Engaged with the World

Those Clueless Kids

I have had just about enough of people saying the 16 to 18-year-old students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are being used by their elders for an agenda they don’t understand. It’s insulting to teenagers everywhere, and it’s insulting to yourself if you make that argument.

Why? Because when you were 16, 17, and 18, you didn’t do a damned thing unless you wanted to. I’m guessing that sometimes you even refused to do what you did want just because some adult liked the idea. Remember?

Sure, you might have grudgingly gone to church when you’d rather have slept in, or you grudgingly went to dinner at Grandma’s when you would have preferred to be with your friends, but when something really mattered to you, didn’t you stand your ground? Didn’t you push back against the adults who tried to force you?

I keep seeing the argument that these kids are far too organized to have done it by themselves, and know the talking points far too well. Let’s think about that.

Maybe – just maybe – those kids know the talking points because they are the same talking points that get trotted out whenever there is a mass shooting. These kids have lived with the horror of large-scale carnage their entire lives. They have heard the talking points and they have seen how nothing gets resolved because the politicians – the adults who actually have the power and ability to change the law – have said after every incident that “this isn’t the time to talk about it.”

And every time these kids and others just like them have buried their friends and noticed that these emperor politicians wear no clothes.

Rick Santorum’s statements that “these kids aren’t really doing anything” by speaking out and marching is one more example of a naked emperor. They are doing exactly what they CAN do. They are demanding that lawmakers take action. They aren’t old enough to be elected to office yet. When they are, watch out – they will be. And they will be the agents of the long-overdue change they demand.

And maybe – just maybe – they have had help from adults getting organized. Adults who care about the same things those kids care about: that bodies stop dropping to assault weapons, that reasonable gun laws be enacted and enforced, and that politicians who sell children for $1.05 to the NRA answer for how cheaply they value life – not to mention answering for the fact that they have sold their integrity for power.

Maybe – just maybe – those adults and even (gasp!) the kids themselves recognized that the adults weren’t the best faces for the TV interviews and to speak at the rally. Why? Because overwhelmingly, KIDS die in these mass shootings at their schools. The KIDS are righteously outraged that adults with the power to have prevented this carnage have failed to do so time and time and time again. That these adults smile smugly and say that they won’t stop selling the lives of children to the gun lobby because, you know, they NEED that blood money.

At least two adults refused to lend their notoriety to the Parkland kids because they felt the kids themselves were absolutely the best spokespeople for this travesty. Look up what George and Amal Clooney said to them. Never has “no” been said with so much love and respect and admiration.

And what do these kids think they can do, anyway? What possible examples in history can they look at to think they can effect change? Let’s consider that.

Guess how old Joan of Arc was when she led the French army to victory against the English. She was 17 at the Battle of Orleans and had already been fighting for three years – in a leadership role. A 13-year-old girl had made adults not just listen, but let her lead them into battle. She had something to say, she said it, she got the attention of the people who needed to hear it, she said it again, and she took the action she could take. She was just 18 when the British captured her and barely 19 when they burned her as a witch – a witch who dared to speak her truth to their power.

How old was Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de LaFayette, when he came to America to help with the Revolution? Well, at 13 he was commissioned an officer in the French army. He was a major-general in the American Revolution at 19. And that, of course, was just the beginning. By Yorktown in 1781, he was confirmed beyond any doubt as a serious and able leader, and he was still only 26.

How about Alexander Hamilton? This brilliant guy was the same age as Lafayette and was one of his best friends during the six years of the Revolution. But even before the Revolution, he ran a major shipping company from the West Indies – at the age of 14. He designed the American economic structure before the age of 30. But when he was just a 17-year-old kid and wrote that famous essay that got him a one-way ticket to New York, he was already cognizant of horrific truths like the evils of slavery and the despair of poverty – truths that he championed the rest of his too-short life.

Oh, but these guys were “special.” We shouldn’t consider them. OK, let’s look for less stellar examples.

We don’t have to look far. Lots of them can be found right there in the Revolution.

James Monroe was 18 in 1776. He was a farmer. Two years before the Revolution – at the age of 16 – he and his school friends stormed the Virginia governor’s palace to seize arms for the Virginia militia. Do they want to argue that he was misled by his elders who had some nefarious plan in mind and wouldn’t have done it without their influence?

How about Nathan Hale, who was hanged by the British as a spy at 21? He was the same age as Lafayette and Hamilton and went on his first major spying mission at the age of 17. That’s right, he was the same age as those kids at Parkland when he snuck behind British lines and gathered serious intelligence for Washington. He was so unaware of what was really going on that he regretted having but one life to give for his country. But he probably didn’t really have a clue, you know?

Let’s talk about Sybil Luddington.This 16-year-old girl’s efforts dwarfed Paul Revere’s 14-mile trip to warn of the British invasion. She rode all night long, for 40 miles, to alert the militias that the Redcoats Were Coming. She just didn’t get a poem – and damn it, she deserved one. Is anyone seriously going to argue that, because of her tender years, she did not really know what she was doing or why she was doing it?

Do you know why the rebelling colonists won that war, against impossible odds and against the superpower of the day? Because KIDS thought it was important and DID SOMETHING ABOUT IT. They couldn’t remake the laws, so they made a country.

