Our Weekend in the Country (Thurs-Sun)

So, we took an extended weekend trip down the Eastern Shore of MD/VA, through the bridge/tunnel, into the Hampton Roads area, and back up the Rappahannock.   Highlights follow (and you don’t want to miss them).

  1.  On Thursday, an ordinary drive past Annapolis, a minor backup on the Bay Bridge, skirting across Kent Island, and heading southeast on Route 50, stopping for lunch in Easton MD.  If you haven’t been to Easton, it’s one of those towns that flies in the face of the general feeling that small town America is in the financial doldrums, that downtowns have been eviscerated by Walmart, and that it’s easy to see why Trump carried the heartland. Au contraire, Easton seems to be upscale and flourishing.  The last time we were here about 9 months ago, we had a nice lunch at Scossa, a fancy Italian restaurant across the street from the courthouse.  This year, because we wanted to have money left for the rest of our weekend, we opted for Doc’s Downtown, just a few doors away, but looking to be more of a bargain and filled with customers.  We were seated, looked at the menu and ordered.  We hoped service would be quick and that we would be soon on our way. But then I looked around us.  Most of the tables were filled, but…..no one had any food.  S-l-o-w-l-y food began to appear, but it was clear that we were not going to be served any time soon.  I called over the waitress and asked her how long it would take.  In her very friendly manner, she looked at me sincerely and said “The chef [mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble], but we are trying to catch up the best we can”.  Then she walked away.  We guessed what might of happened: the chef died, came in late, quit, forgot how to cook? Eventually, the food came, and it was very good.  No complaints – just 30 minutes or so behind schedule. [Grade B] On the way back to the car, we passed a coffee shop (or should I say shoppe) called Weather Gage.  According to its website, it’s a New Age Coffee Shop.  I don’t know about that, but the coffee was pretty good, and the colonial/nautical decor so tastefully done, you’d think you were in a funeral parlor. [Grade B]
  2. We drove from Easton until we were just this side of Cambridge, the home of H. Rap Brown (H is for Hubert), who changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and who once said “if America don’t come around, we’re gonna burn it down”.  That was back when the crazies were lefties, not alt-right.  Anyway, the area is also the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, and it is she that we went to see.  Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railway fame, is – as you may recall – to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill (unless she is Trumped), and I had mixed emotions about that.  I knew she was important in moving slaves out of Maryland, but, gee, replacing a president on the $20?  We went to the newly opened Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitors Center, sponsored by the Maryland and National Park Services, part of a 400+ acre section of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, located about 20 minutes off Highway 50. Wow!  It is a beautiful building, and a wonderful teaching facility.  You learn about the plight of blacks in pre-Civil War Maryland, and all about Harriet Tubman.  What a woman!  Born into slavery, sold away from her parents at age 6 (but allowed to maintain contact with her mother), married to a free black (who knew that a slave and free black could marry – but the marriage was not recognized to the extent that she could not be sold or ordered to keep away from her husband, and who knew that in Maryland by 1850 there were more free blacks than slaves?), seriously injured when a 2 pound weight crashed into her head although it was directed towards someone else (she suffered seizures and terrible headaches from then on), she decided to escape to the north, and was astounded when her husband decided not to join her.  She did escape, but made five underground trips back to slave territory to help others (including all but one of her sibings) escape north, to New York (where she settled) and Ontario. And of course, even being in the north did not provide security, since the Fugitive Slave Act required people in the north to turn in escaped slaves, and an industry of bounty hunters had developed.  But she did settle in New York, became very active in post-war advocacy for free blacks, and in the general movement for female suffrage, and she lived (without significant funds) in Auburn New York, dying in 1913 at the age of 91.  My conclusion after going through this extraordinary museum:  put her on the $20 bill – no one deserves it more. [Grade A]
  3. Driving onward past Cambridge and then Salisbury, on Route 50 until it intersected with Highway 13, and then headed south through Maryland, and into the two Virginia counties on the Eastern Shore, on our way past Assateague and Chincoteague (no beach time – rain, rain, rain) until we reached our goal for the night – the small, historic Virginia town of Onancock, where we had reservations at the 10 room Charlotte Hotel.  Onancock is a town of a little more than 1200, with a significant number of large old houses on large lawns, a harbor on a river that opens into Chesapeake Bay and that used to have daily ferry service to Baltimore and regular service to Norfolk, but now only has a small shuttle service to Tangier Island.  But it boasts a year-round live theater (nothing was playing the two nights were were there), and a community owned movie house (about this more below). A number of interesting shops and restaurants.  Not your typical town in this part of the world.
  4. The Charlotte Hotel gets very good reviews on-line.  It isn’t cheap, and from the outside, it sure doesn’t grab you.  It’s a three story building, quite old, on a downtown street (I think it’s the only three story building in town).  The rooms are nicely decorated (obviously, the building has been modernized), but it was a surprise to learn that ours was on the third floor, and that there was no elevator.  40 steps up, 40 steps down.  The innkeeper seemed a little grumpy, but that didn’t bother us, and there was nothing to complain about the accommodations. The first floor is the home of the Charlotte Restaurant, and the food was very good (we had salmon and a vegetarian eggplant dish, and shared), the service fine, and it was a Thursday night and pretty quiet. [Grade A-/B+] After dinner, we walked a block to the movie house, because they were showing a 2016 film “The United Kingdom”, the story of Seretse Khama, a prince of a large tribe in the British colony of Bechuanaland, who had the audacity, when studying in London, to fall in love with and marry a white English woman, in the late 1940s.  