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.

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.” 

A few of my students from the year before stopped by my classroom occasionally to let me know how they were doing in English.  They included Deirdre, and Debbie, who was still writing poems that could clog a kitchen sink, but who wanted me to read them, “very carefully” and then critique them on paper.  I am proud to say that my level of diplomacy (also known as horse hockey) in those critiques reached heights of skill that could easily have made me ambassador to any other country in the world.  Debbie would bring me page after page of poetic swill that required written commentary on my part, which was usually the suggestion that she attempt more original and striking imagery.  One example of her poetry had more than twenty stanzas, of which I will share only one, for those readers, who might be diabetic:

Love for Bobby Bobby is far away, so I feel sad today.

I miss his blue eyes and wavy brown hair

and want him to know how much I really care.  DB

After reading all twenty verses of that poem and others Debbie wrote, I felt as though I had just drunk an entire bottle of Karo Syrup.  My pleas for Debbie not to be quite so literal fell upon deaf ears, so that my only consolation was that her days of plagiarism had ended, even though I must confess feeling nostalgic for the truly great stuff she had been stealing only a year before.

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.  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.  JB


This sample chapter is from one of my books, which is available on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle. It may also be purchased at Barnes & Noble as  paperback.  JB


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Singing’s the Thing

There are moments now when I become painfully aware that I’m turning into an old fogy. Those examples of catharsis include forgetting why I’ve entered a room (which I believe happens to many people of different ages). The particular clue I’d like to explore here about my gradual transformation is my reaction (sometimes aversion) to much of today’s popular vocal music.

In the late 1950’s my parents thought it shocking that I played records of Elvis Presley until the phonograph needle almost went through to the other side of the vinyl songs like “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” I think they were worried that I might become a juvenile delinquent, listening to such “Wild stuff.” Mom and Dad were still listening to Glenn Miller, The Dorsey Brothers and singers like Patti Page, so I imagine that Elvis must have sounded like something from an alien planet.

Well, I’m becoming more like my parents every year than I care to admit. I still love the old Broadway shows like, Show Boat, The King and I, Oklahoma, Carousel, State Fair, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Hello Dolly, Mame, Les Miserables, Cats, and A Chorus Line. Even the first time I saw each, I left the theater humming some of the tunes, ones that had a way of staying in my head, because they were all lyrically interesting to me and different from each other. Those songs survived the shows to become part of pop culture and are still sung by vocal artists everywhere. Of course, people under the age of thirty may consider that music as outdated as the minuet, powdered wigs, and buckled shoes, but now so many of the pop songs manufactured each year sound like each other. Not much stands out, because there is so much technology and electronic vocal enhancement to cover up the utter mediocrity and forgettable musicality of the songs and performers.

A while back I became hooked on the television series, The Voice, because the performers make songs their own in the most brilliant, heartfelt ways. Sometimes I know the performances are extraordinary when the hair goes up on my arms. There are no generic tricks of the trade, no echo chambers, or voiceovers.  It’s the real thing, and my whole being responds to hearing such talent.

I love “classical” music too and have a fairly large collection of recordings, but when it comes to pop singing, I still go back to The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Collins, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Edith Piaf, Lady Gaga, Adele, and Harry Connick, Jr. Their songs have lyrics that are still engaging to me, voices that didn’t need eight tons of electronics to make them sound great, and tunes that have stood the test of time (at least for me). I admire some of the verbal skill of rappers from time to time, but in general, I’d rather have a root canal than go to a concert of that genre. Melodic it ain’t. It just sounds “pissed off” most of the time. Maybe that’s its main purpose. I really don’t know.

