Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Reading

How Al Franken Won — Patrick Caldwell in Mother Jones reports on how running with your party can make you a winner.

One evening a few days before the midterm elections, Sen. Al Franken stood on a low raised platform at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s St. Paul headquarters, addressing a few dozen loyal supporters. Chris Coleman, St. Paul’s mayor, had introduced the freshman senator by telling the crowd that Franken had fulfilled the legacy of the late progressive icon Paul Wellstone, whose Senate seat Franken now holds. “Thank you for saying I’ve been your Paul,” Franken replied solemnly. “There’s no higher compliment.” Then he dove into a Wellstone-esque speech selling progressive policy ideas in simple, everyman terms, spelling out exactly how he’d raise taxes on Minnesota millionaires to help students refinance their loans. “We up here believe that the economy—and not just our economy, but our community and our state—it works from the middle up,” he said. The speech exemplified how Franken campaigned—and why he won.

When Franken first ran for office, in 2008, he beat Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by a scant 312 votes—and only after a recount that delayed his Senate induction for six months. Republicans naturally saw Franken as vulnerable heading into the 2014 midterm elections. But Franken defied those expectations. He won re-election by 10 percent in a state where most voters disapprove of President Obama’s job performance. And he pulled it off by bucking the trend. Across the country, other Democratic Senate candidates distanced themselves from President Obama and the Democratic Party platform. Mark Warner, who squeaked by in Virginia, preferred to talk about how he’d tweak the Affordable Care Act than his vote for the bill, while arguing that he hasn’t actually voted with President Obama all that often. Mark Udall in Colorado decided he didn’t want to be seen with Obama. Challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky wouldn’t even say if she voted for Obama in 2012—after serving as one of his delegates to the national convention.

Franken took the opposite approach. Instead of running away from the progressive accomplishments of the Obama era, he embraced them, railing against bankers, advocating for student loan reform—even defending the Affordable Care Act. Franken ran as an Elizabeth Warren-style Democrat, running a populist campaign that didn’t shirk discussion of the specific policies Democrats could pursue to help the middle class. And voters rewarded him. “This wasn’t a safe seat,” Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in an e-mail. “He earned his victory by being a proud populist Democrat for six years and inspiring voters.”

Whole Foods’ Labor Pains — Michelle Chen in The Nation on the work environment at the grocery chain.

With its dazzling array of exorbitantly priced eco-friendly products, Whole Foods Market fosters a love-hate relationship with customers who’ve gotten hooked on its cornucopia of guilty-liberal indulgences. But the company’s labor relations are even more sour, as workers grow increasingly frustrated that their workplaces aren’t nearly as progressive as the green-branding rhetoric.

Going beyond the usual grumbling about hipster commercialism, some rank-and-file workers are challenging the management to live up to the company’s purported values when it comes to treating its workers fairly.

Last week, dozens of Whole Foods employees in San Francisco partnered with the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to protest a labor system that they say degrades workers while catering to wealthy consumers, and contributes to the city’s economic polarization. This Friday, they are taking their grievances to the regional corporate office in Emeryville, California. Their demand is simple: “a $5 an hour wage increase for all employees, and no retaliation for organizing their union.” Their message for Whole Foods—to live up to its brand’s much-hyped enlightened capitalist values—is more complicated.

The campaign kicked off at the South of Market Whole Foods, where workers rallied and presented a petition, signed by about fifty employees, demanding better working conditions. Like other retail workers, they say that their earnings, at $11.25 to $19.25 per hour, lag behind the exploding cost of living (about $30 an hour is needed to afford a regular one-bedroom apartment in the area). Today, they plan to threaten further job actions if the management did not heed their concerns.

Whole Foods declined to comment to The Nation. But evangelically libertarian CEO John Mackey has historically taken an anti-labor stance, comparing unions with “herpes.”

Campaigners say that while sustainability is on display on many of the store’s labels, it’s in short supply for employees whose wages cannot provide for their basic needs, even as the company champions green capitalism as a path to prosperity for workers and consumers alike.

Tracking Down the Past — In The New Yorker, Allen Kurzweil goes in search of the boarding school bully who tormented him forty years ago.

In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever. I was ten and he was twelve when, for a few indelible months, we roomed together in a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva.

None of the schools I had previously attended—two public, one parent-run, and one private—prepared me for the eccentricities of Aiglon College. Early mornings were given over to fresh-air calisthenics, cold showers, and meditation. Afternoons were reserved for skiing and hiking. A retired opera singer with ill-fitting dentures taught elocution. A Second World War fighter pilot—shrapnel lodged in his shoulder, Bible quotes lodged in his brain—served as the interim headmaster while Aiglon’s founder, a frail vegetarian bachelor drawn to Eastern religions, undertook a rest cure.

A wildly favorable exchange rate made it possible for my mother, recently widowed, to send me to a school far beyond her means. My dormitory housed a Bahraini royal, the heir to a washing-machine fortune, and an Italian aristocrat whose family tree included a saint, a Pope, and several princes.

To neutralize the income inequality of its charges, the school prohibited parents from sending their sons and daughters spending money. That was just one of the dozens of directives and restrictions detailed in “Rules and Ranks,” a thirty-six-page handbook that all students were required to memorize. Minor delinquencies, such as tilting back in chairs, flicking towels, or the failure to wear one’s rank badge on the “left breast at all times,” resulted in fines deducted from the pocket money doled out each Wednesday afternoon. More flamboyant insubordination (“being slimy,” “wolf whistling during meditation,” “loutish behavior”) would lead to “laps,” punishment runs to and from a stone bridge up the road.

