Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sunday Reading

Charles P. Pierce on what must be the solution.

It was 40 years ago this week that I attended my first presidential inauguration. I was working for The Boston Phoenix and I had spent a lot of 1980 covering the Republican side of the presidential campaign. This was not as hard as you might think it was. Yes, the Phoenix was an alternative newspaper with roots in the Sixties, that already fading decade that was slowly surrendering its historical moment to the coming Age of Reagan. But the Republicans were trying hard to make inroads with younger voters, presciently anticipating the greed-is-good, MBA culture of the 1980s, and the Phoenix had demographics to die for. So, outside of some cracks about my hair—on my Secret Service ID from those days, I look very much like St. James The Lesser—the Republicans were very happy to see me, and I got my phone calls returned fairly quickly. So, that January, it was natural that I would finish up my work on that beat by watching Ronald Reagan get sworn in. Which brought me to the Capitol lawn, and an unsteady folding chair that eventually collapsed, dumping me into the lap of Ron Bair, the mayor of Spokane, Washington.

Inaugurations are part civic religion and part democratic bone-worshipping. As much as monarchies have marble traditions attending every change in monarch, the rituals of our democracy carry the same weight with us by now. At the beginning, they weren’t quite as important. As much as we heard reverence paid to Thomas Jefferson’s first inauguration over the past week—peaceful transition of power and all that—there was more than a bit of ill-feeling that should seem familiar to those of us presently staggering out of the past four years like spavined gas-station hounds. After all, just like the most recent president*, John Adams spurned the ceremony. While his (then-former) friend was waxing eloquently about…

But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans. We are all federalists.

…Adams was grumpily rattling north back to Quincy, fed up with the world, as usual. This established something of a family tradition in that, 28 years later, after an even more rancorous campaign, President John Quincy Adams refused to attend the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, the man who had made him a one-term president like his father had been. God, what a stiff-necked bunch the Adamses were, every one of them with a stick up their behinds the size of a Louisville Slugger.

(Jackson’s inauguration famously turned into a general hooley, with hundreds of Jackson’s backwoods supporters guzzling whiskey punch and smashing the good china.)

Anyway, the inauguration of 1981 was every bit as transformational as either of those two were. Jimmy Carter had been a beleaguered one-term president turned out of office by a great political wave that had gone largely undetected. The GOP power had moved south and west, away from Wall Street and into the hills and deserts, plains and mountains. At the same time, responding to the gains of the civil rights movement, northern blue-collar voters surfed the white backlash into a Republican Party that looked like a refuge from the perils of racial equality. The New Deal coalition had been an empty shell for almost a decade, but nobody really noticed until it was far too late. This definitely included me.

In November of 1980, the bill finally came due. Not long before Election Day, I spoke to a friend who had been earning extra money doing telephone polling for Carter as part of Pat Caddell’s operation. He told me that, based on what he was hearing on the phone, Carter was bleeding support all over the country. Moreover, for my election preview, I took a motor trip around the Rust Belt, from Youngstown to Grand Rapids, stopping in Toledo and Flint along the way. In what should have been Democratic strongholds, Carter’s support was unenthusiastic, where it existed at all. However, when I wrote the preview, I pulled my punches, telling myself that people would clean the gist of the upcoming slaughter from the anecdotes I included. Show, don’t tell, I thought to myself, knowing all the while that I could call the coming landslide if I had the guts to do so. It remains the biggest mistake of my career.

Reagan crushed Carter by almost 10 points. He piled up 449 electoral votes to Carter’s paltry 89. Not only did Reagan win, but he won so smashingly that he took down the Democratic majority in the Senate, too. Before Election Day, the Democrats held a 58-41 edge. After Election Day, the Republicans had a 53-46 advantage, their first Senate majority since 1955. And these weren’t obscure backbench incumbents who lost their seats, either. George McGovern went down, as did Birch Bayh, Frank Church, and Gaylord Nelson. (McGovern couldn’t even muster 40 percent of the vote in South Dakota.) And that was how I came to be sitting in the lap of the mayor of Spokane on an unseasonably warm day in Washington in January of 1981.

Lord, they were having a ball, these suddenly resurgent Republicans who were taking over the capital again. After a long time in exile, and after the disastrous post-Watergate elections, they were back in charge, and hot damn, it was fun to spend money again. I followed my inherent sportswriter instinct that insists that the best stories are in the losing clubhouse. I went looking for Democrats.

I found them in a bar called The Class Reunion, which apparently had been the regular watering hole for young White House staffers during the Carter Administration. On this night, it was packed to the gunwales with people, young and old, who would be unemployed after noon on the next day. I established base camp at the bar next to a gentleman from the Irish embassy. He was staring past his glass at his hands, and I asked him what was wrong. He said that some wingnut Evangelical congressman from South Carolina had invited Ian Paisley, the angry face of Protestant Ulster, to the inauguration. His embassy had gone up the wall, but there was nothing he could do about it. Times and administrations were changing, and the Prods were ascendant, and Ian Paisley, who called the pope the Whore of Babylon, was an honored guest of the United States government. I ended up the night with some junior staffers from the office of outgoing Vice President Walter Mondale, who were completely sockless and unreasonably happy that I knew all the lyrics to the Minnesota Rouser. Reagan was inaugurated the next day, and he said to all of us, to god and the world, those portentous words:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

It can be argued, and I have, that this election, and the president who won it, scared the Democratic Party out of its best instincts for the next 30-odd years. While they made some gains in the 1982 midterm elections, riding the discontent of a recession touched off by Reagan’s devotion to supply-side foolishness in his first and most misbegotten budget, the Democrats spent year after year, election after election, chasing after those voters who had abandoned them in 1980. This desperate, futile chase brought about the rise of actual neoliberalism, the Democratic Leadership Conference, and a careful barbering of the party’s commitment to civil rights that was tacitly blamed by many Democrats for what had happened in 1980.

Meanwhile, as the Democrats were fashioning themselves an endless rack of new clothes to wear, the Republicans were getting drunker and drunker on their own supply. They doubled down repeatedly on appeals to white backlash and they attached themselves ever more securely to the political power of fringe Protestantism. The party was clearly, steadily going mad, and yet the Democrats declined to take advantage of that, and many Democrats didn’t think they should anyway. Consequently, the Republicans had no reason to stop their steady slide into extremism.

I would argue—and I will—that we all just experienced the logical end of all of this over the past four years. The Republicans built a party in which some president like Donald Trump not only was possible, but inevitable. That he came in the form of an incompetent sociopathic monster may have been the only break we caught. Now comes Joe Biden, 40 years after Reagan, talking about a massive federal program to confront the ongoing pandemic, and to improve the nation’s infrastructure, and illustrating by word and deed that government can indeed, and must indeed, be the solution, and not the problem. This day, delayed by decades, has finally arrived.

