Monday, October 20, 2014

Why I Like the Union Jack.

Why I Like the Union Jack.

I was recently in good old Park Ridge, Illinois for my 45th Maine South High School Reunion, with a free afternoon to hang out uptown.  Which reminded me of why I like the Union Jack.  I like the good old British flag for a number of reasons, not the least which is having lived in Canterbury for a year.  And it’s a great-looking flag.  But the most important reason is that the good old Union Jack once fluttered proudly above the streets of Park Ridge, on July 4, 1969, to be precise. 

Yes, it fluttered on a flag pole outside of Bob Rowe’s Evening Pipe Shop, proudly, and certainly not defiantly, amidst dozens of American flags lining the streets downtown for our national holiday.  We had taken the Jack to Maine East for the fireworks display the night before, waving it around a few times to the general merriment of anyone who noticed, then sitting on it like a beach blanket to watch the show.

So there we were the following afternoon – it may have been July 5th, I suppose – sitting outside the Shop when a couple of policemen emerged from City Hall across the street.  They advanced towards the shop looking even more grim and displeased than usual. 

One of them, the by-then notorious – to us teenagers - Sergeant Schueneman, growled: “Whose flag is this?”

“Not mine,” chirped a couple of us, which was quite true, for Bill Wood, the owner of the flag, was not there. 

The sergeant then proceeded to snap off the wooden pole, take the offending flag - of our mother country and NATO ally – turn around and disappear into City Hall, where the Park Ridge Police to this day maintain their headquarters.  We dashed into the Shop, found Bob Rowe, the owner and our benevolent protector, and shouted:

“Bob!  Bob!  They’ve taken the flag!  Sergeant Schueneman just stole the Union Jack!  He just walked over here and broke the pole and took it!”

Amidst much more shouting and confusion, Bob calmly took the phone, dialed the police station and held his hand up for quiet.  Upon reaching the desk sergeant, said loudly and firmly:

“One of your policemen just came over here to the Pipe Shop and took a British flag.   That flag is private property and has been in the family for years.  You have no right to take that flag whatsoever.  I am coming across the street to the station right now, and I expect to get it back.”

He marched out the front door, all five feet two inches of him, across Hodges Park and into City Hall.  We held our breath.  Barely two minutes later, he emerged with the flag and we burst into cheers. 
So I am happy to cheer for both the American flag and the Union Jack, two symbols of limited government, rule of law and much else that is good. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Monuments to Freedom

This post also appears on my friend Dan Philpott's site, Arc of the Universe.  
Dan is Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies 
at the University of Notre Dame 
and Director of The Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Architecture is embodied values.  From the humblest temporary dwelling to the grandest monument, buildings reveal what a society values.  As Kenneth Clark put it at the beginning of Civilisation, his famous television series of some forty years ago:  “If I had to say which was telling the truth about society:  a speech by the minister of housing or the actual buildings put up in his time - I should believe the buildings.”

I have spent much of the past two decades studying the buildings of the nation’s capital as a way of understanding this vast nation, now doubled in population since I was born in 1951.  The waves of building up and tearing down in Washington indeed parallel what has happened in the rest of the nation:  enormous growth and confidence in the 1950s and early 60s; vast upheavals and disruptions in the late 60s and 70s, the era of the downtown street demonstration, the growth of the suburbs and interstate system, and the withering of the inner city.  More recently we are observing in Washington and elsewhere a resurgence of the inner city as the population continues to increase and suburbs outgrow the ability of railroads and highways to get people back into the city to work and to recreate.

As a scholar of religion, what I study in particular are the memorials in this city whose task it is to put up monuments that proclaim our common values, evaluate our history and pass on to future generations the lessons that the living have so painstakingly learned.

In this regard, despite the growth and turmoil, Washington has changed remarkably little.  It is still a city iconically defined by five classical buildings that mark out east, west, north, south and center, making the city itself an enormous compass:  Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, White House, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument.  Each one is sedulously classical, or traditional, if you prefer, especially the Capitol, with domes, pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, the works.  You might say that the Washington Monument is even older than classical, being an obelisk, of Egyptian origin.  These buildings have not changed significantly in over sixty years, nor are they likely to, and their fundamental message remains the same:  what Americans value over everything else is freedom. 

