‘Former People’

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Former People: The Final Days of the Russian AristocracyFormer People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Recommended, mostly.

The thing you learn/are reminded of is that Russia was regularly convulsed by violence and insurrection in the decades before, you know, John Reed goes plotz with proletarian delight. This cycle of destruction and death is both backdrop and thread in “Former People,” giving gruesome context to the Bolshevik takeover and propelling countless landlords on midnight flights for their lives.

Particularly compelling are the galleries of photographs that rib the book; these flip past as a kind of tragic stop-motion animation, depicting the steep falls of lordly families in ways that words can’t describe. The despair in the faces is not unlike those mug shots of meth users that can be found on the Internet.

The Times saw in the “evocative photographs of counts and princesses” an eerie echo of Russia’s new, gilded wealth. The Telegraph found “admiration at the victims’ courage,” trudging to poverty or worse in deep snow. I was struck by a different, slightly sour note.

By concentrating on them Smith perhaps gives the unintended impression that the quality of their suffering was unique.

via Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith – review | Books | The Observer.

(Wow. For once, a reviewer and I see eye to eye.)

Books, of course, have their focus, but because “Former People” is possessed with a pop-history quality — lots of breezy anecdotes, plenty of fudging about dates — its focus at times rang melodramatic. The Russian nobility never merely fled their stately homes, they did so with stoic determination, often with a well-bred blend of cleverness and elan. Which perhaps they did. But there are lots of excerpts from personal letters, and consequently lots of wistfulness for the good old days — which, it is worth remembering, were pretty terrible for nearly everyone else.

What the author does is perform a creditable job in illuminating the related outrages against the aristocracy, which have been relegated to sideshow status in the intervening years. “Former People” makes a readable companion to a history on the Russian revolution, and unlike most history books written today, neatly caps a glaring hole in the record. Just don’t be surprised if you roll your eyes now and then.

Showing Up Really Is Half the Battle

04-02416 Francois Coli and French Air Service ...

Francois Coli, with Charles Nungesser (Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives)

“Nungesser and Coli have succeeded,” declared La Presse, going so far as to detail their sea landing in New York Harbor and the “cheers that rose up from the ships that surrounded them.” Those heady first reports proved false. Charles Nungesser, a daredevil aristocrat and top French flying ace, and François Coli, a one-eyed mariner and former infantryman, had not arrived in New York. Their hulking single-engine biplane, L’Oiseau Blanc, or The White Bird, was never recovered.

via Resuming the Search for a Pioneering Plane Off a Remote Island – NYTimes.com.

The Times had a thing today about how some beret-wearing cheese sucker is sure he’s figured out what happened to the famous French aviators Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli.

Wuh… Who?

Excuse me, but I had never heard of them. (Which isn’t saying much, I know.)

The Times article seems to agree with me in spirit. No matter how famous Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli were, it seems they’re well forgotten now. I mean, check out the list of best guesses as to what happened to them: “The Frenchmen were thought to have gone down in the English Channel, or perhaps over the Atlantic, or somewhere between Newfoundland and Maine.” Some nuts think the United States Coast Guard shot the plane down.

In other words, no one has made any headway in solving what Times referred to as “one of aviation’s great mysteries.” No one, it seems, has even been trying very hard.

I don’t know how many people near the Channel said they heard an airplane, but supposedly nine witnesses in Newfoundland and four on the ought-to-be-part-of-Canada French island of St. Pierre said they did on the night the men disappeared. That’s 13 people (13!) who said they heard an airplane. If that many people said they had heard Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli strangle their cleaning lady, the two guys would have died in Sing Sing.

This was in 1927, mind you. There weren’t exactly airplanes flying all over the place.

Charles Lindbergh, with Spirit of St. Louis in...

Charles Lindbergh, with Spirit of St. Louis in background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, Mr. Nungesser, whom The Times calls “a daredevil aristocrat,” and Mr. Coli, “a one-eyed mariner,” were vying for the Orteig Prize, which promised $25,000 to anyone who could complete a nonstop flight between Paris to New York.

