Curb Your Nostalgia for Political Process

Tuesday, January 15, was the congressional hearing/job interview to determine William Barr’s fitness to serve as our new AG. I watched most of the proceedings on TV with occasional gaps to deal with some loads of laundry. For a warm, mushy minute the hearing harkened back to the calm, respectful order of less partisan days. Hard to believe there is nostalgia for a political process that can seem as uneventful as watching paint dry, except that recently such occasions have offered something more akin to fireworks.

Everyone treated William Barr with seriousness and regard because he certainly has the chops for the job, having been AG thirty years ago (in a Republican administration) and having lived a life of public service. William Barr had with him his 8 year old grandson, apparently a child with some charisma, but the presence of family did not prevent the confrontational tone of the Kavanaugh hearing.

These days we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of comfort. Underneath the welcome civility of a well-conducted political ritual, the content revealed during questioning was more problematic. While Barr obviously trusts Mueller to refuse to conduct a “witch hunt” style investigation, he made no promises that the public will ever learn what the special prosecutor has found. He said it nicely. He said he could not answer the question until he saw the report, but he firmly insisted on his absolute power over whether to release the information and over exactly what information he will release. Then there is the question of why he, or indeed anyone, would want this job.

So I was yanked from my sentimental swoon and reminded that, while these hearings seem civil on the surface, they are an empty form. Democrats will only be allowed to ask questions. Republicans have the votes to confirm William Barr without any assistance from the Democrats and nothing would be negative enough to deter them.

We are being humored, swayed by phony protocol, until we forget that we still have no power to approve or disapprove Trump appointees. Republicans in the Senate are just putting on a show at taxpayer expense, but have actually bought themselves a rubber stamp. They need the show hearing because without it everyone would see that there is no such thing as regular order and wishing for it will not make it so.

It seems Republicans are also willing to reveal that the money we spent on a special prosecutor does not give ‘we the people’ access to Robert Mueller’s findings. My heart sank; I had not considered this until it came up in discussions over the past few weeks. (And then there was that moment when Lindsay Graham – in a very calm tone – asked Barr to promise to investigate Mueller’s staff because of rumored bias – the word liberal is understood – and Barr agreed that he would.) We cannot afford to let sentiment cloud our vision. Our power to check this administration will not really exist until we win at least the Senate in 2020.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – USA Today

A Quick Escape

It may require a bit of a mind jerk to move from red
lines in Syria and union busting in the United States to a contemplation of the
weeping willow, but that’s the way this brain of mine works. Perhaps
contemplating heartless dictators and short-sighted politicians sends me back
to the safer, simpler days of my childhood. We take comfort where we can.
Natural beauties also soothe my soul and remind me that the world is full of
both ugliness and beauty. And breathing fresh air removes the cloudy bits from
the dark corners of my soul, at least temporarily. Anyway, I have been thinking
about weeping willows.

Weeping willows seem to be sort of scare now. They once
adorned capacious lawns, pastoral expanses of emerald green well-tended grass. They
also like to grow near water. They are whimsical and wispy with slender leafy
branches that seem to lift at the top and then drip delicately down to trail on
the ground. If cut back these dainty branches drift airily back and forth. They
seem to have that same poetic Asian beauty that all weepy things possess, a
subject for ancient scrolls or haiku.

When I was a child there were plenty of these trees
gracing many a sweeping landscape. We could take our dolls or just our
imaginations under the branches of whichever tree had the lowest hanging tips
and hide out in the cool green space that surrounded the trunk. It was good for
sword fights too. It could morph into a lovely room with a backrest, perfect
for escape or reading. It always seemed cool there even on the hottest summer
days. We did not own this particular tree that I am recalling; we just visited
it occasionally.

But weeping willows take up lots of space and they are
said to be messy trees strewing biological detritus beneath and all around. Now
these trees are rare to see, at least in my neighborhood, although I found
several excellent examples on a recent ride. Instead we go to nurseries and buy
dwarf weepers that have the aesthetics but none of the blowsy Scarlett O’Hara
decadence and none of the whispered invitations to attend a tea party in their
depths. I guess weeping willows are the whales or elephants of the tree world
and people are crowding them out. As a friend of mine says, sad……………..