The Next Florida Man — Diane Roberts in the Washington Post.

Donald Trump has flown off to Florida, which is, after all, what New Yorkers of a certain age tend to do. But it was long overdue, even when his mailing address was on Fifth Avenue: With his candied-yam tan, his commitment to year-round golfing and his inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, Trump’s always been more Florida Man than Manhattan sophisticate.

Taking up full-time residence at Mar-a-Lago — assuming the town council of Palm Beach decides not to enforce the 1993 agreement he signed barring anyone from making the club a permanent residence — the twice-impeached Trump joins a long list of shady characters who found a refuge, even if only fleeting, in sunny South Florida. What with its paradisal weather and a certain ethical looseness when it comes to the rich and famous, Florida has always been a desirable location for the well-heeled disreputable. Richard Nixon ruminated over the Watergate break-in at his Key Biscayne compound. O.J. Simpson lived in Kendall until he was convicted of armed robbery in 2008. In 1928, Al Capone bought a Palm Island mansion from brewery heir Clarence Busch, and in 1929, he threw a lavish party there the same night that hit men killed rival mobsters in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, giving himself a copper-bottomed alibi. Former despots have also aimed for soft landings in South Florida over the years: Fulgencio Batista, overthrown by Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution, bought a vacation home in Daytona Beach and a house in Miami’s Spring Garden, and Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza Debayle (who was kicked out by U.S. authorities) and Haiti’s Prosper Avril (who wasn’t) both made their way there after fleeing their countries.

Trump isn’t exactly a deposed dictator, though he wasn’t shy about asserting autocratic power as president, repeatedly insisting that Article II of the Constitution allowed him to do anything he wanted. It didn’t. But in Florida, reality is negotiable. Trump still won’t admit he lost the election, and he still denies any responsibility for inciting the mob that looted, pillaged and desecrated the Capitol, leaving four rioters and a police officer dead. In Florida, he won’t have to. The Bay County Republican Party, for example, refuses to acknowledge that Trump is no longer in office, officially referring to President Biden as “president-imposed.”

Florida is the Looking-Glass Land of the nation, where it’s not only possible but perfectly normal to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Andrew Jackson — Trump’s favorite president — burned native people out of their homes and ran them off their land, clearing Florida for enslaving cotton magnates. The White gentry named their plantations after Sir Walter Scott novels and played at being British aristocrats, with jousts and “knightly” pageants and Queens of Love and Beauty. Standard Oil founder Henry Flagler turned the Atlantic coast of Florida into a make-believe Mediterranean, his hotels mash-ups of the Alhambra, the Palace of the Doges and Windsor Castle. Walt Disney bought unprepossessing chunks of central Florida land from unsuspecting citrus farmers and transformed them into a Neverland of princesses and talking mice.

Washington now teems with Democrats sporting their diversity and their masks, their Chuck Taylors and their selfies with Lady Gaga and J-Lo. That makes Florida a much friendlier place for Trumpist Republicans. Gov. Ron DeSantis is one of Trump’s more limpet-like supporters, an early adopter of hydroxychloroquine as a covid-19 miracle cure, hostile to lockdowns and social distancing, and an enabler of Trump’s claims of a “stolen” election. He has declared that the most important issue in Florida now is the perfidy of Twitter and other social media platforms that are supposedly muzzling conservative voices. Rep. Matt Gaetz, often not so much economical with the truth but in pitched battle against it, is only the loudest of the baker’s dozen members of Congress from Florida who refused to certify Biden’s election.

While Sen. Rick Scott has supported Trump since he announced his presidential run in 2015, Sen. Marco Rubio was an early rival for the Republican nomination and may find his slower conversion to MAGAism rewarded with a primary challenger for his seat in 2022 — because Ivanka Trump is also moving to Florida. She and husband Jared Kushner have bought a $30 million, two-acre lot on Indian Creek Island in Biscayne Bay. For that matter, newly engaged Tiffany Trump has been looking at properties in South Beach, and Don Jr. and his shouty girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, have been touring upscale houses in Jupiter. Only Eric Trump and his wife, Lara, seem to be resisting the lure to head south, possibly because she may be planning a run for the U.S. Senate from her native North Carolina.

But Florida still isn’t completely Trump territory, as the ex-president will find. Palm Beach County is deep blue. Rep. Lois Frankel, Trump’s congresswoman, was, like Trump, born in New York, but she’s a progressive Democrat. She won reelection by 20 points in November, even though Trump captured the state easily and her opponent, Republican conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer, had endorsements from Roger Stone (also a Florida resident), Roseanne Barr and the founder of the Proud Boys.

South Florida, more broadly, also remains majority Democratic, but that probably won’t trouble Trump. As long as he owns the clubs, he’ll have golfing partners. As long as the likes of the Boca Raton-based Newsmax can sell ads, he’ll have a political megaphone. Unless the Senate votes to convict him in his impeachment trial, or the Fulton County, Ga., district attorney or city, state or federal prosecutors in New York file charges against him, Trump will go on spinning dark dreams from his Florida fastness — just another old caudillo trying to relive the glory days.

Doonesbury –An oldie but a goodie.

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Sense of Christmas

I’m continuing a tradition I began back when this blog was new, which is another way of saying that I’ve posted this on Christmases past; this makes the thirteenth Christmas that I’ve shared this story.

Christmas WreathWhen I was a kid, our family lived in a house with tall ceilings so we always got a Christmas tree that was at least ten feet tall – maybe taller. (It could have been less, but when you’re six or seven, it looks a lot taller.) We had tons of decorations from our family history; gingerbread decorations held together with fine wire, bubble lights that never seemed to work right, and hundreds of ornaments. We always had a debate about tinsel – I hated it, my sister wanted it. Guess who won that one. Every year we put the tree in a different room – one year in the living room, the next in the front parlor, and then in the bay window in the dining room.

That was not the extent of the decorating by any means. While my family was not particularly religious, we went all out for the season in the decor mode that would have made Martha Stewart get out of the business. This was a tradition carried on from both of my parent’s families; my father tells how his father was a meticulous hanger of the old-fashioned lead tinsel, and my mother’s family did it up to the heights of giddiness that included the tree and presents magically appearing overnight on Christmas Eve. So we had a legacy to live up to. Lights on the front porch were interwoven in the cedar roping that looped down from the eaves. There was more roping on the bannister going up the front stairs, tied on with red ribbons, and roping again around the big mirror in the front hall. Candles in Christmas candelabra filled the house with the scent of candle smoke, merging with the evergreens, and on Christmas Eve, when the big roast was in the oven for the dinner with Aunt Margaret, the house was awash with homey aromas.

We had an old-fashioned hi-fi system with speakers throughout the first floor of the house, and as we put up the tree and the roping – usually the weekend before Christmas – we would dig out the Christmas LP’s. The perennial was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Joy To the World that began with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” That would be followed by the Bing Crosby Merry Christmas album and anything else we had in the rack.

