Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Maine Accent Disappearing

Published December, 2004

Years ago, my students talked with a Maine accent. They don’t anymore. When it was their parents’ voices they heard most often, they retained that distinctive, rural-Maine way of speaking, and that’s the way it was when I started teaching here back in the 1970s. Most kids spoke the way their parents did. The Maine twang was so thick in some I had a hard time understanding them. In one generation, however, it’s virtually gone. Now they all talk like the people they hear on television, on the radio, and on the CDs they listen to. And it’s not just the way they pronounce words that’s changing; the words they use to think with are changing too. Their parents’ words are not the ones children hear most in this generation, and that has huge implications.

Many of my fourteen-year-old students now think with words that come from mass media, and with those words come views on life’s biggest issues. There are still some who get their attitudes and perspectives the old-fashioned way - from home, and from churches, schools and civic organizations which echo what they hear at home. Those students used to be in the majority, but they’re not anymore. There’s been a shift. Students are discouraged from singing Christmas carols in school these days, but they’re allowed to listen to Tupac CDs on their walkmen while they’re riding to and from.

I don’t watch Dr. Phil, but I know who he is. I didn’t expect to see him when I tuned in to “Meet The Press” last Sunday but there he was. Tim Russert asked him about challenges facing our nation and McGraw said the biggest one was the American family. After three decades in education and teaching more than twenty-five hundred students, it’s hard to disagree. McGraw went on to say that there are many voices in the ears of children growing up today, and a parent’s voice is not only one. It’s not often the loudest voice, and it’s not the most-often heard voice either. Other voices are the louder and more frequent and parents must be aware of that.

Generations ago families spent a lot more time together. Kids went to school, but when they came home there was usually a mother present. They usually did chores like lugging wood or feeding animals, or they played outside. They went sledding or they played football or baseball. They rode bicycles. They shoveled snow. They mowed the lawn. They played with siblings. What do they do now? They watch television. They play video games. They go online. If they go outside at all, they ride snowmobiles or four-wheelers. Yeah, some still ride bicycles, but their numbers are diminishing, and many kids don’t even have siblings to play with or talk to.

It’s not just family which has less of a role in the raising or our children. The roles of our churches and our community organizations are also waning. It’s no wonder either - their biggest problem is lack of volunteers. Single parents can’t be expected to donate much of their time because it’s way too stretched already. Even families with two parents have little time because both usually work.

Teaching in the same community for more than a generation gives me a perspective most people don't get. Every year, half a dozen of my students are children of former students. The current generation has considerably less religious training compared to their predecessors, and I get a feeling for this when I'm teaching about the history of the Middle Eastern conflict. There’s no way to cover it well without students having some comparative knowledge of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Few students were ever aware of who Mohammed was, but I used to depend on most of them being familiar with Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. I can’t depend on that anymore. With most students now, I have to start from scratch because those who’ve had any religious training at all are a distinct minority.

As for community organizations, few students belong to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts any more. In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for students to come to school wearing a Scout uniform. I never see that now. If kids do belong to scouts, they keep it to themselves because it’s not fashionable. It’s seen as nerdy by other students so it’s kept in the closet, so to speak. Some Maine schools are threatened with lawsuits for even allowing the Boy Scouts to meet after hours in school facilities. Why? Either because their oath requires a belief in God, or because the organization has publicly declared they don’t want homosexuals to lead boy scouts on camping trips.

After mass media, the voices children hear at school - those of their fellow students and those of their teachers - are the ones reaching their ears most often. If children don’t actively receive training in cultural values from family, church or community organizations, then mass media provide them with the lowest common denominator of what passes for cultural values. These days, that's very low. The media are a kind of cultural default. In the public schools, however, there’s a script and most parents have given up control over who writes that script and the leftists who control the teachers' unions have become the authors. Schools have become a battleground in the culture wars as America itself becomes more polarized over social and cultural issues. Left and right compete to influence what goes into that script, and not difficult to see which side is winning. Hint: It's not the right.

Labels: , ,

Teaching the Sixties

Published January, 2005

Once in a while, something interesting comes through my school mailbox. The last time it was the notice of a history conference on how to teach the Sixties at the University of Maine Orono. It was a six-hour drive ‘round trip, but it intrigued me. For people my age, how one views the sixties largely determines one’s view the world at large. If you think they were wonderful, you’re very likely a Democrat. If you think our country went off on the wrong track during the 1960s, you’re probably a Republican.

Not that I expected to find many Republicans at the conference. Frankly, I’d have been surprised to find any at all. Teachers’ unions are the biggest contributors to the Democrat Party. I don’t think they’ve ever endorsed a Republican since I’ve been paying attention. University professors around the country are also ten to one Democrat. Some campuses are even twenty, thirty, or even fifty to one. Williams College has no Republicans on staff at all, according to an article I read this week. I hadn’t seen any statistics about UMO’s faculty, but I expected much the same, and I wasn’t disappointed. The conference was officially titled “Teaching History in Maine: ‘The 1960’s: A Decade of Hope, Rage, and Change.’” Educational conferences and university courses usually have pretentious titles like that, with the essential colon announcing something else. They seldom just name it something simple like “History of the Sixties” or “Teaching the Sixties.”

The keynote presentation had little to do with the sixties that I could see. A history professor from Hamilton College named Maurice Isserman bored us with stories of how some Americans climbed Mount Everest and were given awards by President John F. Kennedy. Professor Isserman was publishing something about it and he read it to us verbatim, droning on for over an hour. “For this I had to drive six hours?” and “Why did they invite this guy?” was all I could think about.

There were choices about what presentations to attend the rest of the day and the first one I chose was interesting. A panel of teachers explained how each approached the teaching of events during that decade - what materials they chose, what themes they emphasized, what research they assigned. They were all excellent teachers and their suggestions were helpful. One woman announced she was “to the left of liberal” and I appreciated her honesty. She was a thoughtful woman and she gave her students the opportunity to filter her personal and political perspective while taking in her historical unit. She encouraged students to consider alternative viewpoints and debate her. Unfortunately, too few history teachers do that. Instead, they present extremely slanted material as if it were objective.

My last chosen session involved three history professors from the UMO History Department. The first was an obviously radical feminist whose presentation reminded me of the proverb: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Her presentation tried to make the case that American involvement in Vietnam was the result of the Kennedy brothers’ - John’s and Robert’s - “obsession with masculinity and macho images.” She said Robert’s in particular stemmed from his stint as legal advisor to congressional committees during the 1950s, including Senator Joseph McCarthy’s. She claimed they demonized homosexuals, whom they referred to as “Lavender Lads,” and this attitude led them inevitably to involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

The next presentation was from a Vietnamese-American professor with extensive firsthand experience as an advisor to the US military during the war. I strained to understand him through his thick accent, made worse by his rising anger as he described the US effort in Iraq and made parallels with it and Vietnam. When I asked him his opinion of remarks by old North Vietnamese General Giap advising terrorists in Iraq on how to defeat the United States, he started losing it. Another professor from Israel who was acting as MC came to his aid and lectured me heatedly about how Middle Eastern conflicts were solely the result of American imperialism. When I suggested that Bernard Lewis, a Middle Eastern historian at Princeton would disagree with that, he lost it too and started yelling at me. After the conference broke up and people were going to their cars, we nearly bumped into each other. He told me that he didn’t mean to get so excited in there. We discussed the Middle Eastern situation a bit longer until finally he said, “We disagree,” in a civil tone and we said good-bye.

