Archive for February, 2009

Rocky Mountain Dehydrated

February 25, 2009

Staying a few hundred feet above the Mile-High City, I’m drinking about three gallons of water a day – on top of the usual tea, coffee, etc. Out here to help my cousin settle affairs for her partner. He died rather suddenly on Sunday. So a few brief posts until I get back to Connecticut.

On the plus side, it’s 65 degrees during the daytime and it’s a great place to exercise.

Family Ties

February 21, 2009

Steve Courtney’s biography of Joseph Hopkins Twichell made so many connections to my family and to my own life that I had to write more than can comfortably fit into a review, especially one that was already too long.

The first connection came with my great-grandfather Willis Samuel James, who worked as a coachman for Marshall Jewell before the latter became Connecticut’s governor. Jewell was one of Twichell’s parishioners and like Twichell had been a tanner in his youth.

Reverend Twichell’s church members aided my family more than once. They helped pay tuition bills for my great-aunts who attended Hampton Institute and pharmacy school. The girls also received clothing from the society ladies of the church. The church donated money for a library that my great-aunt Helen James (later Chisholm) established at the orphanage where she taught in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. When she returned to the mainland she addressed the parishioners of Asylum Hill about her experiences in there and in Honolulu.

As soon as I read about Reverend Twichell’s sponsorship of Yung Wing and other Chinese students, I understood that the minister made it a point to cultivate greater understanding among the races. Aunt Lou offered multiple opportunities for Twichell to expand the horizons of his wealth flock: She was black; she was a woman; she had lived and worked in an Asian and Polynesian culture; she had the poorest children, many of whom had lost parents to leprosy.

Steve also solved a puzzle for me that had appeared in one of Aunt Lou’s letters from Atlanta University. Twichell’s sister, Sarah Jane, married Edmund Asa Ware, founder and first president of the school. Aunt Lou went there after the couple’s deaths, but their children were still in charge. “Mr. Ware teaches our [Sunday school] class; he is a most genuine, intense man; as I look at him and listen to him, I think how near the ideal he is, a man way above the petty and small things of life. When I realize the great sacrifice he and his sister are making for this work, I wonder if I can appreciate them enough. In this work they get a liberal share of the bitter with the sweet, and have many a trial and disappointment,” she wrote to my grandmother in January 1905.

I understood after reading Joseph Hopkins Twichell that the Ware children had suffered after the abrupt death of their father and the lingering death of their mother from tuberculosis. Aunt Lou could sympathize, having lost her own mother and a dear sister to the scourge. The Ware family bore a heavier burden as well as they suffered the wounds inflicted by racist Atlanta. Steve noted, “It was dangerous work, as in the white population’s eyes the ‘nigger teachers’ were classed with carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags as parasites on the defeated region.” The Wares were as ostracized from white society as their black students.

Steve’s book also brought greater understanding of why I’ve always been drawn to the Keene Valley. The Twichell family summered on the “Flats.” Each time I passed through there and watched the sparkling Ausable River meandering by the side of the road, I’ve felt the urge to stay in that “pleasant, charming interval among the mountains” instead of climbing into the commercial jock atmosphere of Placid and Saranac. Now I understand that the area is imbued with the spirit of those reverent folks who gathered there during the summers.

It’s ironic that during my last trip to the area I walked up the hills of North Elba to John Brown’s burial place, not realizing that I was following in the footsteps of Reverend Twichell and Hartford Courant owner Charles Dudley Warner. The “horrible road” that they took is now a wide paved track with a glorious view of the mountains only a little marred by the arm of the Olympic ski jump looming over from the next hill. Brown’s burial ground is faithfully tended now – no more weeds choking out the flowers as they did in Twichell’s day. As I read how Twichell and his companions sang and reflected at Brown’s grave, I once again felt close to the man and his cause.

