Seeds of Propaganda Can Produce Giant Sequoias

 Many would agree that the current political election campaign has been, at best, a back-biting, mean-spirited, divisive and hopelessly duplicitous experience for most of us who tend to take elections at all seriously. There have been other vicious election campaigns in our relatively brief history as a nation, including the one for Abraham Lincoln, who was vilified and threatened with assassination even before he was elected President.


The same kind of hateful chasm exists now between the two major parties in which most voters I know personally are totally and emphatically for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. No one is on the fence, because there is no middle ground. Almost everyone with whom I’ve talked on the subject grimaces at the mere mention of the opposing candidate, because the feeding machines of propaganda on both sides are prodigious and prolific in their churning out material that renders anything resembling the truth to be something from some galaxy far, far away. Fox News (Faux News) is, for me, the worst source of “information” in its cranking out one tabloid feature after another in a predictable plethora of rage-inducing silliness to keep anyone’s crazy uncle amused for hours on end.


The media, of course, know their audiences and, like puppeteers, they can manipulate their viewers by stirring up their righteous indignation to fever pitch over any claims by the “opposition.” This phenomenon has produced a laser-like devotion and loyalty on both sides that will allow not even a glimmer of light to enter from the other candidate. The process has become more like a sports event for a championship game than for making our country a better place, where comparing and sharing ideas can actually occur.


Minds have been made up and unlikely at this juncture to change much, if at all. Ice doesn’t melt often in an emotionally and intellectually Arctic climate, where everything has become rock-hard in terms of viewpoints and personal prejudices. Nothing can hide The Trumpster’s racism, misogyny, egomania, ignorance of world affairs and government procedures, his temper tantrums, his tendency to bully others, and his embarrassingly unsheathed vulgarity, all traits that may appear amusing for a moment to some after too many beers but which on the world stage could damage our already waning national prestige.


A recurring fantasy I’ve been having over the past few weeks involves a revelation and game-changer of monumental proportions before Election Day even arrives…when Donald Trump steps up to the podium while on national television (world-wide telecast) and before a boisterous crowd says, “Ladies and gentlemen. After much soul-searching, I want to share with you all something that has been on my mind since last spring. I’m going to step out of the race for the presidency as of today (pause due to the agitation of the audience). Please let me finish before you burst some blood vessels in surprise or anger. My leaving the race isn’t because I believe Crooked Hillary will do a better job than I thought I could do, but rather that my experiment has come to its end.


That experiment has been one testing America’s confusion, gullibility, and ignorance, an America which I was able to convince was in crisis mode and that I was able to persuade to join a dark side of hatred, sexism, suspicion, and fear not known since the days of Italian Fascism under Benito Mussolini, whom I admire very much. As you know, I’ve always seen myself as a winner, and I still do. The game is simply over, and I have won again in my having been able to hoodwink half the nation into accepting catch-phrases as truths, and morally degrading slogans as healing. It’s been a tremendous awakening for me, as I hope it will have been for you whose level of skepticism has been that of backward children, hungry to believe any nonsense that sounds good to them at the moment. My shady reluctance to share my tax returns and official medical records should have been a signal, but you all ate up everything I said, no matter how vile, to the point where I could actually do no wrong. Maybe that’s because when you were kids, your only real authority figure was an unprincipled loud-mouth braggart and pompous windbag, which is exactly what I am, folks, in case you hadn’t noticed. What a terrific revelation this should be for you all. It might even make America great again. Maybe in the future, you’ll be more careful about who your idols and political leaders are. As for me, I’m off to my villa in Aruba, where I intend to enjoy a life away from politics.”     JB



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A Personal Turning Point on Current American Politics

Over the past year, like most of my relatives, friends, and acquaintances, I’ve been observing the political landscape in our nation, and its descent into a dystopian battle between two sets of what we used to call “ideals.” It has seemed thus far like being enveloped by some impossible Orwellian tale of societal and psychological shackles from every direction.


The key word for me here is “psychological,” because so little of what we have been observing in this Machiavellian campaign has any basis in the reality of so many American families. The one-upmanship war has reached a point of no return that makes Richard III look like Mr. Rogers.


