Category Archives: Not at all Writing Related

Monday Musings: Taxes and Patriotism

I started work on my taxes this weekend, which is probably why taxes and government spending are on my mind for this Monday Musings posts.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: No one likes to pay taxes. And if we didn’t care about driving our cars on roads, or flying in airplanes that don’t crash into each other, or eating meat that doesn’t make us sick, or having some basic income in our golden years, or having access to health care after retirement, or going to beautiful National Parks, or doing about a thousand other things that we take for granted, we would love to keep all that tax money for ourselves, to spend as we see fit.

But, of course, we do want those things I mentioned. Plus we want a national defense. We want the police and fire and EMT services paid for by local taxes. We want to foster the arts and promote scientific research.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

(A couple of other tax quotes for you: “The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.” — Arthur C. Clarke; “Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf.” — Will Rogers.)

I agree wholly with the Holmes quote (and probably the other two as well) and also with Joe Biden, who said during the 2008 campaign that paying taxes is an act of patriotism.

Biden said this after Barack Obama was criticized for proposing an end to the Bush tax cuts. Obama did raise taxes marginally, only to see them cut again under the most recent Administration. I have every expectation that the Biden Administration will roll back at least some of Trump’s tax cuts — those that were targeted at corporations and the wealthy.

Without revealing too much, I will say that Nancy and do pretty well financially. We benefitted from the Trump cuts, and wish we hadn’t. We didn’t need the cut. Others did. We wound up increasing our charitable giving to compensate, and we will gladly pay more in taxes if it means cutting the tax burden for those who aren’t as financially secure as we are.

What bothers me most about the conversation surrounding taxes in this country is those who say they don’t want their tax dollars going to social welfare programs, because they don’t believe in giving others a free ride.

First of all, if they honestly think that living in poverty is a “free ride,” they’re insane. Folks in Texas lost their heat and electricity for a week, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid — all of it justified and deserved. But there are plenty of people in this country who can’t afford to heat their homes at all. There are people in this country who live on the streets, who wander from shelter to shelter seeking a meal or a bed or a bit of warmth. Every night in the United States children go to bed hungry.

In a civilized society, we try to take care of them, to feed and house, to warm and comfort.

And I would say to those who object to social welfare spending that I, too, don’t like all the things my tax dollars buy. We spend nearly $700 billion a year on the military. I believe that is way, way too much. We spend money to benefit oil and gas companies, big pharmaceutical companies, huge agricultural conglomerates, and all sorts of other corporate entities. Most of those expenditures come in the form of tax breaks and credits, but that doesn’t change the fact that they increase the tax burden on the rest of us. I object to much of that spending.

Some would tell me that defense systems, the search for oil, R & D for new drugs — these are things that benefit all of us. I might argue with these points — I don’t think new defense systems are necessarily good for anyone, and I know that finding more oil to burn is a terrible idea — but I understand the logic of the argument. And I would counter that lifting up those in need helps all of us as well, that improving education for those with the least pays dividends for all of society, that enabling all to participate fully in the nation’s economy improves that economy for everyone.

The larger point is this: We don’t get to pick and choose where our tax dollars go. I have to pay for a new weapons system and for oil and gas exploration that Exxon can easily afford to do on its own. Others have to spend on school lunches, teacher training, childhood health subsidies, vocational retraining, etc.

This is the price we all pay in order to live in a diverse, thriving nation.

Federal Deficit ChartAnd one more point I would like to make. Interest on the national debt currently gobbles up 8 cents out of every tax dollar. The budget deficit for 2020 was $3.7 TRILLION (slightly less than the chart above projects — I included the chart for the trend line). Even before the pandemic hit, necessitating emergency spending, the Trump tax cuts had driven projected deficits way up over where they were by the end of the Obama Administration. Some will try to tell you that those tax cuts simply returned money to the pockets of Americans. Bull. Every dollar that Donald Trump added to the deficit increased that interest expenditure I just mentioned and forced the rest to pay more. By skewing his cuts to the wealthiest among us, he basically forced the rest of Americans to subsidize a tax cut for the rich.

In any case, I still have a bit of work to do on our taxes, but it looks like we overpaid for the year. Most likely, we’ll take our refund in the form of prepayment of my estimated taxes for 2021. That’s just the way it works.

