Monthly Archives: February 2008

Leap Day

A family legend that I believe is true: Our grandfather, Edward Daniel Hogan, was born on Leap Day. Our grandmother, Anne O’Malley, was born in 1898, and hearing that I always figured Ed must have been born in 1896 or 1892. But having seen his grave, finally, and having found him in the census, I see the real date was 1888.

In 1930, he was listed as a bank auditor, probably at the First National Bank of Chicago; our stern grandmother is listed unsoberly as “Annie,” and her occupation is clear from the presence of three children in the downstairs flat at 8332 South May Street: our mom, who was just four months old the day the census enumerator visited, and her brothers Bill — three years old — and John, who was two. Upstairs were Ed’s parents, Timothy J. (listed as “freight clerk-railroad”); Annie, his wife, who was actually named Anniestacia; and Ed’s sisters, Catherine and Betty. Catherine was 30 and her occupation is listed as “stenographer-abbatoir”; I’ve always heard she worked for Armour–you know, the meat company–but this is the first I’ve heard that stenographers worked in abbatoirs. Betty is listed as an office clerk at a bank, and I don’t know which one.

It’s always a little thrilling and a little strange to encounter family characters in a setting like this. Some of them we’ve only heard about. We never knew Mom’s dad and granddad or her brother John — they died long before we came along. But I do have memories of his mother, Annie, who still lived in that upstairs flat when we were very young. And much clearer memories of the rest of them.

Ed, though–today is the twenty-ninth passing of his actual birth date. I think. If he were in any position to appreciate it, I’d tell him happy birthday.

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In the Stacks

Librarybook022908

I’ve discovered since I (re-)started school at Cal last month that its main library is amazing. I’ve had a couple topics to read about that are pretty arcane, and I’ve been pleased to discover that the library has the books I’ve been looking for and, to my surprise, they’re all available in the stacks. (The stacks themselves are another subject: since the last time I frequented the library, a gigantic underground annex was built, and that’s where all the books are now.)

I’m looking for material on reactions in Ireland to the American Civil War. One reason: About 150,000 Irish immigrants and Irish Americans served in the war. And for another: The Irish in America turn out to have been, in general, pretty unsympathetic to the idea of emancipation; in fact, “pretty unsympathetic” could be seen as a euphemism for “virulently racist.” Exhibit A for that might be the New York Draft Riots in 1863.

Anyway, I started looking for stuff on this subject, and to my surprise I found a book that deals explicitly with this topic: “Celts, Catholics and Copperheads,” a 1968 book (actually available online) by someone named Joseph M. Hernon, Jr. It’s a short book, perhaps a good fit a narrow topic. I checked with the UC-Berkeley library catalog, and sure enough, it was listed. Not only that, but it was on the shelf. I went and checked it out yesterday.

After I got home, I took a look at the loan slip just out of curiosity about how many hands this book has passed through. There are two slips in the book; the one pictured above is pasted over the original. The slips show the book came into the library in 1969 and was checked out four or five times in its first three years in the collection. Until yesterday, it had been checked out six times in the last 36 years, with gaps of three, two, ten, eleven, two and two years between borrowers. The last time it was checked out was six years ago. From the wear it has suffered, you would guess the book has had a more active life; maybe it spent some time in the home of a graduate student whose kids used it as a Frisbee.

I’m sure there are plenty of volumes in that big vault of books that have been borrowed even less frequently. It makes me wonder about the volume of library patronage on one hand and wonder at the commitment to keep all this stuff available. Maybe I’ll be able to dig up some library statistics; too big a project for this morning, though.

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Guest Observation: Bicycle Poem

Saw this on The Writer’s Almanac this morning. If you quote it or reproduce it, note that it’s by Deborah Slicer (of whom I know nothing), and it’s Copyright 2003. It’s also good to note, as the Almanac does, that the volume in which it appears, “The White Calf Kicks,” may be purchased via Amazon.com (support your local poet!).

Outside of Richmond, Virginia, Sunday

(Deborah Slicer, Copyright 2003)

It’s the kind of mid-January afternoon—

the sky as calm as an empty bed,

fields indulgent,

black Angus finally sitting down to chew—

that makes a girl ride her bike up and down the same muddy track of road

between the gray barn and the state highway

all afternoon, the black mutt

with the white patch like a slap on his rump

loping after the rear tire, so happy.

Right after Sunday dinner

until she can see the headlights out on the dark highway,

she rides as though she has an understanding with the track she’s opened up in

the road,

with the two wheels that slide and stutter in the red mud

but don’t run off from under her,

with the dog who knows to stay out of the way but to stay.

And even after the winter cold draws tears,

makes her nose run,

even after both sleeves are used up,

she thinks a life couldn’t be any better than this.

And hers won’t be,

and it will be very good.