I understand the rage felt by many Americans who feel cheated out of their fair shares of The American Dream. The symbols of material success in The United States are the fat cats at the top of the system, a system that seems to continue without threat from the bottom feeders who keep them afloat. It’s the kind of anger that opens the gates of revolution, and it’s why The Tea Party movement was born. Such fury always needs a scapegoat. The abstract image of government itself provides one, of course, but actual names make better ones for those who need targets for their disappointment and seething rage. The President himself has become a Wicker Man on which to burn enormous amounts of public exasperation through mountains of tabloid nonsense that, as Roger Ailes has said, if repeated enough times, people will believe without question.


Both the presidential candidates themselves are “fat cats” in terms of material wealth, though Trump’s being one doesn’t seem to matter to his devoted worshipers. The Trumpster’s not giving a damn about protocol and his thumbing his nose at common courtesy and tradition give his fans a vicarious sense of power against a government they feel is responsible for their own discontent. One of the catch-phrases used to defend Mr. Trump’s candid, irreverent style is that “He speaks his mind.” Common sense tells me that this is not enough for someone to become President, especially when I think of an old friend of mine now in a nursing home, where he says whatever pops into his addled brain at any given moment, entertaining the staff there with his unfiltered comments that make the aides chuckle and shake their heads at every outrageous assertion he utters. Yes, he does “speak his mind,” but I don’t want to see him in The White House as leader of the western world.


One of my other friends sees this election as a terrible choice between Emperor Nero and Lady Macbeth. No president in our history has had a pristine record of not occasionally robbing Peter to pay Paul through decisions that cause disagreement from one group or another. That’s part of what politics is. Such tough decision making should be put on the same ground for both men and women.


For me, all the actual political issues aside (which for many Americans seem of only secondary importance anyway), as I stand back to see our political climate from afar, like a report on The Weather Channel, I have a different take, which may be closer to the middle of things (wherever that may lie), which is certainly hard to find in the media, except perhaps on PBS, because TV coverage on Fox News or MSNBC seems to bang me over the head with black and white visions of whatever they see as “the simple truth.” I’m not sure there is always a simple truth, but I’m terrified occasionally by views of some of my friends and relatives based upon stilted, undocumented sources that make The National Enquirer look like the New York Times or The Washington Post (which aren’t infallible either).

Hillary Clinton is certainly not “perfect” either, but I have seen her unfairly reviled over and over again (often by people who are most vocal about calling themselves “Christians”) as no man has ever been. The most recent news concerning Donald Trump’s comments about women brought to me a revelation, not about him but about his voter base. I believe that in America we still have at least a subliminal level of misogyny more illogical and intense than any other places outside The Middle East. Our Norman Rockwell ideals of women remaining in the kitchen and at home as domestic servants (or the code word “goddesses”) have been disturbed over the past sixty years, and I believe strongly that many Americans (women included) are frightened by such change (the supreme manifestation of which would be a female as Commander in Chief) and would gladly express their devotion to that older America with the albeit inappropriate and ironic dictum of “Women have become too big for their own britches.”

For some men this may represent a difficult power struggle, and for some women it may symbolize greater responsibility and competition. Either way, they have made Hillary Clinton a magnate for a level of loathing not seen since Salome or Messalina. The irrational barbs of this campaign against Clinton would certainly have a different response, were they directed at Mr. Trump, barbs which according to his own words and to the actions of his most ardent followers, would have no effect. The defenses, by his wide-eyed worshipers, of his comments from twelve years ago say it all. In their eyes, he can do no wrong, while Hillary can do no right. This is more emotional than rational, but many people can’t step back far enough to see it with any cool-headed clarity. They’ve made up their minds and don’t wish those minds to be cluttered with anything except praise for The Trumpster. This glaring partiality is probably true for folks from both political parties.

The intelligence and cool reserve we have often associated with masculine traits in governmental position have become blurred in this election process, leaving many men and women flummoxed, angry, or frightened. For them, a strong, capable woman is good in the kitchen but not in The White House. However, a puerile, lunatic flashing the finger at the establishment (and at people in general) is all right. Where have we gone wrong?     JB


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Life in My Condo

Life in my Pompano Beach condo has been enjoyable the past few years that I have been a Colorado/Florida snowbird, and now that the Colorado house has been sold and we’ve purchased a new one in Oakland Park, Florida, we’ll be keeping the condo but renting it, completely furnished, for extra income until old age (which could come any moment) requires us to move back to it, since everything here is done for us. The move to the house will be in another month or so, but in the meantime, I continue to enjoy watching (with binoculars) the golfers on the green across the little lake outside my sun room. Part of that entertaining spectacle comes from the varied and sometimes eccentric attire of the players. Some of the more elderly males seem to prefer Bermuda shorts, narrow-brimmed, feathered, straw hats, and wing-tipped black shoes with dark knee socks. No cartoonist could hope to capture the side-splitting humor of this stereotypical clothing, but more entertaining still are the occasional tantrums of golfers, who throw their clubs, or become even more enraged falling into the lake while trying from  their little golf carts to retrieve errant golf balls before disappearing among the banyans and palms . Honestly, it’s better than anything on cable, with the bonus that this voyeurism is absolutely free of charge.


