A Path From Fear To Hope

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“Look to those who have gone before us.
They have much to teach.”

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We’ve been taught to hope by people with a lot of experience.
For me, it started with my grandparents. They escaped fear, poverty,
and a devastating earthquake to sail across an ocean to America
111 years ago. With no marketable skills, my grandparents Antonio and Giovanna Maria survived a West Virginia coal mine, a typical destination for illiterate Italian immigrants, and crossed a continent to California
to grow grapes and make wine. (During prohibition, so the story goes, people came from miles around to buy his ‘expensive’ oranges and he gave the wine away for free.)
<– Pictured: Antonio front/center, Giovanna Maria right.

The grandchildren of those pioneering immigrants grew up during the depression (my sister) and then in the stability and prosperity of the 1950s (myself). Both learned that hope was justified. Then, Antonio’s great-grandchildren became well-educated contributors to a complex California society and their children, growing up here in the 21st century, four generations after Antonio and Maria’s immigration, are being raised with an strong belief in a hopeful future.
It is not an unusual story. Lots of people have similar family stories of progress across generations. America has been on a hopeful path — an upward path — for a long time.

But that path has not been a straight line.

The Path

So, we have arrived ‘here’ (shown in the upper right corner of the timeline pictured above).  The quote at the bottom, from Franklin Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural address at the height of World War II, describes America’s path.  Great heights of achievement have been followed by declines into great depths of fear; followed by sharp advances in the fortunes of America and Americans:
•  The rise of the British colonies to independence and the rule of law led to the U.S. Constitution
•  The compromise of the constitution established slavery as a fixture of American life
•  The argument between strong national government and the pre-eminence of individual states — driving bitter divisions on the morality of slavery — led directly to the Civil War.
•  Elation in the Union’s victory and the end of slavery was countered by the despair of the South that their culture had been destroyed.  As a result, the former Confederacy effectively sabotaged that northern victory by refusing to allow any semblance of equality for African Americans.  That led to the establishment of “Jim Crow” laws and practices that perpetuated longstanding racial divisions that remain with us today and overshadowed the period of recovery after the war.
•  Forces that drew America into World War I led to an even broader international downturn.
•  The end of that war led to a period of prosperity, and then a deep world-wide depression.
•  Then, of course, World War II — plunged the world into another monumental disaster followed by another cycle of victory, prosperity, and stability (for many, but not all).
•  Then of course, Vietnam and the political, cultural, and racial turmoil of the 60s and 70s — the end of that war was celebrated as an upturn, followed by the rise of terrorism.
•  The Obama presidency led many to believe that America had moved past racism and division, only to find that reactionary forces would bring American back to a period of deep divisions in all segments of society and fear of the future.

Phew!!!  What a ride!

After all those ups and downs, here we are, well into the 21st century.  Despite evidence of prosperity and technological advancement, once again, there is fear in the air.  Just as it was with other “lows” in American history, that fear is not concentrated in any one segment of society.  Many who are prosperous fear that their prosperity may be lost to forces beyond their control.  Many fear that their pre-eminent place in society may be undermined by people who are different from them.  Those striving to improve their prosperity and rise to a better place in American society fear that those wealthier and more powerful will push them down and sabotage their struggle to advance.  American values that we were taught would provide opportunity for success with hard work and education seem to be increasingly out of reach for those most in need of that opportunity.

That condition is not new.  American history, as documented in recent months by some of our most respected historians, has often been punctuated by moments of despair — times when the demise of the American experiment seemed likely and imminent.  Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in her new book, “Leadership in Tumultuous Times,” that it took extraordinary leadership by people like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and others to bring the nation back from serious disasters and back to an upward path.  Jon Meachem makes a similar point in his new book “The Soul of America — The Battle for Our Better Angels.”  One key message both of them convey is that, at times of maximum fear (the downward spikes on the timeline), strong leadership and widespread belief in positive human values have reversed that decline and pushed America back upward toward hope.  Meacham’s overarching point is that the ‘up-and-down’ feature of the path of American life has always been a constant struggle between hope and fear.  We all grew up learning Franklin Roosevelt’s famous advice in his 4th inaugural address: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  That was important for the people of his time to hear during the darkest time of the war.  But he had something more important to say to us, who would come later.  He said:

“Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights
— then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward.
The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself
is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle
of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries
always has an upward trend.”

We see that in my timeline, pictured above.  So, when we look at the fear many of us have today, our history reminds us that, when we reach a low point, a rise is imminent.  That is the basis of hope — the hope that drove others before us, like our grandparents — and that must drive us forward today.  Meacham, writing this year, provides an important comparison to the inspiration that came from Roosevelt in 1945:
“In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground.”

And then his message for us, today:
“In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story,
— or worse, moves us backward — then those who witness, protest, and resist
must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day.”

Progress has been “slow, painful and tragic,” he tells us; “Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.” As a historian, Meacham tells us, “There’s a natural tendency in American political life to think that things were always better in the past … that ‘once there was a Camelot,’ without quite remembering that the Arthurian legend itself was about a court riven by ambition and infidelity. … Imperfection is the rule, not the exception.”

The message delivered through Mecham’s chapters is that progress has always been a struggle between fear and hope. So, you may want to cut to the end and ask “Which wins — fear or hope?” The answer is “both fear and hope have their moments of victory, but both are temporary.” It is our job to figure out what we must do to shorten the victory of fear and hasten, maybe even lengthen, the victory of hope.

The cynics of our time have tried to discourage us — “Hope is not a strategy,” they’ve told us. The truth is: hope must be the foundation of a strategy of action. We’ve asked these questions before and now we must answer them:
“What must I do?”
“What must you?”

Look to those who have gone before us. They have much to teach.

P.S. Take a look at “This Week in Good News”:

A Small Giving of Thanks

 “Thanks to all of our favorite turkeys.”
— PapaTurkey”

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Today, I want to sweep aside all of the news of the day and offer my Thanks for what we have — the most important of which is ‘each other.’

To start with, I want to take a moment to appreciate the privilege of sitting at a Thanksgiving table as part of three generations of family who live in the world today. As with most American families, those of us who sit at today’s table are the products of a legacy that endures after many generations who have gone before us, and converge in those of us who are here, right now. We don’t often get to sit at such a table with all of the members of those generations at once, but we can certainly be together in spirit.

I congratulate all of you who are assembling with your own collection of people who are important to you — friends and relatives alike. May you enjoy the privilege of being together, wherever you gather, with your favorite food and drink.

I also want to thank the many of you who read ConVivio and offer your thoughts and ideas about the topics you find there. You have been very kind to spend time reading my words and responding one way or another. I appreciate it!

Enjoy it all, for, when we gather with those good people, we have much to appreciate.

With much affection,
Dan & Gretta

A Guy Walks Into the Flying Pig

 “Yes, I’ll ‘wait until next year’
and, then,
My Giants will be winners
until they aren’t.”

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I ride the BART train to 16th & Mission. Often there’s
a guy playing music at the bottom of the escalator and
I try to drop a small token of appreciation into his
guitar case (sometimes it’s a violin case, sometimes it’s
a trumpet). Emerging from the BART station, I walk
to the intersection past some “regulars” who sit in
their usual spots, some with borrowed shopping carts, others with baby carriages filled with a variety of necessities. The opposite corner is occasionally populated by a lively “preacher” with a small appreciative audience. The block past this corner
features a grocery store with some outdoor produce
and usually one or two homeless men sleeping in
tents on the sidewalk just past the vegetables. Two
more blocks, a left turn on Van Ness, and I approach
a red awning that says “Flying Pig Bistro.”

“The Pig” makes a good impression right away
— deep and narrow, alcoves at big windows on either
side of the entrance, tables all the way down the right
side, the register and a long bar on the left with three big TV screens hanging over an excellent collection of local craft beers and California wines. The kitchen is straight out the back. The two proprietors, sons of mine, run a good shop
— extremely popular with aficionados of all sorts
of sports, excellent food and drink and comradery. Ben
and Will greet me with hugs and offer a barstool in front
of the screen where one of our favorite teams will play
in a while. It’s a sweet place to spend an afternoon and
evening. AND there are some friendly, interesting
people among the regulars.

 So, on this particular afternoon, I’m sitting on my usual barstool, sipping a Sonoma County Zinfandel with my BLT (delicious on fresh Focaccia), when a guy walks into The Pig, looks around, and says to nobody in particular, “OK, this awful World Series is over and “Who Cares” anyway?! So, is there something worthwhile to watch on these big screens today?”
Like the others on the bar stools, I turned to look — at first annoyed that someone had so loudly interrupted our conversation, but then … I suddenly appreciated this guy. Yes, he was right. The World Series WAS awful. What was awful about it? Well, to start with, My Giants weren’t in it. I suppose I could express some patience and quote the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful memoir of growing up with baseball: “Wait Until Next Year” — BUT, she grew up a Dodger fan in Brooklyn and, well, … that’s not typically on a Giants’ fan’s reading list. On top of all that, this Series featured two teams that I would have wanted to see lose; but, in a one-on-one series, one of them has to win, right? After many years of establishing my baseball loyalty, these teams comprise my list of those that I like to see lose.
So, what’s wrong with these two teams?
The Boston Red Sox
First, the Boston Red Sox were from The American League. When I was a kid, I heard over and over that the American League was “The Junior Circuit” — never measuring up to the quality of baseball played in the National League. (You may ask: Did the fact that “My Giants” were in the National League influence that judgement? Well … uh … maybe …) In the particular case of the Red Sox, I was also taught that they were doomed to operate under “The Curse of the Bambino.” Ever since January 5, 1920, the day they sold the greatest power hitter in the history of baseball to the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox were destined to lose whenever it mattered. What a historic embarrassment! They sold Babe Ruth for $125,000. I mean, Ruth had led them to three World Series victories in the six years he played in Boston. On top of that, The Babe had pitched 29 2/3 scoreless World Series innings, setting a new league record that would stand for 43 years and — AND — he had broken the major league home run record in 1919 with 29 homeruns (a remarkable feat since it was still the “Dead Ball” era when the baseball was manufactured like today’s softball). He played more than 100 games in left field in addition to earning a 9-5 record as a pitcher. As of the 1919 season, he had easily surpassed Ty Cobb as baseball’s biggest attraction. BUT, that season, the Sox had stumbled in spite of him, finishing in sixth place with a 66-71 record. New ownership took over, sold the star (for money the owner used to finance a Broadway production), and proceeded to take 84 years to win another World Series. (BTW, after acquiring Babe Ruth, the Yankees ended up winning 39 AL pennants and 26 World Series titles in what became known as “The House That Ruth Built.”) “The Curse of the Bambino” that plagued the Red Sox was well deserved, and, as far as I was concerned, the fact that they finally won the World Series in 2004 hadn’t absolved them of their historic crime.
The Los Angeles Dodgers
So, why couldn’t I root for the National League’s champion? It was my own league from my own state; should be an easy choice, right?
Since the Giants and Dodgers moved to California when I was a kid, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I had a strong loyalty to my TWO favorite teams:
1) My San Francisco Giants
2) Any team that happened to be playing against the Dodgers on any particular day.
So, my distaste for the Dodgers took precedence over my National League loyalty. However, here in 2018, there was no apparent way for both of teams to lose this World Series — hence my dilemma. But the World Series did end yesterday with The Red Sox dumping the Dodgers four games to one. SO, I guess I got the best half of what I wanted.
So, back to this guy who has just walked into The Flying Pig.
At The Pig
I greeted him warmly, as did Karl and James on adjacent bar stools. He introduced himself as Russel. “Welcome. Around here they call me PapaDan, This is Karl. This is James. Thanks for reminding us about the series. Don’t worry, Dodger fans won’t show up ‘til next year, if then.”
My son Ben, one of the proprietors, suggested quietly that we don’t want to piss off any customers who happen to be Dodger fans. “They are good customers; they buy plenty of beer — even if it’s just to drown their sorrows. OK?” I nodded my head in agreement. His brother Will, the other proprietor, chimed in, “Besides, the Warriors game starts in a few minutes, so you’re just in time to watch something good.” And he always seems to know the right thing to say: “Can I pour you another one of those?”
We agreed to keep our voices down on sensitive subjects. I accepted another glass of Zin; Karl and James each had another Fieldwork IPA. The “new guy” turned out to be a fervent basketball fan — an admirable quality — who appreciated the high-quality and exuberant style that the Warriors offered. He also had a refined taste in local craft beers — when he ordered an Altamont Maui Waui IPA — a number of heads turned in admiration and nodded approval.
So, the new guy settled onto a bar stool, raised his glass, and declared: “Now that all of that foolishness is over, it’s now officially basketball season.” I liked this guy. With Steph Curry and his buddies on the screen in front of us, we found we had a number of things in common:
1. That Warrior basketball was fun.
— When Steph Curry hit one of his “downtown” three-pointers, he would dance across mid-court waving his arms, not so much to call attention to himself, but to say “Look at US, all of us. We know how to have a good time out here!” Warrior fans took his jubilation to be inclusive — “We’re all having fun, aren’t we?” He was right; and those of us sitting at these bar stools were part of his “We”; especially in the comfortable atmosphere of The Flying Pig. The Warriors were proud of their unselfish approach to the game. When Steph gets in his ‘zone” and can’t miss, other players get him the ball and get out of his way. When Klay Thompson threatens to break an all-time NBA record for three-pointers in a single game, they make sure he is at the end of their typical passing barrage beyond the three-point stripe. And when the rest of team gets into a cold snap, they cheer Kevin Durant when he takes the ball the length of the court and dominates the game at both ends. They’re here for each other and that attitude rubs off on the fans in the arena and at the other end of the TV screen. Warrior basketball is about “us.”
2. And then there’s baseball. We agreed that changes in major-league baseball rules and the way the game is played have threatened to ruin the game.
— When I was a kid, and more recently, it was a major achievement for any major league pitching staff when one of their starting pitchers would “go the distance” and pitch a complete game. At the bar at The Pig, we exchanged some stories  I retold a vivid memory of a night in the summer of 1963, going to bed with my transistor radio in my ear because one of the great ‘young guys,’ Juan Marichal of My Giants, was pitching against one of the great ‘old guys,’ Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves. Ben and Will nodded to each other — they had heard it before. I told (RE-told) the story of the night I listened through 16 innings of shutout baseball until Mays came up in the bottom of the 16th inning and hit one out into the night for a 1-0 victory. Both Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn had pitched all 16 innings of shutout baseball until Mays sent them all home. The next morning in the Chronicle, the full story emerged. Since Marichal was scheduled to bat third in the 13th inning, Manager Alvin Dark had asked the 25-year-old if he had had enough. Marichal replied, “That 42-year-old is still pitching. I can’t come out.” So it was. Spahn, deeply depressed, was interviewed after the game, “I threw him a screwball and it just hung there. It didn’t do a damn thing!” This is a story that is no longer possible now that managers employ the “strategy” of pulling starting pitchers out after 100 pitches — even if they’re in the midst of a shutout or a no-hitter (yes, it happened this season) — intentionally depriving a whole generation of baseball fans of the kind of complete-game stories that I grew up with. (OK, so Game Three of this World Series turns out to be the exception that proves the rule, eh?) Here at the Flying Pig bar, we raised our glasses in agreement, lamenting the loss of such legends. Somebody said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” (Some younger guys from further down the bar, eaves-dropping on the conversation, said to each other, “Who’s Joe?”)

— And then there are the latest insulting MLB rule changes: time limits between innings, limitations on batters stepping out of the box, limits on visits to the mound by managers and even catchers … “Baseball team owners have run amuck with their rule changes., They think the game belongs to them. It doesn’t.” Glasses were raised again, “The game belongs to US!”

Somebody brought up, “And what about all the new baseball Stats? What kind of idiot wants to measure ‘Wins Above Replacement?’ Huh?” We agreed we didn’t want to talk about it — “Please bring me another one of these, will ya Will?”

OK, so I made a feeble attempt at summing up the conversation: “So, the net effect is that baseball has diminished; and given a choice between watching baseball and basketball
— a choice we have in October and again April through June — I choose basketball.”
I raised my glass and drained the last of my Zinfandel. Russel looked at me and said, “Really?” As if in response to his “Really?”, baseball stories spilled out of each one of those at the bar — some bittersweet stories about ‘what might have been’ — a small crowd gathered to listen. My last one was Willie McCovey’s final at bat in the 1962 World Series. On two consecutive pitches, Willie Mac ALMOST won it all. It’s a painful story for those of us who remember.

After the Warriors were done clobbering whoever they were playing, Russel looked at his watch, “Time to go. Gotta catch BART to Warm Springs.”

“Yeah, me too, I’m off to Pleasanton. I’ll walk you to the station.” I dropped a few bills on the bar, exchanged hugs with the guys. And we were out the door.

On the way past the tents and the sidewalk produce, just as the corner preacher was getting warmed up, Russel stopped and looked at me with both eyes. “So, you’ve been a Giants fan since you were a kid and — I’ve heard some of your stories — you watched attentively through all of their history here in San Francisco, right?
“That’s certainly true.”
“So, I understand what you said about the rule changes and the new strategies — none of it is what it used to be — but tell me straight — if Your Giants were in the World Series, how would you feel about it?”
Without hesitation, I owned up to the contradiction: “You got me. The fact that My Giants just had two really bad seasons is not the end of the world. Heck, it’s happened before and it’ll happen again. With my guys in the Series, it would be just as big a thrill as it was when I was twelve and My Giants were in the 1962 Series against the Yankees. Yes, I’ll ‘wait until next year’ and, then, My Giants will be winners until they aren’t. I guess I’m stuck with that.”
“I get it,” he said. He got on his train and I got in mine. Meanwhile, the Warriors had won, Curry had set another record, and basketball season had officially begun. And, yes, once again, baseball survived more or less undiminished.
• Willie McCovey passed away October 31, 2018 at the age of 80 •
“A ‘Hall-of-Fame Human Being” — SF Chronicle, November 1, 2018
Click here: Remembering Willie Mac: https://www.mlb.com/video/giants-honor-willie-mccovey/c-2518534883


Poetry and Plein Air

By GrettaJean

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Two Writers We Know Win Awards

Last month, two writers whose work has appeared on ConVivio were awarded “Honorable Mention” in the 2018 Writer’s Digest Annual writing Contest. They were selected from among 5,300 submissions.
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85-Two Award_winners_Sep21_2018

  In this year’s annual competition:
• One poem by Lauren de Vore was selected in the “Rhyming Poetry” category.
• One short story by Dan Sapone was selected in the “Literary Short Story” category.

These two winning pieces are reproduced below.
I Wish That It Had Snowed Last Night

I wish that it had snowed last night,
That I had waked to endless white,
Perhaps a soft and muted quilt
Or shimmering like diamonds spilt,
That hides the daily muck and mess,
The faults and flaws and ugliness,
And for a fleeting hour or two
The world is virginal and new.

And if there’s like to be no snow,
I’ll wish to live where trade winds blow,
Close by the shore and crescent beach
O’erwhich the tides twice daily reach.
I’ll leave my footprints in the sand
‘Midst flotsam cast upon the strand,
Knowing the sea will wash all clean
And leave behind a beach pristine.

I wish there were somehow a way
To live again a certain day,
An hour, an instant, and undo
Those wrongs of mine, those deeds I rue.
As winter snow hides last year’s sin
And spring makes all brand new again,
I wish there were such grace for me,
Some way to set my conscience free.

But lives are more than fields and hills
O’er which fate blows where’er it wills,
And conscience can’t of its debris
Be swept clean by a foaming sea.
So sins and secrets I must bear
Till all that’s left of me is air,
And snow falls soft and white upon
An unspoiled beach at just past dawn.
—— Lauren de Vore (Janury 22, 2018)
All rights reserved

Lauren’s previous contributions on ConVivio can be found at:
https://convivio-online.net/kristof-poetry-contest/ ‎
https://convivio-online.net/celebrating-national-poetry-month/ ‎
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Below is “A Different Kind of September” by PapaDan
A Different Kind of September

September 15, 2015, Savelli, Calabria, Italia
The end of summer was hard to take for Giovanni. Something was missing and he knew what it was. Since he was six years old, September had always meant the summer was over and school was about to start. For years, he and his friends could conduct their September ritual of moaning about how short the vacation had been and the unfairness of being forced to return to school when it still felt like summer. In spite of that unpleasantness, at least they were returning to familiar surroundings and the same collection of friends. In those days, at least they knew what to expect from September.

Of course, by the time they all graduated from high school in 2010 and went their separate ways, everything changed. For Giovanni —everyone called him Gio — the next five Septembers had meant packing up the contents of his room in his parents’ home in Savelli and heading north for the Fall semester at the University of Salerno, about two hundred miles from home. Once he became comfortable with his life as a college student, September became familiar once again. But today, after graduating in June from Salerno’s class of 2015, all of the familiarity and certainty of September had evaporated. This was unfamiliar territory for him and he wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Looking back, his college career had started well enough. His father had been pleased that Gio would be the first member of the Zappia family to be educated beyond high school. The general pattern for boys who grew up in this part of Calabria, near the bottom of the ‘boot’ of Italy, was to follow their fathers into one of the local factories — ironwork, stonework, heating, metal fabrication – and work their way as far up in the company as their diligence and skill would take them. But his father often reminded his son of his different vision: that Gio would come back to Savelli with a degree from the Business Studies Department at the university and rise to the upper echelon of his company’s management. It was a fairly large company and, with a degree in business, there was money to be made.

However, once Gio showed up at the university, his eyes were opened to a broader vision. It turned out that right next to the low, brick building that housed the Dipartimento di Scienze Aziendali e Ricerca (Department of Business Studies and Research) was another building that seemed more interesting on the outside and, much later, turned out to be much more interesting on the inside as well. This venerable red-tiled marble structure had a blue sign that said:

Dipartimento di Scienze Umane: Department of Humanities:
Filologia, Letteratura, Lingue, Storia Philosophy, Literature, Languages, History

Showing up for his first appointment with Professor Tommasetti, the Dean of the Business Studies Department, he paused to admire the renaissance-era structure next door, looked at his watch, and hurried into the brick building to do his duty.

Professor Tommasetti was pleasant enough; his impeccable Italian had the flowing and precise lilt of a Milanése dialect, as distinct from the more casual Calabrése sounds that Gio had grown up with. “Benvenuto, Señoré Zappia. Non ti chiamano Giovanni?

Mi chiamano Gio, mon Professoré,” he answered, trying to match his formality.

Così, Giovanni, perché pensa di studiare Aziendali?

Gio was immediately surprised by two things — he didn’t expect to be asked WHY he intended to study business and he noticed that the professor called him Giovanni even though he had just told him he was called Gio. He answered Professor Tommasetti’s question honestly: “Mio padre si auspetta che io diventi un managiatoia nella fabrica del ferro, in Savelli.” [My father expects me to become a manager in the iron factory in Savelli.”]
After looking at him awhile, the professor corrected him that he hadn’t asked why HIS FATHER wanted him to study business; he wanted to know why HE planned to do that. Gio quickly decided that the interview wasn’t going well and hoped some enthusiasm would salvage it. “Io sono il primo della mia famiglia ad andare all università.” He was proud to be the first in his family to go to the university. He thought that might help.

Professor Tommassetti changed the subject and told Gio that he would begin with introductory courses in accounting and business theory, both of which were taught in “his” building. He would also fulfill a general-education requirement in world literature — with an indifferent wave of his hand — in the building next door. He stood up and dismissed him with a gesture toward the door. “Buona giornata, Giovanni.

Molte grazie, professoré.” And he was, indeed, thankful to be out the door. And so, it began.

By the end of his second year at Salerno, Gio had a decision to make. During his first two years he had taken the required lower-division business courses and had filled the general education and elective slots in his schedule with courses in World Literature, Philosophy, and English as a Second Language. He enjoyed these courses and had become quite proficient in English.

Preparing for the required Spring interview with the Business Studies Department Head, Gio made three observations. First, he realized that he actually dreaded his required business courses and, whether it was the cause or the effect, he did not do well in those courses.

Second, it had not taken long for him to realize that he derived the greatest enjoyment from his English language, composition, and literature courses. He admired writers, especially the playwrights and novelists, who could make characters come to life on the page. He especially loved the characters of Shakespeare who sometimes spoke directly to the audience. Works of fiction, he was learning, were vehicles for shining light on the truth of what was going on between — and within — human beings. He hoped to write such stories and wanted to learn the techniques writers used to connect with audiences.

His third realization had come after a meeting with his English literature professor. He had gone to Professor Martelli’s office to discuss a paper he was writing about two of the plays of William Shakespeare. He knocked on the office door and found it open.

Buon Giorno, professoré, posso entrare?” “Good day, professor. May I come in?”

“Yes, come in, but remember my rule — in my class we are studying English literature, so we must speak in English. Let us follow my rule here in my office as well. Capicé?

“Yes, sir, Thank you. My name is Gio Zappia. I am in your Shakespeare class.”
“Yes, I remember your work. Please sit down.”

Gio began, “I noticed in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ that the writer seemed to know a lot about that Italian city and the history of the two famous, feuding Veronése families — the Montecchi and Cappeletti. In your lecture you mentioned that Shakespeare was born in Stratford and lived in London and there was no evidence that he ever traveled outside of his own country. I am wondering how this man who never left England in the early 16th century could know so much about a small town in northern Italy.”

Professor Martelli looked at him for a long moment and said, “Gio, you have stumbled on a controversy that scholars have debated for a long time. Some have suggested that the William Shakespeare we know from Stratford could not have written these plays. A Sicilian professor, Martino Iuvara, has written that this playwright was in fact not English at all, but Italian. He claimed to have evidence that the plays were written by a man from Messina named Crollalanza. According to Iuvara, Crollalanza fell in love with a 16-year-old named Giulietta, her parents opposed their marriage, she committed suicide, he fled to England, changed his name to its English equivalent (crolla = shaken; lancia = spear), and wrote a play about her. Professor Iuvara’s evidence includes a play Crollalanza left behind in Sicily called Tanto Traffico Per Niente.

“Much traffic for nothing?”

“Crollalanza’s father was said to have owned a home built by a stonemason named Otelo who murdered his wife in a jealous rage. It’s all in Iuvara’s published work.”

“Then it’s true?”

Professor Martelli’s smile was kind. “It’s the most ridiculous story I have ever heard. Nobody takes it seriously. Apparently, they allowed just anybody to publish in Sicilian literary journals back in the 1950s.”

“Professor, is there a better answer?”

“I’m sorry that I can’t explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy; but Senoré Zappia, you are the first student I have known here at Salerno, who has attempted to do any serious study of Shakespeare. Most of your fellow Calabrési find Shakespeare to be a challenge, so they do their best to avoid him. Your paper last month about his use of language in the history plays was remarkable. So, I have a serious question for you. Why are you pursuing your degree in the Business Department?”

After a moment Gio replied, “Professor Tommasetti asked me the same question at the beginning of my freshman year. I didn’t have a good answer for him then and I don’t have a better one for you now.”

So, cosa pensa di fare, Giovanni?

“I’m not sure what to do about it, professoré. My father expects me to return to Savelli with a degree in business. I suppose I have some thinking to do.”

“Yes, think about it — right after you write your paper. It is due on Monday.”

“Yes, right after. Thank you for your time. Molte grazie, professoré.”
This time, he meant it.

A month later, when the Spring term ended, the train ride home to Savelli seemed longer than it had after previous semesters. It was the usual three hours with a stopover at Lamezia; the same yellow colza blossoms typical of late spring in Calabria punctuated the broad expanse of green grass along the tracks; but none of it held his attention. All he could think about was his father’s likely reaction when he told him that a degree in Business would be a waste of time for him. Staring out the window, he rehearsed how he would introduce his idea to change his degree program to the Department of Humanities. He considered starting with his interest in English literature. Or maybe he should admit to his distaste for business. Either way, he assumed his father would be angry and disappointed. Or maybe he should try a more practical approach – he could become a teacher, and maybe, someday he could be a writer … maybe travel.

All of the conversations he imagined during the long train ride went badly. Then, on top of it all, he reminded himself that his father had arranged for a summer job at the metalworks plant; he would start on Monday. This was going to be a bad day.

His father was waiting in the car at the Catanzaro train station when Gio climbed down the steps from the platform. He put his bags in the back and settled into the front seat for the thirty-minute ride home to Savelli. Gio had finally decided that his father had never been thoughtless or harsh. He had spoken often of the life as a factory manager that he wanted for his son; but he was not stupid. Gio figured he’d just tell him the blunt truth and hope for the best. So, he set aside his fear and began, “Papa … ”; but his father interrupted by handing him a letter. It was addressed to him, Senoré Giovanni Zappia, but the envelope had been opened. His father said it was from “Profesoré Martelli,” and gestured for him to read it. Gio studied his father’s expression as Giuseppe turned the steering wheel away from the curb, trying to read his mood; but there were no visible hints. Finally, he unfolded the two separate pages. The first was a scholarship application from Il Dipartimento di Scienze Umane — the Humanities Department, the second was an offer of a part-time job working in the Department Office as a writing tutor for first-year students.

Scienze Umane, Gio?

Si, Papa ‘Humanities’ en Inglese.” The professor had violated his own “rule” and both pages were written in Italian. Gio was pretty sure that he knew what Professor Martelli had intended. The letters were addressed to Gio but they were sent home three weeks ago, virtually ensuring that his father would open them. The letter suggested that Gio could have a bright future if he began preparing now for a career as a teacher, that his writing skills were exceptional. It also explained that, between the job and the scholarship, his college expenses would be fully covered. It was apparently intended to persuade Giuseppe that this was a good idea. Gio read the pages slowly, afraid to look up at his father, not sure how much trouble he was in.
Finally, he father said only, “Non è necessario decidere ancora. Dobbiamo pensare.” “No need to decide now. We will think about it.”

Gio’s reply was quick, “Si, Papa. Dobbiamo pensare.” Yes, Papa, we will think about it.

September, Once Again
The summer passed well enough; his job at the factory was all physical labor, not much thinking. It confirmed for him how much he preferred books and ideas to machines and metal; and there was free time after work for walking in the park near the Museo dell’Arte Contadina. It was a small museum with a library that focused on ancestry research and the history of the surrounding region of Calabria. The lawns and benches in the park were comfortable places to read and think about the coming school year. With the coming of September, his summer job ended and it was time to prepare to travel north to begin his third year at Salerno.

On the appointed day, in the car on the way to the train station, his father asked the question Gio had been bracing himself for: “Avete deciso?” Have you decided? He had prepared his reasons and counter arguments, if they were necessary. He began “Si, Papa … ” but again he was interrupted. Giuseppe had been thinking about it as well. He told his son that it didn’t make sense that the first member of the family to get a university education should end up working in the same factory where his father and grandfather had worked. He told Gio that he was named after his great grandfather Giovanni Ernesto Zappia. “Era analfabeta.” “He was illiterate.” He couldn’t write his own name. Giuseppe told him that if his great grandfather were alive today he would be PROUD to know that MY son might become a teacher or a writer. “FIERA!” PROUD! “Così, è deciso.” “So, it is decided.”

Gio tried not to look stunned and promised that he would do well, knowing that he was accepting a big challenge. And with the optimism of youth, he was grateful for it.

The next three years at Salerno were hard work. Changing his major to English Literature and Composition after two years put him behind in his degree requirements; so, it would take him longer to graduate. The association of other students with similar interests was worth it, and he finally felt like he was getting somewhere. He joined a group of students like himself who had an interest in writing family stories and genealogy. At the Christmas break, he came home to Savelli with his new project.

With the help of his father, his aunt Isabella, and the Museo dell’ Arte library, he was able to begin to piece together a partial family tree going back six generations of Zappias back to a Giovanna Zappia who was born in 1850. He learned that Giovanna had two children — a son, Mario, born in 1871 and a daughter named Giovanna Maria, born in 1874. Records showed that Giovanna Maria, called Maria, had two sons in Savelli before moving to Reggio, Giuseppe born in 1900 and Giovanni in 1906; but strangely, Gio found no record of them anywhere after that, and no death certificates and no record of them living in Calabria after 1910.
The Zappia lineage continued through Maria’s brother, Ernesto, and is sons — Gio’s great-grandfather Giovanni born in 1922 and Salvatore Zappia born in 1931. Gio’s own father, Giuseppe, born in 1960, was Salvatore’s youngest son.

In trying to draw the family tree, Gio was struck by two things. First, the family was a textbook case of the longstanding Italian practice of re-using first names roughly alternating through the generations. Going back the 165 years he was able to trace, he found several males named Giovanni, Giuseppe, and Mario and females named Giovanna, Isabella, Maria, and Caterina. Second, Gio’s eye kept returning to the branch of the family tree where Maria and Antonio Sapone married, had two sons, and then seemed to disappear. As Giovanni boarded the train to return to Savelli after his graduation, he was determined — there was a story to write and he was going to write it.

Back to the Present: September 2015
By the beginning of September, the summer was showing the clear signs of running out of steam. The grass in the park was dry; leaves on the trees were turning yellow; and most of his goals had been met — he had been the first to graduate from the university, he had moved beyond the family pattern of factory life in Savelli, and he found himself applying for two kinds of jobs: at the local schools and at the regional newspapers. He had been told that most job openings were expected in September. Since the summer job ended in mid-August, Gio filled his days in the park and in the ancestry section of the library with his notebook, pursuing his family-history project. Sitting at a desk in the library, Gio thought about how fortunate he was that his father was not pressuring him about his job search; but now, the pressure came from inside. He did his best to push aside his own doubts.

On one of these afternoons, he pulled out the family tree he had been working on and stared at the incomplete branches. He went to the ancestry reference desk and asked the assistant to help him look up some of his great grandmother’s “lost” relatives — Giovanna Maria Zappia and her husband Antonio Sapone. He asked her to search census and property records, death records, ship passenger lists, whatever she could find. Once she began the search, she asked an odd question. She noticed that the query he had asked for had been bookmarked. “Have we done this search for you before . . . about Sapones and Zappias?” Then her face widened as she remembered – “oh yes. It was an older gentleman, an American. Right! There is a note here that he left something behind – let me look.” She disappeared into the back office and returned with a notebook in her hand and a puzzled look on her face. “An American was here some time ago doing research on his family. His grandparents were born in Calabria and emigrated to American a little more than a hundred years ago. He was asking about Sapones and Zappias. He apparently didn’t find what he was looking for and went back to California. Unfortunately, that last day he left this notebook on the desk. We have kept it in the office in case he returned for it. It seems to contain a lot of work.” She handed him the notebook. “Do you know him?” Gio turned some of the pages and was shocked to find some familiar names. “I think we might be related.”
“If you think you might be in touch with him, perhaps you should take the notebook and return it to him. It is not doing him any good here.”

Gio placed it in his backpack and headed for home. His uncle was bringing over some clams, mussels, and calamari and his mother had promised penne alla fruita di mare. There was no way he was going to be late for that.

After dinner, when his father and uncle started arguing about politics, Gio escaped to his room and opened his backpack for a closer inspection of the notebook. It had a brown leather cover embossed with an image of some dramatic mountains and the word “Yosemite.” What he found inside was much more than he expected.

Whose Story?
The pages of Gio’s ‘lost-and-found’ notebook were nearly full — and all in English — but resembled a puzzle with some pieces missing. The first page had a name, “D. Sapone,” and “Yosemite, April 4, 2000.” The scribbling was in English and charts appeared to be pieces of a family tree with some names Gio recognized. Skimming the titles at the top of some of the pages, most of it appeared to consist of short stand-alone chapters. Three described visits to “Yosemite”; another told a story about a hike to a spectacular waterfall. Two chapters were about a restaurant in San Francisco California called The Flying Pig, owned by two brothers named Sapone. Some chapters focused on the writer’s search for details about his family going back several generations. Gio decided to read these chapters first.

Reading through the pages, he learned that the writer grew up in California — a place Gio had learned about in his American Literature courses — a region quite like southern Italy. The second thing that caught Gio’s attention was that this Californian had come to Italy in an attempt to “fill in the blanks” of his family history. And then there was a stunner: this Californian’s grandmother sailed from the port of Naples to Ellis Island in New York on August 18, 1910. She was from right here in Savelli, and her name was Maria Zappia! The owner of this notebook had come from the San Francisco Bay Area to “fill in the blanks” of unanswered questions about Maria’s family and the family of her husband Antonio Sapone, also from Savelli.
A family tree was sketched on one of the pages, showing the gaps that the writer wanted to fill, annotated with questions he wanted to answer:
— Why did they leave Italy in 1910?
— Who was on the family tree before Maria and Antonio?

He finally came to realize that the story this visitor from California was trying to write was the story of Gio’s own relatives going back more than 100 years. With some research, and by asking questions of some older family members right here in Savelli, Gio was convinced that he could complete the story this Sapone had failed to write. And what about this mystery of Antonio?

Gio turned the page from this family tree to a hand-written story that appeared to be a summary of what he had learned. This visitor from California had learned a lot; but had run into some roadblocks. And, it seems, at the end of his visit to Savelli, he had lost his notebook. As he stared at that notebook, in his imagination he could see himself retracing his ancestor’s voyage to America, meeting the American branch of his family, returning the notebook, and filling in the blanks of the story that belonged in it. He thought of the Sapone brothers who owned the Flying Pig Bistro in San Francisco. He imagined a day when he would walk into the Flying Pig, introduce himself to his relatives – HIS relatives – and say to them:
“I have a story. It started out as someone else’s story; but it turns out to be my story. I think it is your story, too. So, would you like to hear it?”

He closed the notebook, placed it in his backpack, and stared awhile at nothing in particular. What would his father say about this? He had work to do. He had a purpose. This story had been a long time coming and he was the only one who could finish it. It was time to begin.
—— Dan Sapone (2018)
All rights reserved

This story is intended as a chapter in a longer work.
The next chapter: to be continued …

Two Guys Speak To Us About Optimism (and other stuff)

“What can I do to make things better,
not only for myself, but other people?”
— Herbie Hancock
September 3, 2018

“Better is good.”
— Barack Obama
September 7, 2018


Herbie Hancock & Barack Obama
Let’s start with Herbie. Jazz enthusiasts of a certain age got to know about Herbie Hancock as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s. Since that time, he has played his piano with a distinguished list of collaborators with energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration. After winning twenty-some Grammy Awards, he is now at an age (78) when performers of “his time” have announced their retirement. BUT, it appears that “his time” still includes the present and the future — he just announced a new album and set of tour dates through 2019 (including one here in the Bay Area). OK, that’s the musical story. But in an interview with Aidin Vaziri of the San Francisco Chronicle on September 3, 2018 (read the complete interview), he had other stuff to say that extended beyond the music. With President Obama’s inspiring speech at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign still ringing in my ears from last week (September 7), Mr. Hancock’s answer to one of Mr. Vaziri’s questions got my attention. The question was about “optimism.”
Aidin Vaziri’s Question:

“Given the current climate of the country, are you able to remain optimistic for the future?”
Herbie Hancock’s Answer:

“Yes, because I can see past that part of it. What is happening now and showing its ugly head is not about just one person — namely the president — but with a lot of people that have fears. Fears breed anger. How that expresses itself in many cases is what we haven’t built into our human society, which is the ability to avoid looking for a scapegoat for our sufferings. There’s a tendency for human beings to always point at something outside of themselves. In many cases, there are things outside of yourself that are part of that equation. But it’s more important to take a broader view and realize that if something is happening to me and not other people, what can I do to make things better?”
“In Buddhism, we call that living a life of cause, not a life of effect. It’s easy to point fingers. It’s not easy to see how one is contributing to our own suffering. I think so much of that has been hidden under the rugs anyway. If you really want to clean house, you have to pull the rug back to see it.”
“Well, we’ve had the rug pulled back and now we can see it. What we have to do is not let it become a virus that spreads. We have to pour our compassion and understanding into that and use the best of our humanity to show there’s a better way to find a better life. It’s not the immigrants’ fault. It’s not the Jews’ fault. Or black people’s fault. Or Muslims’ fault. Or the Mexicans’ fault. Or whoever you may be blaming at the time.”
“You have to look first within yourself and think, ‘What can I do to make things better not only for myself, but other people?’ ”
Barack Obama & Herbie Hancock
From PapaDan:
On September 7, Former President Obama gave a formal address at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (Read the complete transcript here.). The occasion was his acceptance of an Ethics in Government award. The audience included students and their families, faculty, and a national television audience. It was a preview of the messages he plans to deliver to the nation during the coming election campaign. He began: “Some of you think I am exaggerating when I say that this election is more important than any in our lifetime. Just a glance at the recent headlines should tell you that this moment is really different … the consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are dire.”
Observers described his speech as a “call to arms” to Democrats, especially of the younger generation, to do something they haven’t done in sufficient numbers: –> VOTE. But, I suggest that it was more than that. Still, the most widely reported themes from his speech focused on the dangers to our Democracy —trends in politics and government that threaten the values America has promoted around the world, the behavior of Republicans that have deviated from long-standing Republican values — like their historic opposition to communist tyrants, anti-deficit fiscal conservatism, and preservation of American institutions. “What changed?” he asked. To answer that question, he reminded the audience that only one in five members of the younger generation voted in 2016, and asked, “if you don’t vote, is it any wonder this Congress doesn’t reflect your values and your priorities?” Does it matter? He answered this question by reminding us that, when he was elected, he won some precincts by 5, 10, 20 votes — not percent, votes! Also widely reported was a host of specific criticisms of the Trump Administration and those who support it — on immigration, budget deficits, voting rights, gun violence, women’s rights, corruption ….
–> –>
BUT, these are not the features of the speech that are ringing in my ears. The message in the speech that I hope everyone will take to heart, and the message that Herbie Hancock used to justify his optimism for the future of this country, is this — in Obama’s own words:
A key paragraph from Obama’s speech:
Better is good. I used to have to tell my young staff this all the time in the white house. Better is good. That’s the history of progress in this country. Not perfect — better. The civil rights act didn’t end racism, but it made things better. Social security didn’t eliminate all poverty for seniors, but it made things better for millions of people. Do not let people tell you the fight’s not worth it because you won’t get everything that you want. The idea that, well, you know, there’s racism in America, so I’m not going to bother voting, no point, that makes no sense. You can make it better. Better is always worth fighting for. That’s how our founders expected this system of self-government to work. Through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and evidence and proof, we could sort through our differences, and nobody would get exactly what they wanted, but it would be possible to find a basis for common ground. And that common ground exists.”
“Better is good.”
The Path to “Better” — Observations from PapaDan

Even the important things we consider “better” are usually achieved in multiple steps, not in large, dramatic policy initiatives intended to change the world in one stroke. Changes in the behavior of our government, for example, would require multiple steps to address deficiencies in all three branches of government. That, in practical terms, would require multiple election cycles at all levels of society — starting with local governance upward to the national. It would also suggest significant educational efforts to restore attitudes and values across the generations — values regarding topics like immigration, race, public education, economic security, healthcare, and individual rights. History tells us that these values have been evolving in a fairly singular directional, albeit with alternating periods of back-sliding and recovery, within our social fabric over the past seven decades.
This past week, both the former president and the award-winning musician affirmed three essential messages (there are always three). 1) Progress comes as a result of building on “Better,” not giving up when we are likely to fall short of “Perfect.” 2) They also reaffirmed that a path to “better” must begin with the way we treat each other right now and right here, in our own neighborhoods and in our own families. Finally, 3) Both Herbie Hancock and Barack Obama carried one message underlying their words: Make a Difference. They both described ways we can do that and powerful reasons why it matters. In the final analysis, many of us are not sure that WE can make a difference. If we listen to the wisdom of these two guys, we can come to a conclusion we’ve heard before: Can we make it better? “Yes, we can.”

Optimism isn’t easy.
It isn’t sufficient (neither optimism nor jazz).
But both are required.

