The Red Pony

I stumbled into my college major in English literature based on a bad assumption about the course requirements. However, I ended up enjoying it even though I’m a slow reader and had way too much to try to wade through to actually get good grades. The challenge I accepted often was to read the introductions to the books that the academic versions back then seemed to have. These were usually written by critics or academics. Then through artful writing, I would try to convince the professors that I not only read the works but had something unique to say about them myself. This got me by, but I probably missed a lot and also hardened a habit I’ve had of never finishing a book I wasn’t enjoying.

The first time I remember doing this was with John Steinbeck’s novella, The Red Pony. At the time I was probably ten or eleven and the same age as the central character in this classic. By then I had read every dog and horse story in the basement level children’s section of the Richmond Public Library.

I’m not sure where the volume came from, but The Red Pony was in the house and I thought I would give it a try as my first grown up book. It was short (about 130 pages) and had a picture of the red pony on the cover. I’m sure I was expecting a heartwarming happy ending as was common in the childrens’ books. However, I gave up quickly and didn’t make it through the first of the four stories about the young boy Jody and life on a small ranch in the Salinas Valley of California.

Again, I’m not sure how the book turned up recently…but we’ve been shuffling things around trying to give ourselves more “space” during the pandemic. It is the same volume I attempted as a kid sixty-some years ago. It was old then. Steinbeck wrote it in the mid-30’s and this illustrated edition was published in 1945, in July of the year I was born right before the first atomic bomb was about to end World War II.

After reading the first chapter I almost gave up again. The picture of the red pony on the cover gives no clue to Steinbeck’s central theme. I’ve concluded that maybe I gave up all those years ago not because I hadn’t developed an adequate enough vocabulary to understand it, but rather because I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle it.

It’s described as a novella and the chapters aren’t really chapters as much as the division of four stories held together but two things. First, each of the stories is about Jody. The second is that each is about the cycle of life and death and how violence can enter both at the beginning and the end.

The most obvious thing about Steinbeck’s writing here is the vividness of his description of a small ranch during this era. Animals are a big part of it. Horses are part of each of the stories but there are dogs, hogs, cattle, gophers, vultures, songbirds, and mice mentioned. In fact, mice that have fattened up during the winter at the bottom of hay stacks create some of the tension in the last few pages about the boy Jody’s future.

As a boy in the first quarter of his life attempting this book, I don’t doubt what drove me from it was the matter-of-factness of all this death. The same words in the final quarter of my life are what dragged me through it. Instead of disturbing me, they make me wonder what I have left to make my remaining time meaningful and less frightening.

D-Day Reflection- 2020

Every year at this time the news organizations find a few aging veterans of D-Day, the Allies invasion of Normandy that was a major milestone in our war against Nazi oppression in World War II. America didn’t enter that war with the overwhelming force that it has now and there was no guarantee that the Allies would prevail and save the grand experiment of Western Democracy. We lost thousands that day in the surf and in the carnage on the beaches, but every survivor and the families of those that didn’t were proud of what was accomplished.

Watching the coverage of President Trump’s photo-op march to St. John’s church as the Federalized troops cleared out the peaceful protest in progress with flash-bombs, tear-gas and rubber bullets turned my stomach. Flanked by Bill Barr, Mark Esper, General Mark Milley (in camo) and a few other flunkies and with Secret Service agents darting back in forth, the President strode to the church where Lincoln prayed stood in front of and held up a Bible.

Barr, who organized and ordered this, explained that the president had a right to walk safely on the streets too.

This was billed by the administration as a photo-op. Sure, but to what end? In fact, the pictures of the president posed with a Bible held upside down have no context other than that clownish smirk that says, fuck you America, I’m the president and I can do whatever I want.

This was not a photo-op it was a raw show of power and an attempted rebuke of the governors he had earlier berated as weak and afraid for not dominating the “battle-space” and repressing the protests being held around the country. These are the same governors whose stature has grown for their handling of the pandemic while his has shrunk.

Watching the D-Day coverage, I began wondering was what was going through the minds of those soldiers clearing the streets for the wanna-be dictator and his toadies. Do they imagine themselves being honored for their courage and persistence with the carnage of lost buddies lying all around them like those that stormed the beaches at Normandy? Doubtful.

Or do they worry their memory will be enshrined forever in the military Hall of Shame like the butchers of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam or the guards at Abu Ghraib in Iraq or the Guardsmen firing on student protesters at Kent State in Ohio?

