Friday, December 3, 2010

Binoculars: Things You Should Own I

This holiday season there is a constant undercurrent of advice against acquiring too many things. I am in favor of keeping the materialism to a minimum. There are all sorts of things we can buy that will have the effect of further polluting the world, further impoverishing the poor, or driving us, personally, into bankruptcy. And sometimes all three of these.
It is not a good idea to buy things in this category. Besides, they tend to take batteries, or gasoline, or some other kind of outside energy source that you have to pay for, to keep running. Yet another drain on the environment--and your pocketbook.
There are a few things, though, that I believe everyone should own because they can contribute in important ways to one's education, amusement, and happiness. Of these, probably the highest end item is good binoculars. (Hmmm..."Binocular" or "binoculars"? Hard to say. Let me just muddle on through.)
I currently have a Bosch-Optikon which seems--to me--to be quite powerful. Despite its famous German name, I take it that it was made in China. That is all right with me, as long as it works. And, although I am unable to give you the technical specs, it seems to work very well.
It replaces a promotional Sports Illustrated instrument which I had had for years, and which was only useful for observing race horses at a distance of no more than 16 inches or so.
This new binocular was given to me when I began to join long-time friends to go birdwatching; it was one of Dan's spares. It made an enormous difference in what I was able to see.
(Bird watching, incidentally, is one of the reasons why you really need binoculars. It may sound dull; in fact, it is relaxing and challenging. It isn't often that you can find a hobby that combines both benefits. I will make a case for it in another post.)
You might want the glasses as well for watching sports--better than my old SI model--or for going to plays, ballet, or opera. Although for what takes place inside theaters and opera houses you will not need binoculars as powerful as my current ones. The little ones called opera glasses will do very well.
I have just begun to realize the possibilities of binoculars for home study of astronomy from your own back yard. I know about people who use them this way--there are even books about it--but I live in a bad place for astronomy, with tall trees, lots of night lights, and frequent overcast skies. But this morning I awoke at 5 a.m., when it was very dark outside, and saw a sliver of crescent moon hanging just over South Mountain. Somewhat to its left was a bright light that seemed unwinking. For this reason I thought it was a planet. On impulse, I decided to get the binoculars and check it out.
The experience was, shall we say, illuminating. First I looked at the moon, and saw quite a bit more of it than than I had seen without assistance--the dark shadow that covered the large part of it not in full sunlight. When I turned to the bright light to its left I was delighted to see the light turn into a sphere, molded and shaped by the distant sunlight just as the moon was. I could see striations across its face, which made me believe that this was Jupiter. But I don't know for sure.
All I DO know is, I cannot wait for another chance to explore the heavens with the aid of my binoculars.
I wish you the same pleasure.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Edison Pena: A Human, Racing

In a period of rather dreary news, it was good to take note of--and is still good to remember--Edison Pena's successful participation in the 2010 New York City Marathon. While we are at it, the same can be said of his nationally televised debut as a vocalist on--the David Letterman Show, I believe it was. (I only got to see this on You Tube.)
Anyway, on the telly, Pena covered the old Elvis hit "Suspicious Minds", no doubt establishing a fellow feeling in the hearts of Elvis fans across the country. Just as he had impressed the running community earlier--I mean, not everybody who gets into the New York City Marathon is going to make it through. He did. Not in great form, but sometimes good enough is good enough.
You can't say Pena planned well in advance for what could be called a couple of real public relations coups. He got his chance only because of an accident that could have killed him and many of his colleagues and left them entombed forever--for he was one of the 29 Chilean miner trapped within a mountain for 67 days and rescued only by a Herculean effort of experts from several countries. (Note: We humans seem to be almost as good at rescuing each other as at destroying each other. We should try more rescuing.)
Edison Pena seems to be a person you and I would like to have as a friend. At least at present, he is full of the joy of life; and no wonder! Hopefully he and his colleagues will enjoy a happy future, one in which they don't have to go back to mining unless they want to.
One who may want to is the man who returned to the surface to find both his wife and his mistress awaiting for him. Now, THAT plot has all the elements of an interesting opera.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nancy Pelosi And The Journey Back

