Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Book Signing, NYC, May 16, 2017

Okay, so, I got a little bit distracted over the last couple of weeks or so. I meant to write this particular blog entry as a review of the recent talk and booksigning event by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in New York City earlier in May. But the next day, I wound up working both of my jobs and being utterly exhausted - too exhausted to write this. And then, on the 18th, Chris Cornell's suicide shocked me, and I found myself trying to come to terms with the loss of such a brilliant musician.
However, I have gotten back to normal blog entries over the last few days, and it just occurred to me that I never did return to this one and finish it. So, here is the remedy, as I write this in retrospect. Hopefully, me memory serves me well, but we shall see. Here goes:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should probably be more of an icon than he apparently is. I went to New York after a surprising day off from my day job, as I was not called in. Truth be told, I was not going to go in anyway if called, because this event just looked too cool! But this was also in New York City, and the wristbands were being handed out at 9am. I get out of work at 7am, and then had to drive out to Newark to take the PATH train, and after the traffic, then parking, and then waiting for the train, and the actual ride, I figured the earliest that I might get there would be around 8:30am. As it turned out, it was closer to 9am, and surely, there would be a massive line, the wristbands would all have been handed out, and it would all have been for naught.
Except that upon arriving, it was virtually empty. There was a line of maybe ten people there. Perhaps it was a bit early for people to arrive at 9am for an event that would actually take place 10 hours later! Whichever way, it was a pleasant surprise, and I gladly went in, bought the book, and got my wristband.
The annoying thing was that now, I would have to go all the way back home in New Jersey, get a few hours of sleep, and then go back to the city for the actual event, before going back to work that night. It would be long, and it would surely be tiring - very tiring!
Still, I figured it would be worth it. I remember Abdul-Jabbar during his later playing days, although truth be told, the Los Angels Lakers may very well be my least favorite sports team of all (it's either between them, or football's San Francisco 49ers). But you cannot deny how great he was - he's the leading scorer in NBA history! He played more games than anyone else in NBA history, took and made more shots, blocked more shots, and won more games than any other player in league history! His famous skyhook shot was basically indefensible. He was voted league MVP a record six times, more than any other player. He won six NBA titles, and was the MVP for two of those series. No less authorities of the NBA as Pat Riley, "Dr. J" Julius Irving, and Isaah Thomas consider him the greatest basketball player of all time!

Working under the assumption that there would surely be a mass of people attending, I arrived early, wanting to secure my spot. It was maybe two hours before the scheduled start time, although as it turns out, I need not have bothered. The place remained surprisingly empty even half an hour before the event, although it filled up in the final minutes, ultimately.

Sometimes, when you attend a public event like this, you hear people clapping well before you ever spot the star of the evening. You look and crane you head, looking in the direction that everyone else is looking, but you cannot see anything. That was most certainly not the problem this time around, as Abdul-Jabbar towered over everyone, and could be clearly seen from a distance. When he finally made his way up to the stage, where seats were arranged for his conversation with the legendary great manager of the famed New York Yankees, Joe Torre.

It was a very interesting conversation. As the book is about the friendship between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his former coach, the late, great John Wooden. Abdul-Jabbar mentioned his own upbringing right here in New York City, and spoke of how hooked he was when he saw the sun and the greenery of the southern California college campus at UCLA. He recalled that Coach Wooden barely spoke of basketball during their first meeting, and emphasized the significance of strong academics, which left an impression on the young basketball phenom. When Wooden came to New York to meet his parents, Abdul-Jabbar remembered his mother sending him to his room, as if he were a small child, while the adults talked. They had been skeptical of their son's desire to live across the country, so far away. After the meeting, however, they gave their blessings, convinced that Wooden was more than just a good basketball coach who would be using their son, but a good man who had their son's best interests truly at heart.

Of course, that was also a time of great turbulence in this nation's history, particularly in terms of racial tensions. Abdul-Jabbar remember just walking around in Harlem, and seeing and hearing legendary figures like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. He also remembered riots breaking out, and how once, he had to run for his life, and hear bullets flying quite close to his head. His height, which has served him well throughout his life now, was almost his undoing on that night.

He remembered one time when one woman asked Coach Wooden, "How tall is that nigger?" Abdul-Jabbar overheard it, and according to him, Wooden seemed uncomfortable and embarrassed for the duration of the day. Those were days of much more overt racism, of course.

There was another time that the players began to start talking about their religion. Abdul-Jabbar had converted to Islam, and had changed his name. He and other players were having a frank discussion on their religious views, and he remembered that Coach Wooden engaged in this conversation. He did not shirk the issue, or try to press his opinion or expertise on anyone else. But rather, he listened, and allowed the conversation to take on a life of it's own - something that Abdul-Jabbar appreciates greatly in retrospect.

Obviously, Abdul-Jabbar enjoyed a great college career, before going off to the NBA and also have a great, even legendary, career there, too.

However, he and Wood remained friends afterward. In fact, their friendship blossomed into something special, and as he grew older, Abdul-Jabbar began to realize just how important and influential this friendship was for him. They were very different personalities, with Wooden coming from a typical, Midwestern upbringing. Abdul-Jabbar said that he liked Wooden's Midwestern twang upon first meeting him. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar was a cocky, albeit largely quiet, kid seemingly born to play basketball.

