What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Historical context. Despite having featured prominently in an Obama Administration read across America event in 2015, Dr. Seuss is now, apparently, the author of racist content. The guy was born in 1904 and did his most prominent work in the mid 20th century. Expecting that his writing would reflect whatever ultra-woke orthodoxy is in vogue here in the 21st century is patently ridiculous. If we’re going to judge every writer who ever put ink on paper by modern standards, the allowed reading list is going to be awfully restricted. If your goal is to only allow approved, untroublesome content that supports your philosophical notion of how the world ought to be on your shelves, I suppose it’s a good position to stake out. Personally, I’ll go ahead and keep a wider range of books on my shelves. Then again, I’m not the kind of guy who’s afraid of a little historical context seeping in around the margins. Being shocked that people are products of their times and don’t exist in accordance with contemporary beliefs would be adorable if it weren’t so incredibly dumb.

2. The US House of Representatives. The House is closed for business today because of the threat of a follow-on insurrectionist attack. That sends exactly the wrong message. It speaks to fear and intimidation – that the rebels of January 6th were at least partially successful. Holding up the business of the republic out of fear of common rabble is nothing more than a missed opportunity. Better keep on, draw them near, and then crush them utterly. 

3. Taxes. I got my prepared tax return back from the accountant’s office this week. Seeing the gory details all there in black and white is just about enough to make me gag. As my favorite for instance, in 2017 the top 50% of income earners in this country paid 96.9% of all income taxes (with the evil 1% paying 38.5% of all income taxes collected). We’re not just taxed on income, of course. Individuals also face payroll tax, capital gains tax, property tax, a whole universe of excise taxes, and more. You’ll never convince me that the problem is that we’re not being taxed enough in this country. We’ve got a veritable orgy of spending that’s been getting worse regardless of what party holds the whip hand, but as long as votes can be bought with dollars from the treasury, I can’t imagine ever getting it under anything approaching control.  

Evolution…

Bernard Cornwell writes what are arguable the best battle scenes ever put on paper. The man is also prolific, having written dozens of books across multiple series. He’s been one of my favorite historical fiction authors for years.

I’ve successful completed my set of his Saxon Stories, Starbuck Chronicles, and Grail Quest series. I’m nearly there with the Warlord Chronicles, his five standalone nautical thrillers, and one-off novels. 

Assembling the complete Sharpe series, though, continues to be like chasing the white whale. Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to scrounge many of the newer titles in decent condition and at more than reasonable prices. I’ve been spoiled by being in striking distance of so many tremendous used book sellers.

I’m down to the last seven books of the 22-book series to make the set… and it seems that I’ve reached a point in acquiring Sharpe editions that I’m going to have to spend some real money. 

The American firsts in “collectable” condition range from $100-$125. The British firsts are a bit more. But if you’re already pushing towards $150, what’s a few dollars more to have the proper first editions, right? Right.

I have a couple of hundred feet of shelf space fill with books, all things I want to read, brought home for less than $5. Many of those were really no more than a buck or two. In the book space I occupy, $150 or $200 can buy a hell of a lot of good reading material. Alternately, it can bring you a pristine, “as new,” not price clipped or remaindered perfect specimen. 

I could round out my Sharpe collection with perfectly good paperback copies for a few dollars. It’s already a bastard marriage of UK and American first editions that would horrify a proper collector, but the paperbacks add a gap toothed look on the shelf that, to me, is visually unappealing. 

In some ways – or at least for some authors – it turns out I’m evolving from a simple acquirer and reader to a minor collector. It feels inevitable that these shelves of mine will increasingly find themselves being home to the fight between being a reader’s library and a proper book collection.

I’m not mad about it.

Damnatio…

Two millennia ago in ancient Rome, one of the gravest punishments the Senate was empowered to hand down was the damnatio memoriae – literally damning the memory of a failed leader by erasing them, as completely as possible, from the historical record.

It’s an official forgetting. It’s a bold statement that some people, some actions, are unworthy to even serve as a warning to others. Some people can best serve history by being exiled from it.

I have no idea at all what pulled that little nugget of information to mind this afternoon. Yep. No idea at all. 

