Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Great historical letters (just not the ones you are thinking about)

Email schmemail. I resisted it as long as I could. When I started teaching a class of 45-75 students it became the only rational way to communicate with them all in a rapid fashion, which has become what everyone expects these days. Of course, I got used to it and use it many times most days. And, like all digital devices, it has many advantages over old fashioned pen and paper or even typing on paper. But, it has some disadvantages too.

Two of them are important to the historian (and historians are important to me). One is authenticity. It is hard enough to identify a written document, which may be signed, and also has can be evaluated for handwriting not to mention forensic evaluation of the ink and paper. How do you do that with a digital letter, where the font can be changed as much as you like, and even the text altered? You can’t tell if the purported sender sent it even a few seconds after sent is hit.

Another problem is survivability. Email is so new, we don’t even know how long we can preserve it before it is is lost through the inevitable human errors and rapid changes in technology. You can’t dig a database out of cave in 2000 years. The nature of the digital world makes it highly unlikely those electrons and bits are going to be available in the same form in a couple of millennia, never mind 200 years. Perhaps there is a way to more permanently preserve certain documents, but who knows if the right things will be preserved. One of the things people like about technology is its disposability.

Historical letters, which have their own problems (like crumbling to dust or burning up, etc.) are wonderful to me. When I first started reading history as an adult, I tended to like history books that covered a subject the author had researched and didn’t really care where they got the information. Very quickly I began to get more interested in the original documentation and hankered for first hand material (I don’t mean the original docs in a museum, but republished as memoirs, letters or even just reprinted in the historian’s work).

Below are quotes from some of my favorite letters reprinted in volumes in my own library. As I often say, these might be a little more interesting than you might think:

This first one is my favorite two lines from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in one of their approximately 14 year correspondence after they patched up their differences in 1812, thanks to an intervention by their mutual friend, physician and politician Dr. Benjamin Rush. Both Adams and Jefferson understood well that they were writing to each other for the sake of posterity, but it seems here that Adams sort of forgot himself when he wrote and you can see him in all his nerdy glory:

“I cannot be serious! I am about to write you the most frivolous letter, you ever read.

Would you back to your cradle and live over again your 70 years?”

Doesn’t that strike you as a little strange from cantankerous, jealous and crotchety old Adams? Was life really so miserable? Sure, he didn’t have much fun in his presidency, to some extent thanks to the behind the scenes machinations of his less than loyal vice president, Jefferson, and the previous eight years of vice presidency to Washington was a waste of his skills. But, he still had quite the amazing career as a lawyer, a revolutionary and a diplomat, not to mention what seemed like long successful marriage. Not live it over again? Why not? Who gets to do what he did? Actually, after Jefferson wrote he would do so, Adams fell over himself to write – me too.

Here’s another strange one from a former president that tickled me a little:

“Dear Harry-

Good boy! Teacher says you have gained 2 pounds.

2 Lbs. = 2$

Keep on gaining and put the reward into your little Savings Bank. But you must not gain more than 50 lbs. because Popper has not got more than 50$”

That was a letter from FDR to his great friend and counselor, Harry Hopkins, while Hopkins was wasting away with one of his many illnesses not too long before WWII broke out in Europe. The baby talk in FDR’s letters brings to mind a Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers, where Groucho (if this name is meaningless to you, please rent one of their movies) says to the zaftig Margaret Dumont, who won’t stop speaking in an annoyingly cloying and babyish voice, “If icky girl keep on talking that way, big stwong man's gonna kick all of her teef wight down her fwoat. “

Here a longer letter about the powerful forces of nature that will remind us that Mother Nature has always roared whenever she liked:

“It began at dusk, at North, and raged very violently ‘till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting ‘round of the southwest. . . it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ‘till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! What horror and destruction. It’s impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear piercing shrieks of the distressed were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.

A great part of the buildings throughout the island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered, several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined, whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of the water and air without a bed to lie upon or a dry covering to their bodies and our harbors entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country. . . ."

That’s from Alexander Hamilton, either 15 or 17, depending who you believe, writing about the hurricane on St. Croix in 1772, published in a paper by his mentor, Hugh Knox. Hamilton was a brilliant prodigy, however old he might have been, and was a prolific and exacting, but not a great writer. His most celebrated line, written while still a young man, about the rights of mankind – “They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself” was really eloquence lifted by him from Knox, who had earlier written “Our duty is written, as it were, with sun beams”. Who knows if Knox got it elsewhere himself? Not me.

I like this one from William Rockhill, the diplomat who was the “author” of the Open Door Policy for China, to the wife of Henry Cabot Lodge:

"From Taku to Peking the whole country is in a beautiful state of anarchy thanks to the presence of foreign troops sent there to restore order. The “disciplined” armies of Europe” are everywhere conducting operations much as the Mongols must have done in the 13th century. Hardly a house remains from the seacoast to Peking which has not been looted of every moveable object it contained, and in half the cases the houses have been burned. Peking has been pillaged in the most approved manner, and from the General down to the lowest camp follower, from the Ministers of the Powers to the last attaché, from the Bishops to the smallest missionary everyone has stolen, sacked, pillaged, blackmailed and generally disgraced themselves—and it is still going on. Yesterday my wife and I walked to the Observatory on the wall, the magnificent bronze instruments, some dating probably from the 13th century, were being taken to pieces by French and German soldiers to be sent to Paris and Berlin. These instruments had been left, unharmed, untouched for seven centuries, but they could not escape the civilized westerners—French and German could bury the hatchet for once and rob in the most fraternal manner. Though General Chaffee has done and is doing all in his power to keep our good name clean, and our soldiers are said by the Chinese to be the best disciplined, still our men have committed many excesses—we are in such bad company. The other day I was telling Chaffee of the wounding of one of our men—probably by some other foreigner. He replied “I can take but little interest in the wounding of our men, when there are so many who should be shot.”

