Blasphemy

A link showed up in my email this morning: There’s No Hate Like Christian Love. Provocative, I thought, but damned if it isn’t bang-on, and something that I’ve been thinking (if not actually saying) for decades. Curious, I clicked. The tone was a bit harsh and strident, the language blunt, and the generalizations sweeping and overstated. But I don’t think he’s wrong: I think he’s dead right.

My friends of faith (and I have at least a few) will not, I think, argue with the essential message there: Bible-thumping makes good street theatre, but it’s a crap basis for public policy and not “religion” — as a person of faith might understand it — at all. It stands principle on its head, so that “Love thy neighbor” becomes, “My neighbor must love me.” If Jake next door doesn’t love me as I love myself: well, that’s intolerable.

Someone recently said to me that religion is what’s left when God has left the building. I think that’s about as perfect a distillation as there can be. “Moreover,” she said, “God was never in a building.”

I could go on about this but I don’t see the need, except to say this: It’s not all people of faith, by any means; it is (and here my own generalization sweeps wide) the ones who proclaim their faith most loudly. There is no zealot like a convert; and the fanatic is always harboring a secret doubt. They should listen more, most of all to their secret inner voices that they work so hard to suppress.

Dialog (like charity, I suppose) begins at home.

Picard

We are now midway through the second season of Picard on Paramount Plus — the further adventures, if you will, of Jean-Luc Picard, Admiral, Retired, fourteen years after he left Starfleet and twenty or so since we last saw him aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.

My impressions: this second season is better than the first: this is typical of episodic television, for it takes the writers (and their actors) some time to settle into the groove of their characters. The Picard writers had a head star: known quantities, more or less, in Picard himself and in Seven of Nine, but they still had twenty years of backstory to catch up. The writing is tighter, the story is better, and the CG “scenery” is less distracting than it was during Season 1, where the virtual control panels of La Sirena (and every other starship, Borg cube, and laboratory in the galaxy) called far too much attention to themselves by their mere presence: actors putting their hands up to mime actions that will be filled in later, twisting nonexistent knobs and pushing nonexistent buttons.

Because this is the age of binge watching, and because I could, I went back and re-watched Season 1: both to remind myself how we got here, and to refresh my memory about what I disliked about it. Surprise: it wasn’t as bad as I recalled. The plot made more sense the second time around, the virtual reality controls were less distracting, and I could appreciate the story arc in ways I did not a year ago. I was, as I said, pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful (as I had remembered it).

That said: here’s a note for all you writers and producers, and aspiring writers and producers: If I have to watch it twice through to really appreciate it, you’ve failed. Maybe it’s me, but I just don’t think I should have to work that hard for my entertainment. Things should be clear the first time — sure, a second viewing might increase my appreciation, or reveal little Easter eggs that I hadn’t theretofore noticed; but it shouldn’t be a requirement.

Waiting for the End of the World

When we were young
we lived in fear: 
the Russians — no, the USSR --
were coming for us.
We held our breath
and cowered under our desks
waiting for the end of the world.
Then the enemy collapsed
which every house of cards must do.
In its place rose 
another illusion
a succession of threats and poses
poses and threats
from a man who would be king.

This new enemy is
smaller
with a small man’s bluster,
a pufferfish
with warheads to poison the world.

Today we sit and sip our wine
or fancy bespoke cocktails
and talk about the end.
We did this yesterday
and the day before.
No fear this time,
just resignation.
Because everything has changed
and everything is the same.

This much we can say:
It never ends well for the Tsar.

Public Service

An old friend — too long out of touch — contacted me the other day, out of the blue.

We are back in DC after 4 years in Santa Fe (which we miss every single day)

A post as a government official isn’t a dream job, it’s a call to service. Government is a machine, like anything else: it is one that can accomplish great things, or do great harm. The direction is set by whose hands are on the levers of power; the rate of progress, or the speed of the catastrophe, depends on the people behind the scenes. Thus the slow-moving train wreck of the previous administration, peopled at the top by incompetents, losers, and grifters. (In some notable cases, all three at once.)

