Letters…

Dear Rick Santorum:

How in God’s green earth did you make through your time in the Senate without learning how the Constitution worked? Either you did, and you are dissembling so that the base will like you (although, to be honest, you probably lost beaucoup points with them for even appearing on the Rachel Maddow Show to begin with) or you really DON’T understand basic civics. In either case, you are unfit to be president.

Let me put it this way: you and other conservatives were quick to urge the Supreme Court to invalidate the mandates of the Affordable Care Act in the Hobby Lobby case. But there is no way that the Founders could even have foreseen the issue which faced the court. That did not stop any of you from claiming, successfully, that it fell under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause. There is no way any of you would argue that the Supreme Court’s decision in that case should be overridden by Congress, regardless of whether public opinion supported the contraception mandate.

That’s because the Court, not Congress, decides the parameters of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights exists to protect individuals from the majority, or in the case the vocal minority. And quoting a majority opinion in a case the court overruled (Bowers v. Hardwick) and dissents in a cases that went against you (Lawrence v. Texas, Obergfell v. Hodges) to support the point you are making means you know squat. And your vague “We need different judges,” while it no doubt plays to your base, is an empty threat and you know it.

******

Dear Rachel Maddow:

When I first saw who your guest was, I was frankly incredulous. Rick Santorum? Rick Santorum? A man who views your kind as an abomination? The man whose name you Google at your peril? Seriously???

The first part of the interview did little to assuage my disgust. Talking with this man who equated gay sex with sex with dogs calmly and gently about the primaries and the Donald Trump effect seemed like pandering.

But then… you confronted him.  Still in your pleasant “I’m just talking here” way that has endeared you to me from your first show, you got the man to show exactly how ignorant he was.  (Not to mention show how uncomfortable he was being confronted with his past horrible statements. You definitely gave rhetoric teachers across the country a great example of the Appeal to Authority fallacy when he claimed Justice White (who wrote the majority in Bowers) and Justice Scalia (who wrote dissents in Lawrence and Obergfell) as support.

I’m still not entirely happy you had Santorum on, but I guess overall you redeemed yourself.

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Sigh. Again.

I am beginning to sympathize with honest policemen.

What with all the cops who have been implicated in killings over the past few years, it must be hard to be a good cop. I have never doubted that they are out there — even as there are cities with horrible histories of police brutality, such as Cleveland or Baltimore, there are cities who firmly believe in treating the community respectfully. Richmond, California comes to mind.

But being a cop in those cities must be made immeasurably harder by those responsible for the deaths of Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, just to name three of the African-American men and boys killed senselessly. You can add the suspicious death of Sandra Bland to that list.

But I am currently thinking about those good cops right now because of the shooting in Chattanooga. Recent news reports state that his family was worried about his depression, and that he wrote in his diaries of wanting to kill himself.

Given that and the Germanwings pilot earlier this year who committed murder-suicide, I can just hear the the discussions now about how people who are depressed or suicidal pose a danger to everyone about them.

I am sure that there are those now who will think twice about being friends with people suffering from depression; employers who would not hire anyone with such a history. It’s illegal, of course, but what’s the law — especially if you know that it is unlikely that you would ever be caught — against what you think is personal safety? The fact that most people who are depressed (even most men) are a danger to no one but themselves — and, depending upon their circumstances, maybe not even that — might weigh very little. It’s why most people cannot talk about their disability at work. It’s why I am now going to take one of my two publications off my resume.

It should be unnecessary for me to say it but the truth is that most people who commit violent crimes are not mentally ill. Dylann Roof, for example: driven by a evil ideology, he gunned down nine people in a house of worship.  In the ensuing debate about his mental health, I lost a friend. In this case, it was my choice not to remain friends with someone who insisted that “anyone who commits murder must be mentally ill” and who refused to see how so many people take that statement and reverse it.

A doctor I saw recently told me how brave I was to be open about my disorder. Funny but I never felt brave. I felt driven, and committed. I knew that I had lost people who had decided being friends with someone like me was too much trouble, or too scary. I decided it was worth it to be honest, and to hopefully be a counterweight to all the news stories about violent mentally ill people. I told the doctor in question that I looked for inspiration to the generation of gay men and lesbians who had come out of the closet and eased the stigma of being gay. Maybe, by coming down from the attic, I could help do the same.

