Saturday, March 31, 2018

What’s the Big Idea?


Here I am sleeping in, semi-conscious, thinking big thoughts. I’m closer than ever before to the grand idea, the supreme connectivity, the metaphor that explains everything. I’m almost there. I can see it. But just when I’m ready to grasp the damn thing I move up into a more wakeful state and it’s gone. I’m left with the image of my favorite shirt.

This is no ordinary shirt. It is a work of art. I could hang it over the couch even if it clashes with the throw pillows. I don’t wear it very often because I don’t want to show off. It would be like Vincent wearing his Starry Night. The shirt is mysterious. It is a galaxy as yet undiscovered. Witnesses have passed out just looking at it. It is the answer to the question as yet not asked.

Apparel, advised Polonius, doth oft proclaim the man. So I wear this shirt sparingly not sure that I have the credentials to be the bearer of the Big Idea. How can I describe the greatest shirt in the history of shirts? It is deep chocolate as in dark matter with streaks of burnt sienna and celestial beige with random fires of terrestrial orange. It is soil and motion. Rust and forest. Rufous-sided towhees in flight. The ancient sun and apricot moon. It is asymmetrical blotches of autumn foliage. Sycamore divas singing their descent. Shakespeare spotted it and declared, Motley is the only wear.

When I wear my motley shirt I really don’t get to see it. Maybe that’s the way it should be. We are each other’s big idea. Everything can be found in anything. There are portals, for some, in their oatmeal. The Big Idea doesn’t hold still for a minute. Nothing moves faster than a fleeting insight. The harder you look for it the more futile the search.

In his novel, Satin Island, Tom McCarthy creates a character looking to tie together disparate images in his head. The hub city, Turin, or it could be Atlanta or Chicago, is compared to a parachute in its configuration. When he sees a news flash of a sky diver whose chute failed to open it becomes the dysfunctional hub city whose flights are delayed. So it is that everything is seen with new eyes from oil spills to out-of-control cancer despoiling the ecosystem.   

My habit is to seek out transcendent positions. I live in mid-perch looking for patterns, not too far away to be caught in the static but not altogether stuck in the muck. Maybe my shirt is half muck and half mist. The Big Idea is sculpted from the marble of small earthy particles.

We live in a time that cries out for a larger frame of reference. Otherwise we’ve been Trumped. I turn to the sweep of History to explain the phenomena. How to locate this blip, this aberration …or is it? Maybe the answer lies in the fear and rage he stoked and the human frailty to be suckered, to abdicate our autonomy and be led by a hollow man of overwhelming promises and audacity. My shirt gives me an aesthetic lift but that’s not enough to save us from the menace of the man.    

Where are you Steven Hawking to explain our predicament, this Small Bang, this deposit of human debris and orbital retrograde?  

Monday, March 26, 2018

Bits and Bananas

There we were at the restaurant. He was on the tip of our tongues. We had his face but no name. Our smart phones were of no help. He was one of those bit players in 1930s, 40s, and 50s movies. A character actor. Not even a second banana or a third. Now his name came to me, Lane. But no first name and no movie because he’d been in seemingly every movie.

I went home and got it: Charlie Lane. It turns out he’d played in 250 films and hundreds of T.V. shows. Usually a grumpy, no-nonsense sort of guy. He actually lived to 102 with a career spanning seven decades. In a three year period in the 1940’s he was in 67 movies dashing from set to set probably with just a few lines in more or less the same role and often uncredited.

Lane was one of dozens of familiar faces we almost expected to see for a few minutes in every movie as if they created a part for him. Others included Andy Devine in cowboy movies, Jane Darwell (mother-earth), Franklin Pangborn (hotel concierge or floorwalker), Eugene Pallette (oversized C.E.O.), C.Z. Sakall (with the cuddly cheeks) and Arthur Treacher (always a butler), to name just a few. The last two moved up a notch as recognizable names at the time. Former stars in the Silent Film era who couldn’t make it in Talkies also got their licks in this category of familiar unknowns.