Here’s a grateful letter from an aspiring young artist:

“Herewith, esteemed and gracious lady, I wish to express my sincerest gratitude for your efforts in obtaining access for me to the great master of stage decoration, Prof Roller. It was no doubt somewhat overbold of me, Madam, to make such excessive demands upon your kindness, since you after all had to act in behalf of a perfect stranger. All the more, therefore, must I ask you to accept my sincerest thanks for your undertakings, which were accompanied by such success, as well as for the card which you so kindly placed at my disposal. I shall at once make use of this fortunate opportunity. Once again my deepest gratitude. I respectfully, kiss your hand.”

I love quoting Hitler, mostly for the shock value. Here’s one more right after an assassination attempt in ’44 to his future bride, Eva Braun:

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine though perhaps a little tired. I hope to come home soon and then I can rest in your arms. I have a great longing for rest, but m duty to the German people comes before everything else. Don’t forget that the dangers I encounter don’t compare with those of our soldiers at the Front. I thank you for the proof of your affection and ask you also to thank your esteemed father and your most gracious mother for their greetings and good wishes. I am very proud of the honor—please tell them that—to possess the love of a girl who comes from such a distinguished family. I have sent to you the uniform I was wearing during the unfortunate day. It is proof that Providence has protected me and that we have nothing more to fear from our enemies.”

She wrote back too:

“I am beside myself. I am dying of anxiety now that I know you are in danger. Come back as soon as possible. I feel as if I am going insane.

The weather is beautiful here and everything seems so peaceful that I am almost ashamed of myself . . . You know I have always told you that I would die if anything happened to you. From our first meeting on, I have promised myself to follow you wherever you go, even to death. You know that I live only for your love.”

Awww. Wait, it's Hitler. Weird isn’t it? Sounds like two crazy kids in love if you can remove the monster image from your head for a few seconds. But, even monsters are human in some ways and I think it is important for us to understand it, as tyrants rarely come in the guise of a Grendel, but more often as a Siegfried or strong man and savior.

And, if we are going to cover Hitler in love, why not Winnie too. In 1936 while he struggled in Parliament, his wife, Clementine, already in her 50s, went on a long trip without him. She wrote him a letter from the South Pacific thanking him for the things he brought to her life and he replied, if not so ringing as he would summon to rouse the country and much of the free world a few years later, but with passion still. He acknowledged her:

“. . . words vy dear to me about my having enriched yr life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in yr debt, if there can be accounts in love. It was sweet of you to write this to me, & I hope & pray I shall be able to make you happy & secure during my remaining years, and cherish you my darling one as you deserve, & leave you in comfort when my race is run. What it has been to me to live all these years in yr heart & companionship no phrases can convey. Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms & stresses of so many eventful & to millions tragic & terrible years?”

It is a bittersweet message not just in words, but because we know that during that long trip, the younger Clemmie had an affair with a younger man, who she remembered until the end as making her feel like Cinderella for three short months.

Here is a most bizarre letter from the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II of Austria, brother of Marie Antoinette who lost her head in France during their revolution. Joseph wrote a letter in 1777 to his brother Leopold, the Archduke of Tuscany, after a visit with Louis XVI and Marie, where he speaks a bit about his brother-in-law. You will see why it is one of my favorites:

“He is a little weak but not an imbecile; he has definite ideas and sound judgment, but in body and spirit he is apathetic. He talks sensibly but has no taste for learning, no curiosity. In short the fiat lux has not occurred, matter is still shapeless.”

Okay, could be someone describing George W. Bush, and he is a little hard on Louis. Fiat lux is Latin for “Let there be light,” but I really don’t know to what he is referring. Yet, it is the next bit that cracks me up and I can only attribute it to the royal mania for producing heirs:

“In the conjugal bed, here is the secret. He has excellent erections, inserts his organ, remains there without stirring for perhaps two minutes, then withdraws without ever discharging and, still erect, he bids his wife goodnight. It is incomprehensible, all the more so since he sometimes has wet dreams. He is quite satisfied and frankly admits he only performs the act from duty alone and takes no pleasure in it. Ah, if only I could have been there once, I should have put things right. He ought to be whipped, to make him ejaculate, as one whips donkeys. As for my sister, she is not amorously inclined and together they are a couple of awkward suffers.”

You really have to wonder if they told him this or if he made it up. Sounds like the former, but we can’t be sure. “If only I could have been there once . . . .” Wow. Ironically, he never had a child himself.

Speaking of Frenchmen, here is a paragraph from a letter of Louis Marie Turreau, the French ambassador America, to Talleyrand, the French foreign minister in 1805, which is really quite insightful:

“They especially lack trained officers. The Americans are to-day the boldest and the most ignorant navigators in the universe. In brief, it seems to me that, considering the weakness of the military constitution, the federal government, which makes no concealment of this weakness, will avoid every serious difference which might lead to aggression, and will constantly show itself an enemy to war. But does the system of encroachment which prevails here agree with a temper so pacific? Certainly not, at first sight; and yet unless circumstances change, the United States will succeed in reconciling the contradiction. To conquer without war is the first fact in their politics.”