This causes a major problem with both families, but with his family, it is more than a family problem, but it causes a rift with his uncle, the current regent, who refuses to hand the throne over to Seretse unless he divorces his wife (the newly married couple have left London and returned to Africa). To make a long story short, the British colonial office comes across as very bad, among other things tricking Seretse to come back to London for consultations and, once he comes, exiling him for five years from his homeland and then, under the new PM, Winston Churchill, exiling him permanently, having promised him the opposite.  (The reason for all of this is to keep South Africa and its wealth from bolting the Commonwealth, which it said it would do, if this black/white couple were allowed to take political power in an area which they deemed a part of their own country.)  Without giving up all the details, please be advised that the Khamas won the battle with the Brits, the tribe learned to love Ruth Khama, Bechuanaland became independent of the British in 1964 and took the name Botswana, Khama became the first president of the independent country and (not in the film) their son (they had four children) is now the fourth president of Botswana, one of the most prosperous and stable countries on the continent.  The film was presented as part of the theater’s monthly international film program – it was very well attended (100 – 150 people, I would say) [Grade A]
  5. Friday morning was a quiet morning.  A nice breakfast at the hotel (it’s really a B and B), followed by a walk around town – down to the wharf, looking at the houses, some old churches and cemeteries (which included the graves of veterans of the Revolutionary War – for this is an old town, and in fact was the site of a large Indian settlement before the English appeared), the small park with the monument to a Confederate Civil War general, and a plaque marking the spot (“hard by this spot”) where American Presbyterianism was born. One of the interesting churches, dating from the 1850s, was the Cokesbury Methodist Church, the home of the Northern Methodists – did you know that the Methodist Church, at least in Onancock, split before the Civil War, with the Northern Methodists being abolitionists, and the Southern Methodists being supporters of slavery?  Apparently, at least the denominational difference remains today.
  6. After walking through town, we went to visit the prime tourist attraction in the town – Ker Place, a large 1799 Georgian brick home, that was built by a very wealthy landowner/plantation owner, and is now the home of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, which has operated it as a museum and as its headquarters since 1960.  We were the only tourists in the house and we were assigned to the only docent in the house for a tour, which turned out to be a wonderful and interesting experience.  Our docent was a recently retired outplacement counselor from Hagerstown Maryland.  He told us about the Ker family and generally about the life of wealthy landowners in 18th century Virginia, as well as the architectural details on the house.  As to the architecture, one of the things he stressed was the importance of symmetry, so much so that one large window in the front was a fake window with a wall behind it.  He talked about the large foyer and visible stairs as being very important to set the tone for guests, how guests arrived from the river, how the guests were announced and were told either to come in, or to leave their calling cards. He talked about the farmland (there were only about 8 slaves, if I recall, all of whom were freed upon the death of Ker – he was a Northern Methodist, but could not find it in himself to free the slaves in his lifetime and leave himself without help – in fact, the slaves once freed all left during Ker’s funeral), where the main crops were tobacco, wheat and rye, as well as vegetables for the local market.  The bulk of the tobacco, wheat and rye crops were exported to England (the tobacco may have wound up in France, which is where much eastern shore tobacco went) on Ker’s own ships; he was also a trader.  The furnishings in the house were by and large period pieces, but were not Ker’s.  Most of the rooms have been decorated (wall colors, etc.) as they would have been around 1800 based on records.  The bricks were all made on site, the floor boards were narrow, something done only by the very wealthy, as they were all individually cut.  There were apparently originally about 20 outbuildings, none of which survive.  The kitchen was in a separate building; there was, at the time, no indoor plumbing.n  [Grade A]
  7. After the Ker House, we went to Janet’s Cafe, a very informal place suggest by our Ker Place docent.  It’s run by a former New Yorker who moved to the Eastern Shore to avoid the stress of New York.  The cafe was crowded, and it looked to me like she clearly brought the stress of New York with her.  My Reuben sandwich was very good; twice what I could eat.  [Grade B]
  8. After lunch, we got in the car and decided just to roam around a bit.  We had seen a sign for a railroad museum in Parksley, a town a little north of Onancock, and decided to check it out.  Parksley was a sad looking place, with a track running through its center.  The railroad museum was not worth going to.  The museum itself was poorly organized and very unappealing.  Out in back, they had a caboose, a dining car, a box car and two other cars.  The woman at the welcoming desk told us she could open the cars for us.  But we decided we had seen enough.  [Grade D].  We then drove around to various small towns, stopping for ice cream at the Sugar Shack, owned by a 60 or so year old man who had lived at 16th and Spring growing up.  My Moose Track ice cream was only fair.  The place did not have coffee.  (He wanted to serve coffee, and bought a coffee maker, but it blew a fuse and he hasn’t tried it since.) [Grade C]  We then drove to Accomack and then to Wachapreague, where Mary Washington University has a marine department, and then to Quinby, another town.  Wachapreague and Quinby each have under 300 residents.  Wachapreague looked halfway interesting, but Quinby just looked frightening.  Maybe it was the Wallace house, which had a sign in front with a picture of a gun and the words “We don’t call 911”.  Or maybe the overall feel, but we thought we had better leave quickly before they saw us. From Quinby, it was a long and meandering way back, a few towns a lot of farms, a nice ride.
  9. Dinner on Friday night was pleasant, but not successful.  I had made reservations at a downtown Italian restaurant, Buzzotos, based on the menu posted in the window.  We went in sat down, I spilled the water in the centerpiece vase, we got up and moved to another table, ordered two glasses of wine, and then looked at the menu.  The menu was different from that posted on the window, and for our purposes less than satisfactory.  So rather than eat what we really didn’t want to eat, we decided to pay for our drinks, and walk back to the wharf and go to Mallards, a funky looking but popular spot on the water.  We were asked if we wanted to eat inside or outside, and were lucky enough to get the best seat on the deck, right on the water with no obstructed views.  For everyone else, we were the obstruction obstructing their view.  It was very nice sitting looking at the water on the crowded deck.  Unfortunately, the food was not very good.  My duck was very unexciting, and Edie’s tuna was not worth finishing. [Grade C-]
