Elvis and the Pandemic

Two songs sung by two Elvis’s are my go-to’s during this Pandemic. Both speak of driving through hard times with hope around the corner. They acknowledge the pain while seeking the future.  And my favorite part.  You can belt them out with a beer in hand after a hard day.

The first one is from that other Elvis, and truth be told my favorite Elvis – Elvis Costello.  Unlike his other hits, he did not write this one (Nick Lowe did) but Elvis does the best rendition – “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” . For you have not hear it, here is the official version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ssd3U_zicAI.

I once listened to this song on repeat at least 20 times after a hard week.  The first verse and the chorus tell the story:

“As I walk through this wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, “Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?”

And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?”  Lyrics Nick Lowe

Every time I read a friend attacking another friend on Facebook in some political fight or hear about the loss of another brave soul I ask myself the same question in the first verse. But then catch myself and realize that the peace, love, and understanding lies within me. Our soul longs for peace. We just need to cling to it and understand that everyone carries pain. It is up to you to bring inner peace, to show love to your friends and enemies, and understand the pain and hope of others. Rise to the occasion, extend a hand and be the peacemaker.

The second song is by the THE Elvis – Elvis Presley. This song was sung for the first time in Elvis’s Comeback Concert in 1968 at the end.  It was written by Walter Earl Brown and came 2 months after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  It also contains some MLK quotes.  Only 5 at the time, I still remember it.  Here are some of the words. 

“There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue
If I can dream of a better land
Where all my brothers walk hand in hand
Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true,

Oh why.

There must be peace and understanding sometime
Strong winds of promise that will blow away the doubt and fear
If I can dream of a warmer sun
Where hope keeps shining on everyone
Tell me why, oh why, oh why won’t that sun appear

We’re lost in a cloud
With too much rain
We’re trapped in a world
That’s troubled with pain
But as long as a man
Has the strength to dream
He can redeem his soul and fly”

The Elvis’s sang the truth!  What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love, and understanding?  Absolutely NOTHING!  Is there a light shining brighter somewhere? It is in our grasp.  If we choose to live, love, learn and lead!  

Here is my attempt at channeling Elvis.

Not Elvis but maybe not bad. Be the brighter sun! 

Hope in Hamilton!

I have hope in Hamilton! I have hope in humanity! I have hope in the USA!

This July 4th I watched patriotic, uplifting musicals from dawn to dusk.  Hamilton, followed by Sound of Music, followed by Hamilton, followed by Yankee Doodle Dandy, followed by Hamilton yet again. Then I read on CNN an opinion piece that Hamilton did not age well.  In my best Lin Manuel during Cabinet Battle #2 “Are you out of your ### #### mind”.   Here are five reasons Hamilton is quintessential American, quintessential human, and resonates and resounds.

1. Hamilton is a work of staggering genius!  I love anyone who can take a tome like Chernow’s Hamilton and turn it into a work of artistic genius.  Do not get me wrong.  I read Chernow’s Hamilton from cover to cover and as a history buff, I loved it.  But how Lin Manuel could turn that book into 20+ songs ranging from rap (Hamilton, Not Giving Away My Shot, etc.) to ballad (Quiet Uptown, Burn) to Pop Song (Helpless, Schuyler Sisters, Wait for It), to Broadway classic (All King George songs) is beyond me.  And just so you do not think I am confining to my enthusiasm to this blog.  I stood up at the beginning of intermission at Hamilton and embarrassed my kids by shouting “This is a work of staggering genius!”.  This got some head turns but mainly high fives from those around me.  Lin Manuel is a modern-day Shakespeare!  So, take that CNN!

2.  Immigrants, we get the job done!  This country was built by immigrants.  Hamilton is the prototypical immigrant, who built this country.   He was young, scrappy and hungry, and refused to give away his shot! My Great Grandfather Charles Henry came here during the Irish Potato famine and built a life in the US.  He built a life by the sweat of his brow and love of this country.  One thing I will always remember is he tried to enlist at the age of 50+ during WW II and was denied due to his age!  My great uncles fought with Patton in WW II.   We are a country of immigrants that get the job done!    Read my blog from a past July 4th on the topic here: America the Beautiful But Broken: A Prescription and a Promise (Re-post)

3.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I get the gist of the CNN critique of Hamilton.  Yes, the founding fathers punted on the question of slavery.  But I do not agree that they should not be celebrated.  Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and others set in motion this fundamental truth.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  They were men of their times but had the moral courage to set in motion a belief that resounds through history.   We as humans are fallible.  But as humanity we progress.  Only when we forget the creator, and the fact that there is something that bonds us together beyond the color of our skin do we diverge from the arc of justice. Fight for the arc! Bend, love and do not break.

