Sunday, December 30, 2012

Year in Review: 2012

As we approach the end of yet another year, I thought I'd do a bit of reflection on the year that has just passed.  Not a reflection on all that has happened in the world since January, but rather a reflection of my own experiences through this two thousand and twelfth year of the common era.

For Christmas last year I got a Kindle Fire and a membership to Amazon Prime, so by January of this year I was riffling through all the free movies and TV shows available for live streaming.  I was wary at first of watching anything significant because the Kindle Fire screen, in case you don't know, is very small.  It's larger than a smartphone, of course, but only about 2/3rds the size of an iPad - slightly less than 8" by 5".  After doing a couple of test runs on a few Family Guy reruns, I decided I could handle watching an entire TV series on the Kindle screen.

As such, I started my love affair with Lost.  

When Lost first premiered back in 2004, I was intrigued by the countless commercials I saw for it, but wasn't in a place where I felt like I could dedicate myself to a weekly TV series (it was obvious from the commercials that this was the kind of show you had to watch every week to keep abreast of what was going on).  So instead, I put my interest in it on the back burner and figured I might watch it some day on DVD.  That "some day" finally arrived when I discovered Amazon Prime had the entire 6-season series for free.

I was completely, totally, and utterly hooked within the first ten minutes of the first episode.  

Long story short, I spent most of January to March watching Lost.  Instead of climbing into bed and reading, as I typically do, I climbed into bed each night quivering with excitement over the next installment.  I would turn the lights off, plug in my headphones, and watch the show with an eagerness that was almost stupid.  Sometimes I would watch two or even three episodes a night, depending on how early I had to get up.  I woke my wife up more than once gasping at some unexpected turn of events.  

She typically didn't share my enthusiasm.        

I managed to watch the whole thing, more than 120 one-hour episodes, in just a couple of months.  And I gotta say....waiting 8 years to watch it was well worth it, because instead of having to wait a week between every episode, and months during the summer, I got to go from one show to the next at my own pace.  This helped dramatically to keep the ongoing plot issues straight in my mind.  Anyone who has seen the series will know how utterly mind-boggling it can be at times.  Not having to wait a week or more between episodes made the progression of the plot much easier to follow.  After each episode, I would go to Wikipedia to read the summary of the episode I had just watched, and this also helped to keep things straight in my head (it was also useful for going back and reminding myself what had happened in previous episodes - this was particularly good because sometimes a plot element would be introduced in one episode, but not followed up again for a span of 10 or 12 or even 15 or 20 episodes; by the time they got back around to it, I'd forgotten what it was about).  

Anyway....totally loved it.  Highly recommend it.  

The only problem with my Lost obsession was that I got virtually no reading done whatsoever for those first few months of the year.  For a brief period of time, I basically became a non-reader.  Which was really weird, because I have been a more-or-less daily reader since at least the age of 30, and I was a frequent reader for a decade before that.  To go three months and read hardly anything at all (I think I finished one very short paperback during that stretch) was really out of character.

After the series ended, I got back on my reading wagon and actually managed to read more books this year than I did last year (more on that when I post my 2012 Reading List...I know you can't wait).

I turned 37 in February and celebrated with friends from work at a little bar called Mt. Lookout Tavern in Cincinnati.  We had a really good turn-out (which, of course, made me feel all warm and fuzzy) and I think a fun time was had by all.  I know I sure enjoyed myself - the gallon of beer and countless shots I drank helped significantly, although I'm sure I was hating life the next morning.  Don't actually recall, to be honest.  You only remember the good times.

This picture pretty much tells you everything you need to know about that night.

In March the NCAA tournament started, and I spent much of my free time fretting over whether my beloved Kentucky Wildcats were finally going to break their long championship drought.  I should never have worried: they had a run through the NCAA tournament that has got to be one of the most difficult stretches for an eventual champion in tourney history, and never really came in danger of losing a game.  It was topped off by meeting, and defeating, their cross-state rival, Louisville, in the Final Four - a situation that has literally been dreamed about by fans in Kentucky for decades.  The final victory over Kansas - the fourth "blue blood" school they had to face in their tournament run - was almost like an afterthought, on the heels of the win over Louisville.  

