Thursday, April 30, 2015

Another Day, Another Coyote


The NYPD has cornered and captured another coyote, this one in Middle Village, Queens.  The animal was tranquilized and carted off Tuesday evening.

It appears the police department is developing a new sideline -- ridding New York City of wild animals of the nonhuman variety.  

This may be a futile project.   A 2006 state publication estimated that New York was home to as many as 30,000 coyotes.  Since hunting coyotes appears to be much limited in the Empire State, there is a good chance that the population has grown even larger in the last nine years.

The publication also said coyotes could be found everywhere in New York except Long Island and New York City.  Hahaha with that.

The coyote found Tuesday in Queens, an NYC borough, probably traveled there from Long Island.  And the cops have captured and relocated at least four coyotes in Manhattan already this year.  It's a safe guess that there are more, possibly many more, coyotes roaming the Big Apple.

In fact, the city has an Animal Care and Control authority, which appears to spend most of its time treating and finding homes for pets.  Perhaps it is time to broaden the "control" element of its remit to dealing with wild animals that have taken to life in the metropolis.  


Pastor Hickman and Hope



You probably saw this CNN interview with Dr. Donte L. Hickman, Sr.  He is the pastor of a church who saw a long-planned housing and social services project burned during the riots this week in Baltimore.

What interests me is that Pastor Hickman's biography says he was expelled from three different high schools before he was baptized on Easter Sunday in 1987.  

It would have been easy to write him off at that point, to assume that, like many young black men, he would spend more time in the criminal justice system than the world of work. 

But that did not happen.

Hickman picked himself up, dusted himself off and got his GED.  He went from there to college.  Then he earned three more degrees:  a master of divinity, a doctor of ministry and an MBA.

Hickman now has a large, successful congregation with outreach efforts to men, women, children, college students and prisoners.  He looks to me like the real deal.

This is the thing: People who make youthful mistakes can turn their lives around.  It happens all the time. 

When we treat struggling young men like criminals, we only make the process of redemption more difficult for them. 

Hickman hasn't asked for money, but I'm going to send a few bucks to his church to help him rebuild that burned-down project.  I want to vote for the man.  

You might want to consider doing this yourself.

There's an online contribution button at the church website:  southernbaptistchurch.org.

The mail address is this:  Southern Baptist Church, 1701 North Chester Street, Baltimore, MD 21213-2497.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Marvel Heroes to Save the World Again




The 2015 summer blockbuster movie season starts Friday with the release of a new Marvel movie titled "The Avengers: Age of Ultron."

The film opened in Europe, Asia and Australia last week and already has grossed more than $201 million; hopes are high for an even larger domestic box office this weekend.  "Ultron" is a sequel to the first Avengers movie, which made $1.5 billion in 2012, and insiders seem convinced that the new flick could do even better.

Here's the setup:  Iron Man uses artificial intelligence to produce a powerful robot that will protect earthlings from the kind of alien invasion that was the threat in the 2012 movie.  

Unfortunately, things go awry, as the trailer below explains.



Now it falls to Hawkeye, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow and several other Marvell comic characters to mobilize and save the planet.  

The film was written and directed by Joss Whedon, who also did the first Avengers movie.  His biggest credit before that was the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" television series. The Marvell organization seems to have recruited him to intersperse a few character developments amid the mayhem and explosions. 

Serious film critics have a hard time with the summer blockbuster genre, which generates huge revenues and ancillary product sales.

    "Less of a Marvel and more of a Pretty Good," tweeted Michael Phillips of the 
    Chicago Tribune.

     "But by the fifth digital showdown, the endless CGI spectacle begins to feel 
     a little numbing," writes A.A. Dowd of the A.V. Club website.

     "True . . . (it) features some joking byplay, an elegantly superior villain, a plot
     to wipe out humankind and several destroyed cities," admits Stephen Whitty
     of ArtiSyndicate. "But how many times have we seen this movie before?  How
     many times are we going to have to see it?"

     Kyle Smith of the New York Post goes even further.  His review begins, "Writing 
     and directing . . . Ultron, Joss Whedon proves he has a superpower of his own:
     mediocrity.  If he were the star of a comic-book film, he'd be called something 
     like Zinc Man or Captain Belgium."

     (You might want to look up the full Smith article. Like many scathing critiques, it 
     is screamingly funny.  I do enjoy such pieces.)

