Goodbye to Cincinnati

The longest I lived anywhere was Cincinnati, where I settled in 1982.

Now, Jeanne and I are heading out to Charlotte, North Carolina, a city where I spent most of my high school years, where I worked as a political reporter for the Charlotte Observer, where I worked on an (unsuccessful) U.S. Senate campaign, and where my parents passed away and are buried at nearby Belmont Abbey College, along with my oldest brother. My other brother died in a Charlotte hospice in 2015. I guess I will find out whether North Carolina writer Tom Wolfe was right in naming one of his novels “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

Here’s hoping we will prove Wolfe wrong. Jeanne has a new position doing marketing and PR for an up-and-coming software developer.  We have dear nephews close by. We are also empty nesters, but there is plenty in the Charlotte area to keep us both busy and entertained. Besides, we will be only hours away from the NC/SC coast.

Still, Cincinnati is much on my mind. I leave the “Queen City” with a myriad of thoughts and feelings, some of which I’d like to share. If you don’t mind.

Cincinnati is a wonderful, perhaps ideal, place to raise a family. Large, but not overwhelming. Ripe with a garden variety of singular townships, neighborhoods and communities — each distinctive and each with its own charms. My first stop was in bucolic Wyoming, and since 1992, sprawling Anderson Township. Two completely different places, but both with just the right mix of people, attractions and schools. I made friends in both places, who I will always cherish.

Cincinnati also is blessed by a beautiful location at a crook in the Ohio River.  If you go atop the Carew Tower, the City’s tallest building, the horizon is flat as a pancake. But a maze of valleys carved by tributaries of the Ohio has given Cincinnati steep hills and plenty of areas unfit for development. The result: vast park land and forest within the city limits.

The Ohio River is wide and rapid as it flows west and south through the area. It was an early highway of western expansion, with riverboats as the preferred mode of transport. As you drive along Columbia Parkway, which contours the river’s course and look across to Kentucky, Germany’s Rhine River comes to mind, an appropriate comparison since much of the area’s earliest settlers were German immigrants.

Cincinnati and Charlotte both have NFL teams, but only Cincinnati has major league baseball, the beloved Reds. It’s a good thing they are beloved, because lately, they’ve not been very good. Charlotte has NBA basketball, however, owned by Michael Jordan, so there’s that. It is rumored that Cincinnati also has an NFL-caliber football team.

For most of my time in Cincinnati, I worked for Kroger in its headquarters down on Vine St. Kroger in the early 1980’s was a fast-growing, increasingly national food retailer that in 1983 celebrated its 100th anniversary. My job was to represent the company to the news media as corporate PR director, and also help write speeches, address controversies, and generally speak and write transparently about a business that touched nearly every household in Cincinnati and dozens of other cities.

The guy I worked with and reported to was Jack Partridge, who recruited me from Washington, where I had worked in Jimmy Carter’s Administration. To say that we were always on the same page would be an understatement and despite our differing political views. He and I looked at our responsibilites with complementary eyes, and we felt we were serving not just our business, but the entire community. (Jack and I were early members of Leadership Cincinnati, and Kroger graciously assigned me to work on important civic matters, such as the 1991 Buenger Report on Cincinnati Public Schools).

Jack, in turn, reported to Kroger’s CEO, Lyle Everingham, a decent, plain-spoken, hard-working and astute executive who believed in delegating responsibility and expecting superior results. Some may recall that in 1988, Kroger came very close to being taken over by outside investors. Lyle, his top managers and the Board thought the idea stank to high heaven, and so they put together a financial restructuring plan that saved the company’s independence. The plan was created in part by a handful of top executives, including Bill Sinkula, Larry Kellar and one Rodney McMullen — now Kroger’s CEO.

But the plan necessitated a widespread cutback in expenses and, as a consequence, hundreds of folks in G.O., including some of my closest friends, lost their jobs. The company continued to prosper, but for old salts like Jack and me, it was never quite the same.

Skyline. As in chili. Across Vine from Kroger’s office was a Skyline Chili parlor, where Kroger people often found themselves at lunchtime. Shortly after starting work, I went to Skyline to be initiated into this somewhat mysterious and legendary concoction that, to many, represents the essence of Cincinnati. “Mikey, he likes it,” my companions laughed, mimicking a popular TV ad for cereal. I did, and still do. I will miss Skyline in North Carolina, which is more of a barbecue kind of place. I will also miss explaining to people what the hell a three-way is.

In 1998, I left Kroger to start my own communications consulting firm, called (not very creatively) Bernish Communications. My first client was Kroger, and over time I did work for Harris Teeter in Charlotte (now part of Kroger), as well as Publix in Florida. I also worked for a Canadian firm that launched one of the first self-scanning checkout systems, and a manufacturer of paper-making equipment based in northern Ohio.

Around this time, I was contacted by a community leader, Chip Harrod, who asked my opinion about an idea of his to create a museum about the Underground Railroad on the banks of the Ohio River. This region was a significant crossing point for slaves fleeing from Kentucky and further South (immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin). I told Chip the idea appealed to me and next thing I knew, I was on the founding board for the fledgling project.

The Freedom Center exists today, a yearly destination for thousands of elementary and high school students bussed in to learn about America’s prolonged cancer — slavery. Yet It has been decidedly a sore point for some in Cincinnati who believe the museum is too grandiose and offers too negative a theme to ever be popular. But to others, myself included, the Freedom Center ultimately represents an important attempt to help modern-day Americans (and others) understand the many ways slavery degrades and corrupts the essentials binding together moral, successful  societies. Yes, much of the content in the museum is difficult and unpleasant. Yet at the same time, the triumph of the human spirit, as represented by those who attempted to flee the shackles of bondage, and those who helped their escape, is an eternally uplifting message — the “arc of moral history,” in the quoted words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “is always bending towards justice.”

