What Would Help?

Determination and faith as the ship of state steams toward peril.


It’s been a tough 18 months. I’ve been alternatively filled with dread, furious, determined to do something, hiding in Facebook, talking to dispondent friends, reflecting, scanning the news, avoiding the news. It’s been 19 months since Barack Obama left office. Nothing has inspired me to write much about his absence from the presidency or the current state of the presidency. I usually have something useful to say about politics. My useful intellectual or moral contributions in the past year and a half have been restricted to posting interesting articles from various online newspapers on Facebook and Twitter.

Now it’s not that I’ve felt powerless. One of the things I’m very grateful for is my professed Christian faith, lived out for the last 33 years at Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis with my spouse, Stephen Nichols. Even though I want this post to speak to a broader audience than my fellow Christians, I think a moment’s reflection on how my faith has impacted my life in the Trump era might be instructive. One thing I like about my faith is that I can practice it without being assured that I can alter the political situation in what I consider to be a positive direction. My Christian life is simple: I have to love God, and I have to love my neighbor as myself. So, a paragraph or two on each of these rules.

I’ve spent much of my life working on my communication with whatever it was that created me. To be sure, I’ve studied philosophy, I’ve been in several churches, I’ve had my admirable human heroes. But I think it has been meditation that has helped me to open up the communication channel to God. I have done Self-Realization Fellowship meditation since 1979. I’m supposed to do it a lot more often, but for decades I gave it more that 15 minutes a day. Over those years, I have felt this channel, this awareness, this presence open up more and more, until now, in my old age, I feel that God is always present to me. I only notice it when I stop to think about it. I usually just go on with my life. It has been and continues to be a comfort to me that when I stop to think about it, for the most part I am living my life as if God were watching.

Now it’s not that I’m this pious person; any of my friends will tell you that. I have a big mouth, and it’s not always pure. I lose my temper, and sometimes I hate it that I have. I do way less for my fellow human beings than I am comfortable with. I could be used, on occasion, as case in point for the folly of every one of seven deadly sins. And now that I’m older, I’m a bit slow on the uptake, and perhaps even more attached to my favorite ideas. It seems improbable to me after all these years that there isn’t some kind of intelligent design for this existence, but I know many good people that are firmly against that concept. Anyway, the point that I am making is that even though we have a government that is comfortable with making life more miserable for most of its citizens, that doesn’t change my ability to live my life as if God were watching. I shall continue to do so.

And then there’s loving your neighbor as yourself. Now I think we can put pretense aside and just admit something. You know how you treat yourself. You forgive yourself way more than you forgive your closest friends. You expect other people to give you the benefit of the doubt. Mental illness notwithstanding, you treat yourself really, really well. That says it all. Let’s face it, even if we seriously worked for the rest of our lives on the project of loving others as ourselves, we would never reach our goal. But we do know what achieving that goal would be like. It would make us much more loving, understanding, and compassionate than we normally are. I refuse to give up this goal of treating my neighbor as myself, even as I am certain that I will never achieve it. Even if I were not a Christian, I think this rule of loving your neighbor as yourself is a good rule to follow, because the world would be a better place if we did.

However, though I haven’t lost my moorings when it comes to my Christian foundation of loving God and loving my neighbor as myself, I have lost my lighthouse when it comes to knowing what to do, who to turn to, what direction to look about what is happening to our country right now. I’m hearing now on T.V. news the phrase or the idea, “the President has gone rogue.” That does seem to be the case. We seem as a nation to be completely unprepared to deal with a leader who follows no rule but his momentary impulses. One side completely trusts him as the strong leader who will lead us out of a morass of inaction; another side can find no good in any action that he takes. The congressional Republicans simply will not challenge his rogue behavior in any effective way, and the few congressional Democrats who have the courage to cry foul have found no way to change the course of the ship of state towards the iceberg of aligning the nation with tyrants and cynical billionaires.

