For those of you who think Norman Rockwell only painted idealized images, he didn’t. His idealized images are the most popular, but he painted many other, hard-edged pictures. If you’re in the neighborhood of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I recommend the Norman Rockwell Museum.

It’s a particularly American experience. I especially love this Thanksgiving cover for Life Magazine — reminding us that the Pilgrims were a humorless bunch. Not the kind of people I’d like to know.

Indian corn in kitchen window

They wouldn’t approve of our traditional Thanksgiving, not one little bit. I don’t think you’d want them at your table and they would not be thrilled to be there, either.

I enjoy Thanksgiving. The idea of it. It’s good there’s a day dedicated to gratitude. And eating too much, visiting with family and friends. But — you knew there was going to be a “but” didn’t you? — I am frequently reminded there are people who don’t have a family. Others who don’t have much to celebrate. And of course Native Americans, who on the whole, don’t find Thanksgiving a reason to rejoice.


So, while we are consuming our dinners and enjoying our family, please give a thought to those who aren’t celebrating. Can’t celebrate. Are disinclined to celebrate. We do not all have to celebrate the same way.

Enjoy your holiday. Your way.




Today is the day. Fifty-three years after the event. I remember it. Do you?

It’s weird watching the documentaries commemorating events I remember. It’s the Kennedy assassination this month. Just about every station, network and cable, are doing specials on John F. Kennedy. For us, it’s a trip down memory lane. Or nightmare alley.

I was 13 when Kennedy was elected. I watched the inauguration on television, the first of many inaugurations I would watch. It was the greatest inaugural speech. I was naïve enough to believe he wrote it himself. And I was impressed by his hair, the best hair of any President before or since. Especially after 8 years of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was very bald.


In 1963 I turned 16 and started college. Kennedy was shot in November and the world changed. I’m sure every person old enough to know what was going on remembers where they were the day they heard the news. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a landmark event, a turning point in history, a turning point in our personal histories.

I was in the cafeteria at school. I had a cup of tea in my hand and was about to sit. The public address system in the cafeteria went on. There was a lot of noise, but gradually it grew quiet. A news report. It took a few minutes to recognize what they were saying, to form a context. Someone had shot the President.

A few minutes later, everyone fell silent. Hundreds of undergraduates, sitting, standing. No one moving, no one talking. I stood at the table. Frozen. I never sat. I stood in the same spot for over an hour. Clutching that cup of tea, cooling in my hand. Until the voice on the loudspeaker said “President Kennedy is dead. The President is dead.”

Gradually, everyone drifted away. Subdued or silent. I found my boyfriend and we wandered around for a few hours. We didn’t do anything. Just roamed the campus, dazed. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen, not in the United States. Eventually, when it was dark, I went home. My mother wanted to know where I’d been and I said “Just wandering around.” She didn’t believe me. She should have.

LBJ Sworn In As President

Kennedy was “our” president. He looked good. Young, attractive, different. I hadn’t been old enough to vote for him, but I was old enough to know what was happening. I watched the debates. My friends and I discussed it. It was exciting. My mother kept referring to him as “such a young man.” At thirteen, a 43-year old guy didn’t seem so young. Those were the days, eh?

For the better part of the next week, all the channels on television — there were only seven — 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 — had wall-to-wall coverage of the funeral. Endless replays of the assassination. The subsequent shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. The beginning of the conspiracy theories that still swirl around this piece of history, though at this point I don’t care whodunnit 50 years ago. There are a many unsolved crimes in history. Just add this to the long list.

I went to hang out with a friend. We took long walks to get away from the endless, morbid reiteration of the life and death of John F. Kennedy.

Gradually, life returned to normal, whatever that is. Lyndon Baines Johnson was in office. It was all about civil rights and Vietnam. I finished college, got married, wound up in the hospital and had my first near-death experience. There would be a lot more assassinations in the near future. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. I never got used to them, but I stopped being shocked. Which is shocking.

The 1960s were not about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. This was the decade of war, the draft, anti-war protests and civil rights. When flunking out of college meant you were going to Vietnam and maybe you wouldn’t come back. Strange how quickly we forget, replacing history with mythology.

