Atop Mauna Kea, a final Aloha

Mauna Kea’s Lake Waiau, sacred in the Hawaiian culture.

From Dennis Nealon’s blog

HAWAII, THE BIG ISLAND  — Up and up we drive to the top of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano 13,800 feet above sea level, where our concentration slips and we become aware of our breathing because the air is so thin. Our ears are popping.

The narrow road twists and turns, bending 90 degrees in spots. At the wheel with six passengers in tow, including my wife and son, two of my sisters, and two extended family members, I try to stare at the blacktop directly in front of me because the bottomless valleys on the side of the road look terrifying. Up here, we are in the clouds, small and exceedingly vulnerable.

Before beginning the drive up, we gather with others who have made the trip, including my brother’s wife, his two daughters, two of his old friends and former bandmates, and one of their wives. Our little convoy stops at a rest point at 9,000 feet to walk around and acclimatize ourselves for the final push to the summit.

We have come here to spread my big brother’s ashes, to commend his spirit if you will to the wind and the sea, and the sun and the sky, beneath the billions of stars that light the night up here where otherwise once the sun sets there must be nothing but darkness and silence. I marvel for a moment over this place where Mike wanted to end up, with its haunting juxtaposition of extreme beauty and utter loneliness.

On the drive, through the grey mist that beads up on the windows, we sense the abyss to our left and then our right. The sister seated next to me white-knuckles the upholstery, urging me to slow down just a little. I don’t like co-pilots, but this time I don’t blame her for saying something.

We get out of our SUVs just below the famous Mauna Kea Observatories and encounter a Mars-scape of lava rock and red dirt that is unusually soft in some spots – as light as the sand on the beaches now thousands of feet below us. It can be frigid up here, but on this sunny July morning the temperature hovers around 45 to 50 degrees, and the wind is gentle and easy apart from a few gusts. The sky is so blue that it looks fake – like a green screen from the movies. You think it can’t be real; nothing’s that beautiful.

The observatories on Mauna Kea.

It’s not a typical day up here, where the temperatures can fall well below freezing, the wind can howl, and the mist and clouds can sometimes totally eclipse the top third of the peak.

This trip is not for the timid, but it’s not the death-defying ordeal that some have depicted, either. It can be done, as our little platoon from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Seattle, Texas, and Hawaii proved, with a willingness to endure the flight to the Big Island, a little reckless abandon, a four wheel-drive vehicle, and a lot of drinking water.

Our group and the path leading to Lake Waiau.

Just below the pinnacle of Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for our sky father, Mauna a Wakea, but sometimes translated as White Mountain for its snowcap), we continue on foot across the desolation to Lake Waiau (Why-ow), a place that is sacred in the Hawaiian culture because it seems magically out of place atop this towering, volcanic mound. Located inside the Pu’u Waiau cinder cone, the lake somehow retains water. Surely the gods must have sited it here.

To reach the lake at about 13,000 feet we set off on a hike that we’re told should take about 10 or 15 minutes. It requires at least 30, though, as our little troop lags into sections and stops several times so we can catch our breath. Early on, one member of the group stumbles and falls butt-first on the rocks, as if to remind us that we’re fools for having committed to this. Bruised but otherwise uninjured, she collects herself and we plod on.

Up ahead a thin dusty trail cuts through the lava rock. It’s only 18 or 24 inches or so wide, and it mocks us, dipping down and then up again, beckoning our party on to one rise and then another. Finally, we reach a high point on the horizon and the lake comes into view. Its waters are still, green, and dark, nothing like the teal and azure sea below. The only sound I can hear is my heartbeat and breathing and that wind rushing over my ears now and again – the gusts coming more frequently now.

One by one, we push a hand into the clear plastic bag of Mike’s ashes and offer them up to the lake. Some of us say a few words. Others are quiet. What we don’t say is that just making it up here is a significant accomplishment. We’ve done it for Mike, and we’re glad for that. Still, knowing that we have to make the hike back to the cars weighs on us.

As we finish our unscripted memorial service for Mike I don’t feel overwhelmed by sadness at this place on top of the world. Looking at the beads and leis and other offerings that others have left behind in their own sorrow, there’s mostly a feeling of wonder and awe. And there is that “closure” thing that people talk about – perhaps a last Aloha to our brother, our father, our friend.

 

 

The Dakota Pipeline Project: Conjuring Sins of a Blood-Soaked Past  

See caption: bottom of post

From Dennis Nealon’s blog

And the so-called white so-called race
Digs for itself a pit of disgrace…

You thought it was over but it’s just like before
Will there never be an end to the Indian wars?

 Bruce Cockburn’s “Indian Wars”

“The truth is that in looking at the Dakota Pipeline controversy, we see a dark ghost from the 1830s when the United States embarked on the large-scale removal of indigenous peoples from the areas where Americans were settling.”

In the 19th century, they called it Manifest Destiny, a grand misnomer for America’s merciless march west across the vast plains inhabited by native tribes—the Ute, the Apache, Comanche, and Oglala Sioux—that had been there long “before the Romans thought of Rome.”[1]

The justification behind Manifest Destiny was that the United States had a given right to take and tame that area stretching across North America from coast to coast. Nothing would stand in the way of U.S. expansion, the concept ordained. And of course in the end nothing did, including whole tribes of American Indians (not to mention millions of buffalo) who were annihilated by the U.S. government or forced onto reservations.