A lot of water has come down the Potomac and a lot world-shattering events taken place since this configuration reached its completion in the still-dark days of World War II.  At the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial on April 13, 1943, Jefferson’s birthday, President Roosevelt said, "Today, in the midst of a great war for freedom, we dedicate a shrine to freedom."  At no time in world history before or since had freedom been so threatened and the need for united action against its enemies been so great.  Fortunately this nation and its allies mustered the necessary unity and a greater percentage of people on earth now enjoy some measure of any number of freedoms than ever.

Nonetheless, many threats to freedom remain and we Americans argue amongst ourselves, as we must, about how to face these threats and how to balance freedom with other public values.  How the other classical memorials and the many recent ones reflect this argument will be the subject of subsequent postings. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Washington Monument Re-opens

Washington, DC
May 12, 2014

The Washington Monument re-opened this morning in the nation’s capital. 

A most unexpected 5.8 earthquake, centered in Louisa County, Virginia, about 100 miles southwest of Washington, gave the 555 foot-tall unreinforced masonry structure quite a jolt in late August of 2011.  It had recently been renovated, the stones cleaned and minor cracks repaired.  Now the work had to begin again.  A metal framework rose to the top last fall and came down just a few days ago. 

As the re-opening of a building of this magnitude and significance requires public ceremony, various military units and appropriate dignitaries were called upon to display their craft and say a few words in front of a crowd of several thousand gathered on the grounds southwest of the monument. 

The Armed Forces Color Guard presented the colors at precisely 10 AM.  The fifty flags at the base of the monument fluttered in a steady wind from the south.  The US Navy Ceremonial Band played the National Anthem.  Weather forecast: sunny, warm and humid, highs in the upper 80s.  It must get over 90 to qualify for hot in this southern city. 

As the Washington Monument is administered ultimately by the Department of the Interior, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell led the list of dignitaries, followed by Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service; John Podesta representing the President; Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and various others from the agencies that had a hand in the renovation effort, including philanthropist David Rubenstein, who wrote a personal check for $7.5 million. 

Candace Glover, of American Idol fame, sang “America the Beautiful;” boy and girl choristers from the National Cathedral sang “My Country’Tis of Thee.  Honor of performing last went to the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, clad in scarlet 18th Century coats, buckskin trousers, white gloves, powdered wigs and tricorner hats, led by an officer in a fur shako who brandished a wood-shafted pike topped by three gleaming spikes.  They played 18th-Century tunes and displayed superb parade-ground abilities.  Finally each dignitary took a giant pair of shears, made a simultaneous snip of the red, white and blue ribbon, and the Washington Monument was again open for business.

The whole ceremony took a little more than an hour.  The purpose of this and all ceremonies like it is to remind those present that the republic will endure.  The symbol of the nation’s founder will need to be repaired again.  Dignitaries will gather, all different probably, but the soldiers will present the same colors, bands play the same tunes, singers sing the same songs.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people, will not perish from the earth.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sense of Place; California

I began this blog several years ago in order to share my meditations on the places where I have spent most of my life:  the Midwest, where I grew up; the Northeast, where I was a chaplain at Dartmouth College; northern California, where I did my Ph.D. at Berkeley; and Washington, DC, about which I wrote a doctoral dissertation and where I have taught and lived, off and on, for the past dozen years or so.  During many of those years, I have also spent considerable time living in northern California; visiting the northeast, especially Cambridge; and the Chicago area, including the University of Notre Dame, where my Dad graduated in 1935 and where I was a visiting scholar in the summer of 1997.

I continue to write about these places because I love them.  There is something about each that continues to draw me.  I spent time at college in Iowa and graduated from seminary in New York City, but I was quite miserable at both places and I have not been back.  I also lived for a year during my college years in Canterbury, England and Tubingen, Germany.  Perhaps I will write about them some day. 

I began to add my occasional sermons to this blog, not because they deal explicitly with a sense of place, but because I had no other place to put them.  Sermons do, of course, take place in a particular place, namely the church of Such and Such in Somewhere, USA.  And sermons generally attempt to relate something written in a far away place, namely the Mediterranean basin, a long time ago, to some place today, in this case, a church in the Washington, DC area or northern California.

Now I am reviving the blog to supplement the web page that promotes my tours of Washington.  If you arrived here from there and want to read the posts that deal with Washington, DC, go back to the beginning.  If you enjoy reading what I write about Washington, consider joining me for a walking tour.  Starting some time in May.