Have a good week.

Creative Friday: Rime and Mist

Late last week, after days of snow and freezing temperatures, we finally had a much needed thaw. But before the thaw began, I took a Friday morning walk out to Jackson Lake, a spot I have visited often in the past year. I hadn’t planned to go, but something in the light, and in the scent of the air, told me I had to. I grabbed my camera and monopod, and hurried through the woods behind our house. I am so very glad I did.

The trees around the lake were rimed with frost, and a mist drifted through the surrounding forest and across the water’s surface, lending a ghostly cast to the entire scene. I was in photographer’s heaven. I took a lot of photos, some okay, some pretty memorable. Here are a couple of the best.

I don’t expect that we’re quite done with winter here on the Cumberland Plateau. But this past week had a springlike feel, and it may be that magically frosty mornings like this one are finished, at least for a number of months. I suppose we’ll see.

I wish you a magical weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.

Jackson Lake with Frost and Mist, by David B. CoeJackson Lake with Frost and Mist II, by David B. Coe

Creative Friday: SITTIN’ IN Fifty (!) Years Later

Sittin In, Loggins and MessinaFor this week’s Creative Friday post, I’m doing something a little different, and writing about someone else’s creativity.

Lately, I have been on a kick of going back to old music that I once loved but lost touch with along the way. Some of it I have tried to rediscover only to find that it’s really not all that good and ought to have stayed lost. But a few of the albums I have gone back to have surprised me with their quality. One of them is an old classic: Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s Sittin’ In.

Actually, the album is officially credited “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina.” When they started together in 1971, Loggins was a young singer/songwriter at the start of a promising career, and Messina was already a rock veteran, having enjoyed success in Buffalo Springfield and Poco. Messina was brought in to produce a Loggins solo album, but wound up contributing songs and arrangements, not to mention guitar work and lots of vocals. In the end, they released the album as a duet. Over the next five years, before their somewhat messy break-up in 1976, they went on to release six studio albums and a live album. After the break-up they fulfilled some contractual obligations with another live album and a couple of greatest hits releases.

They’re probably best known for an old-time rock tune called “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” a song I never cared for all that much. And several of their later albums sold better than the first. But to my mind, Sittin’ In was the best album they put out.

It includes a couple of beautiful and popular ballads. Loggins wrote “Danny’s Song” to celebrate the birth of his brother’s son. This is one of those songs that no one knows by title, but everyone recognizes. The chorus has been sung by crowds in college coffee houses for nearly fifty years. “Even though we ain’t got money/I’m so in love with you, honey/And everything will bring a chain of love…”

“House at a Pooh Corner” is a lovely-if-saccharine-sweet homage to childhood, and another coffee house favorite.

But where the album really shines is in its up-tempo numbers, which combine the exuberance of straight-ahead 70s rock, with the instrumentation of country. “Nobody But You,” which opens the album, is one of my favorite songs of all time. By anyone. From the opening guitar lick, to the tidy, tasteful finish, the song simply soars.

“Back To Georgia” begins what was once the B side of the album with similar energy and power. The centerpiece of that second side is the smoky “Same Old Wine,” which could well have been written today:

Well we give them the election,
That keeps filling our heads full of lies;
Can we trust in new directions,
When their promises are in disguise?
Well someday the truth will catch up
I just hope it don’t catch us all by surprise.

The album also includes “Vahevala,” a calypso-influenced song that was the biggest hit on the album. It remains catchy and affecting, though fifty years on, some of the lyrics are, let’s say, problematic. A tight three-song medley on the old A side ends with the soulful “Peace of Mind,” and Loggins’ piano ballad, “Rock and Roll Mood,” completes the collection. There really isn’t a bad track here. I can’t say that about too many albums.

Without a doubt, part of Sittin’ In’s appeal for me lies in nostalgia. This is an album I listened to throughout my adolescence and well into my college years. It carries some wonderful memories, as well as some more poignant ones. But as I said before, I have been listening to lots of albums from that part of my life, and some of them don’t hold up well at all.

This one does.

If you don’t know it, you should check it out. If, like me, you had it once, but lost touch with the music, give it another listen. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Have a great weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.