4.  Diversity in opinion, breeds innovation and progress.  One thing that really resonated in Hamilton was the diversity.  The play had diversity of race, but I am talking about the diversity in opinion of our founding leaders.  I absolutely love the diversity expressed in the Cabinet Battles and the whole play.  We are free to express our divergent opinions in the USA.  They drive us forward, even at times we may take a step back.  But please in Civil Discourse not in duels. Barbara Jordan taught me Civil Discourse Ms. Jordan’s Lessons on Civil Discourse  No more Quiet Uptowns.  Let us resound the valleys and peaks with liberty and love!

5.  Last reason is personal.  I love Hamilton.  I love the genius of our nation.  That despite the fallibility of human nature, that we progress.  We love.  We wallow in angst but lead.  I love this country with all its flaws but most of all its genius.  I HAVE HOPE IN HAMILTON!!!!!!

Let’s Celebrate Fathers as Builders!

This Father’s Day I celebrate Dads as builders! I revel in those fathers that built buildings, built large families, built Turbines, built farms and built all of us up to love! Amidst all the tearing down recently in our country, it is time for us Fathers to build up!  Here are four examples of Father’s building up.

1.  Building a family with bricks and good earth.  My Father-In-Law along with his wife  built a loving family of 10 borne on bricks, love, and good Minnesota earth.  The first time I met Cal, he took me to his Raspberry farm to work and to talk about his tractor.   This was the same raspberry patch that my wife and her nine siblings learnt responsibility each summer.  Later, Cal took me to see the buildings he built as a Union Bricklayer.  As we talked, I appreciated how he built a family brick by brick, berry by berry.  A man of few words, his example spoke volumes.

2.  Building engines that power cities, civil life, and a family.  My father Big-D was a dynamo! Like the turbines that he built at his work, Big-D energized civil life and a family through respect and love.  He was a Union Vice President, a Cub Master, a baseball coach, and president of several civic organizations.  He taught me and the community how to throw a curve ball, build a car for the Pinewood Derby, and how to negotiate to get what a worker needs and deserves.  Countries are built on civic organizations not tweets!  Read more here (American Anthem: More Crosswicks less Crosswise )  Dad along with my mother taught us how to live, love and learn in a community. 

3.  Building in the background with humility and hard work.  God is the ultimate father as builder.  He built heaven and this good earth which we are called to protect.  And when God was selecting an earthly father to protect and teach his only Son, he selected St. Joseph.  A quiet, humble man, Joseph patiently taught the Son of Man how to build amongst humanity with his hands and heart.  Joseph stood in the background and let his work show forth through the works of the Son.  Joseph prayed and sent a path for what all good Father’s wish for their Sons; a life that eclipses their own and sets the world aright.

4. Building bridges of love.  My first three examples are no longer walk in physical form with us.  But I know that their example lives on teaching us to build bridges of love across all humanity.  I see the builder in my cousin-in-law Uriah and the example he sets forth for Jessica my cousin, and their two young daughters, one only days-old.  I see it each day as he builds up the love bursting forth in a young family through hard work and compassion.  Getting up at night to comfort a little one and waking up each morning early to work each day just a little sleep deprived.  And I remember how hard it is to be builder and cheer as his family grows in love and to serves as an example to all of us that love knows no bounds.   

A Father’s love knows no boundaries.  It builds up instead of tears down.  It builds bridges across humanity and through time!  It is color blind and love rich.  Let’s all be builders in our families and society!

American Anthem: More Crosswicks less Crosswise

I turned off the news yesterday because I just could not take it any more. Whether you watched CNN, MSNBC, or FOX, it was all the same. People pointing fingers. People shouting at people and not listening to each other. And much worse than that. As I shut down the vitriol on my TV, I asked how has this nation devolved into an us versus them mentality.

It was not always that way.  We once had civil discourse and the social intermediaries (clubs, little league, community centers, and other institutions) that brought us together.  I think the late Charles Krauthammer who both served as Walter Mondale’s speech writer and conservative commentator, said it best: “Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”

We have gotten extreme, but it was not always that way. We did not always launch ourselves into the opposing sides of Twitter feeds at the drop of a hat, but rather listened to the opposing sides of people we respected in our community. We sought out the commonalities that brought us together and the spark of humanity that resides in each one of us.   We listened to one another and learned from one another at the PTAs, Little Leagues, Community Centers and institutions of everyday life.  We need to return to these social institutions and turn away from the emptiness of social media.

