Category Archives: Holidays

A busy MLK Day in Columbia

Joe MLK

Y’all, I’ve been too busy to post today, but as you know this was a busy day in Columbia for presidential candidates.

Of course, it was a lot more than that. It was MLK Day, which for me has generally been a rather busy holiday. It all started 20 years ago today, when the Columbia Urban League, under the leadership of J.T. McLawhorn and Dr. David Swinton, decided to do something BIG to show how much folks wanted the Confederate flag off the State House dome.

With the help of a coalition of like-minded groups, they succeeded. J.T. and I went on Cynthia Hardy’s show (Cynthia, by the way, was J.T.’s right-hand person at the Urban League at the time) on WACH over the weekend to talk about that event. Why have us old guys on TV to reminiscent about something so long ago? Because it was amazing. There’s been nothing like it before or since. Here’s a picture. The crowd was estimated at 60,000.

In the years since, the march at rally at the State House has become branded as more of an NAACP production (it was one of the organizations that helped with the first one), while the CUL has put its energies into a huge breakfast event at the Brookland Baptist convention facility. Both are magnets for Democrats with national ambitions. I was at the Urban League event this morning, with friends:

It was great to see and hear Joe, of course — and to a lesser extent Pete and Tom and Deval.

I didn’t get a chance to speak with Joe — and was jealous that my friend Samuel Tenenbaum got to sit next to Joe. For my part, I sat at one of the tables dedicated to the Biden contingent, and got to visit with Joe’s state political director and fellow Smith campaign alumnus Scott Harriford.

While I didn’t speak with Joe, I did shake hands with Pete. I didn’t set out to, but we sort of bumped into each other while trying to squeeze through the crowd back to our seats. So I did the civil, and stuck out my hand and said, “How’s it going, Mayor?” And he took it and nodded and moved on. (Yeah, I know. I just didn’t have anything pertinent in mind to say.)

Anyway.

I’m not going to try to report on what everybody said. I leave that to the reporters. Here’s The State’s story, and here’s the Post and Courier’s.

I just thought I’d share how I observed the holiday. How did you?

Cynthia shared this pic taken just before we went on her show. That's Jim Felder on the left, J.T. McLawhorn on the right, and some old white guy in the middle.

Cynthia shared this pic taken just before we went on her show. That’s Jim Felder on the left, J.T. McLawhorn on the right, and some old white guy in the middle.

The bloody, horrific Fourth Day of Christmas

Massacre of the Innocents, by Léon Cogniet

Massacre of the Innocents, by Léon Cogniet

I was going to post some quick quotes from columns I read this morning, one of them quite frivolous, but then I remembered what today is. The Fourth Day of Christmas, when we remember the slaughter of the innocents.

And yes, it’s still Christmas. We’re only a third of the way through. You can’t tell from the secular signs. There’s not a carol to be found on the radio. They played them all back during Advent, the heathens.

Speaking of heathens — lest I seem to be putting on righteous airs, I would have forgotten myself except for a silly show I saw on PBS the other night, telling how the 12 days were marked during the reign of Henry VIII. And then the NYT reminded me, too.

And it’s the most sobering day of the season:

Gospel Mt 2:13-18

When the magi had departed, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt,
and stay there until I tell you.
Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night
and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod,
that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled,
Out of Egypt I called my son.When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:


A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

Today, let’s be thankful for teachers

See the way I tied the holiday to the funny video I wanted to share that actually had nothing to do with Thanksgiving. Old newspaperman’s trick.

Back in the day, when newspapers had some heft to them, today’s was always the biggest paper of the year. We saved up copy for weeks to fill that sucker. In fact, when I started my first newspaper job out of college in the fall of 1975, my managing editor gave me a special assignment, and acted like he was showing me favor by handing me such a great responsibility.

He put me in charge of the Turkey Box. It was a cardboard box that I was to fill with evergreen stories that would hold for the big day. So I crammed it with AP copy of a non-urgent nature.

I didn’t let it swell my head, which is to my credit.

Anyway, I thought this video was great. I would say hilarious, except for the serious point it makes. I particularly like the bit about the first-round draft pick who is instantly a millionaire, a great rise from his unassuming beginnings: “His father lived paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro football player.”

Yes, it would be great if top teachers were lured away to a new school by $80 million over six years, etc.

Of course, I don’t know if it’s healthy for a society to get this excited about anybody. But if we’re going to do that, it might as well be about teachers or someone else who actually contributes something of value to society.

That’ll be the day, huh?

Anyway, have a great and blessed Thanksgiving.