The Freedom Center, let it be said, likely would not exist were it not for John and Francie Pepper and former federal appeals court judge Nathaniel Jones. The Peppers truly are citizens in the most fundamental sense of the word, in which service to others and playing things forward are firmly-held values and a way of life. Judge Jones is a moral beacon of grace and guts.

One area of civic life that did reel me in was the City’s superb arts organizations. This involvement went well beyond an annual contribution to the Fine Arts Fund. I served on the Chamber Orchestra Board for a time, and spent about two years raising money for the late Eric Kunzels’s dream of a new building for the unique and inspiring School of the Creative and Performing Arts. Kunzel was a life force, a walking magnetic field, and working with him was a life lesson in the power of an idea. The new SCPA is not physically attached to Music Hall, as Eric hoped, but it’s just down the street, and I’m sure he’d be pleased with the result.

I also dearly loved the Symphony, despite the cramped seating in the old Music Hall. After an inspiring performance by the CSO, I would joyously but slowly limp out to my car. Perhaps my most treasured moment was attending the CSO’s scheduled event not long after 9/11. Maestro Paavo Jarvi (leading the orchestra for the first time) conducted a somber yet somehow affirming performance that had everyone in the hall lost in thought and yet yearning for human contact that classical music often offers. It was a singular moment; it didn’t last long, unfortunately, as America soon descended into war, retribution and gnawing fear.

After a couple of turns on the Freedom Center Board, I joined the Freedom Center staff in 2004 just in time to assist in the grand opening (remember Oprah Winfrey’s grand and elegant participation down on the riverfront). Later, I helped create a new, permanent exhibit about human trafficking, which is the despicable practice of modern-day slavery. It is, if I may say so, the best thing I have ever done. You should go see it.

I’ve continued to consult in a joint endeavor with Gale Prince, a former Kroger colleague and one of the nation’s leading experts on food safety. It’s been fun to dip back into the food sector.

And here we are, relocated to Charlotte, a much different, much larger city that also has been transformed by global economic tides. When I was a high school student here, at a tiny, all-boys Catholic outpost run by the Marianist Brothers, Charlotte was kind of a boastful backwater, a place that mid-level executives came to on their way up the corporate ladder to Atlanta or Dallas or Frankfurt. No longer. Today, Charlotte is a booming metropolis that has spilled over into South Carolina. It is the nation’s second largest banking center, after only the Big Apple, and with the skyscrapers and inflated home prices that come with explosive growth. Catholic High is now located in a large campus-like setting with high academic standards and sports excellence. Old Coach Willie Campagna would be astounded.

I will definitely be a tiny cog in a big wheel here. In Cincinnati, I was never a mover and shaker. But I was sometimes in the room, like Zelig, with many who were. During most of Cincinnati’s history hometown companies exerted an outsized, albeit mostly beneficial, influence on local affairs. Chief among them, of course, is Procter & Gamble, which to many is synonymous with the city. Political, religious, arts and cultural leaders generally sought P&G’s views out of the Company’s well-earned respect, the enormous resources it could direct to civic endeavors, and the generous executive involvement it could bring to any significant community need. Another influencer is the Cincinnati Business Committee, or CBC, made up exclusively of company chieftains, where huge and lasting decisions are reviewed alongside the normal political and governmental channels.

Local companies are critical drivers of economic growth and supporters of civic projects but these days, Cincinnati-based firms have a lot on their plate well outside the Queen City. Like businesses everywhere, Cincinnati companies must serve a national, even global audience and confront strenuous global competition. Kroger, to mention an obvious example, is a major presence in cities much larger than Cincinnati, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Denver and Houston. Or take Fifth Third, once a proud hometown bank. Today, it operates in large swathes of the Midwest and South, while back home in southern Ohio, it must confront major competitors like US Bank and PNC — from hated Pittsburgh, no less! Fifth Third operates in Charlotte, by the way.

The impact of these swirling trends has forced businesses to broaden their horizons. Companies with deep local roots, such as Cintas or Fifth Third, must increasingly allocate charitable and civic resources in other places, as well. At the same time, public companies face constant challenges from shareholders, often hedge funds, that demand ever-rising profits. This has an impact, sometimes direct, on how much corporations invest in communities.

All this really means that Cincinnati’s economy — and its very way of life — is caught up as never before in the world beyond this corner of Ohio. Things have really opened up locally (think OTR or the riverfront); the City is no longer 10 years behind the rest of the country, as Mark Twain famously quipped. Its future is bright, but it must do more to retain and attract young professionals who often see their future as residing in Chicago, or Boston, or Austin.

Charlotte, like Cincinnati and many other urban areas, has developed energetic, vibrant suburbs surrounding the central city core. In Charlotte, development is best described as rampant, whereas in the areas around Cincinnati, growth is more measured but plainly obvious when, for example, you drive north on Interstate 75 and see that Cincinnati’s suburbs are fast encroaching on Dayton’s.

One troubling factor, however, is that the suburban communities seem largely detached from the core urban areas. Mason could just as easily be in Kansas or Pennsylvania. Fort Mill, S.C. looks like it would fit nicely into suburban Dallas. Suburbs are where the fast food and casual dining chains, along with auto supply and tire discounters ply their trades, and traffic is on the whole terrible. Few of the suburbs feel at all unique, as a result. These trends are perhaps irreversible, although Charlotte is looking at dramatically expanding its Lynx commuter train service (that now connects “Uptown” to Charlotte’s South End) north to the Lake Norman area, west to the airport, southeast, etc. Cincinnati has an urban train of sorts, but it is doubtful it will soon or ever be expanded.

But at least Charlotte has city-county government. Cincinnati does not, and this is a limiting factor to its ability to connect suburbs to the city and enable workers to easily commute to jobs in the suburbs. Clearly, visionary political leadership is needed.

