Friday, August 28, 2015

The New Diet Pepsi – No Thanks To Its “New Coke” Brain Cramp

The Pepsi company has just removed the artificial sweetener aspartame from its Diet Pepsi product and replaced it with something called sucralose.  It may have made other changes as well.  Apparently Diet Pepsi sales have been down, and the company has been worried about some old rat study wherein rodents fed aspartame by the pound for the rat-equivalent of 100 years showed some altered biochemical marker, or something.  Or maybe it was some other study, but those reports have been around for a long time and so far nothing has been proven, and other soft drink makers are still using aspartame.  Nevertheless, the Pepsi brain trust studied the New Coke fiasco and thought … hey, we can do that too!  Look at all the publicity Coke got!  

I’ve been a Diet Pepsi drinker for a long time.  The new product has lost the crisp, fresh edge to the taste, leaves a modestly unpleasant after-taste, and is noticeably less sweet.  I've heard Pepsi says focus groups went wild over this new stuff, but I don’t believe that for a moment.  It’s not for me.  Moreover, now in restaurants I can’t just order a diet cola and take whatever brand comes; I now must ask for my drink by name, as in “Diet Coke, but only Diet Coke, please.”  Or maybe I'll switch to bourbon.  Then I won't care what brand arrives at my table.  One more thing to complicate each passing day.   

As an aside, Pepsi’s CEO is Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, a woman born and raised outside of the United States.  She got briefly into some hot water some years ago with an intemperate anti-American comment, an incident ignored by the liberal media, as she is a foreign-born woman of color, and thus missing from her Wikipedia page.  The media undoubtedly agreed with her anyway.  I thought I would revisit the incident but don’t want to spend the time to dig deeper to find a web site that hasn’t been Sovietized.    

Well, maybe it’s time to cut back some on soft drinks anyway, and diet Coke is all right.  And that Diet Dr. Pepper is pretty good, but its manufacturer wants to keep each can’s age a secret and so, unlike Coke or Pepsi, doesn’t date it, making a purchase a bit risky at anyplace other than a high volume supermarket.  As always, buyer beware.   

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lakeside Days

Overcast with a strong northerly wind along the southern shore of wild Lake Michigan, on August 24, 2015: (Click to enlarge photos)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lakeside Days

Finally a day hot and hazy, after that cool spring and early summer.  The full expanse of Lake Michigan spreads out before me.  Overhead, high, thin clouds buffer the sun, a bit.  The sand burns under foot.  A welcome northerly breeze barrels straight down the lake right at me.  Where are all the gulls, who love to glide the currents high above the glistening water; somewhere else is more enticing, for now. 

Out on the deep blue water are lots of cruisers, open-bow boats, and jet skis.  There’s a cigarette boat noisily zooming about a good way offshore.  A few kayakers and paddle boarders tentatively move about.

The lake has a mild chop with scattered small whitecaps.  The rollers hitting the beach are pleasantly rhythmic and surprisingly loud.  They usually break orderly-like, but now and then a rogue wave arrives and causes an odd and loud collision. 

I float in the waves a while and wait for the gulls to return.  Later they come, having become bored wherever they had been.  

The water is clear – perhaps too clear, thanks to small mussels, the zebras and the quaggas, destructive invaders from a world away that hog too much mico-food.  The water is also warm, 72 degrees a nearby buoy says, surprisingly so given the last two extra-cold winters.

The water level is high, higher than it has been for years.  Some of the dune grass on the small bluff edging the narrowing beach struggles to maintain footing as the sand collapses beneath from the battering of the relentless waves. 

I think of waves in song.  From Hammerstein:  “You can’t hear a sound, not the turn of a leaf, Or the fall of a wave hittin’ the sand / The tide’s creeping up on the beach like a thief, Afraid to be caught stealing the land.”  From Fields:  “I won’t dance, don’t ask me, I won’t dance madam with you / But oh what you do to me, I’m like an ocean wave that’s bumped on the shore, I fell so absolutely stumped on the floor.”

A shout from somewhere down the beach cuts through the din and breaks the trance.  I look out to see the full expanse of the great lake spread out before me, this hot and hazy day.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Remembering Omar Sharif

He was given one of the most dramatic entrances for an actor in film, cast as a then-unknown by director David Lean in his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia.  Starting as a shimmering dot in the distant desert, his figure grew slowly larger until he burst into the scene by suddenly shooting Lawrence’s companion and guide. 

According to Wikipedia, Omar Sharif was born Michel Demitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Lebanese Christian family.  The city in his youth was a "chaotically cosmopolitan" place (link) in a country ruled by the Westernized King Farouk, who was a friend of his mother and played bridge at their house.  He graduated from Cairo University with a degree in mathematics and physics, but eventually gravitated to acting.  In his early 20s he converted to Islam and scrapped his Christian name in order to marry an Egyptian actress, back when Muslim countries had actresses.  In 1962 Lean cast the 32 year old actor in his first English-speaking role in Lawrence.     

Smart and educated, a noted bridge player and a speaker of many languages, Omar Sharif died a few days ago in Cairo at the age of 83.     

To a generation of middle-aged American women, he came to epitomize the somewhat exotic, always mysterious, ever debonair foreign sex symbol.  His film roles included The Night of the Generals, a favorite of mine in which he plays a German army officer conducting a murder investigation during WWII; the picture also features his co-star from Lawrence, Peter O’Toole.  Perhaps his greatest part was that of a sensitive and altruistic physician and poet consumed by the barbarity of the Russian Revolution in another David Lean epic masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.

