Archive for the ‘Events and Society’ Category

The Last Holdout

February 1, 2020

One more evening of candles in the windows!

It’s February 1, and my Christmas wreaths and candles are still up. Everybody else took their decorations down a month ago. I’m the last holdout, and there are several reasons for it. I’m waiting until tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Candlemas Day. It’s a minor religious celebration, as far as Catholics are concerned. I think that’s too bad.

Tomorrow also happens to be the day of the world’s greatest pagan feast, the Super Bowl. And it’s Groundhog Day in America, another tradition that we imported from elsewhere. More on that later.

As for Candlemas Day’s religious significance, we should make a little more of it. Why? Because it marks yet another occasion that shows just how close we, Catholics and Christians, are to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

What Mary and Joseph did on this day, 40 days after Jesus was born, was to fulfill their religious obligations as devout and loyal Jews. The little baby they brought to the temple wasn’t an Irish Catholic; he grew up Jewish. If more of us took that to heart, we’d be better equipped to combat the vile contagion of anti-Semitism that is awakening again.

The Gospel of Luke spins the Jewishness out of the event that Catholics call The Presentation of the Lord. How the story was told seems to me to be the first time that the essential difference between Christians and Jews was expressed. Is Jesus divine, and the Redeemer of all mankind? Catholics say yes, Jews say no.

That family disagreement has led to untold and utterly needless suffering down through history. It would be so much better if we could just wait until Judgment Day. Then when the Messiah comes, we just ask him “Hey, buddy, have you been here before? Or is this your first time?”

One of the many paintings of The Presentation of Christ. This one is by Simon Vouet. It was commissioned by France’s Cardinal Richelieu around 1640 for the Church of Saint-Paul-Louis. It now hangs in the Louvre.

The Jewish Rite: Purification and Redemption

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification and dedication as prescribed by the Torah. According to the Book of Leviticus (12:1-4), when a woman bore a male child, she was considered “unclean” for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy was circumcised.

By the way, Catholics used to call January 1 The Feast of the Circumcision. Now it’s The Solemnity of Mary. Another needless distancing from our Jewish roots.

The Jewish mother continued to stay at home for 33 days for her blood to be purified. After the 40 days, the mother and the father came to the temple for the rite of purification, which included the offering of a sacrifice — a lamb for a holocaust (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. For a poor couple who could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves sufficed. That’s what Joseph and Mary offered. (Lk 2:24).

Also, Joseph and Mary were obliged by the Torah to “redeem” their first born son: “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me’” (Ex 13:1).

The price for such a redemption was five shekels, which the parents paid to the priest. This “redemption” was a kind of payment for the Passover sacrifice, by which the Jews had been freed from slavery.

The Catholic Rewording: Consecration to the Lord and Identification as the Messiah

St. Luke in the Gospel does not mention this redemption, but rather the presentation of Our Lord:

“When the day came to purify them according to the law of Moses, the couple brought Him up to Jerusalem, so that He could be presented to the Lord, for it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord’” (Lk 2:22-23). So the focus is on Jesus’ consecration to God.

The verb “to present” (paristanai) also means to “offer,” which evokes Jesus being presented as the priest who will offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice to free us from the slavery of sin, seal the new and eternal covenant with His blood, and open the gates to the true promised land of heaven.

Luke also tells of Simeon, a just and pious man, who awaited the Messiah and looked for the consolation of Israel. He was inspired to come to the temple, held baby Jesus in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the peoples to see: A revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).

Simeon, thereby, announced that the Messiah has come not just for the Jew but the gentile; not just the righteous, but the sinner.

He then blessed the Holy Family, and said in turn to Mary: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed— and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword — so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:34-35).

So the Presentation is a proclamation of Christ — Messiah and Priest, Lord and Savior. He is the light who came into this world to dispel sin and darkness.

And this is the reason that, traditionally at least since the seventh century, candles that will be used throughout the year have been blessed at Mass this day. Hence the term “Candlemas.”

To reiterate, I think it’s sad that Catholics haven’t been taught just how Jewish that “The Presentation” really is, and how much we owe our Jewish “elder brothers,” as Pope John Paul II once put it.

The Christmas Season is Now Officially Over – and Winter’s Halfway Done

In many countries of Europe, the feast of the Presentation officially closes the celebration of Christmas. That’s logical, once again, when you consider what Mary and Joseph were doing at the temple in the first place. She was now ritually pure, and her son had been dedicated to the Lord and redeemed by their offerings. The business of living their family life here on earth could now proceed.