So yes, I’ve become a musical codger when it comes to pop singers and their material, but as I don’t force anyone to listen to what I enjoy most, I don’t expect anyone to be suing me for my musical taste. To each his own.  JB

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Monuments of the Confederacy

I don’t think we should try to erase history but rather try to see it as it actually was. There will be different reactions to monuments and art depicting history. Some will see a glorious and romantic past while others will see subjugation and savagery. Perhaps some of the more offensive monuments (to some) can be placed more appropriately in museums, but they should not be destroyed. If nothing else, they can remind us of how far we’ve come from our having bought and sold human beings as property and that those who condoned it are still sore losers through their progeny a century and a half later and truly need to get over that loss and accept a modernity that includes everyone who obeys the laws we put into place for our collective safety.

History has witnessed shock, dismay, and horror at pieces of sculpture before that were too violent (The Rape of Persephone by Bernini), war monuments from both World wars, what were considered obscene statues and paintings in earlier times because of nudity. Who decides what should be demolished and what should not? The sensitive paintings of Shiller from the early 20th Century were condemned (along with other art by painters like Picasso) by the Nazis and burned along with books which the ruling powers decreed ugly and unfit for human sight.

The Margaret Mitchell past and stark reality are not, and can never be, the same, but we need to see them both and judge individually. Trying to eradicate history is, I believe, a mistake. We need reminders of the good and the bad to create an emotional and social sense of balance and truth. Time will show them to be exactly what they are from era to era as we become more enlightened in our quest to have more awareness and humanity. This is still America. Does anyone really believe that tearing down monuments (even ones depicting a flawed history) will improve race relations? Isn’t there already enough angst and resentment? I hope we can rethink our current rage and obsession with tearing things down and begin thinking about building things up instead….like tolerance and understanding. JB

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Sliding Backwards into the Abyss of History…

We cannot delete history or hide it. I’m not sure that whitewashing it helps either, but over the past few days we Americans, along with the rest of the world, have witnessed a powerful undertow of ignorance and hatred unleashed almost as though the only part of our political correctness that matters has been surrendered to the adrenalin rush of mob rage.

Charlottesville, Virginia is certainly not the only place where contempt and laser-like hostility have found a home. They have also found nesting places in Chicago, Baltimore, and other cities where people want or need to find stereotypes and scapegoats for their own social and economic misery.

The fairly recent obsession of eradicating statues of the past I can begin to understand in terms of the oppression that some of those sculptures symbolize for people whose ancestors suffered the ravaging indignities of slavery. However, I have seen statues all over the world that have impressed me by their beauty and perfection, often through their nude forms or romantic historical significance, forms that appalled Victorians and many American fundamentalists of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The difference of that art may be that they were mostly in museums and didn’t represent social norms for everyone. Assuming what a statue symbolizes (beyond its mere physical presence) can become a guessing game with ugly consequences.

To a white man from the deep south, a statue of Robert E. Lee may represent a romantic, Margaret Mitchell view of a period long gone, of beautiful plantations, White columned Palladio homes,  the scent of sweet magnolias, moss-draped cypress trees under which genteel folk drank mint julips on warm afternoons in the shade. Some want to see heroism, even though they lost the Civil War, but a black man may see in the same statue only subjugation and injustice from a time when human beings were bought and sold as property. This dichotomy is an issue partly because such statues are in prominent places in major cities that are no longer controlled merely by white citizens. The bitterness for those white folks has not yet disappeared, but the memory of repression for blacks lingers like the taste, not of a mint julip, but of blood. Two people looking at the same sculpture will likely have different and possibly opposing feelings about it. One city in the south actually had a Robert E. Lee insignia and image as the police department logo on the police cars. I wonder how a black man pulled over and arrested might feel about that rather thoughtless choice. There has to be some kind of balance or middle ground.

Such statues (of heroes whose side lost the Civil War in 1865) are still symbols of what many whites see as a lost world that they have romanticized beyond recognition. They can’t let go of that mythical world. The statues would have appropriate homes in museums, because we should not forget history but rather see it through more enlightened eyes. That is, we need to see history for what it was, not try to sweep it under the rug. The idea of studying history is in great part an attempt to learn from our mistakes, isn’t it? If statues of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering were erected in any European or American cities, I would expect an immediate and violent backlash against the indignity of such brazen stupidity. However, our scenario is not quite the same.