Oh, yes, and … well … by the way … vote.
–> And listen to some Herbie. <–

La Belle Epoque: Just a Moment in Time



A time of optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, the apex of social order, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation.
I wonder what it felt like to be there, then?
On a slow-moving Tuesday afternoon in Carmel, California, Liam found himself wandering along Ocean Avenue staring into the front windows of the dozens of art galleries that brightened this otherwise foggy neighborhood. What was he doing there? The factual answer was that the company he worked for had sent its senior staff for a week-long conference by the sea to re-think some of its marketing strategies. Apparently, a secondary plan was to force the group together in an unfamiliar setting to promote some personal team building. The boss wasn’t satisfied with the way the group was functioning together and he figured that a week by the ocean in a relaxed setting with some good food and wine might loosen them up a bit. The schedule called for an agenda that sat them down in a conference room over breakfast and lunch to go through a list of issues. They had the rest of the day off. The hope was that they might spend the afternoons getting to know each other.
It didn’t sound like a bad plan, but the underlying reason the group didn’t function well together was that, at every opportunity, their conversations descended into their strong and differing opinions about the national news and politics of the day. For this little company, like so many others with an international clientele, these factors had a negative effect on their business. As a result, they had developed an unhealthy dislike for one another. So, Liam found a way to escape and wander downtown to get away from the … uh … “heat.”
Turning the corner onto Dolores Avenue, Liam found himself staring at a group of paintings in the window of one of the many neighborhood galleries. Two particular paintings had captured his attention the day before; so he returned to take a closer look. Each one was a street scene in the rain. People carrying umbrellas wound their way among horse-drawn carriages under street lamps lit early in the afternoon because of the drizzly darkness. Another painting featured a similar rain-soaked street, only the traffic consisted of turn-of-the-century automobiles. He was struck by how well the impressionist had rendered the effect of the rain on everything in the scene using oil on canvas. He found himself trying to imagine what it would have been like to walk that street at the turn of the twentieth century. A few moments later he found himself inside looking at a room full of similar images by the same artist. As a man approached him from a room in the back, Liam caught his eye and asked, “I’d love to know how he does that?”
“The rain. How does he do it? I feel like I’m walking on that street and the rain is all around me. I can hear it sloshing in the street. I can almost feel the water.”
“You are very kind. I have been trying to master ‘water’ for years. I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. Paris around the turn of the twentieth century is my favorite time and place and she seems to look her best in the rain, don’t you think?”
“Oh, MY. YOU are the artist? An honor to meet you.” He offers his hand. “My name is Liam.”
“The pleasure is mine. My name is Edouard Cortes. [Shakes his hand.] And, yes, these are my work. If I’m not mistaken, you were in here yesterday. I appreciate your comments. And your question about the water — it turns out you can’t really paint water. Either you try to imitate how it distorts things you see through it or you try to capture things reflected in it. Otherwise, water is pretty much invisible.”
“Oh, now that you mention it, I can see that. I hadn’t really appreciated that before. I guess I hadn’t noticed. I promise not to tell anyone your secret.”
“Oh, it’s not much of a secret; but I appreciate a person willing to keep some things to themselves. You’d be amazed the kinds of things people babble about when they come in here.”
“Well, I am in a business that tries to keep some of its ideas private, ideas of a proprietary nature, if you will, so it’s not new for me.”
With a grin, “And your business is …?”
A similar grin, “Uh … private.”
And a wider grin, “Of course.”
“Mr. Cortes, I don’t want to intrude on your time; but I’d love to know what has attracted you to Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century. What is special about that time and place?”
“I don’t mind at all. It is one of my favorite topics.”
La Belle Epoque
“La Belle Epoque, in English, “The Beautiful Era,” is recognized in Western history as the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. It was a period identified by its optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, the apex of social order, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation throughout Europe and America. At its peak during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the arts flourished, especially in Paris, where many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition. I am quick to point out, however, that “La Belle Epoque” was named in retrospect, when held in sharp contrast to the forces that led to the horrors of World War I. Nobody thought of it that way during that golden age. For a pair of generations, it was merely ‘the way we are’ and it was unconsciously expected to continue indefinitely.”
Edouard pointed at two of his paintings, Café de la Paix and le Théatre — “I hope you can see those features in the faces of the people in my paintings and feel it as the rain washes the face and streets of Paris.”
[Click to view paintings by Edouard Cortes, esp. Café de la Paix, le Teatré, Saint Denis. https://www.google.com/search?q=paintings+by+edouard+cortes&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiIssSRlZXdAhVE54MKHXPDC7IQsAR6BAgDEAE&biw=1281&bih=919]
With some effort, Liam resisted the impulse to express his distaste for the current “epoque” here in the twenty-first century and compare it to the artist’s description of La Belle Epoque, not wanting to spoil the mood. Instead, “Sir, here I can see the feelings you have described in the faces of ladies walking across the intersection in their fashionable clothes, in the posture of people going about their business, and the dignified gentlemen walking toward us here. They are clearly living in a time and place that is quite unlike my own. My own visits to Paris did not do her justice, and I believe I am seeing Paris, here, in a way I have not seen her before.”
The artist did not look away from the painting as he went on, “Twilight has always seemed to me to be the best time for Paris to show her ‘Belle Visage’ during this time in her history, whether during the Winter snows of La Madeleine or the Spring rain on Des Champs Elysées.” The orange glow from the cafés and the moving splashes of sheen in the puddles of rain on the street are not fabrications, sir; and I hope you can see them.”
Liam examines them a while. “I cannot help but wonder, Mister Cortes, how an artist like yourself, living here and now, can capture Paris of La Belle Epoque, more than one hundred years ago, with such confidence. I must add it to the list of things I don’t understand. I guess I just have to accept it as a wonder.”
The artist paused a long moment to notice the emotion in the face of his guest and, tilting his head to one side as if to get a clearer view, seemed to make a decision about him. Finally, “Sir, I have been working on another, larger piece in my private studio,” pointing to a door at the back of the gallery. “I wonder if you might be interested in taking a look. Since it has some rather unusual features, of a proprietary nature, as you say, perhaps I could show it to you.”
A Work in Progress — More Than Meets the Eye
Cortes escorted Liam to the back wall of the gallery. With a jangle of keys, he unlocked a door nearly hidden behind some shelves, gestured for him to enter, and closed the door behind them. The dark room came to life when the artist flipped a wall switch that lit a pair of spotlights embedded in the ceiling. The two beams illuminated a single painting that dominated the room. It was about six feet high, half again as wide, supported by a solid wood frame propped against the wall. The artist struck a pose with a grand sweeping gesture presenting a street scene in the rain. “It’s not quite finished, but I think you can get the idea — La Belle Epoque: Paris in 1900 in the rain. I haven’t settled on a name for it, but it depicts Porte Saint Denis.
Liam couldn’t quite see what was ‘unfinished’ about it, and it gave him the distinct feeling that the water on the street in the foreground was likely to splash onto the studio floor.
The imagery reminded him of the impressionism he was so fond of from the early twentieth century, not at all typical of the contemporary works he had seen elsewhere in other galleries on this street from his own decade. The street was littered with papers, and shiny blobs of water reflected the puddles the rain had deposited on the uneven streets. Horses pulled wagons — from tiny one-person carts to larger one-horse coaches to heavy four-horse cargo wagons. Crossing the intersection in front of him was a varied collection of Parisians — wealthy ladies dressed in the latest fashions, a baker carrying a box of baguettes to his customers, and businessmen looking important in the substantial coats and prominent hats of the day. A woman was walking toward us escorting a child across the street passing a man huddling inside a thin cloth coat against a cold, wet day. The sidewalk was quite crowded, nearly everyone wore hats — some briskly hurrying to get out of the rain, others taking their time, perhaps enjoying this important Parisian neighborhood at the height of its prosperity and peace.
Liam felt privileged to be in the company of the artist and wanted very much to say something ‘well-informed’ and appropriately appreciative. “The light! I’d love to know how you are able to show me the light shining off all of these different surfaces.” Before the artist could interject with his artistic technicalities, he continued, “but, to tell the truth, your technique is not really something I can appreciate, and I wouldn’t ask you to reveal your secrets. I am more interested in the feelings I believe I see in the faces of these people. Are they aware that they are living in this great city at such a peaceful, prosperous time? Oh, and the glow from the cafés — I’m thinking of the lives that are happening inside behind those glowing windows.”
The artist seemed pleased with Liam’s assessment. “Well, sir, you’ve hit on an important idea. These people, rich and poor like, are living at a sweet time. The poor had reason to be optimistic about their future and the rich had good reason to feel self-satisfied and secure in their privileges. Most of them had no idea of the turmoil and upheaval that was going to surround them in just a few short years that would change their lives dramatically.”
“Wouldn’t it have been sweet to stand there among them, walk those streets, hear the sound of those horses, join them in those lively cafés? I’d have some questions — how does it feel to be there on the streets of Paris during that time of such calm and stability? Do they have any sense of what is to come in just a short time? Oh, my, the light you provide in this painting makes me feel like I could be there with them.”
A Secret
Once again, the artist paused a long moment to examine the face of his guest and he seemed to confirm a judgement he had made about him. “Well, sir, I would like to invite you to do just that. There are “secrets” of a proprietary nature, as you say, that you must promise to keep to yourself. May I trust you to do that?”
“Well, yes, sir, you have my word — but I don’t know what I could possibly …”
“Here, you will need to carry this,” and the artist handed him an umbrella, picked one up for himself, put his sketchbook in a plastic bag, and gestured toward the painting. “You must step over the wood frame; and be careful, the street may be slippery. You’ll have to trust me on this. Here …” gesturing for Liam to follow him, the artist climbed over the wood frame and stepped onto the wet intersection in the foreground of the painting. Liam followed his lead and found himself standing in the crosswalk of Saint Denis. He could hear the clop of the horses strutting beside him and froze in his amazement. The artist took his arm and coaxed him across the street, over the curb, to the safety of the sidewalk. Before Liam could express his astonishment, Edouard asked him, “Do you speak any French?”
“Well, … uh … a little. I recall some from a year of college French, but …”
“That should be sufficient, we won’t be here long. The most important thing is to observe the faces and body language of the people around you. I think you will see the answers there to some of your questions.”
It was all so much to take in. Liam noticed the flowers on the corner, the woman he remembered from the painting crossing the street, the baker with his box of baguettes, and a waiter staring at the passersby from inside the café on the corner. The sign in the window said “Ouvrir.” Edouard opened the door and they walked into a warm, orange-lit café with tables set for lunch. The waiter who had been watching from the window ushered them to a table looking out on the sidewalk. He greeted them, “Bienvenue, Messieurs,” and handed them menus.
“We should order something.” Liam opened his mouth to answer, but closed it again, not quite knowing what to say. The artist spoke to the waiter, “Soup a l’oignon, un sauvignon de Bourgogne, pour deux, s’il vous plait.” And to Liam, “a little French onion soup and a white burgundy, OK?”
“Sure. Uh … “
“I know, it’s a bit much all at once. Just watch the faces and tell me what you see.”
Trying not to stare, Liam noticed two couples at the table beside them, as the waiter brought the wine and the soup. On the other side, a table with four well-dressed gentlemen who looked to be earnestly discussing business. Hats, scarves, and coats hanging on a rack beside each table. Liam and Edouard spent some time with their soup, before Edouard said, “Take your time. You wanted to know about these people. Study them. When you’ve finished your wine, we can talk about what you see.”
So, they ate their soup, drank the wine. Liam watched, thinking it over — another glass of Bourgogne. The couples came and went, replaced by two elderly ladies who had patisseries and tea. The businessmen lingered over cognac and seemed to have abandoned their business discussion and drifted to lighter topics.
Liam and Edouard spent a long afternoon watching, thinking it over, trying to take it all in. As the afternoon turned to twilight. Edouard took out his sketchbook and drew the lamppost outside the window. The rain had stopped. Finally, he paid the bill — “It’s time for us to go.”— and they walked out into the gathering dusk. “We need to find our way back and step back into our own time. But first, what did you learn?”
What Is There to Learn?
“Well, from what I could make out of their conversations, here was no politics, no economics, no troubled commentary. Faces were serious at times but nothing made them frown. Nobody seemed surprised at what they saw around them. I saw faces of people enjoying each other, not a care in the world.”
“And the ‘proper’ gentlemen?”
“Confident. Sure of themselves. On top of their game.”
“That’s a lot to derive from four hours of eavesdropping.”
“That’s true; but I’m comparing it to what I’ve experienced of four hours of my own time. What I hear consistently is disappointment, shock that things could have drifted so far wrong, surprise at what passes for ‘normal’; violence in the news every day, worry about an uncertain future — and the tense expressions on faces who have grown accustomed to all of that. I didn’t hear that here, didn’t see that.”
“Is it possible that you were looking for that result? Did you simply fulfill an expectation?”
“Sure. That’s possible. What do you think?”
The artist thought about it a while. “Well, it’s certain that most did not expect the hard times that were approaching. What you’ve described is surely a list of the differences between their time and yours. That much is well documented. I had hoped that my paintings would convey those conditions.”
Liam: “Can we bring some of it back with us?”
Edouard: After some thought … “Certainly not by merely stepping back out of my painting. You are the only one in this scene who could make such a difference — when you return.”
Returning to the rainy intersection, they stepped out of the painting, back into the studio. After standing silently for a moment, they exchanged pleasantries and thanks. Liam walked out of the gallery, giving the paintings a last glance and said “I hope to return.” He turned back to the corner of Dolores Avenue and was gone.
Returning on Friday
Friday at 2:00 pm, his week-long conference finally concluded — and with … well … moderate success — Liam hurried back down Ocean Avenue, turned at Dolores, and entered the gallery hoping to see Edouard Cortes once more before returning home. Today, however, as he walked past the paintings of Café de la Paix and Le Théatre just as they were on Wednesday, a younger, taller gentleman greeted Liam warmly. “Welcome. You are our first visitor since our remodeling project. It took longer to reopen than I had hoped; but we’re back now. Thanks for your patience.” He had a nametag reading “Alain Miller, Gallery Manager.”
“Sir, it is pleasure to be back again. I had the pleasure earlier in the week to meet Mr. Cortes,” pointing at his painting. “I have to return home today and I had hoped to say goodbye and wish him well. Is he here?”
“Well, Sir, we are indeed privileged to have two of Edouard Cortes’ originals here in our gallery. There are not many on the West Coast. I think I understand your feelings — spending time with his masterwork must surely give one the feeling of meeting him in person.”
“No, Mister Miler, I spoke to him here in your gallery and back there in his … uh …” Gesturing at the back wall, Liam was shocked to notice that the door in back wall of the room was not there where he remembered it.
The manager, with a grin — “Well, sir, I share your interest, surely; but Mr. Cortes has never been here in the U.S. He passed away in 1969 in Lagny-sur-Marne, in France, where he spent his entire life.”
For Liam, there were no words.

My Favorite Movies

“[He’s] one of what we all are, Pelly,
less than a drop in the great blue motion
of the sunlit sea.
But it seems some of the drops sparkle,
Pelly, some of them do sparkle!”
— King Arthur (Camelot)

It’s quality work, and there
are simply too many notes, that’s all.
Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

— Emperor Joseph (Amadeus) 

Click for a PDF of this post:
Where did this come from?
Six weeks ago, I published a piece on ConVivio called “Greatest Songs of All Time” (https://convivio-online.net/greatest-songs-of-all-time-2018/).  It was inspired by a regular customer at The Flying Pig named Carl.  We were talking about songs from “my era” (the 60s and 70s) and he asked me, “What songs are important to you?”  So, I mentioned a few off the top of my head and … well, it caused me to rethink a list of The Greatest Songs of All Time that I had posted a few years before.  So, when I made a new list and invited others to make their lists, I discovered that there are some talented list-makers among ConVivio readers.  Fast-forward to this week and I was talking about those lists of songs with my son Will (one of the proprietors of The Flying Pig), observing how much attention that list-making exercise had attracted.  The conversation turned to a favorite movie of mine, which Will’s brother Ben (the other Flying Pig proprietor) recently reminded me of.  The movie, “2001 — A Space Odyssey” featured some music that I had accidentally omitted from my “Greatest Songs” list.  The movie was a huge favorite during my senior year in high school and is currently getting some attention on its 50th anniversary.  Will suggested, “What about a list of ‘Greatest Movies?” I mentioned a particularly dramatic pair of lines from a climactic moment of the movie
—  So, this is the result  …

PapaDan’s List
Below is my list of my favorite movies.  Unlike my “Greatest Songs” list, I did not feel qualified to identify the “Greatest Movies of All Time.”  Turns out that “All Time” is beyond the scope of my expertise.  SO, my list consists of just the movies I liked best (at least as of today). As a bonus, I include a quote I remember from each one.  I invite you to reply, if you like, with:
1. Your own list, as short or as long as you wish, of your favorite movies.
2. You are also invited — though not required — to include a quote that you find memorable from one or more of them (or not).
3. You are welcome to send comments like “How could you possibly leave out  ________  from your list?” or “How could you include a dumb movie like  _________ ?”  All are welcome.

—> A few words of caution — I intended to make a list of ten movies.  BUT, that turned out to be impossible.  A struggle with painful cutting brought it down from 25 to 17.  So, if you decide to make your own list, all of your good intentions to keep it short may be futile.  I also could not list them in order of “favoriteness.”  Just couldn’t.  So, they are in alphabetical order.  I also ignored the winners of the most recent Academy Awards, since I wasn’t familiar with many of them anyway.  I also did not consider whether “my” movies received any awards in their day.

I hope you, at least, find this exercise interesting.

Here is my list:

My Favorite Movies — August 2, 2018
1. 2001 — A Space Odyssey

• Dave: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” HAL 9000:  “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
• HAL 9000:  “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
2. Amadeus
• Emperor Joseph, to Mozart: “My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”
• Salieri: “This was a music I’d never heard.  Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling.  It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”
3. American Graffiti
• “I don’t like that surfin’ shit. Rock and roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.”
4. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
• Butch: “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.”
• Etta: “I’ll do anything you ask of me except one thing. I won’t watch you die.”
5. Camelot
• Arthur (speaking to Pellinore of the newly knighted Tom of Warwick): [He’s] one of what we all are, Pelly, less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea. But it seems some of the drops sparkle, Pelly, some of them do sparkle!”
6. Chicago
• Roxie: “I’m a star, and the audience loves me, and I love them, they love me for loving them, and I love them for loving me. And we love each other. And that’s ’cause none of us got enough love in our childhoods. And that’s showbiz, kid.”
7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
• “I’ll be right here.”
8. Field of Dreams
• “If you build it, he will come.”
• John & Ray Kinsella: “Is this heaven?”  “It’s Iowa.”  “I could’ve sworn it was heaven.  Oh yeah, it’s the place where dreams come true. [Looks around and sees his wife playing with their daughter]  “Maybe this is heaven.
9. Forrest Gump
• “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” “Stupid is as stupid does.”
• “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”
10. Funny Girl
• “You think beautiful girls are going to stay in style forever?  I should say not!  Any minute now they’re going to be out!  Finished!  Then it’ll be my turn!”
11. The Graduate
• “I want to say just one word to you, just one word.” “Yes, sir.”   “Are you listening?”   “Yes, I am.”   “Plastics.”
12. Moonstruck
• Ronnie Cammareri: “Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is … but love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything. It breaks your heart.  It makes things a mess.  We aren’t here to make things perfect.  Snowflakes are perfect. Stars are perfect. Not us.”
13. Planet of the Apes
• “Don’t look for it Taylor, you may not like what you find.”
14. Saving Private Ryan
• “Earn this.” At the very end of the movie, Tom Hanks says it twice — once to Private Ryan and once to all of us in the audience who have benefitted from the sacrifices of soldiers in World War II.
15. The Sound of Music (and let’s not forget My Fair Lady)
• Maria: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”
16. Star Wars I – V
• Yoda: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”   Riyo Chuchi: “To die for one’s people is a great sacrifice. To live for one’s people, an even greater sacrifice. I choose to live for my people.”
17. Wizard of Oz
• “True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.”
18. Midnight In Paris
• Hemingway: “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
19. Same Time Next Year
• Doris: “Doris”; George: “What?”; Doris: “My name is Doris.”; George: “Your name is Doris?”; “Yes.”; George: “But I’ve been calling you Dorothy all night.”; Doris: “Yes, I know.”
20. The Princess Bride (The Greatest Movie Ever Made — according to me)
• Inigo Montoya (to the Six-Fingered Man): “My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

What’s missing from my list?
I omitted a category of “ancient” movies (like Casablanca and those starring Marlon Brando-types), movies by Alfred Hitchcock (although I enjoyed several of them, notably The Birds and Rear Window), and most “war” movies (notably Patton).  I also left out The Ten Commandments (I was ten years old when my parents took me to the drive-in to see it), and Ben-Hur (I was nine when my parents took me to its Premier in Oakland), Raiders of the Lost Ark (not sure why), Schindler’s List (because I don’t like remembering it), and Blazing Saddles (because all the memorable quotes are racist and disgusting).

It’s funny about movies.  Looking back, some of the choices of “favorites” can feel quite personal and can represent who we were back when we saw them.  But, they’re just movies, right?

I look forward to your comments, maybe even a few lists.

Below is Cary Sapone’s list of favorite movies
— In no particular order (another excellent list!).
Shawshank Redemption
Pretty in Pink
Mrs Doubtfire
Pretty Woman
When Harry Met Sally
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
The Pursuit of Happiness
Back to the Future
Sixth Sense
The Polar Express

Trying To Make It Better


Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad.
Take a sad song and make it better.”
— Paul McCartney







Recently I wrote something called “Interruptions,” reflecting on the continuous drumbeat of tragic stories that emerge from the daily news.  Every day, it seems, we hear another new piece of bad news piled on top of the unraveling stories of bad news from previous days.  I read “Interruptions” in public at The Whistlestop Writers meeting here in the Tri-Valley.  From the reaction, it seemed to have resonated with members of the audience.  However, on reflection, I think even my central question — “What should I do about it?”  — only made us feel worse about the things happening in our world these days.  Gretta asked me, and I had to ask myself, “Was it a good thing to inflict such thoughts of harm and futility on my audience?   Were they any better for it?  Was I?  Or did I just contribute to how bad we all feel about the world around us?  One day’s bad news may distract us from yesterday’s bad news – or last week’s.  More often, I fear, the accumulation of stories has a “multiplier effect.”  In short, did I just make it worse?

Yep.  Maybe so.  I decided not to publish it on ConVivio.



So, the resulting “Writer’s Block” (pictured here) has me looking for something else to think about and something else to write about.   So, here is a quick start — just a start.  Just little things.  It’s brief.  We’ll see if this approach leads anywhere.





Some News That’s Not Bad

Caught on “smart doorbell” camera, kids return wallet with $700 inside.

Small American town welcomes refugees with Southern Hospitality.

There’s a new Alzheimer’s/dementia drug that’s showing promise in slowing memory loss in early clinical trials.

A generous anonymous donor reveals her identity. She gave millions to artists without taking credit for the gifts.

A British supermarker chain is introducing a “quieter hour” for autistic shoppers.

An experiment with a four-day work week is a surprising success.

Tourist accidentally pays 100 times taxi fare— driver tracks him down to return it.

Riders of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles, illegal in most cities, have found a community.

Recovering addict anonymously pays for ambulance crew’s breakfast.

Surprising solution: saving a country from wildfires with goats.

There’s a lake of liquid water on Mars.


A mother duck is caring for 76 ducklings on Lake Bemidji in Minnesota.



Today, right now, across the world, something good is happening — whether or not we hear about it or acknowledge it as something good.  And, as Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of The Six O’Clock News back in the 1960s, “And that’s the way it is.”

And, there’s more …

Your comments on this topic are welcome.  

ConVivio Welcomes a New Sapone

June 9, 2018 — Today we say hello
to the newest member of the family.
His name is William Daniel Sapone:
Son, Grandson, Brother, Nephew, Cousin.

By the way, he is stunningly handsome,
but you knew that, eh?

At 9.7 pounds, 22 inches, he is already
writing his own story, with the loving and wise guidance of his proud parents,
William and Maria.


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William Daniel Sapone: Born at 2:01 PM, Saturday, June 9, 2018
— 9.7 pounds, 22 inches long.  He will be called Liam. 


My first observation, right after noticing that he is really good looking (did I mentioned that?), was that he seems remarkably calm and composed. His eyes are open in his first picture (above, center), seeming to focus on his fingers (“Wonder what these are for?”), until his attention is diverted by his PapaDan’s gentle humming of his favorite Beatles’ song “Here Comes The Son.”  He quickly closed his eyes and returned to his “calm and composed” posture. I figured he was soothed by the sheer musicality of my rendering of the tune.  Others in the room suggest that I may have bored him back to sleep, a credible suggestion that I quickly rejected. (OK, so I made this up.)



ANYWAY, needless to say, I was thrilled at having the privilege of sharing this first afternoon of William Junior’s life (in the hospital) with Papa Manny (Maria’s father), and Liam’s spectacular parents Maria and William.  They were both smiling.  Manny and I got to bring some dinner (she wanted a steak) to the proud parents while Diane and Gretta were hanging out with Madison at home. Below are a handful of pictures from William, Junior’s first couple of days in his well-appointed suite in Kaiser hospital in San Leandro and then home.

Welcome to our family, Liam!
























And the most important pictures of all — Madison meets Liam:





























How’d We Get Here?
Two Saturday’s ago, we tried a well-known trick to entice the baby to make his Grand Entrance — we took Will, Maria, and Madison to Skipolini’s Pizza in Walnut Creek.  It has a long history.
Here’s the story:  In the spring of 1981, a woman burst into Skipolini’s Pizza, near the end of a long pregnancy (is there any other kind?).  She demanded that they give her a pizza that would make the baby arrive soon.  Seeing her desperation, the manager concocted a pizza with thirteen toppings, extra onion and extra garlic, and six types of meat. The woman left Skipolini’s after eating the “Prego” pizza and went into labor that same evening. So began the story of the original “Prego” pizza.  After years of success, the “Prego” pizza has grown in popularity, recommended by doctors and OBGYNs, recognized on local radio, TV, magazines, and newspapers.  SO, here we are, waiting for our “Prego” and hoping to get this show on the road.

Of course, it worked, sort of, mostly, that is, eventually.  Maria went into labor two weeks later and William Daniel Sapone was born at 2:01 pm on Saturday June 9.  Learn about the legacy of Skipolini’s  —>   http://www.skipolinispizza.com/prego.php

On the big day, I got an urgent call at 7:30 that it was time to come and stay with Madi while her parents went to the hospital.  I arrived at 8:00 and Will and Maria swooshed off to the hospital while PapaDan and Madi played with Play-Doh and watched “Paw Patrol.”  Meanwhile, Manny and Diane (Maria’s parents) arrived and joined in the serious work in Play-Doh and crayons with Madi, until it was time to take Madi to Vic’s for breakfast.  While getting ready to go to Vic’s, the assembled grandparents demonstrated their calm experience under pressure.  PapaDan locked the front door while Manny put Madison in her car seat in his truck parked in front of the nearly identical house next door.  Diane had a bag of things in the truck to put in the house.  So, Dan & Diane purposefully walked up the steps of the porch to the front door.  Dan lifted the key to the lock, noticed that the doorknob and deadbolt seemed different from the door he had just locked, but ignored the observation. For a moment, it felt like the right house because there was a dog barking inside, just as Winston had been barking inside of Will and Maria’s house that I had just locked.  Manny saved us by shouting, “You’re at the wrong house,” so we walked back toward the right house as the neighbors opened the door.  They were most gracious when Diane explained that “our daughter was about to have a baby.”  They seemed to understand our condition.  We went next door, unlocked the more familiar front door of the right house, placed the bag inside, relocked it, and …  we were off to Vic’s.

OK, I guess you had to be there …

And the sun sets on June 9, 2018 — the first day in the world for William Daniel Sapone









And so it begins …   

Art & Ideas: Art by GrettaJean


Yosemite in the Fall — 2017

— Pastel drawing by GrettaJean





ConVivio_Yosemite in the Fall_GrettaJean

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Greatest Songs of All Time—2018

You KNOW something’s happening
but you don’t know what it is,
DO you, Mister Jones.”
— Bob Dylan (né Robert Zimmerman)
(from “Ballad of a Thin Man” 1965)

“I don’t believe in Zimmerman
… I don’t believe in Beatles.
I just believe in me, Yoko and me,
and that’s reality”

John Lennon (The Plastic Ono Band, 1970)
Click for a PDF of this post:

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Where did this come from?  I ran into a guy named Carl at The Flying Pig (a regular customer) and, at closing time after the Warriors game, he was using the sound system at The Pig to play songs from his iPhone.  Turned out he was playing some songs from MY ERA (i.e., from the 1960s); so, I went to talk to him about it.  He asked me, “What songs are important to you?”  So, I mentioned a few off the top of my head and he found them on his iPhone and played them over the sound system  — some Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, Beatles, Van Morrison, Richie Havens, etc.  It got me to thinking about an old ConVivio post.  Some of you who have been reading ConVivio for a long time tell me you remember it.  It was titled: “Greatest Songs of All Time — A Challenge.”  In that post, from November of 2009, I posted my list of the twenty greatest songs of all time (according to me) and challenged readers to offer their own lists.

My list and several responses to that challenge appeared in the comments following that post — it can be found at: https://convivio-online.net/greatest-songs-of-all-time-challenge/

I realized that the list I would make today would be different — not necessarily because of new songs that have come out since, but because different songs have increased or decreased in importance to me.  So,

In answer to a suggestion, last week I offered readers the opportunity to follow up that original challenge. I asked you to:
1. List the 20 greatest songs of all time, according to YOU, and answer two questions:
2. What’s wrong with my list?
3. What’s excellent about my list?

So, some of you responded to the challenge.  Below are some of those initial responses and, at the end, I made a new list of my own with an explanation of why those songs ended up on my list.  First, I learned a few things from your responses.

Things I learned:
Steve Rubio observed that he preferred early Beatles to later songs for an interesting reason.
• Multiple songs by an artist can be well-represented on a list by a single song.
• Artists I enjoyed back in the 60s/70s are also listed by people half my age.  (OK, and you might point out that I listed songs that were released WAY before I was born
• Most of us mix Rock, Jazz, Country, and Classical over many time periods in our favorites.
• For a music lover, twenty is not enough — is there a number that would be “enough?”

In this post, I have included responses from the “First Responders.”  There may be others in later posts, but today we have terrific contributions (below) from these people:
Steve Rubio, Seven Peterson, Jessica Wing, Jonathon Wing, Janet Crampton-Pipes, Jim Pipes, Manny Mendes, Lauren de Vore, and finally, PapaDan.  My list, at the end, includes answers to the question “Why did THAT song end up on your list?”  You will also find some links you can click on that you might find interesting.  (Manny’s is found in the comments after the post.)

Enjoy …

From Steve Rubio
“I’m game, as long as we agree from the start that my list would be different if you asked tomorrow.”

In alphabetical order by artist:
The Beatles, “There’s a Place”
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”
James Brown, “Lost Someone” (Live at the Apollo 1963 version)
The Clash, “Complete Control”
Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
Aretha Franklin, “Respect”
The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”
Little Richard, “Tutti Frutti”
Van Morrison, “Madame George”
OutKast, “Hey Ya!”
Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right, Mama”
Prince, “When You Were Mine”
Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter”
The Ronettes, “Be My Baby”
Sleater-Kinney, “Sympathy”
Patti Smith, “Gloria”
Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”
Ike and Tina Turner, “River Deep Mountain High”
The Velvet Underground, “Heroin”

What’s wrong with my list?
Twenty isn’t enough … missing are Hüsker Dü, Sex Pistols, Pink, Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence, Otis Redding, and more.

As you know, it’s impossible to pick just one Beatles song.  I choose “There’s a Place” as an example of my taste in Beatles:  I tend to prefer early songs to those from the middle or late period, and I love the harmonies they offered before everyone starting hating each other.  Other choices would include “I’m Down” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

What’s excellent about my list?
All 20 songs that made the cut.

From Steven Peterson
Recently I have been thinking of what I would choose for the 20 or even 100 best songs by Dylan. It felt a little overwhelming.

Twenty best of all time?  Uff da!   In the past year my brother, sister, and me listed our favorite 20 Beatles’ songs. That was fun, but also a little overwhelming.

Without thinking too much. Here are 20 songs I would definitely consider putting on the list:
Dylan — Like a Rolling Stone
Stones — Sympathy for the Devil
Beatles — A Day in the Life
Beatles — Yesterday
Beatles — Hey Jude
Dylan — Visions of Johanna
Mellencamp — Jack and Diane
Stones — Start Me Up
McLean — American Pie
Guthrie — Alice’s Restaurant
The Band — Up on Cripple Creek
Counting Crows — Mr. Jones
The Wallflowers — One Head Light
CSN — Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
Croce — Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues
Knopfler & Harris — All the Road Running
ABBA – Dancing Queen
Beatles — Penny Lane
Traveling Wilburys — Handle with Care
Van Morrison – Brown-eyed Girl

What’s wrong with my list?

And this list of 20 doesn’t even include Motown.  Or singers & groups such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Neil Young, Bob Seger, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, and many, many others.

What’s excellent about my list?

My list is not excellent; mostly, it is momentary. It’s what I thought of — right about now.  Of all time, really?  That is trying figure out too much at once.

AND, a day later, Steve sent the following follow-up response: “I have been thinking about what I sent you and would like to modify it to include The Eagles “Hotel California,” The Doors “Light My Fire,” Aretha Franklin “Respect,” and so on.  I don’t doubt that I could come up with a new list of 220 that is as good or better than I did the first time.  By the way, Dabbie and I have chatted with young people over the years and most of them say the music we grew up with [in the 1960s] is better than the music they grew up with.”

From Jessica Wing:

Here’s my input for your challenge: the 20 greatest songs of all time, according to ME.
Michael Jackson – “Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat it” … pretty much all of his hits haha
Bob Marley – “No Woman No Cry,” “Three Little Birds”
Prince – “Purple Rain”
Dolly Parton – “Jolene”
Johnny Cash – “I Walk the Line
Garth Brooks – “Friends In Low Places”

What’s wrong with my list?
I didn’t include any currently released songs. I feel songs earn their “greatness” over time.

What’s excellent about my list?
All of the artists have multiple songs that I consider greatest songs of all time.

😊 Jessica Wing

From Jonathon Brian Wing:

Here’s my contribution to your challenge!!  This was fun to do, thank you for this.

My list: In no particular order
DJ QBERT – Razorblade Alcohol Slide
A Tribe Called Quest – Can I kick it?
Nina Simone – Dont Smoke in Bed
D’Angelo – Cruisin’
Bob Marley – Get Up, Stand Up
Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name
Lee Fields & The Expressions – Honey Dove
Marvin Gaye – If I Should Die Tonight
Wu-Tang Clan – Triumph
J-Dilla – Its Dope
Mayer Hawthorne – Thin Moon
Teddy Pendergrass – Close The Door
2PAC – 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted
The Isley Brothers – For The Love Of You Pts. 1 & 2
Fleetwood Mac – The Chain
Dre (feat. Snoop Dogg) – Still D.R.E.
Deep Puddle Dynamics – Rainman
Miles Davis – Freddie Freeloader
The Roots – Mellow My Man
Ike Turner & The Kings of Rhythm – No More Doggin’

What’s wrong with my list?
That it’s not longer?  There are SO MANY more songs/artists that can be put down.  I’ll just have to wait for the next challenge — haha

What’s excellent about my list?
That it’s a good representation of my music taste.

From Janet Crampton-Pipes:
I never could define what “greatest” meant to me. If I did this another time, I might come up with 20 different songs.
Here they are, in no particular order.

Let it Be – Beatles
Strange Fruit – 
Billie Holiday
Imagine – John Lennon
What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
Con Te Partirò – Andrea Bocelli
September When it Comes – Rosanne Cash
Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
Amazing Grace – Sung by Andrea Bocelli, or LeAnn Rimes
Sympathy for the Devil – Rolling Stones
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – Amy Winehouse
America the Beautiful – Ray Charles
If I were a Carpenter – Tim Hardin
(Also like versions by Jonny Cash, Robert Plant, Bobby Darin, The Four Tops) My way to sneak in some more artists.
Ghost in this House – Alison Krauss
The Dock of the Bay – Ottis Redding
I Will Remember You – Sarah Mclachlan
Thrill is Gone – Duet with BB King, Tracy Chapman
Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd 1973 version
Green Grass and High Tides – Outlaws
Stand by Me – Ben E King
Blowin In the Wind – Bob Dylan
What is excellent about my list? 
The excellent thing about my list is the restraint shown in only including Andrea Bocelli twice.
What is wrong with my list? 
The problem with the list is that it doesn’t include Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Croce, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd, Patsy Cline, Santana, Buddy Holly, David Bowie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jeff Buckley,  Ritchie Valens, Bette Midler. I could on listing artists all day, but I will stop before I start questioning my selections.


From Jim Pipes:

Here is my song list. I can’t say they are the best songs of all time, just some of my favorites in no particular order.

Can’t you hear me knocking- Rolling Stones
A day in the life- Beatles
Still my guitar gently weeps- Beatles
Great Gig in the sky- Pink Floyd
Beware of darkness- George Harrison
Waiting on a friend- Rolling Stones
All things must Pass- George Harrison
Walk on the wild side- Lou Reed
The old Laughing lady- Neil Young
You were always on my mind- Elvis Presley
Moonlight Mile- Rolling Stones
A change is gonna come- Sam Cooke
When I was seventeen- Frank Sinatra
Halleluiah- Jeff Buckley
Someone to lay down beside me- Linda Ronstadt
O Fortuna- Carmina Burana
Philadelphia- Bruce Springsteen
Trouble man- Marvin Gaye
Rawhide- Frankie Lane
Take five- Dave Brubeck”

Honorable mention:
Fire- Robin Williams singing a Bruce Springsteen song while doing an Elmer Fudd impression. (on YouTube).

What’s wrong with my list?
I should have had music from other genres instead of mostly rock and roll. Probably focuses too much on the music of my youth. I bet most people could guess my age within a few years from reading my list.

What is excellent about my list?
To me these songs just have deep social meaning or remind me of an event or time in my life. Some of them I feel were just so innovative and incredibly well done.  I remember hearing “ When I was seventeen” on the rental car radio while driving in Kauai on our honeymoon, and when my older brother let me borrow his Rolling Stones tape when I was in eighth grade. To hear Sam Cooke singing about racial struggle and Bruce Springsteen singing about the early Aids epidemic just stirs something inside of me. The musical complexity of “ A day in the Life” was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

Again, these are just some of my favorites and If I had to write this list a month from now it would probably be very different. But that is probably the point of this exercise, to think about the music you really like. I should stop now before I change my list again!

From Lauren de Vore:
Ok, here’s my attempt at a list. It’s totally random and I can’t really say why some songs are on the list. I clearly lean toward the classical and away from the current (I just don’t and never did listen to the radio much). I should have at least one or two Beatles songs, but I’d be hard-pressed to name my favorite, kind of depends on my mood. (A caveat in my defense: I am not an auditory learner and so I have a terrible time remembering names of songs and singers. I’ll hear a song and know that I’ve heard it before, but I couldn’t tell you what it is.)

My “Top 20” Favorite Songs
Ave Maria (Shubert), as sung by Barbara Bonney (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDyiYEdTp-U) or Luciano Pavarotti (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGr6B6Rp4PU)
Au Fond du Temple Saint, from The Pearl Fishers, by George Bizet, as sung by Jussi Bjorling and Robert Merrill (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PYt2HlBuyI) or Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-v-DZjZ9iY)
Nessun Dorma, from Turandot, by Giacomo Puccini; as experienced in a live performance by Luciano Pavarotti with the San Francisco Opera opposite Montserrat Caballé (conceive of >500 lb of diva on stage between the two of them!): recital version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTFUM4Uh_6Y)
Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog (Three Dog Night)
Can’t Help Falling in Love (Elvis Presley)
American Pie (Don McLean)
Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay (Otis Redding)
Morning Has Broken (Cat Stevens)
Tuesday Afternoon, Nights in White Satin (Moody Blues)
Paper Moon (Nat King Cole)
The Sounds of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel)
You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, from South Pacific (Rogers and Hammerstein)
Ol’ Man River, from Showboat (Kern and Hammerstein), sung by Paul Robeson
I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, Summertime, from Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward)
Just about anything by Carole King (So Far Away, Beautiful, I Feel the Earth Move, You’ve Got a Friend, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, A Natural Woman, Tapestry)
Zero My Hero, by Bob Dorough (Schoolhouse Rock)

PapaDan’s List

 My “Greatest Songs of All Time” — June 2018

To answer the question I’m asked: “How did THAT song end up on your list?”

#1   Richie Havens’ live version deserves to be recognized at the top of this list, along with the original.  Havens’ album “Mixed Bag” (1966) was one of the favorite albums of my youth.

#2   This is the one song representing my longstanding love of Broadway musicals.  This song was not in the original, but in its 30th-anniversary tour.

#3   This one is special and represents so many.  Her version of “Summertime” is classic.

#4   I had to put “The Waters of March” somewhere, so “Sing! Sing! Sing!” had to go. The story of this song is found at:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waters_of_March .  It was released in 1975 and recorded famously by lots of people.  My favorite recording is by Jane Monheit (2001). This recording in English, in addition to Monheit’s fabulous vocals, features (according to me) the best recorded performance by a drummer I have ever heard, especially noticeable in the last minute or so.  The song is a list of things that have something in common.  What do you think they have in common?  This song, written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, was introduced to me by Craig Herold.  Thank You, Craig!

#5   John Lennon’s “Hard Times are Over” replaced John’s “Watching the Wheels” from my original list. “Watching the Wheels” appealed to me as John’s decision to let go of the fame and frenzy of being a “Beatle” for a quieter life with Yoko (“I just had to let it go”).  Instead, released just before his death in 1980, “Hard Time Are Over,” is bitterly ironic since John and Yoko sang this one looking ahead to the happy future they hoped for.  That, of course, was not to be.  But, actually, the lyric was “Hard times are over, over for a while.”

#6   One of the 126 greatest Beatles songs of all time — may favorite from the early period.

#7   “Sleeps Judea Fair” by Hugh McKinnon is an important song for Gretta and me.  For more details, take a look at:  https://convivio-online.net/grace/

#8   I can’t bring myself to replace “Hope of Deliverance” from Paul’s 1993 album “Off the Ground” because of its meaning in today’s world; so, let’s add another song from that LP: “Golden Earth Girl.”  I always loved this one: “in another world, someone over there is …”

#9   This is one of two songs (see also #11) of the many Sinatra songs that I loved over the years.  Interesting to me is that my sister bought Frank Sinatra records when she as in high school in the mid-1940s and I bought Sinatra records in the 1960s.

#10  Gotta have at least one by Elvis to represent dozens that belong on my list.  This one is borderline operatic.

#11  Not everybody knows that this song was a hit as sung by “Kermit The Frog” and by Frank Sinatra. Both versions belong on my list and both are on my iPhone.

#12  “Toccata in F,” by J.S. Bach, is the piece I have come to know as “The Waterfall Toccata,” providing the soundtrack to my many visits to Vernal Falls in Yosemite.  Click here for the Waterfall Toccata story: https://convivio-online.net/yosemites-vernal-falls-once-again-and-still/

#13  Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in A Minor” is one of the monumental pieces of music of all time (here “All Time” goes back to March of 1685). Try this — Dr. Roger Nyquist is the organist who taught me about these pieces at Santa Clara University in 1968: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdG-AmqS2GM

#14  This one represents the modern American spirit as it was before my generation came along.

#15  There has to be at least one Brubeck.  This is a good one, but here are so many …

#16  I replaced “Cakewalk Into Town” to make room for a group of songs that have come to mean a lot to me —  a live concert album by three Italian teenagers who call themselves Il Volo, in Italian: “The Flight.”  Gretta and I saw them live in SF in 2012.  Their initial concert album “Il Volo Takes Flight” contains at least two important songs to me: “O Sole Mio” (click here for details) and “La Luna Hizo Esto (click here for details)   “O Sole Mio” is world famous as a (mostly) Italian song, the title means “My Own Sunshine,” written by some people we’ve never heard of in 1898, but recorded my every Italian opera-style singer since that time.  Elvis Presley borrowed the melody for “It’s Now Or Never” (not a translation).  This recording by Il Volo is the best I’ve heard (including the one by Pavarotti).  The second, “La Luna Hizo Esto,” from the same album, means “the moon made it so.”  Take a look at the story of this concert album at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Il_Volo_Takes_Flight  There is a long story about how this group of singers got our attention, but that will have to wait for another time.

#17  This one is for every teenage boy who remembers first being fascinated with teenage girls.  We all grew up and moved on, but the song remains a monument to that time. 

#18  Composed in 1823, selected as the “Anthem of Europe” by the Council of Europe on January 19, 1972, and later as the national anthem of the European Union.  To me, it represents a belief that people from different cultures can join together and recognize a common humanity and a common destiny.  Recent events in Europe and elsewhere have cast some doubt on that belief; but we’ll have to see.  Take a look — this is how and where the song should be played: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo
I regret having replaced the Chuck Mangione song (click here), but “Ode To Joy” had to be on the list somewhere.

#19  This one does the same thing that #14 does, but for MY generation.  Both songs lament an important loss.

#20  I have to keep this one, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” from Paul’s first solo album after the breakup of The Beatles.  I was stunned that The Beatles were broken and began recording solo albums; and one line in Paul’s song made we want to argue with him.  The lines were: “Maybe I’m a lonely man who’s in the middle of something, that he doesn’t really understand.”  I wanted to call him up and say, “What do you mean ‘you don’t understand?’  You were part of The Beatles and even I understand THAT!  How come YOU don’t?”  OK, that would be rude.

What’s wrong with my list?
• Only one from Elvis, only two from Sinatra, only one Broadway show tune (!!!!!!!!), how did I forget “Graceland” (both Willie Nelson and Paul Simon) …
• No Moody Blues (but “Voices In the sky” belongs here, along with a dozen others)
• No John Mayor and no Pearl Jam (but it’s early and “All Time” is a very long time)
“Stop This Train” and “Just Breathe” belong on this list.
• No Peter, Paul, and Mary (inexcusable!)
• No Bob Dylan (but how many would it take?) Just for fun, try these two:


What’s excellent about my list?
• The Beatles are represented at the beginning, middle, and end of my list.
(OK, there could be 126 Beatle songs on my list, but such is life.)
• I finally got Richie Havens on the list
Bach and Beethoven make an appearance (sorry about Mozart).
Il Volo
No disco. You can thank me for that.

Thanks to those who contributed lists.  If you would like to add your list to this collection, please post it as a comment below.

Today’s ‘New Renaissance’

“Eppur si muove” (and yet it moves)
– Galileo Galileo
“There must be some kind of way out of here,
said the joker to the thief.”
— Bob Dylan (“All Along the Watchtower”
sung by Jimi Hendricks)
Is it possible for ‘progress’ to be a good thing
and a bad thing at the same time?
— PapaDan

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Good News and Bad News
In their book “The Age of Discovery,” published in May, 2016, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna defined our current age as a “New Renaissance.”  They observed that the forces at work during the period 1450-1550 in Europe (i.e., the “original Renaissance”) were very similar to the forces that are shaping our own time here in the 21st century.

During the “original Renaissance” (the one we learned about in school), Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Columbus, Copernicus, the Medici, Galileo, Michelangelo, Luther — just to name-drop the top level of superstars of the time — shaped the western world’s understanding of, well, everything.
Newly acquired knowledge and capabilities changed the world through:
• scientific discovery,
• advancements in art and architecture,
• observations and predictions of the behavior of the universe,
• unprecedented global navigation,
• and new views of the relationship of humans to ““the church” (and, therefore, to God).
All these had significant effects on employment, manufacturing and distribution, wealth and poverty, political power, belief and behavior, health and longevity, life and death, and the structure of society.

Oh, yes, and one more thing — arguably the most significant thing — Gutenberg’s printing press.   This invention made it possible for people everywhere to KNOW about all of those ‘Renaissance’ effects more quickly and cheaply than ever before and to acquire that knowledge UNFILTERED.  Before the use of those small metal letters, oil-based ink, and flat white paper, knowledge was the primary possession of The Church, since it alone had access to The Bible and whatever other knowledge that could be transmitted by written language.  Before that time, The Bible and other documents were produced slowly and laboriously in rooms full of monks who copied the text by hand with quill pens, creating the only copies of existing knowledge.  Church leaders decided who could see those documents and controlled their contents.  Gutenberg’s gizmo changed pretty much everything.  The centralized ability to control knowledge and, therefore, to control people, began to diminish dramatically.

Looking back, most people have agreed that these developments — this rebirth and dramatic expansion of knowledge to “the masses”  — represent the single greatest combination of human advancement and improvement in the lives of real people in the history of civilization.


And, of course, as the distribution of paper with little squiggly marks on it increased, it also enabled a dramatic increase in education of all kinds AND an expansion in the ability of people to participate in their governance and political decision-making.  Those are good things.


The Rest of the Story (as Paul Harvey used to say)
Last fall, a column appeared in the Washington Post, written by David Von Drehle.   In that piece, he made some simple observations and obvious comparisons that led him to a startling conclusion.  He started with our Gutenberg story — how a goldsmith in Germany found a way to reproduce identical copies of important information and distribute that knowledge cheaply and quickly across the world without the control of the “main-stream media” of the time.  He observed that nothing was ever the same after that invention.

So, what specific outcomes happened as a result of the use of the printing press?  He reminds us:
•   Lay people could own and read their own Bibles,
——-> The result was the Protestant Reformation
•   Scientists could record their observations to share with other scientists
——-> The result was the Scientific Revolution
•   Inventors could share their innovations with other inventors
——-> The result was The Industrial Revolution
•   Philosophers could spread their ideas to activists
——-> The many results included one particular document written in a distant European colony that begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …”

So, does any of that sound familiar to those of us who are paying attention here in the 21st century?  The comparison?  Von Drehl asserted, “When Apple unveiled its first smartphone in 2007, the company sparked a communications revolution likely to be as transformative as Gutenberg’s. It’s the nature of such seismic change to shake the institutions of culture and society to the ground.”

