How Ice On The Rocks Reveals Our Destiny (Part I)

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They bent the course of mighty rivers. They carved and scraped, forever leaving their imprint on the land we call home. But they did more than merely shape our local geography. They have guided us through the centuries.

And still do today.

The paths we take without thinking, the things we see every day, the very property upon which we build our homes, these all seem somewhat random events that accumulate over the course of our lives. But they, in fact, map the very destiny of our lives.

It supports our every move. It carries our weight without complaint. It provides the Continue Reading “How Ice On The Rocks Reveals Our Destiny (Part I)”

Adventures In White Knuckle Driving

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This past weekend reminded me there’s a good reason why I stopped scheduling travel meetings during the winter.

It didn’t always used to be this way.

In the time before Covid, unusual was the week when I did not put on several hundred miles of business meetings. I find riding for an hour (or more) relaxing. I’ve got a huge library of college-level lectures on a variety of subjects. (As the price for an intensive virtually triple major in the hard sciences, my college major left little room for electives.)

The destination also (usually) excited me, too. Either a conference to learn more and meet Continue Reading “Adventures In White Knuckle Driving”

New York State Has A Serious Gerrymandering Problem – Here’s What To Do About It, But First…

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Original 1812 drawing of the Gerrymander by Elkanah Tisdale.

Marshall Pinckney Wilder was a popular humorist who travelled the world. A favorite of the British royal family, he wrote books, appeared in movies, and always signed his correspondence “Merrily yours.” He was born in Geneva in 1859 and grew up in Rochester, where he developed his talent as a storyteller (and also dabbled in clairvoyance, which was popular in Western New York during that era).

He was named after his great-uncle, a famed phytologist in Boston.

Well, not quite.

When the Bostonian botanist came into this world in 1798, his father gave him the name “Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder,” in honor of John Marshall, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry, the envoys to France appointed by President John Adams in 1797.

By the time he became a teenager, the name was shorted to “Marshall Pinckney Wilder.”

What happened to “Gerry”? Therein lies a tale of political intrigue and comeuppance that continues to this day.

More than a mere envoy, Elbridge Gerry stood out as a true Founding Father who eventually became the fifth Vice President of the United States. He signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He would have signed the United States Constitution, but he was one of three delegates who refused to do so on account it lacked a Bill of Rights.

So, what did he do? He became a congressman and, as such, spearheaded the effort to adopt the Bill of Rights (as the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Like George Washington, he opposed the idea of political parties.

Until France, that is.

You see, the three envoys were dispatched to iron out the Franco-American diplomatic breakdown that would come to be known as “the XYZ Affair.” Long story short, Gerry and his fellow Americans refused to bribe the French foreign minister Talleyrand. This was considered common practice in Europe, but, well, America was not Europe (especially at that time).

While Pinckney’s dad (and others) admired the envoys’ stand, the Federalists (who held the House, the Senate, and the Presidency) did not. They blamed the envoys for the failure to negotiate.

Up until then, Gerry had been staunchly non-partisan. After the Federalists vilification of him, he joined the Democratic-Republican party (the predecessor of our current Democrat party). He ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Massachusetts under that banner before finally being elected to the position in 1810.  He was reelected the following year after promoting a moderate if not bi-partisan course.

It was, however, in that second term where Gerry earned his infamous stripes. With the Democratic-Republican party in full control, Gerry showed his true partisan colors. He removed Federalist appointees from their State positions. But the worst was yet to come.

Although Massachusetts was evenly divided, the Democratic-Republicans used their power to apportion electoral district boundaries to make it more difficult for Federalists to regain the majority. The new districts they created were so contorted, Elkanah Tisdale, a well-known engraver, most likely was the person responsible for making a political cartoon lampooning the strange-shaped district. This first appeared in the March 26, 1812 Edition of the Boston Gazette.

We’ll let John Ward Dean tell the rest of the story (as he related it in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 46, published in 1892):

“Washington Allston, calling there with James Ogilvie, a lecturer on oratory, and noticing the figure, remarked to [Benjamin] Russell, the editor, ‘What an odd-looking creature is this! it looks like a Salamander.’ On which Ogilvie, quick as light, replies, ‘Why, let it be named Gerrymander, for the governor.’”