This time around there are, in the White House and the OEOB, people who have put their lives on hold in order to be a part of something larger than themselves. My friend doesn’t need the experience, nor an added bullet point on the resumé, nice to have but unnecessary when you can already have your pick of jobs in your chosen profession.

We are, finally (if only temporarily) in the company of adults. We need more, at every level: it’s a thankless job, for which not everyone is well suited. You have to be a little selfless, and at least a little bit more idealistic than cynical. You have to believe that government can accomplish great things, and you have to understand, for example, that national health insurance is far cheaper than making the Emergency Room the provider of last resort.

If only that attitude were the prevailing one in the United States Congress, and especially in the Senate, where holding power is more important than using it for the purposes written into the Constitution: to provide for the common good and promote the general welfare. I for one am tired of seeing public service used for private gain.

Lies or Policy?

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, speaking last night at the Reagan Library on the future of the Republican Party, said that the GOP should denounce conspiracy theorists, “the ones who know better and the ones who are just plain nuts.” The party needs to embrace the truth: “Pretending we won when we lost is a waste of time [and] credibility.”

This in itself is not newsworthy. But a statement quoted in The Hill gives the game away: The GOP, Christie says, “needs to be the party that’s perceived to be telling the American people the truth.” Excuse me? This is a bit rich:

  1. We don’t need to tell the truth as long as we’re perceived as being truthful.
  2. Calling ourselves THE truth-tellers brands everyone else a liar.
  3. Divert public attention from policy differences by engaging in a food fight.
  4. Force opponents to defend against the name-calling.
  5. Above all, avoid an actual debate about policies that might help actual people.

When “public debate” is instead a shouting match, it’s the loudest voice — not the soberest reasoning — that wins the day. Screaming, “They are lying to you!” without evidence isn’t a factual statement, let alone a clear statement of policy goals. But it’s enough to distract from the real issues. Engaging baser emotions rather than logic and reason is both the tactic and the goal.

Such is the modern Republican Party: with no popular support for its few retrograde policies, it has become single-minded about clinging to power by any means necessary: Jim Crow registration policies, shorter early voting periods, constraints on voting by mail, removal of polling places. Ensure that the people who weren’t going to vote for you don’t have the opportunity.

Does Governor Christie include the hysterical allegations about non-existent voter fraud among the conspiracy theories his party should denounce? Or is that limited only to acknowledging that “Trump lost” and “vaccines work”? Someone should ask him that. Someone should ask him whether he thinks honest debate about actual policy proposals — rather than name-calling — wouldn’t be a better use of everyone’s time.

Exit Strategy

Facts are noisome things, standing as they do between belief — wishful thinking — and reality. The notion that the catastrophe in Afghanistan, for example, is all down to the Biden administration is without foundation in actuality, in the real world we all inhabit but might at times wish we didn’t.

That “it happened on Biden’s watch” is in fact not the same as “Biden created it.” The creation has been twenty long years in the making, beginning with an invasion that had no real exit strategy and ending with an agreement to withdraw negotiated without the participation of the Afghanistan government. The past administration’s sorry collection of ne’er-do-wells, grifters, and incompetents agreed to the 31 August deadline without getting much of anything in return. Perhaps they thought they’d still be at the wheel and could deny that what was happening, was happening; perhaps they hoped that they’d be turned out and would be able to blame it on the new administration.

Part of leadership is doing the job without blame-shifting, hand-waving, or excuse-making.  It’s all about execution. The Afghanistan withdrawal and its aftermath have happened, are happening, on President Biden’s watch. The president, to his credit, has been up front about where the buck stops: with him. He has made no excuses, nor has he bothered much to explain that this mess is not of his making; it’s simply his to clean up. He’s playing the hand he was dealt. Managing the current crisis is, as noted, all about execution. It hasn’t been flawless and never could be, but 122,000 evacuees over a ten-day period is impressive.

Chemistry


I’ve been thinking a lot about chemistry lately. Specifically, the chemistry of coatings (like paint) and substrates (like plaster). There’s a lot of chemistry involved, the kind of thing we don’t think about when we paint a room or repair damaged wallboard. There are the restrictions and limitations we’re familiar with: wait 2 hours (or more, or less, depending on the paint) between coats; don’t apply latex paint directly over wet compound. But there are other things most people, other than professional painters and plasterers, don’t know about applying paint, patching plaster, and more. How successful a particular wall repair will be comes down not just to the skill of the workman, but to the chemistry of the products he uses.

