Author Archives: Brad Warthen

A fortnight and counting

Reporting to you from the front, where things are not so much grim as tedious.

Just thought I’d report in from the COVID front — which, for me, is located in my home office. Since I work from home, I already spent a lot of time here, but now it’s pretty much ALL my time. I’ll go down to the kitchen — masked — to heat a meal and bring it up to eat at my desk. I sleep on a futon here. Just don’t call me Mark Sanford.

Of course, there are other COVID fronts as well, some of them with much heavier fighting going on, and significant losses — such as hospital ICUs. But this is mine.

I’m actually about to go to a hospital this afternoon. It will be my first time out of the house since my positive test two weeks ago. I wonder what that will be like. When I present myself at the door and am questioned and say, “Yes, I have COVID,” will alarms go off? Will everyone scramble to implement a Code Red? I don’t know.

I’m not sure it’s necessary. But since I bothered my doctor on the phone yesterday, he decided to have me get a chest x-ray, as a precaution. Why did I bother the doctor? Because it had been two frickin’ weeks, and I wasn’t getting better. I still felt like crap, I still got a slight fever and chills whenever I went a few hours without acetaminophen, and the last few days I had developed this irritating cough.

I basically called to say, Yes, it’s just a mild case and I don’t need to be hospitalized. And I doubt there’s anything to be done. But it’s been two weeks, which is way longer than I expected, and I’m even feeling a bit worse (the irritating cough), so should I be concerned? Also, is there some magic thing you can do that I’ve missed in reading about this for the last two years?

Well, as it happens, there was something he could have done if I’d called him right after my positive test. There are a couple of meds that could help with the condition — ask Paul; he knows about them — but you have to take them pretty early. There are drugs like that for flu as well, I believe. But I saw no need to bother my doctor in those early days. I wasn’t worried, and I figured it would be over in a few days.

Oh, well.

There are times when I think I’m getting better. Yesterday, in fact. I had an awesome nap from about 2:30 to 4, and it set me up amazingly. I felt stronger, generally less lousy. Having taken a single 500 mg acetaminophen tablet at 2, I decided not to take any more. But then by bedtime, I was back to the usual crappiness, with a temp of 99.4.

By the way, that’s what I meant by “slight fever.” I feel pretty awful when I get to that temp. And the couple of times in recent days when I’ve been at 100 or more, it’s been much worse. Technically, no one in the medical profession would call 99.4, or even 100, a “fever” — even a “low-grade” fever.

But hey, my normal temp is about 97. Do the math, and you see that 99.4 is 2.4 degrees more than that. If a person whose “normal” is 98.6 goes up by that much, he’s at 101. So get outta my face, before I give you COVID.

Anyway, this is probably all very boring to you. Half of you have probably already had this, and probably worse cases. But I thought I’d report in. This is what’s going on in my world.

May God send his healing grace upon all those who are really sick…

DeMarco: Revelatory People

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

Have you ever met individual people who gave you a sudden, precious insight into who they were and in doing so helped you understand the world better?

I remember the first Latter Day Saint I ever met. She and I were part of a group of high school students from all over the country participating in a program in Washington, DC. My LDS colleague was brilliant and, at 18, engaged to be married. She had specific college and career plans about which she talked evocatively. When I inquired what her response would be if her future husband asked her to stay home to raise their children, she answered without hesitation in the affirmative. “What about your plans?” I asked. “My husband will be the head of the household,” she answered matter-of-factly. Even in 1981, I was surprised at her acceptance of male dominance, having been raised by a strong, independent woman whose husband was a co-equal partner.

In that moment, she opened a window to LDS life for me. Of course, not every LDS woman felt that way in 1981, and much has changed in 40 years, but it was a valuable, revelatory experience.

I was reminded of these sort of revelatory folk when two of them intersected recently: Sydney Poitier and Amy Schneider.

We all know the first name and were reminded of his impact when he died on January 6th. Unless you’re a “Jeopardy!” fan, you may not recognize the second. Schneider is the first transgender person to be a bigtime “Jeopardy!” winner.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not comparing their historical impact or their service to their cause or their life’s work, on which fronts, Poitier stands alone. Nor am I comparing the Civil Rights Movement to the movement for transgender acceptance.

But I was struck that Poitier and Schneider may play similar roles in introducing us to people that we might consider very different from ourselves.

Obviously, where you start determines who is missing from your consciousness. In the summer of 1982, after my first year at UVa, I worked for the Charleston County Park system. Almost all the children at the parks were black. I had several elementary age black girls ask if they could touch the hair on my forearms which was long and straight, like none they had seen before. It is likely the only time I will ever be considered a revelation.

Around that same time, I was doing volunteer carpentry work at UVa with a group that repaired homes for poor residents in the environs of Charlottesville, many of whom lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. It was there I met a man who gave me an important window into the lives of black people.

We were working on the home of a black family in which the husband was a lanky, gregarious man. He was a skilled carpenter and worked alongside us. Getting to know Randolph was an epiphany. He was in his 60s and still agile. But it was clear he had not gotten far in school. We didn’t specifically talk about his education, but it’s likely that the segregated schools he attended in the 1920s and 30s did not prepare him or encourage him to pursue a college degree. So he became a laborer. I remember being struck by the wasted opportunity he might have represented. Perhaps better opportunity would not have affected him. Perhaps carpentry was truly Randolph’s calling. But it bothered me that his calling might have been as a lawyer or doctor or engineer or schoolteacher, and that those opportunities might have been denied him.

I wondered if he was one of the many men and women of his generation who might have become professionals if society had recognized their worth. Of course, I knew enough about history to know that millions of black people his age had been discriminated against, but to work beside one of them, to see in the flesh someone whose fortitude and intelligence may have been wasted, was revelatory.

Poitier served as the counter example, a black man who was allowed to fulfill his potential. I suspect for many whites in the 1950s and ’60s, he was an example of black masculinity unlike many had ever encountered – self-assured, assertive, dignified, stylish, and rich – qualities previously associated almost exclusively with whiteness.

I grew up in the ’70s in that kind of world. I lived in a blue-collar neighborhood but had no black friends. I went to a private school and was not close to my three black classmates (out of 60-some). I had no black authority figure in my life – no teacher, coach, or neighbor. The only black people I encountered regularly were the cafeteria staff at my school, who greeted every student with a cheerful “Serve you?” Randolph was the first black man I had ever worked closely with or had the chance to admire. And when I came off the Blue Ridge and back to class, I did not have a single black professor my entire career at UVa.

Which brings me to Amy Schneider. As I write this, she continues on a 38-day winning streak in which she has won more than $1.3 million, placing her 4th on the list of all-time highest earners. She has had a similar revelatory impact on me. I was confused when she was first introduced in the November 17th episode. She was dressed as a woman but I thought I detected a shadow under her make-up, and as soon as my wife heard her voice she recognized she was a trans female.

As I struggled to reconcile Schneider’s image on my TV screen with my mental catalogue of gender identities, I had a revelation: Why, I wondered for the first time, should her biological sex or her gender identity matter to me? And I couldn’t think of a reason. It took a few minutes for that to sink in. I spend my days identifying my patients by their age and sex. If I call a consultant about a patient I begin, “I’m caring for a 72-year-old female who…” Identifying people by their biological sex is ingrained in me, and I suspect in many people. It was shocking to realize that in many human interactions, it’s irrelevant. As your doctor, I need to know. If you are a trans male and you still have a cervix, you need regular Pap tests, for example. If you are a cis-gender female swimmer and you have a trans female competitor, you can rightly claim that she has an unfair advantage. If you are looking for a romantic partner, it is probably essential.

But I’m happily married. Schneider is a “Jeopardy!” contestant whom I will never meet. Her biological sex has no relevance for me; I can be perfectly content not knowing it. Whatever gender she or any other person wishes to portray to the world is their choice. My opinion of that choice has no bearing.

