“Sympathy is no substitute for action.” David Livingstone


Not every tenement dweller can become the David Livingstone of his generation, but what if that was put forth as the goal?

In terms of disease, sanitation and real poverty 19th century tenements were far worse than the modern versions in most western nations today. I wonder if the attitude was better then or was David Livingstone just a fluke. Why is it that so many great men of the 19th century rose up from poverty to do great things and to become great men?

A staunch abolitionist, fearless explorer and medical missionary Livingstone spent his childhood in a single room tenement and worked long hours at the mills in Scotland. At the end of the day he hit the books. The other day a teacher told me she didn’t have the heart to give students homework–school was too hard on the little flowers of today. One wonders if Livingstone complained to his parents about hard work.

Here’s where the victim mentality wreaks havoc on children. If a child has the right to be angry forever about the state of his life then when will he  ever see that hitting the books in the evening could quite possibly lead him on a life of useful  and exciting endeavors? Victimhood nurses cowardice and bitterness–two things David Livingstone seems never to have accepted into his young life of poverty. Somehow he knew that  poverty of the mind (and heart) was far worse than living in a tenement for one’s soul. We know that as a missionary he must have believed in callings and God.

“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”

Sometimes it’s easy to be quite blase about explorers.

In an age when tourists like to pretend to experience past adventures but are seconds away from medical assistance and police, real explorers almost seem boring–though they shouldn’t. Livingstone on one of his many trips to Africa witnessed a brutal massacre of an entire town by Arabic slave traders and vowed to speak out against slavery. One must always remember that white, Christian men were the only abolitionists in the worldwide slave trade and were the only ones who ended slavery. We must remember this especially now when victimhood is the fashion and searching for someone to take revenge on is the rage.

In the West we die of heart disease, cancer and depression nowadays–victims of bad food, lackluster educations and endless hours watching other people do bad things on TV–yet we live in a “free” society.

We demand our right to complain. We isolate ourselves and wonder why people are so awful (the ones we meet in our office or the ones we see on TV). Totalitarian governments love dependent children. It’s so much easier to lead them by the nose.

Dear David Livingstone,

Thank you for stepping out in faith each day. Thank you for not only witnessing the evils of the slave trade but for doing something about it in your lifetime. You lost your wife to fever in Africa but never stopped exploring. You made the connection between malaria and mosquitoes and malaria and quinine. Good for you! I’m sorry I never knew more about you than the cartoon version of you.

You didn’t see your life as one to be lived demanding your personal rights but worked for the kind treatment of others–in short you gave up your life and in the end received a bigger life than most people ever dare to imagine. I wonder what drove you. I suspect it was your faith in old dead heroes and the one dead hero who rose again on the third day. It’s too bad that most heroes are banned in schools today. We need a a journalist like Henry Stanley to come looking for the likes of you even now!

stanley1“Henry Stanley  was a remarkable man. Orphaned at an early age he spent his formative years in a workhouse in Wales, crossed the Atlantic at age 15 as a crewman of a merchant ship and jumped ship in New Orleans. Befriended by a local merchant, he took the man’s name – Henry Stanley – as his own and went on to fight in the Civil War before working his way into a career in journalism.”** Eyewitness to History

Stanley was sent to find Livingstone in Africa after he was presumed dead. He uttered the famous, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” and came away from their meeting with this to say: For four months and four days I lived with David Livingstone in the same house, or in the same boat, or in the same tent, and I never found a fault in him. I am a man of quick temper, and often without sufficient cause, I dare say, have broken the ties of friendship; but with Livingstone I never had cause for resentment, but each day’s life with him added to my admiration for him.

David Livingstone in his own words sums up life like this:

“For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”

James E. West: Orphan and Hero

Ogdensburg. City Hospital and Orphanage
Ogdensburg City Hospital and Orphanage [courtesy harvardartmuseums.org]
When my son was six he begged me each day not to leave him on the steps of the large Brooklyn school house. He hated his teacher. Fair enough. When the bell rang and the kindly police officer took my son’s hand and led him inside, my son looked back in panic and I’d have to turn away. I ended up homeschooling him that year but that’s another story.

When our foster kid was taken to a mental health facility after finding out her mother had given her up to the system she cried for days. We’d visit and she’d beg us to take her home. When she said “home” it was expressed with such  profound yearning and pain it was hard for us to bear. Home meant with us or with her mother or with the last foster family who decided they could keep only her siblings.

