New music

These are troubled and troubling times but one distraction for me is music.  Last week I went to three concerts:  two young musicians at the Yellow Barn; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and our local Windham Orchestra.  Three distinct venues and three kinds of players.

The Windham Orchestra is a community enterprise that has been going for 65 years.  I’ve been attending their concerts for many years and have seen them get better and play more challenging music.  Made up of a mix of music teachers, retired professionals, and talented amateurs they have really made progress under their relatively new director, Hugh Keelan.  (I should note that my sister has been principle flute for a number of years.)  Last Sunday they did a stunning Scheherazade. 

I was privileged to hear two works making their premieres.  There is something magical about knowing that you are listening to a piece of music that no one has ever heard before.  The first was a Yellow Barn residency concert; the second, a BSO commissioned work.

The Yellow Barn in Putney, VT is primarily a summer music festival but in the last few years they have expanded to occasional winter residency concerts.  Musicians come for a week to develop a new work or to polish working as an ensemble.  In this case a pianist and violinist, Lee Dionne and Brigid Coleridge put together a new work consisting of music and recitation.    Based on an interpretation of Homer’s Iliad by poet Christopher Logue titled War Music, Dionne and Coleridge recited excerpts and then matched them to music.  The music included works by Bach, Gyorgy Kurtag, John Cage, Manuel de Falla, and Richard Strauss.  What we saw and heard was a first performance, not without flaws, but fascinating.  They had to play music, do dramatic recitation and sing – quite a stretch for classical musicians!  I had never heard of War Music and immediately ordered a copy.

The BSO work, Express Abstractionism, by Sean Shepherd is a work in four movements.  Each expresses emotions illustrated by an artist or artists.  My husband loved it, but I was taken only with the first and last movements.  That might be because I was familiar with the artists.  Movement I is titled “dense bubbles, or: Calder, or: the origin of life on earth.  Movement IV. the sun, or: the moon, or: Mondrian.

I’d like to hear both of the new works again.  I love hearing music no one has heard before.  Listening intensely takes me away from the troubles for just a little while.

 

The future of American democracy

I’m married to a pessimist.  He’s been reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and is convinced we are now well into the decline.  While I’m not quite so pessimistic, I admit I have my own moments of despair.  Sometimes it feels as though we have no control over the future.  Almost certainly, the Republican party has already caved in.  But events like the recent election in Alabama and the  generic polling that consistently shows a preference for electing Democrats to Congress this year give me a ray of hope.  If Virginia can almost completely flip the state legislature, why can’t we do the same for Congress?

I can think of at least three roadblocks:  Money (think the Koch’s), voter suppression (gerrymandered districts and new voter rules), and, last but not least, the age of the Democratic leadership.

A lot has been written about the first two roadblocks on my list but not so much about the third.  I love the members of the Vermont delegation but, let’s face it, the youngest is Representative Peter Welch who is exactly my age – 70.  I’m pretty sure that I am will vote for his reelection – and for Bernie’s – but there are a number of younger folks who will be ready to take their places next time around.  For right now, we need their seniority.

Moving from Vermont to national politics we have Nancy Pelosi (77) and Chuck Schumer (67).  If the Democrats retake the House, and even if they don’t, it is time for Nancy to retire gracefully.  She has served us well as both majority and minority leader, but it is time for the next generation.

Howard Dean, another Vermont politician I supported for President, is one of the few of my generation speaking out about this.  In a recent NPR interview with Rachel Martin, Dean said

The most important age group for us is people under 35. They elected Barack Obama in 2008. But now it’s time to let them take over. And they’re going to have to take over on their own terms. We have tons of talent in our party. We do not need to rely on my generation anymore. And these kids think differently. They’re more respectful of each other. They’re willing to listen to each other’s ideas and work things out. They’re entrepreneurial. They’re more conservative than we are economically than the left wing of the Democratic Party. They’re mostly libertarian.

I just think this is the future of America. They are diverse. They value immigration. They value different kinds of people. They believe that gay rights is the civil rights issue of their time. They care deeply about the environment. We need a real change in this country and the only way to do it is for us to get out.

Dean goes on to say that the party has to change because the world is changing and is no longer so dependent on institutions.  There are all sorts of interesting people running for Congress this year filed as Democrats.  I believe I read that most of the House seats in red districts have a Democratic challenger.  At this point, I think the most important role the Democratic Party as an institution can play is to help raise money as the elections will be won by grassroots workers who will not necessarily be Democrats.