Those “Indian Wars” from the 1830s are a very real chapter in our country’s history, one that we don’t like to discuss honestly or publicly. We don’t go out of our way to really teach new generations about it, either. No, when conversation turns to the so-called taming and settlement of the West, the bloodshed—what some call the U.S. genocide—is not highlighted. Instead, we bury the lead, muting our crimes with an unspoken shame and pointing instead at things like American exceptionalism.

Now this Manifest Destiny thing is back, albeit in a more limited iteration called the Dakota Pipeline—a project that Native American tribes and climate activists have been fighting because they say it will desecrate sacred Indian sites and endanger drinking water near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

In the waning days of his presidency, President Obama halted that project to allow time for more study, but President Trump resuscitated it with a Jan. 24, 2017 executive order allowing work to proceed. The project involves building a tunnel under Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River system. Supporters say the pipeline is safer than rail or trucks to transport the oil. But Linda Black Elk, one resident of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, located nearby the project site, told Newsweek magazine the project amounts to “cultural genocide.”

How bizarre it is in this day and age to believe that the United States would push ahead with a project like this, that it would ignore the Indians’ fears about land that they deem to be sacred. Is there no other way to accomplish the pipeline’s goals? Do they have to make this happen? Is Washington still fighting the Indian Wars? Is the Trump administration completely tone deaf to history here?

It is interesting to consider that President Trump just recently was vociferously criticized for suggesting the United States was not innocent—that like Russia and Vladimir Putin America has had its share of killers. When he suggested that idea in reaction to a question about Putin’s reputation, Trump was right, technically at least. But no one, including Trump, thought to cite America’s sins of the early 19th century, or to say that U.S. expansion domestically was soaked in blood and extinction. Accepting this doesn’t make you un-American or unpatriotic. It means you understand where we have sometimes gone horribly wrong in creating our own history, in fulfilling that Manifest Destiny.

The truth is that in looking at the Dakota Pipeline controversy, we see a dark ghost from the 1830s when the United States embarked on the large-scale removal of indigenous peoples from the areas where Americans were settling.

A lawyer for the Dakota pipeline opposition, vowing to continue the Indians’ fight against the pipeline, said that Trump’s reversal of the Obama administration’s decision to postpone the project “continues a historic pattern of broken promises to Indian Tribes and violation of treaty rights.”

Jan Hasselman told the Independent’s Andrew Buncombe that, “The Standing Rock tribe is used to tyranny, and they are used to colonization. They have been facing this for the last 500 years.”

He said the protests, which have drawn thousands to the project site, would continue. Opponents have been fighting the pipeline saying that it not only will wreak havoc on the water supply but will also trample on the civil rights of an indigenous people. But, according to reports from Reuters and other news outlets, legal experts agree the tribe faces long odds in convincing any court to halt the $3.8 billion project led by Energy Transfer Partners LP, which, with the Trump reversal, could begin operation as soon as June.

Reuters reported that the U.S. Army, which owns the land through its Corps of Engineers, has granted the final permit for the pipeline.

The controversy comes at a time when the United States should be deciding where—finally—on the National Mall to erect a monument to America’s indigenous tribes, along with those that honor MLK, FDR, and veterans of WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. But instead the Trump administration is shoving aside the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, repeating history and sewing more regret by doing exactly the wrong thing.

[1] From Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s Indian Wars.

Photo: Before President Trump’s reversal
CANNON BALL, NORTH DAKOTA, Dec. 4, 2016 — Sioux Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Seven Council Fires, arrives at the Sacred Circle to announce that the US Army Corps of Engineers will no longer grant access to the Dakota Access Pipeline to put their pipe line on the boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation at Oceti Sakowin camp. Native Americans and activists from around the country have been gathering at the camp for several months trying to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed 1,172-mile-long pipeline would transport oil from the North Dakota Bakken region through South Dakota, Iowa and into Illinois. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Welcome to the New American Civil War  

From Dennis Nealon’s blog

For all of their democratic righteousness and celebratory vibrations, the historic anti-Trump marches also raise troubling questions about the future of American government

 

So now what?  What’s next?

The massive marches against Donald J. Trump gave his opponents what they wanted. The millions of American women who hit the streets to denounce the new President the day after his Jan. 20, 2017 inauguration stuck a finger in the eye of the new Commander-In-Chief, and for a moment at least they soothed the fury brought by the shocking defeat of a candidate who won more popular votes than any other loser of a presidential election in U.S. history.

The protests also revealed a new way of challenging presidential elections, one in which losing, as defined in the Constitution, is depicted by millions of voters on the losing side as being a mere technicality.

On a positive note, the demonstrations revealed in spectacular fashion what America is—a nation where citizens can assemble freely and peacefully to denounce their new President and then return home happily, in time for a late supper.

History will judge the marches as unprecedented; a phenomenon that embodies what the French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) meant when he wrote that the United States set the standard for equality in action. Tocqueville of course came to the United States in 1831 to study the country’s prison system then returned home to write “Democracy in America” (1835), a treatise on American government as a great experiment.

Alexis-de-TocquevilleHis work, which still stands as of one of the most influential surveys of the country’s political character, has been updated by these protest marches, this winter of outrage—this pointed disdain for the legitimate outcome of the 2016 Presidential election.

While professing his admiration for “American individualism,” Tocqueville wondered whether “a society of individuals lacked the intermediate social structures—such as those provided by traditional hierarchies—to mediate relations with the state.” Now we know that those social structures that Tocqueville talked about do exist, in the form of this refuse-to-lose model for disputing a national election in the United States.

But for all of their history-making thunder, their sheer awe as a spectacle, and feel-good vibrations, the anti-Trump demonstrations leave us with some difficult observations, as well. The first of these is that the demonstrations reveal that the United States of 2017, to paraphrase what Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, is now met in a new civil war, one fought not with swords and rifles, but with the sticks and stones of social media and the harsh condemnations of Trump emblazoned on the protest signs.