I imagine it would be hard for someone young today to appreciate the breath of his appeal.  But there is this.  In the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin, far from the plains of the Nile delta or the forests of Lebanon, nestled along the high, picturesque dalles of the Wisconsin River is a little town called Wisconsin Dells.  It has become a resort area hosting the thousands of tourists attracted to the cool water and beautiful north woods countryside.  In the heart of the sprawl is a supper club called Wally’s House of Embers, there since the late 1950s.  For that special occasion it has a cozy, overly-decorated, very private booth for two.  Anyone wanting to reserve it for a romantic dinner by candlelight needs just to ask for the Omar Sharif Room.

R Balsamo

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Democrat Chicago Public Schools Running Out of “Other People’s Money”

The patronage-rich, administrator-dense Chicago Public School System, run for generations by the Democrat Party and effectively bankrupt like so many states and cities long-controlled by that same gang, is fast running out of "other people's money." 

Now it says (link) it will eliminate well over one thousand current teachers to be able to continue to pay generous benefits to the ever-growing ranks of retired teachers.  "But what about the children!!!," to echo the standard liberal refrain whenever a Republican proposes just the slightest cut in even the rate of growth of government spending.

All this reminds me of the old joke that General Motors is a retirement and social welfare organization that funds itself by financing the purchase of pricey motor vehicles that it poorly manufactures.  Likewise, the Chicago Public School System seems to be a generous retirement and social welfare organization that funds itself by lavishly administering an inefficiently-run day care operation for children that requires ever-increasing funding by foolish taxpayers and even more foolish lenders.  Take a look at the kids' test scores if you dare, although to be fair the schools have no control over the often dismal home life of the students and the dangerous, toxic gangsta/ho culture in which many are immersed.

R Balsamo

Related post:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Bork Nomination Legacy – Democrat Viciousness Paying Supreme Court Dividends

In light of the recent big Supreme Court decisions “upholding” Obamacare subsidies and same-sex marriage, in which two Republican-nominated justices voted their political policy preferences rather than looking to constitutional textual principles, it is worth noting how our Republic got to this point.  The point where clear language in a crucial section of an important law that purposefully stated that subsidies were only available through health care exchanges “established by the state” is decreed to have really meant “not established by the state” in order to rescue the law from economic and political disaster.  That the so-called liberal justices always vote their personal political preferences is hard enough to take, but to have Republican-nominated justices join them is truly an ominous sign for the future of our Republic.

In 1987, Republican President Ronald Reagan was faced with an opening on the Supreme Court.  Up to that time, there was a general Senate policy of deference to the President’s nominee, although in the decade earlier Republican Nixon had two nominations rejected.  Reagan proceeded to nominate noted lawyer and jurist Robert Bork, who Democrats in the Senate considered too forceful an advocate for the non-political constitutional interpretation they opposed.  Democrats smeared and savaged Bork, and Republican pushback was feeble.  His nomination failed.  The viciousness with which the Democrats attacked Bork and Reagan served to profoundly intimidate Republican presidents thereafter.  In Bork’s place, Reagan ultimately nominated Anthony Kennedy, who would become, on cases with significant political issues, a man who votes his personal political preferences rather than constitutional dictates.   

Republican presidents after Bork became drawn to nominating so-called "stealth" candidates, hopefully secretly true constitutionalists but without much of a track record that might upset the strident liberal Democrats who sought a political Supreme Court.  The stealth strategy of course has turned out to be a disaster for constitutionalists (see, for example, Kennedy, Anthony; Souter, David; and Roberts, John – just to stick with the Supreme Court).  One might have at least hoped at the time that the new Senate approach would mean that Democrat presidents would also be forced to nominate “stealth” candidates more acceptable to the other side.    

No such luck.  When Clinton was elected and nominated two extreme, no-doubt-about-it ultraliberal lawyers, the Republicans should have returned the favor, leveled the playing field, and as the Democrats did with Bork should have rejected those nominations.  But they did not, and inexplicably returned to the old policy of deference to a president’s choice.  A stunning show of political cowardice and incompetence of lasting historical importance. 

One Clinton nominee, the ultraliberal Ginsburg, an anti-constitutionalist who votes her political preferences as a super-legislator, was confirmed by the senate 93-3.  Thirty-nine Republicans voted to confirm her, within recent memory of the Bork attack, while only three said nay.  Republicans voting to confirm Ginsburg included current senators McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, and McCain, a former Republican Party nominee for president, as well as former Senator Robert Dole, the Republican Party nominee for president in 1996.  Compare these Senate confirmation vote totals:  for Republican-nominated Thomas (52-48) and Alito (58-42) versus Democrat-nominated Breyer (87-9).  Even ultra-stealth nominee John Roberts, a George W. Bush discredit, who was such a cipher that he was regarded at the time by some astute conservatives as dangerously political rather than constitutional, and who has gone on to become a political liberal vote on some big cases, was only confirmed 78-22, with many prominent ultraliberal Democrats like Joe Biden and Dick Durbin voting against him.  The bottom line is that Republicans senators overwhelmingly vote for Democrat nominees, but not vice-versa.  Why would that possibly be?  Why should that possibly be?

The disgraceful Republican weakness after the Bork episode led directly to the nominations by Republican presidents of some liberal justices, and the nomination (with easy confirmation) by Democrat presidents of anti-constitution ultraliberal justices.  The scorched earth strategy toward Republican nominees was begun by Ted Kennedy, the Democrat Party saint who left a woman passenger to slowly drown in the car he drove into water while he slithered off to sober up.  Kennedy looked into Republican eyes and saw weakness.  The strategy has been extremely successful.  It has worked in spades, likely beyond the wildest Democrat dreams, and continues to pay dividends down to this very day, to the everlasting detriment of the Republic.