I was stunned when Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republicans' new leader in the House of Representatives, had the effrontery to attack current--and hopefully future-- Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wants to continue serving as Democratic leader in that chamber.
And to that idea I say, "Why not?" And even, "Hurrah!"
Rep. Pelosi played a key role in making the Democrats the majority in the House in the first place. It would seem to be the party's natural role, since for all its lapses it is by far more representative of the needs and hopes of America's diverse peoples than Cantor's Republicans. What's more, against almost insuperable odds, she played a vital role in pushing through key items of President Obama's forward-looking agenda, including the much-maligned Health Care Reform Act.
If that is the case--readers may be asking--why is Pelosi the most hated woman in America? Why did the Democrats endure such a thrashing in the recent election? Why does everyone seem to hate Health Care Reform? Why is "Democrat"--the party label of great leaders from Jefferson to Franklin Roosevelt and beyond--now a pejorative term?
Well, I'll tell you. It's because of a propaganda barrage of unbelievable intensity and dishonesty, courtesy of Fox News? Network and the "giants" of conservative talk radio--not to forget their backers, the Kochs (by whatever name) and the corporations and the Chamber of Commerce. The Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United decided that corporations were persons, and could give as much money as they liked for political purposes--with almost no accountability. This led to a flood of tainted money, in which many worthy candidates and aspirants--Senator Russ Feingold, Rep. Alan Grayson, and Pennsylvania's Joe Sestak--were swept away. The propaganda filled people with such rage that few were able to take in what the Health Care Reform Act really said, what candidates really stood for, and--oh, yes, what Nancy Pelosi herself really stands for. (Not to mention President Obama, who right now must be America's hated and willfully misunderstood man.)
In short, large portions of the electorate acted more like a mob than like thoughtful voters on November 2. It was not their fault. The effect of the propaganda tsunami was to take away their capacity for thought. I suspect, once they realize they've been tricked into voting against themselves, they will be eager to change their votes next time. And I believe Congresswoman Pelosi will play a key role in winning back a House majority which was lost through no fault of her own.
As to Cantor, he is entitled to his opinions--as long as he keeps them to himself. He does not vote in the Democratic Caucus--luckily for all of us--and should have no public opinion as to how it votes.
So why does he? Is he, perhaps, afraid of Nancy Pelosi?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Election From Hell

From a political point of view, Election Cycle 2010 has been like a year-long Hallowe'en Party in which the monsters are not just in costume. Or maybe they ARE in costume, but the threat they represent to America as we have known it is real and, I fear, growing. The Right Wing in all its manifestations, Religious, Corporate, whatever, seems determined to prove that it is in charge, and will do as it likes with the planet and its people. The Supreme Court is already in the pocket of this group, so it appears, despite a couple of excellent appointments by feckless President Barack Obama. (When we elected this guy some of us voted with crossed fingers, as it were, hoping against hope his talent extended beyond inspirational speeches. It doesn't, it seems; and this year the speeches have not even been all that inspirational. In my opinion his initial mistake, following the exhilaration of his election to the Presidency, was to try to work with the Republican leadership in a bipartisan spirit for the good of the country. This in itself shows his lack of political acumen. It is difficult to work in harmony with people who are trying to kick your head in.)
Initial triumphal pronouncements by Senator Mitch McConnell, now on the verge of being the best-known Republican in the country, sh0w that the Republicans have that ambition still. I'd have thought that the duty of a Senator and his colleagues was to enact legislation to ensure the well-being of the United States, not to bring down a President of the United States. But ole Mitch and his colleagues don't see it that way at all. Not only do they think their duty is to destroy the Obama Administration; on their way they will get rid of colleagues who disagree with them. They will have them voted out.
And who will say this is impossible? By that time, perhaps, the only voters left will be those who agree with them and will do their bidding. We have already seen how a mere two years of lies and half-truths, backed by unbelievably vast sums of corporate money, can twist and confuse the minds of citizens until they vote their anger, not their understanding.
This is what just happened. Despite Obama's seeming lack of political understanding, several things he has done have been good, including Health Reform. It's been demonized as Obamacare, and many principled legislators have given their political lives for it. But why is this? It is BECAUSE THE CITIZENRY HAS NEVER REALLY BEEN ABLE TO LEARN WHAT IS IN THE BILL. Again, part of this is because Obama never saw to it that the legislation was adequately explained to the people; but more is because the enemies of everything he stands for have worked with great energy to MIS-explain it.
So here we are, in perhaps the greatest survival crisis faced by our country in over a century. What can we do about it? Can we do anything? If our only choice is between going down fighting and going down with a whimper, that is very sad. Maybe a choice like this would be the logical outcome of all the years millions of us have been "too busy" to inform ourselves and vote. Maybe in that sense we deserve it.
But this is no time for recriminations among natural allies. We can't turn the clock back, anyway: and our grandchildren do NOT deserve the life they will inherit if the Right finishes off our democracy.
Personally, I am going to find and join with any citizens' groups who plan to fight back. And I think my readers should do that, too.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Juan Williams versus National Public Radio