By contrast, the chief film critic at Variety, Scott Thomas, likes the picture.  His publication is a show-business daily, and he seems to accept that Hollywood is more about profits than prizes at the Venice Film Festival.  

Thomas describes Ultron as "the sort of sequel . . . that shrugs off the self-seriousness of its predecessor and fully embraces its inner Saturday-morning serial."

And, he adds, it "at least gives us a more compelling (and plausible) destroyer than yet another galactic supervillain hellbent on domination. Specifically, it gives us that most destructive of universal forces: man's own best intentions."

Soon: The Marvel Story


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Land of the Dry Cleaners

There is a commercial street not far from my house.  It has a couple supermarkets and sundry other smaller merchants, the sort of thing you see in the suburbs.  One of the things our family needed when we moved in was a dry cleaner.

1) Initially, I took our dry cleaning and the Significant Other's business shirts to the closest cleaner, pictured below.


Nice place, really friendly proprietors.  But when, within a couple months, they had managed to destroy a designer necktie and turn part of one of my favorite shirts from all white to pinkish in places, I moved on.  

Still, the place is in business and does not appear to lack customers.


2) I next went to the other dry cleaner/shirt laundry a little farther down the street.  


This worked out better.  The workers were a teensy bit less friendly but perfectly nice and reliable, and there was a good alterations worker on staff to boot.  I have taken our cleaning there ever since.


In the intervening years, the street has turned into Dry Cleaning Central.


3) First a new cleaning establishment was built and opened one block from my current dry cleaner.


This establishment promotes 24/7 service and environmentally friendly cleaning fluids.  Since I don't do errands in the middle of the night and my current dry cleaner also uses environmentally safe products, I have stuck with it.  


4)  Then, just across the street from the last place, a car radio store closed and was replaced by yet another dry cleaner.


 This dry cleaner is in an unfortunate location, on a small triangular lot between two very busy streets that join at its apex.  Driving into its lot is a challenge, and driving out of it looks impossible.  But it advertises based on price, and for all I know, it is doing well.


5) Up the street a bit, a bank branch closed last year.  The building was torn down, and now a new business building is under construction.  It of course is another dry cleaner.



When the new dry cleaner opens, there will be five such stores -- up from two not so many years ago.  All will be located within less than a half mile of each other. 


Questions 

Why is this happening? 

     -- The neighborhood is an established one, and the surrounding population is stable, 
     not increasing.

     -- The number of jobs requiring people to wear suits, ties and business shirts is 
     actually decreasing, which would suggest a declining demand for dry cleaning and shirt        laundering businesses. 

I am particularly puzzled by the construction of a brand new building for a dry cleaning establishment in an apparently overserved market.

New commercial buildings are traditionally financed with construction loans.  To get a construction loan, a developer has to submit information about his/her business plan.  This information usually includes a "market analysis," identifying prospective cash flows that will be needed to pay off the construction loan.

Are real estate lenders not skeptical?  Would they not be concerned about the business prospects for a fifth entrant in a small market that recently supported only two?  Would they not worry about price competition or customers' reluctance to switch away from businesses they already like?


Retail

I suspect my town is like most in that it has a growing number of empty store fronts.  There are businesses we need and prefer to have nearby -- groceries, banks with ATMs, gas stations, hair salons -- but not as many as in the past.  The street I am discussing has lost a gym, a RadioShack, the car radio store, a plant nursery and a shoe store; the big drug store is building a new facility in a more central location.

Dry cleaners fall into the need-close-by category, but there is a limit to how many a given community can support.  My guess is that, in my neighborhood, we've passed that point already.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

New York's Coyote Cops

Just before the dramatic capture


Yesterday I spoke of the dramatic police chase and failure to capture a roaming coyote on the Upper West Side of Manhattan last Wednesday.

On Saturday morning, another coyote -- presumably a different one -- was spotted in Battery Park City, far away on the southern tip of Manhattan.

The coyote was chased for two hours by a dozen or more of the city's finest, on foot and in police cars.  At the the end of the chase, the animal was cornered while trying to hide under outdoor tables at a restaurant not far from the World Trade Center.

Police administered a tranquilizer shot and transported the coyote to an animal shelter, where it was found to be healthy.  The coyote will now be moved to a more coyote-appropriate location.

A remarkable amount of police time has been devoted lately in Manhattan to chasing coyotes, whose population in the city is quite low.