Yet none of these gaudy particulars can explain the plastic milk crates filled with documents that litter my office—the physical evidence of a fixation tethered to my fleeting co-residency with a burly Filipino boy, two years my senior, named Cesar Augusto Viana.

How does a middle-class Jewish kid from New York end up at a fancy Christian-inflected boarding school in Switzerland? The truth is, I campaigned to attend Aiglon. The school was situated a snowball’s throw from the chalet inn where my family had vacationed each winter while my father was alive. (A Viennese émigré who had relocated his wife and children from New York to Milan under the Marshall Plan, he died, of cancer, when I was five.) I associated the locale with a bountiful time unburdened by loss.

I had my first noteworthy encounter with Cesar Augusto not long after I dragged my brass-cornered trunk to the top of Belvedere, a dilapidated hotel that the school converted into a dormitory in 1960. Cesar, a returning student with an easy smile, a husky build, and an unruly mop of black hair, took an instant interest in me.

“You know what that tree is used for?” I recall him saying as he pointed at a towering pine out the window of our penthouse room. “If there’s a fire and we can’t use the stairs, I’ll have to throw you into that tree. But don’t worry,” he added. “The small branches at the top will break your fall, and the bigger ones down below will catch you.”

The nightmares started a few days later. To stave off the panic that accompanied lights-out, I took to staring at the comforting glow of my Omega Seamaster, a watch that I had inherited from my father.

There’s no mystery to why Cesar held certain Belvedere boys in his thrall. He knew the ropes. Moreover, he was rumored to be the son of Ferdinand Marcos’s head of security. His name, his size, his command of the school’s pseudo-military regulations, the accuracy he demonstrated when strafing enemies with ink from his Montblanc fountain pen, enabled him to transform our dorm into a theatre of baroque humiliation. Nor is it hard to figure out why he singled me out for special attention. I was the youngest boy in the school. I was a Jew (one of a handful). And I bunked a few feet away.

Up in our room one evening, several weeks into the term, I watched Cesar roll bits of brown bread, filched from the dining room, into pea-size balls. As I remember it, he then lined up the pellets on a windowsill and saturated each with hot sauce. After lights-out, he approached my bunk, cupping the pepper pills in his palm.

“Eat it, Nosey,” he commanded, curving his thumb and index finger around his nose to reinforce the ethnic slur that would become my nickname.

When I refused, he motioned to his sidekick, the lantern-jawed son of an American banking heiress and a Hungarian cavalry officer (and the biggest of our three other roommates), to pin me down. Only after I had swallowed three or four of the fiery pellets did Cesar permit me to rinse my mouth. The force-feeding left me with a bitter taste for days.


Despite the daily torments, I never complained. Aiglon placed a premium on stoic self-reliance, a code of conduct that was clarified during the first week of school, when my housemaster forced another lowerclassman, bedridden with the flu, to clean up his own vomit.

Only once did I acknowledge my roommate problems. Toward the end of the first term, my mother visited and noticed that I wasn’t wearing my father’s watch. I tried to convince her that I had left it in my room, but she pressed for the truth. I finally told her what happened: One day, after showering, I went to retrieve the watch from under my pillow, stowed there for safekeeping, and discovered that it was gone. I became hysterical. The more upset I got, the more Cesar and his confederate giggled. I pleaded for the watch’s return until Cesar silenced me by making the “Nosey” sign.

Within the week, his henchman admitted that he’d hurled my watch off a balcony on a dare. I ran down the stairs, dashed outside, and dug through knee-deep snow until my fingers turned white and tingly. The watch never surfaced. The loss left me more than bereft. I felt annihilated.

Not long afterward, the sidekick was asked to leave the school, and Cesar disappeared—quarantined, I learned, years later, by a case of measles. I finished out my year at Aiglon without incident—in fact, I loved my final months at the school—and moved back to New York.

It didn’t take long to shed the habits I’d picked up in Switzerland. Plimsolls, anoraks, and rucksacks reverted to sneakers, parkas, and backpacks. The crossbars disappeared from my sevens. Yet reminders of Cesar kept popping up: while watching “Tom Brown’s School Days,” a BBC serial packed with boarding-school abuse; while reading novels for literature classes. (Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin is subjected to cold showers and gymnastics in an alpine sanatorium.) I composed a list of dictators who endorsed the benefits of a Swiss boarding-school education (the Shah of Iran, Kim Jong-un). I found myself wondering, Was Darwin’s theory of natural selection inspired by the adversity he faced at Dr. Butler’s school? Would Orwell’s world view have been so Orwellian had the headmaster of St. Cyprian’s resisted the impulse to break a bone-handled riding crop on the student’s buttocks?

In 1991, while promoting my first novel in Italy, I found myself with a few days off and returned to Aiglon. Much had changed in the twenty years since I’d left. No more laps. No more cold showers. No more rank systems. One thing remained, though—my sense of dread. Looking out the window of the room I had shared with Cesar, I experienced a wave of nausea so intense that I had to sit down for a few minutes with my head between my knees.

