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Farewell, Charles Nikitopoulos, Humanitarian & Poetry Fan

My friend and mentor Charles Nikitopoulos of Lowell, Mass., passed away a few days ago. His obituary is here. I want to share my thoughts about what he meant to me as well as to the community and university of which he was a part for decades. He came to Lowell at six years old from Greece, and made a life and a living in the city. I never met a better person. He was the definition of humanitarian and citizen, on top of being the kind of husband, father, grandfather, friend, teacher, runner, and gardener that we all want to be.

I have a hundred things to say about Charlie, and will say more in a follow up post on this blog, but I know him well enough to think he might want me to start by posting a poem in tribute to him. He sometimes commented on posts on this blog under the name Kosta. He was Internet-savvy very early. I can hear him saying, “Paul, put up a poem on the blog.”

Of all the activities Charlie was engaged in, he had a special place for poetry in his personal journey. He found dozens of opportunities to bring poets and poems into the life of the city, from events sponsored by the Hellenic Culture Society to his editorial work on the innovative online bioregional journal at UMass Lowell called The Bridge Review. And he wrote haiku and other poetry. In his house in the Highlands neighborhood, one bookcase has a long shelf of poetry books that he collected and referred to regularly. He pushed for Lowell to establish a Poet Laureate position. As I mentioned, I’ll write another post with more recollections about him.

Here’s one of Charlie’s poems from The Bridge Review (1998 issue). He wrote this in a writing workshop sponsored by the Hellenic Culture Society, which included Mary Sampas, Walter Bacigalupo and Mary Bacigalupo, Xanthe Mangiavas, Eleni Zohdi, and others.

Tomatoes, Tea, and Beer

Every summer I grew my father’s tomatoes.

I trimmed, weeded, and watered,

And planted in the most sunny spaces,

Usually, to no avail.

Every summer in a shady yard

Behind a five-family on Lombard Street,

My father grew his giant super-red tomatoes.

I remember him sitting in his chair,

Sipping Lipton tea while tomatoes grew.

This summer, after an inconvenient illness,

Rainy weather, and non-weeding,

I discovered that tomato vines dutifully

Support morning glories. Sometimes,

Sipping a Sam Adams in my backyard chair,

I marvel that Polivios never grew more morning glories.

 

—Charles Nikitopoulos

1997

Now here’s one for Charlie. In 2004, Athens, Greece, hosted the summer Olympics. Organizers in the Greek-American community in Lowell produced a companion event at the Lowell High School auditorium with songs, dances, and more. I’m of French Canadian-American background, 100 percent, but have always been welcomed warmly in the Greek community in Lowell, which explains why I was invited to write something for the Lowell celebration, a local cultural Olympics. I didn’t know what to write for the special occasion until I found myself in a plane descending on Montreal, Canada, and saw the stadium built for the Olympics in 1976. And I thought about those cultural Olympians in the Hellenic community in Lowell, of whom Charlie was a leading light. Charlie was a culture-keeper, a memory worker who looked forward as much as to the past.

Listening as a Sport

“We know it; we are time.”
—Cavafy

On a morning when ponds near Montreal are giving up their ice,

The Air Canada jet banks low over the white stadium

Docked like a mythic ship on the old Olympics site.

I close the in-flight magazine, whose cover touts the coming Athens games,

Contests that will write themselves into the record in this jagged time.

In places like Lowell, pride will power interest.

Greek and non-Greek, we’ll all be philhellenes until the flame recedes.

Among the most devoted spectators will be the cultural regulars

Who fill city auditoriums, galleries, and theaters.

They lean in to catch each gesture.

They squeeze story-sponges when they talk and teach.

In a city of 100,000 souls, forty of the faithful take in

A documentary about Sparta on a rainy night downtown.

Eighty crowd a cooking demonstration at a church festival.

Two busloads of them ride to Manhattan to see Mycenaean art.

At a piano recital, 200 applaud for a Greek-American prodigy.

They are the muscular memory workers—

As elite as Kenyan runners in every April’s marathon.

Make room for these champions when the anthem resounds.

 

—Paul Marion

2004

Sen. Corey Booker on the Trail in N.H.

My friend Renae Lias, a former colleague from UMass Lowell, is reporting on the presidential campaign in New Hampshire. Renae is a communications professional who has worked in state government and on government relations for higher education. She attends local events in N.H. and exchanges updates with a small group of friends on Facebook. I asked for permission to cross-post her latest report about Sen. Corey Booker as part of the continuing coverage on this blog of the presidential race.– PM

Sen. Corey Booker on the Trail in New Hampshire

By Renae Lias (7-13-19)

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey spoke at Nashua Community College around noon today. Yes, he was a little late, and no, I wasn’t able to stay for the questions, so I may have missed something important at the end. There were about 150 people at this well-run, well-staged event.