R Balsamo

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Roberts Rule of Disorder: The Supreme Court Decides the Obamacare Subsidies Case

In King v Burwell, the Obamacare subsidies case whose decision was released today, John Roberts and five other Supreme Court justices now say that the law is not the clear and plain meaning of its text but rather is whatever the supreme court says it is in order to accomplish its political goal at the moment.  Everyone now truly knows that the law was written precisely as intended, to induce states to set up their own Obamacare exchanges via a big financial carrot – federal subsidies for its poorer citizens available only through a state-established exchange, not one run by the federal government.  The Obamacare law’s drafters and the Democrats who voted for it did not foresee that some states would refuse to establish exchanges.  Thus to now uphold the law as clearly written and intended would cripple the law, and so Roberts and five other justices introduce a new concept – the Roberts Rule of Disorder:  if parts of a law will cripple that law if interpreted as clearly and purposefully written, then we as supreme court justices can simply rewrite the law to strike out those clearly-written and clearly-intended troublesome words if that allows us to accomplish a political goal we support.

Quin Hillyer writes (link):  "With today’s Obamacare decision, John Roberts confirms that he has completely jettisoned all pretense of textualism.  He is a results-oriented judge, period, ruling on big cases based on what he thinks the policy result should be or what the political stakes are for the court itself.  He is a disgrace. That is all."

R. Balsamo

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Illinois Whistles Past the Fiscal Graveyard

The state of Illinois is functionally bankrupt from humongous annual pension payments to retired former employees, most of them Democrats.  A recent Illinois Supreme Court decision has just invalidated the Illinois pension reform law, weak as it was, that helped address the financial crisis.  The basis of the court’s decision was a provision in the state constitution, inserted when the document was revised in 1970, that purportedly explicitly protects every state employee’s pension plan as of the day that employee was hired.  Note to self:  vigorously oppose any future effort to rewrite any constitution because of this issue or that, because while everyone is concentrating on the headline issues somewhere in the background insiders will be inserting language that benefits them and shafts the public overall.

Illinois is broke.  Democrats of course want to raise taxes to cover the financial hole, but that’s just been tried and didn’t work.  Illinois just had a portion of a temporary income tax hike expire.  Illinois has a flat income tax, and the increase was from 3% to 5% for individuals, a 66% hike, that ran for three or four years.  Despite bringing in a ton of additional cash, and despite the bulk of that cash going to state pension funds (I have read as much as 90%), at the end of the period of the tax hike I have read that the pension shortfall is greater than it was before the tax hike, meaning that the pension deficit is increasing faster than the additional money raised via the tax hike.  The temporary hike was supposed to make things much better, but it did not. 

The tax rate for individuals has now dropped to 3.75%, which is still higher than the 3% it was a few years ago.  The state is in, as the saying goes, deep doo doo, and of course some local units of government like the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public School System may be in even worse shape. 

Some argue that the problem started with a "rich" and ultimately unaffordable formula for determining the amount of pension, aggravated by a fair amount of Illinois-style corruption such as double and triple dipping, pension spiking, and adding many non-governmental union employees to the pension system.  The unaffordability was hidden for years by financial legerdemain, while some of the money that should have been put to the pension fund was spent elsewhere to make the politicians look better at the moment to their constituencies.  Here's one old clipping I have related to the mess:  "From 1998 through 2008, despite revenue that has gone up by many billions, [Illinois] spending has skyrocketed: per capita state expenditures after inflation have climbed almost 47% while the state population has grown only 4%."  At some point the financial chicanery could not be hidden anymore, even from the accounting firms.

Most state politicians have resisted real reform such as moving government employees off a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, the kind almost all private businesses have today.  For them, "Illinois ain't ready for reform," to borrow a phrase. 

The total state and local tax burden in Illinois is on the high side as states go, and I have read the highest among the surrounding (and competing) states.  Although the income tax may be relatively low (although some states have none), local property taxes and sales taxes are relatively high.

The process some high-tax and functionally-bankrupt states are beginning to experience is conceptually similar to the downward death spiral of an old health insurance plan when, through bad underwriting and pricing, its prices become too high to attract healthy customers and at the same time drive away healthy current enrollees, leaving behind the costly sick ones as an ever increasing percentage of covered lives.  Of course, the implications, intermediate- to long-term, for the municipal bond market are the dark clouds on the horizon.  In some places like Detroit, they have already blown in.

Truly and honestly fixing this problem without changing spending would require a massive tax hike, one that would substantially harm the competitiveness of the state, whose economic growth may already be behind such neighbors as Wisconsin and Indiana, and one that would cause I think most tax-paying retirees and many businesses to flee the state.  One tough alternative so crazy it just might work:  truly and substantially cutting state spending.  But that would mean cutting spending to the core base of the Democrat Party – government workers and welfare recipients, which is not likely to happen. 

So the state slowly slouches toward bankruptcy, while tax-paying retirees and business owners set their sights on Indiana, Tennessee, or Florida.  Many have already left, and many more are sure to follow.  Illinois' financial death spiral may have already begun.

Yeats comes easily to mind:

       Turning and turning in the widening gyre
       The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
       Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
       Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
       And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
       Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Liberal Mob Attacks Christians in Indiana While Ignoring the Real Abuse Elsewhere

The opponents of religious freedom are attacking Republican politicians in the state of Indiana for their recent passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The attack mob is not discussing if and how this new law is any different from a federal law of the same name or such laws that exist in 19 other states.  The mob says this law permits discrimination against gays and lesbians, but its proponents say that it, like the federal law and other state laws, does not.

Ed Whelan at National Review reminds us:

H.L. Mencken famously defined puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  Progressivism, it seems, should be defined as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be making a decision you disapprove of—and the fervent use of government power to prevent and punish such a decision.”

