Fiddling

The passage of time does some strange things. This morning I am grateful to former president Cluck. It is similar to the situation in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, where the rabbi is asked if there is such a thing as a blessing for the Czar.

I am grateful that since he was going to become our bigot-in-chief and a traitor (isn’t that what he is, really?) to our democracy that Cluck wasn’t any better at it than he was. His narcissism prevented him from looking much further ahead than any day’s newscast, and his careless tossing aside of one aide or staffer after another kept him perpetually weaker.

Weaker, say, than another would-be-autocrat of the past, Richard Nixon, who was potentially more dangerous because he aligned himself with two capable lieutenants in Haldeman and Ehrlichman. This trio could have gone on to do even more harm than they did to our Republic if they hadn’t developed the unfortunate habit of telling fibs and being caught at it.

What we are seeing finally on the national stage is the slow unraveling of the noose that Republicans tied around their own necks, where one of them after another is finally finding the drawer where they had put their backbones and the ragged remnants of their integrity and saying “No, that’s absolutely wrong,” to His Perpetual Orangiosity. Gratifying, at long last, to hear.

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As long as I’m tossing video clips at you, here’s another from “Fiddler.” As it begins, the milkman Tevye has just been told that daughter Chava has eloped with a Russian man and married outside of Judaism. What follows is for me one of the most moving passages in any movie I’ve ever seen.

There is much wisdom sprinkled throughout this film. This passage, however, is purest heartbreak. “If I bend that far, I’ll break.”

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The old Washington Avenue bridge across the Mississippi River had no cover and a rather easily scaled guard rail. The “new” one has a plexiglass cover from one end to the other. Walking to campus from the West Bank was much more pleasant using the new one, since the wind and whatever was falling from the sky couldn’t get to you until you were across and on campus, where ducking into warm buildings became a possibility.

There was one added benefit of that cover in that it made jumping off into the frigid waters of the river impossible. Why bring this up now? Because in the old uncovered days February was statistically the month of the jumpers. I never had a problem understanding this, because who isn’t sick of winter in Minnesota by February? If one’s mental health was a bit shaky in November, it was not benefited by seemingly endless gray skies, sooty snow everywhere, cars that wouldn’t start, repeated episodes of frostbite, and having been shut into small spaces by the cold for many weeks. So suicide by freezing leap was somewhere between commonplace and unheard of in frequency.

Sometimes when I was crossing the bridge to campus, collar turned up against the wind that seemed to be forever howling down the river in the winter, I would look over the railing into the dark brown water at that strong current and say to myself no way. To spend my last moments of consciousness even colder than I was at the moment I was peering over the rail … it was never going to be my choice for ending it all. If push came to shove I would always opt for something more genteel and above all, warmer.

Theme Song from the movie M*A*S*H, by Johnny Mandel

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Robin and I just finished watching Women of the Movement, one of Hulu’s offerings for Black History Month. This limited series dealt with the lynching of Emmett Till, and of his mother’s life after that horrific tragedy. Her name was Mamie Till.

I won’t put in any spoilers here except that by the end of the series if you could pass through that television screen and get at the killers and their smarmy protectors … you might be tempted to commit a couple of felonies yourself. The state of Mississippi in general does not come off well as it is portrayed in 1955, when the murder and subsequent trial of the killers took place.

When this incident was front-page news and that news reaching even as far North as Minneapolis, I was fifteen, only one year older than Emmett was when he died. And yet back then for me it was a dark story coming out of what I saw as another country altogether, the South. I had a lot to learn and a long way to go.

Retracing the events in the series, when Till’s damaged body was returned to his mother in Chicago, she declared that there would be no closed casket wake for him. She said “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Tens of thousands of people filed by the casket over several days. Millions of people saw the photographs of the body that journalists were asked by Mamie Till to take. As I relive the whole thing now through this series, it resembles nothing so much as scenes from some ancient play, where a mythic woman accompanies the corpse of her slain soldier-son as his funeral cortege rolls into Rome, or Athens.

About a hundred days after the funeral, Rosa Parks took her stand.

In Montgomery, Rosa Parks attended a rally for Till led by Martin Luther King Jr. Soon after, she refused to give her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked a year-long well-organized boycott of the public bus system. The boycott was designed to force the city to change its segregation policies. Parks later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”

Emmett Till, Wikipedia
My Name Is Emmett Till , by Emmylou Harris

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I’m being a good boy with regards to my visits to our local recreation center. Robin gets me moving and we’re out the door in the dark for a cold car ride to the gym. Once there I run the gantlet from machine to machine, sometimes with the numbers on the weights used being embarrassingly small. But hey – I’m moving, just the same.

Yesterday I visited all but one of my self-assigned torture devices, missing only the abdominal crunch. This was because the apparatus was occupied by an ancient citizen who seemed incapable of movement. Alarmed, I checked him only to find that he was indeed breathing and conscious to boot, but he required the passage of an eon between reps of the exercise. I finally gave up and went home. If I go back today, it wouldn’t surprise me if he is still there, laboring to bend the machine to his will. I gave him a perfect 10 for determination, and a lesser score for execution.

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Let us finish this today with some self-observation. In Tuesday’s Science section of the NYTimes was a piece which began with this paragraph:

It’s a dubious distinction in the fossil record: For the first time, a vertebrate has been found with fecal pellets where its brain once was.

NYTImes, February 8, 2022

I will let this sink in for a moment.

Imagine, if you will, that you have a satiric frame of mind in general, and a sarcastic one on occasion. Imagine that you are served up this savory bit of intelligence one morning, like a bit of meat tossed to a big cat, and are rolling it about in your mind, savoring it and wondering exactly what to do with it. Imagine further, if you can, that you have no journalistic standards or ethics, and are well-known for dipping into areas of bad taste when it suits you. So what are your choices?

Here are mine.

Ignore it … absolutely not.

Clean it up for readers … not today, son.

Exploit it … now we’re cooking, baby.

From my personal perspective, the crucial part of the sentence is “in the fossil record.” Crucial because we likely have scads of examples of just this problem right in front of us, not in fossils, but in humans walking around and going to work and eating and breeding and generally making a mess of things.

Of course we haven’t the luxury of popping open the crania of these men and women to examine the contents of their skulls, but we can certainly make some inferences from their behavior, can’t we? And it’s not as if we’d never suspected that something like this wasn’t happening. There is even a common vulgar phrase that goes: “S**t for brains.”

How can this knowledge be helpful? Perhaps mostly because it explains so much of what is puzzling about modern life, as it answers the questions: How could anyone believe that or act that way? Not having to wonder about this any longer will be a great timesaver for many of us, since we don’t have to waste precious hours trying to think through what seem to otherwise be inexplicable contradictions.

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