So, what happened?  The election of 2016 happened.  Von Drehl observes that 2016 was the first American election truly dominated by mobile communication and social networking.  As a result, information, the ideas that follow from that information, and the conclusions drawn from them were “set free.”  This development has made the world a much tougher place for people who have derived their power and influence from an ability to control information, ideas, and opinions, — like the leaders of political parties.  So, here comes Von Drehl’s dramatic conclusion:

Steve Jobs Gave Us President Trump


Did Anybody Warn Us?
Anyone who makes even a cursory study of the process and logic that led up to the writing of the US constitution, finds some awkward words coming from the Founding Fathers.  Much of the intent of the constitution derives from ideas found in The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with some help from John Jay, and the discussions that took place during the Constitution Convention of 1789.  Much discussion at that convention centered around the need to avoid the pitfalls that had caused previous attempts at democracy to fail by giving too much power to “the people.”  Here are a couple of excerpts:

  • James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10: “In a pure democracy, there is nothing to check the [influence of] the obnoxious individual.”
  • At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Edmund Randolph said, “…  in tracing the causes of past failures to their origin, every man had found [the causes] in the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
  • John Adams said, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
  • Chief Justice John Marshall observed, “Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”

In summary — the framers of the constitution were afraid of democracy, the extent to which it gave power to “the people.” As a result, they wrote a number of provisions into the constitution to protect the government from the ignorance and poor judgment of “the people.” The electoral college, for example, was designed as a layer of protection to ensure that the people will not be able to directly elect a president, without the guidance and restraint provided by an elite group of leaders (like themselves).  The reasoning — in the words of John Adams, “the people are likely to be easily brought under the influence of a demagogue if given unchecked power.”  Wow, did THAT ever backfire!  Similarly, the constitution, as originally adopted, provided that members of The Senate would be selected by the State Legislatures for that same reason — that the people are likely to make rash choices in difficult times without “adult supervision.”  Similar features are found throughout the document, some of which were later amended.

So today
The mobile communication and social networking made available by the innovations introduced by Steve Jobs (and others) made it possible for “the people” to access unfiltered information — regardless how wise or spurious it may be — to persuade each other in ways that appeared authoritative, and to make decisions that may or may not be in their own best interests or in the long-term interests of the republic.  Sounds like that is exactly what the founders feared.

So, here we are.

What do we do?  Does this mean that we have overdone this ‘democracy’ thing in America?  Is there something we should do to try to reverse some of its effects?  If history is a guide— and it usually is — I’d observe that the effects of the “original Renaissance” were more or less permanent.  So, perhaps, there’s no going back to a time when information could be owned and controlled?  AND I think most of us would agree that we would not want to return to a time when an “establishment” could control information and knowledge — even if WE were part of that establishment.  On the other hand, in a world of uncontrolled information, is there a way to give Americans the tools to recognize truth and wisdom when they see it and distinguish that from lies and foolishness?  Well, on another “other hand,” is it possible that “the people” stumbled on some wisdom in the Election of 2016 that some of the rest of us are just slow to recognize?  Is throwing out conventional wisdom and starting over a good idea?  We look back fondly on that achievement when they did that during the “original” Renaissance — back in the 15th century and the times that followed, right?  They overturned an oppressive and ignorant time and replaced it with some useful ideas.  In the long run, it turned out pretty good for us, here in the future.  Of course, it was pretty traumatic at the time for those who had to endure dramatic and disruptive changes, eh?  There was a period of pretty serious disorder.

So, was THAT RENAISSANCE a good idea?   What about THIS ONE?  Is it merely a difficult time we must endure to get to a better time?  Can we predict the long-term effects of the changes we are noticing today?  What will “the future” think of what we have done?  What will our grandchildren say when they are our age?  Will they be proud of us?

What do you think?

So, I guess we’re still working on it.  We’ll see.  


A Ride to Nana’s House




Dedicated to my timeless sister.




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Danville, California — A rainy Sunday afternoon was made to order for a trip to a museum; and just a few miles up the road in Danville, we’ve got the famous Behring Auto Museum.  Since we had never seen it, Gretta and I decided to spend the day strolling through one of the finest collections of classic sports cars on the West Coast.

The modern building has polished stone floors, elegant lighting, and two stories of magnificent cars — some of them one-of-a-kind, many specially built for royals or movie stars. After just a few minutes surrounded by the likes of a 1933 Alpha Romeo, the only existing 1911 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, and Howard Hughes’ black 1929 Duesenberg, I felt transported to another time.



Trying to visualize a street where cars like these were actually driven took some serious imagining.  But when I literally (ooops!) bumped into the magnificent 1931 red-orange convertible Packard 840 Deluxe Eight, my imagination was fully engaged.  I pictured myself face to face with Jay Gatsby in his circular West Egg driveway, one foot on the running board, adjusting the mirror strapped to the spare tire, polishing it with the handkerchief from the breast pocket of his white linen suit.  The uniformed security guard didn’t much like the fact that I had accidentally touched the classic, “Please be careful, sir.  We much prefer that you not touch … ”

Yes, I’m sorry, it sorta snuck up on me.”
I grinned but he was not amused. So I offered
what I thought wound be an additional apology:
“This one is just stunning, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir. The Packard does bring a person
back to a more … interesting … time.”  His
expression suggested that he had some
experience with that time — and he seemed
to prefer it to now.

“I bet you know these cars better than anyone, Mister  … uh …?”
“Yes, sir. Carraway, sir.”

“Do you ever get to drive these cars, Mister Carraway?  I mean, after hours maybe, when no one’s around?”

I WOULDN’T THINK OF IT, SIR!! He raised his voice a bit and looked me in the eye for the first time, as if I had accused him of something serious.  I grinned back at him as if to share a guilty secret.  He looked away thoughtfully, back to the Packard.  “Owners take some of them out from time to time, keeps them alive, so to speak.  But this one …  ”

“This one is different?”

“Yes, sir.  Different.  Special.  Has a life of its own and a tragic story.  Timeless, you could say.  Really should be driven regularly; it’s pretty smooth for an eighty-five-year-old.”  The first hint of a smile appeared and was quickly withdrawn.

“Now you’ve got me intrigued, Mister … uh … Carraway, you said.   Sounds like you’ve gotten to know this one.”    No reaction.     “I read in your brochure that they made only a few of these.  The sticker price was pretty steep — $3,200 was some real money in 1931, eh?  I wonder how many people could consider buying one of these in the depth of the Depression?”

“Only one that I knew at the time.”

“At the time  … ?”

The straight-faced guard looks at his watch, “Sir, you know it’s getting to be time to close.  You’ll forgive me if I begin.”

“Of course, I’ve taken too much of your time already.”

“Not at all,” he said, turning to leave.

Alright, I couldn’t resist —  “Mister Carraway, one more thing, if I may. If a respectful gentleman were to …  uh  …  linger here at closing time one day, if he were willing to wait a while, quietly  …  I wonder if it would be possible — not to drive it, of course, but when you  … perhaps  … uh …”

“Forgive me, sir, I really must close.”

“Of course, perhaps we’ll talk another time.”

He nodded but said only, “Good afternoon, sir.”   It was clear that I had been dismissed.

Over the next week I just couldn’t get that ’31 Packard out of my mind.  I imagined Mister Carraway locking the museum doors at closing time, setting the alarms on the public entrances, and slipping back to the shop area to retrieve the keys to the Packard.  In my melodramatic imagination, he would turn off the closed-circuit surveillance cameras, push the red-orange beauty through the back door into the shop, start it up, and drive it out into the back lot.  I wondered if he had the nerve to take it out into the public parking lot or even — NO WAY — out into the nearby residential neighborhood.  Of course, the fact that this magnificent vehicle would be completely out of place in this neighborhood and  … well  …  in this time, made it a ridiculous idea.  It isn’t something he could pull off unnoticed.

As the days passed, I became increasingly convinced that Mister Carraway did exactly that — and I indulged my outrageous fantasy that I could somehow join him on one of his rides.  But how?  Maybe if I did some research and showed up spouting a wealth of knowledge about the ‘31 Packard and not a little admiration, maybe he would be impressed by my love of the machine and its history and give me a ride.  It wasn’t a great idea, but it was the best I had; so, I turned to the Internet.

The results of my search were quite interesting.  It seems that Packard made a strategic decision to try to beat the effects of the market crash of ’29 by building a vehicle even more luxurious and more expensive than ever before.  They figured that those who still had that kind of money would want the most opulent model they could find and would abandon the mass-produced “luxury” cars like Cadillac, which they judged, would soon be going out of business. It sounded like a half-baked strategy to me; and it turns out that they badly misjudged the very small number who would survive the crash with that kind of money and ended up building and selling precious few of them.

So, ten days later, after doing my homework, I showed up on a weekday afternoon when I hoped there would be fewer visitors.  I found Mr. Carraway leaning against one of the “Please do not touch” signs, looking bored.  At the risk of being a pest, I greeted him: “Ah, Mister Carraway, nice to see you again.  Last week I fell I love with your ’31 Packard over there and I’ve done some reading.  It has a bit of a history.”

“Yes, sir, I remember your interest.  It does have quite a history.”  He followed me as I walked over to the red-and-orange beauty.

“I learned that the few who owned one of these included some big names — some Hollywood folks, some politicians, ‘captains of industry.’  I’d love to know who owned this one.”  I touched the hood gently with what I thought was proper respect.

“Sir, PLEASE.”  With a deep frown, Mr. Carraway took out a handkerchief and wiped my fingerprints off the hood and made a visible effort to quell his annoyance that I had been so presumptuous to have touched the Packard on purpose.

“I’m terribly sorry … I’ve done it again.  Please forgive my carelessness.  I know it’s no excuse but I do feel such a connection to this vehicle.  Makes me feel that somehow, we can connect to the world it comes from — something I’d love to do.”  With a thoughtful nod, he seemed to approve of my feeling of connection. So, I plunged into my strategy: “I read some stories on the Internet  — and I remembered that you mentioned a “tragic story.” I read about Jean Harlow and how she had a Packard like this one.   I was hoping to learn more.  I keep thinking about all the stories these cars could tell about the people who came before us. What do YOU think?”

He hesitated, then looked me in the eye;  it was 4:30 and the place was almost empty.  Before he could tell me it was time to leave, I continued, “I was hoping we could talk more about the tragic story you mentioned last week.”  To my surprise, he suggested that I wait here while he closed up shop.  “I’ll be a few minutes,” he said.

When he returned after securing the public entrances, he told me that none other than movie executive Paul Bern had bought this Packard for actress Jean Harlow on her 21st birthday in 1932 to celebrate the movie contract with MGM he had negotiated.  They were married that year but two months later he committed suicide.  And when she died suddenly only five years later, the car became he property of the MGM studio.”

“Oh, my.  I read that story — I was captivated.  So, THIS is the one!  What a privilege to see it!”

“The very one, sir.  The heirs donated it to the museum when it opened in 1988.”  He hesitated, seeming to make a decision about what to say next.   Finally, “It has some ‘remarkable features.’”

“So, it still runs.  Wow!  Remarkable features, you say?  Let’s see, I read that its larger valves, a special fuel pump, and a preheated fuel mixture increased its power and it was one of the first cars to exceed a top speed of 100 miles per hour.  Pretty remarkable for the 1930s.”

“Well, OK, you have done your homework.  Those are certainly some of its mechanical features,” — with a chuckle —  “but there is much more to this Packard than meets the eye.”

“Mister Carraway, I fear I’m being rude, but …  do you suppose …  I would like to get to know this wonderful heirloom, if I may … and you seem to know it well.”

Before I could find words to ask my outrageous question … he raised his hand and interrupted, “Sir …” and he stopped, looked around with a pained expression, apparently considering carefully what to say next.  With nobody within earshot, he bit his lip and looked me up and down carefully and then focused on my eyes.  “Sir, …  I will need your absolute assurance that what I’m about to show you will be our secret.”  After I agreed, he said quietly, “Please wait here …  and, Sir, PLEASE don’t touch anything” and he was off to fetch the keys.

The Packard started up with a metallic roar and he steered it off the exhibit floor, out the door to the maintenance bay and, to my surprise, drove us straight to the back of the parking lot and onto Blackhawk Plaza Circle.  After the familiar bend to the left, instead of the freeway on-ramp I expected to see, he turned right into a two-way country road I didn’t recognize.  He noticed my surprise, and said, “Where would you like to go?”

I answered with my best grin, “You’re in charge.  Where are we allowed to go?”

“Well, our travels are governed by two conditions.  One: we can drive anywhere there is a suitable paved road and you’ll notice ready that we are on a road that is unfamiliar to you.  That brings us to our second condition, which is not so much about “where” but “when.”

“Excuse me?”

“You will remember I told you this Packard has special features — this will be hard to believe, but I hope you will be quickly convinced.  I can’t explain why or how, but once this vehicle leaves the confines of the museum, it “lives” in the 1930s.  Back then, this town was primarily a farming community of about 2,000 people.  This rural road was replaced in the 1950s and 60s by a system of freeways; but in 1932, it wandered north and east through farmlands that you know today as Walnut Creek, Concord, Pittsburg, and Antioch.  As you read on the website, this car was owned by the actress Jean Harlow from her 21st birthday in March of 1932 until her death in June of 1937.  Outside of the museum, this car travels any time between those dates.”

I stared out the window at the green hills for a long minute, then turned back to him, opened my mouth to speak, then closed it and turned back to the window.  Finally, I took a deep breath and said, “Let me get this straight, you are telling me that you are a time traveler, is that right?”

“Yes, and by the end of the day that, today, here in Jean Harlow’s Packard, you will be a time traveler as well.  Now, how this all came about is a longer story for another time.  But for now, again, where and when do you want to go?  Does anything in the 1930s interest you?”

Once again, I stared out the window, trying to process this startling information.  (I thought, ‘what have I got to lose?  What the heck?)  “OK, so let’s say I believe you.  We seem to be heading toward where my sister and I grew up a long time ago,” I said.  “She was born in Pittsburg in 1932, a few miles from here.  Since I wasn’t there at the time — I was born much later —  can we go there … uh … then and have a look?”
“Sure  Have you got an address and a date?”

Where and When

My sister and I grew up in two very different households, although with the same parents.  Born in the middle of the Depression, hers was a depression-era blue-collar family.  Her father, Albert (known as “Al” or “AJ”) hadn’t finished the 8th grade and worked in the local steel mill.  Money was tight and Al and his wife Mae lived in a back bedroom in Mae’s parents’ house (‘Nana’s house’) on 12th Street in Pittsburg and they didn’t own a car.  By the time I came along in 1950, Dad was making serious money as an insurance agent and they lived on Manville Avenue on the other side of town.  My sister, Anita Mae, was born in Nana’s bed in the house on 12th Street.  It was a big house and it was full of family.  Her five-year-old Uncle Tony, the youngest of nine children, called her ‘Honey Bunny’; and the name stuck — shortened to “Bunny” — all her life.

“Mister Carraway,” I said, “How about 12th Street in Pittsburg, October 12th, 1932, at 11:20 pm.  It’s a corner house with wide plank steps up to a front porch.”

“That’s pretty specific.  What’s happening?”

“I was told that my sister was born in the front bedroom of that house on that day, at that time.”

We pulled up to the house on 12th Street at 11:20 pm and the only light shone through the window on the front porch to the right of the front door. And there’s the porch swing I remembered.  I could hear voices from through the door.  “Wow! That’s the front bedroom.  I remember it from when I was a kid.”  Looking at my watch, “It’s time.  My sister is being born right now in that room.  …  So, now what?

“Well, there’s not much to see from here.  Probably shouldn’t get out of the car.  Remember, you’d just be an intruder this time of night.  It would be very dangerous to interfere.”

“Right.  Nobody in there would know me.  I don’t join the family for another 17 years.  This is pretty weird, Mr. Carraway.  Pretty weird.”   To my surprise, he agreed.

He drove around the corner and pulled over to the curb, the big V8 engine idling.  I’m thinking, ‘what can I do with this opportunity?’  This house is where my sister and my parents lived for another three years or so before they could afford to rent rooms from the Grabstein family on East 7th Street.  They lived there until about 1937, the year Bunny skipped from kindergarten to the second grade — she had already learned to read — when they moved and rented an upstairs flat with an outside entrance from the Permesso family on 4th near York Street and Dad bought his first car.  It wasn’t until about 1940 or so that they moved to the house on Manville — where they lived when I was born.  So, I took a shot in the dark …

“I know I’ve taken a lot of your time already; but can we try one more thing?”

“Sure,” he smiled,”I’ve got time.  We’ll be able to pick the time we want to return to the museum.  Name it.”

Back around the corner, same house, a year or so later?  Maybe a Saturday afternoon?  Maybe we’ll see someone.”



So, we drove around the block, to daylight on the same corner, and … THERE THEY WERE!  A little girl — my sister about a year or so later — appearing to be taking her first wobbly steps and her mother — my mother long before I knew her — taking pictures with a big clunky camera.





Mr. Carraway’s big grin betrayed that he was
as thrilled with this time-travel stuff as I was.  “Let’s try one more.  Pick another one.”

I remembered an old family photo with a Mother’s Day story — “OK.  another shot in the dark. Let’s try May 12, 1935, a Sunday afternoon.”

Around the block we went again and there  was my sister in the front yard, a serious three-year-old all dressed up for Mother’ Day.

Of course, I had an almost overpowering urge to get out of the car, walk up to my mother and sister and introduce myself — wouldn’t that be something!  But I recalled Mister Carraway’s caution when we first arrived: “… it would be very dangerous to interfere.”  As I looked at this scene from long ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I did ‘interfere.’  How much trouble would I cause?  I imagined the obvious:, that I would risk changing the past.  If that happened, I supposed it would change the future — that is, the “present” that I intended to return to back at the museum?  The possibilities were immediately frightening and I forcefully put it out of my mind.

Mister Carraway interrupted my pondering — “OK, I think we got what we came for.  This fancy car’s going to attract some attention.  Doesn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood, if you know what I mean.  We should head back.”

“Right.  Mister Carraway, this has been incredible, so much more than I imagined possible.”

The ride back to Danville on that country road was pretty quiet.  I had trouble finding words for the experience of visiting the 1930s.  Looking at the house I loved as a kid, Nana’s house, long before I knew it, was simultaneously familiar and completely foreign.  I had wanted to stop and talk to my young mother and “little” sister, walk up the steps where I used to pretend to speak to a cheering crowd (like I saw in the movies).  I wanted to sit on the porch swing just as I had done as a kid in the 1950s; but, as Mister Carraway said, I would have been a stranger, an intruder.

On the ride back to ‘the present,’ I remembered with great irony, that my nephews and I used to sit in that porch swing in the late 1950s and exercise our lively imaginations.  Visiting Nana’s house when I was nine and my two oldest nephews were seven and five, we pretended that the swing was a magic bus.  We used to dial up where we wanted to go.  We would sing a little jingle from a TV toothpaste commercial and it would take us wherever we wanted to go — just like this magnificent 1931 Packard had done “today.”


If only we had known.












Baby Danny (me) and my sister Bunny     Bunny, her husband Joe, and one of their sons,

in that front yard, 1950.                          Stephen, on one of several “Magic Buses” from that era.






Bunny, more recently







The In Crowd



“You ain’t been nowhere
’til you’ve been in
with The In Crowd.”

— Dobie Gray (lyrics by Billy Page



Click here to download a PDF of this post: ConVivio_The_In_Crowd_Mar29_2018

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Last week, a friend of mine lamented the fact that some important content she was interested in was available only on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  The bad news was that this content happened to be the marketing material from the publisher of her soon-to-be-released book.  The problem, in her words, was this: “I don’t do social media and don’t intend to start!
After some thought, I replied, “It seems to me that everyone assumes these days that we are all is hooked up to these social-media websites; and, if you aren’t, you don’t have a clue what’s going on.    It’s like the new ‘In Crowd.’ “
And then a memory popped into my head — “Remember the song from back in the day …”

An Old Song Pops into My Head

Let’s drift back a moment to 1964.  Every Saturday morning on radio station KYA, my favorite disc jockey, Emperor Gene Nelson, would count down the “Top 30 Hits” for that week.  A lot of new songs were introduced on those Saturdays; and it was absolutely essential for us 14-year-olds to keep up with the latest music.  High school was a big change for me.  After eight years in the same school, in the same class with pretty much the same faces, the transition from being an 8th grader to being a High School freshman was intimidating.

My freshman class had ten times as many kids as my 8th-grade class had.  I knew thirty-some kids and the rest of the 300-some kids in the Freshman class were strangers.  But, even as a stranger, like other 9th-graders, I quickly realized that listening to the right music would be required to fit in to my new world.  So, I listened carefully — to the Beatles, The Stones, The Supremes, Leslie Gore, The Dixie Cups, The Dave Clark Five, Dusty Springfield — to all the music Emperor Nelson played on KYA.

With all that in mind, one Saturday morning, The Emperor introduced a new song that got my attention.  The song was “The In Crowd.”  Coming from a school where I had always known everyone, the idea of an “In Crowd” was new to me.  The big, bold voice of Doby Gray sounded like a voice of authority.


Here is what the song said:

The In Crowd
By Dobie Gray (recording released December, 1964); lyrics by Billy Page



















Not all of the ideas in the song were new.  I already knew that some 8th graders were considered more “cool” than others (certainly more “cool” than I was); and “cool” usually meant exhibiting behaviors that other kids admired.  I remember a friend of mine, Michael Savage, (who had an older brother who could teach him “cool”) showed up one day in the 8th grade with “a new way of walkin’,” like the song said.  When he walked across the courtyard at school, with his slow, purposeful gait and aloof expression, he caught the admiring eye of those of us who were “less cool.”

So, back then, I suppose we 8th-graders had a sense that some of us were especially “in”;
but the following year when the song came out, to my 9th-grade ears, some of these “In Crowd” song lyrics revealed ideas that separated those who were “in” from the rest of us. Two examples:
First:  it hadn’t occurred to me that some people “know what the in crowd knows” and presumably, those were things that I didn’t know, and
Second:  apparently, the chosen few “go where the in crowd goes” and “if it’s square, we ain’t there.”
I wasn’t completely sure what “square” meant — except that I suspected that “square” included attributes that I probably had and included places that I went.  (Uh, maybe places like the library or the store where I supplied my stamp collection?  I suppose they were “square.”)

As I became more accustomed to high school, some of the lyrics were actually troubling:
the assertion that “our share is always the biggest amount” didn’t sit well with my teenage sense of fairness and I wondered, as an outsider, ‘what earned you that biggest share’ — other than trivial stuff like “our own way of walkin’ ” and “our own way of talking’.”  The song assigned behaviors to those of us who were not in “The In Crowd” that I didn’t like:

They make way day or night
They know the in crowd is ‘out of sight.’

Who said I was going to “make way” for anyone?”  On reflection (or what passed for ‘reflection’ in a 14-year-old), “Spendin’ cash, talkin’ trash” did not sound like something worthy of respect.

As time went on, and this Freshman became a Sophomore, and so on, other bits of evidence confirmed my suspicion (and hope) that there were other ways to earn respect — things like getting good grades, succeeding at athletics, reading books, joining clubs, being a good friend, etc.  The music continued to be important to me (and I learned to keep quiet about my Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett records), but I came to realize that a narrowly defined “in crowd,” that merely imitated approved “cool” behaviors, was not particularly appealing.  I considered that a person, even in high school, could be part of more than one “crowd.”  One of my teachers had a sign on the classroom wall that I copied into my notebook.  It said:

“They laugh at me because I’m different.
I laugh at them because they are all the same.”

Fast Forward to Today
So, as I mentioned, these “In Crowd” lyrics from 54 years ago did not spring into my memory out of nowhere.  The pervasive nature of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media seems to have created a new “in crowd.”  While digital media was originally promoted as being inclusive; in fact, the “In” and ”Out” feature of digital social media seems to have grown more exclusive.  Has Facebook become a new “In Crowd?”  We have learned lately that there are things we have to give up to be a member of that crowd.

Looking at this topic through the lens of today, I think we can hear these lyrics in The News that we hear every day.  We seem to be surrounded by people who want us to believe that we must be members of a particular exclusive “in crowd” or we are not properly American.  Some promote the idea that the survival of that American “in crowd” requires its members to exclude people who are different.  Are we being fed an exclusive “In-Crowd-First” philosophy?

The optimist in me wants believe that the kind of exclusive “In Crowd” behavior we saw as teenagers of 1964 eventually disappears with age and is replaced with something more sensible and grown up.  There is evidence, however, that my optimism may be naïve.  Is today’s “in crowd” mentality growing rather than receding?  Is it dangerous?  How divisive can it get?

But, I do notice that some crowds are emerging with more inclusive intentions — crowds like “Enough is Enough” and “Never Again.”  Some of the most articulate and welcoming spokespersons of those crowds are not much older than I was in 1964 and they are starting to emerge as the “grown-up” voices of our time.  And the crowds, just last weekend, have been quite large.  Do these “in crowds” offer just another short-lived “new way of walkin’ ”  and ” new way of talkin’ ” as they did in my youth?

Or is something more enduring, more inclusive, perhaps more promising, on the horizon?

Baseball 2018

There are only two seasons:
Winter and Baseball.”
         — Bil Veeck

“Baseball is ninety percent mental
and the other half is physical”
— Yogi Berra


Click here to download a PDF of this post:  ConVivio_baseball_Feb2018_Final


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Here in February, the day Lou Seal shows up at my granddaughter’s school in San Francisco, in full uniform, you KNOW baseball is just around the corner.  Why did he appear at Quinn’s school?  Was it to introduce young people to the magic of baseball and the optimism that spring training embodies? The timing is clear: Spring Training is about to begin and, once again, it’s magic.  All you have to do is say the words “Spring Training” and serious baseball fans can feel the magic.

Disclaimer: I was a basketball player.  It was the only sport I was any good at, but I grew up loving baseball — I watched it ever since 1961 when my brother-in-law Joe Faletti took me and my nephews to my first Giants’ game at Candlestick Park;  I listened to Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons describe it on the radio; I lived and died by the fortunes of My Giants.  Baseball mattered to a kid growing up in the 1950s/60s in Antioch, CA.  It became personal. [Click here for my personal, brief baseball history.]

In baseball, the approach of Spring Training is a hopeful time — no scores yet, no losses, no strikeouts or disappointments.  Even after My Giants’ dreadful 2017 season (we’re not gonna talk about that) the slate is clean and all things are possible.  In 2016, my son Matt and his wife Nou took Gretta and me to our first Spring Training in Arizona.  It was a sweet gift.  [Click here for that story]  Now I grant you, today I am deeply involved in the Warriors’ effort to win another NBA championship.  That’s a very big deal.  But baseball is something more.
So, what is this Giants fan thinking about here in February, 2018?

To get us ready, let’s listen to some (mostly) REAL baseball people who have gone before us:

  • George Will:  “Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.”
  • Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones from “Field of Dreams”): “And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.  They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.  And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. “
  • Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham:  “Well, you know I … I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big-league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t. That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish.”
  • Ted Williams:  “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”
  • Gerald R. Ford:  “I watch a lot of baseball on the radio.”
  • Jim Bouton:  “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and, in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

It’s About Memories

It turns out that a lifetime of baseball is a lifetime of memories.  If you’I bet you have plenty of your own.  As a kid standing in the right field bleachers at Candlestick Park during batting practice, I remember when Willie Stargel of the visiting Pittsburg Pirates hit a ball over the right field fence into a gaggle of kids hoping to snatch the ball.  After the ball bounced off the concrete, I remember seeing a hand reach up out of the bunch and grab the ball.  What a surprise to learn that hand belonged to my nephew Steve Faletti, who walked away with the baseball.  For me that same day, what kind of thrill was it to stand behind the centerfield fence about twenty feet from the greatest player of all time: Willie Mays?

So many memories followed that one.



On the evening of July 2nd, 1963, I finished my homework listening to a pitching duel between Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves and Juan Marichal of My Giants on the “leather radio” my dad had given me.  By the time I needed to go to bed the score was 0-0 starting the ninth inning.




I couldn’t turn it off with that score, so I snuck my transistor radio under the pillow and decided to hear the end of the game in bed.  Twenty-five-year-old Juan Marichal came out and continued his shutout in the tenth and, to some surprise, forty-two-year-old Warren Spahn did the same. Turned out that the dual shutout continued until, with my transistor radio still in my ear, Willie Mays hit a walk-off home run into the late-night darkness in the bottom of the 16th inning. The next morning the SF Chronicle quoted a dejected Spahn as saying, “I threw him a screwball and it just hung there, it didn’t do a damn thing.” When asked if he was surprised that is manager kept him in the game so long, Spahn growled “If that kid can pitch 16 innings, I sure as hell can.”


OK, fast forward 54 years to May 12th, 2017 — 25-year-old Giant catcher Buster Posey comes up to bat, this time at AT&T Park, in the bottom of the 17th inning against the Reds. Same story —  Buster hit a similar walk-off home run over a different left-field fence. Willie (age 86) and Buster (25) got to talk about it (below). [Read the story.]  On this night, however, nobody pitched a complete game — alas, such is the nature of the game here in the 21stcentury.










The Nuschler
Another Giant favorite, Will Clark, was known as “Will the Thrill” from his days playing high-school ball in Louisiana.   He lived up to that name in his first major-league at-bat hitting a home run off Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan in 1986.  He went on to hit 35 homers in 1987, leading his (and My) Giants to the playoffs for the first time since 1971.  But my enduring memory came at the end of the 1989 NL playoffs when he hit the ball up the middle to drive in the game-winning runs sending them (us) to the World Series. But, that series turned out, well … we’re not gonna talk about that.
But I digress.  Where was I?  Oh, yes …




The Nuschler” (from his actual middle name) is the name given to Clark’s “Game Face” during his rookie year with the Giants, a face described by a teammate as a combination of confidence, satisfaction, arrogance, and just plain oblivion.”




Giant Plans to Make New Memories in 2018
A whole bunch for things need to go right for my team to be a playoff contender this season.  Let’s face it, last year (64-98) is a tough experience to build on (we’re not gonna talk about that).  But, in the spirit of the ‘new beginning’ that Spring Training always promises, there is hope.

Thing One — Pitching: Madison Bumgarner.  He needs to pitch well enough to be in the running for the Cy Young Award.  He needs to start 30 games and My Giants need to win more than 20 of those to be contenders.   Period.  Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija can certainly be expected to improve as are Chris Stratton and Ty Blach to round out the starting staff with Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez lurking in the wings.  (There has been recent talk about a return of Tim Lincecum, but that’s still just talk.)  So, no question the pitching staff must step up and there’s no reason to doubt that possibility.  It’s Spring Training, right?)

Thing Two — Offense:  IF Bumgarner and the rest of the pitching staff come through as we hope, we’re going to need to score more runs than last year, right?  I’m looking for Jarrett Parker to step forward and improve on his .247 average and 23 RBIs.  He can do better than that.  We know that Hunter Pence is capable of improving on his 2017 numbers (.260, 67 RBI) as is “The Panda” (.220, 32 RBI).  The Brandons can be expected to top last year’s stats (Crawford: .250, 77 RBI, 14 HR; Belt: .241, 15 RBI, 18 HR).  Joe Panik can at least repeat his numbers (.288, 53 RBI, 10 HR). No need to worry about Buster Posey — we can count on at least his .320, 67 RBI, 12 HR numbers from 2017; and his handling of the pitching staff will, of course, be crucial.

Trade rumors are still circling, but as of Monday morning, rumors about Panik, Chris Shaw, and Tyler Beede seem to be quashed.  So, it looks like Panik (and his bat) will be starting at second base for the Giants.  According to the Chron, he is (and we are) happy about that.

The Giants signed two former Pirates — Outfielder Andrew McCutcheon and LH pitcher Tony Watson — among several players added this month.  They also announced 28 non-roster invitees to Training Camp and, as in the past, some pleasant surprises may emerge from that list.

Thing Three — Groan-Ups Meddling with the Rules:  Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced on Monday that new rules are in place to speed up the pace of MLB games this season.  The plan is to limit trips to the mound (six per game by coaches and players), reduce the time allotted for pitching changes, and shorten the breaks between innings (by five seconds).  You won’t believe the specific times and circumstances listed in the new rules (and, believe me, you don’t want to know).  But, resisting this rising tide of time-slicing, the players union rejected the idea of a 20-second pitch clock.  Whew.

And what problem are they trying to solve?   Last year’s games averaged 4½ minutes longer than 2016.  Here is my editorial comment à à  à I think this effort to speed up the game is … well … bull-babble (did I make up a new word?).  The game was intended to be slow-paced and thoughtful.  These rule changes and the attempt to gain back that 4 ½ minutes are ridiculous.

So, there!

Thing Four — What Does Vegas Say?:   Odds makers have established an early favorite to win the 2018 World Series.  Before I tell you their prognostication, let me tell you an important part of my upbringing.  You may be surprised to hear that I grew up having two favorite baseball teams:
1. The San Francisco Giants
2. Any team that happens to be playing against the LA Dodgers on any particular day.

With that in mind, who does Las Vegas predict will win the World Series in 2018?
We’re not gonna talk about that!

P.S.  And, of course, this one — technically in my lifetime — is still my favorite memory:


Watch Bobby Thompson’s
“Shot heard round the world,” in 1951
The New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers
to advance to the World Series.
(Yes, the voice is Russ Hodges)






And one final quote, from Yogi Berra: “It’s fun; baseball’s fun.”

We could all use more of that fun, d’ya think?

The Good Old Days?


Nothing is more responsible for ‘The Good Old Days’ than a bad memory.”
      — Franklin P. Adams

“These are ‘The Good Old Days.’ ”
— Carly Simon




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We’ve All Heard It— Or Said it — Some Version of It

I’ve heard it a number of times lately, in various forms, by people of different ages or with very different points of view — myself included — some version of:

“How did we get here?  Things were never this bad back in _____________”
(and here we fill in the blank with our version of ‘a better time’)

Mighta been “back in the 1950s, when I was a kid,”  Or maybe “back in my thirties when my kids were little.”  Some might offer: “The 1970s, when I was a kid.”   Or “at the peak of my career when I was at the top of my game.”  Or “back when movies were better” or “back when the government worked better” or “when I could hit consistently from the three-point-circle.”  Or how about “when the world (or the country or the city or the neighborhood) was safer (or cleaner, friendlier, easier to understand or had less traffic)?”  Or “two years ago, before  . . . ”

You know: “The Good Old Days.”  You remember.

I suspect each generation can recall a decade or a year (or a month or a day or even a place) when/where the things that are annoying or troublesome or frightening about today were NOT happening (or at least did not seem so annoying or troublesome or frightening in our memory).  Do you have a memory of such a time — a time that you remember as being better than today in some way?  I bet you have some images in your mind that represent what was better about that time.  Were the people better, more reliable, more friendly, smarter?  Were the choices available to you more appealing back then?  Easier to achieve?  Less of a struggle?  More fun?  Did stuff make more sense to you?  Were those times really better?

A Well-Used Example

People my age (the ‘baby-boom’ generation) like to talk about the 1950s and early 1960s, remembering it as a time of stability and simplicity, when music was more harmonious, when post-war America was expanding its prosperity and influence in the world and building lots of shiny new things — cars and highways, and buildings, and corporations, and …  stuff.  Maybe we remember that we liked our neighborhood better somehow.

Just for fun, let’s take a look at that time, just was an example.  We’ve got pictures …
















Some of us remember the time before seat belts, riding in the back of station wagons and pick-up trucks. It was a time when there weren’t so many rules; but I guess we don’t want to think about the danger we were in every day. Seat belts started showing up at the end of the 1950s and many of us actually started using them in the mid-1960s.

Other memories come to mind from that era —








Remember when eight-track stereo (above, left) started showing up in cars about 1964?  And when they were replaced by cassette players in the late 1970s? Yes, this was way before CDs (1982).  But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Here’s what really mattered at the end of the 1950s:



Before any of us cared about cars, here is how you found your friends in the neighborhood in the 1950s.  Here, they’re all down the street at Kelly’s (he had a swimming pool).







And do you remember when you (OK, your parents) could drive up to a hamburger place (like A&W or the “Panther Drive-In” in Antioch) and the ‘Car Hop’ would come out to the car (sometimes on roller skates) and serve your food on one of these window trays?  (What do you mean you never went to the Panther Drive-In in Antioch?  There was a time when it was the center of the universe. Didn’t you know?)

Me?  OK, I hung out at Fosters Freeze.













Surely you remember when every business had a cash register like this one on the left?  Maybe you started using an Instamatic camera with flash cubes to take photos around 1963?  (It used film — remember film?)  But, most important of all was the transistor radio, above on the right.  I’m sure you, like me, listened to the San Francisco Giants (as described by Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons) on one of these.  And, on Saturday mornings, I listened as Emperor Gene Nelson counted down the Top 30 songs on KYA.  Then in the late evening on KYA, Big Daddy Tom Donohue played those same songs and read commercials for Clearasil (the Acne Cream).  He would sign on at the beginning of his show with these words: “This is your Big Daddy Tom Donohue.  I’m here to clear up your face and mess up your mind.”  No fooling, he actually said that every night — don’t you remember?

“The Fifties” Come Into Sharper Focus

Those are some of the things that I remember about that era.  I claim that “The Fifties,” the fabled time of stability, predictability and good times, lasted from 1950 until November of 1963.  After that, troubling, unexpected things started happening — or maybe I just became more aware of a wider world with more complexity and danger than I had seen before.  I learned that America was in a mortal struggle against The Soviet Union who, we were told, wanted to kill us all with nuclear weapons because they believed that we wanted to kill them with those same weapons.  When we practiced diving under our desks at school in the event of a nuclear attack, I became painfully aware that the wider world was a threat to us right here in my town.

On the evening news, Walter Cronkite starting telling us some very disturbing things including the fact that my hero at the time had been murdered on the streets of Dallas.  When I showed up in high school in 1964, I began to learn that wars were brewing all over the world and Americans not much older than me were being sent to fight in those wars.  I learned that while I was having my stable and secure childhood in my peaceful California town, others in my own state lived in towns that had bloody race riots.  The only people of color I met growing up were the housekeepers who worked for my mother and basketball players who played for Pittsburg High School in the town next to ours.  I wondered why there were no Black students in my high school and none seemed to live in my town.  It wasn’t until 1968 — about the time that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered — that I learned that a class-action lawsuit had been filed against realtors who had conspired to make sure that no Blacks moved into Antioch.  I remember being shocked and embarrassed as I packed up to go away to college.

Every day, it seemed, there was more distressing news and I became increasing aware that my own stable and peaceful life was an exception, not the rule, and I was living in the middle of troubled times across my country and around the world.

Well, so much for my example of “The Good Old Days.”

Waiting?  What Might We Learn?

Just as we learn that it’s foolish to look back and wish for a return to “good old days” we think we remember, it also turns out to be foolish to wait for better days ahead.  A song I remember from 1971, written and sung by Carly Simon, advises us to invest our energies into making TODAY the best it can be.  The song, “Anticipation,” tells us that pinning our hopes on the future is wasteful.  She wrote:

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin’

She offers this advice:
I’m no prophet and I don’t know nature’s ways
So I’ll try and see into your eyes right now
And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days
These are the good old days. These are the good old days.
These are the good old days.

I take her advice to suggest that we have to invest in THIS day.  I observe that there is much to like about today — I am surrounded by people who matter to me and who make my life matter.  If today is not what we want it to be, we, along with those close to us, have the responsibility to make it better.

My conclusion?  The past and the future are both flawed.  THESE are the only “Good Old Days” we get.   Maybe they’re only as good as we make them.

The MAN: Lew Turns 68



Lewis Frazier Bell: “The MAN”
An inspiration to us all.






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Happy Birthday, Luigi

On November 3rd, 1997, I wrote you a letter entitled “The MAN.”  It was my attempt at expressing my admiration for you after knowing you for nearly thirty years.  We met in the dorm at Santa Clara University in the fall of 1968 and you had been an inspiration to me ever since.  Some time later, I was given the privilege of reading it to you at your birthday dinner.



Sitting across the table,
celebrating your birthday.





You had written to me that you were taking two days off as a reward for working some long hours.  You had been sick.  Now that you were feeling better, you had a view of work I had not experienced.  Here is the letter I wrote and read to you across the dinner table on your birthday:


Good for you!  I am glad that you are taking these two days off.  You mentioned an idea that I had not considered: that right now you feel that you “get to do this.”  I suppose it was exhilarating to do 14 hours at work for three weeks and breathe in the accomplishment of it — after so many months of recovering from being sick.  When we are working too hard we dream of working “only” eight hours a day, five days a week.  When we are not working at all we dream of being so valuable and so good at what we do that we have to work 14 hours a day.  Perhaps you had to prove to yourself that you could do it again.

Well, I hope you have proven everything to everyone to your satisfaction and can settle into something more regular and sensible.  You have proven to me (years ago, continually, and all over again) that you have a huge capacity for work and accomplishment — for quality and quantity, and more.  You can dish it out, take it, and dish it out some more — you have stared this life in the face and shouted, “Give me more to accomplish, send me more hurdles to jump over, there, take that, and that; I can do it all, and then some!

Want me to become a valued professional?  Done it.
Want me to raise a magnificent son?  Done it.
Be part of a great family?  Done it.
Maintain a long and solid marriage?   Doing it every day.
Support, encourage and inspire friends?  Done that too.
Make everybody’s life better because they know me?   Done it.  Doing it.
How about if I quit smoking?  Done it.
Learn to make wine, great wine?  Check.
How about learn to become a computer artist and photo designer in my spare time?  Check.
Want me to beat cancer?  Done it.
Want me to do it again?  BRING IT ON!  I’ll drink it dry, make some more, design a label, bottle it, and drink THAT dry!”

THAT’S what I have heard from you over these years, Lewis Frazier Bell.  You can look this world in the face once again and say, “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone, including myself.  I’m the MAN!”

And then, you can drive to work in Monterey and “experience the most beautiful morning . . . layers of pink and blue and white and yellow and rust and lime green and red and sand and aqua and purple and…..  The day was perfect in Sand City.” [your words]

Drink deep, Luigi, you’re The MAN!

AND ME?    I get to turn and look at that same world and say with pride:
“See that?  That’s my friend.”


So, it’s your birthday again and it’s 2018

This year, you and I turn 68.   Sixty-eight!  Could we have imagined that, back in the dorm fifty years ago?   But here we are. Since those days, we have a string of memories.  Topping the list, you and your lovely wife, Rita, raised an amazing son — a giant of a man — a surgeon, a hero.  All three of you were there with us at our wedding in Yosemite. You were there at many family events. You and Rita and Gretta and I went to Europe and visited Varenna, on Italy’s Lake Como, and took the train to Southern France.  We ate some great food and drank some wine (it’s what we do), and I’ll never forget.



Dan & Gretta’s wedding,







Ben’s wedding,
San Francisco








The terrace at Albergo Milano
Varenna, Lake Como, Italy





Thank you, Lew, for being you   —   Happy Birthday!

With Our Love,

Dan & Gretta

An Optimist Looks At 2018

“I’m an optimist.  I tend to believe that, at some point, common sense and justice
will prevail, at least for a while.
I was raised to believe that you
can make good things happen.
Let’s face it, nobody gets out of here alive.
So, if today isn’t to our liking, it’s on us to
own it and make it better. We have more than enough people trying to make it worse.”
— PapaDan

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2017 was a strange year

An optimist might be hard pressed to use 2017 as a guide for deciding what to expect from 2018.  Events in 2017 were certainly not predictable from evidence provided by 2016.  For most of the year, how many predicted the outcome of the election, the reversal on the Paris Climate Accord, the childish name-calling that emerged in public discourse, a disparaging attitude toward the victims of natural disasters, and the threat of war around the world.  Nobody expected that 2017 would be a year of women’s empowerment with a long list of male celebrities falling from power and influence after revelations of sexual misconduct.  And, those stories are NOT over yet.  None of them.  An optimist has to look elsewhere to make predictions.

This Optimist’s Predictions for 2018

So, with 2017 as an unreliable body of evidence, how can we decide what to expect from 2018?  Here are some things that this optimist expects are possible.

We’ll start with the important stuff:
The Academy Awards: “The Post” will win the award for Best Picture. How could it miss —  it highlights the value of courage, the importance of the press in holding the powerful accountable, and the indispensable role of a woman pushing against daunting obstacles — the perfect messages for our times — AND it stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks!  Bet the farm on it.  (OK, so I predicted “La La Land” would win last time; and I was right for about 30 seconds.)

The Grammy Awards: I haven’t the faintest idea, since I haven’t heard of most of the nominees. — although the album “Tony Bennett Celebrates 90” sounds promising.

The NBA Championship — The Warriors will win — nuff said.  (How many players can share the MVP award?)

The World Series —  I can’t comment on the outcome of a World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers; it violates every principle of “The Optimist Creed” (take a  look here) that used to hang on the wall in my Dad’s office.  So, I am required to predict that My Giants will win (maybe . . . someday).

The Super Bowl —  I really don’t care, except that I hope football will continue to decrease in popularity, starting at the local school-district level and permeating upward.  (BUT, Nancy has a terrific Super Bowl Party that MUST continue! — It’s all about the commercials and the wine.)

Now, Let’s Get Serious  . . .

The U.S. Economy:
Paid family leave will become increasingly widespread — On January 1st, New York joined California and other states requiring paid family leave in more categories of employment.

The (new) Great American Migration begins — Silicon Valley and Wall Street will follow Amazon’s example and open major campuses in American regions where unemployment is high and real-estate prices and taxes are low. Depending on how fast and how thoroughly this strategy plays out, this migration could change  . . .  well  . . .  everything we currently understand about American life from politics to economics to regional culture.

Cost of Living vs Income — Minimum wages are rising in some 18 states at the start of 2018 (ranging from $7.95 in Missouri, to $13.50 in parts of California, to $15.45 around Seattle).  The Great Migration mentioned above will strengthen this trend.  The U.S. inflation rate is predicted to hover around 3.2% in 2018 (up a bit from 2017); BUT, the coming budget deficits caused by “tax reform,” may dramatically inflate the inflation rate nationally.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Home purchases and mortgages  — High house prices left over from 2017 are likely to stay high. People who live in places that lose historic industries (say, coal mining) will find it expensive to move where the jobs are and those opportunities are likely to require different skills and more education.  With all the rebuilding that will be necessary after the  hurricanes and fires, housing will be a challenge for the working class. We’ll have to see how/if the “Migration” works out.

The stock market will continue to rise, and even more sharply as corporate tax cuts take effect.  Some will continue to assert (citing “alternate facts”) that profits reflected in stock prices lead to increases in hiring and wages.  Economic history teaches that employers don’t hire employees because they receive a tax cut.  Hiring has been stimulated primarily by one overarching feature: customers with money in their pockets.  Therefore, the factors likely to lead to large-scale hiring are mostly absent from the business outlook for 2018.  Instead, the market boom will continue to result in higher dividends for shareholders and profitable mergers that lead to consolidation (read: layoffs).  THEN, corporate celebrating will be interrupted by an Autumn sell-off like the one in 1987.  Such a sell-off and the above-mentioned migration could confirm the disjointed relationship between the stock market and the rest of the economy.  Is that good news or bad news?  This optimist predicts the result will be a dramatic election turn-about in November.