On the long drive up there, I wondered how many other conservatives I would meet at the conference. As it turned out I was the only participant out of more than fifty who openly questioned any of the uniformly leftist views of history delivered. And, it was abundantly clear that none of the three history professors who presented, nor the one who served as MC, were accustomed to it. It was also clear that they considered the legacy of the sixties something to celebrate. If there were any others there but me who thought it wasn’t, they sure kept quiet about it.

Labels: , ,

State of the Schools

First published February, 2005

I’m a teacher. In the eight weeks since Christmas break, I will have spent three weeks testing students. None of it will show up on their report cards because it’s just to comply with state and federal mandates. Consequently, I’ll have less time to teach curriculum the school board hired me to deliver. Students will get less US History.

Teachers have been cutting back like this for decades - three at least, since I’ve been involved. It’s a kind of paradox. Schools have been adding more and more subjects as well as more services, the staff to deliver them, the administrators to supervise them, the clerical people to keep track of them, and the custodians to clean up afterward and to keep it all working. What hasn’t been added however, is any extra time to do it all. Hence, there must be cutbacks in the primary mission.

Public schools started with a simple mandate: teach children to read, write, do arithmetic, and teach them enough of history to help them become good citizens. Generally, schools met for six-and-a-half or seven hours a day for thirty-six to forty weeks. It started in September and ended in June. As families got busier with mothers working outside the home and there was an increasing percentage of single-parent families, schools were expected to assume more of the functions which families had hitherto been sole provider of. Most schools feed students breakfast now as well as lunch. More students receive psychological or sexual counseling in school instead of being referred out for it. Families expect schools to pick up the slack as they have less time, and schools pretend they can accomplish it. Expectations of schools increase but time remains static. It’s still six-and-a-half hours a day for thirty-six weeks. No matter how hard we may try, we can’t do it all. Nobody could, but we are reluctant to admit it. So, we pretend.

Along with increased expectations came new policies, many of questionable effectiveness. Students who don’t progress are promoted anyway. Very few repeat grades anymore in elementary or middle schools. Instead, they’re pushed along, and the result is an increasing cohort of students not prepared to work at grade level. That wouldn’t have been as bad if “progressive” educators hadn’t insisted that this cohort be taught alongside students who progressed as they were supposed to. We no longer group students according to achievement or ability in many elementary or middle schools. That’s “tracking” and it’s considered elitist. The very mention of it brings gasps to progressives. Instead, our brightest, hardest-working students are taught together with average kids and an ever-increasing percentage of students who do little, have learned little, and are determined to resist anyone’s efforts to get them to change. What students in this last group have learned, however, is that they can do nothing and still be passed along to the next grade.

Simultaneous with the no-retention policy came the “total inclusionary model.” Special education students with various handicaps were brought into regular classrooms instead of being taught separately. Some were successful with the addition of support staff, but others were not. They appeared to do well, however, because support staff often did more than support. Work, tests and quizzes were watered down and grades were inflated. The upshot for such students was an unofficial disability called “learned helplessness.” More classifications emerged for students with disabilities and more staff was added to service them. Teachers were expected to teach the brightest, the average, the willfully ignorant, and the disabled, all together in one egalitarian, progressive, non-elitist classroom. The extra time allotted for all this? None. It was impossible, of course, but everyone pretended they could do it.

The result? Students were getting high school diplomas who were unable to fill out job applications. Local business people, who pay a lot of property taxes to support schools, wondered how this could be. They pressured governments to make sure students could read, write, and do simple math before getting a diploma. The federal government could have come up with minimum-competency standards for all states and the tests to make sure they were met. There’s little other justification for an education bureaucracy at the federal level, but that would have been too simple. It would have provided a set of expectations essential to students across the nation in an age when families move around more than ever and students are constantly changing schools. States would not be told how to teach these fundamental skills, as long as students learned them. States would be free to teach more than the basic, but could not get away with substituting trendy, flash-in-the-pan programs for fundamentals. That would have made a lot of sense. Therefore, it didn’t happen. Instead, we have multiple batteries of tests of questionable efficacy to administer, and less time to teach.

New England Yankees used to have an expression: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Government looked at schools and figured, “If they ain’t broke, we’ll keep on fixing them until they are broke.”

Labels:

Teaching Creation, Evolution, Abortion

About ten years ago, a new principal came into my room and said, “I hope you’re not going to teach your unit on evolution and creation this year.” I was surprised. He had just been hired and the school year was just about to begin. I was setting up my classroom in preparation for the first day of school.

“I was planning to,” I responded. “I’ve been starting the school year with it for quite a while now. What’s the problem?”

“Some parents came to see me who are concerned about what you teach,” he said. “And I’d just as soon not have to deal with the controversy if I don’t have to.” He wouldn’t tell me who the parents were because they requested anonymity. I argued that it was worthwhile to begin the year by teaching students that Americans have different concepts of how everything began. That those fundamental differences in thinking tend to affect how they think about other issues in history, how they behave, and how they vote. I persuaded him that students were free to decide for themselves what they wanted to believe, and that I only wanted them to understand how people think.

With a long sigh he relented, and I went ahead with the unit. Later, he told me that he was getting heat from parents on both sides of the spectrum. Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t want their kids exposed to ideas about evolution, and secular-humanist parents objected to what they perceived as my creation bias. I’d been publishing columns in local newspapers and many were written from a conservative or Roman Catholic perspective; sometimes both.

Students would ask me during the unit what my view was. I said I would tell them at the end if they couldn’t figure it out before then. Most couldn’t, and when we were done I told them that I didn’t see evolution and creation as mutually exclusive, that I borrowed from each to construct my personal view.

About eighteen years ago, another former principal invited me to her office to introduce herself. Placed prominently, so that it was the first thing to be seen by anyone sitting there, was a sign proclaiming: “Scientists discovered something to do the work of ten men: One woman.” She sat in her long, loose-fitting dress and large, brightly-colored, shawl-like scarf with the end thrown over one shoulder - a uniform I’ve associated with radical feminists ever since. I leaned forward to read the sign. I said, “Hmm,” and then sat back. She paused, as if waiting for a comment. I didn’t make one.

Later, she visited me in my classroom to question what I was teaching. It was my habit during those years to conduct at least one debate in each US History class. Students would brainstorm topics and then choose one by majority vote. Three classes chose abortion that year. She told me she was concerned about the debates and I asked her why. She said fourteen-year-olds were too young to discuss such a controversial and delicate subject. I told her it was their overwhelming choice in two classes (others chose gun control). Again, she said they weren’t sophisticated enough.

“That’s curious,” I said. “They’re old enough to have abortions, right?”

She didn’t answer.

“Some girls in this school quite possibly have abortions you know.”

“I know that,” she said.

“So you’re suggesting that it’s okay for them to have abortions, but not to debate them?”

Again, she didn’t answer. She was called away at that point to handle another matter and I went ahead with the debates. Parents had been invited and students conducted themselves quite well. Each side presented the classic arguments we hear whenever this issue is debated and students made up their own minds at the end.

These topics have been controversial for a long time. In 1925, for example, Tennessee passed a law outlawing the teaching of evolution. A high school science teacher was charged with violating the law and he was defended by the most famous trial lawyer of the time. The prosecutor was a three-time presidential candidate and Secretary of State. The trial was dramatized the classic movie “Inherit The Wind.” Clearly, some creationists were intolerant of conflicting views at the time.