The Nostalgia Train – Vietnam


Now that I went all nostalgic I can’t seem
to stop. This week I am thinking about my brother. I have two brothers who had
to hold their own in a family which also encompassed six girls. They were more
than capable of meeting the challenge. My brother Hugh is one year younger than
me. Recently I typed the letters he wrote home when he was in the Air Force
into my computer and published a copy of all of these letters for the family to
have. Aren’t computers transformative? Years ago what would have been pasted in
an album and physically passed from hand to hand, possibly being lost or maimed
in the process, can now be compiled in a PDF document and preserved for

I picture my slim, blond brother, the
friend of Pete (the brother of our next door neighbor), the instigator of our neighborhood
adventures and games, the hunter, the fisherman, the lover of fast cars and
long-haired girls; I picture my brother in his ochre colored Air Force casual
dress uniform (we grew up in an Air Force town; it was inevitable). He is sent
off to Texas for basic training and all round “male-ifying”. When the Air Force
tests him, it turns out he is quite intelligent, which we already knew. They
tell him he would make a good interpreter and that they would like to send him
home to attend the well-known and expensive university in our small city to
study languages. I’m sure my brother was excited at the prospect of attending a
college which our family could never have afforded to send him to; he was
excited that he might be sent home where he had his family and his rather
serious new girlfriend. They kept him there at that Texas Air Force Base after
his basic training group left waiting to send him off for language studies. It
never happened however. Didn’t the very acronym SNAFU (meaning situation normal
all f***ed up) come from the military? Instead he got sent to Virginia and
assigned to the motor pool (I’m sure due to all the hours spent with Dad under
the hoods of various junker cars, and under a series of hot cars my brother
tried to put on the road using sweat equity before he left for the service). He
never moaned or whined about this turn of affairs, not then and not later, at
least not that I ever overheard, even though this changed his life forever, and
even though he was probably devastated.

While on the air base in Virginia he
married his hometown sweetheart and they eventually set up housekeeping in Virginia.
Barbara (AKA Gertie) found out she was pregnant just before my brother was sent
to Vietnam. Because of his skills with combustion engines and his love for all things
with tires, he was, fortunately, assigned to the motor pool once again, instead
of combat. There are only a few letters from Vietnam in that collection of
service letters my Mom saved all these years. My brother was called home on a
hardship discharge when his twin boys were born very early, weighing one pound
something and two pounds something. The boys were in the hospital for a long,
long time and one twin almost died, but today they are over six feet tall and
both fathers of very nice families.

So here are the two letters my brother
wrote home from Vietnam. They are not very enlightening about national or world
events, or about the Vietnam War, but they are probably familiar to anyone who
has spent any time in a barracks in a war zone, and especially in Vietnam,
because the bits about music are probably a reflection of those days in the 60’s
and 70’s when music suddenly got so exciting and creative. I don’t think my
brother appreciated that music much, but reading his letter will explain why.
We are a very lucky family. We got my brother home in one piece, six sisters
gained another great sister and two very precarious babies got to grow into smart,
productive fathers and to grace our family with their wives and their offspring
and their successes.

Nov. 68
          Have been receiving your wonderful
letter, cards, etc. but I haven’t had very much time to myself lately. This is
my first day off in nine. Today I decided to just relax and catch up on a
little mail.
          Please try to keep an ear open for any
news about Dave. I’m worried sick not knowing how he is. And please folks keep
an eagle eye on my Gertie. Please don’t let anything happen to her. One
pleasant fellow over here told me how a friend of his was having a baby while
over here, or his wife was rather, and she died during a miscarriage. Well this
poor sap didn’t find out for seven days after it happened and in the mean time
he started receiving sympathy cards and so on. Needless to say, he’s presently
residing in the Booby hatch.
          Thank you for the picture mother I had
          Boy, barracks life over here is
beautiful. Let me try to describe it a little.
          These guys in this particular barracks
work about six different shifts or in other words there are always some going
and some coming from work, therefore you are constantly having the stomping
of boots and the clanging of locker doors. Next you have the guy that
never seems to have to go to work, either that or he’s scheduling his work
hours to match yours so that he’ll be sure to be in the barracks when you are.
This beauty rears back his head and bellowing like a bull moose shouts
“SHORT” so that it echoes and reechoes several times. Then he proceeds to walk
around shouting at each of the ten bull sessions going on, “Hey you guys
want a beer?” The first group that says “Yeh, man” has signified that he is
welcome to join for the price of a beer. Then things settle down to a steady
roar with each group trying to drown out the other with their shouts, obscenities,
and music. That’s right, I forgot to mention the music. There is always
music going on in the barracks (this may well be one of the advantages you
think) well, it probably would be if there weren’t at least ten different
selections going on simultaneously and each at peak volume. Everything from “Tighten
to “Last Night I went to sleep in Detroit City”. I could mention
a hundred more like the barracks builder. This character might decide at
10 o’clock he doesn’t like his room and proceed to remodel it. With skill
saw screaming
and hammer swinging he descends. But the very best
bunch are the “have drunk up all the booze crews.” They come staggering
in at all times and when they do it seems like the other aforementioned noises
were sweet soft music. Fortunately these Dudes usually don’t last too long
although there are exceptions to every rule.
          Well, so far we have stomping,
clanging, bellowing like a bull moose, echoes and reechoes, shouting,
obscenities, music (ten different selections), barracks building, and
staggering and with that note I’ll close.
Nov. 68
          Well it’s Sunday and my day off and
I’ve been trying to get a letter out to you for several days now. I don’t
really have all that much to tell you. It’s been a pretty dull week all in all.
          We did have a little bit of excitement
Thursday night. Four V.C. were caught sneaking on Base. It was nothing really
but I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention it to Barb. Because you know how
she worries.
          It’s raining pretty hard today, and
most of the guys are just staying in bed. Usually on Sundays they are off
getting drunk and buying prostitutes on the strip. I guess I had better explain
the strip to you. It is just a bunch of little ruined shacks that serve as bars
and flophouses just outside the gate. Every base in every foreign country has
its strip but here it is just a little dirtier, just a little smellier, got to
be just a little worse than any place else in the world.
          How’s Barb really doing folks? I know
she’d never tell me the truth for fear I’d worry. Well I worry anyway. I guess
I’m just like you mother.
          The ladies guild from church sent me
cookies. I thought that was very nice.
          Well, I guess I’ll close for now so I
can get a few other letters out but keep the news coming.
is the last letter in mom’s stash.

