God help us. Especially people like me.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Donald Trump has suggested bringing back mental institutions.

Dear God.

Mental institutions were, in some cases, horrible places. And if Trump had his way, you could “nab people like [the shooter] because… they knew something was off.”

People would be tossed in a mental hospital if others thought “something was off.” This loose standard has been used in American history to institutionalize not only the severely mentally ill but also troublemakers, many times being women.

I’m lucky, I have family who would not ever place me in such an institution. But what about others? How would they cope?

How would the asylums be administered? Would they be another get-rich scheme abetted by the government, like the prison industrial complex? Would there be financial incentives for holding on to patients? Would the asylums be like nursing homes, with the same possibility for abuse that so often escapes accountability?

I know I am in no danger of being carted away, but the increasing stigma in society as demonstrated by attitudes following various shootings (including by the administration) makes keeping to my commitment to living as an “out” mentally ill person harder.

That this suggestion comes from an administration which made it easier for the severely mentally ill to get guns and which has shown no commitment to adequately fund care for the mental illness and substance abuse is the rankest hypocrisy. Of course, Trump is not suggesting reopening mental institutions from any actual concern for the mentally ill — that’s not part of the equation here. No, this suggestion comes from the mistaken and bigoted belief that the mentally ill are violent and a danger to the rest of society. It doesn’t matter that most of the mentally ill are not violent and that mentally ill persons are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Some shooters are mentally ill, so let’s lock all of them up.

Because an individual commits an act of violence does not by itself mean that they are mentally ill.  But while most of the mass killers may or may not be mentally ill, they are undeniably pretty much all male, and white, and young. Maybe we should just lock up all young white men.

That would make about as much sense.


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If you have seen the movie The Monuments Men (which I loved, although the critics didn’t), you know that the Nazis seized the Ghent altarpiece from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. The movie showed this as evidence of the evil rapaciousness of the Nazis as they mowed their way across Europe.

What the movie doesn’t tell you, although the book upon which it is based briefly does, is that at the time of the First World War, several of the panels from the wings were owned by the German state. In the 19th century, the cathedral had pawned the panels, which after a couple of owners had been bought by the King of Prussia.

During World War I, the Germans seized other panels, but not the entire work. At the end of the war, the Germans were forced to turn over all the panels they had, including panels that they had rightfully owned prior to 1918 to Belgium as war reparations. This act of (arguably) cultural looting by the Allies was part of the driving impetus behind Hitler’s coveting of the work.

I am not trying to exonerate the Nazis for their looting of Europe. But history is strange, and the Treaty of Versailles really was a cruel and unforgiving document.

And it is useful to remember that the sins you commit can come back to you, either as an individual, a nation, or a group of nations.

Posted in Art, Culture (popular and otherwise), History | Tagged | Leave a comment

Miscellaneous musings, Olympic edition.

I had thought of writing a post condemning Mike Pence’s appallingly boorish behavior at the opening ceremonies but decided I didn’t want to waste that many words on him. Suffice it to say that he insulted our allies, embarrassed our country, and showed a lack of appropriate decorum and understanding of the international norms of proper behavior in such situations.

True confession: I love curling. I love curling so much that I felt motivated to look up and see if there was anywhere around me that gave curling lessons. I mean, this area produces loads of figure skaters and it has a hockey team, so ice sports come naturally, right? Alas, the only curling club I could locate is in Oakland, which is too far.

I should be in bed, but as I write this I am sitting up watching the men’s gold-medal curling match between the US and Sweden. I’m yawning so hard I’m leaking tears, but I can’t seem to tear myself away.

I try not to use terms like “crazy” or “insane” casually. They are too loaded.  But damn if the big-air snowboarders don’t make that hard. I watch them fly off the end of what looks just like a ski-jumping hill and twist and turn and corkscrew, and the only thing I can think is “Jesus, that looks just insane.”

