There are many odd ducks in this world, but those who truly enjoy the week before Christmas would have to be some of the strangest. Whether it is last second preparations; gift buying, packing for travel, odds and ends at work before a week out of the office, or that calendar-driven dredge of our mucked filled canals we call memory, there is no shortage of stimuli designed to throw a monkeywrench into this week before Christmas.
The last couple of years, I’ve gotten to add plenty to the monkeywrench pile, whether it was the first Christmas without Anna Zarse or last year when my family had to deal with the murder of Auntie Suzanne and the death of Grandpa after 50+ years of growing Christmas trees. Everyone has some hurt they are carrying around, and more often than not it bubbles to the surface during those short cold days in December.
Christmas took on a different meaning seven years ago for me after we laid to rest Zac Gary.
In one of the most poignant scenes in one of the all-time great television shows, Mad Men, Don Draper pitches his concept for the “Carousel” by Kodak, an automatic slide projector. As he shows pictures of his wife and kids, he talks about the meaning of nostalgia in Greek, which he says means, “the pain from an old wound.” By the end of his presentation, he has a tear streaming down his cheek, and others in the room have had to walk out to avoid breaking down in front of the clients.
Zac Gary became my responsibility before he became my friend. As an aggressively average athlete, but a willing team player, it was decided that I would be tasked with making sure that the best linebacker on our freshman football team would remain academically eligible. After a couple of trips to the counselor’s office, it was decreed that Zac Gary would be put in every English class with me and that I was to do everything in my power to keep him on the field with a passing grade.
Turns out, that is not the glamorous position on the football team that every little boy dreams about, but as a people-pleasing oldest child, I did what was asked.
Trying to get Zac to pass English was tough for a variety of reasons, his academic apathy being chief among them. However, by sheer determination, we got through Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and whatever other nonsense we were tasked with reading and evaluating.
Zac and I made quite the pair in an English class, the class clown and the bored debater who had been taught more rigorous English in 5th grade than BNL saw fit to teach sophomores. One of us was always getting yelled at, and occasionally we even deserved it. Mrs. Kurtz in particular took several stitches out of both of us as I informed her that the fact that my analysis wasn’t written in her teacher’s guide didn’t make it wrong, while Zac heckled her that Moorman knew more than the teacher in his froggy, adolescent, cracking voice that seemed to rise an octave every time he got excited. (We both got sent to the principal’s office for that one. It was an early lesson in “managing up” for me.)
Every time we had a paper, Zac would come rolling over in his rust-bucket brown S-15 that he was always perilously close to putting into a ditch at high speeds and we’d start working, by which I mean that I’d start working and Zac would pull out every weapon in his comedic arsenal to get me off track.
We made it through 4 semesters before no one could justify putting us in the same English classes any longer, Zac failed plenty of subjects, but English was not one of them.
After high school, Zac did what the boys of limited academic achievement did from Bedford, Indiana in 2005, he joined the Army and got an all-expenses paid trip to Iraq. I’m sure that Zac made a great soldier. He was quick with a wisecrack and the single most physically fearless person I have ever known. After 16 months in Iraq, he was given the Army Commendation Medal for acts of courage and heroism, before getting sent home to Bedford on leave around Christmas. I saw him once that Christmas break while I was home for Bedford, and something had changed in Zac and not for the better. War has a way of aging youth into something altogether different, and Zac was no exception. Unfortunately, home was more dangerous for Zac than a warzone, and he fell victim to an opioid overdose like so many have in rural America in the 21st century, passing away on December 15, 2014.
Not having my father’s native knowledge of arcane dates, I didn’t realize that it was the anniversary of that loss last Wednesday when Kit and I sat down to watch “Unstuck in Time,” the new documentary on Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has long been one of my favorite writers, and as a proud Hoosier, his absurd “science fiction” satire of a world that has lost its mind hits me on levels deeper than most.
His most famous book is Slaughterhouse 5, which was a brutally tough book to write for the man who had been a prisoner of war at the age of 22 when the architecturally unparalleled city of Dresden Germany was demolished into a post-apocalyptic moonscape of death while he listened to the “footsteps of giants” from his underground slaughterhouse holding cell.
It was enough to make Vonnegut a lifelong pacifist.
In that vein he presented us with this poignant quote:
“What war has always been is a puberty ceremony. It’s a very rough one, but you went away a boy and came back a man, maybe with an eye missing or whatever but godammit you were a man and people had to call you a man thereafter.”
Having grown up with many of the boys who became men in the mountains of Afghanistan and the hellish sandy wastelands of Iraq, I understand the unfortunate truth of what Vonnegut is saying.
Recently I finished a biography of Robert E. Lee, which seemed a necessary supplement to my limited knowledge of the American Civil War. For all his notorious use as a posthumous symbol, while he ate, slept, and defecated, Lee was a man who attempted to act with his hardwired sense of noblesse oblige in the endeavors he undertook.
Generals, at least those who aren’t sociopaths, are forced to expend the lives of boys and men in pursuit of political aims, for as Von Clausewitz reminds us, “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”
Even success requires that lives under a general’s direct command will be lost, and those losses affect the men in the command tent both specifically and in the aggregate. That takes a toll on any general whose humanity has not been completely lost.
It took its toll on Lee, and while his more ideological underlings begged him at Appomattox to disband the Confederate Army so that the men could carry out a guerrilla war, he would not subject his home to the brutality of hungry guerillas acting as brigands to continue fighting a lost war. That single act was arguably one of the greatest actions in American history.
Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan showed us the cost in blood and treasure of trying to fight guerrillas in their native lands. Brutality, whether it be murder, rape or theft, are inevitable consequences.
Kurt Vonnegut was never a general, just a grunt looking to get through a war with his life and preferably all his appendages. He saw the meatgrinder that war had become, and saw that all glory in war was mere moonshine, even as he fought what he would always consider to be “one of humanity’s very few just wars.”
Vonnegut managed to speak to a generation during the Vietnam War, regardless of their race, status, privilege or class. He managed to speak to me as a Hoosier does, with that Hoosier accent that “sounds like a buzzsaw cutting through galvanized tin” even from the alleged silence of a typed page. While our Hoosier upbringings were about as culturally different as two men who grew up in the same state could have, with his family being amongst the pre-Depression German elite of Indianapolis surrounded by prosperous cousins, aunts and uncles and mine being in the little Rust Belt town of Bedford whose halcyon days ended 10 minutes before the Moormans showed up, there is always a level of unspoken understanding in any interaction between two Hoosiers.
Vonnegut’s contemporaries were drafted to the greatest cataclysm in human history, whereas mine volunteered to take the least shitty of the choices offered. We saw, him in real-time and mine with the distance of veterans returning, what war does to boys.
This summer, I became engaged in a short argument that was only kept from becoming vicious by the leash my wife so graciously yanks occasionally to keep me out of trouble. A man of no small means and four sons suggested sending the US military in to “clean up the cartels in Mexico.” My ire was raised by a few glasses of wine as he suggested how “easy it would be if we’d just go do it.” This man, whom I love as family, continued down this path until I looked at him and said, “So which one of your sons are you sending to fight this war?”
The leash was pulled forthwith.
Globalization and financialization have allowed Americans to “export unpleasantness.” We don’t think about the poor soul in Congo digging rare earth metals amongst toxic fumes as we mindlessly tap on our smartphones, and we don’t think about the men and boys that we sent to Afghanistan until our “cessation of hostilities” becomes a fiasco. We have the AMERICAN privilege of allowing all that unpleasantness to happen offscreen.
The first 14 years of my life were marked by the greatest rising tide of liberty and peace in human history, wherein the Soviet Union and the Lenin-Marxist experiment which brutally enslaved humans across the globe was shown to be a chimera.
Then September 11th happened, and the tide of human liberty reached its highest point and began to ebb. Pairing this with the explosion of the internet, a leveling mechanism unseen in human history comparable only to Gutenberg’s printing press, we found that freedom no longer looked very free.
We were told that the pursuit of peace required war, and having just buried 3000 of our countrymen, that logic held long enough to get us into two quagmires halfway around the world.
Those quagmires ensnared the boys I grew up with and turned them into men. Some of those men were irreparably damaged, while others came back ready to be upstanding citizens who worked daily to ensure that their children would have better options than volunteering for war at 18.
All this time, we fought a war on drugs, a war that cost us more lives than either of our military endeavors. All too often the victims of one war became the victims of another, and in my mind, those wars will always be personified in the acne-ridden face of a wildman with two first names, Zac Gary.
As we think about our blessings this Christmas season, all the while dealing with the bubbling of damaged emotions that the holidays so often bring, I’d ask you to do something positive with it. My personal causes of choice after writing this are:
I don’t write professionally, but people seem to enjoy it sometimes. If you think you’ve gotten any value out of any of it, please make a donation in honor of Spc. Zachery D. Gary this Christmas season. I’d really appreciate it.
I was once given a piece of sage advice by an Australian man much better at giving it than hearing it:
“Never apply your logic to someone else’s situation.”
Early Friday morning, I got to see that reality play out in a brutal technicolor. Over the course of 15 minutes, I watched as something as innocuous as a candy end a man’s life in a manner just as brutal as any bullet could ever be.
A single mistake took a man from being an otherwise healthy 31 year old to dead in less time than a TV sitcom. The stark contrast between my logic “Oh, looks good I’ll have one” to his situation of a life ending peanut allergy could not have been made more clear.
From the second I heard my friend scream, with an unmistakable air of panic in his voice, “Call 911 and find a goddamned EpiPen.”
My logic (or my lizard brain lack of it) immediately kicked into gear, and I was sprinting to ransack a pile of medical supplies while breathlessly trying to communicate with the 911 operator. The other person I was standing with had a completely different reaction and had no idea what had happened until midway through the next day.
Different logic, same situation.
I find that the last year has thrust me into several situations where my logic was tested and questioned, by strangers and friends alike. The morning of May 11th, 2020, I got a text from my grandfather’s cousin saying that my baby aunt was missing in Colorado. There was a posited, yet easily debunked theory about a mountain lion attack, which quickly gave way to an obvious truth.
My situation changed drastically that day.
That text kicked off a series of events that tore my extended family apart, showing the human frailty and the power of human delusion when dealing with seemingly inexplicable tragedy. To my logical mind, after asking a few questions of law enforcement about drag paths, blood trails, and the astronomically low odds of a mountain lion attack, I knew what had happened.
There had been a cold, brutal and narcissistic monster in our midst almost since my birth, and Auntie Suzanne had fallen victim to a collective ignoring of the elephant in the room.