I have felt resolute.

Right now, though, I feel worried. And I tell myself that I am overreacting, that, the Chattanooga shooter notwithstanding, things are getting better.

I tell myself that, but I don’t think I believe it.

Edited to add: Almost like they read my mind, Cracked.com published a very perceptive article on bipolar disorder from a woman who suffers from it.

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Espagna. Or Mars, maybe.

[This was a post I wrote while on the road, but didn’t publish, until now.]

This isn't Mars, but could play it on TV.

This isn’t Mars, but could play it on TV.

Today I am in Nerva, Spain. The Rocket Scientist has a project underway at Minas Rio Tinto (Rio Tinto Mine) a few kilometers away. As a result, I am sweltering in a small Andalusian town in the middle of nowhere.

Not that this bothers me: on the contrary, in every vacation you need days when you just stop and rest, especially when the temperature is 84F at 10 a.m. Sitting inside and drinking soda is just fine with me. (Otherwise, I would have walked down to the square and sat in a cafe drinking cafe con leche. There’s not a lot to do in Nerva. )

The project, like all of the Rocket Scientist’s projects, requires an analog for Mars. Rio Tinto is one such analog: a harsh, barren, landscape decimated by decades of mining by the British firm that took its name from the area. (The same British mining concern has wrought ecological havoc a lot of other places in the world, sadly. Most recently, Congress voted to allow them access to Apache sacred sites to strip mine for copper.)

When I look at the landscape, I am struck by how much beauty there is in the desolation. The colors run together, from pale sand through buff and orange and red into purple. There is beauty almost everywhere, even in a place I keep finding myself mentally referring to as “Minas Morgul.” (“One does not simply walk into Mordor… one takes an SUV to haul equipment with.”) And I am struck by the dedication of the scientists working in these conditions, especially when the temperature hit 108F, as it did yesterday.

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Where’s Frodo and Sam?

It’s like a lot of research, both space related and not: men and women willing to go to far away places, often under harsh conditions, to learn things. It’s not an easy job; I couldn’t do it, and not just because I don’t have the training. Sitting in a 108F tent in Southwestern Spain watching a drill is not my idea of a fun time. Nor is running the same drill in the Antarctic. Yes, some scientist have jobs that involve them spending time on exotic South Seas islands, but more of them involve work that is far less glamorous.

One of my pet peeves with Americans is their thoughtlessness when it comes to major scientific achievements.* These things take work, people. Yes, astronauts are heroes, but so are all the engineers and scientists who put in very long hours to get astronauts into space. People grumble when an unmanned mission goes awry about the waste of tax dollars, and perhaps they should, but they should also understand the long hours and dedication put in to get things skyward in the first place, and the grief of all those responsible who have just seen the work of years of their lives destroyed.

The Rocket Scientist was annoyed when he heard that Ron Howard was making Apollo 13. NASA had just had a serious of mission failures, and he thought that the movie would be just another “See how incompetent these guys are?” slap at the agency. Instead, the movie was, if anything, a love letter to the scientists and engineers who are always in the background but who are  indispensable to any mission. (No man is an island. That includes astronauts.)

The Rocket Scientist, and his colleagues, and his comrades-in-arms in countries throughout the world make us better off by what they do. True, not all science results in discoveries that have everyday applications (although NASA missions sometimes do), but knowing more about our planet and our universe makes us smarter. We are by nature curious beings; exploration, whether physical or scientific fills that driving need. I don’t know about you, but knowing that there is somebody out there studying mantis shrimps — a creature I will probably never encounter — makes me happy. The spirit-lifting effect of “Wow, that’s so cool!” cannot be overestimated.

I am proud that I know these men and women, and I salute them and the work they do. Besides, sending a drill to Mars to help find signs of life strikes me as somewhat a tilting at windmills, and as you know that’s an activity I approve of.

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This could be Mars, too. Except for the blue sky. And the trees. And the Porta-Potty.

*Not just scientific achievements, either: Frank Gehry’s name may be the one associated with the Bilbao Guggenheim, but you can bet he had a crack team of engineers making sure that the building inspired by fish did not simply crumble into the river.

