Nanny to Daddy State

100 days of what?

It’s a sexist meme but let’s look.

Interest in a book called “The Fourth Turning” arises from a general fascination with cycles.  We happen to live in exciting times.  As is the appetite for explanation of the Now, let’s play along.

The Nanny State takes care of its citizens.  Wipes their noses.  Examples in the United States abound.  Social Security and Medicare.  Workers Compensation.  Section Eight housing.  Title IX.  Title X.  Unemployment insurance.  Public Assistance, aka Welfare and Food Stamps.  Medicaid.  Obamacare.  School Lunch — some would argue public education in general.  Public transportation.

Fringe conservatives, neocons, freedom caucusers, alt-rights, anarchists, libertarians, illiberals and other extreme thinkers opposed to state sponsorship of a caretaking society may name countless more such examples, but these are the commonest sore spots thus conspiring to undermine independence and individual initiative and purge self-reliance and reliance on God from human character.  Make that American character, as in America first.  These are the institutions of the state said to engender fatal dependence upon the state.  People get accustomed to having their noses wiped and others object to paying for and enabling the snot rags.

Critics of the Nanny State, or Welfare State, argue the social inefficiency of liberal social engineering as failed strategy creating more problems than it has solved.  Where such governments show actual success at achieving measurable social harmony along with maximum human rights, such as nations of Scandinavia, it is roundly pointed out the economic costs to each country’s GDP putting the average standard of living at beneath American middle class standards of aspiration, and cost a lot in taxes.  It’s always the taxes.  Sometimes it’s the social engineering’s fault but always it’s the taxes even where liberal policies work.  The taxes and the national debt.  It’s a matter of conservative principles.

Europe gets credit as incubator of nanny states.  England gets most scrutiny, perhaps due to its constant democratic self-examination, but France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Spain all get faulted for providing too generous benefits to its citizens and residents.  (One is not sure where Switzerland fits.)  Not a failed state among them.  None a perfect democracy.  All one time world empires.  If the common nanny state emerged here in Europe as a form of social contract responding to the aftermath of World War II, it certainly asserted a collection of ideals going forward, learned the hard way, how to form humane democratic states.  Americans might like to think the Marshall Plan influenced this outcome.  It’s this humanity now under attack for having open borders, resettling migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from inhumane conditions.  A grand mass migration of people is occurring and it frightens people to see infiltrators in their space.  Who can blame these migrants for seeking a good life?  Blame the nanny state for generously subsidizing more vagrancy and the erosion of national culture.

In America the nanny is about to get fired.  Sacked.  Given the shoo.

The seminal importance of “The Fourth Turning” is like similar popular obsessions over the Book of Revelations (and its offshoots like the Left Behind series) and the writings of Nostradamus (Alas, Babylon) to divine prophecies that define or self-fulfill current events.  The Heisenberg theory applied to history, it can be entertaining.  And can stimulate serious discussion and evaluation of cycles and trends on the planet occurring before our very eyes.

The sociopolitical meme appears to be turning from Nanny State to Daddy State.

The archetypal strong man takes over to rule over the unruly disorganized overly democratic masses in order to bring stability and ostensibly prosperity  and security to the nation — what people really want.  The strong man promises ultimately to grant what best for the people.

This is hardly a new method of governing — as old as tribal humanity.  See it in the animal kingdom.  The empires of the ancients.  Sovereigns of Europe. Popes.  Genghis Khan.  Kublai Khan.  That Napoleon thing.  Adolf Hitler.  Lenin and Stalin.  Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho.  Chiang Kai-shek.  Idi Amin and Moammar Khadafy.  The Ayatollah.  The Shah.  Fidel.  Pinochet.  Hugo Chavez.  Rodrigo Duterte.  Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.  Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Kim Jong Un.  Bashar al Assad.  Vladimir Putin.

A patriarchal pantheon.  In addition one hesitates to classify emerging statespersons such as Marine Le Pen, but perhaps she will not matter.  More difficult to classify Theresa May — maybe so, maybe not.  Angela Merkel comes from the nanny school.  One has an even harder task classifying the likes of Queen Victoria, Cleopatra, Indira Gandhi or Catherine the Great, so I’ll stick to focus on clear Daddy State regimes.  What would the sands of Arabia be like without the Saudi monarchy, after all?

America’s classic strong man was FDR , and it is ironic FDR is credited for creating the American nanny state.  Barack Obama, among other firsts, was perhaps history’s first male nanny.


The American fuhrer, Donald Trump, President Hump, is now more than 100 days embarked on his mission to remake the country in his own image and likeness.  Fuhrer knows best.  Don’t question him.  Don’t doubt his authority.  You can get disinherited.

He rants like a drunken abusive head of household come home from bar closing.

He never laughs, certainly not at himself.  Can’t take a joke.

He brands the news media as the enemy of the people.  Wants to manage the news, control information, invent facts, and subverts the common practice of issuing press releases through a press secretary by posting Tweets and tossing non-sequiturs like bon-bon bon mots at the tourists.  When quoted he complains the news is fake.  His press secretary has no credibility but no one else wants the job.  Faker or fakir?

A recent ranking of countries by freedom of the press placed the United States somewhere in the 40s.  Seems modest.  Maybe we don’t wish to brag but America enjoys a delicious and generous quality of press freedom, how else a bumpkin like me gets a website much less President Hump himself uncensored license to spout gibberish and expect to be taken seriously.  In another country he might be in jail or assassinated.


He skipped the White House Correspondents annual dinner, a traditional convivial roast fest which might have got ugly if he had shown up, if nothing else in memory of Don Rickles — remember, the fuhrer never laughs and can’t take a joke.  Instead at that same moment in real time he hosted a rally in the capital city of Pennsylvania where he addressed a hippodrome worth of avid admirers for about an hour, denouncing the media, promising jobs and health care, thanking the armed forces, winking at China and vowing to build a border wall against Mexico, rousing his crowd all frothy and sublime until you can almost hear them chant, sig heil.

Witnessing this display for any liberal must have felt like being in the Moral Majority in the 1970s if Hugh Hefner were elected president.  At least Hugh Hefner read books.

There’s a bunch out there who call themselves The Resistance.  Who might they be?

Most opponents of the fuhrer can take heart knowing there is evidence of fair mindedness and reason across the land.  The numbers of his fans are not increasing, despite what he thinks, and as he turns to his fans for another rally fix he’ll find it’s the same old mob, time and time again.  That may be as well, it helps identify the grievous among us.  He has no new ideas.  He attracts no new converts.  He will alienate the rest and bore the brightest.  He’ll fib his way along.

There’s a card carrying GOP Hoosier Daddy named Mike Pence working in the wings, just in case.

Meanwhile there no ignoring the fuhrer and his inner circle deconstructing the administrative nanny state and reconstructing a daddy state in its place, regardless of unpopularity, under scrutiny of the free press, against all professional advice, contrary to science, in the face of academics, no matter what anybody says including boomers and millennials, or even Congress.

He doesn’t care if Congress passes a bad health care law as long as it fulfills his promise to repeal Obamacare.  It’s a win for him.  So now he objects to the ACHA (American Health Care Act) being dubbed Trumpcare, and rightly so, it’s fake, he is Trump but he does not care.  Humpcare.

See how Trump admires dictators.  He praised Putin during his campaign.  He hosted El Sissi.  Invited Duterte.  Erdogen visits in May.  Says Kim Jong Un is a “pretty smart cookie” he would be “honored” to meet.  You almost wouldn’t be shocked to hear him say for all he knows Assad and Hitler weren’t such bad guys except for the poison gas, they just had a rough time trying to rule their countries under duress.  When more truth comes out about Russian election meddling you can expect to hear him say the Russians have proven there is no such thing as democracy.

The Russians always lie, so no one on earth believes them, so they lie.

One thing a majority of citizens approve of is the fuhrer’s actions as civilian commander in chief of the armed forces, namely his missile blitz against Assad.  One badass daddy licks one bad daddy.  Well staged.  He said in his campaign he had generals, and he has generals.  (Mike Flynn was a general.)  In a few weeks he will tour the Middle East, his first venture outside the USA since being president.  Will he attract throngs?  Will he simply meet heads of state beyond the view of the public eye?  What kind of mischief can President Hump stir up outside our borders?  Should we allow him back in?

I’ve been to Belgium, and it is not a hell hole.

He just said out loud it might be a good idea to have a shutdown of the federal government in September.  Like it’s a cleansing exercise at his daughter Treblinka’s spa.  Teach us all a good lesson.  We’re all grounded until we shape up.

In his faux state of the union speech, which stands out as his most reasoned address to date, the fuhrer spoke of a new chapter for America.  We should have known he meant Chapter 11.

Chapter 11?

He’s a real estate guy.  His universe is built on leverage — borrowed money — mortgage loans secured by minimal collateral, sometimes unsecured or undersecured.  Big debt.  You know he won’t release his tax returns because he’s leveraged way over his ears, and the parties to whom he’s indebted would not surprise you and yet blow your mind.  Nothing illegal but blatantly oligarchic for someone passing himself as a man of the people.

In the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, who’s zoomin’ who?

Show us your golf scores!

Did I hear right, he referred to Sen Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas again at the NRA convention?  He’s truly run out of material.  Look back at the early days of the GOP candidate debates and you see Donald Trump emerge and set himself apart as a stand up comic, campaigning as a right wing Mort Sahl.  Oh if it were funny…

The fuhrer’s chief of staff called the 9th Circuit Court “going bananas” for its rulings against Trump’s proclamations against immigration and withholding funds from cities.  The court system is the administration’s opportunity to further slip on a peel.  It would be justice if Gorsuch turns out to be a stricter constitutionalist than the fuhrer intended.

Can Hump really roll back Obamacare by proclamation?  Rescind national monuments?  Get away with licensing the pollution of air and water?  Condemn the planet to antiscientific global disintegration?  Force our children to eat coal?

If he were a smart daddy he would come up with new material, fresh angles, ideas he can pitch as ahead of the curve.  So he promised to build a border wall coast to coast against Mexico.  He could say, I’ve been thinking about the wall and I came up with this fabulous idea.  It’s going to be an invisible virtual wall, this wonderful high tech border wall made of the most state of the art lasers and wi-fi and microwaves and drones and satellites, the most imaginative engineering and physics you can imagine.  Why spend all that money on brick and mortar that can go to infrastructure projects?  Why waste rebar?  Why go through the hassles of aggravating land owners over eminent domain, or the blockage of the Rio Grande, the scenic blight, environmental pollution, the inevitable hassles in the courts, when we could build a virtual wall and achieve state of the art security with 21st Century technology at much less the cost, more quality for the money I tell you.  And since the technology works both ways, maybe Mexico would offer to chip in!  Believe me.

No, he won’t see it that way.  He’ll go on conniving with his henchmen more ways to dupe the country.  He’s no visionary, he’s a con man, pure and simple.  His most telling metaphor is his tried and true rally staple recitation of the entire lyrics of the song “The Snake”, as he did again to close with huge fanfare his 100 days at Harrisburg, PA.  He presents it as a parable of how kindness to immigrants will turn and bite us.  In reality he is the snake.  He never hid his true nature from us.  We knew all along he was a snake.

The drama of the Hump presidency unfolds with absurd surreal majesty like a pageant of the Emperor’s New Clothes meets the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  Salvador Dali, who had a green card, would be LOL.  Call it the Dada State.


So where’s Mama?


Crybaby President


What have we done?

What do we do next?

The first question ruminates the words of Paul Simon from “The Boxer” —

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”

A woman too.  As for the disregards — to regard comes from a visual root, to see something, which suggests a reference to the song “Magic” by Bruce Springsteen:

“Trust none of what you hear, less of what you see, this is what will be, this is what will be”

People say we get the government we deserve.  A fine-tuned machine, by one account.

We have elected the most charismatic and mercurial egomaniac to emerge as a public figure in our lifetimes the President of the United States.  We elected him.  He won.

A man who campaigned relentlessly for xenophobia, nationalist anarchy and anti-intellectual demagoguery got elected fair and square by the free voting electorate according to the law of its beloved Constitution.  This was not a putsch or a coup.  This did not come about by mob rule or insurrection.  Not by ballot fraud.  This was accomplished by a year-plus campaign culminating in a free election.  Donald Trump.

Who voted for this guy?  These people are fellow citizens to be reckoned with.  These people have hopes and desires, demands and expectations of the new administration to act on their behalf.  What do they want?  What will Donald Trump deliver?

A large swath of conservative people voted to rid the executive branch of the liberal party, at whatever cost.  They do not see liberal values as progressive in the right way for the country or the culture.  On the contrary, they see the social goals of liberals as a form of tyranny.  Regulations of food, air, water, weapons, energy, property rights and business practices all impede freedom, they say.  Political focus on the civil rights of minorities makes some citizens feel uncomfortable and left out.  Dispossessed.  Counter disgruntled.  The government spends too much money, and everywhere it’s wasted, especially on social programs.  Taxation isn’t fair.  Immigrants are social liabilities who either steal jobs or soak up welfare benefits.  Compulsive health insurance is government socialized medicine.  Global trade kills jobs.  Gangs kill cities.  Liberals aren’t nearly tough enough on gangs.