Or will they hold close the excuse of so many of the defeated Nazis after World War II that they were only following orders?

God help them.

Democratic Debate in Nevada

It’s been truly depressing the last few weeks reviewing my Facebook feed that is filled with news about our slow walk to autocracy under Donald Trump and the chance that he might be elected again.

Hoping for something to lift my spirits, I watched the Democratic debate in Las Vegas last night. Boy, was I disappointed.

The Durham Rotary Club just completed a series of three programs on the topic of Civility. The first featured former State legislator and Supreme Court Justice Willis Whichard. The second featured David Gergen an advisor to four presidents and his son Christopher Gergen, who is many things including a faculty member at Duke.

With civility on my mind, the debate seemed anything but cival. Much of the commentary used sports analogies, like Ali-Frazier 4. Another described Mayor Bloomberg’s performance as a baseball player facing mid-season pitching without the benefit of spring practice. What civility there was was superficial, which is the worst kind of un-civility.

Early voting is underway here in North Carolina and I have no idea who I’m going to vote for. The same was true the last go-round when I voted for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders and literally made up my mind in the voting booth. Four of the people on the debate stage last night are in their seventies and three of them are older than I am, two of them have more stents than I do and Bernie had a heart attack during this campaign. I’d like to think whoever gets elected could go two terms with all their facilities intact.

Mayor Pete blows me away with his intelligence. He’s quick on his feet and his military service and connection to South Bend and Notre Dame are positives for me. But he is so young and has no political experience beyond the small community of South Bend.

Both Bernie and Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg for being a billionaire. Bernie even claimed it was immoral. Bloomberg claimed that he had been lucky and worked hard. The latter claim was blown off as ridiculous That struck me as being unfair. No, he probably hasn’t worked as hard as some of the culinary workers or someone who made a career working on an auto assembly line, that is, hard physical and usually boring work. He did acknowledge the luck factor but he also build a solid company, took reasonable risks and generally made smart choices.

He also has committed to giving away all that money. It struck me that, not only is he not like Trump, he is the antithesis to Trump…a self-made billionaire with altruistic intents. I don’t think he should take all the blame for stop-and-frisk. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking the Strangers, describes the tactic as something that adopted by many police departments as a way to tackle crime in high crime areas. Of course, it had a lot of unintended consequences and gave a lot of racist bullies a license to hunt for victims.

As for Bernie, he’s not a communist as Bloomberg seemed to imply in his otherwise astute observation that Trump would be relishing the conversation on stage if he was watching. The biggest problem with Bernie’s proposal is that even with a Democratic House and a Senate with a two thirds majority, his vision could not be funded. It’s unrealistic to think that he could unravel the entire dysfunctional healthcare system and replace it with what he is proposing in a four year term, or even two terms.

My big concern is that Bloomberg just goes away mad if he doesn’t get the nomination and only supports the eventual nominee tepidly.

If you forced me to vote today I would support Biden for the 46th president with Amy on the ticket and for the 47th in 2024 and Pete for the 48th in 2032, if I live that long and can still get to the polls.

The commentators on MSNBC , who are paid to make this as exciting a horse race as they can, were animated and seemed to agree that all the candidates had good nights except Bloomberg. I’m sad to say though that I think the big loser was the Democratic Party and the American people. IMHO, Donald Trump’s odds improved considerably after last night. Maybe selecting candidates in smoke filled rooms is a better way to go after all.

Year in Review – 2019

In mid-December I start getting a few holiday letters from friends that I enjoy reading. However, when I tried to do one myself years ago it just seemed incredibly boring. So, I took a clue from an old Esquire Magazine tradition of publishing short essays by celebrities recounting the lessons they learned that year. So, I tried that and found that not only was it more interesting, it was a good exercise in self-awareness that I highly recommend.

