March 2008

The Death of a Memory

Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.  George Bernard Shaw

When I die, the last person alive dies who knew what an extraordinary woman my grandmother (Nana) was.  I think about that on occasion because it sums up, to a degree, all our lives.  If you’ve lived right, someone someday may think the same about you.

There is no question in my mind that death is what drove (drives) man to create gods.  At some point in evolution, a light switch (cognition) went off in our early minds that, “My goodness, I’m gonna die.  And all those around me, too!”

And then, to use a favorite (Burt Bacharach) song title of the 20th century, “What’s it all about, Alfie,” set in.

“Is it just for the moment we live?” Yea, that’s about right.  A moment.  Some sea turtles have a longer life span than human beings.  Sigh.

I’d like learned anthropologists to speculate on when the modern human being first experienced irony.  When did our species first laugh at our condition (fate if you will) such that he/she paused and inwardly laughed at the wonderful absurdity of it all?

Arguably, the first human to experience irony would have to have been a woman.  Wouldn’t you agree? “Oh, she may be weary. Young girls they do get weary. . .”

Actually, one of our early Biblical  myths reinforces my contention on this very subject.  Eat of the tree of knowledge and get kicked out of Eden. Educate yourself right out of paradise.  Hmmm? Eve took the first bite (byte?) and then seduced Adam with knowledge, such that forever after, all women will suffer in life?   Too funny.  Knowledge as pain.  Surely we can all see “a” degree of irony in that scenario.

It might make the more “faithful” among us wonder why push our children at all to achieve as much education as possible if this be our religious standard (example, nay, inspiration).  If banishment and eternal suffering is the result of knowledge?  But, I digress.  Ah, but education need not be enlightenment if today’s educational climate is indicative.  Perhaps I’m taking the wrong message from Eve’s lamentable  experience with God.  You imagine?  But, I digress yet again.

Death just had to be the driver in man’s earliest ironic insight. Cognition, self-reflection turned-on (again think: light switch) before early man could adequately defend himself against the hungry, clawed, flesh-eating world in which he found himself.  Small, bare-skinned, fangless, defenseless creatures that we are, we couldn’t run particularly fast. We struggled for thousands upon thousands of years in harsh climates and hostile environments.  Is it any wonder that our big brains tried to make sense of it all through the development of religion(s) and irony?   Which came first, irony or religion?  Perhaps they are one and the same?

So we end up on our deathbeds embracing (if still lucid) either of two end game perspectives. One, upon death, we are going to be “called” home (eternal paradise) due to one’s faith in “a” religious dogma.  Or, two, you have the recognition, as Norman Cousins expressed it that, “Death is not the greatest loss in life.  The greatest loss is what dies [died] inside us while we live [lived].”

How we die is determined by how we lived.  (But that that was always so!) Act now (today) to have the kind of death you desire (tomorrow).

I hope Nana is in my thoughts and I also hope I arise death’s day with enough presence of mind, enough reflection, enough memory to consider Henry Haskin’s words, “How gaily a man wakes in the morning to watch himself keep on dying.”

That is our condition—alive or dying.  Embrace it.

Reach Jepson at: Jepson@MEDIAmerica.US


By Any Other Name
And/Or: Played Like A Piccolo

I am hearing that the key voting bloc determining the next presidential election is white boys.  A few years ago it was soccer moms.  This year it’s white boys.  A TV pundit describing the various electorates in Pennsylvania suggested you have Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by rural Alabama—the implication being that poorly educated whites occupy the rural middle of the state.

If I were a Republican, I might be embarrassed by the term Reagan Democrats.  What exactly is a Reagan Democrat?  Well, let’s briefly recap the history.

During the 1960s, the Democrat Party was aligned with social justice issues.  The issue of the times was race and how would black and whites go forward together to create a better, more sustainable America.  To that end, a number of initiatives were passed in Congress and signed by President Johnson. The 1964 Voting Rights Act among several.   It was said at the time that for all intents and purposes, the Democrats had just handed the South to the Republican Party, ur, excuse me, handed the Southern white vote to the Republican Party because no self-respecting Southern white would ever vote with a nig, uh, excuse me, vote for a negro.

As a result, President Richard Nixon observing and calculating the success of Southern racist Governor George Wallace began the process of actively recruiting the Southern white vote to the Republican Party.  It took Ronald Reagan to cement the connection.  In a 1980 campaign stop, he showed up in Philadelphia, Mississippi and presented a low key “states rights” speech. Coincidence?  Hardly.  It was part of the larger plan to secure white voters and using words associated with/like “states rights” is code for them (blacks) and us (whites).  So the term “Reagan Democrats” entered the lexicon and voilà, years later via Karl Rove and other smarmy Republican operatives, the Southern white Reagan Democrat voter is still being played like a piccolo.

