Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Discomfort Zone

For about as long as we’ve known that the earth is round but we weren’t going to fall off,
we’ve known that sooner or later we would die.  As infants, some of us might have been a little spooked by death but as we grew into adolescents we also came to feel immortal, a phase that continued for some of us into middle age.  It’s true that we heard “nothing is certain except death and taxes” more than practically any other aphorism but we learned to complain about taxes long before we worked up any real concern over the other inevitability.

Now that we’ve outlived our original life expectancy, we begin to notice things that escaped us before.  Many, perhaps most, of our friends are ex-smokers.  We all knew, no matter what the lawsuits say, that smoking was bad for us, even as the advertising campaigns worked to mitigate our fears, but it wasn’t until the immortality halo faded that most people decided to change their ways.  Curiously, that doesn’t seem to be the case with regard to alcohol.  Could it be due to the internet advice that a glass of red wine is good for one’s health?  Perhaps, but here in Italy the idea of giving up wine with all the good food available to us is comparable to, even worse than, going on a salt free or meatless diet.  Yes, we may be going to purgatory or hell sooner rather than later, but who wants to volunteer to go right now?

As we start to notice when reading obituaries that increasing numbers of the subjects are our age or, God forbid, even younger than ourselves, we begin to envision the day when we’ll receive some unexpected bad news from our doctor following a check-up or a complaint about a pain which seemed minor although unusual.  Of course we can imagine other grim scenarios, a moment where we underestimate the decline of our night driving capabilities; one episode too many of a risk-minimizing spouse placing something to be taken downstairs on an unlit step; or even the bad fortune to be on one of those rare planes that never makes it to its destination.  But those are just the whims of fate, statistically irrelevant and therefore outside the realm of our concern. Modern medicine has instilled a certain optimism in us, despite our knowledge of the inevitable trend.  We can battle and we can win.  Many of our friends have.  All sorts of diseases, which were considered death sentences not so long ago, have been successfully overcome by people all around us.  Staying positive is good for our morale, even for our health.

It was too good to last.  Early in 2020 news of the coronavirus, Covid-19, started to trickle in.  First it was a small story from China but quickly it became a major story here in Italy and has subsequently spread to dominate the news and the lives of everyone throughout the world.

Many of us in the small cohort of Americans born between the world wars have had the good fortune to be too young for the Korean War, too old for the Viet Nam War and retired before the world-wide push toward neo-feudalism made normal working life a fading memory.

We have experienced a few near disasters and some real ones from which we have escaped relatively unscathed.  The Cuban missile crisis was our closest brush with real terror.  Friends all wanted to drive to the Canadian border to escape the destruction of New York but we figured that if it came to that, there would be little left to live for.  Two tough, resolute and intelligent leaders faced each other down and decided to let life go on.  That crisis passed.  We were not so lucky with the flawed US election of 2000.  The outcome of that fiasco led to death and destruction for millions of people, centered in the Middle East, but for some of us fortunate enough to to escape direct involvement, it still led to the devaluation of our retirement prospects and a culling of our professional guild.  Some of us also survived the disaster of 9/11 from up close.  The grim memories remain but for a while we also got to experience the efforts of neighbors and competitors helping each other in the recovery.  All such crises come upon us unexpectedly.  Damage is done but afterwards it’s back to work and on with our lives. 

The coronavirus has brought us to a new and unsettling situation.  Many of us, especially younger people, are impatient for the crisis to be over, for life to return to normal.   Some people reasonably wonder how they will manage without work or income.  An obnoxious minority complain and demonstrate over the inconveniences placed on them to save their lives.  Life is very different for different categories of people, rich and poor, old and young, but all share one depressing emotion: uncertainty.

The horrors of the pandemic cannot be forgotten and they bring to mind the victims of past catastrophes, those who died in trenches, gulags and concentration camps not knowing if anything of the world as they’d known it would survive.  Now we see people dying in hospitals after weeks of agony without seeing their loved ones; nursing homes piling up corpses in refrigerated trucks; mass graves for the anonymous dead; medical staff working non-stop and sometimes being struck down by the virus themselves.  The list goes on and on, perhaps to where we become a little bit jaded.  People are angry; people are impatient; the suffering is not evenly distributed.  Uncertainty!  Will we have a job?  Will we have food?  Will school resume?  Will the economy come back?  When?  Will we survive and if not, will anybody notice?  Will the big welcome hug from a long missed friend be the kiss of death?  Nothing, not even the sacrosanct football season, can be taken for granted.

