“E.B. White On Democracy”

Last night, I finished reading this collection of E.B. White’s writings dating from 1928 to 1976. Of course, we all recognize the name, E.B. White. I am assuming most of us know his books like “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.” Some of us will also remember White’s co-authorship with William Strunk of a little book on writing, “The Elements of Style.” That book was on my required purchase list for my freshman English class at UVM back in 1969. I always wondered why I was not introduced to this little book back in high school – we should have been.

Some of us will also remember White’s regular column in “The New Yorker” magazine and also for “Harper’s.” I admit to having assembled all of White’s books and essay collections as I have discovered an appreciation for this writer I did not have before. The historian, Jon Meacham, writes the introduction for this collection of White’s essays on democracy. Meacham writes, “White is that rarest of figures, a writer whose ordinary run of work is so extraordinary that it repays our attention decades after his death.” (Introduction, pg. XV).

Meacham goes on to say, “…White, arguably the finest occasional essayist of the twentieth century, endures because he wrote plainly and honestly about the things that matter the most, from life on his farm in Maine to the lives of nations and peoples…He was especially gifted at evoking the universal through the exploration of the particular, which is one of the cardinal tasks of the essayist.” (Introduction, pg. XV).

As I read “E.B. White On Democracy,” I was struck by how much of what we are challenged by today was also the heart of our challenges in the period covered in this book, 1928-1976. E. B. White covers the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthy Red Scare period, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, and life in America during one threat after another. Through all of this there is an overriding demand on providing the truth, and to write in clear and simple writing that honors the best of English writing.

The themes we live with today are all in White’s writing in this collection. He speaks to us today as if these essays were written in the current times. I am not going to tell you I discovered a political bias in White. I did not. I did discover a bias and deep love for America, our history, our traditions, and the work started by our founders. White writes of the work and struggles of America as a friendly observer, and yes, he points out both the good and the bad, but with the best interests of America at heart.

One point that caught my keen interest was an essay White wrote in December of 1950 titled, “Not Conforming to Facts.” Now, where have I heard this recently? Shall we say, from Kelly Anne Conway when she introduced the phrase “alternative facts” to support competing views of the size of inaugural crowds after Trump’s inauguration. There are so many bell-ringers in these essays that are just as much about today as they were about the time White is writing of.

So, without giving away the entire book (something my father often accused me of), I strongly suggest there is a lot in “E.B. White on Democracy” that is as pertinent today as it was to the time White wrote about.

I will leave you with this quote from E.B. White’s, “Stuart Little.” The book closes with these lines:

“As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.”

If you read “E.B. White On Democracy,” you cannot help but be “…headed in the right direction.”

Trying to Find Some Sense in the Trump Presidency – It Could Have Been Different

I will always wonder if it would have been different if Trump reacted to the Russian interference in the 2016 election as an attack on America, which it was. He would have found the support of most of us if he defended America against this foreign interference in our election. There might not even have been a Mueller investigation, or it would have looked a lot different if Trump was the energy and driving force behind it.

Instead, Trump acted like he had something to hide, something that he did not want us to find or see. As an amateur student of human nature and behavior, to this day, I think that was the case – Trump’s actions were intended to hide and obstruct the Mueller investigation. Trump was never going to lead an effort to protect our country against Russian interference in our elections. We all can ask ourselves why, but the answer is right in front of our noses. There was some connection between Russia and Trump. I am one that thinks if the Mueller investigation did not stop when it came to a financial investigation, if you follow the money, you will usually find what you are looking for. When Trump defended Putin after the Helsinki meeting, I will never be convinced otherwise. I hope some day this investigation can be picked up and finished.

My second sort of global review of the Trump presidency has to do with his refusal to be president for all Americans. He started in on his first day in office attacking the other side, and he has never stopped. General Mattis faulted Trump for this very thing, the constant promoting of division and hatred among us, the very people he was supposed to be president of. I think this was all part of a script, attack those that were not part of his base, attack the media and make sure they are adversaries, keep fanning the flames of culture wars, and attack just about everyone outside the circle of Trump world. It never stopped, and really got worse over the four years. I do not see how you can govern like this and ever expect to be re-elected. The base was just not big enough.