The following day, I interviewed a veteran housemistress named Mrs. Senn, a marvel of institutional memory, who diverted me for hours with recollections about the year I spent at the school. One student lost the tips of two toes to frostbite. Another almost died when he fell head first into a seventy-five-foot-deep crevasse. A third was permanently disfigured on the local slalom course after she took a bamboo gate too closely. (“Poor girl. The doctors did what they could, but her nose was never quite the same.”) Mrs. Senn also informed me that my closest friend at Aiglon, Woody Anderson, had tumbled backward down a dormitory stairwell a few months after I left. “Poor, poor Woody,” she said. “He was dead by the time he hit the ground.” When I asked Mrs. Senn about Cesar, she drew a blank. And no one else at the school seemed to remember the boy I couldn’t forget. The visit yielded nothing more than Cesar’s 1973 mailing address in Manila, c/o the Realistic Institute.

Back home, I found a Manila telephone directory at the New York Public Library and discovered that the Kissingeresque-sounding Realistic Institute was actually a “vocational school for hair and beauty culture.” (So much for the family’s connection to the Marcos regime.)

I decided to give Cesar a call. After some dithering—should I start with small talk or get right down to the business of the whipping and the watch?—I dialled his number. Following a few rings and some long-distance static, the line went dead, and with it died the search. I directed my energies toward more pressing matters: writing, marriage, fatherhood.

I started thinking about Cesar again in 1999, soon after my son, Max, turned five. In the middle of a school holiday pageant, a dispute over a Pokémon card incited a boy known around the jungle gym as Thomas the Tank Engine to throttle Max with a necktie.

“How do you deal with bullies?” he asked me that night as I was tucking him into bed.

I didn’t know what to say. Max was looking for counsel from someone who was demonstrably unqualified to provide it. Eventually, I found an answer of sorts; I wrote a children’s book, “Leon and the Spitting Image,” in which a boy battles a thuggish composite of the real-life goons who had terrorized us. When the book was released, in 2003, I visited classrooms around the country and discovered that bullying had become a topic of national discussion. During the Q. & A.s, each time I mentioned that the antagonist in my book was inspired by an actual nemesis, hands shot up: What was the worst thing he did? Did you tell on him? Where is he now?

Read the rest of the story.  For those of us who endured such torment, it leaves a permanent mark.

Doonesbury — the danger zone.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sunday Reading

Campaigning with Ebola — Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker on scare tactics.

When does Ebola look like a gift? Apparently, when you are a Republican candidate for the Senate who sees it as a handy pretext for bringing up immigration politics while scaring people into voting for you. Thom Tillis, in a campaign debate in North Carolina with Senator Kay Hagan, put it this way: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak. We have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border.” In New Hampshire, Scott Brown started off by conjuring up ISIS fighters slipping through spongy borders, then casually switched to Ebola-sickened hordes. “One of the reasons why I have been so adamant about closing our border,” he said, “is because if people are coming through normal channels—can you imagine what they can do through a porous border?” Both ISIS and Ebola provoke enough anxiety for most people to contemplate them without being goaded. There are, however, no reported instances of Ebola-infected immigrants crossing illegally from Mexico, and, with ISIS fighters busy in Iraq and Syria, it’s possible but not likely that they’re hanging out in Ciudad Juárez, planning a raid on Arizona, as Representative Trent Franks maintains. But, as Franks and his fellow-Republicans demonstrated, you don’t need to construct a plausible or even a coherent scenario to deploy such threats for political ends.

The Democrats were not entirely immune from such temptation. Campaign ads and a few candidates—including Senator Mark Udall, of Colorado—implied that Ebola surveillance would have been better coördinated if the Republicans hadn’t managed to cut the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That apportionment of blame wasn’t strictly accurate. Funding for the N.I.H. and the C.D.C. hasn’t always kept pace with inflation in recent years, but, in some budgets, Congress allocated them more money than the Obama Administration had requested. Still, at least such tactics centered on the agencies responsible, and didn’t engage in the old practice of conflating disease and foreignness.

The medical historian Howard Markel notes that “Chinese immigrants were once linked to bubonic plague and hookworm, Mexicans were thought to be infested with lice, and Russian Jews were seen as somehow especially vulnerable to tuberculosis and—a favorite wastebasket diagnosis of nativists in the early 1900s—‘poor physique.’ ” Taking advantage of such associations, which were almost never based on legitimate science, nativists helped pass the Immigration Act of 1924, the racist law that imposed quotas on the basis of national origin—Asians were completely excluded—and governed U.S. immigration until 1965. Senator Patrick McCarran, of Nevada, a co-sponsor of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which, among other provisions, made it easier to bar immigrants who had chronic diseases, offered a metaphor that made explicit immigration law’s preoccupation with purity. Immigration was a stream, he said, adding that if it “is healthy, the impact on our society is salutary; but if that stream is polluted our institutions and our way of life become infected.”

Politicians now know better than to talk openly about immigration in terms of purity and contagion, but they still make the connection. This summer, as unaccompanied minors from Central America began arriving in large numbers at the border, Representative Phil Gingrey, of Georgia—a doctor, as it happens—wrote a letter to the C.D.C. in which he said that the influx “poses many risks, including grave public health threats,” and claimed that many of the children lacked basic vaccinations such as those for measles. In fact, the vaccination rates for measles in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico are around ninety per cent, which means that children from those countries are about as likely to be vaccinated as children in the United States are. Undoubtedly, some of the kids were sick, or suffering from malnutrition and other ailments associated with poverty, but they were not an invading army of germ warriors.


