Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Blah Blah Food and Esso Gas Stations

     In the Harry Potter books, the ramshackle, tottering Weasley home has a magical grandfather clock whose hands show where each of the numerous Weasley children are located at that moment, whether "Home" or "In Transit" or School" or "Mortal Peril" or "Quiddich" or whatever.
    I actually have something better than that magic on my iPhone, an app called "Find My Friends" that my older son encouraged me to install because ... well, I'm not exactly sure why. He must have had his reasons, and I'm hoping they're benign: kind of an electronic dad 'n' lad pinkie swear kind of thing, bonding us via iPhone. 
     The way the system works is that he can always see where I am, and I can always see where he is. I suppose it's intended for the energetic young, so they can see what cool places all the gang is hanging out, and Archie can race there to spend time with Betty and Veronica and whomever. "Oh look! Jughead's at Pop's Choc'lit Shoppe!" Into the jalopy and away he goes.
      Still, I hesitated before signing up, wondering what covert purpose he could be putting it to. This wasn't like him. I sense a trap. But then I realized, with a sigh, that I'm never anywhere I shouldn't be, not anymore, and that may be the kid just wanted to attach this odd electronic tether to the home base before he set out into the vastness of the world.
     Now that he has been bumming around Southeast Asia for the past ... gee ... five weeks, I do find myself occasionally checking in, hovering above him like some minor Greek deity, unable to either communicate or affect anything, only observe. Though doing so is of extremely limited utility. 
     For instance, I see he is presently in Chiang Mai, which I already knew. A city in northern Thailand. I can see his little orange head-shaped cursor.... see that it is on Soi Chang Phuak 2—a street, apparently. For a shocked moment I thought his cursor was at Chang Phueak Hospital, but as I zoomed in his icon parallaxed away and I realized he was across the street at someplace unspecified. Maybe a street food cart; Google hasn't nailed down every one of those yet, though I suppose that's coming. This kind of mistake has happened before, with a police station, though were I to actually see him in peril, or a location where he shouldn't be, I'm not sure what I'd do about it from 8,000 miles away. Shout at the phone.
    Deriving utterly nothing from his location, I began flitting like a bird around the city, and the rather intriguingly named places in it, such as The Opium Serviced Apartment and Hotel—what must that be like? 
     There was a Bedtiny Hostel and a Chill Bed Hostel—neither sounds appealing—and Tuck Me In, which does, though it could have used a second "n," "Tuck Me Inn," but that maybe be too much wordplay to expect from non-English speakers. 
     Some spots radiated security—Bedtime Hostel, A Good Place, The Big Happy House.  Some establishments are very familiar—7-Eleven, Chevrolet, Amway, Holiday Inn, and of course a McDonald's. Plus, less expected, a Bavarian Garden and a Fajitas Tex Mex.
     Just as Japan surprised me by being speckled with outlets of the old Lawson's convenience store chain, which died out in Ohio decades ago, so Thailand still has Esso gas stations, a name Standard Oil changed to "Exxon" in the United States in 1973.  
    Many coffee shops, with names like One More Dose Coffee Shop and the Ice Love You Cafe, the Meo Cafe and Kaffe Man and Mad Coffee and Gozilla Was Here. Some seem to have mixed usage, apparently, such as Coffee or Me.  There was a restaurant called Blah Blah Food and a Honey Dee Bee Farm.
     I suppose at this point I should say something about the shrinking of the world, but in all honesty, I don't feel it. When I went to Thailand, 30 years ago, before any of this Internet business, I distinctly remember spending about three hours in a cab, desperately trying to find the apartment I was supposed to be staying at that night, which was actually tucked into a secluded alley almost impossible to get to. We could have used Google Map. That said, I'm looking forward to when I can find where he is by wandering through the house. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Tariff-stung Illinois farmers feel pain but keep the faith

Robert Klemm next to corn, on a farm in Waynesville, Illinois begun by his great-grandfather in 1905.

     Robert E. Klemm is a farmer, just like his father before him. And his father’s father before that. And his father’s father’s father before that.
     “I grew up right here,” said Klemm, standing beside a field of corn in Waynesville, Illinois, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago, on a farm his great-grandfather worked in 1905. Now he farms 1,100 acres of corn and soybeans, plus raises a smattering of cattle.
     Like most American farmers, he does not mince words about recent shifts in U.S. trade policy.
     “I don’t like the tariffs, as any agricultural producer wouldn’t,” he said. “It’s been very difficult on our economics. And I’m just hoping the president continues the negotiations. I understand the need of it. But it’s hit our pocketbooks really hard … I’m gravely concerned. It’s not going to hurt us. It is hurting us. It has and will.”
     President Donald Trump was elected, in part, by promising to revive domestic American industries such as steel, aluminum and coal. Over the past few months, he has imposed tariffs on imported steel, aluminum and other products from the European Union, Canada, Mexico and particularly China — earlier this month he levied tariffs on $34 billion in Chinese products.
     When a country is hit by tariffs, however, it invariably hits back, and retaliatory tariffs slammed a wide swath of American industries, from motorcycles to beer. Harley Davidson announced it is expanding European operations; Budweiser is raising prices to reflect higher cost of cans.

To continue reading, click here.


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Solve your problems today the Donald Trump way

     The most worrisome aspect for me about covering Donald Trump's speech in Granite City Thursday was not driving across the state, nor the possibility of a hostile crowd, nor having to gaze at the human embodiment of my country's decline and shame.
     No—and there is no way anybody who isn't me would guess this—the worrisome part was that the event began at 3 p.m., ended at some unforeseen time, and I would be sequestered at a steel plant, in the control of the federal government, for some unknown period afterward.

