Fab Four

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I was just a little girl when the Beatles came on the scene in the mid-Sixties, but I quickly caught Beatle fever. The four English lads with dark mops of hair had an infectious sound and personality that made toes tap and girls swoon. I spent many an hour clad in white vinyl go-go boots dancing in the family basement rec room to Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, and Beatles 65.

This past weekend, I was able to reminisce about the Fab Four by listening to a weekend-long show on Sirius XM Radio’s Beatles channel. Hosted by music producer Peter Asher, the “All Together Now” show featured the top 100 Beatles songs as voted on by listeners. Although I might have quibbled with some of the listeners’ choices, I enjoyed the musical tour through Beatles history, punctuated by arcana from the knowledgable Asher.

Having not only been a music producer during the Beatles’ rise to fame but also a close personal friend, Peter Asher is well qualified to discuss the intricacies of their music and to share the personal stories behind many Beatles songs. In fact, Paul McCartney lived with Asher’s family for two years and wrote many of his beautiful songs in the Asher family home.

An interesting tidbit I learned was that the hit “Hey Jude” was originally titled “Hey Jules.” This makes sense since, as I once learned, Paul wrote the song to cheer up John Lennon’s son Julian when the Lennons were in the process of getting a divorce. John, for his part, wrote one of my favorite songs about his mother, Julia. McCartney also used many of his personal experiences to form parts of songs. For instance, the lyrics of “Let It Be” came from a dream Paul had of his mother. “Martha, My Dear” referred to Paul’s pet dog, and “Penny Lane” was based upon a street in his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool.

One of the most interesting details I learned was that Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is a song about civil rights. In Paul’s words, “This was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'” Indeed, as the Beatles evolved, their songs became deeper and richer in many ways. They also got in trouble with conservatives for some of their comments and lyrics. I still remember my father’s outrage when John Lennon declared that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. And the John Birch Society objected to the upbeat “Back in the USSR,” which I interpret to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”

To this day, I have a special fondness for the Beatles’ early music. It was so upbeat, sweet, and danceable. It’s just not possible to be in a bad mood while listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Help!,” or “Happy Just to Dance With You.” I’m not such a fan of the psychedelic phase the Beatles had, in which all the lyrics sounded as if they were written under the influence of mushrooms or LSD. But much of their later music only improves with age. Soulful ballads such as “Let It Be,” “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” reveal a maturing foursome, ironically as the band started splintering.

There will never be another band like the Beatles. As I listened to song after song in the top 100, I realized that not only had I heard almost every single one many times, I knew most of the lyrics. The Beatles were a formative part of our lives in the 1960s and 70s. Hearing so many of their masterpieces this weekend, I realized that Beatles music will never get old.

The Beatles’ gift to music and culture is immeasurable. And I hope for each of them the lines of “The End” have held true: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

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Doing Hard Things

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Years ago I stumbled across a book written by 19-year-old twins Alex and Brett Harris entitled Do Hard Things. Their thesis was that society expects way too little of adolescents and that is up to young people to rise above the low bar set for them by “doing hard things.”

I bought the book for my teenage sons, but reading it myself, I realized that all of us – not just teens – can benefit from raising our expectations of ourselves. The Harrises discussed pursuing excellence in school, standing up for moral values, and working to make a difference in the world as antidotes to a modern culture of pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance. As Memorial Day approaches, a day on which we commemorate the courageous sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, it might behoove us to think of our own contributions to the world in which we live.

Doing hard things can look like the parent who gets up in the wee hours of the morning or works a second shift to put food on the table. It can look like the schoolmate who stands up to bullies. Doing hard things can mean abstaining from unhealthy behaviors and completing grueling workouts to stay in shape. It can mean giving one’s time to an elderly relative, a sick child, or a friend in need. It can involve volunteering to feed the hungry, build shelter for the homeless, or tend to the sick.

Alex and Brett Harris draw on their faith in God to inspire them. Certainly, a rich faith life can impel us to see our role in the world as something larger than mere existence. But no matter what faith we subscribe to, or whether we have any religious faith at all, the concept of working hard for the betterment of ourselves and others is one that can enrich our lives and give it greater meaning.

The other day I read an essay that my son had written for a college philosophy class. In it, he described his understanding of existentialism as the idea that the world and our lives have no intrinsic meaning of their own, but that it’s incumbent upon each of us to create meaning for ourselves in the way we live. While I do believe that God invests our existence with deep meaning, I also agree that it is up to us to act, to make a world of which we are happy and proud to be a part.

I’m at a stage in life where it is tempting to sit back and take it easy. Certainly I don’t feel the pressures and drive I had when I was a young professional or the mother of young children. Yet it’s never good to become too comfortable with our lives. Comfort brings stagnation; growth involves hardship and pain.

I intend to keep growing by pursuing the hard things that give my life meaning.

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

Things Blacks Can’t Do in America*

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tdy_sun_radford_starbucks_180415_1920x1080.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopThese are the ordinary activities blacks aren’t allowed to do if they wanted to avoid being questioned/arrested/shot by police:

  1. Go to Starbucks.
  2. Shop at Nordstrom Rack.
  3. Fall asleep in the library.
  4. Golf.
  5. Refuse to give up their table in a restaurant.
  6. Be outside in their relative’s backyard at night with a cell phone in hand.
  7. Rent space at an Airbnb.
  8. Walk around in a “white” neighborhood.
  9. Sit on their own front porch.
  10. Try to enter their own home in an upscale neighborhood.
  11. Drive.
  12. Walk.
  13. Breathe.
  14. Exist.

Every day I read about another case of egregious harassment based on race. Increasingly, the stories feature white citizens taking it upon themselves to call police upon black citizens purely based on the color of their skin.