Monday Musings: Beyond Impeachment

I really didn’t want to write another Monday Musings post about Donald Trump. I would like to be shot of him, just like a majority of the country. And (this is Washington’s dirty little secret) just like a majority of elected Republicans.

Clearly they remain terrified of the man and his rabid supporters, too many of whom have proven themselves willing to resort to violence. And so only ten Republicans in the House of Representatives supported impeachment. And only seven Republicans in the Senate voted to convict. And yet it is worth noting that these are the highest levels of support from members of a President’s own party in the history of American impeachments. Yes, that’s right. Never before have as many as ten House members voted to impeach a President in their own party. Before Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial, no Senator had ever voted to convict a President of the same party. Seven GOP votes for conviction this time around, in what was the equivalent of a landslide.

Don’t get me wrong: I am utterly disgusted by the cowardice and capitulation of most Congressional Republicans. Their continued support of this man — a man who incited his supporters to a murderous frenzy in order to overturn the legitimate results of a free and fair election — makes me sick and leaves me fearful for the future of our republic.

Yet, I think the impeachment trial was not only worth pursuing, it was also largely successful. The House impeachment managers were masterful in presenting their case. They established beyond doubt that the assault on the U.S. Capitol was a coordinated effort fueled by Trump’s false claims about the election and enabled by those in the Republican party who parroted Trump’s lies.

We have known for some time now that Congressional Republicans are spineless, that they are more interested in partisan gain than in the health of our political system. We knew there weren’t seventeen men or women in the party’s Senate caucus with the guts to vote for a conviction. And the specious and largely discredited argument legal argument they clung to — that a President can’t be impeached after leaving office — gave them the excuse they needed to vote for Trump without defending his indefensible actions.

But it’s worth noting that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Lord, how I LOVE typing that) took to the Senate floor just after the vote to acquit, and essentially endorsed the case laid out by the House “prosecutors.” Trump, he admitted, incited his supporters to riot. The former President did so over the course of months, repeating his “big lie” about the election being rigged, and he did so that very day with a speech that pushed an already agitated mob to do the unthinkable. The Capitol Building was ransacked; former Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others were nearly murdered; police officers were assaulted and wounded. One died that day. Two others have died since. Six people died in total. And all of this is Donald Trump’s fault.

Many seem to believe that Donald Trump still has a political future. I suppose that’s possible. But I would remind everyone of something that activist/journalist Bill Palmer mentioned on his site shortly before Trump left office: After Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election and his triumphant inauguration in January of 2009, everyone in the country assumed that the Republican Party would be led going forward by Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate. She was considered a rising star, the face of the new GOP, a virtual lock to be the party’s 2012 Presidential nominee.

Of course she proved to be none of these things.

In the same way, we shouldn’t assume that in four years Donald Trump will wield anywhere near as much power in the Republican party as he does now. He faces criminal proceedings in New York for his questionable finances. He faces prosecution in Georgia for his blatant violations of state election laws. He may face Federal charges for his incitement of the Capitol Hill riot. We simply can’t know what his future may hold. And I guarantee you that even Trump’s most vocal supporters in the Senate — guys like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley — would love to see him prosecuted, humiliated, and turned into a political pariah. They’d never admit as much, of course. They’re too eager to claim Trump’s supporters for themselves. But they know that as long as Trump remains the ostensible leader of the GOP, the party itself will be vilified and their own Presidential ambitions will be thwarted.

When it comes right down to it, they have no reason to support the man a day longer than political expediency demands. The trick, of course, is pinpointing that precise day, and I doubt any of them has the acumen to time this well. They will make themselves look like fools, undermining their own political hopes in the process. Ultimately they will have no choice but to throw Trump under a bus, just as he would do to them if need arose. They will, in short, wind up destroying themselves, Trump, and each other.

And, to my mind, on this President’s Day, that is a comforting thought.

Creative Friday: More Snow Photos!

This has been an unusual winter for us. We’ve had several snowfalls, none of them huge, but almost all of them significant enough to turn our pretty little town into a wonderland. This past weekend was no exception. A snowfall Saturday night into Sunday morning frosted tree limbs and houses, and then lasted for a couple of days before melting away.

