Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tying things together

My father bought this house in 1938 for about $2800, if 
remember right. We had electricity but no indoor plumbing 
for a while, chickens out back, an outhouse. Not exactly 
log cabin origins, but I'm not above claiming humble origins 
when it suits me. The current owners still may take down the 
"storm windows" and put up screens for the summer, just as we did 
since the early 1940s, but I see they haven't done that yet. 
Fifty years ago there were many more trees.
My last blog entry (Between Winchester and Barkhamstedhad to do with my home town of Winsted, which I was trying to introduce to friends Sharmon and Luis and to Taku, before heading to Connecticut to Sol's graduation. We're now back. Here's how it looks from the after-side.

high school
Friend Bill flew out from Indiana to sit with Miki and Bounce for five days so that Taku and I could get on a metal tube and fling ourselves through the air to the coast of my birth. As I sit here I am fighting the urge to rant over the practice of American Airlines of dropping you at one gate at an airport and then expecting you to sprint at the age of 77 across a mile and a half of airport to a gate at the other end, to catch a plane leaving in ten minutes. Without a word of understanding that this is not something kindly beings do to one another. And then cram you into tight seats built for folks under four foot eleven and less than ninety-nine pounds. Won’t rant about that. Will just tell you that I vowed as I left the airport after returning that I would walk, the next time I felt the urge to travel across the country.
First Church

But that’s the down side. Had to get that out of the way.

Taku and I took the trip to do three things: attend the graduation ceremony of a treasured chosen family niece at Yale Law School, drive up to Winsted to visit the biologicals, and then drive up to Northampton, Massachusetts to visit a dear dear friend I have not seen for fifty-five years.

Luis, Sharmon, grand nephew
Joseph III, Taku, Jamie,
nephew Joe,  Stacey
brother-in- law Joe

brother-in-law Joe,  Luis, nephew
Joe Jr., moi
Stacey, grand niece Clara, sister Karen

Somehow it all worked. I got to revisit my sister after ten years, meet the wife, Stacey and daughter Jamie of my nephew for the first time, catch up with grand nephews and nieces and put the biological family all together with husband Taku and chosen family Sharmon and Luis. If they didn’t actually enjoy the experience, they fooled me. I left the home town with very warm feelings indeed. But not until we had visited Ralph Nader's Tort Museum, missing Nader and his sister Claire by about fifteen minutes, the receptionist told us. Fine fine museum. Worth a visit to Winsted just to see, I'd say.

clockwise: Stacey, Joe Jr., Clara,
Karen, Nick, Joe, moi
Despite growing up in Connecticut and knowing dozens of Yalies over the years, I had never been to the Yale Campus. That, too, turned out to be an exciting adventure. I’d share pictures, but aside from a couple  showing the tradition of turning mortar boards into silly hats, I’d recommend getting professional quality photos of the campus and its history. Wikipedia does a good job on Sterling Library and the Beineke Rare Books library.

Seriously. Have a look here if you get the chance.  Really enjoyed walking into a cathedral, complete with stained glass windows, a mural of Mary at the front (who is actually the very secular “Alma Mater” and not Mary at all.  Loved too reading about the squabble between folks who, like Nation magazine, sneered at the “cathedral orgy” sanctimony, and folks like me who have always loved cathedrals and see something noble in building one that will hold over five million books. Fought the urge to genuflect before moving on to the Music Library because I wanted a quiet place to sit down for a while.

happy grad
Sol gets her degree
Sol twixt mama and papa

Graduation was fun. Fought like everybody else to get a good shot of our already tall graduate girl in heels towering over many other future ruling class movers and shakers listening to speeches by the dean on the importance of remaining humble and seeking to do good. A special treat was the presence of John Lewis, who really did embody the professional career of a guy who took the sticks and stones and spit of the retrograde forces in American life to make for a better America. Had no idea he would be there. He talked about chickens, also. I didn’t get the point, but that was OK. I was too busy hero-worshiping.

Me and the sister in the Tort
Museum (note the exploding
Corvair on the T-shirt
behind us)
Lewis was only the latest of a long line of people I admire whom I was able to listen to in person this last week. Amy Goodman came to Berkeley and talked about her work with the Dakota Indians fighting the pipeline. Bill Moyers spoke at the Castro Theater about the “alien” nature of Trump in the White House and the importance of recognizing that although there may be two or more sides to every question there are not necessarily two “right” sides. And recognizing that change takes place when lots of little people get involved and do little things. He spoke of how proud he was of the stop sign his wife had forced their town to put up at an intersection near their house. “Just as important, I told her, as the work I was doing to further President Johnson’s Civil Rights efforts.” That would be bullshit coming out of most people’s mouth. From Bill Moyers, I knew it was sincere – making the point that it’s the effort to actually make something happen as opposed to simply ranting and raving about it, that makes the difference. Following in the footsteps of Ralph Nader, for example.