They remained friends for many years, with Wooden always offering his advice and friendship throughout Abdul-Jabbar's professional career and beyond. Some of Abdul-Jabbar's favorite memories with Wooden were simply just going to his home and watching hours of Westerns, which they both enjoyed together.

It was an interesting discussion, and Joe Torre was a good choice to sit opposite of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for it. I am not a baseball fan, much less a Yankee fan. In fact, as much as I like baseball at all, it has almost reached the point for me of being anybody but the Yankees. It's just that their fans are incredibly obnoxious, with that same arrogance and sense of entitlement as Cowboys fans in football, or Lakers fans in basketball.

However, Torre always seemed to me a bit more thoughtful and likable, as far as managers are concerned. He always seemed to hold himself with a certain level of dignity, and showed class regardless of whether he was on the winning or losing side. He impressed upon me that he is much more than the stereotypical jock type, who chews gum or tobacco and only talks about his sports, because that is all that he can talk about. There are some coaches and managers who seem like that, where if the discussion veers away from their field of intense interest, then there is not much there. But there are others, like Marv Levy, or Phil Jackson, or Joe Torre, where you really get the impression that they have a lot more to say, and a lot more that they are capable of discussing.

Frankly, that same point is true of professional athletes, as well. Some seem incapable of talking about anything but their particular sport, and their desire to win. Then, there are others who appear to be more thoughtful and intelligent, and who seem fully capable of expressing themselves in numerous other topics. Kareem always seemed like one of those more intelligent and well-rounded athletes, to me. That was always my impression, and never so much as the last couple of years, when I have read some articles by him about what is going on in the United States today, as well as a letter in support of Bernie Sanders last year, which may even have been the topic of a blog entry at some point. Plus, the parts of this book that I have read thus far have been impressive.

After the discussion, I was close to the front, and so wound up being one of the first to get my picture taken with Kareem, which allowed me to catch up with Joe Torre, who was pretty swamped with people wanting to take selfies. Usually, I am not one much for selfies, or even for approaching well-known people, but for once, decided to go ahead and ask him for both an autograph and a picture. Both came out pretty nicely. He signed Kareem's book, even though he obviously had nothing to do with it. But since he was part of the discussion, and there was nothing else for him to sign, it seemed right to me to have him sign that, as the opportunity presented itself.

It was a very nice, pleasant night, and I am thankful for having gotten the chance to be there. Here are some pictures from the event, which illustrates just how tall Abdul-Jabar is!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Germany's Angela Merkel Warns That Europe Cannot Rely on US & UK Anymore

Surely, many of us who cannot stand Donald Trump were horrified that he wound up having so many supporters - enough, ultimately, to get him elected president.

However, I surely could not have been the only one who assumed that many of these people would finally catch on, and quickly for that matter, that this was a mistake, and that this man is unfit for this highest office.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that there is any mass movement away from now President Trump, even as he bumbles his way through the first few months of his presidency. The problem that many liberal detractors of Trump are now facing is that they, like me, expected people to wake up when they finally realized - too late! - just how bad Trump is, because his supporters not only still do not realize, but they like everything that he is doing.

Here is a man who had no political experience, which his supporters actually enjoyed, but who is showing signs of really not knowing what he is doing. His mannerisms are crass and despicable, yet I know a supporter of his who mentioned this past weekend that what he likes about Trump is that he is a bully. He clearly lied to his supporters about certain things - making a point of locking up Hillary Clinton, making Mexico pay for the wall, releasing his tax information (remember, what was revealed to the public was a leak), divorcing himself from his business ties in good faith in order to not have a conflict of interest once in office - but they will quickly forgive him all of his trespasses. He has clearly lied both while running for office, and once in office, from charges that climate change was a hoax, and then denying that he ever said that, to claiming that there would be widespread election fraud, then backing off of that once the numbers looked friendlier, then returning back to those claims in suggesting that he did not actually lose the popular vote, and demanding an investigation, while offering not one shred of proof to back up those claims. He also claimed that Obama had been wiretapping him, although again, he offered not one shred of evidence. He fires people who are either investigating him or members of his administration, or are in position to do so, which clearly does not make for good faith, then acts shocked when people react with outrage. He continually makes boisterous claims about his abilities, while showing the public a decisive lack of these same abilities.

Recently, under the growing storm of controversy with new allegations seemingly coming out daily, President Trump went on his first overseas trip as president. He went to the Middle East, specifically to Israel and Saudi Arabia. In typical Trump fashion, he made a claim all too lightly that peace could be had in the Middle East, speaking in terms of a deal to be struck, clearly implying that he was the man for the job. 

You know what? I wish him well on that one. If he can do that, then great! I would give him tremendous credit.

However, I will not hold my breath waiting for this huge success, because Trump has already promised similar success plenty of times before, and has failed to deliver. Remember, he was going to be well on the way to "Make America Great Again!" within his first 100 days in office. We are well past that point, and all he has offered is big talk and no walk thus far.

After the Middle East trip, Trump went to Europe. First, he met with Pope Francis. If pictures tell a story, one after the other of the pictures taken show a beaming Donald Trump, and a deflated and clearly unhappy Pope Francis, who looks completely miserable after meeting Trump in person. Should we congratulate the president for irritating a man of the cloth, a man who is supposed to have the temperament of a virtual saint? Pope Francis tried to make sure that Trump understood the seriousness of climate change, and this same urgency was also shared by other European leaders, who tried to make clear just how important it is that the United States keep it's commitment made during the Paris Accord of 2015, which Trump has suggested he would pull the country out of.

