Friday, January 30, 2015

How can smart people be so dumb?

We were watching "The Nightly Show" the other day. The topic of the evening was vaccination. The measles outbreak in California has been in the news a lot lately, and I've got to hand it to Larry Wilmore -- he did a pretty nice job of skewering the insanity of the people who don't vaccinate. You've got a zillion doctors and scientists saying "vaccination saves lives" on the one hand. . . and on the other you've got people like Jenny McCarthy who attended (as she puts it) the University of Google. So who do too many people believe? Jenny McCarthy. It's bizarre.

I've written about this topic before. Because my own kids are adults and I didn't watch "Oprah," I had been quietly oblivious regarding the entire anti-vaccination movement until I went to work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. My first clue that idiots existed who believed vaccinations were evil was having to walk through a crowd of protesters by the main entrance to the Clifton Road campus (the complex that usually shows up when the CDC is on the news; it's where the building housing the Director's office is located). Maybe on some level it had registered that there were people who thought the mercury compound in some vaccines caused autism, but I'd never realized how vocal they were -- or how wrong. By the time the idea that the thimerosal  used as a stabilizing agent caused autism gained wide traction, the pharmaceutical industry had discontinued using it. To this day I'll hear or read someone ranting about the mercury in vaccines as though it's still being used when it was discontinued over a decade ago.

Anyway, the thing that has me baffled lately is how smart people can manage to be so dumb, so woefully and willfully ignorant. Because you know who's most likely to decide they don't want their kids vaccinated? It's the upper middle class college educated helicopter parents, the ones who freak out if the nanny screws up and gives the kid a non-organic celery stick. Yep, it's the same demographic as the people who protest the Keystone Pipeline and drive hybrid vehicles. They totally believe scientists when it comes to the topic of global climate change. But when it's their own kids and they're ask to protect them against diseases that still have crippling side effects and significant mortality rates? Suddenly they're doubters. When public health officials map the statistics for vaccination rates, the highest numbers of non-vaccinated kids always show up in the more affluent areas, the locations where the majority of the parents are supposedly well-educated. It's bizarre. The same people who freak out if their child gets a sugary snack at school are willing to take a chance on their kids contracting a disease with a 1% to 5% mortality rate.So far as I know, there haven't been any deaths associated with the Disneyland outbreak, but you don't have to be a statistician to recognize that as the number of infections goes up, so does the probability of someone dying.

When I was listening to NPR the other morning, a public health official from California mentioned that one thing they had to do was educate doctors in general on how to recognize measles. Because the disease has become so rare in the U.S., many family physicians have never seen a case. I think that's probably one of the major factors in the anti-vaccination movement, too. If you've never seen full-blown measles (or survived it), you have no clue just how nasty it is. Then again, I've never personally seen a lot of stuff, but I'm still willing to believe it exists. The stupid, it burns.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lots of unanswered questions

U.S. Navy base in Iceland during WWII
I just finished reading a moderately interesting book called They Sent Me to Iceland. The title caught my eye when I was browsing the nonfiction at the library the other day -- Iceland is where the Air Force sent the S.O. back in the 1960s. Other guys enlisted in the military and got sent to exotic (or at least warm) locations like Vietnam -- a location he was admittedly happy not to visit, although he probably wouldn't have objected to Thailand or Guam. No such luck, though. Once he finished basic training, he shuffled from one cold or damp location to another: Dow AFB (aka Bangor) in Maine, Otis AFB on Cape Cod, KI Sawyer AFB here in the U.P.. . . and temporary duty at Keflavik in Iceland. His descriptions of Iceland, which admittedly he viewed from the perspective of a single guy who was (maybe) just out of his teens, make the country sound remarkably unattractive. The locals weren't too thrilled with the American presence and so had distinctly limited language skills. No matter what an airman said to one of the local people working on base, the response was always the same -- "Ja, ja" -- while the Icelandic person continued doing whatever it was he was before.

Anyway, I was curious to see how the descriptions in They Sent Me to Iceland matched up with the S.O.'s stories. The book is by a Red Cross recreation worker (Jane Goodell) sent to Iceland not long after the United States entered World War II. She arrives as part of a contingent of about a dozen American Red Cross workers assigned to a military base located spitting distance (less than 3 miles) from Reykjavik. Their assignment is apparently to provide entertainment for the troops as well as engage in other supportive activities. The entertainment consists of a wide range of activities, from passing out board games and books to coordinating talent shows and holiday parties. The women also serve as the contacts with the organization as a whole, that is, if a service member has a personal problem that he'd like the Red Cross to help with (e.g., worried about his wife and kids ending up homeless because he's not there to pay the rent), they're the people who get the details and pass the requests along.