What is National Public Radio? A media outlet for pinko commie reds, or what?
Actually, no. People who think that might be surprised to learn that it's a product of the Richard Nixon presidency. No doubt Nixon was influenced by the noted liberal thinker Daniel Patrick Moynihan; but we may take it for granted that if Nixon thought NPR was a good idea there were no pinko commie reds in the offing, nor did he think there was a chance there ever would be. Whatever you may think of President Nixon, he was not exactly an encourager of Marxists and others of that ilk.
Today NPR is a refuge for millions of Americans who love unusual kinds of music--jazz to opera and beyond--and of course what we firmly believe to be the most detailed and straightforward news anywhere. (Not that it doesn't have flaws. I find myself questioning what I perceive to be an Arab bias in its coverage of the Arab-Israeli situation, for example. But that, alas, is shared by all too many "mainstream" news organizations--and most of the others are, in my view, far worse.)
Who are NPR listeners? Pointy-headed intellectuals? I am sure we have many of them. We also have students, senior citizens, truck drivers, and just about any other type of person who happens to tune to a public radio station. We are an elite that anyone can join. And many of us pay to help support our radio habit. It is largely because of the (sometimes fierce) determination of NPR listeners that the enterprise survives. We give, and we advocate.
On the other hand, take the Fox network, media capital of the land of Great Right-Wingia, home to the likes of Glenn Beck. For many of us, and not just NPR listeners, this is the antithesis of NPR. I think of it as a place where truth is always the first casualty.
So, when--several months ago--I learned that senior NPR news analyst Juan Williams also worked for Fox News, it came as a shock. I even wrote to NPR about it; and I got an answer from Williams that, I must admit, I was too afraid to open. But I continued to believe that Jesus was right--nobody can serve two masters. Sooner or later something would happen to change matters. And it did--with a suddenness that almost stunned me.
I immediately saw problems. NPR's reaction seemed like entirely too much for the immediate offense. Williams is alleged to have admitted that he got tense when he saw a passenger in Moslem costume on a plane. Millions of us, without being bigots, probably would have the same reaction. We would not have had it before sunset on 9/10/2001; but we certainly would have felt it--and in many cases still do--after the late morning of 9/11. We have been badly shaken, and nothing reassuring enough to restore our confidence has yet happened.
So this one statement should not have been fatal to Juan Williams' NPR career, especially coupled with the disclaimers he made. But it seems that this episode was only one of many. Perhaps the most offensive that I have heard of was a slap at Michelle Obama, who he seems to have said resembled Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress. (I heard the entire quote twice, but did not catch it either time; so I am only approximating.)
I believe the best way to have handled the matter would have been one that did not attract the fire of the likes of Sara "Railin'" Palin. Something like a quiet conference which left Mr. Williams with the choice of NPR or Fox.
Well, it didn't happen that way. It has made some trouble that would better have been avoided. But I remain a stalwart fan of NPR, and will help it in any way I can. Just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean it isn't very good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Mosque Too Many

I have delayed commenting on the matter of the mosque proposed for the general neighborhood of what was once New York's World Trade Center for a number of reasons. First, I hoped the whole notion would go away. Second, in case it didn't go away, I had little if any influence to stop it. Third, and certainly not least, I did not want to be in any way perceived as supporting views of the likes of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. It seems to me that whatever they touch, they twist to generate fear for political purposes.
But it also seems to me that in the case of the mosque proposal they have their historical facts, and even historical inferences, right. I have been grieved to see would-be opinion makers take the lead in propounding tolerance and ridiculing those who oppose a new mosque in the neighborhood of the 9/11 tragedy. Do they know anything at all about the history of Moslem-Christian relations? I guess they don't, so I am going to try to get their attention and tell them. (Note: I learned to spell the word "Moslem", not "Muslim". I intend to go on doing that, since I cannot see how it could offend any person.)
Let me begin by saying that tolerance is a high value and a noble goal. But there is no sense in propounding values and goals to people who do not share them. I am sure there are millions of Moslems who DO share our values to some degree, and who would like nothing more than to live in peace and quiet. But, if they really exist, they do not feel free to express their views.
Let's go back to the history that has been enacted between Moslems and Christians. It's been lamentable
The death of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, had the effect of unleashing Islamic armies from Arabia on the known world. One of the directions they surged was westward--across North Africa and into what became Spain, Portugal, and the South of France. There, in 732, they were stopped by a Christian force led by Charles Martel. But they retained control of much of what is now Spain until 1492, and their cultural influence can be seen there until this day. So large is the Moslem population of Europe these days that they may well reclaim control of this lost territory someday. Maybe someday soon.
The incursion of the early 8th century, the first large-scale encounter between Islam and the West, was a Moslem invasion. It's interesting to note this, because much criticism has been leveled at the West for the series of Crusades which began in 1095, and which were indeed brutal. Seen in perspective, they had a significant self-defense element.
After the initial Arab-Christian collision, the Turks became the big Islamic threat to the West. In 1453 they conquered Constantinople and what was left of the Byzantine Empire--long the unappreciated eastern bulwark of Christendom. They then took over Greece and most of the rest of the Balkan Peninsula, and threatened Central Europe for several centuries. Only in the 17th century were they staved off at the Siege of Vienna and the great naval Battle of Lepanto.
These were the beginnings, then, of the relationships between Islamic culture and our own. There has never been any rapprochement, either. In the 20th century "our side" has been able to establish temporary dominance with our technology, our need for oil, and the materialistic culture we have been all too eager to share with the world.
Under these circumstances, does it not at least seem possible that a new mosque in the neighborhood of Ground Zero is an attempt to flout us? And that our high-minded advocacy of tolerance is earning us ridicule in certain circles?
After all, if the propounders of the mosque--which, by the way, is planned for several blocks away from the Ground Zero site, not across the street from it--were interested in tolerance, they could have had it. All they needed to do is say, "Since this disturbs you, we will move it further away." And especially since their religious freedom IS guaranteed. They may practice Islam anywhere in the country they like. They are only asked to have the sensitivity not to practice it near this tragic place.
But they did not say the words that would have healed.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Two-Inch Universe

