Thursday, July 2, 2015

Books: THE MAGNIFICENT MASTERS

The On-Call Read-a-Thon continues in this household. The Magificent Masters is an account of the 1975 Masters golf tournament, one of the better ones that ever took place, in which Jack Nicklaus went head-to-head with Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf and emerged victorious because, well, he was Jack Nicklaus and they weren't. Reading this book is a bit of a dull echo for a modern reader; players in the mid-70's behaved and believed in much the same way that PGA players in the heyday of Tiger Woods did--that many times, they were playing for second place, and that the Bear was never out of any tournament. And for me, even though I wasn't really into golf at that point in my life, virtually all the golfers given any space in the narrative were familiar to me from a wonderful golf book from forty years ago, Massacre at Winged Foot, an account of the 1974 US Open. Author Gil Capps spends a little too much time on biographical details, in my opinion, prior to the golfers turning pro, but that's a quibble; it was a great contest and a memorable one, and it also provides quite a contrast to what the tournament has become today--wall-to-wall TV coverage, every hole shown, a lot more "tradition" than there once was. 1975 was the 41st Masters, and next year's tournament will be the 41st since 1975. Nicklaus is seventy-five now, the others also eligible for Social Security, and it all seems like a long, long time ago.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Review: THE FIFTH GOSPEL

If there is an advantage to being sick while on-call, it's that I am home a lot, and since I much prefer reading to any other form of sedentary activity--and because apparently monsoon season started here last Saturday; it's rained, more or less all day, three of the last four days--I've been able to plow through a number of books in the queue. I have a weakness for books like Ian Caldwell's The Fifth Gospel. I lost the faith in the Catholicism I was raised in nearly forty years ago, and while I was more comfortable in the Orthodox Church while I was married, that, too, eventually was found wanting. But I remain very interested in both of the major branches of Christianity--it's not the most politic things to say in the United States, but at least three-quarters of Protestant sects are as strange, rigid, and ultimately self-righteously wrong and wrong-headed as Wahhabi Islam or Orthodox Judaism or other extreme sects, and Protestantism holds little fascination for me--and, claptrap like The Davinci Code notwithstanding, I will always check out a novel that has as its plot something to do with discovering something about the origins of Christianity.
This novel starts with a rather novel premise, one that most readers are not familiar with, but one that I am, due to the circumstance of having lived where I do for a long time: there are Eastern Rite churches that recognize the Pope as the head of the Church rather than one of the Patriarchs (there are at least two and maybe more of those denominations in this area), churches that are indistinguishable from Orthodox churches except for who heads it. And the protagonist of the book is a Greek Catholic priest, married (and separated, involuntarily) with a son, based in the Vatican, along with his older brother, a Catholic priest. The novel is set in 2004, in the waning days of John Paul II's pontificate, and the plot revolves around the death of an archaeologist that is putting together an exhibition at the Vatican Museum prominently featuring both the Shroud of Turin and a fifth gospel from antiquity that attempts to reconcile the contradictions of the existing four. It becomes fairly clear early on what the surface motivation is--some powers in the Catholic Church do not want the supposed evidence that the Shroud was stolen in the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade to come to light. But there is a bigger secret that was being held, one that does not come to light until the very end, and which renders much of the controversy moot. And along the way, a number of secondary threads--the revival of the marriage, church politics, Church procedure, how intricate and gnarled Vatican power webs are, as well as Vatican relations with Italy--are skillfully woven in and handled.
This is a pretty good book. If I actually believed that there was a possibility that the Shroud of Turin was the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth, it would probably be more interesting to me, but it isn't (I really don't want to spend a lot of words going into this this morning, but suffice it to say that there is a very plausible explanation for it that fits the evidence we have for it--when it appeared, where it was found, and the radiocarbon dating of its age--very well). But this will keep your attention for a day or three.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bad And Worse

There are few things in the world more of a pain in the ass than being on-call for an entire, state-wide agency. I've come to terms with it, as I mentioned a week ago, but there are times and nights when you say to yourself, "I could four thousand dollars a week for being on-call, and it's not worth it." Yesterday was one of those times; I was on the phone more or less constantly, including during our softball game, for pretty three and a half hours without pauses of more than a few minutes. It was quite a sight, I'm told, of me coaching first base talking on the phone with someone in Columbia County, and walking away in the middle of an inning because I had to go to the car to look up a number. And then the matter really blew up when I got home, to the point where by 10 o'clock, I was shaking--with fatigue, I thought.