Theses are some of the mainstream things I hear why voters went GOP this time, if not wholeheartedly for Donald Trump.  Already discussed is the influence of digitalysis — the collection of private cyber data for unauthorized publication — contributing to the upending of Hillary Clinton and much attention to efforts of Russian operatives to spin it against her campaign.  Americans are loathe to concede their free choice could be compromised by Russian propaganda, but they received fair warning it might be coming from Donald Trump himself when he previewed the suggestion in a presidential debate the Russians should hack Hillary Clinton, suggesting there might be something there — something like what, a link between pay-for-play with the Clinton Foundation, the State Department and the Trilateral Commission.


Hillary Clinton to her eventual discredit campaigned like a nerd girl running for student council.  She remanded a linear campaign focused on platform talking points of liberal and progressive goals.  The moral highground seemed obvious.  It seemed obvious to her that human rights — children’s rights, women’s rights, the rights of asylum seekers and the poor and downtrodden of this world — should be of greater concern than the petty complaints of white privilege.  It seemed obvious to her of the certainty that she represented the virtues of being on the right side of history.

How prescient when one of the few times she broke character debating Donald Trump she called him a Russian puppet, and the two of them bantered back and forth like second graders:  You’re the puppet, no you’re the puppet.  Puppet!

I know you are but what am I?

Hillary Clinton failed to define herself as someone who would make America greater.  By default we get a president who won’t even accept he won.  Even if he does, would it make the criticism go away?

The president is a crybaby.

He disrespects his own office.  He disrespected his candidacy, his opponents, the electorate and the institutions of his country.

It’s all about him.  Were he a poet he could claim poetic license, but his verse rings rank and foul with unholy lies and half lies.  He said in the campaign, he’s the only guy who can.  He’s a brand.  An entity.  He’s going to makeover this country in his image, combover America with dyed hair.  Of course he has a plan, an unbelievable plan, an agenda, it’s his plan, his agenda.  Did he not speak plainly enough in his campaign?  How many quotes back do we need to go?

He built a fan base out of a cult following of people who admired his behavior and that he told it like it is.  His most admired quality besides being rich is that he says outrageously rude things and gets away with it.  He has no pretense of political correctness and people love that.  He hijacked the Republican party and stole away the Tea Party and the GOP sold its soul to put Donald Trump in the White House to push conservative legislation to downsize government, except the military.  So far Trump’s populist base favors the results so far from Congress, but the fan base might not see enough loyalty from legislators who may sense the President is playing them with shenanigans.

There used to be a caucus called the Liberal Republicans.  Dick Nixon was considered one when he was in Congress.  Nelson Rockefeller was one.  In Minnesota we had Senator Dave Durenberger.  Today any politician with a trace of liberal philosophy has been chased out and exiled from the GOP, sometimes turning up as independents, like unradical unleftist Democrats often do.

Donald Trump is his own guy.

Doesn’t need the party.  Doesn’t need Congress.  Not the intelligence community.  Not the courts.  Not polls.  Not the Fifth Estate.  He just needs fans.  That’s why he continues to campaign.


The people who voted for him include significant numbers of people who voted a straight ticket and crossed their fingers and only thank their creator that the Devil Witch didn’t get elected.  There’s that “Thanks Obama” punchline, people who politically oppose the Dems for being Dems.  Most of them would say they would have preferred Lyin’ Ted or Little Marco or Rand Paul, but they would rather give Donald Trump a try than trust Hillary Clinton.

The population who voted for Trump who puzzles me are the women.  Aside from the many straight ticketers who could not abide Hillary, who crossed over the gender line to endorse this so-called sexist pig?  This beauty queen trafficker.  Deprecator of Carly Fiorina, Megyn Kelly and Elizabeth Warren.  Vilifier of Rosie O’Donnell.  Bragger of grabbing coochie.  There must be a lot of female voters out there attracted to Bad Boys, especially rich ones.  Is it like the women who write love letters to guys in a penitentiary they don’t even know?  For some women Donald Trump is like an outlaw rock star.

Bad Boys, Billionaires and Bigots.

Fascination for being rich enthralls people.  It follows that the envious and the emulators support Trump’s enterprising attitude.  In the event they too hit the big time they don’t want to pay taxes either.  They want to keep secret accounts too.  When the illegal immigrants are gone then the poor can get kicked off welfare to take the vacated jobs.  For some people the middle class is just a stepping stone.  Nothing gets in the way of making money.

The portion of the people — yes, they are people, as in We the People — who elected Donald Trump who concern me the most are the ones Hillary Clinton called a basket of deplorables.  The basket.  In another rare spontaneous wisecrack she defined an estimated half his supporters, which in sheer numbers is one big basket.  He draws rallies like Billy Graham.  There’s people who would take a grenade for the guy.  Donald Trump could literally shoot somebody on 5th Avenue and they would still love him, and he knows it.  Talk about a cult of personality.

Every time I see him give a speech I hear jackboots in the background.  Every Twitter rant sounds like marching orders, coded signals to get ready.

Even if the estimation of half his voters is way too high, the deplorables — not to confuse with Les Miserables — are the very ones the crybaby is appealing to, whom he’s been addressing all along, who identify his message as their own and would carry out deplorable acts to get their way.  In the name of their demigod, Donald Trump.

This is why Donald Trump worries me, he has had such success projecting his personality on American society by guessing right at reaching the lowest common denominator.

His latest conceit, that a “sick” (sic) President Obama tapped his phones, is so believable among the birther mentality we could see a demand for a special prosecutor to look into innuendo that the surveillance ran through Hillary Clinton’s server.  Then we’ll learn it was hacked by Russians and intercepted by the NSA, CIA and FBI then leaked to Wiki.  Digitalysis by the numbers.  If the DNC had actually hacked Trump’s tax returns don’t you think they would have been leaked by now?

Yes, we vetted him over a year and elected him anyway — well almost three million fewer of us than voted for Hillary nationwide, but he won by electoral votes.  Not a landslide, but he won.  What do we do now?

Somewhere in the scheme of things we owe ourselves an examination of conscience.  In each our own lives we first have to reckon what kind of person we are and want to be.

Then we have to look after our families and communities and recognize our common affirmations.  We need civil dialog as we strive for solutions to social problems.  We need to make the effort to stretch our understanding of others of a different mind to arrive at common enlightenment.

To be specific to Donald Trump there is an urge to resort to low satire, call him Hump our Douchebag Fuhrer.  Call his daughter Treblinka.

Then I think about Barack Obama and the cruel things the obstructionists said about him.  Donald Trump has not nearly the grace to hold up with nearly the dignity, and I don’t want to see this presidency degenerate into a horrifying mirror image of the last, depersonalizing and dehumanizing the President like unmerciful trolls — not that Trump wouldn’t do that to you if he felt he had to.

I would refrain from stomping on Ivanka because she has expressed support for Planned Parenthood and women’s empowerment issues enough to make one wonder if she even voted for her dad.  Women are going to put more influence on Donald Trump’s administration than he may think and he depends on them more than he may know — can he imagine a day without Kellyanne Conway?  His election has invigorized women to demonstrate their political and socioeconomic power and we’ll see a lot of culture clout the next four years.  Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly are gone, and it shouldn’t come to Lysistrata, but there is movement to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment, and it poses an opportunity for Donald Trump to reveal his true colors about women.


On policy he should be challenged at every forum.  If he gets something right he should be acknowledged.  If he contradicts his own mission or double-crosses those displaced workers he panders to he should be called out.  If he negotiates bad trade deals or reneges on treaties he should be shamed.  If he fakes the press and lies the news he’ll be found out, believe me.

I am not objective.  I am white and quite privileged.  I am not disenfranchised or unempowered, nor do I feel left behind by the times.  I thought the country was great already and going the right direction and take issue with those who think the opposite.

To his hard core supporters be gentle but firm.  Give them wide berth to wear their prized Deplorables badges and do not abridge their constitutional rights.  Let them manifest themselves so we can know who they are and what they really stand for.  Let them out themselves.  Do not engage them or bait them with violence.  Bypass their confrontations with alternate channels of persuasion.  There has to be a way to educate people who fear an armed insurrection of Somali immigrants in caravans of taxicabs and minivans.  Let the fools reveal themselves as idiots by and by, and we’ll move on, this too shall pass.

Resist despair.  Take heart.

Look people in the eye.  Do a good job.  Wear a safety pin on your lapel.  Keep the faith.  Pay attention.  Don’t get suckered.  Assume positive intent.  Be the nicest one.

In Minnesota there once was a ballot referendum to amend the state constitution to explicitly prohibit same sex marriage and after all it became the first state to make it legal by legislative action, not by the court.  Be careful what you wish for, ye who wish to rule the world.

In Trump’s case pay attention to his fine-tuned machine.  If it breaks down and the wheels come off he won’t be able to hide it under a clandestine pit stop.

He can’t fire everybody.  He’s the apprentice now.  The mid-term election is just next year.  Constituents have the power to hire and fire the House and Senate, which goes both ways with Trump-era legislation.  He can’t fire voters.


Sid my son-in-law observes that you never see Donald Trump laugh.  Sometimes he smiles, you see him smirk, but you never see him laugh.

Ask him why America should trust a businessman who dodges his bills and goes bankrupt.  Ask him for his tax returns.

Hound his subordinates.  Chase after the Steves, Bannon and Miller, seek after cabinet appointees and staffers like paparazzi and question whatever they say.  Saturate Congress with attention.

If this presidency folds up its bridges of access and retracts itself into a fortress like Trump Tower, don’t expect Congress or even Mike Pence to rescue Donald Trump from his perceived enemies of the people, by the people and for the people.

My friend Jim offered caution to the President when Trump first disparaged the intelligence community and he wondered out loud if maybe Trump whined enough about the CIA being like the 3rd Reich a black ops team under the 25th Amendment might show up one night at Mar-a-Lago, put him in a bag and whoosh him off to an undisclosed location, never to be seen again.

How can Donald Trump expect America to be great when he makes us look like morons?  He embarrasses us to the world.  The crybaby better grow up.




Nobody holds hands like my little girls.

My little girls still include my daughter Michel, now a generation away from being little.  She still is not tall but it was ages since we held hands, ages from that awkward vague random age when it wasn’t cool to be seen at school or the mall holding hands with your dad, somewhere between nine and thirteen.  I get it.  Yet I do recall the feel of her palm and tight little fingers.  I am reminded by the palms and fingers of her daughters, my grandchildren, my little girls Clara and Tess.

They are 12 and 9 now.  Old enough to cross the street untethered to a grown up — most streets — or hand in hand with one another.  Still, on a walk around Lake Harriet with ice cream cones or strolling down the main mall at the U going to the Weisman, they will glide their palms into my fingers as we stroll and talk.  There is no time to feel self-conscious but only to savor the sublime grasp of their small lifelines and fingers in mine and the transference of enduring grace and the soft energy of simple love.

The moment Clara was born I was there behind a curtain where I could hear her first inhalations.  She didn’t cry, just sort of chuckled.  After a few awesome breath catching moments bonding with mom and dad, the nurse drew the curtain aside and brought her out to weigh her and clean her up.

“Hold her while I set up the scale,” said the nurse and placed Clara in my arms.

In that moment I experienced the most profound life altering flash.  I looked into that baby’s blue eyes looking up into mine, eye contact, and put my finger into her tiny grasp and said, “Hello Clara, my sweet sweet baby.”  This was the highest high, cosmic intensity, the most beautiful awareness of the soul of the universe.  At that moment I knew in my heart and soul my life meant something good, and this goodness was not fleeting but sustaining everlasting joy.  This exalted fulfillment — my first grandchild.


Thus Clara opened the way for Tess.  Someday I hope I can appropriately express to Clara how grateful I am for that moment and its effect on my life ever since.

Tess is another story.  I used to wonder if I compensated with Tess, making up for the two years and eight months she wasn’t around, when Clara was an only child.

Tess was born almost an hour before I held her.  Around dinnertime, waiting for Michel to go into deep labor, Granma Roxanne and I took Clara out to Burger King.  The Burger King featured a playland for kids made of colorful conduit tubes to climb around in like hamsters.  We let Clara climb inside.  When Michel’s husband Sid called Roxanne’s cell phone to say Tess was on the way, we called up into the tubes to tell Clara it was time to go.  She by then had climbed to the top of the tube maze and cried out she was lost and didn’t know which way to come down.  We tried to talk her through the route but she wouldn’t budge.  Too narrow for an adult to to climb in to get her, a boy about seven offered to go up and escort her out.

By the time we arrived back at the hospital Tess was weighed, bathed and swaddled.  Sid’s parents were already there and holding the new baby.  Michel relaxed in the rocking chair.  My first face to face with Tess she looked crabby.  Unlike Clara, who was born bald, Tess had a full head of dark hair.  She wore a wizened face.  She seemed to demand an apology for being late.  I held her.  She squirmed.


The first impressions of my grand daughters no way eclipsed the megaton experiences of the births of my daughter and son.  Fatherhood bestowed its own blessings, not least from my son Vincent whose masculine handshakes, fist bumps and abrazos inspire me to this day.  Vincent has his own story.  This is about my girls.

Clara and Tess were both named after me.  Their middle names are each Michel, their mother’s name.  My middle name is Michael.  Sid’s middle name is Michael.  When it comes up at school or an airport customs station they say it’s their family name.  When I asked Roxanne if she resented not being a member of the Michel Club, she said no thanks, it’s enough to bear just being a Kelly.

