Archive for June, 2013

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  • June 26th, 2013

Court Does It Right….For a Change

By Joel M. Vance

The Supreme Court, which usually pounces on the side of the overdogs (witness the decision that corporations are “people” which opened politics as a buyer’s market) actually did something right when it struck down the Defense of Marriage act, a repressive piece of legislative crap which denied gay folks the same rights as mixed sex couples—to marry and to enjoy the benefits of marriage (like survivor benefits).

Marty and I have been married for almost 57 years and I have never felt threatened by gay people.  We’re children of the Fifties, that decade of conformity and conservatism.  Our long-gone parents probably would have been appalled by marriage between two people of the same sex, but both of us think it’s nobody’s business what people do in their personal lives, especially that of Congress, that assortment of unindicted criminals, morally corrupt clowns and self-serving hypocrites.

I grew up in a segregated society and that alone was enough to cool my interest in practicing intolerance and bigotry.  If I ever knew anyone who was gay I didn’t know it.  One fellow in high school was effeminate, hung around with the girls talking about knitting, and while we called him “fruity,” no one really made a connection with him and homosexuality since we didn’t know what that involved.  If he was gay he must have had a lonely life because no one else acted gay and every other boy in school expressed deep interest in girls.

And if there was a gay community at the University of Missouri it was so deeply closeted that it was far off the radar of the straight students.  Not however that of the administration.

The University reflected the times which included the infamous McCarthy hearings.  The University was actively involved in rooting out gays, although we didn’t know it.  A law school professor spent a couple of years investigating faculty and student same-sex misbehavior.  Those deemed guilty were expelled (but could return if they could prove they’d been “cured” of their deviant behavior).

In 1950 an undersecretary of state, John Puerifory, testified in front of Congress about a “pervert peril” which led to a government scouring of its gay work force.  It was a catchphrase so beloved by hysterics and politicians: “Red Menace,” “Evil Empire,” “Axis of Evil.”  Any time we don’t like something or someone we slap a memorable tag on them, like sale merchandise, and whip up a frenzy which usually results in guilty and innocent alike getting seriously discommoded.

By today’s standards the University was incredibly repressive, but we accepted it because we didn’t know any better.  We’d grown up with segregation, so a segregated university was normal.  And homophobia was socially acceptable. Authority figures had the right to do anything they wanted with you—punish, expel, you name it.  You simply didn’t question authority.  Within a decade that would change.  Much of the younger generation would be in open rebellion against authority, thanks to the Viet Nam war, but Korea was our war and it was a just one—General MacArthur told us so.  Wasn’t even a war—just a “police action,” even though 50,000 policemen died in it.  And Dugout Doug got fired and faded away.

The Fifties were the decade of conformity.  Society was thankful to have survived two wars and, though the specter of Soviet missiles lurked at the edge of consciousness, we were out in the heartlands where nuclear devastation was a vague concept.  We didn’t know that western Missouri hosted the largest concentration of intercontinental ballistic missile silos in the country.  The Show-Me State had a great big but invisible bullseye over it and would have been a prime target for any first or retaliatory strike by the Soviet Union.

I was more than happy to drift through the Decade of Complacency.  The Fifties routinely get trashed by everyone from civil libertarians to militarists.  But consider that those 10 years also saw the end of a dozen years of almost continuous warfare that had taken the lives of 459,645 young Americans.  In 1951 the Kefauver hearings shone light on organized crime which certainly didn’t end the problem, but did make it uncomfortable for those who engaged in it.

Television developed as did the interstate highway system.  The dark McCarthy era ended (or at least the worst of it, personified by Tail Gunner Joe who died drunk and disgraced).  The armed forces integrated and school segregation became illegal.  On a personal note, I graduated from high school, from college, married and became a father, all in the 1950s.  For me it was a pretty significant and happy 10 years.

On the other hand women weren’t even close to equality with men.  Female high school graduates were expected to become teachers, beauticians, secretaries or housewives, no matter if they earned an advanced college degree (today our family doctor not only is a woman, but is black).  While school segregation became technically illegal in 1954 it would be a long time before it became reality and society still wrestles with the overall race situation.