Then there have been interesting and eccentric neighbors among whom was Molly, two doors down from me. In her late seventies, she was someone who spent most of her time watching TV soap operas and drinking prodigious amounts of wine, which rumor suggests she actually put instead of milk on her morning corn flakes. Molly had to give up the daily gallon glass jugs of wine she had been purchasing before last year. The sound of each empty bottle being hurled down the trash chute on our second floor sounded like a bomb going off in the steel receptacle on the first floor. Molly would often choose to dispose of those big glass jugs late at night, perhaps with the flimsy hope that the rest of us would never suspect that she was drinking enough to keep a hockey team permanently drunk. Nevertheless, more than once I peeked out my window blinds after these incidents, believing at first our complex had been invaded by terrorists, but then seeing Molly instead wearing her chenille robe and weaving back to her apartment, twice leaving behind one of her pink fuzzy slippers, like some impossible, aging and intoxicated Cinderella.


Another neighbor caught Molly discarding one of those massive jugs one night and awakening the whole building again. The neighbor’s only comment to her was, “Molly, if you ever toss one of those jugs down that chute again, I’m seriously going to hurt you.”

After that, Molly bought only Franzia boxed wines, ensuring (thanks to the angry neighbor) that the rest of us in the building would get an uninterrupted night of sleep without having to phone 911 to report an alleged, lunatic bomber.


There is a neighbor in the apartment on the first floor just under mine. Mrs. Felding is a widow from Canada who, like me, had been living here only during the winter. Her dog is a Boston Terrier with the nastiest disposition I have ever witnessed in a canine. Since Mrs. Felding uses a walker for her mobility, she is unable to walk her fifteen-pound dog, named Cujo (and for good reason). Cujo spits, snarls, barks and lunges at every living creature he encounters. Mrs. Felding’s son Warren, who lives elsewhere in Pompano Beach, visits daily to walk the dog at least three times, and my introduction to Warren included a menacing explanation about the terrifying Boston Terrier.


“Be sure never to come near Cujo! Only Mother and I can be around him without danger of bodily harm.”

“Thanks for the tip, jackass,” I thought. Then I asked myself what could possibly turn a household pet into such a psychotic, vicious creature that should under any normal circumstances be cuddled comfortably in a plaid, flannel dog bed surrounded by adoring family with ruddy-faced children before a blazing fire. It seems they can’t even buy any toys for Cujo, because he simply eats them, I mean completely! They have never found Warren’s bowling ball, which disappeared last year and sends my imagination reeling.

Everyone else in the building is aware of Cujo and his violent nature. Window blinds can often be seen cracking open before residents venture outside, as though they need to make sure Cujo is nowhere in sight first. At times it appears that this fifteen-pound dog is holding our building hostage and that the world’s fear of Pit Bulls is entirely misplaced, when indeed, all the Pit Bulls I’ve met have been sweet-natured, playful dogs, totally unlike the unfair and inaccurate stereotype created because a few morons have bred them for fighting. As a dog lover, I feel awful that in rare cases like that of Cujo the Boston Terrorist, the dog cannot be peacefully and lovingly approached. Cujo has made me perhaps unnecessarily wary around new dogs for the first time in my life. In any case, maybe I can blame his unsociable behavior on a Napoleon Complex. I mean, have you ever met a mean St. Bernard or Great Dane?    JB 


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Gray Hair and Aging

We live in a nation that has a terrible phobia of aging.  Our youth-centered values saturate the media on everything from cars to clothing and entertainment.  Since the 1920′s, “the age of gin and flappers,” we have increasingly shunned the idea of growing old, even if gracefully, and the result is that youth and their aged counterparts have become more separated than ever before.

