Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Stepping Into Solitude

My favorite season is always the one just emerging. I’m a New Englander and grateful that my homeland has four distinct seasons so I can feel that pleasant sense of expectation quarterly. Spring can be short some years — rarely because summer arrives early, and usually because winter lingers long. Sometimes it lasts only two or three weeks but it always makes an appearance. Right now winter is coming. I see it, smell it, feel it, and pleasurably remember all the sixty-plus times I’ve experienced this.
The remembrances are not specific. Rather, they’re generalized sensations most often triggered by smell. Every evening before going up to bed, I like to step outside in the dark, breathe the air, look at the lights, listen to the night sounds, and feel that I’m the only one out there. When I’m in the city where there’s a lot of ambient light, I stand in the shadows. A few windows in each of the houses surrounding ours are lit up. Parts of TV screens are visible. Occasionally people walk by on the sidewalk unaware of my watching. Then I wonder what other creatures may have heard me come out, themselves in deeper shadow and knowing I’ve joined them. Sometimes I see a gray fox making his rounds, always plodding the same path. Sometimes a raccoon is out exploring. Occasionally a jet comes over low. There’s a cell phone tower behind our house and pilots use it as a marker sometimes to approach the Portland Jetport a few miles away.
Stepping outside our Lovell house at night, noises and lights are nearly all natural, except some far-off lights on hillsides in neighboring Chatham, New Hampshire. If I’m out long enough, I’ll hear barred owls call to each other. There are usually two or three within earshot on a quiet night and sometimes one will perch on a limb overlooking our back field. A coyote pack prowls the swamp at the bottom of the hill and sometimes they’re on the hunt, howling away. Other times I hear only one yelping at the night.
If there’s no moon, it takes longer for my pupils to dilate enough to see even vaguely what’s around me. Night creatures in Lovell are more aware of me than I of them. I’ll hear deer snort and jump into the woods as soon as I step out. Other, smaller creatures stay still a long time, usually until I go back inside. Sometimes a fox, a raccoon, or a coyote will make its way across the back field. I see jets, but they’re miles high and silent. All I can make out are their lights moving from star to star. I imagine rows of people seated in coach sleeping, reading, or talking. I wonder if any are looking out the window in my direction. If so, they may see lights from the village a mile down the hill, but not my house or me outside staring up.
I have the same habit in the morning — if I don’t have to hurry off somewhere. I’m an early riser. After showering and exercising, I get dressed and go down to make coffee. Then I’ll step outside and stand quietly. Morning smells are different from night smells and change with the season. I smell a season coming before I see it or feel it. I think animals do too and even more acutely, as they must prepare more to survive the coming winter. In late fall I smell the sweet odor of decaying vegetation, but that goes away when everything freezes. After standing still a while, I may walk around. It’s usually dark when I’m out there this time of year, but sometimes the day is just starting to fill with light.
When the kids were little, I’d invite one or two to accompany me on my evening walkouts. When we had animals, they had to be fed and watered, then we’d just stand in the dark and quietly take it all in. I might point out the stars in the Milky Way, describe how many there were, how wondrous it all was, and Who created it. I remember those moments fondly.
For a while we had an outside hot tub. My wife and I would soak in it winter evenings. I especially liked it when the heater/pump cycled off and I could hear the night sounds. I’d savor the odd sensation of being suspended in hot water while feeling frigid Maine air on my head and shoulders.
Such solitary outside moments seem fitting ways to both begin and end each day, standing there until the cold penetrates to my skin, then stepping back inside a warm house, grateful to have it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Slurs Not Working Anymore

Racist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynist — all these epithets now aimed at Donald Trump and his supporters used to be directed my way. Why? Because I was a teacher who taught students to think critically. I was “poisoning young minds,” said leftists who believed they knew better how issues should be covered in public school — their way and no other. I didn’t just offer “both sides,” because seldom are there only two. I offered multiple viewpoints on controversial issues, encouraged each student to pick what sounded best and defend it. I fostered the kinds of diversity that genuinely improve education: diversity of thought and opinion. To many on the left — and it may now be accurate to say most — the only kinds of diversity that count are those of skin color, sex, or ethnicity. However, Those don't help if everyone thinks alike, and that’s how it is throughout academia now, kindergarten through graduate school.
About once a month, I wrote up classroom Socratic dialogues and published them, maybe two hundred or so. Most of my other columns expressed my own opinions on the issues of the day and after about 1993 or ’94 those opinions were increasingly conservative. Many readers on the left assumed I was pushing my opinions on students and tried to have me disciplined, silenced, fired, or have my teaching license pulled. All along the way, letters to the editor appeared with the slurs listed above. I read them in class and students were surprised.
“But you don’t tell us what to believe,” they responded.