As her husband, the father of my cousins, quickly became the prime suspect, I watched the mental contortions of those around me as they tried to protect themselves from the brutal reality of a terrible situation. There was the straw grasping mentality of some, who nearly drove themselves to schizophrenia attempting to believe any scenario but the awful truth. There was cavalier vigilantism, the thought that “we know what happened, why haven’t they arrested him yet?” There was the sine wave of emotion trying to protect the fragile ego of those who loved her, attempting to tell themselves that “I wasn’t really that close to her.”
That advice that I’d been given in the punchy accent of my beloved dingo kicker rang in my ears, at a resonance nearly entirely drowned out by the buzzing of helpless rage.
Even though we’d all lost the same person, who showed each of us a warmth and love inextricable from her character, our situations were not the same.
Nor was our logic.
As I sat outside that rustic cabin Friday morning, hands still damp with the residue of sweat from the chest compressions that I’d applied, death became as real to me as it ever had. All of the unnecessary deaths that had impacted me in this life came rushing back, from the violent death of my beloved aunt to the overdose deaths of friends whose logic and situation collided to end their mortal lives while creating carnage amongst those of us left behind that would last for far longer lifetimes.
That dependable God-given gift of logic left me without a shield for this tragic situation. Yet that advice drifted up to the top.
Suddenly, after all these years, I knew what he was trying to get into my head.
Self-preservation is a the strongest of our instincts. Freud’s fixation with the sexual impulse is merely a manifestation, as reproduction is just self-preservation by other means. The human mind can twist internal logic to protect itself from tragedy and destruction in ways that make no rational sense to a casual bystander. I have seen the twisted logic that my aunt’s murderer used to internally protect his Olympian yet fragile ego.
“As a Christian, if this tragedy caused one person to find Christ, it would have been worth it to Suzanne”
“When she married me, it was for life”
“I would have killed for that girl”
“I’ll do anything, I just want you back.”
All of these statements, taken in a vacuum, might have been true, yet when tied together after a monstrous crime, they represent such a perversion of right and wrong that it gives me vertigo.
I know much of the situation that created that monster. A narcissistic addict of a father tying the absolution of his failures to the athletic success of his only son, an enabler of a mother willing to look the other way at any sin so long as it didn’t deface the façade of a Christian family, and a wife who tried to compensate for her utter lack of agency with an internal warmth that she wrongly believed could melt the damage of a lifetime in her brutal husband.
His situation informed his logic, and attempting to apply mine to it would be like trying to read a book in French knowing only English. The letters might be the same and the essence of what the author is trying to elucidate is universal , but the system will never be able to compute.
As a Christian, I believe in the inherent brokenness of man. Call it original sin, call it mortality, call it whatever cultures as diverse as the Hindus and the Aztecs have, but that is a fundamental truth in every society. In my mind, that admission of brokenness is reassuring, because that admission of inevitable imperfection gives us the grace to stumble and rise again.
Taken a different way, that admission of brokenness allows us to view the situations and logic of others without the need to judge. Once one can admit how wires get crossed internally, it becomes much easier to give the grace we beg for ourselves to others.
Brokenness is no carte blanche for sins. As John Lennon said, “An error becomes a mistake when you fail to correct it.” Lives filled with human interaction will always be rife with errors, but it is our ability and our willingness to correct them that separates us from the logical computing machines that return DIV/0 when confronted with a flawed situation where immutable logic is applied.
Being confronted with death in the most graphic and physical of manners, I’ve been reminded how critical it is to attempt, with painstaking effort, to correct our errors before our situations pervert our logic and leave us defenseless against our inherent brokenness. Right and wrong are never so far away as our chivalrous children’s books would have us believe, but they are distinct nonetheless.
I’ll never be able to forgive a man whose brokenness stole Auntie Suzanne from me, sent the shrapnel of tragedy careening through my family structure, and left the wonderful, warm yet broken mother of his children in a series of dumpsters, but I can use that evil as a mirror into my own life, because that’s what my logic calls me to do.
Errors, they’ll be aplenty, but mistakes can be corrected.
At a time when Western society has become diametrically opposed to the “Great Man” theory of history, I find that we are discovering new and interesting ways to sacrifice the good and the known in the Quixotic pursuit of perfection. Mankind has always sought to make sense of the seemingly random drivers of progress by attributing causation to a higher power. For the first civilizations that left us written accounts, there were attributions of gods and demi-gods: from Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, Achilles leading the Sack of Troy, or Moses calling upon Yahweh to close the Red Sea upon the Egyptians. The gods and the mortal foils that became legends in the retelling were the drivers of our inherited civilization and culture.
As history evolved from the fog of millennia, and attribution landed more upon flesh and blood men and women, our need for the legendary never waned, it merely transitioned from the gods to those people who drove the story like Napoleon and Caesar, or Catherine de Medici and Joan of Arc. While credit for the direction of history landed on mortals who walked the earth among us, the retelling made legends out of men and women who ate, defecated and died just like the mortals I see today.
I grew up in a community with a living demi-god. In Indiana, our gods sprang from polished hardwood with the same rapidity as a sharp dribble. In Bedford, Indiana, our demi-god went by a single name, as most do, and that name was Damon.
Damon Bailey was the greatest high school basketball player in Indiana history. In the halls indicative of the 1970s era building that housed Bedford North Lawrence High School, there was a mundane concrete staircase that opened up into a shrine, wherein an 18-year-old Damon Bailey stood in a life-sized photograph of an eager kid looking up with a basketball in his hand and the #1 jersey for the Indiana All-Stars that signified his status as Mr. Basketball in a state where no higher honor exists. The banner from his 1990 state championship still waves over the floor where I shot basketballs in gym class with much less success. In small plastic letters in a shadow case, his scoring record of 3134 career high school points is still seen by every entrant through the southern doors of the BNL Fieldhouse.
In front of his elementary school, there is a life-sized limestone carving of a 12 year old Damon shooting a foul shot. This statue didn’t seem out of the ordinary when I was growing up, because it was as much a part of the landscape as the hills that housed my hometown, but as I grew older, the realization of absurdity finally dawned on me that any 12-year-old had a statue created of his likeness.
Damon Bailey’s ascent to Olympus started with a book chronicling one of the worst seasons that another legend from the previous generation ever had to endure. That legend’s Christian name was Robert Montgomery Knight, but when he wasn’t being referred to as “The General”, he was known simply as Bobby. Bobby Knight coached IU to three national championships, and he had a winning record over every school in the Big Ten not named Purdue. However, Season on the Brink, was a book that showed in vivid detail, the reality behind a legend. In that book, a Bobby Knight said that Damon Bailey, at the age of 13 would be the starting point guard on a team with no less a starting point guard than Steve Alford.
Bobby Knight was an incredible hardass. He demanded total submission from his players, and used tactics to deliver that submission that could be most generously called “tough love” but was also accurately deigned psychological abuse. He had a moral compass that only pointed one direction, and often bulldozed everything between point A and B. His players graduated with degrees, and he took immense pride in the fact that his players were student-athletes, a quaint notion at a time when players are looked at more as unpaid professionals than students at all.
The General broke the spirit of more than one player in this 25+ years on the bench in Assembly Hall, but he created a fraternity of survivors that showed him deference and loyalty regardless of their post-collegiate successes.
As a 12-year-old, I watched a revolution as unthinkable as the Communists overthrowing the Romanov Czar, when Bobby Knight was removed as IU’s coach in the culmination of the most poignant Greek cum Hoosier tragedy ever written. The details are disputed and largely unimportant, but the first day that Bobby Knight was no longer prowling in front of the bolted down chairs of Assembly Hall was an unimaginable epoch shift.
Seeing that legend fall from grace had a lasting impact on my thoughts on the power of narrative and the transience of power generally. Getting to know one of Bobby’s in-laws well, I realized that for all his victories and legions of crimson clad disciples, he was just a man. Today Bobby is an old man, suffering with the inevitability of age on his body and mental acuity.
Status as a legend is no shield against the ravages of our shared mortality.
I got to see Damon up close, as a man who was a god from prepubescence evolved into a basketball dad in middle age. Being a Purdue fan in Bedford was tough, as there were no greater apostasy that to root against Damon and the General, so Damon’s effect as a living god was diminished if not completely muted on me.
The day after he’d blown a knee in one of the many barnstorming tours he used to make across the State of Indiana, he walked into the office in the athletic department where I’d somehow managed to take up residence as a “student assistant” and made a comment about my Purdue sweatshirt. “Moorman, why don’t you get an IU sweatshirt instead of that terrible thing?” I looked back in all the earnestness of a true Boilermaker believer and said, “Damon, why aren’t you still in the NBA?”
I’ve always imagined the confused look of Goliath the instant after a well placed stone from a shepherd boy hit him in the forehead.
On that day, I saw that look on the face of a legend, and this son of David caused it.
No one ever talked back to Damon. It was as anathema as cursing in front of the Pope.
In that moment, as I quickly scurried out from the blast zone as my athletic director nearly brained me for insulting our most important donor, I realized the truth about legends.
Behind the façade and the propaganda of their partisans, they are individuals who eat, defecate and die just like you and me.
Legends, like the local gods of ancient civilizations, can have immense power within their spheres of influence. Those spheres can be as small as a family unit or a small town, and they can span the globe like the legend of America’s Founding Fathers. Regardless of reach, legends are only as strong as their perceptions in the minds of those who come after them.
As I’ve grown in age and experience, I’ve encountered many small sphere legends. My grandfather was one, the seemingly immortal Gene Moorman. He made a small fortune selling hot dogs, root beer and Christmas trees, and he lived fast and free in a way that made him a legend to the clock-bound wage earners of General Motors and Delco Remy in Madison County, Indiana.
They say that no man is a great man to their chambermaid, and Gene proved that to me. For all the people who knew that I was Geno’s grandson, and talked about how much fun it must be to have him as a granddad, few people knew the logistical reality of keeping that legend fed, watered, and out of harm’s way.
Gene was a legend for his defiance, and never saw himself as more than “a feller who wanted to find some fun trouble to get into.” For a living legend to be somewhat indifferent about how he is perceived doesn’t heap extra work upon the propaganda department. That was a blessing.
My brother and I got to see Grandpa for what he was, the good and the bad, and knowing him as a flawed man yet loving grandfather meant that we were never forced to measure ourselves to a mythical standard that started with a man and grew into an idealized legend.
To measure oneself against a legend can seed within the hearts of great men insecurities on par with those of an acne faced 13 year old attempting to “get the girl.”
Caesar was said to have wept at the grave of Alexander the Great, for his achievement of sole control of the Roman Empire was but a trifle compared to the man who conquered from the Aegean to the Ganges before the age of 33.
If comparison is the death of joy, then measuring oneself against a legend will be the root of one’s most virulent insecurities.
Having not been a legend, I hesitate to offer insight into how one should behave, but since I’m the man at the keyboard, I’ll nonetheless hazard an attempt.