Winsted Pet Parade
I actually left Connecticut in 1958 when I went away to college in Vermont, because I never lived there after that. I still carry a New England identity, however, and the monsters that plagued my conciousness as an out-of-place teenager died off decades ago now, so I can go back to that little town at the intersection of the Mad and Still Rivers, dominated by St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church (and four other stone churches), and a Main Street with buildings on one side only and a pet parade that has been going on in Winsted since before I was born. 79 years. It touched my heart that our family reunion just happened to coincide with Winsted's pet parade of 2017. I got out in time to photograph Section B (No dogs), where the kids were walking their pet chickens down Main Street. Failed to get a good photo, alas, so here's a stock photo from 2013 from the Winsted/Torrington paper.

Me and Nathan
The Yale trip was that shot in the arm I need from time to time to convince myself that a) there is beauty in the world, and b) there are good people working to do good things, and c) it cannot be said often enough that the sine qua non for what ails this country is not impeaching the Mango Mussolini in the Oval Office (satisfying as that would be), and holding back the moneyed interests from robbing the poor (necessary as that is), but the importance of insisting that people provide evidence for their assertions.  Here's me at the left with yet another hero. Nathan Hale this time (as in "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country" - which he did at age 21, by the way - "For God, For Country, and For Yale.")

Then there’s Hasi.

Gertraud ("Hasi") and me at
 Middlebury, 1961, maybe 1962

and now in 2017
In 1961 when I came back to Middlebury to finish my senior year after spending my junior year in Munich, I was a fish out of water. I missed Germany something fierce. It had been my first exposure to the big city, to art and culture and an exciting world I had no idea existed, and I missed it terribly.  Hasi eased the shock and sense of alienation I felt at having that all taken away so suddenly and we spent a lot of time together. She had come from Hinterpommern (“Farther” Pommerania) in East Germany, was still reeling from her escape with her family as refugees after the war with the Russians pushing the Germans out of what is now Poland, and then finding herself in America being poked and probed as a curiosity who knew more about Das Kapital than most of her contemporaries. She suffered terribly from having to go and speak at all these church socials and faculty get togethers. When I asked her why she didn’t simply refuse, she said, “I was raised in the East. We never learned how to say no.” We became fast friends, but lost contact over the years until I found her again on Face Book a couple years ago.

We had the day Tuesday after the graduation. Our plane back to San Francisco wasn’t until five, so we drove to Northamption where Gertraud (whom I knew as “Hasi”) taught German at Smith until she retired.

Before saying good-bye and promising it
will not be 55 years this time. 
Hasi with the Spousal Unit

Another dash, this time from one end of Philadelphia airport to the other to change planes,
and home to the girls.

Whose welcome wiggles after five days made the discomforts of air travel fly away in an instant.

Luis and Sharmon, after all this activity in New Haven tracking their second daughter's accomplishments, got to drive their rental car back to New York and hop a plane for Colombia, where their older daughter Paz (how many of you have kids called Peace and Sunshine?) is marrying a marvelous man named Quique, whom I hope to have in my life from here on in with the rest of these marvelous people. Would love to keep up the pace and join them in Cali for the wedding, but it would prevent my taking a long long nap.  And I know my limitations. (And they're doing a second wedding just for us California folks, so all's well, I say...)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Between Winchester and Barkhamsted

Gilbert clocks
Let’s start with…

The Gilbert Clock Shop

Riley Whiting was born on January 16, 1785, in Winsted, Connecticut.  Two weeks after his twenty-first birthday in 1806, he married Urania Hoadley, from Waterbury, Connecticut. In 1813 he formed, with Urania’s brother Samuel, the company of Hoadley & Whiting, which went to work manufacturing clocks. When Whiting died in 1835, his wife and his son kept the company going until it was bought out by Lucius Clarke and William Lewis Gilbert in 1841. Gilbert had begun his clock-making career at the age of 22. Over the years, with a number of partners, he formed what would eventually become the William L. Gilbert Clock Company in 1871 and eventually, after weathering the recession, the William L. Gilbert Clock Corporation in 1934. The company’s clocks are now heirlooms. “The clock shop,” as the factory was known to Winsted locals, became one of the world’s largest clock companies around the turn of the 20th century. Financial difficulties of the last dozen or so years, exacerbated by the flood of 1955, forced them to sell out to Spartus Corporation of Chicago in 1964 for half a million dollars. By that time, they had been making clocks for 151 years.

For a more detailed history, click here.  

