Monday, November 29, 2010

(Re)Turning to the Center

A post from last year, as we begin the Advent season ... In my book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), I wrote: “The word 'repentance' (in Hebrew teshuvah) means to turn around or to return. Repentance is a synonym for regret and restitution. But [repentance can also have] a more positive meaning: of aligning one’s priorities in order to remain true to one’s values. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that, 'The beginning place, as with any return, is of having a place from which we start, a home base, a point of origin, a beginning.' But Rabbi Artson also notes that turning/returning includes 'finding our essence…our core.' He asks, 'What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered? This kind of turning is not a turning to get back to some earlier time; it is a turning to remain true.'” (1)

Advent is traditionally a period of solemnity, repentance, and fasting. You may be thinking, Yeah, right, as you think of the un-solemn busyness, shopping, crowds, and holiday feasts that are typical of contemporary life, although in churches, the purple color of church vestments conveys solemnity (according to ancient church traditions).

How might we think of Advent repentance in the way that Rabbi Artson writes: not just sorrow for sin but a rediscovery of our true nature? One way might be to reassess the “truth” of who we are and where we are in our lives. Are we involved in activities that give us a sense of satisfaction and service? Are we engaged in unhelpful activities (gossip, maneuvering for position, etc.) that bespeak a core of unhappiness and selfishness? Do the words we speak sound like the person we want to do--or like some angry, dispirited person?

Rabbi Artson’s questions can inform a meaningful Advent time of reflection: “What is your core? What is your center? What is that part of yourself that you cannot abandon without walking away from who you truly are? Is your life balanced, centered?”

1. Bradley Shavit Artson, “Turning,” in Tikkun, Sept.-Oct. 2002, pp. 66-67 (quotation from p. 66).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Faith and "Better Stories"

The previous post is based on a short talk I gave recently, which in turn derived from my research for the Center for the Congregation in Public Life's forthcoming curriculum "Faithful Citizen." I'm still thinking about the interesting aspects of the Center's project.

For instance, the theme of "better stories" is very rich, and the more you think about our social and political life as embodying "stories," the more you start to see that theme in other sources. The four stories that Reich frames can be seen in contemporary fears about Muslims, anxieties about multiculturalism, fears that American has lost its way and needs to be "taken back" or "placed in a new direction," and the anxities of groups that feel disempowered (for instance, the white working-class that has alternately voted Republican and Democrat during recent years).

The recent issue of Mother Jones magazine contains an article (November-December 2010) about the erosion of the American middle class. The article traces middle class decline back to New York City's financial crisis in the 1970s, as well as California's Proposition 13 and the resulting decline in public services. Then came a recession and anti-union politics which hurt automobile workers. Manufacturing jobs have been declining, pensions have been declining, and more recently the housing market has hurt the middle class. Unfortunately some long-standing safety nets, notably Social Security and Medicare, have been under attack, for instance by GOP senator Alan Simpson and others who characterize Social Security as a form of welfare, rather than a fund to which we've paid for many years (1).

This article dovetails well with a book I read for the Center project, The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker, who argues, “Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families.”(2) That is, while the upper levels of society have become more secure, the lower and middle classes have had to shoulder more burden and more economic insecurity. This has come about in part because of free-market philosophies that are still popular among voters.

Where does "story" come in? Another Mother Jones article argues that President Obama needed and still needs to tell a story that helped people understand and connect economic problems in a way that made his policies seem an alternative in the wake of "the failure of free-market conservatism" and which gives confidence to working voters. This is what President Reagan did. The article quotes Democratic consultant Paul Begala: Reagan "didn't blame President Carter or the Democrats. He indicted liberalism: too much government, too much taxation. To fix this mess, he said, we have to stay the course. That was his narrative. it was ideology; it was philosophical. It had sides. He had a story." (3)