Top Five History-Based Holiday Ideas

big shoe

The controversy over Columbus Day got me to thinking of history-based holidays we could have, if only we thought a little harder. They’re not in order of preference, but in calendar order:

  1. Rubicon Day — OK, so this didn’t happen in America. But Julius Caesar’s decision to cross that creek with his troops had a huge effect on something that matters to Americans. It ended the last republic we would see for 1,000 years. But I’m also thinking we could have some fun with it. We could have toga parties each Jan. 10, and go around saying “iacta alea est” to each other. Maybe not your idea of a good time, but maybe we could make a drinking game out of it.
  2. British Invasion Day — No, it’s not about 1814. It’s about 1964, and this holiday would be pure fun. We’d celebrate it on February 9, the day the Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” We’d all play music by the Beatles, the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Freddie and the Dreamers, Peter and Gordon, and so forth. We’d have theme parties in which we’d all dress like the invaders, and go around saying “gear” and “fab.” And if you said bad things about the holiday, we’d all say you were “dead grotty.”
  3. Lincoln’s Birthday, Feb. 12 — Yes, bring it back, and repeal this “President’s Day” nonsense, in order to drive home the fact that he was our greatest president, and is largely responsible for America being America, having thrown off its original sin via that war that we fight on until the slave states’ unconditional surrender — and making sure it didn’t end until the 13th Amendment was passed, so that all that bloodshed served a purpose. Sorry about the run-on sentence…
  4. Smallpox Day — This is sort of related to the idea of “Indigenous People’s Day,” but I actually have three reasons to mark the day. First, it seems to me that the most horrific public health disaster in human history (way bigger than the Black Death) was back in the 16th century when 95 percent of the native population was wiped out by European diseases for which they had no resistance — usually before the victims had even encountered the Europeans. Something so awful should be remembered. My second reason is celebratory — celebrating the fact that we’ve been so successful at wiping out the disease that a rite of passage of my childhood, the “vaccination” (that’s what we called it; we didn’t know what it was for), is unknown to today’s children. Third, as a warning — that it could come back some day, and we need to fully prepared to wipe it out again if it does. This would be on May 17, the birthday of Edward Jenner.
  5. Independence Day, July 2 — So that we’d be celebrating the actual day that Congress voted to declare independence, not the day that the document’s final edits were approved. This is personal, because John Adams is my fave Founder, and this was day that HE thought should be celebrated, after his weeks of hard work arguing the Congress into taking this momentous step — debate during which Thomas Jefferson, who gets the glory, sat there like a bump on a log. Harrumph…
One idea for celebrating Rubicon Day.

One idea for celebrating Rubicon Day.

Of course Columbus discovered America — a fact which, in itself, makes him neither a hero nor a devil

Look, people… If it makes you happy, Columbus was wrong, the Bugs Bunny version notwithstanding.

Yeah, the Earth was round, as every educated person of his day knew. Only low-information types thought otherwise. But the scholars of the day also knew how big the Earth was, and why Columbus’ idea of sailing west to get to the East Indies was a pipe dream.

But because he was dumb enough to insist on proving his point, he accidentally discovered the New World — and almost no other development in human history has had such wide-reaching consequences, for good or ill.

Consequently, I consider efforts to downplay his “discovery” of the New World a bit on the silly side. Such as this reference in an interesting piece by the NYT’s Brent Staples:

It also tied Italian-Americans closely to the paternalistic assertion, still heard today, that Columbus “discovered” a continent that was already inhabited by Native Americans….

Allow me to make a “paternalistic assertion.” Yep, he did discover America. And everything that has happened since arises from that fact.

A digression…

Right now, I’m reading the book Guns, Germs and Steel, and it’s fascinating. Basically, it attempts to determine the underlying factors that caused certain parts of the world to be “discovered,” and ultimately dominated by, people from other parts of the world.

The whole book aims to answer a question posed to the author by a New Guinean politician named Yali back in the ’70s. When Europeans “discovered” New Guinea a couple of centuries back, the people there were technologically still in the Stone Age. The local people were blown away by the physical artifacts of a modern society — ranging from steel axes to soft drinks — which they referred to collectively as “cargo.” Yali asked the author:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

Jared Diamond’s attempts to answer the question are deeply fascinating.

The book spends considerable time on one incident in particular, back in 1532. You may know the story of how Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro took the Incan emperor prisoner, accepted a ransom from the Incas of a vast amount of gold, and then killed the emperor anyway. Aside from dwelling on some “woke” aspect of this encounter, such as the obvious fact that these Spaniards were a__holes, Diamond asked why it happened this way. In other words, why didn’t Incan emperor Atahuallpa go to Spain, take King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, prisoner and hold him for ransom? A variation of Yali’s question.

And no, the answer isn’t that Atahuallpa was a nicer guy, or for that matter that American Indians were on the whole nicer than white guys (although again, Pizarro and crew didn’t exactly create a great first impression for the rest of us white guys).

Nor is Diamond satisfied with, the Spaniards had guns and steel swords and horses. The book aims to understand why people from Europe had guns and steel swords and horses. For that, he goes back to when homo sapiens first spread out over the Earth, and in certain places gave up hunting and gathering for farming, and different kinds of farming in different places, and the effects that had on the development of technology an complex political structures, and so on.

I highly recommend the book.