Dave Geherty, a golf commentator which for some reason was in studio to give his views, gave his explanation of how ski-jumping started. According to Geherty, it had to have involved someone saying “Here, hold my beer.” This accords with what I’ve always thought.

I have a hierarchy of who I root for:

The Americans.
The host country, usually.(Not the Russians in 2014, though, and possibly not the Chinese in 2022.)
The Canadians, except in ice hockey.
Athletes from countries that aren’t Winter Olympic powerhouses, like women bobsledders from Nigeria and Jamaica and figure skaters from Kazakhstan.
Athletes whose medals will be significant for their countries: I was delighted at Javier Fernandez’s bronze, the first-ever figure skating medal for Spain.
Athletes from countries that are dear to my heart: the Spanish, the Kiwis, the Brits, and the Dutch. I root against the Dutch in speed-skating, though, because no country should have that much of a dominance in a discipline. (We’ll not talk about the US and snowboarding.)

Biggest disappointment of the games: the revelations about Shaun White’s history of sexual harassment. It always hurts when someone you thought of as one of the good guys proves not to be so.

Biggest delight of the games: a three-way tie between Adam Rippon’s performance in the team figure skating event, the US women’s hockey gold, and Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall’s gold medal in the cross-country sprint relay. It was the first gold medal ever for the US in cross-country skiing. It was also the most exciting finish to any event I’ve watched this Olympics.

Favorite US athlete: that’s hard, but it’s probably Adam Rippon. Or else Erin Jackson, the speed skater who started on ice in 2016. (She had been an inline skater, but still… to go on ice skates for the first time in October 2016 and be skating in the Olympics 18 months later is impressive.)

Favorite non-US athlete: Hannah Ledecka, the Czech snowboarder who also won the women’s Super G. Her look when she saw she had won by .01 of a second was priceless. Or perhaps the aforementioned Nigerian bobsled team, who didn’t medal but who did perform respectably.

Favorite event I only heard of in the past two weeks: team relay luge. Of all the sports that you have relays in, luge strikes me as making the least sense. Therefore, I find it fascinating.

One of the things I love is the sound of the Olympics: the swish of skates on ice, the rattle of bobsleds hurtling down the run, the clash of hockey sticks, the broad Midwestern accents of the men’s curling team.

Ah, well. Another 48 hours, and I’ll have to wait four more years to get such a concentrated dose of very athletic people spinning on the ice or flipping through the air.

I can hardly wait for Beijing, 2022.

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Woodstock revisited.

I have a whole lot of thoughts about the Olympics (among them, if ski jumping is amazing, which it is, then snowboard big air (which is ski jumping with a snowboard where you turn corkscrews in the air while you drop) is unbelievable) but that can wait for another post. Instead I want to talk about one of the major cultural touchstones of the 20th century: Woodstock.

I was only eight at the time of Woodstock; not being in a hippie family with a bus but instead a somewhat conservative Roman Catholic family in Florida, there would have been no way I would have gone. I strongly suspect that my older brother would have wanted to go, had he the means, but he didn’t. My exposure to the festival came from the documentary, as I supposed most people’s did. TCM showed the documentary as part of their “31 Days of Oscar” programming so I took the opportunity to DVR it.

The first time I watched it recently, I watched solely for the music. One of the numbers, Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” is on my “Music that’s not better than sex but comes really close” list.  It showcases, among other things, The. Best. Drum. Solo. In. The. Entire. History. Of. Rock. And. Roll by Michael Shrieve.  (Railfan’s opinion when he watched it with me recently was a simple “Damn.”)

The most recent time I watched it I paid attention to what I think of as the “sociological” content, perhaps because I was watching with Railfan, who had never seen it. Perhaps because I am older, and allegedly more responsible, I came away with a much different impression than before.

Firstly, the guys who put this on were idiots. While estimates of crowd size varied throughout the documentary, it is clear that the facilities they had planned were insufficient even for the 200,000 that they said they expected, and given that they got  at least twice that many, the conditions were ripe for a major disaster (even more than they got). Too little food, water, and toilets could have resulted in rioting. I wonder how many people went home bringing disease with them — and I don’t mean STDs.

