Wednesday, July 10, 2019


The sanctuary of the Pasquarella

During a Champions League soccer match at Turin’s San Siro Stadium between Juventus and Real Madrid on June 3rd 2017, a wide screen TV showing of the game was set up in Turin’s Piazza San Carlo. A known criminal band of mostly North African thugs attacked the crowd with pepper spray with the intent to rob attendees. One person apparently died in the melee. Italy’s national police chief, Franco Gabrielli (the Chief of Italian Civil Protection) responded quickly, issuing the Circolare Gabrielli within the month to assure safety at all public gatherings. In the same year, Gabrielli married his long time girlfriend, Immacolata Postiglioni, the Chief of the Emergency Office of Civil Protection. The perfect storm! Two dedicated advocates of public safety joining forces. What could go wrong?

Chief Franco Gabrielli
The original measure proved to be so over-reactive that it put a damper on virtually all social/cultural gatherings in Italy. By July of 2018 a corrective measure was issued to make the order more workable. This one may have actually been named Circolare Gabrielli, while the original was perhaps called something else, despite emanating from the office of Gabrielli. Information about the events on the internet is remarkably difficult to find, limited mostly to the various laws and rulings written in deep bureaucratese, largely impenetrable to the curious foreigner.

Given that we’ve witnessed first-hand in New York City on September 11th of 2001 what can go wrong when government authorities ignore threats to public safety, we feel obligated to compliment the Italian Government for taking quick and decisive action in response to an ugly criminal event. Perhaps Chief Gabrielli could be temporarily loaned to the US to deal with the crisis at the southern border.

Second-guessing public authorities is always easier than carrying out their duties, and we love to do it. Living in underpopulated rural Umbria gives us a particular perspective that the Chief doesn’t have the luxury of sharing. We see his measures as overkill but left to our own devices, ours might be seen in the same light by city dwellers. If big soccer matches breed violence, why not just eliminate them, have them played in empty stadiums in neutral cities, or just ban the sport altogether and let the crowds concentrate their enthusiasm on more gentlemanly sports such as rugby?

Putting city-country differences aside for the moment, we would simply like to draw a little attention to the measures that have been taken. Generally all events involved in public gatherings will have new regulations about the size of the crowds and the number of security people that have to be on duty during those events. The size of the crowds at the Palio in Siena will be reduced from 40,000 to 12,000. What will the economic effect on Siena be? We assume that ticket prices will rise by a factor of three or four, but attendees buy more than tickets. Oh well, that’s a Tuscan problem.

Parking threat on river road
near Pasquarella
 Here in Umbria, there is a little sanctuary up the hill from a ravine near our village of Acqualoreto. It dates back to the 1100’s and is built against a cliff with rooms carved into the rock. For decades and probably centuries, local people have gathered there on the Sunday after Easter (Pasquarella) for a combination of a Mass and a picnic in the woods. In recent years the path up to the church has been improved and at the bottom of the hill, along the ravine, outdoor grilles have been
Porchetta and peanuts
built and parking has been improved. On the day of the Pasquarella, Masses have started early in the morning and have continued until late afternoon, eight in all. However, there have been several other days of pilgrimage to the sanctuary in January and August. Last year the use of the Pasquarella was canceled. It seems that the little piazza to the front and side of the church has been deemed too small for safe evacuation in the case of emergency.

Unsafe for emergency evacuation

Here in town on other occasions such as Corpus Domini, a score of villagers follow the priest out of the church, around the village and down and back to a little chapel a couple of hundred meters along the road. The new regulations require a person wearing an iridescent vest at the front and rear of all such processions. That is manageable enough but now, every little village festival has to have three or four Red Cross people standing by throughout to deal with “emergencies”. The biggest emergency is the cost of this service. Morre and Collelungo canceled their festas last year. Acqualoreto is soldiering on this summer but for how long? These little festivals take in some money, typically just enough to cover their costs, but with considerable new costs imposed, there may not be sufficient residual funds to finance next year’s events.
secured procession

By now, Todi is a small city known around the world for its history, beauty and livability but the entire Comune (county or township) has only 17,000 residents, of which about 7000 live in the city. It does an astounding job of hosting all sorts of cultural events at a time of serious difficulty for retail shops. The big need is more people and more jobs. We doubt that security guards are the answer to the employment problem.

Musicians imitating Ray Charles
play in Todi's
Piazza Garibaldi
Red Cross standing by in case Garibaldi falls on
crowd due to rhythmic music

The road to the river
Several posts back, on June 16th of last year, we commented on the collapse of a short section of the road connecting our village with the river road that runs alongside the Tiber. We called it the Little GrandCanyon of Acqualoreto. Nothing has changed. The men working signs are still in place. A five km stretch of this road connects our village to the road running along the Tiber in the valley below, which in turn takes us just about anywhere we’re likely to go. The pavement is roughly five meters wide, just enough for vehicles to pass each other, assuming that each stays to the right. There are no shoulders to this road, much less sidewalks or paths for pedestrians or cyclists. No stripes are painted, either at the edges of the pavement or in the middle. 
curving metal gutter

 Along one section, metal drainage gutters have been installed to facilitate drainage on the hilly terrain. Sometimes they are a meter away from the pavement, hidden by tall grass, and sometimes they are right at its edge. These gutters have small cross braces at about every three meters.
preferred trajectory

Most drivers seem to prefer driving in the middle of the road, moving to the edge only when forced to by an on-coming vehicle. We are left to imagine what effect a slight excursion off the pavement might produce. Some precautions have been taken by the local authorities, such as installing a few poles with reflectors along the edge of the pavement where the gutter abuts it.
safety measures including posted
10 KPM speed limit

The other notable provision is a 10 KPH speed limit sign (hard to read in the picture due to uncut grass) which would appear to be more an attempt to reduce liability than speed. For US readers, that’s about 6 MPH, a brisk sustainable walking speed.