A final note that doesn’t relate directly to a family tie except in the broader sense that it shows the great connection of the human family. As I read Joseph Hopkins Twichell I marveled at the enduring influence of faith on the people of Hartford. My friend and former colleague Tina Brown wrote eloquently of how a poor, black recovering addict with AIDS had become a spokeswoman and role model in dealing with her illness. Tina showed Linda Jordan’s path in Crooked Road Straight. (See “Tour de Force,” Decmeber 30, 2008) Steve Courtney, also a friend and former colleague from the Courant, demonstrates how faith can guide the high-born to good works along that straight path. Both Linda Jordan and Joseph Twichell bear witness to what happens when people let their lights shine.

A Man for All Seasons

February 20, 2009

Blog will probably resume full time next week. In the meantime, this review is being posted on Amazon.

Steve Courtney’s comprehensive and insightful biography Joseph Hopkins Twichell offers a valuable addition to the understanding of a man and an era. Born in Southington, Connecticut, son of a tannery owner, Twichell became the pastor of Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church just after the Civil War. He held that post for more than forty years, turning the church into one of the most illustrious parishes in the country. His congregation included some of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful, but Twichell lived out his mission to aid the disenfranchised in Hartford and elsewhere. Although mostly known today as Samuel Clemens’ friend, Twichell’s own active and varied life was emblematic of the period in which he lived.

An incident in Twichell’s younger, wilder days at Yale created a tolerance for other religions. He invited rabbis, Catholic priests, and ministers of other Protestant denominations to participate in activities at Asylum Hill. He promoted international ties with Chinese students and scholars. Among the most affecting chapters of the book is “Peru,” in which Twichell, his Chinese protégé, and a homeopathic doctor investigate the treatment of Chinese laborers around Lima and in the mountains. What they found horrified them – beatings, starvation, virtually nonexistent housing and clothing, at least one instance in which a man was burned alive. Their efforts contributed to ending the brutal system.

The minister practiced tolerance at home, as he invited Booker T. Washington to speak at the church. Twichell set the tone for this sort activity early in his life. Courtney notes that while serving as a chaplain during the Civil War, “Twichell amused himself ‘devising radicalisms’ for the Rebs, one of which was to tell them of his ‘hope and confidence that I would live to see a negro President of the U.S.’ ”

A brilliant author, Courtney presents his subject as a devout man dedicated to the service of the Lord in a country undergoing rapid change. Hartford was in the middle of fantastic growth during the latter part of the nineteenth century, with its wealthy financial institutions and insurance companies, as well as its weapons factories. Amidst all this wealth lived a large but hidden population of poor, and Twichell saw to it that his patrician congregation donated their time and money to alleviating poverty.

Reverend Twichell was also a man of nearly super human energy and strength. During the war, he marched for miles carrying the packs and weapons of foot soldiers too ill to manage for themselves. He wrote to his father that he could carry “two or three mens burdens and march without much discomfort.” Later he and Clemens regularly walked from their homes near the western end of Hartford up Talcott Mountain, a round trip of some sixteen miles and 1,000 feet high. When he and his family spent summers in the Keene Valley in upstate New York, the minister hiked to Indian Pass Trail, which the guidebooks describe as “grueling.” One amusing passage involves an aborted trek from East Hartford to Boston that Clemens and Twichell undertook as a publicity stunt. They walked for the first 35 miles but rode the rest of the way because the great author’s feet hurt.

The excerpts from Twichell’s sermons show him to be a thoughtful man who could be eloquent when the occasion arose. Many of his letters to family and friends ring with heart-felt emotion. But he was no equal for his good friend. (Courtney says the style of Twichell’s speeches and articles ranged from “clunky and spare to the florid and cliché ridden.” Clemens observed that Twichell could tell wonderful stories but “couldn’t acquit himself with a pen.” Of course the Joseph Hopkins Twichell benefits from drawing on the words of one of the world’s funniest and most insightful writers. Clemens tweaked his friend by calling Asylum Hill “the Church of the Holy Speculators.” He also used their walks for inspiration. Courtney shows again and again the contrast between the questioning, cynical one-time Confederate soldier whose mind ran to the mundane, versus the Yankee pastor who saw the hand of God in all things and who seemingly managed to live above the petty aspects of life.

