Author Archives: marmietedwards

About marmietedwards

Discovering unexpected stories about people over-shadowed by events in American History. Former journalist and amateur Civil War historian since reading Carl Sandburg's Lincoln at 11. Compare past and present leadership. Through work with nonprofits for 25 years and travel, have enjoyed meeting people, seeing historic sites, and admired artwork in 46 states. Optimism runs through me.

The Warm Feeling of Kindness

Cute woman shoveling snow. Dreamtime.com

Much of the U.S. got hit this week with a mixture of slippery roads and multiple inches of snowfall. Here in Central Texas and points south, where a light dusting is expected maybe once a year (and it melts by dinnertime), we were shocked! Quickly followed by power outages, frozen pipes, water shortages, and NO water at all.

I was unprepared–no gloves, no bottled water in the frig, no meals not requiring the microwave or the stove–just whole wheat bread, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna. Oh, and the milk in the frig managed somehow to stay cold for breakfast the second morning. HEB’s Raisin, Nuts and Oats cereal sustained me as long as I had water and electricity for coffee.

I’d planned this week to write about a less personal topic, but what happened in response to four million Texans losing power warmed my heart, even if the temp hovered in the teens at night. Austin is thought of as the “liberal” center of a very large state, but recently it has felt like the center of a divided country. Political leaders have believed it to be in their own self-interest to keep the state deeply torn asunder. This has me worried. I understand people have different opinions, but do we need to get ugly about it?

Here the seeds of goodness were sewn before my son-in-law and his family left the country for work. He cut some sort of deal with his “brother by another mother” who lives a few doors down. He’s been here to check when my Internet went down and flip the circuit when I forgot and ran the Foreman Grill and the microwave together. Then the smoke alarm began to chirp as the battery lapsed, , , and then another one. Unlike me, he has no trouble reaching the alarms, being 6’4,” an inch above my son-in-law, no doubt a source of one-ups between them.

Happily I’ve found that goodness can be contagious or maybe its just being without power for five days! Better being together than to be a powerless island on your own. (Of course still in the midst of a Pandemic, masks were part of our attire).

Actually for me this crazy weather and power breakdown started a full week ago on Thursday afternoon. We were hopeful when power was restored later on Friday but sporadic on Saturday. Gone by Saturday night. From Sunday on until this Wednesday Natta. Water pipes froze and the faucets were empty from late Sunday until this Friday, yesterday, when barely a trickle came out. Orders were to boil even that tiny flow for safety. So Austinites were in a pickle–not everyone at once, but our neighborhood had more of the black-out and less of the “rolling blackout” we were promised.

But rather than being ugly about it, we got resourceful. While many of my neighbors were eager to help from the beginning, this weather brought out the best in us. The stove here is gas but activated by electricity, so neighbors bring in syncopation: chicken and rice, potato soup, an amazing elk meat stew. This last meal came from a woman who only knew me because I’d purchased two boxes of Girl Scout cookies from her daughter. She came by with a broom and a shovel. Oh, sweeping off the walk would be great, I told her. When she completed the walk, she cleared the driveway and swept the car. Then she recruited her sons to help her clear the walk and driveway of the 80-year-old couple next door. Energizer lady!

The helpful men in the neighborhood became their own A Team focused on the elderly here. Checking to see if anyone needed help, water, or food. They wrapped outdoor spickets to prevent them from leaking inside the walls or freezing the lines. Several of the men have their own job at home–warming babies less than a year old. I’ve kept track and knit individual baby blankets for each of them.

By Tuesday night when a PR friend I’d worked with on a project in 2019 invited me to stay with her family, I said tentatively, “yes.” Concerned about the roads, she said, “Don’t worry, my husband drives an F250.” Honestly, I didn’t know what that was untilI thought I saw a snowplow come down the street and turned into my drive. (But Austin doesn’t have any snowplows!) Certainly, no trouble in the snow or ice. She lives close enough to an essential water plant that her house is spared any outages.

I felt like I was abandoning the neighborhood, but earlier on Tuesday at 2 and 4 am, I woke up thinking I might never be warm again. I went upstairs to my grandson’s beds and swiped the thick Batman and Superman blankets. I swore I would leave if anyone invited me. I came back Thursday when the power was restored. Water followed on Friday afternoon.

Kindness Continues

I know this wasn’t just an exceptional neighborhood when I heard about other events around Texas. Just north of us in Leander, an HEB, the major grocery chain,had a run on bottled water, diapers, batteries, and nonperishables Friday, February 19. The lights went out when the checkout lines filled with carts 20 deep. The cashiers just waved the shoppers ahead when their registers went dark. The Houston Chronicle noted HEB’s generosity.

Another joyful story came from grocery delivery driver Chelsea Timmons. A week ago Sunday she figured she could make one more delivery in Austin, where the pay was slightly better than where he lived in Houston. She had trouble getting traction in the ice and snow to get up the driveway to finish her delivery.

Her Toyota Rav4 slid down the drive and got stuck in the flower garden as she prayed it would not run into the house. She called a tow truck and thought it would be there in an hour. Eventually the company said they would not be able to tow her that night. The couple, who’d ordered steaks for Valentine’s Day, invited Chelsea in while she waited for a tow. As it became obvious no truck would come, they invited her to stay. Thursday, five days later, she made her way back to Houston. But not before she baked them a bakery-window-ready coconut cake!

The circle continues. Hope we will hold onto the warm feelings that good deeds brought to Texans despite the frigid February temps. Warmer weather and the spring thaw doesn’t need to bring an end to thoughtful deeds!

100 Years: Standing on the Shoulders of Suffregettes

Vice President Kamala Harris

Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.” – Plato

Today’s woman may cringe when they think it took 51 years from the first Suffragette Convention in Cleveland in 1869 until women got the vote in 1920. Then it took another 100 years before women’s votes helped elect a female vice president—U.S. Senator and former California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris.