Michel’s middle name by the way is Angela.  That’s why her family, school and social (but not professional) nickname is Angel, or The Angel.  Never Angie.  And never never never Mike, Mikey or Mickey.

Clara is named Clara after Sid’s maternal grandma, Clara Stix, who is 99 years old.

To me the word Clara conveys a consistent expression of clear understanding, as in the Spanish expression clara.  Clear.

I recall a precious quote attributed to someone named Billy, age 4:

“When somebody loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know your name is safe in their mouth.”

From the first eye contact between us the day she was born, Clara and I have clear communication.  I take credit, in part, for her vocabulary and syntax and know her today as an articulate young lady not shy to look you in the eye.  We all like to think our offspring precocious.  Early on Clara organized objects and directed play.  I let her — encouraged her — to boss me around as I played the role of the customer/bus driver/pupil in her scenarios.  I gave her crayons, paper and markers.  I played music on the stereo.

When she was a baby I waltzed her in my arms to Madonna’s “Baby’s got a secret.”

“Mmmm mmmm, something’s coming over, something’s coming over me…”

You may observe in me the signs of a devious, insidious and sinister Master Plan.  Based in proud success parenting Michel and Vincent into adulthood, here with Clara — wow — what an opportunity to really grandfather this bright kid, really show her the world.

The first time I brought her to the Minneapolis Institute of Art we happened into the gallery of medieval european paintings which features detailed depictions of the Crucifixion.  Barely three years old, Clara began to cry and wanted to know why those people — how could those people — be so mean to that man?  Why?  What did he do?  She cried and sobbed pointing to the man with nails in his hand, bleeding from his head and side, unable to look away.  I carried her to distraction at the next gallery, consoling her tears but virtually speechless — there was no way I could say like oh don’t worry, that didn’t really happen, nobody was ever really made to suffer and die in such humiliation in this old world.

A lesson in granprogramming.  First do no harm.  Be careful what you wish for, especially wishing on behalf of somebody else’s child.  She was Michel and Sid’s kid and I had no right to risk her ruin.  I promised to mentor Clara as much as she mentored me.  Roxanne and I set up a college fund so maybe she could someday study a semester at the Sorbonne.


Clara nicknamed herself Sparkles.

She identifies her looks with her father Sid, less with her mother.  What Clara doesn’t realize is how much she resembles me.  Not now, and not that she was very white and bald the first year of her life, or that we both have blue eyes.  I was fair and blond as a child and there is a resemblance between us in old pictures of me in black and white.  I understand why a pretty girl would feel less pretty compared to resemble a bald and wrinkling man of the third age and favor being likened to a handsome guy like her dad, who also has blue eyes.

Tess is Tess.  Not Teresa, or Tessa, Contessa, and only to her mama is she Tessy.  I call her Kitty.  I asked her permission, and she asked why, and I said because you remind me of my mom.  Tess resembles her mom, who both resembles Roxanne and my mom, who went by the name of Kitty and was once a fashion model.  She passed away just before Tess was born, so she never knew her.  Do you miss her, Tess asks.  Every day, I reply.

Tess saved Clara from the awful fate of being an only child.  Clara was pushing a precocious three years old when Tess showed up to challenge Clara’s sovereignty.  From Tess’s inception Clara was schooled to the expectations of being a big sister.  Michel told how she had a talk with Clara the night before Tess started infant day care at Clara’s pre-school, and Michel asked Clara to look after Tess because Tess was new there and had no friends yet.  Clara said back to her mom, “She also has no teeth.”

Tess and I didn’t bond like Clara and me.  She was Granma Roxy’s girl from the outset.  I had to earn Tess’s affection.  She didn’t snuggle up to me.

As we were saying our good byes at their house after a family dinner I moved towards toddler Tess to hug farewell, she stiffened, stepped back and shouted, “Get out of my house!”

Another time soon afterwards she was left alone in my care.  We were on my front porch, she had some toys, and abruptly she gestured she wanted to go indoors.  I didn’t want to go inside, content to sit and read on my porch swing and so encouraged her to keep playing with her toys out on the porch.  Too small and uncoordinated yet to operate the screen door, she began to scream.

A penetrating high-pitched scream like a diva on metabolics.  A full lung’s worth.  Aside from awe for the child’s vocal power my first thought was one of the neighbors was calling the cops.  Soon as she exhausted her lungs she inhaled deep and let rip again, a higher note yet, Tess’s fierce face like an enraged christmas caroler.  “My goodness,” all I could say, “you can really hit those notes.  Keep going.  I think you can be a singer.”

Granpa Buffalo Kelly calmly rocked in his porch swing waiting for the child protection cops while the baby diva belted high E.  Showdown.  Opportunity to establish what kind of grandparent I wanted to be, tested here at my house, one on one, by some kind of beast of the east, a bullying tantrum to get her whimsical way, not even asking much less saying please.

Eventually she began to cry.  Big tears.  Sobbing she asked if we could go indoors.  She let me console her, and we picked up the toys.  No incident like that ever occurred again.  We moved on.  We made lunch.


Though she remained Granma’s Girl for several years, Tess and I bonded faithfully on her terms.  Like with Clara we played whatever Tess wanted, only Clara sought consensus or contentedly played alone whereas Tess implied compulsion and resisted solo activity.  My devotion to Tess for her own right made me conscious she wasn’t Clara and it seemed sometimes I owed Tess the two plus years Clara had as a head start.

Their sibling rivalry manifests along personality lines.  Clara is contemplative and deliberate.  She is given towards an artistic eccentric temperament.  Tess is overt and plain spoken when grumpy.

It took years for Clara to accept Tess as a bona fide character beyond her big sister shadow, just as it’s taken Tess years to catch up where Clara leaves off.

Once I overheard them playing in the bathtub.  Tess seemed to have a dialogue going with her toys.  Clara was singing to herself something bluesy.

“I woke up in the sky.  You woke up in a dead fishy’s mouth.”

If this was directed at Tess, Tess made no reply, apparently kept playing toys.

They both love to sing.  Both have lovely voices and can carry a melody.  Kiz Bop.  Bedtime with the Beatles.  101 Best Kid Songs Ever.  Annie.  John McCutcheon.  CDs and FM radio in the car.  Their parents have eclectic and modern pop tastes.  Sid has been a deep fan of My Morning Jacket.  Michel first introduced me to Counting Crows.  At barely three Clara got a listen to Andrea Bocelli singing “Con Te Partiro” and made it her song a while after the cute phase, but it showed taste and what she could do vocally even if she didn’t know the words, sort of made them up phonetically.  I plied her with Shakira songs in Spanish.

John McCutcheon said he told his grand daughter not to take up the banjo, that girls who play banjo don’t get dates.  After Taylor Swift no grand daughter will ever believe him.

Tess has a throatier voice and actually does a decent Shakira impression.  Just as I used to rock baby Clara to sleep in my arms to Madonna’s “Secret” I used to rock Tess to sleep with Shakira’s “Something”, a song about looking into someone’s eyes and finding the existence of God.

“You accept me like nobody, and I will always love you baby…”

It was about the time Tess was born Clara took up gymnastics.  All cartwheels and a balance beam a foot above the mat.  For a few seasons she ran track and field.  Swimming.  Pre-school led to kindergarden and grade school.  She sang at school choir.  Granma Roxy and I attended meets and concerts.  Grandparents Day was a sweet deal.  Sid and The Angel’s family the Kysylyczyns lived in a suburb east of St Paul on the way to Wisconsin, not exactly close neighbors or even nearby neighborhoods but at least a straight shot via freeway away.  We were cosmopolitan metropolitan grandparents, lucky to have them this close.  (And Sid and Michel probably considered us far enough away — an independence consideration.)  Near enough to babysit.  Gladly.  Sleepovers.  Most Fridays in the summer Roxanne took off work and went to their house for the day or took the kids to the beach.  I looked forward to retirement as a future hanging out with the kids any day I wanted, attending their events and plays, volunteer reader at their school, helping with homework and projects, going to shows and museums and amusement parks and Wisconsin Dells.  Baseball games.  Fishing with Uncle Vincent.  Pizza nights.  Apple picking.  Fourth of July.  Christmas.  All those amazing things you can do with grandchildren between birthdays.


Future so bright, as the song says, I had to wear shades.  This grandfather gig was a sweet deal.  The modified and improvised Master Plan was going like a proverbial Swiss watch and I could never have asked for a more ideal family relationship.  I was learning about childhood all over again through the eyes of my own experts.  I was there for them to find answers to fresh questions, give support to their discoveries and provide love and support to their day to day.

Clara was six and Tess not even four when I had retirement in my sights and visions of Camp Granpa Kelly — my future contribution to their summer day care.  I was living the dream in grandpa paradise when Sid and Michel introduced the idea that in six months they would all be relocating to Switzerland.

For at least three — maybe five — years.

It wasn’t for sure yet.  They hadn’t officially said yes and there were details to work out.  Sid works for an international information corporation headquartered in the Twin Cities and they wanted him to go manage some assets at their Swiss office in a town called Zug.  Nobody could conclude this was anything but a stunningly fantastic opportunity for all of them.

So much for my vague imperial master plan.  Just when I had everything to give — future Wicked tickets, a city of lakes and parks, library cards, Minnesota historical sites, Nickelodeon Universe at Mall of America — life turned on me in the weirdest way.  Here I dedicated my life to Clara and Tess, and what do I get?  They go away and run off to Europe.

Deep in my heart I knew this was by far the better deal.  Chance of a lifetime.  Deep heart BS, it was no brain obvious.  It would be insane to pout over such good fortune for my girls and their mom and dad.

Call it a Sting lesson — if you love somebody set them free.

Six months was hardly enough time to get used to the idea.  Sid and Michel were offered a “look see” and flew to Zurich for a week finding their way with the corporate guide.  Sid’s company treated him and their family with utmost fair compensation for upending their regular lives so Sid could take this assignment.  They found a three bedroom apartment in a town next to Zug at the foot of a mountain along a lake in a valley  about 20 miles south of Zurich and about 15 miles north of Luzern in the foothills of the high Alps.  On a map.  The kids would attend an English international school.  Michel would not be able to get a work visa right away so she was not expected to work outside the home.  They leased a Skoda sedan.

They put most of their belongings in storage, shipped a freight crate of things, leased out their suburban house, packed every suitcase they could cadge from kinfolk, and after the longest long goodbye in family history we ended up at MSP airport hugging and weeping at the TSA entrance.  Sid told me, “Stay healthy.”

I gave Clara and Tess each a Sacajawea US dollar coin to save until they came back home, to remind them of home, the USA.

Too soon it was time to part, for them to pass through security and board the 7:40 red eye all nighter to Amsterdam and off to a new life far away without me.

“Free free, set them free…”


This was summertime five years ago.  I grieved, milked sympathy.  I put up more pictures in my office.  The Swiss Family Kysylyczyns would get one specifically paid-for home visit per year and they elected to always make it four weeks around Christmas.  As for the rest of Sid’s allotted personal time off, it wasn’t long before Michel broke the truth not to expect them back in Minnesota other than Christmas.  Three years in the heart of Europe suddenly seemed to Sid and Michel a very finite time to explore the surrounding continent — no offense, Minnesota.

We Skyped most Sundays, noon our time, seven p.m. theirs.  Even when they looked onscreen like Georges Braque cubist portraits it was better than no contact at all — what Roxanne’s dad might have said was better than a poke in they eye with a sharp stick — especially when the audio was any good.  For all its glitches, interruptions and bad video and audio connections, Skype saved my heart.

Roxanne had Facebook.  I wrote e-mails.  I wrote stamped letters.  Michel called on the phone and chatted with her mom like mothers and daughters do.  It was important not to be forgotten, and important not to forget.

Roxanne and I turned the situation around to our best advantage.  This was our chance to explore Europe.  We could visit the kids and use their place to base tours.  We could be Bumpkins Abroad.  We schemed from the very day Michel said it was six months away to budget and plan to go to Europe as much as we could.  As much as Michel and Sid would welcome us.

Here we got off lucky.  Michel and Sid never seemed to tire of our visits.  Since Clara and Tess shared a bedroom — Ikea bunk beds — the third bedroom was kept as a playroom library with an Ikea daybed, where Granma and I slept and kept our stuff when we visited.  On one wall hung a giant poster of Paris in monochrome except the Eiffel Tower in a golden hue, an Ikea print that symbolized our mission.

We made six trips to Europe in four years, including the last one after Sid, Michel and the girls suddenly repatriated to Minnesota, so they weren’t even there to visit any more.  Before they moved to Switzerland, Roxanne and I had been to Europe exactly twice, and we were already in our 50s — once to France on an extended trip surrounding an international scientific convention Roxanne attended in Dijon, and once on a Kelly family pilgrimage to Ireland.  In our forty-some years together she and I have been all over America and especially our region, the obscure middle of this continent.  We have gone to Canada, Mexico and a tiny bit of the Caribbean outside the US borders.  We have not been to Asia, Africa, Oceania (except the northern tier, Hawaii,) the Middle East, South America, Australia or Antarctica, ever, although we have met or met up with people from most of those places (who might hail from Antarctica?) while wandering Europe.  Only the past dozen years or so of our lives did we set foot in Europe.