Well, Cincinnati’s future will no longer affect Jeanne and me. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County operate a combined city-county government that has been in place for decades. It is by no means a panacea; Charlotte is plagued with overwhelming traffic woes, under-performing, crowded schools, and suburban sprawl that is unstoppable and shorn of charm. Its wish to expand the Lynx system is, at the moment, stymied by the lack of funding sources.

So, I am transitioning from one city where I lived for a quarter of a century to another city where I lived through my high school, college and early professional career. As a consequence, I sort of feel like I am living in two places simultaneously, with one foot firmly planted in the past and the other tentatively positioned to explore whatever future is ahead.

Folks, this is hard. Even as I make new friends and re-aquaint with old high school buds, I will long feel the tug of strong emotional attachments to the people I have known, worked with and grown close to in Cincinnati over the years. If I mentioned even one such person or family, such as Peter Larkin, John Barnett and Jim McIntire from Kroger days, or Heather Hill neighbors Bridget and Tom Breitenbach, Harry and Ginny DeMaio, Malinda and Wayne Price, the Annable’s, Barb and Sam Gamble, or just plain friends Jamie Glavic, or Norma Petersen or Ken Schonberg, Ross Wales and Richard and Penny Hoskin, I would be listing several hundred more names, and your eyes would glaze over.

So I won’t do that. Instead, I wish all of you who knew us a fond farewell — until next time. As a nation, we are crossing through a rough patch, divided by mistrust, ready to argue at the drop of a hat, using ever coarser language and behaviors. But there is no doubt in my mind that America will survive and prosper. Whenever I get down, I try to think of Maestro Jarvi, holding, ever so slightly, the last notes of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Music Hall was packed that night a little over a week after 9/11; for that single moment, no one in that crowd was a stranger. Everyone was holding up one another. That’s what we should strive for.

In the meantime, I hope we can all engage in empathy and respect, and encourage peals of laughter. Kindness and good manners will get you a long way, my Mom used to say, and while I’ve not often showed those attributes, it still strikes me as good advice.

Adieu!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What Follows Charlie Hebdo?

I happened to have been in Paris with my son, Will, the week before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s office. We enjoyed early Spring weather, large but not overwhelming crowds, and good food at nearly every meal. We managed several bucket list tours, from Versailles to the Musee D’Orsay, and stayed largely within the city’s popular tourist zones.

Walking the paths of history — even if surrounded by pushy tourists — gives Paris special meaning. The something that became Paris was growing back in the year 600 or so, and subsequent events offer a tapestry of human achievement and failure : the excesses of monarchy and revolution, splendor and waste, greatness and collaboration, courage and cowardice, all playing out on the streets of the city. We Americans love to belittle the French as hopeless romantics who’ve lost every war they’ve ever fought and can’t govern themselves. Yet their fierce devotion to individual freedom, forged by generations of class divisions and failed, revolving door governments, has long been an essential characteristic of the nation’s culture.

Which brings me back to Charlie Hebdo. By now, this obscure (outside of Paris) publication is well known in the world. It is vain, childish, satirical, and a thorn in the side of all that is self-important, autocratic and blustery. It is especially revered (or reviled) for its constant pokes at religion — all religions — a heritage, perhaps, of France’s age-old hostility towards clerical authority.  It was this animus that apparently led to the tragic slaughter of editors and writers on an otherwise peaceful mid-week morning, and the killing of four innocent shoppers at a Jewish market the next day.

A little more than a week later, the world’s media is moving on to the next big story, leaving many, myself included, still trying to figure out what the assault on a satirical weekly publication says about religion, radical Islam, but mostly what it says about France, a country that to most Americans remains an inscrutable puzzle. In this comment, I’m trying to fit some of the pieces together to create a coherent view of this most intriguing nation.

With 66 million people, France is the second largest European country, behind only Germany.  Roughtly 10 percent of its population identify themselves as Muslims.  There are more Muslims, and Jews, in France than any other country in western Europe. The Muslim population is largely from North Africa — Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — and live largely in suburban rings (called banlieues) around large cities far away and out of sight of tourists and other residents.

Charlie Hebdo is peculiar to France.  It continues a long tradition, dating back at least as far as Voltaire, of the estrangement of ordinary people to all forms of authority, but especially religious orthodoxy.  It is decidely not Mad Magazine or the Onion, to which it has been compared; in fact, Charlie Hebdo in France is but one of several satirical publications that love to skewer pomposity and raise the hackles of those in power. It has existed on a shoestring budget and kept alive by a dedicated staff of malcontents — many now dead — who revel in controversy and hard-edged, often scatalogical humor.

The expansion of Muslim immigration into France, and the government’s efforts to force their integration into French society (by, for example, forbidding the wearing of hijabBN-GK083_Charli_JV_20150112182529 veils by Muslim school girls) appears in retrospect to be symptomatic of a smoldering fire that eventually consumed Charlie Hebdo. As the publication attacked Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, among many other targets, it infuriated disaffected French Muslims by publishing satirical images of the prophet Muhammed, which for many Muslims is the ultimate insult. We know the rest of the story. If disaffected Islam men and women continue to join or are recruited into terrorist cells that promote violence and nihilism under the banner of “faith,”what is the future for France, Europe, and America?

France itself is in for a period of uncertainty and fear. The government has beefed up security around the country, even as it confronts rising anger from within over what many believe is an incompetent failure to isolate the threat of radical-inspired terrorism. France’s dilemma is ours, and the world’s.

Surprisingly, given Charlie Hedbo‘s predilection to offend, its first cover after the bloodbath was remarkably restrained. The cover depicts a cartoonish Muhammed-like figure holding a Je suis Charlie sign. Above the drawing is a simple but profound statement: “All is Forgiven.”

According to the editor Gerald Biard, the cover is about Charlie Hebdo forgiving Muhammed. “We needed to figure out how to continue laughing and making others laugh. We wanted to analyze, say something about the events,” he said. “This drawing made us laugh.”

