The Lowering Days a Stunning Debut





By Gregory Brown

Harper, 268 pages.



Lowering days are those of gloom and foreboding. One origin story, possibly apocryphal, holds that the phrase came from the spring day on which those who died in winter were removed from storage and buried. Gregory Brown's stunning debut novel borrows the concept for a ghost story without ghosts. It’s a spin-the-generations story about violence that reaches across time to look at debts never fully repaid and hard deaths in a hard place.


Brown hails from the Penobscot River basin of northeast Maine. The river bears the name of Native Americans who, along with the Passamaquoddy peoples, were the original inhabitants of the land. They still reside there, as do numerous mixed blood individuals. Courtesy of Maine’s Indian Land Claims Act of 1980, they stand to reclaim vast tracts of the sparsely populated region southeast of Bangor.


Brown’s protagonists are the Ames and Creel families. David Almerin (“Almy”) Ames narrates events we infer occurred in the 1980s. He is one of three sons born to Arnoux and Falon, he a Vietnam war deserter-turned-boatmaker, and she an attractive woman with a spine of steel who starts a local newspaper titled The Lowering Days. Lyman was a war hero, the father of two–daughter Wren and son Galen–and is husband to Grace, also a stalwart presence though she was something of a rebound wife. During their shared adolescence, Falon was pursued by three boys: Arnoux, Lyman, and Billy Jupiter who was part Native American. In the logic of small-town USA, Arnoux is now more popular because he made amends with his past through his craft, and Lyman is forever known as “Indian Killer because of a single drunken night in which all three boys were goofing around a cliffside raven-filled apple tree known as the Ghost Tree. They were trying to impress Falon, but Lyman's antics sent Billy over the side. In the here and now, Arnoux and Lyman barely tolerate one another.


Not much happens in such a hardscrabble region, but Japanese investors have shown interest in buying a long closed papermill. That is, until Molly, a 14-year-old native girl inflamed by environmentalism and an understanding of history, burns down the mill in protest for how it poisoned Penobscot waters. It probably would have been an unsolved crime had Molly not written an unsigned letter to the paper. Should Falon publish it? She knows that doing so has a high possibility of providing locals with enough clues to implicate Molly and maybe put her life at risk. There’s also the fact that family friend Moses Jupiter, a distant relative of Billy, is Molly's grandfather.


Many subplots emerge from this setup. Molly and her father Adam are on the lam in an area described as "water and wind so heavy and present, you screamed to escape it." The feud between Arnoux and Lyman reopens, spins out of control, and filters down to some of their children. Among other things, Arnoux’s sons Simon and Link commit an unthinkable act in a region in which fishing is the only real livelihood. How to heal such rifts? How to keep Molly safe? Lyman doesn't help matters when he lets his anger get the better of him and reminds locals of his old nickname.


The Lowering Days is so rich and so vivid that it's very hard to summarize it. Its themes and props include recurrent patterns of losing parents, premature death, mystical links to ancestors, banshees that cross oceans, cycles repeated and broken, race, fragmented love, ravens, a Penobscot legend of a woman who cut her husband to pieces in the name of love, and individuals pushed beyond their limits. Above all, it's a coming-of-age tale that could be subtitled “How Almy Became David.”


David's path to becoming a doctor begins when his uncle Reggie rebuilds a cabin near East Grand Lake Falls Lake on the Maine/New Brunswick border. David has serious issues to work out and a stint as a clinic doctor in the middle of nowhere helps. But this is by no means a summation or even a major theme, aside from a more general one of hurt, healing and redemption.


By far the most spectacular thing about a novel lies with Brown’s elegiac tone, which transforms remote places into a mystical and magical lands. The book is also filled with wisdom. When Arnoux explains to his children why he abased himself to Lyman he explains, “Because I want you to be able to remember what the right thing looks like.” David comes to grips with inner hurt when he begins to realize, “Sometimes love can't call love back…. People come and go and sometimes the debt to the departed ones long outlast their presence.” Moses punctuates this when he remarks, “Death is a circle. But they made it a line. Over time the link between the world of the living and the world of the dead got broken in people’s minds.” Reading The Lowering Days will help you repair that misconception.


