I don’t read many books of history these days, but when I came upon this one at my public library recently, I was intrigued enough by the title to take it out.
I remembered that President Biden had frequently used “the soul of America” as a campaign theme in 2020. It turns out that Biden had read Meacham’s book when it came out in 2018. And interestingly enough, both Biden and Meacham were so appalled by President Trump’s exoneration of the fascist violence in Charlottesville in 2017 that they both had vowed to do something: Meacham to write this book, and Biden to run for president.
Like President Biden, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and though I left the church many decades ago, I retain a catholic sense of the reality of “soul” as a primary source of meaning and value. We can think of “soul” as the animating principle of not just humans, but every sentient being. Religious people talk about “lost souls”, and this implies beings in whom the animating principle has been diminished, tainted, or grievously misguided.
But how to apply the concept of soul to a nation as a whole? When Biden began using the term “soul of America”, I had only a dim sense of what he was referring to. Reading Meacham’s book has given me a much fuller understanding of its peculiar aptness.
In Meacham’s book, the presence or absence of soul becomes the overarching theme in the highly uneven history of the United States. We can look to Jefferson’s rousing assertion of “all men created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental animating principle of our nation’s origin. Yet, even from the beginning, the implied universality of “men” was critically limited to white males of certain means. This created an inherent conflict in our identity as a nation that has persisted through our entire history.
Meacham’s book consists mainly of six extended historical essays about seminal events and themes in American history:
1. “The Confidence of the Whole People” — early ideas about the role of the President as the conscience of the nation, focusing on Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln;
2. “The Long Shadow of Appomattox” — how the South’s defeat in the Civil War actually led to its resurgence as a purveyor of institutionalized racism well into the 20th century;
3. “With Soul of Flame and Temper of Steel” — how Theodore Roosevelt used the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to coax the nation towards more progressive social, economic, and environmental policies;
4. “A New and Good Thing in the World” — how progressives and suffragettes pressured Woodrow Wilson towards further democratization, but were then met with a fierce backlash;
5) “The Crisis of the Old Order” — how Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a new political and economic order that saved the nation from falling into authoritarian rule during the Great Depression and World War 2;
6) “What the Hell Is the Presidency For?” — how Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King re-animated the American soul by working together to bring about a radical reorientation of race relations in the 1960’s.
These six chapters are sandwiched between more generalized meditations on American history in an Introduction titled “To Hope Rather Than to Fear” and a Conclusion titled “The First Duty of an American Citizen”.
In his Introduction, Meacham lays out his main thesis: “that periods of public dispiritedness are not new, but that they are survivable. In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground. In darker times, if a particular president fails to advance the national story – or worse, moves us backward – then those who witness, protest, and resist must stand fast, in hope, working toward a better day. Progress in American life, as we will see, has been slow, painful, bloody, and tragic. Across too many generations, women, African Americans, immigrants, and others have been denied the full promise of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Yet the journey has gone on, and proceeds even now.”
In his Conclusion, Meacham reminds us: “A tragic element of history is that every advance must contend with forces of reaction.” A key requirement for keeping the soul of America alive is citizen involvement. Meacham quotes from a speech by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in which he defines the primary duties of an American citizen. The main requirement is that we each find a way to enter the political arena, at a minimum, by staying informed and voting in every election. In addition, a citizen should look for opportunities to do something practical in the political arena, collaborating with other citizens of like mind. And good citizens should bring to the fore their highest moral and ethical values when engaging in political questions.
After the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many Americans heeded the call to citizen action. My spouse and I were among them, forming a small Indivisible group that has continued to meet every month for the past five years. Our commitment to help resuscitate the soul of America was part of a much larger citizen involvement in politics that helped keep the reactionary forces in check and helped lead to the election of more progressive and “soulful” leaders in 2020 and 2022.
When the Covid pandemic began in early 2020, I read a series of books, fiction and non, about various past “plagues”. The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the first draw, fueled by my grandparents’ stories of it. I read Katherine Ann Porter’s compelling 1939 novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”, about a young nurse who has a brief romantic fling with an ailing soldier from whom she contracts influenza and dies. The story is told as a delirious remembering of her frightful last days as she lies dying in a Texas hospital. Susan Meissner’s 2018 novel “As Bright as Heaven” was a timely selection for my family book group just after Covid emerged. It was about a family which moves to Philadelphia to take over a relative’s funeral home just as the Spanish Flu mercilessly infected the city in September 1918. I also reread Albert Camus’ classic 1947 novel, “The Plague”. Finally, I read a detailed non-fiction account of the worldwide impact of the Spanish Flu in Laura Spinney’s “Pale Rider — the Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World”. Lawrence Wright’s 2021 account of the Covid pandemic caught my eye while browsing for new books in my local public library recently. Once engaged with it, I couldn’t put it down.
The Spanish Flu was most devastating in the fall of 1918, just before the November 11 armistice ending World War 1. In the ecstatic relief at the end of the war’s frightful carnage, the equally traumatizing experience of the flu pandemic was largely swept aside. Laura Spinney’s book documents the millions of death worldwide from the flu, far surpassing the number of casualties from the war.
