Notes from the road: Solving a great musical mystery

(Boston)—The locals warn out-of-towners to forget about trying to drive in historic downtown Boston.  Traffic is terrible. Roundabouts are hopelessly confusing.  The old streets are narrow and leave strangers bewildered.  Better, they say, to stay in the suburbs and ride the subway into the heart of the city or catch a Gray-Line Tours bus if you want to see the many historic sites in one day.

Those who choose to ride the subway buy fare cards that are inserted into slots that open the gates to the platforms.  The fare cards are known as “Charlie Cards” (which you might want to remember for a trivia contest sometime).  They’re called Charlie Cards in memory of the hapless, trapped, subway rider named Charlie who became world-famous, thanks to a 1949 campaign song for a progressive mayoral candidate who campaigned against the city’s complicated subway fares which included an “exit fare,” a way to increase the taxes without changing the fare collection system at the start of the trip.  The Kingston Trio made it a hit song in 1959.

It tells the story of Charlie, who paid his dime at the Kendall Square Station then changed lines so he could reach Jamaica Plain, a place founded three centuries earlier by Puritans looking for land to farm and eventually became one of America’s first streetcar suburbs. But when he got to “JP,” as local folks call it, he did not have the extra nickel to pay his exit fare, dooming him to roam beneath the streets of Boston forever because “he couldn’t get off of that train.” His devoted wife went each day at the Scollay Square Station (pronounced “Scully” by the natives) and waited for the train to slow down enough that she could pass him a sandwich through an open window. At least, that’s how the song tells the story.

One of America’s great mysteries is why she never gave him a nickel when she gave him the sandwich.

We have done some historical research on that issue because it has bothered us, too, for decades.  We think we have uncovered the entire story in the microfilm room of the Beacon Hill Metropolitan Library, which is a short distance from the former Bull & Finch Pub that is now called “Cheers” because it was the prototype for Sam Malone’s tavern in the television show; its entrance was featured in the show’s opening.  The story found in the records of the Beacon Hill Democrat-Challenger, a long-dead newspaper, turns out to be a rather sordid matter.  But it does have a happy ending because Charlie, in real life, did get off of that train.

Charles J. Faneuil was a descendant of Peter Faneuil, the merchant who in 1740 built a market house that became the centerpiece of the early Boston independence movement.  Despite his historic family name, Charles was a middle-class bookkeeper for a suburban department store.  He was a solid and dutiful husband who left each morning and came home each night from his apparently dead-end office job that paid him enough to keep food on the table and a two-year old car in the driveway.

Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil, born Ann Revere Adams, was a descendant of two early Boston families whose “old money” was spent several generations previous to her marriage to Charles.  They had three children, Samuel Adams Faneuil, Betsy Ross Faneuil, and James Otis Faneuil.  Ann was a housewife but longed to be part of Boston’s upper social strata made up of descendants whose “old money” still existed and had multiplied because it was not squandered by previous generations. She yearned to be part of the kind of organizations that would refer to her as “Mrs. Charles Faneuil” instead of “Ann Faneuil,” as her friends did in the Tuesday Evening Mahjong Society.  In time she came to see her husband as an adequate provider but someone who would never give her a chance to live her dream.

The first public indication that the domestic life of Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Faneuil was not all peaches and cream (and sandwiches handed through subway car windows) is the notice that Mrs. Faneuil had filed for divorce, charging desertion and abandonment of family.  She claimed Charlie had willfully absented himself from the family home by intentionally taking only a dime with him when he left for work that morning, knowing that he would need another nickel not only to get to work but would need another dime and a nickel to ride the subway back home that evening.  She suggested in her filing that Charlie did so because he had become enamored of one Theodora Williams, whose friends called her “Teddy,” a fellow rider on the subway. And she claimed that Teddy did not loan her husband a nickel, either, because she didn’t want him to leave the train so she could make sure he would be there for her.

The case was filed for Mrs. Faneuil by Quincy Kennedy Kerry, the Faneuil family attorney, whose main reason for representing the family was his attraction to Ann Revere Adams Faneuil. When he had heard of Charlie’s predicament, he had visited Ann to express his sympathy and found her surprisingly willing to accept it, not knowing that she—weary of being a simple housewife and child-raiser—had fantasized about what life would have been like if she had married a lawyer many years ago, instead of good old steady Charlie, and how nice it would be to dine at the club, wear elegant clothes, and travel to beautiful places that lawyers like to visit.

Charlie learned of the action when he read about it in a discarded copy of the Democrat- Challenger that he found on a seat in his subway car after the morning rush hour.  The news stunned him.  He did not know Teddy although he thought she was a fellow passenger during baseball season when she rode the train to Fenway Park. Teddy worked at the will-call window of the ticket booth.  They had hardly spoken other than an occasional “good morning” when she took a seat across from him. In fact, she had shown no interest in having a conversation.

That’s when it also dawned on him that divorce was a reason why Ann never put a nickel in the sandwich bag and, further, never put an additional fifteen cents in it so he could get home.  He had many times regretted not grabbing some extra change from the dish on the table by his front door as he left that fateful morning and had been grateful that he found the dime that he had left in the pocket the last time he wore those pants. Not until he got aboard the train did he discover there was not a nickel in that pocket, too. He would have said something to Ann during the sandwich deliveries, but she always timed her delivery so it happened as the train began to move again, leaving no time for discussion.

