I didn’t invite that bug, it’s unwelcome, and it’s dead.
As long as the bugs stay outside, I leave them alone.
But a bug in my house in a dead bug walking.
So you can imagine my revulsion when I saw this headline:
With this photo:
The article assures us that,
“Around the world, two billion people in 130 countries eat insects regularly.”
If those same two billion people decided to jump off a cliff, does that mean that I should, too?
I hate bugs.
I will not eat bugs.
I don’t care how many pictures and how many examples they give me about yum-yum items made with bugs.
This is Tiziana Di Constanzo, and she puts cricket powder in her pizza crust.
She also holds cricket and mealworm cooking classes in her London home.
She and her husband, the above-pictured Tom Mohan, have a startup company, Horizon Insects, which is looking to join, says the article, “Europe’s nascent edible insect scene,” which already offers lots of bugs-included stuff like chips made from crickets:
Beer “flavored with protein from insects”:
And pasta with “mealworms as one of the main ingredients”:
By now you may be wondering – as am I – why I’m spending so much time looking at this dreadful stuff.
This was an effort to reassure myself that this bug-eating madness is confined to other countries, not to my country.
Alas – I am not reassured.
My research revealed A Guide to Buying EdibleInsects updated just last month:
The article begins,
“Welcome to the exciting world of entomophagy!”
Entomophagy means “the practice of eating insects, especially by people.”
There’s even a word for this.
The article continues,
“Below you will find a list of North American companies producing edible insects in various forms…”
Bug-eating has already infested my country.
The site lists U.S.-based companies offering insect-based ready-to-eat food, protein powders and bars, edible insect flours, and “Just Plain Edible Insects,” like these:
There are, apparently, a whole lot of people out there making edible bug products and eating edible bug products.
No, nope, never will I eat bugs.
Have I been – unknowingly – already eating bugs?
Going back to the Associated Press article,
“…humans may end up eating more insects indirectly because the market that shows the most promise is for feeding animals…The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it for chicken feed in 2018…”
Oh, no…Caterpillar crud in my chicken today…tarantula in my steak tartare tomorrow…
You think I’m kidding? Check out this article, which includes an image of Tarantula Tempura, as featured on the Smithsonian Channel in 2018:
OK: But even without insects added to the food fed to animals raised for human consumption, my research has made me aware that I’ve been consuming insects – indirectly – all my life. According to TechnologyNetworks.com:
“Insects are naturally eaten by cattle, pigs, poultry and fish as part of their species-appropriate diet.”
Animals were already eating insects; I eat meat and fish; therefore, I eat insects.
And since it’s unlikely I’m going to go vegan, it appears that I will continue – indirectly – to eat insects.
I was researching information for a blog post when I happened across something I’d never heard of.
This occurs a lot – encountering things, events and people I’ve never heard of. This often leads to more research and, hopefully, an opportunity to slightly decrease my ignorance.
Also, sometimes, an opportunity to skewer that thing, event or person.
The thing I’d never heard of was this program on the Discovery Channel:
The premise of Naked and Afraid is putting two strangers, naked, in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. They’re left with no food, no water, no clothes, and only one survival item each as they attempt to survive on their own.
After 21 days, the participants are supposed to end up at something called the “designated extraction point” where they’re picked up by helicopter or some other vehicle. They’re also given their updated PSR – Primitive Survival Rating:
And why are they doing this?
I learned that Naked and Afraid has been on the air since 2013, for 12 seasons.
How have I never heard of this?
Partial explanation: It’s a reality series, and I don’t watch reality series.
I also learned that each episode’s two participants – a woman and a man – are survivalists.
Survivalists – people who practice survivalism – have a “mindset with the goal of keeping themselves alive through adverse circumstances. These circumstances could be anything, from a devastating flood or earthquake to a nuclear attack or civil war.”
Or, in this case, surviving a reality TV show.
I immediately formed an image of naked young or young-ish people, probably in good shape, cautiously moving through a dangerous place, looking for something to eat, while trying not to get eaten by something.
I’m picturing people with a knowledge of how to hunt animals, what plants are safe to eat, when water is or isn’t safe to drink, capable of building a shelter, capable of existing without cell phones or Starbucks or wine.
And in Naked and Afraid, they’re supposed to do this for three weeks.
I still wasn’t learning…
My research continued, and led me to this very helpful article about the “naked” part, written in 2013, right at the time of the show’s debut:
The author observed,
“When the first clips of Naked and Afraid hit the internet, the show got a lot of attention, as shows with naked people tend to do. It seemed like the latest series to push the bad taste envelope: Survivor, but nakeder.
“But the show is more serious-minded than that; the body parts are blurred out and the participants are so busy with the daily tasks of surviving there is no hanky panky or embarrassment at all. The title promises a titillation the show doesn’t even try to deliver on, while doing what good titles should do: bring the show attention.”
So…body parts blurred…or strategically cropped out:
This answered the “naked” part: It’s used in the title is used to…titillate people.
That still leaves the…
Why do these people do this?
Since a picture – or in this case, a video – is worth a thousand words, I decided it was time to have a look at Naked and Afraid.
In addition to that why? I wanted to see what has kept viewers interested for eight years and 12 seasons.
I went on YouTube and randomly chose a three-minute video with this description:
“Elite survivalist Matt Wright manages to catch a warthog to bring back to camp in Africa.”
I had NO idea what I was letting myself in for.
Wright – who is naked but not blurred or cropped, at least in this image – uses a bow and arrow to shoot and kill a warthog:
Wright speaks to the camera:
Wright raises his fist in triumph:
Wright guts the warthog, and we get to see the guts:
End of video viewing.
I did – sort of – get an answer to the why? in this article:
According to the article,
“The official description of the show states that the contestants must survive on their own for 21 days and that ‘the only prize is their pride and sense of accomplistment.’”
“…several interviews with former cast members revealed that they are on the show for the experience and the reaffirmation that they can indeed survive in the wild.”
However, the article continued, in 2014 it was revealed that participants…
“…are given a ‘weekly stipend to compensate for their lost wages.’ The rules of Naked and Afraid posted in 2014 revealed that the contestants would be paid $5,000 in cash. Additionally, they would also be given round-trip flight tickets to the location of the survival challenge and put up for two nights in a hotel.”
I’ve answered my why? questions, and come to this conclusion:
Overall, Naked and Afraid sounds like a really horrible, way-too-long first date.
So, what happens to the participants afterwards?
Do they hook up and have a happily-ever-survivalist after?
Do they go their separate ways, with their “pride and sense of accomplishment,” and new Primitive Survival Rating bragging rights? Like the afore-featured Matt Wright:
Finally – and none too soon – in the interests of ending this on an upbeat note, I’ll share a truly inspiring story of another Naked and Afraid participant, who describes herself as the “ultimate survivalist”: Kellie Nightlinger:
According to numerous online sources, Kellie and her fellow-survivalist were starving after spending two weeks in the wild when…
“…she devised an innovative way to catch fish using her private parts as bait and then trapping her meal between her legs:
“Said Nightlinger, ‘We were very hungry and needed fish for our survival. We needed something with protein and because the water was so muddy, traditional fishing methods wouldn’t work, so I had to improvise, adapt and overcome.’”
This also inspired an idea.
The Discovery Channel features fishing shows, like Life on the Line and All on the Line:
I think they should give Nightlinger her own fishing show, and call it…
Hmm, let’s see.
We’ve got Life on the Line and All on the Line – how about…
I’m semi-reluctant to write about Dark Horse for fear of not doing the film justice.
I thought Dark Horse was such a good story, so well-done, and it resonated with me so deeply, but…
Can I do it justice?
Well, here goes.
Dark Horse is, on one level, about a horse. But it’s not a “horse” movie.
On another level, it’s about horse racing – steeplechase – but it’s not a “horse racing” movie.
Dark Horse is about a group of people who dreamed.
And they dared to dream big.
To get started we head to Blackwood, a town of about 24,000 people in southern Wales:
It’s a working-class town – the average income today is around $34,000 annually, so most people in Blackwell doesn’t have money to burn.
They averaged even less money back in 2000, when Jan Vokes (pictured) was working two jobs, one as a barmaid at the Blackwood Working Men’s Club. Getting involved in horse racing had never crossed her mind – thoroughbred horseracing is, after all, known as the “sport of kings” because generally, only royalty and the very rich can afford it.
Think Queen Elizabeth II and her thoroughbred, Estimate:
Owning a thoroughbred racing horse is a very expensive proposition. Figures I found from 2019 suggest that buying a championship quality thoroughbred “costs between $100,000 and $300,000” plus expenses, including a trainer; feed and bedding; blacksmith, veterinarian and dental services; entry fees for races; trainer and jockey fees if your horse does well in a race. Add in various types of insurance, plus taxes, and it’s indeed a sport for the wealthy, not the working class.
And the reality is, you can spend enormous amounts of money on a thoroughbred, and for whatever reason, it turns out not to be a winner. Or it’s a winner, but it gets hurt and can’t race again. Or its injuries are so severe, it must be euthanized.
Owning and racing a thoroughbred horse is so far out of the reach for most people, that most people don’t even think about it. And that included Jan Vokes, back in 2000.
Jan wasn’t a stranger to animal breeding – she’d bred champion whippets, both show dogs and racers, and once won a prestigious Welsh pigeon race. But a horse?
“Uffern na!” (Hell, no!) as they say in Wales.
Jan was at work at the bar one night when she overheard a local talking about how he’d lost a lot of money when he got involved with a racehorse, and that he’d promised his wife he’d never do anything like that again.
Something clicked for Jan.
It’s called a dream.
She tracked down the man from the pub, Howard Davies, and “asked him if he’d show me how to set up a syndicate. He thought I was dotty…”
Dotty: British slang for somewhat mad or eccentric.
Syndicate: A group of people who agree to invest in something together; in this case, the success of a horse that hadn’t even been born, much less run, or won, a race.
A huge part of the charm of Dark Horse is seeing these residents of Blackwood tell their unlikely story: Jan, who had a dream. Howard Davies, who’d promised his wife never again. Jan’s husband Brian, who, when she shared her dream, told her, “You can’t, you silly mare.”
And the friends and acquaintances whom Jan approached about joining her syndicate for 10 pounds a week. They also thought Jan, or at least her idea, was dotty.
Until something clicked for them, as well. Jan’s dream became their dream.
And the group’s horse became “Dream Alliance,” the “dark horse” of the film.
The phrase “dark horse” means, in part, “a candidate or competitor about whom little is known.”
Little was known about Dream Alliance.
And then that all changed.
And that’s all I’ll say.
But if I may, two suggestions:
First, don’t go online and read anything about Dream Alliance or Dark Horse, or about Dream Horse, the 2020 feature film based on the story. Just sit back, watch Dark Horse, and allow yourself to feel – as Howard Davies put it…
The “elation when you can do something, particularly when no one gives you a chance.”
Second, turn on the film’s English subtitles. English with a Welsh accent is lovely, but can be a bit challenging to understand.
Now: Join Jan and her friends and, as the Welsh would say…
So awhile back, when I learned about the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week on TV, I was intrigued.
Here’s my recollection of the first episode I watched:
First, it’s an hour-long show.
Second, subtract 12 minutes for commercials, so now it’s a 48-minute show.
The first 47 minutes are spent as follows:
Four guys in a boat somewhere on some ocean, looking for sharks:
Guy #1: I see one! A shark! Over there – see?
Guy #2: I see it, too! I –
Guy #2: Oh, wait a minute. That’s just a floating pile of garbage.
Guy #1: Oh. Darn it!
(Some time passes.)
Guy #3: There’s one – see the fin? It’s a great white!
Guy #4: Get closer, you guys! It’s a great white, for sure! It’s a…
Guy #4: It’s a sunfish.
Guy #3: Oh. Darn it!
(More time passes.)
Guy #1: Why don’t we throw some chum into the water?
(Voiceover explains that “chum” is chopped fish, fish fluids, and other material thrown overboard as bait.)
Guy #2: I’ll do the chum, you guys keep your eyes open.
(More time passes – 47 of those 48 minutes. And then…)
All Four Guys: WOW! DID YOU SEE THAT?
I thought – or I should say, I hoped – that this episode was a one-off, and the next show would reveal more sharks.
Instead, what I watched during Shark Week consistently seemed to be people on boats spending much more time looking for sharks than ever actually encountering sharks.
Shark Week and I parted company.
This year, when Shark Week rolled around again on July 11, I rolled my eyes.
What’s the big attraction? I wondered.
I started doing some research, and learned that Shark Week has been around since 1988 – proof that even if I don’t get it, plenty of people do.
I learned that a respected institution – NOAA, the National Oceanside and Atmospheric Administration – associates itself with Shark Week:
And that respected publications, like this one, do stories about Shark Week:
I learned that respected (and otherwise) celebrities get involved in Shark Week, this year including Dr. Pimple Popper, Brad Paisley, Josh Gates, and Tiffany Haddish:
And that merchandisers are involved in Shark Week all year round:
The Discovery Channel’s online store offers 11 pages of merchandise, including Shark Socks, Shark Face Masks, and Bobblehead Hammerhead Sharks:
That last item, alas, is sold out.
And I learned the Shark Week 2021 schedule:
Considering the participation of the very august NOAA, Newsweek, and Dr. Pimple Popper…
Surely I could find a show that interests me?
I’ve still got tonight and tomorrow. Let’s look at the schedule…OK, this sounds promising:
Monster Sharks of Andros Island: A team of shark researchers travel to Andros, the largest island in the Bahamas, to determine if it’s a new Great Hammerhead hotspot, and they’re using reports of a half-octopus, half-shark creature known as the Lusca to help them locate massive sharks for their study.
Guy #1: What is it again, that thing we’re out here looking for?
Guy #2: A Lusca. There’ve been Lusca sightings around Andros for decades, but no one has filmed or photographed one.
Guy #3: It’s a half-shark/half octopus and can grow up to 75 feet long. Here – I’ve got an artist’s image on my phone:
Guy #4: Is that what it’s called? I’ve seen that thing a million times.
When I was a kid, I heard an adult say that prisoners make license plates.
Since an adult said it, it had to be true.
This added to my knowledge about prisons, which then was as follows:
If you did something bad, you could be locked up in a prison, and make license plates.