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Madrid, I don’t know how to quit you. Or vice versa, as the case may be.

Today. Is. So. Fired.

Today really started yesterday, when I got very sick late in the evening. (I was feeling more or less — maybe less — okay, then had paella and a half pitcher of sangria. In my defense…. paella!) This morning, when I woke up short on sleep, the thought of ingesting anything made me wince.

Oddly enough for us, The Rocket Scientist and I left for the airport a few minutes before schedule. I thought this was a good omen. Hah!

RS dropped me off at Terminal 2, and I proceeded to the TAP Portugal counter. Pursuant to his instructions, I requested that my bags be checked all the way through SFO. (I had a paid ticket to Oporto, and then a reward ticket from Oporto to SFO.) The young man at the counter did so, then seemed confused, then frustrated, and then he brought in his colleagues, and  after half an hour I was sent on my way.

Because of  my fibromyalgia, I ask for mobility assistance at airports. I can walk, but I am very slow, and my capacity for walking through long concourses is limited, especially if I want to be able to function at the other end. This applies to international travel in spades. The way that Madrid handles mobility assistance is that people are brought to a waiting area until their gate opens. I was parked at the waiting area near my gate, only to be told that the plane is delayed.

A young woman with the mobility assistance team took my passport and boarding pass and left. I hate when people do that — I get nervous in foreign airports without my passport. She returned a few minutes later, took a deep breath, and explained in broken English that the plane from Madrid to Oporto was so late I was going to miss my connecting flight to Newark.

I was concerned but calm. I also have a bridge in Brooklyn I need to talk to you about.

True, I only freaked out a little bit, but I did freak out. (I feel really sorry for this young woman. She was hung out to dry by the TAP gate agents, who should have been the ones to tell me in the first place that the connection was going to be a problem. For one thing, they spoke much better English than she did.) She and her colleague patted my hand and brought  me a glass of water, and I felt quite abashed.

One of the issues that has been plaguing me all this trip has been language gaps. I have them in English, and I might as well not be able to speak even tourist Spanish, as I can’t retain even the basic phrases. I can manage “gracias” and “por favor” and that’s about it. I am very hit or miss on “losiento” and “hola.” Towards the end of my stay I had mostly gotten down “salida” and “aseos.” On previous trips, I had developed a vocabulary of about thirty or so words, not including place names. I am down to, on a good day, six, as long as I remember to say “gracias” (with the appropriate Castilian lisp) rather than “grazie.” Being all alone in a country where I can’t make heads or tails of the language, running on three hours of sleep and no food and next to no water was a recipe for disaster for me.

That said, I have for the most part enjoyed this trip; for three quarters of it I was either in London, where language was of course no problem, or around someone who spoke at the worst fluent and at the best native Spanish. The past few days I have not been by myself, either; even though RS does not speak Spanish either, he has a good grasp of tourist phrases.

So after I calmed down (and my freak-outs tend to be of the sniffling and crying slightly variety, not the yelling variety), a couple of mobility gentlemen came and we got my previously checked luggage and headed to the TAP counter. I was not alone — about four other families were stranded who had connections that they needed to make. My case was complicated because of the duel ticket situation. TAP was going to put me up in a hotel for one night, and then United could find me something tomorrow.

Uh, no. The earliest United could send me out was on Wednesday (albeit from Madrid, not Oporto). I had managed to retain my composure enough to firmly request (just short of demand) that TAP relax their rules and spring for two nights hotel room, rather than the one that they claimed they could authorize. I was successful, and am now ensconced in a hotel for the next 32 hours.

We left the place we were staying at 6:45, arrived at the airport at 7:15. I left the airport six-and-a-half hours later. That’s six-and-a-half hours of my life I’ll never get back. Good times.

But it could certainly be worse. Nobody died and nobody went to jail, and at best I can tool around Madrid tomorrow (I like the city busses) and at worst I can sleep. I get meal vouchers from the hotel, although quite honestly I don’t think I’ll be eating anytime soon. (Even before last night, the Spanish diet heavy in meat (it must be a terrible country for vegetarians) was beginning to pall.)