Each studio had its stable of Second Fiddles, Sidekicks or Second Bananas. Just as comedians like Burns and Allen or Abbott and Costello had their foils, leading men and women had their lessors. These included names like Donald O’Connor, Jack Okie, Zazu Pitts, June Allyson and Agnes Moorhead. They could be the girl next door or the guy from the other side of the tracks, always around so the star didn’t suffer by comparison. 

The Second Banana would lose his love only to be paired up with a Second Banana(ette) who was secretly in love with him all along waiting for the phone to ring. Off would go the glasses and suddenly she was cute or perky. Second Banana guys went off in the sunset with Second Banana gals as if some caste system ruled and everybody knew their place. But Bananas were closer to the marque than mere Bits and a few made it to top Banana.

I’m thinking of Ralph Bellamy who got snubbed by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, my favorite movie of that period. He later came back strong with his portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. Of course who could blame Russell falling for the irresistible Cary Grant. Stars like Gable or Grant needed Second Bananas who couldn’t quite or never would have that je ne sais quoi or weren’t suave and debonair or fast enough with the repartee.

Bananas, you could love; Bits you’d adore. As a kid I saw them as ever-present faces the way a distant relative would regularly show up for family functions. They made the world seem reliable. They were often eccentric. They gave me permission to be weird or qoofy at a time when conformity and anonymity was my default position. If I couldn’t identify with the Bananas at least there were always the Bits.

In a great scene in Casablanca when a table of German soldiers sing Deutschland Uber Alles it is followed immediately by the entire cafĂ© bursting out with Le Marseilles. In fact these were mostly Jewish character actors exiled from Europe… even the ones in Nazi uniforms. Of course the second Bananas were the team of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet who followed Bogey from The Maltese Falcon.

In the hierarchy of the studio system the only thing lower than Bit players was probably Extras. In hard times at least it meant a free meal for the day. They were needed for crowd scenes or C.B. DeMille’s cast of thousands. Nowadays they’ve been replaced by the magic of computer generating. Somewhere on this ladder is the cameo appearance which is an on-screen flash of a name actor the way Alfred Hitchcock got in front of the camera for an instant in most of his films.

It’s a good thing we don’t get to see the movie of our life before we live it, or even the coming attractions. Then we’d know our fate by the billing alone and the rest of it might not be worth the price of admission. However I’d like to think each of us is Top Banana in our own movie, the one we are living, angst and all, doing battle with evil and ultimately heroic and blessed.

Fifty years ago, in between films, Charlie Lane appeared in a reading of The Trojan Women along with Peggy at the Jung Institute. He told her she could have a career on the stage. No Bits or Bananas were they.


Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Poetry of Baseball

I’m told by friends, who don’t want to hurt my feelings, that they enjoy my blogs…. except for those about baseball. Of course I sympathize with their impoverishment and must also take up the challenge in remedial education.

Many great poets and writers have embraced the game. Among them are May Swenson, William Carlos Williams, John Updike, Marianne Moore, Donald Hall, Jack Spicer and Shakespeare. I just threw him in to see if you were paying attention.

To turn away from baseball is to reject your ancestry. Rumors have it that early man broke off a branch and swatted away an approaching rock thus giving birth to the rudiments of the game. The wood became a natural extension of an arm and the incoming missile could be the moon or any spherical celestial object. Perhaps it was the paradigm for our space program. When running, throwing, and catching were no longer necessary for survival they died as essential tools and became an art form or sport.

I can see this was too much of a stretch. It didn’t even convince me. Let me try again.

As if ordained by the gods themselves and brought down from Mt. Olympus baseball celebrates Euclidian geometry. It turns a square into a diamond punctuated with three pillows, as safe stations, and a metaphoric home. The navigation around the bases is a hero’s journey, Odysseus-like. When home plate is finally achieved it is often accompanied by a cloud of dust to signify the arduous circumstances, with a god-like umpire passing judgement. Perhaps Zeus took pleasure in watching men fail. Sisyphus was not alone in futility. Baseball is so designed to reward a seventy percent failure rate with millions of gold pieces. Add to this the amazing correspondence of nine innings to our allotted decades on earth, with an allowance for extra innings here and there.  

