Charlottesville: could it happen here?

One blue-eyed, baby-faced demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia tells you all you need to know about what drives the alt-right haters, the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and their ilk.  Said Sean Patrick Nielsen, “I’m here because our Republican values are: standing up for our local white identity…which is under threat; the free market; and killing Jews.”

Time was when those who held such sentiments felt they had to sneak around. The KKK hid beneath their sheets and pointy hats. Lynchings occurred under dark of night. No one is tiptoeing around these days. The intensity of hatred has exploded into the open, the shame of such anti-American attitudes has disappeared, and the level of civil discourse has hit rock bottom. These scumbags (yes, Hillary was right to call them deplorables, though she did so inartfully and painted with too broad a brush) have been issued a standing invitation by our President, Donald J. Trump, to give full throat to their basest impulses and animosities.

If you doubt that, just listen to the words of David Duke , former KKK leader, who views Charlottesville as a turning point.  He sees the event as the fulfillment of Donald Trump’s promise to the people and said “that’s why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back, and that’s what we gotta do.”

Trump’s response decrying violence was as convincing as a hostage tape. Worse, he decried violence “on all sides,” creating a false equivalency between the heavily armed and military-garbed right-wing protesters and the anti-fascist demonstrators, including Black Lives Matter participants.  He failed even to name neo-Nazis, white supremacists,  and Klansmen, an omission that rightfully provoked outrage from Democrats and Republicans alike.  However much Trump may back and fill, finally being pushed into naming the white supremacist perpetrators, his initial utterances reflect who he is at his core.

Duke, for his part, was angered that Trump’s first statement even mentioned the violence. He told Trump to “look in the mirror and remember that” “it was white Americans who put you in the Presidency.”

So where do we go from here?  Other potential Southern hot spots loom as cities and states set about removing statues and other symbols of slavery.  In many cases, those memorials were created under the guise of preserving the storied heritage of southern life but were actually inspired by 20th century protests of gains for blacks in civil rights and education. Today, the Confederate memorials speak more to the treason of those who were willing to destroy the nation to preserve the violent and inhumane practice of slavery.  Our political leaders have to exercise their moral authority and denounce those groups who wish to return to those “good old days.”

But the North will not be immune to such violent confrontations.  Under the banner of the “New Free Speech Movement,” a group of right-wing activists plans a rally on Boston Common this coming Saturday. Its members disavow connection with the Charlottesville rally or its organizer, white nationalist blogger Jason Kessler.  Members of Black Lives Matter and others will organize a counter-protest.  It could be a recipe for disaster.

This will be a test for Boston, not just for its police, whose professionalism will be paramount.  It will also test whether we are capable of protecting the Free Speech rights of everyone, no matter how execrable their message, while not resorting to violence and chaos. This is a challenge that, I hope, no one is taking lightly.

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Can bipartisanship keep Trump at bay?

Donald Trump has left the White House. For 17 days. For a vacation in New Jersey. Is it safe to come out?

Initially, I thought so.  After Senators John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski stood tall to defeat a miserable “skinny” bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I was encouraged that bipartisan efforts seemed underway to fix Obamacare. (GOP Senator Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray are collaborating to stabilize the insurance market. Parallel efforts are underway in the House to protect subsidies.) I was also encouraged that Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and others were warning President Trump that they would not entertain any new nominee for Attorney General to replace Jeff Sessions.  A bipartisan group in the House is working on climate change. Like Noah’s Ark, each pair of Representatives joining must include one Republican and one Democrat.

Such initiatives are in line with McCain’s clarion call to ignore the bombast of the talking heads and to return to “return to the old order” of legislating in the Senate,  with public hearings and both sides contributing to the debate.  “What do we have to lose by working together?” he had asked of both Republicans and Democrats.

I allowed myself to wonder: could we be moving out of the dystopic world of Donald Trump? Would it were so. But, alas, yesterday’s “fire and fury” threat by Trump, promising to unleash against North Korea “power the likes of which this world has never seen before,” was scary as hell, even, I suspect, to his aides. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended the President’s language as a strong message to a country that doesn’t understand the language of diplomacy, but Tillerson also tried to dial it back, insisting we are not on the precipice of nuclear armageddon.  He tried to reassure the American people that they can sleep at night, even advising people explicitly to disregard the rhetoric of the past few days.  There is, he said, still room for negotiation. But the President’s ignorance about nuclear weaponry and warfare is jaw-dropping.