We had two fireplaces in the house, including one in the kitchen, so that’s where we hung our stockings with care. Christmas morning would arrive and the four kids would line up, youngest first, on the back stairs, squirming with anticipation until we were let into the kitchen and a breakfast of Christmas baked treats, including a Scandinavian stollen baked by a family friend. (Never one who liked things like that, I often wished the stollen would be stolen….) Then we’d line up at the appropriate closed door behind which lay the treasure. Nearly fainting with the anticipation, the door would be flung open – a four-voiced gasp of breath, followed by pounding feet and squeals of delight. We took turns, shredding the wrapping, opening the boxes, reading the tags – “From Mom and Dad,” “From Santa,” “From Grammie.” My mother kept a list of who got what from whom so that the thank-you notes could be written. There was always one Big Present for each kid – a bicycle, skis, a train set, a kitten – and lots of books and clothes, too. And each child was sure to give his sibling something, usually something oddly appropriate; like lavender bath beads from me to my sister.

When it was all over, the trash can was filled with the wrappings, the loot taken upstairs, and new clothes tried on. I would pore through the new books until I was nagged to get dressed to go to Christmas dinner somewhere else – with cross-town relatives or the Carranor Club – and the streets would be empty as we piled into the station wagon. We’d come home in the cold and dark, tired from all the excitement, ready to come down from the sugar-spiked high. The next day we’d pack up for our annual skiing trip to Boyne Mountain in Michigan, complete with its own set of sense memories.

These traditions were carried on as we each grew up and started our own families, adding our own touches; Allen and I merged some of each to come up with our own for fifteen years, including the tree (artificial, though – he was allergic to pine) and music. (I’ve got the Bing Crosby CD on as I write this.) My sister has passed it on to her children, and my younger brother, with his family, carries on much as we did when we were young.

So while there may not be a whole lot of religion in any of it, there’s the strength of the ties of family and love that surpasses any denominational definition. It is a common thread that binds us all together whether we say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Felice Navidad” (which I immediately corrupted to “Fleas On Your Dad”), “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Good Kwanzaa.” It’s the sense of togetherness and hope that can be spread regardless of whether or not you celebrate the birth of the son of God, and the thankfulness that you feel that you have made it through yet another year and look forward to making the next one better.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

March 1 is St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The title is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

Here’s the national anthem, and a phonetic version of the lyrics so you can sing along:

My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree
Glad farts and centurions throw dogs in the sea
I could stew a hare here, and brandish Don’s flan.
Don’s ruddy bog’s blocked up with sand.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.

Sunday Reading

Biden Finds His Voice in South Carolina — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

Joe Biden has long said that South Carolina would prove to be the electoral firewall in his bid for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, and it turned out he was right. As the votes came in on Saturday night from across the Palmetto State, it quickly became clear that the former Vice-President had scored a blowout victory in the most populous and most diverse state to vote so far in this primary season.

With ninety-nine per cent of the votes counted, Biden had about forty-eight per cent of the total. He was running twenty-eight percentage points ahead of Bernie Sanders and thirty-seven percentage points ahead of Tom Steyer, who subsequently announced that he was giving up his Presidential campaign. The other candidates came in nowhere.

Among black voters, who made up more than half of the primary electorate, Biden’s margin of victory was even larger. According to an exit poll carried out by Edison Media Research for a national consortium of news outlets, sixty-one per cent of African-American voters had voted for him versus seventeen per cent for Sanders and thirteen per cent for Steyer.

Biden appeared to have won every county in the state. The exit poll suggested that he won the white vote, the college-degree vote, the non-college-degree vote, and every age demographic except seventeen- to twenty-nine-year-olds. According to the poll, he even finished thirteen points ahead of Sanders among voters who identified themselves as very liberal.

Of course, there is a reason that Biden declared South Carolina as his firewall: he has close ties to some of the state’s political leaders, including James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, who endorsed him on Wednesday, and its demographics are favorable to him. But, as recently as this past week, opinion polls had shown Sanders closing to within four or five points of Biden, and the Vermont senator had predicted that he would pull off a come-from-behind win. If that had happened, Biden’s campaign would have been sunk. By the time the former Vice-President took the stage, in Columbia, shortly before 9 P.M. on Saturday night, however, he was assured of a sweeping victory.

At least in this campaign, it is an understatement to say that Biden hasn’t been noted for his oratory. But, as he demonstrated at the 2012 Democratic convention, he is capable of giving a good speech on a big occasion, and this was arguably the biggest of his political career. With his campaign running out of money, Biden’s South Carolina win was a rare opportunity to address the Democratic electorate at large before Tuesday, when fourteen more states will vote, including California, Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia.

He began in predictable fashion, hailing “my buddy Jim Clyburn” and casting himself as the comeback kid. “For all those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind, this is your campaign,” he declared. From there, the speech became more pointed, more strategic, and more emotive. Biden’s advisers are well aware that winning one state won’t be enough to stop Sanders, especially if the Vermont senator scores big victories on Tuesday in delegate-rich California and Texas, where the polls show him in the lead. The immediate goals for the Biden campaign are twofold: to cement Biden’s place as the only viable alternative to Sanders and to limit the Vermont senator’s lead in the delegate count by persuading enough Democrats that a Sanders candidacy would be an electoral disaster for the entire Party, not just its hopes of driving Donald Trump out of the White House. “The decisions Democrats make all across America in the next few days will determine what this party stands for, what we believe, and what we’ll get done,” Biden said. “If the Democrats nominate me, I believe we can defeat Donald Trump, keep Nancy Pelosi in the House of Representatives as Speaker, and take the U.S. Senate.”

Although he didn’t mention Sanders by name, he cast doubt on his electability, his policies, his ideology, and his loyalty to the Democratic Party. “If the Democrats want a nominee who is a Democrat, a lifelong Democrat, a proud Democrat, an Obama-Biden Democrat, then join us,” he declared. Mocking one of Sanders’s slogans, he went on, “Most Americans don’t want the promise of revolution. They want more than promises. They want results.” Biden also depicted Sanders as a divisive figure. At one point, he even compared him to Donald Trump, or, at least, he compared the impact of the Sanders movement on the Democratic Party to what the Trump movement did to the G.O.P. “We have to beat Donald Trump and the Republican Party,” Biden said. “But here’s the deal: we can’t become like them . . . We can’t have a never-ending war.”