Umbria is said to be the region of Italy least affected by the pandemic.  Those of us fortunate enough to live here have more to be thankful for than most people, and most of us are aware of it.  Still, the uncertainties remain here too.  Will the restaurants survive?  Will we see our friends from abroad again?  Will the legions of teenage Chinese piano prodigies play again in Todi?  Will live jazz return?

The upside of the pandemic is that it may bring us to reflect on what we have to be thankful for, without fatuous quibbling over the ineffable nature of the recipient of our gratitude.  So, however and whenever it may end, we thank God for a long and fortunate life, much of it lived in what we regard as an earthly paradise, but still, nobody wants to be the last soldier to die in a war, so please God, if it’s not asking too much, may we be granted the patience, the wisdom and the luck to survive to see the reigning devil consigned to hell and the forces of evil in his orbit vanquished through peaceful, Constitutional means.  Amen.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Sex Changes

Once upon a time, after people had learned to procure the basics of survival such as food, shelter, descendants and security, they became aware that some of these activities, such as eating and drinking, fighting, dressing up, and especially sex, could also be a source of pleasure. As the pleasurable aspects became sought out, the realization followed that sometimes these pursuits could also bring painful consequences. Incautious eating led to food poisoning, obesity, diabetes and heart disease; excessive drinking sometimes led to anti-social effects beyond mere cirrhosis of the liver. Sex could result in a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases and more dramatically, pregnancy, which was only sometimes the desired result.

Wise men, kings, philosophers and prophets came up with rules and regulations governing pleasurable but potentially hazardous activities. Food restrictions grew extreme in hot climates where spoilage was more of a problem, even taking on the mantle of religious dogma. Sex was to be limited, in most cultures, to people joined in matrimony, an institution devised to assure a degree of stability for the progeny, as well as for the people so enjoined. The restrictions varied from one culture to another but the rich and powerful were normally subjected to less restriction. For example, while most Muslims could have four wives, the Sultans, Sheikhs and Kings who ruled them could have hundreds. Western society frowned on all this and men and women were allowed only one spouse at a time. Children produced outside of matrimony were called bastards and they bore a heavy cost, usually more than their fathers, for their parents’ violation of social norms.

The rules and regulations governing sex may have had some practical basis but the lure of pleasure can take wrinkles that don’t follow all the carefully constructed rules and traditions. What came to be labeled perversions or deviancies probably existed as long as the rules, otherwise why would there have been rules. Such practices have been suppressed with varying degrees of severity but mostly quietly ignored when discreet, except for when some political purpose has been served by calling attention to them.

The sexual revolution is often associated with the 60’s but changes had been a long time coming. As secondary education was extended to more people and the duration of that education was prolonged, the adolescent surge of hormones that had propelled people into early marriages for centuries found no outlet within the traditional norms. Something had to give and it did.

Besides the sexual revolution, the late 60’s were the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Americans who had not concerned themselves with the plight of African-Americans for a century were made to take notice. Feminist movements had been around for ages but gathered steam in the 60’s. Homosexuals took notice and seeing groups of people who had been maltreated for their status at birth begin to mobilize to stop the abuse, they too started to campaign for acceptance.

There was a difference not always acknowledged. Blacks and women had been systematically discriminated against, albeit in different ways, for their birth characteristics, over which they obviously had no control. While birth characteristics may affect behavior, they are not quite the same thing as behavioral traits. 

When homosexuals started calling themselves “gay”, not everyone was thrilled with the term. The recently deceased film and opera producer/director Franco Zeffirelli said he was a homosexual and did not want to be be called gay, a term he felt was without dignity. Well, language changes, whether we like it or not. Despite the appropriation of a formerly perfectly serviceable word, this would be one of the more innocuous modifications of language in the service of sex changes.

In deference to female homosexuals, the ancient term “lesbian” was dusted off to be used in tandem with “gay”. With the inclusion of bisexuals, the LBG movement was born, to be expanded to LBGT, and eventually to LBGTQIA+. The veritable alphabet soup of people not conforming to society’s sexual conventions has expanded to trap older politicians who haven’t kept up with what’s the latest thing in progressive causes.