Unfortunately, the leaders of North Korea and the United States share certain qualities that pose a threat to peace. They are both bullies, impetuous and heedless of the long-term consequences of their testosterone-laden words and actions.

At this point, we might find solace in John McCain’s reminder that the Senate represents “a check on the power of the executive.”  “We are not,” he said in his inspirational speech on returning to Washington after brain surgery, “the President’s subordinates. We are his equals.” One can only hope that, notwithstanding the GOP’s increasing internecine fighting,  there are enough like-minded colleagues willing to resist Donald Trump’s bullying and blandishments and to fulfill their Constitutional obligations as a deliberative body in the interest of the American people. Without their standing up, it most definitely is not safe to come out.

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Finding America in Freedom

This is Old Home Week in Freedom, New Hampshire, population 1500. The town was incorporated in 1832 after it seceded from next-door Effingham in a dispute over whose taxes would pay for a bridge between the two. Freedom is a place of peacefulness and beauty, a little village of well maintained, white-painted homes, many dating back to the early 1800’s, surrounded by rolling meadows and gardens of lavender, lilies, daisies, purple cone flowers and salvia.  The library, town center, post office, general stores and local church are also picture-postcard perfect. From a Friday lawn party to the art and memento displays at tables in the village center, the people were welcoming.

Old Home Week was the brainchild of New Hampshire Governor Frank West Collins at a time when the Granite State population was shrinking dramatically.  It was a clarion call to its sons and daughters to come home, to reconnect with family and friends and support the continued vibrancy of local libraries, schools and other institutions.  The practice spread across New Hampshire and eventually over much of the country.  The tradition continues today in several towns in New Hampshire.

The first Old Home Week in Freedom was in 1899. This year’s event included a road race, crafts fair and art exhibit, church service, and hay wagon rides, but surely one of the highlights every year is the Saturday morning parade through town. There are marching bands, bagpipe performers, Kiwanis groups, church and service organizations, boys and girls clubs, and family floats. The winner of that group was the float of the Cunningham family, rooted in Freedom for over a hundred years. (Twenty-nine immediate family members came from as far away as Texas for Old Home Week.)

More than a dozen Can-Am Spyders (three-wheeled motorcycles), mostly driven by seniors, roared through as did a group of motorized mini Log Rollers in Shriners Caps doing a precision performance of Allemande-Left weaving worthy of a national square dance competition. Local contractors had shined up their heavy equipment and paraded it through on floats. At the parade’s end came fire trucks and other public safety vehicles, their sirens deafening bystanders, who duly applauded their civic contribution. Hokey? Yes, but also, in its own way, touching.

For years, my daughter-in-law Sarah’s mom, talented artist Peg Scully, had painted designs for tee shirts depicting the beauties of Freedom, the essence of rural America. Saturday, Peg, whose wide-ranging contributions to civic life in the town are manifold, was honored as Grand Marshal of the parade. Her paintings capture the intimacy of Freedom’s people and the enduring beauty of a place that is a true refuge from urban life.

My husband and I also took our visit as a momentary escape from ugly politics, talking heads braying at each other, Washington gridlock, vengeful firings, stupidity, cupidity, narcissistic self-serving ignorant leadership. You get the idea. But here’s the thing. Freedom is America, all of it.

A little more than half of Freedom voted for Donald Trump. (Hillary Clinton edged out Trump statewide by 3/10ths of a percent.)  Along with the abundance of flag-waving marchers and proclaimers of libertarian patriotism in Saturday’s parade were floats by Carroll County Democrats and other activists carrying signs supporting gay rights, Black Lives Matter, Health Care as a Human Right,  calls to save Medicare and Medicaid.