Another good "story teller" was Reagan's antipode, Franklin Roosevelt. Robert Reich notes that FDR was overhwlemingly reelected in 1936 even though the economy had been in depression for the four years of his term, and eight years altogether. According to Reich: "FDR shifted the debate from what he failed to accomplish to the irresponsibility of his opponets. Again and again he let the public know whose side he was on, and whose side they were on. Republicans stood for 'business and financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking." FDR framed the "story" in a way that let voters know he was on their side. (4)

I do have to immediately say that, although us vs. them storytelling may be politically effective, I agree with Mount (taking the cue from Reich's own writing) that "us vs. them" is an inferior story to one which sees us working within the same crisis together to address the common good. In our discussions of politics and public policy we will likely never reach unanimity concerning the common good. But "covenant, community, and the common good" is a better source of a national story than, for instance, the Tea Party's angry individualism, not to mention the political voices that speak language of innuendo and mockery. This is where the grace-ful language of religious faith can provide an alternative witness.

Another "story" which, in our current time, would also be challenging to articulate, is the story that government is not the problem, though certain government policies may be. A recent article in Christian Century notes that "No one should have to die of hunger--not in the 21st century." Churches and charities can do well, but so can government. For instance, the article notes that President Bush and Congress approved a $15 billion initiative for providing AIDS drugs to disease-ravaged Africa. (5) Yet another article, in a different issue of that magazine, noted that "our government could do much more to fight hunger if more citizens took part in the political process." Maybe the problem is not only misdirected government policies but also the fact that some of us do not practice our citizenship more vigorously, e.g., by writing our political leaders (6)

Although I'm being idealistic, I think there is room for productive discussion on whether the federal, state, or local governments should shoulder the most responsibility. A friend and I chatted on Facebook about this topic recently. Speaking personally I trust and distrust different levels of government about equally. An interesting book that I used for the Center project argued that, for instance, effective local application for and use of state and/or federal funds to provide low-income housing should not be neglected by people who appreciate volunteer and charitable efforts like Habitat.(7)

Another issue is what Evan Thomas called our "society of safety nets, a lawyer-constructed web where no one really has to take responsibility, where there's always someone else to blame..." We may have a society of safety nets, but as safety nets are taken away, people who have, indeed, taken responsibility in their lives but for the time being need extra help, are made to suffer while those less at economic risk avoid responsibility, as Hackler's book argues. One of Obama's challenges is to tell a story--Thomas even calls it "an ancient and honorable morality tale"---about the necessity for all Americans to sacrifice together for the long-term well-being of the country. As Thomas also says, "broadly speaking, American popular culture is not very amendable to sacrifice, to choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, as our sterner parents and grandparents might have said." (8) Somehow this must be done in a way that we don't continue to sacrifice (in the sense of discarding) the people about whom Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Nickel and Dimed. (9)

But those people are, unfortunately, too rarely the top priority, but what if we began to hear and read more public leaders speaking, Facebooking, or tweeting on the side of the working poor, the underfed school children, or the seniors who have paid into Social Security and pensions for many years? What if any of the leaders of either party began to say things like: "We need to focus partisan debates upon the the working poor and the struggling middle class. We may disagree on the role of the federal government, but nevertheless, we need to debate and act. My opponents, X Y and Z, are not taking seriously the struggles of the needy: why not? What are our priorities?" If that happens, our American stories would become all the more commensurate with an overwhelming Bible story: God's tender concern for the poor and needy.

The previous post's final quote from Eric Mount is worth saying again: “Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of ‘us’ against ‘them’ will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater.” (10)

1. James K. Galbraith, "Attack on the Middle class," Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 27-29.

2. Jacob S. Hacker, The Great Risk Shift (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-6.

3. David Corn, "Will Obama Put Up a Fight?" Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2010, 30.

4. Robert Reich's blog, "Why Obama Should Learn the Lesson of 1936, Not 1996,", Nov. 1, 2010.

5. Roger Thurow, "Criminal Negligence: the Scourge of World Hunger," Christian Century, Aug. 24, 2010, 22-23, 26.

6. David Beckmann, "Hunger is Political: Food Banks Can't Do It All," Christian Century, Sept. 21, 2010, 11-13.

7. Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 124.