Teddy learned about the divorce filing when she heard some of the other girls in the ticket office chattering among themselves that same morning.  “Charlie who?” she wondered.  She also wondered if it might be the strange guy she sometimes saw in the subway who always wore the same increasingly rumpled suit and, in fact, seemed to smell bad in the few times she had been forced to sit across from him.  His hair was much too long and his scraggly beard had not filled out well in the weeks—or was it months?—since she had first noticed him.

Charlie also worried that he had lost his job because of his growing list of absences. His mood darkened in the next few days, likely driven by increasing hunger and his deepening concern about his job, to the point that he was thinking of leaving the train without benefit of nickel by throwing himself onto the tracks from the rear car and lying there until the next train ended his misery.

But that was when conductor H. W. Longfellow (his friends called him “Hank”) noticed Charlie’s state and took the steps that saved his life.  Charlie and Hank had formed something of a bond on the long low-passenger hours during the day shift when Longfellow worked. Longfellow, feeling some responsibility for Charlie’s situation because he was the conductor who told him “one more nickel” arranged for Evangeline’s Pizza to deliver one of its specialties to Charlie each day at the Scollay Square Station, a savvy move for Evangeline’s because the story of Charlie was starting to gain some public attention and Evangeline’s got some great public promotional value out of being Charlie’s food supplier. Longfellow also brought a pillow and some blankets from home for Charlie to use at night to sleep with at least a little comfort. Longfellow has come in for some criticism because in all the time Charlie was trapped on the train, Longfellow did not loan him a nickel.  But it was strictly against MTA policy for conductors to give nickels to passengers who claimed to have “forgotten” to bring one from home. The authority knew that it soon would be dealing with hundreds of “forgetful” passengers if it let its conductors loan nickels or even to let a passenger promise repayment on the next trip.  Employees who showed such kindness had been known to be kindly excused from their jobs, a circumstance Longfellow could not risk because he had a wife and family, too.

But Hank had something else that became important in the long run.  Hank knew a lawyer.

Hugh Louis Dewey was an ambulance-chasing attorney whose grandson, Hugh III, became nationally famous as the busy attorney for two Italian brothers who ran a car-repair shop in suburban Cambridge where they purportedly “fixed” cars they had never seen after diagnosing the problems during a telephone call without consulting maintenance manuals. When Huey Louie Dewey, as he was known in the office on Harvard Square, got involved, the case really got juicy.

Dewey could have paid Charlie’s exit fare to get his client off the train but he advised Charlie to continue to ride while Dewey called the local press and arranged for some sympathetic news coverage. Charlie’s story took up two full pages of the Sunday feature section of The Democrat-Challenger, including pictures of Charlie with his now-long hair and beard and later, clean shaven, trimmed, and wearing a new suit—all of this provided by Dewey to show the man Charlie had become since his wife took up with the family lawyer and stopped providing nickel-free daily sandwiches and then showing him as the man he once was and could be again.

Dewey hit Mrs. Faneuil AND lawyer Kerry with an alienation of affection suit and, since Mrs. Faneuil didn’t have any money, asked for substantial damages from Kerry, whose law firm was one of the upper-crust firms in the city.  If it had been in Memphis, and if John Grisham had been writing novels when all of this was going on, Kerry’s law firm would have been the prototype for a best-selling novel.

And Charlie DID get off of that train. He did not, in fact, “ride forever beneath the streets of Boston,” nor was he “the man who never returned.”  Folk song stories, one must remember, are just stories, not history.

Dewey eventually provided the nickel for Charlie to pay the exit fee a week after the big newspaper article. He was put up in a motel while he waited for the lawsuits to work their way through the courts and while he looked for a new job.  His friend, Longfellow, convinced his MTA bosses to hire Charles J. Faneuil temporarily as the company’s first passenger-relations agent. The move garnered some positive publicity for Charlie and the as well as a modest income so he didn’t have to live on Evangeline’s pizza anymore. It also scored some public relations points for the MTA, which had been pilloried by the Democrat-Challenger, and avoided a lawsuit threatened by Dewey alleging Charlie’s continued presence in the subway constituted a form of kidnapping and the exit tax was a form of ransom.

Dewey also rushed to Fenway Park to meet with Teddy Williams and sign her up for a separate lawsuit accusing Ann and lawyer Kerry of libel.  She also wanted damages for pain and suffering caused by extensive office gossip.

It took about eighteen months for all of this to work itself out.  Charlie did not contest the divorce although he did fight Ann’s efforts to get alimony and child custody.  The judge ruled that Charlie had not abandoned Ann. In fact, the judge said, Ann—by ending the sandwich supply runs—had abandoned Charlie and in doing so had endangered his health. Therefore, said the judge, she was an unfit parent and the children were given to Charlie.  She was allowed to keep their house into which Quincy Kennedy Kerry moved after a respectful interval.  He, however, turned out to be only a member of his law firm and not one of the top partners whose memberships at exclusive clubs were picked up by the firm.