The Democratic-Republican plan, signed into law by Gerry, worked, but not for Gerry. He lost the next election. Though the Federalists had the most votes statewide, the Democratic-Republicans ended up with a three to one edge in the State Senate.

The vilified public pronounced their judgment by forcing Gerry out. He was assailed in the popular press. The May 23, 1812 Colombian Centinel (yes, they spelled it that way), quoting a Judge Story, wrote, “It would be well, however, if we could so ascertain beyond a doubt the real Father of this unnatural monster, that we might hold him up to everlasting scorn and contempt.”

Marshall Pinckney Gerry Wilder’s father took the measure one step further. According to Dean, who was quoting Wilder himself on this, “after the gerrymandering doings he lost his admiration and had the ‘Gerry’ struck out of his son’s name.”

By now, you’ve all read of our current state of Gerrymandering right here in New York State. It’s more than the usual tilting, it’s as egregious as Gerry’s was in 1812. We all know the motivations, but here’s how it hurts Monroe County especially.

Traditionally, Monroe County has had two Congressional districts. In recent years, this has meant we’ve been represented by both parties. That’s good because you never know which party will retain control of the House. By have two seats, one from each party, we’re guaranteed to have access to the majority.

If you listen to the experts, the Republicans are expected to gain control of the House following the mid-term elections. (This is a reasonable guess, given the number of Democrats who have decided not to seek reelection, the population shifting to “Red” states, and the usual party loss based on the White House incumbent.) As of now, Monroe County has only one seat (by comparison, Erie County has three) and it’s designed to be won by a Democrat.

Not good for Monroe County should the Republicans retake the house.

What’s the solution? There’s not a clear one. Basically, the majority rules, and the Democrats have a clear majority in the New York State legislature. They made a mockery of the independent bipartisan committee that was supposed to be responsible for redistricting, so you can see that’s not a viable option.

The fairest way to prevent gerrymandering is geometry-based rules. For example, every district must touch at least three other districts (two if the district is on a border) and at least two of those districts must not touch each other. In other words, each district must be a parallelogram (e.g., a square or a rectangular).

We don’t need a special commission, but we do need to prevent the redistricting abuse we’re seeing in our state.

Perhaps you should clip this column out and send it to an appropriate judge since there are now at least two cases challenging the New York State Gerrymander.

What Do You Think An Independent Greater Western New York Should Look Like?

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Last week’s Commentary received an inordinate amount of positive feedback (see “It’s Time For Greater Western New York To Declare Its Own Independence,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, July 1, 2021). Since these came from a variety of sources on a plethora of platforms, it’s likely you haven’t had the opportunity to see them all.

Allow me to summarize.

It starts with a simple question:

“What do you think an independent Greater Western New York should look like?

OK, it turns out it’s not so simple as you might think. But at least it sounds straight-forward. While the answer to this question yields a spectrum of solutions, at least most Continue Reading “What Do You Think An Independent Greater Western New York Should Look Like?”

Did You Know About This Sizzling Greater Western New York Hidden Gem?

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How many times have you heard the phrase “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle?” or some similar variation? It’s almost a universal axiom in marketing and sales. But did you know its connection to the Greater Western New York Region (and Rochester in particular)?

I actually came upon this hidden gem quite by accident. I often binge read old books on favorite subject areas. My theory behind this is simple: “What’s old is new again.” Of course, this idea isn’t new.

In 1858, George Eliot wrote in Scenes of Clerical Life, “History, we know, is apt to repeat itself, and to foist very old incidents upon us with only a slight change in costume.”

With that in mind, I used to binge on old movies. That same principle held there, too.

If you’re familiar with the reason I wrote The Macaroni Kid, (performed by the Monsignor Schnacky Players in 2009), you’ll recognize how this idea can be used in real life.

At the time, I wanted to test the hypothesis that good humor is eternal. So I wrote a Continue Reading “Did You Know About This Sizzling Greater Western New York Hidden Gem?”

