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Archive for August, 2009

Mary Jo Kopechne

July 26, 1940 – July 18, 1969

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Okay, here’s the challenge. Name ten poems that have touched you. Why poems? We’ve covered books and short stories. Poetry just seems to follow naturally.

In my own personal case, I’m thinking not necessarily about poems but about almost any written output that has a nice rhythm to it. Sometimes, poems meet my likeability standard, sometime not. Sometimes, the lyrics of a song strike me as pleasant. Consequently, you will find some songs among my list of preferred poetic writings.

When you’re reading my list and my comments, you may also note that on occasion I don’t know the exact title of a work. If I’m wrong, I’m sure one or more of you will let me know.

You may also be struck by the lack of poetic sophistication in my choices. Most are bereft of deeper meanings, but then again, we can read meaning into just about anything. Bear in mind, however, that most of the works cited below were, for the most part, written for an audience of ordinary people with little time and inclination for sophisticated contemplation. They appealed to emotion rather than analysis.

Many of my selections originated in an earlier era. That doesn’t mean I was around in, say, 1895, or that I lived in Scotland near Robert Burns when he penned Auld Lang Syne. Some poems and songs are timeless.

At any rate, you can follow my example or take the road you wish, just come up with 10 whatevers—poems, songs, haiku, any old thing you like—that touch you. And just to make it interesting, work from cold memory. No Googling.

Okay, here is my list.

1. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost. This poem and the one that follow are consistently found on lists of the most frequently read poems by Americans. Although many read them for deeper interpretations, I prefer to think of them in terms of my own simple life rather than as statements about the totality of human existence. When frost writes, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/but I have miles to go before I sleep,” I do not envision the dark woods and sleep as individual death or the ultimate end of mankind but as a simple description of many woods that I have trod through or passed by when the night was dark and snow covered the ground. Because every wood is different from every other wood in some respects, I have often looked at snow covered woods as places to discover beauty unseen by me, and I longed to walk through them. But at the same time, I knew the time for exploration was later. For the moment, I had to get on about my business.

2. Another Frostian masterpiece is The Road Not Taken. I still marvel at Frost’s simplicity of word and phrase that nevertheless summarize an irrevocable decision. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I/I took the one less traveled by/and that has made all the difference.” All of us make choices every day. Sometimes, we wish we could retract them. At other times we are happy with the results. In most cases, however, we resign ourselves to the irretrievable consequences of a choice “that has made all the difference.” In my case, there is one road that brought me great happiness. There are no circumstances under which I could imagine a single moment of regret: my life with my beloved.

3. Cool Tombs, Carl Sandburg. I don’t know why I like this one. The poem asks the reader to “… tell me if the lovers are losers . . . tell me if any get more than the lovers . . . in the dust . . . in the cool tombs.” Perhaps you need to read the entire poem (it’s very short) to understand that Sandberg seems to be saying everyone is the same in death, Abraham Lincoln, the Wall Street bankers, and the lovers. If there is a deeper meaning…oh, well, I’ll think about it later. Time to take a coffee break,

4. And Frost again, Fire and Ice. This is such a short poem, I’m going to include it in full and give you an opportunity to judge it.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

5. The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe. “Once upon a midnight dreary/as I pondered weak and weary…” Those words and “Quoth the raven nevermore…” are all that remain in my memory of this poem we were required to read in the seventh or eighth grade. I thought it was great at the time, but opinions change: mine evolved from great to a passably good.

6. Trees, Joyce Kilmer. Kilmer was a poet and a soldier who was killed in the First World War. Trees is his best known poem, and almost every school child has read it at one time or another. Most would probably remember this passage: “Poems are made by fools like me/but only God can make a tree.” As a testament to the poem’s longevity, I first read it perhaps 40 years after it was written. Come on, now, you don’t think I was around when Kilmer penned it, do you?