Growing up when and where I did, there seemed little chance I'd ever be able to get out and see and experience much of the world. In fact, the first indication I had that I'd beaten the jinx came when I found myself riding into the ancient city of Petra, the "rose-red city half as old as time." That experience I recorded in my recently-published book "Jerusalem Journal".
But it didn't happen until I was nearly middle-aged.
Meanwhile, a lot of years went by in which I had to make do with second-hand experience. Books and reading were basic to this, of course, as I freely roamed the globe and the ages of history in my imagination.
So were movies, of course. The technology of the wide screen--which I thought was the cinematic wave of the future--enabled me to travel the Middle East with Lawrence of Arabia years before I got there in person. Less spectacular but still engrossing films took me to the Greek Islands, Rome, Paris, and other desired destinations I did not expect to see in person. In the end, the technology of the airliner took me to some of these places in the flesh.
So it was modern technology that contributed, more than anything else, to the opening of my previously closed world. And it is with dismay that I note the tendency of modern technology to close us off from the universe around us.
Think about it. The size of the screens on which life is presented to us has dwindled--in some cases to two inches or so. No broad vistas here. And nothing natural to listen to, either--not with ear buds to stick in our ears. We are insulated, not only from bird song, but from potential conversation with other humans. Possibly even from the sound of the out-of-control automobile that, unknown to us, is careening toward us to flatten us.
Is there a cure for this insulation-by-technology? That's a no-brainer. Time to take a break from our gadgets. Turn off. Unplug. Tune out. Time to learn to do something real with your hands: learn to knit, learn to draw, learn to play the harmonica. You can come back to the technology later, when it can really help empower you. In the meantime, "grow" yourself. Use the gadgets as aids; but otherwise, run your own intellectual and spiritual life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Against the Ad

While I believe in freedom of speech, I was surprised and dismayed to find an anti-Israeli ad on this blog. This strains my commitment to free speech to the limit, although I do understand Blogger's philosophy on the matter.
For those of you who would like to understand the Israeli position on news out of the Middle East, I recommend the Honest Reporting site,

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Mystique of the Book

If ever anyone was destined to write books, I was that person. Or maybe I should say, "It should happen to me."
For years I had the sense not to mention this ambition to my decidedly non-literary family. But, as an avid reader, I could not hide from my unsettled parents that I was, at the least, bookish. I left a trail of books wherever I went, usually histories, biographies, dramas, poetry. (Fiction much less often--history was what I wanted to write, not novels.)
Not everything goes as we have planned it; and it was decades before I was able to publish my first book--"In The Lion's Mouth," a biographical sketch of Holocaust heroine Gisi Fleischmann. I knew by then just what was involved in publishing a "niche" book--that is, a non-blockbuster. The frustration and pain of multiple rejections and what seemed like universal misunderstanding were so sharp that I thought I would never do such a thing again--although I have done it several times since, and yet another memoir is likely to be on my agenda.)
But in the immediate aftermath of "In The Lion's Mouth" I was stunned by the reactions of casual acquaintances.
"I've always thought I'd like to write," they told me. "I've always wanted to do a book."
Close questioning generally revealed that they had never even READ a book--or at least not in years. But they wanted to bequeath one of their own to an eager--well, maybe not so eager--world.
What is the mystique of the book? Maybe it goes back to the Middle Ages, when you could save yourself from hanging if you wore a cleric's habit and could prove you could read and write. In that case, you could be forgiven for any crime. Or maybe it has to do with the powerful things that once were associated with books--everything from spells to laws, but certainly nothing trivial, could be found in them.
You would think it might be dying now. This is an age in which fewer and fewer people read; and if they DO read, a diminishing number of them are reading in traditional formats. Yet the ardor for doing a book--almost certainly a book that will not be read even by one's own nearest and dearest--seems unabated.
Go figure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Byzantium: Does History Repeat Itself?

"The thing that has been is that which shall be." So said the great Greek historian Thucydides.
If Thucydides was right (or at least if I understand him correctly), this means history repeats itself; or at least historical patterns repeat themselves.
Given human nature, I find this believable. So why, then, do we never seem to learn from it? If we did, wouldn't that prevent a world of pain?
The answer to the second, rhetorical question clearly is "Yes." The answers to why we never seem to learn from it are multiple, I think.
First, we clearly are not as smart as we think we are. Otherwise the planet most likely would be in a better state. Second, we may be confused by the costume changes. I am only half frivolous about this. In our historical memory Romans look a lot different from Huns, who look a lot different from Edwardians. Things like this can be just enough to make us believe that the people in the costumes are doing different things, when in reality they are doing the same things underneath it all.
Then there are small but deadly ideas that get in the way--things like skin color or theology.
Especially theology.
It could be theology, more than anything else, that has prevented the average person from being taught anything about the Byzantine Empire. And it's too bad. This story is an important one. It is the tale of how, for century after century, the West was threatened by the rise of militant Islam. But it had a bulwark to the east--a Christian empire, originally a mighty one. Call it the Eastern Roman Empire, Romai, whatever. These days people who have heard of it at all generally call it the Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium. Lars Brownworth's book, "Lost To The West" provides a fascinating survey of its thousand-plus-year history, its culture, its 88 emperors, its military triumphs and defeats.
The threat of Islam arose, for both Byzantium and the West, as early as the late 7th century--during or soon after the life of Mohammed, the new faith's prophet. Both recognized the onslaught from the East as a threat to their way of life. Religion, or rather theology, kept them from working together as effectively as they might have. Indeed, at one point Crusaders from the Latin West overran Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and weakened the Orthodox Christian eastern empire beyond possible recovery.
On Tuesday, May 29, 1453 Constantinople, the great, the storied, fell before the onslaught of Ottoman Turks. The Byzantine Empire was dead. It fell almost unaided in its hour of agony. Western Europe was left to cope with generations of Turkish incursions that swept as far west as the gates of Vienna.
Looking at Europe today, it seems--to me, at least--that the incursions of Islam have never really stopped.
How different might things have been if those long-ago Christians of the West and of the East had decided to throw away theological differences and unite against the common threat? Would history now be repeating itself, or at least seeming to do so?
We'll never know.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thinking About History I