So what about 2020.  The word here is that Bernie is gearing up for another run.  Yes, I know that Bernie’s base was young people in 2016, but by 2020 he and they will be four years older.  And even though there is likely nothing there, the Jane Sanders financial stuff is going to haunt any campaign.

My pessimistic husband sees no one who can run, but remember in 2007 no one thought that Barak Obama known only to Democratic activists for his speech at the 2004 Convention, could run, much less win. So let’s look at some new faces:  Seth Moulton (age 40, ex-Marine Congressman from Massachusetts); Cory Booker (Senator from New Jersey, age 49); Kamala Harris (Senator from California, age 55); Kirsten Gillibrand (Senator from New York, age 55); Amy Klobuchar (Senator from Minnesota, age 58); and Chris Murphy (Senator from Connecticut, age 45).  Look them up.  And I’m sure that there are some Mayors out there who would be interesting candidates.

I still think our democracy can be saved, but we each have to play the proper role and for Democrats of my generation, that means following Howard Dean’s example and moving ourselves to a supporting role.

 

Reading, thinking, and the state of things

Andy Borowitz from the New Yorker Magazine posted a few days ago something like “It has been hilarious, but can we have a real President now?”  That is how I’m feeling these days as I’m bombarded with constant misspeaking, mismanagement, and simply ignorance.  Some days I wonder if anyone in the administration ever learned any history, geography or simple arithmetic.  As a defensive measure for my own psyche, I am mostly using social media to catch up on personal things posted by friends and have drastically cut the political stuff I post on Facebook and Twitter.  My sanity demands more selectivity.

Charles Blow, in an April 17 New York Times column, expressed much better how I feel.

His failures so far, I suppose, should bring resisters like me some modicum of joy, but I must confess that they don’t. Or, more precisely, if they do, that joy is outweighed by the rolling litany of daily horrors that Trump has inflicted.

The horrors are both consuming and exhausting. For me at this point they center on an erosion of equality. This by no means downplays Trump’s incessant lying, the outrage of his draining the Treasury for his personal junkets, or his disturbing turn toward war. But somewhat below the radar, or at least with less fanfare, our access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by a man who lied on the campaign trail promising to promote them.

And the very sad thing is that even with his approval rating hovering around 40%, his core still supports him despite the knowledge that his actions hurt them the most.

I’ve been reading a lot to escape and have found some very interesting books to recommend.  Rudolf Fisher was the first African-American to write a mystery.  His book, “The Conjure-Man Dies”, is set in a 1930s Harlem.  Fisher (1897-1934) was a doctor, music arranger, and writer, which explains his interest in using science to solve the crime.  Everyone in the book is black:  The police detective, the medical examiner, the victim, and all of the suspects.  “Conjure-Man” has just been reprinted and reissued.  In some ways, “Conjure-Man” is clearly a first mystery.  I’ve found that in many first mysteries the plotting is more complicated than needed, but the glimpse of life in Harlem is well worth the effort of getting though the twists and turns.

ows_136396805189380“Ordinary Grace” is a total opposite.  Set in the summer of 1961 in rural Minnesota, it is narrated by a now middle-aged man recalling the summer.  I think this is considered to be a mystery as it won an Edgar Award for William Kent Kruger, but I thought it was just a wonderfully written novel.  I read this for my book group, Malice on Main, and I was not the only one who reported crying through much of it.  “Ordinary Grace is an extraordinary book.

My final recommendation is “Writing to Save a Life” by John Edgar Wideman.  I’m not sure how to characterize this book which tells the story of Louis, Emmett, and Mamie Till.  The New York Times Book Review and the National Book Awards call it non fiction, but some of the almost stream of conscious speculation about Louis Till seemed to be excellent fiction writing.  Louis Till, Emmett’s father, was executed during World War II in Italy for the rape and murder of a young local woman.  I have to say I still am not sure how I feel about this book, but it is fascinating reading.

Reading, baseball, and gardening this summer will save my sanity – I hope.

