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I just finished Henry IV, Part One. It is part of what is called the second Henriad, a series of four plays William Shakespeare wrote in the late 1500s, just after Romeo and Juliet and just before Hamlet. Henry IV, Part One begins the three plays that many call, “The Education of a King,” that king being Prince Hal, who would become Henry the Fifth in the final installment.

Of the four (and they all are great), Henry IV, Part One is, I think, the greatest, because it is the play most about this education. If it weren’t for the fact that Shakespeare wrote about five more plays that I think are even greater, I’d say this play is the greatest thing I’d ever read. Read them all, but if you read only one, make it this one.

The whole point of great literature is to get us to think about life, and as I read this time I thought about my own education. I’m no king, and certainly would never pretend or want to be one. I am a teacher, and Henry IV, Part One got me thinking about one of the greatest regrets of my life. I never thanked those teachers who helped me become so.

For many, it seems, I’m too late. I’ve tried to reach out, but so many of my former teachers have passed. Others I can’t find anywhere. So this post is part regret, part lamentation, and maybe a fleeting hope that I’ll reach someone for whom it will be meaningful. At any rate, maybe it will get you thinking about how you came to be, as well.

First, there’s Mr. Bossart. My English teacher for two years, he introduced me to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a book that has become my touchstone. Mr. Bossart showed me that literature isn’t just something you do in school. It’s something that becomes a part of you, that changes you in a way that can be difficult to describe. Mr. Bossart taught me that if you can sum up what a book is about in just a few words, well, it’s not a very good book. Great literature, like great art and profound science, are bottomless. Like Juliet, their bounty is as boundless as the sea. Mr. Bossart taught me not just to read, but to read deeply, to let the literature get into my very bones and change me. I thank him.

Next is Mr. Snider. My math teacher for advanced math and calculus, Mr. Snider showed me that problems can be solved, not just to completion, but with elegance and grace. Math, I learned, is not so much a matter of knowing, but of trying. He showed me that the process of discovery is messy, but from that messiness can emerge profound truths, as beautiful as any painting or symphony. I thank him for helping me go beyond the right answer and into the heart of the mystery. Thank you, Mr. Snider.

Mrs. Morgan was my English teacher for three years. When I handed in a story with an incomplete sentence, she marked it. When I complained that the fragment was there for emphasis, she told me that when I became a published author, I could use as many fragments as I wanted, but until then I had to use proper English. Well, I’m a published author now. So there.

That sounds negative, but Mrs. Morgan was a wonderful English teacher. She introduced me to Shakespeare – though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Sometimes a teacher plants seeds that only grow much later. Mrs. Morgan stretched my horizons, she pushed me to be better, to think better, to do better. I never thanked her, so I’m thanking her now.

Mr. Rogers, what can I say about Mr. Rogers? He taught me more than just history. He taught me how to be a good person. A World War II veteran who despised war, a patriot who saw the mistakes our country had made, a brilliant scholar who practiced down-to-earth common sense and pragmatic idealism, Mr. Rogers was quite simply one of the greatest human beings, let alone one of the greatest teachers, I ever knew.  When I drifted into Libertarianism, Mr. Rogers let me explore until I ran into the heartlessness of it. When I went through a Marxist period, Mr. Rogers sent me to a free enterprise seminar, and when I railed against the speakers there, he asked me if I’d actually listened to them. Mr. Rogers showed me that every point has a counterpoint, and that the only way to understand a topic is to surround it. Like a Shakespeare play, history is a grand spectacle of so many different people, all of whom think they’re right. Mr. Rogers helped me to see that, and I’m thankful.

Mrs. Huston taught me algebra and geometry during my most difficult years. I was a smart aleck kid, always looking for holes in the math. Mrs. Huston was patient with me, letting me explore but always bringing me back in when I got too far off track. For the past three years, teaching algebra in high school, I have used examples and techniques I learned from Mrs. Huston almost daily. She started me on my journey, and I thank her.

Mr. Crumley was my band director. He didn’t just teach me about music. He taught me about leadership. He taught me about hard (hard!) work. He taught me that when you think you’ve got it, practice it one more time, and then one more time after that. And then again. He taught me that it’s not rain, it’s just Hilliard dew. He taught me that winning isn’t about trophies. Winning is about leaving absolutely everything you have, every ounce of effort, sweat, and love on that field. I thank him.