Home is a funny place…

I grew up in what many people would describe as “the sticks.” The town where I grew up was so small it didn’t warrant having its own stoplight. You had to drive to the next town down the crick if you wanted to see one of those in action. Most of the towns in the area were so small that for all practical purposes that if a particular service was available in the county, it was considered fairly local.

Once upon a time, the region was a powerhouse of both light and heavy industry. Generations of a family’s men made their living by “going down the mines.” By the time I was a kid, most of that world was dead or dying, though I’m old enough to remember the last of the coal trains rumbling through the center of town to be used out there in the wider world beyond the ridges and valleys of home. Some bits of that life have clung on grimly, but it’s a world gone now for 30 years.

You’d never know it from listening to people, though. Even now, there’s an inexplicable feeling that tomorrow or maybe the next day an enormous, smoke belching factory will spring up along the banks of the Potomac and all will be well again – that the future can be exactly as it was in the past.

I’ve got an expatriate’s love of my home town (of the region, really), even while knowing I’ll likely never do more than visit occasionally. Maybe I see its charms and its flaws a bit more clearly because I’m looking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t lived there in over two decades.

Home is a funny place. 

One of the favorite local sports is bitching that business don’t want to open, or industry has left, or that six other things are fucked up and use to be better… but then immediately bitching and complaining when someone opens a new business or has the audacity to try something different.

The county is getting its first Starbucks. Already people are out of the woodwork bitching that burned coffee, overpriced, unpatriotic, corporate chain Starbucks would dare to open a shop locally. My favorite bit of local-ism is that “Having a Dunkin would be better.” Some of us are old enough to remember when there use to be one of those, too. It went out of business, so maybe it’s not as popular an option as people seem to think.

A few weeks from now, the furor over Starbucks will dry up. Everyone will be back to bitching that they want more stores or restaurant chains. Bring on a Panera or a Chipotle or an Outback. But take my word for it, as soon as one of them announces they’re coming, that business will be awful, their food will be overpriced slop, and we don’t want them here.

You’d be hard pressed to find an area more desperate for new business and economic development… as long as it changes absolutely nothing.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Texas. For a hundred years, the Republican Party celebrated the states as testbeds of democracy – where we could experiment to discover new and innovative solutions to problems the country faced, without defaulting to top-down directives imposed as the One True Way as dictated by the general government in Washington. I have to admit it took a remarkable amount of testicular fortitude for Texas, 18 other states, and in excess of 100 members of the House of Representatives to so publicly abandon that position by attempting to force Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to do whatever Texas thinks they should do. It took a tremendous amount of fortitude and made each and every person associated with trying to bring that case before the Supreme Court look like an absolute fucking idiot. 

2. Tea. The problem with tea is first you have to wait for the water to boil. Then wait again while it steeps. When you need a good caffein charge it feels like it takes something just short of forever. I love a good cuppa, but there’s something to be said for coffee that heats and brews at the same time.

3. Existential crisis. According to the internet “A new survey finds nearly eight in 10 Americans say 2020 caused an existential crisis for the country.” I’d submit that the headline would have been more accurate had it claimed that the survey found that almost 8 in 10 Americans was woefully unaware of their own national history and lacked a fundamental understanding of just how bad historical “bad times” were in comparison to what we face in 2020. Sure, it seems bad in the moment, but that’s mostly because we’re the ones living through it. Ask the same people if they’d like to trade their life in 2020 for an all-expense paid trip to 1918 or 1864 or 1777. There, perhaps, they’d learn the true definition of an “existential crisis.”

Dream sequence…

I pulled my Tundra into one of the three open parking spaces in front of Cambridge Hall, careful not to tap the semi-circular wall where we use to spend inordinate amounts of time sitting around, smoking and joking. It was a good spot. In fair weather the wall was perfect height for lazing about. In foul weather it was low enough to jump so we could hunker down in the lee of the building with enough overhang to stay out of worst of the wind, rain, or snow. Sometimes we were avoiding all three. It’s Frostburg after all and that particular trifecta wasn’t exactly rare. That was the late 1990’s, of course. I’m sure there’s no one smoking or joking there now. Both of those things are probably verboten acts, practically crimes against higher education in the modern era. But it’s my dream, and my memory.