For those living legends whose spheres are compact enough to have personal interactions with their most devoted disciples, I would proffer this:
Set your disciples free.
Make sure that those who view you as their yardstick of greatness know that there were failures along the way. Elucidate the mistakes, espouse your framework for decision making, and don’t be tempted into believing your own propaganda. Greatness springs from a devilishly hard to replicate cocktail of opportunity, preparation, and skill, but even when all those ingredients are present, it still takes more than a passing interaction with Lady Luck. Whether it was the woman who chose you over more traditionally appealing options or the chance conversation with a stranger that lead you to a great idea, there are inevitably moments in the story of any great mortal wherein circumstance allowed for greatness to spring forth.
As my first nephew was just born, I was thinking last week about the one wish that I would pray would come true for him. I settled on, “May his skills be suited to the era that he lives.”
Colonel Eli Lilly was the inventor who set the cornerstone of a great empire. His grandson, Eli Lilly II, was a consolidator and visionary who laid the framework for a global business from those inventions. Should Eli Lilly II have compared himself to the man from whose chemistry set created modern pharmaceuticals, he would have found himself lacking and run himself into the ground. Had Colonel Lilly been asked to set a framework for a global business, he likely would have found himself completely befuddled.
Living legends have a responsibility, an offshoot of that bygone concept of nobless oblige, to ensure that their great achievements do not hamstring their descendants with an unattainable standard. Great individuals are rare in their number but common to our species. The greatest of those individuals are the ones who ensure that their mortality is central to their story as to illuminate the reality of the possible instead of allowing an unreachable standard to become the omnipresent boogeyman of their devotees.
The older I’ve gotten, the more I realized that even within the most successful of people, extraordinarily few ever reach the Zen-like freedom from insecurity that onlookers might assume comes from their success. To be able to admit those insecurities takes a certain vulnerability. Even the greatest of men fear that their success is more fragile that most realize, or worse, that it is an outright fraud. To let one’s descendants know that insecurity lies within the breast of every mere mortal, is a gift greater than gold.
Vulnerability takes more than a bit of courage, and articulating it takes a heap time and some sustained practice. It is always easier to maintain that flawed bit of pride that says “I figured it out, and they will too.”
To truly be legendary, it is incipient upon those whose real, messy and flawed lives will eventually become the foundation for myth to let those who saw them in flesh and blood know that it wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t all roses. As Grandpa Gene used to say, “Some days chickens, other days feathers.”
Having made my daily bread for a time as a farmer, I can say with certainty that nothing grows to its potential in the shade. The size of a shadow comes not from the size of the object that casts it, but from the angle from which light is applied. If a legend truly cares about those closest to him, he must strive in word and deed to be straight with his disciples.
Everyone knows that the smallest shadows are cast at noon.
I used to believe, before the events of the last year and a half, that I could fix anything if only I could find the right combination of words to make sense of the chaos.
If the last year and a half has taught me anything, it is that there are some things that no oration can fix.
So instead of embarking on a Sissyphean task to find the right words to make so many wrongs right, I’m going to tell you a story.
It’s a story about a man named Gene, but I mostly called him Grandpa or Old Man.
It’s a story about a man who loved stories. This is a story about a man who most certainly wasn’t a saint, even if an intrepid marketing agency canonized a soft caricature of him as Saint Gene. I’m not sure what the Vatican charges for Sainthood now a days, but I can tell you that if you know the right fella in Indianapolis, you can make a sinner into a saint for about 25 large.
It’s a story about a man who loved dirty jokes and dingy bars and great big pontoon boats where he could stick a three piece band on the front and get a whole mess of people get together.
One of the things he loved most of all was telling people to come see him…if you ever get in the Pentwater area, at the top of the hill over by Val Du Lakes. Or if you ever get down to Okeechobee, I’ll take you on a boat ride and show you an alligator. Or Anderson, come on down and we’ll get you a Spanish dog and a root beer float, just delicious.
Plenty of people say “come see me,” but Grandpa always meant it from the bottom of his heart. He was a man who loved people, not always well, but he loved them the best way he knew how with an open door for all.
This man loved planting Christmas trees, even if that whole growing them bit got tedious. He loved cattle auctions, even when he had no intention of buying a cow and he loved 4-H fairs. He loved old country music and mediocre prime rib.
He was a man who loved pointing out the gentleman’s clubs that he and Grandpa Ivan and Uncle Billy had stopped at between Okeechobee and Alexandria, but he was also the man who, as much as he liked a nap, who always wanted to be awake when we went past Refro Valley, just so that he could tell the story of when Ivan had the only radio around, and people would come over on Saturday nights to dance and play cards and listen to the country music program from the Renfro Valley, “When country music had a little more Gospel to it…you know, like the Gaithers.”
Grandpa loved telling that story, every year, and it illuminated no small part of his character. As a little boy, he learned that if you have something that people enjoy, they are going to want to hang around with you. For a little boy who eventually aged into the appearance (if not the judgement) of an old man, this simple story shaped so much of his personality.
Have things that people enjoy, and people will want to be around you. That was one of the very few lessons that Ivan taught him that he ever took to heart.
Grandpa loved running around the Alexandria area with 50 lbs of asparagus this time of year. He loved it because having a bunch of produce was like a shot clock, and he had to go see people before it ran out. Until I got engaged, I was completely unaware that some people found it impolite to just stop by and knock on the door. That’s what Geno did, and people always seemed to enjoy his company, so I did it too.
He loved playing cards and going to auctions and $5 spaghetti dinners and a big bowl of cherries in season. He loved shooting craps and those godawful blue jump suits and trucker hats from ag companies long before the hipsters tried to make them cool.
He loved telling people that he had two PhD’s from Purdue, which seemed a lot more impressive until you realized that he was talking about the two post-hole diggers he bought on his way home from a 2 week animal husbandry course.
Then it was impressive in a different way.
Geno loved the Eagles and the VFW and the Elks and any other fraternal organization with low enough standards to let him in, because he hated being alone. His philosophy, which he tried, like so many other philosophies to hand down to me and Erik, was that no matter where you are, you can walk into one of these operations and get a drink and your bearings. All you’ve got to do is smile, say where you’re in from, and you’ll meet someone who knows someone you know and then you won’t be alone.
Gene Moorman was a walking analog LinkedIn for another age.
He was also a rolling Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and small-town classifieds rolled into one. Outside of a period where bringing his own bed with him everywhere he went led him to conversion vans, my grandfather drove a truck. It always had a camper shell on it, and often as not, it had a trailer hitched up behind it. Grandpa was always moving, and he had that kind of deep, intuitive understanding of supply and demand. He could have never drawn the graph, but he knew it in his bones like people did before Newton named gravity.
Few things brought my grandfather as much joy as an empty trailer, a pocket full of cash, and a random for sale sign. He loved buying something where it was cheap, and dragging it up the road to somewhere that he thought he could make a few bucks. This included pontoons, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, tractors, and about anything else he could convince someone to help him load onto a trailer.
That love of an empty trailer got him into the Christmas tree business.
A few years ago he told me how the Moorman’s got into the Christmas tree business, and as so many of Geno’s stories went, it started in a bar. He and Dick Fuller were drinking sometime in November after the crops were harvested and the Root Beer Stand was closed for the season. Apparently Meemaw had told him that he had to find something to do that winter, so he looked at old Dick and said, “Dick, whaddya say we get your 1 ton truck and go get some Christmas Trees? I know a spot from when I was up north in the Army.”
Dick must have said yes, and they went back to the barn to weld some poles to the front hooks on the truck, then built a big U off the back of the truck with 2x6s, suspending the whole thing with wire like some gerry rigged Golden Gate Bridge.
They got up to Scottville, and allegedly bought 180 unbaled trees. Having loaded 180 baled trees on a 24 foot trailer, this seems a little exaggerated, but Geno was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
They started back down 31, back when it was a bumpy road that ran through every small town from Mears to Indianapolis, and passed a bottle of Old Granddad back and forth. It started snowing a little bit down the road, and those unbaled trees can hold an awful lot of snow, it wasn’t too many miles before their ingenious handbuilt bed extension had snapped off in the middle of the road, dropping trees and creating a real problem.
Geno, always one for getting out of a tight spot, looked at Dick and said, “Dick now there was a fire station back up the road a ways. Go back there, I’ve got an idea.”
I’m sure he walked in with a little stutter in his step as he announced to the fire station, “Good news boys, you’re about to be in the Christmas tree business.”
Like Tom Sawyer, Grandpa convinced these firefighters to go pick up his trees from the middle of the road, and bring them back to the fire station where they could sell them for a little extra jingle before Christmas.
Decades later, that fire station still sells Christmas trees as an annual fundraiser…all because Gene Moorman walked in with a problem created by his own short sightedness and the kind of idea that was proof of his unique genius.
They continued on, before getting to Warsaw. Apparently there was a fire on Main Street in Warsaw, and they had been rerouted down an alley. As they drove down the alley (I assume with a small Christmas tree riding in the middle seat) Dick said to Grandpa, “Damn Gene, that must be a bad fire, they are evacuating, you can see them turning off the lights in each one of these homes.”
Grandpa, realizing that the two 12 foot poles sticking up from the bumper were pulling down all the power lines, said, “You’re right Dick, keep driving, we’ve got to get out of here.”
Eventually the rolling reign of terror pulled into the Root Beer Stand, and Grandpa made enough money to continue on with trees for the next 50 years.
Grandpa loved taking his buddies up to the Farm. He always loved telling the story of when Uncle Billy planted a whole row of trees upside down. He loved the camaraderie when Andrew would bring up a crew to take down trees, and he loved pulling out as soon as the last trailer left and heading to Florida, because Geno HATED cold weather.
I remember, as we pulled out of Bedford after my 8th grade graduation, he was taking me up to Andrew to watch the Little 500 for the first time. We didn’t get 10 miles down the road, when he saw a pontoon for sale, whipped his big Dodge into the driveway, walked around it twice, kicked the tires on the trailer, and said, “Christopher, call your dad and have him meet us out here with a check, I reckon this thing will float just fine.”
Grandpa loved the feeling of chasing a thrill, but was notorious for chasing it a little too long. He loved the feeling of being loved, and having finally found the limits of my grandmother’s patience sometime in the early 80s, decided to chase it unsuccessfully another three times. Any lessons that Grandpa had to teach about marriage were of the left handed variety.
He was one of the luckiest SOBs I’ll ever meet. The fact that his luck ran low at the end was confirmation of its existence. Like the time that he still had 17 snowmobiles sitting at the Root Beer Stand on March 5th, and had no where else to take them. He was about to take a big bath, and frankly he couldn’t afford it because until the Root Beer stand opened up, he didn’t have any money coming in. So Geno calls some random auctioneer that he knows and says “have you ever hosted a snowmobile auction?” Now in Central Indiana, snowmobiles were incredibly rare, so this auctioneer answers honestly, and says, “No Gene, I don’t even know what one is worth.”
