Archive for February, 2013

Birthday Time

February 28, 2013 1 comment


Those of us born on February 29 find ourselves having to answer the question, “When do you celebrate your birthday?” Our plight puzzles people.

My answer—on non-leap years, that is—used to be that I celebrate on both days: February 28 and March 1. After all, I was born on the last day of February. And, I was born the day after February 28. Hence, I get to celebrate on both days. I don’t miss out. I get twice the fun. And indeed, growing up, I did celebrate on both days.

However, in recent years I’ve had a new answer. There’s a clear instant in time (in non-leap years) when one’s age changes: that moment at midnight that separates the 28th and the 1st. But which midnight? Well, midnight in New York, of course, since that’s where I was born. And midnight in the Eastern time zone is 9:00 PM on February 28 in the Pacific time zone. So, when do I celebrate? At 9:00 PM on February 28, that’s when.

It’s just an hour away. I better get ready.

Categories: Life


February 26, 2013 2 comments


[Illustration by Scott Garrett, Boston Globe]

I have long dreaded the torture airplane passengers inflict on those just behind by insisting on reclining their seats. I once thought that when the flight attendants come down the aisle to serve meals, you’re entitled to a respite, since everyone understood it’s impossible to eat in coach when the passenger in front of you is reclining. But with the disappearance of airplane meals, even that courtesy is gone.

I could write at length about everything that’s wrong with subjecting people to reclined seats. However, now I don’t have to, thanks to Dan Kois. In an excellent piece in Slate last week, he nails it.

His opening:

The woman sitting in front of me on this plane seems perfectly nice. She, like me, is traveling coach class from Washington to Los Angeles. She had a nice chat before takeoff with the man sitting next to her, in which she revealed she is an elementary school teacher, an extremely honorable profession. She, like me, has an aisle seat and has spent most of the flight watching TV. Nevertheless, I hate her.

Why? She’s a recliner.

For the five minutes after takeoff, every passenger on an airliner exists in a state of nature. Everyone is equally as uncomfortable as everyone else—well, at least everyone who doesn’t have the advantage of first class seating or the disadvantage of being over 6 feet tall. The passengers are blank slates, subjects of an experiment in morality which begins the moment the seat-belt light turns off.

Ding! Instantly the jerk in 11C reclines his seat all the way back. The guy in 12C, his book shoved into his face, reclines as well. 13C goes next. And soon the reclining has cascaded like rows of dominos to the back of the plane, where the poor bastards in the last row see their personal space reduced to about a cubic foot.

Kois then moves to the key point. How much comfort does one gain by reclining five degrees? How can it be worth the inconvenience caused to others?

Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same. But of course someone always will recline her seat, like the people in the first row, or the woman in front of me, whom I hate. (At least we’re not in the middle seat. People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.)

But, as Kois points out, blame should be heaped on the airlines, not the passengers.

The problem isn’t with passengers, though the evidence demonstrates that many passengers are little better than sociopaths acting only for their own good. The problem is with the plane. In a closed system in which just one recliner out of 200 passengers can ruin it for dozens of people, it is too much to expect that everyone will act in the interest of the common good. People recline their seats because their seats recline. But why on earth do seats recline? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if seats simply didn’t?


It’s time for an outright ban on reclining seats on airplanes. I’m not demanding that airlines rip out the old seats and install new ones; let’s just extend the requirement that seats remain upright during takeoff and landing through the entire flight. (Unlike the stupid electronic-devices rules, there is an actual good reason for this regulation: Upright seats are safer in a crash, and allow for easier evacuation.) To those who say such a rule is unenforceable, I respond: Kick. Kick. Kick.

Next topic: Children who kick the back of your seat through the entire flight. There is no way to repay the favor. Reclining won’t bother them. They’re small. It will just make you more miserable. In any case, blame not the kids. It’s the parents’ fault.

Categories: Flying, Travel

Owl Outing

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment


Two Aprils ago, our friends Deborah and Paul attended the Burke Museum‘s annual fundraising dinner/auction with us and we jointly purchased a one-day owl viewing trip with Rob, the Burke’s ornithology collection manager. Deborah is a fanatical owl lover. She couldn’t bear to miss out on the opportunity. We were happy to go along.

We timed it well. Every few years the snowy owl, an Arctic bird, comes down to Washington State for the winter in large numbers, for reasons not yet understood. Last year was such a year. Rob urged us to take advantage of this fortuitous timing by coming up with a mutually agreeable date for our outing. Alas, for one reason or another, we failed. (Maybe we’re the reason that at last April’s Burke dinner, the auctioned trips with Burke staff came with deadlines attached.)