As it happens, being trans may be an advantage in many fields, including “Jeopardy!” contestantship. Being able to experience maleness and femaleness appears to have given Schneider an exceptionally expansive world view.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at

Open Thread for Friday, January 21, 2022

I thought ORANGE was the new black! What do they call this — Viet Cong Chic?

This is an experiment. Normally, blog posts get ignored on Fridays. Especially on Fridays such as this one, when people are having their routines disrupted by weather as well as COVID.

But I just thought I’d see if the sheer shock of me posting an open thread would draw attention and spark responses. Probably not, but we’ll see…

  1. Vaccine boosters protect against severe illness from omicron, CDC says — Yes, they do. That’s why I got one. Good thing, too. The case of COVID I have is mostly just… tedious… It occurs to me I should provide an update on my condition, but there’s not much to say. I estimate that today — one week after receiving the test result — I feel 10 percent better than I did yesterday. But I still feel crappy. Beats being really sick, though. Also, I don’t want to bore y’all. I keep talking to people who say, Yeah, I had it last week, or I got diagnosed on Saturday, but I’m better now. Woman I talked to today said she’s had it twice — before and after vaccines. She assures me that after is way, way better.
  2. Meat Loaf, whose operatic rock anthems made him an unlikely pop star, dies at 74 — I’m very sorry for Mr. Loaf, but of course the first thing that occurred to me was, I had no idea Meat Loaf was only 74. I mean, that’s just six years older than I am. Back when he and I were both young, I assumed he was way older — like, at least the age of the Beatles or the Stones (I mean, Ringo is 81!). I know this sounds kind of stupid, but I have thoughts like that a lot these days. I was less familiar with Louie Anderson, but I had a similar, and even sharper, reaction: He was exactly my age! Why did this kid die?
  3. 9 questions I have about the new, more ‘inclusive’ M&M mascots — First, this is an excuse to share an Alexandra Petri column, which I haven’t done in awhile. Second, as I said on Twitter in response to this, there are days when I worry that I’m not spending my time being sufficiently productive and useful to the world. Then I look at how the marketing folks at M&M are spending THEIR time, and I feel somewhat better…
  4. Blinken and Lavrov pledge to keep talking as military buildup continues around Ukraine — I thought I’d mention, at least in passing, what is probably the most important and ominous thing going on in the world right now, in case anyone wants to talk about it.
  5. Alex Murdaugh faces 23 new counts of financial crimes, adding $2.3M to missing money — Just curious whether ANY of y’all are following this. I know some people are, because this is about as obvious a click-based waste of scarce journalistic resources as I’ve ever seen. I’m just curious about one thing: Every picture that runs with these stories is exactly alike, except in one way — Murdaugh’s jail jumpsuit is always a different color. How many does he have? Are the other prisoners jealous of his wardrobe? The many, many stories may address this, but I’m not about to start reading them to find out.




Bonhoeffer and the stupidity factor

You know how I have made this resolution to finally start reading all the good books around the house that I have asked for over the years? I don’t know how many there are, because they’re all over the place and I haven’t done an inventory.

But there’s one I need to move up on the list: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas.

I say that because something about the martyred theologian has been brought to my attention a couple of times in recent days.

It’s the fact that he considered stupidity to be more dangerous than evil. And in my book, when a guy who stood up to the Nazis and was executed for trying to rid the world of Hitler says something like that, we should sit up and take notice. Because he knew a thing or two about evil.

Here’s a quote:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

This addresses a question I’ve been pondering a good bit over the past six years — since, you know, 2016. I haven’t written that much about it, because I don’t feel like I can answer my own question — and raising it just gets people so upset. So what’s the point?

Oh, I’ve referred to it in passing. Deep down in a post, you can find me saying things like, So which is it: Is Trump evil, or stupid? Or rather, since he’s obviously both, which is the main problem? What are we dealing with?

Then, of course, the next logical step is to ask the same question regarding his supporters. Because Trump isn’t the actual problem. Trump was an idiot, and a slimeball, for decades, and we all knew it. He was famous for these characteristics. But no one took him seriously. He was just some gross clown at the edges of our society. Sort of a Kardashian, or one of those people on Jersey Shore.

Then, in a complete reversal of American political history up to that point, people started voting for him. So the question becomes, what happened to them — these voters? Yeah, we’d had a long buildup of gross, mindless partisanship for two or three decades leading up to it, and a lot of it was ugly, but what caused it all to go off a cliff in 2016?

I’ve written a good bit about that. But I’ve generally avoided that one question that keeps occurring to me: Is it evil, or stupidity?

Whenever I’ve been about to tackle it with some determination, I dismiss the question as itself being stupid: Obviously, both things are at work. There’s a lot of foolishness out there, and a lot of plain, rotten meanness.

And does it matter what label we put on it? Well, yes, I think so, at least on a moral plane. Being stupid doesn’t make you a bad person, does it? And yet, people often get more offended at being called stupid than evil, don’t they?

So why go there? These folks seem angry all the time anyway; why make it worse? The thing to do is try to think of something to do or say that would make things better, not just increase the massive heap of ill feeling in the world.

In fact, that’s the last thing I want. I want to turn down the temperature, calm everything down, get people to stop being furious and start listening to each other and learn how to live together. To stop thinking in terms of ones and zeroes, and start seeing each other as fellow humans.

But the fact that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these things makes it worth trying to understand better what he was thinking. He wasn’t some idiot Twitter partisan sniping at the “other side” to elevate his own side (“You people are stupid!” “No, we’re not; you are!”). This was a thinking, spiritual man willing to wrestle with moral complexity, and to give everything in that cause.

And there he was, face-to-face with the greatest evil of the past century, if not of all history. And he sat there in his prison cell and wrote that as bad as evil was, stupidity was the greater danger.

Of course, some of why he did this is self-evident: Nazism was stupid. It was an ideology for brutish, ticked-off people, for brawlers battling in the streets, outraged at their lot in life between the wars and wanting something that would show the rest of the world how wrong it was.

But of course, it was also evil as all get-out. Which parts were mainly evil, and which parts mainly stupid? And what was the relationship between the two factors, as they worked together to make horrors happen?

Seems worth exploring. So I need to read that book…

Best John le Carré dramatization yet (non-Smiley division)

Gadi and Charlie visit the Acropolis…

It’s not the best le Carré ever, because we have to face the fact that the Alec Guinness version of George Smiley is out there, in both “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”

But if you consider only adaptations of the non-George novels, I think this is the best.

And I wasn’t expecting that — at all. In fact, when I heard they had remade The Little Drummer Girl as a TV series back in 2018, I was, as usual, irritated. Why mess with success?

The 1984 version, starring Diane Keaton, wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty great. She was good as Charlie, Klaus Kinski was just as good as Kurtz, and Yorgo Voyagis — of whom I had never heard before or since — was very impressive as the conflicted, lugubrious Israeli hero Gadi Becker.

Yeah, they messed with it. For instance, they turned Charlie into an American. Because, you know, Diane Keaton. But beyond that, I was well pleased.

But still, when I fell victim recently to a come-on from AMC+ (a free week! which of course wasn’t enough to get me through this one show without having to pay!) I immediately had to go check it out.

And then, I had to watch all the way through. These last couple of days with COVID helped me get it done.

And from the beginning, I realized, “This is better.”

Especially if you appreciate dramatizations that are true to the book, in every possible way. And of course we don’t see that nearly enough. I had had high hopes for “The Night Manager,” which is probably my favorite non-Smiley le Carré. But you couldn’t get more than a few minutes into it before everything was turned this way and that. Worst of all, they updated it (shudder). As le Carré reacted at the time:

But a novel I had written nearly a quarter of a century ago reset in present time? With none of Pine’s trip to northern Quebec in the story? None of Central America? My beloved Colombian drugs barons replaced by Middle Eastern warlords? No zillion dollar luxury yacht for Richard Roper? A new ending to the story, yet to be discussed? What did that mean?

