Things I Learned in 2017

Whoo, what a year! Not just politics, everything. The news is unrelenting, one big deal after another. Even the Christmas letters we’ve received from friends have been filled with national news and commentary as well as the expected family doings.

Still, I love Christmas letters. We’ve been receiving cards and letters from people near and far. In many cases they’re from friends whose paths have shifted away from ours, but whose stories and concerns keep dear relationships alive. Most are printed like news bulletins but crafted with loving effort to tell of family events and travels, accomplishments of children and grands, job changes, sad passings, joyful births. A lot of care and reflection goes into these. It’s a generous thing to do, and I love being on the receiving end when I get them. I haven’t reciprocated in mailing out my own Christmas letters. I have, though, taken up a “Peace on Earth” theme about this time of year in this blog, turning my monthly article for December into a Christmas letter of sorts. 1 Peace does seem like a Christmassy topic, since we too seldom acknowledge peace as a concept at other times. Way too seldom. This is my Christmas letter for 2017.

The year got kick-started with a presidential inauguration, the largest celebration in history according to one account, and I learned that many of my friends were glad about that and many were not. In connection with that event and all that has followed from it, I learned that whether one agrees with a friend or not, a friend is a friend.

It was a big year for fifties in our household. There was the 50-year reunion of Stormy’s college class in the summer, and mine in the fall. We learned that friendships forged in youth are strong. Actually I think we already knew that, but being together with good old friends after years and years of being apart served to underscore the point. The same point was driven home again in another reunion, not quite 50 yet for my Pilot Training class but as we’ve observed before, “The older we get the better we were!” Trouble with an old pilots’ reunion is your arms get tired.

2017 marked the 50-year point for our wedding anniversary too. Family and friends were generous with congratulations, as if achieving that mark had required a mighty effort. Sure, there were times… after all, if no difficulties had ever been faced and overcome it would be a shallow celebration. Speaking as the luckiest man I know, however, I can say it’s not the years that make a marriage. It’s the days.

Continuing the 50s theme, the suburban neighborhood where we live put on a 50-year celebration marking that number of years since the first lots were platted and construction began. I went around to some of the original homeowners and interviewed them about what it was like to establish a home out in fields and farmland. I got a kick out of talking with the old folks. They had stories, and some had photos. I learned that if I had been here then, I would not have chosen this neighborhood. I like trees. Before there were any here, I would have said no thanks, something’s not right. Probably from having to move every few years in my young adulthood, I don’t have the patience to wait for a tree to grow.

I learned that there is a link across time and distance that is stronger than one might imagine. One such link took Stormy and me to the far-off land of Australia, where we were met as family and experienced warmth and a sense of belonging that made new memories to treasure for a lifetime.1 We have quite a collection of memories such as these.

In June we took a trip east for Stormy’s AAUW convention, where I had lots of free time to be a tourist while she got convened. The monuments in Washington, DC are still inspiring and instructive to visit, even for one who has done that many times. At the Vietnam Wall my fingers traced the cold letters naming old friends and classmates. I went to the DAR museum and library and looked up names of long-dead ancestors in dry, yellowing books. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum I was shocked that they did not acknowledge the heroism of Bulgarians who saved Jews in their country from deportation. (They said that the King of Denmark stood up for Jews in his country, and was the only leader to do so.) My father’s spirit cracked a grin, watching over my shoulder, as I heard myself say, “I’m gonna write ’em a letta!”

Korean War Memorial, faces on the wall

I stood in awe at the ghostly sculptures that make up the Korean War Memorial, and the images of soldiers’ faces etched onto black marble. My reflection startled me as I saw myself standing among them, in honorable company. An old man stared back at me as I stood among soldiers suspended in long-ago youth, never to grow old.

I saw the White House. It looks like a fortified embassy compound in a vaguely hostile country. Damn shame, not that it is that way, but that it has to be.

