Author Archives: Brad Warthen

DeMarco: Salkehatchie Summer Service and the hope for a new Church

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

I wrote in a previous column about my disappointment over the decline of my denomination, the United Methodists. We are not alone. Our shrinking membership is paralleled by the majority of other church groups in America.

Longtime church members tend to blame external forces – the banning of prayer in schools, ever-loosening morality, competition from sports and other entertainment, and the evaporation of Sunday as the Sabbath day.

But I lay the burden squarely at our own feet. It’s not Jesus’ fault; his life and teachings remain perfectly relevant. We Christians, like the original disciples, have failed to understand who He was.

Teenagers, which is the group one must convince for a church to survive, have an intense need to belong. The church seems like a natural fit for them. It offers a family of usually well-meaning people who hold up a suffering servant as their Lord. “Come to Me,” He says, “all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” This is a compelling invitation to teens, whose lives are often a tumultuous search for identity.

But we have bollixed up our evangelism so badly as to obscure the profound love that Christ offers. Ask young people what they think of Christians and many will tell you we are hypocritical and judgmental, especially towards LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, their criticisms are too often accurate.

The “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach has failed miserably. Too many of us cannot hide our palpable distaste for people that Jesus asked us to love the most – the different, the despised, the immigrant, the homeless.

Those of us who wish the church to endure have essentially two options. The first is to keep doing what we are doing, claiming that we have been right all along and that any deviation from traditional Scriptural views (from a Bible that endorses polygamy, the death penalty for adultery and homosexuality, second-class status for women, and implies that the earth is roughly 6,000 years old) is the work of a permissive, Satan-infused culture. Good luck attracting young people to that view of the world.

The second is exemplified by Salkehatchie Summer Service. “Salk” as it is known to participants, was started in 1978 by John Culp, a United Methodist minister. Rev. Culp was led to gather adults and teenagers to renovate substandard homes in Hampton County as a way for participants to live out their faith. It has grown from that single camp to more than forty camps in every region of South Carolina.

Salk allows young women and men 14 or older to test-drive their faith in a potent and beautiful way. The rhythm of the week is both invigorating and exhausting. We awaken in darkness, pray, eat, work, eat, work, eat, worship and fellowship, sleep, and awaken to do it again.

Young people of every generation, but this one more than ever, are not content to accept and obey. They are adept at seeking information and opinion through the web and social media. They have many skeptical questions about traditional beliefs and scriptural inerrancy.

The focus of Salk is not words on the page but people in their homes. Poverty does not need to be believed in. It can be observed and wrestled with. Most Salk campers have never been confronted by the kind of poverty they experience at Salk. They are invited into homes with buckets arrayed to catch rain through leaky roofs, rotten floors, gaping windows, and unsafe porches. Conversations about poverty that they have heard from us adults are often superficial and tend to the extremes of “lazy and shiftless” or “industrious but oppressed.“

At Salk, campers often spend hours with the homeowners, sometimes working side by side. This can result in a reversal of the description of a “poor person” to a “person who is poor.” Campers can no longer talk about poverty without acknowledging its humanity.

Differences are accepted at Salk in a way they might not be back at the teen’s high school. Gay and transgender youth participate in Salk and are embraced-literally. It’s impossible to make it through the week without being hugged dozens if not hundreds of times. Every year, I look forward to my first embrace from a towering young adult who renews our friendship by bear-hugging me and lifting me off the floor.

That said, Salk has a diversity problem. Its leaders and campers are primarily white. The lack of diversity is a symptom of the churchwide racial divide. My challenge to Salk would be to make real John Culp’s founding vision in which teams of black and white Christians working together were to be the rule, not the exception.

If young people are going to choose faith, to respond to that desire for meaning that Methodists believe has been planted in all our hearts, the places they will gather to worship and serve will likely look like Salk. The new church will be a community that reflects the fullness of God’s creation, seeks out those who have been made to feel unworthy, and makes the building of God’s kingdom on this Earth its core mission.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. He is a layperson who has been participating in Salk since 2008. His comments are his own and do not reflect an official position of the United Methodist Church or Salkehatchie Summer Service. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net For more information about Salk, go to https://www.umcsc.org/salkehatchie/.

My favorite Google AdSense ad this week

AdSense doesn’t allow me to click on the ads it posts on my blog, but this one made me so curious I had to resort to a workaround: I right-clicked, copied the link to the site, and called it up on a different browser.

It was disappointing. The chainsaw being advertised isn’t really that small. Dang. Although it looks like it could be useful for certain tasks, and the tiny one doesn’t seem too handy. Just cool. Or hilarious. Or something. In any case, it made me look.

In any case, gimme more of these kinds of ads, Google. I like them better than, say, the one I’ve been seeing all week tying critical race theory to Marxism. It was getting kind of tedious…

So you’re saying it’s the Raskolnikov Syndrome? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain 2016

Georgy Taratorkin as Raskolnikov in a 1969 Russian film adaptation.

As you know, people have been bat-poop crazy lately. We’ve discussed this a good bit.

It’s complicated by the fact that we’re looking at two separate developments, and sort of running them together.

I’ve been searching ever since 2016, trying to understand how this country elected — to the presidency — someone who at any previous time in our nation’s history would have been laughed off the stage the first time he stood up and said “I’m running.” A guy who had been known as a famous doofus since the ’80s. Elected to be the most powerful person on the planet.

I still haven’t arrived, although I did feel I got a lot closer to the answer when I heard that “Rabbit Hole” podcast.

Over the last year or two — starting in 2020, the year we (at least for a little while), corrected the 2016 insanity — we’ve been talking a lot about something else, which is the deleterious effect of the pandemic on human behavior.

I just read another good, thoughtful piece on that in The Atlantic: “Why People Are Acting So Weird.” It begins:

Everyone is acting so weird! The most obvious recent weirdness was when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars. But if you look closely, people have been behaving badly on smaller stages for months now. Last week, a man was arrested after he punched a gate agent at the Atlanta airport. (The gate agent looked like he was about to punch back, until his female colleague, bless her soul, stood on some chairs and said “no” to the entire situation.) That wasn’t even the only viral asshole-on-a-plane video that week.

In February, people found ways to throw tantrums while skiing—skiing. In one viral video, a man slid around the chairlift-boarding area of a Canadian resort, one foot strapped into his snowboard as he flailed at security guards and refused to comply with a mask mandate. Separate footage shows a maskless man on a ski shuttle screaming, “There’s nobody wearing masks on any bus in this goddamn town!” before calling his fellow passenger a “liberal piece of shit” and storming off.

During the pandemic, disorderly, rude, and unhinged conduct seems to have caught on as much as bread baking and Bridgerton. Bad behavior of all kinds —everything from rudeness and carelessness to physical violence—has increased…

You see what happened there? As you will find if you read on, most of the piece is a discussion of what’s happened “during the pandemic.” But the political problem that predates the pandemic by four years comes up as well: “…before calling his fellow passenger a ‘liberal piece of shit’ and storming off.” Do you wonder who that guy voted for? I don’t. I mean, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I know.