Some residents have begun to question this law enforcement commitment because coyotes are known to hunt and eat rats and mice.  Anyone who has lived in Manhattan knows that the borough has more rats than anyone really wants.


Later That Day

Another interesting incident happened yesterday in Manhattan, this one in the East Village.

After a dozen or more police officers participated in the roundup of  a single coyote, two police detectives went Saturday afternoon to question and presumably arrest a man who was believed to have punched and stolen the purse of a woman he knew.

The police went to the man's home, "a supportive housing complex for people with mental illnesses."  The suspect jumped out a window and ran down a fire escape.

The two detectives caught up with the man, and a struggle ensued.  The man grabbed one of the officers' police radios and began hitting the policemen on the head with it.  He had no other weapon.  

One of the officers pulled his gun and shot the man once.   The man died.  The officers were treated for bruises and lacerations.

I have to question the allocation of police effort here -- a dozen officers to chase and catch a small animal but only two to deal with a mentally disturbed and potentially violent suspect.

Just think if a third officer had accompanied the two detectives.  Maybe the three of them -- or four or five, if necessary -- could have stopped the single suspect without the use of a gun.  Maybe the unarmed suspect would still be alive.

It's a fun novelty for police to chase coyotes through a city, but there are more important matters, sometimes life-and-death ones, that deserve more of their attention.


Interesting Coyote Facts 

The recent New York reports made me curious about coyotes.  A quick internet search led me to a well-researched and fairly definitive 2013 article by Scott Sandsberry in the Yakima (WA) Herald-Republic.  HIs basic theme was that coyotes are here to stay.

Among his findings:

    -- Just about every city has a coyote population, from urban San Francisco with 10 to 15 to Chicago, where estimates run as high as 2,000.

    -- Coyotes kill more livestock than bobcats, mountain lions, cougars, bears, dogs and wolves combined.  (Like the others, coyotes occasionally attack and kill humans.) This is simply because there are so many more coyotes than members of the other predator groups. 

     -- As many as 400,000 coyotes are killed each year by ranchers, hunters and wildlife officials, but their overall population is believed to have doubled over the last 150 years.

     -- Delaware was the last state to host a coyote population, apparently starting in the late aughts.  Since the state is mostly bounded by water, the coyotes had to "travel through a 15-mile strip of urban blacktop populated by 150,000 humans" to stake their claim.  


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Eek! Nature!

In New York City, coyotes are the animal du jour.  Below is an NYPD picture taken late Wednesday of a coyote prowling Riverside Park on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The coyote eluded foot patrol officers equipped with tranquilizer guns, other officers in police cruisers and even an NYPD helicopter.  The chase continued for 40 blocks until the coyote disappeared into the shrubbery near Grant's Tomb and the police gave up.

(Oh, to have had that kind of police support the time I got mugged!)

Anyway, people in the neighborhood are concerned.  It was noted that the coyote's path crossed a soccer field used often by children's teams.  Dog walkers are now more diligent about keeping their pets on leashes, short leashes.

This was the fourth coyote sighting in Manhattan this year.  Police did manage to capture the other three, which were released, according to news reports, "in Bronx parks with established coyote populations."   I imagine Bronx residents are now busy writing thank-you notes to Manhattan police precinct commanders.

The coyote story definitely is trending.  Television news vans are trolling Manhattan streets seeking coyotes to photograph and interviewing New Yorkers about coyote sightings. It is estimated that the entire coyote population of the borough numbers less than 20.

There is much discussion of whether the animals are dangerous; in fact, they are, sort of, especially to pets.  News consumers have been advised not to worry, however, by an expert from the Gotham Coyote Project. (Yes, there is such a group.)  His advice sounds like what my mother used to say when I was a fearful child -- the coyote is much more afraid of you than you are of the coyote.

Well.  Coyotes across the Hudson River in Bergen County, NJ, actually have been making pests of themselves this season.  One attacked a dog recently.  Another, this one rabid, bit a local man.

I myself saw a coyote a couple years ago while driving down a residential street in New Jersey.  The animal had torn into a garbage bag and was feasting on the remains of what appeared to be a human dinner of barbecued ribs.  I stopped and watched for a while, then tapped the horn twice.  The coyote, absorbed with its meal, ignored me.  It did not run.  I drove away instead.

Mangiest critter I ever have seen.

A friend of mine is an avid hiker in the Garden State.  She tells me that coyotes are generally nocturnal and that, while she has not seen coyotes in the wild, she is familiar with their poop.  It is hairy and usually deposited on rocks, she says.

