Thanks for Thanksgiving

In her earlier career as a poet and editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788–1879) composed a poem so beloved it is a surprise to learn that a human being wrote it: “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” She is also the individual most responsible for the creation of an American holiday so beloved that it is a surprise to learn that someone had to campaign for it: Thanksgiving, which we celebrate today.
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Veterans Day

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)
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Disagree to Agree

“I am wrong about almost everything.”

“Heh. You’re right about that.”

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If you are interested in the horse-race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington-DC portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the entire year before Election Day. That means this year is a good year to move to Nashua, New Hampshire, or Des Moines, Iowa, if you are a politics addict.

The reasons for this are obscure and boring, unless you live in either state. In that case you might be passionate about your community’s role in selecting our next President. In our game of politics, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes … uh, often … well, usually … that party’s candidate for the national election in November.) Because Iowa and New Hampshire vote in January, and because these are the first two contests (albeit in two very sparsely populated states), undue attention is paid to the voters in those states for most of the year before January. This year, both parties are going crazy.

The candidates and the news media descend on the states like a plague of locusts with thick wallets. They rent rooms, cars, restaurants. The local business owners love the year before election year.
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Listen When I Tell You Not to Listen to Me

My gut instincts are mistake-prone.

If you are interested in the horse race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the year before Election Day. This is because, for reasons I could bore you with but will not, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes, often, usually that party’s candidate for the national election in November.)

These two states fight very hard every four years to hold their place as first, fight so hard that both states always claim to be first every time, even a week apart, because Iowa uses one type of voting system and New Hampshire a completely different one. So they are both always first. It comes down to money: because they are first, both states receive a quadrennial economic boost unlike any other, with political candidates and their support teams and journalists and their support teams needing food, shelter, television time for months before January. Some nationally famous politicians have rented houses in Iowa to live in and signed year-long leases for the year of door-to-door campaigning they will do. Other states would love to be first in the nation, to attract those millions of dollars, but these two small-population states put up a winning fight with both the Democratic and the Republican parties every four years and get to be first in the nation to cast ballots.

From 2000 to 2004, I lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city of about 125,000 in a state of three million. A state that is larger than New York State but with one-sixth of the population. So that means that in 2003, I was in the second-largest city in the first of the two “First in the Nation” vote-casting states for Election 2004: Bush v. Kerry. With George W. Bush running for re-election unopposed, it meant that almost every Democrat elected to any office anywhere in the country was campaigning in Iowa.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the highway from Quaker Oats.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the elevated highway from Quaker Oats.

I am a progressive voter, to the left of most Democrats but tending to vote for members of that party. But I also fall head over ballot for every candidate who claims to be the representative from the Land of New Ideas. Rarely do we hear what those New Ideas might be or how much he or she may think they will cost, but I love the idea of New Ideas. Selling New Ideas is an Old Idea, but it gets me every time. And so my life’s list of candidates I have rooted to run for the next office higher than the one they already possessed includes several people named Kennedy, Gary Hart, the late Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and, in 2003, a North Carolina senator named John Edwards. There are others, but I am blushing with embarrassment while typing this.

I should retire my political instincts. Then-Senator Edwards was one of the few politicians I have ever heard speak about rural as well as urban poverty as a blight, a blight because it is a problem that can be tackled if the country’s political will can be inspired. I was inspired. From 2004-’08, it could be said that he pushed the bigger-name candidates to the left (some might think that a good thing), but from 2004-’08 it could also be said that he was doing some other (scandalous) things.

And I met him! And my immediate in-person sense of the man was: “I do not like him.” In January 2004, days before us Democratic Iowans were to cast our first in the nation votes, our so very first votes that New Hampshire was going to be the second first, so stuff it, New England!, just days before that, I saw him speak. Great speech. People are poor. Terrific. Speech over. In the crowded room, we all discovered that that single door entrance over there was now the single door exit for everyone, including the candidate and his handlers, who must hate situations like this in Iowa and New Hampshire. I was next to him for the five minutes it took to leave. He shook my hand—he shook everyone’s hand within reach. I have met a few politicians and I have met quite a few people who ought to run for office, but I have never been rendered invisible quite as quickly as I was by that man. It may qualify as the single most bizarre social encounter I have ever had: I have been dismissed mid-conversation plenty of times, even made to feel that I offended someone, but never looked at like I did not exist.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming crowd and the fact that I did not immediately produce a way out of the room while he was looking for a way out of the room, or perhaps it was the woman behind me. Or perhaps it was because, a bright man, a good reader of juries in his lawyer life, he felt my instinct to not like him. Or perhaps it was the woman behind me who wanted and received his autograph. I have no idea.

What did I do with this instinct to not like John Edwards? I convinced myself to ignore it and campaigned for him at my caucus site on election night and swung our district over to him. My instinct to ignore my instincts can not be trusted.