My next criticism has to do with the act of governing. You cannot burn through as much staff, cabinet members, and advisors and expect to be able to govern. I cannot count the faces that have come and gone. It makes my head spin to think of the chaos Trump brought on himself with this sort of self-defeating style of administration. It may have kept up the drama meter that is great for ratings in reality tv, but it sure wrecked his White House.

I am not even going to get into the mega narcissism – that needs no explanation. I hope the country looks more closely at a candidate in the future and considers the character of the individual. Character does matter. I have always thought that if someone like Trump moved into my neighborhood, most of us would shun him. The same goes for other Trumps we have met in life – we tend to avoid and literally shun such people.

I could do a lot more with this, but I am going to stop after my next criticism and it has to do with a lack of respect for our democracy, our laws, the norms of governance, and just what often appeared to be a scofflaw’s view of the Constitution. I think some of this was due to Trump’s life in the business world where he could make up his own rules and do whatever he wanted. He was never the kind of businessman that played by the rules and was not a man of integrity. Six bankruptcies and long strings of unpaid creditors do not seem to be good marks when it comes to integrity and character. Loan defaults as well as defrauding his own charity and the students that paid tuition at his university just don’t make you say, “Boy, he is such a peach of a man.”

Now, I am going to bring some closure to all of this. I really think the stage was set for a Trump back in the 1980s with Reagan’s tax reform act and trickle down economics. Money never did trickle down from the wealthy, the unions were diminished, and large American corporations started moving production overseas, especially to China. The middle class found itself fighting to hang on by its fingernails to the American dream. The 2nd Bush followed with more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and wealth continued to flow upward and concentrate with the wealthiest Americans.

Then the Great Recession of 2008, and the slow recovery after. The slowness was really intentional on the part of the Republican Congress. They did not want Obama to be able to achieve anything in the way of helping the Americans most hurting. For McConnell and company, the game plan was obstruct, obstruct, obstruct, and build the base of Americans that were desperate as well as having lost all trust in our government and institutions. Add in some racism and nativism and you are ready for a Trump. The plan was for the Republican party to be able to use and control a Trump – that did not work out quite the way they thought it would. You see, Trump never respected them either. He was never a Republican at all. And in the meantime, Trump built a base of dissatisfied and distrustful Americans that really looked like a marriage of the George Wallace South, and the Tea Party with the gun fanatics and the Libertarians acting as bridesmaids and groomsmen.

Lucky us huh – now we get to Wednesday, January 6th. All the players and actors are ready for the great American tragedy we watched unfold on Wednesday.

Can we separate from Trump, hold him accountable, and bring some needed change and help to America? Can we find a way to recognize our problems, meet in the middle and find some compromise? After all, no one party has a monopoly on all the right ideas. We used to be able to do this before some politicians decided it worked for them to divide us. I think we can do it – our children and grandchildren deserve better than we are giving them now.

It’s Not Your Mom’s and Dad’s Old GOP – Not At All

 I do not think most of the so-called “Republican base” are actually Republicans. I think they are a composite of the Tea Party and Libertarians with a strong mix of white supremacists as well as gun rights fanatics. These are not the old “Main Street” Republicans. The old Republican Party is using and is also being hijacked by this “base.” It is sort of a mutual taking advantage of each other.

I think there is a split coming down the road here. Republican philosophy is not part of this mix and is being forced into the background. Old school Republicans have been willing to do this in order to keep their hands on power and money. I think this relationship is being strained and is probably going to break. If it does not, then the Republican Party will have to redefine itself.

If this happens, it will not be anything like the Republican Party of Eisenhower or even Reagan. What will result in my opinion, is basically a marriage of the “George Wallace” South and the Tea Party with the Libertarians acting as maids of honor. Americans need to wake up and see what is going on. There are no good outcomes if this continues like it is. The guardrails being provided by our Constitution are being severely tested and may not keep the country on the road of democracy.

A long time ago, Benjamin Franklin was asked, as he came out of the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “What kind of a government will we have?” Frank replied, “You have a republic if you can keep it.”

Approaching Retirement

I used to dream about this day and wished it would get here, kind of like a teenager wanting to be 16 so you could get a driver’s license. I am still excited about retirement, but I also have a sense of sadness about my impending change of status.