That was, in fact, Jefferson’s plan. You can judge for yourself whether it was successful, but I believe it led in part to the War of 1812, which we declared, having too long been bullied by Britain and France. Not that the war really got us anywhere with Britain, but the Battle of New Orleans after the settlement made us feel victorious (my own ancestors being serfs in Russia and Hungary, and not really having a dog in the fight) and made the chastised Madison a sudden hero.

A little change of pace. During WWII a sergeant wrote a letter to the publisher of the Wonder Woman comic, addressing it to Charles Moulton, who was supposedly the creator:

“I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl chained or bound. I hope you’ll forgive my apparently very poor manners, but the subject is a vital one to me, and you can always tear up your fan mail and throw it away if you want to. Have you the same interest in bonds and fetters that I have?”

It was a good question. William Marston, the actual creator (and who arguably also invented the lie detector) was obsessed with bondage and submission himself, although seemingly as much with men being being dominated by women as visa versa. His publisher, William Gaines sent him the letter with the admonition, “This is one of the things I’ve been afraid of, (without quite being able to put my finger on it) in my discussions with you regarding Miss Frank’s suggestions to eliminate chains." Marston, a psychologist, was not impressed by the letter and had no patience for Miss Josette Franks, who he had already written Gaines was “an avowed enemy of the Wonder Woman strip”. He wrote back:

“I have the good sergeant’s letter in which he expresses his enthusiasm over chains for women—so what? Some day I’ll make you a list of all the items about women that different people have been known to get passionate over. You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touch of many readers’ erotic fantasies.”

Did he say “a real woman?” Was Wonder Woman real back then? That explains a lot.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Smartest man in the world

I was talking to my older brother today and I told a couple of stories which don’t make me look so bright. I’ve already written about some of the most embarrassing things that happened to me in my youth, but today I think will cover some of the knucklehead things I have done.

Regrettably, there are too many to put down in one post, so I won’t try to be comprehensive. I won’t include the ones that I already wrote about in my post on embarrassing moments in my early life (10/24/08) or the post on my painful if humorous first trip to Europe (11/18/10). It's possible there are stories I repeat because I just forget I told them another time, but I don't think so. I’ll try and do these roughly chronologically:

I was a little kid. I was walking home from school (obviously, this was a long time ago, as who walks home from school anymore) when someone dared me to eat fertilizer. I knew it couldn’t be good for you, but then again, they did put it on the grass and it didn’t hurt that, and, it was a dare – so, yup. Did that ever burn going down. Somehow, I didn’t die. And, yes, I do now know what it was made from. Don’t remind me.


I’m in the fourth or fifth grade. We are working away with some of the chemicals. In this case, it was acid. I have a bad habit of putting pens and pencils in my mouth. So, two kids wait until I leave for a minute or so, and they dip my pencil eraser in acid. I come back, sit down, and plop my pencil into my mouth. Immediately, I know we got a problem. I race to the sink and put my head upside down and drink a lot of water. Now, how would I know there was acid on the eraser, right? That’s really not my mistake. But . . . I come back when I’m done drinking (and, remember, this was a long time ago – I wasn’t mad at them and they didn’t get in trouble) and I sit down. And, I plop that pencil right back in my mouth. “AAAAhhhhh.” Even I thought it was funny.

But, stupid.

I was a slightly older little kid. I got a chemistry set as a present. Back in the good old days, they would give little kids chemistry sets will very dangerous materials in them. Some of the items in it were little strips of magnesium. I don’t know if you are familiar with magnesium, but – (I don’t like to swear in my blog, but there is no other way to explain this accurately, so I will make a rare exception) – if you light it, it burns like a motherf*cker. So, naturally, that’s precisely what I did. I lit it. And, it started burning like a motherf*cker. We had a very long white kitchen table at the time. Until my father sold the house some decades later, that kitchen table had a deep brown burn in it from my chemistry set.


Maybe I was a kid, maybe a teenager when this happened. I was bouncing a ball against my house and catching the rebound. That is, until I threw it through my bedroom window. Same week, I’m playing in the street and throw a rock up into the air. I get a bad feeling and say, “Uh oh.” Crash, right through my mother’s car windshield. Same week, another window. I really don’t remember how I did that one, but 3 in a week I remember.


I was a teenager. I had a Sting-Ray bike. It’s hard to describe it to people who never saw one, but it was very popular in the 60s and 70s. It was small with very wide spread handle bars (“ape hanger”), almost like if you could take a gazelle’s horns and spread them out, and a long seat (“banana”), probably 3 times longer than most bikes. Some of them had a very tall backrest behind the seat (“sissy bar”), but mine didn’t. I was riding home from the stores about ¾ of a mile from my house and I was reading a comic book. Unfortunately, a parked car must have leaped into my path because I smashed into it and I ended up writhing in agony of the trunk. I jumped off and started hopping around in pain, sure I had broken my leg. After a while I realized, I couldn’t be using my leg if I had broken it.