And don’t let me get started on the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, and the hugely important major role played by CHILDREN – people not old enough to vote, to drink alcohol or buy cigarettes, or to hold office. I’ll rant on about things like Kent State and the Freedom Riders and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, and the kids that made things happen and changed the world.

Never try to argue that teenagers aren’t perfectly capable of recognizing a problem and taking action when it matters enough to them right there in that moment.

Because I will call B.S.

Cousins Bonding

Last night at my house, cousins happened:

They are ten years apart in age and they have adored each other from the very beginning. They collaborated to cook our dinner. I can’t adequately describe warm fuzzies cuddling my heart as this unfolded in front of me.

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I’m stuck in a non-weight-bearing cast on one foot. I rely on a scooter for mobility and have for about the last four months.  Cooking really isn’t very workable for me so hot meals are a rarity these days.

Enter my friend Josie. She sent us a free week of Hello Fresh, and Jack and Laurie rose to the challenge. Last night’s meal was Pesto Chicken, and it was excellent!

These Orsi cousins are going to be great cooks. They come by it naturally. Their shared set of grandparents loved to cook and did it well. Papa Orsi (Papa Bear – get it?) spent all weekend every weekend thinking about what to cook next. Great-grandfather Orsi loved making his Orsi Special soup every weekend. He required the whole family to stir the pot. (If you ever wonder why Orsis are pot-stirrers, blame Big John. He taught us well.)

But even better was watching the interplay. The laughter, the goofing, the relaxed enjoyment of trying something new together.

Cousins. Ten years apart in age, but close in affection.

I love these guys!


Look what my favorite offspring gave me yesterday!

My favorite book is S. Morgenstern's The Princess Bride, good parts edition by William Goldman

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” – William Goldman

I discovered the Princess Bride in its first edition when I was a teenager in the mid-1970’s. I loved it. LOVED IT. It remains one of my favorite books in all the world, and I have owned many copies and many editions of it. (My favorite back-cover blurb read simply: “What happens when the most beautiful woman in the world marries the most handsome prince in the world and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?”) I usually keep at least one extra copy on hand because this is a book I push on people.

They wave it away dismissively. “I’ve seen the movie,” they tell me. “But you haven’t READ it,” I insist as I make them take the book anyway. The book contains all the good parts and many good parts didn’t make it into the 1987 movie.

Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.

For years I refused to see the movie. I could not bear the thought of my beloved book ruined by Hollywood’s chop-shop attitude toward beloved books.

I need not have delayed. William Goldman was both the author and the screenwriter. William Goldman, who wrote such classic screenplays as Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid. Yes, THAT screenwriter. My beloved book was in the very best hands for the job. It was in the hands of the brilliant S. Morgenstern himself.

When the swordfight between the Spaniard and the Six-Fingered Count finally arrived on screen during that first reluctant viewing, I probably shouted with delight. Mandy Patinkin got it exactly right – exactly as I had pictured it in my head for all those years. “HELLO. MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KILLED MY FATHER. PREPARE TO DIE.” And Patinkin delivered the ultimate line when Count Rugen promises Inigo anything – anything! – if Inigo will please not kill him, with perfect anger and finality: “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max was spot-on. Goldman literally conceived of Fezzik as Andre the Giant. Very briefly after my divorce, I dated a guy who was a dead ringer for the non-hunchbacked, screen version of the Sicilian Vizzini. The relationship was doomed when he didn’t understand why I kept referring to his need for an immunity to iocane powder or why the word “inconceivable” seemed to slip into the conversation so much. I will admit that I thought Cary Elwes was a little too pretty and not quite muscle-bound enough to be Westley, but Chris Hemsworth was still in diapers. I will also confess that I own a CD of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to the movie.

As I flip through the beautiful pages of this edition, I see illustrations straight out of my reader’s memory. I reread favorite passages that I had memorized before I was old enough to drink alcohol legally. Some passages didn’t make it into the movie, like the very beginning of the book:

Chapter One. The Bride.

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke’s notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke’s notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary’s tragic flaw.


Armed now, the Duchess set to work. The Palace de Guiche turned into a candy castle. Everywhere you looked, bonbons. There were piles of chocolate-covered mints in the drawing rooms, baskets of chocolate-covered nougats in the parlors.

Annette never had a chance. Inside a season, she went from delicate to whopping, and the Duke never glanced in her direction without sad bewilderment clouding his eyes. (Annette, it might be noted, seemed only cheerier throughout her enlargement. She eventually married the pastry chef and they both ate a lot until old age claimed them…).

Goldman brilliantly used the device of an editor inserting himself into the narrative to explain “cuts” in the “abridged version”. The movie changed that device somewhat and while Peter Falk still would have been the perfect immigrant father reading to his very ill son in the 1940’s, I deeply regretted the loss of the scenes in Los Angeles and New York, with that sick little boy all grown up and desperate to find a copy in English (not in the original Florinese) to give to his own son.

This is my favorite book in all the world, and I have read it countless times. I will read it countless more, I am sure.

Thank you, Jack! There’s a reason you’re my favorite.

In Which I Briefly Review Some Recently-Read Books


Here are some of the pages I’ve been turning in 2017.

