Presidential Library Quiz

When I was a boy, fresh off President Kennedy’s, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” every little boy wanted to grow up to be President. Do little boys still want to grow up to be President? How about little girls? The glory being President seems tarnished these days, especially when you can aspire to be Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. Still, when it comes to power, prestige, and permanence, there’s no other position quite like President of the United States.

Every modern President, even motley ones, get a permanent archive to store their stuff, and a permanent museum to polish their image. I’m fascinated by these repositories of objective fact and political spin: so much so that I’ve visited all thirteen ‘official’ libraries, from Herbert Hoover straight on to Bush 43. Each reveals the man it exalts—all men so far—in a positive light, yet each reflects his core in ways certainly unintended. Bush 43’s library has extraordinary security; Jimmy Carter’s has none. Eisenhower’s museum is mostly about World War II; Nixon’s is mostly about what’s left out. Kennedy is high-minded; Reagan is blindingly sunny. FDR is rife with specific achievement; Bush 41 is fuzzy. Clinton has the most impressive interior: modeled on Trinity Library in Dublin, but locals call the silver extrusion extending over Little Rock’s Arkansas River, ‘trailer trash.’ LBJ’s is my favorite. That man’s sense of humor towered over all his failings. No other President has to hutzpah to hang this introductory panel on his permanent record: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’”

More interesting than the style and content of Presidential libraries is my personal response to each one. The libraries span the entire length of my memory, as well as the stories passed down from parents and grandparents. I have lived from Eisenhower forward, and heard about Truman, FDR, and Hoover first hand. I never heard a single story of life under Coolidge or his predecessors. FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ: the displays in these libraries resonate with my own experience. Reagan and the Bush guys are more interesting in how they portray an America at odds with my understanding during their time.

Which leads, inevitably, to considering how each of these Presidents aligns with my boyhood fantasy. If the Internet had a quiz, Which President would you be?, how would I fare?

The results are sobering. Years ago I discovered that my Meyers Briggs type (INTJ) is the same as Richard Nixon. Yikes! Now, thirteen libraries later, I realize that my capabilities most closely match one our least liked leaders. Herbert Hoover directed his engineer’s disposition into a huge fortune, and then used those same talents to stave hunger during World War I. His humanitarian efforts made him so famous he was elected President by a huge margin—his only elected office—yet within a year of attaining that office he was universally reviled. The man believed that volunteerism and civic duty would be enough to raise us out ofthe Great Depression. He possessed not have a single political bone in his body; he did not know how to rally support, to inspire. When we needed messages of hope, he delivered dictums on hard work.

 

After getting trounced by FDR, who possessed the right stuff to inspire us out of the Great Depression (along with a Second World War to drive the desired economic excess), Hoover licked his wounds for years. Until Democratic President Truman, tapped Hoover to oversee famine relief after World War II, and the man is credited with feeding millions again.

 

I came away from the Hoover Library thankful that my boyhood fantasy never came to pass.

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Finally: A Recipe

All these years I’ve written a blog and never posted a recipe. Favorite recipes are the bread and butter—or perhaps the focaccia drizzled in oil—of the Internet. Please excuse the awkward poser for being so remiss in sharing exotic ingredients, sizzling sautés, and elaborate presentation accompanied by sun dappled food porn photos. This post rectifies all shortcomings. And it is worth the wait, for this is a recipe blog like no other.

There are so many obstacles to me sharing a favorite recipe.

First, I am not a foodie; therefore, I have no favorite recipes. I eat to live, and any calories at hand are preferred over any that require work to consume.

Second, I live with a foodie, a man for whom cooking is therapy, large quantities are palliative, and leftovers soon forgotten. My biggest food challenge, therefore, is to figure out what leftovers have passed Paul’s brief expiration date, and will therefore get tossed unless I swallow them first. Our refrigerator is such a fertile feeding ground for this bottom feeder; I rarely have to search for nourishment.

Third, I cannot even have a favorite recipe because I never make the same thing twice. When I do cook—usually because I’ve invited folks over and feel compelled to display my talent—my chief culinary skill is repurposing our leftovers into something fresh. Since leftovers are never the same twice, neither are my creations.

Given my singular food situation, sharing recipes is pointless; the vast majority of you don’t live in households with an endless supply of tasty leftovers. You might try to remedy that problem by getting a housemate of your own, but don’t you dare try to steal mine.

