Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I'm trying to think of blog-worthy anecdotes about trick or treating. Nothing very earthshaking, and my childhood was pretty "standard." My childhood neighborhood had no sidewalks, so I usually trick or treated with a buddy who lived on my hometown's First Street. First and Second Street were part of a nicely quiet neighborhood, safe-feeling with well-lit sidewalks, and somewhat set apart by the widening of Third Street (Kennedy Blvd./U.S. 40-51). After gathering our candy from neighbors, we watched the premiere of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" on his family's color TV.

I should add that my hometown is small, 5500 at the 1960 census (these memories of mine are from the mid- and late-1960s), and First through Eighth are the major numbered streets: there is no Ninth, and Tenth is just a few blocks long. I tell this to my friend who works in Manhattan, just to give him a chuckle.

Another year, my church had a "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" program. We fanned out along Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets and collected change. What a nice way to instill social awareness in little kids!  I've a memory of standing on a house's porch at Eighth and Jackson, waiting for friends to catch up from another house---a weird memory, why was I standing on someone's porch? When you're a little kid, the concept of "trespassing" is rather vague, particularly on Halloween.

One of the highlights of childhood Halloweens was the local parade, when kids gathered in the parking lot of the county courthouse, on South Seventh Street, and marched straight down Gallatin Street (the main drag) into the downtown. The kids with the best costumes got little prizes. I don't remember if I ever did, but the idea of walking in the middle of the street was a huge thrill! At that time, Vandalia's business district was still vibrant and a few stores were open in the evening.

Now we live in St. Louis, which seems to have a unique Halloween convention: kids are supposed to tell a joke when they trick or treat.  I'd never heard of that before.  We live in a neighborhood with many kids, so I hope we've purchased enough candy for tomorrow night.

Daughter Emily has trick or treated nearly every year since she was little. While Vandalia kids seemed to think trick or treating was unconscionably uncool after a certain point, Emily's generation has embraced it. When she was in college, she and her friends went out Halloween evening!  Some of my students plan to dress up tomorrow.

(A post from a couple years ago, slightly updated.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Remembering an Antebellum Blacksmith

Near Halloween, here’s a somber photo that I look several years ago on a late autumn day.

Our family cemetery---originally the burial ground of pioneer families of this part of the township----is a few miles out in the country from my hometown. You have to take a county road off the state highway, and then turn onto a gravel lane across a field and into the woods to get there. Now, some folks live along the lane now and more trees have been cleared, but when I was a kid, you couldn’t see the graveyard from the country road because of the trees. Once you were down the lane, you’d come into the pretty timber clearing where about 300 people are buried, including my material grandparents, great-grandparents, and some 2-great and 3-great grandparents as well. It was a peaceful, isolated place.

The oldest portion of the graveyard is the northeast corner of the clearing, where some rocks are crudely inscribed 1836 and the oldest professionally carved stone is 1839. When I was a little kid, we visited the cemetery on Memorial Day and other occasions, to “decorate” family graves. I liked to walk back to the old section and read the inscriptions. The section was mildly creepy, which on a sunny day was no problem and kind of cool.(1) In the far corner of the section is a tombstone (visible in this photo) of two children buried away from other graves.(2) My grandma said that the children had died of smallpox and were interred separately so that (in the belief of the time) they could not infect the living.

My favorite old tombstone, though, was this one.  It reads:

Moses Cluxton Sen.
Mar. 13, 1855
56 years 10 ms & 4 ds.
Remember friends as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be

Prepare for death and follow me.

When I was a kid, the tombstone was broken in half and the halves sunken into the ground at an odd angle from each other. For some reason that fascinated me. It was such a sense of abandonment: not only had the old gravestone fallen into disrepair, but its strewn halves weren’t even righted, remaining so for (presumably) many years.

The inscription fascinated me too, because the words DIED and AGED seemed more prominent than the man’s name. And the name seemed so 19th century---”Moses Cluxton, Senior.” That memento mori epitaph is common in old graveyards, though it’s the only example in our little cemetery. As a kid I liked old things, things worth remembering and preserving. This tombstone was one such remnant from the township's first generation.