This attack is a tactic from the playbook of communist agitator Saul Alinsky, the spiritual mentor of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  Pick the target, freeze it, swarm it, smear it; avoid calm and reasoned discussion.  The ultimate goal is to break the will to resist the liberal political agenda.  Just as “women’s rights” activists condemn conservatives for every imagined slight while staying silent on the profound violence against and degradation of women in much of the world, “gay rights” proponents attack American conservatives relentlessly while also ignoring that same violence and degradation elsewhere.    

The electronics company Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook, a gay man, has blasted the new Indiana law.  Yet Cook’s Apple does lots of business, willingly and happily, with Muslim countries that commit violence against homosexuals.  So for Cook, is this dust up really about fair treatment of gays, real or imagined?

What’s going on here, when supposed “advocates” of rights for women and homosexuals ignore the real violence against them in the world, sometimes right here in American Muslim families (e.g., “honor killings”), and only attack American Christian conservatives?  What’s going on is yet another effort to marginalize and suppress political opponents of American liberals, generally and specifically. 

The general part is obvious.  The specific part is to attack Indiana governor Mike Pence, a smart, likeable, and accomplished Republican politician.  This over-the-top attack on Indiana tells us that Pence is seen as a significant national political threat by Democrats and so needs to be Palinized however possible.  Democrats play a long game.

R Balsamo

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Peggy Noonan Strikes at Ted Cruz, But Wounds Herself; Again

The dreamily erratic, mellifluous, and oft-duped Peggy Noonan is at it again.  In 2008, she utterly destroyed whatever credibility and reputation she had with her notoriously delusional and pathetic school-girl crush on Barack Obama (how’d that work out Peggy?), that at an age when people should know better.   

In 2008 she became infatuated with a rookie senator with an almost negligible resume as an Alinskyite (i.e., radical socialist) community organizer, a part-time Illinois state politician famous for setting a world record in voting “present”, and part-time lecturer (nota bene: not professor) of one course on the 14thAmendment and blacks at the UChicago Law School.  Obama was president (nota bene: not editor) of the Harvard Law Review, apparently a ceremonial post often used to promote diversity; he wrote nary a single word for it.  Looking at this man, she said this:  “His victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief....  He rose with guts and gifts.  He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make.”  While sensible, grounded people saw Obama for what he was based on his past actions and words, a man who never held a real job before the presidency, fake conservatives like Noonan and David Brooks (who infamously swooned over the “crease” of Obama’s pant leg) saw what they wanted to see.     

Now Noonan, having not learned to distrust her instincts, delivers a hit piece on Ted Cruz.  Noonan is the George Costanza contrary indicator here.  Cruz scares the beejessus out of liberals, socialists, fake conservatives, and go-along, get-along Republicans because he is smart, charismatic, and committed to principles of liberty rather than authoritarian big government.  She now says of Cruz in the Wall Street Journal in a post titled “The Too Smooth Cruz”:  “He is 44 and a first-term senator. He entered the national stage less than three years ago, though it seems like longer because he made himself so famous so fast.  He talks about Reagan, but Reagan in 1980 had been a union president, two-term governor of a huge state, candidate for the GOP nomination in 1976, and longtime leader of modern conservatism. He had been an executive; he had run things; his accomplishments could be measured.”

Though Noonan was enthralled with Obama in 2008 despite a wafer-thin resume, now the following apparently doesn’t count for Cruz, who actually has done lots of stuff at ages when Obama was smoking dope with his choom gang, working as a “community organizer” for a socialist organization, and flitting around the Illinois statehouse avoiding a voting record: 

·        Editor – a working, productive editor – of the Harvard Law Review, unlike Obama’s ceremonial affirmative-action post of “president”.
·        Clerk to the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
·        Solicitor General of the State of Texas, where he argued and won cases before the US Supreme Court.
·        Associate Deputy Attorney General in the U.S. Justice Department.
·        Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
·        Real-world experience in the private practice of law.

I’d say Cruz stacks up a world better than Barack Obama did then, and does now.

R Balsamo

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Barack Obama on Religious Identification

I say that I am a Christian, so everyone must accept that and proclaim agreement with that if asked (this especially goes for Republicans): Barack Obama.

Despite the fact that thousands of men, women, and imams of the Islamic State say they are good Muslims, and claim to be acting in accordance with the directives of the Muslim faith, I, Barack Obama, a Christian, proclaim that in no way are these people Muslim, regardless of what they say they are: Barack Obama.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ted Cruz Running

Senator Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz, the first Hispanic to serve as a U.S. senator from Texas, announced today that he is running for the Republican nomination for the 2016 Presidential election.  Cruz’s father is Cuban and his mother is of mixed Irish and Italian ancestry, despite which, Cruz jokes, he “somehow ended up Southern Baptist."

Per Wikipedia, Cruz graduated cum laude from Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.  At Harvard he was a founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review and a named Fellow in Law and Economics.  After law school, Cruz served as a law clerk to a judge of the Fourth Circuit US Court of Appeals and then for Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Rehnquist.  Cruz was the first Hispanic to clerk for a Chief Justice of the United States.

Besides some years as an attorney in private practice, Cruz served as the Solicitor General of Texas for five years, the youngest and longest-serving in the history of that office.  In the Senate, Cruz has been a tireless advocate for individual liberty, Constitutionalism, and the impartial rule of law.  He also has been a fierce critic of the depredations of Barack Obama and his lieutenants on the integrity of the American system of government.   