But it was more than that. I have not been feeling good for over a week now--achy, sometimes breaking out in sweats, sometimes headaches. But last night, when I went to go to bed, I had a shivering fit like I have not had since I was a kid--I honestly think I bruised my right arm. And then I slept fitfully, and really felt hot about 2 AM--and discovered I had a 103.5 fever. I took ibuprofen and stripped to underwear, and have been sweating it out for three hours now, to the point where the fever is gone--and I've drank more water in the last three hours than I have in a week. And I got very lucky that the phone did not ring after ten o'clock; I doubt I would have been able to deal with it in any sort of constructive fashion.
And I am hoping that taking today off and lounging around the house will help finally get me on top of whatever has been ailing me for about the last two weeks. There's been no congestion issues, so this is kind of a new one on me; I can't recall having aches and pains with fever with no congestion at all ever before. I really have tried to stay away from Web MD and stuff like that, because I'll end up convincing myself I have something exotic like e coli poisoning or something. I think the most likely suspect is some sort of upper respiratory infection--apparently sometimes they do not lead to congestion.
I just want this to be done with.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: SATAN'S LULLABY

I discovered Priscilla Royal and her nice little series of medieval mysteries, centered around Catholic priory run by nuns, last year. Satan's Lullaby only whets the appetite for more volumes. The characters, both the recurring and the new ones central to this particular plotline (the priory is being investigated by someone high up the church hierarchy, but the investigation, it turns our rather quickly, is a ruse, covering other motives), are unforgettable, and more importantly, easily believable, even the more villainous. The actual story is somewhat complicated, as is much of life, and the "conspiracies" that affect the story turn out to be small-scale, imperfect, and motivated by personal factors--just like real life. It is extremely refreshing to read great stories that people act like people you and I would recognize; if there is one thing I have grown sick of, it is these yarns set in the present that involve these vast conspiracies that involve everyone from the neighbor to Lex Luthor, yet somehow manage to remain undetected for years.
And the book is relatively short--less than 250 pages. It took me four hours to read.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: THE AGE OF ACQUIESCENCE

I had huge hopes for Steve Fraser's The Age of Acquiescence. The title, the book jacket, the subject matter all promised a deep look into a subject near and dear to my heart--why most of America seems to be passively (or at least was before 2011) accepting their own marginalization and relegation to penury in the "modern" United States of America. There is so much that can be said on this subject, and so much material to work with, that the last thing I really expected was that this book would be a burden to slog through.
But it was. The first half was tedious but, all things considered, part of the author's thesis. It was a review of the generation between then end of Reconstruction and the election of Woodrow Wilson--what we normally call The Gilded Age. Fraser takes a couple hundred pages to establish that the environment wasn't all that different than it is now; the main difference was that the United States was in the midst of gigantic economic expansion, not stagnation, and certainly was not exporting its jobs overseas--but the same accumulation of capital at the top of society was taking place, and the working class was being treated with disregard.
The second half was tedious, absolutely unreadable at times, and talked about little other than the decline of labor unions. NAFTA got a few pages; the "perpetual war" culture that made dissent seem unpatriotic for a decade was not mentioned once; and the Great Recession received a cursory and deeply unsatisfying treatment.
As to what he did write about--I really can barely recall. Certainly nothing earthshaking, and more a recitation of a snapshot of decline rather than any true explanation of why. 
This book was 400 of the least interesting and informative pages I have ever read.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Quite A Week

Sometimes it seems as though things, important things, can be stuck in the same fashion for years and even decades. And then, with surprising and even frightening speed, movement comes, and the world quakes a little and, depending on your perspective, either becomes a better place or starts descending to hell in the express elevator. This has been one of those weeks, where no less than four epoch-changing events have taken place. For those of us who lean progressive, who have taken a series of body punches to our values for four decades, it was on balance a good week, because three of the four developments broke in our favor. But the it's the fourth that may have the most long-lasting effect, and may end up negating all the good gained by the other three--mainly because it affects our economic lives rather than our social or medical.
The first development has come about as a result of the Charleston mass murders. The ubiquity of the Confederate flag(s) in this country has long been a sore point for many people. Black Americans certainly view the Stars and Bars as a celebration of racism, and many whites agree. Others, like me, have viewed anything celebrating the Confederacy as a celebration of treason, and are appalled that a symbol of rebellion is so revered. Whites of a certain stripe have vehemently claimed that it is merely a symbol of "heritage" and "Southern pride." It has been a divisive issue virtually since the Civil War ended, but the flag(s) have become so entrenched in the national consciousness that it seemed like we were stuck with it more or less forever. Until, suddenly, we're not. In the wake of the undeniably racist murders, and the accused killer's use of the Stars and Bars as a symbol of his own racial views. a whole lot of people have, in the blink of an eye, decided that the flag stands for things that not only they do not, but that they find morally repugnant--and a fierce storm has ensued as major retail outlets vowed to ban Confederate merchandise; several Southern states have begun actions to take the flag down from their buildings; and those that defend the flag as a symbol of heritage are increasingly marginalized and relying on dubious arguments and comparisons to justify their views. My personal favorite is the Facebook post that shows the flag in the top half, and a picture of three black youth with their pants belted below their ass in the bottom, and the statement "If you find this"--the flag--"offensive and want to ban it, I find this"--the pants--"offensive and want it banned, too." Like there is any comparison between a flag that was flown by state governments and armies that engaged in a four-year war against their country that centered on the idea that it was just and right for white people to own black people and an admittedly repulsive fashion statement by perhaps a half a percent of the population under the age of 30. One is a celebration of treason sanctioned by state governmental authority; one is people acting stupid on their own, thumbing their nose at convention. While I certainly don't like seeing people wearing their pants belted below their ass, I also have an IQ above 12, and realize that the two are absolutely not comparable. And it is a measure of how intellectually and morally indefensible that "pride" in a symbol of treason and, for many Americans, racism and a legacy of oppression is that insipid and juvenile comparisons need to be resorted to in order to justify the unjustifiable.
Then early this week, the Supreme Court, by a rather surprising 6-3 vote, upheld the Affordable Care Act. Predictably, the ignorosi came out in full-throated outrage as soon as the decision was announced. I'm not a legal scholar, but I do know this much: 1) Sixteen million Americans have health insurance now that did not have it in 2010. I think even the most idiotic and stupid redneck would grudgingly agree that this is a good thing. 2) A ruling that went the opposite way would have ended insurance for six million of those people. 3) Legally, the decision seemed consistent with the law--as i said, I'm not a lawyer, but this doesn't seem to be as much of a reach as the original decision upholding Obamacare was in 2012, and 4) No one that opposes Obamacare has proposed anything remotely resembling a solution to the health care issue, so there was literally no real alternative to letting the law stand unless you were OK with people with health insurance having it taken away from them. I'm not a fan of John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy, but, unlike the troika of human refuse that Alito, Scalia, and Thomas are, they show an awareness that what they do and decide affects human beings and isn't just a mere abstract intellectual exercise, and act accordingly. And again, the reaction and outrage from some elements of the population was both amusing and alarming. One guy seriously wrote an article positing that he thinks that Roberts has been brainwashed by Obama. There were cries from all sorts of people, most of whom cannot spell "law" without having to think hard about it, that justices of the United States Supreme Court don't know the law. And the House of Representatives has decided, as a remedy, to pass yet another measure advocating the repeal of Obamacare--the 54th time they have done so, and the 54th time they have done so without having any sort of plan on the table to replace it.