8. Evan Thomas, "Truth or Consequences," Newsweek, Nov. 22, 2010, 35-37 (quotes on p. 37).

9. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001), 25-27.

10. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

"Faithful Citizen"

This past year I was hired to write a series of lessons called Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with terrific input from the Center. The following website explains the overall curriculum:

A few weeks ago I explained the curriculum to an interfaith dialogue group in St. Louis, which sparked interesting discussion about ways religious believers approach citizenship and public issues.

As stated at the website above, the Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. Robert Bellah and his fellow authors of the book Habits of the Heart note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the "freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life" but neglects the fact that our relationship with God "is mediated by a whole pattern of community life."(1)

Individualism also flavors American's politics. Bellah et al. argue that both welfare liberalism and neocapitalism tend to focus upon individual good as the way toward the common good. “The purpose of government is to give individuals the means to pursue their private ends,” the first by allowing periodic government intervention into the economy "to balance the operations of the market in the interests of economic growth and social harmony," and the other by a free-market approach with less government involvement.(2)

Bellah and his fellow authors hope that "the biblical impetus to see religion as involved in the whole of life" can give a broader political vision, as well as a less personalistic religious faith, which in turn renews our sense of civic virtue. (3)

Eric Mount of Centre College, in his book Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, echoes Bellah in stressing that Americans have always had a twofold drive: personal success and a desire for the common good (4). Although we Americans are indebted to the tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(5)

The Faithful Citizen lessons will highlight some of the ways by which we can broaden our religious and political visions to have a greater concern for the common good and for responsible civic participation. For instance, among other ideas based upon Mount's research, we can think of religious faith as "audacious openness." Mount writes, "openness is not simply tolerant of the other, or receptive to encounter by difference; it is audacious. Its hospitality is daring. it is not docile obedience; it is courageous engagement" with other people and their needs.(6)

Another approach to civic virtue and the common good is through "better stories." Mount cites Robert Reich who in turn identifies four "stories" woven into American political discourse: the "mob at the gates" which is often about foreigners or any "dark force" portrayed as a real or perceived threat to American well being, "the triumphant individual" about workers and entrepreneurs which often pits economic discourage in terms of winners and losers, the "benevolent community" which lauds efforts to help the poor but which still portrays the poor as "them" who are helped by "us," and "the rot at the top" about big government and big business. (7)

Approaching public issues from a faith perspective can be very challenging. On one hand, many religious people tend to keep their religious faith and their politics in two mental "zones," so they feel warm in the love of God while other times spouting angry, uncaring political convictions that they picked up from the media. There is also the challenge of ongoing public discussion about what is the common good, and what is the proper role of government in enhancing the common good.

Mounts offers this challenge: "Social conflict is not going away, and sometimes we may fear 'the other' for good reasons. Our fears, however, become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are always acting on our worst suspicions of 'the other' instead of seeking areas of overlap between our problems, our interests, and even our hopes. Trying to tell stories that move us beyond the counter-productive antagonisms of 'us' against 'them' will not make all of our differences go away, but better stories could restore a sense of community membership in our land and even beyond our borders that has characterized us in our best moments as a people. In a world of increasingly inescapable interdependence and mutual vulnerability, the need has never been greater."(8)

1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Ibid., 262-266.

3. Ibid., 248.

4. Eric Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 11.

5. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 43-45.

6. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 136-137. For this insight Mount cites Peter Hodgson’s Winds of the Spirit: A Constructive Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 204-8, and also the thought of Darrell J. Fasching, Narrative Theology after Auschwitz: From Alienation to Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 6, 15-16, 73, 123, 126, 187-88.