Rob Weir


September 2021 Artist of the Month: David Byrne



Directed by Spike Lee

HBO and Universal Pictures, 105 minutes, Not-rated


For September’s Artist of the Month, here’s something different, yet familiar. David Byrne has been a household name since his days as lead singer and guitarist for Talking Heads. In case you weren’t into post-punk music—yours truly went full folk and Celtic for much of the 1980s—Talking Heads was perhaps the most beloved of “new wave” bands. New wave groups took punk’s DYI approach to music, but didn’t totally reject commercial rock and pop. It mined them and created an arty hybrid.


Talking Heads recorded eight albums before disbanding in 1991. Byrne subsequently busied himself with solo albums, collaborative work with artists such as Brian Eno and St Vincent, and scores for everything from TV and film to dance and art installations. American Utopia was his 10th solo album and inspired a Broadway musical of the same name. In 2020, Byrne joined forces with director Spike Lee to film the show, which went into (very) limited theatrical release before being released on HBO. The limited release was probably designed not to harm the theatre box office, but the show has been a smash hit and opened a new season earlier this month. For those who don’t live in the Big Apple or don’t wish to sell body parts to buy Broadway tickets, Spike Lee’s film is the next best thing to seeing Byrne in concert.


Posters for the play generally render the word Utopia upside down. In many ways that’s appropriate. Although the Scottish-born Byrne has long been a US citizen and a devoted New Yorker, the play is simultaneously critical and optimistic. As he puts it, “We need to change. I need to change.” Appropriately, he utters this before launching into “Hell You Talmbout,” a Janelle Monáe song and litany of black people unjustly killed, such as Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin. If this sounds as if Byrne is getting political, it’s not that simple. The show opens with him holding a (rubber) brain and musing on connections, including brain pathways, the molecular structure of the universe, and those between people. Byrne wants to explore ways in which we can become more fully human. The tone is set by the second song, the Talking Head’s “I Know Sometimes a Man is Wrong/Don’t Worry about the Government.” Byrne wants us to save ourselves from everything from climate change and racism to arrogance, isolation, and being lazy (including intellectual and moral laziness.) 


The show, the film, and the music are jaw-dropping amazing. The play is not the same as the album. There are 21 songs plus a reprise of “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” the hit single from the American Utopia album, but only five songs come from that recording. The production makes you think, makes you anxious, makes you want to purify your social sins, and makes you boogie. It includes eight Talking Heads songs—including “Burn Down the House–and before the curtain drops, audience members are literally dancing in the aisles. All of the songs were penned by Byrne except the aforementioned Monáe composition and Fatboy Slim’s “Toe Jam.”


The production dazzles. Choreography was done by Brooklyn-based dancer and producer Annie-B Parson and is full of energy, verve, and nods to marching bands. Byrne loves marching bands, so his musicians are untethered. Thanks to wireless technology, even electric keyboards, bass, and electric guitar are free to roam. So too are the percussionists. All 12 cast members bang, scrape, or shake percussion instruments at some point, but half of them are primarily drummers. Lee’s overhead and back-of-stage camera work highlights both the simple (line marches) and the complex (weaves, zigzags). And let’s give a shout out to the principal dancers and backup singers, the lithe and stunning Tendayi Kuumba and the incredible Chris Giarmo. I don’t know why the bearded Giarmo is so heavily made up, but his pas de deux with Kuumba are so well-executed that they make Dancing with the Stars look like a junior high sock hop. Also heap praise on cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who makes us aware of the dynamic stage lighting that enhances American Utopia.


Byrne is, of course, front and center of the suited but barefooted ensemble. He is the draw and lead vocalist, but he’s also a fully engaged cast member. When he sings “I Dance Like This,” he indeed moves well for a 69-year-old, but he knows he’s no Kuumba or Giarmo. Our ears are on Byrne, but our eyes on the professional dancers, and the groove comes from Karl Mansfield’s portable keyboard, Bobby Wooten III’s bass, and Angie Swan’s electric guitars. Everyone sings. Byrne remains in fine voice, though there is a notable falloff in places, understandable for a soon-to-be septuagenarian.


