Trump in the East: Revisiting Revolution

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President Trump’s first trip overseas is now in the books. His itinerary took him from Riyadh to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Rome, Vatican City, Brussels, and Taormina and Sigonella, Italy. Photos of him with the likes of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Netanyahu and placing a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem were downright surreal. The whole thing was just … so … international. I even texted a friend this: “Did you know that Donald Trump was president? Not president of Trump Inc., but president of the United States.” Whether it was a success or not depends on who you ask, I guess. But no one can deny the optics. President Trump stepped out of the television and into his new role as world leader. That he chose the east for this trip was no accident, either. It was an opportunity for the president to reaffirm the country’s leadership along with espousing and promoting a message of solidarity. What I appreciated most was the sense of sincerity.

Regardless of how successful President Trump’s first trip abroad may or may not have been, the outright collision of popular culture, our current American political climate, and the volatile east was impossible for me to ignore. The visuals of our just-inaugurated president in these far-away places, with men in traditional east clothing and in incredibly weighty moments, for me at least, conjured other far-away visuals from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. As fate would have it, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading books from the revolutionary era that dates from the Spanish Civil War early in the Twentieth Century through the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War. I haven’t devoted a great deal of time, any time for that matter, to the Spanish Civil War. But from what I gather, there was essentially an ongoing revolution beginning in 1918 with the first World War through the Spanish Civil War which gave way to World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba. Even though we’ve been led to believe that all wars are ultimately about money, this period of history actually seems more motivated by political philosophy than finance and power.

The Spanish Revolution has become the most interesting to me as it relates to our current state. Ultimately between the competing factions of communism and fascism, the Spanish Revolution has its origins in extreme nationalism that emerged as a result of creeping liberalism. As the central government leaned more and more left, the military led by General Franciso Franco attempted a coup with some degree of success. The “some” part of this is what embroiled Spain in its 3-year revolution with Germany and Italy supporting the nationalists and Russia supporting what was left of Spain’s legitimate government.

It’s important to note that the democracies sat this one out. They opted neither to join the nationalists or the progressives. While private citizens (even including Ernest Hemingway) from US. France, and England contributed to the efforts of the Spanish government in its fight against fascism, the states as sovereigns remained neutral. And the choice of these citizens? This is what’s fascinating to me. Just about anyone from any democracy that wanted to join the fight in Spain was likely going to fight on the side of communism against the more natural enemy of democracy, extreme nationalism in the form of fascism. In this context — and others such as Germany in the 1930s – nationalism came in way short on the “healthy nation” scale. Certainly not condemning national pride, history has shown us that nationalism in its extremity, dare I say radicalism, can lead down some dark paths.

As I’ve immersed myself in this revolutionary stretch of the Twentieth Century I can’t help but wonder if we’re on the edge of another such season, though surely not as violent in its swings. The American electorate surprised many of us with its reaction to encroaching liberalism. We saw some of the same tendencies in France’s national election and even now surprises from Great Britain. And here we are almost exactly 100 years later with a president elected on the high tides of nationalism. I wouldn’t suggest there’s anything magic about 100 years, but I would suggest that we as humans have short memories. I’ve read that every 5th generation is tainted by a tragic brush of forgetfulness. (My summary.) That is, say, the Baby Boomers studied under the World War II generation but failed to steep their children in a helpful historical or cultural context. The children of the Boomers then would have little to pass on to the fourth generation about what was learned in the 1940s. In this very human, somewhat twisted drama, the fifth generation is vulnerable to the same destructive conclusions and reactions as those that embroiled us in the era of turmoil that stained most of the Twentieth Century. Historian Joseph Ellis in his book American Creation, referring to the framers of the Constitution, notes how our Founding Fathers put into place a means for fueling a perpetual revolution yet, with its various checks and balances, might manage to avoid sudden and destructive turns. I’ve always appreciated that sentiment from Ellis and such foresight of the Framers. I’m just not sure I’m as confident in the populace.

Does history repeat itself? Although it may appear so, to say that history repeats itself personifies “history” to an unreasonable level. History is neutral and abject. What we mistake for a cyclical history is humanity simply falling into the same mistakes. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the two things are different. My point is that the problem is not with historicity but the human condition. Can we change it? I guess we’ll see. But maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe the right question is this: Where will we put our adoration? Based on what I see run through my feeds every day we are, collectively, in a perpetual process of deciding what or who we will worship and more and more it’s landing, in some form or fashion, with our government. In what or who we will put our trust and hope. This question gets to matters of our heart, energy, and trust. An interesting “revolution” would emerge if we opted to pursue the original vision for America that exhorted the individual to become greater than governments had allowed to that point in history as opposed to our relatively recent obsession with simply being on the right political side. So many of the posts I see on social media remind of CS Lewis’ conclusion: We are far too easily pleased. Dare to be more than liberal or republican, than democrat or conservative, than progressive or pragmatic. This is a revolution of spirit.

