Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Slow Goodbye

Death, the subject we tend to dread the most, is always present somewhere in the mind, usually at an unconscious level.  Sometimes it is tinged with hope and a sense of relief; often, with a terror of the unknown.

I wish I could simply say, like Hamlet's mother, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity," and let it go at that.  But fear of the final goodbye and the extinction of our consciousness and identity runs too deep.

For the past year, our cat, Lizzie, a nineteen-year-old tabby cat, has been teaching us a lesson in dying with dignity. When the vet yesterday officially said what we knew--that her kidneys have failed--she also said Lizzie has been very tolerant of her condition. She has always been a quiet, indoor cat, a model of patience and simplicity, who now spends most of her life sleeping.

Her disease has gradually made her confused, as she walks slowly around very familiar territory, looking disoriented. She neither eats nor plays; yet, when petted, she will still wag her tail and purr a bit.

As my wife and I watch her, we think, invariably, of our own end. We are aware of neighbors and friends whose lives are ebbing away. 

Lizzie is lucky to be spared the knowledge that she will die.  She remains placid most of the time while we wonder about when to end her life: should we prolong it another week, waiting for nature to take its course?  When is the right time to say goodbye?

If Lizzie can wait (without knowing she's waiting), why can't we? 

This gentle cat has taught us many lessons, provoked many laughs during the past fifteen years, and inspired many stories. Now I think it is her destiny to teach us  something about accepting death as the natural part of life it is and as something to be welcomed with relief.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trump, Bloviating Demagogue

After a talk I gave last night on Winston Churchill, I was asked if I saw a connection between the World War II British Prime Minister and Donald Trump.  At first, I was taken aback, then realized that, having stressed some of the negative aspects of Churchill's personality--spoiled, arrogant, outspoken, immune to the feelings of others--there might be some parallel. Sir Winston could often act like an unruly child.

Of course, he was also brilliant, thoughtful, careful, and witty, with a mastery of language that he carefully honed over his long career of reading and writing--unlike Trump, the real estate mogul with no qualifications to run for the presidency.

So the question I have for the Republican Party is: why do you allow this embarrassing ignoramus to distract so much attention from the decent candidates (of which there are too many) and the issues?  Do we want to elect an unruly child, a self-centered man who bloviates, as president in 2016?

To "bloviate," I was reminded on Google, is an American coinage c. 1850, popularized by President Harding, and it means to speak endlessly in a pompous, empty way, as Trump does.  He also fits that venerable American political type, the demagogue, who avoids reason, common sense and facts to appeal to the prejudices of his audience.

Hence we have Donald ("everyone loves me") Trump famously denying the facts of Obama's birth and now mocking the war record of a hero of the Vietnam war while attacking immigrants as criminals. The result? The media, which should put him in the entertainment section (as the Huffington Post has done), loves to talk about him, the perfect cartoon candidate, and the polls so far favor him because, presumably, he "tells it like it is," irrespective of facts, reason, and taste.

Those who love Trump look past his enormous ego and love of power, his childish love of attention, and his clownish ability to say anything to get more of the attention he seems to need. They are the fools who would turn out to see the freak at the circus.

Ignorance and bigotry do not, apparently, disqualify one from running for president of the United States. When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, "every thinking person in America should vote for you," he replied with Churchillian wit, "Madam, that is not enough: I need a majority."

We keep learning never to overestimate the intelligence of the voting public.

Since writing this, I have seen Timothy Egan's column in the New York Times, which is must reading.  His point:  What produced the boorish, buffoonish, bloviating, bigoted blowhard Donald Trump?  The right wing extremists who've taken over the GOP, insulted John Kerry by turning "Swift Boat" into a verb, and shouted "you lie!" to the President addressing Congress.  Trump is the inevitable byproduct of the manufactured anger and outrage that typifies so much blather on the right.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Royals and the Nazis

The photo of Queen Elizabeth II as a seven-year-old girl giving the Nazi salute, along with her mother and little sister in 1933, has somehow found its way, after eighty years, from the private royal archives to the London tabloid, The Sun, which will publish nearly anything sensational.  The Guardian reported on the photo in the past few days.

