The Assumptions We Make

We see the world not as it is but as we are. Most of us see through the eyes of our fears and our limiting beliefs and our false assumptions. (Robin S. Sharma)

Euclid taught me that without assumptions there is no proof. Therefore, in any argument, examine the assumptions. (E. T. Bell)

Assumptions are made and most assumptions are wrong. (Albert Einstein)

Let’s start with a basic truth: We all make assumptions. Assumptions are “corner-cutters.” They save us time from having to ponder every little thing in the universe. We can reliably assume the sun will rise in the east each morning, that spring will follow winter, and that you can’t make a dollar out of ninety-nine cents. If we couldn’t make assumptions, we’d be nuts by noon.

But assumptions about the behavior of the sun or the order of seasons are founded on FACT (no Kellyanne, you cannot have alternative facts, now quit your whining). To riff on Neil deGrasse Tyson, the good thing about facts is that they’re true whether or not you believe them.

ASSumptions pigging out emotional_eatingWe also make assumptions based on collective human experience: You don’t extend your hand to a snarling dog. You don’t dive into water that’s over your head unless you can swim. You don’t eat the Giant Bag of Hershey’s Kisses and expect to lose weight.

Generally wise and good advice, but this is where the slippery slope begins. Collective wisdom slops over into wishful thinking, oozing down from there into a quagmire of pestilence—racism, homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, and other nasty prejudices.

Wishful Thinking

Wishful thinking encourages us to believe there are magical, no-fail formulas out there. To assume that if we follow a prescribed set of behaviors, the promised result is guaranteed. For example: Hard work and talent will be recognized and rewarded. ASSumptions person working hard Capture

We want to believe this because it promises we’ll get the promotion, the contract, the luxe house, and loads of recognition if we just apply our natural gifts and devote our life to the grindstone. But a random stroll through any number of small live-music venues on a Saturday night will show you dozens and dozens of singer/musicians to rival Ed Sheeran or Lady GaGa. Community theatre is bursting with aspiring actors, directors, and set designers who will never see Broadway except from the balcony. And corporate cubicles are packed with dedicated folks who will never get the windowed office in top management. Why? Place, timing, luck—the vagaries of life. Or  perhaps they didn’t go to Andover with the CEO.

Hard work and talent are good, but they’re not definitive in any individual case. And there’s a dark side to buying into believing they guarantee worldly success. What happens if you pull out all the stops, pour your heart and soul into your work, but the phone never rings, the promotion doesn’t happen, the glowing reviews fail to materialize iASSumptions dreaming of successn The New York Review of Books? Should you despair that you lack ability? Beat yourself up for not having worked 25 hours a day? For taking time “off” for family, friends, your health? Believing that the big payoff lies entirely within your control makes you the fall-guy no matter how gifted you are or what you’ve sacrificed.

So if some or all of the rewards for hard work and talent fall your way, revel in your good fortune, but do the thing you love because you love it, whatever the outcome.

More Wishful Thinking  

Psychologist John Cohen, author of Chance, Skill and Luck, says, “Nothing is so alien to the human mind as the idea of randomness.” Our brain, it seems, continually seeks cause and effect, to the point where we routinely twist two unrelated events into the most far-fetched correlation: I didn’t wear my lucky red shirt today, so of course I didn’t get the ASSumptions i ate bread, got sick, bread made me sickwinning lottery number. This constant quest for patterns is known as apophenia, and you can actually see evidence of it in magnetic resonance images.

Neuroscientists consider this search for cause and effect to be one of our most significant cognitive strengths, but like most strengths, it harbors a weakness: The assumption that everything happens for a reason.

Randomness feels threatening, so we employ Everything-Happens-for-a-Reason to explain and mitigate disasters that befall us, both personal and societal. To pair a disappointment or difficult struggle with a happy outcome. We want to believe there must be some positive point to all our suffering.

Example: I got dumped by my boyfriend so that I could meet someone better. Well, if your boyfriend was a mean-spirited SOB, hopefully you will meet someone better. The ASSumptions falsity of a reason for everythingodds might even be in your favor. But you were not dumped by Mr. Wrong so that you could meet Mr. Right. There is no guarantee Mr. R’s in the wings. Whoever you meet next is random, although your decision to act or not on any potential relationship is within your control, and (hopefully) informed by prior experience.

On a really dark note, I have heard “everything happens for a reason” used to rationalize the gun death of a child: “She was just too beautiful for this world, so the Lord took her to be with him.”  (Excuse me while I go bang my head against the wall, screaming NO, NO, NO!) Fatal shootings of children in the home are the result of one or more factors—lack of gun safety laws, a failure to properly lock away weapons, no one’s watching the kids—but they do not happen so that something desirable can occur, so the Lord can take a child who is “just too beautiful for this world.”

Addressing our innate need to assign every event a purpose, Paul Thagard, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today: “As In history, economics, biology, and psychology, we should always be willing to consider evidence for the alternative hypothesis that some events occur because of a combination of chance, accidents, and human irrationality.”

That’s Just the Way It Is  

Here, that slippery-slope slide picks up a little steam. These are the assumptions we make because our particular culture says they’re true and so we seldom bother to challenge ASSumptions Competition standing on othersthem. For example, the widely-held notion that competition brings out the best in people. That competing, rather than collaborating, puts us on our toes, thus raising our performance.

The underlying assumptions here are several: 1) That our drive to best others, to make ourselves look better, is our dominant drive. 2) That our highest achievements are reached when we work in opposition to others. 3) That collaboration stymies top talent by forcing the most capable to work with those of lesser ability. 4) That clever, competent people don’t need help to achieve.

Well, look around you. Is this world an example of the “best” that we can be?

Solving problems is almost never the work of an individual besting others in competition. Finding solutions and advancing knowledge usually result from one of two collaborative models:

1) Developing a solution over time through a chain of individual contributions. The germ theory of disease gained acceptance in the late 19th century, but it was first proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546 and was advanced by degrees over the next 350 years through the work of numerous physicians and scientists.

2) Myriad talents, faced with a puzzle, work out various bits of a solution and share their ideas/findings. French philologist Jean-Franҫois Champollion is often credited with deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone, while the British Museum likes to point out that it was British scholar and physician Thomas Young who gave him the key clues for that decoding. But digging a little deeper, research shows that “as important as Young and Champollion’s research was, it emerged in dialogue

Lorenzo Gritti

with other famous linguists and Egyptologists, such as A.I. Silvestre de Sacy, who both taught Champollion and tipped off Young that cartouches might be an interesting place to look.

Our penchant for competition is strangling the world on many fronts. If, for example, we are going to slow the rapidly escalating dangers of climate change, halt the savaging of our oxygen-producing rainforests, and clean up our polluted rivers, lakes, and oceans, we must cooperate because the problems are bigger than one country, one corporation, one set of regulations. It’s global collaboration that will rescue the planet, not Pepsi competing with General Mills for who can burn down the most square miles of rainforest for palm oil plantations.