“Evidently they don’t know that,” I’d answer.

“We should all write letters back and tell them,” some suggested.

“You can if you want,” I’d say, “but not in class. You have to do it on your own.” Several did.

There were classroom dialogues on affirmative action in which I’d explain how racial quotas worked in college admissions, hiring, and awarding public contracts. After publishing those, I was “racist.” There were discussions about jihad and Koranic verses encouraging Muslims to kill infidels, etc. After them came “Islamophobic” slurs. We discussed illegal immigration and I described what I saw after flying down to the Mexican border. After those came out, I was “xenophobic.” We discussed referendum questions on Maine’s ballot about gay rights, gay marriage, partial-birth abortion, Indian casinos, and others. After writing up them up, I was “homophobic”; “misogynist” ; “racist”; and so forth.
When I read those letters aloud in class, students asked: “Don’t they bother you?”

“They did at first,” I responded, “but they don’t anymore. Calling me ‘racist’ or ‘misogynist’ doesn’t make it so. Name-calling indicates the writers have run out of arguments, and slurs are all they have.”
I enjoyed playing devil’s advocate with students. It was easy to parrot arguments from left, right, or middle because I held them over the years. Like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I had been an Alinskyite radical. Then I moved right to become a liberal before finally emerging as a genuine conservative in my forties. My evolution, as described first by either Georges Clemenceau or Winston Churchill, went thus: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re forty, you have no brains.” Unless they read my column regularly, students didn’t know what I really thought.
Efforts by leftists to have me silenced or removed from teaching flared up sporadically for ten or twelve years and I kept a file throughout. After retiring, I wrote it up and tried to shop the manuscript around to various agents with no success. Times are a-changin’ however, as witnessed by the evening and morning of November 8 and 9. Liberals controlling media were shocked to discover that, like me, there are millions out here who have become inured to their ubiquitous slurs. They shot everything they had at Donald Trump and others who didn’t march in lockstep, then sat back expecting their favored candidates to win as they always had, and were shocked when they didn’t.
From 9:00 pm Tuesday night and 1:00 am Wednesday, I flipped through the liberal news channels: NBC, MSNBC, CNN, CBS, and ABC. Pundits were all lined up but gone were the smug expressions of election nights past. They were ashen — all of them. How could we have been so wrong? they asked each other. Why did all those “working class” white guys switch to Trump? Did they not listen to us? Well no, they didn’t. They heard you cry wolf for decades and they’re not listening anymore.
Maybe it’s time to shop my manuscript around again. I had been calling it “Poisoning Young Minds,” but maybe it’s time to call it something else. “Teaching While Deplorable” perhaps? “Irredeemable Instructor”? "Privileged Pedagogue”? I have to think about this.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Leftists Lose It

Young woman reacts to Trump win

Driving through Portland, Maine with my wife the day after the big election, I expected to see black crepe hanging from windows. I didn't, but there were women holding signs offering hugs to distraught liberals downtown. Hundreds gathered there to chant “Not my president!” and “Keep hate out of Maine!” They were peaceful though, unlike they were in that other Portland across the country.
From Portland Press Herald

Back and forth we go each week between rural Maine and urban Maine — from the mountains to Greater Portland — from red Maine to blue Maine for a couple of days, then back. It’s quite a contrast. In the mountains people know me, but in the city they have no idea that I’m a conservative who voted for Trump. I can observe leftists in their native habitat where they feel safe. Sometimes I feel like Jane Goodall.
Downtown Portland, Maine (PPH)

Downtown Portland, Oregon (from London Daily Mail)

In the mountains, Trump won; in the city, Hillary did. Maine is divided between rural and urban and the world views of the former are strikingly different from those of the latter. On the coast of Maine they like marijuana, Hillary, and gun control — in the interior, none of those — just like the rest of America. Gun control in the form of increased background checks was defeated, but marijuana was legalized. Leftists in Greater Portland prevailed there and when I was a leftist, I smoked it too. After giving it up more than thirty years ago, I moved right. Was that causative? I don’t know, but it correlated. Leftist billionaire George Soros has always marijuana legalization initiatives. Does he believe smoking weed moves people left? It would seem so.
Leftist Billionaire George Soros

The Portland Press Herald published several maps of Maine — one each showing towns voting for Hillary vs Trump, Yes vs No on marijuana, and Yes vs No on gun control. All three were virtually identical. The blue/red or left/right divide if you will, runs between the city and the country in Maine and in the whole of our country as well.
On the car radio, I heard news of my alma mater — the University of Massachusetts Lowell — where the “Office of Multicultural Affairs” sent out a notice the day after the election:

“…While it may take some time to fully take in all the recent events, please also know that the OMA office is here for you. Our UMass Lowell community is here for you. Do not hesitate at all to come in or ask for support. Today there is a Post-election self-care session from 12-4 pm in Moloney. The event will include cookies, mandalas, stress reduction techniques and mindfulness activities. Counseling and Health Services will also be available…”

When I lived there in the 1970s, Lowell was a tough city hosting the New England Golden Gloves every year. Evidently it’s being repopulated with snowflake stoners.
The Huffington Post reported on a post-mortem meeting of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), during which a young committeeman identified only as “Zach” flipped out at the DNC’s truth-challenged Chairwoman Donna Brazile. Claiming her ineptitude enabled Trump to win, he frantically exclaimed:

“You and your friends will die of old age and I’m going to die from climate change! You and your friends let this happen, which is going to cut 40 years off my life expectancy!”

Poor baby. I sincerely doubt Brazile really believes in anthropogenic climate change, but doom-sayer Democrat propaganda has clearly terrified this young leftist.
On the bright side, several leftist celebrities have promised to leave the country if Trump is elected and I hope they do. The list includes: The allegedly Reverend Al Sharpton, Cher, Miley Cyrus, Whoopi Goldberg, Lena Dunham, and several others whose names are unfamiliar to me. To them, I say: “Bye-bye! Don’t let the doorknob catch you in the ass!” But, alas, I doubt they actually will leave us. The allegedly Reverend Al was back on MSNBC Wednesday morning. Maybe he booked a late flight or something. Maybe he hasn’t finished packing, but I have a feeling he’s going to stick around. If I’m wrong, I hope he pays the millions he owes the IRS before leaving.
In his Veteran’s Day post, columnist Mark Steyn wrote: “This week American universities, now among the most expensive yet worthless institutions on the planet, have held mass ‘cry-ins’ to protest Tuesday's election. At the University of Michigan, sufferers from PTSD (Post-Trumptastic Stress Disorder) were consoled with Play-Doh and coloring books. Can you imagine any of the teenagers who stormed the beaches of Normandy - boys who were men, and often five, six, seven years younger than today's elderly ‘students' - agreeing to participate in anything so ostentatiously self-indulgent as a 'cry-in' followed by free Play-Doh?”

No, I cannot, but as our new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan put it: “The times, they are a-changin’.”

Monday, November 07, 2016

The Birch

It was time to take down the old birch tree. It had been slowly dying ever since being damaged by the big ice storm of ’98. It had rebounded for a few seasons then seemed to give up. There were still a couple of limbs with live foliage, but death was imminent. I’d been putting off the job because it’s a lot of work to take down a fairly large tree and turn it into firewood.
My wife and I purchased 28 acres of woods on the west side of Christian Hill in Lovell, Maine with another couple back in 1983 and split it down the middle. In ’85, I cleared enough on our 14-acre half for a house. Down the hill there were parallel stone walls a hundred feet apart in the woods. Between them were remains of apple trees in the mature second growth and I began there to clear out a view toward the New Hampshire mountains. Every summer I cut enough to heat through winter and after a decade, I had the view the way I wanted it. Just behind the house were seven white birches each going up about thirty feet before branching out. These I saved to look out under their canopies to the view.
But I didn’t know how finicky birches could be. I was careful not to disturb them while clearing around them but six died anyway. Because they got more sun or wind than they were accustomed to? I don’t know, but only one survived until the big ice storm weakened it. It stood alone for another eighteen years, but now it had to go.
wife, grandson and birch ten years ago

For more than twenty years, I cut my own firewood from stump to stove, but I’m sixty-five now and it had been a while. My big chain saw seemed heavier than it used to, but the old birch fell where I wanted it to and my grandson helped from there. He wanted to use a chainsaw, so I fired up the small saw, gave him lessons on safety, and together we worked it up. He asked how we were going to lift the large, pieces that comprised the trunk. “We won’t,” I explained. “I’ll split them here and lug them up as firewood.” He dragged off the small limbs to a brush pile in the woods and we quit for the day.
After that it was up to me to do the splitting. I brought my bolt hook and splitting maul down and began with the biggest pieces. Never have I rented a wood splitter because I could work faster with a maul, but that had been many years ago. The maul seemed heavier too, but I remembered that it’s not how hard you hit: Knowing where is more important, and so is aim. For large butt pieces I sometimes needed steel wedges but not on this tree. The grain was straight and each cylinder split in two with a few hits on the diameter. My hands blistered up the first day and I had to leave off for a week, but after that it was pure pleasure. I’d start wearing three layers and be down to one in twenty minutes. All the sounds, smells, and feelings came back. I’d look toward the distant mountains, feel the wind coming off them and the sun on my face, and I was a young man again. Frost wrote about this in Two Tramps in Mud Time:

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

I don’t generally like poetry, but Frost always spoke to me. I remembered Birches, in which he described a boy climbing smaller ones and bending them to the ground. Then he went deeper:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches. 
And so I dream of going back to be. 
It's when I'm weary of considerations, 
And life is too much like a pathless wood 
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs 
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping 
From a twig's having lashed across it open. 
I'd like to get away from earth awhile 
And then come back to it and begin over.