Cruz is a strong and articulate advocate for his principles, and so is feared politically by liberals (and some Republicans-in-Name-Only) who thus smear him endlessly in ways large and small.  One example of the latter: just today National Public Radio, the ultra-liberal radio network largely funded by the American taxpayers, referred to Cruz as a “white Hispanic”, a term recently coined by the extremely-liberal New York Times to mean, in liberal dog-whistle terms, that somehow he’s not an authentic Hispanic.  Liberals have yet to refer to Barack Obama as a white African-American.  Unlike the milquetoast Mitt Romney, a good man but timid politically, and the feckless John McCain, who suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, Cruz will be a strong candidate.  I’m looking forward to his race.   

R Balsamo

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Obama: Mission Unaccomplished Against Muslim Terror

“Thanks to sacrifice and service of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over, the war in Afghanistan is winding down, al Qaeda has been decimated, Osama bin Laden is dead.” –President Obama, November 1, 2012

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” –President Obama, September 10, 2014

“The United States has evacuated its remaining personnel, including about 100 special operations forces, from Yemen because of the deteriorating security situation there, U.S. officials said on Saturday. The U.S. pullout…  marked a further setback in U.S. counterterrorism efforts against a powerful al Qaeda branch in the country.” –Reuters, March 21, 2015

Thanks to Max Boot at Commentary

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Reflections on Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway at age 24
A trip late last summer into Northern Michigan’s Hemingway country rekindled an old interest of mine in his life story.  I grew up not far from his hometown of Oak Park in suburban Chicago, and his boyhood there was of course well-known in the area.  As a boy, Hemingway fished and hunted in the “prairie” west of the Des Plaines River near his home; years later houses were built on that land and I grew up in one of them.  My interest has been not so much in his fiction but rather in his person, why he wrote and how he wrote about his life's adventures.  It has always struck me that his public persona of the great adventurer, full of vim and at times reckless vigor, was at odds with the themes of death and violence that he so often employed.  I wanted to know more about him, to see whether this was true.  And that terse writing style – perhaps I might find some insight as to why I have trouble stopping a sentence while he strained to keep one going.  Since his fiction was semi-autobiographical anyway, why not read the real stuff. 

Hemingway’s life is remarkably well documented.  He was a prodigious letter writer and many memoirs have been written by family, friends, and associates.  He saved a wealth of papers, some involving the most mundane aspects of his life.  His literary importance and the amount of personal material have led to numerous biographies.  I have been reading a bunch of material: memoirs, biographies, letters, stories.  I’ve moved through many of them simultaneously, taking each phase of his life in turn, and it has been a valuable comparative exercise.  It’s been quite interesting to see what each biographer feels is important, what he covers, and the things one of them omits that another dwells on. 

Some observations:

·       He had a most remarkable, oversized personality.  Men and women were drawn to him like flies around a bright night light.  I’ve jotted down lots of adjectives as I moved through the story of his life:  passionate, adventuresome, narcissistic, mean, kind, energetic, envious, competitive, thoughtful, bombastic, self-absorbed.  He had a commanding personality, who, as his friend the poet Archibald MacLeish once said, would suck all the oxygen out of the room when he walked in.  Friends would flock to be around him – to Northern Michigan, Chicago, Paris, Spain, Key West, Bimini, Wyoming/Idaho, Cuba – wherever he was, wherever he was going, they wanted to be there with him.  It is truly remarkable how many people, over so many years, traveled long distances to spend time with him, once there often in the company of other friends of his they had never met, forming a sort of gang in orbit around him, and typically doing something they may never have done by themselves and didn’t always particularly like – fishing and hunting.         

·       When Hemingway was in his late teens and early twenties, beginning to make his place in the world, it is remarkable how many of his close friends and associates were much older than he.  His two most important Michigan friends, the siblings Bill and Kate Smith, were four and seven years older.  As an aside, there’s reasonably suggestive evidence that he had a romantic relationship of some kind with Kate, who years later would marry the author John Dos Passos, another friend of Hemingway’s whom she met when they were both visiting him in Key West.  His first great love, the Red Cross nurse Agnes in Italy, was seven years his senior.  His first wife Hadley was eight years older, and his second wife Pauline four.  His best friend from his Red Cross ambulance experience in Italy, and with whom he roomed for a while in Chicago, was Bill Horne, a Princeton graduate eight years older.  In Paris, he socialized and corresponded with writers and artists sometimes decades older.  He was mature for his age, exciting, interesting, and interested.        

·       So how was it then that this man so full of boundless energy and adventure could be so focused on death?  When Hemingway was a teenager, his mother told him “everything you write is morbid.”  He had that strange fascination with death, suicide, and killing animals (particularly big ones) for sport.  It’s there in his writing from the beginning.  In Indian Camp, one of his earliest published stories, his alter-ego Nick Adams as a boy witnesses the terrible suffering of a woman undergoing an emergency cesarean section without anesthesia and the suicide of her nearby husband who, unable to bear her screams, slits his own throat.  The personality of the man seems so inconsistent with the themes of his writing.  Being around him in person, I imagine one would think that he was the writer of grand adventure stories. 

·       The startling number of suicides in his immediate family is well known:  besides himself, his father, his one brother, and one and possibly a second of his four sisters; and, many years later, a granddaughter.  But the number of suicides among his extended circle is also remarkable:  his third wife the writer Martha Gelhorn; his young Venetian love Adriana Ivancich; the father of his first wife Hadley; and his long-time Havana housekeeper.    

·       As an adult, Hemingway became progressively estranged from most of his family, save his sister Ursula.  When his mother died, he hadn’t seen her in 20 years, and he didn’t attend her funeral.  He did not speak to his youngest son for the last ten years of his life.  He had few real life-long friends.  And as with people, when he was done with a place, he moved on.  The Northern Michigan about which he wrote so passionately in his early years, which was so formative of his character, he visited just once after leaving at age 22.  From about that age as well until his death he returned to his hometown of Oak Park/Chicago only a handful of times.  When he left Key West after living there for about 10 years, he rarely returned.  His youngest son once said that Hemingway would swallow and use up places, then be done with them.  He was like that with a lot of people as well.