A long time ago a six-year-old boy named James E. West took his last walk with his mother. I imagine it a quiet, tense one. Maybe James sensing his mother’s anguish held her hand a little tighter. Maybe Mother didn’t say where they were going for fear that young James would make it more difficult than it already was going to be.

Coughing blood into her soiled handkerchief Mother knocked on the orphanage door in Washington and left her boy with his large, panicked eyes on the steps as she raced away, unable to look back. She died three months later of tuberculosis.

When James complained of hip pain it took a while before he was treated for a tubercular infection in the hip. It took two years (one of those years strapped to a painful leg brace intended to straighten his bones) for him to be strong enough to get around on crutches.

Most boys were loaned out to work, but poor James with his weak leg was sent to sew with the girls in the sewing room. Across the street was a real school for normal kids and James spent many a sewing afternoon gazing out in envy at the kids with books and nice coats. A friend of his mother’s made the effort to lobby for James to attend school. And so he went and excelled.

James was one of those exemplary people who when fortune smiled his way he shared it. He begged the orphanage to open its library to the children and when they said the books would get too worn out James organized the children to cover every single book. Using the money he earned sewing he offered his fellow inmates a penny for every book they read. He taught himself how to ride a bicycle, graduated high school and left the orphanage as a staff member at age 19.

James studied law and passed the bar, never forgetting the children. When Theodore Dreiser hired him to oversee The Delineator Magazine “Child Rescue Campaign”  for orphaned children James found his calling. Each issue  featured an orphan and their needs. The response was tremendous. Requests to adopt poured in. People all over the country wanted to help.

I wonder what James thought. He was no longer a child and no one had begged to adopt him yet he worked tirelessly for others. Eventually he met the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Booker T. Washington at The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He asked this question which revolutionized the way Americans looked at child welfare: “Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune…be kept with their parents–aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”

The question is loaded, isn’t it? Worthy character, temporary misfortune, suitable homes . . . we still struggle with the messy, horrifying realities of child abuse, neglect and poverty, yet there are little known boys and girls who rise up despite their misfortune. There are men and women who nudge the system to send a child to that school across the way.

James West gives me hope.

Essay inspired by The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage by Dale Keiger





Railroad Crush


Railroad crush: Grenville Dodge

First, let me just say that Grenville Dodge is probably one of the coolest names ever (William Tecumseh Sherman is up there, too). Maybe white men can’t jump, but this guy doesn’t get his due. Modern bitter professors like to tell us that the self-made man is a myth in America. What a pack of lies. Maybe they think they’re doing us a favor by giving us excuses to fail.

Grenville Dodge, the son of a common laborer, by the age of fourteen had already  impressed one of the best exploration surveyors in the country with his work ethic and decency. He followed this surveyor’s advice to go study engineering. By the age of twenty eight he’d explored (no rest stops, no McDonalds) a good deal of wilderness with the grand idea of building the first railroad across the country.

The Civil War interrupted his plans. Did he cry about it? No. He joined the army. Everyone wanted him–his integrity, his skill, his friendship. When Sherman needed a bridge built out of nothing, there was Dodge, when troops needed a leader to jump to the front in battle, there he was. When railroad companies begged him, after suffering injury at Pea Ridge, to quit the army and make a killing on the outside he refused. Until the war was over and he could visit the graves of his fallen comrades in peace they couldn’t budge him. When he was shot in the head (!) he insisted on staying in the army. Lincoln (another fan of his) insisted he be at least re-assigned west.

Did I mention he armed the newly freed slaves, too?

After the war did he make money at the railroads? Yes. And he deserved it–along with a lot of other men who invested their entire lives, their fortunes (such as they were) and their health into a gigantic project done with only rudimentary tools that the country clamored for but was unwilling to take a chance on. These men (and of course there was corruption) staked everything–absolutely everything on a very risky proposition–because no one else would.


Workers from Ireland, China and young veterans from the Civil War flocked to get work on the rails.

