If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that

There’s a lot of bad news out there these day:

  • Ukraine is being assaulted hour after hour, unprovoked; millions of its citizens are refugees, thousands are dead, Putin’s Russian army commits war crimes against a helpless civilian population,
  • and a former American president, the one that a federal judge publicly says has “more likely than not” committed a federal crime related to his on-going lie to the world at large about the integrity of the 2020 election, chooses just this moment to suggest that the Russian war criminal in chief should supply information on an imaginary crime by the son of the current president
  • that former president is the whining, pouting poster boy for the current wave of a revolting trend of the rich and famous being treated like they’re above the law; they are not, and the sooner that we see signs that Donald Trump and Mark Meadows and Ginni Thomas and the others (and you know who they are) are being investigated for the crimes that they appear to have committed, then the sooner the rest of America will stop believing that justice is for sale
  • (a bit of encouraging news on this front: a judge has held certifiable bad actor Alex Jones in contempt for refusing to comply with court orders to be deposed by the families of Sandy Hook shooting victims who are suing him for defamation for his despicable insistence (since recanted) that the whole thing was staged—step in the right direction!)
  • Bruce Willis is suffering from aphasia, a medical condition impacting his cognitive abilities to the extent that he’s announced he is giving up acting
  • in what should be no surprise to any sentient being anywhere, a medical clinical trial has found no sign—no sign at all—that there is any medical benefit whatever from the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as a treatment for COVID-19; woe be to the masking-and-testing deniers who were confident that unconventional therapy was the only kind worth trying

Pick up any newspaper or news app and you’re sure to find more of the same.  It’s discouraging.  It’s depressing.  It’s all real and it’s out there, and it feels like it’s coming in here, where I’m trying to stay safe and warm.  But something else entirely has really got me wondering about the sanity of the world out there, something that’s not in the papers.

Earlier this week I stopped at a local franchise of a national fast food restaurant for lunch, and the total was $9.95; I fished out a five and five ones and handed them to the young man at the cash register.  Yeah, he looked at me sideways a little, I think, probably for having the audacity to pay the tab with folding money instead of my debit card…reminded me of the times I’ve faced a teenager at the till who’s had a helluva time counting out the right change.  But not this guy; he knew precisely what was owed back, and he fished a single coin out of the drawer and held it up to show me, and he said, “Do you want the five cents back?”

Do I want the five cents back?  Do I want MY five cents back?  As my father might have said in such a circumstance, is the pope a Catholic?  Does a bear live in the woods?  Why wouldn’t I want my five cents back?  It is, after all, my five cents.  I can’t get a gumball for a nickel like I used to—it isn’t even made of much nickel any more—but it is still negotiable currency.  He didn’t ask if I wanted to donate the change to a charity, and he didn’t say (in so many words) that he meant to keep it for himself.  He seemed to sincerely just want to know if I wanted to even be bothered dropping the coin in my pocket.

What would you say to a question like that?

How P.J. O’Rourke helped me understand life, one week after he died

It’s been a particularly busy time for me lately.  I don’t know if it’s an increased rate of work-related nonsense, or the pounds of mail I’m sorting through each day from friendly, helpful folks who just want to make sure I’m aware of the value of their particular Medicare supplement plan, but it feels like I’m never getting in front of things.  Not even on top of them, really; more just hoping to hold on and be dragged along.  It was already midday today, after a morning physical at the doctor’s and a trip to the office to refresh my memory of how to get there, when I got to the morning paper and found this essay by Christopher Buckley on his friend, the conservative writer, satirist and commentator P.J. O’Rourke, who passed away last week.

I recall first noticing the name P.J. O’Rourke in the masthead and bylines in National Lampoon of the mid 1970s.  Among that group of friends, we believed NatLamp in this time to be the funniest thing alive, or National_Lampoon_(magazine)_cover_–_January_1973perhaps ever to have lived, and certainly that ever would live, and any of the persons who was writing what we were reading there was a gift from the cosmos.  Because it was always funny, and because its targets were everyone and everything, no sacred cows allowed, I assumed that all those people writing those things must surely believe in all the things I believed in.  It was at first a great surprise to me years later (the 80s or 90s) when I read something by O’Rourke and realized he had been a conservative all those years before; according to his Wikipedia entry, “Many of O’Rourke’s essays recount that during his student days he was a leftist, anti-war hippie, but that in the 1970s his political views underwent a volte-face. He emerged as a political observer and humorist rooted in libertarian conservatism.”