That was the political pitch, but Biden also sounded a more personal note about the need for healing the soul of the country after the Trump Presidency. He recalled how, in June, 2015, shortly after his son Beau died of cancer, he and his wife, Jill, attended Sunday service at the Emanuel A.M.E. church, where a young white supremacist had recently gunned down nine parishioners. “We left here, having arrived in overwhelming pain, thinking we can do this, we’d get through this,” Biden said. Then, with the raucous crowd having fallen silent, he brought up Alexis de Tocqueville, whom Clyburn had mentioned in his introduction, saying, “This multi-ethnic country we call our democracy, America, it can’t survive unless we focus on our goodness.”

On the page, it reads like a somewhat awkward transition, but Biden knew exactly where he was going. “We can build a more perfect union, because the American people in the last three and a half years have seen the alternative,” he went on. “No, I really mean it. Think about it. They’ve seen how utterly mean, selfish, lack of any sense of empathy or concern for anybody else—a President who not only has horrible policies, but the way he mocks and makes fun of other people.”

In finishing, Biden thanked Clyburn again and declared to the crowd, “The Bidens love you guys.”Despite his big victory, he still faces a number of challenges. Sanders, having won two of the first four states and virtually tied in another, remains the front-runner, and his supporters aren’t going anywhere. And even after Steyer’s exit, there are four candidates vying for the non-Sanders vote, with the presence of Michael Bloomberg presenting a particular problem for Biden. In the past couple of months, the former mayor of New York has spent ungodly sums of money advertising all across the Super Tuesday map. He could take moderate voters from the former Vice-President everywhere, but particularly in a number of Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and North Carolina—where the Biden camp is hoping to blunt Sanders’s advantage out West.

In an ideal world for Biden, Bloomberg would drop out of the race before Super Tuesday and throw his support behind him, but on Saturday night Bloomberg’s aides rejected that idea to reporters. (Bloomberg was not on the ballot in South Carolina.) For now, Biden can do little about Bloomberg. All he could do on Saturday was win big in South Carolina and then give a memorable speech. He managed both, and shortly after he left the stage in Columbia one of his erstwhile opponents, Andrew Yang, who is now a commentator on CNN, paid him a compliment. “That was the best I’ve ever seen him,” Yang said.

What Katherine Johnson Means to Mae Jemison, the first woman of color in space.

Two years after I joined NASA in 1987, I was preparing for a trip to Brazil to help the United States Information Service celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The souvenir posters I would give out referred to the “first American men on the moon.” I suggested it would be more appropriate if they read “first humans on the moon.”

A male astronaut sneered at the idea and said that it had been “men who landed on the moon.”

“But it was women who helped put them there!” I pushed back.

I was referring to the countless generations of women who have done so much to support human achievements but have gone unrecognized.

Even though I was soon to become the first woman of color who went to space, at that time I did not know of the mathematician Katherine Johnson, who died on Monday at the age of 101, or of the crucial calculations she made for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

It would have put such a fierce smile on my face had I known about Katherine Johnson, her colleagues Mary Jackson and Jackie Vaughn and the other women mathematicians at NASA when I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s. I always assumed that I would go into space, even though the United States had no astronauts who were women or of color at the time. I could see on TV that the mission control rooms were filled with white men. Even at 8, 9 or 10 years old, I was sure that the picture misrepresented the capabilities women and I possessed.

Though I majored in African and African-American studies as well as chemical engineering at Stanford, when I joined the NASA astronaut corps I only knew vaguely of some African-American women at NASA and in aviation. I knew of African-American men and white women who were science and exploration legends. Yet I was unfamiliar with Bessie Coleman, who became the first black woman in the world to get a pilot’s license in 1921; or Willa Brown, an African-American and the first U.S. woman to get both a pilot’s and a mechanic’s license and who lobbied the government to integrate the Army Air Corps. That helped lead to the establishment of the Tuskegee Airmen, a number of whom she trained.

It fortified me to get to know and work with Christine Darden, Patricia Cowings and other women scientists, engineers and mathematicians of all ethnicities who worked at NASA centers throughout the nation.

I am so pleased the book and movie “Hidden Figures” allowed the world to meet and celebrate Katherine Johnson and her colleagues.

Katherine Johnson was a revelation. An inspiration. But she was not a “one-off” to be put on a shelf and admired for her singular genius. She was representative of the deep well of talent and potential that is so often buried by lack of opportunity, access, exposure and expectation for women and particularly women of color in science and technical fields.

She was a beacon who heralded the contributions made by women that were hidden and stymied by the deep institutional and societal bias that accredits achievements to white men, deemed by society to be the unique holders of genius.

Johnson today is a balm for the discomfort that arises when you stand up in a crowd — a crowd that doubts your capabilities due only to your gender or race — and press a point, disagree with a widely held premise or challenge the sugar coating of facts meant to make the powerful feel better while disregarding the less powerful, who need the truth revealed.

I have been working with a group of experts to understand what is needed to achieve the equitable participation and leadership of women in STEM fields. The insight may be uncomfortable for some allies, because effective, lasting solutions demand profound change in core beliefs and behaviors.

The changes require the dismantling of a gantlet: of persistent bias, obstacles and actions that block women’s entry or push them out. It is a gantlet that has gone unacknowledged even decades after Katherine Johnson’s accomplishments at NASA. Organizations value women for their work when it aligns with the organization’s traditional perspectives; but they fall back on exclusionary behavior when new, diverse perspectives are generated or required.

Women have continued to advance within NASA — Peggy Whitson is the American astronaut who has spent the most time in space. In October, a pair of female astronauts, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir, walked in space together.

Even great organizations may be blind to persistent intersectional bias that treats African-American women so differently. As I testified before the House space and science committee in May, there have been just six African-American women astronauts; three of them have flown in space. It is confounding that of 338 NASA astronauts, two of these African-American women, of stellar accomplishments and tenures of over 10 years each, are the only American astronauts who have been denied or pulled from a spaceflight assignment without any official explanation.

While I did not meet Katherine Johnson, when I channel her, I am jazzed. Katherine Johnson is the shining example. Through her I see the possibilities when the full scope of human experience, talent and perspectives are engaged to address the challenges and opportunities to improve life on Earth for all and push the limits of our knowledge.

Doonesbury — I’m confused.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

March 1 is St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The title is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

Here’s the national anthem, and a phonetic version of the lyrics so you can sing along:

My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree
Glad farts and centurions throw dogs in the sea
I could stew a hare here, and brandish Don’s flan.
Don’s ruddy bog’s blocked up with sand.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day

Today is the 98th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I in 1918. It used to be called Armistice Day. Today it is the official holiday to commemorate Veterans Day.

It’s become my tradition here to mark the day with the poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae (1872-1918)

I honor my father, two uncles, a cousin, a great uncle, many friends and colleagues, and the millions known and unknown who served our country in the armed forces.

Friday, September 2, 2016

This Cannot Be Our Legacy

Josh Marshall has thought this through and comes to the conclusion, as a lot of us have, that Donald Trump is engaging in the same kind of campaign that we’ve seen with red and black banners and brown shirts or burning crosses.

