Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Generations shift at family reunions

Family reunions are more than periodic opportunities to reunite with relatives you seldom see or barely know. Family reunions are also lessons in the steady advance of time. These events reveal truths we are reluctant to recognize, that we age into new roles without acknowledgement or intention. We become not only our parents but also our grandparents and great-grandparents.

In the past two months, I've attended reunions of my mother's and my father's families. My mother's family, comprising six siblings, was especially close-knit, it seemed to a youthful me. The five sisters and one brother, with all their children (a total of 13 grandchildren for my grandparents) gathered every Sunday afternoon at the home my grandfather built on a small farm after he retired from the cotton mill. While the adults sat and talked, my cousins and I had free run of the farm with its fields, pond and barn. At this year's reunion, only eight of the 13 cousins were still living, and not all of them attended the reunion.

My father's family seemed less adhered. The ten siblings scattered farther away from the mill village where all were raised. Some sought better jobs or followed ambitions or circumstance to distant places. One son, the youngest, never returned from World War II, though his brothers survived.

Now, when families gather, the remnants of my father's family seem closer and more eager to reunite. When I look around at either reunion, I see my contemporaries, my first cousins, and their children and grandchildren and realize that I am now where my grandparents were in my youth — elderly, a little insecure, and overjoyed, filled with gratitude, to see the children of our children. The old pictures we pass around show our parents in middle age or later, and we take pictures of our generation, at that same vulnerable age, distinguished from our parents primarily by this year's color photography, which contrasts with the black-and-white light and shadows of the old pictures. The faces are not so different. We, who once tugged on the pants and skirts of parents, now look down at the toddlers who have assumed our earlier roles, impatiently tugging for attention.

We are constantly teetering on that instability of being the playful kid, the cocky teenager, the ambitious, confident young adult, while also being the elderly, time-limited, slower, fading people we saw our parents become. Can we possibly be the same person? We don't recognize the bell curve of life until we are plummeting on the downward side, unable to stop it or slow it down.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The best way to spend a rainy, cold afternoon

The temperature is in the mid-40s and rainy outside this morning. It's a day — and maybe a week, according to the weather forecast — to spend inside. These wintry days are perfect for curling up with a good book, perhaps near the fireplace or in bed with a quilt covering me.

My wife and I had anticipated for years the many things we'd be able to do once we retired, once we were no longer tied down to a job and an office and responsibilities. Not the least of those anticipated things was the chance to read, not just at night just before falling asleep but at various times of the day.

About 30 years ago, a local retiree told me that the best thing about retirement could be summed up in one word: naps. He has been dead for years, but we share his retirement insight. We've adopted a modified siesta plan. Almost every day after lunch, we settle onto our bed or into a comfortable chair and read, sometimes for only 15 minutes, but sometimes for an hour. And sometimes, reading leads to napping, an unintentional but welcome goal for the afternoon.

While some people occupy their idle time by binge-watching television shows or movies; we prefer a good book that we can read for hours of put down and return to as needed. We have succumbed to a few of the multi-segment productions available on streaming services, including "The Staircase, "Downton Abbey," and a few others. The suspense that keeps viewers glued to these serials have a downside — heart-pounding confrontation and suspense are not relaxing. A good book is more satisfying and more comforting than any video production I can think of.

Later today, when the rain still falls from the overcast sky and the chill in the air makes it a challenge to feel sufficiently warm, I'll be absorbed in a book, oblivious to the chill or the rain, feeling instead the comfort of ink on paper, of descriptions that bring distant scenes to life, of events that happened only in an author's imagination.

It's the best way to spend a rainy, cold afternoon.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Petitioning the government by screaming

The First Amendment protects "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." This right has been broadly interpreted to allow almost any sort of assembly and petition, from million-man marches, to flag-burning protests, to neo-Nazi parades passing through neighborhoods populated by Holocaust survivors.

The Trump era and the "Resistance" movement have refocused attention on the right to protest. Democratic leaders have not questioned the aggressive protests and shouting-down of speakers, but the mid-term elections indicate that many moderate voters find the behavior at some protests rude, uncivil and crude. During the committee hearings on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, Americans saw opponents of Kavanaugh's appointment shouting down the senators conducting the hearings with coordinated screams of "Shame On You!" "Shame On You!"

As a career newspaper editor, I am accustomed to defending the right of free speech (and press), but I have difficulty classifying shouted insults as speech worthy of constitutional protection. Is it really "petitioning the government" when you verbally attack public officials and call them names?

What's worse, insofar as the protesters are concerned, they are failing to sway the public officials they are "petitioning" and the voters who tend to be turned off by the shouting down of elected officials, regardless of the issue involved. President Trump and other Republican officials used uncivilized, disrespectful behavior of the screaming protesters to ignite the passions of GOP voters.