But there's more to the story, which interests me because of the pro-German, often fascist and pro-Nazi sympathies of many at the highest level of society in Britain during the Thirties.

My first reaction was: what children in that time, having fun, would not mock the then-new Nazi salute, along with the ridiculous goose-stepping that went along with it?  I grew up later in America, where films about the Nazis became a natural subject of parody, even after the war, after the Holocaust. The royal family on display in these family pictures, which are private and should not be published without permission, are having fun with Herr Hitler soon after he came to power, with no knowledge of the horror to come.  The bottom line: they are having fun.

At the same time, we see in the photo two adults giving the salute: one in fun--the Queen Mum--the other, Elizabeth's uncle, the future Edward VIII, who, after his marriage to the American divorcee, became the Duke of Windsor and a well-documented Nazi sympathizer.  He is shown in the photo behind the children prompting them to salute.

Now the image becomes more chilling, at leas to me, having read a good deal about the Duke of Windsor and the forgotten  royal, Prince George, Duke of Kent, whose mysterious death in 1942 has been hushed up, along with many other details of his life. Records about this "special mission" that crashed in Scotland have been, like most documents about sensitive topics, kept in the royal archives, to be opened by the Queen.  This is unfortunate for historians wanting to write a biography of the colorful, talented man who was her uncle or to learn more about Anglo-German relations leading up to World War II.

He was also, according to most sources that we have, doing intelligence work during the war, flying back and forth to Nazi Germany and supporting his brother, the Duke of Windsor in his naïve hope of gaining peace with Hitler--at the very time the Churchill government was beginning to wage war against Nazi Germany.

The Duke of Kent was but one of many nobles at the time who were either members of the Anglo-German alliance or fascist sympathizers.   Those in the royal family were of German stock, with royal cousins in the Germany, including several princes of Hesse who were active Nazis.  Many facts about this have been documented by Philip Ziegler and others reputable scholars.

No sensible historian would question the loyalty of King George VI or his wife, the future Queen Mother, whose earlier Nazi salute was done in jest, in innocence, I am sure. But they are right to be concerned about the ex-king Edward (Windsor), who came close to being accused of treason for his statements and actions around 1940.

The whole story can only be told if the royal archives are opened to historians now, seventy-five years after the major events happened, if nothing else than to put to rest the rumors about being pro-Nazi that continue to haunt the House of Windsor.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Does Handwriting Have a Future?

Handwriting, that antique art form of loops and curves instilled in me in grade school, is rarely taught these days. My students print and sometimes can't read my cursive writing.  Of course, this is a minor problem in our changing world. Yet to people like me concerned with writing in its various dimensions, the shift in technology from old to new is important.

What is the point of handwriting? That is the title of a fine article (in Hazlitt) by Navneet Alang, who connects handwriting to the body and identity in fascinating ways.

First, I agree with his contention that cursive writing expresses feelings and personality in a way that the printed word cannot.  Even though some dismiss handwriting as a lost art, a crude form of writing, hopelessly outdated, or a sign of a bygone age, Alang shows that this form of writing is distinctly human and, what's more, helps one retain and understand what he or she is writing. Why? In part because it's slower.

And it has a future in 21st century technology:  the digital pen soon to be part of Microsoft's new Edge browser will let users write by hand atop web pages; so this antique writing, ignored by most English teachers over the past thirty years, may find a rebirth on screens.

While the speed and efficiency of typing on the computer will continue to dominate the way we write, capturing the speed of our thoughts, the slower pace of cursive writing and its personal impact have many benefits.

The author shows how studies of penmanship have an important bodily dimension, and how language, the body and the identity we create through writing come together. Fascinating!  Valuable!