Related Nonsense

Another pervasive assumption is that private is superior to public. Private colleges versus public universities. Private health insurance versus universal healthcare. Private transportation versus public—the subway, Metro, Tube. In the minds of many, anything privately run, i.e. for profit, is assumed to trump all public versions of the same.  ASSumptions public lands

Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S. Returning to the States in 1984 after six weeks in Europe, I was horrified by how hard and beat up middle-class Americans looked. Heads down, shoulders hunched, a sea of scowls. Did they realize how unhappy they appeared? Did they acknowledge the toxic pressure of trying to survive in a society that values neither the social nor the public, a society that, as one friend put it, is really just a get-rich-quick scheme? Everything for a buck—it just wears people down. We could really use a break. But can we get one?

Most countries, including Slovakia and Romania, have government-mandated minimums for annual paid vacation, often 3-5 weeks. The U.S. leaves the question of paid vacation up to individual employers. Paid maternity leave is another important perk mandated by all the industrialized countries—except the U.S. (although California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and recently New York have enacted laws for this).

Of the top 51 highly-developed countries, only the U.S. lacks some type of universal healthcare systems. Is it any wonder that in a list of life expectancy by country, the U.S. comes in a shocking #43?

ASSumptions People enjoying public events ther-sq1_origTraveling abroad, I am always impressed by the wide array of free cultural events, the vast number of beautiful parks and public gardens, available for the enjoyment of all. A society that collects and spends money for the public good has always seemed to me to have a better public, a more literate, happier, healthier people.

As we in the U.S. face the prospect of losing our public lands and national parks to private companies for drilling, the closing of our public libraries and schools, the privatization of Medicare and the abolishment of Social Security, we need to take a long, hard look at this assumption that private is superior to public, and ask ourselves: Where is the evidence?

Danger: Deadly Bias Ahead

That slippery slope where our assumptions cartwheel freestyle from the fact-based down, down, down into a nasty quagmire of prejudice? We’re here.

Perhaps, the most pernicious—and human—assumption we make is that we are the norm. Human, because we are all locked inside our own skin. While we can (and should) empathize with others, make the effort to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, by default the view we see most clearly, and continually, is our own. ASSumptions prejudice discrimination 392592

This biological/psychological tendency, however, does not make you or me “the norm.” There are 7.2 billion of us on the planet. Clearly, there cannot be 7.2 billion “norms.” And thinking we are the “norm” is dangerous because it’s a short hop from that assumption to believing who we are is the one true “right way” to be. LGBTQ people become “deviants” because one is not gay or transgender. Women can be treated as objects and denied equal rights or fair pay because one is not a woman. People of color don’t deserve access to education, jobs, or decent housing because one is not a person of color. It’s okay to rip immigrant families apart and jail their infant children because one is not an immigrant. People with pre-existing conditions can be tossed under the bus because one doesn’t (yet) have a pre-existing condition.

This is too often the world we live in, and it’s not working out so well, is it?

The Assumption of Privilege

It’s easy for people who have grown up in countries untouched by war and unravaged by famine—who have always enjoyed comfortable shelter, access to healthcare, and free sunbathing on the beachpublic schools—it’s easy for these people, which likely includes most everyone reading this, to assume that just because they’ve always had these things, this life of relative privilege, they always will.



Regular readers of my scribblings here know I’m a BIG fan of history, and if history proves nothing else, it underscores the lightning swiftness with which one’s circumstances can change. Wiped out overnight with the whoosh of a tsunami or hurricane. Devastated in the space of a few days or weeks—the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii, the Great Plague of 1665 that killed 100,000 Londoners, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or annihilated in the slow but steady (two years, five years, ten) drip-drip of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, the evictions of Jews from their homes, the loss of their businesses, and the violence of Kristallnacht as thousands, then millions of Jews, gays, Communists, Romani, blacks, and the mentally disabled were rounded up and sent to the gas chambers.

Agence France-Presse

CNN’s Sheena McKenzie writes of “How seven years of war turned Syria’s cities into ‘hell on Earth’”: Syria’s civil war, which marks its seventh year on Thursday, has transformed ancient cities into scenes of apocalyptic devastation… Architectural masterpieces dating back centuries have been annihilated. Bustling marketplaces turned ghostly quiet. And basic infrastructure — hospitals, schools, roads — has been pummeled into dust.

Everything you have can be taken from you. Healthcare, pension, breathable air, safe drinking water, a free press—the list goes on, grows daily. And if the right to protest in Washington, D.C. is outlawed, as TheRUMP would like, the way is paved for our voices to be silenced everywhere.

Perhaps the most dangerous assumption we can hold in this moment is that others will save our democracy. That we need do nothing. Someone will stop the threat—the courts or activist/advocacy groups like the ACLU, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Amnesty International. ASSumptions people-voting_5

When we assume that others will take care of things, however, we run the risk that no one will.

As I was doing the final edit on this post, news broke, first, of the bombs delivered to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, Maxine Waters and eight others (so far), followed by the shooting deaths of 11 members of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Anyone who doubts we live in perilous times (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) needs to have their head examined, as my dear old Ma used to say.

Two words: Go VOTE.

Yes, the Far Right is cleansing voter lists of blacks, Latinxs, Native Americans, and college students. All the more reason to double down.



How Can We See the Sky & Other Mysteries

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
 Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5)

Alert readers of this blog may recall a post (“Everything Takes as Long as it Takes”) where I shared a sample of the stuff I scribble on scraps of paper which I then leave all over the house. This particular scribbling noted that One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.

Observations like this take up not inconsiderable real estate in my head. I call them “mysteries.”

I thought it might be a nice diversion from the current journey we seem to be embarked on—going to hell in a handbasket—to share some of these musings with you. Also, I’m packing for a trip and penning advance blog posts at a rate Stephen King would envy. I MYSTERIES writer working harddon’t have time to research, say, the validity of Einstein’s theory of relativity or to follow up on a CNN article Drinking more coffee leads to a longer life, two studies say. I’m willing to take CNN at its word. The press in NOT the enemy of the people, and coffee is our friend.

Excuse me, while I get a refill.

Okay, I promised you mysteries.

Mystery #1: How Can We See the Sky?

I was sitting out on the lawn at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in July, sharing a picnic with Ed and listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. As it was early evening in high summer, the sky above me was still amazingly blue, feathered with clouds that looked like someone just ran a comb through them. Cirrus clouds, I think (I’m a writer, not a scientist). They arced overhead, a perfect dome, the sky meeting the ground in a complete circle around the Tanglewood lawn, our chairs at the exact center. How cool is that?

It’s rare to have such an open vista without buildings or other debris clogging up the sightlines. I hadn’t quite realized before that wherever we are, it’s like we’re inhabiting part of a snow globe. That Earth appears to be a ball inside another ball (the sky) which encompasses it completely. MYSTERIES Skyball CROP

Actually, we never experience Earth as a ball. More like a plane, bisecting a sphere. (To clarify this gibberish, see illustration.)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra moved on to a Tchaikovsky symphony (the Fifth, in E minor—I was paying attention, more or less) while I jotted a note on my program: How can we see the sky?

I pondered this through the Andante-Allegro movement and soon realized that, like Pandora’s Box, this question opens up a slew of thorny conundrums:

If Earth is a ball inside the SkyBall, why can we never touch the sky, even with a very tall ladder or, say, from the roof of the Empire State Building? We can’t even touch the sky where it meets the ground at the horizon because, like a pesky older sibling, the horizon taunts us, moving away as we move toward it.