The first morning, Nancy and I got up early and walked around our neighborhood, enjoying the fresh snow. The second morning dawned sunny and cold, but warmed quickly. As I took my walk on our rails-to-trails path, a fine mist seeped into the forest, hazing the sun and lending a mystical quality to the light and shadows.

These are just a few of the images I captured on those morning walks. I hope you enjoy them. We have more snow in our forecast, so maybe I’ll have more images for you next week.

Have a safe, wonderful weekend. Be kind to one another.

Winter Reflections, by David B. Coe Snow and Morning Sun, by David B. Coe Snow and Mist I, by David B. Coe Snow and Mist II, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: Sports and COVID

Last year, on the weekend of the Super Bowl, I wrote a post for that following Monday about the power of sports in our culture. In it, I noted that the Big Game was one of the few truly shared experiences in our national culture, an event of vast reach that crossed many of the demographic boundaries that usually divide us as a nation. I also might have voiced some disdain for the hype, the glitz, the obscene expenditures on everything from the halftime show to the half-minute advertising spots.

What a difference a year makes.

When I wrote that post, of course, COVID-19 was not yet on our radar. Sports, among so many other things, had not yet been taken away from us.

I have missed sports far more than I thought I would. And I have found COVID-restricted sports less satisfying than I might have hoped. Usually while watching sports on television I begrudge the crowd reaction shots, the panning of packed stands, the background chants and shouts and, in the case of the Premier League, singing. I realize now, though, that those things meant something to me. I suppose, unwittingly, I got a vicarious thrill out of knowing there were thousands of people attending the game, reveling in the excitement of being there.

I don’t like the cardboard cutouts that have been placed in stadiums and arenas. I understand why they’re there, but I find it creepy and unsettling — a reminder, as if we need it, of all that is absent from our lives right now. I’m not crazy about the prerecorded crowd noise either, although, again, I understand why some venues use it. I’ll even admit that some Premier League venues (Nancy and I probably watch more Premier League soccer than we do any other sport) have done a really great job of simulating crowd reactions to play on the pitch.

Nevertheless, what I love about sports — about the entire spectacle: the game, the interaction of the players, the crowd response, even the cheesy organ playing and sound effects that still infect baseball games — is the organic nature of each event. Over the course of my life, I have watched — in person or on television — literally hundreds upon hundreds of baseball games, football games, basketball games. We’re getting there with soccer games. I have watched a ton of golf tournaments (yes, that’s right — deal with it), swim competitions, track and field meets… I could go on, but you get my point. I love sports and have watched a lot. And I have never seen any two games or meets or tournaments that were exactly alike. That may seem self-evident, but to my mind it speaks to the power of sports.

Every inning, every play, every trip down the court or assault on the opposing team’s goal is a moment of possibility. Anything can happen. Yes, the environment is controlled — action is guided by rules and confined by the field of play, but that actually enhances the experience. There is a certain level of safety in the unpredictability of sports (unlike the unpredictability of life itself, which is anything but safe).

Sports blends the thrill of the possible with the suspense of the unknown and the exploration of human potential and frailty. We watch athletes who are among the best in the world at what they do, pit themselves against one another in full view of thousands, sometimes millions. Will they fold under the pressure? Will they thrive? Will someone unexpected emerge as a hero? Will the most revered among them fail in a key moment, forever changing the way history views them?

Yes, some people will say “Who cares? It’s just sports. None of this matters.”

And they’re right. I won’t go so far as to say that the nerve-wracking suspense of a tight game, the excruciating progression of a key at-bat, has no long-term consequence. I’m merely a fan, and yet there are still sports moments that haunt me, the pain of a devastating loss as raw now as the day it happened. But the fate of the world isn’t at stake. And isn’t that exactly what we need right now?

Sadly, though, the version of sports we’re getting currently is lacking. The players and coaches are doing their best — I have no doubt of that. And I also don’t wish to be misunderstood: I welcome any sports we can have, and I have no desire to see anyone — athlete or fan — put at risk. I’ll take what I can get. Let’s be honest, though. These games are not the same. They can’t be. Playing before hordes of screaming fans has to have an effect on player performance. Yes, the greats claim that they can block out all awareness of the crowd. I don’t believe it. Do you? I haven’t seen stats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in these COVID leagues, home field advantage has declined markedly. How could it not?

