All Things Reconsidered

We’ve all had our share of conversations, meetings, classes, interviews, transactions, negotiations, arguments, and, yes, first dates followed by a night, a day, a week, and I dare say longer when we think of things we should have said.

You may think there’s no such thing as a do-over, but I have a blog.

On the night of Martin Luther King Day, I got a call from a fellow who wanted to talk about a column I had in the local paper under the headline, “Where is MLK when we need him?”

He does a podcast called Race Matters which he tried to get me on a little over a year ago when I reviewed his William Lloyd Garrison lecture, the 2nd annual here in WLG’s hometown (link below). I dodged it until he forgot it, although I enjoyed a few drinks with him in The Grog a month or so later.

When he named Newburyport’s Senior Center as a place to meet, I only figured that he had others in mind for a conversation. Many events happen there, large and small, so I walked in unsuspecting, only to find myself seated in a recording studio in front of a microphone and camera, all of which I assumed he kept at The Governor’s Academy well south of Newburyport where he is the Dean of Multicultural Education and teaches history.

Links appear below to my column (updated and adapted from a blog headlined, “Calling Dr. King”) and Edward Carson’s podcast, both of which can speak for themselves. However, if I had it to do over again, here’s what you would hear.

Regarding his memory of having George Wallace as governor while growing up in Montgomery, Alabama:

Edward, you’re not old enough to remember George Wallace, though I’m sure you heard plenty about him at an early age. Did you also hear of Lester Maddox?

He’d have likely said yes, but I still wouldn’t believe he could have anything near my real-time memory of the Georgia governor. Though, to be fair, he did quote Wallace’s mantra, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” so why wouldn’t he remember Maddox wielding an axe handle in defense of his Jim Crow restaurant against integration? I’d have taken another tack:

All these anti-woke pronouncements we are hearing from governors DeSantis and Abbott, gag orders on talk of race in Florida, bounties on those seeking reproductive rights in Texas, transport of immigrants under false pretenses to Northern cities–in one case an island–are a replay of Wallace and Maddox sixty years ago.

Not sure what he would have said to that, but no matter what it was, I’d have continued:

Wallace and Maddox were in a competition. Which one could prove himself the most worthy front man for white supremacy? The Republican idea of a Southern Strategy existed long before Nixon brought it into the open. Democrats and Republicans were vying for Southern votes to tip an otherwise balanced scale. Who would they deal with? Both Wallace and Maddox wanted that role.

I’d pause here, but not for long:

DeSantis and Abbott are doing the same, only this time the stakes are higher, not to help pick the king, but to be the king. Or to replace a king whose base is base in both senses of the word. Which one can be the nastiest, the most cynical, the most malignant, the most likely to ridicule a handicapped man, insult a woman who asks direct questions with lines like “She had blood coming out her wherever,” and dismiss developing nations as “shit-hole countries”? DeSantis and Abbott are vying for that role.

I’d pause again to let it sink in, but quickly add:

Regarding race, their task will be to find more Kanye Wests and Hershel Walkers to stand with them in photo-ops, smiling and nodding their heads to every hateful thing they have to say–which is all they have to say. Neither DeSantis nor Abbott needs P.T. Barnum to tell them how to play to the lowest common denominator–not anymore than they need Tom Hanks to tell them that every lead role needs supporting roles.

I have a hunch Edward would interrupt me here to add something. And I think I know what he’d add. If not, I would say it:

And both have had Trump show them that all supporting roles must be filled with yes-men.

One other item late in the interview: In the column, I had quoted King’s prediction shortly before his death that America was heading back into the Dark Ages. In the interview, Edward asks if I think that has come true, and I offer my opinion that it is.

Now I realize that I didn’t need to offer an opinion. I have proof. For starters, former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota ran in the Republican primaries in 2012 with a stump speech all about the Enlightment and Renaissance being where western civilization turned away from God, and all went wrong. Four years later, that became a key part of the MAGA creed.

But I can do better than that. Whatever I say in the video, strike it from the record, and replace it with this:

Edward, you may not know this, but I am a strolling minstrel in a Renaissance faire, King Richard’s down in the cranberry bogs way south of Boston every fall. Been in it since 1999. Part of my routine is to be at the gate as people leave at the end of the day. I banter with them as much as I play, and a few years ago, before the pandemic, I came up with a great laugh-line: “Come back next year! We’re going to put Galileo on trial.”

Edward has a rich and easy sense of humor, even with serious subjects, so I’d laugh with him, but only for a bit before continuing:

Don’t laugh too hard. Just weeks ago, Republicans took control of the House, and they now call the shots for every House committee. One committee has already slated as its first order of business calling in Dr. Fauci and grilling him over the handling of the pandemic.

Second chances, take backs, mulligans, and do-overs are all well and good if you can manage them. But when jokes like that start coming true, there’s a much larger do-over that needs to be re-done.


