The kvelling over Senator John McCain shows how low the bar has fallen recently. We know why, but if we’re going to grade politicians on a curve, let’s not just look at the past two years. “Greatest American hero of the past 50 years,” a man of “honor and integrity,” “a maverick” . . . Are we talking about the same person? I believe in speaking respectfully of the dead when one possibly can, and remaining silent when one can’t, with rare exceptions (for example, when someone finally puts a stake through Kissinger’s heart, I’ll spit on his grave). So I am fine with respectful words for a complex, flawed person. These showers of praise go beyond that. They make bold claims about the meaning of honor, integrity, and independence that drag those fine qualities through the mud, and insult far greater heroes of our time.

Surely there are public servants of more integrity and honor than the Keating Five; I know, that’s barely a scandal by today’s measure, or maybe we just can’t recall any history more than five years back, but his “poor judgment” ruined many lives. Surely decency requires choosing better than Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat from the presidency. While people of integrity can differ about public policy, my heroes don’t get a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee or a 17% from the NAACP. The people who inspire me care more about leaving a livable environment for the next generation than guaranteeing profits for today’s businesses. I admire mavericks, but it takes more than one or two issues and one prominent vote to earn the title. (Okay, three issues. The best thing I know about McCain gets little attention: he shifted from being an implacable foe of gun control to a moderate supporter.) Yes, his vote last year rescued the Affordable Care Act; but if we resist the availability heuristic in which the most recent event gets undue prominence, we see a long career of making health care less accessible to most of us.

Even the most exalted politician leaves a trail of bad decisions, and even the best people do a lot of harmful things. I hope I will be remembered as a decent person, even though I am often unkind, selfish, apathetic . . . But for a public servant to receive such glowing praise as I’ve seen since yesterday, the preponderance of his deeds should glow, and McCain’s just don’t. Not for African-Americans, LGBTQ people, immigrants, poor people, or those who care about any of the above.

I like the way Obama put it, that at his best McCain showed us what it means to put the greater good above one’s own. That is true, and the best I can say.

P.S. If you aren’t familiar with the strictly non-partisan resource Vote Smart, check it out. For a citizen of the United States who wants to make informed choices, it’s an indispensable tools.

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I don’t do too well without deadlines. I imposed one on myself for this series; I would write about every song before I went to see the show. But then it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it, and I just lost steam. It’s been over a year.

In the absence of deadlines, however, polite requests are very effective, and someone at church asked if I were going to get back to this. Even more influentially, he indicated that he’d read them all and they’d helped spur him to listen to the album. All right, then! Onwards to “Take a Break”!

When we see a driven, brilliant person who accomplishes more in his profession than seems possible for any mortal, we might wonder, what is he like at home?

It’s hard to pull him away from his desk, even for dinner. He has to be nagged into spending a few minutes with his son on the child’s birthday. It’s almost impossible to get him to go on vacation. “I will try to get away,” Hamilton tells Eliza. Yeah, right. Every workaholic has uttered these words, and every spouse, child or friend of one rolls their eyes when they hear them. He will try, but then he’ll discover that he has to write one more draft, talk to one more Congressman, add one more argument, recalculate one more set of figures . . . The work will always be there, there will always be more of it, and it will always loom in his mind as too important to put aside. His family can’t possibly compete.

But he does adore them, and this song shows that both sides of that tug-of-war have force. When he’s finally compelled by Eliza to come hear Philip (“He’s been practicing all day”), he hears not more piano, but a novice rap. Don’t you love it? So does Alexander–“Hey, our kid is pretty great!”–and it’s a sweet moment. It’s just a snapshot, but enough to show the love in the family.

The dialogue with the off-stage Angelica also sketches a complex relationship in a few strokes. When I finally read Ron Chernow’s biography (see? I wasn’t wasting those months of non-blogging), one of the questions on my mind was “Did Alexander really write a letter that began ‘My dearest, Angelica’?” It seemed like a small but significant piece of evidence on which one could build a case that they had an affair, at least an emotional one (they were separated by an ocean most of the time). But no; it appears to be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s invention. What does have a historical basis is that brother- and sister-in-law had a relationship that was close, intellectual, playful, and supportive. Chernow writes that their flirtatious banter raised eyebrows, though it might not have done had Alexander not already had a reputation as a ladies’ man.