I learned some new songs, at least the tenor part, with a group of people I like being around. It’s a point to be made, I think, that if I were to sing my tenor part as a fiercely independent and proud individual you might not even recognize the tune. It takes other voice parts to make a choral arrangement. If one voice tried to dominate, “knowing” that only that particular part is right, and then another would feel obliged to do so, and so on, until the whole effort devolves into a screaming match. We’ve seen that happen, haven’t we? Not in my choir, for sure, but you know where. The world. Everywhere, almost.

This year we learned that not everyone agrees with our personal views, the things that we know in our hearts are right, no question, no argument. Views on old bronze statues, on football game ceremonies, on healthcare, guns, taxes. There’s more, but after all it’s a symphony isn’t it? All the parts are needed lest the song ring hollow.

At this time of year the songs we hear are mostly familiar ones, and overwhelmingly about peace. That’s a good thing to focus on.

Mind if we sing our way out? It’s one of my favorites, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. 2

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Then ringing singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells they’re ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (peace on earth)
The life the angels singing (peace on earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Peace on earth, peace on earth
Peace on earth, Good will to men.

Protesting Injustice

OK, I’m wading in. I am a veteran of the United States Armed Forces and I say it’s no insult to me or to my service if a football player takes a knee during the National Anthem.

Let’s say I want to go down to the corner and protest Big Bank’s dealings with the King of Belgium. Who’s to say what form my protest has to take? I’ll stand on my head! That’ll tell ’em, yeah! There’s no law against standing on my head. There’s also no law that says you have to stand during the National Anthem. (Be careful if you look that up. There’s a lot of false information out there.) I may have to explain what my protest means, of course, if I want it to impress anyone. The knee-takers have done that from the outset, but not everyone listens. I really don’t care about football except when the Broncos are in the Superbowl, but the player who started this brawl spoke very clearly about why he did it.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people, and people of color,” Kaepernick said in a press conference after first sitting out during the anthem. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave, and getting away with murder.”

There is nothing unclear about that statement. To those who dislike it, I ask, “Is he wrong?” Is that oppression he speaks of a myth? Is justice equally applied to all in our Land of the Free? Think hard. If there is widespread injustice, should it be allowed to persist without comment, without concern, without protest, without anybody doing anything? Here’s one answer:

The General cites Charlottesville, and Ferguson, and the NFL as backdrop. Each one of those incidents is complex on its own merits, and each pertains to the problem in a different way. What they have in common, though, is that they are connected to the same thread of injustice. It is justice that America needs, justice for all.

fans waiting for the gameI stand for the National Anthem. I think it would be good if everyone did. It’s a fine custom and courtesy. Yet I can understand it when people do not. Now we have entire teams linking arms, standing or kneeling, and their protest is said to be a show of unity. Whether it is unity with the original protest about oppression and injustice, or unity in opposition to those who don’t like the original protest and continue to bluster and make threats about it, I can’t say. That hardly even matters at this point.

The guy who started this protest said what it was about. He does not have pride in America, and he says it. He also says why. He does not show respect. How many times have you and I been reminded that respect must be earned? (Answer: Many.) What will it take for this respect to be earned? (Answer: ___________ )


When I was in training for my Peace Corps assignment in Bulgaria, we exercised our community involvement muscles by organizing a civic improvement event. We recruited kids from schools and orphanages, did pledge drives and bake sales, organized volunteers, and had a great time of it. We contracted with a local welding shop to make some sidewalk trashcans, got children into teams to paint them, bought paints and brushes, and had an art contest in the town square to decorate the cans and award prizes for the best designs. As part of our Bulgarian lessons concurrent with the project, we made posters to advertise the event and tried to come up with team names to suggest to the kids. Peace Painters, Paintbrush Friends… simple and corny phrases with words we could find in our ever-present English-Bulgarian dictionaries. The word we found for “Friends” was Drugari. (‘dro͞o·gə·rē).

Our Bulgarian language teacher frowned and said, no! That wasn’t appropriate, not at all. What, the word “friends” is not OK? We were steered to a synonym, Priyateli, and told that was a nicer word. “We just don’t use that old word much anymore,” she said. We persisted: why was her reaction so negative? A little reluctantly she explained that was what Communist Party members called each other before the old government fell. Comrade! That was the word for Comrade. The word, swept up in the tumult of history. had been spoiled.