A statue of Robert E. Lee (in most respects an educated, civilized gentleman) is a figure of history whom the public can judge in various ways, according to point of view (I think that’s what we still do in America). He was not a monster but rather a man whose view in his own time was skewed by a past to which many greedy and unenlightened people still clung tightly in a fading, outwardly lovely environment based upon incredible hypocrisy and domination (encouraged even by many churches of that time) which, though thousands of years old, was on the verge of its inevitable collapse. People are good or bad, not because of their skin color, a lesson with which many are still struggling through threats and violence, which they naively believe will actually solve the problems.

Statues can show us some of the supposed gentility we have lost and what coercion and violence we should have left behind. In that way, such sculptures can remind us of how far we’ve come, or at least how far we SHOULD have come in advancing civilization for everyone.  JB

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Just a Whisper Away…

Now in my seventies (65 plus shipping and handling), I have begun to notice that my short-term memory is beginning, here and there, to fail me. When I was still teaching high school classes (years ago), I was able to learn and remember thirty names during my first meeting with any class of new students and to learn at first introduction, the names of all the guests at a dinner or cocktail party. Now I’ve begun to have trouble remembering more than six names at a time. It’s almost as though the little neurons in my brain are encountering more and more signposts that say, “Detour” or “Road Closed.”

This morning I phoned the veterinarian’s office to order more of Dudley’s special dog food and heartworm preventative. The receptionist was new, introducing herself as “Robin,” but in about six seconds my Etch-A-Sketch brain had already erased her name, even though I have a dear friend named “Robbin.” I apologized for having to ask that she repeat her name and was grateful not to be dealing with my request in person, where she would see me blushing from embarrassment.

It’s funny to me that I can recall, verbatim, long passages of poetry from fifty years ago and phone numbers from my childhood more than sixty years ago, but my short-term memory seems lately to be deserting me at those inopportune moments when I’m dealing with folks in person or over the phone, where a memory glitch can be as obvious as an old jalopy parked next to a Maserati. I don’t really mind my hair having turned silver, but I do hate my first meetings with people to create the impression that my “upper floor” is not completely furnished for having a power of recollection shorter than a school teacher’s summer vacation.

I do several crossword puzzles daily, read voluminously, and have rich and varied conversations with friends on topics from literature to current events. I do laps in the swimming pool daily and have a healthy diet, but despite my efforts, there are still instances regarding short-term memory (forgetting why I went from one room to another) that make me feel as though I’m at least two sandwiches shy of a picnic. Those are the painful moments that leave me, at least temporarily (soon to be forgotten) with a hopeless kind of hope, like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa. Now who was he again?   JB

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A Time with Reasons for a Benevolent Revolution…

One of the ironies (to me anyway) of our time is the illusion that because we have cellphones and computers, we are more engaged with the world around us. In fact, I find that we can be more disengaged because of those devices.

Whenever I’m driving my car, I encounter at intersections someone in front of me who is so entranced by talking or texting on a cellphone that I need to sound my horn to arouse his or her attention in order to continue driving before the next light or to clarify the need at four-way stops that there are other drivers waiting for a clue too.

On one level, it’s really all about paying attention to one’s surroundings. There seems to be an increasingly blasé attitude by many cellphone users for whom the rest of humanity and the world at large simply disappear. I don’t know if this phenomenon is based upon the feeling of being more popular, important, or the delusion that any outside contact while driving must be even more urgent than avoiding a collision. Whatever the reason, many people seem to be more and more withdrawn from the actual, physical world around them as though hypnotized by the electronic device.