At a lawn party the evening before, I had to restrain my husband from asking people if they still supported the President who had promised to “Make America Great Again.” I suspect that, just as support for Trump – at historic lows for anyone at this stage of the Presidency – is as fervent as ever in its support among Republicans, perhaps not wanting to concede they may have made a mistake. I don’t know what the tipping point will be in this nightmare, but I certainly didn’t want to tackle the topic while enjoying Freedom’s beauty and serenity.

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Escape from Trump 3.0, pt. 2 – non-fiction


History is often best revealed through the personal stories and relationships of individuals. So it is with these non-fiction books I’ve read of late.

An Invisible Thread is a deeply personal memoir of two lives brought together by one small act. Laura Schroff was a successful ad executive in the go-go 1980’s who brushes past an 11-year-old black child panhandling at 56th and Broadway, less than two blocks from her Manhattan apartment. Something, some “invisible thread” as described in a Chinese proverb, stops her short, and she returns to him. “I’m hungry, lady. Do you have some spare change?” She takes him to McDonald’s. Lunch becomes weekly dinners and involvement in different aspects of Maurice Mazyck’s life over many years.  From that first act of kindness, both lives are changed.

Maurice’s life, which otherwise would probably have meant chaos, despair, drugs and jail, became a story of education, well-paying job, wife, family and love. Through Maurice, Schroff is able to confront her own father’s alcoholism and abuse, an unexpected bond with the boy. Her life was made more meaningful by understanding, awareness and human connection. It is a moving story, a reminder of the need not always to brush by strangers who make us feel uncomfortable. An emotional read, highly recommended.

Anthony David’s An Improbable Friendship is a remarkable story of the 40-year relationship between Ruth Dayan, wife of charismatic Israeli military commander and eventually Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and Raymonda Tawil, a militant Palestinian peace activist whose daughter married Yasser Arafat.  Ruth Dayan, who was also the sister-in-law of Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, divorced Moshe Dayan after 36 years of marriage because of his womanizing, but seems to have stayed in touch with him. She and Tawil, both feminists seeking roads to peace, worked tirelessly for human rights and, when they could,  used their connections to convey back-channel messages at the highest levels of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The Jewish press has condemned the book as anti-Israel, but it remains an interesting portrayal of parallel, if intersecting, lives against a complex backdrop of seemingly insoluble conflict.

Susan Quinn’s Eleanor and Hicktells the story of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok. Lovers, companions, colleagues, counselors, they lived together (Hickok had a room at the White House for more than a decade), traveled together and relaxed together.  This intimate book is not great writing but is well researched, enriched by excerpts from the pair’s letters to each other (oh, where will history be in the next, email-only generation?). It’s a compelling account of the prodigious work of the woman arguably this nation’s most extraordinary First Lady. Because Roosevelt’s and Hickok’s work unfolded  during the Depression, the book sets the stage for the portrait of Appalachia in Hillbilly Elegy.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has become a necessary read for many struggling to understand how Donald Trump connected with a wide swath of our nation, those feeling left behind, taken for granted, enraged. Vance’s family moved from West Virginia to Ohio; its portrait typical of post-industrial Appalachia: searing poverty, poor to no education, alcoholism and drug abuse, family dysfunction (he was raised by his grandparents) and a tendency toward violence. Economic insecurity was a constant, along with low expectations.  Yet Vance’s grandmother’s insistence on his getting a good education and his stint in the marines spurred a self-discipline that enabled him to succeed, get a college degree, a Yale law degree and entry into the world of investments.

Some left-leaning readers will fault his critique of welfare and insistence on boot-strapping toward upward mobility as too dismissive of social programs, but the authenticity of his narrative makes his a voice to be heeded.

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: the 400-year Untold History of Class in America is a good companion book, but, as you can tell from the title, it’s told more from the top down and in a more scholarly fashion that  Hillbilly Elegy, which, because it is so very personal, is more gripping. (Another companion piece is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, a UC Berkeley sociologist who traveled the country for five years getting to know the “others” in a deeply empathetic way.)

As we all struggle with trying to understand what is happening in our country, why people do what they do, their lack of understanding of each other,  how we can get out of the morass we’re in, I look forward to your recommendations of books that illuminate and inspire.