So yeah, behavior has been pretty bad during COVID, but that doesn’t explain 2016.

However, I did pick up something interesting that I hadn’t though of before, in terms of explaining the pandemic craziness, and that’s why I’m posting this. It comes up here:

We’re social beings, and isolation is changing us

The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general. Sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, told me. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

The turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state anomie, or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote. In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases we have stopped being moral, too….

Though it’s been a lifesaving tool throughout the pandemic, mask wearing has likely made this problem worse. Just as it’s easier to scream at someone on Twitter than in real life, it’s easier to rage at a masked flight attendant than one whose face you can fully see. “You don’t really see a human being so much as you’re seeing someone masked,” Sampson said. Though one study found that face masks don’t dehumanize the wearer, another small experiment found that they do impair people’s ability to detect emotions….

I read that, and it hit me: Whoa! They mean the Raskolnikov Syndrome! Why didn’t I realize this before? After all, I’ve been thinking about it, and sometimes talking about it, since I was in college — although I don’t think I actually wrote about it until 2012. Here, in part, is how I set out the idea at that time:

I’ve long had this theory that people who do truly horrendous things that Ordinary Decent People can’t fathom do them because they’ve actually entered another state of being that society, because it is society, can’t relate to.

Quite simply, people like James Eagan Holmes are able to spend time planning a mass murder, prepare for it, gather guns and ammunition and explosives and body armor, and actually go to the intended scene of the crime and carry it out, without ever stopping and saying, “Hey, wait a minute — what am I doing?” because they’re not interacting enough with other human beings.

This allows their thoughts, unchecked, to wander off to strange places indeed — and stay there, without other people making social demands on them that call them back.

I think there’s a quality in the social space between people that assesses the ideas we have in our heads and tells us whether they are ideas worth having, or so far beyond the pale that we should stop thinking them. This vetting doesn’t have to be conscious; it’s not like you’re overtly throwing the idea out there and seeking feedback. I think that in your own mind, you constantly test ideas against what you believe the people around you would think of them, and it naturally affects how you regard the ideas yourself. I think this happens no matter how independent-minded you think you are, no matter how introverted in the Jungian sense. Unless, of course, you are a true sociopath. And I believe a lack of sufficient meaningful interaction with other people you care about plays a big factor in turning you into one of those.

Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov was the perfect case, fitting all the criteria we keep hearing about. Brilliant young mind, but he suffered a series of setbacks that embarrassed him and caused him to draw away from his friends. Living hundreds if not thousands of miles from his family, he was forced by lack of money to drop out of school. Rather than make money doing the translations his friend Razumikhin tried to throw his way, he fell to brooding in his ratty garret, or wandering alone through the crowded city, thinking — and not sharing his thoughts.

His murderous plan started with a provocative, if not quite mad, idea that he wrote an essay about — setting out the theory that extraordinary people who were destined to do extraordinary things for the world had a right, if not a duty, to step over the normal social rules and boundaries that restricted ordinary people. Had he been in contact with friends and family, they would have challenged him on this, as Razumikhin did late in the book, when he learned of the essay. Maybe they wouldn’t have changed his mind, in the abstract, but if he had been having dinner each night with his mother and sister, and going out for drinks regularly with Razumikhin, it would have been impossible for him to have carried it to the next level…

I explained further, including sharing the passage that “proved” the theory to me, and I’d love for you to go back and read the whole thing. But that’s the essence.

So yeah, the piece in The Atlantic is referring to a form of that Syndrome. Which is cool, and helpful. I feel like I understand the pandemic-behavior problem a bit better now.

This is particularly an eye-opener to me because, as an introvert, I haven’t minded the isolation of the last two years at all. I haven’t found it stressful, and in many ways — such as not going to an office every day (or at all, really) — I’ve seen it as pretty awesome.

But I had forgotten about my own theory about Raskolnikov. Now I get it.

But to repeat myself, that still doesn’t explain 2016, or the fact that so many millions of people did that again in 2020, and can’t wait to do it again in 2024, whether the pandemic is still affecting our lives or not.

So, I’ll have to keep looking. Because helpful as it is, “Rabbit Hole” doesn’t explain it all — does it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sorry, but I won’t even call back ‘Silverado’

For the longest time, most of the spam calls I received claimed to be coming from towns in South Carolina — Clover, Jackson (which I didn’t realize was a place in SC before that), Camden and so forth.

Lately, they’ve been coming from California. Don’t know why. Maybe the algorithm got confused between the two USCs.

Have y’all noticed that happening?

Anyway, I got one a few minutes ago, while on a work-related call, and of course I ignored it. But I was intrigued. It claimed to come from “Silverado.”

I don’t know about y’all, but I loved that movie. Coming out as it did in 1985, I saw it as a collaboration of young actors (all about my age, or slightly older) who had grown up on Westerns, but had never had a chance to act in one. So they made an oater that was packed with every trope you could think of — the roving gambler, the saloon, the wagon train of sodbusters, the evil rich guy who ran the town, the gunslinger, everything.

I thought, briefly, about calling back. I imagined myself talking to “Emmett” or “Paden,” or if I really got lucky, “Hannah.” (Then I could say, “All I did was talk to the girl.”) But with my luck, it would end up being “Sheriff Cobb.”

So never mind…

Graham’s clown act during hearing wasn’t just an act. He meant it.

So many people were better people before 2016. Lindsey Graham is one of our country’s more dramatic and tragic examples.

Especially with regard to judicial confirmations. Before Donald Trump and his supports assumed total control of the Republican Party, our senior senator was one of the few senators of either party who could be relied upon to support qualified candidates nominated by presidents of the opposite party.

It was what he was known for. He was more likely than anyone to say “elections have consequences” and vote to confirm, say, Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor.

Although he let his country down, bigtime, in failing to fight his leadership over Merrick Garland, the fact is that he stood out among senators in supporting the Democratic nominees he did support.

For years — including before Trumpism — Graham has walked a tightrope as a Republican from South Carolina. He took brave stands on court nominations and immigration, while at the same time trying to signal that he could be as big a yahoo as anybody. Sometimes, the attacks on “Grahamnesty” caused him to back down, but he was known for the times he stood his ground as one of the Gang of 14.

That fell apart when he decided that his political path forward involved developing a national reputation as Trump’s best buddy and most loyal toady. But he would still occasionally take a stand against the insanity, such as when Trump betrayed our allies in Syria.

So when he did something like trying to be the biggest, loudest clown in the room in giving Ketanji Brown Jackson a hard time during the recent hearings, I would wonder how much of it was just an act to give himself cover before quietly acting like Lindsey Graham and voting for her — since there was no legitimate reason not to.

But today we found out he didn’t have the guts to do that:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Thursday that he will oppose Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, marking the first time the GOP senator will vote against a nominee for the high court since joining the Senate.

“I will oppose her and I will vote no,” Graham said from the Senate floor.

So the madness that has gripped our country just took another step deeper into the abyss…

How Will Smith brought out tribal sensibilities with that slap

I almost didn’t read this piece this morning, because of the headline, which said, “The Will Smith slap says more about us than him.”