I confess that until recently, I didn’t give much thought to what people in prisons do. I’m sorry that there are people in prison, sorry that we need a prison system, and especially sorry when I read about wrongly convicted people.
But as to what kind of work prisoners did?
I didn’t think about it, until I read this recent article by San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Charles Clark:
This led me on a quest for more information, about prison workers in and outside of California.
I’ve now learned that the license plate part was and is true, according to this article:
“About 80% of license plates in the United States ARE made in about eight prisons. Some of those prisons actually make plates for more than one state.”
And in my state:
According to the article:
“Behind the thick granite walls at Folsom State Prison lies a factory where inmates…manufacture every single license plate used in the state of California.
“Just over 120 employees make up the inmate workforce at the California Prison Industry Authority’s license plate factory – the only place license plates are made in the state.
“The factory operates from 7am to 3pm Monday through Thursday and produces between 45,000 and 50,000 plates a day, making it the largest producer of license plates in the United States.”
It turns out that inmates all over the country in state and federal prisons are working, and they’ve made or are making a variety of items including Books for the Blind, park benches and picnic tables, military clothing, canoes, road signs, and even wearing apparel for both prisoners and the public at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute:
“Their commercial product line includes apparel with logo designs, blue jeans, jackets, work shirts, sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats and more…”
And according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons,
“Institution work assignments include employment in areas like food service or the warehouse, or work as an inmate orderly, plumber, painter, or groundskeeper.”
During the pandemic, some state-run prisons shifted to supplying government agencies with essentials to battle the coronavirus, like hand sanitizer and protective gear.
And during California’s wildfire season – this hit particularly close to home – for years, thousands of male, female and teenage inmates have worked as firefighters.
One of those firefighters, Amika Mota, was featured in the above Charles Clark Union-Tribune article.
The firefighting came later; in 2008, when Mota arrived at the California Institution for Women, she refused her first assignment “because the head of the program was abusive to other inmates.”
The punishment, according to the article:
“For a time she lost access to visitation and phones and couldn’t see or talk to family or friends. She also wasn’t allowed to buy from the commissary, so no more snacks or hygiene items. And, for good measure, she was put in ‘the hole’ [solitary confinement] for 45 days…”
I was shocked.
In my ignorance, I assumed that prisoners volunteered to work and could request their assignments. Working, I thought, was a good idea: It could help alleviate boredom, and possibly provide useful work skills, a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling that they’re contributing to society.
To learn that some prisoners are required to work and required to accept their work assignments, and punished if they refused…
They’re already in prison. Isn’t that punishment enough?
Yes, it’s true that some prison work – like firefighting in California – is done on a voluntary basis. But in Mota’s case and many others…
Some people have names for it:
“A vestige of slavery.”
And it’s legal, as written into the United States Constitution. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, says,
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Involuntary servitude is also currently allowed under Article 1 of the California state constitution, if that servitude is being used to punish a crime.
One could argue that prisoners are paid so it’s not slavery, and it’s true – though some inmates are not paid, many prisoners are.
As a sampling – according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Inmates earn 12 cents to 40 cents per hour for these work assignments.” California’s inmate firefighters “earn as little as $2.90 per day.” In some prisons, making license plates pays “35 cents to 90 cents per hour.”
And those wages can be garnished for victim compensations, parole violation fines, and/or to offset the cost of a prisoner’s incarceration.
So prisoners aren’t making much money – but somebody is:
According to an August 2020 New York Times article, “Using incarcerated firefighters [in California] saves the state’s taxpayers an estimated $100 million a year.”
And how about those “45,000 and 50,000” license plates made at Folsom State Prison? No union wages, no benefits, just more savings for us taxpayers.
That’s only in California’s prisons, and only the firefighters and license plate makers. Now think all state and federal prisons in all 50 states, and how those savings add up.
The more I learned, the more complex this topic became: How those few words in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution enabled the post-Civil War South to continue profiting from the forced labor of the formerly enslaved. The disproportionate number of minorities doing forced labor due to the disproportionate numbers of minorities in prisons. Then there’s the whole issue of inmate workers in privately held for-profit prisons.
And this, from a 2017 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed by a former inmate:
The writer said, in part:
“I consider most of the criticism lobbed at prison labor – that it’s a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show – unfair, and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system.
“My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing…Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job.”
But…it appears that in California, an opportunity is coming to lessen my ignorance and gain a better understanding of this complex topic. From the Charles Clark article:
“In mid-June, a bill dubbed ACA 3 moved out of the State Assembly’s Public Safety committee…It aims to amend California’s Constitution with a ballot measure [in 2022] that would completely ban involuntary servitude.
“If ACA 3 gets approved in the Assembly and Senate and is passed by California voters, our state would join several others that have banned such labor in prisons and jails over the last five years, including Colorado, Nebraska and Utah. At least 12 other states also have similar legislation or ballot measures in progress…”
I anticipate much debate about, and media coverage of, the progress of ACA 3, and I plan to be much better informed before California’s November 2022 election.
I’ve also recently learned that in December 2020, legislation dubbed the “Abolition Amendment” was introduced by Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate. It failed to gain traction before the session’s end, but last month lawmakers reintroduced legislation to revise the 13th Amendment, according to this article:
The article reminds us,
“Constitutional amendments require approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, as well as ratification by three-quarters of state legislatures.”
So, a possible amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A possible constitutional amendment in California, and 12 other states.
Yesterday, July 11, billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic (and Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Records, etc.) traveled on his VSS Unity…
…Making him the first billionarie founder of a space company to actually travel into space aboard a vehicle he helped fund.
On July 20, billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the world’s richest man, will travel on his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket’s first passenger flight…
…Making him the second billionaire founder of space company to actually travel into space aboard a vehicle he helped fund.
Welcome to the world’s most expensive…
According to the Virgin Galactic website, Branson’s goal is to make the world a better place:
According to the Blue Origin website, Bezos’ goal is to make the world a better place:
And space travel certainly will make Branson and Bezos’ world a better place.
Cost of a reserved seat on Virgin Galactic: $250,000, with more than 600 reservations at last count.
Cost of a reserved seat on Blue Origin: To be announced after Bezos’ trip.
While you’re waiting for that announcement, you can – no surprise here – spend some money at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin online shop:
And talk about making the world a better place – this new industry has given Branson and Bezos unlimited photo opportunities to light up our world:
In addition to making the world a better place, the two billionaire’s approach to space travel has an important similarity:
Their spacecraft are designed to come apart.
According to a July 9 CNN article,
“[Branson’s] VSS Unity will be affixed to a massive mothership, called WhiteKnightTwo, that looks like two sleek jets attached at the tip of their wings:
“The mothership takes about 45 minutes to cruise along and slowly climb with VSS Unity to about 50,000 feet. Then, when the pilots give the go-ahead, VSS Unity drops from between WhiteKnightTwo’s two fuselages and fires up its rocket engine, swooping directly upward and roaring past the speed of sound.”
VSS Unity’s flight without the mothership lasts 14-17 minutes.
Bezos’ New Shepard vehicle “is a capsule and rocket system that fires off vertically from a launch pad”:
At some point the capsule separates from the rocket system:
The flight lasts about 10 minutes, and both capsule and rocket system return to Earth.
Another similarity: Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin already are referring to their prospective clients as “astronauts.”
And another: Astronauts on both the VSS Unity and New Shepherd will experience weightlessness.
And the most important: If successful, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will make billionaires Branson and Bezos just what they needed:
I labeled this the “world’s most expensive pissing contest,” and it appears at least a few others share a similar – if less pungent – point of view:
And this, perhaps the most excoriating of all:
This writer’s observations include:
“…this will be the summer of the billionaire space race, as we witness who can burn through more money and public attention in the effort to escape the bonds of Earth’s gravity for, well, a few minutes.”
“…any honest assessment of the billionaire space race shows that it’s less the dawning of a new epoch of universal space travel than the world’s most expensive infomercial for a network of self-dealing billionaires who plan to make a lot more money down here on terra firma.”
“At a time when our earthly inequities could not be more clear, it is obscene to allow moguls to pour their untaxed billions, earned on the backs of precarious workers, into private ventures divorced from everyday concern or accountability.”
You’ll notice that both TheNew Republic and Los Angeles Times reference Elon Musk (pictured), yet another billionaire spacecraft builder.
Musk’s SpaceX has already carried 10 astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, and his company’s first private spaceflight is coming up in September for another billionaire who’s purchased a three-day, globe-circling ride.
I haven’t said anything about him, but a few days ago Musk had something to say about Branson and Bezos, in this snarky comment on Twitter:
“There is a big difference between reaching space and reaching orbit.”
A three-way pissing contest!
Musk, at least, is upfront about his intentions. According to the SpaceX website, a seat on his “Rideshare” program…
…starts “as low as $1M.”
And like Bezos, Musk’s SpaceX has a shop:
During my research for this post, I discovered that humans aren’t the only ones to engage in pissing contests:
“…in scenes akin to a showdown at the OK Corral, the winner of the physical combat almost always turns out to be the lobster that urinated first. And well after the fight is over, the winner keeps pissing. By contrast, the loser shuts off his urine valves immediately.”
So, since Branson went into space before either Bezos or Musk, it looks like he gets…
There’s a gas station in Gauteng, which is one of the nine provinces in South Africa:
A gas station story isn’t normally something that would go viral, but the owner of the gas station, Alison Billett, has put it on the online map.
From what I’m recently reading, when Alison bought the gas station years ago, it came equipped with a chalkboard, a perfect place for writing and sharing quotes – some funny, some topical, some inspirational.
Alison decided to continue the tradition, and now people make a point of driving by the gas station just to see Alison’s handiwork. They, in turn, are sharing this “gas pump wisdom” – on Facebook and Twitter and numerous websites.
And now, because I think Alison’s gas pump wisdom is so well-done, I’m sharing some of her quotes:
I wish Alison many more years of inspiration – and a big supply of chalk!
I’d heard of, but hadn’t read, any of Maggie Shipstead’s books, so when her latest, Great Circle, caught my eye, I thought I’d look into it.
The information on her website was scanty, at best:
So I read the blurb on Amazon, which pretty much matches the blurb on the book’s dust jacket. The premise sounded promising – the lead characters are a female, Marian, who becomes an aviator in the early 20th century, and an actress, Hadley, who portrays the aviator in a 21st-century movie.
The book is 608 pages and that appealed to me, as well – I like sinking into “big” books and staying there for a good, long time.
Sometimes I take notes when I read books, so I can refer back to an earlier character or event. I did this with Great Circle, and I was only on page 15 when I knew there was a problem. I wrote:
“Does all this information pages 15-19 have anything to do with the story, or is it extraneous?”
The more I read, the more I wondered, “What does this have to do with the story? Why does the author think I need to know all this?”
Here’s an example.
We meet a character, Annabel, who will be the mother of the 20th-century Marian, and Marian’s twin brother Jamie. On page 24 we learn that at an early age, Annabel’s father began sexually abusing her. At age seven, she hiked up her dress so the cook’s son could see her genitals. Annabel’s Nanny has taught her to refer to her genitals as her “cabbage,” while a boy’s genitals were “his carrot.”
Annabel’s cabbage-exposing ends with her being caught by Nanny and locked in a dark closet, and then her mother “beat her on her bare legs and backside and called her wicked, wicked, wicked.”
At some point, when Nanny isn’t around, Annabel begins exploring her cabbage – masturbating. But at age nine her mother catches her, and again calls her “wicked.” “The next night Nanny bound Annabel’s wrists, and she slept with her fingers interlaced as though in prayer.”
A doctor is summoned, and his treatment involves applying a leech to Annabel’s cabbage. She’s also given nightly medication that sends her “into a bottomless sleep.” It appears her father continues the sexual abuse, even during her drugged state.
Annabel begins menstruating at age 12, a monthly reminder, her mother says, to “be always on guard against, yes, again, always: wickedness.” Annabel is sent away to school, and resumes masturbating.
End of example.
It’s too sad and it’s too bad that Annabel had a horrible childhood, but since it appears that Annabel dies when the twins are infants and has no further presence in their lives, let’s go back to my questions:
“What does all this have to do with the story?”
“Why does the author think I need to know all this?”
Annabel gets married and become the mother of twins Marian and Jamie. When the twins are infants, Annabel is on an ocean liner with them that sinks. The twins are rescued but Annabel vanishes, presumed dead.
If the twins never meet their mother, what the hell does Annabel’s sexual abuse by her father and her masturbation and menstruating have to do with Marian becoming an aviator and Hadley portraying Marian in a movie?
The more I read, the more I wondered, “Is this all TMI, or am I crazy?”
Though, after the past 15 months, who’s to say what’s crazy?
I also wondered, “This book got rave reviews and was on the New York Times best seller list. Am I the only person who feels this way?”
Ah…a few Amazon reviewers to my rescue.
The last time I checked, TheGreat Circle had only about 1,200 reviews, but 87 percent were four- or five-stars. I headed straight for the bad reviews and discovered that no, I wasn’t the only one who felt as I did:
Beware: SUPERFLUOUS INFORMATION and FREQUENT SUMMARIZATION… NOT WORTH THE 600+ page read …MOST of the information is extraneous to the story. After I finished the book I kept thinking to myself “Why did I need to know ALL of that?” …The superfluous information throughout this novel did NOT impart a deeper connection or empathy with the characters… I think the novel could easily be edited and slimmed to 400 or less pages without sacrificing the momentum of the story.
Thought about quitting several times I’m an avid reader and usually agree with rave reviews. Sadly, this is one I don’t. I love long books but found this to be too wordy and pretty boring in several places. Too many details that didn’t have anything to do with the story. It felt like the author wanted to show off her extensive research.
Over-written Far too much detail that just adds to the length of the book without being meaningful – boring.
I kept slogging through Great Circle to page 50 and gave up.
Life’s too short to slog.
Earlier I referenced the book’s dust jacket, and I understand that its function is to sell the book. Now I’ve reread it and have to say – this book’s description was in overdrive:
“Epic and emotional, meticulously researched and gloriously told, Great Circle is an astounding feat of storytelling and an exhilarating tour de force.”
I’m guessing the dust jacket author was also getting…
Update: June 30, 2021
When it comes to books, clearly I am clueless as to what’s hot…and what’s not.
