Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Taste of Pumpkin This Thanksgiving: John Greenleaf Whittier


The Pumpkin

By John Greenleaf Whittier

Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o'er Nineveh's prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South come the pilgrim and guest,
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored,
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before,
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye?
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin,—our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam,
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E'er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o'er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!

The Poet

John Greenleaf Whittier (December 17, 1807 – September 7, 1892) was an American Quaker poet and advocate of the abolition of slavery in the United States. He lived in New England, and he was a part of a small group of poets called the Fireside poets which also included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. They were so named because people would read their poetry while gathered together by the fireplace. They were the popular poets of the day who wrote about everyday life, nature and politics.

The poem above is Whittier's tribute to the pumpkin, “the fruit loved of his boyhood.” It was first published in the Boston Chronotype in 1846, and available in his 1849 Poems. Perhaps the verse reminds the reader of some favorite food or dish of his or her own childhood still served at gatherings to help honor such rich traditions.

The Poem – A Gourd of Distinction

The poem itself establishes the growing cycle of the pumpkin along with some symbolic and historical understanding.
  • Note: Archeologists have determined that variations of squash and pumpkins were cultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers and beans by natives of America. This took place long before the emergence of maize (corn). After maize was introduced, ancient farmers learned to grow squash with maize and beans using the "Three Sisters" tradition.
  • In Colonial America, the pumpkin, or pompion as it was called, got more respect. An important food source, pumpkins were crucial to colonials' survival through the hungry winter months.
In the first stanza, the speaker speaks of the beautiful pumpkin plant with its “leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold.” The pumpkin vines grow large and their tangled mass puts the speaker in mind of the prophet of Nineveh. The Nineveh allusion in the first stanza refers to Jonah, whom God sent to Nineveh in order to warn the people to mend their evil behavior, else the city would be destroyed. As the prophet waited outside the city walls, the giant pumpkin grew to protect him from the scorching sun.

In the second stanza, the speaker further extols the value of the pumpkin. It is cherished by a young Spanish girl, who waits on the Xenil River bank and by Creole Indians in Cuba who “laugh out” to behold the growth of those beautiful the “broad spheres of gold.”

Then, the speaker brings the celebration to his own American shores and the Yankee harvest “where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines/ And the sun of September melts down on his vines.”

With references to both Halloween and Thanksgiving, the speaker employs the gourd to revive pleasant memories of these seasonal American holidays. With this reference, the poet solidifies the importance of the pumpkin in celebration and national lore.

So eventually, the speaker completes the journey of the pumpkin – from the fruit of the vine to becoming a rich and flavorful pumpkin pie sure to delight the entire family. In this delicious fruit is an enduring symbol of traditional hearth and thanksgiving.

With a grateful voice, the speaker compares the sweetness in his own life with the “rich pumpkin pie.” And, in his heart, he holds a prayer of blessed life. Even with a mouth full of this delight, the speaker senses that his mind and heart are also full with gratitude for all the blessings he experiences and enjoys.

Ending on a serious yet whimsical note, the speaker prays further that his listeners' lives be sweet and that their final days be filled with golden moments that remain as sweet as "Pumpkin pie!"

"The Pumpkin" -- what a fitting reflection for Thanksgiving. May each of us have a pumpkin pie memory  this holiday. A simple food or a simple dish represents so much. Whittier lovingly reminds us of this. With humble reflection, we too can find a familiar taste to be a wonderful reward.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Not a "Guns Situation"? Delusional Thinking Steeped In Profit


"Mental health is your problem here. This was a very, based on preliminary reports, a very deranged individual, a lot of problems over a long period of time. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn't a guns situation."
--President Trump speaking about the First Baptist Church shooting that left at least 26 people dead and 20 others wounded in Sutherland Springs, Texas

Not a “guns situation”? 
The shooter, 26-year-old Devin Patrick Kelley, had been a member of the US Air Force. He was court-martialed in 2012 for assault on his spouse and assault on their child. He served a year in confinement, received a bad conduct discharge, and had his rank reduced.

Not a “guns situation”?

At one point, the shooter tried to get a license to carry a gun in Texas but was denied by the state according to the director of Texas' Department of Public Safety.

Not a “guns situation”?

Then, how was it that Kelley was able to get a gun? He was not supposed to have access to a gun. But, in April 2016, Kelley purchased the Ruger AR-556 rifle he allegedly used in the Texas shooting from a store in San Antonio.

Fred Milanowski, special agent in charge of Houston's field division for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said three firearms were recovered from the scene: a 556 rifle, uncovered at the scene of the church, and two handguns from the vehicle: a Glok 9 millimeter and a Ruger 22. All three were purchased by the deceased suspect, as well as a fourth. Two of the weapons four weapons were purchased in Colorado and two in Texas, one in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, authorities said.

Officials confirmed the suspect did not have a license to carry, and did have a noncommissioned unarmed private security license, “similar to a security guard at a concert type situation.”

“There were no disqualifiers entered into the national crime information center database that would preclude him from receiving a private security license,” they said.

Not a “guns situation”?

