Tag Archives: history

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 thirty bases in a season once, and at least twenty 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.

Monday Musings: This is EXACTLY Who We Are

“This is not who we are.”

Comforting words that have been trotted out repeatedly in the days since the Capitol Hill insurrection that left six dead and scores injured, and that shook to the core our faith in the strength of our republic.

We’ve heard politicians from both sides of the aisle say this, none with more conviction than Joe Biden. “This is not who we are. We’re Americans. We’re better than this.”

I’m paraphrasing — that’s not an exact quote. But it’s close enough.

The problem is, this is exactly who we are. It’s who we have been for two and a half centuries. We are a nation whose racism and blithe acceptance of White Supremacist doctrine is embedded in the original wording of our Constitution. According to that revered document, the version ratified in 1788, slavery was an accepted economic and political reality, black slaves counted as merely three-fifths of a human being, and unless you were a white man, you didn’t get to participate in our political process.

Subsequent amendments have remedied the worst offenses of the original, but it took a prolonged and bloody Civil War to make most of them possible, and another fifty years of agitation to win the vote for women.

Our politics have been riven by race, by anti-democratic tendencies, by a win-at-all-costs mentality for nearly the entire history of our nation. Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1832 Worcester v. Georgia ruling that ordered the state of Georgia to halt the removal of the Cherokee from the state. “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision,” Jackson said. “Now let him enforce it.”

In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat from South Carolina, walked into the Senate Chamber and assaulted Massachusetts Republican Charles Sumner, beating him bloody and senseless with a gold-tipped wooden cane. Sumner had “given offense” with a fiery speech condemning slavery.

Anti-communist crusades in the 20th century — in the 1920s, led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin — saw frightening curtailments of civil liberties and shocking violence aimed at suspected socialists and communists. Palmerism and McCarthyism were built on lies and distortions that fed a frenzy of authoritarian rhetoric and policy, all in the name of protecting our democratic republic.

Police brutality directed at Blacks and the political Left is also nothing new. Images of police attacks on Blacks during the urban race riots of the 1910s and ‘20s, can be laid alongside footage of similar attacks on Civil Rights protesters in the 1950s and ‘60s. And these can be matched with video captures of the violence and cruelty we all witnessed during the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter activists were beaten and shot in the streets of America’s cities.

Of course this is who we are. It is who we have been from the start.

I don’t say this to feed complacency or to justify any recent events. I don’t say it because I hate America. I don’t say it even to reassure — “we’ve been through this before; we’ll get through it this time.”

I say it because the sooner we accept that what we’re witnessing now is nothing new, the sooner we can change “This is not who we are,” to “This is not who we ought to be.”

I have been horrified by the excesses of Trumpism (which will take its place alongside “Palmerism” and “McCarthyism” in the annals of history). I fear what might happen at Wednesday’s inauguration. And yet, I will admit that I do take some comfort in knowing that we have weathered crises of this kind before. On Friday, I heard an NPR interview with Stephanie Cutter, the producer of the 2021 inauguration. She was asked about the threats aimed at Wednesday’s festivities, and she made clear that while she is taking them seriously, she is not panicking. It seems there were equally credible threats aimed at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration — no surprise there. The threats were so serious, that Obama had prepared instructions for the huge crowd gathered on the Mall, telling them what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Fortunately, he didn’t need them. But threats of this sort are nothing new.

So, yes, this is who we are. America is, and has always been, as flawed and conflicted as the people who populate her. Nor are we alone in this regard. History tells us that nations on every continent have been subject, at one time or another, to violent assaults on liberty, to authoritarianism, to political conflicts that result in bloodshed and threaten to tear the very fabric of civil society. The United States is hardly unique in this regard.

And perhaps that is the point. Americans have long touted our “exceptionalism.” Our system of government, which truly is unique in many regards, was supposed to protect us from the sort of raw, ugly violence we saw on January 6th. We were supposed to be immune.

But THAT is not who we are. This nation — of the people, by the people, for the people — is by definition doomed to be flawed. The American experiment is a human endeavor, and so is subject to all the foibles and problems of anything human. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we stop denying who and what we are, the sooner we can get to the crucial task of becoming who and what we aspire to be.

Monday Musings: It’s Not Like We Didn’t Know

“Is it possible to be astonished and, at the same time, not surprised?” — Jed Bartlet (Peter Noah, The West Wing, Season 7)

It’s not like we didn’t know he was capable of this. It’s not like we haven’t known all along that his Presidency represented an existential threat to the American experiment. On election night in 2016, I texted my brother, “I fear for our republic.”

It’s not like we didn’t know.

