Thursday, January 23, 2020

How Our Presidents have Communicated

At the peak of the Populist Movement of which Isaac Werner and many of our ancestors were a part, the People's Party had succeeded in electing not only local candidates but also state and federal officials.  The People's Party was challenging the Republicans and Democrats for the votes of primarily working people, but also some professionals.  

In 1896, however, they took a strategic risk.  They decided to nominate as the People's Party presidential candidate the same man as the Democratic nominee--Wm Jennings Bryan, a 36 year old man from Nebraska.

Their strategy failed, and it split the People's Party.  But, during his campaign, Bryan used the trains to reach more potential voters than a presidential candidate ever had, traveling 18,000 miles between September 11th and November 1 to give 600 speeches to an estimated 5,000,000 people.

The American constitution stipulates that the president "shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."  We are now familiar with seeing the sitting president deliver the annual State of the Union Address on our televisions, but George Washington delivered his message to congress in the provincial capital of New York City on January 8, 1790, and his 'recommended measures judged necessary and expedient' were left to be conveyed to the public in newspapers and broadsheets..  

How communication has changed over the years!  Rutherford B. Hays was the first president to speak by telephone from the White House in 1877, but it was Abraham Lincoln who installed a line for his use in the War Department, used to communicate with state governors and generals.

Although Warren G. Harding was the first president to make a speech by radio, on June 14, 1922, his voice was first transmitted by telephone to a broadcasting station and from there broadcast over the radio.  Of course, the president we think of as a master of radio is Franklin Roosevelt, who reached out to Americans so effectively in a conversational manner during his regular "fireside chats."

The first televised address was given by Harry Truman on October 5, 1947, but Dwight Eisenhower was the first to use television regularly, particularly his use of television commercials in his 1952 campaign.

What Richard Nixon called "the most historic phone call ever made from the White House" on July 20, 1969, occurred when he spoke to the Apollo astronauts on the moon.  The call was set up in advance over a microwave link between Washington and Houston, then out via microwave link to the Deep Space Network, then over DSN stations with the moon in view via S-band.

Bill Clinton was the first president to use email, initially more of a test to show the president how emails were done.  President Clinton himself regards the first e-mail he sent as president to be the one he sent to astronaut John Glenn soon after he boarded the International Space Station.  About a year later, Clinton became the first president to participate in a Webchat hosted by Democratic Leadership Council and an internet company.

While Obama's 2008 presidential campaign used social media very effectively, the first tweet by President Barack Obama was on January 18, 2010 when he hit the "send" button for a tweet composed by an employee hosting the president and first lady on a tour of the Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

Great technological changes in communication have occurred over those decades.  Today, the faces
The Home of our Presidents
and voices of our presidents are familiar from their many appearances on television.

Donald Trump, our current president, is not the first president to tweet, but he is certainly the one to have made tweeting his trademark.  According to Bustle, an online magazine for American women, Trump tweeted 2,568 times during his first year as president.  An article in the New York Times documented the most tweets sent by Trump in one day, in mid-December of 2019, as 123 tweets.

I do not tweet and I have no account, but many people around the world do.  If fact, it was estimated as of September of 2019 that there were about 350 million global monthly active twitter users, with 100 million active daily, 20.5% of those being in the United States.

I cannot predict the methods future presidents may use to communicate to America's citizens.  I can only hope that the future of communication bears no likeness to the telescreens in George Orwell's classic novel, 1984.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Nature's Voice

In past blogs I have shared Isaac's Werner's connection with nature and ways our parents and grand parents and great grandparents predicted the weather by signs that became sayings.  In last week's blog I shared a book that urges the importance of children's exploration of nature.  To my surprise, it touched the emotions of many followers of this blog.  This week I will share some of the comments I received from readers, and some quotes that may surprise you.  The photographs I share in this blog are taken at our farm, beauty captured as I roamed the places I explored as a child.

Cottonwoods in the Pasture, Credit Lyn Fenwick 
Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you. --Frank Lloyd Wright, (1867-1959) American Architect, interior designer, writer & educator


A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by fathers, but borrowed from his children.  --John James Audubon, (1785-1851)American ornithologist & painter

Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.  --
Rabindranath Tagore, (1861-1941) polymath, musician, poet & artist

Cottonwood seeds on the Lawn, Credit Lyn Fenwick
To me, a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.  --Helen Keller, (1880-1968) American author, political activist & lecturer


And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.  --Khalil Gibran, (1883-1931) Writer, poet, and visual artist  


I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.  --Walt Whitman, (1819-1892) American poet, essayist & journalist


Stranger in the Driveway, Credit Lyn Fenwick
All my life through, the new sights of Nature made me rejoice like a child.  --Marie Curie, (18867-1934) Physicist & Chemist

Nature teaches more than she preaches.  There are no sermons in stones.  It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral.  --John Burroughs, (1837-1921) American naturalist & nature essayist

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.  --Albert Einstein, (1879-1955) Theroetical physicist

I'm about halfway through [Last Child in the Woods] but am ...taking my time to soak it all in...to pass those foundations down to [my daughter.]  C.L. blog reader, KS

Hedgeapple Shadows, Credit Lyn Fenwick
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.  --Rachel Carson, (1907-1964) American biologist, author, and conservationist

There is an outdoor classroom and an edible schoolyard at our daughter's childcare center, and I'm so grateful.  Simply no substitute for outdoor play and exploration.  A. O., blog reader in NE