President Woodrow Wilson spoke to Congress on September 30, 1918: “We have made partners of women in the war. . . Shall we admit them to a partnership of suffering, sacrifice, and toil and not to a partnership of privilege, and right?” Eventually Congress voted affirmative.

Since then, women’s progress has moved at a snail’s pace. Some women believed they had achieved status hitched to their spouses. Others were brainwashed. In the 1970s, sociologist David Riesman surveyed women under 45, who had been or were currently married, and found that 80 percent believed “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” (Reisman, “Two Generations,” in The Woman in America.) Then the average salary for a female teacher was $4,680, while a man straight out of college could make $5,400.

The fact that there were housewives working to support their families did not register with the male politicians, business executives, editors, and scriptwriters who set the tone for public discussion. They were better paid, their wives worked at home, and “of course, it was better to have women at home.”

My first year at the newspaper in 1972, I did better than the teachers at $8,500/annually. I worked some 16-hour days but felt happy to have a job at a newspaper. That same year women protested women going into the workplace, fearing they were taking a job that belonged to a man. I did not see those women in Fort Wayne, but I am quite sure they were lurking. I was the only woman reporter in the newsroom.

           “Progress always involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”

  • Frederick Douglass

Maybe it is no surprise that the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in 1923, written to end legal distinctions between men and women in divorce, property, and employment. This was how the 1972 legislation read in its entirety:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the U.S. or any state on account of sex.”  –  Equal Rights Amendment

When the ERA passed Congress in 1972, it glided through the House 354-24, but 51 Members did not vote. The Senate tally was 84-8. Thirty of the required 38 states ratified it in the first year, but then the pace slowed considerably. Phyllis Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum, a ‘pro-family” socially conservative organization, organized specifically to defeat passage of the ERA. Schlafly’s STOP ERA stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges,” which might now be seen as White Privilege, but she linked the ERA to every liberal cause the Forum stood against.

Result: the ERA was not ratified I 1979, although the deadline was extended to 1982. But after Schlafly died in 2016 at 92, the Illinois Legislature, which was her home base, ratified it as the 37th state in 2018.

Albert Einstein might have had a saying for that:   “Failure is success in progress.”

Women have marched forward without the ERA.

Example: Vice President Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated to California from India to complete a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, where she met Kamala’s father, Donald Harris. He had come from Jamaica to Berkeley to study for a PhD in economics. While achieving doctorates, they took time from their studies to participate in the civil rights campaign and married in 1963. They encouraged their daughters to aim high, but they divorced in the 1970s.

Dr. Gopalan became well known as a biomedical scientist completing successful breast cancer research.  Her daughters went with her to Canada to continue her research at McGill University in Montreal. Kamala Harris returned to California after she completed high school. Her mother died of colon cancer in 2009 but had built strong shoulders for her daughters to stand.

 Abraham Lincoln, speaking 160-years before her inauguration in his 1864 State of the Union, addressed the future role of immigrants like Dr. Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris:

Immigrants are the principal replenishing streams which are appointed by Providence to repair the ravages of internal war and its wastes of national strength and health.”  – Abraham Lincoln

Since her swearing in, Vice President Harris has repeated her mother’s words: “You may be the first to do many things—don’t be the last.” A mantra for women to repeat until we have pulled up the next generation to lead.

Democracy-Busting Ghosts

Ghostbusters

I have “Ghostbusters” in my mind. This is a serious matter, but I don’t want to think these people are real. Can we absolve the nation of a scourge that has opened gaping wounds of misunderstanding, fear, animosity, disbelief, and selfishness?

I see the ghosts of 1860 floating above the U.S. House and Senate, as members refuse to admit to the damage 147 of them have inflicted against democracy by thinking they are advancing their own political ambitions. Or because they fear going against a failed leader just a few days before his replacement. His successor will be sworn in Wednesday above the very steps where a mob carried the Confederate banner along with the American flag. These invaders used the pole carrying the flag to batter down the door to the U.S. Capitol and seriously injure one officer and kill another. Reporters, who have been verbally bashed for four years as the source of “fake news,” were threatened with bodily harm. An Associated Press news team covering the Capitol had their camera smashed and escaped before experiencing a similar fate.

Now 25,000 National Guardsmen are camped out in and around the U.S. Capitol to insure there is no repeat of January 6 mob-rule there. As a nation we have experienced ongoing political disagreements. Americans upset over the decisions of the President or Congress have come to Washington many times in the past. Think about the WW I veterans who camped out on the Mall demanding their promised bonus pay during the early days of the Depression. But they did not batter down the doors of the Capitol, create mayhem inside, force Members of Congress to hide in the tunnels, or kill or maim Capitol Police Officers.

Beat the Drum for Discontent

This time the one who had beat the drum for discontent for four years had molded those fearful of the loss of blue-collar jobs and a changing world into a movement to take the nation backward—Make America Great Again. Red hats of the GOP right-wing flutter all over the Washington Mall and State Capitols where followers refuse to believe political decisions are tipping towards the Democrats, who want to boldly walk into the future to attempt to solve the nation’s problems.

What we have never had before is a leader elected as President who was willing to lie repeatedly to followers, whose critical thinking skills were relaxed by the words they wanted to hear. Lies repeated by such a leader can easily incite brain-washed followers to riot, as they did two weeks ago. The MAGA crowd that flocked to his speeches in 2020 became “true believers” during the first three years of his administration. Then in the fourth were trained to disbelieve the risk of COVID, shun mask-wearing and infect others at their events, including the President.