Unfortunately, they “vanished ‘like midnight ghosts,’ wrote Charles Lindbergh,” according to The Times, probably not without a self-satisfied smirk. Thirteen days after the Frenchmen disappeared, Mr. Lindbergh would claim the Orteig for himself and set off an ill-fated and ungainly arc of celebrity.

Anyway, according to The Times, our present-day aviation sleuth is Bernard Decré, who explains his interest in the mystery by saying, “We just want to recognize that they accomplished a fantastic crossing.”

Yes. He really said that.

I wonder if Mr. Nungesser and Mr. Coli, who were planning a water landing in New York anyway, would have agreed.

In the Waiting Room for the Ear Hole of God (James Turrell)

10:06 PM Samantha
They had that bamboo exhibit there, last year, maybe? Did you get to that?
10:07 PM John
No.
10:07 PM Samantha
It was cool to be under the bamboo and then look out at the skyline.
10:08 PM John
You always did love bamboo. You are like a panda bear. Love the bamboo.
10:08 PM Samantha
What’s not to love about the bamboo.
10:08 PM John
I know, right? You love it. …You ought to know. Panda Sam, we say.
10:08 PM Samantha
Also, as I found out [deleted], makes a great walking stick on a hike!
…Um, we are not calling me that, dear.
10:08 PM John
Yup. So useful. We say, There goes Panda Sam. Maybe she will spear some of that trash with her bamboo walking stick.
10:10 PM Samantha
Come on.
10:11 PM John
Panda Sam, Panda Sam, walking along as best she can.
10:11 PM Samantha
Proud of yourself for that one, aren’t you, dear?

I was at the Met the other day. For what, people usually ask. For lots of things, I would have said this time. There was an exhibit of Civil War photography; a small show of paintings by the Swiss checkerboard expressionist Paul Klee; a noxious cage of catwalks adorned with punk fashion and a mockup of the bathroom (see below) at CBGB; the European galleries are all new, of course; and there was lots else besides.

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The highlight, though — excluding the new sunlighted maze of European paintings — was a haunting ancient bronze of a boxer that is crouched in Gallery 153 of the Greek and Roman Art department. (Left and down the hall as you come in the front door.) I did not even know it was there. The figure is expressive and haunting. The face is fantastic, with wounded eyes, and cuts and scars inlaid with copper.

It is called something like Boxer at Rest, or Boxer Wondering Who Said That, or Boxer Who Is, All, What Do You Want?! Or something. And it was found in Rome in 1885. The shovelers guess that it was buried on purpose in the fifth century, probably at the behest of some toga-wearing alarmist who was worried the barbarians were (again) just over the hill. (To be fair, they were.) The thinking is, it could maybe be a monument to an actual boxer, but it might just be a tribute to boxers in general. Or, you know, some whole other thing.

Who can say with art?

I say “who can say with art?” because moments after leaving this centuries-old marvel I went into the Guggenheim, the interior of which is now plugged by “an immense, elliptical, nearly hallucinatory play of light and color,” to quote the fairly breathless Roberta Smith of The Times. I might have said, “an immense, multicolored eustachian tube,” but, you know, who can say with art?

Ms. Smith led her review with a remark that was misquoted to me as her representing the Guggenheim’s show as being the “art hit of the summer.” In fact, Ms. Smith had qualified her praise, saying that it was “the bliss-out environmental art hit of the summer.”

I suppose the distinction is important; certainly, it is worth making.

The Guggenheim show features the art of James Turrell, one of the great unwashed, far-out hippies of our time. Now 70, Mr. Turrell was the chief explicator of bemusement and first-chair bongo-drum thumper for something that art majors like to call the Light and Space movement. The large aural canal now taking up the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda is known as “Aten Reign,” and according to The Times it is the “largest temporary installation” “the museum has ever undertaken.” What it is is a tiered vertical tunnel of light, suspended over the viewer’s head, that changes color steadily in one-hour cycles. It definitely is big, and definitely is something to see. Though perhaps not at the higher-than-it-used-to-be Guggenheim admission price of $22.

