Hearing the sirens

Talking about the weather, and race

Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.

Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.

We know what to do about weather.

We don’t know what to do about race.

Philando shrineNext Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.

Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.

How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people—white people– refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.

The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism. Continue reading “Hearing the sirens”

Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere

A belated thank-you to teachers

In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.

I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.

IMG_20170607_101249During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.

In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.

Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.

It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world. Continue reading “Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere”

Four Ways to Prevent a Tainted Presidency

In five days, December 19th, the Electoral College is expected to elect Donald Trump president.

The Russians hacked our election. Putin shouldn’t decide who gets the White House. The Electoral College was created to safeguard the presidency from dangerous and unqualified candidates, including those who are  not independent from foreign powers. Newsweek Trump’s foreign business deals jeopardize US

Unless you are among the 538 electors who will cast a ballot on Monday, you may feel powerless to stop Trump’s tainted presidency. Think again.

Here are four things we can do, right now.

  1. CALL President Obama, Congress and governors to demand that electors get the information they need. Ask Obama to declassify the CIA report about Russian hacking so electors can get intelligence briefings. Over 50 Dem electors call for intelligence briefing  White House 202-456-1111; Sen. Franken 202-224-5641; Sen. Klobuchar 202-224-3244; Gov. Dayton 651-201-3400
  2. ASK our state and national Attorneys General  to postpone the Electoral College vote until there’s a complete investigation about Russia’s role in our election and Trump’s ties to Russia and other countries. U.S. Attorney General 202-514-2000, comment line is press 4; MN Attorney General 651-296-3353.
  3. SHOW Electors we are watching. Groups including  Hamilton Electors and Stop Trump + Defend Democracy are planning vigils and statehouse events nationwide for December 18 and 19.
  4. BELIEVE in democracy. Believe that we, the people, have the right and the responsibility to shape our country we want. From the Boston Tea Party to Black Lives Matter, Americans have shown amazing fortitude to stand up against intense powers, be they a British king or homegrown white supremacists. Already, more electors are standing up to protect our country against an unfit leader. More electors will vote against Trump

Whatever the outcome of the Electoral College, I will stand up for what our country should be. I’ll continue to listen, read and be informed; to make phone calls, write letters, stand up and speak out for what is right, and protest what is wrong. We, the people, have power. Now is the time to use it. Now.

“The Founding Fathers intended the Electoral College to stop an unfit man from becoming President. The Constitution they crafted gave us this tool. Conscience demands that we use it.”  — The Hamilton Electors

Can the Electoral College save America?

3 big reasons why electors should reject Trump

Today, class, let’s talk about the Electoral College– this election may not be a done deal.  At least ten Electoral College electors have said they’ll use their votes to prevent a Donald Trump presidency.

Here’s a few numbers you need to know about this bizarre and rancorous presidential election:

538 Electoral College electors will cast their votes on December 19th

270 Electoral votes are needed to become president

306: Trump’s expected electoral vote count, based on the Nov 8 election

232 : Clinton’s expected electoral vote count, based on the Nov 8 election (Clinton leads the popular vote by 2.6 million votes, but in this election, the popular vote doesn’t determine who becomes president.)

So, it looks like Trump’s got the numbers to win, right? Probably, but, here’s a few more numbers:

37 Republican electors would have to reject Trump for him to drop below the 270 needed votes.

1 Electoral College elector, Art Sisneros, resigned, saying Trump is “not biblically qualified to serve in the office of the Presidency.”

9 Electoral College electors have publicly said they’ll vote for a compromise candidate, although today, Gov. John Kasich said he doesn’t want electors to write in his name.

This week, Christopher Suprun, a Texas Republican elector, wrote a New York Times op-ed explaining why he won’t vote for Trump. Suprun notes that Electoral College electors need to determine if candidates are:

  1. Independent from foreign influence
  2. Not engaged in demagogy
  3. Qualified

Suprun and others, including eight Democratic electors who say they’ll vote for a compromise candidate, say Trump fails all three criteria. More about the big three reasons electors should not vote for Trump:

  1. FOREIGN INFLUENCE?

Trump himself mentioned what he called  “a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.”

Check out The Atlantic’s comprehensive list of Trump’s foreign conflicts.

  1. DEMOGOGUE?

The dictionary defines a demagogue “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power”

Prejudices? Check. “Mexicans are rapists.”

False claims? Check. “Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.”

False promises? Check. “I’m going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.”