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Escape from Trump 3.0 – real fiction

On a rainy October-like day, there’s nothing like settling in with good fiction to escape from the Trumpian travails of our time. Here, in no particular order, are some of the books I’ve been reading over the past months.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks is what The New York Times called “thundering, gritty, emotionally devastating.”  With her enormously expansive imagination and use of language equal to her compelling vision, Brooks retells the story of King David,  a fierce warrior, nation builder, carnal exploiter,  and gifted musician and composer.  The story is told through the eyes of Natan (Nathan), a prophet in David’s court through whom God supposedly speaks to David. It’s worth the effort to suspend disbelief and open oneself to Brook’s riveting writing.

Another high impact book is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.  It follows the escape of Cora, a slave and grandchild of slaves, from Georgia to South Carolina and beyond. Life for slaves is not sugar-coated, nor is the physical deprivation, brutality,  sexual abuse, hunger and despair. Yet the effort to escape drives the story, even while, as Whitehead explained to NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, elements of the old horrors still resonate today in the experience of many poor blacks across our country.

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis is a highly autobiographical novel, portraying the harsh reality experienced by a gay boy in a poor town in France in the 1990’s.  He was the lowest of the low, more despised by the town than even hated Jews or Arabs.  Regular beatings in the corridors of his elementary school are just part of the tapestry of a fading town colored by working class rage, testosterone-driven violence and alcoholism.  That he emerged from that childhood of unrelenting cruelty to become a successful author reminds me of J. D. Vance, writer of Hillbilly Elegy.

Another change in country, this time to Vietnam. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (born in Vietnam, raised in the United States) is a distinctly Vietnamese perspective of what it took to survive in Vietnam during the war. The narrator (writing his story from a jail cell) is a half-breed, born to a Vietnamese mother and Catholic priest. His political sympathies are similarly riven, his spy/ counter-spy roles facilitated by his ability to speak perfect English.  He is both an aide to the South Vietnamese police and a spy for the Communist north. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is all about intrigue, murders and betrayals but also includes some grotesquely comic interludes when the unnamed narrator is living in California and working as a consultant to a director doing a film on Vietnam. The book’s complexities require a reader’s commitment and maybe even a second read, but it’s well worth it (at least the first reading).

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is the fictionalized account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s life under Joseph Stalin, the daily crush of the heavy hand of the state on artistic expression.  Shostakovich’s music, melodic in the earliest years of his artistry, became more difficult and dissonant as he struggled to retain his independence and individuality. When it becomes unsafe for anyone to perform his music, Shostakovich accommodates, but struggles with his own cowardice. Forced by Stalin to deliver a speech in New York to the Congress on World Peace, Shostakovich would eventually submit even to becoming a member of the Communist Party.  Despite these concessions, the portrayal of the composer is a sympathetic one and a really absorbing read.

Finally, Siracusa by Delia Ephron, sister of the late, beloved writer Nora Ephron.  It’s about the relationships between and among two couples vacationing together in Italy, who they have been and who they might end up with.  It’s about feelings, families, flirtations, affairs and careers. There’s also an unfolding mystery. The chapters are told in their four alternating voices, and it took me half the book to be able to remember who is who and who is with whom. I stuck with it (perhaps out of inertia?) long enough for the mystery to start unfolding, and, by the end, I could conclude that it was actually a pretty good yarn. Not a prize winner, to be sure, but decent enough summer reading.

My next blog will reflect on some non-fiction that I’ve read over the last several months. Until then, I wish you extended summer days and hours of pleasurable reading and would appreciate your contributions to this list.

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I welcome your comments in the section below. To be alerted when a new blog is posted, click on “Follow’ in the lower right portion of your screen.
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Finally, a good Russian story.  No, not Vladimir Putin or lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who met with DJT, Jr.  Instead, it was Daniil Trifonovv, the brilliant young pianist who thrilled audiences last week at Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  Just 26 years old, he started at the age of five in Moscow and is a rising star on the world concert stage. The Franz Lizst look-alike is sometimes called this generation’s Vladimir Horowitz.

Further drip-drip-drip revelations about the Trump family’s connection to Russian attempts to intervene in our democratic processes, the embarrassment our President is as a failed leader in global activities, the impact of his crude and uncivil social media behavior even on children and teens in the United States, just a few of the reasons the news is soul-sucking on a daily basis.  Which is why I’m trying to seek out every no-Trump zone possible this summer, to save my sanity.