While fears of Ebola—a disease from which one person in the United States has died—clouded the campaign like one of those imaginary miasmas to which doctors once attributed illness, real dangers seemed to slip from view. The latest school shooting, on October 24th, in Washington State, generated almost no discussion on the campaign trail, especially not of gun control. Just a week earlier, researchers affiliated with the Harvard School of Public Health had published findings showing that mass shootings in the United States—those in which the shooter did not generally know the victims, and in which at least four people were killed—have tripled since 2011. Over the past three years, a mass shooting has occurred, on average, every sixty-four days; over the previous twenty-nine years, one occurred every two hundred days. Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman, who became a gun-control advocate after she was wounded in a shooting in which six people died, toured the country in the run-up to the elections, calling for tighter legislation in order to help save lives. Not a single candidate joined her.

Get The Smelling Salts — Leslie Savan at The Nation on how Republicans and Fox react to the obvious.

NEWS FLASH: The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.

And now that some Democrats are daring to point that out, in ads and interviews, the media is grabbing its smelling salts.

Mercy me! they’re crying—it’s unseemly for Southern candidates to mention that black people face discrimination, voter suppression and even violence in the Old Confederacy.

In an interview yesterday, Chuck Todd asked Senator Mary Landrieu, now locked in a tight race in Louisiana, “Why does President Obama have a hard time in Louisiana?” Fossil-fuel hawk Landrieu first cited Obama’s moratorium on off-shore drilling after the BP disaster, which she said put a lot of people out of business. Then, she ventured:

I’ll be very, very honest with you. The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans. It’s been a difficult time for the president to present himself in a very positive light as a leader.

“Why is she talking like this?” Fox News host Bill Hemmer asked incredulously this morning. A guest came on to explain, “She is excusing her poor performance by blaming voters.”

It can’t be because it’s true.

Even the host of an Al Jazeera news show today, while not doubting the veracity of Landrieu’s comment, treated it like a gaffe, a bad one, and had an expert on to decide if Landrieu’s campaign was now doomed. (The verdict: maybe.)

More predictably, Republicans are shocked, shocked at Landrieu’s audacity. Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal called the remarks “remarkably divisive” and “a major insult” to Louisianans. “She appears to be living in a different century,” he said in a statement.

“Louisiana deserves better than a senator who denigrates her own people by questioning and projecting insidious motives on the very people she claims to represent,” State Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said in a statement. “Senator Landrieu and President Obama are unpopular for no other reason than the fact the policies they advance are wrong for Louisiana and wrong for America.” And of course there’ve been demands that Landrieu apologize. (Do not do this, Mary.)

It’s not that people, left or right, shouldn’t object to Obama’s policies. But the claim that whites in the South, or elsewhere, hate Obama’s policies (many of which are Republican-bred) and are color-blind to his race is ludicrous. But they can get away with it in part because of the persistent myth that this is a post-racial America, the one the Supreme Court decided was so enlightened that it gutted the civil rights voting law and has allowed the voter ID laws in Texas to stand.

Right after making her “inflammatory” remarks about African-Americans, Landrieu went out on another limb and said of the South, “It’s not always been a good place for women to present ourselves. It’s more of a conservative place.” But even if Landrieu were pandering to blacks and women to get them to the polls, so what? Her statements are true and obvious. And this is an election.

“As You Wish” — Reflections on The Princess Bride and how it became a classic.  Caitlin Kelly in The New Yorker reports.

“The Princess Bride” has found a special place in the pop-culture pantheon, but it was not an easy or straightforward process. William Goldman’s screenplay floundered in development, passing from studio to studio and from director to director until, finally, it was taken up by Rob Reiner. When the movie opened, in 1987, it didn’t tank at the box office, but it didn’t take off, either—the kind of mediocre performance that dooms most movies to three-for-ten-dollar bins at drugstores. But in the years that followed “The Princess Bride” found new life on VHS, slowly accumulating an audience whose enthusiasm for the story and, especially, for the many quotable moments, that would make “Princess Bride” a cult classic.

Those quotable moments are also the reason why the movie’s fame has been amplified in recent years by the Internet, which specializes in distilling a movie to its catchiest phrase or its most sharable GIF. People found plenty of material in scenes like the epic Battle of Wits between Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the masked hero, Westley (Cary Elwes), and Peter Cook’s “mawwage” ceremony.  The movie is so eminently quotable that, in 2012, ESPN analysts spent a whole episode of “NFL Kickoff” referencing it as many times as they possibly could—a moment that was itself shared and lauded online for days. In a new book about the making of the movie, “As You Wish,” Elwes (or perhaps his co-writer, Joe Layden) writes, “Looking back I only wish the Internet had existed in 1987. I suspect that social media would have raised awareness of the film’s unique quality and helped propel it to blockbuster status.”

“The Princess Bride” has come full circle in recent years, finding the movie-theatre audiences that eluded it twenty-seven years ago with a series of “Quote-Alongs” by Alamo Drafthouse, a small cinema chain based in Austin. Think “Rocky Horror,” but safe for kids—although there were very few of those in the audience at the screening that Elwes hosted earlier this week to promote his book.