One change worked: Jonathan Pine’s handler was changed from a man to a pregnant woman. I’m still not sure whether that was an improvement because of the maternal aspects of looking after an agent in the field, or simply because the actress was Olivia Coleman. Probably both.

But the other changes didn’t work. Especially not the new ending.

But this was true right down the line. Time, place, characters and plot. Which is great because it’s a fantastic story, filled with delicate features and contradictions that could be thrown completely off with the wrong changes.

The moral ambiguity of the story is doubled, partly because of the extended time format. And that’s essential. No one — not agent Charlie, not her handler, not anyone — is supposed to be entirely sure who’s right and who’s wrong in this counterterrorism story.

And then there’s the casting. The unknown (to me) young woman who plays Charlie is just what the role demanded. She’s supposed to be an unremarkable little actress who feels she’s never been able to realize her potential. Now I realize: How could that be Diane Keaton, who at 38 was such a big star that they’d change the main character’s nationality to get her? She needs to be someone you look at and try to figure out and decide whether she’s up to the overwhelming task.

And you do. She makes you do that. A lot of women should love her in this. First, she’s not a willowy supermodel type like Ms. Keaton. Her figure — as you discover when the head of the terror cell makes her strip to her underwear as a safety precaution — is at best “average.” And yet, she has this quality that draws men’s eyes. You completely believe the thing you have to believe about Charlie — that she can bewitch everyone from her fellow actors to international terrorists.

They had to do the same with Gadi Becker. You had to believe that he could enthrall Charlie, and that it was so obvious that Kurtz, head of the Israeli team, could bank on it. And yet it was something Becker himself did not value.

As for Kurtz: Klaus Kinski was perfect, but if anything — if you’ll allow the logical impossibility — Michael Shannon is more so. An American, of course, but one who can really act, and makes this intense Israeli real. But what has Shannon ever done that wasn’t great, from Elvis to the cop in “Boardwalk Empire?” His characters are always bigger than life. And kinda scary.

Anyway, I recommend it…

Michael Shannon as Kurtz.

Teague: Redistricting South Carolina: Nearing the end

The Op-Ed Page

By Lynn Teague
Guest Columnist

The House has adopted its Congressional plan. On Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to consider two alternatives and will send one to the floor for a vote. After that, the two houses will go to conference committee to adopt a common plan to go back to the houses for final approval, and then to the Governor for signature. All of this will move fast, within a few weeks. So, what are the plans under consideration and what can we say about them?

The House plan and one of the Senate plans, Senate Amendment 1 (SA1), have a lot in common. They are somewhat similar to the existing Congressional map, although they are less competitive than the current map, which allows the southern coastal district, CD 1, to vary in partisan representation. These proposals would make CD 1 solidly Republican. leaving no South Carolina Congressional districts to be decided in November. Senate Amendment 2 (SA2) is very different, reimagining our Congressional map altogether. It is more competitive than either the current map or the two others under consideration, allowing both CD 1 and CD 5 to be decided in general elections while keeping both Charleston and Beaufort counties whole in CD 1. It is far superior to the other maps in every standard measure of redistricting proposal fairness.

Some of those testifying in the Senate Subcommittee hearing last week said that they support SA 1 because it keeps Beaufort in that district and “keeps the Lowcountry whole.” SA 1 does not keep the Lowcountry whole. The SA 1 map drives CD 6 south through Berkeley and Charleston counties to encompass parts of West Ashley and ALL of the Charleston peninsula and North Charleston. Mt. Pleasant and James Island are contiguous only by water. Both Charleston and North Charleston would be in a district with Columbia, a hundred miles away. What is happening here? There is an obvious clue. Like the House proposal and an earlier Senate proposal, SA 1 would reduce the Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) in CD 1 to about 17%, far lower than the black population of either Charleston County, which is 26% black, or Berkeley County which is 25% black. This is a racial gerrymander.

In contrast, SA 2 has a BVAP of 21%. The map proposal submitted by the League of Women Voters has a BVAP of 23%. Both these proposals keep Charleston County whole and in so doing produce a CD 1 that is competitive between the parties within a 1% range, the natural product of the racially and politically diverse community of interest made up of Charleston and its satellite cities and suburbs. SA 2 achieves this while keeping Beaufort County in CD 1, but whether Beaufort is in or out of CD 1, there is no rational argument that the Lowcountry is “whole” when the Charleston peninsula, in whole or in part, is carved out from CD 1.

One of those testifying last week was an Asian American resident of Hilton Head who asserted that minorities do not need special consideration in drawing Congressional maps, that they share the same interests as everyone else on the coast – such as the preservation of sea turtle eggs. However, throughout the redistricting process we have also heard from many black residents of South Carolina who do not agree and who ask that their voting influence not be diluted by gerrymandered maps like these. The voters they speak for are concerned about affordable housing, access to health care, and adequate wages, which are not concerns universally shared by residents of gated golf communities.

This week we will learn what map the Senate will pass, and then we will see whether South Carolina is once again embroiled in legal challenges to maps designed to dilute the influence of minority voters – especially black minority voters – and make all voters obsolete in November through non-competitive maps that decide our general elections in the map room, not the polling booth.

To see the plans for yourself, go to House and Senate redistricting websites or to:

Lynn Teague is a retired archaeologist who works hard every day in public service. She is the legislative lobbyist for the South Carolina League of Women Voters.


Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. Why don’t we just say that?

Someone I follow posted this today, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Actually, that was the first part of a two-tweet series, finishing with this. But I initially only saw the first one, and I reacted this way:

Which of course is why all forms of Identity Politics are a very bad idea. Because they cause people to forget that we’re all just people…

I realize that wasn’t where she was going with that, but it’s where I went. Partly because I’m always down on that harmful phenomenon. But also because I was irritated earlier this week when I saw this headline from Variety:

Losing Sidney Poitier Reminds Us That Only Four Black Men Have Won Best Actor

My irritation arises from more than that headline. Perhaps you’ve noticed, perhaps you hadn’t, but we get a lot of headlines like that these days. Every story written about, say, the latest award nominations, tends to center on whether this was a good year or a bad year, based on how many Asian female directors were recognized. (Or something like that. Maybe just female directors or Asian directors or directors “of color,” to broaden the field somewhat…) So this is just another in that series.

And no, that is not what losing Sidney Poitier makes us think about — not if we appreciated Sidney Poitier.

That’s because Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. To cite Donne, his loss makes us all “the lesse.” His accomplishments were not, as would have been said in his early career, something you had to say “Negro actor” to acknowledge. He was just a great actor, period.

Take away the fact that he was black, and that’s what you’ve got left. And it’s enough, more than enough, for reflecting upon his prodigious talent, and being thankful for it.

You want to recognize the struggles he had as a black man? Certainly, do so. You want to talk about his political activism? Great, let’s do that — in a separate discussion. But you don’t immediately drop the subject of Sidney Poitier, remarkable human being, to start counting how many actors with dark skin have won a particular Oscar. That indicates you’re thinking of him as “oh, that famous black guy” instead of the talent he was.

Anyway, I’ll drop that for now, and turn to a more worthy subject: I need to go out and find the Sidney Poitier movies I haven’t seen, and watch them and enjoy them. I’m realizing I’ve seen too few of them, and that’s good news: I have a lot of enjoyment ahead of me.

For instance, I haven’t seen either “Lilies of the Field” or “Raisin in the Sun.” So I’m looking forward to those. And after listening to a discussion of it on NPR the other day, I want to check out “No Way Out.” And yes, I’ll be careful not to accidentally watch the one with Kevin Costner (which, unfortunately, is way easier to find on streaming services).

At this point, I’d compose a Top Five list, but that would be ridiculous when you consider the important films I haven’t seen yet. So maybe later.

Among those I’ve seen, there’s… “The Defiant Ones,” which personally I found forgettable. (I find most Tony Curtis movies forgettable. Chain even Sidney Poitier to Tony Curtis, and you have a problem with me.) I probably ought to go back and watch “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” I’ve seen it, but it’s not a favorite. (I remember the point of it being, Let’s see how liberal and broad-minded Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy really are, which seemed to me a thin premise for feature length.)

