Farewell 2017, Hello 2018

Age of Folly

An Age of Folly Indeed! The cover photo of Lewis Lapham’s newest book on how America Abandoned Its Democracy

I was so discouraged with our country’s direction at the end of 2016, that I missed what had become an annual More to Come… year-end update.  Many commentators described 2017 as a “dumpster fire of a year.” Even Dave Barry had a hard time coming up with outrageous examples that exceeded our twisted reality.  The title of this year’s review by Barry says it all:  “2017: Did that really happen?”

My optimism for our country’s future hasn’t fully recovered in part because I find myself agreeing with Lewis Lapham when he writes:

“If the American system of government at present seems so patently at odds with its constitutional hopes and purposes, it is not because the practice of democracy no longer serves the interests of the presiding oligarchy (which it never did), but because the promise of democracy no longer inspires or exalts the citizenry lucky enough to have been born under its star. It isn’t so much that liberty stands at bay but, rather, that it has fallen into disuse, regarded as insufficient by both its enemies and its nominal friends. What is the use of free expression to people so frightened of the future that they prefer the comforts of the authoritative lie?”

Frightened by the future…that could be a theme of so much of 2017 in America.

It didn’t always seem this way.  In my 2013 year-end post, I outlined seven rules for the next third of my life, with an optimism that I could live a long and fruitful life. For four years I’ve looked at them on my computer wallpaper as I’ve logged on in the morning. Colleagues have seen them and made comments. The family has been supportive. But in thinking recently about my difficulties in keeping up with my life goals in 2017, I realized that I had lost some faith in the future.  My primary goal is to regain that faith in 2018.

25th birthday celebration

Celebrating 25 years of Claire and Andrew – one of the great achievements of 2017!

At work and in our family life, 2017 was a year of progress and celebration, of which I am proud and which gives me hope for the future.  But careful readers know that I can demonstrate some of the lighter symptoms of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), which a quick trip to sunnier climates (think the Pomona College Family Weekend in February) usually fixes.  2017 felt like a year when SAD-like symptoms (or perhaps TAD-like symptoms, and you can fill in the “T”) came and went throughout the year.

Reading a recent article by David DeSento helped me focus on what may have been missing from my 2017:  that sense of gratitude for what I have been given.  A psychologist, DeSento argues that social emotions — not willpower — helps us achieve our life goals.

“What these findings show is that pride (not arrogance, but pride in the skills one has), gratitude and compassion, whether we consciously realize it or not, reduce the human mind’s tendency to discount the value of the future. In so doing, they push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.

If using willpower causes stress, using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. By making us value the future more, they ease the way to patience and perseverance.”

I had recently been thinking about gratefulness and thankfulness.  Putting all this together, I realized that I needed to add an eighth life rule for 2018 and beyond.  So…here’s a quick look at that new rule plus some thoughts on how I did in 2017 with the original seven.

1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate.  Every Day.  Several years ago I made it a habit to say thank you to one person each day.  Even in 2017, I managed to maintain that habit.  Moving forward with this new rule, I want to expand that habit to being intentional about gratefulness, thankfulness, and compassion.

2.  Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. I had a good pattern of daily exercise through 2016, resulting in weight stabilization.  Unfortunately, that didn’t continue in 2017, and my weight returned.  For 2018, I want to look with gratitude at the health I’ve had through six decades of life, and find ways to build on that outlook to maintain it.  I’m also going to keep the cartoon in mind where the doctor asks his middle-aged male patient, “Which is more inconvenient for you?  1 hour a day of exercise or 24 hours a day of dead?”

3.  Listen more than you talk.  It is always a challenge when I find myself in a place of some authority (either at work or home) not to grab the bully pulpit.  While David Isay, the founder of Story Corps, says listening is hard, he also notes that listening is an act of love…and act that one never regrets.  Both thoughts are worth remembering.

4.  Spend less than you make.  2017 was another year when I didn’t buy any new guitars!  (Although I can say that I gave it some serious thought.)  I’m continuing to adjust some of my expectations in order to live with much less regular income in the not-too-distant future.  I’m also thinking more about what to give away and how to do that to support those who have less.

5.  Quit eating crap!  Eat less of everything else.  Candice, Andrew, and Claire all support me in this effort, but I know I turned to comfort food more than I should have in 2017.  Like the rule about spending, I want to think about how eating less is an act of gratitude that what I have is enough.

6.  Play music.  The world is a better place when I play music.  My music is better when I play with others.  That’s the goal for 2018.