Grandpa replied, “well me either but they’ve got to be gone, so I guess we’ll find out together.”
March is a pretty hit and miss month for snow around these parts. But Geno needed a miracle, and a miracle was what he got. It snowed 6 inches the night before the auction, and instead of taking a well deserved bath on these snowmobiles, he ended up turning a hefty profit.
Might we all be as lucky as Gene at his best, but know when to walk away.
Geno loved a hustle. Loved anything that involved a little steel cashbox and a bunch of small bills, whether it was a yard sale or selling parking for Hootie and the Blowfish.
Grandpa had a fool proof plan for a random hustle:
Find a drinking buddy
Buddy must have kids old enough to run a cash box.
Get 2 steel money boxes, two lawn chairs, and put some letters on the old light up arrow sign saying “Parking $40”
Go have a drink, you just made $3600 bucks.
Grandpa loved being in the middle of things, whether he knew what he was doing or not. One of his many famous lines was, “Well Hell, that sounds like fun.” And he said it to whomever happened to be within earshot about 5 minutes before starting up the truck and heading that direction.
He loved a good long laugh that emanated from a lousy joke. The kind of laugh that ran his lungs to the edge of their capacity, and ended with the shadow of a hiccup and a contented coo, before he pulled of his glasses to wipe the residue of a happy tear from those eternally twinkling blue eyes, as he said “aw shit” ever so softly as he caught his breath.
He loved horses if they were Thouroughbreds and dogs if they were greyhounds. He loved little Cuban men with long wicker baskets strapped to their arms playing jai alai as long as the gambler sitting next to him that would agree that the fix was in.
In short, he loved life. Loved it like few men do. He loved it so much that he never quite came to grips with the fact that one day the party would be over. As Erik and Andrew loaded him into the truck for what we all knew would be his last trip from the top of Hoosier Hill. He didn’t look out across the dunes or the Christmas trees or the big lake with any recognition of his impending mortality.
Just as some people are born without the ability to feel pain, my grandfather was born without an introspective bone in his body. Why would there be? He’d proven the fact that he could not be killed like some mortal man, and why did that string of stirring upsets against the Grim Reaper have to end? He’d been cheating that lousy bastard since he started wrecking cars in his teens.
He was once lost at sea after a floating bender that started on the Ohio River and didn’t quite make it to Key West. This was before I could even remember, but Andrew said that the Coast Guard called the Root Beer Stand and said, “I’m sorry sir but your father was sending an SOS signal from the Gulf when we lost communication, we’re afraid he’s been lost at sea.” In Andrew’s retelling, he didn’t miss a beat before saying “Listen, I’m busy slinging weenies, you keep looking for him, you’ll find him.”
He blew an engine and lost the radio to a rogue wave that time, but 36 hours later, his luck pushed him into a trade wind and he found someone willing to take whatever cash was in his pocket to drag him back to shore.
He blew a two story house six inches off its foundation at the age of 70, and somehow survived both the explosion and the burns.
His brain finally revolted from decades of pickling in Old Granddad, and he was told that he’d never leave a nursing facility over a decade ago. After a few weeks of miraculous recovery, he was right back to his old tricks.
When the Grim Reaper decided that he wasn’t going to get this old duffer on his own, he decided to enlist the professionals in the Soviet Union to do old Geno in. The plot was subtle as it wound its way towards its dastardly ends, and that 4000 pound agent of death known as a Belarus 1522 attempted, much in the vein of Wile E Coyote’s many attempts on the Roadrunner, to do Geno in, to no avail.
There was even one day in the last year that I think Grandpa had finally decided to test the limits of his immortality specifically. A few weeks after Suzanne was killed, he was just flat in a bad mood. Normally, he would have tried to pick a fight with me, given my uncanny resemblance to my father, but this time, he decided to take it out of his defenseless yard, because it wouldn’t shout back.
Before I could even try to stop him, (this was a few months before his uncanny sure footedness finally left him) he was in the big John Deere yelling to tie on the disc. He started tearing up yard just because he could, before finally deciding he’d had enough. He then came back over to where Erik and I were standing, and told us to take the disc off, he was done. We’d barely removed the cotter pins before he was back in the tractor with a head of steam, heading straight for the paper birch trees. He did what Geno always did, gave it hell, shoved down the throttle and barreled towards his quarry.
As he got to the first tree, he started climbing up it with this tractor, coming within a few degrees of flipping the whole thing back over on himself. I wanted to go down and stop him, but Erik, in his laconic wisdom, looked at me like I was crazy, “You’ve never been able to tell him anything before, what is going to change now? If you do down there, the only thing that is going to happen is that the tractor is going to flip on top of you while he walks away.”
Just about that time, the tractor hitched up perilously another couple degrees and the white birch gave way, as things in nature tend to do when confronted with a stubborn man with a tractor.
As I said before, Geno was no saint. Saints don’t have that intractable defiance that says, “You love me where I’m at, or get out of my way.” That’s certainly not the philosophy that parenting books attempt to inculcate. If you were in a bar or NEAR a bar or at an auction or on a body of water, there was no better person on earth to be around than Gene Moorman. He always had some obscure local gossip or an idea to make a few quick bucks or a hot tip on a dog race.
He might have a horse in a trailer out in front of that bar, telling you with a quip “Well the last time that horse seemed like a good idea, he and I were at this bar together. So I figured I’d better bring him back to see if it seemed like a good idea this time too.”
Those characteristics, while they might make a legend, do not make for a great father, and he caused an immense amount of pain, not out of malice but out of his defining characteristic, defiance.
He left, for better or worse, a piece of himself and the echoes of his actions in each of his children and therefore his grandchildren. Sometimes it is easily recognizable, like when you hear yourself saying “Now listen here.” Sometimes it is pretty subtle, like when that switch flips in your mind and your decision making process gets short circuited…and evidence and logic have no place because your mind has been made up.
We can try to escape our inner-Gene, but there’s no getting rid of it. At his best, he was creative, ingenious, warm and inviting. At his worst, he was impetuous, foolhardy and incredibly hard on those whom were tied to him by blood…because in Geno’s mind, that meant they couldn’t leave.
He was however, an absolutely phenomenal grandfather to two little boys, which is a little amusing, because he really didn’t care much for either one of his grandfathers. Our mother’s greatest fear was that we would receive not one, but two Geno genes. And her fears were confirmed, we most certainly got a double dose, even if they were mitigated by the power of nurture over nature. Erik and I are well aware that we got the absolute best of Gene Moorman.
The fun/responsibility matrix was much more favorable in the grandfathering business than it was in the fathering business, and by time I came along, Gene wanted to be good at something.
Grandpa was a lot like the kid who shoots 100% from the foul line, but doesn’t even act interested in playing defense. Down one with the game on the line, there is no one you’d rather having taking the shot, but there were four people who had to work their tails off and take it on the chin for 40 minutes so that those foul shots even mattered.
But when the game is won, what are you going to do? Be mad at him?
I can’t. Not anymore.
He loved being a grandfather. Loved showing up unannounced with a beagle puppy in a box. Loved throwing a 4 year old in the passenger seat and running all around town looking for an autograph from Donnie Adams and a great big teddy bear. He loved a crazy idea, and sat in the 45 degree rain at the age of 85 as Erik and I tore down a greenhouse before jumping behind the wheel and driving us home with hoops hanging over a trailer, an absolute menace to public safety and good sense.
The game is over now, and the gambler didn’t quite go bust, even if he never did figure out when to fold them.
As we lay him to rest, and he no longer acts as the impetus to moving the story forward, there are no shortage of justifiable emotions running through the hearts of those who loved him. Looking back at his life, one can say just about anything about him, good or bad, and be completely correct. As I wrote this eulogy, I finally realized that what we choose to take from my grandfather’s life says more about us than it does about him.
He was a defiantly successful entrepreneur, who never got a paycheck from anyone after he left the Army. He was laughed at by everyone from his father to his friends when he bought the Root Beer Stand from Mr Olson, but that Root Beer Stand paid for four kids and four wives and an old apple orchard full of sand with a view to die for.
He was also a fool who got taken advantage of more times than I could count.
He was a man who loved his family, and raised a son dutiful enough to see him through the last days of his life surrounded by those he loved instead of alone in a state run nursing home.
Or you could see a selfish man whose sins of omission created brokenness in his children that hurts them to this day.
You could see the life of every party, or you could see the man slipping out the backdoor just about the time that things need to be cleaned up.
He was a man whose generosity gained him many happy returns, but he was also a man for whom no punishment could completely absolve him of his many sins.
Hemingway said, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
By that definition, Gene Moorman was “distinguished.” That’s a concept that would have evoked that laugh I was talking about.
Grandpa would have liked Hemingway, with his penchant for stories and rum and that insatiable thirst to squeeze all there was out of life, but much like Hemingway, the cost of the squeeze was all to often borne by others.
No man is a hero to their chambermaid…nor to the grandson wiping their rear, but my grandfather was a legend in his own time. Whether it was the immediate connection made when I said, “My grandfather is Gene” or the stories told about him told with a laugh in every watering hole from Mears to Okeechobee, he was a character that no one ever forgot.
Again, for better or worse, he gave us an identity if not a stable foundation. We are Moormans, like it or not.
Legends are like that, something to be admired for what they stand for without being fact checked. And now that he’s gone, I prefer the simple legend to the convoluted reality.
Gene stood for freedom and for having enough chutzpah to go your own way. He was a bright shining beacon of hope for all those guys working on the line at Delco Remy, trading a piece of their soul for a steady paycheck. People loved him for that.
He was often the most utterly selfish son of a bitch you’d ever meet, but he’d give you his last dollar. I’ve cursed his foolishness more times than I could count, but in the end, he was a loving grandfather and one of my best friends wrapped into one shuffling old man.
Grandpa was all of these things. He was as simple as it got, from the clothes he wore to the food he ate, but the complexity of his legacy would take a team of experts a decade to untangle.
I hope that we can all take the best of Gene’s life, the good examples and those of the left hand variety that might save us from a future mistake, and leave the rest. I speak from experience when I say that trying to change him was like trying to rewrite the laws of physics, an awful lot of work ending in a very predictable failure.
He was Gene. He was a force of nature, the walking embodiment of the Hoosier accent the Vonnegut compared to a bandsaw going through tin, a helluva good time and a creator of chaos.
The last year and a half has laid waste to the idea that I can fix anything with only the right words, and for those who wanted him to feel some fraction of the pain that he caused, he did. He sat on top of a hill not knowing what happened to his baby girl, being lied to by a man whom he had chosen to trust for 30 years with one of his most valued treasures.