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson. I finished the first book of this series on New Year’s Eve and immediately started on the second.  Tomes of 1000-plus pages take no time at all when the story is engaging with dynamic characters, a well-paced plot, and high stakes. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Epic high fantasy. Yasssss.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I galloped through this memoir. The author jarred me with his anecdotes of his own coal country and rust belt roots. Ostensibly his story should at least partially explain current working-class disillusion with current politics and economics. However, he casually accepted extremely abusive relationships. He showed no empathy for the hopelessness felt by people who lacked his resourcefulness, intelligence, and drive to remove themselves from familiar dysfunctional surroundings. Maybe that’s the telling attitude that explains the state of middle America today.

The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. My beloved aunt Jackie recommended this book to me after Donald Trump won the presidency. I finished it just hours before #45 issued his disastrous executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim countries. The authors dissect the historical, cyclical patterns of political engagement, economic crises, and social dysfunction. The predicted “hero” generation should save us, but (cue sinister music) the American Civil War cycle skipped that generation to propel us into a disastrous Reconstruction.  If the authors’ prophecy proves true, political matters will get worse before they get better. Kids, hold on to your pants. It’s going to be a rough ride.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War, edited by WWII historian Richard H. Minear. I saw a cartoon online, searched for it, and discovered the existence of this book. I had to own it. Before The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss drew political cartoons. From January 1941 – January 1943, his cartoons covered the political climate of the time. These prescient, recognizably Seussian drawings speak of racism, isolationism, immigration, demagoguery, refugees, and a fearful populace. Like his books that still hold the fascination of 21st-century children, so many of these cartoons are timeless: “America First,” isolationism, and racism went hand-in-hand in 1941, just like they do in 2017. That didn’t work out so well in 1941, and it won’t work out well in 2017. And Dr. Seuss, who explained so many things so very well,  explains why.

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean. I like Kean’s enthusiastic, punchy writing style. He clearly knows his topic and uses footnotes well. (I do wish they appeared at the bottom of the page instead of stuck in the back, though.) Tales of brain injury abound, starting with Henri II of France’s mishap with a broken lance through his eye socket and ending with an iron rod shot through Phineas Gage’s frontal lobe. Neurologists trace seizures, language, consciousness, learning, memory,  and bizarre behavior to specific parts of the brain as well as to all parts of the brain. The history of neurological discovery makes a riveting journey. It ranks among the best books our club has chosen, in my opinion.

The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks. I really liked the first book of this Lightbringer series, but now in Book 4, I suspect the book’s editor has taken a vacation. The writing itself has become sloppy. The uneven timeline bugged me. At one point, a weekend passes for one character across about six chapters, while months pass in the interspersed chapters focused on another. I have had issues with two of the main characters since Book 2. One guy can’t decide what name to call himself (and neither can the author). Another swings schizophrenically between the terror of ridicule and abandonment and the confidence of charismatic leadership. If the author were in my critique group, I’d strongly encourage another revision.  I keep reading because the story itself is still good. I do love me some epic high fantasy.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. This is the first volume of her Maddaddam trilogy, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. My all-time favorite English professor, Fred Busch, introduced me to Margaret Atwood when he assigned her book Surfacing. Possibly her best-known book is The Handmaid’s Tale, that dystopian look at North America in the thrall of a dysfunctional religious right. (For some reason it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since November 8, 2016.) Oryx and Crake starts off with eugenics and touches only lightly on dystopia before immersing the reader into post-apocalyptic survival. Science goes horribly wrong, and, terrifyingly, the wrongness was planned.

The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. This extremely popular Chinese science fiction author has won numerous awards. This book won the Hugo in 2015 for Best Novel. Ye Weining, the primary antagonist traumatized by the Cultural Revolution makes one decision after another to set up the inevitable conflict between humans and extraterrestrial intelligence. The author does a great job with the physics of near-lightspeed travel. (I understood about a tenth of it.) I’ve never before in science fiction encountered aliens such as these either in form or in sympathetic substance. The translator, Chinese-American writer Ken Liu,  included extremely helpful footnotes; otherwise, references to China’s Cultural Revolution would have evaded me.

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. My friend Gladys knows my love of colonial American history. She was shocked that I had never read this book. While waiting at a restaurant for our dinners to arrive, she placed an order on Amazon. Not only did it arrive, so did every other book by the same author.  (Thank you, Gladys!) The author has taken historical facts and enlivened them into a lyric of time, place, and emotion. From Martha’s Vineyard to the original library at Harvard College, she weaves a vivid tapestry of 17th-century life for English settlers and their attitudes toward their Wampanoag neighbors.

 Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thank you again, Gladys.) Bubonic plague, a good-hearted woman, orphaned children, incredible loss and abuse, sincerely held religious beliefs, dead rats, an earnest young cleric, angry villagers, accusations of sex with the devil, herbal lore, and quarantine of a 17th century English village. What more could anyone ask for?

March, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thanks, Gladys.) As kids we all loved Louisa May Alcott’s  Little Women books, right? One of the under-developed characters is the father. At the end of the first book, he returns from the Civil War after suffering an illness.  March is his story.  We see Marmee in a new light, and not everything flatters her. Alcott could never have written this gritty story with its raw emotions.

Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Recently I saw a local musical production of The Secret Garden. Along with A Little Princess, Burnett’s two famous books played a prominent role in the bookshelves of my childhood. I did not find them hidden among the family treasures hoarded by my mom or my sister.  I located and ordered the editions I remembered: the ones with the illustrations by Tasha Tudor.  (Which, I’ll have my mother know, were copyrighted in 1962 and 1963 respectively and therefore could not have been hers when she was a child they’re mine and Susan’s so there.) Along the way, I discovered that Burnett also wrote this little book. It took me almost two whole hours to read it on Easter morning. I should have been out looking for zombies. No kid is that damn good. And who would want them to be?

 Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (revised edition), by James W. Loewen. High school textbook authors continually propagate factually false, Eurocentric, and romanticized views of American history. Loewen collects these popular myths in one place and systematically shatters them. He examined a dozen high school American history texts for accuracy and for their relative perspectives. I’ve read this book slowly because each chapter has independently managed to get my blood boiling. Patent lies and sinister fact-twisting may assuage Euro-American sensibilities, but these white-washed stories of American history taught in schools foment racism and xenophobia. The results pollute social media posts and right-wing “news”.  No other book has so adamantly compelled me to join a protest.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Yes, another one by the same author. This wasn’t as fast a read as her others, nor was the story as compelling. It did send me to look up the Sarajevo Haggada, though. The book ended too soon. Circumstances threatened the Haggadah again in the last decade without a ministry of culture. Fortunately, the recently reopened National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina displays the book again. I hope the museum makes digital images of the pages available. I love illuminated manuscripts.

Gardening With Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Embroidery, by Thomasina Beck. Beck is the author of several books about florals and embroidery. I joined my local chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America a year or so ago. I’m learning cool things and seeing amazing handwork done by very talented people. The chapter president is clearing out her collection and gave this book to me. (Thank you, Sandy!) Gorgeous images of gardens and flowers fill this book. The author explains the history of the techniques. It’s a lovely addition to my library and suitable for display on the coffee table.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I started watching the series on STARZ and got confused, so I re-read the book. Once again I must remind myself that books are not movies, and movies “based on” books are not cinematic reproductions of books. This time I read the 10th Anniversary Edition, which is a revised edition that includes some things Gaiman left out of the original. It was still an amazing exposition on why we worship both the old gods and the new. Also, his prose is pure poetry. Also, read his other stuff. Also, he’s an amazing writer, did I mention that?

The Anglo-Saxon World, by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxons invaded England after Rome vacated the premises. Arthur fought them.  They buried a lot of gold in Staffordshire. Alfred was the Greatest of them. William conquered them and now they’re all gone. These half-truths are about as much as most people know about the Anglo-Saxons. I love the maps and high-quality images in this book. Yes, I read textbooks for fun. Shut up.

N.K. Jemison‘s Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. OhmyfuckingGOD rush out and get these books NOW.  Do not hesitate. Do not dally. Get thee to a bookstore and find them immediately. Read them. Caress them. Savor them. There’s a reason the first two books in this trilogy won the 2016 and 2017 Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The only reason the third book hasn’t is that it was just published. This trilogy is world-building and world-breaking at a level most of us can’t even imagine. This trilogy has character development that goes deeper and more multi-faceted than any of the rest of us can even hope to glimpse in real life. The books are written in the second person – a feat very few authors ever in the history of writing have effectively pulled off – and as the reader understands who the narrator is speaking to, who the narrator even is, and why the second person is necessary, the reader also understands the love and pride of parents and the devastating independence of children. This trilogy is sublime. READ IT.

Behave, by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. It’s easy to adore Dr. Sapolsky. He studies stress and publishes serious science books with titles like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv.  His book A Primate’s Memoir is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read – I push it on people regularly. Part travelogue, part primate behavior, and all solid science, it explores behavior and conflict in contexts that stretch from personal to continental. It’s the only science book that has ever moved me to tears. Behave is almost as good. As the New York Times Book Review put it, this is the book you’ll wish you had in college to understand the brain.  Sapolsky’s writing is always understandable to a layperson. His voice is pleasant, cheerful – at times pretty darn funny – and immensely knowledgeable. He explores the chemistry and structure of the brain, how it changes as it ages, how and why it triggers the reactions it does, and how it controls itself. It also explores the concept of free will. The philosophers among us will like that. Watch his recent TED Talk and watch his graduation address to Stanford students in 2009. He’s engaging, personable, and brilliant, and it all shows in his research and writing.

Grace Without God, by Katherine Ozment. I met the author at the Arkansas Literary Festival and the book was selected for our book club. The author participated by Skype – how cool is that? This book is important because, aside from being written by a former Arkansan without religious faith, it was written for other people without faith. It’s hard to be different. How do we explain to children why we are different and how can we effectively participate in our communities when our communities are organized around religious institutions?

Conflating Shakespeare

High drama of worthy of Shakespeare is taking place in the presence of the Senate Intelligence Committee today.

Shakespeare would definitely have written a play about this.

It ultimately breaks down to this:

TRUMP:  Will no one rid me of this meddlesome FBI Director?

SESSIONS and ROSENSTEIN: (mount up and ride toward Canterbury)

TRUMP: He’s dead! We killed him!