…you may or may not see God, but you will probably come away with both an enhanced sense of your visual powers and also a new humbleness concerning the world’s visual complexities.

via James Turrell Plays With Color at the Guggenheim – NYTimes.com.

I don’t read many art reviews outside The Times, but I am guessing it is safe to say that most art critics do not casually toss around the phrase “you may or may not see God.” Never mind the obvious and nettlesome theological problems, you may want to swing by the Gugg if only to see what drove Ms. Smith to such heavenly heights of hyperbole.

Of course, the giant centerpiece is only the first stop on a “spare, unhurried tour of his art,” as Ms. Smith helpfully notes. Upstairs — the great Guggenheim ramp is for this show unadorned by other art — there are three smaller displays of Turrell’s work. The first you come to in your sensory-thrill-seeking tramp is literally a slice taken out of the wall. Ms. Smith calls this “a shaft of astoundingly mysterious white light.” I literally thought it was a window.

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The CBGB toilet; I was not supposed to take this picture.

Second are three related rooms. In the first  are illuminated sketches of illuminated rectangles. Next door are life-size examples: dark rooms with a shaft of intense white light in one corner.

And for the finale, which was reached only after a half-hour wait in a long, unevenly managed line, was something called “Iltar.” This is a rectangular hole in the wall, which is dimly illuminated from the sides. Ms. Smith was captivated. She called it “a surprise ending.” She saw mystery, simplicity and “granular textures that almost start to teem.” In that dark room, at the end of a tedious queue of jangled tourists, Ms. Smith found “a quiet renunciation of Mr. Turrell’s centerpiece.

“You may not care,” she writes, “but it is there.”

I didn’t care when I got “there.” Following me into the room were the blue cellphone spotlights of several blundering museum-goers, who had apparently spent the balance of their visit in blissful ignorance of what “light” does to “space.” I stood in front of the cutout and quietly began a renunciation of my own.

The sour feeling did not fully dissipate until I had a bowl of vanilla frozen yogurt (with blueberries) once I got outside the museum.

The ‘Allegorical Potential’ of My Slapping My Own Forehead

…Mr. Forster’s film represents a careful step backward. It does not expand the tonal range of zombie fantasy, like Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” or Colson Whitehead’s novel “Zone One.” Nor does it exploit the allegorical potential of a world overrun by flesh-craving, half-decayed former people…

via ‘World War Z’ Stars Brad Pitt Battling Zombies – NYTimes.com.

A. O. Scott of The Times made me spit coffee this morning with his belief that there is a vast, untapped reservoir of “allegorical potential” in the zombie genre. To be fair, he took the readers in hand by writing, “in the manner of ‘The Walking Dead.’” But it says here that “Dead” only exploits that potential insofar as it is hours longer than any zombie movie ever made. Even flat drawings gain depth if you scribble on them enough.

I haven’t seen “World War Z” (no spoilers here), and I won’t go into my oft-stated belief that the hazards of a zombie pandemic are vastly overblown. (But they are.) I do wonder at the suggestion by a seemingly serious/sensible person that the zombie movie hasn’t yet been done right — because I don’t think it’s possible. These movies are about exploding heads and splashes of gore, and fear of the unknown. (In the case of “Z,” I think you have to add, because of the zombies’ apparent behavior, fear of insects.) If you tried to build a solid enough foundation for a bona fide allegory to perch on, most of the movie-going public would skip to the next theater to see something with Iron Man in it. (The odds are pretty good he’ll show up somewhere.)

Can American film makers do better? Certainly in my imagination there exists a dynamic, zombie-inhabited world ripe with potential. (Ha, ha; get it?) But I am just a guy at the place. And, I mean, even the Chinese are starting to shun our movies.

I don’t know. Maybe the French can come up with something, a la “Amour,” though even then I’ll just be looking at the screen, saying to myself, “What an amazing apartment!”

