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Clio's Temple


Is this real life? Is this just fantasy?

Posted on November 10, 2018 at 10:34 AM Comments comments ()
In the early days when he was managing the "Amazon' Mets," Casey Stengel reportedly said, "Can't anybody here play this game?" Looking at the avoidable problems which have surfaced with the midterm elections, that frustrated outburst makes sense to me.

Take my native state of Florida. In 2000, a poorly designed ballot may have been the straw the broke the electoral camel's back and helped place George W. Bush in the White House. The outcome, you will recall, was decided by the Supreme Court. Even taking that as an acceptable outcome, one would think that the elected leadership in the Sunshine State would have pushed through reforms to ensure that future elections didn't become needless fiascos. Apparently, not so. The ongoing joust over vote counting in the races for Senator and Governor makes it clear that it was a missed opportunity. In effect, the state has allowed each county to run elections in a semi-autonomous fashion. For statewide positions, this may not be a wise policy.

In the wake of 2000, Republican spokesmen reminded us that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, elects the President. Yet in a democratic republic, divergences between the EC and the popular vote should be rare exceptions. Consider 2004: John Kerry failed to carry Ohio by about 115,000 votes (if memory serves). If he had, he would've gotten the Buckeye State's electoral votes and would have become President, despite losing the popular vote by a much larger margin than George W. Bush did in 2000.

I haven't even gotten to Georgia, where five generations of my ancestors are buried. It is unacceptable for an elected official to (as Brian Kemp did) stay in a position where he could directly influence the rigor and honesty with which the election for governor was conducted. I don't know who the people of Georgia picked to lead their state over the next four years. I do know that this is not how it should be done.

In my years at the Savannah River Site, we operated under a management system known as "Conduct of Operations." One of the basic principles of "Conduct" is "Don't accept the unacceptable." In a deeply divided nation, the least we can do is to make certain that our conduct of elections does not accept the unacceptable.

That's my two cents' worth.

Life at the intersections

Posted on September 26, 2018 at 2:19 PM Comments comments ()
Some of life's most fascinating moments, and also some of its most excruciating dilemmas, are at the intersection of temptation and opportunity. I suspect most of us believe that suddenly obtaining great wealth, power, or fame might change the circumstances of our lives, but wouldn't change our character. I also suspect this may be a form of self-delusion.

Christian tradition lists seven deadly sins: Pride, Lust, Wrath, Envy, Avarice, Gluttony, Sloth. What I find interesting about this list is that, while all these sins are things to avoid, some are self-limiting. Gluttony (whether of food or drink) is limited by the body's ability to process what we eat or drink. Lust is limited by the body's ability to endure the exertion that sexual fulfillment requires. Sloth is limited by the body's inability to tolerate being in a constant state of idleness.

There are three non-natural temptations whose consequences aren't necessarily self-limiting. These are the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph. Without being defamatory, I'll just cite one example. My father's family endured poverty in the Great Depression, as did many other American families. One result of this was, that when my parents married and launched their family, Dad drove himself relentlessly to keep the wolf of privation from our doorstep. Even after he was financially secure in retirement, he never stopped worrying about money. It became something of a joke. No matter how many times I told him, "Dad, stop worrying about how much money you're going to leave us. You and Mom need to spend it on yourselves," he refused to believe that he was rich enough.

Many of us, I think, believe that there is a positive correlation between great worldly attainments and strength of character. We profess to be shocked when someone who "has it all" is shown to have feet of clay. We also are certain that it would be different if we were in that person's shoes. But would it be different?

I'm thinking of shelving many novel-writing efforts for a while in favor of writing short stories about some of the conflicts that arise from living at the intersections. What do you think?

"Rainy Day People"

Posted on May 17, 2018 at 3:29 PM Comments comments ()
Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song some years back called "Rainy Day People." It was about those people who "always seem to know when it's time to call." Perhaps you've been fortunate and you've had one or more of these folks in your life. If you have, you know how they can make a rainy day seem less dreary.

Or perhaps you've never known anyone like this. Currently, our nation seems to be in the grip of raging furies, with charges and counter-charges flying like artillery shells in a World War I barrage. I suspect that many of us who cringe at this state of affairs may have a little Schadenfreude at seeing pompous or pious people laid low by their own failings. I have to confess I'm a bit like this myself. Still, too much excitement is a bad thing.

Last year, I had the privilege of meeting Peter Yarrow, for many of us, a bard from our youthful days. He spoke of how he wanted to see a nation where people listened before talking, where citizens resist making unsupported accusations, where we learn to agree or disagree, but always with respect for the other person. I haven't heard any reports from this commendable initiative. I fear it's suffered the fate of many peacemaking ideas, blown away by a blast of high-explosive indignation or self-righteousness.

As I get later and later into my late 60s, I wonder what kind of nation we are leaving to the generations that will succeed us. I'm now a great-uncle (thanks, Casey and Shaunna!) and I don't want little Collins Montgomery Cook to remember me as an angry old fart. I may not be able to get very far, but I want to live out my life as a rainy day person.

A question of values

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 7:01 AM Comments comments ()
In one of life's many ironies, I wound up having a conversation last week with a hospice doctor. The irony lies in the fact that Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, my nearly-complete next book, has a hospice doctor as protagonist. He listened with interest to what I told him about the plot and offered some suggestions about "how hospice doctors think." This was a bit of serendipity, as I wasn't there to do research or discuss writing issues. I was there to get shaken up, an expectation that was rewarded.

During our conversation, light poured in through towering windows in a hotel ballroom. The setting: Squaw Valley in the Sierra Nevada range, just a few miles from Lake Tahoe. The occasion: 2017 Carter Center Weekend. For those who don't know, this is a very popular vacation spot for folks from California and Nevada and the resorts were packed with travelers who were there for the hiking, kayaking, snowboarding and skiing (in late June!). The natural beauty of this area is stunning, which can foster a feeling of tranquility, or perhaps awe. It also breeds a sense of tranquility. At such a place, we stand in awe of wonders that exceed the mightiest works of human hands.

There was tranquility, but also concern. Every year, The Carter Center holds a five-day gathering for donors of both money and professional services. We were among the minority of first-timers; the room was packed with those who've made this event a centerpiece of their travel plans. It might seem odd, therefore, that one of the unspoken purposes of the weekend was to shake us up. In his post-presidential life, Jimmy Carter has poured his energies into a variety of good works, focusing primarily in the areas of peacemaking, promoting free elections, and combatting disease. The presentations yanked us out of the affluent trappings of a mountain resort and transported us to distant lands – Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Guatemala – where The Carter Center has active local organizations battling diseases most of us have never heard of: Guinea worm disease, river blindness, trachoma. These were sobering reminders of how many people still live in conditions most of us would consider primitive.

It's part of the American approach to combat disease by attacking it with massive technological resources. The Carter Center has found that, in societies where poverty prevents the deployment of such resources, relatively simple measures can go a long way. The discussion of battling trachoma, a fly-borne parasitic ailment that can cause both intense pain and total loss of sight, noted with gratitude that pharmaceutical manufacturers have donated hundreds of thousands of doses of antibiotics to fight this malady. At the same time, teams of physician volunteers train local doctors in surgical techniques to prevent blindness and other volunteers dig latrines in places where there have never been sanitation systems.

Occasions like this can cause one to think long and hard about one's values. I'm still wrestling with what I can do, and whether my values are in the right place.

Life behind the dikes (or dams)

Posted on July 15, 2016 at 11:31 AM Comments comments ()
The late J.M. Juran, industrial quality guru, referred to "life behind the quality dikes" as a way of denoting how dependent we are on the things which stand between us and disaster. Yesterday's terrorist outrage in Nice is but one example of how we normally expect to go about our daily business, free from danger.

It doesn't take a terrorist attack, though, to bring home the force of Juran's words. My home state of South Carolina suffered an inundation of Biblical dimensions last October. One of the lessons learned from that disaster was that the many dams in the Columbia area, which in normal times impound ponds or lakes that add joy to living and value to real estate, can turn on us. A cascading series of dam failures, particularly on the east side of Columbia, have left many homeowners and businesses to wonder about when the dams will be rebuilt, and who will pay for the rebuilding.

"The creek was there long before the town whose life it came to dominate. Rising in the hills of northeast Georgia, it wended its way southeastward, gravity drawing it toward the Atlantic some three hundred miles distant." These are the opening lines from my novella A Dirge for Maxwell, which will be published in October as part of a Kindle e-book titled Tangled Woods and Dark Waters.

The overall theme of Dirge is how the stable, safe world of a textile town comes apart under the pressure of forces beyond its control. When a flooding creek inflicts lethal damage on the town, it is only the last straw, but the camel's back breaks nonetheless.

I'm not the sort of person to impress people with scare tactics, but the fabric of life may come unraveled despite our best efforts to preserve it. What are the dikes or dams in our lives on which we depend for protection?

Swimming in history, or drowning?

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 5:19 PM Comments comments ()
Mark Twain once said, "History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes." Looking at the shape of American politics this year, I think he was onto something important. Namely, that the hopes (fears) with which we invest our candidates are cyclical, except that we often don't recognize what's happening.

What do I mean? Just this: there is very little about Donald Trump that's surprising. Anyone who looks at the less-than-golden past of our elections can pick up echoes of things Huey Long might have said, or Father Coughlin, or George Wallace. By contrast to this strain of "populism," Ross Perot looks positively quaint.

This is not to let Hillary Clinton off the hook. The strength of her appeal is, I think, that we can replay the economic glories of the '90s, but extend their reach to segments of the American population who have traditionally been left out. She's already hinted that her First Dude will take on that challenge as part of his responsibilities.

Now seriously, folks, are we that stupid? Do we really think our leaders have the alchemy to override the powerful counter-currents which are part of our world: international economic queasiness; fears of terrorism; distrust among nations who have traditionally acted as though they had interests in common?

We'd better fasten our seat belts and hang on for a rough ride. To my jaundiced eyes, 2016 looks more like 1968 than anything that's happened since.

The day of, the days after

Posted on September 12, 2014 at 3:25 PM Comments comments ()
We always remember "the day of," don't we? In my parents' generation, there were the obvious dates - December 7, 1941 being the perhaps the first . Perhaps more significant are those more personal - wedding days, the birth of children, anniversaries, retirement parties, funerals. For my generation (I'm giving my age away), November 22, 1963 was the first great national trauma. Perhaps our children remember January 28, 1986 (Challenger disaster), but for most of them, September 11, 2001 is the one always burned into the memory circuits.

This is a shot of the new 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan, taken as my wife and I emerged from a subway station. On a fine midsummer morning, it reminded me of nothing so much as a one-finger salute to those who educated our nation about terrorism and mass murder. Of course, it took a lot of "days after" 9/11 to raise this from the rubble of the old World Trade Center, but that's the nature of all "days after." Those are the days when we live with the consequences of what happened on the "days of."

It's always easier to remember "the day of." We just had the commemorations of 9/11 and the focus was - rightly - those who lost their lives on that day of horror. In the long run, it was the things that happened on the days after that changed us more profoundly. To use one obvious example, the idea of an agency such as TSA subjecting us to intrusive searches of our bags and our persons would have seemed inconceivable before 9/11. Nowadays, we're so accustomed to it, we've forgotten that it wasn't always this way.

It's the same in our ordinary lives. When my wife and I said "I do" on June 16, 1979, we weren't thinking thirty-years into the future. We were too much enraptured with the joy of being man and wife. Because our wedding was small-scale and (by today's standards) inexpensive, the reality of "the day of" slips further and further into the dim recesses of memory. We didn't hire a videographer. When we look at our wedding pictures, we're looking at another couple.

Heraclitus is famous for having said that a man never steps twice into the same river; the river has changed and so has the man. In our lives, "the day of" always remains with us. "The days after" shape the reality that we deal with every day. While we will never again step into the same river, we are different persons for having stepped once into it.

In all "the days after" of our lives, we need to remember that we bear with us always the legacies of "the days of."

Gordy's Ghost, or Upsetting the Past

Posted on August 30, 2014 at 3:41 PM Comments comments ()
Because my paternal grandfather died years before I was born, all I knew of him was what I learned from my father and uncle, and the impressions of him from my grandmother. To make a long story short, I now believe that Grandma always bore some resentment at the fact that my grandfather didn't resist the demands of his brothers to loan him money. Eventually, even some land that his own mother had left to him went out of his hands. At that point (about 1925), my father's family relocated from Georgia to Florida and Grandpa went into the lumber business.

It took a ghost to make me re-think my own notions. Specifically, while doing some family research during the summer, I learned the tale of "Gordy's Ghost." I had first heard of this incident in 1994, when my wife ended a phone conversation with her mother with the question to me, "Do you know a Jim Gordy?" When I responded in the affirmative, she told me her mother had seen a story involving him on Unsolved Mysteries.

That was the starting point for my explorations. Using my friend Google, I started digging into the Gordy family background. The tale, as told on the TV show, involved a family in Ellerslie, Georgia, that moved into an old house recently vacated. During the move-in, the family's young daughter (3 or 4 at the time) came in one afternoon and told her mother she had met a nice man who had swung her on a swing. She described him as wearing a dark suit, dark shoes, a white shirt, and a tie. Her mother thought this was just another imaginary friend until her daughter reported later contacts with the man. At this point, alarmed that a potential kidnapper or child molester was on the loose in the neighborhood, they asked the neighbors for help. Families brought in pictures of every man who had lived in the neighborhood, going back several decades in the past. When the photos were laid out on the table for the little girl, she unerringly picked the photo of an elderly man wearing a dark suit. Her mother and aunt started digging into the man's background and found an obituary for "James S. Gordy," who had died in 1974. That was my great-uncle Jim.

There's a lot more to the family's tale, some of it very upsetting, but the bottom line for me was that they believe the house was haunted. They claimed later visitations from spirits that were menacing, even threatening to assault them. However, the visitations from "Mr. Gordy" were always friendly ones. They came to think of him as a protector.

This required some reappraisal of my long-held ideas about my grandfather's brothers as little better than scoundrels. However, it appeared that Uncle Jim's ghost was a benevolent presence in the lives of at least one family. His conduct in the televised episode certainly doesn't sound like the conduct of a rascal. So, I'm now left with a mystery. At least some of what I've always believed about my family may be inaccurate. Or perhaps I just have a great-uncle with multiple personalities. Losing a familiar past can be upsetting.

I tell my students that I'm related to at least two U.S. Presidents: Jimmy Carter (2nd cousin once removed) and Lyndon Johnson (9th or 10th cousin). As a result of my recent research, I also confirmed what I had heard from other sources, that Berry Gordy, Jr., founder of Motown Records, is a 3rd cousin once removed. So I have two presidents and one entertainment tycoon in the family. Who'd have thought it would all begin with me trying to track down a ghost?

The cost of free speech

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 5:25 PM Comments comments ()
In a post on a blog about national politics yesterday, I used the term "Petigru's Asylum." Some readers familiar with South Carolina history might recognize the reference: It's an excerpt from James Petigru, a former SC governor who commented during the secession fever before the Civil War that "South Carolina is too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum."

The post in question had to do with the proposal to repeal South Carolina's archaic statue that forbids liquor sales on election days. Given the number of election days this state has, that's potentially a considerable reduction in business. My typically witty sally was that watching elections in South Carolina is enough to drive me to drink - safely at home.

What I wish someone in a position of power in South Carolina WOULD do is to slap some effective regulations on the blight of election signs that sprout like toadstools after a heavy rain this time of year. Since we have a hot Republican primary for the U.S. Senate nomination, the number of placards and posters wishing bad cess to the incumbent is particularly noteworthy. Given what I know of how Washington works, however, any of the challengers would soon find themselves either having to back and fill on their promises of change or trying to explain why areas that depend on Federal spending (of which this is one) are facing hard times.

Campaigning is easy and fun. Governing is hard work.  Making a start on moving from a culture of perpetual campaigning to a culture of responsible governance might be helped by forcing all campaign organizations to pick up ALL their campaign signs within two weeks after an election, under the penalty of stiff fines. I think free speech would survive such a law.

Almost famous

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 4:51 PM Comments comments ()
Ever since "six degrees of separation" got corrupted into "six degrees of Kevin Bacon," it's become unfashionable to talk about the "almost's" of life - i.e., "I was almost famous, but for . . ." where an alibi follows. "I would've, except . . ." In my case, when folks learn I went to Yale, they immediately assume I must have wealthy and powerful friends. It wounds my pride to tell them, "No, I was just a graduate-school drudge." One of my friends from graduate school, Willem Buiter, is nowadays chief economist for Citigroup in London, which means he certainly knows some important people. But when I recall that Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham, and Clarence Thomas were just across the street at Yale Law School for the first two years I was there and I never met them, even having an internationally-known economist as a friend doesn't seem all that special.

It's still a fun game to play. Last semester, I brought up the "six degrees of separation" idea to my Modern American History students as a way of pointing out that history isn't something remote from our present day. I could have mentioned that I'm a cousin of a former President (Jimmy Carter), but on that particular day we were discussing World War II and I chose another example. My late friend Jim Peterson was an aide to Admiral King, Chief of Naval Operations, at the time of the Argentia conference (August 1941), at which FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He met both of them aboard the U.S.S. Augusta. So I told them, "There's one degree from you to me, one from me to Jim, and one from Jim to two of the greatest leaders of World War II." I could have extended the example one degree further and mentioned that, through FDR, they were connected to every President of the U.S. from Grover Cleveland to FDR himself. Through Churchill, they were connected to Gandhi, Michael Collins, Chaim Weizman, Queen Victoria, and a host of others.

To paraphrase Faulkner, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. When you feel neglected and obscure, think about all the folks you've known in the past and all those to whom, through them, you are connected. You may get a surprise. As for me, I'm playing another variant of the "almost famous" game. If I had been born six days earlier and a thousand miles further north, I might not be Steve Gordy at all; I might be Bruce Springsteen. "Everybody's got a hungry heart. . ."