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Thomas Jefferson, on his birthday Posted - Apr 09, 2017

April 13th is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. At his request, Jefferson’s headstone says nothing of the fact that he was Governor of Virginia, America’s first Secretary of State, or third President of the United States. It says simply:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” Apparently, these three achievements brought him the most satisfaction. The Declaration of Independence was an obvious first choice, and the buildings that surround the quad at the University of Virginia were designed and built under his supervision, which makes this choice understandable as well. But why the Virginia statute for religious freedom? Why was separation of church and state so important to him?

For one, Europe had been roiled in religious conflict and persecution for over 500 years, where separation of church and state was unknown. One of the longest and most destructive religious conflicts was The Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) that resulted in eight million casualties, devastation of entire communities including farms and forests in Central Europe, and bankrupted the treasuries of the competing powers. The war began when the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to impose his religious beliefs on the northern Protestant states. The conflict evolved into a long and bloody war of attrition marked by widespread atrocities, disease, and famine. Exhaustion, not victory, drove the participants to sign the treaties of Osnabruck and Munster, part of the wider Peace of Westphalia that restored peace to Europe.

In America, in the decade before independence, the authorities of church and state in Virginia had responded with persecution and violence to the evangelical challenge posed by the growing number of Baptists moving into that state. Jefferson, very much aware of Europe’s long and bloody religious conflicts, strongly opposed such intolerance. To Jefferson, a man barred from office for his religious opinions was a gross violation of his “natural right” to civic participation. “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religions opinions,” he said, “any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Nor was it necessary for the state to protect the sacred truths of Christianity. “It is error indeed which needs the support of the government,” he wryly observed. “Truth can stand by itself.”

Ahead of his time, Jefferson’s efforts were bitterly opposed by his fellow Virginia planters. Notwithstanding, he continued to insist on an immediate and strict separation of church and state. “The time to guard against corruption and tyranny,” he said, “is before they shall have gotten hold of us.” When Jefferson’s efforts finally bore fruit in the 1780s, with passage of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, he considered it one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.

The heart of the Virginian Statute is inscribed on a marble wall inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The inscription reads: “Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burdens . . . are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion . . . No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief. But all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.”

Jefferson believed that in a democracy the best way to support and encourage religion in general was for the government to be completely neutral and impartial concerning religions in particular; and the best way to give religious freedom to all is to deny religious freedom to none, even those whose faith appears strange, suspicious, or just plain silly.

Largely because of Jefferson’s prestige and persuasive power, the system that America’s founders finally adopted and incorporated into the Bill of Rights in 1791 was the complete disestablishment of religion. The first one-third of the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” With these sixteen words, Congress effectively tied its own hands with respect to showing religious favoritism.

Of the three inscriptions Jefferson chose for his epitaph, only one is an actual physical accomplishment. The other two are ideas, ideas that are at the core of the experiment in democratic government we call the American Dream—freedom from religious intolerance, and freedom from arbitrary rule that is the heart of the Jeffersonian doctrine that all people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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Geoffrey Chaucer, poet and hopeless optimist
Posted - Mar 26, 2017

You have to love a guy who can laugh at himself. You can be sure he likes people and above all enjoys life. Now imagine that someone is a poet, not any poet but one of the greatest poets of English literature. That someone would be Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), the author of “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer was more than a great poet. He was a trailblazer. He wrote at a time when French was the language of poetry, of the English court and European diplomacy, and Latin was the language of education and the church. English was the language of common folk. Chaucer changed that by choosing to write his poetry in English, and not in the standard four-beat of French poetry, but in something more demanding, in the five-beat cadence of iambic pentameter. What Chaucer did was make English respectable. His poetry was so influential that within his lifetime the language of the English court changed from French to English.

The poet who emerges in “Geoffrey Chaucer of England,” by independent scholar Marchette Chute, is a delightful fellow—mild tempered, broad-minded, unprejudiced, hopelessly optimistic. He doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone his body. He enjoys people from all walks of life. He appreciates the beauty of nature, the travel that comes with being in the king’s service, and especially in having a good laugh, even at his own expense. “There are few writers who are so well worth knowing,” says the author. Geoffrey Chaucer was a medieval poet, to be sure, but in Chute’s recounting of his life the 600-year gap between his time and ours seems inconsequential. The characters who inhabit his lengthy narrative poems, particularly “Troilus and Criseyde” and “The Canterbury Tales,” are as familiar as the people who live on your street.