Perhaps there is a survival mechanism in human existence that makes us want to skip over horrendous trauma so that we can go on living. I’ve certainly noticed such a tendency within myself. But reading “The Plague Year” has reminded me of what is lost when we fail to remember our recent history, directed by an impatience that simply wants to be done with an inconvenient interruption to our sense of normalcy.
Wright is a talented journalist and author of a number of compelling nonfiction books, the most noted of which is his 2006 Pullitzer Prize winner, “The Looming Tower — Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”. He does a masterful job of telling the story of the Covid pandemic from its origins in Wuhan to its tragic spread worldwide, fed by stonewalling from the Chinese government and an inept response in the U.S. led by a president with his sites more on re-election than on overcoming the greatest threat facing his people.
Rather than attempt my own comprehensive review, I’m citing a superb one by the talented author and New York Times reviewer, Sonali Deraniyagala. Ms. Deraniyagala is a professional economist who nearly lost her life in the 2004 tsunami in her native Sri Lanka.
Just before their inauguration in January, 2021, Joe Biden and Kamal Harris led a public memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in which they memorialized the over 400,000 Americans who’d died from Covid at that point in time. They also gave tribute to all the health professionals, first responders, and families of those who had died. It was the first national remembrance since the pandemic’s onset, and set a new tone for the federal government’s response to the ongoing crisis. The pandemic is far from over, yet that marked a turning point in our nation’s approach to it. The historic Democratic successes in the recent 2022 midterm elections may be partly due to a sense that we now have intelligent, compassionate adults at the helm for whatever we are facing.
I was at sixes and sevens late yesterday morning when a number of plans for the day failed to materialize. I idly brought up Google Earth on my laptop, using it to better acquaint myself with our relatively new environs. It awakened my curiosity about a long pedestrian bridge that ran across the 10-lane highway two miles away. With that focus in mind, I prepared for a bike ride, packing a sandwich, apple, and a water bottle. The temperature was still balmy for November. I had a purposeful feeling as I retrieved my bike from the locked storage room in the parking garage and set off.
I took a familiar route through the quiet streets of our suburban neighborhood, cutting through the grounds of the local middle and high school complex to reach a large local park. Wooton Mill Park abuts the bridge I was looking for. The park itself is a real delight of woods, playgrounds, a large community garden, and paved trails culminating at a fast-running creek. From there, the bridge was visible. I’d been intrigued by this bridge because I couldn’t determine its entry and exit points. I rode down Watts Branch road from the creek to near the intersection of Hurley Avenue and the busy Rt. 28. There it was, a quarter-mile long white bridge, about 20 feet high, unmarked, but open and well maintained.
I was the only one on the bridge as I pedaled up to the constant sound of whirring traffic below. Halfway across, I did pass a young woman pushing a child in a stroller and wondered where she could be going. As I passed over the multi-laned highway, the traffic noise became deafening. This part of the bridge was completely enclosed by a mesh metal fence, obviously designed to prevent suicides. The bridge terminates alongside an exit from the highway, which left me perplexed, until I saw two other bikers crossing Rt. 28 to get to the bridge entry where I was. After clarifying my whereabouts on GPS, I was ready to ride the bridge back.
It was satisfying to do this little act of exploration on my bicycle. I felt completely relaxed and present throughout the ride. I was in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and I took an alternate route back, exploring another large forested park further east on Rt.28 and then meandering through quiet neighborhoods in the Fallsgrove area until I reached the Fallsgrove shopping center, where I parked my bike at a table outside a Starbucks. I got a coffee and enjoyed my lunch outside there, reading a chapter in Lawrence Wright’s excellent book, “The Plague Year — America in the Age of Covid”.
As I was pedaling home later, waiting on a long traffic light, I noticed how calm and relaxed I felt. I’m usually at least somewhat impatient with long traffic lights. But as I stood there waiting on my bike yesterday, I noticed my complete surrender to the moment. It occurred to me that “waiting is not wasting time”.
The rest of the ride home through an unfamiliar neighborhood was a complete delight. That two-hour bicycle excursion was the highlight of my day.
Andrea and I attended a presentation by the travel writer and travel business mini-mogul Rick Steves last night at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, MD. We took our retirement home’s minibus with about 20 others and got door-to-door service. It was a beautiful late-summer evening and we arrived early enough to take a stroll around the bustling downtown area where restaurants and shops enjoyed plentiful pedestrian traffic.
We’ve been fans of Steves’ travel series on PBS for decades. The old but well-preserved theatre on Patrick Street was sold out to about a thousand similarly inspired folks interested in world travel. This was the first lecture presentation of the 10th season of such events at the Weinberg, and there was an excited buzz in the room as introductions were made.
Steves launched right into the current state of European travel in the covid era. He didn’t underplay some risks, but his enthusiasm for the adventures awaiting prospective travelers was evident. He’d been forced to curtail his full assortment of travel offerings for over two years, using that time to update his many printed travel guides, and retaining his 100+ full time staff at full salary.
One of his main themes in conveying his enthusiasm for world travel is captured by his book “Travel as a Political Act”. Steves believes that world travel is an important and necessary experience for those of us committed to becoming citizens of the world. He talked about the inevitable “culture shock” of travel as a good thing — that which makes us become aware of the comfortable bubble we inhabit as well-off Americans. He told many stories of how his own encounters with different cultures opened him to a fuller appreciation of the rich varieties of being human.