The Strange Death of Lulu Bailey, Part 2

We have here been examining the strange death in 1914 of Lulu Bailey of Hempstead, N.Y.

“The centre of every gaze,” began the report in The Times on July 4, “in a crowd that packed the courtroom of Coroner Corodon Norton” was on Florence Carman, the wife of Dr. Edwin Carman. It was in his home office, of course, that Mrs. Bailey met her untimely end on an otherwise pleasant summer evening a few days before.

The Bailey murder had become the talk of the town. Wild rumors about the shooting, about Dr. Carman’s illicit love life, about a mysterious “woman in white,” about even the internal organs of the deceased, were in constant motion around town. By the time the coroner called to order his inquest, the airless courtroom — its only window was kept shut — was a sultry mob scene of smug cops, mealy reporters and local busybodies. The resulting heat and tension eventually caused Mrs. Carman to go all woozy and led the authorities to start booting folks from the gallery.

Outside in the July sunshine, there were growing rumbles that the police and the coroner had made a hash of the investigation, in part because there was no suspect and the murder weapon had not been found; but mostly because the doctor and most of the authorities were cozy members of the nearby Elks lodge. Mr. Norton’s inquest was supposed to be the first cannon shot across the bow of such discontent.

Dr. Carman at inquest  (LOC)

Dr. Carman at the inquest. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The hearing’s climax came late in the afternoon. A witness, a farmer named George Golder, had told the police he had seen a “woman in white” in the office immediately before the crime. Scuttlebutt was that the mystery woman was, in fact, Mrs. Carman herself. This was a potential blockbuster: She had told the police she was in her room at the time of the shooting, and said several times that she had never seen the victim, “dead or alive.”

The coroner, in a bit of stagecraft worthy of an episode of “Perry Mason,” arranged for Mrs. Carman and her sister to enter the back of the courtroom to see if Mr. Golder could tell Mrs. Carman from a sack of potatoes.

“There was a breathless silence, as the crowd leaned forward to catch the words that should identify the ‘woman in white.’”

Mr. Golder didn’t flinch. He fingered Mrs. Carman without hesitation.

For Mrs. Carman’s part, having apparently been caught in a bold lie, she didn’t flinch either. She left the courtroom without saying a word.
She maintained that cool and collected demeanor all the way to the end.

Through her indictment — which surprised observers because it was for murder. Through countless leads and blind alleys, which reporters trampled one another to follow every day in the papers (including a woman in Buffalo who assured everyone she was the murderer — just before killing herself). Through months spent in the county jail, albeit in special quarters decorated with geegaws from the Carmans’ luxurious home.

Mrs. Carman stayed calm through it all, even after her longtime maid, who had hewed to the family line, finally broke down and told the police that she had seen a determined Mrs. Carman go out the back door moments before the fatal shot. And moments later come back in, declaring, “I shot him!”

Her calm seemed to ooze from every pore, and was trumpeted on every newsstand when the trial began in October.

MRS. CARMAN COOL; TRIAL BEGINS TODAY.

Carman jury  (LOC)

The first trial’s jury. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The whole grim story was recounted in tedious detail, and the jury deadlocked over two days. Finally, jurors told the judge it was no use. They could not agree.

The air seemed to rush out of the courtroom. The prosecutors were ashen. The defendant was stunned. When the judge finally dismissed the jury, Mrs. Carman began to cry. She was acquitted, but “disappointed,” she said.

As you might have guessed, she quickly rallied. While the district attorney dithered, Mrs. Carman posted $25,000 bail and went for a ride in the country. She had a big meal. She received parties of visitors. She resigned her membership in the local suffrage club. And she boldly challenged the authorities to try again.

Even as her husband’s car puttered along the ruts of rural New Jersey, the district attorney obliged her. The husband of the victim, William B. Bailey, told reporters that he and his in-laws would “do anything in our power to convict this woman.”

In May, they reconvened for a morbid reprise.