Even knowing this, I’d barely finished writing this disparaging review about Maggie Shipstead’s best seller, The Great Circle, when I was nonetheless amazed and astounded by this, in my Sunday newspaper’s Arts+Culture section:
Not just an article about Shipstead and her book – a front page article
A front page that jumps to another full page.
With not one, or two, but five images.
All of…Maggie Shipstead.
I’ve yet to see my newspaper do a spread like this about President Biden, or any head of state, or community leader, or, or, or – and they go way overboard for this author and her verbose-to-the-max book?
And speaking of getting paid by the word? The newspaper review – it’s 1,400 fawning words, like these:
“It’s rare that a book can be described as both a ‘feminist epic’ and a ‘perfect summer novel,’ but Shipstead has skillfully crafted a compelling novel that blends both historical fiction and modern-day travails.”
“Shipstead builds their worlds with the deftness of a fantasy writer and cleverly inserts suspense with the precision of a master thriller writer. The result is both poetic and precise, grounded and glorious.”
Did this reviewer read the same book that I did?
Well, that I tried to read?
Since I’m not getting paid by the word, I’ll leave it at that.
The name “Hallmark” has always meant greeting cards to me, and I like their Shoebox line of cards, some of which are funny:
So, buy funny Hallmark cards?
Watch Hallmark TV stations?
I’ve never watched either Hallmark station, designated HALL and HALLMM in my TV book, the latter standing for “Hallmark Movies and Mysteries.”
I’ve suspected that the movie plots would be so saccharine they’d send me into sugar shock, like so many non-Shoebox Hallmark cards do:
Back to the Hallmark TV stations, and why I’ve avoided them.
In addition to saccharine, I also suspected the movie plots would be repetitive, trite and boring.
To confirm or deny this, I did the gird-your-loins thing, visited the Hallmark TV website and read a few plots:
Confirmed, as predicted:
So when I’m perusing my TV book, my eyes normally skip right over HALL and HALLMM.
But last week, something did catch my eye:
My calendar says it’s summer. The weather says it’s summer. Yesterday was July 4.
Doesn’t all that just scream…
A bit of research revealed what Hallmark is doing:
In a similar article, the writer – no stranger to saccharine herself – said,
“Now that summer is here, it’s a little disheartening to know that days filled with Christmas cookies, gingerbread houses, and tree decorating are so far away. Luckily, Hallmark has a solution for the post-holiday blues: Hallmark Channel is now airing Christmas movies year-round, so you can catch one every Thursday and Friday of the year.
“…I’m especially looking forward to escaping reality with a festive Christmas movie each week.”
But – how can Hallmark come up with so many plots for so many Christmas movies?
Additional online research revealed that a goodly number of people have also girded their loins, watched HALL or HALLMM, and tackled this topic. It appears that Hallmark doesn’t concern itself with originality, and I think this writer nailed it:
Here are the seven plotlines:
Deceased Parent Leads to Other Parent Needing Help from Child, Which Leads to a Love Connection
Over-Worked Child Plans to Skip Christmas, But Gets Fired and Must Return to His/Her Parents, Which Leads to a Love Connection
Big City Man Travels to Small Town Christmas Place to Destroy It in the Name of Big Business, Falls in Love Instead
Cold-Hearted Man Hates Children/Animals But is Forced to Care for Children/Animals at Christmas, Needs Help from Neighbor/Co-Worker, Which Leads to a Love Connection
One Down-On-Their-Luck Person Receives a House/Land from a Distant Relative, but So Does a Real Estate Developer/Lawyer and Though They Don’t See Eye-to-Eye, They Will Learn Love Through Remodeling this Free House
Bad Attitude Non-Christmas Person Reunites with Old Flame Through Very Unlikely Circumstances and Falls in Love
A Person Going Through a Bad Breakup Must Also Keep the Breakup from Their Parent/s, Which Leads to Hiring Someone to Play Their Former Flame
But just in case Hallmark does decide to try some new plots, another online wit created this – I promise this will be more fun that actually watching a Hallmark movie:
My Sunday newspaper has a one-page book section, usually with an in-depth book review that’s flanked on the left by the New York Times’ hardcover fiction and nonfiction bestsellers lists.
This past Sunday, first thing I noticed on the page was the headline for the book review:
And the second thing I noticed was the New York Times’ #1 fiction bestseller:
My immediate response was, “Interesting juxtaposition!”
Specifically, the book review’s snarky headline is immediately adjacent to the same book that’s #1 on the bestseller list:
Before I talk about the snarky review of The President’s Daughter – and yes, the review is as snarky as the headline – some context:
The book’s authors are Bill Clinton, United States President from 1993-2001, and James Patterson, “the world’s bestselling author and most trusted storyteller,” according to Patterson’s website.
The President’s Daughter is their second collaboration, the first being The President is Missing, published in 2018.
The President is Missing debuted at #1 on June 24, 2018 on the New York Times’ bestseller list:
And on June 27, 2021 The President’s Daughter did the same:
Let’s go back to the snarky review of The President’s Daughter in my newspaper.
I should clarify that my use of the word “snarky” is a compliment.
Here’s a definition:
When someone suggests that something I wrote was “snarky,” I like it.
The author of the newspaper’s book review is Ron Charles of the Washington Post:
And I’m guessing from the phrase “satirical series” that Charles wouldn’t be offended by my describing his book review as “snarky.”
Here’s how the review starts:
“Over the past three years, Bill Clinton and James Patterson have developed a bankable formula: In their previous thriller, a U.S. president went missing. In their new thriller, a president’s daughter goes missing.
“If this keeps up, someday we’ll have to read a thriller about the president’s lost cat, his missing keys, an errant sock.”
Reviewer Charles compares the hero in the first book to the hero in the second:
“It’s a change as startling as the shift from tan to beige.”
And how’s this for snarky?
“But it would be unfair to say that there’s no suspense in The President’s Daughter. Again and again, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering, ‘Can this story get any sillier?’”
Charles takes a swipe at Clinton:
“With this brave and monogamous hero, Clinton has once again revealed such a naked fantasy version of himself that you almost feel embarrassed for the man.”
And notes that Clinton and Patterson perhaps took a swipe at Hilary:
“Keating is now out of office, replaced by his own vice president, a conniving woman with ‘short blond hair perfectly styled and in place.’ (I’m dying to know how that line went over at the Clinton breakfast table.)”
There’s more, but I’ll make this my last quote:
“Drawing inspiration from America’s most advanced missiles, the text of The President’s Daughter is capable of hitting multiple stereotypes simultaneously.”
So, my thanks to Ron Charles for his snarky book review, for two reasons:
He’s saved me from reading The President’s Daughter.
He’s allowed me to save my snark for other targets topics.
California, September 2016: Then-Governor Brown signs SB 1383, making it a law:
My husband and I watch and read a lot of news. We trade stories: “Did you see this one, about…?”
But in September 2016 neither of us saw nor read a story about California’s new law – SB 1383 – that, among other things, would require us to reduce organic waste disposal 50% by 2020 and 75% by 2025.
Organic waste – this stuff:
Also, I’ll learn, called “food scraps.”
No one, and I mean no one among the powers-that-be, calls it “garbage.”
We knew nothing about any of it, until recent stories like this started appearing:
But this story focused on the city of San Diego. What about the rest of our county?
For that I headed to my town’s website and found this:
I learned that whole “50% by 2020” thing went out the window due to the pandemic. The new start date for the program is January 1, 2022.
And I learned that the new law is for everyone – single-family homes, multiple-unit buildings, and businesses.
According to the website’s Frequently Asked Questions,
“The goal of this program is to reduce the amount of organic materials sent to our landfill to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Landfills are the second largest source of methane generation in California. Specifically, food scraps produce methane gas as they decompose in landfills.”
And reducing methane gas is good, because methane gas is bad:
Methane gas is over 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide during a 20-year span.
Methane and other pollutants contribute to public health problems including heart disease and asthma, especially in the state’s most at-risk communities.
So, of course – I’m all for reducing methane gas.
What I’m not so sure of is this, sitting on my kitchen counter:
This image was obviously shot in a photographer’s studio, with a mix of carefully arranged and very fresh vegetables, an attractively bright orange skin, and two artfully placed eggshells.
Nobody’s actual garbage looks like that.
It looks like this:
Compost pails come with lids, so that’s not a problem.
The problem is taking the lid off, after you’ve been accumulating garbage – excuse me, “food scraps” – for several days…
Of course, anytime you wish, you can walk your compost pail out to your organic waste collection bin. Which has been sitting in your hot garage for three weeks since you only put it out at the curb for collection when it’s full. So it’s getting really ripe.
Lift the lid on that thing and…
And what food scraps go into the compost pail?
My city’s website provided this helpful visual aid of food scraps:
And went on to say,
“Residents can generally continue to use the motorized garbage disposal in their kitchen sink for small scraps of food. But large scraps should go in the pails.”
But how small is “small” and how large is “large”?
How esoteric will we get here?
And what about enforcement of SB 1383?
If I forget, and put something that’s too “large” to be “small” in my garbage disposal, or misstep with the guidelines in some other way…what happens?
One news story said,
“The state law has enforcement requirements. They require code enforcement staff to go out and actually flipping the lid to do visual inspections of the contents of the containers.”
Now I’m imagining a new branch of law enforcement, the CCP – California Compost Police:
I’m imaging an encounter with the CCP…
(My doorbell rings)
Me (very politely): Oh! Hello. May I help you?
CCP: Ma’am, I’m from the California Compost Police. We have reason to believe you’re in violation of SB 1383 Lara, Chapter 395, Statutes of 2016, California’s Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Strategy.
Me (still very politely): Um…that is, you said “violation”? Me? What? How?
CCP: Our regular inspection of your compost bin indicates no eggshells.
Me (still polite, but now nervous): You’ve been inspecting my compost bin?
CCP: Yes, ma’am. We have an officer riding in every collection truck, taking note how people are and are not following the food scraps guidelines. Since the law went into effect, we’ve seen no eggshells in your compost bin. Are you putting eggshells down your garbage disposal, ma’am?
Me (a bit less polite): No! Not at all. But that’s easy to explain. We don’t make anything with raw eggs, so we don’t have eggshells.
CCP: That’s not considered relevant, ma’am. May I come in and take a look in your refrigerator?
All right – seriously?
I am in favor of SB 1383 and reducing greenhouse gases.
And I pledge to do my very best to comply with the new food scraps guidelines.
And I will count myself lucky.
At least the California Compost Police aren’t coming after me for what these cows are doing:
I like lost-and-found stories – if they have happy endings.
“But,” you might say, “if what was lost is found – isn’t that a happy ending?
And I’d say, “There’s found – and then there’s found.”
Here are two recent lost-and-found stories that caught my eye, and have me wondering how the stories will end.
There’s not much information provided – two original paintings from 17th-century European artists somehow ended up in a roadside dumpster in southeast Germany.
According to the article,
“The framed oil paintings were found by a 64-year-old man at a highway service station in the Bavaria region last month. The man later handed the paintings to police in the western city of Cologne, the police department said.
“Officers have launched an appeal for the owner of the paintings. An initial assessment from an art expert concluded the paintings were likely original works, police said.”
Here are the paintings:
The painting on the left is a portrait of a boy by Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), date unknown. The painting on the right is a self-portrait by Pietro Bellotti (1625-1700) showing the Italian artist smiling, dating to 1665.
The German captions say, “Who can provide information about these works?”
According to this article:
“The auction record for a Bellotti is $190,000, achieved at the Swiss house Koller Auktionen in 2010…Works by Van Hoogstraten have sold for as much as $788,000 (at Christie’s Monaco in 1993).”
What we know: These are two 17th-century paintings of not-insignificant financial value by known artists.
What we don’t know: The paintings’ journey from the 17th-century artists’ studios to the German dumpster.
Here’s my theory:
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they began confiscating art – paintings, ceramics, books and religious treasures – from all over Europe “for the greater good of the state.”
Meaning, for Hitler’s self-aggrandizement:
The confiscations continued till the war’s end in 1945, and included hundreds of thousands of items from museums, and from private collections, many of those collections belonging to Jewish families.
Hitler was particularly fond of “Old Masters” – works he considered “traditional,” done by painters of skill who worked in Europe before about 1800. And while the works of Van Hoogstraten and Bellotti aren’t as well-known as those by, for example, Rembrandt or da Vinci, these two paintings would have checked all the boxes on Hitler’s shopping list.
Many of the artworks looted by the Nazis were recovered, but many are still missing.
I’ll suggest that the two paintings by Bellotti and Van Hoogstraten were among the looted. After World War II they somehow passed from hand to hand until the paintings ended up stashed somewhere, like in someone’s attic.
Someone whose descendants didn’t want to explain how they came to possess the paintings, and instead tossed them in a highway service station’s dumpster.
My happy ending? The descendants of the lawful owners come forward with proof that the paintings belonged to their families before the war, and the paintings are returned to them.
And that could happen. Seventy-six years after World War II ended, looted artworks are still being returned to the rightful heirs:
Only then will the paintings be truly found.
Here’s my second lost-and-found story:
OK – a collection of items with British author names including the Brontës, Walter Scott and Robert Burns might not set your heart aflutter, but rest assured it’s got plenty of people hyperventilating.
The “lost library” in the headline, which vanished from public view in the 1930s, is referred to as the Honresfield Library, a private collection assembled by Alfred and William Law, brothers and Victorian industrialists (their home was Honresfield House). It consists of more than 500 manuscripts, letters, rare first editions and other artifacts.
Why did the collection vanish from public view?
According to the New York Times, the Law brothers never married. After their deaths, the collection passed to a nephew and,
“…after his death in 1939, the originals fell out of public view.
“By the 1940s, the collection had become ‘well-nigh untraceable,’ as one scholar put it at the time. In recent decades, some artifacts from the collection…have come up for auction. But the whereabouts of the rest remained unclear.”
That’s all rather vague, and the sellers, who are family descendants of the Laws, wish to remain anonymous.
So while my curiosity will go unsatisfied, I am satisfied that the collection was lost – and is now found.
Only to be lost again – to private collectors through multiple Sotheby’s auctions:
But wait – the collection may be found again, if a consortium, the Friends of National Libraries, can raise $21 million to acquire it and allocate the items to institutions around Britain “for the benefit of the public”:
And Sotheby’s, to their credit, has agreed to delay the much-publicized auction of this “lost library” of British literature treasures. Sotheby’s would not disclose the time frame of the auction delay, which it said had been agreed to by the two parties.