Added Zineb El Rhazoui, a Hebdo columnist: “I think that those who have been killed, if they were here, they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to them, ask them why they have done this. We feel, as Charlie Hebdo‘s team, that we need to forgive the two terrorists who have killed our colleagues.”

Remarkable. It would be understandable, of course, that anyone who has lost close friends and colleagues through a bloody attack, and who will now need armed security, would react with anger and lash out at the people and the beliefs that propelled the murderous rampage. Yet the new editors of Charlie Hebdo chose a surprisingly different and altogether uniquely French reaction: cheeky forgiveness.

Just back from France, I’m still trying to sort out the range of emotions I feel, in which the delights of a vacation with Will in the City of Light contend with the sorrow of yet another mass murder and the looming threat of more to come. Well, I know what I’m going to do, at least in the short term.  Our family is soon going to get a Golden Retriever pup. We’ve gone through dozens of names. I think we’re going to name him Charlie.

Golf Lessons

Because of my dad, I grew up around golf.  Not so much as a player, but as an observer of life and the enduring rituals attendant to any game.

Recently, I found an old photo of my two older brothers (then just toddlers) with my parents, taken in the depths of World War II before I was born. Everyone was sitting on the grass, and in the foreground was a golf bag and clubs. It was a hint of his priorities.

When I was older, Dad started talking to me about the game, and I think he was hoping I would become addicted, as he was.  While I was still in grade school, he somehow managed to arrange for me to caddy at a tournament on the women’s pro golf tour. I had the bag for a young teenage phenom (the estimable Judy Rankin), without knowing the first thing about what do to, where to stand, what to say.  So Dad gave me a quick lesson in golf etiquette that included the following Do’s and Don’ts:

Talk softly, if at all, and never when someone is addressing the ball or putting;

Encourage your fellow players by acknowledging good shots;

Adopt a deferential comportment, so that whoever is furthest from the hole always shoots or putts first;

Never stand so that your shadow crosses the putting line of another;

Under penalty of death, never — ever — forget a club around the green. And so on.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these were more then golf instructions; they were life lessons.

Golf CourseLater, I took up the game and to my Dad’s horror, I tried to play left-handed, which in those days was considered weird if not strange. Finding left handed clubs was like trying to locate a truffle in the woods. My fiance (now my wife), who is an elegant ball striker, tried mightily to help me become a better player, but I persisted in mediocrity. I struggled on fairways and greens, embarrassing myself and frustrating my golfing partners with erratic play and meteor-sized divots.  About the only thing I was good at was forgetting clubs around greens and losing several sleeves of golf balls each round I played. The game also revealed something ugly in my nature, a fierce temper born of frustration.  Successful golfers have a detached, almost ethereal attitude, like Gandhi, but outside the PGA Tour, most players are violent hackers who treat their clubs like cudgels and the ball as if it were a rampaging mole.

My temper also ruined for me what is golf’s most satisfying pleasure, the “walk in the woods” experience in which the breeze wafts through the pines, birds and squirrels dance across the fairways, and the camaraderie of friends more than makes up for skulled shots, awful putts and lost balls in the rough.

Life, kids and ennui finally brought a halt to my pathetic golf career. My father passed away (a golf club tucked in his coffin), leaving me without my admired mentor. Back surgery. No time. In fact, in retrospect, my dalliance with golf parallels a prolonged and now accelerating decline in the game’s popularity. All sorts of reasons are cited, from the excessive time it takes to play 18 holes, to the damnable difficulty of the game (the only one I’m aware of in which you hit a ball that is stationary), to the erosion of Tiger Woods’ excellence, which has brought a sharp reduction in TV ratings.

Many solutions have been offered.  One guy wants to enlarge the golf hole to the size of a small tub. Others believe that soccer golf, in which players kick a ball up and down fairways, is the answer. Right.

I now participate in golf viscerally, as a silent gallery for my daughter, who has earned several high school letters in the sport. I am forbidden by my wife to impart to my daughter anything, anything at all, about swing mechanics, lining up putts or the correct club choice. In other words, I am politely mute.

What to conclude from this courtship with golf? I mentioned life lessons derived from the game, and here they are:

Praise is always appropriate, on the golf course and everywhere else.

Play by the rules and learn to relax.

Be polite, always.

Pick up after yourself.

Walk outside, no earbuds, and listen.

Accept from golf that it isn’t how you play the game, but what the game teaches you about yourself.

 

Crossing to Canaan’s Happy Shore

Like many of you, I listen to music while I am exercising.  With a good pair of audio phones, I am able to pick up on lyrics that were once unintelligible.

Which is a short explanation for what I am about to write about: a prevalent euphemism in music for death or, more precisely, what happens after we die.

Death has been sadly present in my life these past months.  Bill, my oldest brother, died in March.  A well-regarded teacher at my daughter’s high school was run down by a drunk driver while bicycling in February.  Our beloved golden retriever, Captain, had to be put down in June. Robin Williams, a wonder comic and actor, died at his own hand just now.

My Brother Bill at the Shore

My Brother Bill at the Shore

In the wake of these sad events, and perhaps because my own mortality is more in sight on the horizon, I found myself pondering the “what’s next” question.  What happens after death?

There are myriad answers, of course, but nothing reliable and no eyewitness accounts. Death is essentially the absence of life, the ending of mortal existence. Standing over my mother’s deathbed, as she breathed her last and came to a complete and utter stop, I was put in mind of the laws of thermodynamics of Sir Isaac Newton: a body in motion tends to stay in motion; a body at rest tends to stay at rest.

So because we don’t know what lies beyond death, people tend to either laugh it off as a needless worry, or try to find comfort in words or music (or both) typically as an expression of a religious faith, but not always. Alfred, Lord Tennyson clearly had the shore in mind when he wrote his last poem, “Crossing the Bar,” with these elegiac words:

“For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.”

It was while thinking about these matters that an answer came to me in listening to my iTunes playlists.