… Watch Trump’s speeches, with the yelling, the reddened face, the demand for vengeance and you see there’s little to distinguish them from what we see at Aryan Nations or other white hate rallies that we all immediately recognize as reprehensible, wrong and frankly terrifying. This isn’t ‘rough’ language or ‘hard edged’ rhetoric. It’s hate speech. Precisely what policy solution Trump is calling for is almost beside the point. Indeed, it wouldn’t be hate speech any less if Trump specified no policy solution at all.

This isn’t normal. It was normal in the Jim Crow South, as it was in Eastern Europe for centuries. It’s not normal in America in the 21st century. And yet it’s become normalized. It’s a mammoth failure of our political press. But it’s not just theirs, ours. It’s a collective failure that we’re all responsible for. By any reasonable standard, Donald Trump’s speech on Wednesday night should have ended the campaign, as should numerous other rallies where Trump has done more or less the same thing for months. There’s a reason why the worst of the worst, the organized and avowed racists, were thrilled and almost giddy watching the spectacle. But it has become normalized. We do not even see it for what it is. It’s like we’ve all been cast under a spell. That normalization will be with us long after this particular demagogue, Donald Trump, has left the stage. Call this what it is: it is hate speech, in its deepest and most dangerous form.

And it must stop.  This is not the country that we want.  This is not what we can leave to the generations who will follow us and look to us and tell us that this is the legacy we gave them.  I can’t look at my 15-month-old great-nephew or the 350,000 students of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and say, “Here you are, this is the best we can do for you.”

I grew up as a baby boomer in the 1950’s and ’60’s believing that the marches for equal rights and brotherhood were really changing America from a land that just talked of those values to one that made them a reality even as there were those who fought back with the fire of fear and loathing.  We even thought — naively — that once they were achieved in large part that as the years passed we — all of us — would accept and welcome new cultures, new voices, new names and leave the distrust of the different behind.  But human nature does not change by legislation or popular sentiment and there will always be in us the instinct to shy away from the change.  And there will always be those who will exploit it for their own gain.

This cannot be our legacy.  We have worked too hard and come too far to leave it to the haters and the fear-mongers.  The days of going to war to end discrimination and a holocaust only to return home to a land of Jim Crow and restricted country clubs is the legacy of one generation that worked to change that.  Ours must be that we shun those who would bring it back and in the name of “freedom” turn that word and its values into a cudgel or a wall.  Not now, and never again.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Glorious Fourth

Flags in the Rain 07-03-14When I was a kid I was very outgoing in putting up displays for the holidays — Memorial Day, Christmas, the Fourth of July — I liked the flags, the lights, the stuff. It was cool to make a big splash. But as I grew up I grew out of it, and today I don’t go much for things like that. I don’t have a flag to fly on national holidays, and the most I’ll do for Christmas is a wreath on the door because it has good memories and the scent of pine is rare in subtropical Florida.

I suppose it has something to do with my Quaker notions of shunning iconography — outward symbols can’t show how you truly feel about something on the inside — and more often than not they are used to make up for the lack of a true belief. This is also true of patriotism: waving the flag — or wrapping yourself in it — is a poor and false measure of how you truly feel about your country.

There’s an old saying that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. As Benjamin Franklin noted, no country had ever been formed because of an idea. But when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776 and passed the resolution embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that was what was being done. To create a nation not based on geographical boundaries, property, tribalism, or religion, but on the idea of forming a new government to replace the present form because the rulers were incompetent, uncaring, and cruel. The American Revolution wasn’t so much a rebellion as it was a cry for attention. Most of the Declaration is a punch-list, if you will, of grievances both petty and grand against the Crown, and once the revolution was over and the new government was formed, the Constitution contained many remedies to prevent the slights and injuries inflicted under colonialism: the Bill of Rights is a direct response to many of the complaints listed in the Declaration.

But the Declaration of Independence goes beyond complaints. Its preamble is a mission statement. It proclaims our goals and what we hope to achieve. No nation had ever done that before, and to this day we are still struggling to achieve life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness goes on with no sign of let-up.

That is the true glory of America. Not that we complain — and we do — but that we work to fix those complaints. To put them right. To make things better than they were. To give hope to people who feel that they have no voice, and to assure that regardless of who they are, where they come from, what they look like, who they love, or what they believe, there will be room for them to grow, do, and become whatever it is that they have the capacity to be. It’s a simple idea, but the simplest ideas often have the most powerful impact.

This nation has achieved many great things. We’ve inspired other nations and drawn millions to our shores not to just escape their own country but to participate in what we’re doing. And we’ve made mistakes. We’ve blundered and fumbled and bullied and injured. We’ve treated some of our own citizens with contempt, and shown the same kind of disregard for the rights of others that we enumerated in our own Declaration of Independence. We have been guilty of arrogance and hypocrisy. But these are all human traits, and we are, after all, human. The goal of government is to rise above humanity, and the goal of humanity is to strive for perfection. So if we stumble on the road to that goal, it is only because we are moving forward.

I love this country not for what it is but for what it could be. In my own way I show my patriotism not by waving a flag from my front porch but by working to make things work in our system and by adding to the discussion that will bring forth ideas to improve our lives and call into question the ideas of others. It is all a part of what makes the simple idea of life, liberty, and that elusive happiness so compelling and so inspiring, and what makes me very proud to be a part of this grand experiment.

Go forth!

Photo: The Avenue in the Rain by Frederick Childe Hassam 1917

This post originally appeared on July 4, 2005.

The Declaration of Independence

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

March 1 is St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The title is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

Here’s the national anthem, and a phonetic version of the lyrics so you can sing along:

My hen laid a haddock on top of a tree
Glad farts and centurions throw dogs in the sea
I could stew a hare here, and brandish Don’s flan.
Don’s ruddy bog’s blocked up with sand.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.
Dad! Dad! Why don’t you oil Aunty Glad?
When whores appear on beer bottle pies,
Oh butter the hens as they fly.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Reading

Wales Ponders Independence — The referendum next month in Scotland has some Welsh thinking about their own nationality.  Karen Bennhold of the New York Times reports.

800px-Flag_of_Wales_2.svgTwm Morys was boiling carrots for his children when he momentarily stopped to recite a 15th-century battle chant in Welsh. Beating out the guttural consonants with a stave on his kitchen floor until they rang in every last corner of his farmhouse, Mr. Morys, a well-known poet, said it was time to put “fire in the belly” of his people.

He is not the only one. In the ancient mountains towering above this coastal town in northern Wales, where eight in 10 people speak the native Celtic tongue, and many carry names their fellow Britons would not dare pronounce, Welsh nationalists have their eyes firmly set on independence — Scottish independence.

Less than a month before Scotland holds a referendum on whether to leave Britain, Wales is watching with a mix of envy, excitement and trepidation.