The richness I achieve comes from nature, the source of my inspiration.  --Claude Monet, (1840-1926) French impressionist painter

Nature's Travelers, Credit Lyn Fenwick
Nature is just enough; but men and women must comprehend and accept her suggestions.  --Antoinette Brown Blackwell, (1825-1921) First woman to be ordained as a mainstream Protestant minister

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks.  Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.  Linda Hogan, (1959-    )  Television personality

Teaching children about the natural world should be seen as one of the most important events in their lives.  Thomas Berry, (1914-2009) Religious scholar & student of man's role in Earth history & evolution

We grew up in years & a place that this type of learning was a part of our normal childhood.  R.V.H, blog reader, NM

 The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.  Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be. ...And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.  Anne Frank, (1929-1945) Diarist
Prairie Gold, Credit Larry Fenwick

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.  There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.    Rachel Carson

As the saying goes, with my own edits, 'Why does the Lord give us trees, mountains and dirt?  So we can learn to climb...and have a place to land when we fall.'  NONE of us, ESPECIALLY the young, are climbing and falling enough.  R.G., Blog Reader in Texas

I must close this post sometime, so I will end the blog with two more e-mails I received from readers.

My dad always thought of a pasture or a grove of trees as a perfectly appropriate playground for us, and boy was I surprised to learn that other parents weren't letting their children experiment on plants or arming them with field guides and turning them loose to identify birds.  T.T. in NE

And the last...

Your recollections made me smile and think of the time we lived in St. John (from 3rd grade thru the 7th).  ...I've surely told you stories of living on the north west edge of town, a farmstead across the street with all the farm animals farms had in those days.  A mile and 1/2 catty corner NW across wheat fields was a grove of trees for day trips with a buddy or alone.  On the edge of the tree grove was the Rattle Snake Creek.  It had water in it in those days and nice holes deep enough to skinny dip in.  Good memories.  A. H. in KS

Thank you to everyone who shared their memories and experiences.

Remember, you can click on images to enlarge them.








Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Kids and Nature, (first titled Confessions of a Slow Reader)

I just finished a wonderful book titled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.  In fact, I loved it so much that I bought several copies of the book to gift to friends who have young children.  I recommend it very highly.

The Last Child in the Woods is about the importance of providing childhood experiences with nature.  Louv is not opposed to watching nature programs on television nor walks in parks with carefully mowed lawns, tidy flower beds, and playground equipment designed for safety.  However, he advocates for children's need to experience the untamed woods and prairies that fuel  and develop an unsanitized, curiosity-motivating, imagination-inspiring, unsupervised, relationship-developing opportunity for children to experience the natural world that is rapidly disappearing.  He advocates our responsibility to provide that opportunity. 

Louv argues in his 2006 book that in our desire to keep children safe, we have cocooned them from opportunities to experience the wonders of nature which are needed to create healthy children.  He points to such issues as childhood obesity, depression, and attention disorders as side effects from restricting exposure to interactions with nature.

Photo credit:  Shealah Craighead
Paul Harvey (1918-2009), a well-known radio pundit in the late 1900s, appeared in the city where we lived when we were fresh out of college, and I have never forgotten an analogy he used in his speech.  He said, 'you can't sweep the floor with a broom and expect not to have to sweep it again.'  Problems may be resolved, but they will not stay that way without ongoing efforts.  (Harvey received the Medal of Freedom in 2005, and the photograph at right shows that ceremony.)

Using Harvey's analogy, we can compare our efforts to build safe playgrounds and to protect children from the dangers of strangers and unsupervised explorations beyond the boundaries of home to aggressively sweeping away not only the bad but also the good things of childhood.  Richard Louv would suggest that we should learn to sweep more thoughtfully--realizing that our aggressive sweeping has also swept away the very things that fuel imagination, inventiveness, problem solving skills, working with others, unstructured active play, and other things important to children's healthy growth.

It is the nature of life that there will always be issues to resolve, misdeeds to confront, and lessons to learn, and we should never expect a perfect world.  But, if we discover that we may have swept the floor too clean, perhaps we should try a different broom.

Our own histories can often guide us in raising the next generation.  I, for one, certainly remember hours spent in the sand hill plum thickets, creating imaginary rooms in areas cleared of thickets by cattle or other animals.  I'm sure the sharp thorns in the thicket drew my blood many times, and my mother may have worried about the dangers of a thorn damaging an eye, or perhaps she worried about snakes, badgers, and ants sharing my playground. But, she didn't stop my fun, and I survived.  I wandered for miles bare foot on our sandy roads, and I disappeared into the fields and tree rows for hours without telling anyone where I was headed when I left the house--primarily because I had no idea where I was going.  I wandered and experienced the joy unanticipated discoveries.  Of course, the world has changed, and the dangers parents fear for their children today are real, but children still need the freedom to explore and imagine.  Louv reminds his readers of that.

Without the courage and curiosity of our ancestors, they would not have crossed oceans.  Without the imaginations and initiative of homesteaders like Isaac Werner to confront the unknown dangers of the prairie, the lives of their descendants would certainly have been different--assuming that those descendants would even have been born.

Richard Louv worries that if a generation of children mature without the unplanned discoveries of nature's beauties and wonders, not only will it be a great loss to those children but also a huge loss to nature itself when a generation without the childhood experiences of nature become decision-making adults.  Those of us in farming communities may not understand how nature-starved urban children can be, with buildings instead of trees casting shade, paved playgrounds and sidewalks offering no opportunity for making mud pies or feeling sand between their toes, with the beauty of stars bleached by constant lights and the explosion of colors as the sun sets blocked by a profile of roof tops.

