Saturday, August 29, 2009

I just liked these stories

I just like this story.

In late 1947 the show Starlight Review opened on the West End in London. Its host was an Austrian turned American conductor named Vic Oliver. During one scene an American performer in his late 20s was making balloon animals on stage and asked if any kid in the audience wanted one. A little voice from the back said she would and soon the little girl in pig tails came on stage joined by Oliver. He asked her if she would like to do something for them and she did. She said she would sing Polonaise from a play, Mignon, and Oliver said, “Oh, lovely, just the kind of junk I like.”

And the little girl sang Polonaise. At the end, she hit something called F above high C, of which I have no idea what that is, but it’s high. The audience went crazy and cheered for, so it is said, five minutes.

The little girl, the product of a very dysfunctional family who had already toured with her, was, of course, supposed to come on stage. She had actually been cut from the show by the producer at the last minute, but he relented when her mother convinced him to give her a shot just before dress rehearsal. Good thing for her as and she blew the casts’ minds. She became a star. She’s not so little any more. Her name is Julie Andrews. I got the story from her biography by Richard Stirling and confirmed with some other sources.

I just like this story too.

The conductor I just mentioned Vic Oliver was already a successful performer. He was also the former son in law of Winston Churchill, but had divorced the famous man’s daughter. Allegedly, and I don’t know if this is true, as there are many Churchill stories which are apocryphal, the great man was at a dinner party at which Vic Oliver was also in attendance. Someone asked Churchill who he most admired and he said “Mussolini”

Naturally, someone asked him why.

Churchill responded, “Because he had the good sense to shoot his son-in-law.” I hope it’s true, anyway.

I just like this story too.

Remember the American on stage making balloons. His name was Wally Boag, an American name if there ever was one. He made balloon animals and sang and the usual Vaudevillian type stuff. He had been professionally dancing since he was nine. You’d think calling up Julie Andrews on stage and essentially making her career would be enough for one lifetime, but he did something else interesting which somehow hasn’t made him a household name.

After a very unimportant movie career (I believe he wasn’t even billed), he was touring Australia in the early 1950s when he met a singer name Don Novis. Novis asked him if he wanted to try out for a very short, very silly and fast moving skit he was going to be involved with back in America.

Boag tried out and got the job. He made a career making balloon animals, shooting squirt guns and other ridiculous bits. The show became so popular that according to the Guinesses Book of World Records, Wally and the show have the greatest number of stage productions of any show ever.

There is a relatively good chance you have seen the show and just not remembered his name. It was originally called The Golden Horseshoe Review and later the Diamond Horseshoe Review and has been thrilling audiences at Disney since 1955. Boag retired in 1982, but he is still alive at 89 years old.

I just like this story too.

A young Californian with the usual dysfunctional family started working at Disneyland when Boag was there in the 60s. He thought Boag was incredible and watched the show so many times he memorized it. He started doing his own version of Boag’s act including making balloon animals, playing the banjo and the like.

Eventually, the young man started the slow painful process of his own career, urged on by his comedienne girlfriend with the weird name of Stormie Sherk. They had a close relationship until she moved away to go to college and they grew apart. He continued his career nevertheless. He went to college too and majored in philosophy, but never graduated.

Later in the 60s another girlfriend got him a gig writing for a variety show – the kind they don’t have anymore – and one job led to another. He started appearing on stage too as opening acts for some pretty successful bands and singers.

Finally, he got his chance – to do a spot on the Tonight Show. His wacky comedy - animal balloons and all - was a success and now we’ve all have heard of Steve Martin.

But, if you listen to Martin’s interviews, he credits as inspiration a wacky comedian at Disneyland named Wally Boag. When you think about some of Martin’s routines’ – the balloons, the banjo – it’s clear as day.

I just liked this story too.

Did I mention Steve Martin’s young girlfriend, Stormie Sherk?

Unbeknownst to Steve, she had quite a difficult time growing up. Her mother was an unhospitalized schizophrenic who would sometimes lock Stormie in the closet for hours or days, depending on what you read. Stormie, although successful while young as a comic, a dancer and entertainer, and certainly beautiful (take a look online - and she is in her 60s), grew up feeling ugly and depressed. She even became suicidal, a feeling that followed her into her marriage.

Somehow Stormie survived. Like Steve Martin she appeared on many of the variety shows of the 70s.

I never heard of her until I started following this crazy chain starting with Julie Andrews, Vic Oliver, Wally Boag, Steve Martin and then Stormie. But, she is wildly successful and has sold millions of books. The reason I never heard of her, and probably not anyone reading this blog either is that we don’t read Christian literature, which is where she has made her millions, including such titles as The Power of a Praying Wife (many of the titles have the word Praying in them).

Not bad for a little girl locked in a closet. She’s happy, rich and apparently beloved by millions of fans. Is her success hard on her husband Michael?

I doubt it because . . . I just like this story too.

Michael Omartian, Stormie's husband, is another name I’ve never heard before until I started following this chain. As a young keyboard player he found himself in the Christian music world, starting a college campus tour, but he didn’t limit himself to it. He was a back up artist for groups like Steely Dan, Seals and Croft, The Four Tops and Loggins and Messina, all top groups at the time and his own group, Rhythm Heritage wrote and performed The Theme from S.W.A.T. and the theme for Baretta (I’m dating myself with these television show references, but kids my age know what they were).

His annus mirabilis was 1981 when the Christopher Cross album he produced, won three grammies. But, he was nominated for seven others that year. Of course, I’m dating myself again, but Christopher Cross was a big deal in the 80s.

One of music’s great achievements ever was getting together close to 50 top performers (they turned down even more) to sing on We Are the World, the title track of which was the first multi-platinum song ever recorded. Everyone knows that the project was produced by legendary producer, Quincy Jones. Even I know that. However, there was another name who almost never gets mentioned and that’s Michael Omartian, who co-produced it.

Omartian is one of those people who, if he decides you are good, you become a success. According to the Wikipedia article, his list of artists he has produced includes such performers as Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, the Jacksons, Rod Stewart, Trisha Yearwood, Clint Black, Donna Summer, Peter Cetera, Amy Grant, and Steely Dan (among others I left out because I never heard of them, but that doesn't mean anything as I'm not very learned in the music world).

One more story I just happen to like.

Omartian’s group Rhythm Heritage was composed of a number of performers. One was a young man who had been a studio musician in Motown, playing with groups and performers like Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Barry White, Diana Ross, etc. He later wrote (he claims) one of my favorite pop songs from the era, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, for which Leo Sayer got a Grammy. Parker said it was his first depressing moment in the business, because he got no credit for it. Parker had several hits with a group, Raydio, but, of course, we know Parker best for writing and performing Ghostbusters (“Who you gonna call - GHOSTBUSTERS!?”)

Ghostbusters actually has a stormy past because Parker was sued by Huey Lewis who claimed the song was plagiarized. They settled out of court and then Ray sued Huey, claiming he violated the confidentiality agreement by mentioning that Parker had paid to settle. I don't know what happened after that and don't care.

The part of Ray's story I like is that one day when he was at home at the age of 18, his telephone rang. A voice identified himself as Stevie Wonder and asked Parker if he’d like to go on tour with him and The Rolling Stones.

Naturally, Parker didn’t believe it and hung up. The phone rang again. Same guy. But Parker still wasn’t buying. So, Stevie sang to him – Superstition to be specific. That did it.

Parker’s memory of the tour with Stevie and the Stones: “Nothing like it before; nothing like it since.” I’m not surprised.

Anyway, I just like these stories. Bad reviews and corrections of possible inaccuracies are always welcome.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fun with POTUS

Outside of a few critical biographies, we celebrate them as almost as if they were flawless marble figures, but our presidents were not just human, but all too human. Some of the following stories would be fascinating if they were about anyone, but some are just so because they are about a future or acting president.