Interesting.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Colors of Spring

Winters in the Northeast have been extreme for the last couple years -- lots of snow, ice and very, very cold weather.

In fact, my neighborhood looks entirely different winter and summer.  In the winter, many plants go dormant and lose their leaves. When this happens to trees, the canopy opens up and lets in more sunlight than in the shady summers.  This light is a nice compensation during an otherwise bleak season.

Now the landscape is in transition from brown winter emptiness to the lush leafy, shady summer.

Spring comes with warmer temperatures that provoke weekly displays of color to gladden the heart.  Here's what's been going on lately at my house.

First came the forsythia.




About the same time, daffodils.



The next week came the rhododendrons.




Now, If you look down at your feet, you will see color-coordinated flowers in the myrtle ground cover, joining the rhodies.




It just gets better from here.  The cherry tree will bloom shortly.  Here is a photo of a cherry tree in blossom to give you an idea what comes next.



Following the cherry blossoms come azaleas in many vivid colors.  My favorites are the bright fuschia-red ones, my late father's favorites, which make me think of him.


The riot of color dies back after the azaleas, but there are still flowering pleasures in early summer.  One is the shade-loving dicentra with its bleeding hearts. 



Then comes summer, when the shrubs and trees leaf out, shading the streets from the strong heat and making the house feel like a hidden retreat from the rest of the world.  



I do enjoy the seasons.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Literature and Its Limits



The book above is one of the smash hits of American literature from 2014.  Written by Anthony Doerr, it is the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier talented in radio communications.  At its climax, they meet briefly as the Allies bomb the historic port town of Saint-Malo in Brittany during World War II.

By the end of last November, the book had sold almost 300,000 hardback and 340,000 digital copies.  It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was cited on virtually every top-10 fiction list for the year.  This week it won the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

I wish I could say that I liked it better.

Let me quote from some reviews written by novelists, people who have more experience in the fiction game than I do:

     "I'm not sure I will read a better novel this year . . . .  Enthrallingly told, beautifully 
     written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears, it is completely
     unsentimental -- no mean trick when you consider that Doerr's two protagonists
     are children who have been engulfed in the horror of World War II.  Not martyred
     emblems, like Ann Frank . . . just ordinary children, two of thousands swallowed up
     in a conflict they had nothing to do with."  

     "The prose is lovely, with the sort of wondrous, magical, humor-free tone that could
     be cheesy in the wrong hands.  Doerr's novel is ambitious and majestic without
     bluntness or overdependence on heartbreak -- which is not to say that it will not jerk
     those tears right out of your head."


In fact, the book is beautifully written, which is a good thing because it is a real door-stopper at more than 500 pages.  

One of my reservations is the way the story is laid out -- in short two- to four-page chapters that jump around between locations and back and forth across years.  

I suspect that the author made a calculated decision to employ such a structure.  Maybe he worried that people would not stick with the book if it were laid out in traditional chronological fashion.  Maybe he solved the problem by constantly raising story questions --  What now?  How did she get there?  What happened to the boy we just read about? -- in the hope of holding people's attention to the 530th page. 

(For those who do not prefer long books, three ancillary products are now available:  A "Summary and Analysis," a "30-Minute Summary" and something called "Sidekick," "an independent companion . . . meant to enhance your experience of the novel.") 

My second reservation is that I disagree with the reviewers who assert that the book is not sentimental.  

Consider the manipulative way the characters have been drawn:   A blind girl whose mother is dead and whose father is captured and imprisoned.  A desperately poor orphan whose radio skills draw him into a ghastly Nazi youth training camp.  The orphan's only friend, who is set upon, cruelly and repeatedly, by other campmates.  The girl's great uncle, shell-shocked and housebound since the end of WWI. A Javert-like German officer, ill and near death, spending his last weeks searching for a valuable bauble that may be in the blind girl's home. 

Put it this way:  The book gives us a collection of people, all suffering, and a world war becomes the background for a story the author tells about them.  

That may be harsh, but it's definitely one way to look at All the Light We Cannot See.






Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It's Jonathan Adler's World Now

Here is a  story that sells furniture and accessories in an upscale mall near my home.  It is named for the company's founder, who looms large in the design world of the moment.



Jonathan Adler was raised on a New Jersey farm.  His great enthusiasm, from an early age and through college, was making pottery.  Upon graduation he held several jobs from which, he cheerfully admits, he was fired.  Then, the story goes, he sold a line of his pottery pieces to Manhattan's very trendy Barney's store.