Is homosexuality a genetically or culturally induced trait? No less an authority than Gore Vidal said that there are neither homosexuals nor heterosexuals, only homosexual or heterosexual acts. We claim no more special insight on this subject than we have with which came first, the chicken or the egg. We remain puzzled by the mystery of how much all children are the products of their genes and how much of their environment. As parents, we tend to assign causality of the perceived good traits to either superior genes or enlightened upbringing, while the disappointing outcomes are clearly the result of peer pressure. Still, the inclusion of B in the group title would seem to favor Vidal’s theory that issues of sexuality relate more to choices made than to immutable disposition.

In today’s passionately anti-clerical, secular world, it is in style to lambaste the Church for its restrictions on sexual behavior but we might note that homosexual acts have been regarded as criminal offenses by governments in countries of all religious persuasions, even atheistic ones, as well as in many US states. That was certainly the case in the US military. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, one of his first presidential acts was to institute “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, a fairly radical decriminalization of homosexuality and a striking reversal of long-standing military policy. It was repealed in 2010 and less than three decades after DADT, Clinton is being castigated for having perpetrated what is now considered an outrageous denial of full equality.

If tolerance, acceptance and inclusion are today’s goals, why is the list not more inclusive? If LBGTQ is better than LBG, wouldn’t LBGIZMEATNNSTDCPPQ be infinitely better? That is, the Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay, Incestuous, Zoophile, Masochist, Exhibitionist, Asexual, Transvestite, Nudist, Necrophile, Swinger, Transgender, Dominant, Celibate, Polygamous, Passive, Queer people. Apologies to all those whose sexual identities/inclinations may have been overlooked.

Maybe not. It would lengthen speeches in political debates by so much that the presidential campaign might need to be extended by another six months. Joe Biden would stumble after the first five letters and the New York Times might question whether his condition warranted its continued unconditional support. If we could just agree to settle on “Q people” we could save everybody much time, effort and stress.

We won’t get into a discourse on how public prejudice has inhibited all the orientations listed above, other than to note some of the more blatant inconsistencies. Tolerance of what was recently considered deviant behavior is growing rapidly, albeit unevenly. Same sex marriage has become legal in ever more parts of the world at the same time that heterosexual marriage is fading to to where the majority of babies are born out of wedlock. Fathers, if present or at least identified, are now known as partners in capitalist-minded circles, and as companions in more socialist-oriented realms. Maybe all our new little bastards are better off without the stigma they would have faced in the time of Dickens but only time will tell if that’s true of the growing legions of their mothers. Thus far the evidence is not encouraging.

Some formerly disapproved practices are still subject to discrimination. Pedophiles are vilified and sometimes prosecuted, even though the age of consent has been raised in inverse proportion to the age of the onset of menstruation. Pedophilia has always been around but its status as a crime has varied remarkably over time. The age of consent dropped from twelve to ten in the England of 1576 and both of these ages were adopted by various American colonies. It was raised to sixteen in England in 1885 and most US states followed, to where, by the 1970’s the norm was sixteen, Hawaii being the outlier at fourteen, with only North Dakota and Idaho prosecuting men having sex with girls under eighteen. With intensive instruction on the mechanics of every variety of sexual interaction taking place in American elementary schools and the age of consent averaging sixteen, it would seem that kids are being placed at risk of prison terms for assiduously doing their homework, and those who reach out to their teachers for individual instruction put the faculty in jeopardy.

Zoophilia and its cousin, bestiality, are not frequently discussed these days, now that most folks have moved from the farm to the cities. Bestiality is still on the books as a crime in many jurisdictions but in the age of inclusion, zoophilia, a condition rather than an act, is the preferred term. Bestiality was both more common and more severely punished years ago. Sweden executed up to seven hundred people for it between 1635 and 1778. The last recorded hanging for bestiality in the US was in 1800. At present it is legal in only eight states, as well as in Finland, Romania and Hungary. Devoted zoophiles should stay out of Rhode Island where expressions of their love can cost them seven to twenty years in prison. Apparently, the new mantra of our age, “It’s OK to be with the one you love” still has some exemptions for age and species.

As in all social customs pioneered and promoted in the USA, change tends to be radical and absolutist.  What was common becomes illegal and what was illegal becomes the social imperative. That’s been the case with smoking, drinking, drugs, religion, gambling and sex related activities ranging from homosexuality to abortion.