The best example of a community of sharing and caring is the town that I grew up in Crosswicks.  My town’s main claim to fame was it was the launchpad of the revolution – the Battle of Trenton that won us a country and a nation.  In that town of Crosswicks, we had a mix of liberals and conservatives that all got along and progressed for the betterment of our country and our community.  Thinking about my hometown, I started thinking how did our nation – the collective Crosswicks – become so Crosswise?  What caused the demise of the democracy?  Simply this.  When you cross the wicks (Crosswicks) of a candle, the light burns brighter.  But when you get cross wise, the fire of freedom becomes extinguished.

Picture of Crosswicks

So tonight, I will ruminate on what made our little hamlet of Crosswicks bring people together instead of pulling them apart.  And the answer is quite simple – it was community organizations not affiliated with governments, Facebook, or corporate organizations.  It was organizations by the people, for the people and run by the people.  Let me talk about three of them:

  1. Little League – Back before the day of club Soccer run by professionals, we had Little League. It was run by volunteers who wanted to teach kids a sport and bring communities together.  I am now 55 and can still remember every moment of every Chesterfield Red Sox versus Chesterfield Black Sox game.  The whole community came together to watch the teams compete.  There may have been some arguments on the fields of friendly strife, but what I remember the most was being with my friends, learning from my father and other parents, and sharing fun with the community.  I am not trying to cut down club soccer which is still a unifying organization.  But there is something different learning from the people of your community instead of professionals that are getting paid.
  2. Scouts – I cannot talk to Girl Scouts, but I can talk to Cub and Boy Scouts. These institutions brought together people from all walks of life for fellowship and fun.  Both my mother as a Den Mother and my Father as a Cubmaster were involved.  We got to learn how to compete fairly in the Pinewood Derby and Rocket races.  We also learned how to develop our skills and help one another with our various badges.  As part of a Den, Pack or Troop, you learned how to cooperate and care for those in your group.  You also learned about how through differences and diversity, you create strength.  I will never forget how our Boy Scout troop was able to take the disparate talents and succeed in a weekend campout.
  3. Community Center and Library – The heart of Crosswicks was the community center and library.  In the summer program at both institutions, I first fell in love with books, learned how to draw a cartoon dog and cat, and participated in parties on Halloween and Christmas.  It did not matter the color of your skin, your political institution, or your religion.  All the people in Crosswicks were brought together to share in fellowship and learn new skills.  In the end, it is really what you learn and apply rather than what you earn and deny that makes a mark on the world.

These are just three of the intermediary institutions that brought us together in Crosswicks.  I will never forget the friends that I made. And, even 40 years later, when my friends from Crosswicks express their disparate views, some quite different from my own, I listen and learn.  Never underestimate the power of Crosswicks and intermediary institutions to bring people together.  Let us all as a nation, cross wicks and make the light of our common humanity shine brighter!

Commissioned to Love

What does it mean to be commissioned?  The simple Webster definition is “an instruction, command, or duty given to a person or group of people.”  But what is the instruction, what is the duty?  Who gives the command and to whom is the command given? And is their one great commission that we all should follow? 

I started thinking about this on May 24, the day when as a Catholic, I celebrate Jesus’s Ascension and the Great Commission.   Here is the first reading that occurred on that day from Acts 1:

He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.

Acts 1

And what was the power that was bestowed by the Holy Spirit?  The power to know that you are loved and to bestow that love on others. To live out the commandment in courage and strength that Jesus gave on the last supper

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.

John 15:12

This was the Great Commission and commandment that we are meant to follow.  What happened on May 25th , 2020, the very next day after this celebration, was the opposite of the Great Commission.  Call it the Great Betrayal.  An officer who was commissioned:  “TO PROTECT WITH COURAGE, TO SERVE WITH COMPASSION” did the exact opposite.  There was no compassion shown to George Floyd nor courage displayed by the officers that renounced their commission.

Now as the nation struggles with this betrayal and the many that have occurred before it, we need to cling to the hope and love set forth in the Great Commission. We need to practice the three P’s:  Protest Injustice, Protect Your Neighbor and Heart, and Pray for Love and Understanding.  We have seen many doing just this but unfortunately there are others who tear down instead of build-up.