  1. At a certain age you want to retire…for real. I was a big fan of John D. McDonald’s novels built around the character of Travis McGee. Travis lived on a houseboat that he won in a poker game, drove an old Rolls Royce that had been converted into a pickup truck and was sort of a soldier of fortune. He would say that he took his retirement in chunks. When opportunity came along, he would jump on it. When he was running out of money, he would look for opportunities. In reflecting on the last 20 years or so, you could say I’ve been taking my retirement in chunks as well. I’ve been in selling residential real estate now for about 15 years…even wrote a book about how to do it. And that’s a good occupation for giving you the opportunity to work when you want to.  Now, at 74, I’m developing a plan to take bigger chunks of retirement at a time. If I can find two or three good clients in 2020 and do a good job for them, I will be satisfied.
  2. Time flies…whether you’re having fun or not. When I calculated how long I’d been in real estate for the paragraph above, I realized my tenure as a Realtor might surpass what I’d always considered my primary occupation, banking, where I spent 17 years. That ended when I left Durham’s hometown bank, now part of SunTrust, as its marketing director. Why does time fly? It occurred to me a long time ago that every minute of your life is a smaller proportion of the life you have lived than the moment before. But I also like another metaphor I heard somewhere as well. The closer you get to the end of a roll of toilet paper the faster the cardboard tube turns to deliver what you need. Think about that.
  3. Our democracy is much more fragile than I thought. Years ago I read a popular book about how our economy works. I’ve searched lists of books written in the 70’s and 80’s about the topic but haven’t been able to identify that book. However, an illustration in it disturbed me at the time. When a guy buys a nice suit, he immediately starts looking at what it would take to buy a nicer suit. Advertisers know that and deliberately will encourage that desire. Suits may be an obsolete example but cars, vacations, entertainment and, of course homes, all follow the same path. It is also important in the sale of credit to make it easier to buy those things. The growth of our economy is based on us buying more and more. It is also a tool that the “haves” use to control the “have nots.” This has driven the unprecedented income inequality that is dividing this country. I also believe this has given the opportunity to unscrupulous men to grab the levers of government to accelerate the process in their own behalf. I have always leaned left in my politics with a heavy dash of fiscal conservatism, so it will surprise no one who knows me that defeating Donald Trump in 2020 is the first and most important step in turning this around.
  4. You use it or lose it.  All the debates about the right to health care can get abstract. As I write this a few days before Christmas, two people in my closest circle of friends and family have undergone major surgery and two others are dealing with conditions, that, while not as bloody, have major consequences. Two others, just outside that circle are dealing with end of life issues. It’s hard to believe it but we’ve ceded control of this country’s health system to insurance and pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists. And it’s not just that medical bills and lack of care and time off of work lead to over a half million bankruptcies in this country every year, pharma companies have dumped billions of doses of opioids into the marketplace and caused an epidemic of addiction in this country.  After getting a significant amount of my exercise this week walking the parking lots, tunnels and halls of two large hospitals, I remain convinced that the major responsibility for my heath falls on my own shoulders. This year I’ll get my weight back down, do my annual fast from alcohol from January 2 to Easter, and keep my Airdyne running till one of us dies.
  5. There really is a climate crisis. I know that I’m in the last quarter of my game against the grim reaper, just waiting for his last-minute field goal to put winning immortality out of my reach. My home here in Durham will never be beachfront property during the remainder of my lifetime. So why the hell do I care? The existential crisis of our time might not be my main concern, or that of those in cages at our southern border or those addicted to opioids, or those who have to sleep on the street. But it will affect my granddaughter who has a good chance of seeing the next millennium if the planet remains reasonably habitable. So, I care.
  6. Women will save us. From the day I got my first pubic hair women have been a mystery to me. My first big breakthrough was in my twenties when I realized that women, even the smartest and most attractive, can have insecurities, want to be valued and accepted and can be good friends. Only in the last few years, and this one especially, have I begun to understand how important women will be to solving the problems the world faces. At the forefront right now is Nancy Pelosi. There are lots of other names I could mention but here is one fact to illustrate. Democratic women won 13 seats in the current House of Representatives in districts that Trump won in 2016. All 13 voted for Trump’s impeachment in spite of the political risk that exposes them to at reelection. In 1956 JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Profiles in Courage. All 7 profiles where male Senators. I predict future volumes will include more women than men. The 2019 Kennedy Profile in Courage Award went to the aforementioned Nancy Pelosi and was presented by Caroline Kennedy.
  7. Christmas. For at least the last 40 years I have not been a big fan of Christmas for reasons that are laid out in 3. above. There is unrelenting pressure to eat too much, drink too much and, especially, spend too much. However, I do love some of the music and last year I included a video of “One Voice” performed by the Air Force Band. Here’s another year with the same cast of characters. Click the link or the picture and pull out a tissue. https://youtu.be/vniBBT7nRJg
A crowd of people standing in front of a building

Description automatically generated