We see all of those elements here. Close:

Eliza: Angelica!
Angelica: Eliza!
Hamilton, with audible longing: The Schuyler sisters.
Angelica: Alexander–
Hamilton: Hi.
Angelica: It’s good to see your face.

Intellectual: “You must get through to Jefferson,” she advises; “Sit down with him and compromise / Don’t stop ’til you agree” Hamilton takes his sophisticated work problems to her. Playful: They banter via Macbeth references, though Angelica is the opposite of Lady Macbeth. “If you take your time, you will make your mark,” she tries to reassure him, and when she teases, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place,” she isn’t urging him to be more ambitious, but to put down his work and be with his family. Supportive: “Your favorite older sister . . . reminds you / There’s someone in your corner all the way across the sea.”

The way the sisters’ voices weave in and out around Alexander’s protests, it seems as if they must be irresistible. But when they go away for a quiet lakeside summer, he stays behind. Bad move.

(Consider this backdated a week. I have been too tired from full days of museum-walking and street-exploring to do much blogging.)

In case Paris decides it needs a new slogan, I suggest “It lives up to the hype.” I loved Paris when I visited as a college student, and however it may have changed in the subsequent decades, its reputation as one of the world’s best cities, if not the best, is completely deserved.

Great food: check. Every grubby little place has excellent bread and delicious French onion soup. Even the tourist trap we reluctantly went to when we were famished and too near the Eiffel Tower for anything else was terrific. Boulangeries and patisseries are on just about every block, and we never ate anything at any of them that was less than delicious (French people must faint dead away when they taste what most U.S. bakers pass off as croissants).

I’m sure someone in Paris knows how to knock out a crappy meal, but we were fortunate enough not to order anything from that person’s kitchen. It really is a city of cooks who love and know food. We had precisely one disappointing meal, and that was only because it was billed as the best Chinese food in the city, which I doubt it really is. It was pretty good anyway, but we happily went back to French cuisine the next day.

Eiffel Tower: check. It’s the world’s most overviewed tourist attraction, and you know what? It’s still gorgeous. Each of us had seen it on her previous visit and put it low on the list of things to do this time around, but when we had gone all the way to the city’s museum of modern art to see a mural that turned out to be closed to view, and discovered we were half a mile from the tower, we couldn’t resist.

Also, you have to love a place where the street vendors are selling champagne to accompany your picnic. We did not buy any; for that matter, we didn’t picnic. But we walked up close.

Mona Lisa: Check. As I wrote last week, it’s hard to see it afresh, but it’s still a beautiful work of art. So are the Venus de Milo and the Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace, the other two items at the Louvre that are so requested that the museum just posts signs all over saying “This way.” Probably the guards got tired to giving people directions. My favorite of the three is the Nike, but none could be called a disappointment. The Louvre piece I would personally walk miles to see (actually, I think I did) is Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave.”

Beautiful city: check. Cobbled streets, graceful old buildings, spires rising here and there–it’s just lovely. Standing on a bridge at sunset watching the Seine wend through the city is even nicer than romantic movies lead one to expect. We even saw swans on the river once, though boats filled with tourists are far more common.

I have some thoughts on the shadow side of the city’s beauty in my next post.

 

(Catching up on blogging–this was written during our stay in Paris a week ago)

Joy and I both had a decent knowledge of French back in college, but that was a long time ago. Being in Paris is re-activating it, but the brain seems to have a “you are speaking a foreign language” switch which makes one respond to being addressed in a foreign language by spewing words in any language except one’s native tongue. These are not necessarily words of the local language, and for both of us, they tend to be Spanish.