In search of hope, I look back and forward to two other commissioning’s – one recent and one happening this week.  On Saturday May 30th,  Nasa and Space-X went on a successful co-mission as they launched the first commercial manned rocket to the space station.  The private and public sector blended their unique talents on a co-mission to space and allowed us to hope that we could boldly go were no man has gone before – a world were differences are celebrated. As Gene Rodenberry, creator of Star Trek puts it: 

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”

Gene Rodenberry

I also look forward to the graduation and commissioning of the West Point Class of 2020 on June 13th.  I look forward to the cadets to taking the oath to serve.   In the words of LTG Darryl A. Williams, our first black West Point Superintendent (you can read the full letter here https://s3.amazonaws.com/usma-media/inline-images/about/Public%20Affairs/homepage/pdfs/superindendent_sends_06.04.2020.PDF):

“The oath to support and defend the Constitution binds us together as one team, dedicated to defending our Nation and upholding its values. We strive to embody these ideals and aspire to live by our core values of duty, honor, and country. Every word, every action, and every attitude should uphold those values so that we may live and lead honorably. The Nation looks to West Point as an example of what is possible when people from diverse backgrounds unite and aspire to honorable living.

Consider how your words, actions, and attitudes impact other people. Are you building up others and making them feel valued? Are you strengthening trust within the team? Are you extending forgiveness, and actively listening to other points of view? Are you inspiring others to greatness? If so, encourage others to do the same. If not, then choose to improve—immediately. Muster the moral courage necessary to confront and solve problems with effective, honest, and empathetic dialogue that seeks solutions rather than sowing seeds of division and disunity.”

LTG Darryl A. Williams

Let’s build up instead of tearing down.  Let’s celebrate the differences.  Let’s love one another and protect each other’s heart.  Let’s live out the great commission!

A Walk with History: Overcoming Slavery’s Stain

I wrote this blog a few years back but have decided to re-post due to recent events. It is relevant today as we stand in solidarity to stop the brutality we saw done to George Floyd. We must take this opportunity to work to overcome slavery’s stain. To stand with people of color and all of us to Protest the Injustice, Protect our Neighbors, and Pray for Love, Kindness and Justice for all.

I am just returning from a week long vacation visiting historic sites in Virginia.  This is the first of a series of blogs on what I learned.  This lesson is the most important.  I gained it while visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC and tours/talks on slavery at Montpelier, Monticello, and Colonial Williamsburg.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture

What I took away from this experience is four things:

  1. We owe a debt of gratitude to those enslaved and their descendants for building this country that is hard to repay. The impact that African Americans had on building this country far surpasses their percentage of the population.  From the plantation slaves to the Tuskegee Airmen from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, the smarts, sweat, ingenuity and determination of African Americans was a driving force in building this country.
  2. Slavery was just pure evil and despite the myth, there was no such thing as a “good” slave owner. This was hammered home on both at the Montpelier and Monticello tours.  Madison’s stepson John Payne Todd after taking over the estate, ran the estate into bankruptcy and along with his mother Dolly Madison sold off the slaves and broke up families in attempt to pay off debts due to John’s profligacy.  Monticello’s tour of Mulberry Row hammered home even more poignantly the evil nature of slavery.  Our tour guide was from the Bronx and in the typical no-nonsense way of a New Yorker shattered the myth that Jefferson was a lenient slave owner.  Although he decried slavery in his writings, he only freed 6 slaves (less than 1 percent of those at Monticello).   And, of those freed, 4 of the 6 were his children by Sally Hemmings as genetic testing suggests.  Most of the rest were sold to pay off the debt of Monticello upon his passing.  This does not take away from all the good that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison done.  Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Madison’s Constitution set in motion the ideas that would eventually topple the paradox of slavery.  But these flawed men could not fully escape their times.
    Slave Quarters at Monticello
    Slave Quarters at Monticello
  3. The stain and impact of slavery continued through segregation and still echoes today. The African American museum is arranged so you start underground with the initiation of slavery and progresses as it is abolished in the Civil War and segregation is ended with the Civil Rights Act. You learn the impact on family structure as families are broken apart and sold to different owners.  You see the injustice of people being lynched just because of the color of their skin.  Perhaps, the most moving moment in the whole museum and one that makes me ashamed of my historical ignorance was the memorial to Emmett Till.  I always thought that the event that initiated the Civil Rights campaign of the sixties was Rosa Parks, but it was the murder and memorial for Emmett Till six months prior.  Emmett, a fourteen-year-old young man, who was visiting his relatives in South, was brutally murdered for supposedly looking at a white woman in a disrespectful manner.  His beaten body was then dumped in a swamp.  When his body was recovered, his mother bravely requested an open casket funeral for all to see the evil of racism.  Unbelievably, the two individuals that all evidence points to have committed the act were found not guilty by an all-white jury.   I was happy this week to see the case to be reopened with new evidence. Emmett Till and his brutal murder was one of the key event that launched the Civil Rights movement and we as Americans must remember its history along with Rosa Parks, the sit-ins, and Martin Luther King.  We must not forget. And we must stand-up and pass the legislation in Emmett’s name being held up in the Senate currently.
  1. We must be ever vigilant. The museum climbs from the basement to the ground floor with the presidency of Barrack Obama.  In this way, it is meant to show America as it progresses from the depths of slavery to the promise of a more equal future.  But there is nothing in the museum that prevents a person from walking back down through history into the basementIndeed, in the last years we have taken some giant steps back with George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor. But we have and need to start climbing again. America in better than this! We still hear the echoes of slavery and the vestiges of the past.  This time I spent in our nation’s past has hammered home in me the need to be ever vigilant.  We cannot let the mistakes of the past repeat themselves.  We must continue to stand for civil rights and secure justice.  To be on guard and fight for equality for all and a more perfect union.