November 22, 1963 was the end of political innocence for everyone, Democrats, Republicans, everyone. An abrupt turning part. The beginning of the road we find ourselves on today.

A president — our president — had been assassinated. Kennedy wasn’t the only U.S. President to be assassinated, but he was the first in modern times. The first TV president. A young, handsome guy. Especially important to my generation, a symbol that the torch really had passed to a new generation. We took that call to arms seriously.

It’s hard for me to look at politics today, see how petty we’ve become. Kennedy’s assassination was an end and a beginning. He was the last President to get a pass on his personal life. The first president to use electronic media to win an election. It was the beginning of a political divide that keeps getting deeper with each passing year.

Politics isn’t about real issues anymore. It’s insinuation, innuendo, and rumor. How narrow-minded and hateful we’ve become. It will pass I suppose. All things do. But when? For more than half a century, we’ve been marching down this ugly road to which I see no end.


Another year, another anniversary. It seems, given recent events, especially timely to remember where hatred leads.

Terror, born in hatred and nurtured by evil, doesn’t always come from somewhere else. We grow our own bad guys, too. It’s why I cringe at the over-simplified “meme psychology” that currently dominates media. Education doesn’t cure evil. Nor does sending in the Marines. Evil will always be us. We need to recognize it for what it is. Even when it smiles and makes pretty promises.

It happened — or perhaps culminated — on November 18, 1978. Which makes today the 37th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, one of the most bizarre, horrible events of the 20th century

If you were old enough to read or understand television news in 1978, you remember the Jonestown Massacre. With religious fanaticism and radical fundamentalism enjoying a groundswell of popularity — even among people who ought to know better — it’s a good time to remember where exhortations of violence can ultimately lead.


The phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” has become common parlance for “to blindly follow.” It carries a negative connotation.

The “Kool Aid” references go all the back to the 1950s when it was the typical drink for children on suburban summer afternoons. The origin of the saying is something else — darker, and different. It has become the kind of bland rhetoric about which we don’t give a thought, but its roots lie in horror.

Before we talk about Kool-Aid, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to that particularly awful episode of American history.


Jim Jones, cult leader and mass murderer, was a complex madman. A communist and occasional minister, he founded his pseudo-church in the late 1950s. He called it the “Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church,” which became known simply as the “Peoples Temple.”

The lack of a possessive apostrophe was intentional. The name was supposed to refer to “the people of the world.” Jones called it a church, but it was closer to a warped version of a Marxist commune based on a hodgepodge of Christian references and paranoid conspiracy theories.

The Peoples Temple was a cult requiring total obedience and commitment from its members. Jones was the cult’s leader — and a homicidal maniac.

He had positive attributes too. Jim and Marceline Jones were in favor of racial integration. They adopted kids from varying backgrounds. They were the first white family in Indiana to adopt an African-American boy. Other adopted children included three Korean Americans, one Native American, and a handful of white kids. They also had a child of their own. Jones called his adopted kids the “Rainbow Family.” He made a name for himself desegregating institutions in Indiana.

jim_jones jonestown

Before you get dewy-eyed about this, know this story climaxes with the murder of the Jones children by their parents.

The Peoples Temple continued to expand through the 1960s. Jones gradually abandoned his Marxism. His preaching began to focus on impending nuclear apocalypse. He even specified a date — July 15, 1967 — and suggested that afterwards, a socialist paradise would exist on Earth. Where would the new Eden be?

Jones decided on Redwood Valley, California. Before the expected apocalypse, he moved the Temple and its peoples there. When the end-of-the-world deadline passed without a holocaust, Jones quit pretending to be Christian and revealed himself as an atheist who used religion to give lend legitimacy to his bizarre opinions. Jones announced that “Those who remained drugged with the opiate of religion must be brought to enlightenment — socialism.” Prophetic words since Jones was a drug addict who preferred literal to metaphorical opiates.

As media attention increased, Jones worried the Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt religious status was in danger. He was paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community — probably with justification.