     The last time that happened to me, when Barack Obama gave his final speech in Chicago, the wifi was spotty, the deadline began to loom, and I literally bolted out while the president was still talking, and have this memory of running through subterranean passages around McCormick Place, trying to get the hell out there and find to a cab stand and get back to the paper to file a column. It was not a pleasant memory. 
     I didn't want that to happen again so, Thursday morning, batted out a "holding column"—one that could fill my place until I got a chance to file or, in theory, run in the paper if 8 p.m. rolled around and I was still at U.S. Steel. I've never blown a deadline in my life. I wasn't going to blow one now.
     As it was, there was quite a bit of discussion about this column at the paper—the White House, unknown to me, was eager for us to have a reporter at the speech, and the possibility of my being denied credentials existed only in my head.
     Still, it's a fun piece of work, I hope, and, today being Sunday, might entertain those who still have an appetite for this sort of thing. If you want to read the column that ran instead, batted out sitting in Jerry's Restaurant next to U.S. Steel, you can read that here.

     GRANITE CITY — The White House issued me credentials to attend Donald Trump's tour of the U.S. Steel plant here, the first dip of his presidential toe into Illinois since taking office 18 months ago and, not incidentally, about as far from Chicago as he can get and still be within the state.
     Until the confirmation arrived, hope had bloomed. Maybe they'd ban me, wouldn't that be a coup? After all, it would have taken only a few keystrokes to find that I've been caviling the man since Day One, working hard to make "liar, bully and fraud" into a trope, like Homer's "wine-dark sea." And didn't they just ban CNN pool reporter Kaitlan Collins for doing her job, and using an Oval Office photos shoot to ask a question about the release of a tape made by Trump's former consigliere Michael Cohen, suggesting that the president's insistence that he didn't know about payoffs to his former lovers was a lie (why is Trump lying still news? Can't we at this point assume that EVERYTHING he says is a lie, and save the headlines for those occasional moments when he accidentally tells the truth?)
     Had they banned me, I could go to the protests in Civic Park....
     But no such luck. The Midwest doesn't count when it comes to the coast, particularly Washington, its own weird hall of mirrors world. The credential came through, giving me the right to stand in some pen 30 yards from where Trump gives whatever happy gloss he's putting on the toolbox full of wrenches he dropped into American foreign trade with his cack-handed tariffs. The plan was to get to a computer and file something by deadline, but if you're reading this, that means the deadline came with me still penned, or sitting in a Huddle House in Litchfield trying to get the wifi to work. Kind of a Break Glass, Remove Column situation.
     Monday will be better, I promise. To make good use of my time Wednesday on the drive down, I spoke with farmers along the way. Though in case I don't have room, or fall asleep on the drive back, I don't want to leave this earth without revealing an important fact I learned: The silk in corn? It spreads pollination through the ear. A lifetime of stripping that stuff off sweet corn, over newspaper if I'm smart (try to replicate THAT value, on-line news aggregators!) because otherwise you have to scrape up the tenacious strands, and I never paused to wonder what this stuff did beside get in the way. One of the benefits of talking to farmers.
     Anyway, their take was that it took 30 years to build up an export relationship with China, a major buyer of our crops, one that Trump blew out of the water without much thought, and his $12 billion band-aid won't even cover their loses so far, never mind the future losses.
     But heck, he's a businessman, so all's forgiven. He must know what he's doing. I guess if you have the constitution to see your hard work swept away by locusts, floods and drought, then a scourge like Trump's grasp of international economics is easy to rationalize.
     The Trump appearance at U.S. Steel is a perfect example of a concept that I've developed, trying to answer the question of how good, decent people like the farmers I spoke with can support Trump. I call it "framing" — you put a frame around the part you are comfortable looking at and completely ignore anything outside the frame. Thus Trump, tossing a grenade into America's breadbasket, slides into the one steel plant where jobs are created. Let's look at those, he says. And all the farmers who were already struggling with a disappointing season — weather's been on the dry side — can sell their equipment in the shadows and lease out land they could use themselves and take out loans they can't pay back. We won't look at that.
     We see this all the time in individual lives. Got cancer? Well, here are some life power crystals and cleansing rituals and a Reiki master to apply pressure to your healing energy field. Maybe the cancer will just go away — which it sometimes does — and you can credit all the mystic hoo-ha that distracted you from it in the first place. Me, I'd see a doctor.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Break for lunch

     "That guy in the wheelchair has a couple of bucks worth of truck there," observed Richard Sparrow, a volunteer at the Texaco service station on Old Route 66 that has been repurposed as a visitors' center for Dwight, a village about 100 miles south of Chicago along Interstate 55. An intriguing-looking man in a toreador's hat and black ensemble was rolling away just after I showed up Friday, before I could strike up a conversation—a pity, there seemed a story there—and we were watching him drive off in a big GMC pickup.
Richard Sparrow
     I had never heard that phrase before, and liked it for its internal rhyme—"a couple of bucks worth of truck" and we got to chatting. I asked his name, and he introduced himself, adding "the biggest sparrow you ever saw," a former printer who worked for R.R. Donnelly back in the days when the Chicago phone book came in three parts. We talked phone books awhile, and how his work had taken hims all over the globe.
    "I've been to China three times," he said. "I've been all over the world and this is the best country in the world."
    I did not argue, but enthusiastically agreed, particularly after I had the chance to nose around Dwight for a while.
    But first the iconic service station, whose classic design caught my attention like a star flare. Meticulously restored, with tires and fan belts hanging in the garage, an antique car to pose on, and a jar of Tootsie Pops, alongside a sign explaining that this was a tradition when the place was operational, and owner Phil Becker's dad, Red, liked to hand out sweets to the children of customers.
    "We invite you to enjoy a Tootsie Roll Pop in memory of Red Becker," said the last line of an explanatory sign, and I did, inspired by the generosity to select a red pop instead of my usual chocolate. I tucked it into my shirt pocket for future reference.
    Sparrow had been sitting with another older gentleman on chairs in one of the gas station's service bays, and from a distance I had at first thought they were manikins, a small town tableau. But they were very real.
   "So, what is there of interest in Dwight?" I asked, and Sparrow told me there is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed bank a few blocks away. Good enough for me; I had no other task that day but to get home, and plenty of time to explore. He gave me clear directions that I of course mangled, driving a bit around the lovely town—wide porches, quiet streets, an Amtrak station I figured would get you to downtown Chicago in two hours.
    Hmmmm, I thought, imagining a call to the wife: "Sell the house honey, I found our new home..." Nah, not yet.
    The bank is a lovely Bedford limestone building. To be honest, I'm not sure if I'd give it more than an admiring glance at its clean lines, if I didn't know about the Wright connection. Originally the Frank L. Smith Bank, now the Dwight Banking Center: People's National Bank of Kewanee, it really is an amazing structure, and I'll tell you why. Take a look at the photo below? As yourself when it was built. Got a year in mind? Now continue reading below the picture.