Five Accenture Wellness Programs that Saved My Life

Last Thursday I had the pleasure to attend the Austin Chamber of Commerce Business Awards with some of my Accenture colleagues from the Austin office.  We were finalists for two awards – the Employee Wellness and Environment award for large offices.  Here is the group at our table.

Table Celebration
Austin Chamber of Commerce Business Awards

Smiles abounded at the table even though we did not win.  Why were the smiles so broad?  I can’t speak for my friends, but I can speak for myself.  I was smiling because Accenture’s wellness programs helped save my life!

This may sound like an overstatement.  I promise you it is not.  Before I became an active participant in Accenture’s wellness program I was on a downward trajectory.   Too much stress and not taking care of myself drove up my weight and ruined my fitness.

The bottom hit at halftime at my son’s senior homecoming game.  My son was nominated as Homecoming King and I and my wife were to escort him on the football field.   Carrying over 300 lbs. on a hot Texas evening, my calves became so tight I could barely move.  I had to momentarily move behind the bench and stretch out my legs.  Luckily, just before I took the field my legs stretched out enough so that I could hobble onto the field.

Homecoming picture
Nearly missed homecoming

My wife and son were kind but that was a close call with my health and only one of many.  I had to do something.  So, I explored Accenture’s wellness programs and they came to the rescue.  Specifically, these five programs helped me to lose over 170 pounds, restored my health, and improved my outlook on life and ability to handle stress.

  1. Wellness check-up – Each year our company provides for a free wellness checkup for employees and their spouses.  The wellness checkup is followed up by recommendations and assistance as well as a discount on your insurance.  The wellness checkup indicated that I had a health issue.  I was contacted and followed up with a more complete physical (also discounted through the company) that verified the issue and provided the proper diagnosis.  With the treatment prescribed, my shoe size shrunk back down two sizes.  It also helped provide me with enough energy to seriously attack my weight problem.
  2. Employee Discount Program for Weight loss program – I now had the immediate health issue under control, so I looked around for a weight loss program.  I was toying around with a liquid-based diet since it worked in the short term in the past when an email appeared in my email box offering half off on Weight Watchers for a year.  With that single email and discount, my life was forever changed.  Those who regularly follow my blog know the impact Weight Watcher’s has had on my life; leading me to lose over 170 pounds in a year and a half. The Why’s of Weight Watchers!  I still attend every week.  But the first step to this life changing program was the Accenture discount email that I received on January 1, 2015 (Yes, I kept the email as a memory!).
  3. Accenture Active – Another program that was key to my transformation was Accenture Active.  I was one of three leadership journeyers during the first year of the program.  In this role, I was afforded weekly sessions with the other journeyers and a fitness coach.  In addition, I had the opportunity to blog on a weekly basis as a means of encouragement to me and to others.  Also, the program provides a Fitbit to each employee and their spouses as well as a program called JIFF that allows you to get prizes for meeting wellness goals and tasks.  With the Fitbit and the encouragement of JIFF rewards, I went from being able to walk 1000 steps a day to 10,000 steps or more daily.
  4. Mindfulness Training – With my fitness on the right trajectory, I had to tackle the underlying problem for my health issues in the first place – my reaction to stress. Accenture again came through with a program.  My boss worked with a local company to provide mindfulness training for leaders.  In the class, I learned the practice of meditation and mindfulness that I use daily.  I may still have some moments, but this program has really helped me in focusing on the now and not worrying unnecessarily about the future.
  5. Truly Human Campaign – I had my head and body half way in order, so I now had to turn to my heart. Accenture has a program for that also called “Truly Human”.  It provides programs and advice on how to leverage the unique talents of individuals.  It provides exercises and  tips on how to be kind to both yourself and your colleagues.  I wrote about the importance of taking care of your heart as well as your body in this previous blog.  Feed your soul, heal your body The Truly Human campaign helped reinforce my daily practice of thankfulness journaling and capturing positive events in a happiness journal.