Perhaps the only time Mrs. Carman ever lost her composure, through lurid accusations, through tedious court hearings, most of all through rumors of her husband’s infidelity, was on the last day of testimony at the second trial.

Prosecutors asked her if she had ever watched her husband through the window Mrs. Bailey had been shot from. Of course, Mrs. Carman had, when she confronted her husband after he kissed a nurse. But in the courtroom, in the crush of a humid spring afternoon, she faltered.

She asked, “Which time?”

The prosecutor pounced. “Did you look twice?” he shouted.

By now, everyone in the room could see that Mrs. Carman was trembling. All day her answers had been clear and sharp. Now she was stammering.

Was she really going to admit that she had done it?

Improbably, she blurted: “Believe me, if I had done it, I would never have gone to the same window!”

For whatever reason, the prosecutor let her up off the mat. Maybe he thought she had said enough. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall. In any case, acquittal, and a robust applause from the courtroom gallery, quickly followed. The jury this time was out for not much more than an hour.

Seven months earlier, Mrs. Carman had been crying in the courtroom. Now she was denying rumors that she planned to make a tour of the vaudeville circuit.

And almost a year and two murder trials later, Long Island was still no closer to understanding the strange death of Lulu Bailey.

The Strange Death of Lulu Bailey, Part 1

Now. Don’t ask me why, but the other day I was clicking in and out of the Times Machine, which I don’t know if that is just for subscribers or what. But never mind that; try to pay attention. I was clicking in and out and reading about the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.

You know, HEIR TO AUSTRIA’S THRONE IS SLAIN, and like that.

The Times article was brief, but accurate, and gave no hint of the paroxysm of global grief to come. Anyway, I click to the next day, and the archduke’s murder is again the lede, this time in a piece discussing the conspiracy, which was headlined SEE SERB PLOT IN ROYAL MURDERS.

I click to the next day, July 1, 1914, and was surprised to see that Europe had already fallen out of the lede. And off the front page. I clicked to the next day and forgot all about the coming conflagration after reading this headline:

DICTOGRAPH PUT
IN MURDER ROOM
BY MRS. CARMAN

…Now that is what I call a brite.

I start to read the article and quickly realize I’ve missed Chapter 1. I click back to July 1, and there it is, in Column 4: WOMAN SHOT DEAD IN DOCTOR’S OFFICE.

Carman House  (LOC)

The Carman house in Freeport. (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

So. To catch you up. It’s 1914. Europe is grimly flexing its muscles for war. Mexico is convulsed by revolution. Theodore Roosevelt is hee-hawing in every auditorium that will open its doors to him. And the lede article in The Times is datelined Freeport, Long Island, and it concerns the murder of one Lulu Bailey, wife of a prosperous hat maker.

And it is a lulu of a tale, too. For the better part of July lurid headlines would appear on the front page of The Times as regular as signposts. All for a crime that no one has ever been punished for.

This is what happened. Mrs. Bailey had gone to home office of Dr. Edwin Carman, one of Freeport’s leading citizens and the owner of one of its most glamorous homes. And the good doctor was horrified to relate that some time after 7 p.m., as he was coming back into the room to see Mrs. Bailey, he heard glass breaking and then a gunshot. Mrs. Bailey sank to the ground. She was shot through the lung, and died almost immediately.

The Times article on July 1 provides a sketch of the crime. Dr. Carman reported seeing a man’s hand and a flash of fire in the window. The window screen, with hinges at the top of the frame, had been propped open. Glass from the window was found on the ground outside. The bullet that killed Mrs. Bailey entered her right shoulder and lodged under her left breast.

Dr. Carman told the police he had never met Mrs. Bailey before. Mrs. Bailey’s husband, William, when reached at his home in Hempstead, was initially skeptical that his wife was even at a doctor’s office.

Now. Obviously, I’ve already spoiled the first surprise, but it gets better.

The lede in The Times on July 2 was the revelation that, just a few hours after the death, the doctor’s wife, Florence, had removed a recording device she had surreptitiously installed in the doctor’s offices. (I know!)

