7.22.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND, Day 121 Statues and Heroes - 7/22/20

When I was a third grader in Scarsdale NY, I had a teacher who was a daughter of the Old South. Mrs. Langdon was born and raised in South Carolina, never explaining how she happened so far across the Mason-Dixon line.

In general, things worked out fine with her instruction. I had one mortification when I crashed out of a school-wide spelling bee, unable to spell her word ‘iggle’ (which we Northerners would have pronounced ‘eagle’). And she once mischaracterized the location of Cambridge MA, a sin that my Bostonian mother could never quite forgive.

The oddest part of the school year was her treatment of the Civil War in our proto-study of American History. She abandoned the textbooks to instead teach us about the “Real Heroes” of the ‘Late Unpleasantness’ as she preferred to call it. We learned about wise and warm Robert E Lee, crafty and indomitable Stonewall Jackson, stalwart AP Hill, elegant PGT Beauregard and my own favorite, dashing JEB Stuart. She could barely bring herself to name the Northern Generals preferring to say that they won by shear numerical advantage or by somehow cheating at the noble game of war.

It took me a while to unlearn what she taught me. Fortunately, intellectual curiosity and a well-read brother taught me to look for the unvarnished history.

There are many people decrying the disruption of statues as erasing of history. What they are not accounting for is the bias of these statues. It is rare in America to produce a non-heroic statue. City planners do not want to fill public spaces with warts and all depictions of events that are being commemorated. The trend has only changed with Holocaust memorials and arguably with Maya Lin’s inimitable Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall.

When you see a statue of a great man on horseback or nobly scanning the horizon, you assume that figure was a person of profound influence. You don’t need to know the history of Belgian politics to recognize the power embodied in the statue in Ghent of King Leopold II (at long last removed from display). What you won’t recognize from the bronze itself is that these statues were erected by those in his (or his family’s) political thrall. What you will not learn is the monstrous cruelty of his African colonization or the subsequent disgrace of his entire lineage.

Statues are not history, except wherein they fit into the architectural history lore of a city. The Robert E Lee statue in Dallas, for instance, only represents the history of an era of Black suppression or more recently of the decision to remove it and the protests that occurred. It tells (told) us nothing about the man or his actual time. In fact, its very presence was a complete historical fallacy. Lee had nothing to do with the history of Texas or Dallas. One of my colleagues even remembered it as depicting Lee leading a group of black people to freedom. There were no black figures on the Lee statue, not did the historical Lee ever lead black people anywhere constructive.

The opponents of statue removal are right in one thing. History should not be forgotten or erased. But it is historical fact that should be preserved, not some comfortable legend that plays into anyone’s social agenda. The distinction is that whereas the past should be recalled, it should not be revered. A man like George Washington was a great leader of our country – fact. He was also a slave owner who relentlessly hounded his escaped hostages – fact. Both should be remembered as they are both essential to understanding the nature of a nation’s past. We don’t need our heroes to be untarnished. That’s not what heroes are. Instead, they are humans, fault-ridden and fallible, who happen to do immense things.

Sorry, Mrs. Langdon. There was so much more to your icons than you were willing to share.   


7.06.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 105 A. Hamilton – 7/6/20

I missed a milestone.

I could not bring myself to write about the hundredth day of the shutdown in part because I have a distaste for arbitrary celebrations. My hundredth day may have been a New Yorker’s 150th or a Parisian’s two hundred somethingth, rendering my declaration meaningless.

The main reason though was shear frustration. After a hundred days, the situation in Texas (and in the USA as a whole) is worse than it was when we started. Our governor may be finally speaking out in forceful terms, but he is still being undermined by his own Lt. Gov and Secretary of State. What little leadership we have seen, both in this state and from the Executive branch of the Federal Government has been muddled and tentative. Why commemorate a hundredth day when there is no reason to think things will improve by the second or third hundredth?

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching Hamilton – for once a product that is even better than its hype. The play is a work of genius with stellar performances and a powerful, frenetic strength that is constantly challenging. Where is it written that the theater is meant to be easy? I urge everyone to find a way to watch it.