I want to thank Accenture for my new lease on life.  To end, I will close with a catchphrase from my time at Accenture Active – Life’s Attractive When Your Accenture Active!

A Walk with History (Part 2): Meandering Toward Monticello

Some of the best events in life are not planned.  That was indeed the case when my wife and I set off from Washington, DC to Monticello, VA.  Our plan was to leave Reagan National about 9 AM and drive the 2-and-a-half-hour ride to Monticello to arrive around lunch.  But as luck would have it, my medication and my body’s reaction to it was cause for some serendipitous detours see map below:

Map of historical sites
Map of stops while meandering toward Monticello

This time I mixed up one of my medications. I usually delay taking this medication when on a road trip, because its purpose is to rid my body of excess water, making numerous bathroom stops necessary.  Essentially, I need to stop every 1 hour (or less) to do number 1.  So unbeknownst to me at the start, our route to Monticello would be a meandering one.

The urge to purge struck me about 10 miles from the Chancellorsville Visitor Center.  I did not know at the time that I was stopping there but when I saw the National Park sign 8 miles later, I had to decide.  Pulling into the parking lot with nary 15 seconds to spare, I put the car in park, left the car running (lucky my wife is used to this) and sprinted to the Visitor’s Center restroom.   I really should be on one of those “Got to go commercials” for overactive bladders!

After finding relief, I linked up with my wife again and said since we are here we might as well look around.  I am glad we did since he learned some historical lessons.

Chancellorsville was a tactical victory for the Confederacy but ultimately a turning point in the war for the Union.  How can I say this? The Confederacy did win on the battlefield against Hooker’s Army of the Potomac with an army half its size.  But it lost one of its two indispensable Generals – Stonewall Jackson (Lee being the other one).  Also, Lee was unable to stop the withdraw of the Army of the Potomac.

In the hour I spent meandering on the trail right outside the Visitor’s Center, I learned two important lessons in history and life.  First, often the hinges of history rest on the shoulders of one or two people.  Think of Winston Churchill in WW II.  To a somewhat lesser extent, what if Stonewall Jackson, the  ears and eyes of the Confederacy was at Gettysburg.  I am glad he wasn’t for the sake of this great nation, but the question made me ponder how often one person can impact history.  The second thing was I was surprisingly moved by the simple stone monument put up on the National Park site to recognize where Stonewall Jackson was shot and ultimately died.  It was put there in 1888 by members of Stonewall Jackson’s staff.  In the current debates of today, it would be easy to say pull the monument down.  But I think not.  It is a pivotal part of our nation’s history.  If we tear it down, we would remove the memory of how the tide of the Civil War started to turn.

Historical Marker
The marker showing where Stonewall Jackson was gravely wounded at Chancellorsville

With our first circuitous stop in our march to Monticello completed, my wife and I got back in the car.  It was now 11:30.   Our stop had taken a big bite out of the time we could spend at Monticello, so we looked for a plan B.   We looked on the map and decided I would never make it to Monticello without taking another rest room break.  Looking at the map and scanning the internet, we noted that Montpelier, the residence of James Madison was closer and would make a good stop.  So, after taking a bite to eat, we drove to Montpelier.

I barely made it!  Again, I came to a racing stop at the visitor’s center as I rushed into the rest room.  After regrouping, we decided to take the Constitution tour or Montpelier.  And I am glad we did!  Our second serendipitous stop taught us the good, the bad, and the ugly about James Madison.

The good was the brilliance of James Madison and his contribution to our country.  Thomas Jefferson is known as the poet of the American Revolution with his writing of the inspirational Declaration of Independence.  But James Madison was responsible for the prose of the American Revolution – the Constitution and Bill of Rights upon which our republic is built and the Federalist papers that underpin these documents.  The Declaration of Independence without the construct of the Constitution is essentially no more than a dream.  The Constitution and the Bill of Rights make it a reality.  And James Madison was the driving force of both.

Montpelier - Home of James Madison
Montpelier – Home of James Madison

The Bad was the paradox of slavery.   James and Dolly Madison were slave owners and Montpelier would not exist if it was not for slave labor.  Here was James Madison who created the Constitution and Bill of Rights that declared all men equal under the law denying the freedom other men and treating them as property.   There is an excellent exhibit at Montpelier called “The Mere Distinction of Color” that shows the unvarnished truth about how James Madison and other founding fathers treated the slaves.