One reaches the conclusion of this book with a sense of sadness and loss – that this man of great compassion does not live now, when we could all benefit from his unassuming righteousness and good works. He lived his faith by responding to his own changing times and truly does “become the life of Christ,” as he urged in one of his sermons.


February 9, 2009

Blog is going on hiatus to deal with some personal stuff.


February 7, 2009

Nothing of substance today. Spent most of it at the eye hospital with Larry, then getting prescriptions. Delay coming home because the temperature warmed enough to start patching two lanes out of three on the interstate. Then a trip to the grocery store. Running on a biscuit and a cup of coffee from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Return trip tomorrow a.m.

Dressing Mrs. O.

February 6, 2009

I’ve avoided writing about politics because there’s overkill on the net already. No need for one more voice crying in the wilderness. But I’ve got to make a quasi exception for Michelle Obama’s fashion statements. The subject has to do with politics because the world is watching to see if she wears American designers, women designers, etc. etc. As far as I can tell, just about everyone is enamored with her look. I hereby join the crowd.

There have been only two off notes in a pitch-perfect season. The first was the red and black number that she wore election night. It “read” poorly on TV and in photos because the eye didn’t know where to light. The waist was almost invisible. I didn’t realize the ensemble included a cummerbund until I read about it. The splotches of red-black above and below the waist distracted from her elegant shape. (Dressing little Sasha in black was a bit of a misstep, too, but we folk do love to coordinate! Malia looked adorable, though.) Narciso Rodriquez may have gotten his name out there with the “victory dress,” but I won’t go beating down any doors for his designs. He did better with the gray suit and purple blouse that she wore on Wednesday, but that outfit still was not something I’d buy.

Faux pas deux wasn’t as bad, but that “necklace” Mrs. O wore on Inauguration Day didn’t read well, either. Learning that it was a vintage diamante brooch helped some, but it needed black or dark blue to set it off. According to one style mavin, “…the brooch (some reports had called it a necklace) was a vintage piece from the Victorian era purchased from Carole Tanenbaum.”

The rest of the outfit has been described as yellow, lemongrass, canary, pale gold, or marigold (I’ve never seen any marigolds that color), but it came across as almost olive. That one makes me jealous because she can wear that color, and my skin turns to mud in that range. Also loved the green leather gloves by JCrew, whose turtleneck I am wearing as I write this. Ditto the teal shoes but not the heels. No one could pay me to walk blocks in those spikes.

She apparently buys other modestly priced wear from White House/Black Market rates top marks too: Prices are generally under $200 for natural-fiber clothing, and the styles look like something real women don for work and play. They do have a few colors besides black and white, mainly blue (denim) and tan (raincoat).

For all things related to Obama fashion, including the occasional comment on Mr. and the girls, surf on over to Mrs. .“Isaac [Mizrahi] briefly comments on Mrs. O’s physique, sharing with his usual spark and enthusiasm, ”[Mrs. O] is very body loving. The lady has hips. And you don’t see her try to mask them or treat them as a detriment. She works her hips, which is so fantastic.” I love Isaac almost as much as I love Michelle’s look, especially now that he’s designing for my favorite line, Liz Claiborne.

And as for The Gown, it made fashion statements left and right – frilly but not fussy, setting off her dark skin. And no, it didn’t look like a wedding dress because the train wasn’t long enough and it lacked the usual frills and furbelows . Loved it! Am getting into the mode by taking my one dress with a single shoulder strap to the cleaners. (Goodness knows when I’ll have a chance to wear it.)

Quick note: I don’t know who bryanboy is, but he’s got the best photos of Mrs. O and Co.