The Cory Booker “Live” show is everything everyone says it is. He is engaging, he is funny, he’s a great storyteller, he knows how to flatter an important ally while also recognizing the man behind the woman (her husband, who is NEVER recognized and does so much). There is no doubt, Cory Booker connects with his audience. His warmth and heart come through while he delivers a searing analysis of the nation’s problems that reveals his advanced education and intelligence without sounding AT ALL professorial or self-righteous. He reveals his bio–rather than tells it–via anecdotes and conveys his experience by talking about how he got things done, either as Mayor of “Noork” (learning this is how natives pronounce Newark) or in the U.S. Senate–yes, even in the Republican-controlled Senate.

He is spot on about what we have lost as a nation–not only since Trump was elected, but beginning long before that. “The last fifty years, we’ve stopped investing in each other… Just trying to raise the minimum wage, here in New Hampshire, we can’t. We’ve stripped the dignity from work.” He says the minimum wage should be three times what it is so that those who work hard would be able to afford to live. He has plans that involve dramatically raising the Earned Income Tax Credit as one way to address this problem.

He talks about, of all things, POVERTY–which “we will CRUSH.” (This topic gets me every time, and why I cast a soon-to-be-much-regretted vote for John Edwards in the N.H. 2008 primary. Anyone remember “The two Americas”?) And then he lays out a plan to attack poverty–one part of which involves granting every newborn an interest-bearing account with up to $2,000 in it, depending on the family’s income. This will dramatically improve chances of completing college, he says (and I think there is data backing up this claim).

Toward the end of his stump speech, he says, “This might get me into trouble with Dems, but this election cannot be what we’re against, but what we’re FOR.” Then later: “We can’t win by FIGHTING. I’m not that candidate.” He says a supporter told him he needs to punch Trump in the face. “And I said, Dude, that’s a felony!” (This sounds corny, but in person he delivers it very well.) “We need to understand our common cause.”

Warm, funny, intelligent, attractive (in a bit of a goofy, almost lovable way) but not at all cocky, he offers soaring rhetoric combined with a very down-to-earth approach. Has executive experience (as Mayor of a BIG city with some BIG NYC-type problems–largest in N.J. and 67th in country) and some Congressional chops. Certainly, progressive enough to win a democratic primary.

So why is Cory Booker not among the front-runners?

My personal belief is that he is not going to make it to the top tier. I’m fairly sure I will not be voting for him. The main reason is this: With so many GREAT women candidates running AND a heavy hitter with a head start in name recognition across the country because he was V.P. and beloved by African-Americans–it’s hard to find a reason why someone would choose Booker this time around. (I like Kamala Harris, Eiizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar–I think any one of them would be an excellent president. I also like Biden a lot and think he can win.) So why would I vote for Booker?

I simply think it is not his time, but, hopefully, his time will come.

‘Haiku Sky’ and SuperLargePrint.com

My new collection of poems is published by Brendan Gaylord of SuperLargePrint.com, a specialty publisher of books featuring extra-large print, twice the size of the large-print books available in public libraries, for people with sight challenges. Brendan takes books and parts of books that are in the public domain, meaning beyond copyright restrictions so that anyone can bring them into print, and produces his extraordinary volumes to serve a slice of the reading public. He began making one-off books for his grandmother when her eyes were weakening and she still wanted to read from actual books. From there, he realized a business opportunity may be at hand.

When I saw the books at the home of his mom and dad, Susan and Charlie Gaylord of Newburyport, I asked Brendan if he would be interested in doing a book of haiku. He liked the idea. The haiku in this book were written in the past 40 years. Every once in a while I’d get the haiku bug and sit down to compose the small poems.

With the South Common haiku series in the book (2012), I tried to create one a day in my head while I walked Ringo the dog in the park. I’d come back home and write out the lines, revising if necessary, and then posting immediately on Facebook to keep the process in the moment as much as possible. The Hurricane Coup haiku were written during Hurricane Bob, August 1991, the same day as a coup was in motion in the Soviet Union (the coup failed). There’s another sequence called Riverwalk Haiku with poems based on observations and happenings along the Merrimack in the early 2000s. The book concludes with a section of haiku on scattered subjects.

If you are interested in the haiku or want to support Brendan’s larger mission of helping people with sight challenges, the book can be ordered at this link. 

