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Entries in good (3)


Blue Highways: Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

When do we have bad luck, or good luck?  Or is there luck at all?  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about the ill-timing and bad luck of Judge William Hancock during the Revolutionary War, I will reflect on my feelings about bad luck.  Hopefully, you won't feel that you came across this post by way of bad luck, but if you want to feel lucky and find the spot where all this occurs, please take a risk and look at the map. Why the horse at right?  It's New Jersey's state animal.

Book Quote

"Judge William Hancock, wealthy and influential, had no luck at all in his last year.  In 1734 at Hancock's Bridge, a few miles northwest of Greenwich, he built a grand house that he later had to flee from when militiamen took over south Jersey.  On the night of March 20, 1778, as Tories regained the area, the Loyalist judge elected to slip back; he didn't know that nearly a hundred revolutionists were bivouacked in his house.  They captured him.  Hancock probably would have been safe in the hands of his enemies had two hundred green-coated Loyalists not decided to retake the place that same night.  They surprised the patriots in their sleep and bayoneted them even as the men begged for quarter.  In the dark mayhem, Hancock's confederates killed him too.  The house still stands, a monument to the judge's ill timing."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 12

Hancock House, mentioned by William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways, in Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey. Photo by Smallbones and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Hancock's Bridge, New Jersey

When is something truly bad luck?  When is it a random occurrence that strikes one?  What role does choice play in our bad luck?  Or, is luck just luck and there is no good or bad about it?

I remember the stories I was told as a child.  Don't let a black cat cross your path or it will lead to bad luck.  Don't walk under ladders.  Don't let a pole pass between you and someone else.  Don't break a mirror or open an umbrella indoors.  Step on a crack, break your mother's back.  If you did any of these things, then you would be hit with a flood of bad luck.  I guess if I had done all of those things at the same time, I would have been inundated by a tsunami of bad luck.

I think that sometimes true bad luck happens.  We somehow fall into the seemingly random patterns of the universe and we end up in a place where bad things happen.  For example, I might leave the house and get into the car at a certain time on a certain morning.  I might drive down my street and just happen to hit the intersection at a stop light at the same time as a habitual runner of stop signs (there seem to be many on my street at one particular place).  Result, major fender-bender.  That person may just happen to not have insurance, and therefore I not only lose my car to repairs (or maybe totally) but my insurance also takes a big hit.

That happens, and will happen quite a few times in our lives.  Sometimes, it is simply an annoyance, like being stuck in airports for hours on a day where storms cause major disruptions in air travel, or an accident on the freeway snarls people up in traffic.  Sometimes it is more serious and leads to monetary loss, or minor injury, or broken relationships.  Once in awhile, this randomness could lead to serious injury or death because one is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I'm reminded of the recent shootings in a theater in Aurora, Colorado and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

However, I do find it interesting that sometimes what is blamed for bad luck is just the endpoint of a series of choices that we've made and that if we trace those choices back, we can most likely find the point where the choice took us down a path that guaranteed that bad things would happen.  For example, I once met a woman who complained about her bad luck in men.  Her life was a series of relationship disasters.  And yet, if you look at the choices she made, and the actions she took in those relationships, one could easily see that her "bad luck" came always by her choices.  The men she picked, the actions she took once in the relationship, all led to bad endings.  Is that really bad luck?

We have to acknowledge that conscious choices play a part in a lot of what we call bad luck.  I believe that most of what we call bad luck is the intersection of three elements:  the information we have, the patterns that we get ourselves locked into, and the level of risk we are willing to take.  These three things guide the choices we make.  A gambler may complain about her bad luck in gambling, but a gambler relies on all of these things.  She looks around the card table and reads the other players while taking into account her own hand.  She has certain ways of playing certain hands and therefore a pattern emerges in her playing.  She also may be a risk-acceptant or risk-averse person.  If she is a risk-acceptant person, she may play a bit more loosely, a bit more recklessly.  All of these elements add up to the choices she makes in her play, which will have an effect on her winnings.  In essence, this is not luck.  Luck may play a small part in the equation, but most of the outcomes will come down to her decision to fold or stay, raise or call.  Often, you will hear a card player say that they "should have" done something else, indicating that they made a decision that led to the outcome.