I will have, or I should say, can have plenty to keep me busy as long as I keep my ambition. That will be my bigger challenge. I used to be ready to tear into chores and projects at first light, and even earlier. I have to admit I am not quite that eager any more. If it is outside work, I like it to be above freezing now days before I start. Gee, about a million years ago I built a log home for us and I could stand to work down to about 20 below, and a little colder if there was no wind. You can take it to the bank that I will not be building any log homes in my retirement or working outside at -20 F. either.

I will find plenty to do, especially keeping up a home that was built in 1830. There is always a project begging for my attention, and a few more that Susan thinks up for me (had to add that in). When spring comes, I always look forward to getting the garden in and I plan on making it bigger this year. You know, “…the best laid plans of mice and men…” I do have the raspberries and blue berry bushes to tend to and the apple trees need pruning again. Of course, there are still my chickens and the “girls” need so regular care and attention as well. I am at a point where I need to introduce some new chicks this coming spring as the old girls are getting a wee bit tired. By the size of some of the eggs they lay, I can understand.

This spring I want to get hold of a mason and see about getting a new chimney built. If I slip into my old vernacular, I would say, “chimbley.” Susan gets perturbed when I speak like this, so I will use the word “chimbley” on this site and satisfy my older habits. It is like the word, “temptarily,” another good word that is mostly out of use now, but I continue to try to keep it in fashion. It fits certain situations quite well, and I know exactly what I mean – who cares if no one else understands me. This could get me into a longer story about speech that I will save for later. Suffice it to say that this story has something to do with my spending a lot of my formative years with a grandmother that was French Canadian. My early language was kind of hybridized to say the least, but I still like it. I spent a year or two going to speech lessons when I first started school due to my own bilingualism.

Ok, so I have covered my plans for the garden and my new “chimbley.” I want to add a regular woodstove to the house, not one of those modern jobs that burns pellets and requires electricity – no, I want to put in a regular firewood stove that only requires split wood and a match. I am thinking that it is better to reduce complexity, not look for ways to add it to my life. I am so sick of stuff that comes with directions and manuals that look like phonebooks with a print font so damn small, it is not humanly possible to read it unless you attach a couple of Coke bottle bottoms to your eyes. Yes, my vote is for simplicity and also for anything that does not require power other than my muscle power. I do not need something else that needs to be plugged in.

When spring comes again, I am being positive here, I also will spend some time with a fly rod on the brook in hopes of teasing a speckled beauty to take my imitation of something to eat. This is about as pleasant as life gets in my opinion. I like trout because I like the places they live. I cannot take credit for that thought and need to pass thanks to Robert Traver, a better writer, and probably trout fisherman, than I.

Well, I am getting a little side-tracked from my original thrill over my soon to be retired status. (Hint – think the middle of January) I am going to enjoy watching it snow and not have to go anywhere. In fact ,that will be rather nice the more I think about it.

I am looking forward to having some more time for my family, and especially, time with Susan. And then, there are some grandchildren that I hope to corrupt as well as I am, maybe even better if I can. And, I have a ho bunch of language that is kind of unique and it needs to be kept in existence. These younger ones are like sponges with new words – I’ll do my best.

I did mention a touch of sadness and this is more about facing up to my own mortality. I know we humans do not live forever, and I am most assuredly in the winter part of my life. Let’s hope for one of those “long” winters, huh. I am sneaking up on my Biblical “three score and ten” in 2021 so I am at least not getting cheated out of my youth – and I feel it.

And most of all, they say you know when you are ready to retire – I am ready.

Take care and have good holidays, as best you can all things considered.

“Makes Me Wonder”

No, I am not “buying a staircase to heaven,” or anything close. It would be nice but this is not in my realm of realistic.