“The Mall” vs “Downtown” — A life-and-death struggle is developing between malls, with corporate stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom, and locally owned downtown shops.  AND both of these business models are threatened by Amazon-style online shopping.  Will online commerce drive local stores out of business?  How many?  What will happen to the people working in those stores?  This optimist makes a two-stage prediction.  First, online shopping will continue to strain local stores well into 2018.  But, I expect large numbers of people to make the conscious decision to “shop local.”  We’ll get tired of sending online purchases back to Amazon because they don’t fit right or don’t look the same as they do online.  More shoppers will decide that they want to try on their purchases.  Amazon seems to agree, given their purchase of Whole Foods and Target. If that happens soon enough, local stores may continue to be the backbone of local economies.
Optimists are mixed on this.  We’ll have to wait and see.

World Events
The Korean Peninsula will begin to show peaceful signs by the end of January, despite the bellicose influence of the U.S. president in the region.
— On January 1st, Kim Jong Un extended an olive branch to South Korea, proposing discussions about the possibility of a North Korean delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. He expressed the goal of a “peaceful resolution with our southern border.”   South Korea agreed to high-level discussions on January 2nd.  Prediction: the U.S. will continue to become more isolated in foreign affairs as other nations — in Europe, Asia, and the Middle east — explore solving worldwide problems (like global warming, “a two-state solution,” and European cooperation) without the obstacles created by rhetoric from the U.S. president.  This promises to be both a problem (Step One) and a solution (Step Two) as an eventual rebalancing begins.

The Winter Olympics in South Korea — For two weeks in February the world will focus on the games alongside the warlike rhetoric of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.  Many have suggested that this event is a recipe for disaster in the current international climate (remember the massacre at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972?).  This optimist has come around to the view that, this time, the Olympics will actually do what they were intended to do — bring people together and lead to better understanding among people who look at the world through different eyes.  North and South Korea may come around to find common interests and make their own way without the superpower rhetoric that has kept them apart for the past fifty years.

A Royal Wedding  — Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle will be married in May.  It will be a day for Brits to enjoy their royal anachronism.  As usual, however, America’s top-level weirdness is interfering.  Will the Royal Family insist that the sitting American president be invited or will the groom simply invite his buddy Barack and cause another Trump-centered kerfuffle?  This optimist predicts that Obama will be invited to the wedding as a friend of the family and Trump will announce his rejection of the (not yet offered) invitation.  Most Brits will say good riddance, keep calm, and carry on. Trump will probably announce that the British Prime Minister will not be invited to his Fourth of July tea party at Club Mar-a-Lago.

Domestic Politics
Trump’s Approval Rating will dramatically increase to 25% after he resigns in June. Two possible reasons will be offered for his resignation: 1) for health reasons or   2) “It was always my intention to make Mike Pence President; so, this is another in my long list of successes.”

The American 2018 Mid-Term Election —  The November election will decide the control of the House and the Senate.  This Optimist predicts that Democrats will win a slim majority in both houses and begin efforts to restore America’s leadership in areas like global climate, science-based energy independence, a two-state solution in the Middle East, income equality, a sensible tax structure, and other urgent policy areas.  Prediction: in the short term, they will fail in many of those efforts.  The Trump (or Pence) Administration will stand in their way as best they can.  But, it will be a first step.  The work will continue in statehouses and city councils across America.  We’ll find out what we’re made of and it will take some time in the imperfect way we optimists always conduct ourselves.

We’ll see. This optimist expects to be surprised.

This optimist believes that the key to a better 2018 will not be found in the national news; it will have to come from the way we treat each other right here in our own neighborhoods and families.  While race, class, gender, and religion will continue to be a source of national and international conflict, the way forward must be local — in our selection of the people we choose to emulate — teachers, neighbors, you and me.  We can affect change, but we have to be patient.  I like a line I read from distinguished journalist Eric Sevareid near the end of his life:
“I’m sort of a pessimist about tomorrow and an optimist about the day after tomorrow.”

And as President John F. Kennedy said near the end of his inaugural address in January of 1961:
“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.
Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days,
nor in the life of this administration,
nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.”

Yes, the sun will rise in the morning, good people will do the work they do best, be a good friend, be a good parent. a good sister or brother — and oh, YES, drink some good wine.  Some will find ways to bring others along with them, helping those who need help and encouraging those who need only encouragement.  Optimists will take inspiration from those optimists who have gone before them — like Winston Churchill, who said:
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal:
it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Happy New Year!

The Winter Solstice: A Time for Review

The Winter Solstice has always been special to me, as a barren darkness that gives birth to a verdant future, a time of pain and withdrawal that produces something joyful, like a monarch butterfly extracting itself from its cocoon.
— Gary Zukav
“The Romans, like other [ancient] nations, had nature festivals celebrating the death of winter to the life of spring — the Winter Solstice, featuring the giving of presents, the lighting of a huge log, and the burning of candles.”
— Samuel L. Jackson

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New Realities Are Emerging
Perhaps, it is the time of year: The Winter Solstice — the shortest day of the year.  Since ancient times, the days between about November 21st and the new year have signaled a time for review and thoughtful reflection.  While I have tried over the past year to avoid writing about our corrosive politics, a few writers and a couple of thoughtful voices have offered a more dignified and insightful approach to our politics than we have seen elsewhere in the media. So, I thought I’d give it a try.  Two writers are worth a look:
•  Steve Israel wrote a column for CNN online called “Forget red vs blue states, this is the real battle in America
•  David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times on Nov.9 with the strange title,
The Existing Democratic Majority
(Click on the titles above for links to the original articles.)

Let me attempt to briefly extract the ideas that made me sit up and take notice.
1. In “Forget Red vs Blue,” Steve Israel makes a dramatic assertion: that the divided politics that became familiar to us during the Bush and Obama years have been utterly disrupted.  For years now, we had come to understand that all political issues and government decisions revolved around the divide between Red States and Blue States.  Regions dominated by Republicans supported a predictable array of policies and attitudes. Likewise, those dominated by Democrats also supported largely predictable positions.  With very little overlap, decisions came down to vote counts along that divide.  His analysis — today two very different groupings have emerged by which decisions are likely to be made.  We can call them “parties” if we want; but the designations “Democrat” and “Republican” no longer adequately define them.  Some call it a struggle between “populists” and “the establishment”; but those labels don’t tell the whole story either.  Steve Israel described them this way:

a)  “The Normicon Party” consists of people from both traditional parties who favor respect for civility, stable institutions, and recognized ethical expectations.  Normicons try to subordinate immediate emotion to long-held principles. Using a sports analogy, for them, politics is like boxing: “They may not watch it, but they understand the point of its rules, referees, and judges.” They prefer to maintain what most would recognize as “norms”

b)  “The Denormocrat Party” embraces strength through attack, assaults on institutions, and the flouting of rules and regulations (i.e., “De-norming”).  Denormocrats are willing to suspend long-held ethical expectations for short-term emotional gain. For them, politics is like cage fighting: “They may not watch it, but they identify with its full contact and minimalist rules.”  They prefer to discard what most people recognize as “norms.”

Normicons see stability through order.  Denormocrats seek salvation through disorder.

A number of writers have used words like the following (from Ezra Klein) to describe the 2016 election: “In the recent past, our divisions have been Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives, left versus right.  But not this election.”  This campaign is not merely a choice between the Democratic and Republican parties, but between normal political parties and an emerging abnormal one.

2.  David Brooks, in his column on Nov. 9th, proposed another way to understand the emerging American political landscape.  He suggested that the “Republican vs Democrat” divide is being replaced with something different.  Voters are starting to sort themselves into two groups that he calls “Somewheres” and ”Anywheres.”  “Somewheres” are people whose values and priorities are rooted in their location — like “Virginia farmers,” “West Virginia Coal Miners,” or “Pennsylvania steelworkers.”  These Americans tend to live in rural areas, they tend to stay put, they are often uncomfortable with cultural change, and they tend to vote Republican.  The bad news for them is that, in many of these rural areas, the steel mills and coal mines are gone or declining and are not quickly being replaced by industries that require similar skills. But, the people remain — perhaps because they don’t have the skills or the will to move.  Anywheres, on the other hand, value educational opportunities; they move to the cities where their skills and education are in demand, and as a result are more likely to feel comfortable with diversity and cultural change.  If employment opportunities change, they tend to move to get a better job. Anywheres tend to vote Democrat.

a)  Until recently, this trend kept a political balance because, while the cities tended to vote Democrat and rural counties voted Republican, the suburbs were divided and provided the balance (aka gridlock) of recent years. BUT TODAY, the growing suburbs are no longer divided. As Brooks put it: the suburbs “are ‘Anywhere’ all the way through.”  This has suddenly begun to play out in local special elections: Loudon County (went Demo 60-40) and Fairfax County (67-31) are examples. The outcome of the recent Alabama Senate election may be viewed in that category. Northern Virginia’s Bailey’s Crossroads recently experienced an influx of information-age workers and ethnic restaurants.  –> This is new.

b)  As a result, the political map is being redrawn.  Brooks’ observation, borne out by other analysts, is that Trump supporters are not at home on this new playing field.  He writes, “Populism has made the Republicans a rural party and given the Democrats everything else.” The data shows that, in Virginia’s recent example, “Democrats won by a landslide among anybody who grew up in the age of globalization. Among voters aged 18-29, they won by 69-30 percent. Among voters 30-44, they won by 61-37 percent.” He goes on, “The stain Trump leaves on the G.O.P. will take some time to wash away. But it is bigger than Trump; it’s an alignment caused by the fundamental reality of the populist movement.

c)  BUT, does this translate into a Democratic dominance?  “Not so fast,” he says.  The Democratic Party has not reached this opportunity as a result of a winning strategy.  This is happening because “the Republicans have decided to shrink their coalition.” Brooks predicts that, if Democrats bet their future on their relationships with wealthy donors, they’ll give it all back.  On the other hand, “if they focus on geographic, social, and economic mobility, the age of Democratic dominance will be at hand.”

What to Expect
Notice that the writers we have examined didn’t conclude their work by telling us what the outcome will be.  They did a thoughtful job of describing the conditions; but the outcome is yet to be determined.  So, as with so many other elements of the nation’s future, here in the age of Trump, we’ll have to wait and see. It might be easy to assume that 2018 will return to what we have come to think of as “the natural political order.”  But, there are reasons to be skeptical.  At around inauguration time this year, a number of writers (notably Chris Cillizza, quoted below from the Washington Post,) have been writing things like this: “Trump’s ascension to the White House feels more like the beginning of something than the end of it to me.  The instability of our long-standing institutions, coupled with the creeping anxiety … and a sense that the American Dream is fading away, creates a political climate in which nontraditional politicians promising the world hold massive appeal.  In short: I think we’ll see more Trump-like figures in politics, not less. And that a return to some sort of ‘normal’ never really comes.”

So, if these writers, and others, are right, we may have reached a time when “normal,” as we have come to understand it, is a thing of the past.  Our two most recent former presidents have expressed that view recently and emphatically.


In recent speaking engagements
on the same day,
Presidents Bush and Obama reminded us: “This is not normal.”









So What?
Now, before we panic, all of this analysis doesn’t have to be a harbinger of doom.  It might be that, but it could be an opportunity for America to reshape itself into a different future.  Let’s not forget that such “reshapings” have happened before —  some with positive results and some not so much —the 1860s, the 1910s/20s, the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1980s, are examples.  Those who were paying attention during those times (and writing about it) have told us that the outcomes were not easily predictable nor were they easily controllable by those in power. But one lesson to be learned from all of that history is that those who care enough to participate can have an influence on the direction America will take.  Those who simply stand and watch, will probably be surprised at how unimportant their views were.  As the Winter Solstice reminds us that the world is ready to remake itself once again, those who try to influence the outcome, especially in concert with others, may be surprised at how much influence is possible.   –> This is not new.

And Now?
So, after the “reflection and review” that the Winter Solstice evokes, does the coming sunlight bring with it a call for action?  But what kind of action and by whom?  In a Democracy, we are told that our voices are the most effective tools.  And in a Republic, we select representatives to increase the reach and volume of our voices.  So, it would make sense to let those representatives know what kind of action we intend.

Some sample pathways:

Finally, I’d like to cite two more writers who have offered useful advice for this time.  One is poet Annie Finch, the author of “Winter Solstice Chant.”  In an interview, she reminds us of the two-step process of moving from darkness to light: “If you don’t experience the darkness fully, then you are not going to appreciate the light.”  The other — a well-known and eloquent gentleman advised us once to “become the change we seek.”  Might be worth a try in the new year.

Grace — 2017



“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”

            — Ann Lamott


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Extending a Tradition of Grace

On Saturday, December 9, 2017, Gretta and I continued our twenty-year tradition by attending an event called “A Cathedral Christmas.” It is an annual Christmas concert of the Men’s and Boy’s Chorus, orchestra, and pipe organ, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

I have written about this annual event before on ConVivio (notably in 2009 and 2015), and each time my goal was to shine a light on the powerful effect it always has on our experience of the holiday season.  For us, the tradition starts with its magnificent music, having the ongoing effect on the lives of real people of all types that thoughtful art can have.  In addition to the music itself, the venue — Grace Cathedral on California Street in San Francisco — contributes its powerful presence and enduring heritage to our encounter with the holiday season. And last but not least, this event intentionally involves itself in the tenor of the times in which we live — for Grace Cathedral has long served to participate in the life of its broad Bay Area community not only with its Christian Anglican traditions, not only with its music, but also by contributing to the everyday issues and struggles, both diverse and universal, that affect the lives of our society.

The Venue: Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral has long committed itself to be a house of prayer for all people and a place where all are welcome — prayerful or not.  I observe that those two commitments set it apart from many other institutions that seem on the surface to be similar.  Over the years I have noticed that the cathedral community provides many gifts, usually without a lot of fanfare, to people of all kinds whether they are part of their faith community or not. I learned, for example, of the hundreds of homeless who have been housed in the cathedral basement over the years.  It also has lived up to a well-earned reputation for welcoming members of society who have not always felt welcome elsewhere in the Bay Area and the nation.

Left: “Ghiberti’s Doors,” copies of the 15th-century originals residing in Florence, reveal a welcoming heritage — the originals started the Italian Renaissance in bringing great art to everyday lives of real people.








Grace Cathedral: inside and out






Grace Cathedral can get colorful: inside and out

The Music
Usually, the Christmas concert focuses on two principal themes: 1) the joy associated with the birth of The Child — represented by well-known Christmas carols in the first and third segments of the performance — and 2) the peacefulness settling over the ‘Holy Land’ and the world, associated with the hope for peace that The Child would bring – represented by classic choral and orchestral music performed with sweetness and passion throughout the concert.   The signature piece of the Grace Cathedral Music Ministry has always been a tune by Hugh MacKinnon called “Sleeps Judea Fair.”  Gretta and I always look forward to this tune, in the final segment of the concert, as the highlight of the season. The lyrics and the slow, soft harmony of the voices recreate the joy and peace we expect from the season.






Settling into our usual seats at the acoustic center of the cathedral — one of America’s premier acoustical rooms — the expressions on the faces of the stained-glass figures of the saints all around the cathedral contributed to the warmth, peace, and harmony that we had come to expect.  I opened the printed program and was pleased to find our favorite piece listed near the end of the program along with a few others I did not recognize.

The first segment of the concert contained the familiar choral pieces we had come to expect – like John Wade’s 18th-century carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  When the Men’s and Boys’ chorus left the altar for an intermission, the organ solo began.  The organist’s right hand began by trying to play the familiar tune of “Christ Is Born Today,” while the left hand alternately ignored and ‘drowned out’ that melody with some deep, dissonant, and unfamiliar chords.  I took this to represent the deep discord that “The Holy Land,” and much of the world, has been experiencing.  We heard in the news that morning of the president’s announcement regarding the status of Jerusalem, which sparked some violent protests there and in Bethlehem itself.

Message received.

The peacefulness that The Child brought to this region centuries ago is not working out so well.  I suppose this concert, to be true to its themes, needed to reflect that unrest and discord alongside the hope for peace and harmony that is the focus of so many of our prayers and greetings during this holiday season.

Then, after applause for the organ soloist, the singers returned for the final segment that traditionally conveys the message of peace and serenity culminating in their signature piece, “Sleeps Judea Fair.”  It was as beautiful, soothing, and peaceful as always, offering a wish for “grace” — to Judea, to the world, and to us:

“Let the Christ Child, meekly smiling, infant wise all woe beguiling
Grant His grace to thee.”

–> Listen to it here — recorded live in Grace Cathedral:

An Acknowledgement of the Times in Which We Live
After we were treated to that reward, the Episcopal Bishop of California, Rev. Marc Andrus, thanked us all for being there and gave us some words of wisdom for the season.  His ministry, consistent with the ongoing mission of Grace Cathedral, is focused on the key issues of our time and place: peace and justice, immigration reform, climate change, civil rights for LGBT persons, and health care.  On this night, he reminded us that these are hard times and drew a remarkable analogy for this season.  He suggested that “our brothers and sisters of the animal kingdom” tend to slow down and prepare to go to sleep as the cold days and nights of winter approach.  We humans, on the other hand, are called to do something different —  it is a time for us to wake up, become more energetic, and do more of the things that need to be done, especially for others.  He then suggested some specific ways we can do that in our own communities.

With that, the concert concluded with its final choral pieces.  The lyrics of one of those, “A Stable Lamp is Lighted,” accompanied by the orchestra and organ, provided the stark reminder that our joy must be tempered with the reality of the hard times yet to come for the child born this day and, perhaps, for us all.  Just before the finale, the voices intoned this piece of reality:

So then, we could celebrate: “Hark! The Herald Angels sing:   Glory to the newborn king.”

The Message — More than hope for “Grace” during hard times
As we walked out of the cathedral on that beautiful December night, our world remains a place of suffering and danger, walking right alongside an enduring hope and optimism for which we Americans are famous.  The message: we are right to be optimistic and hope for peace, harmony, and relief from suffering; but it is not enough to merely admire the problem and hope for the best.  Rev. Andrus suggested that we must wake up and become active.  We can start in our own families, neighborhoods, and towns, giving each other what we need, when we can, and contributing to organizations that do the work we can’t do on our own — some examples: Planned Parenthood, Reach Out and Read, Boys and Girls Clubs, Sierra Club, Valley Humane Society, American Civil Liberties Union, KQED, The Kidney Foundation, Grace Cathedral, and so many others.  All are hopeful, optimistic efforts. We can make a difference, starting right here.

Words of Thanks


“And yet it moves”
(in the original Italian: “Eppur si muove”).”
— Galileo Galilei,
Gentleman of Florence, 1632



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“The Sun, with all its planets revolving around it and depending upon it,
still can find the time to ripen a bunch of grapes
as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” — Galileo Galilei, 1632

This line first captured my imagination when I saw it on the back label of a bottle of red wine (where else would I look for memorable, meaningful words, eh?).  I was looking for some wine for our Thanksgiving dinner table, the family was going to be there, and I would be offering a Thanksgiving Toast — I thought these words were perfect.

When the time came, with the bottle in my hand I mentioned that we all have so much to be thankful for: our families, our homes, the work we do, the people who are kind to us, the food and wine we enjoy, and the good times we have.  Then, using Galileo’s words, I gave thanks for The Sun, representing all of the ‘greater powers’ that contribute to all of that goodness  — whatever and whomever they might be.  The words were fun, appropriate to the occasion, and they brought smiles.  We lifted our glasses and said “Thanks’ to each other.
Galileo’s words helped us do that.












A Random Bunch of Thanksgiving Photos

Galileo’s Words In Context
So, if we let our minds drift back 385 years to Galileo’s time, we learn that he caused quite a kerfuffle, to say the least, when he first used these words.  In a nutshell, in 1633, the Roman Inquisition wanted to torture him to death for saying these words.   WHAT!!!???  Looking back with our 21stt-century eyes, it seems unlikely that the church fathers objected to the generous role of the Sun in producing wine grapes.  And I suppose they weren’t threatened by the assertion that the Sun was capable of this level of multi-tasking.  So, what was the problem?

The offense was that Galileo contradicted the church’s insistence that the Earth stands immovable at the center of the universe and that the Sun, and everything else, moves around the Earth every day.  The Roman Inquisitors decided that Galileo’s conclusion, that the Earth moves, threatened the absolute power of the church.  They said that his words were “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”  THAT was serious — serious enough to put Galileo on trial for his life.

So, how did it turn out?  The outcome, seen through 21st-century eyes, was quite familiar.  First, Galileo made the intellectual case.  He said, initially, in his defense before the Inquisitors:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

In other words, does God really want us to deny what our “God-given” intellect reveals to us?  In his treatise “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” he went a bit too far:


“In the long run my observations have convinced
me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first
establish some conclusion … that impresses them
so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it
out of their heads.”
— from Galileo’s: “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”




Does that sound familiar?  Well, as you might imagine, that approach failed.  The Inquisitors made clear that these two arguments would lead directly to his torture and death.  So, Galileo took another approach.  He did exactly what he said he “did not feel obliged” to do — he denied what his intellect revealed.  First, he admitted that he had, in fact, published a book that contained the offensive “false opinion.”  He said that, despite the fact that he had presented “arguments of great cogency in its favor,” he settled the matter with the following statement:

I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be suspected of heresy, of having believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves.  Therefore, … with sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies, and generally every other error, heresy, and sect whatsoever contrary to the said Holy Church, and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing, anything that might furnish occasion for a similar suspicion regarding me; but that should I know any heretic, or person suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office. Further, I swear and promise to fulfill and observe in their integrity all penances that have been, or that shall be, imposed upon me.”

So, that was THAT.   Even in translation from the original Italian, it was a clear denial.

Well, modern scholars have re-examined the events of the time — notably David Hilbert who wrote in his defense of Galileo’s recantation:

“Galileo was no idiot.  Only an idiot could believe that science requires martyrdom.  That may be necessary in religion, but, in time, a scientific result will establish itself.”

Witnesses at this historic session with the Inquisitors reported (quietly, and to a select audience) that, after Galileo saved himself by admitting that the Earth does not move from its place at the center of the universe, rising from his knees to begin his house arrest, he was heard to mumble:

“Eppur si muove — And yet it moves.”

Finally, 359 years later, the Church agreed.  At a ceremony in Rome, Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo was right. The formal rehabilitation was based on the findings of a committee the Pope set up in 1979. After a 13-year investigation, they decided that the Inquisition had acted in good faith, but was wrong.  On October 31, 1992, a papal statement appeared in the New York Times:

“We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.”

Oh, good for you!

What Did It Mean in 1633?
Was it a confrontation between science and faith?  Historians and analysts over the past four centuries have said “No,” because Galileo never presented his science to the Inquisition.  ‘Science’ wasn’t even present at the trial.  It was about authority, at a time when the Protestant Reformation, at its peak in the 1630s, had questioned the whole notion of legitimate sources of authority. It wasn’t about the content of the science, or even logic; it was about “Who says?”

Little did any of them know, science would eventually have the last word.  While the church insisted that the earth stood motionless at the center of the universe and Galileo reasoned that the Sun stood motionless at the center  — turned out that not only is the Sun not still, everything is swirling around in a giant blender more vast than any of them imagined.  Who knew?

Does It Mean Anything Today? (i.e., my usual “So what?” question)
Some have suggested that a similar “Who says?” argument is being waged today over matters in which science contradicts the sacred interests of today’s prevailing powers.  Those folks argue that today’s arguments matter significantly more than the one that Galileo nimbly sidestepped back in 1633.  Perhaps we’ve learned three things (there are always three): 1) that every age feels that its own struggles matter more than any that have gone before, 2) that such “Who says?” struggles are not likely to end any time soon, and 3) our experience teaches us that the right answer does eventually prevail.  Once again, “the scientific result will establish itself.”  In the meantime, the Sun still rises in the morning, it still does its important work in the vineyards and elsewhere, and it sets every evening, all as it is supposed to do.  Often, though not always, that behavior continues without a lot of trouble for us humans. And for THAT, we may be thankful.

My Thanksgiving Toast Still Stands
The Sun, with all its planets revolving around it and depending upon it,
still can find the time to ripen a bunch of grapes
as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” — Galileo Galilei

I am thankful to THAT goodness for giving us all that we are and all that we have, especially each other.  So many are not so fortunate and yet we have so much.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!






The Turkey!

Yosemite: Change Revisited

“It is easier to feel than to realize,
or in any way explain, Yosemite’s grandeur.”
   — John Muir

“What a treasure to pass on . . .
(but make sure you bring your lunch).”
— PapaDan



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Yosemite, October 17, 2017
Sitting here in the middle of a meadow, looking up at Yosemite’s venerable Ahwahnee Hotel, it seems different in some way.  Since you probably know some of the history of this place, you may ask with raised eyebrow and derision in your voice “Aw-come-on-now, what could possibly be different?” You might point out a few things like: the iconic stone-and-wood edifice in front of me has looked pretty much the same since it opened in 1927; the granite mountain, El Capitan, to the left of this view has looked much the same for, oh, 50,000 years or so; and the squirrels and blue jays who live here have been scurrying and squawking like this since the glacier melted — so, what could possibly be different?

I’ll have think about it — you’ve asked a big question that demands a big answer; but I, of course, have a small answer:

—> It’s quiet.  Nearly silent, actually.  THAT’S what’s different.

Gretta and I come to Yosemite every April, for our anniversary, and one thing is a constant — Yosemite Falls is always flowing with its usual vigor.  The sound is not merely of running water, but of chunks of ice and fragments of logs from the high country crashing down on the rock formations between the peak of the falls and the valley floor.  All of that — plus the constant rushing of the water — creates a polyphonic orchestration complete with percussion, and you can hear it everywhere in Yosemite Valley from Half Dome to El Capitan to Glacier Point.

But, in October (for our second yearly visit), North America’s tallest waterfall is completely dry.
And silent. And, the silence of October is more noticeable than the sound of April.            












Upper Yosemite Falls (April)      Upper Yosemite Falls (October/Dry/Silent) 

But, before I claim that everything else around here is permanent, I come to realize that much has changed, and is changing all the time.  Some of it matters, and some doesn’t.

The Water
The water that feeds the Merced River from the opposite side of Yosemite Valley, across from Yosemite Falls (see the images below), originates at the granite dome of Liberty Cap, thunders down at Nevada Falls, sits awhile in the Emerald Pool, rumbles down at Vernal Falls, and ends up meandering through the valley floor in the Merced River. As the seasons change, that river trickles between the boulders at its low point here on October and then swells to a wide, white-water torrent in April.  So, at least that much changes; but a wise observer might point out that all of this ebb and flow, the meandering and the raging, the silence and the music of the falls form a never-ending constant cycle in their seemingly eternal alternation between the extremes of life in this valley among these mountains.  Yosemite has been here a very long time — longer than the life-span of humans on this planet — and the forces at work here seem to be eternal; BUT those forces are carving a work of art.  Each time you look, if you are paying attention, it never looks quite the same as it did the last time you looked.






Nevada Falls                  Top of Vernal Falls/Emerald Pool         Vernal Falls

The Granite
•  Today, El Capitan slopes at a slightly different angle since last month when a slice of granite the size of an apartment building cracked and crashed down on one of its outcroppings and scattered giant boulders, many the size of automobiles, around its base.  Rock falls happen all the time in Yosemite but they are seldom fatal (as this one was) and often not especially noticeable — unless you consider that this entire valley and its surrounding mountains were carved and shaped over thousands of years in precisely this manner.  So, Yosemite changes its shape pretty much everywhere you look and pretty much all the time.

The Colors















The colors speak for themselves.  BUT, some of us have tried to speak for them — and maybe overdone it in the attempt, or not – like our old friend Mark Twain who tries to give us a glimpse, in words, of trees in the fall that change “from green to red, from red to green, and green to gold. The tree becomes a very explosion of dazzling jewels; it stands there, the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility of art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence. One cannot make the words too strong.”    Or so he said.

Twain’s words appeared in the New York Times in 1876, not as evidence of change, but as evidence of permanence — describing something that has been repeated every year since long before humans were here to observe it.  And here, now, in Yosemite, we see it once again.

Trivial Change
Now, if we’re going to make a list, some things HAVE changed here in Yosemite, just in the decades we have known it; but those are caused by humans and, therefore, less important:
•  The Ahwahnee Hotel has been renamed The Majestic Yosemite Hotel.  Why? — because the previous management of the hotel claims to “own” the name “Ahwahnee” after a coupla decades of association with it.  The silliness of that view comes to light when you consider that the hotel was named for the Ahwahneechi Tribe who were associated with this part of the valley since about 600 years ago — long before the United States National Park Service granted a contract for restaurants and hotels (OK, long before the United States existed).  So, Gretta and I still call it by its rightful name — The Ahwahnee Hotel.
•  The Ahwahnee cocktail lounge, which used to serve excellent food all day long, now serves, well … OS (i.e., other stuff).  We tried it for breakfast this time … I didn’t know it was possible to screw up yogurt and granola, but now I know.  It has been our habit to enjoy a cocktail and tasty appetizers here in the late afternoon.  The “cocktail” part endures as it should but the “tasty appetizer” notion is missing.  It also used to feature a delightful piano player in the evening (he played everything from classics to smooth jazz to show tunes to classic rock — request almost anything, he knew it).  Now the piano is gone to make room for three more tables and a sound system plays, well … OS.
•  The Ahwahnee main dining room used to be a 5-star restaurant that attracted outstanding chefs.  Now it is just a lovely high-ceilinged, grand building with an OK restaurant surrounded by breath-taking views, pouring from a mediocre wine list, and serving … well, you know, OS.  It isn’t even the best restaurant in this valley.
•  Oh, and there’s Degnan’s Deli, which used to be an ideal spot to interrupt a day of hiking by ordering a hand-made sandwich, salad, or soup, crafted with fresh ingredients.  Now, it is dominated by a display case full of pre-packaged “gas-station-sandwiches.”  And they’ve innovated: you can stand in line to order and pay using computerized kiosks and then stand in another line to pick up your order.  This “innovation” succeeded in eliminating four employees who used to make your lunch to order from fresh ingredients and take your money at enough cash registers to avoid standing in line.  You can still sit at their outdoor stone tables looking up at a stunning view of Glacier Point, but … my recommendation is that you bring your own lunch.  Yes, it’s changed.

So, now I’ll stop whining
and tell you why we must continue to return here twice a year.

We come back for the many wonderful things that remain the same here in Yosemite Valley. Here are a few of those in the words of some of our friends:
•  Words from Teddy Roosevelt: “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite …  and our people should see to it that [it] is preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with [its] majestic beauty unmarred.”
•  Words from John Muir: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.
•  John Muir again: “It is easier to feel than to realize, or in any way explain, Yosemite’s grandeur. The magnitudes of the rocks and trees and streams are so delicately harmonized, mostly hidden.”
•  Frightening words of warning from NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof: “I can’t help thinking that if the American West were discovered today, the most glorious bits would be sold off to the highest bidder. Yosemite might be nothing but weekend homes for internet tycoons.”
•  Words from Robert Redford: “I spent two summers working at Camp Curry and at Yosemite Lodge as a waiter. It gave me a chance to really be there every day – to hike up to Vernal Falls or Nevada Falls. It just took me really deep into it. Yosemite claimed me.”
•  Words from Dave Brubeck: “I used to take my mother to Yosemite. When got my driver’s license, that’s where she’d want to go, so I’d go take her there for two weeks.”
•  Words from John Garamendi: “Maybe you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, but like every American, you carry a deed to 635 million acres of public lands. That’s right. Even if you don’t own a house or the latest computer on the market, you own Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and many other natural treasures.”
•  Words from Ansel Adams: “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
•  More from John Muir: “During my first years in the Sierra, I was ever calling on everybody within reach to admire them, but I found no one half warm enough until Emerson came. I had read his essays, and felt sure that of all men he would best interpret the sayings of these noble mountains and trees. Nor was my faith weakened when I met him in Yosemite.”

•  And, finally, from PapaDan:  “Some years, one or more of our sons bring their families up here during the same week we visit, and we have the privilege of taking our grandchildren to the bank of the Merced River (below, left) or up to the base of Yosemite falls (below, right) and watch them enjoy the spectacle in amazement. What a treasure to pass on to the next generation!”













We’ll be back in April!

If you’re interested, click to take a look at a previous post on this topic:
Of Permanence, Change, and a Sense of Wonder

Not So Long Ago

My Dad was born on October 10, 1910
(some friends called him “ten-ten-ten”). 
Today would be his 107th 108thbirthday. 
He was a storyteller;
so, let’s tell some of HIS stories.


This post is best read on a large screen or in the PDF.

Click here to open a PDF of this post (best for printing and easier to read): Not_So_Long_Ago_100817_FINAL
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Origin of a Storyteller — Not So Long Ago


A coal-miner’s son, he was hauled from West Virginia as an infant to the vineyards and prune yards of California’s Santa Clara Valley.

He was fourteen when this picture was taken on December 4, in 1924 — the third son of illiterate immigrants from Reggio di Calabria, in southern Italy — when he was pulled out of the 8th grade to work with his brothers on their “share-cropper” farmland in Morgan Hill to survive the hard times.

By the time Umberto, known as Al, turned sixteen in 1926, he took a 30-mile train ride with his brothers to Pittsburg, California, to lie about his age and get a job in the steel mill.  He and his older brothers Giovanni (John) and Giuseppe (Joe) supplemented their income as singing waiters at Cippolini’s restaurant down by the river.  According to the story, they sang “Italian opera.”  Just where and how they learned anything about Italian opera is a mystery.

By the age of twenty, Al had taken a shine to a 16-year-old beauty named Domenica (known as Memi). Her family was from Isola delle Femmine, Sicily (the same town that gave us their cousins of the baseball-famous DiMaggio family).  In the fall of 1931, she was kicked out of her house by her abusive father and, with nowhere else to go, went to Al’s house and told him her story. He immediately did the obvious thing (to him): borrowed a car and $50, drove them to Reno, got married, rolled the car down a hill on the way back, and took a bus home.

And, so it began.


Al and Mae welcomed their first child in the fall of 1932 — Anita Mae, known as Bunny.  As war production began in the 1940s, Al, now known as A.J., went to night school to resurrect his aborted 8th-grade education and became a mill foreman.  When steel production began to  decline with the end of the war, he  studied the insurance business at night  and that he had a talent for salesmanship.

He bought a record player and some 78-rpm Cole Porter records; but he quickly focused on recordings made by Dale Carnegie, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” and, later, his favorite, “Nothing Happens  Until Somebody Sells Something,” by Arthur “Red” Motley.

With the promise of a new prosperity at the beginning of the 1950s, Al applied his persuasive skills to the task of convincing his friends and neighbors that they needed to leave something for the next generation.  The result was a lucrative second job selling life insurance.  By the time his second child, Danny, arrived in 1950, a sign went up at 616 Black Diamond Street that said, ”A.J. Sapone Insurance.” He said goodbye to the steel mill and never looked back.

From his salesmanship recordings, he learned about the key role of advertising and developing a storytelling “hook” on which to build a business that would attract “the most important people in the world: customers.” He decided that his “hook” would be the immigrant legacy of his town in his effort to become “the man to see” about the various types of insurance policies that were quickly becoming the foundation of life in the second half of the 20th century.  So, once again, he did the obvious thing (to him): he joined the Pittsburg Historical Society, became its president, and began a collaboration with Milton and Claudia Killough to write the history of Pittsburg.

By the Spring of 1961, Al had collected some stories to tell and began writing a short newspaper column in the local newspaper (OK, so it was an advertisement).  He called it, “Not So Long Ago.” He found ways to connect those stories to the need to be “covered” in all the ways the fledgling “modern world” would require. His goal was to make enough money to do three unthinkable things for an uneducated son of immigrants – buy his wife a mink, buy himself a Cadillac, and send his son to an expensive college.  (Since you asked, oh yes, he did those things.)

So, a new chapter began — this time it was about storytelling.

Al’s newspaper advertisements were approximately 3.5 x 5.25 inches on the page and appeared about once a week.  Here are a few examples, enlarged here so you can read them, if you like.

On May 19, 1961, Al published a story about the founding of Pittsburg, dropping the names of well-known local families and emphasizing the importance of this little industrial town. The story went on to praise the enduring work of the town’s founders in its first decade.






Each story would end with the all-important message: that the right insurance policies are essential to ensure the future prosperity of his friends and neighbors.  This one said:
Our General Continuous Homeowners policy will serve you well.  Come in at your leisure and let us tell you of this outstanding policy that will save you money and give you the best coverage. 








In another story, Al described the event that eventually gave the town one of its names and put the town “on the map” — the discovery of coal in 1855.  The story went on to praise the abundance of coal produced in this mine’s 42 years of operation and looked back with nostalgia at the remnants of their coal-mining legacy.







AND, it ended with the usual punchline:
General of America and Safeco will make a lasting impression in your insurance history — stop in and let us tell you about this NEW and EXCITING HOMEOWNERS INSURANCE COVERAGE.”










In yet another story, he reached further back to the 1830s to recount the origins of Pittsburg, sixteen years before the discovery of coal put the town “on the map.”





—> The advertisement flowed (mostly) from the story:
Whether you are an old or new resident of this colorful community, it will pay you to stop by our office and let us tell you of our NEW AND MODERN GENERAL OF AMERICA continuous Homeowners policy.  All in one policy and one policy for all your insurance coverages, and at a savings. Next week we will tell you about the Coal Mine Era, not so long ago.” 






Before the turn of the century, saloonkeepers establish for themselves a place of prominence in the community as the town is renamed “Black Diamond.”







And then  …  the punchline:
“You too will discover the wealth of insurance coverages in our new General Safeco Continuous Homeowners policy, protecting your home, personal effects, liability and boat at a saving.”

Next week, we will tell you of the people who made and were part of our colorful past, not so long ago.”








Then, one week later, as promised, we learned about some of the early characters who were ancestors of the current citizens who read these stories in April of 1961:


















Let’s skip ahead to the early 20th century — 1911 — a time when local businesses began to compete with the coal mine as a source of prosperity.  Some of the same local names from the previous century continued to be part of the story.






















Then came the advertisement:
You too can celebrate by stopping by our office and letting us tell you how our new General Homeowners policy will cover you home your personal effects, liability, robbery, and other coverages at a saving to you.”

One more — this one looks back to 1941:







—->And then the commercial:

Be certain that your home is adequately insured for any eventuality, ask A.J. Sapone to explain to you GENERAL’S HOME OWNERS POLICY today, to be sure of tomorrow.













As the stories progressed, those who are
familiar with Pittsburg (I know there are a
couple of you out there) will notice that the
names of many of the founding characters are
immortalized on street signs throughout the
town as it exists today.  Here’s an example
(it was named for my uncle John after he
passed away in 1935).




One more thing — if you had walked into the office at 616 Black Diamond Street back in the Spring of 1962, you would have seen this full-sized magazine on the desk:








The articles in A.J. Sapone’s Magazine praised the productivity of the women of the early 1960s, offered advice to promote neatness, suggested some “Winter Rules for Golf” (he never played golf), and, of course, reminded us to make sure we were properly “covered.”













So, this is the story of how an uneducated son of illiterate immigrants from the toe of the boot of Italy — a coal-miner’s son — built a life on a foundation of storytelling.  It turned out that there was more storytelling where that came from (perhaps, for another time); and it all started with a simple idea: “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”




A.J. Sapone in 1970 on his 60th birthday

Kristof’s Poetry Contest

I would like to invite you to submit entries
to a new poetry contest meant to capture
the ethos of our times in verse.
…  Let’s try  to examine this historical moment
through a new prism” with this poetry contest.
 — Nicholas Kristof, September 15, 2017

Click here to download a PDF of this post:

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On September 15, Nicholas Kristof invited readers to submit entries to a new contest in the NYT — his invite: “Announcing a Trump Poetry Contest” is found at: https://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/announcing-a-trump-poetry-contest/
Below are six entries sent to the contest by two local authors:
myself and Lauren De Vore.)

Below are Dan’s three entries to Kristof’s New York Times “Trump” poetry contest.
After those are three poems submitted by Lauren De Vore.  As of October 8, it is unknown if any of these six poems were selected to appear in The Times.  We’ll see  …
Consistent with the topic, my intent was to reflect on a distortion of the Presidency with a distortion of the sonnet form. Like classic sonnets, my entries are written in iambic pentameter, but, unlike those others, each has 20 lines (4-7-5-4) and no rhyme, just like this Presidency.
•  Another objective: to fulfill contest requirements without mentioning a certain name.
— PapaDan
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What This One Hasn’t Learned
By Dan Sapone

A president presides but does not claim
all triumphs and achievements for himself.
He praises goodness that we’ve all achieved
together to become the change we seek.

My Dad’s advice: “Give credit and take blame”
was offered free to any who would lead.
“Lift up the folks around you when you speak.
Say not ’I’m great’; for if you are, the world
will tell YOU so; and you can humbly say,
“It’s WE who make the world a better place,
together all,” he adds, “Unless we don’t … ”

For then, true leaders know to change the path
and say, “Together, follow me this way,
and bring with us those needing helping hands,
for hands we have; and other hands we’ll need
when harder work will be required of us.

D’yathink that HE can learn what those before
him knew and brought with them to leadership:
that greatness lies only in “Us” and “We”
and not at all alone in “I” and “Me?”
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Dancing on the Edge at the End of the World
By Dan Sapone

Poets’ve said a lot ’bout how it ends.
Said one: “Some say in fire, some say in ice.”
Another wrote we should expect the sound
to be “a whimper” only, not “a bang.”

So, on the edge, so near the end, we dance.
We’ve grown up thinking of a sudden end
to all we’ve known — a blast, a mist, then gone.
But those who watch may notice that a slow
decline precedes the end.  A lack of care,
neglect of values writ in stone by those
who came before. They warned us loud and clear:

“Take care of those who need — we’re all the same.
Become the change we seek. Beware of those
who shout the loudest, those who wish to rise
by pushing others down.” But we forgot,
and looked away, while demagogues arose.

And so we dance, here on the edge.  While some
will quickly pay the price of our neglect,
it’s all of us, in time, who’ll see it end.
Yes, all of us, in time, will see it end.
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“In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.” — Joseph de Maistre
(popularly misquoted as having originated with Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln)

The Leaders We Deserve?
By Dan Sapone

A coupla hundred years ago, a few
observers offered this enduring truth,
that over time, “In a democracy,
the people get the leaders they deserve.”

That begs some questions those of us who vote
must ask ourselves: Is THIS what we deserve?
What earned us this foul-mouthed incompetent
who represents us all around the world?
Can we of right say loudly “Shame on him”
or must we own it and say, “Shame on us?”
How can we know what is it we deserve?

Do we disparage those unlike ourselves?
Or welcome others with our minds and hearts?
Do we speak of each other with respect?
Do we contribute to a common good
to help make us into a better us?”

Perhaps our leaders mindlessly reflect
the image that our honest mirror shows.
Perhaps we must admit the painful truth:
We got the leaders who are just like us.
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Lauren de Vore’s three submissions to Nicholas Kristof’s Poetry Contest
Below are the poems Lauren submitted.  In announcing the contest, Kristof asked for poems that “capture the ethos of our times” and noted that “if you can make us feel better, or laugh, or think more deeply, so much the better.” As much as I would have liked to been humorous, I do not find the current ethos to be such that verse can make anyone feel better. Rather, my poems give voice to my disgust and despair over these Trumpian times as well as the moral responsibility those of us who disagree with the current Administration and Congress have to stand in resistance and as witness to this dangerous and damaging period in our nation’s history. As for thinking more deeply, by all means do so, but not at the risk of sinking into an abyss. One must have faith in the ability to change things for the better in order to fight for the better.

Directive for the 21st Century
by Lauren de Vore

Be not numb. Turn not away. Someone must bear witness.
Hone your nerves that you may be shocked, offended,
Outraged by the sandbox-bully meanness,
By the lies and the flag-waving god-invoked hate,
That you may be horrified, anguished, incensed
In the face of act upon act of violence
And the blood-lust glee of the perpetrators.
Shrug not. Retreat not into cynicism.
Someone must feel the pain.
Though you march not on the front lines of protest
Against those who would destroy
What they envy, what they fear
And torment the weak simply because they can,
Avert not your eyes and hope it will all go away.
Rather, stand unblinking,
Witness to the rending of a nation.
And when the land lies blood-soaked and torn,
Like a troubadour of old, tell the tales of the slaughters
And the resistance, of the villains and the heroes,
That some who survive the madness may listen, may learn.
Be not numb. Turn not away. Someone must bear witness.

*  Written in response to “Truth, Lies and Numbness,”by Roger Cohen, The New York Times (August 24, 2017).
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by Lauren de Vore

Drivel passing as profound          Sound bites
proclaimed as wisdom          Bluster and bullying
ranted as righteousness          Lies hustled as
truth          Hatred spewed as patriotism          And
bigotry cloaked in the robes of faith

Even as          Tolerance is scorned          Compassion
mocked          Otherness reviled          Restraint and
reason          Spurned and derided          As weakness
As foolishness and naiveté

Yet who are the naïve          The foolish, the weak
But those who refuse to see          This masquerade
for the farce it is          And wrapping themselves
in spangles and stripes          Dance on the precipice
Of our undoing
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by Lauren de Vore

There is no “i” in country
There is no “u” in nation
There is no peace in poverty
Or hope in homelessness
No tolerance in tea parties
No grace in zealotry
There is no trace of humbleness
In hubris, not a shred
Of decency in demagogue
What future is there for
This grand experiment that’s U.S.
When hate and blood and fear
Run rampant in the streets
When politicians sabotage
The land they claim to serve
And super-PACs buy votes and laws
To feed their appetite for ever more
When body politic prides ignorance
And presidents toss covfefe
Into the swirling winds
But there’s an “I” in nation, “you” in country too
Perhaps one day the “S of A” will find again its “U”
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A Gratitude Attitude

“Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”
   — Garrison Keillor

“On the off chance
that you won’t live forever,
maybe you should try to be happy now.”
— “Network News” (HBO)


Click here to download a PDF of this post:   ConVivio_Gratitude_FINAL_Sept7_2017,pdf

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Let’s admit it — Americans are having quite a lot of anxiety these days. We could list the reasons, but they are in the news every day; and it is not my intention to trouble you with all of that.  I’m thinking that we may have something more useful to do today.  I grew up in a generation that acquired the confidence, or at least the suspicion, that we, collectively, have what it takes to solve difficult problems and improve our lives and the lives of others. We have been taught to believe that we can make a lot of progress — in economics, technology, and society.  I will speak for myself and say that I was taught to believe in that progress by my parents, teachers, and leaders.  For me, that body of belief is summarized in the distinctly 21st-century assertion:

“Yes, we can.”

But, today, we’re not so sure.  Such optimism is feeling more and more like hard work.

