The McCarthy Fiasco

The reality of the fiasco that was the election of Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House comes down to this–McCarthy wanted power and control, but also wanted his name in history as his legacy. It was about ego and little else. Instead of a legacy in a long line of influential and powerful Speakers his legacy will more likely be that of one of the weakest Speakers in history. He will mostly be remembered for the fifteen rounds of votes it took to secure the position and it will be shocking if he is able to wield any kind of influence on the intransigent activist wing of his party.

By the time it got around to the final round of votes, it wasn’t about what was best for the country or even for McCarthy’s own party, which has devolved into a dysfunctional group of insurrectionists, clowns, anti-government activists who got into government positions to destroy it from within, and a handful (maybe?) of civil servants who actually do care about the needs of the people. He didn’t care. He stubbornly insisted on continuing the fight until he had given up almost everything. It was a classic Faustian bargain, provided he even had any morals left to bargain away.

While the Democrats and those who did not like McCarthy or want him to be Speaker ate popcorn and enjoyed the show as he lost round after round, in reality it was not that funny. With each round, McCarthy had to give up more and more, until he essentially promised away the power of the position he wanted so badly. He will be nothing more than an impotent figurehead and caricature as a result. The real winners were the radicals who want to upend the government and held him hostage until virtually all of their demands were met. Matt Gaetz was smiling much more broadly after it was over than the new Speaker. One can only wonder what promises were made to secure the final tally.

The losers will be the American people. This will lead to a handful of extremists determining the course of the next Congress. If McCarthy does anything they don’t like, they can now easily remove him or block anything they don’t like. Expect virtually nothing to get done and what little does get done will not be to the benefit of the majority of the nation. McCarthy gave up his power and he sold his soul. What he bought is infamy.

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Club Q

(edited to reflect new information; 11/21/22)

Once again, my people have been attacked. Several members of the queer community were shot and killed at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado late Saturday night. On Sunday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, news came out that at least one of the people killed in the mass shooting was a transgender man, so we add another name to the list of more than 30 transgender people killed in the United States so far this year. There is a month and a half to go. A day later it appears two of the victims were transgender, one was a gay man, and two were allies, so we will also add those names to the roll call of queer people killed by hate. Others are still in critical condition at area hospitals.

As a gay man I am filled with deep feelings of sadness today. Memories of the Pulse Nightclub massacre flash back into my head. Memories of my murdered friend, Earl, rise up. Memories of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, Harvey Milk all come back. We have seen this story. We have witnessed this hatred before. We live in a world where there are no safe spaces for queer people because hatred against us is tacitly, and oftentimes blatantly, encouraged, often by politicians and others who should be protecting the rights and dignity of all.

As a queer person in 2022, I should be afraid to be out and open about who I am. But I will not be cowed by cowards like the shooter in Colorado Springs. I will not–ever–go back in the closet out of fear. I kicked that door down and will not go backwards. I spent the first 21 years of my life living in fear of what other people might think, how it might affect my employment, how I might suffer violence by being open. I will not go back. This is who I am and if you don’t like it that is your problem, not mine. A big fuck you to pretend Christians who say I should die, to anyone who says I can’t bring it out of my house, and onto the street. That’s where I differ.

Instead, I demand better of our supposed leaders. I demand common sense gun laws. I demand the equality that is promised in our Constitution, and I will fight to my last breath to get it. On this day of another mass shooting and on this Transgender Day of Remembrance, I recommit myself to continue working toward equality, dignity, and safety for all.

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It’s the night before the 2022 mid-term elections and I am nervous. And, to be honest, frightened.

There are countless races with so many election deniers, QAnon adherents who really believe that Democrats and Hollywood stars are all part of a cabal of blood-drinking baby killers, Christian nationalists who want to create a theocratic state where anyone who disagrees with their morals and interpretation of the Bible should be ostracized, jailed, or killed, and famous people with no political experience and no commitment to anything but Donald Trump and power.

The problem is that in the past these extremist candidates would not have made it out of the primaries, regardless of which party they were. This time around, they won their primaries and appear to be in position to win races they couldn’t have won in the past and shouldn’t win now. In the old days, I didn’t fear candidates winning whose viewpoints didn’t match mine because I believed in checks and balances and that worked so well for years, but checks and balances don’t lreally exist anymore. While there were always liberals and conservatives, they managed to work together for the good of the people. Society would fluctuate between the two somewhere closer to the middle where most of us live. Now there is very little middle. In the old days, there were certain unwritten rules that politicians of different parties lived by that didn’t allow for radical upheaval of the norms. But these slates of candidates have no respect for tradition, anyone who disagrees with them, the government itself, or the Constitution they will be sworn to uphold and respect should they win.

It is all about power. It is about gaining power and maintaining power in order to fulfill what they believe to be God’s agenda, though many of them who proclaim to be Christian clearly don’t follow their own religion. They only use it to manipulate voters who sincerely do believe. They know if they claim to be Christian, they can get votes even if, as Trump said, he could kill someone on 5th Avenue in New York and still people would vote for him. The pursuit of power creates a blindness to hypocrisy, and that is what is truly scary.

My hope, of course, is that none, or at least a very limited number of these extremists actually win their elections. My fear is that the millions upon millions of dollars of ads that outright lie or minimally distort the truth have genuinely hurt the chances of good quality candidates who deserve to win their races. Here in Wisconsin, the airwaves have been saturated with misleading ads about Mandela Barnes, a good man who has been characterized as a dangerous radical and not so subtly tied with high crime in ads in which the racism is barely hidden beneath what they are saying on the surface.

If enough of these people win, I fear we are done as a nation. I fully expect that they will pass laws rubber stamped by conservative courts that will take away rights instead of expanding them. Perhaps it sounds a bit paranoid, but as a gay man I not only expect our right to marriage to be challenged or simply taken away, but laws to be passed to recriminalize homosexuality. It wasn’t that long ago that queer people could be arrested just for gathering in small groups, and there are those would love to see those laws reenacted. There are many who openly believe that gay people should be killed according to the Bible. Likewise, there are many who are openly racist, and a great number of them who signify their racist tendencies with dog whistles, letting their supporters know where they stand while pretending that their words are misunderstood and harmless. These people would be happy to return to the days of Jim Crow. We already know after the overturning of Roe v Wade that most of these extreme candidates are happy to return to the days of criminalized abortion and that is the first step in putting women back in their place in the home.

This is a critical juncture in our nation’s history and our country’s future. Every vote is essential. I will vote tomorrow because it is my right and duty as a citizen of this great country. If I want to make sure it stays a great country I must vote. In the last mid-term election around 50% of voters cast their ballots. Those who don’t vote may get what they deserve, but unfortunately so do the rest of us. If you love your gay neighbor, friend, or family member, if you believe women should have the right to choose, if you want persons of color to be free and equal, if you want to keep this a great and free country rather than a totalitarian theocracy, this election is truly important. It’s not a matter of getting the likes of Dwight Eisenhower or someone like John McCain anymore. It’s a matter of getting extremists who want to take your vote away, along with your rights. Please vote, for all of us.