7. Mount, "A Tale of Two Americas," 47-48.

8. Eric Mount, “Storytelling and Political Leadership,” The Progressive Christian, 182:5 (Sept.-Oct. 2008), 19.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mr. Holland's Opus Revisited

Several years ago, in late April, I was heading toward my car after I'd taught three classes that morning. I felt under the weather, didn't think I taught well, and, in my propensity to doubt myself, I wondered if I taught well at all. Deciding to check my email in the student union before I left campus, I logged on and read a message from my college dean: the graduating seniors had chosen me as their favorite professor, and could I attend the college convocation to receive the award? Of course, I thought it was a mistake.

Ever since, I've hoped that other teachers I know could somehow get a sense of how they influence their students. That affirmation doesn't have to happen as dramatically as the denouement of "Mr. Holland's Opus," but at least I hope it can happen for them in a very positive way. To have that kind of gift in your life, you have to not expect it or work for it, otherwise you're focusing on your own honor rather than the well-being of your students! I do try to praise my own former teachers when I can.

The TCM network showed "Mr. Holland's Opus" this past month. This movie makes me bawl my head off--even more so than "Les Miserables" (the musical), if that's possible. Mr. Holland (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is an aspiring musician and composer who takes a job teaching kids music. Teaching takes over his life and so he never realizes his initial dreams. But he helps and influences many students like the stoner Mr. Stadler, the musically untalented Louis Russ (who tragically dies), the pitifully self-doubting Gertrude Lang, and the talented Rowena Morgan (with whom there is mutual infatuation). Additionally, family concerns, especially a deaf son, makes him confront the ways he uses and prioritizes his time. Finally, he is forced into retirement, but not before he enjoys an unexpected community tribute. The old cliché, "life is what happens while you make other plans," is clearly a moral of this story. Another moral: success isn't fame or money but the lives we touch for the better.

Besides Dreyfuss the various actors are people whom I enjoy in other shows and movies: Glenne Headley, William H. Macy, Jean Louisa Kelly, Olympia Dukakis, Alicia Witt, Jay Thomas, Joanna Gleason, and others. I disliked Macy’s character so much that I (humorously) imagine him getting his comeuppance as another character: the one Macy plays in “Fargo.”

“Mr. Holland” reminds me of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," of course. It's also a Capra-esque movie in the tradition of "It's a Wonderful Life." But although I've no idea if the movie accurately reflects the life of a music teacher, aspects of the film ring true. The male psyche needs the assurance of positive work, but if a man works too hard he neglects family. He loves his family, but if he has found a strong sense of self and assurance in his work, the psychological consequences of refocusing can be painful--but balancing work and family has to happen if he truly cares for his loved ones. I found these movie scenes believable; if I were still leading groups about men's spirituality, as I did a few times years ago, I'd probably show these movie scenes as the basis of discussion.

I looked at some of the discussions on Some writers there noted that Mr. Holland's symphony at the end was good but not great. Perhaps there is a lesson in that. If we have a sufficient creative drive, the creative work we want to do may very well force itself out of us, regardless of whether we "have time" to do it. In the afterward of "Blue Highways," William Least Heat Moon has testified to this drive to create, which compelled the writing of that book amid less than ideal circumstances. He has no patience for the notion, "If only I could get a grant, I could write my book." This is not to say that we don't need encouragement for our creative work, which unfortunately Mr. Holland never really gets for his writing, except from his student Rowena. Mr. Holland's better work is that in which he finds validation along the way.

That's why the character Rowena does not appear at the end, although many other former students do. Some writers regret that she didn't return for the school tribute, but her absence makes dramatic sense. She had suggested an opportunity to pursue his earlier dreams, but if he had followed her, he would've missed his true work--and his true life. But while Rowena knew all along that she wanted to sing, Mr. Stadler and Gertrude benefited more dramatically from Mr. Holland's clever ways to affirm them.