O’Rourke’s political philosophies weren’t in lockstep with either of the major political parties in this country.  Clearly not a Democrat, but he did not offer non-critical obeisance to the Republicans, either: as Buckley notes, O’Rourke believed Hillary Clinton was “wrong ‘about absolutely everything,’ except in one regard: She wasn’t Donald Trump.”  That’s pretty much why I voted for her in 2016, too, and have felt like I’ve been dogged by Joe Btfsplk’s cloud ever since when it comes to questions of politics and government.

Buckley says “P.J. O’Rourke’s death marks the end of a particular and an essential sensibility. He found humor everywhere and in everything, especially in his PJORourke-tributes-newsfellow Republicans,” and he makes a good case for today’s Republicans having no sense of humor at all.  I agree: how could anyone who takes Donald Trump seriously see the humor in anything else?  But it was this line from Buckley that really caught me: “The Trump era could have been one great big enormous sandbox for P.J. to play in. Instead, he found it dispiriting, a pageant of stupidity, boorishness and coarseness.”

Dispiriting.  A pageant of stupidity, boorishness and coarseness.  Gawd, how on the nose.  Thank you, P.J. O’Rourke, for inspiring your friend Christopher Buckley to put into words the feelings I’ve been fighting for years now.

April showers

If what they say about the rain at the end of the year’s first quarter is true, we here in southeast Texas are going to be lousy with buds and blooms any time now.  It has been a day better spent inside in thoughtful contemplation: there’s still the whole weather radarCOVID-19 thing but it feels like it’s getting better, and still disagreement about whether to get vaccinated or not (just do it; I did) which then forks off into another look at the drama of the American political dichotomy, coming along right as the new president passes a milestone day in office.

Yeah, not gonna do it.

Unless…unless I could get someone else to do the hard work.  Someone funny; someone Canadian; someone with a YouTube series I could share with you for free.  Yeah, then I’d do it…I mean, do this:

I say it’s worth subscribing—he doesn’t publish too frequently so you don’t burn out, his pieces are short, and to my mind invariably funny.

Now, while getting this set up I had one of those great ideas I sometimes get…just seconds before I forget why I thought it was such a great idea.  In this case I had a very specific connection from Casually Explained to a particular Tom Lehrer song, right up until I couldn’t remember which song it was.  So now, before I get lost online listening to Tom Lehrer songs, here’s one for you to enjoy…

A peek of sun

This is a miserable day: there’s a small hurricane a few hundred miles to the south that is shooting enough rain over my area that the golf course has actually closed, and they rarely do that; I’m finishing four months mostly stuck at home doing my tiny part to stifle the spread of COVID-19, which has a renewed outbreak here in southeast Texas thanks mostly to simple impatience encouraged by misguided state and national political leadership; and while the Major League Baseball season finally began in Houston last night I found from watching just a bit of it on television that the lack of fan excitement in the ballpark compounded my disinterest arising from the off-season report that my team cheated.

But there is good news: support for Donald Trump among Republicans is starting to crack!  Finally.

I do not understand—have never understood—the attraction of Donald Trump to the American people, beyond the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton and that was enough for many.  Trump has no guiding philosophical principles (beyond self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement) that might attract like-minded people, and even if he did, you’d think the cold, clear reality that Trump lies (about everything) should be enough to persuade those people that he cannot be trusted in anything that he says.  Even his TV catchphrase “You’re fired” was misleading, in that we’ve now seen that he doesn’t have the courage to fire anyone to their face, no matter how much they may deserve it.  He’s a con man; a fraud.  He’s also an incredible whiner, obsessed with whether people have been “fair” and “nice” to him—why didn’t he ever learn that life is not fair, and people are not always nice?  (Has he looked in a mirror?)

He’s also proven himself to be conspicuously susceptible to praise—he thrives on having others tell him how great he is.  Don’t think the leaders of Russia, China and North Korea haven’t noticed.  I’ve never seen anything as demeaning as those Cabinet meetings and other gatherings at which Trump kicks it off by going around the table “giving” everyone the chance to open up their Roget’s and find new ways to kiss his ass—in public!  Like they had a choice…I do not understand why, after the first one of those, the people around that table ever came back.

Actually, I think I do understand, at least to an extent: leaders of the Republican Party in and out of government are willing to put up with all the hideous and despicable behaviors of Trump because that’s the price to pay for getting what they want from having their party in power.  What other reason could there be for men and women who have demonstrated their skill in the system and risen to these positions of power to now debase themselves without public complaint to the same man most of them strongly dismissed and ridiculed right up to the minute he secured their party’s nomination?

