Seeking a Song’s Meaning (continued)

While the accommodations and the surroundings at the Retreat Center of Manhattan’s Trinity Church were a pleasant bonus, we were assembled there (some 30 of us) for the weekend to examine the Biblical Song of Songs and related poems. We had an introductory session on Friday evening. The leader asked our names and where we were from, but also why we were there and about our spirituality. I was third to speak and a bit nervous since I could hardly claim religious fervor of any kind. I said that I read the Bible some and that I hoped that the weekend might help me understand poetry better. I continued by saying that I identified neither as religious or spiritual, and that a question of my spirituality just seemed irrelevant to me. No outcries of disgust or amazed looks followed. Whether with tolerance, understanding, or politeness, my comments seemed accepted. More than that, the eighth speaker said that she identified with and was adopting my comments.

It turned out that others were not connected to the church and only some were what I would describe as a “seeker.” Six women came as a group and seemed mostly interested in comradeship. Some of the others were regular churchgoers, and several were Trinity clergy. Even so, there was little formal religiosity. Of course, meals and sessions were preceded by prayers, but there was no formal or informal proselytizing. Optional evening and morning prayer services were offered.

The retreaters’ common thread was an interest in the topic; everyone sought a better understanding of a Book of the Bible. And all were sharp, maybe even perspicacious. When I have had occasion to travel on a group tour, there is always someone along who is the group idiot — a buffoon, or an ignoramus who might say something such as, “You mean to tell me there is a North and a South Korea.” This was not true at the retreat. Every comment about what we read — and almost every person spoke at some point — was not only sensible but worth pondering.

Our study sessions started on Saturday morning. We were fortunate, or should I say blessed, to be led by Nate Wall, soon to get his doctorate from a Toronto institution. His dissertation is on John Donne, but his expertise on the Hebrew Bible was what was most valuable for us.

He would start each session with a short prayer, give a brief background about the topic, and ask a question to get the discussion going. Nate did not have a lectern, which would not have contained him. As he talked, he took two steps forward, rocked on his heels, then a step back, paused, a step to the left, another step back. As he talked, his eyes were alive looking for anyone who wanted to say something. When someone did, his gaze did not waver from them, and he stood still and listened. He then seamlessly incorporated those comments into the flow of the discussion.

He made it seem easy, but I know it is not. I have done similar things in court, law school classes, and community forums. It requires the ability to listen, and few people truly have that. The mind must stay focused on what is being said and not wander even for an instant. The leader must have tremendous control of the subject matter to incorporate comments into the discussion. Flexibility is required. The leader cannot have a rigid notion of how the session should proceed because the questions and comments will always take it somewhere else. The leader must be equable and remain enthusiastic. A good sense of humor is often needed. And it is useful if, like Nate, the leader never says an um or its equivalent.

Nate was as good a discussion leader as I have seen. With his knowledge, ability, enthusiasm, infectious smile, and curly hair, I could see future college students developing a crush on him. The crushes, however, would go unrequited. Nate’s lovely wife Julia was also at the retreat. Almost eight months pregnant, she was even more attractive than Nate. An ordained Canadian Baptist minister, she worked for a Baptist nonprofit. The love between the two of them was almost a field force. The admiring looks from one to the other gave me a warm smile. I am often cynical, but Julia and Nate made me think that the future could be good.

In preparation for the retreat, I read Song of Songs a few days before we got there. This much was clear: it was a love poem. I know that I do not have a good appreciation of poetry. I may feel the aptness, power, or beauty of a single line or image, but I almost never enjoy or appreciate an entire poem. Poetry, it too often seems, must be approached as a puzzle but with no one solution or right answer. Any satisfaction I get does not seem to be worth the trouble. I read and stumble and then conclude that I don’t really care what Yeats or Auden is saying.

For years, I was fascinated with Pound and thought I might write about his imprisonment, trial, and hospitalization. I read books and articles about him, but I thought that to write well about him I should have some appreciation or at least understanding of his poetry. I started reading the Cantos and quickly concluded I was not going to be writing about Ezra.

As one fascinated by Brooklyn and Manhattan and beyond, I thought Whitman was a natural for me. I tried. A few lines stood out, but I soon became bored. Of course, I have enjoyed some Dickinson, and to my surprise, I seem to feel something significant when I read Wallace Stevens, but don’t ask me to explain what I have read. Only rarely do I “get” poetry.