The Martin Luther King Day column:

The William Lloyd Garrison Lecture blog:

As American as Cherry Pie

What if the real reason that Ron DeSantis and other Republican officials want to place gag orders on the teaching of African-American history has less to do with race than with labor?

The question would be inescapable to anyone reading of what contemporary historian Gunnar Myrdal called the “mass lynching” of African-Americans by whites in East St. Louis, Ill., on July 2, 1917.

Before there was racial conflict, the white laborers in the factories and stockyards along the Mississippi were starting to unionize, as were workers from coast to coast. In immigrant cities such as Lawrence, Mass., in 1912 and Paterson, N.J., in 1913, and in mining communities such as Ludlow, Colo., in 1914 and Matewan, W. Va., in 1920, the magnates called on law enforcement to keep unions at bay. In East St. Louis, the Aluminum Ore Co., Armour Meat Packing, and others sent agents across the rural deep South to recruit black men with guarantees of steady jobs and high wages.

None of it was true. As the blacks soon learned, they were there for white workers to see and fear as replacements.

All of this is documented in Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot that Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, a book published in 2008, a decade before the 1619 Project drew the ire of those who want to bury America’s past under a security blanket of nothing-to-see-here–and before the history of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” forced itself into the national consciousness.

Author Harper Barnes points out that East St. Louis was the deadliest race riot in America until the aftermath of Rodney King’s beating by LA police in 1992, but he warns against comparison. In 1992–as in the 1960s in Watts, Detroit, and Newark, and ever since–the violence was all in the streets. In East St. Louis–as in numerous similar cases from Wilmington, N.C., in 1898 to Tulsa in 1921–white mobs raided Black neighborhhoods pulling men, women, and children out of their burning homes, sometimes throwing them, dead or alive, back into the flames.

The sight of newly arrived blacks disembarking trains may have inflamed white workers over an immediate concern for their jobs, but it became a pretext for running cars through black neighborhoods with a shooter firing a rifle out of every window at the middle-class homes of families that had been there for generations. As in Tulsa, it wasn’t that blacks were lazy and prone to crime that motivated white backlash, but that blacks were industrious and successful.

And the North was not the safe haven that we might like to believe. Says Barnes:

Race riots, as black militant H. Rap Brown suggested in the incendiary 1960s, are “as American as cherry pie.” Long before the black riots of the sixties, whites rioted against blacks in cities across the country. Decades before the Civil War, in such Northern bastions of abolition such as Cincinnati, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York, and in smaller cities and towns throughout the North, blacks were attacked in the streets by gangs of whites, and their neighborhoods were invaded and sacked. African-Americans were severely beaten and killed, and black homes and institutions–including schools, churches, and even orphanages–were destroyed by white mobs long before the end of slavery.

That would be enough for DeSantis and his ilk with their fabricated objections to “critical race theory” to want America’s inconvenient history suppressed. But Barnes offers more, including an observation by Sherwood Anderson a century ago calling East St. Louis “the most perfect example, at least in America, of what happens under absentee ownership.”

Or, as cartoonist Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) quipped, “the inner city without an outer city.

Both quotes, like much of Never Been a Time, reveal as much about America’s economic reality as its racial divide. At the start of Black History Month, which is now effectively banned in America’s fourth most populous state, DeSantis can celebrate a suppression of labor history as much as of racial history.

The rest of us would do well to re-connect the two.


Harpooneers of this World

More than anything, I wanted Chapter 62, “The Dart,” a more common word by which whalers called a harpoon. To get it, I asked for a ten-minute slot on the ungodly midnight watch.

That’s how the Moby-Dick Annual Marathon is divvied up. Each of the 25 hours it needs is a watch, all of which starts at noon Saturday and concludes at about 1:00 pm Sunday. Since 62 falls midway in the 135 chapters, I put in for 12:30-12:40 am and got it.

Three years ago, I guessed too late and read 69 and 70, “The Funeral” and “The Sphynx,” both strong stuff, as is every chapter in a long book that frequently bounds from comic to ponderous, from whimsical to confrontational, at times all at once. In 2020, I was mesmerized all the way to dawn’s invasion of the 3rd-floor windows of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s reading room, inhaling as much as hearing every word.

True, I twice sat in the adjacent coffee room, conversing with a young couple who drove up from Maryland, and then with the owner of a boat shop who flew in from Chicago.  He told me that there were readers from California and Europe.  I don’t think there was as much of that this year, as there were noticeably fewer people listening in the wee hours, and far fewer sleeping bags in the wide corridor to the elevator. But, as Ishmael doesn’t hesitate to sometimes admit, I could be wrong.

Following the Sunday morning “Chat with Scholars,” one of several sideshows held during the main event, I had a memorable conversation with a recent graduate of College of the Atlantic up on the Maine coast. A Texas native, she’s now working for the National Parks Service in New Bedford, and may be the only person who has ever noticed that Ishmael describes an object that “fell to Ahab’s feet,” and remembered that Ahab had just one foot.

If only the world would pay a fraction of that attention to detail.