Yet seeing it unfold in real time, was utterly shocking. And as we learn more of who was in the crowd, what was done to the building and to the victims, and what was being said and done by Trump, Giuliani, and others as the siege of Congress unfolded, I cannot help but believe that we were, all of us, very fortunate it didn’t turn out far, far worse. Trump is desperate now to minimize the danger after the fact, to claim that he only wished to see “protesters” put pressure on Congress to heed his calls for an investigation into “voter fraud.” His two minute “Please-Don’t-Throw-Me-In-Jail” video on Friday night was a gambit designed to lessen the possibility of a last minute impeachment or invocation of the 25th Amendment. Naturally, his Republican enablers are lapping it up and spewing it all over social media, still doing his bidding.

But make no mistake: This was an attempt at a coup. This was terrorism. This was the most blatant, violent assault-from-within on our republic since the Civil War. If those who inspired it, and those who carried it out, had been successful, it might well have been a fatal blow to our nation’s most revered institutions.

I remain wary. I fear what Trump’s most crazed supporters might attempt on January 20th, when Joe Biden is inaugurated at the Capitol Building. Having resorted to violence on this level once, it will be that much easier for them to take this step a second time, a third, and beyond, until the path becomes well-trod, and the results are normalized in some way. I am deeply alarmed by how many of Trump’s lackeys on Capitol Hill and in the media are willing to gaslight us less than a week after the fact. “It was Antifa,” they claim. “Antifa radicals posing as Trump supporters.” Seriously — several have said this. According to a DoD report on the National Guard response, it was a “First Amendment protest.” In short, I see too many reasons to expect that Wednesday’s events presage more of the same.

Yet, I can also find cause for hope. Sometimes it takes a crisis, a near catastrophe, to open our eyes to the folly of our own actions. Sometimes, we must step to the very edge of the abyss before we can convince ourselves to back away. This, I believe, is happening now within Republican circles. It is telling that Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, the most prominent of those Congressional enablers who incited the mob on Wednesday, are being condemned and shunned by people on both sides of the partisan divide. It is telling that several GOP elected officials, as well as the Wall Street Journal, the National Association of Manufacturers, and others, are calling for Trump’s removal from office by one method or another. It is telling that Big Tech is finally, belatedly, kicking Trump off their platforms, citing the danger of further incitement. It is telling that officials within his Administration are running for the exit doors.

Notwithstanding the threats to our country that remain, Trump is disgraced, likely beyond the possibility of redemption. His inexcusable call to Georgia’s Secretary of State (all but forgotten in the wake of the attack on the Capitol Building), and his willingness to risk people’s lives in pursuit of his own anti-democratic ambitions, have exposed him for what he is: a lawless, self-absorbed, authoritarian thug who cares nothing for this country or its people.

I believe it’s possible that he believes his own lies. Maybe he’s so utterly incapable of accepting any sort of loss, that he has convinced himself others deprived him of victory. Maybe it makes perfect sense to him that Democrats AND some Republicans AND Mike Pence AND his own Supreme Court and Federal Court picks have joined together in a vast conspiracy to deny him a second term. As I say, it’s possible.

More likely, though, is the obvious: That he is a self-serving grifter who has used his spurious election claims to raise money for himself, his family, and his future ambitions, whatever they might be. That he is so obsessed with his own brand that he will literally risk the future of our nation in order to avoid admitting he lost.

The good news is that despite the blood-chilling events of this past week, and the falsehoods spread by Trump and too many of his sycophants since November 3, he will be leaving office on January 20. In a rare and welcome bipartisan display of resolve and courage, Congress returned to its duties the very night of the attack, and in the small hours of the morning completed the certification of the Electoral College. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be taking power. Trump himself admitted as much on Friday.

Our nation will likely be tested again, perhaps soon. But the dark days of the Trump Administration will soon be over.

Creative Friday: From the Archives

Back in January of 2019, Nancy and I spent a weekend in Washington, taking advantage of the fact that she had a conference there, and had traveled from another professional event that placed her in the city a few days early.

We had a great time — wonderful food, including a spectacular Ethiopian dinner our first night; visits to museums; a morning at a small crafts fair; walks along the Washington Mall. It was a memorable visit. Part of what made it so special was a gorgeous snowfall that started Saturday evening and had turned the city into a wonderland by Sunday morning. Many places we hoped to visit that last day were closed because of the storm, but our walks were especially scenic.

I took this image of the Capitol Building while literally standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. That should tell you how quiet the city was in the midst of the snow.

There is no building, no structure, no monument, in this entire country that means more to me than the U.S. Capitol Building. In a nation not always known for its inspired architecture, it is both a wonder and a work of art. It is, to my mind, the embodiment of all that we strive to be as a nation, a physical expression of our history and our most just and humane aspirations. The White House, to me at least, is a symbol of power; the Capitol speaks to our democratic republicanism. It belongs to all of us.