A curious thing has happened to me, though, in the middle of all this uncertainty and confusion about steps for me to take in the face of what many are calling a Constitutional crisis. By necessity, I had to move Stephen and myself out of a diverse urban enclave and into the middle of a retirement community in the suburbs. Stephen just couldn’t handle the stairs, and I couldn’t do the chores. Now I’ve never before lived in a sizeable community that ate together and played together. I didn’t live in a dorm in college and I didn’t serve in the military. I’ve driven a car since I was 16. I’ve always just had my digs, had people over or gone out to visit or by myself, but spent most of my time at home in my place. So what I am currently viewing as a revelation may be obvious to some people.

But there is more to this than just joint living. This is a community of old folks. I never saw myself as living in a community of old folks, though once, I did have that experience for three weeks 30 years ago. I wrote about this experience in this blog. But something interesting happened to me from moving in here. The old teacher in me had to learn everyone’s name, and then I wanted to know more about them. The entertainer in me started playing the piano for them. Somebody came and asked me to be treasurer of the charitable committee that exists here, and I said “I can do that.” But there’s something amazing about each night going down to dinner, Stephen and I, and either finding an empty table and being joined by two more people, or we, ourselves, sitting down at a partially filled table, and beginning a conversation—with 100 other people over a period of time. What is so amazing is that, considering the average age here is about 85, I am regularly exposed to the wisdom that has emerged from 8500 years of living. Here there are bankers, lawyers, doctors, but there are also plumbers, teachers and life insurance salespersons. There are a lot of women, but quite a few men. There are many couples, nearly all of them male/female, however. There are immigrants, wealthy folks with two or three homes, and spinsters who watch every penny they spend. There are male chauvinists and feminists. There are Republicans, Democrats, black lives matter folks and apolitical souls here. There’s even an African American couple, and of course, us, but  overall, we’re not the most diverse group in race and wealth.

There is one thing that unites us. We are each quite close to the end of our very rich and varied lives. A certain compassionate yet detatched calm has descended on this particular place. Every day we hear the emergency vehicle sirens as they drive down Kirkwood Road. More often than not the sirens go off just as the EV’s pass here. Next morning, people are asking, “Who went out last night?” and “Did they come back?” You make a good friend, play cards with them, begin to develop a mini-portrait. First thing you know, this health problem, that health problem gets worse. Next they’re being transferred to assisted living or nursing care. I played cards with one tall, elegant woman in her eighties. We had a great conversation. Weeks later I found out she went to the hospital and died. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s not a war zone, but it’s a different kind of fragile zone to be in.

This is what social life used to be like in the world, and not just for seniors. People lived side by side, and some level of tolerance emerged. Telecomunications, mass media, and then the emergence of the internet and cyberspace at first blurred and then destroyed literal spatial boundaries for a community. With the advent of cell phones, chat rooms, Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram, we gained control over entry into a community. This was a good thing for sexual and racial minorities, because networking made resisting the dominant oppressive culture easier. Unfortunately, oppressing groups and politically extreme groups became empowered through the same process. Now most of us live in a world where we can minimize interaction with people we don’t like or agree with and maximize interaction with people we do like or agree with. Now it is easy to avoid learning tolerance.

I wish I could conclude this reflection with some valid insight into how we can turn the culture back towards learning tolerance in the face of the technological changes that are propelling us towards a snark-laced online existence. I can’t. Some things I do know however. We can’t predict the emergence of many cultural changes even five years in advance. Experts tell us that it is only a couple of decades before artificial intelligence (AI) supercedes human intelligence. AI will get smarter and smarter, more and more powerful. And it will be interlaced with human culture. We have only a few more years to get it right. Meanwhile, I continue to explore the channel to my creator; trying to find Their face in my neighbor’s face.


Riding the Train in Sedalia: It Takes all Kinds

I miss the long overdue train to St. Louis, have an engaging interaction with an unlikely fellow, but it’s all ok.

IMG_6154(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)

My most fascinating yet challenging experience in Sedalia had nothing to do with the ragtime festival. Even though I had had a spectacular time on my own, the two days in town had flown by quickly, and I found myself getting off the bus a block away from an Amtrak terminal near downtown an hour early.

I felt a bit intimidated. There was no one in the station, no agent, no passengers. The train just slows down and stops very briefly to drop off or pick up passengers, and then it is gone. I thought of a line from the poem I had memorized in high school, Ozymandias:

“Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Continue reading “Riding the Train in Sedalia: It Takes all Kinds”

My Brother, Tom, is Born

Jim grows up during the war in a river town and in a family who loves him, and how he learns to give some love back.

When I was six year old, we lived on Quarry Street, one of the steepest streets in Marietta, Ohio. I don’t remember exactly when we moved from 107 1/2 N. Fourth St., but I suspect it had something to do with the almost annual floods we had to deal with. Marietta, the county seat of Washington County, has a lot of historical significance, since it was the first permanent, organized settlement in the Northwest Territory. Its location at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers no doubt influenced its significance, since local, regional and even national trade flowed through the city. But we paid a price for that fortuitous situation with those rising, raging waters. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that my mother, Lorene—witness of many such floods and poor as a rural church mouse throughout much of her early life—wanted her domicile to be a haven away from the river.

Continue reading “My Brother, Tom, is Born”

Riding the Bus in Sedalia: a Window into a Community

(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)

I knew I would enjoy all the ragtime virtuosity that is almost continuously on display at the International Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, but an unexpected adventure unfolded for me on Sedalia streets. It all went back to my decision to take a train ride. Stephen and I moved to Kirkwood, Missouri in April of 2017. The downtown area of Kirkwood, which includes an Amtrak depot, is less than half a mile from our home, and so I found myself walking there often. One day, quite unexpectedly, the idea popped into my head: Before I die, I want to take the Amtrak train from Kirkwood to Sedalia for the annual ragtime festival held there in late May.

Continue reading “Riding the Bus in Sedalia: a Window into a Community”

The Cradle of Ragtime Concert

(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)

As I said before, here I am at seat G10 in the Liberty Arts Concert Hall, full of anticipation for my first concert at the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. A good place to start is to elaborate on the program blurb:

This unique concert celebrates the melodious compositions of the Missouri Valley, lovingly referred to as the “Cradle of Ragtime.” You might hear rags by James Scott, Brun Campbell, Charles Johnson, or John William “Blind” Boone, to name a few. There’s sure to be a wonderful mix of classic and folk ragtime to please even the most ardent fan of America’s greatest music.
Featuring David Reffkin as emcee, Jeff Barnhart, Marty Eggers, The Rhythmia, Virginia Tichenor, Mat Tolentino

Dave Reffkin, himself a long term participant in the festival, introduced the first act.

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This time, the sky really is falling

Living in the Era of Trump

I gave up on blogging on Jan. 3, 2017. The first week of Donald Trump’s actual occupation of the White House was a nightmare for me. I hadn’t been that scared since 1964, when I was doing my student teaching in a junior high in Columbus, Ohio. Nothing had prepared me for that experience. It might surprise some of you that this guy who made a 33 year career out of being an education professor almost failed student teaching, but I nearly did. It was doubly puzzling for me, because I had always loved school: I did well in school, I liked most of my teachers, I had a good circle of friends, and I avoided the inevitable few assholes that I occasionally encountered along the way.

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Why do I love ragtime?

(This is in a series of posts about my trip to Sedalia, Missouri May 31-June 2, 2018)

Squee and Red, 1936 Plus Jim, 1943

A digression. I cannot remember a time when I did not play the piano. My mother, Lorene—her nickname was “Red”—God rest her soul, came from extreme poverty. She was very bright, an autodidact, and she married Fernand—his nickname was “Squee”—who, having inherited a grocery store upon the death of his mother, was relatively well off. Mom wanted to learn about everthing, but one of the first purchases she made back in 1937 was a piano and a set of American School of Music lessons that proposed to teach her how to play the piano. And, by darn, she taught herself to play: popular songs, hymns, and an occasional pops classical work like Melody in F. So little Jimmie heard Red playing popular music, and he heard Squee singing along on all the popular songs, not so much the hymns.

Continue reading “Why do I love ragtime?”