Details draw me to “The Dart.” The first of two compelling reasons is something that no one writing newspaper columns, as I’ve been doing for 40 years, can resist: Decades, perhaps a century before the term was coined, Herman Melville wrote an op-ed column.

In the persistent voice of Ishmael, one who challenges conventional wisdom every chance he gets, it opens with a description of how the whale boats were manned as they leave the ship in pursuit of a whale. He then finds fault: The harpooneers participate in the rowing, leaving them exhausted when it’s time to throw a 25-lb. spear. He offers proof: Low success rates. A solution: Leave them idle. Followed by a litany of reasons–“no wonder…”–that states a need. Followed by a concession of what will be compromised: The speed of the whaleboat. Countered by a claim of why the loss is negligible compared to how much more will be gained: Accuracy and efficiency.

In the best op-ed style, he ends the chapter with a “kicker” to drive the point home:

To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.

Coming at the end of about 650 words–standard op-ed length–that line by itself is the second reason I wanted “The Dart.” I memorized it long ago, a metaphor that applies to anyone if you replace the two nouns, “dart” and “harpooneers” with others that share the relationship of an object and the people who use it. To ensure the greatest efficiency of art, the artists of this world… To ensure the success of any attempt to influence a distracted public, the activists of this world… Call it an echo of Hamlet’s “the readiness is all.” At the reading, I was able to look up from the book and scan the audience. Most had their eyes down, reading along. Those looking at me sat bolt upright.

Not bad for people who had been up some 17 hours and counting. I was lucky that a friend from King Richard’s Faire read a half hour after I did, Chapter 66, “The Shark Massacre,” describing what happened to a whale’s carcass after it is stripped of blubber and oil and dropped back into the sea. Vinny, the tour de force of Toe Jam Puppet Band wildly popular with children in southeastern Massachusetts, might have been typecast for it:

[A]ny man unaccustomed to such sights, to have looked over her side that night, would have almost thought that the whole round sea was one huge cheese, and those sharks the maggots in it.

We broke for the coffee room after he was done. Much of our conversation was about how Ishmael’s jokes, his whimsy and mischief, are much more prominent when heard aloud. And, oh, how they make Ishmael’s portentous and profound passages more palatable. He stayed until past 4:00 am when another friend of his read.

Another mutual friend was with Culture*Park Theater performing “Midnight on the Forecastle” (Chap. 40) on the museum’s auditorium stage, the only chapter that is performed rather than read, and with song and dance. Elizabeth, formerly of King Richard’s Gypsy Dancers, played Tashtego, one of the harpooneers, as she did three years ago.

But there was a new cabin boy. This year’s Pip, a New Bedford fourth-grader named Josiah Bodden, gained a fan club in the former whaling capital of the world when he faced the audience, jolted forward, fell to his knees, slid toward the front of the stage, threw his head back, shut his eyes, clasped his hands over his head, and closed the chapter with a prayer:

Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men who have no bowels to feel fear!

An hour or so later, the co-founder of the Newburyport Melville Society read “The Chart” (Chap. 44) which describes Ahab, alone in his cabin, studying maps rolled onto with their corners pinned into the wooden table. My bare description may make it seem like dry stuff, but Patricia, like so many of the 211 readers, made Ishmael’s mystical narration so vivid that the chapter’s kicker landed with the full force and relevance of any pronouncement today:

God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

Not long after that, the Newburyport Melville Society convened across the street in the Moby Dick Brewery for clam chowder and pints of Ishm-Ale. That, plus the unlimited coffee supplied by the museum overnight, the presence of Vinny, and especially the extra rush of adrenaline after delivering “The Dart” made it easy to stay awake past dawn.

Had planned to start home at sunrise, as I did last time, but couldn’t resist a Portuguese omelet at Tia Maria’s European Cafe, also across the street.  Refreshed, I went back in for another scholarly session and a chat with my Newburyport friends before starting home well after 11:00.

Halfway home, I had to stop at Starbuck’s in Quincy, just off the highway, and sat for half an hour with a tall, black, dark roast before finishing the trip.  How’s that for poetic karma?  Starbuck helped guide me home from my pursuit of the White Whale.


Screenshot by Richard K. Lodge, cropped by Lenovo.
Vinny Lovegrove, Photo by another reader, Cora Peirce of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts & Rhode Island.

By a Marsh on a Rainy Day

On the year’s shortest day, Robert Frost famously watches a villager’s woods fill up with snow.  On the second, I hear a menacing forecast. On the third, I awake to see a saltmarsh fill up with water.

Frost’s horse thinks it queer to stop without a farmhouse near, but I’m still at home upon a hill in bed before a window watching grasses disappear.

My windows rattle in gusts of storm, odd echoes of harness bells that shake the old man back awake.  But this old man watches, making no mistake, pausing nothing but breakfast.

Nor is there a house in sight from my island to the mainland where Frost’s woods stretch toward a frozen lake. My marsh, now lake, keeps moving north, whitecapped in surging tide.