Television, which seemed both a technological miracle and a key to knowledge, has become instead an insidious monster, stealing the minds of children (and adults) with time-gobbling drivel that passes for entertainment.  The “reality” show proliferates and if there is a single genre that transcends trivial and useless, that’s it.  The percentage of people who watch mindless sitcoms is far greater than those who spend their time with A&E, PBS, History or the other educationally-oriented channels and greater yet than those who read books.

Not only have we become a sound bite society; we also have become word-bite oriented, as personified by USA Today.  Maybe it’s the legendary grumpiness of old men, but I am half-convinced that Middle Eastern terrorists don’t have to kill us—they can just wait and we’ll dumb ourselves to death.

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  • Blog
  • June 12th, 2013

The Enemy Is Us


By Joel M. Vance

Here’s a quick quiz: Who said: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Sounds like some anti-American hippie Commie?  Probably a damn Democrat.  Ought to string that sucker up from the nearest tree?  Take him out and horsewhip him?  These are perilous times and we must stick by our President and his administration in all areas–it is un-American to criticize.

So who was this rabble rousing S.O.B. who said it is unpatriotic not to criticize the President?

Theodore Roosevelt said it in 1918.  Teddy Roosevelt was the most conservation and environmentally-oriented president we have had (in sharp contrast to today’s administrators who usually treat conservation with apathy if not antagonism).

Sure, we have Glenn Beck, that septic system masquerading as a human being, who says that the President and the character of Satan on a television show resemble each other.   That’s pretty critical of the President, all right, but did he likewise criticize the preceding President?  I think not.  The best response to his drivel came from an internet blog where someone commented, “Anyone else notice that Glenn Beck looks like the kid that everyone kicked the crap out of in junior high?”

Back in the 1800s when a newspaper (there was no radio or television) lashed out at someone by name, the editor sometimes had to defend himself with fists or guns.  That’s frowned on today and talk radio is filled with hatemongers who, in an earlier time, would have been skulking like sewer rats, wearing cheap disguises and hoping no one would recognize them.  Now they make millions of dollars for being “controversial” (i.e. rude, crude and inflammatory).

It’s all code for the fact that they can’t whip up a lynch mob anymore, as much as they’d like.  The President has the dual disadvantage that he is a Democrat in a right wing era and that he is guilty of PWBB (President While Being Black). Much of this country can’t accept the fact that a black man has been elected not once but twice—something that was inconceivable just a few years ago.

Chalk it up to two things.  One is that Obama was charismatic at a time when we were saddled with an inarticulate dolt who felt he was “misunderestimated” (he wasn’t), and second that the right wingers, especially the extremists, encouraged the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs to spout such arrant nonsense that even the more moderate right leaners were turned off and either stayed home on election day or actually voted for the black man.

That said, Obama, who has had an uncanny ability to say the right thing, has begun to stumble badly with his stonewalling on the burgeoning scandal over government spying on all of us.  The news that the federal government is monitoring our phone calls and emails should be no surprise.  Since 9/11 we’ve abandoned just about any pretense of a free society and it’s not getting any better.  I believed Obama when he said he would close Guantanamo and try those who need trying in open court.

I believed most of what he promised as an alternative to the odious Dick Cheney and his Pinocchio puppet Little Georgie.  Now?  I don’t believe most of what he says, especially his huffy disclaimers on government spying on U.S. citizens and how necessary it is for us to surrender our freedom in the name of freedom.  Anyone who does will buy the Brooklyn Bridge, not once but every time it’s offered.

Obama says the snooping is just to identify “patterns” and suspicious words and does not involve U.S. citizens.  That’s such bull crap—the name of the government game is secrecy and to admit any type of spying on us is to admit there is much more that they won’t tell us.  And who determines what words are suspicious?  “Terrorism!”   There—I’ve said it with an exclamation point.  Am I now on some agency watch list?  (Hell, the government admits we’re ALL on a watch list!)

We are so paranoid as a society about terrorism that we’re terrified and willing to give up the freedom that has defined us for more than 200 years.  We let government spy on us, jail us, control our lives and we bow our heads like some medieval flagellant and say, “whip me some more.  I like it.”