It makes me aware of which Spanish words and phrases I know so solidly that I’m not translating from English but thinking in Spanish. They just pop out: I say “señor” instead of “monsieur,” “gracias” instead of “merci,” unless I stop and think and deliberately translate what I want to say into French. This makes common words the hardest: maintenant, aujourd’hui, aussi. Ironically, aussi (French for “also:) gave me trouble when I was learning Spanish. I distinctly recall having trouble remembering the word “tambien” (Spanish for “also”) because “aussi” kept coming to mind instead, which is when I started consciously suppressing my French.

My French pronunciation is coming back to me, but again, Spanish infects words that look similar. “Rue St. Martin” becomes “San Mar-TEEN.” The similarity of a word can make me doubt whether I’m remembering it right, but yes, semaine is the French word for “week,” not just my invention of something likely when my brain reaches for semana.

In general, knowing French grammar helped me to learn Spanish 20 years later. It meant, for example, that I already understood reflexive verbs. But the differences between the grammars are now coming back to get me. In Spanish one does not need a subject pronoun unless it’s necessary for clarity. If one wants to say, “I’m going to watch a movie,” “Voy a mirar una pelicula” will do just as well as “Yo voy a mirar una pelicula.” This has become so ingrained that when I brightly walked up to a store clerk to say, “We’re looking for soy milk”–“Cherchons du lait de soja”–and oh, how proud I was of remembering that it’s lait, not leche–the woman of course looked at me in confusion. “Of course” because, by leaving off the nous, “we,” I was saying to her, “Let’s look for soy milk!”

French. A lovely language. Not the same as Spanish. We’re going to be so happy to get to Barcelona. That is, if we don’t offend the Catalan speakers by speaking Spanish.

We went to the Musée d’Art Moderne with the express purpose of seeing a mural called “The Electricity Fairy” by Raoul Dufy. Joy’s discovery of this mural’s existence was an occasion for amazement, since she loves Dufy and, well, electricity is her career and her passion. So off we went to the museum, only to discover that the mural is not available for viewing.

One silver lining to this disappointment was that, as I wandered the permanent collection looking for the mural, I came across this painting by Anton Räderscheidt, a German artist who lived 1892-1970.

raderscheidt

 I looked at the face of the artist and the face on his drawing and said to myself, “It’s going to be called ‘Self-Portrait.'” And it is! He painted it in 1928.
Genderqueer? Surrealist? Both? Other? Whatever, I wanted to share it with all my gender nonconforming dear ones. And Räderscheidt joins the growing list of Artists I Need to Learn More About.

Today, our third full day in Paris, the schedule was:

  • Musee de L’Orangerie, with its two oval rooms immersing the viewers in Monet’s water lilies. There are lots of other Impressionist paintings as well, and a temporary exhibition on the influence of Impressionism on U.S. American Abstract Expressionists.
  • On the walk over, a surprise encounter with the United States’s biggest Francophile. You know how you run into your countryfolk whenever you’re abroad . . . This one was in Paris meeting lots of different ladies.jeffersoninparis
  • Musee d’Orsay, the former train station that’s a work of art in itself and that houses hundreds of Impressionist and related works.
  • Great food before, after, and in between.

Favorite overhead remarks from Musee D’Orsay:

(pointing) “That’s famous, and that’s famous, and that’s famous . . .”

This made me smile because, as far as I could see, she didn’t give the famous paintings more attention. She just wanted to note which ones she’d seen before. Many years ago, I was given a book of this museum’s collection, so today I didn’t always know whether the familiarity of a piece meant I’d seen it in the book, it was widely known, or maybe it had showed a dangerous alien in a window, galvanizing the 11th Doctor to travel to Auvers to find van Gogh.

The Church at Auvers, Vincent van Gogh, 1890. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

If you look closely at the windows, you will note that there is no longer an alien. Thanks, Doctor! (You’ll just have to watch the whole episode, which is called “Vincent and the Doctor” and aired June 5, 2010. It’s a really good one.)

Mother, with daughter by a Van Gogh painting: That’s a self-portrait.

Daughter: How’d he do that? Oh, wait. I bet he took a picture of himself.