Frost’s darkest evening becomes my gray day, all grasses now submerged in a shade matching sky, as well as the two-lane road, leaving but a utility pole and the top half of a fire hydrant as reminders of just where I am.

No, that’s not at all Frost, but for the old man who stopped on Plum Island four decades ago, it’s a first.

Frost’s downy flake is my driving rain; his easy wind my gas heat, an easy, welcome warmth up from my floor.

Mouth of a river? Atlantic salt marsh? Arrival of winter? Sea-level rise? Encroaching climate change? A cacophony, perhaps a symphony of ocean, moon, storm, and melting glaciers?

My estuary may be lovely, but it is neither dark nor deep. To tell of its contrary charms, I’ll leave for another day, for there’s an omelet I must eat.

Does way ever lead onto way? All I know is that the tide will turn and the grasses reappear on these darkest days of every year. And I will sip coffee.

And that makes all the difference.

All the difference is what that makes.


Photos by Lenovo facing SXSW.

Other Side of the Bridge

Lines in the Newburyport Post Office any day in December look like the lines entering a Renaissance faire on a mid-October weekend.

Difference is that, on the holiday that has five names, we rennies and our patrons wore all the color and decoration.  In this season of three religious feasts, most everyone is bundled up in dark, thick coats with colorfully wrapped and decorated packages in hand.

Across the Merrimack River on another errand, I swing by the Salisbury Post Office, figuring it can’t be too busy.

Bingo!  Just one counter, but I’m third in line, and the two before me are quick.  In addition to two small packages needing to be weighed, I need stamps.  Forgive me, but I’ve never cared for Christmas stamps or any seasonal postage.  If it’s any consolation, I love carols–even the dreaded “Drummer Boy”–and often played many of them with pizazz for many a Christmas past, but on envelopes?  No stars, halos, snowmen, or decorated trees for me.  Years ago, I made an exception for Gabriel with his alto-sax, but he has yet to make an encore as a thumbnail pic with a serrated edge.

Always asking for stamps with musicians, I mailed everything with Pete Seeger and his banjo on the top righthand corner of the envelope this summer and fall. Though I doubted there would be any left for sale, I asked the Salisbury clerk, who lit up at the question:

Sure we do! Lots!

Wow! Hard to believe. They were issued so long ago, I thought they had to be gone.

You’re on the other side of the bridge. Can’t sell’m this side.

I buy three panes. She puts at least three back in her drawer.

Salisbury is the northeast corner of Massachusetts, sandwiched between the Merrimack and the state border with New Hampshire while the Atlantic pounds its east side.  In a blatant crime against cartography, surveyors sent up from Boston in colonial times decided to ignore the common sense of letting the river, like the ocean, be a natural boundary and claimed a three-mile buffer from the north bank for the Mass Bay Colony.

We can only wonder if this map set the precedent for another Massachusetts invention soon to follow: gerrymandering

As a much smaller town, Salisbury may lack Newburyport’s culture and commerce, but it does have Annarosa’s Bakery with its rosemary & sea-salt dinner rolls I can’t get enough of.  If you go looking, it’s on Rt. 110 just across from a memorable billboard for a CBC store: “You have in-laws. We have pot.” Now that’s the holiday spirit! After a short drive, I was still laughing when I arrived at the post office where I would learn of a postage stamp that our neighbors to the north want none of.

Good chance that most Americans born after the Eisenhower years do not know who Pete Seeger was, or know only the name. We children of that decade knew him as a folk-singer. Our parents may have known him as a conscientious objector blacklisted in the McCarthy Era. In the Sixties he was a leading voice in civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. At the end of the Sixties, he was one of the foremost reasons that the Smothers Brothers show, a forerunner of all the creative commentary we now see on cable TV, was banned from network television. This was back when all television was network. Censored was his song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” clearly aimed at a Democratic president.

Seeger was tireless. He harmonized with voices for humanitarian causes right up to the day he died in 2014 at the age of 94. Though his banjo was inscribed with a combative message–“This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”–his own statements and song lyrics were always in the spirit of peace and unity, usually addressed to “brothers” and “sisters.” Never cast in anger, his songs conveyed spiritual and cultural messages as much as political. His best known, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” an adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, serves as an example:

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

That the people of Salisbury have any of this in mind when they purchase stamps is doubtful. Far more likely they prefer pics of race cars that had a recent issue, or American flags that are always issued. And now there’s one with Johnny Cash walking the (rail) line with his guitar far more likely to sell on either side of any American bridge.

No doubt I would have taken a pane home had Seeger not been there.

Still, there is room for doubt.

Three hundred years after its first crime against cartography, Massachusetts is the bluest of blue states while New Hampshire has been trending purple in recent years.  Relative to New England, New Hampshire screams red in a sea of blue, and if you zoom in to our little corner, the change in color is not at the state line but at the Merrimack River. Only the fireworks stores observe the border.