Of course, when Trump met with these other European leaders, the meetings perhaps did not go so well, and maybe did not go any better than his meeting with Pope Francis.

How can we tell?

Well, here is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech following the G-7 Summit (during which she and other leaders met with Trump):

"The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over." 


She went on, saying that Europe needed to rely on itself for it's own well-being “and really take our fate into our own hands.”

To that end, she told Germans that she would focus on closer ties with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.

Germany is one of America's closest allies, and the perceived leader of Europe, and their head of state just basically said that they cannot rely or truth the United States (and others) anymore. This is a big deal! And you cannot beat around the bush on this, either. This was quite clearly the result of a meeting (not her first, either) with President Trump, which means it comes as a direct result of Americans choosing such a pathetic man for their president. 

She never mentioned Trump's name, yet she made clear that the summit meeting had this impact, as she said she came to this realization "in the last few days." 

Could she have been any clearer? Why are Trump supporters so oblivious to this clear rift between their nation and traditional allies in Europe? Do they truly feel that this will have no negative ramifications? Are they so deluded by Trump's promises that he will get America to win so much, that Americans themselves will get tired of winning, that they believe him, even as almost literally all of the news that has anything to do with this White House seems beyond bad, reaching staggeringly awful levels?

Frankly, I cannot blame Merkel, or the Pope, or anyone else, for that matter, for feeling that they cannot rely on the United States, or the United Kingdom following the Brexit vote, any longer. After all, these two nations essentially turned their back on the rest of the world, by voting for what they perceive to be their own interests, which apparently does not include working well with others. Indeed, in such a situation, Europeans will be forced to rely upon themselves more than ever, and to approach the United States and the United Kingdom with increasing caution and, yes, skepticism. 

Still more evidence that we live in sad, and increasingly scary, times. And if Americans still cannot understand that they are increasingly not the solution to the problem, but actually are the problem themselves with the way that they think and act and, increasingly, vote, then it is a willful ignorance that will surely come back to bite them in the future. They might not know the day and they might not know the hour, but this will cost Americans, and likely dearly, sometime in the future. It is true that no man is an island, and no nationality is exempt from having to deal fairly with other people around the world. 

Quotes taken and articles used in this blog entry are listed down below:

Merkel, After Discordant G-7 Meeting, Is Looking Past Trump By ALISON SMALE and STEVEN ERLANGERMAY 28, 2017:

How a single sentence from Angela Merkel showed what Trump means to the world Anchor Muted Background Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large, May 29, 2017:

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address to the 2004 Lehigh University Class

I was going to republish this a little less than a week ago, on May 24th, because it was on May 24, 2004, that I finally got to see one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut.

It was easy to remember this year, because for whatever the reason, I have kind of been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick lately, rereading 'Cat's Cradle,' and now rereading 'Mother Night.'

Not sure if I mentioned this here before or not, but Vonnegut helped me to get into writing. Stephen King, who I got into in 1997, probably was the first author that made me really want to be a writer, but it was when I got into Kurt Vonnegut's writing a few years later, in the aftermath of September 11th and a world at war once again, that I finally not only believed that I could be a writer, but actually began to do the heavy lifting and wrote.

And so, to honor his memory, as well as to recall one of the most pleasant days in my memory (at least as an adult), it seemed like a good idea to republish this:

Ten-Year Anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut's Commencement Address to the 2004 Lehigh University Class published on May 24, 2014:

Yes, I remember the day well. May 24, 2004.

It is amazing, even staggering, to think that this was ten whole years ago. Frankly, it feels like it could have been one year ago, tops, if even that. Those times, and those events, feel so very recent. But I look at the calendar, and it does not lie. As old as it makes me feel, it has indeed been a full decade, and I sound like an old man, talking about how quickly the time goes by.

At around that time, Kurt Vonnegut was probably my favorite author of all. I had gotten into him a few years before, not long after September 11th, and around the time when WMD's and the possibility of an invasion of Iraq, as well as the suspension of civil liberties with the so-called PATRIOT Act and the debate over how much we can get away with before it is legally considered torture dominated the news.

And I read Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-5", an anti-war novel that spoke about time travel, and touched on some other subjects, too. It spoke to me in a way that few novels have before or since, and I began to follow Vonnegut. Suddenly, I was ordering more of his books, and devouring them (most of his books are quick reads). There were online articles that I pursued and read, and before long, I was beginning to be a collector of all things Vonnegut, completely taken by the world of his writings. In a world that seemed to be losing it's way and making less and less sense, Vonnegut's rather weird and wild world, ironically, served almost as an anchor. There seemed to be just a sense of decency about him, reflected in his writings, that felt right in a world that seemed outwardly polite and healthy, but inside, seemed rude, self-centered, and very, very sick to the core.

It would be fair to say that I was quickly becoming a huge Vonnegut fan, and as an aspiring writer, he was one of the few writers that truly inspired me to begin writing on my own. In fact, I might go as far as saying that while other writers made me feel like I could write (most notably Stephen King), it was actually while I was reading Vonnegut all of the time that I truly did begin to write, and believing versus doing makes a world of difference.