Just because one can find out instantly on his phone where in the world Bantu is spoken doesn’t mean that person is in any way aware of what’s going on around him. I get cold chills when I see another car speeding past mine, its driver on a cellphone, talking or texting, oblivious of anyone or anything in the immediate, physical environment. I weary too of seeing the increasingly accepted rudeness of cellphone users in restaurants and waiting rooms as they prattle on as though the folks around them are completely inconsequential. The scariest issue to me is that this impudence and grinding disrespect seem to be accepted more and more by too many as the price we must pay for that nebulous but sacred quest for “progress.”

I love the anecdote about the man on public transportation seated beside a young woman who was talking and cooing obnoxiously to her boyfriend for almost an hour as she grew louder and louder, cackling in the most ear-piercing way between comments. The gentleman seated next to her, having noticed the general annoyance of other passengers in the vicinity, simply grabbed the girl’s phone, saying into it, “Aw, come on, honey. Take off your robe and come back to bed!”

We, as a society, seem to have reached a point where we are confusing freedom of speech and movement with downright disrespect. Maybe when our sense of indignation and irritation reach the final border of tolerance about cellphone offenses in public, there will be a kind of mass revolt to bring back some level of mutual respect and a more sensitive awareness of public places and transportation.   JB

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What’s in a Name? (apologies to Shakespeare)

I’m guessing that most of us at some time acquire nicknames. Those tags or labels may or may not stay with us throughout our lives, but they generally have significance that can be traced back to special moments, characteristics, or circumstances in childhood and beyond.

My parents named me Elwood John Bolinger after my father, who was born in Altoona Pennsylvania almost a century ago. Dad’s nickname was always “Al,” but when I was born, he noticed my rosy cheeks and remarked that they resembled the petals on the buds of roses, so I was given the nickname of “Buddy” by which I’m still known among my closest relatives. The name worked well when I was a kid but became somewhat awkward as I aged.

In high school I was known as Elwood or “Woody,” which didn’t bother me, mainly because of one of my favorite films from 1950, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, the main character from the Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey by Mary Ellen Chase. The name “Elwood” did manage to reach a new level of coolness during the 1980’s in the movie, The Blues Brothers. Suddenly my real first name became a household word among fans of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

My brother David was “Davey” as a child, but he managed to shake off that diminutive before he was in high school. My sister Connie Lynn was called “Beets” by the immediate family due to her very red cheeks. She hated the nickname, but it stuck until she too was in high school. When I was in elementary school, one of my uncles derived some level of amusement from calling me “Slugger,” a nickname I knew was ridiculous only because I was a very shy and hopelessly unathletic kid whose idea of sports was playing chess. The same uncle, in a well-intended effort to butch me up a bit, bought me a pair of boxing gloves which increased my athleticism  only by my becoming expert at hurling them as missiles at my siblings when they bugged me too much. My aim became almost professional. To all and sundry however, except my uncle, I remained “Buddy” for my years at Harding Elementary School in Hessville.

During my college years, I was known as “Bud” by my friends, though for my birthdays during that period, I continued to receive greeting cards addressed to “Dearest Buddy” from both my grandmothers, each card always containing a dollar bill.

Through all the thirty-five years I taught high school, my friends and fellow faculty members knew me as “John” or “JB.”

Now in my 70’s (or what I prefer to think of as 60-something plus shipping and handling), I have relatives who still call me Buddy, one being my mother’s favorite cousin, now in her nineties, whose lovely, young-sounding voice always begins her phone calls with “Hello, Buddy,” as she has done since I was a toddler, which I occasionally imagine must have been some time during the Mesozoic Period. 

Perhaps the nickname I loved the most was “Mr. B” during all those years I taught thousands of high school students.   JB

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Feeling for One’s Country

When I was a child, the concept of patriotism was a simple thing. It meant standing before our flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing God Bless America. It was something we all did together, perhaps because we were so young and naïve, but I do miss that feeling of unity and standing for something, however abstract, that we shared as a country together with all creeds, colors, nationalities and an ideal of freedom,  in the ritual of recognizing that we were all really just one, even if in a vastly theoretical oneness that made me feel safe somehow in a dream or model of brotherhood that we later seemed to lose along the way, perhaps in our increasing awareness of individuality and all its factions.