In the summer our family vacationed in Georgia at a place called Tybee Island.  We had a nice trip, but the accommodations were not as nice compared to where we stayed in 2011 in Isle of Palms, South Carolina.  I don't think any of us were able to keep that comparison out of our minds, and it led to a general feeling of letdown throughout the trip.  Still, there's no such thing as a bad trip to the beach, and despite nearly being blown away on the beach one day by a summer squall that blew up out of nowhere with disturbing speed, we had a nice time.  

The first night we spent there, I got so drunk I basically didn't get out of bed the next day.  Not a fun memory.  And not a very smart thing to do on a family vacation with not only your children, but your in-laws.   

The good thing that came from that night's debauchery, however, was that I used my hangover as an impetus to stop smoking and to start using my e-cigarette exclusively.  I made it three months on the e-cig until, sadly, I went back to the real thing this autumn.  Getting ready to try another brand to see if I can make it stick this time.  It's one of my New Year's resolutions, although I generally hate those things (New Year's resolutions, not e-cigs). 

After the joy of experiencing Kentucky's epic NCAA championship, I was pleased to have my hometown Cincinnati Reds dominate their division all year in major league baseball.  I thought there was a very, very good chance that both my teams were going to win championships - Kentucky in the NCAA's, and Cincinnati in the World Series.  Unfortunately, the Reds choked on their own vomit and failed to even make it to the NLCS, despite winning the first two games of the NLDS on the road.  Such a huge, huge letdown.  

During the summer, I made the very stressful decision to switch to second shift at work.  I angsted about it for several weeks, and actually turned down the offer the first time it was presented to me.  But after talking it over again with my wife (she was strongly opposed to me passing the opportunity up), I went back and agreed to make the switch.  The money is certainly better, and the hours work better for my own personal living habits, but I miss the camaraderie I shared with my friends on first shift, and I don't see my wife and kids very much during the week.  We've gotten those issues (mostly) ironed out at home, but I feel like some of my friendships and relationships at work have suffered as a result of the move.  I don't feel the closeness anymore that I used to feel with some of my co-workers from first shift, and I haven't really developed those warm, comfy relationships with anyone on second shift.  Both of those things are a real drag.  I also don't get to work much with the students anymore, and I don't like that either.  

In addition to these issues, of course, was the biggest public issue of all in 2012 - the presidential election.  I always get emotionally involved in presidential elections.  My blog pretty much attests to that.  Still, I think I did a pretty decent job this year - publicly, anyway - of staying above the fray and being as objective as reasonably possible.  I really liked the post I made in March about Mitt Romney's chances of winning in November.  If you missed it, you should check it out.  I think my analysis proved accurate.  I also correctly picked the winner in 47 of the 50 states.  The only ones I missed were states where I picked Romney over Obama.  Obama won every state I predicted for him.  

That wasn't just luck; analyzing polls really does lead to accurate predictions - which is why it's such a sham when political analysts or candidates' spokesmen get on television and suggest that polls aren't trustworthy.  They are trustworthy, if you know how to analyze the data, and you're honest.  Both those ingredients are required.  Some of my friends were shocked at Obama's victory in Ohio; that's because they don't know how to analyze the data.  Karl Rove does know how to analyze the data, he's just dishonest, intellectually and in every other way humanly possible.  

I've ended the year with a succession of four 3-day weekends in a row - all completely unplanned except for one.  I've managed to give away several of my shifts to people wanting to pick up hours.  I have plenty of vacation time, so I've still gotten paid.  It's been nice to have a little break from the grind each week.  We've already had more snow this week than we had all of last winter combined.  Not particularly happy about that, but so it goes.  