This is all front-of-mind for me because we recently moved to a 130-year-old house, with beautiful wood detail and solid plaster walls. Over time, the walls will show cracks that might widen as the house settles and plaster detaches from the wood lath underneath. Sometimes exterior walls have no lath, where plaster was applied directly to the brick. Many of the cracks are new, having appeared when our contractor used a sawzall to restore pocket doors that didn’t operate well, or at all. Opening up a few windows in the wall — to install a modern trolley-track — was a necessary step, but not one I wanted to watch. My mood wasn’t helped when I asked them to please exercise a bit more care and they flatly denied that the cracks had anything to do with the shaking walls.

Other cracks and deteriorating plaster are due to other things: leaks through the front wall or a flood from above, for example. In many cases the crack or blister — where a quarter inch of compound and paint visibly separate from the wall — is an older patch that was poorly applied. Chemistry: absent an application of a bonding agent to the older, drier plaster, the new patch will eventually separate when moisture is wicked out. Two pieces of sandwich bread aren’t going to stick together without a layer of peanut butter in between.

The contractor is gone now, and has been for months. And I’ve been repairing the cracks as I go, fixing each area before painting. I’ve learned a lot, and mostly about the chemistry of plaster: when to apply a bonding agent, which patching compound to use in each situation, where to use caulk instead of compound, and how to reattach plaster to the lath. This is a critical step in repairing cracked walls, because unless the plaster on both sides of the crack is stabilized — rendered immobile — the crack will return. No amount of gauze tape and drywall compound will ever hide it forever. But I’m confident, now, that the cracks near the pocket doors won’t reappear.

The Pagoda Trees of Bed-Stuy

Every neighborhood in Brooklyn has its own architectural style: Bed-Stuy with its three- and four-story townhouses; Brooklyn Heights with its narrow brick facades; Crown Heights with its porches fronting the street.  The area we live in has lovely tree-lined streets, hundred-year-old houses, a changing demographic and a growing number of new businesses: sit-down restaurants, take-out joints, coffee houses and juice bars. There is everything modern life requires: pizza joints, dry cleaners, laundromats, grocery stores. Fresh Direct and Peapod will deliver, too. Free community wifi is available if you don’t need high bandwidth.

Each street has its own character: one block is plain brick row houses, the next is barrel-front brownstones. Some blocks are all brownstone stoops with stone walls instead of railings; on other blocks, cast iron railings in differing states of (dis)repair. Sometimes the railings are wrought iron, a mix of new and old, especially where the rusted-out cast iron has been replaced with its less ornate cousin.

Directly in front of our house is a Japanese pagoda tree — Styphnolobium japonicum — that rises above the roof line and spreads before the neighboring houses, about sixty feet across. It’s a beautiful tree, tall and broad, shading the sidewalk and street, with white flowers that blossom for weeks. The tree flowers through most of the summer, so that every day in June and July — and much of August, too — someone must sweep the sidewalk to clear the carpet that will, if it rains, turn slick and become a slip hazard. Each morning I see my neighbor on one side sweeping in front of his house; sometimes he sweeps ours, too, and sometimes we sweep his. The gutter is thick with the flowers all week, waiting for the Friday morning street sweeping.

The house on the other side — immediately to the east — is vacant. Not abandoned, not derelict, just empty while the owner-siblings decide what to do with it. As a result the sidewalk in front is, for the most part, unswept; occasionally one or another of us will continue down the street to clear the walkway in front of all three houses. But the patio is another story: 225 square feet of wet flowers, now turned brackish and muddy with the rain from seasonal showers and tropical storms. The odor is of wet hay and horse barns, of mown fields and stalls that desperately need mucking-out.

The flowers have all fallen, now, and Henri last week cleaned up some of the mess; Ida promises to do more. Hercules redirected two rivers and cleansed the Augean stables in a day. Here in Brooklyn, the same cleansing requires at least two tropical storms and a wait in between.