It seems that Mrs. Carman did not trust her husband. In fact, she had told people in the dictograph company’s showroom that she sometimes kept an eye on Dr. Carman through the very window Mrs. Bailey was shot from. But, before you get any ideas, Mrs. Carman said she had been in her bedroom the whole time. She assured the police she had never seen Mrs. Bailey before, “dead or alive.”

Day 3’s article focuses on the search for the murder weapon. But it includes other telling details, the first of which is the obvious embarrassment of the Freeport police. The chief had boasted to reporters that the crime scene, under heavy guard, was being professionally and proficiently processed. Yet Mrs. Carman had had no trouble hauling away a large piece of electronic equipment. Chagrined, the chief brought in reinforcements, and the Carman home, which was daily thronged by rubbernecking yokels, took on the appearance of an armed camp.

Even so, the investigation was perhaps already off the rails. The hounds called in by the police to catch the scent of the killer led officers on a leisurely five-mile stroll, to no avail. The dogs “sat down and licked their paws,” the report in The Times said.

Aggressive news coverage — the correspondent for The Times bragged of having braved “a high fence and two bulldogs” in an attempt to sneak into the Carmans’ home — had forced the authorities to postpone the coroner’s inquest. New details seemed to emerge with each advancing hour. Reporters were obsessing over discrepancies in police statements and larding their reports with criticism, with special venom for the local Elks lodge — of which Dr. Carman, the police chief and the coroner were members. After a particularly snide briefing by the coroner, the report in The Times made clear that he “was not a physician.”

Above it all, there were rumors that private investigators and state authorities were being asked to take over the investigation.

Two witnesses came forward to say they saw a man in a straw hat sprinting from the Carman home immediately after the shot was fired. Another witness said he saw a mysterious “woman in white” in the doctor’s office just before the shooting. A third challenged the doctor’s claim that he speedily called for help.

There was even a bizarre, and incomplete, insinuation about the physical condition of Mrs. Bailey’s body. Apparently, one of the doctors who performed the autopsy at first disagreed in some way with the coroner about the state of the victim’s body. At the inquest, the doctors seemed to have their story straight about the “condition of the organs,” the Times correspondent wrote. “There was nothing divulged as to the rumors which had arisen in this connection.”

What rumors? Whatever they were, they were bad enough that Mrs. Bailey’s elderly mother was moved to address reporters on the subject, but only to say that before her daughter was killed no one had said anything crossways about her. “I always felt that those rumors raised since the shooting were false and slanderous,” the victim’s mother said, “and now the autopsy proves them to be so.” (Did it?!)

And, finally, it was revealed that Mrs. Carman had once confronted Dr. Carman and slapped a woman he was with. When asked about this by a mob of reporters, “Dr. Carman was visibly ill at ease over this question, and sought to curtail the interview immediately,” according to The Times report.

On July 4, the lede headline in The Times was MRS. CARMAN NOW IDENTIFIED AS THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

To be continued.

Last Week’s News: Rage and the Marines

In the spirit of Internet immediacy, here is a review of what I was reading online last week.

