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Clio's Temple


Swimming in history, or drowning?

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 5:19 PM Comments comments (23)
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 (1)
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 (3)
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?

Mediocrities, I absolve you

Posted on May 7, 2013 at 3:28 PM Comments comments (3)
Perhaps you remember the ending to Amadeus: the dying Antonio Salieri is moved to another room in the asylum which has become his home. As he passes his fellow inmates, he gives them a beatific smile, saying, "Mediocrities, I absolve you." He died on this day in 1825. Perhaps it's worth remembering, when competitive pressures bear down on us, that we will most likely never have to compete with a person of Mozart's talents (in whatever field is our métier).

When he passed on, it was in the middle of a great transition. Most professional musicians would (I daresay) hold up Mozart, and perhaps Haydn, as the epitome of "Classicism" among composers.Today is also the anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He, of course, broke out of the classical mold and was one of the founding fathers of Romanticism, but even at this hour of triumph, his time was running out. He had only two years left to live.

Today is also the birthday of Johannes Brahms (1833) and Peter Tchaikovsky (1840). On any list of great Romantic composers, those two would probably rank in the top five, certainly the top ten.The age of the Industrial Revolution, so grim in many manifestations, was also an age of renewal in the word of music. While we celebrate the greats, let us not forget the mediocrities. They also served.