Some of this increase is no doubt due to the tenor of the Trump presidency, a mindset that emphasizes minorities as alien and criminal. After Trump was elected in 2016, hate crimes against minorities went up substantially. White supremacist groups, largely marginalized throughout the past 50 years, became emboldened by Trump’s dog whistle politics. Some Republican politicians have started campaigning on racist and misogynistic platforms with little to no subtlety.

Yet in a larger sense, these stories point to the reality that we are far from the “post racial” society that many Americans imagine our country to be. I would like my white friends to imagine what it’s like to get in one’s car on a daily basis and pray that they don’t get stopped or, worse, killed by a police officer. I’d like them to walk into their favorite store, restaurant, movie theater, or golf club and feel watched and harassed just by virtue of being there. I wonder how whites would feel if they were on the premises of their own property or that of a friend or relative and had neighbors calling the police on them.

Blacks can take nothing for granted in our world. What they wear, how they speak to strangers, even whether or not it’s wise to put their hands in their pockets. They live under a cloud of suspicion for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Certainly police training on bias would be helpful lessen the number of tragic shootings of blacks. But our society needs a sea change in our attitudes. Part of the problem is the segregation under which many Americans still live. We scarcely interact with people of other races or ethnicities, and therefore we are less comfortable around each other.

Far from ushering in a new, more tolerant age, the election of our first black president, Barack Obama, created a backlash on the part of many whites who fear that their own opportunities will be diminished by a more racially tolerant society. Blacks are held to a much higher standard for behavior than are whites. So it is up to us whites to fight for more inclusion, more opportunity, and more acceptance of African Americans – and indeed for all minorities.

Conservatives are fond of the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Let’s apply that concept to race relations and not just trickle down economics for a change.

*Adding to the list:

15. Swim at a public pool without being questioned about whether you showered first.

16. Canvass as a lawmaker among one’s constituency.

17. Have a paper route.

 

 

 

 

Teacher Appreciation

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I’ve been noticing lots of Facebook posts about Teacher Appreciation Week. Although it’s been decades since I dusted the chalk off my hands and left teaching, I still consider it one of the great highlights of my life.

My inspiration came from a tiny, curmudgeonly old English teacher named Mr. Stringfellow. Mr. Stringfellow was a legend in my high school for being grumpy and exacting. So I was a little scared on the first day of senior year when I walked into his British Lit class.

At the front of the classroom stood a small man slightly hunched over, with black hair, glasses, and a deep scowl. We started right in with Beowulf and Canterbury Tales, and I was smitten. Although it proved true that Mr. Stringfellow had stringent standards and did not suffer fools gladly, he also lit up from within when reading or discussing great literature.

Mr. Stringfellow taught me how to analyze literature deeply. He would stand at the front of the room and intone the words of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Once he read my essay on Lady Macbeth out loud to the class and proclaimed, “This is the closest thing I’ve ever read to a scholarly paper in high school.” I wore the back-handed compliment like a badge of honor.

There have been other special teachers in my life. Mrs. Rollow inspired me to become enthralled with journalism. Her question to us on the first day of class, “Which is more important: a free society or a free press?”, ignited a lively intellectual debate. In the age of Watergate and the Washington Post reporting that eventually brought down a president, I aspired to become an investigative journalist. There wasn’t much scandal to be unearthed in my suburban high school, but I still reveled in my days as reporter and then editor on the school newspaper.

Away at college, I kept thinking back to these two inspirational educators from my high school years. Aside from their obvious passion for their subject matter, Mr. Stringfellow and Mrs. Rollow loved their students and tried to get the best out of them. Where Mr. Stringfellow was exacting and begrudging with a smile, Mrs. Rollow was delightfully wry and witty.  But I looked up to them both with something akin to hero worship. My decision to teach was a natural outgrowth of their inspiration.

The impact of great teachers cannot be overstated. Their long hours and indefatigable efforts to help students achieve deserve recognition, not only every year, but every day of the year.

Here’s to great teachers past, present, and future. They truly change lives.

The Greatest Charlatan

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I’ve been mystified by the success of the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, a movie based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame. How does someone make a “feel good” musical about a man who preyed upon people’s basest instincts to make money?

P.T. Barnum literally rented an elderly black slave and peddled the fiction that she was George Washington’s nursemaid. He exploited people of other races, such as the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. People came to see his freak show of humans with physical characteristics outside the mainstream of society. (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017) All of this is whitewashed by rousing musical numbers and anthems, ironically, of tolerance for people’s differences (Academy-award nominated song “This Is Me”).

I guess the popularity of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we live in an America that elected Donald Trump. Like Barnum, Trump exploited people’s prejudices and fears to win votes. He peddled the fiction that he was a man of great business acumen despite numerous business failures and the exploitation of many who worked for him.

Both Barnum’s and Trump’s greatest gifts have been for self-promotion. Barnum even titled his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Similarly, Trump travels around the country like a religious tent revivalist, whipping up crowds and congratulating himself for his greatness and popularity. Trump is fond of phrases such as “we have the best …” and “like no one’s ever seen.”

Donald Trump has created his own three-ring circus to dazzle, obfuscate, and distract the media and the American people from his lies and the backroom dealings that keep coming to light through the Mueller investigation. He has managed to convince Republican legislators and conservative media pundits that the true chicanery lies elsewhere, with the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Justice Department, and American intelligence services. Unlike the offensive but entertaining smoke and mirrors of P.T. Barnum, Trump’s con artistry is bent on destroying American institutions.

Americans who so want to invest their hopes and dreams in a man like Trump are the perfect audience for a sugarcoated movie about a man who conned and exploited his way to fame and fortune, a man who was wiling to abuse both humans and animals to make a buck.

As historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, “Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017)

If anything explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that does.