So how did the Iceland of 1942 match up with the Iceland of the late 1960s that the S.O. described? Well, in some ways things didn't change much. The Icelandics Ms. Goodell encountered didn't use "ja, ja" much. Nope, their pet phrase was one Ms. Goodell heard as "skillikki." The actual phrase is "Eg skil ekki," which means (of course) "I don't understand." They were smiling, they were polite, and they'd all mysteriously forgotten the compulsory English courses they had taken in school.

Ms. Goodell does mention some of the same things the S.O.noticed, like the ongoing headache of lava dust. Iceland has a lot of barren ground, exposed rock that is primarily solidified lava from the volcanoes. And the wind blows a lot. All rock erodes if the wind blows long enough and hard enough; the constant construction as the military presence (both American and British) in Iceland kept growing did not help. She also describes life in a quonset hut and the effect on morale that the long, long winter nights had on people. She details a number of the programs they tried to put together for the troops: talent shows, quiz nights, sing-alongs. And she lays it on thick about how people need to think twice about putting any bad news into letters to the "boys" in uniform. The book was published in 1943 so was obviously meant to convey to the public what life was like for the troops overseas.

However, interesting though the book might be, it is rife with unanswered questions. Just who was Jane Goodell? How did she end up working for the Red Cross? She hints at her personal life a bit -- she's apparently from the northeastern United States because she mentions winters back home were colder than winters in Iceland -- but she never really does explain who she is, who the other Red Cross workers are, what exactly the job description for a "recreation worker" is, or much else. It's a classic example of someone writing a book at a specific time and place where whatever it was she was doing was so well-known and understood by the public that she was able to just jump right into getting told she was going to Iceland. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I was able to find a few news articles about Ms. Goodell, mostly public relations blurbs promoting the book, and did learn that she had ambitions of forming an all-girl orchestra, played the ukulele, and once met Amelia Earhart. It appears the primary qualifications for "recreation worker" were to be young, female, cute, and extroverted. Ms. Goodell's musical skills were no doubt a plus (she described herself in a 1943 interview as "able to play almost any instrument"), but her descriptions of what all the Red Cross women did in Iceland make it clear that a cheerful personality and a willingness to wash thousands of coffee cups may have counted for more than any specific talent.

Books like this one make me wish I was still teaching -- or at least had more contacts still in academe. The little bit I was able to unearth about Jane Goodell tells me her experiences (and those of women like her) could be a good topic for a thesis in history or women's studies. It would also make a good basis for a historical novel (or two or three) or a nonfiction history targeting the general public. I'd love to toss the topic out to someone with more ambition than I possess. As it is, I'll just have to quietly wonder what happened to Jane after the war ended. Or even before the war ended -- an article in the Brooklyn Eagle described a speech she gave in 1945. She had been a Red Cross Clubmobile girl in the European theater. How did her experiences there compare with Iceland? She had songwriting ambitions -- did anything ever come of that? Did she marry? Have kids? Maybe I'll do more online searching, frustrating though it is to have to keep telling the search engine I really do mean Goodell with an "e" and not Goodall with an "a." Who knows. . .  if nothing else, trying to find out a little more about Jane Goodell will be a nice distraction from other obsessions.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The things one does for love

The S.O. saw his primary care physician recently. She's placed him on a low potassium diet. That means we get to go through the house eliminating all the foods that qualify as being high in potassium: oranges, potatoes, broccoli, yogurt, bananas. . . and chocolate. Well, I've decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. In the interest of protecting the S.O.'s health, I will throw myself upon any and all chocolate that's in the house.

The whole low potassium diet is a bit of a challenge. I've been looking at the food lists, and most of the stuff we actually like tends to also be on the high in potassium side of the equation. We've got house full of stuff the S.O. should avoid or eat only in small amounts. I guess at this point the good news is no one's told me (yet) to avoid any specific foods. In addition to throwing myself upon the chocolate, I'll get to take care of the high potassium fresh fruit and eat the parsnips that get cooked with the roast. This whole low potassium thing will require more thinking than we usually put into shopping lists. Maybe I'll just start carrying a list of the things that are highest in potassium so I remember not to casually toss them into the cart at Larry's Market. Definitely something to think about. . .

But that's something to deal with the next time I go grocery shopping. Right now I think I hear some chocolate-covered cherries in the pantry calling my name.

Looks like a paperweight to me

My PC died recently. Right around Christmas it decided it really didn't feel like seeing in the New Year. Shut it down one evening, went down the next morning to turn on the power, and discovered it had expired quietly in its sleep.