Molly Roberts

There was nothing wrong with the headline. It perfectly fit what Molly Roberts was saying. My problem was that I misread the word “us.”

I thought this would be written from the perspective of one of the many cultural and political tribes into which our society has divided itself, and would tell us — as individuals — whether we were good or bad people based on which of these tribes the writer belongs to.

But no, it was a way of decrying the fact that we have divided ourselves this way. It invited “us” — as a society — to realize how stupid we have been to thus divide ourselves. So I liked it, and recommend it.

Some excerpts:

Some takes surely came from the heart, but a lot of others appeared to come from the head, with everyone sorting through the slew of mini-screeds online to determine what was the right thing to think. A young woman… might have balked at the sound of flesh hitting flesh, but then reconsidered when she saw a post about Black hair, and then reconsidered again when she saw another about toxic masculinity…

Society has separated into so many groups with so many identities that sometimes we spend more time scrambling to ensure we’re aligned with whichever we consider ours than we do figuring out what we actually believe. How are we supposed to reconcile our anti-violence, and our anti-racism, and our anti-anti-feminism, all at once?…

Indeed. So we have the feminist decrying the fact that Will robbed his wife of her “agency,” and reminding us that she could defend herself just fine. And inevitably we also have the advocate of “toxic masculinity” — someone we once might have referred to as “a guy” — saying, “Yeah? I didn’t see her doing it,” which leads to a thousand indignant tweets in response as the guy struts back and forth making Tim Allen noises.

And all sorts of other people anxious to demonstrate that they’ve got their minds right, according to the standards of this or that group. So we are again reminded that social media are seldom about the expression of thought, and too often about the signaling of conformity.

Or, to use the terms I so often use these days, telling people whether we’re a one or a zero.

Here’s how the column ends:

The reaction to an event so strange, so personal, really does take place in the gut, and there’s little point in trying to take it out and put it somewhere else. The way we feel about things doesn’t always have to prove that we’re progressive, or conservative, or a crusader for or against cancel culture, or woke or still asleep. Sometimes it proves only that all of us are human.

Absolutely. And as I say even more often, people are complicated

Open Thread for Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Here we go again:

  1. Signs of Progress in Russia-Ukraine Talks — Which sounds good, although this portion of the subhed doesn’t sound great: “Ukraine Offers Potential Concessions.” The terms should be “Russia pulls out, and leaves Ukraine alone forever.” Doing that without any “concessions” out of Kyiv should weaken Putin to the point of ending his regime, which would leave the world better off. But of course Zelenskyy has to deal with reality, not perfection. I do like the part about Moscow saying it will lessen pressure on the Ukrainian capital. Translated from the Russian, that seems to say, “We now know we can’t take Kyiv”…
  2. Mick Mulvaney gets new gig with major TV network — Further proof that the standards at “major TV networks” have really plunged dramatically.
  3. Lindsey Graham went off the rails when questioning Ketanji Brown Jackson — Kevin Fisher’s “City Watch” column steps beyond the bounds of the city, and mostly I agree with it. And before 2016, Graham would have agreed as well. Of course, that’s when he went off the rails, not last week.
  4. Our cameras turn to the world of sports… This happened days ago, but this is my first post since then. I’ll just say what I said after the disappointment of watching St. Peter’s lose: “At this moment, I very much look forward to watching Duke take the Tarheels apart…” Meanwhile, the Lady Gamecocks continue toward their inevitable victory.
  5. But was Will Smith wrong to slap Chris Rock? — He’s apologized, as gentlemen will do. But do gentlemen really sit still for disrespect directed at their wives?

Open Thread for Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Here I am doing an Open Thread twice in one week. It’s almost like I’m getting serious about this blogging thing again. Well, that remains to be seen, but I hope you enjoy it…

  1. Joe goes to Europe — Here’s hoping the sane countries of the world continue to show a united front against Putin, and that it has a salutary effect. As long as they’re meeting, maybe they can suggest to Germany another place where it could go to buy its gas.
  2. Meanwhile, Jackson hearings go on and on and on — But I already complained about that in my previous post. I suppose U.S. senators were occupying their time like this — you know, performing for their respective bases — in early December 1941 as well…
  3. The Zelenskyy-Churchill comparison — Several times over the last few days, I’ve heard or seen discussions of the Ukrainian leader, and Churchill comes up. Which I enjoy. My fave was something I heard on NPR with a British participant who said “extraordinary” a lot — like every sentence or two — and I love the way that sounds in RP. But why always Churchill? Just because we know he was a European leader who was in a tight spot against an authoritarian invader, and it had a happy ending? I guess it’s better if we see him as Winston than as Paul Reynaud. Oh, you never heard of Reynaud? Well, that’s my point… Or maybe it’s because Churchill also addressed Congress. I dunno…
  4. I’m finding myself sorta, kinda cheering for Nancy Mace this time — Which is not what I or anyone else would expect. I mean, I always got along with Nancy personally, but that was years before she first ran for public office. Anyway, there are two reasons for this sorta, kinda position: 1. Her opponent is Katie Arrington. 2. Donald Trump seems to be really, really for Katie Arrington. Of course, this “sorta kinda” thing only goes so deep. I sort of cringed when NBC called Nancy “one of South Carolina’s rising stars.” I mean, I remember when national media called Nikki Haley that — actually, they still do. And I remember when they thought Mark Sanford was serious presidential fodder….
  5. How about that huge trans-gender athlete thing in the State House? — My main reaction is that I look around at South Carolina, and I try to figure out why either side gets so passionate about something that so rarely crops up. Meanwhile, we’ve got people talking about taking funding away from the people who are supposed to be keeping our roads drivable, so they can pander by saying they lowered taxes. I wonder whether some of those who want to abandon a core responsibility of government are also pushing hard on the high-school sports thing?
  6. Anybody gonna go see James Taylor? — I did, when he was here three years ago. Great show. I saw him decades ago in Memphis as well — one of my kids still has the T shirt, I think — but this was even better. So I recommend it…

James Taylor at the Colonial Center in 2019. It was great. I was far away, but they had those big screens…

Graham’s questioning Jackson AGAIN? Why?

This may be a stupid question (actually, I know it’s a stupid question), but why is Lindsey Graham questioning the Supreme Court nominee AGAIN, just now? I just grabbed the less-than-ideal image above from the live feed on The Washington Post site.

I’ve done my best to ignore these hearings for quite a few years, because I find them to be such torture (I don’t think I’ve followed one closely since Clarence Thomas). That’s the only excuse I have for not understanding how they work.

But I’m aware that Lindsey had some time with her Monday. And again on Tuesday. I mean, near as I could tell from the info that slipped through as I was trying to ignore it. So… why is he on again?

These hearings do so little that is of any value, and do so much harm to our country — both in terms of fueling destructive partisanship and undermining confidence in our courts — that it really, truly seems they should be streamlined. Each member gets some time with the nominee (and they’ve each met with her privately before the hearings, right? what is this but a show for strutting before the base?), and we’re done. One day, tops.

You’ll say, that will never happen. But I know of one way to change that. Bar TV cameras from the hearing room. That would guarantee that the hearings would resume to simply conducting business, as required by the Constitution.