But we know the clock is ticking.
My happy ending?
The Friends of National Libraries raise that $21 million, keep the Honresfield treasures out of private hands and put them into British institutions.
Where these treasures can then be found – by everyone.
Humpback #1 has his phone out, scrolling through headlines, and groans, “The New York Times says, ‘Nearly Eats…’ I did not!”
“The Washington Post – geez! ‘Swallowed’? There’s no way!”
“And this one! You’d think at least a local newspaper would get it right. But – ‘Swallowed’ again? Gimme a break!”
Humpback #2 commiserates, adding, “At least the Washington Post said you spit him out.”
“Yeah,” says Humpback #1, “but the diver says I tried to eat him. How dumb is that guy? Humpbacks don’t eat humans. All those bones and fat and gristle…give me a big mouthful of krill any day.”
Humpback #2 says, “So what really happened?”
Humpback #1 shuts his phone and gives a big whale sigh through his blowhole. “There I was, just swimming along, having breakfast…”
While the whales talk, let’s look into what appears to be the not-fake-news part of this story:
On the morning of June 11, Michael Packard, 56 (pictured), was diving for lobster in about 40 feet of water off the coast of Provincetown, MA. His fishing partner, Josiah Mayo, was following him in their fishing vessel, tracking him through the bubbles that rose from Packard’s breathing gear to the surface of the water.
A humpback whale, possibly a 32- to 35-foot juvenile that had previously been seen swimming in the area, was nearby, diving for food.
When humpbacks feed, they open wide.
According to the New York Times story, Packard was swimming toward the bottom when…
“…he felt ‘this truck hit me.’
“His first thought was that a white shark had attacked him, but when he did not feel teeth piercing into him, he realized he was inside a whale.”
Let’s pause, because there’s a question here that’s begging to be asked.
According to all I’ve read, Packard is a very experienced diver. So how does a guy with all that time underwater not pick up on the fact that he’s in very close proximity to a very large, moving entity?
Back to Packard’s story:
“‘I was completely inside; it was completely black. I thought to myself: There’s no way I’m getting out of here – I’m done, I’m dead.’
“Packard said he was in the mouth for at least 30 seconds, wondering whether he would run out of air or be swallowed. He said he struggled against the mouth of the whale and could feel its powerful muscles squeezing against him. Then, he saw light and felt the whale’s head shaking and his body being thrown into the water.”
The whale had spit out its catch:
The Cape Cod Times story said Packard was pulled out of the water by his crewman and rushed back to shore, where he was transported to Cape Cod Hospital. He walked – albeit with a limp – out of the hospital that afternoon.
Out of the hospital and onto the world stage.
Packard’s story got local, national and international media coverage; an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where he sat on a throne designed as a whale’s mouth:
And numerous experts weighed in, including Peter Corkeron, chair of the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the New England Aquarium, who noted that a humpback’s lower jaw is more than large enough to hold a person; indeed at 10 feet long their mouths could fit a small car:
But perhaps the most insightful expert was featured in this article:
The article’s author had contacted comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg, Ph.D., a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai whose research focuses on whales.
Dr. Reidenberg went into painstaking detail about the anatomy of the inside of a humpback whale’s mouth, and also confirmed Packard’s statement about it being “completely black” inside:
“When you’re inside the whale’s mouth it would just be dark because there’s no light in there.”
So, two weeks have passed since Packard’s up-close-and-personal whale encounter, and since there are no reports to the contrary, it appears that his story about spending 30 or so seconds in a humpback’s mouth is…
(I couldn’t resist that.)
Now let’s return to our whales, who have left the bar and are back out at sea…
The “good money” is $929 million of our tax dollars.
The “bad money” is $100 billion of our tax dollars.
That’s not just California taxpayer dollars.
It’s federal tax dollars, too.
It’s all money for California’s High-Speed Rail System, and it’s all wasted money.
It didn’t start out that way.
Back in 2008, we in California had visions of a high-speed rail system dancing through our heads.
The artist’s renderings of what our high-speed rail would look like were enticing, and so was the sales pitch:
“Los Angeles to San Francisco in three hours!” They told us.
“Yes, yes!” we voted in 2008.
“No more congested freeways and jammed airports and crowded airplanes – just a quiet, comfortable, fast ride!”
“Yes, yes!” we voted.
“Ready for you in 2020, and just $33 billion!”
Well, plenty of us hesitated a bit at that $33 billion price tag.
But the idea of, in just 12 years, we’d be zipping through the California countryside on a high-speed train, just like other people were already doing in a number of other countries, skipping the automobiles and gasoline pollution and freeways with rush hour traffic…
The people of California voted “Yes!”
Today the cost, originally estimated at $33 billion, has risen to $100 billion.
And no one in California is anywhere close to zipping through the California countryside – or anywhere else – on a high-speed train.
Years ago we started calling it the “Bullet Train to Nowhere”:
Years ago we started calling it a “boondoggle”:
This financial fiasco has been going on for so long that stories about the high-speed train have become background noise. The cost keeps going up. The start date keeps getting further away.
And we’d regularly see articles like this, from 2018:
Then, in February 2019, came this:
It’s about the only decision that came out of the Trump administration that I agreed with.
The article said,
“If the funds are lost or tied up in a long legal battle, the state would probably have to either make up the money elsewhere or further curtail the project.”
“Further curtail the project” sounded good to me.
“Pull the plug” sounded even better:
Especially since the project had already been drastically scaled back.
Remember that zip-zip trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco?
That became the zip-zip trip from Merced to Bakersfield:
Also known as the trip from “Where?” to “Why bother?”
With all due respect to the denizens of Merced and Bakersfield, the two cities are not what you’d call population centers.
Or vacation destinations.
Seriously, I’ve lived in California a long time, and I’ve never once heard someone say, “I’m going to Merced for vacation!” Or, “We’re honeymooning in Bakersfield!”
Both cities are located in the Central Valley:
In California, when you think of population centers, industries, tech companies, and lots of riders for high-speed rail – you think San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sacramento and San Diego.
In Bakersfield the #2 employer is a produce business. In Merced, Walmart is on the Top Ten list of employers.
But the big brains at the California High-Speed Rail Authority who make the big decisions apparently decided, “Well, high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco turned out to be a lot more difficult than Merced to Bakersfield, so let’s do that instead! Then we can say, ‘See? We’ve completed something! Now can we have more money?’”
So now, when we see high-speed rail stories, it’s mostly about the delays and cost increases to build that Merced to Bakersfield line.
And what was once going to be a two-track corridor has now been reduced to a single track:
Then, on June 11, we learned that the Biden administration was reinstating that $929 million – the good money – to the bullet train to nowhere:
I call it “good money” because until now, it hadn’t yet been pissed away spent on a wasteful project.
That almost-billion in our tax dollars was still intact.
Give it to the bullet train and it instantly becomes bad money.
Good money thrown in after bad.
So far, it’s the only decision from the Biden administration I disagree with.
I think this editorial from the San Diego Union-Tribune…
…summed it up regarding the return of the $929 million:
“…that will still leave the state $79 billion short of what it needs to link the state’s biggest population centers, now estimated at as much as $100 billion.”
Now, it’s a fact that many countries have successfully built and are operating high-speed rail systems.
Even Uzbekistan – which is tough to spell and even tougher to point to on a map – has high-speed rail:
But not California.
But…but…to be fair – in 2016, California’s high-speed rail was the recipient of an award.
Once upon a time, in a suburb of Detroit, a young woman had a double dream:
To live in San Francisco, and be a flight attendant.
It was an almost-impossible double dream, and yet – with some help along the way – she made it happen.
And that young woman – me – considered herself the luckiest person in the world.
Even if my airline did have the ugliest uniforms in the world:
I became a trained, certified flight attendant, and I was going to see that world!
And for three years, I did.
How fortunate for me that it happened then, and not now.
Now when, according to this June 15 article, flight crews are dealing with this:
“2900 incidents of unruly travelers on planes in 2021”?
In three years of flying, I never saw an “unruly” passenger.
I never heard of any of my fellow flight attendants dealing with unruly passengers.
What the hell is going on?
A quick search on the internet brings up plenty of articles with plenty of experts delving into the psyches of what appear to be otherwise OK people who suddenly turn into dangerous, even violent crazies on airplanes.
Like this crazy who attacked a flight attendant in late May:
What the hell is going on?
A number of the articles I read stated that of those 3,000 incidents (the numbers are increasing so quickly, it’s hard to keep up), “2,300” were sparked by the passenger’s refusal to wear a mask.
A simple device used to cover the nose and mouth to reduce the amount of potentially contagious droplets and aerosols we breathe, speak, and sneeze into the air.
One function of a mask is to protect ourselves. Another function of a mask is to protect other people. Even if we’ve been fully vaccinated, we can still get COVID. If we’re infected, we can be asymptomatic, and spread COVID.
In close quarters – and it doesn’t get much closer than a full commercial airplane – masks are still required.
Masks will be required at least through September 13, per the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
That means it’s a federal law.
So, what do we do about the crazies on planes from now until September 13, and possibly beyond?
First, we do what Southwest Airlines did after the passenger assaulted the flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth:
The passenger is banned from flying Southwest:
As in, banned forever:
Chris Mainz, a Southwest spokesman, told NBC News that Vyvianna Quinonez is now “restricted from ever flying on Southwest Airlines again.
“She has been advised this decision is final,” he said.
Better yet, let’s ban all unruly passengers from all U.S. commercial carriers – forever.
Second, I suggest that the flight attendants do a lot less polite asking, and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) do a lot more of this:
And that traveler facing the $32,750 fine isn’t the only one:
A Southwest Airlines passenger faces $16,500 in fines.
Two travelers face $9,000 in fines in other cases.
A passenger was removed and now faces a fine of $15,000.
That was in May.
And more recently, from June 14:
And this, from June 15:
The word that appears most frequently in these stories about fines is “proposes.” As in, “The FAA proposes…”
I say it’s time for the FAA to stop proposing fines and start imposing fines.
Put some teeth into this.
Hit people where it hurts:
In their wallets.
That’ll get their attention.
It seems so simple to me.
Flying in a choice.
When we fly, the FAA and TSA have rules we must abide by. Rules about electronic devices, rules about pets and service animals, rules about prohibited items.
If you don’t want to follow the rules…
As to the rule about wearing masks: They’re mandatory on airplanes, and in the airport.
If you don’t want to follow the rules…
As a former flight attendant, I truly feel for the current group that’s forced to “deescalate dangerous situations,” and are faced with verbal abuse and physical harm.
As I said, I’m fortunate.
And that’s why I say:
Then, if you, the crazed, do fly and break the rules, your headline won’t talk about a proposed fine.
Instead, your headline will say:
I think it appropriate that I give a flight attendant the last word:
Your late son, Beau, joined the military in 2003, served in Iraq in 2008-2009, and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service.
While he was serving his country, did he ever live in military housing that included this:
Thousands of our military members who – and this is so important – volunteered to serve, are living in military housing with lead poisoning, mold, sewage, brown bath water, vermin and other issues. So are their spouses and children.
And it’s making many of them sick:
I know, from your many years in the Senate and then as Vice President, that you’re aware of the horrible conditions in much of our military housing.
And I know, due to my research, that to address this issue, in February 2020, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, along with the secretaries of each military service, signed the Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights:
Here’s another part of the Tenant Bill of Rights:
“The Department commits to providing the full benefit of the following 15 rights by May 1, 2020.”
That looked definitive.
But it wasn’t.
I also know, from this February 2021 article:
That “Congress allocated nearly $200 million over the past two years to help boost DoD’s oversight over private housing providers.”
And, from that same article,
“DoD believes it will need to spend an additional $120 million per year to staff new programs to inspect and oversee those projects.”
Mr. President, those dollar figures seem downright paltry, when you consider that the cost of one of these – just one F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter – is $100 million:
Even more so when you consider that the woman or man who’s going to fly that F-35 Lightning II may be living in housing with this:
The problem, as is so often the case – is the middleman. That is, the privatized military family housing companies that have been managing and building military housing since 1996, when Congress created the Military Housing Privatization Initiative (MHPI) under the National Defense Authorization Act.
According to this article,
The “Big 5” privatized military family housing companies are Balfour Beatty, Lincoln Military Housing, Hunt Military Communities, Lendlease, and Corvias Military Living.
I was unable to discover what the Department of Defense pays – correction, what we taxpayers pay – for privatized military housing.
But I found a clue in the February 2019 Congressional hearing, “Current Condition of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative”:
Here’s an exchange between Senator Elizabeth Warren and Christopher Williams, president of the above-mentioned Balfour Beatty:
Senator Elizabeth Warren: Mr. Williams? Christopher Williams: Our net profits for our military housing businesses are around $33 million…a year.
Elsewhere I learned that there are 14 of these companies, called “corporate housing partners,” and some, if not all of them, hold 50-year contracts to manage military housing.
We’re talking billions of our tax dollars going to companies responsible for this:
Another name on that “Big 5” list is Lincoln Military Housing.
As I typed it, I thought “Lincoln Military Housing” sounded familiar.
I heard that name in the local news just last month:
The article says that “Several San Diego area families are suing a government contractor that provides housing to military members and their families.”
The government contractor is Lincoln Military Housing.
One of those families is the Huffmans, who moved to San Diego in 2018. Matt Huffman is a staff sergeant in the Marines.
April Huffman said within a week of moving into their military housing, two of her sons got sick.
They started having “a really bad cold or something coming on,” she said.
Those cold-like symptoms didn’t go away, and for one of her boys things got much worse. Logan had trouble breathing and ended up in the hospital:
It was a sight his dad could barely handle:
“I was sitting there watching him in the hospital bed struggling and having a hard time reacting to the medication that they were doing,” Matt Huffman said.
The family called in a company to run air tests and swabs, and the results were several different toxic molds.
They then contacted Lincoln Military Housing and, according to the lawsuit,
“…repeatedly notified the defendants of these multiple defects in a timely manner; however, Defendants took no action to properly or time repair them and/or improperly attempted repairs resulting in further contamination, adding to the uninhabitability of the Subject property and making it untenantable and substandard.”