We would like to invite Chief Gabrielli to visit our area to to see the unintended consequences of his measures but we fear that if he noted the conditions of the roads that connect Acqualoreto to the world, he might conclude that the village could not be safely evacuated in the event of an emergency. If he issues another wide-reaching decree regarding road safety, it could mean the end of all motorized traffic in Italy. Good for the environment perhaps but at what cost?

One day we’ll all be securely dead but in the meantime, while we’re still breathing, we would like to see the politicians of all persuasions who lament the economic difficulties of the country turn their attention from prohibiting cultural and economic activity to promoting it. Small villages suffer from population loss and limited economic opportunities but they offer beauty, cultural traditions and a healthy atmosphere that can’t be matched in large cities. Killing what remains of their traditions and social/cultural events doesn’t seem like the product of the most positive or creative thinking available.

Friday, April 26, 2019


We’ve been hearing that our current politics is driven by fear. I won’t dispute that instilling fear is a much used tactic but the emotion that dominates these uneasy times seems to be disgust rather than fear. I turned to Google for enlightenment and came up with the following, along with a few other helpful articles here and here.


“The feeling when you encounter something that you don’t want to get into contact with in any way (neither see, hear, feel or taste it), because you expect it is bad for you. You want it to get away from you.” *from emotiontypology. Disgust is similar to contempt when related to human characteristics. “Moral disgust and contempt can be difficult to distinguish.” Outrage is not far away.

Among animals which prompt disgust, snakes, spiders and other crawling insects lead the unpopularity sweepstakes. Having worked at zoos at both ends of my career, I remain afraid of snakes but not disgusted by them, whereas I’ve always been disgusted by rats and other invasive rodents, even to the point of booing Mickey Mouse cartoons at the movies as a kid.

According to one of the articles linked, people who feel disgust readily are more likely to be conservative, whereas liberal people tend to feel less disgusted morally. My background is from a family of faltering Dutch Reformed faith. The severity and the religiosity were diluted but the Calvinist judgmental tendencies were retained, leaving us to experience disgust and contempt much more readily than most of our neighbors.

Curiously, my brother and I share this trait but owing to divergent political leanings, the objects of our contempt are usually polar opposites. My radically conservative brother would seem to be more within the confines of probability, in that his contempt is usually triggered by “the other”, i.e. whatever is outside the American suburban norm of the 50’s and 60’s, whereas mine, more often driven by aesthetic concerns, is rooted there. We get along remarkably well by simply avoiding the discussion of politics.

The picture toward the top of the page is of viburnum, known locally as sambuchelle. These plants have nice flowers and make a dense hedge. We have many of them. Unfortunately, they stink, a characteristic described in plant catalogs as an “intoxicating fragrance”. Besides the Calvinist baggage, I have a strong sense of smell, not good enough to be a paid food or wine taster but enough to render me susceptible to disgust brought on by cigarette smoke, wet dogs and viburnum. My vision of Hell is riding in a car of a cigarette smoker with a dog. Indeed, my many years of smoking cigars resulted not only from a love of the scent of cigars but as much from the need for a counteroffensive against the ubiquitous poison gas ambiance generated by cigarette smoke, a tactic akin to using excessive cologne when riding the buses of Rome. As defined above, disgust arises from all the senses and while I’m conventionally liberal enough to oppose capital punishment, I would be tempted to make exceptions for “graffiti artists” and other desecrators of the visual environment. Likewise, aural stimuli, from much white pop music of the fifties, through decades of the San Remo Festival, to the sound tracks of the cartoons that my grandchildren watch, induce extreme distress. At the gym which I frequent, when the screaming military cadences of the ladies’ dancercizes subside, the aural vacuum is filled by the sounds of Radio Subasio, an agency possibly set up by the CIA to soften the will of terrorist prisoners held at Abu Graib. After two hours of exposure, normal brains turn to mush so I try to hold my workouts to an hour and a half.

In my bachelor days, many years ago, my Siamese cat slept inside my bed with me. This provoked some discomfort, if not outright disgust, in a number of visitors, not so different from my own unease at seeing people share their dishes with their pets. Our thresholds of disgust are highly subjective and personal.

Occasionally the disgust sweeping the world can be curiously bipartisan. In the UK, the failure to resolve the Brexit crisis has provoked disgust with the political establishment across the British political spectrum, even if abroad, the disgust has been sprinkled with other emotions ranging from disbelief through ridicule to pity.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the times we live in is that while President Trump has exceeded all precedents for provoking disgust, the intense disgust that he inspires is felt mostly in people usually considered liberal. His “conservative” base theoretically consists largely of easily disgusted people. It’s no surprise that they will not be upset with his treatment of poor people or of non-white people, but one might reasonably expect that people who are intolerant of others outside their experienced norms of appearance and custom would be appalled by his constant flouting of social norms of behavior that have evolved over centuries. Have actual conservatives been supplanted by a new breed of monsters, such as those filling his swamp cabinet, all dedicated to destroying the agencies they run? While a few collaborators have thrown in the towel, the President’s steadfast minions, from Mitch McConnell to William Barr, surrender whatever dignity or decency they may have ever possessed to the campaign to destroy every significant institution and all aspects of the natural environment, in the United States and beyond.  Their mission is to redistribute all economic resources to their oligarch patrons. It is not a zero sum game. They don’t really care if the pie gets smaller; they just want all of it. Will a new James Bond emerge to save the world from the plot by the spiritual descendents of Dr. No and Goldfinger to establish a neo-feudal regime? Will the level of disgust rise to the point of forcing change? We shall see.