In 1977, Jones moved the Temple and its people to a different site that Jones had been working on since 1974. It was located in Guyana and he modestly named it “Jonestown.” It was a bleak, inhospitable place. Built on 4000 acres with limited access to water, it was much small and overcrowded. The possibility of starvation was never far.


Nonetheless, Jones decided his people would farm the land of his utopia. He had put together several million dollars before getting to Jonestown (he confiscated all his followers’ money), but wealth was not distributed. He barely used any of the money for himself and lived in a tiny, bare-bones shared house.


U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown in November of 1978. Rumors of peculiar goings-on were leaking out of Jonestown. Ryan decided to investigate rumors of abuses in Jonestown. Ryan didn’t travel alone. He took a contingent of media people including NBC News correspondent Don Harris and other reporters, plus relatives of Jonestown residents. He assumed that this would protect him — a major miscalculation.

During his visit to Jonestown, Congressman Ryan talked to more than a dozen Temple members, all of whom said they wanted to leave. Several of them passed a note saying: “Please help us get out of Jonestown” to news anchor Harris.

If the number of defectors seems low considering the more than 900 residents of Jonestown, remember they had not been allowed to talk to most of the “fellowship.” The number of those who wanted to leave could have been much more. We’ll never know.

Ryan began processing the paperwork to repatriate Temple members. In the middle of this, Ryan was attacked with a knife by temple member Don Sly. This would-be assassin was stopped before Ryan was hurt. Eventually the Ryan party decided to leave. They and the Jonestown defectors drove to the airstrip and boarded planes.

Jim Jones had other plans. He sent armed Temple members — his “Red Brigade” — after the Congressional party. These creepy “soldiers of the Temple” opened fire on them, killing Ryan, a Temple defector,  three members of the media, and wounding eleven others. The survivors fled into the jungle.

jonestown massacre anniversary

When the murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones promptly started what he called a “White Night” meeting. He invited all Temple members. This wasn’t the first White Night. Jones had hosted previous White Night meetings in which he suggested U.S. intelligence agencies would soon attack Jonestown.

He had even staged fake attacks to add a realism, though it’s hard to believe anyone was fooled. Faced with this invasion scenario, Jones told Temple members they could stay and fight imaginary invaders. They could take off for the USSR or run into the jungles of Guyana. Or they could commit mass suicide.

On previous occasions Temple members had opted for suicide. Not satisfied, Jones had tested their commitment by giving them cups of liquid that supposedly contained poison. Which they drank (???). After a while, Jones told them the liquid wasn’t poison — but one day it would be.

Jim Jones had been stockpiling poisons — cyanide and other drugs — for years. On this final White Night, Jones was no longer testing his followers. It was time to kill them all.


After the airstrip murders outside Jonestown, Jim Jones ordered Temple members to create a fruity mix containing a cocktail of chemicals that included cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine (Phenergan — a sedative), chloral hydrate (a sedative/hypnotic sometimes called “knockout drops”), and Flavor Aid, a beverage similar to Kool-Aid.

Jones told his followers they should commit suicide to make a political point. What that point was supposed to be is still a matter of considerable debate. Temple member Christine Miller suggested flying members to the USSR.

Of course, Jones was never interested in escape. His answer was death. Lots of it. He pointed out to his followers that Congressman Ryan was dead (and whose fault was that?)  which would surely bring down the weight of American retribution. An audiotape of this meeting exists. It is as creepy as you’d expect.

Finally, it was time for detailed instructions which — still baffling to me — the followers did as instructed. I will never understand why.

Jones insisted mothers squirt poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. As their children died, mothers were allowed to drink poison from cups. Temple members wandered out onto the ground where eventually more than 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. A handful of survivors — mostly those who were away on errands or playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place — survived.

Jonestown massacre

Jones did not drink poison. He died from a gunshot to the head. It’s unclear if it was self-inflicted. Jones probably died last or nearly so and likely preferred a gun to cyanide. He had witnessed the horrendous effects of death by cyanide and no doubt wanted something quicker.


In the wake of the tragedy at Jonestown, the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a popular term for blind obedience, as Temple members had apparently accepted their cups of poison without objection. According to various accounts, the primary beverage used at Jonestown was actually Flavor Aid (sometimes “Flav-R-Aid”) — although both Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid were used.