Last month (in 2005), after a local school board in Georgia put stickers in high school biology texts advising students that evolution is “a theory, not a fact,” a federal judge ordered it removed. The school board is appealing. Clearly, some evolutionists are intolerant of conflicting views today.

Intolerant creationists think evolutionists are damned. Intolerant evolutionists think creationists are dumb. Strict creationists believe God created everything and life has a divine purpose, so it logically follows that they tend to believe abortion is murder of a person created by God. Strict evolutionists believe everything happened by chance and doesn’t necessarily have a purpose; it just is. It’s easy to understand why many tend to believe abortion just removes a lump of cells with no particular significance except that it would be problematic in some way if it continued growing.

Both sides can be intolerant, but does that mean we shouldn’t debate? Quite the contrary. If we’re going to understand and live with our fellow citizens in these United States, it’s essential. How else can we function in the constitutional republic our founding fathers designed?

First published in February, 2005

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dealing With Evil

When I was about seven, a smart-alecky girl from up the street asked me if I’d lived a million days. I said yes, and she said, “Oh no you haven’t.” With a stick, she wrote “365” in the dirt seven times and added it up to 2555. “If you lived to be a hundred, you would only live 36,500 days - not even close to a million.” Humbled, I walked home. Shortly after, I watched an episode of “World At War” with my father and learned that six million Jews were murdered in the death camps of Nazi-occupied Europe. I was struggling to grasp what a million was, yet here were gruesome images of more than six million mass murder victims.

That such an astonishingly evil thing could occur shocked me. Nothing I’ve learned since exceeded it except discovering there were six million other victims as well. I read all I could about the Holocaust until sometime in the 1980s. My curiosity had become morbid fascination, then profound depression. I had to stop my research.

Two enigmas remained, however. One was the systematic banality of Nazi bureaucrats who perpetrated the worst mass murder in history. The other was the submissiveness of the victims. Millions went into ghettoes, onto transports and into gas chambers with little resistance. It’s true that most didn’t know what would happen when the train stopped. They thought they were going to labor camps, communal farms or relocation centers. They thought gas chambers were showers. Even when told by escapees what awaited them at the camps, however, many wouldn’t believe it. There were only a few valiant acts of defiance like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 in which Jews chose to die fighting rather than submit like sheep. That kind of courage led to the reincarnation of Israel as a country immediately after the war. This tiny nation knew what evil looked like.

What struck me about the mass murder at Virginia Tech last week was not so much the shooter, of whom much has been written. It was the reactions of victims. Most screamed, ran and hid, but a 76-year-old professor used his body to block the door of his classroom and told students to flee. They jumped out second-story windows while the old man impeded the shooter, who eventually pushed the door open and shot him to death. That this professor, Liviu Librescu, was a Holocaust survivor interests me.

Librescu would have been only fourteen in 1945, the last year of WWII and of the Holocaust. As an inmate at Thereseinstadt in Czechoslovakia, he would have had prolonged, intimate contact with evil. After, he spent thirty-three years in Romania under the control of the “Evil Empire” as President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union. Then, through the personal intervention of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978, he was able to leave Soviet-dominated Romania and move to Israel. For eight years he lived among people who had fought off four full-scale invasions by much larger, Arab Muslim countries as well as their countless terrorist attacks. In 1986, he went on a sabbatical to the United States and stayed.

Last week, evil paid another visit to Liviu Librescu in the form of a hate-filled young man invading his classroom. I suspect the professor recognized his old nemesis right away. Such awareness would have made him different from the typical academics who run our universities today. Thinking themselves intelligent and sophisticated, they defined evil out of existence decades ago. They believed they could protect themselves by declaring their campus a gun-free zone and putting up a few signs. Jews who reestablished Israel after the Holocaust would not make such a mistake because they learned the hard way that the most effective method of deterring those bent on murdering you is being prepared to kill them before they kill you. “Gun-free zones” protect murderers, not the innocent.

My trip to Israel is still on for May 14th to the 24th. My wife and I were supposed to go last October, but rocket attacks by the evil, Iranian-financed, terrorist organization known as Hezbollah on northern Israeli cities we were scheduled to visit forced a postponement. Israeli Defense Forces attacked the terrorists in southern Lebanon but stopped short of destroying Hezbollah when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wimped out and accepted a UN-negotiated cease fire. Emboldened, the terrorists are already gearing up for another strike. Hezbollah knows UN “Peacekeeping” Forces are about as effective as “Gun-free zone” signs.

A generation has passed since the last Arab Muslim invasion and it looks like some Israelis are getting soft. If they don’t get rid of Olmert and elect a warrior to deal with terrorist murderers, their tiny country will return to oblivion.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Utopian Moonbats

Ancient Irish chieftains had to be physically perfect. Should one lose part of a finger in battle he had to step down and let an intact warrior take over leadership. Why? I suspect it was to preserve the illusion that human perfection was possible. Some needed to believe their leader was flawless and they could not tolerate defects. A foolish notion of course, but one which persisted in immature societies like Irish clans.

Young children think their parents are flawless. As adolescents however, they perceive parental imperfections. Soon flaws are all teenagers can see and they walk twenty paces behind mothers or fathers in public. Many rebel in some way, rejecting parental authority and value systems. At about twenty-five or so, they should mature as they realize that nobody out there is perfect, including themselves. They learn to live with imperfections in people and in the structures under which we govern ourselves.

Most of us fall in love with someone of the opposite sex and we perceive our new loved one as an impeccable human being. That perception too wears off over time when we inevitably perceive defects. They become magnified if we persist in our childish notion that anyone could be faultless. Those who cannot accept imperfection divorce over and over as they search for the perfect mate that doesn’t exist.

All of us seem to have an inherent need to believe in something perfect and the concept of God fulfills that for most. Atheists and agnostics keep looking, however. Some worship other people they perceive to be more intelligent than they are. Others worship nature. Still others, like Marx and Engels, design what they think is a perfect system. They and their followers would impose it on humanity whether people want it or not.

When baby boomers became adolescents in the 1960s, they rebelled against their parents. That much was normal enough even with the unprecedented size of the boomer generation. Trouble is, a significant portion refused to grow up after rebelling against their parents’ value systems. Boomers raised with security and privilege on a level previously unknown considered their good fortune the natural order of things. Instead of appreciating the system that provided it to them, they brazenly trashed those practices and institutions built by their forebears. In their hubris, they rejected do’s and don’ts for human conduct learned since the beginning of civilization.

For example:
Sexual mores? Unnecessary. If it feels good, do it. Marriage? Too constricting. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Drugs and alcohol? “Whatever turns you on.” Patriotism? “Imagine there’s no country. It’s easy if you try. Nothing to kill or die for.” God? “And no religion too.” Economics? “Imagine no possessions . . . No need for greed or hunger . . . Imagine all the people sharing all the world.”

Naiveté? Of course - the height of it. Baby boomers refused to grow up and many continue to resist maturation. Now they run most of our universities, media and many charitable foundations controlling billions of dollars. They largely control what millions see and understand about the world around them. The result is what you hear out of the mouths of people like Rosie O’Donnell, Cindy Sheehan and Dennis Kucinich just to name a few. Conservatives call them “moonbats” and they think in lockstep. Muslim crazies kill thousands of innocent Americans? “They only hate us because Bush, Cheney and Halliburton provoked them. If we just impeach those guys and pull out of Iraq everything will be all right. It’s American government policies that cause terrorism, not Islamic terrorists.” That’s how they think.