(continued January 30)

Seeking a Song’s Meaning (continued)

In retirement I started going to Trinity’s weekday music. However, I went more often to St. Paul’s, a chapel of Trinity located four or five blocks north of the church. St. Paul’s, too, is a historic building. Its cornerstone was laid in 1764, and it is the oldest church building in New York City. The AIA Guide to New York City says it “is as close to the original as any building requiring maintenance over 200 years could be.” The WPA Guide’s description is still accurate: “The light, spacious interior is handsomely decorated with a barrel vault carried on slender columns, and a gallery on each side.” St. Paul’s looks and feels much different from the neo-gothic mother church. (A painting marks George Washington’s pew. Immediately after his inauguration Washington and Congress went to a St. Paul’s service. The first president did not go to Trinity Church because no church building then stood on the Trinity site. The original building had been destroyed by the fire of 1776. By the time the second building was constructed, the federal government no longer met in New York.)

At first I resisted the signs that told me there were regular concerts at St. Paul’s titled “Bach at One.” I have infrequently attended classical concerts and have found my attention almost always wanders at some point. And while Mozart, Brahms, or Mahler might conceivably have had some appeal, Bach did not sing out to me. On the other hand, as I learned that these choral concerts were only an hour long and free (which always appeals) I urged myself to try at least one, especially since they were easy to get to, and I almost never had any plans in my retired life at 1 PM on a winter Monday or Wednesday. When I finally went, I found that the sixteen-person professional Trinity choir performed two Bach cantatas accompanied by the professional Trinity Baroque Orchestra playing period instruments. The more I went the more I enjoyed. I did not always revel in the solos, but I loved the choral music. I became something of a regular.

This made me even more interested in Trinity’s music, and I logged into their website frequently and signed up for their emails. I learned much about the church from this, including that they held retreats out of the city a half dozen times a year. Most held little interest for me, but then I showed the spouse the notice for one that was to be a weekend-long study of the Song of Songs and how that love poem had influenced poets through the centuries. It was to be led by a Canadian graduate student who was about to get his Ph.D. with a dissertation about John Donne.

This did not look like a devotional retreat as much as a literary one. Poetry and I have seldom seen eye to eye, but I thought that forty-eight hours might put us on a more equal footing. And a winter weekend in the countryside seemed as if it could be nice. The spouse and I decided that we could at least tolerate it and perhaps we might even find it interesting. Hell, oops, heck, it might even be fun. We decided to go.

With only a bit of bickering about the route, we crossed the covered bridge, turned right, and entered the 55-acre Trinity Retreat Center at 4PM on a January Friday. We entered a deceptively modest looking building, which was in fact the equivalent of a 25-room hotel. (Hotel-like but without a bar or a minibar.) Our room with a king size bed was spacious and modern and overlooked the Housatonic River (no TV, of course). The public areas were furnished as I thought a country retreat should be: comfortable sofas with mis-matched chairs, window seats, tables with worn finishes, patterned but slightly worn rugs that would have looked right in a child’s playroom, and fireplaces with seasoned-wood blazes so good they looked as if they might be fake (they weren’t). Everything appeared to have been recently updated with fresh paint, gleaming floors, state-of-the-art fire alarms, new plantings. Wrap-around porches faced the river, but it was too cold on this January weekend to use them.

Meals were eaten at a collection of communal tables, one of which was set aside for non-talkers who wanted a hint of a silent retreat. The food was prepared by in-house cooks with fresh ingredients. In summer their own gardens provide a farm-to-table menu. The food was healthy and delicious. Its bounty was its only flaw; I overate at every meal.

I was in the second week of a three-week cold and did not feel strong enough to hike the grounds. I did not even walk the prayer labyrinth, but I did make it to the barn, which housed six rescue donkeys. We got in the pen with them, and they seemed to enjoy being petted and scratched for a while, and then they seemed to indicate either satisfaction or boredom and started drifting away. (I now own a Trinity Retreat Center t-shirt with cartoon depictions of these gentle creatures.)

(continued January 27)

Seeking a Song’s Meaning (continued)

The nineteenth-century critics of Trinity Church’s real estate practices had become quiet. That changed in 1908 when Charles Edward Russell published an impassioned, eloquent, muckraking article, “The Tenements of Trinity Church,” in Everybody’s Magazine. Russell had walked and studied the blocks north of Trinity Church and had gained access to many of the buildings on the narrow streets. He reported that Trinity leased its vacant lots, and tenants built on them. The leases were not the 99-year kind but for short terms, and, as a result, construction was often makeshift. Trinity generally did not renew the leases when their terms ended and would not buy the erected buildings. The owners could tear them down for the materials or walk away from them, as most did. Trinity, then, basically, inherited the buildings.

