Monthly Archives August 2021

Brilliant Songs #24: Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”

As our 20-year nation-building project draws to a catastrophic close in Afghanistan, what do we have to show for it? It’s a painful question made all the more so by the lives of U.S. soldiers and civilians freshly lost in the terrible bombings on Thursday, not to mention the far greater number of Afghans who have paid, and will continue to do so long after our exit, with their lives and freedom for the brief window of semi-democracy both nations worked with such tenacity and treasure to provide for that beleaguered land.

All of it turning now, with near dizzying speed, to ash.

Questions, doubts and recriminations about both our long-running presence and chaotic exit from Afghanistan dominate our national conversation today, at least temporarily pushing the re-emerging horrors of the Covid pandemic out of the spotlight.

The entire symphony is a treasure, a voyage through sorrow and lyricism whose beauty par...

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The Global Retreat From Democracy

It was called, among other things, “the end of history,” which was to say, the ultimate triumph of the western liberal, market-based democratic ideal around the globe. The Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989 and communist control of Eastern Europe soon collapsed. The Soviet Union almost simultaneously embarked on a monumental breakup and independence for its constituent republics, soon holding its own democratic elections featuring a peaceful (and astounding) transfer of power in 1991.

Like a benevolent tsunami gathering up everything in its path, a loudly proclaimed optimism for a new world order made government watchers and freedom lovers (and capitalists) around the globe almost dizzy with anticipation.

Even South Africa and its brutal apartheid system, which nearly everyone agreed would inevitably require an epic bloodbath to finally root out, managed a peaceful transition to multi-party rule through ...

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The Turning Point on the (Hopefully) Long Journey Home

You reach a point in life—I’m not sure when it began but I know it has—that your people—friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, teammates— who have died begin to rival in number, and feel as present to you, as those who are still living. This represents some kind of turning point no one ever alluded to in my formative years, when they suggested all the exciting things awaiting me in my maturity.

No one ever took me aside back then in a candid moment and intoned, “All they’re saying is true, but at a certain point, you will also begin to suffer loss upon loss, and it will last until the very day you, too, will perish from this earth.”

Much as we suspect that might not be the most helpful and inspiring bit of wisdom for an elder to pass along to a youth in bloom, I’m not so sure it wouldn’t be at least as helpful as the traditional exhortations along the lines of, “You can be anything you w...

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The Day Bernie Flew Over His Chair

I was eight years old and skinny and new to the school, and my parents spoke with thick accents. Bernie combed his hair straight back and often tilted on the back legs of his chair, a pencil stuck idly in his mouth, and there were several girls who walked by his desk a lot.

Bernie offered me his friendship not so much by anything he said, but just by following me out the door to recess a couple of times and lining up next to me for milk. We became partners in foursquare.

In the spring of that year we were doing morning math, me hunched over my desk, Bernie leaning back, gazing. There was a rocket-like suddenness to what happened next, Bernie shooting over the back of his chair and falling to the floor.

I barely stifled a laugh, Mrs. Agee’s “four legs on the floor” rule once again claiming its due.

As I turned to see with what sheepish look Bernie would rise to his feet, I saw Mrs...

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On Simone Biles and the Triumph of Women

Let’s face it, guys: the women have won. And though it was a long time coming, their victory was inevitable. They just had to push long enough, through a protracted labor, and wait us guys out, allowing our emotional deficits enough time to send us crashing into walls, dazed and confused and shouting ourselves hoarse all the way.

And as it turns out, their victory is ours too, though it has been a grudging one, and we have not yielded all that gently (who does, about what?). And there is still a long way to go.

But that is to get ahead of ourselves a little bit, and how we got here and what it means is worth a word or two.


Many millennia after women began to strain against the bounds of the metaphorical straitjackets males had kept them cloaked in since our hunter-gatherer days in caves, it has become abundantly clear that all else being equal, the world would be in a hella better place if women had ru...

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