A couple of months ago, we chose a date at last for this long-deferred trip. Yesterday. Three days ago, Rob suggested a 5:30 am start. He was tracking the latest news on owl sightings and had come up with an itinerary, one that would begin within Seattle at some of the more heavily wooded parks, followed by a drive 60 miles north to the Skagit River delta wetlands, a rich bird habitat. That 5:30 start was a bit of a shock. Heck, the sun wouldn’t even rise until 7:00. Some parks don’t open until then, or at dawn. After a few more email exchanges, we agreed to meet up at our house at 6:00 am, work out a plan for the day, then head out.

By 6:00, everyone was here. Rob spread out maps, bird books, and explained the possibilities. The most disappointing news was that a great-horned owl had been living right next door to us, in the Arboretum, but it had just been hit by a car last Wednesday, its body brought to the Burke later in the day for preservation. For all I know, the owl had regularly passed over our backyard. No longer.

At 6:45, we left for Lincoln Park in West Seattle. This would be the first of many stops that made me wonder what we’ve been doing with our time all these decades. We used to drive by Lincoln Park on the way to the Vashon Island ferry, when Gail’s brother Gary lived there 25 years ago. But we never stopped to go in.

Rob led us about 200 yards west from the parking lot on the park’s eastern edge. It would have been around 7:15 at this point, a few minutes past sunrise. In the heavy woods, with clouds above, there was modest lighting. Suddenly, Rob halted us. He walked under a tree just a few feet off the walking path, looked up, studied the branches with his binoculars then came back to the path and looked up at an adjacent tree right on the path. There it was, about 40 feet up. A barred owl. Or so Rob said.

He told us where to look and one by one we identified a blob on a branch. With binoculars, we could see the feather pattern and recognize that indeed the blob was an owl. Rob returned to the van, brought back a small telescope on a tripod, and with its aid the owl came completely into focus. What a marvel! Just sitting there, over the path that leads directly from the parking lot to a bluff over Puget Sound, one of the park’s main walking axes.

After we had studied the owl enough, we continued west to that bluff, where between the trees, thanks to a break in the clouds and the illumination from the sun in the east, a section of the Olympic Mountains over Puget Sound to the west was glowing. It was a spectacular view.

For me, the day was a success already.

We walked around the park some more, with Rob pointing out a box built high up on a tree for nesting owls. Then we returned to the van and stopped at a nearby Starbucks, where Rob had offered coffee for the day. From there, we headed north to another of Seattle’s wooded parks over the Sound, Discovery Park. Here our goal was to look for saw-whet and long-eared owls. We stopped at the visitor’s center, got oriented, headed to one of the parking lots, and carried food from the van to a picnic table for our 9:00 breakfast. It was cold out there, with a breeze chilling us while we stood over the table and ate. But we were happy. Once the food was stowed, we headed up a hill in search of owls.

Rob had some owl calls recorded on an iPod, with a speaker attached to amplify the sound. Every so often he would stop to play the calls. We worked our way up past the old Army housing of Fort Lawton, then over and down, returning to the open field where we had breakfasted and to our van. No luck. Then we covered much the same ground in the van, Rob stopping from time to time to scan the trees, but again no luck.

Rob had warned us during our early morning planning session that, like fishing, looking for owls is about the process as much as the result. The process was enjoyable. We were content.

Time to drive north. Through the city to I-5, north, out of Seattle, out of King County, into Snohomish County, through Lynnwood and Everett and Marysville, past the Tulalip casino, over the Stillaguamish River, into Skagit County, through the county seat of Mt. Vernon, over the I-5 Skagit River bridge, past the Burlington mall, off at State Route 20, which leads eastwards over the Cascades or westward through the delta to Fidalgo Island and Anacortes. We went west for a few miles, then north, then turned west at a road leading to a farm, parking and heading across some muddy turf to the dairy barn pictured above.

What’s a barn without a pair of barn owls? Or so we learned. As Rob would later explain, when he first conceived of these trips, he scouted barns, asking permission to enter, then asking permission to return with groups. Some said yes, some said no way. One fellow, for example, pointed out that he hadn’t had any mice in the barn for fifteen years, and he wasn’t about to let people come in and change that. It was a pretty good bet that the barns we saw were occupied, as this one was.

Rob brought us in, then had us wait while he scouted. One owl flew out of sight, but he located the other, sitting high up where the main ceiling beam meets the wall. The view was blocked by a ceiling above us, except where there were gaps. Rob had us stand in one corner and look up to the opposite end, telling us how to find the owl. The women found him first. I saw a couple of blobs that might be what everyone was excited about, but I wasn’t sure. Then Rob found a new vantage, almost directly below, where we had to look through gaps in the ceiling, and this time I was pretty sure I saw the right blob. But we were looking from behind, so the blob had little detail. Then, heading a few feet over and finding another ceiling gap, we got to see the owl from the front. He was looking right down on us. Once Rob got the telescope, we could see his face in fuller detail, eyes wide open, directly above. That was great.