“It appears that ‘The Princess Bride’ has aged remarkably well,” Elwes said onstage at the Long Center, in Austin (and broadcast to the rest of the Alamo outposts around the country, including the one in which I sat, in Yonkers). “So have you!!!” a few women in the theatre shouted back. They spoke the truth, but such spontaneous displays of appreciation—for Elwes or for the movie—were highly discouraged by the organizers: “You are not funnier or smarter than this movie—do not try,” they said. Instead, they outlined the night’s sanctioned outbursts: booing along with the old hag, ringing tiny bells for all the gross kissing stuff, groaning in the Pit of Despair, blowing bubbles as Princess Buttercup floats gracefully down to freedom at the end, and smacking our foreheads at each “Inconceivable!” (unfortunately spelled “Iconceivable” in the accompanying PowerPoint presentation) along the way.

This sort of blatant capitalization on nostalgia might seem lame, but there is no denying the pleasure to be gained from shouting, “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die” in a crowded theatre while waving a comically oversized inflatable sword (starting with the weapon in your left hand, of course, before switching to your right). Subtitles appeared during key moments, but the audience was encouraged to quote along with as much of the script as they liked, or remembered. One man in my theatre made sure everyone was aware of the extent of his scholarship by reciting each line a split second early. While this didn’t necessarily mar the experience, it was certainly satisfying to hear him mess up halfway through.

During a Q. & A. session after the screening, Elwes gamely shared some anecdotes from the making of the movie, complete with spot-on impersonations of André the Giant, Rob Reiner, and the soft-spoken British nurse who tended to his toe after an unfortunate A.T.V. accident. (The A.T.V. was also given a convincing voice.) Seeing and hearing Elwes recount these moments was far more entertaining than reading about them in “As You Wish.” Elwes did not keep a journal during the filming of “The Princess Bride”; instead, he explained, his most important memory aid was a bound volume of all the call sheets from the set, provided to him by the producer Norman Lear. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that many of the exchanges in the book have all the excitement and introspection of work schedules. Some of the sharper moments are provided by outside voices. On the page where Elwes is imagining William Goldman’s emotional state on the first day of filming, Goldman himself acerbically weighs in via a sidebar (a device used throughout the book): “I don’t know how to talk to actors; most of them are half phony. So I don’t like being on a movie set. Never have.”

Aside from Goldman’s unease, the “Princess Bride” production sounds like a fun time, but there are only so many times one can read about what a joy it all was before your eyes start to glaze over. I imagine that, had Instagram and Facebook been around in 1986, Elwes’s every status update would have been earnestly punctuated with “#blessed”: “Working with Bill Goldman and Rob Reiner, a dream come true #blessed”; “Accidently broke my toe today but Rob was so understanding #blessed”; “So #blessed to be surrounded by such talented, extraordinary people on this #blessed project #blessed.” The height of on-set tension in the book is, quite literally, an overcast day of shooting in England. All the drama—the fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles—was saved for the silver screen.

Doonesbury — Facebook Friends.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Spring Sprung

Not the way to start the week: a spring on the garage door broke and I’m trapped in the house until the repairman gets here.

As a friend said on Facebook: “Life is full of little surprises.”  Yeah, tell that to the bug on your windshield.

Update: The repair was completed by 12:05 p.m.  Off to work I go.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Just One Cup

Yesterday I fasted in anticipation of the wellness fair held at work where I got my insurance-required biometric assessment done.  That meant blood work, and although they didn’t require it, I held off eating or drinking anything more than water from midnight on.

BBWW Coffee MugThis fast meant forgoing my morning coffee.  I usually have one mug before work to get the day going and maybe one at the office.  Once the tests were over I had a light lunch and a regular dinner, but zonked out before dark.  When I got up this morning, I really needed the coffee to get going.  No, I didn’t have the shakes and symptoms associated with caffeine withdrawal, but it sure made a difference once I had that first couple of sips of Folger’s Black Silk.

By the way, all systems are functioning within normal parameters, but I still plan on getting in more exercise and losing some weight.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Playing In The Park

I’m not a parent, so other than ten summers of being a camp counselor, I don’t know a lot about raising a child… except my parents did a pretty good job with four of them.  So I defer to those who are when it comes to matters of parenting, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say that this is wrong on so many levels.

Debra Harrell is currently in jail because she let her 9-year-old daughter play, unsupervised, in a public park. Almost everything about this story (which I noticed courtesy of Lenore Skenazy) is horrifying. Harrell works at McDonald’s. Her daughter used to tag along and stare at a screen at her mother’s workplace during the day. She asked to go to the park instead, was discovered to be without an adult, and her mother was arrested.

The story is a convergence of helicopter parenting with America’s primitive family policy. Our welfare policy is designed to make everybody, even single mothers, work full-time jobs. The social safety net makes it difficult for low-wage single mothers to obtain adequate child care. And society is seized by bizarre fears that children are routinely snatched up by strangers in public places. The phenomenon is, in fact, nearly as rare as in-person voting fraud.

A couple of things to note.  First, Ms. Harrell is African-American.  Second, as the story notes, she works at McDonald’s.  I wonder what would have happened if she was white and worked at a job that paid a lot more than one that helpfully suggests how to collect welfare to make ends meet.  We would never have heard of her.

As for the parenting issue, I am pretty sure that if every parent who told their child to get outside and play unsupervised in the park for the day were subject to arrest, the jails would be full to overflowing with them, including my own.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Small Matter


Scientists said Tuesday that six glass vials found in a storeroom in a government laboratory outside Washington contained the smallpox virus. It was the second incident in a month that revealed government mishandling of potentially deadly infectious agents.

