Late last week, the three-year old niece of a longtime friend died, after being in a coma for several days.  From all accounts the circumstantial cause of her death involved some very poor choices made by a parent.  As it happened, the day she died was also the birthday of a young woman who is the birth-mother of my daughter, a woman who made the brave choice to not be a parent.

These two coincident events inspired me to think about what “pro-choice” means.   That is, to be, or not to be, a parent by intention and not by accident.  The pro-choice label has a fluid meaning, depending on who you are speaking with and the tenor of the times.  For me, a simple fact is a the heart of the meaning of the term “pro-choice”:  I have a daughter because a young woman who was not ready for parenthood made a very difficult choice to carry her baby to term and place her daughter in our hands, to raise as our own.  Abortion was not the right choice for her.  She could have chosen to be a parent, and, knowing her fairly well I am certain she would have been the best mother she could be given her limited financial resources.  Those are all valid choices that embrace the daunting responsibility of parenting, when considered with reflection on one’s own personal limitations and place in life.

Unfortunately, too many young people choose to be parents through sheer self-delusion, believing that “love and the Lord” will make them good parents, dogma leading them inexorably to parenthood.  Some people may quibble that following dogma is the only moral choice.  I disagree, for action based solely on dogma is not choice.  To accept dogma, as most believers would attest, is an act of faith.  When faith motivates a person, they act without considering alternatives precluded by dogma.  True choice, on the other hand, is action based on consideration of all options.  In short, a “choice” based on dogma is not a choice.

But, at least the faithful parent embarks on parenthood with, we hope, their heart in the right place.  Most kids born through an awkward act of faith will probably end up doing ok.  Far worse fates await the children of those parents who, failing to recognize their own limitations, neglect  the responsibilities of raising a child.   From all accounts, the mother of my friend’s niece allowed an abusive man to live with her, a man now in custody and under suspicion of pushing the child down the stairs.

I know domestic violence is a complicated dance.  Women stay with abusers for psychological and financial reasons that baffle those closest to them, and even learned experts.  But when there is a child involved, should we make excuses because of abuse?  Should we accept a child’s death as collateral damage in a psychological war we can’t understand?

I don’t have answers for these questions.  My only thought as a parent is to share this advice:  parenting is a choice, an act of intention and great, life-altering consequence.  Don’t take that choice lightly.


If I could force myself to make the time to update this blog, this poor blog wouldn’t look as neglected. I can rattle of excuses – work, family, need to sleep, the holidays – but it all comes down to not making time to write.

But I have kept busy.  I’ve read like crazy, continuing on my 2013  presidential quest.  I’ve read through to the presidents of my lifetime, and am reading a biography of Ronald Reagan.  Considering the last review was of   Thomas Jefferson, that demonstrates how far my reading is ahead of my blogging about it.  I’ve also been busy with taking courses through Coursera, a fantastic e-learning resource.  At work, I am thrilled to be in my new office – just a cubicle, mind you – in a building overlooking the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in lovely downtown Durham.  Or Durm, as the natives pronounce it, with monosyllabic gusto.

So what inspired me to finally come out of my shell and write something?  After years of the public ignoring my load of drivel, Don Charisma (don’t you love that name?) became a follower of my blog.  I doubt it is his real name, but even so, hats off to a great name.  Recently, I read an article about Dalton Conley’s book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Asksuggesting that unusual names can lead to fame and notoriety.  Conley named his daughter “E”, just the letter, and his son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles.  If Conley is right, those kids are going places, just like Don Charisma, to whom I owe a sincere thank you for encouraging me to write this little blog post.


English: Mount Rushmore with several workers o...

English: Mount Rushmore with several workers on Roosevelt’s head. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my quest to read a book about or by every President of the United States, I’ve reached a milestone: the Full Rushmore.   Well, that’s what I call it anyway.

I’ve read a book about  the each President sculpted on Mt. Rushmore. From left-to-right George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln adorn one of the most photographed attractions in the National Park Service inventory, the carved granite massif known as Mt. Rushmore. I’ve never been to Rushmore, but surely will someday.    The father and son team of Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum directed the carving of Mt. Rushmore.  Assisted by 400 workers employed at government expense, the Borglums created an iconic symbol of brash American patriotism.

Having now read about each of these presidents, they are inspired choices, representing the pinnacle of leadership of America’s first 130 years.  Borglum chose the four figures in the sculpture, although Calvin Coolidge insisted that two Republicans and one Democrat be portrayed.

In 1937, a proposal was introduced to add the face of Susan B. Anthony.  More recently, conservatives have voiced support for adding Ronald Reagan to the granite tableaux.   It is interesting for me to consider what other Presidents might be deserving of the inclusion on an expanded Rushmore.   Recognizing the original idea to honor the leaders of our first 130 years, there are really only two other Presidents arguably worthy of placement on Rushmore, in my opinion:  Ulysses S. Grant, and Andrew Jackson.  But both Grand and Jackson pale in comparison to the Fab Four of Rushmore.

Grant deserves recognition for his work to win the Civil War, and as President for his efforts at civil service reform.  He also deserves credit for his relatively benign treatment of Native Americans, and his efforts to support black suffrage in the South.  But  controversies and scandals blunted the effect of his reform efforts.  While Grant was perhaps not directly responsible for the scandals, they occurred on his watch and besmirched his high office.  For Native Americans, his presidency represented a short lull in the storm of insults and violence hurled their way.  In that sense, his influence on Indian policy was negligible.