After talking with a group of children, Louv asked them to describe their favorite place to play.  One little boy said, "in the house."  When Louv asked him why, the boy said, "because that's where all of the electric receptacles are."

It is certainly something to think about.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Look at the Stars

A fairy ring in our yard
Some time ago our nephew, who lives in a city, visited our farm with his family.  They had come for the day and had meant to get  home before dark, but they stepped out our door just at that magical time when the sky is a deep velvet blue but not completely dark.  The stars truly were like diamonds in that deep blue sky.  Yet, it was simply that time of evening when, if we bother to look up and the night isn't cloudy, anyone who lives in the country can see such a sky.

In a voice filled with awe, our nephew said, "Look at the stars."

A garden spider's web
The rest of his family looked up, and someone may have said, "Yes, pretty" as they hurried toward their car, anxious to be on their way.

I have never forgotten the wonder in his voice as he saw stars usually obliterated by the city lights where he lived.  He was young enough that those stars seemed like a miracle.  

Living in the country, after spending our adult lives in urban environments, we appreciate the magnificent sunsets and sunrises we see most days.  Recently we experienced the most incredible double rainbow that reached nearly to the ground at both ends.  It cast a spell on both of us that made us unable to walk away from something so very beautiful.

Cicada exuviae on an iris leaf
Imagine what our ancestors must have seen as settlers on the open prairie.  Isaac writes in his journal about watching an eclipse from a rooftop he was shingling.  He describes, almost poetically, the first tornado he watched, dipping down from the clouds and raising a cloud of dirt before pulling back into the cloud from which it had dropped.  He admits his dislike of walking at night during a lightning display, although in fair weather he walked under moonlight and starlight regularly.  

After living in large cities, we bought acreage when we moved to Texas, and we built a home miles from the city, but we could not enjoy the blue-velvet sky we now see at our farm.  Even in the deep of night the lights from the city and the businesses along the interstate had bleached the sky over our Texas country home, to say nothing of the constant rumbling of the trucks on the interstate several miles away.  One night I set the alarm to awaken in the middle of the night to watch the spectacular meteor shower predicted for our location.  I lay in our driveway and looked to the northeast where the meteors were said to be most prevalent, and I saw a few faint drifting dots during the half-hour or so I watched, but the urban lights faded nature's meteor display and, disappointed, I returned to bed.

A wing more delicate than leaded glass
The first entry every day that Isaac made in his journal was weather.  Most of his day was spent out-of-doors, and even indoors weather intruded with the cold winds of winter and the blistering heat of summer.  Yet, Isaac's journal contains few complaints about the weather, except for truly extreme temperatures.  Rather, he writes more about the pleasures of crooking frogs at evening and the return of song birds in spring.

For many of us, weather is something to hurry through on our way between an air-conditioned car and an air-conditioned building, or its opposite, rushing through winter's chill between our centrally heated houses and seat-warmed cars.  Like our nephew, suddenly seeing the stars that are always over his head but are obscured by city lights, all of us are guilty of ignoging the beauty nature offers us constantly, and we obliterate her offerings with lights, earphones, and indoor comforts and entertainments.  

Living at the farm has reawakened my notice of the small everyday things I have included in this blog--things that Isaac Werner cherished in his daily life--and I feel very lucky. 

Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yes, it is Special!

Christmas Day?
Last week I posted what I called "a special Christmas" blog, but one reader inquired on face book why I thought it was a special blog post for Christmas.  Here's my answer, and I consider it such an important Christmas reminder that I am keeping this week's post short to encourage readers to scroll down and read last week's post!

Christmas is a time when families often come together, young and old.  Because my father had inherited the family home built by his grandmother and his father, our home was the family gathering place, and I have wonderful memories of aunts, uncles, and cousins filling our home for the holidays.

How I wish that my memory contained all the family history shared during those holiday gatherings!  Last week's blog, which I hope you will scroll down to read if you missed it earlier, shares the importance of teaching young people their history--family and American.  I am fortunate that my mother chose a genealogy book with blank spaces to fill in family history as a shower gift for me when my husband and I married, and because of her unusual gift, I asked questions in order to fill in the spaces in that book.  (By the way, that was a wonderful gift for a young couple merging two families by their marriage.)  Yet, I wish my memory still contained all the family stories shared over the many holiday gatherings of my youth.

I suspect the picture above was taken on Christmas day when I was the little girl on the left and my cousin Anne was the taller girl with the hooded jacket.  The picture was taken in front of our farm house on an obviously cold day.  Anne's doll might have been a Christmas gift.  (The doll still had both shoes--and it seemed like doll shoes were often lost quickly.)  I appear to be holding something small that I cannot identify, and my guess is that we were told to select a favorite Christmas gift and to go outside to pose together.  Unfortunately, that is one of those family memories that I no longer remember. 

I hope all of you are having a wonderful winter holiday season, reminiscing and creating new memories!


Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Awareness of Our Past

Lest We Forget
Last week's post examined "What Makes America Great?" with the focus on our Constitution and the unique form of government our founding fathers created.  This week's post emphasizes the importance of the continuing need for Americans to know our history.  I have written in this blog just how difficult it is to interest young people in the importance of history, given their tendency to think that anything that happened a few years before they were born is ancient history and probably not worth knowing.