My plans for 2013 include losing weight, quitting smoking permanently (I've had way too many false starts), and finishing my book on political party history in the United States.  We'll see how I've done come next December.

Gratuitously irrelevant picture of Rush in the 1970's.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Last Christmas of Innocence

I've never done this before, but I'm going to re-post an old post from a few years back.  I wrote this in December of 2006, and was thinking about it today.  I like it.  The pictures are new additions.


Some of my best childhood Christmas memories were of the Living Christmas Tree at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

The minister of music, Gene Sutherland, would put on a Christmas extravaganza every year that included a 50-foot Christmas tree packed with singers. Starting at the bottom, each row would have successively fewer singers, until the very top row, where a single female singer always stood, like the angel atop the tree.

Typically, there were several weeks of performances, for which practice would start in the early fall. Accompanying an array of Christmas songs would be various stage acts as well, usually incorporating more singers and children.

Since my parents were active in the choir, they were both routinely part of the Living Christmas Tree each year. I don't think my Mom did it every year, but I know my Dad did. Dad was always on the second row from the top - a row of only two people - right below the angel. I always felt that this meant he garnered a position of importance within the hierarchy of the Walnut Street Choir. I was proud to be his son.

Vinyl album from the 10th Year Celebration.  The picture is too blurry for details, but the figure at the very top, on the right, is my father.

My memories of the Living Christmas Tree are warm and cozy - good music, great visual effects, and that latent feeling of excitement that seems to stick in every child's mind throughout the month of December.

I guess my favorite Living Christmas Tree year was 1987 - the only year I was involved in the production. I was asked that year by Gene Sutherland to play a role in one of the stage acts. Basically, I stood on stage with a plastic trumpet, and at the appropriate time in the song, I raised the trumpet up as though to herald the birth of the Christ child. There were 3 trumpeters in the skit, rotated between performances among about 5 guys from the youth group.

As the skit/song that heralded Jesus's birth, this was probably the highlight of the entire program. It was a very powerful song, with a spine-tingling climax, and it always received the most raucous and heart-felt applause. In one performance, a black lady got caught up in the spirit and stood up after the striking of the final chord and spontaneously shouted "Hallelujah!" I know it seems odd - and it's quite funny in retrospect - and yet even now, 18 years down the road, I'm getting chills just thinking about it - that feeling of religious ecstasy which that song brought on, and which was put into words by that spontaneous utterance.

I sort of miss being able to feel that feel so caught up in a religious moment like that, where any doubts and any skepticisms are washed clean away, leaving only certainty, comfort, and spiritual bliss.

When we did the last performance that year, I remember walking out into the parking lot with my Dad afterward, heading out to the car. And I remember walking there in that parking lot, the lightposts casting long, orange shadows across the dark pavement, while my breath condensed on the chilly air, and I remember feeling so utterly depressed - maybe more depressed than I had ever felt in my whole life. I didn't even understand it. I wanted to cry.

The reason I was so depressed is because it was over. All that hard work, all the rehearsals, dressing up in the costume, getting to stand there during that powerful song every night, experiencing the warm camaraderie with the other actors, feeling important because I was part of the show that people were flocking to come see - now it was all over. Finished. The tree would come down and be put away in some storage facility until next year. And I might not even get to be in it again. Maybe this was just a one time thing, and they wouldn't ask me next year.

Well, as it turned out, I wasn't in it the next year, and, in fact, I was never in it again. But that wasn't because I wasn't asked. In March of 1988, my grandfather died after a long bout with cancer.

Oscar Kirby, the way I like to remember him.

Then in the early summer, we moved to Cincinnati.

Nothing was ever quite the same after that. I remember Christmas of 1988, in our new house, and I do recall that particular Christmas with fondness - in fact, I've long said that Christmas, our first in Cincinnati, was the last Christmas of my childhood. It was the last time I remember having that distinct childhood excitement associated with Christmas. It was the last time I really felt consumed by the season.

