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Clio's Temple

Blog

A question of values

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 7:01 AM Comments comments (8)
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.

A Disordered Imagination, Part Two

Posted on May 12, 2017 at 6:36 AM Comments comments (1)
When my aunt read Tangled Woods and Dark Waters, she asked me, "Where do you get the names of all these people?" In contrast to my story ideas, that answer is easy: Over a forty-year professional career, I met thousands of people, many from other countries. When I need to name a character, I can dip into my basket of memories and scramble the names to create new personas. If you make the proper disclaimers, you can get away with a lot in these arena. Read any of Pat Conroy's novels and you'll see the names of his friends show up (coincidentally) in the names of his characters.

This brings me to the topic of connections. After all, as writers, our craft includes forging connections that may exist only in our minds. Still, there are times when the circumstances of real life suggest connections that can be adapted for purposes of my writing.
My father flew a B-17 in World War II. Very late in his life, I drove him to a reunion of his wartime unit in the Washington area. En route, he told me tales about his comrades-in-arms, stories that lay unsuspected until advanced age loosened his memory. There were people I'd met many years earlier, but who, in his recollections, took on a very different shape from what I'd previously learned about them. I have a novel on the writing schedule, working title Wings of the Storm, based on Dad's experiences. When we cleaned out the files in my parents' house, I inherited boxes of material, some of which he'd kept since the 1940s. I'm positive there are connections in those boxes that will emerge when I start working my way through them.

Still, the recollections of the elderly need to be handled with caution. My uncle ran a contract mail delivery business for thirty years. One of his colleagues got so accustomed to hearing his stories of his early life that he asked my uncle for permission to put these into a book. The book that resulted, From Marianna to Moosburg: One B-17 Crewman's Story of War, Redemption, and Family Reunion contains some fascinating tidbits. This is particularly the case for information about my paternal grandfather, who died years before I was born. But there are a couple of factual errors, pretty inconsequential, but still bothersome, that restrain me from using the book as a source without some cross-checking. It's probably unfair to present the memories of the very old as an unvarnished source of truth. The possibility of inadvertently doing an injustice to real people demands caution in mining these memories.

How many connections are available for our use? We've all heard of "six degrees of separation," i.e., that moving through six levels of connections puts us in touch with a large portion of the human race. I used to tell my students, "If your family has been in this country for a hundred years, you're probably related to someone famous. If your family has been in this country for two hundred years, it's a lead pipe cinch." I gave one class an assignment to locate someone famous among their ancestors and the results were gratifying; two of my students could trace a clear path back to those who arrived aboard the Mayflower. Consider yourself. Think of five people you know, or knew, and for whom you have some knowledge of their lives. When you work outward from those five people, you will find that you have something like 5 connections, or between fifteen and sixteen thousand individuals. Obviously, you can't locate any information about all of them, or even a small fraction of them. But there are still plenty of starting points.

Just one example: the head usher (now deceased) at a church I attended was a midshipman about the U.S.S. Augusta in 1941. He was an aide to Admiral King, then commander of the Atlantic Fleet, later Chief of Naval Operations. In this role, he accompanied King to the Argentia Conference, where FDR and Churchill framed the Atlantic Charter. He personally met all the American Chiefs of Staff, as well as several members of the British high command. From just the contacts on this one occasion, he was connected to movers and shakers whose influence on the world stretches back many generations into the past. Had he lived to be 200, I could never have exhausted the flow of stories that ran through his connections.

Where do your connections lead you?

The things we remember

Posted on July 1, 2016 at 3:06 PM Comments comments (1)
It's probably inevitable, given the fact that we are in the midst of the centennial of World War I, that a number of highlights or lowlights of that epic slaughter get special mention. Today, at the midpoint of 2016, Europe observes the 100th anniversary of the First Day at the Somme.

In a war that saw many days of horror, July 1 is particularly infamous in the English-speaking world. Two hundred thousand men from Britain and the British Empire went over the top. Sixty thousand of them were struck down; over nineteen thousand of them were dead or missing. Casualties were especially heavy among men from Ulster and Newfoundland. In both those places, this day has a special bitterness.

By nightfall on July 1, it was becoming apparent to even the most diehard believers in victory that its cost might be more than modern nations could tolerate. Yet that was only the First Day. Before the battle of the Somme dragged to its ghastly conclusion, the British had lost over six hundred thousand men; Germany lost around four hundred fifty thousand. All the devil's tools which the Industrial Revolution had created - barbed wire, poison gas, machine guns, long-range artillery - contributed to the death of the belief that human progress was foreordained (at least in the western world).

One reason why this date has a fascination for me is that it provides another example of Six Degrees of Separation. An English farmer named Martin Middlebrook was so moved by a visit to the military cemeteries from World War I that he wrote a book, First Day at the Somme, which captured the stories of hundreds of men whose youth died on that battlefield. Some years later, he came to the United States to interview flyers who had participated in the massive bombings that destroyed Hamburg in July, 1943. One of the men he interviewed was my father, whose story is told in The Battle of Hamburg. To the end of his life, Dad remembered the time he spent with a foreigner who came a long way to hear his story.

I tell my students, "History isn't something far off. It's all around us." World War I was enormously consequential for the world, with its destruction of empires, its battles, revolutions, and epidemics. Because it was fought far from our shores, few of us Americans have or have ever had a living connection to July 1, 1916. The unending sequence of ironies that the flow of history drags along with it, though, spins a web of connections that, over time, will entangle even those a long way from major events. On that very same day, a young Army lieutenant named Dwight Eisenhower married Mary Geneva Doud, their happiness unclouded by the horrors of a few hours earlier. Of course, decades later, that same young lieutenant commanded millions of Americans, British, Canadians, French, and Poles in desperate battles fought not far from the Somme.

Who knows what historians will say about us a hundred years from today? Perhaps it's better that we can't know. Foreknowledge might drive us all insane.

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?

A haunted relationship?

Posted on June 14, 2014 at 4:56 PM Comments comments (4)
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?

Almost famous

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 4:51 PM Comments comments (2)
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. . ."

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