But my point is that, whether you personally see it as a good thing or a bad thing, Columbus’ discovery of America was definitely a thing, and one of the most consequential pivot points of history. If you want to explore just how consequential, I recommend another book, which I’ve recommended before: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.

What happened on Oct. 12, 1492, was monumental, and certainly worth marking with a special observance. It changed the world as almost nothing else that has ever happened did. Where people get all bollixed up is when they try to assign moral value to the event.

I don’t know why people do that. Discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a good guy. It doesn’t really make him a bad guy, either. Some other stuff he did after he got here makes him look pretty bad — especially to someone with a 2019 worldview. But like him or hate him, the thing he did, what he stumbled onto, has enormous global significance. He did something amazing, but it doesn’t make him a hero. Or the devil.

The arrival of Europeans, with their relative immunity to certain diseases like smallpox, had horrific consequences for the native population of this hemisphere. What happened was so horrible that it staggers the imagination: 95 percent of the population died out.

But just as discovering America doesn’t make Columbus a hero (to me at least he was not), he can’t really be blamed for everything that happened to the people who lived here, however badly he may have treated the natives he encountered. (Which was pretty damned badly.) He didn’t say, “Hey, let’s go to China (where he thought he was headed) and infect the local people so they all die out.” In fact, most of the people of this hemisphere died over the next few decades long before they came into contact with whites — the germs spread across these continents much faster than people did. People of European descent didn’t even realize on what scale this happened until quite recently (and to learn more about that, read Mann’s prequel, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.)

Of course, people can play games with the word “discovered.” They can say, those Asian people who crossed the land bridge 15,000 years ago “discovered” America, or even say the first Europeans to discover America were actually the Vikings. Or St. Brendan the Navigator. But none of those events opened this side of the world to the other side, mainly because the world wasn’t technologically prepared to bring that about.

So, as a historic event with repercussions for the entire planet, the moment that America got discovered — in the sense of the planet learning of its existence and being affected by it — well, that happened 527 years ago this week.

Feel about it any way you like, but that’s the way things unfolded….

Landing_of_Columbus_(2)

It’s Johnny’s Birthday

Once again, it is John Lennon’s birthday.

I always remember it, and not the other Beatles’ birthdays, not merely because it comes six days after my own. It’s because of Nueve de Octubre, and that looms large because when I was a schoolboy in Ecuador, we always got a whole week off for it — while only getting a day and a half for Christmas.

At the time, I thought that it was Ecuadorean Independence Day. I mean, it would have to be at least that, right — who would take off a whole week for anything less?1024px-Escudo_de_Guayas.svg

But it turns out that it’s only when the province of Guayas, which contained the city of Guayaquil — where I lived — declared its independence from Spain. Not the whole country.

Bonus fact ripped from today’s headlines: Guayaquil is now effectively the capital of Ecuador, since unrest in Quito caused el presidente to have to relocate the seat of government.

Now you know.

Let’s close with one of John’s better songs…

Looking ahead: Have a nice St. Pat’s. I’ll be in Ireland

My brother-in-law, Patrick Cooper Phelan, in 2007.

My brother-in-law, Patrick Cooper Phelan, in 2007.

As long as I’m wishing you appropriate holiday sentiments, I hope y’all all have a great St. Patrick’s Day. I see tickets are available for the Five Points bash, and you get a discount if you buy them in advance.

I urge you to go to Yesterday’s and buy one, have a pint and remember me to Duncan and my other friends there.

However, I won’t be joining you on the day of. I’ll be in Ireland.

See how I just reeled that off so casually, as though going to Ireland is a small thing that I do all the time? Well, it isn’t. I’ve never been before. But my colleen and I will be boarding a plane for Dublin a week from today, and we’re kind of excited about it. We’ll spend a couple of days there, and on St. Paddy’s Day we’ll be in Waterford, which is my wife’s ancestral home. She’s a Phelan, which is to say she’s an Ó Faoláin.

We have tacitly agreed that while in Waterford, I won’t mention my descent from the guy the hard cider is named after. Although while in Dublin I plan to quietly go to the National Gallery and see his wedding picture, which depicts his taking Irish Princess Aoife Ní Diarmait as his bride. (And if anyone asks me, I’ll stress that I’m just as much descended from her as I am from the Norman. Ahem. So don’t blame me.)

And it promises to be a great St. Patrick’s Day, because my wife’s brother and his wife will be with us. And the most fun I ever had at the Five Points celebration was in 2007, with that same brother-in-law.

Having the two Phelans with me should give me all the cred I need among the Irish. Or so I hope.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to it. So much so that I started reading Ulysses a few weeks back, to get into the mood. But a couple of “chapters” in, I decided that was unnecessary, and that having read Dubliners is more than enough preparation….

 

Have a penitent, unabashed Ash Wednesday

ashes

On Ash Wednesday, I usually wait until the Mass at night to go get my ashes. Of course, I do that with any holy day that comes in the week, such as… well, I guess Ash Wednesday is the main one… because it’s convenient: Get through the working day, go to Mass, go home.