When an old hard shell liberal like me gets fed up, things are in a sad state.  My only consolation, if you can call it that, is that they—Congress, the Administration, the Supreme Court, all are so morally skewed, convinced that only they can “save” the nation, that I’m so old they won’t catch up to me before time does.

When you have a society where a guy sticks a bomb in his jock strap you’ve reached the Three Stooges level of terrorism paranoia.  You’ll never completely stop that kind of nuttery, but the rationale seems to be, “Well, let’s tighten the screws on everyone another turn and that’ll probably fix things.”  What’s next?  Rectal exams of geriatric airline passengers to make sure Grandma doesn’t have a nitroglycerine suppository stuck up her butt?  Diaper scrutiny of every newborn for fecal explosives?  When we accept that a certain nut element always will try to kill and maim and will find some new, inventive way to do it, maybe we can accept that some risk is inherent in a free society and do the best we can within that freedom.

We’ll never stop all the world’s crazed zealots; we can only try to stop most of them.  When you consider that the World Trade Center bombers managed to come into this country, take flying lessons and evade scrutiny until it was too late, you realize that overkill in security is useless.  The FBI ignored warnings from one of its own agents, just as it ignored or discounted all sorts of ominous signals from the Boston bombers.  These are the guys who would rather monitor your phone calls and emails than pay heed to obvious warning signals.

Where are the political giants of yesteryear?  Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican but was light years more progressive than today’s extreme right wing Republicans. Teddy founded the National Wildlife Refuge system by executive order 100 years ago.  Every time President Obama issues an executive order, the right wingers howl as if he’d set fire to the original Declaration of Independence.  Today the Refuge system is unique in the world.  Much of the cost of operation is by waterfowl stamps, bought by hunters.  Today there are 538 NWLRs in 50 states and five territories, totaling about 95 million acres.

It would not have happened had Teddy not grabbed the bull moose by the horns and made it happen.  I never could understand how first Reagan and then Bush Junior got away with their anti-environmentalism.  Reagan appointed the infamous James Watt as the caretaker of the nation’s natural legacy, a man so repellent that he finally imploded.

I grew up a Republican, voted gratefully for Dwight Eisenhower, considerably less so for Nixon (but did it three times).  But, starting in 1980 when Ronald Reagan opined that “trees cause pollution too,” I recoiled from what was an increasing assault on the outdoors.

It culminated with Little Georgie and his controller Tricky Dick Cheney who turned over our outdoor legacy to a bunch of oilmen and we saw the most concentrated assault on environmental legislation since most of it passed in the 1960s (under Richard Nixon, another Republican, albeit the first Tricky Dick).

Virtually every advance in a cleaner, more agreeable environment was challenged by the Cheney gang.  Resource agencies were intimidated into taking positions that were at odds with their stated mission.  Almost no day went by without another outrage and for someone who has spent the major part of his life fighting for protection and preservation of unique natural resources, this shock-and-awe attack was disheartening.

Not that I think things are dramatically better under Obama—it’s just that they could not be worse than they were under the oily Dick Cheney and his Big Oil cohorts.  The League of Conservation Voters gave Obama a  B+ rating his first year in office, not exactly a shining grade, but the LCV endorsed him for re-election and cited his campaign for clean energy programs.  Mostly it was a tepid endorsement compared to Mitt Romney whom they characterized as a Flat Earther, denying global warming.

Obama has been less than stalwart in working to limit greenhouse gases and airborne pollution, but he also has had to fight a Republican House on everything.  If he endorsed God, Motherhood and the American Flag, John Boehner would find something to criticize about it and the chinless Mitch McConnell would only say, “We gonna get you, sucka!”  Obama also has fought for better fuel economy in vehicles (an economic, as well as environmental issue).

Still, you wonder when the next shoe will drop on increased oil and gas drilling in such places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or offshore in the Bering Sea.  There’s oil and gas drilling on at least 45 Refuges, including the Kenai in Alaska which has suffered some 350 spills, explosions and fires since drilling started there ‘way back in the 1950s.  The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is even more fragile than the Kenai.  It would be difficult to undo the damage of a half-century in the Kenai, but not difficult at all to avoid damage in the Arctic.  Just don’t drill.

