Saturday, May 16, 2009

Call of Nature leads to Jefferson biographer

I just finished reading R.B. Bernstein’s short (198 pages), excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford:2003).

I wouldn’t have discovered Bernstein’s book if my wife hadn’t needed a toilet in Brooklyn on a sunny Friday late last month.

Perhaps I should explain.

We were wandering around Brooklyn on Spring Street when nature called. The nearest door open to the public was a bookstore, Heights Books, Inc.

“May I use your toilet?” my wife asked the friendly clerk, who looked like he might own the place, but, as it turned out, didn't.

“We only let employees use it,” he said followed — by a dramatic pause. “But in your case, go ahead.”

I nosed around the small but carefully stocked store and immediately spied James Walvin’s “The Quakers: Money & Morals.”

Looked interesting.

My choice drew praise from the clerk. “Walvin is an excellent historian,” he pronounced.

His certainty prompted a discussion about Quaker history. The clerk shared that he was an historian. He pointed to a wall poster advertising a biography of Jefferson. “I wrote that one,” he said. He didn't tell me that it had been nominated for a Pulitzer.

Our conversation immediately shifted from Quaker history to Jefferson — the “Jefferson Bible,” the founding of the University of Virginia, Sally Hemings, Jefferson's inscription for his grave marker (which purposely neglects to mention his presidency).

The clerk, Richard B. Bernstein, said that unfortunately he had no copies of his book in stock, but once back in Portland I miraculously found a copy at our Hillsdale Branch Library.

I Googled Bernstein and discovered that he is much more than a biographer and bookstore sales clerk.

See for yourself.

As I say, I recommend the book.

My wife says that the toilet could use some work.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Citizen journalists to the rescue

Over at Jack Bogdanski’s excellent, provocative and popular bojack blog, Jack has posted a section of a speech given by Gary Imhoff, editor/blogger at the DCWatch web site in the nation’s capital.

No, the site doesn’t track the comings and goings of lobbyists and legislation. Instead it keeps an eye on the city, its government and its neighborhoods.

Imhoff's speech contains the following "new media" call for citizens to transform themselves into journalists and to submit their stories to DCWatch:

We try to convince reporters and their editors that they should cover the stories that are interesting and important to us. Occasionally, we succeed; more often we don't. But in our local neighborhood listservs and in themail, we are able to act as reporters ourselves. We escape the filters of ‘news judgment' that keeps a lot of important news out of our news outlets. We get to inform others directly, and in the end we all end up better informed.”

Jack offers his site as Portland’s place for amateur reporters to share news items. In fact, if you read the bojack site, you know it already does, with barbs added.

If you live in or around Hillsdale, I welcome neighborhood news from you for my on-line Hillsdale News. Write me at

Meanwhile check out Jack’s post (and the dozens of comments to it) on how the right-wing has jumped on-board and has positioned itself to lead the Sam Adams recall effort. Jack, who favors the recall, thinks the right-wing involvement of celebrities like radio-talker Lars Larson could be the kiss of death for the recall initiative.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Outta Sitemeter

One of the wonders of blogging is having a sitemeter. The "visits" and "views" tracker tells you a lot. Some of it is more than you want to know.

But the “Referrals” feature offers intriguing information. Most folks just visit the site because they know it and want to see whether I still have a pulse.

But a few, it would seem, come here seeking kinky thrills. The best evidence of the intent is a post that I titled “Sonic Sex on a Sweat Towel.” There must be a whole community out there interested in “Sex on a Sweat Towel” because those words suck in an inordinately large readership.

The post isn’t even tagged with “sex,” which is usually good bet for a few dozen visits. The content is about what happens to the wires on my iPod and its headset when I throw them into my backpack on my sweat towel.

I speculate in the post that some audio intimacy takes place in the dark resulting in obscene tangling of the cords.

The actual tags are innocuous: “iPod” and “Steve Jobs.”

Among the other favored referral sites is the famous “Sarah Palin’s Glasses,” which at the time it was posted drew a record number of strangers to The Red Electric. Now, months later, it seems the fascination with the good governor (and her specs and her weird family values) is endless.

Another enticing post is “PCC lockdown,” which isn’t about a particular lockdown (alas there have been a few) but about the bureaucratic memo the PCC administration circulated to tell PCC students and faculty what to do in an “active shooter” situation.

The short answer: Lock the doors, pull down the shades, stop taking notes, and hide.