  10. After breakfast on Saturday, we got in the car and headed further south on Route 13.  Our goal was Norfolk.  But first we stopped at Virginia’s second largest antique mall, spending much more time there than it was worth considering we weren’t looking for anything, didn’t need anything and weren’t going to buy anything.  But it was fun wandering through the aisles and aisles. Back in the car, we got off the highway next at Cape Charles, the last significant town before the tunnel bridge.  What a unique town, with a large beach on the Chesapeake Bay, a trendy commercial area, and some nice homes overlooking the water.  It looked to be in decent shape, but looking on Wikipedia, I see that it had twice the number of people about 100 years ago, and that its per household income is very low, and the percentage of people in poverty is unacceptably high.
  11. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is quite something.  23 miles long, including causeways, bridges, two tunnels, and an island.  If you haven’t driven it, you should.  It’s one of five bridge-tunnels in the world, I am told, three of which are in the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area.  [Grade A]  Before the bridge/tunnel was built in 1960, you had to cross from the Eastern Shore to Norfolk by ferry.  The ferry was discontinued almost immediately after the bridge/tunnel was opened.
  12. When you get off the bridge/tunnel, you are in Norfolk.  Norfolk is one of the cities of the Tidewater area of Virginia known as Hampton Roads – it includes Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News and several other communities. By far the most populated urban area of Virginia, it may be surprising, but neither of us had ever been there.  Our time was, of course, short (we were staying over only one night) and wanted to see as much as we could.  We started at the Chrysler Museum of Art, the main art museum of Norfolk, and the home of Walter Chrysler’s wonderful art collection (among other treasures).  Chrysler had married a woman from Norfolk.  Let us just say that the Chrysler Museum is a terrific, should-see museum (must like the Toledo Museum of Art that we went to last summer).  We spent about two hours there (and had lunch in their cafe [Grade B]) and only saw about half of the museum – the contemporary art, the more traditional American and European art, the older religious art.  We also saw some of the special exhibits:  Thomas Hart Benton at his Navy sketches and paintings (early works when Benton was in the Navy) [Grade B], the photographs of Glen McClure, depicting Shipyard Workers of Hampton Roads [Grade A++], the Pilchuk Prints (prints made using glass by a large number of artists, some very well known) [B+] and George Sosnak’s decorated baseballs [Grade B].  Definitely want to go back to the museum – admission is free/parking is free. [Grade A]
  13. From the museum, we took a rather unstructured, but interesting, drive.  First, we discovered that, in downtown Norfolk there is an impressive monument to General Douglas MacArthur.  We also discovered a beautiful old residential area with homes and town homes, all in deep red brick, large trees shading everything, and cobblestone streets.  A wonderful area.  We then drove to the neighboring city of Portsmouth because we wanted to see the Norfolk Navy Yard (who knew that the Norfolk Yard was in Portsmouth?).  We were too late for the tour, so could only look at the perimeter.  If you didn’t already know or guess, here is the truth: it is really big.  We then learned that Portsmouth also had an old residential area, very different from Norfolk’s, but equally interesting.  It is frame and shingle, not brick, but very well maintained and appealing.
  14. From Portsmouth, we let Google Maps lead us across another bridge/tunnel, this time to Newport News, where we spent the night at a Hilton Garden Inn (Grade B) and had dinner at the Second Street Cafe nearby.  We sat out on the patio, with a nice view of the shopping center parking lot.  Good service, the food was ordinary [Grade B-]
  15. Now, it was Sunday morning, and the entire morning was spent at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, located in a park-like area where there are a number of museums and attractions.  I expected this to take an hour or so, but we were there for almost three hours (this included seeing a 3-D 40 minute film on the troubles of coral reefs and their importance – [Grade B]). We did not see everything in the Mariners Museum but we did see the reconstruction of the USS Monitor, the artifacts from the undersea ruins of the Monitor, information about its discovery and how the artifacts were rescued, and much more on this ship, as well as the history of the Civil War at sea and especially the history of the Monitor and the Merrimack (later the Virginia) which participated in the first battle between two iron-clad ships.  But there are also large exhibits of the Navy from the Revolutionary War through modern wars, the America Cup ships, the Age of Exploration (Columbus, Cook, etc), and many, many models of ships of all sorts.  There is so much here, and so much to learn, that you cannot begin to absorb the entire museum in one visit.  You must come back.  [Grade A+].
  16. Leaving the museum, we had a modest Mexican lunch at Cafe Azteca [Grade B-] and then drove the surprisingly busy highway to Tappahannock VA on the Rappahannock River.  A small and not particularly appealing town, we stayed at the Essex Inn, a bed and breakfast consisting of 4 rooms in the main house, built in 1851, and several suites in a separate building, former slave quarters from the 1840s.  Run by two talented men, it is beautifully decorated, with very comfortable public space, and comes with first class breakfasts.  Not sure that Tappahannock is a place that you need to visit, but if it is, this is clearly the place to stay [Grade A].  We had dinner at Lowery’s Restaurant, which has been thriving since the 1930s, but may have seen better days.  One thing we noticed at the crowded Lowery’s is that everyone there needed to lose about 50 pounds.  Weird. [Grade C+].  After supper, back to the B & B, and watched Howie Kendrick hit a walk off grand slam home run in the 11th to lead the Nats over the Giants, 6-2.  Very nice.
  17. Nothing much to report on Monday morning.  The drive home took longer than I expected mainly because I decided to go over the Potomac at Port Royal and come up through Prince George’s County, rather than switching over to I-95 at Fredericksburg.  Mistake, I believe.  Home about 1 p.m.