I did not reach out to the former Vice Presidential nominee, former Senator, one of the more disliked men in America, for comment.

(This column originally ran on August 7, under the name “Vote for Not-Him.”)

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 6 asks, “When’s the last time you followed your instinct despite not being sure it was the right thing to do? Did it end up being the right call?”

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‘Dulce et decorum est’: Veterans Day 2014

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly—but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”—Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist, writing about what he saw at the front. Killed in action April 18, 1945.

(This is a revision of a column I first wrote a year ago.)

I do not come from a family that talks much about its military service. My father was drafted in 1958, served his two-year-long tour, and then came back home to a job that had been held for him. This was during the Cold War, so he did not see action but he did see more of the world than he had up till then, or since. He served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Cold War as a calculator tasked with determining missile flight paths. (I believe he worked with the Atlas missile, an early ICBM model.)

His older brother, my uncle Richard, was a lifelong Army man who served from the 1950s into the ’70s. Richard was a combat veteran, but he never spoke of his experiences in Vietnam with any family member; my understanding is he would go silent for long periods so his letters home were not sent from Vietnam or associated military mailboxes in order to protect his family from the fear that he was in a dangerous combat zone.

Their father, my grandfather, was too young to enlist for action in the First World War, and by December 7, 1941, he was the father of four young sons and nearly 40, so our country did not call on him.

His younger brother, my great-uncle Walter, died in action in France in 1944. (My dad has been producing a family history and I did not know this fact until recently. At the top of this article is a photo from Find A Grave.com of Walter Aldrich’s gravestone in Lorraine American Cemetery, near Metz, France, one of 10,000 Americans buried in that cemetery. It is the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe.)

Purpleheart

Purple Heart

The 104th Infantry Regiment, an element of the 26th Division, is one of the oldest in the country, having first been mustered in 1639 in Springfield, Massachusetts. This is the area of the country my part of the Aldrich family comes from. (It is a line that can be traced directly to the first Aldrich in America.) The 104th saw action at the Battle of Bunker Hill and at Gettysburg and is also known as the “Yankee” Division. Technical Sergeant Walter J. Aldrich, killed November 19, 1944, was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. (Here is a PDF of the division’s battle casualties. If you do not have Adobe Acrobat or if your browser does not open PDFs, do not click on it.)

According to an online history of the 26th Infantry “Yankee” Division: “On 15 November, after an intensive shelling, the Regiment took Marsal and Harracourt and assembled in the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to establish a defense along the Lindequin-Dieuze Road. In driving for the towns immediately east of the Foret de Bride et de Koecking to cut off railroad arteries that fed Metz, the Division ran up against a strong defensive position.” In some way, my great-uncle played a part in the fight for Metz, which the Allies re-took on November 17, and where he is buried.

My father wrote in his family history that Walter “enlisted in the Army on March 10, 1941. I remember Uncle Walter visiting us in South ‘Derry while wearing his uniform prior to being sent overseas. I wish now that when I was in the Army in 1958–1960 and stationed in Germany, I had known where he had been buried in France. I went to Paris, France, on a long weekend pass and would have gone to the cemetery to see his grave.”

There is a National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, NY, near where I live, but Walter Aldrich is not on their roster.

On my mother’s side of the family, my great-uncle Louis Miller also served in the Army in Europe in World War II, and he saw the concentration camps, a solemn thing for a American-born Jew to witness.

When I was 18 and struggling with the identity issues that 18-year-old boys are supposed to struggle with, but a bit more loudly than the New England side of my family was accustomed to witnessing, my Uncle Richard had some advice: “Take one step forward and raise your right hand.” Military service was what I needed, he made clear in his loving but curt way, and he was the only family member, friend, or guidance counselor in my life to offer this advice. A couple decades later and a few mistakes along the way, I wonder if he might not have been correct, but only because I remember that at the time, we were not at war.

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War is one of the least common shared experiences but is the one that writers and other artists most desire to capture in the moment, to make it seem a common shared experience. Many great works are the result of the attempt to make war real for those, like me, who have not and probably never will witness combat.

Each new generation at war masters new technologies for waging war and new ways to describe it. The Civil War brought new fighting machines and battlefield photography; the Second World War debuted mass anonymous bombing runs and heroic, large-scale battles—it was the war for novelists and filmmakers; the First World War was the war of chemical attacks, soul-crushingly slow trench warfare, and new mechanical technologies of death-creation sadly under-anticipated by those who were planning for yet another war fought in straight lines.

