justice and equality, that all people should have the opportunity to live free and secure lives. At the same time I have always been realistic about the extent to which we flawed human beings can achieve those lofty objectives but I found hope in the progress that had been made. Yet when I read the news these days, it seems not only the progress has been anything but equal and just but also that society is retrograding. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I want to believe that to be true but it feels more like the arc is breaking rather than bending.

As a planet, we seem entirely unable to change how we live to avert the devastating effects of climate change. The world has had plenty of warning about the consequences of burning fossil fuels but the developed nations whose prosperous economies poured carbon into the atmosphere are unwilling to rein in their emissions. The world economy depends on continued extraction and at all costs and one of the costs that we seem willing to pay is a radical change in the environment that has supported life as we know it. My country, the United States of America, has become increasingly divided—economically, racially and politically—to the point that the news routinely reports dispossession, poverty and violence. The racial divide that has always plagued American society seems as gaping as ever despite the achievements of the Civil Rights movement. The federal government is increasingly dysfunctional with Congress unable to enact meaningful legislation, a packed Supreme Court and an Executive Branch that has seemingly unlimited power to wage war but can do little to promote economic and social justice here at home.

Maybe what I’m seeing when I read the new is the end of my expectations. Coming of age in the 1960s I had grown up with the legacy of the New Deal which had demonstrated the positive impact of government on the lives of every day Americans (think Social Security, the GI Bill and major infrastructure). I I had seen America moving toward racial justice and broader acceptance of non-traditional ideas. I had hopes of continued progress toward economic and social justice (or at least a reasonable approximation thereof) in my lifetime. 


Call it youthful idealism that was bound to be tempered by experience. But I didn’t expect to be worrying about growing authoritarianism in my country and the world. I didn’t look into the future and see a world with melting polar ice caps and triple digit temperatures in Siberia and British Columbia. I didn’t think that I may be part of the last generation to experience the natural environment that gave rise to and nurtured the world that I knew.

All that comes to mind when I read the news these days. I’m too much of a news junkie to quit but it’s getting to be a difficult pastime.

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