I was a teenager playing football in the street in front of my house (when I was a kid you played in the street. It must have happened but I never heard of a kid doing so who got run over). Anyway, I ran out for a pass and was in a classic wide receiver pose looking over my shoulder as I simultaneously caught the ball and ran into the back of my car. Boii-iinnnngg. Do you notice a pattern here? In all seriousness, I was unable to run looking over my shoulder for a few decades (of course, once in my 20s, there were fewer and fewer needs to do so). It hurt a lot, but I really don’t remember where. I think my sternum or chest. I know it hurt though.


I was a teenager in the 15th or 16th summer of my life. I was walking to my friend’s house – anyone who reads this blog knows him as Bear. He lived a half mile to mile away from me, I guess. Anyway, when I got to his house, his mother looked at me and said, “Where’s your shirt?” I looked down and said, “I don’t know.” They both found that very funny for some reason. I walked back to my house and found it on the ground. I really can’t explain it, but . . .


When I was in my late teens, my friends and I would go to the beach. Sometimes the surf at Jones Beach could be quite rough. We did the usual body surfing, and then one day we decided, instead of going with the waves, why not let the waves smack flat into our faces. So, we did that for many hours. When a wave broke on you, you did not just glide into the shore. You got smashed, ripped and tumbled about like a strand of spaghetti in a washing machine. Looking back, it is hard to believe we not only did it, but really enjoyed it.

Morons (at least I have company for that one).

When I was in my late teens my friends and I took a bike ride to Teddy Roosevelt’s house in Oyster Bay, Long Island. There are very big hills, so steep you can ride as fast as the cars. We were riding down one hill and I was flying at probably 35 miles an hour. I had a long bicycle lock, a long metal cord with hard metal ends wrapped around the post under my seat. Apparently, I didn’t have it wrapped tight enough. The lock part, pulled by gravity, got jammed in my rear brakes. My bike stopped on a dime and I, traveling faster than I could possibly react, went rear tire over the front. I was sent tumbling down this hill, on concrete, wearing shorts and t-shirt. When I got up, amazed to be alive, I estimated I traveled about 100 feet. More amazing, I did not have a scratch on me and my bike was fine too. Still . . .


I was just 17 and drove up to my first girlfriend’s house in my car. My friend Cliff was in the passenger seat. She was in her driveway doing something with her father, who I had never met. I think I was nervous, but I really don’t remember. I hadn’t been driving long either. Anyway, I got out of the car and started to walk up to them. It probably would have helped if I had put the car in park though. It started to drive away. Probably lucky that my friend was in the car, and he stretched out his leg (fortunately long) and stepped on the brake. Can you imagine what her father must have thought?


I was around 18 years old and was out for dinner at Red Lobster with my fiancée (same girl – that’s now a very old story) and two friends. I think I know who the friends were, but I haven’t seen them in over 30 years and am not sure. Anyway, we were having a salad before the entrée. There was a cherry tomato in my salad. I’m not really a tomato guy, but I like cherry tomatoes. I estimate that it was maybe a little less than an inch in diameter. An evil demon possessed me and I decided to see if I could swallow it whole. That’s still a good question. Now, keep in mind, that I learned in my 49th year from an otolaryngologist, that I had an absurdly small opening in my throat to breath and eat through until I had surgery that year. I can’t tell you how much that affected my life, looking back, but, for now, let’s just say it doesn’t help you swallow cherry tomatoes. So, while my fiancée and our friends chatted away, I very calmly sat there trying to breathe through my nose (also, virtually an impossibility for me before surgery) and to not die. I started drinking some water and all of a sudden I was at a crisis point, unable to breathe in any way. And then it slid down. I lived, but . . .


I was with my fiancée in the town pool. There were a million people around. She told me that her brother had once done ten somersaults Naturally, I needed to do eleven. So, I did. And, when I was done, I found I was so dizzy that I couldn’t find the top. Not surprisingly, I was almost out of oxygen. I am actually usually pretty good in a crisis. I decided that if I just relaxed, I would float to the top. So, I did. And, sure enough, my head hit the top. I snarled at my fiancée, who was standing next to me, “What were you waiting for? I almost drowned.” She said she saw me thrashing around but assumed I was trying to do one more. Actually, that made sense. I was mad anyway. Still, I have to admit . . .

pretty stupid.

I was married now, 19 years old. My wife and I moved into a railroad flat. It had a stove. The stove was gas. See where this is going yet? Neither of us knew how to turn it on. So, being educated people, we recognized that if we twisted this knob on top, gas would come out the little hole in the front of the stove. But, now what? We knew you had to light it, but when? I said, “I think we have to let the gas build up a bit.” Doesn’t that sound like something Laurel would say to Hardy? So, I let it build up a while and then I lit the match – and blew myself backwards across the room maybe 6-8 feet until I was stopped by the wall. But, I know you think that’s the funny part, but it’s not. I got up, of course uninjured, if a little chastened, and said, “It probably hasn’t been lit in a while. Let’s try again. So, we did. Same result, although this time we decided we should call her mother, who very wisely said, “You two really shouldn’t be allowed to live alone.” True, and she could have added . . .


My wife was working one day and I was home. She called up and said, “Can you put some Beef-a-Roni on for me?” I said, “You know I don’t know how to cook. You have to tell me exactly what to do.” So, she did. And, when she came home I was proudly standing in front of the stove looking at a can of Beef-a-Roni boiling in a pot of water. She said, “What are you doing?” I said, “You told me to put a can of Beef-a-Roni in a pot and boil it. So, that’s what I’m doing.” You see, apparently, what I was supposed to do, was open the can and pour the food into the pot. How was I supposed to know that? I know, I know.