Still, every one of us reacts to different things emotionally and stimuli come from all sides. While the Governor of Virginia was flubbing his press conference to explain a proposed law legalizing third trimester abortion and what to do with fetuses which accidentally survive the procedure, causing the law to be scrapped, in New York State the passage of a similar law was celebrated with the illumination of the NYC skyline in pink, ordered by the First Girlfriend of New York.  It may have been all congratulatory smiles in the citadel of secular orthodoxy but there were more bitter pockets of outrage in flyover country than the New York Times is ever likely to report. We think of flyover country as places like Iowa and Nebraska but the planes actually lift off in Newark and Queens. Not even the Pope appeared to take umbrage but the President was quick to jump at the chance to displace the Pope as the champion of unborn babies, thus ingratiating himself with more angry voters of short and narrow memory.

Another topic which provokes psychic, not to mention physical, discomfort is genital mutilation, a practice mostly carried out in African countries. African issues don’t carry much weight in the US but when some Africans get to the US and try to continue this tribal custom, a storm of indignation erupts. Given that opposition to such practices is so vocal and strong, it is beyond ironic that a recent objective in “progressive” circles is the surgical and chemical altering of pre-adolescent children to make their bodies better align with their perceived gender identities. Barring revolutionary medical advances, this will leave them sterile, perhaps a worthy goal for progressives concerned with rapid population growth at a time when the planet’s survival has come into question.

Disgust fatigue risks our turning away from the news of the world, which would be problematic if the major media actually reported news more than gossip. One story that somehow slipped in quietly the other day was about the comeback of asbestos. The formerly all purpose wonder substance was banned several decades back when its lethal effects became known but now the Trump Administration, in its efforts to create jobs and stimulate the economy, has eased the restrictions on its use. Previous sources of asbestos in Brazil and Canada have long since suspended operations but there is a small town in Russia which still produces asbestos and is now looking forward to a new era of prosperity. Residents there don’t worry about dangers inherent in the mining since they are only a few kilometers from a large, run-down nuclear power plant and all life has risks anyway so what the hell.

We’ve never been much caught up in the agitation over the alleged efforts of Putin to influence the 2016 US election since his efforts were at least furtive, whereas the more forceful interventions of Benjamin Netanyahu were carried out in plain sight on the floor of Congress shortly before the election. The combined efforts of Putin, Netanyahu, and Bill Clinton to subvert the election never added up to anything close to those of Kris Kobach. He remains unindicted and free despite his effective work to disenfranchise many times more voters than were needed to prevent the surprise victory of Donald Trump. Inasmuch as he is not a foreign agent, his work did not constitute the intervention of a hostile foreign power but only something more akin to treason or, at the least, as massive a civil rights violation as we’ve seen since the days of the KKK.

Nevertheless, those looking for more evidence of Russia’s hold over the current administration might want to follow the asbestos trail. Could this be a link that Mueller missed? Election help and Moscow building permits in exchange for jobs in a struggling Russian town plus the poisoning of the US homeland with the consequent weakening of its population?

Finally, as we end today’s sermon, we note that right-wing Democrats are loudly calling for the emergence of a Democratic presidential candidate who will not threaten the status quo. In 2016 they were very successful but they started from pole position in that race. (They did win the race even if the series championship eluded them.) Can they replicate that performance while starting from behind in 2020? At the moment, their efforts appear to be concentrated on Joe Biden, whose candidacy has only now been officially proclaimed, after delay after delay of a declaration ceremony, mostly caused by allegations of improper conduct towards women with him on prior campaign trails. Some women claim to have been disgusted by his actions in putting his arm on their shoulders or even sniffing their hair (ucch!). Joe Biden has always struck me as a very likable person, unusually so for a politician. Wealthy Democrats seem to adore him. Of all the twenty or thirty potential candidates in the race he is near the bottom of the list of whom I would want to see as the next president, but I would be happy to have him as a friend or neighbor. A compelling op-ed appeared in the NYT by a woman who is deeply offended by the attitudes he represents. We can respect her views without sharing them. I would have shared the article here but can't find it.  I too have been disgusted by some of Joe Biden’s actions, from his treatment of Anita Hill at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings to his advocacy of the criminally insane invasion of Iraq.

We risk drowning in a sea of disgust. It’s a constant companion, much like hypocrisy. An excess of hypocrisy leads to cynicism, as in Italy where universal cynicism has led to political paralysis. Similarly, the daily tidal wave of disgusting events in the USA appears to have rendered the population numb to the most grotesque outrages but sometimes hypersensitive to mini affronts. I would modestly suggest that we all take a deep breath and put this emotion under control and focus it where it matters. Asbestos could be a start. Climate science denial, or all science denial for that matter, would be better yet.

For my part, I pledge to resist kicking overly friendly, drooling dogs and to refrain from derogatory comments in the presence of cigarette smokers. I will even hold back from dropping a barbell on the hi-fi system at the gym. As an occasional political cartoonist, I can’t step back from disgust completely or I’d have nothing to draw, but should Joe Biden stop by the Circolo of Acqualoreto on a long campaign tour, or even on a post-withdrawal Umbrian vacation, speaking for the membership, I can assert that he will be welcomed with open arms, friendly hugs and all, by the assembled members, with the possible exception of my wife, but even she wouldn’t denounce him in the press. The presence of Kristen Gillibrand might prove more problematic since there is a lot of casual hugging and kissing at our Happy Hours and we wouldn’t want to risk being reported to the authorities.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

What's Next in the Future of Cults?

For several years people have been exposed to the idea that if they all shoot themselves in the foot they will receive a shower of unimaginable riches: handicapped car permits, enhanced pensions and health care, as well as a renewed sense of solidarity with their handicapped brethren.
In the UK, the argument convinced a majority of the population to make that commitment. When the ruse was exposed showing that the promised golden shower would be very different from what they had been led to expect, die-hard cult leaders stepped in to claim that “democracy” required that the voice of the people be respected and that there would be no going back. Logic might have suggested that the Make Britain Great Again cult should be simply seen as a momentary collective lapse of judgment and reconsidered.