A while back I read a book The Robber Barons written by a socialist ex-patriot in the 1920’s. While I marveled at the writer’s skill it was tough going, being too acidic for my taste. So far every time I get past the Cliff’s notes version of history fed to us I uncover a messier, more inspiring version of the men who built this country. This in no way means I advocate slavery (Grenville Dodge was not a slave owner) or mistreatment of Indians (though the Indians were just as  corrupt as the rest of the human population). It just means that there were pretty admirable men in our history who are overlooked (or hidden) depriving us of the very inspiration that makes life and public service worthwhile. Thanks, Grenville!

Most of this info comes from Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like it in the World.


Books I’ve Known And Loved

Why history should be written for the masses.
Why history should be written for the masses.

Men and women of integrity, listen up! The popular opinion that most Americans during the Gilded Age were stealing land and involved in corrupt schemes has some holes in it. Maybe not too many–but some. Enter Washington and Emily Roebling. I’ve introduced them to you before from The Great Bridge, but damn they’re good.

It’s over a hundred years after their incredible life’s work was completed and they manage to make me want to be a better person. If you read only one chapter in the book go to the one about Emily because it’s not just about her, it’s about THEM. Talk about adorable couples! They even kick each others shins under tables for fun. After only six weeks Washy proposed to Emily with a diamond ring (he was still in the army, in uniform–sigh). She said yes.


There’s a few pages of this sweet stuff. Cynics, step away from me. I love this!

Now the book is about a bridge. Ho-hum and all–but not so. I tried to build a puppet stage with Elmer’s Glue once and even I came away with at least a vague sense of how the Brooklyn Bridge was put together and it was strangely very interesting (my husband the engineer glanced over at me shaking his head with a smile at my sudden obsession with bridges–after railroads).

And then of course there were scandals and hurt feelings. I kept waiting for the terrible shoe to fall–the one that said Washy took bribes or cut corners–but the exact opposite happened. I was treated to that rare ennobling feeling you get when you’re in the presence of people who live with great integrity and compassion. Washington, how is it that through every set back and through every horribly painful moment of your protracted illness that you stayed so decent?

Emily had something to do with it. She married a lively, strong and intelligent young man and now 14 years later he was irritable and housebound and still 100% in charge of the building of one of the greatest bridges in the world. He wrote that at one point he considered giving up. His physical and mental anguish too much, but then his best friend, Emily stepped in. She didn’t take over, but she refused to let him give up. She stayed with him night and day. Made certain that their house remained a refuge and made certain that despite what must have been a very heart-breaking turn of events that he knew that she loved him and admired him.

His mind–a brilliant one–worked overtime. His vision had turned against him so she wrote out his long, detailed orders and plans–pages and pages in her fine hand–every day for YEARS!. She read him the papers and became his eyes and feet traveling to the bridge site to report back what she saw as the many workers looked on admiringly.

I’ll never build a bridge, but I do have a marriage. I wonder sometimes if I would be self-sacrificing if something happened to my engineer. I’m not really known for my compassion and after reading about Emily’s devotion and even the way Washy didn’t just throw his hands up when wrongly accused of scandal but fought the good fight I wonder what sort of person I really am. We’re all always told were basically good, but am I really?

This is not the time to step in and tell me I am. We’ve been programmed to do that even with our kids when they suck at soccer. And it’s getting worse (maybe it was always this way). If every person’s way is as good as the next guy then there really is no need for history or religion or morality or excellence. We’re all just going to die anyway. Isn’t watching kids play soccer just as good as watching the World Cup? I wouldn’t know. I like American football.

Integrity, graciousness, self-sacrifice and abiding love often lead to lives of suffering and depth and in all of that is a gift to the world. When you stand next to or read about a hero there’s a bracing excitement, a thrill and wonder. I don’t know why but it makes you look at your own work differently. It makes you look at love differently.

People like the Roeblings should be our heroes, should be on t-shirts and coffee mugs. I know there’s going to be a movie and the Harry Potter guy is going to play dear Washington (ugh). I probably won’t go see it, but I will recommend you read this book.



Diplomat Henry White
Diplomat Henry White

And what did Henry White, who was neither witty nor a brilliant talker, nor even, to tell the truth, a man of very deep cultivation, contribute to this gang (British select society)?

‘I really think it was his GOODNESS,’ Lord Robert Cecil suggested. ‘He never said an ill-natured or bitter thing in his life. He never claimed anything as his due. If there was a dull or disagreeable duty to be done, Harry took it on. Every lame dog naturally turned to him for help. To say he was unselfish is inadequate. He lived to increase the happiness of others.'”  from THE VANDERBILT ERA by Louis Auchincloss


weary of runningSpeaking of humans, there’s plenty of them (though not quite so good) in my new book: WEARY of RUNNING. I mention this because it just came out and my first book will be on sale for 99 cents Friday and Saturday for KINDLE.