As a result, the church owned hundreds of tenements, which originally were single family homes but, Russell wrote, now housed five or six families. He branded them the worst tenements in New York: “Of all the tenement-houses that there are on Trinity land I have not found one that is not a disgrace to civilization and to the city of New York. . . . Whenever I saw a house that looked as if it were about to fall down, one that looked in every way rotten and weary and dirty and disreputable, I found that it was owned by Trinity or stood upon Trinity ground.”

He wrote about the crushed lives of the people he found: “She had lived in tenement-houses all her life, and not being the kind that finds refuge in drink, the utter dreariness of her surroundings had shriveled away the soul of humanity in her until nothing was left but this shape of perpetual fear. . . . She was dressed in rags, she was gaunt and bent, and in her eyes was an unspeakable terror of you and of me and of all the world that had brought her down to this.”

He recognized that Trinity was not entirely responsible for the conditions he observed and that the church did many good things, but still: “Ah, yes, blessings on the Sunday-school excursions, blessings on the trade-schools, blessings on the parochial schools, blessings on the fruit and flower missions, blessings on the organ music, blessings on the chapel guilds, blessings on the contributions for the poor of St. John’s. Beautiful, indeed, are all these things. But while they keep their wonted way, the mill of the tenement-house goes on crushing, and the products of the crushing stare us in the face with ugly questions, not to be answered with Sunday-school excursions.”

Russell discussed some “strange features” to “this extraordinary story,” but he concluded “The Tenements of Trinity Church” simply: “But stranger than all is this: that a Christian church should be willing to take money from such tenements as Trinity owns in the old Eighth Ward.”

This devastating article had its effect. Shortly after its 1908 publication, Trinity Church tore down the tenements and built office buildings and warehouses in their places. I do not know what happened to the residents of the Trinity tenements, many of whom, as even Russell conceded, paid only small rents.

Today the church owns little or none of this land and of the rest of the original Queen Anne grant. I doubt that it was surveyed back in 1706. Different sources report slightly different sizes, but it was between 200 and 300 acres. A report a few years ago said that Trinity had retained only fourteen acres of the original grants.

The church gave away about two-thirds of its land, primarily to religious institutions of various faiths and to schools. For example, Trinity gave the land for the original Kings College, which later became Columbia University. It sold or gave land to the city for parks and other public purposes. But other lands were sold to business enterprises, and Trinity commercially developed lands it retains. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Trinity constructed what was probably the first Manhattan building exclusively for offices just north of the church — the Trinity Building, which has since been torn down.

Trinity has been and remains a rich institution. A recent estimate is that its assets are worth close to $10 billion. A news report of a few years ago said that the church had a tax exempt “diversified portfolio” of $6 billion.

Not surprisingly, complaints are made that the church does not do enough good with its largesse. I don’t know if that is right, but from what I can tell, the church does do at least a lot of good with its money. It has many different fellowship programs for its parishioners, but it also helps many outside its own membership. For example, it has outreach programs for prisoners and the homeless. It serves 35,000 lunches to those in need. It has an affordable 325-unit residence for elderly and disabled people. It helps with housing for needy graduate students. Trinity has helped other churches experiencing financial difficulties. The church has a formal grant program for other worthwhile organizations, which in 2022 disbursed over $23 million. And they do much more good, I suppose. I don’t know if they do “enough,” but I do know that many have benefited from Trinity Church’s largesse.

Although not a member of Trinity, I have been a beneficiary of the church. Trinity not only has music at its services; it has frequent free concerts for the community at large including a regular series of performances at midday. When I retired, I started attending ten or more Trinity concerts a year at two different venues. Varied musicians performed at the church itself—a brass ensemble, jazz trios, a bass and cellist. Perhaps the most remarkable performer I heard was the renowned Moses Josiah. Renowned, I say, but in very small circles. Josiah played the musical saw. His repertoire included some classical pieces, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a hymn I associate with my Sunday School days.