We are not sophisticated people in the realm of world travelers.  We are Americans.  There’s no Grand Tour of classical romantic education on my curriculum vitae from my younger days, no memoirs of a post adolescence vagabond adventure en europa.  Roxanne did not backpack from Iberia to Istanbul the year between high school and university and she did not study at Toulouse.  We are American bumpkins.


Our grandchildren by contrast have already lived much of their lives embedded and unconsciously enthralled in the cultures and lands we could only imagine when we were their ages, and until recently could only imagine most of our adult lives.  Clara and Tess have been to at least a dozen countries in Europe and North Africa.  They have held hands to cross streets and canals in some of the most monumental cities of western history.  They speak and read high German and sometimes spell words like color colour.  They have skiied the Alps.  They can read basic Greek street signs.  They know kids from Sweden, Ireland, Spain, France, South Africa, Turkey, Scotland and Massachusetts.  They are used to hearing people speak in tongues.  They know how to ride trains.

I do not expect them to vividly remember Vienna but there was something gained from strolling the boulevards of Mozart once upon a time.  The deep effects of exposure to so much culture may never be measurable.  We can say it gave them untold insight to serve them all their lives.  Already at their new schools in Minneapolis they are finding other kids who lived in foreign lands once upon a time.  The value of this insight beyond what may have been gained by ordinary bumpkin childhoods presumes outcomes we cannot foresee based on Granpa values.  I will say this, I am very jealous and wish I’d had a childhood like theirs in Europe.  Of course they don’t realize how special their experience was because they are children and don’t know any different.  They take their lead from their parents, who realize how exceptional their situation was but neither let it go to their heads nor let it get them down.

I forget that Michel and Sid felt separation too.  Sometimes it seemed for them it was one glorious adventure but day to day realities and routine practices require support from our closest people sometimes, and it is good to share good things.  That’s where Skype helped.  We smuggled care packages of taco and enchilada spices, Skippy peanut butter, Twizzlers and books.  Sid and Michel took turns reading to the kids at bedtime.  They took a shine to a series we sent them about Betsy and Tacy set in Mankato, Minnesota about a hundred years ago during the childhood times of their living great grandma.  The girls wanted to visit where Betsy and Tacy grew up.  Living in the land of Heidi, Clara and Tess wanted to visit a town not a hundred miles from where they were born.

When Granma Roxanne and I came to visit it was magical.  The first thing we learned (besides how to catch the train from Zurich airport to Zug) was how to say “Gruetzi” — hola, aloha, hello, the Swiss German way to greet people on the street.


Sid and Michel always planned excursions.  The first trip they rented a Volkswagen Touareg so all six of us could drive to Munich, stopping to gaze at the castle at Neuschwanstein.  At Munich we saw the rooftop glockenspiel at Marienplatz and Clara lost her first tooth at the Rathaus beer hall.  (The tooth fairy at our hotel paid up in Swiss francs.)  Too late for Octoberfest (which is in September) we strolled through the English Garden park on a beautiful autumn day and stopped for bratwurst and kraut at an outdoor beer hall serving Hofbrau beer adjacent to a Chinese tower.  On the drive back to Zug we bought a chocolate birthday cake at an Agip gas station — the station with the logo of a six legged doggie facing backwards over his shoulder and breathing flame at its tail — and back at the apartment we cut the cake and celebrated Tess’s fifth birthday.

Agip petrol new.jpg

Subsequent family excursions took us to Paris, Paris Disney, Normandy, Montreaux, Lake Como and Venice, either in the same rented Touareg or by train.  We went to Rheinfall, Europe’s Niagara near the German Swiss border.  We walked the beaches of Normandy in the solemn footprints of the brave.  Near Brittany, in France where you can hardly swing an incense burner by the chain without hitting a shrine to Archangel Michael, we walked the pilgrimage on the dry causeway to the Gothic monument on the sea at Mt St Michel dedicated to our family namesake.

Clara, Tess, Granma and I found the Statue of Liberty in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris and Clara skinned her knee trying a cartwheel on a gravel path.  Together we all gazed at the Mona Lisa.  At the Zurich Kunsthaus we canvasses of Monet’s water lilies as big as a kitchen.  Clara and I rode and re-rode the pharaoh’s roller coaster at the French theme park Asterix.  We’ve hung out high up on the Eiffel Tower.  We’ve hiked Zugerberg and ferried Zugersee.  Heard vespers sung in Latin in the reverb of the Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame.  At Luzern we saw one of the saddest things Mark Twain and I have ever seen, the grotto sculpture of the Dying Lion.  We have seen fireworks at Menaggio over Lake Como, Italy.  In Montreaux we walked among eternal music along Lake Geneva’s Christmas market and the next day rode the funicular up the mountainside to visit Pere Noel at the snow capped top.  Together with the kids, the little girls.  All these things and every savory moment of indulgence in the very trivia of their lives kept me from losing out on who they were and who they were growing into being, just because they lived a quarter of the world away.


Four years away is a long time.  We did not allow the the time and space to estrange us.  We attended choir concerts at their school, met their teachers and friends.  Tess took up soccer.  Clara kept up competitive gymnastics.  Granma and I couldn’t help but miss all the other concerts, plays, meets, matches and other events, but we showed up enough to get how much these things meant to them and to feel their joy and sense of accomplishment.  In second grade at their school they were assigned to paint a self portrait in acrylic on a fairly large canvas.  Clara is a serious and bemused, wry pose of fauve color expressionism.  Tess — painted just before coming home, barely enough time to cure before shipping — is insurmountable overflowing impressionistic joy.  They are both adorable people.


It’s natural for a grandfather to be proud of his grandchildren, and I allow for my kinship bias as they are my two favorite people on the planet in my life.  I see in them the best of what I see in myself and what kind of person I can be.  They are intelligent and kind.  They are confident and unafraid of the world, given certain boundaries.  They give other people a chance.  They respect people’s privacies.  They know how to be true friends.  How to ask and answer questions.

Sid quotes a favorite professor who said, the more you see the more you know the more you see.  His daughters have seen a lot in their four years in Europe.  They are growing into fine young women.  One does not need Title IX to expect they are capable of whatever they undertake and will not be held back by any force, least because they are girls.


At the Tate Britain Clara asked me , “Granpa, why are there so many paintings of women — naked women — and so few paintings by women artists?”

Think I had an easy answer?  I try.  Let me begin and end with a painting that translates as Luncheon On the Grass.  At the Tate I counted exactly zero women artists but zero female nudes.  Since then I have composed a list in progress of female artists starting with Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Marie Vigee Lebrun and Marianne Werefkin, for the day she asks me to name some names.

At Zurich they have an extensive collecton of medieval triptyches of the Crucifixion.  It was awkward to come upon them with Clara, for me, but Clara regarded them with a childlike squinting objectivity as she lingered a little, took her time through the gallery, and I escorted her at her side at her pace, explaining nothing.

She said, “Remember at the MIA I cried when I saw paintings like those?  I was afraid somebody could do that to me.”

About a month or so ago I was driving her to gymnastics practice after school and she said out of the blue from the back seat, “Granpa, I don’t think anybody knows who God really is.”


Clara is a writer.  She keeps notebooks and journals.  She makes lists of character names.  She writes stories of girls in peril.  She has a natural narrative voice and a way with written language.  She rarely finishes her stories, abandons them without endings and moves on — I don’t know what that is a sign of but I somehow trust Clara to know in her own way what stories are worth ending and what are practice exercises in musing.  She is proud that I published a novel, though it was 25 years ago, way before she was born and she’s never read it — probably shouldn’t read it either so long as To Kill A Mockingbird and Bean Trees are in print, disgruntled horror story that it was.  She makes iPad videos with herself and sometimes Tess lip synching music like the reggae “Here Comes Trouble” by Chronixx.  On her Christmas visit before last she proclaimed herself to be my publicist for a day and produced a video of an array of stuffed animals (and a Tess cameo) all posed reading copies of my novel, sitting around the furniture of my home like this cuddly fluffy book club engrossed in copies of my novel set to the song “Disappearing” by the War on Drugs.  The books she found were unsold copies stored in my loft closet.  She’s after me to write a new book.


I am humbled that she is proud of me for what I reflect back as a dubious achievement.  One positive thing, I actually finished something.  The downbeat is that maybe it should have gone unfinished.  I cannot belittle the book in her eyes because I don’t want her to think I’m ashamed, but I all but hide it away around here.

Another different ride to gymnastics practice and from the back seat Clara asked me about doubt.  Was it okay to have doubt?

“Yes, it’s okay to have doubt,” I answered not offering myself as the family expert, though I am.  “Doubt is a reasonable check and balance.  It keeps us honest about what we want and what we think.  It’s not healthy to be absolutely certain without looking at the other side.  Doubt gives us a chance to evaluate what is right.  Doubt can help us be more sure what’s true.”

A week or two later she told me nobody really knows God.

It was hard for Clara to leave Switzerland, her school and her friends in the middle of fifth grade.  She achieved success at gymnastics and academics.  She belonged to the school’s prestigious choir, so short she stood in the front row and looked so into it, every song.  Her final semester at the international school she won the part of Auntie Em in the school production of the Wizard of Oz.  Because of her voice in the auditions they created a solo reprise rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow from Auntie Em’s point of view.  They say she played Auntie Em with compassion.  A long way from the new kid in second grade from the States, and practically overnight Switzerland was gone and she’s back in the States starting over, not even finished fifth grade.  It was sad but it was built into the bargain, after three or so years they would eventually have to go home to America.


Tess came into the age of reason, turned seven in Switzerland.  She too lost a baby tooth at a German beer hall — I wasn’t there but I saw a picture.  She lost a lot of baby teeth in Europe.  A bright polite conversationalist, she will begin by asking politely, “May I tell you something?  May I ask you something?”

Being American expats pressed Michel to be most mindful of good behavior.  Ambassadors of their country and family.  I overheard her remind Tess in a grumpy mood over a schoolyard tiff, “Your job is to be the nicest one.”

Tess learned to read and write in Switzerland.  Cursive.  Not just the grade minimum, Tess tries to read at a higher grade level or two, chasing Clara.  Tess learned cartwheels and backflips.  She sang herself into the choir’s junior varsity, the Young Voices, who were chosen to sing in Zurich’s old town giant scaffold Christmas tree — another event I did not attend but saw pictures.


She says she loves math.  She wants to be a veterinarian — has a lab coat, a clinic and toy animal patients.  She loves horses.  She’s got all the time in the world to catch Clara.

The most meaningful outcome of their years in Switzerland was the ultimate bond between the two sisters.  They shared a bedroom — and lived!  They watched out for each other.  They fought over each others privacy.  They shared books and songs, apps and devices and sometimes clothes, and a mom and dad.  They were paired forever by fate, destined to join forces forever.  Sometimes they fought more like brothers.  Sometimes it’s like they read each others minds.  Their love is obvious.


These are my observations, actually witnessing their — as Tess puts it — real life.  Not the imaginary product of some ideal wish list ginned up by a granpa left behind who sees a Facebook photo once in a blue moon and a badly staged Skype — no, this was real life.  And life was lovely.  The kids were truly all right (without Granma and me hovering around six months at a time) and actually prospering.  Not feeling left out, we felt privy to their confidence.  By our fourth visit there was no anxiety about estrangement or being out of sync.

As early as July before their third Christmas visit Michel expressed a wish to spend at least one extra week surrounding Christmas instead of just four.  This meant She and the girls would have to travel one way unaccompanied by Sid, who for compliance with the terms of his Swiss work permit could not be outside Switzerland for more than 30 consecutive days.  The issue was with Michel who is terrified of flying.  She somehow gets through it every time.  Short hops aren’t too bad, but the 12 hour transatlantic can be murder for her, especially when turbulent and nothing to see out the window.  She keeps somehow from freaking out and remains a calmly intense and reasonable good sport role model for the girls, and credits Sid her husband beside her.  She wasn’t sure she could endure the transatlantic alone with the girls.  She needed another adult at least.  She asked around among other American expatriates going home the first week of December, willing to tough out a final leg alone if somebody could at least let her fly with them across the sea to Atlanta, Boston, JFK, Montreal or Detroit, but there was nobody.  Michel truly sincerely wanted to come home five weeks for Christmas.

What we won’t do for our children.  I offered to fly there and escort her home for Christmas.  I would arrive a week ahead — enough time to adjust from jet lag and take in some Christmas markets, meet Sami Clas.  So I wouldn’t feel lonely and she wouldn’t be sad, I booked a ticket for Roxanne.  Around the first of December we flew to Zurich to rescue Michel.


Sami Clas is a character based on the bishop St Nicholas.  In Zug he arrives by boat on the lake in a ceremony to commence the Christmas season.  Sid and Michel arranged a home visit to Clara and Tess from Sami Clas while Roxanne and I were there.  He arrived at the door in his red robe wearing his miter and carrying his crook, his long staff and symbol of his bishop’s authority.  He was flanked by two Schmutzli, silent shadowy figures in austere brown hooded robes who symbolize the dark elements of winter.  Legends say the Schmutzli carry bad kids off into the mountains never to be seen again.  They stood with their heads bowed, faces obscured, either side of Sami Clas who took a seat in the good chair in the living room and read from a leather book a list of positive accomplishments Clara and Tess achieved over the past year, things only a Sami Clas would know outside the family.