Text Box: utopiaYou might not notice that last point and who could fault you? I return to the point that Byrne wants us to enjoy ourselves and to think. That continues through the coda, where he leads the entire bundled up crew for a post-show winter bike ride through the theatre district. Byrne’s both an avid cyclist and an advocate of a post-fossil fuels world. The only sour note is the pre-film “conversation” between Lee and Byrne. If only it had been. It was more a short-on-information mutual admiration/chuckle fest that stands in marked contrast to the show’s carefully constructed arc. It’s a good time to grab a bowl of snacks, sit back, and prepare to get connected. You will come away hopeful that our upside-down utopia can be righted.


Rob Weir


The Madness of Crowds, Louise Penny 's Latest


By Louise Penny

St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 432 pages.

★★★ ½




The Madness of Crowds is Louise Penny’s 17th Armand Gamache mystery. Is she running out of steam? Perhaps, though the new novel, set once again in her fictional village of Three Pines, is an improvement over last year’s All the Devils are Here. Longtime readers will find familiar characters such as bistro owners Olivier and Gabri, artist Clara Morrow, African-Canadian psychologist Myrna Landers, Gamache’s godfather Stephen Horowitz, and cranky poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa. Needless to say, the Sûreté du Québec team of Gamache, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Isabel Lacoste is aboard, as is Gamache’s family. His wife Reine-Marie plays a role, as does his daughter Annie, who is married to Jean-Guy.


The Madness of Crowds is another of a spate of Covid-inspired novels. The title derives from an old book (1841) that once graced my bookshelf: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. As that title suggests, Penny takes a look at the phenomena of misinformation and the mischief it brings. Mischief comes in the form of Abigail Robinson, a university statistics professor. Stats profs aren’t generally the sort who make waves, but Robinson is an overnight social media sensation because of her controversial data linked to Covid. As we know, Covid has been particularly deadly for the elderly, those with compromised immunity systems, and those with physical challenges. Robinson’s data suggests that the best thing society could do is let such individuals die–a Darwinian culling of the herd that would reduce Covid transmission. She ups the ante by implying a form of modern-day eugenics and raises more ire by coopting a message of hope lifted from 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich. She wrote during the Black Death and is credited with assuring Christians that all shall be well again, rendered in Quebec as ça va bien aller.  


It's easy to imagine why millions would be angered by an argument that it would be best to let loved ones die, kill off grandparents, euthanize the weak, and take steps to make sure that fetuses with birth defects such as Down syndrome children are aborted. Robinson insists she’s merely reporting what the data tell her, but half of Canada would like to lynch her. The problem is that the other half see her as a prophet and applaud her ideas. If you think such a plot device is farfetched, listen to what many otherwise “nice” people are saying about those who refuse to get Covid vaccinations. Robinson wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen in the Three Pines area, though, until she’s invited to give a lecture at the nearby Université de l’ Estrie (possibly obliquely patterned after the branch campus of Bishop’s University in Knowlton). When Gamache learns of the firestorm flaring around Robinson’s research, he asks an old friend, Chancellor Colette Roberge, to use her influence to stop the lecture lest it degenerate into violence. She declines on the grounds of protecting academic freedom and shocks Gamache by revealing she was the one who invited Robinson! Gamache cobbles together a Sûreté security detail but, sure enough, someone fires shots at the stage. Luckily no one was injured.


This is the opening act of what will eventually involve a murder, discussion of the 100th monkey theory of innovation, a trip to McGill University’s Osler Medical Library, skeletons lurking in various closets, and way stops involving the CIA and MKUltra. Not the most pleasant way to welcome in the New Year in Three Pines! Plus, it’s personal for Jean-Guy and Annie, whose daughter Idola is Down syndrome.  To the mix, add Haniya Daoud, a young Sudanese woman nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Myrna and Clara instantly regret their decision to host her as Haniya is an intensely dislikable and judgmental person who voices her views that Quebec is unlivable and its inhabitants are privileged idiots.