The brief program notes said that Josiah was recognized as a Master Sawyer by the Sawyer Association Worldwide. I did not know that one who played the saw was a sawyer (some not-in-depth research also found the term “sawist” and “sawplayer”), and I had never heard of SAW. (My research revealed other striking factoids, including that a member of The Pogues as well as Marlene Dietrich played the musical saw, sometimes referred to as the “singing saw.” Don’t you wish you had seen Marlene, bent blade clasped between her knees, bow a saw?)

At the performance, Josiah was briefly interviewed and said that he had learned the instrument in his native Guyana, had been a winner on “The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour”, and had played for England’s Queen Elizabeth. Josiah then went on to thank the Lord, referring to his musical ability as a gift from God. I was happy that Trinity had given me the chance to see and hear his remarkable performance.

(continued January 25)

Seeking a Song’s Meaning

I retreated. So did the spouse.

On a recent January weekend, the spouse and I went to the Trinity Retreat Center. The Center’s fifty-five acres of pretty New England countryside ninety miles from our Brooklyn home abut the Housatonic River and, cliché-like, require crossing a covered bridge a few hundred feet before entering the property.

The Center is affiliated with the Manhattan church often called Trinity Wall Street. Trinity Church sits at the western edge of Wall Street, and a Trinity Church building has been at this site since 1697. The first building was destroyed in minutes on September 21, 1776, in a fire that consumed much of New York City. A new structure was dedicated in 1790, but it was razed in 1839 after a heavy snowfall damaged the roof.

The present Trinity building, designed by Richard Upjohn, was completed in 1846. In all its incarnations, the church has been surrounded by a two-acre graveyard, although the cemetery preceded the church. The oldest tombstone is that of Richard Churcher, who died in 1681 at the age of five. This churchyard has a monument to Revolutionary War martyrs and the curious gravestone of Richard Leeson, who died in 1794. His marker has dots in a series of boxes. A hundred years later, the code was broken and revealed the redundant cemetery message, “Remember Death.”

Tourists come to the graveyard to look at the burial plots of famous Americans, with Alexander Hamilton’s monument most visited. (A smaller monument stands over Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who died in the shadow of the approaching Civil War in 1854.) I have read but have not seen that people leave money, usually coins but sometimes bills, at Hamilton’s monument to honor the creator of America’s financial system. A church custodian collects it daily for the church to use in its service to the poor.

I have been told that Trinity Church’s leaders can still be buried in the churchyard, but if so, that is unusual. In 1830 the city forbade creating new burial south of Canal Street, where Trinity sits, and as the city spread northward, new cemeteries were banned in most of Manhattan.  However, Trinity owns a cemetery about ten miles north of the church at Broadway and 155th Street, which I believe is the only active cemetery in Manhattan.

The church building remains much the same today as when it was built. Certainly the wonderful description in the 1930s The WPA Guide to New York City is still accurate:

“The church is constructed of dark brownstone in a free rendering of perpendicular English Gothic. Although only 79 feet wide and 166 feet long, the building is so beautifully proportioned that it holds the attention, even in its present setting, enclosed as it is by high office buildings that would dwarf any lesser structure. Graceful porches project beyond its wide side entrances. The main entrance, at the foot of Wall Street, is in the base of the rectangular tower fronting the nave. The tower is surmounted by an octagonal spire with a cross at the top. For years, the spire, attaining a height of 280 feet above the steps, served as a landmark. Both the tower and the spire are of brownstone ashlar, and are exceptionally fine in workmanship.”

Trinity was New York’s tallest building until 1890. A saying had it that while the church’s spire reached for the heavens the front door reached for Wall Street, for from its inception Trinity was the home of the distinguished, well-bred, and wealthy.

Although the Dutch had ceded New Amsterdam to the English in 1664, thirty years later the Dutch still had a strong presence in what was then New York. Trinity was established in 1697 as a place for the English to worship other than in Dutch churches. Englishmen responded and joined the new congregation. The names of important early members of Trinity live on in the names of nearby streets such as Vesey, Duane, and Reade.

In 1705 Queen Anne cemented Trinity’s preeminence by granting the church the land west of Broadway from the present Fulton Street a mile or more northward to almost Fourteenth Street. With this act, Trinity became perhaps the wealthiest Anglican, later Episcopalian, parish anywhere.