Kool-Aid was better known than Flavor-Aid. Kool-Aid was introduced in 1927 in powdered form. When Americans thought about a powdered fruity drink mix (other than “Tang”), “Kool-Aid” came immediately to mind.

So, although Kool-Aid and Flavor-Aid were both present at Jonestown, the phrase “(don’t) drink the Kool-Aid” has become entrenched in popular lingo.

Personally, I never touch the stuff.


For reasons that completely elude me, quite a few people are rejecting vaccination. They have somehow rationalized away some of the most important progress in human history. The result has been the reappearance of diseases we conquered, of which we thought we’d seen the last.

I remember the annual terror the summertime brought before polio vaccines made the world a safe place to be a kid.


I remember lining up in school — a first grader — with all the other kids to get my shot and how happy our parents were that finally, we didn’t live under the terrible shadow of polio.

Here’s a reminder of how things were before there was such a thing as a polio vaccination, when summer was filled with fear for every child, everywhere.

Today would be Jonas Salk’s 101st birthday. Conquering polio was not only about Dr. Salk, though he was first at the starting line. As polio ravaged patients worldwide, two gifted American researchers developed distinct vaccines against it. Then the question was: Which one to use?

By Gilbert King – Smithsonian.com – April 3, 2012

They were two young Jewish men who grew up just a few years apart in the New York area during the Great Depression. Though both were both drawn to the study of medicine and did not know each other at the time, their names would be linked in a heroic struggle that played out on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

polio ward

In the end, both Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk could rightfully claim credit for one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments—the near-eradication of polio in the 20th century. And yet debate still echoes over whose method is best suited for the mass vaccination needed to finish the job: Salk’s injected, dead-virus vaccine or Sabin’s oral, live-virus version.

In the first half of the 20th century, Americans lived in fear of the incurable paralytic poliomyelitis (polio) disease, which they barely understood and knew not how to contain. That the disease led to some kind of infection in the central nervous system that crippled so many children, and even a president (Franklin D. Roosevelt) was alarming enough.

Polio-salk-vaccine newspaper

But the psychological trauma that followed a neighborhood outbreak resonated. Under the mistaken belief that poor sanitary conditions during the “polio season” of summer increased exposure to the virus, people resorted to measures that had been used to combat the spread of influenza or the plague. Areas were quarantined, schools and movie theaters were closed, windows were sealed shut in the heat of summer, public swimming pools were abandoned, and draft inductions were suspended.

Just about 100 years ago, in 1916, polio rampaged through the U.S.

Just about 100 years ago, in 1916, polio rampaged through the U.S.

Worse, many hospitals refused to admit patients who were believed to have contracted polio, and the afflicted were forced to rely on home care by doctors and nurses who could do little more than fit children for braces and crutches. In its early stages, polio paralyzed some patients’ chest muscles; if they were fortunate, they would be placed in an “iron lung,” a tank respirator with vacuum pumps pressurized to pull air in and out of the lungs. The iron lungs saved lives, but became an intimidating visual reminder of polio’s often devastating effects.


“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
Michael Crichton

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Mark Twain

“History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.”
James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans

“The end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.”
Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
Marcus Tullius Cicero

Don’t you just love pithy quotes? They always get me to thinking, either because I agree … or disagree. Today I went mentally wandering down the pathways of history because someone repeated something I’ve heard a million times before, the ubiquitous quote everyone has heard and at which, we automatically nod in agreement. Everyone says it, so it has to be true, doesn’t it?

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
Edmund Burke

Everything that is happening or will ever happen, has happened before. That most people don’t remember and have never read any history is sad. Yet I have come to believe that ignorance of history has little bearing on what we (collectively) do.

history Cartoon

I love history. I want other people to love it as much as I do, if for no better reason than to give me more people to talk to who share my passion. As a history buff, I want to believe if people knew history, they would not repeat the same bad behavior, make the same errors as we have made in the past.

