Americans have long held themselves in high regard. We are, most all of us, God-fearing, freedom-loving, upbeat, energetic strivers, eager to take on challenges and confident about the future. Recently, however, there’s been reason to wonder about the accuracy of such a self-assessment. Police killings, bizarre conspiracy theories, Covid complacency, extremist activism, threats to democracy, the storming of the Capitol, widespread economic hardship, all raise questions about our fundamental character and the assumed goodness of our people.
Assessing populations as a whole probably makes little sense and would, in any event, yield imprecise generalizations of limited value. Far more interesting and achievable is the prospect of evaluating individuals and determining specific “life achievement” levels. Setting aside genetic inheritance, environmental circumstances broadly conceived and good or bad fortune, we could ask how fully realized is this or that person. We would consider a broad range of behaviors, a complete record of achievement together with an account of observable deficiencies. This is no simple task, for individuals are not inclined to full disclosure, seek rather to present themselves in selective and positive ways, concealing limitations, masking motivations, posing and deceiving. Numerous independent witnesses must be interviewed, evidence sought from a multitude of sources. We must bear in mind what is possible and desirable in each area of inquiry. We must pay attention to course corrections, to changes over time – for better or worse. We must not be swayed by notably admirable qualities and high levels of specific achievement that divert attention away from other less positive traits and behaviors. Before assigning grades (1-10), we must not permit the observable to be minimized by the perfect. Areas of consideration must also be tailored to the specific “life paths” of individuals, but, in general, the following represents the principal concerns of our investigators.
• Looks, appearance, dress, bearing.
• Emotionally appropriate, controlled, self-aware.
• Intelligence, common sense, curiosity, educational achievement.
• Broad-minded, tolerant, low levels of prejudice.
• Friendly, kind, supportive, concern for others.
• Real, up front, straight shooter.
• Honesty, integrity, reliability.
• Steady career advancement, skills enhancement.
• Charitable, generous, organizationally involved, community-oriented.
• Ongoing family ties, long-term partner or companion.
It is time now to take the complete measure of people you know. Score them from one to ten in all of the above categories. Be fair, compile evidence from your own observations and from others with direct knowledge. Don’t be surprised to uncover inconsistencies, for example, in a high-achieving individual who is also a complete phony, or in an impressively intelligent person who all too often flies off the handle. Low grades will not be uncommon. Admirable individuals will score 70 and above. Be cautious before announcing your grades.
We all came into the world possessing nothing other than our own name. But that name was not of our choosing: It was rather a decision made for us by our parents for reasons of their own. We’re obliged to live with their choice (though not always) for the rest of our lives. It belongs to us and we strive, as best we can, to protect and defend “our good name.” Of course, it is somewhat upsetting to discover, as almost always we do, that others, unrelated to us, bear the exact same name. We manage to get over this, recognizing that we are, after all, unique.
While it is true that we can, on our own, adopt an alias or pseudonym, our names are, for the most part, imposed upon us. Take nicknames (or pet names) for example. Parents bestow them on children, friends join in with their own inventions, while the press often delights in creating alternate identities. Now nicknames are in fact often endearing, help humanize and personalize others; still they are largely unalterable and attach indefinitely, people ordinarily unable to shed them.
Looking back in time we note how people have long been at the mercy of name “assigners.”
• Women who married typically were obliged to surrender their maiden names and assume their husbands’ surnames.
• Slaves arriving in America came with African names, which were usually cast aside, replaced by those imposed by their new owners.
• Native Americans were encouraged by legislation in 1887 (Dawes Act) to abandon tribal lands and loyalties, assimilate and assume standard American names. Jim Thorpe (hardly an Indian name) did, nevertheless, make a name for himself.
• On occasion officials on Ellis Island misunderstood the statements of nonEnglish-speaking immigrants and transcribed names they imagined they heard.
• The Nazis, in an effort to thwart Jewish name changing, ordered that every male Jewish name include “Israel”, and every Jewish woman “Sarah.”
• Celebrities in the U.S. were widely encouraged to replace given names and adapt those with more “universal” appeal.Thus Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas; Carlos Esteves. Charlie Sheen; Margaret Hyra, Meg Ryan; Mark Sinclair, Vin Diesel; and Joaquin Bottom, Joaquin Phoenix.
There has, however, been a reaction, a re-assertion of individual agency. A more fluid landscape of gender identity has given rise to name changing to reflect emergent realities. Jewish Americans, once inclined to name changing in order to gain acceptance into “proper” society, have generally ceased such practices. Celebrities Ben Stiller, Sacha Baron Cohen, Adam Sandler, and Jeff Goldblum represent this recent development. Many African American names now reflect an awakened sense of group pride and shared heritage. Married women no longer automatically surrender maiden names, either retaining them or blending former and current surnames.
When Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” he might not have realized how complicated and revealing that question would become over the years.
We once understood and largely accepted the boundaries that defined much of what we believed, the way arranged our lives and how societies were organized. They allowed us to go about our business and to avoid surprises, especially unpleasant ones. Of course, expected to “know their place” and small, local business operations their geographic limits, regarded the prescribed boundaries as unwelcome and unfair.
But America has always been about testing and stretching boundaries. England’s aristocratic society and Established Church both crumbled after the American Revolution. The former colonial boundaries burst apart as Americans surged westward. More recently, the boundaries that long confined women were redrawn or simply disappeared.
Today, boundaries long in place, are being breached, even obliterated. Whether welcomed or deeply resented, the process, for many, has been unusually unsettling. Take note of the following developments.
• Businesses have changed shape, expanded beyond long established limits. Gas stations now have mini marts attached. Walmart sells groceries and Amazon has exploded far beyond peddling books. Once a successful enterprise goes the franchise route thousands of units spring up across the country. Businesses expand globally: their products arriving on our shores from anywhere in the world.
• Male and female boundaries can no longer contain the many additional identities people have claimed. Families now present in many sizes, shapes and relationships. They are single, extended, blended, co-parented, same sex, etc.
• We’re stretching the boundaries of earth, heading into space more consistently and confidently than ever before.
• News sources spill out beyond all former and formal boundaries. Social media, podcasts, talk radio, the internet, and television: all compete for our attention.
• Facts, validity, evidence were once understood and generally agreed upon. Now truth is under assault, become a contested arena amidst a swirl of opinions, suspicions, falsehoods, a polarized citizenary and conspiratorial fantasies.
All the above is both liberating and unsettling, leaving many of us confused and conflicted as boundaries shift continuously. Barriers have been lifted and freedoms expanded, but let’s not forget that boundaries have also helped us define and reinforce what is worth defending and preserving.
Now that Donald Trump has exited the White House, how much influence will he wield on the political scene? Only time will tell. Our history, however, does offer a possible answer. Very, very few American presidents retained much power upon leaving office. Most passed quietly from the scene, some became respected “elder statesmen,” but not the “decision makers” they had formerly been. Of course this is not an entirely fair inquiry since our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, did not enjoy a post-presidency, and Washington died shortly after leaving office.
Still there are some notable exceptions who should be considered in this survey. Andrew Jackson, who left office in 1837, remained an acknowledged player in the Democratic Party, forcefully supporting the annexation of Texas and the selection of James Polk as the party’s presidential candidate in 1844. Our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, after his term of office, became a nine-term Congressman from Massachusetts and an outspoken champion of the antislavery movement. William Howard Taft, after leaving office in 1913, joined the Yale law faculty, and then in 1920 became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during a period in which judicial conservatism was in the ascendancy. Though resigning after the disgrace of “Watergate,” Richard Nixon nevertheless managed, in the view of many, to “rehabilitate” himself and to enjoy an extended career as an elder statesman and sagacious analyst of the international scene. It’s been forty years since Jimmy Carter left the White House and his reputation as President still seems to register not much beyond lackluster. Nevertheless, his post-presidency has been remarkable, not in terms of wielding power, but rather for the “good works” he has performed. His peacekeeping, election monitoring and humanitarian efforts have been widely acclaimed, his religious convictions admired, and his writings widely appreciated.
So we finally arrive at the President who, compared to all others, managed to remain influential well beyond his White House years. Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901 upon the assassination of President McKinley, could have run again in 1908 but to his lasting regret publicly announced well before that he would not. But upon breaking with his successor, President William Howard Taft, he chose to return to the political wars. He re-entered the fray in 1910, this time championing a “New Nationalism” and laid out an extensive progressive agenda. He ran for president in 1912 under the banner of the “Progressive Party.” And though he lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, he far exceeded Taft’s tally and gained the largest percentage of the overall vote of any third party ever. He determined to run again in 1916, but failed to gain the support of Republican leaders. Nevertheless, he did obtain Congressional support to raise a separate military unit under his command, to fight in World War I (as he’d done in the Spanish-American War). President Wilson, however, would not approve. Still, as the 1920 presidential campaign, was getting underway, it appeared that Roosevelt had the inside track to his party’s nomination. It would not be. Roosevelt died in 1919 at the age of 61.
So, what does this excursion through our past reveal? It’s clear, if you exclude TR, that no other president has been able to remain the master of events after his term in office ends. The nation moves on; other individuals move up and take control. Donald Trump, in essential ways, is no Teddy Roosevelt. Still, Roosevelt was the consummate showman, was bombastic, played to an attentive press, loved the military, threatened war, and attracted an adoring public. Sound familiar?