7.  Connect and commit.  Over the years since I set these rules, we made real progress in gathering people together on a regular basis.  That slipped some in 2017.  In the list Candice and I are assembling of 50 things we want to do in 2018, we already have a number of connections identified.

8.  Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man.  Enjoy life! I tried very hard not to let my SAD or TAD symptoms show through to others…in part, because this is probably the life rule I remember every day.  But there is still progress to be made…and in addition to Ursula Le Guin’s recent book of essays on growing old, I enjoyed reading yesterday’s New York Times article entitled, Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old PersonI laughed.  I smiled.  I saw some traits I recognized.  I saw some things to work on.

Okay 2018:  bring it on!

More to come…

DJB

A War on Whose Christmas?

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day at the Tenement Museum, on New York’s Lower East Side.  I was there to meet with the museum’s new president, Kevin Jennings, and to tour their new Under One Roof exhibit with Annie Polland, the EVP for Programs and Interpretation.  An affiliate historic site of the National Trust, the Tenement Museum tells the full American story about how many have come together to make our nation today.

Which brings me to the so-called War on Christmas.

The day I arrived, Kevin had just published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “A War on Christmas?  What Christmas Are You Talking About?”  Early in the piece he asks the key question:

“In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.”

The entire piece is worth the read, because Kevin uses the three families highlighted in the Under One Roof exhibit— the Epsteins, who were Holocast survivors, the Wongs, and the Velez family, who migrated from Puerto Rico—to show how the holidays were celebrated in many ways in just one building in New York City.

Exhibit Timeline

The changing faces, and diversity, of 103 Orchard Street (photo credit: Tenement Museum)

From the lessons learned from the exhibit, Kevin ends with a strong call for inclusion.

“By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.”

Let’s celebrate our inclusive and real American story, not something that a certain news network has decided is a way to divide our country into Americans and others. And let’s stop letting those pundits and politicians weaponize “Merry Christmas.”

More to come…

DJB

Respect is a Decision

No Time to Spare

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

We are heading into a season when generations will mix together with more frequency than they may at other times of the year (around a dining table for a holiday meal, for instance.)  While we interact with people of a variety of ages at work, the differences in generations are often much wider when we move outside the office. I was thinking of the clashes that often arise during these gatherings as I was reading a new book of essays by the science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin entitled No Time to Spare:  Thinking About What Matters

Le Guin is 88 and, in this delightful and insightful book, she is not shy about saying she is old.  In fact, don’t suggest otherwise.  As she notes, “Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires.  Fear is seldom wise and never kind.  Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow?  Is it really the geezer?”

But what got me to thinking about relationships between generations, and the importance respect plays in all of our dealings with each other, is when Le Guin states that kids “who haven’t lived with geezers don’t know what they are.”  They don’t see you.  And if generations do encounter each other, it is often with indifference, distrust, and animosity.  This is where the importance of respect comes into play.

Le Guin writes that showing respect is a decision, not an opinion.

“Respect has often been overenforced and almost universally misplaced (the poor must respect the rich, all women must respect all men, etc.). But when applied in moderation and with judgment, the social requirement of respectful behavior to others, by repressing aggression and requiring self-control, makes room for understanding.  It creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.

Opinion all too often leaves no room for anything but itself.

People whose society doesn’t teach them respect for childhood are lucky if they learn to understand, or value, or even like their own children. Children who aren’t taught respect for old age are likely to fear it, and to discover understanding and affection for old people only by luck, by chance.

I think the tradition of respecting age in itself has some justification.  Just coping with daily life, doing stuff that was always so easy you didn’t notice it, gets harder in old age, till it may take real courage to do it at all.  Old age generally involves pain and danger and inevitably ends in death.  The acceptance of that takes courage.  Courage deserves respect.”

Respect for others can be hard, and it is often easy to only respect those who share our interests and opinions.  But I like Le Guin’s suggestion that respect “creates a space where appreciation and affection can grow.”

Ursula Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

Ursula K. Le Guin photo by Eileen Gunn

I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, however you chose to celebrate.  If we’re lucky, we’ll have kids, geezers, and everything in between together over the next two weeks sharing times of understanding, appreciation, and, yes, even affection.

More to come…

DJB

Perspective

The Invention of Nature

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

How we look at the things around us—our mental viewing of the interrelation of a specific subject or its parts—is critical to shaping our point of view.  I just finished a fascinating book, Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, that tells the story of how one visionary and now oft-forgotten German naturalist changed the way we see the natural world.  His perspective was radically different than his scientific contemporaries of the late 18th and early 19th century because he conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force.  A force that did not exist for humans alone. He came to this conclusion after extensive and exhaustive research, observation, travel, and scholarship before he reached the age of 33.

Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the inactive volcano Chimborazo in the Andes, made during a five-year journey to South America at the beginning of the 19th century, led him to take all this knowledge and this new point of view and express it in one drawing:  his Naturgemälde (which Wulf describes as an untranslatable German term than can mean a “painting of nature” but which also implies a sense of unity or wholeness.)  That new perspective—and the scores of books he wrote over his 89 years—led Humboldt to become the most famous scientist of his age, influencing individuals as wide ranging as Goethe, Wordsworth, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Thoreau, the artist Ernst Haeckel, and the environmentalists John Muir, and Rachel Carson.  On the 100th anniversary of  his birth in 1869, celebrations were held all across the globe, including in most major U.S. cities. (25,000 gathered in New York City alone and President Grant led the celebration in Philadelphia.) Humboldt is honored with more place names around the world than any other individual in history.  Little did I know until I looked it up that little Humboldt, Tennessee—near my hometown—was named for a German naturalist whose work predated and in many ways envisioned Darwin’s theory of evolution, identified man-made climate change as a serious issue, and called for environmental protection decades before John Muir.

Naturgemalde

Alexander von Humboldt’s Naturgemalde

Humboldt embraced observation.  It changed his perspective and he was able to change the world.  When he died, a contemporary called him “the greatest man since the Deluge.”

This story about observation and perspective reminded me of a wonderful line in the Holly Morris film The Babushkas of ChernobylHolly was a TrustLive speaker at our recent PastForward conference in Chicago, where she told the story of these babushkas (or grandmothers) who came back to their homes following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and have now outlived their contemporaries who were evacuated.  There is one scene where one of the ladies (and I’m paraphrasing here) said, “When some people come to a puddle, all they see is the puddle.  Others look down and just see themselves.  And others look down and see the sky.”  I love that line.  My perspective is that when you can see beyond the problem (the puddle) or yourself, you can see the world, its connections, and its possibilities.

How we observe our world and how we choose to connect the parts of what we see is so important to every part of our lives.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Here Comes That Rainbow Again

There are weeks when the news contains stories that force you to shake your head in disbelief.  However, this isn’t all there is.  Newscasts don’t lead with “Another plane took off from National Airport this morning.”  Bad news sells, and the loss of civility and the misbehavior of powerful individuals are serious issues today.

But there are kindnesses and civility all around us as well, if we’ll look for them.

As I’ve been thinking of how I can move more intentionally to respond to our times, a song has been stuck in my head.  Kris Kristofferson wrote the song, which was inspired by the lunch counter scene in Chapter 15 of John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl novel Grapes of Wrath.  Kristofferson was born in Texas during the 1930s, and mentioned that he read Steinbeck’s book in high school or college (probably the latter, since he was a Pomona College graduate, just like our Claire!) Years later, he was reminded of the scene and wrote this work which Johnny Cash, who also made a recording of it, said might be his favorite song by any writer of our time.

In the intro to this video, Kristofferson says, “I kind of wrote it with John Steinbeck…only he was dead at the time.”

It is a simple song, with the following lyrics:

The scene was a small roadside café
The waitress was sweeping the floor
Two truck drivers drinking their coffee
And two Okie kids by the door

“How much are them candies?” They asked her
“How much have you got?” She replied
“We’ve only a penny between us”
“Them’s two for a penny,” She lied.

Chorus
And the daylight grew heavy with thunder
With the smell of rain on the wind
Ain’t it just like a human
Here comes that rainbow again

One truck driver called to the waitress
After the kids went outside
“Them candies ain’t two for a penny”
“So what’s it to you,” she replied

In silence they finished their coffee
And got up and nodded goodbye
She called, “Hey, you left too much money”
“So what’s it to you,” they replied

And the daylight…(Chorus)

Let’s do our best, in these times, to be good to one another.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Telling the Full Story

The Half Has Never Been Told

“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist

For whatever reason, I’ve been plowing through books this fall.  Perhaps that is what a great deal of time on planes and trains does for one’s reading habits.  In any event, this has been my first chance to stop and reflect on these recent readings for the blog, so I’m seizing the moment.