But I know that a small part of the equation is that I don’t want to go around all day with the ashes on. And this is evidence of being a bad Catholic, I think. I mean, the whole point is to spend the day wearing an outward sign of penitence, right? Show everyone you’re sorry for your sins. I think.

It’s not that I’m embarrassed to show my faith. I do that all the time. In fact, I disobey Jesus’ admonition not to pray in public, by briefly saying grace wherever I sit down to eat. If there are people who are inclined to say, “Look at the crazy Christian,” they have ample opportunity. (Which is worse — praying in public, or failing to be grateful for one’s daily bread?)

But the ashes… They call for explanation. My mind goes back to a time shortly after I first became Catholic. It was Ash Wednesday, and I went into a Chinese restaurant with my ashes on. The proprietor helpfully told me in broken English that I had something on my forehead. I told him it was supposed to be there. This perplexed him, and I started trying to explain, but there was enough of a language barrier to make that impossible. Eventually, apparently deciding that the crazy foreign devil was making fun, he laughed. I gave up.

That was 30 something years ago, and I’m pretty sure that on some level I’m still trying to avoid having that conversation again. Partly because living in the South, many Christians don’t know about Ash Wednesday, much less other folk. So you have this situation where people are looking at you, and you figure they’re wondering about the ashes, and you can’t decide whether you should assume that and offer an explanation (evangelicals certainly would, if they followed this practice), or just let them wonder.

So I go at night, which minimizes interaction with the uninitiated.

And I feel a little bad about that.

I feel especially bad on this Ash Wednesday, because at breakfast I saw the guy above on a TV set, standing in front of the world with his ashes on. The sound was off, so I don’t know if he offered an explanation of his ashes or not.

Well, good for him. I applaud him. Among other things, he’s showing the world that journalists are not all a bunch of godless barbarians. And this one is on MSNBC, no less! Take that, all you alleged Christians who voted for Trump!

Anyway, I just looked at the schedule, and while I don’t think I’m going to make it to the noon Mass, I see there’s one at 5:30! I could go to that, instead of the 7:30!

Baby steps…

Anybody else tired of ‘Christmas’ yet?

"I say humbug to you, sir! We haven't even had Thanksgiving yet!"

“I say humbug to you, sir! We haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet!”

… ‘Cause I am.

I am not a Scrooge. I have been fully conditioned to say that, by a lifetime of seeing Scrooge — before the ghosts — as a bad guy, who was redeemed by getting into the Christmas Spirit.

But you’ll note, if you go back and read the story, that he got into the Christmas Spirit on Christmas Day — that is, on the first of the 12 days of actual Christmas.

If Scrooge had gone into Walmart on the day after Halloween, hoping to pick up some Brach’s Mellowcreme Pumpkins on sale, only to find all the Halloween stuff replaced by Christmas-themed merchandise — which actually happened to yours truly — I’d have called him a hero for crying “Humbug!”

And that’s what he’d have been: A hero. A man fighting a lonely fight against the cheapening and dilution of what was once a perfectly lovely holiday. Not the holiest day in the liturgical calendar, but a nice one nonetheless.

What put me in this Scroogesque mood? I made the mistake of listening to commercial radio for a few minutes this morning, and every ad I heard was Christmas-themed. And this is 13 days before the start of Advent, which is the whole season that occurs BEFORE Christmas arrives.

So I have my legitimate grievance…

Top Five Movies (or TV Shows) for the Fourth of July

  1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — Frank Capra really gets America. Or at least, he got the America of his day, and that means he got it the way I get it. (It feels like I was right there, in a previous life.)
  2. Young Mr. Lincoln” — If you don’t do anything else today, watch the clip above. You only have to watch the first minute and 18 seconds. It’s amazing, the best thing Henry Fonda ever did. I thought about Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which is magnificent and of course has superior, modern production values. But I had another Spielberg flick below, and besides, this one’s awesome.
  3. John Adams” — Yeah, this one’s a TV show, which is why I added the parenthetical in the headline. I can’t think of anything better on how America became America. And as I keep saying, Adams is my fave Founder. He’s the one who rammed independence through the Congress. Jefferson just wrote it out — because Adams picked him to do it.
  4. Saving Private Ryan” — Yeah, I know — Bud and maybe others will say, “This isn’t Veteran’s Day, nor yet Memorial Day!” Yeah, well, freedom isn’t free. And this is the best film evocation of that ever made. I get chills, and misty eyes, during the cemetery scenes at the start and end. July Fourth message to us all: Earn this!
  5. Yankee Doodle Dandy” — Because there had to be a musical, and have you ever seen anything better than James Cagney dancing down those stairs? Particularly amazing if you only thought of him as a gangster type.

