Month: March 2020

History and hope in the midst of denial and darkness

Harry S. Truman famously said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Each day we are facing a crisis that some describe as “unprecedented.”* Serious? Absolutely. Life-changing? Unquestionably. Worthy of all our attention? Definitely. But unprecedented? Thankfully, historians are speaking up to help make sense of what we are facing today, and to provide hope for what can come. John M. Barry — who, in Rising Tide, wrote one of the best histories I’ve read of how a disaster changed our country for the better — has also written a book that is invaluable in understanding our current crisis. Barry’s 2004 work, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, makes him the historian who arguably knows more than anyone about the 1918 flu influenza that is the public health event most often compared to today’s outbreak. Barry writes that in that year, “a new respiratory virus invaded the human population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people — adjusted for population, that would equal …

Geography and Imperialism

I picked up Robert D. Kaplan’s 2017 book Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World based on several high profile recommendations. In a short 178 pages, Kaplan — a card-carrying member of the East Coast elite that he proceeds to denigrate throughout the book —describes a cross-country trip taken in 2016 and mixes in his thoughts on how our geography led the U.S. to become a benevolent imperialist power. And calling on his impressive foreign policy experience and credentials, there are parts of this meditation on America’s rise and decline that are skillful and insightful. Kaplan argues that America became a great country not just because of our constitution and values, but because it occupies some of the best, most fertile land on the planet that is connected by a river system (running diagonally) that unites the heartland into a strong political unit. “America’s greatness,” in his words, “ultimately, is based on it being a nation, an empire, and a continent rolled into one.” And in taming the frontier, America — according to Kaplan’s analysis …

Saturday Soundtrack: Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz is one-third of the trio I’m With Her, which I featured in last week’s edition of Saturday Music. In addition to their work with the band, each of these very talented young women has a robust solo career. Saturday Music will focus on their music as individuals over the next three weeks, beginning with the gifted singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz. I began hearing Jarosz at venues such as the Red Wing Roots Music Festival when she was in her early twenties and already an established artist. The bio from her website captures Jarosz’s amazing rise from her teenage debut: “With her captivating voice and richly detailed songwriting, Sarah Jarosz has emerged as one of the most compelling musicians of her generation. A three-time Grammy Award-winner at the age of 28, the Texas native started singing as a young girl and became an accomplished multi-instrumentalist by her early teens. After releasing her full-length debut Song Up in Her Head at 18-years-old, she went on to deliver such critically lauded albums as Follow Me Down, Build Me …

No Baseball Today

Today was to be Opening Day 2020 for the World Series Champion Washington Nationals. Alas, the Covid-19 virus had other plans for the world. But I have a suggestion for you. Last week the Washington Post asked their writers to name their top sports movies to watch during the coronavirus crisis. They really only needed to have included one. Watch Bull Durham. The best baseball movie ever. Its not even close. I’ve written many times — most recently earlier this month — about my personal spring training regimen of reading a baseball book and watching Bull Durham. I watched the movie again earlier this week, and it didn’t disappoint. Regular readers know how I feel. But don’t just take my word for it. I’ve recently been reading a number of columns about culture and politics by the Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg. She’s smart and a very good writer. So no surprise to learn that she thinks Bull Durham is a great movie, and well deserving of the moniker of a film classic. As her Post colleague Tom Boswell once said a long time ago, “Marianne Moore …

Flowers from Pomona Family Weekend

Reflect. Reconsider. Reset.

Navigating through difficult times is both a personal and communal journey. As we each  chart our course through this particular crisis, it is important to concentrate on the ways we can show love and live with hope. Inspiration for my journey comes from a cross section of writers, historians, thinkers, theologians, poets, activists, and friends. One of my personal favorites is Rebecca Solnit.  “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit writes. “And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” In a 2016 interview with The On Being Project’s Krista Tippett — posted on the project’s website as one of the “conversations we’re longing to hear again and finding useful right now” — Solnit speaks of how the world wants to categorize and pigeonhole love. But coming from a place of abundance, where there is room for everyone, Solnit said, “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” That resonated with me. I had returned to Solnit …