He has not looked back since.  The first Jonathan Adler store opened in Soho in 1998, and there are now at least 25 others, all of which appear to be doing quite well.


His company's mission, described on its website is this:


We're a design company.  Our philosophy: 
Build a timelessly chic foundation, 
then accessorize with abandon. 


Not everyone knows what to make of the guy.  

A New York times writer profiled Adler and his work in 2012, calling him the "jaded naif of the housewares department" and describing "his careful balancing of cynicism and sincerity -- cyniserity, for short . . . . " 

Adler's interior designs (which are much studied) illustrate his creative approach.  It includes repeating geometric patterns in rugs and pillows and upholstery, groupings of bright colors that in an earlier time would seem to clash, clusters of furniture from very different eras and many unexpected accent pieces in any given room.













Elements of these looks have been popping up in other decorators' work.  Not many designers (or clients) buy the whole exuberant Adler package, but there are somewhat more muted iterations -- bright colors, fabrics with round- and square-shaped patterns, groupings of different furniture styles and one or two (but perhaps not 10 or 20) unexpected accent pieces in any given room.

Several years ago, Adler released his "10 Commandments for a Happy Chic Home."
A few are below.

        Thou shalt embrace maximalism.

        Thou shalt mix fancy with frisky.

        Thou shalt honor the funsters of yore.

        Thou shalt not be afraid of orange.

Now you can find Adler creations everywhere.  Here are several I found in a few short moments on the internet.


A vase at Bloomingdales



A comforter set at JC Penney


A bottle stopper at Nordstrom






An umbrella at Barnes & Noble



A sandal from the Jonathan Adler for Toms collection





Men's stockings
                                        





There are many, many more. 







Friday, April 17, 2015

Texas Hangs Up on Teladoc

Our country has a very expensive healthcare system whose results are not as good as we would hope. Now companies are trying new approaches to chip away at the cost without sacrificing quality.  But change is hard for people, and often there is pushback.  

Here is one story.


Teladoc 

This company, founded in 2002, offers telephone consultations with doctors, sometimes using Skype or Facetime, for people with minor illnesses like the flu, skin rashes and sinus infections.  

Many health insurance companies like the idea. One, Blue Shield, makes Teladoc available to 350,000 state employees in California.  

The very short video below gives a brief overview of how Teladoc operates. I'm not advertising it, but I believe it is interesting.  I can think of several occasions when Teladoc would have been helpful to me. 



Teladoc has many things going for it: speed, convenience, 24/7/365 access and low cost.

But Teladoc is based in Dallas, Texas, which is unfortunate.  Last week the Texas Medical Board came down on the service like a chicken on a junebug, as the saying goes in the Lone Star State.

Based purely on concern for patient care, the doctors' organization has banned Teladoc and similar operations in Texas.


-----


The Texas Medical Board licenses and regulates doctors and medical practices.  It has ruled that no physician can prescribe medicine over the phone without a “face-to-face visit” with a patient, which the board has said is necessary to protect public health.

There are exceptions, of course.

     -- One is for psychiatric prescriptions, which puzzles me.

     -- Another is for colleagues of regular doctors who are on-call -- like say, on the weekends -- so the regular doctors won't be bothered by pesky patients at inconvenient hours.

      -- A third is for remote areas like rural hamlets, prisons and offshore oil rigs -- or as one newpaper report described them, "underserved areas that also pose little risk of competing with physicians' practices."

Firms like Teladoc will not solve all of America's healthcare problems.  Its physicians cannot put splints on broken arms.  They cannot diagnose and treat cancer or diabetes or heart disease.  But these firms may reduce the crush of patients in emergency rooms and provide limited care for people with minor illnesses and not much money.

Just not in Texas.



Teeth Whitening

A similar set-to occurred in New Jersey several years ago when the state association of dentists drove a company called Beach Bum Tanning out of the teeth-whitening business.  Beach Bum had been offering $99 whitening services with very low hydrogen peroxide concentrations.  Jersey dentists charged $500 for teeth whitening with higher hydrogen peroxide concentrations.

The dental association won.  Only dentists (a lot of dentists) now advertise teeth whitening services in New Jersey.

At least 25 states' dental associations have taken similar actions.


A New Precedent?


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against North Carolina dentists in a little-reported decision this February.