Which makes what happened there this week, all the more tragic. Seeing that building overrun by seditious thugs, watching insurrectionists — domestic terrorists — occupy the building’s exterior balconies and porticoes, smash windows and doors, and carry weapons and Trump flags into the chambers where the people’s business is done, filled me with despair. Seeing racist assholes carry Confederate flags through the Rotunda enraged me. Knowing that these people were spurred to violence by an egotistical autocrat and his Congressional enablers, who sought to use mob intimidation as a cudgel in order to overturn the results of a free and fair election, leaves me grieving for our nation.

I fear that I will never again look at the Capitol quite the same way. I usually hesitate to use words like “desecrate” for secular sites, but that’s what this was: a desecration, an assault upon and violation of the most hallowed ground in the United States.

I may or may not have more to say about this week’s events in next week’s Monday Musings post. For now, though, I wanted to share this image, and my memories of the Capitol Building in happier times.

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

U.S. Capitol in Snow, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: Tempering Optimism with Reality

In my New Year’s post last Friday, I wrote about my optimism for the coming year, my resolve to anticipate good things instead of expecting the worst.

And the world responded with a hefty dose of reality — a new COVID strain that is far more contagious than the original, the death of a colleague (not from COVID as far as I know), and the hospitalization of a colleague and friend (definitely because of COVID). The numbers keep going up. Tennessee, which was largely spared in the first wave, and saw few enough cases in the second to enable COVID-deniers to continue their foolishness, is now being clobbered by this terrible illness. My state ended the year ranked first in the country in new cases per capita. And still our governor refuses to mandate mask-wearing or take any reasonable steps to curb the spread.

When I said that I was optimistic, I should have added a caveat: “All expressions of optimism are predicated on state and national leaders not behaving like spineless morons.” Or something of the sort.

One hundred and forty Republican members of the House of Representatives, and at least one baldly ambitious Republican Senator, have vowed to contest the results of the Electoral College when Congress takes up the election certification on Wednesday. This in the absence of ANY tangible evidence of systemic or widespread election fraud. But for the House members, it’s a free ride, a painless and useless way to endear themselves to Donald Trump’s crazed supporters. They know their objections will go nowhere. Both houses of Congress must ratify such a protest for even one state’s electors to be refused, and with a Democratic House, and enough sane Republicans in the Senate, neither house is likely to support this effort.

The willingness of Senators Josh Hawley (Sycophant — Missouri), Ted Cruz (Slimeball — Texas), and others to join in this pointless exercise is both more insidious and more dangerous. Hawley was elected to the Senate in 2018, and has spent the past two years positioning himself for a White House run in 2024. Cruz ran against Trump in 2016, and is such a profile in cowardice that he didn’t allow Trump’s highly personal attacks on his wife and his deceased father keep him from becoming one of Trump’s most vocal lackeys in the Senate. Both men see their actions on the Electoral College as a springboard to the Republican nomination, as a way to convince Trump supporters that they are the true heirs to Trump’s legacy of corruption, incompetence, hatred, and support for batshit-crazy conspiracy theories. This is a naked play for political advantage, and it comes at the expense of the stability and legitimacy of our republic. But hey, I bet both men get bumps in the next poll out of Iowa…

The thing is, as Senator Ben Sasse (Wishy-Washy — Nebraska) said the other day, most Republicans in the House and Senate know that Trump has lost, and won’t really be all that sorry to see him go. And we know this is the case because just this weekend Trump had his veto of the National Defense Authorization Act overridden by huge bipartisan majorities. This was the first veto override of his Presidency. Only eighty-seven House Republicans voted to sustain the veto, meaning that at least fifty-three of those planning to contest the Electoral College vote understand that their actions on January 6 will be purely for show. If the Republicans in either house really thought Trump would be around for another term, no way would they have humiliated him in this way.

Meanwhile, Trump is handing out pardons like it’s Halloween at the White House and they’ve run out of Big Macs to give away. Campaign felons, murderous mercenaries, brutal cops, cronies, anyone with knowledge of Trump’s wrongdoing — the list of those already pardoned or eligible for future pardons grows longer by the day. When he is not issuing pardons, he is pushing as hard as he can to allow oil and gas drilling on protected federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and continuing to use his baseless claims about election fraud to fundraise, bilking his supporters out of literally tens of millions of dollars.

When I said that I was optimistic, I should have added a timestamp: “All expressions of optimism are predicated on the notion that improvement will occur after 12:00 pm (EST) on January 20, 2021.” Or something of the sort…

In all seriousness, I am optimistic, but I’m also a realist. I grieve for the thousands upon thousands who succumb to this vicious disease every day. I send good thoughts to my sick friend and all who are fighting to recover. I expect the remaining two weeks and change of the Trump Administration to be even more of a shit-show than usual. I hope and hope and hope some more than the special elections in Georgia continue that state’s transition from red to purple to blue.

