Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Days of the Tundra

I suppose because of the cold, I was thinking about tundra as I was driving to work this morning. I have never seen tundra, and was not exactly sure of its definition until I checked on it a minute ago.. In speaking of tundra here, I am not referring to the ill conceived Toyota Pickup truck ,which was lost that company millions of dollars because the timing of the introduction of the product was so bad. I am talking about the frost ridden “treeless plain” that I learned about in geography when I was in the sixth grade.


Sixth grade was the last time I had any interest in Tundra, or for that matter, Laplanders, the exports of Brazil or the principle rivers in Thailand. In truth, I had no interest in them even then, but I was forced to learn about them in my one and only World Geography class. Following math, science, penmanship, grammar and Spanish, I think that I hated the study of geography as much more than any other class. Although that probably still made it my third or fourth favorite class, which gives you some indication of what a remarkably bad student I was.


My Geography class was broken up into seven continents, of which, the only one I enjoyed was Antarctica. That was because there was so little to study there. Once you had mastered penguins and ice sheets, you were pretty much home free. But take South America as an example. They must have five or six hundred different countries down there. I was not only expected to know everyone of them, but also their capitols, their rivers, their mountain ranges, their languages and worst of all, their exports. The exports were the hardest, except for the country down there  which exported guano. I don’t recall which one that was, but it was fun to learn about guano. The same could not be said for magnesium, chrome, coal, tin, copper and whatever else can be stolen from mother earth to be turned into something that we now know, destroys the soil, pollutes the atmosphere or causes cancer in the body.


You try to recall the major exports of Columbia. Today that is an easy question, cocaine (do you suppose they teach that now?)but in 1965 it was a bunch of metals you had never heard of. You may also recall that the names of all the rivers in South America are in Spanish (or Portuguese) which makes them that much tougher to lean. Do you think that you could locate Uruguay on a map ?


Australia was O.K. because about half of the lessons were on marsupials. Everyone likes Kangaroos. Plus, it was only one big country and the divisions were pretty easy to identify. The aborigines were barely mentioned in those days. Today you would spend lots of time on them. In those days you did not worry so much about anyone labeled “primitive”, unless they had an interesting sideline, like Pygmies in Africa or Rainforest  dwellers in Brazil. Which reminds me, you spent an awful lot of time on the Rainforest. Today it is always referred to as the “vanishing Rainforest”. It will be bad for everyone if the Rainforest vanishes, but at least it will take out a big chunk of Geography that students have to learn.


Since the breakup of the soviet Union and the end of colonialism, I bet fifty to a hundred new countries have been added to the world map. At least I only had to study the USSR. I would have never made it if I’d had to study, Georgia, Ukraine, and all of those “stans” that used to make up the Soviet Union. The same goes for Yugoslavia. Of course, there are fewer Germanys  and Vietnams to study these days, so today’s students have got that going for them. But there is still Tundra, there are a few ice sheets left, I imagine that some of the Laplanders still use reindeer for all of their needs and migrate across different borders.. My guess is that the study of Geography now is more a study of the environment and to some extent Anthropology. I would have liked that a lot better. I wonder if Albania’s principle  export is still chrome ? I learned that from a sit-com, not in a Geography class.



Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I am not up to it.

I considered writing a blog on the story posted below, but I fear that my level of prose would never be up to the task. My thanks to Chris Griesel for sharing this Pulitzer worthy article.

Emailing: Man Attacks His Lawyer In Court With Feces - San Diego News Story - KGTV San Diego.htm

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Man Attacks His Lawyer In Court With Feces

POSTED: 4:50 pm PST January 26, 2009

UPDATED: 5:49 am PST January 27, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- A mistrial was declared Monday when a home-invasion robbery suspect smeared human feces on his attorney's face then threw more at the jury.

Weusi McGowan, 37, was upset because San Diego Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Fraser refused to remove Deputy Alternate Public Defender Jeffrey Martin from the case, prosecutor Christopher Lawson said.

At the mid-morning break, McGowan produced a plastic baggie filled with fecal matter and spread it on Martin's hair and face, then flung the excrement toward the jury box, hitting the briefcase of juror No. 9 but missing the juror himself.