On the one hand, I'm moderately envious. I'm getting old enough that I tend to respond to a peaceful demise, even if it is just a device and not a person, with "lucky bastard." We all would like to go peacefully in our sleep (instead of screaming in terror like the passengers in Grampa's car). On the other, it was my computer. I may have kvetched about it taking up too much space on my rather small desk while mumbling about not really needing an actual PC when for me it was basically just a glorified typewriter, but it was kind of nice to be able to do mindless Internet stuff without having to share.

Which is what I'm doing now. I'm pretty obviously not totally without access to the Internet. The S.O. has a laptop, and we jointly own a tablet. I'm not too thrilled with the tablet -- it has a separate keyboard that never has worked, so if I want to do anything that involves much typing I have to do it with the onscreen touchpad -- but it's fine for reading the news, checking to see the latest stupidity on Facebook, or playing mindless games. And, given that I am a morning person and the S.O. most definitely is not, I can generally get whatever I want to do on a computer done without feeling too annoyed. Today, for example, I've been up and wandering around the intertubes for a couple hours and probably have at least another hour to go before the S.O. comes stumbling down the stairs hoping I haven't consumed all the coffee. Do I really need to spend more than an hour or two online on any given day? I don't think so. . .

In fact, maybe I should be relieved the desktop PC died. One of the fringe benefits/side effects of being computerless is I'm suddenly discovering there are other things to do around here. I'm not seeing a whole lot of Facebook status updates lately, but I have gotten more letters written. Instead of using the glorified,typewriter for correspondence, I've fallen back on a legacy technology: a ballpoint pen and sheets of paper. (Here's hoping all my correspondents still know how to read cursive.) And, curiously enough, I'm answering letters faster when there are no distractions like online Sudoku games.

One of these days I'll probably haul the desktop PC to a computer repair place to see if it's worth fixing. Maybe. The longer it sits in a corner gathering dust, the less urgent getting it repaired becomes.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Playing with food

There are times when I really wish the county historical society museum had a bigger budget. Today is one of them. Usually it's because I'm indulging in fantasies about purchasing a first-class exhibit case or a specialized filing cabinet, e.g., a map case. Our display cases are a mix of different sizes and types because almost all of them came from retail stores that were going out of business or engaged in major remodeling. As for map cases? Probably not going to happen unless we get lucky with one of our grant applications. But I'm not fantasizing about either of those today. Nope. I'm wishing we could afford to buy fake food.

We decided at our meeting yesterday to proceed with editing our "kitchen" display area. We've got a corner that's got miscellaneous kitchen-related items: a Hoosier cabinet chock full of various gadgets, old cookbooks, old spice and baking powder tins, etc. There's a wood-burning Monarch kitchen range, an old ice box, an ancient refrigerator (from the 1920s; it still works), and a lot of other stuff. It's all neatly arranged, but it's basically just a collection of old stuff -- there isn't much of an attempt at formal interpretation. Depending on who the docent is on any particular day, conversations with visitors can range from explaining how a woodstove actually worked to listening to people reminisce about the Jewell Tea dishes their grandmother had.

The display also includes a farmhouse-style table that had four or five place settings on it, but it was't really set up for an particular meal. It was more like the last person to work with that area decided that it made more sense to have the table looking like it was set for a meal than to leave it empty. Well, at yesterday's meeting we decided to edit the exhibit. When we open for the tourist season in the spring, the kitchen area will have four place settings on it, each one representing a different era. One will, of course, be the pioneer days. The dishes will be basic whiteware and there will be a sample menu -- what people would have been likely (or able) to eat back around the time Baraga County was established in the 1870s. Another will be the 1930s, the Jewell Tea dishes era, also with a sample menu and maybe a recipe or two. One will be the present (or close to it). (I will fight the temptation to just do a couple crumpled napkins and an empty Burger King bag.) And one will be the melamine years.

And you know what goes with the melamine years? Jello salad. Jello salad in all sorts of bizarre combinations. Jello salad that doesn't just sit there passively on the plate waiting to be slathered with Miracle Whip. Jello salad that sits on the serving plate staring at you defiantly and daring you to get out the serving spoon.

I guess we'll muddle along with the full-page color ads from Woman's Day or Good Housekeeping, but, holy wah, I wish our budget was big enough to buy a fake Jello salad.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pulitzer Project: The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1952. It's one of those books that is so well known I'm moderately amazed, at least in retrospect, that I'd never read it before. Its widespread popularity as well as the fact it was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1954 contributed to it adding a couple of stock characters and phrases to American culture. If you have a tyrannical, irrational boss, he's a Captain Queeg. Queeg is, of course, the character Humphrey Bogart portrayed in the film, the crazy guy who can't stop rolling two steel marbles around in his hand.

Actually, it's quite possible that the film is what kept me from reading the book. I've never seen the film but have seen clips from it numerous times. The clips inevitably are from the court martial scene and show Bogart playing with those marbles. It may be an iconic scene, but it is not a particularly good representation of the book. If all you've ever seen is that courtroom scene, you'll think that the book is about a mutiny and the trial that followed. You'd be wrong.