I was 13 years old.

But, in retrospect, I think the last real Christmas of my childhood was in 1987. Our last Christmas in Louisville, my first and only experience performing in the Living Christmas Tree, and my last Christmas before starting that long, difficult, awkward road that took me through adolescence and young adulthood.

It was the last Christmas of innocence.

And I think the innocence first began to bleed away that cold night in mid-December, when I walked through that parking lot with my Dad, realizing that the show was over. Little did I know, then, that it wasn't just the show that was ending.

I got to see some Living Christmas Tree performances in later years - we would come back to Louisville to visit my grandparents, and we'd go see the show. I guess the last time would have been sometime in the early 1990's.

On doing a little research today, I discovered that Walnut Street no longer does a Living Christmas Tree performance. I know that Gene Sutherland is long gone (he died some years back), and I suppose his successors didn't continue the tradition. I don't know how many years its been since they quit doing it.

Strangely, on doing an Internet search, I came across a different Walnut Street Baptist Church. This one is somewhere in Arkansas.

And, remarkably enough, they have an active and current Living Christmas Tree program.

I don't quite know why, but somehow that's a comforting coincidence.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Album Review: Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels is the 20th studio album by the Canadian band Rush.  It was released in the summer of 2012, reaching #2 on the U.S. charts and #1 in Canada.  It was promoted by a world tour that, as of this writing, is still ongoing.

The band's first studio album in five years, Clockwork Angels is a concept album that mixes a modern progressive rock sound with themes and styles reminiscent of classic Rush masterpieces.  Though the band is famous (some might say "infamous") for their grandiose concept music of the 1970's, the fact is that 2012's Clockwork Angels is the band's first true concept album.  Their epic, "rock opera" music of the 1970's was always limited to individual tracks (such as 1979's 18-minute tour-de-force, "Hemispheres") and never included themes that covered all the songs on any one album.  The album 2112, for instance, had a 20-minute song of the same name on the front side of the original record, but all the songs on the B-side were unrelated to it.

Rush, circa 1975, in their "grandiose" days.  Alex Lifeson (left), Geddy Lee (right), Neil Peart (center).

Thus, Clockwork Angels is the band's first and (so far) only concept album, a collection of twelve tracks all linked together by a single theme.

Typical of Rush's intellectual and philosophical tendencies, together with their tastes for science fiction, Clockwork Angels plays on a modern genre of music, art, and literature known as "Steampunk."  Steampunk is a popular sub-category of science fiction that typically fuses a 19th century industrial setting of steam-driven machines and gadgetry with a science fiction or alternate universe theme.  Imagine, for instance, a 21st century still driven by the technology of the 19th century, and you can get an idea of what Steampunk tries to convey.

An example of the Steampunk-inspired art accompanying the album. Illustrated by long-time Rush collaborator, Hugh Syme.

Through it's twelve tracks, Clockwork Angels tells the story of a young dreamer's search for self-actualization in a dystopian clockwork universe ruled by an oppressive Watchmaker.  In the opening track, "Caravan," the narrator is boarding a steam-driven airship (a "steamliner") to escape his rural home and find his future in the alluring city.  As his travels and adventures are related song-by-song, the narrator encounters all the highs and lows of the human experience: success and failure, romance and broken love, security and vulnerability, belief and disbelief, hope and disillusionment.

In a unique twist for modern rock bands, the "story" of the album was actually novelized by sci-fi writer Kevin J. Anderson, in collaboration with Rush's drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, and released in September of 2012.  It reached #18 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  I read the book; it was just okay, and I would have a hard time suggesting it to anyone who wasn't a sci-fi reader and a Rush fan.  But that's not, by any stretch, a critique of the album.