ROSENSTEIN: WTF? Jeff and I just went to Rochester to tour the castle and have some pub food. We didn’t kill anyone. Although we did kind of tag somebody’s bumper in the parking lot. Sorry.

COMEY’S GHOST: I am the campaign’s spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison-house, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combinèd locks to part, and each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

…But this eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood.

SENATE: That’s fine. We’ll be glad to hear what you have to say in closed session.

Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Also, That Rapert Person.

The U.S. Constitution needs amendment. Outdated and imperfect, it lacks relevance to today’s culture and technology. More than once recently I’ve seen or heard it said that calling a national constitutional convention would be a good idea.

Brought to you by the Founding Fathers. The Founding Mothers were busy doing all the rest of the work and not getting paid for it.

There are Things To Be Fixed! We could abolish the Electoral College and dispose of icky gay marriage and slow the flow of corporate money into political arenas and require Congress to have the same health care and retirement as everybody else. Some of these proposals are mean-spirited. Others have merit. Some are just batshit clueless.

Jason Rapert’s Role

Arkansans from Eureka Springs to Little Rock to Smackover gratefully appreciate the voters of the 35th District who elected Jason Rapert to the state senate. We know Rapert as that Baptist preacher whose demonstrations of Christian love are yuger than the unpresidentedly yuge crowds at the most recent inauguration. Civil rights lawyers love him because Rapert has never encountered an unconstitutional bill he wouldn’t sponsor. Die-hard fans of schadenfreude remember his dedicated finesse as a  Wikipedia editor. We all delight in Rapert’s vigilant attention to our ethical decrepitude; he knows his fellow Arkansans aren’t moral enough to be moral all by themselves. Bless his tiny little paternalistic heart for sticking by us.

Rapert actually floated the constitutional convention idea this spring to the Arkansas legislature. He wanted, among other things, to ban abortion completely and to redefine marriage as one man and his silently servile brood mare. We expect he would have also wanted a brand new constitution to ban gay people from getting together in any way, especially on Sundays. Thankfully, the legislature shot down the idea with all those guns they decided to allow on college campuses since that always ends well.

Just, No

From a progressive and libertarian point of view, a constitutional convention is a spectacularly bad idea. Given the current number of Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors, and given that the Tea Party and Religious Right control most of those, we would not recognize the new nation that emerged on the other side of that process.  Unless, of course, we had read or watched the Handmaid’s Tale.

Unless Congress or a supermajority of states call a national constitutional convention, the only other way to amend the US Constitution is by a 2/3 majority of both the House and the Senate to approve language, followed by ratification by 2/3 of the states.

Amendment of the Constitution doesn’t come easy. Six proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been languishing for years – centuries, in several cases – unloved and unratified by states despite the best efforts to pass them. Let’s take a look.

The Congressional Apportionment Amendment

This amendment was proposed along with the rest of the Bill of Rights in 1791 and is still pending before the states, believe it or not. It provided that there would be one U.S. Representative for every 40,000 people. Given the current US population of 324,118,787 people, the 8,103-member House of Representatives would resemble the Galactic Senate in Star Wars.

U.S. House of Representatives after the passage of the Apportionment Amendment

(May the Fourth be with you. )Those are all seats for multiple people, and this image was not created with a fisheye lens.


The Titles of Nobility Amendment

Proposed in 1810 and still pending before the states. It strips citizenship from anyone accepting titles of nobility or honors from foreign heads of state, including gifts, emoluments, offices, and pensions. We would have lost Grace Kelley and Queen Noor. The Donald would have been rendered ineligible for the presidency by operations of law, what with him accepting emoluments and thereby no longer being a US citizen. Sacrificing Princess Grace and Queen Noor would have been worth it. Losing Prince, on the other hand, not so much.


The Slavery Amendment, aka the Corwin Amendment

This proposed amendment says we can’t amend the constitution to abolish slavery or indentured servitude. Kentucky, Ohio, Rhode Island, Maryland, Illinois, and Virginia actually ratified this one, although Maryland and Ohio rescinded ratification and the validity of the ratification is questionable in Virginia and Illinois. Those ratifying states all acted in an effort to avoid the Civil War. Texas, on the other hand, made a go at ratifying it in 1963, nearly a hundred years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. So, in case we really need one, there’s another reason to hate Texas. And Texas could do what it did because, yes, this one is still pending before the states. For real.

Some assholes in Texas think this is a good idea.

The Child Labor Amendment

This would give Congress the power to say when, if, and how little children can power the engines of the industrial revolution and muck out coal mines. Only 28 states have agreed to this one so far, but Congress decided what the hell, even without the approval of the states it would go ahead and pass child labor laws anyhow. Now Baby needs new shoes and can’t get them because Baby can’t get that sweet sweatshop job Baby really wants. Damn congressional overreach!

“Breaker boys. Smallest is Angelo Ross. Hughestown Borough Coal Co. Pittston, Pa.” 1911. From RG: 102 National Child Labor Committee Photographs taken by Lewis Hine National Archives Identifier: 523384

The Equal Rights Amendment

Fuck Phyllis Schlafly. Her histrionics claimed that it shouldn’t pass because the military could draft (gasp!) women. The three remaining states needed to pass it might actually do so in today’s political climate. Nevada voted to ratify it just last month. Seriously. The brochure below is worth a read. It’s from 1941, and warns women that being independent, fully responsible adults might make them independent, fully responsible adults. Like that’s a bad thing.