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 20: TV personality Jon Stewart, winner of the Outstanding Variety Talk Series for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart", poses in the press room at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)

In centuries before the 20th, young people mingled more with their elders, because often grandparents ended up living with their children, so that the household was a blend of generations.  Also, travel was quite a different challenge in that riding a horse or taking a carriage was not usually a spur of the moment decision. Entertainment was at home, whenever there was leisure time. Music, games, and conversation were much more multi-generational, out of necessity. Nowadays, teenagers seem desperate to escape their homes to be anywhere but with their older family members. Though there has always been the phenomenon of youth seeking its own identity through distancing itself from elders during teen years, that separation was not as pronounced until the 20th Century.  It has now become almost a chasm.


Perhaps behind our terror of growing “old” is a fear of death itself, which in our time seems, to many, more of a finality than in previous centuries, when an afterlife was more of a reality in general belief than in modern times.  Today our associations with all things “chic” are connected in some way with the beauty, energy, and health of being young.  Too few images of contented elders are shown in the media. We tend to see being aged as the end of a journey instead of a journey in itself, one that can provide time, not just for rest, but for further exploration on one’s own terms and at one’s own pace.


I resent ads that speak of getting rid of gray hair as though it’s some kind of cancer that will prevent participation in the modern world and any kind of happiness or respect by others.  People with gray hair are not lepers.  This morning I read about studies being done in England and Germany toward a “cure” for gray hair. Cure? Growing old is not a disease, but the article suggested that it was, and that not having gray hair would bring back a flaming youth and happiness that would otherwise not be possible.  What rubbish!  Sexiness is wonderful in its place, but so are things like experience, character, and wisdom, all of which gray hair can represent.  And who says that someone with silver hair can’t be sexy anyway?


Almost all the people I know personally, who have gray or white hair are comfortable, stable friends, who have taken care of themselves and are enjoying their golden years.  I include myself among those who are enjoying their “declining” years, still in excellent health, and with goals and projects that keep their creativity and joy of being alive realities.  My hair is silver and on its way to being snow white eventually.  That fact will never keep me up nights worrying that something has been lost. In fact, I know that much has been gained.   JB


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What Technology May Be Leaving Behind


Occasionally I have the impression that time stops, mostly from wishful thinking that a moment of joy or beauty linger just a little while longer. I suppose time can be recaptured in old photographs, hand-written letters, music, the sound of an old friend’s voice over the telephone, the patter of rain, the aroma of freshly baked pumpkin pie, or the long-forgotten taste of a candy from childhood. Our senses organize and store all of those stimuli better than any computer or card catalog ever could. The fragrance of Shalimar Perfume brings back the vivid memory of my maternal grandmother, and Irish pipe tobacco summons happy recollections of Grandpa Starks grinning beneath a halo of its smoke.


Sadly, I see too many people attached to electronic devices that provide visual and audio cues that mesmerize them into forgetting physical realities and natural beauty all around them. A painful irony to me is seeing someone engrossed in a portable video game while sitting in a public park filled with the beauty and aroma of flowers, water dancing in fountains while the player is too captivated looking for Pokemon to be much enthralled by the plethora of sensory stimuli all around him (or her).

cell-phone-receptionMy suspicions about and criticisms of technology are certainly not new. Many people were frightened or appalled by early steam engines, of electric light bulbs, automobiles, and radios. Each stage of our love affair with technology seems to separate us a bit further from nature. As the Earth’s un-synthetic wonders shrink little by little in man’s preoccupation with ever increasing speed and what he sees as convenience, even at the cost of any future environment in which we will all have to live. Our infatuation in accelerating production and consumption has even invaded our food in a blind or greedy effort to amplify amounts while sacrificing nutrition. Profit has too often taken precedence over health benefits and caution for the future of our planet (the only one we have).


I sometimes wonder what the world will be like (if it still exists) millennia from now. Sensitive and intelligent science fiction writers, like H.G Wells,  Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and William Gibson, have conjured images of a desensitized planet of humans, who have become androids. Such things are not difficult now to imagine in a time when we see how cellphones and laptops disconnect many families, even at mealtime, and how so many individuals, present at accidents involving human injury, prioritize using their cellphones to take “selfies” instead of helping the victims, even by calling for help immediately. Such scenes make me afraid about what we as a species may become by even just a thousand years from now.