Still not persuaded? Let me put it this way.

Can you hear it? The crack of the bat. The twack of ball into mitt. The smell of green grass and hot dogs.  Baseball is so pastoral, so American, so deliberate and so inconsequential. Games will be won and lost setting fans in anguish or jubilation yet nothing will be really changed. Trump is still with us, the polar ice continues to melt and the NRA still supports weapons of mass destruction. But here’s what changes: From Opening Day on Thursday to sometime in late October a human drama will unfold without script. It is neither rigged nor predictable. An alternative narrative is enacted in real time which makes more sense than this one we gnash our teeth over listening to Cable News. The game of baseball offers the illusion, at least, of order, strategy and control. Every stance and swing will be scrutinized and the mountain of verifiable stats may not amount to a hill of beans for the uninitiated but to us the fan(atics) it is its own universe, a ritualized life and death, only to live again the next day regardless.

The game allows men of all sizes and shapes, beer bellies, hulks and shrimps, cerebral and instinctual. It attracts physically endowed jocks and bespectacled nerds. Harvard graduates are now general managers of several teams trying to outwit their counterparts with new data yet the core of the sport is an unquantifiable human element. What is more mysterious than a sudden slump or streak? Even the dimensions of the playing field are inscrutable with the precision of an infield contrasted with haphazard measurements of the outfield. All of which add to the bafflement of each nine innings.

Baseball is our answer to the impermanence of life. It defines our seasons. There is an intimacy between pitcher and catcher in a shared fluency of silent gestures. Players are widely positioned spatially with anticipation coiled in their legs to dart at the instant of contact between ball and bat. And all this time the poet watches in the stands with time to ponder how life, itself, is simulated on the field.

Finally I am left with the nagging realization that I am really trying to understand why it is that I still care. The Bible says to put away childish things so I put away the Bible. At my age there is no messianic urge to convert the heathens. Only Peggy has the irrational exuberance to take on the game, as she has, late in life. Otherwise rationalization is as hopeless as hitting a 100 mph fastball.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Testing, One, Two


Ben was an old man by then but he showed up. Jimmy did most of the writing. Tom was in France. Al had a lot of input and Jack weighed in also. We were not yet a nation.

Jimmy Madison rose above his station as a slave-holder. He had a vision beyond the former Articles of Confederation. Along with Al Hamilton they knew the country wouldn’t hold together as thirteen separate states. Tom Jefferson along with his fellow plantation owners George W. and Jimmy Monroe left it for Shorty Madison to forge out some compromise with Northerners like Alexander H., Jack (John) Adams and Ben Franklin.

They were all products of the European Enlightenment. They saw a way past monarchy. It was an experiment called Democracy. They didn’t quite trust the people to directly elect their own representatives. Not those in bondage, nor those whose land they stole, nor women, nor the un-propertied.  Just as they were fearful of a king so were they afraid of a mobocracy.

They also put in place checks and balances to ensure that each branch of government could not abuse the powers stipulated. Our Founders knew enough about potential czars, monarchs and assorted potentates to guard against that eventuality. In fact four of our first five presidents had no male heir to create even the appearance of a dynasty. Only John Adams had a son and, sure enough, he went into the family business.

At 5 ft. 4 inches was James Madison tall enough to see 230 years into the future and imagine a Donald Trump who would rule supreme as dictator if he could? Are the separation of powers sufficient to withstand the assault on our Constitution? 

The months ahead shall be a test whether this experiment in government can endure against the reckless megalomania of the man in the tower. Only a handful of Republican voices can be heard to warn against his abuse of power…and most of those are on their way out the door as they speak. The great majority of Congress have duct tape over their mouths and conscience. They have turned a blind eye toward the White House having made a Faustian pact with their clients who feed at the trough of the  Koch Brothers, evangelicals, Wall St. and the NRA.   