Okay, I just did a quick search online, and home-field advantage has, in fact, diminished in a number of sports. So, yeah.

Look, having any sports at all is great — far better than having none. But I long for the day when stadiums can be filled to capacity. I look forward to going to games myself, to attending spring training again with my daughter, to seeing minor league baseball in the cities near us.

Sports matter, not just to those of us who love them, but to society at large. And having people in the stands makes a huge difference as well. Don’t believe me? Consider whether Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues would have had the impact on America that it did if the seats in Ebbets Field been empty.

Creative Friday: A Photo, and Thoughts About My Mom

I took this photo back around Christmas, while on a photo walk with my wonderful friend, John Willis. Like me, he is an avid amateur photographer, and he gets out on photo walks almost daily. Before our walk, he had told me that for a period of a few weeks around the Winter Solstice, in late afternoon, the trees and angled sunlight and reflections at Lake Cheston, in our little town, created a striking pattern of striated light and shadow.

As you can see, the man is true to his word.

Today is my mother’s birthday. She would be 99, if she was still with us. She would have loved this photo and would have been fascinated by the light at the lake that day. She was a photographer, too. Mostly, she liked to take pictures while traveling with my father. And travel they did. To Rome and Paris, to Egypt and Israel, to Peru and the Canadian Rockies and all over the Western U.S.

She was curious and lettered, a voracious reader, a lover of all the arts. But there was nothing she loved more than family, than spoiling her grandchildren and catching up with her own kids. She would have had all kinds of questions about this photo — about the place and the light and my friend. And from there she would have had questions about the town, the university, and Nancy’s place in it. And the girls and what they were doing, and my latest book and my next project.

In my mind, I often carry on long conversations with both her and my Dad. And so, with your permission, I will end this short piece, and spend some time conversing with my the memory of my mother.

Wishing you all a wonderful, safe weekend.

Cheston Solstice, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: What Memories of My Mom Have To Do With COVID

My mother’s birthday is this coming Friday, February 5. I’ve written about her before in this space. I’ve marked past birthdays with Facebook posts and the like. But somehow this year, with her birthday approaching, I find myself thinking of her even more than usual.

She would be turning 99 this year, but we lost her long ago — back in the mid-nineties, when my older daughter was just an infant, and my younger daughter was, to resort to cliché, not even a glimmer in our eyes. I won’t bore you with the sorts of general memories I’ve shared in the past — her love of travel and books, her slightly goofy sense of humor, and her passion for progressive causes and social justice.

My thoughts have gone in a somewhat different direction. I wonder what she would be thinking about the pandemic, and the state of our world. I know she would have been devastated by the earliest days of COVID, almost a year gone now, when her beloved New York City was virtually closed, its hospitals strained beyond capacity, its cultural treasures shuttered. I know she would have had nothing but contempt for those who refused to wear masks and failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease.

But I wonder what she would think now. The world is entering a new phase with the pandemic, and I’m not sure what to make of it myself. On the one hand, this is a time of tempered hope. The numbers are terrible, but not quite as bad as they were a few weeks ago. We have vaccines from several drug companies. The protocols vary, but the promise they offer — of limited but effective immunity — allows the optimists among us to envision a time when fear of COVID might fade a bit. Since the pandemic began, health officials have warned against comparing this strain of the Coronavirus to the flu. But if the vaccines work, if immunity can be introduced to broad swaths of the population, COVID might become something we can think as we do influenza: as an illness to be feared, but managed.

On the other hand, our hopes in this regard have to reckon with several troubling truths. First, COVID isn’t going anywhere. Regardless of where it came from, it will probably be around pretty much forever. And the comparison to the flu carries a darker implication. It will continue to mutate, just as the flu does. Already new strains have reached our shores from London, from Brazil, from South Africa. No doubt more are coming. Even now, these new mutations are exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the vaccines. Just as flu shots are somewhat hit-or-miss in their effectiveness, future COVID immunizations are likely to be as well. And COVID is far deadlier than the flu; vaccination failures will have tragic consequences.