And here’s how he ended it:

I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, 
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk 
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, 
But dipped its top and set me down again. 
That would be good both going and coming back. 
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

…or a cutter of one in my case.
All done

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

What Will The Next Chapter Be About?

Baby boomers now running our country, or seeking to run it, came of age during the hubris of the 1960s and 70s. That era shaped them for well or ill, and we’re seeing more evidence of the latter as this unprecedented campaign unfolds. Being a teenager and young adult at the time, I recall quite vividly that societal norms governing sexual behavior were thrown to the wind. The ethos of the age was such that religious and cultural strictures around sex were considered repressive and unnatural. They were shredded so we could be “liberated.” People should “do their own thing” regardless of millennia-old exemplars. The principle that sex is best confined to marriage sex produced children who were best raised in nuclear families was widely accepted Though violations were frequent, they were stigmatized. Since the sixties, however, we’ve been “defining deviancy down,” to borrow a phrase from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), and here we are, like it or not. Sex isn’t for procreation anymore. It’s recreation. Babies are more a problem than a blessing.
Anthony Weiner

Much of today’s media has been pornified, but remember that the sixties began with John F. Kennedy’s presidency. His White House promiscuity has become widely known but few knew at the time. Media knew but chose to ignore it. Public scandals were confined to politics: Watergate in the Nixon presidency and Iran-Contra in Reagan’s. Clinton’s scandals were sexual but Obama’s returned to the political. Now, however, Clinton’s sexual escapades have been resurrected by Trump after his own were widely publicized. And now, bizarrely, those of the former congressman with the unfortunate name are back in the news. Sex, especially its misuse, dominates America’s attention as we approach election day. The FBI is investigating former Democrat Congressman Anthony Weiner after he was caught for the third time sending unwanted pictures of his genitalia — this time to a 15-year-old girl. The probe turned up something unexpected which may determine who becomes our next president. Exactly what that is, we don’t yet know, but it’s evidently important enough to make its existence public at this critical time.
Sex has so dominated public discussion of the biggest election campaign in years that other issues get little attention. An hour before the first big Wikileaks email dump on Friday, October 7th, NBC released the now-famous Trump remarks on the bus in which he claimed women let him grope them because he was famous. Before that, he had been talking about world and national issues and cutting into Hillary’s lead. Some polls even showed him ahead, but he slid behind again after his prurient 2005 remarks went public. They consumed so much media oxygen that few Americans learned about Wikileaks emails showing that Hillary lied even more often, about even more things, than we already knew. Suddenly it was all about sex again.
Bill Clinton at 2nd debate as Trump fingered him

In their second debate two days later on October 9th, Trump turned the sexual focus back onto the Clintons, claiming he only talked about groping women while Bill Clinton actually did it. He brought several women into the debate hall who alleged President Clinton had groped or even raped them while he was Arkansas Attorney General, Governor, and president. Then, for days after, about a dozen women claimed that Trump had groped them over the last three decades. Trump’s denied their allegations, threatened to sue them, and continued his slide in the polls. Americans felt soiled by sordid charges thrown back and forth and looked forward to the election being over.
Trump finally went back to talking about issues and began creeping back up in the polls. Continued release of Wikileaks emails and FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) documents pried out of the State Department continued damaging Hillary. The biggest bombshell dropped last Friday when FBI Director James Comey notified Congress that he was reopening his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s unsecured, classified emails. At least it didn’t involve sex, we thought. Only hours later, however, we learned that Comey’s investigatory turnaround was prompted by information found as the FBI gathered evidence on Weiner — the estranged husband of Hillary’s closest aid, Huma Abedin, who evidently left thousands of emails on his computer. It was back in the cesspool again for all of us.
This is the third presidential election during which I’ve been able to interview candidates — seven this year including Hillary Clinton. For me that makes the process more interesting, but this cycle has focused more Americans than any other. It’s forcing us to look at ourselves. Our votes — Democrat and Republican — gave us these candidates. Why, then, are we disgusted with them? To answer that, we have to look at the culture in which we’re swimming. Lying and sexual misdeeds don’t seem to matter much anymore. Everybody does it, right?
Next Tuesday we’ll know who will occupy the White House in January. We’d like it to, but it won’t be over next week, I’m afraid. It’ll just be the beginning of another chapter.