One telling fact he shared was about basic eating habits — that about one third of earthlings eat with chopsticks, a third with only their hands, and the remaining with traditional silverware. He talked about our inherent ethnocentrism, and how our own preferences and prejudices can keep us small, distrusting, and isolated.
In addition to Steves’ main focus for travel — Europe — he also spoke of richly rewarding experiences in Turkey, Iran, Cuba, and Russia. He is a genuine humanitarian, showing photos of third world children and saying that they had as much right to be loved and cared for as our own. He reminded us that 10% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty, where basic human needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter are challenged. He said that travel could help us to open our minds and our hearts to this greater reality, beyond our self-absorptions in creature comforts and technological luxuries. In the end, the main benefit of travel is that it opens us up to larger realities and can help us devote ourselves to a life of higher consequence.
We attended a another moving classical concert Sunday evening at Washington Cathedral in honor of the people of war-torn Ukraine. A friend had gotten the precious tickets for his wife and Andrea and me some weeks ago. Andrea drove us to pick up him and his wife outside of their apartment building in downtown Bethesda and then down Wisconsin Avenue through the heart of northwest DC to the cathedral site. It was impressive arriving at the immense church and grounds, including the lovely English garden. It was sunny and hot, but a steady breeze made it bearable.
The concert was given by the City Choir and Orchestra of Washington and was the last one to be conducted by the legendary choral director Robert Shafer. It included the world premiere of a new Shafer composition, “A Prayer for Ukraine”, as well as one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations (“Nimrod”). The main fare was the monumental “Human Requiem” of Brahms.
The Cathedral was a worthy place for the concert — the site of so many state funerals for fallen leaders. I recalled being there with Andrea 30 years earlier for a dramatic pageant of Native Americans commemorating Columbus Day from their perspective.
At the start, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markorova, spoke her heartfelt appreciation for this supreme honoring of her countrymen and women, presenting sunflowers as a symbol of her country’s beauty, spirit, and gratitude.
Shafer’s “Prayer for Ukraine” was a marvelous little choral piece, reflecting the rich harmonics of Eastern European music. Elgar’s “Nimrod” is a well-known 20th century orchestral work that evokes deep feelings of solemn affirmation of boundless joy emanating from great suffering.
The Brahms Requiem is unique among pieces of this genre, most of which follow the liturgical structure of the Catholic Requiem Mass. Brahms’ follows its own organic structure, using assorted quotations from Martin Luther’s original German translation of the Bible. It has passages of deeply resonant feeling that I was able to tap into better after having done some preparatory listening beforehand.
The second of the piece’s seven sections is the most evocative for me, beautifully expressing a sense of purpose and joy emerging from long suffering. A translation of its text points to this liberating feeling:
“For all flesh is as grass And all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall away.
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and has long patience for it, until he receive the early and the later rain.
“But the word of the Lord endures forever.
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee.”
In its last concert program of the season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a rousing performance of the “Leningrad” Symphony (#7) by Dmitiri Shostakovich. The printed program notes for the concert included the following contextual background by A. Kori Hill:
“Millions of people, over millennia, have created during horrific circumstances. Shostakovich was one of them, as guns and bombs destroyed his birthplace and the home he and his wife, Nina Varzar, had made for their children. On June 21, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By July, the city of Leningrad was surrounded and under siege until 1944. The destruction of the city, murder of over a million people through combat, and horrific living conditions caused by the siege, have led some historians to categorize this event as an act of genocide.
“Sometimes the only thing to do amid such horror is to create. Shostakovich started his seventh symphony in the early stages of the siege. After he and his family were evacuated in the fall of 1941, Shostakovich completed his symphony for its premiere in March 1942. The composer had told a friend: ‘National Socialism is not the only form of fascism. This music is about all forms of terror, slavery, and bondage of the spirit.” The radio broadcast of the symphony coincided with the Nazi’s planned celebration of the city’s capture. One of the musicians observed: “They never had their party. Instead, we played our symphony and Leningrad was saved.”
The BSO’s conductor for the evening, James Conlon, referred to these program notes in a brief, spoken introduction to the piece. He noted the irony of the piece’s timing – little did anyone know that in February of 2022 Russian itself would invade the Ukraine and lay violent siege to a number of its cities. He said that some people were calling for a boycott of all things Russian, including their music. He sharply disagreed, and went on to affirm Shostakovich’s intention to present a strong counterpoint to the barbarity of all acts of unprovoked military aggression.
The symphony opens with a simple, insistent march melody that grows in volume, complexity and ferocity which keeps repeating as the symphony unfolds. Some people interpret this march to represent the vast Nazi armies streaming in toward the Russian heartland. My own interpretation is that the growing unfoldment of the march is about the spirit of resistance with which the people of Leningrad met the onslaught. There are many fine recordings of the symphony and the first movement is imminently accessible even to those who aren’t fans of classical music. I heartily recommend it to you as an invitation to listen for the current spirit of indomitable resistance that the brave people of the Ukraine are manifesting on so many fronts.