7. America the Beautiful, Katharine Lee Bates. Although most Americans can probably sing this song, it was originally written as the poem, Pikes Peak, but re-titled America for publication. Later, church organist Samuel A. Ward set the words to music. Many Americans have proposed that America the Beautiful replace the Star Spangled Banner as the National Anthem. Okay, start singing, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies/for amber waves of grain/for purple mountain majesties/above the fruited plain…”

8. God Bless America, Israel Balin, This is a patriotic song written during the First World War. Later, it became the signature song of singer Kate Smith. Her powerful voice carried the song through the Second World War, and it still endures. Oh, I forgot to mention, Israel Balin is the birth name of one of America’s most prolific song writers, Irving Berlin.

9. The Home Place, Roger Traweek. This is one of the most moving pieces of poetry I’ve run across in many years. Raised on a ranch in Montana, the author is widely known as The Cowboy Poet. When I stumbled across this poem on the internet recently, I knew almost at once that I had read it before, but it had almost faded from my memory.

I can hear my mother humming
as she went about her chores,
Cooking, mending, and polishing
those worn linoleum floors.
The kitchen was her palace
where she reigned as sovereign queen,
And we ate like kings on simple fare,
not knowing times were lean.
She lent courage, grace, and comfort
to our simple way of life,
And held her tears and hid her fears,
good mother and good wife.

As I read this passage, my thoughts went to my wife, and I envisioned her bending over the sink and the stove. And I remembered her crying in the privacy of the shower each time a daughter left home. This poem touched me deeply.

10. My last selection is an untitled work. It’s fairly old, but I recall every single word of it. Here it is.

Once upon a simple time
when corn shocks marched in frosty fields,
and pumpkins grinned on window sills,
a mind reclined in cautious ease,
alert for pulsing memories
of ghosts and ghouls and vampire bats,
yet strangely quiet for all that,
until at last the dawn came fair
to prove their were no goblins there.
Still, even as the sunlight massed
and frost receded just as fast,
within that mind a lonesome elf
endeavored to release itself.

I have a confession to make. I wrote this poem, but have never shown it to anyone until now. It’s trite and hardly resembles literature, and I wrote it in one sitting with hardly any editing. But I just happen to like it. Maybe I’ll post it again this Halloween.

Okay, now it’s your turn.

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I was browsing Faceboook a few days ago when I ran across another one of those peculiar Facebook exercises apparently designed to expose the pathetically low level of sophistication of Americans to the world.

This one was titled 15 Books, and you’re supposed to name 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you. And your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to compile your list in 15 minutes.

In my case, the time limit is ridiculous, of course, I’ve already been working on it for two days and this is the pathetic result, along with an equally pathetic comment or two about each book.

1. White Fang, Jack London. Tenth grade. The first book I ever read from cover to cover.

2. Call of the Wild, London. Eleventh grade. The second one I read in full.

3. Count of Monte Cristo, Classic Comics Version, Artist Unknown. A copy of this was available on EBay not too long ago for a few hundred dollars.

4. A People’s History of the U.S., Howard Zinn. One of my favorite books. I especialy like the part where Zinn details the attitudes of America’s rich during the Civil War. In those days, a rich “draftee” could pay a substitute to take his place as a soldier. A high class founder of the Mellon fortune wrote to his son encouraging him to pay a sub: “There are other lives less worthy.”

5. Sundown Towns, James Loewen. Another favorite. It’s about towns that did not permit blacks within the town limits after dark. You may be surprised to find your home town listed and described in the book. There were sundown towns in every state.

6. From Here to Eternity, James Jones. One of those novels of military life that drips masculinity and appeals to testosterone-laden young men.

7. The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills. I don’t know why this title stuck with me.

8. A Difficult Woman, Jeannie Watt. A Western romance set in modern Nevada. For some reason I can’t explain, I like the story and Watt’s treatment.

9. Tobacco Road, Erskine Caldwell. Loaded with suggestive language that appealed to budding adolescent sexuality.

10. American Indian Law, Anderson and others. I was interested in this subject for awhile,

11. Catch 22, Joseph Heller. Another story of men in war. This one was a sort of macabre treatment of a rather twisted cast of characters.