Here’s a paragraph from the journal of a famous American woodsman, a Major in the army, on a disastrous adventure on a rapid ice filled river that sounds like it could have been a first draft of The Last of the Mohicans:

There was no Way for getting over but on a Raft, which we set about, with but one poor Hatchet, and got finished just after Sun-setting, after a whole Days Work; we got it launched, and on Board of it, and set off; but before we were Half Way over, we were jammed in the Ice in such a Manner that we expected every Moment our Raft to sink, and ourselves to perish ; I put out my setting Pole to try to stop the Raft, that the Ice might pass by, when the Rapidity of the Stream threw it with so much Violence against the Pole, that it jirked me out into ten Feet Water, but I fortunately saved myself by catching hold of one of the Raft Logs; notwithstanding all our Efforts we could not get the Raft to either Shore, but were obliged, as we were near an Island, to quit our Raft and make to it.

The Major had a traveling companion named Christopher Gist, who wrote (badly) in his own journal:

The Major desired to encamp, to which the Indian asked to carry his gun. But he refused that, and then the Indian grew churlish, and pressed us to keep on, telling us that there were Ottawa Indians in these woods, and they would scalp us if we lay out; but to go to his cabin, and we should be safe. I thought very ill of the fellow, but did not care to let the Major know I mistrusted him. But he soon mistrusted him as much as I. He said he could hear a gun to his cabin, and steered us more northwardly. We grew uneasy, and then he said two whoops might be heard to his cabin. We went two miles further; then the Major said he would stay at the next water, and we desired the Indian to stop at the next water. But before we came to water, we came to a clear meadow; it was very light, and snow on the ground. The Indian made a stop, turned about; the Major saw him point his gun toward us and fire. Said the Major, “Are you shot?” “No,” said I. Upon which the Indian ran forward to a big standing white oak, and to loading his gun; but we were soon with him. I would have killed him; but the Major would not suffer me to kill him.

The Major was 21 year old George Washington, the year 1753, the onset of the French and Indian War in which Washington was heavily involved, particularly at the beginning. The first item I quoted is from his own journals, which was later published, making him famous as a young man.

How different would life have been if the Indian had been more accurate? No Washington - who would have filled his place in the war? The ambitious, perfidious and careless General Gates? And as the all important first president? Franklin didn't live long enough and there was no one else acceptable to everyone who was above the partisan warfare then brewing. In fact, if no Washington, we probably would not know who his protege, Alexander Hamilton, was either and their would have been no political counter-balance to Jefferson. But, perhaps there would have been no independence at all, and no first president?

Washington had a good start in life. Rich, educated, family, etc. Not every president had one like it. But, one in particular had a very good start and thought he was shortchanged:

When I recollect that at fourteen years of age the whole care and direction of myself was thrown on myself entirely, without a relative or friend qualified to advise or guide me, and recollect the various sorts of bad company with which I associated from time to time, I am astonished that I did not turn off with some of them and become as worthless to society as they were.

That was Thomas Jefferson (my special historical nemesis) writing to a grandson in his later years. Poor, poor Tom. Fourteen years old (nearly full grown by the standards of the day) when his father died, richer as an infant heir than all but a few grown Americans, owner of thousands of acres he lifted not a finger to deserve and surrounded by slaves to leap at his every desire. Must have been tough. But, not so fast. He was hardly without a relative or friend to guide him. His mother lived almost two decades after his father died. The ungrateful brat lived at home a couple of more years with her and then went to school nearby; he just dismissed her as unimportant. He had eight living brothers and sisters. He could not have had better connections in Virginia than the Randolph family on his mother's side. He got a first rate, one would say, remarkable education. Is it any wonder I give this prima donna such a hard time? By the way, Washington's father died when he was only eleven, Thomas, so man up.

Apparently, sometimes the best thing a future president could do is shut up. Here are a few words of advice concerning a potential presidential candidate which could be well applied to modern candidates or Supreme Court nominees:

Let him not say one single word about his principles, or his creed – let him say nothing – promise nothing. Let no Committee or Convention – no town meeting ever extract from him a single word, about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter. Let the use of pen and ink be wholly forbidden as if he were a mad poet in Bedlam.

This was the suggestion of powerful banker, Nicholas Biddle, probably a more important historical figure than the future president he was discussing, William Henry Harrison. Actually, the time Harrison should have been quiet and said nothing was during his own overly long inaugural address in inclement weather, as he caught cold and soon died of pneumonia. Or was murdered, as some have claimed. Some claimed it was really the Jesuits (but also the Masons and the Illuminati) - any Jesuit trained reader want to defend that?

I love this little tirade by a very young New York congressman who confronts a Tammany Hall enforcer in Albany planning on humiliating the brash newcomer by a good old fashioned blanket tossing:

By God! McManus, I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls. I’ll do anything to you – you’d better leave me alone.

It's more interesting when you know the congressman was Teddy Roosevelt. That was reported by a New York Times correspondent and repeated in Nathan Miller's biography. Apparently, TR didn't have much of a sense of humor about such things. But, boys will be boys. Here’s a description of a less feisty president from his early days:

Sometimes, he would get into fights-just ordinary scuffling and wrestling matches. In the memory of friends, he always lost—he was physically quite uncoordinated; “he threw a baseball like a girl,” one classmate says—and as soon as he started losing, he would run home crying, a tall, skinny, awkward, teen-aged boy with dusty cheeks and tears sliding down them, running through the streets of that quiet little town sobbing loudly.

Not the best of starts for LBJ. But, there’s a lot worse. That was from Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, first of three (so far) incredibly well researched volumes on LBJ. Caro gives non-stop descriptions of Johnson’s seemingly unparalleled lack of character and obsessive ambition, includes the following comments from his college mates:

"'Master of Bullshit' – that’s what M.B. means,” says one of Lyndon Johnson’s classmates, Henry Kyle. “He was known as the biggest liar on the campus. In private, when there were no girls around, we called him ‘Bullshit’ Johnson.”

He was given the nickname “Bull.”

“When you saw him, that’s what you called him,” says Horace Richards. “ ‘Hiya, Bull.’ ‘Howya doin’, bull?’ Bull Johnson was his name, as far as we were concerned.”

“That was what we called him to his face,” Edwards Puls, another classmate, says. “That was what he called generally called. Because of this constant braggadocio. Because he was so full of bullshit, manure, that people just didn’t believe him. Because he was a man who just could not tell the truth.”

Caro goes on to document Johnson’s allergy to the truth, which he never outgrew. I tend to read biographies very cynically, looking for sloppy research or unsupported conclusions. But, never have I had an opinion of a politician or historical character change so much as I have of Johnson after reading Caro's phenomenally well researched work. He spends much time detailing Johnson’s vast political skills, drive, charisma, sense of humor, intelligence and occasional good works, but no doubt the non-stop dishonesty, excessive ambition, bullying, moral depravity and criminal behavior dominates the story. I would go so far as to say that although I have never believed any of the conspiracy theories about JFK’s murder, and still don’t (relax), I would no longer have a problem believing that Johnson would have at least looked the other way if he had known.

Sometimes people just don’t see the promise in our future presidents at all. Here’s one noted diplomat speaking on his feelings about a visit from the son of a powerful man on tour during war-time:

We were furious. [His father] was not exactly known as a friend of the career service, and many of us, from what we had heard about him, cordially reciprocated this lack of enthusiasm. His son had no official status and was, in our eyes, obviously an upstart and an ignoramus. The idea that there was anything he could learn or report about conditions in Europe which we did not already know and had not already reported seemed (and not without reason) wholly absurd. That busy people should have their time taken up by arranging his tour struck us as outrageous. With that polite but weary punctiliousness that characterizes diplomatic officials required to busy themselves with pesky compatriots who insist on visiting places where they have no business to be, I arranged to get him through German lines, had him escorted to Prague, saw to it that he was shown what he wanted to see, expedited his departure, then, with a feeling of ‘that’s that,’ washed my hands of him – as I thought.