"That juror didn't even see it coming," Lawson said.

The prosecutor said the defendant was compliant after the outburst and was taken into custody without further incident.

After lunch, Fraser dismissed the jury, telling them McGowan would have to get a new lawyer and that his trial would be delayed.

The judge scheduled a status conference for Feb. 9 and raised the defendant's bail from $250,000 to $1 million, finding he is a danger to the community.

Lawson said McGowan originally became upset last week when he claimed one of the jurors saw him in shackles as he entered the courtroom. Fraser dismissed all jurors who saw the defendant in shackles, the prosecutor said.

"The judge had been very fair," Lawson said. "All jurors who saw it were dismissed."

Fraser had also denied McGowan's attempt to represent himself, saying the request was untimely, Lawson said.

The prosecutor said the defendant had previously wiped human feces on himself and was examined by doctors to ensure he was mentally competent to stand trial.

McGowan is charged with kidnapping for robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and other counts and could face assault charges in connection with the attack on his attorney and jury, Lawson said.

The prosecutor said the defendant hit a man with a rock in a sock as the victim came out of his home to investigate a commotion on Oct. 17, 2007.

McGowan allegedly ransacked the man's apartment then stole some of the victim's belongings and took off in the victim's car.

He was arrested 20 minutes later, Lawson said.

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Baby H

Think about it. You go to the hospital expecting to deliver seven babies and it turns out that eight are born. This must throw all of your pre-natal planning into chaos. You have to go buy another crib and up the order at the diaper service. Suddenly, you have to save an extra quarter million for the unexpected child’s education. And what about names ? You spend months figuring out seven names and suddenly you find that you are not finished. After you have already  used Happy, Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Bashful and Doc, what’s left ?


This birth of octuplets out in California is amazing. The babies were delivered in five minutes. Not five minutes each, five minutes. I suppose that was a caesarian, but my wife’s c-section for one child took longer. Of course, she did not have 46 attending medical personnel, but I can’t see how that would help. You can’t get eight pairs of hands in there at one time. I frankly don’t see how you can get 46 people into a birthing room.


Some things in life are unimaginable. Having eight newborns is at the top of the list, somewhere between seeing an elephant fly and an image of Jesus on a tortilla. No one could cope with that. I am not sure if five parents could cope with that. Your first thought is probably to get them all over to Pet Smart’s adoption center with the other litters and see how many you can get rid of without having to pay for their shots. But then, I suppose that you calm down and start trying to open negotiations with cable T.V., or , at the very least a Child Psychology Department at a University who will promise eight scholarships in return for lifetime study privileges. Unless this family owns a diamond mine, I don’t see how they are going to be able to afford this. I certainly hope that they have health insurance.


Can you even begin to imagine the teen years ? Eight bodies of raging hormones rampaging through your house at all hours of the day and night. That’s the kind of thing that will make you miss the days of the eight little darlings all crying at once demanding to be fed. I suppose that breast feeding is out of the question, unless in these tough economic times you were able to find five or six wet nurses at a good price.


But then there is the silver lining. Eight kids contributing to your retirement. Hopefully your early retirement. With eight kids there are bound to be a few responsible ones who won’t let you lie in a gutter during your golden years. They know how you have sacrificed ! Once they all move out you can turn the enormous house you are going to have to buy into a bed and breakfast. Can you imagine how wonderful the silence will be when the last kid goes out on his own. The peace which passeth all understanding.


I hope that everything works out for this family, that the kids make it through these first few weeks happy and  healthy and that they don’t necessarily have to end up on an MTV reality show. But most of all I hope their mother does not have to answer the obnoxious question the reporter asked one of their doctors this morning, “Were fertility drugs involved ?”

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Aqua Vitae

“I was sitting in Miami pouring blended Whiskey down.”   Tom T. Hall, “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine.”