Once the murder occurs, Gamache and Isabelle must deal with too many suspects, not too few. Among the possibilities are Jean-Guy, the Tardif family, Daoud, Roberge, and Vincent Gilbert, the disgraced scientist/humanist that Penny readers recognize as the “asshole saint.” Nor can Gamache dismiss the possibility that everything, including the murder, was a plan to bring sympathy to Abigail Robinson’s burgeoning movement. The madness of crowds indeed.


The novel’s strength lies with questions it raises over popular delusions in the age of volatile news networks, the Internet, and impression management. Penny’s recent works have, however, suffered from drifting into histrionics, implausibility, and action thriller plots that aren’t Gamache’s métier. (He’s more of an Hercule Poirot type than a Bruce Willis action hero.) There is also a sense that Three Pines could use a few new actors, as the current regulars (sans Ruth) are growing stale. In the interest of full confession, though, I’ll admit that I’m such a fan that I ripped through the new book like a newly opened bag of Oreos.


Rob Weir


Museum of Russian Icons a Nice Surprise


Clinton, Massachusetts

Thursday-Sunday 11-5


I have a book on my shelf titled Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. It did me no good whatsoever for my visit to the Museum of Russian Icons (MoRI) located in the pleasant Worcester County town of Clinton (13,435). It wasn’t useful for the simple reason that Roman Catholicism dominates Western Christian art and most Eastern Europeans were Orthodox, not Catholic. (Protestants often tend to be leery of art, especially in Pilgrim/Puritan New England, where adornment was often associated with unholy worldliness—still another reason why they seldom get invited to parties!)


St. Basil

For those who don’t know, Eastern Orthodox Christians made a definitive split from Roman Catholics in 1054; they were the heirs to the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), as well as the intellectual traditions of ancient Greece. There are some similarities in the art of the East and that of the West: Jesus figures prominently in each and both venerated the Virgin Mary, but things begin to disintegrate from there. Orthodox Christianity rejects the supremacy of the pope and its leadership is more decentralized -- Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, etc.­—rather than concentrated in a pontiff in Rome. 


A Russian St. Nicholas     


Orthodox Christians also favor icons—representations of people or sacred events—over other religious trappings. They often build impressive churches—Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul is one example, Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square another—but its followers were generally more literate and did not need as many visual representations as Roman Catholics. Small icons often accompanied worshipers to church, though they were not viewed as sacred in and of themselves. As the MoRI Website puts it, they were seen as “windows” to the sacred realm but are “purely functional.” In like fashion, Orthodoxy has saints, but they are not intercessors between congregants and God. If you know how to recognize Catholic saints, that won’t do you much good with Orthodox holy men unless they are Apostles. For instance, they have several named St. Nicholas, but they are not the ones you’re accustomed to seeing.


Gordon Lankton photo, 1956

By now you might be wondering why there is a museum to Russian icons in Clinton, a small town that used to be known for its mills, especially those connected to the plastics industry. Like many (ahem!) unorthodox museums, it has much to do with the vision of a single individual: Gordon B. Lankton (1931-2021) who was an engineer in a Clinton plastics injection plant. Like many professionals, he had a pre-life before becoming financially successful. He went to Cornell, where he developed a deep interest in Russian culture. In 1956, he bought a motorcycle, put himself on a $5/day budget, and motored across Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Asia. He bought his first icon during a 1989 business trip to Russia and eventually collected more than a thousand of them before his death earlier this year. The MoRI is currently displaying a superb photo exhibit of Lankford’s 1956 sojourns. 