  1. QUALIFIED?

Trump’s foreign conflicts and blatant demagogy should disqualify him from leading our country. Add to that his thin-skinned temper which could trigger a war. More than four dozen Republican former national security and foreign policy officials signed a letter warning that Trump would be a “dangerous” president.  Check out Kathleen Parker’s op-ed today.

I’ll give the last words to the Hamilton Electors, a group of Democratic electors from Colorado and Washington state who are urging their fellow electors to use the power of the Electoral College as it was designed—as a safeguard against danger: “The Founding Fathers intended the Electoral College to stop an unfit man from becoming President. The Constitution they crafted gave us this tool. Conscience demands that we use it.”  

 

 

Fireside story time, the secrets of the trees

Winter’s here, time to curl up by the fire and listen to a guy who spent his life looking up at trees.

tree-book-coverRobert Penn’s quirky and personal book, The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, tells the story of one ash tree, felled and turned into arrows, bowls, spoons, tent pegs, canoe paddles, catapults, dominoes, axe handles, a desk, and paneling. This isn’t a quaint catalogue of wooden goods. It’s a crackerjack story of the world, as seen through one kind of tree.

Penn’s life-long love affair with trees animates his stories, which are chockful of deft details, such as:

  • “Ash is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.”
  • Irish mythology includes ash in a trilogy of sacred trees believed to have healing powers. During the Potato Famine, before setting sail for America, emigrants whittled chips from an ash tree in County Cork as protection against drowning.
  • Ash was known as the ‘sportsmen’s wood,’ and used for everything from cricket stumps, hockey and lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, baseball bats, skis, snowshoe frames and gymnastic parallel bars.

Penn introduces readers to craftspeople, broadening his saga, like the rings of a tree. Starting from his home in South Wales, he visits various English woods and woodshops, an Austrian Alps toboggan maker, then onward to Ireland to see an epic hurling game and a $2500 bicycle frame made of ash, and eventually to a Pennsylvania sawmill that’s produced more than 100 million baseball bats.

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Tom Mareschall checks one of his handcrafted arrows

Each chapter frames a new woodworker, from the lumberjack who fells Penn’s ash to a fourth-generation wheelwright, making wooden wheel rims just as his mother, father, grandfather and great grandfather did, to an eccentric fletcher, the traditional term for an arrow maker. Arrows, Penn writes, were known as the Devil’s Finger. Reading his crackling chronicles of medieval longbowmen and archery battles, I can hear arrows zinging.

Along the way, Penn sprinkles little asides, seeds that may take root in a reader’s imagination, like the mention of shinrin-yoku, what Japanese people call forest-bathing, going for a walk in ancient woods

Penn’s engaging anecdotes got me thinking about trees I’ve loved. From a neighbor’s walnut tree that Uncle John transformed into a wall of rich dark paneling in my childhood bedroom, to a pretty fringed paper birch that caught my eye the first time I saw my house in Saint Paul. Copper birch borers killed that tree, just as emerald ash borers are decimating tens of millions of ashes, like the weakened specimens shedding branches and limbs on my block.

img_20161129_130442Soon, my street, Ashland Avenue, will be ash free. In time, all the ash trees may be history. Seeds of new trees will spring up, spreading canopies that some child will gaze up at in wonder, daydreaming about the secrets of nature and our world.

Robert Penn grew up playing under an ash tree that he remembers as “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” His book has spurred me to look at trees and see more.

Find out more about Rob Penn

 

 

 

 

Ordinary history: Old glass, worn shoes

After wandering through galleries of spectacular history at the British Museum, I stop and stand in awe, transfixed by a broken window pane. The grayish-blue glass is scratched and missing four fragments, yet it’s intact, still clearly a window pane. This thin square of glass was found in Sussex, England, and dates to Roman times, the 1st or 2nd century BC. A bath house window that somehow managed to survive millennia. How can that be?

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Window pane, 1st-2nd century BC

As I write this, sitting at my desk in Minnesota, I glance out the century-old windows of my house, seeing golden leaves swaying in the autumn sun. Might any of these windows endure for another 2,000 years? I look down at the travel photos on my modern phone, a shiny glass screen that shows me a fractured pane from the 1st century BC.  A window from the past giving 21st century people a window to the past.

The image of that old grayish-blue pane stays with me, more than the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone, the heralded stars of the astonishing British Museum. Yes, I saw the Marbles and the Stone, and yes, I was impressed. The Rosetta Stone stands as a testament to the power of language. The massive stone, dense with inscriptions written in three scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek—gave modern scholars a key to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone helped people today learn what people long ago had written. We can see their stories, even if we cannot hear the original voices.

