Why Trump v. Vance really matters

As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trump v. Vance was announced Thursday morning, there was jubilation. I tweeted “LAW AND ORDER!” (as did several other clever commentators), gently mocking the president’s repeated tweeting of that same all-caps phrase.

Soon, however, the deep analysis began, and the consensus seemed to be that, while initially the decision was a defeat for Trump, actually it was a HUGE WIN for him and a DISAPPOINTING SETBACK for liberals/progressives/humans in general.

Why? The ruling doesn’t actually turn over Trump’s tax records immediately, to either the Manhattan grand jury or to Congressional committees seeking them. So the whole issue probably gets kicked down the road beyond the November election, meaning the contents of those mysterious tax returns won’t be used against Trump in presidential campaign ads.

This is how we got here. This is the world we live in. Every decision is parsed through the lens of hyper partisan politics. Everything is a win for one side and a loss for the other. It’s the zero-sum game taken to its insane extreme.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand there’s a political component in any court decision. Most of the time, one political faction will benefit more than others.

But can’t we just celebrate the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States, despite the attempts by the current administration to select jurists who would reliably decide things in its favor, just voted 7-2 to uphold the concept that no American is above the law? (Notably, Trump appointees Kavanaugh and Gorsuch voted with the majority, and chief justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion.)

After all, if the decision had gone the other way, you could argue that American democracy was over, replaced with a dictatorship. That’s not hyperbole; if the president can’t be held to account for violations of the law, the president is essentially a dictator. (Potentially benign, sure, but still a dictator.) So the decision in Trump v. Vance was crucial, perhaps the most crucial decision SCOTUS has made in generations. They confirmed what we were all taught in school growing up: that in the U.S. no one, not even the president, is above the law.

The dictatorship was put on hold for now. LAW AND ORDER!

Gibson MB-1 Mandolin Banjo (1922)

Bought this nice vintage instrument today. It’s a 1922 Gibson MB-1 mandolin banjo, manufactured in Kalamazoo, Michigan by the then-Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company. It’s in excellent condition. All of the tuners work and hold tune well. The banjo head is an original calfskin with no tears or other damage other than dirt and wear, with “Joseph Rogers Son PIONEER” stamped on the interior. It’s open back; from the wear around the edges on the back it never had a trapdoor resonator. The brass armrest was in the wrong location so I moved it back to where it should go. It may also be missing a tailpiece cover. It’s missing one bracket hook and hex nut; I ordered replacements today and will restring it (or have it restrung) since I have no idea how old the strings are (certainly not original, though).

Gibson factory order number (FON) is 11628-18, which dates it to 1922 per Joe Spann’s Guide to Gibson 1902-1941.

It sounds nice. I don’t really know how to play it yet, but as I mentioned, I was able to tune it and it seems to be staying in tune pretty well.

Here are a few photos:

1922 Gibson MB-1 mandolin banjo
1922 Gibson MB-1 mandolin banjo
Gibson MB-1 back view
Back view
Gibson MB-1 hard case exterior
Hard case exterior
Gibson MB-1 hard case interior
Hard case interior
Gibson MB-1 closeup of banjo head
Closeup of banjo head
Gibson MB-1 tuners
Gibson MB-1 manufacturer's label
Gibson label
Gibson MB-1 showing FON number
FON number embossed on interior
Gibson MB-1 back of tuners
Back of tuners

Riding along memory lane

Or in this case, a rail-trail.

I spent much of this Memorial Day weekend on my bike. The original motivation came from “traveling” back to some of the places I grew up in using Google Street View. As I zipped around various locations in Pontiac and Sylvan Lake, Michigan, I came to the end of Benvenue Street, where there used to be train tracks and then the gate into the playground of my elementary school. The tracks aren’t there anymore, replaced by a section of the Clinton River Trail, a rail-trail that runs from Sylvan Lake to the Oakland-Macomb County line at Dequindre Road.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the captain of the AAA Safety Patrol. In addition to my spiffy orange cross belt, I also proudly wore a silver and blue captain’s badge. Along with my trusty lieutenant, Lenny, we had to check each of the safety patrol posts each morning and afternoon, and if needed, fill in if someone was missing. One of the posts was the Grand Trunk Western railroad track at the end of Benvenue, just southeast of Avondale Avenue in Sylvan Lake.