Dr. Caligari

Last year, we attended a showing of Fritz Lang’s dystopian silent film, Metropolis, a production of Washington’s Constellation Theatre. The film was accompanied by a masterful performance by percussionist, sound designer and one man band Tom Teasley (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Teasley’s complex music was accompanied by the movie). It was a bravura performance of every type of drum and cymbal and all sorts of things that can be blown, shaken or scratched. Along with all sorts of computers and electronic devices. And the classic film is fascinating.

Last night, there was a reprise of sorts. The same theater, the same Teasley, but this time it was the 1920 German film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Well, I guess it’s true. You can’t go home again. The film is interesting, to be sure, but not what I would call entertaining. And Teasley’s accompaniment was accomplished and very energetic, but to me lacked last year’s “wow” factor.

As far as the movie goes, sure it’s a classic. And quirky. But also hard to follow at times and not very interesting. The director of the mental hospital hypnotizes someone who becomes his somnambulist, asleep until commanded to awaken and kill. Who needs it? And as an analogy to the mean spirited government and sleepwalking populace? Doesn’t do it for me.


So we saw “Dunkirk” this evening. A box office success. All my friends seem to think it’s a great film. Wish I thought the same, but it left me cold.

Now I’m not generally a fan of war movies. Maybe that has something to do with it. And maybe not.

The Dunkirk evacuation was really a miracle. In many respects. One was simply the evacuation of about 350,000 troops, British and French, from the beach at Dunkirk to the relative safety of England in less than ten days. (About 1/3 of those evacuated were French, but you wouldn’t know that from the film.) They were able to escape because, for reasons not fully understood even today, the German ground troops did not pursue them once they had them encircled. (The film did not discuss this aspect of the situation and did not speculate on whether Germany would have won the war if they had not stopped advancing.)

It is true that Churchill thought only about 30,000 troops would be rescued. And it’s true that the Germans did attack the evacuation vessels from the air and at sea. Apparently Britain and Germany lost a comparable number of planes, but the British got the worst of it at sea. From what I read, Britain lost about 25% of the ships involved with the rescue, about 200 of 800.

And that leads me to my big question. I read that Britain lost about 11,000 men who were being evacuated, while over 200,000 Brits were saved. How is that possible if 200 ships went down?

Back to the film. The film was filled with continual acts of extraordinary courage. Every British soldier was a hero (of the “able to leap over tall buildings at a single bound” variety). Jumping off sinking ships, swimming for hours dressed in full battle gear in the always cold English Channel. Showing enormous courage while being strafed by German planes. Yes, every man a hero. No one was afraid, no one fell apart (except for the pilot rescued out of the Sea after being shot down), no one hesitated. How realistic is that?

The plot (or rather the three plots) were hard to follow, and I missed at least half the dialogue. (“Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”)

We saw the film at the Avalon, and I think that colored my thinking as well. This film requires an IMAX. 

So there you have it. Interesting to watch. Made me think. But a great film? Not to me.

Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee, Watergate and Watergate Redux

I hadn’t thought a lot about Watergate until recently. But about a month or so ago, I read Bob Woodward’s The Secret Man, the story of Deep Throat, and watched All the President’s Men. And I just finished Ben Bradlee’s memoir A Good Life .

My purpose here is not to compare Watergate with the current Russia investigation. But rather to think about the role of the press. Or, as some call it, the “mainstream media”.

The media was very different in the early 1970s. There was network news but no cable news, and – although there was a long history of muckraking – investigatory journalism had really not yet been invented.

So when Woodward and Bernstein began to look at the Watergate break-in and discovered that at least one of the five burglars had been a CIA official and two of them were in contact with Howard Hunt at the White House, they were lucky enough to have no competition, and to work for a financially struggling newspaper which gave them pretty well free reign, at some risk.