This same visit we rented the Touareg and drove to Montreaux, hung out at the Christmas market along Lake Geneva, ate raclette, rode the ferris wheel and found a shrine to Freddie Mercury at the beach.  Next day we ascended above the clouds to the blue sky at the top of Rochers de Naye to visit Pere Noel, as they call him in the French region — no schmutzli here, just nice alpine helpers.  Out the windows the mountaintops rose up from a sea of fluffy swirls like islands in whipped cream.  We got off the tram halfway down the mountain into the prevailing overcast to have lunch at a dining hospitality academy and hiked a trail where interactive musical art installations busied the kids making melodies from the sounds of the contraptions.

Another excellent adventure with our Swiss Family Kysylyczyn.  It never really was a rescue mission.


The last time I’ve held Michel’s hand was takeoff from Shiphol Amsterdam airport that Christmas trip.  I was Dad.  For her it was an immensely drawn half minute of panicky uncertainty while the aircraft picks up speed and lifts off the runway.  Michel was born five weeks premature and spent the first few days of her life in an incubator where Roxanne and I could only touch her and hold her tiny hand through portholes most of the time.  The first times I held her hand, just the tip of my index finger in her tiny grasp.  Now convincingly in the air and entering the clouds above Amsterdam and nothing bad happened, she gave my palm a firm squeeze of thanks and let me go, the worst was over.  It reminded me of the last time before that when she held my hand and let go, her wedding day, two times that day, when she gave me an assurant squeeze before she took my arm to walk her down the aisle, and again at the reception when we completed the father and daughter dance, “My Girl” by the Temptations.

During the Swiss expatriation Roxanne’s dad passed away.  In a way it was sudden but mostly his demise came as a systematic cascading decline of the body and mind to where the inevitable meets the eventual.  In the hospital he said to me, “There… there oughta… there oughtabe a law!”  What he meant clearly was a law against getting old and dying, which is the natural law whether we like it or not.  When he entered hospice care we notified Michel.  She, Sid and the girls exercised Sid’s bereavement benefit to fly home.  It’s a wonder we didn’t name her Eddie.  Michel was born on his birthday.

At hospice he hung in almost a week.  One morning while the rest of the family who were at the hospice met briefly with the nursing staff in the kitchen to talk about expectations for the day, Michel lingered alone with her Grandpa Ed dozing peacefully.  At his bedside she held his hand and said nice things, and that’s when Grandpa Ed exhaled his last.  I cannot imagine a gentler way to pass away.  I should be so lucky.

Roxanne’s mom said later, “No wonder they named her Angel.”


The trip to Europe the following spring we planned a family vacation in Venice.  This vacation would include Vincent and his wife Amelie.  This would be the third spring and possibly the last opportunity to visit the Kysylyczyn family in Europe, before we learned they would be extended a fourth year and made plans to come back a sixth time.  Roxanne and Michel by this time were experts at finding and booking excellent, affordable accommodations anywhere we went.  They reserved an apartment that slept eight near Piazza San Marco.

We would only need to sleep seven.  Our rendezvous in Venice coincided with a performance of Clara’s school choir scheduled to sing at St Mark’s Basilica.  Clara would be traveling with the team.  The venue changed from singing at St Mark’s to singing at a little town Catholic school nearby on the mainland, but the rest of the choir’s field trip itinerary stayed intact.  From the morning Clara boarded the tour bus at Zug at the school car park she traveled with the choir.

In Venice we caught glimpses of her on canal bridges, on the Piazza between tours of St Mark’s and the Doge Palace dressed in their uniforms like the school girls in the Madeleine stories.  I got to hug her twice, saying hi at the restaurant where the kids ate supper, and ciao after the concert at the little Catholic school.  Otherwise she was busy.  This was my first encounter with Clara committed to an activity transcending family.  The independence becomes her.  You see it now in her game face with her gymnastics team.  Back then it was the light in her eyes when she sang with the choir.  Never looking lost in a crowd.  At ease with her peers.  This visit to Venice essentially being about Clara without Clara was a sign to me Clara was letting go of my hand, setting me free.


If fell to Tess to be the grandchild, the niece.  The child leader.  She took my hand as we walked upstairs and down and crossed the bridges of the myriad canals of Venice, she the tour guide companion who had been there before with her other grandparents and assured me we would not lose our way.

When we settled into the apartment, accessed from the alley through a medieval door with a modern electronic lock, Tess sang for Granma and me the Skye Boat Song, the classic Scottish hymn about the Bonnie Prince sailing to his homeland.  Never faltered one note or one lyric.  Later when Vincent and Amelie joined us from Amsterdam she sang it again for them, never faltered.

At dinner at restaurants she was polite and ate all her food.  Her conversation was engaging.  She never got grumpy or complained on long walks exploring the tangled old city.  She bought a feathered opera mask.  We found a park, a green space beyond the Lido where she could do cartwheels and run around, and she was happy.  She was the nicest one.

“May I tell you something Granpa?”

Anything you want.

Free free, set them free…


That Christmas we went to Montreaux and we escorted Michel home a week ahead of Sid, they stayed at my and Roxanne’s house that first week, this old house where Michel and Vincent grew up.  The kids use Michel’s old bedroom (Vincent’s is now the TV lounge) — actually the kids have the run of the entire house.  It’s a safe and tidy place with nothing to hide that’s not well hidden, so to speak: I wouldn’t expect to find Clara and Tess poring over our tax returns anytime soon, but it could happen — Clara unearthed a case of my novel hidden in plain sight.  While she made iPod videos, wrote, drew pictures, made lists, played pop radio and watched American TV (oh Disney) all downstairs, Tess staked out the upstairs loft.  She built a city up there of all the dolls and houses and animal figurines and Legos and little people like Polly Pockets collected over thirty something years of childhoods, sprawled like an urban sprawl along a highway across the loft carpet alongside the bookshelves and the desk, carefully arrayed not to block normal grownup passage and thus to allow her keeping it set up the better part of the week.  She temporarily loaned Clara the stuffed animals for her video.

On white typing paper Tess drew a picture of a town colored in red and green and made it into a sign with an arrow, which she taped to the wall along the stairway so the arrow pointed upstairs.

Tess Town

Magic Words Sola Mola Toy

Tess made a Christmas card for her mother that year.  When Michel opened it Christmas day she read it out loud.  You could see from the artwork and the text graphics that Tess had worked on this card carefully, not casually.  Michel read the sentiments of how Tess loved her mama, and it ended with this statement:

Our family is permanent.

Thank you Tess and Clara — Kitty and Sparkles — and Michel and Sid who made you and gave you to me, my dear grandchildren.  Through your eyes and ears and voices I am privy to discovery and rediscovery of the essence of being human.  I love you.

Thank you for going away and enabling me and Granma Roxy to follow after you and to explore places and see things we may never had a chance to know if not for you living in Europe.


Six times we flew over there and back.  From our first visit we made time to go off on our own and book passage to a series of places.  Switzerland by itself is a marvel of sights.  In the Alps we’ve felt like we’ve stood at the top of the world.  One road trip with Michel and her Skoda brought us by GPS to a tiny Czech town where Roxanne’s grandmother was born.  We have walked battlefields near Colmar.  We have walked the city streets of great capitals.  We’ve browsed the countrysides, crossing borders on trains and buses.  We’ve wandered the excavated city of Pompeii and drank lemonade from lemons grown below Vesuvius.  We hiked the trail Mark Twain hiked at Rigi.  We rode taxis, city buses, boats, cable cars, subways and tubes and followed endless maps to navigate ourselves in and out of lost, finding where we were and where next.

My grandchildren enabled me to tour several of the world’s finest art museums.  Thanks to Clara and Tess I have seen with my own eyes an incredible abundance of the most exquisite and sublime original works on the planet, images and buildings I only knew and thought I would ever know from lectures, slides and books.

I cannot express how grateful I am.

Every spring for four years Roxanne and I would be gone a month or so.  We would see the kids a week or ten days, not always in succession, at their place, take an excursion together, then she and I would go off on our own chasing castles, cathedrals, platzs and piazzas, cafes, monuments, dwelling on the fly among people talking in tongues.  We met a lot of nice people.  We learned to eat left handed — knife right hand, fork in the left.  No trip ever went badly, and that says a lot considering the intense events that occurred in Europe those years.

Our biggest gripe is of ourselves and our persistent inability to learn to pack lightly.  Roxanne refers to those times as being our Senior Backpacking Tours, but the joke there isn’t that we didn’t stay in hostels but that our luggage were no backpacks.  The bane of the adventure was our travel day, lugging our heavy suitcases aboard trains and up strange streets looking for the hotel.  London and Paris underground stations are mainly accessible by stairs — not conducive to big suitcases.  Like the themes of those Alice and Jerry books back in gradeschool, If I Were Going and If I Were Going Again, we tell ourselves we need to learn to pack lighter and smarter.  That and stay longer at one place, near a laundromat with an outdoor pub nearby like in Barcelona and Chamonix.

For Clara’s tenth birthday, the year of the choir trip to Venice, Granma and I took her to London to see Wicked.  We flew EZ Jet in and out of Gatwick.  The terminal to me for some reason suggested a WWII airfield where we stood in queue at the customs booths with passports in hand and it seemed half of us at least should be in some form of service uniform besides the customs agents themselves behind glass, all of us ready to hand up our papers and our orders.

Rox and I handed up our passports, then Clara hers with the required to-whom-it-may-concern letter signed by her parents consenting us grandparents permission to transport this minor child across an international border.  The customs lady asked, “Where’s mum?”

Instinctively Granma began to speak but was stopped by a flick of the agent’s eyes.

“Back in Switzerland,” Clara answered.  “These are my grandparents.”

“Why are you entering the UK?”

“We’re going to see Wicked.  It’s a play.”

Another sign the kid is growing up, answering for herself.  That’s the idea from day one, holding her and looking into her newborn eyes, getting her ready to answer for herself.


I tease Tess telling her she has lovely blue eyes, which is only true under certain light.  She says her eyes are green, like her mom’s.  Under certain light Michel’s eyes used to look blue too when she was a little girl, and I tried to catch it with a camera, but they were green.  Clara’s are blue, though.  Definitely blue.

The day they flew back to Switzerland from the Montreaux five-week Christmas we rode to the airport in three cars.  Clara and Tess rode with me, singing school and Christmas songs from their car seats in the back seat without the radio on.  We were on highway 5.  Out of the blue they began a duet from the top, a complete rendition of “Illegal” by Shakira.

“You don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry  /  You said you would love me till you die /  Far as I know you’re still alive  /  Baby, you don’t know the meaning of the words I’m sorry  /          I’m starting to believe  /  It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart  /  Open heart, open heart /  It should be illegal to deceive a woman’s heart”

There could be no greater proof — if I ever felt insecure and needed proof — that Clara and Tess love me.  They must have learned the song on their own to sing to me.  Of all the singers they could have covered they chose my favorite singer.  All I could do was drive and listen.  They sang it flawlessly, verbatim, note for note.  Yes, those kids love me.

Much as my future relies on these two little girls, my strategy has grown simple: be nice to them now and someday twenty years from now maybe they’ll take me out clubbing once in a while to see live music.

Now they live in west Minneapolis, a few neighborhoods away.  We haven’t Skyped in more than a year.  Sid and Michel sold their place in suburban St Paul to a young family who fell in love with it as a place to raise kids.  The Kysylyczyns moved into the city, close but not too close.  It’s like they never left, only better, there are all kinds of reminders and mementos all over their house of the life they lived as expatriates four years abroad.

They had the family Christmas at their house this year.  Real life.  Mimosas.  Unwrapping gifts from beneath the tree.  No Schmutzli.  The kids gave me a priceless CD they burned entitled Kitty and Sparkles of songs they recorded to karaoke, mostly Christmas songs but also priceless renditions of tunes from their latest pop discovery, the Disney movie Moana.  (No Shakira.)  We talked about some Christmas we should spend a vacation in Hawaii.  Vincent came up with the idea we all rent a cabin somewhere down near Zion national park in late June next summer and explore the desert Southwest, see Grand Canyon, all by way of Las Vegas.  We’ve done similar arrangements to the Boundary Waters with him and Amelie in the past summers while the Kysylyczyns were off avoiding us in favor of touring Europe — laughter, cue sibling rivalry jokes — leaving the brother to look after us poor lonely old folks all by himself.

I unwrapped a present from the Kysylyczyn family.  It was kind of heavy.  Sid said Clara picked it out.  It was a paperweight.  Bronze in appearance and texture, it was a casting of a narrow pile of half a dozen ballpoint pens.  I unwrapped it and read aloud the inscription on the base:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing – Benjamin Franklin

As they say in Spanish, “Clara, mis carinas.”



Hollis MacDonald — Missing From The MIA


Wherever I go I love to visit art museums.  A museum’s collection reflects the values of a community, what people hold dear.

In my home town we have the Minneapolis Institute of Art with its world class world view.  A little of everything, from pre-ancient to post-modern, each piece is an example of the highest quality.  Its Rembrandt may be the finest in North America.  The Van Gogh is among his best found anywhere.  The eclectic quality of the extensive collection makes the MIA an ideal teaching museum.

