Malcolm X on education

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Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity and thereby increase their self respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.

—Malcolm X, Speech at Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (28 June 1964), as quoted in By Any Means Necessary (1970)

John Adams: “Remember, democracy never lasts long”

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Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

—John Adams, Letters to John Taylor (1814)

Orwell pulls no punches

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From “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War” (1942):

The broad truth about the war is simple enough. The Spanish bourgeoisie saw their chance of crushing the labour movement, and took it, aided by the Nazis and by the forces of reaction all over the world. . . .

The Fascists won because . . . they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.

. . . the British ruling class did all they could to hand Spain over to Franco and the Nazis. Why? Because they were pro-Fascist, was the obvious answer. . . . Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time . . . .

. . . the people who support or have supported Fascism . . . are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. . . . the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. . . .

All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done.

My Old Friend

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for all of my old friends

My old friend lives far away
from me and
I live far away
from my old friend.
We send email back and forth
from time to time,
a photo, a song, or
something in the news.
I am a part of my
old friend’s life,
only a part,
and my old friend is a
part of my life, too,
but just
a part.
We share good memories.
One day my email will not be answered.
Or perhaps
one day I will not
be here to open
my old friend’s message.
One of us will become
pure memory.
Sooner or later
both of us will
disappear into the
land of eternal forgetting.

The teacher’s vocation

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In La gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol remembers one of his father’s colleagues, who graduated from teacher’s college first in his class. From there he went straight into a job in the worst neighbourhood in Marseille, a part of town where no one dared to walk at night. He stayed there, teaching in the same classroom for forty years. 

Marcel overhears his father ask this man one evening,  

“So, you never had any ambition?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “I did! And I think I have succeeded very well. Just think: in twenty years, my predecessor saw six of his former students guillotined. As for me, in forty years I have only seen two, plus one who was reprieved. That’s made it all worthwhile.”

A reasonable creature

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I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod and haul’d up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food and on this Occasion, I consider’d with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok’d Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter.

All this seem’d very reasonable.

But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well.

I balanc’d some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then, thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable Diet.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

—Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Moderates vs. radicals: we have been here before

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From the “History Doesn’t Repeat, but Sometimes It Rhymes” Dept:

In the early days of France’s Third Republic (ca. 1870 – 1890), the major political divide was between monarchists, who wanted a king again, and republicans, who favoured parliamentary democracy.

The moderate republicans, called “opportunists” because they thought new laws should be introduced only when they were expedient, wanted to avoid disruptive issues, to limit the scope of reform, and to deal with one problem at a time. “Nothing must be put in the republican program that the majority of the nation cannot be induced to accept immediately,” Gambetta had said, as spokesman of the opportunist point of view. The radicals, on the other hand, wanted to carry through sweeping reforms at once. . . .

Meanwhile, the mass of the French people remained indifferent to the republic or were becoming increasingly radicalized as a result of the government’s resistance to programs designed to improve the lot of industrial and agricultural workers. . . .

Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian empire,

In 1890 militant German and Slavic nationalists combined to prevent . . . compromise on the nationalities question. In 1891 both Czech and German moderates were routed in the parliamentary elections. . . .

[Prime Minister Taafe failed] to solve the serious financial problems of the empire. . . . Instead of meeting the problem with a large-scale program of tax and financial reform, Taafe simply increased the rate of state borrowing, thereby raising the cost of servicing the national debt.

. . . [His] efforts at social reform were also ineffective. . . . Taafe’s proposals for universal suffrage and labor reform offended every vested interest in the country. . . .

The political response . . . was the spectacular growth of the Christian Socialist movement [led by Vienna mayor] Karl Lueger (1844 – 1910) [who] championed the rights of the worker, peasant, and small businessman against big business and “Jewish” capitalism. He advocated a socialist welfare state . . . where Slavs, Jews, and Protestants would not be welcome. Lueger was enormously popular and was repeatedly elected mayor of Vienna.