Even when Islamofascists themselves proclaim over and over that they intend to make the world Muslim and impose Sharia Law, it isn’t enough to crack the moonbats’ childish world view. President Bush is dangerous, not Radical Muslim terrorists. If we can just elect perfect, progressive leaders, those oppressed Muslims will see how nice we are and we’ll all get along the way John Lennon imagined: “The world will live as one.”

“You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not not the only one,” goes Lennon’s refrain. I agree. You were a dreamer and, unfortunately, you weren’t the only one. There are plenty of moonbats out there in groups like Moveon.org. They elected a new majority in our Congress. Now if they can just elect a perfect president, the world will finally live as one. We’ll all be smiling happy people holding hands in utopia.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Getting Seasoned

Last Saturday I turned 56 and it’s beginning to look as though I may never become president. I have, however, outlived my father who died of a heart attack at 55. That’s something, I guess. If I make it to the average life expectancy for an American heterosexual white guy - 76, I think I’ll be satisfied. Twenty more years.

Several people have asked me lately when I’m going to retire. It’s a good question but I don’t have an answer. I’ve been teaching for nearly 32 years. It keeps me busy and with two other jobs as well I’m seldom idle. I’ve taken care of a few vacation properties for more than twenty years. My clients are great people and the schedule is flexible unless a windstorm blows over some trees or there’s some other act of God I have to deal with right away. I could pick up a few more clients and retire from teaching. That would give me more time to write - my third occupation for the last sixteen years. It’s nice to have choices, but I see myself working at something or other until I’m either drooling in a rocking chair or dead. I like what I’m doing though and I don’t want to give up any of it right now. Poet Robert Frost put it well:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and the need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.


It’s the last stanza of Two Tramps in Mud Time, one of my favorites. I don’t read much poetry but Frost has always spoken to me. This year’s mud time is longer than most and his words are particularly appropriate to put Spring, 2007 into perspective. The third stanza of the piece reads:

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.


My vocation has been teaching and my avocation is writing. I want more time to write, but I don’t want to give up teaching entirely. My curriculum is twentieth century US History - weaving in civics, economics as well as current events. It all fascinates me, and even if I weren’t teaching it I’d still be studying it. So why not teach a bit longer? I’ll be back next year, at least. After that, who knows what will come along? I sure don’t.

Meanwhile, I’d like spring to come along a little faster than it is - just as everybody else in New England would. As Frost says in the fourth stanza:

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake: and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.


It’s been snowing a bit more than a flake during this year’s mud time. As I look out the window to the snow-covered Kearsarge and Baldface on the western horizon and listen to the cold wind howl this Easter Sunday, I wouldn’t advise anything to blossom either. Not today anyway. I know the crocuses and daffodils are coming up under all that white though. My wife and I saw them sprouting in her garden just before last week’s snowstorm covered them up. This week’s storm will bury them even deeper, but I won’t lose hope.

There’s always something getting ready to blossom, even when all we can see is dark and all we can feel is cold. Frost knew that. New Englanders know that. During the Easter season, Christians know it too.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Kerry And My Sister

Most readers know me only as a conservative and are surprised to learn that I haven’t always been one. Seeing and hearing John Kerry several times a day is an almost-constant reminder that I used to think quite differently when I worked for him back in 1972. I was more liberal then and Kerry was staging an unsuccessful run for congress in the fifth district of Massachusetts. Prior to that, he had been involved with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and I had been fighting city hall in Lowell, the district’s biggest city. His campaign people contacted me and I went to work for them. Some friends and relatives came into the campaign as well, including two of my sisters, Jane and Elaine. When my daughter, Annie, got married last August, they came up for the wedding and we reminisced about those days.

After Kerry lost the election, I had no more contact with him. I had sensed a lack of passion in him and had come to see him as an empty suit. But Elaine and Jane had become friendly with Kerry’s first wife, Julia, and their association with Kerry went on for a few years. Both got to know his family fairly well when they baby-sat his daughters. Elaine watched them sometimes at the three-unit apartment house we had purchased together and they played with my daughters there. Jane was younger and still lived with our parents in nearby Tewksbury. In the summer, she would sometimes accompany the Kerrys to Naushon Island, the private, seven-mile-long summer retreat of the Forbes family and help with the children.

My family has always been politically active. We were born Boston-Irish-Catholic-Democrats and politics is innate. During the 1960s and ‘70s, though, the Democrat Party veered left while the McLaughlin family veered right. Not one of the nine of us still living belongs to the party any more, and I’m sure even my father would have resigned if he had lived to see what’s happened to that once-venerable party.

The day after the wedding last August, we were all sipping wine and talking politics on the porch of my mother’s house in Lovell when Jane told a Kerry story I hadn’t heard before. We had been taking turns relating just when it was that each of us had come to dislike the man the Democrats have since nominated for president. Jane described how she was spending a week on Naushon. Unaware that she was on a nearby porch and within earshot, Kerry was telling Julia that he didn’t want Jane to eat dinner with the family that evening. When Julia asked why, Kerry explained that some dinner guests he had invited didn’t approve of the help eating with the family.

As Jane was telling the story thirty years later, she was still angry and it showed clearly on her face. She’s fully as much of a spitfire now as she was at fifteen when the incident occurred, and it had been years since I’d seen that I angry look only she can display. She has a way of pursing her lips and knitting her brow when she’s mad that is unique to her and I had to laugh. “It wasn’t funny,” she said - again with the angry expression. “I was mortified.”

“So what happened?” I asked, trying to be serious. Jane went on to explain that Julia had put her foot down and told her husband she refused to explain that Kerry wanted her to eat in another room. With that, our would-be president backed off and Jane ate with the family as she usually did. I could picture her sitting at the dinner table, looking at Kerry and doing the slow burn as only Jane can.

“John Kerry - courageous man of the people,” I said.

“That’s when I came to hate him,” said Jane.

“Understandable,” I answered.

Eventually, the Kerrys sold their house in Lowell when he went to law school at Boston College. Then he served as Assistant District Attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. I finished school and moved north to the mountains to teach. Elaine and Jane married and moved to the suburbs. Kerry then ran for Lieutenant Governor under Michael Dukakis, then US Senator. Reading snippets of what he was up to in the Boston papers, I was gradually moving from left to right on the political spectrum. Kerry, obviously, remains on the left - the most liberal member of the Senate. Seeing and hearing him every day is a continuous affirmation that I moved in the right direction.

Published October, 2004

Labels: , ,

Kerry And Me

When I was young and foolish and liberal, I worked for John Kerry. His congressional campaign contacted me back in 1972, but my friends advised me to avoid him because he wasn’t liberal enough. Imagine that. I had been working on a monthly community newspaper called “The Communicator” with a small group of leftists who were protégés of Noam Chomsky. One was a “red diaper baby” - descended from Russian Jewish immigrant parents who were Communists.