    The bank was built in 1906.
     It's an astoundingly current structure—to me, it looks like something from the 1950s, when popular architecture began catching up with Wright. (Not that I consider that an improvement; I'm more of a corinthian column kind of guy. There's no accounting for taste).
     I went inside. The loveliest bank interior I have ever seen.
     "Do you mind if I take some pictures?" I asked teller Iris Cregar She came from behind the counter.
     "Let me turn some lights on for you," she said, illuminating a side room. "We have the original architectural drawings."
      "Do you get a lot of people coming in to see the building?"
      I noticed it was Free Popcorn Day, but didn't partake. I already had the lollipop from the Visitors' Center; I didn't come here to loot the place.

     People tend to be very nice downstate. They catch your eye and nod at you on the street. The staff at the little restaurant I had eaten in the night before in Lichfield, The Ariston Cafe, had been so friendly, it was almost unsettling. The maitre d' had actually touched my arm, guiding me to my table. The waiter, Logan, could only be described as buoyant. He conveyed a basket of bread to the table with the panache of a magician producing a bouquet. They brought a guest book for me to sign. I half expected the staff to burst into song. The food, by the way, was quite good, and the decor didn't seem much altered from when the place opened up in 1924. I was reluctant to leave.
    Yes, I know, the hidden flaws of small town America, better than most. I read my mail. But one downside of our culture is the need to fight every battle on every hill every time. I can't write that ice cream tastes good without one person mentioning fat content and another the oppression inflicted upon dairy cows, strapped into machines when they should be nuzzling their young with human-like affection. I do my share of dark cloud spotting too, sometimes.
     But not all the time. I liked Dwight, enjoyed poking around—the historic train station across from the bank, the fairly-active Main Street. I felt vaguely guilty, digging into mind for any kind of association with Dwight prior to showing up by accident—I stopped because it was noon and I was hungry, I didn't even notice where I was exiting, only that it had dining establishments—and all I came up with was the Dwight Correctional Center. An old frame of reference, since the women's jail closed in 2013. There's much more to the place than that.  They have a festival, Dwight Harvest Days, coming up September 20 to 23, including a parade, a car and tractor show, Cutest Baby Contest, and the 21st Annual Basset Waddle, which now that I think of it I've heard of as well.
    Two hours from Chicago. It seems worth a visit. Where I ate lunch, by the way, the Old 66 Family Restaurant, is worth trying. Salads are a long shot downstate—you end up with a bowl of diced iceberg lettuce sprinkled with dry carrot shavings, with a few cherry tomatoes thrown in. I was considering the cheeseburger, always a safe bet. But I had a solid hour in the Holiday Inn's perfectly new, perfectly empty fitness center, and felt in a health groove. I had a good feeling about the summer fruit salad advertised on a card on the table, with grilled chicken and poppyseed dressing, and asked the waitress about it, and she rhapsodized the thing.
     "It took me a year to try it," she said, sharing my skepticism. "But when I did..." She made an expression of rapture.
     I inhaled the thing. Strawberries. Blueberries. Fresh romaine lettuce. Even the canned peaches seemed to somehow work. Or maybe I was just hungry. I almost told her, "You know, last month I ate at Alinea, the best restaurant in the world, and if they served me this, in a portion about an eighth the size, it would have fit right in." I formed the sentiment in mind to tell her. But that seemed pretentious, and perhaps not quite true, so I kept it to myself. But I tipped well and left content, hotfooting across the intersection to explore the Texaco station.
     After my sojourn in Dwight, pulling back onto 55 for the long slog home, I remember the Tootsie Pop, unwrapped it, and enjoyed a lingering taste of small town sweetness.


Friday, July 27, 2018

Trump fires up the charm with downstate steel workers: 'I could be one of you'

Three mill train operators at US Steel (from left to right) Steve Thoel, Justin Chism—
president of Local 50—and Duane Justice, are grateful for Trump's visit. 

     GRANITE CITY — Donald Trump is a charming man, and people like him.
     Up in Chicago we forget that. Between the attacks on immigrants, on Democrats, on the press, and the FBI, and the Justice department ... well, the list goes on and on, doesn't it? We see the damage, to our institutions, to our social fabric, our nation's reputation, to groups and individuals, and assume he's a reviled figure, ripe to be driven from office.
    Not true. Not down here, at U.S. Steel's sprawling works, Trump embraces and is in turn embraced.  
      "The moment of a lifetime," said millwright Earl Evans, one of about 400 workers who came in on their own time to hear the president speak. "Finally someone doing something for America."
     I drove Downstate Wednesday to listen to Illinois farmers talk about how retaliation against Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum are hurting them. More about that on Monday. But while I was at it, it seemed worthwhile to take in Trump's speech.
     I'm glad I did.
     Waiting several hours for Trump's arrival, I spoke with steel workers, in their hard hats and bright orange high-res gear. They were deeply grateful to have their jobs back and the president visit.
     "It's great that he's coming here," said Steve Thoel, a mill train operator. "I think Donald Trump has got our best interests at heart."
     It's impossible not hear the tales of hardship, of layoff and a fading mill, and not to share their happiness. Anyone who ever mourned the death of American manufacturing has to. These shuttered factories never come back, but this one has. The cost of these jobs is being borne elsewhere, on mortgaged farms and burdened consumers. But here the news is good.
     Trump isn't the speechmaker Barack Obama is, no memorable phrases or poetic lines. But he knows how to relate to an audience, to feed their sense of being menaced by outsiders, of being betrayed by a government too stupid to live in the real world, like they do. Fifty-three minutes of praise, exaggeration and braggadocio, sprinkled with half-truths, non-truths and the occasional fact tucked in for variety's sake.   
     To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Joy of Illinois

