My sister, Lisa Baird, 5 Years later – posted 10/19/2014

October 19, 2014 3 comments

It has now been 5 years since my sister Lisa died. My family organized a memorial event on November 22, 2009 at the Germantown Jewish Center. Many people attended and quite a few people offered remarks. On this occasion I wanted to remember Lisa by reprinting the remarks of Lisa’s friend, Sherri Grasmuck, as well as my own remarks on that day. I also wanted to add a very artful video tribute to my sister that was created by my son Josh. This also was shown at the 2009 memorial event. The video is about 10 minutes long. The link is http://vimeo.com/7766076

Sherri’s remarks

I would like to begin by publicly thanking Deena for the generous way she opened her home to so many of us who loved Lisa and felt the need to be very close in the final days of her life and for the attentive and brave way she confronted the unbearable process of watching her second child die in her presence. Lisa felt that it was in her mother’s care that she wanted to have her final days and to have that relationship affirmed by those final days spent together. Thus we are even more grateful that you shared these treasured moments and your beautiful canopied bed with so many of us.

Though I have known Lisa for more than 30 years, she remains a mystery to me. Since she died I have been trying to get my head around that. I knew her in Texas in overlapping political circles, and lived with her at two different times in Germantown in the early l980’s, once as single women and once when she lived with John and me in a quasi-group house and through the years between then and now. Lisa was a very happy soul back in those early days. We shared many happy solutions to life’s challenges.

Rather than repairing or repainting ugly chipping walls in my house, we drove to French Creek State park with John and painted on huge rolls of paper, murals of bold red and black streaks. We then nailed them over all the questionable surfaces of my house, deluding ourselves that it worked aesthetically.

We had the good fortune to wear the same shoe size. So when we were shifting from hippydom to our early professional jobs, we managed to share for one solid year, on alternative days, the one acceptable pair of shoes— we had. A pair of flat heeled, blond Spanish leather pumps. We mourned that lost capacity when she moved out- a sweet kind of shoe intimacy.

Another challenge related to our commitment to shared meals in that group house. In those days, Lisa was one of the worst cooks imaginable. There was not a noodle casserole, one of her favorites, which she did not overcook by at least an hour. We coped by giving her one less night to cook than the rest of us. She loved to assure me later in life that she had overcome that early disability. But since one of her favorite contributions to potlucks was strudel made not by her but by Deena, her mother, my doubts lingered.

When I think of Lisa I think of polka dots.

There is a lot to celebrate about polka dots

and a lot to share in that spunky, playful, out-there side of Lisa.

Think about it.

Polka dots are perky, mischievous and stick together, devoted to collective solidarity, ready but huddled on the same surface.

Their mere presence, especially if they appear on someone’s grandmother’s underwear, can bring a smile, like Lisa–an announcement that frivolity is allowed.

Her gray blue eyes, those golf ball pink cheeks, curls and more curls.

The way she leaned forward to tease. Lisa was game.

Always happy to see you, taking time to remember details of our lives that so many others seemed to forget.

Polka dots and Lisa in their essence just make us smile.

Polka dots also huddle together, ready for action and but clustered together on the same surface.

They dramatize, like Lisa, solidarity. Lisa’s was the human kind.

She cared about and was interested in human dramas. No conversation with Lisa failed to include a detailed account of someone else’s life. She knew a lot about the people she worked with, carried those stories around with her. Recently she hired my daughter, Tessa, to do some official translation at a deportation hearing and what struck her most, even more than the intensity of the drama involved was how much time Lisa spent beforehand offering details of the lives of her clients so that she would see them through their human yearnings, even though it was not essential to the task of translating their words.

Lisa enriched so many lives; she had a powerful urge to have children, and to love them deeply, to make them know this. She certainly succeeded in this just as she succeeded in enriching, improving even rescuing the lives of so many others, clients and friends alike.

Polka dots and Lisa, make us smile and feel their solidarity.

But polka dots also float in a mysterious darkness, something below the surface that contrasts with the happy dance. Lisa could delight us with her stories, but they also served to direct our attention away from her present, from her own unresolved personal struggles.

Lisa was a master at looking away from her present.

Listening to Lisa sometimes I wanted desperately to stop her from talking about so many other people, to admit in a shouting voice that she deserved more personal happiness, to face what she needed to do to rescue her heart from manipulation, to rescue herself from the need to fight for her right to love her children in an unfettered way. But Lisa was a master of camouflage, she would trick you, she would turn that gaze on you, on your needs, making you collude in turning away from her deepest longings.