I heard no response. I’d really like to know how the mother answered, if at all.

Person looking at same self-portrait, to friend: Do you think he was really a redhead, or just painted himself that way?

I love that painting. The swirls of the background and the swirls of his hair, face, and clothes meld, as if he is trying to express how much he is at the mercy of his environment, or perhaps how seamlessly he fits into it. His expression makes me lean toward the former interpretation.

The Musee D’Orsay also had a temporary exhibit of beautiful Baltic paintings of the same era, and not enough time left for us to contemplate them. The exhibit focused on symbolism in the art, much of which drew on folktales of the region; Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were becoming independent nations, and artists, like others, might have been pondering what created a sense of national identity. Now I want to find out more about Mikalojus Čiurlionis, Balder Tomasberg and Pēteris Krastiņš–the three whose pieces, in my too-rapid trot through the exhibit, caught my eye enough for me to stop and do that annoying thing of snapping photos of the pieces and their labels rather than taking the time to look at them. But it was almost 6 p.m., and needs must. About half of my ancestors emigrated from Latvia, yet I know nothing of these folktales or these artists (Krastiņš was Latvian).

Amongst the stunning works by Degas, Cassatt, Cezanne, Sisley, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, an artist neither of us had ever heard of named Eva Gonzales, and another named Maximilien Luce who was a political (!) pointillist (!), we saw many by Renoir. Only a very few of these last did not make us want to scratch our eyes out. I cannot stand his paintings, which, as Joy articulated perfectly, look like someone smeared Vaseline on the lens, the way, for example, a Star Trek director will do to show Jill Ireland from a smitten Spock’s point of view. I’m so glad to be married to someone who also loves to go to art museums and hates Renoir, as does God. She’s wrong about Rothko, but you have to have some differences in a marriage.

The Mona Lisa is instantly recognizable by the crowd of people standing before it, most of them taking photos. It’s in a large hall with lots of other paintings, most of which aren’t very interesting to me, but one of which is.

tintorettoIt’s a self-portrait by Tintoretto. He looks thoughtful, even sad, and directs his gaze straight into the viewer’s eyes. He isn’t getting a lot of attention. As with every other painting in this room, most visitors have their backs to this one, as they strain to see the celebrity nearby.

mona lisaOn the other hand, even when one is looking right at the Mona Lisa, it’s hard to see it. It’s a gorgeous painting–did Leonardo paint any other kind? But there are so many layers of marketing, jokes, pop culture, parody, etc. making a thick veil of familiarity between us and her. Simply encountering the painting face to face is impossible. So maybe Tintoretto’s sadness is not for himself, but for her and her creator. Or even for us.

bicycles, Amsterdam
angel in Nieuw Kerk, Amsterdampigeons, Amsterdam

My wife and I are visiting Amsterdam, and today we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s really excellent, with very creative displays and lots of information delivered in easily-digested-yet-substantial bites. For us, it also provided a lot of lessons that are all too relevant to our situation in the United States today.

The first is that resistance is messy: morally messy. The actions people took to hurt the occupiers, such as a railroad strike, also hurt the people (hunger increased) and the resistance itself (since members depended on the trains for transport). Few moral choices were perfectly clear or afforded an option that resulted in entirely clean hands. Forcibly called up to work in Germany, men could either go, thus unwillingly helping the German war effort; refuse, and be shot or sent to concentration camps; or hide, endangering their families. Those who weighed the options and went to Germany were castigated by many compatriots afterwards–“Why didn’t you hide?”–but they had not necessarily chosen the worst of three bad options. And then there were the many civil servants and officials who faced the unenviable decision: do I stay in my position and try to intercede for my people, soften the effect of the Nazi takeover, or do I resist and, at best, be replaced by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party? Some were outright collaborators, but many others were simply trying to walk an impossibly thin wire.

It’s the nature of violent regimes to set up such impossible choices. Divide and conquer was a common and effective strategy of the Third Reich. In the Netherlands as elsewhere, they instituted Jewish councils that were charged with carrying out Nazi requirements. Even those leaders who did their best to mitigate the decrees were set up to be perceived as collaborators by their own people; that was one of the occupiers’ intentions.