There were other authors, and books, that I really enjoyed at that point, and many more that I have grown more acquainted with and gotten to enjoy since. But the two big ones (for me) were Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut. Both had some incredible ideas, for which they are deservedly very well known. The actual writing of Stephen King, the way that he describes characters in particular, breathes life into them, and I aspired to be able to do that myself. As for Kurt Vonnegut, I admired his ideas (and enjoyed the weirdness of them, as well), but was most appreciative of the way that he was able to bring ideas of morality, of simple right and wrong in the midst of a complicated world into his books and stories really spoke to me. That through it all, we just need reminders of the simple ideas of decency, that was something that perhaps society, or even the world culture that has come to dominate this world de facto, is something that Vonnegut was always able to convey, no matter what it was that he was writing about.

But there was one thing: I had never seen the man, and he was well over eighty years old. I knew a couple of people who had seen him, and one of them told me I had better hurry up and see him, because he was no spring chicken.

I kept looking and looking, searching online for Vonnegut appearances. But there was rarely anything to be found. More frustratingly, when there was, it had just happened.

There were times that I came close. Particularly, his play "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" began to play in New York City, and I went to go see that. Vonnegut had made an appearance at the show's opening, and answered some questions from the audience. But when I went, some days later, he was nowhere to be seen.

But finally, I found out that he was scheduled to be the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremonies at Lehigh University in 2004. I did some research, and found that this event was scheduled to be held at the outdoor stadium, weather permitting, and that it did not require a ticket. You could just show up.

So, I did.

It was a beautiful day, perhaps the first really warm and sunny day of the year. Before the day was out, I would have gotten a sunburn, and there was a little bit of worrying, admittedly, about what I would say if anyone asked me at work the next day why it was that I had a sunburn the day after calling out sick.

But that is neither here nor there.

I wanted to make sure to arrive there good and early, and so we left quite early (this was with my then wife), and got there early enough. No problems there. We found a halfway decent place to sit at the stadium, fairly close to the field. And I got my video recorder out, because I intended to record all of Vonnegut's speech, if I could.

First, the graduates all lined up, with the special guests, including Kurt Vonnegut, coming just before them.

His speech was not that long, and I was able to get all of it. It was not really the most original speech, amounting to mostly a compilation of some of his written works and words of the past.

Vonnegut started off by claiming that he had uncovered a conspiracy during his brief visit to Lehigh, and claiming that the admissions office allowed only beautiful women to attend. Then, he talked a bit about the previous time that he had spoken at a Lehigh Commencement, back in 1970, when "another unpopular war", started by the martyred President Kennedy, was then being fought in Vietnam, with Nixon as President. He then mentioned the shootings at Kent State University around that time, when four students were killed, and the police not punished, as it was claimed that they had acted in self-defense.

This served as a segue for him to talk about some of the darker chapters of American history, including slavery, inequality of the majority of the population (women), with women only getting the vote a few years before he was born.

Going back to his previous appearance at a Lehigh Commencement, he mentioned that most of the kids graduating had not even been born yet at that time, and how they were about to get "kicked out" of Lehigh, comparing the years of study here for the students as "the Garden of Eden."

He then mentioned that American could and should have been a utopia, instead of a place where it costs an arm and a leg to get a higher education, like the one the young graduates had received at Lehigh. Now, they were leaving "this Garden of Eden", and many of them would be burdened with huge debt, so much, Vonnegut claimed, that he could buy a Hummer with that kind of money and "speed up global warming".

Then, he mentioned that he was sorry that this country did not have a health care system that provided affordable, universal coverage, "like Sweden and Canada", where, he said, "it works much better."

He then applauded institutions of higher learning, and said that these were good to "make war not on terrorism, but on ignorance, sickness, and environmental degradation."

Vonnegut mentioned Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite, and then, perhaps to assuage his guilt, set up the Nobel Peace Prize, with a prize of one million dollars. That amount, Vonnegut claimed, is "chump change", at least by the standards of the highest paid athletes, CEO's and Wall Street executives. It would make a huge difference in the lives of any graduate  in attendance on that day, but it would not pay the salary of a defenseman on either the Eagles or the Steelers for even one season.

For anyone interested in really irritating their parents, he said, the "least you can do is go into the arts."

"As you leave this Garden of Eden," Vonnegut requested of the audience, "please sing and dance on your way the hell out of here!"

Vonnegut then told the graduates, and those family members attending, that the older you get, the more you begin to ask yourself what this thing life is all about. He mentioned what his son had told him in response, when he had placed this question to him:

"Father, we're here to see each other get through this thing, whatever the hell it is."

So, he advised everyone to write that down, so that they could put it in their computers and then forget it.

He then wondered if he would get away with what he was about to say next, and declared that human beings need extended families as much as they need food and minerals, and talked a bit about how there are no extended families anymore, "with the exception of the Bushes and the Navajo."

That was the root of all arguments, he claimed. When it seemed that a husband and wife were arguing about money or the future for the kids, what they were actually telling each other is: "You are not enough people."

Vonnegut then mentioned his uncle Albert, who once remarked that human beings hardly ever noticed when they were happy. So, he had taken to saying, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

He requested that everyone remember that, and take note when they are having a good time, even repeating these words that his uncle used to say.

And then he made one other request, asking for a show of hands to anyone who had, at some point, had a teacher that had made them feel "happier to be alive, prouder to be alive, then you had previously believed possible?"

He then asked everyone who had such a teacher to turn to the person next to them, and mention the name of that teacher.