And now the wild ride is complete, and we all feel a little wobbly as we adjust to solid ground.
His whole life, he just wanted to be loved. And I think, on the balance, that he was.
I hope that Saint Peter has a sense of humor, and that the piety standards aren’t quite as high as the Church of God folks would have us believe. I hope when Grandpa got up there, that he got to talking to someone so that he didn’t hear his name get called to be judged. And I hope that the maxim that God looks after babes and fools is true, and that he can find a place in His infinite mercy for a flawed man who wants to see his baby girl one more time.
But most of all, I hope he knows that he was loved, and that while the circus might not be quite as exciting as when he was the ringleader, that it will continue with his name on it.
“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
In the last 6 weeks on the road, I’ve made more than my fair share of friends. One friendship that I will truly treasure as highly as any will be with Man from Hoi An.
A university student, studying of all things, Banking and Finance, Man was our tour guide with Hoi An Kids, a group which puts Western tourists with local university students to develop student’s English and foster a positive tourism experience within Vietnam.
Man took us to a local island where we got to see and participate in a variety of traditional local activities, from rice noodle making, boat making, mat weaving and an understanding of a local family temple.
After spending 5 hours sweating and smiling along with us, Man suggested hitting up a bahn mi spot in Hoi An, which to my delighted surprise was once visited by Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUMlwNHNXp0
The sandwich really was a symphony on a baguette, with beef, chili, fresh cucumber, fried egg, chili sauce and a host of other lightly pickled vegetables that almost made me cry knowing I’d probably never have another again. He dropped us into another local coffee shop where we talked about the economics of his family’s farm and his ambitions after finishing university.
I asked him if he had any suggestions on how best to get up to Hill 55, a place where my Uncle Denis had fought during the Vietnam War.
Normally, I would’ve been a touch nervous about bringing the war up, but Vietnam is a place that is largely at peace with its past. One of the youngest populations in the world, Vietnam doesn’t bother with the problem of trying to explain away its history. The Vietnamese ethos is firmly in the present, with a solid lean forward.
There is something to be learned from that, both as a nation and as an individual.
Man said that he’d be more than happy to take me up to Hill 55, and that he’d see me bright and early in the morning. 8 AM rolled around and he was at the gate, smiling as I choked through a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee.
We took off on his moped, to go grab one for me. We pulled into an alley off the main drag, (ironically only a few doors down from Cafe 43, where we’ve been taking our cooking classes) and he smiled and said, ‘There’s yours.” I jumped on my bike and away we went, about 20 miles outside of Hoi An to the site.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with Vietnamese traffic, let me tell you, this was an adventure. I’m pretty well fearless where motor vehicles are concerned (thank you again Uncle Andrew) but this was just insane.
Imagine an Indianapolis 500 with 200 cars in the field, except with mopeds, cars, touring buses, and bikes. All vehicles go approximately the same speed, no two horns sound alike (though all are constantly being used) and no one has a rear view mirror.
The only rule is to not kill another driver.
I still have yet to see a stop sign since we left Hanoi, and I’ve only seen a handful of stop lights, all of which were treated as flippant suggestions more than the law. There is no such thing as a Vietnamese traffic cop, other than the guy with a scoop shovel who cleans up the inevitable accidents.
I was excited, but my ass still hurts from the constant clenching as I weaved in and out of mopeds carrying families, 16 foot long PVC pipes, 5 100 lb bags of rice, and a massive pile of rice sheaves reminiscent of a certain Monet series. http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/64818
Then there were the middle of the road cattle drives.
But we got there, and that’s what’s important.
Once we got there, Man showed me the still flattened remnants of the old American Marine Bases, while showing me the panoramic geography of the area. Even to a total military novice like myself, it was very obvious to see the military value of such a hill, which is why it has been fought over between the Vietnamese and their various foreign invaders for the past 1100 years.
To those fans of military history, this was the base of Carlos Hathcock, widely considered one of the greatest snipers in history.
Once we got to the top of the hill, Man and I talked about his thoughts on the wars. We talked about the long history of Vietnamese occupation. His reverence for “Uncle Ho” was obvious, but so too was his understanding that the past does not dictate the present.
Only in the past 39 years has Vietnam been a country allowed to operate on its own.
I want to be clear that I’m not about to embark on an American apology tour, a la President Obama 2008. Nor am I about to engage in re-fighting a war which cost both sides entirely too many fathers, brothers and sons.
There is a lesson to be learned from all things if one is willing to stop trying to justify the actions taken, and look at a situation holistically. Too often, we constantly try to paint history to put ourselves in a better light, at the cost of real growth.
The Vietnam War was an absolute tragedy. Americans have for 40 years tried their hardest to ignore it, and in doing so we have failed to learn the lessons it offered.
In 12 years of school, I never once was taught anything about the Vietnam War aside from the fact that it happened. A war that cost nearly 60,000 American lives wasn’t considered important enough to teach to our students from 1993-2005.
That is absolutely criminal. Having lived half of my life in a world shaped by the post 9/11 wars, I find it absolutely asinine that we aren’t teaching our students about a war that so brutally divided a country we still haven’t completely healed.
How can we ask the next generation of leaders to be better than the last if they aren’t expected to consider the historical situations that got us to where we are today?
The lessons offered by the Vietnam War were paid for with the blood of 58,220 men. It is a callous offense to their memories if we don’t learn from it.
Since landing in this country, I have tried to educate myself on the ins and outs of Vietnamese history. Desire for self governance remains the prevailing theme regardless of what I write.
An excerpt of this unanswered letter, from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman in 1946 was particularly powerful to me.
“These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates (sic) as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.
What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”
As Man and I stood on that hillside, opposing heirs to a legacy of bloodshed, he looked at me and said.
“I do not hate America, I don’t understand why they fought my people, but that is in the past. The duplicitous Chinese are the enemy of the future, and Vietnam must stand with America against them.”
As we spoke, there has been diplomatic saber rattling about China’s encroachment upon Vietnam’s maritime rights. I hope that America lives up to its once sterling reputation as “guardians and champions of world justice.”
For all of our diplomatic blunders, we are still the preeminent guarantors of freedom against those nations which would look to subjugate their neighbors.
I hope that we realize the responsibility of that preeminence. The world depends on it.
We laid to rest my 96 year old great grandmother last week. I was asked to give a eulogy, which to try to encapsulate 96 vibrant years in a few tear soaked minutes, is never easy to do. I always feel like we owe it to someone who has made an investment in us, whether with their time or love, to show them the returns on that investment. I hope that my eulogy fit that bill.
Much of this is lifted from previous letters to my grandmother. After funerals, I never thought that it was polite to articulate your heartfelt vision of who a person was when they were not around to hear it. As Nana had been the oldest person I’d known for over half of my life, she got her prospective eulogy twice, as I never wanted her to leave this earth without knowing what she meant to me.
I’m sure that frequently eulogies of 96-year-old women tell of sweet old women, who loved their families and had a few hobbies that bordered on passion. This will not be one of those.
My grandmother was a genuine character, not a living prop. She lived and died in order that she could shape the story, because the force of her personality would allow nothing less.
Nana was born in 1919 here in Indianapolis to a pair of Swedish immigrants. Her father came across to live with distant relatives when he was a mere 15 years old. After his arrival, he worked as a hotel bellboy, a mere teenager trying to find his role in the American dream. At 96, we sometimes forget that Nana was the bridge between immigrants who showed up in the belly of steamers, with only the benefit of scraps of printed documents about the land that they would soon call home.
Marrying another recent arrival from Sweden, Charlie moved to Indianapolis and built himself an empire the only way he knew how, with the sweat from his brow. One of the pictures displayed tonight was of my grandmother and her sister dressed in feed sack dresses sewn from the products of their father’s feed store. Nana talked occasionally of the family poultry business, and the rush around Thanksgiving and Christmas time as if it were a completely different world.
That immigrant dream flourished, and was subsequently built on by future generations. She assisted both her father and brother in the building of a family business whose revenues masked those humble beginnings.
Nana did not lead a fairy tale life, she lived a Jane Austen novel. She got married young, to an alcoholic who eventually became emotionally abusive. Unlike most women of certain means in those times, she did not let it define her. She extricated herself from a bad situation, demanding more from life than any possibility those circumstances would allow.
Hers was a stoic treatment of death. She was a widow for almost 30 years, she was predeceased by her near Irish twin sister and baby brother. She lost her beloved stepdaughter and two of her nephews. In her last month, she stoically looked at death as a known entity, with a quiet dignity and grace rarely seen.
She remained single for many years, choosing a life defined by something other than motherhood.
I never asked whether she was actually looking when she met my great-grandfather DB. He was a man who had lost his wife after a brutal run of tuberculosis to raise his young daughter alone, only to date another woman for several years who died tragically. He said himself that he was very close to suicide in those dark days after it seemed that life constantly conspired to deny him the women that he loved.
Then there was Nana, and DB was transformed from a man on the brink to the loving companion that Nana had yet to find. He became the loving grandfather known by his grandchildren who sit amongst us. She transformed a nearly broken man into the love of her life.
And it was a love to aspire to. Looking back through her carefully folded letters, I found this note that she sent from the Imperial Hotel in Japan back home in Anderson to DB, in 1977.
Tomorrow is our anniversary, and I am really enjoying the very thoughtful anniversary present you gave me. The years we have had mean so much to me and you are very dear to me, my sweet. Love, Helen.
This was a woman that saw in her future happiness, and relentlessly pursued it, even if it took her 40 years to find it. The rocky road that lead her into my life was the right one, and it was traveled with intention and the courage never settle.
My grandmother shaped stories.
She married into the Moorman/Burnett family as a grandmother. On her wedding day, her dowry was my 5-year-old father and his near Irish twin sister Melinda. Over subsequent years there would be Andrew and Suzanne, and suddenly a woman who had never been a mother became a de facto matriarch of a growing family.
She helped shape, from what can in its most polite terms, utter chaos, into a family where she could transmit her own noble values.
There was no DB by time my memories began, he was a pictured memory who gave in his final bequest, the greatest asset he had. A man whose reality to me is only the ink on a photo and the stories of my elders, gave me the thing he loved the most, and told me to call her Nana.
Very few people get 30 quality years with their great-grandmother, so in that respect I am very blessed. We are all very blessed, and she would want herself included in the counting, that she was given 96 years of health that allowed the contents of her mind to be a gift to us all.
Even though my family moved several hours south, nearly every trip back to Madison County that wasn’t in the winter months included a trip to Nana’s house.
For all her means, she lived in a modest two-bedroom condo when I was growing up. That small space, in my youth, was a castle full of worldly adventures.