Lost in the waves of protestors, obscured by the so-called pussy hats and profane anti-Trump placards, is the fact that the President, with 62,979,636 votes (46.1 percent), was duly and legitimately elected according to the Constitution of the United States. That this is utterly undisputed, or rather was proudly shrugged off by the protestors, accentuates the devil-may-care fervor of Trump’s antagonists. It also reveals a new swagger in the American electorate, one that says the results of a national election—or not getting your way with it—can be made to appear meaningless, if only for a time, and if enough people turn out to say so.

Trump won the Electoral College and thus the election by a score of 304 to 228. That Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes may count for a lot among the protestors, but it still connotes and always will mean nothing in terms of the official outcome. With all the numbers in, according to the dailywire.com, Clinton ended up with 65,844,610 votes, or 48.2 percent of the total ballots cast. That tally, reports dailywire.com, is good enough to give her the third most votes of any presidential candidate in history (Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 elections are first and second, respectively).

Clinton’s total beat Trump’s by 2,864,974 votes, a 2.1 percent margin. As a comparison, referencing again the numbers reported by dailywire.com, Al Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush in 2000 by less than 600,000 votes, just 0.5 percent: 50,999,897 (48.4 percent) to 50,456,002 (47.9 percent).

Still, the will of the millions who voted for Trump in the Rust Belt and elsewhere deserve full recognition. In the marches, those voters were rendered faceless—lost and unaccounted for in the denunciations. But these millions of voters are real. They, and not the demonstrators, decided the election. They too are American citizens, mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters, who in the end also want good things for the United States and for themselves but have their own perspectives—legitimate and valid opinions—for the direction the country should go and who should lead it.

New Trump signsThese marches, spun in the name of inclusiveness and human rights, are an affront to millions of Trump supporters, much in the same way that the north once offended the south with its moral stands against slavery and questioning of states’ rights.

In the wake of these marches, we are left with more than a few things to ponder. Is this manner of rejecting the outcome of Presidential elections the new normal? Is it here to stay? Will the side that loses the next election thumb its nose at the Constitution and take to the streets, as well? Can the Presidential election process survive? Will the Electoral College?

Like it or not, the new administration has to face the fact that millions of Americans no longer abide by the old formula that, in the end, voters would come together to support a new President whether they voted for him or not. This is the new political reality in the United States—that some, indeed millions, will openly refuse to coalesce around a duly elected candidate. Their stated intention now is to ride Trump at every turn, to wag a finger in his face at each word and with every deed.

We know this for certain now: America is a house irrevocably divided—at least for the next four years. The question for Trump is how can he govern with most of the electorate vehemently opposed to him, amid a relentless din of dissention. This raises another question: is this good for our government? For the country’s future?

Having Republican control of the House and Senate will help Trump enormously, but he will need to do something huge (as he might say), and good, and compassionate to quiet the protestors. To change the minds of millions and gain any additional public legitimacy, he may need to perform a miracle of biblical proportions.

Slouching off to vote
The choice in November is more of the same or rattle the system


“We will choose either an untrustworthy, expert political insider or a brash and, to many, wholly offensive businessman who’s never been elected to anything. Both are undesirable as individuals. But it’s important to understand that a vote for the former is a vote for consistency. A vote for the latter, a cry for anything that’s not more of the same. It’s as simple as that.” 


By Dennis Nealon

In 100 days, give or take, I will drive to the staid complex where I went to high schSilhouettes of people in line to voteool in my little town—more than a few years ago now. There, in an ancient gymnasium where my classmates and I learned to loath square dancing, dodge ball, and rope climbing, I will cast a vote for the 45th President of the United States.

But the choices that I will find on the ballot won’t just read “Hilary Rodham Clinton (D)” or “Donald Trump (R).” What I will see is, “More of the Same” and “Decidedly Not the Same.”

I won’t be complaining about having zero options when I get there, either. Because the choice in 2016 is not about these two nominees. Rather, each vote cast in this 57th presidential election will either be for supporting the status quo or insisting on change — any change at all that will, 1) give us a decisive government that aggressively attacks the country’s myriad crises domestically and abroad, and 2) generally upends the unholy, ineffectual political culture in Washington, D.C.

DCThis election is about the character of our government, and that’s how we should think about voting on November 8. Each vote — and there were more than 22 million cast in the primaries this year — will say a lot: either “it’s all good,” or little of it is.

Forget the primaries. Ignore the name calling. Disregard the human props, balloons, videos, pop anthems and stagecraft served up by the RNC and DNC in Cleveland and Philadelphia this summer, and we’re left with the indisputable fact that our nation’s capital hasn’t been about “by the people and for the people” for a long. long time. No, the District is a nation state unto itself, owned and operated by life-long, professional politicians, lobbyists, greasy political action committees, and the special interest groups that have like gypsy moths devoured the historical spirit of our government.

This election will determine if these forces remain entrenched in Washington or, particularly in the event of a Republican win, have to pack up en masse and job hunt like millions of other Americans do all the time. We will choose either an untrustworthy, expert political insider or a brash and, to many, wholly offensive businessman who’s never been elected to anything. Both are undesirable as individuals. But it’s important to understand that a vote for the former is a vote for consistency. A vote for the latter, a cry for anything that’s not more of the same. It’s as simple as that.

Hillary-Clinton-and-Trump.001None of the self-centered minions in D.C. is interested in change; they have it too good. While the parties and the nominees fight, the creature that is Washington rubs its hands together and keeps humming its own selfish tune. And what a song it is, if you’re in the club.