The photograph on the cover is by Jennifer Myers, an image of brilliant maple leaves on the ground in the Acre neighborhood after a fall snowstorm last year. As soon as I saw the image posted on Facebook, I knew it would make a striking cover image—without knowing that it would be an excellent choice for the haiku book. The image itself is a visual haiku with the simple but startling combination of vivid leaves and fresh snow. I think the Japanese haiku writers would approve.

2020 Campaign Trail (1.)

I told my co-blogger Dick Howe that I would write a series of posts about the 2020 presidential campaign because everything is connected: national-to-local, coast-to-coast, global-to-regional. When I lived in Lowell I walked across Highland Street to the Rogers School, the James P. Scondras Memorial Gymnasium, to vote in every election while I was a resident. From City Council to President of the United States. What happens in Washington, D.C., affects life in the states and towns every minute of every day. And that’s a good thing because we live in a representative democracy. Those things happening in the nation’s capital are not allowed to occur without the consent of the governed, the people, the voters. We’re approaching, really, in it already, the big contest that comes around every four years for control of the executive branch of our federal government. The presidency.

More than 20 members of the Democratic Party are competing for the nomination to represent the party against the incumbent in the White House, the Republican Donald Trump. For me, it’s been a Twilight Zone experience for the past 2.5 years watching Trump barge around the political stage, knocking over furniture and pulling down curtains every day. Has there ever been anything so strange to observe in the presidency? Aside from looking like President Grover Cleveland in profile, Trump resembles nobody who has ever held the office. That said, more than 60 million people voted him in, and our system worked in such a way that he gained the required electoral college votes to win.

Of all the Democrats (Is Bernie a Democrat, really, or just visiting from his Independent island?–to be clear, I supported him last time)–of all the Democrats, I picked up three campaign autobiographies at the Jabberwocky Bookstore in Newburyport last week. I told the clerk I was supporting the Freedom of the Press with my purchase. I also got historian Jill Lepore’s short manifesto called This America: The Case for the Nation and former speechwriter David Litt’s witty memoir Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years. Of the candidates, I’ve been reading the books by Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg (Buddha-Judge), and Michael Bennet. I’m particularly interested in any behind-the-scenes revelations or descriptions of what they were doing when nobody was watching, as the cliche goes. This kind of book is an introduction to voters and a summary of the candidate’s world view and policy vision.

I don’t have a great track record of picking winners other than getting on the Barack Obama wagon early in 2007 and riding it all the way. I’ve been watching US Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado for about a year, wondering if he would run for president. He impressed me as a smart, progressive guy with some qualities that Paul Tsongas exhibited, meaning that he is compassionate and practical. Paul used to say, “You can’t be pro-jobs and anti-Business.” Bennet is more in the middle of the Democratic policy spectrum but hits all the right notes on the environment, education, immigration, health care, and income equality. The subtitle of his book is Restoring America in an Age of Broken Politics. He fiercely condemns GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who now has a formidable opponent in one-time Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. Bennet blames McConnell for poisoning the political waters in Washington. Bennet’s book includes a lengthy section on his thoughtful deliberation before voting to support President Obama on the Iran nuclear control agreement. He prevailed in his re-election against hysterical attacks by the GOP, saying he chose “terrorists and madmen” over US citizens. Figures like Bennet are essential to future success of Democrats nationally. He describes Colorado as a third Democrat, a third Republican, and a third Independent. It’s a western Purple state that’s been showing Blue tendencies. The Democratic Party must encourage Western Democrats like Bennet and Gov. Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. If these Westerners want to be Democrats, the coastal and urban D’s have to believe them.

A former School Superintendent in Denver, Bennet adds an extensive list of sources and recommended readings in his book, which reveals a mindset. He praises Walt Whitman’s poetry, recommends Emma Lazarus’s words on welcoming newcomers, quotes Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July address of 1852, and highlights Thucydides on the danger of political factions obsessed with power. Here’s his website and a YouTube clip of him blasting US Sen. Ted Cruz about the federal government shutdown.

Bennet’s been in the race about two months and struggling to gain traction. In the latest financial filing he reported raising about 10 percent of the amount that top-tier players like former Vice President Joe Biden and US Sen. Elizabeth Warren raised. He’s got a lot of ground to make up.