Pope John Paul agreed with this official ending of the Christmas season. He began the custom of keeping the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s square until February 2. I’m doing likewise, keeping my wreaths up and my candles burning until then.

An old superstition held that any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 6, when I took down my tree) should be left up until Candlemas Day.

Remember also that the day is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Light is returning to the world. We just don’t need the candles as much as we did back in December.

And What About Groundhog Day?

Candlemas Day also was important in the lives of farmers. They thought that Candlemas Day predicted the weather for the rest of winter. Their beliefs and traditions led to our Groundhog Day.

An old English song went:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright, / Come, Winter, have another flight. / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, / Go, Winter, and come not again.”

So if the bright sun “overshadows” the brightness of Candlemas Day, there will be more winter. However, if the light of Candlemas Day radiates through the gloom and darkness of the day, the end of winter is near.

A German proverb states:

“The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.”

I guess our groundhog learned from their badger.

So Here’s My February Wish for You

Now that the days are getting longer and light is returning to the world, we might need fewer of those candles and other artificial means of illumination. But I’m sure you agree with Ecclesiastes (2:13): “I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.”

So I urge you to keep blessing all of us with your special gifts, your own beautiful self, and share the light that you and no one else has. Heed Matthew (5: 15-16):

“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works”

Remembering the Ace of Aces

January 11, 2020

And now for some history I never knew – and a little that I actually did know too.

Eddie Rickenbacker and his World War I fighter plane

Eddie Rickenbacker was “Ace of the Aces.” A World War I fighter pilot, he shot down 26 enemy fighters.  You’re an ace if you have five kills. Rickenbacker didn’t kill 80 enemies, like Manfred von Richtofen. But unlike the Red Baron he did survive the war. Much later, he became a millionaire and president of Eastern Airlines. I remembered Eddie’s the nickname.

Back when I was in the banking business, I had to go to innumerable business organizational functions and networking activities. At one of them, a woman with the surname Rickenbacker traded business cards with me. I asked her “Are you related to the Ace of Aces?”  The way her face lighted up made that dreary had-to-do-it meeting worthwhile.

I also remembered reading, somewhere along the way that in World War II Pacific Theater, things started off very badly for the Americans. The Japanese had been preparing for war for years, and they had much better stuff, much better weapons of war. Under the sea, the long-lance torpedo gave their submarines a frightening early advantage. (Aside – there is one on display on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. The damn thing seems to stretch a city block).

In the air, the Zero fighter plane was far superior – faster, more maneuverable, better weapons — to anything that America first had to offer. It remained that way until the arrival of a revolutionary new American fighter plane: the speedy, twin-fuselaged, armed-to-the-teeth Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Another aside.  Please make a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s annex at Dulles Airport a bucket-list item. It’s a fascinating place. One of the planes on display there is a P-38. I was astounded at how small this deadly weapon of war actually was. It’s about the size of a luxury SUV.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

When the P-38s arrived in late 1942, America’s pilots needed a pep talk. Along came Eddie Rickenbacker. The man evidently knew the science of human motivation as well as he knew the science of air combat. He offered a case of Scotch to any fighter pilot who surpassed his record of 26 kills.

Within a year, the names of all the men who would surpass him became household words on the home front. The American press and radio networks eagerly followed and chronicled the exploits of Richard Bong, Gerald Johnson, Neel Kearby, Thomas Lynch, Charles MacDonald, and Tommy McGuire. They all surpassed Rickenbacker’s total of 26 aerial victories. They all earned that case of Scotch.

Bong, a farm boy from Wisconsin, shot down 40 planes. He was the Pacific war’s Ace of the Aces. McGuire, who dropped out of Georgia Tech to join the Air Corps, had 38 kills. But of the six who bested Rickenbacker, only MacDonald lived to return to civilian life after World War II.

Johnson died a month after the Japanese surrender after yet another heroic gesture. A plane that he was flying over Japan ran into bad weather and ran low on fuel. He and his co-pilot had parachutes; the two passengers with them did not. Johnson and the co-pilot gave the parachutes to the passengers, and they died trying to make an emergency landing.

Let’s raise a glass in salute to all of them, and let’s give a special shout-out to Eddie Rickenbacker. He was not only the original Ace of Aces. He was also a true champion, a man who did his utmost to see his own record broken.

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: The Charles Bridge, Prague

November 10, 2019

The Charles Bridge at Sunset

Today’s history lesson is about a place on my bucket list.