Kurt Vonnegut concluded his Lehigh Commencement Keynote Speaker address with these words:

"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is. Thank you for your attention. Take care of yourselves, you hear?"

He received his honorary degree (not his first from Lehigh University) a little later on.

Admittedly, it was a strange way of seeing Vonnegut for the first time, since this was a graduation ceremony for college students, and not really what most people would categorize as a public event. I did not know anybody graduating on that day, although no one seemed to notice.

Still, it was great to finally see him in person!

Afterward, we stopped briefly at Lehigh, driving around the campus, then a bit through the town of Bethelehem. It was perhaps noon time, and after a bit of a visit, we decided to head back, and to Wawayanda State Park in New Jersey, where we could enjoy the beautiful weather. I had taken some Vonnegut books with me to read, obviously, and remember being happy, sitting by the babbling stream, and just relaxing, reading Vonnegut. You can't get a much better late spring day than that!

That day ranked with some of the other memorable days in terms of seeing someone that I had long wanted to see. I would perhaps compare it to the first time that I saw Stephen King, or Jimmy Carter. Or, perhaps, some of my favorite bands, like Pearl Jam, Ringo Starr, or Paul McCartney, or the first concert of my own choosing that I went to, seeing Metallica and Guns N' Roses. It felt great!

Now, I should mention that the opportunity to see Vonnegut again did present itself, and I jumped on it! Again, he was no spring chicken.

This one came as an official event, where Kurt Vonnegut would be one of three noted authors in discussion. The other two were Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner. It was called "An Evening With Our Favorite Writers", and was held on Saturday, February 4, 2006, the day before Super Bowl Sunday. I remember that, specifically, because for whatever reason, people kept mentioning the Steelers (it was a pro-Steelers fan base there), and a couple of people on stage (not the authors) were showing their black and gold to support their Steelers! At one point, Vonnegut even asked why people in Hartford, Connecticut, would care about the Steelers so much.

Good question.

In any case, this was more of an event, if you will. In college graduations, speakers like Kurt Vonnegut are special guests, but the stars of the show are the graduates themselves, of course. And deservedly so.

But on that evening, clearly, the speakers were the special guests, and the focal point. And Kurt Vonnegut, arguably, was the biggest draw on stage on that day.

It was perhaps appropriate that this event took place in Hartford, since the comparisons to Vonnegut and Mark Twain, who greatly influenced Vonnegut, can easily be made, including the physical resemblance. Both wrote biting commentary, both used humor richly and had wicked senses of humor, and both contributed greatly to American letters.

When I look back on those times, I find it amazing just how quickly I got into Kurt Vonnegut and his writings, and in such a short period of time! It is almost surprising that I never encountered his writings earlier, like during high school, or at least college! Yet, it happened. But once that discovery was there, I was hooked!

It had taken a while to see Vonnegut for the first time, and less than two years later, the opportunity came to see him a second time, and this time, to hear him in actual conversation, which was particularly special. In between those two, Vonnegut would publish the last book of his that would come out while he was still alive. It was called "A Man Without a Country", and on the cover, it featured his playful autograph. That autograph has his self-portrait in profile, with his signature attached. There are autographs you can get from certain writers (and other people of fame), and then there is something like that, which Vonnegut really "created" for you to enjoy! There are subtleties within it that only a real fan of Vonnegut would be aware of. Or one subtlety in particular - the asterisk, which is Vonnegut's drawing of an asshole. His famous sense of humor bleeds through even in something as simple as an autograph.

A little more than a year after that event, Vonnegut fell at his home, and sustained injuries that would prove to be mortal. He died in April of 2007. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on some of the events that have happened since, such as the economic collapse of 2008, and the controversy surrounding the "too big to fail" banking institutions that were given huge sums of money in the bailout, designed by then President George W. Bush, and approved by, among others, future President Barack Obama. It would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on Obama, both during the most promising times, during the election season in 2008, as well as the less glamorous reality when he actually occupied the White House. And what about the official end of the war in Iraq, or the coming end in Afghanistan? What might Vonnegut have said about Russia and the Ukraine? About the war in Syria? The genocide in Darfur? We can only wonder what he might specifically have said, although we can probably get a good idea on what his general stance would likely have been. But when you die, you lose your chance to speak on matters that occur afterward, of course.

Since his death, three more books written by Vonnegut have come out. I am reading the last of those three, and will be writing a review of it, hopefully to be published tomorrow. Vonnegut may be gone, but he is certainly not forgotten, and his wisdom and humor remain in his writings, that allow a part of him to continue to be with us still, even though the man himself is not.