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A Sentimental Oscar Sunday

It’s Sunday, the same Sunday as the 2012 Oscars and my sister, my 94 year old mom and I are going to the Manlius Art Cinema to see The Artist which will probably win almost every prize at the Oscar presentations tonight. First of all, I don’t think I have ever gone to see an Oscar nominated film on the day of the Oscar ceremonies so, goofy me, it intensifies my enjoyment of the outing. Second of all, my sister has talked my mom into going with us. She doesn’t go out a lot lately, especially since it is winter and she is too vain to wear her boots (like us when we were teenagers). We are happy to have her with us. Third of all, The Artist is a silent movie and our mom remembers silent movies from the twenties when they were actually the only kind of movies there were. She wanted to know if someone was going to play the piano. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy a silent movie, but I was sure I would enjoy mom’s reactions to it.
We saw this silent movie at a small local theater called the Manlius Art Cinema. This theater was built in the 1920’s and also experienced first-hand the silent movie era. We were basically in a time machine shuttling back and forth between the early years of two different centuries. The Manlius Art Cinema sounds far grander than it is. It has fallen on hard times, as have the rest of us and has not been refurbished in many years. Jerk Magazine wrote about the cinema.
[It] is a tiny historical movie theater built in the 1920’s. It screens foreign films, independent films and a lot of limited release films. It is owned by a super nice old couple, Nat Tobin and Eileen Lowell. They personally hand-pick all the films scheduled to screen.
I’m not kidding when I say that this is a tiny, old, historical movie theater. I felt like I was walking into a trailer. There’s only one screen. Ghetto fabulous. But here’s the thing: without the tight space, the low seats, the old-fashion persona of the place, there would be no sense of history or old-school cinema feel. From the moment I stepped into the cinema, I felt like I walked into another time zone. It was all very twilight zone except without all the science fiction and horror sequences.
The owner of the theater, still Nat Tobin, always speaks to his film audiences before the viewing. He welcomes us, tells some history of the theater and of the movie , and he announces what he and Eileen will be screening next. I am sitting at the very edge of the theater next to the wall. In front of me is a little dry ditch cut into the concrete floor and a mesh bag of those drying crystals we use in basements, which suggest the theater is not always dry. Ghetto fabulous, I guess, but although it is not glamorous, I am not freaked out by this either. It’s sort of endearing and we are lucky to have this couple who spend their lives showing us movies that other theaters do not find it profitable to screen.
The lights go down and we are swept away into the world of George (Dad’s name) Valentin and his sweet dog and Peppy Miller and it is far sadder than I thought it would be. When my mom and my sister start going for their tissues I know it is a success. They always cry together at movies. I do not cry at movies very often these days, but my eyes feel suspiciously wet. These two, George and Peppy, had megawatt smiles. When they were not sad and they smiled it seemed as if the lights went on all over the world. And Peppy, who seemed a light-weight at first, ended up being someone who really stood by her man. We thoroughly enjoyed this timely adventure in timelessness. Afterwards we eschewed the minimalist confines of the Chipotle Grill for an old timber and oak, classic, meat-and-potatoes restaurant (Scotch and Sirloin) with lots of handsome waiters dressed, oddly enough, in  long white butcher’s coats. We were seated a bit too close to the service bar, but we enjoyed our post theater supper very much and we were home in time to see the Oscars. Lovely!