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In Defense of Joe Biden (and America)

Joe Biden is not the most exciting, dynamic politician we have ever seen, but his heart is in the right place. He believes in the Constitution and he believes in the promise of America, even though he rightfully acknowledges that promise has never been fulfilled as it should be. I believe, like him, that the far-right-wing MAGA Republicans who have dominated their party the last several years are an existential threat to the United States. They have thrown out all the unwritten rules that the country has lived by for years. Those unspoken yet important things, such as graciously conceding an election, confirming most judgeships and political appointments unless there was a major reason to withhold it, and more allowed us to keep moving the country forward, inch by inch, through compromise, honest debate, and parties working together for the good of the country and not just for the good of individual pocketbooks, their own specific belief systems, or the people they agree with only.

This country is not a theocracy and was never intended to be. The founding fathers understood that as human beings we have myriad belief systems and that allowing one religion to govern over all others would diminish or destroy any possibility of equality for all. Understood, despite their lofty words, the founding fathers were wealthy landowners and a powerful elite who did not allow women to vote, owned slaves, and were hypocrites, but the ideals they set forth are worthy goals that we continue to strive to achieve.

About a week ago Joe Biden called the far-right wingers in the Republican party “semi-fascists.” While those who were most guilty and most deserving of the label screamed the loudest about the President calling them such a horrible name, he was right. My only qualm with it was his use of the prefix “semi.” People like Donald Trump, cultist followers like Marjorie Taylor Green, and their ilk are fascists, plain and simple. They want a leader in complete control, probably for life, who will give them everything they want politically. They believe they are above the laws because the laws don’t fit their concept of what America should be or their brand of Christian ideology. They espouse violence, both overtly and subtly, to achieve their ends. They are racist, as they always have been, but their bigotry, which used to be well-hidden to other white people, is now on open display. They proudly express the belief that the country should be a Christian theocracy, but, of course, with their specific extreme version of Christianity and not any others. They are truly the American Taliban. And finally, they are absolute nationalists.

In his speech last night Biden called them out and named them for what they are, the threat they are to equality and democracy, and he said that, “We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.” Many of us have stated this for years and have not pretended otherwise and believe that it is about time that politicians who are appalled by them finally speak out. Last night, Biden gave his clarion call and made it clear what a threat these people are to our election system, which has never before had anything but minor issues at a local level (and also didn’t in the last Presidential election), but which may have many issues if the MAGA Republicans running for offices that oversee elections actually win, giving them power to subvert the will of the people.

After the speech the pundits immediately started talking about how the speech was a campaign speech to try to ensure the Democrats stay in power in November rather than a Presidential speech. But they are wrong on that. To me, the speech was akin to John F. Kennedy standing up to the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis. It was like Franklin Roosevelt encouraging the nation during a world war. The difference is that this time the threat is from within our own political framework. Last night, it was the man at the helm of the Republic in a time of crisis naming the enemy and asking true American patriots to stand up and resist the radicals trying to take over the country to make it in their own image and their own concept of God’s will. Even if it were designed as a political speech, the words and the ideas expressed desperately needed to be spoken. It was truly a patriotic speech about the absolute need to work diligently to prevent these dangerous people from gaining any more ground. This does not mean that all Republicans are bad. It doesn’t even mean that all people who voted for Trump are bad. It is in reference to those who would undermine our Constitution and democracy for their own gain and to satisfy their lust for power.

Immediately, those who were most guilty (again), started crying foul. They tweeted, screamed, and made the rounds on news shows accusing Biden of painting half of all Americans as fascists. The reality is that is not what he said. He was very specific that he was talking about the MAGA wing of the Republican Party and that old-line Republicans were not the target of his words. He was not attacking half of America. In the most recent Gallup poll on party affiliation (July, 2022), 29% of Americans identified as Democrats, 28% as Republicans, and 41% as independents, and those numbers have been fairly consistent for several years. The MAGA adherents are a loud and active segment of the Republican party, but they are a small and vocal minority even in that party. They have gotten more reasonable Republican leaders to cow-tow to them out of fear, not out of sincere belief in what they represent. They have managed to secure powerful positions within the party and temporarily control it, but they do not represent most of the party and they certainly do not represent most Americans.

It is time–it is past time–that these nationalist, bigoted, loud-mouthed usurpers are called out for what they are–a threat to the very existence of this country and our democracy. This is what Biden did with his epeech. If my liberal friends are unhappy with the country as it is now–and there are lots of reasons to be unhappy and much work to be done–they do not even want to imagine what it would be like if these MAGA supporters take power of all three branches of government. We have already seen the results of Trump’s first four years in power with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and other draconian court decisions and legislative destruction of the last decades of progress toward our promised future. If they are not stopped, we are in for an unimaginable future. Those who are in minority groups–people of color, queer folks, and others–know that the slow erosion of rights will become an all-engulfing landslide of repression. We must shore everything up now. Biden was right to call on us to do so.

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The Self-Made Conservative Warrior

Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor after winning the primary last night, has had some of the most obnoxious and irritating ads of the campaign season (unless you’re a far right-wing ideologue who loves far right-wing talking points and stretching of the truth). Let’s look at just a few things.

In his ads and on his website, Tim Michels says he is a political outsider. His own website specifically says he is not a politician. Unsurprisingly, not quite true. He graduated with a degree in political science from St. Norbert College and has had his sights on political office for decades. He ran unsuccessfully for the Wisconsin State Senate in 1998, losing to Scott Fitzgerald. He won the Republican nomination for the United States Senate in 2004, losing the general election to Russ Feingold. He has been a financial contributor to Republican candidates. He has served as an advisor for the conservative group, the 1848 project, which ironically was founded by Rebecca Kleefisch, the woman he bested in the primary. Unless he wants to claim he’s not a politician because he’s failed to win an elected office, his claim of being an outsider doesn’t really stand up.

Michels spotlights his military experience, and his ads refer to him as a proud warrior while showing him looking all snazzy in his military uniform. He was never deployed. While I respect his service as the commander of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the person overseeing the Army’s Color Guard and Drill Teams, this does not make him a warrior. A decorated soldier, yes. Warrior, not so much.

Michels also presents himself as a hard-working common man, just like most Wisconsinites. But he isn’t like most Wisconsinites. He isn’t one of us. He is a multimillionaire with so much wealth he has already spent 12 million dollars of his own money to become governor as of August 2, according to campaign finance reports. That’s just through the primary. There are several months to go before the general election. Most Wisconsinites also don’t own a 17-million-dollar mansion in Connecticutt or a nearly 9-million-dollar Manhattan penthouse and most of us don’t send our children to private East Coast schools while living on the East Coast and claiming to be Wisconsin residents. Yes, he grew up in Wisconsin, as a privileged son of wealthy parents, and yes, he owns a home here also, and yes, the company he co-owns is based in Wisconsin, but it seems he is out of touch with most Wisconsinites and with the state itself.