I can remember her returning from trips all around the world. South Africa, Egypt, Sweden, Japan, and Russia were just a few that I remember. Her trips inevitably resulted in the procurement of some treasures. Whether papyrus paintings from Egypt, or Russian nesting dolls kept in her marble entry cabinet. The sheepskin from her relative’s farm that she would throw over me with such love as we watched a documentary about a railroad she’d recently travelled, or a Japanese book made of incredibly fragile rice paper, full of markings that neither of us understood.
When I was small, I was always most excited to go to the pool where she swam almost daily until the age of 80. As I grew older, it was the ability to talk to a walking history
She travelled more than anyone I had ever met, and she transmitted in me a love of the world. There were endless stories over oatmeal at her table about the culture of this place or the things that they eat in that. More than any person in my life, she fostered a constant longing to know those things through your own eyes. Her sense of responsibility remains etched on that heart, as does the fluttering circuit of the heart when stepping onto a jetway bound for a faraway place.
She let me see the world through her eyes; eyes that had seen both the throne room of upper class society and the poverty of countless nations. She gave me her own generous spirit, best articulated by the Jansen maxim of: “Those who can help must.” My inheritance from her was bequeathed not through the happenstance of genetics, but the intentional imprinting of her ideals upon an impressionable young boy through the oft neglected methods of love and time spent.
My grandmother shaped MY story.
She ended her time on this earth in the digital age, but hers was a world of the physical. Typewriters and postcards, film and leather bound photo albums, newspapers firmly creased and books on the shelf. Looking through her carefully categorized letters, I could see a life lived and shared intentionally, so unlike the Snapchat generation that I call my own.
Thumbing through 7 decades of passports, I could feel the inevitable chill that goes through any traveler’s spine while standing at Russian customs in the 70s, “Will I be allowed in?” The ink from those stamps yet another physical reminder of a feeling experienced. .
She travelled in a well-appointed fashion, but she traveled many places that were not “on the standard tour.”
My grandmother lived intentionally, right down to her penciled wishes for this service. She was the tall Swedish line that separated the Moorman’s from allowing decades of dysfunction to define following generations.
She leaves this world without hereditary issue, but she shaped a family in her own dignified way into a legacy.
I do not share my grandmother’s eyes or her smile and most certainly not her height, but she gave me her heart, and that I believe, is a legacy worth having.
I think she would agree, because the heart is what shapes the story.
Throughout the Conquest, I’ve written some blog posts in some pretty unique places. From hostels to airports, sleeper buses to open air riverside cafes, I’ve gotten the chance to interact with quite a large cross-section of life.
Today I’m writing from a high school cafeteria on a Sunday morning, but the smile on my face is at least equivalent to when I wrote from a bar overlooking the gorgeous Bali Barrels two years ago.
The high school is Bryan High in Omaha, NE. Named for the populist figure who seemed to pop up week after week in my post-Civil War US History Class, William Jennings Bryan, I’d like to think that that friend of the farmer would be proud of why we are here. Last week, Rubicon Agriculture delivered our first AgroBox, an L3 Unit (Living Learning Lab.)
Eight months ago, I jumped in the Impala and drove the 9.5 hours from my side of the Great Plains to nearly the other, in the hopes of convincing the administrators of Bryan High that Rubicon could build the STEAM education tool of their dreams. Armed with nothing but a rendering and my own tenuous dreams, I was met at the door by a tiny raspy voiced woman and her 13 year old daughter.
Toba Cohen-Dunning has had a career committed to serving others, both during her time in DC to coming back to run the Omaha Public Schools Foundation, the charitable wing committed to enriching the lives of the students of Omaha. Having heard that I’d be coming out, she pulled her daughter out of school for the day so that she could hear about the AgroBox project. The excitement in her eyes was in no way obscured by her glasses, and poor Eleanor had no equal for her mother’s enthusiasm.
She then took me in to meet Mary Miller and Principal Robert Aranda. I have since talked to them just about as much as my own girlfriend trying to coordinate the funds, logistics and delivery of this AgroBox.
Principal Aranda is, unequivocally, a rare breed. One of 6 kids, he was an Mexican Army brat who grew up in a town of 1500 people in New Mexico. As he speaks of his hometown, he talks of the changing paths of the Rio Grande through history, and how this moving border was used to separate “the Mexicans” from the others. Even in a town this small, where everyone had some mix of Indian, Spanish, and resulting Mexican blood, he talked about the way that some made racial distinctions of “proper Spanish” from the mixed blood of those “other Mexicans.” Hearing his stories reminded me of the history of Bolivar and Latin American independence, and the way that race was used always as a means of separating neighbor from neighbor even in the universal dream of freedom.
He went to New Mexico State for education, and after he completed his degree, he took the unique path of teaching on an Indian reservation for his first two years. Hearing him talk about it nearly 25 years later, you can still hear the passion in his voice for his students, and the sadness for those whose paths were limited by the expectations of family instead of the limitless dreams of most. An outsider separated little by blood but leagues by upbringing, there is still pain in his voice for those high achieving students that were pulled out of “Anglo” school to be trained in the traditional ways. There was no moral judgement about this path or that, merely a frustration with students not being allowed to choose their own destinies.
Fast forwarding the subsequent years, Aranda was given his current principal position at 6:30 AM on a school day. Anyone who has ever worked in a school setting knows that this is the educational equivalent of being asked to jump on a grenade. As he took over, Bryan was beset with gangs, low test scores, and that most corrosive of all conditions, indifference.
Aranda never learned the meaning of indifference. Beneath his shiny bald scalp is the brain of a man who has found his vocation, and pursues it with a near limitless zeal. He speaks with true pride about the fact that there has not been gang-related graffiti on his school in years. He talks about the achievements of individual students, the ones who could have easily fallen onto a path of drugs, hopelessness and crime. He talks about his wrestlers, kids who he considered to be real problem children, being the politest you’ll ever meet when he brought them into his home before meets, all because someone cared.
Having been around town a bit with Aranda, he is looked at as a genial mayor emeritus. At the restaurant where we got lunch, he joked with the girl behind the counter about “Now where do you go to school?” She playfully glared at him before saying, “Mr. Aranda, you know that.” He jerked his head towards me and said, “Do you know who this guy is?” She obviously didn’t, and then he said, “This is Chris, and he brought the AgroBox.”
Over the past year, Jesse, Erik, Pat and myself have given countless hours, weekends and more than an insignificant portion of our sanity and hair to making the AgroBox a reality. In the moment when her brown eyes flashed with excitement, it all became worth it.
Aranda gives the greatest gift that an educator ever can, that of self-determination and the knowledge to accomplish it. I hope that his students realize the gift they’ve been given by a man who could have just as easily packed it in.
Jesse, Erik and I went to a school where enthusiasm of any kind was in short supply. Built in the shadow of a 70s energy crisis, BNL was a grim, near-windowless place, and the attitudes of the students and educators largely matched the decor. Education as we knew it was not about ideals and dreams, it was about begrudging endurance. The teachers saw a population of students that declined year over year both economically and emotionally. Rust Belt economics were an undeniable reality, and as parents lost good paying jobs at GM and Ford for those with little room for advancement at Wal-Mart and Lowes, the spirit of their children mirrored their own suffocating realities.
As time dragged on, more and more of our teachers saw themselves as porters shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. This sad fact meant that hope was in short supply, and education without hope is merely an exercise in futility.
Education is supposed to be about the attainment of dreams. We do not learn calculus because we suppose that someday we will be forced to figure the shaded area under a curved tent, we learn it because it allows us to know that a methodical approach to a problem, regardless of complexity, has steps that allow it to be solved. We don’t learn about the Gettysburg Address to memorize a date, but to understand that the rhetoric of great men and women can soothe the horrors of war, can free entire populations to pursue their dreams, and to know that the scars of battle echo throughout the lives of those who participated, as well as those who never saw the field.
Education is about opportunity, empowerment and actualization, not test scores. As Aranda rubbed his eyes with the frustration of a system which tells him that a data-only look at Bryan puts it in the lower ranks of schools, I told him that Jesse looked longingly around at Bryan and said, “I wish we could’ve gone to a school this good.” I laughed and said that the world thinks that BNL was a better high school than this. He looked at me with the incredulity of a man whose ears have betrayed reality.
In terms of that all important scoreboard of education, standardized test scores, BNL is quantitatively “better” than Bryan. In the qualitative reality of those who have actually stepped foot into a school instead of judging on the basis of an Excel spreadsheet, there is no comparison.
I envy those students at Bryan having a team of educators that shows up every day ready to prepare students for the challenges of tomorrow. I just hope that our AgroBox can be a useful tool in that worthy endeavor.
And no matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed. -As Days Go By
We’ve covered a lot of ground here at the Conquest. From alcoholism to child rearing, the ennui of returning home from an eye-opening trip to crushing systemic poverty in South Africa. We’ve talked about Vietnamese cooking and the death of loved ones, Argentinian wines, and Bobby Knight.
My first post while traveling was an essay about the classic movie Casablanca. In it, the protagonist Rick, flies off the handlebars as his piano man Sam plays a song that he hates. That song, As Time Goes By, is the basis for this particular essay.
Last night, I watched an emaciated Bill Clinton take the stage on behalf of his wife at the Democratic National Convention. (This is not meant to be a political essay at all. I’m well aware that there is no such thing as a civil debate in politics at the moment, and I don’t intend to engender a digital screaming match.)
As the nearly 70-year-old Clinton shuffled across the stage, I was shocked at his appearance. This was not the youthful governor running in 1992, this was an old man with a shock of white hair and only the faintest echoes of his famed charisma. The first part of his speech showed none of that charisma, but as he gained speed in his 40+ minutes, he finally found a little bit of that uniquely Clintonian charm and I found myself wishing for another time.
I have spent much of the past week in the hospital with my 96-year-old great grandmother, who is recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery. At 96, there are very few positive outcomes that result from invasive surgery, but she is recovering nicely, if a little out of sorts mentally, a condition that in her 96 years she has never had to struggle with. As I sat with her, trying to keep her entertained (a tough exercise for a woman who is legally blind and struggles with hearing) she seemed to retreat from the present, but talked with outstanding lucidity about her trips around the world with my grandfather and others. She walked about visiting Russia in the 70s, Spain during the reign of Franco, Thailand before it was at all Westernized, and the 35 other countries that she visited during her prodigious traveling career.
Watching a woman who has meant so much to me near the end of her life made me wish, as is I suppose only natural, for the 70-year-old woman I grew up with, the one who was planning the next trip, and going every morning to the pool at her condo complex. The one whose role as a matriarch in both her biological family as well as her family by marriage was never questioned. Sitting there beside her as she struggled to draw breath, as she confused me for my father, I would have given anything to have her back in the health to which she held so tightly to for over 9 decades.
Watching Bill Clinton on that stage, I wished for the same thing. I wished that America could rewind the past 3 decades, to the fall of our modern-Carthage, the Soviet Empire. Unfortunately, like so many other great nations before us, we fell victim to our own success and our own press clippings.
Having made ourselves the center of a unipolar world order, we squandered both our financial resources and our moral authority through an endless series of gaffes and infighting. After the tragic “Black Hawk Down” incident, we punted our role as the arbiter of justice in the face of a few lost American lives. A decade in a half into our “War on Terror” we have managed to make the world a less stable place through both our own hubris and a series of half-hearted “fixes.”
We lost our enemy without, and we created the enemy within. No longer was it us against the injustices of the world, it was us against them. And “they” lived next door.
We lost our conscience through a series of shortsighted political “wins.” In economics, both micro and macro, the uses of capital are either investment or consumption. Instead of investing the dividends of peace, we consumed them, one bureaucratic boondoggle after another. Our ruling class, so like the political class of Rome, fell to fighting amongst each other for the ears and votes of the citizenry, with no vision at all for a better tomorrow.
Reaction has taken the place of intellectual rigor in our political process. Anyone who thinks that issues such as civil rights, economics, and geopolitics can be distilled into 140 characters is certifiably insane in my own opinion. The age of constant mass media has created a citizenry more akin to Pavlov’s dog than the reasoned discussion of our forbearers. We have been trained in the age of instant reaction, to look not at the core of an incident or issue, but only the responses that it engenders. Vision is a large unchanging horizon; reaction, merely motion.
As my great-grandfather Ivan, a hardscrabble Depression era farmer who bought the first rubber tire wagon in Madison County, Indiana once told me, “The best thing about the good old days is that they are gone.” Coming from a man who grew up planting from a two-row horse driven corn planter to seeing the massive diesel planters and combines of the 21st century, he was correct.
We must not idealize the past, but strive for a future which marries progress and tradition. The 1950s are looked at as the pinnacle of the “American Dream.” This interpretation does not account for the fact that America’s economic prosperity was brought on by the enduring reality that we were the only major industrialized nation which had not seen our factories, fields, and citizens blown to bits in the Second World War. America had to be at work because we were the only nation able to do so.
We must not fall victim to the digital reactions of today, but recommit ourselves to actual vision of the individuals that we want to be, and the country that we want to live in. Looking at the two major candidates, I don’t want to live in the visions that either one espouses. Trump with his dystopian “law and order” themes, seeking to promote safety at a cost of liberty and the high-minded ideals of our founders. Hilary’s platform is a continuation of a corrupt and failing status quo.
I don’t want to be shackled to an unrealistic view of the past. I want to see a country that says sacrifice is necessary to achieve goals worth accomplishing. I want to see a country that says community, those neighbors who we live, work and play with, must be our primary focus if we are to tackle the issues of the day such as violence, poor public education, and a continuous erosion of economic opportunity.
The virtues taught across cultures, from Aesop to Confucius, Christ to Buddha, the gods of Rome to the philosophies of the enlightenment are as real as the nose on my face. Doing the right thing is not situational, nor is it constantly achievable, but the principles of hard work, humility, respect for fellow man are universal. It is only our intentional pursuit of those simple yet difficult principles that will ever produce the prosperity so often pined for.
Just as championship teams sometimes come back flat in the season following their triumph, so too has America. Without a unifying enemy without, we chose to fight one another over issues so comical as transgender bathroom rights while we have young men and women dying every day from violence and drugs in communities that have lost the ability to articulate and pursue a vision for a better tomorrow.
This is unacceptable. Full stop.
If we are to, in the words of Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again” it will be achieved by commitment to a goal, and that goal MUST be of a higher order than a political win. Game theory tells us that the optimal short term decision can eliminate the chance of an overall win. Like the little kid who plays checkers and tries valiantly to not lose any pieces, only to find himself in a dreaded double jump situation the next turn, we must look with a longer view than November if we are to truly achieve victory. The victories available are nearly countless, from reform of a student loan situation which effectively creates debt serfs, to an education system so obsessed with objective testing that we have lost the ability to impart in our students the ability to “think” about problems with options not marked A-D, to the distrust of communities towards the men and women asked to keep the peace. There is so much WINNING to be done, should we find it within ourselves to define a win as something greater than a snarky tweet.
Thinking about “As Time Goes By” I am brought back to the opening lines of that song:
This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension
These words are as true today as when Sam sang them back in 1942.
There is no need to be apprehensive about the future, so long as we collectively decide what that future should look like.
Here’s to starting a conversation that won’t end after 140 characters.
At the small Catholic school I attended from Grades 2-8, we had the same three teachers for grades 5-8. Year in and year out, Mrs. Fish taught English, Mrs. Kern taught Social Studies and Religion, and Mrs. McGill taught Science and Math. Mrs. Kern punched her ticket to heaven twice dealing with me for four years in subjects that I wanted to constantly argue. According to a radical catechist who ended up getting thrown out of the room by Mrs. Kern, I punched my ticket to Hell at least once.) Mrs. Fish, more than any other person in my life, made me the writer I am today, and deserves a gold star for patience at least. Mrs. McGill took enough stitches out of my ass that she got hers over four years, but I still learned plenty.
Mrs. Fish was a slightly reformed 55-year-old hippie by time she was asked to teach me. She’d grown up barefoot on a small farm in Iowa with an alcoholic father, and became a hippie in response. On her road in life, she became a phenomenal writing teacher as well as a devout Catholic. I remember vividly for some reason, that she went on a tear about ouija boards once, and how we should always stay away from such tools of the devil. I’d never heard of an ouija board before and immediately jumped onto our 28.8k dialup when I got home to figure out what she was talking about. Speaking to the dead sounded fun, but a 15 dollar piece of cardboard seemed like a questionable method of doing this at best.
After getting back from Seattle on July 4, I was still wired for west coast time, and I couldn’t sleep. I wandered over to my bookcase and found Season on the Brink, a famous book by John Feinstein about the 1985/86 IU men’s basketball team. Actually, it was a book all about Bobby Knight, told through the lens of one season in the locker room. In local Bedford lore, this was the book that put Damon Bailey into the national spotlight as an eighth-grade guard at Shawswick.
In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In the very religious town of Bedford, there is the Holy Quadrarchy, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Damon Bailey. His 1990 state championship game still stands as the most people to ever watch a high school basketball game. His 3,134 career points still stand as the one untouchable record in Indiana high school basketball. Every day of my high school career, I walked past the shrine to Damon nestled between the two gyms at BNL. As much as I would’ve given to be a great basketball player, I’ve often sympathized for Damon. No one should be asked to be a god at the age of 13. In my interactions with him, he deserves much praise for dealing with it with poise and grace.
Bobby Knight was a tyrant in the Roman sense of the word. His word was absolute law in Bloomington, and in that respect, he had no equal. A line in the book makes reference to this, when speaking about the Athletic Director at IU (nominally Knight’s boss) and how grateful he was that Bobby allowed him to keep his job for as long as he did.
Coach Knight was coming off a disappointing season, dramatically capped with his infamous chair toss during Purdue’s Steve Reid’s free throws. Feinstein somehow finagled unparalleled access to Knight in his element, the basketball court, and talked at length about the complex man that had so much success on the hardwood.
As I opened that book and read voraciously, I started thinking about the date. Two years ago, as I was sitting in Koh Lanta between Muay Thai sessions, I got an email from Dad saying to call home. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were, Mary Jane died last night.
Mary Jane was my great-aunt equivalent, wife of Uncle Bill, who may or may not be living a second life in Buenos Aires. Skinny as a rail with a voice that would cut through galvanized tin, she was my paternal grandmother’s best friend since grade school. The Moormans were Purdue people through and through, but Mary Jane was a Bobby Knight disciple to the max. I was looked at as an apostate growing up in the hometown of Damon being a Purdue fan, and it hardened my heart greatly towards IU. It was really the only method of survival.
Mary Jane and my grandmother were the quintessential “Hoosiers” in the sense that they lived and breathed college basketball. I don’t know if Meemaw’s husband Dr. Fred was what brought her over to the rabidity of Indiana’s state religion, but by time I could remember, she could talk about the deficiencies of a 2-3 Zone or the magic of a motion offense with any of them. Mary Jane would actually take her phone off the hook during IU games. Her family was far enough away that there was nothing she could do about an impending death that couldn’t be dealt with AFTER IU was finished.
As I read through Season on the Brink, I found myself laughing out loud about Bobby’s tactics. Today, Bobby would’ve been locked up for his near constant mind games (or verbal abuse) of his players. He believed in doing things the right way, and he graduated something like 95% of his players while at IU. His temper was matched only by his acts of kindness, and Feinstein has many examples of Bobby reaching out to the less fortunate and giving them VIP treatment at IU games. This was the Indiana equivalent of Thor inviting you to an all access tour of Valhalla.
Bobby believed in loyalty over all else, those who were loyal to him or the IU basketball program were given the opportunity to ask anything of the General. Those perceived as disloyal however, were treated as enemies to be crushed at all costs. Former players who made cameos in the book talked about how they did absolutely nothing right for 4 years playing for Bobby, but were immediately elevated to sainthood upon graduation.
Reading the book, I found myself wondering if this was Mary Jane, calling back from the hereafter, letting me know that she was still thinking about me. To pick up that particular book on a shelf with hundreds on the second anniversary of her death seemed like more than coincidence to me. Given my disbelief in the ouija board, I felt like I had finally found how the dead speak to us. It isn’t the shaky hands of those looking to engage with the occult, it is the echos of lives lived and how we find them every day.
In the words of JK Rowling through her incomparable character Albus Dumbledore: “You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”
Pulling that book off of the shelf at a time when I needed discipline and vision more than anything else, I find her words to be true. Thank you Mary Jane, for leading me to that bookcase for exactly what I needed.
If I can give one piece of advice to my readers, remember those who came before you, and live your lives as a testament to their example.
Mary Jane Kay was just another one of the fine examples I was given in this life, and I’ll never watch a Purdue/IU game without envisioning her shrieking at the television with her “Dammit IU” doll getting tossed on the floor after a poor play.
Few things can bring a smile to my face when Purdue is losing, but at least I’ll always have that.
She stood at all of 5’1’’ at her peak, but her gravelly smoker’s voice could have stopped an elephant. By the time I met her, the lines on her face were so deep that you could’ve lost a dime, but this tiny Jewish dynamo from Watertown, SD seemed to emanate a power that couldn’t accurately be described. Old enough that she didn’t subscribe to the politically correct notion of “treat all students equally”, she unabashedly picked favorites. Favorites were picked on the basis of talent first, and personality second. Her second career as an admissions officer at Northwestern University demanded that she size up talent accurately and quickly, and she did it in every aspect of her life.