I do recall that after a centuries-long, half-hearted campaign to replace imperial units, in 1973 the UK joined the EEC and was obliged to adopt the metric system. Remember, that going back as far as the 1660’s, British scientists and engineers were at the forefront of metrication. As adopted, it included the ingeniously modular system of paper sizes and required abandonment of quaint non-decimal units of currency such as shillings and guineas. There has been some backlash. The pint will never die in Britain. After nearly a half century, human weights are still often announced in stone and distances are given in miles. All peoples of the earth are peculiar in that they are unique but the Brits seem to revel in their eccentricities more than most. Therefore, an eleventh hour reversion to reason is less than a sure bet.

What then might some of the effects of Brexit be, in terms of restoring Britain to past glory? We are reasonably sure that the Government of India will not go along with restoring the sovereignty of the Queen over the sub-continent, even though that would give car makers such as Land Rover and Jaguar their British identity back. German brands such as Mini and Rolls Royce, as well as all the major Japanese makes, still produce cars in the UK but with a new system of tariffs, that may prove untenable.

Will the metric system, partial or not, be revoked in a bid to make the special relationship with the USA more special? That’s a thorny issue since British pints are larger than US pints and President Trump is not known for compromise. Will the special relationship lead to Brits being required to eat anything that the FDA and the US Dept of Agriculture deem fit for human consumption? Will it mean that the UK, now freed from EU meddling, will fall under the umbrella of US Homeland Security?

Brexit may halt the painfully slow introduction of mixing taps into the British plumbing system but a reversion to the old hot and cold taps will be hindered by the loss of untold thousands of Polish plumbers who already left with their devalued pounds in the wake of the 2007 economic collapse. The edible food revolution may be harder to reverse, even if the formerly young unemployed Italians who sparked it are sent home, since nearly two generations of Britons have grown accustomed to eating edible food.

On the other side of the pond, the MAGA cult, cousin to the Make Britain Great Again cult, is also facing an uncertain future. Despite two years of daily scandals and the crude and unceasing demolition of standards of civility, diplomacy, credibility and integrity developed over two and a half centuries of US government*, the presidency of Donald Trump has sailed along without a peep of protest from the Republican-controlled Congress, with the exception of a few members pushed into early retirement by shame or dismal reelection prospects.

* Not to paint too rosy a picture but there were standards, no matter how imperfect adherence to them may have sometimes been.

After stating that he would drain the swamp, Trump sought and found his cabinet in the sewer. The subsequent high turn-over rate of his appointees resulted from some of them being even too sleazy for Trump to abide, while others were fired for not being sleazy enough. The new teflon president has slithered through all this on the strength of a rising stock market, (until September 2018) and vast kick-backs to the oligarchs who backed him (under the guise of tax reform).

Trump may have out-Foxed himself. While he simply lied outright in campaign promises regarding health care, social security, deficits and taking care of the troops, he also made statements about building a wall on the Mexican border so racist and so irrational that they clouded the essentially reasonable idea that a country should have secure borders. In so doing, he spawned a whole generation of believers in no borders at all. No sovereignty, just universal love.

He went on to say “I don’t see why we have to be enemies with Russia”. A quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of better relations with the inheritors of the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal seemed less irrational than most of Trump’s other tweets. Little did anyone realize that his quest for better relations was driven not by a need for national security but by the chance to build a Trump Tower in central Moscow.

Trump is now reviled across the bi-partisan Neo-con coalition for his Russian dealings. His support for a high visibility murderer and dismemberer has inspired queasiness in all but the deadest of souls. Recently he has fired all “the adults in the room”, i.e. the generals he had appointed to civilian posts. Then he announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, undermining the absolute control of the government by the Military Industrial Complex. Ironically, the one positive thing he’s done in two years may be the thing that leads to his removal from office.

With apparent impunity, Trump can abuse women, pay them hush money, insult all identifiable minorities, tear up treaties, violate international law and act like the typical US kid drugged up for attention deficit disorder, but in derailing the military gravy train, he may have crossed a red line that neither Wall Street, the Pentagon, nor AIPAC will tolerate. Almost as quickly as I started to write this piece, Mr. Bolton, the new Director of Homeland Security, stepped in to overrule the President, possibly saving the President his job for the moment.

The troops were due to repatriated in one month; the final Mueller Report should be out sometime in the first quarter, and March 29th is the last day to drink or reject the Brexit Kool-aid. How will the cults fare? Your guess is as good as ours but it looks like an interesting time ahead. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Salzburg and Rocky Mount

Recently, my wife and I watched a documentary on Salzburg, a beautiful city in Austria where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756. Despite its many other charms, Salzburg lives on with Mozart events and memorabilia as its major economic driver. Mozart’s musical legacy is alive and well throughout the world.
Viennese Monk by Robert De Graaf, based on
Schubert at the Piano by Gustav Klimt

Thelonious Sphere Monk was born on this date, October 10th, 101 years ago in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Last year there were many celebrations marking the centennial of his birth. I am now listening to his music, courtesy of Brian Delp and WBGO in Newark, and at this week’s Acqualoreto Happy Hour this evening, I will be toasting his memory. I hope that more than two and a half centuries after his birth, as with Mozart, Monk’s music will still be heard and appreciated. At 1.01 C along, I’m trying to do my part.

By the time he was five years old, Mozart was taken on an extended performing tour of major European cities by his father. By the time he was five, Monk had been taken by his mother from Rocky Mount to New York City, where he remained for the rest of his life. NYC has honored his presence by renaming a portion of West 63rd St. where he lived, as Thelonious Monk Circle. We doubt that Monk’s birth has had as much of an impact on Rocky Mount as Mozart’s has had on Salzburg, but it’s never too late.

All places go through ups and downs. Salzburg became the performance home for many of the favored musicians of the Third Reich after WWII but by now most of those people have faded from the scene and Salzburg, unsullied, thrives on its Mozart and chocolate.

