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Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.

Some Gratitudes

Before the last Thanksgiving leftovers are eaten, I want to get down a few lines about what I’m grateful for this year.

Friends and Family. There were many years when this wouldn’t have made my list, not because I didn’t value the relationships in my life, but because I didn’t know how to value them. They were simply there, like the rain in autumn or the snow in winter. Now that I’m roughly halfway through the journey of life, I know how important it is to have people with you along the way. They show you what’s possible. They define you. They give and receive love, without which it is not possible to be fully human. And to all my favorite humans, you know who you are: all love and affection to you.

Books. There isn’t a year I wouldn’t have included these magical objects on my list. They are an escape from the prison of the moment and of the present time, a solace in tough times, a celebration in the best of times, and a source of wisdom and amusement, often both at once. Without them, I would not know who I am or what anything means. They think thoughts for me that are bigger than I’d ever be able to arrive at on my own. They keep the whole picture of the world in mind, seen in understanding and compassion and fascination, so I don’t have to bear that burden.

My Body. Just about everybody who knows me knows that I used to weigh over 40% more than I do now. There isn’t a day that I don’t get up and take a moment of thanks that I’m no longer beset by the physical and emotional suffering that came with that body. I don’t want anybody to feel body shamed by this post. But for me, being heavier than I am now didn’t work out. Let’s hope I can keep up the physical recovery, one day at a time.

My Job. Just about everybody who knows me also knows how much my job rules my life. It spills over into vacation time, sleeping time, weekends, evenings, and even my dreams and the stray thoughts of the odd hours. For all the anxiety it brings, it has made me smarter, more creative, braver, and more financially secure than I’ve ever been. I’ve got a long journey before I’ll be satisfied with my progress on any of those fronts, but without the whetstone of my job, I’d be much duller than I am now. Plus, in a mean, cold world, it’s nice to have a place to go every day where my talents, such as they are, are put to use.

Dungeons & Dragons. For the past two years, I’ve been getting together with a mad crew of friends to create real, shared memories of imaginary places and people. I’ve learned more about my imagination than I have in a lifetime of writing and even some things about myself I’d never have otherwise. (How *would* I respond to the chance to sell my soul, speak with the dead, steal a treasure, or defend the innocent?). This thanks extends this to all tabletop games that you play with other people — it’s a sure path to the kind of knowledge of yourself and others you’d normally get from real life, but you get to have fun and suffer only the mildest of consequences when you find it on the game board.

That seems like a fairly basic list, but there you have it. It’s what showed up when I asked my mind for a list of what mattered.

Now, back to the grind.

What are you grateful for?

 

FDR on the Limited Uses of Limited Government

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Down a path from the ancestral Roosevelt home is a Dutch-style building FDR had built to house his library of 22,000 volumes, which became his administrative home during his four terms as President.

It’s now a museum which houses his Oval Office desk, model ship collection, library, and the New York office he used as President, still arranged as it was on the day he died. There’s also an exhibit of many rooms which reconstructs the atmosphere of Roosevelt’s election and presidency.

Far from the triumphalism that has colored our view of the past, every decision of his presidency was made in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse. Much of what we now think of as inviolable, like Medicare and Social Security, was considered a gamble, even unconstitutional. Nobody had ever made such energetic use of the powers of the Federal Government before.

The Republicans have been trying to tear down what FDR built since the first 100 days of his first term. Trump’s reality show, a smokescreen for the malign neglect of the Federal bureaucracy, is just the latest and most vulgar incarnation of this effort.

And it seems Democrats have forgotten how to argue for the alternative to limited government. They are too busy fighting about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry or defending Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe to reach the same rhetorical heights that FDR scaled without fear.

Perhaps it was the presence of books in every room of FDR’s office and home which helped him find the words that made him so powerful.

In his bedroom, in his office, on surfaces in the hallways, I saw every kind of book: almanacs, mystery novels, editions of the psalms, sermons, dictionaries, ancient and modern classics, indices of the army and the navy. In photos of FDR and Eleanor, they are always surrounded by books, even when sitting on a table outside overlooking the Hudson River.

If we’re looking for the words to combat fascism and an uncaring government this time around, I suspect we won’t find them in the claustrophobic spaces of our little screens, but in the books that surrounded FDR and his cabinet.

Meet My New Family Member, Rowdy III

He is a miniature long hair Dachshund, black and english cream, twenty two weeks old. So far, he’s a big fan of chasing his own tail, chewing on the ends of shoelaces and zipper pulls, and passing out in front of radiators.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the wonderful Rowdy III lives with my mom and step-dad in the Hudson Valley. He’s not mine. We’re just siblings.

(Photo credit: Andrew Yang)

Abraham Lincoln on Thanksgiving: Gratitude in Times of “National Perverseness”

A time to give thanks? Check.

A time of “national perverseness”? Check.

And who better than the near-mythological figure Abraham Lincoln to remind us that even when things seem to be falling apart–the Civil War gets more points on that score than our own–it’s important to make time to give it all a rest and be thankful for what the earth has provided and for all of us who are still here in good health to enjoy it together.

We are not engaged in Civil War, but it has been a year of catastrophe. Many Americans who were alive last Thanksgiving aren’t alive today, whether from natural disaster like the California fires, or manmade disaster, like the 35,000 Americans who die from gun violence every year.

So take a deep breath and savor the day.

From Abe’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as an official holiday, which appeared in The Atlantic in 1863.

It has seemed to be fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

If you don’t pray to God, Abe’s rumbling, periodic sentence still works–give thanks to whatever forces at work in the universe remind you that you’re just a small part of things, but a small part capable of gratitude.

Have a great day, everybody!

Today, We Know Who We Are

J.G. Ballard said somewhere that travel gives us purpose, however transiently. While we travel through airport terminals, train stations, waiting rooms, while we wait in lines or in traffic, our boredom or frustration is elevated by knowing exactly who we are.

Today, many of us are people on our way home for Thanksgiving. Have a safe journey, everybody, and enjoy that precious sense of purpose.

Barely Passing Our Attention Test: Whittaker and Khashoggi

America seems to be passing, just barely, the test of our ability to hold a single issue in our collective attention long enough to determine its significance and whether it requires action. There have been a flood of editorials and even a lawsuit from Democratic members of Congress declaring that Matthew Whittaker’s appointment as acting Attorney General is unacceptable and even unconstitutional.

And there has been increasing pressure from Congress and an incensed press for Trump to act on the evidence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman ordered the killing of one of his subjects, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Credit is due to some Republicans for this, Senator Bob Corker, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Bill Kristol, one of the founders of The Weekly Standard. They are the kind of conservatives who know how and when to take a moral stand, even on the shifting sands of Washington’s politics.

And all this amidst some worthy competition for our attention, like catastrophic wildfires, Facebook’s antisemitic lobbying campaigns, Brexit’s endgame, and a tanking stock market, just to name a few.

Some tweets from Corker and Kristol below. Both Republicans, mind you:

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