Teddy Williams settled out of court for ten-thousand dollars and a public apology from Ann and Quincy.  She and her partner, Dorothea “Dix” Hancock, used the money to open what became a successful wedding cake business in the Back Bay area.

By the time H. W. Longfellow retired from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA of folk song fame, had become the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

And Charlie?  He left his job at the MTA when the suburban department store gladly rehired him as an assistant manager, thinking it could capitalize on his notoriety.  He was the store manager when he retired.  The three children grew up to be good citizens and showed no scars of the split-up of the family. By then Charlie had married a widowed high school social studies teacher, had slipped from public view, and was living quietly in a middle-class Boston neighborhood. He refused to take part in the changes at the MTA. “I’m so tired of hearing that damned song,” he once confided to his wife.

On December 4, 2006, the MBTA ended its exit fares and began using “Charlie Cards.”

That afternoon, two elderly men got their cards from a machine and used them to go through the gate to the platform. Charlie Faneuil and Hank Longfellow took a ride to the Harvard Square Station.  Nobody noticed them.   No newspaper photographers were there.  Nobody wrote about them in the next day’s newspaper.  When they got off the train, they caught a cab for a short ride to 73 Hamilton Street, a place known as the Good News Garage, where a couple if Italian guys claimed to have fixed Charlie’s car, a 1960s Dodge Dart. It had 21,294 miles on the odometer, not many miles for a car so old.

That’s because, of course, Charlie rode the MTA.

(photo credits: MBTA, etsy.com)

no one cares

An extraordinary writer has written an extraordinary book you should read, especially if you are in a public policy position, particularly if that position involves holding public purse strings.

He begins his book bluntly: “This is the book I promised myself I would never write. And promised my wife as well.”

Why?

“I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

Then, three years later, his eldest son, Dean, developed symptoms of schizophrenia, too.

Several weeks ago, while driving to Columbia to do some research at the State Historical Society, I heard Ron Powers being interviewed on National Public Radio about this book. I knew instantly I had to read it:  no one cares about crazy people, which draws its title from a “ghastly” remark made in 2010 by a campaign aide to Scott Walker, who was running for Governor of Wisconsin.  Even the lower-case print used on the cover and title page is a message.  Crazy people are lower-case people, ones we prefer to ignore, ones easy to lose.

It should be explained that Ron and I have been friends most of our lives although that friendship became strained for reasons that are now clear from reading his book, a circumstance that might not be unusual when friends do not realize the cumulative effects of life circumstances upon other friends.  If you’re not familiar with him, Google him.  He’s a Hannibal native. Look at the long list of his books. Read about his Pulitzer Prize and his career with Charles Kuralt on the CBS Sunday Morning show.

Early in his book, Ron writes of an experience he had in a Vermont legislative committee hearing (He lives in Vermont) that equals one of the most vivid memories I have of covering thousands of hours of committee meetings in four decades as a statehouse reporter.  I recall a father testifying in one of the committee rooms on the first floor of the Missouri Capitol about this state’s inadequate services for the mentally ill.   He recited the struggles of his son whose deteriorating mental health eventually led the son into crime and then to state prison.  The point the father made that day should have been disturbing to anyone facing him from the committee table: the only place his son could receive treatment for his mental disease was in a prison.

Ron and his wife, Honoree, had gone to the lovely, small, Vermont Capitol in Montpelier in January, 2014 to testify about whether mental patients should be institutionalized against their will when their conditions reach certain levels of desperation and danger, or whether such action violates the individual’s civil liberties and exposes them to questionable drug therapies perceived by some as being prescribed by doctors who receive financial rewards from “Big Pharma” for prescribing those drugs.  We’ve heard the same arguments here. He heard people such as the father I had listened to here in Missouri.

Just three weeks after the Powerses attended that hearing came the revelation of the callous pronouncement from the Walker aide.  And that’s when Ron began to re-think his vow about not writing the book, reconsidering his desire to protect the privacy of his sons, and reconsidering his feelings that he did not want to exploit them.  I am glad that he made the difficult decision to write it after that hearing jolted him out of his introspection and into what he realized is “a simple and self-evident and morally insupportable truth: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

The book is not just a recounting of his family’s personal journey.  It also is an excellent journalistic recounting of the way societies have treated the mentally ill for centuries. Early in his book, Ron writes, “For centuries those who have been struck by madness have always had their own cruel nomenclature to bear, names intended to separate them out, divide us from them: lunatics, imbeciles, loonies, dips, weirdos, wackos, schizos, psychos, freaks, morons, nutcases, nutjobs, wingnuts, cranks.  The mad one, then, is something between a clown and a demon.  Unless that mad one is a gift of God made flesh.”

Such as a child.