Cathedral Sized Icon

It turns out that Lankford also knew how to capture amazing images in the lens of his travel Leica. It is, though, the icons that are the museum’s raison d’être. Perhaps you imagine that two floors filled with religious art would be either boring or too much of a good thing. That was exactly my fear before I entered. I don’t intend any sacrilege when I say that a visit to the MoRI is trippy. There are small icons that can fit in the watch pocket of a pair of Levis, metal-encased ovals suitable for homes, and multi-paneled paintings on wood that once graced churches. 



Because icons are functional liturgical items, most are unsigned and all are stylized rather than works of imagination. At first glance they bear resemblance to Venetian religious painting and appear to be standardized. Actually, that’s more true of Western religious art. If you look closely you will notice that two icons produced during the same period vary, especially in small ways. They are, of course, imbued with symbolism. Be sure to start in the basement for a crash course in some of the basic symbols and a primer on how to “see” icons.


Not Made by Hands? *

The MoRI has been on my bucket list for years. Like all things that are roughly 90 minutes from one’s front door, actually go there was also on the dreaded “I can do that any old time” agenda of things that have an annoying tendency to never happen. Now that I’ve been there, return visits now top the bucket list. 


Confession: I had never heard of St. Nil!

By the way, a trip to Clinton also entails driving along the Wachusett Reservoir. The only larger fresh water body in Massachusetts is the Quabbin, though Wachusett is more open and it takes your breath away when it first comes into view.


Rob Weir


*The above Not Made by Hands image of Jesus is a Russian take on Western legends such as Veronica's Veil and the Shroud of Turin.


Small Towns: Stockbridge, VT to Waterbury on Vermont Route 100




Route 100 is the spine of Vermont. Its 200 plus miles run smack down the middle of the state from the border of North Adams, Massachusetts to the U.S./Canada boundary near Newport, Vermont. It’s no exaggeration to say the route is rural; just two settlements—Morristown and Waterbury—have more than 5,000 residents and it’s just barely so in both cases.


In the best of times, Route 100 is the take-your-time way to see Vermont, but in a few weeks it will be wicked slow. It’s the drive during foliage season and traffic won’t subside until Mud Season, as it passes through ski country, with Stowe perhaps the most famous of its resorts. (Serious downhill skiers don’t rate it the best, but I’m strictly a snowshoe guy so I wouldn’t know.) During its peak times (pun intended), you’ll need binoculars to spot a New England license plate.


Now is the time to go if leisure is your goal. I’ve written before of southern Vermont on or near Route 100, so let’s highlight the section that passes through the Mad River Valley. On a recent trip to Burlington and the Champlain Islands, Emily and I left I-89 North at Royalton and took Route 107 to its intersection with Route 100 near Stockbridge. The first part of that journey is farm country, which means it passes through no-nonsense villages that cater to local needs, not traveler wants: Talcville, Rochester, Hancock, Granville…. It skirts the eastern edge of the Green Mountain National Forest.



As the elevation rises and you begin an ascent through a gorge, you will pass Moss Glen Falls just beyond Granville. It’s not signposted very well, but the falls are smack dab beside the road. There’s a small pullover and from there you can walk on a short boardwalk for various views of the falls. At 35-feet, Moss Glen isn’t tall, but it’s wide and picturesque. If you’re part goat, there’s also a 5-mile hike above and around the falls but you don’t have to don boots to enjoy the site from the sneakered comfort of the boardwalk. 


Warren Covered Bridge


Warren and Waitsfield are the two most-visited villages on this section of Route 100. They are both around 1,700 people and are quite different in character. Warren is pretty sleepy until Sugarbush opens and ski season gets underway. Even then its local businesses cater mostly to the après-ski crowd. In the “off” seasons, most folks take a drive past the Warren Covered Bridge, take a few snaps, admire the not-so-broad Mad River and make their way to Waitsfield.