The music of Clockwork Angels is very guitar-centered, with a slew of solos and growling riffs that fans of Rush's music are certain to enjoy.  The pacing of the individual songs varies, of course, but overall, the album has a very "driving" feel to it: a feeling of forward progression helped along with lively bass riffs, rhythmic guitar chords, and, of course, immaculate (one might say "clockwork") drumming.    

The first two tracks, "Caravan" and "BU2B" (which stands for Brought Up to Believe) were released in digital format in 2010, a kind of "teaser" for the album that would come along two years later.  Both are heavy and fast-paced, with "Caravan" detailing the narrator's journey away from his mundane home, and "BU2B" describing his struggles with religious belief in a benevolent God (symbolized by the "Watchmaker" in the album's universe).

The title track, "Clockwork Angels" is an epic song with many musical layers, ostensibly describing the narrator's experience with the divine guardians of his world, but clearly speaking metaphorically about the deep human drive for worship and spiritual awe.

Clockwork angels spread their arms and sing.  Synchronized and graceful they move like living things.  Goddesses of light, of sea and sky and land.  Clockwork angels, the people raise their if to fly.  

This picture really has no relevance to this review, but it just had to be posted.

The album's fourth and fifth tracks - "The Anarchist" and "Carnies" - continue the narrator's story as he encounters subversiveness (embodied by the "anarchist") and then finds a job working in a carnival.  These songs deal with themes of discontent and disillusionment, pointing towards those people in society who are perpetually dissatisfied and driven by greed, jealousy, and anger.

"Halo Effect" is one of the few songs Rush has ever written about love and romance.  This is a topic that Rush has intentionally steered clear from over the years, due to a general perspective that love songs are sappy, banal, and give unrealistic perspectives on human relationships (this according to an interview I read once with Neil Peart - sadly, I don't recall the source).  The band delves into this topic with "Halo Effect," as part of the ongoing human story of the narrator.  Typical of Rush - contrarians to the end - and fitting with Peart's comments about why the band typically doesn't do love songs, the song is about the illusion of "true love" and how "being in love" blinds people to reality.

What did I see, fool that I was?  A goddess with wings on her heels.  It's shameful to tell just how often I fell in love with delusions again.  

"Seven Cities of Gold" has the narrator searching for a mythical lost city, and deals with themes of the all-too-human tendency to chase impossible dreams, finding only disillusionment at the end.  This song has a fantastic opening bass riff by Geddy Lee that just growls in your chest before being picked up later by Alex Lifeson on guitar, making for a powerful melodic line.  The song is underscored, as always, by Peart's (seemingly) 8-handed drumming.

Track number 8 is called "The Wreckers" and is one of my favorites on the album.  Lyrically, the song discusses the frailty of human life and how easy it is to find your world turned upside down.  The song's title characters appear as pirates in the accompanying novel, and (like the anarchist before them) they symbolize life's destructive forces.

All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true.  All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary to everything in life you thought you knew.  

This song is made even more poignant when you know lyricist Neil Peart's personal background: in 1997 his only child - a teenage daughter - was killed in a car accident on a Sunday evening while returning to college for the start of the fall semester.  Less than six months later, his wife of twenty years died of cancer.  Peart, quite literally, found his entire world in shambles around him.  The band did not write, record, or perform for nearly five years.  Eventually, Peart remarried and had another child, but the song's final line is a heart-rending statement that seems drawn from that tragedy:

All I know is that memory can be too much to carry, striking down like a bolt from the blue.

"Headlong Flight" is, in my opinion, the best song on the album, and probably the overall best Rush song since 1987's "Mission" from the Hold Your Fire album.  At more than seven minutes, "Headlong Flight" is the longest song on the album, and it is an absolute masterwork of modern progressive rock.  Hard-hitting and fast-paced, the song features guitar work by Lifeson that threatens to peel the skin from your face, drumming that illustrates why Peart is the best in the world, and vocals by Lee that probably represent his best performance in decades.  Like their radio classic "Freewill" from 1980's Permanent Waves album, "Headlong Flight" includes a long instrumental that is, in essence, a three-part solo.  No other band that I know of can pull this phenomenon off with such masterful precision.  My words don't do the song justice.  You've got to listen to it.

