Monday, December 31, 2018

The Dropping of the Ball on New Year's Eve

 Something Old, Something New: New Year’s Eve Then and Now

    New Year's is not new. Some form of it has been celebrated for thousands of years on every continent and probably for as long as there have been human communities. The first recorded celebrations come from some 2,5000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq. This is the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the planting season and the harvest season as days of renewal for the cities,  the surrounding areas, and of the earth itself. “Akitu” was the name of the festival, and historians look to those week-long celebrations as the first recorded instances of celebrating what might be called a “new year.” Of course, such celebrations are really much older that that; people did things long before humans invented writing and keeping records.  But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity people simply had to know the when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons became essential to city survival.  We also realized that what happened in the sky influenced and heralded what would happen on earth, so we kept track of what we now call equinoxes, solstices, moon phases and more.  And to attempt to have these occurrences benefit us, we developed rituals, celebrations, and practices to try to influence the force or forces that controlled those things. We were literally hoping and praying for outcomes that would benefit us in the future. New year celebrations were originally a part of this process. And like most human celebrations, the observances involved ritual foods, ritual actions, ritual music, ritual dancing, and ritual prayer and introspection. Humans tend to meet the same realities of life in pretty much the same ways, and ritual, religion, symbol, and music are all among the ways we signify that something important and special is taking place. It is simply what we humans do.

    However, when we think of New Year’s Eve celebrations today most folks are not thinking about global cultural history and/or how what we do today links to what humans have done for thousands of years. Most folks are instead thinking about Times Square, New York City, the countdown, and that big shiny ball dropping down. Even if we are not planning to watch it, we are all aware of this event happening. I used to love to watch it on TV when I was much younger, begging my mother to let me stay up so I could watch it. The crowd, the colors, the noise and the outlandishness all amazed me. There was the confetti, the movie and music stars, the noise, the big ball and the drama of thousands of people counting down all together, me along with them. It was a secular ritual, I realized as I grew older and understood it more. And I was and am still fascinated by how so many aspects of it connect to some of our most ancient ways.  Some 1 million people crowd into Times Square for this celebration-1 MILLION people. The thought that 1 million people would willingly want to stand together in freezing cold weather in New York City for hours is mind-boggling. And many of those people there are drunk, high, and almost out of control. What sense does that make?? No one in their right mind would suggest doing that as a fun way to spend time in New York City.  But of course, we are often “out of our minds” in the midst of a ritual. Ritual can transform us and take us to a totally different state of being in which the irrational makes perfect sense. It is estimated that over 1 billion—1 BILLION- people watch the show on TV around the world, even in places where the time differences mean it may already really be past midnight and a new year where they actually are.  Who knows how many people watch it on the web or YouTube or Facebook Live. It is truly a worldwide phenomenon-one of the very few things that universally and temporarily unite us as a species. Whether we watch it or deliberately avoid it, we are all aware of it. It is that universal. But how did this come to be? How did this place and this particular ceremony come to symbolize the coming of a New Year to so many people of so many different nationalities, colors, religions, and cultures?  Well, it all started with one businessman and some unique things about the early part of the 20th century.

  Adolph Ochs was publisher of the New York Times, for which Times Square was named. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advent of new technologies that could seemingly conquer heights, hold up the new “skyscraper” buildings, light up the whole night sky, create vehicles that did not need animals to move, and much, much more. It seemed as if something new was being developed every day. Ochs and the Times were spearheading the northern and western growth of New York City beyond its Lower Manhattan starting point by the rivers and the ports. He wanted to call attention to and spur this uptown growth; he saw it as essential to the economic growth of the city. Ochs liked to throw lavish parties, and he was one of the early promoters of “grand spectacles” that the 20th century would so regularly produce. To that end he started staging New Year’s Eve parties that filled the air above the Times building with fireworks and bright lights. These events became immensely popular, and they drew thousands of spectators uptown to view them and to think about the area. But fireworks above meant hot ashes falling to the ground below. This was clearly dangerous, so the city banned the fireworks for 1907 going into1908.