Let’s start with the election. Why would anyone be surprised that Trump lost. He lost the popular vote in 2016 and barely won enough battleground states to tip the electoral college in his favor. This was before the nation had four years of Trump under its belt. This was before the nation got to see that everything that looked bad about Trump before November of 2016 was really true. So people voted, and yes, absentee ballots made it easier for many of us to vote and register our voice in this past election. We knew ahead of time that more women were not going to be voting for Trump. We knew ahead of time that more folks with education beyond high school were reconsidering their votes of 2016. We knew that African American voters were going to be out there and voting in spite of attempts to suppress their votes with purged voter rolls and closing polling places in poorer neighborhoods. And most of all, we knew we did not have a leader. We had a very polarizing figure that worked to build anger in his base and keep the nation divided.

Hey, with someone like Trump, there is never a good outcome. His good outcome is just that, what is best for Trump, but not what is best for the country. This is not that hard to see.

Now, let’s look at the Trump base. Who are these people. Many of them look to me like historical Democratic voters that have become so disaffected by a government that has abandoned their needs. These are folks that used to have a firm hold on the middle class. These are folks that used to have middle class jobs with benefits like health insurance and security. These are folks that felt secure in the so-called American dream. What happened to make them join ranks with the likes of the Koch brothers?

American business and policies that broke the back of America’s industrial heartland is what happened. We sat back and watched a big part of the manufacturing sector quietly pick up stakes and relocate to Asia, and especially China. We watched this happen for over 30 plus years. Early on this became a political force with the third party campaign of H. Ross Perot in 1992. We listened for a minute, and then our attention went elsewhere.

There were some winners in all of this, large American corporations and the folks that own shares in large American corporations. Profits have grown, and then to make sure those profits stayed put with the shareholders, we wrote tax policy that reduced the tax on unearned income (think dividends and capital gains). We made wages the worst kind of income to have when it comes to taxation. We got everybody to swallow this with a mirage called “trickle down economics” – if we let the rich keep more of their income, they will spend their additional wealth and it will trickle down to all of us. Well, except for a few determined to be ignorant folks, most of us realize this never happened.

And then, we had a Republican controlled Congress for most of Obama’s presidency. Other than the Affordable Health Care Act in the first two years of Obama’s presidency, once the Congress became Republican controlled after the election of 2010, there was not going to be any more social programs coming out of Washington. Mitch McConnell was not even bashful about stating that he would make sure Obama had nothing the could point his finger to and say, “We did that.” McConnell laid down a strategy of obstruction and Congress did nothing to bring relief to Americans suffering from the Great Recession of 2008. So, now you have this growing segment of the American population not making it and there appears to be no help coming from the federal government. Republican politicians made sure that the blame for the lack of help was laid at the feet of the Democratic party. The stage was set for Trump to enter.

So you have a lot of disenchanted Americans that are losing in their struggle to just hang on to their place in life. They are hurting from the Great Recession of 2008 and they see that banks were helped under the policy, “too big too fail,” yet they see no help for them. They see immigrants coming in to the country, often people of color, and they view these new arrivals as threats. They listen to politicians telling them these new arrivals are being handed the American dream on a silver platter. So, there is mega resentment and, yes racism. Now, the Republican party looks at all of this anger and resentment and organizes their pitch to play right to this. There would be no help coming from the Republican party – that kind of policy and politics is not in agreement with the Republican philosophy. There was never going to be a Republican health insurance program. There was never going to be tax policy that would stop the concentration of wealth at the top of the American population. There was never going to be a large national infrastructure investment to create jobs and rebuild America. There was never going to be national Manhattan project to help our country invest in and create alternative green energy. Now, enter this con-man/demagogue coming down a golden escalator and with a speech about building walls, Mexican drug dealers, rapists, and murderers.

Trump gets elected in 2016. The once formidable “Blue Wall” of historic Democratic states (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania) crumbles just enough to give Trump their electoral votes. The key to understand all of this is the phrase, “just enough.” There was no landslide that swept Trump into office in 2016, no landslide at all, just a few thousand votes on the Trump side made the difference. The Democrats did not cry foul and push the country into a succession of litigations leading up to Trump’s inauguration. They followed with our tradition of peaceful transfer of power, swallowed a bitter pill, and watched Trump succeed Obama in the presidency.

Now we are four plus years past the election of 2016. We are a country that has been even further polarized and divided, and this has been intentional on the part of Trump. We are a country that has witnessed most of the norms of our democracy be trashed and trampled on. We have watched as our standing in the world has been trashed for the sake of one man, Trump. We have been encouraged to turn on each other and to hate each other.