Her favorites became an incredibly accomplished bunch, becoming New York Times bestselling authors, lawyers arguing monumental cases in front of the Supreme Court, CEOs, professors and more. She had a wide net in a rich intellectual pond, and she relished her ability to pick the best.
Joan Miller was probably 65 years old when a scrawny, bespectacled 13-year-old boy sat down before her in the front row of University Hall. Over the next three weeks, she taught me more than I would learn in the next four years. By the time I left her formal tutelage, Mrs. Miller had given me the most valuable of all gifts, the confidence to compete with anyone.
She was a debate coach first, foremost and always. Policy debate was her passion, and she trained generations of Highland Park high schoolers in the arts of persuasion and public speaking for decades. Later in life, she taught gifted high school students from across the globe, and they sought her out by name, wanting to come meet the Cicero of the North Shore.
I was fresh out of a small town in Indiana, where I’d been the smart kid for as long as I could remember. Getting to Northwestern, with kids who had already scored perfect SAT scores at the age of 13, I was in a whole different league now. Adolescence is full of self-doubt, but suddenly I was overcome with the palpable fear that I’d managed to fool everyone to this point; including myself.
Being from a small town herself, Mrs. Miller knew exactly what it was to be a doubt filled outsider from nowhere sitting down to their first class in University Hall. She’d done it herself 47 years earlier.
I can’t remember how long it took her to latch on to me, a few days at most, but she taught me the most valuable lesson that any child can be taught: “It doesn’t matter where you came from, only what you accomplish today.” Sitting next to the sons and daughters of CEO’s, published authors and the like, I didn’t need to be told that I was the peasant in the bunch. Sitting in my only faded Abercrombie shirt, anyone with eyes could see that. By Wednesday of that first week, she made me understand that it didn’t matter.
She gave us a crash course in policy debate, but more importantly she taught us how to be orators, able to communicate any message. From signposts to crescendo to speeding and spreading, she taught us how to logically trap opponents into forced agreement by framing an argument with simple proofs. It was all about framing your argument in Teflon, making sure that detracting arguments wouldn’t stick.
I got back from the Conquest and as I drove from Chicago towards Bedford, I called Mrs. Miller to tell her I’d gotten home safely. For all of the horrible stereotypes about Jews, the ones about Jewish mothers being unparalleled worriers are completely true from my experience, and Mrs. Miller had adopted me as her goyim grandson long ago.
The phone rang as I waited for that familiar croak or Don’s singsong voice shouting “Joanie, it’s Chris Moorman” up the stairs. When a different voice picked up, I think I knew before he said it.
I got to the side of the interstate and bawled. To this day I’m still not sure how long I sat there mourning a woman who gave me my only irreplaceable talent, a confident voice. 2 years later I’m sitting at the keyboard crying just as hard.
I didn’t mean to turn that into a written eulogy, but sometimes the dead deserve their due.
Turns out that I told you that story so that you’d understand this one.
I waited up until 2AM on Thursday night, waiting for the Brexit results to come in. For those readers who know me well, staying up until 2AM for me requires wine, women, song and stimulants in great amounts. Or volatility.
The trader within me, like a catastrophic ex-girlfriend addiction, welled up to the point of bursting as the Brexit drew nearer. I would’ve given three toes off my left foot to have a real spec portfolio and platform last week. (The right foot being reserved for footy kicks obviously.) I read the news, watched the polls, and tried to figure out why every market had implied a 0% possibility of a Brexit. The polls appeared to be 50/50 but the world, both financial and media, was convinced that the establishment would win again, just like the Scottish Referendum in 2014.
And they were wrong.
Aside from my fanatic addiction to trading, I am also a student of history. Without getting too far into the weeds, I believe that in the modern era that history is on roughly an 80 year cycle starting with the wars of Spanish Succession (~1700).
1780, American and French Revolutions (Modern Conception of Representative Government)
1860- American Civil War/End of Chattel Slavery as an economic model in Western Societies
1940- Great Depression/WW2/Beginning of American Hegemony
I truly believe that we are on the precipice of the next great sea change in history. Just as the world was a fundamentally different place before the revolutionary period surrounding 1780, so too were the rules of engagement fundamentally different from the beginning to the end of the next 2 sea changes.
The Brexit is yet another signpost on the change that is coming. The postwar period in the Western World has been one of “peace at any cost.” I haven’t gotten the historiography up, but I am confident that you’d be hard pressed to find any 71 year period in European history with less bloodshed between the major powers.
This has all been accomplished through a consistent tightening of bonds between the major (and now minor) powers. Like a jerry rigged team building exercise, Europe has sought to tie a large rope around the herd. While this makes it tough to fight, it also makes it tough to get anywhere. The rope took the form of endless regulations, agreed to by appointed diplomats and administered by countless unelected bureaucrats. The rule of law acted as the large shield built by patchwork.
Going back to another era in European history, the Greek Phalanx was once the greatest fighting force ever seen. Its power was not that of nuclear weapons or superior firepower, it was in the uniformity of action among the men who filled its ranks. So long as everyone moved in lockstep, a gapless shield wall protected while a series of marching spears methodically marched down more freewheeling enemies.
Discipline was the secret sauce of the phalanx. The spears and shields used were no more advanced than the enemy, only the method of utilization. The phalanx depended on an implicit social contract however, and that was one of a mutually desired outcome. Shared goals are a great way to keep discipline; consequences and fear, much less so.
Peace was the shared goal of the EU for many decades. Peace was seen as the desirable byproduct of free trade, a mutually beneficial tightening of bonds. Familiarity breeds contempt however, and soon peace was seen as a given instead of a goal. The resulting philosophical shuffle from peace to “prosperity” has had many ramifications, from the sovereign debt crisis to the ever widening inclusion of new members on the margin.
Goals are hard enough to agree initially, but changing goals midstream means that formerly happy bedfellows can begin staring down very different motivations. The EU started out as an economic free trade zone, now it was starting to look like a federal government run by unelected bureaucrats.
Looking around the world, unelected bureaucrats running supranational organizations don’t work tremendously well (see FIFA, IOC, FIA, IMF, UN…) Technology might have made information more readily available, but the human brain does not follow Moore’s Law, and to try to rule across cultures, mores, and continents from 100k feet does not allow anyone to see what happens on the ground. Fiascos like the upcoming Brazilian Olympics (or better yet, the Greek Olympics that set the whole EU sovereign debt fiasco in motion) occur because the separation between noble ideals and workable plans become yawning chasms made invisible from the heights of the ivory tower. Leadership in these organizations find themselves find themselves in a gilded cage of “high minded ideals” yet their proclamations have real effects on real, breathing people.
My people. Not the sons and daughters of the 1% that I tried to fit in with so long ago at Northwestern, but the children of the working poor who grew up in those Lawrence County trailer parks, to whom the debate over minimum wage is more than an academic exercise in economic modeling. The children of meth addicts who came, dirty and underfed every August into my mother’s kindergarten classroom. To my high school friends, who left as green 18 year old kids, and returned glassy eyed veterans from a warzone that they should have never been asked to go to, looking for a pill or a needle or a bottle to take away the horrors of war. To the mothers of those same veterans, who intrinsically knew that her son was safer in Iraq than in the decaying small town where he was born.
In the words of Churchill, “Democracy is the worst government ever designed, except all the others.” While democracy has wrongly become framed a modern euphemism for “freedom”, as opposed to an inclusive yet neutral system for the allocation of governmental powers, the EU started to look like something different. The emergency monetary powers granted to the EU during the sovereign debt crisis became standard, and the mechanism for power allocation went further and further afield from classic representative democracy.
Democracy’s success is inexplicably intertwined with its trust in the people. All the people, not just those at the top. The woman looking in the mirror knows her struggles better than any technocrat in the capital ever will. If her vote displeases the bureaucratic establishment, then I challenge our rulers to come out of their ivory towers.
Because we’ve got a war going on down here. It is not a war of choice but of survival. It is a war against a never ending barrage of awful choices. This is not some political euphemism, like “the war on women” or a high school football coach telling his team to prepare for “48 mintues of war.” This is a real one, costing life and limb and opportunity, and the casualties stack up every day.
The EU referendum seemed like a low risk means of shoring up a mandate when David Cameron proposed it. Europe was on a path for more cohesiveness, not less, and Cameron calculated that he could ride that wave. Somewhere along the line however, he found that himself and his government pulled under by an unseen undertow.
Having made more than a few British friends during the Conquest, I found myself intrigued by their multiparty parliamentary democracy as opposed to the binary two party democracy of the US. It seemed to me that the views of individuals were better reflected by varying degrees of the UK political parties. Whereas the US is told to vote with whatever party better reflects 51% of their views, the UK had a variety of parties to choose from, from Conservative to Labour, UKIP to Green.
The British system engendered a belief in the voting population that 51% agreement should not be tolerated. Various parties aligned platforms that reflected much more of the views of the voter. When projecting this inherent belief against the technocracy ruling the EU, the population saw themselves being a party to a supranational system unlike their domestic one.
Once the Brexit passed, the blame began in earnest. Claims of xenophobia, isolationism and outright stupidity were leveled at the majority of Britons who voted in favor of leaving the EU.
Enter the lessons of Mrs. Miller.
Just as she taught me to frame an argument with simple, unassailable claims, so too did the Brexit debate seek to distill an immensely complex issue into a series of binary questions.
Britain will be fine in the long term. They are one of a few indispensable nations on earth, and whatever the short-term fallout from the Brexit, they will always find themselves with a seat at any table that matters. The specific economic and social arguments surrounding the Brexit are far less important than what they have accomplished in traditional English fashion.
When the scourge of Nazism seemed destined to overwhelm Europe, they were presented with a seemingly horrible offer from one of the greatest leaders in European history, Winston Churchill: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”
In a courageous act, Britain looked at a system of power allocation and said, “No thanks” in opposition to the entire global establishment. To write off a majority vote as “that of the stupid and uneducated” should bring about a whole different kind of debate about the state of public education if nothing else. Again, in the vein of framing an argument, I can almost hear Mrs. Miller asking a set of leading cross-examination questions, “Are you opposed to immigration? Do you consider yourself a racist? Would you ignore the advice of a medical professional in matters of health? Would you consider a doctor to be an expert? Does an intelligent person ignore the advice of experts?”
As Mrs. Miller taught us to debate, it was all academic so she could afford to leave out that most important lesson about framing.
Any art collector can tell you, frames are meant to be hung.
As we frame the political opposition in increasingly stark terms, I fear we are edging closer to hanging ourselves. Let’s think about framing things in a different way.