Kerry’s campaign thought I controlled hundreds of votes in the section of Lowell, Massachusetts where I lived. I had worked with the Portuguese community there to stop the extension of the Lowell Connector, which would have gone through my house and hundreds of others. After an intense, five-week campaign, the highway was defeated by a close vote of the city council. Coincidentally, Paul Tsongas was on the council at the time and had voted against us. It all went down a month before the Democratic primary and John Kerry was facing stiff opposition. Everyone believed that whoever won the primary would easily defeat the Republican in November. Because I had a leadership role in the movement to defeat the highway, Kerry thought I could help him win. After speaking to his brother Cameron and others, I agreed, mostly because of his strong stand against the war in Vietnam. I learned a lot - enough to make me realize how distasteful modern, large-scale, electoral campaigns are. Kerry spent more money that year than any other congressional campaign in the country. Still, he lost. By the November election, I was tired of both electoral politics and of John Kerry. I didn’t like the politics of the Nixon Republican who beat him, but I liked John Kerry the person even less. I was glad he lost.

I liked a lot of the people who worked for Kerry then, but I didn’t take to him. I had no sense of what he was inside; all I could perceive there was a vacancy. There was plenty of ambition and a lot of posturing, but little else. Others saw him as a polished speaker and war hero. He reminded them of JFK - Caroline Kennedy worked on the campaign as well as several celebrities of the time. I met Peter Yarrow, Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, and others. Many believed he would someday be president. Though I never heard him say it, I think that was Kerry’s intention even way back then. I had the sense that every decision he made was with that ambition in mind.

Kerry had filed nomination papers in several congressional districts that year. Only when incumbent Republican Brad Morse was appointed to a UN position by President Nixon did he decide to run in the fifth district where I lived. Clearly, he wanted to run for congress, and it didn’t matter where because it was all about him and not the people he would represent.

Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democrat presidential nomination, I’m seeing a lot of him again. He’s older, but he doesn’t seem to have changed much. His positions on the big issues facing us, however, change often He voted for the war, but he voted against the money to pay for it and now claims the war is wrong. He voted for NAFTA, but now he’s against it. He voted against the federal Defense of Marriage Act because he didn’t want homosexual marriage to be outlawed, but now he’s against homosexual marriage. He voted against drilling ANWR, but now he supports building an oil pipeline to it. There are many other examples too numerous to list.

Kerry came to prominence as the head of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Members, including Kerry, publicly threw their medals back at the government that awarded them. Much later, I learned that Kerry didn’t actually throw his medals back. He secretly kept them and threw somebody else’s medals instead. He wanted to seem like he was throwing his medals back without actually doing it - vintage Kerry.

After losing his congressional race in 1972, Kerry went to law school at Boston College. That was smart, because BC was considered the Irish Harvard and, in Massachusetts, it was helpful politically to cultivate one’s Irishness. After passing the bar, Kerry went to work in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office as Assistant DA. From there, he became Lieutenant Governor under Michael Dukakis and then US Senator. Somewhere along the way, he dropped wealthy heiress wife number one and picked up wealthy heiress wife number two.

With a name like Kerry, everyone assumed he was Irish, but surprise! Kerry isn’t Irish at all, it turns out. His ancestors came from eastern Europe somewhere and assumed the name Kerry. His other ancestors are Yankee Brahmins the Irish perceived as enemies. Kerry couldn’t mimic JFK unless people believed he was Irish, so that’s the impression he cultivated. As presidential candidate, he’s merged war hero and anti-war hero - brandishing the medals he pretended to throw back and criticizing the war he voted for.

I’m not so young anymore. I’m a little bit less foolish and a lot less liberal. Kerry looks older too in spite of the botox treatments, but although he changes all the time, he hasn’t really changed much at all.

Published March, 2004

Labels: , ,

Old New England

New England is old, and that’s one of the things I like about it. As most people learned in school, it was one of the first places in North America to be settled by English-speaking people and they left their marks almost everywhere you look. Many of the houses they built are still standing, sometimes with their descendants still living in them. Even where the houses have disintegrated, cellar holes remain.

There’s nothing I like better than to explore the back roads of New England. I keep DeLorme Atlases of four states on the back seat of my car to guide me if I’m lucky enough to find a few hours and indulge my wanderlust. As family obligations or medical treatment force me to drive to Massachusetts several times a year, I try to work in some side trips whenever possible on the way back. I’ve already taken every possible north to south route where the roads are numbered highways, so now I try to plot back-road detours along each of them. As I investigate those, I find many other intriguing, dead-end side roads too. I intend to examine them all before I die.

Usually, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to explore a road, because I don’t always know where it will lead. Many are not in the DeLorme Atlas. If my wife happens to be with me, that may limit how far down a particular road I can go or how many side roads I can take before she loses patience. If I’m traveling alone, I usually get home late. She doesn’t worry so much anymore because she knows what I’m likely to be doing. and the next time we’re passing through the area I’d been exploring, I can show her some the best out-of-the-way places I’ve found.

English-speaking people have lived in the area for over four hundred years and they’ve altered the landscape. In addition to houses and fields, they built stone walls which remain long after the house has fallen in and rotted away, and the fields have grown up to forest again. While driving along, I look for old gnarled maple trees near the road as signs for where an old farmhouse may have been located. Usually, I find a cellar hole nearby.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in northern New England goes back only about nine thousand years. Those people were probably very different from the Abenaki and other tribes encountered by European colonists. They were likely nomadic hunters of big herd animals like mammoths and mastodons, and it’s quite possible they hunted those animals to extinction. Otherwise, they left very little evidence of their stay here. Only careful archaeological investigation produces whatever artifacts they left and those can only be seen in museums or private collections. The next inhabitants, eastern woodland Indians, didn’t leave much behind either. There are some pictographs on a cliff in Lovell, some petroglyphs on rocks in the Penobscot, and some shell middens on the coast, but not much else. Their descendants still live in New England, but they’re largely assimilated, living pretty much the way I do.

Also interesting is evidence of the prehuman geology all around us. Maine, actually, is one of the most geologically varied places on earth. At Border’s recently, I purchased Roadside Geology of Vermont and New Hampshire and I found Roadside Geology of Maine online. It should be arriving in the mail any day now. I’m already trying my wife’s patience when I pull over to examine road cuts along the highway. Especially interesting are the fresh ones, like those exposed during the recent Maine Turnpike widening.

Many of us around here were forced to learn about geology back in 1988 when the US Department of Energy considered trying to bury high-level nuclear waste in the Sebago Batholith. I never heard of a batholith before that, but I read their literature and found out that a huge mass of granite formed under us millions of years ago when some magma tried to break through the earth’s mantle. It couldn’t quite break out into a volcano and cooled underground instead. The DOE said the batholith, or pluton, extended from Westbrook to Lovell and it was seamless - there were no cracks in it. That was surprising news to the dozens of well drillers who had been boring into it for decades and finding lots of cracks. Otherwise they would not have been able to find any water. Lots of angry New Englanders persuaded the Energy Department to look elsewhere for a nuclear waste dump, but my interest in local geology was reignited.

Ever since, it’s taken me a lot longer to get from place to place in New England, because I have to pull over so much and check out the evidence of history.

Published March, 2004

Labels: , , ,

Abandoned Neighborhoods in Maine

I’m not sure if we’re following an urge to escape from the modern world, but for a few hours each weekend, my wife and I have been exploring abandoned neighborhoods around our home in Lovell. In the eastern and western corners of town, networks of dirt roads, lined with old stone walls, snake through thick forest. Recently, we started exploring the old Patterson Hill neighborhood in east Lovell.