Will Mueller be dismissed while still hot on his trail and closing in? It remains to be seen if the president's handlers can control his early morning tantrums. The chattering class smells Nixon. The flattering class cowers at the emotional impulse of the man in the Oval. The Senate and House will take a look at the litmus paper to determine if he’s a plus or a minus in November.

Thanks to the eternal ingenuity of Ben Franklin, Jimmy and Al and the rest of our Fathers are tuned to the podcasts and watching with smart phones from their graves. After 230 years this beautiful conception will be put to the test. They are holding their collective, posthumous breaths to see whether their model will hold given the actor now on stage. They may be thinking of an eleventh amendment. 
   


Friday, March 16, 2018

The Anniversary of Myself


It happens to me every year at this time. I get to be older by one. Soon I’ll have reached my Federico Fellini number, 8 ½, in terms of decades. There are times when it all feels surreal and I welcome the bizarre and berserk, but for the most part my feet remain on the ground, at the ready for buoyancy.

More and more do numbers mean less and less. Calendars are the supreme fiction. There were times in my thirties when I was in my sixties. My delayed adolescence happened mostly in my late forties and seems still to be happening. Maturation is devoutly to be ignored… unless it gets me a discount at the dry cleaner.

There was a time when Peggy was 21 and I was 9. It was 1942. The war was underway and there were few men around. I would have been of no use to her. Over the better part of a century I have become older than her (she). And then younger again. And then the same. And then who cares?

I could swear the vernal equinox use to be my birthday. But in recent years the calendar has proclaimed it to be the 20th. So I arrived the day after. Close enough to claim credit, since no one is around to fact-check, for the sun’s movement across the equator from the southern to northern hemisphere. Astrologically speaking, a language in which I have no fluency, I have lived my life on the cusp. Part ram (Aries), part fish (Pisces). I’ll settle for amphibian, half in, half out of water, and take my chances. Maybe the cusp has granted me a view from the bridge with an occasional glimpse into the beyond… or is it the abyss?

I consider myself a lucky guy. If life is a nearly indecipherable epic poem I met Peggy in mid-stanza, in the turn of the sonnet or in a prolonged heroic couplet. Her irrepressible spirit lifts me. Her unfathomable soul feeds mine.

We muse each other without trespassing on each other's inner world.  Every mishegoss is mulch. Out of an unspoken knowing our intimacy grows. There is a mystery at the core I wish never to know. 

Shakespeare has Jaques say in As You Like It, Every day we ripe and ripe and every day we rot and rot. It may well be true anatomically. Who knows what plots are being hatched by my entrails as well as my skin, hair, eyes and ears. All my body parts are original, nothing made in Hong Kong but all out of warranty. I’m unaware of any rotting in the nerve center. In fact there is an occasional ripening in terms of what I seem to be hearing and seeing for the first time, an appreciation of what has been there all along.  

In many ways I’m late to the party. It took me all these years to appreciate patterns in dead leaves, pods outside our window. New is getting lost inside a Coltrane solo and then being found. New is learning to cook crusted salmon. It is a smattering of Greek drama, learning the language of ballet, even the grace of umpires in anticipation on a baseball diamond. Though my eyesight may be failing and hearing is somewhat diminished, there is still what e.e. cummings felt in the leaping greenly spirit of trees / gay, great happening illimitably earth. / Now the ears of my ears are awake and the eyes of my eyes are opened.    

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Weather in the White House


The West Wing has its own climate. The forecast is dark clouds with storm warnings, temblors and cyclonic activity. All fake, the Denier-in-Chief says. There is no collusion, no women, no Stormy. Yet Lena Horne is back on a forever stamp. Sing it again, Lena.  We know why there’s stormy weather in the Oval. Ain’t no sun up in that sky when money talks and is hushed no more. The door is revolving seismically. He wants a parade. Here’s your parade… lawyers and loyalists, generals, trusted soldiers, advisers, chiefs of staff, campaign chairman are marching. Last one out, turn off the lights. Victims are suing. Lackeys are squealing. Keeps raining all the time. Tantrums, leaking. Swamps, rising. Tornadoes spinning. He wants a wall. Give him a piece of wall. Walls crumble in a quake. Our Founding Fathers are rumbling in their grave.  Reporters have scoops. Every ten minutes news breaks the Richter scale. Heads roll. Soft porn is hard news.