  Ochs’s flashy fireworks display had started drawing Manhattanites uptown and away from the traditional New Year’s celebration at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.  There worshipers and celebrants listened to the tolling of the church’s bells to signal a new year. The bells were amplified on sound trucks and they were still a popular draw. But it was still somewhat “old school.” If Ochs was going to continue to draw people uptown and away from Trinity, he needed a new big draw: a new spectacle. He found one a few blocks away from his office by doing what we now call “re-positioning,”

    “Time balls’ were an answer to the problem of keeping accurate time at sea for ships. Developed in the early 1800’s, most port cities had them by the turn of the century. They were huge colorful balls that would rest atop high buildings. They would descend exactly at noon every day so that maritimers could know the exact time. They could then use that information to set their chronometers, measure longitude, and navigate more accurately.  As the telegraph developed, coastal cities with time balls in place began to telegraph the exact time to other cities.  Humans had managed to figure a way to precisely measure and standardize time in a huge way, just in time for the new factory age of mass production that was to come. Most cities had time balls by the early 1900’s, and most people knew what they were. Philadelphia had one atop the Bourse Building for several years. Western Union, the major telegraph company, had one at its New York office near the Times. It would descend every weekday at noon to let people know exactly what time it was. Ochs had found what he needed; he had a large time ball built, and on December 31st, 1907 thousands of people gazed up at the New York Times building and spied a big, shiny, 700 pound ball atop a flagpole on the building that was awash in huge multi-colored electric lights. As midnight approached, workers began lowering the giant ball by ropes and pullies. On top of the Times building a giant electric sign counted down the seconds until the ball reached the bottom. At the precise moment it landed, the number “1908” lit up the night sky. People went nuts; there were shots fired, people kissing each other, trumpets and noisemakers going off, and these new things called “automobiles” honking their horns. It was a smash hit, and both a tradition and a new ritual were born.

 The ball drop was immensely popular. Promoting and covering it quickly became a staple of magazine and newspaper articles, and when radio came along it went national. It and Times Square eventually became some of the signature things about New York City. When TV came on the scene, it became a big draw for network TV, pulling in millions of viewers and eventually billions of advertising dollars. It is now an international phenomenon, and I cannot see that stopping anytime soon. The ball has been re-designed several times, it has been made of different substances, and it is now run by a computer timed to the atomic clock. It is not the same 700 pond ball that started the tradition.

 But in many important ways it really is the same ball. Beneath all of this technological change and modernization and improvement we can see the age-old themes of meeting important events the world regularly brings to us with ritual, symbol, and as a group. Yes, it started a as a publicity stunt, a smart business move, and perhaps just as a way of showing off. But it has since become something all its own. It is a worldwide, collective ritual now.  It belongs to the world. And for just a little while, that world becomes one big village when it happens. That is the power of ritual taking place, and I think that is a good thing.

So however you celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s, know that you are standing with countless generations of humans who have gone before us; who have collectively looked at what was going on around them and figured out ways to respond to it. Yes, we are digital and modern and “civilized,” whatever that means. Essentially, though, we are just humans navigating our way through the world and trying to cope, survive, and maybe do a little better. Thus it is, and thus it has always been. Do have a very Happy New Year.

 (If you are interested in time balls, here are two links that explain there history and how they were used)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Coming of the Winter Solstice

 “ Heading into the night of the winter solstice, every spiritual tradition has some kind of festival of light. We're all just whistling in the dark, hoping against hope that someone up there will see these little candles and get the hint.” Lawrence Kushner
I love looking at ritual and symbolism, particularly as they relate to mythologies, human celebrations and observances. I think there is something in looking at those things that links us to all of the humans who have come before us from all around the world and across time. We are all human, after all, and when we get past the specific details of our rituals and cultural ways we have done pretty much the same things in pretty much the same ways for most of our existence. Humans, for example, have always had to note, mark, respond to, symbolize and ritualize what we see and experience in the natural world on an ongoing basis. All of us. Humans have developed these things to show our deep dependence on, awareness of, and connection to the natural world. Whether it is just about physical survival, deep emotional fear or hope, reverential worship, or deep spiritual love, or all of these things, we have done this seemingly for as long as we have been on the planet. It is simply what we do; we can’t live in this world without doing it. It is one of the things that make us human. And we always do it most intensely around the time of changes in the seasons.
For Northern Hemisphere residents, next week marks one of those changes. It is the winter solstice-the start of winter. The sun seems higher in the sky as the motion of the earth dramatically changes the location of the sun to us and the amount of daylight we get in a 24 hour period. The solstice is the day with the least amount of sunlight for the year, and we have always been aware of that. On our modern calendar that means December 21stinto the 22.nd For some of us in the ancient world this occurrence meant both fear and reverence. The sun died that day and had to be brought back to life. Prayers, dances, special foods, music and especially ritual were used during this period to accomplish this task. It was vital to our survival.
 Rituals are group events. The whole family or village or town or settlement has to be involved. Unlike a one-day equinox, the solstice lasts for three days, and it was/is believed by many peoples that on that third day, had the rituals been followed correctly, the sun would be reborn and all would be right once more. We would again enjoy the benefits of the sun in the sky. Days following the solstice gradually get longer, so the solstice was looked at as a form of “celestial rebirth.” And coming out of the longest period of night in the year, it’s happening had to be met with light in most of the Hemisphere. There are tons of solstice themed observances around the world, and light and rebirth play a key role in most of them.
  We can see remnants of those ancient traditions in many of our contemporary winter observances. In northern China there is the tradition of Dong Zhi, the arrival of winter. It is a family reunion time, and they eat gluttonous rice balls that symbolize the family and village being back together and facing the winter as one. The days get longer after Dong Zhi, so the rituals provide power and faith to restore the sun and bring positive energy-light-back into our lives. In many cultures candles, burning logs and bonfires pay homage to the missing sun and are employed to bring the sun back. In Scandinavia folks celebrated Jul by lighting fires from special trees, including a log from the previous year’s celebration.