I'd almost forgotten that I met Richard Dreyfuss when, for reasons I don't remember, he visited Yale Divinity School and chatted with students in the commons room. This was in 1980 or 1981. I think he was in town for a play at the Yale Rep, and he graciously visited the div school for a group of us star-struck students.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Anniversary of a Door

Thoughts from last year... My grandma Crawford lived in an old farmhouse in rural Brownstown, Illinois. Her father, Albert Pilcher, built the house in 1907, but he died only three years later. I'm not sure when Grandma and Grandpa moved to the house, or when Grandma's mother remarried and moved away. My mother was born at the house in 1919. My own association with the house began, I assume, when I was a baby in the late 1950s and continued until the house burned in the 1970s.

I also don't remember when I discovered the tiny letters and numbers on the outside of the kitchen's back door: C. E. Pilcher, Nov. 17, 1907. These were in a lighter color than the door's dark stain. Grandma said that Cassius E. Pilcher was a housepainter, and her father's cousin. I was pretty young, but the old designation was fascinating to me, something unobtrusive and nearly forgotten, like a building's cornerstone.

In fact, I did nearly forget the discovery. For years I puzzled about November 17; it seemed to be a significant day but I couldn't remember. Someone's birthday? Elton John's third album? Finally I remembered the old door.

This coming Monday is November 22. For those of a particular age, we will always associate that day with John F. Kennedy, because we remember that day in 1963. Some anniversaries are much more personal, and so ephemeral they nearly fade from thought until some lucky spark of memory brings them back.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Picnic" (1955)

Recently I chanced upon the 1955 movie "Picnic" on the TCM network. The movie is based on the William Inge play and stars William Holden, Kim Novak, Betty Field, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson (his first movie), Rosalind Russell, and Arthur O'Connell. The hominess of the title intrigued me. The story concerns a handsome, useless drifter who upsets people and relationships in a small town during the big Labor Day festivities. Although I'd never seen the movie, I must've flipped past a TV production many years ago, because the scene where Rosalind Russell's character pitifully begs Arthur O'Connell's to marry her was familiar. William Holden, 37 in 1955, plays a man in his twenties, while the two young women (Novak and Strasberg) are more believably close to their characters' ages. Holden is handsome and "hot," and a fine actor, but I wonder if he was cast partly because of his star power.

I enjoyed the story and the various characters' interrelationships. One of my classmates says this movie was his mother's favorite. The film concludes with a theme that I can never find touching: the lonely young woman who falls for, and then runs away to locate the handsome but no good stranger who chanced into her life. I always think the heroine is being naive; even if the guy has a good heart, her love will not magically reform him. Mrs. Potts, the kindly old woman who holds the beginning and end of the film together, does realize that we all have to learn through difficult experience, whether in love or other aspects of life. In that respect, rather than in an imagined but unlikely happy-ever-after, the movie's conclusion is heartwarming.

I fell in love with the small town surroundings depicted in the movie. The railroad cars and tracks, with grain elevators in the background, is a happy sight to me, having grown up close to the Illinois Central tracks. So is the way the neighborhood yards are not so sharply separated as in the suburbs where I now live; yards have sheds and small barns that blend the village and the rural, just as back porches blend indoors and outdoors. Mrs. Potts has a 55-gallon metal drum in her backyard for burning trash, exactly as my parents had in our yard. You'd have to enjoy old signs to notice it, but Mr. Potts had the top portion of a yellow stop sign attached to her shed, perhaps to cover a hole in the wall, as my grandma used a metal Grapette Soda sign to patch the wall of her chicken house. Behind the houses is a little alley, not a street, just the parallel path that cars and trucks would make across grass-covered land. All these sights were familiar sights as I was growing up, not only in my hometown but in small communities which my parents and I visited on weekend trips, checking on relatives.

According to online movie data sources, "Picnic" was shot in five Kansas towns, Halstead, Hutchinson, Nickerson, Salina, and Sterling. William Holden's character arrives (in a box car) in the railroad yard in Salina and, although supposedly in the same town, soon breezes into a neighborhood in Nickerson. That's the magic of movies, as they say.