What does all of this have to do with my mother? A good question, one I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Part of it might be this: She used to talk to me about the feared diseases of her childhood. As I say, she was born nearly a century ago, in 1922. When she was a child, penicillin didn’t exist. She was in her thirties, the mother of two small children, when the polio vaccine was developed. I remember once, when I was a kid, a friend of mine got Scarlet Fever, and Mom’s first reaction was to tell me how serious it could be. She almost had to remind herself that by then treatments had become fairly routine. I later learned that she had known children who died of it.

The truth was, my childhood, and that of my siblings, had been made far less perilous by the medical advances of the mid-Twentieth Century. Looking back, I believe that era will be looked upon as a historical aberration. Yes, medical advances continue. But we live in a world that is far more interconnected than it was in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The safety conferred by those advances must now race with accelerated exposures and mutations.

I don’t mean to make this a doom and gloom post. I do think that, by and large, the COVID vaccines will work. Our world will find its way, haltingly, to a new normal that returns to us some of the societal freedoms we’re all missing, while also remaining conscious of the novel threats we face. I’m sad to say that I believe my mother would be less optimistic. She would find all of this frightening, and I wouldn’t blame her. These are scary times. We are fortunate to now have in place an Administration that takes the danger seriously, that relies on science and health experts, and that has no political stake in denial.

That, though, only gets us so far. We need to remain vigilant. We need to watch out not only for ourselves, but also for one another. And that means masking, distancing, getting vaccinated when we are eligible.

Stay safe, friends. Take care of those you love. Take care of those you don’t even know. That’s how we overcome even the most pessimistic of scenarios.

Monday Musings: The Legacy of Hank Aaron

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron died last week. He was, of course, a baseball legend, the former home run king. He was also a civic leader, a philanthropist, and a Civil Rights activist. And he’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid.

As a baseball player, Aaron was so good as to make superlatives redundant, and so ridiculously consistent that he managed to fly under the radar, at least in a relative sense, while rewriting baseball’s record books. He entered the Major Leagues in the game’s golden age, as part of the first generation of Black superstars. It is almost impossible to understate the revolutionary impact he and the other ballplayers of his cohort had on the game.

For those of us who love baseball, there are two statistical milestones that define supreme career achievement for batters: 500 career home runs, and 3,000 career hits. At the time I graduated from high school, only twelve players in the history of baseball had hit 500 home runs. Of those twelve, eight of them hit their first home run during the 1950s, and of those eight, five were black. At the same historical moment, only fifteen players had more than 3,000 hits. And only two players, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both part of that class of Black superstars, were on both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit lists.

Even after the steroid era, which saw so many players — many of them undeserving — join that exclusive home run club, Hank Aaron still holds the record for most seasons with at least 20 home runs (20 such years). He holds the record for the most seasons with at least 30 home runs (tied, at 15), and is second only to Babe Ruth in the number of seasons with 40 home runs (tied with others at 8). When Aaron completed his career in 1976, he was second on the all-time hit list, and first on the all-time home run list. If all of his home runs had magically disappeared, he still would have had over 3,000 hits. To this day, he remains the Major League’s career leader in runs batted in and total bases.

He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, and, in fairness, he also wasn’t as good in the outfield or as fast on the base paths. He won “only” one Most Valuable Player award (in 1957) and only one World Series championship. (He played in two World Series and batted a combined .364 in fourteen games.) He never won the Triple Crown, as his contemporaries Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle did. But he led the league in batting average twice, in home runs four times, in runs batted four times, in runs scored three times, in hits twice, in doubles four times, in total bases eight times, and in slugging average four times. He won three gold gloves for outstanding fielding. He stole 30 bases in a season once, and at least 20 six times. He was voted into the All-Star game twenty-one consecutive years — another record. He wasn’t particularly big or brawny, but he had as quick a bat as anyone in the game. Said one of his teammates, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, deep, deep, deep in the heart of the segregated South. He loved baseball as a child, but for years wondered if he would ever have the chance to play in the Major Leagues. He was thirteen when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s race barrier. Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues and then played in Jacksonville, Florida for a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. He put up with racial taunts from fans, abuse from opposing players, and indifference, even hostility, from too many of his own teammates. Much of this continued when he reached the majors.

Still, in 1960, as a popular star on the Braves, he campaigned for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and was said to have played a role in JFK’s crucial victory in the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, Aaron’s pursuit of the Major League home run record in the early 1970s, after the Braves had moved to Atlanta, forced him into the national spotlight as never before, to his detriment. He and his family received death threats and cruel, horrible letters filled with racist invective. He himself said years later that his chase of the record should have been a time of joy and excitement, but was instead the darkest period of his life.