Honorable mention:

All the President’s Men” — Because America. Because First Amendment. Because scrappy newspapermen taking down a corrupt administration. Best part — the scenes in which Woodward and Bernstein interview people who do not want to talk to them. They are wonderfully ragged and awkward, which is what it’s like in real life. I really appreciate the director leaving them that way and not trying to slick them up, Hollywood-style.

"Yankee Doodle Dandy"

“Yankee Doodle Dandy”

Something off-putting about those ‘patriotic’ uniforms

unis 1

I thought about posting this on Memorial Day itself, but decided to wait.

For me — a guy who’s all about some patriotism and support for the military (and if there’s a spectator sport I love, it’s baseball) — there’s something off-putting about those special uniforms MLB players donned over the holiday weekend.

It’s not just that it’s so contrived, such a cheesy, sterile form of tribute to men who died in the blood and noise and fury and filth and noise of battle. They did not wear clean, white uniforms with camouflage numbers. They did not wear caps that look as much like what a deer hunter would wear as anything you’d see on a soldier.

But there’s also something… decadent, something last-days-of-Rome about it.

Of course, I’m guilty of romanticizing baseball. I think of it in very anachronistic terms as a humble, pastoral game played by plain men who did it for the love of the sport, guys who maybe had one uniform to their names, and that uniform made of wool that caused them to roast in the summer sun. (And they liked it, as Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man would say.)

I just can’t help thinking of all the money spent on these uniforms that these players will probably wear only once. Which makes me think about how much — way too much — money there is in professional sports today, so much that vast sums can be thrown away on PR gestures that, as I said above, seem inadequate to the kind of tribute our war dead deserve.

I’m not blaming MLB here. This occurs in a context in which the fans, the entire society, seem to have lost all sense of materialistic restraint.

You, too, can have a genuine copy of the jersey your hero wore for one game for only $119.99. Or, if you’ve really lost your marbles and have more money than anyone needs, you can have the actual jersey that a player wore, for $2,125! Unless someone with priorities even further out of whack outbids you!

It just all seems kind of nuts to me. And vaguely offensive. Does this make any sense to anyone?

distasteful

Memphis knows how to throw a party (or something) for St. Pat

catechismNo doubt some will cite this as evidence that my Ménière’s has reached the point at which I need a hearing aid.

But in my defense, my wife was out in the hallway when she said this, and I was in the bathroom with the exhaust fan running — although the door, I admit, was open.

Anyway, she had come upstairs to tell me that her youngest brother was on his way to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Memphis (my wife’s family, the Phelans, are real Irish Catholics, not pretenders like me), and that he had told her something alarming about that parade.

She said the people on the floats throw catechisms to the crowd.

At least, I thought that’s what she said. I considered it a bit odd — most such parades aren’t that, shall we say, holy — but nevertheless arguably appropriate, since St. Patrick converted the heathen Irish to Christianity.

Then my wife said something odder. She said she thought that sounded “dangerous.” I reflected that maybe so, if they were hardbacks. But they could throw paperbacks, and maybe there are some abridged, pocket-sized versions…

Then she said other things that made me wonder. I asked her to repeat the first thing she’d said.cabbage

This time, I thought she said they were throwing “catechists,” and that did sound dangerous. If you go throwing people, religious education teachers, off of floats, someone could get hurt.

But something about this version sounded even more suspicious, so I finally asked her directly whether she had indeed said they were throwing catechisms or catechists.

She roared with laughter at this point (which frankly I don’t think is the kindest way to deal with my affliction). She had been saying, “cabbages.” They were throwing cabbages from the floats.

Yeah, OK. That could be dangerous.

You can stop laughing now…

Look out! What's that they're throwing? The St. Patrick's Day parade on Beale Street.

Look out! What’s that they’re throwing? The St. Patrick’s Day parade on Beale Street.

Who are your All-Time, Top Five Presidents?

Rushmore

I started to do this yesterday and then forgot. The piece in The New York Times in which political scholars rank all the presidents — brought to my attention by both Bud and Norm — has reminded me.

In that survey, of course, Donald Trump comes in dead last. There’s no other place to put him. He has rescued Buchanan from holding that spot permanently. Even among Republicans, he’s in the bottom five. That’s the thing about being a scholar — whatever your inclinations, you know certain things.