MYSTERIES ladder to sky photo-1504257365157-1496a50d48f2
Samuel Zeller

And where oh where is outer space? How does this blue, cloud-scraped sky—a visually opaque ceiling—obscure the cosmos of stars and planets that glitter and spin on a decidedly black background?

This is not as stupid a question as it may first appear. Recall the photos of Earth from outer space—there is no “sky barrier” in the way. Maybe a wisp of cloudy looking stuff but you can still see Earth—the oceans, the continents.

MYSTERIES image of earth from space vSrCIE__                                   By the Finale (Andante, Allegro, Moderato), the SkyBall had vanished, leaving me to view a sprinkling of stars light years away. Where did that opaque blue barrier go? Is there a day-to-night transparency button somewhere operating on a timer? And when the night is overcast, does that mean the transparency gizmo is out of juice and needs new batteries?

Like I said, it’s a mystery.

Mystery #2: Are We Right-Side Up or Upside Down? 

Okay, gravity is the stuff that keeps us sticking to the earth—our feet squarely glued as sure as Newton’s apple to whatever patch of turf we’re standing on—but are we right-side up or upside down?

Like most of us, I grew up with those cartoons of little kids holding hands encircling the globe, so popular on UNICEF holiday cards. Being from the northern part of North MYSTERIES children standing on the globe people-2129933__340America, I wasn’t too worried because Michigan was fairly high on the top side of the EarthBall. But those kids in Algeria are living at a perilous slant, and the ones from New Zealand and Patagonia have blood rushing to their little skulls 24/7.

As my age advanced to double digits, I began to question such two-dimensional representations. Was north always up and south always down? Up compared to what? Down from where?

We are citizens of the universe, a multi-dimensional space without end, as scientists tell us (and questions within questions—how do they know this?). So, what exactly is “right-side up” in outer space? Does it change with the movement from day to night, the seasons, the place where we live?

MYSTERIES UP credit the mag G7NReCTW_400x400


And if there is no right-side up in space, are we always upside down or only sometimes?

Is it this constant switch in equilibrium that creates the need for Excedrin, Prozac, a lobotomy? Or just these constant questions?

I don’t know. Do you?

Mystery #3: How Do We Go to Sleep, and How Do We Get Back?

The word on the street is that even the most exciting things—chocolate, sex, bungee jumping—lose their allure, their mystery, if they are repeated routinely.

Well, it’s hard to find a more enduring routine in life than sleep, and yet sleep remains a great mystery. How do we get there? How do we get back? What exactly is there?

If you think this is just me inventing puzzlers in an effort to slap a blog together so I can get out of town on time, try this experiment: 1) Place a notepad and pen by your bed. 2) Tonight, write down the exact time you “go to” sleep.

Not as easy as you thought, eh?

MYSTERIES asleep on keyboard 273995We don’t consciously relinquish our consciousness. It just sort of “happens.” Like walking backwards unawares toward a steep drop-off. That last step… We don’t know what hit us. And we don’t know we aren’t awake wherever it is we “go to.” Except once in a while we realize, “Hey I’m in a dream. I can behave as badly as I like and it doesn’t count.” Which realization is almost as weird as going to sleep itself (though it does show a marvelous talent for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities).

When we’re in dreamland, how do we tune out the burps and beeps of the real world around us? While we sleep, life certainly continues on its merry, noisy way. Thunderstorms thunder. Fire engines siren past. But nothing registers unless it’s REALLY LOUD.  Like the time I was awoken by the bedroom radiator CLANGING in a way it had never clanged before. The sweet oblivion of sleep dropped away in a heartbeat as I realized geysers of boiling water were shooting up from that radiator, at 5:14 a.m.MYSTERIES woman woken up 2751E1EE00000578-3027308-image-m-27_1428317578871

Do you know how hard it is to get a plumber at five in the morning? Those 24-hour emergency services listed online? Just phone check-ins that contact a plumber when he or she rises at a more civilized hour.

We surrender our consciousness each night never doubting it will mysteriously “return” in the morning. Now that’s the kind of deep faith most religious proselytizers would envy.

But how is it we do “return” to the real world each day? And why don’t we fall out of bed in our sleep? We certainly move around in our sleep, so why aren’t we hitting the floor in great numbers, regularly? This has never happened to me, but it did happen to Ed once when we were taking a weekend in NYC. Believe me, it was frightening—waking up suddenly to see him tumbling over the edge of the bed, with a nanosecond to hope he didn’t take his eye out on the corner of the nightstand (he didn’t, though he did suffer a nasty cut on his cheek).

Sleep—there’s a Gordian knot of mysteries involved here.

Mystery #4: How Do Cats Know Where to Go?

As mentioned in my August post (“I Always Wanted an Orange Kitten”), I have had many cats in my life. Most of them were indoor/outdoor creatures, which means there came a day in their young lives when I opened the back door and allowed them to explore the wide world beyond. Without exception, they all returned after a few hours. No one got MYSTERIES cat reading 10e232cb9fc5893a8bee5bccc7cbcdc1--reading-books-cat-readingconfused about which house was theirs—the mock Tudor in need of a paint job, or the Cape with the sagging steps and the rusting swingset?

How do they do it—how do cats unerringly zero in on their house wherever they’ve wandered? I mean you wouldn’t want to try this with your three-year-old.

This mystery deepens as I recall an afternoon in my college days. I went with a carload of friends to a party, a cookout hosted by a couple who lived in the university’s married student housing.

Several hours into the event, my hosts asked if someone would ride down to the convenience store six blocks over to pick up some more drink mixers. They offered the use of their bicycle. I volunteered and off I went. Finding the Mini-Mart was easy. It was up on the main drag. Finding my hosts’ house again—that was the challenge.MYSTERIES houss all alike suburbia

Like cats released into freedom for the first time, I was operating on limited information. Having hitched a ride to the party with friends, I hadn’t bothered to check the house number. Or the street name. Married student housing was laid out in nothing resembling a grid, and all the houses were identical. All 500 of them.

I rode around for a while, Cokes and tonic water warming, bagged ice melting in the bike’s basket. I would probably still be riding if one of my hosts hadn’t chosen the moment I was circling his circle for the hundredth time to set out an empty keg on the front porch. I have rarely been so glad to see anyone.

Cats. Mystery is their milieu. The Egyptians held them sacred. Believed they guarded Egypt from invaders. Next time you see a cat, bow your head in acknowledgment of the inexplicable powers they hold, including the ability to always find home.

 Mystery #5: What Are We?

Okay, one more.

Some years back, a friend invited me to an art exhibit at Smith College. I can’t recall exactly what the theme of the show was, but it included a photograph of the poet Tennyson taken after his death.

In the photo we see Tennyson’s head resting on a pillow, eyes closed, a peaceful expression on his face, as if he were just napping (recall Mystery #3). But he’s dead.

MYSTERIES Tennyson ca40b7888a890424a1a96e5807c0ad52-alfred-lord-tennyson-famous-poemsI stared and stared at that still face. Looked at some more of the exhibit. Returned to Tennyson. There he was—head, shoulders, torso—all of him except the thing that was him. The “Tennyson thing.” The thing that was a poet rather than a cab driver or a hip-hop artist. The thing that preferred Skittles to Milk Duds, or favored the Yankees over the Mets. Okay, I’m improvising here—well, fabricating wildly—but the question is: Where did the mind-personality-heart that was Tennyson go? How was it there one moment and—poof!—gone the next?