Whether or not the clerk had any of that in mind with her “other side of the bridge” crack is anyone’s guess. But I think she was in on the joke. A wry smile on her face suggested that she would have felt my pain had she no pane to offer.


The USPS poster for the day of release. Next to the date it says: Newport, Rhode Island 02804. This refers to the Newport Folk Festival where the color-tinted, black-and-white photograph was taken in the early Sixties while Seeger played his signature five-string banjo. The photographer was Seeger’s son, Dan Seeger. Kristen Monthei colorized it for use on the stamp.

E Pluribus Rio

Over 45 years ago, National Geographic ran a cover story on the Ohio River that began with a startling claim:

The Ohio carries more water than the Mississippi to their confluence at Cairo, Illinois.*

If that wasn’t enough, the magazine went on to remind this already pop-eyed and drop-jawed reader that Cairo is 125 miles south of St. Louis where the Missouri joins in. Therefore, the Ohio carries more water than the Mississippi and Missouri combined.

Don’t know what geography textbooks say today–at times I wonder if geography is even taught today–but in the Eisenhower-Kennedy years, their lists of the world’s longest rivers always hyphenated ours: Mississippi-Missouri.

As a kid who imagined myself as an American citizen at an early age–writing a letter to Richard Nixon while wearing a Jack Kennedy pin when I was nine–I found the hyphenation vaguely insulting. Other continents’ river names stood alone: Nile, Amazon, Yangtze, Yenisey. Ours needed help.

But there I was, a grad student taking a cartography class faced with the topographical fact that most of the water flowing through New Orleans and the Delta into the Gulf of Mexico is not on either side of the hyphen favored by record keepers, but from the uncredited Ohio.

Past 70, I learn that Herman Melville called the Mississippi bluff a century before I was born on the banks of New England’s industrial-grade Merrimack River. While setting the last novel published in his lifetime, The Confidence-Man, on a Mississippi steamboat, he observed the confluence in St. Louis. He then read a book titled A Condensed Geography and History of the Western States: or, the Mississippi Valley (1828) which confirmed what he thought he saw.

An elegiac description of it was found in his desk after he passed. Scholars believe it was intended as a prologue for Confidence-Man, but that Melville decided it was too “expansive” to suit the “restrained” tone of the novel.

Lucky for me he didn’t feed it to the fire, as I learn I was not alone in my quest for geographic truth, topographic accuracy, cartographic precision. True, Melville never mentions the Ohio, but by that same token, while telling others of my discovery 40 years ago, I’ve never mentioned the Tennessee River that joins the Ohio within 40 miles of Cairo.** And it is the Tennessee, not the Ohio, that FDR’s New Deal tapped for hydro-electric projects to help take us out of the Depression.

All that matters is that, unlike the solo performances of the Nile in Africa, the Amazon in Brazil, the Yangtze in China, ours is the effort of many, a fluid E Pluribus Unum. I’ve mentioned just four, but just look at a map and consider the stretch of the Arkansas, the Cumberland, the Red, the Canadian, the Wisconsin, the Minnesota, the Des Moines, and the Platte, North and South.

Once again, I’m indebted to Melville. This time for bringing this memory to the surface and into this installment of “Mouth of the River,” and I am attaching his description of the Mississippi-Missouri confluence below.

Must say, though, that I now wonder if Melville, who spent most of his youth in Albany and his senior years in New York City, knew that the Hudson–which connects the two with a series of straight lines joined by slight angles rather than the sweeping curves characteristic of rivers–is technically not a river, but a fjord.

If you doubt that, just look at a map.

Melville’s River

As the word Abraham means father of a great multitude of men, so the word Mississippi means father of a great multitude of waters.  His tribes stream in from east and west, exceeding fruitful the lands they enrich.  In this granary of a continent, this basin of the Mississippi, must not the nations be greatly multiplied and blest?

Above the Falls of St. Anthony, for the most part he winds evenly on between banks of fog or through tracts of pine over marble sands in waters so clear that the deepest fish have the visible flight of the bird.  Undisturbed as the lowly life in its bosom feeds the lordly life on its shores, the coroneted elk and the deer, while in the walrus form of some couched rock in the channel, furred over with moss, the furred bear on the marge seems to eye his amphibious brother.  Wood and wave wed, man is remote.  The unsung time, the Golden Age of the billow.

Like a larger Susquehannah, like a long-drawn bison herd, he browses on through the prairie, here and there expanding into archipelagoes cycladean in beauty, while, fissured and verdant, a long China Wall, the bluffs sweep bluely away.  Glad and content, the sacred river glides on.

But at St. Louis the course of this dream is run.  Down on it like a Pawnee from an ambush foams the yellow-painted Missouri.  The calmness is gone, the grouped islands disappear, the shores are jagged and rent, the hue of the water is clayed, the before moderate current is rapid and vexed.  The peace of the Upper River seems broken in the Lower, nor is it ever renewed.