The writer was George Kennan, possibly America's most celebrated diplomat since Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. The "upstart" and "ignoramus" he was referring to was JFK. Hindsight is 20-20 as the following quote from Kennan shows:

Had anyone said to me then that the young man in question would some day be the President of the United States and that I, in the capacity of chief of a diplomatic mission, would be his humble and admiring servant, I would have thought that either my informant or I had taken leave of our senses.

Even in office, presidents are still just people. Here’s a president who was sure the White House was haunted (and he wasn't alone):

Just two months ago today, I was a reasonably happy and contented Vice President. Maybe you can remember that far back too. But things have changed so much it hardly seems real.

I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports and work on speeches—all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth—I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin. Or James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce deciding which was the more useless to the country. And when Milliard Fillmore and Chester Arthur join in for place and show the din is almost unbearable.

That was Harry Truman writing to his beloved Bess in 1945. He was having some fun with it, but he was also serious. Here’s another excerpt from a letter written the next year:

Night before last I went to bed at nine o’clock after shutting my doors. At four o’clock I was awakened by three distinct knocks on my bedroom door. I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked into your room and Margie’s. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped up and looked and no one there! Damn place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.

Truman didn’t mention Lincoln’s ghost, but that is the one that is most often allegedly seen, felt or interacted with at the White House, including by Grace Coolidge (the first of many), Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Wilhemina of The Netherlands (she fainted), Winston Churchill (caught naked by the ghost during WWII, he claims to have said, “Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage”), Reagan’s daughter Maureen (and her husband), Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg and Lyndon Johnson (whose supposed spectral visit really seems to just be a joke to me). Many other staff members and guests, as well.

Lincoln himself does not report a visit from a ghost, but had several eerie dreams during his life. According to a friend of his, shortly before he was killed he reportedly said:

About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin.' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.

It always amazes me as to how many of our revered forefather’s of the first and second generations engaged in duels, and not just Hamilton and Burr. Here’s an excellent description of one such fight to the death.

At seven o’clock on the morning of Friday, May 30, 1806, on the Red River in Logan County, Kentucky, Jackson and Dickinson faced each other at twenty-four feet. Jackson let Dickinson shoot first, and he hit Jackson in the chest with a bullet. Though wounded, Jackson coolly leveled his own pistol at his opponent, and fired. The trigger caught halfway; Jackson cocked the gun again and fired, killing Dickinson. Only later, as his boot filled with blood after he had left the dueling ground, did the extent of Jackson’s wound become clear. He carried Dickinson’s bullet in his body until he died. Even in pain—the wound complicated his health for decades—Jackson never let his mask drop. “If he had shot me through the brain, sir,” Jackson told a friend, “I should still have killed him.”

That's from John Meachem’s recent American Lion. Here’s yet another Jackson gun fight, this one far more exciting, from Marquis James' much earlier Jackson biography. This time Jackson has it out with future Senator and, ironically, Jackson supporter, Thomas Benton:

As they reached the hotel Jesse Benton stepped into the barroom. Thomas Benton was standing in the doorway of the hall that led to the rear porch overlooking the river. Jackson started toward him brandishing his whip. "Now, defend yourself you damned rascal!" Benton reached for a pistol but before he could draw Jackson's gun was at his breast. He backed slowly through the corridor, Jackson following, step for step. They had reached the porch, when, glancing beyond the muzzle of Jackson's pistol, Benton saw his brother slip through a doorway behind Jackson, raise his pistol and shoot. Jackson pitched forward, firing. His powder burned a sleeve of Tom Benton's coat. Thomas Benton fired twice at the falling form of Jackson and Jesse lunged forward to shoot again, but James Sitler, a bystander, shielded the prostrate man whose left side was gushing blood.

The gigantic form of John Coffee strode through the smoke, firing over the heads of Sitler and Jackson at Thomas Benton. He missed but came on with clubbed pistol. Benton's guns were empty. He fell backward down a flight of stairs. Young Stockley Hays, of Burr expedition memory, sprang at Jesse Benton with a sword cane and would have run him through had the blade not broken on a button. Jesse had a loaded pistol left. As Hays closed in with a dirk knife, Benton thrust the muzzle against his body, but the charge failed to explode.

General Jackson's wounds soaked two mattresses with blood at the Nashville Inn. He was nearly dead - his left shoulder shattered by a slug, and a ball embedded against the upper bone of that arm, both from Jesse Benton's pistol. While every physician in Nashville tried to stanch the flow of blood, Colonel Benton and his partizans gathered before the Inn shouting defiance. Benton broke a small-sword of Jackson's that he had found at the scene of conflict. All the doctors save one declared for the amputation of the arm. Jackson barely understood. "I'll keep my arm," he said.

I never thought much of Andrew Jackson, but he was astonishingly tough. He was the first president to be attacked by an assassin, in his case an insane out of work house painter who fired at him with two guns. Fortunately, some might say providentially, both guns misfired. Jackson, who suffered from numerous ailments and pains, attacked him with a cane, his own friends probably saving the assailant’s life.

Just to balance it a little, not every president felt the same about dueling, of course. Here is one honest and humble response from a guy just as tough, but with the courage to paint himself in less than heroic light:

I do not believe I ever would have the courage to fight a duel. If any man should wrong me to the extent of my being willing to kill him. I would not be willing to give him the choice of weapons with which it should be done, and of the time, place and distance separating us, when I executed him. If I should do another such a wrong as to justify him in killing me, I would make any reasonable atonement within my power, if convinced of the wrong done. I place my opposition to dueling on higher grounds than any here stated. No doubt a majority of the duels fought have been for want of moral courage on the part of those engaged to decline.”

That was Ulysses Grant, from his celebrated (I would say over-celebrated) memoirs. But, if you don't like Grant, there may be something wrong with you (die hard Confederates probably excepted).

I have a feeling I'll be back on this topic.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Political Update for August, 2009

Do you find listening to the health care debate on television a bit boring? I sure do, and I like C-Span. Imagine how most people feel. I know it is important and I believe we need to straighten out the insurance issues quickly, but it just puts me to sleep. The house bill is well over 1000 pages long and in such arcane language that I have not heard one even reasonably definitive description of what is in it. Do not be fooled into thinking that the congressmen know. They are certainly not going to read it. They will rely on what their leaders tell them is in it, who will rely on their staff, much like the stimulus bill earlier this year.

I know there are others who think it’s strange that politicians, commentators and whomsoever can’t agree on what’s in the damn thing, and when they do argue about it, they never refer to the text of the bill itself, but not enough. It would be like having a theological discussion about whether Adam makes an appearance in Genesis, but no one actually reads from it. But, this is the way we have always argued about politics. The internet adds resources we never had until very recently, but it is never used for that.

So, although I touch upon health care here, but I’ll mix it up with my usual rants as there is always something new to say about it.

Trillions and trillions

I sighed a few weeks ago when I was listening to Peter Schiff, a stock broker and economic commentator who made loud predictions of the collapse of the U.S. economy before it happened and is now maybe/maybe not running for Senator from Connecticut. He understands that our economy is based on myths, yes myths, a firm belief of mine (why else would I sigh? He agreed with me). As he points out, we borrow money from countries like China and then use it to buy their products. We buy more than we sell from every important economic partner. We tax, regulate and unionize business to the degree that it doesn’t pay for companies to make products here, because they can’t compete with companies that go elsewhere. Consequently, if they can leave, they leave or start up elsewhere. We tried to put everyone in a house whether they could afford it or not. We continue to uptick our deficits to unprecedented levels and talk about balancing the budget. I have no idea what Schiff’s other political views are, although he sounds like a conservative, so I can’t say if I agree with him on everything or would even vote for him. Probably not. I end up being disappointed by almost everyone. But, at least, he understands economic mythology. If he sounds like Ron Paul, he was his economic advisor during the campaign. And the part of Ron Paul which is realistic is good stuff (the other part, well . . .).