This exhibit eventually descends into the ugly truth of Montpelier.  James Madison to bail his stepson John Payne Todd from debtor’s prison had to mortgage Montpelier.  Later when he died, Dolly to pay off her son’s debts primarily due to his alcoholism had to sell all of Montpelier and the slaves residing on it.  Families were torn apart as they were separated and sold to different slave owners, creating an ugly legacy for the architect of the Constitution – the greatest force for freedom and liberty ever designed.   What irony!

After visiting Montpelier, it was 4 O’clock.  Too late to visit Monticello that evening but only 29 miles away from Charlottesville and our hotel for the evening.  Even I can make it for 29 miles without stopping for the restroom.  So, we pulled into our hotel.  More meandering on our trip to Monticello would happen after dinner as we visited the University of Virginia.  But we will leave that for Part 3 of this blog series to be discussed together with our visit to the UVA founder’s home – Monticello!

If you found this blog interesting, please click on the following link for the first in this series. A Walk with History (Part 1): Overcoming Slavery’s Stain

A Walk with History (Part 1): Overcoming Slavery’s Stain

I am just returning from a week long vacation visiting historic sites in Virginia.  My wife and I visited DC, and then went to Chancellorsville, Montpelier (Home of James Madison), Monticello (Home of Thomas Jefferson), the Historic Triangle (Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown), and returned to visit heroes and friends at Arlington National Cemetery.  In this trek in the past, I learned a lot about our great country and gained insights into our future as we continue to perfect our union.

This is the first of a series of blogs on what I learned.  This lesson is the most important.  I gained it while my wife and I spent 4 hours in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC (not nearly enough) and had tours/talks on slavery at Montpelier, Monticello, and Colonial Williamsburg.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture

What I took away from this experience is four things:

  1. We owe a debt of gratitude to those enslaved and their descendants for building this country that is hard to repay. The impact that African Americans had on building this country far surpasses their percentage of the population.  From the plantation slaves to the Tuskegee Airmen from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, the smarts, sweat, ingenuity and determination of African Americans was a driving force in building this country.
  2. Slavery was just pure evil and despite the myth, there was no such thing as a “good” slave owner. This was hammered home on both at the Montpelier and Monticello tours.  Madison’s stepson John Payne Todd after taking over the estate, ran the estate into bankruptcy and along with his mother Dolly Madison sold off the slaves and broke up families in attempt to pay off debts due to John’s profligacy.  Monticello’s tour of Mulberry Row hammered home even more poignantly the evil nature of slavery.  Our tour guide was from the Bronx and in the typical no-nonsense way of a New Yorker shattered the myth that Jefferson was a lenient slave owner.  Although he decried slavery in his writings, he only freed 6 slaves (less than 1 percent of those at Monticello).   And, of those freed, 4 of the 6 were his children by Sally Hemmings as genetic testing suggests.  Most of the rest were sold to pay off the debt of Monticello upon his passing.  This does not take away from all the good that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison done.  Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Madison’s Constitution set in motion the ideas that would eventually topple the paradox of slavery.  But these flawed men could not fully escape their times.
    Slave Quarters at Monticello
    Slave Quarters at Monticello
  3. The stain and impact of slavery continued through segregation and still echoes today. The African American museum is arranged so you start underground with the initiation of slavery and progresses as it is abolished in the Civil War and segregation is ended with the Civil Rights Act. You learn the impact on family structure as families are broken apart and sold to different owners.  You see the injustice of people being lynched just because of the color of their skin.  Perhaps, the most moving moment in the whole museum and one that makes me ashamed of my historical ignorance was the memorial to Emmett Till.  I always thought that the event that initiated the Civil Rights campaign of the sixties was Rosa Parks, but it was the murder and memorial for Emmett Till six months prior.  Emmett, a fourteen-year-old young man, who was visiting his relatives in South, was brutally murdered for supposedly looking at a white woman in a disrespectful manner.  His beaten body was then dumped in a swamp.  When his body was recovered, his mother bravely requested an open casket funeral for all to see the evil of racism.  Unbelievably, the two individuals that all evidence points to have committed the act were found not guilty by an all-white jury.   I was happy this week to see the case to be reopened with new evidence. Emmett Till and his brutal murder was one of the key event that launched the Civil Rights movement and we as Americans must remember its history along with Rosa Parks, the sit-ins, and Martin Luther King.  We must not forget. And we must stand-up and pass the legislation in Emmett’s name being held up in the Senate currently.
  1. We must be ever vigilant. The museum climbs from the basement to the ground floor with the presidency of Barrack Obama.  In this way, it is meant to show America as it progresses from the depths of slavery to the promise of a more equal future.  But there is nothing in the museum that prevents a person from walking back down through history into the basement.  Indeed, in the last years we have taken steps back with George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor. We have to start climbing again. America in better than We still hear the echoes of slavery and the vestiges of the past.  This time I spent in our nation’s past has hammered home in me the need to be ever vigilant.  We cannot let the mistakes of the past repeat themselves.  We must continue to stand for civil rights and secure justice.  To be on guard and fight for equality for all and a more perfect union.