My faves include “In the Heat of the Night” and the lesser-known sequel, “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs.” (I haven’t seen the third in the trilogy — in fact, I just this moment learned that there was a trilogy.)

But my Number One is so far above those that it’s a separate category. That’s “To Sir With Love.”

Hey, I’m a child of the ’60s. I’ve gotta love that one. Right, Lulu? And I do. If I did a Top Five of that decade, I’m pretty sure it would make the list.

Let’s cut away for a clip…

I don’t WANT a new look! Or a new ‘feel,’ either…

Not feeling like doing any more actual work today, I just opened Ancestry for the first time in a couple of days and got this.

I did not ask for it. I do not want it. My tree looked fine before. It worked fine before.

Except for the fact that a lot of search capabilities I’d like to have are missing. I’d like to be able to find things like:

  • How many lines I have going back at least, say, 10 generations? Or pick a number.
  • The earliest ancestor identified on a given line.
  • Where, proportionally, my known ancestors actually lived, say, four centuries ago.
  • How many people I have on the tree — across the tree, not just in one line or the other — who lived in, say, the 17th century.

Why? Because I’m curious just how much of my tree is missing. If you go back 10 or 11 or 12 generations, what percentage of the full tree is actually identified? I’m guessing it would be less than 1 percent. The people identified tend to be the ones who were wealthier, more prominent, especially the ones who have their own Wikipedia pages.

This can give you the wrong impression about your tree — that it’s full of big shots. And I don’t want that.

And I’m just curious to know how many people in history have just…disappeared.

But I can’t do things like that, which you would think I would be able to do with a decently-constructed database.

I mean, maybe I can, but I haven’t been able to find that out. If you embarrass me by showing me how to do it, I’ll be grateful.

Anyway, until you give me some stuff like that, hold off on the pointless cosmetic remakes. Especially when they don’t even look better…

Well, I’ve got it. What now?

Just got the above notice, from my test yesterday morning.

How am I? I feel like crap. I have since last night. I’m going to do a quick couple more work things, including a phone interview at 1 p.m., then I’m going to eat some lunch and lie down.

After that… what?

I thought when they told me it was “DETECTED,” they’d say, and here’s what you should do in addition to what you’ve already been doing.

I thought it would be like, I don’t know, getting a draft notice: “GREETINGS,” followed by specific instructions on where to report for my physical.

But nope.

Kind of anticlimactic, really…


We’re all gonna get this thing now, right?

That’s what Dr. Fauci said yesterday, and I just nodded.

After all, it’s finally in my house.

My youngest daughter, who was about to head back to her home in the Caribbean on Monday, had to change her flight to several days later because her COVID test was late coming back.

Then it came back, and she has it. She’s fully vaccinated of course, and her symptoms are mild. But she’s got it. She’s staying in her room — teaching her dance students in Dominica, and her English students in South America, remotely — and the rest of us are wearing masks in the house and being as careful as we can be.

Another daughter, who was with her a lot just before the positive test, isn’t feeling well. She’s awaiting a test result.

I got tested at 9 a.m. today at Lexington Medical’s site near me. I’ll have the results in a couple of days. That was my second test in a week. My wife has an appointment to get one at CVS tomorrow.

My test was at a little off-campus building LMC owns that’s down a side street right across from the turnoff from Sunset to our subdivision. Toward the end of the holidays, the line of cars for that process was maybe a hundred or so vehicles deep, stretching out onto the main road. Last week, I was the 10th or so in line. Today, I arrived 15 minutes early and there was no line at all. For a moment I thought the place was closed, but there were the poor nurses bundled up in the doorway in the 31-degree weather. One came out, did the deed, told me to look the MyChart app in 24 to 48 hours, and I was gone. Less than a minute.

So this is what we do now.

How’s it going for you out there?

At the time of my last appointment — 3:30 p.m. last Friday — I still had some people in front of me. Today, I didn’t have to wait at all…

Why didn’t THIS make my Top Five? (Plus, Top Ten Comedies of all Time)

It gets better every time I see it.

So, when I watched “His Girl Friday” again over the holidays, I was yet again just bowled over with how awesome it is. Cary Grant’s best performance. Rosalind Russell’s, too. Loved what Ralph Bellamy contributed. Everyone was great, including a wonderful small role played by Billy Gilbert.

Congrats to Howard Hawkes. He was going for the fastest dialogue in any screwball comedy — in any movie, I suppose — and he got it done. The amazing thing is, every word of it worked. His goal was to be faster than the film upon which this one was based, “The Front Page.” He said he did it, and staged joint showings to prove it. A bigger thing he did was make the movie much, much more memorable. I’m not even sure whether I’ve ever seen the 1931 version, but it would have had to be a lot better than the 1974 remake (I can only take so much Walter Matthau) to even get into the same ballpark as “Friday.”

Seriously, how could it possibly have been anywhere near as wonderful with Hildy as a man? Turning him into Rosalind Russell and making her Walter’s ex-wife just added so many levels, it was exponentially better. Makes me not even want to go back and watch the original — so much would be missing.

Now, the personal bit. No, you probably won’t love it as much as I do. But if you don’t love it to some extent, your capacity for appreciating comedy is practically nonexistent.

I love it because I identify with it. Years ago there was a bit of pain — let’s say, guilt — associated with that identification. That’s because so much of the comedy derives from way editor Walter Burns manipulates everyone in his universe in order to get the story. And I wasn’t quite like that, was I, despite the shock of self-recognition? Did I lie to reporters to get them to pursue a story? No. Did I have a couple of crooks — male and female — hanging out in my office to go out and steal wallets or plant counterfeit money on innocents or to entrap them in sexual charges? No. Did I hide escaped killers? No. Or plot to toss out the city government in the coming election? No, at least not from the newsroom (you might make a weak argument that I may have attempted such effects from the editorial board).

But this was caricature, and the inventive — I mean, awful — things Walter did were exaggerated expressions of my never-ending drive to see to it that my reporters got out there and got the story. (Once, in the early 90s, an assistant managing editor called me a “news hound.” I said the newsroom was full of news hounds. She said no, it wasn’t. I was a good bit more obsessed. I think she was trying to manipulate me with flattery. You know how those editors are. You have to watch them.)

And sometimes I felt kind of bad about that. But as the years have passed, most of that has worn away, and I can see the humor in it without kicking myself quite as much.

Maybe that’s why it’s funnier every time I see it. And as awful as the journalists come across (and not just Walter and Hildy, but every occupant of the press room down at the cop shop — note their treatment of poor Mollie), I love the spirit of the enterprise still. So my favorite moment remains the one when Hildy has just torn up the great story Walter had manipulated her into getting and writing — having realized what Walter had done to make her do it — and essentially tells him to go to hell over the phone, and marches out of the press room self-righteously… just before gunfire erupts all over the place because the killer has escaped. So Hildy comes rushing back into the press room, grabs the phone and tells Walter:

Walter?… Hildy. Earl Williams just
escaped from the County Jail. Yep…
yep… yep… don’t worry! I’m on
the job!

And hangs up and runs right out to get the scoop! She wastes no time. She starts by chasing the sheriff down the street and physically tackling him.

Attagirl, Hildy!

Oh, scoff all you want to. It was awesome.

Anyway, as I watched, I wondered why this had never made my Top Five  All-Time Best Movies list. Oh, it made a Top Ten once, but why hadn’t it broken into the Top Five? Well, it’s complicated. Which of these (from 2006) would I bump?