When our economy is obviously made up of mythical elements, why would we pay attention to obvious signs of trouble? Because it is much more comforting to say, yeah, but the market is going up and I want in. Frankly, after watching the huge gains in the market for the past few months, I just bought back in (expecting it to come to a screeching halt thanks to my few shares and, I just may have accomplished that – there will be a collapse but I am pretending to myself I will get out before it). I can scream all I want about our economic system, but I can’t change it. That would take millions of people carrying on about it and its not going to happen. The best thing to do is manage your risk as best as you can and try to be careful.

Now that we have spent and pledged trillions and trillions of dollars, we run the risk of trying to make sure almost everyone has health care - certainly a noble goal – and perhaps only to find that only the well off will have good health care. As always, I am amazed by the amazing coincidence that conservatives and liberals throughout the country know how they stand on the bill without even knowing what is in it. I don’t know what’s in it any better than anyone else, but to me that means I don’t know how I feel about it. But, when it comes to the public option, I’m pretty sure I do. Consider how well government has handled its duties in the past, how poorly it routinely performs (if in the private sector, they would all file bankruptcy), how much money it costs not to mention how much money they often lose track of. Probably not a good idea. Ironically, Obama’s own attempt to allay fears about health care led him to use an example pitting the bankrupt post office against Fed Ex and UPS, which means – what? (I think you know).

I am not sure if a public plan of sorts will be in the final bill voted on in congress. It is seemingly the biggest reason for the anger in the country about the bill (of course, liberals/Democrats would say those are conservatives, but, conservatives are citizens). If it is in there, I agree with those who believe that in time it will suck the air out of the air for private health care companies, who will be unable to compete against a company that can just make money when it is doing badly. Once public health care becomes a monopoly, well watch out. Naturally, if public health care will cut my bill a few hundred dollars a month, I’m signing up.

But, let’s be fair. When government puts its collective mind to something, it makes happen, right? Take the foreclosure situation. Nine months ago we faced the possibility of record setting foreclosures. Government took action to stem the tide and . . . completely failed. They did try, but, nearly ten months after the financial meltdown we have set a new record for foreclosures in July, the third such record in just five months. In fact, foreclosures went up 7 percent in July. The nature of foreclosures tells us that they will go down eventually, but we should not be fooled into thinking that means everything is better. It means that a lot of people have already been foreclosed on and we’ve almost run out of them for the time being.

What is the state of our economy actually? When POTUS gives his first State of the Union speech, he will say “The state of the Union is Strong!” or some such nonsense. Yet, we have no safety nets which don’t show strong signs of future collapse (social security, Medicaid, etc.) in the not too distant future. We are at the point where some people hope they die before these systems collapse. To the contrary, public jobs like police, toll takers, garbage collectors, etc., have gone from underpaid to extremely well paid with pensions which will eventually bankrupt the municipalities. I have a friend who makes $175,000 a year as a police officer. He works hard and is a good cop who cares about what he does, but his pension, but if he retired now, he will get more than half that for doing nothing, and he is only in his 40s. Good for him and others like him, but, can we afford it as a people? You’ve heard the stories about retired toll collectors making six figures. Nothing against toll collectors (I have a sudden fear of being targeted by E-Z Pass when I’m next traveling), but that is a real problem.

The bane of my existence

In the middle of it, as with all things political in the U.S., stand the two political parties and ideologies which run this country. Often they do keep each other from the worst of their good and bad intentions (each would be at the least, a benign tyranny if extended to full power and benign tyrannies don’t end well) but also make sure they take care of themselves as a symbiotic despot. It is sometimes hard to believe that this is true, because no matter how old you are, you have lived in a country where we have had two dominant parties making sure that no other ideology can take root for your entire life. It’s hard to see how things can ever improve with this system. It guarantees, for example, that the party in power will always be for spending more, as only the minority ever cares to anything but talk about deficits.

And, thus, we continue to live in a country which prides itself on its openness and fairness but will always be institutionally grossly unfair to any elected politician with an independent mindset. You want to get anything done in either house of congress, you MUST kow-tow to either the Republican or Democratic leadership. You must caucus with one of the parties.

Let’s take a look at just how crooked our system is. Recently I listened to an absurdly youthful appearing congressman on the floor of the House of Representatives named Jeff Flake, R-Ar. (he looks to me 15 years younger than his 46) who I hope we will hear more from, unless he morally crumbles and starts taking money himself. He goes after pork barrel spending in a more detailed way than the few others in government who seem to care at all.

Here’s an outtake, long but worthwhile, from what I heard back in July as he attacked the spoils system during a debate on a defense bill. I found it fascinating:

There are 109 Member-requested earmarks in the bill; 43 of them are going to powerful Members of Congress who serve in leadership or as appropriators, committee chairs, or ranking members. That represents about 40 percent of the share of earmarks being taken by less than 24 percent of the Members of the House.

I am sure my colleagues will tell me that these projects are sorely needed at the military bases they are earmarked for and that service members will suffer without them, but what about the many installations that don't receive Member-requested earmarks in the bill and the service members stationed there?

Neither Camp Lejeune nor Camp Pendleton received any Member-requested earmarks in the bill. Each of these camps houses a Marine Expeditionary Force comprised of tens of thousands of marines who deploy with great frequency. I am willing to bet that each of these installations have suggestions for new structures to build. Why haven't they received any earmarks in this bill? The answer is pretty simple: Neither of them resides in a district represented by a powerful Member of Congress.

The earmarks in this bill total more than $578 million. . . Of that dollar amount, more than $240 million are being taken home by powerful Members of Congress. That is nearly 41 percent. When you take into account earmark dollars secured by rank-and-file Members in conjunction with powerful Members, that number jumps to more than $300 million, or 52 percent.

So just to reiterate, the earmarks in this bill favor powerful Members by a ratio of 2 to 1. One-quarter of the Members of this House are associated with more than half of the earmark dollars in this bill.

I wish I could say that this is an anomaly, but this is pretty consistent with the rest of the appropriation bills we have considered so far this year, and I have a chart that demonstrates that. . . . Again, those are committee chairs, leadership, or those on the Appropriations Committee, representing 24 percent of the Members in this body. In the CJS bill that we considered earlier, 58 percent of the earmarked dollars went to just 24 percent of the Members.

In the Homeland Security bill, 68 percent of the earmarked dollars went to just 24 percent of the Members of the House.

In the Interior bill, 64 percent of the earmarked dollars went to just 24 percent of the Members of the House.

In the Agriculture bill, 67 percent of the earmarked dollars go to just 24 percent of the Members of the House.

And in this bill, 52 percent of the earmarked dollars go to just 24 percent of the Members of this House. That is a pretty stark pattern.

There are different types of earmarks, obviously. There are those that are simply wasteful. We see those for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and whatever else that is easy to laugh at. Sometimes it is small amounts of money and sometimes it is a lot larger.

And then there are those, particularly in defense bills, where you are giving no-bid contracts to private companies. There is often a pattern of campaign contributions coming back to Members who secure no-bid contracts in private companies. That does not describe what is going on here.

These earmarks, as I mentioned, I have no doubt that they are for a legitimate purpose. But here is another problem with earmarking: It represents a spoils system where rank-and-file Members of the House are not given access to those that others are.