“She drank Canadian whiskey, pure blended Whiskey, she drank it like wine.” Nanci Griffith ,  “Canadian Whiskey”


“Freedom and whisky gang thegither”,  Robert Burns, “The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer”



People have been writing about Whisky (or as I, and the Irish, call it Whiskey) for 600 years. I assume that they have been drinking it somewhat longer than that. No one really knows, but as a beverage it seems to lag many years behind the initial productions of beer and wine, its intoxicating cousins. Jesus drank a lot of wine. There is no mention of him sitting down to a Wild Turkey and Coke. That, of course was Jesus’ loss, although as a disappointment it probably paled compared to that whole crucifixion thing. At any rate, Whiskey is of more recent vintage (or perhaps I should say distillation) than the other things we drink at the Christmas party. It is also a more subtle drink and, in my mind, is what separates the mature drinker from the neophyte.


What is whiskey ? It’s an alcoholic beverage, distilled from fermented grain mash and aged in wooden casks, usually oak. That’s a definition that I think you will find in any standard dictionary or encyclopedia. It is something else. It is an acquired taste. Unlike beer or wine, whiskey must be learned to be enjoyed. Many people seem to have an innate love of the taste of many beers and wines. Whiskey is a different animal. Give a 15 year old boy a shot of Rye and see how much he enjoys it. After the coughing stops, the odds are better than even that he will tell you that he will never indulge again. A newcomer to the drink may like how he feels when he is drunk, and thus force slugs of bourbon down, but he will not enjoy the experience of the beverage.


I was taught to drink Whiskey, specifically Scotch, by my friend Joe Nistico. Joe had noticed a tendency for me to get drunk because I ordered liquor with sweet mixes which tasted so good that I felt like having another and another. Joe got me to drink Scotch and Soda which was the germination of my love for most distilled spirits. But it takes awhile to learn to really enjoy Whiskeys, however, it is worth the wait. Joe also taught me to love Frank Sinatra, a singer I had laughed at most of my life. One day after I had purchased a new Chevrolet I was listening to a Sinatra tape in the car, returning from the liquor store where I had picked up some Scotch. Chevrolet, Scotch, Sinatra, my God, I had become my father. I gave up the Chevrolets but am still hanging on to Whiskey and Sinatra.


I switched from Scotch to Irish Whiskey when I was in my thirties and that is still my favorite drink. I have, however,  become a lover of all Whiskeys. I love the Canadian blend, the Kentucky Bourbon, the single malt Scotch, straight up, on the rocks or with a mix. At least I think I do. One thing that is odd. I can’t drink Whiskey when I’m by myself. For me, Whiskey is a group activity, best enjoyed with friends at a club or bar. I have thought over time, that maybe it is not the Whiskey itself I love, but the things that come from the Whiskey, and I don’t mean inebriation.


My Products Liability professor in law school was Dean Page Keeton. Dean Keeton was probably 75 or so when he taught me. He was a short, hunched over,  old man with a  real twinkle in his eye. One of the only people I ever knew who genuinely had a twinkle. All the time. He sounded very gruff and spoke with a gravelly voice that had come from too many years of lecturing dense  law students. At any rate, we were studying the tobacco law suits which had arisen after the Surgeon General of the United States had determined that cigarettes caused cancer. A fellow scholar sitting next to me raised his hand and offered the opinion that Alcohol was another product which should have to face the merits of the American litigation system.


The twinkle left Keeton’s eye. His bent back perceptibly straightened up and a disgusted curl came to his lips.”Let me tell you” he said, “about Bourbon Whiskey……no product manufactured anywhere in the world has the soothing  effects of Bourbon Whiskey. No product is more  beneficial to the relaxation  of the mind and body and more  conducive to the promotion of good fellowship and  excellent conversation . I will not tolerate in this class, any invidious comparisons between tobacco and Bourbon whiskey.” With that, Dean Keeton picked up his text book and  stacked his row call chart and his lecture notes on top of it, placed them under his arm and walked out of the lecture  room in indignant silence. That lesson is the only one I still retain from my semester with Dean Keeton, but it is as valuable as anything ever taught to me in law school.


The Irish say it best. “What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for.”

Friday, January 23, 2009

Nor Gloom of Night

“Mail moves the country and Zip Code moves the mail.”    Mr. Zip, cartoon U.S. Postal worker, July 1, 1963



By 1963, mail in this country had gotten so heavy and unwieldy that a national system called “zip code” was put into place to get it under control and allow for more efficient delivery. Today, if my home is any indication, more mail than ever is delivered by the Post Office. But there is a difference in 2009 and 1963. Now it is all an enormous waste.