The FTC had sued the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners in an anti-trust case involving teeth whitening practices.  The board, which is independent of the North Carolina government, regulates dental practices in the state and had banned teeth whitening procedures by anyone who wasn't a dentist.

Six of the nine justices (Alito, Scalia and Thomas disagreed) saw a conflict of interest.  Here's the finding:

      When a controlling number of decision makers on a state licensing board are active
       participants in the occupation the board regulates, the board can invoke state-action
       only if it is subject to active supervision by the state.

This may break open some of the barriers I have mentioned in this article.  Or it may mean that professional asociations will accede to state regulation and then lobby states' regulators and legislators to achieve the same ends.

I could see things going either way.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Reading Is Over

A couple months ago, I met a newspaper editor at a social gathering.  He had worked many years in the business and was a thoughtful fellow.  He mentioned a couple things his paper had learned from recent market research:

     1) Readers are moving rapidly away from getting their news on PCs, laptops, and tablets          and instead are keeping up with events by checking their mobile phones. 
     2) News consumers now consider themselves well acquainted with a given news                      story, even a complicated one, after reading two paragraphs about it.  

-----

There is a new series of products now, Instaread Summaries.  These are marketed online and in bookstores and allow you to get the gist of a book without having to, you know, read a whole book.

Offerings include 30-minute summaries of Henry Kissinger's new work, World Order, and Cameron Diaz's Body Book. In even less time, 20 minutes, you can get through Atul Gawande's discussion of death and dying, Being Mortal.  Gone Girl, the 422-page novel and 149-minute movie, can be dispatched in a mere 15 minutes. 

Another product on the same theme offers Top 50 Facts Countdowns of individual books.

(All I can say is, the CliffsNotes people made a huge strategic error when they did not extend their reach beyond offerings to high-school and college students.)


-----

The hottest book market today is the "young adult" category.  These books are for and about adolescent persons and their interests.  The themes are simpler, the vocabularies smaller and the structures more direct than in traditional fiction. By 2012, it was revealed, 55 percent of such books were bought (and presumably read) by adults, a percentage that no doubt has increased since then.  

Another fast-growing market segment is graphic novels, which are sort of expanded comic books. This market wavers a bit with popular releases and is still smaller than the superhero-driven comic book market, but the readership trajectory for both seems to be on a steady incline.    


-----

It's all true.  We do not have to resort to reading to absorb information so much these days. We have turned over much of the process to images.  Pictures are immediate. They summon emotions.  

But we still need words.  Words convey ideas and allow us to conduct the subjective thought processes that make us who we are.  We need words to think.  We need to read.

Unfortunately, our print media aren't helping much at the moment.  Newspapers' reportage has been hollowed out.  Magazines, at least the ones that are still publishing and not about celebrities, feature shorter and shorter stories.  Many books are being released, but most of them are pretty terrible.  

One big problem, I think, is that the editors who used to polish up all these products either have retired or been fired or maybe have gone into the screenwriting game.  Big loss. 

Winnowing through what we have left on the internet is kind of a slog for people who like to read and whose cellphones have limited battery life. These days, the internet is a messy, unreliable hodgepodge (yes, including my own contributions) whose shakeout probably will take years. 

Maybe someday we will read again. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Death of Lincoln

Today is the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  

We all know the story.  A bitter actor sprang from the stage as Lincoln and his wife were watching a performance and fired the shot that killed the president several hours later.

Less than a week earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at  Appomattox Courthouse, ending America's Civil War.

The war had aged Lincoln.  Below are two photos:  the first taken after his first election in 1860 and the second from February 1865.

























More, the Civil War had ravaged the country.  Total deaths are believed to have been at least 750,000, about 2.25 percent of the population.  (A proportionally deadly conflict today would see 7.5 million Americans killed.)

(Four or five decades ago, my grandmother traced her roots and learned that her family had lost a son in one of the Iowa regiments fighting for the Union.  More than 17 percent of Iowa soldiers died in battle or of disease in the Civil War.  She never had heard her family speak of him.  I think of one family's loss multiplied 750,000 times.  That was the Civil War.)

It had to be fought, of course.  As Lincoln wrote, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

From a speech he made in 1858:

               As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses 
               my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the 
               difference, is no democracy.