Is it any surprise that there were enough Americans to say, “We have had enough” – enough to make some of the swing states come out the way they did? it should not be any surprise. There is a tipping point to all things, and this November 3rd recorded the results of another tipping point.

It does not make me wonder, at all.

There Is Nothing Like a Good Brook

I am a brook fisherman at heart. I started as a young boy wandering around in central Vermont and learning how my heart was most pleased. I have saved a bit of verse that will help you to understand the love I have for a Vermont brook. I cannot give credit to its author as I don’t know who wrote this piece. I wish it was me, but I have to say it was not. Here is the piece of verse:

I dreamed,

That I again my native hills had found,

the mossy rocks, the valley, and the

stream that used to hold me captive

to its sound,

And that I was a boy again.

Yes, a brook “…holds me captive to its sound.” In Vermont, there are so many small streams that, as John Gierach wrote, “…are just waiting for a fisherman with enough poetry in his soul to give them their due.”

Reading a stream is the key to success on a brook as well as any larger stream. The fisherman is looking for the likely places trout lie waiting for food to come on by. The current and flow are the writing on the page the fisherman reads trying to locate these lies. Drifting a worm on a hook and observing how it behaves in the flow and current are the education of a young fisherman. Later, when I graduated to casting a fly in place of a worm, the earlier learning I got with a worm proved invaluable.

There is something else going on when one is captive to a stream that tumbles through a brooktrout forest. The receptive fisherman will feel his soul become in touch with nature, and for some, in touch with something that resonates with time, the deep time that records history, not the history found in a book, but the history that author, William Least Heat-Moon, called a “deep map,” the kind of knowledge that people used to have that lived with nature all the time and needed this knowledge, this “deep map,” to survive.

I think what makes this happen is the ability to be a noticer, an observer of what you are surrounded by and immersed in. It is better not to have a mind full of expectation, but an open mind that is most favorable to see and permit your reality to be what you are a part of.

Fishing the stream and catching a trout become secondary to the place your spirit is communing with. Oh, you will catch your share of fish, but you will realize that catching a trout is not why you are there.

This is where I am with my brook fishing now. I want that time when my soul is one with nature, and I am at peace with my world.

An Odd Thought…

Sometimes, some odd thoughts find their way to the surface, and sometimes…they are worth capturing before they are lost. This is one of those thoughts. Admittedly, it is a wee piece, but it seemed worth sharing.

One of the true bits of sadness in my life is that my time crossed with the time of Trump. How this comic book villain, “Filthy McNasty,” rose to the highest office in the land is more than I can imagine, even when I am in the midst of a nightmare brought on by a bit of “bad beef” as was the strange dream conjured up by Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken’s “Christmas Carol.” That bad dream had a good ending and so I hope ours will too.

My Love Affair with the Essay

I am most happy with the essay. It is my dessert after a lifetime of reading. The well written essay is usually economical in its use of words and language. The artful essayist knows the reader can quickly move on to something else without much of a lost investment in attention.

My favorite form of the essay is more apt to be informal and better described as the words of a noticer. I do not want the ordinary parts of life to go by unnoticed and not commented on. I like words and language that are plain and honest about some facet of life that deserves our attention. I like an essay that takes the particular and somehow makes it more universal as the essay is developed.

I especially appreciate the essay because it is a very direct form of thinking being shared by the writer with the reader. The essayist is giving the reader a window into the writer’s mind, a chance to see thinking going from place to place and staying coherent along the way. The well written essay has a beginning, a middle, and an end and they tie together logically.

It’s ok to have a dialogue with your reader in your essay. I think the best essays are written to include the reader and not just talk at him or her, but invite the reader to pull up a chair and visit with the writer and his thoughts.

I have some favorite essayists, real masters of this form of writing. At the top of my list is E.B. White. For sure, you know E.B. White because of some of his books like “Charlotte’s Web,” “Stuart Little,” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.” White wrote regularly for the “New Yorker” and for “Harper’s Magazine.” Many of his essays have been captured in book form and I will admit, they are at my beside table where I usually reach for some E.B. White until I cannot keep my eyes open any longer. My favorite essays are when White is writing about his saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine. I learned that E.B. White and I have much in common, we both cannot get enough of the everyday life of work just to keep a place that contributes something to our subsistence. So much of this is about the effort, the trying, the finding a way. White shares these experiences in plain and honest writing.