Later, when I was a teenager, I looked at census records and discovered that Mr. Cluxton was a blacksmith. Although so many people in this graveyard are related to me (either as ancestors or distant uncles or aunts, or cousins), I learned that Mr. Cluxton is very distantly so: his son Lewis married the daughter of a 4-great-uncle of the Mahon family. So he was the father-in-law of a first-cousin-four-times-removed. Relatives of that distant uncle’s wife (the Thompson family) fixed up Mr. Cluxton’s tombstone several years ago. It no longer appears so long abandoned. Here is some additional information: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=cluxton&GSiman=1&GScid=107470&GRid=47966629&

Some of the families buried in this peaceful clearing arrived in the area during the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. I imagine some of my ancestors, living on or around Four Mile Prairie, stopping by the man’s shop to get their wagons repaired and horses shod.  


1. I heard this mysterious-sounding arrangement of a popular song on an adult-contemporary station, which in my young mind I associated with the vanished pioneer community which had lived in the township. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtSL_1-Y8T8
2. The inscription reads: “Elvina, daughter of S. & F. Parks Died Aug. 10, 1858 Aged 3 ms & 25 D. Lemuel, son of S. & F. Parks Died Dec. 31, 1859 Aged 3 ms & 21 ds.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hope and Change and Leadership

Some notes that I took last year, from interesting articles about national politics and leadership.  What has changed in the past year?  What has stayed much the same?  Are we Americans still looking for a "messiah" as one of the quoted authors suggests?  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

That Vulgar Wizard

As I sorted through a box of papers, aiming to keep photocopied research but recycle old drafts of manuscripts and so on, I came across a photocopy of page 52 of the August 19, 1939 issue of The New Yorker.

I found the issue at an Ohio yard sale and purchased it because of the review of “The Wizard of Oz.”  An at-the-time friend collected Wizard of Oz things so I gave the magazine to her, but I copied the review.

The review is so grouchy!  “Fantasy is still Walt Disney’s undisputed domain. Nobody else can tell a fairy tale with his clarity of imagination, his simple good taste, or his technical ingenuity.” All these are lacking in “Wizard,” says the writer, who deplores the movie's vulgarity. (Unfortunately I didn’t record the author, but it would be easy to go back to old issues and find it.)

“I will rest my case against ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on one line of dialogue. It occurs in a sense in which the wicked witch is trying to persuade Dorothy… to part with a pair of magic slippers. The good witch interrupts them….whereupon the wicked witch snarls, ‘You keep out of this!’ Well, there it is. Either you believe witches talk like that, or you don’t. I don’t. Since ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is full of stuff as bad as that, or worse, I say it’s a stinkeroo.”

I don’t have a strong sense of how witches are supposed to talk, so that particular example is kind of funny. I suppose the author means that the dialogue should be more original and imaginative than such a prosaic response as "You keep out of this!" The point where the Wizard says the wicked witch was "liquidated" is the example provided of the movie's bad gags.

That’s not to say “Wizard” is above criticism just because it’s so popular. But the review is fun to read as a contemporary evaluation long before the movie became such a favorite on TV. The "raw, eye-straining Technicolor” and the film’s “vulgarity” are deplored. “I don’t like the Singer Midgets under any circumstances, but I found them bothersome in Technicolor,” the author writes, and, “Bert Lahr, as the Cowardly Lion, is funny but out of place. If Bert Lahr belongs in the Land of Oz, so does Mae West. This is nothing against Lahr or Miss West, both of whom I dearly love.” Those are the only performances the reviewer mentions (other than complaints about the script): nothing about Judy Garland.  