I wonder if technology is doing anything for our levels of patience, tolerance, or compassion, especially since that technology bombards us with images of suffering all over the world so that we shut down after a while and become jaded or immune to the pain of others. How much more like cyborgs will we have become, and is there anything we can or should be doing now to ensure that we don’t continue our journey as a species that becomes increasingly more insensitive in our continuing deification of electronic devices for personal pleasure and convenience?


What are we leaving out that might provide a balance between ease and efficiency for individuals and a more collective awareness for the common good? I’m not sure the answers can be found on Google or on my cellphone, where even texting has become the newest and most omnipresent form of public rudeness to which we are becoming frighteningly accustomed in a world where taking a momentous “selfie” is, for many, more important than saving someone else’s life. If such fears make me a human anachronism, then so bit. I’ve a strong feeling that I’m not really alone in my apprehensions about where our species could be headed if we’re not more vigilant    JB


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Kids and Boredom

Electronic devices have brought convenience, but they have also elevated the need for constant entertainment to a dizzying height for our kids (and for adults as well). Patience and perseverance have suffered terribly as a result and pave the way for our children to expect every moment to be a circus of amusement. The sad part comes when they begin their lives in school or in the work force and see that making a living and raising a family can’t be Disney World every second. The habit of having someone or something to entertain us constantly seems OK during infancy and pre-school, though ingenuity suffers if the habit continues into school years and we become dependent upon outside sources to give us diversion on demand. We seem to be turning into a society in which almost everything is done for us every minute of the day and night. Our lives have become wireless in more ways than one. This is true, not only for kids.

Michael Combs and Dianne Vavra with their children Tom, 8, and Eve, 10, in their living room in Huntington, NY., April 23, 2011. The fully wired American living room can often seem less like an oasis for shared activity than an entangled intersection of data traffic. (Yana Paskova/The New York Times) -- PHOTOS MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE MAY 1, 2011. --

There is such a thing as overstimulation and forgetting that learning sometimes begins with internal innovation that occasionally includes boredom and the need to escape it. Hard work brings rewards that can’t always be cushioned by synthetic stimuli just for the sake of diversion. Maybe that’s why students have a harder time now staying in focus. What happens when or if they become actual adults? I agree with chores and other responsibilities that can produce a level of pride in achievement through work and following through with something for more than a few seconds. Maybe we all need to learn that we can’t push a button for everything we want. We’ve become lazy and spoiled in that way, not to mention impatient. Self-reflection has become something we do through “selfies” instead of through meditation. Many of us can’t stand silence or the absence of a screen in front of us flashing something amusing or otherwise engaging.

mobile devicesOur culture has lost something in our shrinking collective sense of forbearance in having to do things sometimes that are not “fun.” We expect every problem to be solved by something that requires batteries. It’s becoming a Brave New World that reminds me of the one described by Aldous Huxley in his novel from 1931. Instead of Soma Tablets, we now have iPhones and myriad other toys that seem at times to be turning us into automatons.  JB


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The Shock of Current Politics in America

I’m continually fascinated to the point of being a bit frightened by the adulation received by Donald Trump. Explanations and theories for The Trumpster’s behavior seem to be flying around us like insects in a tropical jungle, and I’ve remained awake nights trying to make sense of his being an idol to masses of people who seem honestly to believe the man can do no wrong.


One possible endearment shared by Trump’s worshipers is a disgust and even rage at the seemingly inert functioning of our government for such a long time. Of course, Trump devotees don’t see Republican obstructionism as a reason for our nation’s political constipation. Animosity, disgust, and a terrible level of indignation require a more singular scapegoat so that a lone symbol can be the target of mutant vitriol. What better choice than President Obama himself? I mean, the birth certificate vendetta failed, so why not use the President as kindling for a hostility that is certainly intense but otherwise too broad to focus on the abstraction of government itself? That kind of disgust needs a proper noun in the form of an individual.

Hillary Clinton

The result is that conservative and liberal views have become black and white (no racial reference intended here), no gray areas or subtle blends to be seen, probably because they’re too difficult to process and understand. Maybe the ecstasy of a good adrenalin rush of outrage requires all or nothing, as in the elation of a laser focused lynch mob or the bliss of townspeople carrying their torches to burn down Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. Moderation and reason are so boring and have little or nothing to do with that level of angst.


