I’ve been teaching my World History I classes about the Middle Ages the past week or two, which led to a brief discussion on epithets. Y’know, those descriptors folks had back in the day instead of a family name, it seems? Eric the Red, or Charles the Bald, or Charles Martel (which means “the Hammer” and is my favorite)…everyone seemed to have one back in the day. Brandon the Bearded. Lothar the Dungstomper. Steve the Exceptionally Irritating.

So I came up with a short activity: the students had to think about five adjectives that could serve as their epithets, then pick one and explain why that’s the one that they think best describes them. I’m not sure how seriously they’re taking the assignment (or any assignment I give them; this is a tough freshman class, y’all), but it got me thinking about my own description. What epithet would they give me, if I were a king or other important personage? Would I be Charlie the Wise? Charlie the Educated? Or maybe Charlie the Amiable. Charlie the Anxious. Charlie the Storyteller. Charlie the Diabetic. Charlie the Hopeless with Maintaining Basic Routines (that one is maybe a little unwieldy for daily usage). Charlie the Inept.

Epithets were both boasts and pejoratives, an elevation of character and a verbal jab at weaknesses. And I’m not so sure of myself that I’d be certain my epithet would necessarily be a positive one. I’m sure everyone thinks about their legacy and how they’ll be remembered when they’re gone. I’m not unique in that respect (or, possibly, any other respect. But that could be the depression talking). How would those who knew me best remember me? How would my students or coworkers remember me? Or my readers? It’s a frustrating question to ask, because there’s no one right answer to it and no way for me to know before I’m gone. I hope – as do most people, I’m sure – that I’ve left a positive impression in my time on earth. Or any impression. Being forgotten seems more than a little sad to me.

What would your epithet be?

Confession Time

I was once a Republican.

Now, in my defense, it was 1998, I grew up in Oklahoma, and I was pretty naive and didn’t know much about anything outside of my small town life.

But yeah, for a single midterm election in 1998, I voted Republican.  It was during my first semester of college, and honestly voting in Oklahoma for anyone other than the Republicans on the federal level (or even the state level, most of the time) was an exercise in futility.

But I did it because I was, in that first semester in college, very much a Republican.

I remember the first time my college biology professor mentioned evolution in class.  I had a bit of a tantrum, demanding to know how evolution could work if God existed.  I don’t recall correctly, but the professor was far kinder to me than I deserved.  He didn’t taunt me or belittle my beliefs, though he may have heaved a laborious sigh (this probably wasn’t a common position to come across when you teach science in a small, church-affiliated private university in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas).  He said there was nothing in evolution that contradicted the notion of God or God creating everything.  I wasn’t 100% convinced, but I subsided.

And by the time I came home for Winter Break a couple of months later, I’d be basically unrecognizable as that naive young man.  I’m not saying Republicans are naive, just that I sure was.

I spent the next several years trying to tell myself and those around me that I was a left-leaning moderate, when the reality was that I was tipping so far to the left that I just about fell off that end of the spectrum.

I’m not saying education automatically makes everyone more liberal.  I know plenty of well-educated people who nonetheless remain conservative.  But it’s hard to go through several years of education in the social sciences and not come out of it thinking maybe the government needs to have some compassion for those outside the majority because, let’s face it, the government has spent centuries mistreating those in the minority.


tl; dr: College turned me liberal, and I’m super okay with that.

America’s Best Idea

One of my fondest memories is of the time I spent working in Yellowstone National Park one summer.  My brother and I worked in the dining hall at Mammoth Hot Springs, at the far northern end of the park up in Montana.  We were table bussers (though I eventually moved back into the kitchen as a prep cook), working four days a week on average.  On our days off, we’d take long, meandering hikes of 15-20 miles each with nothing but some trail mix, some Ritz Bits S’mores, and a couple of bottles of water in our fanny packs (that’s right, we had fanny packs.  They were effective, dangit).

I’d just graduated from college and had no idea what I’d be doing when I returned from my three months in the wilderness (spoiler alert: the answer was graduate school at the University of Oklahoma).  But honestly, I wasn’t all that concerned about it at the time, and not just because I was 22 and dumb as a box of rocks.  Yellowstone was and remains the home of a breathtaking variety of sights.  From the aforementioned hot springs to the geysers like Old Faithful, the towering Yellowstone Falls and the simple, placid beauty of Lake Yellowstone (we weren’t real original with the names, I’ll admit), and on to the mud volcanoes and south into the Grand Tetons, a mountain range so magnificent it got its own park.  My brother and I went on hikes where we knew we were the only humans who’d seen the end of that trail in years (the bear we encountered on one trail guaranteed we’d be the only people to set foot on that trail that particular summer).  Yellowstone remains my place of bliss, a location I can return to again and again in my mind to find peace in moments of chaos and anxiety.

And the current Republican-controlled Congress wants to basically give them away.