Now I feel some of the beautiful chill of national pride only occasionally at sports events when the crowd sings together. It’s sometimes almost as though we feel shame for recognizing ourselves as a nation with its own speckled history of grand humanitarian strides mixed with stumbling blocks of ignorance and greed (as in every other nation). When we do stand before our flag, it isn’t that we are excluding other nationalities, but rather embracing all who wish to be part of the best of our ideals and hopes.

England (with the United Kingdom), with a chronicle of over a thousand years, still does it best. When they sing their hymns and national anthems, there is something of their long history that touches every heart, not from vanity, but with a shared feeling of immense dignity and pride in standing as one people, regardless of color, accent, religion, or race. I long to feel that pride that I felt as a child about our own country, one for which there is still so much potential, if we can come together on some level ground, where personal prejudice is minimized by the overwhelming feeling of the beauty of the vast landscape and the shared prospects of its many people, with our almost limitless resources to help, rather than to hurt one another.

Here is a little video taken at Royal Albert Hall in London. It is most stunning when heard with earphones (as though you’re there). See what unity and true pride look like in the English national hymn (Jerusalem) and God Save the Queen. If it doesn’t give you chills, then your emotional freon supply has been sadly depleted. Enjoy.

Oh, and God bless America!


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The Hiatus of America’s Reason


When did everything become so black and white that nuance, middle ground and actual discussion disappeared, like last year’s Easter eggs, and that any opposing view is seen as a threat or insult?

rage #1

All my life I’ve observed factions in my own family of Dutch Protestants versus Irish Catholics and Republicans versus Democrats, but never in the sense of war camps determined to decimate one another. Though passionately loyal to their religious and political convictions, the extended families of my parents were always willing and able to put their personal tenets aside in favor of shared memories over coffee and cake or beer and pretzels. I know that that sounds simplistic and naïve, but bear with me.

rage #2

The media during the presidential campaign of the past year seemed perfectly comfortable in churning up enough tweaked photos and edited stories to make anyone’s blood boil about whatever the “opposition” was doing at any moment. Tabloid-quality narratives on the Obamas made the Emperor Nero and Messalina look like Calvin Coolidge and Little Orphan Annie. Sometimes the stories were laughable and sometimes heartbreaking in their ferocity. Hillary Clinton was unfairly bashed until, in the media, she no longer resembled even a fragment of her true self. Donald Trump was as much under attack until he became, at least to Democrats, the Anti-Christ. They all became comic book characters in single dimensions that were both comical, because they were absurd, and dangerous, because too many gullible people wanted to believe they were accurate and truthful assessments. Each side developed immunity to any truth that didn’t agree with its predetermined convictions. There was nothing too outrageous that couldn’t become part of someone’s arsenal of “truths” to condemn the enemy. Prejudices on both sides became impenetrable to anything that contradicted their preconceptions.

Demonstrators square off during a rally outside City Hall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, during the third day of the Democratic National Convention. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The adrenalin rushes from both sides in the powerful feelings of self-righteous indignation released bone-crushing sarcasm and criticism of the opposition. Truth didn’t always have much to do with the messages. Too many people on both sides became comfortably smug among their equally ill-informed allies in a shared laser focus on their own safe sources for information. The extremes were Fox News and MSNBC, which are light years away from each other in their style and content of reportage, but both managed to sculpt the news in the most artful ways , trimming this detail or leaving out something else, always rendering the final stories perfect fits for their generally predetermined political agendas. For me, PBS came closest to news unencumbered by emotional claptrap and tipped scales.