I’d love to visit Prague some day. I’m told that it’s a magnificent old city. Part of the reason for that is that somehow the physical ravages of modern war did not reach it. That’s a good thing.

There’s also a personal tug. Prague is the city where, in 1933, America’s National Hockey Team won its first world championship. Our team, the Massachusetts Rangers, defeated the Toronto National Sea Fleas, 2-1 in overtime, to take the title. The overtime goal was scored by John Garrison, “The Ghost of Harvard Yard.” The coach of the team was my uncle, Walter Brown. It was the first time ever that an American team defeated the Canadian team in international competition.

But back to today’s lesson – it’s about the city’s most-photographed sight, the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in the city’s center. It’s been known at the Charles Bridge only since 1870, in belated recognition of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It was he who laid the first stone, back in 1357.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV

Charles was big into numerology. And so he insisted that the first stone be set in place at exactly 5:31 a.m. on July 9 of that year.

Why such precision? Because the date and time make for a palindrome: 135797531 (or 1357 9, 7 5:31). That number, which reads the same backward and forward, is carved onto the stones of the Old Town Bridge Tower at the east end of the bridge. Charles believed that it would bring a magical strength to the structure. All righty, then.

The bridge wasn’t finished until 1402. Its length is 1,692 feet. For more than 400 years it was the only means of crossing the Vltava, and it was therefore the most important connection between Prague Castle and Prague’s Old Town. The bridge helped to make Prague an important nexus for trade between Eastern and Western Europe.

There’s more superstition beyond Charles IV’s numerology. The bridge was also constructed in perfect alignment with the tomb of Saint Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox. More recently, people came to believe that rubbing the plaque at the base of the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk will grant you a wish.

Saint John of Nepomuk

John was murdered on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that plagued Bohemia in the latter 14th century. In 1390 he was made vicar general for the archbishop of Prague. In 1393 the archbishop, with John’s support, excommunicated one of the favorites of the king and thwarted the king’s ambition to make a new bishopric out of the province of Prague.

John was arrested as the archbishop’s chief agent. Wenceslas personally tortured him with fire, after which he reconsidered and released him on an oath of secrecy regarding his treatment. John, however, was dying, and to conceal the evidence Wenceslas had him gagged, shoved into a goatskin, and cast into the Vltava. Bohemian Catholics came to regard John of Nepomuk as a martyr.

Saint John’s statue is one of 32 points of interest (see map) on the bridge. Things also got interesting there around the time of the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The war began in May of 1618, touched off by the colorfully-named Defenestration of Prague. In that incident, three Catholic officials, emissaries from the Holy Roman Emperor, were tossed from an upper window of Prague Castle by an angry mob of Protestant Bohemian rebels.

Statues and Attractions on the Charles Bridge

Three years later, on June 21, 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, the 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt were executed. Their severed heads were displayed for all to see on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Apparently, that grisly measure – quite common in those times – wasn’t much of a deterrent.

Near the end of the war, the Swedes occupied the west bank of the Vltava. As they tried to advance into the Old Town the heaviest fighting took place right on the bridge. During the fighting, they severely damaged one side of the Old Town bridge tower, and the remnants of almost all gothic decorations had to be removed from it afterward.

It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that the bridge became the attraction that it is today. That’s when the alley of baroque statues was installed on the bridge’s pillars.

Charles IV’s numerology didn’t spare the bridge from severe damage. In 1890, a huge flood hit Prague. Thousands of rafts, logs and other floating materials from upstream gradually formed a giant barrier against the bridge. Three arches were torn down by the pressure, and two pillars collapsed from being undermined by the water, while others were partly damaged.

Two statues, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, fell into the river. The Ignatius statue was replaced by statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. For the St. Francis statue, they had a replacement cast.

1890 Flood Damage

It goes without saying that the Charles Bridge, also known as Karlův Most and Karlsbrücke, is one of the most visited and photographed sites in Prague.

No wonder, eh? It’s a place I’d love to visit myself.

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: The World’s First Tweetstorm was 485 Years Ago

October 17, 2019

If you think things are impossibly difficult and polarized in the world of politics nowadays, you ain’t seen nothin’.  Washington, DC and America in 2019 are like Romper Room compared to Paris and France for 64 years spanning the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Proclamation of October 17, 1534, text of the world’s first tweetstorm that launched the Wars of Religion.

Today, we have Twitter to set passions aboil. Back then, they had the printing press. But the effects of these technologies were pretty much the same.  They could make the world mighty ugly, mighty fast. And that’s what happened, almost 500 years ago, when hundreds of nasty, polemical printed posters were nailed up in several French cities by a group of conspirators.