Mr. Koontz was my physics teacher. Of all the people on this list, he was the most responsible for me becoming a teacher – not just a classroom teacher, but a teacher, one who wants to understand, and who wants to help others understand, too. Mr. Koontz taught me that the best answer to almost every science question is, “it depends.” In his class I learned that a good physicist can simplify a problem to its barest necessities, but that a better physicist understands how those bare necessities might mislead you. He taught me to remember that what I’ve created is only a model, and every model has a breaking point. All answers in science are at least a little bit wrong. The trick, I learned from Mr. Koontz, is to understand just how wrong you are. From him I caught the physics bug, and I’ve never lost it. For that I thank him.

And then there is Mr. Johnson. My current events and government teacher, Mr. Johnson knew how to ask questions that got right to the heart of the matter – then, when you thought you had a grasp, he’d ask another question that would turn the situation around completely. I always thought I drove him crazy, because I was still trying to figure out just who I was. Then, on the night of high school graduation, Mr. Johnson took me aside and told me how much he respected me as a thinker and a person. I was so embarrassed I barely knew what to say. I probably mumbled out something utterly inadequate and hurried back in line. This is one of my greatest regrets. Why didn’t I tell him, in turn, how much he had meant to me? Why didn’t I explain how his classes had taught me to think, and that if I had shown any proficiency it was because he’d shown me the way? I’ll always be sorry that I didn’t do better, and I’ll always wish I could relive that night, if only to right that wrong. Mr. Johnson, I’ll do it now. Thank you for teaching me. I’ll take your words with me always.

There were others, of course, including wonderful professors at Ohio State and professional mentors at COSI, Roto, and at my new home, ACPA. But this entry is too long already, and for those folks, I hope I did a little better in expressing how much they helped me grow and learn. For all my teachers, from Kindergarten on, I humbly thank you, and I’m sorry I wasn’t more grateful at the time. I couldn’t pay you back, but I promise to pay it forward. What more could a teacher ask?

I’ve been wrong about Donald Trump before. 

When he was nominated as the Republican candidate for president, I thought he’d lose the general election. I thought the American people would see through this unprincipled snake oil salesman peddling division and fear.

When he was investigated for contacts with Russia, I thought he was just a dupe, a convenient bozo whom the Russians could use to forward their agenda of returning the international community to a pre-World War One mercantilism, where every country looked out for itself and where quaint ideas like human rights, international cooperation, and the worth of all individuals were safely stored in the dustbin of history.

When he displayed abject cruelty and shocking racism at the border, toward refugees, and in the aftermath of the Charlottesville murder, I thought he was just too dumb to understand how decent human beings would view his words and actions.

Now I see that I was wrong.

With his latest racist attacks on four American public servants, I understand that Donald Trump is actually a smart and successful, if deeply misguided and disgusting, propagandist.

Consider the Marlboro Man. For a very long time, everyone knew that cigarettes were killing people. The tobacco companies knew it, yet they were committed to selling their poisonous product. So what did they do? They created the Marlboro Man, a renegade living his own way on the outskirts of society. No one was going to tell the Marlboro Man what to do. If he wanted to smoke cigarettes, he’d smoke cigarettes, no matter what people said about their health effects. It was a brilliant, if deeply misguided and disgusting approach.

The result was millions of Americans who, in order to signal their rugged individualism, started smoking the same cigarettes as all the other rugged individualists. They were duped by the tobacco companies into handing over their money for poison. And many paid the ultimate price (including, famously, the Marlboro Man himself).

Donald Trump has completed a similar calculus. He didn’t attack four American public servants because he believes the hate-filled words he spewed. Rather, he attacked because he knew this attack wouldn’t cost him anything. On the contrary, it would serve to further distract his followers from the clear fact that Donald Trump has no ideas, no experience, no ability, and no business serving as president.

Now, why won’t the attack cost Donald Trump anything? That’s a deeper and more disturbing question, and I won’t be able to answer it here. This, perhaps, is a start. If you believe the rhetoric and divisiveness emanating from this president is the way leaders in our country should behave, then you’ve been duped just as surely as millions were duped by the Marlboro Man. You’ve been fooled into giving away your decency.

A buffoon might well make political blunders that cost him supporters and lead to his eventual defeat. Donald Trump, I see now, is no buffoon. He is a calculating, manipulative master of propaganda. And just as surely as the Marlboro Man, the divisive rhetoric Donald Trump is selling us is poison. How long before we see it?