I decided to do justice by putting it at the top of a subset list, so here are my Top Ten Comedies of All Time:

  1. His Girl Friday — Yay, it’s at the top of the list! And deserves it.
  2. Young Frankenstein — Some would choose “Blazing Saddles.” I would not. Have you seen that one in the last few decades? It doesn’t hold up. This does.
  3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — I was looking at the AFI list of the supposed top 100 funniest movies in American cinema, and at No. 79 they had “The Freshman,” from 1925. Which I’ve never seen, but I did see “The Freshman” from 1990, and it was awesome. I mean, come on, Brando playing a guy who just happens to look like the Godfather? Still, it was not star Matthew Broderick’s best. Ferris was. And it didn’t even make this stupid list. Which is lame.
  4. This Is Spinal Tap — You can talk mockumentaries all day, but this is the granddaddy of them all, and the best ever. Because it goes to 11.
  5. Office Space — In a category by itself.
  6. My Man Godfrey — Another screwball comedy, but I think there’s room for this one and Friday both. It’s certainly different enough.
  7. Love and Death — Say what you will about Woody Allen (and there’s a good bit of creepy stuff to say), but I’ll paraphrase the fan from “Stardust Memories:” I really liked his early, funny ones. And the best of all was “Love and Death.” That’s what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky really needed — a few laughs.
  8. The Graduate — Yeah, this one is on my Top Five best ever. But it’s the only one of those to make this list. Yet I’m not sure it should be here. Was it really a comedy exactly? It’s the most category-defying of the truly great films.
  9. Groundhog Day — I had to get a Bill Murray in here, and I chose this one.
  10. The Paper — Initially, I had American Graffiti here. Or maybe Trading Places, which so brilliantly combined two Mark Twain stories, and two of his best. But I decided to end up where I started — with a film about newspapering that I could really identify with. Funny thing is, some serious journalists hated this film for some of the same factors that might cause someone to reject “Friday” — they were afraid it made us scribes look bad. But again, it was brutally dead-on caricature. Sure, we were more serious and principled that this. But I really, really identified with the Michael Keaton character, who at least had this going for him: He wasn’t as bad as Walter Burns, not by a long shot. Not as funny either, though…



DeMarco: “Dos” and “Don’ts” for next year’s Christmas greetings

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

Actually, it will be all “don’ts.”

It seems that 99.9% of Americans understand what Christmas best wishes, be they traditional hold-in-your hand cards or digital missives, should involve. Unfortunately, two of our nation’s highest elected officials, who represent us to the nation and the world, have not a clue.

It started with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky) posting a virtual Yuletide greeting on Twitter. The photo showed him, his wife, and their four children posing in front of a Christmas tree all armed with assault rifles. The caption read “Merry Christmas! ps. Santa, please bring ammo.” An analysis published in Forbes estimated the arsenal on display to be worth at least $20,000. It should surprise no one that his fellow representative, Lauren Boebert (R-Co), responded with an image of her and her four children, the youngest of whom appears to be 9 or 10 years old, bearing similar weapons captioned “The Boeberts have your six, @RepThomasMassie! (No spare ammo for you, though).”

It will be difficult with the words I have left to count all the ways these images violate sanity, logic, dignity, propriety and Christian ethics.

First, as a gun owner, I am embarrassed for Massie and Boebert. I came relatively late to gun ownership, being introduced to hunting in my early thirties, soon after moving to Marion. What I quickly learned about hunters is that they are very careful with and respectful of their weapons. The only time I have my shotgun in my living room is when I am transporting it from my gun safe to my vehicle to hunt or shoot clays. Only a reckless pretender would pose with a firearm indoors. Massie and Boebert’s photos should anger all responsible gun owners.

Second, the use of children in this way is abominable. When I gave my son a shotgun at age twelve, I taught him the cardinal safety rules: Always assume a gun is loaded and never point it at anything you don’t want to kill. As I handed him the gun, I praised him for maturing into a young man who could be trusted with it. Then I reminded him that he could kill me if he were careless. He started to cry, which reassured me even further. It was clear that he understood the seriousness that owning guns should invoke. Think of what lessons Boebert’s youngest child is learning from her stunt: that guns can be treated like toys; that they are props, to be brought out for show; that they are political swag, to be used to drum up support.

Third, their desecration of Christmas is disgraceful. Massie is a United Methodist, as am I. Wikipedia describes Boebert as a born-again Christian. While on earth, Jesus said a few things about violence including “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9) and “Do not resist the evildoer… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). When Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested, Peter defended him by cutting off a servant’s ear. Jesus says, “No more of this!” and touched the ear to heal him. Because of Jesus’ teachings some Christians, such as Quakers and Seventh-day Adventists, feel that violence in any form is incompatible with the faith. The vast majority of others recognize Jesus as a gentle healer who accepted crucifixion without resistance. It would be hard to find a Christian who could make a connection between the Jesus of the Bible and Massie’s and Boebert’s version of him.

Fourth, Christmas is traditionally a time when we call a truce on our disagreements and focus on what unites us. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 44,000 people died in 2021 from gun violence, more than 23,000 of those by suicide. No one, no matter his or her view of the Second Amendment, can be satisfied with those figures. Both sides recognize the need for change, and could be induced to work together on measures to save lives.

America needs rational gun owners to come together with reasonable gun-control advocates. But this can only happen if we have political leaders on each side of the debate who exemplify a fair-minded approach. I have a foot in each camp and know people on both sides of the divide. The extreme positions – that gun owners will not accept any kind of new restrictions, and that gun control advocates want to repeal the Second Amendment – are too often used by politicians to stoke fear and anger. But most Americans are open to commonsense approaches such as universal background checks. Massie’s and Boebert’s Christmas display of guns is counterproductive, widening the divide between the opposing sides.

Similarly, at a time when Christianity is losing its appeal, especially among young adults, these images will only accelerate that trend. One of the major reasons nonChristians cite for rejecting Christianity is hypocrisy. When congressmen and women who identify as Christian post guns in their Christmas cards, it gives more young people an excuse the turn away from the faith. It’s impossible to reconcile Isaiah’s foretelling of the coming Messiah – “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” – and Massie’s and Boebert’s Christmas photos.

For Christmas 2019, Rep. Massie posted a more traditional picture of his family (outdoors and unarmed) with the caption “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14), proving that it’s easier to promote good will toward your fellow American when you’re not brandishing a rifle.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at This post first ran as a column in the Florence Morning News.

Why didn’t I become an etymologist? Or a philologist?

I ask myself that often. And whenever I do, I realize that had I become one or the other, I might better understand the difference between the two fields. Ah, well. We’re only allowed so much time in this life.

Back in the earliest days of my newspaper career, I would look out upon alternative paths, and think how much I would have loved to direct movies. But of course, to do that, I would have had to immerse myself entirely into that, just as I did with newspaper work, in order to rise to the very top of that profession. I’d have had to give up everything else. And it’s probably just as well I didn’t go Hollywood to that extent.

(Later, in the ’80s, I switched to wanting to direct music videos. I loved that medium, wedding two popular art forms I loved so much, and making them one. But again, just as well I didn’t, even though it would have been fun.)

But the fascination with words has always been there. The original meanings of particular words, the relationships between different languages that you can see in them, and the ways they have developed over the ages, reflecting the expanse of human experience through history. We’re a species made to verbalize, and it fascinates me to see how we have chosen to shape words over time, and how the words have shaped us.

Anyway, this hit me this morning, when I responded to a Tweet from @dick_nixon, one of my fave feeds:

Of course, as soon as I’d posted my reply, I started obsessing about one of the words I had used.


I used it sort of semi-ironically, deliberately avoiding “old” and using a more respectful term in keeping with the tone of that feed, which very convincingly pretends that the Philadelphia-area playwright who writes it is actually Nixon himself, writing about the present day, except when he posts as Ron Ziegler (always signed with “RZ”) and models the respectful way that the former president would like us to speak to him. (You have to be a fan of the feed to fully appreciate these nuances.)

But then, thinking harder about the word than I usually do, I got to thinking how remarkably similar the word is to the less savory “venereal.” And I realized they must both arise from the original, whom you see so famously depicted below by Botticelli:

The link wasn’t immediately evident from my initial Googling. “Venerable” took me to “venerate.” That took me to “From Latin venerātus, perfect passive participle of veneror (worship, reverence).”