It was history’s first Tweetstorm; the conspirators sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

On the evening of October 17, 1534, the “Affair of the Placards” launched the Wars of Religion in France.  Followers of John Calvin, known as Huguenots and led by a reform pastor named Antoine Marcourt, went around under the cover of darkness and nailed up copies of a screed titled “Trustworthy Articles on the Horrible, Great, & Unbearable Abuses of the Papal Mass.”  They even posted one on the door of the royal bedchamber of King Francois I.

Francois I

The poster’s message was severely critical of Catholicism, the religion of the realm. To condemn the Catholic Mass and Catholic doctrine was a crime in itself. But Francois was rattled to the core at the almost unthinkable breach of security and the threat to his personal safety.

His reaction was swift and severe. He offered generous rewards – four years’ worth of wages of ordinary folk – and many of the conspirators were caught and burned at the stake. Undeterred, they printed another “tweet,” titled “A Very Useful and Salutary Short Treatise in the Holy Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Huguenots made up no more than 15% of the French population, but they were well moneyed and educated, for the most part. They were decidedly influential in their push for reform and religious freedom.

Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France

More repression and retribution followed. Francois and his bishops responded by holding a sacred procession throughout the streets of Paris. Along the way they venerated the consecrated host, and they finished up with a Mass at Notre Dame. After the Mass they took six conspirators out and burned them at the stake.

On and on it went. Kings, queens, and royal regents came and went.  Violence and atrocities by both sides flared up regularly. Treaties and truces were made and broken. After a failed assassination attempt of a Huguenot leader named Gaspard de Coligny in 1572, the Catholic establishment

under Catherine de Medici planned and executed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Huguenots were killed between August and October of that month.

Henry IV: “Paris is worth a Mass.”

There followed the “War of the Three Henrys,” who all vied for the throne.  The eventual winner was Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who became King Henry IV. But he wanted to calm things down, so he converted to Catholicism – for the fifth time – and justified it by his famous observation, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

With Henry IV’s 1598 conversion came the Edict of Nantes. It granted Huguenots many rights and freedoms, but Catholicism was still the dominant faith by far.  Almost a century later, in 1685, King Louis XVI revoked the Edict. He set the stage for his own overthrow and trip to the guillotine. But that’s another story for another time.

So ended the Wars of Religion and the repercussions of the first tweetstorm from 64 years before. So tell me now – is it really that bad nowadays? I’ll take Twitter over printed posters any day.

1492: What Really Happened

October 12, 2019

Columbus

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Yes, he did. But in the long sweep of history, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea’s “discovery” of America did not have anything approaching the impact – the tragic consequences – of other events of that year.  Christoper Columbus wasn’t all that important, or consequential. If he hadn’t voyaged west and found new lands, someone else would have. History in the “New World” would have followed roughly the same course.

Not so the history of the Old World, had the rulers of Spain been enlightened and fair-minded.

Columbus himself points out the world-changing decree of Ferdinand and Isabella. His diary begins:  “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”

Ferdinand and Isabella

In January of 1492, the forces of Castile and Aragon had conquered Granada, the last remaining Muslim caliphate in Spain. This restored all of Spain to Christian rule. The king and queen had resisted the demands of Tomas de Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition, to expel the Jews until they had first subdued the Moors (not the Moops.) But with that military victory, they moved swiftly to get rid of Jews and impose religious uniformity.

It would take until 1614 for Spain’s succeeding monarchs to banish the rest of the Moors.  For a short while, Islam was allowed in Spain. But in 1502, all remaining Muslims were order to convert to Christianity or leave.

As for the Jews of Spain, about 200,000 of them were forced to leave as of July 30, 1492. They had to abandon all of their material possessions and settle in places like North Africa, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere.  They became known as Sephardic Jews – “Sefarad” is Hebrew for “Spain.”

Can you imagine how the history of the world might have evolved if Ferdinand and Isabella did not agree with people like Torquemada – had they allowed their Jews and Muslims to stay, to work out their differences, and to build their country into something else entirely?

Nor was it enough for F&I to “cleanse” Spain. They married off their daughter Isabella to King Manuel of Portugal in 1496. They made it a condition of the marriage that Portugal expel its Jews. Manuel reluctantly complied, although in the end only eight Jews were kicked out; according to the Jewish Virtual Library, tens of thousands of others had to convert to Christianity, on pain of death.