—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850 – 1890  (1977)

The obvious parallels with current events in Europe and the U.S. should concern all of us. The Industrial Revolution, the growth of the middle class, and the rise of Western democracies are not finished stories. Neither is the U.S. struggle over slavery and its transformation after 1865 into a struggle over racial equality. These stories continue; the history continues. Our era did not begin in 1945, or in 1900, but in Paris in 1789, and we still do not know how the political, economic, and racial issues unleashed in the French Revolution will finally sort themselves. A racist, authoritarian triumph is not out of the question.

Lack of consensus + poor leadership = big, big trouble

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The failure of genuine parliamentary government . . . was due . . . to the absence of the feature most necessary for its successful operation: broad agreement among the main power groups in a country about fundamental issues.

. . . The crucial power to determine government policy remained in the hands of the executive leadership. Hence the quality of leadership in every country was at all times of paramount importance.

—Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890 (1977)

“A martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world”

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In England and the United States, in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in Switzerland and Canada, democracy is today sounder than ever before. It has defended itself with courage and energy against the assaults of foreign dictatorship, and has not yielded to dictatorship at home. But if war continues to absorb and dominate it, or if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment and appropriation, the freedoms of democracy may one by one succumb to the discipline of arms and strife. If race or class war divides us into hostile camps, changing political argument into blind hate, one side or the other may overturn the hustings with the rule of the sword. If our economy of freedom fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open to any man who can persuasively promise security to all; and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world.

—Will Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)

Kansas City, 1938

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Jesse Price (L) and Charlie Parker (R) horsing around in the summer of 1938. Price was 19, Parker a year younger. Jesse Price was a drummer and singer who worked largely as a sideman but made a few great recordings as a band leader and vocalist in the early days of R&B, similar in style to early Louis Jordan. “Frettin’ for Some Pettin'” (1948) and “Jump It With a Shuffle” are great examples of his work. Photo credit: American Jazz Museum.

Voltaire: I am silent, I have too much to say

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My dear brother, my heart is withered, I am crushed. . . . I am tempted to go and die in some foreign land where men are less unjust. I am silent, I have too much to say.

—From a letter written 7 July 1766, on hearing of the torture and execution of the chevalier de La Barre. La Barre’s body was burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.

Why Trump Will Be Re-Elected

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In no particular order . . .

  1. Many American voters simply want to extend their middle fingers to the establishment elites. Trump is that middle finger.
  2. He has bought the Christian Right’s votes by packing the courts and making the overturning of Roe v. Wade possible.
  3. The economy is booming; many will ignorantly credit Trump for that.
  4. He has bought the support of big business with massive tax cuts, deregulation, and zero action to counter climate change.
  5. Many white people support his attacks on people of color; many more simply ignore those attacks because they just don’t care much about the problems of brown people and foreigners.
  6. The polls are meaningless because Trump supporters will either lie to pollsters or refuse to talk to them at all.
  7. Nothing has been done to counter the massive propaganda machine of Fox News, Facebook, Twitter, and the Russian intelligence services.
  8. Nothing has been done to stop dark money from flooding into the American election. You can bet that the Russians, the Saudis, and the Israelis will be heavily invested.
  9. Some of that dark money will finance a 3rd-party candidate on the left who will siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate.
  10. No one the Democrats nominate will be able to withstand the onslaught of lies thrown at them by Trump and the Fox News / social media propaganda machine.

Is that enough?

Why Democracy Is Breaking

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Here’s the problem.

Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.

As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups. 

On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913). 

These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.

Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.

The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. 

But it’s worse than that.

The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule. 

Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death. 

Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.

TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis. 

But it’s worse than that.

The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump. 

There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around. 

Which is why democracy is breaking. 

If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.

Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.

Anthony Trollope describes Donald Trump (1875)

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Yes, 1875. In his novel, The Way We Live Now, Trollope presents Mr. Auguste Melmotte, a thorough-going fraud and swindler who, for a brief period, takes hold of English finance and politics. The following excerpts require no comment.


The chief crime laid to his charge was connected with the ruin of some great continental assurance company, as to which it was said that he had so managed it as to leave it utterly stranded, with an enormous fortune of his own. 

The belief naturally to be deduced from such statements, nay, the unavoidable conviction on the minds—of, at any rate, the Conservative newspapers—was that Mr Melmotte had accumulated an immense fortune, and that he had never robbed any shareholder of a shilling.