Waitsfield Covered Bridge


Waitsfield is like a smaller version of the southern Vermont Route 100 town of Wilmington. By this I mean there are also things to do if you’re not hurtling your moral self over the edges of very tall mountains. You can do that if you wish—Mad River Glen is nearby—but Waitsfield also has art galleries, restaurants, a walking trail beside the river, and other attractions. Though it’s the same size as Warren, its three-season energy makes it feel much larger. The Waitsfield Covered Bridge is longer, more scenic, and the Mad River is deep enough there for swimmers to enjoy. Artisans Gallery is a good place to find superb art from local crafters, painters, and sculptors. If you want a light bite, you can sit in a small garden by the river at Three Mountain Café, though I’ll warn you that service can be slow. They do have New York-style bagels, though. 




Also recommended is a short drive away from the village to see the self-descriptive Round Barn Farm. It’s a meticulously gentrified building that’s more of a destination setting and banquet hall these days, but there are lovely views of meadows and the Green Mountains. Plus, the grounds have been beautifully landscaped. If you’re hungry, on your way out of town you can enjoy the counter cultural ambience and tasty offerings from American Flatbread. (Insofar as I can tell, flat bread is pizza with a funkier shape. Good though!) 


Near Waitsfield



You could wait until you get to Waterbury, though most folks don’t want to spend much time in its past-its-prime center until it’s for brews. Waterbury has become so famous for them that it has been nicknamed “WaterBEERy.” I wasn’t so inclined in late morning, but apparently the Prohibition Pig has frothy delights on tap. Waterbury is also home to Green Mountain Coffee, though I must confess that I’m not a fan—too many wimpy roasts for my tastes.


We popped back onto the interstate at Waterbury, but if you continue out of town on Route 100 there’s the remnant of an old mill, numerous shops that cater to tourists heading for Stowe, a cider mill, and the town’s biggest attraction, the headquarters of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. We’ve been there many times, so we skipped it this trip. It is, however, one of the most fun “industrial” tours in America. Although the company was sold years ago, the place retains airs of cheekiness, social awareness, and lack of pretension in keeping with the values of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.


As a small aside, it was something of a fluke that Ben and Jerry’s is in Waterbury and my coffee buddy Steve Herrell is in Northampton, MA. They were all trawling for sites to start a business at about the same time and were looking into the same turf.


Rob Weir


Sentencing Inequity and Not Woke at All


I’ve been trying to avoid politics–not because I don’t care, but because politics has become a zero-sum game. Wheels spin, venom is dripped, and nothing changes. It’s two sides screaming “Oh yeah!” from opposing sides of a brick wall. Alas, some things prompt the need to comment. Here are two.


Remember Michael Hari? In 2017, he bombed a Bloomington, Indiana mosque. Recently, Hari–who now claims to be transgendered and goes by Emily Claire Hari–was sentenced. She/he/whatever received a sentence of 53 years in prison. I shed no tears for Hari, but we must ask, how many people died because of him? The answer is zero.


Numerous Muslims testified that they feel fearful because of Hari. They no doubt do. But I come back to that number: zero. One could certainly argue that he intended to kill and that his was a hate crime. The problem is that American justice is supposed to rest upon what actually occurred, not speculation or feelings. Judges are allowed to consider victim statements before sentencing, but they are expected to give priority to the severity of the crime. Hari destroyed a building and 53 years for a 50-year-old who, through luck or ineptitude, killed no one, seems grossly excessive. I can only conclude that the sentence was more symbolic than just.


Since 9/11 liberals have bent over backward to show their support for Muslims. Nothing wrong with that, though a strange cultural relativism exists among those who would show no such mercy had fundamentalist Christians bombed the World Trade Center. Let me say it again, lest there be any confusion: Hari intended a heinous crime. At the end of the day, though, this was not Birmingham 1963, when four African American girls died and three of the four defendants–after decades of escaping justice were sentenced to life in prison. That’s essentially the sentence Hari received.


If you feel like Hari deserves this, take a look at Paul Hodgkins, the first person sentenced for the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He was jailed for eight months. Anna Morgan-Lloyd got off nearly scot-free: 3 years of probation. The latest batch coming up for sentencing are expected to receive jail time ranging from 6 months-1 year. A handful of weapons-wielding rioters could get up to 10 years, though I doubt it.