Let’s move to today’s election.  Again, I listen (and read) on how to explain  Barack Obama’s success, say, in Iowa (my birth state) and, oh, his predicted failure in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary.  This is the reasoning being asserted by some.  Iowa has few blacks.  Iowa Democrats have no first hand experience living in close proximity to blacks so they will naively vote for a black man because they’ve never been mugged, observed block after city block of the “dark” ghetto or suffered the humiliation of losing a job to a black man because of Affirmative Action.  And, rural white Democrat Pennsylvanians, on the other hand, have?

I recently lunched with a good friend who runs a prominent social service agency.  We are both Democrats.  She supports Clinton. I support Obama.  We got into a spirited conversation of/on whether or not white Democrats will support a black man to be President.  I said all the bigots within the Democrat Party have long ago left and are now euphemistically called Reagan Democrats, a Republican by any other name.  She suggested, no, that is not necessarily the case.  Hence, an argument for Clinton.

I was frankly astounded by that assertion. On occasion, I can be accused of being a rube, a naïve purist, too idealistic.   But I have to ask my fellow Democrats, if you won’t vote for a candidate because he is black, what in the hell are you doing still being a Democrat?  Get out of the Party.   Leave.  Period.   Don't let the door hit you in the . . .

Of course, not all Republicans are bigots. I get that. I willingly acknowledge that.  And there are blacks within the Republican Party.  But where do bigots go in the 21st century if they are going to align themselves politically (racially)?   The Republican Party.

Being a Democrat suggests many things to me.  But please do not call yourself, describe yourself or claim to be a Democrat if—in your heart of racist hearts—you will not consider Barack Obama for President because he is a black man.

Simply call yourself a Republican.  They want you.  It is apparent.

And can we forever bury the term Reagan Democrat?  There is no such person.  A Republican by any another name is still a Republican.

Reach Jepson at:Jepson@MEDIAmerica.US


A Joke and a Coke

Don’t worry about middle age:  you’ll outgrow it.  Laurence J. Peter

I begin my 60th year this week.  I’ve determined I have approximately 21 to 23 years remaining to live.  Maybe a few more years than that. Maybe. My grandfather and father both consumed more whiskey and red meat than I could ever dream of, probably a boxcar of each more.  My brother and I have tried to put a realistic number to the whiskey they consumed, that’s when we came up with the idea of boxcar’s worth.

During Prohibition, it was my father’s task, as the youngest son, to make sure Gramps never ran low.  He kept his whiskey in the library and according to my father he’d lean back in his chair and lift the lid to a wooden box, pick up a bottle, toy with it and say, “We’re getting a little low, Chrissee.”  That was my father’s cue to contact the bootlegger.  In Iowa they delivered right to your front door.   Ah, the good ol’ days.

My grandfather drafted the legal code for the state of Iowa. Sweet. It’s always nice to make the laws.  Literally. He retired at age 65 and never once, not once, walked back into his law firm after retirement.  He lived 18 more years. He read. He fished.  He hunted. In about that order.  He was physically strong until he wasn’t.  He smoked a pipe and I recall him smelling that distinctive fragrance of pipe smoke, old age and whiskey.

I’d walk into his library and he’d be sitting in his chair reading and sippin’. He’d reach over and pinch my cheek (a little too hard) and give me a nickel or a dime and off I’d go. He died in the mid-50s but I was too young to attend the funeral that (I am told) was a big deal for Sioux City.  He bought during the Depression when others were selling and it became one of my father’s job to manage approximately 100 pieces of properties.

I laugh when I hear that the last public school class to receive a “decent” education in America was the class of 1967.  That was the year I graduated.  I could have received a good education but I was not the, uh, ur, most disciplined student.  I had a marvelous, riotous time in high school and education had nothing to do with it.  No, I venture to say the last class to receive a great public school education was my father’s generation.

My father was the last Jepson able to do higher mathematics.  Actually, that is not entirely true.  I have cousins who are doctors. And my daughter is capable, if pressed, of abstract mathematical thought.  Dad learned Latin, took Greek and memorized lines and lines of poetry.  He held track and field records, was a legendary dancer and told jokes and stories nearly as good as Gramps.

My father discovered in law school that if he attended class religiously, not missing a day, he could come home for Thanksgiving break and not go back to school until January. All of December for a break.  Too funny. He knew the rules.  Mostly he made his rules. But he was bright and disciplined and as I would discover during my teen years, he loved to argue the rules.

So do I but I discovered (eventually) that being “right” doesn’t necessarily get you what you want.  What I wanted was off my father’s radar.  Making points on my father was not a win/win situation.   I remember the day (sort of) when I said to my father who was hammering me on some aspect of my lowbrow, suspect behavior, “You’re right.”  His jaw tightened, his eyes narrowed and I could almost see his brain gears whirring over the incongruity of my statement.  And, it stopped.  He stopped.  That time. And, a light went off in my head.