And the third occasion came yesterday, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to make bans on gay marriage unconstitutional everywhere in the land. I have not understood, since gay rights first became an issue many years ago, why people really get worked up about anything concerning gay people. Seriously--who really cares? Does it make your life better to make sure that people that find the same sex attractive can't enjoy the same quality of life that you do? I used to find it amusing that so many of the people that get so exercised about gay marriage are the same people that are virulently anti-Muslim and (not all of them, but more than than is openly acknowledged) anti-Semitic. If you think that being a practicing Christian requires you to be discriminatory toward other people, then fine: you're a jackass that completely missed the message of the Gospels, but I don't deny you your right to believe what you want. But I will be damned if your narrow bigoted views are going to be the law that we all have to live under. These people are no better than the mullahs that run Iran, or the imams that run Saudi Arabia--or the Puritans that burned people at the stake 325 years ago. The law of the land does not permit discrimination for any reason. End of story. Get over it. No one, no law, is saying that gay people must be married in churches now, but it is saying that the civil union, sanctioned by our governments in order to make available to all the good that marriages are to all of us, cannot be withheld from people whose partners are of the same sex. And the reaction and howls of outrage are even more amusing--and disturbing-- then those surrounding the ACA decision. Ted Cruz actually seriously proposed that Supreme Court justices be made subject to elections (there's a part of me that actually would want to see that; there is no way that Scalia, Alito, Thomas, or even Roberts would be on the Court if they had to win a majority of votes of the citizenry). And the predictable slippery-slope, fire-and-brimstone, nonsense arguments predicting the doom of society as we know it are already being heard.
Which brings up something that needs to be addressed. Remember all the dire predictions about runaway health care costs becoming normal when the ACA was passed? Remember the predictions of "death panels," of forced contraception, of half the world getting insurance  bankrupting companies and causing job losses because of pre-existing conditions? BULLSHIT--all of it. ALL of it turned out to be bullshit. And going back clear to the 1960's--remember when all these conservative, redneck people made dire predictions that desegregation and actual civil rights for blacks would lead to anarchy, race war, and massive upheaval in society? None of it happened. When gay rights first started becoming an issue about two decades ago--remember the dire predictions of wars being lost because gay lovers would lose military discipline in the foxholes, and that gay teachers would ensure that our children would all turn out to be gay when they grew up? It's inconvenient for those of that political persuasion to remember all that now--because hysteria, prejudice, and fear are not real arguments. A friend of mine that took mild issue with a post I wrote earlier in the week on the flag controversy wondered why I don't make more of an effort to find "thoughtful" and reasonable conservatives that don't resort to these sort of arguments on a regular basis. I told him I couldn't think of any; he came up with Thomas Sowell (who I am familiar with and think isn't very bright, although I will grant that he isn't hysterical like many that share his political beliefs) and Jonah Goldberg (sorry, not buying that one; the lying about being nominated for Pulitzer Prizes, defending waterboarding, and his book that essentially claimed that because "Nazi" actually is a contraction of "National Socialism," Democrats are therefore the real Nazis because they are more "socialist" than Republicans and because--yes, he actually wrote this--"Hitler was a vegetarian." If this guy--whose mother, Lucianne, inflicted Linda Tripp and the "Vince Foster was murdered" bullshit of twenty years ago on the nation--is one of your top "thoughtful conservatives", that's a pretty bare cupboard). I look back at a lot of the things I've written about over the nearly six years that I have been writing this blog--and there is hardly a month goes by without my writing about something that some conservative bed-wetter was absolutely sure was going to happen that turned out to be wildly overblown or completely made up from whole cloth. After nearly two hundred years of this, I find it nearly impossible to take this shit seriously anymore, because I cannot think of a single instance where an apocalyptic scenario painted by those that held conservative views actually turned out to hold water. Not one. If you can, then comment about it.
And when conservatives claim that something is going to bring a boatload of benefits--well, that usually turns out to be bullshit, too. One of the most important instances of this happened a little over two decades ago, over the loud and (as it turned out, entirely prescient and accurate) objections of "liberals" and people that knew what they were talking about on the subject, was the passage of NAFTA, which has been probably the single biggest factor in the accelerated long-term decline of the American economy. NAFTA, even more than "welfare reform," is why I never liked Bill Clinton, and why I will not vote for Hillary Clinton. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership, The Empty Suit's version of NAFTA for a part of the world not in North America, has been stalled for months in Congress because an unlikely coalition of Democrats and Tea Party Republicans had been stymieing passage for months. But no more. Lost in the more showy headlines about the other matters this week was the note that TPP finally made it through Congress and is awaiting The Empty Suit's signature.
And when it takes effect, what's left of the American economy will implode within a generation. Ross Perot was right about NAFTA, and this will essentially finish the job.
And ultimately, while it is great and high time that the two symbolic and one concrete victories for the forces of justice and decency gathered steam, the passage of TPP is going to have the biggest practical effect--and it's going to be a disaster. And that's why I am not happy today. There are many aspects that make up the concept of "quality of life"--but the biggest one is being able to make a living. And that is going to be progressively harder for my children's generation, just as my own generation has found the going a lot tougher than my parents did.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Life Goes On Hold For A Week

This is the second time, since the new, revised on-call protocol was implemented in the winter, that I am going to be on-call. And true to my usual luck, I got stuck with a crappy week to do it. The first time I was on-call, I had to be on-call on my birthday. This time, the last day will be July 3--the day the agency takes off for Independence Day, which means that instead of being done with it in the morning, like most of us are when offices are open during normal business hours, I have to answer the phone until 4 PM--assuming that the person that actually changes it remembers to do so. And being that it is the week before July 4, much of the chain of command over me is on vacation next week--the next three levels of supervision, in fact.
I will deal with it, because I have made a career of dealing with it. I was more or less on-call for a decade for my own program, and so I lost my fear of on-call a long time ago--because, not to sound too crass, whatever is going on that I have to deal with on the phone, I personally am not going to leave the house no matter what is going on and what time of the night it is. But there have been some pretty substantial glitches that have been afflicting others that have been on-call recently--most notably that the agency website has been extremely unreliable and is often down, especially on weekends. It's not necessary that it be up to do on-call correctly--but the tracking and recording of the calls is a lot more difficult when it isn't. Maybe all the screaming in past weeks has helped, and it won't go down this weekend... the other glitch may or may not be applicable to me. Some people have been simply overwhelmed with calls, some coming in three or four at a time, and others have had to deal with people calling with concerns that are not true emergencies. There's no way of controlling the former, and nothing one can do other than deal with it the best one can. The latter is more annoying than anything else, as long as it doesn't happen at 3 AM.
But I learned in March and April that it's problematical to leave the house. I got brave, after a couple of slow evenings, and went to my home group the last time I was on-call--and ended up having to deal with a crisis that necessitated me having to leave. This coming week, there are two City League games on Monday and Tuesday; I've already told Wilfredo that he may have to take over before or during a game should the phone ring. But I'm not going to be held hostage this time like I was last time. Binghamton is a small place; there is nowhere I am going to be that is more than ten minutes away from my house, and if necessary I will tell callers to stay on the line or that I will call them back when I get there, should it be necessary. As I said, I've had a great deal of experience with being on-call over the years, and I don't get overly distressed about what's going on at the other end of the line or worry about what might happen.
And it's a week. I may not like some of the aspects of it, but I sure like the bigger paycheck that follows in the week after being on-call. And it will be more than welcome; I'm usually paycheck-to-paycheck, but the last three weeks have seen some serious financial juggling. Between the big paycheck and health insurance take-out going down $50 a week starting in July (and there will be no changes, since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Obamacare yesterday, which would be enough for a post in its own right. As an addendum to yesterday's post, it would be nice if more people went back in archives and listed all the dire doomsday predictions that our conservative friends filled the media with when the law was implemented. They couldn't have been more wrong. And it was more elating to listen to the ravings of people like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh yesterday than it was to know that the Court did the right thing), some relief should be forthcoming soon. I am at the point where I need to take some vacation time, too, and depending on cash flow, there might be an actual few days off to go somewhere again.
But that's something for July. Right now, I have to get there.