As it turned out, Woodward and Bernstein became heroes and investigative journalism was born.

Today, of course, hundreds of journalists for print, on-line and cable media are tripping over themselves looking for signs of Trump-Russian connivance, and pointing out the myriad of self-inflicted Trump snafus and stumbles.

Of course, some things have not changed. Investigative reporter’s still rely on leaks and inside sources which all administrations look to root out without success. Everything negative reported about the government’s activities are now, as then, vehemently denied, with most of the denials easily challenged. And government officials continually attack the press both for bias and for inaccurate  (and often purposely so) reporting. This is all the same – 1972 or 2017.

Reading The Secret Man you realize the importance of sources. Mark Felt, Deep Throat, was #2 at the FBI, and bitter that he had been passed over for Director after J. Edgar Hoover died. So he was mad at Nixon – is this why he became a source for Woodward? Or is it because Felt and Woodward had known each other for years with Felt sometimes acting as a mentor for the much younger Woodward? (In the film, the identity of Deep Throat was still unknown, so nothing about his connection to Woodward or his bitterness was hinted at.)

But you learn from reading Woodward how hard he and Bernstein worked on Watergate, but also, with Felt, how important connections are. And when you read Bradlee, it’s the connections which seem the more important.

Bradlee worked as a foreign correspondent, as a reporter for the Washington Post and Newsweek, and then as managing editor and executive editor of the Post, holding the last job for over 20 years. If I had had the opportunity to meet Bradlee, I think I would have disliked him. Too much of a sense of privilege and noblesse oblige. He came from a prominent Boston family with connection after connection, he was tall, thin and personable. He fooled around through Harvard, married a Saltonstall and joined the Navy. After four exciting years in the South Pacific, and a turn as a fun loving American reporter in Paris (with diversions in Israel and Algeria), he divorced the Saltonstall and married a Pinchot.

Moving back to Washington, he bought a Georgetown house and soon found himself a neighbor of Senator John F. Kennedy and his young wife Jackie. Through his background, his wives, his jobs and his neighbors, he knew absolutely everyone. If you want to be executive editor of the Washington Post, these connections are central. (By the way, Bradlee divorced the Pinchot and married Sally Quinn. This marriage worked, lasting over 30 years until Bradlee died. But, with his first two wives, and three children, he was far from being an ideal husband or father.)

Both of these books are worth reading. Woodward’s relationship with Felt is absolutely fascinating. And Bradlee, like him or not, gives a very readable account of Watergate, along with interesting stories of his youth, his Navy service, his time in Paris, and other big stories, including Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, and many other stories, with an emphasis on how they were covered by the paper and the choices that had to be made regarding their publication.

Journalism has never been easy. And, in case you haven’t figured this out, it is not an exact science.

Dennis Prager and Pumpkin Muffins

1. I wasn’t going to listen to Radio Sputnik again today, so I went to one of Washington’s many, many AM talk show stations (right wing all) and spent a half hour with Dennis Prager, who is typical of the lot. I learned that the third hour of his show on Tuesdays is devoted to “Ultimate Issues”. Who knew? Or cared? Today, the “Ultimate Issue” was God – about as ultimate as you can get.

He kept referring to a recent New York Times article written by a secular graduate student, who seemed to be arguing that a happy life required a purpose. This led Prager, a self defined religious Jew, to conclude that you cannot have a purpose if you don’t believe in God, and therefore a secular argument for purpose (and thus happiness) must either fail, or be in fact an argument for God even if the person making the argument does not realize it. At least, that is how I interpreted Prager.

Basically, he said that “everyone” knows that you are only able to be happy if you have a purpose, and that without God, the universe is meaningless (no reason for it to be here and at some point it will disappear), so you need to believe in God to have a purpose, to put meaning into the universe, and to be happy. And he believes the public schools shoukd teach this. He was clear to say he was not (today) trying to prove the existence of God, just to say that a belief in God is required to be able to lead a meaningful life. 

How many times have I heard this argument, which to me makes absolutely no sense as a generalization? Even if you accept the premise that a purpose is necessary for happiness, it seems clear to me that a belief in God is important for some people in this regard, and irrelevant to those happy secularists who find enough purpose In serving their fellow human beings and being a custodian of the planet.

Although this hour was not political in the typical talk radio sense, Prager did get his swipes in at “the left” which is a secular group and whose adherants have a mean streak, such as feminists who apparently conclude that women who don’t agree either are not women, blacks who conclude that blacks who don’t agree with them are not black, and Jews who think that Jews who don’t agree with them are Nazis. There is no comparable mean strike in members of the right (Dennis, are you serious?), and the alt-right doesn’t exist. 

Prager has been involved in some controversy regarding Islam, such as when he told then recently elected US representative Keith Ellison that he should not be allowed to swear on a Koran at his inauguration. He obviously is anti-Islamist, he’s a strong Zionist, and I frankly don’t know what he thinks about the average Muslim on the street. 

And anti-Islamist as he is, it seems to me he doesnt realize that he is doing a good job describing the Islamist movements as he talks about purpose and happiness in regard to the NYT article.

Islamists believe in God, they are 100 percent purpose driven, and they appear (in their way) happy. As for me, I would prefer secularists any day of the week, purpose driven, happy secularists.