Another constant in the political ads, which he says himself, is that he is a self-made man. This is just simply bullshit. The Michels Corporation was founded in 1959, three years before he was born. Michels joined the family company after his military service (I could be wrong, but I’m guessing he didn’t have to interview or work his way too far up the ladder). Tim Michels’ father ran the business until his death, at which time his mother became CEO and Chair of the Board. She served until her death in 2020, just two years ago. Tim Michels is a co-owner and co-manager of the company, not the head of it. His brother, Pat, is President and CEO. Tim Michels and his brother, Kevin, are Vice-Presidents. To say that any of the brothers are self-made is as ridiculous as Donald Trump saying that he created his own wealth after getting a paltry million-dollar loan from his father. It’s no wonder that Trump liked him well enough to endorse him. Michels Corporation was built and grew under the leadership of Dale and Ruth Michels and what they created was handed down to their sons. Tim Michels is as self-made as a microwave dinner.

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Microsoft Microaggression

Lately I have been working on editing some essays, which I do in Microsoft Word. It is set to give me spelling and grammar hints, which I often ignore because the grammar hints are many times wrong. The Microsoft Editor will ask you to pluralize a word that is clearly singular, put in commas where they are not necessary, and try to change your wording to what it thinks is a more concise way to say something that you don’t want concise, but want precise.

While doing my work, I noticed that it kept pointing out words that it warned me about with the phrase, “This language may be offensive to your reader.” While I don’t have any big problem with it pointing those things out, I sometimes use strong words in my essays to make a point, or sometimes use words in context that are not words I use in my day-to-day life.

As a gay man I have been called a faggot before, so when writing about it I have used that word, as I just did. Offensive words are sometimes unavoidable and sometimes preferable or necessary to convey a point or an idea.

I expected the Microsoft Editor to give me a warning about “fuck” and “asshole,” didn’t really think it was necessary for “bullshit,” and was amused when it caught me using “asshat” and told me it could be offensive. I wasn’t expecting it to try to stop me from using the word “cretin,” though in looking it up in the dictionary it is understandable based on the history of the word. I was surprised when it even thought “damn” could be offensive, though I realize there are some ultra-religious people who probably do find it offensive. As I proceeded to a description about an incident when I was called a faggot I realized that the word was not highlighted, and then I noticed that the word “queer” was not highlighted either.

It struck me as odd that two words that are considered offensive to the gay community, particularly the “F” word, would not be highlighted. Many members of the LGBT community use the word “queer” to describe us, even though many older members of the community recall that as an offensive word, so it makes a little more sense that it wouldn’t be highlighted. I decided to open up a new document and type in as many offensive words as I could think of just to see which ones would be red-flagged by the Microsoft Editor. Interestingly, the “F” word was highlighted in this new document, although it wasn’t in the original document I was editing. As expected, the “N” word was also highlighted, but a few other words that I would consider offensive about certain racial or ethnic groups were not.

Also, the description of the issue was different for the two words about which I was most curious. For the “N” word, the editor explained, “This language is considered a racial or ethnic slur.” For the “F” word, the description changed to this: “This language may imply bias about orientation.” May imply bias? May?! Talk to any queer person and we will tell you that it doesn’t imply bias–it is biased, and it is offensive, even though the Microsoft Editor’s editors apparently did not deem to call it offensive.

Admittedly, this pissed me off (which I’m told may be offensive to my reader). One has to believe that the person or persons responsible for this program made conscious choices about how to word these warnings. They need to review the origin of the “F” word and they need to be clear that it is an offensive word. Frankly, at this moment I am offended by Microsoft.

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One year ago today, sometime after 2:00 in the morning, I woke up my partner, Brian, and told him I felt I needed to go to the emergency room due to severe abdominal pains. I had just taken three consecutive days off of work because of the pain, but it had gotten unbearable. I couldn’t sleep. No position was comfortable and the pain was relentless. We got dressed and went to Meriter Hospital.

I was in the emergency room for about seven hours and at some point mid-morning they admitted me to the hospital. After an original diagnosis of constipation, what they found was that I had a stricture in my colon which was causing blockage. They didn’t know the cause of it, but didn’t seem to think it was anything too serious. It appeared to be scarring from a possible previous case of diverticulitis, something I had not previously been diagnosed with or aware of. They gave me pain medications and scheduled much poking, prodding, and testing, including a colonoscopy. At some point they scheduled an operation on the following Tuesday to take care of the stricture.

On Tuesday morning, I woke up to see a doctor I had not yet seen standing at the foot of the bed. He matter-of-factly told me that my biopsy results had come back and that to their surprise it was colon cancer. He said that didn’t really change the nature of the scheduled operation as they had to go in either way to take care of the stricture. He left the room and I was left alone to take in that diagnosis and to start processing it. I had never been afraid of getting cancer before. With my family history and my own previous heart issues, that was what I always figured I had to worry about with my health. With more than a dozen brothers and sisters in my parents’ generation, there was little to no cancer. There were some who died of heart issues, a couple who died of brain aneurisms, and several who simply ended up dying in their 90s of natural causes. Cancer was not really a thing in my line, but suddenly there it was, and I had to start processing that reality.

A few minutes after the doctor left, three nurses came in to see me. They told me they had just heard of my diagnosis and asked me if I needed anything from them at all, even if it was just to talk. They were so kind and were representative of almost all of the caring people who attended to me while I was hospitalized. At that point, I didn’t know what I needed, so I told them I was fine. After they stepped back out, I made a few phone calls to loved ones to let them know of the diagnosis. Then I was left alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t very worried about the surgery, as I felt I was in good hands, but fear crept in anyway. All the what ifs, such as what if it has spread, what if I end up with a colostomy for the rest of my life, what if it comes back after they get rid of it. Cancer is a scary thing. In some cases it can be taken care of quickly and never come back. In other cases, a diagnosis could just be the beginning of long-term health issues. In some cases, people get diagnosed and are dead within a couple months. One never knows.

The operation was rescheduled to Thursday. The doctors were very good at talking with me about choices and ramifications. I wrote a blog post called The Zen of Ostomy about how I would deal with having to wear an ostomy bag as it appeared that at the very least I would have one temporarily and possibly permanently, though nothing was really certain at that point.

On Thursday, Dr. King did the surgery, and he did put in an ileostomy. I was brought out of sedation and wheeled into the recovery room and I was told that it appeared they got all of the cancer, but still had to check the lymph nodes to see if there were any other indications of it. A short time after being in the recovery room my bowels began to open up repeatedly and I proceeded to lose a couple units of blood. This was the first of several complications to come. Quite some time later, they were finally able to remove me from the recovery room and wheel me to the Intensive Care Unit, which became my home for the next several days. Brian and my friend Jackie were waiting in what was supposed to have been my room for hours, and were finally told that I was in ICU.

That first night in ICU I felt incredibly alone and incredibly small in the universe, and I think for the first time in my life I had a real fear that I might not make it through the night. The inevitability of death is something I always felt I was at peace with for the most part, but the uncertainty about what might be next, if anything, is still a bit scary. Mostly I think I was scared about the possibility of leaving the world when I was alone. It was during the Covid pandemic and visitors were limited both in number and when they could be there. Brian was not able to be with me that night.