12. True Believer, Nicholas Sparks. The first Sparks’ book I ever read. I wrote a satirical review of it in three parts.

13. Topographic Atlas of Nevada, Author unknown to me. I love maps and always have.

14. Stars in Khaki, James E. Wise. A nostalgic look silver screen stars and actors who actually served in the Army or Air Forces rather than just portraying fighting men on the screen. I plan to write a book review of this one.

15. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. The classic tale of the Joads who traveled from the Dust Bowl to California in search of jobs and a new life only to be met with hostility and ultimately death.

When I looked over this list, I had to ask myself one question: If I had my life to live over again, would I read the same books?

Yes, I think I would. I’m still a rather low-level thinker.

Now, I challenge everyone to outdo me in the unsophisticated approach to literature. Bet you can’t score below me on Facebook’s ignorance test.

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For about 20 years, I taught in a variety of 4-year and community colleges. This is just a partial list of the subjects and classes I taught—Beginning Political Science, American Government, Constitutional Law and Politics, International Law and Politics, Comparative Politics, the Politics of Hawaii, American Studies with a concentration in America’s Role in the World, and a few I don’t recall at the moment.

I taught classroom and internet courses, on and off-campus, day and evening classes, and classes in a medium security prison. My students ranged in age from 18 to 74 and spanned the gamut of ethnic groups. They were Americans and foreigners of varying political beliefs, attitudes, and opinions.

By now, some of you are probably thinking that I’m a braggart and you are waiting for an opportunity as you read this to expose my ignorance. You are fully prepared to kick ass. Well, wait no more.

When I began teaching, I did not know my ass from a hole in the ground about politics. Nada, nil, zilch, zero. At the end of my 20 years, I knew even less.

But I had a couple of things going for me. First of all, no matter how little I knew, I knew more than any student who ever enrolled in and attended my classes. In fact, the level of ignorance among my students was so high that I often referred to community college as a half way house between the tenth and twelfth grades.

I am not arguing that these students were dumb. To the contrary, they were quite intelligent on the whole. They just didn’t possess enough factual information to fill a thimble. Consequently, they were unable to reason except in the manner of high school adolescents, which, if you recall from your own experience, and from watching the recent spate of town hall meetings, was and is rather emotional and bereft of the slightest hint of knowledge and comprehension.

As teachers, how were we supposed to handle a class of 35 students who, to be honest, could not compose a simple sentence or understand the simplest political concept? The answer is, we didn’t handle them very well.

Some of us found ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time on 8th grade civics, e.g., America has a Constitution. What’s a constitution, you ask? Well, it’s a written document that outlines the rules a government is supposed to follow. What’s a government, you ask? Well, it’s a tweedly dee tweedly dum and then some. Ah, good, you got that.

Others among us said, on a regular basis, “Screw the little shits. They’re supposed to be prepared when they arrive in college. I am not going to slow my classes down for the ignorant assholes. (Yes, friends, gray-bearded, bow-tie wearing, dark suit clad academicians are fully conversant with street-level vernacular).

And then there was that tiny minority of teachers who thought they could teach the peach fuzz generation by being one of them. They dressed in the latest teen fashions, dyed their hair, got a few tattoos, and in general hung around with juveniles, all on the assumption that the kids would learn better “from one of their own.” Well, the kids did learn from their own, but not the sorts of things some 50-year old wannabe might have imagined.

The funny thing is, none of these approaches changed the statistics. The overall drop-out rate remained relatively high from semester to semester over the years. The number of community college students who went on to a four-year institution also remained low, and of those who transferred to a four-year institution, the percentage who failed to complete their bachelors also hovered at the basement level year after year.

Many explanations for the appalling academic preparation of incoming freshmen and women have been offered over the years. I’ll discuss that aspect of the American education system at another time. My purpose today is merely to explain how I managed to walk through a 20-year teaching career in a state of blissful ignorance. One reason, explained above, is that, ignorant though I may have been, I knew more than my students.