The marriage is over and I am helping my soon to be ex-wife move into a house with a friend of ours (I thought that was pretty nice of me, but years later she told me she hated me then – no particular reason, but she did). We all help clean the house. I was upstairs cleaning a window. I did a really, really good job. Just as I finished, her new roommate’s sister came up the front walk. She was carrying McDonald’s for everyone. I get a little excited by McDonald’s food. Maybe a little too excited. I leaned out the window to make some comment. Unfortunately, I forgot to open the window first. It was so clean, I just didn’t see it. On the other hand, I had finished, so . . .


I’m in my young 20s. It is around Christmas. I am at Bear’s house when he opens a present from our friend Cliff. It is a pair of underwear. He looks at his mother and says, “How come there’s no opening in the front?” I look at them both and say, “Opening? Why would there be an opening?” They laughed for a long time. You see, I always thought that thingee in the front of underwear was ornamental. Bear and Mother Bear found it very funny though. I called my older brother and told him the story. He said not to feel bad. He only learned in his late 20s too. Maybe something to do with our child raising. But, that might be an excuse. Perhaps it is better just to say . . .


I was at my first job as a lawyer. I left for work at about 8:30, got breakfast and drove to work. I walked in smiling. My boss looked at me and said, “Do you have something you want to tell us?” I looked at him, and the staff, and said, “I guess I’m a little surprised you are all here already. Usually I’m the first one.” It was 11 0’clock. I was baffled. All I could think was alien abduction, but it was the middle of suburbia in broad daylight and I don’t even believe in flying saucers. I was never able to explain that. I went home and checked my clocks. They had the right time. The only possible explanation was . . .

you know, I really can't even say what any explanation is for that one.

Same job. I go to work one day, and, unlike the other day, am on time. I am in my office speaking to the secretary who is in the room just outside it. My boss comes in and joins the conversation. He’s looking at me kind of funny. Finally, he literally takes me by the hand and calling the secretary to follow, brings me into the main room where the secretaries work. He said, “Look at this,” and lifted my pants legs. No socks. I say, “Wait a minute, I thought my pants felt funny,” and reached into my pocket from which I pulled a rolled up pair of socks. Many years later when my boss was a judge I went to visit him. He told his secretary the story. He never forgot either. I really can’t explain how that happened either. I guess I just forgot to put them on, but why did I put them in my pocket? Oh, I know.


I am in my 30s. I am home and hungry. I want spaghetti. I have no sauce though. I see a jar of hot sauce I had bought in Arizona a year or so ago. I forget the brand, but if I said "Volcano sauce," you get the picture. I figured, if I take the hot sauce, and I mix it with ranch dressing, not only would the texture be right, but it would be the right color, and, of course, taste just like spaghetti sauce. Uhh huh. So, I mixed it together and sat down to eat. One bite told me it was just awful. So, disappointed, I threw it in the garbage. At that moment, my daughter called and asked me for a ride. I said, "sure," and went downstairs to the car. I put the key in the ignition and turned it on. At this point, you must picture a cartoon of me sitting in the car and white steam pouring out of my ears and my eyes bulging out with sirens going off as the ranch dressing coating war off the Volcano Sauce. I ran upstairs fast as I could and tried to drown myself in the kitchen sink.


I am in my mid to late 40s and am about to put on the market a house I had owned for about 9 years. I had some work done on it and was slowly trying to clean some of the neglected areas. Over the course of several days, I tried to scrape off and wash my extremely filthy stove. At some point, I forget why – it may have been part of the cleaning process – I put the stove on. Some of the – I’m going to call it sludge – on the bottom, caught fire. I probably should have just shut the door. Instead, I got some water and threw it on the fire. Doesn’t that make sense? Fire . . . water . . . no problem. It went according to plan for a tenth of a second, until the water and the sludge hit the back wall of the oven, bounced off, and the fire came roaring up out of the stove and hit my extremely flammable drop ceiling. I quickly said to my insignificant other, “Call 911.” I guess she was going to call from outside because less than a second later I heard a door slam as she ran out of the house. However, because I have an astonishing number of lives, the fire immediately went out, without setting the ceiling on fire. Yet, I think you might possibly call that . . .


I could probably do this all night, but, I think that’s enough for now. Is it really stupid or just absent-minded, unobservant and with a slightly different outlook on life. Okay, you are thinking stupid. Maybe. Hope you enjoyed. If you want to add your own (I can’t be the only one), feel free.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Political update for June, 2011

The Republican battle royale

It happened. I really don’t like to watch any of the cable news channels anymore (I have never been able to watch network news), pretty much stopping after the ’08 elections excepting for something like 10-20 minutes or so a week I sometimes give to Morning Joe. That's not including C-Span, which I sometimes have on all day – but the three channels are a national treasure and not really news channels. The bias and repetition just got to be too much. But, I knew someday I would be back watching when I started paying more attention to the ’12 election. I lasted until May 31st this year. That’s about 8 months longer than last time around when I started paying attention over 2 years before the election. What did I learn watching the last few days? Nothing. Rarely do. I’m just a bit of a junkie. I want to stop. I just can’t.