I relate all this as background to the greatest mystery of all: What are we?

The startling glimpse I had into this most amazing of riddles came while I was visiting London twelve years ago with my daughter. As well as enjoying galleries and museums, parks and pubs, Lauren was talking to admissions people at several UK universities. This particular day, she was talking to someone at King’s College London about studying microbiology (she wound up majoring in public policy in the States, but that’s a completely separate mystery and nothing to do with the topic at hand).

While she was chatting with the admissions folks, I wandered around and discovered a little anatomy “museum” on one floor. A kind of 19th century exhibit of spare parts—like a Victorian penny dreadful. Among the displays I recall were stomachs and brains, lungs and large intestines, hearts and kidneys. There was even a set of fetal Siamese twins. All floating in some murky preservative in voluminous glass jars.

It brought me smack up against all my assumptions about the species Homo sapiens, and changed my head 180.MYSTERIES body parts Front_View.jpg24e6c945-1e2a-4404-af25-36828fb41797Original

Up to that moment, I thought of human beings in the lofty, ethereal way you might expect from a lit major/writer/daydream believer. We were ideas and dreams, philosophical meanderings and heart-throbbings. But as I stood, gazing at these jars of stuff that looked nothing so much as a lot of cruddy dilapidated hot water bottles and crusted tubing, I had to admit: That’s us.

And when that junk stops working, the game’s over.

The mystery is how something as mentally and emotionally complex, as creative and resourceful as us emerges from what appears to be about five dollars’ worth of spare parts.

You can see how a Hitler or a Trump might come out of this muck, but a Tennyson or a Van Gogh? A Nelson Mandela or a Frida Kahlo?

And yet it is the truth of us.

Mysteries. Life is full of them. I embrace them. I like the way they keep my brain on a Socratic buzz—asking and answering questions, which then generate more questions—as I puzzle out the oddities of this world.

It all comes down to this: When the SkyBall goes transparent tonight, giving way to a universe of stars, I’ll be thankful that whichever way my head is facing, I don’t fall off the planet. And when I come back from the land of sleep tomorrow morning, however that happens, I’ll be grateful for another day, crossing my fingers that the mucky parts and crusty tubing keep on ticking.

The Value of What Came Before

“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.'” (Eduardo Galeano)

My husband and I are having dinner at a local farm-sourced, regional-brewers kind of place when I notice the TV set over the bar is playing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, that 1962 cult classic, mental/emotional slugfest between a manipulative Joan Crawford and a deranged Bette Davis. Both of them on the far side of their ingénue years.

When the server—a young woman in her mid-20s—comes to take our order, I ask if she knows the film. She scrutinizes the action on the TV screen and shakes her head. Never heard of it. I give it a strong recommendation. It may be camp, but it’s first-rate camp and it was nominated for five Academy Awards.BEFORE Bette_Davis_and_Joan_Crawford_

This exchange got me thinking about the increasing transcience of culture and knowledge. How what’s happening in the ever-changing nanosecond fills and floods our attention to the exclusion of everything that came before.

The Seduction of Now

It’s very seductive to think of the past as something finished. Over. That it has no connection or relevance to who we are now or where we’re headed. That we can re-invent ourselves at will, without a backward glance, and no price to pay.

Our high-tech world, with its rapid flow of new, disposable “product” and seemingly endless streams of “content” not only encourages this attitude, but practically demands it. When something “brand new” happens every 15 minutes, our attention is sorely taxed just scrambling to keep up. Who has time to reflect? To make connections?

Though each of us has a personal life that begins with our birth and ends with our death, we’re also part of a much larger world with a long and complicated past that affects our little blip on the timeline.

Okay, no one is going to argue that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a force to deepen ones understanding of the world. But an existence composed solely of what’s-happening-now leaves us with no compass to steer by, no yardstick for comparison on serious, larger-than-our-lifetime issues—say, global warming or the worldwide resurgence of nationalist movements. Without an understanding of what “went before,” we might not even realize it is a resurgence. That the current global trend toward nationalism has roots in the European fascist movements of the 1930s and the Jim Crow laws of the American South—the latter going back to the Civil War and that defender of slavery, John BEFORE blind-followers-nationalism- CROP revisedC. Calhoun. That nationalism is not without links to the European conquerors of Columbus’s “new world.” All of it a shorthand for the belief that some people are created more equal than others. That some people don’t even have the right to exist.

Without a sense of how today’s headlines fit in along the timeline of human history, we’re left vulnerable to all who would prey on that ignorance. And they are out there.

In a State of Disconnect: Clueless about History

A quick survey of polls targeting common misconceptions (and just plain ignorance) about history makes for fascinating—if frightening—reading.BEFORE simpsons sky-1-the-simpsons-panel-0f82a41

A 2006 poll by the now defunct McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that one in five Americans could name all five Simpson cartoon family members, but only one in a thousand people could identify all five First Amendment freedoms.

A 2012 ACTA survey revealed that fewer than 20% of college graduates could correctly identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A 2010 survey, cited by The Atlantic, reported more Americans knew that Michael Jackson composed “Beat It” than knew that the Bill of Rights is a body of amendments to the Constitution. And one in three did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the right to a trial by jury.

Fifty percent of Americans surveyed also suffer severe timeline confusion. They identified the American Revolution as happening after either the Civil War or the War of 1812. And more than a third had no clue at all in which century the American Revolution occurred. One can only hope continued sell-out performances of Hamilton will provide some hints.

BEFORE Puerto rico shirt Rico-696x470In light of the video that went viral this summer—a man harassing a woman for wearing a shirt with the flag of Puerto Rico (“You should not be wearing that in the United States of America!” he shouted repeatedly.)—it’s worth noting that a 2017 poll revealed almost half of Americans don’t know that the people of Puerto Rico are United States citizens.

Perhaps the most shocking—and saddening—statistic I came across was cited on NPR’s All Things Considered: Forty percent of Americans cannot identify what Auschwitz was.

In fact, fewer than half of Americans know that Hitler did not take control of Germany by force, but was democratically elected. We’ll return to this later.

Why Does This Matter? Why Should We Care?

Not knowing what came before, as I said, renders us prey to spin doctors, Russian hackers, unscrupulous politicians, and hucksters of every stripe.

It leaves us vulnerable to the lies of others, told for their own nefarious purposes. 

“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” said then-presidential candidate Trump at a 2015 Birmingham rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of [Muslims] were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

Trump stirred up a lot of anti-immigrant feeling with these words, sowing the seeds of support for his notorious Muslim Ban, but gave him a “Pants on Fire” rating for that speech. That’s code for one big fat whopper.BEFORE The-American-Muslim-Creative-Mission_Overcoming-Religious-Polarization

PolitiFact cites a September 17, 2001 Associated Press report that debunked “rumors of rooftop celebrations of the attack by Muslims” in Jersey City. And wildfire rumors of Muslim-Americans cheering the fall of the World Trade Center in Paterson, N.J., turned out to be a nasty lie spawned by chain e-mails and fanned by shock jock Howard Stern.

The historical truth? Muslim residents of Paterson mounted a banner in that city saying “The Muslim Community Does Not Support Terrorism.”