We were given a great legacy by a great conservation president, along with some great words of wisdom.  Let’s not let partisan politics obscure what is happening to the outdoors that we profess to love.  And let’s quit kowtowing to every intrusion on personal freedom.  We can live with the inevitable terrorism incidents because to sacrifice our Bill of Rights in the name of security is to admit that the terrorists have won—they’ve terrorized us.

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  • Blog
  • June 8th, 2013

Edible Embarassment

 

By Joel M. Vance

For the world, dining in what’s euphemistically called a “fast casual restaurant” is something done on autopilot. For me it all too often is a reprise of the vintage Stan Laurel.

There was l’affaire of the Chickenless Chicken Sandwich.

I was deeply engrossed in a book when the Ruby Tuesday waitress approached.  I assumed she wanted to do what waitpersons always do—wait until your mouth is full and then ask, “Is everything okay?”

Instead she said, hesitantly, “Ah, sir, your chicken sandwich…well, it doesn’t have any chicken in it.”

I looked at the half-eaten sandwich and, sure enough, it was a toasted bun with lettuce, mayonnaise and tomato.  The grilled chicken breast was A.W.O.L.  I looked at the sandwich and then the waitress who seemed to be wrestling with a smirk at the idea of someone who could eat half of a chicken sandwich without noticing it lacked the essential ingredient.

“It’s good though,” I said idiotically, instantly reminded of the old joke about the logging camp where, if you complained about the food you had to cook.  So the disgruntled cook, looking for a fall guy, fixed a moose flop pie (moose flop is variously called cowpie or some less euphemistic names) and the fellow who takes the first bite roars, “Good God, that’s moose flop pie!”  And then, after a pause to consider the consequences of complaint, says, “It’s good, though.”

I have not been back since to Ruby Tuesday on Tuesday or any other day since the chickenless sandwich incident.  I can’t forget the knot of wide-eyed employees at the far side of the restaurant whispering and peering at me as my waitress told them of the customer who ate half a chickenless sandwich and didn’t notice it…and then told her how good it was.

The chickenless chicken sandwich was but one of a string of embarrassments I’ve crafted in commercial eating establishments.  “I’m going to get some ice cream,” I announced at the end of a family meal in a crowded Bob Evans Restaurant.  I threaded my way to the ice cream machine.

There were bowls beside the machine and I picked one up and nearly dropped it—it apparently had just come from the dishwasher and was almost too hot to hold.  A logical person instantly would realize the incompatibility of a hot bowl and ice cream.

`             However, I theorized that the ice cream would temper the heat of the bowl.  This kind of thinking is what led early explorers, convinced the world was round, to sail off the edge.  I loaded the bowl with a towering swirl of vanilla and started toward our booth.  The ice cream began to melt faster than the polar ice cap.  It overflowed the bowl, ran down my hand and arm.

I speeded up, caroming off tables like a pinball, hoping to get to the booth before I began to leave a sticky trail of melted ice cream like the slime from a garden slug.  Diners took in the bowl I held aloft like the Olympic torch, and I saw confusion, understanding and then amusement ripple across their faces.  “Hot bowl!” I exclaimed to no one.  “Hot bowl!”

Here was an idiotically grinning man displaying a frothing bowl of former ice cream as he sprinted through the restaurant.  Perhaps it was a new form of entertainment, replacing the quartet of employees who almost inevitably gather to sing “Happy Birthday” to some horribly embarrassed diner.

When you think of ethnic food, what springs to mind is not Mongolian unless you happen to be Genghis Khan.  Hu-Hot is a popular chain Mongolian food establishment.  As neophyte Mongols my wife Marty and I had no idea what Mongols eat.   I vaguely supposed fermented mare’s milk was an essential ingredient.

We headed to the buffet where the food choices were chilled or frozen, perhaps, I thought, a nod to the frigid steppes from whence came the Mongols.  I shrugged and heaped frosty noodles in a bowl, topped it with chips of what seemed to be frozen ham and gelid crab meat (where do they get crabs in the arid wastelands of Mongolia.   Marty did the same.