The Caine Mutiny is actually a coming of age story, the tale of a gormless Naval Reserve officer who goes from being a naive young idiot to a mature human being. Yes, Captain Queeg is a major character in that story, and, yes, there is a mutiny (sort of), but the real center of the narrative is Willie Keith, a pampered Princeton graduate who goes from being a smart-alecky immature ass to an actual adult who finally figures out how to think for himself. Of course, it takes 3 years of sea duty and almost getting killed by a kamikaze attack for that process to happen, but Willie does finally grow up.

When the book opens, Willie is starting officer training in New York. He's the pampered only son of wealthy parents -- his father is a respected surgeon and his mother inherited money -- who also happened to be a good student at Princeton. He's got some minor musical talent so had drifted into playing a piano in a nightclub while trying to figure out what do with his life. Maybe. At that point in the story, the reader gets the feeling that if there hadn't been a war on, Willie would have been content to be a second rate lounge act while living at home with his parents indefinitely. He was thinking about grad school, but losing interest the longer he hung around nightclubs. As it was, he wasn't allowed to just drift aimlessly: the U.S. Navy had plans for him.

He comes close to washing out of training but manages to knuckle down and squeak through. When the time comes to put in a request for the type of assignment he'd like, he does what everyone does -- puts in for sea duty while hoping to never leave dry land. And, like everyone else, he fantasizes that if he does end up assigned to a ship it'll be one of the big ones -- a carrier or a battleship. No such luck. He draws duty on a minesweeper, a converted World War I destroyer, DMS-21, the USS Caine.

Once he sees the Caine, he has the same reaction as everyone else assigned to the ship: he immediately makes plans to apply for a transfer as soon as possible. His initial impression of the ship reminded me a lot of the tv series "McHale's Navy." The ship's commander seems too laid-back, too casual, almost slovenly. The crew is remarkably casual about the way they dress. The ship itself strikes Willie as being barely one step above a garbage scow. It's dirty, it's cluttered, it looks a lot like a floating disaster. It doesn't help that Willie has been lucky enough to get stuck at Pearl Harbor for 6 weeks waiting for the Caine to return to port. He's had too many nights of hitting the bars and parties with other officers waiting to report to wherever they're supposed to go. His first view of the minesweeper occurs on a morning when he's had almost no sleep the night before and is thoroughly hungover. Not surprisingly, he spends his first couple of weeks on board silently hating the captain for having the nerve to expect Willie to actually do his job.

At this point, it would have been easy for Wouk to continue with the Caine as a floating assemblage of odd balls and characters with a lovable scamp of a captain. Willie could have gradually been integrated into a comic novel, a light-hearted look at the war that would have been a change from some of the grimmer novels being published at the time. Instead Wouk wrote laid-back Captain de Vries out of the picture and brought in Queeg. And that's when things get interesting. It takes a few hundred pages of "interesting," but eventually the novel gets to the mutiny -- which isn't really a mutiny -- and the Navy courtroom.

According to the brief bio on the back of the book, the author served on two minesweepers during the war. How much of the novel is autobiographical is one of those questions that can't be answered. My own hunch is that if there's anything autobiographical in the text, Wouk split personal traits between several different characters. There is, for example, a slightly older officer, a fellow one or two grades above Willie Keith, who is an aspiring novelist. He had a number of short stories published before the war and is working on a novel through most of the book. He does a lot of talking about how his novel will be different from the other war novels being published -- novels with a war theme had started appearing in book stores almost before the fires were out at Pearl Harbor. Wouk himself wrote a novel during the war, Aurora Dawn, that became a Book of the Month Club selection. That book drew on his experiences working as a writer for the Fred Allen radio show before the war.

Until I began writing this review, I'd forgotten just how many best sellers Wouk has written (I'm using the present tense because as of this morning, he's still breathing. He's 99). I'd even read one or two: Marjorie Morningstar, for example, His other novels include The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. His novels are meticulously researched, and he can write. This is one of those rare Pulitzer winners that I can actually recommend: it's more than readable. I wouldn't put it into quite the same class as All the King's Men -- Wouk is good, but his prose doesn't sing the way Robert Penn Warren's does -- but it's definitely at least a 9 on the usual 1-10 scale.

Next up? William Faulkner's A Fable, which won in 1955. There was no prize awarded in 1954, and I've already read the 1953 winner, The Old Man and the Sea. Although maybe I should re-read the Hemingway -- it was a high school reading assignment so I'm not sure it counts now.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


I spent some time yesterday in the Woman Cave working on curtains for the Guppy. We're going back to Montauk State Park in March; curtains are on the To Do list of chores that should get done before we hit the road.