Ron mixes the deeply-personal narrative of his family’s eventual shift from one of being normal, proud parents of gifted sons to a deepening search for hoped normality in the face of increasing and inescapable reality, with perceptive accounts of the years of society’s shifting thought on mental illness and the coining of the phrase “schizophrenia” by Eugen Bleuler in 1908.  Ron demonstrates his extensive journalistic story-telling skills to track the attitudes toward mental illness from the days of  demons and shamans; from Hippocrates to today’s researchers; from Bedlam, the first madhouse dating to 1247, to today’s asylums; from Sigmund Freud, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Darwin, to the disciples of Eugenics, and to Julian Jaynes’ Twentieth Century thoughts on the origins of madness—and research and policies in the forty-years since then, including mental illness deniers such as L. Ron Hubbard and Thomas Szasz..  It was mortifying to read that one Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was a strong advocate of eugenics and a leader of the effort to defend the Virginia Sterilization Act.  It is only slightly comforting that his name does not show up on our particular branch of the family tree.

His writing on the deinstitutionalization movement started in a Ronald Reagan-signed law while Governor of California, the effects of which remain obvious to those will but see, is damning.  Ron calls the Lanterman-Petris-Short act “the national gold standard for clueless, destructive government interference in the interest of mentally ill people.” And he offers studies showing that our prisons have become the largest treatment facilities for those with mental illness since the national adoption of the act’s philosophy.

Ron doesn’t want you to “enjoy” the book—and you won’t.  But read it anyway. FEEL his book.  Have the courage and the empathy to read it from beginning to end including the preface, especially if you deal with public policy—particularly health and mental health issues and budget issues.

Too rarely, I asked legislative committee chairmen and women how they could listen to real people plead for the kind of help that only government can provide and then ignore the humanity behind those pleas.  The answers always were basically, “Well, we only have so much money.”  In recent years, their successors have moved to assure the state will have even less.

It is sad that so much of the process of government—at all levels—and citizen participation in a society that is greater than the one behind our front doors seems to look only at dollars and not at the real people next door or across the street. National and international health studies indicate one in four of us experience, or will experience, some kind of mental illness. All of us know someone who is one of those. But it’s okay to see the face of only one person—George Washington, whose benign gaze greets us on the front of the dollar bill.

This is a book of humanity that every health and mental health committee member in every state legislature should read.  It’s a book ALL of us should read.  We should be uncomfortable throughout it, and after it.

Thank you, Ron and Honoree, for your courage and your strength with this book.  We hope others can draw courage and strength of their own to see people, not just dollars.

Increase our taxes

We are a retired family living on a more-or-less fixed income.  We hope our taxes go up next year.  In fact, we’re going to give our permission in a few days for them to go up regardless of what happens to our income.

Jefferson City needs voter permission to raise the money for a loooonnnnnng overdue second high school and the school district wants people like us and our neighbors to approve a higher tax levy.  This household is unanimously in favor of the idea.

We don’t have any kids attending the schools of Jefferson City.  We haven’t been to a school play or a school concert or to a school football or basketball game in years, probably decades.  Haven’t been to a PTA meeting for even longer, probably.  We do go into one of the public school system’s buildings three or four times a year for the city concert association events but that’s about it.

So we have no personal connection to a school system that wants to increase our property tax bill by a pretty good amount.   But we want the system to do it.

We took a pile of income tax information, over which Nancy had agonized for countless hours, to our accountant a few days ago.  We’ll learn the damage before long.  Naturally, we wish we could keep that money but when we come down to it, we don’t mind paying taxes—because we understand what they buy.  We just hope the people we elect to distribute those funds do so in a responsible manner that benefits the general public. We confess there are times when we think those people could do a better job by putting more emphasis on the word “general”  but we haven’t met anyone yet who has come up with a better system than the present one for making sure all of us share the Biblical and the democratic responsibilities to each other.

Somebody has to pay for the things we expect government to do for us and we’re okay with putting our financial drop into the big bucket that finances more things for us that we can count. And education is one of the biggest benefits.

We’ve lived in Jefferson City nigh on to half a century—a statement that amazes us every time we recall the things we ‘ve seen and done—and we can’t recall a time when somebody wasn’t saying, “Jefferson City needs a second high school.”   Actually, Jefferson City already has a half-dozen or so public and parochial high schools including the high school program at the Algoa prison, a high school for about fifteen severely disabled students, and a Christian academy with about five students in grades ten through twelve.

In our household we think it’s important that children have opportunities to learn.  Not just classroom subjects, but the things they can learn through band, and science clubs, and school newspapers, and sports, and debate clubs, and other things that add to the creation of a thinking, active, inquisitive life that is to come.   We think a better future can be incubated when all of the eggs are not jammed into one basket.

And it’s the future we’re talking about here, a more learned society in a world that increasingly demands educated people who understanding that learning and life have to go together if hopes for a free humankind are to progress.   A second high school in our town will increase opportunities for our grandchildren’s generation to have a better chance to make that idealized future a materialized future.

We know that we write from the standpoint of ones who can afford to pay these higher taxes, knowing that there are many who feel they cannot.  We wish we had an answer for them for some of them are our friends.  We, and they, are left with leaving others who are in policy positions who have the knowledge to ease those concerns to recognize them and act on them.

Regardless of our economic standings, the thing we CANNOT afford is ignorance.  Ignorance is one of the greatest enemies of a democracy.  It is one of the first tools of the despot.  The control of learning and the limitations placed on it and on the circulation of public learning are trademarks of the societies we identify geographically and often culturally as threats to our way of life.  A visit to a nation governed by those who know ignorance equates to power and control is a sobering experience.