The second major reason revolves around the issue of misunderstandings and expectations. This was particularly true of classes in beginning political science. There was, almost universally among my students, a virtually impenetrable wall of confusion over the meanings of the words “politics” and “political science.”

In a nutshell, politics is the practice of striving for and retaining political office once elected. This covers a lot of ground, but briefly, it includes such activities as conducting campaigns, the strategies and tactics of reaching a predefined segment of the voting population, and the use of loaded language (e.g. death panels).

In another sense, politics is practice; political science is theory. Still another way of phrasing it is that politics is doing something; political science is thinking about what has been and what might be done. Or, one that I prefer—politics is calling an opponent an asshole; political science is defining asshole. I did not teach politics. I taught political science.

Which brings me back to misperceptions and misunderstandings. Students were under the impression that they would walk in the door, sit down, throw their feet up on an empty chair (male students, anyway), and start calling politicians assholes, as if that were a mark of testosteronic maturity (I don’t know the equivalent female hormonal impediment to learning).

When I insisted repeatedly that they define asshole according to the techniques utilized in political science that I had or would teach them, many decided on another course of study. Critical thinking (meaning logical analysis based on factual information) was a concept so alien to them that my mere insistence on objectivity was considered radical liberalism or radical conservatism, depending on their own self-professed ideological outlook.

In fact, I was accused on more than one occasion of attempting to undermine their core beliefs, although I did nothing more than ask questions and insist that they be able to explain their stands on the issues.

I often skated around their abhorrence of objective analysis by using an example from the practice of law: A winning attorney is able to argue the opponent’s case better than the opponent can. In other words, know what the hell the other side is thinking and know the facts of its case.

A point of clarification is in order before I wind up. When I wrote that I taught for 20 years in a state of blissful ignorance, I meant that politics was and remains a mystery to me. True, the words and deeds of politicians are rather predictable, but the reactions and responses of the general voting public are astoundingly lacking in logical bases. But that is only one part of the problem. Why are large segments of American society so determined to remain ignorant? In fact, I believe that the only thing exceeding the ignorance of these segments is a fierce determination to remain in that state.

That, I believe, is the eternal mystery of politics, and that is what I intended to suggest by talking about my ignorance in the classroom. I may be ignorant about this particular political mystery, but I know how to think about it in the manner of political scientists. My students never seemed to get the distinction.

Finally, despite the negativities in this essay, I taught many outstanding students, and I can truthfully say that my teaching career was challenging and satisfying. I left teaching a couple of years ago but not because I was disgusted or beaten down by student inertia. I needed to care for my beloved. I’m thinking now of returning to the classroom on a part-time basis. That remains to be seen.

Pending a decision, I’ll probably visit a few relatives who think I’m nuts or weird and who will not hesitate to let me know that they know more about politics than I do. It’s the American way. A loud voice and a dearth of information are often confused with knowledge.

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If you take a look at my Facebook page, you’ll probably notice right away that I do not have a lot of Facebook Friends.

Your observation will be correct. At one time, I had more, but about a month ago, I decided to cleanse my list. By “cleanse” I mean I got rid of the deadwood. And by “deadwood” I mean people who had solicited my friendship but then never had the courtesy to respond when I congratulated them for one thing or another.

Most of my purgees were politicians. For awhile, I had the impression that these sycophants were lining up to seek my friendship because they liked me or liked something I wrote or said, or something.

But then, it dawned on me that the politicians whose names appeared on their own Facebook pages weren’t actually the people who solicited my friendship. Some clerk or volunteer was probably scouring Facebook for suckers like me to pad the numbers. So—zap—I removed all politicians.

The second category of Facebook Friend I zapped fell under the classification of Celebrity. Again, these were people who solicited my friendship. Why, I have no idea. I was not then and am not now a card-carrying member of the Celebrity Party. I don’t even know these people. But I accepted their friendship out of some naïve feeling at the time that perhaps they were reading my blog and liked it. Hahahaha.

When I finished compiling my list of redundant friends and zapping them, the only people left were a couple of family members who stand to inherit some money one of these days if they make positive comments about my links and postings.

Besides my lack of FB Friends, you might also notice is that I am addicted to those ubiquitous Facebook quizzes. Are you the smartest human on the face of the earth? Yes. Are you Black? Yes. Are you white? Yes. Are you sane? Uh…well…I zapped that quiz. How many cities have you visited? 2,567, if you count Cyclopic, Arizona. And so on. I’m going nuts trying to keep up.

If you are innately nosey, you will also note the dearth (love that word) of personal identifying information about me. You will find no entries under such categories as Favorite Books, Favorite Movies, Favorite TV Shows, and so on. Nor will you discover the schools I attended or the jobs I have held. These are all items of info that a resourceful thief can use to steal my identity. I don’t have much of an identity to steal, but what little there is, is mine.

And, finally, you may notice that I have posted very few photos of me. I am not a photogenic person. Consequently, out of a thousand shots, one may be suitable for public display. I think it may be time for a trip to Beverley Hills and a complete makeover.

Either that or I’ve got to hire a good digital photo enhancement technician.What the hey. If some old sagging Hollywood star, male or female, born at the turn of the 19th Century, can suddenly pass for a 30-year old thanks to the magic of pixel extrapolation,why not us plebians? Okay, Adobe Photoshop, here I come.

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This past Saturday, we drove from Annapolis to Philadelphia to scout out Philly’s historic locations, snap a few photos, snack a little bit, and get sunburned a lot. And, we walked our buns off.

Philly’s primary historical landmarks are concentrated amid lots of tall buildings without historical significance at the moment, but though the historic area may be small in size, it seems larger when you just sort of meander around.

And that’s what we did. We meandered through the Liberty Bell exhibit, the Philadelphia Mint, and the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin and a host of other Colonial personalities instrumental in developing the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution of the United States. The sense of history and of the times made our meandering worthwhile.

However, we weren’t able to tour Independence Hall. Tickets are required for entry, but by the time we arrived, the day’s ticket quota was gone. According to the National Park Service, tickets are used as a means of spreading the visitor flow throughout the day. Sounds reasonable to me, but I was irked nevertheless. I wanted to see where those Colonial firebrands stood and condemned the British to hell, a tradition that still lives when the subject of universal health care arises.

Interestingly, as we waited in a rather long line to enter the Liberty Bell exhibit, a group of people stood near the line and handed out pamphlets about the Falun Gong. This is a religious group whose members have been persecuted in China, and on this day, the group’s message and writings were aimed at those who in appearance were probably Asian. At least, they overlooked us and others who resembled us, probably assuming, and correctly so, that the number of non-Asians fluent in the Chinese language would range from nil to nada to zilch.

Before I reached a point of utter exhaustion, we decided to survey real history. With our trusty GPS activated, we headed cross-town to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where Rocky ran up about a million steps and then, at the top, gyrated around, finally assuming that triumphant pose now enshrined in a statue at the bottom of the steps.

We, along with a few thousand others in line, stood in front of the statue when out turn came, emulating Rocky’s pose for our own personal pictorial posterity. Like the fool I can sometimes be, I stumbled on the damned pedestal and almost fell, much to the delight of the smirking crowd. I didn’t blame them. Hell, I would have smirked, too. But I recovered nicely and pranced around with arms raised just like Sylvester Stallone did in 1976, 200 years after those rugged firebrands of 1776 may have pranced inside Independence Hall. I think George and Thomas would understand Rocky’s triumph if they were around today.

After the picture-taking session, we walked to the flight of concrete steps Rocky had enshrined in modern American cultural lore so many years ago. Four of us ran up them just as Rocky before us. One of us had better sense and sat down nearby, watching the other members of our party run up and then back down. One female member ran back up and down again, and I was surprised that she wasn’t winded in the slightest when she returned.