I've got two sets of curtains to make: some new ones for the windows in the kitchen/living area. The existing curtains are a little too transparent. Being a campground host generally entails living on a stage: the host's site is always right up front, the first thing you see when you pull into a camping loop, and is often positioned so everyone gets to walk past it on the way to the showerhouse. I don't mind the life on a stage aspect too much during the day, but once it gets to be late enough that it's flannel nightie time, I'd rather not make it easy for people to see me. Ditto first thing in the morning -- I don't want anyone seeing me while I'm working on that first cup of coffee and still trying to decide if it's worth being awake. I know I'm being a little too sensitive -- most people walking by the Guppy aren't looking at it, they're focused on wherever it is they're going and what they're going to do there -- but nonetheless new curtains are on the list.

The Guppy on stage at Montauk State Park
The other set of curtains is a heavy pair to block off the cab part of the Guppy from the rest of the interior. It's to help reduce cold drafts and heat loss. They're probably going to look a little strange (once again I'm dipping into the Thelma stash of yard goods) but if they help reduce heat loss, it won't matter much just what they look like, which in this case is going to be hot pink corduroy. Why my aunt Thelma purchased 7+ yards of extremely pink corduroy is a mystery; I'm just happy to have it (free material!) and pleased that there's almost exactly the right amount of yardage. I think a previous Guppy owner had done something similar at some point because there are closet rod brackets in addition to the normal RV drapery hardware -- the Guppy came from the factory with a privacy curtain for the bunk over the cab, but those curtains just block off the bunk, not the cab. We have some left over plastic pipe from a plumbing project that's just the right size for a drapery rod. Hopefully, cold drafts from the cab won't be an issue anymore.

Doing anything in the Woman Cave is always a bit of a challenge at this time of the year. When I went up to get a fire going in the woodstove, the temperature in the Cave was the same as outdoors: 8. It took about an hour to get it all the way up to 40, but once it got past 40 it didn't take much longer to reach the point where it felt comfortable without a jacket and mittens. The curtains to block off the cab are now basically done, but I need to do some more measuring in the Guppy before I make the other set. They won't be hot pink, which is a bit of relief when they're something we'll be seeing every time we use the Guppy and not just when the weather is cold. Maybe I should do some before and after photos. . . or maybe not, not unless I decide to use the odd retro 1950s fabric with the bizarre coffee pot pattern.

Friday, January 16, 2015

I may have spotted a unicorn

It's possible we Michiganders have that rarest of political critters, a semi-sane Republican, down in Lansing. Governor Rick Snyder vetoed a bill that would have allowed persons convicted of domestic violence to obtain concealed carry weapons permits. The Michigan state senate and legislature both have Republican majorities; the bill had passed easily, although there had been the usual amount of bloviating about how putting concealed weapons into the hands of people who had already shown they thought violence was a good way to solve problems was actually a good way to make everyone safer.

Made perfect sense to me -- after all, doesn't every victim of violence want to be reassured that, hey,you know that borderline psychotic you had to get a restraining order against? The crazy lady who tried to beat you to death with a frying pan or the flaming asshole who put you in the hospital with broken ribs? Well, good news. Next time they'll be able to make it fast and just shoot you. Yeah, your odds of survival just went down, but look on the bright side. At least it'll be quick.

I do not know what effect, if any, Michigan's current law regarding gun ownership and domestic violence may or may not have had on domestic violence in general in the state. I do have anecdotal evidence that it has caused a few people to think twice when they've been in volatile relationships, but we all know that the plural of anecdote is not data. It has always struck me as being a common sense measure, though. After all, if you can't be trusted to be in an intimate relationship with another person without resorting to violence, why on earth should anyone believe you're mentally stable enough to be trusted with a gun?

Rick Snyder is definitely not one of my favorite people, but he does seem to have a pragmatic streak. Every so often he does somethng that actually makes sense. Then again, at this point in his political career he can afford to. He was re-elected to a second term in November. It's also his last term as Michigan sets a two-term limit on its governors.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Happy birthday, Nerf!

Not the world's greatest resolution, but my sister Cheryl at age 12. This photo was, of course, taken a number of years ago. I won't mention how many because not only do I have no desire to annoy her I have no desire to depress myself. She is my younger sister, after all.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

You'll get used to the cold

Back in the '90s, a popular line of tee-shirts on quite a few college campuses were Top Ten lists.I was reminded of those shirts yesterday when I was getting dressed and one of my souvenir shirts from Virginia Tech made it to the top of the rotation. Obviously inspired by David Letterman's top ten lists, the shirts featured The Top Ten Lies told on particular campuses or in specific programs. There were a few common themes. Every list targeting undergraduates would, for example, include a reference to a local watering hole with an ambiguous name. At Virginia Tech the line was "The Balcony is a theater" while at Michigan Tech it read "I was studying at the Library," both the Balcony and the Library being popular bars in their respective towns (although the Library is a whole lot classier than the Balcony ever aspired to be).