Shostakovich was no fan of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Early in Shostakovich’s career, Stalin purportedly took offense at a performance of his opera based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. Could it be that Stalin couldn’t stomach watching that awful tale of a bloodthirsty quest for power, and projected his discomfort onto Shostakovich? In any event, he had the composer blacklisted for many years. The patriotic fervor aroused by the Leningrad Symphony got Shostakovich back in Stalin’s good graces. But the composer’s comments about his work, quoted above, indicate that the fiery music was inspired by something greater than nationalistic devotion. It’s a strong affirmation of the indomitable human spirit in the face of the cruelest adversity.
Yesterday marked the first “live” Gaithersburg Book Festival since the pre-Covid 2019 event. My sisters Marian, Anna and I had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in this annual book-lovers event after over two years of literary lockdown. They drove down from Buffalo the Friday before, staying the weekend with my spouse Andrea and me in our new digs in a Rockville retirement community. I’d been wary of the oppressive 95F heat predicted for Saturday since it’s primarily an outdoor event. It was also taking place in a new venue – Gaithersburg’s Bohrer Park rather than the cozy grounds of the municipal center in Old Town. Despite my misgivings, this year’s GBF proved to be as full and rich an experience as ever.
As usual, my sisters and I had surveyed the day’s program of author talks and interviews before setting out for the short drive over to the festival. Most of the authors we were interested in hearing weren’t appearing until the late afternoon, but we still wanted to arrive for the 10am start time. We’ve always enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the GBF, including the many community booths, a large variety of foods and beverages, and the various writers’ workshops for children and adults. As the traffic thickened at the entrance to Bohrer Park, Andrea called us to say that the parking lot was full and the police were directing people to a large shopping mall lot a mile away, with free shuttle buses from there. Grateful for this tip, we proceeded directly to the mall, where we parked and quickly boarded a school bus. Without undue delay, we arrived at the festival only a few minutes late for the first round of author talks at 10:15.
Lost and Found
Author presentations at the GBF were given at seven open-air tent-pavilions set up around the 57-acre grounds. Our first stop was the Frederick Douglass pavilion where the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Katherine Schulz, was being interviewed. Ms. Schulz had recently published a well-regarded “extended essay” book called “Lost and Found”, in which she described an 18-month period in her life when she “lost” her beloved father, and “found” a loving life partner. Ms. Schulz was being interviewed by a local book reviewer, Becky Meloan. We were able to find seats at the rear of the tent, but still inside its welcome shade.
Schulz eloquently described the events that inspired the book, starting with her 74-year-old father’s rapid decline and dying from a longstanding heart ailment. Schulz quoted from her book about the difficulty she faced in coming to terms with both the profundity AND the ordinariness of her father’s dying process. She felt uncomfortable with many of the euphemisms we use in talking about death: “passing”, “going home”, “slipping away”, “going to a better place”, etc. But she did feel right about telling others that she had ”lost” her father.
Ms. Schulz did a detailed entomology study of the word “lost”, finding that its original Old English meaning was “cut apart” and “perished” – remarkably close to our present usage of it for “dead”. She discovers meaningful analogies of “lost” when she creates a list of other important “losses” in her life: “losing” a childhood friend who moved away, a beloved cat who disappeared one day, a precious graduation letter from her grandmother “lost” during a move. She writes that “much of the experience of heartbreak falls into this category” of “loss”.
Ms. Schulz described her bleak, bereft world view in the days and weeks following her father’s death. She felt in some way like the whole world was dying, herself included. Everywhere she turned she saw the “evidence of past losses and the immanence of future ones.”
I resonated with her words deeply as I had “lost” a close friend the previous week and my mourning was manifesting as a kind of tragic sense about life in general. And yet, as Ms. Schulz also observed, the feeling of broken heartedness was not constant, even in the immediacy of grief. All around her was the ongoing unfolding of ordinary day-to-day reality. As she began to realize just how “normal” her father’s death was, she was shocked into the realization that “something so sad could be the normal, necessary way of things.”
The second part of Ms. Schulz’s book is about “finding” the love of her life. She had actually met her love partner while her father was still alive and the two had hit it off enthusiastically well. As her love for her future wife deepened in the period after her father died, Ms. Schulz discovers just how close the emotions of profound happiness and profound sadness can be. At the end of her talk, she pointed to a young woman with a baby carriage standing just outside the tent as her wife, and jokingly suggested that we all buy a copy of her book to help with their young one’s college fund.
Perils of Living Under Russian Autocracy
The second authors’ event we attended was a dialog between veteran writers Karin Tanabe and Elena Gorokhova, talking about each of their recent novels. Their commonality was that they were both well respected nonfiction writers prior to turning their hands to fiction. I was most taken with Ms. Gorokhova, a Russian émigré who was most grateful to have escaped the autocratic control of the Russian state under which her family had suffered mightily during the last years of the Stalin era. She had studied English at university in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and had worked as an English teacher and academic prior to fleeing Russia with her American lover and settling in the U.S., eventually publishing her first memoir “A Mountain of Ashes” in 2011. A second memoir in 2015 had exhausted her life-based writing material so she turned to fiction to deepen her exploration of the life she had left behind in Russia.