Despite its history as the birthplace of aviation, as well as its being the site of many fine universities, North Carolina is currently known as the most gerrymandered state in the Union and at the forefront of voter suppression. Those evils must be eradicated but maybe Rocky Mount could take the lead in restoring some decency to the state’s reputation by establishing a Monk Festival in honor of one of America’s greatest native musical geniuses. There is a Monk Foundation, gathering funds for a life sized statue of Monk for Rocky Mount, but NC needs to do more to clean up its act and this is an opportunity.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

If the NFL Fails, What's Left?

The USA has been in serious decline at least since the turn of the century, by some measures from two or three decades earlier. Much of what there was, the majority middle class, the Constitution, an improving environment, a rising standard of living, is gone. From being the model for postwar development throughout the world, the US has turned into the world’s number one rogue nation, often feared, sometimes hated, and increasingly pitied. US industry has largely withered away, leaving a nation of service industries, from fast food and chic food through financial services and entertainment. Within the expanding entertainment sector there are professional and semi-professional (i.e. college) sports.

America’s sports tradition has revolved around three seasonal sports, baseball in the spring and summer, football in the autumn, and basketball in the winter. Most high schools in the US field teams in all three sports, along with less popular sports such as track & field, soccer, and in affluent communities, even ice hockey, tennis and golf. Football and basketball are the ones that attract a paying audience in both high school and college. The seasons barely overlap so high school athletes can, and often do, play all three major sports on their school teams.  With the growth of professional sports and their ever present drive to maximize revenues through television, the seasons of all three sports have expanded to cover at least half the year. Pro sports keep taking in ever more money, largely through TV, and pro athletes have a faster path to great riches than all but the shrewdest and sleaziest of upstart banksters, but they have to work hard to get there, as well as being possessed of exceedingly rare physical traits.

Baseball, called the national pastime since the Great Depression, when out of work men could pass the long afternoons at the ballpark for less than the price of a movie, is now played mostly at night in front of well paid workers by outrageously overpaid players often recruited from countries where the game is still widely played, such as the Dominican Republic, the rest of Latin America, and even Japan. Just as gladiators working the Colosseum during the Roman Empire were mostly recruited from the distant outposts of the Empire, big league baseball players increasingly come from the further reaches of the American Empire.

Basketball is played from early childhood even to middle age by many people throughout the US but a minuscule percentage are good enough to even think about playing pro ball. There are only about fifteen players on each pro team so the competition for a position on any of those teams is statistically akin to being elected president, except that to be an NBA player you have to be really talented. It also helps to be a tough, agile, two meter tall kid who grew up spending most of his days shooting baskets in a focused, competitive atmosphere. White kids aren’t discriminated against as far as I know, but there just aren’t that many of them with those requisites so by now, basketball is an almost exclusively black sport, much as ice hockey and Nascar racing are white sports.

Despite claims made by others, football is still the most popular American sport. It started in colleges such as Harvard, Rutgers and Princeton over a century ago and college teams still have huge and loyal followings, often playing in larger stadiums than those used by the pros. The big college programs have become more and more professional except that the players don’t get paid. Successful coaches at the big state universities are often the highest paid employees of their state. Vast numbers of players go through those schools tuition free but only a tiny number hit the jackpot and make it to the NFL.

Once upon a time, preppy college boys were squeezed out of big time football by the sons of Polish steel workers and coal miners from western Pennsylvania.. Industries and demographics have changed. In 1961 James Meredith was the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, accompanied by federal marshals ordered in by President Kennedy to protect him from the redneck mobs trying to keep him out.  By 1985, Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes in American history, was winning the Heisman Trophy (for outstanding college football player of the year) at Auburn, a nearby rival of Ole Miss, in front of huge cheering crowds of the same sort of people who a generation earlier would stop at nothing to keep their universities white. Sports have their dark sides but football (and basketball) have had a role in the racial integration of the South. There is a delightful irony in seeing vast crowds of white people across Dixie, from the Carolinas to Texas, cheering on the black heroes of their alma maters on Saturdays in autumn. Those players now go on to make up the lion’s share of NFL rosters.

Players’ salaries in all pro sports continue to rise but there are warning signs on the horizon for football. The most discussed problem is the growing evidence of brain damage among retired players. Measures are being taken to reduce hits to the head but football is, by its nature, a spectacularly rough game. If the violence is reduced, will the spectacle maintain its popularity?
It'not Munich or Berlin in the 30's

A second and less discussed cloud on the horizon is the cultural divide between team owners and players. While the majority of players are non-white and from humble circumstances, the owners of the thirty-two teams are all billionaires, tending to the far right politically. It is often hard to determine if NFL games are simply lavish popular entertainments or recruiting rallies for the Orwellian-named Department of Defense, which does in fact pay the NFL to promote recruitment. Most games feature military flyovers, military bands, giant American flags and large units of uniformed veterans of recent military campaigns honored in the stands, or sometimes on the field, as our heroes who have sacrificed to defend our freedoms. The solemnity of the religious/militaristic rite is marred less by the protests of a few civic-minded players than by the grotesque mauling of the national anthem by pop stars trying to be original.
Military girls

Perhaps it’s only fair that the anthem is routinely trashed since its third stanza, rarely sung in public, is an ode to the coming defeat of the British and their efforts to free American slaves in the War of 1812. Statues of Confederate heroes have been disappearing from public view recently due to public outcry but the Star Spangled Banner is more of an affront to the descendants of those slaves than any of those post-Reconstruction statues.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Kaepernick and fellow protesters
NFL players are in a very complex position. Coming from underprivileged backgrounds in stark contrast to those of the owners, they are subjected to hyper-competition for their jobs. Surviving that competition can make them extremely wealthy young men but they are also in on-going, cut-throat negotiations with their employers, who can dump them at will. Such tensions came to light with Colin Kaepernick, an incredibly gifted athlete and far better than average quarterback. During the 2016 season, he refused to stand for the playing of the National Anthem prior to games to protest the all too frequent fatal police shootings of young black men and women in cities throughout the USA. An increasing number of players joined his protest. Despite a severe shortage of good quarterbacks, the key position in football, Kaepernick has been without a job for more than a year and is now suing the owners, alleging a conspiracy to keep him off the field., a charge which is as difficult to prove as it is obvious to see. He should be playing but, as a starting quarterback for a few years, he has already made more money than most Americans will earn in their lifetimes. Other younger players face bigger risks to their earnings. Many will no doubt keep their heads down and their comments to themselves. They walk a fine line between a return to poverty or a path to unimagined wealth. Still, it’s not hard to foresee this incendiary environment blowing up at some point.