The older I get, just thinking about how much work went into building these roads makes me long for a nap. Using only hand tools and draft animals, the settlers hacked and smoothed roads that climb steep hillsides, then maintained them through winter frosts, spring floods and mud, and summer thunderstorms. They also cleared forests, built houses and barns, planted and harvested crops, raised animals, raised children, and just plain lived. In the pristine forest settlers first met, the trees towered well over a hundred feet and were often up to six feet around at the trunk. Consider what it took to chop through an oak that massive with an ax! Then, once the trees were down, they still had to be cleared to make way for crops. The huge stumps were often left in place for the first few harvests, leaving them to be dealt with after a house and barn were built. Again using only hand tools and draft animals, the stumps were pulled to the edges of fields to serve as fencing. Some old-timers around town still use the expression “ugly as a stump fence”—once to describe the wife of a former Post Office clerk—which is something less than politically correct in these enlightened times.

Recent theory has it that the stony New England soil was not a problem for that first generation of farmers. The topsoil on the hills, though thin, was still adequate in most places for plowing and planting without hitting underlying rocks. However, because the duff - layers of leaves and pine needles - was plowed under and the topsoil eroded, it could no longer insulate the ground, so frost penetrated deeper, and the glacially-deposited stones in the mineral soil beneath were pushed to the surface. It was the second generation of farmers who had to deal with stones, moving them to the sides of fields to replace the stumps, which by then had largely rotted away.

The emergence of those stones—some of them the size of Volkswagens--may have been what caused the second generation of settlers to abandon the Patterson Hill area. Lovell’s history, “Blueberries and Pusley Weed,” indicates that area families began to move on shortly after the Civil War. In 1858, there was a schoolhouse there with 19 students over behind little Dan Charles Pond. I had driven right past the site of the so-called Dresser School countless times without ever spying a trace of it. Evidently, it was abandoned not too many years after it was established - when area families decided to become pioneers once again, moving to the great American west and starting over.

Such was the pattern in many Maine and New Hampshire towns. The first settlers were given land as payment for their military service in the French and Indian War or, later, in the American Revolution. These veterans and their families carved a farm out of the primeval forest and passed it on to the next generation. The population of rural northern New England continued to grow in this way until peaking in 1861, after which it declined drastically as many families abandoned their farms and moved west. Their houses and barns collapsed, leaving cellar holes and stone walls which were eventually hidden from sight as forests reclaimed the fields.

It appears that at least two generations of forest have grown over the fields and pastures of Patterson Hill since it was abandoned, perhaps even three or four. At the very top of the hill, however, a field has been reclaimed, revealing a breathtaking vista of the New Hampshire mountains to the west, and a well has been drilled. However, there’s no electricity anywhere nearby, since the whole area was already uninhabited long before Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification program in the 1930s. Here and there on Patterson Hill, faded surveying tape is evident, and I noticed a few small campers, but redevelopment does not appear imminent. Patterson Hill seems likely to remain wild for a while longer.

I wrote a column a few weeks ago about the solitary grave of 17-year-old Marion Abbott next to Union Hill Road near the Stow/Lovell line. John Chandler of Lovell told me he knew where the grave was and had heard that Marion was killed by a bull. He knew of nowhere that that information had been written down; it’s just what people always said about how the young woman under that lonely stone marker protected by a little fence had died 144 years ago.

First published May, 2004

Labels: , ,

Forgotten Stories in Stone


For over twenty years I’d driven by and never noticed it. Pulling over to study the rocks in an old stone wall, I saw it not ten feet away. A metal fence closely surrounded a single gravestone. The little cemetery was deeply shaded by thick hemlocks on a small knoll that dropped off sharply beside an active little brook. It was the final abode of Marion Abbott - a 17-year-old girl who died in 1860. Alone on the edge of the road - me for the moment; she for eternity - I contemplated Marion and her place. She must have spent time there when she was alive and enjoyed the solitude. The fence suggested that. I wondered if it was her idea - if she’d had time before she died to think about where she wanted to be buried and how her grave would look, or if she passed on too quickly and her family made the decisions.

Was the fence for preserving her privacy in death? Did Marion cherish alone time in her short life? Would she prevent others from sitting next to her grave in her special place? Or was it to stop someone from following her to the great forever?

Looking around, I envisioned the place 150 years ago. The paved road would have been dirt then with the same stone walls on either side, but with sunny, rolling, green pastures behind them instead of dark hemlocks. Did she lie down there alone on the knoll and chew on grass stems, or did she bring a picnic lunch to share with someone else? Did she watch animals graze and drink from the brook now crowded by forest? I climbed over the mossy stone wall and stood on a thick, spongy, hundred-year-old bed of hemlock needles covering the lower part the inscription on the marble headstone. The knees of my pants moistened and the piney smell was strong as I knelt to read the summary of Marion’s life.

MARION
daut of James E & Mary F Abbott
died July 31, 1861 AE 17 yrs 6 mos
Dearest friend, thy pains are ended
Thou hast found a better home
Thy songs are now with angels blended
Where no death nor sorrows come


Climbing back into my truck, I drove off slowly in second gear, thinking about Marion, wondering what she might have looked like, how she dressed. I wasn't in as much of a hurry as I had been. I checked my rearview mirror frequently and pulled over to let others who didn't like my slow pace rush by. I hadn’t gone far when I noticed a big old oak with heavy limbs beside the road - a clue to the location of a cellar hole. Sure enough, on the other side of the road was a line of split granite stones and a break in the wall I could pull my truck into. Again I was surprised to see a family cemetery dominated by an obelisk in the center and surrounded by stone markers. I walked over and climbed the stone stairs leading up the raised earthen platform that comprised the Smith Cemetery. On the base of the tall monument was the following epitaph:

HERBERT
Son of Simon & Mary Ann Smith
Aged 16 YRS 10 M’s
Wounded at Cold Harbor June 3, 1864
Died in Baltimore, Md June 23, 1864
at National Camden Hospital


Why did you go off like that, Herbert? You were too young for battle. Then I remembered that over a hundred thousand boys lied about their age on both sides in the Civil War.

As two crows flew lazily over the surrounding treetops, their caws absorbed by the deep woods, I realized Marion and Herbert very likely knew each other. Did Herbert ever look longingly on the more mature Marion, wishing he were older? He would have been twelve when she died and the war started only two months before. Was his decision to go off and fight before he was old enough influenced by her passing? Had he ever seen her sitting alone by the brook? Did he join her and talk?

Herbert’s grave was the most prominent, but his baby sister, Ella Smith, was born the same year he died. Perhaps he was in camp somewhere in Virginia and read of her birth in a letter from his mother.

The age of trees in and around the Smith cellar hole told me that the Smith family survived in Stow much longer than the Abbott family. Did the Abbotts abandon their farm down the road and join the great migration westward with the dozens of other families from West Lovell and Stow? The woods taking over the Smith farm were less mature than those around Marion’s grave down the street. Herbert’s parents lived on until 1901 and 1903 and were buried next to him. The farm was worked well into the 20th century and the remains of an old automobile were discernible among the encroaching juniper and alders near the barn foundation. His father, Simon, died at 79 on June 26, 1901 - the same time of year Herbert died and the monument marking Herbert's grave was visible from the house. Did painful memories of his soldier son finally get to him? Simon's wife, Mary joined him in the cemetery two years later, also at 79. Three years hence, Ella died an old maid at 42 and is buried nearby. Did she stay and care for her aging parents while Stow’s and Lovell’s eligible men went west? Did anyone live there after Ella? How long before the house and barn fell in and rotted away? I don't know.