The pictures of young people standing barefoot in mud makes me feel itchy, and I’m not even a neat freak. I don’t want to think what people did when they couldn’t get to port-o-potties. And the impact on that lake, yuk.

Even security was terrible. A random guy ran up on stage during Canned Heat’s set, and the band just let him be. During the thunderstorm, the announcer implored people to get off the speaker towers. But, really, why had they been allowed to get up on there to begin with?

I understand that Woodstock was pretty much the first of its kind, but I still think they could have seen that the crowds would be unreal. (Given that lineup? Wow. Even given that some of the acts were not well known at that time —  it was only the second time Crosby, Stills, and Nash had performed in public — just the sheer number of acts would be an attraction.) I entirely sympathize with the young woman who freaked out because “there is just too many people” and she, like everyone else, was simply stuck.

Secondly, if I had been one of Max Yasgur’s neighbors, I would have been on the phone to my lawyer the day after the festival ended. These people suffered actual economic damage, as can be seen by the interview with the man working on his car. In a rural farming community, such losses could have a significant impact on farmers’ financial well-being.

Thirdly, everyone talks about how great the kids were, but what about the adults? With the exception of one man who was appalled by the whole thing (and I think he may have had a point), the adults spoke of how well the kids behaved, and, for example, brought them food when they heard they the kids had none. Even the angry farmer, when three young women came up to see if they could use the farmer, did not react with anger towards them. His wife explained, in a very upset tone, that they hadn’t had phone service for a day, but neither of them told the young women to get the hell off their lawn.

Finally, I was struck by how white the festival was. Yes, they showed the occasional person with black or brown skin, but taking out the performers, the festival was really about young white people (presumably mostly middle class or better).

Woodstock could never happen again; we’re too jaded, too divided. Still, it was pretty amazing it happened once. I’m glad it did.

Posted in Culture (popular and otherwise), Music | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dear AKC:

I read your statement “dispelling the myths of ear cropping and tail-docking.” You claim that the procedures are not aesthetic, but are instead functional, allowing dogs to perform their “traditional” functions.

Ok, fine. When you show me a Yorkshire Terrier, Brussels Griffon, or French Bulldog that is used to chase vermin, I’ll accept your argument. Otherwise, tail-docking and ear-cropping are really just aesthetic, and you should admit that.

(Note: I am not wading into the argument as to whether tail-docking and ear cropping are good or bad things, and I recognize for some working, herding, and sporting dogs the procedures may make them more suited for the work they do. And if you have a terrier doing field trials or work where they are headed down rabbit holes, then having a docked tail may be helpful. All I am doing is point out that for some breeds the “it’s not aesthetic” stance is patently ridiculous.)

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Small miracles.

It has been a day.

I had to have a minor diagnostic procedure this morning, after which I was going up to San Francisco to meet a friend to go see the Walker Evans exhibit at SFMoMA. As I was leaving the doctor’s my friend told me she was ill and wouldn’t be able to go to the museum after all.

With the Rocket Scientist’s encouragement, I went up to the city anyway. Caltrain is a pleasant way to travel, for the most part.

Once there, I realized that I desperately needed to eat. I started to go to a Panera, when I realized that eating at a Panera while in a foodie city like SF is silly. Instead, I went to a local sandwich shop — the cheese steak was okay, but I would have eaten healthier at the Panera.

I had a brief moment of panic when I thought I had lost my wallet, but once that was resolved I headed for Golden Gate Park and the De Young. Taking Muni from the train station to the park took me through beautiful neighborhoods with the gingerbread houses the city is known for.

I decided once I was there that it was too beautiful a day to spend wandering around a museum. I did go to the museum cafe, however, and enjoyed delicious albeit overpriced flourless chocolate cake and a clementine San Pellegrino.