Life in baseball without Ortiz

Sorry, I’m not one of the fans that keeps begging David Ortiz to come out of retirement.  He says his feet and his knees hurt all last season, but he kept on playing.  I don’t think we want him crippled by continuing to play.  Besides, I just saw the Red Sox come from 5 down to win a spring training game against the Twins; I don’t think we have a lot of worries if they keep not giving up.  Yes, it is only spring training, and I kept not knowing who was playing for either team, but everyone was out there playing hard.  And there were some lovely plays.  So happy it is time for baseball again.  But can I ask whose idea it was to have 38 – that is 38 – spring training games on top of a long season?  Blame World Baseball, I guess.

But I really want to talk about the game itself.  I have to say that I despise Rob Manfred, the Commissioner.  I don’t think he understands the game and the beauty of it.  He wants time clocks and other things to speed up the game.  I would speed up the game by doing away with that stupid instant replay.  It generally shows the umpires to be pretty damn good and it takes a lot longer than an instant.

This is why I loved Nick Cafardo’s column in the Boston Globe the other day.  He begins

Oh, I hear the moaning about this and that and the slowness of the game. But I love baseball just the way it is. I hate that it is using artificial means to “improve” things.

I already hate instant replay because I think it adds to the interruption and extension of play more than anything. Oh yeah — we have the technology, so why not use it? Well, why don’t we just ignore the technology?

I long for the days of umpire/manager disputes. That made the game exciting, whether the call was right or wrong. I’d rather see that than taking 2½ minutes for a replay decision to come down from New York. How boring.

I guess I can live with the pitcher throwing the ball for an intentional walk as there weren’t very many instances of a misfire, but we can stop right there with the changes.

The game goes better for everyone when the pitcher gets the ball back and then pitches.  None of this walking around between every pitch business.  (I’m talking about you, David Price.)  But this is something pitchers should be taught; they don’t need a time clock.

And I love what Tony Clark, the current head of the Player’s Association had to say to Cafardo.  Clark is a former player himself, not a lawyer like previous heads.

While Clark indicated that the players were “OK” with instant replay — not a ringing endorsement — and the collision rules that protect fielders at second base and home plate, he also made a good point: Many players would like the game preserved. They were taught to slide hard into second. They were taught to try to dislodge the ball from the catcher.

“You grew up playing the game a particular way,” Clark said. “You fall in love with the game a particular way. You appreciate and respect that history.

“You also are willing to have conversations on ways to improve, and that will continue with understanding and appreciating that you never want to get so far away from the game itself that those who love the game no longer recognize it.”

021116-mlb-tony-clark-pi-mp-vresize-1200-675-high_-85

Tony Clark

I understand that people have short attention spans these days and that a baseball game that runs close to 3 hours seems like an eternity to many.  But we all need to take a deep breath and learn to relax.  Didn’t someone once write a book on the Zen of baseball?

Clark continues

What about this seeming obsession to speed up the game?

“There’s checkers and then there’s chess,” Clark said. “But again, I am a bit of romantic there. There’s so much going on in our game that when it doesn’t look like it, there’s things going on.

I love watching live.  Any game at any level.  But baseball on TV can be difficult.  The answer may lie in better announcers who notice things and tell us about them.  Can the irrelevant chatter about what they had for dinner and tell us about where the third baseman is positioning himself.  Stop talking about neckties and tell us about the outfield.  I noticed that Jerry Remy and Dennis Eckersley were doing more of that last year:  Do even more.  I admit that I sometimes watch without sound and like the radio because they are forced to tell you exactly what is happening.

I’ll let Cafardo have the last word

Baseball is one of the few games where you can sit down and watch and let things unfold in a natural way. If it takes a while, who cares? You watch because you love the game. So love the game.

Enjoy the season, baseball fans.

Photograph: Jeff Fannell

Belated Presidents’ Day: Calvin Coolidge

Last year on July 4, a friend posted that she was at President Calvin Coolidge’s grave site at the wreath laying ceremony for his birthday.   I asked here where it was and she said “Plymouth Notch, Vermont.”  I looked it up and found that Plymouth is a tiny town in the center of the state; not quite in the middle, but close.

plymouth_sign-150x150

In November, my husband and I were near by and went to visit.  Although the museum and visitor center was closed, the grounds were open for walking and the Plymouth Cheese factory was in full operation.  The views are lovely in all directions.

The Calvin Coolidge Homestead website begins the story this way

At 2:47am on August 3, 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States when he took the oath of office in the sitting room of this modest frame and clapboard farmhouse.  President Harding had died only a few hours earlier.  Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath by the light of a kerosene lamp; he refused to install such modern conveniences as electricity.  Located in the tiny community of Plymouth Notch in the beautiful hill country of Vermont, the house where he took the oath of office was also Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood home.