The Huffmans moved into a hotel for three months, and now the family of five is living in an RV:
Again, according to the lawsuit,
“…it was discovered there were multiple defects and problems with the home, such as vents contaminated with microbial spores, visible microbial growth in kitchen and bathrooms, an odor throughout the interior living spaces, and elevated moisture levels.”
The family’s attorney said,
“This family was exposed to microbial spores and water intrusion in their home, which caused them health issues including respiratory issues, asthma, skin rashes, headaches, nosebleeds, and things like that.”
Lincoln has denied all the lawsuit charges.
The Huffman case is still in the early stages. Their lawsuit asks for damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees, among other things.
Mr. President, I encourage you to watch the May 14 YouTube video related to the Huffman story, Lawsuit Claims Military Housing Was Unsafe.
You’ll see Staff Sergeant Matt Huffman blinking back tears as he talks about what the family had to throw away due to contamination from their military housing including letters from his now-deceased father, written to Matt while in boot camp 10 years ago:
And this is just one military family – among so many.
So many families, despite the 2020 Military Housing Privatization Initiative Tenant Bill of Rights that said, “The Department commits to providing the full benefit of the following 15 rights by May 1, 2020.”
Despite the money Congress allocated, and then added to.
Despite all that, military families are still living with this dangerous issue – as attested to on the Military Housing Advocates’ Network’s Facebook page:
And as attested to in this June 9 article:
“FORT HOOD, Texas – Military families are still struggling with private contractors and on-post housing after the Department of Defense delayed the final protections of the new housing Bill of Rights to September 30.
“The Defense Department says because these companies are signed into existing long-term contracts with the military, they cannot force these companies to accept the changes. They must voluntarily agree to them.”
When we deploy our military members overseas, we often put then in harm’s way.
They shouldn’t come home and still be in harm’s way.
Please, Mr. President: Don’t let the Department of Defense kick this down the road to September 30.
My usual evening TV viewing Monday through Friday at 7pm is the PBS Newshour, and this past Friday was no different.
But it was SO different.
Every Friday evening, about mid-way through the program, Newshour host Judy Woodruff interviews New York Times columnist David Brooks (below, top) and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart (below, bottom) about current hot topics.
Woodruff asks good questions, Brooks and Capehart give thoughtful answers, and that evening I was expecting the same.
What I wasn’t expecting was this:
Brooks and Capehart were in the studio with Woodruff.
Sitting at the same table.
Not wearing masks.
IN THE STUDIO!
“THEY’RE IN THE STUDIO! ALL THREE OF THEM, TOGETHER! DO YOU SEE THAT?” I shouted to my husband.
Since he was sitting five feet away from me, he did, indeed see that.
It was the FIRST in-studio news interview I’d seen in…how long?
I simply sat and stared. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I barely heard what they were saying.
I was transfixed.
It was, I realized, a real, true sign that we are on the road to recovery.
Back in April I posed the question, “Will the pandemic become the excuse du jour?”
Since March 2020, when we started hearing “…due to the pandemic,” we’ve become accustomed to nodding and accepting the explanation.
And in March 2020, when stores ran out of toilet paper, and paper towels, and hand sanitizer, and, and, and…
We heard, “due to the pandemic,” nodded, and accepted the explanation.
In my blog post I suggested that not just for the next year, but probably for the next decade, when something isn’t delivered on time, or something breaks and stays broken, or even when someone commits a crime, it will all be…
Due to the pandemic.
For the latter, I’ll cite this April 28 Washington Post article:
According to the article,
“Brendan Hunt, a Trump supporter who called for killing members of Congress days after the January 6 insurrection, was found guilty Wednesday of making a death threat against elected officials.
“Hunt said he was heavily using marijuana and alcohol while struggling with depression and boredom during the coronavirus pandemic. He told the jury that the video he posted online after the Capitol riot was filmed while he was under the influence.”
Hunt faces up to 10 years in prison.
Will future conversations with customer service sound something like this?
Customer: I’m calling to check on the status of my order. Customer Service: It’s delayed due to the pandemic. Customer: I haven’t told you what I ordered. Customer Service: It’s delayed due to the pandemic. Customer: The pandemic was declared over in late 2021. This is 2025. Customer Service: Thank you for calling. Have a nice day.
As we slowly – and hopefully, safely – emerge from the dark pandemic tunnel, I’ve been keeping track of a number of shortages blamed on the pandemic. Just a few of many examples:
And as we all know, shortages often lead to:
And perhaps the most egregious example of that…
When the pandemic began, apparently people in the lumber business hit the brakes on production, figuring the demand for new houses would slow.
They were wrong, according to the expert in this article:
“At the beginning of the pandemic demand for lumber was slightly down and mill inventories were down, but in the spring of last year  we saw people move on home improvement projects, purchase a home or build a new home, causing an increase in demand for lumber.”
It seems to me that people in the lumber business caused the lumber shortage, and now they’re reaping the rewards:
And the people in the lumber business aren’t exactly crying in their beer over it, if this guy is an example:
“While lumber prices have gone up, we have been able to pass it on to the consumer with higher prices for homes,” Jeffrey Mezger, the CEO of KB Home, told CNN Business. “And there is still far more demand than there is supply.”
Can’t you just picture ole Jeff, rubbing his grubby hands together in glee?
Now, I’m no economist, but I do understand that the law of supply and demand is integral to capitalism.
Law of Supply and Demand: The amount of goods and services that are available for people to buy compared to the amount of goods and services that people want to buy. If less of a product that the public wants is produced, the law of supply and demand says that more can be charged for the product.
Charging more is one thing.
But with the lumber situation – a price increase of more than 500 percent in a year?
And the lumber industry isn’t alone – here are just a few more recent price increases:
P&G said it was increasing prices on certain brands in North America to “combat the impact of higher costs of raw materials used to make the products.”
Coca Cola’s “holistic inflation management” is a “multi-prong approach to manage inflation of key ingredients and packaging materials, according to executives.”
According to the article, “Both Jif and Skippy already are or will be more expensive thanks to previous winter storms, the ongoing pandemic, truck driver shortages, shipping fees and delays, and even the recent block of the Suez Canal by a cargo ship.”
“The recent block of the Suez Canal.”
Well, that’s one I hadn’t thought of.
Here’s my perception.
For the first 12 months of the pandemic, we hung in and hung together, getting through the tragedy day by day.
When suppliers were caught price gouging – and it was infrequent – they were excoriated in the media and by the public.
But now, as we’re emerging from that dark pandemic tunnel, it’s no more “Mr. Nice Guy.”
No more “We’re all in this together.”
The suppliers’ gloves are off.
Real or manufactured?
They’re real, all right.
And while companies may tout that “wholistic inflation management” and bemoan the blockage of the Suez Canal, how many are using the excuse of the pandemic – and coming out of the pandemic – to raise prices?
It appears that even this venerable industry – yes, even this – has succumbed to the pandemic excuse and the lure of more money:
“Supply chain backlog.”
At least this CNN article…
…was a tad more creative than that. In addition to “supply chain” issues, it cited:
The high demand for workers.
The shortage of truck drivers – orders that would normally ship the next day can take weeks to go out.
The pandemic created new demand at companies that had never needed porta potties before, such as vaccination sites.
The emphasis on hand washing and clean surfaces during the pandemic led many customers to order more porta potties at their job sites.
Competition from overseas buyers also has increased demand.
The concert venues and road races are starting to open up, and the festivals are talking about coming back in late summer – all porta potty customers.
An unprecedented increase in the cost of plastic resin used to make portable toilets; it’s a petroleum product and disruptions like the February winter storm in Texas have led to limited supplies.
The “February winter storm in Texas.”
That’s another one I hadn’t thought of.
This reminds me of an old commercial for Roach Motel, “Where roaches check in, but they don’t check out”:
I guess we were all supposed to get excited by this story from last week:
The article says,
“Pope Francis has broadened the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of sexual abuse by revising its penal code to explicitly acknowledge that adults, and not only children, can be victimized by priests and powerful laypeople who abuse their offices.”
And it took the church only 12 years of “studying” this issue to come to this conclusion.
But I won’t be doing the Happy Dance, because this seems like the same result as Pope Francis’ global church summit on abuse back in 2019. Here’s a picture of the Pope and church leaders from that summit:
You see all the hats?
They’re called “zucchetto.”
I call this boys club the “Beanie Babies.”
At that 2019 church summit, the Pope introduced laws requiring priests and nuns to report abuse accusations to church authorities.
However, the Times article continues,
“Critics have called on the Vatican to require reporting to civil authorities, but the church has resisted, saying that it is a global institution, and in many countries such reporting would expose accused clergy to great harm.”
So it’s OK for the clergy to do great harm – but let’s not have any reporting of them to authorities because it could expose the clergy to great harm?
And exactly which countries are the “many countries” referred to? No specific were given in any article I read. And what does “great harm” mean, exactly?
And what kind of excuse is the church being a “global institution”? So what?
The reality is, Pope Francis’ latest changes to church law means “business as usual.” The changes have no teeth. And until the church requires its clergy to report all sexual abuse to civil authorities…
Any changes to church law will continue to have no teeth.
Except for this one.
Here’s Part II of the Pope’s big announcement, again from the New York Times article:
“The changes in canon law also take aim at a completely different problem the church has identified only relatively recently: the growing movement of women who claim they have been ordained as priests.
“The Vatican’s doctrinal office issued a decree in 2007 saying that ‘a person who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive the sacred order,’ should trigger automatic excommunication.
“These revisions now incorporate that decree into church law.”
“Incorporate that decree into church law”?
Now that has some teeth.
Loud and clear, the Pope is saying, “If you’re foolish enough to ordain a woman, or if you’re a female foolish enough to think you’re ordained…
What, exactly, “automatic excommunication”?
For that I turned to several Catholic publications and learned, among other things:
“Excommunication is the Church’s most severe penalty imposed for particularly grave sins… By committing a particularly grave sin and engaging in activities which cause grave scandal and fracture the body of the Church, that communication ceases, and the person is deprived of receiving the sacraments and other privileges.
“The penalty of excommunication can be imposed by a proper authority or incurred automatically…”
So if someone dares to ordain a woman, or a woman receives ordination…
No bothering with the “proper authority” – it’s automatic.
“…an excommunicated person is forbidden to participate in a ministerial capacity (celebrant, lector, etc.) in the Sacrifice of the Mass or in any other form of public worship; to celebrate or to receive the sacraments; to celebrate the sacramentals; to exercise any ecclesiastical office or ministry; and to issue any act of governance. An excommunicated person also cannot be received into a public association of the Christian faithful.”
“…the purpose of excommunication is to shock the sinner into repentance and conversion. Excommunication is a powerful way of making a person realize his immortal soul is in jeopardy.”
If you take your Catholic faith seriously – this is very serious shit.
So, who are these sinners, these miscreants, these women who dare to call themselves priests?
These women whose defiance of church law is so threatening to the boys club that Pope Francis incorporated the decree against them into church law?
These women whose ordination as priests was categorized by the Vatican as a “grave crime” worthy of equal punishments to those placed on clergy members who had committed sexual abuse?
Well, here’s one:
Gosh – she doesn’t look scary.
She doesn’t look doomed.
She is Elsie McGrath, ordained a priest in 2007. According to this 2019 article:
McGrath was excommunicated a few months later, along with the female bishop who ordained her. Of this McGrath said,
“Excommunication is literally a contract. It’s a legal document, and that means that it has to be accepted by both parties for it to actually be in force. We see ourselves as Roman Catholic women who have chosen to be ordained and model a new way of being in the church. We do not accept excommunication, and therefore, we’re not excommunicated.”
Today, according to a website called “Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Great Waters Region”:
“Elsie Hainz McGrath pastors Therese of Divine Peace Inclusive Roman Catholic Community in Saint Louis, MO, where she presides at weekly liturgies, witnesses weddings and holy unions, leads funeral and memorial services, does other sacramental services as requested, and engages in interreligious activities with neighboring worshiping communities.”
Take that, Pope Francis.
But…what is that word, “Womenpriests”? That word my spellcheck doesn’t recognize?
It’s the same idea used by this organization:
There’s an actual organization for women who are priests?
Yes: Roman Catholic Women Priests:
And on their “About Us” tab, their message is clear:
“We women are no longer asking for permission to be priests. Instead, we have taken back our rightful God-given place ministering to Catholics as inclusive and welcoming priests.
“The Catholic people have accepted us as their priests and they continue to support us as we grow from the seven bold women first ordained in 2002. Ordained women are already ministering in over 34 states across the country and are also present in Canada, Europe, South and Central America, South Africa, Philippines and Taiwan.
“We are here to stay.”
Take that, Pope Francis!
And if the Catholic Church boys club – the Beanie Babies – denigrates Roman Catholic Women Priests as an ineffectual grass roots movement…
I’ll remind them of another grass roots movement, this one also denigrated by men, and this one also about women:
Two months earlier, California – my state – had become the first state to issue a stay-at-home order, mandating all residents to stay at home except to go to an essential job or shop for essential needs.
If we ventured out for essential jobs or needs, we were told to stay six feet apart from others, and wear face masks.
Not that you could find face masks to buy anywhere.
And as for other essential needs, the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store looked like this:
In May 2020, COVID-19 deaths passed the 100,000 mark, and a vaccine seemed more like a wish list item than something that could come out of drug companies, go into arms and save lives.
May 2020 was bad.
But I was and am one of the lucky ones, in so many ways. One way is – I love to read. As long as I’ve got good books to read, I’m never bored.
Another way: My amazing library started doing home deliveries the day after the pandemic shut it down. All I had to do was go on the library’s website, request what I wanted, and my books arrived every Tuesday.
And in May 2020 I realized I wanted to reread Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series.
And yes, that’s Spenser…with an “s.”
My parents were Parker fans, and years ago they got me started reading his books. I resisted at first; who wants to read the same thing as their uncool parents? Plus, detective stories weren’t my thing.
But I gave in and gave Parker a try. He was easy to read and from the very first book – The Godwulf Manuscript – I was hooked.
Parker’s website describes Spenser as “the wise-cracking, street-smart Boston private-eye,” and he is that. But he’s much more: smart, honorable, resourceful, kind, tough, dependable, consistent, and brave.
But Spenser is no Boy Scout – he’s kicks plenty of ass, sometimes shoots people, and sometimes shoots to kill.