According to a 2015 report from the Center for Responsive Politics, our national politicians are rich and getting richer.

“It would take the combined wealth of more than 18 American households to equal the value of a single federal lawmaker’s household,” according to the CRP’s analysis of congressional wealth.

“The median net worth of a member of Congress was $1,029,505 in 2013 — a 2.5 percent increase from 2012 — compared with an average American household’s median net worth of $56,355. Once again, the majority of members of Congress are millionaires — 271 of the 533 members currently in office, or 50.8 percent.”

Hillary Clinton is one of them, a millionaire product of the culture in Washington. She is as fluent in D.C. as her running mate is in Spanish. This fact was the cornerstone of Bernie Sanders’ argument against her — the root of his derision toward the establishment and the refrain of his battle cry over the millions of dollars that Clinton made giving speeches for Wall Street audiences. It is what made him so popular among the more than 6.4 million Americans who called out Washington’s business-as-usual ethos and voted for Sanders.

Trump is a lot of things. Most of all he is a man who cannot hold his tongue; who lashes out, sometimes for good reason, against the largely hypocritical criticism aimed at him. He is crass, the embodiment of over-defensiveness. He says things that millions of others might also be saying, but only in the privacy of their own homes or during card games or teas or rounds of golf with their trusted friends.

He is also not really an “outsider” as he claims. He’s financed all manner of politicians in Washington on both sides of the aisle, throwing tens or thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars into the beltway. And he’s worked within the system for decades to build his own business empire. But he is not evil personified or the antichrist that the Democratic party machine and DNC would have us believe. The din against him, as the primary votes that he received prove, is being stoked not by the people as much as it is from the Washingtonians and devout liberals who think the country is pretty much alright the way it is.

Trump has never been elected to any public office. Like him or hate him, in the context of this Presidential election, he doesn’t just represent change. He is change. And his election, no matter how fearful some are of it, would at the very least disrupt and alter the cultural landscape in Washington, and maybe shake the lethargy and fecklessness out of our government, at least for a time.

The Gardner’s Empty Frames

Boston, MA

From Dennis Nealon’s Blog

INSIDE THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM 

What irony.

With the historic 1990 robbery at the Gardner Museum back on the front pages, people are again heading to this beautiful art-world mecca to see what they cannot see.

The museum’s “Palace Courtyard.” The Dutch Room is located on the second level.

Empty frames still hung on the walls—once the cradles of indescribable masterpieces—are a star attraction. Not the only lure. But an effective one. How do we know this? From eavesdropping in the “palace” today as visitors spoke quietly to each other or hung on a docent’s every word while she conjured the crime story in the very room where the thieves did their sinful deed.

It’s true: what’s bringing a lot of people through the doors of this beautiful oasis is what is no longer there. Head up to the Dutch Room on the second floor and see those empty frames, left just where they were when they still held some of the world’s most important art, like Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (south wall) and Vermeer’s The Concert (west wall). Staring at those frames in the partially darkened space, amid the muted footfalls and whispers of tourists, is like being in some sort of ghost story.  

Directly across from the empty frame that held Storm on the Sea of Galilee is Rembrandt’s own Self Portrait, done by the artist in 1629 when he was 23 years old. It’s still there. This stunning work—so life like that you want to have a conversation with the image—is thought to have been the master’s own marketing tool, an advertisement for his services. He hadn’t received any portrait commissions at the time, so one theory posits this is his demonstration piece. And what a gem it is.

Self Portrait

Eerily, the master’s self-portrait faces the empty frame where ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ once hung.

As it happens, Rembrandt’s oil-on-wood self-impersonation is looking directly across the room at the empty frame that held Storm on the Sea of Galilee. And that painted face in the self-portrait registers a look that could be a soft bewilderment or sad resignation over what’s occurred in that space.

Who can blame the Gardner curiosity crowd? Twenty-five years on, and the mystery of what exactly happened there in the black, early morning hours of March 18 only grows more intense.

Just this week, a new video appeared, stoking the mystery anew. The eerie clip depicts an unidentified man being buzzed into the premises, via a Palace Road security entrance, for a brief practice run a day before the theft happened. Yeah, that video raises a lot more questions. Maybe enough to keep us wondering for another quarter century.

Actually, many of the crime’s details have been pieced together by the countless security and law enforcement agencies that have investigated the theft. They know there were two thieves, the time they entered and left the museum, where they went inside, and so forth. You can even take a virtual tour of the crime. To calculate the number of words that have been written about the robbery, take the number of years that have passed since and multiply that by a few million.

But standing in the Dutch Room is where it hits you—driving your imagination into overdrive. And the questions come to run around your head. If these 13 works haven’t turned up anywhere at all, doesn’t that suggest that they are hidden in the private collection of some billionaire somewhere? You picture him (or her?) in silk pajamas and suede slippers, seated contentedly, the exalted lord of all Bond villains, perhaps stroking a creepy looking cat, staring up at his booty on the wall, cross-legged, sipping a Scotch or the like.

You wonder about all of the possible explanations for the robbery—all of the suppositions out there. And you add your own to the pile. Pretend that the art never left the building. It’s been hidden right there, underfoot, the whole time; left practically in plain sight by a maniacal marketing genius with a plan to stage the robbery and build an international buzz to keep visitors pouring through the doors. The icing on his idea? Leave the frames up on the walls, right where they were when they had the canvasses in them. 