In 1963 you looked forward to getting the mail. There  might be a letter from someone you had not communicated with in awhile. Today you just e-mail that person or pick up the phone and call them, no matter where they are. A long distance phone call was a big thing in 1963 (had to call the operator)and, of course there was no e-mail. Even deciding whether to send a letter by airmail was a big decision because an airmail stamp cost three or four  more cents than a regular delivery stamp. “What’s the hurry ?”.


Today the mail is made up, almost exclusively of communications asking you for money. Think about it, you get bills and political and charitable solicitations and enough catalogues on a daily basis to herniate a disk. Even magazines are more than 50% ads today. All of these things are  screaming for just a little bit of your money, except for those which are screaming for a whole lot of your money. I would say that the majority of mail we get each year goes unopened ,and yet mail still consumes important parts of everyone’s  life and time. When we purchased our home in 1996, we were very proud of the nice formal dining room where we could seat eight for magnificent dinner parties. Today, that room and the table within it are used, almost exclusively to hold and sort mail which piles up  each week with the latest offerings of clothing, jewelry, electronics and such. Some days it looks like an old fashioned paper drive, and I suppose that is my point.


How long can we go on like this ? Everything we get in the mail could be delivered by e-mail. If there is one thing that is certain, on the list of jobs to encourage your kids to take, mail carrier should not be high on the list. I probably won’t live to see the demise of the U.S. mails service (as we now know it) but my daughter will. I imagine that if we really wanted to invest in infrastructure, we would just buy a simple computer and printer for everyone in America and switch to an all e-mail economy. What’s the problem with that ? To begin with, believe it or not, the U.S. Postal service trails only the Department of Defense and Wal-Mart as the biggest employer in the country.  At least with Wal-Mart and the DoD we are being provided with things we need. Wal-Mart will soon be the only store in the country where any of us can afford to shop. While the DoD wastes more money than anyone else in the country, we at least never had a Russian Army coming ashore to extinguish capitalism. So I guess we got something for our money.


The Post Office is different. That’s 800,000 people doing something that does not really need to be done, at least on the scale at which it is done. From an ecological view alone, think how many trees can be saved if we just stopped delivering those  letters which no one ever opens. Now the bad side is that puts a lot of lumberjacks and mail sorters  out of business. Maybe they can help install all the new computers the government would be handing out.


The sad part of this is that, in a simpler time, the mail was such a nice thing. In 1900, I bet getting a Montgomery Ward’s Catalogue was greeted like a national holiday in rural America. Even in my youth, the first toy catalogues of the Christmas season would keep my brother and I enthralled for hours. When my mom needed a break, she’d take the new toy  catalogue and tell us to go to our rooms and circle what we wanted for Christmas . One year we circled everything. Even the “Tiny Tears” doll which could, amazingly, wet it’s diaper after you fed it. I did not receive that doll that year. Who knows which direction my life would have taken  if I had ? (Not that there’s anything wrong with it).


Letters from friends and family were the best things. The whole family would read them and call other friends and read the letter to them. Today, most of us talk to people via e-mail all over the country every day. Waiting for a letter in order to find  out anything new  is inconceivable. But things are  not as much fun. Just like it’s not as  much fun to read an e-mail spam item as it is to look at a catalogue, or to buy a book on line as it is to go to a book store or a downtown department store. But those days are gone for good, alas and the mail carrier will soon follow. That’s what will be missed. I love my mail carrier. He is a gentleman and the happiest of men. He leaves small treats for my dog at out front door each day and never fails to wave and say hi when I see him down the street. We won’t get that anymore. But we also won’t get thousands of pages of junk material that must be sorted through and toss into recycling bins. I guess that you have to take the good with the bad.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Navy Blue

Blue, Navy Blue,

I’m as blue as I can be

Cause my steady boy said “ship ahoy”

And joined the Nay-ya-vee.            Diane Renay, “ Navy Blue” ;



Time for a change of pace. When I went into my closet this morning I could not tell whether the pants I wanted to wear were black or navy blue. This has become a common problem for me. I often end up at work with one black and one navy blue sock. I am not alone with this problem. As we age, the lenses of our eyes grow darker, producing a mild color blindness, at least with regard to differentiating between close shades. Recognizing this as a biological certainty, I have wondered why we humans retain both navy blue and black as  colors. What is the point ?