I just read a wonderful collection of speeches given at several universities by David McCullough in a book titled The American Spirit, Who We Are and What We Stand For.   One of those speeches, titled "Knowing Who We Are" given in 2005 speaks directly to the importance of knowing our past history.  McCullough writes:  "And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.  History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at almost any point...  Actions have consequences.  These observations all sound self-evident.  But they're not--and particularly to a young person trying to understand life."

Visiting Historic Sites
McCullough offers several suggestions for making history more accessible to students, starting with doing a better job of making sure our teachers know history so that they can tell the stories of history in a more exciting way than by sticking closely to the dullness of textbooks.  His further suggestions for improved teaching of history include improving textbooks so that they are not so dreary, avoiding content that reads as if done by committee, and expanding the teaching of history to young children when they have a particularly facile ability to learn.  Beyond the classroom, encouraging parents to take children to historic sites, and to share with their children history and biography books they particularly enjoyed.  McCullough also urges parents to talk with their children "about what it was like when they were growing up in the olden days.  Children, particularly young children, love this." 

The last suggestion I referenced above had a particular resonance with me.  Recently, my husband and I were having a wonderful dinner with friends.  The father began sharing an interesting memory about his grandmother's brave immigration to America just in time to escape the Russian Revolution.  His story was filled with details that held the interest of everyone at the table.

Sharing ancestral history, in this case, my father's grade school
When he had finished, my husband spoke directly to the man's college-age children, urging them to find a way to record these family conversations, and urging them not to  delay too long.  Holidays are a perfect time to spend an evening with family, listening to and recording these wonderful  stories.  My husband asked if they had heard the stories their father had just shared, and when they replied that they had not, he emphasized that if these family stories were neglected, once their father was gone, the stories would be lost forever.  "If you wait too late," he warned them, "you would no longer be able to ask your dad to repeat them, would you?"

"No," both young people admitted, but the man's son added, "But, I could look the Russian Revolution up on my phone," pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Learning how choices make a difference
I confess.  These are good friends, and we are fond of their kids, but his flippant reply annoyed me, and I blurted out, "That sounds exactly like the smart-aleck reply a young man would make."  I probably should not have been so outspoken, and while I tried to make it a bit of a joke, I meant it.

Fortunately, our friendship is close enough that my comment did not end the discussion with hurt feelings, and everyone recognized the difference between imagining an ancestor in a historical moment and reading online a summary about immigrants leaving Russia for America.  It also sunk home with the young man that had his great-grandmother waited too late to leave, his ancestral line would have been interrupted and he would almost certainly not have been born.  That was a real opportunity for our young friend to recognize, as McCullough said, "that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened" in history.

To emphasize how stories can bring history alive, McCullough references E. M. Forster's definition:  "If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story.  That's human.  That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story."  Historian Barbara Tuchman understood that the secret to teaching history is simple:  "Tell stories."

Sharing my own  stories with high school graduates
American history is filled with compelling stories--exciting, tragic, triumphant--but we tend to teach them sequentially, like marking off years on an empty calendar, with the stories reduced to dates.  The more that family history is shared in stories the better their children will place themselves within historic events, and the more that teachers bring history to life with stories and biographies the more interesting and memorable history can be.

Our own lives, like the life of my young friend whose great-grandmother fled Russia, were shaped by our family history.  Collectively, our nation's past shaped the America in which we now live. How can we truly understand and appreciate what those generations before us did to shape this nation and give us the freedoms we enjoy if we are ignorant of our past? And, how can we recognize our own responsibilities if we ignore that inheritance from them?  As McCullough says:  "...we should never take for granted...all the work of others who went before us.  And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude.  And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

Happy Holidays to all of you who have supported this blog.  Perhaps, if you gather with family during the holidays, you may find time to share family stories and create an awareness for the youngsters listening of their family's personal history and how the events and choices made by their ancestors brought them into existence.  As McCullough reminds us, nothing had to happen just the way it did.


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What makes America Great?

Some of you who follow this blog may not realize that I am a published author of two books, one published by a university press and the other published by a respected New York publisher.  This means that both books faced the scrutiny of scholars or other knowledgeable reviewers to examine my research and reasoning.  For one of my books I was recognized as the Georgia Author of the Year for Nonfiction during the time we lived in Atlanta.  Both books dealt with history and the American Constitution.

I mention this to explain my motivation to devote nearly a decade to researching and writing a book about the late 1800s from the perspective of a community in southcentral Kansas.  The community in which I grew up was part of a movement strong and successful enough to have created a third party that challenged the two old political parties.  The People's Party of the late 1800s, created largely by farmers, laborers, and small businessmen, was one of the most, if not the most, successful third party in America's history.  Many people living today have never heard of the People's Party, although their ancestors may have been a part of the Populist Movement. 

They believed ordinary Americans mattered, and they believed in our Constitution.  What they also believed was that education is essential if America is to work as the founding fathers intended.  They knew what the Constitution said and how it was meant to work.  Although the People's Party faded into history, their movement left behind many of their goals, assimilated by the two old parties and adopted into laws we accept today without recognizing their roots in the forgotten People's Party.