I had to be careful.  If I caved too early with a “You’re right,” my one on one experience might be prolonged due to his suspicions that I was merely mouthing the words.

Dad was a lawyer until he wasn’t.  One of the things I most admire about his life was his willingness to follow his dream.  He left law to become a mink rancher.  That’s right, a mink rancher. I saw him build something from the ground up (2,000 pelts a season is a lot of mink) and I saw him deal with failure in a mature, gentlemanly way. He returned to law eight years later.  It’s always good to have a fallback profession.

As an eight year old I used to mix my father’s whiskey cokes for him as we’d drive to the mink ranch. I’d take a swig or two off the coke bottle, carefully pour in the whiskey, place my thumb over the top and slowly turn twice.  He’d go, “Ooooh,” if I made it too strong.  He’d laugh. I’d laugh. We’d laugh.  This was Iowa in the late 50s.  He drove 32 miles an hour, if that.  Iowa still had curbs on its narrow little concrete highways.  Sweet.

He died at age 81.  A graceful, timely exit.  He loved (to the end) a good wood grilled steak, a great joke and a whiskey coke. His retirement was spent reading, gardening and repairing antiques (there’s a story).

He’d sit, feet up, on his front porch in the very same rocking chair that his father had in his library and sip a whiskey.

I joke with my brother about dad’s sitting and sippin’.  I say of him, “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.” Satchel Paige said that.

Nothing wrong with that. At all.  I see it in my future.

Reach Jepson at:


There’s Wrong.
And There Is Dead Wrong.

Judge a tree from its fruit; not from the leaves.  Euripides

Jack Webb as Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to say with a straight face, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Hillary Clinton is campaigning to be President of the United States based on her experience to be commander-in-chief.  So is Republican John McCain. Hillary ran an advertisement in the last series of primaries (March 4th) attacking Barack Obama for his inexperience in such matters.  The ad features sleeping children and a persistent ringing phone with a serious voiceover asking whether "someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world" will answer it.

The advertisement ends with, "It's 3 a.m., and your children are safely asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"

Hillary Clinton’s biography consists of her being First Lady and a Senator for one term.  That, in a nutshell, is Hillary’s claim of experience, such that she brazenly claims she is prepared to be commander-in-chief and Obama is not.  Being First Lady and a one-term Senator are the “Right Stuff,” and Obama obviously not being a former First Lady lacks the necessary experience to handle the job.  Is that Hillary’s argument?  I jest. Slightly.

Republican John McCain makes a different, yet similar claim, “I was a POW during Viet Nam and I’ve been a Representative and Senator since 1983.” Both McCain and Clinton claim that they have something Obama does not.  Experience (government and the intangible – Hillary as First lady and McCain as a POW) is what Obama lacks they both assert.  I am unsure the exact connection between having served in Vietnam and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for five years, how that translates into sound and wise judgment today but McCain vigorously stakes the claim.

It is pro forma at this point that I acknowledge John McCain’s service to America.  To suggest that John McCain is not the man for the presidency is construed in some circles as a personal attack on him (and his service).  Hardly.

Neither John McCain nor Hillary Clinton are my choice to be President.  In the most consequential Congressional vote of the past 50 years both John McCain and Hillary Clinton got it wrong.  Dead wrong.  Both voted with President Bush giving him the authority to unilaterally attack Iraq, a nation not at war with America, a nation posing no threat to America, a nation on its knees dramatically weakened by UN sanctions and American military action.

Five years later, we have 4,000 dead service men and women, tens of thousands horribly wounded and a three trillion dollar bill for a war that has left America immeasurably weakened and more vulnerable to attack.  George Bush, Hillary Clinton and John McCain (and others) foolishly and imperially took America to war.  They did so when the evidence was not solid, when many reasoned and intelligent voices were counseling caution and with Osama bin Laden still at large, uncaptured.

Is this the kind of leadership you want answering the phone at three in the morning?

America is broke, our military grievously hurting and these two “experienced” leaders were right there, obediently saluting the flag as President Bush drove us into that dessert swamp, an Islamic quagmire that will make Vietnam look like a day at the park.

Just the facts, ma’am.  Clinton and McCain cannot effectively spin their votes on Iraq as something they are not.  McCain, Bush and Clinton got it wrong on Iraq. Dead wrong. Their votes and actions have so grievously wounded the nation that the toll to America is almost unimaginable to calculate.

To argue, either of them (Clinton or McCain) that Barack Obama is too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief I ask you, “What did John McCain’s vaunted experience provide him? Did his cool, collected judgment have him speaking out forcefully, opposing the idiocy, against the craziness of a protracted land war in Muslim world?  So, too, Hillary’s experience as First Lady? Where was all the wisdom she garnered serving tea to the Sultan of Burnei?”