    I flagged down a farmer driving a tractor today. Which I did not think I could do. In fact, I knew I wouldn't. "I'm not going to be waylaying farmers in fields," I said, back at the office.
     But now I was 200 miles south of the office. And I had just spent a very pleasant hour with a soybean farmer—fourth generation—and was feeling in the zone. This second farmer, on a big green John Deere, had waved to me as I inched past on the narrow, single lane road. I waved back, then continued on. But that immediately struck me as timidity. So at the next intersection, a T, I did a three-point turn and headed back and we talked.
     This is such an unfathomably great job, the newspaper, and I'm going to so miss it when it finally dissolves. With half the New York Daily News being fired Monday, and the softening fuzziness of 13 years, I thought I'd tell the story of when the Daily News fired me. But it was another time, and having driven 250 miles—more or less, I was so happy to get out of the car I didn't check the odometer—that I'll save that for another day. Maybe Saturday.
     My boss told me to head down 55 and do what I spent today doing, then get myself to Granite City tomorrow, which should be interesting. To be honest, I'm a little ... sickened? afraid? intrigued? ... to clap eyes on the living form of the president. All these words and pictures over the past few years, thousands and thousands, it'll almost be a shock to see he's real. I can't say I'm looking forward to it. Being in the White House press bubble sucked enough when Obama was president—a surreal, degrading experience. What will this be like? No need to premeditate it. Just go and find out.
    Then again, I wasn't looking forward to hunting for farmers either, and that turned out fine.
    I'm in Litchfield now, which I explained to the Holiday Inn Express clerk was Samuel Johnson's birthplace in England.
     "The great dictionary writer," I elaborated and, to her and the Holiday Inn chain's, considerable credit, she arranged her face into an expression of happiness, as if, yes, she knew. Heck, maybe she did. Maybe they teach it in schools here. I doubt it; but I don't want to underestimate the place either. The truth is, I don't know. 
    Who knows, maybe Litchfield, Illinois has a Samuel Johnson Festival every Sept. 18, to mark his birth in 1709 in Lichfield, England—whoops, no "t," my mistake, and here I am putting on airs. A shame the clerk didn't reply, "We spell it with a 't'—wouldn't you love to live in that world? I would.
     No, no festival. A Dr. Phillip Johnson, Ob-Gyn. Which is not the same.
    It's still a pretty nice world, at least in Illinois on a July day, with the corn high and the soybeans dark green and the farmers plentiful and chatty. Anyway, I should head over to the Huddle House and grab some dinner. I imagine they close pretty early. Big day tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A white guy explains the Tinley Park KKK handbills

Tintype of a Klansman (detail) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
     I celebrate white culture all the time.
     Once a year, I take 100 readers to the opera. Which isn’t exclusively white, not with amazing bass-baritone Eric Owens singing Wotan in the Lyric’s Ring Cycle, plus a wide spectrum of singers of all hues.
     But all told, taken as a whole, opera is still pretty darn white. As are many of my interests: Samuel Johnson, “Downton Abbey” and Wilco, which the L.A. Weekly picked as the second whitest musicians of all time, after Kenny G. I’ve written about Wilco, watched them record a song. Heck, I’ve been to front man Jeff Tweedy’s home. I saw he smoked a lot, but never noticed his pervasive whiteness.
Handbill found in Tinley Park
 (photo by Amber Stahl)
     Then again, being white myself, I wouldn’t, would I? Not noticing stuff is the essence of whiteness — our privilege, as it were. I moved to Northbrook, never noticing the high school was, at the time, 0.1 percent black. I went through 17 years of formal education, and it never occurred to me until much later that I managed to do so without reading a single book by anybody who was black. I took a course in Japanese fiction. But no Toni Morrison, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright.  
     This lapse has led to other embarrassments. When columnist Leonard Pitts’ novel “Grant Park” showed up at the paper, and I decided to give it a read, I was surprised — surprised! — to discover that it was a novel about black people. The characters were black. Which made sense, the author being black.
     I wouldn’t mention any of this — always prudent for a white guy to avoid the topic of race — but a reader shared a photo of the KKK fliers found in the southwestern suburbs Sunday, as reported by the Tinley Park Patch.

     The broadside begins, in the all-caps which the Far Right mistakes for emphatic boldness:
     I’d be prouder if the quotation marks around “YOU CAN SAY IT” were around the following sentence instead, proceeded by a colon — obsession with punctuation, also very white.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

'Just something to make it elegant'


     My column in the newspaper is supposed to be 700 words, which means that I've learned to stop after 719—a fudge factor, I guess. I 'd never turn in a 720-word column, but find a word to take out. One of the drawbacks and benefits of print, the former because thoughts are lost, and the latter because concision is good: keeps the reader from being bored. In theory.
     Monday's mash-up of our trip to Virginia and Trump's trip to Helsinki was 1100 words when I wrote it and, rather than just pitch the 400 words that had to go, I kept them, here, where they form their own sort of mini-column. 