That “dampening” of our collective self-confidence seems to have happened in a relatively short time.  I suppose that uncertainty leads me to look back on my education for an alternate strategy.  Just thinking out loud here — I was taught that “despair” was a personal failure.  So, “giving up” was not acceptable.  I was also taught that lashing out in anger against things I don’t like is not what reasonable, thinking, feeling humans should do.  (I was taught that standard by observing what happened to the bully on the fifth-grade playground, when Sister Bernadette hauled him off to the principal’s office when he got too pushy on the tetherball court.)  Also, somewhere in my Jesuit education back in the early 1970s, I recall hearing the saying:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is part of what is known as “The Serenity Prayer” written by an American theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr back in the 1930s and passed on to me in a lecture by a Jesuit professor, Father Tennant Wright, at Santa Clara University in 1971.  It is typically offered as a prescription for happiness in “the next life” if we accept hardships and trust in God.  My observation, however, — at the urging of that same professor — suggested to me that we have opportunities, and responsibilities, to make a difference in “this life” that should not be ignored.

So, what does it mean?  Is there a way to bridge the gap between “Yes, We Can” and “Serenity?”  Can that “bridge” have some effect on the current anxiety I mentioned?

The Physiology of Gratitude

Really?!   Physiology?  OK, so I stumbled on a chapter in a book called “The Gratitude Diaries,” by Janice Kaplan.  At first glance, as I saw it on the library shelf, I expected it to be mostly about talking yourself out of feeling bad.  But, as I looked into one chapter — you know how you grab a book off the shelf and open it to a random page to see what’s inside — I discovered something else.  On page 179, I found some very mundane and familiar medical science associated with stuff like bacteria, the body’s immune response to bacteria, the functioning of neurotransmitters, and how white blood cells swarm to the site of an infection and attack the problem by “gobbling up bacteria.”  In doing that, the white blood cells leave behind inflammation, which can become dangerous in itself.  You knew that; BUT scientific studies aimed at understanding inflammation have uncovered some unexpected and intriguing connections.

So, here’s the really interesting part — turns out that the immune system doesn’t ONLY respond to “germs,” it may also respond to emotions.  Kaplan reports that a couple of researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown’s National Institute of Mental Health observed that worry, anger, or fear activates those same white blood cells.  Even though they don’t have anything specific to attack, they leave a trail of dangerous systemic inflammation.
–> Long-story-short — one conclusion from their studies: expressing gratitude could actually inhibit that systemic inflammation effect and prevent our immune systems from causing our bodies to react harmfully to fear and worry.

“A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” — John Steinbeck

SO, the anxiety many of us are feeling about the bad news all around us can actually do physiological damage and inhibit our ability to cope with the world, to make good decisions, and to experience happiness.  People are beginning to notice.  Friends of mine tell me that they have been trying to avoid watching “the news” because they don’t like the way it makes them feel.  Turns out that the intentional expression of gratitude for the goodness we see around us and the people who bring it to us — in place of focusing on the troubling news — can demonstrably counteract those very real effects on our health.  The operative word for this effect is healing.

The Gift of a ‘Gratitude Attitude’

Let’s admit it — we have much to be grateful for.  The very fact that today’s news is disappointing confirms that we have experienced better; we have been exposed to good people doing generous and kind things for us and for others, both locally and elsewhere.  We have enjoyed periods of relative stability and we have survived hard times, both individually and collectively.  While we have endured troublesome people (you know who they are), we have also enjoyed people who have lifted us up and brought us kindness when it was needed (and you know who they are).  In fact, there have been times when WE have BEEN those people for others.  Science tells us that there are positive physiological effects of intentional gratitude; AND we have seen that serving as an example of gratitude to others can make a difference for us all.

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
— Albert Schweitzer

Heck, some of you have done that for me — and you know who you are — so, thank you.


So, if we acknowledge that focusing on “the bad news” can do real harm, does that knowledge carry with it obligations to each other — and to those who come after us?

If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.
— Lyndon B. Johnson

I have to acknowledge that my generation brought us to the “bad news” state we are in.  Some might suggest that this conundrum — the apparent tension between “Yes, We Can” and “Serenity” — strains our impulse to resist the “bad news,” and by resisting, risk allowing that resistance to dominate our daily lives.  Shouldn’t we resist?  Isn’t that part of the “Yes, We Can” confidence we were taught to have?

Let me suggest that it is not a cop-out to say we must do both — simultaneously.  I agree with the urgency of resistance — staying informed of the paths our nation is traveling, putting ourselves in a position to make a difference, contributing to organizations that can help those who are harmed by the “bad news,” and supporting those who want to push progress forward (yes, we call them “progressives”).  At the same time, the science suggests that we must support each other by offering our “Gratitude Attitude” wherever we can.  I must remind myself, in spite of my disappointment with “the bad news,” that I have a good home in a good community, a family full of successful and talented grown children and smart and curious grandchildren, and a wife who shares my gratitude and appreciates “us.”  I have friends who demonstrate their gratitude for the goodness they have and for the time we spend together.  I enjoy hearing their expressions of gratitude for their own good lives.  I submit that we have an obligation to share our expressions of gratitude with the people in our lives — the people we know well and those we meet along the way.  They need to hear our gratitude just as much as we need to hear theirs.  OK, it’s hard to do both things at once — to “resist” while also maintaining a “gratitude attitude.”  But we must, because …

 “Yes, we can.”

Unexpected Wisdom



“It is important to make plans for the future,
as long as you are prepared to change them
when the future comes.”

            — Albert J. Sapone, 1970


Click here to download a PDF of this post:
63-Unexpected_Wisdom_August 3_2017


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This cartoon first appeared August 6, 1972 — Charles Schultz

When I cut this cartoon out of the San Francisco Chronicle on August 6, 1972, the world I knew was changing dramatically.  Two months before, I had graduated from Santa Clara University with my double major in English Literature and Philosophy. Less than a week before it appeared, Woodard and Bernstein published their first in a series of New York Times reports about a “third-rate burglary” that would lead to Richard Nixon’s resignation two years later.  The week the cartoon appeared, I was hired into my first professional job.  And that summer, for the second year in a row, no record albums were released by a band called “The Beatles.”  All were milestones of change that felt dramatic and disorienting, or at least a bit uncomfortable; but looking back, they were really just inevitable extensions of what had gone before — just like the scene in the Peanuts cartoon.

So, aren’t these the kinds of things every generation experiences — when the conditions of stability we had learned to expect, no longer seem to apply?  Kinda universal experiences, aren’t they?  Yet, I suspect that each one of us felt — and feels — that our own experience with discomforting change is more or less unique to us.  Does Charlie Brown’s warning matter?  What does it mean?  Here’s where I ask my “So what?” question.

I do remember the security of sitting in the back seat — my parents took me to the Drive-In movies from time to time.  I’m pretty sure I saw the “Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston at the Bridgehead Drive-In, in the back seat of my parent’s 1956 Oldsmobile.; I remember eating popcorn, drinking Coca Cola, and having the option of lying down if I got tired or bored (which I’m pretty sure did — I was six years old).  I don’t remember noticing, or regretting when that practice went away.  In the cartoon, Charlie Brown shows some remarkable prescience to be able to report to Peppermint Patty that those days of “security” would end.  Nobody warned me, so I guess I didn’t notice.  Did anybody warn you?  What do you remember?

I suppose starting a new school — especially high school — was a big transition, but my memories of those transitions are positive.  I was good at school and it wasn’t intimidating. Going away to college was a bigger challenge.  But, it wasn’t the “college” part; it was the “going away” part that was disorienting.

While graduating was a triumph, it did carry some anxiety. Not the graduating part — my Dad had told me early and often that I was going to be the first in my family to graduate from college whether I wanted to or not.  That part was expected; and I had no reason to doubt it. But one aspect of it was a deviation from long-held expectations. My Dad had hoped that I would graduate with a degree in business (I arrived as an Economics major) so I could take my place in the insurance business and he could hang an ”And Son” sign under the “A.J. Sapone Insurance” sign out in front of his office.  BUT … during my sophomore year, I came to realize that studying business didn’t generate the kind of excitement in me that Literature and Philosophy did. I wanted to change my major, but before I could do that — and study words and ideas instead of dollars and cents —  I figured there was a hurdle I had to overcome …
I went home for the summer and told my Dad all about literature, music, and philosophy and why I thought it all mattered so much.  Then, I took a deep breath and told him that I didn’t want to be an insurance agent. I told him maybe I could become a teacher or a writer.  I expected to have an argument on my hands, since the “And Son” story had been his dream; and I expected, frankly, to lose that argument.  My Dad hadn’t finished the 8th grade and his struggle to make it had been impressive.  He had told me all my life that I needed to get an education so I wouldn’t have to struggle.  He had been proud to provide that ”back seat” of security for me as I grew up.  I didn’t think he’d appreciate my interest in Shakespeare, Bach, and Heidegger. But, as great teachers often do, he surprised me.  After a moment, he said (as if he had rehearsed it):

“It is important to make plans for the future;
as long as you are prepared to change them when the future comes.”

Then he said, “So tell me more about that Heidegger guy.”

Now, fast forward two years to 1972 — graduating with this particular degree, without an obvious “next thing” waiting for me, was a little like Charlie Brown‘s face in the cartoon …



The future was all up to me, for the most part,
and the rest of the world had no responsibility to make it work out all right.
The days of sitting in the back seat of my parent’s ’56 Oldsmobile
were long gone.



So, being out in the world was an adventure; but it was “the ‘70s” and I do remember being told — in movies and popular music —  that it was supposed to be an adventure.
I liked Helen Keller’s line:  …

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature,
nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” — Helen Keller

As scary as it was, the adventure turned out all right.  A teaching job materialized when I needed it, followed by a long career as a writer and editor.  That was, frankly, the easy part.  Today, the world is still changing dramatically, just as it was in 1972.  The disarray of politics and the evolution of our musical heroes will continue to be part of that adventure for a long time.  Heck, we are even likely to survive the adventure our government is providing today, as scary as it seems — AND, yes, Paul McCartney is still making music.

And Now, “So What?”

For me, and for many of you, the REAL challenge came with the arrival of children.  Providing a “back seat” for my own young children “to fall asleep in” was clearly my responsibility.  I came to realize that the great challenge of modern life may not be so much the fear that Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty felt as they looked ahead to an uncertain future — they didn’t know it, but they would overcome it all just fine in their own good time.  The challenge resided in the characters that we never met in Charles Schutz’ comic strip — the parents.  That challenge in my own story rested with my Dad.  At that time, he could have derailed my plans; he could have insisted that I complete my degree in the school of business and fulfill his “And Son” dream
— he was, after all, paying the bills.  His wisdom was to give me permission to pursue the “daring adventure” that Hellen Keller spoke of.  He had to take the risk that I could succeed going my own way.  For that, I thank him today.

Recently, in a conversation with my son Matt about raising children (as he and his brothers are doing so well), he reminded me of something I quoted to him years ago from a book I read (“How To Father,” by Fitzhugh Dodson).  The book asked, what is it that children, whether they know it or not, want most from their parents while they are growing up?  The answer:
“Risk with me while I’m trying on selves.”

Risk with me while I’m trying on selves.”

I didn’t see that in the comic strip all those years ago; but today, as I look with admiration at children and grandchildren, just like those in the cartoon, I see that as the enduring message.  

America’s Great Anniversary Festival


It ought to be solemnized with Pomp
and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports,
Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations
from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

      — John Adams, July 3, 1776



Click here to download a PDF of this post: The_Fourth_2017

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From a letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. … I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.  …You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”

OK, so John got it sorta wrong.  He figured that America’s “Great Anniversary Festival” should be celebrated on July 2nd, the day the unanimous vote was taken in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  But, since July 4th was the day the Declaration of Independence was printed, distributed, and read on street corners throughout the colonies, and, well, that was the date at the top of the paper, so  …  here we are.

Happy Fourth of July!

And there’s the famous John Trumbull painting of the ceremony in which the members of the Second Continental Congress signed the declaration on July 4th –> nope, that didn’t happen either.  Most members signed the paper on August 2nd at the Pennsylvania State House.  Some signed on other dates.  The New York delegation was given permission to sign the document by their legislature on July 15th (since NY had abstained on July 2nd).  Some signers hadn’t been elected to Congress yet in July.


But, OK, the document we have today (a copy is framed over my workbench) has 56 signatures and it’s dated July 4, 1776.  Done and done. A result, at least, of some powerful storytelling.

Happy Fourth of July!

Today, July 4, 2017, we celebrate what has been called “The Great Experiment in Democracy on the North American Continent.” We’ve been working at this experiment for 241 years and it
has required a tremendous amount of sacrifice and quite a lot of very serious compromises,
some we can be proud of, some not so much.
The signers of the document, rich, white, male property owners (many slave owners) with much to lose, pledged to support the declaration with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” The late eloquent American journalist Paul Harvey (Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2009), tells the stories of what those signers had to do to support that pledge. Give it a look; much of it is true and all of it is moving.


So, how’re we doin’?

America had a population of 2.5 million in 1776 — today we number about 326 million — and each of us has a role to play.  The challenge of representative democracy as it has come down to the latest generation of Americans has required an evolving recipe of leadership and followership.  We expect our leaders to represent us well on national and international stages; we judge them every day on their ability to make us proud, keep us safe, and promote the values we claim to believe in.  We, in turn, ask each other to support those values as we exercise what the Declaration of Independence enshrined as our “inalienable rights”: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Our common expectation, or hope, is that we will find ways to pursue those inalienable rights without stepping on the rights of others; AND we agree that our government will protect the ability of each of us to exercise those rights — or at least not stand in our way.

So, what do we do if we find ourselves disappointed with the outcome of those agreements
– disappointed with the “great experiment in Democracy” on this continent, in our town, in our neighborhood?  And, let’s be frank, we often — often — find ourselves disappointed in our leaders, our fellow citizens, and at times, perhaps, even our own contributions to that agreement. What do we do?  What should we do?  What is expected of us when we expect more?  Truth is, few of us will be required to give what the signers of the declaration had to give, as Paul Harvey described; some will, but relatively few. What is our responsibility when we decide that our leaders do not represent our values and ourselves the way we expect?  Is it sufficient to carry signs in crowds that express our disapproval?  I think most of us believe that more is expected. After all, we’ve got it pretty good, most of us.  What’s the line in the book — “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.”  Does the legacy passed on to us by our, largely immigrant, forebears require some effort to carry on the values that were passed on to us?

The closer we look at our history — as we do when we watch the musical play “Hamilton” or “1776” on our theater stages — we find that the founders were, for the most part, fairly ordinary, imperfect people.  Not granite statues.  Sort of like the rest of us but, perhaps with greater ambition and maybe some particular talents that got them into positions of responsibility.  Maybe they did something when they saw a need.  Maybe their motives were good, maybe not.  Many of us decide: “I think I can find ways to contribute, but they don’t seem sufficient.”  For many, on both sides of a number of challenges that we face, we want something to change.  I don’t have the wisdom or talent of those who have risen to positions of leadership over our lifetime; but I can recognize some of that wisdom when I see it.  I recall many words of wisdom that have been passed down to me — all the way from “nothing to fear …” to “ask not …” to “ask why not,” but, for today, these come to mind: “we must be the change we seek.”

So, here we are.  How do we “become the change …” ?   I’m not sure any of us can make it happen by ourselves.  In honor of “America’s anniversary festival,” we’ve got to figure it out together.  Time’s a wastin’ …

For further reading:  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/opinion/fourth-of-july-stephen-fry.html

“The Summer of Love” — 1967


“The Summer of Love” — 1967:
More Than A Summer


“Do you believe in Rock & Roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
Can you teach me how to dance real slow?”
   — Don McLean (from “American Pie”)


Click here to download a PDF of this post: ConVivio_Summer_1967_V2

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The Music of My Generation

The great music of my generation reached a climax in 1967.  That historic musical moment — widely recognized as the pinnacle of the music of my generation — “warmed up” around 1962-5, reached its peak in the “Summer of Love” of 1967, and culminated in the last few years of the sixties leading to the grand finale: “Woodstock” in August of 1969.

Since most of my generation was in high school at the time, we tend to think of “1967” as the school year that began in the fall of 1966 and ended late in 1967, when my friends and I settled into our senior year.  Of course, nothing of cultural importance begins and ends that abruptly and crisply, so we will consider those dates to be approximate.  For most of you “of a certain age,” these details may not be new, just reminders of a time in your own life.

It Started With Something New: Buying Records












I began buying vinyl records in 1964, starting with the purchase of my first Beatle album, “Introducing the Beatles,” in January (I still have it) followed a couple of weeks later by “Meet the Beatles” (my son Ben has it).  This was an important milestone in my teenage life and the act of buying records quickly became a four-step ritual for me. Here was the pattern:

Step 1. I would hear something exiting on the radio played by one of the two important disc jockeys in the bay area on KYA:

“Emperor” Gene Nelson was “The Emperor” because his loyal following carried “Royal Commando” cards, he issued his own royal currency (accepted only within “The Empire”), and counted down the “Top Thirty” every Saturday morning.
— “Big Daddy” Tom Donohue advertised acne creams and opened his show with the line: “This is your Big Daddy Tom Donohue. I’m here to clear up your face and mess up your mind.”  He co-produced the Beatles last public appearance at Candlestick Park August 29, 1966. About this time, a friend turned me on to something new: FM Radio!  KSJO in San Jose played music and said things that could not be heard on AM radio.  Tom Donohue pioneered “album-oriented” radio at KMPX FM.  We called these FM stations “underground radio.”  (Our parents did not listen to these stations.)

Step 2. I would walk uptown to the record store (Don McLean later called it “The Sacred Store” in his classic song “American Pie”).  I would ask the lady behind the counter if I could listen to a particular song.  She would play it on a turntable if it was on a 45-RPM single (99 cents); but she wouldn’t play an album.  In the case of an album, I would inspect the album cover and put it back in the rack for later consideration (albums cost more — initially, a dozen songs for $2.99.

Step 3. After due consideration (usually a day or so), I would walk back to the record store and buy the album (except in the case of a Beatle album — in that case I would have bought it immediately, without question, the first day it was released.

Step 4. As soon as I got home, I would play the entire album from beginning to end without delay or interruption, making judgments about which songs were “hits” and deciding if I preferred one side over the other.  Sometimes a friend joined in this part of the ritual. In many cases (again, except for the Beatles) I ended up playing the preferred side almost exclusively after making that judgement.

My Dad encouraged me to buy records, as he had done.  I still have his 78-RPM recordings of Cole Porter, Dale Carnegie (“How To Win Friends and Influence People”), and Red Motley (“Nothing Happens Until Somebody Sells Something”), and the soundtracks I heard growing up: “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” and a little classical and opera.  I don’t think he really understood my music, but I think he figured that it didn’t do any harm.

Most popular songs, especially in the early sixties, were released on 45-RPM “singles,” with a “hit” song on one side — the “A” side — and usually a throw-away song on the “B” side that would seldom be heard on the radio.  The Beatles broke that mold by releasing singles with great songs on both sides.  These were almost uniformly three minutes long until July of 1965 when Bob Dylan released “Like a Rolling Stone,” which was more than six minutes long.  At first, radio stations played a truncated version; but it quickly became a world-wide hit, broke through that constraint, and we heard it on the radio in its entirety.  Why was it such a big deal?  Even though it wasn’t particularly ‘musical,’ its “street poetry” described some of the familiar experiences of many young people of my generation and then asked:
“How does it feel?
To be on your own,
with no direction home,
a complete unknown,
like a rolling stone.”
It seemed to touch something deep in the hearts of young people experiencing in the strangeness of growing up in the second half of the 1960s.  There would be more to come.

So, What Records Did I Buy?

I bought a few singles; but, after a while, I stopped buying singles and stuck with albums.  This change coincided with the trend among popular musicians starting around 1965-66 to record an entire album of their best songs, several of which were “hits” that might have been played on the radio.  So, albums contained a lot more storytelling and developed more important themes than songwriters could convey in one three-minute song.  Many of the songs of the time reflect the ideas and feelings that mattered to so many of us during that period.

Below is a link to a PDF list of the record albums released during this time that I bought then or over years that followed.  It turns out to be a pretty good indicator of what was popular among teenagers, at least in my high school at the time.   AND it serves as the musical content that led to the “Summer of Love” in 1967 and other major music events of 1968-9.  I bet many of you had these same records or at least remember hearing many of them, either at that time or later –>–>–> AND I’d love to hear from you about the music that was important to you during this time, whether you were alive then or not — since many of you grew up listening to your parents’ records of these songs that they continued to play in later years (as I did).

Records I bought from 1964, with release dates (underlined titles are links):
Click here:  Dans_Records_1964-1968.pdf

What actually happened during 1967?

The term “Summer of Love” originated with the formation of the “Council for the Summer of Love” in the spring of 1967 as a response to the convergence of young people on the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. The Council was composed of The Family Dog, The Straight Theatre, The Diggers, The San Francisco Oracle, and approximately twenty-five other people, who wanted to plan for the influx. The Council also assisted the Free Clinic and organized housing, food, sanitation, music and arts, and coordinated with local churches and other social groups. So, there was some preparation.

  • January 14 The Human Be-In takes place in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; setting the stage for the “Summer of Love.”
  • January 28 – The Mantra-Rock Dance, called by some the “ultimate high” of the hippie era, takes place in San Francisco, featuring Swami Bhaktivedanta, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and Allen Ginsberg.
  • June 16-18 – Most consider the three-day Monterey Pop Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds to be the focus of “The Summer.”  That event — fifty years ago this week (celebrated last Sunday) — brought together thousands of people to see and hear many of the most well-known rock & roll musicians of the era — notably, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, David Cosby, The Who, The Association, The Doors, Hugh Masekela, Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin (Big Brother and the Holding Company), Eric Burden (Animals), Otis Redding, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas & the Papas. The event essentially launched careers of some performers who had not yet achieved national recognition — Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro, Canned Heat, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and Steve Miller are examples.

Some notables intended to perform . . . but:
— The Beatles decided that their music had become too complex to perform live and did not perform (and never toured again).
— The Beach Boys, although Brian Wilson was a leader in the planning of the event, decided not to perform — perhaps their music came out of a different mindset (surfing and fast cars) and didn’t quite fit into this particular “Summer.”
— Donovan, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, among others, couldn’t get visas to enter the US because of drug arrests.
— Dionne Warwick had a conflicting gig at The Fairmont in San Francisco.
— Bob Dylan declined because he was still recovering from his motorcycle accident. (Hendrix paid tribute to him by performing “Like a Rolling Stone.”
— Frank Zappa (Mothers of Invention) refused to share the stage with SF performers he considered to be inferior. (Huh?)
— Organizers rejected some who asked to perform, like The Monkees (thanks); and some (like Cream) backed out hoping to perform in a venue that would provide “more exposure” (ooops!).

Other cultural/musical events took place around the world in places like New York, London, and elsewhere; and — related — on October 17, the musical Hair opened off-Broadway on October 17 and moved to Broadway the following April.  But “That Summer” also featured a number of distressing public events.  It was a difficult time in America: several large and violent anti-war demonstrations did serious damage that summer and several multi-day race riots erupted in Tampa, Buffalo, Newark, Plainfield, Minneapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Washington DC, leading to more than 100 deaths and significant disruptions in communities and colleges across America.  So, there was more going on than just the music.

Was It Just the Prelude?

Most would say that “The Summer of Love” was the focal point of the development of the music of the time; BUT, as an event, most say it was just the prelude leading up to the central musical event of my generation. “Woodstock” took place August 15-18, 1969, on at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm near New York and was attended by over 400,000 people and millions of us will claim “I was there.”  (I was, uh, there.) BUT, if you look at the music that was performed at Woodstock and the musicians who performed, I think you’ll agree that the music emanated from the inspiration of 1967.  We can save THAT topic for another time.  The cultural event had its own significance. For the purpose of remembering “The Summer of Love,” it was all about the music.

And, Yes, It Had a “Funeral”



After many people left at the end of summer to resume their college studies, those remaining in The Haight wanted to commemorate the conclusion of the event. A mock funeral entitled   “The Death of Hippie” was staged on October 6, 1967. Organizer Mary Kasper explained the message:
We wanted to signal that this was the end of it, to stay home, bring the revolution to where you live, and don’t come here because it’s over and done with.”

Mock Funeral Notice

But the Music Didn’t Die
Life got tougher in America: the Vietnam War became more intense, as did protests against it, a cultural divide opened between generations, and the assassination of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sparked riots across America. BUT —  the music didn’t die.  We bought the records, listed on the radio, our children heard those records growing up in our homes, and — after these fifty years have passed, the songs of that era continue to be popular landmarks in music, culture, and literature.


Talkin’ Baseball … Math

“Using wrong measurements has
resulted in bad decisions on contracts,
playing time, trades, and draft picks.”

“It’s led to picking the wrong players
for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year
and even obvious stuff like the Hall of Fame.”
“It drives conversations about teams
and players right off the cliff.”
— Keith Law,
from his new book “Smart Baseball”


Click here to download a PDF of this article:  ConVivio_Baseball_math
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Getting Baseball Wrong: By the Numbers

Baseball writer Keith Law has written an unusual book about the way we evaluate baseball players and teams — something we’ve all been doing since we were kids.  He makes a case that we’ve been getting it wrong throughout the history of baseball.  Let’s consider his observations.

When I saw his book, “Smart Baseball,” on the library’s ‘New Books’ shelf, I thought it was about something else — you know, how to PLAY baseball smarter.  I thought it might be useful for talking about baseball with my grandchildren.  But it’s about something else that all fans do: comparing players and teams during the season and, a tougher task, comparing today’s players and teams with those of the past.  We use statistics; and it affects a lot of baseball judgments.

First, how DO we evaluate and compare hitters?  

Most of us have known these rules since we were kids.
1.  We evaluate hitters by their batting averages, runs batted in, and slugging percentage.
•  Batting average (BA): the number of base hits divided by the number of official times at bat — example: a batter who gets 30 base hits in 100 at-bats has a batting average of .300.  In this calculation, all hits are treated as equal.
•  Runs batted in (RBIs): the number of times a batter causes a runner to score because he gets a base hit or walks in a run — examples: a batter who gets a base hit driving in runners on second and third is credited with two RBIs; a batter who walks with the bases loaded is credited with one RBI. (BTW, a batter who hits a ball “booted” by a fielder causing a run to a score on the error does NOT receive an RBI.)
•  Slugging percentage (SLG): the total bases a batter reaches divided by the number of official at-bats.  Regardless of the number runs that are produced, a double is counted as two total bases; a homer is four. So, this statistic claims to measure the extent to which a hitter is a “power hitter.”  A batter who has 100 official at-bats and hits 20 singles, eight doubles, and two homers has a slugging percentage of .440.

These numbers have been used for making decisions on trading or acquiring players (or baseball cards), selecting a Most Valuable Player (or other batting awards), and setting salaries, literally for centuries.  So, how well does that work?

Let’s See

Every year the major leagues give their “Batting Champion” award to the player with the highest batting average.  The assumption is that this is the single statistic that identifies the best hitter.  In 2015, the Miami Dolphins’ Dee Gordon led the National League with a batting average of .333.  So, he was the 2015 NL Batting Champion.  That was easy.
–>  –> BUT,  Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals led the league in almost everything else that year: doubles, homers (42 to Gordon’s 4), walks (124 to Gordon’s 25), and runs scored. Harper beat Gordon in RBIs (99 to 46) and Slugging Percentage (.649 to .418).  So, who was the best hitter?  If the offensive goal of a baseball team is scoring runs to win games, which of them would you want on your team?  Oh, by the way, Harper was also the National League’s MVP, but, Gordon was the NL Batting Champion.  So, tell me — what did that mean exactly?

What about RBIs? 

Maybe the number of runs that score when a batter gets base hits is a better gauge of a hitter’s ability.  This statistic has long been valued in voting for MVP candidates, as it was (above) in 2015 in the National League.  Despite the important role of the RBI stat in baseball reporting, many writers point out that it is one of the individual stats that depends almost entirely on the achievements of other players — specifically, how many players are on base when a batter gets a hit.  Examples abound, but comparing two famous careers serves at least to consider the importance of the RBI statistic:
•  As we all remember (with varying degrees of admiration for off-the-field reasons), Barry Bonds was the major leagues’ all-time career leader in home runs with 762 compared with Henry Aaron’s 755.  To fill out the picture, judging them ONLY by their actual offensive statistics, Bonds hit those home runs in 300 few games than Aaron, got on base more often (.444 to .374), and hit for more power (i.e., a higher slugging percentage .607 to .555), was walked almost twice as many times (2558 to 1402), and was the National League MVP seven times to Aaron’s one.  SO, what about RBIs? With all those numbers what would you guess?

Aaron had 301 more career RBIs than Bonds.  Why?  During his most productive seasons, Bonds batted third in a Giants’ lineup in which two of the three players who batted ahead of him were not so good at getting on base.  This fact is what Keith Law refers to as one of the “stupid manager tricks” that make RBIs such a weak indicator of a hitter’s ability.   Turns out that Bonds has the distinction of hitting 450 solo home runs in his career.  So, Bonds’ lower RBI total has more to do with the lineup that batted ahead of him than anything about his own hitting prowess.  So, what does a player’s RBI total tell us about a player’s hitting ability?
Not so much.

What about pitchers?

We evaluate pitchers by the number of “Wins,” Saves,” and Earned-Run Average (ERA).  How does that work out?  All our lives, starting pitchers have been labeled by the number of “Wins” they are credited with.  There are other pitching stats, but they all take a back seat to the “Won-Loss” record. We all want our pitching rotation to include “20-game-winners.”  This statistic is simply dumb.  While team victories matter more than any other team statistic across a 162-game season, author Keith Law asserts “the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field.”

I grew up in an era when a manager hoped, and a pitcher intended, that he would pitch a “complete game.”  Today — nope.  Today, managers typically keep a starter on the mound for 100 pitches, certainly not more than 120.  Example: in April of 2016, Dodgers’ rookie Ross Stripling was pitching a no-hit, perfect game in the 8th inning against the Giants when, after his 100th pitch, he was yanked for a reliever. The Giants wound up winning 3-2 on Brandon Crawford’s 10th-inning homer.  Contrast that with a game I listened to on my transistor radio back in July of 1963 when 25-year-old Juan Marichal battled 42-year-old Warren Spahn on the mound into the 16th inning, both pitching a shutout, when Willie Mays broke up the party with a 16th-inning homer to win for the Giants 1-0.  Even though Spahn had to pitch himself out of a bases-loaded situation in the 14th inning, both managers did the obvious thing — left their best pitcher in the game when they were pitching a shutout in a game they wanted to win.  SO, what does it mean?  In the first example, Ross Stripling pitched 7+ innings of perfect baseball and it didn’t even show up in his Won-Loss record.  In the second example, Warren Spahn finished the season with a 23-7 Won-Loss record; and this game, arguably one of the best pitching performances in history, was just one of his seven losses.  What did that statistic mean?

Not much.

Conversely, a “Win” doesn’t always mean that pitcher even pitched well.  Example: in the 2000 season, Russ Ortiz pitched 6 2/3 innings and gave up ten runs; but he got the win because his team scored 16 runs that day.  Truth is, a “Win” or a “Loss,” as a pitching statistic, depends on the work of many other players — sometimes not because of, but IN SPITE OF the pitching performance.  Then, when you factor in the role of relief pitchers who preserve a “Win” for a starter and the very real contributions of the defense and offense of a pitcher’s team, the “Win-Loss” record is pretty useless in evaluating a pitcher’s ability.  AND that doesn’t even consider the number of good pitchers who played long careers for bad teams.

So, let’s agree that the “Won-Loss” record is, at best, misleading.

So, what about “Saves?”  Rule 10.20 determines that a relief pitcher earns a save when he:
•  finishes a game his team wins and he is not the winning pitcher; and any one of these apply:
— enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches at least one inning
— enters the game with the potential tying run on base or at bat or on deck
— pitches effectively for three innings.

If he meets these criteria, he earns a “Save” — whether he pitches well or poorly; OR he can pitch very well and NOT earn a Save under the wrong conditions.  Keith Law tells us: in 2015, there were 114 appearances when a relief pitcher pitched at least three innings and gave up zero runs; but only NINE of those appearances earned the pitcher a “Save.”  Compare that to the thirteen saves that year earned by pitchers who allowed two runs in one inning of work, but protected a lead and finished the game.  Pitch four scoreless innings in a loss — no save.  Give up two runs in the last inning — save.  SO, what does the “Save” statistic mean?  It’s all about factors that have little to do with the performance of the pitcher.  BUT, for relief pitchers, it’s a key contributor to salaries, trades, and recognition.

What about “Earned Run Average (ERA)?” 

This stat is a staple on baseball cards and on-screen graphics along with the Win-Loss record. It is the number of earned runs allowed per nine innings pitched. Earned runs are, of course, those that result from base hits and not caused by errors or passed balls. But, it does not account for the ability of outfielders to hold a hitter to a single, throw out runners on the bases, or the subjective work of official scorers to distinguish hits from errors.  So, aside from strikeouts and walks, the act of getting a batter out or preventing runs from scoring is shared by others.

While ERA has limited value for evaluating starting pitchers, it is even more misleading for relievers.  When a starting pitcher gives up a single, a double, and an intentional walk, he is responsible for those runners.  When the relief pitcher replaces him in the 7th inning with the bases loaded and gives up two more singles before retiring the side, all three of the resulting runs are charged to the starting pitcher, none to the reliever.  While getting outs is the primary task of any pitcher, it is too easy for a relief pitcher to come in during a tough situation, pitch badly, and leave with his ERA intact. The resulting stat is not an accurate reflection of who did what or the effect their performances had on the outcome of the game.  We could cite many examples of the assignment of earned runs in a variety of situations and none would be entirely satisfying.  In general, ERA is another case of baseball math that depends more on the sequence of events and the contribution of others than the quality of individual performances.

So, what’s better? 

In recent years, something called “Sabermetrics” has begun to creep into the mainstream of baseball writing and even management decision-making (remember the movie “Moneyball?”).  Serious statisticians are now employed by more MLB teams every year and they are looking at some different numbers.  The book “Smart Baseball” asserts that “On-Base Percentage (OBP) is the most complete of all basic hitting stats, because it includes everything a hitter does” and it excludes many factors that are not specific to the hitter’s individual performance.

OBP = (Hits + walks + times hit by pitch
divided by
(At bats + walks + times hit by pitch + sacrifice flies)

The logic is simple: take the number of times a hitter gets on base and divide it by the total number of times he came up to the plate. Using the 2015 season of Bryce Harper (mentioned above) as an example, this method would have given him an OBP of .460 (46%).  If that statistic had been used in 2015, Harper would have easily been the Batting Champion instead of Dee Gordon who simply had a higher batting average by .003.

Again, statistical examples are numerous — let’s return to our previous example:
In 1987, the National League MVP was Andre Dawson.  Dawson hit 49 home runs for the Cubs along with a batting average of .287 and 137 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .568.    OK.

However, Keith Law asserts that the real MVP that year should easily have been Tony Gwynn.  While Dawson had more home runs and RBIs, Gwynn dramatically overshadowed Dawson in singles, doubles, triples, walks and — here’s the key: he had an On-Base-Percentage (OBP) of .447 compared to Dawson’s .328.   Another way to look at it, given that they had a nearly identical number of plate appearances, Dawson made 70 more outs than Gwynn that season.  SO, by their own individual contributions, which of them increased their team’s ability to score more runs?  If that is the most important objective, it seems that our traditional baseball math may have chosen the wrong MVP in 1987.  Using OBP could have suggested another choice.

One small refinement has emerged — the “triple slash” stat: batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage.  In that case, here is the snapshot of those 1987 performances.

                 BA   OBP  SLG
Dawson:   .287/.328/.568
Gwynn:    .370/.447 /.511

What’s the effect on the recognition of pitchers?

The most prestigious single-season recognition for pitchers is the Cy Young award. As a quiz, let’s take a look at the details of the Cy Young decision in a year you might not remember, 1990, and see if we can decipher how that decision was made.  Here were the top candidates:

                                    W     L      ERA     IP       Runs
Bob Welch (Oak):         27      6     2.95     238     90 (78 earned)
Dave Stewart (Oak):     22     11    2.56     267     84 (76 earned)
Roger Clemens (Bos)    21      6     1.93     228     59 (49 earned)

Do you remember who won the award?  Without looking, who would get your vote?  (Hint question: does one statistic dominate Cy Young award voting?)

Bob Welch won the award.  Why?  Of the three contenders, Welch gave up more runs, had the worst ERA, and . . . well, he had the best Won-Loss record — the one stat that depends the most on the work of others.  Was he the best pitcher that year?  Heck, Keith Law observes that he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team!  That shiny “Win” total is clearly the only reason.

The logic is inescapable, but not very useful — you have to look at a number of metrics to make such a judgment about pitchers, not just one.  The goal be would to select players that can add as many wins to the team as possible, within a budget.

For those who want to dig deeper into the problem of judging pitchers — and for those who enjoy long descriptions of statistical tradeoffs — and you know who you are — I suggest you read Keith Law’s book (try chapter 14).  He actually has an approach to this problem — he calls it “Wins Above Replacement (WAR),” which focusses on an elusive metric: “Runs Prevented.”  For me, I skipped to the last chapter where he identifies the two main issues:
1. Baseball provides a lot of data points that are fundamentally interdependent — that is, so few baseball outcomes can be traced to the performance of a single player.  It’s a team game (Duh).
2. So much of what drives the way baseball is played and viewed is more cultural than statistical.  Players, managers, team owners, and fans do what they do, and like what they like about the game, for reasons they grew up with since the first time each of us was captivated by “baseball fever” when we were kids.

So, when we try to dissect the statistics of the game to understand it better, we find out that baseball is more than it seems . . .  and less.

Go Giants!

King Arthur for 2017

Tell the story
“Don’t let it be forgot”
— Arthur


Yet some men say
in many parts of England
that King Arthur is not dead
— Sir Thomas Mallory
(of Warwick?)


Click here to download a PDF of this article: ConVivio_Arthur_May11_2017

In dark times, we humans tend to seek assistance from some form of intervention — perhaps a knight on a horse — to save us from dangers we can’t overcome on our own.  History is full of examples; and my favorite example is the legend of King Arthur.  At its core, the Arthurian legend promises that British greatness is secure as long as its royal heritage endures.  Several ancient sources contain the prophecy that the ‘Rightful King’ would reveal himself by pulling an enchanted sword, named Excalibur, from a stone.  In those stories, the sword had been embedded in that stone under a spell that awaited a person with enough moral courage and wisdom (and, of course, physical strength) to remove the sword and save his people at a time of great danger.  In our most enduring source of Arthurian legend, Le Morte d’Artur (1485), Sir Thomas Mallory tells us: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone, is rightwise king born of all England.”  When that ‘Rightful King’ shows up to remove the sword he would lead his people to victory.  Arthur arrived on the scene to fulfill that prophecy.  Presumably, all of Britain’s history follows from that moment. For centuries, many storytellers have taken up the legend — recently Alfred Tennyson in Idylls of the King (in the 1860s), T.H. White in his popular book The Once and Future King (1958), and, of course, the Broadway musical Camelot by Lerner and Loewe (1960).

Most of the stories come to us from the 12th thru 15th centuries, with tales of chivalry, Knights of the Round Table, and a famous Camelot love triangle involving Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelet; but the real, historical Arthur arrived on the scene to remove the sword and save his comrades at the Battle of Camlann in 560 AD.  In that battle, Arthur, with the help of Excalibur, killed their enemy, Mordred, to achieve victory.  Unfortunately, accounts from that time record that Arthur was mortally wounded in that battle and was taken to the Isle of Avalon to die.  Historically, most believe that he was buried in the churchyard at Glastonbury Abbey (below).


BUT   Arthur’s story doesn’t end there.  Mallory continues: “Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life.”  The legend provides further reassurance — we are told with the particular certainty of such powerful legends, that Arthur still waits at the Isle of Avalon (now known as Glastonbury Tor) for the day when his particular combination of greatness, goodness, and magic will be needed to save Britain again from great danger.  Now, partial disclosure, I have visited Glastonbury Tor here in the 21st century, walked its full extent (below, that’s me on the path on the left), and I must report that I did not see him there.  But, the legend has endured long enough and forcefully enough to suggest that I must have missed him.  And, as you can see, there’s magic afoot; so, we can be confident.

Glastonbury Tor, 2003

So, the legend endures. (And it’s a better story, no?)

Over the centuries since that day, Britain has survived a long list of well-documented threats;
—>   —>  BUT today, the time for his return has clearly arrived.

Without Arthur’s intervention, an election scheduled for June 8 may be a defining ‘point-of-no-return’ of Britain’s planned separation from the rest of Europe with disastrous results for the British economy and the stability of Europe and the West.  The entire arc of history enfolding from the 5th to the 21st centuries has been a constant struggle to unify Europe under progressive values, new ideas that promise to provide stability.  That struggle has continued through an alternating series of triumphs and setbacks over sixteen centuries of powerful obstacles, destructive wars, expansions of a vast empire, contractions back to a single small country, demonstrably less worthy kings, tasteless food, a few embarrassing prime ministers (most since Churchill), and one worthless one (the current one).  Arguably, the establishment of the European Union (EU) in 1993 was the greatest single step in the progress from Arthur’s Round Table, as told to us by Sir Tom of Warwick (Thomas Mallory?) to our present day.  If this election were to go the “wrong” way, and Britain shrinks from the responsibilities of its destiny, neither Britain nor the European Union are certain to recover from such a setback. The British people will need all of the wisdom and courage that Arthur, the “Once and Future King,” can provide to step back from the Brexit cliff.

The time has come, Arthur, to return and fulfill your destiny.  The world still waits.  I’m sure you are ready and waiting somewhere on that hill in Glastonbury.  Time is running out.

Or, maybe there is another way to think about this  …

On the eve of battle, according to one version of the story, Arthur gave a gift to the future (i.e., us).  Mindful that the battle was not certain to go well, that he might not survive and his Round Table could die with him, he was startled by a young boy who had come to fight in the battle. The boy told Arthur that he wanted to fight to preserve the values of the Round Table.  The dejected King, feeling that his life’s work was about to come to nothing, was skeptical, and asked him how he could possibly know about the Round Table.  The boy told him, “from stories people tell — stories about might for right, right for right, justice for all, a round table where all the knights would sit.

Arthur was encouraged and, using Excalibur, knighted the boy, Tom of Warwick, and gave him some direct orders:
You will not fight in the battle, you will run behind the lines and hide until the battle is over; you will return home to Warwick — ALIVE!  You will grow up and grow old.  For as long as you live, will you remember what I, your King, tell you and do as I command?

Yes, my Lord.”

Arthur then commands him to “tell the story” of the values of the kingdom he had hoped to create.  (Click on the link to hear Arthur tell the story himself.)  As the newly knighted Tom of Warwick leaves to fulfill his orders, Arthur’s optimism is revived that “We will be remembered” and THAT would be his victory.

So, perhaps between now and June 8, the story must be told, “strong and clear,” again and again, that Britain has an important role to play in the future of Europe and in preserving the values for which it was founded.  Maybe the story can tip the balance, even if Arthur himself does not emerge from Glastonbury Tor with his sword to save Britain from itself.  Maybe the telling of the story is all that is needed. If the guys with swords let us down, let’s put our faith in the storytellers.

And Yet, Optimists Speak

“In case you thought
optimism was dead,
the average pencil
is seven inches long
with just a half-inch eraser.”
— Robert Brault


Spoiler alert —–>  Yes, it turns out that I am an optimist.  Honest.  Really.  Maybe you are, too?

These days, such a label often elicits an insulting response, such as “How can you be an optimist? Aren’t you paying attention?  Everything is going to hell in a handbasket.  Just open the newspaper any day of the week.”  Or “Anyone with experience knows better than to expect the future to be better than today.”  Or “Right, an optimist, but I bet you look both ways before you cross the street, don’t you?”

My father was an optimist and I acquired that attribute from him.  In fact, believe it or not, when he was an insurance agent back in the 1950s, he was actually the president of a club of other businessmen in town, called “The Optimists Club.”  They had an “Optimist’s Creed,” which they recited at meetings.  (Yes, they actually had meetings.)  He was an optimist in earnest.  As a successful businessman who had not completed the eighth grade and was the son of an illiterate immigrant, it was actually part of his experience to expect positive surprises.

The Optimist Creed was in a frame on the wall
in my Dad’s office

<– <– <– — it looked like this

Why do I remember this?  Back in the late
1950s, my Dad kept his office open until noon
on Saturdays; and sometimes he took me to
the office with him. I’d sit in the back of the
office and jam up the adding machine. (I think
I was supposed to be watching him in action
and developing an appreciation for the
insurance business.  His plan was to hang a
sign outside that would say “And Son” and I
would one day take over the business.)  But,
my actual accomplishment was to jam up the
adding machine.  But I digress  … why did I
bring this up?  Oh yes …

A friend of his, Jerry Bassett, also a member of the Optimist Club, had a call-in talk show on the local radio station (KKIS in Pittsburg, CA).  On those Saturday mornings, the show was playing on the radio in the office.  One day, Jerry wasn’t getting enough callers; so, he called my Dad during a commercial and told him “I’m dying here, Al.  Can you call me up with something interesting to talk about?  Whuhduhyuhsay?”  So, my Dad took the framed “Optimist Creed” off the wall and called him back.

I was stunned.  There was my Dad, sitting at his desk, telling Jerry Bassett about the Optimist Club and why it meant so much to him.  He actually read the Optimist Creed over the phone and I sat there and listened to my Dad on the radio — with the confusing five-second delay —  talking about what it meant to him to be an optimist.  Apparently, others called in and wanted to talk about it; so, I guess it sorta saved the show for Mr. Bassett.

For me, a ten-year-old sitting in my Dad’s office on a few Saturday mornings, while I didn’t acquire an interest in the insurance business, I did develop an appreciation for the idea of being an optimist — just by watching, listening, and observing how people responded to him.

I learned over time from my Dad and from my own observation, that being an optimist meant a number of different things to him and to others. As I read the news and listen to what people say about it all, I grant you that it requires some effort to be optimistic these days (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that); but it seems that many of us have different views of what that might mean.  So, let’s explore some of the different meanings people attribute to optimism — borrowing some words from a few others — and then, let’s try to figure out what it might mean to us to be an optimist today.

Let’s ask around.  It seems there are different kinds of optimists.

The Delusional Optimist
This is a guy who falls out of the top floor of a ten-story building. As he passes the floors on his way down (the ninth, then the eighth, the seventh, etc), he says to people on those floors as he flies by on his way down: I’m doin’ OK so far.