I've been happy in the places I've lived, but part of me will always miss the kind of rural/small town ambiance depicted in "Picnic." As the movie stresses, this kind of world isn't all that innocent. But "geographically" it's very comforting, always worth revisiting.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Family Heirloom

As long as I'm writing about family these last couple posts, I'll repost this one from last year.

On my office wall is a framed announcement of an auction 102 years plus two weeks ago:

"Public Sale of live stock and personal property. The undersigned will sell at Public Sale at his residence two miles south of Brownstown, in Otego Township, on Thursday, October 29, 1908, the following described property: Four Head of Horses consisting of 3 Good Work Horses and 1 Good 2-Year-Old Colt. 2 Good Dairy Cows and 1 Spring Calf. 13 Thirteen Head of Hogs 13 [sic] Weighing from 100 to 250 pounds. Farm implements: 1 Champion Binder. 1 McCormack Mow-Drill, 1 Steel Harrow, 1 Cultivator, 2 Breaking Plows, 1 Wagon, 1 Top Buggy, nearly new, 2 sets Double Harness, and 1 set Single Harness. Also about 5 tons of Hay and 20 acres of Corn in the field. 1 Estate Steel Range and other Household Furniture. Terms of Sale. All sums of $5.00 and under, Cash in hand. Sums over $5.00 a credit of 12 mouths will be given. Purchaser to give note with approved security before property is removed. Notes to draw 7 per cent. Interest from date if not paid when due. A discount of 5 per cent. Will be allowed for Cash on sums over $5.00. Sale to commence at 10 o’clock a.m. Farm for rent on day of sale. John Crawford. W. H. Sawrey, Auctioneer. Paul Crawford, Clerk"

John was my mother’s paternal grandfather (Paul Crawford was John’s brother.) The family lived along the road that today connects U.S. 40 with Illinois 185, two or three miles north of the scene on my blog. As I recall the story, John and Susan’s second child Marvin was ill of tuberculosis and the family planned to move to Texas to assist him. I know that Marvin died in 1909, however, so I don’t know how these sad events, including the sale of all this property, turned out. I do know that John lived until 1927 and his wife Susan until 1926. Their personal papers (which I have, still kept in a 1920s oatmeal box) indicates that the couple moved back to the Brownstown area and started again. Even though I loved family history as a kid, and even though I quized my great-aunts about family history, I now think of more questions I would’ve asked them about their parents, my grandfather having died before I was born.

Whenever I’m back in Fayette County, I nearly always drive out to Otego Township and pass by the small residence along the road, pointed out to me as the Crawfords’ long-ago farm. Though the framed announcement is sad, it gives me a happy sense of belonging to a family history, as do those Otego visits.

My Cousin Lewis

Here's a Veterans Day post: from Frederick M. Hanes, Fayette County [Illinois] in the World War, 1922, pp. 58 and 60.

"Lewis Calvin Crawford, son of Calvin and Rosetta Crawford, was born October 24, 1905 [i.e., 1895] near Brownstown where he lived until he entered the service of his country May 8, 1917. He enlisted at Mattoon and was sent to Jefferson Barracks. Later he was transferred to a camp in Texas and thence to Jersey City, N. J., from where he crossed as a first class private of CO. K., 16th Infantry.

"His father having died several years previous, many a young man in his position would have pleaded that he must remain with his lonely mother. But whenever he spoke of going he would remark, 'Mother, if I did not go and help win our freedom I would feel that I had no right to live here. I could not face the boys as they came home who had fought for me.'

"Lewis was a Bible reader and before going expressed the desire to go across and if possible see the country where the Saviour lived on earth. On the way across however, he contracted measles. Pneumonia followed. He was taken to Base Hospital No. 1, St. Naziarre, France where he died July 15, 1917, the first of the sons of Fayette county to give his life on French soil. His comrades buried him in a French cemetery but later removed the body to an American cemetery. At the request of his relatives the body was again disinterred and set back to his homeland where it was laid to rest in Pilcher cemetery in the family lot.