Lisa said to me at the end of her life, “Sher, you know that I’ve has always been my own worst enemy,” her form of, personally taking on the blame for not having gotten her house more in order. Though my head tells me otherwise, my heart rebels and leaves me with a lingering despair that perhaps more could have been done to help her feel more entitled to a defense of her own welfare. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the haunting feeling that we did not find the way to help her rescue herself in a manner similar to the way she rescued others. But Lise was a master at directing our and her own attention toward the happy polka dots and away from the darker isolation of her life. But both were part of the truth of her existence.

I hope Molly and Lou will take comfort in the years to come in the depth of her love for them, by remembering how much meaning and joy they gave to her existence. She held onto life so tenaciously precisely because of them. I am profoundly grateful to Lisa for the way her friendship enriched my life. I share the profundity of the loss that her family feels. But it is a small comfort to me to realize that Lisa is also now free from the burdens she privately endured as she sparkled, danced and delighted the lives of so many of us.

My remarks

This event stirs up many feelings. Pride in the person my sister was. Horrible sadness in the tragedy of her death. Regret at what we will not be able to share. And fear that life will go on its normal way with Lisa forgotten.

I was recently told that in early Polynesian culture, the world was not divided up into the living and the dead. Rather, there were the dead and forgotten, the dead and remembered and the alive.

I am glad we are here today remembering Lisa and honoring her memory. Lisa was an unsung heroine, although I know she would have resisted that characterization. She attended to the small daily tasks of family and the injuries to her clients with zealous devotion. But she also had a bigger picture view that she remained true to. Lisa represented the best of the New Left generation.

In looking through Lisa memorabilia at my mom’s apartment, I came across her old Baldwin School yearbook from 1970. The quote under her picture read, “Hello I love you won’t you tell me your name.”

That totally evokes the Lisa I knew my whole life. Lisa’s magic was her warmth and capacity for empathy. That was a great connector with all kinds of people from all walks of life. She redefined the attorney client relationship to something warmer than the norm. To resurrect an old phrase, Lisa could feel your pain. Instead of turning away from other peoples’ pain, she took the person in. Lisa was about as down-to-earth as you could get.

That empathetic quality was at the heart of Lisa’s politics and her lawyering.

I am reminded of a quote from a beautiful book, Song of Ariran, about a Korean revolutionary, written by Nym Wales, Edgar Snow’s wife.

“I like unhappy people. I understand them. Suffering creates character and human feeling. Cheerful, happy people seem like idiots to me. They seem to fly over the surface of life and never to know its meaning. They are not close to the heart of humanity but are remote and isolated. Perhaps this is why they can remain cheerful.”

Lisa did know about suffering and pain. She was schooled in it and maybe that is why she was close to the heart of humanity. She never seemed to do anything the easy way. I think this was true in many areas of her life. I wish it had not been so true.

I have to say that in her last weeks I never saw even an iota of self-pity. She faced her death with bravery. On mornings when she got up and felt a little better, she would say to me, “I don’t think I’m going to croak today.” Her focus remained her kids and her clients.

Her selfless quality drove me crazy because so often she left herself out of the equation. That is very unusual in this culture, but Lisa was stubborn and pretty much went her own way.

Marion Wright Edelman has said that “service is the rent we pay for living”. I think that was Lisa’s ethic.

She was very precocious politically. She figured out capitalism at age 16. She made it her business to educate me. Lisa was a critical thinker, but she was always engaged in practical politics to help poor and oppressed people. Her activism was lifelong and it never stopped. Lisa never surrendered. I am glad that she got to see Barack Obama elected President.

Lisa had a lighter side with a fine sense of humor. I wanted to mention some random memories of happy times:

* playing stair games at 284 Melrose Road when we were little
* Lisa’s boffo performance as the Artful Dodger in Oliver singing “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” at Friends Central School in 4th grade
* her encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway show lyrics and her frequent singing demonstrating that memory
* her horseback riding, especially with my Dad
* her being Winnie captain at Camp Red Wing where she had fabulous good times and adored being a camper
* her falling asleep in my bedroom early doing her Baldwin homework because she was a morning person
* her long distance swimming, especially with Joyce Abrams
* bobbing contests with me at the Longport Seaview pool in Longport NJ
* just being at the shore in NJ with Rob, Mom and Dad
* teasing Lisa for her whole life with her affectionate way of responding to my teasing by saying, “Shut up, you asshole!”.

To Molly and Lou, I want to say your mother unconditionally adored you. To say she was proud of you does not do justice to the depth of her feelings. She kvelled talking about both of you. Your happiness was probably the most important thing in her life. She was a warrior for both of you and I hope the memory of her love can be a source of strength for you.

To my mom, I want to say thanks for opening up your home and allowing Lise to have as humane an end to her life as possible. Mom, you have always been a tremendous, caring mother. Lise, Rob, Rich, and I have been and are blessed to have you as a mom.

To Lisa’s friends, I again want to say thank you for your amazing support and help during this most trying period. Tish, you were an angel. Bob, John and Sherri, Bebo, and Eva, I will always be grateful for your stepping up at the hardest times. Kate Winkler, I also want to mention because she was there in the trenches for Lise. I think Kate gave Lisa courage to go on and vice versa. I know I am not naming others who I should name and thank. Please do not be offended. Lisa had a wide circle.

Finally, I want to say “Lise, I will miss you.” I was incredibly lucky to have a sister like you. You taught me so much and helped me in a million ways. I miss the simple act of calling you up everyday and chatting. Please know that I will miss you everyday I am alive.

Jose Pepe Mujica: An Unorthodox President Who has Lived His Ideals – posted 10/13/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 10/22/2014

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 10/22/2014 under the title “The People’s President.” Jon

Probably there is no more powerful political force on the planet today than cynicism. Nothing acts to prevent activism and positive social change more. Cynicism is the ultimate inaction producer. It is a bulwark of the status quo.

The conventional wisdom is that regardless of political party, you cannot trust any politician. Politicians are like con men – they take you in and then they sell you out. Cynicism makes it hard to believe in any cause or collective effort toward any social justice objective. It promotes doubt in the sincerity and goodness of everybody.

But then along comes someone like Jose Mujica, the President of Uruguay. To friends and foes, he is known as Pepe. Still little known in the United States, Mujica can shut up cynics and force reexamination of fundamental assumptions. He was elected in 2010 and his term ends this year. He is not seeking re-election. Here are some of his accomplishments as President:

* reduced extreme poverty and successfully focused on lessening economic inequality
* raised the minimum wage 50%
* legalized gay marriage
* legalized marijuana so the state can regulate it
* confronted corporate abuses, especially by tobacco companies
* made Uruguay the first Latin American country to ban smoking in enclosed public places
* supported women’s reproductive rights, including passing the most liberal abortion rights law in Latin America
* promoted environmentalism and recycling
* opposed war and militarism
* helped pass a historic affirmative action law to help Afro-Uruguayans who have faced a long history of racism and discrimination
* increased education funding and helped to promote a program which gives all Uruguayan children a laptop and internet access

In a recent profile in the British newspaper, the Guardian, President Mujica said:

“A left-wing vision of the world requires you to imagine a future utopia but one doesn’t have the right to forget the most important thing for every human being is the life they lead now. The fight to make today better must become your central task.”

As president, he has shunned all the perks of the presidential office. He has not lived in the presidential mansion which had a staff of 42. He has stayed in his modest, long-time, one-bedroom home located on the outskirts of Montevideo. He has no servants. He and his wife raise chrysanthemums which they sell at local farmers’ markets. He never wears a tie. He is frequently accompanied by his three-legged dog, Manuela.

Mujica has donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs. He drives a 1987 VW Beetle. When asked about being a poor president, he quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

For anyone who has stereotypes about Latin American dictators or strongmen, Mujica is a total contrast. He describes himself as a left-wing libertarian. He idolized Che Guevara as a young person but he evolved to temper his idealism with flexibility. He has worked persistently to advance reforms inside the Uruguayan political system.

You might wonder about his background. There again, Mujica is anything but typical. In the 1970’s, he was a member of the Tupamaros, left-wing armed urban guerillas. For those who recall it, the Tupamaros were central to the Costa Gavras movie State of Siege.

In 1970, after being recognized in a bar in Montevideo, Mujica engaged in a shoot-out with the authorities. The police shot him six times and he wounded two policemen. A surgeon on call at the local hospital who was a secret Tupamaro member saved his life.

Mujica actually escaped prison several times in the early 70″s. The Tupamaros had some success in tunneling their militants out. Mujica kept getting recaptured. After a recapture in 1972, things turned for the worse for Mujica. A military coup led to an extreme crackdown on the Tupamaros. Mujica ended up spending 13 years in prison in the most squalid conditions. He spent a decade in solitary confinement. He has said his companions were a tiny frog and rats with whom he shared crumbs.

In 1985, Uruguay restored constitutional democracy. An amnesty freed Mujica. After getting out of prison, Mujica reevaluated his politics. He adopted a more pragmatic left-wing stance. He and other Tupamaros joined the Frente Amplio, a broad coalition that included liberals, social democrats, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists.

The Frente Amplio has proven to be a powerful vehicle for electoral change. Politicos like Mujica worked to turn activists and the uncommitted into voters. The results have been very impressive. Since 2004, The Frente Amplio has arguably turned Uruguay into the most liberal and tolerant society in Latin America. It is notable that Uruguay has the lowest illteracy rate in Latin America.

Mujica has been quite vocal that Uruguay should not go the way of more advanced industrial societies. He has raised prophetic concerns about the environmental cost of a culture based on acquisition, greed, and growth.

“What are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you what would happen to this planet if the Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans. How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

In the last year, Mujica’s popularity in Uruguay has fallen off. At the time of his election, he had a 66% popularity rating. Last month, that number had plunged to 43%. When asked about it Mujica responded, “I don’t give a damn. If I worried about pollsters, I wouldn’t be President”. Part of his appeal has been his blunt, down-to-earth speaking style.

I think over the last decade Americans have paid inadequate attention to Latin America. So much attention has been lavished on the Middle East with its history of endless vicious wars. Latin America has pioneered a far more creative, positive way forward. Multiple Latin countries with democratically elected governments have struggled to address poverty with some positive results. Uraguay is among those countries and we could learn from its example.

As for Mujica, he says he will be happy to go back to full-time farming. He did manage to govern without giving up his revolutionary ideals. His story should be a movie.

Music Review: “Tooth and Nail” by Billy Bragg – posted 10/5/2014

October 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It is a little late to be reviewing Billy Bragg’s 2013 CD, “Tooth and Nail”, but I wanted to write an appreciation. It is a great album all the way through. It is rare to find an album that has so many consistently good songs.

For those who do not know Billy Bragg (and I have been surprised to find many who do not know of him), he is a British leftist folk/rocker. He has been around, performing for almost 30 years. The closest American parallel I could think of is Phil Ochs. Like Phil did, Bragg plays at many political events in addition to his touring. I heard he was recently in Ferguson Missouri which does not surprise me. Bragg is an activist musician.

I first learned of Bragg when I heard Worker’s Playtime, a fine album he cut in 1988. He has been knocking around since then. Artists like Bragg seem to operate outside the celebrity machine. You will not find him on Access Hollywood. While it is extremely difficult for musicians to survive and make a living, Bragg has succeeded.

“Tooth and Bone” is a mix of political and love songs. Bragg has a knack for writing in an appealing, non-polemical way. Plus his songs are melodic. I cannot think of any current political songwriter who is as skilled as Bragg in combining the personal and the political. I would acknowledge there does not seem to be much competition. Probably those who would compete cannot reach any mass audience so they remain unknown.

My favorite song on the album is his version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”. That song is timeless and universal. I believe it originally appeared on Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. It could have been written today. I actually think Bragg’s version is better than the original. I imagine it is hard to write songs about homelessness but Bragg’s version captures the sadness and hopelessness. In hearing the song, it did make me think that it is surprising there are not more songs like it.

Bragg writes, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road, a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod..” Now it is like millions have trod that road but it is amazing how little we talk about it or sing about it.

Maybe it is too real a topic for singers to take on especially since most singers are likely so removed from it. Considering the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, there should be more songs about it than there are. I do think we are anesthetized as a society to not feel and to not imagine. We generally lack the ability to put ourselves in the position of the other.

I also really liked “There Will Be a Reckoning”. The lyrics are about attempts to divide people by hate. I assume Bragg is talking about racism, sexism and homophobia. The song has some fire and it is like an anthem against hate. I think the title is cool.

The song “Over You” is poetry. I am not sure I can say exactly what it is about but the song moves well and the words seem right. I really like it.

There are some love songs on the album too. I will mention “Swallow my Pride”. That song speaks to the need to own up to mistakes. Also “Handyman Blues”…that song is one I can particularly relate to not being a Mr. Fix-it.

The album ends on a positive note. “Tomorrow’s Going to be a Better Day” is a mature, glass-half-full perspective. The tone is not whiny negativity. On the contrary, it is upbeat and reflects Bragg’s activist bent.

Listening to Bragg made me wonder about the decline of political folk music. Maybe I am too removed from contemporary music but the political music genre seems moribund. I suppose the music scene follows the culture generally. The 60’s revival of political folk followed the Movement. Our lack of political music reflects the sadly internalized world view that dominates our social lives now. In a world of every person committed to a best private outcome, music is mostly an endless succession of love songs. The dark side may get covered but not in a politically aware way.

If you are unfamiliar with Billy Bragg, just go to youtube and check him out. If you are familiar, consider buying this CD. Independent musicians need the support and I fully expect you will love it. I sure have and that is after many listens.

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The Need For a Progressive Challenger in the Democratic Primaries – posted 9/21/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 9/27/2014

September 22, 2014 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 9/27/2014 under the title “Here’s Hoping a True Progressive Challenges Clinton”. Jon

For many people, it is a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 2016. There is genuine excitement at the prospect of a woman president. Plus, Hillary’s unparalleled name recognition, her wide experience as a politician and a campaigner and her access to big money all give her legitimate frontrunner status.

Things like her recent trip to Iowa and the many Ready for Hillary emails I continually receive do make me think she is serious about a 2016 run. That stuff is hardly accidental.