By now, the hours we had set aside for our sightseeing were about over. We headed back, taking a route through New Jersey and Delaware and onto US-301into Maryland. As we drove, I noted when we left one state and entered another and thought about the differences. Aside from the obvious—Welcome to Maryland, e.g.—are the people different? Do they look different? Do they speak different languages, New Jerseyese, for example? Do they think differently?

These are philosophical questions for another time. For the moment, suffice to say we had a good time and enjoyed learning a little bit about Philly. As my blogging cohort, Alexandra Jones, a native of Philly, might say, “Go Phillies!” In honor of her devotion to her team, I shouted those words as we passed the Phillies stadium on our way out of town.

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I’ve been away from the ‘net since leaving Texas for Maryland, so I’ve been catching up with a few things, stuff you can’t get into heaven without, like a surplus of junk emails. It feels good when I delete them in batches without reading them. And as Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “What is right is what you feel good after,” or words similar to those.

But one thing I haven’t felt good about. Before leaving Texas, I shipped my laptop and some very important papers via FedEx. Yes, I know it was a dumb decision, but I had a couple of good (I thought) reasons. The laptop and the papers were crammed into a laptop carrying case that would have made wrestling the thing through security, a mile walk to Gate 43 and more muscles than I possess to lift the whole thing into the overhead rack. Besides, I had another carry-on equally as cumbersome. At the time, shipping seemed to be the most logical solution.

At any rate, I hauled the whole thing to a mailbox packing and shipping place staffed with friendly Texans and arranged for its arrival in Maryland the following Wednesday. And then I paid a handsome sum of money for the professional services of the packaging company and FedEx, secure in the belief that the America free enterprise system is an error-free environment, what with professional humans and 21st Century technology tracking my package from Port Arthur to my doorstep in a faraway state.

On the appointed date, we decided on a short daytrip to the Air and Space Museum Annex near Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. We knew FedEx would place my package carefully near the door if, by chance, delivery was early. And we knew the delivery person would leave a door tag, informing us that my package was either on the porch below the tag or deposited in the care of a trusted neighbor in this respectable, young professional neighborhood.

When we returned around three in the afternoon, we saw neither a package nor a door tag. Like good, trusting, patriotic Americans, we figured we were on the end of FedEx’s schedule for the day. No big deal. But just in case, we booted up a desktop and entered our assigned tracking number.

Holy Schiese! Our package had been delivered. But not to our address. At 2:45 p.m. or thereabouts, a FedEx home delivery driver had dropped off our package at a totally dissimilar address in Damascus, Maryland, a full sixty miles north of us.

Jesucristo! We panicked. For the balance of the day and into the following morning, we burned up the lines between us and FedEx. Lord knows how many customer relations specialists or whatever we talked to. And Lord knows how many different explanations we received for the glitch, which we didn’t consider a glitch but a major foul-up. Who cared about North Korea, Paula Abdul and American Idol, or Harry Reid’s constant whining. We cared nothing for Keith and Bill-O’s juvenile feud. Obama’s birth certificate? So what if the guy was born in Kenya? We wanted out package.

To further complicate matters, one of us drove the 60 miles to Damascus, located the address our box had been delivered to, and knocked on the door. A nice lady answered and when informed of the purpose of the visit, said, yes, the package had been delivered. She was even kind enough to retrieve the opened box from her trash bin. Only problem is it wasn’t our box. It was another box entirely with our tracking number written across the top.

Long story short, we fired up the lines to FedEx’s customer service office, threatening to call every 30 minutes until my package was located and delivered. One of the agents finally informed us that the package should arrive tomorrow.

And, lo, on the following day, a FedEx delivery van pulled into the driveway and a neatly dressed man stepped out carrying the package.

“Good morning,” he said politely, “here’s your package.”

What a let down. Curse polite and helpful employees. They take the joy out of blaming others. We were prepared for eternal cultural warfare in the manner of the ancient Romans and the modern Demorepublocrats.

Addendum: How did the mix up begin? Two packages with the same tracking number. A computer glitch? Human error? In the final analysis, just another unsolvable mystery.

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