Gorokhova began by expressing her abhorrence for the Putin regime which had recently unleashed its merciless, unprovoked war against the Ukraine. She knew many Russians who were afraid to express any objections within the current atmosphere of extreme repression. She compared Putin’s ruthless bullying of the opposition to Stalin’s dictatorial poisoning of any hope of achieving a free, open, democratic way of life in her homeland.
Her first novel is called “A Train to Moscow” and it uses actual events from her family’s life in Russia during the decade after WW2. I was inspired to begin reading it subsequently and was immediately drawn in by her rich descriptive tale told by a young Russian girl, Sasha, living in a small town outside of Moscow in the early 1950’s. Sasha is modeled on Ghorokova’s older sister who would go on to become a professional actress in real life. It begins with a riveting account of her visit to a classmate’s home while local henchmen brutally arrest her friend’s father as a suspected slanderer of the almighty Stalin. In her visit to Moscow shortly thereafter, Sasha attends the annual May 1 rally and actually gets a glimpse of Stalin entering an arena packed with thousands of his worshippers who unleash a deafening round of approving shouts.
“Dreams from My Father” Revisited
I wanted to hear our local County Councilman Will Jawando speak about his new book while my sisters had other interests at that point. Jawando was completing his first 4-year term and had made a name for himself as an effective, intelligent public servant who offered a strong voice for the large minority population in Montgomery County. As a young man, he had worked in the Obama White House and was personally mentored by the then President. Like Obama, he had a white mother and an African father who left the family early on.
Jawando’s book is called “My Seven Fathers” and it tells the stories of his relationship with the black men who helped to guide, inspire and support him during his troubled early years after his father left. I had read Senator Barack Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father”, back in 2007 when he had just set his sites on the presidency. I was curious to hear Jawando’s version of a similar life story.
Jawando was admiringly introduced by long-term Gaithersburg mayor and now County Councilman Sidney Katz and was interviewed by the local educator-writer Sean Felix. Jawando himself proudly introduced his wife and three young children who were in the audience. Like Obama, he had a strong, compelling presence and quickly established a warm rapport with his audience with his big smile and his witty, articulate responses to Mr. Felix’s informed questions.
Jawando has a compelling story and he tells it well, beginning with his desperate efforts as a young boy to engage with his emotionally distant father. After his parents separate, he looks to an older boy at his school for inspiration and support. The older boy, Kitanji, dominates the local basketball playground and gives Will an opportunity to establish himself as an athlete there. They become after-school friends and Will learns his street smarts from him. Unfortunately, Kitanji falls victim to street violence leaving the young Will bereft and needing to search again for masculine strength and guidance. He finds it in a middle school math teacher, an African American army veteran who is the first older black man to pay attention to him and his desire to learn. In his mid-twenties, Jawando has the good fortune to land a job at the White House where Obama encounters him and encourages him to develop his own political intelligence.
It felt good to witness Jawando’s political initiative and to know that Obama’s political legacy was being carried forward. I was impressed enough to download the book from Amazon.
My sisters and I decided to break for lunch as the hot temperature and humidity continued to build. There were many outdoor food vendors within the festival site, but we wanted an air-conditioned place to cool down. Guided by Google, we walked across the park to try the Tex-Mex fare at “Ay Jalisco” restaurant in a strip mall across Frederick Avenue. The place was surprisingly uncrowded and we were happy to gather ourselves in the welcome coolness. Refreshed by cold drinks and delicious tacos and empanadas, we were soon ready for the afternoon’s literary fare.
Another Take on the Mexican-American War
Our first post-Mexican-lunch event was, appropriately enough, an intriguing interview of a rising Chicano voice, Reyna Grande, conducted by the better-known novelist Jeanine Cummins, whose 2020 bestseller, “American Dirt”, had stirred controversy owing to the author’s presumed cultural infringement. We had read that novel in our family book group, and we’d all felt that “American Dirt” told a powerful story with a lot of integrity.
It was clear from the start that Cummins and Grande held each other in high esteem, having communicated about their work previously. Cummins was effusive in her praise for Grande’s first novel, “A Ballad of Love and Glory”, based on her extensive research into the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Grande had made a name for herself with three books documenting her life as a Mexican immigrant who had entered the U.S. illegally but who had gone on to get well educated and gain citizenship. This was her first work of fiction and Grande did a lot of research because she wanted to make her story closely follow the actual historical record of the war. While in school in the U.S., Grande had wondered why the Mexican War got so little attention in her American History classes. Her research revealed that the war was an expression of the “manifest destiny” doctrine that guided much of U.S. policy – that we had a God-given right to appropriate all land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Her novel primarily offers a Mexican-eyed-view of the causes of the war and its actual unfoldment.
I had downloaded the book and read enough to know that the two main characters were a Mexican curandera (“healer”), Ximena, who tended to the wounded in General Santa Ana’s Mexican army, and an Irish-born soldier, John Reilly, who had enlisted in the U.S. Army as a way of making a career within a time when Irish immigrants were held in low esteem by most Americans. Due to the wretched treatment that Reilly and his fellow Irish soldiers receive from their arrogant American officers, they decide to abandon the U.S. army and cast their lot with the Mexicans. Ximena and John meet and fall in love as the story unfolds.