Nine days after being admitted I was moved back out of ICU into a room, but even then I continued to lose blood and then had a tachycardia event when they stood me up for the first time, something that a couple years previous had caused me to have an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) put into my chest. There was still a fair amount of pain by that time, though it had subsided, I was still pretty weak, but I was finally off of oxygen and several IVs, and feeling a bit better. However, just when things were looking better, several infections and edema decided to invade my body. I ended up on a liquid diet for 18 consecutive days because of all the complications and was in the hospital for 32 days, including some of that in a rehabilitation hospital.

Though I was still weak by the time I got out, I had built up some strength and did very well with the physical therapy and rehab, which continued at home. All of the X-rays and CT scans looked good and the lymph nodes and tumor markers came back negative. At that point it appeared there was no additional cancer, though the surgeon did say a follow-up colonoscopy would be needed just to make sure (that is coming up in just a couple weeks).

We met with an oncologist and decided not to pursue chemotherapy or other treatments. With it appearing that they got it all and with chemo drugs often interacting badly with one’s heart, we decided that with my heart history, the possible need for chemotherapy was less than the risk of what it might due to an already damaged heart.

In addition to the ileostomy, there were four separate drains in my stomach that had to be emptied and measured every day. They stayed in for several months and were removed one by one over a period of time. The ileostomy was not a pleasant thing to deal with, but with Brian’s support and love we handled it. He was incredibly helpful, generous, loving, and giving during the entire hospitalization and recovery time, as were the many friends and loved ones who gave me love and positive energy. The ileostomy did turn out to be temporary, but it was in for about half a year and finally removed in December.

It is spring now and I am no longer weak, though still out of shape from staying in bed for much of last year and the start of this year. In a couple of weeks, the next colonoscopy should verify that there is no cancer left in me, and then it’s just a matter of getting back in shape and living fully again. I look forward to hiking (a goal is to get into shape enough to hike up one of the bluff trails at Devil’s Lake State Park by the end of the summer), riding my bike, getting out and taking pictures again, and more. I am thankful for a surgery team and hospital workers who identified the issue, took care of it, and helped me every step of the way, from the initial visit to the emergency room to the last physical therapy appointment in my home. My personality helped also. I am strong, stubborn, and I am a positive person. I believe that positive attitude, as well as all of the positive energy sent my way from so many quarters, contributed greatly to my survival and recovery.

As I look back on the last year, much of it is a blur, but like so many other times in my life, I came out of it a survivor. I am working on a book on the various things I have survived in my life, from a near-death experience at two years old to surviving child sex abuse to alcohol recovery to a heart attack and more. But it is not just about surviving–it is about living life to its fullest, about experiencing every moment as if it is your last–because it very well could be–and getting the most out of whatever our limited time here offers us. I am thankful to have survived this most recent scare, but I will not let fear of sickness or death prevent me from living. I have this moment. That is all any of us ever really have. I will experience it as fully as I can and revel in it while I have it.

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A Walk in the Woods

Today was a perfect day for a spring walk. It was about 60 degrees in Wisconsin and sunny a day before we’re scheduled to be under the threat of rain for the rest of the week. Last year, due to recovering from a cancer operation, I was only able to go on a couple of extremely short hikes and for me that was an incredible hardship. Today I pushed myself and went farther than I have been able to in a while, and while my feet are sore and I was physically exhausted, my soul was replenished.

Nature is where I center myself. It is where I go to be with myself and to reconnect with the wild, natural part of my humanity. In our modern world, we have separated ourselves from our ancient community with animals and plants. We live in cement, brick, and wooden boxes instead of living connected to the land. We watch television or cell phone screens instead of soaring eagles and bounding deer. I believe we need to know wild landscapes and wild animals in order to know ourselves better.

In a walk through the woods (or desert or prairie or tundra), both my spirit and spirituality are revived in ways they could not be otherwise. When I am walking a trail as I was today and a piece of an ancient tree drops down on the ground next to me I understand that it is just a simple moment in the life of that tree. It is a shedding of its skin on its slow cycles toward its ultimate end. And I understand that even a serious health issue like cancer is just a moment in my life and my inevitable decline and death. I can better accept that I may have died from the cancer last spring, but I am still alive at this moment, shedding my own skin and my own fears as I move closer to that day that I become the dust in the soil that will provide nutrients for another tree to start its life.

These are comforting thoughts to me. Hiking makes one more acutely aware of the cycles of life when you see the constant death and rebirth of the seasons, when you see the death of one being give life to another. It helps me believe that there will be a rebirth in some form for all of us, in one way or the other, whether it is the Heaven of Christians, reincarnation, or simply the energy contained within us transforming into something new and with more light and love than before.

At the moment, I am still recovering from cancer. It may get me yet. Or perhaps my heart, which has given me several issues in the last decade, will suddenly stop beating and not start again this time. Or some strange accident will take me. Whatever it is, whenever it is, I am okay with it. I am ready. I understand that in my living I am dying and that it is all a part of the circles of the universe.

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The Promise of Spring

It was a beautiful day today with snow and ice melting, water rushing in the gutters, geese squawking as they flew overhead, songbirds singing, and the smell of spring in the air. While I know it’s still February and winter is far from over in Wisconsin, it signaled that hope of spring and the promise of new beginnings.

For me, hiking in nature is an essential activity to stay connected to the universe, the animal world, and my own humanity. I hike in the winter once in a while, but far more in the spring, summer, and fall. But last year, just as spring was arriving in March, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with colon cancer and several days later had surgery to remove part of my colon and to put in a temporary ileostomy. I was out of work and out of energy for months and later in the year had a minor surgery to have the ileostomy removed.

The recovery has progressed well, but the ordeal kept me from getting out into the woods except for a few shorter hikes, and that left me feeling unfulfilled in so many ways. I need that connection with our natural world to be more human. Especially as a person living in a city, it is easy to lose contact with who you are without that. It is easy to lose contact with our own elemental nature. I believe we were designed to be connected with nature and for me it is an emotional need that springs from my core.

So today, walking outside even for a short jaunt and hearing sounds, smelling scents, and seeing grassy lawns that disappear during our bleak winters here reminded me that although we will have more snow and more cold before it is over, we are on the road toward a new season. This year, though I am still out of shape from being bedridden, I will welcome those glorious walks in the woods to meet so many living things in so many varieties and colors, from insects to wildflowers to mammals that cross my path as I explore their worlds with them. I will not only be fully recovered from the cancer, but more fully human again.

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A Tough Year

This has been a tough year. At different times I have heard myself saying, “This has been the toughest year of my life.” And yet . . .

And yet here I am. Today I went for a hike and lost myself in the autumn colors and knew that life is good. Yes, it can be tough at times, but even when it is difficult, it is good.

It started out with all of us still in the throes of the pandemic. But like many others, that led to awakenings and reawakenings as I was able to spend more time with my partner in love and with myself. We shouldn’t need a pandemic for that, but it served its purpose.

In April I went to the hospital with severe abdominal pains and ended up staying for 34 days after they discovered I had colon cancer and the operation to remove part of my colon ended up with multiple complications. Still, I went for a hike today. I am a survivor and I am getting stronger every day.

Shortly after my hospitalization one of our pet birds died and shortly after getting released one of our pet cats passed away. Still, they lived good long lives under our care and we still have another bird and another cat, two dogs, and a gecko that we love, and we’re pretty sure they love us.

My car broke down just after I was able to start driving again, but I was able to get a loan from the credit union to get it repaired and can still drive where I need or want to go.

As part of the cancer operation I had an ileostomy put in and it has been in my body now for more than six months. But in just over two weeks I am scheduled for a reversal. There are many people who live with ostomies for their whole lives, but I am fortunate that mine gets to be reversed.

It has been a tough year, but it has also been a good year. I had poems accepted for publication, released two books, and am working on four more and a play. I was moved to a different position in my company, but was able to keep my job and slowly work my way back to full-time and just got a good review and a raise. I got in touch with myself and others in new ways and have had good quality time with those I love. I am still able to hike and connect with nature, which always centers me and brings me joy. Life is tough and good and I am happy to be alive.

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Talking about Talking Spirits

I stumbled across this presentation recently and wanted to share it. Quite a few years back, I was the writer/director of a living history cemetery tour called Talking Spirits. It was an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. I wrote and directed the first six years of the project, which in 1999 won an Award of Merit from the Wisconsin Historical Society and in 2003 won an award from the American Association of State and Local History. About five years into the project I was invited by the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society to speak to their organization and delivered this speech, which says as much about my theatrical and writing philosophy as it does about genealogy.

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to speak to your group tonight. I’m an amateur genealogist myself and I have been looking forward to this for weeks. I’m here to talk about a special project called Talking Spirits. Some of you may already be familiar with it. Perhaps you’ve come to see it over the last several years. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it I would like to take a little time to talk about what the project is and then also talk some about how it developed, how it is put together, and its function.

While to me it is considerably more, Talking Spirits is, in its most elemental definition, an annual guided tour of Forest Hills Cemetery here in Madison, sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum. Being genealogists I’m sure that there are many, many of you who have spent time wandering around cemeteries. As I mentioned, I’m an amateur genealogist myself and I have gone to a large number of cemeteries in search of the tombstones of ancestors. To those who don’t understand the need to do that kind of research or the appeal of old, historical burial places, people like you and I may seem just a little bit unsteady, a little off-balance. It doesn’t seem normal to most people to spend time in places like that. We live in a society that likes to think about death as little as possible. But if they only gave it a chance they would find that cemeteries are repositories not only of bones but of history and searches through them can reveal invaluable information for the historian, the genealogist, sociologists, and others. For those who have never taken a cemetery tour they are a little more formal than just walking around looking for relatives’ markers. On most cemetery tours a guide walks the participants through and talks a bit about the art and history of that cemetery and might also touch upon some of the people buried there.

Talking Spirits is different than most. It does more than most, and in a different way. On this cemetery tour the docents do a very thorough job of leading the walk. Before the tour they go through intensive training that covers topics both large and small. On the tour they talk about the cemetery history, some of the famous and infamous people buried there, the symbolism and the art of the tombstones, the social history, and that is all then combined with live portrayals of some of the more interesting persons buried there. The first Talking Spirits tour was just over four years ago in the fall of 1999 and we have done it five times now. Our tour combines the study of history with the entertainment and philosophy of theater, thus making it unique in programs of its kind.

Let me tell you how it started and developed into what it has become.

Several years ago, Bridgit Zielke, the Curator of Programs at the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum at the time, decided it would be a good idea for the museum to sponsor a cemetery tour in Madison. She had visited cemetery tours in other locations and had always learned a great deal from them and found them to be very interesting and enjoyable. The tours she had participated in had tour guides that led people through the cemeteries while they talked primarily about the tombstones and cemetery art. They would occasionally briefly discuss some of the individuals buried there, but the focus was on the art. They touched just a little bit on the history.

It occurred to Bridgit that such a tour might be more successful if it focused on both the art and history and if it not only mentioned the individuals buried there but showed them, actually brought them to life for the groups going through. She thought that the history was as important as the art and should be equally emphasized. Her feeling was that it would not only be educational, but much more fun and interesting to have actors portray some of the people by whose tombstones the tour groups passed. I believe the museum had successfully produced some other living history events, so it was a natural idea for them to pursue.

At about that time she and I first met. I was at the time directing a play called Bent at Madison’s Esquire Theater, for Mercury Players. The play was about the treatment of gays in German prison camps during the Holocaust and the producer and I had gone to the Veterans’ Museum for information about an upcoming exhibit on the Holocaust. It turned out that the exhibit was still a year away. We apparently had heard some very good pre-publicity. Disappointed that we would not be able to tie the play in with the exhibit we still chatted for a little bit with Bridgit. While she had a couple theater people there she thought she would ask if either of us happened to know anyone who was not only in theater but wrote plays. Not being very familiar with local theater I believe it was to her a shot in the dark, but Madison has a thriving playwrighting scene for its size. It may not be New York, but there are dozens of playwrights here. I have personally known five Madison playwrights who have had plays produced either on Broadway or in off-Broadway theaters. But that day Bridgit was just trying to see if there might be anyone who could help her with this kind of project. She explained the idea of creating a living history cemetery tour, where the audience would walk through the cemetery and get to see and hear actors portray the people buried there.

I was immediately excited. I was at the time just starting to think about pursuing a free-lance theatrical career a little harder than I had up to that point. I pulled out a batch of freshly printed business cards (that I had only printed the night before, I swear to God) and handed one to her. The card noted that I am a free-lance writer. I explained to her that I had acted in about 50 plays, that I had seven full-length and one one-act produced plays to my credit with another scheduled for later in the year, additional directing credits, and that I was a published poet and essayist. And just as important, and probably moreso, I was a fanatic about Wisconsin and its history. I told her that I couldn’t imagine how interesting it would be to combine two of my great loves, history and theater, in one project and that if she were serious to please give me a call to set up a meeting. I assured her that she couldn’t find anyone else with the same amount of passion and credentials to do the project she had in mind.

That was in the early part of 1999. Several months passed with no word and then one day I got a call from Bridgit asking if I could come to the museum to meet about the cemetery tour project. I believe she was comfortable with me from the beginning and I can say that I was comfortable with both her and the museum. We took a little time to negotiate, but came to a quick agreement that was satisfactory to everyone and set the dates for the first-ever Forest Hills Cemetery Tour. At the time it didn’t have a name. Bridgit came up with title, Talking Spirits. She stayed with the project for the next few years, with assistance from a wonderful staff of professionals. She now lives in eastern Wisconsin, but still came back this year to see the tour, which is now under the very capable hands of Katherine Leedle, who heads the museum’s program development and is also a researcher.

Forest Hills was chosen for the tour because it is Madison’s oldest cemetery. As the oldest cemetery it would cover the gamut of tombstone art in the upper Midwest. The cemetery was started during the period when cemeteries were built like parks and citizens would go to them for picnics and strolls, so the setting was beautiful as well. Finally, as the main cemetery in Wisconsin’s capital city, there were countless individuals to be found whose lives had impacted not only the state but the nation, and sometimes the world. Among the evergreens and twisting roads of Forest Hills lie several Wisconsin governors, Congressmen, scientists, soldiers, and other citizens whose lives could easily be used for living history portrayals.

I have to admit I initially thought that sponsorship by the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum would limit our choices of material somewhat, as there had to be some kind of tie-in with at least one of the wars that called soldiers away from Wisconsin soil. The reality, however, was that at least one war had crossed the lives of almost every citizen who had ever called Wisconsin home. Except for the few whose lives were cut short in their youth most citizens buried at Forest Hill lived through at least one war in their time. There is even at least one Revolutionary War soldier buried there, though the museum’s charter precludes us from doing anything with any of the wars that occurred before Wisconsin became a state in 1848. We knew that if those buried there were too young to be a part of the Civil War they were old enough for the Spanish-American War. If they were too young for that, then there was World War I, World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, not to mention the more recent campaigns in Iraq, Kosovo, Grenada, and others.

The project started with the Civil War, the earliest one we could cover. It was far enough distant that there was a built-in historical perspective and there were many personalities from which to choose. From the beginning I have had little or nothing to do with the choices of whom to portray. The museum decides which war era we are going to focus on and a committee meets to select appropriate characters. They do their best to balance everything as well as they possibly can. They have to be careful of logistics so that we don’t have two actors portraying different scenes within earshot of each other, while leaving room for the other aspects of the tour between characters. Aside from that they try to represent a cross-section of the population as much as they can.

 There are problems with accomplishing that goal, though. Historically women were not allowed to be enlisted soldiers until World War II and even now are not supposed to be in battle, though we know that they are dying with their brother soldiers in Iraq. Also, historical records about women were never kept in as much detail as they were for the men. Oftentimes, as genealogists can attest, it can be difficult to even prove that a woman existed, even when you know the name and birth date. As a result there are less women with written records available from the older wars. They were not as involved in the war as the men and the records were simply not as good. I believe the Veterans’ Museum has done an admirable job of inclusion with the limitations there are.

The same problem is encountered with African Americans as with women. Where they were a part of history it wasn’t recorded as faithfully as the history of the white ruling class, so it is difficult to find characters about whom there is enough information to do a portrayal. This year we had two African American characters, as part of our look at the World War II era. My biggest disappointment in the first five years of the event was during the first year when we had an impossible time finding an African American actor to portray one of the characters. The character was young and black and there are young, black actors in Madison. But every time we thought we had someone to play the part something happened to cause them to back out. This happened repeatedly all the way up to the dress rehearsal when our last and final choice backed out two days before the performance and could not be replaced at that late date. Fortunately, in that first year we also portrayed the Jeffersons, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemming, two brothers who were portrayed in that first tour. It took an additional four years before we had another African American portrayal. We have yet to have a Japanese-American, or other Asian, Hispanic, Arab American, or any other person of color represented.

Once the characters to be portrayed are selected the research begins. I have to admit that I don’t have much to do with that either, though I love doing historical research. I have put together a 100-page booklet on my great-great-grandfather and his brother by doing research on my own. It’s something I love to do, but the museum wanted me to focus on the writing and directing from the beginning. This doesn’t mean that the museum does all of it, but they do handle most of it. One of the actors who has been in a number of the tours is also an employee at the State Historical Society and will often find additional information for me if I am stuck or need something further before I can decide a direction to go. I also do a fair amount of my own research when necessary. Every year I do at least some additional research on my own.

For the most part, though, the Museum has an intern whose job it is to do such work at what I’m guessing is a relatively inexpensive wage. As they proceed with that work I am presented with packets of material on the characters. In some cases, it is several large bundles for one person and in other cases it is a few scraps in a small manila envelope. For some people there is a seemingly limitless amount of material available and for others we have been lucky to have much more than an obituary. My job is to take whatever information I am given, along with any additional information that I dig up on my own or with my friend, Scott’s, help, and to sift through that and create a monologue that is believable and captures the essence of the person behind the words. In some cases we have portrayed two people at once—a father and son, husbands and wives, brothers—but the bulk of the pieces has been monologues.

I have to admit I start every year with a prayer. Now, I’m not a very religious person, at least in the traditional sense of the word, though I do have a very spiritual side. But I do believe that what talent I may have is a gift and I do believe that I am not alone when I am creating, so I offer up a prayer to God or the muses or just the general energy of the universe before I ever start writing. I ask for guidance and that I am true to the people about whom I have been entrusted to write. To me it is a sacred duty. I offer the same prayer when I write fictional theater, but the answer is far more important when you are portraying actual people who lived and breathed on this earth.

To achieve an honest portrayal I have to take the known facts and extrapolate from them what kind of person is being portrayed. Facts by themselves cannot create a fully fleshed out character. Only a statistician could look at a list of dates, numbers and other dry facts and find an interesting person there. It helps to have letters, speeches, notes, and other documents that include words that the real person spoke or wrote. This year, because we focused on the World War II era, we had old audio tapes of some of the persons being portrayed.

In some cases it is not possible to have many words from the actual persons, so as a writer you have to understand who the person is without that assistance and create words that you believe would be the kinds of things that person would speak. For example if a person were a railroad conductor and had a collection of model trains and belonged to numerous rail societies you might have them say at one point, “I love trains,” even though there is no historical evidence of them ever uttering those words. The likelihood is that the characters’ sons and daughters would recognize the line as something true to their father. There are certain things that can be assumed, certain presumptions that can be made about a person from surrounding historical data.

Sometimes there are documents that include the person’s own words, but not enough from which to create a full piece. In those cases I have to combine my words with their words to create a monologue that moves from point A to point B seamlessly, as if all the words belonged together and belonged to the character. To do this one must study the way the person spoke or wrote, the things that were important to them, what other people said about them, and more, in order to find what works. If successful the audience should not be able to tell where the historical person’s words leave off and the author’s begin.

In yet other cases there are almost too many words from the historical person and you have to sift through to find which ones have the most meaning and can be used. This year we had an extreme case in which I was able to create an entire monologue, for the first time ever, by only using words from the character’s real life. That was for Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky, a well-respected Madisonian who arrived here after leaving war-ridden Germany and stayed the rest of his life. That is the piece we decided to present to you tonight. Here now is Al Hart reading that monologue.

 “When I think of the Berlin I knew, the city to which I came in 1925 as a student and the city in which I served as a Rabbi of the Jewish community until 1939, a host of associations is conjured up in my mind: places which became part of the spiritual geography of my being, events which decisively determined the course of my life, and people whose presence became inextricably woven into the fabric of my existence.

“No one, not even the greatest pessimist or prophet of doom, could have predicted that in the middle of the first half of the 20th century, the lights would go out over Europe, and darkness would fall over an entire continent on a bright noonday. German Jews, with few exceptions, felt it impossible to believe that the dark clouds of Fascism had gathered on the horizon of their native land, the land in which they felt as thoroughly at home as American Jews do in America. I, too, believed that the Nazi nightmare would pass like a bad dream. It did not.

“By 1938 German Jews had already lived under Hitler for six years. A government-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses had already happened in 1933, with stormtroopers blocking the entrance to stores marked with the inscription “Jude.” These were the days when Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, said: “Treat the Jews like a rose, don’t harm them; just don’t water them.” Already there were the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which practically cancelled the civic emancipation of Jews, abolishing their citizenship and forbidding all cultural and social contact between Jews and non-Jews.

“It took the events of the first two November weeks of 1938 to convince even the most hopeful that all hope was lost. On Crystal Night, it all ended. Hitler told his henchman Goebbels to “let the Gestapo have a fling.” The Gestapo burned all the synagogues in Germany, about 500 of them. The burning of the Synagogues was just one more step in the gradual enactment of the plan for the “Final Solution.”

“I recall very vividly, at about 2:00 a.m. I was awakened by the ring of the telephone. I heard the voice of the custodian of my synagogue shouting: “Rabbi, our Temple is on fire.” When I arrived at the synagogue, I saw its inside an ocean of flames reaching up to the balcony and way into the high cupola. Firemen were pouring water on surrounding buildings to protect them from the fire and the heat. Police were standing idly by. Nazi stormtroopers were jeering and shouting anti-Jewish slogans. This 3,200-seat synagogue, dedicated in 1929, was the last Jewish House of Worship ever built on German soil.

“Standing in front of the burning Temple, which had been filled to capacity Shabbat after Shabbat and only a few weeks earlier, on Simchat Torah had resounded with the gaiety of children, it suddenly occurred to me that this Synagogue might not be the only one set on fire.

“Following the Crystal Night and the burning of the Synagogues, rumors circulated that now a mass arrest of Jewish men would take place. Members of the Gestapo came to my apartment and arrested me without any warrant, without giving any reason, simply because I was a Rabbi. I was arrested—they called it protective custody—and imprisoned in a concentration camp. The camp was near Berlin.There were some 14,000 prisoners in the camp. The majority were not Jews, but they were Christian—Germans. There were gypsies, there were Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were a few Catholic priests—a medley of all kinds. It was a concentration camp, not a gas chamber. Otherwise, I would not be here.

“You never can sleep. You are in little huts—muddy and snowy. Nothing to eat except some sort of lukewarm water soup and soft potato bread in the morning. They dressed you in pajamas. At 4:30 a.m. up. At 5:15 everybody on the big exercise field, standing at attention for an hour. Then they march you out and you have to work. We had to build munitions plants. Most of these guys were not even used to heavy labor. I was more used to it.

“Two people had to lift big stones. These young fellows with the gun—they kicked you and beat you for fun. If you dropped the stone, they beat you some more. This went on until 8 o’clock in the evening, with 10 minutes for lunch. Naturally the people died like flies.

“Twice I was called before the commander-in-chief there. You go to the office. You face the wall. He converses with you in sharp tones. The guy said to me that he would discharge me if I signed a number of statements. I didn’t know what the statements were. What I’m saying now sounds very heroic. I’m not a born hero. I said no. Why did I say no? I simply felt I had to say no because of the others. Had I accepted this offer, it would have definitely lowered the morale of the people.

“The guy kicked me out. Out I was. This went on. It got worse and worse during the winter. The cold—and I caught pneumonia. But the worst was my bleeding. My feet absolutely had no skin on. Then it happened a second time that I was called. I could be dismissed if I left the country immediately. I had no place to go. I had no relatives anywhere in the world. They all lived in Germany. So I thought to myself, “Boy, this is the last chance for breakfast.” I said yes. The guy gave me a lecture and said wherever you go, the hand of the Gestapo is strong enough to catch you and bring you back. And I believed it in those days. These were good olden days, you understand. This was 1939-40. The wholesale extermination and deportation started in ’42.

“Why did he attack Judaism? He once said, “The Jews are the ones who invented conscience.” I think that’s the only true thing he ever said. What Hitler did, if it was a shock to anyone, it was to me, for the simple reason that the German Jew was so thoroughly integrated into the life of Germany in every respect—culturally, socially, economically, politically, in every respect—that the German Jew naturally could not understand what actually was going on. My father was born in the same house where I was born. My grandfather was born in the same little house and my great-grandfather. For a long time I was absolutely full of hope. I was absolutely of the opinion that National Socialism in Germany would just be a passing phase. People used to say, “Well, give them another week,” “Give them another month,” “Give them another year.” And of course his reign was not established for a thousand years as he had hoped. It was short-lived indeed, but it was not short enough to actually preserve the lives of so many millions of people and indeed it was a shock.

 “It is unbelievable; it is incomprehensible. The human mind cannot comprehend, the human heart cannot feel, and human speech cannot express what is beyond the power of comprehension, feeling, and expression. We can agonize about the death of a single child. The death of one million children is an abstraction. Nothing in life becomes real until it becomes person

“Shall we forget and forgive? Forgetting is not a matter of will. Can I forgive? I wish I could. I believe in man’s capacity and moral responsibility to forgive. However, I can forgive only wrong done to me personally. I have no right to forgive what was done to others. But I can stretch out my hand and grasp the hand stretched out to me in reconciliation. I do believe in reconciliation in this as in other situations. Hatred should not be perpetuated. I do not want to have my children or future generations live by hatred. Hatred is no seed bed from which redemption grows.

“Truthfully, without getting melodramatic, I lived and worked for six years under Hitler. I was in a concentration camp, but I got out, fortunately. So the years in this country have been a very special bonus. I could have belonged to the six million just as well. I, too, could have been born one of the millions turned into ashes or made into soap. Because life was given to me for a second time, I have to make up for it. What the world needs is bridges, not walls.

“In God’s house are many mansions occupied by the most diverse people—all His children. It is a tragedy beyond words that we cannot live together in peace in the global village which is the earth. As long as the earth remains we shall always search for truth, yearn for justice and work for that better world in which man will live in harmony and peace with his brother man. To a Jew despairing is blasphemy. If we despaired, if we gave up hope, we would be guilty of collaborating with the enemy. Jews have never surrendered to hopelessness and permitted their lives to be poisoned by hatred. On the contrary, the alchemy of the Jewish spirit has always transmuted death into life, despair into hope. For this is the meaning of being Jewish—never to give up, never to yield to despair. It is our destiny to forever bear witness that man is not the enemy of man, but his friend and brother.

 “It has always been a source of comfort to me that, in spite of all experiences to the contrary, there is more goodness than evil in the world. That faith, hope, and love must never be allowed to die in the human heart—in spite of everything—is the legacy of the dead to the living. It is the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust.

Now that you have heard that speech I will tell you that the monologue you just heard is a lie. And I mean that in the best sense. The rabbi never gave that speech even though those were all his own words. However, I believe that monologue is true to the character even if it is not entirely true to history.

In order to understand what I mean by that, what we do with the tour, and what I as the author and director do in particular, it is necessary to examine the nature of theater in relation to a project like this. Let me start by saying this. In the academic world of history a fact is only accepted as fact as long as there is evidence to support it and no other evidence comes along to contradict it. I’m sure that makes sense. The same is true in science. A theory is generally accepted as true as long as there is nothing newer that disproves it. It is the same in all the various scientific areas of study. Art, on the other hand, deals with philosophy and emotion. Theater, especially, along with fiction, doesn’t even pretend to be fact. It only pretends. Theater is, by its very nature, illusion. It is a lie. It is an elaborate façade constructed to convince the audience that it is watching something real, and it generally creates this lie as part of a search for something far more real than simple fact, and that is philosophical or emotional truth. I mention this because I believe that to understand Talking Spirits one has to understand that it is as much theater as it is history, perhaps moreso. I was hired as a playwright, not as an historian, and I believe that was a choice that helped make this project work as well as it does.

This is not meant to say that Talking Spirits does a disservice to history, that it lies about facts. It does not. It never has and I can guarantee it never will. As I have mentioned it is carefully researched and painstakingly put together to be as true to history as it can possibly be. But it must be recognized that at its best, when it is its best, the event is theatrical in nature and is therefore not fully factual even when it strikes the essence of truth.

Let me break down some of the lies in the piece you just heard. The first one is so obvious that it may be missed by most everyone. The person you just heard is an actor, not Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky. It’s obvious, but the rabbi is deceased and we are portraying him as if he were still amongst the living. The actor portraying him is Gentile and not Jewish, American and not German, considerably younger than the age range we are suggesting, and has never survived a concentration camp, among other things. The art of acting is to make people believe that you are the person you are portraying. I believe that Al does this exceptionally well and that audiences buy into the premise that he is who he says he is. You go along for the ride as it were. One of the conventions of theater is that the audience gives up some doubt, that they suspend disbelief for the duration of the play and accept that what they are seeing is real. Without this convention theater cannot work.

The second major lie in the piece is that it seems that the rabbi has given a speech and you accept that they are his words. As I mentioned this is the only character in the history of Talking Spirits who had enough words in the research that I was able to use only his own words in creating the piece. But those words are culled from a variety of sources. In some cases part of a sentence might be a quote from a newspaper article and another part of the same sentence part of a speech that he gave in real life. The lie is in taking those words out of context and rearranging them to say something that combines the two. It is in editing the words to create a natural-sounding flow.

So as a writer and director I have lied to you. But have I been dishonest? I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is that I feel that I was true to the essence of the character, I was true to his spiritual core. The words are not edited and arranged to make the character say something he would not say. They are arranged to come closer to something that he would say if he were able to be here today. It is impossible for the portrayal to be completely honest and to be complete in its history. If we were to take every word that the rabbi had uttered and written and put them into a monologue in the order and the context in which they were spoken or written, you would have to give us days of your time to hear them all and they would still have to be uttered by someone other than the person who made them up. And it would no longer be theater. It would be a recitation, and likely a boring one at that.

Part of the act of writing a play, a significant part of the act of writing a play, is editing. A writer has to edit material in order to give it a rhythm and flow or the audience will be either lost or bored or both. The important thing is to be true to the source without having to strictly adhere to it.

You do not see biographies that try to include every fact ever known about the subject. The author has to distill the important moments into a cohesive form. They are not going to quote every letter the subject ever wrote. They are going to quote parts of letters that give the readers a better understanding. With our project I not only do not have the luxury of a book-length biography, I have to distill that person’s life into a five to ten minute piece that gets at the core of who they were and touches upon the important milestones of their existence. I can tell you that to condense all that information into a five-to-ten-minute piece is not an easy task. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult. What I must do is study all the available material and find the outstanding themes, the things that together can be woven into a cohesive through-line and make that character come alive and seem real without sounding like we’re trying to teach history and without using only sound bites. We also cannot change historical facts, though sometimes I must admit that we ignore them.

For example, I received some audio-taped interviews of one of the characters we portrayed this year. In listening to them I came across several homophobic references scattered throughout the interviews. My own political leanings would have had me include those lines to show how insipid that kind of bias can be and if I had been creating a fictional drama I may very well have done so. In other parts of the audio tapes the person talked about his politically left leanings in his youth. My own political leanings would have had me include those words to prove my own political point of view. But the important themes that had come through in all of the material I had studied had nothing to do with my own political leanings. The themes were about art and its meaning to the character. His homophobia, while it was irritating to me personally, was not a huge component of that person and did not warrant inclusion in the piece. His political leanings, while a larger part of who he was, also did not fit the themes that had come through. To force them into the piece would have been dishonest to the character and myself and would have rang hollow.

With that said I must admit that when a character’s theme does fit my political philosophies, such as William Evjue’s anti-war rhetoric in last year’s tour, I find it more of a joy to write the piece. I am able to connect better with the character. Either way, though, the author (as well as the actor) has to be morally neutral about any character. One of the biggest dangers in acting and writing is to impose one’s own moral, political, or social standards upon one’s characters. This is especially dangerous when writing about real persons. You simply cannot do it. One of the other characters this past year was to me somewhat blindly patriotic and jingoistic, but I realized I could not fault him for being who he was and I had to find why he was that way. Everyone has their justifications for who they are, whether you agree with them or not. I simply had to let that character be and let the audience judge for themselves what his life and his opinions might mean to them. I find that oftentimes characters who have a different point of view from me teach me in ways that I would never be taught otherwise. They teach me tolerance and understanding, so while they are more difficult to write, they are ultimately more rewarding to me as a person.

This past year I got evidence that I achieve this neutrality with my characters when two of the monologues were attacked by audience members from opposite ends of the political spectrum. One, the patriot I mentioned above, infuriated a political leftie when he recited the Pledge of Allegiance and asked the audience to recite it with him. Another was attacked by a religious conservative for promoting an alternative lifestyle, even though the character simply talked briefly about her special woman friend and never actually said anything remotely political. These two people made me realize that I was successfully letting the characters speak for themselves.

As a writer and artist I believe I do have a philosophical point of view that comes across in the tours, but never at the expense of the characters’ own truths. What usually happens is that I find the humanity in the characters, the universal things that cause us to recognize that something is true. It is this truth that has always been my primary goal as a writer. One year I had a woman tell me that she was shocked to discover that the tour was written by a man because the anguish of the Blue Star mother being portrayed was so real. Another year I had someone tell me that they were surprised I was not a veteran because the words that one of the soldier characters uttered were so true to his own experiences. Another year a son of one of the characters told the actor that he reminded the man of his own father, because the words were just the kinds of things his father would say. These things tell me that my prayers to the universe about being true to the characters have been answered over the years.

I believe that I have been blessed by this project. I believe that I have been blessed not so much with talent as a writer but with an understanding of the commonalities of our human existence, an understanding that comes from experience of the suffering that can come in life, an understanding and acceptance of the inevitability of death, and an understanding of the joy of life, the little things that make it special despite its difficulties. I believe that I am that mother, that soldier, and that father, as well as all the others, even though I have been none of those, because there are experiences and universal themes that we share as human beings, not as white men or black women, or soldiers or civilians, but as humans. It is these universal feelings and emotions that I look for when I look at the research that is handed over to me and that I try to keep in mind when I set my pen to paper.

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Whispering willow

Wind whips through the whispering willow

overlooking the crying, drying, dying

stream. She bows down in prayer,

gently sweeping over the banks,

giving thanks for her years of life

and the water that sustained her.

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