It seems to me that redundancy of color, or at least close redundancy in socks, is the last thing we as a species need. With all of the decisions we have to make today, why do we have to screw around(first thing in the morning I might add) with picking between navy blue and black. Colors that , by the time you are 50, you can’t much differentiate between anyway. It seems to me that blue, as a color, has enough damn shades to keep it happy without having to retain navy. Can’t it be happy with Sky blue, Columbia blue, Carolina blue, Alice Blue, Azure, Egyptian blue, and on and on ad nauseum. There are, according to my sources, 42 identifiable shades of blue. Why does blue feel that it needs to invade the province of black, which has only one shade, and a basic one at that ?


I know what you are going to say, black is not even a color, it is an absence of color, blue is officially on the spectrum, right after its snotty cousin “indigo”. Well black may not officially be a color, but I am wearing that non-color today (I think) and it is given a prominent place in a the box of 64 Crayola Crayons, the one that comes with the built in pencil sharpener. Those credentials are good enough for me. Half of the ball point pens in the world use black ink. The color of type you are reading now is black. Black has enough to do in this world without constantly having to be confused with navy blue. You use black every day of your life, what in the hell did navy blue ever do for you ? The time has come to end this charade and end it quickly. Choices need to be made as to which color stays and which goes. I am sticking with black. I hope that you will join me.

Monday, January 19, 2009


The sweet irony of Obama’s inauguration taking place the day  after the annual national holiday honoring  Dr. Martin Luther King has escaped no one. It is one of those coincidences (like Adams and Jefferson both dying on the 50th anniversary of July 4) that shades the agnostic toward belief and will be remembered forever in our history.


King has been dead now for over forty years. There are many more people now living in this country who do not remember him, than  do remember him from life. This being somewhat of a special King holiday, I have tried to gather my thoughts regarding the life of Dr. King, as I remember it growing up in a segregated or, in the final years of my youth, a semi-segregated society. No one who died in 1963 would recognize our society today. No one born after that date can really imagine what it was like, at least in the south. It goes without saying that there were no black children in my elementary school, despite the fact that Brown v. Board had been the law for almost five years when I started. The school district where I lived did what every school district in the south did, it came up with a series of transparent ways to try to delay the decision for as long as possible. In Houston, the fight was still going on in 1970. Having no black contemporaries, I obviously lived in an atmosphere where what I heard about King was at the very least filtered and at the most so biased by hatred as to be unacceptable as a rational human thought, even by a 10 year old.


For someone who was not there, it is impossible to understand the casualness of racism at the time. From probably second grade through at least 7th or 8th grade,  I don’t think that a school day went by when I did not hear, several times epithets regarding African-Americans, although not necessarily directed at one and, amazingly enough, not always spoke with any hatred. The term “Nigger woman”, which would be unthinkable to use today, was used quite often in almost loving terms. “ I’m talking about Jane, she’s the nigger woman who has worked for us for years, she is part of the family.” But I would be lying if I said that a majority of times that word, or its other despicable synonyms, were used, it was said with anything other than the grossest contempt. That is why the word is now banished. Unlike many, I use the word itself when writing about it. To not use it, to call it the “n word” in my opinion, is not only  a cowardly hiding from and covering up of  the past, it does not give to  the present the flavor of just how awful the word, and the times were.


At any rate, for a period of several years, I saw Dr. King on television many times. I am ashamed to admit that until I was about 14, I did not realize how important his work was. By the time I was 15 and a half he was dead, and I did understand what had been lost. For this I have the media to thank, certainly not my teachers or my friends. I’m sure, although I do not remember, that even my parents considered him a dangerous radical. This despite the fact that my father forbid the use of any prejudicial language by anyone in our house, and my mother used to laugh at small town people she knew who would get upset about the civil rights movement. King’s persistence changed life completely. The 1964 Civil Rights act, which demanded open accommodations for all people, did far more than the Brown decision in changing the thought process of the white race.