Saturday Soundtrack: I’m With Her

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.” Those were the words of mandolinist Chris Thile at a Kennedy Center concert in 2016. He was describing I’m With Her, the Grammy-award winning roots music trio composed of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins. These three women bring together lyrical songwriting, sterling instrumental chops, and ethereal harmonies to make beautiful — some would say heavenly — music. The group of singer-songwriters came together in 2014 and have been steadily building a catalog of mesmerizing songs and a loyal following. Yes, that loyal fan base includes me, as they were also involved in my first and only case of celebrity stalking, but that’s another story. I first saw the group live in 2015. Having seen each of them with earlier bands and in solo appearances, I knew that they could forge a distinct and memorable musical partnership. I was not disappointed. There’s so much to highlight here. Nina Simone’s acapella Be My Husband was one of the first songs of …

An ongoing conversation with the past

At the very beginning of 2018’s American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, historian Joseph J. Ellis lays out his personal self-evident truth. This guide star that leads his work is simple yet important: “The study of history is an ongoing conversation between past and present from which we all have much to learn.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially in times of crisis such as we face now. Over the book’s 200+ pages, Ellis demonstrates how just such a dialogue takes place in the hands of a talented historian, biographer, writer, and thinker immersed in the study of our nation’s founding. Focusing on key issues of our day, he carries on a rich, thoughtful, and challenging conversation with four founders that helps us go back to the beginning and understand some of their controversial decisions, and how that differs from choices we are making today. The questions are well chosen given our highly polarized times. Ellis notes that we are “currently incapable of sustained argument” as our creedal convictions — formed during the revolutionary era — bump …

Competency. Credibility. Empathy.

A crisis can be illuminating. It can strip away the façade of what we say we believe and expose our true natures. We can use a crisis to step into being our best selves. Or we can take a different route, such as acting out of cold-hearted self-interest to stockpile more than 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and attempt to profit from a pandemic. Along with illumination, a crisis can bring a moment of reckoning. In 2020, America is coming face-to-face with the dire consequences of a well-funded campaign that began in the 1950s to denigrate, hollow-out, and ultimately destroy good and competent government along with the maintenance of a strong and empathetic social contract. Our current crisis has brought those decisions front and center. That reckoning is at the heart of Anne Applebaum‘s recent article in The Atlantic magazine: The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff.  Moments of stark illumination and national reckoning also tell us a great deal about our leaders. When it comes to leadership in a crisis, it turns out — surprise, surprise — that …

Saturday Soundtrack: John Prine

(UPDATE:  John Prine passed away from COVID-19 on April 7, 2020, just three-and-a-half weeks after I wrote this post suggesting how much we needed his music and his outlook on life. My appreciation can be found here.) This seems like a good weekend to recall the work of the man who wrote the classic line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” John Prine has been in my life, and in my head, forever. When the singing mailman was discovered in 1970 at The Fifth Peg in Chicago by a young journalist named Roger Ebert, he was already writing and playing such incredible songs as Sam Stone, Hello in There, and Paradise. In fact, those were the first three songs Prine ever played on stage. To hear a 1970-era country singer and songwriter tackling subjects such as the Vietnam War and drug use, old age and loneliness, and environmental degradation and rural depopulation in such a sensitive and thoughtful way was unheard of from the country music industry in nearby …

Babe Ruth and the Creation of the Modern Celebrity

In the coming weeks, if we are able as individuals to stay healthy, we may all be looking at books in our “to be read” pile to fill up this time of coronavirus. For very good reasons sports leagues and tournaments are shutting down. Opera houses and theatres are going dark. Schools are closing. Restaurants may be next on the list. Watching cable news is just too damn depressing (and not always very informative). As I was writing this, Major League Baseball cancelled the rest of spring training and has pushed back opening day at least two weeks. If you are looking for a good sports book to fill up your hours, I wish I could send you to Jane Leavy’s 2018 The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created with more enthusiasm. Those who know my reading habits are aware that I always read a baseball book as part of my personal spring training. (The other part of the regimen is watching Bull Durham, the best baseball movie ever.) In 2020, The Big Fella was the …