Winchester, Barkhamsted, Winsted

The town of Winchester, in Northwestern Connecticut was incorporated in 1771. The neighboring town to the East is Barkhamsted. It was incorporated eight years later. Both are located in Litchfield County. Barkhamsted’s population of 3799 souls is 97.5% white, down from 98.54% white a decade earlier, .3% black, .6% Asian, 1.5% Hispanic of all races. Winchester’s population of 11,242 is only 94.44% white, making it more cosmopolitan than Barkhamsted.  For every 100 females in the town of Winchester there are only 94 males, which although a boon for homosexuals, makes it necessary for many in the hetero population to seek partners from out of town.

The Wikipedia page for Winchester, Connecticut lists only one notable person, a certain Phineas Miner, born in Winchester in 1777. Phineas represented his district in the State House for many years from 1809 until 1829 when he was elected to the State Senate as an Anti-Jacksonian, i.e., pro-John Adams. The following year the Democratic-Republican Party to which both Adams and Jackson had belonged, split. Jackson’s supporters took the name Democratic; Adams’ supporters became the National Republicans. Phineas Miner left Winchester early on in his career as a lawyer and moved to Litchfield, where he is buried in the town’s East Burying Ground.

Settlers moved into the area between Winchester and Barkhamsted, at the confluence of the Still and the Mad Rivers in 1750, within the township of Winchester. The area put the “win” of “Winchester” together with the “sted” of “Barkhamsted”.  And in 1792 the Winsted Manufacturing company began manufacturing scythes. Other factories followed and Winsted became a prosperous town of the industrial revolution.

The town is known, among other things, for its Civil War Monument to the Union Army, its oil-on-canvas post office mural painted in 1938, its five stone churches, and the fact that Winsted nearly went bankrupt and had to close its schools when the city's Finance Director, Henry Centrella, was found to have bilked the town of 2.2 million dollars.  And, to folks of my generation and the previous one who are still alive, the flood of 1955.

The flood

Main Street, 1911. The buildings on the right (south)
side of the street (the ones remaining in 1955)
were all washed away in the flood.
In 1955, Winsted was hit by two hurricanes, Hurricane Connie on August 12-13, and then Hurricane Diane five days later. Connie and Diane dumped a million tons of water per square mile on parts of the state, including Winsted (although Winsted was not the worst hit). The Mad River, which runs along Winsted’s Main Street, climbed its banks and the buildings that survived on the river (south) side of Main Street were torn down and never rebuilt.  My father was among those hauling victims out just above the raging waters on very shaky ropes. Very exciting stuff for a fifteen-year old to see one's dad become a heroic figure in an instant. I spent the next several days bleaching utensils for the free meals we were handing out to survivors with my Aunt Connie. 

David Halberstam

Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam grew up in Winsted and was a classmate of Ralph Nader. Known for his coverage of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, Halberstam travelled for a time with Martin Luther King to Berkeley for an article he published in Harper's. Criticized by conservatives during the Vietnam years for his insistence that the war was an American moral tragedy, Halberstam held to the view that it was American hubris that led to defeat, and that Japan and Germany would one day beat out the USA economically. Halberstam died in a car accident in Menlo Park, California, in 2007.

The Naders

Rose Bouziane was born to a sheep broker and a teacher in Zahlé, Lebanon in 1906. She married Nathra Nader in 1925 and the two emigrated for political reasons and came to Winsted where, after working in a textile mill for a time they set up Nathra’s General Store/Bakery/Restaurant in the center of town. When Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (George W. Bush’s grandfather) came to town after the 1955 flood, Rose managed to grab his hand and hold it until she got him to promise to build a dam, so Winsted would not have to suffer such destruction again. The dam got built.

The Gilbert School, as it appeared in 1910
I shook Prescott's hand once, as well. In front of my school, during one of his senatorial campaigns as he whistle-stopped the town and we were all allowed out to see him. Rumors had not reached my teenage ears that the Bush family fortune on which its dynasty is based came from cooperating with German companies funding Hitler, so I thought myself lucky to get my picture taken with the senator.

The Gilbert School was founded in 1895, as one of three "endowed New England town academies" (the other two are Norwich Free Academy and Woodstock Academy). It's private, and the town pays an annual tuition for each pupil who attends. It serves as the town's only high school. I was given to understand that for a time it wouldn't take catholic kids because Gilbert had specified no kids would come from "St. Joseph School," the local Roman Catholic parochial school, but St. Joseph solved the problem by changing its name to St. Francis [correction: St. Anthony – thanks, Dori]. I am more skeptical these days than I was then, and tried, without success, to corroborate that story. Must check with the town historian at the next opportunity.

Rose and Nathra had four children, Shafeek (born 1926), Claire (born 1928), Laura (born 1930), and baby Ralph (born 1934). Shafeek is remembered locally chiefly for his work in founding Northwestern Connecticut Community College, which occupied the William L. Gilbert School, the building where I spent my high school years. After his death, the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest was formed, and the foundation is currently run by his sister, Claire.