What’s a Blueberry Muffin Worth?

DSCN7212+-+blueberry+muffin+-+closeJust an FYI on the energy equivalent of a blueberry muffin. That is, what does it take to “work off” a blueberry muffin.

Lawn-mowing 66 minutes

Cycling at an easy pace for 77 minutes

Vacuuming for 92 minutes

Jogging for 33 minutes (compared to the 2 minutes it takes to consume said muffin)

Folding laundry for 230 minutes

Lifting weights for 115 minutes

Gardening for 66 minutes (surprised that gardening and lawn-mowing are exactly the same? I am.)

Anam Cara — Pursuer of Beauty and Truth

Blue Flower, 1918

Recently found a great blog called Anam Cara. Although there’s more and more attention being given to beauty—what it means and how we can respond—there’s still not enough. Anam Cara is a good place to check with from time to time for fresh thoughts, new paradigms, and great historical, literary, and spiritual references. Check it out. by clicking here.

There is so much beauty around us that we miss.   We need to breathe deeper

Elvis Is Dead

elvis_presleyI’ve got a friend—pretty close friend—that was once in the hotel business. From the way it sounds, he did pretty good. He opened a few hotels, was general manager, even owned a hotel once.

He tells a story about a time when he was a young F&B guy. That’s hotel talk for “food and beverage.” The first few times I heard him refer to F&B I thought he was saying “effin B”—which didn’t make any sense. I’m terrible at asking questions so I let it go for some time before realizing he wasn’t cursing 1/26th of our alphabet. Anyway, his job was to get patrons into the hotel bar and restaurant—an easy task when the hotel was busy, but a challenge when he had to generate business. So, like anyone fresh out of college might, he had this great idea to have a “Ladies Night” for all the would-be customers in the greater Williamsburg KY area. (Yeah I know.) It’s a formula best described as “tried and true.” Discount admission for “the ladies,” and the men are sure to follow.

So my friend hires a band. He prints signs and posts them all over town. Telephone poles. Retail windows. Windows of cars. For two weeks leading up to the event he spent marketing dollars promoting “Ladies Night”. The day finally came and, to make this part of the story short, it bombed. Maybe 8 people showed up. (I don’t remember how many of them were women.) Immediately my friend began to dread the meeting he was sure would happen with the hotel general manager. Let’s call this guy “Nehaus.”

As sure as the sun, the next day my friend was summoned into the cherry wood desked, leather furnitured office of one Robert Nehaus. For the first few seconds nobody said anything. Both parties were aware of how much was spent on the event; both were aware of the turnout.

“So how’d it go last night?” Nehaus rhetorically asked.
“It bombed,” my friend offered as a token of submission, probably hoping to avoid any further confrontation.

A few more nervous ticks elapsed as Robert Nehaus deliberated. Then, “What if Elvis would have been playing? How do you think last night would have gone if you had been able to get Elvis there?”

No longer slumping in the black leather chair, my friend perked up and came to life. “Well yeah. If Elvis been would have been here we would have packed the place. We would have been turning people away at the door! Shoot, they would have paid just to be in the parking lot … and I wouldn’t have had to promote anything!”

Nodding in agreement, and actually for a moment sharing in my friend’s sudden wonderful revelation, Nehaus allowed my friend to dream on about booking Elvis and the enormous potential before breathing life to these great words of wisdom, “But Elvis is dead.”

I love that story. Admittedly, when I heard it I walked away like Coleridge‘s wedding guest, a little stunned, not knowing why my friend took the time to tell it. But since then I’ve realized in those times when I’m looking for the formulas of life to save me that … there are no formulas. There is no magic bullet. I can’t just “phone in” Elvis as a solution … because he’s dead. There’s something liberating in that. And also something profound.

Quote of the Day

images“So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone’s older brother, and someone’s older sister—they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear. There is always a brave, lost brother—and a little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them.” from John Irving‘s The Hotel New Hampshire

The Hotel New Hampshire gives us such a great moment for the power of imagination and the human condition. And it has the greatest ending this side of The Great Gatsby. Although broken and flawed, we have been given the means to rise above it all. We have the power to invent, to create, to imagine. We saint and we cheer and make heroes. In the end, there is truly nothing to fear. We are called to live from who we were created to be.