Even though the tracks went behind my neighborhood in southwest Pontiac as well (they ran along the old city landfill, which was a marvelous place to play growing up – yes, I played in a dump!) and we sometimes saw the occasional hobo who had set up temporary camp in the old landfill (again, hard to imagine but true), where the tracks went once they disappeared out of my sight was never completely clear. More than once I imagined hopping onto a boxcar and seeing where the train might take me, but being of reasonably sound mind, I never actually attempted this.

Flash forward to 2017, and my discovery that the old tracks were now legally accessible. Pulling up TrailLink.com, I found a place to start my ride in West Bloomfield Township. The trailhead for the West Bloomfield Trail is at Haggerty Road, just south of Pontiac Trail (though there are only four or five parking spots there – many more are available a few miles east on Arrowhead Road, again just south of Pontiac Trail). I parked in the lot of a restaurant across the street, unloaded my bike from my truck bed, and started up the trail.

The West Bloomfield Trail, like the Clinton River Trail it connects to in Sylvan Lake, is a packed dirt trail with very fine loose gravel over it. This surface is generally very good to ride on; it can be a bit sketchy after a heavy rain, but overall it drains well and is mostly easy to ride on. There’s also very little elevation change along this route, so it’s good for just about any skill level.

Typical stretch of the West Bloomfield Trail.

About 7.3 miles in, the trail crosses Orchard Lake Road for the fourth time and becomes the Clinton River Trail. Following it along the southeast side of Sylvan Lake, I eventually came to the end of Benvenue Street, where I’d guarded the railroad tracks for kindergartners and fourth and fifth graders over forty years ago.

Looking east along the Clinton River Trail, at Benvenue Street in Sylvan Lake, Michigan.

End of Benvenue Street. The sign used to read “Road Ends” (still faintly visible under the red paint). Gate to the old Whitfield School playground in the distance.

The kids would cross the tracks here, then go through the gate to enter the playground of Daniel Whitfield School. The school was demolished over a decade ago and the land has remained vacant ever since. It used to look like this from Orchard Lake Road:

Daniel Whitfield School, circa 1946-47.

I walked up to the gate and stepped through onto the former playground.

The gate.

The former playground. Used to be two baseball diamonds to the right, used by the Little League in the summer. Main building would have been straight ahead, a one-story annex was built in the late 1950s and would have been behind the larger trees in the right of the photo. Looks like someone has been using the field for soccer practice recently. Orchard Lake Road is in the distance.

I didn’t spend much time there. It was many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, but it was fun to finally cruise “along the tracks,” past where I’d spent so much time in my youth. I continued into Pontiac to Beaudette Park, not far from the neighborhood where I grew up, then turned around and started back to West Bloomfield. A nice day, a nice ride, a nice memory.

(On a somewhat related note: When I started in radio in 1982, I first used the name “Tom James” because one popular choice for an airname was to use your middle name and I’m Thomas James Kephart. But “James” was a pretty common choice, obviously, and there was also Tommy James and the Shondells, of course, so I decided to change pretty quickly. In order to come up with something more unique, I chose my elementary school’s name – Whitfield – and became “Tom Whitfield” for the rest of my radio career. Thanks to Daniel Whitfield for the inspiration!)

Leaving Anatevka

The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)
The Rabbi (Tom Duemling), Tevye (Tom Kephart), and Lazar Wolf (John Klecha)

Fiddler on the Roof closed last night after a three night run. It was community theatre at its best. Everything came together beautifully: the acting, the singing, the orchestra, the tech. Around 900 people saw the show and were generous in their praise of the production.