That wealth took a while to develop as the land remained largely undeveloped in the eighteenth century, but as Manhattan pushed north in the 1800s, the land was divided into lots, generally 20 by 100 feet, and leased. (Queen Anne also granted Trinity the right to all unclaimed shipwrecks and beached whales, but I know nothing that indicates that the blubber and flotsam and jetsam were of great importance to the church.)

In the mid-nineteenth century, after the construction of the present building, Trinity’s management drew critics. While English New York was religiously tolerant when the original building was erected, the Anglican church was an established one. Taxes from the members of all the denominations built the church. However, New York’s revolutionary constitution disestablished the Anglican church. Without state support, only private funding built the 1846 building, and as a result Trinity had some financial difficulties. The church cut back on its missionary work and aid to the poor. Knowing that the church was land rich, prominent citizens were shocked by this. Government hearings and investigations were held that showed that many Trinity lots were leased to rich people at low rates, with the Astor family especially benefiting from this practice. When this came to light, officials said that lands should be stripped from the church so that they would better serve the public interest. Trinity responded to the outcry by selling some of its lands and resuming its level of good works.

(continued January 23)

Snippets

The woman was from Sweden. She looked it, although her hair might have been slightly darker than the Scandinavian stereotype. She gave her first name. I did not understand it, and she said, “It’s Indian.” Her father was from India and met her mother in Sweden. I wonder if that makes her a Swindian.

The headline: Why There Has Been No Cure for Alzheimer’s. I imagined the article merely read: “I can’t remember.”

“The main advantage of working at home is that you get to find out what cats really do all day.” Lynne Truss.

Provoking much mockery, the Missouri State House of Representatives adopted a rule that women must wear a jacket or cardigan on the House floor. Representatives will be spared the sight of bare shoulders, but cashmere pullovers are banned. Men, too, have a dress code. They must wear a jacket, shirt, and tie. I have owned and worn many jackets, shirts, and ties in my life. There can be utility in wearing a jacket. (I wonder if my yellow rain slicker would pass muster.) A tie, however, has no usefulness, but one must still be worn. (Are manufacturers of ties particularly strong in Missouri?) But what should I make of the fact that the jacketless Jim Jordan who sits in Congress could not make it in the Missouri house?

“No great idea was born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there.” F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It is now midwinter. Is there any other descriptive word that precedes this season other than “bleak”?

The ad for the chain sandwich shop said they used “real red-wine vinegar.” I had not known that there was faux red-wine vinegar.

My supposedly ad-free public radio has frequent promos for shows with the announcer concluding that the movie or play is “awards eligible.” Isn’t everything eligible for some sort of award?

The bartender introduced me to a new server. It was noisy, and the server indicated that he had not caught my name. I repeated it and said that it was the same as his boss’s. I then leaned in conspiratorially and said, “Except that I am nicer.” He smiled and responded, “That’s a low bar.”

It seemed unusual that she was fourth-generation Anglican priest. It seemed even more unusual because her family was from South Korea. She told me that about 40% of Koreans are Christian, and of half of them are Catholic. She also said that South Korean Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists outnumber Anglicans, so her family did not come from a dominant religious community. She, however, was raised in Canada and went to theological school in Massachusetts, where she met her husband, who is also an Episcopal priest and heads a church on Long Island. She said that her husband was from Virginia and did not have her Korean heritage. She paused and said, “He is white.” She paused some more and said, “Oh, very white.”

Is there a difference between the Holy Bible and the Bible?

First Sentences

“A French quadrille is a dance of four couples.” Imani Perry, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.

“Frozen snow, severe frost. Midwinter.” Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing.

“The Reagan Revolution had arrived, and it was off to a shaky start.” Nicole Hemmer, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.

“Miss Minerva Winterslip was a Bostonian in good standing, and long past the romantic age.” Earl Derr Biggers, The House Without a Key.

“Since its establishment by an act of Congress in 1790, Washington, DC, has attracted men and women from every segment of American society.” James Kirchick, Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.

“On a hot night in Apartment C4, Blandine Watkins exits her body.” Tess Gunty, The Rabbit Hutch.

“Back when the war that would consume the world was a worry but not yet a fact, a remarkable man came to the attention of the US military.” Malcolm Gladwell, The Bomber Mafia.

“The whole thing began with a blunder on my part, an entirely innocent piece of clumsiness, a gaffe, as the French call it.” Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity.

“Long before he was famous for wandering the West, John C. Frémontgrew up in a family that wandered the South.” Steve Inskeep, Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War.