It’s the gender thing, stupid

HillaryOnce fully manifested, the symbolism alone of electing the first woman President may turn into an unstoppable locomotive. It this doesn’t happen in 2016, look past Hillary to 2020. It’s inevitable.

 

If Hillary Clinton gets her party’s nomination and is elected President of the United States, it won’t be because of her over-the-top qualifications and feel-good pledge to end socio-economic inequality and help every individual who ever needed help. And it won’t happen because of her promise to lift up the left-out and level the stereotypical playing field.

In the end, Hillary Clinton may well get elected because she is a woman. Or rather, because of the electorate’s seeming inability to resist historic transformation purely for historic transformation’s sake. The people who got Barack Obama elected understood this widespread neediness well, and ran hard with it across the goal line. Hillary hopes to do the same.

Is she qualified to be President? Yes. She has the resume. Does she deserve to be commander-in-chief? Maybe; maybe not. Is she the best candidate? Maybe or maybe not. It’s too soon to tell.

But gender should not be a determining factor in who is elected President. Voting for Hillary Clinton next fall just because she is a woman won’t attest to anyone’s enlightenment. That enlightenment—that level of progressiveness—will be realized when as a nation we choose a man or a woman who is the best person to lead regardless of characteristics like gender or race or party affiliation for that matter. That kind of open mindedness should constitute our ambition and resolve as voters.

We’re not there yet. And it’s easy to believe for 2016 that if Hillary gets enough votes to take Bill back to the White House with her it will be because she, like Obama, was able to harness our emotional yearning to appear culturally correct; it will happen because enough voters jumped on a proverbial bandwagon; became convinced that it was “just time” to elect a woman.

Just as Obama was elected largely because of what he represented and not who he was or had accomplished, Hillary will win the presidency—or not—based on a marketing campaign and the endless American thirst for symbolism in the extreme. “I voted for the first African-American President; look how enlightened I am” swept Obama into the White House, and the “woman” iteration of this may very well work for Hillary Clinton.

The timing is right. Americans need a feel-good moment, a pink cloud to make us seem bigger than we are—to eclipse the “holy-shit” incidences of rising racism, the escalating law enforcement problems in the United States, and terrorism’s assault on morality and sanity domestically and abroad.

Hillary wins if and when the national refrain becomes, “I did this. We did this. Look at me. Look at us. We made history.” She gets elected after the James Carville equivalent for Camp Hillary—or maybe the Ragin’ Cajun himself—writes, “It’s the gender thing, stupid” on the dry-erase board in Hillary’s campaign headquarters.

Americans love symbolism; it’s in the national bloodstream. It’s our thing, inherent in who and what we are. The United States was built on it and we’ve been justifiably wallowing in it for more than two centuries: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the fourth of July, fireworks and flags, anything red, white and blue.

In between now and the party conventions and election in November 2016, Team Hillary will wage a modern, atypical campaign based on standard Democratic postures. We heard some of this in Hillary’s first major stump speech on June 11, when she positioned herself as the champion of the little guy—or little girl, if you will. She is going to make sure everyone has an equal chance of living the American Dream, or at least of dreaming it. The Clinton platform is gigantic in scope and growing, festooned with wonderful ideas that no one would oppose. Who isn’t in favor of warm and sunny weather all the time?

In the Clinton camp and campaign, big industry and millionaires and billionaires are the enemy. Big government, then, is your best buddy, although no one on Hillary’s side is going to tweet that.

This won’t be posted either, but it’s true that helping the lower middle class and poor catch up will require that the spigot in D.C. be fixed in the full-on position. This cost issue, incidentally, will constitute Jeb Bush’s counter campaign strategy. In a phrase, Bush’s and the GOP’s response will be this: “We all want these things, Mrs. Clinton, but your vision of utopia is not only delusional, it’s also financially unobtainable—it’s un-American, actually, a pie in the sky fantasy.”

The Hillary campaign will be stealth, relying heavily on social media as both of Obama’s contests did, and less on actual contact with the candidate and even less still on messaging through traditional media representatives, who ask difficult questions and tend to stalk candidates for gotcha opportunities.

Eventually, as the Hillary bus rolls along, her campaign strategy will move directly to the gender thing. It’s in her champion-of-the-have-nots platform already, but it’s not the lead punch yet.

Let the first-woman thing sink in incrementally and watch it explode on its own. That’s the early plan for Camp Clinton. She wants to be President like no one else who’s ever sought the office. But she also needs to believe she will have won the White House not because she is a woman, but based on what she’s done; on how smart, hard working and compassionate she is.

But the larger-than-large personality that is Hillary Clinton won’t much matter ultimately. The fact that she is the personification of historic change will.

Once fully manifested, the symbolism alone of electing the first woman President may turn into an unstoppable locomotive. It this doesn’t happen in 2016, look past Hillary to 2020. It’s inevitable. Perhaps as predictable as inequality and poverty.

Trained to Consume and Upgrade

That new purchase got you down? An expert in the field says it’s all part of the marketing plan


“Consumer satisfaction has suffered as a result, and product disappointment typically happens in hours or days instead of years.”
Professor William Gribbons, director of Bentley University’s User Experience Graduate Program

It’s safe to say that most if not all consumers of electronic devices have a box of discarded phone cases and chargers, or tablet folios, sitting somewhere in their homes. I do, and one day I was pawing futilely through these castaways to see if any of them could be “repurposed,” as they say.

As I stared down into my pile, an unsettling realization kicked in. This stuff, perhaps hundreds of dollars worth, is still in great shape. Heck, I thought, it even smells new. I still have some of the packages and boxes it came in. But it’s detritus now; completely useless. As any consumer knows, accessories purchased for one model phone or tablet don’t fit or work with the upgrades that as consumers and technology enthusiasts we have to have.