But of course, that will never happen either, will it?

Open Thread for Monday, March 21, 2022

At the moment, apparently, there’s nothing to watch…

Have I even done one of these this year? Well, I’m doing one now:

  1. Ukraine Refuses to Surrender Mariupol; Thousands Trapped — Or, I could have brought up one of many other angles. I don’t know what to say beyond the fact that I want it to end as soon as possible — with Russia as the clear loser. I fear that second condition would take awhile, though. But Putin must fail.
  2. Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Confirmation Hearings Begin — As y’all know, confirmation hearings are not one of my fave things. But a lot of folks out there take interest in them — may even be watching them. Thoughts? (That is to say, original, non-talking-points thoughts?) Have at it.
  3. Thoughts on NCAA tournament basketball? — If so, y’all bring them up. I tried bringing up the topic earlier, but y’all weren’t interested. For my part, here’s the thing that makes me the happiest to have been wrong on my bracket: St. Peter’s. Here’s the thing that makes me saddest to have been right: Memphis losing to Gonzaga.
  4. And the Lady Gamecocks won again — If you’ll recall, this is the full text of my NCAA women’s “bracket:” “But if you want to know who’s going to win, it will be the Lady Gamecocks. Duh…” So, you know, no surprises yet.
  5. Thoughts about Frank Martin, or his replacement? — Yes, a record third basketball headline in a row. You’ll note that the link is to a story about Murray State’s Matt McMahon. So, what’s the thinking: That after this weekend, maybe they can get him cheaper?
  6. Film recommendation — “De Gaulle.” — A new feature, if y’all are interested. I’m thinking about highlighting films I’ve found that maybe no one else has mentioned to you. Anyway, one thing I like about Amazon Prime is that it surprises me sometimes with something I’d never heard of. This weekend it was “De Gaulle.” Not only was it engaging to watch, but I learned a lot. Stuff I should have known, but didn’t, about such a key figure in such recent history. It’s in French, but if you’re a subtitles guy like me (I always have them turned on), that shouldn’t matter.

Stop nagging me, Netflix!

I get emails like this all the time. Do you?

They seem weird to me. I find myself wondering why Netflix cares whether I “finish 30 Rock.” I assume this is simply about making sure I’m watching Netflix, period. But if that’s the purpose, it seems to have at least a couple of problems as a strategy:

  • If AI has any actual intelligence at all — and I’m talking minimal smarts — it would know that I engage with Netflix quite frequently. Not all the time, because I have Prime and Britbox and Hulu and other streaming options. But often enough that I don’t need to be bugged about it — one would think.
  • Also, if you’re tracking me and my habits, why don’t you know that I’ve watched every bit of “30 Rock” multiple times? And I think I did so at least once on Netflix. This makes me less than impressed with your technology.

Maybe they just want to stay in touch with customers, and they don’t care how stupid the excuse is.

Anyway.

Do y’all get these? And do you have any idea why?

I think this was my first post-COVID dream…

I think the setting was supposed to be the old State newspaper building, but wildly different on the inside…

Well, we know I have long COVID, which consists of some post-COVID physical symptoms.

But I think I just had my first post-COVID dream. (Actually, this was Thursday night, but I’m just getting around to posting it.) So I thought I’d better set it down for the sake of medical science.

I have work dreams, or perhaps I should call them stress dreams, all the time. In terms of the way they feel, they’re related to the cliché dreams that everyone who has been to college has — it’s the end of the semester and you have to go take an exam, only you’ve never been to the class, and you’re afraid to ask anyone where it is, because then they’ll know you haven’t been to the class, etc.

At least, that’s the way those dreams work with me. And with me, looking back on my college career, they’re not that different from reality. But they’re stressful.

And the work dream I had last night was like that, but it had a new, post-COVID wrinkle. By the way, I should mention that these dreams are almost never related to any work I’ve done in the last few years. They’re drawn from the intense situations I encountered daily in the decades of my newspaper career — sometimes from the early days in the newsroom, and occasionally from my time later on the editorial board.

This fit in that genre, but with a twist that is very much pandemic-related. It’s not that I’d had COVID in the dream, it’s that my work habits were what so many of us have experienced the last couple of years. And it’s not that — as in the college dreams — I didn’t know where the office was. I knew the place well, but I just hadn’t been there in a really long time. And things had changed radically.

(In this sense, it’s a little like my current life. We shut down the ADCO office when the pandemic started — in mid-March 2020. Sometime later, we shut it down for good. But in the last few months, my colleagues opened a new office. Nobody goes there as often as they went to the old one. I don’t go there at all. Except for two meetings and one case where I went and took a picture of a client, I haven’t encountered any work that can’t be done in my home office. Anyway, those circumstances seem  to have imposed themselves on this otherwise standard newspaper dream.)

It started with a phone call. Someone called me from the office — an office I hadn’t been to on a long time. He wanted to discuss a backup editorial (a short item that ran below the lede editorial, back when such things existed) he was writing for the Sunday page. He wanted some sort of guidance on it. I found this call disconcerting on a number of levels. First, it was ridiculous that he seemed to think he needed urgent help at this time, because it was a Monday afternoon — normally we wouldn’t even have identified a topic for such an edit at that point. Secondly, the call cut off before we could get the matter settled, and I couldn’t seem to reconnect with him.

But the worst part was that I had no idea who this guy was. And I was aware that there were a number of such people at the office now — new associate editors and editorial writers I had never met, but whom I was supposed to be supervising. It dawned on me that this was probably an unacceptable situation. I decided I should probably start going in to the office and sort all this out. I didn’t want to, but it seemed the responsible thing to do. At the very least, I needed to find out who this one guy was, so I could address his question.

I needed to go there and find Cindi Scoppe, who was the only person I knew who still worked there. (Of course, in real life, even though she was the last member of my team to get laid off, at this point she hasn’t been there either, for several years.)

I went there, and I eventually found her. She was outside a door to the editorial department. I peered in through a window in the door, and saw a place I’ve never seen before. A confusing, chaotic place, crowded with old desks jammed together, and strangers wandering among them. I had hoped to infer somehow which of them had called me, but I couldn’t. Nor could Cindi. She knew these people — she named some of them to me — but had no idea which had called me. I was going to have to get past that door somehow — it was locked — and engage these people in conversation until I sorted out which was the right one, and answered his question.

Eventually, I got in, and engaged with some of these strangers. My first problem is that I had no idea where to put down my laptop, because I couldn’t figure out where my office was. I finally realized that none of these people had offices (we all did back in my newspaper days) so maybe I just had a desk among all the others. I found this disconcerting, and was already missing working at home, but worse, I couldn’t sort out which was mine, so I couldn’t put down the things I was carrying.

And of course, I couldn’t ask anyone. Cindi had wandered off, and I couldn’t say anything to these strangers that indicated that I didn’t know where my workplace was, and I had no idea who any of them were.

Anyway, you get the idea. Like in the classic college dream.

The weird thing is, in real life, I’ve experienced no such difficulty working from home. I talk to people and I write things. With very rare exceptions, of it is easily accomplished using the phone, or perhaps Zoom on my iPad, and my PC — all right here in my office.