In the Homeland Security bill, it was particularly stark. As I mentioned, a huge percentage, nearly 70 percent, went to just 24 percent of the body. In fact, more than 50 percent went to just 14 percent, those represented on the Appropriations Committee, and these were for predisaster mitigation programs, flood control districts and the like. I don't think Mother Nature decides, I'm going to hit those districts represented by appropriators more than I am going to hit other districts. It is just because they are able to do it, and so they do it. So the rest of the country that competes for these grants on a competitive basis has, at least in that case, 25 percent of that account is earmarked before they can even compete for the rest of the grants that are given out on a competitive basis. Madam Chair, that is just not fair. That is just not the way we should do this. I think we ought to rethink this and we ought to strike that funding in this bill

He’s right. This is unfair. It’s corrupt. It’s insane. But, as powerful as Flake’s arguments are, it went virtually unnoticed in the media. Notice, he’s not even talking her about the insanely wasteful earmarks – the bridges to nowhere, or the earmarks that are payback or a bid for campaign contributions, and those are big problems. Yet, the “good” earmarks he describes, the ones which actually serve a purpose, show the institutionalization of the corruption and that is even worse. It is simply the way we have always gone about business and maybe few care. They should. Flake does not get cheers from his peers, although I imagine he gets a few private pats on the back in lieu of votes. Yet, in response to Flake, a political opponent stood and not too politely suggested he shouldn’t challenge the integrity of other members. The amendment Flake sought was voted down. In all, he has set a record in the appropriations committee of well over 500 amendments for the defense spending bill to cut out earmarks. He loses them all. Few will notice. Fewer will care. We will just print more money and give it to the lucky people who live where the powerful members of congress do.

I note that many of the figures I ballyhoo in these pages for economic wisdom (again, meaning they agree with me) are at least fiscal conservatives, maybe they are just plain conservatives (I don’t look). Right now, I believe they have a better economic theory. Emphasize theory. Of course, when they had their time to rule, they were as bad or worse as Democrats have been when it comes to spending, corruption, procedural game playing, etc. I’d like to know just when Flake started pounding on earmarks as I believe he is on his fifth or sixth two year term. Was it just since 2006, when Democrats took congress back? I don’t know the answer and my doing a Jeff Flake research paper is not going to happen. But, he should keep it up now even if it is partisan.

In the meantime, the appropriation committee added 4 additional planes to the 4 new planes that the pentagon asked for with respect to government, not defense, use – 3 Gulfstreams and a 737. Reputedly, these additional planes would mostly be used by congresspersons themselves. It has caused enough controversy that it appears that the committee is now backing down. John Murtha (the king of earmarks, by the way) has said that if the Pentagon doesn’t want the extra planes (they didn’t ask for them) then they won’t appropriate them. Sounds like sour grapes to me. The days of senators and congressmen flying all over the world at public expense should be ended by greatly restricting it. I have trouble of seeing why congresspersons need to travel to war zones or disaster sites, where their visits are often more trouble than they are worth in terms of security, manpower and military personal. It’s just not necessary and we all know they really go abroad as a type of vacation or to make photo ops for themselves (and I’ll politely skip visiting their girlfriends).

Well, when we vote for people with R and D next to their names we get what we deserve – which brings me to my next topic.

You all get what you deserve

Any number of times during the past campaign I have said to friends and family on both sides - you will get what you deserve. What I meant by that is that their anger, name calling, unfair attacks, made up facts, attempts to intimidate and drown out the opposition, etc., all beget more of the same from the other side and we will continue in this partisan system where both sides idiotically think they will ultimately win and the other side will go away. It seems to me that most people believe that such behavior cannot be avoided, and that since the other side does it unilaterally with glee, the only thing to do is jump in and do the same.

It can be argued that it is just human nature to attack the other side and defend our own. Not only do these tactics not always prevail, but I don’t believe it is helpful to us in the long run. But, it is very ingrained in our system and changing it will be a long, long, uphill struggle. But, so was ending slavery and Jim Crow laws. So was giving rights to criminal defendants. But, culturally, in our country at least, even heated public political discussion rarely ends in violence. The angry town hall meetings congressmen are facing right now regarding health care are a good example. They are sometimes rowdy, and often impolite, but I haven’t seen much violence, although a few people have been carried out for disturbing the proceedings. In some other countries, these political fights routinely turn to violence. It gives me hope that we can someday turn the bumper sticker discussions, exaggerations and character assassination to actual valuable political discourse. Not too long ago Newt Gingrich and Charles Schumer debated each other on stage in New York City, sort of a short version of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was a good idea. It should happen a lot more.

It is unfortunate that most people’s beliefs do seem to be established by identification with political ideologies or parties, usually the one they were brought up with. It’s not that different than religion. They hear someone on their side say something and they are much more likely to agree with it or believe it. This is hardly news. Most of us know this in general, except who among us believe it applies to ourself in particular? A few MRI studies seem to support the common sense idea that political reactions are, at least at first, emotional, before there is an attempt to rationalize. However, if I believe that, and I do, I can’t also logically believe that I’m somehow exempted from it. All anyone can do, is try to challenge their own knee jerk reaction. One way I personally try and do this is by being a fence sitter – that is, by taking my time in making up my mind (ten years on the death penalty). Don’t think this is bragging. Many people find fence sitters of the worst sort. They do so because if people try and rationally think about issues, and try not to just be for one team, it makes a mockery of the partisans bias.

For example, a liberal recently told me that she didn’t think Sarah Palin was attractive at all. Okay, taste is individual, but we do have such a thing as consensus (although one recent study shows men have greater consensus than women when it comes to attractiveness). I haven’t seen any studies on the affect of political views on who we think is attractive, but want to bet that conservatives think she is better looking than liberals do. That’s a study I’d like to see. I’ve heard the same thing from conservatives about Nancy Pelosi – that’s she is ugly. Although Pelosi is much older than Palin, I find it hard to believe that if conservatives were not aware of who she is they would not find her attractive for her age. Ugly? Come on.

This is no different than when we played baseball as kids and somehow people on each team always saw the guy running to third as safe or out depending on which side they were on. Maybe there is something wrong with me, a symptom of existential alienation, but that always infuriated me. Of course, I quickly learned that the best way to get your own team mad at you was to agree with the other team about a call or rule. Bringing it back to politics, this is in turn analogous to the hatred conservatives have shown for Arlen Specter, who left their team for the Democrats for political reasons, and the hatred Democrats showed for Joe Lieberman who merely agreed with the other team on a few issues.

Sonya Sotomayor’s now famous wise Latina speech tried to make the point that our judgments are affected by our experiences in life and if we want to be as impartial as possible we need to recognize this and then try to weed out these unfair inputs as best we can. I do believe it is at least partially possible. One problem in achieving this goal is that most people don’t seem to believe they are biased in the first place, but that they are moderate and impartial, even if they always vote for one party or listen to one side. It may be impossible to self judge this attribute

One of the ways that partisanship manifests itself is in believing wild stories about the other side. Recently, I read a conservative blog post by Ann Coulter which listed crazy things liberals believed. I’m not going to copy her whole post but she included things like:

-O.J. is innocent;
-Sarah Palin's infant child, Trig, was actually the child of her daughter;
-Justice Antonin Scalia threw the 2000 election to Bush so that his son could get a legal job with the Labor Department;
-Duke lacrosse players gang-raped a stripper;
-Bill Clinton did not have sex with "that woman";
-Heterosexuals are just as likely to contract AIDS as gays;
-John Edwards didn't have an affair with Rielle Hunter;
-Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.
-Bush was holding Osama bin Laden and planned to release him just before the election.
-the World Trade Center was blown up with explosives, not taken down by terrorists in airplanes

She listed many others, some of which I thought were fair accusations as I do many of those listed above (although beliefs concerning OJ are more racial than political; I’ve never heard liberals deny the John Edwards affair and 9/11 conspiracy theorists come in all flavors). Being Ann Coulter, her glasses only allow her to see the world from one angle. I commented there substantially as follows in my usual long winded fashion:

Some liberals also believe that Bush was going to declare martial law and make McCain president, that Palin wants to punish women who claim to be rape victims and led cheers calling for Obama's death during the campaign. But conservatives are just as eager to believe nonsense:

-the birthers;
-Barack Obama is a Muslim;
-he ascribes to his former pastor's anti-American rantings;
-he is a Marxist (socialist leaning economic policies yes, but a Marxist?);
-when Obama gets elected whites will be forced to pay black's income tax;
-America is no longer a capitalist country (Glenn Beck recently);
-gays are trying to force heterosexuals to be gay (how?);
-immigrants don't have to pay taxes for seven years on businesses and then can switch them to their relatives so that they never have to pay them;
-99% of taxes are paid by the rich (although, of course, they do pay most of them);
-"marriage" is the only word ever that cannot change;
-the U.S. is a "Christian nation" (despite the first amendment);
-liberal politicians are more likely to cheat on their wives than conservative politicians (as recently as a few days ago)
-Japan is a civilized country because after WWII we forced them to be Christians (I've heard Ann say this herself);
-the ice caps are growing (forget whether global warming is real, the caps are shrinking);
-national security letters were necessary and never used irresponsibly;
-wiretaps were not abused during the Bush era (still believe that one, don't you? It’s quite possible it still is);
-no innocent man has ever been executed under the death penalty;
-all prisoners kept at Guantanamo Bay were terrorists (why did Bush release most then?);
-most blacks are on welfare;
-pro-choice supporters want to require abortions (so silly it hurts - you can find extremists on almost anything, but really?).

How many times do I have to tell you, partisanship makes everyone a little crazy. That's my point. I’m sure I will be saying it again. And again.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Dear Doctor Eisenberg

The other day I started reading some online advice columns. These have to be the biggest scams of all time. Thus, I’ve opened up a new website called AOO!O, pronounced just like its written, at www.AdviceOneOh!, where I give advice on various subjects ranging from teenage broken hearts to quantitative analysis, of which, thank SHAZAM, I know nothing. Google Reviews calls AOO!O “The most exciting new website since Google.” Bill Gates writes, “When I have a problem with my wife or kids, or am just trying to figure out a way to destroy my competitors, I go to AOO!O and get expert advice. So should you!”

I decided to give a sample of AOO!O so my massive blog audience can start joining in the fun.

Dear Doctor D,

I am a 13 year old young man from Newport, Rhode Island. My family is quite well off. I have everything you could ask for and then some. We often go away for the Summer season and when I come back, I feel quite distanced from my peer group with whom, to be frightfully frank, I have little in common. I am told that with my breeding I am quite a catch, but you would not believe the scallywags and riff raff that the women in my class go for. It's positively distracting. Please don't mock my request, as, to be honest, I am quite despondent. Any wisdom you can send my way would be duly appreciated

Many thanks,

Lost on the Gold Coast"

Seriously. High School girls don't like you? No friends? I'll bet your mother's friends just think you are peachy. Good God, man, I thought I was a loser in high school. You should have signed your name King of the Zeroes. Let me explain this in one word for you, you dithering cretinoid mass of teenage befuddlement.

Drugs! I never thought I'd recommend this to anyone, but if there is anyone drugs will help it is you. Not over the counter and not prescribed. Illegal drugs that will get you ten years for just possession. If anyone ever needed to completely destroy their own psyche, it is you. If you are in recovery you probably still won't have friends, but, at least people there will be people who have to say hi and listen to you.

As an alternative, go ask Jeeves to help you find a stool and some rope in the garage, throw the rope over a rafter and then chant as follows – No one likes me, No one likes me, No one likes me - until you get some results. If you can’t figure that out, at least don’t ever, ever, ever write here again. Ever!

Hope I helped,

The Doctor

. . . . . . . .

Dear David,

I don’t know where else to turn for help, you know. I am 17 year old and supposibly really hot looking, but comfoosed. Everyone says I look like a curvy Angelina Joley. Boys have started paying me a lots oftention this year ever since my body started, you know, changing, sum old guys too. I don’t think I should be doing anything, you know, with these guys, at least my parents wouldn’t want me to, you know. But, my body just wants to go, go, go. You know.

What should I do?

Young, tan, hot and bothered

Dear Hottie,

You poor thing. I don’t blame you for being confused? Your body is telling you one thing and your heart and mind another. You sound so sweet, intelligent and pretty too. Those bastards. I’m sure that these guys are not good enough for you. Stay away from them.

I shouldn’t do this, but, since you seem so nice, you deserve a break. I run a religious camp for troubled kids like you at my home. I want you to send me your email address and we can move things along from there. If you can get here, and I don’t mind helping with the money, I think I can help you to a path to God you are not going to forget.

Let’s keep this between ourselves. No reason to worry your parents and your friends will just be jealous if you tell them and try and talk you out of it. It will be our little secret, sweetheart. I know none of them understand you, but I do. You can call them from here after we get acquainted and you get straightened out if you want to.

Your bff,

Note to Webmaster from David – do me a favor; Don’t include this one in the post, but send it privately to her. Thanks.

. . . . . . . .

Dear Doctor David,

Maybe you can help with a research product we’ve been working at The Institute for Higher Biological Research. My co-workers and I are working on quantitative analysis of conformational changes of the nucleotide-binding subunits, MalK2, of the maltose ATP-binding cassette importer MalFGK2 during the transport cycle. Distance changes occurring between selected residues were monitored in the full transporter by site-directed spin-labeling electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy and site-directed chemical cross-linking. We aren’t sure where to go from there though? I don't know if you've worked on anything like this, but based on your website, I have a feeling you can help.


Yours reverently,

A group of geniuses

Dear geniuses,

Have you considered S83C and A85C from the conserved Q-loop and V117C located on the outer surface of MalK. Also, I’d suggest including two native cysteines (C350, C360) in the study. You will probably find on ATP binding, small rearrangements between the native sites, and will likely not detect distance changes between at position 117. In contrast, position 85 should come closer together in the ATP-bound state and in the vanadate-trapped intermediate and move back toward the apo-state after ATP hydrolysis.

Likely, your results will be consistent with a slightly modified tweezers-like model of closure and reopening of MalK2 during the catalytic cycle, and show a previously unforeseen potential interaction between MalK and the transmembrane subunit MalG.

Any more hints than that and I will have to insist my name goes on the paper. Next time give me a hard one.

Peace out, brother scientists.

. . . . . . . .

[Follow up from researchers]

Dear Professor Eisenberg,

Oh my, God. Thanks so much for your advice on our study. It worked out exactly like you said it would. How did you know? By the way, we’re not brother scientists. We are all women.


A group of lady geniuses

Dear Geniuses,

Yeah, right. And I lactate. Nice try, guys.

. . . . . . . .

Dear Dr. David,

I thought you might have some advice for me. I run what you might call a big company. Everyone I hire comes with a great reputation, went to Harvard or Yale, blah, blah, blah, but in the end, they are all screwing up one way or the other, particularly our financial planners. Two kids with a pitcher of lemonade have more sense. I consider myself more a motivator rather than a hand’s on kind of guy but I’m about to give up. Honestly, I’ve been saying dumb things myself lately. I'd quit, but my number two is three I.Q. points from being an idiot, but there is no practical way to get rid of him without a lot of trouble. What embarrasses me is, the more we screw up, the more we have to pretend we know what we are doing to maintain credibility.

Here’s my question. I’ve been thinking of going back to teaching, something I used to do back in the good old days. It’s less money, less “glory” (I guess), but no one’s really mad at you except for a few kids who get bad grades and you sleep a lot better. Any words of wisdom,

Yours truly,

Barack Obama

Honorable Sir,

Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, you have to be president, and you don’t know what you are doing, and I didn't vote for you, and everyone’s going to hate you, and you have to have lunch with Joe Biden, and you are probably going to screw up the wars, and the economy will fall apart, and every one is going to blame you, and you will never teach again, and hah, hah, hah, hah, hah.


p.s. Of course, once you are done you will earn millions of dollars writing an uninspiring book ("Biden excused himself and we all waited until the door was closed before cracking up so bad our sides ached") and making speeches, even just signing letters for big corporations. It’s not a bad life.