We fall for solutions that have failed us before.

Trump sold his tax cuts for the rich by promising American workers that with more money in their boss’s pocket, they would benefit from increased wages and bonuses. It was gonna be “beeeeautiful.”

If there’s one thing we should be wise to by this point, it’s the bald-faced lie of trickle-down economics—that when you let the rich keep all their money, out of gratitude they will pass pots of it along to the peons who made them rich in the first place. William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate, exposed the nonsense of trickle-down more than a hundred years ago in his Cross of Gold speech:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through to those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

The term “trickle-down economics” was coined by American humorist and commentator Will Rogers to ridicule President Hoover’s dismal stimulus efforts to cure a Great Depression many economists feel he played a large hand in creating. Hoover, a BEFORE getting rained on trickle downcheerleader for “rugged individualism,” believed that only the voluntary action of “socially responsible capitalist leaders” (know any?), not government intervention, would restore economic order.

Trickle-down economics failed in the close of the 19th century. It failed in the Great Depression. It failed in the massive tax cuts to the rich known as “Reaganomics” that started an almost 30-year slide into the financial crash of 2008. And it is failing under Trump. A 2018 analysis of Fortune 500 companies reveals that fewer than five percent of workers will get a one-time bonus or wage increase from the Trump tax cuts. If they still have a job. AT&T and General Motors both cut 1,500 jobs. Kimberly-Clark dumped 5,000 workers. It seems that most companies poured virtually all of their tax-break money into stock buybacks, making the richest folks even richer.

Trickle-down economics does one thing and one thing only: It robs from the poor and middle classes, and gives to the rich.

Blinds us from seeing how attacks on others are attacks on all of us.

Recently, I read a piece (sorry, I didn’t copy the link) where psychologists discussed how people tend to mentally catalog only those things they perceive as affecting them directly. For example, if you’re not a union member—a teacher, a nurse, an auto worker—you might think that current efforts to cripple or destroy unions have little to do with you. “Right to work” laws, attacks on overtime pay. But you’d be wrong.

History shows that the advantages labor unions have fought for and won (starting with the right to unionize) have generally benefited all American workers.

Before there were unions, many people worked six, even seven days a week for an average workweek of 61 hours. It was the unions, waging massive (and sometimes bloody) strikes in the late 19th/early 20th centuries that brought us the 8-hour day and the weekend. A half-century of struggle culminated in the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. BEFORE striking workers Capture

When unions are strong, the middle class tends to flourish. When they are weakened, as is happening now, income inequality increases for all workers and the purchasing power of the middle and poor classes shrinks. A lot. Benefits disappear, too.

Speaking of benefits, it was the rise of unions in the 1930s and 1940s that we have to thank for employer-sponsored health insurance. When unions used their numerical clout to negotiate health care for their members, many other employers scrambled to stay competitive by offering the same.  By 1950, a majority of employers offered some type of health insurance to their workers. With the current two-pronged effort of the GOP to weaken unions and sabotage the ACA, the future of employer-sponsored healthcare is something to keep on your radar.

In its first national convention (1881), the American Federation of Labor started the ball rolling to end child labor. State after state responded to this call until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act abolished child labor nationwide.

Allows those in power to cheat us of our rights.

If you don’t know the Bill of Rights guarantees you a trial by jury for criminal cases and serious civil cases—and inhibits the court from overturning a jury’s finding—you might be bulldozed by your adversary into waiving your right to a jury trial in exchange for one heard (and ruled on) solely by a judge. This is increasingly a power tactic of corporations who feel juries tend to be sympathetic to individuals claiming damage or loss rather than to the big companies alleged to have screwed them.

It’s easy to take from people what they don’t know is theirs. Remember those 999 people out of 1,000 who could not name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment? BEFORE jury trial attorneyThey are at risk for believing the current propaganda that a press who criticizes the president is un-American. They may fear to speak out because some politician with an agenda says protesting government actions is “illegal.”

Well, here they are, the five freedoms guaranteed to all Americans under the First Amendment to the Constitution (at the very top of the Bill of Rights):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We are allowed to holler with all our might against those who would violate or destroy our democracy. And we should.

We fail to recognize the signposts of eminent danger when they’re right before us.

Recently, a guest on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes said of the current fight against widespread attacks on voting rights, “The Civil Rights Movement continues. It is eternal.”

Ditto the fight against fascism. Fascism did not end with the surrender of the Nazis any more than white supremacy died with Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Emancipation Proclamation or the passage of the 13th Amendment.  BEFORE hitler nuhremberg laws maxresdefault

I mentioned up-top a poll that found fewer than half of Americans know that Hitler did not take control of Germany by force, but was democratically elected. As Emory University history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, explains, “The Nazis didn’t come into office on January 30, 1933, and decide on a genocide the next day. They slowly broke down a democracy. They destroyed it.”

She goes on to cite the “steady drumbeat of attacks” that began under Hitler. “First on the press, then on the courts, then on institutions, [the] slow takeover of institutions.”

Sound familiar?

Connecting the Dots  

To have a solid grasp of what came before is to have a richer understanding of what we’re seeing now. A guide to sift truth from lies. A way to answer the always-pertinent question: From whose viewpoint is this coming and what do they stand to gain by pushing this particular agenda? Instead of bouncing from tweet to tweet, history gives us a telescopic lens to pinpoint the connections. And it cannot be said enough: Everything is connected.

The films and books, the music and paintings and theatre of the past have messages for us, too. Not perhaps the kitschy romp of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but there is much worth our attention in the dusty archives of film, the overflowing shelves of the library, in Shakespeare’s plays and John Donne’s poetry.

One book that Americans are rediscovering is a little dystopian novel, 1984.

BEFORE Orwell second one 19845-01

Written 68 years ago by English author George Orwell, it’s been flying off the shelves, as they say, topping the best-seller list at Amazon in January 2017—after Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” to justify Trump’s complete fabrication about the size of his inaugural crowd.

That tells you what happened. It doesn’t tell you why it matters. To do that, I will close with a paragraph from an article written by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker in 2017, “Orwell’s 1984 and Trump’s America”:

“And so, rereading Orwell, one is reminded of what Orwell got right about this kind of brute authoritarianism—and that was essentially that it rests on lies told so often, and so repeatedly, that fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it. Orwell saw, to his credit, that the act of falsifying reality is only secondarily a way of changing perceptions. It is, above all, a way of asserting power.”

To know what came before us is a great gift–enriching, fascinating. It is also a warning.

I Always Wanted an Orange Kitten

What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open. (Jose Manuel Barroso)

Since college days, my life has been filled with cats. There’s Phoebe, a tortoiseshell cat who napped atop my turntable; StarBaby, a calico who cleaned out the bottom of my yogurt cartons and then lined up the empties in the bathroom; Maggie, a stray I “adopted” from the Boston pizzeria that fed her; Tia Maria, an opinionated, affectionate gray with a “hint of beige”—also mother of Brutus and Jasmine, both brown tigers. And Francesca, a tiny, gray long-haired kitten who was terrified of most everything, but loved Brutus and followed him everywhere.