From “Fake News” to the “Big Lie”

Next he laid the groundwork for his biggest lie: “The only way I can lose this election is if the Democrats steal it from me.” And what was the chant outside and inside the Capitol on January 6? “Stop the Steal.” Then he planted the seeds of “fraud” and “evil” done by the opposition and repeated the lie over and over and over again, until it became unrefutable among the MAGA. Critically thinking people might consider whether he would say that if he were not afraid of losing.

The mob he called to Washington for the final counting of the Electoral College votes and confirmation of the 2020 Election Jan. 6, he then recruited to go up to the Capitol to attack the people who had denied him “another four years.” (He lied again telling them he would be going with them, of course he did not, being only the one who incites.)

306 to 232 – Final Tally

He conviently forgot that it is the American people’s votes who decide who will sit in the Oval Office in 2021, not the Congress. The final tally after all the millions of dollars and personal hours spent on recounting in PA, GA, MI, and WI resulted in the same final outcome. Joe Biden won, receiving 81,281,891 popular votes to Donld Trump’s 74,223,254 and the electoral votes were 306 for Biden to 232 for Trump. When Trump received 306 electoral votes in 2016, he called it a “landslide.” He doesn’t see the number that way now.

There will be no voting system that could satisfy people who fail to trust any organization other than MAGA, particularly if the system doesn’t consistently yield a win for their leader.

The Rolling Stones put it this way, “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” in politics or in life. John Adams in1800 felt he got a raw deal in his second term election against Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t attend Jefferson’s Inauguration, but he didn’t draw a mob to battle inside the Capitol. More recently, 200 years later, Gore and Bush came down to the “falling chads” in Florida that some argue to this day, but Gore, being the out-going Vice President, stood as did Vice President Pence, and gracefully and methodically certified Bush’s win without a temper tandrum. We work with what IS, not with what we’d like it to be.

The current President’s response to this election sets a bad precedent for Little Leaguers who REALLY want to win their games, same for high school football players, one of whom tackled a referee on the sidelines this year when he didn’t like a penalty called against him. We need to walk this back so we can begin to play the entire game fairly—down to the handshake at the end that is customary in baseball and was in politics, even when we lose.

America, its politicians, and its people have a huge job ahead, slowly beginning to look at each situation to establish fairness as a standard.  To begin to reestablish that facts DO exist and to work towards trust by listening to other views. Maybe it will take more than four years to unravel the mind-numbing double-think of the last four years, but we must start the process now.

If we can do that, we won’t need Ghostbusters. We’ll begin to whittle away at the ghosts of the past who are haunting our present and threatening our future.

Discovering Factories of Innovation

Vector illustration with a touch of 80’s style depicting COVID-19 concept and handmade grain effect. istock.

Discovering Factories of Invention

January 7, 2021. As a former Congressional staffer early in my career, I am particularly shocked by the invasion of the U.S. Capitol and loss of life we saw yesterday. In earlier blogs I have discussed the importance of finding “common ground” and treating each other with civility. This is a serious wound to our democracy that will take a concerted effort to repair. To move forward, I continue to address issues of importance to the nation. Here relying on science to help tame critical problems like Covid-19 here and around the globe.

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  Thanks to Thomas Edison’s initial electrical genius our neighborhoods and homes twinkled with electric red, green, blue and white bulbs for the holidays, providing a brief respite from the Pandemic. Putting the light bulb within financial reach of everyone was just one of Edison’s inventions. Over a lifetime he received 2,332 patents in 34 countries.

Drey Family Christmas Lights, NW Austin 2020 Photo by M. Edwards

Yet none of Edison’s 19th century inventions solved the puzzles we’re grappling with in the 21st century—a virus that has killed over 330,000 Americans, flooding ICUs and leaving millions with lasting heart, lung, and brain traumas growing out of COVID-19.

Menlo Park “Factory”

Can today’s researchers glean anything from Edison’s “Factory of Innovation”?  How does his body of work compare with modern scientific discovery? Having the mind of a genius aided his cause, but his wisdom also led him to assemble a group of well-trained, top-drawer scientists in Menlo Park, outside Newark, NJ. Edison realized he needed a village of scientists to be productive and prolific. Edison hired 25 young scientists from colleges and tech schools to carry out his experiments—several at a time. They toiled for “workmen’s wages,” but as one said: “The privilege which I had being with this great man for six years was the greatest inspiration of my life.” Others did privately complain about the 55-hour week, six-days-a-week that could expand into overnight stints when an experiment demanded it.

Many of those scientists, who Edison called “Muckers,” began at New Jersey’s Menlo Park or the West Orange lab complex and went on to continue working with him for great chunks of their lives. The cadre grew to 200, developing specialization along the way, working on batteries, the telegraph or phonograph, a prototype of an electric railway, the motion picture cylinder, and an electrographic vote recorder.

Their efforts took communication and entertainment to levels never anticipated. While Edison lived into the 20th century (1931), he was a man of a wired world. Heck, he made the wires possible that sped the 19th century far forward into the digital, wireless world we embody today. A new raft of scientists and inventive dreamers followed him to bridge the gap between.

Areas of Discovery 2020

The 21st century scientists are branching well beyond “wires” or define them more as “branches” on DNA trees and cultured viruses in laboratories filled with computerized test tubes and syringes and a raft of supplies unfamiliar to Edison. He built his initial 25 X 100 laboratory filled with every apparatus, including a 10-horsepower engine, and chemicals on every shelf for 19th century “scientific research.” He promised to produce a minor invention every ten days and a “big thing” every six months.

Such promises are nonsensical in today’s world of modern biological research, COVID-19 earnest push behind the 21st century work at biotech firms like AbCellera, Abbott, OxGene TESSA, Codex DNA, GIGAGen, 10X Genomics, and countless others. All those mentioned have been selected to be among the Top 10 Innovations of 2020, reported in The Scientist.