World War I was the absurd war, fought for reasons so complicated and obscure to the common fighting man that for Christmas Day 1914, an unofficial truce was declared by the soldiers on the battlefields of the Western Front and there, on the fields, carols were sung, holiday cards were exchanged between enemies, and joint burials of the battlefield dead were conducted by the opposing sides. It was the war for poets.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (Latin for “it is sweet and right”) is a poem that attempts to capture a small moment of death in the large landscape of a battlefield shrouded in mustard gas. It calls the Horatian declaration that closes the poem, “Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori” (“Sweet and right it is to die/for one’s country”), “the old Lie,” and there the reason for the poet’s close study of a fellow soldier’s violent death is delivered. For Owen, there is no great message to be gleaned from recounting his comrade’s gurgling death other than the sad, empty absence of any message. You would not tell children eager for heroic tales, he concludes, you would not tell them of great glory, if you were to see and hear the “smothering dreams” of death that he has seen.

If any members of my family carried such “smothering dreams” in them from the military portions of their lives, they certainly did not attempt to convince any of us in the next generation of the beauty of “patria mori.” I suppose that that is an honorable silence. My uncle’s Vietnam combat stories were only for the ears of his VFW buddies and hunting partners.

Owen himself died on November 4, 1918, one week before peace was declared, on November 11. So I honor our patriots this Veterans Day by reading a poem that reminds us of the absence in the grit of war of any heroic message, a poem that some 96 years after it was composed probably better describes the unconventional battlefields seen in our current conflicts than many attempts today.

Dulce et Decorum Est—Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 10 asks, “Fill in the blank: ‘Life is too short to _____.’ Now, write a post telling us how you’ve come to that conclusion.”

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The Fall of the Berlin Wall

The demolition of the Berlin Wall started 25 years ago today, November 9, 1989. Nine days later, I turned 21, so every minute of my first 21 years except for a week was lived in the bipolar world of the Cold War.

Us versus them. It was served with our breakfast cereal, our school lunches, and the nightly news watched during dinner. The Cold War was a fact, a background noise, a tinnitus-like hum heard 24/7, sometimes from far away and sometimes next door. Its removal seemed to make us aware that it had always been there, how loud it was, and that it had been driving us all insane.

Since 1989, there have been many movies set in post-apocalyptic nightmare futures but by the mid 1980s our movies were starting to entertain the notion of depicting the apocalypse itself; in 1964, “Dr. Strangelove” ends with a sequence of images of mushroom clouds, which is shocking and direct—and very far away. On November 20, 1983, ABC television aired a made-for-TV movie called “The Day After” which graphically depicted the moment of apocalypse. In Kansas. (According to its Wikipedia entry, it remains the highest-rated made-for-TV movie in American television history.

A military build-up in East Germany leads to a standoff and diplomatic breakdown and both sides launch missiles. The movie does not dwell in the plausibility of the geopolitical story, though, since that really would not matter to innocent citizens on the ground; it shows the missiles exploding and the instantaneous and not so instantaneous deaths everyday people would experience. Conscientious history teachers sent their pupils home with requests that the students be allowed to watch in order to participate in discussions the next day; ABC announced at what minute the most horrifying scenes would begin (I seem to remember the broadcast was commercial-free).

My parents did not sign; I remain one of the few who did not see “The Day After.”

vilniusbBy 1989, it appeared that the end was beginning. In January of that year, I traveled to the USSR with a school group. We saw what it looks like when a country maintains borders not to keep people out but to keep its own citizens inside. In Vilnius, Lithuania, a truly beautiful city, an elderly woman approached us (our professor was Lithuanian, so he translated) and declared, “God bless Reagan!” In Kiev, Ukraine, something similar happened but the elderly woman did not need to be translated; she said it in English. In Leningrad, the same thing.

(I happen to be a liberal, a Democrat usually, and this love for Ronald freaking Reagan was not winning any points with me. But even I understood what was happening. I just wanted some love for Michael Dukakis, who had recently lost to Reagan’s vice-president, George Bush, in November.) Even I understood what was happening. Asked why the people we were meeting, both those speaking freely and the minders who could not speak freely, were not praising Gorbachev and perestroika, our professor spoke metaphorically: “When a jailer removes a prisoner’s head from a bucket of water, the prisoner is not going to thank the jailer for his kindness.” Maybe it wasn’t all that metaphoric.

I do not know if we were more or less closely watched than other groups usually were during our two-week visit, but no attempt was made to conceal watching us. The professor and I were given a personal last-moment tour of the inner workings of an interrogation room on our way out of the country.

From November 9, 1989, until Christmas 1991, when the USSR declared itself closed for business, the Cold War came to a sputtering conclusion. One side won or at least declared victory. It began with an exclamation point, the crowds atop the Berlin Wall, and many revolutions in many countries unfolded over those two years before the final chapter was written. For generations before, from the late 1940s on, the Cold War was the defining fact of life for citizens in dozens of countries on the two declared sides.

For people 40 years old and older, we grew up in an era in which the end of the world was a legitimate conversation topic. The images of the happiest people on earth breaking through that terrible wall 25 years ago today are a reminder of “The Day Before,” a period when “The Day After” of our cultural imagining was unspeakable horror.