This is the optimism that gets the most disdain from “realists” who are paying attention to the news (maybe you and me).  This delusional optimist doesn’t get a lot of respect.  He’s just wrong.  In reaction to this rosy view of a harsh world, some pessimists call themselves realists and seek comfort by lowering their expectations:

The ‘Optimism’ of Lowered Expectations
“A pessimist? That’s a person who has been intimately acquainted with an optimist.”
— Elbert Hubbard

Some of us go to great lengths to avoid being called a fool. A pessimist makes clear that the world can be a bad place for real people; and asserts that a fool is someone who thinks it can be otherwise.  Others, like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eeyore, try to solve the problem by keeping their expectations low:

“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“And freezing.”
“Is it?”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
― A.A. Milne

The Patient Optimist: Two versions
“Everything will be okay in the end.  If it is not okay; it is not the end.”

— John Lennon   (I bet you thought somebody else said that first, didn’t you?)

This is the classic belief that, at some time in the future, something better will happen if you just wait for it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays Aaron Burr as a different kind of patient optimist in ”Hamilton, the Musical.”  Burr and Alexander Hamilton are both orphans who have an opportunity to impact history. Burr waits cautiously for the chance to fulfill his destiny in a very tough world and resents Hamilton’s more confident approach. He sings to the audience, “Wait For It” (click here to hear the entire song):

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints,
it takes and it takes and it takes
We rise and we keep living anyway, we rise and we fall and we break
We fall and we make our mistakes.
and if there’s a reason I’m still alive when so many have died,
then I’m willin’ to-
Wait for it …
Wait for it …

In the same show, Hamilton — expecting much more than waiting, says to Burr  …

If you dont stand for something, Burr, what will you fall for?
―  Lin-Manual Miranda

Hamilton doesn’t respect those who are reluctant to risk making a commitment to something greater than themselves — a criticism he leveled at Aaron Burr, early in their fatal “rivalry.”  Burr, wary of commitment, was held back by a feeling that ‘making a difference’ might be futile — or dangerous.  In our own time, this very year, some of us fear that the prospects for a positive future are so bleak that there is no point in trying and the challenges we face are too big for us to make a difference.  But there are optimists among us who remind us that it is too early to give up and we are pretty useless if we do:

The Resigned Optimist (aka the “No Other Choice” optimist)
For myself I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use to be anything else.
Winston S. Churchill

And then, some among us feel that we all have some responsibilities to those who will come after us:

The Burdened Optimist (aka “The Future has its eyes on you”)
There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
J.R.R. Tolkien

The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

And then, some take that responsibility deeper, especially during difficult times (like war):

Lest I keep my complacent ways, I must remember somewhere out there a person died for me today. As long as there must be war, I ask and I must answer was I worth dying for?’ ”  Eleanor Roosevelt

Ouch.  Eleanor insists that we need to be worthy of the sacrifices others made for us.  That brings us back to the need for a plan to make something better and the need to follow through with that plan.  Optimism, of this variety, requires action since positive change doesn’t happen by itself.  So, in order to avoid being called a fool, a person would have to make something better. You can’t just wait for it.  So, this optimist must be bold and forceful, like this guy:

The Determined Optimist (aka “Just try and stop me”)
My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.”
Henry Rollins

The determined optimist has to make a show of it and get some attention.  But then, that begs the question: ‘What are you actually going to DO to justify all of that stomping around?  What are you going to accomplish?” What is worth the risk of being disappointed or being called a fool?  From time to time, this brand of optimism can be sufficient, but not always.  Some simply take a practical approach and compare optimism to a fruitless alternative:

The Confident Optimist (aka “Look, we know how to do this”)
Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.
Thomas L. Friedman

So, the need to accomplish something rears its (ugly/beautiful) head:

One thing we know beyond all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, It cant be done.Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living

BE the change you wish to see in the world.  Mahatma Ghandi

Like Eleanor and Mahatma, some notable optimists in our own time insist that despair is not helpful and we need to take responsibility to encourage others. You know this guy:

 The only thing thats the end of the world is the end of the world.
Yes, we can.” 
Barack Obama

Not all of us are going to run for office, speak to an audience of millions, and change the world. For many of us it may have to be enough to serve as a good example to encourage others — our children, their children, people we meet — to BE the change that is required.  Maybe all it takes is a few words of encouragement to younger minds — maybe words like “Yes, we can.” It turns out that some outcomes are possible even if we haven’t seen them before.

The “Who’s Going To Stop Me” Optimist (aka “What do you mean it can’t be done?”)
“Sometimes you have to pass through the fire swamp to get where you need to go.”
“But, we’ll never survive.”
“Nonsense.  You’re just saying that because no one ever has.”
William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Is it often difficult to distinguish the “Delusional Optimist” (you remember, the guy falling out of the building) from the “Who’s Going to Stop Me” optimist, but the difference matters. Many optimists are occasionally intimidated by the enormity of great challenges — finding that important things seem to require great effort, by a great many people.  But some wise people suggest the opposite approach: taking small steps in the company of just a few people:

The “Incremental” Optimist
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.” — Mark Twain

“A year from now you will wish you had started today.” -Karen Lamb

 “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Thou hast seen nothing yet.— Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes)

It turns out that some outcomes are possible even if we haven’t seen them before. Some look at the mixed advice we hear and get discouraged by disappointing outcomes — but some don’t.

The “Maybe this time” Optimist
One thing seems essential — that we do not settle into the extremes of “always” and “never” — that we find an optimism based on the idea that, sometimes, good outcomes are possible.  Sometimes.  This poem by Sheenagh Pugh reminds me that, whichever variety of optimist I decide to be, on a particular day, there is reason to believe in positive outcomes.  They don’t happen by themselves, they do require our efforts, but they happen … sometimes.

And that may be enough.   I may be this kind of optimist …


Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail;
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
— by Sheenagh Pugh

Sorting Out the Voices
So, what have I learned from all of these voices?  My Dad taught me about “sometimes” as his Dad taught him.  The other side of “sometimes” is that sometimes we need to stomp around and be “The Determined Optimist,” and march in the street with other determined optimists.  Sometimes the best we can be is “The Resigned Optimist” and simply try not to give up.  Sometimes we are forced to be “The Patient Optimist and “Wait for It.”  Sometimes we can see a middle path and serve as a “Confident Optimist” and contribute to incremental change by contributing to organizations that can accomplish important changes with lots of small donations (examples: organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, PBS, The Yosemite Conservancy, Meals On Wheels, your local library … you probably have your own list.)  Those among us with more imagination and determination may find ways to “Be the change we seek.”  Perhaps our task, if we can’t BE one of them, is to support those who do.


Click here to download a PDF of this article:       Optimist_ConVivio_April14

A Guy Walks Into a Bar

 Sandburg— “You teach yourselves the law
but I train your minds.
You come in here with a head full of mush,
and you leave thinking like a lawyer.
But … it may not be enough.”

                  — Professor Charles W. Kingsfield
from “The Paper Chase”
(a movie set at Harvard Law School in 1973)

Walking down Massachusetts Avenue, on his way back to his fraternity, a first-year law student found himself in the middle of an unexpected downpour without an umbrella.  As luck would have it, he was passing a popular watering hole frequented by Harvard Law students and professors.  From habit, he mentally acknowledged the weird fact that The Grafton Street Pub & Grille was actually on Massachusetts Avenue; but it was forgiven for its convenient location right beside Harvard Square.  Gratefully, he ducked into the dark, leather-appointed bar, since he was clearly unprepared for the inclement conditions outside.  He calculated that the storm was likely to continue for just as long as it would take to sit down at the bar with a class of “Maker’s Mark,” and he could be on his way once conditions had improved.  Not a bad way to pass the middle of an otherwise worthless afternoon.

Apparently, others had the same idea — the place was packed.  In fact, there was just one empty barstool, at the end of the bar next to an older well-dressed gentleman — probably a professor, he reasoned.  So, he took his place, and signaled to the barkeep: “Makers’ Mark neat, please.”

As the drink arrived with a bowl of nuts, the gentleman to his left cast a sidelong glance at him without turning his head, “I see you were unprepared for the forecast.”

“Well, I didn’t think  …”

“So I surmised,” he said without letting him finish.

“Well, sure, uh, cheers  … sir.”  He figured he might as well pass the time with some idle conversation.  The guy seemed rude but harmless. Start with flattery.  “I haven’t seen you in here before.  Are you a visiting professor?”

“Visiting?  I suppose one could say that.  I’ve been away a very long time.”

“My name is Hart.  Kevin Hart.”  He extended his hand, a courtesy that was not returned. Maybe he didn’t notice, he thought.  “Where have you been so long?”

“Well, young man … “ and he finally turned to look at him directly. “I don’t suppose you’ve read any Dante.”

“The Inferno?”

Il Purgatorio.  On my way up and out, hopefully, but it seems I need to pass through here first.  Unfinished business, perhaps.”

Kevin didn’t quite know what to make of this. He decided to humor him.  No need to be rude; and who knows, he may find himself in this fellow’s classroom one day.  “What do you teach?”

“Contracts.  Or so I did at one time.  Clearly with less success than I had hoped.”

“I had Professor Warren for Contracts.  Pretty straightforward, I thought.  You say, ’With less success’ than you had hoped … Why do say that?”

“Leaving the impression of ‘pretty straightforward’ doesn’t speak well for a course of that complexity; but I have to say that the evidence suggests that I didn’t do much better.  As far as I can see, the notion of ‘Contracts’ hasn’t been well-assimilated in this society.  I suppose Harvard Law, AND I, have some responsibility for that failure.”

“Well, [defensively] it seems that Harvard Law has made some significant contributions, wouldn’t you say?  I mean, a number of Presidents have come from here. That would seem to suggest at least some success.  Obama came from here, as did both Roosevelts and Kennedy … ”

“And both Adams’,” [he makes a face], George W. Bush [sighs loudly and takes a deep drink of his whiskey], Rutherford B. Hayes [his eyes roll]  …  but I’m quite sure that isn’t the ideal figure-of-merit for an institution that purports to make a difference in society.  There are elements of the law — especially contract law — that seem to have fallen into disrepair of late.  Not sure Harvard Law, or any educational institution up and down the spectrum, can be proud of that.”

“Well, I feel the need to speak up for my school, I think I am receiving a quality education, yes, in Contracts, and other areas.

“Go ahead.  [For just the second time, he turns to look at Kevin directly.]  Defend your school.  Tell me about Contracts.”

Now he’s on the spot … it feels like an oral exam. He waves to the bartender and points at the two empty glasses on the bar to order another round.  He begins. “Written contracts are perhaps the most forceful self-managing tools in our society.  We have well-established norms that are clearly enforceable and fairly efficiently litigated.  Binding contracts between known entities, signed and witnessed, are  … “ [He’s interrupted.]

“Let me ask you, Mister, uh  …” [gestures his question as the second round of whiskeys arrives]

“Hart.  Kevin Hart.” [Deflated a bit, he was just getting started.]

“Mister Hart.  As you teach yourself the law, as ‘straightforward’ as you say it is, perhaps there are questions worth exploring that you, and others of recent generations, may have overlooked.  Examples: Are contracts binding only on those present for, as you say, the ‘signing and witnessing?’  Must the specifics of societal agreements be written on a piece of paper?  Are there responsibilities by which one generation, for example, should be held accountable to another generation?  Are there values, principles, and expectations that should provide continuity and social identity in a society over time?”

In a familiar professorial speech pattern, he doesn’t wait for an answer. “I argue that there are standards of acceptable logic and quality thinking that have historically been accepted, and expected, that have all but disappeared from public and private discourse.  Standards for the assumption of truth and accuracy were practiced in my day without the necessity of challenge.  I assert that Americans have a collective responsibility to understand how our institutions work and to pass that understanding on to generations that follow us.”

Kevin recognizes the pedantic behavior. “My grandfather told me about a professor who said something like that to him — something about teaching himself the law — he was a tough old bird.  He used to ask questions that sounded simple but tangled grandpa in knots.  Said the guy made him lose his breakfast one morning.”

Kevin took advantage of a pause while both of them sipped from their glasses. He tried consciously to extricate himself from the feeling of sitting in a lecture hall and the urgent need to be taking notes; but to no avail …

“So, young man, to answer the question that is likely to be on your partially trained mind, I do feel some responsibility, shared though it is with the rest of American education and upbringing, for the fact that the quality of American decision-making has demonstrably diminished in recent years, wouldn’t you say?  You pointed out that Harvard Law provided a list of American presidents, albeit of mixed quality, along with other prominent decision-makers and thought-leaders; but I assert that Harvard Law is now contributing more professionals to Wall Street that to the halls of government [rolls his eyes again.], which is not exactly a feather in its cap.  I also assert that the current abominable level of intellectual application that has created your current societal disorder is the product of abysmal application of educational principles.  The Socratic method of instruction, which I grew up with and which I employed during my career, is useless on an audience without the prerequisite skill in logic, knowledge of factual precedent, means and ends, and the ability to recognize and apply common sense.  The absence of those attributes, among both educators and members of society writ large has led to some dismal decision-making.  I read your newspaper this morning and could not believe what I was reading.  It sounded like a poorly written comic novel.”

Kevin was feeling the need to say something to avoid assenting to the lecturing nature of this conversation; so, “I agree that my country has made some terrible decisions at all levels, in the halls of government, in the voting booth, as well as on the street — heck, I came out today without an umbrella, that’s what brought me in here.  But I am in law school to prepare myself to do something useful — to be part of a solution.  So, professor, what is your plan to mitigate all of that?  You suggest that you have some responsibility to admit and some damage to repair.  So, what’s your plan?  Have you come back to Harvard simply to admire the problem and confess your culpability, or do you offer a solution?”

For a third time, the professor turns to address the student directly.  “I have two answers.  First is to attack the crisis in Civics Education.  The problem is not just my complaint about Harvard Law School, the deficiency exists at all levels of education.  Among the American population, knowledge of the three branches of government, how they work, why they matter, how they balance and check each other is at the lowest point in our history.  Even those appointed to the highest levels of government service seem to have a dangerously unrealistic understanding of the scope of a president’s power.  Equally lacking is our understanding of the importance of the news media as the backstop to protect against egregious mistakes.  A public figure while I was still at Harvard Law, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously taught us: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts.”  America has made serious mistakes in our history, but our strength has always been in learning from them and trying not to repeat them.  Right now, I warn you, because of the ignorance of our institutions coupled with an inability to recognize facts, there are serious mistakes that you will have to make, and learn from, all over again.  Some of those mistakes are beginning to happen right now.  Education is the only way to avoid doing that and it’s not going to be a quick fix.

“My second solution is you.”  He pauses for effect, keeping his eyes on the student while he drains the last of his whiskey.  “I think the best thing I can do is to turn this responsibility over to you.  I’ve given you enough to proceed on your own.  You have said that you plan to graduate and fulfill some dream of making a difference.  We’ve identified some fields you can plow in that effort.  Perhaps the challenge can be met in the field of education or rhetoric, or maybe you will be the eighth president to come from this institution.  That rests squarely on your shoulders.  So, now that I’ve assigned the problem to a qualified student, I think I’ve spent enough time here.”  He gestures grandly at the inside of the Grafton Street Pub.  “I claim that I have fulfilled the requirements of Dante’s ‘Purgatorio.’  I’m going to call it done.  Let’s agree that it’s your responsibility now.  Thank you for the drink and try to stay out of the rain.  I wish you well Mister  . . . what was it?”

“Hart. Kevin Hart.  And you, professor?  I didn’t catch your name.”

“Kingsfield.  Charles Kingsfield.”

Click here to download a PDF of this post:          Guy_walks_into_a_Bar_Mar10_2017



For those interested in the need for an improvement in Civics Education in America,
a national initiative with that goal has come out of the Second Circuit of the Federal Court system.
It’s called “Justice for All.”
Take a look here: http://justiceforall.ca2.uscourts.gov/

And It’s Still Just February

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand
six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year
in a life?”
— from “Rent”

Some Years Stand Out
I recently wrote a piece asking “What kind of year was 2016?”  Some of you participated by contributing to ConVivio’s “Thirty-Word Challenge” and sent me your assessments of how 2016 will lead to 2017.  You sent me some great words.  (Take a look: https://convivio-online.net/looking-back-at-2016-ahead-to-2017.) Maybe though, the bigger question is … what difference does a single year make?  Is 2017 going to be just a detour or will it be a major turning point?

Over the course of my 66+ trips around the sun, some years stand out in memory — some were good, some bad, and some were turning points in the flow of history.  During the first half of the 2017 Super Bowl (while the Falcons were still blowing out the Patriots), I was sitting with an enlightened friend of mine (I’ll call him Judge Danny) and somehow we got to talking about years.  At halftime, the TV commentators were talking about other Super Bowl blowouts, like the 49er destruction of the Broncos (55-10) in 1990.

PapaDan:  1989 was a memorable year, too.  The 49ers beat the Bengals…
Judge Danny:  Then there was the 1989 World Series with the Giants and A’s…
PapaDan:  I don’t want to talk about it.   [Changing the subject]   That was also the year the Berlin Wall came down, and revolutions popped up all over Eastern Europe.
Judge Danny:  Right…the end of the Cold War.

From sports we segued to “most momentous years.”

PapaDan: 1969 — Armstrong walked on the moon…
Judge Danny: And returned home. 1963 was unforgettable.  It hurt bad.  I was thirteen.
PapaDan: Yes, it hurt.  1964 was better, the Beatles and lots of great music.  And 1951 was a huge year in baseball. Growing up, I read all about Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard ‘round the world.”  Russ Hodges went crazy: “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!   THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!”  1962 was another good year for the Giants, less dramatic but a big thrill.
Judge Danny:  I remember; but those were just baseball, right?
PapaDan: Right. So, in our lifetime, what do you figure was the most important year of all?
Judge Danny:  We’re the same age, right?  We both graduated in 1968. That was the biggest year since we’ve been around.  Don’t you think?
PapaDan: Wow.  Yes. No question about it.  1968 was a turning point.

We were interrupted by the second half kickoff and the subject of the “most important year” didn’t come up again — we were too busy bemoaning the collapse of the Atlanta Falcons.  The next morning, though, after depressing myself with the newspaper, I decided that Judge Danny had been right — 1968 was the single biggest turning point during my lifetime, both for me and for America.  There was a lot going on during several years of the turbulent sixties.  But 1968 stands out.  The title of an important research project on the subject said it well:
“The 1968 Project — A Nation Coming of Age.”

What did we see on the Evening News in 1968?
It was a year of “just one damn thing after another.” President Lyndon Johnson began the year with his State of the Union Address noting that “Our country is challenged at home and abroad,” and the challenges began immediately. One week later, North Korean patrol boats captured the Navy intelligence ship “Pueblo” within their 12-mile territorial waters, initiating a dangerous year-long international crisis. Then, a week later, the Vietcong launched the brutal “Tet” offensive; massive numbers of troops poured out of the jungles and devastated dozens of cities and towns.  The surprise invasion of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and sudden large-scale deaths of American soldiers quickly turned public opinion against the war. Two days later, Richard Nixon declared his candidacy for president.  The following week, the Pentagon announced the largest one-week casualty figures of the war and Walter Cronkite, having just returned from a tour of the battlefields, reported that the best America could expect in the war was “a stalemate.” In the White House, President Johnson said privately, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

–>  All that, and it was still just February.

As the year unfolded, the news continued to surprise and distress a lot of people.
— March 12: Senator Gene McCarthy nearly defeated the sitting president of his own party in the New Hampshire primary. Four days later, Senator Robert Kennedy withdrew his support of President Johnson and announced his candidacy.
— On March 31: President Johnson, overwhelmed by anti-war pressure, announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
— April 4: one week after leading a march in Memphis that turned violent, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed while planning his “Poor People’s March on Washington,” sparking riots across the country.  Robert Kennedy, hearing of the murder just before giving a speech in Indianapolis, stood up at a street corner and gave an emotional extemporaneous eulogy — pleading with the mostly black audience “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”
— On April 29, the musical “Hair” opened on Broadway, dramatizing powerful social and political change and a “generation gap” between those who were coming of age in 1968 and their parents’ generation.
— May 6: In Paris, 5,000 students marched in what was soon called “Bloody Monday,” the most violent day of a student revolt.  Sympathetic strikes involved nine million French workers.
— June 5: Robert Kennedy won the California Presidential Primary, a victory that all but assured him the party’s nomination.  Minutes after his victory speech, he was assassinated.
— July 24: at the Newport Folk Festival, singer Arlo Guthrie performs his 20-minute ballad “Alice’s Restaurant” to rave reviews. (“You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant.”)
— August 8: The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon to be their presidential candidate.
— August 20: The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia with 200,000 troops.
— August 26: The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey for president.  Outside the convention, protests erupted and Chicago police arrested nearly 200 people and sent more than 100 others to hospitals with “night-stick” head injuries.
— September 7: “Women’s liberation” groups protested at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City.  While nothing actually burned, the phrase “symbolic bra-burning” was coined.
— October 12: The Summer Olympics opened in Mexico City, boycotted by 32 nations to protest South Africa’s participation.  Two U.S. medal winners in the 200-meter dash, gave the “Black Power” salute during playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at the medal ceremony.
— November 5: On Election Day,  31,770,000 (43%) voted for Nixon. 31,270,000 (42.7%) voted for Humphrey. 9,906,000 (13.5%) voted for George Wallace.
— November 14: On “Turn In Your Draft Card Day,” young men across the country burned their draft cards and protested the Vietnam War.
— December 12: Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eleventh child, Rory, is born.

What was it like for those of us watching all of this?
For me and others born in dead-center in the 20th century, 1968 was a singular turning point.  We were “The Class of ’68” at Antioch High School.  Except for the stories Walter Cronkite told us on The Evening News, the future looked bright.  Like most of my high-school friends, I lived in a bubble of stability and certainty.  High school was good for me — I got good grades, I played varsity sports, and in May I was accepted to the college of my choice (Santa Clara University).  I had a supportive family who encouraged me every step of the way, and I was surrounded by friends who were a lot like me.  But 1968 was also the year I got my first look at discrimination, major disappointment, and local cruelty.

Racial Discrimination
I started kindergarten in Antioch in 1955 and it took me until I started high school to notice that there had never been ANY black students in my school or anywhere in my town.  The first black kids I met were on the basketball court when Antioch High played Pittsburg High.

That year, Antioch’s foreign exchange student was a girl from South Africa.  Apartheid was still in full force there and I remember hearing her speak proudly about “separate but equal.” It didn’t sound right to me.

Then came “the big story.”  The parents of a student two years behind me (class of ’70) had moved to Antioch at the beginning of the school year.  As new arrivals, they were visited by the city’s “Welcome Wagon” and given a basket with various household products, advertisements for local stores, and advice about the town.  The “Welcome Wagon” greeter assured this new family that “This is a nice town full of nice people.  And don’t worry, you won’t find any blacks here — the realtors and landlords in town make sure of that.”  The new neighbors didn’t like that at all.  They asked around and found that others had heard the same thing.  Long story short, they filed a class-action lawsuit that gave Antioch an apparently well-deserved reputation for racism.  I was stunned — discrimination in MY town!

Optimism, Disappointment, Cruelty, and Regret
Before midnight on June 5, 1968, I went to bed happy.  I had turned off the TV following Robert Kennedy’s victory speech after winning the California Primary.  “Let’s go on to Chicago and win there,” he concluded.  It was one of the last three “school nights” before my graduation on Friday.  I was a huge fan of the Senator — my father passed on to me that we were “Roosevelt/Kennedy Democrats.”  I wanted very much for RFK to become president and pick up where his brother had left off. I figured Bobbie would end the war (and, therefore, the draft), support the civil rights legacy of Dr. King, and  …  well … save us from Richard Nixon.  In the morning, I was still in bed when I heard my mother come back from retrieving the newspaper and heard her shout, “Turn on the television!”  I jumped out of bed and turned on the TV to hear that Robert Kennedy had been shot right after delivering that victory speech.  I stared at the TV and cried.  I was 18 years old and I cried, hard.

Numb, I went to school. Some kids were stunned, a few were visibly upset, others hadn’t yet heard the news.  It was the talk of the hallways by noon.  After lunch, I walked into my Journalism class and found one student crying uncontrollably at her desk.  She was known to be an extremely sensitive girl and prone to emotional displays.  A few kids made it their business to try to protect her from bullies who made fun of her.  Before the teacher arrived and before I realized what was happening, a jerk named Michael, one of those bullies who sensed weakness and attacked for the fun of it, went up to her and announced, “Those Kennedys got what they deserved.  I say it’s about time.  There’s just one left, and we’ll see about him.”  She knocked over her desk as she ran sobbing from the room.  Michael strutted as he followed her out the door.  I quietly righted her desk and walked away as other students began to arrive.

This incident compounded the darkness I was feeling — darkness that got a lot worse before it got better. It took me some time, perhaps mid-summer, before the regret set in.  I had never actually punched anyone in my 18 years (or since); and if I had punched Michael, nothing would have gotten better.  But I have to say that the single greatest regret that endures all of these decades since my high-school days is that I didn’t do or say ANYTHING.  I was the witness to something harmful done to a vulnerable person … and I didn’t do anything.

Moving into a New World
Graduation was fun.  It made me feel that the future was bright.  But as summer warmed up, I became aware that the “bubble of stability and certainty” that I had lived in was disappearing. I was moving out of a comfortable home and leaving behind a school and a town where I had known sort-of everybody.  I realized that I would be surrounded by strangers.  So, come September, I had moved into the dorm (with the help of my sister), and life began anew.  Shortly after that, my roommate looked at me one day and declared, “A guy’s got to have some hair” and before I knew it, I had grown a mustache that I would have for the next forty years.

College was great!  There was terrific music everywhere (that most of our parents hated).  Judy Collins performed a concert in my cafeteria my first month at school.  Later that year, I spent a weekend with my oldest home-town friend in his dorm at the University of San Francisco; and we saw a free concert with The Jefferson Airplane in the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, (We even got “busted” by the dorm prefect … for drinking beer.  Yep, beer.)

Down the hall in my dorm, was Dan Pastorini, our quarterback (a future NFL star) and the cheerleaders were all guys. (Huh?!)  Professor Misselbrook inspired me with Robert Frost and Shakespeare, Dr. Bellotti taught my first (and last) Economics class (I had applied as an Econ major), and Dr. Nyquist, the Music Department chairman, stimulated a lifelong interest in Baroque music (who wouldda thunk?).  But still, who was I?  Where was I going?  Would I end up taking over my Dad’s business (the plan) or become a teacher, writer, or something else?  How soon would I begin to feel at home … again?  As the year ended, the newspaper continued its drumbeat of scary stories — 549,000 troops in Vietnam and a death toll of 17,000, the highest in the war’s history. The day I drove home for Christmas, the “Pueblo,” was finally released.  I admit I didn’t notice either story.  Suddenly, all of the worldwide uncertainty that I had heard on The Evening News all year, didn’t seem as important as the turning point I was experiencing as an 18-year-old college freshman on my own.  I had much to learn about myself and the world around me.

Back to “the future”:  2017
So, fast-forward nearly 50 years. Here we are in 2017, trying to make sense of a year that seems to change every day.  In just a month, the leader of the free world:
— Spread a series of “alternative facts” that advisors repeated and the world knew to be false,
— Initiated a potential constitutional crisis and caused chaos world-wide at airports, cities, and universities with an executive order to ban immigrants from seven countries, an order that he said had been implemented “smoothly” until it was blocked by a “so-called judge,”
— Sent a young “senior advisor” out to threaten judicial authority on the Sunday talk shows and clarify that “the powers of the president to protect our country … will not be questioned,”
— Told the Mexican president that he might send troops into his country to “take care of” some of his “bad hombres”; that same day he hung up on the leader of Australia,
— Insulted a long-term African-American congressman and civil-rights icon on the Martin Luther King holiday, calling him “all talk, talk, talk” and calling his hometown of Atlanta a “crime-ridden hellhole,”
— Promoted a political strategist (former Breitbart executive) to the National Security Council, and demoted the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
— Installed a national security advisor who had an inappropriate/illegal, back-channel relationship with America’s most dangerous adversary, then fired him for it, and blamed his firing on the news media for spreading fake news (“the information was real but the news was fake” and “I didn’t direct him to do it but I would have if I thought he wasn’t doing it.”),
— Responded to accusations of mental instability by saying “I comprehend very well, OK, better, I think, than almost anybody,” and observed that, in his chaotic first month in office, his administration was a “smooth-running machine.”

Commentators, writers, readers, listeners, citizens, others (you know, you and me) are asking questions like these: What’s true and what’s not?  How do we know?  Who is “we” and who is “they?”  Do the things we’ve learned over a lifetime still apply to the present moment? To the future?  And most important, what can we do to make sure this year is only a detour and not a turning point?

–>  And it’s still just February.

Click here to download a PDF of this post: ConVivio_Just_February_Feb19_2017
— Major thanks to Gretta for good advice and to Lauren for her expert editing —



OrComplaint is a mainstay of comedy,
so I am now experimenting
with a comedy of gratitude,
talking about parents, teachers,
lucky breaks, dumb things
that turned out smart.”
— Garrison Keillor

Watch out for “gum chewers,
cigarette suckers, and cosmetic users.”
— Uncle John

Thanks Uncle John and Garrison

On April 28, 2017, Garrison Keillor will perform at Concordia College, across the street from the Prairie Home Cemetery, in Moorhead, Minnesota, for what he is calling his “Gratitude Tour.” It is the Prairie Home Cemetery that Keillor credits for the inspiration to name his radio program.

In a recent Prairie Home Productions news release, Keillor wrote, “Complaint is a mainstay of comedy, so I am now experimenting with a comedy of gratitude, talking about parents, teachers, lucky breaks, dumb things that turned out smart.” My Uncle John would have loved to drive from his house about a mile over to Concordia to listen to Keillor’s comedy of gratitude.

From 1974 to 2016, Keillor hosted over 1500 Prairie Home Companion radio shows. That’s an astonishing number. Who knew so much could happen in a small Minnesota town out there on the edge of the prairie?

         At his 90th birthday celebration, Uncle John with granddaughter Julia.

In August of 1974 I was introduced to the Prairie Home Companion radio program by my Uncle John a week or two after he first heard it on the local Minnesota Public Radio station, KCCM-FM, at Concordia College.  He graduated from Concordia in 1952; I graduated in 1971. Uncle John brought his bulky AM/FM portable radio out to the picnic table in his backyard so we could listen to his recent discovery where we were eating corn on the cob and hot dogs on a humid Saturday evening.  Prairie Home Companion first aired on July 6, 1974, and was broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio from Macalester College in St. Paul, not far from where Uncle John grew up with a younger brother and sister.

He was born in 1925, and after graduating high school from Minnehaha Academy in St. Paul, he entered the Navy to serve during World War II. In 1945 he was stationed at the Livermore Naval Air Station. When he and his wife Margaret visited me in the late 1980s in Livermore, we drove down East Avenue past Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory which had been the site of the Naval Air Station. Uncle John was very surprised that many buildings from when he was stationed there were still standing.

His parents died in a small plane crash in 1947 near Buffalo, Minnesota, and that tragic, life-changing event brought Uncle John and his brother and sister to Moorhead to live with an aunt. He attended Concordia, where he majored in biology, and found the professors to be especially welcoming and very supportive. All of his life he was a loyal alumnus.

This past July, two weeks after the last broadcast of Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, my Uncle John celebrated his 91st birthday. Parkinson’s disease had greatly reduced his ability to speak. His voice was weak and muddled but his intention to engage in conversation was strong. He always wanted to tell me a joke, he always wanted me to laugh, and he always wanted me to listen to “good” music, which for him ranged from a Bach hymn to songs by the Eagles.

Uncle John loved telling Norwegian jokes especially the ones about Ole and Lena. I can hear his laugh at the punch line when he told the one about Ole and Lena being married for 65 years, and Ole recounts how Lena had been with him through all his medical problems from gall bladder surgery to liver cancer, and then concludes, “Lena, I’m beginning to think you are bad luck.” Uncle John, who had been married to Margaret 64 years when he died this past September, appreciated the gift of a life-long partner with a tolerant sense of humor.

He was familiar with many communities like Garrison’s Lake Wobegon. During his career as a pharmaceutical sales rep in northern and western Minnesota, Uncle John loved talking with the local doctors, nurses, and patients, then heading to a nearby restaurant much like the Chatterbox Café in “real” places such as Ada, Bemidji, Elbow Lake, Pelican Rapids, and Thief River Falls.

I enjoyed that first broadcast I heard in 1974 at that backyard picnic table even though there was no news from Lake Wobegon. Keillor did not introduce listeners to the news from where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average, until 1977 while I was living in Europe.

In 1980 Prairie Home Companion began broadcasting to a national audience, so, when I returned to the United States in 1981 and was teaching in West Lafayette, Indiana, I was pleased to hear that the program Uncle John had introduced to me seven years before was thriving. Purdue University’s WBAA-FM aired the show every Saturday evening. Of the many amusing “sponsors” of Prairie Home Companion such as The American Duct Tape Council, Bob’s Bank (Save at the Sign of the Sock), The Fearmonger’s Shop, Raw Bits Breakfast Cereal (Oat hulls and wheat chaff — not for everybody), Powdermilk Biscuits (Heavens they’re tasty, and expeditious), I recall a phone conversation long ago made memorable by Uncle John’s asking the key question posed by one of the sponsors, “Wouldn’t this be a great time for a piece of rhubarb pie?” then singing (to the tune of Shortnin’ Bread) the Bebop-A-Rebop Rhubarb Pie jingle: “One little thing can revive a guy, And that’s a piece of rhubarb pie. Serve it up hot, maybe things aren’t as bad as you thought. Momma’s little baby loves rhubarb, rhubarb, Bebop-A-Rebop rhubarb pie.”

Keillor reported the News from Lake Wobegon with characters that were reminiscent of my relatives and friends and acquaintances while growing up in Minnesota. I suggested to my Purdue University students and colleagues that they listen to the program. One of my colleagues, a fellow Minnesotan, was an enthusiastic fan of the Prairie Home Companion. She had attended Gustavus Adolphus College, the home of the Gusties and a Swedish Lutheran liberal arts college, in St. Peter. I had attended Concordia, the home of the Cobbers and a Norwegian Lutheran liberal arts college, in Moorhead.  We had a spirited, humorous rivalry about Gusties and Cobbers, and about Swedes and Norwegians. We had a common history of the folks we knew living in places like Lake Wobegon. Another Purdue colleague from New York City, proud of his Russian and Jewish heritage, was charmed by Keillor’s storytelling. He wanted to know if what Keillor said was true. He asked questions about unfamiliar things such as Luther League, lefse (a potato bread that looks like a tortilla), and ice fishing. We assured him that everything Keillor said accurately reflected the experiences we had in “real” Minnesota towns.

I have recommended Prairie Home Companion to many people since the early 1980s. I was always confident that the two-hour radio program was worth anyone’s time because of its variety of music, humor, and weekly news about people living on the edge of the prairie, in the little town that time forgot out there in central Minnesota’s Mist County.

In 1984 when I left Purdue for a career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I liked telling my new colleagues including Dan Sapone about Prairie Home Companion. Everyone I told had a favorable response and especially to the News from Lake Wobegon. Dan valued Keillor’s storytelling so I was grateful, then, and even more so now, that he taped the presentation Keillor gave at the National Press Club in 1987. I am pleased that I have kept the cassette tape, and I have listened to it numerous times.

In 1987 Keillor left Prairie Home Companion for 26 months. He explained that he had become too famous because his radio show had four million listeners. He could no longer live in anonymity, which as a shy person he wanted to do. He married his former high school sweetheart, an exchange student from Denmark, and moved to Copenhagen in the summer of 1987.

On Tuesday, October 20, 1987, Keillor appeared at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to promote his latest book, Leaving Home, a collection of monologues from the Prairie Home Companion. Dan taped that program for me while I was visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It was the week that the Dow dropped 508 points (22.6%, down to 1738.74) and the Minnesota Twins were in the World Series for the first time since 1965.

In his formal comments to the National Press Club about the drastic drop of the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Monday, October 19, 1987, Keillor said, “We think the stock market crash is catastrophic but we are not sure. Is this the worst that can happen? We don’t know that. The newspapers are using second-coming type face. One says Panic! And the other says Crisis! But people back home in Minnesota are not affected by the 500-point drop of the stock market, rather they are riding high because the Minnesota Twins are in the World Series, playing the St. Louis Cardinals. We are a different kind of baseball fan. New York fans demand triumph. While in Minnesota we believe that whatever happens is probably our fault.  We were brought up to wait and see. We believe that all things come to those who wait. Twins fans. Democrats. Investors. It will come around again. In 1980 I believed that Reagan could not be elected President of the United States, and in 1984 I believed that Walter Mondale could beat him. As 1988 approaches I believe that Ronald Reagan cannot be elected to a third term. Eventually you win.”

In the question-and-answer segment at the National Press Club, Keillor was asked if he missed his radio show. He replied, “I miss it terribly. I miss singing songs with people who know the words.  I have found out that a storyteller has to keep working.” Fortunately, for his listeners he returned to the Prairie Home Companion in 1989.  Keillor claimed that “eventually you win.” These days it is harder to believe that. We do not know the future. We do not know what is the worst that can happen.

In a July 26, 2016, New York Times column, Keillor wrote: “We made our mistakes back in the 20th century, Lord knows, but we never nominated a man for president who brags about not reading.  …  When I envision a Trump Presidential Library, I see enormous chandeliers and gold carpet and a thousand slot machines.  God help us.  I mean it. We’re in trouble down here.”

Uncle John enjoyed mimicking an old-time, extremely conservative Lutheran minister with a thick Norwegian accent warning the world about the dangers and evils of “gum chewers, cigarette suckers, and cosmetic users.” It was an amusing, attention-grabbing line because of his powerful voice and his twinkling eyes. I will always remember his warning about the untrustworthiness and dangers of these reckless people. Nowadays they do not simply chew gum or smoke cigarettes or put on cosmetics, rather they say things they do not mean.

When we celebrated Uncle John’s 90th birthday on July 18, 2015, he was wheel-chair bound, but his bright eyes assured us that he was ready for his party. He could barely speak because of Parkinson’s, but we were amazed and delighted that he could sing along with the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when he surprised us with his ability to sing.

Printed on the inside cover of the program for his funeral service last September: “A good fisherman knows a keeper when he sees one, he knows when to toss one back, and when to head for home.” Uncle John was a good fisherman. He appreciated the camaraderie or solitude of fishing on a lake or along the banks of a river. He enjoyed talking with other people and always found a way to find common ground. He had an infectious laugh and loved to tell a good joke. Even a bad one if it would make you groan. He always expressed gratitude for his wife and children and grandchildren, and for any day or evening he could go fishing.

Back in 1987, Keillor affirmed that a storyteller needs to work. Thirty years later in 2017, he continues to work and Uncle John would have loved to attend the Gratitude Tour this upcoming April. I suspect he would have especially wanted to hear Keillor talk about “dumb things that turned out smart.” I know Uncle John could tell a lot of stories about that.

Click here to download a PDF of this post: Peterson_ConVivio_Gratitude_2:13:17

How Lucky We Are …

Carl Sandburg—

Orville Wright1

“Look around, look around,
look how lucky we are
to be alive right now.”

— Eliza Schuyler (from Lin Miranda’s “Hamilton”)


Carl Sandburg

… to be alive right now

These days, like so many others, I am immersed in “Alexander Hamilton.”  The musical play has been all the rage — a roaring success on Broadway and now it’s coming to San Francisco!   So, in our house, we have been listening to the brilliant hip-hop soundtrack; reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (which inspired the musical); reading Lin Miranda’s script and commentary about the creation of the show; AND, yes, we have tickets to the show in May.

When I first heard about the show, I admit to being skeptical — a Broadway musical about the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury (“the ten-dollar founding father”) set to “hip-hop” music (What is ‘Hip-Hop’? I asked).  But once I heard the soundtrack and felt the spirit, I have become a convert. The music and lyrics combined with our founding story and spirited characters are nothing short of thrilling.  At its core, “Hamilton” is a classic story of a poor immigrant who showed up at a critical time and made a powerful contribution to American history.  In a useful lesson for today’s leaders, he did it by acknowledging his ignorance and educating himself.  It is also a story devoid of a ‘Disneyland’ ending (spoiler alert: the hero, the former Secretary of the Treasury, gets killed in a duel by the sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, at the dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804, no foolin’).

Twenty-eight years before their duel, as they prepared to join forces in the revolution, Burr gave Hamilton some advice:

“Talk less.  Smile more.
Don’t let them know what you’re against
or what you’re for.”

And then, more to the point, in a much faster rhythm:

 “I’m with you, but the situation is fraught.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
If you talk, you’re gonna get shot!”

In the summer of 1776, Hamilton and Burr met in New York as the revolution was in full swing.  It was an exciting time. Eliza, one of two Schuyler sisters destined to fall in love with Hamilton (yes, it’s a love story), sums it up:

“Look around, look around
at how lucky we are to be live right now.
in the greatest city in the world!”

How lucky?  The excitement and optimism of the time was swirling all around them:
•   talk of freedom and independence was everywhere on the streets of their city,
•   revolutionary ideas (including the publication of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” in January of 1776) were on everybody’s lips (both for and against), and
•   it was a time when young people could step forward and make a difference.

It also had a very dark side.
•   War was brewing against an empire with the most powerful army and navy in the history of the world, and winter was approaching.
•   Slaves were being bought and sold on the streets and wharves of their own city.  Slavery had turned out to be the necessary political compromise among the colonies that made the union possible; so, abolitionists like Burr, Hamilton, and their New England compatriots had to swallow hard to believe that they could bend the future to match their principles, but … later.
•   New York harbor would soon be flooded with 260 British Navy warships and thirty-two thousand British soldiers. Thousands of their neighbors would be killed in battles fought in their own towns and farmlands.  Many would starve during the harsh winter that arrived with the well-fed British army and navy.

So, while these American patriots were optimists, their optimism came at great cost.  The King was determined to show no mercy to his disloyal subjects and reclaim his valuable property on the American continent.  In the show, the comically mad King George character sings,

“You’ll be back, soon you’ll see,
Yes, you know that you belong to me.
And when push comes to shove,
I’ll send an armed battalion to remind you of my love.”

These revolutionaries knew that many of them would personally suffer the ultimate cost for securing a future for their descendants.  And they did.

To be alive right now
How lucky?  Fast forward to now — here in 2017.  What about us, you and me: the 21st-century descendants of those wild-eyed optimists?  What can we learn from reflecting on their experience and ours?  Have we preserved their vision of America?  Is our vision of the future as bright as theirs?  Are our challenges greater?  Do we have reason to be hopeful, right now?
•   Today, as 2017 dawns, many of our friends, neighbors, and ourselves are doing pretty well.  Most statistics say that, overall, our economy is doing OK; the stock market is soaring.  Isn’t it?
•   Technology and other 21st-century advancements are improving our lives in exciting ways and many aspects of American life give us reason to believe that the future is bright.  Right?
•   After eight years of an African American President, shouldn’t race relations be encouraging?
•   America has the unique distinction of being the world’s dominant superpower.  Shouldn’t the founding fathers, and we, be proud and satisfied with the outcome of our revolution?

We are the heirs of the ideals, the optimism, and the governing principles that those brave folks earned for us, right?
–> So, today, can we repeat what Eliza sings early in Act One of “Hamilton?”

“Look around, look around
at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

Well, sure.  That was in Act One.  But, before we romanticize the optimism of the revolution, let’s not forget that Thomas Paine had to publish his famous pamphlet encouraging American independence anonymously (see Aaron Burr’s advice to Hamilton, above). The threat was real.

How lucky?  Today, as we read the hard, frightening, depressing news of today and listen to each other talk about it, there are growing fears lurking in our future:
•   The news media, long the principal vehicle for ensuring an informed electorate, is threatened with access limitations and credibility challenges,
•   Long-held American foreign-policy positions and international alliances are now in doubt, apparently without the careful study and decision-making processes we have come to expect,
•   The conclusions of science, long held to be the bedrock of our understanding and the foundation of our policy decisions, are being devalued by those taking the reins of power,
•   Progress in securing the safety net for retirement income and health care is threatened,
•   Human rights, regarding race, gender, and national origin are being weakened by those who seem to have forgotten our long struggle to eliminate discrimination and inequality of all kinds,
•   The long-held bipartisan goal of reducing the nuclear danger is now threatened by new leadership that speaks of pursuing a new arms race,
•   The goal of government, to support the well-being of all Americans, is now called into question by those who are lining up to run our government for the benefit of the few.

Optimism, Hope in 2017?
In my own fear of what lies ahead, I am reminded to be confident, but patient – in words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. borrowed from a sermon delivered in 1853 by an abolitionist named Theodore Parker, who borrowed it from others before him:

“The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends toward justice.”

But patience, while necessary, is not sufficient.  Success — as illustrated by Hamilton, Parker, King, and others — is reserved for those who work actively to bend that arc.  Those words were used, not at the end of successful struggles but at the beginning of hard times, when success seemed unlikely.  Even when we think we’ve made progress, we do not always complete that progress without the inevitable detours.  If I try to replicate the optimism of the American revolution, in the face of likely defeat; or try to emulate the hope of abolitionists, in the face bitter compromise; or support the efforts of those pursuing justice, in the face of bigotry; I conclude that 2016 must be considered a detour.  It doesn’t have to be a reversal of our progress or an abandonment of the path we thought we were pursuing.  We can make it into a detour – but we need to find our way back to that path.  The administration of Donald J. Trump is not the end of this story nor the name of a new path to the future; it must be identified as the name of a detour.

OK, I apologize.  I thought I could avoid using his name, but I decided that we must name the challenge if we are going to defeat it.  We must not speak of Trump like Voldemort (“He-who-must-not-be-named” or “The Dark Lord”) in Harry Potter.  The ideas he represents must be faced head-on, opposed, and defeated before we get too far off the path we were on and lose our way.  So, as we approach the 2017 inaugural address, let us recall the words of the first inaugural address I watched, from a time in my youth, characterized by more optimism and confidence (and patience) than we might be feeling today:

“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.
Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days . . .
nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.”
— John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961

So, now the real work begins.

Along with that work comes some frustration.  Those of a certain age remember marching on college campuses and engaging in political action to bring important American values into the light of day — values, among others, like these: equal justice and opportunity under the law, women’s health and reproductive rights, racial integration and civil rights, and decisions about America’s use of military force and the draft.  Those battles were successful, in their day.  The disappointment, and the reality, is that they must be fought all over again.

So, today — what will it take?

Remember: we know how to do this.
•   Some will welcome those who are not welcome, in their own communities.
•   Some will contribute time and dollars to help those who will suffer during this detour.
•   Some will join movements to influence votes.
•   Some will march, when the need arises.
•   Those with influence — teachers, lawyers, bartenders, parents, grandparents, neighborhood leaders (you know, you and me) — may find a way to encourage compassion, common sense, and unity in small places among those who will take over when we are gone.

We know how to do this.  Let’s start.  (The forces on the other side have already started.)

       “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
— Edmund Burke (and others)                          

Click here to download a PDF of this article:     ConVivio_How_Lucky_to_be_alive_right_now

Thanks to Lauren De Vore for her Editorial advice.