I know that advances and improvements will come slowly, and will be accompanied by setbacks, many of them heartrending. But what choice do we have? I meant what I said last week: I have spent too long anticipating the worst, and I know that doing so is not good for my emotional or physical health. So optimism is what’s left.

More than that, I honestly do believe.

Be patient, friends, for just a short while longer. A change is coming. Better times lie ahead.

Monday Musings: 2020 is the New 1968

Putting on my historian’s cap…

There are certain years in modern history that stand out as significant all on their own. They are so fraught, so filled with resonance and import, that they become both microcosms and embodiments of the periods in which they occur. They typify entire eras.

Arguably, the most prominent example of this is 1968, the capstone of a tumultuous decade. It began with the Tet Offensive at the end of January — a coordinated and devastating attack on key military and civilian positions carried out by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. The offensive gave the lie to all the false assurances of “progress” the U.S. military had been offering about the American war effort in Vietnam. In March, the sitting President, Lyndon Johnson, was nearly defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Eugene McCarthy. Weeks later, on the 31st of March, Johnson withdrew from the race, throwing the election into turmoil. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, sparking riots in many cities. Only two months after that, Bobby Kennedy, by then the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, was shot and killed as well. Summer saw the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with riots in the streets and near brawls within the convention center. In November, former Vice President Richard Nixon narrowly defeated the sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, for the Presidency.

2020 will be remembered and written about the way 1968 is. The pandemic, which introduced the world to “masking” and “social distancing,” and exposed anew the anti-science, anti-“elite” biases of a significant portion of the American public, turned the world upside down. The casualty count — total cases, hospital capacity, deaths from the disease — has become a grim daily reminder of our nation’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the problem, and our national leaders’ incompetence and lack of compassion.

The resulting economic collapse sent shockwaves across the entire globe. Here in the U.S., unemployment spiked, businesses closed, the stock market tanked, rallied, fell again, and now is rallying again, even as the pandemic’s third wave ravages rural communities in nearly every state.

The murders of Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd sparked protests throughout the country, and beyond our borders. These protests, in turn, further exposed the problem of police brutality in countless cities. Confrontations between White vigilantes and police on the one hand, and protesters, Black and White, on the other, turned ugly, violent, and deadly.

At the same time, the nation went through a political campaign like no other, with the pandemic curtailing in-person campaigning and complicating the voting process. We saw the historic nomination and subsequent election of Kamala Harris as our next Vice President. And we watched Donald Trump engage in an unprecedented assault on our democratic norms, that were ultimately unsuccessful, but damaging nevertheless.

Then there were the oddities — shortages of rice and beans, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, bread flour and other staples; restaurants and bars closed for a time (and now closing again); sporting events and entire major league seasons altered, reconfigured, “bubbled;” movies and theater and concerts forsaken.

And, of course, we saw more than our share of tragic and untimely deaths, losing Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, Kobe Bryant and his beautiful daughter, Chadwick Boseman and Naya Rivera and countless others.

Every time we thought 2020 couldn’t get crazier or darker, it did. Stress and anxiety afflicted nearly all of us in one form or another. Isolation became its own epidemic.

It goes without saying that future historians will write books about this year. Our grandchildren will ask us questions about the pandemic.

Here are a few things I’ll remember.

Early in April, our older daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, and who was living alone in the bleakest days of New York’s early struggle with COVID, texted me about what it was like living in the city at that point. All she heard, she said, were sirens. “It’s eerie because the streets are otherwise dead. Sirens are the only sound.” Except in the mornings, she added, when all the churches rang their bells. Haunting.

Our younger daughter contracted COVID in September, and I will never forget my fear, my feeling of helplessness, my awareness of the miles between us and the impracticality, even danger, of going to see her and care for her.

The news that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died hit me like a gut punch, and prompted a very real concern that Trump’s replacement, whoever it might turn out to be, would help him steal the election.

I went to bed on election night, thinking that Trump had probably won. The counting of absentee ballots in key states hadn’t yet started, and though I had read enough about the “red mirage” and the “blue shift” to know what to expect, the numbers looked daunting. Waking up Wednesday morning to renewed hope was one of the highlights of the year.

For me, personally, this was a year of physical problems that reminded me of my advancing age. For the first half of 2020 I dealt with debilitating pain in my shoulder that made even the simplest tasks agonizing. The pain is much reduced now, but it’s not yet gone entirely. It was also a year of emotional struggles, though I’m hardly alone in that regard. Anxiety, panic attacks, stress, professional worries: I had enough of these for five years, much less one.