While my knowledge of their work can barely meet the task of describing it, I will rely on The Scientist, a publication “exploring life, inspiring innovation,” that selected esteemed judges, who determined the awaredees. As beings alive in this century, we should be aware of the achievements and the trials of these tireless workers.

Are these “factories of invention”?  Since necessity is the mother of invention, in 2020-21 the science of biology has become one essential tool to address the international concern with COVID-19. So rather than look to electricity and electronics, two areas of burgeoning success beginning in the 18th century, attention now turns to laboratory technologies.

Companies and laboratories focused on pharmaceuticals, genetics, and building the tools they need to discover COVID vaccines are the winners. Scientists, who focus their efforts on medicines and the lengthy search for cures, are on the front lines—some of them just as hidden from the public as the “muckers.” Here are a few winners among the Top 10 scientific discoveries in 2020 in core laboratory technologies: single-cell proteome (a system’s collection of protein) analyzer and a desktop gene synthesizer and Pandemic-focused products.

AbCellera Celium TM  The Scientist reported in late March this biotech firm hosted a call with 40 researchers to review the data they’d collected on potential antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. The company deciphered the genetic sequences encoding hundreds of antibodies that might treat COVID-19. They fed their results into Celium, a data visualization tool that intersects more than a million high-quality data points to those antibodies to reveal which ones might work best in a potential therapy. This process helped them focus on the LY-CoV555 antibody, which later entered into clinical trials as a potential treatment, according to Maia Smith, lead of data visualization at Celium, “I think that kind of says it all.”

Fernando Cortea, a protein engineer at Kodiak Sciences in Palo Alto, who partners with AbCellera to identify antibodies to treat retinal diseases, says the company’s package of microfluidics, single-cell analysis, and the data visualization tool “streamlines the process of antibody discovery in a user-friendly manner.”  One of the contest judges praised the “power of the Celium platform as being at the intersection of biology and AI to make new antibody discoveries at a blazing speed.”

Abbott ID NOW COVID-19 Test  For six years, Abbott has helped physicians detect influenza A and B. strep, respiratory syncyt virus (RSV) and more recently SARS-CoV-2, in less than 15 minutes. The toaster-sized device heats samples in an acidic solution that cracks open the viruses, exposing their RNA. This was one of the first tests accessible to the US public in the COVID crisis and its quick response “is critical to stopping viral spread,” according to Normal Moore, Abbott’s director of scientific affairs for infectious diseases. He explained “you’re most infectious early on—and we don’t have that result in that timely fashion, what does it help if a molecular test comes back two weeks later?” In January 2020, there were more than 23,000 ID NOW machines in use in the US, mainly in urgent care clinics and pharmacies. The ID NOW platform costs $4,500 and each COVID-19 test costs $40.

Contest Judge Charmion Cruickshank-Quinn, a scientist at Agilent Technologies, pointed to the ease of the throat or nasal tests using the mobile platform in the field at drive-thru testing locations.

BioLegend TotalSeq  TM Human Universal Cocktail v1.0  allows researchers to analyze blood samples from nearly 300 patients who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. “I actually know a lot of colleagues across the United States and Europe that have used this same panel to analyze their COVID cohorts. . .which means we’ll be able to combine all of our data and compare. And that’s incredible.”  It also builds an international online laboratory, expanding the size and speed of virus investigations and testing.

Judge Robert Meagher, Sandia National Laboratories, technical staff: “This is a really nice merging of next-gen sequencing as a digital readout for sequence barcodes and single-cell barcoding technology to enable single-cell quantitative proteomics (the entire set of proteins produced by an organism).”

Codex DNA BioXp TM 3250 System   released in August 2020 , following a 2014 platform for on-demand DNA assembly and amplification, allowing researchers to synthesize genes and genomes faster than ever before to accelerate the development of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments, according to Peter Duncan, director of produce management at Codex DNA. The equipment can be used on cancer cells or a variety of infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2.

Prior to this platform, researchers needed to send out samples to be processed, taking weeks or months. This system sequences up to 7,000 base pairs in length can be assembled in a matter of days with the push of a button. Mark Tornetta, Biologics Discovery at Tavotek Biotherapeutics told The Scientist: “All of these methods (that are on the run)on the BioXP save us time and cost to perform.”

Factories of Invention, where researchers work to answer our pressing needs, drawing together science talent and the latest tools to serve society—whether it’s the 18th century or the 21st. To learn more about the other outstanding innovations in 2021, check out the bottom URL below.

https://www.thoughtco.com/thomas-edison-muckers-4071190

Read for yourself about the other 2020 Top 10 Innovations:

https://www.the-scientist.com/features/2020-top-10-innovations-68176

Attitude of Gratitude

Flower Bouiquet Pngtree.com

Although 2020 may seem a time when the heavens plotted against each living soul on the earth, a little reflection will show we are not the only afflicted humans and stars still come out to light the year ahead.

“Joy, prayers and gratitude are the three attitudes that prepare us to live Christmas in an authentic way,” Pope Francis noted in 2017 in his traditional prayer of thanksgiving. Two years earlier, visiting New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he said:  “It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance. . .to grow in spiritual gratitude.”

You could say that was easy for him to say three years ago, but today 80 million people in 217 countries have been affected with the virus and 1.75 million around the globe have died, most of them alone without family. Here in the U.S. we’ve had 18.8 million cases and 330,000 deaths.

Yet a little light at the end of the tunnel is shining. While this crisis isn’t over, parts of the country are still in the middle of a vicious fight, but the approval of a vaccine gives hope that by spring or early summer enough Americans will be vaccinated against Covid to free us from its scourge. Plans are underway to open elementary classrooms by late Spring, giving parents more time to earn a living while teachers teach.