Still, in an effort to maintain blogger cred, I feel compelled to write a recipe blog. And so here goes: every recipe I know, all in one post. Actually, there are only two recipes: broadly described as eggs or beans.

If I am making brunch or lunch, I beat up a dozen eggs, add whatever yummies are in the fridge, pour into a well-oiled baking pan, bake at 350 for one hour, and serve. The result is always adequate, sometimes good, occasionally scrumptious, depending on the quality of the leftovers and how well aged the cheese. Serve with crusty bread or sweet rolls, and broccoli slaw. Regardless how good or mediocre the casserole tastes hardly matters, it can never be recreated.

Dinner takes advance planning, since I only use dry beans, which have to be soaked overnight. Beyond that, the process is the same. In winter, cook the beans in lots of liquid with many additives and call it soup. In summer cook the beans thick and refry them in a pan. As a big fan of ‘peasant’ food, the key to success is to cook everything twice. Boil and bake, boil and fry, sometimes even boil and broil. Tough food needs more cooking. If the taste is bland, add unlimited amounts of Tumeric, that cancer-reducing spice that turns any concoction an intriguing orange. If you are intent on being fancy, serve rice on the side with hearty bread. Gussy the meal up with Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch, tossed with half a bag of cranberries and sliced almonds, doused in the dressing of your choice.

Two truths of these double-barreled recipes:

  1. No one ever rises from my table utters the words, “That was the best meal I’ve ever had.”
  2. No one ever rises from my table hungry.

My food is pretty good, always ample, and so easy to prepare I have plenty of time to spend with my guests. I pretend that they prefer my company to culinary perfection, though that’s not a question I’ve ever actually asked.

However the main course turns out hardly matters. All who know me know my gigantic sweet tooth. I always serve an excellent dessert.

 

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Erroneous Facts Corrode Trust

A simple example often illustrates a greater truth.

I waited over a month to receive The Library Book from my local library. I’ve enjoyed author Susan Orlean in The New Yorker, and the buzz swirling about her latest book made it a must-read for this library aficionado who’s written about the unique and benevolent role libraries play in our society and has visited hundreds of libraries across our nation, including one memorable afternoon at the Los Angeles Central Library, the institution at the heart of Ms. Orlean’s tale. I’m also a fan of immersive journalism: that literary cocktail of historical record and personal observation that serves up a thrilling plot of reality (always stranger than fiction) with memoir intimacy.

 

 

 

 

Ms. Orlean weaves the tragic 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire with a broader discussion of the nature and value libraries, embellished with personal anecdotes. I delighted in the concoction. Until, on page 11, a modest statistic struck me false.

Comparing her youthful library experience in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to bringing her son to a local library in Los Angeles, Ms. Orlean writes, “Decades had passed, and I was three thousand miles away…”

My knowledge of U.S geography is perhaps even deeper than my experience in libraries, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that Shaker Heights is not 3,000 miles from Los Angeles. According to Google, it is 2,363 miles. True, we often use the term 3,000 miles to express the coast-coast breadth of the United States, even though most major cities are a bit closer. If Ms. Orleans were talking Boston to LA (2,983 miles) or even New York to LA (2,775 miles), her three thousand mile number would satisfy. But Cleveland is not on the East Coast—it is solidly mid-West—and 2,363 cannot be rounded up to 3,000 in any mathematical system. Perhaps Ms. Orlean was bitten by a poetic sensibility. Perhaps she simply needs a more precise editor. Regardless, for me, that seemingly benign error cast a shadow over the rest of the narrative.

I grew suspicious of each statistic listed in The Library Book. If an easily determined distance could be exaggerated by more than 20%, what certainty did I give Ms. Orlena’s assertion that two hundred employees occupied the Central Library every day? Or that the fire raged for seven hours and thirty-eight minutes? Or that four hundred thousand books were destroyed in a single day?

The problem with Ms. Orlean’s misstating the distance from Shaker Heights to Los Angeles is not the error per se. It’s how this elementary mistake undermines every other fact. I found myself questioning the veracity of every passage until doubt eclipsed her elegant prose and I set The Library Book aside at page 85. I did not finish it.

