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Symbol of the "New York Society for the S...

Symbol of the “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice”, advocating book-burning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eloquence in the face of stupidity, rage and hate touches me more than almost anything else. So please take a moment to read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s 1973 letter to the chairman of the school board in Drake, North Dakota, who felt that burning books was somehow what our children should aspire to. It’s not surprising to me, in that terrible, volatile time of war, racial tensions, and economic distress, that some would decide that burning books was the way to shape the world in their own image. But it’s endlessly distressing to me that, nearly 40 years later, hardly anything is different.

Here’s an excerpt from what Vonnegut wrote to that school board chairman:

“After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in
effect, ‘Yes, yes – but it still remains our right and our responsibility
to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our
community.’ This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise
that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh,
un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens
and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

“I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry
from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have
discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your
fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an
uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred
to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought
against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American,
you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not
merely your own.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s books meant more to me as an adolescent than any other author. In his later years, he seemed to me to be a cranky old man, but now I’m starting to see his point. In any event, read his entire and entirely beautiful letter over here, at Letters of Note.

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Seen from the train, No. 2

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Again from Newark, the kind of place that gives the old hazardous waste remediator in me palpitations. At the same time, it’s a remarkable remnant of industry from a time long ago, a time when companies were generally named for what they produced. There’s no way anyone would call their venture the “Diamond Hard Chromium Company” today &endash; the marketing wonks would come up with a moniker like “DiHarCo.” Why, back in the old days, marketing wonks would have disappeared in one of the vats in the back.

American Scoundrel

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It wasn’t an abiding interest in the Civil War that caused me to tuck into Thomas Keneally‘s “American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.” And it was only a little bit an interest in how a member of Congress was able to murder the son of Francis Scott Key, invent the insanity defense, and somehow later rise to the rank of Major General in the Civil War. What drove me was a need to understand why a downstate Tammany Hall politician opposed the construction of a bridge across the Hudson at Albany, a bridge that would eventually become the Livingston Avenue Bridge, still in service today. He not only opposed it when serving in the State Senate in 1856, he returned to Albany as a war hero in 1864 and spoke to the State Senate broadly on the future of the republic, coincidentally (or not) just the day before the issue of the bridge was taken up again. While the citizens and leaders of Troy vehemently opposed what they thought would be an encumbrance to navigation that would accrue to Albany’s benefit, I find nothing that would tie a New York City politician, even one with some connections to Glens Falls and the Adirondacks, to a position against bridging the Hudson at Albany. Perhaps a potential contractor wasn’t in favor with Tammany. Perhaps the ferry interests were. It’s even possible that Sickles agreed with Troy’s concerns and was taking a principled stand, though having read Keneally’s book that seems unlikely at best.

Keneally apparently found the matter of the bridge uninteresting, preferring instead to focus on these more mundane particulars of Sickles’s life:

  • At 33, he married a 15-year-old girl he had known since she was 3 years old.
  • As part of the Tammany machine, he war part of a group that overran the Broadway post office, gathered up a series of letters opposing a Tammany candidate, and set fire to them in the post office.
  • He was friendly with every president from Pierce to Grant, and was such a particular favorite of Mary Todd Lincoln that there were rumors that their relationship was inappropriate.
  • He became an intimate of famous prostitute and brothel-owner Fanny White and was censured for bringing her onto the floor of the New York State Assembly. He also presented her to Queen Victoria.
  • While a notorious womanizer, he could be little bothered with his child bride, who embarked on an affair with Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles’s anger over the brazenness of this affair would lead him to shoot a defenseless Key in broad daylight in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
  • Sickles used his connections and his will to put himself in a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg, a role that has been debated ever since.
  • After the war, he built on his role in creating Central Park by heading a commission to memorialize the New York regiments at Gettysburg. A large sum of money went missing, presumed to have been siphoned by the General.
  • He married a Spanish society woman, Caroline de Creagh, but did not let his courtship of her interfere with sexual liaisons with Queen Isabella II of Spain.

And there is much, much more. Just don’t be disappointed by the lack of juicy bridge politics.

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Spring spatters

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Spring spatters, originally uploaded by carljohnson.

43 degrees. Wet lube on the chain, double-bagged knees and some embrocation, bike shoe galoshes. Twenty-two slow kilometers but a nice hour’s ride, as much as I could take after three months off the bike. Now for the endorphins.

(What you’re seeing is the sun shining through my winter cycling jacket, splattered with mud despite my having put the fender on.)

At the movies

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What deathless cinematic visions were showing on a summer’s eve in the Capital District in 1977? And in what eternal palaces of motion picture arts were they showing? Well, it’s kinda interesting, and involves a lot more drive-ins than we used to have. And if all goes well, you can click below to see what I’m talking about.
At the movies, Albany, 1977

Just click on each slide to advance the show.


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Things I learned about Egyptian culture while watching several hours of informative movies on Turner Classic Movies the other night:

  • Contrary to the descriptions of Egyptologists, tombs of the pharaohs were a cluttered feng shui disaster, not a well-prepared setting for the afterlife. And there were LOTS of cobwebs.
  • We are frequently told that Egyptians were much smaller than modern people. However, a quick review of mummy movies shows that most Egyptians were at least 7 feet tall.
  • Despite the fact that a tomb has been unopened for centuries, there will always be a tarantula crawling around somewhere.
  • Mummies want to be left alone.
  • Bullets will not stop a mummy. Duh.
  • Hieroglyphs etched on the floor are technically known as loweroglyphs.