Antonin Scalia
In a past post, I shared the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) from a speech he gave in 2011.  Although he acknowledged that most Americans consider the Bill of Rights  the source of America's greatness, he disagreed.  "The real key to the distinctiveness of America is the structure of our government," he insisted.  In other words, the separation of powers--a President, a House of Representatives, and a Senate, each operating as a check on the others is the source of our greatness.  As Scalia said, we Americans should "Learn to love the separation of powers..."

The founding fathers did not want our government to be a smoothly operating machine where there was no debate, no conflicting perspectives.  The House of Representatives has members elected by voters from various districts within their states, a mix of urban, rural, conservative, liberal, multiracial, of different faiths, educations, and income levels.  The Senate has two members from each state and must consider the entire population of the states each represents.  While these Representatives and Senators serve the people who elected them, they are not compelled to ignore their own knowledge nor conscience, and they are entitled to benefit from their own experience and judgment in deciding matters that come before them.  What amazing wisdom the founding fathers showed in creating America's unique system, with the checks and balances necessary to represent such a diverse citizenry.

James Madison
James Madison said it well:  "The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department of the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachment of the others.  ...It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  ...In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

So long as the men and women we send to Washington remember their responsibilities under the constitution, America will be great, but when they forget their personal responsibility to serve as the check and balance on our system of government, the very foundation of the Constitution begins to crack.

In Isaac Werner's time, the common man had begun to believe that those they sent to Washington and their state capitals were answering only to the wealthy, and they formed a third party to remind their elected leadership of the corruption of power and the danger of serving only one segment of the population, or of forgetting the importance of each of the three parts of our system checking and balancing the other two.  Every generation needs to be aware of what truly makes America great and every generation needs to remind those they elect of the danger of forgetting that the abuse of power can eventually be cast back on them when they are no longer the ones in control.

The Populist Movement had its roots in Texas, but at the peak of the movement, Kansas was at its center.  Finding the Journal of Isaac Werner was an exciting discovery, and it was his Journal that enticed me to learn more about the Populist Movement.  My Civil War veteran great grandfather did not join the movement, but two other great grandfathers that lived in the community did participate.  Perhaps some of you who follow the blog also had family in Kansas during the late 1800s that may have been part of the Populist Movement.  I hope my blog acquaints you with a historic political movement that swept our state and in which your ancestor might have been a part.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Getting to Know Willa


Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
Last Monday evening was an Art Walk in Pratt, Kansas, and although it is primarily for artists, photographers, and crafts persons with things to sell, I was invited to share some of my work.  While I paint and draw for my personal enjoyment, and occasionally to do portraits for friends, I had a good reason to attend.

The centennial celebration of Willa Cather's My Antonia was last year, and for a special edition of the Willa Cather Review, Vol. 61, No.2 I did a series of six portraits of the main characters.  The original pastel portraits and a copy of the Journal are on the table in the photograph.

I am a stickler for illustrations that respect the text of the author.  If L. Frank Baum says that Dorothy wore a blue and white checked dress, that is what I expect the illustrators of the Wizard of Oz series of books to depict. 

So, naturally, before selecting which characters from My Antonia I wanted to portray, I read passages written by Willa Cather to learn how she had described them.  The portraits displayed on the table included cards with descriptive passages taken from Cather's novel that I used in deciding how to portray each of the six characters.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
I didn't have any art to sell, but instead, I sold Willa!  I shared how she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, how she grew up just a few miles from the Kansas border, what a wonderful place to visit Red Cloud, NE is with so many recognizable sites from Cather's novels and short stories, and how much in common her stories have with Kansas during that era.  

I recommended my favorites, in addition to My Antonia--O Pioneers! and One of Ours, as well as a favorite short story set in Kansas, The Sculptor's Funeral.  I had checked the Pratt Library shelves with the librarian, and I told visitors that there are several of Cather's books available at the library.  One young couple that stopped by were intrigued by what I shared, and he took a photo on his phone to help him remember Cather's name, while his wife pondered which of Cather's books to recommend for her book club.



Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
We are very fortunate in our region to have several local libraries that are wonderful, in addition to the recently remodeled Pratt Library.  Among those I visit are the libraries in Macksville, St. John, Stafford, Kinsley, and others a bit further from our home.

When I participate in the Art Walk and Plein Aire at the state fair, I always enjoy the children.  Because the Art Walk was in the evening, only a few children visited, but they were curious about the portraits.  One little boy was particularly proud of himself when he recognized that I was the woman in the drawing on the stand.

Thank you to the Library and other sites for hosting us, to those who organized the evening, and to those who came out on a calm but chilly winter's evening to support the Arts.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them,

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving & Family


Happy Thanksgiving






     Happy Thanksgiving from our home!




The family farm to which my husband and I have retired has hosted many Thanksgiving Dinners!  We are the fourth generation to call this farm home, and as a child I sat in the dining room pictured at right many times with my parents and brother Clark and a crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins, grandparents and friends.  This week's post honors all of them and the gatherings of family and friends of all of you who follow this blog.

Among my childhood memories are the days when the Saturday Evening Post came in the mail.  My family would await its arrival so that we could discuss Norman Rockwell's cover illustration--and like many families, we discussed every detail.  With hindsight, I believe my parents often used his paintings to teach my brother and me important life lessons.  Because so much of Thanksgiving is about family, I thought Rockwell's A Family Tree was the perfect cover to share.  