The First Baptist Church shooting is the latest in the long history of deadly massacres by shooters using an assault-style weapon. The NRA continues to resist any restrictions on such weapons. In fact, after the Orlando nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016 that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others, the National Rifle Association released a video on YouTube urging Americans to buy more AR-15 assault rifles. According to the NRA video, Americans should buy assault weapons to “protect their life, liberty, and happiness.”

Not a “guns situation”?

The effect of marketing campaigns on fragile minds should be very obvious by now. Allowing deadly power in the wrong hands simply creates unwarranted danger. But given their financial success, gun makers tout assault weapons for the huge monetary returns.

One Bushmaster rifle campaign used an ad touting guns and bulleted machismo with the slogan, “Consider your man card reissued. If it’s good enough for the professional, it’s good enough for you.”

Not a “guns situation”?

Trump is by far the largest beneficiary of the NRA – the organization spent more than $21 million to help him: $9.6 million on ads and other pro-Trump materials, and another $12 million attacking Hillary Clinton, whom the organization saw as a threat to nominate a Supreme Court justice seen as unsympathetic to gun rights. There is no better example of the corrosive effect of money on American politics than the spending of the NRA.

The gun rights organization spent a whopping $54.4 million in the 2016 election cycle, almost all of it in “independent expenditures,” meaning spending for or against a candidate but not a direct contribution to a campaign. The money went almost entirely to Republicans. Of independent expenditures totaling $52.6 million, Democrats received $265. (That figure is not a typo.)

Not a “guns situation”?

Despite the fact that Americans indicate that they support universal background checks by a wide margin, gun manufacturers don't want anything that interferes with total gun sales and profits.
Background checks would impose a minor burden on gun transactions, but more importantly, checks limit the size of the market (and therefore, profits) in two ways.

First, the direct loss of profit comes because closing the current gaping loophole in the background check system will shut off sales to criminals and the mentally ill who are effectively free to buy all the guns they want at gun shows and through private transactions.

And, consider the other loss of profit – cutting off sales to the mentally ill and criminals will reduce crime and thereby reduce the public's demand for guns for self-protection. Gun manufacturers saw gun sales plummet during the dark days of the Clinton administration when crime dropped sharply every year. The 42% drop in the murder rate from 1993 to 2000 was a nightmare for gun sellers. Nothing scares the NRA like a sense of calm and safety in the public.

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre once said FBI background checks “are just the first step in their long march to destroying our Second Amendment-protected rights.” Thus the NRA made sure that current federal law requires that the record of every gun buyer who goes through a background check be destroyed. 

Compromise and Solution?

Justice Antonin Scalia upheld the individual right to bear arms (District of Columbia et al v. Heller). He argued at length in Heller that the core constitutional right is to keep and bear arms for self-defense within one's home with weapons in common use for self-defense. The point, according to Scalia was that the Second Amendment only protects arms typically kept at home by law-abiding citizens for the purposes of self-defense, such as handguns.

Yet Scalia noted at length that the right is not unlimited. For example he acknowledged and supported the existing ban on fully automatic weapons. He also enumerated many key restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. He reaffirmed prohibitions on felons, the mentally ill, limits on arms in sensitive places (like schools and government buildings), regulations on commercial sales, and importantly, prohibitions of dangerous and unusual weapons, and "weapons most useful in military service -- M16 rifles and the like."

On this basis, the Fourth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals recently upheld Maryland's ban of semi-automatic assault weapons like the AR-15, noting that the AR-15 is modeled on the M16 and, while it is semi-automatic, unlike the automatic M16, the AR-15 possesses crucial military features that put it outside of the protection of the Second Amendment (or at least subject it to a constitutionally satisfactory balancing standard with public safety).The court's reasoning should be the basis of a much broader compromise.

This is an example of a regulation that could provide an effective compromise. Jeffrey Sachs, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, explains how such a compromise might work. Sachs says, “If individuals want to own semi-automatic assault weapons, either as collectors or for practice shooting, then enforce a provision that such weapons can only be kept at legally registered shooting ranges or other registered depositories, and cannot be removed from the designated premises.

(Jeffrey Sachs. “Sachs: A modest proposal on guns.” CNN. October 16, 2017.)

President Trump, I strongly believe the First Baptist Church massacre involves a “guns situation” that must be addressed. It actually is a “situation” created by greedy manufacturers, misguided associations, and powerful lobbies, all with blood-stained hands. No control will stop all the senseless gun violence in America; however, certain measures can produce positive effects. Our government can take steps that will limit the access of highly deadly weapons to irresponsible individuals.

You see, Mr. Trump, by even using the phrase “guns situation,” you acknowledge the existence of the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. So, if you know the problem does exist, what do you think a “guns situation” entails?

A maniac who should never possess an assault weapon who somehow slips through the system after a history of personal violence and purchases the means to commit mass destruction … and who then kills at least 26 and wounds another 20 in a small rural church in Texas on Sunday morning. That is what I call a horrible “guns situation.” Do you have a better definition? God bless the families and friends of those innocent human beings.