. . . . . . . .

Dear David,

I am 60 something government retiree, an "A" personality type, and now I’m feeling a lack of purpose. It’s depressing getting old. You’d think after giving my life to my country for 40 years you’d have some kind of respect but noooo, I’m so last year. And now, for crying out loud, a black guy is president - a black guy - and he gets more respect than me. I need some sage words or I swear I will put a gun to my head.


Dick Cheney

p.s. I am also a vampire.

Dear Dick,

You want more respect? Here’s a starter. Start calling yourself “Richard”. What do you expect people to think when they call you Dick? Can you name a real person named Dick who has been a success outside of a few comedians? Remember Nixon. He came in Richard and went out as Tricky Dick. See, what I mean.

As to the vampire thing, I had a feeling you might have been responsible for Harry Byrd’s condition. Very nice work, indeed.

But, given your astonishingly low favorability ratings I don’t really want to be known as the guy who kept you from putting the gun to your head, so keep this between the two of us.

Stay Strong, Dick.

. . . . . . . .

Dear AOO!O

Hi, I’m a musician in a rock n’ roll band along with my three best friends, Gina, Pam and Debbie. There’s no doubt that Debbie is the most talented one of us all. She’s the best looking, writes music, plays awesome guitar and can sing like Aguilar. The rest of us are okay, but we don’t expect to make a career out of it. We just want to have fun for a while and maybe make a little money in college.

I have a feeling that Debbie is going places in the entertainment world either as a singer, musician or model. I don’t want to feel jealous but I do. Also, she is my closest friend and I just know she might forget me when she makes it. We have just started getting gigs, but already I feel like this is going to tear the group apart.

Yours truly,

Jealous at 21

Dear Jealous,

I’m glad you wrote because the solution is easier than you think. The best way to lose Debbie as a friend is to let the green eyed monster drive you crazy watching her succeed in show biz while you work your way up to kiosk manager. Oh, she would try and be friends with you for a while, but soon it will be . . . “I didn’t think you’d feel comfortable around my big star buddies and didn’t want to embarrass you.”

So, let’s make sure that doesn’t happen. Face your feelings, think before you act and then, go out there and sabotage her. Insist on being lead singer. Just before a performance, weaken one of her guitar strings and then really lace into her after the performance. Get Pam and Gina into the action. During practice everyone agree that she is constantly off key. It’ll really screw her head up. Maybe pay someone to pretend to be a talent scout who wants to watch her and then have him leave shaking his head in the middle of the set without saying goodbye. If your band gets covered in the paper, bribe the reporter (trust me, they make almost nothing; lunch might do it) in order to make you sound like the star. Success often is dependent on confidence and I promise you, if you handle it right, you can destroy hers while you end up feeling like a million bucks. And that, my young friend, is show business.


The Doctor has left the building. Please write in with your advice requests.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Endlessly fascinating: The Civil War

I have three favorite wars which I find endlessly fascinating. The first really isn't one war; arguably its four - the two wars between Persia and Greece and the two Peloponesian Wars (sometimes considered one war), all of which were fought mostly in Greece in the 5th century B.C.; then WWII and the third, the War Between the States aka The Civil War. I admit that I sometimes feel a little guilt glorying in the carnage and horrors of others, but that is a pleasure I share with millions of others. War is hell, but it is also riveting reading.

For the Greek Wars, I think I have absorbed what is most valuable, Herodotus' coverage of the Persian Wars, Thucydides study of the Peloponesian, and several of the works of the modern scholar, Donald Kagan. There are other authors who I have proffited from immensely (particulary Michael Grant and Barry Strauss), but modern historians are mostly relegated to commentating on the ancient recorders and I find Kagan the best of the bunch.

For WWII, the reading is endless. Churchill's The Second World War I read when I boy as my parents had it in the house, and I recently re-read one volume and will probably re-read a second this year. Readers of this blog know I am enthralled with Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I am not a basher of the unfortunate David Irving and I believe a number of his books are excellent, including The Trail of the Fox (Rommell), Hitler's War and Churchill's War. Also, the German officer, Heinz Guderian's Panzer, the repentant Nazi, Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich, Spandau and Infiltration, Winterbotham's ground breaking The Ultra Secret, John Toland's The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, Nigel West's little but excellent A Thread of Deceit, all come to mind, but I must break off here with the traditional "too many others to mention," or this will be what the whole post is about. John Keegan wrote a whole little book just on WWII books he has read.

The Civil War is equally difficult to limit to a few books and I know I can't do it without waking up tonight in a start with a sudden memory of what I forgot to add, but, I loved the fictional Traveler, Harry Hansen's The Civil War and any book by Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, James McPherson and Douglas Freeman. And, I've already posted here on the wonderful memoirs of Edward Porter Alexander on May 15th of this year, the best, in my humble opinion, from the war. Henry Steele Commager's Living History, The Civil War is the veritable horn of abundance. Of course, all that leaves out books just on Lincoln alone, an even bigger group, but I've said before I probably enjoyed most The Library of America's Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, Ronald Whites' The Eloquent President, and Benjamin Thomas' and Steven B. Oates' biographies. Many think David Donalds' Lincoln the best, and it might be. There are many others, of course and I'm sure someone somewhere is screaming what about Doris Kearns Goodwin's popular Team of Rivals, which I thought was really good, but not among the best.

Sometimes, alone with my library (that must sound pathetic, but really I enjoy it), I saunter through one of the wars, lately the Civil War and just mark down stuff that is interesting to me. Recently, doing so I found a bunch of stickies and pieces of paper stuck inside some of these books and figure I probably put them there so that I could blog about it. As usual, I look for the unusual.

Here's the legendary Sam Houston, governor of Texas, only a few years a state, vainly and powerlessly protesting against Texas' secession and entry into the Confederacy:

Fellow-Citizen, I have refused to recognize this Convention. I believe that it has derived none of the powers which it has assumed either from the people or from the Legislature. I believe it guilty of an usurpation, which the people cannot suffer tamely and preserve their liberties. I am ready to lay down the office rather than yield to usurpation and degradation.

At the end, he wrote in capital letters, screaming out his warning. Sorry, Sam. On a cheerier note, here's a paragraph from the inspirational Second Inaugural Address:

But the picture has its lights as well as its shadows. This great strife has awakened in the people the highest emotions and qualities of the human soul. It is cultivating feeling of patriotism, virtue, and courage. Instances of self-sacrifice contending are rife throughout the land. Never has a people evinced a more determined spirit than that now animating men, women, and children in every part of our country. Upon the first call, the men fly to arms, and wives and mothers send their husbands and sons to battle without a murmur of regret.

Stirring, no? I may have neglected to mention that this was from Confederate President Jefferson Davis' Second Inaugural Address, not Lincoln's. Davis was appointed president in 1861 when there was no time for elections and then elected the next year. As for Lincoln, let's take a look at what the London Times thought about our hero in 1862:

We do not think that even now, when Mr. Lincoln plays his last card, it will prove to be a trump. Powerful maliginity is a dreadful reality, but impotent maliginity is apt to be a very contemptible spectacle. Here is a would be conqueror and a would-be extirpator who is not quite safe in his seat of gevernment, who is reduced to such straits that he accepts a defeat as a glorious escape, a capitulation of 8,000 men as an unimportant event, a drawn battle as a glorious victory, and the retreat of an invading army which retires laden with plunder and rich in stores as a deliverance. here is a President who has just, against his will, supplied antagonists with a hundred and twenty guns and millions of stores, and who is trembling for the very ground on which he stands. Yet, if we judged only by his pompous proclamations, we should believe that he had a garrison in every city of the South. This is more like a Chinaman beating his two swords together to frighten his enemy than like an earnest man pressing on his cause in steadfasteness and truth.