We’re getting accustomed to cooking our own food, trying new recipes, polishing our own nails, cutting our own hair, washing our own cars (or letting them be)—it’s a do-it-yourself world—as we maintain social distancing while serving human activities. Have you developed a new appreciation for the people who have served you throughout your day?

That’s gratitude and this year we shouldn’t wait until Thanksgiving to offer words of appreciation to those around us. Your words and generosity can encourage your family and friends and may lift-up those discouraged in the value of their work at this most enlightened time of year.  Waste not a moment in reaching out in earned praise, to share comfort, and joy in being alive—to fight another day!

A wise friend of mine shared words of gratitude with me that I try, and sometimes fail, to model:

“Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.”  Rumi

Stay tuned: – Thomas Edison’s Factory of Invention applied to 2021 next week.

Big Bend State of Mind

Grand sunset over desert, Big Bend National Park, southwest Texas. https://www.goodfreephotos.com

Get lost in the beauty of an unending horizon, either sunset or sunrise. Wild and wonderful and more than 100 miles from any transportation hub—so you will not be inundated with tourists. (Obviously during a Pandemic, this probably is not a concern, but isolation is increasing the park’s popularity.)

Now is a good time to find a solitary spot of beauty, right? And wild wilderness among 1200 square miles, featuring the soaring, forested Chisos Mountains (8,000 feet), the summer’s torrid desert is winter’s special treat, surrounded by the curvy Rio Grande that names the park. (Reservations are required if you become adventurous and are thinking about hijacking your holiday plans for a trip to Texas’s Southwest desert.)

Big Bend out of Santa Elena. https://goodfreephotos.com

What could be better than a long tromp in the woods? Not just anywhere but seemingly at the edge of the world where red canyons and soaring mountains meet. The Lost Mine Trail exists thanks to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, composed mainly of local Hispanic workers who toiled from 1933 to 1942 to cut that path and build the road up the side of the Chisos Mountains, which allowed the park to open in 1944, as World War II still raged in Europe. Big Bend officially opened a week after the Normandy Invasion—D-Day, June 6.

Today there is nothing like gazing at the stars in nature’s beauty to renew the spirit and to remind us that this, too, will pass. Do not know about you, but my spirit could use a bit of levitation about now. At Big Bend the natural beauty speaks of the continuity of life—cycle after cycle—lifting the mind to a higher plain.

Timeless nature can renew the soul–civilization has made it through this before. Well, maybe not exactly THIS, but plenty of struggles and mankind managed to wiggle out only to emerge again.

If the stars hold a fascination for you, this is the place to come. It is a paradise away from city lights. See the canopy of stars as you have never seen it before stretching out before you in all directions—from the valley floor to the top of Chisos, 8,000 feet closer to the sky!

Perhaps you are drawn to the flora and fauna of the desert and the mountains. Here the cycles of light and dark are perfect for these delicate marvels. Ocotillo (Oh-co-TEE-yo) captured my attention, featuring limestone-toned spikes 20 to 30 feet tall growing sharps where others feature flowers—nothing to capture your attention, except particularly in spring, red-orange, tubular flowers burst forth in late March or early April. Some refer to them as living rock cactus.

“Don’t Fence Me In”

The year Big Bend opened Gene Autry caught America’s attention with the tune, “Don’t Fence Me In,” which seemed to be the theme of the park early on and Texas forever. 1944 proved to be a productive year. A Harvard professor developed the first automatic digital computer, which would go through many, many renovations before it reduced to the 13-inch marvel on my desk. Oswald Avery isolated DNA and FDR began his fourth term as President. And the Rio Grand just kept on flowing and bending to the southwest, then the northwest, rolling on, providing continuity in 1944 as it does today, nearly 80 years later. The pictures tell the story. I will leave the link, so you can “visit” with your eyes if the multi-hour car trip is not in your Christmas schedule this year. Enjoy and rest your mind. 2021 will come quickly enough.

Notes:

nps.gov/bibe/learn/historyculture/tgttn.htm

nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/bibe/adhiob.htm

Universal Main Street: Under a Canopy of Stars

Nanjing Road, Shanghai. Extends from The Bund along Hangpu River to the Pearl Tower. Taken before 2020

We are not the only folks with a “Main Street.” Some people think of it as a place of commerce; others the center of community—libraries, coffee shops, courthouses, where you pay your taxes or utilities. For others it is where they congregate for prayer or purchase a goat, the most valuable item you will own. Your needs depend on where you live around the globe. But we all bleed the same, live under a canopy of stars, and are capable of contracting Covid-19 because it is 2020 and we are human beings.

You might be familiar with some of the better-known main streets in the world:

  • Nanjing Road, Shanghai, the #1 Chinese commerce district with 360 stores stretching to The Bund on the Huangpu River, facing the stunning Oriental Pearl Tower.
  • “The Main,” Boulevard Saint Laurent that bisects Montreal, linking affluent residential neighborhoods to the north and the garment district, Little Italy, and Vieus (Old) Montreal with its seaport.
  • Cat Street, Tokyo, Japan, joins two of the city’s most vibrant and artistic neighborhoods, Shibuya and Harajuku, drawing the city’s youthful and creative cultures and allowing pedestrians to avoid battling Tokyo traffic.
  • London’s Camden High Street draws people from every corner of the globe who come via underground Tube to its unique architecture, independent shops, and markets.
  • Las Ramblas in downtown Barcelona brings together three pedestrian-oriented streets for an eclectic mix of retail, kiosk sales, eateries, markets, exhibitions, museums, cultural institutions, and pubs.
  • Champs-Elysees in Paris, considered by some to be the most celebrated promenade in the world, is a 2.6-mile-wide boulevard lined with outdoor cafes, theaters, and boutiques that stretches from the Place de la Concorde to the Place Charles de Gaulle with the Arche de Triumph rises along this path. In 1610 Louis XIV had his architects draw up plans for the promenade to provide an impressive view from the Tuileries garden.

