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

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Old and New


It’s been more than twenty years since I sold it, but I miss the old house. It’s only a mile down the hill in the village and it must be something like how it feels to have an ex-wife in town. It was drafty-cold in winter, but when I felt chilled I could warm up by backing up to the wood stove. My new house is warm and tight. There are no drafts and the temperature is even, but I still miss the old place.

That old house drove me crazy sometimes, but most of my memories are good. It will always be part of me because for nine years I crawled all over it inside and out, fixing this and painting that, re-building something else. Nothing was square and all the carpentry took longer, but it was strong, built with posts and beams and tree-nails. The foundation was split granite and hadn’t moved for over a century. There was brick-lined, well just inside the building and water flowed through the partial cellar during spring, coming in from the uphill side and draining out the downhill side. In a dry summer, the well would get low, but we always had enough water if we were careful, even with four kids and two adults. I liked that the house was older than me, more than a hundred years older. When the wind blew hard on winter night, I’d feel uneasy, but then I’d realize that the house had weathered many such storms for more than a century before I was born. There was a certain security in that.

I like my new house too, but it took a long time before I’d done enough to it with my own hands to make it really mine. I bought the land, cleared the trees, and chose a plan with my wife, but I hired carpenters to do most of the actual building. It’s twenty years old now and I’m fifty-seven - much older than the house. The wind blows more strongly here on the windward of Christian Hill. There’s nothing between me and Mount Washington to block it, and on Christmas Eve it was howling worse than I ever remember it. The old house was on the leeward side of the same hill, and I was questioning my judgement about deciding to build here. If anything happened, I’d have no one to blame but myself.

Speaking of the blame game, many in my generation of baby boomers have blamed our problems on the WWII generation for a long time, suggesting they could do a much better job of it. Well, that “greatest generation” is nearly all gone now. The old folks don’t stay around like old houses. They die and we bury them and we become the elders. Most of our current world and national problems are created by guess who? Baby boomers, because we’ve been essentially running things for a couple of decades. Though we still do, we can’t legitimately blame our parents anymore, and soon we won’t be able to ask them for advice either. We’ll have to become fonts of wisdom for those generations following us whether we’re able to or not. I hope they’re more gracious to us than we were to our parents.

Like my new house, our new president-elect is younger than I am. The last two have been only slightly older but I don’t think either one was smarter or wiser - quite the contrary. Obama is on the back end of the baby boomer generation and I’m nearer the front. I’m a whole decade older than he is. Pondering this reminds me of how I felt when I talked to a much younger resident surgeon who was about to do an emergency procedure on me. I had to consent because I couldn’t wait for my own doctor. Now Obama is about to perform emergency surgery on our whole country. He has a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass what he wants and I’m going to have to sit back and watch.

When I go food-shopping, I notice more aisles selling “organic” things, whatever that means. I push my cart past them. If shopping carts had bumper stickers, I would see “Obama/Biden” and “Earth is our Mother” and “Live Simply” down those aisles anyway. Let them pay the inflated prices. In the checkout line recently, a cashier looking for the price of some produce I was buying asked me if it was organic. “I hope not,” I said. “At my age, I need all the preservatives I can get.” I never buy organic produce. It costs more, usually looks wrinkled and misshapen, and doesn’t taste any better. The only way produce tastes better is when it’s fresher, and organic doesn’t mean fresh.

All these are indicators to add to my “You know you’re getting older when . . .” list, which will only get longer until I’m dead - nature’s way of telling us to slow down.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Venting




Several things have been bothering me lately, and what good is it to be a columnist if I can’t spout off about them in this space? I’ve been yelling at the television and that’s a sign I need to vent. I’ll start with cliches.

If I use an annoying cliche, someone please - please berate me publicly for it. And if I should ever repeat it, I pledge here and now to make a $100 donation to your favorite charity, even if it happens to be the OJ Simpson or Hot Rod Blagojevich Defense Fund. I’m that serious. Meanwhile, I’m begging people in the media to stop saying “thrown under the bus.” I’ve had enough of that phrase. I’m ready to highjack a bus and drive it into the NBC Headquarters in New York City if I hear it again.

While we’re at it, I’m already sick of “take a haircut,” aren’t you? I heard it for the first time only about a month ago, but it’s gotten to me already. I know we’re in tough economic times and we all have to cut back. I promise to do my share, but please don’t phrase it that way anymore, okay? Let’s resurrect “tighten our belts” for a while, and when that wears out, I’ll come up with something else. There must be a thesaurus for worn-out phrases out there somewhere. I’m volunteering to buy one and list alternative ways of trying to sound hip.

Thank goodness “think outside the box” has gone out of fashion. Though I’ve been attending just as many meetings as I’ve always had to, I haven’t heard that for months now and I’m very thankful. People in sports use cliches the most, but I can forgive them. They don’t claim to be smart. They’re not expected to be gifted at expressing themselves, only doing things. Though most of them don’t seem too bright, politicians pretend to be intelligent. So when they use cliches, it’s much more annoying because they think they sound so snappy when they just sound dumb, especially if it’s Nancy Pelosi.