Recently the NFL announced new rules for the 2018 season. Players will be required to respectfully stand during the playing of the national anthem, with an option of remaining in the dressing room until it’s over. Liberal media and journalists have come down hard on the NFL for suppressing the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech of the players, proving nothing so much as how the concern of today’s American “left” for constitutional rights is directly proportional to the wealth of the citizens whose rights are at issue. Do any of you who work in contact with the public, at a bank or a Walmart or an advertising agency, think that you could show up at work wearing a badge of support for a cause not supported by your employer? Journalists should know better, since few of them can write what they want when it contradicts the views of their employers.

The USA is a big, influential country with a long list of achievements in politics, science, art and culture. While our political heritage has fallen from the gutter into the sewer, a few of our better inventions have survived. Highest on my list of remaining American things of value are jazz and football.

Jazz is America’s music. Fortunately, it has spread to the rest of the world and is often appreciated more elsewhere than it is at home. It may be America’s greatest gift to the world and by now, excellent jazz musicians are emerging from the most unlikely and remote places on all continents.

American football may have evolved from English origins, along with soccer and rugby, but it is a distinctly American game. Unlike jazz, it has not effectively spread to the rest of the world, despite the efforts of the NFL to promote it with a few games in London and Mexico City. Overprotective parents increasingly discourage or forbid their children from playing it but nevertheless, football is one of the world’s great sports, both challenging to play and exciting to watch. Many sports feature remarkable athletic performances but football brings the fascination of a chess match played on a 100 yard long board with giant moving chess pieces of diverse capabilities. More than most, it is a coach’s game, but unlike baseball, that other coach’s game, where strategy often squeezes out most of the action, football never lacks for action, except during the TV commercials, which provide welcome breaks for getting another beer or disposing of the last one.

Hope is in short supply in America right now. The progression from James Meredith to Bo Jackson lets me hope that the country, despite appearances, is not beyond redemption. So, for this celebration of the nation’s independence on the two hundred and forty-second anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I propose a toast to Colin Kaepernick. May more of his colleagues find their voices.

Despite all its problems, football must succeed! We have no queen to pledge our fealty to and no World Cup presence to cheer for. With democracy banished over the past several electoral cycles and American industry moribund, what else is left for Americans to rally round?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Roads Collapsing

Everywhere we look, roads are collapsing. In Rome huge sink holes have developed large enough to swallow up cars. As the holes open, new Roman ruins are being discovered. In our Umbrian village one of the two roads leading out of town has had one edge of the road fall away forty or fifty centimeters from the road surface. Over the intervening months,the new cliff has been fenced off, shutting the 1-1/2 lane road down to one lane. Perhaps our local officials are planning to make it a tourist attraction, the Umbrian Grand Canyon, or just find it so interesting, they don’t want to alter it.
Men working, sooner or later.

There is a precedent. A few years ago, a section of the same road ,a kilometer or two down the hill, was undermined by ground water so badly that the asphalt heaved, creating what amounted to a low wall across the road. The asphalt had to be scraped away and that section has remained a stretch of dirt road ever since. It’s a little dusty but definitely safer than before. Safety is not always a major concern, as we can see from the way the tall grass has been dealt with at a sign
The Grand Canyon of Acqualoreto
warning of a drainage ditch and concrete culvert along the road’s edge..

The Region of Umbria is divided into two provinces, Perugia and Terni. Our village of Acqualoreto sits just south of the border in the Province of Terni. Thank God! While I’ve been told by people who should know, that the provincial governments no longer play much of a role in road maintenance, for some inexplicable reason the roads
sign warning of ditch & concrete culvert
of Perugia, at least the ones near here, are notably worse than those of Terni. Last year, a short winding road through the village of Fiore became virtually impassible. It was “repaired” with all sorts of of road grading equipment and two or three flagmen to control traffic over a period of about a week. The road is only a kilometer or two long but it was repaved in patches, typically 40 to 60 meters long, where the worst parts were, but the good patches, while passable, were also very bad. Now they’re worse.

unpatched with patch beyond

more quiltwork
All around us, roads, from winding country roads to superstrade (non-toll divided highways) are full of so many potholes and degraded surfaces that driving becomes hazardous, as drivers, instead of just gliding along in their lane, swerve erratically to avoid the rough patches. We’ve had a strange winter, not especially cold, except for about one week in late February when temperatures were dramatically below below normal, touching -15°C and causing a number of pipes to burst. There was an unusual amount of rain. What then was the cause? Some suggest that the abundant rain undermined the roads and the frost damaged the pavement. Northern Europe had an abnormally cold winter so how are the roads in Germany and Scandinavia holding up? Is it just an occasional bad year and things will return to normal next year? We hope so but that’s what we thought about the olive harvest and we’ve now had four bad years in a row. Perhaps it’s all the wrath of a judgmental God, fed up with what we’re doing to His creation.
difficult road to the pizzeria

Italy is experiencing a long running economic crisis and has somewhat decentralized funding of government functions to the regions. Is rural Umbria too underpopulated to afford road maintenance? If so, what about the streets of Rome, with their unprecedented potholes? Surely, there’s no lack of population to pay for its roads.