This was an acknowledgement of the sun’s return and a thanks to Thor who made it possible. Yalda in Iran celebrates the snatching of the sun back from the devil and its gradual return to the sky look over the earth.  Again, there are special foods and fires connected with these festivals. Saturnalia, the birthday of the Roman god Saturn, was celebrated from approximately December 17 through the solstice days with feasts, a temporary reversal of social roles and expectations, and what we might call sexual excess. It was a party time similar in many ways to Mardi Gras with parades, music, and grand feasts. In that part of the world it was also the start of the winter sowing season, so the sexual activities that were originally associated with it were symbolic of planting, harvesting and the re-birth of the earth and the sky. There was also gift giving, candle lighting, group singing and feasting-universal components of most Northern Hemisphere winter observances.  Many of these things are now considered standard features of our own Christmas celebrations; in fact here are many historians who consider Saturnalia the most origin of many of today’s Christmas activities.
  So this is a fun time of the year for me. I get to think about us as humans and all of the ways we see and do things similarly. We all have to find ways to acknowledge what is going on around us in the natural world, to figure out how to make the world work for us, and to come to terms with the realization that we don’t have all the answers or all the power. We may work and struggle to have things make sense and to work out, but no matter where we all or when we ae, we all use pretty much the same symbols, rituals, and practices; we all have the same toolbox. Something about that comforts me and lets me know that I am just human and that we are all, despite some obvious differences, essentially the same. I hope you can all find joy and comfort in the coming season.

Monday, December 3, 2018

An Ode to Light


 (We have had a lot of rain and grey days these last few weeks, and frankly, they have had me somewhat depressed. I am an early morning person, and most times waking up to misty fog and the sound of rain is pleasant to me; it almost feels like a movie set or a set piece in a piece of dramatic fiction. But of late, I have just been tired of it. It has been bringing me down and I am tired of it. While I am fortunately not afflicted with it, I can understand why SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real thing. Humans need light, and lately I am missing it.

To that end, I remembered a newsletter I sent out way back in 2014 about December, celebrations, and light. Reading it helped lift my mood, so I thought I would send it out again, lightly edited, in the week that starts the Hanukkah celebration. Consider it an ode to light.)

Let There Be Lights:

December is the time of many celebrations. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to it and associated with it, including Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and your religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil based food and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture and values. And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, traditional Persian, Wiccan, or West African Dogon, there are celebrations for you as well during this month. In fact, what many of us think of as elements of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in the Wiccan and Persian traditions. And there are many other celebrations from many other different religious and ethnic traditions from around the world taking place during this month. December is a month rich with observances, rituals and celebrations. What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light in the ceremonies. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is the common element, metaphor and symbol worldwide at this time of the year. We need and must celebrate light.

It make perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us. For most of our history that has meant looking to the sky-to the sun, the moon and the stars. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year and that the winter solstice was coming. This became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans, and it was marked in many different ways depending upon geography and culture. As the length of the days shortened and then magically, slowly increased, it was as if the earth was being reborn and we were living through and witnessing that process. We had to acknowledge it and honor it, else it may not happen again. So symbolically, many cultures created rituals that recognized it as a time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places began to associate this time with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were symbolic and metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to gradually more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians this was the time of the Yalda festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, was born to a virgin mother at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, was also celebrated at this time. We humans even long ago seemed to know that we had to meet the darkness with light. 

New beginnings are important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that. Our language shows that it still is. We speak of “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.” There is the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in so many of the rituals and ceremonies in our religions, especially at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize the reawakened connection and awareness of African values and connections for people of African descent. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an “enlightened” one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem symbolically led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. In all these traditions, light was symbolically leading us forward.