Such severe swings of the pendulum from austerity to value-free tolerance sometimes continue all the way to a new variety of authoritarianism. At present, people, who grew up at a time when homosexual activity was not only socially unacceptable but subject to prosecution under civil law, are now losing their jobs and sometimes their children for expressing the views that were instilled in them as children. The beautiful rainbow flag is now being raised above many suburban municipal buildings and county capitol buildings with much the same righteous fervor that those handsome Confederate flags were hoisted throughout South Carolina and Mississippi in the 1920’s. What has been known for generations as gender dysphoria, a not rare condition in pre-pubescent and adolescent children but usually outgrown by adulthood, is now being reclassified by some trendy medical practitioners, who are offering expensive “conversion therapy” to the gender of choice, that is, the choice of the child or the choice of the parent. How often does the Snow White syndrome come into play, where a beautiful mother sees a daughter emerging as a rival in the family for public adulation? Poisoned apples, the old solution, have been replaced by neutering.

While there is currently professed horror at the practice of female genital mutilation to limit the pleasure of sex, as carried out in developing countries such as Somalia, we’re hearing no similar outcry over the new fashion of (mostly) wealthy parents administering gender adjustment therapy, including surgery and puberty retarding hormones, effectively rendering the children sterile. Seen in the light of overpopulation on an overheating planet, selective sterilization may have some utility, but to some of us it seems even more invasive than the Chinese one-child policy and far more abusive toward children than all the depredations of scores of pedophile priests and scoutmasters.

Still, we shouldn’t be totally surprised. We’ve been taking our pets to the vet for years to be neutered so they’ll be happier, as well as to keep our big dogs from humping the new suede sofa or our cats from keeping us awake with blood-curdling sounds of their nocturnal battles. With the threat of our libidinous daughters turning up pregnant or our sons coming home with a new antibiotic resistant STD, who wouldn’t want to do as much for our children as we do for our pets.

If the exclusion of pedophiles from the new era of tolerance raises some troubling issues of hypocrisy, there’s no need to worry. The inclusion of “T” into the alphabet soup has brought with it transgender indoctrination classes in public schools and libraries with fully costumed transvestites teaching elementary school kids the use of sex toys and the mechanics of inter-gender sex. The ubiquity of i phones has rendered the study of old-fashioned subjects such as geography and history superfluous, so now kids of all potential genders have time available to discover how to get the most satisfaction from their rubber duckies, their classmates, and even their sensual studies advisors.

The last few centuries have seen us pass through an age of enlightenment to a war-torn period of totalitarian ideology to a short-lived period of expanding democracy. We now seem to have entered a period of the destruction of institutions, the disparaging of received wisdom, and the rejection of science. Faced with a climate crisis which threatens to make the earth uninhabitable, people described as “conservatives” have chosen to ride it out in top deck of the Titanic-style-- “waiter, let’s have that last bottle of champagne”. Not to be outdone, some people who self-identify as “progressives” are theorizing that gender has no objective reality, so we can just fondle everything and everyone in tranquil bliss as Aldous Huxley envisioned almost ninety years ago. There are more than enough studies demonstrating the climate crisis, but the “conservatives” choose to ignore them. Studies showing the world-wide drop in the sperm count in young men are not as common but they do exist. They are being ignored in an even more absolute, bipartisan way. Maybe that’s because in the Oligarch Era nobody wants (or can afford) to have babies anymore except people unable to have them, notably homosexuals who eschew conventional channels of reproduction, and women over fifty who were too busy in their fertile years. What about the apparent rise in gender confusion? How long ago was it that anyone was even aware of the existence, much less the definition, of a transgender person? Just as the right sees new opportunities in the planetary rise in temperatures (new shipping lanes across the North Pole, wine making in Scotland etc.) the left, which has typically at least sought to understand the causes of climate change and to find solutions to counteract it, has stopped all inquiry into what has produced the epidemic drop in human fertility and the expansion of gender confusion. Both phenomena appear to be currently outpacing the melting of glaciers. If people had reacted back in the 60’s the way they are now, pregnant women would still be taking thalidomide and cooing over how “original” their children were. Fanatical gender denial may be just what it takes to keep the Titanic crowd perched on the command deck until the ship finally goes down.

Perhaps there is a positive side though. If the earth is to soon become uninhabitable, isn’t it just as well that the human race loses its ability to reproduce so there won’t be so many people around to suffer the meltdown.

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?