But other than that, there’s plenty of room for debate — although everybody has the same top three that I have.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lincoln — There’s just no contest. We wouldn’t have or country today if not for Abe. He was such a perfect match for what the nation had to have at that moment that it’s the strongest suggestion in our history that God has a special place in His heart for America. Whether from divine cause or not, his appearance at that time was miraculous. His unmatched wisdom, his stunning eloquence, his almost superhuman political skills — even his sense of humor — all combined not only to keep the country together, but to address head-on the central political problem of our history. For four score and nine years (I’m counting to the 13th Amendment), the best minds in the country had been unable to deal with slavery. Lincoln got it done, decisively.
  2. Roosevelt — For some of the same reasons Lincoln is No. 1 — he came along at just the right time, with just the right skills. His brilliance, his courage, his confidence, his ebullience, his ability as a patrician to connect with and inspire the poor and downcast, got us through not only the Depression but the worst, most destructive war in human history. A few months ago, I visited Warm Springs, and to think the way the man kept the nation’s spirits up while every day was such a physical struggle for him fills me with awe.
  3. Washington — His time as president isn’t necessarily what impresses us most — his own particular talents may have been more clearly on display as a general. In the political sphere, Madison and Hamilton were proving moving and shaking things more. But given what we have today, the dignity he brought to the office, the bearing, is truly something to be appreciated. And he quit rather than run again after his second term, he relinquished power rather than become the monarch he might have been. We owe a lot to the American Cincinnatus.
  4. Johnson — Here’s where I break with the experts. Even the Democrats among the scholars place him no higher than 8th. But considering how little the federal government has done since then, I remain amazed at the things he pushed through in 1964-65, the sweeping civil rights legislation, the significant steps in the direction of single-payer health care (alas, the last big steps we took.) Yep, everybody blames him for how he handled Vietnam — but he didn’t set out to do that; he just badly mishandled what he had inherited. He wanted to concentrate on his domestic programs. And we’d probably all be better off today if he had manage to do that.
  5. Truman — OK, this was kind of a tossup among several people. I wanted to name my favorite Founder, John Adams — but he wasn’t all that distinguished as president, and there was the matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, and he did a lot — in his own ways, he was as energetic a leader as his kinsman Franklin and LBJ. But I don’t want to get into a big argument defending the imperialism (and here we’re talking real imperialism, instead of the imaginary kind people have fantasized about in modern times). So let’s go with the unassuming guy whom everyone underestimated, but who got us through the end of the war that FDR had almost won, then won the peace, shaping America’s leadership role in building the postwar world order. And don’t forget the way he integrated the military, one of the first big steps toward desegregation. We could really use a man like him again.

So… whom would y’all pick?

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

Who are all these people who are off on Presidents’ Day?

My lonely Volvo on Assembly Street at mid-morning.

My lonely Volvo on Assembly Street at mid-morning.

When I parked on Assembly Street this morning, I had an entire block of spaces to choose from. When I came back an hour later, my old Volvo was still alone, except for one car at the very end of the block that you can’t see in the picture above.

Were you off today? If so, fie on you.

Personally, I have never had a job in which this was a holiday.

And further, what does this “holiday” mean to you? It’s not Washington’s Birthday, although — I was surprised to learn — that is the official name of the day (Wikipedia says it’s only called “Presidents’ Day” colloquially). It’s not Lincoln’s birthday.

It’s sort of like… not anything really. At least on Columbus Day — another holiday I’ve never had off from work for — we can have big Culture War over the meaning. But what does this one mean?

It’s about as vague as you can get….

 

Remembering a better time, just 10 years ago

That's me interviewing Obama on MLK Day 2008 -- taking notes with my right hand, shooting video with my left. With my Initech mug: "Is This Good for the COMPANY?"

That’s me interviewing Obama on MLK Day 2008 — taking notes with my right hand, shooting video with my left. With my Initech mug: “Is This Good for the COMPANY?”

I retweeted this today…

I passed it on not because it was particularly profound or unique or even one of our former president’s better Tweets, but because it reminded me of a better time for our country.

As it happens, I met Barack Obama 10 years ago, on MLK Day.

That was such a better time for our country.

McCain in the same seat, not long before.

McCain in the same seat, not long before.

A week before, we had endorsed John McCain in the SC Republican Primary, and he had won. We knew, when Barack Obama came in, that we liked him for the Democratic Primary in a few days. But this interview, at 8 a.m. on that holiday, cinched it. We were all very impressed. And since Hillary Clinton declined even to come in for an endorsement interview (I would learn why sometime later) and Joe Biden had dropped out much earlier, that was pretty much it.

We endorsed Obama, and he won the primary a few days later.

As a result, I’ve never felt better about a presidential election than I did about that one — my last in newspaper journalism, although I didn’t know it at the time.

From the time McCain and Obama won their respective nominations, I referred to it as the win-win election. Whichever one won, I felt good about our countries future.

We endorsed McCain in the fall — I’d wanted him to be president since long before I’d heard of Barack Obama, and I was concerned about the Democrat’s lack of experience. But it was OK by me when the latter won. It was the win-win election.

Fast-forward eight years, and we find the Democrat we rejected then running against the worst candidate ever to capture a major-party nomination in our nation’s history — and as if that weren’t bad enough, the worst man won. And we are reminded of that daily, as he goes from outrage to outrage.

So it’s good, if only for a day, to look back and remember a time, not so long ago, when all our prospects seemed good.

Why would anyone EVER want to cover this song?

This morning, I felt a disturbance in the force as the opening bars of what could only be Paul McCartney’s great shame, “Wonderful Christmastime.”

You know, “Sim…ply… hav…ing…” and so forth.