Second quick note: What to think that a 58-year-old college professor and a 16-year-old wore the same dress – but that’s not quite true. See Glamour. Professor Biden’s looked kind of like a prom dress, and Miley’s looked like what a sophisticate would wear to one of the more elegant casinos in Europe.
A final note: lay off the cracks about Aretha’s hat. It may have looked funny, but the lady kept her head warm!

Digital Grab, Part II

February 5, 2009

I should clarify that Professor Darnton’s views and mine do not diverge completely. The man is far better educated and far more of a scholar than I. Nevertheless I’m going to presume to agree and disagree.

Here’s where we converge. He objects to private enterprise making money from information that is “free.” He notes that a great many people are nervous that one corporate entity will be able to control so much knowledge when Google finishes its digitization project. In my view It’s a version of Big Brother. We overload you with information and data mine your searches. Professor Darnton also thinks it’s OK for Google to make money off public domain material by selling advertising on the pages. That part makes me feel queasy, but I’ll concede that the marketplace certainly allows the sale of ads next to the pages of The Book of Common Prayer (which was digitized from the library at Harvard’s divinity school). Best of all, the professor takes the anti-trust view that Google should not have a monopoly on digitizing the world. To that I say “Amen.” More to come about that issue later.

The learned professor and I part ways over his objections to copyright. He says, “Those of us who are responsible for research libraries have a clear view of a common goal: we want to open up our collections and make them available to readers everywhere.” Boston public library, he notes, has “Free to all” above the door. Do the Harvard libraries say, “Pay $200 if you’re not a university student or professor?” But he thinks that writers, song writers, and creative people in general should be limited having control for 28 years.

Revisiting Monday’s argument, why should drug companies get 20 years to make billions and billions while most freelance writers and their estates won’t earn 1/100th of that amount even with the copyright at life plus seventy years. (The average freelance writer earns far less that $20,000 a year.) I can understand cynics who think Disney Co. should not be able to keep Mickey and Minnie and Donald D. out of the public domain for the next hundred years. But really, why can’t Stephen King’s children and even his grandchildren derive some benefit from his talent just as the progeny of the Rockefellers, the Hiltons, and old Joe Kennedy enjoy the benefits of material wealth developed by their parents and grandparents? Kelo vs. City of New London notwithstanding, many generations can live off royalties paid by oil companies for the lease of land, and off the stock dividends from profits. I understand that intellectual property is different but isn’t it more valuable for being plucked from the garden ideas rather than from the soil in someone’s backyard or off the neighboring mountain top?

Professor Darnton must have wandered over to the other side of what he calls his “jeremianic- utopian reflections” when he decries the cost of subscriptions to academic journals. He cites annual prices from less than $3,500 to nearly $26,000. Subscription fees have forced libraries to cut back on their purchase of monographs (mostly published by university presses), which in turn limits the number of outlets for young professors. If as he asserted, faculty members write these papers mostly to advance their careers, what is to prevent them from publishing online? The answer is that prestige comes through publication by an established firm, not by a vanity press. But if the aim is dissemination of knowledge, then ignore the prestige issue and publish away.

Back, briefly, to the monopoly argument. Professor Darnton is worried that Google may do what pretty much every other monopoly has done over the years by offering low-cost or free digital service to libraries and then hiking the price when customers become dependent. The settlement of the lawsuit filed by the rights holders should include a provision that would prohibit Google from so doing and allow government approval of any rate structure, just as states do with regulated utilities.

And one point of minutia: The Republic of Letters may have produced the major literary works of the eighteenth century, but there were any number of writers who could not be admitted to the Republic by virtue of sex, race, etc., who nevertheless were writing and being published, most notably Phillis Wheatley.

Driving While Dialing

February 4, 2009

We interrupt the Digital Grab analysis to bring you the results of the “Car Talk” guys’ current poll.