For me, it was a dream come true. Finding myself in Tevye’s boots on stage was as wonderful as I imagined it would be. So many moments will last in my memory: the opening number, “Tradition”; talking to Lazar Wolf (John Klecha) about selling my “new milk cow” and then launching into “To Life”; allowing Tzeitel (Elizabeth Wentzel) to talk me out of my agreement with Lazar so she can marry Motel; “Do You Love Me” with Golde (Christy Kreidler); listening to Hodel (Ciara Adams) sing my favorite song in the show, “Far From The Home I Love,” to me and then both of us crying real tears as the scene ends; denying Chava (Tyler Nevison) after she marries outside of the faith (more tears); and, of course, “If I Were I Rich Man,” a show-stopping solo number if there ever was one.

Obviously, I’m leaving plenty of names out here. Our entire cast and crew worked very hard, for nothing but the love of theatre, to make Fiddler a success. Thank you to all of you for your dedication. It was a privilege to be your Tevye. And special thanks to Sue Daniels, who directed me in my first show in 2001 (The Music Man as Harold Hill) and launched my life in a different direction, one that has provided years of fun, laughs and challenges.

I know some professional actors and directors who make fun of community groups for “trying to do theatre” (despite many of them getting their start with similar groups). I reject that type of snobbery. Every community deserves art, including theatre art, and everyone should be encouraged to participate. Acting jobs that actually pay a living wage are rarer than hen’s teeth. So bravo to those community theatre groups like the St. Clair Theatre Guild that work diligently to bring art to their communities and provide the opportunity for their members to express themselves artistically (while also having a lot of fun!).

As the good book says: “So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people to do in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them.” (Ecclesiastes 8:15)


Adventures with Tevye

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with a legendary character. He has many noble qualities: he works hard, he’s loyal to his family and his community, and he has a deep respect for knowledge and scholarship. When faced with a series of crises in his life, he reacts with wisdom and courage. He’s a good man. I like him; he’s a little crazy, but I like him.

I’m playing Tevye the Dairyman in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof with the St. Clair Theatre Guild. It’s a role I’ve wanted to play at least since high school, and probably earlier, because I know I’ve been listening to the music since I was seven or eight. The music is wonderful, haunting and beautiful, and it’s a joy to get to sing the songs even in rehearsal.

I saw an interview with Harvey Fierstein (whose birthday is today), who played Tevye on Broadway a few years ago. I’ve heard Tevye described as an “everyman,” an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. Fierstein disagreed with this, arguing that if Tevye were merely an ordinary man, he wouldn’t have had the strength and ability to react and change as his traditions were challenged by his daughters and by the world around him. I agree. And it makes theatrical sense as well, because we don’t go to the theatre to watch ordinary people do ordinary things, but rather to experience the lives of amazing individuals in larger-than-life situations.

Tevye is a devout man, but his relationship with God isn’t rigid, but instead is rather playful and informal. He believes that God is able to control things, but Tevye isn’t afraid to talk back to this all-powerful being. He believes in the power of tradition to hold his family and his village together, but is also flexible enough to see when a tradition no longer serves its purpose and needs to change.

But even Tevye’s open-mindedness has its limits. There is a line in the sand that even he can’t cross. And the moments where he struggles with these decisions are among the most challenging I’ve played as an actor. The emotions that I’m feeling as I react to my three oldest “daughters” are as raw and real as anything I’ve experienced on stage. (It helps, of course, that all three of them: Ellie Wentzel, Ciara Adams and Tyler Nevison, are wonderful actors in their own right.)

It’s easy to see stage musicals as something light and silly. Fiddler has always been much more than that, and I think its universal, lasting appeal to performers and audiences is the result of this realistic emotional depth. I’ve certainly enjoyed getting to know Tevye well. Like most memorable characters, I imagine he’ll be sticking around with me far after our final performance on Saturday night.

The St. Clair Theatre Guild presents Fiddler on the Roof this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 12-14, 2014, at East China Performing Arts Center, 1585 Meisner Road in East China Township. More information is available on the Guild’s website.

Tear down your wall

Walls keep us safe. They protect us from the cold, from danger, from the prying eyes of other people. They put a safe barrier between us and those who would rob, steal and harm us. Whether made of stone, brick, or wood (or virtual walls of electrons like a computer firewall), walls are intended to give us peace of mind from the worries of everyday life.