Other popular lies at Michigan Tech included lines like "You can graduate in 4 years" -- an indirect reference to a local slogan: "Michigan Tech, the best 5 or 6 years of your life" -- and "You'll get used to the snow."

Well, maybe a corollary to that would be "You'll get used to the cold." We've been experiencing a bit of a cold snap (a few days in a row with subzero temperatures, both day and night). We heat with wood, (the stove is a Jotul Bear, which I highly recommend to anyone who's stove-shopping), which is great during the day but can be a nuisance at night. The house can get too warm for it to be comfortable for sleeping. This winter I've been urging the S.O. not to stoke the stove too much in the evening. It's too hard to get a good night's sleep if the bedroom is like a sauna, especially when I decided to actually use the flannel sheets this month. I told him it's not that big a deal to wake up to a house that's a little chilly it we're able to sleep better in a cooler bedroom.

The downside to that directive has been evident during the past few mornings. The temperature in the house will drop by ten degrees or more between the time we go to bed and when I get up. I am a morning person, the S.O. most emphatically is not, so I'm the first one down the stairs to start the coffee, feed the cat, and check the woodstove. This morning it was about 5 below outside, and 63 in the house. Yesterday it was 61. As usual for the past couple winters, I'm sitting here in a room where the temperature is now up to about 67 and I'm comfortable in just my nightgown. No robe. Granted, the nightgown is the practical flannel kind (I am a grandmother; I have an image to maintain), but it is short-sleeved.

The first winter we were back from Atlanta, if it dropped much below 70, I'd be bundled up with a long bathrobe/housecoat/whatever made from sweatshirt material on top of the flannel nightie. I'd be pulling on socks before putting on the slippers, and I'd complain about freezing if the indoor thermometer registered below 68. Not anymore. I can't remember the last time I wore the robe, the only thing on my feet are some lightweight knitted slippers, and I'm comfortable. If I were a few years younger, a person might suspect it's not adaptation but hot flashes, but hey, I'm a geezer well past the "Is it warm in here or is it just me?" stage.

So, yes, you actually do get used to the cold.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The thin-skinned and not-too-bright blue line

Over the past few weeks there's been a lot of bloviating in the media, lots of faux outrage, over the shooting of two New York Police Department officers. They were ambushed by a nutjob with a gun, a person with a long history of erratic and illegal behavior, a fellow who in the normal course of events would have been labeled a lone wolf, a mentally ill victim of the system who just didn't get the help he needed when he should have.

I say "in the normal course of events" because there is a remarkably long history of law enforcement officers being targeted by nutjobs whose obsessions have been stoked by ideologues who never bother to think about the consequences of their words. I can even name a bunch of the shooters without having to do a whole lot of Googling: Eric Frein (2014) and Richard Poplawski (2009) in Pennsylvania, Jared and Amanda Miller (2014) in Nevada, and Jerry and Joe Kane (2010) in Arkansas all pop up pretty fast in web searches. In every case there was a clear link with ideology being actively promoted by multiple people in the media. But you know what else is true of those cases? Every single shooter was white, so there was no hysteria about how every single white person was responsible for those guys' actions, no mass protests by aggrieved police officers, no ranting about the damage being done by activists. Nope. Why would there be? Apparently it's a given that when a white person does something bad, he or she is acting solely on his or her own with absolutely no outside influences affecting behavior.

Oh, every time there's an incident, a few brave souls dare to question the rhetoric used by right-wing bloviators like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, but they get drowned out pretty fast by the rhetoric about needing better mental health care and by the troubled lone wolf apologists. The stories also fell off the mainstream media news radar remarkably fast. After all, no one really wants to hear that white people engage in violent, sociopathic behavior, although you'd think the NRA would want to hype it -- if the guy next door might be an armed nut, then maybe I should own a few guns, too. In any case, it's odd, isn't it, that when it's white guy after white guy ambushing the police, there's no possible way they could have been influenced by anything other than the voices in their heads but when it's a black guy doing the shooting suddenly it's activists like Al Sharpton who are responsible? Who would have thought that the Rev had that much influence?