Frank Capra, Preston Sturgis and Hugh Hefner walk into a bar. The result is a zany-mad-cap X-rated blockbuster. A Greek tragedy. Comic Opera. Dance Macabre. A Dervish. A Hora. This presidency is beyond genre; the narrative, unrated. Groucho meets Captain Queeg. I smell mutiny. Tony Soprano meets Atticus Finch. We’ve got ankle bracelets, shackles and gold toilet seats. Executive Privilege, 5th Amendment, Ten Commandments and sworn testaments. Affidavits, obstruction, depositions, sanctions, redactions, deportations, dossiers, nepotism, recusals, and tampering. I can see spin-offs, prequels, sequels and spin-offs. This script’s got legs. Get me Clooney on line one, Hanks on two and Jennifer Lawrence on three.

The investigator is closing in, hot on the trail following bread-crumbs of cash from you-know-where to you-know-whom to the room where it happened. The Tower is surrounded by SWAT. Come out with your hands up. I saw this movie. It can only end badly for the Head of the Family.

Or will it be the porn that brings him down. Two channels are talking blackmail, slush-funds, Kushner, hashtags and abusers. The other is still about lost emails, Benghazi and Obama-bashing. Lena is singing as the curtain goes down, Can’t go on / All I have in life is gone / Stormy weather. She’s on the stamp. Donald’s on the stump. Stormy’s on the brink. Keeps rainin’ all the time.

Meanwhile on the other side of town, by the Tidal Basin where M.L. King, FDR and Jefferson are memorialized and where this Prez has probably never been… Japanese cherry trees will be coming into full bloom in a few days. They were originally a gift from Japan for T. Roosevelt’s negotiation of the Russo-Japanese War. The first batch of 2,000 sent in 1909 were found to be infested but the mayor of Tokyo persisted and a new shipment of 3,000 arrived three years later. After Hiroshima we sent saplings to Japan when their parent trees were ailing.

We need these pink blossoms more than ever as a reminder of saner times. We need them to restore beauty and calm back into our lives... so close and so far away from the circus across the divide. After the nuclear disaster at Fukushima a one thousand year-old cherry tree just thirty miles away from the site was found to be intact; the suggestion of how vigorous the force to persevere.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/8468629/1000-year-old-cherry-tree-gives-hope-to-Japan-nuclear-victims.html






Thursday, March 8, 2018

When We Were All Ears

There won’t be many 73rd, 74th or 75th birthdays celebrated this year. The birth rate was very low during 1943,1944 and 1945. Unless, of course, your father had flat feet, punctured eardrum or (as in Donald Trump’s case) bone spurs in his heel. (That is the last I’ll say on this subject.) Those of us in our late 70s, 80s or 90s are the privileged ones. We not only were eye-witnesses to the war-time era of good-feeling, that we were in it together from a distance (war bonds, paper-drives) but many of us remember the bittersweet Depression and a few, like Peggy, felt the plunge of the stock market in 1929, four days after her mother's death left her an orphan.

I say, privileged, because there is another less noted but more pervasive presence which dominated our lives, sublimally. We were raised by radio. Every house had one or two, portable or floor console, which became the centerpiece for family gatherings. We would stare into the speaker as if it were a T.V. screen. Some of us found an entire canvas in that usually ornate box.


Interesting how the two dominating figures of the century arrived together.  Both understood the power of the mike and may not have been leaders if television prevailed rather than radio.

Radio was tribal. It struck a chord like a distant drum. It created a kinship of like minds. Hitler had his tent. He could have spoken gibberish and often did. Nobody used the new medium to greater advantage outside of Europe than Franklin Roosevelt. He could have recited the Bronx telephone directory, but didn't. It was his intonation that was so God-like. 