Tomas de Torquemada

I recall learning in school of the wonderful monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who supported Columbus on his great adventure.  What rot. And what profound negative consequences their religious hatred had, down through the centuries.

The Sultan of Turkey, Bazajet, welcomed Jews. He said, “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

How indeed.

Spain, and Portugal for that matter, became inconsequential, minor-league powers in Europe. Much worse, though, was that their treatment of Jews would be imitated in various guises throughout the known world. It’s still echoing loudly today. The decree of expulsion, known as the Alhambra Decree, was not officially overturned by the Spanish government until December 16, 1968.

This decision by the Spain, 476 years in the making, likely came about after the Catholic church itself admitted that it had been wrong about the Jews for almost two millennia.  The following is from Nostra Aetate, an instrument formulated in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, during the papacy of Paul VI:

“what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII

And that pronouncement may never have happened had “Vatican II” not taken place.  The council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959. It is sad that he died before the council, and before this pronouncement. He would have loved it. During World War II, as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, he was the Vatican delegate to the Ottoman Empire.  He was the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to use his authority on behalf of Jews. He had no use for the wimpish Pope Pius XII, his predecessor, who did nothing to resist Adolf Hitler.

But back to today, October 12. If you feel like ragging on Christopher Columbus for his misdeeds, go ahead. But he’s not the villain. The real villains sat on the throne of the combined kingdom of Castile and Aragon, and at their right hands in the Office of the Spanish Inquisition.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education and the Teaching of History

October 5, 2019

Sometimes it’s best to let others speak for themselves. I think that our third president, while certainly one of the “great” ones, has been treated a little too kindly by history. But I can’t deny his intellectual brilliance. Here is a sample.

(From Query XIV, “Notes  on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson first describes the state’s plans for public schools. They will be free to all boys for three years, after which the better students will advance to higher levels of learning. They will be further winnowed out until each year the best students will be selected for admission to the College of William and Mary. The family’s wealth will not be a factor in admission. Rich families whose students do not make the cut will be free to pay for those students’ higher learning, if they so desire.)

Who Is Educated, How Chosen, and Why:

“The ultimate result of this whole scheme of education would be the teaching of all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten other annually, of still superiors parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to…”

“The general objects of this law are to provide and education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. Specific details are not proper for the law. These must be the business of the visitors entrusted with its execution…By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of youth of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as among the cultivated. – But of all the views of this law, none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty…”

And Why the Teaching of History is Most Important:

“..the reading in the first stage, where they will receive the whole of their education, [is]…to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations: it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

“In every government on earth there is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.  Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be essentially necessary.

“An amendment to our constitution must here come to the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among al the people.  If every individual which composes the mass participates in the ultimate authority the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. “

Some Thoughts about Felicity

September 15, 2019

Nobody asked me, but…

I think that the sentence meted out to Felicity Huffman is reasonable and appropriate.  The star of “Desperate Housewives” will spend two weeks in a low-security federal corrections facility near San Francisco. She will also pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of yet-unspecified community service.

Felicity Huffman at her sentencing hearing in Boston

At the sentencing, the judge’s reasoning and remarks were well considered, professional, and compassionate. Ms Huffman’s contrition at being part of a college admissions scam seems genuine.  Her embarrassment at having broken the law and at having had insufficient confidence in her daughter’s abilities is obviously painful to her.

Rehabilitating and repairing the relationship within the family will probably take much longer than the two weeks or so that she will be off the grid. Yes, I know that she’s a rich celeb, and the rich have all the goodies and privileges, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s dispense with the schadenfreude. Her money and fame can’t shield her from the consequences of the decision that she now regrets – and I don’t think she regrets it simply because she got caught.

I have no doubt that she will be able to continue with her acting career, if she so chooses, once she completes her sentence. I will be rooting for her. If it turns that out I’m wrong about her sincerity, and that her admission of guilt and her demeanor are nothing more than a damage-controlling act — well, then I’m wrong.

We all screw up sometimes, and we all deserve a chance to make amends.

Men of July 4: Adams and Jefferson

July 4, 2019

Comrades in the struggle to found the American nation, then bitter foes in the nasty and brutal election campaign of 1800, and finally dear friends and eloquent correspondents in their long retirement years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson deserve all of the praise and honor that history has conferred upon them.

This is not to say that they were models of perfection. Each had glaring personal flaws and quirks; each made mistakes in the wielding of power in his respective and various roles. Both men died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on that date in 1831.

Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration; noted for his ability with words, he did write the first draft.  But it was then edited by a committee comprising Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

Adams was a skilled writer as well; he could have done a good job with the first draft too. While he later groused about the political mileage that Jefferson got from his reputation as the Declaration’s author – wondering, in 1805, if there was “ever a coup de théâtre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration of Independence” – he also knew that it was important for the 13 colonies to have a Virginian be a visible leader of the breakaway from King George. Support from the rich, agrarian South was critical, and the South was rife with loyalist slave-owners for whom life was just fine the way it was.

So, what were these two gentlemen really like? What did they think, and feel, about themselves and their lives, after they had retired from public life? The following excerpts from letters they exchanged in 1812 tell us a good deal. (And would that letter-writing still hold as important a place in society now; we would all be better off and, I dare say, a little more civilized.)

Jefferson to Adams

Monticello, January 21, 1812

Dear Sir,

[your letter] carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ahead ever threatening to overwhelm us, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.  Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties – and we have had them.

[after noting several issues that led to the War of 1812, he continues] And I believe we shall continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, and wise, and happy beyond what has yet been seen by men.

As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and the destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country be ignorant, honest, and estimable as our neighboring savages are.

But whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.

[after talking about his own health and his pleasure in his grandchildren, he concludes] I should have the pleasure of knowing that in the race of life you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me that you have done in political honors and achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect.

Adams to Jefferson

Quincy, February 1, 1812

Dear Sir,

Your life and mine for almost half a century have been nearly all of a piece, resembling in the whole, mine in the Gulf Stream, chased by three British frigates, in a hurricane from the northeast and a hideous tempest of thunder and lightning, which cracked our mainmast, struck three and twenty men on deck, wounded four, and killed one. I do not remember that my feelings in those three days were very different from what they have been for fifty years.

What an exchange have you made? Of newspapers for Newton? Rising from the lower deep of the lowest deep of dullness and bathos to the contemplation of the heavens and the heavens of heavens. Oh that I had devoted to Newton and fellows that time which I fear has been wasted on Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Acherly, Bolingbroke, De Lolme, Harrington, Sidney, Hobbes, Plato Redivivus, Marchmont, Nedham, with twenty others upon subjects which mankind is determined never to understand, and those who do understand them are resolved never to practice, or countenance.

Your memoranda of the past, your sense of the present, and your prospect for the future seem to be well founded as far as I can see.  But the latter, i.e., the prospect for the future, will depend upon the Union: how is that Union to be preserved? Concordia res parvae crescent, Discordia maximae dilabuntur. [Small matters thrive with concord, great things fall apart through discord.] I will not at present point out the precise days and months when, nor the names of the men by whom this Union has been put in jeopardy. Your recollection can be at no more loss than mine.

“…But conquerors to now so easily disappear, battles and victories are irresistible by human nature. When a man is once acknowledged by the people in the army and the country as the author of a victory, there is no longer any question. Had Hamilton or Burr obtained a recent victory, neither you nor Jay nor I should have stood any chance against them or either of them more than a swallow or a sparrow.

I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, so often and at such distant period of my life that, elegant and profound and enchanting as is their style, I am weary of them. When I read them I seem only to be reading the history of my own times and my own life. I am heartily weary of both, i.e., of recollecting the history of both: for I am not weary of living. Whatever a peevish patriarch might say, I have never yet seen the day in which I could say I have had no pleasure, or that I have had more pain than pleasure.

[After telling of his daily activities and his family, he concludes] I cordially reciprocate your professions of esteem and respect. Madam sends her kind regards to your daughter and your grandchildren, as well as to yourself.

P.S. I forgot to remark your preference to savage over civilized life. I have something to say upon that subject. If I am in error, you can set me right, but by all I know of one or the other I would rather be the poorest man in France or England, with sound health of body and mind, than the proudest king, sachem or warrior of any tribe of savages in America.

And Now This Editorial Comment

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson is one of the “great” presidents, but I think that history has been a little too kind to him and much too dismissive of Adams.  T.J. was undoubtedly more personally appealing, more clever, and certainly more snake-in-the-grass politically adept than the grouchy, curmudgeonly, and more highly-principled Adams.   David McCullough’s biography of Adams has done something to rectify that imbalance.

But whatever…would you not like to sit down with these two men, perhaps at the Colonial Inn in Concord or the Michie Tavern in Charlottesville, over beers brewed by their pal Samuel Adams, and just listen to what they have to say? I can think of no better activity for the Fourth of July.

Two Welcome News Items: This is Your America, and Mine. Thank You for Reminding Us, Robert Smith and Diane von Furstenberg.