Democratic leaders would be wise to disavow the aggressive shouting-down tactics and the tendency to portray every judicial or executive appointment as an Armageddon. Those tactics (which are also used by Republican leaders) are not succeeding. Voters are not so foolish as to believe the hyperbolic claims against individual nominees or specific bills. Has Neil Gorsuch been that bad for Democrats? Would Merrick Garland been so disastrous for Republicans?

Americans are sharply divided on many issues, but the behavior of advocates on both sides is doing nothing to bridge the divide and resolving the issue through  mutual agreement and compromise.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

More of a bubble than a wave

That's not a wave on which you can surf to 2020 victory.

Going into the mid-term elections, Democrats were predicting a tangible "blue wave" of electoral victories, but that tsunami turned into a ripple in most places Tuesday. Democrats did regain majority control of the U.S. House, but they failed in some of the most high-profile races that they had bolstered with money and attention — failing to topple vulnerable, mercurial Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, failing to win governorships in Florida and Ohio (key states in 2020) and failing to hold onto Senate seats in the Republican-dominated Midwest.

President Donald Trump is claiming credit for the Republican showing in these races, and his influence on campaigns across the country is hard to deny. Trump took his comedic road show to states where Republicans were vulnerable, and he fired up the GOP base with warnings about an "invasion" of illegal immigrants from Mexico, higher taxes under a Democratic Congress (although the GOP majority in the Senate makes that nearly impossible) and (of course) news professionals Trump is convinced are conspiring against him. In many places and in many minds, Trump's effort to exaggerate, prevaricate and conjure false "facts" worked well. His one-man shows (it's hard to consider his boisterous, insult-filled, narcissistic extravaganzas political rallies in the traditional sense) were effective in getting his base excited about the mid-terms. Democrats won enough seats to gain a majority in the U.S. House, but their victories were limited to a bubble here and there in mostly moderate- or left-leaning states, not a sustained wave of turnovers.

Democrats did not put themselves into an appreciably better position for the 2020 election. They failed to win key governorships and state houses that will help determine both the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 redistricting of House seats. Democrats still have a lot of work to do to regain the power they enjoyed in the past (e.g., 1932-1952, 1960-1966, 1974-1978).

The most troubling aspect of the mid-terms to anyone outside the legions of Trump loyalists is the impact on the Mueller investigation of the 2016 election. By firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him with an apparent sycophant who has cast doubts on the entire investigation, Trump has connived to void any possibility that America will get to the bottom of Russian influence in the 2016 election and the allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and a foreign power. This scenario is comparable to what would have happened if Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" had succeeded in stopping progress on the Watergate investigation. Winning a majority in the House gives the Democrats an opportunity to re-open the laughably incomplete House investigation into the 2016 election, but even the subpoena power of a congressional committee cannot compare with the indictment and plea-bargaining possibilities of a criminal investigation.

The net result of the 2018 mid-terms is that Trump has gained the advantage in 2020 and owns the Republican Party.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Grand D-Day Memorial disappoints

My wife and I took a brief trip to the Virginia mountains for a relaxing getaway and to see the fall color. Besides hiking up several peaks and visiting some historic sites, we went to the little town of Bedford, Va., about 10 miles from our lodging at Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We spent the morning touring Bedford's D-Day Memorial, which we had planned to visit on an earlier trip but ran out of time.

Although the memorial is in many ways magnificent, we came away with an empty feeling. The memorial was grand but not very informative. It was a memorial in bronze, granite and concrete rather than a museum of facts and wonderment. It consumes dozens of acres of land on a knoll just outside Bedford, a town that suffered more D-Day casualties per capita than any other American town or city.

A combination of human grief and civic boosterism, along with the determination of one D-Day survivor from Bedford, made the $25 million memorial happen. Although I admired the scope and magnificence of the memorial, I wondered whether the investment would pay off for Bedford. Most of the people in our one-hour guided tour were military veterans (like me) and their spouses. School groups come to the memorial, but what do children born in the 21st century know or care about D-Day? It's ancient history. Sadly, they won't learn a great deal from the Bedford memorial.

The memorial includes some magnificent statuary depicting soldiers battling their way ashore on June 6, 1944, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the liberating armies. Perhaps the grimaces on the faces of the soldiers can inspire young visitors to learn more about World War II, but watching the first few minutes of the movie "Saving Private Ryan" would show them more than the statuary at Bedford does.

D-Day remains a touchstone of American military history. It is honored with every passing June, although the veterans who waded ashore that day are almost all departed. It was the largest amphibious landing in history and will probably never be exceeded because today's military tactics and strategies would make such a landing unnecessary. D-Day helped hasten the end of World War II and rid Europe of the Nazi scourge, but it directly impacted only one part of a global war. The war in Europe would continue for another year. The war in the Pacific lasted another 15 months. German losses on the Eastern Front, as any Russian will tell you, had already made the fall of the Third Reich inevitable. Russia lost 20 million soldiers and civilians in the war.