“Myron Bolitar used a cardboard periscope to look over the suffocating throngs of ridiculously clad spectators.” Harlan Coben, Back Spin.

“Imagine that four teams of friends have gone to a shooting arcade.” Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment.

“On screen, a woman lounges on a rubber float, her face toward the sun, fingertips trailing in the water.” William Landay, Mission Flats.

“A little after three o’clock in the afternoon, the wooden door behind the defendant’s dock slid open and Hans Frank entered courtroom 600.” Philippe Sands, East West Street.

“It was to have been a quiet evening at home.” John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Good-By.

“In my twenty-five years of teaching I have tried to make people realize that cooking is primarily fun and that the more they know about what they are doing, the more fun it is.” James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking.

Snippets

People refer to a gay or homosexual lifestyle and say we must prevent schoolkids from being groomed for it. I wonder if they also think there is a straight or heterosexual lifestyle that schoolkids are groomed for. And I wonder, is there more gay sex or heterosexual sex between students and teachers?

Concessions were made so that Kevin McCarthy could become Speaker of the House of Representatives. I have not followed this closely, but I know that many of the Kevin cave-ins have been derided and are now fodder for comedians. However, I heard that one of the demands is that Representatives have at least three days to review legislation such as the omnibus budget bill. Isn’t that a good thing?

Some Republicans who claim they want less government spending have said that the defense budget should be examined. I was surprised because I associate Republicans with assertion that our military is weak and is underfunded. Perhaps, however, this is a time for the now seldom-seen bipartisanship. I would think the wing of the Democratic party labeled “progressive” might want lesser defense spending. Shouldn’t they approach Jim Jordan on this project?

The defense budget of the United States is the largest in the world. In fact, it is larger than the defense budgets of the next nine most prolific spenders. But still, according to most in Congress, we should increase our military budget.

Before Kevin McCarthy had groveled sufficiently to get the speakership, Representative Byron Donalds received enough votes to prevent McCarthy’s needed majority. I had never heard of Donalds. My three minutes of online research discovered that he was elected to Congress in 2020 and was reelected in 2022. I guess to some, that two years was enough congressional experience to qualify as Speaker. I assumed, however, that those voting for him did not believe he would win the speakership and were merely grandstanding. However, I thought it would have been amusing if all the Democrats had voted for Donalds and got him elected.

An online source said that Donalds was arrested for marijuana distribution when a teenager, but that those charges were dropped as part of a pre-trial diversion program. This did not seem out of the ordinary, but a source also said that a few years later he had pleaded no contest (which is a conviction) to a felony bribery charge “as part of a scheme to defraud a bank. His record was later sealed and expunged.” This struck me as more out of the ordinary, and I would have liked to learn more about that scheme, plea, and expungement.

However, I was most interested in his initial election to the House. His district is considered a safe one for Republicans so the most important election is the Republican primary. In 2020, in that primary, he was one of eight or nine candidates. He won the Republican nomination with 22.6% of the votes, which was 770 votes more, or O.7% more than his nearest competitor. The average House district has a population of over 700,000 people. Donalds got fewer than 24,000 votes in the election that essentially made him a congressman, the 2020 Republican primary. Ah, American representative democracy is great, or so I have heard.

“It’s as tall as the Empire State Building.” “It’s as big as a football field.” These are familiar phrases for describing something large, but in a Florida parking lot a man used a phrase to describe a capacity I had not heard before. He was pointing to the space in an SUV and told two other men, “There is enough space in there for three dead people.”

Brace Yourself (Guest Post from The Spouse concluded)

Because I was born with one leg shorter than the other, I have always worn a brace. It remained roughly the same into my teens, but two major innovations occurred in high school. One: some clever brace maker (did I mention that they are creative as all get-out?) figured out a way to hinge the brace at the knee. Yay! I could bend my knee! Major breakthrough Two: I figured out how to put a zipper in the inseam of slacks so that I could get pants over the brace. I could wear slacks!

The final innovation didn’t occur until college when the extension of steel above my knee was removed completely, and I was left with only the lower part of the brace. No need for a hinge; no need for zippers. It probably weighed half of the original.

One major vulnerability remained, however: the steel footplate. My husband and I were traveling to visit my grandmother in rural Alabama when the steel footplate snapped in two. You’d think steel could manage the weight of a young woman, but it snapped. Where does one go in rural Alabama to get metal repaired? A blacksmith! Who, in fact, soldered or welded the thing back together enough for us to complete our trip.