If you’re wondering about the owl’s location in the photo above, he’s sitting just below the peak at the far end of the roof’s ridge line.

Once outside, Rob had us examine one of the many owl pellets that he had pointed out inside. He explained that owls swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate all the indigestible material. By going through the regurgitated pellets, one can learn what the owl has been eating. For instance, well, I’ll skip the details, but Rob did break up and show us the contents of the pellet he had carried out, identifying some hard rodent body parts for us.

Next up, the start of our search for snowy owls. As birds of the tundra, they are accustomed to hanging out in open fields. When they make their way down this way, they don’t suddenly take up residence in trees or barns. They continue to hang out in fields. We were instructed to be on the lookout for white objects standing two feet tall. But not the white milk jugs the farmers put out to help line up irrigation systems. And not signs. And certainly not the swans that also stood in the fields, or the smaller snow geese.

We worked our way west and north and west and north, through the farmlands and wetlands of what I later learned is the Padilla Bay estuary. Along the way, we stopped momentarily at a small parking lot beyond which lay some wetlands of the Skagit Wildlife Area. On leaving, heading north, we spotted two juvenile eagles standing on telephone poles and turned in for a closer look. Then, at the northernmost point of our drive, we rose above the tidal flats to the wooded elevation of Samish Island, which is not an island but rather a peninsula reaching out toward the San Juan Islands.

After looping around Samish Island, we headed south to the Breazeale visitor center of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. I picked up a pamphlet there about Edna Breazeale, a remarkable woman. She grew up nearby, came down to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, went on to teach English for 43 years, including 33 at nearby Roosevelt High School. Around 1960, she returned to the family farm in Bay View and turned into a community activist, leading a fight against development plans for the bay. Two decades later, over 11,000 acres were declared the eighth national estuarine research reserve. Brava Edna!

It was lunchtime. A late lunch, around 2:00 PM, and therefore one eagerly eaten. Rob had shopped for a medley of options, all of which we were thrilled to eat. By 2:45, we were ready to head back south. We crossed over Route 20 into the famous Skagit tulip fields, continued south to Stanwood, then still farther south, where our snowy owl search got serious, for this was where two snowys were sighted on Thursday. It’s also the delta and tidal flats of the Stillaguamish, which flows into Port Susan Bay, with Camano Island to the west and Puget Sound beyond Camano.

We looked and we looked, without luck. Then, as we pulled aside, overlooking a farm, a flock of snow geese was disturbed in the distance, with hundreds swirling around, a quarter mile away. They formed a big cloud, just above the ground, a dramatic sight. We headed a little south on the road, then turned west just before crossing the Stillaguamish to drive down the road that runs alongside it, an embankment separating the two. As we headed west, the river drifted southwest. A couple hundred yards farther, our road deadended, with wetlands and Port Susan Bay just beyond. This beyond happens to be part of the Nature Conservancy’s Port Susan Bay Preserve, another protected area. From the website:

Port Susan Bay holds some of the finest estuarine habitat in Puget Sound. Its marshes, vast mudflats and tidally influenced channels support hundreds of thousands of birds, several species of salmon, smelt, English sole and clams. Western sandpipers, dunlins and dowitchers swoop over the mudflats. Wrangel Island snow geese gather by the thousands in tidal marshes and on nearby farm fields. And hundreds of raptors, from peregrine falcons to short-eared owls, add to the drama.

The Stillaguamish River spills into the bay, mixing freshwater and saltwater to create extensive estuarine marshes that produce a vast quantity of decaying organic matter, which feeds the abundant invertebrate life in the tide flat sediments. These tiny creatures, in turn, feed the shorebirds and waterfowl that make Port Susan Bay and adjacent Skagit Bay important stops for migratory birds traveling along the Pacific Flyway.

If you look at the photo and map in the preserve’s brochure (available as a pdf file), you can see where we were, just north of the point where the river flows into the bay.

No owls, but there was a pair of eagles, one of whom you can see below.


It was 4:30 now, the perfect time to retrace our steps and get back to the Skagit Wildlife Area, just north of the Padilla Bay visitor center. We arrived 5:30, with sunset and dusk approaching, a good time to see short-eared owls.

As we walked south from the parking lot, we found that we had to cross a muddy stretch with water above our ankles. Gail and I weren’t brave. Having made it across, we decided to stay put. Rob set up the telescope and somehow found, far in the distance, a short-eared owl sitting on a post. We were happy. He went farther south with Deborah and Paul while we worked our way back toward the lot. A fellow bird enthusiast, camera and gigantic zoom lens in hand, asked what we had seen. We tried to point to the location of the owl. He was at the end of day three of a four-day organized trip, accompanied by some scientists. He’s from Olympia, he explained, and last week had seen eight snowy owls on another outing down that way.

After we got back to the parking lot, another owl swooped by, pointed out to Gail by a woman sitting in a car in the lot. Having seen many harriers throughout the area, we assumed the other birds we saw near the lot were harriers. Or maybe it was just one, coming in from different directions. When two women reached the lot from the wetlands and asked if we knew anything about birds, I told them that we had an expert along who would be back soon. They said, well, they just wanted to know what that bird was. A harrier, we announced. That was sufficient expertise for them.

Once our companions returned, Rob filled Gail and me in on the plan. It was getting dark now. We would drive back to Edna’s visiting center at the Padilla Bay reserve with the hope of spotting the great horned owl Rob had previously seen hanging out right there in the visitor center lot. And that’s what we did. No great horned owl though. Rob called for it with his recorded tracks. That didn’t do the trick. Some drinks and mixed nuts later, we climbed back in the van and headed home.

By the time we arrived, unloaded our belongings, and said our goodbyes, it was 8:00 PM. A long day. But a very special one. Three owls seen, many more imagined, other birds galore, an overview of the wonders of Western Washington, good food, great company. And just maybe we learned enough so that we can head out on our own soon.

Categories: Birds, Travel

Fun With Drones

February 24, 2013 3 comments


It is an Amazon tradition for selected items to attract a commentary stream of ironic praise. David Pogue writes about this from time to time, for instance, here and here. And who can forget Playmobil’s Security Check Point, pictured at the bottom? This warranted a NYT article four years ago with the headline, “Playmobil Finds Fun in the Police State.” Be sure to read the Amazon comments.

Now we have a new entry. Amazon is selling (through third parties) a die cast Fresh Metal 97:1 scale model of a predator drone. Again, the comments are worth a look.

Two samples:

You’ve had a busy play day – You’ve wiretapped Mom’s cell phone and e-mail without a warrant, you’ve indefinitely detained your little brother Timmy in the linen closet without trial, and you’ve confiscated all the Super-Soakers from the neighborhood children (after all, why does any kid – besides you, of course – even NEED a Super-Soaker for self-defense? A regular water pistol should be enough). What do you do for an encore?

That’s where the US Air Force Medium Altitude, Long Endurance, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) RQ-1 Predator from Maisto comes in. Let’s say that Dad has been labeled a terrorist in secret through your disposition matrix. Rather than just arrest him and go through the hassle of trying and convicting him in a court of law, and having to fool with all those terrorist-loving Constitutional protections, you can just use one of these flying death robots to assassinate him! … Show him who’s boss, whether he’s at a wedding, a funeral, or just having his morning coffee. Sow fear and carnage in your wake! Win a Nobel Peace Prize and be declared Time Magazine’s Person of the Year – Twice!

This goes well with the Maisto Extraordinary Rendition playset, by the way – which gives you all the tools you need to kidnap the family pet and take him for interrogation at a neighbor’s house, where the rules of the Geneva Convention may not apply. Loads of fun!

And, more concisely, but with much the same point:

This is the best toy ever. Finally, I can pretend that I’m a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize! It’s like I’m sitting right there in the White House with my very own kill list!


Categories: Humor, Politics

Itzhak Perlman in Seattle

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

When we got the booklet in the mail for the Seattle Symphony’s 2012-2013 season, I immediately made note of Itzhak Perlman’s scheduled appearance. He would be performing a solo recital. Not with the symphony, but presumably with a piano accompanist. No program was listed. No additional information. A few months later, the Saturday morning when tickets went on sale to non-subscribers, I logged on to the website and spent an hour trying to order tickets. I’d see a pair of seats, select them, give order information, click on buy, and after a few minutes I’d be told the order didn’t go through. I’d start again, this time another row or two back. Finally I called the box office, held for a long time, spoke to someone, and was able to get seats in the fifth row, seats that had long disappeared online. I don’t know what was going on. But no matter. We had our seats.

Last week, the Seattle Times previewed the concert. I was delighted to learn that Perlman would be playing The Franck violin sonata, one of my favorite pieces, accompanied by pianist Rohan de Silva. Monday, I looked at the symphony site to confirm the program and starting time for Tuesday’s concert. That’s when I saw that at the same start time, 7:30 PM, Aaron Neville would be performing as well in the smaller venue at Benaroya Hall. I warned Gail that the building would be that much more crowded, so we should think about getting there early for parking and a bite to eat. Gail’s response: why were we going to hear Perlman rather than Neville? I passed on that one. Some questions just aren’t answerable.

Tuesday evening, we arrived at 6:20. Not early enough. There’s only one eating option in the Boeing Gallery, the open space that runs inside the building along 3rd Avenue, with the Chihuly chandeliers on the north and south ends, elevators from the parking garage, coat check, and entry to the two theaters. Namely, Puck’s Café. (Puck as in Wolfgang Puck.) The website says you can “arrive early and enjoy a relaxing dinner or lunch before you attend the concert.” I suppose so, if relaxing means standing on line for 20 minutes, then searching for an empty table among the two-tops squeezed together in the Boeing Gallery, with tiny chairs, no separation from your neighbors, a view of busses and people standing in wait for them outside the window. But if we wanted to eat at a restaurant nearby, we would have had to arrive much earlier. So we got on line. I had the turkey dinner, with green beans and carrots, a small salad, and a scoop of mashed potatoes. Gail had the evening’s sandwich special, pulled pork, with salad. We felt fortunate to find seating, just across from the doorway to the Neville concert.

Then we headed in to find our seats. Once seated, we looked down the row some distance and found an unexpected concertgoer calmly awaiting the music. It was the dog pictured below via Gail’s iPhone, no doubt wondering why he wasn’t next door with Aaron.


Gail speculated that, like our friend Brooke’s border collie Trip, who howls when Brooke plays her harp, this audience member might howl to the violin. That would be a charming bonus. But no. In fact, when I looked over at intermission, he was gone. Gail thought he disappeared before the program even began. Maybe he really did come for Aaron Neville and realized his error just in time.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard Perlman perform. Over the years, he has always walked on stage with the aid of crutches, but this time the doors opened and he raced ahead of Rohan de Silva (and the piano music page turner) in his motorized scooter. He positioned the scooter at an angle, rotated his seat on it ninety degrees, and I found myself staring at him head on, some thirty feet away. Handkerchief out, placed on the violin under his chin, a nod to Rohan, and they began Beethoven’s first sonata for violin and piano. A good warmup piece. Not high on my list of favorite music, but what tone he has on the violin. And de Silva was a welcome accompanist. So too the young page turner.

After a brief retreat to the wings, they returned for César Franck’s sonata in A major for violin and piano. As noted, this one’s near the top of my list of favorite chamber pieces, and they were magnificent. I’d have to dig through my record collection to verify, which I won’t do now, but I’m pretty sure the recording I bought of this work many decades ago is the outcome of the Perlman-Ashkenazy collaboration featured in the video above. The narrator states at the 11-second mark that it’s their first collaboration, in London in July (1968, according to the video notes at youtube). Have a listen. Gosh it’s great.

In the second half, Perlman focused on showpieces. I couldn’t help thinking that he was having fun participating in the long tradition of great virtuosi dazzling audiences with their astonishing skill, at the expense perhaps of musical values, but what the hell, let’s just go for it.

The one scheduled piece was Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, familiarly known (though not to me) as “Devil’s Trill.” According to the program notes of Steven Lowe,

some 200 concertos flowed from Tartini’s musical veins, but in truth, history has accorded him the dubious honor of being a “one-work” composer. That one work is his so-called “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, written, so he claimed, following a dream in which he sold his soul to the Devil. “I gave him my violin out of curiosity to see what he could do with it. To my amazement, I heard him play with consummate skill a sonata of exquisite beauty that surpassed the boldest flights of imagination. I was enchanted, my breath stopped and I awoke. Seizing my violin, I tried to reproduce some of the sound I heard in my dream, but in vain. The piece I composed, although the best I ever wrote … is but a far cry from what I heard in my dream.”

What to say? Well, Gail loved it. I thought it was good fun. They exited, the audience roared approval, they came and went, then returned to play the expected sequence of encores. The page turner had a stack of music about a foot thick in her arms. The woman across the aisle from us screamed, “Thank you! Thank you!”, which seemed at least a little over the top. After all, encores weren’t in doubt. The program even said, “Additional works to be announced from the stage.”

This is where Perlman’s personality shines through, as well as his other great instrument, his sonorous bass voice. He’s a warm, genial host. Had I written this post Tuesday night, I would have remembered what followed in some detail. Now it’s faded. Let’s see. Two Fritz Kreisler transcriptions. A Brahms Hungarian dance. That must have been one of the Kreisler transcriptions. A piece by one of the great violinists who came before Perlman, Joseph Joachim. Music from Schindler’s List.

The Schindler announcement brought a thunderous response, even before they played it. We might have been excited too, had we ever watched the movie, had we thereby been familiar with the soundtrack, and had we further understood that Perlman played on that soundtrack. Here:

After those four pieces and another that escapes me, they headed off. Additional thunderous applause. A return. One more piece. A trifle. But as showy a trifle as I’ve seen a violinist perform. Up and down the fingerboard Perlman’s fingers flew. Higher up the fingerboard than one could imagine possible, with notes that must be near the limit of high frequency audibility for my aging ears. Crazy. Nothing could follow that. We applauded, then raced to our car.

A thoroughly entertaining evening. Gail may even agree.

Categories: Music

Arguing About Slavery

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment


I’m working hard at realizing my New Year’s resolution of reading fewer books this year, making only slow progress through my current book, Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (about which, more some time soon, but what a fabulous mix of family, Irish, and Turkish early-to-mid-twentieth-century history). The last thing I need is more tips on good books to read. Alas, now I have another to add to my list, William Lee Miller’s 1996 Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress.

In my post of a few minutes ago, I wrote of my love for Charles Pierce’s daily writings on politics at Esquire and the effort I make not to devote post after post to his latest comments. Now I’m about to succumb twice in succession, for it was in a post this morning that I learned of Miller’s book.

Pierce has an ongoing series, This Week in the Laboratories of Democracy, about the latest legislative acts of craziness at the state level. Today we learn about the goings on “in Missouri, where they not only don’t like gun laws very much, but they also don’t like people who talk about passing gun laws, so they…wait for it…wrote up a law to prevent people from talking about gun laws. The law’s proponent, one Mike Leara, makes it quite plain right at the start that he’s wasting everybody’s time, including his own, but that he’s wasting time because, you know, FREEEEEDOOOOMMMMMMM!!!!!!”

Pierce then connects this news to a nineteenth-century precursor, which is where Miller’s book comes in parenthetically:

As with everything emanating from those parts of the country who think things went badly wrong on the third day at Getttysburg and nothing ever was quite the same again, this particular exercise in highly principled futility has its philosophical roots in the constitutional crisis occasioned by the right to own black people, which at least was a constitutional crisis stemming from a clear interpretation of what the Constitution actually said. In 1837, congresscritters from the slave-holding states were fed up with the flood of petitions from abolitionists demanding an end to the abomimation in question in Washington and in federally held territories elsewhere. The House thereupon passed a rule that banned discussion of these petitions. That rule stayed in effect for eight years. Former president John Quincy Adams, who’d been elected subsequently to the House from the Commonwealth (God save it!), led a ferocious counterassault against the so-called gag rule, finally achieving its repeal in 1844. (The history of the rule and the fight to repeal it is described brilliantly in William Lee Miller’s Arguing About Slavery.) The gag rule was the parliamentary manifestation of a desire not only to squash any attempt to rid the country of slavery, but also to squash any discussion of ridding the country of slavery.

In looking to learn more about Miller’s book, I found a Sunday NYT review from January 1996 by Drew Gilpin Faust, famed Civil War historian and current president of Harvard. She writes that

[Congressman] Hammond’s motion began a nine-year battle between those wishing to gag all discussion of slavery and those who believed that the maintenance of republican institutions required freedom of petition and debate.

Mr. Miller’s goal, as he says, is not simply to “summarize and report” this battle, but to “re-create it.” His account — dramatic, immediate, immensely readable — does nearly that. With extensive quotations from records of the Congressional debates, he transforms much of his text into something like a screenplay — almost a cinematic presentation of the verbal exchange that served as the essence of the battle.

But Mr. Miller does more than simply reproduce the debates. Perhaps his most valuable contribution is his lucid explanation of how the machinery of rules and parliamentary methods in the House became a matter of substance, not just procedure. It came to make a considerable difference, for example, that a simple majority could lay a question on the table, but a two-thirds vote was required to take it off. One of Mr. Miller’s larger agendas is to show how politics can operate as a vehicle for translating ideals into action and to demonstrate that the “practical and realistic bent” of politicians makes them not contemptible but admirable, no “less worthy than the abolitionists and reformers” who have garnered the bulk of credit for the antebellum struggle against human bondage.

Additional praise is found in Fergus Bordewich’s review from the December 1996 Smithsonian:

In an effort to suppress the still feeble antislavery forces, Southern Congressmen proposed what was, in effect, an intellectual blockade. They urged federal authorities to allow states to censor literature that they deemed “incendiary,” including not only abolitionist broadsides but also a wide range of general magazines, Northern newspapers and religious journals that only occasionally mentioned slavery. Postmasters were encouraged to monitor citizens’ mail and remove anything that they deemed related to abolitionism. All petitions to Congress on the subject of slavery were to be automatically tabled, without being printed or referred to in any way.

More shocking still, a gag rule imposed by Southerners and their Northern Democrat allies forbade members to discuss the subject of slavery upon the floor of Congress, under threat of censure. Not only was the enslaved black person denied every freedom but now the white person was even to be denied the freedom to talk about it.

The hero of Miller’s story is John Quincy Adams, the only former President in American history to later be elected to Congress, where he served with distinction for 17 years. Steeped from childhood in the hardheaded New England idealism of the Revolutionary era, Adams not only deplored slavery in principle, as many of his contemporaries did, but went far beyond most of them in condemning racial prejudice, which, as he put it, “taints the very sources of moral principle” by establishing “false estimates of virtue and vice.”


This is not only fine and provocative history. In it lies a message for modern Americans as well: that politics matters, and that even if they fail in their immediate aim (Adams was never permitted to submit a single abolitionist petition), free argument and debate have the capacity to shift our minds for the better.

I don’t know when I’ll get to it, but it’s on the list.

Categories: Books, History

Quote of the Day

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment
President Obama and John Brennan, January 2010

President Obama and John Brennan, January 2010

[Official White House photo by Pete Souza]

I have become so enamored of Charles Pierce’s politics blog at Esquire that I could put up three or four quote-of-the-day posts every weekday from his writings alone. I regularly flag his posts as potential blog material, then decide not to overdo it. Better just to have a permanent pointer to his blog and leave it at that. But on reading one of today’s posts, I knew I had to feature it. (And now I see, catching up on a review of the day’s twitter feeds, that I’m not alone. Glenn Greenwald tweeted, “Charles Pierce on Obama, transparency and assassinations – 2 paragraphs – just please read.”)

The starting point is today’s NYT article by Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti on drones and the Senate hearings for John Brennan’s nomination as the new CIA director. They write:

The White House is refusing to share fully with Congress the legal opinions that justify targeted killings, while maneuvering to make sure its stance does not do anything to endanger the confirmation of John O. Brennan as C.I.A. director.

Rather than agreeing to some Democratic senators’ demands for full access to the classified legal memos on the targeted killing program, Obama administration officials are negotiating with Republicans to provide more information on the lethal attack last year on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, according to three Congressional staff members.

The strategy is intended to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Mr. Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators and while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department’s legal advice to the president. It would allow Mr. Brennan’s nomination to go to the Senate floor even if one or two Democrats vote no to protest the refusal to share more legal memos.

To which Pierce responds (emphasis mine):

First, we have the ongoing charade of “transparency” as regards the president’s assumed right to kill Americans anywhere in the world including, absent a clear statement from this administration, which has not been forthcoming, within the borders of the United States. Then we have the drone program itself, which is a constitutional abomination no matter how effective you presume it is. Then, we have another attempt to reach a kind of bipartisan consensus with the various vandals and predatory fauna in the other party. And then, last, as part of the attempt at bipartisan consensus, a deal is struck in which the president’s hit list is kept in a vault while more fuel is fed into the Benghazi!, BENGHAZI!, BENGHAZI!!!!!!!111!!! infernal machine … .

This is what happens when you elect someone — anyone — to the presidency as that office is presently constituted. Of all the various Washington mystery cults, the one at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue is the most impenetrable. This is why the argument many liberals are making — that the drone program is acceptable both morally and as a matter of practical politics because of the faith you have in the guy who happens to be presiding over it at the moment — is criminally naive, intellectually empty, and as false as blue money to the future. The powers we have allowed to leach away from their constitutional points of origin into that office have created in the presidency a foul strain of outlawry that (worse) is now seen as the proper order of things. If that is the case, and I believe it is, then the very nature of the presidency of the United States at its core has become the vehicle for permanently unlawful behavior. Every four years, we elect a new criminal because that’s become the precise job description.

Strong words, but are they wrong? Greenwald tweets that “the last 2 sentences are perfect on every level.” I’m afraid so.

Categories: Law, Politics

American Exceptionalism

February 18, 2013 2 comments


[NYT graphic, February 17, 2013. Source: Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move From Surviving to Thriving by Jody Heymann With Kristen McNeill.]

It’s been a while since I wrote about American exceptionalism, which has evolved in Republican discourse from the belief that the US is special in a way related to its values, its law, its history, its example to the more simplistic belief—or axiom— that the US is just simply the best. Ever. And if you don’t agree, then you’re un-American. Like, you know, that Kenyan socialist Obama.

Which I find hard to reconcile with the enormous map that greeted me yesterday in the centerfold of the NYT Sunday Review section, accompanying a piece by Stephanie Coontz titled Why Gender Equality Stalled. You can see a reduced version above. The eight countries in red—the US, Suriname, Liberia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, and Tonga— are the only countries in the world without paid maternity leave. Exceptional for sure. But the exceptionalism of greatness? Or is it just possible that we’ve got something wrong here?

By chance, Glenn Greenwald used his column today in The Guardian to ponder Charles C.W. Cooke’s tweeted assertion that the US “is the greatest country in world history.”

At the very least, the tendency of the human brain to view the world from a self-centered perspective should render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of oneself and one’s own group, tribe, nation, etc. The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true (or, as in the case of the British Cooke, what we were taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own).

That doesn’t mean that what we’re taught to believe from childhood is wrong or should be presumed erroneous. We may get lucky and be trained from the start to believe what is actually true. That’s possible. But we should at least regard those precepts with great suspicion, to subject them to particularly rigorous scrutiny, especially when it comes to those that teach us to believe in our own objective superiority or that of the group to which we belong. So potent is the subjective prism, especially when it’s implanted in childhood, that I’m always astounded at some people’s certainty of their own objective superiority (“the greatest country in world history”).

In a similar vein, but with less at stake, I was surprised to discover when I moved to Seattle a few decades ago that some people in these parts thought Seattle was the greatest city, Washington the greatest state. I mean, really! Didn’t they know New York is?

Categories: Politics, Society

The Problem with Teachers

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment


The current issue of Academe, the bi-monthly publication of the American Association of University Professors, has an article by recently retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein with the title Warnings from the Trenches: A high school teacher tells college educators what they can expect in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. I don’t ordinarily read Academe. However, I saw a reference last week to a post the week before at Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog The Answer Sheet in which she reprinted Bernstein’s article. It’s worth reading.

Here’s a sample:

Let me use as an example my own AP course, US Government and Politics. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course. In that capacity, I read the constructed responses that make up half of the score of a student’s examination. I saw several problems.

First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP US Government exam the constructed responses are called “free response questions” and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.

My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing. My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.

Bernstein in turn links to and quotes from a 2010 blog post in Education Week by 2009 national teacher of the year Anthony Mullen. Old news, but worth reading three years later.

Mullen describes a roundtable discussion at an education conference in which he participates along with “three state governors, one state senator, a Harvard professor and author, and a strange little man who assumes the role of group moderator.” The others discuss and agree on the failings of contemporary teachers, who one governor explains “are not prepared to teach in 21st century classrooms because they possess, in his words, ‘only 20th century skills.’ He does not provide specific examples or elaborate upon his theory but the other guests at the table nod their heads in agreement.”

Mullen stays silent, until finally the senator asks his thoughts.

Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value.

“I’m thinking about the current health care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”

“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”

Categories: Education

Seattle Art Museum: Kenwood House

February 17, 2013 Leave a comment
Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

A new exhibition—Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London—opened last week at the Seattle Art Museum. Ordinarily, I would have written a post by now about last Tuesday’s event: the program of dignitary remarks and curator overviews, the refreshments, the exhibit itself. We were signed up to go. But there was a conflicting lecture I couldn’t miss (on which, more in an upcoming post) and our plan of getting to both didn’t work out, to our great disappointment.

Here is the overview of the exhibition, courtesy of Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s deputy director and curator of European painting:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

The exhibition from Kenwood House will be complemented by a companion exhibition, European Masters: Treasures of Seattle. Featuring about 30 works from local collections, the show traces the burgeoning enthusiasm for Old Master paintings in Seattle over the last 20 years.

The Rembrandt self portrait at the top of this post is the work SAM is using in their advertising for the show. You can see it and more at this webpage, which has a series of paintings on each of which one can click for more information. About the Rembrandt, for instance, we learn:

By this time, the 59-year-old Rembrandt had become a celebrated painter in Amsterdam, where he was regarded as “the wonder of our age.” So he chose to paint himself as he was: not dressed up like a gentleman in fancy garments but rather, a painter wearing work clothes as if he’s in his studio.

In most self-portraits, he dons a trademark black beret. But here, he’s chosen a white linen cap and a fur-trimmed gown. He’s a great painter and in this three-quarter length frontal portrait, that’s how we get to know him.

Kenwood House is a property of English Heritage, described at its website as “the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment. Officially known as the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, we are an executive Non-Departmental Public Body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.” We have the good fortune to be invited to an evening at the exhibition sponsored by English Heritage at which their senior curator, Susan Jenkins, will give a tour. We’re not passing this one up. I’ll have more to say soon.

Categories: Art, Museums