Giant Roman pothole

We’ve heard that American infrastructure is underfunded and crumbling. At least we know how that happened. Once the masses were convinced that that government was the problem, not the solution, there was no money available for anything useful to the public, so schools, hospitals, airports and parks share the same fate as roads and bridges. Has this spread to Italy? Has climate change already changed the earth’s surface more than we thought? Does anyone have a clue? Is this a series of natural disasters or unusually bad administration?

Whatever the cause, it doesn’t seem like non maintenance of roads is especially good for the economy. Delivering goods gets to be difficult, and those tourists that we increasingly depend on for infusions of cash can’t be getting the most positive impression. Italy used to be a delightful place to drive, with its winding, hilly roads and non-problematic speed limits. Truck-filled autostrade and an obscene number of speed traps on the small roads have removed most of the joy of driving. Cars have gotten bigger and their drivers proportionately worse so unmaintained roads are just the latest affront.

Then again, paved roads are sooo 20th Century! Before 1970 few country roads around here were paved and then, suddenly, they all were. Driverless cars are said to be coming but they may be rendered unnecessary before they arrive. A new era is almost at hand. Amazon will be delivering all the merchandise we require by unmanned drones. With a complete virtual existence and all material needs at your door, who needs roads?
The wave of the future

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Return Trip

It's often noted that the later stages of life come to resemble the early ones. The cycle of life seems to hit its apex in the striving, self-important years, then retirees come to resemble carefree adolescents before succumbing to the vulnerability of the first stages of life. The English phrase “losing one's marbles” is roughly equivalent to becoming “rimbambito” in Italian, i.e. becoming a baby again. Yes, we do sometimes revert to our earlier stages.

I've discovered some of that symmetry in my own life cycle while traveling recently. My very first foray into Europe was in my student years and in Italy I found myself particularly vulnerable. I hitch-hiked my way from Nice almost to Rome but having gotten to Viterbo at about 10:00 PM, I decided to take a train for the last leg to Rome. Hitch-hiking is not a very effective means of transport late at night on country roads, especially in a country where you don't speak the language. People were all very friendly, from the university students who accompanied me to the Viterbo Station, to the man who accosted me when I descended from the train at midnight in Rome's Termini Station. Asking if I needed a cheap place to stay, this man, who I'll call Aldo, because I seem to recall that was his name, said he knew an inexpensive place to stay in someone's apartment but for the night at hand, he knew a closer place only a little less cheap. While suspicious, I did need a place to sleep and had no clue where that might be, so I followed him to the first appartment and slept there without incident. Aldo implausibly claimed to be a doctor who just liked to help students and he showed up the next morning to accompany me to the other place in a residential neighborhood south of the center, stopping here and there for coffee, which he generously paid for. He introduced me to the woman in whose apartment I'd be staying, although she understood no more English than I understood Italian. Aldo couldn't have been more helpful. He suggested that if I really wanted to see all the sights in and around Rome, it was essential that I rent a car, if only for a day. His English was passable when he wanted to explain something but if questioned, his English instantly faded to a memory. Despite some apprehension, and no doubt due to the gullibility of youth, I acquiesced to the pitch and soon we were sailing around the city in a rented Fiat with Aldo at the wheel, looking a little like a bad copy of Vittorio Gassman in Il Sorpasso.. We were joined by two of his girlfriends for a ride out to Ostia. I failed to pursue the opportunities presented there, which might well have found me stranded naked in a pine grove, and we headed back to the city for more sight-seeing, which extended to a night club in the wee hours. As I reached the point of exhaustion, Aldo said fine, he'd take me back to the apartment and then return to the club and he'd see me in the morning. As you may have guessed, he didn't turn up the next morning and when I hastily returned to the car rental place I was told that everything was OK, “my friend” had returned the car and taken the deposit. I was furious but in reality, he had shown me a good time and served as a guide to Rome. I was fortunate. When I returned to the apartment I discovered that two young American women were also staying there and had been similarly ripped off by Aldo. They had come with their own rental car loaded with gifts they'd bought on their tour, but which their designated recipients would never see. We spent the next few days dividing our time between sight-seeing and looking for Aldo, vowing that if we saw him before he saw us, we'd kill him. We never saw him again.

The apartment was OK and seemed to fit my meager budget, but it wasn't as cheap as I'd thought. If it was to have cost Lit.3,000 a night, it came to something like Lit.7,000, because I'd taken a shower or a bath, and possibly turned on some lights. Toto's wonderfully comic movies were not made of fantasy. That's the way it was. Everything cost more than it was said to cost. The price of a modest meal wasn't what you planned because the cover charge and charges for bread, water and service could double the bill. Taxis had surcharges for baggage, round trips, holiday or nighttime service and for rate hikes that had not yet been installed on the meter. I got out of the country with a sigh of relief, escaping to the relaxed and secure atmosphere of Germany, despite having been completely enchanted by the beauty of the cities, the countryside and the women of Italy. The enchantment remained and the nervousness abated over time to the point where I've managed to live more than half my life very happily in Italy.

I've come to understand the post-war Italian mindset. Times were tough. Food was scarce and people learned or invented the tricks of survival. Once learned, those tricks turned into habits which persisted even after conditions had become notably better. The techniques of survival were ably documented by masters of the Italian cinema such as Totò, Gassman and Alberto Sordi.

Decades have passed and again I live on a restricted budget, as in my student days. Faced with the need to attend a family ceremony in London, I sought an economic means of getting there. Despite all these years of living in Italy, I am, for better and often for worse, still an American, and what are our most deeply held values? Low prices and convenience!! Closer to our hearts than mom, apple pie or the Constitution! The Perugia airport is only fifty-five km from our house and Ryanair offers seemingly the lowest prices to London, so just as I followed Aldo to that bargain apartment, I booked us on Ryanair.