But in the dream, it seems I had thought everything was working fine before the dream started, and the main point of everything that was happening was that I was finally realizing what should have been obvious.

This doesn’t worry me, because I have these work/stress dreams all the time. I’m just setting this one down as the first in which the stress seems to have been driven by things we’ve experienced during the pandemic — in this case, by my favorite part of the “new normal,” the part where I don’t have to go to an office outside my home any more.

Anyone else have any such dreams?

An NCAA bracket based (as usual) on magical thinking

Just thought I’d toss out something for all you sports fans to scoff at.

Here’s the story that explains my system for predicting the men’s NCAA tournament. It’s thoroughly tried and tested:

I used to never do this, until back in the late 80s or early 90s, when one of my reporters — I’ll call him “Charlie” — had a pool going, and nagged me to enter it. I told him I didn’t follow college basketball, and didn’t know anything about it. He said to enter anyway. He really, really wanted my dollar.

So, I filled one out. Here was my method — if it was a team that was big back when I was in college (such as UCLA), I chose it to win. If it was a school I had some vague connection to (such as having lived in Kansas briefly), I chose it to win. If it was a Catholic school, such as Georgetown, I chose it to win. When two of those factors came into conflict, I had a decision to make, but I didn’t spend more than a second making it.

And you know those little numbers next to the teams in the brackets, the ones that tell you how the teams are seeded? I didn’t know what those meant, so I ignored them.

I won the pool, in large part because — contrary to the conventional wisdom of the sports fans — I picked Duke to win all the way (in keeping with Rule 1). The sports fans in the pool found this very irritating. Every day during the tourney, I’d come in and ask Charlie how I was doing. “You’re still leading,” he’d growl between clenched teeth.

I won $26.

This year’s bracket presented a dilemma, and I’m still really torn about what I decided. Of course, I had Gonzaga and Memphis winning their first rounds. But then, I picked Gonzaga over Memphis — my own alma mater.

Not because Gonzaga was seeded first and and Memphis was 9th. That’s the way normal people make decisions. It’s more that Gonzaga is not only Catholic, but Jesuit — like Pope Francis. Also, I graduated from Memphis State, and they don’t call it that anymore, which bothers me.

Still, I feel bad about it. Partly because every time I fill out one of these, I see it as a chance for the Tigers to undo what happened in 1973, when I was a student. Memphis State made it to the final — and lost to UCLA.

Anyway, what’s done is done.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the women’s NCAA bracket is… Well, I don’t have a system for that. You don’t want me to give you a bracket that’s based on guesswork, do you?

But if you want to know who’s going to win, it will be the Lady Gamecocks. Duh…

Was the rest of Steinbeck’s writing that good?

Our friend Bryan retweeted this the other day, with a very brief comment: “Dude could write.”

Yes, he could, I thought as I read it. And then I thought of something else: Was any of his other, more familiar, writing this good? Or was he even better than usual when trying to be ingratiating to Marilyn Monroe?

First, I admit that I haven’t read a whole lot of Steinbeck. I hate to admit that, seeing he was, as Wikipedia asserts, “a giant of American letters.” I never quite finished his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath.

The only two books of his I know I’ve read all the way through are Of Mice and Men (more than once, I think) and the somewhat less celebrated The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. So, you know, I’m not even qualified to draft a Steinbeck Top Five List.

Those were good books (even though, let’s face it, Mice and Men was a downer). But did it have passages that grabbed you as insistently as this does: “He has his foot in the door of puberty, but that is only one of his problems. You are the other.” (And you know he’s not exaggerating, because this is, you know, Marilyn Monroe.)

Poor kid. It would be a rough obsession to have, being that age at that point in her career. I was only 8 when she died, so the effect was different.

Anyway, yeah, I know, I need to finish Grapes of Wrath. I truly feel obligated to do so, sort of the way I feel about Moby Dick. But the thing is, I’m already fully convinced of its greatness, and it’s import as a slice of American life at a critical moment in a critical place. But come on, despite all these years of not letting myself see the movie until I’d read the book, I already know how it ends. And not to give anything away, but it’s kind of a bummer, too.

I’ll try. But I might finish Moby Dick first. I know that has some pretty engaging writing in it

Oh, one last thing: Given what he says in the first graf, do you think the nephew actually exists? I dunno. Great writers can be mysterious…

Here’s the kid’s other problem. Assuming he existed…

Well, it seems I DO have what is termed ‘long COVID’

No longer confined to my home office, I may wrap up and head out to walk.

Several days ago, one of our regulars here on the blog emailed me — apparently motivated by a mix of solicitude and impatience. I hadn’t posted in a startlingly long time, the unapproved comments were stacking up, and he asked, “You doing OK?”

When I explained that my absence from this venue reflected a lot of things — such as being busy with family, and still dealing with doctors and such in connection with the lingering effects of my having had COVID — he asked, “Could it be long covid?”

Since I was going to see my pulmonologist next morning (Friday), I said I’d ask, but that I didn’t think so.

I was wrong. He said yes, that’s what this was. I had been confused for two reasons. One, I hadn’t really paid much attention to all the stories I’d seen about “long COVID” — which I assumed referred to a continuing, contagious presence of the virus itself — and up to this point the doctor had referred to my problem as “post-COVID.” Of course, I hadn’t worried all that much about what to call it; I just wanted it all to go away. I was tired not only of the symptoms themselves, but the side effects of the remedies (for instance, my difficulties sleeping at night, caused by the long course of prednisone I was on).

On Friday, the bad news was that my lungs — still impaired by inflammation from the long-gone virus — were only working at 67 percent of normal capacity. The good news was that overall, he saw me as having improved considerably, and he took me off the prednisone! Yesterday was the first day I didn’t take it, and I slept like Rip Van Winkle last night, and through most of this morning. It was wonderful.

He also took me off colchicine. I had wondered why I was taking that, anyway — it’s known as a remedy for gout. It can also be helpful with arthritis, I believe. I assumed it was for something he saw in the battery of tests he ran last month (which I repeated several days before this appointment), and which I could not detect.

When I asked, he explained that colchicine is an old, inexpensive drug that helps prevent a “cytokine storm” — which is the phenomenon that leads to so many COVID deaths. Wikipedia defines such a storm as a condition “in which the innate immune system causes an uncontrolled and excessive release of pro-inflammatory signaling molecules called cytokines. Normally, cytokines are part of the body’s immune response to infection, but their sudden release in large quantities can cause multisystem organ failure and death.”

Inflammation like that which had messed up my lungs. It seems that colchicine prevents such a “storm” through the same mechanism that alleviates gout.

The doctor said that I, and many others, had not heard about this use of colchicine because so many were talking about another, extremely expensive, drug that does the same thing. I didn’t write down the name of that other drug, because I was uninterested in anything that cost “$10,000 a dose,” especially since colchicine did the job.