The museum presents the history of the world, artifacts amassed by a once powerful empire. The collections describe gods and royals, as well as ordinary people. For me, it’s the mundane objects that reveal glimpses of people who lived long ago.

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Iron scissors, 16th century

I see iron scissors from the 16th century and wonder who held them, and what was cut. Textiles, paper, hair? Did some young man trim his red beard with those scissors, as my son trims his beard? Did a weary woman sit by the fire, sewing, with those scissors by her side, just as I, occasionally sit and mend? I see wooden combs and metal tweezers, toiletry items akin to those in modern purses and homes. The bronze and silver Etruscan handheld mirrors would fit in on a 21st century vanity. I see myself reflected in a mirror, first polished in the 4th century. I conjure the woman who owned this mirror, seeing her face.

img_20161013_121630What did she think when she looked at herself? Did she reach for her metal tweezer, her wooden comb? Did she hold this mirror as she applied kohl, black makeup that helped shield her eyes from strong sunlight, much as my sunglasses do? I stare at her mirror and want to know her story.

I walk into another gallery and stare at old shoes, Roman boots from 25 BC, found in ancient Egypt. The examples of footwear range from a foot-shaped lump resembling burnt leather, cracked at the mid-foot; a taupe swath of what seems like a moccasin; and a sorry sole with several holes and a few leather straps, a shadow of a shoe. The sign explains that these military boots were probably caligae, meaning little soldiers, worn by soldiers under the Emperor Gaius.

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Roman marching boots,  25 BC

I know the soldiers’ shoes are just a footnote of history, not the main meat. But the boots bear traces of the soldiers who wore them, average people whose collective footprints shaped history. Their everyday stories, more than the epic battles and ornate coronations, are the history I long to know.

The soldiers who strapped on those boots, the people who used the scissors and toiletries were, in some ways, like us today. They spoke other languages, lived on other continents, yet their lives mirrored in some ways, our lives. They looked in the mirror, combed, cut, or tweezed their hair, laced up their shoes, went to where the powerful people told them to, and maybe, looked out a window, daydreaming. Seeing historical artifacts reminds me that, no matter the differences of time, language, and geography, we are all people, more alike than not, one species sharing one planet.

Art, death, memory

Lots of art, lots of death. That’s how I’ll remember twelve days touring castles and museums, churches, parks and squares in Copenhagen, London, and Newcastle.

So much of the history and art seemed imbued with fear and desire. The fear of death, the desire to be remembered. We don’t want to die and don’t want to be forgotten.

I saw so many faces and names carved in stone, bone, and marble, painted on canvas, glazed on tile. Many of the faces looked distinctive, rather than generic. The king with the spectacular curly beard, the queen with eyes bulging, the guy with a wart above his lip.  Those warts-and-all busts make me think those subjects wanted to be remembered as they were.

Sometimes the art tells us about the subject; sometimes it reveals more about the artist. Museums full of handcrafts connect the maker from centuries ago with those of us who see the craft today. We who gaze at the statues, the silver skull watch jewelry, the beautiful gravestones, we see the work, and can envision something of the maker and the made.

Art offers immortality, a way for people to live forever, or at least a hedge against being forgotten. The fear of fading away is as common now as it was in the days of Egyptian kings and their elaborate tombs. Instead of pyramids, we emblazon schools and hospitals, all kinds of buildings, with names, sometimes in massive gold letters. Many of us pay to have our loved ones’ names chiseled on gravestones, stone memories that remain long after bodies become dust.

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Aurelius Julianus family gravestone

I think of a gravestone of a young child, the son of a Roman soldier at Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The stone recounts the sadness of Aurelius Julianus, whose wife died in childbirth and a year later, whose infant son died. The soldier’s grief was compounded when he was ordered to a new post, abandoning his family’s tombstones. “May the gods forgive me. There’s no one left to perform the rituals for my dead family.”

Aurelius Julianus feared no one would remember or honor his wife and son. More than two thousand years after their deaths, their memory remains, thanks to a humble tombstone now in the Great North Museum in Newcastle, England. Aurelius Julianus’s love and grief have kept his family from being forgotten.

A simple gravestone or ornate tomb, a name carved in marble or gold, busts and statues, all reveal stories we tell about ourselves or others. The art portrays something of who we are, as well as our fear of death, our need to be remembered.