The Missouri would seem rather a hostile element than a filial flood.  Larger, stronger than the father of waters, like Jupiter he dethrones his sire and reigns in his stead.  Under the benign name of Mississippi it is in truth the Missouri that now rolls to the Gulf, the Missouri that with the Timon snows from his solitudes freezes the warmth of the genial zones, the Missouri that by open assault or artful sap sweeps away forest and field, graveyard and town, the Missouri that not a tributary but an invader enters the sea, long disdaining to yield his white wave to the blue.


The cartography class I mention was at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD, about 60 miles north of Sioux Falls on the Sioux River, a tributary to the Missouri you can see on this map, though it is unlabeled. The Sioux is honestly more of an occasional flood plain than a recognizable river, something that can be said of many rivers in the Plains. Notice the proximity to the Des Moines and the Minnesota, tributaries to the Mississippi. As I recall, I lived within 20 miles of the divide between the two basins.

*Vesilind, Priit J. “The Ohio–River with a Job to Do.” National Geographic, 151, No. 2 (Feb. 1977), 245-273. (Accessible online if you have a subscription.)

**This was as far as Huck Finn and Jim wanted to go in pursuit of freedom, Cairo being the southernmost tip of Illinois, a free state, while every state south was slave. They needed to get off the Mississippi and onto the Ohio, but they missed the juncture due to heavy fog. That necessitated Huck’s decision: Either turn in the runaway Jim for his own freedom and a bounty, or aid and abet Jim, making himself a fugitive for violating Southern state laws. That scene may well be American literature’s finest moment.

Our Holiday Gag Disorder

When I arrived at the restaurant I was surprised to see my friends with two women I did not know. Fine by me. A table of six can hold a single, focused conversation as easily as one of four without crosstalk that always makes me crave Excedrin III.

The two were cousins of my friend with Alzheimer’s, allowed out for an afternoon in the custody of her brother who can be as reticent as she without any such handicap. This was her birthday, hence the family additions.

Ralph, the sixth member of the party, the one who arranged it, tends to be chatty, often effusive, with a wit that makes all he says worth it even when it is nonsense, which it often is. Yes, he and I have enough in common to be friends for 51 years and counting.

We were barely in our chairs when Ralph (not his real name) told us that we could choose between two specials: roast vampire and werewolf a la mode. I laughed at the reference to Hershel Walker’s campaign gibberish, but held to the first rule for holiday gatherings in modern day America and said nothing that could in any way be construed as political.

One of the cousins smirked, but the other asked Ralph what he was talking about, and so he told her. She nodded, but said that “the mainstream media” makes too much of things about Republicans–all while they cover up for Democrats. Her example was Nancy Pelosi’s 84-year-old husband getting beaten with a hammer while at home in San Francisco. I was still making great effort not to roll my eyes at “mainstream media” when I heard this:

They say he was having a gay affair with that guy.

An explosion rattled my teeth:

Who’s they?

Others at the table froze while she claimed that “everybody knows” that the media “censors everything,” and “there was this report but they won’t air it.” I countered that what she calls censorship is actually fact-checking and that, unlike her source, credible news sources will not circulate rumors, slurs, and fabrications that have no basis in fact. I ended by noting that she did not answer my question, so I hit–and I mean hit–repeat:

Who’s they?

Well, it’s a story that’s out there.

Who’s they?

Anyway, it’s not important.

Who’s they?

I can’t remember. I’m not saying it’s true.

Then why did you repeat it?

After a pause:

I was just using it as an example.

During the pause, I looked past her out the window and pointed: “That’s a blue heron!” Without being a shout, it was louder than my exchange with the cousin, during which, also with great effort, I kept my voice down by clenching my otherwise rattling teeth.

You could feel the sigh of relief around the table as the cousins and the brother turned their heads, and as Ralph and the sister looked up. By that time, the heron was gone, no doubt because it was actually a red herring with wings.

There or not, I rode that bird into a conversation about falcons, hawks, owls and others we see on Plum Island. Before long, the party safely landed in agreeable topics ranging from homes to family, from films to music, from hobbies to Sixties nostalgia, and from the clam chowder to the fried clams soon before us.

Next morning I was enjoying a dark roast in Kafmandu to propel me up the Maine Coast when I overheard two fellows at a nearby table talking about holiday gatherings.

At first, one seemed to agree with his friend’s plans to limit his guest list and to avoid gatherings where he knew so-and-so would be present rather than having to hold his tongue about any subjects other than family, work, hobbies, sports, and weather.

Though tempted to lean in with my approval, I waited to hear the other’s response. In a summary paraphrase:

Wish I could do that. Or keep doing it. Thing is, this has gone too far because we keep letting it slide. We’ve gone with the flow only to find that we flow in a gutter. No, it has to be confronted before we drown in a sewer.

Now I wanted to agree with both of them, but Kennebunkport beckoned. Long-distance drives well accommodate long thoughts, and what could be longer than arguing both sides of a case you just prosecuted on pure impulse the previous day?

From the McCarthy Era in which I was born, politics and religion have always been topics unfit for polite company.