It was dark. I was stopping, sometime during winter, to pick up clean clothes and a dry pair of shoes. The building itself was fully lit, welcoming, but seemed deserted. The lobby was twice the size as the one I walked through every day for four semesters. It was “modernized,” glass and chrome, with six new elevator bays. There was even a first floor lounge helpfully labeled the “Strategy Bar.” I knew it must be a dream, not because of the reconstructed building, but because the university would surely have named it something more exotic even if it was just a bar – perhaps the Gretchen R. Fussbucket Memorial Lounge and Center for Intra-Gender Socio-Economic Cultural Studies and Glassblowing at Cambridge Hall.

*flash forward*

As I exited the elevator (dream me didn’t see the need for a walking tour of 5th floor south side), I noticed two people loitering near the oddly named lounge, not quite out of my eye-line. A guy and a girl. Youngish, probably college age.  They were trying to be discrete, but failing. 

“You’re Jeff,” the guy said. It was more a question than a statement.

I nodded.

“Kate… Kathryn… She said we might meet you here… that you stop by sometimes.” The girl spoke from behind a shield of hair falling over her eyes

“Kate Reilly sent you? To find me?” I was incredulous as they invoked that name from the distant past. They nodded in unison, but didn’t speak.

“It must be important, then. Let’s go.” I pulled my collar up, bracing against the inevitable cold wind outside… and then I was awake.

Some people create wild fantasy worlds in their dreams. Me? Even asleep, I craft my world from the comfortable history of the last century.

It could be a reset, but “great,” not so much…

Over the weekend I read an article predicting that after the plague we’d see increasing population density in cities, people abandoning rural and suburban living, and abandoning the whole idea of home ownership in favor of multi-year leases on “semi-customizable” apartments.

These would be futurists foresee a “great reset” in consumerism and the rise of free public transportation, socialized healthcare, higher taxes across the board supporting more “free” at the point of use services, and generally adoption of ideas I’d generously call “the golden age of socialism.”

Who knows. Maybe the authors are right. Maybe the masses are just sucker enough to give up on capitalism. I’ve rarely been far wrong when I expect the worst from large groups of people in the past and I don’t see any reason that wouldn’t continue to be true in the future.

It’s a change program I’ll fight tooth and nail, of course. The capitalist economy took a kid from down the Crick, let him climb the property ladder, live what in any generation would be consider a good life of providing for myself and all the resident animals, and build a respectable retirement savings along the way.

I could be an outlier, I suppose, as I tend to want the exact opposite of what this particular author calls for in his vision of the utopian social order brought about by a Great Reset. If the plague has taught me anything it’s that I can’t wait to double down on home ownership – although maybe I’ll opt for a little less house next time in favor of a lot more land. Never once during the plague did I find myself wishing I was stuck in a 600 square foot box with minimal access to outdoor space, so I admit I have questions about their logic here. Likewise, I can’t remember a time when I wish there was just a little more bureaucracy in anything I was trying to do. The whole idea feels deeply counterintuitive.

The idea of living asshole to elbow with a thousand other people in some concrete and steel tower is my version of hell. If it works for you, have at it, I guess… though I’d appreciate someone explaining to me why it’s anyone else’s responsibility to fund your deluxe apartment in the sky, though that’s probably fodder for a different blog post.

If they’re right and I really am an outlier, I suppose all it really means is in fifteen years or so there’s going to be a hell of a lot of rural land ready to be bought cheap… assuming the wannabe Marxists haven’t managed to strip away all pretense of private property. The article’s authors were happy to hint around at that particular vision of the future, but lacked the academic fortitude to say it directly.

You’re welcome to your workers’ paradise, but I’ll be over here fighting it every step of the way. Call me old fashioned, but I’m still in the corner of the system I’ve seen working for me over the last 42 years rather than the one that’s brought us such interesting moments in history as the collapse of the Soviet Union, Venezuela’s frittering away of a king’s ransom in petro-dollars, and starvation rations under the panned economy of North Korea.

The news cycle has its priorities, and I have mine…

So… What do you want to talk about today?

The screaming banner headlines on every new site in the western world say the topic is tax returns. Maybe it’s tomorrow’s presidential debate if you read the more subtle, non-72 point font headlines a bit further down the page. Maybe it’s another day to rage about COVID-19, or Russia, or protests turned riot.

