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rioters

A drawing from a British newspaper showing armed rioters clashing with Union Army soldiers in New York City.

The Writers Almanac taught me that during this week in 1863 the New York City Draft Riots began. I will admit to not even knowing such an event had occurred. It was the bloodiest riot in American history.

Hearing about these riots that happened more than 150 years, a lot of the details seemed much more modern, even contemporary.

The rioters were working-class white men against a new draft law put into place by President Lincoln. The draft was the visible reason for the riot, but there was more going on.

There is something about a long, hot summer that seems to feed riots.

The only riots I have ever experienced were the 1967 Newark, New Jersey riots. They happened this same time of summer (between July 12 and July 17). It was four days of rioting, looting, and destruction. It left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

The Newark riots took place in a time of police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs. That sounds contemporary.

On that 1863 hot summer during the height of the Civil War, the richest New Yorkers were making money off the war. Poor people were poorer than usual. There was huge inflation.

A good number of working-class immigrant New Yorkers had signed up to serve in the Union Army. Unemployment was high. Workers kept going on strike, but the strikes were broken.

There were many “sensational” newspapers then and their stories heaped the blame for everything bad on Lincoln, black people, and the new Emancipation Proclamation. With the kinds of stories that always occur before war and revolution, newspapers warned working-class white people that black people would now be moving up from the South in huge numbers and stealing their jobs. They claimed that black men were breaking the strikes.

But the Union Army needed more soldiers. Congress authorized the nation’s first draft law, and on Saturday, July 11th, the lottery began, with a blindfolded clerk pulling names out of a hat.

But the wealthy had an out. For $300 you could buy your way out of the draft. In a time when the average New York City worker earned 85 cents per day, it was the 1% versus the 99% of its time.

A group of  firemen who were drafted decided to protest. They showed up at the draft office with their firetruck full of rocks and threw them through the office windows, burned the draft records, and attacked the officers who worked there. Thousands gathered around the firemen and mob mentality took over.

They pulled up railroad and streetcar tracks, knocked down telephone poles, cut telegraph lines, lit buildings on fire, targeted Lincoln supporters, abolitionists and attacked the offices of The New York Times and The New York Tribune. 

Most of all, the mob targeted African-Americans and their businesses and homes owned by blacks and places associated with them, including the Colored Orphan Asylum. At least 11 black men were murdered.

The Battle of Gettysburg had ended just 10 days before the riots began, and on July 15th, troops were hurried from Gettysburg to New York City to put down the rioting. About 6,000 federal troops were eventually there and the riot ended.

The official death toll was conservatively listed as 119. About 20% of  African-Americans left New York City for Brooklyn or beyond the boroughs because of the riots.

That long, hot summer of 1967 caught fire in Newark when two white Newark policemen arrested a black cabdriver. The cabbie was beaten by the officers and taken to the 4th Police Precinct where he was charged with assaulting the officers and making insulting remarks. Local residents saw the cabbie being dragged into the precinct. A rumor started that he had been killed while in police custody.

Actually the driver, John Smith, had been released in the custody of his lawyer. But police rushed out of their station wearing hard hats and carrying clubs and residents gathered there in protest began to throw bricks, bottles, and rocks. The protest moved to City Hall and after midnight false alarms caused fire engines to concentrate on an area along Belmont Avenue in one of the poorest areas of the city. Looters began smashing windows, and threw merchandise onto sidewalks and particularly looted liquor stores.

During this same period, rioting erupted in Plainfield, New Jersey, a city about 18 miles southwest of Newark, that also had a large African-American population and similar conditions.

The riots didn’t improve conditions in Newark, as the NYC riots didn’t stop the draft or improve conditions. The Newark riots began a deeper decline of Newark and its neighboring communities. In the remaining 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, businesses, industry and the white middle class left the city.

I stumbled upon several videos this morning related to John Updike, and that set me off thinking again about one of my favorite authors.

I always admired his three pages per day writer’s requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like “A&P” about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically and, like many Salinger protagonists, I identified strongly with that kid.

My freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

My wife shared many of my readings in our years together. I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

This first video I found is a casual interview with Updike at the time of the fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which ends Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry with his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson and his wife, Janice, and the 1989 that is post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize.

What interested me in this video was his own thoughts about death.

This second video is John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David is also a writer I have enjoyed reading. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good.  It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike and wanting to be a writer.

I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father.

But I think even those who are not fans concede that is prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

He died of lung cancer in January 2009.

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. It is a small poem on what it means to be dead as seen by teenaged David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

ManhattanhengeManhattanhenge is the name given to an event that occurs when the setting sun aligns with the east–west streets of the main street grid in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

The term Manhattanhenge is a neologism from Stonehenge where the sun aligning with the ancient stones on the solstices is an famous event. The Manhattanhenge term was popularized in 2002 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Today is the last time in 2017 that the alignment will occur. The New York event occurs twice a year.

The event applies to those streets that follow a plan from 1811 which laid out the streets in a grid offset 29.0 degrees from true east–west. During Manhattanhenge, an observer on one of the gridded east-west streets will see the sun setting over New Jersey directly along the centerline of that street.

The dates of Manhattanhenge usually occur around May 28 and July 12 being spaced evenly around the summer solstice.

On two corresponding mornings, the sun rises on the center lines of the grid on (approximately) December 5 and January 8, spaced evenly around the winter solstice. As with the solstices and equinoxes, the dates vary somewhat from year to year.

This phenomenon occurs in other cities with a uniform street grid. For North Americans who want to be Druids for a day, Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto also have their -henge days.

The events would only coincide with the vernal and autumnal equinox only if the grid plan were laid out precisely north-south and east-west, and perfectly aligned with true north as opposed to magnetic north. Someone should plan a new city for that to happen.

 

wheel

The recent summer solstice reminds me that many of our current rituals and holidays have some basis in the calendars of the ancient Celts and other cultures. The turning of the “Wheel of the Year” was a concept used in varying ways by several cultures.

Historians don’t all agree about whether the ancient Celts observed the solstices and equinoxes. They may have divided the year into four major sections: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. Today those days are referred to as Quarter Days.

Some historians believe the ancient Celts observed eight divisions of the year – the four major sections, which are the equinoxes and solstices each beginning with a quarter day, and then a further halving into four cross-quarter days.

It is important to remember that the seasons as we know them today are not ancient division, though they are certainly based on some of the same celestial observations. The solstices and equinoxes nicely divided an agrarian lifestyle year.

The adoption of the 12-month Roman calendar for civil and then religious purposes began to align closely with the liturgical year of the Christian church.

The eight divisions are: Midwinter (Yule), Imbolc, Vernal Equinox (Ostara), Beltane, Midsummer (Litha), Lammas/Lughnasadh, Autumnal equinox (Mabon) and Samhain.

The Cross-Quarter Days marked the midpoint between a solstice and equinox, and for the ancient Celts, these marked the beginning of each season. As far as “seasons,” there were only two divisions: winter marked with Samhain which was the start of the dark half of the year, and summer/Beltane to begin the light half of the year.

The Wheel of the Year is the annual cycle of seasonal festivals, still observed by many modern Pagans. It consists of either four or eight festivals depending on whether they observe the solstices and equinoxes, or include the four midpoint cross quarter days.

A sun cross is a design found in the symbolism of prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory. Its importance in prehistoric religion has made its interpretation as a solar symbol.

Popular legend in Ireland says that the Celtic Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan, though there are no examples from this early period. The legend is that St. Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross to bring the pagan followers a connection to the Christian cross. The cross also divided the solar year into quarters.

I noted that yesterday was the day in 1613 that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre burned to the ground. It wasn’t arson. The thatched roof caught on fire after a theatrical cannon misfired during a production of Henry VIII. No one died, but the home of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was gone.

That’s history, but what felt more contemporary to me in that story is that after it was rebuilt in 1614, it was closed down in 1642. The Puritans closed all the theaters in London that year. I thought about that and the recent controversy over a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York’s Central Park. Caesar was portrayed as a Donald Trump character and, of course he is assassinated by his own senators.

Thankfully, though there were protests, no one burned down the theater. But the media was afire with the topic. Some people pointed out that this updating of Caesar in portrayal without changing the play’s text is not new. Orson Welles did a famous production with Caesar as Hitler. A few years ago a production had a clearly Barack Obama lead and last year a Hillary Clinton female Caesar walked the stage in a white pantsuit and was assassinated. Those two productions didn’t get much media attention.