Looking Back at 2016 — Ahead to 2017

“How wonderful it is
that nobody need wait a single moment
before starting to improve the world.”
— Anne Frank

“The nation which can prefer disgrace
to danger is prepared for a master
and deserves one.”
— Alexander Hamilton

“Yes, we can.
— Barack Obama


Carl Sandburg

What Are Your Feelings About 2016 and Your Outlook for 2017?
(Your responses to the writing challenge: 30 words or less)

Of the fifty-some people who read ConVivio’s “2016” post, ten of you responded to its
30-word writing challenge.  I admire the variety of approaches you took: some with a broad national perspective; others with observations focused on their own lives; some optimistic, others not so much; some were quite poetic.

Thanks to everyone who sent a response.  Here they are:
Overcome the recentness bias this year?  I think not.
The election’s outcome could affect us for decades.
Color me cynical and sad for this fine country.
Katie Walter, Stockton, CA

2016: The rotting corpse of the Democratic Party hopefully saw the error
of moving to the right.
2017: As Daniel said on the series finale of Rectify, “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Steve Rubio, Berkeley, CA (typepad.com)

I’m ready to fight against climate change and Trump’s agenda.
Sonia Faletti, Washington D.C.

Working on myself as an active participant —  How can I be more present?
How can I be more aware?  How can I be a consistent critical thinker engaging with others?
Matthew D. Sapone, Aptos CA

Incredible year, many “ups,” one YUGE “down.”
Ups: Changed from large stable company to a startup.  Excellent decision!
Loving husband, strong family life, great friendships.
Downer: Won’t say his name.
Nouanepheng Sapone, Aptos, CA

If you want someone to understand (and adopt) your viewpoint,
you must first listen to and understand theirs.
No more preaching to the choir.
Lauren de Vore, Livermore, CA

The elections were like a pollution cloud, darkening everything.
Now, every day brings new confirmations of how bad 2017 can be,
for our country and the world. We’re worried.
Megan Taylor, Bellingham, WA

Unexpected atheism explodes into confidence as the rush of information
restores limbic, and age of majority is reached. Zen heart at 80 beats per
minute while ruffian’s words exile paralysis.
Jody Tims, Morgan Hill, CA

Daughter Srijana: Nepal, 1998, Scott College August;
her new boyfriend Haaroon: wants medical school;
Me: working CDC with fabulous Director Dr. Frieden;
2 dogs, 2 cats;
Me: nervous re. prez.
Jean Smith, Atlanta, GA

After the events of the last year, I don’t know how anyone can mount a compelling defense for the theory of evolution. Are we really getting smarter and better? Show me.
Jeannette Gosnell, Livermore, CA

Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it,
or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.
Alexander Hamilton, New York, NY

Looking ahead, we always think we are smart enough to predict the surprises.
My hope is that we are wrong; and the surprises will not be the ones we expect.
PapaDan Sapone, Pleasanton, CA

A PDF of these responses can be downloaded here:        Thirty_words_Grace                                                                      

What Kind of Year Was 2016?

Carl Sandburg—

Orville Wright

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Fall, 1901

If we all worked on the assumption
that what is accepted as true,
is really true,
there would be little hope of advance.

Orville Wright


Carl Sandburg

This time of year, many of us take a moment and ask “What kind of year was this?”  Looking back at what I posted on ConVivio at this time last year, the year 2015 was looking pretty grim.  Many of us were looking for some encouragement, trying to find an excuse to feel more hopeful.  In that end-of-2015 ConVivio post (“Grace”), I described our annual attempt to find some seasonal, yuletide peace, hope, and, well, grace, with the help of Grace Cathedral’s annual Christmas concert of the Men’s and Boys Chorus, Orchestra, and Organ.  We followed that same recipe again this year, as we have for two decades.
More on that later.

When we try to look back and decide how we feel about a year, I suppose most of the time we decide that a year was either “terrific,” or “OK” or “terrible” based mostly on how we feel at the moment we are asking the question — near the end of the year.  Michael Lewis’ recent book “The Undoing Project” describes the trick that our minds play on us with what he calls the “recentness bias,” in which we are predisposed to use the most recent evidence in drawing our conclusions.  We don’t always take into account the entire year.  So, I thought — why not try to avoid that “trick” and take a broad look back at some of the things that happened across the entire year and see if we can come up with a reasonable answer.  Let’s give it a try and see if it helps.  Then, I hope we’ll get to see your answer.

First, the usual stuff that always happens in any year:

The Sundance Film Festival, Super Bowl #50 and Mardi Gras, the Daytona 500, NCAA Final Four, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the Kentucky Derby, a bunch of Shakespeare festivals, the NBA Finals, the Summer Olympics, the World Series, Albuquerque’s Balloon Festival, and the annual crop of new words entering the our vocabulary— notably: Brexit, Calexit, virtual reality, self-driving cars, fake news  …  etc.  All of that happened as expected.

Second, the “special” stuff that happened in 2016:

In January, an armed militia took over a Wildlife Reserve in Oregon (and dominated the news) for six weeks; we learned that drinking water in Flint Michigan had been poisoning its residents for years; and as the primary elections heated up in March, Hillary Clinton emerged as the Democratic frontrunner causing polls and pundits to agree that her election was all but assured.  Two days later, Trump’s campaign was pronounced “doomed” when Mitt Romney called him a “fraud” and a “phony,” saying, “He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” Well, I don’t have to tell you that … later on … in November … well, you know …

With the coming of a hopeful Spring, marriage equality became a reality in California but also in surprising places like Georgia; the ban on gays in the US military was lifted; and the supposedly paralyzed US Supreme Court struck down a Texas law restricting abortion 5-3.  A few large states raised their minimum wage and progress was reported in preserving some endangered wildlife around the world.  About that time, Britain did two seemingly contradictory things, perhaps inspired by the 90th birthday of their Queen:  they elected the first Muslim mayor of a western city (London) and voted to withdraw from the European Union, reversing a 60-year trend toward European unification.

In June, the Broadway production of Hamilton received 16 Tony nominations, won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and captured the Pulitzer Prize for Drama
— not bad for a guy of questionable parentage who was killed in a duel 212 years ago.

In two technological triumphs, NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit after a 1.7-billion-mile, five-year journey to study the planet and a solar-powered plane flew around  the world without using a drop of fuel (it took 16 months).  Encouraged by the Paris Climate agreement, India reported that 800,000 volunteers worked 24 hours to plant almost 50 million trees on July 11th, beating the Pakistani’s previous one-day record of 1 million set in 2013 — reminding the world that, a month earlier, Donald Trump declared his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. (“It’s a hoax. Nobody believes it.”)

Third, some stuff happened that was NOT supposed to happen:

The Cleveland Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit (a historic first), winning their first NBA title by defeating the Golden State Warriors.  The National League playoffs between the Giants and the Cubs happened and I don’t want to talk about it.  Immediately after that, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, after waiting 108 years, by beating the Cleveland Indians, who are still waiting after 68 years.  (The San Francisco Giants, were supposed to win the World Series this year and I don’t want to talk about THAT either.)  Then, Americans elected a president who promised to Make American Great Again by employing a unique strategy …  (and we’ve already talked about that too much, haven’t we?)  Two weeks later, the Dow Jones responded to doomsday predictions after the Brexit and Trump wins and topped 19,000 for the first time (begging the question “What does it mean?”).  Finally, in this “not supposed to happen” category, Gwen Ifill, a longtime PBS News anchor, died at the age of 61.  Those who admire real news and respectful discourse mourned.

Finally, two more things happened that mattered to me:
1. I retired from a long career and was given a wonderful party (thank you Jessica & Brytni);
2. The 2016 Grace Cathedral Christmas Concert restored the uplifting and grace-filled themes that have inspired audiences (including Gretta and me) throughout its long and generous history (see https://convivio-online.net/grace/). Grace Cathedral’s musical signature, “Sleeps Judea Fair,” was again reassuring, peaceful, and hopeful — filling that magnificent cathedral with its transformational sound and powerful spirit. The blending of the mature and youthful voices and faces of the men and boys in that chorus, transported us all to a place we came there hoping to experience.  The dissonance we heard and felt last December was gone — for now.  I must admit that we needed that encouragement to look forward with hope to the year ahead.  They came through for us and, for that, I am thankful.

OK, So How Do We Feel About 2016, Really?

Well, now that you’re really annoyed that I left out your favorite “most important” event from 2016 (and I know you were looking for it), it’s time to commit: how do we really feel about the year that’s ending and prospects for the year ahead?  Again, I’m trying to avoid that “recentness bias” — you know, trying to ignore the feeling that the events of the past six weeks must completely overshadow our judgement about the whole year and color our anticipation of 2017.  The year we’re just now completing suggests the likelihood that 2017 will bring some surprises.  So, I offer two things:

One — A Request for 30 words from you:  I am asking you (yes, you) to put your thinking hat on (no, not THAT hat) and try to sum up your feelings about 2016 and your outlook for 2017 in 30 words or less and send them to me.  It’s a writing challenge — you can do it.  Many of you have demonstrated that you are very clever with words. If you take a few minutes and send me your words, I will publish them here on ConVivio (with your name if you give me permission).  Thirty words.  Can you do it?  (Repeat after me: “Yes, We Can.”)

Two — I offer my own 30 words anticipating how 2016 will lead to 2017:
Looking ahead, we always think we are smart enough to predict the surprises.
My hope is that we are wrong; and the surprises will not be the ones we expect.

I wish you all Happy and Hopeful Holidays!

PapaDan                      Download a pdf of this post:  Grace_2016_ConVivio_Final

A Good Man


Carl Sandburg—

“The human race has one really effective weapon,
and that is laughter”

Few things are harder to put up
with than the annoyance
of a good example.”

“Forgiveness is the fragrance
that the violet sheds
on the heel that has crushed it.”
— Mark Twain

Carl Sandburg

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington DC  20500
January 19, 2017

Dear Sir,

It has come to my attention — well, I guess it’s just starting to sink in —  that you are about to leave a job that has kept you constantly in the public eye for the past eight years.  While much attention has been focused on the next guy, I was thinking that it would be polite to drop you a note to say  . . .  well  . . .  thank you.

People have been talking about the job you did.  So, sure, we can talk about that first, if you like; but I have something more important in mind; and we’ll get to that.  So, first — how’d you do?  Here’s a list of the usual kinds of things — and, as you know, some people consider these successes and others call them failures.  You:

  • Avoided a deep recession that you inherited when you first showed up for work
  • Rescued the US automobile industry
  • Ended the US formal combat role in Iraq
  • Banned torture and brought Osama bin Laden to justice
  • Initiated a program that insures about 20 million people who couldn’t get healthcare
  • Appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court
  • Supported marriage equality
  • Initiated heavy investment in renewable energy technologies
  • Crafted a multinational agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapon program
  • Led 120 nations to agree to reduce emissions that threaten the worldwide climate
  • Opened the US to Cuba

You know, the usual kinds of things.  Now, some want to quibble about that list; but as I mentioned, I have something more important to talk with you about.

I want to thank you for being . . . you know . . .  A Good Man.

Now, I grant you that being a “good man,” by some agreed-upon definition, has never been a job requirement in your profession. We’ve had lots of the other kind – we seem to vacillate on that score. Over time we’ve had to look the other way on a lot of things.  But in your case, sir, we can look you in the eye without being embarrassed.

I admit that all of that economics and foreign policy stuff are all pretty standard for a guy in your profession; but a person in your job has other impacts that are sometimes overlooked. I know it seems like a small thing, but you have had this habit of thinking first before you talk; and after you do that, the things you say come out in complete sentences and paragraphs, which I tend to enjoy.  And, when those ideas get translated around the world, those clear sentences can be pretty useful.

I also appreciate that you don’t stomp around and lose your temper, even when they say rude things about you that aren’t true.  You seem to have overlooked even the worst of the lies.  You don’t seem to get into the “revenge thing” that some others do.  I appreciated your comment when some people predicted that the election results were “the end of the world.”  You lowered the temperature a bit and quoted Yogi Berra: “I always say that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world.”  Even when guys tell gullible people that you weren’t born in the US, I’ve heard you make jokes about it.  Oh, yes that reminds me — guys in your profession are not usually good at telling jokes; but you have some real comic timing.  I still remember during a debate, Mitt Romney kept making a face and sputtering about “Obamacare” with obvious distaste.  You mentioned that it was called “The Affordable Care Act,” but you looked at him and said, “Hmmm.  Obamacare, I like it. I think we should call it that.”  Even Mitt had to laugh.

I suppose the thing I admire most is that your time on the job featured eight years without a hint of scandal — that’s not normal for guys in your profession.  You have been a steady husband and father and have behaved with a combination humor and dignity, even in the face of public insults.  Some of us forget that a guy in your job serves as a role model for other people, whether they want to or not, notably for little boys who look around to figure out how grow up to become a man. Other public figures don’t seem to have an eye for that.  In your case, we can feel comfortable that little kids might look at you and say to themselves, “I want to be like him.”  OK, I know there are those, like Mark Twain, who said “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”  But, you know, I have grandchildren.  I hope they’ve been watching.

So, I want to say ‘Thank You.’ All of that policy stuff is a subject for another day; but today I want to thank you for being a good man on the world stage, personally representing us in a way that made me proud.  It’s not mentioned in the news much; but it’s worth a lot to me.

Regards to you and your family,

PapaDan                           Download a PDF of this post:  convivio_agoodman_nov30_2016DS_logo

Where to? What Next?

My Syllabus


Where to?

Carl Sandburg—

“The people will live on;
The learning and blundering people
will live on.”
“They will be tricked and sold,
and again sold.”
“You can’t laugh off
their capacity to take it.”

— Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

November 8, 2016

As I write this, I am sitting in a chair, surrounded by the spectacular beauty of Yosemite. Looking up from my pen and notebook, the carved granite of Half Dome stands directly in front of me; I can hear the constant roar of Yosemite Falls from my left; and the silent flow of the Merced River drifts downstream ten feet to my right.


Yosemite Falls


Half Dome


The Merced River

There is a spirit here — a spirit that (or who) inspires big ideas.

Today is a big day.  Today is Election Day (outcome yet to be determined); but this piece is not about the election.  It is about something much bigger:  It is about you and me, you know, America.  In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville defined America as “the great experiment in democracy on the North American continent” with grand, historic intentions.  And, as I mentioned, America — that is, you and me — is much more than elections; and it is also much more than the good intentions that initiated that great experiment.  Henry Ford once famously said, “You don’t build a reputation on what you are going to do” (I read it on my tea bag this morning).  We are what we do; and that’s how we must be remembered.

So, what have we done?   “We” — that is, America before you and me — built a nation on some important ideas that had been brewing in Europe for quite some time, and “we” applied those ideas in an experiment.  “We, the People,” applied them to the lives of some of the people who lived on this continent; allowed lots of people from around the world to come here to participate; and actually welcomed many of them — not all of them, and some more than others.  And, while we were doing that, “we” (again, before you and me arrived on the scene) “we” built great things on those big ideas:

  • government institutions,
  • institutions of justice and law,
  • practices in support of banking and commerce,
  • transportation systems,
  • foundations to encourage the arts and sciences,
  • technology to change the world over and over,
  • systems to enable a historic level of prosperity,
  • traditions for how we treat one another,
  • and much more.

Along the way, we fostered an adventurous spirit that expanded the great experiment — America — across the length and breadth of the continent and, by doing all that, we built a reputation that influenced the lives of people around the world.

Yes, that was a lot of doing on which to build a reputation.

Now, granted, the expansion across the continent incorporated/appropriated a lot of land and resources that had for a long time ‘belonged’ to other people; and, granted, the prosperity we created was made available to some of us and not others; and the worldwide influence America wielded resulted in both good and ill; BUT …

Here we stand today — standing on the shoulders of giants (well, OK, some of them were giants and some of us made it to their shoulders).  Nevertheless, here we stand, here in the twenty-first century, you and me.  We are the heirs of what has been passed down to us and the stewards of all that America IS.

So, now that American IS you and me (yours and mine), what have we done? And what are we doing?

Remember, this is NOT about the election, honest, I promised.  Besides, we haven’t actually had the election yet — voting is still in progress cross the land as I scribble these words here beside the river; but we have been doing some things as stewards and owners of America — “We the People,” collectively — that really do define the time in which we live and the variety of experiences that we are all having. Those of us who read and listen have been hearing a lot of the details by which the news media keeps score of how we are doing:

  • more people are employed today than were working a year or two ago,
  • the average income of Americans has increased gradually in the past year or two,
  • the stock market, although fluctuating with the news cycle, is at an all-time high,
  • our achievements in science and technology are breathtaking,
  • there are more students attending American universities than ever before,
  • and much more.

AND, as has always been the case, America and its institutions face more dramatic and difficult challenges than ever before:

  • the benefits of American prosperity are shared unevenly, with more wealth at the top and more people at the bottom;
  • people less fortunate need more help than ever;
  • in spite of historic advancements by people of color throughout our society, more violent incidents of racial animosity are reported in the news almost every day, many of which include deadly encounters between law enforcement and minority citizens.

One observation every American seems to agree with is that “we” are more divided ever.

Technology enables our social interactions to be instantaneously and widely distributed — that’s both the good news and the bad news — allowing us to instantly distribute far and wide the most beautiful and the most vile ideas. We try to use that capability to help us discuss the collective decisions we have to make; and then we have elections — like today.

A famous line, attributed to several of our forebears reminds us that:
Democracy is that form of government in which the people get the government they deserve.”

As we wait for the results of today’s election, we might well ask, what do we deserve? Whether we like it or not, I suppose we will see the answer to that question in the election returns.  Will we all agree that we deserve what we get?  Perhaps we will look to those who have gone before us for guidance.  We have been warned about what we might deserve.
Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.”

So, do our forebears teach us what to do when we are disappointed?  On that subject., one of the most important speeches of our time is remembered by only a few. After losing his challenge of the results of the Florida vote count (he lost by 533 votes) in a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (on a 5-4 vote), Al Gore reminded us, on December 13, 2000, of the longstanding importance of the peaceful transfer of power:
“Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it.  It has been resolved as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.”

This week, Al Gore spoke to a ‘get out the vote’ rally: “Every vote counts. Trust me on this.”

So, after listening to the rhetoric over the past few weeks, can we be sure that wisdom passed down to us about the ‘peaceful transfer of power’ will prevail at the end of this day?

So, how’d we do?  Tomorrow will tell the story.

November 9, 2016

This morning, we took a walk from Yosemite Lodge across Cook’s Meadow to the bridge on the Merced River.  A woman pointed up at a tree, “Look,” she said, “an American eagle!”  Sure enough.  There he was, perched high in a tree, his large white head turned to one side of his dark torso the way we always see him when he plays his role as the symbol of our nation.  Question: was he here to bring a message of encouragement to us up here in the mountains or did he come here to escape what had happened down in ‘the world below?’  OK, silly question — he LIVES up here in the mountains and doesn’t much care what happens down in ‘the world below.’  But for us, the symbolism was strong.


An American Eagle

OK, so we learned what had happened yesterday down in the world below.  It was a shock, to say the least.  Some were asking, can we survive this?  But, as I said, this piece of writing is not about the election.  It asks the question – in light of where “we” have been and what we have done to get where we are today, what are we supposed to do now?  Regardless of which way the course of human events takes us, what are our responsibilities going forward?  Can “We the people” (you know, you and me, America) survive and prosper even when we make big mistakes and when things don’t go the way we had hoped?

Fortunately, there are optimists among our forebears who reach out from their own difficult days to offer hope to us in ours.  Carl Sandburg is one of those.  Below are words from his poem about what “the people” do in times of crisis.

The People Will Live On  — Carl Sandburg, 1936
“The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
The people march . . . ‘Where to?  What next?’ “

We have begun hearing from people who are concerned about the effects of yesterday’s outcome.  A friend of mine, seriously depressed about yesterday’s news, told me in an e-mail that she decided that she must do something.  Whining about our disappointment is not enough, she reasoned.  She plans to volunteer where she might be needed to help mitigate the effects of what happened yesterday.  Another friend told Gretta “I don’t know if I can get over this.” Gretta’s answer: “Maybe we’re not supposed to get over it.  Maybe we have to accept it and find something we can do to help.  People are going to need help.”  Others have suggested that it is time to increase our contributions to organizations that can help those who are going to suffer from the news — immigrants, those who will lose their health care, kids in school programs that will be cut, those who receive necessary assistance from government programs threatened by yesterday’s news, those who had hoped that “we the people” would try to mitigate global warming — you know, you and me: America.  There are many choices one can make.  As a first step, we have decided to increase some of our contributions.  These are some of our favorites:  The American Civil Liberties Union, The Natural Resources Defense Council, Planned Parenthood, The Sierra Club, and The Yosemite Conservancy.  Many other approaches are available — an organization that supports the homeless?  A school district, maybe even one in another town?  I suspect that we all have ideas to add to that list.

Yesterday, November 8, 2016, “We, the people” spoke in the form of 290 electoral votes; and today, “we the people” have the opportunity to speak in other ways as well.

Looks like some difficult times ahead for a lot of people.

What must I do to help?

What must you?

Download a PDF of this piece: where_to_what_next_convivioDS_logo

Personal Syllabus — Lauren de Vore

My Syllabus


My Personal Syllabus

The Personal Syllabus Exercise:

“What are the books, stories, characters,
and ideas that help form a person?”

~Lauren de Vore~


 My Personal Syllabus
~Lauren de Vore~

When I read The New York Times recent Op-Ed piece, “My Syllabus, My Self,” by Christy Wampole, I was caught by her premise that a syllabus is more than a reading list, that it’s “a personal and political statement.” I wondered, what would I include in a personal syllabus? Could I reach back across the years and identify the books and other pieces that have influenced me, that have shaped me? Could I put together a list such that someone who read those pieces could gain an understanding of me beyond what I put forward for the world to see?

Although there are myriad other “influencers” that have contributed to making me “me,” from music and artwork to movies, seminal events and remarkable people, for the purposes of this exercise, I limited myself to written pieces. In putting together my syllabus, the hard part was (1) separating favorite pieces from those that influenced me and then (2) trimming the list to a reasonable length. I kept thinking, “Oh, I should add that…and that…and that…” In the end, I offer a dozen or so poems and quotes and another dozen or so books. The first four (the Milton, Wilcox, Guest, and Whittier pieces) were regularly quoted from during my growing-up years; the others I collected along the way in the decades that followed. You probably already know some of these; for the others, who knows, you may be intrigued enough to go look them up.

Poems and Quotations

“Paradise Lost” (John Milton, Book 1)

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

This is particularly compelling when you realize that this is Lucifer speaking shortly after he’s been expelled from Heaven …



“The Winds of Fate” (Ella Wheeler Wilcox)

One ship drives east and another drives west
With the self-same winds that blow.
Tis the set of the sails
And not the gales
Which tells us the way to go.
Like the winds of the seas are the ways of fate,
As we voyage along through the life:
Tis the set of a soul
That decides its goal,
And not the calm or the strife.



“Myself” (Edgar Albert Guest)

I have to live with myself and so
I want to be fit for myself to know.
I want to be able as days go by
Always to look myself straight in the eye;
I don’t want to stand with the setting sun
And hate myself for the things I have done.

I don’t want to keep on a closet shelf
A lot of secrets about myself
And fool myself as I come and go
Into thinking no one else will ever know
The kind of person I really am;
I don’t want to dress up myself in sham.

I want to go out with my head erect,
I want to deserve all men’s respect;
But here in the struggle for fame and wealth
I want to be able to like myself.
I don’t want to look at myself and know
Than I’m bluster and bluff and empty show.

I never can hide myself from me
For I see what others may never see
And I know what others may never know.
I never can fool myself and so,
Whatever happens, I want to be
Self-respecting and conscience free.



Quotes/Poems (John Greenleaf Whittier)

“If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left
Two loaves, sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”



“O Me! O Life!” (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892)

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.



“The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” (Robert Frost, 1920)

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
Like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place’s name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” (Robert Frost, 1923)

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.



“The Summer Day” (Mary Oliver, 1992)

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?



“Kissing a Horse” (Robert Wrigley, 2006)

Of the two spoiled, barn-sour geldings
we owned that year, it was Red—
skittish and prone to explode
even at fourteen years—who’d let me
hold to my face his own: the massive labyrinthine
caverns of the nostrils, the broad plain
up the head to the eyes. He’d let me stroke
his coarse chin whiskers and take
his soft meaty underlip
in my hands, press my man’s carnivorous
kiss to his grass-nipping upper half of one, just
so that I could smell
the long way his breath had come from the rain
and the sun, the lungs and the heart,
from a world that meant no harm.



“Touched by an Angel” (Maya Angelou, 1995)

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.



“The honorary duty of a human being is to love.”  —Maya Angelou

“All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.”  —Maya Angelou



“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”   —Heraclitus of Ephesus


Black Like Me (John Howard Griffin, 1961)
A real eye-opener for an 11-year-old white girl living in suburban California.

Messages from My Father: A Memoir (Calvin Trillin, 1997)
“You might as well be a mensch.”

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Judith Viorst, 1972)
“Some days are like that, even in Australia.”

The Pastures of Heaven (John Steinbeck, 1932)
Striving , ever striving to achieve unfulfillable aspirations (for love, connection, belonging, etc.) yet failing due to personal foibles or weaknesses—an everyman version of the classic hero myth.

The Red Pony (John Steinbeck, 1933)
“The Gift”: The hazard of loving…as soon as you admit you want something or care for somebody or something, it’s taken from you.

“The Promise”: Be very careful what you wish for; it often comes in ways you didn’t expect and with a cost far higher than you anticipated.

“Junius Maltby”: The soul-crushing effect of accepting another’s view of yourself instead of your own, of following the dictates of convention instead of being true to yourself.

Siddhartha (Herman Hesse, 1922)
“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find…”

Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also…seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.”

1984 (George Orwell, 1949)
Newspeak, the fragility and strength of language, the idea that by eliminating words, their very concepts can be eliminated—particularly relevant vis a vis today’s thin skins combined with the current intolerant obsession with political correctness.

Tales from Shakespeare (Charles and Mary Lamb)
Planted the seeds for a love of Shakespeare, playing with words, live theater…

The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of
of the fish that hath fed of that worm. … What dost you mean by
this? … Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress
through the guts of a beggar.”

Penseés (Blaise Pascal, 1688)
The great gamble—believe/live as if God exists and he does, you have gained everything; believe and he doesn’t exist, you have lost nothing…  I vehemently disagree—you have lost dreadfully if you have not valued this life and lived it fully.

Black Beauty (Anna Sewell, 1877)
“…there is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham…”

Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fable, or Stories of Gods and Heroes
Don’t piss off the gods.

Into the Woods (Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, 1986)
Beware what comes after “happily ever after.”

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)
“All is for the best, for we live in the best of all possible worlds.”
“We must cultivate our own gardens.”

de_Vore_personal_syllabus_nov5_2016   ldv_logo

My Required Reading List


My Syllabus

“Be as careful of the books you read
as of the company you keep;
for your habits and character will be as much influenced by the former as the latter.”

— Paxton Hood

“Books don’t change people, paragraphs do; sometimes even sentences.”

— John Piper

What are the books, stories, characters, and ideas that help form a person?

My writing colleague, Lauren de Vore, recently directed my attention to an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times written by Christy Wampole of “The Stone.”  It is titled “My Syllabus, My Self.”  It got my attention in a big way (notice I didn’t use the recently made-up bogus word “bigly”) and I am hoping it will interest you as well.
  –> What is a “syllabus?”  If you recall, when you walked into a college class on the first day, the professor would hand out the syllabus of the course.  Back in those days, we knew it as the required reading list of the course; but in the years between those days and these, it has come to mean much more.  Ms. Wampole’s definition is described in detail at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/17/opinion/my-syllabus-my-self.html?emc=eta1, and it’s worth reading.  She wrote, “It’s more than a reading list. It’s a personal and political statement.”

For my purpose today, I’d like to use part of her definition – a compilation of the books, stories, paragraphs, sentences, songs, and characters that have contributed ideas to making someone into the person they have become. Try answering two questions for yourself: If you made a list of books you have read, words you have heard, ideas from movies, song lyrics, and/or characters that have meant a lot to you, and identified WHY they matter to you, even if the list were incomplete, would that help someone know more about who you are?

I realize, of course, that such an exercise would be incomplete.  It has to be.  The forces that shape each of us are complicated, interrelated, maybe even contradictory, they probably span a long period of time, we can’t remember them all, and they can’t easily be put into a complete and tidy list.  Even if I tried to do it, I reasoned, as soon as I showed it to someone I’d have to quickly say, “Oh, I left out some important things. There could be lots more.”

Well, I’ve taken a shot at making such a list — anyway — and my first reaction is  . . .  well, I left out some important things.  There could be lots more.”

In my case, I narrowed it to a fairly short list of novels, plays, poems, and the ideas found in them.  After my first try, all I can say is that it isn’t a complete picture; but it does reveal some things that matter to me and, well, could give someone the opportunity to explore those ideas further if they wanted to.  In addition to the titles, I decided to quote some words from each of them that matter to me (brief excerpts), and I’ve identified a “Message” — that is, a single idea that summarizes what matters to me about it.

So, here goes . . .

If this seems like an interesting project, in whatever form that makes sense to you — even if it is just a list of titles or ideas — I encourage you to share it with us.  With your permission, I will publish it here on ConVivio.  Anonymously, if you want.  Might be interesting.

Dan’s (Incomplete) Required Reading List

The Plague — Albert Camus, 1947
    “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
“For who would dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering.”
“What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
“The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance.”
“The most incorrigible evil being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “We learn in time of pestilence: there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

It Can’t Happen Here — Sinclair Lewis, 1935
“Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! The country’s too big for a revolution.  No, no!  Couldn’t happen here!”
“Said Doremus, “Hm. Yes, I agree it’s a serious time. With all the discontent there is in the country to wash him into office, Senator Windrip has got an excellent chance to be elected President, and if he is, probably his gang of buzzards will get us into some war, just to grease their insane vanity and show the world that we’re the toughest nation going. And then I, the Liberal, and you, the Plutocrat, will be led out and shot at 3 A.M. Serious? Huh!”
–>  THE MESSAGE: “First you are afraid, then you carry a gun.”

The Odyssey — Homer, late 8th century BC
(Odysseus:) “We are Achaians coming from Troy, beaten off our true course by winds from every direction across the great gulf of the open sea, making for home, by the wrong way, on the wrong courses. So we have come. So it has pleased Zeus to arrange it.”
“(Zeus): ‘Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame on us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness bring sorrow beyond what is given.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “Over a long journey, loyalty, self-control, perseverance, and compassion may be the keys to a successful return ‘home.’ ”

The Princess Bride — William Goldman, 1973
“Inigo Montoya: Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya! You killed my father! Prepare to die!
Count Rugen: Stop saying that!
Inigo Montoya: Offer me money, to save yourself.
Count Rugen: Yes!
Inigo Montoya: Power, too, promise me that.
Count Rugen: All that I have and more. Please…

Inigo Montoya: Offer me anything I ask for.
Count Rugen: Anything you want…
Inigo Montoya: I want my father back, you son of a bitch!”
“Vizzini: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders—the most famous of which is, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”—but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha … ”
“The Grandson: Grandpa, maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.
The Grandpa: As you wish.”
–>  The MESSAGE: Sometimes you have to pass through the fire swamp to get where you need to go.

The Moon Is Down — John Steinbeck, 1941
“We have defeated them.”  . . .  Defeat is a momentary thing.  A defeat doesn’t last.”
“[The people] are orderly under their own government.  I don’t know how they will be under yours.”
“The people don’t like to be conquered.  Things are going to happen. It is a great mystery that has disturbed rulers all over the world —  how the truth of things fights free of control.”
“Fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over. A fear that one day they would crack and be hunted through the mountains like rabbits. For the conquered never relax their hatred.”
“We told our soldiers that they were brighter and braver than other young men.  It was kind of a shock to them to find out that they aren’t a bit braver or brighter than other young men.”
“They think that just because they have only one leader and one head, we are all like that. They know that ten heads lopped off will destroy them; but we are a free people; we have as many heads as we have people, and in time of need leaders pop up among us like mushrooms.”
“Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir.”
“If I tell them not to fight; they will be sorry, but they will fight. If I tell them to fight, they will be glad, and I who am not a very brave man will have made them a little braver. You see, it is an easy thing to do, since the end for me is the same.”
The Mayor’s wife: “I wish you would tell me what all this nonsense is all about.”
The Mayor: “It is nonsense, dear.”
The Mayor’s wife: “But they can’t arrest the mayor.”
The Mayor: “No, they can’t arrest the Mayor. The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men. It will escape arrest.”
The Mayor: “Yes, the debt shall be paid.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “My people don’t like to have others think for them.”

The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Nick: “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him.”
Daisy: “Do you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it!”
Nick: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——“
Nick: “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
Nick: “And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Lost Horizon — James Hilton, 1933
“The will of God or the lunacy of man – it seemed that you could take your choice, if you wanted a good enough reason for most things. Or, alternatively, the will of man and the lunacy of God.”
“The jewel has facets; and it is possible that many religions are moderately true.”
“We have reason. This vision was so vivid and so moving that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and culture that I could and preserve them here, in Shangri-la, against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other. The time must come, my friend, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here.”
“If I could put it into a very few words, dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation . . .  the virtue of avoiding excesses of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “The time must come when brutality and lust for power must perish by its own sword.”

The Swerve — Stephen Greenblatt, 2011
“Something happened in the Renaissance, something that surged up against the constraints that centuries had constructed around curiosity, desire, individuality, attention to the material world, the claims of the body.”
“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.”
“If you can hold on to and repeat to yourself the simplest fact of existence — atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else, atoms and void and nothing else– your life will change … and you will be freed from the terrible affliction – what Hamlet many centuries later described as ‘the dread of something after death/the undiscovered country from which/no traveler returns.”
“I am,” Jefferson wrote to a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, “an Epicurean.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “It became possible – never easy, but possible … to find the mortal world enough.”

Le Morte d’Arthur (“Camelot”) — Thomas Mallory (and many others), 15th century (and earlier and later)

From Mallory (Translated)
“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.”
Arthur: “I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost by the faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I prefer to die with honour than to live with shame.”
“Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life.”

From “Camelot,” Lerner and Lowe, 1960
Arthur: “By God, I shall be a king. This is the time of King Arthur when violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness!”
Arthur: “I have stumbled on my future. I-I-I’ve done – the right thing!”

Lancelot Du Lac: “Did you ever doubt it, your majesty?”
Arthur: “Oh, of course. Of course. Only fools never doubt.”
Merlin: “Thinking, boy, is something you should definitely get into the habit of doing, as often as possible. Thinking helps in everything but love. Love is a sort of seventh day, so thinking can rest.”
Arthur: “Ginny, suppose we create a new order of chivalry? A new order where might is only used for right! To improve instead of to destroy. Look, we’ll invite all the knights, all the kings of all the kingdoms, to lay down their arms to come and join us. Oh yes, Ginny. I will take one of the large rooms in the castle, put a table in it, and all the knights will gather at it.

Guinevere: And do what?
Arthur: Talk across it. Debate. Make laws. Plan improvements!
Guinevere: But, Arthur, do you think all the knights will ever want to do such a ridiculously peaceful thing?
Arthur: We’ll make it a great honor. Very fashionable! Everyone will want to join! Only now, the knights will whack only for good. Might – FOR – right. That’s it, Ginny.  Not might IS right. Might – FOR – Right!
Guinevere: It’s very original.
Arthur: Yes. Yes-Yes. And civilized, Ginny.
Guinevere: Arthur, it will have to be an awfully large table. Won’t there be jealousy? All the knights will be claiming superiority and want to sit at the head.
Arthur: We’ll make it – a round table. So, there is no head.
Pellinore: (After newly knighted Young Tom of Warwick leaves): “Arthur, who was that?”
Arthur: “One of what we all are, Pelli! Less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea. But, it seems, that some of the drops – Sparkle, Pelli! Some of them doooooo – Sparkle!”
–>  The MESSAGE: “Sometimes the sole purpose of great deeds is the telling of the story.”

Where the Wild Things Are — Maurice Sendak, 1963
“Max, the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”
“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”
“And now, cried Max, let the wild rumpus start!”
“And [he] sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day
and into the night of his very own room, where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot.”

Our Town — Thornton Wilder, 1948
George: “Emily, if I do make a big change … would you be … I mean could you be…?”
Emily: “I … I am now; I always have been.”
George: “So I guess this is an important talk we’ve been having.”
Emily: “Yes … yes.”
Emily: “Live people don’t understand, do they?”
Mrs. Gibbs: “No, dear — not very much.”
Emily: “They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?”
Simon Stimson: “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance . . .  trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as thought you had a million years.  . . .  Ignorance and blindness.”
Mrs. Gibbs: “Simon Stimson, that ain’t the whole truth and you know it.”
Emily: “They don’t understand, do they?”
–>  The MESSAGE: Mrs. Gibbs: “No, dear.  They don’t understand.

A FEW POEMS (there are so many!)

The People Will Live On  — Carl Sandburg, 1936
“The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.”
“In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
The people march . . . “Where to?  What next?” “
–>  The MESSAGE: “This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.”

Mending Wall — Robert Frost, 1916
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
“He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?  Here, there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

Directive — Robert Frost, 1946
“Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather.”
“And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
And make yourself at home.”
“First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.”
“Weep for what little things could make them glad.”
“I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
“Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

Short Pieces

The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain, 1863-1904

From “Speech On Babies”  (a speech in honor of the President of the United States, 1879)
“And in still one more cradle, the future illustrious commander-in-chief of the American armies is so little burdened with his approaching grandeurs and responsibilities as to be giving his whole strategic mind at this moment to trying to find some way to get his big toe into his mouth — an achievement which, meaning no disrespect to the illustrious guest of this evening turned his entire attention to some fifty-six years ago; and if the child is but a prophecy of the man, there can be no doubt that he succeeded.”

From “Speech On the Weather” (1877)
“Mind, in this speech I have been trying merely to do honor to the New England weather; no language could do it justice.”
“If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries – the ice storm – when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top – ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles, cold and white, like the Shah of Persia’s diamond plume. [Applause.] Then the wind waves the branches, and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms, that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again, with inconceivable rapidity, from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold; the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence! One cannot make the words too strong.”

Prelude to a song from a musical (just one, there are so many …)

The Fantasticks — T. Jones and H. Schmidt,  1960
                      For further study: http://www.thefantasticks.com/
(Prelude to The Perfect Time To Be In Love (30th Anniversary Tour, 1992)
     “You wonder how these things begin. Well, this begins with a glen. It begins with a season which, for want of a better word we may as well call- September. It begins in a forest where the woodchucks woo, and the leaves wax green, and vines intertwine like lovers; try to see it, not with your eyes, for they are wise, but see it with your ears: the cool green breathing of the leaves. And hear it with the inside of your hand: the soundless sound of shadows flicking light. Celebrate sensation! Recall that secret place. You’ve been there, you remember: That special place where once- Just once- in your crowded sunlit lifetime, you hid away in shadow from the tyranny of time. That spot beside the clover where someone’s hand held your hand and love was sweeter than the berries, or the honey, or the stinging taste of mint. It is September- before a rainfall- a perfect time to be in love.
–>  The MESSAGE: “Don’t let it slip away for it may never come again.”

Sophie’s World — Jostein Gaarder, 1991
“The stupidest thing she knew was for people to act like they knew all about the things they knew absolutely nothing about.  Wisest is she who knows she does not know.”
“A philosopher knows that in reality he knows very little. That is why he constantly strives to achieve true insight. Socrates was one of these rare people. He knew that he knew nothing about life and the world. And now comes the important part: it troubled him that he knew so little.”
“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults.  This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
“Life is both sad and solemn. We are led into a wonderful world, we meet one another here, greet each other – and wander together for a brief moment. Then we lose each other and disappear as suddenly and unreasonably as we arrived.”
“What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep. you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to Heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you held the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”
–>  The MESSAGE: “Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others.”

Bobby McGee — Janis Joplin, 1970
“I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday/to be holding Bobby’s body next to mine.”
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose / Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no no / And, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues / You know, feelin’ good was good enough for me, good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”

Watching the Wheels — John Lennon (there are so many), 1980
“People asking questions lost in confusion
Well I tell them there’s no problem,  only solutions.”
“I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go.”

Maybe I’m Amazed — Paul McCartney (there are so many), 1970
“Baby, I’m a man, maybe I’m a lonely man
Who’s in the middle of something
That he doesn’t really understand.”
“Maybe I’m amazed at the way you help me sing my song,
Right me when I’m wrong-
Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you.”

From the collected works (there are so many) — Bob Dylan (Nobel Laureate), 1960s
“But you know somethin’s happ’nin’ but you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?”
“How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
“The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now will later be last.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “For the times they are a changin’.”

Chantilly Lace — The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson — shhhh), 1958
“Chantilly lace and a pretty face; And a pony tail, hangin’ down …”
“There ain’t nothing in the world like a big-eyed girl
To make me act so funny, make me spend my money
Make me feel real loose, like a long-necked goose
Like a girl – yeah baby, that’s a what I like!”
–>  The MESSAGE: “Something lives on from every person, even a teenage boy.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — T. S. Elliot, 1958
“Do I dare disturb the universe?”
–>  The MESSAGE: “Same as the lesson from The Big Bopper.”

Sonnet #116 — William Shakespeare, 1609
“If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
–>  The MESSAGE: “Same as the lesson from The Big Bopper.”

“That’s my list. How about YOU write your own ‘required reading list?’ I’d love to see it.

   Download a PDF of this post: my_syllabus_convivio DS_logo

Decades We Have Known

(and one we’re still getting to know)


“Yes, here we are
right in the middle of it;
but what should we call it?”







Those of us who went to school around the middle of the 20th century were taught to understand the passing of time in distinct eras, each having its own character and name. For example, the thousand-year period called “The Middle Ages” was a characterized principally by ignorance and short life spans. Following that, it seems, the focus of history narrowed to individual centuries. The 15th century (roughly, 1450 to 1550) is remembered for its intellectual and artistic awakening and discovery and thus called “The Renaissance.”  Today, our understanding of distinct definable time periods comes down roughly to decades, both in our education and in popular culture.

So, as I read the news and listen to the pundits of our day, as they attempt to identify the trends of our times, I am driven to ask:

  • given the pattern of the decades we have come to know best, what name would a thoughtful person give to the decade in which we live today? How will the 2010-2020 decade be remembered in the years to come?

Of course, since this decade is not finished, our judgments must be preliminary.  But let’s give it a try.  As a start, let’s review the decades of the most accomplished and truly “American” century of them all, the 20th century.

1900 to 1910 — “The Good Years”

During the first ten years of the 20th century, from an American point of view, the world was mostly at peace.  Shirts cost 23¢, but the children who made them earned a mere $3.54 a week.  Teddy Roosevelt proposed to strengthen the U.S economy with his Square Deal and sent the U.S. Navy around the globe to introduce the world to the idea of American power. My grandparents, like 3 million other immigrants escaping a crushing depression in Southern Italy, sailed in the belly of big ships from Naples to New York. Last but not least, my father rounded out the decade by being born in Red Jacket, West Virginia on October 10, 1910.

For many Americans, according to a commentator of that time (John Clark), “The future was simple; rewards would go to the virtuous” and Americans perceived themselves to have “the personal material out of which a millennium would grow.” Historians have called this decade “The Good Years”  (see Walter Lord’s “The Good Years,” Harper and Row, 1960).

1910 to 1920 — “The End of Empire, War in Europe”

A powerful worldwide upheaval began. In America, much of the population moved to cities and there was a dramatic reduction in immigrants from Europe compared to the mass migration of the previous decade. The world began to see the end of a long-established world order, disintegrated into World War I, and suffered the historically unprecedented destruction and loss of life that went with it.  A “new world order” was established once “the war to end all wars” finally …  well, so we claimed  …  ended war itself and, in America, ushering in …

1920 to 1930  — “The Jazz Age” (or “The Roaring Twenties”)

This decade began, inauspiciously, on January 16, 1920 with the onset of Prohibition. It is hard to accept that the alcohol-marinated events of “The Jazz Age” could possibly have begun with a national decision to prohibit alcohol consumption; but as Will Rogers famously said, “Prohibition is better than no alcohol at all.”

Songwriter and philosopher Jacques Brel summed up ‘The Twenties’ this way:
“We must dance because the Twenties roar,
The Twenties roar because there’s bathtub gin,
Vo-de-oh-do and the road to sin,
The road to whoopee and a whole lot more.
Charles A Lindberg, tons of confetti,
Dempsey, Tunney, Sacco and Vanzetti
Black, Black Monday and the market drops
But we keep on dancing, dancing, we can’t stop.”

For many Americans, the party didn’t stop, until …

1930 to 1940 — “The Great Depression”

On the day the Jazz Age ended, the Thirties began: October 29, 1929, with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.  Unemployment and bread lines became the dominant images.  Across the Atlantic, the world darkened further with the growing power of Fascism and Nazism in Europe and the pervasive fear that all of Europe would plunge into war again.  The lights went out, virtually worldwide, for the better part of the decade, until …

1940 to 1950 — “World War II, Victory, The Seeds of Prosperity”

The Forties arguably began on September 1, 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, formally starting World War II.  Many Americans, led by Charles Lindberg and other vocal isolationists, insisted that America should stay out of the troubles in Europe and focus on our own economic challenges.  While most remember December 7, 1941, as the day that got America into the war, it was actually December 11 – the day that Hitler declared war on the U.S. and Russia.  That gave President Roosevelt the clear justification to actively enter the war.  The disastrous unemployment of The Great Depression was “solved” with the massive ramp-up of industrial production to support the war effort, which put Americans back to work (although the war killed 60-80 million people worldwide.

1950 to 1960 — “Stability, The Cold War, and Prosperity … for Most of Us

Looking back as someone born in 1950 into a middle-class community, the Fifties was a period of stability and order, a large-scale expansion of the American middle class, and the re-establishment of a calm and mostly prosperous domestic life for much of America that hadn’t really been seen since the start of the century.  A new brand of celebrities like Allen Ginsberg and Maynard G. Krebs introduced Americans to the new vocabulary of “The Beat Generation.”  But …

The Cold War started. It began with the Berlin blockade on June 24, 1948, or maybe with the establishment of NATO on April 4, 1950, or perhaps with Joseph McCarthy’s “Wheeling” speech on February 9, 1950.   Domestically, the uneven (mostly white) prosperity of the Fifties, coupled with the return to ghettos of many returning U.S. soldiers, the Fifties surely germinated the seeds of the turmoil that burst forth in the next decade.

1960 to 1970 — “The Age of Aquarius”

The Sixties began with a sense of optimism and inspiration epitomized by the election of an eloquent and youthful president, but those hopes were dashed dramatically on November 22, 1963. While the polarization, cynicism, and youth rebellion often associated with the Sixties is traced back by many to the Kennedy assassination, the Era of Rock and Roll as well as much of the colorful wildness and anti-establishment post-Woodstock psychedelia and self-actualization associated with the the Sixties really didn’t come into full flower until the early 1970s.  In the middle of the decade, discontent among those who did not benefit from the prosperous “normal” of the Fifties (i.e., African Americans) erupted violently in cities all across America as a reaction against brutal racism and income inequality.  Others marched in the streets to protest a war that those who grew up in the Fifties did not understand; once they did understand it, they liked it even less.  THAT Sixties was not colorful, prosperous, or peaceful (and 50,000 U.S. soldiers did not come home from that new war).