While there, I got a call from a dear friend from Wellesley. We talked politics (as we usually do), and especially the Nunes memo. She’s a lawyer and brings a lawyer’s sensibilities to discussing the current state of the nation, which is always interesting. While on the phone she told me that another Wellesley friend of ours had dredged up an incriminating picture from my freshman year. It showed several students of various years standing in front of a Rodin called Running Man which we had um….. augmented. It was snowy — as I recall, it was finals week and we were all a little punchy. Campus police removed our vandalism shortly after we put it up.

After hanging up, I left the cafe and headed to the Japanese Tea Garden. While not as extensive as the garden in Balboa Park in San Diego, it was still beautiful and almost peaceful.

I do not hold the view that children should be sequestered from the world. That said, if your five-year-old is pitching a fit because you won’t let her climb down without your help from a structure she should not have been climbing on in the first place, you should grab her and leave. Those screams echoing throughout the park tend to disrupt the zen atmosphere. Of course, so do the adults who talk and laugh loudly and who block the walkways while they fuss around taking selfies.

I found a bench and was able to calm and center myself.

I was listening to NPR the other day, and the guest was asked if they believed in miracles. They (I can’t remember the name, or even the program, sorry) said while they didn’t believe in grand miracles they did in small miracles, the sort no one pays attention to. Since then I have been looking out for the small miracles in my life. The Tea Garden was one. What happened next was another.

I was supposed to meet the Rocket Scientist in North Beach. This meant that I need to change from Muni to a bus near the Embarcadero station.

511.org, while useful up to a point, totally fails at giving walking directions. Thus I was walking down Montgomery Street, doing something I never do (with good reason): looking at my phone while I was walking.

The totally foreseeable happened — I tripped on a grate in the side wall and fell. Hard. Hard enough to knock the wind out of me, throw my backpack off my back, and break my glasses (it was only later that the pain in my ankle started).

That was not the miracle.

The miracle came in the form of two angels named Keith and Liz, who helped me to a set of stairs where I could sit, and who stayed with me while I tried to recover and stop crying. They were strangers not only to me but to each other, but they cared enough for a random somebody who was in pain to stop and help. Keith insisted on getting me an Uber, and refused my offer of payment. Robert, the Uber driver, found me a cafe in North Beach.

And so I am sitting here in front of Alimento (507 Columbus, great gelato, nice people — check it out when you’re in North Beach) typing this. And in spite of my injured ankle (and the back which is starting to throb), I am at peace with the world.

My faith in humanity has been restored.

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Bucket list!

Having completed my museum bucket list, I have been searching for a new one. For a while, I thought I would settle on visiting all the National Parks, but that seems a) impractical and b) does not fill me with passionate excitement. It’s interesting, but not compelling. But now…

I just bought a book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (Seventh Edition), Steven J. Schneider, general editor. They chose movies with a wide range of cultural impacts, from silent Great Train Robbery to Raging Bull to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (The book goes up to 2107: Moonlight is the latest entry.) They even include movies with problematic content but which are important culturally and aesthetically, without glossing over their evil: Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. (Indeed, one of the reasons to watch such movies is to see how horrible, oppressive ideas are glorified and how beautiful propaganda can be.)

So now, I am going to try and see as many of them as I can. Thanks to having somewhat selective moviegoing habits and a subscription to both Turner Classic Movies and Netflix, I have already seen 165 of them. (When I first looked at the list, I counted about 200, but then realized that I had counted some films such as Un Chien Andalou under both its foreign and English titles. Un Chein Andalou, by the way, is the most disturbing film I have ever seen, although I suspect that will change.)

The movies I have seen range from beloved (e.g., A Room With A View, Spotlight) to detested (Terms of Endearment, one of the most manipulative movies I have ever seen, Best Picture Oscar be damned). I realize that in subsequent editions new movies will be added and some current ones dropped, but you have to start somewhere.

So yay! New goal!

Posted in Culture (popular and otherwise) | Tagged | 1 Comment