If I look back on my life, and I could see all the instances where I felt myself victimized by bad luck, chances are that I could examine my choices and find that it was my decision-making and not luck that led me to most of my difficult circumstances.  Sure, bad luck has happened to me, but not in the quantity that I would like to think.  I have not been victimized regularly by the universe.  The universe has no desires, wishes nor feelings - it just is.  It acts according to its laws and patterns automatically.

We, on the other hand, are not automatic.  We make choices based on information, our own patterns, and our sense of risk and that means that many times, we will make wrong decisions.  If there's anything that I've learned, it's this:  One is better equipped to head off "bad luck" if one makes decisions with more information than less.  The more you know about any situation, and the more you know about yourself, less randomness will accompany your choices and therefore, the better your luck.

Musical Interlude

I happened to find a list of songs about bad luck.  You can find the list here.  And here's two off the list.  The first is by Social Distortion called Bad Luck, because when you have bad luck nothing embodies it like some distorted electric guitar.  The second is a rhythm and blues song by Earl King from New Orleans called Mr. Bad Luck, because New Orleans, in my opinion, sits on the boundary of all that we understand and don't understand in the world.

If you want to know more about Hancock's Bridge

Discover Salem County: Hancock House
Revolutionary War Sites in Hancock's Bridge
Wikipedia: Hancock's Bridge
Wikipedia: Hancock House

Next up: Salem, New Jersey


Littourati News: Interactive Map of Great Journeys

A website called GOOD has mapped out some famous journeys in an interactive fashion.  Here you can find maps of historical and literary journeys with descriptions of pivotal places along the way.  It's a cool way to occupy a few minutes in your spare time, as well as give you a sense of the scope of these journeys.  Check out their Wanderlust map here.

Michael Hess


Blue Highways: Stonewall, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapThis post explores perceptions of good and evil, focused around Stonewall, Texas as the birthplace and home of President Lyndon B. Johnson.  Seems like a lot more than what William Least Heat-Moon intended, right?  That's the beauty of our Littourati journey - we can take side trips!  Click on the map to see where Stonewall is located, and explore your own nature and motivations as you read!

Book Quote

"The road went directly into a sunset that could have been a J.M.W. Turner painting. Colors, texture, the horizontal composition were his. I'd never thought Turner a realist. The land, now cattle and peach country, wasn't so rocky and dry as the great ridges I'd just crossed. West of Stonewall, I saw the last of dusk, and under a big desert night, I drove in the small coziness of my headlamps until Sonny's beer made me stop. While I stood, an uncommon amount of noise came invisibly through the brush. Whatever it was, I felt vulnerable and tried to hurry. The moonlight wasn't much, but what I could make out looked like a tiptoeing army helmet. I was moving backwards when I realized it was an armadillo. I stopped, it waddled on, sniffed me out at the last moment, and shifted direction without hurry."

Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 5

President Lyndon Johnson's birth-site, LBJ Ranch. Photo by Timothy Tray at Click on photo to go to site.

Stonewall, Texas

LHM references J.M.W. Turner in the quote above, remarking that he "never thought Turner a realist."  In an article on Wikipedia that I read recently, it turns out that Turner may have been a realist after all.  A lot of volcanic action around the world during the early 1800s created especially bright and vivid sunsets that he captured in his paintings, as well as a "year without a summer" in which temperatures were so cold in Europe during the summer months that crops were ruined, leading to a food shortage crisis.

But that was just a little interesting fact that I learned.  What I really want to write about is good and evil.  LHM either misses, or just simply doesn't remark about, that just west of Stonewall lies the Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch - now a National Historical Park.  Why should that bring up good and evil?  Bear with me a moment while I coalesce a few points around this theme.

Very recently I went to a production of the musical Wicked.  The Broadway touring company came through Albuquerque and we paid outrageous prices to go see it.  We were interested in the musical because a few months earlier we had read the book to each other.

Both the book and the musical had as their subjects the nature of good and evil.  The book is much darker and more subsumed in philosophical, religious and political themes than the musical can be - the musical focuses on easy to reach themes and is in essence a love story.  The book, which author Gregory Maguire wrote partly because of questions unanswered in the original Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum, examines what made the Wicked Witch of the West so evil.  We learn that sometimes people are evil not necessarily because of what they do, but how others perceive their actions and the consequences of those actions.  It is also an exploration of how some can come to believe themselves evil, which filters into their persona so that, in essence, they become what they believe.