“If Scotland votes yes, the genie is out of the bottle,” said Leanne Wood, leader of Wales’s nationalist party Plaid Cymru. Only one in 10 Welsh voters supports independence, compared with about four in 10 in Scotland, but Ms. Wood thinks that could change. “The tectonic plates of the United Kingdom are shifting,” she said.

Tremors from the Scottish debate can already be felt across Britain. Whatever happens on Sept. 18, growing demands for more regional autonomy will reshape the country. In Northern Ireland, nationalists spy an opportunity to revive dreams of a united Ireland. Cornwall recently won minority status for its Celtic inhabitants. Even the long-neglected north of England has turned up the volume, questioning an ever greater concentration of wealth in London and the southeast.

But in Wales, perhaps more than anywhere else, nationalists have made the Scottish independence bid their own in the hope that it will stir passions at home — if not for full independence, at least for more self-government.

Ms. Wood, who was once expelled from a legislative debate for referring to Queen Elizabeth II as “Mrs. Windsor,” has been to Scotland twice in support of the Yes campaign and plans to go again. The Welsh Hollywood actor Rhys Ifans has joined the #goforitScotland campaign. And Adam Price, an entrepreneur and prominent pro-independence thinker, has been campaigning in Scotland from a caravan, Welsh-style. “Caravaning for independence,” he calls it.

Others, like Mr. Morys, will gather in the Welsh capital, Cardiff, the week before the referendum for a series of performances to “whip up some Welsh enthusiasm,” stave in hand.

Wales and Scotland have much in common — not least an unfailing loyalty to any sporting side that plays against England, their once mighty and still dominant neighbor.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher, the conservative prime minister, shut their heavy industries, Scottish and Welsh voters have cast their ballot to the left of the English. There is, said Peter Florence, director of Wales’s Hay literary festival, a shared sense of not being represented in Westminster.

But Wales is smaller and poorer than Scotland. It has no oil to make up for the subsidies from London currently sustaining its public services. “We’re a hundred years too late,” Mr. Florence lamented, referring to the Welsh coal riches that once fired Britain’s industrial revolution. If he were Scottish, he would vote for independence, he said. “But we simply cannot afford it.”

Gerald Holtham, one of Wales’s most prominent economists, has done the math: Total government spending for Wales is 30 billion pounds a year, or about $50 billion, and tax receipts come to 17 billion pounds. “We’re talking about a gap a quarter the size of the economy,” he said.

Nationalists retort that Wales can escape poverty only if it takes charge of its own destiny. “No nation has ever ruled another well,” said Mr. Price, a former lawmaker who set up a technology company in Wales. “We are poor because we are not independent, rather than the other way round.”

But even he conceded that the time for Welsh independence has not come. First, he said, “We have to learn to be a nation again.”

Unlike Scotland, whose Parliament voted to join England three centuries ago, Wales was conquered in 1282. The Scots kept their own legal system, schools, universities, church and, with it all, a strong civic identity distinct from England’s. Welsh institutions were swallowed whole; the Welsh dragon, which flutters proudly and ubiquitously on the high street in Caernarfon, is nowhere to be seen in the Union Jack.

“We were England’s first colony,” said Eirian James, owner of Palas Print, a local bookstore with mainly Welsh-language fare. Every time she visits relatives in southern Wales, she has to take a train through England. To this day, most transport links run from west to east, toward England, rather than along Wales’s north-south axis.

The Welsh tourism board proudly promotes the fact that there are more castles per square mile in Wales than anywhere else. For locals, those castles are another reminder of early occupation.

Full disclosure — At least one branch of my family tree grew in Wales.

Doonesbury — Parental guidance.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Vanity Plate

It’s offensive, but the court is right: the government can’t decide whether or not honoring the memories of rebels and slave owners belongs on a Texas license plate without violating the First Amendment.

A federal appeals panel ruled 2-1 that the Department of Motor Vehicles had violated the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ free speech rights and engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” when it rejected its specialty plate in 2011.

The judgment rekindled a loud debate among those who say the symbol honors Confederate heritage and others who see it as racially offensive and hurtful.

An attorney for the Texas chapter, John McConnell, said the ruling reaffirms that “the government cannot step into an issue and silence one side while endorsing the viewpoint of the other side.”

Nine other states have plates that honor the Confederate veterans (Florida is not one of them), and I’m sure the folks in Texas who want them will snatch them up.  Good luck parking your car or truck in certain places, though; a plate like that basically says, “Hey, vandalize me!”

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.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Glorious Fourth

When I was a kid I was very outgoing in putting up displays for the holidays — Memorial Day, Christmas, the Fourth of July — I liked the flags, the lights, the stuff. It was cool to make a big splash. But as I grew up I grew out of it, and today I don’t go much for things like that. I don’t have a flag to fly on national holidays, and the most I’ll do for Christmas is a wreath on the door because it has good memories and the scent of pine is rare in subtropical Florida.

I suppose it has something to do with my Quaker notions of shunning iconography — outward symbols can’t show how you truly feel about something on the inside — and more often than not they are used to make up for the lack of a true belief. This is also true of patriotism: waving the flag — or wrapping yourself in it — is a poor and false measure of how you truly feel about your country.

There’s an old saying that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. As Benjamin Franklin noted, no country had ever been formed because of an idea. But when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776 and passed the resolution embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that was what was being done. To create a nation not based on geographical boundaries, property, tribalism, or religion, but on the idea of forming a new government to replace the present form because the rulers were incompetent, uncaring, and cruel. The American Revolution wasn’t so much a rebellion as it was a cry for attention. Most of the Declaration is a punch-list, if you will, of grievances both petty and grand against the Crown, and once the revolution was over and the new government was formed, the Constitution contained many remedies to prevent the slights and injuries inflicted under colonialism: the Bill of Rights is a direct response to many of the complaints listed in the Declaration.

But the Declaration of Independence goes beyond complaints. Its preamble is a mission statement. It proclaims our goals and what we hope to achieve. No nation had ever done that before, and to this day we are still struggling to achieve life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness goes on with no sign of let-up.

That is the true glory of America. Not that we complain — and we do — but that we work to fix those complaints. To put them right. To make things better than they were. To give hope to people who feel that they have no voice, and to assure that regardless of who they are, where they come from, what they look like, who they love, or what they believe, there will be room for them to grow, do, and become whatever it is that they have the capacity to be. It’s a simple idea, but the simplest ideas often have the most powerful impact.

This nation has achieved many great things. We’ve inspired other nations and drawn millions to our shores not to just escape their own country but to participate in what we’re doing. And we’ve made mistakes. We’ve blundered and fumbled and bullied and injured. We’ve treated some of our own citizens with contempt, and shown the same kind of disregard for the rights of others that we enumerated in our own Declaration of Independence. We have been guilty of arrogance and hypocrisy. But these are all human traits, and we are, after all, human. The goal of government is to rise above humanity, and the goal of humanity is to strive for perfection. So if we stumble on the road to that goal, it is only because we are moving forward.

