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Clio's Temple


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?

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?

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?

A haunted relationship?

Posted on June 14, 2014 at 4:56 PM Comments comments ()
We can't choose the family into which we're born. There have times when I wished I belonged to some other family, but that's mostly just blowing off steam. When I look at how many of my friends have families whose dysfunction runs deep, I consider myself blessed to have the family I have.

I grew up in a family with unbalanced relationships. Both my grandmothers strongly preferred to spend time with their families, not with my grandfathers' relatives. Growing up, I knew some of my grandmothers' nieces and nephews who lived fifty or seventy-five miles away better than I knew my  cousins across town. There are always reasons for this, of course. One of my great-uncles was gay, living his entire life in the closet. Another was (as far as I can determine) murdered. It's not particularly surprising that I have now reached the age when I hunger and thirst for information about the portions of my family I don't know well.

My father's father died in 1932. Because he and my grandmother lived in Florida then, while most of his family lived around Columbus, Georgia, almost the first chance I had to know any of his close kin was in 1969, when my family got an invitation to the wedding of one of Uncle Jim's granddaughters. Therein lies the beginning of a tale.

"Uncle Jim" was James S. Gordy (1888-1974), younger brother of my grandfather. He was in the real estate business and was quite successful. At the only meeting we had, I noted how his temperament mirrored those of my father and uncle. Dad said "Uncle Jim kissed the Blarney Stone three times." When he died five years later, my grandmother's reaction might be summarized as "good riddance." She didn't like her husband's father or brothers, whom she believed had swindled him out of an inheritance. So I've had that image of him ever since then.

This week, for no good reason, I decided to do a search for more information. What triggered this was the memory that my mother-in-law once asked me, during a phone conversation, if I had any relatives named "Jim Gordy." When I told her I did, she said she'd seen an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" in which a man who called himself "Jim Gordy" began appearing to a little girl in Ellerslie, Georgia in 1989. When her parents got worried about this "imaginary friend," they asked their neighbors if anyone knew "Jim Gordy." They were stunned when a neighbor put them in touch with the family that had lived in the house next door. The house had for some years been the residence of Uncle Jim and Aunt Frances. Hearing this was worrisome enough that they launched an investigation. In the end, the little girl picked out a photo of Uncle Jim from twenty or so photos of men who lived or had lived nearby. Uncle Jim had been dead over fifteen years by this time.

There's a lot more to this story, some of which seems to defy credulity. The little girl's perception of "Uncle Jim" was as a benevolent protector. By contrast, she had had encounters with other spirits that were distinctly threatening. Perhaps parapsychologists can come up with an explanation for this; I can't.  I'm doing more research, hoping I can uncover the particulars of this haunted relationship.

There's another unsolved mystery about my family, but it'll have to wait. Supposedly, Berry Gordy (of Motown Records fame) is also a cousin by the wrong side of the blanket. Who knew?


Posted on April 28, 2014 at 6:54 AM Comments comments ()
On April 29, 1944, my uncle's plane was blown out of the skies over Berlin. After surviving a near-lynching by German civilians, he joined my father in POW camp in eastern Germany. Exactly one year later, tanks from the U.S. 14th Armored Division rolled through the front gate of the POW compound in Moosburg, Bavaria, liberating both brothers and thousands of other American and British prisoners.

At about the same time, my future father-in-law's unit liberated another camp, this one with a name still infamous - Dachau. On this day, we also commemorate Shoah, or the Holocaust as most of us call it. However vile life and death were inside Dachau, much of the worst of what went on in those years was hidden from us. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor - these were the real death factories and all lay in territory captured by the Red Army. Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and many of the other top Allied commanders were so horrified by what their troops found that they, in some cases, forced German civilians to bury the bodies lying out in the open. The mind reels at what might have happened had our troops seen what went on in Eastern Europe.

A friend who grew up in West Prussia died a few days ago. As a boy, Ewald and his family fled before the advance of the Soviet forces. They didn't make it all the way to the West. In fact, Ewald spent four years in a slave labor camp in East Germany, escaping by the grace of God and some remarkable good fortune. While he was personally guiltless in the atrocities of Nazism, when the human soul seeks vengeance, it's generally not in much of a mood to dispense justice. As often happens in life, many of the worst perpetrators died before the war ended or successfully evaded justice.

We can't always deal out justice, but we can remember. As Herman Wouk says in his monumental War and Remembrance, "the beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance." In remembrance of my forebears and what they went through to spare future generations from such horrors, I post this picture. It's my father and uncle at a remembrance service in 2007 honoring former Prisoners of War. Honor to those who survived; remember those who didn't.

Seeking forgiveness

Posted on April 6, 2014 at 4:13 PM Comments comments ()
It must be hell to be one of those persons who can't ask for or accept forgiveness. I suspect we all know at least one such individual. What makes it particularly challenging is that folks who think this way very often wind up making yet more misery for themselves and everyone else around them.

A couple with whom my wife and I have been friends for several years lost their first child, an 18-month-old girl under particularly ugly circumstances. The little girl's nanny killed her, then committed suicide, thereby forever thwarting any hope of getting an answer to the question of "why?" The baby's paternal grandfather, a hard-nosed businessman, later came to believe that his granddaughter's death was some cosmic retribution for all the nasty things he'd done to others in his professional career. To the end of his life, no one could convince him of the fallacy in his thinking.

Dealing with life can make you crazy. I know this will come as a shock of some of you, but it's the truth. Trying to go through life without giving or receiving forgiveness is something I find inconceivable.

Lately, I've done a lot of wrestling with the harm inflicted by insensate evil, i.e., those dreadful things that happen to people who have done nothing to merit their suffering. Viktor Frankl dealt with this problem in Man's Search for Meaning. His conclusion was that we always have the freedom to choose our own responses to evil. To be sure, the evils of Nazism were hardly insensate. But in trying to deal with the capriciousness of mortal illness and other evils that truly are insensate, it ought to help us to remember that we can forgive even the unforgivable. Perhaps our human ability to do that can help us to preserve our sanity in the face of things that go dreadfully, irretrievably wrong.

Forgive someone who's hurt you today. Even if they don't accept it, you will be a different person for having done it.