Many world travelers are missing this shopping season in far-flung places. Others may never travel beyond a 10-mile radius of the tin-roofed structure they call home. Dharavi, the slum on the edge of Mumbai, India, the setting for the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” houses 800,000 people in a single square mile. Flimsy structures are built cheek to jowl and vertically. The density is 10 X that of Manhattan. People there have a high risk of getting the Coronavirus. By 2030 at the current rate, there will be 1 billion people living in slums worldwide.

Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai, India, where 1 million people live. “Slumdog Millionaire” filmed here.

In late July 2020 health workers tested and found 110,000 people tested positive for the Covid-19. The infection rate in Dharavi went s high as 57 percent. Not unexpected in such a densely populated place with one latrine for every eight families, many of whom struggle for food and clean water. It is not uncommon for eight people to live in a tin-roof structure the size of a small American bedroom.

But as of December 12, 2020, the slum dwellers are surviving at a higher rate than people in the US who have soft beds, warm food, ample access to a shower, and a bathroom. Rather astounding. India, the country neck-and-neck with China for the highest population in the world, has a total of 9.88 million COVID-19 cases, while the US stands at the top of the world with 16.58 million cases. The nation embarked on a campaign to educate slum inhabitants about the disease and provide safety kits. This year, according to December 11 figures, India has a total of 143,389 people who have died of the disease. While in the US more than twice as many deaths have occurred: 305,362. Just under 10,000 more active cases are active in the US, compared with India with 37,762.  Worldwide 72.4 million people have contracted COVID-19 and 1.62 million people have died of the disease. There are 312,030 total cases now being treated.

Many of the shopping districts in Europe are home to nations still struggling to manage the disease. France ranks fifth worldwide; the United Kingdom ranks sixth and Spain ninth. America’s neighbors: Mexico at thirteenth, Canada at 47th. In Asia, which has had longer to wrangle the disease: Japan 46 and China 79. The first vaccines went out to England last week and will reach some American cities on Monday.

We hope the vaccine will be the beginning of the end, although it is expected to take at least three months to complete inoculations and people will be persuaded to take the vaccine to protect not just themselves, but their families, neighbors, and their communities—the Main Streets–that surround them.

 Writer Alice Walker shares a universal thought in 2020. “Though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, and because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going.” Existing until the next moment, we savor the moments we have. As this season of sharing and universal understanding circles the globe, may we find solace in the humanity we share with others, no matter where they reside on the globe. May we all take a moment to consider the critical impact the little decisions we make can have on others as we share Main Street.

Where’s Your Main Street?

Stowe, Vermont Christmas Village. Our family travels.com

I knew where Main Street was when I was eight. When the temperature dropped and darkness came around dinnertime, my heart beat faster. The biggest event of the year on Main Street in Huntington, Indiana, (population: around 16,000) would be soon.

On a crisp Saturday morning my younger brother and I bundled up in our snowsuits and gathered our next-door neighbors to race down to Main Street. We heard the merry strains of “Jingle Bells” wafting from loudspeakers tied to streetlights along the way.  The size of the crowd in front of Penny’s was perfect—room for us to fit in to have a good view of Santa Claus, but enough people standing around to make it cozy—a break against the wind. Penny’s being the last stop where Santa got out and threw candy to the crowd of eager youngsters.

This annual parade became ho-hum to parents familiar with Sheriff Jones, who dressed up in a red suit and a white beard to ride the sleigh each year. If he could have hung a “Vote Sheriff Jones May 4” banner across the front of the sleigh, he would have. Instead, he pitched tasty, peppermint candies wrapped with his holiday greeting, “Vote Sheriff Jones May 4.” We ignored his speechmaking but followed his advice to begin the season’s shopping.

 Our parents would haul us into Penny’s Department Store, where we stopped to see the whisp of gray smoke rise from the Lionel train circling a miniature Toy Town, dancing bears, and talking dolls—offering a lame resemblance to Macy’s windows, a half continent away. But we did not know any better then.

Decades later, red scarf and tan coat pulled tight against the wind, sans snowsuit, sans Sheriff Brown, I awaited the multi-story Snoopy floating down Fifth Avenue towards the Mother Ship, Macy’s on 34th Street. Followed by a two-story red sleigh and a realistic Santa with a bright red suit and a million-dollar smile, the parade satisfied. Evidence experiencing the frigid temperatures adds to the festivity came this year when the Pandemic removed the audience along the Macy’s Parade route and forced families to view online. Brought back fond memories, though it wasn’t the same.

Can you go home again?

We’ve all heard the phrase “You can’t go home again.” Main Street today may not be the same place we remembered when we wore snowsuits to attend outdoor Christmas parades as kids. The last time I walked a Main Street in Indiana was June 2003, when my daughter took me to Nick’s, the iconic campus pub in Bloomington. Her present to me: a visit to my college campus after she graduated from arch-rival Purdue, a couple hours away. Like all Main Streets, it changed over the years, but retained the essence of place for me.

When I thought about writing this blog, I ran across Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD’s, Main Street, How a City’s Heart Connects Us All. Her book offers the thoughts of a social psychiatrist with a heart for personal connection. Seeking this essential element of city geography led her to the Community Research Group at Columbia University and the New York Psychiatric Institute, where she worked for 26 years. To write about Main Street, she spent eleven years visiting the streets of 178 cities in the U.S and 14 foreign cities. She shares what she learned about what makes a city special, how they enrich and bring us together, and how they are now threatened in a myriad of ways. Her academic mission: to discern the contribution of Main Street to our collective mental health. I can only touch upon an example of a gathering place that was important enough for a community to fight to keep it. But the book also offers food for thought for those who love our cities and small towns and want to protect them.