I was most impressed with Ms. Grande’s poise and eloquence. Ms. Cummins read some poignant passages from the book, especially praising the accuracy Grande achieved in rendering the Irish brogue of John Reilly, and the herbalist practices of Ximena. It was heart-warming to witness the care and respect that Cummins and Grande had for one another. And I heard enough of the story to know that I wanted to read it to the end.
There were three other political authors that I wanted to hear that afternoon, but I only made it to one of them: Congressman Jaime Raskin talking about his book “Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of Democracy”. The other two were retired security analyst Fiona Hill and Congressman Adam Schiff, both of whom were interviewed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reviewer Carlos Lozada. The overflowing crowd for that event prevented me from attending it.
I had read excerpts from Jamie Raskin’s book in the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine. Raskin has become one of my political heroes for the way he conducted himself after the tragic suicide of his son last New Year’s eve. In the midst of deep grief for his beloved son, Raskin was able to respond to the call to lead the impeachment against Donald Trump for his nefarious stirring up of the seditious attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Raskin had an overflow crowd as well, but I was able to find some shade outside the tent and listen to most of his presentation. I had heard his message before, but it felt historic to hear it directly from his mouth, with all his powers of eloquence, deep human feeling, and acerbic wit.
Adam Schiff’s book was titled “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost our Democracy and Still Could”. Fiona Hill’s book, “There Is Nothing for You Here”, was more autobiographical, telling of her decision to leave her native England and become a U.S. national security analyst, specializing in the Ukraine.
A Musician Turns Writer
The last author interview I heard was with the violinist Brendan Slocumb talking about his first novel, “The Violin Conspiracy”. The interview was conducted by Torie Clarke, the primary host of the podcast “Chatter on Books”. Mr. Slocumb is an accomplished classical violinist who found himself with time on his hands as his musical appearances were cancelled during Covid. He had an idea for a suspense-thriller and decided to give it a go, completing his first draft within a couple of months. I was intrigued by his presence and demeanor as an African American classical musician. I subsequently downloaded a sample of his book and was immediately drawn in. His excitement about writing and its possibilities for creative expression was contagious!
Gratitude for the GBF’s Return
My sisters and I left Bohrer Park last Saturday happy and satisfied with a day well spent. The Gaithersburg Book Festival is an opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in the culture of The Book. It always takes our love of reading to higher levels of appreciation and enjoyment. Hats off to current Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman who had the idea for a city-sponsored book festival thirteen years ago, and who has succeeded in bringing that idea to such remarkable fruition, surviving even one of the worst pandemics of the last century.
I first met Steve as a neighbor living just around the corner from our home in Derwood, MD. My wife Andrea had encountered Steve’s wife, Liliane Floge, at a nearby YMCA facility that both our families used. Shortly after that, we met Steve. He and Liliane had just moved down into the DC metropolitan area from Frederick, MD after Steve started a job with the National Governors’ Association in downtown DC. They had recently adopted their young daughter, Pascal, from Vietnam. Andrea and I had adopted two older children from Brazil around the same time. As aging adoptive parents, we had a lot in common.
My first real encounters with Steve occurred while we were both working in downtown DC. We would frequently connect on our Metro commute and had many good conversations about our work and our lives. Steve and Liliane were both former academics, both highly credentialed in the social sciences. Steve’s job at the Governor’s Association gave him a lot of high-level political connections which he was happy to talk about. I found out that Steve himself had made a run for Congress, but the conservative Frederick district he ran in wasn’t quite ready for a liberal Democrat like Steve.
Andrea and I shared with Steve and Liliane a similar left-of-center political perspective and we all shared our interests during election time. Steve was highly informed about local, state and national issues and I learned a lot just listening to him. He read voluminously – the New York Times as well as the Washington Post, and a slew of magazines and public policy books.
Andrea and I also shared with Steve and Liliane a mutual love of classical music. After the Strathmore Music Center opened in our county in 2005, we attended a number of Baltimore Symphony concerts together.
Liliane was an avid gardener and I remember spending a day working with Steve to break ground for a vegetable garden next to their home. A friend of ours helped them build a 6 foot enclosing fence to keep out the neighborhood deer. Andrea and I would look after the garden during their annual summer vacations in Maine and we still recall the sweet, succulent tomatos we got to partake in then.
Our friendship with Steve deepened during the Obama presidency when we shared many hopeful conversations about the future of our country. We both despaired after Trump’s election in 2016. When Andrea and I decided to start a small Indivisible group in early 2017 to try to counter the rightwing ascendancy, Steve was happy to join us. We met monthly with a half-dozen other politically motivated neighbors and friends for over five years, initially in each other’s home, but on Zoom after Covid appeared. We mobilized to help secure a $15 minimum wage in Montgomery county, and also lent our energy to a number of country, state, and national issues and candidates.
Another important commonality with Steve and Liliane was our shared interest in spiritual growth. Andrea and I were longtime meditators, and were impressed when they started a Buddhist sangha within the Rockville Unitarian Church that they attended. Steve and Liliane had both visited Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual community in southern France. Andrea and I had read a number of his books, and had even attended a talk that Thich Nhat Hanh had given in DC in the 1990’s.