Posting this little ditty has meant that every time there’s a PCC lockdown (there was one today), Google sends anxious readers to The Red Electric and my parsing of bureaucratic prose.

Clearly I am not meeting news expectations, which explains why the sitemeter tells me that Red Electric visits are brief — a mere 41 seconds.

Then again, if you stare at a sweep second hand, a 41-second interval isn’t all that brief, especially when the topic is Sarah Palin’s glasses or Sex on a Sweat Towel. Web surfers seeking such subjects must be slow readers.

It figures.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Words in a Box

Long after my sister and I left home, my mother’s desk became the center of her world and, as she understood it, a bridge to another one.

The walnut desk with its embossed, leather writing surface, extended at right angles from the south-facing wall of our formal living room. You saw my mother at the desk as you entered the room from the hallway. On a brittle, snow-cloaked winter’s day in northern Illinois, she sat in her straight-backed chair bent over writing.

The mystery was whether the writing was “hers.”

Beyond her and the desk was the warming radiance of the fireplace. As her hand moved across the page, her petite profile was framed by winter’s white light streaming in through a mullioned, floor-length window next to the desk.

Prior to the spring of 1968, when she was 59, she might have been writing a letter to a friend, or to her younger sister, “Bill” (short for Wilma) back home in my mother’s native Washington State, or to my sister, Kate, or to me.

But after that spring, with its King and Kennedy assassinations and their resulting turmoil, in all likelihood the words on the page were addressed to her. They came not OF her own hand, but, as she explained, through her hand. Her description fit the classic definition of automatic, or “spirit,” writing—a form of mediumship popular in the Nineteenth Century, but largely dismissed in the Twentieth.

For 16 years, her hand was drawn across the pages of mismatched spiral notebooks. She filled at least 25 of them. The words were all connected by a continuous flowing script. The ball of the pen never left the page. Instead it was pulled along in a stream of words.

Once at my mother’s urging, I picked up the pen, held it loosely. After a minute or so of feeling slightly silly, I was surprised when the pen’s tip began to move, responding to an inexplicable but palpable pull. It was as if someone were moving a magnet beneath the page.

As soon as I reacted to what was happening, the pen went dead in my hand. When I tried again, letting go of any reaction or judgment, the pen traced looping circles that eventually indented the page and then shot off the page. I have no explanation for the pull but it took me a step toward understanding my mother’s experience.

The “authors” of the writing my mother seemingly channeled announced that they inhabited the world beyond life here. Over the years, the flow of words described that world and tried, with some urgency, to guide our actions in this one.

The pull of the pen also delivered greetings from deceased family and friends; pronouncements from guides and teachers; interruptions from lesser, intrusive spirits; practical, assertive commandments that my mother dared not disobey (and which earned her both ridicule and admiration); quaint stories told in archaic prose quite alien to my mother’s written voice; the occasional drawing; some universal, prosaic truths and—for me and others who knew my mother—a mystery.

All of these messages, save the first year and a half’s writings, are now in two boxes in my basement. I have unsystematically dipped into the contents. My method has been exploratory, as if I were prodding some sleeping, unpredictable, mystical protoplasm. Could these writings simply be the disconnected ramblings of my mother’s subconscious? The Jungian stuff of dreams? Or were the words what my mother took them to be—messages from the spirits of the deceased?

Scattered throughout the writings is the clear dictate that I, the writer/journalist in the family, must turn all of this into a book. Not just any book, mind, but one of great weight to be given to a needful, eager and waiting world.

The quandary for me is that in all my probing and prodding, I have failed to find the makings of any book of such profundity within these tablets. No scales fell from your eyes although fleeting truths flicker through the writings. Those less skeptical than me might find solace and even evidence of the divine. But the words also display prejudice, ignorance, surprisingly partisan politics (Nixon won endorsements on “The Other Side,” for example), dogma and wrong-headedness. If these are the words of spirits, we clearly—and sadly—do not leave our human foibles behind when we pass over.

So the writing remains a mystery. How did it happen that one Kathleen Lewis Seifert, a good-hearted, stable, no-nonsense Midwestern housewife, would devote her last years of health to such an endeavor? What was it about her and her world that either prompted or inspired such writings? Could it have been related to the tumult of the times? To stresses in her personal life (and she had her share)? To some stifled ambition?

I never figured out how to assess the material. How did it—and its manner of creation — fit into my own understanding of life’s meaning and purpose?

If anyone is interested, I will share some of the writing here. Let me know whether you might be interested. If enough are, I’ll retrieve some words from the box.

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