For those of you who have spent the last five years under a rock, Hamilton is an urban musical biography of one of the towering figures of US history. But it is really a vignette of the times and the brilliance that went into the formation of our country. Its motive force is the juxtaposition of Hamilton and his nemesis Aaron Burr – Burr a man so cautious that he achieves nothing and Hamilton so rash that he almost destroys everything he has achieved. In the end, history is kinder to Hamilton than Burr, who is now barely remembered except for the one shocking act of (spoiler) killing his rival.

The most striking thing about the play, and in fact the historical period it depicts, is the electric energy that crackles throughout. The world was stripped down and turned on its head and American leaders invented an entire country from whole cloth, taking fewer than fifteen years to do so. The production captures this energy in fierce and rapid-fire song and in the constant swirl of action in the background. It can be easy to forget how much effort was involved in the American experiment, of thought and documentation and debate. Hamilton, the play, is an active reminder.

For Hamilton, the man, and his colleagues, History was there for the taking and they grabbed it without hesitation. They recognized the task ahead and flung themselves into work with wit, brilliance and wisdom. Their solutions were far from perfect but created a framework for growth. They strove and accomplished.

Where are today’s Hamiltons or Washingtons? Or even today’s Aaron Burrs? Where are the energy, the wit and the courage to take history by the scruff of the neck and make a move? All these have been lost in the cowering fear of voting bases and approval ratings.


6.10.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 79 Reservations 6/10/20

Today’s note is about Reservations.

‘Reservation’ is one of those remarkable English words that contrives to have diametrical meanings. On the one hand, the word means a sense of hesitation or reconsideration (“I have reservations about writing this essay.”). With typical linguistic agility, it can also mean securing the time and place to do something (“I have a reservation to write this essay, so you can’t tell me the internet is full.”).

Our time on the island has been full of both types of reservation, especially now as the community tries to open within the bounds of safe capacity. I can now use both meanings in a single sentence (“I have reservations to go to dinner, but I have reservations about how safe it would be to do so.”). I do not mean to make any sort of moral or even scientific judgement. I’m merely pointing out that we are now in the odd intersection of Venn diagrams.

Recently, I was bemused by the news item that the Dallas Zoo is now open for business (I should have saved this essay for my ‘z’ entry). There is nothing striking about that fact or the associated attempt on the Zoo’s part to control the flow of the crowds who are likely to come out, especially with the fine weekend weather we have been having. What I do find comical is the concept that the Zoo will be open By Appointment Only. In fact, the appointments represent time of admission and I presume there will be some guidance as to the flow of passage through the park to limit potential exposure. But in my mind, I picture a tuxedo-clad lion standing at the maĆ®tre d’ station, checking out names on a list before passing us off to a giraffe for seating. In the kitchen, a rhino is hard at work making soup while hedgehogs garnish the salads.

There is always something subversive about zoo parks. They are not locations where you can govern the flow easily. Patrons want to be able to choose their favorites (I for one would hate to be shuttled through the spider exhibit). They want to sit and make faces at the gorillas (which they should not be doing and which the gorillas in their far greater wisdom generally ignore) or roar back at the tigers (who spend the day sleeping in the sun despite the noisy visitors). We may be forced to adjust for the pandemic, but I have trouble envisioning a zoo that has a turnstile flow like some exhibit at an art museum.

Cancel my zoo reservations for now, thank you. I have far too many reservations about how a rigid structure will change the experience to attend right now.


5.29.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 67 The Questioneer 5/29/20

This is the story of the Questioneer.

The Questioneer was an occasional visitor during my childhood. His visits always involved my brother, three years my elder who delighted in nothing more than scaring me from my dreams. David was notorious for reading terrifying passages from his many horror books into the intercom that we shared in our haunted corner of the house. Or holding glow-in-the-dark toys over me until I’d wake and scream.

The Questioneer was a softer form of teasing. He came only on those nights when, due to a guest lodging in my room or perhaps because I had been scared by some other source, I would be sleeping in the second twin bed in David’s room. We would we chatter a bit, my brother and I, often hushed by my parents (or my grandparents if they were the guests next door) until the peace and the silence would settle. In the faint half-doze of those midnight hours, a hollow disembodied voice would gently sing its welcome. “Keith,” it would intone. “This is the Questioneer.”