May 23, 2019

Three cheers – no, make that three times three times three cheers – for Diane von Furstenberg and Robert F. Smith.  They are the principal actors in two recent good-news stories about America.  Let’s tune out the political stink-bombers and the nabobs of negativity, and let’s listen to them.

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith, a graduate of Morehouse College and its 2019 commencement speaker, announced to the school’s graduates that he would pay off their student loans. That will take an estimated $40 million of his multi-billion dollar personal fortune that he amassed in a career in investment banking.

Ms Von Furstenberg, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, came to America at age 22 with a baby in her womb and a suitcase full of dresses that she hoped to sell. DVF-branded goods now sell in 70 countries. She chaired the recently-concluded fund-raising campaign that brought in $100 million for a new museum of the Statue of Liberty.

The immediate beneficiaries of Mr. Smith’s gift are the graduating seniors. No longer saddled with loan payments, they will be free to launch their careers, build their own fortunes, and start their families.  I’m sure that all those young people have said “thank you,” but the proof of their sincerity will lie in how well they go and do what he advises.

He prefaced his message by saying that his contributions would put a little fuel in the bus, and continued,

“You don’t want to just be on the bus. You want to own it and drive it and pick up as many people as you can… [by your doing so, the United States become a place where access to education is determined by] “the fierceness of your intellect…Be intentional about the words you speak, how you define yourself, the people you spend time with.”

In thinking about Smith’s extraordinary generosity, I was reminded of the Gospel passage in Luke 17, the story about Jesus healing ten lepers who called out to him from the side of the road.  The ten went to show themselves to the priests as he instructed, and they were cured. Only one of them, a Samaritan, returned to thank him.

“Were not all ten cleansed?” Jesus asked. “Where then are the other nine? Was no one found except this foreigner to return and give glory to God?”

Then Jesus said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well!”

Let me suggest that these newly-minted Morehouse graduates will show their own gratitude, will become like this Samaritan and be truly well, if they heed what Mr. Smith says. Then will his gift’s benefits multiply without end; it will become, as I’m sure he hopes, a gift to the country that was so good to him.  It’s up to them now.

 

Ms. von Furstenberg

The fruits of Ms von Furstenberg’s charitable endeavors will go to a much broader audience.

Somewhere between three and four million people visit the Statue of Liberty every year.  The expanded museum will, in the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial, give those visitors “a richer insight into the beacon of freedom’s place in American history and culture.”

In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar magazine, she suggested that Lady Liberty is a reminder to all people of the friendships between nations. Not necessarily, she adds, friendship between the governments of nations:

“…not their leaders, their people. The Statue of Liberty was given to us by the people of France to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution at a time when they were disappointed by their own political situation. The French Revolution started not long after the American Revolution, but the result was very different: the Terror, and then Napoléon and the Second Empire. So the French looked to America as this utopic democracy.”

As to why she agreed to chair the fund-raising drive and to use her connections to the world’s rich and famous, von Furstenberg points to a passage in her own book about her life. That passage quoted her mother: “God has saved my life so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch, my flag of freedom.”

“…I was lucky and privileged to become the woman I wanted to be. Now that I’m older, I would like to spend the rest of my life using my voice, my knowledge, my connections—anything I have—to help all women become the women they want to be.”

So once again, praise and thanks for these two great Americans. Both of them are doing good after having done well; they’re examples of people who have realized the much-clichéd “American Dream.”

To bring up another overly familiar term, are they “giving back?” I must say that I don’t particularly like that way of looking at things.  To me, anyway, it suggests a direct return of a favor, a repayment of a debt, a quid-pro-quo.

Perhaps that’s true here, in a broad sense. They’re giving something back to the country that allowed their talents to blossom and them to earn their fortunes. But I prefer to think of what Mr. Smith and Ms von Furstenberg are doing is simply expressing their gratitude.  It’s gratitude for the opportunity to be the best that each of them could be.

We still don’t see enough of that gratitude nowadays, just as they didn’t see much of it in the biblical times depicted in the gospel of Luke.

So I say again, three times three times three cheers.

Book Review: The Animal’s Companion

May 8, 2019

People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story

By Jacky Collis Harvey

Author Jacky Collis Harvey

When you read a book by Jacky Collis Harvey, you learn a lot. And with the way she writes, deeply researched and with wit and erudtion, you also have fun as you learn.

Bonus: you also get to know Jacky as a person, because she puts so much of herself into her books. Reading her is like a leisurely date with a new, intriguing friend at the Dog and Duck, or maybe afternoon tea at the Savoy.   When you’re in such a setting with an interesting woman, the best thing to do is to sit back, let her do the talking, drink it all in, and go home wiser and happier.