     Names can deceive. We stopped in Hurricane, West Virginia for gas. You'd think the town would be pronounced "HURR-i-CANE." It's not; residents pronounce it "HURR-i-KINN."
     You'd think that it was named after a storm. It's not. No hurricane has ever gotten close. The town is named for the Hurricane Creek, which is named for a grove of trees that struck folks as windblown.
     Names can lead you astray. We drove six miles out of our way—three there, three back— gulled by a sign for "Tudor's Biscuit World." That name conjured up, for my wife, all variety of exotic biscuits. She envisioned sweet potato biscuits and corn biscuits, hot and airy, dripping with honey and butter. 
    Our point of reference was "Potato World" in New Brunswick, Canada. We visited there with the boys on one of our tours through Canada, seven years ago. There was a fairly comprehensive potato museum, and a Hall of Recognition, and a dozen kinds of poutine in the cafe. I bought a "Potato World" t-shirt because, really, how often do you get the chance?
     Biscuit World turned out to be a fast food restaurant chain. Regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers, as well as sandwiches made of biscuits. We ordered coffee and a single $1.69, 495-calorie plain biscuit. Walking to the car, we decided that had to be a typo, or maybe me misunderstanding the board. Five hundred calories? For a plain biscuit?
    Then we took a taste of this dense, greasy disc the size of hockey puck, but heavier and thicker. Yup, 500 calories, easy. We each took one nibble apiece and threw the rest away without a second thought. 
     Well, maybe I had one parting thought: it seems wrong to call these things "biscuits." Tudor's shouldn't be allowed, banned by some higher biscuit authority—the American Council of Biscuit Bakers, or some such thing. They should be forced to use another word, something vaguely vomity to pronounce—"blorbs," or another term with a trace of regurgitation to it. 
     I'm telling you this: If I ever start a business, I'm making sure "World" is in the name. To draw in the dupes.
     Although a less-than-appealing name can work too. 
     While hiking in the Shenandoah National Forest, we stayed two evenings at the Mimslyn Inn, an enormous 1931 brick edifice, half plantation house on a hill, half Grand Hotel. To be honest, I didn't give the name much thought, making the reservation. We had planned to stay at one of the lodges in the park, but the Yelp reviews were so passionately awful—mice, bugs, floods, all manner of horror—that it seemed prudent to try somewhere nearby. 
    The Mimslyn Inn had nothing against it beyond an odd, awkward, hard-to-say moniker. Utter it aloud: "Mims-linn." Kinda discordant, is it not?
     Sitting in a rocking chair on its long porch, I knew where the "Mims" was from—the Mims family, which built the place and owned the hotel for the first 70 years. But why "lyn"? Where was that from? The town it is located in is called "Lury."
    I asked the man at the front desk. 
    "That was just something to make it elegant," he said. "It was 'Mims Inn' for a while."
    I cherished the candor of his remark, it had a forthright sweetness, almost a sadness. Because while there was a residual stab at grandeur to the hotel, "elegant" it was not, not the tongue-twister of "Mimslyn," not the failure to get out coffee to breakfast patrons in a timely fashion, nor the silverware in the large dining room the cheapest stamped metal cutlery possible, a grade above plastic. Nor could my wife eat the trout they served. There wasn't a pen or pad of paper in the room, and despite its age, the walls were so thin, the TVs were set permanently at a whisper—something I've never seen in a hotel before anywhere in the world. You could see why; in the room at night, you could hear everything, down to the last drop being shaken off, from the bathroom next door. 
    That's harsh, I know, so I rush to add that the staff was exceedingly nice and accommodating, happily condensing our two reservations into one, hurrying a salad to my wife to replace the inedible trout. The lobby is pretty, the rooms clean. They're doing what they can with what they've got, which is all any of us can do. I'd stay there again, if everyplace around was booked. 



Monday, July 23, 2018

Beyond a reasonable doubt, it's a big country in need of citizens

Stony Man Trail, Shenandoah National Forest

     The pump at the gas station was old. So after I dipped my credit card, when it came time to choose a fuel type, I mashed my fingers on the "87." Nothing. I paused, puzzled, then some residual muscle memory took over and I lifted the metal hook the nozzle had perched on. The pump sprang to life.
     Nor did the pump, after dispensing the gas, ask me whether I want a receipt—I've learned to refuse them; why print one just to throw it away?
     The receipt automatically spat out, and told me we had paused in Hurricane, West Virginia. I added it to the list of enigmatic Mountain State place names like Nitro and Mossy.
     "Hurricane?" The ocean is 500 miles away. 
     What you call something, and what it actually is or represents, can be two very different things. Turns out the town is named for windblown trees.
     It was odd last week to track President Trump's Helsinki performance at a remove, while on vacation. Missing the original event, following the radiating shock waves bouncing around Twitter. People kept calling it "treason" though I don't see how that could be. "Fawning" maybe. Not an attractive quality in a person, never mind a president. But not a crime either.   
     Hugely significant, for a day, then not at all, as the smoke cleared and there he was, untouched. The liquid metal man in Terminator 2. His supporters, gulled dupes clinging to their charlatan, undeterred.
     I don't want to insult them. There's too much of that. Several times we saw a billboard, "Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Jesus is Alive." I smiled, admiring the subtle jab. You'll believe what we do, it suggests, if you've got any sense.
     Really? He sure ain't alive for me. Or for lots of folks, and believing Jesus is alive is not reason, but faith.
     You can't drive five miles in rural America without some farmer shaking his religion at you, and not nicely either. Do they win converts with that? Or are they just venting their frustration at other people insisting on believing differently than they do. It's a threat, and they lash out, calling them irrational, even though irrationality is a definition of faith.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Traitor Week #7: Donald Trump—"No puppet; you're the puppet"