In a world where attributions of fake news are rampant, where opinion is stated as fact, and belief masquerades as truth, we are surrounded by misinformation. Each erroneous fact is its own problem. Yet the more corrosive effect is how each error chips away at our faith in every statement until mistrust supersedes trust. In the Jenga pile of facts that supports narrative non-fiction, it takes only one or two sticks of errant information to topple an entire thesis into a pile of rubble.

 

 

 

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Reconsidering Righteousness

In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes, “most of us have to be self-righteous before we can be righteous.” This implies that we go through the storm and come into the light. Though I agree that the self-righteous are intolerable, in my experience, the righteous are not all that much better. All too often a righteous person sets himself above another, usually in the service of keeping them oppressed.

I learned this as a Catholic child when I overheard a fresh-scrubbed young priest counsel my mother to stay with a husband who beat her. And as an adult when Evangelical missionaries proclaimed they loved Haiti because it enabled them to do God’s work; as if poor Haitians existed for no reason other than to salve wealthy consciences.

My disdain for righteousness informed my governing principles of life: give no unsolicited advice, offer no uninvited commentary, make no judgment. Try to live by the golden rule, and perhaps that rule will take root in myself and in others.

Recently, however, I’ve been bending these principles. In our increasingly uncivil society, bestowing quiet respect on others is insufficient against the swirling vortex of entitlement and meanness. These days, when people violate the basic fascia of society, I sometimes call them on it.

Before, when a person walking down the middle of the sidewalk glued to their cellphone caused me to stop my bike before I struck them, I stopped cold and when they finally lifted their head, I glared at them in silence. Now, I say, ‘Please watch where you are going.” Or if I’m feeling smart-alecky, “Please pay attention to the world around you.”

Before, when someone’s cellphone went off during yoga class, I heaved a sigh of disruptive meditation and did my best to refocus. Now, after class I remind the person that it’s inconsiderate to bring phones into the studio.

Before, I held back my pedals as one, two, even three motorists turned left after the yellow light had turned red. Now, as they hog the intersection that has turned green for me, I wag my finger in their direction. I don’t proceed—having right-of-way won’t matter much if I’m dead—but I do convey that their violation is noted.

All of these people know, in theory, that they’re supposed to mind where they walk, leave cell phones off during class, and obey traffic signals. Yet each does as they like, in the moment, because our sense of personal entitlement has eclipsed our social norms.

These are minor examples of selfish behavior; yet the foundation of society is mortared by countless small considerations. I even take a risk in calling folks out on them. The fuss and fluster a woman recently made when her cellphone rattled during half-moon illustrated that she know it was wrong. When she continued to make excuses (but no apology) after class, and I told her she should leave her phone outside during class, she shouted at me, “You’re nasty.”

It’s distressing to witness someone who I am 99% certain thrives along the Hillary Clinton / Elizabeth Warren political axis, rip a page right out of Trump’s playbook. Instead of apologizing, acknowledging, or simply taking a cleansing breath (after all, we were in a yoga studio), the woman raised her voice and amplified the stakes through insult. Yet another example of turning the tables to deflect that it was she—not me—who behaved badly.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, not all of them pretty. Unfeeling, smartass, prig. When those words fly my way they stick to my psyche, prompt self-examination, and often lead to improved behavior. But ‘nasty?’ Never been called that before; and hard to believe it fits.

I don’t really want to be called righteous either; the word is still loaded with overtones of power and privilege. But I don’t want to live in a society where people violate whatever norms they choose, and defend themselves by a loud offense. And so I will continue, calmly, to point out large and small ways in which we disrespect one another. I may get called ‘nasty’ again, or worse. I accept that as a righteous risk.

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A Tale of Two Taxes

April 15 is a remarkable day. We the People will file over 140 million tax returns and fork over $1.8 trillion dollars to support our government. Almost all of us complain about paying taxes. Almost all of us disagree with how our government spends our money. Pacifists decry defense spending; libertarians denounce funding social programs. Yet, virtually all of us pony up and pay.

At first glance, this enormous collective endeavor might lead a person to think our nation is not so divided as the media—and daily experience—suggests. But closer inspection reveals that even in filing taxes, the United States is a single nation bifurcated into opposite extremes with a shrinking middle.

My tax forms reflect the upper demographic. They include Schedules A, B, C, and E for itemized deductions, dividend income, self-employment, and real estate. I have a wizard accountant who carries forward my capital improvements and depreciation from year to year. He notifies me of quarterly payments due; I am never docked a penalty. As long as I die before he retires, tax day for me will be a breeze.