Among Rockwell's fans are astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who wrote "His insightful work--often filled with optimism and humor--accurately and affectionally shows America and Americans at their best."  Or, Arnold Palmer, "To so many of us, the paintings of Norman Rockwell told the story of everyday America as nobody else ever has."  And, Dick Clark: "...he immortalized the simple things in life that mean so much to all of us, as well as some of the major changes that are about to happen in our world."  Norman Rockwell said of himself, "I am a story teller."

The image below is part of one of Rockwell's "Four Freedoms."  I recently finished reading David McCullough's The American Spirit, Who We Are & What We Stand For.  It is a thin book of 15 addresses given by McCullough at graduations and other occasions.  On November 22, 2013, he spoke in Dallas, Texas at a ceremony honoring John F. Kennedy, in which he recited several passages from Kennedy's Inaugural Address.  One section he quoted seemed to go particularly well with the Rockwell painting, "A Family Tree," and the spirit of Thanksgiving illustrated as one of America's  "Four Freedoms".

Kennedy said:  "This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds.  It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened...The heart of the question is...whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!  My thanks to the many of you, those I know and those I have never met, who have followed my blog for so very many postings.  I am thankful for your support and the encouragement your comments have given me.

A part of one of Rockwell's 4 Freedoms




Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, The Closing of the Series


From The Pratt Tribune
The same week I began this series about the role of muckrakers and the important role they have played in print news, our local newspaper announced that it was going to a single paper each week.  I identified with J.S. who wrote:  "Wow, quite a change...when I worked there... we printed Monday-Saturday…"  

I grew up with our family getting The Pratt Tribune, (and some of you may recall my blog about finding an old copy of that newspaper inside the wall when we did our recent remodeling at the farm).  Back then, when we walked out to the mailbox, the news was only a day old.

The same week that my Battling Abuses series began, the CBS Sunday Morning show broadcast a special interview of Pete Hamill that included respect for his fellow reporter, Jimmy Breslin.  Breslin died in 2017, and Hamill has slowed down considerably from the days when the two of them were, as filmmaker Spike Lee described:  "Back in the day, I mean, you would buy the paper to see what Jimmy Breslin's saying.  You know, what Pete Hamill [says]…[T]hose guys were like superstars."

I have written in past blogs about the essential role of journalists for our democracy, and we cannot forget their importance.  Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of a Free Press, but too many of us fail to respect the absolute necessity of the role played by the press.

Ad from a local business in Isaac's time
On the CBS Sunday Morning show October 6, 2019, Hamill explained:  "The papers gave a sense of meaning.  It was a binding element.  You could see it on the subway.  You [reporters] were trying to help the new arrivals to understand the city, and the older people to understand the new arrivals."    Small town newspapers play that role as well, but not if most of the contents are canned stories written by strangers.

After my father died and my mother moved into town, she became a reporter.  She loved it.  Being a reporter gave her an excuse to attend community events and to get on the phone and call people for news about visitors or trips or achievements.  It may have been small town news, but it was consistent with the role Hamill played in a big city--binding the people who lived there to one another.


Times change.  The number of shops that lined Main Street in small towns and cities are no longer there, so far fewer local ads that supported local papers now exist.  Today people are warned to protect personal information, making them less willing to supply the stories that would once have appeared in the newspaper.  The internet has replaced chatty phone calls and handwritten letters, and now it is replacing small town newspapers.  Even large city newspapers are struggling.

Once there were both morning and evening editions for newspapers, but today we want our news as quickly as it happens.  "Hot off the press!" isn't fast enough, nor is Uncle Walter* on the evening news.  Now we have televisions and the internet with constant news reports, crawls across the bottom of the screen, and news fed to our phones.

Political Cartoon about a biased press
In earlier blogs I have emphasized the importance of professional standards for the news reporters we read and to whom we listen and watch.  For me, biased news is like reading fiction, or, at its worst, propaganda.  If we are to keep news reporters accurate, we need to take the time to find the original source at least occasionally to check it for ourselves.

We also need to stop watching/reading only those with whom we agree, especially if we catch them twisting the truth.  Like the old saying when computers were new, junk in--junk out.  I realize that it is easier for some of us to fact check than for those employed 8+ hours a day, those busy raising children and caring for elderly parents, or those otherwise involved in commitments that fill their days, but it is important that all of us to try to be accurately informed.  We need to be clear about the difference between those delivering Opinion Editorials, those intentionally slanting  or distorting information, and those abiding by professional standards for the delivery of news.

I will close with what I found most interesting in the interview of Pete Hamill.  He was asked, "Would you say you grew up poor?"

"Oh, we grew up poor, but not impoverished," Hamill said.

What's the difference, the interviewer asked.

"The library." 

Hamill continued, "I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for the lessons I learned in this place.  [the public library]"  Later, Hamill added an enlightening story about fellow reporter Jimmy Breslin.  "One day he needed to find something in his desk.  And he asked me to go to his desk, 'open the drawer and it'll be on the right-hand side.'  Lying in front of me is The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden."  Being literate was part of being an educated person in those times, even if you were a hard-nosed reporter like Breslin.
Recognize propaganda (from my old text book)

With our present day 'need for speed,' and consumer ratings, not only are newspapers dying, so is the habit of reading.  Authors and poets have time...time to reflect, to compose, to edit, to lay their work aside and look at it with fresh more critical eyes later, to seek the opinions of respected friends and others knowledgeable about the subject...time to perfect what they publish.  Even as newspaper reporters facing quick deadlines, Breslin and Hamill knew that it was important to make time for books and poetry.  It remains true today that to be informed and literate, our reading needs to be supplemented by more than the "breaking news" that scrolls across the bottom of our screen.  Magazines are struggling to find readers, and it is important to have access to their more reflective news that gets at least a few days or weeks of research and investigation before it is published.  Before print magazines go the way of newspapers, we need to subscribe to the ones we respect for more in depth news reporting.  