One of the two I’ve included here is a very important work, significantly moving the scholarship forward in its field.  The other is a small, family story that nonetheless captures the heart as it tells of a charming, privileged woman who struggled to live as a lesbian in the South of the jazz age.  Both, now a couple of years old, are recommended.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist.  In this ambitious work, Baptist sets out to to demonstrate, in great detail, that slavery was not the pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction with paternalistic slave-owners as claimed by so many historians and southern apologists alike.  Instead, in the eight decades prior to the Civil War, slavery expanded into a continental cotton empire that “drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.”  Baptist writes that “the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $1.3 billion in 1850—one-fifth of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product.”  This empire and wealth, Baptists asserts, was the reason the U.S. grew into a modern industrial and capitalist economy.

Cotton Fields

A View of the Cotton Empire

While some of Baptist’s techniques (such as naming chapters for different parts of the body) are not successful in and of themselves, the work as a whole is very persuasive and unsettling.  He describes a system that is very efficient at sorting out slaves to get those who are most productive, and the brutality that made that efficiency possible.  Not one to mince words, Baptist names the violence that led to increased productivity “the whipping machine.”  When, in the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in descriptions of young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness, Baptist writes that “Slavery’s frontier was a white man’s sexual playground.” His clear writing and extensive documentation takes the reader into the many horrors of the slave system in the United States. To Baptist, this was out-and-out torture.  However,

“Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term ‘torture’ to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product.  No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”

Writing about the book in the New York Times, Pulitzer prize winning historian Eric Foner says,

“It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of ‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”

To understand the many challenges we face today as a nation, one could do much worse than to add Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told to your nightstand reading pile.

Irrepressible

“Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” by Emily Bingham

A much-less ambitious work, Emily Bingham’s Irrepressible:  The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham is nonetheless a worthy read.  I learned of this book while meeting the author in her home in Louisville.  (Full disclosure, I have known and worked with Emily’s mother Edie on preservation projects for decades.)

Henrietta was Emily’s great-aunt, and was born into Southern privilege at the beginning of the 20th century.  As the author notes in the prologue, “The surest way to make a child curious about an ancestor is never to discuss her.”  It wasn’t until Emily and her husband named their newborn daughter for her great-aunt did family members come forward with stories of embarrassment, but also remembrances and photographs—especially of the early Henrietta—that spoke of a remarkable, unconventional, and ultimately tragic life lived by someone who dared to push the norms of Southern (certainly) and even American life.

Henrietta’s story really begins when—at age twelve—her mother dies in a horrific train and automobile accident that she witnesses.  Three years later her father marries the richest woman in America, the widow of Henry M. Flagler, the Standard Oil baron and Palm Beach developer, who—as explained by the New York Times reviewer—”promptly died under murky, Michael Jacksonesque circumstances involving a shady doctor and copious narcotics. ‘Bing’ later bought The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, jump-starting the family’s media empire.”

Emily Bingham then unfolds a story of a woman of enormous wealth who “spent much of her twenties and thirties ripping through the Jazz Age like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.”

“There were parties, music, great quantities of alcohol, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, lovers—lots of them, men and women, but far more women than men.  In Henrietta’s time that took courage.  Later there would be mental breakdowns, scandals, and a decline no one talked about.”

Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Henrietta’s affairs recounted in Irrepressible, but it is clear that while she had some famous male lovers, including the producer and actor John Houseman, she loved women far more — the tennis star Helen Jacobs (described as the Martina Navratilova of the 1930s), her Smith professor Mina Kirstein, the painter Dora Carrington, and the actress Hope Williams.  While she did serve, essentially, as her father’s social secretary when he was ambassador to the United Kingdom in F.D.R.’s first term, Henrietta lived quite independently and well on her father’s money.

The early flings are interesting prelude to the long affair with Jacobs.  One gets the sense that in today’s world, Henrietta Bingham and Jacobs would have settled down and lived normal—for wealthy and famous individuals—lives.  But that wasn’t possible in the South, especially after World War II and the coming of the repressive McCarthy era.  So Henrietta turned even more to alcohol to push away the world which would not let her love the person (or people) she clearly cared for the most.

Having grown up in the South, I have seen older gays and lesbians who have struggled—with varying degrees of success—through the challenges of navigating Southern mores about sexuality, religion, family, propriety, hierarchy, judgement, and gender in an age before Civil Rights and sexual freedoms.  It is a very sad story that was all too familiar for beloved professors, musicians, offspring of the town’s patriarchs, and more.  So while Henrietta Bingham did not, in the end, change much in her world, the way that world ultimately changed her is a story worth hearing. When we force people to live according to our precepts, judging them to satisfy our interpretations of values, both those who are repressed and those who administer the acceptable code of conduct, suffer in the end.

More to come…

DJB