Steve had served as an officer in the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the late 1960’s. He trained paratroopers and also served in combat, receiving a Bronze Star. But he returned from Vietnam utterly disillusioned with the war and joined forces with John Kerry in the early days of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Like many veterans, Steve returned to Vietnam after the war seeking to offer positive help and support. He and Liliane were big supporters of Vietnam Friendship Village, a social service agency there, and eventually decided to adopt from Vietnam, bringing home Pascal to share their lives with. Steve recalled how the adoption helped him convert his bad feelings about the Vietnam War into positive feelings for the Vietnam that emerged from the ashes.
I vividly remember Steve joining Andrea and me one evening to watch part of the Ken Burns’ riveting documentary series on the Vietnam War. At one point, Steve broke down in tears, reflecting back on his own horrific experiences in combat during that ill-begotten war.
After Covid hit and social life was dampened, Steve and I still got together regularly for walks and bicycle rides. He walked the cute little family dog, Jojo, past our house most mornings and he’d often stop to chat about the day’s news. Even though he was half a dozen years older, I was always impressed with his physical vigor and stamina. To the end, he was playing tennis three times per week.
Our last encounter with Steve occurred only a week before his sudden and unexpected death. Andrea and I had moved into a nearby retirement community in March, and sold our Derwood home in late April. The day after our closing, we had a memorable evening at Steve and Liliane’s home. They wanted to affirm their friendship for us after so many years as neighbors. It was a delightful evening, with a fine dinner and a special French gourmet cake for dessert. We left feeling closer to Steve, Liliane and Pascal than ever.
We were shocked to hear of Steve’s accidental fall and subsequent heart attack and strokes just one week later. It’s taken us this long to begin to emerge from our grief over the loss of a beloved neighbor, friend and political ally. It’s been heartbreaking to witness Liliane and Pascal’s deep grief as well. We attended Steve’s funeral at historic Mt. Olivet cemetery in Frederick yesterday. Another Buddhist sangha leader, a personal friend of Steve and Liliane, led a deeply soulful and gracious remembering of Steve and his rich contributions to family, friends, and community. She read a poem of Thich Nhat Hanh that called for our tears of grief to be converted into nourishing rain. She affirmed Steve’s depth of soul and his commitments to the highest ideals of justice, peace, and love.
One of Steve’s last contributions to our political group was his recommendation that we watch the short video on the life of Thich Nhat Hanh called “A Cloud Never Dies.” Andrea and I sat down to watch that video on the night after we learned of Steve’s passing. We took consolation that Steve’s life, like that of his Teacher’s, partook of the eternal nature of spirit. He will remain in my heart for the rest of my days.
Andrea and I attended the rousing performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore Music Center last night. It was conductor Maron Alsop’s last appearance of the season, and we were intent on attending after having recently viewed a rich documentary called “The Conductor” about her life and career as the first woman Musical Director of a major symphony orchestra.
Her ascendance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had a rocky start when anonymous musicians objected to her appointment back in 2007. In the documentary, she had admitted being “traumatized” by that initial rejection, but had then met with the whole orchestra to speak her intentions, winning them over (she had previously guest-conducted them with good results). Andrea and I have been big fans of hers over her fabulous 15-year tenure, facilitated by the BSO’s having contracted to play regular concerts at the Strathmore in suburban DC, as well as at their home base in Baltimore.
Alsop always brought a unique verve to her music-making. Her “Off the Cuff” talks about featured music prior to the concert were a big hit, inspired by her own experience of Leonard Bernstein’s lively pre-concert talks. She had an animated, no-nonsense approach to the classical repertoire and brought out the best in her musicians. She garnered the BSO’s first recording contracts in decades and took the orchestra on the road for acclaimed tours of Europe and Asia as well as the U.S.. Closer to home, she had a strong commitment to serving the local Baltimore community and instituted a children’s music instruction program among inner city kids that has yielded phenomenal results. And she had commissioned many new compositions from up-and-coming classical composers, especially from women and people of color.
This was our 4th BSO concert of the season and by far the most inspiring. For one, the concert hall was packed full, in contrast to the previous Covid-dominated, less-than-half full events. There was an excited buzz as the orchestra attuned and a rousing welcome to the Maestra when she came on stage. She graciously received the adulation but then quickly turned to the musicians to begin.
The concert began in an unorthodox way with a new composition written expressly as a choral prelude to Beethoven’s masterpiece. In addition to the main chorus singing from above and behind the stage, there were two soprano soloists standing in upper boxes on either side of the stage. In addition, singers entered down both central entryways of the orchestra. The composer, Renna Esmail, had written a deeply spiritual piece that began with sacred Hindu chants evoking the primordial darkness before the creation of the physical universe. It’s called “See Me” and is an invitation to witness the first Light permeating the fluid darkness. It’s a relatively short piece and was immediately followed by Alsop leading the orchestra into the somber yet awe inspiring tones of the Ninth Symphony’s opening movement.
The Ninth Symphony long first movement has been described as “the most daring instrumental movement Beethoven ever composed” (from the program notes by Janet Bedell). It was a powerful segue from the choral chanting on the primordial darkness in “See Me.” The opening could well be a depiction of the force of creative order emerging from dark emptiness, tentatively at first, but with mounting force and grandeur.