Unable to escape for a moment — let’s be honest, it caught me in the men’s room — I heard enough to realize, “That’s not Paul McCartney.”

I had to know who would commit the crime of re-recording the one great musical crime of a beloved pop genius.

SoundHound told me: It was The Shins, whom I had only encountered previously on the soundtrack of “Garden State,” years and years ago.

I don’t know why they did this. I thought we had all agreed that this wretched ditty was at the top of everyone’s Top Five Worst Christmas Songs list. Or at least at the top of mine, which is what counts. No, I tell a lie — it’s second on the list. “The Little Drummer Boy” is first.

So what in the name of Kris Kringle are these Shin people doing committing this copycat crime?

It’s insupportable…

The Shins: Be On the LookOut for these individuals; they may strike again...

The Shins: Be On the LookOut for these individuals. I think this photo was taken in their shadowy criminal “lair.”

Kyle Michel ponders All Souls’ Day

"All Souls Day" by Jakob Schikaneder, 1888

“All Souls Day” by Jakob Schikaneder, 1888

Earlier this week, the lady who schedules us lectors and eucharistic ministers sent out an email looking for volunteers for the Masses on All Saints Day. I wrote to her to say I could serve at the one at noon, but couldn’t do the evening Mass because of the debate.

But I had to ask her a dumb question, just to be sure: You’re talking about Wednesday, right?

As a convert, I still get confused by some stuff cradle Catholics take for granted, and the distinction between All Saints’ Day (yesterday) and All Souls’ Day (today) is one of those things.

But because we have so much to learn, we examine these things more closely. And an unexamined life, etc.

So I sort of enjoyed this email from Kyle Michel, who like me grew up Southern Baptist before marrying into a Catholic family:

All Souls Day has always been kinda intriguing to me. The idea of praying for all souls gone before you makes you wonder where the heck they’ve all gone. Maybe my Jewish friends are right – you’re here, you make your mark, you’re gone. Or, maybe there’s some kind of next stage – put whatever label you want on it. It would be hard to say that every person who has ever seen a ghost or had some paranormal experience was just imagining it. But everybody who ever died can’t be hanging around or the whole world would look like that Michael Jackson Thriller video. ​
I grew up Southern Baptist and we never had All Souls Day. According to the Baptists, there’s just no need – God’s already sorted them out, no need for further input. The Catholics have more of a Jesse Jackson approach – Keep Hope Alive! That Catholic approach seems a little better suited to a procrastinator like me – give it your best shot while you’re still breathing, but if you fall a little short, you’ve still got a chance.
Though, for Catholics, All Souls Day is still a little uncomfortable because you’re supposed to pray for all those in purgatory, which means you gotta make a call on who you think didn’t quite make it in – awkward!  At the funeral, everyone makes it in, right? Now, I gotta admit I think Uncle Freddie never made the cut!
Lucky for us, this year All Souls Day falls on First Thursday, so you can come down to Main Street and spend the evening thinking about all your dearly departed while walking among your not-yet-departed who probably still need a little prayer themselves.
If you’re out, stop by. We’ll be here at 1520 with our usual fare and selling the records of some of the souls we’re praying for – including a few of those “under-the-counter” ones that belonged to Uncle Freddie.

Kyle sends out these emails every First Thursday, inviting folks to drop by his law office on Main Street. He has the most awesome record collection I’ve ever seen outside of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and he puts out some of his treasures out to sell from tables on the sidewalk.

You should check it out tonight. I can’t, because I’m doing another Catholic thing: I’m going to the annual Bernardin Lecture. Kristin Heyer of Boston College will speak on “Immigration Ethics in a New Era.”

Editing the Declaration of Independence

I spent part of the long holiday weekend rewatching an episode or two of HBO’s John Adams.

Of course, being me, I love the scene that depicts the editing of the Declaration of Independence.

If you’ll recall, Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were appointed as a committee to draft the Declaration. Then, Adams had talked Jefferson into doing the actual writing, citing his skill with the written word and the fact that Adams himself was far too busy (aside from sitting on various committee, Adams was bearing the greatest share of the burden of arguing for independence, while Jefferson never opened his mouth during the debate).

In this scene, Adams and Ben Franklin are getting their first look at what Jefferson has written, and reacting to it, and offering changes. Having been in this situation myself so many thousands of times with writers who sometimes regarded their words as perfect, I enjoyed watching the dynamics.

First observation: Adams starts out by praising Jefferson’s work to the skies — a fitting approach given the document he’s editing, but one that is wildly at odds with my own approach. As Dave Moniz used to say when he worked for me, the highest praise I ever offered of writers’ work was “pretty good.” Maybe I should have tried this approach; it seems to have led to a good result.