Let’s recap: 53 years for Hari, but nothing approaching that for the Capitol rioters who sought to overthrow democracy and invalidate a lawful election. In theory, they could (should?) have been charged with treason, a potential capital offense. I don’t support the death penalty, but let’s take this a step further. Rioters trashed the Capitol, didn’t blow it up, but five people died as a result of January 6. One protestor was shot by Capitol police and four non-rioters perished–one by an overdose, one by suicide after his concussion was misdiagnosed, and two others of “natural causes,” including a heart attack most certainly brought on by the stress of the riot. The final score for these two events: 5-0.

How did the Capitol rioters get off so lightly? Perhaps those crying tears over the mosque need to consider that the real enemy today is rightwing fanaticism. The right has clout and the left doesn’t. Hari is no leftist, but shouldn’t energy and political pressure be focused on things that matter most? Why has the outrage over January 6 I vanished into a sucking hole of distraction and amnesia? 




Shifting gears to what is becoming just another distraction, I’d like to call for a ban on the word “woke” from those who are still asleep–like far too many black athletes. A big difference between civil rights activism of my youth and now is that past activists were willing to run risks, not just make pronouncements. Today, many black athletes are more concerned with capitalism than racial justice. I don’t begrudge those wishing to cash in on their talent, but shouldn’t they also place their money where their mouths are located?  


What if black athletes refused to play in states that suppress black voter turnout or don’t deal with cops who kill black people? What if black NFL players refused to play for the Minnesota Vikings until a full reckoning takes place over the murders of George Floyd and Boogie Smith? Why not tell agents they won’t sign contracts for racist pigs like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones? Imagine what would happen if top basketball and football recruits turned their backs at universities in Louisiana, Tennessee, or Texas. I’m not hearing much from University of Alabama, where the percentage of black football players is well north of 75 percent. What does it say when Major League Baseball went to bat against voter suppression by moving the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, yet the University of Georgia’s football team is filled with African Americans? Too many young African Americans are seeing green more than black. Knees on the playing field are as passe as ice bucket challenges. Wake up! Feet in arenas of states that actually care about justice speaks louder than words.   








Sports Teams: What’s in a Name?




You’ve probably read that the Cleveland Indians will drop their nickname in 2022 and rebrand as Cleveland Guardians. The Guardians doesn’t float my boat, though I’m pleased they are dumping their racist moniker. This leaves just the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Black Hawks, and the Kansas City Chiefs with problematic names among North America’s four major team sports and I hope they wise up soon.


Whenever teams change names, alarmists come out of the woods with apocalyptic predictions unless the decision is reversed. They also drag out tired old “heritage” arguments to defend the utterly indefensible. Actually, nicknames have changed a lot over the decades. Cleveland’s original 1870 surname was The Forest Citys [sic], a nod to the section of the municipality in which baseball was played. It was changed to The Blues in 1882, then to other names: The Spiders, The Infants, The Lake Shores, The Bluebirds, and The Broncos. In 1901, they signed superstar Napoleon Lajoie and became The Napoleons, which got shortened to The Naps. When Lajoie retired in 1915, they became the Indians as a joke. Cleveland once had a Native American player, Louis Sockalexis (1897-99), who wasn’t very good (and an alcoholic). “Indians” was an insult that stuck.


Many team names make sense: The Minnesota Twins pays homage to the “twin cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul; the Denver Nuggets and San Francisco 49ers evoke the Gold Rush; the Detroit Pistons the auto industry; the Indiana Pacers to the car that leads the field at the start of the Indy 500; and the Edmonton Oilers to the oil sands outside the city. Others are obvious: Dallas Cowboys, New York Mets (short for Metropolitans), The Montreal Canadiens, and the Vancouver Canucks. Animal names are common–the fiercer the beast, the better–and lots of team names were chosen by fans, including the Buffalo Sabres, which is about the only lethal association one can make with that franchise.