Another of my favorite essay writers is Noel Perrin from Norwich, Vermont. Perrin was a professor at nearby Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire for many years, but that is not the subject of his writing. Noel Perrin wrote a series of books full of his writings about being a part-time farmer and keeping a home in rural Vermont. You may have seen this series that starts with “First Person Rural” and is followed by “Second Person Rural,” “Third Person Rural,” and “Last Person Rural.”

Perrin finds all kinds of topics from cutting firewood, building stone walls, raising some farm animals, making maple syrup, opening up abandoned pasture, and many other pieces about rural living in Vermont. Having Vermont and rural life in common, Noel Perrin’s writing has been a good fit for me and he writes well. He writes essays like I like essays to be written, like a friend sharing with another friend something about life.

I’ll share one more of my favorites, Willem Lange. Again, a writer that lives close by and writes about his life in New England, and much of it being about his time in our Upper Valley on the Connecticut River. Lange also has a newspaper column, “A Yankee Notebook,” and this column appears in several New England newspapers. Willem Lange’s writing is also like spoiling yourself with a wee bit of a treat.

So, there are some very good essayists that have captured our every day lives in their writing. The writers I have shared write well and take little bits of life and make them universal. They are somewhat regional, but so am I. I will always be an old Yankee, and a Vermonter, just the salt of the earth. I will always try to share my thinking about something I have noticed and bring the reader along with my process. I will try to share some more of my thinking and observations of life that for the most part, will be very ordinary, yet hopefully universal too.

Keeping a Daybook Journal

I write in my journal just about every day. My journal is how I communicate with myself and capture my thoughts before they stream by into a sea of lost thinking. There are too many good thoughts that I missed recording and they swim in that sea which is so hard to venture into and come back with what you went looking for. So, my journal is a way I talk to myself on paper and find out what I am thinking. The journal allows me to revisit my thoughts and develop my thinking into more developed ideas.

My journal is a place to experiment with ideas and be critical of my thinking before I put it at risk through sharing. There are no rules when writing in a journal. I can be casual with the conventions of writing and just try to get it down before I lose it. The American author, William Faulkner once said: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” Faulkner gives good advice here to those of us that like to write, “Get it down.”

Faulkner also had this to say about writing a book and the stream of ideas the writer works with: “It’s like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and nail it down fast.”

So many of my ideas and thoughts have flown by in a “high wind” so I use my journal like a big net to catch as much of that stuff flying by as I can. And as a man that keeps chickens, I can vouch for the necessity of a well built coop.

I went to my journals to retrieve these quotes from William Faulkner. My journals are full of the ideas and the writing of others much better than mine, and again and again, I mine these journals for quotes and ideas I captured before I lost them. My only regret is the ideas and writing I missed or lost before I could get it down in my journal.

My advice to wanna-be writers, get a journal and use it. Often, I will be working on a piece of writing and will recall some other writing that I need and want to weave into my new prose. I go to my journals and start mining. Often I find other bits saved from an earlier time that are also appropriate and helpful. That’s the unexpected benefit of journals – what you find when you are looking for something else.

If I were to describe my writing process, it has to include my journaling. My journals are where my writing and thinking about writing starts. Writing is creative thought captured on paper. In my journals is where I first measure the boards and cut them for the “chicken coop” I am building. Someday, after me, someone is going to have some fun going through my journals and maybe, little bits of me will come through the pages – hope so.

The Post Election Republican Theater

I have a thought to share about the group of Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Ted Cruz, among others, that are circling the wagons around Trump. My thinking is this is not for any substantive reason, but there is a group of Republicans wanting to position themselves to inherit Trump’s base. By supporting Trump now and confronting the alleged legitimacy of the election, these Republicans are wanting to be noticed and regarded as part of the Trump tribe that is sticking with Trump as the rest of the nation turns away from the president. This is really about building a resume and also a narrative of a “stolen election.”