Thinking about history has been my major intellectual preoccupation all my life. In a way, it must have started before I started school, because in the course of many years of formal education my interest had to survive some fairly bad history "teachers." I'm sure you know the type: The ones who lived for the one class period a week they could spend on their true love, Driver Education. The coaches who thought class time was a good time to bring the football team (in my high school days the world's losingest) up to speed on their plays. Every teacher who ever majored in "social studies" because it looked like an easy path to a degree.
Later on I had at least one brilliant history teacher. For this I am grateful; but if my historical interest had not somehow been hardwired into me from birth I don't think it would have survived to encounter that brilliant one.
So--what IS history? History is--maybe--a "social study"; but if it is, it is a whole lot more than that. It is the doyenne of social studies.
It is our way of thinking about what goes on in time. But what if time itself is an illusion? (Sometimes that seems both likely and comforting.) In that case, I think, we still have to deal with history, because unless we can think like quantum physicists the historical idea is about as much as we can encompass intellectually.
How can we know if history is "true"? A good question. We can't. As students of history, it is our intellectual and moral obligation to keep the record--and to keep the record straight. Or at least as straight as possible. We will never be able to know that our telling of the story (the word "history" derives from the Greek word for "story", and rightly so) is true in every detail. It seems unlikely that it ever could be.
On the other hand, it is all too possible to distort the available historical record and shape it into a construct of lies. It's been done time and again; the most famous example of "twistory" is that perpetrated by Hitler and his minion Josef Goebbels, but on a lesser scale it goes on all the time.
The inevitable result is some REALLY bad history, immense suffering brought about through evil invention.
The British historian Garrett Mattingly, writing at a time when German bombs were raining down on his country, suggests a much higher use for his intellectual specialty. He was writing about the Spanish Armada, an earlier attempt by another country to destroy Britain; and in his book he praised the human virtues of the Spanish admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He said he did so because one of the uses of history is to do justice.
And to me that sounds like the very best use of history.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hurrah For Human Hands!

When I buy books, I often buy them second hand. That suits my somewhat exotic (I guess) pattern of reading--history, biography, mythology, poetry...In a lot of cases it's buy second hand, or don't buy at all. New books in certain areas do not exist.
I am delighted when my "new" used books have been signed by their previous owners. Most likely I'll never meet them, but it expands my universe to know they are--or at least were--there. Often I sign my own books, new or old, as a way of expanding somebody else's view of things down the line.
So imagine my surprise at discovering that a previous owner's signature is regarded as a flaw in the quality of a book! For that matter, imagine my shock on learning that handwriting--with a pen or pencil--is considered passe, and is on its way out. Only keyboarding, formerly known as typing, is considered essential. This sort of encapsulates the situation I started with. Evidently if you want to put your name in a book, type a label.
Right-wing commentators have taken up the cause of handwriting in general, and this worries me. How does it happen that I agree with THEM on anything?
Nevertheless, this seems one case in which the Right is right.
Not only literature, but all the arts, were constructed with human hands. Not hands hammering away on keyboards, unless the keyboards are of musical instruments and those working at them are assembling a prelude or a fugue or playing a riff. But hands equipped with pens, pencils, brushes, chisels--tools that take the mind and soul where computer keyboards by themselves cannot go. (Though a blog like this proves that, in the right circumstances, computers can be liberating. )
But in the nature of things, computer keyboards come later. The tools you need in the beginning are the basic ones, the ones that still will work if the power goes out. Hand tools that have served our species for many centuries.
In the name of your own creativity, take up your pen and WRITE. Or draw, if that impulse moves you more.
And while you are at it, buy a used book signed by its previous owner.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Meet President Buchanan

Only one United State President hailed from Pennsylvania. Since President James Buchanan (1791-1868) sometimes is classed as the worst of all incumbents of the office, historically-minded Pennsylvanians often prefer not to pay much attention to him.
Still, many states have not had even ONE President--so let us get to know the one we have. I will be posting more about him later, and then readers can make up their own minds as to where he stands historically.
A lawyer and a graduate of Dickinson College, Buchanan should have been among the best prepared Presidents in our history. In the course of his career he was a member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. He also served as U.S. minister (diplomatic representative) to Russia and to Great Britain, and U.S. Secretary of State.
That's quite a resume. But it wasn't enough to enable him to cope with the tragic Civil War which was looming over the nation when he was in the White House. He lived through the whole thing, and most of us can only wonder what he thought about it as it unwound. Perhaps he left letters that only professional historians know about. If I find that to be true, I'll be sure to post about it.
Buchanan's Pennsylvania life was lived in a small area of the south central part of the state. If you are interested, you can visit several Buchanan sites within a reasonably small area.
The first of these is the site of his birthplace, the 18-plus acre Buchanan Birthplace State Park at Cove Gap. This has a small stone pyramid on the site of the future President's natal log cabin, and opportunities for camping and fishing. Nearby Cove Gap State Park is much larger, with cabins, camp grounds, and more extensive recreational opportunities.
(But I don't want to write much about the state parks just now. As I post this their future seems to be on the chopping block for financial reasons. As I learn more about the situation I'll post the information, together with what, if anything, we can do to help.)
To return to the subject of this post, President Buchanan: I am told that the actual log cabin, so conspicuously missing from the site of his birthplace, is on the grounds of Mercersburg Academy, the distinguished preparatory school in nearby Mercersburg.
At the heart of Buchanan's life, though, was his stately home, Wheatland, located at 230 North President Avenue, Lancaster, PA 17603. The handsome Federal-style house is kept up and administered by Lancaster County's Historical Society, online at, and visitors are welcome.
Special events coming up in the next few months include, on Saturday, July 17, from 1 to 3 p.m., A Day In the Life Of Harriet Lane: First Lady and Philanthropist, celebrating Buchanan's gifted niece, who served as his White House hostess; and, on Saturday, August 28 and Saturday, September 11, from1 to 3 p.m. both days, Life Below Stairs: The Servant's Tour, a look at the lives of Wheatland's servants.
For more information on these or other events, call Wheatland at (717) 392-8721; or call Lancaster County's Historical Society at (717) 392-4633.

Friday, July 2, 2010

So--Who WAS Julius Caesar, Anyway?

A friend of mine told me he had recently had a battle with another friend, a man who happens to be an admirer of that well-known Roman, Julius Caesar.
L. definitely is not. Being reminded of this fact, I said he could have a battle with me, too, if he chose. Caesar was one of my earliest intellectual interests, and remains so.
Why? Good question. I first met the man through the Shakespeare play named for him. There, he is depicted as a kind of political boss who has lost his grip. And I was sure, from the beginning, that this was part of the truth. But only part. How many political has-beens--if that is all they are--have their names ring down through the ages?
I think it is the complexity of Caesar's character, the many facets of it that have come down to us, that makes him so challenging to us even today.
He was not a nice person, to begin with. He did not live in a nice era, which helps to explain it. He was a relative of the popular Roman leader Marius-whose enemy, Sulla, plotted against the young Caesar's life almost from the time he was born. Having to keep your back to the wall at all times is not a prescription for an open, sunny personality.
Caesar also had as a contemporary the Roman general who crucified five thousand of Spartacus's gladiators along the Appian Way, following the defeat of the rebels. They played for keeps in the Rome of that day. For quite a while Caesar was good at playing for keeps, too, although the fate of the Ides of March caught up with him in the end.
It is important to note that Shakespeare never called Caesar "the noblest Roman of them all." As a writer, Shakespeare knew a flawed character when he saw one. He reserved the accolade of nobility for the pompous and nerdy Marcus Brutus--who, according to long-standing rumor, may also have been Caesar's son.
Maybe the really long-term influence exerted by Caesar has to do with ideas of his which were unorthodox in his time--some of which continue to shape our world. He was inquisitive, and he followed up on these ideas.
For example: Although the Caesar family was of ancient nobility, it was also down on its luck when young Julius came on the scene. Its home was in a poor section of Rome, right across from the city's only synagogue. Caesar inquired about this group of Jews, and became its protector. Somebody I have read recently--it may have been Tom Holland in "Rubicon"-- observes that the real sound of Rome following Caesar's assassination was not that of the howling mobs depicted by Shakespeare. It was of Jewish voices raised in lament for their friend.
Caesar's interest in the Jews shows a kind of broad and humane intelligence that I--and, I am sure, many other moderns--find appealing.
He also is credited with, in a sense, "inventing" Europe. Roman magistrates, leaving office, had come to be in the habit of leading military expeditions to eastern climes, to plunder and pillage them, enrich themselves, and (maybe) win a triumph when they returned to the capital.
Caesar instead turned to Gaul, toward the northwest, which through his efforts became an integral part of the Roman Empire--some would say the most important part during the early imperial days.
He and his men also were the first Romans to set foot in Britain, whose inhabitants--fed in part by distant historical memories, no doubt --one day would develop imperial aspirations of their own.
Who was your Julius Caesar? The sordid, power-grasping politician who lost his grip? The intellectually curious and often constructive visionary who helped shape our world of today?
Mine is both of these; and more--and less--besides.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Israel's Railroad: The Story Concluded

In my previous post I mentioned my long-ago adventure with Israel's railroad. I have also told of this adventure, I believe, in my recently-published book, "Jerusalem Journal". But until the past week or so I have known very little about the railroad or how it came to be. Only in the past few weeks have I learned more.
The source of my additional information is another writer, the brilliant H.V. Morton, of whose works I have become an avid fan. Decades ago Morton visited what was then the British-ruled Palestine Mandate, now (essentially) Israel and Jordan. The result was one of his best-known travel books, "In The Steps Of The Master."
By coincidence, Morton entered the Palestine Mandate from Egypt--by that one section of the railroad that, when I visited many years later, was closed. Several days after being rowed across the Suez Canal to the rail head, he seems to have de-trained in Jerusalem at about the same spot that I did.
His work filled me in on the railroad's historical background. It had been built by the troops of the British general Lord Allenby, and was part of Allenby's successful campaign to defeat the German-allied Turks and take Jerusalem. Once you know this, you can look at the map and its route makes perfect sense. It tied together British-held Egypt and two important seaports--Haifa in the north and Jaffa halfway down the Mediterranean coast toward Egypt. This made it very efficient for channeling troops and materiel, and--at Jaffa--angling it all off by rail through the Judaean hills toward Jerusalem. There the soldiers would get off the trains pretty much where Morton and I did--in our respective decades, of course.
I am glad to pass on this additional information about Israel railroads, in part because it gives me yet another opportunity to call attention to H.V. Morton's work. The man was an exquisite writer, and if you can't afford a vacation this year pick up and read one or more of his books. At least from my point of view, vicarious experience is much better than none. And Morton will bring you as close to the real thing as words ever can.
Don't just take my word. Here is a very brief excerpt from "In The Steps Of The Master":
"...the railway to Jerusalem...follows an ancient route. It runs over the ageless caravan road to and from Egypt...It was a road that led everywhere: to Damascus in the north, to the desert city of Petra in the east, to Egypt in the south...And I remembered again that this was the way Joseph and Mary fled with a Child into Egypt."
I wish I could offer more; but it isn't mine to offer. All I can do is suggest that you sample it for yourself.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Travel Israel's Railways???

Does it come as a surprise to you to learn that a country as small as Israel even HAS railways? Well, I was once as surprised as you--especially since I am from a railroad family and came along at just about the end of the passenger railroad era. I did not, therefore, get to ride on trains much.To make up for the loss, I will jump on one whenever I can.
But I didn't know this was an option in Israel, until I was enlightened by a friend in Haifa. I had been there for a few days, interviewing Max and his wife Chava about Holocaust heroine Gisi Fleischmann, on whom I was writing a book.
As I was packing to return to Jerusalem, Max asked, "Why not take the train back?"
"Train!" I exclaimed, startled.
"Yes. It used to run from here all the way into Egypt. When the 1948 war ended we had hoped there would be peace, and we could once again go down there by train. But it never happened."
(Max was speaking years later, shortly after the Camp David Accord instituted a kind of cold peace between Israel and Egypt. That was in the late 70s, and I was in Israel about the time this agreement was being negotiated. But, as I've said, at the time of that trip I had no knowledge of the railroad. To this day do not know whether it has been reopened for its full length. I presume not, because the Camp David Accord never blossomed into a full peace. Egypt and Israel have remained in a state of not-war, which I suppose is better than war. But only slightly.
Anyway. I return to the point at which Max told me about the railroad from Haifa to Jerusalem. I quickly decided to "ride the rails" on this occasion, and the Livnis took me to the train station instead of the bus station.
I don't remember the locomotive, which any true fan of railroads would find reprehensible. But, despite the fact that I had relatives who drove first coal-driven, then diesel locomotives, my interest in trains has always been mostly in the places they connected and the people who rode them.
The passenger cars on this train I do remember--I remember them as clean, and narrow. The railroad may have been--and almost certainly was--an old-fashioned narrow gauge type, that had never been widened. There were only a few people aboard.
I traveled southward, gazing meditatively out on the Mediterranean Sea. After a short time, not more than an hour and a half or two if I recall, we arrived in what I thought was Tel Aviv. There we made some kind of connection. Did this involve changing trains, or just changing locomotives? It's too long ago to remember. All I know is that we were soon chugging through the Judaean Hills toward the city everyone calls Holy.
When we arrived at the Jerusalem station, I was pleased to realize that I was in my old neighborhood, so to speak, and could practically look into my own bedroom window. That was because the train came in very close to the famous Scottish Hospice (St. Andrew's) and to the British consulate. I had stayed at the Scottish Hospice on my previous trip, chronicled in my book "Jerusalem Journal". So I could gaze at the window and almost imagine myself waving back.
The origins and history of the little railroad have until recently been a puzzle to me; but I have recently learned more from another writer, far more famous than I. And that information I will share in my next post.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Imperium", by Robert Harris...