 

Not so easy for others, as I learned firsthand this spring as a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) volunteer. Taxes are a completely different animal for low-income people, yet it’s important for them to file. If they worked a W-2 job, they will likely get a full refund of all taxes deducted from their paychecks. (44% of all tax filers owe nothing). In addition, they may be entitled to various credits that the Federal government offers working people, especially working people with children. Certain credits for dependents can reduce a tax liability to zero. Others, like the Earned Income Credit, can actually exceed what a person contributed during the year. It’s possible for a family of four in $40,000-$50,000 income range to receive a ‘refund’ of over $5000—much more than they actually paid during the tax year.

I’ve been a VITA volunteer before. After an evening of training I could complete the basic forms that applied to low-income working people, most of whom only needed 1040-EZ. I’m not an accountant, but my math is sharp and the returns were easy. Most took a half an hour to compete. Some less.

 

Seven years later, post Affordable Care Act, post tax reform, in the thick of the gig economy, VITA training takes two full days, the1040-EZ is a form of the past, and even the lowest paid of our workforce require a fistful of paperwork. Some evenings this year I completed only one return. Even the simplest take at least an hour.

Like all volunteer opportunities, preparing tax returns for low-income people was an eye-opening experience. I helped people maximize their refund and in kind, I received insight into another part of our society. People arrived with their stack of W-2’s and 1099’s and ACA coverage forms, their receipts for rent and gasoline and childcare. They laid out their life before me in dollars and cents. I tried to be respectful of this intimacy, even though I did not have to reciprocate. Affluence buys me an accountant and preserves my privacy. Poverty dictates they reveal all to a complete stranger.

Beyond the basic 1040 form, there is little overlap between the sheaves of forms that constitute my tax return and the returns of people who come to VITA. Instead of filing lettered Schedules, they file 8332, 8862, and 8965, for credits based on dependents and penalty exemptions for lack of health insurance. They are baffled when they cannot claim the $1000 deduction for gas while driving for Uber because it is only a number they wrote on the back of an envelope. No one told them to keep receipts. Nor did Uber educate them to pay quarterly taxes and their portion of Social Security. It is excruciating to explain to a man of broken English that he must pay a penalty for failing to comply with a tax he didn’t even know about. A penalty easy for educated people with accountants to avoid.

And so, in taxes as in life, the United States contains two separate societies within its borders. It’s easy for us to complain about the 44% of tax filers who get full refunds, to feel like they are a burden on our backs. But would I rather be one of them? I think not.

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Alan Drury, Charles Dickens, and the Duality of Good Times and Bad

Sixty years ago Alan Drury published Advise and Consent, perhaps the most famous political potboiler ever written. The novel spent 102 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and inspired Otto Preminger’s 1962 film with its all-star ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda. I recently watched the film and read selections from the book. The Red-baiting and homosexual suicide, steamy plot engines in 1959, seem a bit dated. Yet if Mr. Drury penned his drama today, he would have no trouble concocting a convincing cocktail of comparable political hyperbole and private scandal. Fabricated border crises, trade wars, nuclear jingoism, and #MeToo revelations can easily compete with any scandals of the grey-suited 50’s. Plot details aside, the tenor, the message of Advice and Consent are spot on today.

A century before Drury, Charles Dickens synthesized the duality of human nature into literature’s most famous opening line. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens summarized that truth in 1859, seventy-five years after the story he tells. It held for Mr. Drury in 1959, and holds for us still today. Eighteenth century London and Paris were wealthy beyond previous imagination; 1950’s America eclipsed that affluence by a wide margin; while most of us in 2019 live far grander still. Yet, each wave of increased comfort and material wealth washes on the shore of increased anxiety and expanding human disparity.

Part of Mr. Drury’s genius comes from assembling a huge array of characters, both inside and out American culture. Politicians scramble within our nation’s web of fragile checks and balances, some for noble purpose, others for private gain, while the outsiders often understand America better than the mice running the treadmill. The French Ambassador quips to the British Ambassador: “I do not know which way this American animal is going to jump, you know? He is scared and he is lazy; it is a fateful combination.” No in-house operative could ever acknowledge our cozy 1950’s superiority, or our arrogance today, as accurately as keen eyes from beyond.