Any one of them could, theoretically, be a good enough topic to meet my word quota for today’s post. They’d fill the gap… and my eyes would likely roll completely out of my skull even before I added the final period.

I’m increasingly aware of the limits of my span of control, or at least on those things where I can exert some level of actual influence. If it doesn’t take place wholly within the confines of the woods and lawn of Fortress Jeff, that kind of control is just about non-existent and any pretense of influence is shaky at the very best.

I was first attracted to this phrase years ago when I heard it on the series finale of The Tudors – when an ailing Duke of Suffolk declines to intervene among those jockeying to take advantage of Henry’s quickly approaching death. The duke, in one of his most pragmatic moments says, “I’m not sure if this is any answer, my Lord Hertford, but I’ve always been drawn to a phrase used by the French peasants: ‘Praise the God of all, drink the wine, and let the world be the world.’

I’m not a particularly religious man. My praise and prayers, to the best of my knowledge, have always gone unheeded, so I can’t speak to that bit, but the rest seems to make perfect sense in its simplicity. The older I get, the more I see of people and politics and the world, the more convinced I am of the wisdom of taking care of my own, spending money for the good gin, and letting the rest of the world bugger directly off.

I’m sure that’s not at all what the talking heads want me paying attention to at the moment, but the desires of pols, activists, and news readers plays a more and more insignificant role in setting my agenda these days. It may be a decade or more off yet, but spending my time keeping an eye on large acreage plots coming available and working on my perfect floor plan feel like a far better use of time than anything CNN or Fox could possibly spew in my direction.

The Supremes…

The Supreme Court is getting one of its periodic moments in the sun and I’d be foolish not to take advantage of that built in level of audience engagement to talk about nominations to the high court.

So, here’s the thing about Supreme Court nominations…

Presidents can have a short list of nominees that scratch every itch and check off the right boxes proving their conservative or liberal credentials. The talking heads can know with perfect certainty what the nominee will do once they’re confirmed by the Senate.

The catch is, once a Justice takes the bench, with a lifetime appoint to the last job they’re ever going to have, well, what we think we know means absolutely nothing.

Sandra Day O’Conner was nominated by Ronald Reagan and was supposed to be a vaguely right of center anchor for the Court who became a regular swing vote. Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren as Chief Justice and the Warren Court became one of the most liberal incarnations of the Supreme Court in American history. Harry Blackmun was a Nixon nominee who went on to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.

The story of Supreme Court nominees turned Justices is filled with disappointed presidents who didn’t get what they expected.

I’m not in any way pretending that a nominee’s history of jurisprudence is irrelevant, but I am saying that past is not always prologue. Justices sit on the bench for decades. Expecting their judicial philosophy to remain static over twenty or thirty years is patently ridiculous. How many of your own beliefs have grown, been refined, changed, or moderated over the last twenty years? 

The story of the Supreme Court is filled with men and women on both ideological sides who “grew into” their position at the pinnacle of the Judicial Branch. I can’t imagine why future nominees would be any less “surprising” once they’ve been seated.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Context. “Eisenhower wasn’t a great general because I’ve recently learned he was *very* anti-LGBT.” Uh. Well. He held supreme command in the 1940s. Context is king, people. Expecting a man born in 1890 to somehow embody the all the woke-ist 21st century sensibilities is, in a word, stupid. It’s like saying Charlamagne wasn’t a great commander because he refused to go vegan. 

2. Auto Save. I had a perfectly nice little post mostly written for Tuesday. I was wrapping up a final thought right before the power stuttered just enough to cause my computer to shut down. Historically the Mac auto-saves before it dies, but in this case everything just disappeared into the ether.  It’s the sort of thing generally prevented by the uninterruptible power supply… which also is apparently no longer working. So it’s a bit of a bad week for the home computer set up all around, really.

3. Numbers. Either I’m wrong or the spreadsheet is… and I’m pretty sure it’s not me. Or maybe it is. The real lesson here is that I should never be allowed to do work that involves large columns of numbers without close adult supervision. It very rarely ends well. Although I’ll make sure it at least ends “close,” so there’s that.