But amid all the sadness and worry, there have also been bright spots. Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together and have truly never been closer. I have made nature walks a feature of my daily routine, allowing myself to birdwatch each morning, and use my camera more often than ever. I have played a lot of guitar (when my shoulder allowed it) and have learned a bunch of new songs. Even with Major League Baseball’s regular season disrupted, and despite the odd spectacle of stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts, the postseason was terrific and rekindled my passion for the game.

Finally, I know this will sound hackneyed, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s the truth: I feel that I will enter 2021 with a new appreciation for things that I took for granted most of my life. Time with friends and family, the simple pleasure of sitting in a restaurant with my wife and daughters, the opportunity to think once more about travel. We have a long distance to go, as a nation, as a global community. But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.

That, in any case, is my hope.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Holidays As Part of World Building

I have written about the holidays a good deal in the past few weeks, but I have yet to address holidays as a topic in a Writing-Tip Wednesday post.

Now, you’re first response to this might be, “Well, why would you?”

And my answer? “World building.”

Think about the holidays that mark our calendars. Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Passover, Yom Kippur — these are events that reveal much about our faiths, about the histories and traditions of the religions that guide the lives of so many. Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents’ Day — these holidays carry meaning for our secular history, showing who and what we as a culture and society value year after year. Even Halloween and Groundhog Day, which are not holidays in any real sense of the word, offer glimpses into a pagan past that a small but significant part of our population still honors with celebrations marking Beltane, Samhain, Candlemas, the Solstices and Equinoxes.

Every culture and country has its special days, and every one of those special days comes with a story. Which is why the worlds we create for our novels and short fiction also need to have annual observances. Celebrations of this sort are something people do. They are one way of perpetuating the social norms and cultural touchstones that create communal identity. Holidays at their core, are all about story, about history and faith and tradition. And, as it happens, world building is about precisely the same things.

Seeds of Betrayal, by David B. Coe Weavers of War, by David B. CoeFor the Winds of the Forelands series (Rules of Ascension, Seeds of Betrayal, Bonds of Vengeance, Shapers of Darkness, Weavers of War) , I created what is without a doubt the most complex “calendar” I’ve ever undertaken for any project. For those of you not familiar with the world, I’ll give a very brief description. The world has two moons, Ilias and Panya, the Lovers, who chase each other across the sky. Each turn (month) has one night when both moons are full (the Night of Two Moons) and one night when both moons are dark (Pitch Night). Each turn is also named for a god or goddess, and so each Night of Two Moons and each Pitch Night has a special meaning.

For example, Adriel’s Turn (roughly equivalent to our May), is named for the goddess of fertility. According to lore, a love consummated on the Night of Two Moons in her turn will last forever. A love consummated on Pitch Night will end in betrayal. Kebb’s Turn (roughly October) is named for the god of the hunt. People believe a successful hunt on the Night of Two Moons presages good hunting throughout the cold turns. Meat from a beast killed on Pitch Night is considered cursed and cannot be eaten. Each turn has similar legends, or in some cases actual phenomena: Pitch Night in Morna’s Turn (named for the goddess of thunder) is always a night of violent storms. The first killing frost in the Forelands almost always arrives on Pitch Night in Sivan’s Turn. Several Nights of Two Moons and several Pitch Nights are observed with prayer and/or gift giving.

These beliefs and traditions make for a much richer, more believable world. If my characters were to traipse through their year without any sort of holidays or occasions, readers might still be drawn in by the rest of my storytelling, but the world would feel flat, and far less interesting.

TIME'S DEMON, by D.B. Jackson (Art by Jan Weßbecher)I did something similar for the Islevale Cycle novels (Time’s Children, Time’s Demon, Time’s Assassin). In this world there are two primary deities, Kheraya (female) and Sipar (male), and the calendar is structured around them. It begins with the spring equinox — Kheraya’s Emergence, a day and night of enhanced magickal power and sensuality. The spring months are known as Kheraya’s Stirring, Kheraya’s Waking, Kheraya’s Ascent. The summer solstice is called Kheraya Ascendent, a day of feasts, celebration, and gift-giving. This is followed by the hot months of summer: Kheraya’s Descent, Fading, and Settling.

Sipar’s Emergence coincides with the autumn equinox, the pivot of the year, another day and night of sensuality and enhanced power. And then the pattern of the first half of the year repeats itself — Sipar’s Stirring, Sipar’s Waking, Sipar’s Ascent. These cooler months culminate in the solstice, called Sipar Ascendent, a day of fasting and contemplation. Finally, the year ends with the winter months: his Descent, Fading, and Settling.

In part, of course, I need a calendar for my worlds in order to organize my story. The Forelands books were sprawling and complex, with multiple narrative threads and point of view characters. I had to have a detailed calendar that allowed me to track all the stories and people. And with the Islevale books, which added time travel to the mix, I REALLY needed to know where and when I was in every chapter and on every page.