Chaucer was raised in what today would be considered a middle-class family. His household spoke both English and French. In school, he learned to read and write in Latin. At some point, he gained an appreciation of French poetry, which was mostly about courtly love. Chaucer was a romantic but he was also a realist. His early poems, many of which are lost, were written in French. He worked very hard at his craft, and as he became more sure of himself and of what he wanted to say he began writing in English and about people as they actually lived, warts and all. Like Shakespeare, he wrote to please himself. The fact people were drawn to his stories was a happy coincidence.

The author reviews all of Chaucer’s major works, with special emphasis on “The Canterbury Tales” and “Troilus and Criseyde.” The latter is a love story set amidst the Trojan War. Shakespeare also wrote a version of “Troilus and Criseyde.” His play is remarkable for its cynicism; the heroes are all villains (especially the Greeks), and the lovers are fools. This is very far removed from the tone of Chaucer’s narrative poem, which possesses a sweetness and innocence that is at the heart of young love. Indeed, Chaucer becomes so caught up in the love story of Troilus and Criseyde that he writes himself into a corner. The story, which dates from the eighth century, calls for Criseyde to betray Troilus which Chaucer finds troubling. Writes Ms. Chute: “The truth is that the creative interest that Chaucer experienced so powerfully in the first four books of ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ is almost totally lacking in Book Five. Chaucer does his best, but he cannot bring himself to any real enthusiasm for a plot from which the bright lady of his own creation has vanished.”

The idea for “The Canterbury Tales,” on the other hand, was entirely of Chaucer’s own creation, and not only had nothing like it ever been written before nothing like it was ever done again. Writes Ms. Chute: “He never finished his narrative poem; his ambitious plan was still much more in his head than it was on paper when he had to leave it. He had planned to write a hundred and twenty tales, and he only completed twenty-one.” As it stands, “The Canterbury Tales” is only a collection of fragments. Yet, Chaucer completed enough of “The Canterbury Tales” to make it one of the literary masterpieces of the world. He visualized his characters so clearly that they are still as real and familiar as the day they met each other at the Tabard Inn in London to begin their journey south to Canterbury.

Chaucer was the first English poet to be buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. “He left behind him the men and the women he had created and they went on without him,” writes the author wistfully. “They are more real now than any of Chaucer’s contemporaries, and they will continue to be real five hundred years hence.” Ms. Chute’s fascination with her subject makes for lively reading. I can’t imagine how much research she did before writing a single word. The neat map at the back of the book, of fourteenth century London, is of her own creating.

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Our Own Little World
Posted - Mar 12, 2017

It’s been said that all the great bands create their own little world, and through their songs let the world in. This was certainly true of Simon and Garfunkel, who captured the alienation and urbane wit of college students across America in the late 1960s. The following is a glimpse into their own little world as expressed in the lyrics of five songs, by Paul Simon.

1 - FOR EMILY, WHENEVER I MAY FIND HER

(not about a particular girl but rather an ideal)

What a dream I had / Pressed in organdy / Clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy / Softer than the rain / I wandered empty streets / Down past the shop displays / I heard cathedral bells / Tripping down the alleyways / As I walked on.

And when you ran to me / Your cheeks flushed with the night / We walked on frosted fields / Of juniper and lamplight / I held your hand.

And when I awoke and felt you warm and near / I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears / Oh, I love you, girl / Oh, I love you

2 - THE DANGLING CONVERSATION

(a bit pretentious, but one of Paul and Art’s all-time favorite S & G songs)

It's a still-life water color, / Of a now late afternoon, / As the sun shines through the curtain lace / And shadows wash the room. / And we sit and drink our coffee / Couched in our indifference, / Like shells upon the shore / You can hear the ocean roar / In the dangling conversation / And the superficial sighs, / The borders of our lives.

And you read your Emily Dickinson, / And I my Robert Frost, / And we note our place with bookmakers / That measure what we've lost. / Like a poem poorly written / We are verses out of rhythm, / Couplets out of rhyme, / In syncopated time / And the dangling conversation / And the superficial sighs, / Are the borders of our lives.

Yes, we speak of things that matter, / With words that must be said, / “Can analysis be worthwhile?” / “Is the theater really dead?” / And how the room is softly faded / And I only kiss your shadow, / I cannot feel your hand, / You’re a stranger now unto me / Lost in the dangling conversation. / And the superficial sighs, / In the borders of our lives.

3 - AMERICA

(inspired by a five-day trip Paul and his girlfriend Kathy took in 1964—to see England. Four years later, playing a gig in Saginaw, Michigan, Paul wrote this song)

Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together / I’ve got some real estate here in my bag / So we bought a pack of cigarettes, and Mrs. Wagner pies / And walked off to look for America.

Kathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburg / Michigan seems like a dream to me now / It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw / I've come to look for America.

Laughin' on the bus, playing games with the faces / She said the man in the gaberdine suit was a spy / I said be careful, his bowtie is really a camera.

Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat / We smoked the last one an hour ago / So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine / And the moon rose over an open field.

Kathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping / I’m empty and aching and I don't know why / Countin’ the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America, all come to look for America.

4 - THE BOXER

(semi-autobiographical sketch of Paul’s life and the public criticism that was eating away at him at the time, which made him want to run away)

I am just a poor boy / Though my story's seldom told / I have squandered my resistance / For a pocketful of mumbles / Such are promises / All lies and jest / Still, a man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest.

When I left my home / And my family / I was no more than a boy / In the company of strangers / In the quiet of the railway station / Running scared / Laying low / Seeking out the poorer quarters / Where the ragged people go / Looking for the places / Only they would know.

Lie-la-lie . . .

Asking only workman's wages / I come looking for a job / But I get no offers / Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue / I do declare / There were times when I was so lonesome / I took some comfort there.

Lie-la-lie . . .

Then I'm laying out my winter clothes / And wishing I was gone / Going home / Where the New York City winters / Aren’t bleeding me / Leading me / Going home.

In the clearing stands a boxer / And a fighter by his trade / And he carries the reminders / Of ev'ry glove that laid him down / And cut him till he cried out / In his anger and his shame / “I am leaving, I am leaving” / But the fighter still remains.

Lie-la-lie . . .

5 - MY LITTLE TOWN

(Paul’s biographical sketch of Art’s childhood)

In my little town / I grew up believing / God keeps His eye on us all /

And He used to lean upon me / As I pledged allegiance to the wall / Lord I recall / My little town.

Coming home after school / Flying my bike past the gates / Of the factories / My mom doing the laundry / Hanging our shirts / In the dirty breeze.

And after it rains / There’s a rainbow / And all of the colors are black / It’s not that the colors aren't there / It’s just imagination they lack / Everything’s the same / Back in my little town.

In my little town / I never meant nothin’ / I was just my father's son / Saving my money / Dreaming of glory / Twitching like a finger / On the trigger of a gun / Leaving nothing but the dead and dying / Back in my little town.

- END -

 
Irrepressible Ben Jonson, Elizabethan Playwright
Posted - Feb 26, 2017

No one ever accused Ben Jonson of modesty—or tact. The Elizabethan poet took life by the horns, consequences be damned. A bricklayer’s son, he rose to literary prominence without benefit of a university education, fought valiantly as a soldier, was jailed three times (once for murder), wrote plays and masques and poetry that were the toast of London, ridiculed nearly everyone, had degrees bestowed upon him by Cambridge and Oxford, and was England’s first poet laureate. Late in life, he admitted that his contemporary William Shakespeare, whose plays he detested, was not only the preeminent playwright of his time, but for all time. Revered and despised, Ben Jonson was many things, but never predictable, never boring. Independent scholar Marchette Chute does not flinch nor blush recounting Jonson’s colorful life, rather she basks in the telling. Written before the age of television, “Ben Jonson of Westminster” reads with the fluency of today’s best yarns.

As with Shakespeare, there’s little to go on regarding the details of Jonson’s personal life, apart from the few records that survive. Historians must do their best, rely on what contemporaries have written, however prejudiced or inaccurate, match up dates in history with the performances of their plays, and do a great deal of speculating. Chute wrote under these very limitations, but exhibits such mastery of Jonson’s considerable output, and possesses such insight into the people and places and events of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, that her subject emerges from the dusty pages of history as three-dimensional and alive as anyone you’re likely to encounter on the street, should that anyone be a poet of very great gifts.

Ben Jonson was the type that no matter how grim the circumstances, he never gave up and always prevailed. As a youth from the Westminster slums, he had the good fortune to be enrolled in the best school in the city through a connection that remains unknown. His second break was being taught by William Camden, who would go on to become one of the most foremost scholars of his age. “(I)t was the greatest piece of single good fortune in Ben Jonson’s life,” writes Chute. The goal of the Tudor school system was to turn out “little Roman-Christian gentlemen who could write exactly like Cicero.” That meant speaking and writing in Latin, and becoming familiar with poetry and plays of the ancient world. Some children took to it, some didn’t. Some used it later in life to show off, while a very few went on to become playwrights of the classical Greek and Roman style. Of these was the poor boy from the slums—Ben Jonson. He was slated for a University education at Oxford but was denied for reasons that remain unclear. He may very well have insulted a benefactor. Whatever the reason, his dream of scholarly advancement was denied him. He became a bricklayer like his father, but did not give up studying by himself, “and he ended up becoming the most learned poet in England,” says Chute.