The Story of Abraham Parrish, Mendon’s First Tavern Keeper (Part III)

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1838 - Rochester in 1812 (showing first 'hotel') - Sketches of Rochester

Rochester in 1812 (showing first ‘hotel’). Source: Sketches of Rochester, 1838

Abraham Parrish had front row seats to watch his older brother Jasper become a success. And what a role model Jasper was. As a boy, Jasper had been captured by Indians in the immediate aftermath of the Wyoming Massacre in 1778, sold as a slave among various tribes, beaten mercilessly, nearly killed for a guinea when the British put a bounty on Yankee scalps, until he was finally bought by a Mohawk named “Captain Hill” for $20.29

Captain Hill so admired Jasper and Jasper so admired Captain Hill that in 1780 the Captain formally adopted Jasper in a traditional Iroquois ceremony. In turn, Jasper came to Continue Reading “The Story of Abraham Parrish, Mendon’s First Tavern Keeper (Part III)”

Who’s Really Going After Cuomo?

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Allow me to begin with this caveat: I am not a fan of Andrew Cuomo. I do not support the bulk of his policies. I do not condone what many call his “thuggish” behavior. Above all, I feel he is a discredit to all those Italian-Americans who have tried to live a life that transcends the Hollywood stereotype of our honored heritage.

If you doubt any of the above, then go back and reread some of my previous columns.

That being said, even I find it somewhat suspicious that this once-darling of the politically woke now finds himself dodging quite serious accusations against his policies, his administration, and his very character.

My first inclination might have been “couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” but the coincidences Continue Reading “Who’s Really Going After Cuomo?”

A Look Back (Part I): An Early (1841) View Of A New Village

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Here’s an annoying problem I discovered while researching for the book Hamburger Dreams: there’s a lot of people and places that come up when you search the words “hamburger” or “hamburg” that have nothing to do with the delicious sandwich that spawned a trillion-dollar industry.

This required me to be both creative and patient as I sifted through hundreds of century old newspaper articles. It eventually worked, but it took a lot of time. In the end, it proved worthy.

The same thing is happening now as I complete my research on the Masonic Temple/Wilcox Hotel/Wilcox House/Falls Hotel (yes, that one building has gone by several names during its nearly 200-year existence). It turns out Continue Reading “A Look Back (Part I): An Early (1841) View Of A New Village”

Two Wrongs Still Don’t Make A Right

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I weep for my city. I weep for my country. I weep for our ancestors who worked so hard to overcome the obvious frailty that is all humanity.

I cry for those swept aside by events. My heart bleeds for the bystanders who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I grow sullen, knowing the damage done cannot be quickly repaired.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of our citizenry that a noble cause has devolved into a self-inflicted chaos. Surely, no one believes it’s fair to punish innocents. Yet, clearly, we enable those who feel justified in doing precisely that.

None of this should have ever been allowed to happen.Continue Reading “Two Wrongs Still Don’t Make A Right”

3 Reasons Why Amtrak Should Not Rename Rochester’s Train Station after Louise Slaughter

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Many who met her say she seemed like a nice lady, but should Amtrak rename the Rochester train station after Louise Slaughter? To best answer this question, we should consider her legacy, a legacy long forgotten but memorialized in a book written nearly three decades ago. Here’s what made me remember it:

About a year ago, Ted Benna went over the beginnings of the 401k with me. The interview was for part of a series of articles that would eventually be published in several national media outlets. You might not recognize the name “Ted Benna” but you should. Chances are he changed your life and the lives of many of your neighbors. He was the man who discovered and created the world’s first 401k account. Well, he didn’t exactly do it alone.

Ted Benna’s discovery of the true significance of section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code required confirmation. As he retold the story of the very beginning, he read through the litany of executive branch policymakers who helped pave the wave for Benna and his coworkers. They represented familiar figures from the Reagan administration.

But Benna said the seeds for his discovery were sown years before when Congress amended the U.S. Tax Code in 1978. He mentioned many names, quite a few who I remembered. I listened and let him talk uninterrupted. Until he said one congressman in particular offered the key piece to this 1978 legislation. His name was Barber Conable.

“Barber Conable?” I asked in shocked disbelief. “You mean the same Continue Reading “3 Reasons Why Amtrak Should Not Rename Rochester’s Train Station after Louise Slaughter”