It snapped again when we were visiting Florence. Yes, that Florence. No blacksmiths available, but the orthopedic department of a Florentine hospital managed to glue me back together enough to carry on. The orthopedist who helped me found me and my brace quite exotic and asked many, many questions. He spoke bad English and I spoke no Italian, so I don’t know how much medical information I was actually able to impart. After that, I had the footplate reinforced with a steel rod. It has not broken since.

Recently, one of my braces (I had two working models) broke. That is, the steel upright cracked…unusual, but there it is. No one makes braces like mine anymore; the last time I had a brace made — maybe 35 or 40 years ago — they sent to Detroit to have it fabricated, but even that alternative is no longer available. So for the first time, I really didn’t have a prosthetist. But it’s just metal, right? People who work with metal could fix it, right? Yes! Fortunately, I found a wonderful metal fabricator in Brooklyn. He makes things out of metal, like metal shelves for vinyl records. It’s a niche market that he has cornered. This wonderful man agreed to try fixing up an old, retired brace to see if it could be a stand-in in case my “good” one broke. David did a stellar job — one of the best prosthetists I have ever had. I keep his card with me always!

I am thankful to all of the prosthetists who have taken care of me and my brace over the years. When I was a child, it was an emerging profession. The field has made marvelous advances over the years, but it remains hard to find a prosthetic device as individualized as mine has had to be. David is now my go-to miracle man.

Brace Yourself (Guest Post from The Spouse)

I was born 76 years ago with one leg shorter than the other. Well, that’s the easy explanation. Currently my right leg is, in fact, 10 inches shorter than my left, but the medical explanation is somewhat more complicated. The textbook calls it “focal femoral deficiency,” which means that I lacked a femur, and, hence, the hip socket that awaited the head of that femur went without. Happily for me, a small nubbin of bone was the single representative of the missing femur, and, as you will see, it was pressed into service.

My mother must have been horrified to find that her second baby girl was going to be “crippled” (as they said in those days). She had classic Rita Hayworth legs of which she was justifiably proud, and would have expected to pass them along to her daughters. More than the absence of pretty legs, though, her second baby girl might not walk.

Mother being at a loss and, no doubt, bereft, my father took on the orthopedic duties. Good man that he was, he took a leave from graduate school and moved the family lock, stock, and barrel from Evanston, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. World War II had ended the previous summer, and the Veterans’ Administration was geared up for equipping returning soldiers with artificial limbs of all sorts. Dad must have known someone in the VA because he seemed certain that people there could outfit me with some sort of apparatus that would allow me to walk. He was right.

Let me stop to interject a word about prosthetists — those people who make braces and artificial limbs. In my opinion they are among the most creative problem-solvers on the planet. Prosthetics were pretty much in their infancy after WWII, and these guys were confronted with a vast variety of injuries. Braces are not made on an assembly line — not in those days anyway; they had to meet a wide spectrum of individual needs. They routinely work one-on-one to develop a constructive strategy. As it turns out, these folks also are among the most patient of all people. I have had many over my lifetime, and they are all good listeners, kind, and just plain nice.

My first brace was an elaborate piece of metal sculpture. These men (and they were routinely men in those days) were artists as well as craftsmen. There were two steel uprights surrounding my leg; a shoe could be attached to a metal footplate; and below the steel footplate were some more steel uprights reaching to the ground where there was a rubber “heel.” A leather strap encircled my leg just below the primitive “knee.” But that’s not all. There was something called an “ischial seat,” a semi-circle of padded leather that tucked in under my right buttock. And yes, I could “sit” on it. But wait; there’s more. A leather belt was attached so that I was strapped in from waist to toe. There must have been a hinge at the waist because I think I could bend over. Otherwise, there was no flexure; the uprights were unbending.

But I could walk (which was, after all, the point). Stiff-legged, but I could walk. And this contraption turned out to be more than just a crutch. With constant use of my legs, that little nubbin of bone managed to grow into a functional femur. It found a place to attach itself, not at the hip socket, but to some soft tissue in the vicinity of my hip. It nestled there, and that attachment became strong enough to support me even without the brace. However, its journey northward pulled my leg up with it resulting in shortening the leg. During most of my childhood I wore the brace to school, but at home I ran, jumped, rode bicycles, climbed trees and swam without it. It didn’t bother me that one of my legs was 4, 6, or 8 inches shorter than the other. Looking like a “normal” person, however, required the brace. Interestingly, I never named it.