Then there is Jefferson’s unnerving passivity through most of the process — an almost autistic lack of emotion. I’ve had writers fly off the handle at my changes, or be philosophically diplomatic about it. But never anyone with this staring, shrugging apathy. Change to “self-evident?” Yeah, whatevs…

Even when Adams says some of it might not be the way he would have said it, but he will still defend every word, Jefferson has no gratitude, but shrugs, “Well, it’s what I believe…”

Nevertheless, Jefferson proves he’s not an automaton when Franklin (being a newspaper editor himself, Ben had a knack for this) finally gets a rise out of him, and Jefferson says, still in that cold-fish voice, “Every single word was precisely chosen. I assure you of that, Dr. Franklin.” To which Franklin, unfazed, essentially says yeah, that may be the case, but you don’t get the final word; we’ve got to get this thing through Congress.

Adams was (in an unaccustomed role for him) cheerleading the document, while Franklin was determined to edit it. Normally, I’m an Adams fan, but in this case, it’s Ben I identified with. You can’t let writers get an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What do they think they are, editors?

Anyway, this is my belated Independence Day post…

franklin-jefferson-adams-writing-the-declarationcropped1

Now even the Easter Bunny is normalizing Trump

The night infiltration course. See the earthen berm in the background? See that line of little bumps right below? Those are the soldiers, staying as low as possible under the MG fire. What I saw looked way sharper than this; it was hard to line up my camera lens with the night-vision device.

The night infiltration course. See the earthen berm in the background? See that line of little bumps right below? Those are the soldiers, staying as low as possible under the MG fire. What I saw looked way sharper than this; it was hard to line up my camera lens with the night-vision device.

Last Tuesday night, Bryan Caskey and I were observers at Fort Jackson when some recruits went through the night infiltration course.

It was fascinating, and we both appreciated the opportunity. Basically, here’s what happened: We were bused out to the course right after dark. The course consisted of 100 yards or so of soft sand. At one end is a trench and a tall earthen berm. At the other are two towers, with machine guns mounted atop them. At the appointed time, soldiers slithered up out of the trench and made their way on their bellies and elbows through the sand toward the towers. The machine guns fired over their heads, with tracers so we could track the rounds. We civilians (several dozen of us) stood 15 or 20 yards behind the towers with foam plugs in our ears and — here’s the cool part — watched through night vision goggles.

Earlier, before we boarded the buses, we received a briefing from Maj. Gen. “Pete” Johnson. He gave a great, highly informative talk that even civilians could understand. But after he was finished, Bryan turned to me and sought my reaction to one tiny, relatively insignificant part of the speech. He asked me whether it seemed weird to me to hear a serving United States Army general officer, in uniform, make a passing reference to “President Trump.”

Yes, I said, it did. The general, of course, has no more say in the matter than I do. But it is disturbing to reflect that we have this wonderful, professional army, with fine officers and brave recruits ready to sacrifice for their country, and the supreme commander who gets to tell them all what to do is You Know Who. There’s no way that gets to feeling normal. One hopes.

But over the weekend I experienced a bigger shock. It was one thing to see Henry McMaster, and other Republicans who should know better, stand next to Trump back during the campaign.

But to see the Easter Bunny himself, a revered mythical figure, standing next to the Trumps at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll — that just takes the weirdness to a whole other level.

That just makes it all a little too real…

That's the Bunny on the right -- the one with the shocked expression.

That’s the Bunny on the right — the one with the shocked expression.

What? Where did the Surfside Pier go?

Pier 1

The only thing I saw over the last few days that was newsworthy was that a huge part of the Surfside Beach pier was missing.

It was the first time I’d been there since Hurricane Matthew, and it was weird to see people playing in the surf out past the end of the pier.

Apparently, local folks have been having trouble figuring out whether and/or how to rebuild it, and it probably won’t be up and operating until next year sometime, at best.

It’s amazing anyone would even consider not rebuilding. But then, I remember when the pier played a more central role in the town’s life. When I was a kid, and even later when my older kids were young, that was the place to go. There was the pier, and the bingo hall, and the arcade, and the little family-scale amusement park, all right there together. Back in the days before cable TV, there wasn’t anything to do in the evening in Surfside besides going to the pier — unless you wanted to go down to Murrells Inlet and wait an hour to be seated for dinner.

Here’s what it looked like back then. I wish this had been taken from a different angle, so you could see the arcade and amusement park better — as opposed to the parking lot (which used to be free, by the way) — but you can see it would be the focal point of a sleepy, family beach town.

Then, sometime in the 80s as I recall, someone got the idea of replacing everything but the pier itself with a high-rise hotel. There went the center of Surfside life. Sometime after that (I’m thinking after Hugo repairs), someone got the idea of charging people a dollar or two just to walk on the pier.

Still, I hope they get it together and rebuild. The pier may not be what it was, but I still can’t imagine Surfside without it.

You know what it looks kind of like from this angle? One of those Imperial Walkers from "The Empire Strikes Back." To me, anyway...

You know what it looks kind of like from this angle? One of those AT-AT Imperial Walkers from “The Empire Strikes Back.” To me, anyway…