Most of these cats had been rescued from one kind of immediate-need situation or other. I didn’t set out to choose them. More like our paths crossed serendipitously and I’m a big KITTEN Tia CROPsucker. But when Brutus died at age 17 and Frankie followed four months later, I found myself catless for the first time in 27 years. After the worst of the grief subsided, I knew what I wanted. I wanted an orange kitten. I had always loved that color (too many “Morris the Cat” ads, perhaps), and now I could take myself down to the local animal rescue shelter and pick one out.

Most of the cats at the shelter were, like me, no longer kids. One heartbreaking duo, ages 12 and 14, had belonged to a woman in her nineties who had recently died. I considered them because, obviously, like all aging orphans, they were not going to be most people’s first picks. But then I thought maybe they weren’t really up for life in a house with two teenagers (mine).

“If you’re interested in a kitten, we have four brothers here, eight weeks old,” the shelter attendant said.

And there they were, four little kitties romping about a boxy cage, tumbling over one other, each more heartbreakingly cute than the other. And none of them orange. Not even close. Not even a speck. KITTEN CROP tibby and coosh babies

You know how this story goes. I chose a little gray guy, white-tipped tail, both spunky and sweet. I named him Mercutio on the spot.

Recognizing a pushover when she saw one, the attendant added, “It’s two-for-one month.”

Well, I had my daughter Lauren in tow, and between the two of them there was no way I was leaving that shelter with only one cat. I picked out a frisky black-and-white dude and christened him Tybalt.

So, no orange kitty. And yet, here I am 14 years later with gray Mercutio (Coosh) and black-and-white Tybalt (Tibby), and I know when they leave this world, as all things must, I will feel the kind of pain that just about does you in. Tibby is playful and good-hearted and would let you rub his belly forever. Coosh cuddles up on the bed beside me as I read each night to the strains of Mozart (he’s a big fan).

Two things here strike me: 1) It is in our nature to want particular things, to have definite plans, to map out pathways, goals, and 2) It is in the nature of life to divert most of these desires and plans.

The question is: How do we handle these detours and diversions?

When the Bottom Drops Out

Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes. (Hugh Prather)

Okay, it’s pretty easy to punt one’s desire for an orange kitten. But how do we deal with it when we love what we’re doing, and then the bottom drops out. The company closes. The funding evaporates. Our plans go up in smoke.

When my kids moved into the later elementary years, I enrolled in a competitive M.Ed. program at a local university. They only took ten candidates, so I spent the year prior to application substitute teaching and taking undergraduate courses like math for teachers. I was one of 50 applicant finalists interviewed, and I got in. But that was just the beginning. The program was a one-year intensive, and I do mean intensive. I did my practicum in the second semester while carrying a full load of classes and cooking/cleaning/ferrying my two kids to appointments, lessons, and friends. I did my coursework in the wee hours of the morning. I dreamed of sleep.

But then I got hired and taught six-year-olds for several years. First grade—teachers either love it or loathe it. I loved it. Those little guys are my chosen people. Whether we were immersing ourselves to the elbows in papier maché to make tectonic plates that became mountains when shoved together, or compiling lists of words where oa makes the long o sound: coat, goat, boat, float—we were into it. We grooved on observing and recording the life cycle of frogs. Bring a tank of tadpoles into first grade and you’ve got instant joy. Yes, we were happy campers.

And then the Iraq war happened and with it, deep budget cuts in federal aid to public schools. With only two years in the classroom, I was a prime target for staff reduction. This was a serious bummer. I loved teaching. After two years, I felt I was really hitting my stride. KITTEN No-Jobs-300x300

So, what to do? Schools across the state were cutting staff. Getting another teaching job looked about as likely as a lottery win. The director of my M.Ed. program hired me to supervise student teachers in their practicum. I liked the work, but it was part-time for spring semesters only.

In the meantime, my daughter had graduated to studying with a new violin teacher, a faculty member of the music department at yet another local college (we’ve got tons of them) and an international recording artist. As we chatted at the first lesson, it somehow came up that he had come to England from Germany in 1939. Alone. Carrying nothing but his violin and several of his father’s paintings. An 11-year-old kid fleeing the Nazis. My heart turned over. I had to write his story.

I had done a cover feature for the local paper’s weekend magazine several years before, so I called the editor and she was enthusiastic. Over the fall of that year, I interviewed Philipp about his Jewish family’s life under the Nazis, his year as a refugee “orphan” attending a boarding school in the Midlands, and his family’s subsequent reunification in America. The feature ran just days before my M.Ed. director called to ask if I would be supervising the new interns for the upcoming semester.

KITTEN jewish refugee children arriving in LondonTwo roads diverged … in the nanoseconds before I replied, I thought I could make my life writing. I had earned a living from writing before as editor and main content contributor for a monthly business publication. I had completed two novels and was writing a third.

“I’ve decided to try my hand at freelance writing,” I said.

And that was what I did, pitching pieces and writing for magazines. It was the best career “move” I ever made.

 When New Facts Contradict Old Beliefs

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. (Stephen Hawking)

In the early ‘70s when the Watergate storm was reaching a full-blown tempest, the deeply conservative representative from my Michigan district made national headlines with these words: Don’t confuse me with the facts.

Sometimes, when we’ve invested a lot—years, dollars, hope, energy—we’re tempted to don blinders and ear plugs against anything that threatens our status quo and calls for a rethink. KITTEN Darwin 640px-Voyage_of_the_Beagle

Charles Darwin was a creationist when he first visited the Galapagos Islands as part of the HMS Beagle expedition to chart the coastline of South America. In fact, his father had sent him to Christ’s College, Cambridge to earn a B.A., as the first step to becoming an Anglican parson.

As a creationist, Darwin believed the particular adaptations of many species were simply proofs of divine design—that each species had been created for its special place in nature. Fixed. Immutable. What he observed in the Galapagos challenged everything he thought he knew.

Faced with a conundrum—sweep under the proverbial rug all questions raised by the variations he’d seen among tortoises and mockingbirds in the Galapagos OR investigate—he investigated. His Journal of Researches suggests it was a slow investigation, and likely painful letting go of old notions, but he could not turn away from the search for what is—for truth. Twenty years of conversations with zoologists and ornithologists KITTEN Charles Darwin the love of all livingfollowed that visit to the Galapagos. Two decades of exhaustive research. When at last he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, Darwin was a true believer in evolution.


Frank J. Sulloway wonders aloud, in his article for Smithsonian Magazine, why Darwin was the only person to embrace evolution out of all those exposed to the evidence in the Galapagos. “In the end,” Sulloway writes, “it is perhaps a question of courageous willingness to consider new and unconventional ways of thinking.”

When you Least Expect it: Recognizing the Gift in the Moment Before You

We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance. (Harrison Ford)

In the summer after my junior year of college, I did a semester in London, studying Shakespeare and contemporary British theatre and poetry. I saw 27 plays in six weeks. I lived in a dorm on the edge of Regent’s Park. I reveled in the British Museum, the Tate and National Galleries, the Victoria and Albert, and Kew Gardens. I browsed the wealth of Charing Cross bookshops and enjoyed the camaraderie of the pubs, the remarkable kindness and generosity of the British people. In short, I fell in love with the city. London became and has remained the home of my heart. At the end of that summer, I hated to leave but I had two terms left to finish my degree. I vowed I would someday return for good. KITTEN pub 20131212yeoldewatling

Fast forward to 2007. Knowing that my marriage would bite the dust when my youngest finished high school, I was combing real estate ads for flats in the greater London area. I was going to make the move. Realize my long-cherished dream. Nothing would stop me.