In no other political campaign I can remember in my life has there been such absolute division, as in the clash between Soviet versus American ideals of the 1950’s. Nothing either party says seems to have any effect upon the opposition, except to drive it further into a deeper sense that a life and death duel is in progress. No news item in between or from either end of the political spectrum (i.e. Fox News versus MSNBC) affects voters through facts or historical precedent, while both sides continue to see their individual candidate (emperor or empress) wearing invisible garments without being able to admit there is anything wrong, in fear of having to concede there may actually be some middle ground. People on both sides seem predisposed in their choices, as though those choices were innate, which makes the many millions of dollars being spent on public persuasion a terrible waste.

American flag 2

Mr. Trump has channeled public rage like a fundamentalist preacher, while amazingly maintaining an almost lovable persona, like an aged and dotty uncle with dementia, saying crazy, disconnected things in the nursing home while the family smiles and winks at his speaking his wandering mind and outrageous assertions about anything that pops into his blithering consciousness. The difference is that Donald Trump’s appalling and often reprehensible off-the-cuff statements on the world stage are quite a different matter with very different consequences for us all.  JB

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The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr.

Many people, when they hear The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss, have mental images of dashing men in blazing red velvet uniforms with waxed moustaches and gold epaulets and their ladies in swirling hoopskirts, bouncing curls and ribbons gliding around sumptuous ballrooms ablaze with gilded mirrors and candlelight. I, however, still picture the stark white rockets and space shuttles of the 1968 Kubrick film, 2001, A Space Odyssey in a different kind of stark elegance, but the images still dance.  JB

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Sample Chapter from Come September (Second Edition)

Chapter 11 Freshmen Fake Book Reports and Other Foibles

When I was a student in high school, girls had carried around tattered old copies of books like GONE WITH THE WIND, and PEYTON PLACE. During my first year of teaching, more than half of the girls in the school carried, among their other books, copies of Erich Segal’s wildly, if mysteriously, popular LOVE STORY, a sentimental Romeo and Juliet kind of tragedy of surprising brevity, that became a best seller and stayed on the charts for way too long.  I read it myself just so that I could discuss it intelligently, if not enthusiastically, with the girls in my classes.  Reading tastes for boys had not changed much since my days in high school. MAD MAGAZINE was still at the top of their list of “cool” reading material with CRACKED coming in a close second.  These were tough competition for the selections I was assigning my freshmen, books like, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1984, ROBINSON CRUSOE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, JUNGLE BOOK, THE PEARL, ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, TREASURE ISLAND, THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, LITTLE WOMEN, and NIGHT (Wiesel).  Students also had to read at least two other books of their own choice, submitting written reports on them by the end of the term. To get my freshmen thinking about those extra book possibilities, I compiled a list of titles, most of which had not been made into films, with brief summaries of the stories.  Two of those titles and summaries I fabricated completely, curious to see if anyone might try to do a report on a book that didn’t even exist.  Freshmen are experts at creating more baloney than Alaska creates snow, so it was a matter of interest to see what might happen.

FIRST BASE, SECOND BASE I said was about a boy named Carl from the slums of New York’s lower East Side, who became a great player for the Yankees, despite grinding poverty and childhood illness.  The other phony book was ROSES AND THORNS, the story of an Irish girl named Fiona, who rose from foster care to become, with her husband’s help, a great nurse and advocate of child care.  I added the comment that I had not read those two particular books. Two boys turned in reports on FIRST BASE, SECOND BASE, padded with the most creative but ridiculous rubbish.  Three girls submitted their reports on ROSES AND THORNS, providing even more extraneous nonsense than the boys had been able to invent, including some silly stuff about the author.  All this showed me that students could become great opportunists when given the chance, especially if it meant not having to do a lot of extra work.  It was also a mirror image of what I had been as a high school freshman.  It made me begin to think that maybe sneaky people could make decent teachers for high school kids.

Debbie Brown, who had already plagiarized Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poem, asked me one afternoon if she could do a report on a book called CANDY, and thinking she had said CANDIDE, I gave her the OK.  At the time, I thought that Voltaire’s satire might be a bit much for Debbie to digest, but it was a relatively short book, so I thought that if she had any problems with it, she could come to me for help. I thought no more about it until a week later, when she turned in her written report on CANDY, a piece of embarrassingly vile pornography about a prostitute, the namesake of the novel.  In her paper Debbie revealed details that would make a sailor blush and that made me begin to worry that if her parents found out that I had approved such a piece of trash as reading material for a freshman (or anyone else), I could soon expect a message over the P.A. saying, “Will Mr. Bolinger report to the main office.  Please clean out your desk first.” As it turned out, I graded the report, adding a note that I had misunderstood the title she had originally given to me.  Nothing further was ever said about it, but I continued to imagine a book with a partially clad prostitute on the cover at the Brown house, placed tastefully on a coffee table next to copies of BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS.