Now, I’m fine with states running some stuff.  There is the argument that smaller jurisdictions – states and local governments – are closer to their people than the federal government, and therefore can act more proactively and respond more effectively and flexibly to changing needs.  But the idea here – one that’s pushed by fossil fuel special interests – is that these federal lands have no inherent value in and of themselves and, therefore, the federal government doesn’t need to be holding onto millions of acres of federal land.  They should give or sell that land to the states to do with as they please.

Anyone who thinks Wyoming has the financial resources to manage all the national park land in that state, please raise your hand.  Now put your hands down, you liars.  There’s no way they could maintain their part of Yellowstone National Park at the level its been run and maintained by the federal government.  Wyoming just doesn’t have the cash.  They’d have to sell, I dunno, logging rights and drilling rights and mining rights and the like in the park to be able to afford it.  And that right there is the problem, and the Republican dream of selling off the parks piecemeal: it opens them up to exploitation.

The root of the problem is the belief that land has no value beyond the minerals or resources one can strip from it.  And that runs counter to the very concept of the national parks.  Men like Teddy Roosevelt saw the inherent value in preserving vast swaths of land just for the sake of the land itself.  Not everything has to be measured in monetary value.

rooseveltarchJust outside of Mammoth Hot Springs, at the northern entrance to the park in Gardiner, MT, there’s the Roosevelt Arch.  It’s a stone archway bearing an inscription: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”  Teddy himself went on to add, “Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved, as they were the only change being that these same wild creatures have been so carefully protected as to show a literally astonishing tameness. The creation and preservation of such a great national playground in the interests of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation; but above all a credit to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.”

old_faithfulAnd dammit, he was right.  “America’s Best Idea,” as the concept of the National Parks has come to be known, isn’t just a clever advertising slogan.  It’s a testament to the enduring idea of setting aside something natural and beautiful and perfect so that others may someday enjoy those things, too.  I want my niece and nephews to be able to visit the parks one day.  I want them to marvel as Old Faithful shoots steam and boiling hot water a hundred feet in the air.  I want them to giggle about the sulfurous stink of the hot springs.  I want to see them stand there, mouths hanging open, as a herd of bison amble along the road, completely ignoring the cars.  I want them to see wolves and elk and big horn sheep and everything else Yellowstone has to offer, and then I want them to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and hike through the river at Zion, and see the majestic peaks of the Tetons, and maybe – if any still exist – see the Glaciers at Glacier National Park.  And none of that will be possible if the federal government has sold off the Grand Canyon so that a state could sell uranium mining rights, or if the forests of Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado have been logged to the point that only stumps remain.

Of course, there is another distinct possibility: that the supervolcano under Yellowstone will wake up and erupt and kill us all.  It wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen in Trump’s America.

The Old Guitar

Let me tell you a story about a guitar.  It’s about more than a guitar, really, because most stories are about more than they seem on the surface.  I’ll probably go ahead and make the subtext really overtly-explicit text at the end, but let’s just jump into the story.

Back in late August 2010, my wife and I went to New York to visit her family.  It’s something we periodically do, taking time to see her grandfather and her aunts and uncles and cousins.  Her Uncle Joe had heard that I played guitar, and was excited to have someone to strum guitars with when we came up to visit.  I learned a couple of old ’60s and ’70s-era classic rock songs that I knew he liked so we’d have something to play.

After an hour or so of entertaining ourselves (and maybe the other people around us, though in my experience guitar playing at a gathering is usually mostly enjoyed by the folks holding the instruments), he tells me, “I got something down in the basement I want to show you.  I think you’ll really appreciate this.  Hang on a sec.”  He disappears into the house and returns a few minutes later with an old guitar case, battered and scratched but still serviceable.  “Open it up,” he said, a grin splitting his face.  I popped the latches on the case to reveal a Lake Placid Blue 1966 Fender Mustang.  Now, ’66 isn’t the most famous year for that instrument – the ’65s are probably the cream of the crop, the last year before Fender was bought out by CBS – but a ’66 is a pretty sweet instrument.  Sadly, it’s sat in the basement for decades, and the neck is so warped it’s unplayable.

It’s still beautiful, though.  All original.  With a little TLC, maybe a new neck at the worst, it’d be playable again.

And he gave it to me.  It was a remarkably kind gesture, and you could see the genuine joy and pleasure on his face.  He enjoyed giving that guitar to me almost as much as I enjoyed receiving it, I think.

I was right, though: the guitar wasn’t playable in that condition.  It needed a new neck, it needed some work on the electronics (it still needs a bit of work on the electronics and the switches, if I’m honest, but I haven’t found a good guitar tech to take care of it yet).  I got a new neck installed, and the guitar plays beautifully.  It was broken, but fixable.

And now we come to the subtext.  Well, maybe not subtext.  It’s more an analogy.  I’m about to get political (again), but it’s about something I care very deeply about: education.