      The traitors we've looked at this week have one thing in common: betrayal of the country to which—or, in Judas' case, the person to whom—they supposedly had allegiance.
     Some did this by fomenting revolt. Some welcomed invaders, or sold information to hostile powers, or friends.
     What has Trump done?
     The short, candid, answer is: nobody knows.
     Maybe nothing.
     Maybe he just really likes Vladimir Putin. He certainly acts that way. No crime there. It isn't a crime to fawn.
     That said, Trump certainly acts like a man who's done something wrong. His continual assaults on the Justice Department, FBI, and particularly the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.
    If Trump is a criminal, then he's not a very smart one, hanging around the police station, cat-calling the investigators. Lex Luthor the man is not.
    Were I to say, "Trump is a traitor," his supporters would jump up and object that nothing has been proven. And they'd be right. But they, like their leader, are also assailing the process by which what Trump and his associates have done is being investigated. There is no proof he is a traitor. But there is no proof either to support Trump's cries of "witch hunt" mantra and his claims of bias. One email from one FBI agent.  It would be laughable to rational people, an increasingly small subset of America at this point.
     So Traitor Week was a smokescreen? Maybe. I don't know. You can't expect other people to assess the world clear-eyed and then refuse to do so yourself. We don't need to guess, we only need to wait. There is a truth out there, and it will present itself.
    What could that truth be? Perhaps Trump will be found to be deeply in bed, financially, with the Russians. Perhaps there really is a "pee tape." Perhaps his operatives merely huddled with Russian agents, eager to get their hands on the embarrassing Democratic emails the Russians stole, never considering that they were helping a foreign power undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process, as fatal a stab at American democracy as can be imagined.
    We'll find out.
    Honestly, I'm not that interested in what Trump actually did. What is more important, to me, is how indifferent his supporters are to the possibility of Trump treachery. They just don't care. Nothing is going to make them care. This is worse than any meeting with Russians. Their my-side-versus-your-side, dodgeball mentality is a staggering revelation.
    Should it be? A hundred years ago we imprisoned pacifists and deported union leaders. In the 1950s, we were so terrified of the Soviets we adopted their methods, of loyalty oaths and star chambers and secret lists. Johnson lied to Congress to justify the Vietnam War, Nixon scuttled the Paris Peace Talks to help his election chances in 1968. We know far more about Trump's possible treachery than Americans knew at the time of those betrayals.
    Yet we don't feel better off.
    Maybe the horror of the Trump years is not that America became some awful place under his watch, but that a certain segment looked around and realized what we are. The illusion vanishes, the beautiful skin withers, and we see the grinning skull that has been here the whole time.
    Maybe that's it.
    No rush in figuring this out, to be honest. With a voting system hopelessly skewed toward rural Republican voters, I don't harbor much expectation of either flipping Congress this November or defeating Trump in 2020. If you immediately insist that Trump won't be re-elected, then answer this: who'll beat him, and where is that person now? What are they saying and doing? Because it sure isn't resonating now. It's a steady march of Trump Trump Trump and if you cup your ears against that chant and try to detect a warble of Democratic leadership you only hear crickets. It's maddening.
     Sorry to be Debbie Downer. I ran Traitor Week while my wife and I drove our younger son to law school in Virginia. The good news is, it's still a vast, beautiful country. People are still nice, individually. Make eye contact in Ohio and people will smile and nod, even wave.
     A young generation prepares to take up the task from us, and honestly, we have to be optimistic about that, because really, they couldn't do a worse job, could they? Couldn't screw up our country any more resoundingly than we have, could they? An ignorant president with vast, unjustified love for himself, and no concern at all for his country, supported by a devoted swarm of the passionately defrauded. We don't need Robert Mueller to tell us that. Could the next generation do worse than this?
    Of course they could.  There are hells below this one. Keep that in mind.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Traitor Week #6: Jonathan Pollard—"I never intended or agreed to spy"

Jonathan Pollard
      Jonathan Pollard is the only American ever given a life sentence for providing secrets to an ally. The Naval intelligence officer was arrested in 1985 for passing military secrets to Israel because, as he put it, "the American intelligence establishment collectively endangered Israel's security by withholding crucial information."
    He always insisted, "I never intended or agreed to spy against the United States."
    No matter.
    As Traitor Week ends tomorrow with, of course, the man of the hour, we must realize that it doesn't matter what your intentions are. Or the entity with which you are colluding. Republicans trying to justify Trump's alleged collaboration with the Russians by saying the Russians aren't so bad are badly missing the point. They could be, not our fiercest enemy—as the Russians certainly are—but one of our closest allies, like Israel. Treason is treason. The crime could be a classified cookie recipe given to Canada. 
     It's important to understand why: it isn't so much the specifics of what is being revealed to whom, but the structure being revealed and who else might see it. The information Pollard passed along to the Israelis cast a light on American intelligence practices and procedures, and of course once the Israelis knew them, there was no guarantee where else they might go. And indeed, intelligence officials believe that material leaked by Pollard to Israel eventually found its way to the Soviet Union. 
     It's a shame that the GOP doesn't apply the same "the law's the law" rigidity it directs at every hardworking immigrant who crossed the border illegally decades earlier to the president and his associates. But hypocrisy is the grease on which Trump's America spins.
     So even if you just thought you were accepting the help of friendly Russian intelligence agency with a load of embarrassing emails of your rival in the presidential campaign, what matters is that you undercut your nation's vital interests—say, being able to hold free and fair elections—for your own selfish, private interests, whether those are pro-Israel or pro-yourself. Noble motives don't get you off.
     They might come close. Bill Clinton was about to release Pollard, but his CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign if he did—America's intelligence agencies tend to always take espionage more seriously than does the executive branch, Republican or Democratic. 
     During the Clinton administration, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was a vocal defender of Pollard—a reminder that having the back of traitors isn't new to Dershowitz, if their politics align with his.
     Pollard served 30 years of a life sentence—his wife, implicated in his actions, served three— before Obama commuted his sentence. Thanks Obama. Some Americans felt that Pollard's long sentence was unfair—Chelsea Manning served just seven years after releasing far more damaging documents to Wikileaks. But justice is a crapshoot, and should you get your hand caught in the machinery, the rest of you just might follow that fingertip in. Once you are stuck with an espionage charge, and that jailhouse door clangs behind you, it can be a challenge to get out.  The public tends to forget about you. Something for Paul Manafort and Trump's other confederates, abandoned by their boss to twist slowly in the wind, must be thinking about a lot lately. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Traitor Week #5: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—"A society which does not defend itself is not worthy of survival."

     Now that betrayal of our country has practically become a Republican folk illness—79 percent approve of Donald Trump's disgraceful genuflection to Vladimir Putin this week—it might be the right moment to remind ourselves that liberals have done their share of traitor-coddling, once upon a time.
    Remember the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel? A married couple in their mid-30s, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Julius had worked in a sensitive Army job during World War II; Ethel enlisted her brother who worked at Los Alamos.
     During their trial, and for decades after, the Left was enthralled by the notion that the Rosenbergs were innocent, victims of a police state trying to squash dissent. The couple had either been set up, or were being persecuted for non-crimes.
     Writers such as Nelson Algren, scientists like Albert Einstein, world celebrities like Picasso, all spoke out in defense of the Rosenbergs. Sartre compared the case to the Dreyfus affair—the Rosenbergs were Jewish. Which didn't stop the pope from appealing to Eisenhower for clemency.
     In calling for the death penalty, U.S. Attorney Irving Saypol said, "A society which does not defend itself is not worthy of survival."