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Paper

Some weeks back, I think I mentioned that I’m back in school, trying to earn my history degree at UC-Berkeley. I’ll talk more about it soon, I promise. About the dull class that has turned out to be much more engaging than I imagined it could be during that first week. About the very challenging class on linguistics that has me thinking about the merits of going for a pass/not pass grade. About the oddly off-putting experience of a sociology-type class looking at the phenomenon of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and how I’ve dropped that one.

But for now, this: The week before last, I had to turn in my first paper since the Carter administration. The class is Irish history–I half feel like the native Parisian taking Elementary French, but that’s another story. The paper was to be a reflection on the record that Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century political sociologist, left of a trip he took through Ireland in 1835. (Do I hear pulses speeding up out there in blogland?)

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Bicentennial Moment

From my brother John, a good writeup (from the Associated Press, by way of MSNBC) on the upcoming bicentennial of the birth of a president who served from 1861 through 1865. No, not the one you’re thinking of.

“It hasn’t been easy getting people excited about celebrating the 200th birthday of that tall, gaunt, bearded, Kentucky-bred president who was born in a log cabin and went on to lead his people through a bloody civil war.”

Enough suspense. We’re talking about Jefferson Davis. Doing a quick Web sift for a related item, I stumbled across this item in the Andalusia, Alabama, Star-News. In a column of local goings-on, which is worth reading for the strong local flavor, there is an extended account of a recent Davis bicentennial event: a re-enactment of his swearing in as president of the Confederacy in Montgomery.

Among the many gently disquieting observations delivered in the Star-News column is this one:

“The program was a long one, presided over by Mrs. Napier, who runs the White House of the Confederacy and is a great-niece of Douglas Southall Freeman, most famous biographer of Robert E. Lee, whose bicentennial was celebrated last year.

“Mrs. Napier spoke of ‘presentism,’ which she defined as ‘imposing today’s values on the past’ as a means of judgment. She did not favor that.”

You know, I love the code. We are not to judge the past by today’s values. By which the speaker means “we shouldn’t judge slavery, and the South’s embrace of it, by the enlightened standards of 2008.” Slavery was just a fact of life in the South, and no one today has the right to judge that. Uh huh.

It’s true that we Americans are mostly a little shortsighted about slavery and its legacies. It thrived in the North, for instance, and was only gradually outlawed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It’s true, too, that when the Civil War came one of the great bastions of pro-Southern and anti-emancipation sentiment was New York City. The brutal reality of slavery darkened the entire Union.

But there I go, calling slavery “brutal.” That’s just modern values judging the well-meaning gentlefolk of yesteryear.

Except, of course, it’s not: The contemporary reality of antebellum America, and of the world beyond, was full of recognition that slavery was barbaric and ought to be ended. That doesn’t mean the question was ever simple. But revisionism aside, that’s why that damned war was fought–based on 19th century values, not something we ginned up in the 1960s.

Now: Applying 1860s values to today? That I have a problem with. (And so does novelist John Scalzi, who over the years has made a cause out of puncturing latter-day delusions about the nature of the Confederacy.)

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One Candidate

Time out for a campaign sideswipe:

One of Hillary Clinton’s stock lines–part of reminding us that there’s only one candidate in the race who will be able to find her way to the White House bathroom in the dark on Inauguration Night–is this: There’s one candidate in the race who knows what it’s like to do hand-to-hand combat with Republicans and who’s ready to put on the brass knuckles again. (As delivered in Youngstown, Ohio, earlier this week, the line was: “One of us has faced serious Republican opposition in the past. And one of us is ready to do it again.”)

Is that a note she really wants to sound? I can’t believe there’s anyone in the Democratic Party, aside from James Carville, who is eager to see a Clinton rolling around in the muck with the Republicans. The memory evokes the image of a president who parsed and prevaricated while his enemies sharpened their knives.

Besides, Clinton’s claim to be such a tough campaigner is being put to the test by the one candidate in the race she is implying is too soft to deal with the Republicans.

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Infamous Scribblers

On the occasion of George Washington’s (Gregorian-corrected) birthday, this memorable description of the press:

“The hopelessness with which Washington ended his presidency was obvious in the way he described to [Alexander] Hamilton his plan to retire. He wrote that he had ‘a disinclination to be longer buffeted in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers.’ He needed retirement, he told another correspondent, just to make bearable what he predicted would be a short trip to his death.”

(From: “Our Founding Lame Duck,” in the Times earlier this week.)

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Daily Planet

Watervapor

I happened to be looking at the local National Weather Service site the other day and started looking at the directory of satellite pictures. There’s nothing new about them — in my generation, we’ve been seeing something like this since we were kids. Since they’re familiar, it’s easy to overlook them, or to not really look at them. The beauty strikes me on several levels: the planet, the movement of weather, the fact we manage to put all the tools together to gather the images, make them available, and find ways to look beyond the visible images (as in the color enhanced water-vapor image above; somewhere in all the swirling moisture is a storm that’s supposed to arrive the day after tomorrow).