The building of our own personal walls begins when we are very young. Roger Waters depicted the building of this type of wall in Pink Floyd’s 1979 double album and its subsequent film and stage adaptations. The “hero” of The Wall is indoctrinated at an early age to conform, to stop asking “stupid” questions, to stop questioning authority. He builds the wall around himself, assisted by parents, teachers, his wife, and others whose intentions are both benign and self-serving.

What does a three year old ask endlessly? “Why?”

What does a three year old ask endlessly? “Why?” Everything is unknown and needs to be explained. “Why?” If you were never told to stop asking “why,” consider yourself fortunate. Most of us were, although those who told you stop asking  “why” probably weren’t malicious, just tired of being asked the same question over and over. Or perhaps the questions became uncomfortable or unacceptable. “Don’t ask why, it just is.”

As an actor, the most important question I can ask about my character and his actions is “why?” In building my wall, though, several of the blocks represented the barrier between what I wanted to know and what I was allowed to ask about. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to ask “why?” about anything again – just as I had as a child – that I started to become a decent actor.

And as an unintended circumstance, I became a much more confident and peaceful person the rest of the time. I allow myself to ask “why” about everything, and while I don’t have answers to all of the questions (yet), I am free to inquire and think about whatever interests me, without fear of being told to stop asking the questions.

There are risks. My wall isn’t as rigid (though it does still exist), so I’m not as protected as I used to be. But the benefits, both professionally and personally, have been worth it.

Tear down your wall.

No rules. Just create.

I came across this post by independent playwright David Rush today. He describes how the “rules” he’d been taught about playwriting turned out to be more of an obstacle than a help, so he finally starting “drifting” as he wrote, trusting his instincts and inspiration as he writes.

I followed the rules carefully, outlining and filling in and making charts and graphs. And so forth. It would take me, on the average, several months to actually chart all this stuff out. […] My imagination ran riot and I invented all sorts of wonderful stuff. Interesting characters, bold adventures, climactic scenes. […] And then I sat down to write. And it all dried up.

no_rulesI think the “rules” of acting can have a similar effect of stifling the freedom to create a full, vibrant character. I’ve worked with many actors who are trying to “follow the rules” they were taught in acting school or college. But art isn’t about rules, but about creation. I’ve pointed out before that there are as many “styles” of acting as there are actors. We need to be free to create in our own ways. Ultimately, the deadlines of a production do dictate that certain “rules” be followed: learn your lines being the most important, of course. But within the rehearsal process, we need to create an environment where the freedom to try anything, to break rules, and to create in our own way, is respected.

I have never gone back to the old method of charting and graphing and filling in the spaces. I have continued to write without a road map. I continue to drift. And playwriting continues to be fun, as each new writing day is always a surprise and an adventure. To be honest, sometimes it doesn’t work and I drift until I sink. But when it does work, it’s great.


Read David’s complete post at independentplaywrights.com.

Dispatch from the Fortress of Solitude

24th May –

Family left yesterday. Said they were going to “Seattle” but that could have been a ruse to keep me from finding them later. I still have the dog and two cats, so I won’t lack for companionship during the difficult days ahead.

Very cold this morning. Wind from the north. Considered wearing a jacket but didn’t want to give in to desperation. Walked around without one. Wished I’d made a different decision later.

Ventured out about noon. Dropped in at my place of employ and accomplished a few desultory tasks, nothing major. Place was deserted. Wondered if they’d also gone to “Seattle.” Guess I’ll never know.

Bought a desk chair so these entries won’t continue to cause the wracking pain in my back. Writing is painful, they say. They are correct.

Also purchased provisions at the local grocery. Saw several other survivors there, and spoke to a casual acquaintance of mine. He agreed that there seemed to be an exodus from the area today, but thought it might have to do with “Memorial Day Weekend.” I scoffed and walked away.

Upon arrival at home, I was greeted by Raven, my trustworthy Labrador Retriever. She waited patiently as I put away the victuals in the larder, but later was absolutely no help when it came time to assemble the chair. Dogs!

Watched the local baseball squad defeat a team from Minnesota (which is near “Seattle,” I believe) tonight. Our pitcher, Mr. Sanchez, gave up only one hit. It made my evening complete.

Who knows what excitement tomorrow will bring?