Lincoln was re-elected to a second term in November 1864. By the time of his swearing-in, the end of the war was near.  In his second inaugural, he vowed to heal the country.  These are his famous words:


                 With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as 
                 God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; 
                 to bind up the nation's wounds; to care 
                 for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan...
                                                                                                                  --March 4, 1865 

Millions of Americans lined the tracks as a train bore Lincoln's casket home to Illinois.  

His vision of a revived America was not to be.  Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, who was less capable or less interested in bringing the nation together.  It took another 100 years for the Voting Rights Act to guarantee African Americans in the American South the right to participate in their own government.



Saturday, April 11, 2015

Broken Taillights? Really?



What is the deal with cars and taillights? In my experience, I have heard of many, many drivers (usually young men or minority people) who have been pulled over for driving with broken taillights.

Just last week, a policeman shot dead a man who ran away from the scene after his car had been pulled over for -- you guessed it -- a broken taillight.  Now it turns out the taillight may not have been broken after all.

You would think that the taillights on a vehicle are its most vulnerable spots.

This is not my experience.  I have seen many more cars with dented bumpers, missing rear-view mirrors, burned-out headlights and bashed-in side panels than with broken taillights.  Yet, when the police patrol our streets and highways, what do they find?  Broken taillights.

I could sort of see it if the problem were burned-out bulbs on the backs of cars.  There are several bulbs back there -- running lights for night, brake lights, bulbs indicating a car is going in reverse.

But bulbs don't burn out that often on cars, at least on newer ones.  And the complaint is always broken taillights.

Look at the car below.  It has a broken taillight, but the rest of its exterior seems to be in pretty good shape.  Is there a sort of collision that would cause such localized damage?  Do taillights explode spontaneously?  What's the deal?




My advice for young drivers or drivers of color is this:  Check your taillights.  Check them often.  If you find that one of yours has broken itself while you were not looking, get it fixed.  Immediately.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Dylan Thomas and Death



Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, lived a short and tumultuous life.  The son of an English teacher who himself had wished to be a poet, Thomas began writing poetry in notebooks as a teenager.

In 1930, at 16, he left school and took a job copy-editing and, later, writing for a newspaper.  And he kept writing poetry.  Challenged by a friend to write about immortality, he composed the poem below, his first published piece of art, when he was just 19 years old.




And Death Shall Have No Dominion

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.




In some ways, the poem seems to have been written by an older person, one who has seen death and resolved that it does not rule existence.  In fact, it was written by a young person, one who probably had not seen much of death and romanticized it, perhaps under the influence of earlier poetry he had read.

Years later,  when Thomas's father lay blind and dying, the poet again took up his pen to address the topic of death.  The result, his most famous work, urges his father to fight death, to fight to the last inch, to fight with every fiber of his being.  Thomas, still young at 37, cried for his father to live, to stay with his son. 


Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It was not to be.  David John Thomas, 76, died in 1952.

Dylan Thomas was a master of words and images but not so much the master of himself.  His poetry was renowned in his day, but it was not profitable enough to provide a comfortable life for Thomas or his wife and three children.  He was a heavy drinker, a bit of a brawler and in poor health generally.

The poet joined his father in that good night just more than a year later, at the age of 39.  It was said that he drank 18 shots of whiskey the evening before his death.


Living Long or Living Hard 

Most people want to live long lives.  As parents, they try to raise children who are careful and responsible.  They hope to watch their children and grandchildren launch their lives, and to savor the comforts of long, satisfying friendships and marriages.

Recently a professional football player, a successful one, ended his career after a single season.  He had studied the medical results of long years in the game -- head injuries leading to early dementia, joint pains for life -- and decided the risks were not worth the effort.

He was an outlier in the sport.

Most football players seem to be wired differently.  They crave the intensity of the game.  They know the risks and play as long as they can.  After their playing careers end, most elect to take retirements in their 50s, I have read, because they assume they will die earlier than people who worked in different fields.

I think people generally fall into two camps:

First is the majority of us who avoid risk, do what our doctors tell us and, if we venture out, do so intellectually into the world of ideas.

Then there are the people who thrill to physical danger: Navy Seals who, after leaving the military, sign up as mercenaries in war zones; the two men who climbed the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite Park earlier this year; people who enjoy illegal drugs so much that they ignore the risks of jail or death; motorcyclists who hate riding with protective helmets; rock musicians who eschew earplugs while knowing they will lose their hearing early.

Dylan Thomas seems to have been torn.  Writing in his teens and later, he embraced the themes of eternal life and fighting to live to a long old age.  In his behavior, not so much.