"An Evening With Our Favorite Writers" - February 4, 2006 (some links from the conversation that evening):

The Forum Channel

Here is the profile from the program that was given out to those who attended this event:

Vonnegut Clips from the Connecticut Writer's Forum in February of 2006:

Forum Clip: "Kurt Says Writing is a Mystery, Joyce Calls His Bluff"  1:15

Forum Clip: "Vonnegut`s Message to Future Generations: The World is Ending!"  2:37

Forum Clip: "Practicing Any Art Makes Your Soul Grow"  1:41

Forum Clip: "What is the Single Most Beautiful Thing You`ve Ever Seen?"  2:33

Forum Clip: "Kurt and Joyce Have a Great Exchange about Feminism  and  Sexist Pigs"  1:21

Forum Clip: "Serious  and  Funny Answers to: What Keeps You Up at Night?"  2:34

Forum Clip: "Alter Egos and Pseudonyms in Writing"  2:56

Forum Clip: "Kurt Vonnegut: We Are A Disease, Joyce Carol Oates Sees It Differently"  2:12

Forum Clip: "Mark Twain`s Best Books and a Clunker."  1:21

On America' Addiction to Oil:

On War, History, and Women:

Kurt Vonnegut & Joyce Carol Oates on Censorship:

Monday, May 29, 2017

Patriotism & Memorial Day

Let me say this upfront, right off the bat: I am not a big fan of the loud, boisterous version of what passes for patriotism these days, especially here in the United States. Perhaps some people would take exception to my singling my country out in this regard, but in this day and age when so many are grasping onto any and all remaining vestiges of what used to be great about this country, and when many of our so-called leaders are professing their self-serving belief in "American exceptionalism," it seems to me that waving flags and claiming this nation to be number one, or implying that it is somehow superior to all other nations, is rather counterproductive and, in fact, unpatriotic. The whole "America First" ideology is essentially a slap in the face, as well as a spit for good measure, to the rest of the world, and I wish that my fellow Americans would finally grow up and get past this limited and limiting way of thinking.

That is not to say that I am not patriotic. Frankly, I feel myself to be quite patriotic, and hope for and work towards seeing this country truly be the best that it can be. But my version of patriotism would require citizens to actually participate in knowing about the news and issues that effect the country, to indeed be the well-informed citizenry that our forefathers dreamed of for the future of the republic. The anti-intellectualism that seems to win out time and time and time again has grown more than a little stale and tiresome, and illustrates not this nation's greatness, but it's weaknesses in terms of a lack of imagination with trying the same old approach to dynamic and new challenges and opportunities. In short, my faith is strong enough to believe that we can do better, if we actually cared enough to keep informed and involved enough to make it work.

Okay, so that was a mouthful to start this particular blog entry with. Let me get on with this Memorial Day post. 

I believe that a strong reminder came on the radio this weekend about why we celebrate Memorial Day, or perhaps it was a meme (in fact, the more I think about it, the more likely it probably was a meme). Anyway, it showed a picture of a relaxing scene on the beach, and there was a message scrolled on top of this. To paraphrase, it said, roughly: "Your day at the beach is because of their day at the beach." And on the bottom was a black and white picture of the D-Day landings by allied (presumably American) troops during World War II. 

That much is true, and perhaps this is an especially timely message for this Memorial Day, because we are also celebrating the 100th anniversary of World War I. The United States entered that war in the spring of 1917.

Let us also remember that wars like those were likely necessary for the world to remain free. However, wars like that also occurred because of so-called leaders at the time who were hungry for war. We should not forget that people were celebrating in the major cities of all four major powers on the occasion when World War I finally broke out. The leaders of all of these countries led their citizens to believe that these wars would be won quickly, decisively, and relatively painlessly. They also convinced their citizens - especially the young men that were being sent to the fronts - that tremendous glory could be gained, that this war would be an opportunity to achieve serious heroism.

Anyone who knows anything about that war knows that it was the most brutal war that the world had ever seen to that point, and that far from quick and decisive, the war was a complete stalemate. The promises of opportunities for heroism were largely lost, as military leaders led their men into battles that wound up being slaughters, and those who survived often were forced out of the war with unbelievably horrific injuries that would have killed them in wars prior. 

You might think that the world would have learned something after this, or at least Europeans would have, since World War I was fought in Europe. However, one generation later, one particular madman in the very heart of Europe enthusiastically led his nation to start yet another world war. His nation was at first reluctant, and certainly did not celebrate the outbreak of war. However, when Hitler began to win in Poland, and then took over western Europe, Germans celebrated, and Hitler was seen as the savior of Germany. Less than five years later, most German cities were reduced to rubble, and the Germans suddenly had to deal with feeling responsible for horrors unprecedented in history, with the death camps and the systematic, and bureaucratic, abuses that their armies had been responsible for in occupied territories. 

During that same war, another nation was being turned ravenous for glory on the battlefield by their leaders. Japan had turned powerful and became aggressors, and in taking over much of the territories of China and Korea, their were now infamous abuses and horrors that Japanese soldiers were responsible for. These invasions and horrors actually came before World War II officially began, according to Europeans. Yet, it ended up very much the same way, as the Japanese went from enjoying victory after victory on the battlefield, to seeing many of their cities reduced to rubble from massive bombings and even fire bombings. Still, all of that is overshadowed by the two atomic bombs that were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an event that ushered in a whole new age, and the realization of just how horrible these weapons of mass destruction were. From that point on in history, a system of checks and balances on the power of any nation became necessary.

I mention all of this because we seem to be moving dangerously close to another such massive conflict, and even more alarmingly, many of the people living in some of the biggest countries responsible seem almost enthusiastic about the prospect of war. Indeed, we could move towards World War II, except that the extent of the damage that we will likely see during that conflict would likely exceed not only either of the two previous world wars, but most likely far exceed both of them combined. 

