Discontent

Now is the winter of our discontent.

What? Plagiarism? Moi? Just as I was congratulating myself on appropriating this well-turned phrase and putting it out there as my very own, people began mentioning Mr. Shakespeare and his play Richard III, and so I guess that particular jig is presently up.

But doesn’t it apply well to today’s headlines? Is there anyone reading this, right now, that is content? Take away the pandemic and we still have a historic chill seemingly everywhere at once. Even worse, when you find that your furnace has died and you turn on your electric space heater the darned thing doesn’t work because when you look out your window the wind turbines on your back forty have frozen up. Who knew that could even happen?

And the Whack-A-Mole character of American racism and bigotry has never been more obvious and blatant. Right now it is Asian-Americans who are being singled out (at least in the headlines) for violence perpetrated by drive-by thugs. Which was preceded by last summer’s rash of violence against black Americans, which was preceded by a serious uptick in anti-semitic nastiness. Of course, brutality leveled against these groups never goes away. Not even close.

There are moments when it seems as if the Ten Plagues of Egypt were happening all over again, but simultaneously rather than sequentially.

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Just in case you’ve forgotten what those plagues were, I list them for your enjoyment and edification:

  • Water turns to blood
  • Frogs everywhere
  • Lice or gnats everywhere
  • Wild animals everywhere
  • A pestilence in one’s domestic animals
  • Boils
  • Thunderstorm of hail and fire
  • Locusts
  • Darkness for three days
  • Deaths of the firstborn

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From The New Yorker

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I’ve been a voracious reader since tot-hood. Books, newspapers, Sears catalogs, milk cartons … anything with print on it was fair game. Usually it was a quiet and personal vice, and the grownups pretty much left me alone in my literary wanderings. They had no idea what was streaming through my eyes and into my little brain. Mostly that worked out well … they got to be left alone and I got to read what I wanted.

But occasionally there were brief dustups, like this one.

I was probably about six or seven years old, and it was evening on my grandparents’ farm. Grandma Ida and Aunt Norma were in the kitchen chatting, and I was alone in the living room which was just off the kitchen. We were out of sight of one another. I don’t know what I was reading, but I came across a word that I didn’t recognize. There was no dictionary handy, so I called out to the adults in the next room:

Grandma, what does rape mean?

My question was met with total silence.

Now kids are pretty good at reading adults. And so I knew that this unnatural and pregnant pause meant that I had wandered into a taboo area, and I instantly wished to God that I hadn’t brought it up. Because now the adults had a window into my activities and that was not always a good thing. Better to be ignored and left alone was my motto. I could just have waited until I found that absent dictionary and everything would have been fine. But noooooo, I couldn’t wait, I had to know now.

Finally there was a response and it was Aunt Norma’s voice asking “What are you reading?” OMG, I thought, it’s even worse than I imagined. They have answered my question with a question. What sort of can of worms have I opened? And suddenly there was Norma, standing in front of me, with her hand out. “It means hurting someone,” she said. I dutifully passed whatever the written material was along to her, and she disappeared back into the kitchen with it firmly in hand. No more questions tonight, I thought.

That was it. Days later I got my answer, after I had returned home and through a much safer method of research. I looked it up. Sometimes it was just plain awkward being a curious kid. There were minefields everywhere.

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“The Problem We All Live With”

[An article Saturday on CNN online was prompted by the 60th anniversary of a little girl’s walk to school. It is both a description of some horrible behavior and a testament to personal courage. I reprint it here.]

60 years ago today, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walked to school and showed how even first graders can be trailblazers

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

 Ruby Nell Bridges, 6, was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools.

Ruby Nell Bridges, 6, was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools.

(CNN)Sixty years ago, Ruby Bridges walked to school escorted by four federal marshals as a White mob hurled insults at her.Bridges, just 6 years old on November 14, 1960, was set to begin first grade at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. As the first Black student to attend the school, Bridges carried integration on her small shoulders.Her first day at William Frantz came four years after Black parents in New Orleans filed a lawsuitagainst the Orleans Parish School Board for not desegregating the school system in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which determined in 1954 that state laws establishing segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. The year Bridges walked into the school, Judge. J. Skelly Wright had ordered the desegregation of New Orleans public schools. The Orleans Parish School Board, however, had convinced the judge to require Black students to apply for transfer to all-White schools, thus limiting desegregation, according to the Equal Justice Initiative

US deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.

US deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. 

That year, only five of the 137 Black first graders who applied to transfer were accepted, and only four agreed to attend, according to EJI. Bridges was among them. “For me, being 6 years old, I really wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Bridges, now 66, told NPR in 2010. “I mean the only thing that I was ever told by my parents that I was going to attend a new school and that I should behave.”

Once Bridges entered the school and arrived at her classroom, all the other students had withdrawn. The rest of the school year, it was just her and the teacher, she said. And crowds continued to show up, at one point bringing a small baby’s coffin with a Black doll inside.”I used to have nightmares about the box,” Bridges said. “Those are the days that I distinctly remember being really, really frightened.”But Bridges stayed at the school despite retaliation against her family. Grocery stores refused to sell to her mother, Lucille. And her father, Abon, lost his job, according to the National Park Service. The toll was so hard on their marriage that by the time Bridges graduated from sixth grade, they had separated, she told NPR.Eventually, though, Bridges made it to second grade. And when she did, the school’s incoming first grade class had eight Black students, the EJI said. 

Ruby Bridges speaks onstage at Glamour's 2017 Women of The Year Awards at Kings Theatre in November 2017 in New York.

Ruby Bridges speaks onstage at Glamour’s 2017 Women of The Year Awards at Kings Theatre in November 2017 in New York. CNN reached out to Bridges for comment but did not receive a response.

Bridges continues to be an inspiration for many. In 2011, she was invited to the Oval Office, where the painting commemorating her walk by Norman Rockwell — criticized when it first appeared on a magazine cover in 1964 — was on display.”I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today,” then President Barack Obama told Bridges during her visit, according to the White House archives. Lucille, who Ruby says pushed her to attend the school, died this week at age 86. In an Instagram post, Ruby called her mother a “champion for change,” adding that her actions altered the course of many lives.

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This is the Look magazine cover referred to in the article. It is of Ruby Bridges and her journey to school, and was painted by Norman Rockwell. Its title is “The Problem We All Live With.”

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Poco came to us as an outdoor kitten that we coaxed into our home. Later on, when we would attempt to retrain him and deny him access to the outdoors, he was so unhappy that it was a difficult time for all concerned, and we eventually stopped trying.

Case in point. In this pic, the outdoor temperature is a chilly 38 degrees, the wind is a blustery 20-25 mph, and here he is, sleeping out along the backyard fence. Even though the pet door is wide open to him, and only 25 feet away. Inside that pet door is warmth and loads of comfortable furniture to lie about on. But you see where he chooses to be.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

All of us who love movies, we who have been lucky enough to sit in darkened theaters of an evening and were changed by what we saw, can draw up a list of those films that were transformative for us. In my own case, these were films that went beyond being entertaining and taught me something powerful through the artistry of the army of people who contribute their talents to such an enterprise. One of those was Judgement at Nuremberg, which was released in 1961.

The other day I learned a new number, and it was 545. This is the number of children who were separated from their parents by immigration personnel and who have still not been reunited with their parents. As Stephen Colbert said it in the clip I posted on Thursday: “Cruelty was the plan.” It is a shameful number and the size of that number stands out. But the shame and the unnecessary suffering began with the first child who was treated in this way. With the first family that was deliberately divided by policies of our own government.

It called to mind a scene from the movie I mentioned above. Spencer Tracy plays an American judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Burt Lancaster plays a German judge, a man who in his official capacity went along with some of the Nazi injustices. Who believed that by going along over here you could prevent greater harm over there. When I first saw this scene I was stunned, and left the theater not ready to talk about it until I had some time to process what had been presented to me.

It changed the way the 22 year-old man that I was looked at life. As it turned out, that change was permanent. So much for a simple night out at the movies, eh?

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The above is an example of the randomness of how we learn and what we learn. Perhaps I should use a different pronoun, to stop using the “we” and substitute the “I,” but I suspect that many of you might have found it to be true in your own lives as well. A small part of my moral education was acquired in churches and during talks with my parents, but the greatest part of it was from movies, books, and the slogans I read on T-shirts in the Sixties.