We’ve been there.  We’ve seen it.  We know that the American system of public education is one of our greatest protections.  We’ll be glad to pay more taxes to make that system better in our town.

We in this household are products of public education from our first days in a classroom to our last days in graduate schools.  We benefitted because our parents and grandparents paid the taxes that helped shape us as, we hope, good and responsible citizens.  We’ll be glad to pay some higher taxes so other generations will have a better chance to defeat ignorance and all of the perils it presents.

It’s okay if our taxes go up next year, even if they go up by a pretty good amount. In our household we think that the Preamble to the United States Constitution is not only a statement of the virtues we want in government, but is also a commitment by We the People to work through that government to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,”

Promotion of the general welfare cannot be done in a climate that impedes an escape from ignorance.  We will pay higher taxes because we wish to help create a climate that better serves the future general welfare of our city, our state, and our country.

Transition

Several years ago your observer was strolling through the Capital Mall when he spied Lt. Governor Bill Phelps and his wife, Joanne, having a casual lunch in the food court.  They probably had driven to the mall and had done their shopping with few if any distractions from fellow shoppers. I remarked to him as they sat surrounded by other folks who were paying them no mind, “You know, if you win the election this year, you won’t be able to do this.”   Phelps was running in the primary against Christopher Bond who wanted to get his old job back from Joe Teasdale.  It was 1980.

Phelps lost the primary and probably has been eating his meals out for these last thirty-six years without any hassles from the voting public.

But had he won and then defeated Teasdale, his life would have changed. The Phelpses probably wouldn’t have driven their own car to the mall.  They likely would have been chauffeured by a Highway Patrolman.  And they wouldn’t be shopping anonymously because people would recognize that The Governor(!) was in their midst.  They’d be living in a great big house that would not contain much of their own furniture.  Somebody with a badge and a gun—sometimes more than one somebody—would be with them wherever they went.

We recall that John Ashcroft had a Mustang he liked to drive.   He didn’t get the chance to do that much after he became governor.

Ashcroft, Bond, and Phelps had some understanding of the transition to the governorship because they had been in public life at increasingly higher circles. They knew that the private life would diminish markedly when they became the state’s highest-ranking public official.

Transitions for incoming governors involve far more, however, than coming to grips with the fact that your life is not yours any more.  The responsibilities of being a public servant, the state’s highest public official, can be beyond the expectations of the candidates who seek that job.

So while an incoming governor who has no previous public office experience has to spend the two months between election and inauguration preparing to meet the challenges of governing, he and his family also have to come to grips with any number of personal issues.  What do we do with our house?  What about our furniture?  What things are so meaningful to us personally that we want to take them to the Executive Mansion so it feels like home?  What about schools?  How will we adjust to having a security officer with us?   How will we deal with a loss of our personal freedom?  How will the family deal with the things that are likely to be said about the husband and father who happens to be the Governor of Missouri?

Here we offer a slight diversion because the spotlight might be on the new governor but it also shines, at least in its dimmer edges, on his family, particularly on the person who is to become the state’s First Lady.   What are her obligations?

Most First Ladies have adopted a public role in one form or another.  But one First Lady was different and because she was, future First Ladies might owe her a debt.  Theresa Teasdale wanted nothing to do with the spotlight.  She was not Mrs. Governor.  She was Mrs. Teasdale, wife and mother.  She didn’t advocate for a particular cause (as we recall).  She and Joe did not make the mansion a great social event location.  It was their home.  It was where the Teasdale family lived.  It was a house where there was a family that was apart from the intense world of governing. This reporter tried to interview her once and came away almost embarrassed that he had intruded.  Theresa Teasdale was a First Lady who made it alright for future First Ladies to remain private citizens.

The new governor thus has two transitions to deal with—the personal and the public.  He has just two months to assemble a team of people in his office as well as those who will lead state agencies.   He realizes he will inherit a state budget sixty percent of the way through a fiscal year and will have to immediately deal with possible income shortfalls; Governor Nixon already has withheld tens of millions of dollars to keep the budget balanced.  He will have to prepare his first major address to a joint session of the legislature outlining budget recommendations for a fiscal year that will start July 1 and outline issues he hopes the legislature will pass laws about.

And that’s just the surface.  He also is responsible for finding and appointing about 1,700 people to state boards and commissions.  About 1,300 of those nominations will have to be pleasing enough to the Senate to be confirmed.

We checked with Scott Holste, who has been on Governor Nixon’s staff as governor and attorney general for more than twenty years, and Scott reminded us that the governor also has to make appointments to fill vacancies caused by death or resignation or conviction of judge in circuits that aren’t part of the Non-partisan Court Plan.  He also appoints prosecutors and county officials as needed in non-charter counties.  And he has to make appointments of judges from lists submitted to him under that same court plan.

There’s another important component that has to be decided.  How public will the administration of the state’s top public official be?   What will be his relations with the press?  It’s not a parochial question.  How open will he allow his administration to be in providing expertise to those with questions about public policy issues?  Will he allow department staffs with expertise to provide information to the public or will he limit the flow of information by limiting access to them—as, to be frank, the current administration has done in many agencies?  The operative word in the phrase “public official” should be public.