He’s also funny. And an excellent cook. And sometimes, something of a philosopher.
I knew that if I reread the Spenser books that I’d have hours and hours of enjoyment, smiles and satisfaction.
In May 2020 there wasn’t much of that to go around.
So I started rereading the Spenser series, in order. But to make the pleasure last, I rationed my reading. I’d read a Spenser book, and then a book or two by different authors. I knew when the last of Parker’s books was coming, and I was in no rush to meet it.
A year later, in May 2021, when the library delivered Parker’s last Spenser book – his 39th, entitled Sixkill – I opened it with a mixed bag of emotions: reverence, sadness, nostalgia and gratitude.
I finished Sixkill with the same emotions.
There’s so much more I could say about Parker, and Spenser, and Spenser’s proclivity for quoting obscure (to me, at least) writers, and Parker’s recurring characters, but…
All that is better discovered by the reader.
And is my case – rediscovered.
According to one source – not Parker’s website – Parker was 77 when he died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Cambridge, MA in 2010. It said he was discovered at his desk by his wife Joan, where he’d been working on a novel.
But Spenser lives on, now in books written by Ace Atkins, as decided by Parker’s estate and publishers. Since 2010 Atkins has produced nine Spenser novels, and Spenser is still Spenser: “the wise-cracking, street-smart Boston private-eye,” plus all the other attributes I mentioned.
Atkins’ books were good. I enjoyed them, and I’ll reread them.
And I’ll have a few more months – and more good laughs – with my pandemic pal.
“Halfway through my steak I caught sight of myself in the mirror behind the bar. I looked like someone who ought to eat alone. I didn’t look in the mirror again.” – Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
“Mary sat, quiet and attentive and blank. It wasn’t like talking to a dumb seventh-grader, it was like talking to a pancake.” – Robert B. Parker, Widow s Walk
“So far so good. I had a recently widowed mother and her orphaned son crying hysterically. Maybe for an encore I could shoot the family dog.” – Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes
“Wanting more than you can have will spoil what you’ve got.” – Robert B. Parker, Wilderness
“She was wearing something in purple suede that was too short for a skirt and too long for a belt.” – Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
“I took a sip. It went surprisingly well with the veal. On the other hand, the fourth margarita goes surprisingly well with everything.” – Robert B. Parker, Taming a Seahorse
The first time I heard the word philately was years ago in a Tom Lehrer song lyric:
“Who needs a hobby, like tennis or philately? I have a hobby: Rereading Lady Chatterley.”
I didn’t know, or care, what philately was, but I sure was curious about Lady Chatterley.
Eventually I learned that philately is “the collection and study of postage stamps.” Someone who does this is a philatelist. Then there’s philatelic, an adjective, and philatelically, an adverb, all based on the French word philatélie, and I’ll leave it at that.
Stamp collecting – a hobby, sometimes a profession, the attraction of which escapes me – is exceedingly popular. There are local, national, and international clubs, an International Philatelic Federation, and an annual World Stamp Championship Exhibition.
And the hobby, or profession, is not just popular, but sometimes very profitable.
With an ironic twist: A mistake can make a stamp more valuable. That’s right – one person’s screw-up becomes another person’s treasure. According to invaluable.com:
“The most valuable stamps in the world often feature some kind of blunder or misprint within one of the main components, known as an error. Typically, a stamp error arises from a mix-up in the printing plates during pressing. Errors are usually quickly caught and removed from circulation, increasing rarity and value of the affected stamp.”
Here’s an example:
This is an Inverted Jenny, a misprint of a 1918 stamp featuring one of the Jenny biplanes first used by the US Post Office to carry mail. The plane on the face of the stamp was accidentally printed upside down.
There were thousands printed correctly and only 100 printed incorrectly. And according to a 2018 New York Times article, of those 100, only two were unaccounted for: No. 49 and No. 66.
That is, until 2018, when a Chicago family resurrected what they thought might be an Inverted Jenny from a safe deposit box. It was authenticated as Inverted Jenny No. 49 by the Philatelic Foundation in New York, and sold at auction for the then-record sum of more than $1.3 million:
A heads-up to philatelists: Inverted Jenny No. 66 may still be out there somewhere.
What’s in your wallet?
And speaking of philatelists, in addition to safe deposit boxes, another source of stamps for collectors is the United States Postal Service (USPS).
USPS operates on the belief that every stamp that’s purchased but not used is money – called “retained revenue” – in the bank for USPS. Collectors spend millions annually buying stamps and related items from USPS.
Many of those items are found on a USPS website page called “Collector’s Zone,” with items including “Commemorative Boxed Sets,” “Gift Cachets” and “First Day Covers.”
One example of the latter is this, the Espresso Drinks First Day Cover:
I chose this example because it’s the Espresso Drinks stamps that prompted me to write this post.
In case you’re wondering what was the point, and when would I get to it.
USPS announced the release of the new stamps in April:
The USPS news release stated that the stamps:
“…celebrate America’s love of coffee…Whether milky, dark as night, sweetened, flavored or highly concentrated, many coffee drinks have one thing in common – they begin with espresso…four unique designs illustrating popular espresso drinks – espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte and caffe mocha.”
USPS issuing new stamps isn’t something I normally pay any attention to, until a short blurb about this in Food Network magazine caught my eye. It mentioned the involvement of USPS art director Greg Breeding and “renowned illustrator” Terry Allen, and went on to say:
“The Postal Service sent Terry more than 100 mugs to study for the job!”
“More than 100 mugs”?
“Renowned illustrator” Terry Allen couldn’t just look in his cupboard for inspiration?
Couldn’t just go to a store and take some pictures of espresso mugs?
Couldn’t just google “espresso mugs” – like I did – and get 34,900,000 results?
Apparently someone at USPS, which we know is in deep financial guano…
…decided “To hell with the budget!” and that before Allen could come up with concepts for Espresso Drinks stamps, he needed to possess espresso mugs.
More than 100 of them.
Never mind that Allen, 78, is an award-winning artist with works in many museums – the New York Museum of Modern Art, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, to name a few:
Allen doesn’t sound like someone who needed more than 100 espresso mugs “to study for the job.”
Allen also doesn’t sound like someone who did the Espresso Drinks designs on the cheap.
I could be wrong.
Maybe he’s a different Terry Allen – maybe he’s this guy (right) who works full-time at Radio Shack and does bad caricatures at weekend flea markets.
Maybe those 100+ espresso mugs were just sitting around gathering dust in one of Postmaster General (and multi-millionaire) Louis DeJoy’s vacation homes, and good ole Louie donated them for the tax write-off.
And maybe I’ll find that missing Inverted Jenny No. 66 stamp the next time I open my wallet…
California’s state flag features a grizzly bear, an animal that once was common in our state:
But before the flag, back in 1889, a grizzly bear was used in a publicity stunt by William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy businessman, newspaper publisher and politician.
Two years earlier, when he was 23, Hearst’s father had given him a newspaper to run – the San Francisco Examiner:
And Hearst, who never met a situation he couldn’t exploit for his own benefit – and profit – saw an opportunity.
The story goes that Hearst got into a heated debate with one of his reporters over whether there were still any grizzlies in California. The reporter, Allen Kelly, said there were. Hearst insisted there weren’t.
Hearst ended the argument by challenging Kelly to go out, find a grizzly, and bring it back – alive – to San Francisco. Hearst gave Kelly a blank check, plenty of staff, and plenty of publicity with updates like this one from Kelly:
After nearly six months, Kelly and his compatriots captured a grizzly, and Hearst’s newspaper headline read…
“He Was Trapped in Ventura County After a Terrific Struggle and Secured with Massive Iron Chains – It Was a Hard Battle but Not a Man was Hurt – The Long Journey Over Almost Impassable Mountains Before He Was Safely Landed in San Francisco”
A crowd of 20,000 was waiting at the San Francisco train depot to greet the conquering hero and the grizzly. Hearst’s publicity-hungry heart was appeased – for the moment – and the bear, now named Monarch, would be in captivity, on view, for 22 years until his death.
Monarch was used as the model for the state flag image, and the grizzly bear was named California’s official state animal in 1953, long after grizzlies had become extinct in this state.
Hearst would go on to run – unsuccessfully – for President of the United States in 1904, Mayor of New York City in 1905 and 1909, and for Governor of New York in 1906.
Now let’s fast forward, and meet another California politician who’s using a bear for publicity:
John Cox, like Hearst, is also a wealthy businessman, and like Hearst, has also run – unsuccessfully – for several political offices, including President in 2008.
His most recent run was for California Governor, which he lost to Democrat Gavin Newson in the state’s biggest gubernatorial landslide since 1950.
Now Governor Newsom is facing a recall vote, financed by what appears to be a bunch of rich, disgruntled Republicans, a number of whom were also Trump backers.
At present the Republican recall candidates include Mary Ellen Cook, a former pornographic film actress; Angelyne, a former Los Angeles billboard model; Kevin Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor; Doug Ose, a former California congressman; Caitlyn Jenner, a former male Olympic gold medalist and reality show celebrity, now a transgender activist…
And John Cox.
And his bear:
As you can see on Cox’s bus, his campaign slogan is “Meet the Beast.”
For clarification, I visited the Cox for Governor website, where an almost-three-minute video disparages Newsom for being the “Beauty”:
Apparently equating “beauty” with “all thinigs horrible”:
While Cox – I guess – is the “Beast”:
Because we need “beastly change”:
The video winds down by asking us, “You want beauty? Or a ball-busting beast…” and exhorting us to “Recall the beauty. And elect the nicest, smartest beast you’ve ever met”:
So I guess Cox is suggesting that he is the beast who will bring beastly changes to California?
Let’s pause, and meet the beast. I mean – the bear.
His name is Tag:
Unlike Hearst’s grizzly, Tag is a Kodiak bear, born nine years ago in a private zoo in Ohio. He stands 7½ feet tall, weighs 1,000 pounds, and lives at Working Wildlife in Frazier Park, CA, a business that rents out wild animals for entertainment purposes.
And Tag has, indeed, been rented out – for TV shows including Yellowstone with Kevin Costner and the Apple TV+ series See, as well as for commercials, Geico and Rocket Mortgage among them.
And now, Tag has been rented by the Cox campaign.
When asked why, Cox said,
“It was done to get attention, I’m going to be honest about that, but it also was done to show the seriousness of a beast. We’ve got to tackle these problems.”
Now it appears that Cox is getting a bit more attention than he wants:
According to this May 25 article, the Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL), a San Diego nonprofit, is claiming that a stop Cox made in San Diego earlier in May “violated a city ordinance, and that ongoing appearances are illegal under federal law.”
APRL has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to order Cox to immediately suspend any further public appearances with the animal through the duration of the campaign to recall Governor Newsom.
APRL claimed the bear was drugged, which the campaign denied. The lawsuit also said,
“While at one point defendants claimed to use an ‘electrified wire’ to contain the bear, this would not be sufficient to stop a 1,000-pound bear. Defendants later admitted the wire was not even electrified as claimed.”
That “not even electrified” appears to be true. According to Tag’s trainer, the cord was unplugged because the bear had “long since learned not to go near it”:
I mention this in case you decide to attend a Cox/Tag campaign appearance – you might want to keep that “not even electrified” part in mind in case Tag figures out a workaround.
I’d certainly want something substantial between me and a 7½ foot, 1,000-pound bear.
Substantial – like an ocean.
The Cox campaign did have plenty to say as they pledged to continue displaying the bear at political events – at least until a judge intercedes. And…
“The establishment is running scared from the bear because they don’t like that we’re going to make the big beastly changes California needs. Gavin Newsom and his insider friends want to distract from the important issues like slashing taxes, fixing the homelessness epidemic and reducing the cost of living so families and businesses don’t have to flee the state.”
The Cox campaign has that “beastly” thing nailed, don’t they?
I was unable to find a schedule of upcoming appearances for Cox and Tag on his – that is, Cox’s – website, or elsewhere.
And I was unable to find a date for the Newsom recall election, beyond “sometime in November.”
I was able to find an estimate for what the recall election will cost, and who gets to pay for it:
And since a recent poll indicates that a large majority of California voters oppose the Newsom recall:
According to this May 11 Voice of America article:
“…at the end of March there were 8.1 million open jobs in the country, the highest number since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the figure in 2000.”
Then the BLS reported that the number of newly employed Americans had risen by only 266,000 in April rather than the one million that had been forecast.
The article goes on to say,
“Business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce blame the Biden administration’s continuation of expanded unemployment benefits of ‘paying people not to work.’
“Republicans in Congress, many using the exact language of the chamber, excoriated the administration…”
Republicans have grown expert at excoriating the administration.
If President Biden said on a Friday morning, “Today is Friday,” it would be followed by a Mitch McConnell/Kevin McCarthy duet of, “I object to that! That’s political and Biden is politicizing it! It’s the Big Lie!”
And they’d be backed up by a lockstep chorus line of Republicans shouting, “The Big Lie! The Big Lie!”
So let’s leave that mess aside and talk about why that April newly employed number was less than expected.
We’ve heard many reasons why people haven’t returned to work, but there’s a reason we haven’t heard much about, and it’s not people getting paid to not work.
And it’s a reason I totally get:
Many people who were laid off have had time to reflect on their employment.
And basically, they decided…
What prompted my thinking along these lines was this very insightful article from the Associated Press:
The article included interviews with a number of people I consider a good representation of the sentiment out there.
One was 57-year-old Ellen Booth:
“After a lifelong career as a bartender, Booth (below, right) was in constant pain from lifting ice buckets and beer kegs. But without a college degree, she felt she had limited options.
“When the restaurant she worked for closed last year, she said it gave her ‘the kick I needed.’ Booth started a year-long class to learn to be medical coder. When her unemployment benefits ran out two months ago, she started drawing on her retirement funds. She’ll take an exam in the coming weeks to get certified, and hit the job market.”
Then there was Nate Mullins, 36, also a former bartender. Not working prompted him to start thinking long-term – about health care and retirement benefits. And Mark Smithivas, 52, a former Uber and Lyft driver. He spent the last year taking technology classes in a federal worker training program.
There were other interviews, but the one that resonated with me the most was 25-year-old Shelly Ortiz. Ortiz, said the article,
“…used to love her career as a restaurant server. But things changed last June, when her Phoenix restaurant reopened its dining room. She wore two masks and glasses to protect herself, but still felt anxiety in a restaurant full of unmasked diners.