How often are we told that what we’re experiencing is totally without precedent? We are witnessing, it is asserted, something altogether unique. Nothing like it has ever occurred before. So noteworthy, it is destined, therefore, to “go down in history” for this very reason.
That kind of talk is all too common. The greatest scandal in history – the most powerful army assembled since the beginning of time – the most sinister conspiracy ever hatched – the worst atrocity of all time – the most impressive list of achievements ever. Everyone invokes “history” to sound serious, to add substance to their remarks. But do they ever offer any proof, any specific evidence from the past? Do they ever consult with historians? Are they even interested in learning about those parallels the past might actually offer?
“History,” when so invoked, stands mute, takes no steps to engage with the issues raised. “History” is wise for doing so, understands that such glib references to the past are merely verbal devices, argumentative ornaments, not in any way considered judgements History is, after all, about meticulous research and considered interpretation, not overheated evidence-free rhetoric.
As late Fall retreats toward Winter, the woods grow silent and grim, largely lifeless. Winged creatures of all sorts have long since departed, while familiar four-legged denizens become mysteriously scarce. But it is the trees, most all nearly bald and indecently exposed, that underscore the bleak landscape that greets the observer. Not long ago, before these same trees -resplendent in their green mantles – filled the woods with millions of leaves of all sizes and shapes, swaying and rustling restlessly as breezes hurried their way through its ranks. Then came Fall and the extravagant palate of color, nature’s own dramatic “fireworks” show, rivaling by day the managed explosions of night sky displays.
But with Fall’s passing forests around here now have little to offer except a dispiriting landscape of decay and death. Upon the forest floor are endless layers of dead and rotting leaves, once proudly on display upon the branches above, now cast off, destined to serve merely as shapeless ground cover in the years to come. All about, trees stand disfigured, having been rudely assailed by wind and rain, limbs broken, trunks cracked, root systems exposed, detached from the soil which once sheltered and nourished them. Most ominously, lying in every which direction, one discovers an arboreal graveyard: Trees, many of great length and bulk, which once soared toward the heavens, now strewn upon the ground, their fate sealed, at rest but not at peace. Were this a battlefield (which in some ways it resembles) no commander would dare proclaim victory. Indeed, the many jogged stumps would serve as forlorn monuments to the fallen.
Nature, perhaps out of respect, has begun draping some with green moss, hiding the advance of deterioration and decay. Most, however, lie about helter-skelter, frozen often at awkward angles, lifeless wreckage to haunt the area for decades to come, a morbid message to those sturdy trees around them.
The good news for those disposed to dwell on this desolate scene is that in time Spring and Summer will once again arrive, new life and a fresh dense vibrant mantle of green returning to blot out the underlying wasteland revealed by Winter.
Is America, our country, at a crossroads? Can it be reunited, recommitted, restored, repaired, energized, or have we lost our resiliency, our ability to rise to the occasion, to act boldly, with confidence in our future? Let us pause at his crossroad and consider our directional possibilities ahead. Which path will we choose?
• Can we break the logjam in congress and achieve bipartisan support for essential legislation?
• Can we undertake a massive vaccine rollout that breaks the back of the pandemic, gets our schools up and running and allows us to resume the normal routines, rhythms, and responsibilities of our lives?
• Will we speed relief to the unemployed and small businesses about to expire, to renters threatened with eviction, and immigrants waiting to pursue the American Dream?
• Can we devise effective ways to address racial disparities, income inequality and educational shortcomings?
• It’s about time we initiated a program to modernize our infra structure while accelerating entry into the world of clean energy and environmental stability.
• Will those seeking partisan advantages stall these steps needed to move forward?
• Will deceitful leaders and angry voices keep us from advancing?
• Will those scornful of the facts continue to elevate ignorance, sow confusion and promote conflict?
• Will our efforts prove inadequate, fall short, and our situation remain little improved?
Soon enough we will get some answers to those urgent questions. Meanwhile, perhaps we can take heart from the stirring words of our inauguration poet, Amanda Gorman, who urged us to “. . . .lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but to what stands before us,” and by so doing “….. forge our union with purpose.”
We talk to lots of people each day. Some of it is perfunctory (“We will be there at 11 o’clock”), transactional (“I’d like to reserve a table for four at 7PM”), casual (”Tell me what your weekend plans are”), or conventionally polite (“Send my best to your wife”). Such exchanges are spontaneous and informal and of brief duration.
Distinct from these are conversations that are regarded as more serious and consequential. When they occur we assume matters of some substance are being discussed. Accordingly, we’ve assigned special conversational categories to suggest their likely significance:
• Talking Turkey is when you stop “beating around the bush” and get down to business. No more “dancing around the subject.” Let’s come to grips with what must be decided. Or are you “all talk?”