Click to read full size, and click here to read the other side. It’s worth the time. Source

The DC Voting Rights Amendment

Essentially, this amendment would give the District of Columbia two US Senators, proportional representation in the House of Representatives, and participation in the electoral college. It still would not have been enough for Hillary to have won in November. However, her margin of victory in the popular vote would have been considerably higher. It makes sense to ratify this, but apparently nobody really wants a city-state. Can you imagine the “Tonight we dine in Hell!” and the “THIS is D.C.!” rallying cries on K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue? Although, having a Spartan mind-set so close to the White House might actually be kind of interesting.

My future DC Uber driver

Ugly Food Waste

Miguel de Cervantes

We celebrated the holiday season with an abundance of food. Roasted turkeys, sweet potatoes, greens, pumpkins, cranberries, pecans, wine – it would be unthinkable to omit the wine!

Some traditional holiday foods are those we don’t eat. For instance, some great-grandmother on one side of our family passed down a recipe for fruitcake-like cookies that have a half-life of a Hostess Twinkie. Everyone nibbles on one to be polite and insists that I really don’t need to bother with them next year. We toss the bulk of these cookies into the trash come January.

Of course, nearly all of the food we ate this holiday season came from a grocery store. It was beautiful food. Kroger heaps its bins high with out-of-season and exotic produce, not to mention the seasonal fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Food no longer has a season.

We pick out only the best to take home. Marred, oddly shaped, or irregularly colored produce stays behind. We study those “sell by” dates as though they are an oracle. Every once in a while, we purge our pantries and fridges, laughing about the discovery of new life forms while sheepishly wishing we hadn’t wasted the money or that we had planned our meals a little better.

Food waste Is No Laughing Matter

One-third of all food grown for human consumption either spoils or is thrown out. Here in the United States, we waste more than that – a full forty percent of the food we grow. Half of that waste never even leaves the farm because it isn’t considered attractive enough: misshapen carrots, undersized pears, crystallized honey, apples with dimples, scarred squash, mutant strawberries, off-color tomatoes. These fruits and vegetables have nothing at all wrong with them except that we humans have assigned them a ridiculously high standard of beauty.

Conservative estimates are that people throw away 20% or more of the food they actually buy. Imagine walking out of the grocery store with four or five bags, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we do.

Ugly Food Waste is Thirsty Business

Wasting food wastes the resources that create that food. Agriculture sucks up 80% of our nation’s freshwater supply, so when food goes to waste we waste all that water too. And in some places right here in the United States, fresh drinking water is disappearing.

Consider California’s Central Valley. More than 230 different crops grow there, amounting to nearly half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The Central Valley accounts for one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated farmland. Four trillion gallons of water a year disappear from underground aquifers and its river basins.

Desert irrigation in the Central Valley

Practically no snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada mountains for several years, so snow melt has not replenished the Central Valley’s water supply. Groundwater levels currently sit 100 feet below average. There is no water to flow through irrigation canals. In some parts of the Central Valley, the desiccated land subsides by more than two inches every month due to a lack of water. Crops deplete not just groundwater, but deep water wells, and a third of these crops never even leave the fields because they aren’t pretty enough for grocers to stock. Meanwhile people in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, who depend on that same source for water to drink and to bathe in, ration it and pay steep penalties for use deemed “excessive.”

Waste from food animal production also impacts our environment. We have all probably heard that the Buffalo River watershed is threatened by a farm that needs to dispose of 7 million gallons of hog manure a year. That project involves a single large farm. Because of the pollution from this one pig farm, the Buffalo River has experienced unusual algae blooms this year. Now imagine that sort of effect on every stream in America from hundreds of thousands of animal farms.

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Growing and transporting all that wasted food spews out a staggering amount of carbon emissions. Wasted food is the single-largest contributor to U.S. landfills, and correspondingly to the methane emissions that result from them.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers from these wasted crops have polluted the streams of the Missouri-Mississippi River systems. The second largest marine “dead zone” in the world is at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers in the runoff from farms become more and more concentrated as they move downstream and collect still more fertilizers from more farms. By the time the Mississippi reaches the Gulf coast, this soupy brew causes recurrent algae blooms. Decomposing algae consume the oxygen needed to support aquatic life. Fishing boats and shrimpers have to travel farther from shore to harvest anything. The ecosystem of the polluted shores no longer sustains the wildlife it once did. The Gulf dead zone has now grown to the size of the combined states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is easily visible in satellite images because the toxic, hypoxic waters appear murky and brown.

Food Waste Can Beget or Resolve Food Waste

Vegetable crops are not the only wasted food. Meat raised for human consumption is wasted at an alarming rate. Twenty percent, or about twelve billion chickens, pigs, and cattle, are raised, fed, watered, and slaughtered for food but never eaten. Raising an animal from birth to table is incredibly expensive in terms of the food it eats, the water it drinks, the labor to care for it, the space it requires, the time it takes to grow, and the drugs used to keep it healthy.