There is, I found, a musical euphemism or expression for the aftermath of death.  It is the shore — the shore of a river, or the distant shore of an ocean; safe ground, in other words.  This idea appeals to me fundamentally for I find no place as relaxing and calming as the ocean shore. Perhaps this is typical of Midwesterners, because I first stuck my toes in the ocean as a teenager, and ever since, I am drawn to the sea as if I had flippers.

In the sense that the shore is expressed as a refuge from pain or loss (of life itself, perhaps), it can also be interpreted as another way to express the concept of heaven, or Canaan, as heaven is sometimes called. Here are some lyrics from my iTunes that equate death and beyond with reaching shore:

In a hymn entitled “Model Church,” an old man has come to a church as if in a dream. He sits with the congregation and enjoys the soaring choir, after which he says:

 “I tell you wife it did me good

To sing those hymns once more

I felt just like some wrecked marine
Who gets a glimpse of shore

It made want to lay aside
This weather beaten form
And anchor in that blessed port
 Forever from the storm.”

Are we, on life’s journey, a wrecked marine?  There’s no telling where the inspiration for these lines came from.  They may have come from the dramatic account of a harrowing open ocean voyage. In Acts, 27 about the Apostle Paul in the Mediterranean Sea. Paul and all on board encountered a fierce storm and most everyone panicked.  But Paul urged them to stay calm and ride out the bad weather, Winslow_Homer_005saying (in verse 24) “not a hair of the head of anyone on this boat will be lost.”  The ship eventually crashed on rocks on Malta and all were saved, an outcome biblical scholars believe was a metaphor for the unshakability of faith. The narrative was incidentally written by Luke, who was an experienced seafarer. Like the Odyssey, Paul’s adventure has beccome an often repeated theme of the epic life and death struggle depicted in books, movies and song ever since.

Another song, “If We Never Meet This Side of Heavan,” draws the distinction even clearer. The aftermath of death, to the believer, is reunion and rest, and final escape from pain and heartache:

“Once I was lost,
On the breakers tossed
And far away from the shore.
My drifting bark,
All in the dark,
No beacon light before.

I was sinking fast, when the lifeboat passed
And the captain (and he) took me in.
Now the storm is o’er, and I fear no more
I have perfect peace within.”

This spiritual was written by Alfred Bromley, one of America’s most prolific song writers and lyricists, who also penned these words in a bluegrass gospel song called “Rank Stranger to Me”:

“They’ve all moved away,” said the voice of a stranger
“To a beautiful land by the bright crystal sea”
Some beautiful day I’ll meet ’em in heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me.”

So death, or more properly salvation, is associated with reaching safe harbor, as in Paul’s heroic tale.  Yet I was curious to know how this particular metaphor became such a common expression in gospel music.  Turns out that one source that may have had lasting impact was the well-known “John Brown’s Body,” A Civil War-era song sang by Union soldiers, and the source for the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And that, in turn, bubbled up from a much older song, entitled “Say Brothers,” first included in a hymnal from around 1800.

The gist of that story is that “Say Brothers” arose as a Negro spiritual sung by slaves, in which Canaan served as a metaphor both for freedom and also a place of refuge and release for the departed. Because “Say Brothers” was a folk song, its origin unknown, it was readily passed along and spread among disparate audiences, where it became a standard in religious camp meetings — mostly in the South — in the decades prior to the Civil War.  The key lyrics, repeated no matter what version was being used, were these:

“O Christians will you meet me, O Christians will you meet me, O Christians will you meet me, on Canaan’s happy shore . . .”

Interestingly, various versions of “Say Brothers” were popular not just with enslaved blacks, but also their white owners, and Southern antebellum society in general, as well as among Northern congregations! Canaan ironically became for Southernors a word to describe their lives when slavery reigned supreme, while among northern preachers, it was meant both to mean the end of the war, but also the resting place for so many fallen soldiers.

IMG_0003What I am left with is the realization that my search for meaning of the word “shore,” was part of my desire to understand and come to grips with the deaths of loved ones, friends, and even an animal. What lies beyond is an ageless question, with no real answer. Yet it gives me some comfort to know that for many who have lived and died before me (like Bill), the happy shore in real life and perhaps after parting is universally thought of as place of refuge and reunion, for wrecked marines, and the rest of us.

 

A Personal Milestone is Reached

I’ve gone and done it.

After being a registered Democrat my entire adult life, I have changed my political affiliation to “Independent.” I’m pretty sure my parents would be turning over in their graves.

Why, you (may) ask?

I think it’s because the two mainstream parties — the Democrats and Republicans — have no interest in me, although I maintain a strong interest in politics.  I vote, religiously, but I don’t contribute much beyond meager sums to candidates I happen to know.  I’m not over-the-top wealthy, either, so the Citizens United decision equating speech with money doesn’t really apply to me.

Philosophically, I don’t feel at home in either party. The Republican Party — the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and TR and Ike — has morphed into an ugly, negative mob, pushing far too far to the right side of the political spectrum for my tastes and beliefs, while drowning out or intimidating the party’s few voices of moderation.

Yet my largest disappointment, and disagreement, comes with what’s been my party, the Democrats. I became a Democrat because my Mom and Dad were Democrats, who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  My father was poor and led a hardscrabble existence after high school, holding all sorts of tough jobs (including time with the New Deal-inspired Civilian Conservation Corps), like laying railroad tracks across the Mountain and Pacific West.  My mother grew up in a middle class setting in which just about everyone had a tough time making ends meet. Folks on those times were indelibly marked by their experiences during the Depression.  My parents were Democrats because they believed that it was the party that helped the middle class.  Others, of course, became lifelong Republicans because they resentedd FDR’s bold moves to expand government.