As King for saw, once people worked together, ate together and recreated together, fear and animosity began to vanish. It took 100 years for whites in the South to accept blacks on equal terms after the civil war, and it still had not been done. It took less than twenty for the south to accept blacks in every aspect of life after the Civil Rights Act was passed. People like me who lived when it would have been unthinkable for there to be racial harmony have  lived to a time when it is unthinkable not to have it., King did that. I don’t discount Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson or anyone  else, but nothing would have occurred without Dr. King. Only Washington and Lincoln in our national heritage stand with him as indispensible to the nation’s well being. Just those three.


In summary, the man was the very essence of leadership and what leadership and devotion can accomplish. It is fitting that his favorite hymn spoke to divine leadership. It is also a hymn which can be used proudly by any religion in the world, monotheistic or otherwise.


“Through the storm, through the night

 Lead me on to the light.

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me home. “             Thomas Dorsey, “Precious Lord”



Lead us all.




Sunday, January 18, 2009

Renewal of Hope

Every four years I go back and review old Presidential Inaugural speeches. Very few are good. The surprising thing is how much they all sound alike. America always seems to be in the midst of some crisis or another, or in desperate need of a renewal of spirit. More often than we wish we have  citizens fighting a war in some faraway place. The fact of the matter is that people always do feel like they live in times of crisis. That’s why every four years someone tells you that “this is the most important election in our lifetime.” As I have said once before, it is a sad commentary that we live in a country that finds itself in such dire straits every four years, just as regular as clockwork.


When all is said and done, there are really only four Inaugural speeches I like. The best one, also one of the best two speeches in American history, is Lincoln’s second. The second best one was also Lincoln’s of four years before. It is close between third and fourth although I give third place  to Jefferson’s first innagural  because he was the poet who crafted it himself. Fourth was Kennedy’s. It is as good as Jefferson’s, but Kennedy had a poet on retainer named Ted Sorenson, so I give Jefferson the edge.


I watched the entire 1960 inauguration of Kennedy. It was a fascinating affair. On the podium were the four men who served as President from 1952-1974, Ike, JFK, LBJ and Nixon. Most people at the time would have seriously doubted that Nixon or Johnson would have made the presidency. Kennedy’s death meant that men who had been passed over got a second chance. A review of the Johnson and Nixon administration’s shows to some extent why they were passed over. They were both fatally flawed men. Kennedy was too, but he caught a break and died early, so history remains on his side.


But my greatest memory of the Kennedy inauguration was Robert Frost. I personally believe that Frost was the greatest American writer ever to speak at an inaugural, sorry Abe. I was quite young at the time and so had no idea just how amazing it was to have Frost speaking there. He was ancient by this time. He hobbled to the podium in the freezing weather. The sun off the snow was so bright that he could not read his poem off of the white paper. I recall Kennedy trying to shield the glare for him with his hat (at least I think that I recall that) but nothing helped. Frost, although he was old, was nimble, he recited a poem he had written over twenty years before. I can’t recall the name of the poem, although I have read it since then. It is really not one of his best efforts, but people feel that they have to pull out their patriotic stuff on these occasions. It had been written in World War II and was sort of a sea to shining sea kind of thing. Still, there have only been four poets at American Inaugurals, and while the others were brilliant, none could match Frost. Kennedy was terrified that Frost was going to come up with something so good that no one would remember his speech that day. I can understand his worry, and his vanity, but it did not work out that way. Sorenson did him proud.


I expect that President Obama read Lincoln, Kennedy, Jefferson and probably FDR as he sat at his laptop  putting his speech together. Those are good places to start, and Obama is the best pure orator the White House has had since Kennedy. I imagine that, like Sorenson/Kennedy he will do himself, and us, very  proud. I am looking forward to it. A Presidential Inauguration is the same old show every four years, but, then again, so is Christmas, and I would not miss Christmas for anything.

author's note: This blog originally referred to Jefferson's first "innagural" as Jefferson's first "unnatural".This was a spell check correction to one of my many different spellings of the word innaugural, this one so bad that the correct spelling of the word was apparently not even the spell check's first choice for correction.I am indebted to my long time friend Gary Marfin for ridiculing this error to the point of making me edit the blog.Gary has been picking up after me for years, with only mixed results.