Pandemic threatens Main Street favorites

 Even before the Pandemic, the cost of rent has threatened the future of many favorite eating, drinking, listening, and congregating places. Several months ago, a long-time Austin location for musicians to “play out,” Threadgill’s, closed its doors on Lamar Avenue. North of town, maybe too far off 6th Street, Threadgill’s’ location was no longer a determining factor, as every Austin music venue shuttered for a while as Covid-19 ended customers’ cozy proximity to the bar and their favorite musicians.

Dr. Fillilove had her own wake-up call to the change gentrification can make in a community. Her favorite restaurant and bar, the working class Coogan’s at Broadway and 169th Street, opened decades ago not far from the New York Psychiatric Institute, where she worked in a neighborhood that led the city in drug violence. She’s frequented the bar and restaurant since 1990 and remembers her feet crunching the vials of crack cocaine along the sidewalk on her way to work.

Restaurant owner Dave Coogan helped enrich the neighborhood by hosting events to build community with the 5K Blues, Salsa and Shamrock runs and the park event, Hike the Heights, and by hiring and training bartenders, runners, cooks, and waiters from the neighborhood.  Coogan’s held the promotion party for Bob Fullilove, when he became the first African American professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University. His photo joined those of other regulars that lined the walls.

Community saves Coogan’s

On January 10, 2018, three years after the author moved to a faculty position at The New School near 14th Street, she read in the newspaper that Coogan’s was to close. Dr. Fullilove joined 15,000 New Yorkers in signing a petition supporting the restaurant in its battle with landlord New York-Presbyterian Hospital that upped the lease way beyond Dave Coogan’s ability to pay. They had been in negotiations for three years but could not come to a settlement. Friends emailed friends and finally a neighbor tweeted out: “one of the true Washington Heights mainstays, and has embraced every wave of neighborhood changes. I love Coogan’s. My stomach hurts from this news.” Lin-Manual Miranda, Hamilton author and Broadway performer, also sent an SOS to his father, the New York politico. He and New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat met with the CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. They drew up a simple change in the lease that Dave Coogan could accept and he was back in business. He said he always knew the restaurant would be missed, but said, “the love that came out of this community was incredible.”

Weeks after his restaurant slipped the noose, Coogan visited a Hispanic elementary school in the Washington Heights neighborhood for pay back. He asked the students, “How many of you come from a small island surrounded by water? Raise your hands.” He knew most of the students were from Puerto Rico, and he raised his hand too. Coogan explained his family immigrated from Ireland, another island country. “My mother came when she was sixteen,” he told them. (Full disclosure: My grandmothers were second generation Irish immigrants, too.) He said the Puerto Ricans (likely Luis Maranda) saved the Irish and he was grateful.

Not every Main Street restaurant, bar or community gathering place will survive the Pandemic, but we need to back the ones we care about and nurture those who do. That is how it works on American Main Streets. As Dr. Fullilove explains: “Those making, retaining Main Street for us are one of the great centripetal forces holding our universe together.”

Keep posted: There is more to this story as we talk about famous Main Streets around the world. More in the coming weeks.

First Presidential Thanksgiving

Abraham Lincoln at his desk.

President Lincoln issued the first American Thanksgiving Proclamation for the “gracious gifts of the most high” who “has remembered us with mercy,” in 1863 before the last guns of the Civil War were ceased. He proposed the fourth Thursday in November for this celebration. (A century later, presidents would often move the date back to assist retailers, allowing more time for Christmas shopping).

As a child I remember dressing up in white aprons and Pilgrim hats to recreate the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 near Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, a matter of wishful thinking. My mother would read a story for children she’d written about that event for, based on the way the story had been told to her. We have gotten a more complete picture since.

More than a century and a half earlier, George Washington also proposed a Thanksgiving celebration in 1789 after Revolutionary warfare had ceased and the Treaty of Paris signed (1883).

But annual celebrations were inconsistent UNTIL President Lincoln declared a federal holiday and encouraged Americans to celebrate in unison: “It seemed for me fit and proper that it (Thanksgiving) should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the American people.” (Words written by Secretary of State William Seward) If it was good enough for Lincoln and the Americans who were coming out of the Civil War, so might it be for us today?

We often forget, or maybe never knew, that Lincoln used Secretary Seward’s words because he remained in his bed after contracting smallpox at the time of the Gettysburg Address in Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863. The nation then also experienced the threat of fatal disease.

“I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, at sea, and living abroad, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving . . .to heal the wounds of war and to restore as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to thee full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”

In 2020, one hundred and fifty-seven years later, we Americans find ourselves once again divided, not North-South, but politically so that in some places the division is within households, between spouses, neighbors, and friends who struggle to find common ground. For some this is not based on philosophy, or dogma, but on the parsing of “facts” that may or may not be. May we test the waters for one day and find what we HAVE in common.

This is America’s prayer for Thanksgiving to appreciate what we have accomplished together as a nation. To acknowledge the combined efforts of each and every one, for example, the newborns and students who give us hope for the future, mothers and fathers who have the honor and the responsibility to create the next generation, teachers who instill a love of learning, generation X and Z already seeking solutions, the military who are on the frontlines in war and disasters, and the health care workers all over America working round the clock to assist the Covid patients.  Thanksgiving for all the families who share them with us, cooks who prepare healthy meals, those who make products to help us be productive and think about what comes next, those who help us maintain our bodies (gyms and pools), workers who build our homes, fix our cars, preserve and restore our health, and volunteers everywhere who spread their human glue to hold it all together. Thank you each and everyone.

This comes as a reminder that Americans have been in tight places before. Somehow, through Providence, hard work, or sheer luck, we’ve succeeded as a nation—always with room to do and be better, but we stuck together.

Lincoln, like other Presidents after him who did not want to frighten their constituents, suffered alone and came under greater physical threat from disease than we originally knew, according to recent scholarship.