The Puritans were a Protestant religious faction and another kind of reformed, plain church, strict religious view. At the end of the Elizabethan era, this conservatism went beyond religion to many social activities within England. The Puritans hated theater.

That they were able to close all the theaters should be more shocking to us than it probably seems to most people today. Imagine if the government, pressured by a religion, was able to shut down the theaters for plays (and films?) today. Is it possible?

There is too much anger and ugliness in American politics today, but we still say we value freedom of speech and expression.

Sometimes it feels like our globe is on fire with wars, terrorism and tragedies manmade.

The Globe Theater was pulled down two years after it was closed. It was rebuilt much like its earlier incarnation (with concessions for current safety) more than 350 years later. It operates today and we are still seeing updated productions of Shakespeare’s plays that resonate with issues of the day. That is how it should be.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844) The Assassination of Julius Caesar

When I taught in a secondary school, I always had a rotating series of quotations on my classroom walls. Many were quite serious: “Some of us think that holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.” – Herman Hesse
Some were humorous: “Every place is within walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright
Some quotes were somewhere in between: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain
I even quoted myself: “Bladder control is a sign of maturity” and “When the mothership lands, know who your true friends are.”

Students would sometimes ask about a quote, and I would use them in lessons. On some rare and happy occasions, a student would connect a quote to something we were doing in class.

One quote that students usually thought was “stupid” was:

“Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

It is a quote from Blaise Pascal who can be described as both a mathematician and a mystic. He was born in Clermont, France in 1623. I told students that Blaise was homeschooled because his father, a mathematician, believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. My students found this to be sound thinking.

They were in lesser agreement on that approach when they learned that his home life was less fun and games and more geometric problems which he was told to work out using lengths of sticks in his backyard.

The method seemed to work. At 12, he showed his father that he had discovered that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father invited him to join in his discussions with other mathematicians. He published an article on the geometric properties of cones at 16, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

TaylorBut what about Cleopatra’s nose? I always assumed that Cleopatra was a great beauty, but there are very few images or descriptions of her.

In my mind, she looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra (1963). That nose looks, like the rest of Liz, quite beautiful.

But it seems that power rather than beauty was the real appeal of Cleopatra.

coin

“The Lover’s Coin” a bronze showing Cleopatra (left) and Marc Antony.

She is described as being quite thin and quite small (about four feet tall). Julius Caesar was accused of pedophilia when she at around age 18 visited him in Rome. She was also depicted as having quite a big nose. But Cleo was  proud of her large nose because it demonstrated her pure Macedonia blood (she was not Egyptian) as a descendant of Alexander the Great.

Pascal had a good-sized nose himself, so maybe he identified with Cleo. But what did that odd quote mean?

I college, I was assigned to read some of Pascal’s writings in a philosophy course. The idea that stuck with me was that if you change one thing, you change everything. If you decide to go to a different college, or marry a different person, everything after changes. But even if you change something that seems less significant – whether to skip work today, the route you take driving, your nose or Cleopatra’s nose – other things will change. Every choice changes the consequences.

That kind of thinking moves easily into discussions of fate, destiny, free will and religion. Pascal’s family was not religious and he was not raised with religious teachings. By chance (if you believe in that concept), he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal.

The newly converted Pascal had no problem with these new beliefs and science. He continued working on scientific experiments. He showed that a vacuum could exist in nature. He invented the mathematics of probability.

He had his religious beliefs, but he wasn’t a blindly devoted believer.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when
they do it from religious conviction.”

But then, in 1654, he experienced a “night of fire.” He had a divine vision. It changed his life and he decided to forget the world and everything except for God.

He left Paris the following year and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus.

He started to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity. He never completed the book. The notes he had made were posthumously published as Pensées (Thoughts).

What I recall most clearly from that book is his “wager.”

“God is or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Let us weigh the gain and the lose in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two changes. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, lose nothing. Wager then without any hesitation that He is”

If God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him. But if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him.It is logical to believe.

In his writing, the “heart” is what experiences God, and not reason. The famous quote of his on that:

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…
We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

These are far larger questions than my quotations on the wall ever answered. Then again, they were meant to provoke questions more than provide answers. Pascal said that “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

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