The voice would ask questions, of course – a light quiz which would range on everything from Ancient Egypt to current comic books. It thrilled when I got the answer right and coaxed when I was stumped until the correct answer would come. And then, with barely a whisper or a farewell it would be gone, and my brother would sit up in his bed and ask, “Did you hear something?”

I lived in a house that was always a knowledge test. At dinner, my father was constantly playing “Who Was…?” My brother would test me during waking hours to make sure I had read the latest book he had recommended or researched the latest topic. Somehow, of all these interrogations, the Questioneer’s were the most gentle and welcome. Although his questions were always tough he never seemed condescending or even challenging, as if he were only soothing my busy young mind with the balm of knowledge.

I have no evidence that the Questioneer was my brother at all. Heaven knows, we had enough ghosts in that old house that we certainly might have harbored a quizzer. At times, I would try my best to watch my brother ad see if I could see any sign that it was he who was voicing the questions. But the darkness was always so deep, and he was always so still, even when the voice was present, that I still to this day am uncertain.

It has been years since the Questioneer has asked me a question. Sometimes, though, when I am lying in the stillness of the deep night too tired to sleep, I can just make out the high, reedy voice in the inky silence around me – a sweet silken voice with an interrogatory tone. Then I can almost hear my brother calling out, “Keith, do you hear something?”

I think that I can, David. I hope that I can.


5.28.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 66 Pac-Man Pedestrians 5/28/20


An unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance of writing alphabetically is when you have already used all the good words as themes for prior notes. I have already written about Pets and Puzzles. I have no taste for Polemic or Partisanship. Pandemonium and Pandemic seen somehow too panicky.

During a walk around my block, er, island, I had the inspiration I needed. I will write about Pac-Man.

Please understand, I have no great affinity for the arcade game. Aside from a few unsuccessful dabbles in my youth, I avoided the arcade games of this sort as unprofitable wastes of quarters. I was always much more of a pinball guy. Pinball had a mechanical reality that made you feel you were a part of the game. Adding the occasional machine shimmy and the hand and wrist movement to keep flippers flying and the ball on track, it almost felt like dancing. I confess to wasting far too many hours over pinball machines but do have the distinction of being told by college radio disc jockey Stompin’ Zemo (yes, THE Stompin’ Zemo himself) that I had “righteous flipper action.”

Walking outside in a world of social distancing (even in a world where half of the citizens have convinced themselves the crisis is over) has a dislocated feeling of unreality that reminds of the arcade games. The world is real, the trees are lush and the flowers ripe, but the people you pass are featureless – a combination of masks and averted gazes, as if eye-contact were prohibited in the municipal by-laws.

The overlap between game and reality becomes intense when I spy another walker on an otherwise deserted stretch. There are so many calculations and strategies to process that I feel like the hunter in Predator with a constant grid of data flashing in my vision. How far away is my opponent? How fast are they walking? How wide is the sidewalk? What is the grid of the streets if I need to turn off and will there be others on those paths? Will the soon to be passer-by suddenly turn glowing blue and attack me?

Okay, that last one is not really in my calculations, but it might as well be. I can almost chart out the dots that I must follow as I make my way forward. Will we meet at a driveway where there will be room for both of us to pass with adequate distance? Should I stop now? Should I step onto the sodden grass, or will they? Relax! They’ve crossed the street. Crisis averted until the next chance meeting.

Americans are faint of etiquette and protocol in the best of times. I have been nudged by bikes along the trail whose riders decided it was easier to pass to my right than my left. I have been jostled by pedestrians in my lane too intent on their virtual lives to notice the actual one approaching them. Now that the stakes have raised, maybe we’ll learn some manners. At the very least, we can replace our computer games with the daily strategy and tilt-less intrigue that a walk now promises.