Bottom line: if you're really worried about the thin-skinned blue line, the guys who actually don't run that huge a risk of dying in the line of duty unless it's from choking on a doughnut (loggers have a higher occupational fatality rate than law enforcement, so do commercial fishermen), get pissed off about the media blow-hards that keep painting government as the enemy. Authority is authority, and when some lunatic decides he's going to stand up to the government, he's going to ambush the authority figures that are closest to home -- and that's going to be the local sheriff's deputies, a small town cop doing a routine traffic stop, or a Park Service ranger walking over to tell someone to keep his dogs on a leash. So go after the idiots with the Gadsden flags and tea bags tied to their hats. Or, better yet, go after the ideologues like Sarah Palin who babble mindlessly about "second amendment solutions." Because those are the people who really are encouraging the nutjobs to shoot cops.

And, as a side note, the real reason the cops in New York are so pissed at Mayor DeBlasio has very little to do with the shootings of Officers Ramos and Liu. It's just a convenient highly public way to mouth off about how much they hate the Mayor. The underlying problem is the department is in contract negotiations and, unlike previous administrations, DeBlasio doesn't believe the NYPD can do no wrong. He's had the nerve to question both the department and past policy, like the discredited broken windows theory and stop and frisk, that targeted minorities. The city and PD are currently operating under a Memorandum of Agreement, not an actual labor contract, and contract negotiations have not been going the way the Police Officers' Association would prefer. Naturally, journalism having pretty much disappeared into the toilet in the past couple of decades, you can count the number of media outlets that have reported on this aspect of the problem on one hand and still have several fingers left over.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

As the old saying goes

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." I just finished reading David McCullough's massive biography of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States. I had the same reaction to the Truman biography as I did to the biography of Andrew Jackson a year or two ago: the only things that change in politics are the names of the players.

Truman is probably best remembered now for the saying "the buck stops here," meaning it was up to the President to take responsibility for anything happening in his administration. Picked by the Democratic Party to be the vice presidential candidate in 1944, Truman became President when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died less than 3 months after being sworn in for a 4th term. Truman got tapped for the slot because everyone close to Roosevelt was convinced FDR was not going to live much longer and Truman seemed like the only possible candidate that (a) was semi-competent, (b) Roosevelt would accept, and (c) might be willing to take the job. Roosevelt's third term VP, Henry Wallace, was widely admired but viewed as too much of a pacifist and isolationist to deal realistically with threats like Germany and Japan.

Truman, a second term Senator from Missouri, didn't particularly want the job. He was good friends with John Nance Garner, who was Roosevelt's first vice president, and had heard Garner's thoughts on the frustrations of being vice president many times. Garner was responsible for the famous description as the office of vice president "not being worth a bucket of warm piss." Still, when party leaders approached Truman, he couldn't say no. Truman had impressed both fellow legislators and the general public as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. We were obviously heading into World War II at the time Truman pushed for investigating national preparedness programs and defense contractors; it didn't take the committee long to find numerous examples of fraud and waste. His relentlessness in holding contractors responsible raised his public profile. It also demonstrated there was more to Truman than people who didn't know him well assumed.

A small digression: one thing that is worth noting about the Truman committee is that when they found fraud, people actually wound up going to jail. The hearings had real consequences, something that no longer seems to hold true today.

In any case, Truman's image when he arrived in the Senate was that he was a tool of the Pendergast machine and therefore probably thoroughly corrupt. The Pendergast family had run Kansas City politics for several generations, they were also linked to organized crime and vice -- the Pendergast money originated with saloons and brothels built at the end of the 19th century. Truman was indeed a product of that machine but he was also that rarity, a specimen so rare that the term is practically an oxymoron, an honest politician. He could not be bought. In an era and an environment that encouraged graft, he refused kickbacks. Early in his political career as a county  judge, which at the time was the equivalent of a county supervisor or commissioner, Truman pushed for several public works programs (construction of a new courthouse in Independence, improved highways in the county) that could have proven financially lucrative both for him and the Pendergasts. He flatly rejected any thing that would have suggested he or members of his family were benefiting from the projects. So why did the Pendergasts back him when he was so clean compared to the typical politician? Probably because they had figured out that you always knew where you stood with Truman. If he said he was going to do something, he did, and if he said he couldn't support something, you knew that was true, too. He wasn't going to make promises he didn't think he could keep.

In any case, Truman was first elected to the Senate in 1934. He became known as a reliable party man -- he could be counted on to support the President's various New Deal programs -- but also as someone who could work across party lines. He made friends on both sides of the aisle despite the skepticism with which he was initially viewed. Re-elected in 1940, if it hadn't been for World War II he probably would have had a respectable if not particularly high profile Senate career. As it was, when Roosevelt died in April 1945, Truman found himself filling an office he had never aspired to.

Even worse, he entered the office about as unprepared as it was possible to be. Roosevelt, depsite his poor health, had never bothered to have a substantive meeting with Truman. According to McCullough they'd met perhaps two times following the election. Each meeting had fallen more into the category of photo opportunity than actual meeting and neither had lasted long. Truman walked away from each meeting feeling, as he noted in letters to Bess, terrified that Roosevelt was not going to live much longer. The President was in such poor health that he had difficulty holding a coffee cup without spilling it. He could put on a good front for the press, but in private it was obvious how quickly he was deteriorating.