The sealed vials were discovered on July 1 in a Food and Drug Administration lab at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The vials, which were labeled “variola,” another name for smallpox, were sent on Monday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where tests showed that they contained smallpox, the C.D.C. said in a statement. Additional tests to determine whether the smallpox is viable will take about two weeks, the centers said, after which the samples will be destroyed.

Biosafety personnel “have not identified any infectious exposure risk to lab workers or the public,” the C.D.C. said.

Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 following a long worldwide public health campaign. Until now, the only known samples of the virus were at high-security labs at the C.D.C. in Atlanta and in Russia.

All of the careful planning and high security can’t beat out “I thought you had them,” “No, I thought you had them.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Only In America…

…will you find people in a Chinese restaurant watching the US/Germany World Cup match from Brazil on a TV made in Korea with the narration in Spanish.

Or maybe that’s just so Miami.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Six Years

I almost forgot, but six years ago last Friday I moved into my present home.

Here’s what it looked like when I first saw it:

June 1, 2008

June 1, 2008

And here’s what it looks like today:

June 14, 2014

June 14, 2014

By my recollection, this is the longest I’ve lived at the same address since I moved out of my parents’ house in 1971.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On This Date

Forty years ago today — June 9, 1974 — I started out on a National Outdoor Leadership School wilderness course through the Uinta Mountains of Utah.  It lasted six weeks.

Uinta Mountains 06-09-14

I learned a lot about wilderness camping and survival skills, things that came in handy two years later when I went to work at a Rocky Mountain summer camp.  I also kept a detailed diary in a little notepad that I bought at Stapleton Airport in Denver on my way to Lander, Wyoming, where the trip began.  That’s the only time in my life that I’ve kept a diary (unless you count this blog).  It came in handy in 1976 when I wrote my first produced play about a wilderness course gone horribly wrong.

But mine was mostly uneventful — no one died.  I learned how to climb up and then rappel down a cliff, how to ford a stream with a fully-loaded pack, how to do what bears do in the woods, saw some amazing scenery — the photo is of Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah, and we crossed by it through Gunsight Pass — and learned that freeze-dried food and mountain bluebells can make a pretty good dinner.

We emerged from the wilderness in mid-July just in time for Watergate to blow up, and I made it home in time to watch the impeachment hearings on TV and see Richard Nixon resign a few weeks later.

The only souvenirs I have of the trip are that diary, a walking stick that I carved out of a ponderosa pine branch, and my mustache.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps was a terrorist.  He targeted innocent people and didn’t care who he inflicted harm upon.  The fact that he based his actions on religion neither mitigates nor magnifies it; whatever message he had was lost in the delivery.

As a Quaker I’m lead to believe that every life has worth.  In the case of Fred Phelps, his life was a cautionary tale that hatred can consume and torture the one who generates it as well as the intended target.  Since I don’t believe in a heaven or a hell, I can only hope that when the Light went out in his life, it moved on to someone who can use it for good, for love, and for caring.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Don’t Fill In The Blanks

Speaking of lazy journalists, Paul Campos at LGM has a handy-dandy template for those who want to seem like they’re on top of the latest tragedy and make it sound like they’re a posting something worthy of Sunday Reading.

The [death, hospitalization, arrest, other misfortune] of [celebrity] is fueling renewed concern about a recent upsurge of [bad things], brought on by a new wave of [drug of the moment] users.

[Prominent drug warrior] warns that if [extremely expensive pet initiative featuring no data on potential effectiveness] is not adopted, “we could lose a whole generation” to [drug of the moment] addiction.

Indeed [various authority figures] are sounding the alarm that [drug of the moment], whose use many Americans believe is confined to [socially marginal deviants] is suddenly appearing/making a comeback among upper middle class white kids suburban youth, who are drawn to glamorous portrayals of [drug of the moment] addicts in films, music, and on the Internet.

[Credentialed expert] argues that new strains of [drug of the moment] are far more potent and dangerous than the versions of the drug which were previously available, when [readers of this story] were engaging in youthful experimentation with [drug of the moment], and that rapidly falling prices are making [drug of the moment] a tempting alternative to alcohol, prescription drugs, and even marijuana [ed. note: last three words of previous sentence not suitable for stories about marijuana].

I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I know people who did and who worked with him.  Reading their recollections of his life and their friendship with him has been devastating, made all the worse by the moralizing, judging, and concern-trolling that has gone on since the news broke on Sunday.  What makes it all the more maddening is that it has happened before: Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or anyone else whose name and fame overshadowed their capacity for being treated as a human being in both life and death.

What I want to say to everyone who furrows their brow and tells us that there is a larger lesson in his or anyone’s untimely and — to them — avoidable death is to take and keep the lesson for yourself.  Do not turn it into something more than the already unbearable loss that it is for his friends, colleagues, and family.  Let them grieve in their own way and stop trying to show your moral superiority by telling us what it all means.  Save it for your novel.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cool Breeze

I rode up in the elevator this morning with three other people bundled up with scarves, gloves, and hats… and the outside temperature was 50 F.  But this is Miami, so it’s all relative.

12 Beach and Ocean

Trust me, I’m not feeling any schadenfreude over those folks under the thrall of the polar vortex.  I spent enough time — a total of 45 years — living in places where winter cold was not a joke.  I also understand why some people like it, as opposed to the permanent summer we have here in South Florida.  But I distinctly remember the first time I experienced a Florida winter.  I was 13 and visiting a friend who had moved to Florida from Perrysburg.  It was in March 1966 and I went from the cold and grey of Ohio to the lush sunshine and heady scent of tropical blooms in a day.  I was hooked, and four years later, when I went to visit the University of Miami at the same time of year and walked across the campus in the bright sunshine (and saw good-looking men strolling around in cut-offs and tank tops),  I knew I would end up in the tropics.