History turns things around. In a book I’m reading, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, I read how the young author was imbued from childhood with her Georgia history in the early twentieth century. She recalled long summer evenings with her extended family, hearing stories of hardships and triumphs down through the generations from back as far as the earliest days of English colonial life, up through the terrible war which was then still smoldering hot in the memory of her elders.

“None was a more powerful storyteller than Grandmother Annie, who told Peggy endless tales about the Civil War, bloodthirsty Yankees, freed slaves, scoundrelly scalawags, cheating carpetbaggers, and the importance of behaving well in the face of either defeat or prosperity.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind was made into a movie, epic in its scope and grandeur and immensely popular since 1939 for showing the tragedy wrought by the Civil War. History. Like The Wizard of Oz, it is an early Hollywood classic that has endured to a robust old age while lesser works of film art faded and died. The film has been shown in Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theatre as part of a summer film festival for 34 years. No more. It offends. Canceled. Things change.

I recently read and shared (on Facebook, if you must know) an interview by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject of Confederate monuments. Confederate. That’s another word that has changed, like drugari. She took the position that the monuments were a part of history, should be given appropriate context and not be torn down. With Charlottesville fresh in the news, I rather thought it would be an opportunity to examine a different view than what most of my friends are exposed to in their (our) own silos and echo chambers.

By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By way of background for why the topic was of such interest to me, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (google “Monument Avenue“). What I knew about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures was informed by the perception that they were bound by a sense of duty and honor, and took up arms to defend their beloved home states (never mind who fired the first shots). On my walk from the bus stop to my high school, I passed the Confederate Widows’ Home and would wave to the little old ladies sitting on the veranda in their rocking chairs. They would wave back and smile. In my basic training for the United States Air Force, after leaving my home state behind, I was required to memorize, among other things, “Lee’s Quote.” It was, “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

It is hard now to understand the depth and passion of that feeling of loyalty and duty to one’s home state that Lee felt, rather than to all of the states together, but that was 1861. Things were different. Then once the war started, it could only be governed by the relentless, inexorable logic that war brings to itself. I concluded my sharing of the Rice interview with a quote from a thoughtful reader of the Dallas Morning News, saying that “We cannot change history by removing statues and renaming schools…. We can change the present by stressing positive concerns, such as equal educational opportunities, equal job opportunities and equal respect for the opinions of others.”

I took a solid drubbing in the ensuing discussion. The points did not turn on duty and honor, but on traitors, treachery, and comparisons to Hitler. The most insightful comment in the discussion, the one that got my reasoned attention, was from my friend Ivan. He wrote that he thought my argument was focused too narrowly.

“The issue is not the monuments as reminders of history, the issue is that they are part of the broader effort, to maintain racism, and even restore racist policies. The white supremacy groups wanted to preserve the monument because it enhanced their views, not because they appreciated the historical value.”

My initial reaction had been that the momentum seems to be on the side of the monument-destroyers, and I thought it was a damn shame. The exchange made me think, and read, and think some more. I was aided in this by another friend, Laura, who put me onto a set of videos that exposed a sore point: my view had been shaped within the confines of a privileged position that I seldom, if ever, even perceived let alone understood what advantages it had given me.3 And finally, this article was most instructive in my eventual conversion. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.

I have changed my view. The big bronze statues along stately Monument Avenue have long been a subject of contention, and now I can see what must have been obvious to others for a long time.4 Sadly for some and triumphantly for others, the tide is flowing and it will take them away. As the saying goes, take it as you will, “They’re history.”

As a native Virginian, I hold a tinge of regret for their passing. I have released the bitterness of thinking “It’s a damn shame,” but a faint scar of regret will remain. The regret is for illusions lost, and it is overshadowed by being on firmer ground, but it is regret all the same.<<<< gt;<<< ><< p>< /p>