Recognize propaganda (from my old textbook)
The responsibility to be reflective rests with all of us-- to read history, to check the constitution, to read biographies and non-fiction related to the subject, to see what another channel on tv or commentator on the internet or newspaper reporter with more time to check facts has to say.  To be fooled requires two people--the one who seeks to fool and the one who falls for it!

The 'Abuses in the 1800s' that Isaac and his contemporaries faced were not entirely unlike our own examples.  Today's abuses may come at us faster and from more directions, but we also have more access to ways to check what is accurate.  We need muckrakers today as much or more than ever.



*For younger readers of the blog, Walter Cronkite delivered the evening news for CBS, and had a reputation for accurate reporting.

Remember, you can click on images to enlarge.     

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #7

There is an old saying:  "There are lies, and then there are damn lies."  Last week's post quoted Machiavelli, writing, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  If presented with artful deception, charts and graphs can also veil the facts.  Recently I found an interesting paper on the ways statistics and other information can be presented in such a way as to mislead, while remaining arguably accurate.  "Five Ways Writers Use Misleading Graphs to Manipulate You," Ryan McCready, September 11, 2018.  .

The graphs I am using in this blog come from Mr. McCready's paper, and I strongly recommend that you go to his site to explore his full paper.  So much information is presented to us in charts and graphs, and we need to be able to recognize when it has been presented in a intentional way to mislead.

The two bar graphs above present the same statistics, but can you see what has been done to manipulate your reaction to the numbers?  Which one gives you the more accurate impression of the information?  Notice where the bottom of the graph begins.  The one on the left begins at 50, and using that manipulation of the numbers, it appears to exaggerate the differences between Group A and the other two groups.  As Machiavelli would have said, 'the facts have been veiled.'

Again, the same statistics are presented in these two graphs, but notice the numbers on the left side on the charts.  The chart on the left goes from 0 to 40, producing a flatter climb, while the chart on the right goes from 0 to 15, creating an abrupt climb between 2019 to 2020.



This time the trickery appears at the bottom of the charts shown above.  The chart on the left shows monthly changes, while the chart on the right shows yearly changes.  If the text or title make clear what the chart represents, there might be no trickery, but if the user has cherry picked data only from the period that reinforces his argument, the data can mislead.



 Author Ryan McCready has included this chart to show that to convey accurate or easily read information, one type of chart may be better than another.  He suggests that bar graphs are better for showing differences between groups.  In the graph on the right, Team B stands out, while Team C lags behind both other teams.  Yet, if you look at the round graph on the left, the differences are less apparent.

McCready also points out that sometimes using different colors can confuse, especially if one color is commonly used to represent particular information.  Thanks to Ryan McCready's paper, examples of how abuses through the presentation of information may be as deceptive as words can be, in other words, examples of ways to 'lie without lying'.  (See 11- 6 -2019 blog below.)

Battling Abuses by the manner in which graphs present information may be more difficult for muckrakers to expose, but I hope this week's blog has made you more wary about accepting information contained in charts and graphs.  Next week the Series concludes, and if you have not been reading the full series, you may wish to scroll through earlier posts.    

Remember, you can click on the charts to enlarge them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #6

Muckraking is generally applied to searching out the truth about individuals and events, but can the importance of muckraking be applied to exposing the misuse of words?  In Isaac Werner's time people were hungry for education.  Farmers and businessmen spent evenings together reading Shakespeare.  Populist gatherings included study, and as scarce as cash was, they pooled resources to buy books.  Populists experimented with phonetic spelling to assist those who were illiterate or who did not speak English in being able to read.  School terms were short for farm children, but building a school in every community was a top priority, and the difficulty of student tests from the period show that despite the shortened school terms, children were expected to be scholars.  Knowledge and words mattered.

From my high school English text book
As a former high school English teacher and a writer, I have great interest in and respect for words.  I am not referring to grammar, although I also consider that very important.  Rather, I want to confine this post to the abuse of words, intentionally or negligently misused.

In my classroom I focused on words in several ways--developing vocabulary to enhance the ability to choose the right word to express a thought, choosing the right word grammatically, and understanding informal and formal word choices among others.  However, I also taught students how to recognize words being used to mislead.  In that sense, perhaps I was doing a bit of muckraking.

With my students, I often used television ads to illustrate how words can be manipulated to mislead, since my students were familiar with the ads they saw on tv.  A student once asked me whether I watched the programs or flipped channels to watch only ads, perplexed by my familiarity with so many  advertisements.  Even today I am guilty of correcting grammar, word choice, and pronunciation of people on the television, as if the speaker could hear me, when only my poor, suffering husband can.

Portrait of Niccoli Machiavelli
Sadly, perhaps no profession practices the art of using words to mislead and deflect more often than politicians.  An adviser to a former British Prime Minister claimed to have mastered the art of "lying without lying," confessing that he had a "talent for avoiding the truth without lying."  (BBC article by David Edmunds, 12-1-2015)  The article pointed out that politicians that want to get elected and re-elected are more likely to succeed by telling voters what they want to hear than by "confronting them with miserable realities."