Let’s see how I’m doing on predictions on the Republican contenders. Last month, I made the following predictions. I’ll make the ones I was right about blue, where I was wrong red, and where you can’t tell yet or they were out before I started playing, purple.

Christie - He said no emphatically, and efforts to draft him will fail.
Barbour – He already said he was out, which shows he is smarter than some others.
Huntsman – Give me a break. I've never heard one regular person mention his name, and he is probably too liberal to win a single state in a Republican primary or caucus right now. He does not make it to Iowa.
Gary Johnson - Give me another break.
Roehmer – Same as Huntsman and Johnson. I’d love to see a poll of how many people have even heard of him.
Huckabee – No. His life is too good on Fox.
Trump – No. Although it really would make things so pro-wrestlingish and fun if he did.
Gingrich – No. Because he is smart.
Palin – No. The grown ups in the party realized it would be a mistake and I think she did too.
Daniels – Small possibility. He has given some indications he will not run, and I don’t think he will, but I would personally welcome it. He might be the only one who would run that I could feel good about, although, as I’ve learned, eventually everyone discourages me. There have been a few news stories about him lately suggesting that Barbour leaving the field has encouraged him, but these stories seemed based on speculation to me.
Cain – Possibility. Probably greater than 50%. He is my dark horse surprise.
Paul – Another possibility. I'd say 50-50. He also might do better than expected if he goes in it.
Santorum – Very small possibility. I’m leaning no as I think he will garner virtually no support and wrap it up before the primaries.
Pawlenty – A strong possibility but he would not last past Iowa, if he gets that far. Why do I feel a little sorry for this guy? Maybe it’s because he seems to want it so much.
Bachmann – Possible. I’m leaning no. She would not get past New Hampshire.
Romney – Yes. Of course he is going to run. He’s never really stopped. In fact, since my first draft, he has actually quietly announced. Despite sometimes getting outpolled, I believe he is the acknowledged front runner or guy to beat.

So, not bad. Just one wrong. And was Gingrich really my mistake? Isn't it his? Based on how poorly he is doing so far, even in conservative circles, he really should have listened to me.

I think I’ll give myself a little extra credit for my comment on Cain, who is starting to get more noticed by the press. I’m telling you – if everyone else would get out of the way, he would out charm, out smart and out talk Romney in an Atlanta, Georgia minute. Possibly Obama too. But, all that is well against the odds. Still, he is a real dark horse. Watch him.

Trump and Huckabee were easy picks, except for all the pundits out there who are paid to do this, but who sometimes know next to nothing. Trump is a glorified joke who made a fool out of himself and the birthers with independents and made Obama look better to everyone but conservatives. I have felt strongly that Palin wouldn’t run for a long time too but we will have to wait a little bit longer for her to announce that she isn’t going to. I’ll really be surprised if she does, more so than with Gingrich. Earlier this week when she was asked if she was getting in, she answered that she had to think about it because it is “all so consuming.” Those are not the words of someone who is going to run.

Daniels I said had a small possibility, but that I thought more likely would not run. I’m sorry I was right as I think he had a really good shot with independents, and therefore of winning a general election if he could win the harder constest of getting nominated. Romney was also easy because he has never really stopped running for ’12 since he dropped out of ‘08. Pawlenty I thought a strong possibility and he went in too. He wants to be president even more than Romney, I think, but has little chance. He is a Republican Mike Dukakis.  Still too early to say about Bachmann, Santorum and Paul, except that once in, they will not do well.  Johnson, Roehmer and Huntsman are not really important, but if they do run it won’t last long.

But - I have decided, now that Daniels is out and we know Christie isn’t going to run, that Gary Johnson, who has a slightly better chance of getting nominated than I do, gets my endorsement for the Republican nomination, subject to change at the drop of a hat. You never find a candidate who is perfect for you, but Johnson is basically a libertarian, which is the closest I can get to some recognizable description of myself (although I doubt many Libertarian parties would think so). He tends to have some Republican or conservative ideas I like and doesn’t have some of those I don’t. He is anti-spending, small government and pro-states’ rights. I’m good with that. If you care, he is pro-choice, but like most Americans, he is against late term abortions. Regardless, being pro-choice and his pro-immigration stance basically rules him out for most Republicans, if they even know who he is. I don’t generally vote on someone’s abortion position, given how nuanced my own is, but I differ with him on immigration, as far as I can tell so far.

I also like the fact that he may be the only one of the Republicans who actually understands that the whole Shariah scare is pure hysteria and not the least threat in America. It appears he is for gay marriage and gays serving in the military, and I’m good with that too. Some say he is an atheist, but it looks to me that all he has said is that he doesn’t go to church and that you would not likely hear him invoking God’s name. I don’t care how religious a president is (or not), but it is important to me that he/she doesn’t entangle it with government. But, most of these positions except the first three (small government stuff) damn him for the right wing. Some of Johnson’s really libertarian positions, like decriminalizing pot (which I agree with) also won’t sell well with the “base”.

If he runs as an independent, I would probably vote for him, provided that I don’t find out anything that really upsets me.