“The acutest, the astutest, the archest enemy of southern slavery that ever existed”


John Quincy Adams. Shall we bow our heads for an early nap before discussing a white dead president? It’s kind of superficial to judge a person because they’re white and dead, don’t you think? John Quincy was pretty cute (okay that’s superficial) as a young guy, but he was much more than that.

You know how we always love to trash kids who have famous parents? We say they got where they got because their father knew, say, George Washington, but a meeting with a president doesn’t always assure you a brilliant career. John Quincy started his brilliant career at the age of 14. Yes, fourteen. He accompanied Francis Dana as a secretary on a mission to Saint Petersburg. (WIKI)

Do you know any fourteen-year-olds? How many impress foreign diplomats and presidents? Well, maybe Justin Beiber did in his prime, but if you check out John Quincy’s love poems to his wife you might be surprised at Mr. Adam’s sensuous side. So young Adams did have the advantage of being born into a brainy family (funny they lived in Braintree, Massachusetts), but John Quincy’s younger brother with all the same advantages died young of alcoholism.

How many kids today know Greek, Latin, French, German and Dutch? How many consider it a fine hobby to translate Virgil, Horace, Plutarch and Aristotle? Anybody for one more opinion about deflated footballs?

Lest we think young Johnnie had it easy, let me mention his parents. John and Abigail groomed him for moral and intellectual greatness. This was no soft curry-comb grooming. Lovingly and beseechingly–daily, weekly, monthly and yearly–John and Abigail  bombarded John Q with “advice.” When excelling at language, Abigail bemoaned his sloppy handwriting. When dancing with the girls in Europe, John Adams Sr. worried he might bring home a horrible Euro-trash girl.

Johnnie could have bolted under the pressure. He could have whined. Instead he wrote volumes in his journals, he translated volumes, he married well and became a great husband and father. These things were done in his spare time!

Here are some of his other accomplishments:

Graduated Harvard and became a lawyer (he thought this terribly dull). Later taught at Harvard.

Became a respected foreign minister to the Netherlands, Portugal, Germany,  Prussia and later Russia.

Became Secretary of State

Was elected President

And then for 18 years decided to hang out in Congress refusing all the while to descend into party politics. This guy had tons of courage. At one time or another everyone hated him. He stood for what was morally right and best for the country he loved. This meant that he vehemently opposed slavery before it was cool. He was a hard-working trail-blazer!

“The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls. In the abstract they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim it, and cast it all upon the shoulder of…Great Britain. But when probed to the quick upon it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They look down upon the simplicity of a Yankee’s manners, because he has no habits of overbearing like theirs and cannot treat negroes like dogs. It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice: for what can be more false and heartless than this doctrine which makes the first and holiest rights of humanity to depend upon the color of the skin?” (Journal entry Wiki)

John Quincy Adams also sat for one of the first presidential photographs:

So he didn't age that well--but there's more to a man than his looks.
So he didn’t age that well–but there’s more to a man than his looks.

Short, good C-SPAN Video

A taste of John Quincy’s life under his mother’s watchful eye

Before Fair Trade Coffee~ The Free Produce Movement

Uneducated New Jersey kid makes good.
Uneducated New Jersey kid makes good.

Once upon a time there was a Quaker kid living on his parents’ farm in the Garden State of New Jersey. He didn’t make it to school too often and back then you had the freedom to skip it. Maybe he just liked plowing fields with his father or getting into small scrapes with his little Quaker friends.

Eventually young Benjamin Lundy was apprenticed out to a saddler in Wheeling, Virginia where he was first exposed to slavery. Now maybe he wanted to get away from his parents and be apprenticed and maybe he didn’t, but either way he didn’t waste time thinking of himself. Still a young person, he determined that he was not only against slavery, but that he would actually devote his life to doing something about it.

Benjamin married and went on to open a successful store. In this store he sold “Free Produce” goods. Not a single thing in his Baltimore store was produced using slave labor. Slave holders and people who were willing to keep quiet about slavery because it was easier hated Benjamin for it. Back then there was no cool group of college kids wearing rainbow colored caps and raggedy clothes he could join. He was pretty much on his own in 1815.