Still I have to express a degree of skepticism. As a progressive, I am not sure where she stands on a number of critical issues. In writing this piece, I offer no endorsements of any candidate. I think there is an increasing gap between proliferating problems and the meagre solutions offered by both political parties.

Without getting too dystopian, our political system is stuck in quicksand as the challenges grow. Political stalemate translates into a form of dysfunctionality. Politicians focus more on image and strategies for how to spin difficult divisive issues. Real action for change often seems like a fading hope.

I will highlight three major issues of concern – economic inequality, war and militarism, and campaign finance reform. Without a strong progressive challenger, I have a bad feeling about where Hillary and the centrists in the Democratic Party leadership will land on these issues. I would guess perceptions of how the issue affects her electability would trump other concerns.

I think a vigorous primary would be good for the Party and democracy. The base of the Democrats needs to shake the party leadership and try to exert influence. We do not need two Republican parties or a second party that is Republican-lite. I fear that a play-it-safe, bland, centrist approach will shrink enthusiasm and turnout. That could be a killer for the party even having a candidate with the positives Hillary does bring.

Economic inequality is our 800 pound gorilla issue. We live in a new Gilded Age. To say the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer is a gross understatement. The top 10% of the richest 1% have gotten astronomically richer. 16,000 families, the ultra-rich, possess $6 trillion in assets – equal to the total wealth of the bottom two-thirds of American families.

Meanwhile, middle class, working class, and poor people face a bleak landscape. Good paying jobs with benefits are like a dying species relative to the need. Students come out of college with cripplingly large student loan debts. Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality and poorer health outcomes. And I have barely scratched the surface of the negatives of extreme inequality.

Hillary embodies the dilemma at the core of the Democratic Party. Is it a pro-corporate party or is it a Labor party? It has tried to be both. Hillary has maintained cozy ties with Wall Street fatcats. Last year she gave two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs audiences. Her speaking fee: $200,000 a speech.

So I will ask: how does one challenge robber barons while being financially dependent on the same robber barons? I mentioned the Goldman Sachs speeches but since Hillary left the State Department she has given more than 90 speeches, many to powerful corporate interests, raking in over $5 million. This is the person who is going to lead a populist crusade? Everybody has contradictions but it strains credulity to see Hillary as a working class hero.

On the matter of war and militarism, progressives do have cause for concern about Hillary’s positions especially in light of her recent criticism of the Obama foreign policy. She has been positioning herself to the right of Obama , criticizing his reluctance to support moderate Syrian rebels. As she famously said in reference to Obama’s foreign policy, “Don’t do stupid stuff is not an organizing principle.”

This comes from a person who supported George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. We seem to forget so fast. It is like that absurd war never happened. It has cost America enormously. President Obama’s caution, in light of our history, has been very appropriate. We should not lose our minds because demented Islamic State terrorists have beheaded two Americans.

Instead of being world policeman, the United States needs far more restraint in the use of our military. Military intervention should only be a last resort – not a first resort. We also need to rein in the size of our military-industrial complex. I see no indication that Hillary sees things that way. She is far more prone to play the hawk card.

As for campaign finance reform, Hillary has spoken in favor of public financing of some campaigns. However, like Obama, she opted out of the public financing scheme for presidential elections. It is hard to see any fix coming from an insider like Hillary who preaches campaign finance reform but practices private financing. I do not diminish the likely difficulty for anyone who unilaterally accepts public financing. It is hard to compete against the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and right wing money. The billionaires try aggressively to buy the win.

The problem is that elections are now about collecting money from billionaires. Economic elites exert very disproportionate influence. The voice of the people is utterly drowned out by the avalanche of big money from the 1%. The U.S. Supreme Court, in some of the worst decisions in its history, in Citizens United and McCutcheon v FEC, have compounded the problem. The Court has fought all efforts to limit the ability of big money to buy elections.

Again, accepting millions from corporate donors does not provide credibility for leadership on campaign finance reform. We need leaders who are not compromised and who can offer a bolder reform agenda. For example, elections need to be shorter and cheaper. We need to guarantee the right of every citizen 18 or older to vote. We need to provide protection against attempts to disenfranchise individual voters. We also need to ensure all votes are correctly counted.

Probably we also need a constitutional amendment that states corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people. I question whether corporations should be allowed to make campaign contributions at all. States should have the power to regulate campaign finances. I expect Hillary’s efforts would probably be tepid at best in this area because she is ultimately beholden to corporations like most conventional politicians.

I have no idea whether a progressive challenger will emerge. I know both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been mentioned as possibilities. For the sake of our democracy and our collective future, I hope a passionate credible challenger runs.