And then, on a Friday afternoon in July, Ed happened. To riff on Casablanca: Of all the coffee shops, in all the towns, in all the world, he walked into mine. That day, as he was leaving, he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a good weekend. I vaguely recognized him—one of the regulars who was often there when I arrived mid-morning to work on one freelance assignment or another.

Over the next two months, Ed and I started talking. I began arriving earlier. He stayed later. We ran the conversational gamut from silly to serious with total ease, even in our silences. We shared many passions. Travel, books, baseball, progressive politics, cooking, dancing, a fascination with language generally and word play specifically. A love of laughter. We were both freelance writers and editors. He was reading a book on Bletchley Park in World War II. I was writing a book centered on Bletchley Park in World War II. We began going out to lunch and taking long walks together. In between, we e-mailed constantly.

KITTEN Making choices 2 599d83c81900002600dd4ff7The time for filing my divorce was rapidly approaching. With it, the need to start putting things in place to make London happen. From the viewpoint of my plans, it was a most inconvenient time to fall in love, But fall I did. Over my head. Out of my mind. Passionately, joyfully, crazy in love.

London aside, the relationship was not without risks (is there ever a seismic move in life without risks?). Ed was on a transplant list at the time, waiting for a new liver to replace his rapidly failing one. Would a donor liver be available in time to save him? Was I giving up my London dream for a situation that might quickly devolve into a nightmare of hospitals and end in tragedy?

I remember standing in my driveway on a warm September night, summoning all the reasons that following my heart might be foolish. But I kept coming back to the simple truth: I loved him. And then I thought the only true foolishness would be to give up a man who was perfect for me in every way. Who made my heart sing. The liver situation KITTEN 129 Amy & Ed on Sidewalkwas a gamble, yes, but everything in life is a roll of the dice. A seemingly perfectly healthy person can suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or a ruptured aneurysm. There are no guarantees. But I knew what I had in that moment. I had Ed and he was the love of my life. Eleven years on, and one successful liver transplant later, he still is.

And now, we visit London annually. He has become quite a fan.

Carpe Diem

At one point or another in my life, I’ve wanted to master the hula hoop, be one of the popular kids, have string-straight hair like Mod Squad’s Peggy Lipton, and move to the desert. None of these things happened, thank god, because as it turns out the hula hoop “died”, there’s far more freedom outside the clique, I’ve come to love my wild curls, and I need lots of green in my environment.

We don’t always wind up at the place we started out for. The road curves. Circumstances change. New facts emerge. Unexpected opportunities erupt.

Yes, we don’t always get what we want, but that’s not the end of the world. Sometimes it’s just the beginning.


The Idea of Democracy

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation …  shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  (Abraham Lincoln)


I hardly know how to begin. As I write this updated intro to a post I ran last year to observe America’s Independence Day, the SCOTUS has ruled to allow Trump’s Muslim Ban, to permit businesses to discriminate against LGBQT folks, and to silence labor. At this hour, America doesn’t much resemble a democracy. With children being kidnapped from their parents by our border agents–families smashed and lives destroyed–America doesn’t feel much like the nation of immigrants the Statue of Liberty celebrates. With Trump complaining that courts and due process are “bothers” he wants to dispose of, America, land of the free, seems to be sliding into a dark abyss. And now we have a seat empty on the Supreme Court, with the very real threat that it will be filled by someone who will further savage our democracy.

And yet, I harbor hope that the millions and millions of Americans taking to the streets to fight these attacks on our freedom, to uphold our most-cherished beliefs will prevail.  Because the idea of democracy, however flawed it has been and still is, is worth all the energy and love we can put into it. Because we who fight are its last, best, and only hope. It has always been so. (June 29, 2018)

“Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree,” engraving by John C. McRae, 1867.

I have to confess, the history of the American Revolution failed to stir my imagination in high school. Those godawful powdered wigs. The morality tale of Washington fessing up to chopping things down with his little hatchet. Snooze-inducing stuff like The Stamp Act (which turns out not to be boring at all).

The American Revolution. I chalked it up to one big yawn. Especially when compared to the high drama, pathos, and moral imperative of the American Civil War. With its roots in the question of extending/ending slavery, its families divided North and South, and the terrible carnage at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh, the Civil War had me at hello. I crushed on Abraham Lincoln, that hero of the scruffy cheek; the wise, sad eyes. He epitomized all that was kind and brilliant and just—his own life an enduring reminder that poverty is a condition and not a character flaw.

I first borrowed Irene Hunt’s now-classic YA novel Across Five Aprils from my school library in fourth grade. It was a book I would take out five more times before moving on to middle school. If I’d been awarding points for best American conflict, the score would have looked like this:

Civil War: 100

American Revolution: 0

So I was not prepared to be especially moved by the TV series John Adams (HBO, 2008) based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name.

Note to self: It’s important to re-examine one’s assumptions from time to time.

John Adams put me in another set of shoes, in another time. Made me think in new ways. Moved me to reassess old prejudices. And stirred something in my soul. Perhaps one just has to live long enough to appreciate what an enormous, pain-in-the-derriere struggle it was to forge a new nation from 13 wrangling colonies who saw eye to eye on very little. Crazier still, a representative democracy.

For what could be more egotistical, more foolhardy than to declare this fledgling union a democracy in defiance of a Europe still dominated by monarchies and old aristocrats? What living models could the colonists turn to for guidance? The Corsican Republic had a written constitution toward the end of its short life—little more than a decade—but was crushed by the French in 1769. All else was monarchs and oligarchs.

Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest would have to cobble together their new government from the ether of political philosophers’ ideas. Men like Aristotle, Thomas Paine, John Locke, and Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s argument for an independent judiciary that Madison pressed for in the drafting of the Constitution.

Through the Looking Glass of Time

Not surprisingly, historians in every era since have weighed in on what the founding fathers concocted.

Writing in the wake of his extended visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville credited the rise of equality to greater economic opportunities from increased trade and commerce, the cheapening of the nobility by the royal sale of titles, and the abolishing of primogeniture. He admired much in the new American democracy: the way everyone shook hands with each other, the considerable number of people active in public life, the fabled New England town meetings where all citizens were entitled to a say in civic matters. He pronounced America’s four-year cycle of presidential elections a “revolution.”

Yet, de Tocqueville had his concerns. In a society of equals, he feared, the majority would always hold sway and silence minority opinion and rights. He observed this “tyranny of the majority” in the North where free black men who had the legal right to vote were often prevented from doing so by the white majority. He also noted, “I know of no country in which … there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.”

Boston University political scientist, historian, and activist, Howard Zinn, weighing in 150 years later, viewed the American Revolution through the lens of progressive 20th century sensibilities.  Zinn claims the Founding Fathers received more than their due of adulation, and debunks them as democracy’s true

Shays Rebellion

heroes. While admitting they led the War for Independence, he takes them to task for their motives, stating it was not for equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness they fought, but for a government that would “protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders.” The true revolutionaries, he says, were men like the soldiers of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who mutinied against their gentry officers, George Washington among them, for the luxurious treatment they enjoyed. Men like Massachusetts farmer, Daniel Shays, who led a revolt against the seizure of homes and farms for nonpayment of extortionate taxes.