5.27.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 65 Observations 5/27/20


A few Observations from my island’s crow’s nest:

Traffic is returning, although it is unclear where folks are going. Although stores have been slated to open, a large number still have limited hours and equally limited service. It is possible that people are just driving to stay in the habit, or perhaps to take advantage of the cheap gas.

Along those lines, gas is no longer cheap again. Demand is up, so the price has snuck up to pre-epidemic levels. Which is the opposite of how supply and demand is supposed to work, although I am no economist.

Although there was no way to know how long the shut would or will last, it seems to me that we would have been better holding any sort of stimulus payments until things were opening. I fear that the stimulus money landed in secure vaults with other funds and will stay there rather than going into the revival of the economy where it is needed.

I am a little bewildered by the delay in the opening of museums at least on a controlled-attendance basis. We have all discovered during sheltering that art is essential. It is also fluid. Few people stop and linger in a single spot for hours on end the way they do in restaurants.

Libraries could also be reopened along safe lines, since the act of studying in a library is almost the definition of social distancing. I mean that in a good way.

However, I do not understand how a bar can ever practice safe social distancing. Not to say that bars should not be open. I just think we should be honest about our expectations.

What are sports if not spectator events? The rush to open major sports without folks in the stands proves that the fans are the least considered part of the industry. No surprise I guess, just sad to see.

However, my hat is off to the inventive ways that teams have tried to give the illusion of attendance. Fox Sports purportedly included virtual fans in the stands of some of their televised events. Other teams have used mannequins (including one foreign baseball league which seated sex dolls in the stands). The German soccer league has placed photos of fans’ faces on the seats, but I wonder if they charged the supporters for the privilege of seeing their disembodied visage on a television screen.

This pandemic has included a remarkable number of holidays – Easter, Passover, Earth Day, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Arbor Day etc. Is there another two-month stretch that would have swallowed as many milestone dates? November and December, I suppose, although those include big holidays and would not match the sheer number. Hopefully, we will be loose by July 4, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic at this point.

The most obvious Observation is that I clearly need to get outside more.



5.26.2020

NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 64 Newspapers Redux 5/26/20


 

I have written about Newspapers once before from my island (Days 40&41). Caught in a wash of sentimental nostalgia, I bemoaned what the pandemic had stripped from the publications. Now on the backside of the alphabet, I am trying to present a more positive face. Let me talk about what newspapers have given during the shutdown.

I am a huge fan of printed newspapers. My son thinks I’m crazy to rely on what may be a dying product, but there are substantive pleasures to the dailies even in normal times. I like the ease of reading, the fact that you can enjoy them without constant pop-up advertisements, the fact that you can fold and shape them to fit your reading needs. I even love the way you can crumple and tear out bits of them in anger (Boston Globe readers will appreciate the number of times I have mutilated Dan Shaughnessy’s picture).

Lately, the newspapers have included delightful surprises that have been a source of small and much-needed diversion.

The Dallas Morning News (an ‘okay’ paper in my book – good reporting, a bit parochial, far too much Cowboy coverage) has offered an occasional puzzle book with their Sunday edition. Their puzzles already are better than most and they have a good skein of comics, but the puzzle book imparts lingering entertainment. When the real news starts to distress me too much (usually after three or four headlines) and the Cowboys section (I mean the Sports section) is digested, it is nice to be able to escape into the orderliness of the grid.

The New York Times has one-upped them. In balance to their stark and often brutal coverage of the pandemic, the Times has added small doses of levity. I was delighted one weekend to discover a puzzle section to augment the already ritual puzzles that the brilliant but lately unreadable Magazine contains. (Unfortunately, my wife discarded the book before I had a chance to tackle the Mega puzzle that took up the two center pages.) Each week they offer a card game for families, encouraging positivity and mindfulness. And this week, the Times presented a special section on Joy – how staff members find simple thrills in an otherwise dreary time. Essays about re-growing scallions or having appointments self-cancel emphasize the pleasure that even the smallest things in life contain. In presentation, these lovely essays are in themselves an anodyne.

Before long, we may all go back to scrolling news on our phone or snatching headlines off Twitter. While we have the time, we might just savor the gentle pleasures that the printed dinosaurs offer us.

 

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