His fireside chats were major events which numbered only thirty in his 4,422 days in office yet they seemed to resonate far beyond their actual delivery. The first was delivered 9 days before I entered this world and somehow reached me in that embryonic sea. FDR spoke as if directly to each ear in the room. Some were appeals for support since most newspapers were operated by staunch Republicans. Others were assurances we would get through the ordeal. His audience was as much as 61.5 million people during the war years.

Movies were our visual source and radio exercised our auditory sense. We relied on what we heard. The voice from the box developed our muscle of imagination. We believed that the mouth of ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, didn’t move when he became Charlie McCarthy. We could even picture a beauty pageant if they broadcast one. I could listen to Dodger games and see the entire ballpark.

When T.V. entered our lives a faculty in our sensory apparatus was replaced. Nixon was twice elected Vice President by radio and defeated by Kennedy because now we could see him squirming, sweating and his five o'clock shadow. It took him another eight years to learn how to fake authenticity for the camera.

According to Marshall McLuhan radio had the effect of fostering communal societies such as Communism and Fascism. Before radio we were a visual culture relying on print technology and the result was Individualism. Even in the U.S. the shared experience of radio brought us together in ways we haven't seen since. Some of us remember the Joe Louis - Max Schmeling heavyweight fights in the 1930's. The rematch drew the largest radio audience in history of 70 million.

The more television became technologically perfected the less participation was demanded of us. When black and white screens yielded to color I was disabused of my belief that grass was gray….only kidding. But higher definition has made the small screen almost undifferentiated from movies.

The computer and, by extension, mobile devices have provided a visual immediacy which replaces a need for memory. With speed dialing our need to remember phone numbers or birthdays has taken a hit. Rote memorization of basic arithmetic is no longer essential. It’s all there at our fingertips. Smart phones are a haptic (touch) experience, tactile and less linear sequential. The way of reading today is a total field approach using ideograms and emoji. We read as much but we are no longer bookish. Even literary fiction is fractured, less plot-driven and often about an observation of the observer.

McLuhan predicted a global village fifty years ago though he never quite imagined the Internet. He made the case that the particular media itself is the message, more so than the content it carries. For the most part we are unaware of what’s happening to us. Technology can eat us alive or we can worship it… or any stop in between. It operates unremarked upon but profoundly, in plain sight. Those of us octogenarians are stuck in a nearly dead era which must feel like prehistory to millennials. Be patient with us. We could hear what you can only see.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Acceptance Speech


By our illustrious president’s standards there were a few winners and lots of losers at the Academy Awards ceremony last night. 80% went home empty. Sad. All those crumbled papers with great speeches we’ll never hear. I wonder what Meryl and Denzel had to say. I would imagine all the nominees prepared something just in case. I’ll always remember Bob Hope’s quip when he was Master of Ceremonies back in the day, Welcome to Oscar night or as we call it in our house, Passover.  

Nobody wants to have their name called and get up stammering, revealing their true inarticulate self, or even forgetting to mention people who will never forgive him/her for the snub. With this in mind I decided to write my brief acceptance speech which I have now recovered from the trash bin.

I first want to thank Peggy without whom I would be living in a cardboard box by the off-ramp reading back issues of National Geographic stolen from my dentist’s office and eating my scant meals of freebie samplers at Costco. I want to throw a kiss to my daughters, Janice, Lauren and Shari who were raised in spite of me to be brilliant, creative and gifted Renaissance women. Now you should get to bed (even though you are all pushing sixty.  A big shout-out to my extended progeny all of whom have wisdom by listening carefully to my advice and doing exactly the opposite. I also want to mention my 3rd grade teacher who cast me as the turkey in our Thanksgiving pageant which launched my career on the stage. I should also give credit to that lady who let me in front of her on line at the checkstand with my head of lettuce and then there was the time I had thirteen items in the 12-items-or-less line and also the guy who held the door open for me in the elevator, I then bumped into and he apologized and to the librarian who waived my overdue penalty. Special thanks are also due to the meter-maid who alerted me, at 8:56, one Monday morning, that I’d better move my car or be ticketed. I might also mention my mother and father, long gone, who allowed me to go to the Saturday afternoon movies where I spent the next five hours with my older brother even though my feet didn’t reach the floor and I was in fear of being sat upon when a large man inched his way across my row in the dark theater feeling his way and I saved my life from being crushed by rattling my Good and Plenty. And I’d be remiss not to take this occasion to salute the Boys Scouts of America who threw me out because I refused to tie the right knots thus demonstrating that I was not suitable material to fight wars in defense of our flag.  Yes, I know, I must wrap this up but, you see, I don’t expect to be here again in this borrowed tux staring out at Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn or is that Audrey Hepburn... and Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman and there’s Bogey…of all the gin joints, in all the towns in all the world I walked into this….