Of course, at this point 2,000 years of Christianity makes it momentarily hard to see the connection between these concepts, but you eventually get there. Wiktionary mentions the goddess with regard to venerari, but Miriam-Webster spells it out a bit more clearly going straight from “venerate:”

Venerate comes from the Latin root venerārī, which has the various meanings of “to solicit the good will of,” “to worship,” “to pay homage to,” and “to hold in awe.”  That root is related to Venus, which, as a proper noun, is the name of the Roman goddess of love and beauty.

And there she is. While we don’t often make the direct connection theologically or linguistically to “venerating” the goddess of love, unless we worship her from Madison Avenue (or Hollywood), it’s certainly something deeply rooted within us. Reminds me of how I used to think occasionally that I’d be comfortable as a member of a fertility cult, and then realized I do belong to a fertility cult: I’m Catholic. Which is, in way, comforting.

It tells us an awful lot about human beings and what makes us tick — and of how we need to be aware of ourselves and channel our tendencies on positive, constructive paths. But that’s a complicated subject I won’t get into right now.

I love this about words in much the way I love genealogy. Sure, it’s fun to figure out one is directly descended from Henry II — as many of you are, just as every one of you who are or European descent is descended from Charlemagne. Which is not a cause for putting on airs, but to stand in awe at the way all this works through time with — as you go backwards — family trees first spreading out, then folding back in upon themselves as the human population gets smaller. I learn about one of these famous connections, read about him or her on Wikipedia, then start branching out from there to learn more about that period in history and what was happening all around that figure, and how it fits into the complex web of human experience from the evolution of homo sapiens to our present, confused day.

You can do that with words, too. Which is why it would have been fun to be an etymologist or philologist or what have you. Of course, it’s probably good that I didn’t, because it would have caused an introvert like me to fold inward even more severely into abstraction. At least journalism forced me to get out and interact with people — while still indulging my love of words.

Speaking of words, let’s close with some lyrics:

Her name is Aphrodite
And she rides a crimson shell
And you know you cannot leave her
For you touched the distant sands
With tales of brave Ulysses
How his naked ears were tortured
By the sirens sweetly singing

I don’t think there was ever a fully-developed official video made of that, my favorite Cream song. It would be fun to make one. I wonder where I would start…

No, it’s not about the cheese. But what IS it about?

Yesterday was January 6, and you know what that means, right? The Epiphany! Time to start putting away the Christmas decorations!

If you consume news the way I used to, you might think it means something else. A certain anniversary. News organizations have gone sort of nuts about anniversaries over the past 20 years or so. I mean, we were always kind of that way about Pearl Harbor Day or other historical dates, but news folks have gotten way more into it in recent years in the constant madness of filling the content beast. Seems like now, it’s always the first, or fifth, or 10th anniversary of something we are obliged to remember.

Not that what happened last year wasn’t significant. If this nation ceases to exist while some of us are still alive, we’ll look back on Jan. 6 as being the moment when everything changed. Never before in our history had it even been conceivable for actual American citizens to have attacked, trashed and briefly taken the citadel of our government. Sure, Andy Jackson’s supporters trashed the White House that time, but that was just a party, backwoods style. (That was significant, too, though. They were celebrating the greatest disaster in an American election that occurred before 2016. It was the preview of what our civilization would look like when it disintegrated.)

Of course, things had been changing for awhile before Jan. 6, 2021. And not just politically.

Note that last bit. Not just politically. As much of a disaster as Donald Trump was and is, he is not the problem. The problem is the phenomenon of which he is merely a prominent symptom.

Basically, the American people — and people around the world — had been going completely stark, raving mad for awhile.

We worry about COVID — and we should — but it seems that some kind of infection swept through our world several years back and caused some serious damage to our brains.

We’ve been seeing the evidence for some time, but I’d particularly like to call your attention to this piece that was in the NYT the other day. It’s been getting some attention; I see Jennifer Rubin wrote about it in the Post as well.

The headline was “A Nation on Hold Wants to Speak With a Manager.” The subhed was “In our anger-filled age, when people need to shop or travel or cope with mild disappointment they’re devolving into children.” By the way, if you click on the link as I intend you to do, I advise you to quickly scroll down to the main body of the piece, to reduce your exposure to the extremely irritating animated graphic at the top. As though we didn’t have enough things driving us over the edge.)

Here’s the lede anecdote, plus the nut graf (here’s hoping this falls within the range of Fair Use):

Nerves at the grocery store were already frayed, in the way of these things as the pandemic slouches toward its third year, when the customer arrived. He wanted Cambozola, a type of blue cheese. He had been cooped up for a long time. He scoured the dairy area; nothing. He flagged down an employee who also did not see the cheese. He demanded that she hunt in the back and look it up on the store computer. No luck.

And then he lost it, just another out-of-control member of the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style.

“Have you seen a man in his 60s have a full temper tantrum because we don’t have the expensive imported cheese he wants?” said the employee, Anna Luna, who described the mood at the store, in Minnesota, as “angry, confused and fearful.”

“You’re looking at someone and thinking, ‘I don’t think this is about the cheese.’”

It is a strange, uncertain moment, especially with Omicron tearing through the country. Things feel broken. The pandemic seems like a Möbius strip of bad news. Companies keep postponing back-to-the-office dates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps changing its rules. Political discord has calcified into political hatred. And when people have to meet each other in transactional settings — in stores, on airplanes, over the phone on customer-service calls — they are, in the words of Ms. Luna, “devolving into children.”…

Yep. The piece — all of which you should read — lists a lot of incidents like the one that was not really “about the cheese.”

If you look at the URL for the piece, you’ll see it includes “customer-service-pandemic-rage.” I think the problem predates the pandemic, just as it predates Trump, but there seems little doubt that, like Trump, COVID has helped bring it out.

Of course, it could just be the pandemic, and I’m just the wrong person to assess that. Whenever I read or hear about how horribly stressed people have been, I always have trouble identifying with it. There’s also the fact that since dairy is a deadly allergen to me — I think of what you call “cheese” as “spoiled bovine secretions” — I can’t imagine why someone would get in the car and drive to a store to buy someone anyway, whether it’s some special kind called “Cambozola” or not.

Yeah, I know if you’re a very young person who has career ambitions that can only be fulfilled at the office, and your spouse works too, and you have young children who may or may not be going to school tomorrow, this imposes certain stresses. But since none of those things describe me, I can’t feel it. And I know if you’ve lost someone to COVID, this is a horror of almost unimaginable proportions.

But if you don’t have any of those factors in your life — if you’d MUCH rather stay home than go to an office, see a movie in a crowd of people, attend a sporting event (shudder), eat out in a restaurant, or travel somewhere in an airliner (something that, honestly, was never fun in the healthiest of times, and which I could only make myself do because I deeply wanted to go to the place at the other end of the ordeal) — then it’s hard to understand this stuff.

And I especially can’t understand how someone my age (“a man in his 60s”) who should be past a lot of those stressors in life could be that desperate to eat a piece of cheese.

So it doesn’t work. And I’m left trying to understand what started all this.

Of course, as you know, I’ve been struggling with the challenge of creating a forum ruled by civility ever since I started blogging in 2005. And it gets harder every year. Lately, I notice that a lot of people have been getting as concerned about it as I have been.

Yesterday, I was talking with a thoughtful person who was trying to analyze the problem. How could someone go into a store or a commercial airliner or a public meeting and act this way? He offered this analogy: “If I enter your house, and you have a rule that I take off my shoes, I either take them off or leave,” he said. “It’s a matter of respect.”

Yes it is. And it immediately struck me that, as I look around me at the problem, it seems we’re living in a world that is absolutely crammed — all of a sudden — with people whose mamas didn’t raise them right.

So what happened?

Another editor has had enough

I’m really not lying awake wondering what this guy is thinking. So why do you keep telling me?

My wife drew this to my attention, from a couple of days back: “All the news I intend to quit.”