The very first time I listened to "Headlong Flight," on CD in my car, before the song was even over, one phrase was going over and over in my mind:

Instant. Fucking. Classic.

The album's tenth track is a short reprise of "BU2B" called (fittingly enough) "BU2B2."  At just over a minute long, the lyrics are written in the form of a pantoum - a type of poem where the second and fourth lines of each 4-line stanza are repeated as lines one and three in the next stanza, and the final line of the poem is the same as the first line.  Peart first toyed with this type of writing on 2007's Snakes & Arrows album, in the song "The Larger Bowl: A Pantoum."  "BU2B2" is a sort of dirge, describing the narrator's loss of religious faith and his growing disillusionment with life.

"Wish Them Well" picks up where "BU2B2" left off, with the narrator shaking off the depression resulting from failures, regrets, and injustice, and deciding that the best way to deal with those who treat you badly is to simply move forward and "wish them well."

The grudges you've held for so long.  It's not worth singing that same sad song.  Even though you're going through hell, just keep on going.  Let the demons dwell.  Just wish them well.  

The album's final song, "The Garden," is another instant classic.  Incorporating everything from strings to piano, it is a ballad that includes acoustic as well as electric sections.  The lyrics focus on finding inner peace and self-actualization through the tending of the garden - which itself is a metaphor for one's own life and loved ones.  The song is beautifully arranged, and contains some of Peart's best lyrical work.

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect: so hard to earn so easily burned.  

The future disappears into memory with only a moment between.  Forever dwells in that moment.  Hope is what remains to be seen.  

I rate this album a strong 10 out of 10, with no throw-away songs.  Each track has its place in the story, providing coherent lyrical content that not only carries the story along, but doubles with poignant references to the human condition.  The music is sublime and well-orchestrated, with the band playing at the absolute height of their powers.  For Rush fans especially, but also for anyone who enjoys modern rock with meaningful lyrics and skilled playing, Clockwork Angels is a must-have.   

Monday, December 17, 2012

Notes from the Cave

My parents were here for Christmas this past weekend, flying in from Texas on Friday.  We had dinner at The Pub on Friday night, then saw A Christmas Carol at Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park on Saturday.  The kids got to open their presents from their grandparents, and I got a badly overdue new cell phone - a Galaxy S3, which I am thrilled with.  It's the first time I've ever owned a top-of-the-line cell phone.  When it comes to phones, I've always been 3-4 years behind the curve.  Of course, this one will be surpassed, no doubt, in a few months by something else, but at least I'll have a respectable phone for a while to come.  

Next weekend, I will be off Saturday through Tuesday.  I am really looking forward to that extended weekend.  It'll be the longest I've had off at one stretch since my vacation in July.  (Although, I can't really complain because I'm just finishing up the second 3-day weekend I've had in a row, and this will, as I said, be followed by the 4-day weekend coming up.)  

Despite two 3-day weekends in a row, I haven't gotten any legitimate writing done on my new book.  The book is a history of American political parties called Washington's Nightmare, and I had been making really good progress on it until a few weeks ago.  Now I'm stalled out, not because of writer's block, but simply sheer laziness.  I keep getting involved in other things.  In my defense, however, even though I've had double 3-day weekends, I've been really busy with family things throughout both of them.

In the wake of last Friday's horror in Connecticut, I considered writing a piece on gun control, but ultimately decided that nothing I would have to say hasn't already been hashed out by others who can probably say it better and more persuasively than I can.  Still, I thought I might make one comment to give people a little food for thought:

In the United States, we value our rights to own and use firearms.  This right is enshrined in the 2nd Amendment of our Constitution.  But like any valued freedom, there is a cost.  The cost, for instance, of freedom of expression is a multibillion-dollar porn industry.  The cost of freedom of speech and assembly is a KKK march or a Westboro Baptist Church funeral picket.  The cost of a fair judicial process is that sometimes murderers get acquitted.  The cost of free elections is that uninformed and misinformed people still get to vote.  