For no reason other than human decency he put his life on the line for people he could have just ignored, yet he never wavered. It’s one thing to stand up as an oppressed person and demand that wrongs be righted; it’s another to put your neck on the line for people who don’t even know you and fight a giant system of evil and corruption. I’m sure there were people who quietly supported his actions but remained in their homes doing nothing–just like most of us do now when we hear about human trafficking. We hope someone does something.

Benjamin organized anti-slavery groups, started newspapers and “traveled more than 5000 miles on foot and 20,000 in other ways, visited 19 states of the Union, and held more than 200 public meetings.” (wikipedia) He was also brutally assaulted by a slave trader, but it never stopped him.

He was a tough Quaker kid from New Jersey.


A Purpose and a Prayer–Freed Slaves Who Saved a School

Jubilee Singers
Jubilee Singers

Taking every penny from the school treasury  to pay for their traveling expenses the Fisk Jubilee Singers set out on a mission to ensure the continuance of the school they dearly loved.

Only a few months after the end of the Civil War John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith (their stories are inspiring in themselves) founded the Fisk School in Nashville–so named for the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau General Clinton B. Fisk who donated Union army barracks  to be used as the first facilities to educate the impoverished people of the South aged 7 to seventy.

The school was open to all races, but quickly attracted ex-slaves only a few years after emancipation. Always teetering on bankruptcy the school decided to let the spiritual songs of God determine its fate.

After a rough start the singers rose to stardom bringing US Grant, Mark Twain and Queen Victoria to tears. The school survived, but more importantly their faith and music remains a  testament to the power of music to win hearts and minds and to the selfless generosity of the founders of Fisk University.

So What if Your Parents Are Criminally Insane? Meet Buster the Wonder Baby!

Definitely looks insane
Definitely looks insane

“The most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”
Margaret Sanger, Women and the New Race 

I sort of get Margaret Sanger‘s bitterness. Her family arrived in the New World fleeing the Irish Famine (see the real and disturbing causes HERE). Her mother had 18 pregnancies and died young. So young Maggie gets it into her head that some babies are better off dead–not her, of course, but some other babies.

In Nicaragua I met a lot of unwashed, under-nourished children and not one of them asked me to put them out of their misery. In fact some had dreams of America or finding a cute boy to have a baby with (like people have done since the beginning of time). The girls liked having their nails painted and the boys were big flirts.

As a fifth grade teacher I met kids with alcoholic parents, criminal parents and neglectful parents. Some of these kids loved poetry and being read to.

Poor Maggie transferred her bitterness onto others. Yes, poverty is horrible, but it seems to me that extermination is a little worse (even if it’s done for the supposed good of the children or the environment). Case in point: Buster, the baby born to criminal parents who turned out alright.

While not quite insane, Buster looks like he could kill someone.
While not quite insane, Buster looks like he could kill someone.
But wait, he likes apples. There's hope!
But wait, he likes apples. There’s hope!
Buster rocking the short pants, but possibly still considering petty larceny
Buster rocking the short pants, but possibly still considering petty larceny
Buster turns towards the light
Buster turns towards the light
Life ain't so bad after all
Life ain’t so bad after all
Take thaat! You eugenicists!
Take that! You eugenicists! I look just like a young Prince William!

First Horse and Buggy Ride . . .Seaside Heights 1969


There I am in the hat. My mother sewed a string into it so I wouldn’t lose it at the beach. You know those weird crushes you have on older cousins? The one’s even at age four you know are somehow a little off? Between my mother and her sister they  managed to produce a bunch of kids–too many to properly watch at the beach. Stevie was that lanky tan kid with almost black eyes and a generous grin–aged 7. He dodged waves and I followed–aged 3. I remember that loud beach sound of the waves and gulls and the too bright sun sparking on the water. A wave dragged me under and no one noticed. I think I remember just floating under the surface and the slight drag that pulled me along.

A man was swimming out too far and the lifeguards blew their whistles, but just before heading in he noticed the hat and at the last second grabbed it to find a toddler beneath it. I remember being held upside down by my ankles as the man carried me around asking if anyone wanted to claim me.

I’ve always liked hats and random strangers acting as heroes.