Thus, when Roosevelt died, Truman found himself having to learn on the fly -- the war was in its final months (although no one could be sure of that), decisions had to be made about the use of the atomic bomb, Truman had to meet with Stalin and Churchill, and at the same time he had to deal with a White House staff and an administration that resented the hell out of the fact that Truman was now President. Several cabinet members, persons who knew Truman only by his reputation as being part of the Pendergast machine, were openly uncooperative. In a sane world, he would have fired them. As it was, with the war still in progress and the country in mourning for Roosevelt, Truman decided the appearance of a smooth transition was more important than getting rid of a few people who were hard to work with. It was not until he was elected to the presidency in his own right in 1948 that Truman felt free to do a thorough housecleaning.

Anyway, before my comments on this massive book turn into a post that's equally massive, the reason I say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Truman had all the same headaches Andrew Jackson did over 100 years before and that Barack Obama is having now: the political opponents who are for something until the President supports it, too, and then suddenly it's the worst idea on the planet and is going to destroy democracy as we know it. The conspiracy theorists who are convinced the President is planning a dictatorship or is going to sell the country out -- Obama has the tinfoil hat types who are convinced he was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim plotting to establish a caliphate; Truman had to deal with the anti-Communist hysteria that saw the Red Menace as a credible threat and were convinced the government was staffed with Stalinists. There were the elitist snobs, the people who were quite vocal about the way the Trumans brought down the tone of the White House, who mocked Margaret Truman's attempts at a career as a professional singer, and who sneered at Truman himself as being a "failed haberdasher." It was interesting to (again) see the parallels.

Truman himself loved history. He occasionally said that if he had had the opportunity to go to college, he would have liked to have been a history teacher. When he ordered a complete restoration of the White House (a project begun after Margaret's piano went through the floor), he was adamant that the result should be a building that was historically accurate. (The Truman restoration was a gut job to end all gut jobs; not only were the first two floors of the structure completely removed, the project involved excavating multiple new basement levels, all without changing the exterior.) He had to be aware that vilification came with the job, but he probably was a little naive about just how it would feel to be on the receiving end. In any case, having been elected to one term on his own merits, he decided that was enough. He announced early in 1952 that he would not run again and began planning his return to Independence.

One of the more interesting bits in this book was Truman's departure from the White House. I had never pictured Dwight Eisenhower as being a vindictive, small-minded petty bastard but apparently he was. He and Mamie were openly rude to the Trumans when the time for the transition. This was another case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. When Bill Clinton left the White House, his administration reached out to George W. Bush and his incoming administration to try to ensure a smooth transition. The Bush team was invited to briefings, given background information, and ignored it all -- and less than a year later, having scoffed at all the Clinton briefings, on September 11 they got to deal with the aftermath of an extremely preventable tragedy. In defense of Bush, it does appear the scoffing and dismissal were more by Bush's minions than by Bush himself; the tragedy is that early in his administration Bush relied way too much on those minions. G. W. and Laura never personally snubbed the Clintons the way Eisenhowers did the Trumans.

In Eisenhower's case, he ignored Truman's offers of meetings to share intelligence, refused invitations for him and Mamie to tour the White House to see the living quarters and meet the staff, and even (and this has to be the ultimate in being an ill-mannered prick) refused to step into the White House on Inauguration Day to have the traditional light lunch with the President and First Lady before riding together to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. Instead, the Eisenhowers sat in the car until the Trumans came out. Truman viewed this as an insult to Bess, not just him, and seethed about it for years. Whatever Eisenhower's intent, it certainly was a remarkably small-minded, mean way to behave.

So would I recommend this book to anyone else? Good question. Like all of McCullough's books, it's thoroughly researched and has extensive end notes and bibliography. It is not, however, as readable as Mornings on Horseback (biography of Theodore Roosevelt) or A Path Between the Seas (history of the Panama Canal). It's as though McCullough had so much information to work with he couldn't figure out how to cull some of it. This is one case where a better choice by the author might have been to do it as a two-volume work: Truman before the presidency, and Truman as President and then in retirement. So much happened during his presidency -- the atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, seeing all the "experts" proved spectacularly wrong when Truman beat Dewey in 1948 -- that it could easily have been a book by itself.

On the other hand,by packing it all into one book McCullough ensured his readers that not only would readers learn a tremendous amount about Truman, they'd also give their arm muscles a good workout. Definitely not a fast or an easy read, but for anyone interested in politics and the Presidency, well worth the effort.