“Couldn’t he draw it a little milder?” Lord Alfred made his reply almost in a whisper. “If you ask me, I don’t think he could. If you got him down and trampled on him, you might make him mild. I don’t think there’s any other way.” “You couldn’t speak to him, then?” “Not unless I did it with a horsewhip.”

Melmotte was not the first vulgar man whom the Conservatives had taken by the hand, and patted on the back, and told that he was a god.

Rumours, therefore, of his past frauds, rumour also as to the instability of his presumed fortune, were as current as those which declared him to be by far the richest man in England.

“You think Melmotte will turn out a failure.” “A failure! Of course he’s a failure, whether rich or poor;—a miserable imposition, a hollow vulgar fraud from beginning to end,—too insignificant for you and me to talk of, were it not that his position is a sign of the degeneracy of the age. What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”  

“And yet these leaders of the fashion know,—at any rate they believe,—that he is what he is because he has been a swindler greater than other swindlers. What follows as a natural consequence? Men reconcile themselves to swindling. Though they themselves mean to be honest, dishonesty of itself is no longer odious to them. Then there comes the jealousy that others should be growing rich with the approval of all the world,—and the natural aptitude to do what all the world approves. It seems to me that the existence of a Melmotte is not compatible with a wholesome state of things in general.”  

“Of course Mr Melmotte is not the sort of gentleman whom you have been accustomed to regard as a fitting member for a Conservative constituency. But the country is changing.” “It’s going to the dogs, I think;—about as fast as it can go.”  

Perhaps the most remarkable circumstance in the career of this remarkable man was the fact that he came almost to believe in himself.

Melmotte had been aware that in his life, as it opened itself out to him, he might come to terrible destruction. He had not always thought, or even hoped, that he would be as he was now, so exalted as to be allowed to entertain the very biggest ones of the earth; but the greatness had grown upon him,—and so had the danger.  

Very much might be suspected. Something might be found out. But the task of unravelling it all would not be easy.  

With the means which would still be at his command, let the worse come to the worst, he could make a strong fight. When a man’s frauds have been enormous there is a certain safety in their very diversity and proportions. 

He read Alf’s speech, and consoled himself with thinking that Mr Alf had not dared to make new accusations against him. All that about Hamburg and Vienna and Paris was as old as the hills, and availed nothing. His whole candidature had been carried in the face of that.  

Of course he had committed forgery,—of course he had committed robbery. That, indeed, was nothing, for he had been cheating and forging and stealing all his life. Of course he was in danger of almost immediate detection and punishment. He hardly hoped that the evil day would be very much longer protracted, and yet he enjoyed his triumph. Whatever they might do, quick as they might be, they could hardly prevent his taking his seat in the House of Commons. Then if they sent him to penal servitude for life, they would have to say that they had so treated the member for Westminster!  

He never read. Thinking was altogether beyond him. And he had never done a day’s work in his life. He could lie in bed. He could eat and drink. He could smoke and sit idle. He could play cards; and could amuse himself with women,—the lower the culture of the women, the better the amusement. Beyond these things the world had nothing for him.  

There was much that he was ashamed of,—many a little act which recurred to him vividly in this solitary hour as a thing to be repented of with inner sackcloth and ashes. But never once, not for a moment, did it occur to him that he should repent of the fraud in which his whole life had been passed. No idea ever crossed his mind of what might have been the result had he lived the life of an honest man.  

Fraud and dishonesty had been the very principle of his life, and had so become a part of his blood and bones that even in this extremity of his misery he made no question within himself as to his right judgment in regard to them.

Not to cheat, not to be a scoundrel, not to live more luxuriously than others by cheating more brilliantly, was a condition of things to which his mind had never turned itself.

Knowledge, information, and democracy

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A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

—James Madison

Source: Letter to W.T. Barry (4 August 1822), in The Writings of James Madison (1910) edited by Gaillard Hunt, Vol. 9, p. 103.

Why do a GAP year?

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Throughout my career I have advised my Grade 12 students to do a GAP year before beginning their college studies. I gave the same advice to my own children.