We have scratched the surface of what a governor-elect has to go through to be ready to govern as soon as he takes the oath of office.  It’s a steep, steep learning curve even for those who have been in and around state elective office.  To go from private citizen to public leader relatively overnight is a major test.

All of this is why a two-month well-organized transition effort is essential but why it also is highly stressful, not just on the governor-elect but on his family—because life on January 8th will likely be worlds different by the end of January 9th.

Blaming Grandpa

We live in a time when we have “friends” throughout the world but we don’t know our next door neighbor. 

 We wave at our neighbors but we don’t talk to them very much and certainly not about anything significant. But we’ll text people in other cities. We’ll link in with them or we’ll book our faces with them or we send them an Instagram.  Some still twitter to share things with people we’ve never met.  But we just wave at our neighbors—-and what was their name again?

My grandfather didn’t invent the internet but he might have set in motion the sorry state of affairs outlined by Media writer Eric Burns almost thirty years ago when he wrote, “Every improvement in the technology of communications during the last century has led to greater isolation among people. It is a remarkable paradox, as if every improvement in the technology of hygiene had led to greater illness, every improvement in the technology of transportation had led to greater distance.” 

 If you need proof, put your cell phone away when you’re walking along a busy street and watch the crowd and see how many people are walking while they’re talking on the phone or texting or checking emails, never looking at the people around them, not even talking with friends or associates walking with them.   

“It began with Rural Free Delivery that brought the mail to the person,” wrote Burns.  

One of my grandfathers was a rural mail carrier in Mitchell County, Kansas in the 1920s and 1930s, delivering mail to people such as my other grandfather, a farmer. 

“Before RFD, the person had to come to the mail, which was deposited for him at a centralized place.  Usually the place was a general store; usually the person was a farmer who would kill two birds with one stone, picking up his mail at the same time he shopped for groceries and supplies,” wrote Burns, who noted the farmer also would “socialize, visit with the other farmers and their families who were at the general store for the same reason.  And this was one of the few chances such people had to pass time with their neighbors; their farms were many miles apart and their days too busy with chores to allow for casual dropping in.  It was a lonely life. Ironically, the inefficiency of the postal system made it less so.”

But, he says, when people like my one grandfather started delivering the mail to farmers like my other grandfather, the farmers had more time to farm and the general store as a social institution died.  He cites one of this writer’s favorite historians, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote, “From every farmer’s doorstep there now ran a highway to the world. But at the price of dissolving the old face-to-face communities.”  

Then along came radio to make things worse.  It brought entertainment and information into the home.  It wasn’t necessary to go to town for those things.  And it killed the Chautauqua movement and eliminated more face-to-face interaction.

The telephone system had improved to the point where—as NYU Professor Neil Postman put it–
“a strange world of acoustic space in which disembodied voices exchange information intimately and in specially developed personas” developed.  The telephone did not require face-to-face communication.  Then television. Then home video. Then computers.  And e-mail.  Burns quoted Henry David Thoreau: “Lot! Men have become the tools of their tools.”

The progression suggested by Burns in 1988 was continued in 2012 by Dr. James Emery White, the former President of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts and senior pastor of the Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He wrote of “hyper-connectivity” in his blog, saying analysts are split on this “bane of the so-called millennials, the generation born from 1981-2000.” 

 “Some feel it will make millennials ‘nimble analysts and decision makers.’ Others feel it will mean an inability to retain information, a tendency to be easily distracted, and a lack of ‘deep thinking capabilities’ and ‘face-to-face social skills.’”  White leaned toward the latter and cites a UCLA study in 2007 that showed “the internet is weakening our comprehension and transforming us into shallow thinkers.” 

He, too, quotes Boorstin: “The greatest menace to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge,” which leads him to compare the words “hyper” and “hypo.”   HYPER means “above,” or “over,” he says.  HYPO means “below” or “under.” 

He concludes, “So while it is an age of hyper-connectivity, perhaps we should also acknowledge the inevitable result.  Hypo-intellectualism.”  

Other analysts can cite other reasons for our contradicting lifestyles that isolate us from those next door to us but bring us influences from far away.  This observer, for instance, thinks the window screen, not the rural mail carrier, is a major factor in this social, and therefore political, decline in thought.   And the contradicting effects of the debilitating involvement in Vietnam and the glorious success of the Apollo space program changed out national outlook to inward thinking.  But screened windows, a war, and a space program are discussions for another time. 

Why go through this pondering?

Because something has to explain why this nation is in the political mess it is in, particularly at our state and our national levels. Self-absorption is one thing.  But self-absorption about our self-absorption can only make the situation worse because studying our navels only drives us further inward and farther away from the general store and the Chautauqua.  

Even this entry is an example.  We could be having this discussion around a table at the general store if such a thing existed. Or in more contemporary times, the coffee shop (free Wi-fi available).  But instead, we are connecting hyperly.  

I think that today, when I see my neighbor, I will cross the street and talk to him, not wave. 

The dangers of definition–I

Our scripture for this series  is from Congressman Fisher Ames: “Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows.”