And yet, his performance on the field never suffered. In the three seasons leading up to his record-setting home run, when he was in his late thirties and should have been fading as a ballplayer, he hit 47, 34, and 40 home runs. He entered the 1974 season with 713 career homers, one behind Babe Ruth’s hallowed record. He hit the tying home run on Opening Day. He hit the record-breaking shot in his first home game of the season three nights later.

Sports Illustrated, Hank Aaron, 715I was watching that night, along with pretty much every other eleven year-old, baseball-loving boy in America. I remember everything about it — the call from announcer Vin Scully, the twist and high stare of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing as he watched the ball sail out over left field, Aaron’s joyful trot around the bases, the two white guys in civilian clothes who appeared out of nowhere as he rounded second base and patted his back and shoulder, the way his jubilant teammates mobbed him at home plate and put him on their shoulders. I still have the issue of Sports Illustrated from the next week, with Aaron on the cover holding up the baseball next to a golden, bolded “715.” And I also still have the special edition baseball card Topps issued that same year proclaiming Aaron baseball’s home run king.

The movie 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s inaugural season in the Major Leagues. It stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the President, General Manager, and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Robinson into Major League baseball. There is a moment in the movie, which may or may not be apocryphal, when Rickey tells Robinson of seeing white kids in the streets of Brooklyn, playing baseball and copying Robinson’s batting stance, pretending to be him.

That was my friends and me when I was growing up and playing baseball on my little dead end street outside of New York City. Except by then, thanks to the black superstars of the 1950s and 60s — Mays and Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Billy Williams and Willie McCovey and so many others — we took for granted that all of us, white and privileged though we were, wanted to emulate the Black players we idolized. We copied their batting stances and pitching wind-ups. We tried batting cross-handed, the way Aaron did when he was a young minor leaguer. We made our baseball caps fly off when we ran, like Willie Mays, and tried to make basket catches the way he did.

For many of us, baseball and other sports opened our eyes to the importance of racial equality and opportunity. That may sound ludicrous, like I’m trivializing race by couching it in the context of sports. But it’s the truth. I grew up in a politicized household. I was only five when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my parents talked about him all the time, in glowing terms. In 1972, when I was all of nine years old, I knew about and followed Shirley Chisholm’s ground-breaking run for the Presidency.

Mine was also a baseball household. We watched other sports, but baseball was king. I heard about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella from my Dad, who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. I learned to love Willie Mays, because he was my brother Bill’s favorite player in the world. I understood that Black players had been excluded from baseball for too long and that this was a terrible injustice. How could the world be considered a fair place if Black players couldn’t even get in the game? And because I used to pore over statistics and records, I knew as well that whatever the game was like before Black players were allowed in the Major leagues, it could not have been complete. How could baseball, even in the age of Ruth and Gehrig, be the game that I knew and loved if players like Aaron and Mays were excluded?

Hank Aaron’s baseball legacy is clear. His social and historical legacy should be equally apparent. He was a man of grace, intellect, eloquence, and class who carried himself with dignity through an ordeal that should have been a celebration. By his example, his words and actions, his generosity and courage, he made this a better country. He will be missed.

Creative Friday: “Willin'” by Little Feat

This week, for Creative Friday, I offer a song.

Many, many years ago, my oldest brother turned me on to Little Feat, and they quickly became my favorite band. While in college, playing with my dear friends Alan Goldberg and Amy Halliday as part of a group we called Free Samples, we included “Willin’,” by Little Feat, in our repertoire.

I kept playing the song after college, of course, and eventually, when Nancy and I had kids and I started playing guitar for them, “Willin’” became one of my younger daughter’s favorites. There are pauses in the song, and for some reason she found them hilarious. The more I dragged them out, the more she laughed. To this day, in her twenties, she still can’t listen to me play the song without giggling.

In short, this song has been a part of my musical life for the better part of forty years. I recorded this version, including a second guitar track for the instrumental break, a couple of years ago, with my daughter in mind.

I hope you enjoy it.

Have a wonderful weekend.