Why?

Most first-year university students waste their parents’ money and 25% of their four short years as undergraduates, because instead of going to every class and studying as hard as they can, they are busy doing all the things they couldn’t do when they were living at home with their parents. That year would be much better spent out of the classroom in one of a very large number of excellent GAP programs. After a year traveling, living abroad, working in a service program, etc., students are not just ready but eager to go back to school. They are a year older. They are less interested in staying up all night and going to parties.

Here is one college professor’s take on this question:

It is the rare high school graduate who is ready to take full advantage of what a Bachelor’s course can offer. A year away from education – traveling, working, volunteering, growing up – before college should be the preferred option, the default, not the rarity it is in the US. It is common enough in Europe, and often very successful. Our undergrads who return from their Junior [third] Years all around the world (we send around 2/3 of them abroad) are often, finally, the kind of curious, thoughtful, broad-minded students who are ready to take advantage of what we can offer them. And they get a year of it [i.e., their last year of university] before they move on. If more of our students came to us at the beginning in something like that frame of mind, they would get a great deal more out of their college experience.

I did not take a year out between school and university. I had a fabulous time and learnt a lot, but missed so many opportunities. It was only in my mid-20s, looking back, that I realized what fantastic resources had been available to me, had I only had the wisdom to use them.

—Ed Webb*

*Source: http://weblogg-ed.com/2008/oh-and-you-have-a-degree-too/#comments

Many colleges and universities allow students to apply, be admitted, and then defer their entrance for one year so they can do a GAP program of some kind. They do this because they recognize that first-year students who are a bit older, a bit more mature, and really keen to study do better, usually, than those who go straight from high school to university. Ask your college admissions counselor for advice about this process.

Gene Krupa: how to develop your left hand

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The author has found it very helpful to try do as many things with the left hand as is usually done with the right. Opening doors (the ones with the door-knobs being an ideal hand turning exercise), lacing your shoes, carrying parcels, tieing your necktie, buttoning your shirt, feeding yourself at the table, and writing, have been found to be excellent exercises for the left hand.

—Gene Krupa’s Drum Method (1938)

“This is a monstrous act of savagery”

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“This is a monstrous act of savagery.”

“Yes, it’s terrible. But can we talk about the forces that would drive some people to such acts?”

“You want to make excuses for these animals? Outrageous! They are scum, it’s as simple as that, and they need to be exterminated.”

“Well, can we talk about how an innocent baby is turned into ‘scum’ that needs to be ‘exterminated’?”

“NO! Let’s talk about the innocent babies who were killed and orphaned by these monsters. Why are you more concerned with the killers than you are with the victims?!”


Did you imagine the killers as part of a group that you sympathize with, or part of a group for whom you have no sympathy? Go back now and re-read, imagining it the other way.

Yvonne Bogy Burger, 1949 – 2014

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My cousin Yvonne was three years older than I. The summer she turned 18 she and (I think) her younger brother Matthew spent a few weeks with us in Coronado. She was slim, blonde, beautiful, and boy-crazy, and of course I was in love with her in that entirely theoretical but still heart-throbbing way that a 15-year-old boy can be in love. Here is the only photo I have from that summer, the two of us back-to-back, the neighbor boy (Jamie?) in the middle, and Matthew—I think—at the far left.

Yvonne was the eldest child of David and Marilyn Bogy, who were Catholic in the old-fashioned way and had a very large family. Eight kids? Twelve? I can’t remember. David Bogy was my mother’s first cousin, although since David had been adopted there was no “blood relation”—a fact that helped to nurture my teenage infatuation.

Years before, when I was perhaps six or seven, we were at some sort of family gathering at the house of David’s parents, Vernon and Margaret “Daisy” Bogy. The evening was coming to an end, and everyone was standing inside the front door, trying to say goodbye but failing. It was always at moments like this that my mother quoted Mr. Timmis, a man she had known in her youth. “Come as often as you like. Stay as long as you wish. But when you get up to go, for godsakes, go!”