Well, much of that was hard to argue with, and then General Grant came East. And, in the end, Lincoln did at least indirectly free the slaves when the 13th amendment was ratified. I admit those racist bits ("the Chinaman") that sneak into the language of even heroic sounding writing in the 19th and 20th century cracks me up a bit. I can't copy the whole article here but its tone was anti-slavery but also anti-Northern and condemned the emancipation proclamation as an incitement to murder. It's okay, the Brits and we fell in love in time for the two big wars.

Here's Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg's Little Round Top skirmish, telling of a sad moment at Appomattox just as victory is in hand and a white flag has come in from the enemy with the messenge from Lee asking Grant to discuss surrender:

I was doubtful of my duty. The flag of truce was in, but I had no right to act upon it without orders. There was still some firing from various quarters, lulling a little where the white flag passed near. But I did not press things quite so hard. Just then a last cannon-shot from the edge of the town plunges through the breast of a gallant and dear young officer in my front line, -- Lieutenant Clark, of the 185th New York,--the last man killed in the Army of the Potomac, if not the last in the Appomattox lines. Not a strange thing for war,--this swift stroke of the mortal; but coming after the truce was in, it seemed a cruel fate for one so deserving to share his country's joy, and a sad peace offering for us all.

I hate it when that happens.

If ever there was a guy you love to hate on the side of the North, it was George B. McClellan, who was for too long Lincoln's General and possibly the most vain popinjay ever to wear stars, and that is saying a lot. The president's patience with him undoubtedly prolonged the war. Here is Lincoln's secretary of the navy, Gideon Welles, on McClellan:

McClellan is an intelligent engineer and officer, but not a commander to lead a great army in the field. To attack or advance with energy and power is not in him. to fight is not his forte. I sometimes fear his heart is not earnest in the cause yet I do not entertain the thought that he is unfaithful. The study of military operations intersts and amuses him. It flatters him to have on his staff French princes and men of wealth and postion; he likes show, parade, and power. Wishes to outgeneral the rebels, but not to kill and destroy them. In a conversation which I had with him in May last at Cumber-land on the Pamunkey, he said he desired of all things to capture Charleston; he would demolish and annihilate the city. He detested, he said, both South Carolina and Massachusetts, and should rejoice to see both States extinguished. Both were and always had been ultra and mischievous, and he could not tell which he hated most. These were the remarks fo the General-in-Chief at the head of our armies then in the field and when as large a proportion of his troops were from Massachusetts as from any State in the Union.

McClellan was extremely popular with the troops and blamed Lincoln for his problems. At Gettysburg, rumors of his appearence reportedly rallied the troops several times. But, Lincoln sacked him eventually, and replaced him with Fighting Joe Hooker. I like Bruce Catton's strange introduction to this charming character and probably above average general for the North, in his Glory Road:

Beyond any question, Joe Hooker was the handsomest commander the Army of the Potomac ever had. Crusty Publisher Alexander K. McClure grew fairly dreamy-eyed when he tried to describe him: "A man of unusually handsome face and elegant proportions, with a complexion as delicate and silken as a woman's." Major Dawes . . . spoke of Hooker's "Apollo-like presence," and a newspaper correspondent noted that the general had large gray-blue eyes, a rosy skin, and an abundance of blond hair, and said that he looked like an ideal soldier with his erect carriage and his square shoulders. To another correspondent Hooker looked "as rosy as the most healthy woman alive."

There are a million stories from the war. They are greater than any one man's ability to collect. Hence, we will never stop having volumes with new information. Here's a touching moment between Meade and Grant after the latter shows unusual anger hearing a subordinate berate Meade, this one from Catton's Pulitzer and National Book Award winning A Stillness at Appomattox:

For once in his life Meade was calm and not irascible. He stood facing Grant, towering head and sholders over him, and he murmured gently: his name's Griffin, not Gregg, and that's only his way of talking"; and as he spoke he leaned forward and buttoned up Grant's uniform coat for him, for all the world like a kindly father getting his son ready for school. Then Grant went back to his stump and his twigs and his cigars, and couriers dashed off with orders, and in the trackless forest the support troops shouldered their muskets and tried to go forward through the midday twilight.

Lincoln had as his two private secretaries (there was another one who is almost never mentioned in Civil War writings, but that's for another time) John Hay and John Nicolay, who were still young men. They sometimes seemed to me like they were having a great time even in the midst of the terrible pressure of working for Lincoln (whom they referred to as "the tycoon") during the war. Here's a letter from Hay, later the U.S. secretary of state, to Nicolay where the teasing reminds me of boys being boys wherever they are [brackets are mine]:

Glorious news come borne on every wind but the South Wind. While
P[ope] is crossing the turbid and broad torrent of the Mississippi in the blaze of the evening's fire and G[rant] is fighting the overwhelming legions
of B[eauregard] at Pittsburgh, the little Napoleon [McClellan] sits trembling
before the handful of men at Yorktown afraid either to fight or run. S[tanton][secretary of war] feels devilish about it. He would like to remove him if he thought it would do.

Things go on here about as usual. There is no fun at all. The Hell-cat [Mrs. Lincoln] is getting more Hell-cattical day by day.

Lamon has indicted Horace Greeley [powerful newspaper man not afraid to criticize Lincoln] criminally for libel and thinks of going to New York to bring him down to the jail here. He would not be persuaded by his best friends.

We have made Van Alen a Brig. Gen. The Senate, however, have not yet confirmed him. I am geting along pretty well. I only work about 20 hours a day. I do all of your work & half of my own now you are away.

Don't hurry yourself. We are getting on very well. I talk a little French, too, now. I have taken a devil of a notion to the Gerolts. I went to see them the other day. The children were less scared than usual and they and Madame la Baronne talked long and earnestly of the state of your hygiene and said, "it was good intentions you for to go to the West for small time."

The latest rumour in "our set" is that Mr. Hay and Miss Hooper are engaged, as Count Gurowski [Polish nobleman, writer and Lincoln critic] calls it. I wish I had that old nuisance's neck in a slip noose. I'm afraid the Hoopers will hear it and then my good times there will be up.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo, an economist who writes about Lincoln, is no fan of his. You do not need to agree with all of his conclusions to appreciate his work, as the field of Lincoln is one that is exceedingly hagiagraphic and needs sunlight. DiLorenzo points a torch where others would prefer dark. Here's a paragraph which points such a torch on General Sherman, whose march to the sea delighted many in the North, probably got Lincoln re-elected, and devastated the South:

Upon taking command in Tennessee, Sherman described the ultimate purpose in the war to his wife: "extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but of the people." His loving wife responded by expressing her sincerest wish that the war would be a war "of extermination and that all [Southerners] would be driven like the Swine into the sea. may we carry fire and sword into their states till not one habitation is left standing." "Sherman and his family," explains Sherman biographer John Marszalek, "saw everyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line as an implacable enemy."

There is always another side in any discussion of war. Harry Hansen, who wrote my favorite one volume history of the war, describes Sherman, replying to a plea from the mayor and councilmen of Atlanta not to make refugees of the remaining people, as follows:

Sherman was quick to defend his course. He deluged the mayor and councilmnen with a a flood of words about the war, the guilt of the South, and his determination to root out the enemy. Atlanta might again become a battleground, said he, so in asking the citizens to leave he was doing them a kindness. Hardships of war? "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it," said the general; "and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out." The Confederates had sent men and munitions to carry the war into Kentucky and Tennessee, and hundreds and thousands of women and children had fled from the Confederate armies and desperatdoes, "hungry and with bleeding feet."

Why not end this post with Lincoln himself, in one of my favorites among his letters, this one to his wife, mostly because it emphasizes just how different growing up then was from growing up now.

Think you better put "Tad's" pistol away. I had an ugly dream about him.

Tad was ten.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .