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Argument as Life: Notes on My Father

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TH St. Clair, 1967, Marion County, Indiana Courthouse.

As my plane climbed into the sky over Portland on its way to Indianapolis, the pilot tilted the jet so that we could all get an Instagram-perfect view down on our local volcano and I flashed back to an afternoon in 1992 when my mother, Doreen, and father, TH St. Clair, had made one of their trips out the Pacific Northwest to see us. TH had picked up a book on Mt. Hood at Powell’s and he said, “Ever climb that mountain?” “Not yet,” I said. “Why not? I read here that a woman climbed it in her wedding dress after the ceremony. Up and down in a couple of hours. How hard could it be? Why don’t we do it?” How hard could it be? Well, Mt. Hood isn’t the biggest of the Cascade Volcanoes, but it does soar to 11,000 feet. It has snowfields and glaciers, crevasses and cliffs, fumeroles and toxic gasses leaking from the hot rocks up top. He was feeling frisky in those days. It had been 8 years since the doctors had told him his heart was dying and he had turned his life around. In the end, we didn’t tackle the summit, but we did hike up and down high elevation canyons to the blazing wildflower meadows of Paradise Park. Still it was clear to me that the old confidence and bravado and optimism was back. The kind of bravado that drove him as a star college baseball player to chase a fly-ball hit to deep centerfield so hard that he ending up leaping over the fence to catch it, snagging his pants as he fell to the grass, only to furiously argue with the umpire who ruled it a homerun despite his heroics. It was the kind of bravado that tempted him to take a $100 bet from a colleague that he couldn’t make it through night law school while he worked all day programming an early mainframe computer at Westinghouse. It’s the kind of bravado that compelled him to talk back to judges in open court when he knew he was right on the case law. It was the kind of bravado that made him think he could kick his 3-pack a day Winston habit by going fishing for two weeks in the brown bear-haunted muskeg swamps of northern Manitoba, 200 miles from the nearest town and bar. It’s the kind of bravado that put him on a bicycle climbing up to Logan Pass on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park only a few years after a cardiologist warned him that his heart was so weak it could stop at any moment. It’s the kind of bravado that made him think he could court and marry the smartest and most beautiful woman at his college. The kind of bravado that enabled him to travel across the country across last October, when his knees were burning with pain, his heart was slowing down and his breath becoming more belabored, to dance with his granddaughter at her wedding. The kind of bravado it took in the last lucid moments of his life to speak of his mother Ruth, who he loved so fiercely, saying through the breathing tubes that all his memories of her were “wonderful.” We should all be blessed with such bravado.

Our father was a polymath, a five-tool player, a master of many disciplines: an athlete and student, a teacher and problem solver, a legal theorist and courtroom brawler, a writer and prankster, an acute observer of nature and a world-class raconteur. But one of his greatest gifts was his ability to explain the inexplicable. I’m thinking especially of the way he was able to comfort his young children during their first encounter with the chill face of death. Though it’s been nearly 50 years now, the image of that day remains vivid my mind. He was home early from work. Much too early. He sat my sister Jennifer and I down on the couch, embraced us both and said, “We’ve lost a great friend today.” He was sobbing as he spoke, one of the few times I saw him cry. That friend was our grandfather, Doreen’s father, Orville, a man who played a huge formative role in our young lives, a man who in many ways proved more of a father to TH than his own father, Russell. He spoke honestly and directly to us about death. He didn’t condescend, didn’t try to soften the horrible blow with fairy-tales about meeting Orville again someday in heaven or how our grandfather was now in a better place. He encouraged us to feel the pain of this grievous loss and express our anger about a life taken too soon. He encouraged us to hold him close in memory and let him live through what he taught us.

Now I find myself faced with the challenge of explaining the inexplicable. The task though isn’t to explain his death. Even though it was a profound experience for the three of us to be with him as he told his last stories and he breathed his last breaths, his death wasn’t mysterious. As Albert Camus said, death is the most ordinary event in the world. It’s merely the period placed on the sentence of a life. An etymological note: in the language of Chaucer the word “sentence” translates as “meaning.” So the real test is to the explain the meaning of an inexplicable life.

As I was rushing out of the house back in Oregon City to catch my flight, I grabbed a pile of books for work and in my haste I accidentally—or perhaps providentially—picked up a slender volume of poems by TS Eliot, a writer TH had introduced me to in my early teens. He was fond of quoting from “The Hollow Men” and the “Four Quartets.” On my long flight over the Rockies and the Great Plains, I dipped back into those familiar poems that I hadn’t read in years and I fixated on this line from “Portrait of a Lady:” “Our beginnings never know our ends.” I take this to mean that we are not prisoners of our birth, that we aren’t captive of our economic, physical or geographic circumstances, that our lives aren’t predestined. Instead, we are the authors of our own character, choice by choice, action by action, we shape the ethical contours of our lives. How else to explain how a child born into poverty in the Blue Ridge Mountains could a few decades later be arguing complex litigation before our highest legal courts. How could a white kid from the south raised in a racially polarized and segregated city become best friends with black kids, some of whom were homeless, several of whom were invited to eat and sleep in his own small house, an almost unthinkable transgression of the noxious social norms of Indianapolis in the late 30s and 40s. How could a poor young man who saw some of the most savage warfare in Korea turn his back on the chance to attend the Naval Academy and a potential career as an officer; how could this same man, with only a high school education at the time, write one of the first white papers (for Adm. John McCain II) warning of the perils of US involvement in Southeast Asia. How could a man who whose own father was stern, cold and at times brutal be such a compassionate and tender husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend? How could a man who had been given a near death sentence 35 years ago reinvent himself to the point where the 2nd and 3rd acts of his life were as dazzling as the first.

Obviously, my father had a fierce will to live and to live every moment to the max. Less obviously, for nearly 60 of his years he enjoyed the support, advice, patience, love, prodding and coaching of our mother. More essentially, he was driven by an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Even as his body began to fail him, his mind continued to expand. The more you know, he told me during one of our last conversations, the more you know how much you don’t know. I told him he was beginning to sound like Donald Rumsfeld. He grunted, then said: It’s the things you don’t know that you need to learn and learn quick. For him, those things included the law and beekeeping, how to make maple syrup (a comic adventure with his pal Ed Lewis) and astronomy, the art of stained glass and the nuances of Tabata, the history of the Cherokee Nation and the Mandarin language, the chord progressions of the piano and the migration habits of purple martins, one of those habits being to scrupulously avoid visiting the birdhouses that TH tried for 20 years to lure them into…

If he was pedantic about anything it was education, about learning throughout one’s life, in school as high as you could go (the pressure here was exerted on my sister the math genius), from electricians and mechanics, musicians and bookies, learning through experience, learning from failure, and most fundamentally learning from books. Our house was full of them—Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill, HL Mencken and Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth and Mark Twain, John LeCarré and Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Carlyle and Joseph Heller Heller. These books were not for décor, they were objects to be devoured, digested and most vitally talked about and debated—over breakfast, over dinner, while driving, at the ballpark, or while drinking beers on the porch as fireflies flickered across the field on a June night. Some might politely call these interactions exchanges of views. But really they were arguments. Being his friend or relative was an invitation to an argument. The more he liked and respected you, the more contentious and ferocious the argument was likely to become. You had to prove your worth. Arguments were a way of demonstrating what you had just read or learned and testing it against what someone else knew. Knowledge wasn’t a commodity to be hoarded, but a common resource to be shared with those who knew its value. But if you decided to engage in one of these bruising debates you’d better bring you’re A-Game, as Tiger Woods used to say. You’d better be prepared to have your ass handed to you and be willing to learn from the experience, lick your wounds and step right back into the ring. He had a way of introducing you to your conscience, if you know what I mean.

On the morning after he died, I sat at his desk in his office down in his beloved Brown County and scanned his bookshelf. I pulled out the Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur. Wilbur is one of my favorite poets, but TH had come to him on his own. He had four or five Wilbur books, none of which I had inflicted upon him as a birthday or Xmas present. The book was dog-eared on a page which featured the poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” The title comes from St. Augustine, the first great philosopher of the Christian Church. Augustine was, incidentally, a black man, a Berber from North Africa. I won’t bore you with the poem which is on the surface at least about laundry drying on a clothes line. But it struck me then, and does so now, that instead of mourning his death we are compelled to celebrate his continuing presence among us: in the legal precedents he won, in the enterprises, small and large, he guided and helped bring to life, in the accomplishments of dozens of athletes and students he anonymously supported, in the libraries and schools he helped fund,  in the thousands of trees he planted by hand, in the 20 generations of bluebirds he nurtured, in the minds of gifted young lawyers that he helped to cultivate, sharpen and promote, in the lives of indigent people he represented for free during times of legal peril. My father TH St. Clair’s after-life is here among us in the things of this world that endure because of his work, his care and his love.

Remarks given at the memorial for TH St. Clair, August 5, 2017, Nashville, Indiana.

***

Roaming Charges

+ Trump’s plan to combat global warming: nuclear winter.

+ Sen. Lindsay Graham, ever eager to transfer constitutional power to the executive branch when it comes to war-making, pronounced that Trump doesn’t need congressional authority to strike North Korea. Clearly, Graham is tumescent at the prospect.

+ After Trump’s “fire and fury” outburst, the New York Times ran a story titled “If the United States Attacks North Korea First, Is That Self-Defense?” A better story would have been: “If North Korea Who Hasn’t Attacked Anyone in 60 Years) Attacks the US First, Is That Self-Defense?”

+ This just in from the voice of rationality in Trumplandia, Mad Dog Mattis: “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.

+  Clint Eastwood’s character Kowalski in “Gran Torino” crisply summarizes the American experience in Korea :

Smokie: Are you fucking crazy? Go back in the house.

Walt Kowalski: Yeah? I blow a hole in your face and then I go in the house… and I sleep like a baby. You can count on that. We used to stack fucks like you five feet high in Korea… use ya for sandbags.

+ In three years of slaughter, more than three million Koreans died, about 20 percent of the population of the peninsula, more than half of them civilians.

+ Southern Baptist preacher Robert Jeffress, who offered Biblical wisdom at the Inauguration, said that the Supreme Deity has authorized Trump to wipe out Kim Jong-Un.

And God said to Donald, “Let there be a flash of light and an unquenchable fire, followed by burning black rain and a whole lotta nothingness…”

And Donald said, “Where you want this killing done again, I don’t think I quite got the coordinates right…? Whoops.”

+ Let’s not forget that it was the Peace Prize Prez who armed Trump with a new generation of “Fire and Fury” nuclear weapons…

+ Don’t worry here’s How to Survive a Nuclear Attack, a musical courtesy of Ventura County, California’s Rapid Response…

+ So many West Wing doors, so few hinges

+ A Washington Post story this week carries an absurd headline announcing that “Centrist Democrats Begin to Push Back Against Bernie Sanders, Liberal Wing.” Begin? What was the DLC, catnip for catatonics?

+ The temperatures in Bahrain this summer have shattered all records. Not to worry a Saudi entrepreneur has invented an “air-conditioned umbrella.

+ Sea levels in the American southeast are rising much faster than the rest of the coastline. This is, of course, not driven by climate change, but merely an “extreme tidal encroachment event….”

+ Sea Level Rise Since 1988…

+ On the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, the dams are down and the salmon are back. Now let’s bust some big ones on the Snake

+ American capitalism summed up in one headline: “Americans Are Dying Younger, Saving Corporations Billions.”

+ The wages of Shock Therapy: the vast majority of Russians were far better off economically under communism. Perestroika this, Gorby.

+ Sebastian Gorka is said to be in negotiations with Ridley Scott for a role in the remake of Dr. Strangelove….(Is he still wearing his Nazi lapel pin?)

+ Trump has nominated Sam Clovis, a rightwing talk radio host from Iowa, to the post of chief scientist for the Department of Agriculture. Clovis gained some regional notoriety for promoting the idea that Obama was a Maoist who was born in Kenya, an insult to both Chinese Communists and anti-colonialist Kenyans. Clovis regularly denounced both Eric Holder and Tom Perez as “racist bigots” and wrote off climate change as “a big hustle.” This is not, admittedly an impressive resumé for the post, however, a long, long time ago, around a crackling fire in New Mexico, Sam invented the Clovis Point and almost single-handedly cleared the continent of blood-thirsty mega-fauna….

+ The Twitter guillotine claims another talking head. I enjoyed watching Jeffrey Lord gleefully defend the indefensible. Now he’s been fired by CNN for flipping off one of the pro-Clinton scolds at Media Matters. Calling Trump a Nazi, which CNN commentators do all day long is great, giving a mock Nazi salute at someone you consider (for whatever reason) a fascist is a fireable offense

+ How Marxists Captured the Deep State, the inside story from Trump’s NSC. (Break out the Rolling  Rock: Frederic Jameson for CIA director, Perry Anderson for Sec. of Defense, Jodi Dean for Sec. of State, Zizek for National Security Advisor!)

+ Walmart celebrates Back to School Days with a Dylan (Columbine) Klebold Special!

+ In Hipsterville, prisoners are being forced to tear down homeless camps where they once lived. They are being paid $1 a day for the privilege.

+ By the end of September, ICE will have deported fewer people than it did under the slowest years of the Obama regime. Sorry, Donald, the Old Deporter-in-Chief still holds the record. But please don’t try harder…

+ Alieda Guevara March confessed that she never felt more proud of being the daughter of Che, Cuban, faithful revolutionary, and unconditional devotee of Fidel than on May 14, 2004, “I heard the leader of the Revolution tell the American president George W. Bush: ‘Hail, Caesar, those who are going to die greet you.'”

+ To the consternation of many liberals, Rex Tillerson is considering pulling the plug on the State Department’s democracy promotion programs. I say good riddance. “Democracy Promotion” was usually a quaint little message demanding imperial obedience delivered to your doorstep via a cruise missile.

+ The Omen DCLXVI: Damien Goes to Megiddo…(Starring Jared Kushner).

+ The brutal Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, was found guilty in federal court of contempt of court. There’s a desert tent and a pink jumpsuit in sidewinder country just waiting for you, Joe…

+ I was stunned from a mutual friend (a year after the fact) of the death of my old pal Chuck Williams. Chuck and I both worked for David Brower at Friends of the Earth in the early 1980s, Chuck in Oregon & the Bay Area and me in DC and Baltimore. Chuck was brilliant. He worked for NASA as an engineer as a young man, but his real passion was wilderness, especially the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Chuck was a descendent of the leaders of the Cascade Tribe, who lived near the now flooded Cascade Rapids on the Columbia. He was royalty in a decimated tribe. Chuck was a brilliant photographer. Some of his most striking images are reproduced in his book on the Columbia Gorge, Bridge of the Gods, Mountains of Fire. One of the best “coffee table” books ever published and the most radical. Chuck spent the last half of his life fighting for the Columbia River, often against sell-out environmental groups, who had relinquished much of the Gorge (one of the world’s natural marvels) to developers and the hydro-industrial complex. Chuck never compromised and never gave up fighting for the destruction of the dams that had flooded his ancestral homeland and ravaged the greatest salmon runs the world has ever known. I last saw Chuck three years ago. He invited me to the tribal pow-wow at Lyle. After eating salmon, we drove in his old truck high on the rim of the Gorge searching for a lost twinned-waterfall on Catherine’s Creek. We didn’t find it, but it didn’t matter. We had a blast that day. Chuck had been ill for several years. He made the long trip from The Dalles out to Grand Ronde to get medical treatment at the tribal hospital–an arduous 150-mile trip many ill tribal people have to make. On his way back, he’d often stop in here in Oregon City to get his allotment of salmon smoked at Tony’s, one of the last old fish canneries in the PNW. We’d have coffee and shoot the shit. Chuck had a wicked sense of humor. My emails to him over the last year had bounced back. Chuck had the habit of disappearing, going silent, for months, occasionally a year or so without a word. But deep down, I knew what I didn’t want to know. Chuck was one of the mighty spirits. His loss is profound. But his legacy as an activist, a tribal leader and an artist will endure for many, many decades….

+ When Sonny Rollins fell off the stage, broke a bone in his foot, kept playing…(Contrast with Liam Gallagher’s aborted performance at Lollapalooza last week.)

+ That rare thing, a pop song about work. RIP Glen Campbell…

 

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Lay It On Down by Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
Oblivion by Gerald Beckett
There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit by Cyrus Chestnut
Mr. Luck: the Complete Vee-Jay Recordings by Jimmy Reed
London Southern by Jim Lauderdale

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

Existentialism and Excess: the Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre by Gary Cox

Warner Brothers: the Making of an American Movie Studio by David Thomson

Best Minds of My Generation: a Literary History of the Beats by Allen Ginsberg

A Celebration of Ignorance

Carl Sagan: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no representing the pubic interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.” From The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995)

 

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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