Mr. Drury also writes terrific passages about our moral and political decay; passages equally apt today. “… he had seen America rise and rise and rise, some sort of golden legend to her own people, some sort of impossible fantasy to others to be hated or loved according to their own cupidity, envy, and greed, or lack of it; rise and rise and rise and rise—and then, in the sudden burst of Soviet science … the golden legend crumbled, overnight the fall began, the heart went out of it, a too complacent and uncaring people awoke to find themselves naked with the winds of the world howling around their ears, the impossible merry-go-round slowed down. Now, the reaction was on … a time of worry and confusions and uncertainty.”

I find odd comfort in A Tale of Two Cities and Advice and Consent; the comfort that we have seen this all before, we will see it again, and somehow we will survive. But it is a brittle assurance. A time will come when we won’t survive, when we contort our systems so out of shape that revolution, genocide, apocalypse, even extinction prevail. When we humans turn the best of times into the worst of times.

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First Kiss Girl / First Kiss Boy

I woke this morning to the memories of first kiss; a rather pleasant way to greet the day.

 

My first real kiss arrived unexpectedly in 1971. My family had recently moved to Oklahoma; I was invited to a party with fledging high school friends. When Kristen switched off the living room lights at an opportune moment, the girl next to me—let’s call her Grace—wiggled into my arms and introduced me to the wonder of open lips and wandering tongue. As a newcomer to Native America, I suppressed my inclination to recoil from local customs. I imitated her technique.

I worried that Grace, and others, would intuit my greenhorn status. But Monday gossip whistled along our high school corridors that Shorty Fallon was a good kisser. I breathed relief and thanked god that, as a tuba player born in the bottle-fed 1950’s, I possessed both excellent embouchure and insatiable oral need.

 

Grace and I proved to be an excellent pair of kissers. After all, she played French horn. But the pressures of dating eclipsed our ecstasy. In Oklahoma circa 1971 high school sweethearts often skipped right on into marriage and parenthood. Everyone seemed to dance to that agenda except me, constitutionally thick to unspoken customs. Grace and I crashed and burned before high school’s end with drama worthy of Dallas. I headed East.

My second first kiss occurred two years later, back in Oklahoma, at a holiday party during my first return from college. The crowd was pretty much the same, though we had graduated from Kristen’s mother’s living room to Allen’s basement apartment. Furtive sips of Boone’s Farm had given way to cases of Bud. We shared just enough joints to spawn a cloudy haze. As our night of reverie approached dawn, I stood against a doorframe, silent, my customary dullard response to a second hand high.

 

‘William’ came up to me, round and bleary from a lack of sleep and an excess of everything else. Any introductory words are long forgotten. He moved toward my face. Our lips drew open and closed upon each other. William was a large boy, 250 pounds if an ounce. I fell into his girth. I felt the stubble breaking through his pimply skin. Almost a man.

Our kiss lasted hours, or so it seemed. It certainly lingered past daybreak. One long, wet, hot, beer and dope smooch. Our tongues must have tangled, though what I most recall is the hollow void within his immense cheeks, the support of his solid mass. I have no clue if anyone else saw us, or cared what they saw. We did not pull away until mutually satisfied. “I love you, Shorty.” Words I’d heard from Grace, and the girl after that. Words I had never repeated, and did not repeat now, although coming from William, their meaning was less fraught.

I never kissed William again. He died young. I’ve always felt loved by him, and trust he knew I reciprocated our affection.

For almost twenty years after kissing William, I marched to a life plan: marriage; school; children; career; that didn’t even acknowledge the possibility of guys. I was not unhappy, neither was I content or fulfilled. I kept thinking that striving for what I ought to want would one day deliver satisfaction. It never did.

When the life I constructed imploded, I started kissing boys again. Men now, with guts and sagging chins, exciting despite the weight of gravity. The singular aspect I liked most about being gay was not the rough skin or surplus appendages. It was the spontaneity. In the 1990’s, after HIV was understood and before marriage was possible, gay men’s actions and emotions existed in the moment. Completely. We celebrated fundamental natures that are evolutionarily irrational.

I am grateful to live in a time and place where being gay carries no penalty; I work for a time when that can apply to everyone, everywhere. My preference for kissing boys over girls doesn’t have any repercussions for my life, aside from making it so much more satisfying.

And so when I awake to the memory of my first boy kiss, I simply luxuriate in the delight.

 

 

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