My grandchildren, girls now eleven and nine, lived in Europe and when I visited them I took them with me trekking through galleries of works of humanity’s enduring beauty.  They are children after all and I would rather not they grow up with memories scarred by forced-marches with Granpa, so I limit our tours to their own spans of engagement.  They are resilient and curious children and they have been known to go more than two hours before showing temperaments of disenchantment.  I tend to lead them to something they might have seen on a poster or in a book, like Mona Lisa, or a place they might recognize, like Venice or Rome, or by someone they may have heard of, like Pablo Picasso, and from there we wander, room to room, pausing to gaze at whatever attracts the eye, and we keep moving, flowing along towards the next attractive thing, and the next.  They read the wall didactics out loud.  They are home now and we keep up our museum field trips in the Twin Cities where there are several, and they are familiar enough already with the MIA to lead me around to what they care to see first, and next, and eventually we get lost at a place they never been before we find our way out.  Some museums you can see the whole thing in an hour or two.  The MIA asks return visits.  There’s enough in there to sustain wonderful wonder.

Could The Heart But Know The Way     1967                 oil on canvas    51 x 45″

In my twenties, decades ago, I used to have a job at the MIA making AV programs in the education department.  The size and floor plan of the place has doubled at least since then, and even if the core of its collection is familiar to me the layout has changed with additional gallery space and we easily get lost, which is to say Granpa doesn’t exactly know his way around any more.  When I worked there the museum had just undergone a vast expansion to enable it to expand its collection, put on more and bigger special exhibitions, and pursue a goal of open storage, showing its whole collection instead of keeping a lot of it stashed in storage out of sight.  I was telling this to Clara and Tess, my grandkids, lost again trying to find our way out down a stair route somewhere on the periphery, when I recognized a wall as a remodeled area that used to be my office.  The kids paid little interest since the actual office didn’t exist any longer, there was nothing to see but a wall.

And it was time to go.  Later, thinking about memories of that office, I remembered the painting hung on my wall: Could The Heart But Know The Way by Hollis MacDonald.  This painting was something tangible I could show the kids to illustrate my granpa story next time we visit the MIA.

It hung in the office of the head of docents where I first saw it.  The image stunned and soothed me at the same time.  Sinister and celestial.  Playful yet dangerous.  Foreboding but hopeful.  Burnished etherial colors defined eccentric concentric and opposing shapes seen from a perspective of space probe geometry.  I passed by that office at least a dozen times a day.  When the head docent left for a job back east the painting went away to deep storage.  The new occupant preferred Hudson River School.  Gallery space was precious.  The focus of the paintings collection did not favor contemporary modern and even within this narrow niche this painting was not considered critical to the curator, who was more interested in the 17th century, as I recall.

The artist was from Minnesota, an unknown with sketchy baggage.  They said he was once a great star who went to New York expected to impact the scene like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and David Hockney but something happened — nobody said exactly what but they described it kindly as a nervous breakdown — and he returned to Minneapolis broken and bitter, beaten, disillusioned, unfulfilled and sad, a hasbeen nobody.  His style fell out of fashion.

I didn’t care.  I liked the painting.  When I learned it was in deep storage I asked the registrar if it could be put in storage on my office wall.  A day or so later a guy from the crew measured my wall and the next day the crew hung the painting.  If no one else wanted it, I did.

It was bigger than I remembered from the docent office.  The title made no sense to me.  I all but forgot the artist’s name.  The painting endowed my often harried office with sublime serenity.  Sincere serendipity.  Innocent bliss.  Naive iterations.  To me it was an undiscovered masterpiece.

A year or so later I enrolled in a theater arts class at the university.  One slushy autumn day I was loitering in the commons of the theater arts building on the West Bank campus when a bearded guy several years my senior wearing a wool knit hat and coveralls came in from the inclement outdoors wheeling a bicycle.  He was the building’s maintenance engineer.  Being a smartass I made reference to a sign that said no bicycle parking indoors and he shot me a look that melted my spine like who the hell are you.  “This is my building,” he said as he passed me by.  I looked at his name badge.  Hollis MacDonald.  “Wipe your feet when you come in here.”  He walked his bike across the commons to his office.

He was almost there by the time I realized who he was.  By then it seemed unseemly to chase after him at the moment.  The more I thought about it I didn’t want to risk embarrassing either of us by suddenly coming on like I knew his life story, coming on like a suck-up — something told me he despised suck-ups.  I hoped for another better chance to chuff him about his art without invading his privacy, stalking him or implying I felt some kind of cosmic connection to him, but the semester ended and I never saw him again at work at the U.

untitled     1960s

Another few years later, still the 1970s, I was driving on W 26th Street, a one way arterial going west across south Minneapolis.  Just past the intersection of 26th and Nicollet Ave (that’s pronounced Niklit) something caught my peripheral eye and made me look in the rearview mirror and see people painting a wall behind the corner building, the Mark Richards beauty salon.  I knew the style in a flash.  I parked the car and went to the scene where Hollis MacDonald directed a crew of kids from Whittier Park painting colors to his designs of hearts and arrows against a whitened wall facing the alley and the parking lot.

Hollis seemed more congenial than when we first met, but he made little eye contact and kept his attention focused on the project on the wide wall.  I’m sure he did not remember me.  Still bearded and gnarly, now he was outdoors on a summer day and instead of coveralls he wore shorts and a tee shirt paint stained.  Concentrating on his wall he barely suffered this fool’s interruption for long, even if all I could do was praise what I was seeing.

He gave orders to the kids through a staff of teenagers who acted as camp counselors instructing the day campers what Hollis wanted them to paint.  There was a knurled modesty about him and a light in his deep set eyes while he bossed the kids and explained what they were doing.  He was having fun.

I admired the mural for decades.  The concentric hearts eventually faded away.  Today I cannot pinpoint exactly when they disappeared.  The mural faced the wrong way on a one way street, so it was hard as hell to see it.  It may as well have been painted on the underside of a bridge.

Ages have gone by.  I wonder what my grandkids would think of the painting once hung in my office.  I went to the MIA website to search the permanent collection.  Museums these days have beautifully accessible websites.  I searched by artist’s name because I couldn’t remember the name of the painting but nothing came up.

Back on the internet I googled Hollis MacDonald and learned he had died two years ago.  I found a picture of the painting and its title.  I searched the MIA website again by paintings by title and got nothing.  I double checked the spelling of MacDonald.  The Google reference to the painting gave its MIA accession number 67.27 (27th work acquired in 1967) and I searched the collection that way and got nothing.  At last I went to the Contact Us page and asked what ever happened to Could The Heart But Know The Way by Hollis MacDonald.

The answer did not come within 24 hours, as many websites promise these days.  The reply arrived after two weeks.

In the meantime I went back to Google.  After forty years forgetting him and respecting his privacy, now I wanted to know all about Hollis MacDonald.  Now that he’s dead.  The whereabouts of his MIA painting unaccounted for in its virtual inventory.  If I hadn’t found a picture of Could The Heart But Know The Way on the internet I would have doubted my memory such a stirring and soothing image actually existed.

He was a real guy.  Born in 1928 in Minneapolis, he grew up near Broadway and Emerson, the city’s near north side.  He served in the army.  He graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art, now known as the Minneapolis College of Art & Design — MCAD — which shares campus and heritage with the MIA.  He earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy, a fishy sounding name for any grad school to a bumpkin like me but nonetheless an institution called the cradle of American modernism located just north of Detroit.  He worked as a security guard at the MIA — it’s never unusual for working artists to day jobs (or night jobs) at museums — and this was back in the era of the original museum’s footprint, the old McKim Meade & White monticello parthenon, before Kenzo Tenge expanded its architectural consciousness with bold annexes and vast lit gallery space rebuilding the Institute into a formidable exhibition space aimed at the 21st century to come, this the era when I came to work there, long after Hollis MacDonald.

I may have come to work at the MIA at the beginning of its era of cosmopolitan outreach from a burgeoning metropolis, but I came after another golden age era of its director Tony Clark.  All the museum people who knew him spoke about him with a hilarious respect for his aesthetic eye and scholarly integrity.  He was an art historian’s art historian.  On the internet I found a page of criticism Tony Clark wrote as MIA Director:

“These paintings of Hollis MacDonald are genuine landscapes of the imagination, in which nearness is also far, catastrophe and terror are also triumph and serenity.”  He concluded saying the paintings “bear important human testimony.”

untitled     1960s

I found a review by noted Minneapolis Tribune critic John K Sherman dated Sunday, June 6, 1965 describing Hollis MacDonald’s one man show of 30 canvasses at the Bottega Gallery downtown at 8th & Hennepin as “brilliant”.  The critic wrote:  “MacDonald’s large paintings might be called a combination of mystical landscapes and epical still-life — form superimposed on form, leading the eye into deep space while riding on lyrical and nuanced color that makes direct emotional impact.”  Sherman concluded, “It bespeaks an original and seeking mind and gratifying skill, in this day of fuzzy forms and half-stated ideas or suggestions thereof, in clearcut expression and shapes the eye can seize and grapple with.”

These testimonials say why Hollis was expected to make it big in New York City.  If these same voices felt betrayed when he came home a failure, no one extrapolates for the record.  The MIA accessioned — museumspeak for acquired — Could The Heart But Know The Way in 1967.  About the same time the Walker Art Center, MIA’s counterpart and rival specializing in modernism, accessioned a companion piece called The Way Is Not Easy, and at this time they aren’t showing it.

I learned from the internet Hollis maintained a studio in a former concertina repair shop on the fringe of old downtown east.  Other known titles of his paintings from the 1960s include once Again The Fallen and Another Good Soul Goes Under.

The website provided archival proof of life of this self-kidnapped guy who by all accounts had all the credentials.  Smart.  Deep.  Asked in 1965 about nudes in art, the 37 year old answered, “They’re over worked.  Eveybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”

I never saw a human figure in any of his paintings.

The Way Is Not Easy     1964  Walker Art Center      oil on canvas   49 x 36″

Concurrent to his brilliant one-man show downtown at the Bottega he was also simultaneously among 95 Minnesota artists exhibited in the MIA’s biennial celebration that year — the MIA celebrated its centennial, two massive expansions later, just this last year.  In a Bottega show interview Hollis was asked about the Institute Biennial and he said, “It’s a good reflection of contemporary sickness.  It’s trying to make a little show of good things instead of showing what’s going on in art locally.”

He may have been speaking truth to power, biting the hand or burning bridges en route to New York City.  In the transcripts of the same interview he showed (off) the irascible edge I recall from my brief encounters ten or twelve years later.

Asked to categorize his paintings he replied:  “You want a label?  Ah… Romantic Expressionism, how’s that?”  In the age of pop art and op art, the guy sounded poised to take on all icons.  Who was this guy?

After Hollis described his mode of painting for the existential moment, the interviewer (unidentified in the transcript — it could have been himself) says, “Then you paint just for yourself and not the viewer?”

“Not exactly…” Hollis replied.  “It’s kind of like making love… you can’t tell when you’re giving and when you’re taking.”

untitled       1960s

After the 1960s until his obituary, which described him as a colorist, there is scant coverage of what happened to him.  No mention of shows or reviews in New York.  No paintings since.  The obituary said he retired from the University of Minnesota but not that he had been a janitor.  He was survived by no wife or children.

An article published in 2009 in called Unsung Alchemist: Hollis MacDonald by Sean Smuda caught up with Hollis in his later years.  Smuda himself an artist, photographer, grew up in a household where his parents owned Hollis MacDonald paintings and didn’t realize who Hollis was until they met as neighbors when Hollis moved into Smuda’s apartment building when Hollis was near 80 years old.

In a reverent and touching profile Smuda befriends the old man and searches the soul of the artist whom he refers to as the alchemist after Hollis’ affection for a book, Fire In The Crucible by John Briggs.  Smuda paints a portrait of a man who lives the “crossroadss of genius and failure” every day.  “Any apologies he makes for himself,” Smuda wrote, “which he does with contradictory frequency, sound like obfuscations, the sort of disappearing-act typically employed by scholars and mystics hopingto obscure their philosophical vulnerabilities.”  Smuda described him as a “gruff mystic who has no need of society, but has a lot to say about it.”

Smuda called him cantakerous and recalled how his parents put up with his company yet spoke of Hollis as a cautionary tale of what might happen if you devote your life to art.  And Smuda sketches in the lost epoch in New York: Hollis broke up with his wife Karen and became a hermit unto his studio, stopped exhibiting and socializing.

This the nervous breakdown the people at the MIA whispered about so loudly.

Smuda likens Hollis’ imagery to Paul Klee.  I see Joan Miro.  Hollis said he admired Arthur Dove.  I wondered about the 30 canvasses from the Bottega show in 1965 and wondered how many paintings of Hollis exist.  Through the internet I can only find six.  Nothing since 1967.

A research librarian at the MIA eventually responded to my inquiry about Could The Heart But Know The Way saying bluntly the painting was deaccessioned in 2014.

I wrote back:  Where is it now?

I hoped it had been sold, donated or otherwise acquired by another museum like the Weisman, somebody who would actually appreciate it and put it on view.  Where my grandkids could see it.

untitled      1960s

Over the next five days a correspondent from the MIA Visitor and Member Services acknowledged the deaccession of the painting but could not account for its whereabouts; then assured me the painting was still in storage at the museum but he did not know the reason for its deaccession.  I asked if he would find out.  And how was its existence tracked?  How can anybody see this painting if it’s in storage but deaccessioned?