Not to mention that all the chocolate we were bringing back is in my luggage, and I think that certainly counts as emergency rations, don’t you?

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The pitfalls of “progress.”

Harmondsword is a small, quaint village hard under the approach of planes heading into Heathrow. That would be quaint not in the Disneyland or tourist sense, but in the “good heavens, people actually live in seventeenth century houses!” sense. (Not all houses are that old – some are modern.)

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Harmondsword Hall Guest House is reasonably priced inn (85 euros/night) in a lovely sixteenth century building, with large, American-sized rooms and a full English breakfast included. The Five Bells is a comfortable English pub about two short blocks away. (The Crown and Rose is even closer.) I strongly recommend anyone traveling to London who wants to stay near Heathrow for convenience’s sake consider this place.

I suggest you do so soon, however. In a few months almost all the houses – including the inn – will be demolished to make way for Heathrow’s third runway.

The night I stayed there, a local news crew did their broadcast from the garden of the Five Bells. The villagers were told that day which houses were to be demolished. The last piece the newsman did was asking the villagers what they thought about the Heathrow expansion.

Several villagers thought the expansion a good idea. They trotted out the same reasons as the government. It will be good for the economy. We can use the jobs. Not only newcomers: one of the supporters who looked like he was about fifty had lived in the village since he was born.

More opposed the expansion: in some cases, people who had lived there their entire lives, including a ninety-three year old man who lived in a sixteenth century house that his parents and grandparents had lived in before him. One woman, whose house was not going to be demolished, spoke of her well-loved garden that would become unusable. “They said they would soundproof my house, but I would still need earplugs to go outside!” I spoke to several of the more ardent activists afterwards in the bar and wished them the best of luck in their campaign.

Being driven into Heathrow, I saw the flip side of the coin: signs telling passersby: “Heathrow Expansion: Good for Heathrow. Good for Britain.”

Even supposing this were true (and the economic benefits of things like these are almost always overstated) little to none of those benefits will accrue to the villagers. They will lose their houses, some in which their families have lived for generations, and will be forced out into a brutal real estate and rental market. The London metropolitan area, like San Francisco and New York, has taken off, with the result that high costs have become a barrier to entry for home ownership, and rents have rocketed skyward.

On our side of the Atlantic, Congress has just given the President fast-track approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This means that Congress will not be able to change or amend any part of the treaty – a treaty that they have not seen, partly because it is still being negotiated. From what I have read, though, it is much like NAFTA, the free-trade agreement Bill Clinton signed into law.

When NAFTA was being debated, one of the refrains I remember hearing was “sure, maybe we’ll lose manufacturing jobs, but we’ll gain technology jobs.” People espousing this position didn’t stop to think about the logistics of such a transfer: the workers displaced by the loss of manufacturing jobs were, by and large, in Rust Belt and South, while the tech jobs were mostly in California. What should a textile worker in North Carolina do when their job left? Move to Silicon Valley, where they would be unable to compete? (And increasingly these days, tech support and coding jobs are located overseas.) Pulling up stakes and moving is incredibly disruptive to people’s psyches, as is staying put and struggling to keep your head above water.

There seemed to be no plan to help people whose jobs headed south. It seemed as though the people didn’t matter, just the numbers. But, as in so many things in life, there are people behind those numbers; failing to take their welfare into account, including intangibles like sense of place, will only lead to unnecessary suffering.

After all, how do you measure a sense of community? Love for the place where you were brought up? Having friends that you can call on when lightning strikes and you need a hand? The color the sky turns on an autumn day? The way the pine trees line the ridgelines? Randy Travis wrote an entire song about this sort of thing.

“Progress,” however you want to measure it, always has victims. People lose their jobs to robots and treaty-encouraged offshoring, their homes to public works projects. That’s inevitable. But we need to do a better job of assessing intangible human costs when determining whether a project is worthwhile.

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Fin.

The Hermitage, Louvre, and Orsay: 1997.

The Metropolitan (NYC): 2003.

The Prado* and the Getty: 2004.

The Art Institute of Chicago: 2006.

The Uffizi and the Vatican: 2012.

The Tate Modern: 2015.

This was my list of the Top Ten art museums in the Western world, culled from several online lists.  While some lists had other museums (such as the National Gallery in DC or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), these ten seemed to be consistently praised.