Yet, World War III is something that most people seem to think was an inevitability, ever since the end of World War II. Now, we see the rise of Donald Trump here in the United States, and he and his team have mentioned the possibility of using smaller nuclear weapons, and they already used the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan just weeks ago. He likes to talk tough, to appear tough, and has threatened North Korea, and even moved American ships into the region. He also launched a military strike in Syria, and seems to feel that he has an obligation to use America's military might in a very active way. Yes, Trump has been so busy with all of this nonsense, that it is almost surprising to realize that he has only been in office for a little over four months now, and still has most of the four year term left that he was elected to in November.

What's scary is that he's just the leader of the United States. There are other leaders who seem to represent this same anti-democratic, anti-peace sentiment. Leaders such as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is grabbing more and more power, and effectively eroding democracy. Leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has murdered thousands in the name of cleaning up the streets and establishing law and order, and who joked about rape to his soldiers. And, of course, we all know about Vladimir Putin in Russia. No, I do not feel that he is responsible for Trump getting elected president, but I also do not feel that he is good news, for Europe, for the United States, or for the world at large. And let us not even get into North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, or the always existing tensions in Israel, who is also led by a warhawk in Benjamin Netanyahu right now.

Yes, when you look at the world situation right now, it is scary! We have irresponsible leaders and, frankly, an irresponsible system that essentially make a profit machine for war toys. That is why we have wars still to this day, because it is profitable. Greed, which our President Trump strongly believes in, continues to make the world a more dangerous and miserable place.

All of this is why we need to remember not only the sacrifices of our veterans, but also the importance of taking a serious approach when it comes to issues concerning our nation. When I said that being an informed citizen is my interpretation of patriotism, I meant it. Just this past weekend, I was invited to a barbecue, and one of the guys there is a Trump fan. He said that he enjoyed the video of Trump shoving Montenegro's Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, and said that this bullying mentality was what he liked about Trump. This guy's girlfriend responded that it was classless. Hopefully, that kind of opposition from someone so close will make him think a little bit, but I would not hold my breath if I were her.

The sad truth of the matter is that here in the United States, far and away the biggest producer of weapons that the world has ever seen, many, if not most, Americans believe in war, because they have grown used to wars where so-called leaders bombs the crap out of people in faraway lands. Sometimes, this is given a fancy name that people can rally behind, like "Shock and Awe." But by and large, Americans like to hear that their responsible leaders go to foreign nations to kick some ass every now and then. Many Americans who prefer peace do not want to believe that so many of their fellow Americans - surely numbering in at least the tens of millions - actually like war. But the popularity of our military interventions, such as the invasion of Grenada, the invasion of Panama, the two wars in Iraq (at least the initial popularity of the second invasion, before that war became a quagmire), and other military operations suggests that, indeed, many millions of Americans very much like war, and want their nation to engage in it.

Sadly, the irony of all of this is that many, if not most, of these people would likely profess to be Christians, as if Jesus would have favored these wars, and this mentality. As if Jesus would have approved of a man like Donald Trump being the elected leader of the land, and trying to get excess and greed back in vogue. As if Jesus ever espoused the virtues of bullying, arrogance, and ignorance.

Indeed, these are times of mediocrity, frankly. The mediocre leaders that I mentioned are simply a reflection of mediocrity among the people at large, and this makes for potentially dangerous times, if and when things really hit the fan.

That is why, on this Memorial Day, it seems at least as important to me, if not perhaps more important, to not only honor the memory of the dead lost in our wars, but also to give serious thought as to why they were fighting in wars to begin with in order to give the ultimate sacrifice. It seems to me that the best and most patriotic thing that we can do is to give serious thought to the issues of our times, and to always, always try and avoid war whenever possible, and to truly make it what most people who truly have felt the horrors of war know more than anyone else: that war should always be the last and final option to resolve differences, after every other option has been completely exhausted. Until that happens, these kinds of patriotic holidays and sentiments to honor the nation's fallen veterans will always be tinged with a measure of hypocrisy, for the sentiment that saw them suffer and die will remain very much intact.

Below is a brief blog entry that I published on the meaning of Memorial Day, which effectively was to introduce a link to an article that I thought was worth reading:

The Origins of Memorial Day published May 26, 2014:

Now, I'll admit that I never really knew the origins of Memorial Day until I read this article.

No, that does not mean that I simply thought of it as a vacation day, or a day of barbecue and summer fun. I knew it had more reason than that.

But that it is a holiday that was originally created to honor black troops specifically, that much I did not know, admittedly.

Things you never know, until someone sheds some light on them.

And so, I felt it was something that deserved sharing, and I am helping to spread the word, so that more people understand the truth of the origins of this national holiday.

Forgetting Why We Remember by New York Times Op/Ed Contributor David W. Blight, May 29, 2011:

Today is the 100th Anniversary of JFK's Birthday

Today marks what would have been JFK's 100th birthday, had he survived.

Kennedy was, of course, one of the most influential and popular presidents in history, inspiring people with his stirring words, and what seemed to be a brilliant vision for the future of the country that he presided over at what very well might have been the height of it's power and glory.

And, of course, we all know that he was struck down by at least one assassin's bullet in Dallas on November, 1963. Whether or not there was more than one shooter there on that day has remained very contentious and hotly debated ever since. 

So this date marks such a special occasion as this, and it seemed entirely appropriate that I republish this blog entry to honor the memory of one of the most inspiring men to ever hold the highest office in the land, and perhaps one of the most influential and inspiring men to have ever held such a high position in the history of the world! This is especially timely, it seems, given the extraordinarily bad level of leadership currently in the White House that we unfortunately have to bear witness to in our present age.