Both parties have abandoned (beyond lip service) any sort of cohesive approach to pressing policy issues such as education enhancement, immigration, environment protection, banking and credit reform. Republicans are at least consistent: they want less government (except for women), and reduced taxes. Democrats are all over the map on policy, yet meek and disingenuous in advocating their historically progressive agenda. Reform, to the Democrats, has become incremental and tentative, when bold, creative leadership is needed. On issues like infrastructure investment and sane gun legislation, the Democrats have become irrelevant.

It’s always been this way, you could argue.  Dysfunction is part of the political leavening process to insure against extreme solutions.  The situation is exacerbated today by an increasingly partisan media, which focuses on the horse race aspects of elections (assigning winners and losers before the race is even started) while paying very little attention to who the candidates are and what they stand for, if anything.

Meanwhile, in the wake of disastrous Supreme Court decisions, the political process is awash in cash, and it feels increasingly like Members of Congress from both parties take their marching orders from well-heeled contributors and legions of paid lobbyists. Bipartisanship has all but disappeared, replaced by confrontation and one-upmanship for the benefit of superficial, conflict-driven news coverage. (The Koch Brothers, worth an estimated $80 billion, are reportedly budgeting $125 million for this year’s midterm elections, more than either party’s combined total planned expenditures).

I’ve become disenchanted.  Can you tell? As an Independent, I hope I can find a middle, practical ground that once characterized American politics.  Yes, moderation is never sexy, especially now in today’s bling-saturated society. Yet I hold out the hope that if enough others go the Independent route, then one day there might be a critical mass for serious reform.

That’s a dream, right now.  Sort of like the dream my parents had, in the midst of the Depression, that working together, the nation could be better.

 

Entry Level Justice

It’s not often that my life intersects with the nation’s court and justice system.  Recently, it did, affording me a first-hand glimpse of how fragile the system is at street level, like an aging car held together with duct tape.

The occasion was a subpoena commanding me to appear as a witness for the prosecution in a traffic case involving a man who had sideswiped my car (smashing the review mirror) and then fled the scene.  He had been easy for the police to track down because his front bumper license plate had fallen off and was lying in the street.

Such offenses are dealt with at a kind of entry level municipal court.  Just before 9:00 a.m., the courtroom opened and I, along with about two dozen assorted others crowded into a cramped seating area at the back of the room, with a waist level wall separating us from the main court area.  All of us, total strangers to one another, sat mute (reminded several times to turn off all cellphones and no drinking or eating). We watched as court officials, busy attorneys, uniformed cops and the court bailiff chatted casually, sipped coffee or water, and used their cellphones, while waiting for the judge to appear (she was late, I heard someone confide). Here’s what I saw:

Everyone involved in running the court was white, while almost everyone sitting with me in the back was black. This imbalance persisted through the entire hour I was there, altering only occasionally when a black police officer would come in to check papers or talk quietly with one of the prosecutors. All of the court officials (including the judge) were women; most of the lawyers were men.  These are not polished shoe, brilliantly suave and arrogantly deferential attorneys from TV and the movies, instead men and women in cheap, ill-fitting suits, rumpled and harried, with bulging briefcases and perspiration on their foreheads.

in such a court there is the sea of paper passing to and fro, in and out of manila folders, spread on desks, stacked in loose piles.  Paper, paper paper. One person sat in front of a computer screen, rapidly making entries, but everyone else seemed caught in a 1980s freeze frame before computers became ubiquitous.  I had to wonder why the court system was so behind the rest of the world.  Money, I suppose. Or tradition. Or ennui.

When the judge entered, everyone was commanded to stand, and did, but as soon as she took her seat behind her elevated desk, numerous conversations broke out all through the court.  Attorneys approached the bench; prosecutors delivered papers, staff and cops huddled, sharing a joke, and a slow steady hum of bustle began.  Where I was, behind the low wall, complete silence, as if we were afraid to move.

The man facing the traffic charges in my case was late.  An assistant prosecutor took my court summons and whispered that if he didn’t appear soon, I could leave; she’d let me know.  Thirty minutes passed with other cases handled. A young man who hadn’t paid a 2004 traffic fine (“Your honor, I just forgot).  $100 fine and court costs.  A woman and her attorney asking for a continuance on some unspecified charge (granted). These and similar cases settled with the pleasant, impersonal demeanor of an airline gate agent.

It was suddenly my turn, or so I thought, my pulse quickening.  The defendant — the man who hit my car and fled — rushed in to the court and stood in front of the judge, begging forgiveness for being late.  Couldn’t get a ride downtown, he said.  One of the charges, which one I didn’t know, was dismissed.  On the other, the man pleaded no contest. Fine: $70 and court costs.  Can you pay that today, the judge asked? No, but maybe by next week. OK, go talk to the clerk. The woman prosecutor came back to where I was sitting, gave me back my subpoena, and said I could leave and, if I wanted, I could go upstairs and be paid $6 for my time.  She laughed. I left.

There is a sort of rough or approximate justice in this entry level court.  The cases that surface here are mostly minor in nature, the floatsam of the life all of us lead against a backdrop of laws and regulations that exist like the stars until something happens — an accident, a failure to follow some arcane, obscure statute we didn’t know we had violated. Cases are routinely handled, like throwing paper into a fireplace, but the paper doesn’t go into the fireplace but rather into the maw of a court record system that in my mind must be burgeoning in underground storage areas, irretrievable. Why, I asked myself, cannot this part of the justice system be computerized, and cases handled in outlying offices.  Why does everyone have to travel downtown to a 1920-era courthouse so heavily visited that the marble steps are sagging from wear?

Why can’t minor offenses be handled administratively?  Why do we have to have county and city prosecutors and civil and criminal lawyers passing paper records back back and forth, snickering in private conversations, waiting, watching the clock, checking email, waiting for justice to wend its halting way into the courtroom and ultimately on to the shoulders of people — witnesses and defendants and friends — seated nervously in the back or pacing in the halls outside.

My day in court was probably no different from the experiences of countless others in cites and towns across America. It’s a “justice” system that sort of works, but really just exists in a stale, ponderous world you don’t ever really want to visit unless you have to.