So now, all I’m taking that was prescribed by this doctor is Vitamin D3 (which, I have learned, is actually a hormone rather than a vitamin, but since I don’t fully understand the difference, never mind). And he had me reduce the dosage of even that — from 10,000 units a day to a mere 5,000. He had had me on the high dosage because the standard range is 30-80 ng/mL, and mine was at 17.3 on the first test. He told me last month he wanted to get me closer to 60 than a mere 30. According to last Monday’s test, I was at 55. Satisfied, he reduced the dosage.

So, I’m getting better. The main restriction I had experienced was a lack of stamina. I haven’t done my normal 10,000 steps in a day since before I got the bug. I’ve tried, but I haven’t gotten past 2,000 without feeling great fatigue and beginning to cough again.

The doctor says it’s time to start getting exercise — and to get some sun as well, which I assume would help with the D3 — but not to attempt 10k. He says 3,000 to 4,000 is more my speed.

OK, now you have my update. Which I have shared in such detail partly to explain why I’ve been so unavailable, but also to make a larger point. Apparently, about a fourth of people who get COVID are “long-haulers.” This is a huge part of the effect of the disease on our society. In fact, I waited almost two hours past my appointment time to see him because he was overwhelmed with patients with my condition. This guy is really, really knowledgeable about it, and I think a lot of other doctors are doing what my primary-care doc did — sending their patients to the expert. Which means he’s getting better and better.

Anyway, I say all that for the benefit of those of you who make the mistake of calculating the effect of COVID solely in terms of the number of people who actually die. As tragic as every one of those 6 million deaths has been, and as horrific as they are in the aggregate, that’s not the entire story. There are other things happening as well…

DeMarco: A prescription for treating mental obesity

The Op-Ed Page

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

The root cause of America’s obesity epidemic and the rise of political polarization are linked. The former is due to unhealthy food choices, the latter to unhealthy media ones. A side effect of living in a developed country where food and media are inexpensive and widely available is that we consume too much of the insalubrious types of both.

Our news and opinion diet is often filled with transiently satisfying but non-nutritive calories, producing a mental obesity. We pick up our phones and succumb to the same temptation that a bakery case provides.

Certain habits put you at risk for physical obesity. If someone eats fast food frequently, regularly consumes high-calorie snacks, and rarely exercises, he or she is at high risk for being obese. Similarly, if someone watches long periods of cable news that offer a liberal or conservative bias, solidifies that bias by viewing social media with that same slant, and does not expend the mental energy to challenge himself or herself with other viewpoints, mental obesity is likely.

One unique difficulty in combatting mental obesity is that it is hard to recognize in ourselves. There is no scale for this type of obesity. Try this as a diagnostic tool: Pick any common policy disagreement and cogently argue it from the other side. If you are pro-life, explain why someone might rationally choose abortion. If you are pro-choice, explain why someone might rationally oppose it. The inability (or lack of desire) to accept that people with whom you disagree are not universally evil, crazy, stupid or un-American is a cardinal symptom.

Most importantly, what do we do about it? The treatment of physical and mental obesity is similar.

Portion Control

For most of our history, Americans received our news in aliquots: newspapers, radio news at the top of the hour, TV evening news. In my early adulthood in the 1980s, before cable news was ubiquitous, a common pattern was to read the morning paper, go the whole day without any interruption by current events, come home and read the evening paper and/or watch the evening news. We weren’t hounded by “breaking news” that was neither, or sent unsolicited push notifications. The wonder of finding the latest score or stock price comes with an invisible threat to our mental health if we aren’t conscientious internet consumers. We become angrier, less tolerant, and more partisan, the chronic diseases associated with wanton media overconsumption.

Consume the Rainbow

Healthy plates are often filled with color. The wholesome green of vegetables and the many colors of a fruit salad are indications of their goodness. If your information diet is monochrome, take heed.

When I give patients medical advice, it is often based on what I try to apply (albeit imperfectly) in my own life. My advice here will be the same. I still get the newsprint edition of the Florence Morning News (I’m going to pause for a moment to let my younger readers’ laughter quiet). It’s a nice way to ease into the daily news. The articles are usually right down the middle, written by local reporters or the Associated Press. Then, properly nourished, I will often listen to the conservative talk radio show, “Wake Up Carolina,” on the drive to work. The show’s host, former lieutenant governor Ken Ard, and I have many things in common. We are both are husbands and fathers, we love our families, and we care deeply about our neighbors in the Pee Dee. We occasionally text about the issues of the day and share a mutual respect. Our political opinions are often at odds. For example, we disagree completely about Anthony Fauci, whom I admire and whom Ken wants to fire.

Our disagreements are not always so stark. Sometimes we find common ground, as when he talks about the plight of America’s blue-collar workers. Do I slap my head in frustration some mornings? Yes, but that’s the point. Ken is an opinion commentator, who is not bound to journalistic standards. The fact that he has many faithful listeners who trust him makes him someone I want to hear. If you listen to someone with whom you agree completely, you have accomplished nothing by having your already formed opinion buttressed. It’s the mental equivalent of mindlessly eating a bag of chips.

I balance “Wake Up Carolina” with NPR. I check the Fox News app and then the CNN app, recognizing the biases of both those outlets. I have digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and The New York Times. My next purchase will be the Wall Street Journal. I’m only hesitating because it gets expensive after the first year and I’m not sure I’ll have time to read it. I listen to podcasts of all stripes, and enjoy the depth and nuance that can be conveyed in that format. And of course, when I want scintillating opinion pieces and erudite commentary, I come here.

If you were my obese patient, I’d have some gentle advice and encouragement for you. As your columnist, I also have some instruction. If you agree with me most of the time, I prescribe regular exposure to a more conservative columnist. If you read my column every month and our stances often differ, I’m pleased. Consider me informational broccoli. Now, treat yourself (briefly) to a news source with which you agree.

Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. Reach him at pvdemarco@bellsouth.net. A version of this column (sadly without the reference to this blog) appeared in the Florence Morning News on 3/2/22.

OK, I’m completely on board with ‘Kyiv’ now…

The least we can do is include both his Ys.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yeah, it’s been awhile. I’ve been busy with various things — great stuff like having grandchildren stay with us while their parents were on a trip, less-great stuff like seeing doctors about post-COVID stuff (I’ve got another such appointment in the morning). And one of the things that happens when it’s been awhile is that I won’t let myself do quick, easy posts, thinking that I should come back with something big. Which is stupid. Anyway, here’s something semi-quick-and-easy.

When I saw this column this morning (at least, it was “this morning” when I started this piece a couple of days ago now), I jumped on it right away. It was my kind of thing — a story that actually explains why the names of things, and places, and people change. It was headlined, “Kyiv vs. Kiev, Zelensky vs. Zelenskyy, and the immense meaning of ‘the’.

I appreciated it, although I sort of wish it hadn’t stopped with “the Ukraine” or “Zelensky” or “Kiev.” Those, by the way, are the names that are now out. I mean, I certainly knew about “the Ukraine,” and sort of understood why there was no “the” any more, although I’d be hard-pressed to explain it.