At that time we were living in the San Fernando Valley and we had Siamese cats. Alex, five years older than I, had demanded a baby brother early on, and my mother had responded by promising him a cat. In the event she couldn’t bear the idea of the cat being lonely, so she got two cats, and soon she had many more, as she was too tenderhearted—at first—to consider birth control. I remember being told that the year I was born, thirty-six kittens were born in our backyard.

By the time of this family gathering at the Bogy house on Laurel Canyon Drive, however, my mother had become a believer in birth control—for cats, at least—and so I knew all about it. Standing in the doorway, listening with increasing impatience to the pointless chit-chat, I heard the conversation turn to David and Marilyn’s ever-growing family. Here was something I knew about, I thought. “David,” I said, “if you don’t want to have any more children you should have Marilyn spayed.”

That summer of 1967, my mother was alarmed at the responsibility of supervising a boy-crazy 18-year-old girl during her beach holiday. There was a bit of furtive smooching with Jamie, and some flirting with sailors on shore leave, but in the end no harm was done. Mother was much relieved, I think, to send Yvonne home.

I lost track of Yvonne for a while. The way I heard it, she married Bill Burger to get out of her parents’ house as much as anything else. We corresponded quite a bit for a while in the early 1980s. By then her husband was very ill with a degenerative disease, something like Huntington’s chorea. He was unable to work, his parents were decidedly unhelpful, her son and daughter were in their teens, and she was left trying to hold it all together.

In 1986 I took a job teaching at Casablanca American School, in Morocco. I had never been to England, and I wanted to see Dorset, especially, because I had been teaching Thomas Hardy’s novels for several years by then. I knew that Yvonne had had a rough go of it for the last few years, so I offered to pay her airfare if she would meet me in London and share my Christmas holiday in England. To my surprise, she accepted. We stayed at a rustic B&B in Dorchester, visited someone I don’t remember, went to Oxford, and we must have seen a bit of London, too, but I don’t remember exactly what. Yvonne had turned into quite a keen gardener, and she wanted very much to visit Kew Gardens. I think she did, but on her own. I can’t remember what I did while she was there. It was great to see her again after so many years, and I was very happy to provide her with a break from all her family problems, and to give her a holiday that she never could have afforded on her own. But it was also sad to see that the carefree 17-year-old of my youth had not only aged, but had been worn down, physically and emotionally.

After a while we lost touch again. I married, continued to work overseas, had two children of my own, and had little time for anything beyond work and family. Years passed, including over a decade in China. I returned to North America in 2015, kids grown up, marriage ended long before. Last year, after I settled in British Columbia, my brother discovered several boxes of mine that he had misplaced years before. He sent me a box of papers, and among them I found a collection of letters from Yvonne.  I wondered how she was doing. I thought I should look her up, and send the letters back to her. My brother said he had her contact info, but it was on an old phone that he couldn’t find. Finally, I went online and after a few false starts I learned that she passed away five years ago, before I came back from China. She was 64 years old. In June I will be 67, and for the first time I will be three years older than Yvonne, instead of the other way round.

It just doesn’t seem right.

Yvonne, I miss you, and I’m sorry we lost touch, and I wish I could hug you just once more.

Much love,

Your cousin Eric

Zhuangzi on death

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Zhuangzi, whose name in earlier transliterations is rendered as “Chuang-tzu,” was the best known exponent of Daoism after its founder, Laozi. Where the book attributed to Laozi, the Dao De Jing, is enigmatic and elliptical, Zhuangzi has given us a wonderful collection of stories that illustrate the wisdom of Daoism. Here are two of them, translated by Patricia Ebrey.

What happened when Zhuangzi’s wife died:

When Zhuangzi’s wife died and Hui Shi came to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi squatting with his knees out, drumming on a pan and singing. “You lived with her, she raised your children, and you grew old together,” Hui Shi said. “Not weeping when she died would have been bad enough. Aren’t you going too far by drumming on a pan and singing?”