Jonson was conscripted for service with the English troops dispatched to help the Netherlands fight the invading Spanish. The English army was poorly fed and poorly led. Everyone complained, few fought with honor or distinction—except Jonson. He loved the challenge and fought bravely. His prowess with a sword would serve him well later as an actor, where staged swordplay went with the job. On his return home, he resumed bricklaying, but soon thereafter became a part of the Elizabethan theater, first as an assistant to other dramatists, then as an actor, and finally as a playwright. His first successful play, “Every Man in his Humour,” in which Shakespeare acted, was a new kind of comedy in which “each character is . . . typical of a specific humour of temperament.”

Feisty and pugnacious, Jonson became involved in a duel and was imprisoned for slaying a fellow actor. Through a loophole in the system, he was released with the help of a Catholic priest. He joined the Catholic church—a very unpopular move in protestant London—and there is some evidence that he did so out of spite. Twelve years later, when his position among the elite London playwrights and poets was assured, and it no longer mattered, he returned to the Church of England.

His literary work included satiric comedies, tragedies, translations of the Latin poets, a contribution to Sir Walter Raleigh’s “History of the World,” and the beginning of an English Grammar. When James I came to the throne, Jonson virtually became England’s poet laureate. For the court, he wrote innumerable masques; but his best-known poetry is found in Epigrams and in some well-known songs.

Jonson held up to ridicule the foibles he saw. For joining two fellow poets in writing a play which laughed at the peculiarities of the Scottish courtiers, he was imprisoned yet again, but for a short time.

While Jonson included Shakespeare among his friends, he thought very little of the Bard’s plays. Jonson always adhered closely to the rules governing Greek and Roman tragedies and comedies. He studied history, learned geography, and sweated over the details, while Shakespeare relied very loosely on often sketchy history and more or less made it up as he went along. Shakespeare was writing to please himself, says Chute, while Jonson was writing for a very small elite of Latin and Greek scholars who adored him. It wasn’t until late in his career that Jonson loosened his grip on the rules governing the plays of the ancient world, and became more flexible with the plays he wrote for the London stage.

Several years after Shakespeare’s death, the publishers of the First Folio approached Jonson to write a few lines of appreciation. Jonson had every reason to balk at such an offer. In Chute’s words, the Bard “had been careless about his sources, brought in farce and dances and melodrama to amuse the lowest elements in his audience, and in general had produced an untidy, sprawling body of work that a true classicist could only regard with something approaching despair.” Still, there was something in Shakespeare’s plays that touched the genius within him. Above all else, Jonson was an honest man. When he sat down to write an homage, it was from the heart:

“Triumph, my Britain, thou has one to show / To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe. / He was not of an age, but for all time.”

“This judgement of Jonson’s is the only contemporary piece of writing on Shakespeare that assigns him the position he now holds,” writes Chute.

Jonson’s later years were difficult. Charles I came to power after James I death, and at first Jonson was out of favor. Gradually, he assumed his old place as honored poet laureate, and was again writing Masques for royalty. Jonson then suffered a stroke. While he continued to write, it was now with more difficulty. With his output falling off, money became a problem. While he didn’t have to resort to begging for money, to a man of Johnson’s pride, it felt that way. He passed away in 1637, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. While there wasn’t the available funds to create a memorial suitable to a man of his stature, these few words carved in marble at the time remain unchanged and seem fitting: “O RARE BEN JONSON.”

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Books:
 
The Ragged Edge

Released - Dec 19, 1999

Ragged Edge
The book follows John Wagner (our hero) through a full grand prix season. We go through his ups and downs, passions, strengths and weaknesses. If you're a car guy the book is a real page turner.
 
If Hemingway Had Written

A Racing Novel Released - Oct 10, 2004

Hemingway
"If Hemingway Had Written a Racing Novel" is a first-class collection of motor racing fiction. Each of these stories, excerpts of course, feel like the proverbial kid in the candy store with nose to glass.
 
 
When You Smile Created by Bill Nisley
Posted - Mar 28, 2012
"When I would know thee...my thought looks upon thy well made choice of friends and books; then do I love thee, and behold thy ends in making thy friends books, and thy books friends."
-- Ben Jonson
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."
--United States Declaration of Independence
 
Music by Bill and Scott Nisley
--Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.
--Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.
--Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.
--Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.
Copyright © 2012-2017 Richard Nisley - All Rights Reserved. | Code/Design: Bill Nisley