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Owning Up

My friend Pete is trying to prod me to write something about the Tour of California. If you follow professional cycling — and if you do, you’re part of a group only slightly smaller than the present-day Women’s Christian Temperance Union — you know what that Tour is. If you don’t know about the ToC, but you’re still a sports fan, you want to talk about Andy Pettite.

Pettite, a pitcher for the Yankees, has never been on one of “my” teams. My teams being the Cubs (the birthright squad) and the A’s (adopted as a MIdwestern emigre to Bay Area climes). I can’t say I really know a lot about him, but I’ve always loved watching him play. He’s a tall left-hander. He’s long-faced, and dark-eyed, unsmiling and somber. In most games that matter, he looks like he’s tough for the hitters to deal with. Maybe just as significantly to me, the purist fan: he has always appeared to be without the nasty braggadocio that marks the on-field behavior of many if not most of his contemporaries.

Pettite, like many of those contemporaries, has been making news off the field. He admitted to congressional investigators last week that he took injections of human growth hormone. He also contradicted the account of his sometimes teammate Roger Clemens about Clemens’s getting HGH injections. Clemens says he never ever got anything nasty or illegal injected into his body. His former personal trainer says he shot up Clemens with both HGH and steroids, many times; Clemens says the trainer is lying. Pettite says that Clemens told him about getting HGH injections; Clemens says that Pettite “misremembers.”

That’s the kind of guy Clemens is: If someone says he told them something, then that person is lying or has a faulty memory. If Clemens hits an opposing player in the head with a pitch or throws a bat at them — the uglier moments in a brilliant pitching career — well, Clemens would ask you to believe those incidents just sort of happened by themselves.

Here’s the kind of guy Pettite is: Today, he met with a bunch of reporters to talk openly about what he’d told Congress. He used HGH. He was wrong and did it out of desperation. He didn’t blame anyone else for his predicament; he didn’t accuse anyone of lying; he didn’t engage in any dramatics about the damage the world out there has done to his good name. He apologized and owned up and said he’d try to learn and go on.

As a fan of any sport, you project a lot onto the athletes. Most of the time the noble stuff you’d like to read into the beauty of a player’s performance is just a fantasy. How many times have we had to learn that? But here’s one time when the man off the field seems more than the equal of the athlete we’ve seen for years.

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Nothing to Be Done

I’ve got a weakness for connecting something new I encounter with something old I might be thinking about. In my Irish history class, we’ve been spending a good deal of time reading and talking about the Famine. One thing that is new to me is the discovery that people seemed to see Ireland’s problems with great clarity years or decades before the catastrophe struck. Foreign travelers, native politicians and priests, and even British government commissions repeatedly looked at Ireland and said, “What a mess.” To be more specific: the poverty of the place was obvious and appalling to observers; they found the extent and the depth of the privation that was the normal lot of the great mass of people striking and troubling. Not that anyone saw a famine coming–though those who paid attention saw that most people depended on potatoes and potatoes alone for survival; there was a recurring problem with hunger when crops failed or harvests were insufficient to carry people from one season to the next.

So there it was, out in the open: a huge population of destitute people living close to the edge of survival. Though the problem was commented on frequently and solutions occasionally broached, very little was done beyond the appointment of more commissions to study the problem anew. Doing something would have been very difficult. It would have meant fixing the country’s dysfunctional and inequitable system of land ownership; confronting that system would mean challenging a right considered fundamental by those who enjoyed it. The challenge would have been politically explosive. It was never attempted, and soon Ireland had its calamity and was never the same. Perhaps there was nothing to be done, though in the end the landowners who could not be challenged were swept away with the millions of poor who starved, succumbed to disease, or fled.

So, then: Northern Illinois University. We’ve all read what happened there this week. A perfectly nice young guy with a psychiatric history bursts into a lecture hall with his personal arsenal and shoots everyone he can. Also recently: five women shot and killed one Saturday morning by an apparent robber in a store just across the fields from my brother’s place in the Chicago suburbs. Here in the Bay Area, we have Oakland: 20-some murders already this year, and you can guess the tool of choice for the killings. A couple months back, a kid taking a piano lesson in a “safe” part of town was struck and paralyzed by a stray shot fired randomly during a gas-station robbery across the street.

Anyone remember Virginia Tech?

No matter where you are when you read this–as long as you’re in the United States–at least one incident in your neighborhood or city or state will readily come to mind: random shootings, drive-by shootings, accidental shootings; so many dead, so many wounded that the tallies are only numbing. We all see what’s happening, we all know or intuit that this kind of mayhem is out of control and is all too easily traceable to one source, regardless of the age, skin color, brain chemistry, or economic status of the victims and perpetrators, regardless of all the prison cells we’ve built and all the fearsome punishments we mete out.

Somehow, beyond the brief outbursts of shouting and finger-pointing that accompany the most atrocious outrages, we don’t seem to talk about this much anymore as something we can do anything about. Somewhere, in the tangle of dead and damaged bodies and amid the piles of spent shells, there’s a fundamental right we dare not challenge. Maybe there’s just nothing to be done.

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