Although he grew up in Plymouth, Coolidge left Vermont to study at Amherst College in Massachusetts and later settled in Northampton where he practiced law and got his start in politics.  Coolidge was a Republican and notorious in Massachusetts for breaking up the Boston Police strike of 1919 when he was Governor.  After he became President, he established the summer White House above the family store in Plymouth.

coolidge2

Cilley Store In 1924, President Coolidge established his Summer White House office above the store.

Coolidge served out Harding’s term and one term of his own before retiring to Northampton where he died suddenly in in 1933 at age 60.  He is buried in the cemetery at Plymouth.

grave

Photographs:  Town of Plymouth; Vermont Division for Historic Preservation; and Seth Mussleman on Find-A Grave.

 

Civil Servants are the best

I estimate that 98% of my work life was spent either in government or with a nonprofit so I think I know a thing or two about both kinds of organizations.  I have been thinking since the election in November that government workers, bureaucrats, civil servants and nonprofit organizations will be the ones to save our democracy.  The two actions that have gotten the most attention thus far are the State Department’s dissent memo with over 1000 signatures and the Alt National Parks websites.  And employees in other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA are also acting by just doing their jobs and setting up alternate media sites through which they can release information.  So I was interested to come across this story expressing a similar point of view.

park-ranger

One of our National Park Rangers.

I had just come home from Boston where I had picked up a print copy of the Globe and I started reading the Magazine and began laughing.  In his Perspective essay, Dear civil servants:  Keep it up.  No, really., Scott Helman begs the nation’s civil servants to keep doing their jobs.

Good day, Mr./Mrs./Ms. Servant.

I ask humbly: May I approach your coffee-splattered desk? I promise this won’t take long. It’s only the survival of the republic that we need to talk about. I’ll speak quietly. I can even sing my plea lite-rock style, so it blends in with the tunes from your clock radio. Better not to arouse your supervisor’s curiosity.

Let’s clear the air first. Listen, it’s true. For years you’ve been a punch line. Admit that sometimes you made it easy, with your interminable cigarette breaks, your surly manner, and your dawdling pace — unless there was only one glazed cruller left in the box.

Wait, wait, wait — come back! You’re right. Sorry. Really sorry. Old habits, you know?

Seriously, though: You, my friend, are the most important person in America right now. A nation turns its jittery eyes to you.

Helman continues

As the political churn reaches your cubicle, I ask of you this: Smile, nod — hell, bake a Bundt cake if you need to. And then: Continue on your merry way. Keep doing your thing.

Please continue producing non-biased, fact-based reports and stats on global warming, federal deficits, health care coverage, and whatever else comes across your desk. Go where the science or the numbers lead you, not where someone above you wants them to go.

Please speak up if you’re asked to do something unethical, and blow the whistle if you see something wrong.

Look, I know you can’t buck every political decision. Elections have consequences. I get that. Maybe you even welcome the change, unlike those cheeky chums from the national parks who started shadow Twitter accounts.

But this is bigger than politics or party. We need you to protect that bedrock as if our lives depend on it. Because they might. You are but a cog in a massive machine, yes. But the machine cannot run without you. Exercise your judgment and talent and authority wisely.

I know it can’t be easy.  When I was working in Virginia state government, the Governor appointed a new agency head who was not all that competent.  (I learned years later from him that much of what he did was at the direction of the Governor’s Office.)  At one point an employee moral survey was conducted, but the results were not released.  A couple of us got hold of the results and leaked them to the Washington Post.  To this day, I’m not sure any one except us leakers knew who the source was.  We knew we were taking a risk, but in the end, some changes were made, changes that impacted all State employees.  So I know that civil servants can act against the powers that be.  Helman ends with

One more thing. Don’t let anybody tell you that pushing back against a sinister agenda is somehow un-American. To the contrary. It’s the most American thing you can do.

 

Photograph:  Nick Adams / Reuters

Resistance

Beverly Gage had an interesting essay in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, A ‘Resistance’ Stands Against Trump.  But What Will It Stand For?  In it Gage discusses the history of the word, resistance, and how it has transformed at various times from being against to finding what it is for.  Right now, when we talk about resisting Trump, or perhaps I should say that when I use the term, I mean taking a stand against his proposed (and some implemented) actions that can remove my civil rights and civil liberties.  I think each participant in the current Resistance stands for his or her own reasons.  So how can we coalesce into a positive movement?

