A Yankee Notebook

November 28, 2016


MONTPELIER, VT – You can’t live for eighty years without hearing a lot of comments, sermons, advice, quotations, songs, jokes, and stories. They all pile up in your head, carelessly arranged but accessible, and ready for application or recitation. The ones that you remember best remain bubbling near the surface of your consciousness, like the letters in simmering alphabet soup, and become part of your approach to the various situations of life.

Some are fairly sophisticated, like the philosophical pronouncements of Bertrand Russell, say, or Jean-Paul Sartre. Others are tidbits gleaned from conversations with others – old-timers, especially – over sandwiches and coffee at lunch break on a job.

It’s interesting to me how often the vulgar gets at the truth better than the elegant. Years ago, when I worked in the Adirondacks, I was occasionally invited to the soirées and cocktail parties of summer people. It was common for the daughters of summer folks to fall for local boys during the vacation months. One evening I heard a fellow guest say, “I understand Melissa Harrison is in a relationship with the young boathouse attendant up at the Club.” A couple of days later, at lunchtime on the job, old Stub Kelly observed, “I hear Bobby Hall’s runnin’ that Harrison girl.”

A few years later, after Mother and I had been married a while, we were at a family gathering near Albany, and at swords’ points over something or other. We thought we were unobserved, till my lovely Italian Aunt Therese stopped beside us for a moment. “You know,” she said, “you kids get all excited over stuff that doesn’t make any difference.” It must have been effective; I’ve remembered it for over 55 years now.

Well, as Abraham Lincoln might say of the current political situation in the United States, we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. The president-elect has run like a bull through the china shops of both major political parties; both are in disarray, and almost nothing is what it long has been. White supremacists, who’ve been lying semi-dormant like the seeds of desert plants waiting for rain, have sprung up right in the nation’s capital, disingenuously shouting, among other things, “Hail Victory!” while extending right arms in salute. I remember “Hail Victory!” from my childhood and the films of Leni Riefenstahl. In German, it’s “Sieg Heil!” Instructional videos are lately appearing on the Internet showing citizens how to come to the aid of Muslims being harassed by bullies. In Washington, yclept by the president-elect a swamp in need of draining, the most bizarre appointments to important posts are popping up daily on the news.

Up here in the boonies of American culture, it’s just beginning to percolate through our brains that we’re obviously on our own. Neither major party that we voted for has a credible leader. and neither of the other two has a prayer. Vermont and New Hampshire have four senators, but between them only three representatives; and all seven are in the minority. What’s to be done?

A bit of advice that’s been enjoying some popularity recently is “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Devised to cheer the British during the London Blitz of 1940, the poster apparently never appeared anywhere in public at the time. But it expresses well the gritty determination of the Brits during those terrible years of their history.

Far better, I suggest, is the homely aphorism shared one day by an old guy I worked with long ago on a construction job. It was during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was looking particularly menacing, and Russian was becoming a popular elective in American universities. “Don’t forget,” he said, “everybody puts his pants on one leg at a time. Few years ago, we all thought Germany or Japan might put us under. Now it’s Russia’s gonna eat our lunch. Soon it’ll be somebody else. Doesn’t matter. Everybody’s got problems, just like us.”

I once read that the legendary Angelo Dundee, trainer of, among others, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, used to lie on his back on the floor in the morning and pull on both legs at once, just to be different. Still the old man’s advice is good. The Beltway Bubble is just as opaque and exclusive as ours here in northern New England – with this exception: The incoming president has foolishly made enemies for life of the national media, and they’re hanging on his every word, facial expression, and action. It will put a major crimp in tweets declaring, without a scintilla of evidence, the existence of three million illegal votes. In addition, because of the almost insuperable Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, those august bodies may be tempted to overplay their hands; every move of theirs will likewise be scrutinized for its implications, as distinct from its purported aims, and reported to the eagerly waiting public opposition.

Those of us on the downhill side of retirement age will especially be watching for any proposed changes in Social Security and Medicare, waiting for some unwary politician to declare them “entitlements” and claim they need to be trimmed to help eliminate the federal deficit.

I quit the AARP years ago when it became more a conduit for age-related products and insurance than an advocacy group. But there is still the Gray Panthers, a movement dedicated to uniting the causes of young and old and potentially representing a tremendous bloc of voting Americans. The national movement is currently “in dissolution,” whatever that means; but as Robert E. Lee said of Gettysburg, “I think we may have an opportunity here.”

Photo by Willem lange