And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was when we first figured out the solstice and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights were a fixture.  And now there are lighted houses, malls, streets, yards, shops and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. And many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are in some ways still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human, and that means we are still connected to our ancestors and their beliefs in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up and taking some time to marvel at what is going on up there. The sun, the moon, the constellations: it is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. Do have a safe, warm, happy, love and light filled holiday season.  Enjoy the magic of light.                                                         

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


 “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into
    joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings”    William Arthur Ward

Next week is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. As regular readers of these missives know, I put a lot of store in gratitude and giving thanks. It is one of the ways I get outside myself and remember that I am but a small cog in a much bigger picture, and that I do not get by in this life on my willpower, my ideas, or my actions alone.  It not only takes a village to raise a child; it has also taken a combination of people, alive and dead, of all different ages, from all different times and of all different backgrounds to help make me who I have become and am becoming.  I find that when I am consciously aware of that, the world seems a little easier to navigate and a little brighter. And I find that it lets me know, especially in hard and difficult times, that there is much that I have to be grateful for, even though it may not feel like it at the time. In fact, I find that it is at those times when I especially need to be reminded of the power of gratitude. I need to be lifted beyond myself.

Expressing thanks is one of the simplest and most universal of things we humans do. It has been observed by every culture, religion, and ethnic group and in every time period and everywhere on the planet. Giving thanks is a part of what makes us human. When we as a species were largely living in small groups of migrating hunters and gatherers, we depended on things way beyond our control for survival, and we had to acknowledge that. Things such as the return of wild herbs and plants, the running of the fish in the rivers and streams and the return of birds and eggs and animals to trap and to hunt all depended upon the seasonal changes in weather and climate-things we humans could not directly control. But maybe the spirits or the gods could influence these things, so we developed prayers and songs and rituals to try to give us a better chance of influencing those spirits to bring us a hoped for outcome. And when these things happened in a way that seemed to help us, we had to give thanks to those forces that made those things happen in that fortuitous way. If we did that, then maybe it would happen again.

When humans developed agriculture, this process reached new levels of intensity. Agriculture meant humans could stay in one place, stop wandering, and develop what we now call “civilizations.” But this stability of place required humans to do a hell of a lot of hard work for a hell of a long time over the course of a year. Gathering and planting of seeds, building shelter, defending territory, watering and nurturing the crops, fighting the weather, harvesting crops-these and more factors of agricultural life were all things that demanded a huge amount of labor, a lot of working together, and plenty of luck or divine help. And still the things we depended upon might not turn out as we wished. So the rituals of giving thanks became an even more important and necessary part of life. There are spring planting and fall harvest festivals all over the world, and many of our currently observed spring and fall rituals and holidays have their roots in them.  Although in our modern lives many of us are far from the actual work that goes into sustaining a civilization, we are still resting on that same infrastructure of work and gratitude. No, it doesn’t take as many people to do many of our jobs, and much of the actual work and the people who do it can seem invisible. And we have come up with ways to artificially mimic or replicate Nature-we seem so “advanced.” But if we look closely, we see that our dependence on things beyond ourselves is still there and still necessary. As we all know, when a traffic light is out or our stove breaks or our computer acts up, or the car breaks down or we are in a flood or in the midst of wildfires, we need the help of other people, a little of what we call “luck; and maybe even some divine help. We cannot do this life thing totally on our own, no matter what we may tell ourselves.

 So I want to take time to acknowledge that simple act of expressing gratitude-of acknowledging that we all need other people and more than just ourselves to make our way through this world and this life. We need others’ and help and assistance. And every now and then that human in us needs to stop and say, “Thanks” to some spirit, some ones and/or some things outside of and/or beyond ourselves. We need to acknowledge our dependence upon and interaction with so much more than just ourselves. So in addition to all of the food and the family gatherings and safe travel and rituals and celebrations, I do wish you all a happy, thoughtful, and grateful Thanksgiving. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It's Rainin' Here; Stornin' on the Deep Blue Sea

“Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm…Blew All the People Away”….