  • Gail Collins of The Times brought up the “very specific cry of rage about the way intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life” via ‘The Feminine Mystique’ at 50 – NYTimes.com.
  • This rage will now occasionally be vented against foreign powers after the Pentagon lifted its not-really ban on women in combat. “The groundbreaking decision overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule that restricts women from artillery, armor, infantry and other such combat roles, even though in reality women have found themselves in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan…” via Pentagon Lifting Ban on Women in Combat – NYTimes.com.
  • College football programs are puzzling over why fan interest in the sport is seeming to wane. “What can’t you do in the rain? Text. So they stay inside.” via In era of technological, financial change, has college football peaked? – NCAA Football – CBSSports.com News, Scores, Stats, Schedule and BCS Rankings. It says here they should start with, College football kinda sucks.
  • Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A.’s president, seemed to agree when he called the conduct of the groups investigators “shocking…” via N.C.A.A. Admits Misconduct in Miami Investigation – NYTimes.com.
  • Here is something to think about as you prepare your tax documents. “IER estimated the worth of the government’s oil and gas technically recoverable resources to the economy to be $128 trillion, about 8 times our national debt.” via Institute for Energy Research | Federal Assets Above and Below Ground. It says here, Burn that stuff up now while we can.
  • Speaking of women: “Her old suite was searched and inside an old shoebox they found $247,200 in cash, mostly in $1,000 and $5,000 bills. They thought that was all of it until the following day, when a nurse tunneled a hand up Ida’s dress while she slept and retrieved an oilcloth pocket holding $500,000 in $10,000 bills.” via Everything Was Fake but Her Wealth | Past Imperfect.
  • I honestly did not know haggis was illegal in the United States. Sorry, but I didn’t. And I don’t feel dumb about it either. Many Americans think haggis is an animal, and they’re half right. Of course, I mean to say that real, Scottish-style haggis is illegal; there apparently are all sorts of half-assed (sorry) versions being sloshed out of kitchens whenever your back is turned. But, as they say: “Without the sheep’s lung it’s not authentic.” via BBC News – The offal truth about American haggis.
  • Am I the only one who is starting to think the United States is a super unsafe place to live? Like, “failed state” unsafe. Like, we should just chuck the laws and stuff and start over. I mean, holy crap. What else am I supposed to think when the vice president is giving advice like this: “Guess what? A shotgun will keep you a lot safer…” via Biden Addresses Preppers In Gun Debate | TPMDC.

From your 120 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 5,905 items, clicked 299 items, starred 6 items, and emailed 8 items.

The Baby Boomer Belly Drop

Having lived through a spectacular bull market, boomers now sell off assets to finance retirement, putting pressure on equity prices and denying young workers an easy route to wealth.

via The next crisis: Sponging boomers | The Economist.

The stylebook says, “As allusions to the population surge after World War II — between 1946 and 1964 — baby boom and baby boomer are overused; ration them.” Would that we could ration the boomers themselves.

The bill (hundreds of billions more in benefits than they pay in taxes) is coming due on the so-called boomers, and it is worth asking whether all the fun they had was worth the trouble to come. Following hard on the heels of the Greatest Generation — by the way, Guys, what have you done for us lately? — boomers can be thought of as the Greedy Generation.

In their youth, boomers — many of them, anyway — reveled in putting themselves first, carving an underground of drugs and confused sex out of the prosperous, if bigoted and superficial, America of the 1950s. That me-first attitude was indelible; less than 1 percent of boomers served in the military; about 10 percent of their parents did.

When they stopped smoking pot every day, boomers profited in putting themselves first at the office. But that was a good thing. There were so many them, and that meant more workers — and large numbers of women, too. If they had stopped there, that might have been O.K.

But in their dotage, boomers, still putting themselves first, have become a generational buzz kill that will transform the country for centuries. Like what, for instance?

  • The benefit derived from boomers’ knuckling under to the Man and joining the work force will become a serious liability as those hippies retire. Someone has to pay for their retirement.
  • Of course, the groundbreaking they did by bringing women along with them to work can’t be repeated.
  • Neither can you repeat the revolution in education wrought of the G.I. bill.
  • Boomers aren’t shy about applying political leverage, either, having pushed for lower taxes and generous government benefits for decades. Economists have calculated that “each American born in 1945 can expect nearly $2.2 million in lifetime net transfers from the state.”

But the biggest thing to me is that, unlike boomers who fattened nest eggs with decades of rising equity prices, young workers will be on their own. To add insult to the tax bill, most are surrounded by aging mentors who advise them to buy houses and invest their money in the stock market.

The model of America most older Americans believe is still in place is stuck in low gear. As The Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in August, referring to today’s equity markets, “An entire generation of investors hasn’t made a buck.”

What I would like to see from the self-indulgent boomers who are getting into politics now is fewer rambles about the Constitution (“have you read it?”) and more ideas about how to fix the mess they made.