The question: “Is it time to ban cell phone use in cars nationally, or am I just being cranky?” The answer is probably both, but I don’t have time today to address the curmudgeon factor on “Car Talk.” Trust me, it’s in the stratosphere. So far 73 percent of people responded yes, phones should be banned; 18 percent say we should allow hands-free devices; 9 percent voted for no ban.

The comments range from vituperative to hilarious.

I voted with the 73 percent because further down in the question it said “while driving.” I don’t think Click and Clack have anything against passenger use of cell phones, or against someone who pulls over to make a call.

Connecticut required the use of hands-free devices a few years ago, and I swear that since then I’ve seen more people yakking with the phone plastered to the side of their face. One woman, a nurse I think, in an SUV nearly hit me (a pedestrian) and a motorist as she barreled out of the hospital parking lot, feet from the ER entrance. Another woman drove up the middle of a two way street on a blind hill because she wasn’t strong enough to steer her behemoth Lexus SUV with one hand. I find it particularly unnerving to see people in vehicles with company logos blatantly violating the law.

And as for text messaging – how in the world can anyone hold a phone, type with two thumbs and steer? Not very well is my guess.

The studies seem to indicate that hands-free devices don’t help because it’s not the hands that are distracted, it’s the brain. The latest results show that driving while phoning is equivalent to drunken driving.

Of course my attitude will probably infuriate a good many people, including my cousin. She claims that she doesn’t feel right if she doesn’t have a phone in her hand as she whips down the highway. I’m really glad she lives in a state that doesn’t outlaw such things and that she lives half way across the country.

One partial solution is to go back to the old days when all cars had standard transmissions. At least it would cut cell use where with traffic lights and stop signs. Plus stick shift cars get better gas mileage.

In the meantime, I’m ordering a Click and Clack bumper sticker that says, “Drive now, talk later.”

Google’s Digital Grab

February 3, 2009

Maybe I don’t get all the nuances of what Google is doing, but it seems to me that its attempt to digitize every book should be banned or at least curtailed as strictly as possible. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Harvard’s head librarian Robert Darnton sees the grab as a good/bad thing.

It’s going to take a bit to sort out his lengthy essay, so let me put my own opinion out there first, and in a later post analyze where I agree and disagree with Darnton.

Google claims it’s not scarfing up copyrighted material without payment. I don’t believe the hype. I emailed Google about my mother’s works. The reply: “No we’re not copying them. We don’t do that.” And then “Ooops, we’re sorry” when I sent them the link to the books they’d hijacked. It looks like the message finally got through as I don’t see any little links, at least as of today. (Amazon pulled the same stunt with the “Look Inside” feature and blamed technology when the feature somehow reappeared after I objected.) Abject apologies all around don’t make up for corporate greed.

So, let’s say that Google limits itself to products that are in the public domain. (It doesn’t, but we’ll get to that later.) Why should it be able to make money off those materials? The author can’t. The publisher can’t. Google says it wants information to be free – except when it chooses to charge for it. Or to charge advertisers to tout their wares on the “free” pages.

If this practice continues, it will stifle creativity and undermine the whole idea that writers can make a living off their works. The iPoding of text is on the way anyway, so maybe authors can circumvent the Almighty Vacuum Cleaner. I know “entrepreneurs” object to the latest copyright provision, but the original law was written shortly after the American Revolution when life expectancy was about seven years more than the 28-year copyright (14 plus one renewal of 14 years.) Unless the writer was composing at age 7, the copyright outlived the writer. I realize that drug patents still hold to a 15-year rule, but Lipitor has brought Pfizer $3.1 billion in a single quarter in 2006, according to the Herald Tribune. Even Stephen King doesn’t make that kind of money.

And I seriously doubt that Google had the interests of public libraries in mind when it started its paper grab. Under the proposed settlement, each library will have to purchase a computer to dedicate to the Google book search. They will be rationing use for its hundreds, in some cases thousands, of patrons.

Coming soon: Why Mr. Darnton needs to rethink the Enlightenment analogy.