We now know that Lincoln had a fever, became dizzy, very pale, suffered severe headaches, and back pains and felt ill prior to delivering the address at Gettysburg. His valet, William Johnson, a black man who went with Lincoln to Gettysburg, contracted smallpox after serving Lincoln there, and died of the disease upon his return. The President mourned the loss of Johnson in Washington and he himself did not recover for three weeks, not in time for the Thanksgiving he proclaimed. Lincoln began to feel himself around December 10, in time to prepare for Christmas and pray for peace the following year.

Peace would not come until April 1865, the same week in which Lincoln died of an assassin’s bullet. But after Gettysburg Lincoln was able to see the Emancipation Proclamation begin to take effect and by 1865 be believed that the country would remain unified and eventually become one again. Had he not survived 1863, the outcome might have been different. For that we can be truly thankful and pray again that America’s people look at the glass half full, instead of half empty, and work together to fill it up.

P.S. We may be on the brink of an even more difficult moment, but again, ours is a strong nation, created by strong minds and stronger people. This division did not occur over night and it won’t be resolved quickly. But small steps, like finding areas of common interest, being willing to see what can be achieved together, might help begin a reconciliation between those willing to bridge the gap. That could be how Americans slowly emerge from their bunkers and begin the painful process of rebuilding trust and believing again that we can find ways, however small, to work towards being one nation again.

Common Ground? Try Pie!

Pumpkin pie. Vector illustration.

Thanksgiving 2020: Looking for a common denominator to bring the family together? Why not pie? In late November, nary a cherry or blueberry pie would suggest the right or the left to commemorate the season. This is the season when bright orange pumpkin pie, or apple/pear simmered together, or maybe even maple-flavored, Texas-grown pecan pies rule the side table, tempting little fingers to sneak a taste. Orange may become the purple of the season, bringing us together. Who can quarrel with pumpkin?

Maybe this is one time when dessert should come first. Send sweetness flowing throughout the room, mellowing dinners before the main course, when verbal fireworks would be more likely to commence.   

Celebrity chefs Scotchman Gordon Ramsey, Italian Emeril Lagasse, Americans Bobby Flay and Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten might not swear to the success of bringing on the familiar pastry first to greet their guests, as a panacea to family division. But I might gamble that Paula Dean and Rachel Ray would join America’s sisters, mothers, and grandmamas desperate to create a peaceful kingdom in the dining room and just bring on the pie!

Of course, politics is not the only topic that can heat up a meal. Religion comes a close second, along with the usual cultural battlelines we’ve leaned into during the 2020 campaign.  But this season, politics is the topic that haunts us. Maybe it’s time to bring out the board games? My understanding is that Chess sets are flying off the shelves/online during the Pandemic. Maybe some dinner guests can help initiate the less experienced players as they dig into a more cerebral contest.

Union—Is it out there?

If you’re a Past Becomes Present reader, you know I began a few weeks ago looking into Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh’s book Union, A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground. One a Republican, the other a Democrat, crisscrossed America from New Hampshire to the Carolinas and Chicago to Mobile, Washington, DC to Northern California and Los Angeles, in an inherited Volvo taking the temperature of the nation, and sometimes struggled to maintain their own equilibrium along the way.

As they pulled their way out of the Oregon lowlands to Crater Lake, the green forests made Chris a little homesick for California’s redwood groves. Chris’s role now to help Jordan write the “manly maid-of-honor” speech for his sister’s wedding by the time they reached Sonoma. “So tell me about your older sister,” Chris asked in his speechwriter mode. “Jenna always protected me growing up, “ Jordan explained, even though they went to different high schools. “She went to one of the most liberal high schools in the country, and there was a lot of Republican-bashing going on,” he said, wincing at the memory.  “At one point she’d had enough and stood up before a school assembly—about 500 people,” Jordan said.

Jenna took no prisoners. “All of you need to stop it,” she said. “My parents and my brother are Republicans, and they are still good people!”

“I’ll never forget that,” he relayed to Chris.

Chris finished writing the speech prior to his sister’s wedding, then they found themselves back on the road a year later as Jordan started year two of business school and Chris flew to California after writing in DC that summer. They headed to Tijuana but made a detour to peruse a Trump rally in Phoenix after Chris noted hashtags #PhoenixRally and #Trump. 

After the speech and the posturing by the various segments of the crowd and counter-protesters, they saw how people engaged. “What gave us hope was that performances are not who we really are,” Chris wrote. “Performances are artificial, like the borders and lines we draw around one and other. And that meant we could overcome them.”

They headed towards Zion National Park in Utah before sunrise. From a plateau atop a valley, their discussion led to: “We humans will likely always separate ourselves into tribes, requiring us to give up a piece of ourselves in service to the group’s rules and mores.” This came after an evening drinking with Marines who pulled Jordan in as one of their own, after two tours in Afghanistan, and accepted Chris as his road-trip buddy.

Chris and Jordan gave homage to community, as we are different people with a range of ideas: ”Community makes us stronger, and when done right it makes us less suspicious and more noble-–be it churchgoing folk gathering on a Sunday for a homily, soldiers swapping photographs in a foxhole, or protesters singing the same melodies as those who came before them.”

Their trips around America revealed to them that “the stories we tell each other and the parables we whisper our children” pinpoint responsibilities that grow out of each and DEMAND GENEROSITY!

That brings us full circle.  By immediately sharing your orange pumpkin pie with those who put their feet under your Thanksgiving table (or neighbors and friends out the kitchen door), you could help promote a positive Thanksgiving. By changing the mood before the meal, you could encourage your guests to select a non-famous person who makes them happy to be alive. See where that goes.

Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh, Union, A Democrat, a Republican, an a Search for Common Ground. (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2020)