The Wicked Witch of the West is portrayed, in MacGuire's Wicked, as a young woman named Elphaba who is idealistic, a believer in and protector of the rights of Animals (in Oz, animals that have capability of higher thought and speech), but who also has some strikes against her - namely that she is green, and therefore a freak.  She is a zealot, willing to fight for what she believes, but her actions are considered dangerous and she is hated and wanted by the government for her evils.  On the other hand, Glinda, the Good Witch, is really a bubble-headed, vacuous and shallow person who is "good" simply by the virtue of her beauty and her connections.  Eventually, the Wicked Witch of the West, through her own actions, events not in her control, politics and her own self-loathing, becomes that which she originally despises.  She becomes wicked almost because there is no other choice for her.

How does this relate to anything about Stonewall?  I see President Lyndon Johnson in similar terms.  He was a remarkably complex man, driven by an intense desire to do something to bring the country together and who pushed through some of the most comprehensive legislation to deal with poverty that the United States has ever seen.  He was a Texan, a vice-president under Kennedy who was put on Kennedy's ticket to deliver southern Democratic votes but who was not thought highly of by the Kennedy administration.  Back then, vice presidents were basically around to perform ceremonial duties and to break the occasional tie vote in the Senate.  However, when Kennedy was assassinated, this "hick" from Texas was thrust front and center.  His War on Poverty was rooted in his own poor depression-era background and his experiences teaching in small Texas schools.  He was ruthless as a politician, and was feared and admired for the pressure that he could put on an individual to get what he wanted.  To this day, the programs enacted in the War on Poverty and in his vision of a Great Society are hated by conservatives as the epitomy of big government and government intrusion in people's lives.  For these programs, some people regard him as "evil" while others praise his attempts to deal with some of America's most pressing issues.

Johnson also did a number of less-than-honorable things.  He authorized FBI wire-taps of Martin Luther King, Jr. (continuing a policy started by the Kennedy administration) and he supported the overthrow of a number of democratically elected left-wing governments in Latin America.

The Vietnam War, however, will always be associated with Johnson.  While he did not get the United States involved in Vietnam - U.S. involvement was begun by Kennedy and the situation was bequeathed to Johnson - Johnson escalated U.S. involvement.  He believed that if South Vietnam fell, a domino effect would lead to communist takeovers in other countries and threaten democracies and capitalism everywhere.  He believed in the military power and might of the U.S.  To him, South Vietnam's defense was necessary to maintain U.S. power and influence, and his own reputation.  While his motivations were complex, consisting of good but also self-serving elements, his actions committed thousands to death and untold numbers more to consequences felt throughout their lifetimes in the form of injuries, addictions, mental disorders, and broken lives.  Does his single-minded pursuit of victory in what became an unwinnable contest make him evil?  Some think so.  Eventually, Johnson was dissuaded from running for a second full term as president because of popular opinion and demonstrations against the Vietnam War which was largely blamed on him.

Regardless of where you stand on Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty and the Great Society, a visit to his ranch gives an inside look at a very complex individual who had a great impact on our country.  Regardless of how you view his actions, some of the popular perception of him does not fit.  His actions had consequences, but like most people, his actions also were rooted in personal beliefs that he was doing good, but rendered more complex by human psychological frailties and wants.  Good or evil?  We all confront our actions and sometimes those actions and events combine to create consequences that are labeled one way or the other.  It is easy to make the world black and white, but really Johnson's life, like the themes of Wicked and countless other works of literature, show that those black and white labels conceal a lot of gray, like hair color on a 60-something person.  In the end we really don't have much control over how others ultimately categorize our lives, our actions and ourselves.

Musical Interlude

In my new effort to highlight some musicians from Texas that I really like, I present you with Junior Brown. Though born in Indiana, he's became a sensation in Austin, Texas playing a double necked guitar of his own invention that was a combination electric guitar and steel guitar.  The song attached below is Venom Wearin' Denim and is in keeping with the subject of witches, good and evil.  We've all met and sometimes been hurt by such people - though I keep in mind that though their actions seem meaning to be damaging, sometimes they may be the result of complex psychology.  Enjoy!


If you want to know more about Stonewall

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Site
Lyndon B. Johnson State Park
Stonewall Chamber of Commerce
Texas Escapes: Stonewall
Texas State Historical Association: Stonewall
Wikipedia: Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
Wikipedia: Stonewall

Next up: Fredericksburg, Texas