Jacky’s first book, reviewed here, was Red: A History of the Redhead. There’s no need to tell you the color of her hair, which placed the chip on her shoulder and the flash in her eye.

Her newest work is The Animal’s Companion: People and Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story.  Ms Collis Harvey is one such companion. She loves animals. With passion and appreciation.  She prepares the reader for what’s coming when she writes, in the introductory chapter,

“As I look back, all of the most important lessons in my life were taught by animals: the realities of love and loss and the impenetrability of death, which could take a warm, breathing living flank and overnight turn it into something lifeless, cold and solid; the imperatives of sex; the largeness of care and responsibility…Growing up a redhead made me bold; but it was growing up with animals that made a liberal out of me.”

Okay, Jacky, so tell me more about yourself and those animal friends.

Here’s one passage that I loved; I felt myself shivering in the cold right alongside the author, and feeling her primal fear:

“…if you are a woman. The psychological effect of walking with a big dog padding along obediently beside you is intoxicating. The world opens up, no matter how timid by nature you may be yourself…Fergus, my wolfhound, and I used to set off into the murk of winter fields and winter evenings without hesitation. And then one particular evening, he off his leash and me holding a flashlight rather than a burning brand, Fergus saw something at the side of the fields that caused a growl to rise from within his chest that was both the deepest and most horripilating sound I have ever heard an animal produce. It was like listening to the ominous drawing-back of the sea before the crash of some terrible wave. My own hackles were up at the sound of it, never mind his. My nerve ends soaked with adrenaline in nanoseconds – the kind of atavistic response you forget the human body is still capable of producing.”

Later on in the book, after telling about the ways that literary and historical luminaries, like Samuel Pepys, King John, Plutarch, Elizabeth Barrett and Alexandre Dumas cared for animals, she relates how she unhesitatingly ponied up £3,000 for emergency medical care for her cat, Miss Puss. The cat made it and lived another seven years, though it cost what she said was “more money than we had in the world” at that point.  In declaring that the little creature’s emotional value to her was far beyond any vet’s bill, she speaks for just about all people who have pets of their own.

Each of the book’s chapters deals with a different theme in the life of humans who love animals: Finding, Choosing, Fashioning, Naming, Communicating, Connecting, Caring, Losing, and Imagining. Her own anecdotes, observations, and philosophical musings crop up frequently, but not so much that the book seems to be about her. She strikes a nice balance and re-introduces the reader to many familiar names of animal lovers from history, literature and art.

The 26,000 years in the book’s subtitle refers to the approximate age of the fossilized footprints of a boy and his dog in the Chauvet cave, rediscovered in France by archaeologists in 1995. That, the author maintains, is the oldest known evidence of a human as an animal’s companion.

Federico Gonzaga: “notoriously bad husband material.”

That’s a great answer for Final Jeopardy, so keep it in mind. But more amusing, and an example of Collis Harvey’s fine eye for history that we can relate to, is the story behind Titian’s painting of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Federico was on the make and targeting Margherita, heiress to the Marquis of Monferrato. Problem was, as Collis Harvey relates, the Gonzagas were “notoriously bad husband material,” and the heiress was hesitating.

So what to do? Commission a painting of yourself with a cute, fluffy little dog, looking longingly up at you while extending a supplicating paw. The little dog is there “to say that she has nothing to worry about, that as a husband Federico will be both faithful and protective…to reinforce the message that he was benevolent and trustworthy, neither of which in fact was true.”

Readers also hear from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Renoir, the Book of Job, Alfred Hitchcock, Friedrich Engels, A.A. Milne, William Blake, Lord Byron, and Horace Walpole.  All in all, this book is a delightful romp through the ages. It even feels that you’re taking that romp in the company of your own beloved pet. Several times along the way I felt the presence of my sweet golden retriever Molly, who’s been gone from this earth for more than a decade.

Yes, we do learn great life lessons from our dealings with animal friends. Those intertwining lives can also bring broader lessons for society as a whole. In the final chapter, after discussing animals’ rights and reminding readers of Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering writings on the rights of women, Collis Harvey muses,

“What was once, in its demand for equality and respect, the cutting edge of social change is now a given across most of the planet (and will get all the way there too)…We are coming to recognize that we cannot claim rights without also granting them; not insist upon them for ourselves without acknowledging them for others.”

Good thought. Good lesson. Good book.