Ever since, both sides have been working hard to replicate that bipolar worldview, that us versus them mentality. It makes for an easier foreign policy, which sometimes makes for an easier domestic policy. Looking at the 25-year-old images is like getting a message from a stranger letting us know that it is still all over, but we do not know who the caller is or what is still all over.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 9 asks, “Someone’s left you a voice mail message, but all you can make out are the last words: ‘I’m sorry. I should’ve told you months ago. Bye.’ Who is it from, and what is this about?”

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Daily Prompt: Vote for Not-Him

The WordPress Daily Prompt for August 7 asks, “Tell us about a time you made a false assumption about a person or a place—how did they prove you wrong?”
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If you are interested in the horse race nature of American politics, the drop-everything-every-four-years-so-we-can-fill-all-the-jobs-in-Washington portion of our public life, you could do no worse than live in either New Hampshire or Iowa for the year before Election Day. This is because, for reasons I could bore you with but will not, Iowa is the first state in the country to hold a vote for President, in January of election year, and New Hampshire is the second state, usually a week later. (Through the spring and summer of election year, the major political parties conduct state-by-state votes, and the winner of the most votes is sometimes, often, usually that party’s candidate for the national election in November.)

These two states fight very hard every four years to hold their place as first, fight so hard that both states always claim to be first every time, even a week apart, because Iowa uses one type of voting system and New Hampshire a completely different one. So they are both always first. It comes down to money: because they are first, both states receive a quadrennial economic boost unlike any other, with political candidates and their support teams and journalists and their support teams needing food, shelter, television time for months before January. Some nationally famous politicians have rented houses in Iowa to live in and signed year-long leases for the year of door-to-door campaigning they will do. Other states would love to be first in the nation, to attract those millions of dollars, but these two small-population states put up a winning fight with both the Democratic and the Republican parties every four years and get to be first in the nation to cast ballots.

From 2000 to 2004, I lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city of about 125,000 in a state of three million. A state that is larger than New York State but with one-sixth of the population. So that means that in 2003, I was in the second-largest city in the first of the two “First in the Nation” vote-casting states for Election 2004: Bush v. Kerry. With George W. Bush running for re-election unopposed, it meant that almost every Democrat elected to any office anywhere in the country was campaigning in Iowa.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the highway from Quaker Oats.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the foreground is a Quaker Oats factory. My apartment building is the red brick building smack in the middle of the photo, across the highway from Quaker Oats.

I am a progressive voter, to the left of most Democrats but tending to vote for them. But I also fall head over ballot for every candidate who claims to be the representative from the Land of New Ideas. Rarely do we hear what those New Ideas might be or how much he or she may think they will cost, but I love the idea of New Ideas. Selling New Ideas is an Old Idea, but it gets me every time. And so my life’s list of candidates I have rooted to run for the next office higher than the one they already possessed includes several people named Kennedy, Gary Hart, the late Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and, in 2003, a North Carolina senator named John Edwards. There are others, but I am blushing while typing this.

I should retire my political instincts. Then-Senator Edwards was one of the few politicians I have ever heard speak about rural as well as urban poverty as a blight, a blight because it is a problem that can be tackled. I was inspired. From 2004-’08, it could be said that he pushed the bigger-name candidates to the left (some might think that a good thing), but from 2004-’08 it could also be said that he was doing some other (scandalous) things.

And I met him! And my immediate in-person sense of the man was: “I do not like him.” In January 2004, days before us Democratic Iowans were to cast our first in the nation votes, our so very first votes that New Hampshire was going to be the second first, so stuff it, New England!, just days before that, I saw him speak. Great speech. People are poor. Terrific. Speech over. In the crowded room, we all discovered that that single door entrance over there was now the single door exit for everyone, including the candidate and his handlers, who must hate situations like this in Iowa and New Hampshire. I was next to him for the five minutes it took to leave. He shook my hand—he shook everyone’s hand within reach. I have met a few politicians and I have met quite a few people who ought to run for office, but I have never been rendered invisible quite as quickly as I was by that man. It may qualify as the single most bizarre social encounter I have ever had: I have been dismissed mid-conversation plenty of times, even made to feel that I offended someone, but never looked at like I did not exist.

Perhaps it was the overwhelming crowd and the fact that I did not immediately produce a way out and he was looking for one, or perhaps it was the woman behind me. Or perhaps it was because, a bright man, a good reader of juries in his lawyer life, he felt my instinct to not like him. Or perhaps it was the woman behind me who wanted and received his autograph. I have no idea.

What did I do with this instinct to not like John Edwards? I convinced myself to ignore it and campaigned for him at my caucus site on election night and swung our district over to him. My instinct to ignore my instincts can not be trusted.