Meanwhile, I have spent the winter and now early spring in St. Helena and Santa Rosa, California; Napa and Sonoma counties respectively.  I have grown to love these places.  What’s not to love?  The climate, landscape, food and wine are among the best in the world.  If one tires of so much pleasantness, so many good sights, sounds and tastes, the city of San Francisco and East Bay cities are about an hour away to provide yet more.

I drove down to Berkeley on Saturday morning, March 15, one of those warm spring mornings when the miracle of life induces gratitude even in the most snarky and philosophy in the most obtuse. 

In a normal winter, the rains begin here in November and continue until May.  The rains can come in drenching three-day storms and periods when the skies cloud up for days and it rains off and on.  But many a winter is far from normal.  I remember one when it rained for the entire month of January, then stopped.  One year it rained almost constantly for sixty days.  Another year it did not rain until mid-March.  Spring that year was painful to watch as the plants put forth their shoots above a dusty brown earth.  This year promised to be like that.  The vineyards were a brown desert until mid-February.  But we have now had two major storms and a minor one, yielding anywhere from ten to twenty inches of rain. 

This past week a warm sun came out and the biosphere burst into bloom: yellow mustard topping a carpet of green; wildflowers, flowering trees, buds and shoots of a thousand shades of green.  The landscape all the way down Highway 101 this St. Patrick’s Day Weekend was as green as any part of the Emerald Isle itself.  Arriving early at my destination, I walked around the neighborhood north of the university and west of Shattuck Avenue to gaze rapturously at varieties and colors of flowers beyond my ability to name and smell the hedges of fragrant rosemary in purple blossom. 

After appreciating various shingle-style and craftsman houses, I found myself, as I often do, in front of the small apartment building that replaced the old house that Allen Ginsberg lived in and Jack Kerouac often visited in the 1950s.  There is another small apartment building next door and next to that a house surrounded by a chain-link fence, being prepared either for demolition or radical reconstruction.  Across the street, on the grounds of the Berkeley Arts Magnet School, the poetry garden dedicated to Ginsberg and the other beat poets is likewise under reconstruction.  I wonder what the neighborhood arts committee has in mind.  The sign is still there:

“This garden honors Berkeley’s many innovative poets, poetry presses and their legacy.  It was dedicated in 1999 on the second anniversary of “Beat” poet Allen Ginsberg’s death.  Through their writings, the nonconformist poets sought liberation from traditional social, political, artistic and personal conventions.  Ginsberg lived across the street in a now-demolished house at 1624 Milvia Street while writing, among other poems, parts of his once-banned work Howl!.  Poet Gary Snyder also stayed there.  “Beat Generation” writer Jack Kerouac lived for a while in a rose-covered cottage on Berkeley Way and poet Robert Duncan also lived in this neighborhood during the 1950s.”

Then I walked past yet more radiant living glory to 1924 Cedar Street, where I entered a small Unitarian church to enjoy that day’s 6-hour SoulMotion workshop. 

Early anthropologists, geographers and travel writers, in conveying a sense of place, did their best to convey everything that people did, especially as it differed dramatically from the people who would read their work back in Europe.  They noted the interaction of people and place.  How do people relate to their place, make it theirs, part of their identity?  What stories do they tell, what music do they play, how do they move to music?  How has this environment affected the way they move, the way they work, the food they eat and how they prepare it?

I wonder what anthropologists years in the future will make of the “conscious dance” movement that now flourishes in North America, Europe and, I would guess, everywhere else. 

I walk in to wooden-floored space to find about fifty people moving to music.  For the better part of six hours, that is all we do.  We pause briefly for lunch.  Occasionally the leader, in this case Valerie Chafograck, now of the Bay Area but born in Paris, gives us something to do:  move with a partner, move with a group of three or four; do a solo.  You can call this dance, but it is far from the world of waltzes and tango.  There are no specific steps, no set figures. 

My first experience of this world of movement was a “Barefoot Boogie” in Cambridge some thirty years ago.  Since then a couple of teachers have attracted quite a following.  I now spend every Christmas at Esalen in a SoulMotion workshop:  six hours of dance every day for seven days.  After a couple of days of spinning, swaying, twisting, tilting, and turning accompanied by good food and soaks in the famous mineral baths, the muscles become like rubber bands and a big, irrepressible smile forms on the face.  Perhaps some ancient peoples lived rather like this, not immersed in books, computers and television screens, but moving to music for hours a day, while planting, reaping and hunting as needed.

I’d like to think so.