The woods and the stones hold many stories. Most, however, are forgotten.

Published April, 2004. Some weeks after it ran in local newpapers, John Chandler of Lovell, who grew up in nearby Chatham, NH told me he knew of Marion Abbott's grave and he'd "heard people say" the teenager died after being gored by a bull.

Labels: , , ,

Old Clothes

“Don’t go outside until you put on your old clothes,” my mother would say to me each day after school. I would take off my school uniform of navy-blue pants, white shirt and blue tie with the letters “SWS” for Saint William’s School arranged diagonally on it, then put on my “old clothes.” New clothes were for school and for church. Old clothes were for playing and there was a special transformation to be felt putting them on. I would cease being a student who had to say, “Yes, sister,” and “No, sister,” and became just a kid who could say or do anything that came to mind. The old clothes fit better because they had worn into my body over time. If I got them dirty, that was okay. If I got a little tear in a shirt or some pants, no one would get excited. They could be easily patched or sewn up.

It’s much the same today. If I get home from school early enough and still have time to do something, I love to get into my old clothes. On weekends and on days off, I don’t have to dress up at all. Except for an awkward period of time as a teenager, fashion hasn’t been important to me. I never cared much what I looked like so long as I was warm and dry, and it’s the same today. Occasionally it has annoyed my wife, since she has to be seen in public with me. She tries sometimes to buy me new clothes hoping I would give up the old, comfortable ones, but that doesn’t work. I don’t want to embarrass her when we go out, so I’ll usually change if she asks me to. I’ve had to learn that the hard way though because, if I wore an old shirt too much or an old pair of boots, she might try to throw them out when I wasn’t looking. More than once I found them in the trash just in time to salvage them. It’s a good thing it’s my job to go to the dump.

Starting out with a young family, I had to do my own mechanical work and the vehicles I drove often needed it. I always had a tool box with me and if I had on teacher clothes or socializing clothes when something broke, it added to the stress when I had to open the hood to pull on some linkage or slide underneath and wire up an exhaust pipe. I had to not only fix whatever it was, but I had to avoid getting grease on my clothes while doing it. I also had projects to work on nearly every day after getting home from my regular job, and it took extra time to change first before going outside and climbing a ladder or working on the woodpile, or whatever else needed doing.

You won’t see them too often around Lovell in the wintertime, but I’ve known some “metrosexual” types. That’s a relatively new word for males who are heterosexual, but like homosexuals, they are inordinately concerned about their appearance. You can spot them once in a while on the weekends or during the summer. They try to blend in, but can be easy to pick out by their haircuts or their new LL Bean outfits. They’re what novelist Robert Parker would call “rural chick.” They’re scarce in Oxford County, Maine but quite numerous in the Portland area or in North Conway.

Here in Oxford County, the native men are mostly what you might call the “hickosexual” type. That’s a brand-new word because I just made it up. They’re difficult to describe exactly, but you know them when you see them. Hickosexuals might pay attention to the appearance of their pickup trucks or their motorcycles or snowmobiles, but not to their clothing or their haircuts. They’re especially solicitous of their tools, their hunting rifles, fishing equipment, bass boats, or their televisions sets, but not their clothing or their personal appearance. In that sense, they’re the antithesis of the metrosexuals who visit the region periodically.

Hickosexuals are interested in how things work. They know how to make things and fix things and they’re seldom very far away from the tools needed to do so. Their clothes - especially the pants - bear evidence of past jobs, like traces of paint or stubborn stains which remain after repeated washings. They’re clean in the mind of the hickosexual, though they may not appear so to an objective observer. If they’ve been washed and they smell clean, they are clean, even if they’re stained. No article of clothing is discarded until it’s badly ripped and the fabric is so thin that repair is not longer possible, and neither the Salvation Army nor the Goodwill will accept it.

Surprisingly, the hickosexual look has become fashionable. Stores patronized by metrosexuals are marketing hickosexual styles like partially worn pants and hats, and lately even pre-stained jeans. They’re new clothes, but they’re made to look like they’re old clothes. They’re carefully designed to make the metrosexual wearer appear as though, like the hickosexual, he doesn’t care about his appearance.

First published January, 2005

Labels: , ,

Molly

We found Molly at the pound where she had been abandoned. She was timid and not well-bred. We never found out who her parents were or what breeds any of her other ancestors were either. We could only guess. Even though she had apparently been born under humble circumstances, she had dignity. She was kind. When she looked at you with those soft eyes, you knew she could see right into you and you could keep no secrets from her about what kind of person you really were. Our children took to her right away. She was with us for eighteen years and now she’s gone. All we have left are pictures and ashes. As soon as the snow melts, we’ll bury them in my wife’s flower garden, where she liked to lay in the sun.

Molly’s time overlapped my children’s lives from elementary school to adulthood. She frolicked with them in the yard when they were young children. When they became teenagers, She let their boyfriends and girlfriends pat her as they were introduced. They are grown and gone now, but when they learned Molly was fading, they made a trip back to say good-bye before we had to put her down. As I watched each one lean down and whisper to her, I wondered what they were thinking about. Was it how she never barked when each was sneaking into the house after their curfew? She let us know whenever a stranger came near the house, but even in the dark of night, she always knew when it was family coming home. Was it in the way they walked? Was it their scent? However it was, Molly always knew who belonged there and who didn’t, and she never told any tales. She would take their secrets to the grave.

She’d been deaf for more than two years and there were cataracts on her eyes. Still, she maintained her dignity and she could sense the mood of whoever was present around her, something she had always done. She got along with everybody, but she didn’t force her attentions on people. Whenever I hugged my wife or one of my children, Molly would come over and nuzzle between us. She never approached outsiders, but waited nearby and allowed them to approach her, preferring women to men.

As I younger child, I liked dogs quite well and I had a German Shepherd who was a constant companion until she had to be put down too. After getting a paper route, however, I realized that some could be a real pain in the butt and, though I can’t lean over far enough to see for sure, I think I still have scars to prove it.
I was beginning to lose faith in the species until we found Molly at the pound.

As a puppy, she paper-trained fast and there was never much need to discipline her. She only needed to be told the rules once, it seemed, and she’d remember. She wasn’t the type to perform tricks and she didn’t need to be told what to do. I never said, “Lay down,” or “Sit.” Molly did what she wanted and it always seemed appropriate. She was so good at being a dog that she made me want to be a better human.

For most of her life here on Christian Hill, the neighborhood’s dogs went where they wished and they were well-behaved. They didn’t bark too much or chase cars or get into the trash. They may have fertilized the lawn in spots, but that’s it. The neighbors knew them all by name and where they lived. But they’re all gone now; Molly was the last one.

During her life, Molly was a good example for her human companions. Nobody had to tell her how to be a dog and she didn’t sweat the small stuff, always seeming to understand what was going on around her. She did start to lose it at the end though, but don’t we all? She was incontinent, occasionally. She forgot things, sometimes. She’d go for a stroll and forget how to get back. A couple of times, she wandered down to the Village and appeared lost. Donny Chandler called from his garage and we’d go pick her up. Two other times she didn’t come home and my wife called Harvest Hills to discover that she’d been picked up on the road heading out of town and acting confused. When she made her final trip to the Fryeburg Veterinary Hospital, she seemed to know it. She lay peacefully on her favorite blanket and hardly flinched as the hypodermic needle went into her leg. We weren’t surprised to observe that she died as gracefully as she had lived.