Sometimes people wonder why I have such contempt for the current occupant of the White House. I’m accused of suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, told that I’m just a sore loser, that I need to respect the office even if I don’t like the officeholder.

It has been said that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything. I stand for the values of the Enlightenment and the tradition it engendered, of Liberal Western Democracy. This includes free markets, personal liberty, equality before the law, multinational peace and cooperation, and the essential dignity and humanity of all people. We can quibble back and forth about universal health care, access to education, and a host of other issues, but as an American I expect that everyone across the political spectrum will hold as their core values these Enlightenment-based tenets of Liberal Western Democracy.

In a recent interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that western-style liberalism is obsolete. No surprise that a mob boss dictator who kills journalists, represses dissent, and ignores the rule of law would hold such an opinion. But our own president, when asked about Putin’s comments, didn’t even know what Putin was talking about.

President Trump answered by saying that Los Angeles and San Francisco are “sad to look at” because they’re “run by liberal people,” hopelessly confusing both the idea of “the West” (it doesn’t mean California) and “liberalism” (it doesn’t mean politicians on the left of the US political spectrum). OK, fine, we can have another good chuckle at his ignorance.

But this chortling utterly misses the point. The President’s ignorance is a problem, yes, but the underlying issue is that our President doesn’t care about his ignorance.

The United States emerged from World War Two as the leader of Western Liberal Democracy. By necessity (because the rest of the West was devastated by the war) we championed those values and helped the world see their worth. Ever since then, democracy has been spreading. We’ve stood strong against dehumanizing Totalitarian Communism. We’ve championed the rise of science and reason. We’ve helped the world lift itself out of abject poverty (In 1800, over 80% of the world lived in extreme poverty; today, with far more people in the world, only 10% do). We’ve led the world into a time of unprecedented peace (the rate of battle deaths worldwide since 1945 is in steep decline, and great powers no longer fight one another). And we’ve helped build an international community that respects the rule of law and the value of human life.

I want a president who not only knows these facts, but who champions them. I want a president who doesn’t tacitly agree with the claims of dictators, but who counters them with the rock-ribbed conviction, based on clear evidence, that our way of life is better than theirs, that (to quote Steven Pinker) “life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

So when someone asks me “Why do you hate Trump so much, why don’t you just give him a chance?” I’ll remember this latest and ever-so-amusing gaffe as the symbol of a man who not only doesn’t know who we are, but more importantly doesn’t care to know. In a country of over 300 million people, we can do better.

Yesterday (July 4) was Aphelion Day, the day when the Earth is farthest from the Sun. That means for the next six months or so, we’ll be falling toward the nearest star.

Oh. Well. Hmmm . . . wait, if we’re so far from the Sun, you ask, why is it so derned hot?

Ah, my boreal-centric friends, it is only summer in the northern hemisphere. My Australian friends (ok, friend) know that the southern half of the globe is plunged into deepest winter. Heck, it’s 55 degrees in Sydney today. They might need a sweater.

More to the point, seasons are caused not by Earth’s distance from the Sun, but by the tilt of the axis. Think of a toy top. When not spinning, the top, well, topples over. But give it a spin, and it stably points (for a short while) in one direction. The Earth is similar (though a lot more stable). Currently our axis points very near a star called Polaris in the north and at, well, nothing in particular in the south. As we career around the Sun, that axis tilt is essentially steady, so that in the northern summer we get more direct sunlight – meaning that even as we are at our greatest distance from the Sun, we get its most direct rays.

The great news, though, is that our distance is directly related to our speed. Right now, when we’re nearly as far away from the Sun as we ever get, our planet is moving at its slowest, like a thrown ball at the top of its arc. The result is that in the north we get a few extra summer days. In fact, the northern summer is about 94 days long, while our winter, when the planet is whipping by in its closest solar approach, lasts only about 89 days.

One last thing: diagrams you might see of this whole story are quite misleading. While the overall difference in distance might seem large, around 4 million miles, in fact it’s only a few percent of our overall average distance of 93 million miles. So any diagram of our planet’s orbit that shows it as an egg is greatly overstating the case.In fact, the shape of our planet’s orbit is almost indistinguishable from a circle.

Happy falling toward the Sun day, everyone!

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
July 2019
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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