     Common wisdom is that Ethel was a bit player, condemned to encourage Julius to tell all he knew. It didn't work. "She called our bluff," a prosecutor later reflected.
      Those caught up in the Trump campaign collusion with the Russians should not forget Ethel Rosenberg. They might cling to the notion that whatever role they played was small they'd somehow escape notice. Ethel's low level of involvement didn't matter when the switch was thrown. 

     ''When you're dealing with a conspiracy, you don't have to be the kingpin," said James Kilshiemer, a prosecutor who built the case against the Rosenbergs. "You have to participate,."'  Treason is like pregnancy; you can't do it a little.
     The couple died in the electric chair at New York's Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953.   
     After the fall of the Soviet Union, classified documents came to light showing that not only had the Rosenbergs conducted espionage, but they recruited other spies to join them. 

     Even after their undeniable guilt came to light, some kept the flame,
     "While the transcriptions seemed inconclusive, they forced me to accept the possibility that my father had participated in an illegal and covert effort to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis,''wrote his son Robert Meeropol who defended his parents for years.
     "Accept the possibility..." "defeat the Nazis" -- because it wasn't so bad to hand over atomic secrets to a foreign power during World War II, since we both faced a common enemy. Nice try,
     A reminder: no matter how damning the evidence against any traitor, there will always be defenders. A 79 percent approval rating of Trump kowtowing to Putin means that no amount of proof will be enough to shake his support. We might as well get used to that now. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Traitor Week #4: Vidkun Quisling—"A vile race of Quislings"

Vidkun Quisling
    Few traitors can commit their betrayals alone. They need collaborators, co-conspirators, dupes, lackeys, water carriers. Even the most famous traitors do. As singular as the role of defense minister Vidkun Quisling was in handing Norway over to the Nazis in April, 1940, and as unpopular as he would become, he had help. Lots of it, as Winston Churchill pointed out in a speech on June 12, 1941, when Quisling's name was already well on its way to becoming a staple in many of the world's languages:
      "The prisons of the continent no longer suffice. The concentration camps are overcrowded. Every dawn German volleys crack. Czechs, Poles, Dutchmen, Norwegians, Yugoslavs and Greeks, Frenchmen, Belgians, Luxemburgers make the great sacrifice for faith and country. A vile race of Quislings—to use a new word which will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries—is hired to fawn upon the conqueror, to collaborate in his designs and to enforce his rule upon their fellow countrymen while groveling low themselves. Such is the plight of once glorious Europe and such are the atrocities against which we are in arms."
     Joseph Goebbels was so dismayed to see the name of the Nazis' man in Norway being used as a synonym for "collaborator," he used his propaganda machine to try to similarly tar the names of pro-Allied politicians as synonyms for a people leading their country to disaster.
     It didn't work. Quisling's unpopularity couldn't be reproduced. He was already disliked in the 1930s, when Quisling created the Norwegian fascist party and embraced Hitler. Quisling was more enthusiastic about the Nazis invading Norway than Hitler had been, and had to convince him. 
     Contempt for Quisling only deepened when the war broke out and Quisling handed his country over to the Germans, infecting a group you might not expect: his supposed masters. The Nazis also grew to hate and distrust Quisling, because he couldn't get things done. He was too disliked.  When Quisling was installed as prime minister in February, 1942, his popularity was estimated at 1 percent, and was met with terror bombings and the resignation of the Supreme Court, en masse. He was more an annoyance than an asset; eventually the Germans had to forbid Quisling from writing to Hitler.       
     Not that much of this sank in. The vanity of the traitor knows no bounds. Even as the war ended, Quisling assumed he could slip out of this misunderstanding. He always had Norway's best interests at heart.  In May, 1945, he surrendered himself, arriving at prison in the silver-plated Mercedes-Benz limo that Hitler had given him. Quisling complained about being kept in an ordinary cell, and that its chair was too small. His captors were not sympathetic.
     Sullen and defiant, Quisling shouted out at his trial that he was the "Savior of Norway!" 
     He was sentenced to death before a firing squad, and executed in October, 1945. His last words were the very Trumpian, "I am convicted unfairly and die innocent." 
     Which leads to an interesting question: will it be "Trump," as in, "If he sells those secrets he'll become a Trump." Or the lowercase "trump"? And how many of his collaborators will share his deathless shame? Time will tell. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traitor Week #3: Benedict Arnold—"Whom can we trust now?"

Benedict Arnold
      No, I'm not Nostradamus—I conceived Traitor Week months ago, starting with Catiline, then Judas, and continuing today with the most famous traitor in American history, posting it now because I'm on vacation. Not that I knew Trump would put in a jaw-dropping display of obsequiousness and betrayal in Helsinki. But because he was a traitor last week, and last month, and last year. Only now it's finally dawning on some folks who have spent years being willfully blind. Welcome to the club. What took ya? And what's going to prevent you from doing that Terminator II metal man thing you do where, however the Trump is Great worldview is blown apart by reality, your folly somehow manages to reconstitute itself and keep plodding forward? 

     Whoever glorifies the past is displaying a profound ignorance of it. People weren't nobler or better back then. They were always people, alas. What happens is we forget the long stretches of selfishness and meanness, remembering only the stuff we want to remember: the moments of splendor, chiefly.      

      Although there are exceptions. With traitor Benedict Arnold, we tend to remember the treason and forget the glory that went before.
      Benedict Arnold was a hero of the American Revolution. He was with Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga. Half his men died or deserted during the long march to Quebec City, where Arnold's leg was shattered by a British musket ball. He was brave, daring, dedicated.
     But Arnold's heroism, rather than fortify the man, only embittered him, and he felt less appreciated, more passed over (not without reason; he had powerful enemies). He sulked. He complained to Washington, who summed up the American mood of the moment in a way that would shock our veneration of the Spirit of '76.
     ''Such a dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole," the Father of Our Country wrote, "that I should not be surprised at any disaster that may happen.''