1970 to 1980 — “The Me Decade”

The Seventies really began on June 17, 1973, even though few people noticed at the time. Five associates of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (yes, known as CREEP) were apprehended while breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C.  In spite of efforts by the president to “make one thing perfectly clear,” one thing led to another and introduced some enduring phrases into the American lexicon: “The Plumbers Unit,” “The people need to know that their president is not a crook,” articles of impeachment, a resignation, and, perhaps most lastingly, the suffix “-gate.”  Some would argue that American politics would never be the same.  Others argued that “the same” was exactly what it was … and continued to be.

1980 to 1990 — “The Beginning of Fact-Free American Politics”

The Eighties began on January 20, 1981, minutes after the presidency had passed from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan and Iran released the 52 Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days. The decade that followed featured the distortion of American conservatism, from a moderate notion of limited government (actually practiced by Republicans from the 1950s through the era of Watergate) to the excessive expansion of government under the Reagan administration. (Surprised? Look up the numbers – highest Federal budgets per GDP, most Federal employees in history, widespread international intervention, etc.). And all of this took place amid the simultaneous “Small-Government” rhetoric of…well…Ronald Reagan.

1990 to 2000 — “The Best Decade Ever” (so reported by the WSJ and the NYT)

The Nineties were characterized by the rise of multiculturalism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the spread of capitalism in that vacuum. In American politics, the Nineties were dominated by a battle between the centrism of the Clinton administration and the politics of personal destruction perfected by the other party, later named RINO by the fictional Will McAvoy of Newsnight (for “Republican In Name Only”). The American economy grew at a strong 4%, median household income rose by 10%, the poverty rate fell from 15% to 11%, the U.S. murder rate declined by 41%, the federal government ended the decade with a budget surplus, the Stock Market quadrupled in value, and the wearing of neckties in offices began to diminish.  But,

On the world stage, wars broke out in the Congo, the Persian Gulf, Chechnya (twice), Kashmir, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Bosnia, to name only a few, and a host of civil wars redrew maps on at least two continents.  However, apartheid in South Africa came to an end.  The Nineties also featured an unprecedented explosion of the Internet and computer technology (although these advances were soon to be dwarfed by a greater explosion of the Internet and computer technology just around the corner).

2000 to 2010 — “The Rise of Terrorism and The Great Recession ”

The Oughts, the first decade of the 21st century was initiated by the arrival of large-scale terrorism on American soil. This heinous crime was followed by a panicked attempt to combat terrorism through the dismantlement of civil liberties at home and a misdirected military response against a country and a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11.

Oh, yes, the U.S. had a historic period of anti-intellectualism, manifest in the depletion of education budgets and leadership of a president “misunderestimated” for his lack of interest in intellect, let alone possession of it (stimulating an all-but-forgotten quote from Garrison Keillor: “Who needs a fifty-dollar haircut on a fifty-cent head?”).

The housing finance and stock market investment disaster during the Dubya era sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin.  Recession and unemployment were stopped just short of a Depression by an infusion of fiscal stimulus and government regulation (who wouldda thunk it?).

2010 to 2020 — “Whah?”

Well, that brings us to the present decade, of which we stand approximately in the middle and the question that I started with:
•  What should we name this decade?  More precisely, what are we likely to call it when this decade is done? So, let’s explore what we know about this current decade, so far.

The ?????   

  • The West’s war against terrorism becomes terrorism’s war against The West.
  • The end of “carefree” in America and the avoidance of crowds.
  • A generalized paranoia, growing gun ownership, and gun violence.
  • A gradual, but dramatically uneven increase in prosperity.
  • A decline in the power of labor unions and a decrease in the size of the middle class.
  • The re-emergence of racial tension, especially between minorities and law enforcement.
  • The maturing of “Fact-Free Politics” and the trend toward “voting against” in which nobody believes fully in the available choices.

•  I invite you, dear reader, to send us your suggestions.  What should we call this decade we inhabit today?  I am interested in your ideas.  DS_logo

Download a PDF of this post:  convivio_decades_sept2016_final

For fun, below is an added bonus for those who, like me, identify decades with music …

The Soundtracks of the Decades
(The most popular songs listed on U.S. Billboard)

The Tens:
When You Were Sweet Sixteen (1900)
Stars & Stripes Forever (1901)
Bill Bailey (Won’t You Please Come Home) (1902)
In the Good Old Summer Time (1903)
Sweet Adeline (1904)
Give My Regards to Broadway (1905)
Yankee Doodle (1905)
Auld Lang Syne (1907)
My Gal Sal (1907)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1908)
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1909)
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1909)

The Teens:
Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1910)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1910)
Alexander’s Ragtime band (1911)
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1913)
By the Beautiful Sea (1914)
Carry Me Back to Old Virginney (1915)
I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier (1915)
O Sole Mio (My Sunshine) (1916, Enrico Caruso
Over There (1917)
For Me and My Gal (1917)
Rock-A-Bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody) (1918)
I’m Always Chasing Rainbows (1918)

The Twenties:
Swanee (1920, Al Jolson)
My Man (1922, Fannie Brice)
Yes! We Have No Bananas (1923)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924. George Gerschwin)
California, Here I Come (1924, Al Jolson)
Sweet Georgia Brown (1925)
Ain’t She Sweet? (1927)
Stardust (1927, Hoagy Carmicheal)
Ol’ Man River (1928)
Mack the Knife (1928)
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1929)
Tip Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me (1929)

The Thirties:
Happy Days Are Here Again (1930)
Dream a Little Dream of Me (1931)
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) (1932, Duke Ellington)
Stormy Weather (Keeps Rainin’ All the Time) (1933)
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (1932, Bing Crosby, others)
On The Good Ship Lollipop (1935, Shirley Temple)
Summertime (1936, Billie Holiday)
They Can’t Take That Away From Me 1937, Fred Astair)
Blue Moon (1935)
Sing, Sing, Sing (With A Swing) (1937, Benny Goodman)
September in the Rain (1937)
Thanks For the Memory (1938, Bob Hope and Shirley Ross)
Over the Rainbow  (1939, Judy Garland)
God Bless America (1939, Kate Smith)
Back in the Saddle Again (1939, Gene Autry)

The Forties:
When You Wish Upon a Star (1940)
In the Mood (1940, Glenn Miller)
Blues in the Night (1942)
White Christmas (1942, Bing Crosby)
As Time Goes By (1943)
Don’t Fence Me In (1944, Bing Crosby)
This Land is Your Land (1944, Woodie Guthrie)
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) (1946, Nat King Cole)
Some Enchanted Evening (1949, {Perry Como)
All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth (1949 Spike Jones)
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949, Gene Autry)
La Vie En Rose (1949, Edith Piaf)

The Fifties:
How Much Is That Doggie in the Window (1953, Patti Page)
Mister Sandman (1954, The Chordettes)
Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) (1954, The Crew-Cuts)
Three Coins in the Fountain (1954, Four Aces)
Mambo Italiano (1954, Rosemary Clooney, yep George’s mom)
Stranger in Paradise (1954, Tony Bennett)
Sixteen Tons (1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford)
Rock Around the Clock
Heartbreak Hotel, All Shook Up, Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel (1956, Elvis Presley)
Que sera sera (Whatever will be will be) (1956, Doris Day)
At the Hop (1957)
It’s All in the Game (1958, Tommy Edwards)
Johnny B Goode (1958, Chuck Berry)
All I Have to Do is Dream (1958, Everly Brothers)
Venus (1959, Frankie Avalon)

The Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Oughts, etc

For a these songs and more – check out: http://tsort.info/music/ds1930.htm

Click here to download a PDF of this post:    ConVivio_Decades_SEPT2016_FINAL


Back To School: 2016





This past month,
as my grandchildren head back to school,
this former ‘pencil pusher’ reflects:

How has “Back to School” changed?




Back to School: A ‘Pencil Pusher’ Looks Back

Who’s Your Daddy?

Growing up in Antioch, a middle-class California town, in the 1950s, the boys I knew competed on the school playground in the same ways, I assume, that boys did in other places. Hierarchies were established, often starting with a conversation like this one:

“Hey, you can’t cut in front of me, I’m up next.”

“Well, I called it.”

“What do you mean you ‘called it?’ You can’t just call it!” (Remember when you could call it, you know, “I got dibs.”)

“Nobody wants you to bat with runners on base.  You never hit the ball out of the infield. You’re an automatic out.”

“Oh, YEAH? (then comes the big one at this early stage of the argument):
“And you throw like a girl.” (It didn’t get much more personal than that in 1959.)

Next comes the appeal to fairness. “You gotta wait your turn.”

Fairness fails and is trumped by an appeal to personal strength. “Who’s gonna make me, YOU?”

Up to that point, that’s pretty standard stuff; but, unless the boys were willing to throw punches or were stopped by some external interruption, the argument could move completely outside of the playground into more sensitive territory.

“You’re as wimpy as your dad.”

So, where did that come from?

Antioch was a serious factory town in the 1950s. We had a DuPont plant, two Fiberboard plants, a Crown Zellerbach paper mill, a Glass Containers factory, Fulton Shipyard, Continental Can, Kaiser Gypsum, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical, a rubber mill, two canneries, Dexter Hysol out on Bailey Road, the Redwood Manufacturing Lumber Yard, and a U.S Steel plant just outside of town on Loveridge Road. Turns out that a major percentage of the dads in the vicinity worked in one of these facilities.  (By the late 1960s, about one-third of the local moms also worked outside the home, but in Antioch back in the fifties it was mostly dads – just like a script from TV shows we watched like “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It to Beaver.”)  So, when a guy was challenged on the playground, some portion of his status was wrapped up in his dad’s occupation; so the next level of insults could take a new direction, refining the playground hierarchy:

“I bet your dad’s the smallest guy at Fiberboard.”

“He doesn’t work at the stupid Fiberboard plant; he drives a forklift – the big one that hauls tons of stuff.”

“Tons of what?  Peaches at the cannery?  My dad works at U.S. Steel. They make steel for cars and airplanes and big stuff.”

“Big deal!  My dad’s a foreman. He orders guys like your dad around all day long.”

“Yeah, well . . .  “ he searches for something to top that  –>  and here it comes,
“Your dad doesn’t do REAL work, he’s just a pencil pusher.”

What’s a ‘Pencil Pusher?’

If these boys were lucky, the inning ended or the bell rang or Sister Bernadette showed up with her uncanny ability to sense when boys were heading for trouble, so it seldom escalated to an actual fistfight. But those of us watching from outside of the argument were left wanting to know: What’s a ‘pencil pusher?’ What kind of job was that?  It was made to sound pretty insulting.  Guys, and gals, were wondering: was my dad a ‘pencil pusher?’  If he was, just how embarrassed should I be?  Was that as low on the totem pole as the kid on the playground made it sound?  Did that insult win the argument?  It would have been instructive — to us fourth-grade bystanders at least — if the exchange had been allowed to run its full course and we could find out who won the argument in the only definitive way we knew: which one ended up on the ground crying and which one walked away with all of his teeth?

Of course, one way or another most of us who cared eventually learned, or decided for ourselves, what it meant to be a ’pencil pusher.’ To those who used it as an insult, it meant a job that didn’t require physical strength and skill to build things — the work that made someone a ‘real man’ in a factory town like this one.  After all, as we were all taught by our ‘Greatest Generation’ parents and teachers, the post-war economy was built on production of things like cars and trucks and refrigerators and all the other things that TV commercials told us we needed to buy. Those products, the stuff they were made of, and the containers they came in were produced with physical labor in factories like those in our town.  Many Antioch dads did that work.

But gradually, as the 50s turned the corner into the late-60s, we baby boomers were presented with other choices. To some, a ‘pencil pusher,’ it turned out, was someone who used his brain to plan or organize or communicate the ideas and processes that made the manufacturing economy successful. He might have been an accountant or insurance broker, a union leader or a lawyer, a newspaper reporter or a manager. AND, increasingly, gradually, pencil pushers turned out to be women, as well (a feature that distinguished the 1960s and beyond from the 1950s).

My dad, who worked in the steel mill after completing less than a junior-high education in the Santa Clara Valley, went to night school to become a pencil pusher (i.e., an insurance agent).  So, from my earliest memories, my dad made clear to me that I was going to college so I could become a pencil pusher of some kind.  He never used that word, but there was no question that he didn’t want me to work in one of the Antioch factories. Increasing numbers of us who graduated from that playground, later graduated from high school and went to college fully intending to become very good at pushing a pencil and, eventually, using other ‘labor-saving devices’ like typewriters, telephones, calculators, and much later, computers.  Pencil pushers, it turned out, helped turn many kinds of labor jobs into well-paying union careers and provided opportunities for promotion that broadened the middle class and made it increasingly prosperous as the 1960s matured in our town.

Boing!  With the 1960s, athletics begin to dominate

The ‘Pencil Pusher’ conflict of the late 1950s, which I observed mostly as a bystander, didn’t have much of an effect on me personally, since it was all about competition on the playground; and I was not perceived as competing with anyone.  I was a kid who carried around a leather briefcase that my father gave me to carry my books. Reading was the ‘sport’ that he encouraged every way he could.  On the playground of the 5th and 6th grade, I was pigeonholed in the category of the “uncoordinated,” which kept me safely out of competition with other boys. I was picked last when teams were picked (when I HAD to play baseball in PE), I found that if I gravitated to tetherball, while it was technically a ‘sport,’ it seemed to keep the competitive forces of the playground at a distance.  But then, as I went back to school in the fall of the 7th grade, everything changed.  EVERYTHING.  During the summer and fall of 1962, I grew six inches.

As I described in an earlier story on ConVivio (https://convivio-online.net/a-moment-in-the-sun/ ), the basketball coach (in conspiracy with Sr. Bernadette and my mother), forced me to join the 7th-grade basketball team — VERY much against my will.

At first the others on the team seemed amused when I showed up; but to my (and their) surprise, I did pretty well without embarrassing myself too much. I got a bunch of rebounds, blocked some shots, threw the ball down court to Gary to start the fastbreak, and helped the team win. For the others, it was no longer amusing when the coach made me one of the starting five.  Then it became serious; but some of them got used to having a formerly uncoordinated kid become one of them.  After a few weeks of this, one day Tom Augustine  — an all-sport athlete — gave me a nickname.  He said, without malice, just stating the facts, “You’re not really any good, are you, you just have ‘BOING,’ right?  You know, like a spring.” We were friends, so I took it well.  He was right.  I didn’t have the usual set of athletic skills.  I had ‘boing.’

As a result of some coaching and persistent practice in my backyard, by the time I showed up in high school, I was a real-live starting high-school basketball player, with all of the privileges and respect that went with it.  No foolin’. Apparently, by the last half of the 1960s, the fact that my dad was a ‘pencil pusher,’ no longer did me any harm. Perhaps that stigma had begun to disappear, even in a factory town like Antioch, and we had to earn our own respect (or lack of it).

In High School — What next?  The ASVAB Test

So, at Antioch High School, basketball wasn’t going to get me much more than a little respect on the basketball court; it was time to take the next step, whatever that turned out to be.  The next step, as my guidance counselor informed me, was to find out what I was good at to prepare myself to go to college. She had spoken to my dad and, she told me, ”He made some things clear – you are going to college whether you like it or not, you know that don’t you?” I hadn’t heard it put quite that way exactly, but it wasn’t a surprise. And she said something more:  “He also told me that he was hoping that you would take over his insurance agency after you graduate. You know, ‘A. J. Sapone Insurance And Son’ and all of that.” So she told me, “I advised your father that he would have to wait and see if that turned out to be what your son is good at. He may have other skills and other interests that he’ll figure for himself. So, he may end up taking a different path.” She told me that she didn’t think he would be thrilled with that outcome, but he seemed to accept that as a possibility.  She also suggested a strategy.  “The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) of standardized tests was going to be offered in a few weeks,” she told me. I want you to take that test and we’ll see what it tells us.”

“I won’t have to join the army, will I  . . .  because, you can for… “

“No, everybody gets to take it.  It tells us what kinds of professions you might be best suited for, based on your interests and talents. It might help.”

So the test came and went and we waited for the results. The background: by 1967, the values of popular culture began to be influenced by some recognizable themes. Appreciation for the outdoors, for individualism, for public service, and other attributes that came to us from music and TV resulted in some predictable answers to questions designed to identify personality traits. So when the results came back and were reported to us, I learned that I was most suited to becoming a forest ranger. The wonderful joke was that more than half of my friends learned that they had the same destiny. One saw me holding the familiar envelope and said “Forest ranger, right?”


When I asked my counselor about it she confirmed the glitch in the data analysis, “Yes, I guess you’re going to have to figure it out for yourself.” That, of course, had been her real advice all along. So, “back to school” had new meaning. I went off to college with that question: did my future have an “And Son” sign hanging on it, or was there something else I had to choose?

As my grandchildren head back to school at various stages of their education, perhaps they are in the middle of a similar process.

With the 2016 Version of “Back to School,” What has Changed?

Looking back across the decades that followed, many things changed.  The education I receive prepared me for a long career as a ‘pencil pusher’ —  a writer and editor.  Pencils began to take a back seat to other tools that dramatically accelerated the advancement of ‘pencil pusher types’ of an increasing variety.  As the 20th century passed into memory, in an equally dramatic reversal, the middle class itself has begun to shrink as many labor jobs — jobs that were so well esteemed on my playground in the 1950s  — began to draw a diminishing share of the benefits of the increasingly globalized and technology-driven economy.

As an older guy recently retired from my career as a ‘pencil pusher’ — a guy with seven grandchildren growing up on very different playgrounds — I have some questions:

  • Are the conversations on their playgrounds different today?
  • Does the occupation of their parents play a greater or lesser role than it did on my playground?
  • What will be the shape of the middle class that they will graduate into? What will it take for them to access the quality of life that was made available to me?
  • Will the education available to them prepare them for the world they will meet when they graduate?

My grandchildren seem to have some advantages — they all seem to be smarter than I was at their age; they all have university-educated parents; they have access to vastly more technology that I had (I had a transistor radio, and electric train, and a bicycle and they have  . . .  well, other stuff), and they are exposed to much more cultural diversity than I was (my town and my playground had none).  The technology they have at their fingertips provides them with information and answers that my generation had to dig for by going to the library.  Is their instant access to information an ‘advantage’ or does it bypass some of the learning experiences I had?  Will they be sufficiently prepared in subjects related to 21st-century science and technology?  AND — equally important to this ‘English major’ — will they have a solid foundation in the Humanities necessary to be a well-rounded human being?

I think they will.  The evidence for that optimism is my observation that their parents (our children) are providing them with experiences that expose them to reading, science, the arts, and personal interactions that are helping them develop into curious, confident observers of the world around them and smart thinkers.  I see those parents actively involved in their children’s school, extracurricular music and arts programs, and sports teams. And the kids are proud of the things they do. So, I am optimistic.  Still, I suspect that there are things we older folks can do here in this 21st-century ‘back-to-school’ season to help them succeed.

As for the conversations they have on their playgrounds – I guess I’ll have to ask them.
Download a PDF of this post:  convivio_backtoschool_sep7_2016        DS_logo

Snow Globe



I read the news this morning. Yet another shooting, this time, police ambushed in Baton Rouge. Even as my heart wrenched, my cynical (benumbed?) mind wondered what it would be tomorrow—civilian or law enforcement? terrorist or home-grown? individual or mass? As horrid as these events are, we must bear witness to them. We must talk. We must act. Otherwise, nothing changes.



Snow Globe

A shot, a siren.
A siren, a shot.
Does it matter which is first?
Either way someone’s dead.
One life ended,
Others destroyed—
The shot, the shooter,
Those left behind.

The act, the image.
The image, the outrage.
Marches, protests,
Pulpits, airwaves
Fill with eloquence,
Prayers and pleas
And vows for change.
Yet where’s the outrage
When nothing changes?

Black skin, brown skin,
White skin, tan,
Blue jeans, badge,
Crescent, cross, six-point star.
Does it matter who bleeds first?
Either way blood is spilt,
Hands are stained,
Souls are rended.
Vengeance, justice,
Someone tell me,
What’s the difference?

Shake a snow globe,
Glittering flakes in fury swirl,
Slacken, then subside.
A shot, a siren.
A siren, a shot.
Yet again a life is ended.
Yet again the globe’s upended.
Yet again nothing changes.

(Lauren de Vore, July 17, 2016)

Download “Snow Globe” in PDF:  ConVivio_Snow_Globe_DeVore_7_17_2016


Where Do I Start? Where Do You?


    “Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”
— Dr. Seus



This week in Dallas, in the depth of despair, once again, we heard the President of the United States tell us that we must reject the despair we see all about us.  He said, “Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see.  Right now, those words test us because the people of Dallas, people across the country are suffering.”

Words of hope — but the words are hard to hear.  Despair and suffering speak with loud voices that can drown out words of hope, making it difficult to move past suffering and get all the way to “perseverance and character” before getting to hope.

And he said, “I understand.  I understand how Americans are feeling.  But Dallas, I’m here to say we must reject such despair.  I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.  And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds.”


A big challenge — bold words delivered to an audience in mourning.  He told us things we know, but things that are hard to hear while we’re in the middle of the suffering.

And he said, “The pain we feel may not soon pass, but my faith tells me that they did not die in vain. I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.  I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace.  Weeping may endure for a night but I’m convinced joy comes in the morning.”

He reminded us of the promises made to Ezekiel I the old testament: “ ‘I will give you a new heart,’ ” the Lord says, ‘and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.’ ”   The President cited examples of those with such new hearts who had made progress possible, right here in Dallas.  But still, we mourn.

Much earlier in my lifetime, a man I admired (who would not become president) stood on a street corner on the back of a flat-bed truck and talked about a terrible thing that had happened that day.  Robert Kennedy told a small gathering of Africa Americans in Indianapolis that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been murdered.  What was promised that day was wisdom, the same promise made to Ezekiel.
Quoting an ancient Greek playwright, Senator Robert Kennedy said,



“Even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.


Paste into your browser and watch:

The pain that day did not go away, nor — as of this writing — has the promised wisdom arrived.  In fact, two months later, June 6, 1968, two days before my high school graduation, Robert Kennedy was himself the victim of violent hatred.  That was 48 years ago.  And, across this nation, still we have not yet seen the wisdom nor the new heart.

What do we learn?  If we’re paying attention, we earn that waiting for the wisdom and the new heart has not worked.  I suppose that means that we have to do it ourselves, somehow.  And, this week, we heard some suggestions – President Obama said,

we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes.”

And he said, “we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans, not just to opponents, but to enemies.”

And he said, “those protesting for change will guard against reckless language going forward.”

And he said, “police departments will acknowledge that, just like the rest of us, they’re not perfect. That insisting we do better to root out racial bias is not an attack on cops, but an effort to live up to our highest ideals.

And he said, “we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.”

And, to bring us back to where he started, he said, “It turns out we do not persevere alone.  Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up.”

These prescriptions for change sound simple.  But, with the number of times we have tried to teach ourselves these lessons, and failed  —  that’s where the despair comes from — one can only hope that these things do not turn out to be impossible.

JFK_innaUGURAL_1_20_61BUT, if we can persevere, we have been offered hope.  Also in my lifetime, we were given another list of prescriptions for change that seemed daunting in their time.  On January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy confronted the nation with such a list and summarized the challenge this way:
All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days.  Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.  But let us begin.”


Maybe the success is in the starting, not in the finishing.  I suppose the “us” these leaders spoke of must be assembled one person at a time.   So, where do I start?   Where do you?

What answers can we offer?   Even if they see too small and the challenges seem too great, let’s say them right out loud.      “…  let us begin.”

Download a PDF of this article:   ConVivio_Dallas_July14_2016


An Election (Certainly Not Ours) — A Fable



      “It’s what I DO.”

—  Farley Forlock, July 2060

Not so long ago, in a country not far away, leaders of its two political parties began gearing up for their usual five-year election cycle.  Halfway through the twenty-first century, the nation of Aqualandia had become justifiably proud of its new government structures.  Years ago they had lengthened the presidential term to five years because, they observed, it took nearly two years to elect a president with the result that very little actual governing got done.  Some elections early in the century, notably the infamous election of 2016, had been more chaotic than they preferred, so they took action to restore order and propriety to the process.  After cleaning up the mess caused by the disintegration of one of the major parties, they established rules covering every eventuality: rules to qualify candidates for the national primary (they had to have significant name recognition in all three states as determined by well-regulated polling); rules ensuring that all Aqualandian residents could vote after passing a simple advertising-susceptibility test (to make sure voters would be properly informed by political advertising); rules awarding all thirty-three electoral votes from each of the three states to the candidate winning the popular vote in that state, and rules governing the three carefully timed steps to the election of a president.  “The Institution,” as the rules were lovingly called, was universally admired around the world, especially in the remaining three nations of the European Union where Aqualandian principles were closely observed and often imitated.

The Three States

Aqualandia_MAP_v2After many decades of experimentation with a larger number of states, Aqualandia’s Institutional Convention structured the nation into three regional states.  Every ten years, the national census would adjust the boundaries of the three states.  By law, the Coastal Region, geographically split because of the propensity of the coastal areas to be influenced by “non-continental” forces, was drawn to include thirty-three percent of the registered residents who lived closest to the two coasts.  The Central Region included the thirty-three percent of residents who lived between the two inland edges of the Coastal Region extending south from Aqualandia’s northern border.  The Southern Region was made of the thirty-three percent of residents closest to the southern border between the Coastal and Central states.  Since those three states added up to ninety-nine percent of Aqualandia residents, those citizens whose wealth placed them in the top one percent do not vote in the primary election.  The logic held that those among the ‘one percent’ are less likely to be influenced by political advertising and, therefore, do not qualify as primary voters.  In an Institutional provision called the Manhattan Compromise, this disparity was remedied by requiring each ‘one-percenter’ to vote twice in the general election, since they had been unrepresented in the primary process.  Their campaign contributions supplemented their participation and were considered ample recompense for their sacrifice.

The fact that the census changed the shape of the three states every ten years caused an ongoing joke, especially popular among Europeans and late-night talk-show hosts.  The map of Aqualandia was drawn to look, alternately, like a smiling face or a frowning face, depending on the population distribution.  The current host of the CBS Late Night Show said, “to get this nation smiling again, fifty million people will have to move north.”

The Two Parties

Aqualandia’s history had shown that any deviation from a two-candidate election distorted the election process and its outcome.  In previous centuries, third-party candidates like George Wallace, John Anderson, and Ross Perot were found to have splintered the natural ideological distribution of the nation in ways that appeared to subvert the will of the people.  So, that eventuality was prohibited.  The Institutional Convention called for exactly two political parties.  While there were no regional requirements for party membership, the Blue Party found its members predominantly located in the Coastal Region.  The Red Party dominated the Southern Region to a large extent.  The Central Region was typically found to be divided between the Blues and Reds from election to election in less predictable patterns, as were the one-percenters.

The Three Steps in Electing a President

Step One required candidates to qualify for the primary ballot in their state by uploading their name-recognition data to the secure election website using a specially designed PresElect App downloaded from iTunes.  After six months of streaming YouTube, Snapchat, and TechPol appearances, that same PresElect App was used by voters in a national same-day primary election to select the candidate who would represent their party in the general election.

Step Two required party leadership to meet with the nominee to establish the priorities, policies, and values that all party members would support in ‘down-ballot’ races for the Senate, House of Representatives, the three Governorships, and local elections.  ‘One-percenters’ of both parties were included among the leadership of the party of their choice, ensuring that party platforms would not violate market-based business practices.

Step Three, of course, was the general election.  Given the way the intellectual competence of the electorate had evolved in recent years, it needed to be the simplest step.  With only two candidates to consider and two publically-debated policy platforms to choose from, how hard could it be?  It was designed to be orderly, simple, and easy to understand (even in the Southern Region).  However, this particular year, 2060, has all the earmarks of being  . . .  well, different.

The Candidates

After a messy primary season, one candidate from The Red Party emerged with the most votes – even though nobody in the party could stand being in the same room with him.  Farley Forelock appealed to voters who were unhappy with government (sort of everyone) and by insulting everyone who didn’t agree with him (sort of everyone).  In his youth, he had attended a little-known university in pursuit of a double major in marketing and law (specializing in bankruptcy law).  While there was no record of a degree, he learned a lot from his mentor, the founder of the university.  Farley went on to make a fortune in the construction business with bombastic marketing (“We’re the best and THEY are terrible!”) and minimizing construction costs by paying as little as possible for labor and materials (“Some of our nation’s laws can be very friendly if you know how to use them”).  In an undergraduate course in election law, Farley recalled writing in his notebook, “If a person is successful enough to be a credible candidate for president, why would he or she want to actually BE president?  It seems like a lot of work.  All I’ve ever really wanted to do is WIN!”

The Blue Party primary season was also messy. The winning candidate, Ophelia Empath had long experience in various governmental roles at a sufficiently high level to make her nomination inevitable.  Her candidacy, however, was a two-edged sword.  On the one hand she appealed to many Blue voters because she had high-level government experience; but she was detested by the category of voters in both parties who were unhappy with government (sort of everyone) and held her accountable for the status quo.  She also had the disadvantage of being part of a political family that had a well-earned reputation for personal controversy.  So, voters who sought stability were wary of a candidate who was always followed around by high drama.

Many Aqualandians were anxious to vote AGAINST both candidates.  It was harder to identify many who were enthusiastically FOR either of them.

The Winning Strategy

Farley Forelock had been studying the government of Aqualandia for some time and had formulated a plan.  He observed that the people did not seem capable of selecting a president who was up to the job.  The increasing distaste for government and a diminishing participation in it seemed to be making that condition worse.  He reasoned that somebody had to choose a president who would put the government on a stronger path.  “If only I could just choose someone …  “    How to do that?

Farley had made some simple observations:

  • The Red Party candidates likely to run against him were weak.  There were so many of them, they would divide what little support they could generate.
  • Red Party voters were willing to engage in a blame game if they were persuaded by the right kind of nationalist cheerleader.
  • The Blue Party candidate was surrounded by potential land mines that could derail her candidacy.  A clever opponent could win if he was willing to play hardball.
  • Presidents in his lifetime had entered office as vigorous men in the prime of their lives and left it as grey-haired, aging, tired men.  The job was a great burden.  Who would want to DO such a job?  The REAL power, he imagined, would be to unilaterally select the right president and bypass the burden of office.

Using his previous theatrical experience, Farley decided to play the part of a bigoted buffoon, inciting large crowds to fear and distrust people of different backgrounds. He predicted that the undereducated population at the bottom half of the economic spectrum would blame their lack of success on others.  He also reasoned that they would not be interested in the complicated analyses offered by the other party.  So, he embarked on a campaign of insults, division, and over-simplification.  In a party accustomed to over-simplification and finger pointing, it should be easy to win the nomination.

After the vote count, the outcome astounded everyone except Farley Forelock (“I told you I would WIN, that’s what I DO”).  He was now the Red Party nominee.  That was that.

Once he had won the nomination, it was time for Step Two: party unification, platform development, and the vice-presidential selection.  This step was easy – he merely said “no” to every policy position the party leaders proposed and reminded them that the voters had spoken.  In front of a bevy of reporters, he told them — if the party wanted to win, they had to agree with the positions he had supported during his successful primary campaign and accept his choice for vice-president.  He assured them he would make his VP announcement soon.  His message appeared in headlines in every newspaper in Aqualandia: “Do you want to win?  Then stick with me, that’s what I DO!”  Polls showed widespread support among the Reds.  Party leaders had no choice but to nod their heads and wait for his VP announcement.

As he had predicted, the Blue Party nominee was lambasted for serious security violations during her government service.  She didn’t go to jail but her credibility was damaged.  Many public figures expressed diminished confidence in an administration headed by Ophelia Empath.  So, while her name would remain on the ballot, voters began pulling away from her.  That was the signal for Farley Forelock to prepare the final step of his strategy.  He named his vice-president on the last day to put a name on the three state ballots and flew to Scotland for an extended visit to one of his golf courses.

Everyone looked at each other –  “Whuh just happened?!”  Of course they couldn’t know what Farley Forelock had planned as Step Three – that would be the clincher. But that would have to wait until the proper time.

Election Day was fairly straightforward.  The South and Central states both voted for Forelock, earning him 66 of the 100 electoral votes.  As soon as those numbers were confirmed, the votes from Coastal Region were meaningless.  One percenters were also irrelevant.  Farley paused on the 13th green before putting for par.  His Twitter feed from Scotland acknowledged the outcome “I told you I would win, it’s what I do.”

In fulfilling the formality required by The Institution, the electors met on December 19th to confirm the outcome.  That was that.

Mystery swirled around Aqualandia’s capital in anticipation of Inauguration Day on January 20.  Adding to the tension, President-Elect Forelock decided to stay overseas and conduct what was billed as a “Final Presidential Tour” of his golf courses and casinos, finalizing three deals, selling one property and buying two more.  The press had questions that went unanswered – Would he be putting his properties and businesses in a blind trust as other wealthy presidents had done?  Would he announce a new CEO of Forelock Enterprises?  Would announce his cabinet soon?  Would The First Lady begin remodeling and painting the exterior of the Presidential Estate, as he had promised, “on Day One?”  However, Forelock’s usually productive Twitter account (#WEWIN) was silent. With impeccable timing, Farley’s plane touched down at JFK airport and the usual array of microphones on the tarmac awaited the new president’s first words.  His orange hair blowing in the breeze, without a teleprompter, he scowled his usual scowl and said, “As I had intended from the start, I have selected the president of my choice.  I hereby resign from the presidency effective immediately.  The Vice President-Elect, now the President I have chosen, will be inaugurated on January 20.  I accept the thanks of a grateful nation and wish the new president well.”         DS_logo

Thanks to Gretta for some of the key ideas and to Lauren for her Editorial expertise.
Download a PDF of this post hereTHEIR_election_July7_16

American Independence Day — Brexit Number One???



“It ought to be commemorated,
as the Day of Deliverance
by solemn Acts of Devotion
to God Almighty
. . .  solemnized with Pomp
and Parade, with Bells,
Bonfires, and illuminations
from one end of this continent
to the other.”
—  John Adams, July 1776


It’s here, America’s national birthday!  Flags are flying, there will be fireworks, concerts, and parades all across the land.  Our national anthem will be played by bands and sung by soloists at every opportunity, and well it should be!  For our red, white, and blue flag and the nation for which it flies has endured through hard and confusing times  –  beginning at its founding in the turbulent 18th century through to the present hard and confusing times here in the turbulent twenty-first.      Congratulations to us all! 

These two hundred forty years haven’t been easy.  Of course, like most of the major inflection points remembered along the span of our history, this one is remembered with a focus on winning a war  –  the war for independence from the British Empire.   OK, yes, the cleverest among us are welcome to call it The First Brexit, well, the exit from Britain by the British colonies of North America.

As such, the military victory itself was a bit of a surprise.  Military buffs may be interested to know the details of the strength of Washington’s American army that defeated the powerful military force of what was arguably the largest empire the world has ever known.  What did it take?   On May 12, 1776, General Washington reported the Duty Roster of the Continental Army in a dispatch to the Congress as follows:

  • Commissioned officers                             589
  • Non-commissioned officers                      722
  • Present and fit for duty                         6,641
  • Sick but present                                     547
  • Sick but absent                                       352
  • On furlough                                              66
  • Absent without leave (AWOL)                1,122

That was the total strength of the American army.  Stunning, eh?!  How did it happen?  Well, lots has been written about the war  . . .   but . . .  the short answer is . . .  well:
The French helped us.   (Shhhhhhhh.  Don’t tell anybody; some are still embarrassed.)

The Declaration

Even though our national anthem doesn’t mention it, we all know, of course, that Independence Day commemorates more than just winning a war.  There were powerful ideas at work that made it happen.  The ideas that flowed from the pen of Thomas Jefferson are still revered today, across America and in many parts of the world.  A declaration published for all the world to see enumerated twenty-eight major grievances against the British King and eloquently proclaimed the necessity “for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”  In the document, the king was defined as a tyrant “. . . unfit to be ruler of a free people.”  Finally, after claiming the right “to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do,” the fifty-six signers of the document pledged their fealty to the values they held most dear: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”


The debate in the Second Continental Congress on whether to adopt the declaration was vigorous and required some significant compromises – including what many refer to the ‘Original Sin’ of the American experiment in democracy.  In Jefferson’s original draft, he included the following statement among his grievances against the king:

“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to endure miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold …”

This clause caused a loud uproar among the southern slaveholders (of which Jefferson was one). To prevent the southern colonies from walking out of the Congress, this clause in Jefferson’s original draft had to be removed.  So, the required unanimous vote of the thirteen colonies to separate from England as a new nation required a commitment to slavery.  John Adams predicted to Benjamin Franklin (his actual words) “Mark me, Franklin. If we give in on this issue, there will be trouble one hundred years hence. Posterity will never forgive us.”  Remarkably, his ‘prediction’ (the Civil War) came true almost ninety years later.  Formal recognition of equal rights for the descendants of American slaves wasn’t enshrined in law until a hundred years after that.

And, yes, we’re still working on it.

The Fourth of July

Finally, the solemn celebration of the historic day the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously to approve the declaration formally breaking away from Britain (Brexiting?) has taken place for the past 240 years on July 4.  Once again, John Adams predicted how this occasion would be celebrated (again, his own words in a letter to his wife Abigail on July 3 1776):

“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

So, did we get it right?   Well, almost.  Adams was talking about the day the declaration was approved in the Second Continental Congress.  The day to be celebrated?    July 2nd, 1776.


Adams’ letter to Abigail, July 3, 1776 (the quote is top of page three)

Happy Independence Day!

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P.S.  Why did the date July 4 appear on the declaration as it comes down to us today?  While the vote was taken on July 2 (the actual event to be celebrated), July 4 was the date the document was printed, distributed, and read from street corners, churches, and other meeting halls throughout the colonies.  An aside — the 56 signatures that appear on the document took several months to be actually penned. Congress made a rule that no one would be allowed to sit in the Congress without affixing their name to the founding document; so, some of those names represent people who were not present on July 2.

Holding On and Letting Go



“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have
— which, once you have it,
you may be smart enough to see
is what you would have wanted
had you known.”
— Garrison Keillor



OK, so I retired.  I planned it; informed my colleagues at work of my retirement date; initiated some efforts to begin the process of replacing me; and started clearing out my office.  Friends suggested I should begin to write about the experience; but, when I tried to find words to describe how I expected it would feel, no words came to mind (a relatively rare experience for me).  But after a week or so, some words began to emerge.


My 31-year career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory can be likened to the operation of a cable car, like those running on the streets of San Francisco.  (Oh, really? you may ask.)   Bear with me here; let’s try this out.

Cable cars are pulled along by a 1.25-inch-diameter cable beneath the streets of San Francisco.  That cable runs at a constant speed of 9.5 mph, driven by an electric motor located in a central power house.  The forward movement of the car is determined by a highly skilled gripman (left), who controls the way a “grip” (far left) grabs hold of the cable.  When he grips the cable tightly, the car is pulled along at the speed of the cable.  When he releases his grip, the car coasts, independent of the cable, until he again tightens his grip on the constantly moving cable.  The many steep hills of San Francisco require a tight grip on the cable when there is a need for the car to travel uphill.  When downhill is the right trajectory, the gripman must skillfully manage the right combination of holding on and letting go to ensure a smooth ride that takes him and his passengers safely where they need to go.

Over the years, traveling through the six laboratory organizations I have worked for, there were times of intense activity (most of the time) pulled along by goals, deadlines, and budgets, and other times when the pace could be slower, allowing time to think and plan and reconsider the next steps.  Those typical ‘intense’ times were analogous to periods of holding on to the grip and allowing the ‘cable’ (i.e., the mission of the laboratory) to pull us along at its own required pace.  Sometimes other people controlled the “grip,” and therefore determined the pace and intensity of the work; other times I found myself, and others around me, in a position to determine the pace and allow us the luxury of coasting awhile.  Frankly, the times of ‘holding on’ far exceeded the times of coasting.  Such was the working life that had become familiar to me for more than three decades.

Gradually, as the little voice in the back of my head spoke up to make itself heard, I began to listen to a new idea: perhaps the time had come to let go of the grip for good and let the constantly moving cable under the street move on without me.  (This, of course, also meant moving on myself, in a different direction, without them; but more on that later.)

So, it became a plan.  The plan included a decision about when to let go of the cable and how to prepare those around me for that decision.  The work of the organization I belonged to is important and that work will continue.  There was no question that they could do it without me; but I cared enough about it, and them, to want the transition to be smooth.

Letting Go  . . .  of What?

At this early stage, it looks like this decision means letting go of several obvious things of varying importance:

  • Time pressures: you know, the six o’clock alarm, scheduled meetings,
  • Patterns of behavior: when and where to have lunch, choosing the route to drive to and from work every day, etc.
  • Responsibility to others: day-to-day commitments we all make to each other to get the job done
  • The ever-present, over-arching commitment to a common mission, requiring us to look ahead beyond the present task
  • The “Sunday-night yuckies” – admit it, you know what that means.

After some thought, over the first full week of this experience, it seems that there are a few more substantive and enduring things I may be ‘letting go’ of.  These seem to take the form of questions, rather than answers:

?    Given the fact that a significant portion (though not all) of my identity has been formed by this multi-decade working experience, a question lurks: how much of my identity – my own sense of who I am – will I be ‘letting go’ of?  What will remain?  What new elements of my identity are yet to be formed by this new experience?

?    And what about “letting go” of “them?” –  those terrific people who have been such a part of my life all these years?  Given the fact that I have formed wonderful working relationships and friendships over these many years, another unavoidable question hangs in the air: how many of those will I be ‘letting go’ of?  Some will inevitably move on without me as they continue to grip the constantly moving underground cable.  Will some of those connections remain?  Part of me wants to leave them with the popular Italian song:  “Non ti scordar di me.”   “Don’t forget me.”

I suspect that answers to these ‘letting go’ questions may come later.  But there is no doubt that letting go of my grip on that cable is not a trivial change.

How Does It Feel Today?

In the past, days off, vacations – even long ones – always had the awareness of an end-point.  Always in the back of my mind, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, was the lurking notion that the “Sunday Night Yuckies” waited at the end of periods of time off from work.  One of my first observations of the past week is the absence of that feeling.  Today is Monday the second of May – not the usual kind of Monday – and there is no feeling of any forced pattern to the days to come.  Ahead, we have plans to spend some days in Lake Tahoe, some in San Diego, others in Ashland still others in Yosemite in the fall.  I am suddenly aware that each one carries the new future that, when we come home from travel, near or far, I will not be going back to work on Monday.

What About Tomorrow?

There is much I don’t know about the future (OK, it’s everything that I don’t know about the future.)  So I will rely on another of my favorite literary sources for understanding on that topic: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).  That movie was full of references to Shakespeare, but the title, set against this particular story of hope for the future, has a dual source of wisdom. It suggests that “the undiscovered country” does not have to be death (as it is in the source: Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” speech).  By implication, it also doesn’t have to mean the imminent arrival of decline.  For those of us willing to look forward with optimism, the ‘undiscovered country’ is the future.  Captain Kirk’s final instruction to his crew is to set a course for the “Second star to the right and straight on ‘till morning.  That, of course, recalls Peter Pan’s directions to Neverland, where creatures never grow up or, at least, cease to age.  In any case, this appeal to “the undiscovered country” is my expression of optimism – to reject the appearance of an ending — that the future, though unknown, is not a place to be feared, but something to anticipate with optimism.

Kirk: I think it’s about time we got underway ourselves. [sits on captain’s chair]
Commander Uhura: Captain, I have orders from Starfleet Command. We’re to put back to Spacedock immediately … to be decommissioned. [long pause as Kirk considers the order]
Spock: If I were human, I believe my response would be “go to Hell.” [Kirk looks at Spock.  Spock repeats to Kirk]  If I were human.
Chekov: Course heading, Captain?
Kirk: Second star to the right and straight on till morning.

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Staying Human: People Who Make Us Smile



“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”
— Dr. Seus




A month or so ago, with the presidential primary season just heating up, I couldn’t resist the need to step in it; so wrote a column about the future of the Democratic Party.  In that piece, I cited David Brooks’ column about the future of the Republican Party, and followed it with another piece on the same topic: It Can’t Happen Here.  In response, Gretta asked a thoughtful question: “Aren’t we tired of all that yet?”

OK. I agree. I am tired of all the negativity (for now). So, instead, I’d like to take a breather from all of that and contribute a little something positive to the mix. Let’s take a look at some evidence that the future, maybe even the present, is brighter than all of that political bloviation suggests.  Let’s start with some people on the public stage who work hard to make us smile.  Here is my candidate for “people who make us smile.”  If you have another candidate, send me some details and we can all smile a bit.

Who is Jon Batiste?


Jonathon “Jon” Batiste is a singer, multi-instrumentalist, educator, and bandleader from Kenner, Louisiana. He has worked with acclaimed musicians in various genres, released his own recordings, performed in 40+ countries, acted in film and TV, and was appointed Associate Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  Jon regularly tours with his band Stay Human and, in 2012, he was listed on ARTINFO among the “30 under 30” most influential people in the art world. He earned a master’s from Juilliard, and since Sept. 2015 has been the music director and bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.



From his earliest days, his parents told him to “Go play” and especially, “Go play outside.”  So, when he was six, they threw him out on the stage and said, “Go.  Play”; so he started playing with the “Batiste Brothers Band.” From those early instructions, he has adopted “play outside” as his trademark and made a name for himself playing on the NYC subway. After being mentored at Julliard by Wynton Marsalis, he rose quickly in the music world, leading to a 2013 Carnegie Hall gig, which he began by playing from a seat in the audience.

His band, “Stay Human,” which appears nightly on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, draws its name from the belief that the human interaction of a live musical performance can uplift humanity in the midst of the “plug in/tune out” nature of modern-day society. Maybe live music can lift us above the  …  well, you know. Either on tour or during time off, the band can be seen spontaneously playing in nontraditional venues and starting impromptu demonstrations in the streets — events that Batiste and the band have termed “Love Riots.”  He makes a lot of people smile, including Stephen Colbert (and me).  Give this TV partnership a try – week nights on CBS — it will make you smile as well.



Well, OK.  Enough about the bandleader.
What about the host?

Can Stephen Colbert make us smile?
Try it out  . . .


Now, tell me that didn’t make you smile, just a little, eh? – especially the sandwich part.  These guys are fun and we need some of that. AND you don’t have to put your head in the sand just to laugh with these guys. If you listen carefully to the jokes, Stephen is telling us a story that we need to hear.  If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try.  If you don’t like it, I’ll give you a full refund.

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