And so the stuff sits there, a rude reminder of 1) the hard-earned, gone-forever cash shelled out to acquire it all, and 2) the titanic wastefulness embodied in our unslakable yearning to own the latest and greatest stuff.

I was reminded of a recent television commercial in which a woman buys what she thinks is the newest, quickest, best tablet only to get leveled by an advertisement for the “much-improved” upgrade right after leaving the store. Elated, then crushed, she cries, “I just got this one.”

These observations left me wanting to know what had turned us all into purchase zombies – what was behind our endless quest to own the best and the fastest and the newest stuff. Since I was working as a senior publicist at an absolutely outstanding university, Bentley, and looking for story ideas, I got in touch with a great source, Professor Bill Gribbons, director of the Waltham, Mass., school’s User Experience Graduate Program.

Here is what he had to say.

The speed at which consumers become disappointed with purchases – from cell phones to automobiles – has been accelerating dramatically in recent years as manufacturers race to innovate and push obsolete-by-design products into the marketplace.

“Nothing is sustainable for the long-term,” says Gribbons.

“There is a pull created by industry,” he adds. “The demand of the marketplace today is that things have to keep constantly changing.”

Consumer satisfaction has suffered as a result, and product disappointment typically happens in hours or days instead of years.

That reaction has served to fuel a national compulsion on the part of consumers to chase newer, sleeker models just to keep up with questionable product upgrades. Manufacturing and marketing initiatives are being built entirely around creating and managing this neediness.

Gribbons, founder of Bentley’s Design and User Experience Center, said this “continuous innovation” dynamic isn’t brand new; its roots date back to perhaps 1980 and the rise of ever-changing computer software packages.

“But the question we’re faced with now,” he says, is, ‘can we keep this up economically and environmentally?’”

Gribbons is among those who voice concern over the exploitation and depletion of rare earth, raw materials that are used in smartphones and other tech devices, such as yttrium or lanthanum. And he wonders if recycling or disposal of cell phones and other tech devices on a massive scale can be managed over the long-term.

“Clearly this new business ethos is good for, well, business,” says Gribbons. “But is it good for the overall economy and the earth?”

Gribbons addresses these and other sustainability issues as part of an innovation course he teaches in Bentley’s MBA program.

Lament of the Modern-Era MLB Fan

From Dennis Nealon’s blog


Loving Big League Baseball is Tougher When Rosters Vanish and Players Are Like Actors Hired for Limited Engagements

The MLB as Mega Temp Agency

“Well you know I’ve never met the guys. So you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.”

“I say, Who’s on first, What’s on second. I Don’t Know’s on third.”
— Lou Costello and Bud Abbott, “Who’s on First?”

 

Trading players in the Great American Pastime has been around since the late 19th century, but with its hyper-corporate culture and billions of dollars in play Major League Baseball has taken Red-Rover, Red-Rover to new heights.

MLB has fully completed the transition. The days when fans got to know and follow “teams” with consistent rosters are gone, slowly lost to any number of factors including a massive infusion of cash, establishment of free agency in 1975, and the modern era’s “Moneyball” approach to roster building.

At a time when Major League Baseball floats on an ocean of cash, Moneyball is predicated on paying far less in overall payroll while still notching a lot of wins and playing in the post-season (Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics). But it is that spreadsheet practice, born of one club’s fight to compete with far-richer franchises, that has helped get us to where we are today, where all players are just pawns, money is king, and rosters change on a dime.

Today, wherever baseball is played, it is still a wondrous thing to behold. Few experiences compare to a summer night or sunny afternoon at Fenway Park, or at any ball field for that matter. The game is timeless, and the rules and strategies, the ballpark sights and sounds, all of the wonderful twists and turns of the diamond, will live on. Come what may.

Today’s MLB enthusiasts have unwittingly become fans not of consistent teams, but of single players, franchises and logos, plush ballparks and official MLB gear. Fans in Boston and other cities are living in an era where there is no real hometown squad, only a professional baseball corporation with interchangeable players. Major League Baseball has become, in other words, a giant temp agency.

This change has been building for decades. And it’s driven by greedy businessmen and money – ship loads of it, more and more each year. Teams operate on an MLB-driven business model, which is that putting fans in seats equals revenue. And it matters not who the players are on any given day, so long as they can produce and help the bottom line. Loyalty and team consistency don’t factor into the equation. Not at all. Not for the owners and seemingly not much for the players, either.

For 2014, the average MLB player’s salary, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press, is just under $4 million. Sixteen teams are headed toward the $100 million payroll mark. As far as the 30 MLB corporations go, the Houston Astros are dead last in overall payroll, at $44,544,174 this year, according to AP’s figures. That’s right; salary-wise Houston is the poorest team, at $45 million. The LA Dodgers lead the pack at $235,295,219. The Yankees, with a $203,812,506 payroll for 2014 are second now after years of being king of the MLB big spenders.

Devoted baseball fans everywhere hate what money has done to the game. Some fret less about who’s playing on the field, so long as the franchise is winning more games than it’s losing. But other fans realize that something is wrong when players seem like actors hired for limited engagements, when one day a group wins a championship and the next that same squad is scattered to the wind – fading into the cornstalks like those lonesome ghosts from “Field of Dreams,” bound for other clubs, crushing the true concept of ‘team’ and stealing the heart of what fandom means. How do fans bond with a team when rosters and players change on a dime, and keeping track of them has become a shell game? This is the MLB fan’s lament.