I encouraged all my students to read, wanting them to enjoy reading as much as I did.  Also, I tried to promote the school’s amazing theatrical productions by giving extra credit to those who tried out for productions and were chosen, or who helped out by being on stage crew.  In high school I had been in only one play, a very weak production of OUR TOWN that would have made Thornton Wilder commit suicide right there in the theater.  I played the drunk church organist in Grover’s Corners.  The only other play I remember my high school producing was HILLBILLY WEDDIN’.  By amazing contrast, Morton High School, where I was a teacher, did massive and high quality productions of musicals like CARNIVAL, CAROUSEL, OLIVER, and OKLAHOMA.  Other plays were done equally well like, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, and even ROMEO AND JULIET.  Those shows always made me feel proud to be a teacher in that school.

The choral department had standards just as high and did concerts at Christmas and in the spring yearly that would have impressed the most discerning tastes.  I never missed a concert or play all the years I taught at MHS and always had goose bumps while sitting in the audience watching especially those kids I thought would surely end up on AMERICA’S MOST WANTED list.  Being at those performances gave me a deeper perspective on what our students could do and how important something could be to them.  This of course included their performances on basketball courts, wrestling mats, soccer, baseball, football fields, and at swim meets.  It meant so much to them that their parents and teachers were there to cheer them on, even if they didn’t always say so.

A conflict arose between me and a Baptist minister in the community, whose flock included a girl named Roberta in my third period English I class. At the time, my freshmen were reading ROMEO & JULIET, a play filled with some of the most glowing and sumptuous poetry in our language. In class we did readings, sometimes making audio tape recordings of scenes that included battle sound effects with cafeteria butter knives as swords.  Those were the scenes the boys seemed to enjoy most, but girls appreciated the figurative language, and the innocence of the two lovers, something already familiar to some of those girls.  Maureen Eason, for example, sat in the back of the room weeping over some of the lines from the first balcony scene, when Juliet was testing Romeo’s sincerity at his swearing his love for her by the moon, “That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops” and Juliet’s response, “Oh swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” Then when Romeo asks what he should swear by, Juliet answers, “Do not swear at all, or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self, which is the god of my idolatry.”  There was little Maureen in the back row, shedding tears over those lines.  Many more tears came from other girls at the play’s sad conclusion, tears I would never have expected from freshmen.

In front of me right now is an old copy of the text we used that spring of 1970.  Signatures, in the inside cover, of students who used the book over the years are still in the “rented to” column next to signatures of teachers, several of whom have since died, who used the same book in their freshman English classes. The names Norman, Dana, Brenda, Jeff, Pam, Bobby, Lisa, Gretchen, and Robert are still there, a roster of some of those who held the book in their hands, some loving it, some hating it, some reading it just to get by.  I don’t know why, but I feel as moved seeing that little history in those signatures on that page as I ever was by the play itself. I suppose it’s a little like looking at an old family album and remembering good things again.

Half way through our study of that play in the spring of that year, I received an official-looking letter from Pastor Jeffry Bowman of the First Baptist Church. The communication was an admonition against my teaching the play, ROMEO & JULIET. The pastor had heard from some of his parishioners that the play was being taught. His contention was that his church did not believe in or condone “sexual intercourse before marriage.”

My first thought was that there must be another play called ROMEO & JULIET about which I knew nothing.  All my attempts to contact Pastor Bowman by telephone having been thwarted by his secretary, I finally wrote a letter to say that the play about which he had written in his letter was definitely not the play we were reading in class and that ours was the one by William Shakespeare, in which there was no “sex before marriage,” except an innocently affectionate kiss in the balcony scene.  I never heard back from him on the subject. Weeks later, however, I received another letter from Pastor Bowman, again criticizing my choice of literature, this time for my sophomore English class, which was then reading 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke, a book in which the pastor claimed man’s evolution from apes was being taught.  My letters of reassurance that evolution was not being taught at all never received a response.  It was later learned that the pastor had also, without reason, been grandstanding from his pulpit about his righteous diatribe against “the sinful teachings in our public schools.”  I also found out that another English teacher had received a letter from the same pastor, criticizing her teaching of Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, another to a teacher using Mark Twain’s PUDDINHEAD WILSON, and to a biology teacher for even using the word “evolve” in his classroom lectures.

Had Pastor Bowman not been an absolute buffoon, we teachers might have felt intellectually bullied or educationally terrorized, but in order for his threats to have carried any weight, the “bully” in question would have needed to possess intellect or education, both of which were utterly absent from his list of alleged virtues.

Despite these minor verbal scuffles, teaching went on its way with the support of almost all parents and cooperative efforts of most students.  Johnny Madison’s father had a long talk with him on the subject of the love he and his wife had for their son. The talk evidently included some reference to the genuine concern of his English teacher.  Whatever was said in that talk seemed to have a positive effect on Johnny’s work in my class, not all at once, but gradually over the rest of that term.  Even though he had failed English I and would have to take it again in summer school, Johnny would be receiving a credit for English II and become one of my most capable writers.  Another triumph of second semester was that though Debbie Brown’s poems continued to be the most awful tripe I had ever read,  there was no more plagiarism.  That poetry was absolutely hers.

Come September...Second Edition

Available at as a paperback and at Barnes & Noble…..The Amazon Kindle edition is under my first edition’s title of Come September, Journey of a High School Teacher.  JB


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Political Preconceptions and Our Comfort Zones

Hillary Clinton

In our time, being nonpolitical is very difficult, if not impossible. The more I observe the very emotional stands people take for their chosen candidates, the more I’m convinced that most or all of us believe pretty much what we want or need to believe, regardless of pesky facts that so often get in the way. Most of us are quite skilled at choosing facts that suit us and discarding those that don’t and giving more weight to the ones that condone what we already think is true. We are, of course, steered by our fundamental values and ideologies based upon a compendium of what we see as our best selves. Few among us want to be horrible people unless there is a psychosis involved. We like to see ourselves as ethical beings, not cheats or dishonest thugs taking advantage of underdogs. Anything that triggers the adrenalin rush of righteous indignation feels good, especially when that rush is shared by others. This is also the basis of mob rule, which can come about suddenly even among the most civilized folks through sheer anger and disappointment.

American flag 2

Our political parties have lost all sense of compromise, to the extent that issues seem absolutely black and white (no racial overtones intended, though such overtones may certainly be included in the wider view of where we are as a nation). There seem to be no areas of give and take. Thanks to mostly unbridled public opinion via Twitter, Facebook, radio talk shows, and television coverage tainted by the most shameless self-interest, we find that those who steer clear of Hillary Clinton do so not from simple aversion but from an abhorrence and abomination just this side of exorcism. Those who are not fans of Donald Trump are generally volcanoes of loathing for him not unlike the intense revulsion for plagues and tsunamis. There is no gray area anymore, because the person who is not our choice is automatically a pariah about whom any horror story of scandal and corruption is what we are predisposed and expected to believe, because it supports our comfort zones, where our own candidates can then bask safely in the glow of heroism against everything that has been annoying the hell out of us about government.

bernie sanders

I long to see a middle ground from where we voters can see with cooler heads the good and bad on both sides with a willingness to accept the fact that no candidate is all good or all bad. There are no haloes in politics. There are sometimes duplicitous, deal-making and endless conniving to get things done for the greater good, despite even the most comatose or constipated congress. Even Abraham Lincoln and FDR were not above political shenanigans from time to time. No saint could ever survive or be an effective or realistic president, but we need at times to stand back without our rose-colored glasses to judge those qualities in a candidate that represent the ability to bring about change and also to honor some level of stability at the same time he or she is fighting the hotheads and deadweight in Washington so that it doesn’t become a mere wax museum.

Donald Trump

Don’t believe everything you hear about any candidate just because you want to. Don’t be afraid to fact-check and then to check the fact-checkers. This election of 2016 for the White House may prove to be the most important in the lifetimes of us all, and I believe it’s still important and very American to be open to all reasonable ideas from candidates on all sides without the need to vilify or crucify an opposing candidate just to make the other look good. Name calling is for unruly kids, not for potential leaders of the Western World, and that goes for all candidates and their followers. We’re all in this together and shouldn’t be fighting one another to cloud issues the resolutions to which may help us to be a better nation now and for our children.   JB

statue of liberty

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