The Gilbert School today, in its new incarnation - Northwestern
Connecticut Community College
Claire has a Ph.D. from Columbia in Political Science. Over the years she built a career in teaching (New York City Community College, 1956), and civil defense research (Oak Ridge National Laboratory (1960s). She joined the board of directors of the Council of Responsible Genetics (1990s) and became editor of Sage Publications. She has a long list of publications in controlling environmental health hazards, toxic substances and trade secrecy.

Laura was the first woman to receive a tenure-track position in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley where she was hired in 1960.  She credits her older brother Shafeek with her interest in anthropology. Her PhD is from Radcliffe/Harvard. She has a wide range of interests, including a comparative ethnography of law, conflict resolution, and the nature of power and control. She is known for her advocacy of “studying up,” i.e., focusing less on “primitive people” and “the colonized” and more on the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty. She is a critic of the “ideology of harmony,” and argues the pursuit of harmony often interferes with the pursuit of justice.

Ralph was educated at Princeton and Harvard and came to prominence with his Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965. His activism, along with seven of his loyal followers recruited in 1968, known as “Nader’s Raiders,” is credited with such legislation as the Clean Water Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. He is the author of more than two dozen books, the subject of the film, an An Unreasonable Man. Throughout the 70s, he became a leader in the anti-nuclear power movement, which eventually grew into an organization with hundreds of local affiliates and 200,000 supporters.

Nader is known for his view that the U.S. presidential race comes down to a choice “between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” At least that’s how he described the choice between Bush and Gore. Pushed to choose, he said he hoped Bush would win because the democratic party needed the “cold shower.” Despite a study by the Progressive Review in 2002, which concluded that Nader was not a spoiler in the race between Bush and Gore, many are convinced of the contrary. The best that can be said for his presidential runs is probably that they expose the weakness of America’s two-party system, which is characterized by political machines and the will of the folks with the most money.

In 2015, Nader opened the American Museum of Tort Law on Main Street in Winsted.

Nader supported the candidacy of Donald Trump, insisting the greater good was the breakup of the two-party system, which he felt a Trump victory would initiate.

Ralph graduated from The Gilbert School in 1951, seven years before me, so I never got to know him, even though I spent quite a lot of time at the Nader restaurant after school. Nader received a scholarship to Princeton, which his father refused to let him accept, arguing that he could afford to pay his own way and free the money up for a student who really needed it.

Because of his publication on the dangerous condition of General Motors automobiles, GM hired prostitutes and tried to blackmail him. But Ralph reported these efforts to Senator Abe Ribicoff, whom he was working for at the time, and Ribicoff was able to sue GM CEO James Roche for invasion of privacy. Nader took the $425,000 award and used it to found the Center for the Study of Responsive Law.

Ralph never married and has never been seen with a date, male or female. He earns a good deal from investments, but lives on $25,000 a year, donating the rest to his various causes. He was raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church. He suffers from Bell’s Palsy. He once appeared on Sesame Street, forcing them to change the word “who” in their song “a person who you meet each day” to “whom.”


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

You and I - a film review

You and I (Breaking Glass Pictures, 2014) is the kind of film that sneaks up on you. Starts out painfully slow, with not very appealing characters off on a not very interesting trip somewhere and takes forever to be about something. You’re not meant to know what it’s about until it’s over. You only know that it will involve the evolution of an intimate but hitherto non-sexual friendship.

The road trip begins when Jonas picks up his English friend Phillip at Tegel Airport in Berlin, who flies in from London to join him as he embarks on a photography project. They drive their van loaded with camping equipment out into the boonies, a place called Uckermark, an hour and a bit, plus a couple centuries, northeast of Berlin on the Polish border. The two of them drink wine and swim and horse around with no clear plan in mind. And apparently no time limits. At some point they come across Boris, a Polish hitchhiker, whom Jonas invites to join them once he learns he knows the area.  Boris seems a tad unnerved at first at Phillip’s revelation that he is gay and cannot quite figure out what kind of relationship Phillip has with Jonas. 

Zwichow Castle
What starts out as a very slow moving road trip by two uninteresting characters joined by a third guy your instincts should tell you it's probably best to avoid, becomes an erotic tease as you get to watch what Boris’s presence does to Jonas and Phillip’s friendship.  Boris, the horny homophobe has no reason not to explore the unexpected presence of a handsome gay guy fate has thrown in his path. It’s not unimportant to the plot that no other human beings are in sight. And there is nothing that calls them away from eating, sleeping, being young, breaking their way into abandoned castles, swimming in the nude and pilfering the wine cellar.

In German and English (Phillip and Jonas both switch back and forth). Go to Settings to turn on English subtitles. Since it’s a German film, there are lots of full frontals for those who go in for that sort of thing.  Streaming on Amazon Prime.

You and I trailer