Before Trump’s election, anyone who claimed to have been a member of “the resistance” was most likely over the age of 85, a veteran of anti-fascist struggles in France and other Nazi-occupied territories during World War II. That resistance involved armed conflict and personal risk of the bleakest sort, with guerrilla fighters hiding in the catacombs of Paris while Hitler’s forces did their worst above ground. Under fascist rule, there were no plausible options for political engagement. It was a fight to the death, and in early 1940s Europe, before the arrival of Allied troops, the outcome was far from certain. Talking about resistance still evokes this sense of honorable struggle against an occupying power. It implies patience as well as militancy, the ability to say no over and over and over again, to refuse to cooperate until the whole system crumbles.

After the war, anticolonial movements from South Africa to Northern Ireland found their own strategies of resistance, settling in for long, sometimes bloody fights.

Of course, the American south had “massive resistance” to school integration.  I remember well the year my hometown of Moorestown, New Jersey, hosted a group of young men and women from Prince Edward County, Virginia who were just trying to finish high school after “massive resistance” closed the schools.

The American left created a different language of resistance, much of it focused around the anti-conscription activities of groups like the War Resisters League. This anti-draft sensibility reached its peak in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when student activists proclaimed a transition, per one slogan, “from Protest to Resistance.” As the movement veterans Staughton Lynd and Michael Ferber pointed out in their 1971 book, “The Resistance,” that shift grew out of a desire to embrace “a deeper and riskier commitment, a move that warranted a new term to replace ‘dissent’ and ‘protest.’ ” The goal was no longer simply to object to the war; it was to throw a wrench into the war machine and make it stop. Antiwar activists continued to engage in peaceful protest — but now some also burned draft cards and firebombed R.O.T.C. centers. A small number, like the Weathermen, took up bona fide guerrilla activity, planting bombs at the Capitol, the Pentagon and other prominent buildings.

The Michigan Republican who tweeted that we needed another Kent State to put down the current protests hasn’t read his history:  Kent State stiffed the resistance to the Vietnam War rather than ending it.  I remember the nonviolent movement being galvanized by Kent State.

As the war and its life-or-death stakes came to an end, so, too, did the embrace of resistance as a literal armed underground conspiracy. But while it faded as a political strategy, it began to gain prominence as a category of academic social analysis, the sort of thing that anthropologists and historians looked for in their studies of human societies. This was part of a broader trend toward “social history,” with its insistence that ordinary people — not just generals and politicians — could be the agents of serious historical change. Sometimes this meant studying organized revolts, like slave rebellions or peasant uprisings. By the 1980s, though, “resistance” had come to encompass a much broader set of behaviors. Enslaved or oppressed people might resist by taking up arms, but they might also resist simply by refusing to do as they were told. The political theorist James Scott called these “everyday forms of resistance” — a category that could include giving a sullen look to an employer, deliberately misfiling forms or just living life, as much as possible, on terms of your own choosing.

As I wrote earlier, the current resistance movement allows each participant to participate for her or his own reasons.  But can we become something bigger?  Gage leaves us with some hope.

fist-of-resistance

As a movement-building enterprise, designed to achieve the greatest possible participation, this mode of resistance makes sense. But despite its good cheer, it still emphasizes what is not possible: It says that Trump is about to take a sledgehammer to the nation’s finest institutions and principles and that the only thing most citizens can do is shout “no” as loudly as possible.

Many organizers have vowed that this yawp of dissent represents a beginning rather than an end — and history suggests that they may well be right. Some of the most significant shifts in modern American law and political culture came out of efforts birthed in panic and despair. During World War I, for instance, the United States banned criticism of the government, interned thousands of German Americans and instituted widespread surveillance of immigrants and political radicals. Many Americans supported these policies; others feared that the country was abandoning cherished traditions of tolerance and free speech. In response, a small group of alarmed progressives founded an organization that came to be known as the American Civil Liberties Union. They lost many early courtroom battles, but their vision of a nation in which “civil liberties” were taken seriously eventually changed the face of American law and politics.

If I have any prediction about what the future holds, I think that the women’s movement, the environmental movement, and civil liberties movement will all gain strength as we each decide where to put our energy, time, and money into positive actions.   While we continue to resist it all.

Photograph:  Shannon Stapleton/Reuters