We somehow managed to overlook a massive roaring grill adjacent to the buffet and I commented that I had never eaten frozen ham before.  It was crisp, like potato chips, and okay, I guess, if you’re a Mongol, but I wondered how Mongolian cuisine had taken root in mid-Missouri where if it isn’t fried it isn’t food.

The perky waitress appeared at the table and, as if considering how to say it, cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and said diffidently, “Ah, I THINK you’re supposed to cook it.”  Maybe she thought we were expatriate Mongols, used to crunching frozen ham chips in the howling winds of the Gobi Desert.

I remembered the whispering waitresses at Ruby Tuesday’s and did not look to see if our waitress had gathered her peers to tell the story of the couple eating raw, frozen ingredients.

Once I was invited to hear Gen. Chuck Yeager speak at a dinner meeting.  Gen. Yeager is the quintessential American hero, World War Two fighter ace, first man to break the sound barrier and the titular godfather of the astronauts.  We had sold a puppy to a friend who was such a fan of Chuck Yeager’s that she named the puppy Yeager.  My brilliant idea bloomed so quickly that I had no second thoughts–I would get Gen. Yeager to inscribe a book “From one Yeager to another” and give the book to my friend.

It didn’t occur to me that Gen. Yeager was promoting his autobiography, curiously titled Yeager.  No–I was thinking dogs (or more accurately like one).  I took a copy of a dog training book to the meeting where I spied the great general chatting with a few fans.  Presently he was alone.

I said “Excuse me, general….” and he turned and instantly I realized the incredible stupidity of my Grand Plan.  I knew exactly how a field mouse feels when it becomes aware of a shadow passing overhead and looks up to see a sharp-shinned hawk three feet above, talons extended.

I was going to ask this great American hero to inscribe a book to a dog…and it wasn’t even his book.  This was stupidity on the grand scale.   He looked at me the way a finicky Girl Scout looks at what her pet has just thrown up, knowing that as a good Scout she must clean it up.  I babbled and mumbled and imitated any given one of the Three Stooges.

“Cut the bull,” he growled, using a different word than “bull.” “What do you want me to do?”  How about just shooting me where I stand I thought, but mutely held out the book, which he regarded as if I had handed him a fresh scab.  But he signed it.

Lastly I was invited to speak to an evening meeting of a local fraternal club at a local restaurant.  The program chairman told me it was a dinner meeting.  I expected at the very least a free meal and I fasted most of the day, stoking an appetite for perhaps a juicy steak.   There were two men at the restaurant when I arrived.  Three more showed up close to meeting time. That seemed to be the peak attendance. “We usually have more…” the club president said, leaving unsaid what I assumed he was thinking “…but they heard you were speaking.”

There were no plates on the table and no one appeared bearing steaming platters heaped with delectable food items.  We made small talk until I realized the five of them were waiting for me to do something.  “Is this a dinner meeting?” I asked finally—we were in a restaurant for God’s sake.

“Oh…well, we all ate before we came,” the president said.  “But you go ahead.  We’ll wait.”  He paused for a moment, as if considering his financial options, like someone weighing whether to buy more junk bonds from an indicted stockbroker and then said, “We’ll pay for it.”   My stomach growled so I ordered a cheeseburger and we waited for a while until it came, then they all watched me eat it.  Entertainment is where you find it.

After my talk which was greeted with overwhelming apathy the president approached me with a wrinkled paper sack.  “We have a little something by way of thanks,” he said and I hoped it was a fifth of bourbon. God knows, I needed a stiff belt.

He withdrew a framed certificate from the sack and said, “Here,” thrusting it at me.  I started to take it and he jerked it back.  “Wait a minute!” he said.  He began to scrub at the glass with his thumbnail and I realized the price sticker still was on it.  I glimpsed ninety eight cents on a Woolworth’s five-and-dime frame.

“That’s okay,” I said, half-jokingly.  “Leave it on—then I’ll know how much you thought of me.”

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, continuing to scrape furiously.

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