   The above line is from Tom Rush’s version of Galveston, one of the first songs I ever heard about a flood outside of the church songs about Noah. I was very moved by this song when I first heard it in the mid -60’s, and it stirred my interest in songs about storms and floods. There have, of course, always been floods, so there have always been songs about the pain, grief, fear, and destruction that accompany these events. Along with Galveston, a great number of them refer to famous storms and floods from the 20th century. John Lee Hooker’s Storming on the Deep Blue Sea, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s, Flooding Down in Texas, Randy Newman’s, Louisiana, and Memphis Minnie’s, When the Levee Breaks are just a few that speak to some of the legendary floods that hit the Gulf areas and the Mississippi River in the last century. It does seem, though, as if we have had a steady number of such epic storms in the 21st century already, and it seems as if they are getting larger, more destructive and more frequent. In the first quarter of this century we have already had several storms whose one-word names bring up images from television and the web of people on rooftops, destroyed buildings and vehicles, people trapped and floating in cars, children being carried into and out of rowboats, and people of all ages and colors fleeing relentless and madly rushing waters. Charley, Harvey, Superstorm Sandy, Katrina, Maria and now Florence: These names conjure images and memories of people, maybe some of our own relatives and acquaintances, being faced with the unbelievable force of nature fully unfurled. (Maria and Katrina, for example, have the third and 6th highest death totals of all storms in US history). More and even larger storms are expected to come in the next few years. And we seem far from ready.

   It seems as if these storms are unleashing more and more of their destructive forces on those least able to endure and survive them. Poor folk and people of color have been especially hard hit, and the neighborhoods where these people live are often the last to get outside help and money. A full year after the devastation Maria wrought on Puerto Rico, for example, a quarter of a million people on the island are still without power, thousands are still living in “temporary’ shelters, and thousands of folks go hungry every day. Much of downtown New Orleans has been restored or rebuilt in the wake of 2005’s Katrina, but the predominantly poor and African-American Lower Ninth Ward of the city has, by comparison, seen little of the money from government agencies and private investors to help it rebuild. FEMA, the national Federal Emergency Management Agency, received a lot of criticism for its role in New Orleans, but it still had a smaller budget and work force devoted to relief in Puerto Rico than in either Florida or Texas hit by Harvey. Maria was much stronger than Harvey, and Puerto Rico sustained more severe damage than either state. Still it got the short end of the Federal stick. And there has been little change in that.

 Local groups and food banks have done the lion’s share of the recovery, relief, medical and rebuilding work in many of the area’s hit by these storms, and they need help. These are the people that are on the ground delivering emergency health care, food, and shelter. The AARP foundation is one reputable charity that directs money to some of these groups, and 100% of the money donated gets matched and goes to the groups doing this work on the ground. To donate, one can go here:

 The people of Puerto Rico can use help as well, and Americares is still involved in helping establishing health services there:

And if you want to support the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans?

I thank you in advance for being willing to support and give money to these trustworthy and reliable groups who have been in involved in disaster relief and disaster aid for years. I believe that ordinary citizens like us have to step up and help wherever and whenever disaster strikes; it is our responsibility as citizens of both this country and of the world. If not us, then who? If we do not do this, then who will?  We cannot leave it to government agencies; it is too vital a need. Others need us. Thank you!

 Speaking of citizenship, there are mid-term elections nationwide this November, and if you are not registered to vote in either PA, NJ, or DE registration deadlines are fast approaching. October 9 is the last day one can register to vote in PA, October 13 is the deadline for DE, and October 16 is the deadline for New Jersey. Mid-term elections generally do not have a large turnout, but hopefully it will be very different this November. Many people are concerned about actions and inaction by both our national and state governments, and participating in elections is one way to effect change. Many members of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate are up for re-election, and it is your chance to have a real say on the national stage. Important state government offices are also on the ballot this November, including governors, state legislators, attorneys general, treasurers, and other important offices. Your vote can go a long way in determining what happens in the nation and the states in the next few years. So please register and show up in November to vote. It is the very least one can do as a citizen. And if you have any questions about voting and/or the election in your state, go to the website of the League of Women Voters for your state. Thanks.
The Dukes on YouTube
    We have posted a few videos on YouTube. Please log in, view our videos, and leave a comment or two. Tell your friends to view us and post comments as well. Thanks:

                         Dukes Live Playlist:

Sunday, September 16, 2018


I love reading and I love history. That combination of things brings me regularly in contact with some very fascinating and moving biographies about some complex and extraordinary people. I love looking deeper into the lives of people who affected big changes in the world; that just fascinates and intrigues me. Some of them may be well known figures-political leaders, artists, writers, musicians and more. Some of them are people I just stumble across whiles searching something else (in looking up some things about WWII a few years ago, for example, I stumbled across the story of magician Jasper Maskelyne, who used his powers of deception and illusion to help Britain counter Nazi air power in the latter three years of the war.) People and their stories are of great interest to me, and I am glad there are so many excellent and compelling biographies to read. It is one of my favorite genres of writing.
We are often given brief snapshots of famous people in their political and social lives, but we rarely get beyond a few well-known events. I like to get beyond the known events and get more into the stories behind them. These can be things in a given person’s life that led to some of those known achievements and explain the motivations behind the actions they took. Or they can be things that raise more questions than they answer-contradictions that can give us a more nuanced look at somethings we thought we understood. I loved Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson precisely for those reasons. Johnson was one of the most complicated men ever to be President, and he was full of contradictions that Caro fully explored. Caro looked at the impact Johnson’s poor white upbringing in rural Texas during the Great Depression had on him with its contradictory ideas about wealth, race, color and what “success” meant. Caro also looked at how Johnson both resented and built a powerful political machine in the state that catapulted him to power and the US Senate. And he looked at how the architect of the “Great Society” and signer of the Voting Rights Act only won Senate election in the 1940’s because he campaigned in a more overtly racist manner than his opponent.
Likewise, Taylor Branch’s volumes on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King got into much more than the “I Have A Dream Speech” and his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It looked not only into his school and college experiences, but also at family dynamics, class and color prejudice and struggles within the Black community, and the role relatively unknown people such as E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson played in getting the boycott started and then fooling King into getting involved and ultimately leading it. It is an absolutely wonderful 3 volume biography that illuminates the man and the times in a real and through way.
I am mentioning those books because I am currently reading a biography about a person I knew a little bit about, and I recently read an excerpt from a new biography I plan on reading about someone else I knew a little about. Dr. Benjamin Rush is the subject of the new biography I will read. I knew Rush first as the doctor who gave some medical advice and training to Lewis and Clark before their epic trek exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory, as one of the early staff at Pennsylvania Hospital, as an abolitionist, and as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. What the excerpt also revealed was that Rush, often called “America’s Hippocrates,” was one of the first medical people in the country to recognize alcoholism as a contributor to many physical and mental illnesses and diseases he was seeing in many of his patients. He spent time analyzing the condition and trying come up with ways to teat it. He was also the first to try what we now call “talk and listening therapy” in dealing with people who had severe mental problems, as opposed to locking them up and charging people money to watch the “lunatics” in cages. Clearly, he was ahead of his time in some very important ways, and I look forward to reading the book and learning even more about him.
LIThe book I am reading now is The Road to Dawn a thoroughly researched and well-written look at Josiah Henson, the man who I knew as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a runaway slave who made it to Canada. I had read some excerpts from his published autobiography years ago, which was one of the many slave narratives published in the mid 1800’s as the battle to end slavery raged across the country. This book goes into much more detail about his life both during and after slavery, including his complicated and contradictory relationships with two of his owners, the surprisingly intense and nasty conflicts between Methodists and Baptists over which group should play the leading role in the abolitionist movement in general and in Josiah’s 500 person settlement in Ontario for runaway slaves very specifically, questions about how involved should white people be in a movement to help Black people build active lives for themselves, and much, much more.
I am in awe at how Josiah, who spent 40 years in slavery, spent just as much time establishing a town, teaching runaways the basics of finance and building a business, traveling the world to get help for his town and business, and attempting to start an industrial arts school for blacks years before Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. It is almost too amazing to be true, and I cannot put the book down. It already has me making a list of things, people, events and issues I want to look at in greater detail. There is also a documentary about Josiah, and I will look at that once I finish the book. What a great find for me! I am excited and moved and amazed-all the things a great book can do for a person-yet again.
So I will continue to explore the lives of people, some famous and some not and gain insight into them and into the world at the time in which these folks lived. New learnings, new insights, new discoveries; they keep coming, and I love it.
Taylor Branch:

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


On Friendship, Peace, and More

Monday, July 30, was the United Nations' International Day of Friendship. When I first saw a notice about that in an e-mail I got from a friend, I was taken aback-there is an effort not only nationally but internationally to promote and celebrate friendship. That seemed to be weird to me. Do we really need a “Day for Friendship?” Is friendship in trouble or something?