The “what” of “what do they want?” from Trump differs, of course.  It could be as simple as political spoils, personal appointments or government contracts.  It could be as clear as being part of the plan to advance a philosophical agenda, either by, for example, enabling racists to control the levers of power, or by installing a generation of judges to lifetime appointments to influence the nation’s laws.  But in supporting him as president, they have also enabled all that we get from Trump: the disinterest in properly handling the government’s response to a pandemic, the misguided policy priorities, the self-inflicted trade wars, the attempts to use the government to enrich himself and to punish his enemies, the damage to relations with our allies as well as our enemies, including the attempt to blackmail a foreign leader for his personal and political gain that led to his impeachment.  (Don’t forget impeachment!)  And despite all that, the polls have been showing that Republicans still support him.

But if you look carefully, as Greg Sargent did in the Washington Post this week, you can see some cracks in that wall of support.

In a revealing aside, President Trump told chief propagandist Sean Hannity on Thursday night that he traces much of the overwhelming enthusiasm for his reelection now sweeping the country back to his Mount Rushmore speech commemorating Independence Day.

“Since that time, it’s been really something,” Trump told Hannity, before raging that fake polls are deliberately obscuring the mighty depth and reach of his support.

In that speech, Trump offered his canonical statement on the unleashing of federal law enforcement into cities, conflating protests against police brutality and systemic racism with a “far-left fascism” out to “take” our “national heritage” away from the “American people.”

At around the time Trump appeared on “Hannity,” all four Major League Baseball teams playing Opening Day games took a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter before the national anthem, flatly defying Trump’s relentless disparaging of the protests, and more broadly, the vision outlined in that speech.

In all kinds of ways, Trump’s depiction of this national moment, as enshrined in that speech, is losing its grip on the country. In some cases, Trump’s own officials are defying his efforts to carry that depiction to the authoritarian climax he so craves.

Meanwhile, Trump’s sinking popularity — which is linked to that loosening grip, as his efforts to impose that understanding on us are surely helping drive his numbers down — is leading to open defiance among his own party.

Players taking a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Republicans standing up to Trump on Confederacy issues and on vote by mail: Sargent cites these among seven examples where, across the country and including Republicans, people may finally be getting so tired of Trump and his constant drama that they are ready to tell him to shove it.  I hope he’s right.

Another example: Republican Congressional candidates in the Houston area who recently won their party primary runoffs by trumpeting their support of Trump are kicking off the general election campaign by…toning it down.  A lot.

Of course, I wonder why it’s taken so long, especially for elected officials who generally consider themselves, each and every one of them, the bright center of the universe around which all else revolves.  After swallowing their pride and kowtowing to this spoiled child for so long, they would not be abandoning ship now if they thought he was going to win in November.  Maybe they’ve finally seen the light and are doing what’s right for it’s own sake.  (Right.)  You decide.

Now.  For.  The.  Twitter.  Fun.

Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV!

Telework Journal: That didn’t take long

When it comes to fighting a deadly virus, it appears that we are all learning that sooner is better than later.  That’s the stated reason why at my workplace, NASA Johnson Space Center, and at the other NASA centers around the country, we moved from Stage 2 to Stage 3 of a response plan in just two days, even though there was no significant change in reported cases of COVID-19.  Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s message to the troops employed some of the same boilerplate we’re all getting pretty familiar with, in emails from every credit card and department store and restaurant and car repair shop and golf course with which we have ever had digital congress: a sincere declaration that they are “closely following the advice of health professionals” and that “Implementing best practices early and quickly will increase likelihoods for better outcomes.”

Despite there being verrry few cases at NASA of people who have come down with COVID-19, and no one at all here in Houston, the agency has gotten in line with the latest recommendations from the White House and moved to a stricter standard for allowing people to come to the office to do work.  As you can see in the chart (below) Stage 3 means that as of this morning only people with mission-essential tasks were to come to work, and the on-site day care is now closed, but the hardest part for many people will be, I fear, that in-person meetings are prohibited.

IMG_0656

Everybody is getting smarter about the best way to fight this crisis, even the president himself—and his favorite TV news channel, where they seem to have come around to the fact that science is real and have stopped imagining it as an attack on Dear Leader.  The mental flexibility of is just amazing!

I did have to go to the office today to take care of some things I couldn’t do from home but left as soon as I could and headed home, stopping on the way to get my car washed.  (It needed it, I promise.)   I chose the medium-priced of the three packages, advertised at $24.99.  But when I went inside to pay, the cashier asked for $18.49; assuming I’d just misread the sign, or that I had caught an unexpected sale, I gave her my card, signed the slip, and headed for the window to see my car transformed back to its original beauty.  Standing there across the waiting room from another menu board, I saw the advertisement that Wednesdays are Senior Days, with special pricing on the regular wash or any of the packages; I pulled out my receipt and looked more closely.

IMG_0658

They didn’t even ask.

Damn.