We grow enormous amounts of grain to feed the animals we eat. Imagine the savings in resources, water, and pollutants if the animals we eat were fed on the food we waste. Two food consumers are doing just that: Rutgers University in New Jersey donates dining hall food scraps to a local cattle and hog farm, and MGM Resorts in Las Vegas donates food scraps from its casinos and restaurants to a local hog farm. Imagine if more businesses and farms cooperated like this.

The Cost of Food Waste

Worldwide, nearly a trillion dollars worth of food is wasted every year. In 2015 the UN’s task force on global food insecurity reported that nearly 800 million people – one-eighth of the planet’s population – are chronically undernourished. The food that currently feeds landfills could feed the 800 million hungry people in the world twice over. And we are throwing away forty percent of our perfectly edible meat, vegetables, and fruits. Poverty and logistics create food insecurity, not scarcity.

When we think of starving families, we think of places like war-torn countries and times of famine. We think of Syria, where humanitarian aid is prevented from reaching bombed-out cities. We think of Yemen, where families have to choose which children to feed and which to allow to die. We think of that Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler, crouched in hunger and despair as a vulture stalks her.

We don’t think of developed nations. We do not think of the fertile American South and we certainly don’t think of our own neighborhoods.

But one in every eight American families struggles to put enough food on the table. During the school year, the only meals the children in some of these families get are the ones served at school. As much as a fifth of Mississippi’s population has trouble finding affordable, nutritious food. Arkansas’s numbers are slightly better, but before we say “Thank God for Mississippi,” we should recognize that one in four Arkansas children cannot grow and develop normally because they don’t get enough to eat. Single parent families, the working poor, and senior citizens tend to not have enough food, while Pulaski County discards more than 100,000 pounds of food daily.

Reclaiming Ugly Food for the Hungry

We must put this wasted but perfectly edible food into the mouths and bellies of the people who need it. The United Nations has recognized that the right to food and water is a basic human right, and its member nations are slowly taking action.

In November Slovenia made the right to clean drinking water a constitutional right and Scotland’s Independent Working Group on Food Poverty recommended that its government make the right to food a matter of law. Such legislation will not end food insecurity or water scarcity. It would, however, mandate that the governments of these countries ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable food and water. Earlier this year, France passed a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, requiring them to donate that food to charities and food banks. Italy did the same. It also created tax incentives for businesses based on the amount of food donated and passed legislation to permit food slightly past its sell-by date to be donated without risk to the donor.

Non-government organizations also try to make a difference. In its first year of existence, a single company in the San Francisco Bay area rescued 350 tons of produce that had been rejected for sale in grocery stores solely for cosmetic reasons. The company donated the produce to homeless shelters and food banks and sold what it could to individual consumers.

To help address the hunger issue locally, the Junior League of Little Rock started a nonprofit organization called Potluck. Potluck collects food waste from hundreds of area food donors such as hospitals, food distributors, event centers, grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels. It redistributes its collections to food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. It serves several Arkansas communities, and with more help could serve more.

History’s Lessons

None of us has to waste as much food as we do. When my grandmother died more than 15 years ago, I rescued several tattered, fragile books from the shelf in her kitchen. Two of these hand-written books of recipes were over 100 years old and had belonged to her own mother and grandmother. These women who lived in Scott, Arkansas more than a century ago did not waste anything that could be eaten. They had recipes that specifically called for sour milk, bruised plums, and leftovers.

If we are foolish enough to believe that our society’s current careless attitude toward our excess food production cannot be a serious problem, let us remember that a drought between 1931-1941 desiccated the mid-section of the U.S. In the 1930s more than three and a half million people abandoned farms in the Plains states. Following Route 66, many of them ended up in California’s Central Valley. Their descendants still produce half of our domestically-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The ghosts of Joad family, the Okie protagonists of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, are watching us. After five years of desperate drought in Oklahoma, they moved to California’s Central Valley. California’s Central Valley, which has been in a state of desperate drought for five years.

Agri-business, commercial consumers, governments, and ordinary people must work together to increase the efficiency of our food supply system. Ugly food is wasted, but the impact of current levels of food waste is even uglier.

‘Tis the Season to Talk about Religion – Believe It or Not

I just had an interesting conversation about religion with a guy working at my house.

He overheard my end of a phone call with another secular activist about a church-state violation. When I hung up he asked if those were the kinds of cases I take. He knows I’m a lawyer.

“Tis the season for violations of the separation of church and state,” I said lightly, not sure how much he might want to explore the subject or what his feelings might be on it. I’m wary when people I don’t know well bring up the topic of religion. The conversation could go well or it could get very uncomfortable very fast.

“Church and state ought to be completely separate,” he said, “especially in schools when kids are pretty much forced to go along with whatever the class is doing.”

jefferson-separation-of-church-and-state - no religion


I couldn’t agree more. It’s not fair to non-Christian schoolchildren to be told by their teachers what to believe about Christmas, which they may or may not celebrate for any number of reasons. For that matter, there are Christian children who don’t celebrate Christmas. There are non-Christians who do celebrate Christmas for reasons other than religion. If a child is doing religion “wrong,” the proper place for correction is home or their place of worship, not a public school.

secular christmas - religion comes in different guises this season


One thing led to another, and as the conversation developed he told me he had lots of questions, because the whole “god” thing just didn’t make sense to him. I told him about a certain hissy fit I threw over religion when I was a kid. It has never made sense to me, either.