“No,” Zhuangzi said. “When she first died, how could I have escaped feeling the loss? Then I looked back to the beginning before she had life. Not only before she had life but before she had form. Not only before she had form, but before she had vital energy. In this confused, amorphous realm, something changed and vital energy appeared; when the vital energy was changed, form appeared; with changes in form, life began. Now there is another change bringing death. This is like the progression of the four seasons of spring and fall, winter and summer. Here she was, lying down to sleep in a huge room, and I followed her sobbing and wailing. When I realized my actions showed I hadn’t understood destiny, I stopped.”

And here is what he says about his own death:

When Zhuangzi was about to die, his disciples wanted to bury him in a well-appointed tomb. Zhuangzi said, ”I have the sky and the earth for inner and outer coffins, the sun and the moon for jade disks, the stars for pearls, and the ten thousand things for farewell gifts. Isn’t the paraphernalia for my burial adequate without adding anything?”

”We are afraid the crows and kites will eat you, master,” a disciple said.

“Above ground, I will be eaten by crows and kites; below ground by ants. You are robbing from the one to give to the other. Why play favorites?”

Source: Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization : A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 28-31. https://web.archive.org/web/20060219221611/http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chuangtz.html

Lest we imagine that only ancient China could produce such equanimity in the face of our common destiny, here is Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2:

                                                             If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

Why the pundits love Kamala Harris

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Because they know that Americans almost always elect a president who is the opposite of the previous president.

President Trump is an old, reactionary, incompetent, rather stupid white male without government experience.

Therefore President Not-Trump will be a young, liberal, competent, intelligent, female person of color with government experience.

Kamala Harris matches that description perfectly.

Hence all the drooling in the media since she announced her candidacy.

Of course, her experience is limited and her track record at least questionable, and we have little idea where she actually stands on issues. But to raise such questions would be a terrible distraction from the overwhelming, vague impression that she’s the right person for the moment, and that she’s a safe choice who can be counted on not to upset the status quo—not, in other words, to alienate the ultra-rich and the corporations and the Pentagon, as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders certainly would.

So there you are: President Harris.

Let us pray.

Faculty Meeting

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We’re all aware of the math teacher’s problems.
The PE guy gets exercised over the smallest things.
The history teacher can’t forget his past.
The English teacher has choice words for everyone.
The geography teacher knows his place.
The biology teacher loves life, but hates frogs.
The computer science guy is bug-eyed.
The chemistry teacher overreacts to the slightest change.
The physics teacher is energetic, but no one understands him.
The art teacher claims he’s been framed.
Put the Home Ec teacher together with the Crisis Management Counselor and you have a recipe for disaster.

—ca. 2003

Too dumb to quit

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The great jazz drummer, Joe Morello, in a 1986 interview, tells a story about his teacher, George Lawrence Stone:

Another of Stone’s little axioms was, “The secret to success is an unbeaten fool.” I asked him what that meant, and he said, “It means you’re too dumb to quit.” [laughs] You’ll be criticized and put down, but you keep coming back and trying again.

Ain’t it the truth!

Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy

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I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:

Page 134: 

‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be. 

Page 143: 

Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible; 

Page 207: 

Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war. 

Page 229: 

Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice. 

This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.

May You Hear Ancestors Singing

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Those who came before us
cried salt tears, loved and lost,
wondered what was yet to come,
worried they weren’t good enough . . .

Steered by who knows what, they carried
on through wars, disease, and infant deaths
whose frequency made no difference
to the grief they suffered. Year after
year, women brought new lives
into the world, and sometimes gave their own
in the bringing.

Those who remained kept on singing
through the turning of the seasons,
planting, harvest,
sacraments of every kind,
singing while they worked,
singing while they worshipped,
singing after supper with the darkness
huddled round them.

We are here in spite of,
we are here because they persevered,
because their laughter and their music
kept them going,
because their faith kept rising
from the ashes
and drove them on toward us.

It is our turn now
to keep the faith
to sing the song
to gaze at stars and wonder why,
to love our children,
build our dreams,
to laugh, to cry,
and know the humble satisfaction
of having done our part.

In this winter season
may you hear ancestors singing.
Leave them a portion of your holiday feast,
take a moment to thank them
for their sorrows and their songs,
and may you be blessed enough
to feel the joy that sustained them,
to be sustained, yourself,
and to pass the joy along to
those who follow.

—1999