Before the vivacious scherzo movement began, four colorfully dressed African drummers entered onto the stage, playing a strong, multi-faceted rhythm that kept growing in complexity and intensity. They were members of Baltimore’s Keur Khaleyi African Dance and Cultural Institute who had a lot of experience bringing their rhythmic artistry to multi-cultural events like this one. For me, the complex rhythms of the drumming were a good prelude to the rhythmic scherzo movement.
The slow (“Adagio”) third movement of the symphony contains some of the most lyrical and heartfelt music of Beethoven’s many works. For me it as an expression of the deepest spiritual values of caring, compassion, and abiding love. This movement was preceded by a brief jazz combo (guitar and trombone) riffing on a sweet melody while Wordsmith (Anthony Parker) spoke words of care, tenderness, and commitment. The program notes describe Wordsmith as a “Baltimore-based songwriter, performer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.” It was he who penned new lyrics for the Ode to Joy of the fourth movement.
The performance had been advertised as a “21st-century call to unity, justice, and empowerment… a bold interpretation of Beethoven’s ideas in response to today’s world”. The powerful fourth movement is among the best-known pieces of classical music. The famous melody for the Ode to Joy was one that Beethoven had heard decades earlier during the French Revolution. He used the romantic poet Shiller’s poem for the words. My sense was that Wordsmith’s 21st century poetry matched Beethoven’s intent to a tee. The full feeling of the music itself was only enhanced by the humane call for empathy and decency that Wordsmith had written.
The music ended with a spontaneous standing ovation continued for a good long while. Alsop gracefully showcased the four soloist singers, the three choruses, Wordsmith, and her entire orchestra. She returned for one last solo bow and the audience remained standing and applauding to the end. Maestra Alsop was visibly moved, as were many of us in the audience. Most of us have had few recent opportunities to come together to celebrate the power and beauty of the highest human ideals and creativity on the level we had experienced together for ninety minutes that splendid evening.
…but not everyone. As we were leaving, we noticed a debonair-looking middle-aged man in a striking pin-striped suit who was speaking loudly and animatedly on his phone about how crass and sacrilegious the concert had been, loudly dismissing it as “rubbish.” I gave him a big thumbs-down as I passed him. He was a reminder of the many conservative forces that have kept classical music within the domain of a stuffy, stultified culture for all too long.
As the covid pandemic persists, our usual rhythm of periodic ventures out to cultural events has slowed considerably. We bucked the trend last Saturday night, attending an inspiring concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at the nearby Strathmore music center.
Andrea had the idea for it in the morning, and I promptly got online to order tickets. We’ve been fans of the BSO almost since moving to the Rockville area two decades ago. The Strathmore opened in 2005. It has an aesthetically magnificent concert hall, visually and acoustically. When the BSO began having regular concerts there, we started going often, especially after Maestra Marin Alsop became its Music Director and Chief Conductor in 2007.
Andrea and I are both ardent fans of classical music. I got hooked by listening to recordings of Beethoven symphonies in my Catholic boys’ high school’s music education class. I later became a regular at Buffalo Philharmonic concerts at the stately Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. NY. Andrea’s Italian American family participated in a rich culture of live music in New Castle, PA, where learning to play an instrument was an important part of public education. Her Dad, a hard-working machinist, also sang professionally in local churches, and harbored aspirations of becoming an opera singer. Her brother was a first-rate trumpeter who went on to teach and play music as his career. Andrea played clarinet and oboe in high school and also became a talented keyboard musician in her days at Oberlin College. I also had picked up clarinet and alto sax as an adult. Andrea’s wedding gift to me was a new alto sax, and we had many fun times together playing arrangements for piano and sax.
A shared love for good music was an important ingredient in the glue that has held us together for 35 years. Attending concerts together has been a mainstay of our marriage for all of those years. So we both jumped at the opportunity to hear a live symphony orchestra last night — happy to comply with the required masking and showing of vaccination credentials.
The program last night was a lesser-known Beethoven symphony (#8) and a selection from Act 3 of Wagner’s opera “Die Walkure”. We arrived early after enjoying a delicious supper from the food bar at a Rockville Whole Foods. I’d splurged on orchestra seats, as much as to hear well as to support the BSO in the midst of the economic challenges of the pandemic. Being early, we had time to read the extensive program notes for the pieces being played.
James Conlon was the conductor and he did a masterful job bringing out the complex rhythmic and melodic spirit of Beethoven’s Eighth. His forte, however, is as an opera conductor and his rendition of the Wagner was positively thrilling. The seasoned professionals Christine Goerke and Greer Grimsley were the soprano and bass soloists. They entered into the psychological space of their characters before either had sung a note. Surtitles were projected so we could follow along exactly on their sonorous German arias. They brought the tension between the Norse god Wotan and his daughter Brunhilde to a stirring dramatic pitch, bolstered by the sheer volume and lyricism of the orchestra, including an especially large wind and brass section.
The concert was well attended by an enthusiastic audience that gave the soloists, conductor, and orchestra three curtain calls replete with enthusiastic “bravos”. We felt privileged to be in their number and drove home happy and satisfied with our rare night out. It was a pre-Valentine gift for both of us, a validation of our shared love of music that has helped keep our marriage harmonious for decades.