I mean there’s no particular rule I know of that explains why it is that people who live in Lebanon or Crimea or wherever feel a loss of sovereignty and self-determination when there’s a the, but I get the connotation. “The” means you’re not a country (unless you’re the United States, but we have kind of a weird country name anyway — although I love it). It suggests you’re just a region in another country, owned by somebody else. It doesn’t say it; it just suggests it.

But since this all happened recently enough (although you kids won’t think so), I understand that we dropped the “the” when the Soviet Union went kablooey, as a way of embracing Ukraine as a separate country. And there are important reasons right now for remembering that.

I was less clear on Kyiv. In fact, since I don’t do broadcast news much (not even NPR, lately), I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to say it to distinguish it from the more familiar “Kiev.” But this piece makes the why very clear: “Kyiv is the appropriate transliteration of the Ukrainian name of the country’s capital, whereas Kiev is the name of the city in Russian.” OK, I’m on board. I’ll do my best to say “Kyiv,” and pronounce it correctly. And if I write it the wrong way here, y’all call me on it.

How about whether the name of the Ukrainian president is “Zelensky” or “Zelenskyy.” Well, even though the latter looks like a typo, that’s the Ukrainian way. The single y is more Russian. So Zelenskyy it is, I suppose.

Even though I’m sure it would make my head hurt to have it explained more fully how we get such a fine distinction in English when, you know, we don’t do Cyrillic. I’m just not going to ask.

But sometimes I do wonder about such things. Which brings up the one that’s driven me nuts for decades, mainly because no one has ever given me a good reason that I can remember. And that’s why I said above that I wish Benjamin Dreyer, the copy editor who wrote the above piece, had gone beyond place names particular to Ukraine. (Although I know why he didn’t, because I understand the concept of a “news peg.”)

I mean the mystery of how “Peking” became “Beijing.” Even though I’ve read explanations a number of times over the years, I have to confess I don’t get it yet. I mean, all “Peking” was trying to do is represent phonetically what it sounds like when people who speak a language that doesn’t use anything like those letters say the name of their capital city. So why would it change, and change so dramatically?

So, before I wrote this, I went and read the Wikipedia article on it, and sort of understood what happened — as well as anyone who does not speak Mandarin can understand both the language, and the ins and outs of Red China’s efforts to control how it is spoken and represented.

Which brings me to why I’ve always been creeped out by the very idea of the names of things being changed for political reasons — even reasons that seem quite benign to me. So it is that I fully understand why “Mount McKinley,” which I had learned as a kid was the highest peak in the United States, had disappeared, and “Denali” had appeared in its place. But it still worries me a little.

I think it’s because I read Orwell’s 1984 at such a young age — and then reread it repeatedly over my lifetime, appreciating it more and more each time (sort of the way I do with “His Girl Friday,” only without the laughs). For those of you who have not spent your time that way, one of the most horrifying and indelible ideas is the diminution of the English language to the point where people are unable to even think in ways that would free them from that oppressive dystopia.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ve always thought of it when I’ve considered such things as the Soviets renaming St. Petersburg (or, briefly, Petrograd) “Leningrad.” And it causes me to look at any such change with suspicion.

So, it takes a bit of self-persuasion to accept such changes as “Ukraine” without the “the,” and “Kyiv.” But I do.

But as for “Beijing,” well, in looking it up, I ran across this anecdote that was very, very Orwellian to my mind:

In the English, “Peking” was the preferred and dominant form through the 1970s. Beginning in 1979, the Chinese government encouraged replacement of the Wade-Giles romanisation system for written Chinese with the pinyin romanisation system. The New York Times adopted “Beijing” in 1986, with all major US media soon following. Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, the BBC switched in 1990. The Times of London used “Peking” until 1997, “when, according to The Irish Times, its correspondent in China was summoned to the Foreign Ministry [of the People’s Republic of China] and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times didn’t stop using ‘Peking’. It surrendered.”

I don’t know exactly why this is so important to the folks who run the former “Peking,” but an anecdote like that bothers me a lot…

Welcome to 1939. (Or is it more 1938, with worse to come?)

For weeks now, I’ve been wondering: Is this Ukraine business just something that will pass (just bluffing and maneuvering), to the point that a year from now we’ll hardly remember it? Or is this what it was like to live in 1939? Of course, I’ve fervently hoped it was the former.

So much for my fervent hopes on this front.

Oh, by the way, before I continue: All of you who hasten to jump on what you consider to be misguided historical allusions, just calm down. No, I don’t think Putin (or for that matter, Trump) is Hitler. I don’t think the MAGA phenomenon equals the Nazi party. I don’t for a moment consider the forces leading to this moment to be precisely the same as those that led Europe into its second conflagration in a lifetime. Nor do I know what will happen next.

You see, I actually am a student of history. I study it. I am constantly perplexed by it. Almost daily, I am stunned by something I didn’t know about it, and should have known. And I think about this, a lot.

What I’m talking about here is less about explaining this moment in a neat bumper-sticker encapsulisation. It’s really more about me still trying to understand 1939.

It’s always puzzled me. I grew up in the years in which the course of the 1930s and 40s were plain, and fixed, and obvious. I marveled at things: How was it possible that after the events of 1939, the vast majority of Americans believed this was something we could stay out of? I applauded FDR’s foresight and courage with the Lend-Lease Act and all the other ways he tried to keep Britain free until our own blindness ended. Which stunningly, did not happen until Japan, for its own complex reasons, attacked us and Hitler, demonstrating his madness to anyone who had not yet perceived it, declared war on us. It was one of history’s more remarkable turnarounds. On Dec. 12, 1941, Congress was planning on interrogating the director a film regarded as a bit too supportive of Britain’s war effort. The sentiment motivating that vanished in a flash in the days before the scheduled hearing.

But that wasn’t about just the American brand of isolation, not entirely. Britain had been just as attached to magical thinking in 1938, when it applauded Neville Chamberlain for bringing home such an awesome deal from Munich. During my lifetime, poor Chamberlain has been condemned as the ultimate appeaser. But he was doing exactly what the folks back home wanted. Britain had understandably had enough of war on the continent from 1914-18, and wanted to avoid any more of that sort of thing at pretty much any cost. A lot would have to happen before the voters wanted to exchange Chamberlain for that war-monger Churchill.

Oh, speaking of war mongers, there goes that Brad saying that what needs to be done in 2022 is just as obvious as what should have been done in 1938 would be 20 years later!

Nope. Try to keep up, folks. I don’t know what to do right now. I think my man Joe Biden has been doing fine, doing and saying the right things, even though so far we’ve seen that there is no “right thing” that will dissuade Putin from doing what every fiber of his being urges him to do. And I certainly don’t think we need to dig up George Patton and have him sweep in there with the Third Army posthaste. Even if we could.

It is precisely because I’m so uncertain about how to solve the problem that makes me think, “So this is what 1939 was like.” Those people, lacking omniscience, were also clueless. I’ve wondered all these years how they could have been so clueless, and now I’m getting a little insight into it.

Hence my headline.

I choose 1939 for obvious reasons, most notably I suppose the invasion of Poland. But what if what is happening is more of a prelude, more like the Anschluss than Poland? I got to thinking that reading Robert Kagan’s piece this morning, “What we can expect after Putin’s conquest of Ukraine.