——

One of the trickier parts of writing a new law is defining who or what is the topic and who or what the target for relief or for limits is.  Our lawmakers have recognized from the beginning that specific language is necessary to avoid the infamous “unintended consequences.”   They—or, more appropriately these days, the legislative staff—recognize that danger and usually are able to tailor legislation to fit a specific circumstance.   When they are even a little off the mark, the consequences sometimes generate headlines that obscure the difficulty of making sure the application of a law is as narrow as required.

It’s a difficult job that the public seldom realizes is so much a part of developing the laws that govern our lives every second of every day. But the last thing participants in the process want to do is produce an adverse impact on those not intended to be the subject of the legislation.

Sometimes it is best for the supporters of legislation to leave some things vague. There are a lot of reasons for that.  One is that getting more specific weakens the intended broad effects of some  legislation.  Another reason is that lack of definition allows wider interpretations of the law, sometimes in the authority a law grants governmental subdivisions to enact their own policies within the law’s general framework—a latitude that sometimes exposes those subdivisions to criticism of government over-reach.

It’s a balancing act.  For those who believe in balance in the laws, it’s a tough act.

We have been seeing a phrase used increasingly in legislation in the last few years that cries for definition.  Defining it, however, is a minefield.

The phrase is “sincere religious belief,” now most prominently being the center of Senate Joint Resolution 39, the Wesboro Amendment or, for supporters, the Religious Freedom Amendment.

How do YOU define “sincere religious belief?”  Most properly, how do you define “sincere?” In fact, why don’t you stop reading and write your definitions, AND write what you consider your sincere religious belief, then come back.  Do not read ahead before you do this.

(PAUSE while you write)

Thank you for doing that.  Do you have the courage to put these statements before the public?   If you are a public official passing legislation making “sincere religious belief” part of the law for the general public, don’t you owe it to the general public to state your definition of the term and let the public whose behavior you seek to approve or disapprove and regulate know what your sincere religious beliefs are? You cannot dodge the issue by saying religion is a private matter—because you have made it a general-public issue.

Most people probably never define their belief.  “Whatever my church says is good enough for me,” many will think.  Do you really know what your church says as a condition of being a member?  And have you ever wondered if you really do believe its creed or its dogma or its principles?   Or have the lessons of life moved you in a different direction?  Have you become less religious in terms of what your church’s standards for religion are? And who is to judge the sufficiency within the law of your belief and the sincerity of it?   We’ll talk about that in our next entry.

A shield, not a sword

Backers of the Wesboro Amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 39, defend it as “a shield, not a sword,” a protection of religious freedom rather than an attack on a segment of our population. But bumper sticker mottos such as “a shield, not a sword” are often purely political efforts to avoid having to intelligently address an issue and personally justify a position.  And the symbolism behind such mottos has a tendency to undermine the cause the motto purports to defend. 

Hiding behind a shield enables one to avoid seeing the other person.  All the other person might see is the sword that is being pointed at him from behind that shield.  The shield/sword analogy, therefore, emphasizes the greatest weakness of the proposal.  Hiding behind a shield does not mean the other side will or should go away.  The desire not to see the other side does not mean it does not deserve to exist.  And if the only thing the other side perceives is a sword pointed its way, it is increasingly likely to press its case even harder.

So it is that legislation using the shield and sword analogy weakens, not strengthens, the argument for the legislation and increases the skepticism of those who see no reason to hide behind one and wave the other.   

Defining the key words of a public policy that is this important and this divisive deserves more thought than is embodied in a slogan.  In the next few entries in this series (we haven’t decided how many), let’s explore the dangers of definition.

C’mon, Bob, Lighten Up!

We’ve been much too serious in observing the world from our lofty perch recently and some circumstances have reminded us that life shouldn’t be lived by frowning at others.  At least not all the time.  So we thought we’d share something that began with a recent telephone call.

We heard from somebody we didn’t know a few days ago who, for some reason or another, started doing some genealogical research on our family.  It’s okay, we guess. Everybody needs a hobby and if they’re a genealogist and they’ve tracked their own families back to the people who drew horses on cave walls in France, they need to find somebody else’s family to occupy their time.  Not that this was the case with this person, but my family for some reason had become an attractive matter for study and by using various genealogical sites on the internet, this person had gone back several generations—-although (and this happens sometimes with internet genealogy where bunches of people contribute to what they think are their family lines) the chart being developed was traveling down some wrong tracks.

As it happened, one of our own family members had set out on the same voyage some years ago and seemed to be headed in the right direction.  Until she ran into a circumstance where the family lines started to resemble the famous Cawker City World’s Largest Ball of Twine.  Following the threads became almost impossible.  We recall Aunt Mavis telling about it one day.  She had heard it from her Aunt Florence when she was younger. Aunt Mavis was well up in years when she told it to us and was talking about a few generations back when one line of the family lived in Pennsylvania, probably a little bit after the Civil War.  As near as we can recall—because we’re up in years now ourself—this is what she said, or something like it.

“You have to remember this was back in the days and in a part of the country where some people got started young in the family-making business. But not Uncle Irv.  He was about thirty, I guess, and for some reason had never gotten married when he met this widow lady named Bessie.  Bessie probably was pushing forty.  She’d gotten married when she was fourteen or so and she popped out a kid not too long after that, just before her husband died in a coal mining accident, you know, so the daughter wasn’t much younger than Uncle Irv.  But Irv had eyes only for Bessie, not June, and they got married and started a family of their own.   