·        Yet he could be remarkable kind and thoughtful, sometimes to people he hardly knew.  One poignant example stands out to me:  the two touching, well-crafted letters he wrote to old Paris friends Gerald and Sara Murphy on the deaths of their two teenaged sons, one from meningitis and one from tuberculosis just a few years apart, reveal an extraordinary kindness.  The boy with TB was sick for some years, and Hemingway went out of his way to visit him, and he wrote the boy letters as well.  For recondite reasons that will be grist for generations of psychologists to come, by the tender age of 32 Hemingway was calling women not much younger than himself  “daughter,” and not long after that chose for himself the nickname “Papa.”  Imagine, say, being 40 years old and calling your 35 year-old friend Ernest Hemingway “Papa.”

·       He was a disciplined writer (and a voracious reader).  Hemingway could write anywhere; in hotel rooms, on trains, on boats.  He had to, for he was often away from his home base for many months at a time.  In 1929-1930 at one stretch he was away from Key West for 10 months, staying from days to months at a variety of locations in Europe and the States.  He was very focused on word counts – he continually mentions them in letters, often also noting how many pages he threw away.  His well-documented writing experience reveals that for him as for many great writers it was as much perspiration as inspiration. 

·       To say Hemingway was accident-prone would be an understatement.  Throughout his life, a progression of serious injuries caused by alcohol, recklessness, and just plain bad luck (such as the two airplane crashes in Africa in the early 1950s), including a staggering number of concussions, left him physically and mentally compromised by his mid-50s.  That he was a prodigious drinker and amateur boxer surely didn’t help his health any.  The courses of experimental electroshock treatments he received at the Mayo Clinic seem especially misguided and likely contributed to his mental deterioration in the months before his suicide.

Hemingway was an exciting man, a magnetic man, with great virtues and great faults.  Even if he had never written a word, it would not have been surprising if stories were written about him, he was that kind of man. 

R Balsamo

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Guess That Political Party Game – Daily Mail Edition

The ever-popular Guess That Political Party Game is back, where contestants try to name the political party of a disgraced, embarrassed, or convicted politician when his or her political party is not named in a media headline or article.  So far, everyone guessing "Democrat" has been right 99.9999% of the time!

Below is a screen shot of a part of the Daily Mail's web home page right now, where three stories about politicians are juxtaposed.  First, a "Republican congressman" is caught in a minor kerfuffle about excessive spending to decorate his office.  A problem, yes, but a minor one, and what about all the money the Clintons have spent decorating?  Not a word.  Then there's a story about "GOP" politicians "rushing to condemn."  All that intemperate rushing to judgment hotheadedness.  In both headlines, the political party is the first thing mentioned.

But then comes the really big story about the man who just resigned as the governor of Oregon after being caught up in a corruption scandal with an FBI criminal investigation heating up.  Looks like he's destroying evidence!  He's "disgraced."  Now here's something meaty!  But hmmmm, of just what political party is he a member?   No mention in the large headline, or in the caption to the photo.  One clicks through to the article.  No mention in the five point summary of the report.  One reads through the article, down past all the photos and ads.  Finally, there at the very end the "disgraced" ex-governor's political party is mentioned at last – though in an oblique way at that. 

OK now – Guess That Political Party!

It's obvious the lie that's going on here.  The Daily Mail knows that by placing the big story of the corrupt unnamed Democrat just below two negative headlines about named Republicans, it creates the impression for inattentive readers that the third story is about a Republican as well.  The Daily Mail also knows that few people will click through to start reading the article, and that even fewer will read all the way to the end where the corrupt politician's political party is finally mentioned.  By mentioning the Democrat party only at the very end, the Daily Mail can try to deflect accusations of political bias by stating that it did indeed mention the Democrat party of the politician, but by placing the mention at the very end it ensures few readers of the original headline will ever know the truth.

R Balsamo

Monday, February 16, 2015

What a Week That Was

Coming across the transom recently:

Where’s that heat just when we need it?  The fiddling with temperature data to make today look warm is the biggest science scandal ever (link; link).  More on the global warming religious movement (link).

Now just what was so bad again?  Ed Driscoll on the liberal media coming to the defense of the Brian Williams's lying at NBC News (link).

As Mark Steyn says, the future belongs to those who show up:  Italian birth rate lowest in 150 years (link).

Don’t let facts get in the way of a good hit piece:  the New York Times publishes a hit piece on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker saying he's responsible for budget cuts that occurred before he was governor (link).

So what else is new?:  Some British-hating Brits condemn their own country for the bombing of the German city of Dresden in WWII, one saying Brits were worse than the Nazis, while ignoring the massive and lengthy German bombing of Britain, to say nothing of the death camps where many millions were killed (link).

Irony Alert:  a painter of "Coexist" signs in public places was beaten by some Muslims, who apparently do not wish to coexist (link). 

Obama chokes on saying “Muslim terrorist”:  Even though the Muslim terrorists who attacked the Jewish deli in Paris said they did so because it was Jewish, Obama and his people refuse to admit that Jews were specifically targeted in the attack (link).

She chose her friends ...... poorly:  Omitted from almost all news reports is the inconvenient truth that the American girl kidnapped by the Islamic state, who was then sold as a sex slave and who later died in captivity, was a pro-Hamas-terrorist, anti-Jewish, pro-Palestinian activist whose boyfriend was Palestinian (link).   