But my creative work on these calendars went far beyond what I would have required had I simply been interested in a utilitarian time structure. I wanted something that would enhance my storytelling, that would give my readers insights into these worlds and the people who inhabit them. Yes, they’re complex. That’s the fun part! That’s what made this element of my world building so exciting for me.

So as you think about the worlds you’re building, consider not only geography and climate, history and religion, weaponry and food. Think about holidays as well. Create a calendar that is completely endemic to your world. And then show your readers glimpses of it. You don’t have to let them see every detail. Likely that would be too much. It would drown out your story. Give your readers just enough to hint at all the great work you’ve done in the background. And take pride in knowing that you have taken one more step toward crafting a fully realized, intricate, living, breathing world.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: He Lost. Get Over It Already. Rome Is Burning.

“You fool! As if the way one falls down matters!”

“Well, when the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

The Lion In Winter

He lost.

He knows it. His lawyers know it. His enablers in the Administration, the House, and the Senate know it. All in the media know it. The vast majority of Americans know it.

But he can’t admit it. He can’t admit it because he was brought up by a father who was every bit the asshole he is, and who drummed into him again and again that losing was for others but not him. He can’t admit it because he has built a worldwide brand around the idea that he’s “a winner.” And he can’t admit it because the future that awaits him once his one-term Presidency is over promises to be a grim slog through criminal trials, civil liability cases, and debt collection proceedings initiated by his many disgruntled creditors.

He is conning his supporters out of literally hundreds of millions of dollars, soliciting donations for a “legal fund” that actually shunts all contributions under $8,000.00 into the Republican National Committee and to a political action committee that has nothing to do with ongoing litigation. His legions don’t appear to know, or care.

His claims of fraud, parroted by his lawyers, have no basis in fact. We know this because while those representing him in court have made wild claims at press conferences and staged “hearings” in various battleground states, they have not repeated any of these claims in court. Lawyers are free to lie at will at public events, but lying in court, before a judge, can result in professional sanction or worse. If they believed the crap they’ve been saying at their public events, if they actually had evidence to support their crazy conspiracy theories, they would present it in a legal setting. That they haven’t tells us all we need to know about the veracity of their accusations.

The tragic irony in all of this is that while they are perpetrating their own fraud, the real crisis of our time, one they have dismissed all along as a hoax, is devastating our nation. COVID-19 is deep into its third wave here in the U.S. This resurgence is worse than any we have seen thus far. Americans are falling ill at a rate of more than 200,000 people per day. More than 2,700 people are dying daily — a rate of one death every thirty seconds. Within the next two weeks, the death toll from the pandemic will reach 300,000. By the time you read this, more than 15 million Americans will have contracted the virus.

And President Nero fiddles. He complains about his electoral loss, whines about how unfairly he has been treated, seeks to undermine the very foundations of our republic by refusing to acknowledge his loss, something no other Presidential candidate has done in the last one hundred and fifty years. He cares only about himself, his bruised ego, his impending legal and financial difficulties. He lacks the capacity to focus on the suffering of those he is supposed to serve. He has no empathy, no true compassion. He is utterly self-absorbed.

Meanwhile, people are dying. They’re losing their jobs, their health insurance, their homes. We as a nation are headed into a winter that health officials warn could be the hardest we have seen in more than a century. We are, until January 20, 2021, a nation without a leader, rudderless and adrift. All because the bloviating man-child in the Oval Office can’t deal with reality.

The only thing worse would have been if he had won.

Have a good week.

Monday Musings: A Nation In Need of Common Ground

A video surfaced on Twitter and social networks over the weekend. It came out of D.C. and the demonstrations there, and in its first iteration, slowed down for effect, it appeared to show a left-wing demonstrator sucker-punching a Trump supporter, who goes down in a heap on the street, unconscious, his phone falling to his side.

A second version of the video emerged soon after, this one longer and in real time. It begins with the Trump supporter attacking a counter-protester who holds a bullhorn and who is obviously saying stuff the Trump supporter doesn’t like. The Trump supporter punches the man, rips the bullhorn from his hand and then knocks the man down and tries to stomp on his head. Other counter-protesters come to the aid of their comrade, a lot of pushing and shoving and punching ensues, and THEN the demonstrator lands his sucker punch.

Finally, a third version of the video, also in real time, longer still than the second, shows that after the Trump supporter is knocked out, another counter-protester, darts in, grabs his dropped phone, and hurries away, bearing a mischievous grin, as if enjoying the violence and also the theft of the phone.

So who is in the right? Who is in the wrong?

The answer, of course, is that none of them is in the right, and that our country is verging on a very dangerous partisan dynamic.

I have struggled with today’s post, going back and forth between my own outrage and resentment, and my deeper fear that our divisions are insurmountable and are bound to spark more and more violence.