Deaccessioned is a synonym for disowned.  Hollis MacDonald disowned by the MIA.  Same year as the artist’s death.  I couldn’t summon the cynical heart to see a conspiracy theory in the making.  The irony seemed all too appropriate though.  Undeserved and unjust but not unbelievable.

Steve from Visitor and Member Services — by now we were on familiar name basis — emailed me:  “The painting is in storage with the artwork that is not on view, and is tracked in our system as any other stored artwork would be.  None of the paintings in storage are available for public viewing.  (Most of our collection is in storage.)

“It appears the previous curator did not feel the piece was relevant to our collection, and suggested it to be deaccessioned.  The accessions committee of museum trustees voted to accept that opinion.  Deaccessioned pieces are typically stored until another institution is found that has interest.  Sometimes deaccessioned pieces are sold.  At this time, no decision about this piece has been made in that regard.”  He concluded our correspondence:  “If I hear more about this painting’s next phase of life, I’ll look up this email chain and let you know.”

Hard to put a sinister bend on such cordiality.

If nobody else wants the painting I’ll take it, hang it in my house.

I don’t understand why Hollis MacDonald is not recognized, why he is obscure.  Do I look at his paintings and fail to observe the irrelevance?  Am I so much bumpkin I fail to see the obvious ugly?

Far as I can find Hollis MacDonald had no criminal record and especially no accusations of sex predation.  Yet the art community of his home town shuns him and his work as if his symbolism and visual memes were not hip enough at least, too heinously commonplace at worst, his moral character vile or pathetic, a moral plagiarist, a failure to act stellar.

All I know about Hollis is hearsay and gossip.  By his paintings I am awed.  I hoped his civil service pension kept him comfortable enough.

I engaged Sean Smuda in correspondence and informed him Could The Heart But Know The Way was deaccessioned from the MIA.  In some way I meant to enlist an ally in case something fishy became of the painting.  Mostly I wrote as a belated fan.  I didn’t want to feel sad for Hollis and I drew comfort knowing Hollis had a friend to the end with Sean.  I asked if Hollis died happy.

“Hollis remained consistently driven and differentiating,” he wrote back, “as though the tough-nut aesthetic, philosophic and social questions that obsessed him could crack open in an explosion rather than a slow reveal.”

photo by Sean Smuda

He kindly assured me Hollis had friends.  His last years he lived in an assisted care facility, as most people do his age.  Sean visited him regularly, and a coterie of social workers befriended him and helped him relax.

A certain middle aged female Presbyterian minister developed a crush on him at his advanced age and they talked metaphysics and God’s beauty.

None of this explains why there’s no evidence he produced any art the last 40 years.  And no evidence he didn’t.

In the folklore of the MIA you would think he would be legend.  Instead he’s disowned.

Sean said there’s interest in a retrospective exhibition but acknowledges it may be years away as these things go.

There’s talk of a body of his work going to the Minnesota Museum of American Art where my Clara and Tess can go view them with me — after they get drivers licenses and register to vote at this rate of attrition.

Hollis left no offspring to remember him or emulate him genetically.  His paintings are all he left this world as what Sean Smuda called his blueprint for others to follow, not a dynasty it appears but a subtle and nuanced tribe of orphaned enigmas.

Of inspiration and essence Hollis himself said, “I try to make a painting… that lives.”






Digitalysis and Hillary Clinton


Used to be the stuff of archives, historians and libraries.  Discovered documents.  Long lost letters.  Musings of the bard.  Caesar’s notebooks.  Leonardo’s Codex.  Dead Sea Scrolls.  Written words, unintended for publication, found among the random mementos of long deceased luminaries, used to go centuries — millennia — until unearthed and analyzed by the scholars.

Now everybody’s e-mail can be trafficked for instantaneous access to pop history.  In real time we can witness pithy deliberations of a political party or governing department.  We can see candidates debate issues and consequences and make policy recommendations.  We can judge their scenarios and make fun of their grammar.  We can watch, listen and read their words and claim to derive insight into their thought processes and motives in advance of any actual history taking place.

Hackers enable you and me to justify our demand to know the inside story.  So gullible for anything labeled True Story, yet so paranoid of being hoaxed, we trust nobody and still fall prone to conspiracy theories when lone wolfs band together.  This is America where we need no pundits or elite intellectuals to interpret data, just give us the data.  The paparazzi of the internet troll day and night.

No wonder Hillary Clinton kept her own server at the State Department.  Who trusts the privacy security of any government intranet platform right now, even the FBI?  Classified may not mean mishandled or abused.  The innuendo of something going on will affect the vote.  Unanswered allegations taint the fact that all the e-mails in question remained perfectly secure and confidential until the FBI hacked them open.

Between the earliest days of Edward Snowden and the pursuit of Anthony Weiner, the secret reach of government into the cybersphere is well known and accepted as a working meme of the 21st century.  It is an unfortunate irony that Hillary Clinton’s fate entwines with Weiner.  The words Clinton and Weiner in the same story don’t connote well even if their denotations couldn’t be further apart.  You can bet Donald Trump has his own server and always will.

FBI Director James Comey is famous for his stance for civil liberty by his opposition to provisions in the renewal of the Patriot Act authorizing covert domestic surveillance.  He’s also clashed with hardware makers over back door encryption access to data banks on computer devices used by criminals.  Using a proper search warrant to examine a laptop seized from an unrelated federal investigation he — we can say it is he here because he is the director and has made a public statement via Congress that an investigation is in progress — is examining a trove of e-mails pertaining to Hillary Clinton to determine if any of these missives in any way show willful treachery against the United States of America, which is what her political opponents charge is already true.


650,000 is a lot of e-mails.  It’s amazing that a laptop computer has memory capacity to store so much information.  Think of future historians poring over unearthed memory chips.  What will they think of our middle class ponderings?  What the FBI determines from Huma Abedin’s e-mail isn’t being challenged as spousal privilege, focused only on her communication with her boss doing government business.  They bureau is looking for messages sent and received through a non-government server that are of a secret nature — state secrets — and determining whether these secrets were conveyed deliberately by said private server to intentionally secure the information against a government secured server.

Most of what what one expects to find is Good Morning Boss, How Goes…  But what if on a bad day in an unguarded moment of passion somebody wrote somebody they are so glad they’re on a private server secure from government control because government servers are constantly getting hacked from without and within, would that get leaked to the media?

Recall the days of J Edgar Hoover when we used to worry about being subject to mail cover surveillance for opposing the Vietnam war.  We used to talk in code about reefer on the phone because we were paranoid of being tapped.  Those days are gone the way of hijacking the Pony Express.

As a portable laptop today sports the computer capacity it used to require a unit the size of a house in the days of J Edgar Hoover, so advanced are the means of surveillance.  Algorithmic software programs seek and sort megamega information like lightning.  James Comey risks his own top secret technology when he can confide to Congress before the election that the e-mails were reviewed and nobody broke the law so let’s end the innuendo and put away this notion of e-mail criminality.  It won’t end, though, even if the FBI gets hacked and all the e-mails go public.

Spyware is bad, invades privacy, compromises individual liberty and corrupts personal identity.  Spyware is good when it catches perpetrators of evil.

Malware is really really bad, like home invasion and kidnapping for ransom.  Malware is good when it disrupts evil regimes and despots who plot catastrophic goals.

State Secrets are what undid the Soviet Union, specifically the government’s increasing inability to control information.  Globalization and its culture without borders has democracized knowledge in a cacaphony of tongues never witnessed before on the planet, bringing immense potential for shared understanding.  Yet bad political leaders seek new ways to control propaganda, manipulate information, censor criticism and consolidate power over cybersphere, which is all data and all media.

If this historic presidential campaign means anything it foretells the power of metadata in daily life.  E-mail, Facebook and Twitter.  (Remember when DOS was the name of a computer language you had to learn for work?  Now it’s an acronym for denial of service.)  A candidate openly invites hackers to go after his opponent’s computers, so what would stop him from using the power of the presidency to hack your computer or mine?  He questions the validity of the election process, casts aspersions on the privacy of the voting system and scorns the honor system as if he knows personally how to rig the outcome, and he is believed without proof because, like metadata itself, it’s out there.  He implies he will use the means to track every undocumented immigrant and deport them.  He says he doesn’t know if the Russians hacked the DNC or not, but he admires the governing methods of Vladimir Putin.  In the digital hands of Donald Trump the cybersecurity of the modern world could go nuclear.

Hillary Clinton called half of his supporters a basket of deplorables.  Soon we will see a measure of just how big that basket is and who will beg to identify with that other half.  The deplorables are not the same as les miserables though they will self-select themselves in the aftermath of the vote and make themselves evident by their behavior after inauguration day.  Maybe it isn’t half of them, but there is a basket of people who side with Trump for deplorable reasons.  They will push their point of view and demand attention.  Like caesar on a balcony, Donald Trump rallies crowds with the ghost of George Wallace, mobilizing jackboots and evoking law and order while inspiring vigilantes, and it scares me what a society or world order it portends — terrifies — terrorizes me.


Hillary campaigns like the nerd girl running for student council.  I try to get inside the heads of those who despise her.  Like hacking into their mindsets.  What’s the grudge?  Who is she to them and what has she done and what does she symbolize that makes her the enemy of the state to so many people?  Are liberal public servants deplored as a class by a certain class?  Maybe not, as her detractors trend across all social classes.  It’s the liberal philosophy Hillary Clinton epitomizes that her craven critics deplore.  It’s the professional public servant who preaches social justice and equal opportunity who wrote It Takes A Village and espouses principles of community cohesion.  She sees government as an instrument of progress towards a better society and a better world based on enlightenment as a way we govern ourselves as a free society.  She believes all people should have health care insurance.  She sees our infrastructure as a path to environmental sustainability and jobs, believes in peace through diplomacy, and realizes that the good standard of living and exceptional prosperity of the USA isn’t cheap and the cost of sustaining and growing a vibrant and fluent middle class has to be shared by taxpayers who benefit most from the economy and make the most money.  She has given speeches to Wall Street, and why not, they’re a powerful institution like the FBI.  It’s not about the little people unless you call out the big people.  Hillary Clinton expressed a vision of borderless trade — free commerce around the planet — this includes unimpeded internet — and if not as mighty as I Have A Dream, it seems a modest version of Imagine There’s No Heaven, Above Us Only Skies.


When supporters of Donald Trump say this country is going the wrong direction I am alarmed and don’t understand what that means.  It suggests we should reverse ourselves and go back.  We should reverse civil rights.  We should unfund education, shrink our economy, reduce productivity and decrease jobs.  Roll back regulations protecting air and water quality and prohibit shady financial dealings and prevent monopolistic predatory practices in the consumer marketplace.  It suggests a return to subsidizing coal mines.  When I hear people say the country is going the wrong direction and Donald Trump will make America great again, I wonder what is so wrong with who we are that people cannot see how great it already is.

Troubling enough the negative direction Donald Trump leads this country.  Presumably the other basket of his supporters are afraid of him — afraid if he wins he will fire them if they don’t join his locker room fraternity.  When he said he preferred war heroes who weren’t captured, someone should have said they preferred businessmen who didn’t cheat workers and investors and go bankrupt.  Who ever heard of a business that actually used a tax cut to actually create a job instead of padding profits and dividends?  No one should earnestly suggest hacking his tax returns, invading his privacy, not even for the sake of history.

His word is no good.  He should not be elected.


History gets written by victors, they say.  Today thanks to mega-metadata we’re always on the verge of history.  The verge of victory.  We talk of living on the right side of history as if we truly know what historians will say about us in the future.  We anticipate — those of us who see ourselves inching the right direction — for all our flaws we will strive for that more perfect union.  We shall overcome our deplorable history of slavery and subjugation of native peoples as evidence of mistakes never to make in the future.  Even white women were not allowed to vote until 1920 — that’s less than 100 years ago in a country 240 years old.

In less than a week we should elect Hillary Clinton the first woman President of the United States.  That would be cool.

History could be determined by the intercession of the FBI.  Wouldn’t that be huge.

Que sera.




Summer’s gone.  Been wearing long pants for a week.  Socks and shoes.  Slippers.  It’s hard to let go of that season of balm, lush green, iridescent flora, sultry breezes and the scent of earth and fresh water.  Life at the 45th parallel, far from ocean beaches but surprisingly close to freshwater seas, thrives and throbs with such glorious grace it’s like eden and heaven incarnate, with Utopia and Elysian fields and Atlantis mixed in for good measure.

Summer here is so nice we celebrate it early, set out the yard furniture and wear short sleeves as soon as the snow melts and the lawn greens up for the first mow and ice is off the lakes.  Trees barely bud and the lilacs hardly bloom when we hear those pre-dawn songbirds, windows open, our pith and sap run like rivers, and spring it may be to y’all by your calendar or market cycle, in the hearts of Minneapolis it’s already summer.  The next months only get better.  We prolong summer in every way.