Researcher Dan Ariely told CBS newsman Brian Montopoli that his research found that "Americans have a high tolerance for dishonesty when it comes from their own candidate."  In the August 3, 2012 interview, Ariely said, "Many voters have become so cynical that they really don't expect candidates to speak the verifiable truth, and they accept these exaggerations, these mild falsifications, as just part of the game."

You may have noticed that the articles I am citing are not current.  I do not intend this blog to be a comment on specific current politicians but rather an exploration of how words can be abused in marketing and politics to mislead us.  The practice isn't new.  Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  Distant past, recent past, or current comments, misleading and outright lying exist.  The BBC article from 2015 concluded, "modern politicians mislead every day of their lives [which] is directly 'connected to the fact that trust in politicians has been corroded over the last 40 years.'"  I fear that corrosion has not improved since then.

Portrait of Edmund Burke
News men and women may attempt to draw attention to falsehoods, but too often readers, listeners, and viewers simply go in search of a source more sympathetic to their point of view, rather than appreciating having been alerted to the falsehoods of someone they like.

Probably the closest thing we have to word muckrakers are our modern day fact checkers.  One has even taken that name for their site:  Factcheck.org .  They are a nonprofit website that describes themselves as a "consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in American politics."  Two other sources that might be considered muckrakers for words are Politifact and Snopes.com.  Snopes does not confine themselves to political fact checking but checks all sorts of rumors and myths.

Unfortunately, with the internet assisting, lies and half- truths can outrun fact checkers before the absolute truth that Teddy Roosevelt demanded can be determined.  As a consequence, the words of Edmund Burke from 1796 that "Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever..." may no longer be a social norm.  However, what is certainly true is Burke's conclusion:  "But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth."

The muckraking series continues next week.

   

 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #5

This post will share what brought me to the idea of exploring the history of muckraking and its current status.  You will probably be surprised to learn that it was a picture of a mural by British artist Jules Muck.

She describes herself as a Mural and Graffiti Painter, whose current work was inspired by meeting a mural artist whom Muck refers to as the "legendary" Lady Pink.  Their meeting resulted in an apprenticeship with Pink in New York, and Muck was inspired to paint on street walls.

Jule Muck's Larry Bird mural after tattoos removed
I learned about Jule Muck when I happened to see a mural she painted of former NBA player Larry Bird.  She had worked from a photograph taken when Bird was a young college player for Indiana, using it to paint an accurate portrait--EXCEPT, she had covered his exposed skin with tattoos.  Bird had no tattoos when he played college ball nor has he had any tattoos since.  When he saw her depiction of him, he asked her to remove the tattoos.

As an attorney, I was interested in the legality of a famous person's right to his own image.  Muck's comments about his request seemed to indicate that she didn't believe he could demand changes to her art, although she did remove all of the tattoos except the "Indiana" on Bird's arm.  Among the other tattoos that were removed were a large black spider's web on Bird's right shoulder and a pair of mating rabbits on his left arm.

Larry Bird was clear to state that he had nothing against tattoos.  Many of his friends have tattoos, as anyone who watches pro-basketball already knows, and that is fine with him.  However, he felt a depiction of him should not make it appear that he has tattoos that he has never had.

Their dispute caused me to wonder about her unusual last name.  Is it her actual surname or is it a name she chose to use as an artist?  Her website doesn't say.  The dictionary defines "muck" as "soft moist farmyard manure; slimy dirt or filth; and defamatory remarks or writings."  Looking at examples of her murals at her website, I noticed that her name is often a prominent part of  her work.
Investigative reporters often disliked being described as muckrakers, and I could not help but wonder whether Jules Muck chose her professional name or simply accepted the surname with which she was born.

But, back to Larry Bird and his request that she remove the offending tattoos...

We are living in a world where the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" doesn't always apply.  Recently a video appeared on the internet which had been altered to make it seem that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words drunkenly.  In fact, an authentic video had been altered to make a false impression.  In that case, no fancy technology was involved.  The culprit had simply reduced the speed of the video and tweaked the pitch of her voice in the slowed version.  People continued to post and watch it even after it had been debunked.

Perhaps even worse are examples of realistic face-swaps.  The technology works by using a computer program to find common points on two different faces, and if enough common points are used, the face of the victim can be "stitched" over the source to create a faked image capable of fooling viewers.  This has already been done to embarrass celebrities by face-swapping them into pornography.  Imagine the harm that could be done to politicians by their political enemies through face-swapping them to appear to be saying things or being places that were false.

Perhaps you have seen examples of using facial recognition for security purposes, in which a person's face is used to gain entry rather than using a key or a card that might be lost or stolen for someone else to enter secured areas.  This facial recognition works by mapping faces for 'landmark' points, like the corners of eyes and mouth, nostrils, and jaw line contour.

President Theodore Roosevelt
These technologies are rushing forward, spurred by positive uses but surely likely to be abused for reasons less acceptable.  How could most of us even begin to recognize such abuses?  If a mural could make us believe that a basketball player known for his positive character had tattoos of spiders and mating rabbits that he didn't have, what sort of muck is ahead to mislead us?

This technology, it seems to me, calls for a new generation of muckrakers to be our watchdogs against a world increasingly unable to recognize the truth amidst the fakery.  As President Roosevelt said, "There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them.  There should be relentless exposure of and attacks upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.  I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."