I love this country not for what it is but for what it could be. In my own way I show my patriotism not by waving a flag from my front porch but by working to make things work in our system and by adding to the discussion that will bring forth ideas to improve our lives and call into question the ideas of others. It is all a part of what makes the simple idea of life, liberty, and that elusive happiness so compelling and so inspiring, and what makes me very proud to be a part of this grand experiment.

Go forth!

1 USA

Originally posted on July 4, 2005.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Reading

We Spy — George Packer in The New Yorker on the open culture we’ve created through Silicon Valley.

Is it really surprising that the brotherhood of hackers turns out to be more like central intelligence? It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to go from gathering every last move you make online, and sharing it with marketers and advertisers, to divulging it to spies. Google, Apple, and Facebook have long since stopped being mere instruments of individual empowerment through collecting and processing information. Benignly democratic terms like “open source” and “transparency”—still in ubiquitous use around Silicon Valley—have become outmoded distractions from the source of the tech giants’ phenomenal growth, which is data-mining and its monetization.

Yes, it’s voluntary—no one forces you to enter credit-card information on Home Depot’s Web site, or to let Facebook track every purchase you make on Amazon—whereas Prism, the N.S.A.’s top-secret program for mining e-mails, videos, chats, and other online communications, is not. Markets involve choice; laws do not. Being a consumer is discretionary; being a citizen isn’t. But Prism, for all its breathtaking reach and intrusiveness, is less creepy to me than all the trillions of bits of information that commercial companies have stored up on all of us, gathered through a sophisticated mix of temptations, deceptions, default settings, carelessness, and sheer market power. It’s sinister when Big Brother is watching you, but it’s even more sinister when Big Brother is you, sharing. Prism is designed to prevent terror attacks on Americans. Advertising algorithms are designed to increase Google’s and Facebook’s profits. Which involves more of a public benefit? Between career officials at the N.S.A. and marketing managers at social-media companies, I trust the former more than the latter to maintain my privacy and use the information they have on me with maximum restraint. (Private contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton are a different story—the outsourcing of national security is one of the worst post-9/11 trends.)

I’m sympathetic to the dilemma of technology companies that are faced with government requests for access to information. There is an interest in protecting their users’ privacy (or whatever is left of it), and there is an interest in protecting Americans from attack. The government hasn’t proved that the full breadth of the N.S.A.’s program is necessary to uncover, track, and stop terror plots. Its critics haven’t proved that the program has been abused, that the collection of so much abstract data has led to unwarranted specific intrusions. What the whole debate obviously needs is much more clarity—for the government to allow more daylight into the nature of its surveillance programs (its fanatical level of secrecy is at least partly self-serving and designed to thwart critics as much as terrorists), and for the companies to be allowed to stop lying about their involvement. If we are going to have an N.S.A. with such broad powers of surveillance, and a technology industry with such extensive involvement in that surveillance, both have to be monitored and regulated (a hated word in the Valley) much more heavily than they are. Members of the congressional intelligence committees need to be able to discuss what they know without resorting to elaborate circumlocutions, and White House officials need to try persuasion instead of mere assertion. Courts need to be able to reach decisions that are accountable to parties other than just the government itself. Reporters need to be able to dig up important stories—as long as they don’t put lives at risk—without fear of the Justice Department. Technology executives need to be able to describe their industry’s participation in language that’s at least translucent, if not transparent. And the public needs to be able to understand, and then judge, this latest manifestation of the ancient trade-off between liberty and security.

Good Money — Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland, budget officials in two different administrations, look agape at how we throw money around.

Allow us to share some behind-the-scenes illustrations of what our crazy system of budgeting looks like—and to propose how the lessons of moneyball could make our government better.

When one of us (Peter) began his tenure as the director of the Congressional Budget Office in 2007, he took a Willie Sutton approach to the nation’s huge and growing fiscal mess: he went after health care, which makes up roughly a quarter of the federal government’s spending, because that’s where the money is.

The moneyball formula in baseball—replacing scouts’ traditional beliefs and biases about players with data-intensive studies of what skills actually contribute most to winning—is just as applicable to the battle against out-of-control health-care costs. According to the Institute of Medicine, more than half of treatments provided to patients lack clear evidence that they’re effective. If we could stop ineffective treatments, and swap out expensive treatments for ones that are less expensive but just as effective, we would achieve better outcomes for patients and save money.

Both parties should find much to like in such an approach. It would offer Republicans a way to constrain the growth of government spending and take pressure off private businesses weighed down with health expenses. And it would offer Democrats a means of preserving the integrity of Medicare and Medicaid and thereby restoring faith in a core government function.

And yet getting funding for the research needed to assess and compare medical treatments has been like pulling teeth. As a rule, legislators seem to lack a natural affinity for economists and budget analysts (alas, they are hardly alone). But Peter made himself exceptionally unpopular with some Democrats and many Republicans by insisting on such funding in the 2009 stimulus bill, and then working to expand it in the 2010 “Obamacare” legislation. Despite these modest successes, less than $1 out of every $1,000 that the government spends on health care this year will go toward evaluating whether the other $999-plus actually works.

Getting the right information is less than half the battle. Acting on it, once it’s in hand, is harder still. As one small example, some evidence suggests that moving toward “bundled” payments for all services needed by a patient during a course of medical treatment could produce better value than paying piecemeal for each service and procedure, because the piecemeal approach creates an incentive for more care rather than better care. During one meeting with members of Congress in 2008 to discuss how to expand bundling and include a performance incentive in kidney dialysis, Shelley Berkley, a Democratic congresswoman from Nevada, accused Peter, as he remembers it, of trying to destroy the dialysis industry. “You and your staff may have your Ph.D.s, but you have no clue,” he recalls her saying. “We don’t need any of your fancy analysis.” (Berkley says she does not remember the meeting, or those comments.) Berkley had received campaign contributions from several dialysis companies and organizations, and her husband owned a dialysis business. Whether these factors may have influenced her thinking is a question we will leave for the reader.

Clearing the Heir — Britain deals with the perpetual question: who gets the title?

Viewers of “Downton Abbey” spotted the family-destroying potential of primogeniture in the first episode, when the Titanic sank and Lord Grantham, father of three daughters, was left with no obvious heir.

Luckily, the distant cousin who emerged as the next in line proved willing to ditch his dreary day job, marry one of the daughters and cleverly produce a son before his own abrupt demise last season.

But what of those poor, no-prospects daughters, forced to look alluring and wait around for suitable husbands?