rage #4

I’ve stopped reading the absurd, often mean-spirited political posts on Facebook, one of the last places I go to find any measure of balance and untrimmed truth. Both parties can duke it out, but without me. The other day I saw a post on FB by one of my former students from the 1970’s. Her message was that none among us knows the pain of other people, so we shouldn’t always judge…but rather be kind instead. I thought the post one that was badly needed, but in her very next post, the same woman indulged in a pronouncement of cruel, malicious jibes against Michelle Obama just for the way she looked. My heart sank as I realized that the student’s posts were cafeteria-style, chosen on whims that often had little connection or real moral significance from one moment to the next. Another post farther down the page by someone else was bashing Melania Trump for no good reason. There have been days that I’ve felt sickened by post after post of the most vitriolic and unmerited criticisms of all those from the political battle of the past year, some of the digs being as puerile as ones from when we were kids on the playground… “Your momma wears combat boots!” Are there really adults so insecure that such meanness makes them feel better or safer? It’s simply beyond my comprehension.

I’m weary of the easy, cheap stereotypes for the words “conservative,” “liberal,” “Republican,” and “Democrat.” They’ve lost most of what they once meant. All four words seem to have become ugly insults, because people have become too lazy to analyze dispassionately what the words can mean, but the cold, factual, dictionary definitions have lost their original luster in favor of enraged add-ons of disgust and pure assumption.

As a nation we seem to have forgotten that we’re all in this together and that it’s not a boxing match where one can’t win unless someone else is down. The resulting stalemate has made much of our political discourse snide and devoid of any level of empathy in the wider view, because we have no wider view.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but he is now the President of my country, for better or worse. I believe that the discord and obstructionism which was used so ruthlessly (but not always successfully) against President Obama should be at its end. The new president should be given the chance to see what he can do for the nation (not for the political party). If he fails, he can later be impeached so that we will all have to join forces to clean up the rubble left behind. As Americans, we have survived Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush as presidents. The country will not collapse. I believe it will become even stronger, if for no other reason than that of a possibly painful lesson to be learned in hindsight. President Trump will be as observed, checked, and criticized as any former president has been. We all have the right and responsibility to watch him carefully and maintain our duty as a republic to criticize him if or when he strays from the common good or what is constitutional. Any other way would suggest a number of former dictatorships of which the world has already seen too many. So give the man a chance to make things better. Our nation was great before, so I rather dislike the sarcastic notion that we can be great “again.” But, perhaps we can improve, and our new President’s prolific rhetoric can become reality in some ways. We’ll never know unless he can take the wheel and steer us somewhere else. Also it’s up to all of us. One man can’t do it alone, as we’ve seen so many times in the past.

Bitterness and civil war are not the answers to our continuation as a nation. We need to find areas of agreement for unity, not fragmentation for every single cause that comes down the pike, however worthy. There can be debate based upon facts and shared hopes so that we can find some middle ground, where extreme, one-sided, self-righteous, greedy rage cannot topple us into oblivion. Reason and compromise are so difficult, maybe especially for adults. Let’s do something together as a nation, for a change.  JB

Lady liberty

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Saying What Needs To Be Said


Meryl Streep is a courageous, compassionate woman, who said what the rest of us wanted to say, but she was heard, and what she said struck a nerve, especially for Trump (whose name she didn’t even mention). Reason has flown out the window about politics. The Trumpster has reached the point at which he can do nothing wrong in the eyes of his worshipers. They take offense at any criticism of their new deity, yet they are resplendent with insults and criticisms of any opposition, even if those criticisms are based upon supposition and lies. They see only what they wish to see and always find ways to dismiss his mean-spirited side and his meandering opinions that change daily. I’ve given up trying to rationalize.

Perhaps the most painful lesson our democracy has ever seen will occur over the next four years (or whatever time elapses before an impeachment). Our country will suffer for a while in ways we probably can’t yet imagine, but perhaps even the Trumps and Trumpettes will realize at last that something was horribly wrong, and their siding with and protecting this sinister man was a mistake they will wish they had never made. Time will tell, but I’m not as blindly optimistic and starry eyed as some of my friends seem to be. They are bedazzled beyond repair.   JB


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