This column was first published in March, 2005

Labels: , ,

A Parent? Apparently Not

“I care about the children,” or “I only want what’s best for the children.” It seems that I hear those platitudes most often from people who, by choice, don’t have any children of their own. I also hear it sometimes from others who are parents but have only one child, as if they found out what a huge sacrifice it is to raise one child and they quickly closed the door on the possibility of having any more. There are quite a few such people in education and in other human services fields, more so than in the private sector it seems. I have taken no surveys, nor have I read any; it just seems that way in my experience.

Some childless people really do care about children, but they do it quietly and don’t feel the need to profess it. They simply perform kindnesses in a subdued way without seeking recognition. Others feel the need to trumpet their concern and when they do, it rings hollow somehow.

Often, teachers who have chosen not to become parents are the first to criticize parents whose children are sometimes unruly or challenging in school. They believe firmly that all children would work hard, submit to authority and behave well if only their parents had raised them properly. They cling to this belief even after teaching two or more children from the same family who are quite different from one another - one a model student and the other a certified pain in the butt. Obviously, each had the same parent(s) and presumably were raised about the same way, but they turned out quite differently. Certainly, many unruly students are very likely that way from lack of correction at home, but we humans are complicated organisms and there are many other causes than parenting.

Childless teachers tend to forget what it’s like to be a kid. When capable students slack off, they tend to overlook laziness as a likely cause, thinking that there must be some reason other than sloth for lack of performance. Parents can draw from vast experience in getting children to do chores - experience that childless teachers would obviously be lacking. Parents know that nine out of ten times, indolence and procrastination are the reasons kids don’t do what they’re supposed to, and cracking the whip is the most effective way to motivate them in such circumstances. They tend not to teach that in the education departments of our state colleges and universities where most teachers take the courses they need to become certified, however. Instead, they look for some syndrome or code to account for it, and extra personnel are hired to fix the problem.

Since teachers, social workers, and other human services professionals are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats and support similar policies on issues dear to that party, they tend to be strongly pro-choice. That so many remain childless should, therefore, be no surprise. Radical feminists are heavily represented in those occupations and their rhetoric has proclaimed for decades that the biggest obstacle to leading a fulfilling life as a woman is pregnancy. They tend to consider motherhood in a nuclear family as little better than servitude, so it is ironic whey they’re so often the first to profess how much they care about the kids other people raise.

Their concern is frequently voiced when an expensive program or policy is being proposed in a staff meeting or school board meeting or a budget meeting. Parents must operate within family budgets and they must be ready to say no to something their children want. Parents are also accustomed to going without for the sake of their children. Nearly every day, they have to sacrifice energy, time or money they could have spent indulging themselves to spend it instead on what the children need. Some things, however, just aren’t affordable and parents have to remind themselves and their children that it is possible to go without much and still lead a full and productive life. Parents also know that when kids have to work hard and save up for something they really want, they appreciate it a lot more when they finally get it. When liberals clamor for increased spending money on programs “for the children” however, it’s often other people’s money they want to spend.

Nearly everyone can recall feeling a profound skepticism when told by their parents something like: “Wait until you have children of your own; then you’ll understand,” or “This hurts me more than it hurts you,” or “When you’re a parent, you’ll know why I’m doing this and you’ll feel differently.” Everyone who becomes a parent overcomes that skepticism and learns how true those statements were. Do those who choose not to become parents ever learn this? Apparently not.

This column was first published in May, 2005

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

EUnuchs

It’s sad to watch a big person tormented by a small one who knows intuitively the big guy hasn’t the will to defend himself. The little fiend pours on abuse - verbal insults that escalate into humiliating condemnations. Then he’ll throw things at the big weakling who turns away, unable to make eye contact. Then come painful punches and kicks. Onlookers feel his humiliation and plead with him to defend himself, to use his strength to dispatch his tormenter. They want to do it for him but know they cannot. Something vitally important is lacking in his big body - a pride, a belief in himself that would enable him to fight. They know only he can find it - and if he doesn’t, he won’t survive.

That’s how it feels now watching Iran torment Britain. Fifteen British sailors were seized by Iran and they’re forced to make humiliating televised “confessions.” Iran insists that Blair agree his sailors strayed into Iranian waters - even though they didn’t. Blair has asked the UN Security Council for help. That’s how we know he hasn’t got the guts to stand up to the mullahs.

The UN? Is he kidding? He thinks Iran respects the UN? The sailors were captured because they obeyed UN rules of engagement. They couldn’t shoot unless they were shot at. Ask black Christians in Darfur about UN “help.” Ask the Tutsis in Rwanda. This is the UN whose Human Rights Commission last Friday passed a resolution which “expresses deep concern at attempts to identify Islam with terrorism, violence and human rights violations.” Nobody should be hanging by the neck waiting for the UN to rescue him.

Blair is articulate. He might work something out if he weren’t dealing with a government of nut jobs who deny the Holocaust, pledge to wipe Israel off the map, and are waiting for the Twelfth Imam to come out of the Iranian well he’s been living in for thirteen hundred years. They believe that if they create chaos here in earth by making nukes and blowing up Israel with them, the imam will come out of the well and establish 1000 years of peace and justice.

I’m not making this up.

Blair thinks he can negotiate with these people? What’s happened to the Prime Minister who fought alongside the United States after September 11th? If he’d just issue an ultimatum like: “Release the hostages in 48 hours or else,” we could help. But no, he’s putting his tail between his legs and whimpering to the UN. Pathetic.

Whatever Britons there are left who haven’t succumbed to the multiculti emasculators of the European Union (EU) are pining now for the days of Margaret Thatcher - the “Iron Lady.” Thatcher would know what to do with Iran’s theocratic dictators. When Argentinean dictators took over the Falkland Islands, she dispatched a naval task force to the area. When no diplomatic progress was made as the fleet was sailing, there was little doubt what it would do upon arrival.

A generation has passed since Thatcher was in office. Today’s Britons are are so enamored with the EU, they’ve become EUnuchs who, like the UN, are worried about offending Radical Islam much less standing up to it.

For example, London's Daily Mirror reported Monday that:

Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government-backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial. There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades - where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem - because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques.


Iran smuggles weapons and terrorists into Iraq to kill British and American soldiers. They’ve set up a proxy army (Hezbollah) to bring down the Lebanese government and attack Israel. Now they’ve kidnapped British sailors and publicly humiliate them every day. The price of oil is going up in anticipation of Britain doing something about it. Iran has threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz (entrance to the Persian Gulf) if it’s attacked and the big western countries are afraid to call its bluff. So, the torment continues. For how long? Don’t hold your breath waiting for a respite.

Americans remember when Iran took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The United States was humiliated for a year and a half while President Carter tried to use his big smile to negotiate with the Iranian theocrats - who only released them on the day his successor, Ronald Reagan, was inaugurated. Historians say that was the beginning of our War with Radical Islam.

Something’s lacking in the big western countries like Britain and the United States who represent western civilization itself. Iran and Al Qaeda know it and their torments will only escalate. If we can’t find the will to defend ourselves, if we all become EUnuchs, we won’t survive either.

Labels: , ,