Cape Cod Suggestions – posted 9/14/2014

September 14, 2014 2 comments

This summer I got to spend a week on the Cape and i have to report it is still a wonderful place to go in the summer. When I lived in Alaska, the thought of Cape Cod beaches helped to keep me going. No offense to Alaska but the beaches are mudflats. There are signs around to stay off because in some places the beaches are like quicksand. Every year, there are rescues off the Alaska beaches. You do not have that problem on Cape beaches.

I thought it would be fun to highlight some Cape places to go that I really liked. This is hardly timely as the season is over but still there is next year. This piece is a departure from more serious fare but I promise to return to that soon. This space is not becoming a travel guide. My restaurant reviews will be limited.

GREAT PLACE TO STAY: I highly recommend the Bluefish Bed and Breakfast in Harwich. My wife Debra and I never stayed at the Bluefish before. We decided to stay there because it is located near where my mother in law Miriam lives in Harwich. Our hosts, Tim and Lori, are a lovely and friendly couple. They could not have been more gracious and welcoming. The rooms are cozy and comfortable and prices are reasonable. They have wifi in your room at no additional charge. The location is convenient to many places on the Cape.

The breakfasts prepared by Tim, who is a practicing chef, were pretty spectacular. Usually breakfasts don’t get a whole lot of attention. Over the last 4 years, I have travelled a fair amount and had to stay at many motels and hotels. Usual fare is drab with little attention paid to the meal. Tim is a very creative chef and his breakfasts were different. Everyday Debra and I would wonder what breakfast would be. Invariably, the breakfasts were special. Whether egg-based, pancakes or crepes, there was always an extra dimension. I was impressed because I do cook breakfast on the weekend and Tim’s efforts put my usual efforts to shame. I guess he is a chef though.

Tim and Lori are strong supporters of local farm to table agriculture. All the ingredients were fresh and from nearby.

If you plan a Cape stay, consider staying at the Bluefish. We plan to go back. An added plus is that the Bluefish is near the Harwich bike trails. You can bike or run almost right out the door. The bike trails go quite a distance on the Cape. They are a great thing in their own right.

BARS: This is probably an overly popular choice since I saw the Beachcomber won Best of Boston 2014 but the Beachcomber in Wellfleet is fantastic. My son Josh knew about this place because he had tried to book a show there a few years back when he played in a Boston-based blues/rock band, Logan. The bar is located almost directly on the ocean on Cahoon Hollow Beach. I can legitimately say it is oceanfront. Looking at it, you have to say it is a hurricane target. It is that close to the water. I did wonder whether global warming would eventually take it.

The place is so lively. There were a number of buses coming in from god knows where and we went mid-week. You might have thought it was the weekend.The food was very good too but it is the location that makes this place so cool.

I did not know the story but President Kennedy created the Cape Cod National Seashore in August 1961 and only a grandfather clause allowed the Beachcomber to remain within the National Seashore as a privately held commercial property. Thank god for that grandfather clause – this is worth the drive to get to.

I also wanted to mention a bar named the Port in Harwichport. The Port has a special on local oysters from 4pm-6pm. The special was a dollar an oyster. I hope they maintain this deal. The oysters were the freshest ever, Wow, were they good like the best I ever had. I admit I am from the middle Atlantic states. I am not an oyster aficionado like my wife who is a hard core New Englander and tough critic. She shared my opinion about the oysters though as did my boys Josh and Eric. We each ended up having a dozen they were that good.

RESTAURANTS: We did not do fancy this year. I am partisan to fried clams and my wife likes fried oysters. We went to the Original Seafood Restaurant (the old Kreme N-Kone before legal battles I believe) and it is still very good. It is in Dennisport, We went on a Thursday and it was quiet. I have been there when it is a mob scene. It is better to go when less people are competing to place an order. There were many seniors there who looked like locals, not tourists. That seemed to me to be a vote of confidence. I thought the clams were as good as my other favorite fried clam place, Bob’s Clam Shack, which is located on Route 1 in Kittery Maine.

In the more serious food category, I like the Red Pheasant Inn which is located in Dennis. I am a duck fan and I think their duck entree is the best. I did not go this summer but my wife really likes it too and she is a food expert. I just figured I would give them a plug.

BOOKSTORES: I will mention two places, Tim’s Used Books and Provincetown Bookstore. Both are located in Provincetown. Tim’s Used Books is set back from the main drag. I did think the selection had shrunk some from previous years but they still had some surprising finds. I always look forward to going there in the summer. I love used book stores. The lady who was in the store at the Provincetown Bookstore was nice enough to give me a pen so I could write down some titles. She gave me a hard time about possibly buying off Amazon but I didn’t mind. That was fair enough as I am sure small independent bookstores are in a life and death struggle. The store also has a good selection. I am thankful there are still bookstores and they have not disappeared altogether.

ODDS AND ENDS: After a good beach day, I would recommend the pina coladas at Brax Landing in Harwich right on Route 28. . Debra liked their steamers. I also liked the bloody marys at the Lobster Pot in Provincetown. Spicy good.