“Sexual harassment also got worse. Patrons would ask her to pull down her mask so they could see how cute she was before tipping her.”
Ortiz quit in July, returned to school full time, and this month she’s graduating from Glendale Community College with a degree in film and a certificate in documentary directing.
No more “pull down your mask” for her.
There are all sorts of bromides out there about loving your work:
Please: Spare me.
The reality is, most people spend their lives working for a paycheck. They’re not doing what they love – like something in the arts, or in sports, or in the nonprofit sector, or studying whales, or whatever. And that’s because they have rent to pay, and groceries to buy, and doctors and dentists, and gasoline to put in the car, if they can afford to own one.
Being a starving artist may sound enticing, but most people don’t go that route.
You can’t feed your unsold paintings to your kids.
So, to the people who haven’t rushed back to their old jobs as the pandemic restrictions ease… To those who have utilized this time to reflect on their priorities, and change direction… To those to whom life gave lemons and are turning them into lemonade…
When this story about bribery at the California DMV appeared on May 18:
It didn’t surprise me.
What surprised me was how little interest it merited.
I understand why more bad news about the California DMV wouldn’t be of interest to people outside our state.
But I thought the California media outlets would be on this story like flies on…you know.
National and local, all I saw online was reprints of the same Associated Press story from above, that starts with:
“California Department of Motor Vehicle employees at two Los Angeles-area offices took thousands of dollars in bribes to approve driver licenses, federal prosecutors said.”
And ends with:
“The scheme involved sending the drivers to the window of a participating DMV employee who had an identifier, such as a red hat.”
We’ve gotten so used to bad news about our DMV, and bad service from our DMV, that back on April 19 I did a post in which I referred to it as the “asshole of California.”
“A bit harsh,” someone commented.
I think not.
I based my assessment on the encounters I’ve had with the DMV over the years, and recounted the most recent. I’d mailed paperwork to them six weeks earlier, and wanted to know the status of my request. After many fruitless and frustrating attempts to learn something on the DMV website, in desperation I called them.
Eventually I connected with a person and explained why I was calling.
And without bothering to ask me anything – not even my name – his excuse was well-rehearsed, immediate, and creative:
“Due to the pandemic and the Post Office, everything at DMV is delayed.”
The conversation went downhill from there. He was less than useless, and if you think that isn’t possible, you haven’t dealt with our DMV.
A bad experience at our DMV is never a surprise, so neither are bad headlines, like these:
In case you don’t know what the Golden Fleece Award is for…
“The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) – a cartoonish poster child for bureaucratic incompetence – has won the Independent Institute’s seventh California Golden Fleece® Award, a distinction given quarterly to California state or local agencies or government projects that swindle taxpayers or break the public trust.”
And note, those headlines were all pre-pandemic.
Since the pandemic started in March 2020…
One thing you can count on the DMV to be is…
OK, back to the most recent – the May 2021 bribery story.
This involves two Los Angeles-area offices and at least five employees, one of whom “admitted to accepting weekly bribes exceeding $50,000.”
A different bribery accepter said a “network of ‘brokers’ would contact him on behalf of drivers who could not pass the exam and then forward the drivers’ bribes to the DMV employees.”
You’ll be relieved to know that in a statement responding to this latest, the DMV said:
“Fraud prevention is one key component of customer service. The DMV takes very seriously its responsibility to uphold the law as we serve our customers and we applaud our thousands of employees who work with integrity and pride.”
Which I suspect is similar to what the DMV said back in 2012 after this story broke:
And after this 2015 story:
And this 2018 story:
And this 2019 story:
Back in January 2019, our governor, Gavin Newsom, committed to fixing the DMV by appointing a “strike team”:
As time passed and nothing changed, we were all wondering…
That question was answered in July 2019:
But let’s don’t get discouraged!
An April 2021 report from AutoInsurance.org assures us that the California DMV made a Top 10 list.
Independently owned bookstores have been around since before the U.S. was the U.S. – like Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, PA, the oldest bookstore in the U.S., founded in 1745:
These stores – often referred to as “indies” – have been beloved by their customers and neighbors alike, and thrived for a long time. As a place to buy books, of course, but also as a place to learn about books, talk about books, and be around other people who shared a love of reading.
But, according to an article on newrepublic.com,
“The rise of superstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders in the 1980s and ’90s was a disaster for smaller shops, which lacked the chains’ inventory and ability to offer steep discounts. Customers were also moving away from downtown locally owned businesses and doing their shopping at malls. In the seven years before the Great Recession began, more than 1,000 independent bookstores closed.”
The advent of Amazon in 1995 – as a website that started out selling only books – also contributed to the indies’ demise. Why go to a bookstore, even a big bookstore like Barnes & Noble, when you could sit in front of your computer at home and find just about any book you want from Amazon?
Sure, buying on Amazon didn’t give you the same tactile experience of pulling a book off a shelf and hefting it in your hand, paging through it, and walking out of a store, delighted with your purchase. But many were willing to make that trade.
Then came another blow to Indies: e-books. No need to lug around the physical book, just download it to your device. Download lots of books to your device! No more bookstores for you.
Yet another blow: The afore-mentioned Great Recession wasn’t kind to independently owned bookstores.
And neither was the pandemic. Stores were forced to close, in-store events were cancelled, and indie owners who had little or no internet presence suddenly had to become mini-Amazons or risk permanently closing their doors.
Which brings us to two San Diego indies who managed to survive it all, then almost didn’t – Mysterious Galaxy, founded in 1993, and Warwick’s, founded in 1896.
Since its founding, Mysterious Galaxy’s focus has been science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, romance, and horror books, making it – according to its website,
“San Diego’s premier destination for genre-fiction…a home for those who love the magical, the odd, the chilling, and everything in between…”
But, in late 2019, came this announcement:
“The staff of Mysterious Galaxy just received notice that they are losing their lease for their Balboa Avenue storefront, and will need to move in 60 days. It is with heavy hearts that we share that unless a new buyer and new location are found immediately, Mysterious Galaxy will be forced to close its doors.”
The Mysterious Galaxy staff had seen it coming. According to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune,
“…in September 2018, the owners decided it was time to ‘pass the torch’ and pursue other interests, and they put the store up for sale. Although several candidates came forward, no deal was struck, and the store’s lease on Balboa Avenue expired. It continued operating month-to-month while the search for a buyer continued.”
Then the landlord found a new long-term tenant and gave Mysterious Galaxy that 60-day eviction notice.
After surviving so much, Mysterious Galaxy was done in by their lease.
Or, lack of.
Then, just before Christmas 2019, came this:
A married couple who were regular customers purchased the business and moved it to a new location:
One of the store’s founders said she’d met with “a number of qualified prospective buyers and corresponded with dozens of others” before striking a deal with the couple. She described them as “passionate readers who understand our mission and want to take the business to the next level and ensure its future.”
That was Christmas 2019.
Then came March 2020 and the pandemic, but a visit to the Mysterious Galaxy website indicates that the store, though “closed for browsing” (and that should change soon) is still very much in business:
About 15 minutes north of Mysterious Galaxy in the La Jolla area we encounter Warwick’s, “the oldest continuously family-owned and operated bookstore in the United States,” according to their website:
Warwick’s is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, so it was a truly lousy time for the fourth-generation owners, Nancy and Cathy, to learn that the building’s owner had received an unsolicited $8.3 million dollar cash offer, which the owner intended to accept.
The store had been in this location since 1952, and it was a great location – a storefront with foot traffic and street parking in La Jolla, which one website lists as San Diego’s “most expensive neighborhood” in 2021:
The average household income in La Jolla is around $200,000, and it’s also a popular tourist destination – the description on the area’s website could leave you positively drooling:
Incredible beaches, fine dining, posh boutiques, and sweeping panoramic ocean views combine to make a dynamic community and one of the most popular places to go in San Diego.
Downtown La Jolla, or as the locals call it, “The Village,” is a walkable urban area packed with shops, museums, and art galleries – making it one of the best places to visit in San Diego.
As you can imagine, retail rents in La Jolla are commensurate with the surroundings.
After surviving for more than a century, and through all the more-recent challenges…
And how would the Warwick sisters ever find a location they could afford that could match their current digs?
Especially with time running out – the owner had given the Nancy and Cathy 15 days to match that $8.3 million cash offer.
Instead of hanging out a Going Out of Business sign, Nancy called a longtime customer and commercial real estate broker. He arranged a meeting with a friend and local investor who’s also a store patron.
“Within about 45 minutes we had struck a lease deal and decided how to structure a counteroffer so that we could buy the building,” the friend/investor said.
The trio lined up a bank and nearly three dozen Warwick’s supporters, including Nancy and Cathy and their husbands. They formed an LLC and offered $8.35 million dollars. That offer was accepted and escrow closed April 28:
The deal includes a 10-year lease, with two five-year renewal options – up to 20 more years to continue the family business.
Mysterious Galaxy and Warwick’s found guardian angels, but many indies have not. According to an article on vox.com, since the pandemic started, indies have been closing at the rate of about one a week, and 20 percent of stores in the U.S. are in danger of same.
Those that are surviving are doing so because the owners and staff pivoted – from face-to-face service to online orders, curbside pickup and in some cases, home deliveries. Book clubs and other in-store events moved to online platforms like Zoom. Some owners applied for, and received, loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and some created GoFundMe pages, with some success.
As the pandemic appears to be diminishing and with it the lockdowns and stay-at-homes and dangers of infection, here’s hoping that the independent bookstore owners can continue to hang on, and their stores can continue to be, as one owner put it…
“…places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas. Bookstores provide everything from sanctuary to meditative spaces.”
There are three lead characters in Mitchell James Kaplan’s Rhapsody: a wife, her husband, and her lover.
I’d never heard of the wife, by either of her names: her personal name, Mrs. James (Katharine) Warburg, or her professional name, Kay Swift (composer).
I’d never heard of the husband, by either of his names: his personal name, James Warburg, or his professional name, Paul James (Swift’s sometime lyricist).
I’d certainly heard of, and was a great admirer of, her lover:
Gershwin (1898-1937) was a pianist and composer, best remembered for his Rhapsody in Blue, the musical An American in Paris, the opera Porgy and Bess, and songs including Swanee, I Got Rhythm and many others for Broadway musicals and movies.
When I read a review of Rhapsody, I was intrigued because it was a fictionalized account of the 10-year love affair between Gershwin and Swift.
I was unaware of any serious love interest in Gershwin’s life – when he died at age 38, he’d never married – and Rhapsody seemed like a good place to start.
And it was a good place to start, for Gershwin.
For Swift, not so much.
When we meet Swift (1897-1993) she’s the socialite wife of super-wealthy James Warburg (1896-1969), whom she married when she was 20, and they have three daughters. Katharine is an accomplished pianist and wannabe composer who longs for recognition – lots of recognition. “What was the point,” she muses, “of artistic expression in music, or any other medium, if it affected only the artist herself?”
I said “muses,” but it was really more of a whine. And not her last, as Kaplan portrays her.
Swift and Warburg – “Jimmy” – are very social, and in 1925 a guest at one of their parties brings along Gershwin. Swift knew of him and had seen him, but not up this close. Zing! went the strings of her heart.
Gershwin’s heart? Not so much.
Swift – soon to be christened “Kay” by Gershwin – become friends, drawn together by their mutual interest in music. She longs for recognition of her work, and for more of Gershwin’s attention. Gershwin craves recognition, and his attention is on his music.
During one exchange at her family’s apartment, George says he has to leave and get back to work. In an effort to make him stay, she – rather pathetically, I thought – offers herself to him as his assistant. His response: “I’ll keep that in mind. Meanwhile, I’ll be touring the New York Concerto. You won’t see me for a while.”
I could accompany you. She said it with her eyes.
Really pathetic. Especially since Gershwin doesn’t invite her to accompany him.
This – as written by Kaplan – pretty much sums up the relationship: Kay always yearning for Gershwin, and Gershwin always on his way out the door. They become lovers in 1926, but when she tells Gershwin she’s in love with him, he doesn’t respond likewise. Gershwin is unfaithful, and doesn’t try to hide it. And when she tells Gershwin she’s going to get a divorce and marry him, his response is…lukewarm at best.
Here’s another of Swift’s responses to Gershwin:
If that’s the best you can do, George, thought Kay, I’ll take it.
And another, after someone asks Swift if Gershwin is her beau:
“I think so,” said Kay. “I hope so.”
This last was nine years into the Swift/Gershwin relationship.
Swift comes across as weak, clingy, and powerless in the relationship, and I didn’t think that was an accurate representation. Rather, I hoped it wasn’t, and that led me to my own online research. Under her professional name, Kay Swift (Swift was her maiden name) evolved into an accomplished composer, including becoming the first woman to score a hit musical completely – Fine and Dandy in 1930.
To be fair, Kaplan does talk about some of Swift’s musical accomplishments, but whatever she did after Gershwin’s death in 1937 is left untold – Rhapsody ends with Gershwin’s funeral.
So I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in Swift and Gershwin and that whole era –New York in the Roaring 20s and Prohibition into the Great Depression – to do their own research and form their own opinion of Swift.
She deserves to be remembered, but…
Among the Rhapsody reviews on Amazon is this April 5, 2021 statement, identified as being from the Kay Swift Trust, “established by the Estate of Kay Swift to provide stewardship of the body of music, to enable scholarship about the life and work of Kay Swift, and to perpetuate performance, recording and publication of her music”:
We are disappointed by this novel “about” Kay Swift and her romance with George Gershwin. There is almost no page in the book without absurd errors, inauthentic representations, ignorant cultural, political, and musical references, or offensive characterizations. There are numerous representations that we consider to be anti-Semitic, whether knowingly or ignorantly. For a book attempting to portray the romance between two celebrated musicians, the writing is both inept and tone-deaf…
Let’s say it’s a Sunday evening Houston, TX in early May, around 8pm. The family’s had dinner, kids are in their rooms playing video games, and your husband has turned on the TV to stream…whatever.
Just another Sunday evening in Houston.
Until you glance out your front window, and see this:
Yes, that’s a tiger.
There’s a tiger in your front yard.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d have two reactions:
As a resident of Houston, you may be aware that it’s legal to own tigers in your state. However, individual jurisdictions can set their own guidelines, and being in possession of a tiger in Houston is against city code.