I am now done.

I saw the Tate Modern on Sunday, for far too short a time. I was in a rushed and distracted frame of mind, so I am sure I did not do the museum justice.  I was also resistant to its charms because, quite frankly and somewhat sadly, I am not a fan of most art since about 1950 or so. (There are notable exceptions: I love Chagall, so much that I nearly named this computer Marc when I got it 2012. And Jasper Johns. And Edward Hopper, although the Tate Modern had no Hopper. There are a few others.) I like surrealism, however, and they had some great surrealist works, and I enjoyed the way that they grouped the paintings by concept rather than strictly chronologically. I can see that for people who like those genres of art, this would be a fantastic museum.

I have seen a great many other art museums, of course: the aforementioned National Gallery in DC, and the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery  in London**, the Pompidou in Paris, and the Frick and MOMA in New York, Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museums in Amsterdam, the Thyssen-Bornemizsa in Madrid, museums dedicated to Franz Hals in Den Hague and Salvador Dali in St. Petersburg, Florida***, and the Bilbao Guggenheim, and so on….

But I worked my way through seeing all of my ten, my “bucket list,” if you will.  Of the ten, I love most of them, but for different reasons. The Met has two of my favorite paintings, and visiting it means seeing old friends.  The Prado, while showing me  paintings I always wanted to see (Goya’s “Third of May,” among others) gave me an appreciation for classic paintings that had never moved me before I was able to seem them first hand, rather than in pictures (Velazquez’s “Las Meninas”). The Vatican, Ufizzi, and AIC, likewise. The Getty introduced me to art that was totally new to me, and generated a love for early photography (Julia Cameron Mitchell’s work, for example).

I loved the Hermitage for its architecture and decorations as much as for its art.  (The have  a room with columns tiled in malachite! And a basin large enough to be a bathtub tiled over in lapis!) And while its art is not my proverbial cup of tea, I appreciated the way the Tate Modern arranged its work.

I was fortunate enough to visit several of the ten more than once: the Louvre, the Orsay, Prado and Met. I see chances in the future to visit several again: the American museums and the Prado.  Then there are the museums that were not on the list: the National Gallery in DC and the Rijksmuseum, which have paintings I love, and the Bilbao Guggenheim, which I love not for its collection of art, but for Frank Gehry’s architecture which beggars description.  It may be the most… amazing? exciting? I run out of words for it… building I have ever been in.

I feel a bit sad about coming to the end of this journey. Yes, I accomplished what I set out to do, and I feel happy about that, but I feel wistful about not having any more museums to work towards visiting.

I will no doubt continue to go to museums.  Art matters too much for me not to.

I do need a new bucket list, however.  In a previous post, I talked of seeing national parks. That seems both unattainable, and incomplete.  Maybe I could whittle it down to seeing a national park in every state… That would take a while , but I could certainly do it…

Let’s see: I’ve already gotten California, Tennessee, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Utah, Arizona, Virginia, and Maryland, and if I count National Historic sites, I can include Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Tennessee… Should I include National Historic Sites? and National Battlefield Sites? So many decisions….

*I mentally include the Reine Sofia in with the Prado, pretty much since before it was split off several very important paintings such as Picasso’s “Guernica” hung in the Prado.

**Several lists included the British Museum, which is wonderful, but which focuses on archaeology rather than art. (I know the line between the two is sometimes blurry…)

***I have always thought that having a major museum dedicated to Salvador Dali in a rather odd place like St. Petersburg (which, although I love the place dearly, is not a well known hub of artistic activity) would please Dali. (The reason the museum is where it is is because one of Dali’s chief patrons lived in St. Pete.)

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Perspective.

Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding the right of states to enact and enforce sodomy laws, 1986.

Romer v. Evans, striking down Colorado’s anti-gay constitutional amendment, 1996.

Lawrence v. Texas, striking down sodomy laws, 2007.

United States v. Windsor, striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, 2013

And now, in 2015, Obergefell v. Ohio, extending same sex marriage rights to everyone throughout the land.

That’s thirty years.

Now, on to the fight for equal housing — for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or race — and equal employment — for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or race or disability status..

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