Another effective strategy was the frog-in-the-pot approach. The Nazis didn’t lower the hammer right away. People were devastated by the invasion, but it soon appeared that life remained pretty normal, even for Jews. Bit by bit, more repressions were added: a registry system, labels on passports, requirements that schoolchildren learn a Nazi-approved curriculum . . . Different people drew the line in different places, and some just kept their heads down and put up with all of it; some, no doubt, were even sympathetic to the German aims. But again, those who genuinely opposed fascism and anti-Semitism were still that frog in the pot, noticing a growing discomfort and wondering when to say “too hot.”

Is this sounding familiar?

Those who resisted did not always agree on how to do it, when to do it, or how much was too much or not enough. In fact, the impression one gets from the museum’s displays is that internal conflict was at least as common as unity. For example, people criticized even the bravest actions for coming too late. One heroic act of resistance was planned in intricate detail and attempted three times before modest success and devastating punishment (execution, imprisonment, exile). The German occupation required everyone to have papers; for many, forgeries were the only option since genuine ones would be marked with a “J” and thus be a sentence of internment or death; the forgeries, naturally, did not match what the Registry Office held. So, going to the source, the conspirators plotted to blow up the Registry Office. In the end, they succeeded in starting a fire that destroyed 15% of the records. (Today, someone wanting to carry out equivalent sabotage would have to be a hacker.) There was much rejoicing, but since most Jews had already been deported, many people also pointed out that if the bombing had been carried out earlier, many more lives would have been saved.

If this kind of sniping doesn’t sound familiar, you can’t have read any liberal or leftist responses to the news over the past year and a half.

I wonder how people responded when it was not the liberals, nor the socialists–both pillars of Dutch life, according to the museum–who rushed to the defense of Dutch Jews, but the fringe, mistrusted Communists. I wonder if, when this defense of the Jews was seized by the Germans as a pretext for vicious crackdowns that shed some of the first blood of the occupation, there was a wave of recrimination: “If we’d just stayed quiet, those people would still be alive.” I don’t know, but there are hints in the displays that some at the time were uneasy with the Communist-Jewish alliance, and that the protests gave the regime the excuse it was waiting for. If so, we’ve heard those arguments more recently and closer to home.

Also familiar was the way that some people were treated as heroes while their partners in resistance were virtually ignored. For example, Gerrit van der Veen, one of the conspirators in the Registry Office bombing, has numerous streets named after him across the country, while another, who was gay, gets little recognition. See?: I have already forgotten his name, while van der Veen’s sticks because it’s a major street and a tram stop. We enact unfairness like this constantly, giving white women credit for #MeToo without acknowledging the black woman who initiated it, or allowing our prejudices to influence which resisters of Trumpism get more attention and praise. Then these injustices prevent our unifying to fight our common enemy: sexual harassment or the administration’s policies.

Even resisters were prejudiced and entitled. When Jews who survived the camps returned to Holland, many of their neighbors downplayed the Jews’ suffering, didn’t want to hear about it, or drew facile, false equivalents. A young girl who survived Bergen-Belsen heard all about the rationing of food and confiscation of bicycles that her neighbors endured, though they didn’t want to hear about the camp.

Do that failure to hear each others’ experience, and a defensiveness about others’ greater suffering, sound familiar?

Most Dutch, inheritors and upholders of a global empire, were slow to acknowledge their hypocrisy, and the people they colonized made deals that also sit uneasily on the conscience. Many Indonesians took up arms against Dutch and Dutch-East-Indian residents of Indonesia, some of whom had lived there for generations. The Indonesians wanted to be a free republic, and saw the Japanese fight against the Dutch as an opportunity to free themselves from colonial rule. So, despite Japan’s own imperialism and the repressiveness of the Japanese army, they joined forces with Japan to drive out the Dutch. Many Dutch East Indians and Dutch were bitter about this and didn’t understand for years, if ever, that the struggle for Indonesian independence was much like their own struggle against German occupation. Resistance to oppression created uncomfortable parallels and unsavory coalitions, then as now.