"When the American Legion was organized in Fayette County the Vandalia Post was named The Crawford-Hale Post in honor of Private Crawford and Sergt. Edward B. Hale, Fayette County's first two sons to give their lives overseas for American ideals.

"Private Crawford was a member of the M. W. A. His mother recalls his favorite hymn which has taken on a new and grander meaning:

"I will follow Thee my Saviour,
Whereso'er my lot shall be:
Where Thou goest I will follow,
Yes, my Lord, I'll follow Thee."

Lewis was my great-grandfather John Crawford's first cousin. In fact, Lewis and his parents are buried very close to my grandparents and great-grandparents. Coincidentally, the Crawford-Hale post began on the same day my mother was born: August 2, 1919.

My Civil War Ancestor

A post from last year, "rerun" for Veterans Day.... I traced my mother’s family, the Crawfords, when I was in high school. I started on the Strobel family but became busy with college and didn’t get very far. My grandfather and his siblings were all long dead, so that generation was no longer available for interview, a fact that also discouraged the project.

Recently, though, a friend who still does genealogy sent me my great-grandfather Strobel’s obituary. (The surname was misspelled on my father’s birth certificate.) In honor of Veterans Day, here is the obit.

“John Strobel died Friday, August 26, 1932 at his home north of Vandalia of senility. A short funeral service was held at the grave in Ramsey Cemetery Monday afternoon. A number of World War veterans from Vandalia and Ramsey attended the services in a body. The following grandsons were pallbearers: Kark E. Schaefer, Delmar, Fred and Paul Strobel, Leo Holdman and Stanley Miles.

“Mr. Strobel was a veteran of the Civil War, having served with Co. D, First Missouri Cavalry. Mr. Michel, aged 90, of Altamont, who served in the same company with Mr. Strobel, attended the services Monday afternoon.

“Grandpa Strobel as he was familiarly known, was born in Germany, Jan. 1, 1840. At the age of 4 he came with his parents to this country, settling in Madison County.

“On June 20, 1865 he was united in marriage with Emma Hotz. To this union ten children were born, two dying in infancy and one daughter, Mrs. Lizzie Schaefer, died in 1904.

“Besides the aged wife he is survived by the following children: Mrs. Lena Hoffman, Ramsey; Mrs. Amelia Holdman, Avena; Geo. Strobel, Peoria; John, Charles, Andy and Edward Strobel of Vandalia.

“The Family wishes to thank all of the neighbors and friends for all kindnesses extended them during their [illegible].

"Th [sic] following out-of-town people attended the funeral: Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hotz and daughters and Chas. Hotz, Edwardsville; Mrs. Mary Dumbeck and daughter, St. Louis; Mrs. Margaret Winters, son and daughters, Highland; Mr. and Mrs. Geo. Strobel and daughter and Edward Strobel, Altamont; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ferrell, Pana, and Mr. and Mrs. Ward Stowell and Mrs. May Litchenberger, Decatur.”

My father-- “Paul” the pallbearer mentioned above-- remembered many of these people fondly. Dad was 20 in 1932. He recalled that his grandfather made several gallons of wonderful homemade sauerkraut every year. It would be interesting to know what kind of difficulties my great-grandfather faced in America at a time when German immigrants (and he was German Catholic, at that) faced prejudice.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Politics Has Ruined My Star Trek Watching

In his book The Physics of Star Trek (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Lawrence M. Krauss suggests that the Star Trek transporter machine raises an interesting theological issue. The person steps into the transporter, and the transporter disassembles, transmits, and then reassembles him or her. But what happens to the person’s soul during this process? Are the person's memories and dreams transported as well? One assumes so (given the way the device functions in the stories). But if so, is the person is nothing more than a collection of atoms? The purely physical nature of the transportation implies that our spiritual nature is simply our physical nature as well: a materialistic interpretation of human being. Krauss states that the shows, wisely, do not address these questions.(1)

The spiritual question of Star Trek transportation is left open. But the other day I watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Borg attacked the enterprise, damaging the saucer extensively and killing several crew. I realized I've been ruined by all the political bickering and nastiness of recent years when a thought popped into my head ....