So, Prager’s one size fits all definition of how happy people must look at God and the universe doesn’t stand up. People are different. They view the universe differently and different things make them happy.

Religion is a wonderful aide for many people – perhaps for most people. But it is dangerous when it creeps into the public sphere. This is why separation of church and state is so important. There is nothing more frightening than a religious-driven state enlisting the help of its religious (by either instinct or requirement) citizenry to lead a purposeful life by fulfilling the aims of their God. And this is where the Dennis Pragers of the world will lead us if we don’t watch out.

2. I ordered a Morning Glory muffin this morning at Firehook in Cleveland Park this morning, and from the first bite I didn’t like it. In fact, when I had eaten just about half, I decided to call it quits. It was only then when I looked at it and didn’t see the raisins, the carrots or the pineapple that I realized that I had been given a pumpkin muffin. I don’t like pumpkin muffins. At all. And it was too late to do anything about it.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

A Few Thoughts

1. I got my hair cut this afternoon. My barber was a 49 year old woman originally from the Philippines, now a U.S. citizen. We began to talk about President Duterte and his war on drug dealers and users. According to news reports, Duterte campaigned on an anti-drug program. HE encouraged the killing of both pushers and users, and thousands of people have been killed extrajudicially by the army, police or vigilante groups. Although Duterte faces international condemnation, polling has showed he is surprisingly popular in the Philippines. 

Back to the barber shop: my barber was an unabashed fan of Duterte. She believes that the people being targeted are not simple addicts or low level runners, but people at or near the top – established businessmen, government officials and the wealthy. Of course, this is not what has been reported, but she is convinced.

She also believes that, prior to Dutarte, the Philippines was a failing, corrupt, crime ridden society, and that Duterte has changed that. It is now a much safer, and more pleasant place. Again, this is not what the media is reporting.

Of course, I know little about the Philippines and I didn’t try to argue too hard with the barber (of course, she was the one with the scissors and razors). But how different is this from Trump supporters in this country. It shows a type of thinking, not limited to the United States, not limited to the Philippines, but common to people world-wide. I didn’t ask her, but – for example – is there any question but that my barber is a Trump supporter?

2. I don’t own an HD2 radio. I’m not even sure I know what an HD2 radio is. But WAMU, American University’s very popular NPR station, has long had (and I think still has) an HD2 station which specializes in bluegrass music. Some months ago, I discovered that I could listen to this station at 105.5 on the regular FM dial.

Today, however, this is no longer the case. Go to 105.5 FM and you hear all-talk Radio Sputnik, the English language voice of the Russian government masquerading as a news station. Radio Sputnik is as offensive as right wing talk radio, but its bias is not alt-right but rather pro-Putin. I listened for about 20 minutes, learning how US sanctions on Russia were going to undermine the security of NATO and that Europe was 100 percent against them, that the Russians have no claim on the Baltic states and how different that situation is from the Ukraine (a recent victim of a US orchestrated coup) where the people wanted Russian intervention, that the US might militarily invade Venezuela, and that North Korean bombs and missiles are no big deal.

What’s going on here? How did bluegrass turn into Russian propaganda? To answer this question, I turned to Professor Wikipedia. I quote:

“This came on the heels of a late June 2017 announcement that Radio Sputnik would sublease Reston, Virginia licensed translator station W288BS  (105.5 FM) from Reston Translator, LLC, which transmits,from the WIAD tower in Bethesda, Maryland and begin broadcasting Sputnik on that signal….Sputnik cannot own an American radio station outright due to FCC rules against foreign ownership of broadcast assets, as enacted in the Communications Act of 1934. Prior to July 1, 2017, Radio Sputnik…had broadcast in the Washington DC area on WTOP-HD2 (103.5HD2) since June 2013”.

As I said, I don’t understand HD2 radio. I guess I don’t understand subleasing FM stations, I don’t understand what a translator station is. But I do understand that THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE. You agree?

Six Books (27 cents)

I just wrote a very complete post with reviews of six books, “Gideon’s Week” (a British mystery written by an author who wrote 600+ books), “Jerry Wolman: the World’s Richest Man”  (Pennsylvania mining town to become Washington’s most successful developer, then owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and Flyers, then developer of the Hancock Tower in Chicago, which had massive construction problems, leading to the construction lender calling its loan and the loss of Wolman’s fortune), “Close to Shore” (shark attacks on the Jersey shore in 1916 and the first realization that white sharks are killers), “Those Angry Days” (massive political differences about whether the US should enter the European conflict prior to the bombing of Pear Harbor by the Japanese – differences as strong as today’s), “Holy War, Inc.” (the background of bin Laden and the wide array of Islamist terrorists around the world), and “The Myths of August” (deception in the American atomic industry, including whether Germany was racing to develop a bomb, whether Hirsohima was necessary or moral, why there was coverup of the dangers of radioactive testing fallout, was the Cold War necessary).

Then, WordPress ate my long post.  It has vanished and I am not sure why.  But I am convinced it is gone.  Too bad.

And Another Three by Philip Roth (58 cents)

Well, I finally re-read Portnoy’s Complaint, written in 1967 (the year I graduated law school).  You can appreciate the controversy over the scatalogical language and subject matter at the time (today, it would be more ho-hum, I guess) and you still have to take some deep breaths to get beyond it.  Once you do that, Portnoy becomes a very clever, well written satirical book.  Poor Alexander Portnoy, growing up in the house where his father has chronic unrelieved constipation, where Alex himself has a continual case of what I would term pseudo-diarrhea, and where is mother has definite opinions about everything and is certain that she is always right.  Of course, Portnoy eventually sort of escapes his family and tries to seek appropriate relationships with members of the other sex (often just in his imagination), and sort of struggles with his exaggerated relationship with The Monkey (she is called that because she likes to watch others having sex, while she eats bananas).  Poor Dr. Spielvogel has a lot of work ahead of him.

Then I finally read Zuckerman Unbound, the second of nine books featuring Roth’s sort-of alter ego. In the first major Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer, the young would-be writer Zuckerman visits the home of older writer E.I. Lonoff, and learns some of the domestic drama of the Lonoff home.  In Zuckerman Unbound, we find that Zuckerman has written Carnovsky, a novel which has hit the country by storm, and which has turned Zuckerman’s life around.  Yes, he can no longer lead the simple life, try as he might.  Recognized on the street by strangers, he is stalked by one, another would-be writer from the same Newark neighborhood, who threatens him with, a mixture of fact and fantasy, he has a brief relationship with a famous actress who has her own relationship problems, and he sets his relationship with his brother, which permeates several future novels.  How much is Philip Roth Nathan Zuckerman and how much is Carnovsky Portnoy’s complaint.  Much has been written – we do not know the answer.

The third book I read was a more recent book, Deception, and I found this one a bit harder to follow, in large part because of its format.  It’s not a Zuckerman book, but concerns another writer and his mistress in London.  The writer is married, the mistress is married, and their affair is not exactly what you would have imagined.  The amount of physical sex, if any, is unclear – their afternoon affair is largely a matter of talking out their problems and frustrations – with their mates and with each other.  And the affair ends, and others take it place, but they do come together at the end.  And none of the affairs are satisfactory, because each character has two lives – a real life and a fantasy life, and it is the fantasy life that leads to an alternative real life, which in turn generates its own fantasy life.  Never ending, it would appear.  Why is the book hard to follow? Because its not a narrative – it is all dialogue – and it jumps from here to there and back to here again.  Just hard to follow.

Four Events ($11.57)

Over the past week:

  1. The 80 or so people in the audience today at Epiphany Church were treated to a wonderful solo piano concert by Jocelyn Swigger, currently an associate professor at Gettysburg College.  She played 15 Chopin etudes, starting with the later “Nouvelle Etudes” and finishing with the 12 etudes in Opus 25.  Not only did she play remarkably well, but before she started Opus 25, she gave a capsule rundown of each of the pieces, explaining why they were named “Aeolian Harp”, “The Bees”, “The Horseman”, etc., and demonstrating the main themes of each.  So it was a learning experience as well as a teaching experience, and Swigger (called in her short bio a “musical omnivore” who plays old, new, classical, jazz and rock piano and is now teaching herself the ukulele) excelled at both.
  2. Sunday night, we went to the final performance of Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American” at Theater J.  Extraordinary (and very demanding and technically difficult) acting by Eric Hissom and Thomas Keegan.  The play won a major award in 2013, but I must say that, although I appreciated the complexity of the dialogue between the two, role-shifting actors, I must admit to not really caring for the play. 100 minutes (10-15 too many?) of very intense interaction between the playwright (one of the actors portrays O’Brien) and war photographer Paul Watson, the story is a true one, based on the actual relationship of the two as O’Brien decided to write a play about Watson.  But apparently the only play he could write about him was a play about wanting to write the play.  It did leave me unsatisfied.
  3. Yesterday lunchtime, I was at the Mary Pickford Theater of the Library of Congress to hear a program based on the accomplishments of Jacob Riis, New York based Danish-American journalist and social reformer of the late 19th century. The accomplished presenter was Barbara Yochelson, art historian and author of a recent book on Riis, a coffee table book which looked very enticing. Riis was a journalist, who for years had the night time police beat in New York and got to know impoverished New York as few middle class residents could have.  He wanted to tell the story of the immigrants and decided that one way to do this was use photography.  He was not a professional photographer – he never worked in a dark room – and he used the photography of others as well as his own, but is considered by some as the pioneer founder of documentary, journalistic photography.  After over twenty years as a reporter, he became a popular lecturer, and he had time to write 13 books, a couple of which were best sellers. Half of her lecture was given to Riis himself and half to the process of putting together not only the book but a major exhibit at the LOC through the summer (which I did not have a chance to see, as it is in a different building), which was equally interesting.
  4. Last Thursday, we saw, in preview, “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Shakespeare Theatre.  A entertaining, but somewhat different version, with contemporary music, an all-male cast, and more comedic elements than usual.  But Kate herself (himself) was less shrewish than I am used to – this had to be intentional.  The play is still being modified before its official opening – it was running over 3 hours.  We will see what they finally do with it.