It took a while — almost thirty years and residing in Michigan, Minnesota, and Colorado — before the move was permanent, but I really like it here, and not just for the weather.  Summers are oppressive with dense humidity, there are no mountains, and tropical cyclones are as scary as ever, but just as my friends and family in the north have adapted to their climate, I’ve adapted to mine.  And six months from now, when the A/C is running full-time, the humidity is like a wet sauna towel, and the palmetto bugs are camped out in the garage and plotting their takeover, the folks up north will be enjoying the cool breezes of a Michigan blue sparkling day on the beach and wondering why I’m here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Everybody Must Get Stoned

A majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana.

For the first time, more than half of Americans think that marijuana usage should be made legal, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans now back legalizing marijuana. That represents an 8-point increase from the previous record of 50 percent in 2011, and a 10-point increase from November 2012, just after Colorado and Washington voted for legalization.

“With Americans’ support for legalization quadrupling since 1969, and localities on the East Coast such as Portland, Maine, considering a symbolic referendum to legalize marijuana, it is clear that interest in this drug and these issues will remain elevated in the foreseeable future,” wrote Art Swift, Gallup’s managing editor.

Stock up on Pop-Tarts and Pringles now and avoid the rush.  Or feel it.  Whatever, dude.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Kindness of Friends and Strangers

I’m back safe and sound from Lakeland.  We had a good time and saw a lot of great cars.

The Pontiac, however, is in Sebring, Florida.  About an hour into the return trip I looked in the rear view mirror and saw white smoke trailing out the back.  We pulled over into the parking lot of an abandoned feed store on U.S. 27, popped the hood, and saw flames coming out of the bottom of the transmission.  Luckily we had a fire extinguisher — standard equipment in antique cars — and were able to put it out.

We called AAA and they sent a tow truck.  Towing it the 150 miles back to Miami would have cost a small fortune, so I had them take to the AAMCO transmission shop in Sebring, 15 miles — and a lot less money — down the road.

The AAMCO shop is closed on Sundays, but when I called the shop’s number, the manager’s wife answered the phone, put him on the line and he immediately agreed to meet us at his shop, take in the car, and give me an estimate on the repair.

So, there we were, 150 miles from Miami and no way to get home short of renting a car from Enterprise, which is also closed on Sundays in Sebring.  Fortunately we had caravaned up to Lakeland with some friends from the car club, and between them we were able to get back to Miami late in the afternoon.  Thank you, Manny and Milli, for the ride, and John and Jon for keeping us company until they arrived.

A couple of lessons are learned here.  First, always carry a fire extinguisher in your car and make sure it works.  Second — and probably the most important — this happened on a Sunday in a small town in central Florida.  I will never cease to be amazed by and grateful for the help and generosity of people who went out of their way to help others.  In the immediate aftermath of pulling over and finding flames licking up from the bottom of the car, a man in a pickup truck pulled over to render assistance, and he stayed with us until we had things under control.  The tow truck driver offered a reduced rate to get us to Sebring.  And Troy Williams, the manager of the AAMCO store, came out from his one day off in the week to help total strangers when he could have easily have said no.  He also was able to work out a lower price estimate on the repair, and he promised to keep in touch with me as the repairs go along.

It’s really easy to be cynical and pessimistic about the world, especially after the last couple of weeks of infantile behavior on behalf of some of our elected “leaders.”  But the reality is that we are by nature kind and caring people, willing to help others who are in need, be it a major disaster like a hurricane or flood, or, in my case, an automotive breakdown on a rural highway in central Florida.  My faith in humanity is unwavering.

Note: A special thanks to Bob for showing grace under pressure and being there with the kind of moral support and calm guidance that is really needed in a time like this.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Don’t Bug Me

I was settling in with coffee, the crossword, and “Up” and I noticed a dead bug under the coffee table. Half an hour later I’m schvitzing like a racehorse from running the vacuum over the entire living room floor (it’s all tile), moving furniture, and finding more dead bugs than on the bottom of a birdcage.

Now I’m back to the coffee and the crossword in a clean place. Oh, wait, what’s that under the piano…?

That’s Florida in summer.  This month it’s these tiny flying bugs that are drawn to the light from my monitor while I’m writing with no other lights on. They die all of their own volition and cover the floor tile like ground pepper.

Next month it will be palmetto bugs that are so big that when you step on them, the crunch drowns out the TV. Then it’s the arrival of the little sugar ants in the kitchen.

The plague of locusts must be on backorder.

Friday, August 23, 2013

“I am female.”

From the New York Times:

One day after being sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking vast archives of secret government files to WikiLeaks, Pfc. Bradley Manning said Thursday that he is female and wants to be known as Chelsea.

In a statement read on the “Today” show during an appearance by his defense lawyer, David E. Coombs, Private Manning said he had felt that he was female since childhood, a fact that was discussed during his court-martial.

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” the statement said. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.”

The statement went on to request that Private Manning’s supporters “refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).” It was signed, “Chelsea Manning.”