Who exactly pays for construction, upkeep, and repair of space ships, not to mention salaries, pensions, and settlements to crew members' families?

This led, of course, to other questions. If the Federation funds the fleet, what portion of its budget is the United States paying? Are we paying a disproportionate amount of its budget without other planets contributing their share? Does the U.S. run a deficit because of the space program? Should we run to the aid of every intergalactic species that has a wormhole to guard? Future funding may stall in the face of efforts to overturn previous Federation-related legislation. And amid all the debate, news organizations have picked up a story that the president was born in the Beta Quadrant rather than the Alpha Quadrant...

I'm being dumb and lighthearted, of course. Like the question of the transporter and the nature of the human soul, it's probably a good thing Star Trek never addresses the question of funding!

1. Lawrence M. Krauss, The Physics of Star Trek (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 68-69.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Oscar Micheaux

Early this coming Monday morning, Turner Classic Movies is showing the 1920 silent film Within Our Gates. I saw the end of this film a few years ago, as I was flipping through channels and came to a disturbing image of a black man being hanged. Eventually the channel showed the movie again and I got to see the whole story, which concerns a black woman trying to raise money for a school; but a man who loves her accidentally learns her shocking past. Writer Patrick McGilligan, in his biography of director Oscar Micheaux, writes "Within Our Gates was Micheaux's most explicit rebuttal to D. W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. (Even the new title was a reference to the epigraph that introduced Griffith's 1919 film, A Romance of Happy Valley: 'Harm not the stranger/Within your gates/Lest you yourself be hurt.')" (p. 137).

Micheaux was the first African American to produce a full-length film; in fact, he also directed and wrote films as well as a few novels. Among Micheaux's several films this is the earliest that has survived. McGilligan writes, "Micheaux was a unique storyteller, using film methods that were as idiosyncratic and modern-minded as anything being tried in Hollywood at that time. One of his unusual techniques was repeating scenes from different subjective viewpoints to reveal the crucial missing pieces of a puzzle." In the case of this film, for instance, the killing of the landowner is twice shown, once to tell the basic story and again to show the truth about the killing (p. 142).

TCM has also shown The Symbol of the Unconquered from 1920. This films concerns a black man who owns land on which oil is discovered, but racists--including a black man who passes for white--try to intimidate him out of his land. "Micheaux's central motif" in this story, as in other films, "was 'passing,' and the sexual tension that transpires between a man and a woman of seemingly different races torn by their love for each other." Unfortunately the film is now incomplete and is missing compelling scenes, like the defeat of the Klan! But even in both the complete and fragmentary scenes, one can see (as McGilligan notes) Micheaux's knwoledge of German Expressionist style and avant-garde film techniques (pp. 155-156).

Coincidentally, my daughter had to write a report this week about an 1800s play, "The Octoroon," about a light-skinned black woman and a white man in love. When I saw Within Our Gates I looked up the film on and discovered that Micheaux (1884-1951) had grown up in Metropolis, IL, a community near which I lived in the 1980s. I don't know if Metropolis honors Micheaux, who left when he was 20. He is not so well known today, but he has finally become recognized as a pioneering figure. His films give us a truthful look at race relations of the early 20th century. In fact, Micheaux realized he was not going to get rich making provocative films with racial themes, often banned in certain parts of the county like the South, and yet he continued to churn them out, using favorite actors, financing his own efforts, and living a life of drama, showmanship, and conflict as he addressed censors and racial barriers. McGilligan's biography traces Micheaux's interesting career and provides information about Micheaux's lost and extant films. The author writes on page 3, "Indeed, Micheaux was the Jackie Robinson of American film. No, a Muhammad Ali decades before his time, a bragging black man running around with a camera and making audacious, artistic films of his own maverick style, at a time when racial inferiority in the United States was custom and law."

(After I posted this short piece, I was alerted to this website: