Sunday, July 16, 2017

Empty Hearts, Empty Plates

In my previous post I mentioned, in a footnote, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. As it was irrelevant to the subject of that post, I didn’t mention how captivated I was by the picture of Mulvaney that accompanied the Atlantic article I was quoting from.* In the picture, Mulvaney is wearing a black suit (quite different from the inordinate number of bar mitzvah suits in Trump’s wardrobe) with a white shamrock in the lapel, a white, french-cuffed shirt with a sharply-raked collar, and a gold-ish tie decorated with a foreign text. The only thing spoiling Mulvaney’s immaculate appearance is what looks to be a misplaced stash of celery leaves in his breast pocket. 

This was obviously not a man who himself need scrabble for a meal or ever fear going hungry. What he was doing here, though, was spouting forth the notion that, in the paraphrase by Emma Green, the author of the Atlantic article, “even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.” Or as this tweet directly quoted:
Domenico Montanaro@DomenicoNPRMulvaney just said that Meals on Wheels is one of those programs "not showing any results"3:30 PM - 16 Mar 2017
In response to Mulvaney, Sarah Jones in The New Republic exclaimed: “The sole objective of Meals on Wheels is to feed elderly people and keep them alive.”** 

Now of course we know that Mulvaney and the other dudes who fashioned Trump’s budget proposals have no skin in the game; they’re gonna eat their steak and lobster tails whatever happens. But what about those beneficiaries of the Meals programs, were they (the ones who would know best) consulted about the efficacy of the programs and whether there were any “results”—such as keeping them alive? 

How silly of me to ask. 

I can’t say that I have any skin in the game either, in that I can make it to the supermarket and continue to load up on eats that would drive a nutritionist around the bend. But my mother did avail herself of the Meals program of a local charity when she was too frail to shop. And when solicited by a charitable organization in my county, I usually earmark my contribution for the Kosher Meals on Wheels program. 

I’m just one guy, making a little donation now and again. However, I’m doing more good than Mulvaney and his gang are doing. I know that, at the very least, I’m not taking food off anybody’s plate.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Ed Norton's Paycheck

“When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?”

Montaigne’s question gets to the heart of felinedom. The cat is an independent soul, secretive and regal. If a human plays with her, it is because the cat allows the human to do so. 

As I write this, I see through my window a neighbor walk by, in one hand a dog leash and in the other a plastic bag. The bag is to hold the dog shit the man will scoop up after the canine is finished. The British seem to prefer—more aptly—the term “lead” for “leash,” more aptly because the dog leads the human to the preferred spot. And how unapt is it, therefore, to refer to the human as the canine’s “master,” when the former has to clean up the latter’s shit?

. . . if you were the King, then you employed someone to wipe your bottom for you. The position of royal bum wiper was officially called 'The Groom of the Stool' the more formal title would be read as 'Groom of the King's Close Stool to King (name )'. As disgusting as this job may seem to be, it was a much sought after position. Noblemen would fight hard and dirty - excuse the pun - to get their sons employed in this role          . . .                                                                                                                                     Helen Murphy Howell                                                
With the reins in his hands, the horseback rider, unlike the dogwalker, has complete control of the animal. But unfortunately, he does not travel with a plastic bag to clean up after the horse, which is prone to leave its droppings wherever it pleases along the way—accompanied by the total indifference of the rider. The manuring of city streets by saddle horses, carriage horses, and cart horses was a major health hazard before the arrival of the motor car.
[The] huge number of horses created major problems. The main concern was the large amount of manure left behind on the streets. On average a horse will produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day, so you can imagine the sheer scale of the problem. The manure on London’s streets also attracted huge numbers of flies which then spread typhoid fever and other diseases. . . . The streets of London were beginning to poison its people.                                                                                                                                  Ben Johnson                                                                                          
And then there’s human waste.

Be thankful that you weren’t a contemporary of William Shakespeare. In Elizabethan times the middle of London streets were open sewers. Thus, when in Romeo and Juliet Sampson, a Capulet servant, says, “I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s,” he is boasting that he will force anyone else to have to walk closer to the filth in the street. 

At least now we have underground sewer systems.
In one of Raymond Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe policiers the mystery begins to be untangled when the detectives learn of the special charity interest of the missing man. While we might scatter a few dollars here and there among miscellaneous charities, we direct the bulk of our largesse and attention to the very few that have greatly affected our lives (or those of our family members and close friends) or to philanthropic endeavors that we especially esteem. As examples of the latter case, there is—on the large scale—the funding of over 2,500 libraries by Andrew Carnegie and his foundation* and—on the most modest scale—my status as a Patron of Carnegie Hall. 
Learning to Bridge a Generation Gap in Philanthropy
Leaders of family foundations who have spent a lifetime funding things dear to their hearts often learn that their children have their own ideas. So what to do?
NY Times 7/14/17
Indeed, what to do when the philanthropic money dries up? A concert hall can’t suddenly metamorphose into a cancer clinic.
Or public money?
President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems [my emphasis], and safe housing would be eliminated. Emma Green, The Atlantic 3/26/17**
Ms Green’s article is headlined “Can Religious Charities Take the Place of the Welfare State?”

The answer is obvious—unless you’re a complete blithering idiot.***

Sure, religious organizations and private philanthropists have done great things to alleviate misery and promote culture and education—think, for example, of hospitals like Columbia Presbyterian, Holy Name, and Long Island Jewish, or the aforementioned Carnegie libraries or Cooper Union and Stanford University.****

But no religious or private philanthropic organization has a sewer system named after it. 

Or paid Ed Norton’s salary.

*Even here we find the importance of the connection to the personal life of the donor, as the early libraries were established in Carnegie’s birth nation, Scotland, and in the Pennsylvania area where his business prospered. 

***Such as Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, who—quoting Green again—“suggested recently that even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.” (Starve, you old farts!) 
****Philanthropic money does not always come from the daintiest sources. When Stanford deemed that the nickname of its athletic teams (“The Indians”) was no longer acceptable and searched for a new one, the students voted for “The Robber Barons.” The University chose “Cardinal.”

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Dividing the Coconuts

“Governments are instituted among Men”

The Fourth of July.

Just an ordinary date for most of the people in the world, but special for Americans. It’s a holiday; the celebration of the day in 1776 that British colonists in North America refused to be ruled any longer by the government of Great Britain. 
A Child

The human child cannot exist on its own. Think of the baby Moses in the bulrushes—were he not found and taken into care by the Pharaoh’s daughter, he would have died. We owe our existence to other people, and, except for a very few, we live our lives among other people.
The Modern Hermit

It seems, however, that even the modern-day hermit has to be a social being. In Spain, Austria, and Switzerland advertisements for the position of hermit have noted that the successful applicant would have to “dispense wisdom and talk to tourists” (Switzerland), “greet and listen to the many locals and outsiders who come to appreciate the view from the hermitage and unburden themselves to the resident hermit” (Austria), and “welcome visitors to the sanctuary” (Spain). Customer service, the Spanish ad states is “essential.”*

One of the classic cartoon situations involves the raggedly-clothed shipwreck survivor on a desert island. He may not have answered an advertisement for the position of hermit, but he has swum into it. Living alone, he can do what he likes within his small domain and with his scant resources. He can be as arbitrary as he likes.

Until another ship sinks and another survivor crawls up on the beach. Now adjustments must be made. Ad hoc accommodations, tacit agreements, and/or debated assignments are necessary. Who will do the fishing? Who the cooking? Who will climb the tree and bring down the coconuts? 
Whether it be in the family, the tribe, the nation, or the empire, there will be some form of governance. Ultimately, the questions facing human beings living together are: How will the coconuts be divided? and How will that be decided?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Wild Child

As the Trump White House increasingly resembles the Nixon White House—the 45th president’s interference in the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election looking more and more like the 37th’s obstruction of justice in the aftermath of the Watergate case—commentators have stumbled over themselves in their haste to remind us that it’s not necessarily the crime itself that will get you, but the cover-up. (A lot like the fact that in hockey the referees might miss the original transgression, but will always penalize the retaliation.)

Similarly, I now seem to find that while I gag at the foul displays of distemper by Trump, I retch at the displays of desperate defense by his sycophantic supporters. The latest example has come in the wake of the president’s tweets about Mika Brzezinski:
Elaine Chao defends Trump Twitter attack: 'He's new'
June 30, 2017
At the Aspen Ideas Festival, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, one of the few women in President Trump's Cabinet, defended his Twitter attack against MSNBC "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski. “He’s not in politics, and so he’s not used to the usual restraints that people in public service have," she said. “He’s new. He will adapt and he will learn.”
Well, excuse me! But the guy is 70 years old. He’s not some pre-schooler who needs socialization (“No, we do not say that Auntie Grace has big ears and smells bad”). 

Then again, maybe he is. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Give the Man a Fish!

"First feed the face and then talk right and wrong"
Yesterday, right after I had posted my previous blog entry, “Cut Bait,” the above excerpt from the song “How to Survive” (Bertholt Brecht/Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera) floated into my head. So today I am posting an addendum to the previous discussion of “Give a man a fish . . . Teach a man to fish.”
There are only two things I remember from my three years of Junior High School, both acronyms: PAIL and BAPS.