I wish her the best of luck.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Goodbye, Perrysburg

Commodore Perry

Commodore Perry

I’m writing this from the sun porch of my parents’ house in Perrysburg, Ohio.  It’s getting on towards late afternoon, but the sun is still high in the August sky, the sky is clear, the leaves on all the trees are that deep green that you see when they know they only have about a month or so before the light begins to change and the air cools in the evening.  The trees have to store up as much energy as they can to get through the long, grey winter ahead.

This sun porch is a familiar spot for me.  Most of my visits to this house have been in summer, and here is where we have our breakfast over the morning papers, afternoons on the couch with Tiger baseball on the TV, and dinner in the deepening twilight that lasts in summer until long after sunset and the rhythmic chorus of cicadas, katy-dids, and other denizens of the evening compete with the traffic on the street and the trains on the C&O railroad a few blocks over.

This is not the house I grew up in; Mom and Dad moved here in 1997 after living in northern Michigan for a while, but countless evenings were spent on the back porch of another house down the street where the same sounds filtered over the voice of Ernie Harwell calling the Tigers’ games on the crackling AM of WJR 760, the static telling us that somewhere, a thunderstorm was bringing rain and cool air to the cornfields that surround this small town.  Lightning bugs danced and glowed down at the bottom of the yard among the yew bushes and rhododendrons, and minty iced tea — and later, Stroh’s beer — made the evening cooler.

Summer, as you might have guessed, was my favorite time of year here, and even with our three weeks up in Michigan on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay, nothing said summer to me more than those evenings on the porch with the orchestration of light, shadow and sound and the scent of newly-mowed grass and drying alfalfa from the grain elevator across town.

But if things go as planned, this is my last night on this sun porch in Perrysburg.  Later this fall my parents will begin a new adventure in a new place far removed from this little town that has been our hometown since 1957.  It is all good for them, and all of us — my three siblings — are with them every step of the way.  They are healthy, happy, and in good spirits as they forge on ahead as they have done with so many adventures in their sixty-five years together.  And as I sit here in the peaceful afternoon, watching a hummingbird busily sip from the feeder, I know that letting go and moving on is a good thing.  I should know; I’ve done it more times than I can count, and have the license plates to prove it.

In the many times I’ve moved and in the many places I’ve lived, I have never let go of the feeling that this town of Perrysburg will always be my home town.  I know the streets and side streets better than any other place I’ve lived, thanks to the bike rides with my childhood friends Joe and Randy and Deke and Trip and Cynny and Scott and Jim and Tommy and Marvin.  I still call the stores on Louisiana Avenue by the names I knew them then: Houck’s Drugstore, Mills Hardware, The Sport Shop, Mrs. Piatt’s Bakery, Ken’s Barber Shop, and Norm’s Appliance.  That’s where we sat at the soda fountain and read Archie comics; that’s where we bought paint and nails; that’s where Dad bought his duck decoys and shotgun shells; that’s where the smell of bread crossed the street and birthday cakes came the way you dreamed they did; that’s where a haircut cost a dollar; and that’s the place where you lined up between the Norge refrigerators and GE air conditioners to get your driver’s license and license plates because the wife of Norm at the appliance store was the Deputy Registrar for the DMV.  It’s where I got my first driver’s license in 1968, typed out on a green piece of paper from a battered Smith-Corona.  The stores have all changed their names and sell different things — and Mills is closed, the windows papered over — but they’re still there.

The tennis courts, the swimming pool, the elementary school where I attended kindergarten, the grocery store, the railroad tracks; they’re as familiar as old books on the shelf that you take down and thumb through, remembering the stories they told.  The sidewalks still have the same cracks in them, the street signs may be new but the names like Hickory, Elm, Front and Second are still where friends and family lived, and the new car in the driveway is the successor to the Country Squire and Pontiac Bonneville that once parked there, the keys in the ignition, the doors unlocked.

I made sure that as I drove around town on the way to do errands with my parents I took notice of the town.  It has changed over the last fifty-six years, but not so much that I don’t recognize it by the sights, sounds, and sense of place that comes with having something become a part of you over a lifetime.  And I made sure that I said goodbye with a smile and a nod to old familiar places, echoes of laughter, memories of sadness and passings, and knowing that while Thomas Wolfe gets all the press for saying you can’t go home again, you can visit, even if the place you lived in belongs to someone else and the people you know have moved on.

They’re still there.  And so am I.

Our house from 1957 to 1982.

Our house from 1957 to 1982.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday, March 18, 2013

It Shouldn’t Be Personal

Following up on the point I made at the end of my piece about Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) having a change of heart about marriage equality:

I respect Mr. Portman for his forthrightness in saying that it took a personal revelation to get him to change his mind.  It’s easy to be against something in the abstract but difficult to turn into a bumper sticker when it touches you: abortion is murder until your 16 year old daughter breaks the news, and God hates gays until your son sits you down and tells you that his roommate isn’t really just a guy who helps with the rent.  That’s when reality trumps the talking points.

My only wish is that it didn’t take a personal family experience to learn that.

I am glad to see that I’m not the only one who thinks like that, as my commenters pointed out.  Here’s Matthew Yglesias on the same subject:

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Let’s take this one step further and say that it shouldn’t require someone to be poor, or gay or disabled to get a measure of understanding from a lawmaker.  Or anyone, for that matter.  It goes to the basic rules you learn in kindergarten: share, be nice, think of someone else first.  If you want to attach a religious theme to it, fine.  Or just remember the thing my father used to plead to us kids when we were fighting: Love One Another.