We extol the D-Day anniversary far more than we honor the Pearl Harbor bombing, the battle of Midway, the North African, Sicilian, Italian and southern France victories or VE Day or VJ Day.

Bedford has a claim of honor for its casualties on D-Day, but those casualties do not come to life in the way casualties on actual battlefields do. I have been far more moved by visiting Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas and other battlegrounds. The Bedford memorial has some similarities to the expansive World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall, which has little of the tear-choking emotions of the simple honors of the Vietnam War Memorial.

I would not tell anyone to not go to the Bedford memorial. It's worth seeing, but it lacks the impact of, for example, the Appomattox battleground a few miles away, where 30,000 bedraggled Confederate soldiers surrendered, ending a war that took 600,000 American lives and changed America forever.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Words are the parents of bombs

My wife and I recently watched a segment of the CNN series "The Nineties" and were reminded of just how violent a decade the 1990s was. The segment spotlighted the Waco, Texas, gunfight with the Branch Davidians cult; the Unabomber ,whose mailed bombs killed several and worried thousands; the Oklahoma City bombing; and the initial attempt by Al-Quaida to topple the Twin Towers. We breathed a sigh of relief that the 1990s were two decades behind us.

Days later we read the reports of pipe bombs that had been mailed to public officials in Washington, New York and other locations. It seemed like we were back in the worrisome days of the 1990s or the aftermath of 9/11.

What was most troubling about this week's spate of attempted bombings was that the target list seems to have been taken from President Trump's speeches and tweets. Bombs were sent to Hillary Clinton, former President Obama, former CIA director John Brennan, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and liberal activist/donor George Soros. The link between all these targets is that they are Democrats and have been criticized viciously by President Trump.

To his credit, Trump issued a carefully worded statement calling for national unity and conversation, not violence. But this same president has called some of these targets "crooked," "dumb," and other ambiguous but mean-spirited adjectives. He enjoys leading chants of "Lock her up" at his rallies, calls news reporters "enemies of the people" and praises a congressman who body slammed a reporter who had the temerity to ask him a simple question about a national issue.

Trump supporters deny that his venomous criticisms had anything to do with the pipe bombs. Some even claim that the mailed packages were a Democratic plot to cast blame on Trump. But words matter. A kind word turns away wrath. An angry, hateful word promotes violence. Regardless of whether the person or persons responsible for these attempted bombings took their cues from the president's words, those words have debased our society and ruined political debate.

Throughout history, words have mattered. Thomas Jefferson's words helped launch a new republic. Adolf Hitler's words led to World War II and 20 million deaths. John Kennedy's words challenged Americans to put men on the moon. Franklin Roosevelt's words helped reassure Americans despondent because of the Great Depression. Abraham Lincoln's words redefined the Union's war goals and defined the principles of American democracy.

Because words matter, they should be chosen carefully.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

What has happened is not amusing

One of the transformative books I've read and frequently recommended to others is Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death." It is an indictment of television programming and the American public's complicit debasing of American culture and politics through mass media.

Writing in the early 1980s, Postman was disturbed with what was passing as entertainment on the pervasive, ubiquitous television set, which was replacing cogent conversation, reading, and personal relationships. Postman warned of this in an age before cable services offered hundreds of "entertainment" options that had Americans hypnotized by such choices as "Survivor," "The Bachelor," "The Bachelorette," "Naked and Afraid," "The Apprentice," and so forth.

I was wondering what Postman might think of the 2016 presidential election and television's impact on the most important office in the nation. The selection of a television "reality show" star to run this nation of 300 million is in line with Postman's apocalyptic view of the future for an American populace entranced by the ridiculousness of watching people savagely compete for a job, a romantic date, a cash prize, or a chance to survive. When more Americans know the names of the "Friends" stars than know the names of their senators, governors and congressmen, society has gone wrong.

I recently found that my concern about Postman's view of 21st century American politics has already been noted by Postman's son. A 2017 article in The Guardian reveals that Postman's son had the same concerns I did about television culture's influence in the 2016 election.

It didn't have to be this way. A utopian novel of the 19th century, "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy, predicted a much more favorable (and even less realistic?) view of the future. In Bellamy's 19th century view of the future, automation would give Americans nearly unlimited leisure time, which the public would use to read, study, learn and uplift themselves and their communities. Although Bellamy could not predict the advent of cable television or the internet, he did foresee a means of connecting American homes to quality programming via a kind of audio tube that would pipe concerts and great lectures into every home.

That's a far cry from what free enterprise, democratic government and public choices actually gave us. I read "Looking Backward" as background for an editorial writer's conference in the early 1980s. I read "Amusing Ourselves to Death" at the suggestion of a newspaper contact a few years later. Their views of the future could not have been more different. We are living with a world that is amusing itself to death.