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Speaking of Borders

... what is a map but a useless prison? We are all so lost / no naming of blank
spaces can save us. / What is a map but the delusion of safety? / The line drawn is always in the sand and folds on itself / before we’re done making it...

                                   From poem, Maps by Yesenia Montilla

Borders come and they go.  And that's not a bad thing. Migrations have been happening since we left Africa. However in more recent times wars are what changes the cartographers' ink.

We started as a country of uninvited guests who never left and did away with their hosts. Some came shackled in chains, others came looking for change and were barely tolerated or ignored by an estimated 50 to 100 million Native Americans already living in North America for centuries.

The prosperity or poverty of our continent can be seen in terms of European imperialism. America was an extension of the British Empire on the rise while Mexico was a function of a waning Spanish Empire. French and British enlightenment seeded us followed by migrations from Northern and Central Europe and later the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. To their detriment, the church in Mexico also played a large role allowing permanent residence only to Catholics until 1860.

Much has been said how America is stained by the genocide of indigenous people and slavery. And rightly so. There is a third leg to the stool which usually gets a short chapter in history books but is yet another blight and one which embodies the other two, conquest and bondage. It is our first foreign invasion which involved a sea blockade, amphibious landing and occupation of a capital. Namely the Mexican War.

The map of the United States in 1836 was far different from the one of 1848. Our western edge was the Mississippi with states to the east and territories on the far side. As a result of the war we lost almost 20,000 men either through battle or disease. Many of our troops were illiterate immigrants right off the boat. Several hundred Irish even deserted and fought with the Mexicans (St. Patrick's Battalion). 

Mexico had the will but neither the treasury nor military might to defend their northern territory. What we called Manifest Destiny was, to Mexico, manifestly disastrous. President Polk's administration had as their destination the Pacific coast and all the land west of Ole Man River.

The treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending the war not only crippled Mexico but also extended slavery leading ultimately to the Civil War. Mexico lost half its land as we grabbed over 525,000 square miles comprising California, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Texas, Utah, Nevada and parts of  Oklahoma, Wyoming and Colorado. Another 300,000 sq. miles was added at the same time as Great Britain ceded the Oregon and Washington territories and parts of Montana and Idaho.

The treaty also guaranteed citizenship to Mexicans who had lived in those territories we had gobbled up. In addition it was the beginning of the end for the Indians. We assumed responsibility for their extinction or removal.

It could have been otherwise. The war with Mexico was presided over by President Polk who was elected in 1844 by a mere 30,000 vote plurality. New York Democrats swung the election by upsetting Henry Clay. 

The war with our Southern neighbors was vehemently denounced by northern abolitionists such as Henry Thoreau whose essay on Civil Disobedience came out of his protest and brief incarceration over the issue. In addition Lincoln and John Quincy Adams spoke out against the invasion on the floor of Congress. They both questioned the legitimacy of the conflict and excoriated Polk for his lies and duplicity in provoking the conflict and inflating a small border skirmish into a full-fledged war and land-grab.

This was probably the first of many such pretenses. Think Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam and those imagined weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Anything to rally the troops.

There are no monuments in Washington to this national shame. Generals Zach Taylor and Winfield Scott are not bronzed for pigeons to shit upon. An inglorious war better forgotten.Our cross border aggression could be considered the genesis of our immigration problem with Mexico. In a sense they are reclaiming their own stolen land assured them 170 years ago.