Sure experience is great.  But I’ll take judgment.  Bush, McCain and Clinton had none when it came to Iraq. We will live with and pay for the rotten fruit of Iraq for decades. Obama opposed this war from the beginning.  So much for the argument that experience necessarily informs judgment.

There’s wrong.  And there is dead wrong. Bush, Clinton and McCain were wrong on Iraq.  Dead wrong.

Reach Jepson at: Jepson@MEDIAmerica.US


Not So Long Ago.

“For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."  Michelle Obama

Well, excuuuuuuuse me!  Context is everything.  When I hear about the white community getting all chappy over how things have been going for them such that they cast a finger at Michelle Obama and say, “Shame on you for pointing out an unfortunate truth,” when I hear such piety, such ignorance combined with the certitude of skin color (white), I wonder when will it ever end?  (I’ll answer that shortly.)

Next, they lob “the” argument. “Well, hmmm, yes, okay, things were bad but they are better today.”  I subscribe to the notion of hope, too. Believe me I do.

My favorite quote of all time (it holds the indoor/outdoor record of applicability) goes:  “The cowards never started and the weak died on the way.”  It’s used in describing the American pioneer movement.  It sums up a human quality that resonates with me.

Let’s review the facts as we know them.  No black cowards came to America.  They weren’t given the opportunity to be cowardly.  From the 16th to the mid-19th centuries approximately (by some scholars accounting) 17.5 million slaves left for the Americas.  Now the weak did, indeed, die along the way.  But so did the strong, the broken-hearted, the suicidal, the extraordinary, over two million did die along the way.

Another third, or five million, died in Caribbean “seasoning” camps.  Doesn’t that sound comfy and special?  Hey, you can cruise right by some of the most horrific places on earth for mass murder.  Big, big numbers.  You don’t read that in your average guide to sunny, romantic Caribbean get-a-ways. Okay, so five million plus the earlier two million deaths. Whew! The weak sure did die.

So you get the picture—except we don’t.  For hundreds of years, human beings were rounded-up in West Africa and shipped to the new world. Whole economies grew and flourished around this abomination.  And all the “organized” horror that that implies.   There are slave cemeteries in New York City, lest you think slavery strictly a Southern phenomena.

What absolutely captures best what white America thought about black America can be summed in the three-fifths compromise.  In order to get the American Constitution passed, a black American (slave), for purposes of apportionment, counted as three-fifths of a person.   Right there in America’s sacred text, blacks count as three-fifths a white person.  What do you call that?   Hmmm?  Uh?  Yes, that’s called institutional racism.  It’s DNA stuff.  Politically speaking.

The Civil war came and, Golly Gomer, things (the Reconstruction) sure looked up then. But, back sliding set in (Gawd!  I hate back sliding!) and the next thing you know, whites were again running the South and in comes Jim Crow and, boy, the time “shore do pass” when you’re living the good life down ol’ Dixie Way. How about 100 years of violent, racist Jim Crow?   Rest of America, too, for that matter.

Okay, you live in Central Florida in the late 1960s and your town fathers bury the only public swimming pool in Oviedo rather than let blacks mix with whites.  You can still actually see the edge of the pool deck just under the sand (in Sweet Water Park).  Sweet Water?!?   Boy, dive into that will ya!

You’re dogged, you’re hung, you’re intimidated, you’re belittled, humiliated, imprisoned, kicked, raped, last hired/first fired.  You drink over there you three-fifths person. Yet slowly, inexorably (over forty years) things do change.  For the better.  For real.

But for a black woman to say she is proud of her husband and his circumstances, for Michelle Obama to say, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country."  I get it.

For all I know she was saying thanks Iowa, for voting for a black American.

But if you don’t get it, there’s a damn good chance you’re white.

Our black community is an incredible national resource.  My life, my culture, the world’s culture is made so much richer by the creativity and indomitable spirit of American-born blacks. The contract (Constitution) was re-negotiated years ago.  Blacks are every bit as human as whites.  Or, rather, whites are every bit as good as blacks.  Whites should have black pride.  Pride in all Americans!  That’s the ticket for success.

The cure for racism is on the horizon.  Younger Americans aren’t so much concerned about skin color (or sexual persuasion).

Yet, I’ll tell you right now, I’ll cut just about anyone some slack about how “Pollyannish” to be about America, whose mother would have been instructed to sit on the back of the bus or heard, “You coloreds drink over there.” I don’t know if Michelle Obama’s mother did, but that was the reality of a place called America.  Once upon a time . . .

Not so very long ago.

Reach Jepson at:JEPSON@MEDIAmerica.US