The daylight aspect, after all, declines from June 21, when civil twilight in the morning commences about four a.m. and evening twilight fades after ten at night on a clear day.  There’s as much daylight November 1 as February 8, least of all December 22, and in that span there isn’t much to illuminate outdoors that isn’t gray.  No wonder all the colored lights.  Winter alas is otherwise a prison sentence of light deprivation and hard labor in a hell of subzero cold — Celsius and Fahrenheit combined.  Kelvinville.  Essentially you serve your sentence with good behavior.  Go to work, go to Target, celebrate some holidays, try to keep busy and warm, make your own fun, pay your bills and try to live as routine and normal life as possible by acting as if this cold habitat inflicted upon us by our ancestors or employers isn’t so bad, just a minor inconvenience compared to X (insert your favorite worst place in the world) and this is a just penance for the privilege of miraculously living in the best place on the planet the other nine months.

Serve your sentence — be sure to get your time in the exercise yard.  Serve your time and get out feeling righteously entitled to be free again.  Liberated.  Exceptional.  Mid-sentence escape to Mexico, fly over the wall free on bail, for a scent of outdoor flowers, get wind of open air music and taste food cooked near the ocean, get extradited back after Valentines Day.  Serve the rest of your sentence getting your mind right until spring springs you out of the slammer of winter.  Another year when you walk free like a political prisoner convicted of civil disobedience.


Fall comes.  Like sudden cones in a construction zone everything goes all blaze orange.  Pumpkins deck the terrain in every direction like an occupational army.  It’s sad to realize soon you will be under arrest again.

It isn’t so much the kids are back at school as seeing them wear coats at the bus stops — when kids wear coats and jackets there’s a sign it’s getting nippy outdoors.  Clip the deadheads in the garden.  Tasseled prairie grass looks like overripe wheat.  Time to bring indoors the hibiscus and potted palm from the front porch.  No frost yet — unusually late — the nights gradually chill down and the days don’t catch up.

Funny how a 50F degree day in March feels so warm but so cold in October.

Get out the woolly hats.  Sweater.  Layers.


Brilliant slanted sunlight inflames the arbor life of the cityscape and all over the countryside so the forests everywhere go allout strange.  Foliage so lush and green goes reluctantly ablaze.  Oaks go red, maples golden and all shades orange, lindens and elms left after the Dutch Elm plague go gold.  Amazing how the photosynthesis stops and the chlorophyll goes away, the decomposition and decay begins, and yet the trees never look more alive.  Stunning.

A friend summarized it’s no wonder autumn colors inspire photographers and painters to replicate such scenes as we commonly see in northern America in our woods.  I’m reminded of the Barbizon school of painters, Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet.

Then, just as sudden but predictably inevitable, beneath skies gloomy gray from a sun unseen somewhere slanted south, a light not so much up there as over that way, the leaf colors dim to beige and brown.  The wind picks up and leaves cascade in the air with gusto like it’s raining postage stamps.  Leaves blanket the lawn like a jagged parquet floor.  Leaves clutter the sidewalks like patchwork tattered welcome mats.  Leaves blend in with what is left of the garden.  Trees go naked and gray.  The silvertone sky shows through the skinny limbs.  Surrender the leaves.  Time for rakes and bags.


I remember my kids playing in piles of leaves when they were little.  I miss that.  I miss being younger and more fit to the chore of raking the lawn in the fall, look at myself advancing in age, grudgingly declining in stamina and dexterity, considering a future when I might have to give it up and hire a service — not just the leaf raking but shoveling snow off my sidewalks, which comes next.  Not so much eden or heaven.  Speaking of life and art, the thought of shoveling snow reminds me now of Marcel Duchamp and his piece called In Advance of the Broken Arm.  Cue icy cold wind.  Shudder.

In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp 1915

This is mainly a grid city of avenues and streets.  I live on a corner.  Today they are sweeping my cross street and there are No Parking signs on the boulevard poles allowing the sweeper trucks and zamboni looking vehicles to mop the gutters as well as thoroughfares.  Three, four five pass throughs.  Good to see my city taxes at work.  It’s funny as long as I remember as long as my wife and I have lived at this homestead, the street sweep of the cross street has ever been scheduled too soon in the fall: most of the leaves in this wooded neighborhood and my yard are still up in the branches of the trees and don’t fall en masse until about five days after the sweep.  I imagine some other neighborhood gets swept clean after the peak fall, but my street (not always my avenue) goes all winter with leftover leaves smutched into icy pavement.  It’s not pretty.  I suppose now that I am at a certain stage of my life with time on my mind if not my hands to contemplate such things maybe I could pester city hall to swap out my street’s annual fall street sweep pushed back two weeks, shall I say to satisfy my own obsessive compulsive sense of order.

No.  Nature will take its course, of course.  My responsibility to civic duty is to keep my homestead up to code, so to speak, and said chores are enough if not entertaining.


In the stillness of an autumn afternoon, no hurry to see the brown leaves fall, no hurry to see another Sagittarius birthday, it’s so hard to let go of summer.  Was it just this summer, or do I go through this every year?  Or is it this fall — is it falling harder on me than ever?  Time for a little cognitive therapy, and time for a little zen.  Replace the screen windows with the storm windows of glass and think how many years we’ve done this.  How many more?  Supposedly smart wise intelligent and hip people plan ahead for such contingencies, so perhaps I should bone up on these essential questions of existence.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda.  Might, maybe, oughta.  Wanna, gonna, go.

Rockenroller as I claim to be, it’s the voice of Frank Sinatra I hear in my head — a guy of my father’s generation — singing that last verse of that song A Very Good Year about the days grow short, the autumn of my years, and I see it playing on a hi-fi turntable in my mind, the Reprise label going round and round, and try to put a good spin on it.

Seems like yesterday my son went trick or treating in the Halloween Blizzard dressed as the Punisher.  Winter came really early that year.  Leaves froze on the trees and lawns and in the streets like tannic popsicles.  We got through it.  They sweep the streets again in the spring.  Summer comes back.


Naughty Words

Dred Scott

I truly hate to use the word nigger, even in my personal journal, but there’s no way to talk through the word without using it.  Just calling it the N word doesn’t do it justice.

We were not allowed to say it at home, and it was not allowed in the neighborhood where I grew up, or at school.  Not at home for very good reason because it was offensive to people we were close to, and it was a naughty word.  In the neighborhood it was almost as bad as fucker (you put a mother in front of that one and you might never see the light of day again) but worse than shit or asshole combined, and any kid who said it could get called in or sent home for a licken and a virtual mouth wash with soap, and the rest of us forbidden from playing with that kid for a while.

At school you could get expelled, or at least slapped.  The nuns at St Simon of Cyrene tried to teach us basic civility.  One nun cleverly baited a notorious badboy in class by using the word niggardly.  When the badboy predictably snickered, sister asked him if he knew what niggardly meant, and he replied, “To be black.”  For the whole class — we were all white, of course, and properly shocked — the nun defined the word, and I recall thinking, oh great, now there’s license for the local knuckleheads to go around referring to stingy people as niggards.  You know how kids seize new words.  But nothing more came of it.  That nun knew exactly what she was doing.

When referring to race, out of respect, we were encouraged then to refer to black people as negroes  — a term now reserved for that baseball league where their great players played before Jackie Robinson made it to the majors.  Some still used the word colored and insisted they meant no disrespect, only being descriptive.  We were race conscious then, our biases were challenged, and we grew up aware of how privileged we were to be white.  How lucky we were to be northerners free from the stains of slavery that corrupted the white people who lived down south.  (Never mind Dred Scott.)  We were proud that black people could move up here and escape the hate, like we could share desegregation as if sharing our abundant water supply.

Of course we were very naive.  Few of us really knew any real black people.  I did — my dad had connections — and I could vouch for their positive character.  There was every reason to imagine they were every bit as cool as the Four Tops or the Supremes.  Willie Mays.  Sidney Poitier.  It seemed only charitable to give a helping hand to those less fortunate who were just starting out in our Great Society.  Some of us speculated that Dr Martin Luther King Jr would be president by 1980.  Maybe that’s why he got shot.

There were no gangs back then shooting up the streets with guns.  Not here.  As if we knew.  From the perspective of our Roman Catholic parish where I grew up, it looked like a sure bet by the time we grew up and got jobs, got married and had our own kids, the whole subject of racial discrimination and segregation would be settled forever in our future culture, and America would be way advanced in leading the world (as opposed to the commies) in matters of peace and justice.  There was every reason to believe the conflict of race relations we saw in the news would be solved in our lifetime, we shall overcome.

What went all Robert Burns gang aft a gley can best be attributed to the magnitude of forces unforeseen and unintended that clash and contend endlessly for righteous power in this complexly indifferent universe.

In other words, the real world is composed of elements that cohese and conflict, realign and repel, and no social order ever emerged is perfect.  With adolescence came encounters with contradictions, awareness of conditions subversive of my privileged kumbaya.

Medgar Evers

Bob Dylan sang, “A bullet from the back of the bush took Medgar Evers’ blood.”

It was appalling to see race riots.  One was forced to examine the point of view of people so outraged they burn down their own neighborhoods.  Weren’t things going well?  I guess not.

Venturing into the real world I heard that word nigger again.  Used with the same defamatory pith as the kid who called me one because he thought in the heat of the moment I was worse than a shitty asshole, almost a fucker.  Used it the way we imagine nazis spoke of Jews.

Later, liberation language co-opted the word to symbolize anybody oppressed, as in the thesis The Student As Nigger, or the phrase I ain’t your nigger.  Comedians jumped on it for discomforting laughs.  An ex-Beatle and his Japanese-born spouse recorded a song called Woman is the Nigger of the World.  Cavalier work crews might refer to the foreman as the HNIC — Head Nigger In Charge.

Meanwhile Amos ‘N’ Andy and Disney’s Song of the South were withdrawn from public view as entertainment that shamed their white producers and predominately white audiences as well as the black characters portrayed in the stories.

There was Black Like Me, a confessional written by a white guy who used a pharmaceutical to darken his skin so he could pass for black to go undercover to experience being black so he could write a book.  Norman Mailer published his essay the White Negro to describe the phenomenon of white hipsters counter-assimilating black culture.  This accounted for Allen Ginsburg and Elvis Presley, and presaged Eric Burdon and Eminem.

How do you expect people to react when Charles Manson interprets the Beatle song Helter Skelter to predict a race war?

Ralph Ellison became highly visible.  To Kill A Mockingbird placed the onus of racism on the heads of white education.  Does everyone know by now why the caged bird sings?  Cornell West reminds us Race Matters.  Malcolm X urged people to do liberation by any means necessary.  Muhammad Ali fought the system.  With his Soul On Ice Eldridge Cleaver reminds the persecuted to know where your shoes are at all times.  FUBU came into fashion.

The term African American emerged as the preferred moniker for common polite discourse.  Polite discourse remains possible.  People of color replaced colored people.  Negro — that baseball museum in Kansas City.  Black is most common.  Black is ever the new black.

Rap music and hip hop reclaimed ownership of the word nigger, as in NWA — niggers with attitude.  Sometimes you see it spelled niggah.  The word is locked in a tabernacle of niggardly utterance.  Maybe it’s good riddance, but not to the point of censorship of Mark Twain in public schools.

What now, and what next?

A legacy of organized street narcotics marketing, dramatized in the mafia conference scene in the Godfather, has fostered lost generations of career criminals, addicts and prison lifers.  Any wonder why some call us white devils?

Some law enforcement officers behave with deadly force as an extension of the mentality of bring the fire hoses and sic the dogs.  There are bad guys in the bunch.  The rest attempt to keep the peace in the face of defiant criminal exceptionalism, facing death.

Black gunslingers spray bullets all over the place, and it’s not for a righteous cause or to prove black lives matter.  It’s hate on hate — hate crimes, not even crimes of indifference or ignorance, or accident of birth.

Lawless defiance, vigilantism and brutal police tactics, along with palpable disregard for life by individuals within black communities, have made black lives madder.  And madder.

All this from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and all the indignities of disparities, despicable repression, cruel history — add it all up and who wouldn’t have an attitude?

Say it loud…


Black people, please don’t be mad at me.  How I was brought up I would have gladly given up my seat on the bus to Rosa Parks, and probably have, countless forgettable times but didn’t take credit for doing an obviously courteous thing.  You know what I mean.

I’m a white guy trying to live right and do right by my fellow human beings.  I try to atone for wrongs inflicted in any way by me, bearing in mind the core of the Serenity theme of knowing the difference between what is my own responsibility and what is not.  I vote.

I’ve tried to raise my own kids to embrace an open humanity and live by codes if integrity and justice.

I am sorry for the conditions that provoke the confrontations and the antipathy based on race.

No words can express how bad I feel.

My desire is not to shush anybody.

I want an end to the madness, a cease in the fighting words, a civil dialogue to replace the need for civil disobedience.

I want to feel more than a sense of Dred when the race card is in wordplay.  We’re all players.  Everyone at the table has a stake.  Let’s begin with a code of civil conduct that does not justify reprehensible behavior.

What you see is what you get.  Say what you will.  Tell it like it is.  Address the violence.  Stop disparate treatment.

(I know — cure the sick, raise the dead.  Or raise the sick, cure the dead.)

Or damn us all if we don’t listen to our own profane words of retribution.  Are we doomed to keep repeating ourselves?

Kids pick up this kind of stuff.

I’m just saying.