Colors and long-forgotten words are also inspirations. Many early baseball teams wore distinctive hosiery, hence the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Browns, and eventually the Boston Red Sox, though they had previously been known by names such as the Americans, Red Caps, and Beaneaters. Both the New York Yankees and New York Knicks owe those handles to holdover terms from New York’s original Dutch settlers; the Boston Celtics–with a soft instead of a hard “C”–comes from the Irish population that once dominated its politics. For the record, the Yankees were originally called The Highlanders, but because of the grounds on which they played, not for Scottish reasons!


Here, though, are some origin stories with more obscure histories.


The Oakland A’s is shorthand for “Athletics,” and has been handed down twice. From 1901-55, the were the Philadelphia Athletics and from 1955-66, the Kansas City Athletics. The franchise moved to California in 1967. Today’s Kansas City Royals–a strange name for a nation with no inherited aristocracy and ditto the LA Kings–were an expansion team.  Actually, the Kansas City Royals are named for the American Royal, a livestock show held in the city since the 1890s.


In their “official” history, the Buffalo Bills are named for Buffalo Bill’s Traveling Wild West Show. That’s probably a load of hooey, as William Cody was from Iowa, not Buffalo. It likely has more to do with Buffalo’s Erie Canal terminus. Meat was often shipped via the Great Lakes to Buffalo and, from there, made its way to New York City and other Eastern Seaboard cities.


The Atlanta Braves doubly inherited their team’s name–­from the Boston Braves (1871-1951) and the Milwaukee Braves (1952-62). (The Brewers, a team name that makes sense, were a 1970 expansion team.) It ought not to be hard for Atlanta to part with “Braves,” except that racism is common in that neck of the woods.


The Chicago Cubs got their name for no good reason other than the fact that they had a lot of younger players when they joined the National League. The San Francisco Giants, by way of the New York Giants, had a lot of tall, burly players. The football team borrowed the name from the former National League baseball team—just like they borrow “New York,” though they play in New Jersey.


You can be forgiven if you think the word “Tax” should proceed the surname of the Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s not the reason, though. The franchise was in Brooklyn until after the 1957 season and was by then known by the diminutive of its most recent nickname “Trolley Dodgers.” (The franchise had many other names including The Bachelors and then, The Bridegrooms!) And, yes, tragic encounters between pedestrians and trolleys was a thing in urban America.


The Anaheim Ducks are, indeed, named for the 1992 Disney film The Mighty Ducks.


The Memphis Grizzlies? There are black bears, but no grizzlies in Tennessee. That nickname made a lot more sense when the franchise was in Vancouver, until the Grizzlies moved in 2001.


You’re hardly alone if you don’t associate Salt Lake City with jazz. The Utah Jazz, however, were originally the New Orleans Jazz, an appropriate name. Why Utah hasn’t changed the name is anyone’s guess.


If you’ve been to LA, you probably failed to notice a lot of lakes. Basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers was, until 1960, the Minneapolis Lakers playing in a state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes. (There are actually more than 14,000.)


The Green Bay Packers play in the smallest city of any professional team and are the only professional team that’s community-owned. Nonetheless, Ernest “Curly” Lambeau would have never fielded a team in 1919 without a lot of investment from local meatpacking titans.


It’s alliterative, but that’s not why we have the Pittsburgh Pirates. There was a breakaway league in the 19th century—the Players League if you’re keeping score–and when it ended, Pittsburgh signed some players other teams thought were their property. That is, they “pirated” them. Pittsburgh was ruled to have acted within their rights but decided to embrace the label slapped onto them by detractors, a sort of “Oh yeah?” gesture.


The Detroit Red Wings came by their name in a (ahem!) round about way. Team founder James Norris (of Norris Trophy fame) played for a team called the Montreal Spoked Wheels in his youth. When he set up shop in Detroit in 1932, he intended the Red Wings as a sort of mashup of the Montreal team and Detroit’s automotive industry.


The Washington Wizards came to the District of Columbia in 1973, The team was, from 1963-73, the Baltimore Bullets. After a few years it dawned on team officials that “Bullets” was not a good name in a city with a distressingly high crime rate.