     That disaster was Benedict Arnold, who took his greed and jealousy and began putting out feelers to Mother England around 1779. He made contact with the British and, as befits the business man he had once been, carefully negotiated just how much he would get for the specific treason he had in mind—the surrender of the key American fort at West Point. 
      He earned the command, and all was going according to plan when one Maj. John Andre, of the British Army, fell into American hands carrying incriminating papers of Arnold's plot. Often it is not the traitor himself but his confederates, who first give away the game.
     "Arnold has betrayed me," Washington despaired. "Whom can we trust now?''    
     Not as many as Washington would have liked. A quarter of colonists, remember, supported the Crown, and given they had been subjects a few years earlier, it could hardly be considered treason, and more a case of picking the wrong side of history. With Arnold, the treason is more direct, since he wore a uniform.
     Arnold not only escaped, but published a letter, rationalizing his treason with the classic taken-out-of-context defense. As is common with traitors, he insisted he was a patriot, trying to make his country great again:
     "Love to my country actuates my present conduct," he wrote. "However it may appear inconsistent to the world, who very seldom judge right of any man's actions."
     Arnold escaped to serve the British during the war and to live in London afterward, his only punishment being that his name would go down in infamy for the rest of American history. Although I would suggest that another name might soon be synonymous with treason, drawing even more scorn that Arnold's
     Although we are in different times and the amazing development now is that while Trump's treason has long been suspected and openly discussed, his supporters show an astounding resilience. There is no development so explosive that its radiance penetrates through the hands clapped over their own eyes. The skill of ignoring sins, honed on gaffes and insults, has proved strong and durable. The issue of just how strong and how durable are the institutions on which our country's future will depend. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Traitor Week #2: Judas Iscariot—"Do quickly what you're going to do"

     I could have started Traitor Week with Judas, the ur-traitor in Western culture. 
     But everybody knows Judas, or thinks they do, so I decided to go chronologically and begin with Catiline, nearly a century earlier. 
     Plus Catiline has the benefit of being undeniably real, while Judas is obscured in  the mist of the Biblical—while few suspect Jesus was spun from whole cloth, after that the factual nature of the disciples is hazy at best. But Judas was no doubt an important literary figure, whose famed treachery, whether it occurred or not, echoes to this day. 
     In the 34th and final canto of "The Inferno," after a gut-turning, heart-rending trip through all nine circles of Hell, replete with sorrow and torture, Dante gets to the very bottom, the sump of the pit, and his guide Virgil turns to him and says, in essence "Okay, now here you have to brace yourself." ("Ecco il loco ove convien che di fortezza t'armi" literally, "Here is the place where you need to be a fortress.") 
    Which of course makes Dante go cold and  feel faint, though that isn't anything new for him.  The duo turn the corner and see Satan, a giant, buried to his chest in ice. Three faces on one head, a toothy mouth in each face, and in each mouth a sinner in agony, being chewed to bits. 
    "That guy," Virgil says to Dante, "Who suffers the most is Judas Iscariot."
    Of course it is. Sins like greed and fornication are minor misdemeanors compared to betrayal, and Judas is the very definition. To be a Judas means betrayal. What's interesting to me is though almost every soul they meet in Hell is closely quizzed by Dante, allowing the damned to recount the crimes that earned them eternal damnation.
    There is no such questioning of Judas. He never speaks. The reader knows. Judas betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans, he led them to the Garden of Gesthemane. That's pretty much his entire role in the Bible. He does little else.
    The tougher question is why, and here even the Gospels disagree. Greed—those 30 pieces of silver. The aforementioned Satan injecting himself into his heart. That's the reading of John—Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him; the Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who, Jesus says, the person he is going to hand this bread to will betray him, gives it to Judas, saying "Do quickly what you're going to do." 
    Which sort of undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years or, as Joan Acocella put it in the New Yorker: "If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?"
     Apparently yes. Remember that "Judas" is just the Greek rendering of "Judah," which is "Joe" for Jewish people. Judas has to betray Jesus to justify his co-religionists' persecution, though I don't see why the Pharasees aren't enough.     
    Once the Bible finishes with Judas, however, popular culture gets in its licks, although its interpretation of Judas cuts across the spectrum.
    At one end, in Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," Pilate is treated so sympathetically, he becomes the good guy—the most richly-drawn character in the book, certainly more appealing than Jesus. Yet Bulgakov doesn't even allow Judas to kill himself; Pilate orders him assassinated, a grab at redemption.
    At the other extreme is  the hit musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," which could have more accurately been called "Judas Iscariot Superstar," since it's really the story of his disillusionment with Jesus, his temptation, betrayal and remorse.
     The remorse, I would suggest, is the essential part of the story. Remember, the Bible was crafted, in essence, as a guide to behavior, and Judas is the model for all who sin, who betray not Jesus, the man, but his teachings. You might get the silver now, but you'll be sorry later. That's the Christian template for sin.
    Their policy in the personal realm, that is. In the political realm, when dealing with the sins of the powerful, we see another dynamic altogether. Christians line up to shrug sin off, when convenient, "Sure, Donald Trump sins. So do I. We are all flawed, all in need of grace." They wave away error. When they want to. 
     When they don't, it's damnation, both now and later. 
     Judas' motives come into play because motive is always a mitigating factor—are you doing what you think is right, or abandoning your principles for personal gain? The question of whether Trump genuflects before the Russians because he admires strongmen like Putin, because Putin has incriminating evidence against him, because of business interests, is something historians will argue over forever. My guess is that Putin saw something that 40 percent of the country couldn't: that Trump is a dumpster fire who will drive the country to the brink of ruin. So Putin backed Trump, as a way to strike at the country, and Trump fell in love with Putin because he is a broken man who adores anybody who likes him. The welfare of the country never entered into it. Which makes Trump worse than Judas. At least Judas thought about Jesus when betraying him. For Trump, the United States of America, its needs and interests, never crossed his mind, the mind of a man locked in fatal embrace with himself, doting on Trump, Trump, Trump, me, me, me, all the time. Who doubts that it is so?