It is unfortunately starting to get cold here in New Hampshire. Where did the summer go? At least there are thoughts of the Cape next summer.

Categories: Uncategorized

For the Washington Redskins and the NFL, There is No Defense – posted 9/1/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 9/4/2014

September 1, 2014 2 comments

As the new football season hurdles toward us, the controversy over whether the Washington Redskins need to change their name has heated up. The controversy is hardly new. It has been actively going on for over 40 years.

In 1972, a delegation of Native Americans, including Dennis Banks from the American Indian Movement, LaDonna Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity and Leon Cole, president of the National Congress of American Indians, met with Edward Bennett Williams, president of the Redskins. They told Williams to shelve the racially derogatory epithet, Redskins. They also wanted Williams to get rid of the Redskinettes, the pseudo-Indian, sideline dancing girls and they wanted him to change the lyrics in the fight song “Hail to the Redskins”. Williams made no promises but he did listen.

Williams’ only concession had to do with the fight song lyrics. “The swamp ‘ems, scalp ‘ems and heap ‘ems is a mockery of dialect”, he said. “We won’t use those lyrics any more.”

When the Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1988, Native Americans staged their first national protest about the issue. Many Native Americans wrote the Redskins and asked for a name change.

In 1992, over 2000 people protested in Minnesota at the Super Bowl between the Redskins and the Buffalo Bills. The American Indian Movement led that protest that included representatives from the Chippewa, Sioux, Winnebago and Choctaw tribes.

In the last two years, the controversy has surfaced again and it has begun to pick up steam. Twenty three Native American tribes have publicly protested the name and negative stereotyping of Native Americans. Among the tribes are the Cherokee, the Comanche, the Oneida Indian Nation and the Navajos.

In June, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the Unites States Patent and Trademark Office of the United States voted to cancel the trademarks held by the Redskins because they were considered disparaging to Native Americans.

Still, the name is like a cat with nine lives. Earlier this year, the Redskins owner, Daniel Snyder vowed he would never change the name. Snyder said, “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.” Without being too cynical, it is hard not to imagine that Snyder is calculating about the costs of going either way.

In the media, opponents of a name change like Rush Limbaugh, Mike Ditka and Sarah Palin have weighed in. They deny the name is a slur. They have said the name honors Native Americans and they think the controversy is an example of P.C. thought policing.

While I would acknowledge there are far weightier issues facing Native Americans, this is not a hard call. The name has to change. It should have happened already. The failure to change the name reflects a blind spot in the dominant culture and in the NFL.

Everything, including the Redskins name, is in a historical context. The term Redskin goes back to the colonial era. I think it is fair to say that the term has had far more negative than positive connotations. Stereotyping and dehumanizing Native people was part of the process of western expansion. I will not delve into the history of military conquest and repeated treaty violations. I would submit though that stereotyping and using names like Redskin made it easier for the conquerors to justify their actions.

I do not think it is an accident that if you consult American English dictionaries, they classify the term as “usually offensive”, “disparaging”, “insulting” and “taboo”.

Changing the name is a matter of respect for Native Americans. By any conceivable standard it is utterly offensive even though it has been tolerated until now. As has been pointed out by others, you would never see the Washington Blackskins or the California Yellowskins. It would never happen.

To this day, Native Americans remain marginalized in America. The historical crimes committed against Native Americans are not acknowledged. Our culture alternates between romanticizing Native people and ignoring them. Really if you look at the two major political parties , I would say Native issues are on no agenda. Yet, Native American poverty is epidemic. High rates of unemployment, ill health, alcoholism and incarceration are very common.

Continuing to use a term that Native Americans have widely rejected is simply wrong. It adds insult to injury.

Finding a few Native Americans who like the Redskins name is laughable. As is the use of public opinion polls to justify a racist name. The NFL has just discovered domestic violence. Maybe now that they have discovered domestic violence, they can also discover racism.

Book Review: “Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor” by Cecil Brown posted 8/24/2014

August 24, 2014 1 comment

When I think of the greatest comedians of my lifetime, three names come immediately to mind – Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. It is likely that many young people now may not know about Pryor. Really he was most famous in the 70’s. He died in 2005 although he had stopped performing in the 90’s due to his multiple sclerosis.

Cecil Brown, a writer, college professor and long-time friend of Pryor’s wrote “Pryor Lives” to give the world more background and understanding into who Pryor was as well as well as his evolution as a comic. I have to confess I did not know much of the history.

I mostly remember Pryor for his brilliant concert movies as well as Blue Collar, which was a great political movie. As a comedian, Pryor broke barriers and fearlessly told truths. He was not afraid to insult anybody and he did. He was a pioneer among Black comics, one of the first to tell it like it is. There was nothing tame about Pryor. While being outrageously funny, he delivered withering commentary especially on race and sex topics.