Read Four More by Philip Roth (Now at 17, with about 13 to go)

I now have read 17 books by Philip Roth over the past several months.  The one that strikes me as the most interesting today is “The Plot Against America” – Roth’s alternative history about Roosevelt’s loss of his third presidential campaign in 1940, where the winning Republican was none other than Charles Lindbergh, hero of the first solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis and leader of the America First movement which pledged to keep the United States out of the Second World War.  So you had a figure admired by many as not an adventurer, but a hero, who had been a victim of the kidnapping and murder of his young son, and who had been outspoken in his praise of Hitlerian Germany.  The public characters are all real historical personalities (the private characters are not); the story is pure fiction.

Throughout the country, Lindbergh’s charisma and program to concentrate on American prosperity, keeping its youth safe from the dangers of war, are very appealing.  Presumably, to every group (although African Americans do not play a role in the book)…….with one exception.  The Jews.  The Jews (or the majority of them) rightly fear Lindbergh’s friendship with the Nazis will only lead to problems, perhaps serious problems, for themselves.  Many of them are immigrants from Europe, and have relatives in Europe, including in Germany.  They see what is happening there and how Europe has turned against them (the Final Solution is not yet even contemplated, of course), and they fear that America is turning against them as well.

Is it a good book or a bad book?  I’m not sure.  It’s engaging, well written, a bit silly, and quite farfetched.

But wait a minute!  It is 2016 and Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. And Philip Roth writes this book again – only this time, his characters are not Jews, they are Muslims.  And President Trump does come up with a way to eliminate further Muslim immigration, and he investigates existing Muslim families, and Muslims begin to be socially isolated and lose employment opportunities, and there are arrests made, and militia groups crop up that take things into their own hands and, countering them, Muslims begin to form their own groups and riots occur, and the government begins to determine that Muslims are out to overthrow the U.S. government and retaliates by more arrests and deportations, and Muslim nations worldwide respond (as only they can) and the U.S. can get no OPEC oil, and our citizens abroad begin to be arrested, and Europe (under increasing Muslim influence) begins to oppose the U.S. on many fronts, and on and on.  He could write a great book (hey, hold on, why don’t I write it?)

All of a sudden, “The Plot Against America” seems a little less farfetched.  Perhaps this is a book we should all be reading now.

OK, three more.  “Sabbath’s Theater” won a National Book Award for Roth, but I am not sure why.  It seems, in fact, that Roth’s award winning books are not his best (in my opinion, at least); I am not sure what this says.  Mickey Sabbath is a former puppeteer who falls out of love with his wife, more or less, and into love, more or less, with the wife of a Yugoslavian innkeeper.  He doesn’t work, he is broke, he loses his mental marbles, he takes advantage of an old successful show business buddy after the death of a mutual friend, he winds up in a mental institution where he finds a new girlfriend (the relationship is not to last), he meets his crazy 100 year old cousin, and he engages in all sorts of obscene, offensive, and illogical acts.  This is a book I would just as well forget.

Moving on:

I had read “The Counterlife” several years ago in a class and was very impressed.  I read it again, and my mind has not changed.  As in so many of his novels, it is the structure that intrigues me more than anything else.  Nathan Zuckerman is back in “The Counterlife” (he played no part in the two books  mentioned above).  Nathan and his brother Henry.  The book is divided into five parts.  In the first part, Nathan’s brother has died as a result of failed cardiac surgery, and Nathan is left to clean up Henry’s mess.  In the second part, Henry does not die, but survives the surgery, and determines, upon recovery, to leave everything behind (wife, children, medical practice, etc.) and move to a kibbutz in the south of Israel where he will start from scratch and become an authentic Jew, again leaving Nathan with a mess.

The third part is like an intermezzo.  Nathan is flying back to London (where he lives) from meeting with his brother on the kibbutz.  He runs into a young man he knew before from New Jersey, who is on the plane disguised as a religious Jew, but in fact intending to blow up the plane (to bring about the renaissance of the Jewish people – don’t ask).  His plot is foiled, and he is arrested by security officials on the plane.  Unfortunately, the officials decide that Nathan is his co-conspirator, and he two is arrested and roughed up.  And things get worse from there.

Part four is a reversal of the first two parts.  It is Nathan who needs the surgery and who dies as a result of it.  And it is Henry left to clean up the mess.  (An interesting mess, since Henry is having an affair with his assistant, and he knows that Nathan the writer must have written about it, and that he has to destroy the material before his wife finds out about it, and he does by destroying what, in fact, are the first two parts of “The Counterlife”).

And naturally, in the fifth part, Nathan is fine, living with his new English wife in London.  They are both ready for the rest of their happy lives, but of course, this does not happen, as Nathan begins to be convinced that his wife is really an anti-Semite and, by the time he gets through with her, she is.  Oy.

A great book.

Finally, I read “The Humbling”, a short book, which I liked quite a bit (but which does not seem to have been particularly well reviewed).  It’s about an aging actor (about 65), who all of a sudden has a psychological breakdown because he can no longer imagine himself in any role.  He puts himself into a psychiatric facility for about a month, leaving no longer a danger to himself, but still unable to work or act.  He wife has walked out on him, but he meets a woman 25 years his junior (the daughter of old theater friends) and they start their own affair – she has spent the last 17 years in a lesbian relationship but decides she wants to try men.  They fall in love, he is saved, she decides that, in fact, she really is a lesbian, and he is lost.  For good.  Again, I liked it.