And there was the passionate support of the Dutch royal family, which had fled to England, which might seem an odd rallying cry for a pro-democratic movement but also inspired and unified the people; and the almost comically bourgeois forms of resistance, such as the woman who, when compelled by the Nazi officers to darn their socks, claimed ignorance and sewed them shut. Gasp!–but, laughably minor though it seems, it got her into trouble.

It seems as if we have been here before. Here’s the thing to remember, then: the Dutch resisters were victorious. They needed the Allies to liberate the country, ultimately, but they hung in there through starvation and repression and outright murder, until they won and the Nazis lost. This, even though their resistance movement was filled with infighting and compromise and sniping.

Maybe that’s just what successful resistance looks like. Maybe even when your efforts are messy and you get a hundred things wrong, it can be enough. Maybe we should stop worrying about being such a flawed, frustrating resistance movement, and just keep on keeping on. They also serve who only sabotage the officers’ socks. And if enough serve in enough ways, we will win.

When we talk about gun deaths in this country, we don’t talk much about suicide. This may seem strange, since about two-thirds of our annual more-than-36,000 deaths by firearms are suicides. Most of the rest are homicides, with a small number of accidents (Centers for Disease Control figures for 2015; the 2016 total was over 38,000). In other words, you are twice as likely to die by a gun in your own hand as someone else’s.

You would think that suicide by firearms would garner attention, since it kills 60 U.S. Americans a day, but I think that neither gun control advocates nor those who want to permit free access to guns want to bring up suicide. The gun-rights folks may believe that people wanting to kill themselves should have the right to choose a gun, but it’s not really the kind of argument that wins you a lot of fans. And the gun-control advocates, of which (in case you haven’t read my blog before) I am most definitely one, tend not to bring it up because of a widespread belief that someone bent on suicide will carry it out, and the means are not significant. In this, we could not be more mistaken.

I’ve said it myself, this “they’ll find another way” mistake, but I was corrected, after a sermon on suicide, by a local activist, to whom I am very grateful. It does indeed matter what means people choose for suicide. Those who choose highly fatal means–jumping off bridges or tall buildings, shooting themselves, or, all too often in the community where I serve, stepping in front of a speeding train–are much less likely to survive a suicide attempt. That much is obvious, in fact tautological. But what is also true is that, denied these means, they are much less likely to kill themselves, then or ever.

This is why, thanks to the California state legislature, we now have barriers making it harder to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, along with hotline phones and posted phone numbers. There is nothing stopping someone who is turned back by the barrier from seeking another way to end their life, but the psychology of suicide is such that many do not: not that night, not the next day, not ever.  Of course, to cut the suicide rate, we can and must do more than just making the final stage harder; we need to reduce poverty and injustice, reduce drug abuse, restore meaning, and provide ample mental health care. But that final stage also matters.

Restricting access to guns–by far the most common way U.S. Americans kill themselves–is thus a very effective way to save many of those lives. When Australia responded to its 1996 Port Arthur massacre by putting tough gun laws in place, the rate of firearms homicide dropped, and so did the rate of homicide overall. The rate of firearms suicide dropped, and so did the rate of suicide overall. With homicide, the reason is obvious to those of us not being paid by the NRA: it’s much harder to kill a lot of people fast with a knife or a truck. With suicide, though? Why don’t people denied a gun find another method? I don’t know. But as often as not, maybe more often than that, they don’t.

So let’s stop shying away from the topic of guns and suicide. When people want to know what good it will do suicidal people to restrict their access to guns, the answer is: it can save the larger part of sixty lives a day.

Sixty lives is a Las Vegas massacre, every day, week in, week out. If you worry about your child’s safety, reflect: they are probably twice as likely to die by suicide as by homicide. To keep them safe, tackle suicide. To tackle suicide, tackle the gun lobby.

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