Interestingly, the photocopied page includes an ad for the show “Yokel Boy” with Buddy Ebsen, who had initially been in the movie’s cast. Other ads include the then-popular play by Robert Sherwood, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," an Andy Hardy movie with Mickey Rooney, as well as the film "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" with Robert Donat.  In 1939, a 5-room apartment on East 85th Street was $1700, and a 14-room home in Greenwich, with a three-car garage and 3/4 acres, was going for a "sacrifice price" of  $32,000.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Inarguably a Forceful Book Cover

"Unfriending the Enemy"

This week’s “Time” magazine (October 22, 2012) has an essay by Katy Steinmetz (p. 15) called “Unfriending the Enemy.” She notes that “The Pew Research center found that nearly 1 in 5 social networkers has blocked, hidden or unfriended someone over political material that was too frequent or too disagreeable.” One user is quoted, “The final straw for me was a post about how Obamacare requires all Americans to get chips installed in their skin.” Steinmetz writes, “now that many people can count everyone from close friends to crazy uncles to far-flung professional contacts among their Facebook friends, it’s important to keep the whole audience in mind, says consultant Jacqueline Whitmore. The original rule about politics and conversation, after all, was about having consideration or others’ feelings.”

Have you unfriended anyone on Facebook over politics? I’ve unfriended just a few, folks with whom I wasn't close friends and who annoyed me with partisan postings. (I recall that one was rather sneering about climate change.) I felt foolish afterward, because I do have many friends whose political postings I disagree with, and I've friends whose postings, while frequent, are more congenial to my own views. I've political views but I'm willing to listen to and appreciate diverse opinions, as long as folks aren't dogmatic or generalizing or angry. But then I thought, why should I have to get annoyed day after day, with persons to whom I'm not that close anyway? I suppose I could've just asked them to stop.

With a few friends I’ve reduced the number of status updates that appear on my "wall." In some cases, I care about those people very much and don't want their political views to hurt that caring. For instance, I realized a friend, whom I liked a lot in person, was a real Rush Lindbergh/Fox News fan, neither of which I can tolerate. I walk out on businesses wherein the store’s radio is tuned to Rush. But I don’t want to lose that person’s friendship. So I’ve just reduced such folks' statuses on my feed, until after the election. I do check their "walls" to make sure they're doing okay.

One time a FB friend and I discussed an issue on FB, concerning an article that I posted and found interesting. My friend took a position I disliked and when we discussed the matter, I felt like I was seeing my friend's point but not vice versa. We weren't meeting halfway. But I do tend to find political disagreements exhausting rather than productive. That’s just my nature, like my friend’s nature is to be more vigorous in discussions. So if you're like me and aren't really a debater, but you still follow politics and want to be socially engaged, you have to find a sense of genuineness, balance, and caring.

The thing is: I don’t think that Facebook is a really good way to discuss politics, because the lack of face-to-face contact might give you courage to be nastier than you’d otherwise be, and it’s difficult to convey nuance and genuine concern. When you watch candidates and TV advertisements, you may think all Democrats/Republicans are (as my dad would say) damned liars, hell bent on turning the nation into a socialist/fascist wasteland, but some of your friends who are Democrats/Republicans are probably good, solid people who, like you, want the best for the country. But you’re lumping them into the category of the damned, destructive liars!

My mother died two weeks ago, and nearly 200 of my Facebook friends posted prayers, words of encouragement, support, and interest as I announced her loss, made arrangements, and traveled to her funeral and burial services. I feel like the possibility of mutual, real-time support is the outstanding feature of Facebook. I keep that in mind as we s-l-o-w-l-y wind up this difficult political season.

I’ve begun to post articles that I find interesting, not on Facebook but on my blog. Somehow it seems more like a sincere sharing of social concerns, and of things I find interesting on both sides of the political aisle. There are some scriptural admonitions about being kind, gentle, thoughtful, and mutually supportive, and I do want to try to follow these teachings, even on political and justice issues about which I feel really passionate. It’s a struggle to find that balance, but a good one.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Campaign Claims

A couple of good articles concerning exaggerations and false claims from the Romney campaign.  What do you think?  How is the Obama campaign doing in their claims?



Monday, October 8, 2012

U.S. 60 Memories

A few posts ago, I wrote about U.S. 6, a highway that crosses nearly the entire country but which I've drive only a short distance. "Six" made me think of “sixty,” and in turn U.S. 60, which I’ve driven quite a bit more. (Quite a while ago, I also wrote about U.S. 460, a related route.)

Antique sign from the years when US 60 was also
a California highway, crossing the Mohave
Desert and passing through Los Angeles.
U.S. 60 originally linked Virginia Beach, VA with Los Angeles. After Interstate 10 opened over forty years ago, the route was decommissioned west of Brenda, AZ near Quartzsite. But the road is a major route through Phoenix and continues as a significant highway as it heads toward the Atlantic Ocean. As originally planned, the road’s western terminus was Springfield, MO, but proponents of a certain Chicago-to-LA road wanted to name their route “60,” in conflict with the supporters of the Virginia Beach-to-Springfield road. Eventually, those proponents agreed with some other as yet unused number like 62 or 66. They chose 66, and the road from Virginia Beach westward kept the number 60.  

The very first time I was on U.S. 60 was when I was a tiny child and my parents and I visited Mom’s nephew in the Army. He was stationed at Fort Knox. In those pre-interstate days, I assume we drove south from my hometown in Illinois, picked up U.S. 50, took that over into Indiana, turned southeast onto U.S. 150, and then took 150 down to Louisville, where we would’ve driven U.S. 31W/U.S. 60 along the river to the base.

Pre-World War II embossed shield.
Many years later, my family and I lived in Louisville.  Highway 60 takes two interesting pathways through the city, and I especially liked to take the path called Eastern Parkway through some pretty neighborhoods.  As I left Louisville east toward Shelbyville, I loved an abandoned bridge on the south side of the road, and I also found interesting the historical markers commemorating Lincoln’s grandfather, killed by Indians in that area.

I traveled some of 60 during a business trip to Owensboro, but my other Kentucky memories of the road center around Paducah, a nice community. At the time I was a pastor of three small churches in Illinois, but most of my hospital calls were in Paducah. As I recall, highway 60 has a couple of routes through town, and I liked to explore the place and visit antique stores.  Beth and I were dating, but
Sign along Shelbyville Road
in Louisville, KY
she lived in another community, so at that time of my life I was happy yet lonely, and ready to begin life with her. The pleasant shops in Paducah cheered me up.  In fact, I think the jewelry shop where I picked out her ring was near Business 60.

Our most “epic” trip was the time Beth and I, newly married, moved to Charlottesville, VA from Illinois. Traveling I-64 across Kentucky, we realized that the interstate had not yet been completed through West Virginia. Charlottesville is along I-64, so we figured we could detour south along Interstate 77, pick up I-81 in Virginia, and then drive north to rejoin I-64 near Staunton, which isn’t too far west of Charlottesville. That seemed like a long detour, though. We also figured we could pick up U.S. 60 in West Virginia and reconnect with I-64 near Staunton. On a map, that seemed the more doable trip.

Black and white shield that replaced
the earlier cut-out shields.
Oh goodness!  Route 60 is such a winding, slow road through West Virginia’s mountains!  I recall that we spent over three hours just to travel about sixty miles. It was pretty and scenic, though. When our moving truck arrived the next day, the driver was chagrined, because he’d made the same decision as we did.  I was glad that we hadn’t had a big truck to follow as we drove 60 through those mountains.  

A few years later, we lived in Arizona. We drove 60 quite a bit in Phoenix where it is named the Superstition Freeway toward Mesa, and also the major street called Grand Avenue. We vacationed a couple times in the east-central portion of the state, and I recall traveling route 60 through pretty towns like Show Low and Springerville, as well as the Apache Reservation. That is a beautiful part of the state. I wish I could recall other, gorgeous sights along the road, like the Salt River Canyon.

Once in a while I’d travel some of Van Buren Avenue, a west-east Phoenix street once not only U.S. 60 but also U.S. 70, 80, and 89 into the city. With four major (pre-interstate) highways using the same street, of course there were many motels and restaurants along that avenue, serving travelers. By the time we lived in Arizona, though, that area had declined and all those motels were quite seedy-looking.  I’ve not been back to that area for over twenty years to know its present state, but I did find an interesting website about it: http://www.sierraestrella.com/vanburen.html

There is one stretch of U.S. 60 that I regret not visiting, although I live close enough now that I could drive there if I wanted.  That stretch, less than a mile in length, is the path Route 60 takes through the southern tip of Illinois between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, just south of Cairo. On its cross-country, 2670-mile path, the road barely visits my home state.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Glenn Gould, 1932-1982

During this past hectic and difficult month, I've wanted to comment here about the interesting 9/2012 issue of Gramophone magazine, with its cover story about pianist Glenn Gould.  Gould was born September 25, 1932 and died October 4, 1982, so these past two weeks have been the 80th anniversary of his birth and the 30th anniversary of his death. Among the essays, journalist Tim Page situates Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg Variations” within the times, making Bach’s music seem contemporary not only to the musical scene but to the charisma of James Dean and Marlon Brando. Composer Steve Reich praises Gould as “the first classical musician to really understand recording.” 

Kevin Bazzana’s biography of Gould at the glenngould.com site notes, “Gould’s musical proclivities, piano style and independence of mind marked him as a maverick. Favoring structurally intricate music, he disdained the early-Romantic and impressionistic works at the core of the standard piano repertoire, preferring Elizabethan, Baroque, Classical, late-Romantic and early-twentieth-century music; Bach and Schoenberg were central to his aesthetic and repertoire. He was an intellectual performer, with a special gift for clarifying counterpoint and structure, but his playing was also deeply expressive and rhythmically dynamic. He had the technique and tonal palette of a virtuoso, though he upset many pianistic conventions – avoiding the sustaining pedal, using détaché articulation, for example. Believing that the performer’s role was properly creative, he offered original, deeply personal, sometimes shocking interpretations (extreme tempos, odd dynamics, finicky phrasing), particularly in canonical works by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.” 

Bazzana discusses Gould’s famous “Goldberg Variations” recordings, his hatred of performing, and his other work in broadcasting, composing, and writing. The “Gramophone” issue contains several reminiscences by his contemporaries, including one by Petula Clark about whom Gould had written an appreciative essay, praising her music above that of the Beatles. Bazzana writes that Gould’s “postmodernist advocacy of open borders between the roles of composer, performer and listener, for instance, anticipated digital technologies (like the Internet) that democratize and decentralize the institutions of culture.” Unfortunately Gould died of a stroke just as the digital age was beginning. 

Thirty years ago I was a young, recent graduate of divinity school, feeling exceptionally lonely inside my rural parsonage. It was a small house along the state highway. The afternoon light shown brightly into the paneled living room, a Spartan place at that point in my life, since I’d not yet purchased nice furniture, but there I had my record player, receiver, and reel-to-reel tape deck. The front door was open so that not only the sun and the breeze could enter the room through the screen door.  

While at div school I’d gained a love of classical music and was embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to discover favorite music.  That day, my plan was to read a favorite book and listen to music from a nearby university's radio station (the same one where I’d try to catch Karl Haas’ “Adventures in Good Music” show as I drove through the countryside on pastoral calls). The station, though, had substituted the usual afternoon programming for a feature commemorating the death of Glenn Gould, a pianist I’d not heard of.  It was an interesting feature, explaining the pianist's innovations, eccentricities, and significance. 

Although these days I listen to Angela Hewitt’s Bach music more frequently than Gould’s, his name and music will always stay in my mind because of that lonely afternoon in the country, redeemed by the mastery of this independent, creative spirit!  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Post-Debate Reflections

September was a busy month with a writing project, and then my mother's health took a bad turn.  She passed away Sunday, Sept. 30. Her service is tomorrow morning.  I'm slowly getting back into a frame of mind to work on my blog stuff, including thoughts about Mom and her long health struggles.  In the meantime, I thought this was an interesting piece concerning the recent presidential debate:


I also liked this reflection by Deepak Chopra:


What do you think?