PAIL is a reminder of the four types of skin injuries: Puncture, Abrasion, Incision, and Laceration. Good for one's general knowledge, but PAIL doesn't rise to the level of usefulness of BAPS.

The latter acronym spurs us to the correct order of treatment should we happen to stumble across a man in shock who has swallowed poison, been asphyxiated, and is simultaneously bleeding. (Now, I must admit that my BAPS knowledge has never been called into play, as I have never met such a distressed human being. The only person that I can imagine coming across such an unfortunate is Hercule Poirot, but that prissy Belgian, I believe, would be of no use in the matter.)

At any rate, in case you do come across such a case, here's the battle order:

First, deal with the most life-threatening problem—the Bleeding;
Only once that is under control, do you turn to the second most threatening issue—the Asphyxiation;
After that is seen to, you move to an antidote for the Poison;
And lastly (assuming the poor chap is still with you) you attend to the Shock.
And so, class, what is the relevance of all this to our fish story of yesterday?

First things first. Before attempting to turn a starving man into Izaac Walton, feed his face!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cut Bait

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

A saying that originated—according to the first page of Google results—in ancient China (Confucius, perhaps), or with Maimonides, or maybe as late as 19th century England (with a certain Anne Isabella Richie).

It’s not worth my while trying to figure out whether the above saying is an aphorism, an adage, a maxim, an apothegm or—well—just a saying, and I certainly have no idea who thought it up. What I do know is that there is a stink (like a three-day old fish) of mock profundity about it.

In reality, the saying is an example of a false dichotomy—the fallacy that there are only two (polar opposite) positions that can be held in an argument (“Better dead than red.” “Better red than dead.”). 

The fish story is generally reeled in nowadays by those big-hearted econo-moralists who would walk past a beggar but drop $$$ into the greasy palms of the 1 percent, who—as the plot is expected to unfold—will spend the loot on factories and mills that will eventually employ said beggar. Top-down economics, Reaganomics, “voodoo economics” (in the apt phrase of George H. W. Bush, before he ate crow and became that bad actor’s running mate).

Sure, teach the starving man to fish. But if he isn’t fed first, he won’t be around to be taught. 

As John Maynard Keynes retorted to someone who was blowing on about “the long run”: 

“In the long run we shall all be dead.”

Thursday, May 11, 2017


Lying on his hospital bed staring up at the cracks in the ceiling, Alan Grant was one very disconsolate copper. The books that friends had brought him to pass the time elicited not a whit of interest in him. The Scotland Yard detective, having fallen through a trap door in pursuit of a small-time criminal, was—maddeningly—hors de combat.

Relief from boredom—if not from the prison of his hospital bed—came when a friend brought him, instead of another unreadable book, a collection of reproductions of old portrait paintings:
“Faces . . . . Dozens of faces for you. Men, women, and children. All sorts, conditions, and sizes.”
 It was the friend’s idea that Grant, who had made a “conscious study” of faces could winkle out some possible solutions to historical mysteries by his examination of the portraits. However, none of them aroused his curiosity until he came upon this one:
“A judge? A soldier? A prince?” But when Grant turned the picture over and read the name of the subject, he was taken aback to learn that this man who Grant assessed as “[s]omeone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious” was the notorious Richard III.

And so The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey unfolds as Grant searches for the truth about the alleged villainy (which he didn’t perceive in his face) of the last Plantagenet king of England.
I see this sense of privilege in the child’s eyes, and it cuts to some core, sick emotions connected with race in America that I think are still with us today.—Carolyn Drake
This photograph captures the essence of racism and servitude in America
for all time. The contrast between the expression of cold entitlement on the very white baby’s face and the calm resignation of the black nurse who is holding her only amplifies the great difference in their skin color and positions in life.—Mary Ellen Mark*
This is the photograph that those two photographers were commenting on [it is from The Americans by Robert Frank]:

I’m sorry—but this is crazy. A baby with no hair, who can’t even walk,** but has a “sense of privilege” in its eyes and an “expression of cold entitlement” on its face! (I wonder what Alan Grant would find there.) Let us attack racism for the beastliness it was in Charlestown, South Carolina in 1955 and for what it still is today. But let’s pick the right symbols and language. 

Here’s a photograph I took in New York City about two decades after Frank took his:

What do you want to make of it? 

Macbeth: ”There’s no art/ To find the mind’s construction in the face.”


** No Borscht Belt punchlines please.