Koussevitsky Shed

There is no happier refuge from the politics of stupidity and hate than the rolling hills of the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  A two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Boston area, the biggest challenge is finding a b-&-b or inn to stay in that doesn’t require a three-night minimum. But you can also drive out for a day and sit on the lawn, either for a Saturday morning open rehearsal or Sunday afternoon concert. (We ran into neighbors who were so enchanted with gorgeous virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter’s Saturday rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto that they came back on Sunday afternoon to hear it again.)

Sitting on the lawn gives insight into how elegant picnics can be, some complete with tablecloths and even an occasional candelabra.  Except at the usual traffic backup at the intersection of the MassPike and Route 84, it’s not a particularly taxing trip to make. And the payoff, in music and setting, is well worth the effort.  (Besides classical fare, there are also programs of jazz and contemporary music and popular artists like Sting and Diana Ross.)  If I sound like a tout, I unabashedly am.  I started going to Tanglewood as a 15-year-old camper and have loved being there ever since.

Given the political context in which we live, it’s reassuring to note that there are havens for peaceful reflection and shared cultural experiences. Tanglewood is surely an important one.

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America celebrates – despite Trump

photo Boston Globe

Welcoming summer’s glories with friends in Ogunquit, listening languidly to waves lapping the rock-strewn sandy beach, long walks on the Marginal Way, lobster and steamers – life’s pleasures endure, despite the despicable political environment. Our nation’s birthday is still a cause for celebration.

Years ago, we were regulars on the Esplanade for the Boston Pops Fourth of July concert.  This year, we drove back from Maine to watch the festivities on television. We all have to adapt to change, and the  Pops Fourth of July concert is no exception.  Impressario David Mugar had underwritten the fireworks event since 1974, but this year, after shelling out millions of his own dollars to keep the tradition going, Mugar stepped aside. The good news is that money management firm Eaton Vance, headquartered in Boston since 1924,  stepped up (thank you, CEO Tom Faust), and the Pops Fourth of July concert was better than ever. Eaton Vance’s backing means the concert can continue to be free to the public

Medford-born former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also played a key role by becoming the event’s media sponsor. When Mugar moved the event several years ago from WCVB-TV Channel 5 (full disclosure: my old employer) broadcast nationally on the A & E network to WBZ-TV 4 and wider CBS national  distribution, the Boston Symphony lost much of its control of the production. (Disclosure 2.0: I’m an overseer emerita of the BSO.) It was larded with too many and ill-timed commercials and cut-ins. The orchestra’s talents were barely on display, a seeming after-thought.  The distinctive Boston flavor was terribly diminished. The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra was reduced to a back-up band for celebrity talent of the moment. We came to prefer the D.C. and New York July 4th versions.  Then CBS bowed out, putting the annual event at risk.    This past spring, Bloomberg TV picked it up, and distributed it on its several  platforms.   The BSO/Boston Pops organization regained control, and the broadcast became a class act once again.

Though there were plenty of commercials, they were more tastefully done. They had a distinctly global flavor, suggesting an anticipated audience with Bloomberg and Eaton Vance that could take the Pops around the world, living up to its nickname, “America’s Orchestra.”  The traditional 1812 Overture (criticized by some because it’s Russian rather than American) was played without the irritating interruptions of recent years, and the post-concert recorded music accompanying this year’s spectacular fireworks display was well curated and included Pops recordings.  The camera work was excellent and the production values, high.

There were still celebrity performers – singer Melissa Etheridge, Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr., pop artist Andy Grammer.  Baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell premiered a stirring new song, The Sum of Us,  by composer Alan Menken and  lyricist Jack Feldman that should be an anthem for our time, as much a part of the annual celebration as the 1812 Overture.

But the real star once again was the music, the Boston Pops, the city and the celebration of what has till very recently been our optimistic and inclusive national spirit.  At a worrisome time in our nation’s history, with the degradation of civility and ignorance of historic norms and decent behavior at the highest levels, last night’s event was a reminder of what was and could be again.

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