American Anthem: More Crosswicks less Crosswise

I was watching a documentary on the life of Charles Krauthammer today and was surprised that he was once a speechwriter for Walter Mondale.  This leader of Neo-con Republicanism once wrote speeches to elect the most traditional Democrat that ever existed, Walter Mondale.  And as I watched, I asked how this nation devolved into an us versus them mentality.

It was not always that way.  We once had civil discourse and the social intermediaries (clubs, little league, community centers, and other institutions) that brought us together.  Listening to Charles’ life, I have to agree with Charles when he said, “Of course we are shaped by our milieu. But the most formative, most important influence on the individual is not government. It is civil society, those elements of the collectivity that lie outside government: family, neighborhood, church, Rotary club, PTA, the voluntary associations that Tocqueville understood to be the genius of America and source of its energy and freedom.”

We have gotten extreme, but it was not always that way. We did not always launch ourselves into the opposing sides of Twitter feeds at the drop of a hat, but rather listened to the opposing sides of people we respected in our community. We sought out the commonalities that brought us together and the spark of humanity that resides in each one of us.   We listened to one another and learned from one another at the PTAs, Little Leagues, Community Centers and institutions of everyday life.  We need to return to these social institutions and turn away from the emptiness of social media.

The best example of a community of sharing and caring is the town that I grew up in Crosswicks.  My town’s main claim to fame was it was the launchpad of the revolution – the Battle of Trenton that won us a country and a nation.  In that town of Crosswicks, we had a mix of liberals and conservatives that all got along and progressed for the betterment of our country and our community.  Thinking about my hometown, I started thinking how did our nation – the collective Crosswicks – become so Crosswise?  What caused the demise of the democracy?  Simply this.  When you cross the wicks (Crosswicks) of a candle, the light burns brighter.  But when you get cross wise, the fire of freedom becomes extinguished.

Picture of Crosswicks

So tonight, I will ruminate on what made our little hamlet of Crosswicks bring people together instead of pulling them apart.  And the answer is quite simple – it was community organizations not affiliated with governments, Facebook, or corporate organizations.  It was organizations by the people, for the people and run by the people.  Let me talk about three of them:

  1. Little League – Back before the day of club Soccer run by professionals, we had Little League. It was run by volunteers who wanted to teach kids a sport and bring communities together.  I am now 55 and can still remember every moment of every Chesterfield Red Sox versus Chesterfield Black Sox game.  The whole community came together to watch the teams compete.  There may have been some arguments on the fields of friendly strife, but what I remember the most was being with my friends, learning from my father and other parents, and sharing fun with the community.  I am not trying to cut down club soccer which is still a unifying organization.  But there is something different learning from the people of your community instead of professionals that are getting paid.
  2. Scouts – I cannot talk to Girl Scouts, but I can talk to Cub and Boy Scouts. These institutions brought together people from all walks of life for fellowship and fun.  Both my mother as a Den Mother and my Father as a Cubmaster were involved.  We got to learn how to compete fairly in the Pinewood Derby and Rocket races.  We also learned how to develop our skills and help one another with our various badges.  As part of a Den, Pack or Troop, you learned how to cooperate and care for those in your group.  You also learned about how through differences and diversity, you create strength.  I will never forget how our Boy Scout troop was able to take the disparate talents and succeed in a weekend campout.
  3. Community Center and Library – The heart of Crosswicks was the community center and library.  In the summer program at both institutions, I first fell in love with books, learned how to draw a cartoon dog and cat, and participated in parties on Halloween and Christmas.  It did not matter the color of your skin, your political institution, or your religion.  All the people in Crosswicks were brought together to share in fellowship and learn new skills.  In the end, it is really what you learn and apply rather than what you earn and deny that makes a mark on the world.

These are just three of the intermediary institutions that brought us together in Crosswicks.  I will never forget the friends that I made. And, even 40 years later, when my friends from Crosswicks express their disparate views, some quite different from my own, I listen and learn.  Never underestimate the power of Crosswicks and intermediary institutions to bring people together.  Let us all as a nation, cross wicks and make the light of our common humanity shine brighter!