I’m betting that the guy pictured below (right) was aware of Houston’s city code. This is Victor Hugo Cuevas, whom police allege is the tiger s owner, and who whisked away the big cat in a car that May evening:
At a news conference, Houston Police Commander Ron Borza said that Cuevas’ wife, Giorgiana, turned over the tiger to police after a friend of hers reached out to officials at BARC Animal Shelter.
“It is Victor’s tiger,” said Borza. “That’s what I was told by (Giorgiana Cuevas) …She says they’ve had that animal for nine months.” He alleged that the tiger was passed around to different people, but that Cuevas’ wife knew where the tiger was at all times as authorities searched for it.
We also learned that the tiger’s name is India, he’s nine months old, and weighs 175 pounds.
We know that – but India doesn’t know he’s just a baby.
India does know that tigers raw meat, and lots of it.
Prey on two legs, four legs – tigers are flexible.
And there India was, strolling around a neighborhood where, as one resident put it,
“It was very scary, because this a very family-oriented community and you see lots of kids and baby-strolling, and people taking their pets and walking them, so the first thing I thought was to alert the community so everybody would stay home.”
Cuevas was arrested by Houston police and charged with evading arrest for allegedly fleeing his home with the tiger.
It turns out this isn’t his first run-in with the law. At the time of his arrest by Houston police, Cuevas was out on bond for a murder charge in a 2017 fatal shooting in neighboring Fort Bend County. Cuevas has maintained the shooting was self-defense.
So Cuevas was already lawyered-up, in this case attorney Michael W. Elliott:
With regards to the tiger, Elliott insists that Cuevas doesn’t own India:
“Victor was not the primary owner of India nor did India stay with him the majority of the time. Victor was, however, involved in the caretaking of India often. Victor loves India as anyone else would love a favorite pet…He treated India with love and fantastic treatment in all respects.”
It appears that Elliott is overlooking (or ignoring) the language in Houston’s Code of Ordinances, Article III, Sec. 6-52 which doesn’t talk about ownership, but rather possession of:
“It is unlawful for any person to be in possession of a wild animal.”
The Code’s definition of “wild animal” includes tigers.
Elliott also said Cuevas did nothing illegal because Texas has no statewide law forbidding private ownership of tigers and other exotic animals – again overlooking (or ignoring) Houston’s Code of Ordinances.
Apparently Attorney Elliott’s overlooking/ignoring worked – Cuevas was released on a separate bond for the evading arrest charge.
But prosecutors in Fort Bend County then sought to have him held with no bond on the 2017 murder charge.
After an all-day hearing, a judge revoked Cuevas’ current $125,000 bond on the murder charge and issued a new bond for $300,000. As of this writing, Cuevas remains jailed.
India is now being cared for at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, an animal sanctuary in Murchison, TX. According to Noelle Almrud, the sanctuary’s senior director:
“Black Beauty Ranch will provide safe sanctuary for India and give him a proper diet, enrichment, an expansive naturally wooded habitat where he can safely roam and will provide everything else he needs to be the healthy wild tiger he deserves to be.”
Hopefully, a happy ending for India.
This story brings to mind an old ad for gasoline company that urged consumers to “Put A Tiger In Your Tank”:
I’d say this time around, the tiger put Cuevas in the tank:
When I’m driving, I occasionally listen to “Oldies” radio, “oldies” defined as a “radio format that concentrates on rock and roll and pop music from around the mid-1950s to the 1970s or 1980s.”
Unless you’re Generation Z, in which case “oldies” is defined as “so 20 minutes ago.”
Some oldies songs are good to hear, some not so good.
But when a song came on…
That was so egregiously bad, I almost had to pull into a rest stop and…
While I wondered who wrote this and…
They were thinking it was 1963. A time when…
Women were supposed to want this:
And ignore this:
So it’s no wonder that the song’s lyrics start like this:
Hey! Little Girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door.
Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger
You needn’t try anymore.
The lyrics start there, and then get worse:
For wives should always be lovers, too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I’m warning you.
The song was “Wives and Lovers,” and it was all downhill from there:
Day after day
There are girls at the office
And men will always be men.
Don’t send him off with your hair still in curlers
You may not see him again.
For wives should always be lovers, too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
He’s almost here.
Hey! Little girl
Better wear something pretty
Something you’d wear to go to the city and
Dim all the lights, pour the wine, start the music
Time to get ready for love
Time to get ready
Time to get ready for love.
It won’t come as a surprise that these dreadful lyrics were written by a guy.
It may come as a surprise that one of the people who recorded the song won a Grammy in 1964.
But what’s really surprising is how many people recorded it:
More than 30.
And some of those were women.
But wait – it gets worse:
Cécile McLorin Salvant deliberately learned these lyrics, went to a recording studio, and included “Wives and Lovers” on her album For One to Love.
Not in 1965, or 1985, or 2005 but in…
Yes, in 2015.
I’m going to rank Salvant’s giant leap for womankind right up there with these catchy lyrics I discovered, also from the 1960s:
You’ve come a long way, baby,
To get where you got to, today.
You’ve got your own cigarette now baby,
You’ve come a long, long way.
Review, short version: Three roses for him, many skunks for her.
Review, long version:
According to her website, author Susan Elizabeth Phillips has published 24 books, and I’ve read most of them.
And I’ve enjoyed all I’ve read, a couple enough to read twice, and one – three times.
It had been awhile, so when I went looking for her latest and found Dance Away with Me, I was elated. Somehow I’d missed it’s publication 2020, and I was SO ready for some more Susan now.
Phillips’ website unabashadly states that “Life is better with happily ever afters,” and her love stores have them. They also have strong, smart lead female characters, and strong, smart male lead characters, and when the females and males meet, there’s often a lot of conflict and a lot of great, snarky dialogue before they figure out their happy ending.
Let’s start with the lead male in Dance Away with Me: Ian North, age 36. He’s everything you want in a hunky romance hero: tall, dark, handsome and built. Very alpha, but sensitive. He’s super-rich due to his being a highly successful, hughely talented artist. He’s also a tortued soul, because he can’t create art anymore. Plus, he had terrible parents, and a very messed-up childhood.
The lead female is Tess Hartsong, age 35, and she is Phillips’ first lead female character who totally disappointed me.
When we meet Tess, her husband of 11 years had died two years ago, and she’s dealing with grief “that would never, ever go away.”
Tess apparently had a career as a certified nurse midwife, but she jettisoned that. She sold her home in Milwaukee and bought a dilapidated cabin in the Tennessee mountains, because her late husband had talked about moving to Tennessee someday. Tess is a mess, and there’s no indication that she’s pursued any kind of professional help to deal with her grief and anger.
I’m not suggesting that Tess should just “get over it.” I know, firsthand, that grief knows no timeline. I also know that the right therapist can help us learn to live with the grief, and learn to live again.
But not Tess.
Through a series of events, Tess is suddenly delivering a premature baby, and the baby’s mother, Bianca, dies. In Tess’ muddled mind, her anger “had made this happen. It had seared the placental membrane, boiled Bianca’s blood until it wouldn’t coagulate…Her own anger had done this.”
See what I mean about Tess’ mental state?
The man Tess believes is the baby’s father – Ian – turns out not to be; the baby was fathered by a sperm donor. The baby is, in reality, an orphan, and should have immediately been turned over to child protection services.
Instead, Tess names the infant girl “Wren” and latches onto her like a drowning person latches onto a life preserver. Somehow, this baby, to whom she has no legal right, is going to fix everything.
As Tess’ obsession with the infant gets worse, we meet another facet of Tess: Tess is a bitch. A self-righteous know-it-all who says whatever she likes to whomever. She’s arrogant and obnoxious. She assigns degrading labels to people and she’s scornfully judgmental. She gives sex advice to the local teenagers without their parents’ permission because “I’m right.”
Not my idea of a book character I want to spend time with.
Back to the baby. Tess: “I’m her family. I was the first person to touch her. The one who’s fed her, changed her, held her against my body…” “She only wanted to be with Wren…Taking in the little sounds she made – the squeaks and yawns, her baby snores. Her perfect deliciousness…” “This baby was hers. She would give up her life for this child. She could not let her go…” “Wren is mine. She belongs with me.”
A fine way for a mother to feel.
But Tess is not the baby’s mother.
Then there’s the matter of Tess’ mess of a life: no job, no money, no health insurance, a crappy, unsafe house – and she thinks she’s prepared to care for a child (to whom she has no legal claim)?
Then there’s the matter of Tess practicing medicine in Tennessee without a license.
And the irony, toward the end of the book, of Tess suggesting that Ian is emotionally crippled.
Uh-huh. That’s right, Tess. You’re the perfect person to psychoanalyze someone.
And this brings me to my comfort zone – once again totally out of step with the almost 1,900 Amazon reviewers, 96% of whom gave Dance Away with Me three stars or above (73% gave it five stars).
It also raises the question, when Phillips’ next book, When Stars Collide, comes out this June…
Every Sunday my newspaper runs a full page titled The (almost) Back Page.
It’s a collection of short articles that aren’t worthy of big headlines or the front page, but still articles worth reading.
Here are three recent stories that prompted research on my part, and of course, my own spin:
Caught and Charged
The Charles Schwab Corporation is an American multinational financial services company whose motto is “Own Your Tomorrow”:
Kelyn Spadoni (pictured below, right), a Schwab client, appears to have done just that – owning her tomorrow by buying a new car and a house.
It seems that Spadoni, 33, of Harvey, LA had requested a transfer of $82.56 into her account.
Instead, Schwab transferred $1,205,619 into Spadoni’s account.
Spadoni, obviously a fiscally responsible person, noticed the$1,205,536.44 in additional funds, exactly as she should have. Aren’t money experts always telling us to “monitor your money”?
She then transferred the money into a different account and bought the house and car the next day.
Who wouldn’t be tempted to do the same?
Especially after the crap year so many have had?
Imagine the pleasure Spadoni felt, walking into that Hyundai dealership and writing a big, fat check for the Genesis SUV she chose. Imagine the thrill Spadoni felt, pointing to a house and saying, perhaps, “I’ll take that one,” a house she likely couldn’t have afforded on her salary as a 911 dispatcher for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
The Schwab transaction, variously called a “software glitch,” “clerical error” and a “mistake,” came to Schwab’s attention and they, of course, contacted Spadoni.
Or tried to – she didn’t respond to their texts, emails or calls.
Now it appears someone besides Spadoni may be “owning her tomorrow”:
Schwab contacted the authorities and Spadoni was arrested on April 7. She was charged with fraud and theft – and also fired, the Sheriff’s Office said – and has since been released on a $150,000 bond.
Now, of course Spadoni knew what she was doing was wrong.
And we know it was wrong.
Wouldn’t you have been…
Caught and Killed
A violent death is never something to celebrate, and this was a violent death.
Still, I couldn’t help but give a small, inward nod when I read this:
Elephants: 1. Poachers: 0.
The location was Kruger National Park, in northeastern South Africa, one of Africa’s largest game reserves at 7,523 square miles.
Its high density of wild animals includes the Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalos:
Its high density is a big draw for poachers, and a big menace for the Big Five.
Especially for rhinos, which, according to an April 20 Washington Post article,
“…are frequently targeted by poachers for their horns, which have been used as an ingredient in traditional medicines in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam for thousands of years. Aside from medicine, the horns are often seen as a symbol of high social status and purchased as gifts.”
Apparently the deceased alleged poacher and his two partners had entered the park, armed with axes and a rifle. They were spotted by rangers who gave chase. The men fled, dropping their weapons.
I think it’s reasonable to infer that the men were in the park for nefarious reasons.
I think it’s also reasonable to assume that they weren’t the brightest bulbs in the chandelier.
Because their escape route took them straight into a herd of elephants.
Now, I’m no expert, but I know that African bull elephants are big: up to 13 feet tall, and up to six+ tons.
And I know that breeding bull elephants have one focus, and they do not like to be disturbed.
And when some puny humans run into the herd and interrupt the…shall we say courtship, the bulls are likely to get annoyed.
And they did: The bulls and the rest of the elephant herd stampeded, and one of the men was killed.
Park rangers arrested another of the men, and apparently the third escaped.
The elephants resumed their breeding activities, unbothered.
It’s likely the dead poacher had family and if so, I’m sorry for their loss.
But I’m not sorry that in this one park, on this one day, we didn’t have one more of these:
The One That Got Away
The setting for this story is the Detroit River, which flows west and south between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie:
In April, three biologists from the Michigan-based Fish and Wildlife Service office were in a boat on the river, putting out setlines with hooks to catch and survey the lake sturgeon population.
It was their version of just another day at the office, when one of them felt a tug on the line.
What they pulled in – and it took all three of them – was a lake sturgeon:
But not your typical lake sturgeon; this female measured 6-feet, 10-inches, had a girth of nearly four feet, and weighed in at 240 pounds, one of the largest ever caught in the country.
One of the biologists, who is 5’ 6”, obligingly laid down next to the fish to give us some perspective:
The group estimated the sturgeon’s age at about 100 years, and that in itself is amazing for a number of reasons:
People do fish for lake sturgeon, though the flesh is described at “edible but not prized.” It’s the sturgeon’s eggs that are in demand – caviar produced from sturgeon eggs can sell for more than $100 an ounce:
So for around 100 years – since 1920 – our wily female has evaded those who have wanted to eat her, or harvest her eggs.
In addition, according to a May 5 article in the Washington Post, there was…
“…a boom in commercial fishing that continued into the early 1900s, periods of over-harvesting, and habitat loss driven by shipping channel construction and the damming of tributaries.”
And, during World War II, Detroit was considered the “Arsenal of Democracy,” producing jeeps, tanks, bombers and airplane assemblies, artillery guns, ammunition, helmets, drugs, electronics, and other military items. Oil pollution was rampant, and they discharged not only oil but other toxic substances into the Detroit River.
Our wily female survived all that, as well.
And other hazards, like collisions with boats. Lake sturgeons are slow swimmers, and when it’s fish vs. boat…
It’s no wonder the fish are considered a threatened species in Michigan – in fact, in 19 of the 20 states where they’re found.
The three biologists from the Michigan-based Fish and Wildlife Service office tagged the female and released her.