My world view was pieced together like a tuna casserole from the ingredients at hand and baked at idiosyncratic temperatures. The result is me. A hodgepodge of ideas and prejudices and pronouncements, both good and bad, that embedded themselves into that pudding I carry around atop my neck. Did I set out to learn about personal responsibility when I bought the ticket to “Nuremberg?” Nope. Was I seeking a lesson on the fragility of life and the importance of childhood relationships as I watched the opening credits roll on Stand By Me? Not on your life. Did I have any idea when I picked up Kazantzakis’ novel Freedom or Death that it would color my landscapes from then on? No way.

In fact, if I had suspected that any of these things were going to happen, I might well have avoided all of these works, and looked harder for something completely mindless. Mindless has always been my default position.

So what lesson? What goes in through our eyes and ears may take root in our brains, whether that’s what we intended or not. That old aphorism in the computing world of Garbage In – Garbage Out! holds as true for people as well as for machines.

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My old home state of South Dakota is out there in front of the pack with regard to new cases of coronavirus. For this you can give Governor Cluckette a lot of the credit. Even as the groans of infected people keeling over on the streets of the capital city of Pierre are keeping folks awake at night, she still insists that all citizens need to do is wash their hands and remember to floss.

She relays the Cluckian message of no-mask to her underlings, and when anyone says “Cluck” to a Republican, as we have abundantly observed, it cancels out normal brain activity and that person will now accept any old basket of horse-apples as a tasty dessert.

I do feel sorry for the innocents in that excellent state, those being the Democrats and Independents who have very little to say in its governance. I also feel sorry for any sensible South Dakota child over the age of eight years, who can look at what is happening and easily see that their lives and fortunes are in the hands of fools.

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When was the last time you worried about polio? Did you ever? The first form of the vaccine came out in 1955, and the oral form in 1962. So if you were a toddler during that period of history or later, you grew up without ever hearing it discussed at the dinner table, nor would your parents have ever had to tell you that there was no more going to the swimming pool at the park this summer. The polio boogey-man had vanished from the Western Hemisphere.

He was on the brink of disappearing from the entire world more than 15 years ago, and would have been but for fears raised by anti-vaccine hysteria in Africa and Asia. Just yesterday an article on CNN brought up the concern that with our focus on Covid we stand to let polio back into the Americas because of declining immunization rates. The wild form of the virus is still out there, and the only thing standing between us and its recurrence is our vigilance.

Yes, dear friends, when it comes to infectious diseases we have to be able to chew gum and walk. Just because we are hunkered down in our homes this year because of Covid worries doesn’t mean that we can ignore our other problems. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we do have people we can turn to for advice and help … they are called ID (Infectious Disease) experts and they use something called science as a powerful tool against such potential plagues.

All we have to do is let them do their job and help them where we can.

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P.S.A.

It’s the nineteenth of April, and I will now perform a public service by summarizing what we know to date about the novel coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it causes. As an former medical professional, I believe that I am uniquely suited to this important task.

  • It may have come to the U.S. earlier than we first thought, or maybe it didn’t
  • It might be possible to re-catch it, but probably not
  • There might be a drug that is effective, but maybe it isn’t
  • A vaccine might be coming this year, or maybe not
  • It might be soon time to re-open things … but probably it’s too early
  • Masks might not be helpful for most of us, but we should wear them anyway
  • Unlike STDs, you might be able to catch it from doorknobs and toilet seats … or perhaps this isn’t true, and we should relax and go to a movie

There now, don’t you feel better?

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One of my favorite Buddhist stories came up recently at a recent online AA meeting, one where we were discussing pre-existing attitudes and how they colored what we saw and experienced.

The story goes like this.

A man was walking along a dusty road and saw a village off in the distance. At the side of the road a blind man was sitting peacefully with his begging bowl and bothering no one.

The traveler asked the blind man:

Are you from that village?

Yes, I am

What kind of people live in that village?

What kind of people live in the town you are from?

Oh, they were terrible. Grasping and greedy, gossiping and lazy.

Well, I think you’ll find the people in my village are much like that.

The first traveler grimaced and continued on his journey. A second pilgrim then came down the road. When he saw the blind man, he asked the same question.

What sort of people live in that village?

The people in the village you are from – how would you describe them?

Oh, they are lovely. Kind and generous of spirit. There are no lengths they wouldn’t go to in order to help a sufferer, even a stranger.

Well, I think you’ll find the people in my village are much like that.

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I will close today with these observations by Andy Borowitz, a man cursed with an unclouded vision.

Dr. Oz Fears That Coronavirus Comments Could Hurt His Credibility as Expert on MagicBeans

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