Jackson mostly deserves credit for strengthening the power of the presidency, and his strong rebuke to Southerners in the nullification crisis.  But ultimately, he really only kicked the can down the road on nullification, letting the scourge of slavery continue (Jackson was a slaveholder) unabated.   Jackson laid the groundwork for the two-party system we have today, and thus his influence is felt, for better or worse, even today.  But while his influence on American politics is profound, one cannot overlook his harsh treatment of Native Americans.  Jackson initiated the Trail of Tears, forced marches of indigenous Americans to what is now Oklahoma.  Furthermore, one cannot overlook the fact that he was a murderer, the victor in a legendary duel with Charles Dickinson, for an insult against Jackson’s wife and his character.

Looking past the first 130 years, there is only one President, in my opinion, that might deserve inclusion on Rushmore:  Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  With all due respect to the few conservatives that might read this post, Ronald Reagan is just in the same class as the Rushmore foursome.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection.

Thomas Jefferson image, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Image collection. link

This post is long overdue.  I am currently reading about Teddy Roosevelt, almost a century beyond Thomas Jefferson in my quest to read about each U.S. President.  I had hoped to write about each President, but at this rate, I may be dead before I get to Obama!  Anyway, without further ado….

Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson left me puzzled about one of the most revered leaders of the revolutionary era.  Jefferson is an enigma, a complex amalgam of the best and the worst of American characteristics, a man to both revere and despise.

Known as he “the Sage of Monticello” and “the Apostle of Democracy”, Thomas Jefferson gets no shortage of encomium. Politicos of all stripes love to quote Jefferson, rallying the illustrious founder from his long dirt nap in support of or opposition to the cause du jour.  His face is on Mt. Rushmore, and he has his own monument in Washington.  Cities, counties, streets, highways, schools, particle accelerators, and even swimming pools are named in honor of the third president. But I think the most fitting tribute to Mr. Jefferson is his portrait on the face of the two dollar bill.

The Jefferson two dollar bill is legal tender, for all practical uses as good as George Washington’s greenback dollar. But we rarely see two dollar bills. Once I get one in my wallet, I’m torn. Should I hold on to it for its rarity, or try to get rid of it as fast as I can, because it is so…weird?  And so it is with Mr. Jefferson, people either love him or hate him.

Read on…

I’ve added a new page to this site, a version of a Toastmaster’s speech I will be giving in a few weeks. I’ve added a few speeches as pages, just because they are longer pieces, not really appropriate as posts.

The speech, my ninth with Toastmasters, concerns nuclear power, and is based on a fascinating film screened at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year.  The film, a documentary by noted director Robert Stone, makes a persuasive case that we need to embrace nuclear power.  When I saw this film at Full Frame, the audience reaction in the Q&A session afterwards was quite interesting, and I think the filmed changed some minds.  Maybe it will change your mind.

You can check out the trailer for this film, courtesy of YouTube.  Or check out my speech about it, which doesn’t include a video!

An image of John Adams from the collection of the New York Public Library.

John Adams, from the collection of the New York Public Library

If you haven’t heard from me on this site in a while, it is not because I haven’t been reading about the Presidents!  I started writing this post after reading McCullough’s “John Adams” in January.  Alas, many, many things prevented me from completing this post until now.  Enjoy!

Poor John Adams! Reading David McCullough‘s remarkable John Adams, you feel a little sorry for the guy. He was a hard-working, diligent public servant, a man of humble beginnings and humble means. Frugal, industrious, and dutifully loving towards his soul-mate Abigail, he really had few faults as a man. Yet, he never seemed to  measure up in the eyes of the public.

He served as a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, esteemed by his peers for his eloquence in the cause of liberty.  He risked his life crossing the Atlantic to serve as an ambassador in France. On his second trip to France aboard the Sensible, the ship sprung a leak.  Passengers and crew worked hand pumps night and day to keep the ill-fated vessel afloat as it limped to port in Spain. Undaunted by this detour, Adams and his entourage scaled the Pyrenees in winter by mule train.  After a thousand mile journey, they arrived in Paris late, but unharmed. To say that this goes above and beyond the normal call of duty seriously understates his commitment to service.

In Paris, Benjamin Franklin, the famous and flamboyant American diplomat, ostracized Adams.  At that time, Franklin was a somewhat doddering old man well past his prime. If his fractious relationship with Franklin hurt him, his pain was soothed by his growing friendship and affection for Thomas Jefferson.  The two forged a life-long bond that would eventually be torn asunder over politics, but in their older years rekindled via a series of remarkable letters between the two founders.  Adams went on to secure financial backing for the American cause from the Dutch government and financiers in Holland, bolstering the war effort financially.

Read on…

George Washington (from the digital collection of the New York Public Library)

George Washington, from the digital collection of the New York Public Library

When I had this idea to read a book about every President of the United States, I came up with a few personal ground rules.  First, I would read a book by or about each President.  Second, I would read them in chronological order, according to the electoral succession of power. Third, when pinning down which book to read, I would limit myself to one-volume works.  Many notable presidential biographies are multi-volume epics, such as Edmund Morris three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt.   Finally, I would search for works of distinction, choosing books that are award-winning and recognized as authoritative.

Keeping those ground rules in mind, I knew that we’ve only had forty-four Presidents. Over the last few years, I’ve been reading fifty or more books per year, and thus imagined that with only forty-four presidential books to read, completing this quest in a year would be achievable. Of course, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the task before me.

Back in November, Barnes & Noble sent me a pre-holiday enticement, a 20% discount coupon for one item in their store, in addition to my B&N member discount. I can’t resist a bargain, so I searched online for an authoritative single volume biography of our first President, George Washington. After some research, I set my sites on  Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, a well-regarded bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Read on…