Agonistes in Wonderland

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Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been sitting on my book shelf since, well, since I can remember. To be honest, I don’t even know why I have it. I guess it is one of those college assignments that I never quite got to. (In college I ONLY read the British Romantics.) So, tired of seeing an unread book on the shelf, I picked it up earlier this week and decided to read it. Let me tell you, this story is weird. Crazy. We’ve all seen the Disney movie. We know about the Queen of Hearts and the caterpillar. We remember the White Rabbit and Mad Hatter (right?). Cheshire-Cat is the best. Like most cats, he’s arrogant. But he gets the best lines. Even thought the book is crazy, there are so many great moments. I’d also add that Alice is one of the coolest characters I’ve encountered in fiction. That’s surprised me a little bit. She’s strong without being overbearing. She’s inquisitive without being naive. Feminine without being wimpy. She’s the quintessential postmodern heroine.

I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!

But my favorite aspect of Alice: she’s fearless—except that she was initially afraid of the Queen’s soldiers before realizing that they were only cards from a playing deck. While in Disney World a few years back we ran into a great painting of Alice standing, unsure, in front of the cigarette-smoking caterpillar. In the worm’s puff’s of smoke was the question, “Who are you?” If it wasn’t for the $500 I would have bought it. But that’s not the point. The point is that the caterpillar’s question is THE question. And it was so profound to be asking a lost girl in a place called Wonderland. I think we would all do well to try a little harder every day to wake up in the middle of a fairy tale. There’s danger. Absolutely. And disorientation. But also life—enormous life. Alice in Wonderland is a great reminder not of what life ought to be, but what it is. Fraught with adventure, disorientation, surprises, strange and unexplainable circumstances, and villainy. There’s fear, but once a closer examination is made there’s the realization that it’s only a veneer. But sum effect of it all is more than a Wonderland of sorts—it’s a very real Wonderland.

Big Josh, Big Jim, and the Rest of Us

bigjimAnybody remember these guys? They made up P.A.C.K. My memories are becoming more and more vague; less and less reliable. So it’s a good thing we’ve got the Internet. This collection released by Mattel in the early 1970s (1972 according to Wikipedia) ran through the early 1980s. It was about this time that the home video console and cable television became much more common thus pushing the more imaginative toys like these action figures into the most remote regions of the closet. And, in fairness, I guess it should be mentioned that the Big Jim core market would have discovered other forms of entertainment by then.

Regardless, Big Jim, Big Jeff, Dr. Steele, and Big Josh represented masculinity for a generation. Seems strange now. Especially scrolling through image after image of these action figures. Of course as a kid you don’t notice stuff like this, but each one had a specialty. Dr. Steele was the anti-establishment guy. He was scary for sure, but when the going got tough he’s the guy you wanted. (“A doctor of what?” you may ask. “A doctor of pain,” I say) Big Josh was the no-nonsense lumberjack. He was the calm in the middle of the storm. And I’m sure he always always voted Republican. Big Jeff was the proverbial “second”—equal parts fun and danger. Big Jeff was the guy Dr. Steele would most likely go to with his problems. And then there was Big Jim, the undisputed leader. I can only imagine the confidence, self-suredness, and strength it must have taken to lead this group; to command such men. Just because Barbie’s been around forever doesn’t mean that she’s got a monopoly for placing expectation.

So these were, in some ways, my heroes. They were perfect. These were the guys that had it all together. And if they didn’t they’d just find somebody to beat up (or maybe find some wood to chop). They had chiseled chests and square jaws. Abs like the commercial guys. They were men of few words. They spoke through the sheer force who they were. These guys had presence. They were fearless. This was life, I thought. And this is what being a man in the mysterious adult world, then whirling around above my head, was going to be like.

What Big Jim told us is that this is all it takes. But what Big Jim couldn’t tell me was how to be a husband or a father. He was unable to tell me that strength lies not in a bicep, but in heart, commitment, and passion. And even though Big Josh can swing a mighty axe, I wonder how he would have coped with a crying daughter with a broken heart. Dr. Steele would make a great body guard being able to chop a metal rod in half and all, but I’ll bet that didn’t help him fix the dryer or clean the gutters. And that crazy Big Jeff. He’s got nothing for me during a child’s asthma attack. No, there’s a whole other reality for these things. That’s where real life happens. That’s where the rest of us live. And there’s a different kind of strength required for that one—the beautiful kind.