But the brace was uncomfortable. In summer, the leather was hot and stuck to my skin. That ischial seat was fine while standing, but it was like a large lump on a schoolroom desk chair. And I couldn’t bend my knee. I was a stiff-legged robot with it on. And heaven knows how much the thing weighed. It also affected my wardrobe. I couldn’t wear slacks because I couldn’t get them over the brace, and I certainly wasn’t going to wear it outside the pants!

As I grew stronger (constant lifting it probably helped), the upper leather belt of the brace was removed, considered unnecessary. A relief for sure, but I was still a robot. In junior high school I was invited (by a boy!) to attend the “Eighth Grade Dance” (catchy title). His dad was going to pick me up with another couple or two and drive us to the dance and then home afterward. I was horrified to find out that I was to be squashed into the back seat with four other people. My brace had nowhere to go. It ended up poking a hole into the back upholstery of the front seat. I was too mortified to say anything. I don’t think I was invited to do anything with that boy again.

(Concluded Jan. 11)

Governance Meltdown Brought by You Know Who

On that first day when there were three separate votes for Speaker of the House (who knew that C-SPAN could offer such riveting watching?), a Representative usually identified as one of the ultra-MAGA people but who had voted for Kevin McCarthy said, “Every hour we spend on electing the Speaker is an hour we are not working on policy.” She said that without a smile or even a hint of irony.

I heard her and others talk about “open borders,” which sometimes morphed into “Biden’s open borders.” When referring to his borders, I don’t think they mean the president’s personal space, or his skin, or his boundaries on blasphemy, all of which might refer to his borders. I think they mean this country’s borders, but I don’t think they mean the Northland or the mid-Atlantic seacoast. Neither did I hear a mention of why Jair Bolsonaro could freely fly to Miami when other Latin Americans were futilely knocking on doors at the Mexican border. (Whenever I hear the name of the former president of Brazil, I hear Richard Kiley singing that earworm song from Man of La Mancha.)

Sometimes the rhetoric says that we must “secure our border” as if that were a statement of policy. But a “policy” would need to identify what steps should be taken to reach that goal. And, of course, a meaningful policy discussion would include how much it would cost and where the money would come from, since those who want a “secure border” also insist we must have a balanced budget. This is also said without a trace of irony or a mention of the budget deficits that occurred when conservatives controlled all government branches. Policies for a “secure” border, however, need to go beyond walls and agents. The discussion must include who should be able to visit this country and under what circumstances; who should be able to study here; who should be allowed to work here; who should be allowed to take up residence in the United States; and who should be allowed citizenship. As far as I can tell, that ultra-MAGA Representative who now bemoans taking time away from policy discussions has not meaningfully discussed any of these policy imperatives.

Of course, there as so many other policies that should be discussed. We need, for example, a better healthcare system so that American life expectancies might someday exceed those in Cuba. (You can look it up.) We need to examine our policies on business competition. We need to consider bringing good broadband service to many parts of this country. And so much more. Somehow I don’t believe that ultra-MAGA Representative will be working sensibly on any of these policies. 

I certainly don’t imagine that Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be leading such policy discussions. As far as I can tell, the “policy” he is most associated with is, “Let’s hold another Benghazi hearing.”

I thought that I might be being unfair, so I went to Fox News that evening looking to hear from the conservative policy gurus. I could only last a few minutes with Tucker who was giving time to a person who has been repeatedly called a disinformation master. (Whenever I watch Carlson, I hear Shirley Ellis singing that earworm song, The Name Game.) The Disinformation Master was saying that we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the NFL player’s cardiac arrest had something to do with the vaccine we don’t know that he took. (And, I thought, we can’t rule out that the cardiac arrest resulted from his visiting the polar bear exhibition at his local zoo when he was eight.)

A little later I checked in with Hannity. His earth-shattering policy discussion was to tell us that, according to him, there was irrefutable proof that President Biden knew that China had given gifts to his relatives. I did not say tuned to find out why it would be democracy-shaking news that gift-givers were known. Nor did I wait (it would have been quite a long wait) to hear that Trump also knew who was heaping “emoluments” on Trump’s hotels before and during his term in office.

Apparently, this passes for working on policy. Alas.

“To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Benjamin Disraeli.