Up until a few years ago, however, you could remain friendly with folks you knew were of different persuasions, even those who you knew believed you were going to burn hell forever for not accepting the sanctity of their one and only true God. There were student activists at Salem State back in the Sixties who drank and laughed with arch-conservative faculty in a nearby watering hole every Friday afternoon following arguments “hotter than a matchhead.” I was one of them until I got thrown out for being under-age.

When did it change? Some liberal commentators cite Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994, others the white backlash to the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Both were landmark events, and there’s no doubt Dick Cheney’s Darth Vader approach to foreign affairs and Sarah Palin’s coherence-free descriptions of “real Americans” greased the skid.

Also greasing the skid was the commonly accepted if unwritten rule that nothing can be compared to Hitler and the Nazis, or to slavery. We held to it even as swastikas and Confederate flags started flying publicly in June of 2015. Did we confuse “comparison” with “equation”? Did we forget that making comparisons is a mode of thought? With that self-imposed restriction on our ability to think, why are we now so surprised and shocked to see Nazi insignias and the Stars & Bars all over the American landscape today?

Aversion to any such talk is understandable, especially following revelations of a former president’s connections to those who advocate white supremacy and boast that they “love Hitler.” I still sympathize with the first fellow I overheard in Kafmandu, and I truly regret making three college friends and one of the cousins uncomfortable for a few minutes in the Village Inn.

But I must side with the second fellow. Just as the self-imposed ban on comparisons to what happened in a democracy in the 1930s has greased the skid toward authoritarianism in this century, so too has making politics taboo in polite conversation.

Talk about disconnection: Do we even notice that the words “politics” and “polite” are from the same root?

Kennebunkport is not that long of a drive, but it is long enough to conclude that, although no one uses the term “gag order,” this pact we impose on ourselves to avoid political talk is exactly that. Over the holidays it’s understandable, practical, perhaps necessary. But year-round it becomes a dereliction of civic duty.

In a word, it’s un-American.


Beware ‘Bait Leader’

At the end–or is it the beginning?–of our annual string of shop-till-you-drop days, from Black Friday into this week, I learned of a tactic new to me, though it may be as old as Cyber Monday to you.

My cousin, who detests doing business online as much as I, was quite taken by television ads for a new toy “available at all Walmarts, Targets…” and a few other big box outlets, one of which was just around the corner from her. Billed as a toy for the six- to 36-month set, this proved irresistible to a woman who now has three great-grandchildren in that range.

Unable to find any “Star Belly Dream Lites” on her own, she asked an employee who pulled out and tapped his iPad before telling her that the soft, cutesy, colorful, battery-operated (three AAAs) dinosaurs, teddy bears, and unicorns that cast moving stars on a bedroom ceiling to help toddlers fall asleep is sold online only.

“The ads say ‘available at‘.”

“Yes, it’s available on our website.”

“The ads say at!”

“At. On. What’s the difference?”

Maybe it runs in the family, or more likely the two of us have reached the age where we know there’s no point in trying to reason with people who think language is fungible. Put another way, we accept a thing we cannot change.

In awe of a woman who has more great-grandkids than I have grand-kids, I told her she was right to turn and walk out rather than attempt an answer to his question. And since she was so enamored of the toy as a perfect gift, I agreed with her decision to go online and have Star Bellies sent to her–just as I have t-shirts from the New Bedford Whaling Museum sent to me every year in the weeks before Christmas.

Like my mother, her aunt, she gets them weeks ahead of time, and as soon as I could confess my last-minute habit, two Star Bellies and a similar doll with buttons embedded in its hands, feet, and ears were on the table in front of me. I became so engrossed in pressing those buttons for their various sounds, she said she would get one for me, whereupon I picked it up and shoved it back in the box.

Our conversation turned to and stayed on family matters until I took my leave, but something about her Walmart story seemed to be in the car with me. I killed the radio to think it through.

What’s happening here is somewhere between bait and switch and loss leader. Call it bait leader.

The toy is the bait, and it’s still available, but not where you are led to believe. Instead, they have you in the store for everything else. For the seller, it’s the best of both of those other tactics: There’s no need to switch, and there’s no loss.

Like most advertising, it’s likely well within legal bounds even if ethics are nowhere in sight. And I can’t tell who’s responsible: The toy manufacturer or the box stores? All of the above seems likely.

As I say, I’ve finally reached the age of serenity–which may be a kind word for senility–and I accept what I cannot change. So, Star Bellies need fear no class action suit from me. Nor do Walmart, Target, or any others practicing bait leader.

But I do retain the courage to do what I can, and so I thought I’d caution you about those ads. Beware those smiling faces who say “at” when they mean “on”–not on a shelf, but online.

Here’s to the wisdom to know the difference.


Discolored Friday

No, I’m not going to attach any racial meanings or connotations to the term commonly used for this day, but I am going to report that it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Or what I thought it meant until I stumbled upon “Black Friday” while searching for something else online.