The practice of primogeniture — in which titles and estates pass only to male heirs, even negligibly related ones excavated from other continents — may seem as outrageous and antediluvian as denying women the vote, but it is still the law of the land for the aristocracy in Britain.

“My father always said, ‘Remember to wear a safety belt, because your face is your fortune,’ ” said Liza Campbell, a daughter of the 25th Thane of Cawdor (yes, there is one in real life, not just in “Macbeth”), and now, after her father’s death, sister of the 26th.

Also known as the Earl of Cawdor, the current thane, Colin, is the middle child among five children. But he is the oldest boy, and was always considered the most important, for title-continuity purposes. “I love my brother, but it’s a peculiar situation,” said Ms. Campbell, 53, an artist and writer who grew up on the family’s Scottish estate — 50,000 acres, plus castle — but now lives in London. “There’s one chosen one in the family, and everyone else is superfluous to requirements.”

Until recently there has been little appetite to change the law, a reflection in part of Britain’s inability to decide, finally, whether its aristocracy is an essential part of its identity, a quaint vestige of the past or a bit of both.

“The posh aspect of it blinds people to what is essentially sexism in a privileged minority, where girls are born less than boys,” Ms. Campbell said.

But the issue has been percolating through Parliament since the recent passage of a law allowing the monarchy to be passed on to the monarch’s firstborn child, regardless of sex (this means that William and Kate’s impending baby will become the third in line to the throne, whether it is a boy or a girl). New legislative proposals would allow peerages — basically, inherited titles and the estates that can come with them — to be passed on this way, too, to the oldest child rather than the oldest son.

“We seem to have not got rid of titles, but I think since we have them, I would like to see them gender-blind,” said the bill’s sponsor in the House of Lords, Lord Lucas of Crudwell and Dingwall, who because of a historical quirk is one of the few hereditary peers whose titles can pass to girls as well as boys.

Doonesbury — The Women’s Room.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio. It’s a small town, a suburb of Toledo, and when I was a kid in the 1950’s and ’60’s, it fit all of the images that small towns in the Midwest have: tree-shaded streets, neat homes, lots of churches, and a main street — Louisiana Avenue — with little shops like the drug store with the fountain, the dime store, the barber shop, the hardware store, the bakery with the smell of bread baking and the sweet scent of icing, and the bank with the solid stone exterior. They’re all still there, just under different names now, and my parents, who still live there, still call the drug store by its old name, even though it’s changed owners and become a jewelry shop. In the winter the Christmas decorations line the street, and each Memorial Day there is a parade that starts at the Schaller Memorial, the veterans hall, and proceeds up Louisiana Avenue, taking a turn when it reaches the Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial (“We have met the enemy and they are ours…”) and marches down West Front Street past the old Victorian homes that overlook the Maumee River.

When I was a kid the parade was made up of the veterans groups like the American Legion and the VFW, and platoons of soldiers and veterans, including, through the 1970’s, the last remaining veterans of World War I. They wore their uniforms and their medals, and those that couldn’t march sat in the back seat of convertibles, waving slowly to the crowds that lined the sidewalks. They were followed by the marching band from the high school, the color guard, the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the drum and bugle corps, floats from church groups, all of the city fire equipment, antique cars, and the service groups like the Shriners, the Elks, and the Kiwanis Club. After the last float came all the kids on their bicycles decorated with streamers, bunting, flags, and all the patriotic paperwork we could muster. My friends and I would try to outdo each other, and it had less to do with patriotism than it did with seeing how many rolls of red, white, and blue crepe paper we could thread in between the spokes of our wheels.

I was about ten or so on one Memorial Day when I spent a lot of time getting my Schwinn Racer ready for the big parade. It was a perfect day; the sky was a sparkling spring blue and all the floats, cars, and fire trucks were gleaming in the sun as the parade organized on Indiana Avenue in front of the Memorial Hall. The high school band in their yellow and black uniforms marched in precision as the major led off with a Sousa tune, and as the parade slowly made its way down the avenue we could see the crowds along the sidewalks waiting and waving. As we waited our turn we wheeled our bikes in circles, just like the Shriners in their little go-karts, and finally we got the signal that it was time for the kids to roll. There was an organized rush to lead off, and then we were slowly pedaling down the street, waving to everybody outside the library, the Chevy dealership, even the people lined up on the roof of the pizza parlor. I looked for my dad shooting movies with the 8mm camera, but didn’t see him. Oh, well, it didn’t matter; we were supposed to meet at the home of friends who were hosting a post-parade picnic in their backyard. Their house was at the end of the parade route, so that was the perfect place to pull out of the parade and have the first of many Faygo Redpops that summer.

But for some reason I stayed with the parade, on down West Front, and then up West Boundary and past the gates of Fort Meigs Cemetery. The floats and the fire trucks were gone, but what was left of the parade — the color guard and the veterans — went through the gates and along the path. There was no music now, just a solemn drumbeat keeping a steady muffled tapping. The color guard turned at a small stone memorial, and then past it to a gravesite where a family was gathered; a mother in a black dress, a father in a grey suit, and a teenage son and daughter, looking somber and out of place. The grave was still fresh, the dirt mounded over, the headstone a simple marker with a flag. A minister spoke some words, and then the color guard snapped to attention. A volley of rifle fire, then Taps, and then a tall young soldier in dress blues handed a folded flag to the mother, who murmured her thanks and tried to smile.

I suddenly realized that I felt out of place there with my gaudily-patriotic bike and my red-white-and-blue striped shirt. No one noticed me, though, and when the people started to slowly move away from the gravesite and back to the entrance, I followed along until I was able to ride slowly back to our friends’ house, park my bike with all the others, and find my parents, who probably hadn’t even noticed that I was not there with all the other kids running around and playing on the lawn.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

This post originally appeared on May 25, 2009.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

March 1 is St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The title is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

The national anthem:

A better-known piece of Welsh patriotic music is Men of Harlech that is a rousing good march and also served as the tune for the alma mater of my high school.

And for Monty Python fans: “Mae fy hofrenfad yn llawn llyswennod.”

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

March 1 is St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The title is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

The national anthem:

A better-known piece of Welsh patriotic music is Men of Harlech that is a rousing good march and also served as the tune for the alma mater of my high school.

And for Monty Python fans: “Mae fy hofrenfad yn llawn llyswennod.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celtic Pride

Ddyhea buchedda Cymru!

I’m a bit late with this, but March 1 was — and still is — St. David’s (Dewi Sant) Day, the patron saint of Wales (“Cymru”). Notable people of Welsh descent include Richard Burton, poet Dylan Thomas, and me on one side of the family.

The expression above is a literal translation of “Long live Wales!” courtesy of an on-line English to Welsh translation service.

The national anthem:

A better-known piece of Welsh patriotic music is Men of Harlech that is a rousing good march and also served as the tune for the alma mater of my high school.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, too.