In Memory of John F.Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, originally published on November 22, 2013:

Yes, I know that I already posted a blog on the whole Kennedy assassination, which today marks the 50th anniversary of.

I have been watching some videos about Kennedy on Youtube, as well as the documentary that was aired about him recently on PBS. It all reminded me of my own youth. Tat may sound strange, but even though I was born more than a decade after he was killed, he seemed to have made a strong and lasting impression on the nation in general, and it almost felt a bit like there was still a lingering presence, something that, by all rights, should have continued, but did not.

One of the videos that I watched (unfortunately, I cannot right now remember which one, precisely) termed those three or so years that he was in office as a time of political enchantment, and that sounds about right.

My grandparents had man reminders of the past. They had Howdy Doody dolls, and there were other things as well. Old magazines dating back decades. Old pictures, of course. And quite a few old books. One of those books was "The Thousand Days: John Fitzgerald Kennedy as President". It was a relatively glossy (it had lost a bit of this glossiness over the years) hardcover book from 1964, the year after Kennedy was assassinated. I leafed through it time and again, and imagined what it would be like to have such a young and idealistic leader, one who could deliver such amazing words. The pictures (it was in large part a book of illustrations) showed a seemingly young and healthy, robust man with a lot of energy. Only a few pictures betrayed this image, such as the ones that showed his back problems. Yet, even these were meant to illustrated the character of the man, to show that he was wiling to hide how own, personal discomfort, in order to represent that more positive image, almost like a personal sacrifice.

That book was my closest glimpse of the Kennedy years, and what they might have been like. I still have it somewhere, and admittedly still enjoy leafing through it, although it is beginning to show it's age, as the binding is now going, and I had to tape it up, so it looks even more beat up than it probably should be.

Kennedy represented an ideal. he was the physical embodiment of a spirit of youth, of activism and idealism, in an age when the United States was still very much enjoying it's golden age. It was truly beyond dispute that the United States was the leading superpower of the world at the time, far and away ahead of the Soviet Union in almost every conceivable way, with the one exception being perhaps the space race. And Kennedy pushed forward to make sure that the United States would win the space race, as well, by articulating the goal of getting a man to the moon within the decade. He did not live to see it, but those words would indeed bear fruit, and within the decade, just like he said.

Kennedy started the Peace Corps. Again, he inspired the youth of a nation, and allowed them to dream of a better world, and even to act towards turning that dream into reality. I will not get into the negatives hear, perhaps the harsher realities that have since come to light - that will be for another blog entry. For now, I want to focus on how Kennedy inspired, and represented, or seemed to represent, the very best that the country had to offer. Indeed, how could young people not be stirred, when he famously borrowed the words of Kahlil Gibran in his Inaugural Address:

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Can you imagine a modern President, or even prominent politician, saying words like these down below, or perhaps even, dare I suggest, meaning it?

"When we got into office, the one thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we'd been saying they were."
~John F. Kennedy

"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
~John F. Kennedy

"If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a ‘Liberal.’"
~John F. Kennedy

Here are words that seem more true today than when Kennedy first uttered them:

"Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
~John F. Kennedy

"Sometimes party loyalty asks too much"
~John F. Kennedy

He could laugh at himself, too.

"I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy - "Dear Jack, Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide.""

"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it - and the glow from that fire can truly light the world"

"All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."
~John F. Kennedy

"Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."
~John F. Kennedy

"We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much, to disdain the future now."
~John F. Kennedy

"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."
~John F. Kennedy

"Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly."
~John F. Kennedy

"When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters-one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity."
~John F. Kennedy

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." ~John F. Kennedy

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
~John F. Kennedy

"The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining."
~John F. Kennedy

"Without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men...have lived. The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy."
~John F. Kennedy

"Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate."
~John F. Kennedy

Liberty without learning is always in peril; learning without liberty is always in vain.
~John F. Kennedy

"The freedom of the city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say, "What's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable.""
~John F. Kennedy

"Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation."
~John F. Kennedy

"If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more new ideas for more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries. These libraries should be open to all — except the censor. We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms. Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors. For the Bill of Rights is the guardian of our security as well as our liberty."
~John F. Kennedy

"The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth."
~John F. Kennedy

"The Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress."
~John F. Kennedy

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
~John F. Kennedy

"A revolution is coming - a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough - but a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character, we cannot alter its inevitability."
~John F. Kennedy

"War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."
~John F. Kennedy

Lead like John F. Kennedy BY LARRY J. SABATO November 20 at 11:07 am

Obama honors President John F. Kennedy complete coverage)

Obama pays tribute to John F. Kennedy legacy Associated Press By DARLENE SUPERVILLE 3 hours ago

JFK anniversary: Barack Obama pays tribute to the legacy of John F Kennedy

Below is at least some of what President Obama had to say in honoring the slain President Kennedy:

"This is a legacy of a man who could have retreated to a life of luxury and ease but who chose to live a life in the arena, sailing sometimes against the wind, sometimes with it."

"That's why 50 years later John F Kennedy stands for posterity as he did in life: young, bold and daring.

"He stays with us in our imagination not because he left us too soon but because he embodied the character of the people that he led – resilient, resolute, fearless and fun loving, defiant in the face of impossible odds and most of all determined to make the world anew, not settling for what is but rather for what might be."