Harvard historian Alex Keyssar notes: “It’s hard to argue that we were a democracy while slavery existed or while African Americans were denied the franchise.” To that, one could add the suffrage in 1776 did not admit white men who owned no property, Native Americans, or women of any station.

Two things jump out at me as I read these assessments:

1) Persons and events of historical note are almost universally held to account by the standards of the historian’s day. De Tocqueville, for example, was untroubled by women’s exclusion from the suffrage and did not view it as an inequality because, like his peers in the 1830s, he believed women did not belong in political or economic life.

While there’s no denying that the fledgling America excluded all but propertied, white, Christian men in its concerns for democratic rights, in this the founders were no more backward or reactionary than the world they inhabited. Judging the value of what they created by the measure of modern progressive sensibilities is like decreeing Shakespeare sucked as a playwright because he reflected the prevailing attitudes of 1600, and failed to champion political and social equality for women, Jews, and Moors. In holding the past to a standard it had not yet dreamt of, we may miss what was truly revolutionary in the moment.

2) Almost everything at the hour of its invention is but a poor prototype of what it may become.

Indeed, ratification of the Constitution was held up because a number of the original framers and state delegates insisted it include a list of individual rights. In 1791, such a list was added—ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights specify restrictions on the government’s power. The Constitution, itself, outlines a process in Article V for further amendments to be made through the people’s elected representatives. In the past 226 years, seventeen amendments have been added, including the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery at the close of the Civil War.

History, quite fortunately for historians, always has a tidy beginning, middle, and end, but all the living present ever offers us mere mortals is uncertainty.

The Real Gift of the Founders

John Adams does not paint the founding fathers as heroes of epic stature or selfless idealists. Adams, himself, is portrayed as something of a pompous curmudgeon, riddled with vanity and insecurity, but his dedication is undeniable, unrelenting.

“The Declaration of Independence” John Trumbull

When asked to view John Trumbull’s now-iconic painting, The Declaration of Independence, a mammoth work that depicts Congress gathered in stately fashion for the presentation of the draft document, Adams takes a brief glimpse, then turns away. “It was never like that,” he tells Trumbull.

Apocryphal or not, it may be the truest and most profound line of the series. For it was not an ideal democracy ordained and presided over by godlike geniuses that was the great gift of the founding fathers, but the idea of democracy. An idea that has fired imaginations and shaped the dreams of men and women for the past 240 years.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The idea of democracy has inspired men and women like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sangar, Barbara Gittings, Martin Luther King, Jr., César Chávez, Gloria Steinem, and millions more whose names have not made the history books. It has informed labor unions, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, The Rainbow Coalition, and the LGBTQ Rights Movement. It has given rise to events such as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, Selma, Little Rock, Stonewall, the anti-war protests of the 1960s, and Standing Rock.

The Center for American Progress writesThe activists and leaders of these movements believed deeply in the empowerment and equality of the less privileged in society, the primacy of democracy in American life, and the notion that government should safeguard the common good from unchecked individual and commercial greed.

The idea of democracy.

No Great Idea Goes Unchallenged

It would be disingenuous to suggest the struggle for democracy goes unchallenged. It is and has been challenged every day since the ink was still wet on the Constitution. John Adams, himself, took potshots at it during his presidency. Afraid France would make war on the new nation, and distressed by increasing press attacks on his administration, he passed four pieces of legislation in 1798, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, granting greater authority to the federal government, especially the president.

The last of the four laws, the Sedition Act, allowed Adams to define what constituted treason including writings he deemed false, libelous, or malicious. He intended to silence the newspapers and pamphlets he felt unfairly criticized him. Twenty-five men were arrested and imprisoned, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, a newspaper editor.

Backlash was immediate. Adams actions were rightfully considered abuse of his powers and a threat to free speech. Jefferson’s party gained control of Congress and the presidency in 1800, where they let three of the four Acts expire. (The Alien Enemies Act, though modified, has survived into the present and was used as an argument to intern Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during World War II.)

Fifty-seven years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that “a black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect.” In what has been called the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made, it was decided that black Americans whether enslaved or free were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

Shortly after the Civil War, Myra Bradwell applied for admission to the Illinois Bar, but was denied admittance by the Illinois Supreme Court because she was a woman. Bradwell appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause protected her right to practice law. The Supreme Court disagreed: The 14th Amendment did not apply and therefore the decision was up to the state of Illinois. Bradwell’s gender was a critical factor for several SCOTUS judges. Justice Bradley noted: [the] natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life… The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

“The Creator” has often been used to justify denying various groups of American citizens their democratic rights—women, people of color, LGBTQ folks. It was a cruel irony that black American soldiers sent to fight Hitler in World War II returned home only to suffer the fascism of the Jim Crow South.

In recent years, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC has allowed corporations and their billionaire CEOs to drive America’s destiny by heavily funding extreme right wing candidates who do their bidding, and financing hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads against any candidate who supports environmental protections, stricter gun laws, or checks on Wall Street—even though most Americans support these things.

Greed, racism, misogyny, homophobia—the idea of democracy has always been challenged. Yet, its promise continues to energize millions of Americans to protest, to strike, to risk imprisonment for their beliefs. Witness the recent #FamiliesBelongTogether actions across the country to stop the horrors at our southern border, the 2017 Women’s March, the constituents speaking out against “Trumpcare” at Town Halls, the No Wall No Ban protests, the Climate March.

The idea of democracy, it seems, refuses to lie down and die. As John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad says in The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

The Task Before Us
At Standing Rock Camp

Two days after the 2016 election, author Neil Gabler, heartbroken, wrote: America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on  Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on                                                                                          Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

I understand Gabler’s despair in that moment. Empathize with it. Elected officials, especially presidents, and court justices are significant for the power they wield, the good or ill they do to ordinary Americans. They may even threaten the institution of democracy itself. But they can never kill the idea of democracy. It remains impervious to all their blows, their attempts to enslave us for their own greed and aggrandizement. As long as we dream democracy, the idea lives.

We stand at a crossroads. It’s not the first in our history. It is likely not the last. Like our country’s founders, we find ourselves in the living present with all its uncertainty. And the one grand idea they left us: the idea of democracy.

It is up to us to push forward this idea while protecting all that is precious and at risk—freedom of the press, voting rights, civil rights, the environment, healthcare, the social safety net, our public lands, our public schools. It’s a long list at the moment.

Just before finishing this post, I took a trip to that most democratic of all institutions, the grocery store—everyone comes to the grocery store. As I stood in line to check out, I watched the people. Old people, young people, families with kids. Latinos, whites, blacks, Asians. Some people were doing the week’s shopping. Others were grabbing a six-pack of soda and chips. It’s Monday of a long holiday weekend, so people’s faces were more open, their smiles a little wider, their laughter more generous.

I thought about the hopes each of them may harbor. How, basically, everyone wants to live a life free from fear. A life where they have a home and food, and the means to procure both, with a little money and time left over for what they enjoy. How everyone needs to feel respected, a citizen, a voice with a say. A person whose life matters.

That is the idea of democracy. That each of us matters. That we all have a say.

(Featured photo by Franck Prevel)