“Now, Uncle Irv’s daddy, Martin, was still alive and he was only a little older than Bessie and when Irv and Bessie started sparkin’, Martin started looking at June, who was in her twenties by now, and they started to hit it off and the next thing you know, Martin married June!  Martin had a pretty successful general store, so he offered his younger bride some financial security, which was important because June, she was kinda plain anyway and didn’t want to be a spinster, so she decided she better jump the first broom that came her way and Martin was the first guy who offered her a broom.

“And this is why you’re having so much trouble trying to put together your family tree—because all of this meant that Martin had become his own son’s son-in-law by marrying his son’s daughter-by-marriage.   But that also meant that Irv’s father’s wife had become Irv’s mother, also by marriage!  In other words, Irv’s daughter was now his mother because she married his father. 

“You realize, of course, that there’s a lot of “steps” in that arrangement.  Step-mother, Step-father, step-daughter, but it’s easier to explain this mess if we don’t get all tangled up in the “step” stuff or in the “by marriage” stuff.

“Well, as nature ran its course, Irv and Bessie had a boy they named Charles (and with this, she paused for a few minutes while she made sure she had all the information straight in her own mind).  And that made Charles–let me make sure I have this right–Martin’s brother-in-law and also Irv’s uncle in addition to being his son.  

“Now, that also made Charles a brother of June, who was the daughter of Bessie, who was Irv’s mother because she was the mother of Irv’s father’s wife. 

“Now it gets a little complicated (she said this with a bit of a smile) because June and Martin had their own son, Lemuel—we called him Lem. And that boy therefore became Irv’s grandson because he was the son of Irv’s daughter, June. 

“Okay, now let me work this out.  Bessie, who was Irv’s wife, became the mother of Irv’s mother who was the wife of Irv’s father which made Bessie Irv’s grandmother. But as the husband of his grandmother, he therefore also was his own grandfather!

“And it was all legal.

“But that’s where the family tree turns into a swamp Cypress.”

—-

Now comes the time when we have to tell you, as they say in the movies, this story was “inspired by some actual events.”  That’s Hollywood-ese for saying, “One or two things in this story might be related to something that might actually have happened but most of what you see is made up.”

Someone did call the other day about researching the family tree and she was off on some wrong tracks. And we are familiar with the Cawker City ball of twine—my father was unable to keep the A&P Store open there during the days of the Dust Bowl and the Depression many years before Frank Stoeber started forming leftover baling twine into a ball, and we’ve visited the ball a few times.  I did have an Aunt Mavis but the rest of the folks were part of the “inspired by” thing.

The story of Irv, Bessie, Charles, June, Martin, and Lem is an old one that goes back at least as far as a London newspaper in the 1820s.  We were inspired to relate it because we were listening to the “Radio Classics” satellite channel the other day and heard Phil Harris sing one of his hit songs from the 1940s, “He’s his own Grandpa.”   It was a cover recording of a Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe country song recorded for the first time by Lonzo and Oscar, the country music duo of Lloyd George and Rollin Sullivan, in 1947.  The song, “I’m my own Grandpa,” remains a staple of country music.  Even Willie Nelson has recorded it.

Here’s Lonzo and Oscar on the Grand Ole Opry performing it:

 

And here are the lyrics to Phil Harris’ version (from an internet site of Phil Harris lyrics):

I met a guy today I knew years ago, when he was 23, And he was married to a widow who was as pretty as could be. Now this widow had a grown-up daughter who had beautiful hair of red, And this guy’s father fell in love with her and soon the two were wed.

Now this made the guy’s dad his son-in-law and changed his very life For his daughter was his mother because she was his father’s wife. Now to complicate the matter even though it brought him joy, He soon became the father of a bouncing baby boy.

Now his little baby then became a brother-in-law to his dad, And so became his uncle and though that made him very sad, For if the baby was his uncle then that also made him brother, Of the widow’s grown-up daughter who was of course his step-mother

[chorus] (He’s his own grandpa) Now you’re catching on. (He’s his own grandpa) Well naturally! It sounds funny I know, but really its so. (He’s his own grandpa) Well wait a minute, get a load of this!

Now his father’s wife had a son who kept them on the run, So he became his grandchild for he was his daughter’s son. His wife is now his mother’s mother and of course that makes him blue Because although she’s his wife she’s his grandmother too!

(He’s his own grandpa) Fun in the living room (He’s his own grandpa) Absolutely! It sounds funny i know, but really it’s so. (He’s his own grandpa) Yea, but look, get the payoff.

Now his wife is his grandmother, then he is her grandchild. And every time the guy thinks of it, it nearly drives him wild! For now he has become the strangest case you ever saw, As husband of his grandmother, he’s his own grandpa!

(He’s his own grandpa) And loving every minute! (He’s his own grandpa) Oh tell me more! It sounds funny I know, but really it’s so, He’s his own grandpa. He’s his own grandpa!

And THAT, my friend, is a real example of the badly-abused phrase “traditional family values.”