Drifting Around

There seems to be people drifting around these days.  Not exactly lost, but rather coming into and out of places you’d not normally expect to see them. I’ve noticed recently more and more men and women walking along the side of roads where you’d least expect to see people walking at any time. And if you’ve been grocery shopping, chances are you’ve seen lots more Dads pushing shopping carts and looking lost and befuddled.

Those people walking on the shoulders of Interstate highways trouble me.  For one thing, I can’t figure out what they’re doing there.  They’re not thumbing for a ride, and I don’t seem them lugging a gas can; they’re just walking along with only a sliver of inches separating them from hurtling, speeding metal. I have yet to see any of these people with luggage.

For another, I am perplexed in trying to figure out who these pedestrians are. What’s their story? Where did they come from? Where are the headed? Might they be day laborers, or homeless waifs, or perhaps former accountants or project managers out of work for so long they can’t afford cars? Hard to say without stopping to ask, and I’m not prepared to do that.

I’m searching for an explanation.  Perhaps these wandering strangers are impoverished travelers whose car broke down. Recent studies have concluded that many people in cities can’t find work because they have no way to get to where the jobs are located. Could this be what’s going on — that they are walking to work? To me, they look like refugees, but that can’t be right. There’s no war and nothing to flee from.  Besides, they’re not pushing carts or carrying heavy suitcases.

I’m beginning to think that the people walking along busy roads, and the guys in the cereal aisle might well be the face of the unemployed — that 7% or so of the public that is out or work img_7196sand struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps what I’m seeing is a burgeoning strata of people who’ve been economically displaced, and for which there are no jobs, and won’t be jobs, or jobs that you have to pick up stakes and walk to, like leaving the Dust Bowl.  Businesses — where most jobs are — boosted productivity even in the midst of a severe economic downturn.  But that has impacted people differently. In some families, the traditional “bread winner” — the father, most often — has lost his job, and his spouse is carrying the work load. These are who you see shopping for food. They could also be caught in the ominous new economic reality that many jobs for middle class professionals have been eliminated, leaving them outside of the economic “engine” — perhaps for good.

Does macroeconomics explain why there are more people walking along roads these days? I can’t answer that. I do know several colleagues and acquaintances who’ve lost their jobs and are struggling. I also know that poverty is increasing, even as the economy is gradually improving and people are buying cars in record numbers.

Which is interesting for the juxtaposition booming car sales presents to each of us as citizens. The other day, I came upon two children walking hurriedly along a highly traveled commuter route. ages 10 or 12, I guessed. They had their heads down, as if it were raining (it wasn’t). They were holding hands. I glanced at them, wondering how they happened to be where they were, and then I put my eyes back on the road and my thoughts of them drifted away in the bustling traffic.

My Ties and What To Do with Them

Like many men, I have a closet full of ties.  Not as many as I once did.  Several years ago, I conducted a brutal culling, donating about 50 to 60 ties to Goodwill, along with some old suits, pants and other items of clothing that went out of style in the 1980s, and no longer fit.

But for some reason, I held on to a core selection of ties, including one seasonal tie for Christmas parties (center in photo below), a couple of ties in Carolina blue (my alma mater), and some yellow and red “power” ties that supposedly made me look, well, more powerful in business meetings with other suits.  They didn’t, far as I could tell.

My Ties

My Ties

Nowadays, no one, except perhaps people in the banking field and a few attorneys, wears ties.  Ties are out.  Those that are “in” — the ones worn by Hollywood types and heart throbs — are very narrow (like thin spaghetti) and are typically worn with suit-sort of outfits that look like they’re made out of paper and probably cost several thousand dollars.  For the rest of us mere mortals, we’ve been unleashed from the tie tether; I can’t recall the last business meeting I had where the person I was meeting wore a tie.  Suit or sportcoat, yes.  But open collar shirts with no tie in sight is now de rigueur. Even weddings and, dare I say it, funerals, are no longer tie-required.

This state of affairs, which for some reason hasn’t generated news media headlines, can be traced to around 1988 or 1990, and the advent of a silent but irrestible movement that began in offices across the land.  Men who had worn coats and ties to work since the founding of our nation beseeched management to relax this vestige of long out-dated menswear.  Management listened, at first hesitantly (no ties on Fridays only) but of course once the cat was let out of the bag, there was no turning back.  Tie makers have been crying in their empty plants ever since.

You wouldn’t know that, however, by department store men’s departments.  Ties are on sale all over the place, and they seem to have grown more garish and outlandish (pistachio-hued tie, anyone)? They don’t seem to sell, but instead lie there like long strands of undersea coral, waiting to lure some unsuspecting rube who has managed not to get the memo about no ties anymore.

So, what to do with the ties I have left?  It doesn’t strike me as much of a gesture of empathy to give them to Goodwill. Folks in need of clothing and shelter typically don’t have a power tie on their list of essentials.  Sure, there’s a tax deduction for the donation, but a bag of ties these days is worth what, do you suppose? I’m guessing their value has gone down, like gold and Victorian rocking chairs.

The plan I’ve come up with is to hold onto them in the expectation that someday, I’ll get a call for a business meeting, with the added instruction: “wear a tie.”  Meantime, storing ties is a problem.  They slide off hangars onto the floor of their own volition.  Battery-powered tie racks have never worked in my experience, and besides, you need a truck battery to power enough juice to move the ties along the carousel. And, no surprise, when you turn on the carousel to select that just right for the occasion tie, all the other ties fall off onto the floor.

I’m going to roll them up (I watched a video on this) and store them in one of my suitcases.  That way, I’ll be ready to roll next time I’m headed out on a business trip.  That is, if I am invited to head out on a business trip, which in the days of Skype and Webinars, I probably isn’t going to happen all that much.  I can just as easily sit at home in front of my PC, without a tie.