It’s by another former editor who is having trouble letting go of the notion that it is his duty to keep up with the news:

I only make New Year’s resolutions when I sense something is amiss in my life: too much drinking, weight gain, not enough exercise. This year is no different, but the resolution is, to me, shocking. For 2022, I resolve to consume less news.

Having spent more than 40 years reporting, writing and editing the news, I am surprised to conclude that overconsumption of news, at least in the forms I’ve been gorging on it since 2016, is neither good for my emotional well-being nor essential to the health of the republic…

And he cites some of the same kinds of idiotic coverage that I do when explaining why he must abandon his life’s mission in order to stay sane:

Whether I know within minutes every detail of the cloakroom maneuvers aimed at reviving Build Back Better is not going to affect its fate. I don’t need to hear everything Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said today. Also, spare me the gibberish uttered by former president Donald Trump on his tin-can-and-string-memo-to-journalist-to-Twitter telegraph. If the news is big enough, it will find me….

Absolutely, brother. Good luck with your retreat. I continue to try to stagger forward along the same lines. Call me irresponsible. I’m just trying to keep my head from exploding…

I’ve got to read more Joan Didion

Ross Douthat reminded me of that this morning with his column, “Try Canceling Joan Didion.”

The headline — which by itself made me smile, before even reading the column itself — is framed as a challenge to the self-righteous mobs of cancel culture. Noting that there’s some rumbling about canceling Norman Mailer, he snorts with derision at the idea of attacking such an easy and obvious target. Want a challenge?, he asks. Try Didion.

He notes that this may be difficult. After all, she has been so recently absolved by the ideologically correct following her death. The official story is that she may once have been the sort of confused creature who would compose a hymn of praise to John Wayne, but she later got her mind right and pounded the Reaganites, etc. A lost lamb recovered, in other words.

But Douthat notes that her best work — sharper, more focused, more brilliant — was in the ’60s when she was casting a jaded eye upon the hippies. More than that, he suggests it’s an insult to such a brilliant writer to suggest that she would ever have consented to be confined within the narrow fold of either of the two (and you’re only allowed two, remember!) sides in our perpetual cultural-political wars.

I suspect he’s right on the first point — that her earlier stuff was better — and not on the basis of ideology. While I knew a lot less when I was young, I was a better writer. This is a pretty standard pattern among members of our species. The best writers are those who are able to see things clearly and maturely when they’re young enough to write about it in an impressive manner. Didion was one of those.

And I have little doubt that he’s right on the second — that neither faction within the “ones and zeroes” crowd has any right to claim her as one of their own.

That I have any doubt and merely “suspect” he’s right is a function of the fact that I am a Didion neophyte. I only discovered her a couple of years back. I had always wanted to read her Slouching Towards Bethlehem collection for the simple reason that, like most people who have read it, I love that Yeats poem. I may have mentioned this before.

I thought I bought it and downloaded it to the Kindle app on my iPad, although Amazon says I “borrowed” it. Whatever. The point is, it’s been on my device for three years now, and occasionally I have dipped into it — say, when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room and it looks like I’ll be there for a bit.

From the first essay I read, I was rather excited. “I’ve found another Tom Wolfe!” I thought, congratulating myself. Not only in a literary sense, but politically. While I didn’t think about it one way or the other when I was adoring his stuff in the ’60s and ’70s (I was too busy just digging the writing), the man had a genius for puncturing the pretensions of the left, which was so dominant in our culture at the time.

Were celebrated writers allowed to do that? Well, yes, if they were as wonderful as Wolfe. I’ve always enjoyed this anecdote from Acid Test, in which Ken Kesey plays a role with which Wolfe no doubt identified….

… blast it. Google Books won’t show me the page I want. Well, here’s the page that leads up to it:

The good bit comes right after that. Kesey shows up for the antiwar rally and takes the stage, and instead of delivering a lecture on American “imperialism” or whatever, he takes out a harmonica and plays “Home on the Range,” delivering a few cryptic remarks that seems to dismiss the whole event in a way that kind of pops the event’s balloon. (Or so I remember it. I guess I need to run down my tattered paperback copy, wherever it is.)

Who asked this bastard, indeed? But why not ask him, they would have said in self-defense! He’s a writer! And a significant figure in the counterculture! Surely he’s one of us!

No doubt Wolfe got similar reactions when he wrote such things as Radical Chic.

But that didn’t make him the right’s boy, any more than Didion’s later work made her the left’s. Or so I gather from what I’ve read. They were both too bright and perceptive for that.

Douthat bases his judgment on “many years of reading the essays of Joan Didion.”

Well, I need to read more of her myself. I suspect I’ll enjoy it, as I enjoy anyone who refuses to become a plaster saint of either of our two narrow-minded, monolithic tribes.

I guess I need to add to that reading list

Why I like listening to Bishop Barron

I’ve really gotten into the weekly homilies of Bishop Robert Barron lately. For instance, I just now got around to watching his sermon from Sunday, and enjoyed it. That’s the one above.

He was commenting on the foolishness of the notion that faith and science are somehow at war with each other. It’s a foolishness that seems obvious to me — I see no conflict at all. But to millions on our planet today, it seems just as obvious that there is such a conflict, and it is inherently irreconcilable.

Which brings me to something I comment upon frequently in reference to politics. Those folks see things the way they do because they subscribe to the “ones and zeroes” view of the world. Everything, and especially everyone, is either good or bad — all good or all bad — and it is our duty to choose a side and love one tribe and hate the other. Here’s a place where I commented most recently upon it. Here’s a post in which I went into it a bit more fully.

Increasingly in the discordant world in which we live, this goes far beyond politics — to culture, to aesthetics, to worldviews that aren’t really about left vs. right. In a particularly silly version of intersectionality, people are increasingly convinced that if I vote this way, I perceive reality in this way and this way and this way.

Thus they determinedly convert themselves into unthinking automata.

Yet they remain convinced that they are right.

Anyway, I’m not going to go on and on about that. (I did go on and on about it, actually, but then deleted it all as distracting from the point I mean to address). My purpose is to bring up another recent sermon from the bishop that I meant to write about over the holidays, and didn’t get to. But I’m not going to comment on it in detail. I’m just going to urge you to listen to it (embedded below), and let me know what you think about it, and we can go from there if you are so inclined. Here’s a small sample of a couple of the main points, which the bishop included in his daily reflections on the day’s readings during Advent:

Friends, today’s Gospel again tells of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. I’ve always been fascinated by Mary’s “haste” in this story of the Visitation. Upon hearing the message of Gabriel concerning her own pregnancy and that of her cousin, Mary proceeded “in haste” into the hill country of Judah to see Elizabeth.

Why did she go with such speed and purpose? Because she had found her mission, her role in the theo-drama. We are dominated today by the ego-drama in all of its ramifications and implications.

The ego-drama is the play that I’m writing, I’m producing, I’m directing, and I’m starring in. We see this absolutely everywhere in our culture. Freedom of choice reigns supreme; I become the person that I choose to be.

The theo-drama is the great story being told by God, the great play being directed by God. What makes life thrilling is to discover your role in it. This is precisely what has happened to Mary. She has found her role—indeed a climactic role—in the theo-drama, and she wants to conspire with Elizabeth, who has also discovered her role in the same drama. And, like Mary, we have to find our place in God’s story.

There’s a lot more to it than that. It’s an excellent homily. Of course, I may be prejudiced. After we watched it together, I said something about how awesome it was to my wife. She agreed, but added: “Yes, you like Bishop Barron because he says exactly what you already believe.”

And that’s true. Perhaps that suggests I need to work harder at freeing myself of my own ego-drama. In fact, I know I do. Perhaps that’s the essence of what God demands of us. But I wouldn’t want to oversimplify…

I’m making the resolutions easy, and pleasant: books

I’ve mentioned here many times how bad I feel about all the nice, new books in my house that I never get around to reading.

I could blame Amazon, but the fault is mine.