Brown recalls quite a few stories that demonstrate Pryor’s courage. He had a history of walking into the lion’s den and insulting the lion. Brown shows how Pryor went from being a clean comic modelled after Bill Cosby to becoming his later incarnations. There was nothing white bread about Pryor. He was a flamer.

Considering the dysfunctionality of his family and his poverty growing up, it is amazing how much Pryor overcame and achieved. He grew up in a bordello in Peoria Illinois that was run by his grandmother. Both his grandmother and his mother were prostitutes. Pryor’s father ran a bar. Brown says that many of the characters Pryor created were based upon people who showed up in his father’s bar.

Initially, Pryor started out singing, playing piano and telling jokes. He performed at a club in Peoria. The jokes got a much better response than his singing. Brown says Pryor did TV commercial jokes and he did a takeoff on Edward R. Murrow’s show, Person to Person. In Murrow’s show, the host interviewed sophisticated persons in exotic places. Pryor turned it around by pretending to interview Black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta.

Early in his career, Pryor travelled frequently and played in places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Chicago. After reading a piece about Bill Cosby in Newsweek, he went to New York City and the Village. It was 1963. At that point, he idolized Cosby but he wanted to go his own way. Brown tells about how Pryor connected with Cosby, and how he also appreciated Sammy Davis. He was envious of their stardom. Pryor did not want to imitate these mentors though. He chose to be an opposite of Cosby and he pulled all his characters from ghetto experience. The Wino, The Junkie and Mudbone were characters he evolved.

According to Brown, Pryor was very eclectic in his comedy tastes. Red Foxx was a huge influence. He liked Dick Gregory and Robin Williams. He also surprised Brown by telling him he thought Joan Rivers was funny too.

Pryor moved to the West Coast and Berkeley California. I did not know how big an influence the world of Berkeley, late 60’s/early 70’s was on him. He especially played at Mandrake’s, a Berkeley club. It was the time of the rise of the Black Liberation movement and especially the Black Panther Party.

Brown tells some good stories about Pryor and the Panthers. Oakland was a Panther stronghold. Pryor paled around with Huey Newton but it did sound like they had a very contentious relationship. They had a competition about who was the craziest. They competed over who could do the most cocaine. While Elaine Brown, a Panther leader, reported that Huey was the baddest, it sounded like Pryor was tough competition in the crazy department. The stories were mostly about macho bluster.

From Brown’s account, the Panthers shook Pryor down. Huey saw Pryor’s movie The Mack as exploitative of Black people. He tried to dictate roles and he interfered in the movie making. Pryor did contribute to the Party but he may have just considered it a cost of doing business. The Panthers were shaking down after hour joints and clubs in the Bay Area. Huey considered these contributions as akin to a tithe. It is hard to tell if Pryor’s contributions were genuinely voluntary. Brown says that Pryor read Malcolm X and he identified with George Jackson.

Movies brought Pryor to a much wider audience. Greased Lightning, Lady Sings the Blues, Which Way is Up?, Blue Collar, California Suite, Superman III and Stir Crazy were some of the movies that catapulted Pryor to stardom. It has been many years since I have seen Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Richard Pryor: Live on Sunset Strip. I think they were both hilarious and I would recommend them as a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with Pryor’s work.

Pryor hated being called the Black Lenny Bruce but he certainly was in Bruce’s debt. His candor about race, sex, class and sexual preference is probably unsurpassed. Brown’s book gives a good feel for all the influences on Pryor, including Hollywood stars, famous authors, and politicos.

His life, as presented by Brown, was a pretty big mess. He could not hold it together with any one of his many wives. The famous incident in which he severely burned himself while free-basing is not that surprising considering what led up to it.

Pryor was a genius but in between his burning himself up and his MS he suffered terribly. His lawyer, whom he had trusted, ripped him off financially. Brown was close to Pryor for many years so the book does give a close insider’s view.

I did not think Brown’s efforts to present Pryor as a shaman worked. Brown does some academic type theorizing which could have been left out. I thought the book read better as a story. It looks like Brown self-published. Too bad the book did not find a publisher because it deserves wider circulation. Which gets me to a question: why read about Pryor now?

I will give my own view. Pryor was not a conventional comedian. He was a boundary pusher and an exposer of hypocrisy. He especially exposed racism. The world of celebrity is typically vacuous and self-referential. More often than not, it is simply another distraction in modern life. That was never true of Richard Pryor. He had something to say and he said it with guts, honesty and great humor. His example opened the door for others like Chris Rock and Lewis Black.

As a society, we honor so many celebrities who do not deserve it. Pryor deserves the honor.

Categories: Uncategorized
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