After. As in, the Baltics. Assuming we can know the future. Which we can’t. But it was an interesting piece.

It’s hard enough to know the present. Oh, some things seem obvious enough. When The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Putin wanted “muscle Moscow back to the superpower table,” I was all dismissively omniscient on Twitter, which of course is what Twitter is for:

Oh, I am so smart.

But I know so little about the complexities of what motivates Putin and the base he plays to, and about a thousand other relevant things. Sure, I think I understand the destructive power of a great nation that has been humiliated. It eats at Putin, just as it ate at those who lined up behind Hitler in the 20s and 30s.

But of course, it’s always more complicated than that, isn’t it? When I finally got around to reading The Guns of August several years ago, I was startled to read about the long-standing ideas that pushed Germany into war, and how much they read like something Hitler would have written 20 years later. The Germans had been into this master-race stuff for awhile.

And just this week, I ran into something that mentioned the West’s hero of the Cold War, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. OK, so he was kind of a cranky, back-and-forth hero, hard for us to always understand, but we applauded when he condemned communism exposed the gulag. Anyway, as so often happens, running across his name made me want to look up something about him, so I went to Wikipedia, where I found:

According to William Harrison, Solzhenitsyn was an “arch-reactionary”, who argued that the Soviet State “suppressed” traditional Russian and Ukrainian culture, called for the creation of a united Slavic state encompassing Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and who was a fierce opponent of Ukrainian independence

Of course, this Harrison guy also accused the author of “hankering after an idealized Tsarist era,” which doesn’t really seem consistent with his writings. So maybe we shouldn’t believe all Harrison tells us.

But it underlines how little I know about how Russians and for that matter Ukrainians think and feel about their own respective national identities, and what that might motivate them to do. Basically, I’m so ignorant I don’t know whether that Harrison guy is full of crap or not.

I need to read and study and think about this a lot more. Which seems like kind of a self-indulgent luxury right now, with Russian boots on the ground…

Today may be George’s birthday, but I’m thinking about ‘Lincoln’

The very first time I posted a “Top Five” list on this blog — during the first year, on Jan. 9, 2006 — I threw away the opportunity.

I did the most obvious topic of all — best movies of all time — and while the five were all completely deserving, I didn’t really think about it. I listed them, and didn’t even bother to explain my choices. I guess I just thought there was all the time and space needed in the future to fill in the gaps.

Here were the five:

1. “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
2. “The Godfather.”
3. “Casablanca.”
4. “The Graduate.”
5. “High Noon.”

Recently, I had occasion to ask, “Why wasn’t ‘His Girl Friday’ on the list?”

Well, I was asking myself something similar last night when, just before hitting the hay, I watched a few minutes of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” after seeing it was available on Prime.

And of course, since I needed to get to bed, I spoiled myself by scrolling to the very best scene of all. I’ve talked about it here before. Which, for whatever reason, I can’t find on YouTube — although here’s a piece of it, for some reason messed up with a sepiatone effect.

It’s that scene when Abe explains to his confused Cabinet exactly why the 13th Amendment has to pass, and has to pass now, before the war ends. It is the most amazingly perfect explanation of a political situation — of perhaps the key legislative moment of our nation’s history — that I have ever heard or read. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation is on the ragged edge of uselessness (something many in the room likely understood, but as we see all the time these days, the audience does not), all the contradictions he has had to navigate to get this far without such an amendment — treating escaped slaves as “contraband,” which meant regarding them as property, which meant respecting the laws of the rebelling states, and sometimes regarding them as a foreign entity when his most core conviction is that they are not, and so forth…

And it’s all delivered by one of the best actors who’s ever lived, in what is probably his greatest performance, speaking in that backwoods aw-shucks way Lincoln had, the plain man so comfortably dissecting the most complex truths…

It’s amazing. And while this is the best, the film contains scene after scene like it. I remind you of the one in which Tommy Lee Jones takes his oh-so-self-righteous fellow Radicals to task by demanding that they try thinking, just for once, about the opportunity before them: “But… Hasn’t he surprised you?”

And so forth.

It would be amazing, a top-drawer film, on the most superficial of terms — based on mere wonder at how much they make Day-Lewis look like Lincoln. See the image above from my Prime account. I mean, if Lincoln didn’t look like that, he should have.

But there’s just so much more, in every detail. Of course, one is tempted to dismiss in on those grounds alone — Spielberg was such a mature master craftsman, at the peak of his game (which impresses us more — Scorsese’s raw “Mean Streets” or his polished “Goodfellas?”), and he had so many resources that previous generations never dreamed of. He was deliberately making a great film, and he did it.

Lacking that freshness factor, it seems out of place on a list that includes “Casablanca” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Those people had no idea whatsoever they were making something for the ages. It just happened. Poor combat-fatigued Jimmy Stewart was just trying to get a movie cranked out, having just returned from the war, and Capra was just doing that thing he always did, loving America the way he did…

But it’s right up there, however you count its virtues.

Anyway, I just wanted to say something about it, again (yes, I’ve praised it and praised it before).

Confession time: When I got the idea to write this, I was thinking this was Abe’s birthday (although Wikipedia had set me straight before I started writing). When I was a kid, and we celebrated both of them separately, I always had trouble remembering which was the 12th and which was the 22nd. I mean, come on — they’re practically the same number.

So I guess it’s just as well we mashed them into one day. Although, of course, I don’t think I’ve ever had that day off. Whatever…

You see, he’s the PRESIDENT, so I want him doing PRESIDENT stuff…

EDITOR’S NOTE: Just so you know — I wrote this freaking post three days ago, and as I was finishing, my PC went into one of those paroxysms that I complained about earlier, and I had to go somewhere and had zero time to deal with it. So I’m just coming back now to finish posting it. It still works. The latest headline on the situation: “U.S. calls Russia’s actions an ‘invasion,’ readies new sanctions.”

On the same day this was leading The New York Times and every other serious news outlet:

President Biden spoke amid fears that Russia was setting the stage for an invasion that could ignite the biggest conflict in Europe in decades.

WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Friday that the United States has intelligence showing that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has made a final decision to reject diplomatic overtures and invade Ukraine, in what Mr. Biden said would be a “catastrophic and needless war of choice” in Eastern Europe.

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Mr. Biden said “we have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week, in the coming days,” adding that “we believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.”…

I received an email from the Democratic Governor’s association:

It was inviting me to express my approval of Joe Biden. I figured, OK, I’ll take a second. He’s my boy, even though this email is nothing but yet another particularly ham-handed attempt to get money out of me.

The “poll” didn’t have much to ask me before getting to the give-money part. But there was this page:

You can’t completely see my answer there. I said, “Dealing with the crisis in Ukraine. You know, keeping it from becoming World War III.”

Yeah, they had sort of changed topics on me, asking “Which of the following should be Democrats’ top priorities?” Which is something I don’t particularly care about. Don’t involve me in your party platform drafting.

But since I came to talk about Joe, I gave the answer I did. In a vain hope that it would be seen and sink in with somebody. It won’t, but I do what I can…