Ryanair is operated by an Irishman, Michael O'Leary. I have met many Irishmen in recent years and have found them all to be unfailingly friendly, kind and generous. I'm not counting those who escaped the potato famine to become policemen in the USA. Their comportment is uniquely American. Perhaps not all Irishmen are like the ones I know. After all, not all Italians are like Aldo. Maybe only the best of Irishmen are drawn to Italy. Some of the others, especially those of the Enron generation, run airlines or banks Aldo managed to fleece three tourists in two days. He was good at his vocation but Ryanair processes thousands every day. What a shame that Alberto Sordi did not live long enough to depict O’Leary in a film.

Ryanair did remind me of those old days in Rome. The airfares they sold us seemed reasonable
but we each needed to bring along a suitcase, which nearly doubled the fare, not altogether unreasonably since they occupied about as much space as we did.. Always hoping to please my nervous wife, I opted for travel insurance and on-line check-in, figuring that the latter would assure us of assigned seats before getting to the airport. Not exactly! The boarding pass did arrive via email a few days before departure. An earlier statement from the airline said we could bring aboard a stowable carry-on bag but it seems that when the privilege of checking a bag is purchased, the carry-on privilege is rescinded. Our seats were indeed assigned prior to our departure, middle seats several rows apart. Recourse was available for nearly all inconveniences. For a fee we could change our seats, with a number of pricing options. There were enough other options available to run the price up to that of a business class ticket but none which could get you a seat suitable for average human dimensions. Of course, our assigned seats were next to occupied seats so if we wanted to sit together, we'd have to change both seats.

Once I'd paid the fees for the new seats and the carry-on bag I realized that I'd have to do this again for the return trip so I tried to check in for the return flight before leaving home. The Ryanair website seemed to work and I selected new seats and the carry-on option and proceeded to the pay page to enter my data. Something failed and when I returned to the site, it no longer acknowledged our reservation number, adding a layer of apprehension to the frustration.

In London, another try yielded a similar result, but three or four days prior to departure we received an email with the usual diabolically selected seats, which we managed to change, along with buying the carry-on option.

Given that the Ryanair flights leave at the crack of dawn from Stansted, which is somewhere in the north of England, we decided to go there the night before the flight and stay in the hotel attached to the airport. That was uneventful except that the electronic key cards to the rooms are apparently programmed to function only in the hands of British subjects. Fortunately we found some helpful Brits. As an architect, I like the Stansted Airport, with its light, airy roof and sense of open space. Unfortunately, the interior circulation was apparently not entrusted to the designer of the building. My guess is that it was done by Michael O'Leary himself. If there was any consultant involved, it would have to have been a moonlighting Gina Haspel, or someone of similar tendencies and experience. Normal people want to get from the airport entrance to their plane as quickly and simply as possible. Current security concerns do create an unwanted obstacle but beyond that, the passengers' needs are basically having a toilet, a newsstand and a cup of coffee with which to ingest their tranquilizers.

Checking in at the Perugia airport had been very easy except for the suspicious looks and thorough screening I got when traveling with an American passport but we knew that getting through Stansted would be no piece of cake, so we started looking into getting a wheelchair for my wife, who was not confident of surviving the procedure. At the airport we found a very pleasant, helpful man at the assistance station who provided us with the wheelchair and told us to just follow the purple line. This man had no connection with Ryanair and he's a credit to England. We may have been flustered by the speed with which the purple line took us through security. After wheeling through the unnerving spiral of the mega-shopping center on the way to the departure gates, I asked my wife where her carry-on was. In the confusion, I had forgotten all about it and sitting pretty in her wheel chair, she figured I had stowed it under the chair. I told her if the flight was called, just get on it and I'd try to join her later, and then I fought my way back upstream through the British version of the Mall of America to the security area. The bag was sitting there just as we'd left it and I raced back through the mall from hell for the third time just before the departure gate was due to close. Actually it hadn't opened yet.

We eventually departed thirty minutes late, with the usual safety instructions read in an indecipherable eastern sounding dialect, which, from the familiar “thank you” at the end of each blurb, we realized was an attempt at English. After an uneventful flight, enlivened by conversation with a pleasant man from Oxfordshire on his way to view to view the Giro d'Italia, we had another soft crash landing in Perugia, just like the one in Stansted a week earlier. The plane bounced, shook, shimmied, and braked hard to a stop. Both times, visibility was good. Was the landing done on autopilot with a defective computer hacked by Russians, or was it a training flight? A more radical explanation would be that the premium item in the Ryanair seating auction was the captain's chair. After all, every year in F1 racing some young driver magically appears in the cockpit of a minor team, his wealthy father having provided enough sponsorship money to keep the team going for the season. Young race drivers are not flustered by minor crashes so our pilot may have been the same for both legs of the trip. Our fellow passengers refrained from applause at our survival and everyone exited the plane as if nothing had happened. No visible damage was seen but how often can a plane take this sort of abuse before those little curled up wingtips go limp?

We were relieved to get back to Perugia and while we were quickly off the plane, there was a long wait for our baggage. The dog who eagerly sniffed all of us as we filed into the airport apparently was the only dog on duty so after he had checked us he was taken to process the bags backstage before they could be loaded onto the carousel. Best of all, our car was still there in the parking lot, I hadn't lost the keys, and the car started.

Just as I can look back on my early misadventures in Rome with a certain bemusement by now, realizing that no irreparable damage was done, back in the safety of my home I can now admit that Ryanair got us to and from London for less than the price of a high speed train ticket and in somewhat less time. 

 We enjoyed our time in London among family and friends with its fine weather and splendid spring flowers. For nomadic adolescents traveling with little money and less baggage, I can recommend Ryanair. Just skip the extras, practice yoga for a few days prior to the trip, eat something before you get to the airport, and take some Xanax or whatever works for you. However, I will take inspiration from our friend Carol, who divides her time between Umbria and New York City. After returning to NY last autumn on American Airlines, she said enough is enough and booked her spring return to Italy on Holland American Lines. She returned looking more relaxed than ever after a comfortable fifteen day passage. We may skip the ship to England next time but the train is looking better and better as an option.