Speaking of Rod Blagojevich and haircuts, what is it about sleazy Serbs and their hair? It’s pretty clear that whatever time Blagojevich has when he’s not selling Senate seats, shaking down children’s hospitals, or trying to get editorial writers fired, he’s working on his hair. It’s so important to him that the Chicago Sun Times suspected Blago suffered from “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.” He must have stayed up late watching Ted Koppel a lot when he was a kid and made him a role model. Then there’s Radovan Karadzic. Remember him? The guy accused of murdering 7500 Bosnians about twelve years ago just because they weren’t Serbs? It looked to me that, aside from killing people, the thing he cared most about in the world was his hair. In addition to being a mass murderer, he was also a psychiatrist who could have diagnosed himself with Blago’s disorder mentioned above. I don’t know if he has access to hairspray and mirrors while he’s on trial in The Hague for war crimes, but if he hasn’t, that might the punishment that hurts him most. Better put him on suicide watch.

And speaking of liberal politicians from the upper midwest, there’s Comb-over Carl Levin, Democrat Senator from Michigan. I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but look Carl: a lot of guys go bald on top and it’s doesn’t make you a bad person. Invariably, it looks dumb when you grow that side hair long and comb it over your bald dome and then plaster it down somehow. It doesn’t fool anybody and proclaims to the world that “I’m bald and I can’t deal with it!” If it gets too cold up there in Michigan, ask Joe Biden where he got his hair plugs installed or wear a hat.

There now. I feel better already.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Eternal Light



Long hours of darkness here in the northern latitudes focus my attention on light. I like to wake before dawn to starlight, then watch emanations from a still-distant sun displace dark slowly and quietly. First I see branches against a faint sky. Later, direct sun illuminates mountains in the west. Lastly, the sun itself rises over the hill behind me. All of it charms me as I begin the day. I end it watching again as the sun drops behind those western mountains. During its low arc across the winter sky, I’m usually somewhere else - at school or checking things around town. Sometimes I’m home to watch, but it seldom gets very high above the bare hardwoods and sparse evergreens. Much of winter’s sun is like that - filtered through branches or reflecting off something. Seen directly, it’s bright enough to hurt your eye, but not warm enough to heat your body unless you feel it through a window.

We’re used to this up north. We move around when we’re outdoors to stay warm. Indoors we hover around our own light and heat sources. Inside or out, I’m acutely aware of light lately and it’s is related to the beauty visible around me. Since I’ve been traveling the same paths for decades, it means something in me is changing what I see. I’m as busy as ever, but my mind is less cluttered. Eyesight weakens with age but I see more, paradoxically, especially when it’s lit by light from sun or moon.

Traveling in Ireland last summer, I was struck by how the ancients built monuments to the sun’s rhythms all over the island. In August, the sun didn’t set until 9:30, but at this time of year they get little more than seven hours of daylight. Just north of Dublin is a fascinating, five-thousand-year-old structure seemingly dedicated to the winter solstice - that day of the year when sunlight is weakest. Called Newgrange, it’s only one of the several so-called “passage tombs” in the vicinity of the Boyne River valley. Cremated human remains were placed inside the huge mound under a corbelled chamber made of enormous stones decorated with spirals, circles and angular etchings, the meaning of which is unknown. We know little about the people who built them except they pre-date the Celts by 2500 years.

Not much is known about the passage tombs either because they’ve only been studied during the past forty years or so, but I have an idea those ancient ones associated death with absence of light. They put cremated remains in a carved granite bowl in the chamber deep inside the mound. The only access is through a very narrow passageway flanked by huge stones. I had to turn sideways at some points because my shoulders were too wide. It’s pitch-black in the chamber, but at sunrise on the day of the winter solstice, light shines through the narrow, sixty-foot-long passage and into that chamber illuminating the ornate carvings and the human remains for seventeen minutes. It’s as if they believed that first light on the darkest day of the year might spark a resurrection.

The huge stones of the uprights and lintels making up the passageway, of the corbelled chamber, and the 97 kerbstones holding up the mound were hauled from a hundred of miles away. Local stone was available, so why did they go to all that trouble? The far-away stone doesn’t seem especially pretty or have any other obvious advantage. It’s a mystery. It’s estimated that it would have taken over three hundred workers more than twenty years to build it. They display a remarkable knowledge of astronomy, though the site predates both Stonehenge by a thousand years, and the Egyptian pyramids by five hundred years. Other upright stones and mounds are scattered about as they are all over Ireland as well as Britain, Scotland, France and Denmark.

St. Patrick is famous for using the three leaves of the shamrock to explain Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Maybe he knew of the ancient Irish triple spiral motif as well. Sun worship continued up to St. Patrick’s time and he was wise enough to incorporate it into Christianity. That’s why the Celtic cross has the sun’s image circling the point where the vertical and horizontal meet. Apparently St. Patrick emphasized connections between light and Christ. He was born under a star in Bethlehem. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light,” He said. And, He rose from a stone tomb at first light Easter morning. Celtic crosses predominate in Irish cemeteries, including the ones with remains of my ancestors. Perhaps awareness of light is inherited.

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Fourth Estate Failure


Stinking corruption in Chicago has been obvious for years, and President-elect Obama has been nothing but a go-along, get-along guy all during his twenty years there. It’s not a secret. I’m absolutely ripped that our mainstream media didn’t do their jobs and ignored it all during Obama’s two-year campaign - when it was out there for all to see. As an Illinois state senator, Obama was a top advisor to Governor Blagojevich in his first gubernatorial campaign along with Obama’s recently-appointed chief of staff, Congressman Rahm Emmanuel. They’ll claim this extremely corrupt governor is not the Rod Blagojevich they knew, even though he’s been under federal investigation for seven years. Obama said he didn’t know the Reverend Wright had been making those outrageous sermons for twenty years either, even he also said he was there in the pew every Sunday. He didn’t know Blagojevich’s bag man, Tony Rezco, was a crook when they did a shady real estate deal together. He said yesterday that he never spoke to Blagojevich about his Senate replacement, but his campaign manager, David Axelrod said he did. Give me a break.

Now, at a critical point in our nation’s history, our president-elect is tarnished - at the very least - by this scandal. We have him because the media delivered him to us. We’re at war and changing horses in mid-stream. Our economy is on the verge of collapse. We need a strong leader more than ever, but we have to do the vetting that should have been done before the election. I’m squeezing my jaw so hard I’m going to crack a tooth.

In Thomas Carlyle's 1841 book On Heroes And Hero Worship, he wrote: “[British politician Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than them all.”

Our Fourth Estate has failed us, big time.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Big Government Fixes


Looks like we’re in for more federal government and that can’t be good. Democrats have convinced most of us that our economic distress results from lack of regulation rather than too much. Whether that’s true or not (and it isn’t) doesn’t matter. That’s how people perceive it and in politics, perception is reality. Political reality won’t change until perception changes and that could take a long time - years, or decades even. That our economic mess is, at bottom, a subprime mortgage crisis - caused by our federal government forcing banks to lend money to people who couldn’t pay it back - doesn’t matter. People believe it was Wall Street business tycoons who caused it all, so government will step in and control them - and continue to lend money to people they shouldn’t.

Big government is the most inefficient way to do anything. That’s why Jefferson said: “That government is best which governs least.” It used to be the mantra of the Republican Party - until the George W. Bush Administration. Under him, government grew faster than it had in any Democrat administration and it’s one of the biggest reasons Republicans got clobbered so badly in the last two elections. Now President Obama wants to be the new FDR and take control of the economy. My professional career has been in public education during a time in which the federal government took control of it, and the results have been dismal.

There weren’t many openings for history teachers in May of 1975 when I finished undergraduate school. A week before school started in September I found a job teaching juvenile delinquents in Lowell, Massachusetts where there were lots of them. Federal special education law had just kicked in though, and delinquents were reclassified as emotionally-disturbed adolescents. Many were no doubt disturbed, but most were junior con men. That ilk I understood, having grown up with many, but federal regulations dictated that we treat them as if they were handicapped. Once the junior cons realized this, they used it to their advantage of course, and lots of the federal taxpayer’s money was spent for little or no gain. A strong case could be made that juvenile delinquency in Massachusetts actually got worse. Federal programs didn’t work because people followed regulations instead of their common sense.

Trained as a history teacher, I wasn’t certified in Special Ed, so I had to take courses - so many that just a few more earned a master’s degree. So I got one, then moved north to take a job running the federally-funded Special Ed and Title I Programs in Maine School Administrative District 72. Our district spent this federal program money to hire ed techs who gave students individual attention. Our superintendent was a WWII US Army vet very familiar with federal regs. When state and federal checkers visited, I’d tell each ed tech whether they were Title I or Special Ed for that day. After showing the checkers around in the morning, our superintendent showed them local trout streams in the afternoon and they went away happy. No federal tax money was wasted.

Regulations and paperwork multiplied however, and I spent most of my time with telephones, filing cabinets and meetings, none of which provided job satisfaction. A new superintendent came in who was picky about paperwork, so when a job teaching history opened up, I took it along with a cut in pay. I’ve liked my job since because I’m left alone in my classroom. Meanwhile, I’ve observed with dismay the increasing union and central government control of public education.

I’m still involved in special education the way every teacher is: I go to lots of meetings and see lots more money spent. Few would begrudge spending for the mentally retarded, physically handicapped, or those with sight, hearing, dyslexia, or other issues. However, some who would have been coded as Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR) thirty years ago, are now classified “low-normal” and dropped from services. Meanwhile, special ed staff spend increasing amounts of time cultivating what some of us call “learned helplessness” in students whose biggest problem is an unwillingness to apply themselves. Schools must abide by federal statutes and ignore their better judgement about which students are served and how. Personnel may be used only with certain students and not others who don’t fit the regs, even though their needs are plainly very great. This waste of resources is worst when power and decision-making is centralized in Washington instead of in local schools. It’s been maddening to watch this trend increase year after year.

Now that Democrats are firmly in control our entire federal government again, and are beholden more to teachers’ unions than any other constituency, we’re going to see more of the same at an accelerated pace. We can look for similar developments in the economy, or in any other area the federal government wants to “regulate.”

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