I’m a big believer in public education.  I believe everyone has the right to a free and appropriate education.  That all children deserve equal access to the curriculum, regardless of disability or language barrier.  And so when I see people like Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, I get worried.  She’d gleefully dismantle our public education system and replace it with vouchers.  While it masquerades under the guise of “school choice,” what it really does is pull resources, students, and teachers from school systems that are already struggling, leaving the students and teachers who remain in the public school struggling more and more.  Folks like DeVos then point to those failing schools and say, “See?  I was right about public education!” even as they’re causing a lot of the problems.

There are other problems with the vouchers/school choice/charter schools paradigm that DeVos and her ilk champion.  It frequently creates a new system of segregation.  The charter schools, on the whole, don’t perform any better than the public schools.  And these private charter schools aren’t held to the same state standards and curriculum that public schools are.  Part of why folks DeVos like them so much is that you don’t have to teach things like evolution, or treat other religions and cultures with anything resembling fairness or open-mindedness.

Betsy DeVos thinks our public education system is broken.  And, as much as it hurts to say, she may be a little bit right about that.  The public system doesn’t serve everyone well.  It doesn’t do a great job of measuring student growth, or helping students do more than prepare to take big, dumb, standardized tests.  I’m all for accountability in school, but the standardized tests don’t really do it.

But is our system broken beyond repair?  Is it an unplayable guitar?  No.  It needs some work – maybe a new neck, maybe a little work on the electronics, a new set of strings – but you don’t throw the whole damn thing out just because part of it is broken.  You fix it!  The system isn’t perfect, but no system is.  It’s a damn-sight better than whatever nonsense Betsy DeVos wants to put in its place, I know that.

A History Lesson

Totally and completely unrelated to any current political platform being offered up by any major American political party, I offer up this brief history lesson.  As you may recall, my day job is teaching social studies, and historians (yes, I call myself a historian.  Yes, it’s pretentious as all get-out.  No, I’m not going to stop) like to think that, if folks bothered to actually listen to us once in a while and learn the lessons of the past, maybe we could stop repeating the dumb mistakes our great-great-great-great-grandparents made.  Or maybe we’d still make the same mistakes, but we’d make them with more interesting fashion choices or something, I don’t know.

Today, we’re going to talk about the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a set of laws so wrongheadedly-awful that they actually killed an entire major political party.

The United States in 1798 was in a weird situation.  Under President John Adams, the country had some major decisions to make about foreign and domestic policy.  Britain and France were having a bit of a to-do over in Europe, and the United States wanted to sell stuff to both of them but didn’t want to get dragged into the conflict.  To that end, President George Washington had made a statement of neutrality one of his last major acts as Commander-in-Chief.  Washington was no fool, of course: he knew the US wasn’t up for a major conflict so close on the heels of the Revolution.  Neutrality allowed the US to keep selling things to both countries without having to pick a side.

Adams and the Federalists would try to take things further, though.  Using their win in 1796 as some sort of mandate to draft policies of isolationism and anti-immigrant fear-mongering, the Federalists in Congress created a series of laws, the Alien Acts, that gave the president the power to deport immigrants for (essentially) whatever reason he wanted, prohibit new immigrants from entering the country, and make it vastly more difficult for immigrants to become naturalized citizens (the less-discussed Naturalization Act, as part of the laws collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts by most history textbooks, lengthened the time you had to be a legal resident of the nation from seven years to 14 years…two years longer than most immigrant worker visas lasted at the time).

The Sedition Act was even weirder.  It made it illegal for newspapers – or, well, anyone – to criticize the government in any way, punishable by jail time and fines and all sorts of lovely stuff.  All the sort of stuff you’d expect from a group that definitely thought it was doing the right thing, right?

Now, there are some ulterior motives behind laws.  The Alien Acts were designed to keep out “undesirables,” such as the Irish, who were not sending their best (to hear the Federalists tell of it).  It was surely no coincidence that the Federalists’ political rivals, the Democratic-Republicans, included more immigrants in their ranks.  Surely these laws were just spite aimed at weakening their opponents?  No political party in the United States would ever do that!

Anyway, turns out those laws were seriously unpopular.  Adams and the Federalists lost the election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson (with a little help from the only other major Federalist in the country other than John Adams, Mr. Alexander Hamilton), and the Federalists were basically a non-entity on the national level after that.  Hell, the next couple of decades saw nothing but Democratic-Republican candidates win the White House.  They didn’t call the 1810s the Era of Good Feelings because everyone liked how itchy their wool suits made them feel.  It wasn’t until the populist jackass Andrew Jackson took the office that another national political party, the Whigs,  would even emerge to challenge the Democratic-Republicans.  It didn’t help that Martin Van Buren was all mutton chops and no action, or that Jackson killing the Second Bank of the United States destroyed the only federal fiscal regulatory tool the government had and ended up precipitating the Panic of 1832 (the event that killed Van Buren’s presidency), but that’s all a story for another post.