I suspect I’m indulging in wishful thinking. We are deluded into thinking that lack of knowledge is the root of evil. But … Hitler (for example) wanted to be Charlemagne or Napoleon. He knew history. He was not unaware. He wanted to rewrite history, stand on its shoulders. Laugh at the past.

Lack of awareness or failure to remember is the symptom, not the problem.

It’s human determination to prove history wrong which is so destructive. More to the point, we — people — want to prove we are above or outside history, not subject to its rules. This stubbornness is at the core of many of the most monstrous, terrible things we do. We keep trying to prove we aren’t subject to the same forces that have directed the past.

Not remembering history does not condemn us to repeat it. Refusing to accept the outcome of history because we want what we want — most particularly in combination with greed, and lust for power, and against all logic and reason — that is what condemns us.


The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir


I recently bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday and it fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that was sent to book club members.

A large part of my job was reading books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had huge personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context. Maybe brag a little.

The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, but not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any genre except perhaps speculative fiction, a catch-all term for odd books. Time travel? Sort of. But without the machinery.

gladiators2The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago. His observations on modern society are priceless.

For example, while in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers who attend to his needs. His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

“You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would argue the point? Not me.

That is paraphrasing, of course, but it’s the spirit of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.

This is a brilliant, unique book. It stands apart from all the books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not pretty.

Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body. But The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ben Sapir only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Finding copies of Ben Sapir’s books is challenging. If you can buy or borrow one, it’s a must-read, even if science fiction is not normally your favorite genre. It’s a worth your time.

It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. Read it if you can.

Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a gripping story too.

Happy hunting and with a bit of luck, happy reading!


I have been a-wandering in a strange, alternative universe called Facebook. It’s a place where anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.

At some point yesterday evening I stumbled into a heated interchange that started with the potential candidacy of idiot doctor Ben Carson and roamed far afield.

Flag on the harbor

confederate flag

At some point, someone averred: “In this country majority rules, so if most of the people in a state want to fly the Confederate flag, they can. It’s IN THE CONSTITUTION.”  Along the way, someone else suggested the losers of a war don’t get to fly their flag. The south lost the war (a point often overlooked in such discussions) and they should get over it. 

I asked if the majority in a state favored slavery, would that be okay too? Most of the combatants in this discussion said yes, which proved my fundamental point. That I was interfacing with morons.

No, it isn’t in the Constitution. There’s nothing at all about flags in the Constitution. Not a word. Nothing guaranteeing rights pertaining to flags. As far as the other stuff goes, the Constitution is not designed to protect the rights of the majority. Quite the opposite. Its intent is to protect the rights of minorities because otherwise, you have tyranny.

Sorry. I digressed.

This brought a flurry of rebuttals and name-calling, brought to a head when someone offered a golden nugget.

“The Confederate flag was a battle flag and had nothing to do with slavery. In fact, the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. It was about taxes.”

Although I know arguing with idiots is a waste of perfectly good time I could productively use playing mindless games, I had to say something. There is so much historical evidence proving that the Civil War was about slavery and nothing but slavery.

United States Slave Trade

United States Slave Trade

The Civil War was predestined and the framers of the Constitution knew it. Our founding fathers made a deal with the devil to allow slavery. If they had not, there would never have been a United States. The Constitution would not have passed, might very well never have been written.

Slavery was the burning issue during the constitutional convention in 1788 and it tore the country apart a mere two generations later. They knew it would. The guys who wrote the Constitution may have wimped out, but they knew it wasn’t a real solution, just a band-aid. They also knew the issue would come to war and blood and death. It was that kind of issue.

To declare otherwise is plain ignorant. There are lots of aspects of history that are disputable, but this isn’t one of them. There is too much evidence in the form of diaries and writings — not to mention correspondence between famous guys like Jefferson, Adams, and Washington.

Sometimes, I think Americans must be the happiest people on earth, because we are surely the most ignorant. (And we know ignorance is bliss, right?)


My statement was quickly swallowed by passionate southerners declaring I was an out-of-control left-wing lying Yankee liberal socialist commie. I retreated to a stupid pop-the-bubble game and the battle went on without me.

Why do I bother?