I’d say serendipitously stumbled, but that word applies only to pleasing discoveries, and what I found is no better an origin than what we’ve come to believe. Most folks would likely call it worse, much worse, but I’m among a minority who have long considered this day to be America’s annual Golden Calf, a celebration of materialism champing at the bits of family values and religious traditions.

That’s another argument for another time–and I made it publicly eight years ago with a satirical newspaper column that, if I may say so myself, becomes more literally true every year:

Though my Golden Calf metaphor still holds true, and though today has long been the day when American businesses enjoy massive sales that propel them into the black–even those which have run in the red for much of the year–the word Black has nothing to do with finance.

Instead, Philadelphia police began using “Black Friday” back in the early Sixties to describe the chaotic crowds that appeared when suburban tourists went downtown in droves to start their holiday shopping.

Philadelphia? Sometimes I wonder if the term “brotherly love” refers to Cain and Abel.

Surprising? You may be as much surprised by the word “downtown” rather than “shopping malls” in that report, especially if you are under a certain age, but malls did not begin to usurp America’s commercial life until the late-Sixties.

Notice, too, the word “suburban.” Oh, the irony! White people storm the gates, and Blacks are now to blame. That’s why, before the term shot like a pandemic out of Philadelphia, merchants regretted its negative connotation and tried to promote “Big Friday.” That gained a big yawn, and so the idea of black ink was written over the original script.

“Black Friday” thus went from police log to ledger book, but I promised no critical race theory, so please disregard that last paragraph–though it is worth noting that, like my Golden Calf theory, the original meaning of “Black Friday,” lost long ago, has re-emerged as true and becomes truer and truer every year, pandemic be damned.

Perhaps it was no mere coincidence that the whole movement toward historic preservation took hold soon after the first Black Fridays in the early Seventies when the federal government initiated the National Trust for Historic Preservation–which would soon bloom with a rebirth of street-performance.

Coincidence or not, one setting offers chaos in the pursuit of mass-produced merchandise with Muzak oozing from the walls, while the other, at its best, offers the charm of local craftsmen and -women with live music played for the season.

That’s a story that could fill a book, and it is a recurring theme throughout Pay the Piper!–most explicitly in the chapters titled, “Busking the Red, White, and Blue” and “A Call to Un-Mall.”

Call this Black Friday if you want, but I’ve always been more inclined to saunter, perhaps busk downtown on a Red, White, and Blue Friday. Today it rains, but there’s always tomorrow.


Wake up to Woke

For those who missed it, Gov. Ron DeSadist’s victory speech in Florodor harped on a single word: “Woke.”

He used it at least a dozen times, most sound-bitingly when he sneered: “Florida is where woke comes to die!”

Harping on charged words and phrases has been Republican MO for over 40 years when Ronald Reagan turned “liberal” into a synonym for “socialist.” It worked well for him, but it wore thin by 1996 when Republican presidential nominee Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas thought he could unseat Pres. Bill Clinton by using the word “liberal” two or three times in every sentence. If you think I’m exaggerating, check youTube.

From then on, Republicans paired “liberal” with other buzzwords–radical liberals, liberal extremists, socialist liberals, etc.–and helped it along with a resolve to keep using “extreme” and “hardline” every time they mentioned environmentalists and feminists, as in feminist extremist and hardline environmentalist.

So it was until 2016 when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders hit the national stage. Sanders made liberalism appear to be a humane, acceptable degree of socialism. Trump turned extremism and radicalism into the Republican brand.

No wonder that the Republicans who hope to survive Trumpism need another buzzword.

Rather than waiting twenty more years to feel another Bern for what is actually being said–and spread–Democrats should embrace the word “woke.” Do they recall that “Obamacare” was coined by Republicans as a slur before Pres. Obama himself started using it as matter-of-fact shorthand?

More to the point is Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court in 2010. In his announcement he praised Kagan for her “empathy,” a word on which Republicans pounced as if it were a synonym for “communist.” They got some traction because it’s not a common term, and Kagan herself had to reassure them in confirmation that empathy would never override law in her decisions.

“Woke” is a slang term for “aware.” Whether it originates from politics or music, from the media or from a minority group is of no matter to Republicans. While repeating it, as DeSatan always does, in menacing tones and contrived contexts, they count on woke’s unfamiliarity for traction. In another kind of word, Republicans are making “awareness” ugly.

Like saying DeSanctimonious, DeSatan, or DeSadist for DeSantis. Or hailing King Ron the Wrong of Florodor when you want to give them a taste of their own snake oil.

Democrats, therefore, need only call the word “woke” what it is. Who can argue with anyone being aware of things?

I suppose that the Hershel Walkers and Sarah Palins of the world could argue that “woke” is a word they never heard in the Bible, or that it does not appear anywhere in the US Constitution. I’ll leave the good book to ministers and rabbis and priests to confirm the first claim, but the First Amendment’s provision for freedom of the press tells us that self-government depends on what Jefferson called “an informed citizenry.”

Woke is how democracy stays alive.