US Senator Kamala Harris of California is rising in the public opinion polls and pushing toward the head of the pack. Her name is pronounced “COMMA-lah.” She arrived on the political scene some years ago with high expectations. She reminds me of Barack Obama in that regard. Moving fast. From Attorney General in Calif. to US Senate and now a presidential candidate. She has the tools from what I’ve seen. Her book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, recaps her path as a politician and lays out a vision of a caring and fair society. She writes about growing up in a family with a father and mother from Jamaica and India, respectively, the dad an economist and mom a cancer researcher. I was struck by a long section in her book about the supportive network of families in Oakland when she was growing up, including an after-school program in one family’s home and a community cultural center called Rainbow Sign where black residents gathered for film and dance events and guest speakers like former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and author Maya Angelou. Clearly, these formative experiences helped make the future Senator who she is today. She writes, “I came to understand that there is no better way to feed someone’s brain than by bringing together food, poetry, politics, music, dance, and art.”

Harris’s criminal justice background gives her a street credibility as a liberal, always an issue when GOP law-and-order rhetoric starts raining down on the Democrat. She has taken heat from some progressives, for example, who critique her decisions in enforcing the laws on school truancy. Twice, early in the campaign, she got herself in tricky situations related to her stance on health care coverage, standing up for Medicare for all and indicating that she would support the elimination of private insurance plans. She backtracked on abolishing private plans, as far as I understand it. She doesn’t have the range of policy plans that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has rolled out week after week, but there is not a lot of difference between the leading progressive contenders on the core issues like tax policy and climate change. She smiles a lot when she’s on the trail. Here’s her campaign website.

The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is running for president. He’s a strong mayor, so it’s not exactly like Lowell’s mayor Bill Samaras running for president. South Bend is smaller than Lowell. Pete Buttigieg (Buddha-Judge) is a man in a hurry. He’s not forty years old, and he looks younger. In the second quarter of 2019, Mayor Pete (people call him that because they can’t pronounce his last name) raised $24.5 million, shocking the media observers and political professionals who keep track. He’s not policy heavy in his presentation, but rarely does he fail to impress questioners and listeners with his knowledge on almost every topic. He’s battling a rear-guard problem back home this summer because of community stress caused by friction with local police and charges of racial insensitivity or worse. Recently, a black man was shot and killed by a South Bend cop. In the first debate among Democrats, Mayor Pete said he had not been effective in dealing with racial issues related to the police department. There are few black officers, for example. The number has dropped from 29 to 15.

Any mayor can bleed out from a million municipal cuts, so it remains to be seen if Buttigieg can keep moving forward. He’ll tell you anything you want to know about Smart Sewers, an example of city-university cooperation that he cites in his book Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future. His university at home is Notre Dame, which a lot of mayors would be happy to have in the back yard. His parents both taught there, maybe still do. The campus-city partnerships can be a special weapon for mid-sized cities lucky enough to have a college, whether collaborating on economic development initiatives or engaging in efforts to address social challenges like homelessness.

Mayor Pete has provided a refreshing counter to the Republicans’ claim on Christian religion. He’s upbraided fellow Indiana resident, now Vice President, the pious Mike Pence for being a “cheerleader for the porn star presidency.” Church-going Buttigieg rejects the fake holiness of the Religious Right, whom he sees as not walking the Jesus walk, in fact, being way off the New Testament path of love and forgiveness. It’s personal with Mayor Pete because he’s gay and feels the condemnation of the self-righteous Right, which as a group has been fierce in pushing public policy hostile to LGBTQ people. Buttigieg has another distinctive asset: he’s a veteran who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, a member of the Navy Reserve. That detail stands in high contrast to “Cadet Bone Spurs” in the White House these days, who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.

The New York Review of Books ran a long piece on Mayor Pete in the July 18 issue that whacks him hard a number of times. It’s ostensibly a book review by Caroline Fraser, but serves as an overview of him as a public figure. Fraser writes, “Buttigieg often approaches himself with a Spock-like detachment” in telling his story. She’s suspicious of his gold-plated resume and bristling ambition. Too good to be true, almost. Multi-lingual, piano player, always the smartest kid in class. I got the impression that she thinks he has not suffered enough to have earned the maturity to be the most powerful person in the world. Voters can take their own measure by reading his book and visiting the campaign website. 

I was glad to see Mayor Pete push to the front of the line. We want younger people to step up and take leadership positions. President Kennedy in 1961 called for “the torch to be passed to a new generation.” Maybe we are there again.

In my next campaign post, I’ll say more about the Jill Lepore manifesto arguing for a new Americanism that is not toxic nationalism, a new and energized patriotism, and the memoir by the Obama speechwriter, David Litt. Writing about the Obama presidency, Litt gets serious when he says the Republican Party by 2009 had become not so much a partisan organization as a church with articles of political faith, which has made it nearly impossible for Democrats to collaborate with. The GOP now rejects the legitimacy of duly elected Democrats. A case in point was Sen. McConnell stealing a Supreme Court nomination from Pres. Obama in his second term.

 

 

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