Of Course I Remember You

I am beginning to notice, more and more, that there are large and growing voids in my memory bank.  Whether this is the result of advancing age, the fact is I struggle at certain points in every day (or so it seems) with remembering people whose lives have intersected with mine.

This situation was driven home recently by one of the websites I often visit.  I think it was Linked In, but it doesn’t matter; I received a note of inquiry from a someone whose name seemed vaguely familiar but was one I couldn’t place.  Checking it out further, the person was someone I had worked with at least a decade ago.  Perhaps realizing that too much time had passed from those days, the person provided a couple of hints to, I suppose, help jog my memory.  No use.  I couldn’t recall the person.

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My digital me

Does this ever happen to you?  Probably.  From what I have read on the subject, most people’s memories are faulty in one way or another.  Some can’t remember directions.  Others (lots of people, I’ll bet) are pretty good with faces even when they can’t recall names.  Memory lapses are undoubtedly associated with aging and the inevitable slowing down of mental acuity.  That’s me, I fear.

Nowadays, we can construct our persona and share it online with the world, a process billions of people willingly have done. Existing in a parallel realm with our real selves is our digital presence. This blog is a personal reminiscence; whether it is relevant to anyone else is an open question.  I guess I’ll be able to tell if I get any comments. I can’t help feeling that if no one is reading or commenting upon this post (or clicking on my LinkedIn profile), then perhaps I am worse off than being merely lost; it’s as if I weren’t being looked for.

There’s also the interesting phenomenon of selective memory, brought about by any number of psychological inducements, including horror, embarrassment, mental or physical anguish, and a host of others.  We flee, it’s fair to say, from unpleasantness and heartache. This is probably a good thing, if it provides us with a bit of surcease from the truly ghastly moments in our past.  How else can families move on following the death of a child?

The other aspect of selective forgetfulness — in which we create versions of our past (whatever those might be) — has implications that go well beyond the personal to the broader, societal, landscape of our existence. That is to say, we summon memories that suit our needs, discarding those parts of our lives that don’t fit our self-narrative.  It appears that we also rely upon widely or commonly accepted myths and reconstructions that, taken as a whole, define our societal existence. An entire library of historical accounts about the Civil War, for example, attempt to re-interpret the causes of that conflict as a noble argument among neighbors.  Hardly that, with 700,000 casualties put in graves over the issue of slavery. What we believe (and not necessarily know) about the past can shape our current outlook.

On a personal level, I’ve long felt that I am able to function capably in a crisis.  That’s not always been the case; I remember me sitting in a hotel room in London trying desparately to write a story on deadline for the newspaper that employed me.  I literally could not write the piece, and the frustration reduced me nearly to tears.  On the other hand, I kept my wits about me and did an admirable job handling any number of sticky situations during a long career as a corporate public relations executive. Which one is truly me?  Perhaps both are valid. My moment of panic in the Savoy Hotel  burned a hole in my brain that I will never forget.

What I do know is that as I grow older, and I am forgetful more often, I also am sensing a heightened objectivity about myself.  Call it wisdom, or maybe perspective. Age is freeing up my memory, ridding it of clutter, and enabling me to visit the past with younger, keener eyes.  The consequence of this is actually exhilarating.  I may not be able to remember the names and faces of people I’ve met along the way, but I seem to be recalling myself more clearly than ever before.

Doing Battle With Nature

Spring began today at around 1:30 p.m., and I am happy to report I already have a jump on it.  Of course, I’m kidding myself.

Last evening, taking advantage of daylight savings (another harbinger of the change in seasons), I laid out on my lawn the first application of fertilizer and weed control. And there are more chemical concoctions stored in my garage, including insect killer, Grub-ex, which purports to kill Japanese Beetle larvae before the grow into the much to be avoided white grubs that destroy entre lawns and villages.  That application comes later, when the weather turns summer warm.

By then, I (or my unwilling son) will have mowed the grass about two dozen times just to keep up with the rapid growth triggered in large part by the fertilizer I just put on the lawn.  It’s hard to say how much of this cycle of lawn care is nature at work and how much is the end result of the various chemicals in the fertilizer.  What I can say is that I have a responsibility to my neighbors to create a perfectly manicured, deeply green lawn and to maintain it that way until the first flakes of snow appear in the fall.  There’s nothing written anywhere mandating my compliance; but it is an immutable, unchallengeable fact of suburban life.

None of this can be good for the environment, broadly speaking.  The stuff I put on my lawn, for example, is banned in the state of New York, which says something.  I’m supposed to keep my Golden well away from the lawn until rain soaks the fertilizer into the earth.  Try keeping your dog off grass.  There are also strict instructions, right on the bag, warning you not to get any pellets on your shrubs, near trees, and on small children.

Flowers in My Yard

All of which makes me question, at least philosophically, whether battling with nature like this is really a good thing. In fact, every Spring I am beset with misgivings about using fertilizer to make my lawn grow faster and greener.  Besides which, the weed control element doesn’t work; I always get weeds.  If I blacktopped my yard, I’d get weeds. They’re definitely a part of nature no one has ever been able to control.

I’m going to attempt to relax about this and try to enjoy and embrace the advent of Spring.  I plan to do the bare minimum of lawn applications and hope for the best (which essentially means hoping that my front yard doesn’t end up looking like an arroyo in Arizona. About embracing Spring: here’s my plan.  As I walk behind my mower, or rake out shrub beds, or scoop up dog droppings, I plan to enunciate and repeat out loud, in the style of Professor Henry Higgins, the wondrous names of flowers, which I happen to believe are the eyes of nature.

Follow along, and add your own . . .

Jonquil.  Rhododendron. Hyacinth, Hibiscus and Hydrangea. Pansies. Crape Myrtle and Purple Coneflower. Lavender, Lilly and Liriope.  Aster and Anemone. Blue Dimple Hosta and sweet gentle buttercup . . .