I am sick and tired of the extreme political right in this country denying reality in pursuit of their ideological agenda. They don’t want to wear masks or make any meaningful sacrifice that might impact their daily lives. So their answer is to call COVID a hoax and endanger the rest of us. They don’t want even to contemplate long-term changes in their social or economic activity. So they deny that climate change is real and doom our planet to a bleak, likely devastating future. They don’t want to admit that their incompetent, race-baiting President lost. So they call into question the integrity of an election that everyone, from election officials of both parties to international observers brought in by the Trump Administration to Bill Barr’s own selected investigators agree was fair and honest. And in doing so, they imperil our republic.

But I am also pissed off at the activist left. This weekend’s “Million MAGA March” on Washington was a total bust. The event attracted all of 17,000 people. It was a blip, an event worthy of ridicule, despite the laughable attempts of White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany to claim that a million people really did attend. At least it should have been all these things. Lots of people warned counter-protesters away from the city. “Let them have their little protest,” people said. “It will be small, a non-event, and it will make them look that much more foolish.”

But no. Counter-protesters had to show up anyway, leading to brawls like the one caught on camera, and turning the event into something else entirely. Now the story, at least in some circles, is about violence in the streets, about the poor Proud Boys, who came for a simple protest and were attacked by BLM and ANTIFA. That’s a ludicrous narrative, of course. But they have video, which can be manipulated and made to fit their story, as the first version of the fight was.

So, how do we return tolerance, civility, and compromise to our politics and society? Seriously, I’m asking. Because I’m not sure I know.

I want to believe that some of the tension we see boiling over will ease as the passions of the campaign recede. I am fairly confident that certain elements of our nation’s political life will improve, approaching something we will all recognize as normal, once the current occupant of the White House is gone and Joe Biden assumes the duties of the office. Really, though, I’m not entirely convinced.

I hear many on the right say that Democrats and progressives spent four years challenging the legitimacy of the current Administration, and so we should expect them to do the same. Yes, they ignore Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign, and Trump’s illegal solicitation of aid from Ukraine, AND the simple fact that Joe Biden won the election. But they’re not likely to be swayed by my arguments. I understand that.

I also know that these divisions pre-date this Administration. I remember during the Clinton Administration hearing Rush Limbaugh rail against the President, questioning his legitimacy, running a nightly feature called “America Held Hostage.” Democrats still carry resentments from the 2000 election, which was a historically close election. To this day, many on the left believe the White House was stolen from Al Gore. And I still remember the pain of the 2004 election, which I was convinced would rectify that previous injustice.

Most of all, I remember the eight years of Barack Obama’s Presidency, during which he was badgered, insulted, and obstructed non-stop by Republicans in Congress. To my mind, whatever indignities Trump has endured are nothing compared to what Obama faced, in part because Obama did nothing to deserve them. Like a Black motorist being harassed by police, Obama’s only “crime” was governing while Black.

The resentments exist on both sides, and I know that my recitation of grievances could be countered by those on the other side of the political spectrum. There are slights and bruised feelings aplenty throughout the body politic.

The question is, how do we move past them? Or do we not? Are we doomed to spiral on and on into deepening hostilities and civil unrest? Are we witnessing the final years of the American republic as we know it? I don’t want to believe that, but when we can’t even agree on basic facts, like vote totals and election winners, or whether a deadly disease is actually real, what kind of future do we have?

I didn’t mean for this post to be quite so bleak. I take hope from nations that have faced divisions far more serious and lethal than ours. Northern Ireland has enjoyed two decades of relative peace and stability, after a violent conflict that seemed too bitter ever to be resolved. The divisions in the U.S. are not yet that bad. Surely, we can find a way forward as well.

First, though, both sides must commit to finding common ground. And it seems to me that we should begin with the pandemic. COVID is now attacking rural America with the same merciless ferocity it unleashed on New York and other urban areas earlier this year. The red state/blue state divide some sought to exploit for political gain back in the spring and summer doesn’t exist anymore. This disease is attacking everywhere, which means we need a national solution.

Wouldn’t the energy and ingenuity we currently pour into partisan bickering be better spent combating COVID and saving lives in all fifty states? Can’t we agree that dying from a virus is bad, that keeping people alive and healthy is good?

Seems pretty basic to me.

 

Monday Musings: Breathe

Breathe.

In and out. In and out.

It’s finally over.

I am relieved, elated, a bit nervous about the shenanigans yet to come from the White House. Not because I believe they will succeed, but because I believe that even in failing, they could do lasting damage to our republic.