Does it seem like Israel has been in the news an awful lot lately? First, in case you don’t know my general position, I have it down to a science: I support Israel because it is pro-U.S. and enjoys enlightenment values far beyond any of its neighbors, stretching quite a ways in many directions. It is surrounded by enemies, particularly to its north in Syria and Lebanon, but also to its west in Hamas. Jordan is probably safe for now, but Egypt is a puzzle box at this time and we just can’t know where it will be even tomorrow (although I do not have a great feeling about it). Regardless of Israel’s overwhelming power compared to its neighbors, it is such a small country that it needs a political settlement sooner than later. Just Hizbollah alone may soon have enough dumb missiles that a even pyrrhic victory by Israel might be a fatal blow to it. If Hizbollah (which really controls Lebanon now) ever can make their dumb bombs smart, it might either be the end for Israel or provoke her to use nuclear weapons, which would be a disaster all around.

In my humble opinion, it would benefit Israel immensely in terms of the spirit of its citizen soldiers and international support (which is important whatever some think, or why would Israel care?) if it would voluntarily end its settlements in the West Bank and get ahead of the curve and recognize it as an independent country with some unsettled boundaries. Some see that as appeasement and others as giving up Israel’s lands. I say no to both of those ideas. Jerusalem, of course, presents a more difficult problem, but I think Israel has done just fine with Tel Aviv as its capital and Jerusalem may do best as some type of open city even if nominally under Israeli security or even U.N. control. I would have preferred a three state solution, something almost no one else thought a good idea, but, now that the PLO and Hamas have made amends, it is hard to criticize Israel for standing on its principles and rejecting negotiation with a government that includes Hamas (although many Israelis and Jews around the world want Israel to do just that. Me too. But, that’s one more reason Israel should act unilaterally.

Last week, President Obama definitely had a bad week when it comes to Israel. He went out on a limb and suggested that Israel return to its ’67 borders with land swaps. This actually doesn’t sound all that different than the agreement that almost was before Netanyahu came in to power – between Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert. They had even resolved the right of return problem, with only a couple of thousand symbolic returnees, but, it appears did not dot the i’s and cross the t’s and even before elected, Netanyahu said he would not honor any agreement.

Although criticism by one’s ideological and political opponents is usually the loudest, it really is not of great moment. Whatever Barack Obama said or did, Rush Limbaugh would have criticized, just as George Bush could not buy a fair deal from the left, even when some typical liberal policies became his own. The same goes for one’s diehard supporters or ideological bunkmates. It really doesn’t matter so much what they think. Partisans, by having knee jerk negative reactions, marginalize themselves, just as they do when voting so predictably for president. The only criticism that really matters is that from one’s own side and from independents matters, because if any president loses his own side’s general support or a substantial majority of independents - he is finished. Israel is an interesting issue in terms of ideological support though, because it doesn’t follow the usual rules. Although the right is louder in its support for Israel, except for a fringe element, the left generally supports Israel too, except for its own fringe element.

Netanyahu was cheered by both sides more than anyone cheered for Obama when he made his speech. That must have rankled a bit. Ironically, Obama’s attitude with respect to Israel is basically Reaganesqe (please revive yourself, if stunned) and Reagan was considered a great friend of Israel (and, overall, he was). But, there is a great difference between the legendary Reagan and the real one.

In 1981, Israel targeted and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear plant. Nowadays, this is generally seen as a great and courageous achievement after Saddam became our sworn enemy.  But, it wasn’t always so. The U.N. security counsel voted to condemn Israel for its act and it passed, 15-0.

15-0? How’s that possible? The U.S. is on the security counsel and with Ronald Reagan president then . . . ? That’s right, sport’s fans, Ronald Reagan had us vote to condemn Israel. Condemn them. C-o-n-d-e-m-n. Reagan did. R-e-a-g-a-n.

Can you imagine what conservatives who worship Reagan would say today about President Obama if we voted to condemn Israel for doing something like bombing Iran? They’d say it is proof he was a Muslim, or at best a Muslim supporter at the expense of America. You doubt this?

But, maybe you’d say – okay, so one time Reagan condemned them, but otherwise he was lockstep with Israel. Like when Israel legalized its takeover of the Golan Heights and the U.N. vote on having Israel undo its act – Reagan stepped up to the plate and – oh, had us vote to declare Israel's actions null and void. Not to mention that he also temporarily suspended F-14s to Israel and our participation in an important agreement with them. Have you seen this in the media? I doubt it.

Of course, I said Reaganesqe, but I could have said Obama’s policy on Israel was Bush-light. Both Bushes. George H. W. Bush temporarily suspended loan guarantees to Israel over its settlement policies in 1991 and because then P.M., Shamir did not want to go to the Madrid Peace Conference. It seemed to work, because he went. George W. Bush actually said that he favored a Palestinian independence, going further than even Clinton and preceding Obama. Why did he Bush, certainly pro-Israel, say a thing like that? The reason is interesting. Because the Saudi ambassador, Bandar bin Sultan, a close friend of both President Bushes, pretty much told him that Saudi consideration of American needs was at an end because the U.S. was too one sided in support of Israel. So, to appease the Saudis, Bush sent a letter to them that he supported a Palestinian State. The Saudis insisted that he make this public. It was planned for the week of September 10, 2001, if that date sounds familiar. He kept his promise later on. Let me quote him from a 2008 speech:

“The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.”

Again, can you imagine what Republican/conservatives would say if Obama had been the first president to actively call for not just an independent Palestine, but a contiguous one (meaning some land heading through the middle of Israel) and based on its pre-67 borders?