Nothing sums up this journeyman state of Major League Baseball better than that hilarious, Abbott and Costello skit, “Who’s on First?” Originally performed for a national radio audience in March 1938, that bit has become spot-on relevant for today. Go to Fenway Park, for instance, and you are liable to do as I have done: lean in toward the guy next to you and ask, “Who’s that on the mound again? “Oh, never heard of him.”

There has never been a better time for fans to leave the store tags on the player’s shirt or jersey they paid $35-$100 for. Why? Because there’s a good chance that by the time you or your son or daughter wears that shirt once or twice, the guy whose name is on it is going to be playing for another team. You may want to return the shirt once your idol has packed his gear, left town suddenly, and hung his glove and spikes in another team’s locker room.

Recently, I was looking through my son’s chest of drawers and pulled out a Jake Peavy, Red Sox T-shirt, which was next to a Daisuke Matsuzaka Red Sox Jersey. Which was nearby John Lester’s Red Sox shirt. I think there are others in his drawer, maybe Josh Beckett’s. The one shirt that he owns that is still true is a Dustin Pedroia. The second baseman is as rare as a Honus Wagner card these days; he’s been with the Sox for, wow, eight years – a few years less than David Ortiz.

Trades in baseball aren’t new. The original rule allowing swaps or sales of players was established in 1889, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. And the first trade deadline was enacted in the National League in 1917. Every fan knows about the biggest trade of all time, when Babe Ruth was sold by the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1920 for $100,000 plus incentives to help with the mortgage for Fenway Park (Society for American Baseball Research).

What is new is that players are moving through the turnstiles more regularly. Sports writers covering the 2014 trade deadline called it historic for the pace of activity. The comings and goings are difficult to track; they happen overnight with increasing frequency. You will recognize the changes when you go to a game or watch one on television.

In pop music we have one-hit wonders. In major league baseball today we have one-time champions – teams that are stacked to win and then dismantled. Look at the some of the more-recent World Series winners. Remember the Florida Marlins? A fluke, unless you factor in the fact that the 2003 squad was almost certainly preconceived as a one-and-done construct. The 2005 Red Sox roster bore only a slight resemblance to the curse-killing 2004 champion nine. The 2013 Sox, consisting mostly of over-performing, little-known, hired-on-the-cheap guns, also won the Series. But now, toward the end of the 2014 season, less than a year later, that team is ancient history. Pedroia and Ortiz are practically the only long-termers left in Boston. Beyond those two and maybe ace-by-default Clay Bucholtz, no one knows who is playing on the team from one day to the next.

There is no sense that the Boston nine, as a team on the field at Fenway, have any connection to each other or as a unit mean anything to the fans.

But there’s good reason to keep watching, regardless of the permutations of trades and players’ salaries. The game played on the field is what really matters. Fans love the game first. It has survived wars and economic depressions, and all manner of societal and cultural calamity. Thankfully, it hasn’t changed a whole lot since September 1845, when a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. “It was then that volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright developed a new set of rules calling for a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines and the three-strike rule. He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them (history.com).”

Today, wherever baseball is played, it is still a wondrous thing to behold. Few experiences compare to a summer night or sunny afternoon at Fenway Park, or at any ball field for that matter. The game is timeless, and the rules and strategies, the ballpark sights and sounds, all of the wonderful twists and turns of the diamond, will live on. Come what may.

 

A note about quotes: Make them real

quotation-marksBy Dennis Nealon

There’s advice and then there’s really good, sage advice – the kind that lasts a lifetime or an entire career.

Some of the best guidance that I have ever received as a communications and media relations practitioner had to do with the drafting of quotes and statements on behalf of a company or organization. This advice came to me not from books or professors, but from a former Associated Press reporter whom I  approached with press releases and story ideas (many of them duds, admittedly, but more than a few winners) while working as a pitchman and spokesperson in higher education. “Prepared quotes have to be real,” he told me early on in our working relationship. “They have to sound like something that someone would actually say.”

This sounds simple. It seems almost obvious. But it’s not. The traditional press release may be fading like the daily, hard copy newspaper in society, but some communications practitioners are still cranking out canned and tired quotations and statements.

Turn on the television news or read any report that contains a prepared statement from a chief executive, elected representative, or spokesman and you will still find poorly concocted remarks that sound rehearsed. These find their way into news reports when the media has no other comment or sound bite to use. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you read about a tragedy or sudden death. I am still surprised when an individual or organization issues the simplistic, “our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim’s family.” Or when a communications office issues a press release with a CEO waxing about a “wonderful, unique, new program that so many worked tirelessly to bring to fruition.”

As these kinds of statements pop up in news stories I think back to that advice that I got from my acquaintance at AP. In fact, I return to that same advice each and every time I find myself drafting quotations for a boss or client.

There is an art to avoiding canned, fake quotes. And there will be tiny workplace wars waged in trying to convince your boss or the firm’s executive leadership to stay simple, direct and genuine with their messaging. But these are battles worth fighting if your goal as a practitioner is to get your quotes picked up and make the CEO sound thoughtful and, well, real.

In a perfect world where you could be completely open and honest with your boss, you might tell him or her the following when it comes to issuing statements or comments in writing: Let’s forget about sounding omniscient. Forget about being deliberately multisyllabic, too. Be brief and real, and say something that doesn’t sound canned, endlessly vetted, or so very typical. Don’t ever write or say, “we’re shocked and saddened,” or our “thoughts and prayers go out to the family…” Don’t labor over a quote to try and make it sound super smart. It won’t work. For goodness sakes, reach for something real and sincere. Something like, “we’re all crushed by this terrible loss, but we will stick together and work together to try and accept it as best we can.”

When I was working as a daily newspaper reporter, a great editor did me a favor when he sent me back some routine fire copy I had filed for the next morning’s issue. “I like it,” he said. “It’s good.” “Now take out every other adverb and every other adjective.” The same thing might be said to the communications practitioner who’s working on a press release or CEO’s reaction to something in the news. Lose the hyperbole. Aim for a true gut reaction and proceed from there.

 

Why it’s called media ‘relations’

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By Dennis Nealon

And resisting duck and hide even when you’re told to duck and hide

There is a good reason why they call it “media relations.”

This specialization in the communications arena requires that practitioners establish symbiotic, lasting relationships with journalists that are built on trust and honesty but also, just as importantly, on accessibility – even in the worst of times. Duck and hide is never a good default strategy unless the goal is to get reporters to stop listening to your pitches and ideas when you want them to cover your “good” stories.

When the “relationship” part of this media equation is functioning, reporters will be willing to listen to your story ideas and you will step up and engage them when the stuff hits the fan on your end and you feel like you want to run away.

This means that the media relations professional has to make himself or herself available even when the natural tendency is to avoid or obfuscate when trouble or controversy arises. The reality is this: success in media relations, in building lasting relationships that will serve both the practitioner and the journalist, is predicated on the practitioner’s being present when the media needs a comment, reaction or statement. As the practitioners, we cannot bombard reporters with pitches for the stories we want to tell and then suddenly disappear when a CEO misbehaves or some financial debacle occurs, or an accusation flies. None of this is easy.

During the course of my career in the field of media relations I often have found myself trying to explain this accessibility model to my direct reports or to chief executives and senior administrators in higher education and public policy. There is a natural tendency among those at the top of the communications food chain to view real accessibility and transparency as something that is best avoided. Many of the senior administrators that I served under mistakenly believed that the media could be used as a bulletin board – whether in the cyberspace or old school, print context — to post only the stories that they wanted to tell; to promote the organization’s good news, the kind that would support a mission or fundraising or trumpet a new program or initiative. But as anyone who follows the media knows, puff pieces are rare. The news isn’t built on feel-good fodder, and, let’s face it, none of us really wishes that it were.

During the course of my career in media relations I have had to contend with all manner of “bad” stories, from crises dealing with the sudden death of students, to questions about financial compensation, to politically charged issues fueled by malicious comments and allegations tossed by individual staff members.

As these problems arose I almost always had to contend with a senior executive’s flip dismissal of media inquires. Inevitably I would show up in the boss’s office, hat in hand, and announce that we had to comment on something or other that I knew he or she would never want to discuss with the media. Some of the common reactions I encountered were, “Don’t tell the media anything,” or “We’re not talking about that,” or, “Just say no comment.” I would often press them to come up with something to offer, some sort of response that was real and genuine, and not a flat “ no comment.” I almost always came out of these meetings with little or nothing to say, and I would find myself back at my desk fretting over what to tell a reporter who wanted some reaction or comment. And it was always the case that the reporter who wanted something from me was someone whom I had been working with on a regular basis, someone whom I often had pushed to pursue a “good” story that I was shopping around, or someone that I hoped to build a relationship with.

Were there times that we just couldn’t or wouldn’t say much of anything? Yes, of course. I am not suggesting that you switch roles entirely and turn on your own company or risk your job to cooperate with the media. Your position requires that you first and foremost advance your institution’s goals and mission; that you preserve and protect its integrity and reputation. The trick is to remain loyal to your boss and your organization while staying steady in your obligation to communicate with the journalists that you have relationships with. And yes, this is going to mean you will sometimes have to gingerly ignore flip and uninformed directives from inside your company on how to handle media inquiries.

I remember in particular a bizarre case in which a suicide had occurred and was under investigation by a local district attorney’s office. Some reporters expected me to fill them in on details about the investigation and, while I had been briefed on the case and had knowledge of some of the gruesome particulars, I kept those to myself and deferred to the authorities, politely telling the media that I was not the police; that they would need to work with law enforcement directly to get the answers they were seeking.

There are times when you can’t provide much. But these instances must not be taken as an excuse to vanish. As a media relations practitioner you can’t be best buds with the journalists you interact with. You certainly shouldn’t (as one organization’s president once suggested I do) offer to buy them lunch or treat them to a round of golf. You can’t just hang out and shoot the breeze with reporters about private or legal issues at your company. And if you want to keep your job you won’t want to turn over all of your company’s financial records or dish about the latest harassment case in your firm’s human resources shop.

The best media relations professionals in the business know how to navigate the space between giving away everything and saying absolutely nothing. They know how to deal openly with reporters and are wise enough to always return calls and e-mails. They are up front about what information they don’t have, and they take the time to explain what their limitations are. They realize that reporters themselves are not going to divulge all of the secrets or details about their employers, even as they insist that you are supposed to.

Importantly, the best practitioners are adept at buying time with the media. Reporters need information to do their jobs, and waiting around isn’t part of their DNA. But you can’t always give them what they need on their timetable. Tell them you need some time to get the information they seek; that you require a little space to gather accurate data before you can discuss the issue with them. Your task is to work with the media under all circumstances, good and bad. This requires strong mediation skills. You are going to have to take the admonishments from your bosses not to say anything at all or ignore the inquiries. And you may have to weather a scolding from a reporter when you don’t have the information they want.

If you really want to succeed you have to stay in the discussion even when it means taking some punches or occasionally having to play the monkey in the middle of the circle, getting shoved from side to side, over and again.