The cost of the right to bear arms is that, sometimes, schoolchildren get slaughtered.

The U.S. has one of the highest gun-related murder rates, suicide rates, and accidental death rates in the entire world.  Among developed, or "First World," countries, the U.S. is at the top of all three of those lists involving gun-related deaths.  

Is your right to own a handgun, because you enjoy target shooting (or any other reason), worth all those lives?  

Thursday, December 06, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States

Be sure to check out my newest book, Washington's Nightmare: A Brief History of American Political Parties, available now at! 

1. John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., was born in Vermont in 1872, the only U.S. president born on the Fourth of July.  His father was a successful farmer and small business owner, and later served in both the Vermont House of Representatives and state Senate.  His mother died when he was 12 years old.  After attending Amherst College and then studying law, he opened his own law practice in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1898.

2. In 1905, Coolidge married Grace Anna Goodhue.  They had first met several years earlier after Grace caught site of Calvin shaving in front of a window in nothing but long underwear and a hat.  The hat, apparently, was worn to keep hair out of his face while he shaved.  Together they had two sons.  At the age of 16, and while his father was president, the younger son, Calvin, developed a blister on his foot after playing tennis and died a week later from sepsis.  The elder son, John, became a successful businessman and died in 2000.

3. Coolidge enter local politics in the early 1900's, holding several locally-elected offices.  It was during this time that he suffered the only electoral defeat of his career - a seat on the Northampton school board.  In 1906, he won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a Republican, later served as the mayor of Northampton, then served in the Massachusetts Senate, where he eventually became Senate president.

4. Following his time in the Massachusetts Senate, Coolidge served several terms as lieutenant governor to Samuel McCall before being elected governor himself in 1918.  Coolidge was a moderate Republican: fiscally conservative, but supporting women's suffrage and opposing prohibition.  He gained national prominence among Republicans in 1919 when he helped put down a strike, with subsequent riots, in Boston involving police officers who were attempting to unionize.

5. At the 1920 Republican National Convention, Coolidge was discussed as a possible presidential candidate, but ended up coming in 6th on the balloting.  However, his name was brought up again during the balloting for vice-president, and he unexpectedly won the nomination to be Warren G. Harding's running mate.

6. It was during his time as vice-president that Coolidge earned the nickname "Silent Cal."  Though he was known for being an eloquent public speaker, in private he was withdrawn and quiet, typically deferring to his wife, who was equally known for her outgoing personality.  His tendency to withdraw from social situations intensified after the death of his son in 1924.

7. President Harding died suddenly in August of 1923, while Coolidge happened to be visiting his father in Vermont.  By that time, his father was a notary public, so in the presence of gathered reporters around 2:30 in the morning, he administered the oath of office to his son, after which the unexcitable Coolidge went back to bed.  There was some concern over whether a state notary public had the authority to administer the oath, so it was re-administered after Coolidge returned to Washington.

8. After finishing Harding's term, Coolidge was easily nominated for president in 1924, and despite a third-party candidate who effectively split the Republican Party, Coolidge still won in a landslide, thanks largely to a booming, post-war economy.  His inaugural speech that year was the first in history to be broadcast on the radio.  Though he had been associated with the Progressive faction of the Republican Party early in his career, as president he moved toward the right, embracing low taxes, deregulation of industry, decreased government spending, and famously stating that "the chief business of the American people is business."  His Secretary of Commerce was Herbert Hoover.  

9. Coolidge opted not to run for re-election in 1928, noting that it would mean he would be president for ten years, and ten years was simply too much.  He had very famously butted heads with his own vice-president, Charles Dawes, on numerous occasions, and when the 1928 Republican Nation Convention considered putting Dawes on the ticket with Herbert Hoover, Coolidge intervened and stated that he would take such a move as a personal insult.  The convention honored his wishes and chose Charles Curtis instead.  Dawes would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to rebuild Europe following World War I.