When I was young, I devoured books. Not at any blazing rate, because I’ve always been a slow reader, but with ridiculously good retention. Whenever I had a free moment, that’s what I did. Perhaps it expanded my mind somewhat, but that’s not why I did it. I did it because it was fun.

But when I was an adult, I became lazy. I didn’t have much leisure time — wasting my days working and such — so when I did grab a few minutes to read, I kept it simple. Usually, I read something I’d read before, and which I could easily put down at any point.

I made some new discoveries, of course — John le Carré, and Patrick O’Brian, and to a lesser extent some others like Martin Cruz Smith. And I loved all of those, but I fell into a nasty habit. When I got time to read, I’d pick up Master and Commander or Tinker, Tailor or Gorky Park yet again, rather than committing to something new.

I’d see new books that interested me, or read a good review, and put that book on my Amazon wish list, with all the best intentions in the world. And my loved ones would dutifully give them to me, and I’d proudly put them on the shelf, yet when I got a moment for reading I’d pick up a dog-eared copy of Smiley’s People or perhaps something even older such as Stranger in a Strange Land, which first cast its spell on me when I was 16.

Well, no more. I asked for several books for Christmas, and I got them, and I’m going to read them.

I am. I’ll start with the ones pictured above, all Christmas gifts. I cleared my decks by finally finishing — on New Year’s Eve — a new book (new to me) that I’d dawdled over for half of 2021: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I enjoyed it, whenever I made myself buckle down and read any of it. I still hope to write a post about it, once I figure out how to tackle something that sweeping in a blog post.

On New Year’s Day, I started the new ones. That is, I started a book that I’d received for my birthday in October that I felt I needed to read before one of the ones below. It’s wonderful, truly. I should read new stuff all the time.

I haven’t promised a timetable or anything, but I’m going to get these read and then turn to some of the other couple of dozen I’ve got sitting around waiting. We’ll see how it goes. But I’ll definitely get to these:

  • The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin. I actually read at least a third of this one years and years ago, and then set it down somewhere and managed to lose it. Having given up on finding it, I put it on my Amazon list way back when I first started such a list. Finally, someone has given it to me and I can’t wait to jump back into it. By the way this isn’t about Columbus and conquistadores and such. It’s about how humans invented such artificialities as the hours of the day and clocks to keep track of them. That’s what I remember from before. More interesting than you might think. Or as Wikipedia describes it, “Discovery in many forms is described: exploration, science, medicine, mathematics, and more-theoretical ones, such as time, evolution, plate tectonics, and relativity. Boorstin praises the inventive, human mind and its eternal quest to discover the universe and humanity’s place in it.”
  • Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré. This is one of two that had remained unread by me when David Cornwell died, so I put them on my list. My wife gave me A Legacy of Spies for my birthday, and that’s the one I started yesterday, because it was the earlier of the two. My younger son gave me Agent Running for Christmas. The rush I’m getting from the one I’ve started is like reading Tinker, Tailor for the first time, back in the ’70s, not least because it is about the same characters (Peter Guillam mainly, but also Smiley and Alex Leamas, with mentions of Bill Haydon, Percy Alleline, Jim Prideaux, Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland and Connie Sachs)! This is amazing. Why did I take so long to do this?
  • Old Abe, by John Cribb. This is a novel about our greatest president by an author I know nothing about, except that I’d heard glowing reports about his book, so I look forward to checking it out.
  • The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel. This is the third book in her Wolf Hall trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell and others who were sufficiently unfortunate to find themselves within the close orbit of Henry VIII — Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and such. I read the first two sometime back, and have every expectation of it being good, although not so much for poor Cromwell.

You’ll note that this is a bit novel-heavy. Which presents a problem, because I’ve set myself a rule of alternating between fiction, which is fun, and nonfiction — which can also be fun but tends to be more of a hard slog, or at least easier to put down.

So in between, I’ll probably make myself finally finish reading Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (or his Grant), or take up that massive volume I also asked for and received for my birthday, Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. I feel particularly obligated to know more about Buonaparte. I often find references in my O’Brian novels to the geopolitics of the day confusing. It’s embarrassing to know so little about such an important period in semi-recent history. I figure an exhaustive biography of old Boney should be the cure for that, if I can make it through.

In any case, I’m determined to keep this resolution. I hope y’all will hold me to it.

Is Sapiens smart enough to survive?

I saw the above image when Samuel Tenenbaum shared it on Facebook, and it reminded me of the book I am finally almost, almost, almost done reading, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

It reminded me of something I keep thinking of while reading the book. I keep thinking, Yeah, maybe we’re the homo that is the most sapient, so the name of the species works. But are we really smart enough to keep going?

I suppose you noticed a day or so ago that, thanks to Omicron, the United States just set yet another record for new COVID cases in a day.

This, despite all the free vaccines and boosters. This, despite the fact that it’s perfectly obvious how to avoid passing on infections, which create new, more contagious (and more likely to overcome vaccines) variants as they reproduce through the population.

We know what to do. We — as a total population — just don’t do it in sufficient numbers to snuff this thing out.

A virus is about as stupid a life form as you can imagine, if you even want to call it a life form. It doesn’t even form cells, much less anything remotely resembling a brain, in contrast to the huge hunk of gray matter than homo sapiens has been blessed with.

But over and over again, it keeps outsmarting us.

So maybe, in Darwinian terms, it’s the one that deserves to win out.

I don’t believe that. I really don’t believe it at all. I’ve got a lot invested in this big-headed species to which I belong. I know we can do better. In fact, I keep getting kind of ticked at Yuval Noah Harari as I read his book, because again and again, he declines to give our species the kind of respect I think it deserves. Or that I at least want to think it deserves.

But time and time again, we just don’t do what we know how to do. It’s like we’re trying to shove ourselves toward extinction. Which ticks me off. And really, really disappoints me…

What’s with these red pickup trucks and Christmas trees?

Editor’s note: I wrote this early last week. The pictures that illustrated it would not load onto the blog. Again the next day, they refused to load. I set it aside and didn’t try again to post this or anything else until now. I was busy, and didn’t need the aggravation. But rather than let it sit in oblivion, I’m posting the blasted thing now, before writing anything else. And you know what? Even though it’s now Dec. 30, I’m backdating this sucker to before Christmas.

Those of you waiting for Brad to comment on something you consider “relevant” will just have to wait a bit longer. I’m busy.

But this question is timely and urgent, so I thought I’d ask: What’s with this image meme I’ve been seeing everywhere, with the red pickup truck with a Christmas tree in it?

Sometimes the tree is decorated (for reasons that completely evade me), and sometimes it seems fresh-cut from the forest. Sometimes the truck has wooden slats added to the sides of the bed; sometimes it does not.

But it’s everywhere. In these pictures alone, you see ones I’ve encountered in widely different venues. From top to bottom, they are:

  • A napkin from (I think) Publix.
  • A gift bag at Walmart.
  • Two other items that were at Walmart in the gift-wrap area.
  • An image in the L.L. Bean catalog.
  • A card placed in a live plant.
  • A decoration standing in the yard of a neighbor.

The answer is probably obvious to everyone except me, and that’s fine: That’s why I’m asking you.

During my lifetime I’ve figured out most things that we see over and over and over again this time of year:

  • Frosty the Snowman. (But what this has to do with Christmas, I still don’t know. I can see how it has to do with the season, but only if you live way up north.)
  • Rudolph.
  • The Grinch.
  • Buddy the Elf.
  • The Elf on the Shelf. (This one took me awhile, since I no longer had small children at home when the promotion came along, but I eventually figured it out. By the way: Marketing materials for this thing call it “A Christmas Tradition.” There’s nothing traditional about it. It was invented in 2005.)

Anyway, if you can tell me where this came from, I’d appreciate it. A cartoon? A song? A movie? A video game? Not knowing bugs me. The whole thing even seems a bit intrusive to me, since I drive an old, red pickup truck myself. I mean, if anyone knows, I should. But I don’t.