• Man to Man Talk (with apologies to women). It’s time we had a frank and open conversation. We’ve been evading the issue. It is essential we confront it openly.
• Heart to Heart Talk. No more polite platitudes. We must reveal our true feelings; put them out “on the table.”
• Talking Shop. You shouldn’t be discussing work issues and business beyond the workplace. On the other hand, “Talking shop” in the office often leads to a fruitful exchange of ideas, reveals ways to enhance efficiency and profitability.
• Table Talk. Families gathered at the dinner table are expected to discuss “serious” matters that affect many of those present. Here is where frank and open discourse about money, jobs, vacation plans, and educational options can ttake place and decisions reached.
• Pillow Talk. Couples are normally too busy during the day to engage in meaningful conversation. But once in bed at night, and before falling asleep, there’s an opportunity to open up, get certain matters “off their chests,” clear up misunderstandings.
Talk, as they say, may at times be “cheap,” no more than “idle chatter,” but there are – as
we have just noted – times set aside where the opportunity exists for constructive and candid conversation.
Quantifiers usually have the upper hand in discussions when they marshal “hard evi-dence” to support their arguments. The numbers are assumed to “speak for themselves,” what-ever their origin or presumed precision. In that spirit, we present a recently compiled set of numbers, hitherto unavailable, derived from informal surveys conducted with real people relating to their daily experiences.
• How late do you usually arrive at parties? 15 minutes
• How much time elapses before you patch up a dispute with your wife? 2 days
• How often do you change bedsheets? 6 days
• How long do you wait before passing a “slow” moving car on the road? 2 minutes
• Brushing your teeth takes how long? 1 ½ minutes
• How long do you take to fall asleep? 15 minutes
• If your car is rattling, How long do you wait before bringing it in
to a mechanic 3 days
• How long after you decide you should have a will do you execute one? 3 years
• How much time elapses before you return the call of a bill collector? 2 days
• How much time do you spend showering? 6 minutes
• How long does it take to pass on a juicy bit of gossip? 2-3 hours
• After how many rings do you pick up a telephone? 3
• How long before you honk at the car in front of you after light changes? 2-3 seconds
• How long does it take you to complete your main dish at dinner? 8-10 minutes
• How long before you deposit a large check? Next day
• How many times have you watched your favorite movie? 4-5 times
• How often do you make physical contact with your husband
(hug, kiss, pat) ? twice weekly
• How often do you check the weather report in a day? 2-3
• When driving, how long will you wait before locating a bathroom? 22 minutes
• How often do you look in a mirror each day? 4-5 times
• How often do you check the time each day? 8-10 times
• Duration of social telephone conversation(female) 26 minutes
• Duration of social telephone conversation (male) 11 minutes
Theodore Roosevelt, larger than life in so many ways, belongs on Mt. Rushmore, but I’m not sure that many Americans can explain why. The issue is that neither political party is eager to claim him. Republicans, despite Roosevelt’s achievements, have problems embracing his belief in activist government, his impatience with “stupid” Capitalists, and his 1912 campaign that split Republicans and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson. Democrats, while welcoming his reforms, are reluctant to credit a rival party or accept his views on racial hierarchy, not uncommon in his time and among his class, but hard to swallow today.
Roosevelt did it all. He was a western rancher, a cowboy, intrepid explorer, naturalist, hunter, athlete, soldier (he preferred being called Colonel), a wonderfully engaged father (to his six children) and yes, President of the United States, a figure known round the globe. And arguably the most well-rounded and intellectually gifted person to occupy the White House (in a close contest with Thomas Jefferson). A Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, he wrote over thirty books and countless magazine articles on a wide variety of subjects, loved poetry, read a book a day (there is wide agreement on this), spoke many foreign languages, and possessed an astonishing photographic memory.
Every American knew Roosevelt. He gave informal press conferences almost daily while his barber shaved him. Cartoonists had a field day caricaturing his teeth, smile, hat and glasses (he lost an eye while boxing in the White House). For a time the “Teddy Bear” became the rage across the country.
His energy was boundless, one might say manic. Shot at close range in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, the bullet, while entering his chest, was slowed down by a metal eyeglass case and the folded speech in his jacket pocket. He was bleeding but still delivered the scheduled 90-minute address! (The bullet would never be removed.)
Roosevelt embodied the best of America together with certain less admirable features. He battled political corruption, raged against corporate excess and inequality, championed individual self-improvement and physical well-being, exemplified family values, promoted far ranging conservation measures and maintained that the federal government must assume an active role in redressing societal ills. On the other hand, he viewed white Anglo-Saxons as the essential bearers of civilization, and inclined to be bellicose and to glorify war. But he could be excused when, on September 2, 1902, while passing through Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he threatened to physically assault a street car motorman who accidentally crashed into his carriage, injuring the President. It would have been no contest.