    Doing some research about this I found out that the day grew out of a 1998 UN project dedicated to promoting a “Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World.” Wow-a decade dedicated to peace and non-violence for children! That is a bold idea. And out of that effort the UN proclaimed its first International Day of Friendship in 2011, with the idea that friendship between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals can inspire peace efforts and build bridges between communities.”  Again, wow! Those are giant, noble ideas, and it is interesting that the UN thought that these ideas could be served, in part, by recognizing, celebrating, and promoting something as direct and seemingly simple as “friendship.”  I was intrigued.
    Then I got an e-mail from NPR celebrating the International Day of Friendship that featured several stories of unusual friendships that in this time of such fear, suspicion and partisan strife resonated deeply with me. They were unusual stories about unusual friendships, and they set me to thinking about the whole idea of friendship- what it is,  ways it has been an important part of my life, and some of the powerful things it can mean and lead to. Can it be possible that something as large and as daunting as a “Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence” can somehow be connected to this seemingly simple thing we call having and being a “friend?” Can they be connected?
  When I initially think about friendship I am taken back to my growing up in West Philly and to my early school days of the 1950’s. For me, like I think it was for most of us when we were children, friendship was a question of, “How can I fit in?  and, “How can I be a part of the group and accepted?” My most regular question from that time was, “Do I fit in yet?” The answers involved things such as what clothes I wore, what my haircuts were like, could I play sports, what music did I listen to, and the like. I wanted to connect with other kids, and being like the other kids in the neighborhood seemed to offer the best chance of doing that. Standing out, unless it was in one of the socially acceptable ways such as being a great athlete or the toughest kid, was a risk As I grew up I became aware that there were some “weird” things about me; I walked down the street reading books, for example. But I was a good enough athlete and was tall enough, so I tended to fit in rather well. I had some good friends and generally had what I would describe as a “good childhood.”

   “Sameness” played a big role in all of this. Being like other kids was important to having friends, so I tried to be somewhat the same as my friends. But sameness also played a role in ways I did not understand as a young kid. Philly really was a “city of neighborhoods” then, and that generally meant a lot of socio-economic “sameness.” The city was largely separated into areas by color, ethnicity and class; there were very few neighborhoods where people of different colors, classes, religion and/or nationalities lived together. There were a couple of spots like, but I definitely did not live in one. However, for junior high and high school I went to schools that drew from neighborhoods across the entire city. Suddenly I was spending my days with people from a number of different ethnic groups, of different colors, from different social classes, and who practiced different religions. Or none. It was quietly mind-blowing for all of us. Junior high and high school friends spend time in each other’s houses, for example so I was exposed to new foods, new ways of doing, thinking, and learning. And many of my new friends were having the same experience. Barriers we did not know were there got lowered and erased somewhat. Stereotypes got looked at and a lot got discarded. All of us received new eyes though which we could look at larger things and view the world in new ways. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War, and these new experiences wee not just about being friends in new ways-they connected us to these larger issues as well. No, it was not an idyllic, perfect time-there were rough patches, misunderstandings, and there were some things that some of us could not fully accept or see. But by and large the friendships in junior high and highs school changed and affected us all in profound ways. It expanded our sense of the world and who we could be. And that is something you want something as important as a friendship to do.

 I thought about all of that because the NPR e-mail looked at friendships in a way that really raised the possibility of friendship being a way of getting beyond superficial differences and challenging us to be different and possibly better. That, ultimately, I think is what the UN Day of Friendship is really about-friendship can be a way of taking us into new territory and ways of being that can safely alter some small parts of the world in lasting and profound ways.

 Below are links to some of the stories from the NPR e-mail. I would be interested in hearing your responses to any of them and to hearing your thoughts on what means and/or allows. Friendship. Please write back about your reactions to the stories; I’d love to come back to this topic in a future newsletter and share some of your responses. Happy Belated International Friends Day. And I hope you get to spend some good time with good friends.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Penny Colgan-Davis 1945-2018

Memorial Service for Penny:
    I want to take this opportunity to thank those of you who were able to make Penny’s memorial service last Saturday at Germantown Monthly Meeting. It was truly a joyous celebration of the life and lasting accomplishments of a very special educator, spirit, leader, community builder, friend, and inspirational presence, who was also a hell of a lot of fun. It was an exhilarating overview of her entire life and career-there were people there who knew her from before I met her in 1979 as well as people who had only met her recently. It was a true love fest. The stories about lives she touched and how she touched them from friends, colleagues, students, parents and more were heartwarming, amazing, and inspirational. She made profound differences in so many ways in so many lives. And many of the stories people told were totally unknown to me, soI was able to get an even deeper knowledge of the friend, partner and traveling companion I was fortunate to know and love for nearly 40 years. Yes, there is a lot of pain, grief and sorrow connected with Penny’s death. And my son and I will know that for a while. But there is also great joy and exhilaration and tons of smiles as I am even more fully aware of the wondrous person she was and the full and rich life she led. Thank you for that and for helping pay tribute to one of the very special people anyone could ever hope to know. I know that it made her eyes twinkle even more and brought another smile to her face. Thank you.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

My Favorite Traveling Companion...

My Favorite Traveling Companion……

  I don’t know exactly how long I have been writing and sending out these Dukes newsletters/blogs- I think I started in 2008 or 2007. It is something that I enjoy doing, and I am glad that so many of you enjoy my musings and experiences. It is something that is important to who I am. The performer in me likes having an audience and putting out good energy, and the educator in me loves sharing ideas, experiences and more with people. It is just who I am, and I am grateful that so many of you let me into your inbox on a regular basis. I sincerely thank you for that.

  If you have been reading these missives for a while you know that one thing John Colgan-Davis loves is traveling and seeing new things. You have read, for example, about birding trips to Magee Marsh in Ohio, Cape May, NJ, Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Philly and more. You have followed along on many of the camping trips to Wellsley Island, the Finger Lakes, Golden Hill State Park, and Lake George all in NY. I told you about finding wonderful wildlife refuges in Maryland, museums and gardens in Orlando and Key West; night skies, elk and seeing the Perseid Meteor Shower on a deck next to a mountain in New Mexico. Lotus blossoms, monuments, and museums in Washington, DC. Times spent at Ivylea Provincial Park, the Grand Canyon, and in the wonderful cities of Kingston in Ontario and Chestertown in Maryland. I have brought you with me to small towns, hills, music festivals, campsites, lakes, and more.

   Through all of these travels I have been with my favorite travel buddy and friend, my wife, Penny Colgan-Davis. Some of you have met her at gigs and some of you knew her from some of her many other activities and involvements; she was a very busy woman and involved in many things. But most of you do not know her except through these missives and my telling of our travels. I am sad to say that I have lost my partner, my best friend and the greatest travel buddy ever. Penny passed away Tuesday morning at about 5:30 AM at our home in Mt. Airy. She had been ill for a while, battling melanoma since November of last year. She died peacefully and lovingly with my son and myself there with her. It was a sad but lovely passing. We were fortunate to be with her though the whole illness, and it was a fitting end.

  Penny and I were married for nearly 38 years, and we traveled together and birded together almost from the beginning. We would go to Tinicum (now called Heinz Refuge), down to Brigantine Wildlife Center, (now called Forsythe), Cape May, NJ, and places in Delaware. We had a camping honeymoon through upstate NY, Maine, and Canada. And as a young family we camped in the Poconos and spent several years at Lost River State park, a lovely spot in West Virginia. Penny herself was a great traveler long before she met me. She and her sisters had been to Ireland, the Netherlands, and England, so she was ready to go places. And like me, she loved to not just go to a place but to explore in and around it. We would camp in a spot and bird and hike the trails there. But we would also spend times in nearby towns and cities, eat at diners where the locals ate, visit cemeteries, gardens and historical sites and visit the libraries. She got me into gardening and trees and plants, and we could spend hours at an arboretum, nursery or public garden. I still remember going to the National Botanical Gardens, Kenilworth Park, and the National Arboretum in DC. several times with her. I will miss traveling and exploring and having funny and sometimes scary adventures with her. And I am so grateful for all of the things we saw that took our breath away and will stay with me forever. Seeing thousands of monarch butterflies and hundreds of sunflowers on Amherst Island in Ontario; looking down from above the clouds and seeing circling vultures after hiking up Craney Crow in West Virginia; watching the sun play off a waterfall with circling cedar waxwings on Cape Breton in Canada; standing on a bluff in the Grand Canyon and looking around at so many different shades of brown and red, unreal clear blue skies, and so many differently shaped rocks. And much, much, much more.

  So there is a hell of a lot of pain, a lot of loss and some big hurt going on right now. I do not know when and how the tears are going to come; they just do. And I do not know how long they will last each time they come. My breath gets short, some anger comes out, and I lose it for a while. And all of our family and good friends are also feeling that pain, going through this along with my son and myself. This grief thing is so much more than just a solo enterprise, and I am so glad for that. And at the same time, there are the memories, the images, and the smiles brought about by looking at pictures and maps and brochures and remembering and talking with people about our many wonderful travels. They are just as important as the pain, and just as real. And they are treasures. My mom used to say that when people felt and expressed great pain and hurt and cried their eyes out, there was also joy hidden in there. For to be felt that deeply, the love and loss had to be real and truly, deeply felt. To have known and experienced a love that deep and real was truly a great blessing in my life. Thank you, Penny. Thanks so much. And today, it feels like camping weather.