Many of my friends on the Left, while sharing my relief, remain unnerved by the relative closeness of the vote. To be honest, I’m disappointed, too. I hoped for a landslide, for a decisive repudiation of this Administration. I am horrified by the fact that more than 70 million people, 47% per cent of this year’s electorate, cast votes for a man who coddled White supremacists, flouted the norms of our democratic republic, and utterly failed to lead the nation safely through a devastating and deadly pandemic. How, I keep asking myself, can so many people not see him for what he is? How is it possible that, relative to 2016, the President gained support among Latino voters, among Black voters?

I have no certain answers to any of these questions, but I can offer a few thoughts, starting with a couple of obvious ones: First, Trump remains to many Americans a symbol of defiance against institutions that they despise — the mainstream media; Congress; faceless, poorly defined “bureaucracy.” These people see his outrageous pronouncements not as offensive, they way I do, but as a righteous response to what they call “political correctness” — a changing standard of speech and action and thought that challenges assumptions they have embraced, and privilege they have enjoyed, all their lives. They care less about the substance of what he says than they do about his willingness to say it. They see him as courageous and authentic. Even after four years as President, he still seems to them the outsider, the guy who isn’t a politician and who therefore can be trusted to do the right thing.

Second, people really do vote based on their wallets, and rightly or wrongly they believe that he would have been better for the economy than Joe Biden will be. I think this was especially a factor in the shift in the vote among people of color. Trump’s claim that he has done more for Black voters than any President since Lincoln is, of course, laughable. But before the pandemic hit, the economy was doing well. He inherited a strong economy from Obama, and for the first three and a half years of his Presidency didn’t screw it up. And related to this, I believe a lot of people think he has handled the pandemic poorly, but don’t actually blame him for the devastation. To my mind, the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, and also the catastrophic collateral damage caused by COVID, are all directly attributable to Trump’s inaction, denials, and incompetence. But to many, these are things that happened, rather than something he did.

People talk about the level of support Biden enjoyed among women — and it needs to be said that without the gender-gap, we would have a very different outcome. But the gender-gap cuts both ways. Lots of men, including many men of color, like Trump because they see in him a brand of (toxic) masculinity that remains popular with a segment of the population. The whole America-first, go-it-alone, screw-the-rest-of-the-world vibe is very attractive to some people, just as Ronald Reagan’s John-Wayne-esque masculinity was forty years ago. In my view, his actions have made our world less safe, our country less influential, our planet’s future less certain. But some folks, including a lot of men, like that he “stands up for America.” They credit him for taking on China in a trade war, and for removing the U.S. from the climate treaty, the World Health Organization, the Iran deal. Where I see recklessness, they see strength.

Certainly there are people out there who voted for Trump because he spouts racism and homophobia and sexism, because he calls the pandemic a hoax, because he incites people to violence. But I know a lot of Trump voters. I’m even related to a few. None who I know support him because of these things. None of them are bad people. They voted for him despite all of this.

And — plot twist — that disturbs me even more than if they supported his extremism.

If they shared his views, then at least I might explain to myself how they could vote for the man. But I can’t help feeling that by caring about these other things and ignoring the ugliness of Trumpism, they make themselves complicit. They may not hate, but they voted for hatred. They may be patriots, but they voted for a man who is still trying to undermine the pillars of our republic. They may lament the damage done by COVID, but they rewarded with their vote a President who made the pandemic infinitely worse than it needed to be.

Hence my bewilderment and dismay at the level of support he received. It will take some time before I can reconcile myself to how close we came to having four more years of this President.

But that is not how I wish to end this post. Because the fact is, Trumpism has been rejected. And while it felt close, in large part because Republicans in Pennsylvania and other states wanted it to feel close and arranged the counting procedures accordingly, the fact is that this was a broad and impressive victory.

Joe Biden’s popular vote margin is likely to exceed five million votes. He has already received more votes than any candidate in U.S. history, and will easily clear 75 million before the counting is done. His margin will also likely be in excess of four per cent, making it the second largest margin in this century (after Obama ‘08). He is the first candidate to defeat a sitting President since Bill Clinton in 1992. His electoral vote total, while not huge, should wind up north of 290, and (depending largely on the vote in Arizona) could reach 306, which is exactly the number won by Trump four years ago — a unique historical oddity were it to occur.

And, of course, thanks to his courageous and wise choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden has given us our first woman Vice President and our first person of color in that position. We are, we can hope, that much closer to having a woman as President. I still remember vividly the campaign of Shirley Chisholm for President in 1972. She was dismissed as a sideshow, a curiosity. A Black New York Congresswoman running for President? Absurd! And I remember as well the excitement of Walter Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his VP candidate — the first woman to appear on a major party ticket. Today, finally, the promise of those two pioneers has been realized. More cause for celebration.

Finally, I should point out that Donald Trump has made history as well. As the folks at CBS News pointed out this past weekend, just after the race was called, he is the first President in United States history to lose the popular vote twice.

Have a good week, all. Breathe.