...or, "A Roman Reviewed"
Although centuries have passed since its fall, many of us cannot get the Roman Empire out of our heads. We remember resolute legions charging into battle, carrying the eagles of the great imperial city forward on what was then considered (at least by most Roman citizens) the triumphant surge of civilization. Thanks to a very great playwright named Shakespeare, and to some lesser and less well known scriptwriters, we remember great actors in great roles...Sir John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, Sir Alec Guinness as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius...
Why does memory linger? Because the Romans were like us in many ways, especially in their bedazzlement with power and their experiments with its use and its misuse.
In other words, their national--and imperial-- game was politics. Those who did not possess the skill required to ride the political wave were doomed to be swept under in its backwash. The Romans taught everybody who has come after them how the game is played; and everybody from Niccolo Machiavelli on would agree that not much has changed.
For this, I would add, I don't really blame the Romans. I believe the way we handle power is hardwired into our brains. Nobody really wants to throw the One Ring back into the fires of Mount Doom--to our great peril.
Robert Harris's "Imperium" is not a new book, simply one I consider worth sharing with readers. It's been out long enough that, if it interests you, you'll probably be able to arrange to borrow it at or through your public library--or buy it , new or used, online.
The book is about a Roman lawyer, orator, and statesman named Marcus Tullus Cicero, who used to be much more famous than he is. Part of his marketing problem no doubt has to do with the fact that his contemporaries included the much more flamboyant Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus Caesar--part that Cicero, in the end, was among those swept under by the wave of power he had tried to ride.
Cicero was a gifted young man from the provinces, who arrived in Rome with the highest ideals and the highest ambition. His goal was to attain "imperium," one of the two consulships, the highest offices in the Roman state. This office he intended to exercise in the most principled way.
The story of what happened is narrated by his slave and secretary Tiro, said to be the inventor of a system of shorthand. The shorthand makes him seem to be almost magically gifted to Cicero's colleagues and enemies.
But Tiro's magic powers do not extend to an insightful telling of the tale of his master's moral decline; he is too loyal to see the import of what is happening. When Cicero's devoted relative Lucius, a man of the highest probity, commits suicide, this fact is mentioned to us by Tiro, but he does not tell Cicero about it. The secretary cannot or will not come to terms with Cicero's alteration in character, let alone its connection with Lucius's death.
It would be a good thing if our elected officials read more books that have to do with Roman history and politics. But would such reading encourage them to clean up the sinkhole of corruption that seems to be politics today? Or would they, like Tiro, be unable to come to terms with the facts as they are?

Monday, May 31, 2010

H.V. Morton--A Real "Find" For Readers

A friend of mine was recently going through the belongings of a deceased relative when she made the kind of discovery that brings joy to the hearts of readers. This discovery consisted of a couple of books by a writer she had never heard of, one H.V. Morton. These were far from ordinary books; they were the kind you wanted to commune with on long wintry nights (forget the television!) or on summer evenings in the long orange twilight.
My friend decided she had to take the measure of this--to her--unknown writer; so she sat down with one of his best-known works, "In Search Of Scotland". Within pages, she was captivated by his ability to paint landscapes with words and his deep commitment to the things and people he was writing about. He was a poet who happened to express himself in prose.
All these are excellent qualities for a travel writer, which is what Henry Canova Vollam Morton was. A Lancashireman, he was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, England, in 1892. He died far away, in South Africa, in 1979, where he and his family moved following World War II.
Morton, like all travel writers, drew pictures of what was for him the here-and-now, and is now history. He did it with deep feeling, with learning, and with high intelligence. I was so busy that, when my friend urged me to read his work, I was reluctant to take the time.
I certainly am glad I did! Now I am a member of the world-wide (and free-to-join) H.V. Morton Society, determined to read all of his 50-some books and to spread word about him as far as I can.
My suggestion to you? Find and try a Morton book. Then, let me know what you think.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Free Rice Revisited

Some time ago I recommended visiting the site Free Rice. For two reasons: First of all, your (free) participation in the games there will will help deliver food to the hungry around the world--in a time when hunger is an ever-more-threatening reality. Second, despite its serious purpose, it's both fun and educational, and will cost you nothing except a little time. (It is nice to give money to good causes; and I recommend it if you have the money. But if you don't have it right now, you won't need it to do good on Advertisers reward your efforts by contributing to the food programs of the United Nations.)
If I am unable to report a diminution in world hunger, the good news is that there are now more games, by far, than there were when National Public Radio alerted me to this site and I started to play the English vocabulary games there. At the time, as I recall, there was English vocabulary, some arithmetic and simple math, and not much more. Now there are games in art history, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and maybe a few additional subjects as well.
So go on--go on over there and help reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Do some good, and at the same time brush up on your Bachelor of Arts and remind yourself how bright you are. It's for a great cause.
If I seem flippant about this, I'm not, really. This is not, maybe, the ideal way to do good--we, the players of games, get some personal gratification out of it; and the donors get a little good publicity. But imperfect good is better than no good at all. And sometimes it's a good idea to cut ourselves a little slack.