Not a moment to lose:  David Goldman argues that Europe needs to address the Islamic terrorist swamp by making Muslims fear the state more than they fear the radicals among them (link):

Update from the Dark Ages:  The Islamic State beheads 21 Egyptian Christians specifically because they were Christian (link), yet the American President Obama of the Democrats, once a Muslim himself, calls the victims “innocents” but doesn’t mention they were killed for being Christian.  He probably thinks of it as "workplace violence," which is what he called the Ft Hood mass killing by a Muslim who had a long history of radical Islamic hate and who shouted “God is Great” in Arabic as he was shooting.

Can’t We Still Pretend It Doesn't Exist?:  A post (link) from the great Mark Steyn on the Muslim jihad in Denmark and the usual weak European response.

You can't say that!:  Roger Kimball (link) on how Swedes deny the Muslim rape culture in their country by legally suppressing any acknowledgment of it.  “George Orwell once observed that the only way to challenge totalitarianism was by having the courage to call things by their real names.  Political correctness is so dangerous because it is based on a lie and it promulgates itself by enforcing a lie on the rest of us.”  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tosca at the Lyric Opera

Original Poster
The Lyric Opera of Chicago is now running a new production of Puccini’s Tosca, and I was fortunate to take it in the other day.  This opera has some beautiful melodies, and its first act is wonderful.  But as the story moves on the gruesomeness of its plot is revealed.  Torture, extortion for sexual favors, murder, a hanging corpse, an execution, and a suicide are all brought starkly before us.  Talk about verismo opera.  And this production’s austere set adds to the gloominess and to boot uses costumes from much later in time than the original – extra touches from a director thinking he’s improved on Puccini.

As opera plots go, this one is simple.  All the action takes place in a 24 hour period in Rome in the year 1800.  The painter Cavaradossi stumbles upon an old revolutionary comrade on the run from a jailbreak and helps him with food and a good hiding place.  But the ruthless police chief Scarpia appears and finds reason to suspect Cavaradossi of just that.  Although the painter denies all, Scarpia proceeds to torture him to see if he’s lying, and forces his inamorata Tosca, a singer, to listen.  Scarpia is clearly obsessed with Tosca – he proclaims in the Te Deum scene of the first act “Tosca, you make me forget God” – and uses her relationship with Cavaradossi to attempt a two-fer – get the information he wants and possess her as well.  When Tosca can no longer stand her lover’s screams, she reveals the truth to Scarpia.  Since she confirms that Cavaradossi has in fact aided a political enemy of the state, it is not at all clear what Tosca thinks the happy ending could be for her lover (and herself as well).  Well, it is usually a capital error to expect much logic from opera characters, so strike that thought.  Nevertheless, Tosca seems to work out a solution, and through double double-crosses the opera moves on to its dramatic conclusion.     

In program notes, the director writes that “the central message of Tosca [is] the clash between corrupt authority and the freedom of the artist....  A painter and a singer have dedicated themselves to the creation of beauty and art, but they find themselves fighting for their moral survival because of a political situation over which they have no control....”  Well, I think I understand the conceit to see artists as suffering for their art, but actually the painter is tortured because he is suspected, correctly, of hiding an escaped prisoner seen as revolutionary by the current regime (technically the Kingdom of Sicily, and soon to be, when joined by the actual island, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies).  Cavaradossi could have been a shoemaker and he would have been treated all the same.  One does not endorse his behavior in recognizing that Scarpia is not an art critic. 

Cover of the Original 1899 Libretto
It is Tosca’s music that is worth the price of admission.  Notably, there are three wonderful arias, a marvelous, emotionally fluctuating first act duet between the doomed lovers, and the powerful Te Deum first act finale.  The three lead characters are most of the show, and the performers I saw were a pleasure.  Music critic Jay Nordlinger once wrote that “the role of Tosca requires a soprano to be coquettish and tender, imperious and scalding.”  Russian soprano Tatiana Serjan was all that – a great actress with a great voice.  And she can play a scene for a comedic effect as when she commands Cavaradossi to change the eye color of the woman in his unfinished portrait from “azzurra” to the brown of her own.  The Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Baron Scarpia and particularly the American tenor Brian Jagde as Mario Cavaradossi were solid in their roles. 

In the Lyric Opera Companion, Stephanie von Buchau writes that "the most memorable slur cast on opera ... is Professor Joseph Kerman's celebrated dismissal: Tosca, that shabby little shocker."  But, she writes, "Tosca, like all of Puccini's mature operas, consists of more than just a series of caloric tunes draped over a lurid story line in dubious taste.  Puccini was an artisan, and however you rate his inspiration, you have to rate his craftsmanship very near the top of the list." No argument here, but in Tosca we the audience do not develop quite the same emotional attachment to Tosca as we do, for example, with Mimi in Boheme or Cho-Cho-San in Butterfly

Filled with beautiful music however brutal the plot, Tosca is one of the most performed operas in the world.  Just among Puccini operas, it is more often performed than Butterfly, Turandot, and all the others save Boheme.  In the index to Opera – the Extravagant Art, Herbert Lindenberger's wide-ranging treatise on opera, there are about as many citations to Tosca as there are to all other Puccini operas combined.  Perhaps it is as simple as opera being mostly about the music.

Tosca has been a favorite at Lyric Opera.  It was featured in the company’s first season in 1954, although it may have been performed in the city earlier as there had been previous opera companies.  That first production featured Eleanor Steber as Tosca, Giuseppe Di Stefano as Cavaradossi, and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia.  Two years later Tosca was back, this time with Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Bjoerling, and Gobbi again.  In the Lyric’s first 25 seasons, Tosca was featured in 10 of them with Gobbi as Scarpia in eight.  In 1976 there was a newcomer to the role of Cavaradossi at the Lyric – Luciano Pavarotti, whose "favorite tenor and idol," according to his Wikipedia entry, was the Lyric's very first in that role, Giuseppe Di Stefano.  

 R Balsamo

Some related posts:
Il Trovatore at the Lyric Opera
The Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, 2014
La Boheme at the Lyric
Aida at the Lyric
Show Boat at the Lyric Opera

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

NBC News Comes Clean About 10-Year Lie. Oops.

Brian Williams, the long-time lead news anchor at the liberal NBC News and the face of its news operation, today admitted that since 2003 he has been telling an untruth about being shot down in a helicopter during the American invasion of Iraq.  Instead of being shot down, his helicopter landed safely one hour after the fighting was over.  Williams has been under pressure from army veterans who were there and have known the truth all along.

Williams was not the only NBC employee on that assignment, so many more have been involved in perpetrating this lie.  This "false story," as the liberal site Politico describes it, has been touted for over 10 years by NBC and Williams as evidence of the network's heroic news people who will go anywhere for a story.  Politico reports:  'Williams has told the story several times, including during a 2013 appearance on "The Late Show" with David Letterman.  "Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47... we were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots," he told Letterman. "We landed very quickly and hard, and we were stuck, four birds in the middle of the desert. And we were north out ahead of the other Americans." '

Williams claims to be puzzled about how he could have mixed up landing safely and quietly with being shot down by gunfire, but vows to get to the bottom of the mystery.  In addition, Williams, who for decades has also been claiming he is an objective journalist, insists that this story is the only thing he has made up, ever, honest.  Double honest. 

R Balsamo

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Descent Into Farce – Obama Sends the French a Song and a Hug To Help Fight Muslim Terrorism

John Kerry
When I saw the headline and read the first paragraph I was sure it was a spoof.  How ridiculously funny!  What clever satire!  Then that sinking feeling set in.  It was real. 

After being blasted by even ultraliberals for not sending a senior American official to the recent Paris anti-Islamic terror rally, Obama sent his buffoonish Secretary of State John Kerry to help bolster the French morale.  France needs a new backbone and a division of Marines.  So what were brought to Paris by Kerry of the Democrats, who made a name for himself during the Vietnam War by sonorously accusing American soldiers of widespread war crimes just before jetting off to Europe to meet surreptitiously with the enemy?

Well, we’ve heard about strong power, and during the Obama years about soft power, and now there’s song power.  Kerry offered a song and then gave a hug to the socialist French President Hollande.  A song and a hug.  They’re sure to help defeat Muslim fanaticism.

Osama bin Laden is said to have remarked that when people see a strong horse (presumably Islam) and a weak horse (that would be Western Culture), they are naturally drawn to the former.  I agree in principle though not in reference.  Well, now Obama has introduced a third choice – the gelded horse.  Gelded horse power. 

Well, was the song at least as rousing to the spirit as the French anthem La Marseillaise?  A song that would finally buck them up for the long struggle ahead against fanatical Muslim murderers?  Nope.  He brought in the old American liberal icon of touchy-feely treacle, James Taylor, to sing “You’ve Got a Friend,” a sappy song much loved by 13 year-old girls and saccharine enough to induce a diabetic coma.  And that hug.  As a teenage girl would say – awkward!   Word is that Obama’s first choices were Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Beyonce, but they were booked, so he sent Kerry and Taylor instead.  I imagine the French muttering to themselves at this insulting display like the French police inspector in an old Inspector Clouseau movie – “I-di-ots, i-di-ots!”

A sappy song and a cringe-inducing hug.  How embarrassing and pathetic.  The Obama presidency has descended into absolute farce, not that it had far to fall. 

R Balsamo

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Western Muslim Mania

My thoughts continue to drift to the problem Western civilization faces with Islam, one very much on my mind since the recent mass murders in Paris by a gang of Muslim fanatics at a magazine office and a Jewish shop.

Muslim fanatics for some time have been instigating conflict throughout this world, and Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths have been on the receiving end.  Some in the Muslim world and their apologists in the West blame the existence of Israel, but as many have said, if Israel didn’t exist as an excuse to incite their followers, Muslim rabble rousers would need to invent it.  I doubt the Muslim murdering terrorists in the Philippines or in East Timor or in India really care much about the fate of the Palestinians, whom their own Muslim neighbors seem to barely tolerate and prefer to keep segregated on Israel’s doorstep. 

Lately it seems that the more some Muslim troublemakers act up, the more some Western leaders trip over themselves to embrace and promote Islam.  Merkel, the leader of Germany, stridently marches arm and arm with the terrorist-sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood in a pro-Islam rally, and proclaims "Islam belongs to Germany."  Duke University in the United States just this week announces it will loudly broadcast across its campus the Muslim call to prayer from the tower of its, apparently former, Christian chapel.  The American politician Pelosi of the Democrats gleefully declares she will appoint a Muslim congressman, one of two now, to a Democrat party seat on the House Intelligence Committee of the United States Congress, despite his disturbing view on Islam in the West.  And the American president Obama and his disciples doggedly persist in denying the impulse to violent jihad within Islam, risibly asserting that it doesn’t exist and that any violence committed in the name of that faith is a misinterpretation of it; although they deny being Muslims themselves they assert their power to determine who is and who is not a Muslim, rather than leaving that theological point to those of the Muslim faith themselves.            

Winston Churchill said over one hundred years ago that although individual Muslims may show splendid qualities there is no stronger retrograde force in the world than Islam.  Its subjugation of women, promotion of violent jihad, killing of apostates and homosexuals, and rejection of any separation between church and state are some of its major flaws that desperately need to be changed.  As far as I can see, Western leaders are not asking Muslims to examine and reform their faith but rather are celebrating Islam the way it is now.  This simply astonishes me. 

R Balsamo