Let me say for the billionth time, partisanship makes everyone a little crazy. Of all the things I don’t like about Obama, his Israeli policy is not included.

Low politics

I’m not going to pretend I am above Wienergate. I wish I was. I really do. Yes, it is very low humor, and yes, we have important issues to discuss, but, it is almost impossible not to be interested. And, it is funny. I mean, even the phrase Wiener’s Twitter account is funny, however juvenile. But, I do think we can get something a little bit serious out of it, can’t we?

I was actually a bit impressed by his ability to send a photo on Twitter. I tried to send one to my daughter last week on my cell phone - of a waterfall, relax - and couldn't figure it out, but Weiner is a few years younger than me and probably more digitally proficient.

The reason I’m so certain he sent this picture is because I immediately called my favorite liberal after I heard Wiener answer some questions. And my favorite liberal said – “Of course, he did it.” To quote Gary Trudeau from the 1960’s – “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!”

Did he, in fact, send it? Well, I listened yesterday when he was being questioned by an persistant journalist yesterday who insisted on an answer to the question – “Did you send the picture?” Wiener wouldn’t answer the question, although later he said he hadn’t sent it. I could be wrong, but it would seem to me that in a situation like that, if you didn't do it, your answer would have been an emphatic “No,” or “Absolutely not.”

It also doesn’t look good that he waited so long to say, you know, it might actually be a picture of me that was manipulated (which, of course, to men, is also funny, because manipulated means . . . .) Show me a picture of a person in his underwear and I will tell you immediately if it is a picture of me (and that answer would be “no”). How many people have so many underwear pictures of themselves they can’t know instantly?

But, since we should be fair as we can, and people do get hacked (big news story this past week about Google accounts being hacked again, this time by someone in China) let’s give him a 5-10% possibility that he is being honest. Not enough to have reporters stop asking questions in this world.

I wish, for the sake of the science of psychology we could be there and interview him just at the time his brain was telling him to press the send key. Better, I wish we could have had an fmri machine attached to him to see what parts of his brain were firing their neurons and what parts were dormant.
Kids do stupid things. We all know that. Why do we resist believing that adults do too, particularly when they are politicians? As bad as he handled his campaign in general, John McCain (or maybe an advisor) handled a potential sex scandal really well and convinced us it was completely false. The New York Times ran an article suggesting he may have had an affair with an attractive lobbyist he knew. He was on the air the next morning with his wife denying it with so much conviction that most of us didn’t doubt it and were mad at the Times for shoddy journalism.

Here’s what politicians should take away from this:

1. Fairness has nothing to do with it.

2. We own you. When you even campaign for public office in America, anything about you is fair game, no matter how private it is. If you think that’s not fair, see no. 1, above.

3. Any sex scandal is an 800 pound gorilla in the room. No one cares one whit about anything else you have to say until they are satisfied about the sex issue. It doesn’t matter if you are telling the truth or not. The public and the media, and not you, gets to determine when it is over.

4. Whether you are telling the truth or lying, you can’t waffle on any questions or act like you are trying to avoid them. Think about it as if you are having surgery performed on you. You are stripped naked and lay powerless on a table. Resign yourself. If you can’t accept this, you probably shouldn’t be in politics.

5. If you are going to lie, you better first consider whether there is undeniable or very persuasive evidence against you. It might not be worth it, because then if you are shown to be guilty you make redemption impossible or at least so much harder. But, if you must, first watch a clip of Eddie Murphy (once, kids, not just the voice of a talking donkey but a very funny man) from his movie, Raw:

Because if you show any doubt or have any chinks in your armor, they are not going to believe you and then they will destroy you.

6. There is an honest way to handle it if you are guilty. If the sex involved was not too kinky and you can convince your spouse to stand by you, publicly indicate that there is some truth to it, that it is too personal to discuss and no one else’s business. It worked for the Clintons.
7. Whether guilty or not, hope upon hope for someone else to have their own sex scandal. Eventually, it will happen if you hang on long enough.


I suppose, because Anthony Wiener can’t, and I can, I should say something about the debt problem. This is it – “Oh, well. La di dah. Who cares?” Apparently, almost no one does. At least not enough. I get a laugh that some people make fun of Paul Ryan’s moderate plan by saying it doesn’t balance the budget for 40 years, as if that is too long for them. Somehow, except for Rand Paul (5 years) precious few others have a suggestion which balances it sooner, and the Paul plan has already been axed, as are most of the ideas he comes up with.

Probably the thing to do would have been for the Republicans to have come out with the Rand Paul plan first and then compromised down to the Ryan plan.

Paul Krugman's assertions that we actually need to spend much more money aside (because, apparently, winning the Nobel Prize just means you are really, really crazy), politicians who understand what we are facing economically have done a very poor job of explaining what the problem is. It seems like it is only this year, mostly thanks to the awe inspiring global reach of this blog (and maybe a little bit the tea party movement), that a few more politicians and economists even understand the problems. However, though they say the right things about it (usually involving the word, "unsustainable"), Democrats do not intend to do anything serious about it, and not enough Republicans are willing to risk their careers. It be funny if the climax to this movie wasn’t so brutal.

Here’s the lesson. We don’t learn lessons. We weren’t ready for the Great Depression, WWI or II or 9/11. But, after those events, we took care of business. And, let’s hope, that is what happens next time too. Because until we have to, I'm not that optimistic.

About Me

My photo
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 . . . .