10. In his retirement, Coolidge wrote his memoirs and also wrote a syndicated newspaper column in the early 1930's.  Like his old running mate before him, Warren G. Harding, Coolidge died unexpectedly of a heart attack in January of 1933.  He was buried in a simple plot in the town cemetery of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where he was born.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States

1. Hiram Ulysses Grant was born near Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1822.  Growing up in rural Georgetown, Ohio, he entered West Point in 1839.  His mother's maiden name was Simpson, and on his admittance papers to West Point, his name was mistakenly listed as Ulysses S. Grant (with the initial standing for his mother's maiden name).  Rather than correct the mistake, Grant decided to keep it, recognizing its patriotic implications.

2. Grant was a poor student who frequently got in trouble at West Point for refusing to attend required church services.  He excelled in horsemanship, but upon graduation he was overlooked for the cavalry appointed to the 4th U.S. Infantry.

3. Grant served with distinction during the Mexican War of 1846-48, and upon returning home in 1848, married his longtime girlfriend, Julia Boggs Dent - who was a sister to Grant's West Point roommate.  Grant's parents disapproved of the match because Julia's parents were slaveholders; they subsequently refused to attend the wedding.  The Grants had four children, three boys and a girl.

4. Now a captain, Grant remained in the military until 1854, at which time he abruptly resigned due, in part, to continual drinking problems that threatened his position.  Stationed in California at the time, he returned to his wife and children in Missouri, where he took over his father-in-law's farm in St. Louis.  Unable to produce much income, he briefly became a bill-collector before accepting a job with his father's tanning business in Galena, Illinois.  The Grants and their four children settled there in 1860.

5. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War a year later, Grant - being the only military professional in the area - was asked to assist in raising volunteers for the war effort.  Invigorated by the opportunity to do something other than farm or sell leather goods, Grant obliged.  He also began applying for reinstatement into the regular Army.  These applications, however, were ignored, and instead Grant was given command of the 21st Illinois Volunteers.  He was promoted to the rank of colonel, thanks to a recommendation from U.S. Congressman Elihu Washburne, who happened to be from Galena.

6. By February of 1862, Grant had led his regiment in a series of bold and successful battles along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.  News of his successes spread across the nation and Abraham Lincoln promoted him to Major General.

7. In March of 1864, after continued success, Grant was elevated to Commanding General of the U.S. Army.  In 1866, Congress created a new rank for him, called General of the Army, and he became the first 4-star general.  That same rank would later be used for the 5-star generals of the World War II era.

8. Following the disastrous presidency of Andrew Johnson, Grant was unanimously nominated by the Republicans for the 1868 presidential election.  His popularity as a general helped him win in a landslide.  At age 46, he was the youngest man (at the time) ever elected to the presidency, and the first person to be elected president while both of his parents were still living.

9. Grant served two terms in the White House, and his presidency was marked by a return to stability following the war and Reconstruction Era, but marred by numerous scandals involving his cabinet and other appointees.  Following his presidency, Grant and his wife embarked on a high profile publicity tour around the world that lasted more than two years.  Upon his return, Grant ran for president again in 1880, but narrowly failed to win the Republican nomination, which instead went to James A. Garfield.

10. His trip around the world, as well as several failed business ventures, left Grant virtually destitute, with only his military pension as income (his pension had been forfeited when he became president, but an act of Congress restored it). As a result, at the behest of his friend Mark Twain, he decided to write his memoirs as a way to make money; Twain functioned as the publisher.  He finished the 2-volume work just a few days before his death of throat cancer in 1884.  The book became an immediate bestseller.  Grant was buried in New York, in what would prove to be the biggest mausoleum in the United States - Grant's Tomb.