Then he said that he goes to church, but he doesn’t buy everything the preacher says. Who does? I wonder.

We talked about the notion of a prime mover. I strongly suspect that Aristotle was not the first person to wrestle with the notion of what it was that tipped the first domino and set the whole universe into motion. My response to the prime mover concept is, “Okay, but what made the first mover move? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest philosophers Christendom ever produced, ultimately said that God’s existence had to be taken on faith because there was no proof.

My new friend said he thought it was safer to believe, because what if he’s wrong?

Calvin's wager about Santa. It's the same as Pascal's.


“You’ve just described Pascal’s Wager,” I told him. If his preferred deity is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, why won’t his god know about his doubts? If what he outwardly professed conflicted with what his logical processes and his gut told him, wouldn’t that sort of god-the god our culture is typically familiar with-have a clue?

And furthermore, what if the religion he placed his bet on wasn’t the right one? What if there is some other god that really controls it all? What if there are a lot of gods who control by committee? What if those gods really couldn’t care less what people do – isn’t that the more likely scenario?

Then we talked about using the scientific method to explain things that were only explained in the past by “God did it.” I explained the concept of the God of the Gaps, and how that God keeps getting smaller and smaller with every new discovery and addition to scientific knowledge.


god of the gaps - religion plugs holes


Finally he confided that he didn’t believe in the Abrahamic god, but he would never admit that to his wife. And, ultimately, that’s why he goes to church.

There are so many of us out there, closeted and questioning.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families – a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.


Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Venus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers worldwide were anxious to test the theory. Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.


Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the four famous Brown brothers – they were among the founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.


Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop


American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet and befriend another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution, he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason, he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.



American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097.

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993).

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360),  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906.

It’s Her Gender

Image Source: NBC News

Image Source: NBC News

When they say it’s not her gender, well, it might be her gender.

Americans love to hate Hillary Clinton, but she has been consistently rated the most admired woman in America for two decades. Why the hate in spite of all that apparent love? Is it because she has dared to shatter every glass ceiling put in her way?

They claim it’s her honesty.

It’s not. Check Politifact if you don’t believe me.

They claim it’s her conflicts of interest.

It isn’t. She can give speeches to whoever asks her to speak, including the KKK, including Wall Street, including kindergarten classes. Her family’s charitable foundation can accept donations from anyone, anywhere. Bill Clinton established the Clinton Foundation to improve the lives of people internationally.  It does good work and it has considerable bipartisan support.

They claim it’s her judgment.

Seriously? Internationally and at home, Hillary Clinton consistently ranks as the most admired woman alive.  For twenty  of the last twenty-three years, she’s been the single most admired woman in the United States. I do not suggest everyone should agree with every decision she has ever made, but come on. She’s done something right to be that popular, hasn’t she?

Her email scandal fits in this “lack of judgment” category. The press has pilloried her for doing exactly the same thing her Republican predecessors did. In fact, former Secretary of State Colin Powell  told Clinton that using a private email server was preferable to the government server in most instances.

Oh, and about Benghazi? The GOP has investigated that situation ad nauseam and still can’t find sufficient fault with her conduct, policies, or decisions. As hard as her political enemies have tried, they cannot accuse her personally of any wrongdoing.

They claim it’s her war-mongering.

Her detractors characterize Hillary Clinton as hawkish, eager to use military force. She cannot refute this point. She counseled President Obama to use military force when the country was not subject to imminent attack by any foreign entity.

Clinton voted to go to war in Iraq. She has explained her vote ad nauseam.  She cast her vote – one of a hundred Senate votes – based on the information she had at the time. That information was flawed at best and fabricated at worst. Bush lied to America and the world. Cheney manipulated for personal gain. Powell lied to the UN on their behalf. Rumsfield had no plan and didn’t listen to advisors.  None of that is Hillary Clinton’s fault, and none of it came about due to her actions. Even had she cast her vote the other way, nothing – absolutely nothing – would have changed.

That includes the use of drones. The National Security Council made the decision to use drones. As Secretary of State, Clinton was only one of the five members of that council. She could not unilaterally decide war policy. While she may have argued in favor of specific actions – the Lybian revolution during the Arab Spring, most problematically –  she did not have the final say on any of them.

Despite all of that, our international allies consider her the hands-down favorite in this race. Whether or not our citizens do, our allies understand the importance of a responsible, experienced person leading the U.S.

They claim that electing her will be politics as usual.

Maybe. Not many candidates have been more qualified for the office, and there have been none so qualified in our lifetime.

They claim that it’s time for a change.

I couldn’t agree more. Personally, I’d like to see the two-party system disbanded and a different method of electing leaders that means we won’t ever have to choose between the lesser of two evils. But in this election cycle, no other candidate but Donald Trump has a realistic shot at the office. Without getting into the reasons why – that would be another blog post entirely – it is an incontrovertible fact that we must choose between two candidates.

Perhaps the nation would be better off with a man in power who rises to the bait of a tweet. Maybe the world will be safer if a loose cannon has the nuclear codes. Perhaps someone without one iota of a clue as to how to govern should have the most powerful position in the entire world.

But I seriously doubt it.

They’ll never claim it’s her gender.

Just like they never claimed it was Obama’s race.

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