‘The Profligate Sense of Space Had a Hypnotic Effect’

A hypnotic prairie vista. (Credit: Ken Dewey, Applied Climate Sciences Group,
School of Natural Resources, UNL)

The archives of The Times preserve some of the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) examples of purple-prose reporting by citified pantywaists. They blink their eyes like children at prairie vistas (or vast forests or ice-capped mountain ranges) and carry on like no one has ever seen such a thing before. Pity most of all the humble cornfield, whose stalks have waved mournfully and tirelessly across pockmarked, sun-baked highways at a thousand stump speeches.

Portrait of George Bird Grinnell from Nathanie...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Travel section of today’s Times, ironically, offers a worthy entrant to this dubious Pantheon. The fairly accomplished, we are led to believe, travel writer Tony Perrottet introduces readers to the 19th century environmentalist and adventurer George Bird Grinnell, right, and in a preamble to a glowing review of the sights of rural Nebraska and Kansas provides this hard-to-believe-anyone-would-type-it sentence: “With all the changes in the West over the last 140 years, I wondered if following Grinnell’s route would offer any glimpses of the 1872 frontier.”

With all the changes “over the last 140 years”? Like world wars? Or just interstate highways?

English: Walt Whitman. Library of Congress des...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least Perrottet did not disguise the stereotype, admitting freely that he “was a New Yorker longing for empty horizons and open skies.” The hyperbole and heavy breathing begin immediately, as if following page by page in the Handbook for Parachuting Reporters. Step 1 is to introduce a literary element totally foreign to the locale, in this case a quote from the poet Walt Whitman, left, about prairies: they “fill the esthetic sense fuller.”

Stand in one some day, fill your lungs with a deep, manure-scented breath and you will undoubtedly agree.

Perrottet’s “esthetic” sense is on full, near-hallucinatory display. “Even the modern metropolis of Omaha,” he writes of my hometown, “took me back in time.” He claims to have been stirred at dawn by “the lonely whistle of a freight train,” and then describes a stroll “through the 19th-century warehouses of the Old Market district,” below, which is now less about the 19th century than it is wine bars and so-called gastropubs.

English: Old Market Omaha, Nebraska, summer 2010

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But Perrottet did not come to Nebraska for the Bordeaux ($7.95 a glass) and charcuterie (from $9) at La Buvette. He was eager to point his rental car toward the mystical countryside. “As I was fresh from the East Village,” Perrottet writes, using an adjective and a proper noun that, I assure you, are not often used together, “the profligate sense of space had a hypnotic effect.”

Wait. It gets better:

I wound down the window, smelling “the wild lyrical drizzling air of Nebraska,” as Kerouac rhapsodized in “On the Road.” Under the midday sun the landscape can seem bleached and monotonous, but when the golden dusk catches the sunflowers, the setting is as sublime as Provence.

Provence!

It goes on. (Of course it does.) Perrottet nimbly displays awe and naiveté, as in phrases like “even the remotest towns revealed their passion for history;” “the old bank had been turned into a hotel;” “oceans of undulating grass extend to the horizon;” and “the stroll was eerily idyllic, with butterflies flittering among the bluestem.”

Flittering is what happens to your brain by the end of Perrottet’s journey. I have no doubt he enjoyed it, and undoubtedly there are many places in the Plains that are profoundly beautiful. It has always been thus, but it does not seem to stop big-city clods from being bowled over. (I am talking to you, Theodore Roosevelt!)

However, I can speak from experience that rural Nebraska has almost nothing in the departments of remote towns, undulating grass and 19th-century commercial districts that, say, rural Indiana, or even rural New York State, does not. You can call it a “passion for history,” but really that is a desperation for tourist dollars. And the only thing lonelier than the whistle of a freight train is going to be the Perrottet-inspired traveler who has not fully grasped that the “hypnotic effect” derived from wide-open spaces bleeds inexorably into personal torpor.

God forbid Perrottet ever points his rental car toward the covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa.

To the Public Editor: Good Riddance

…this public editor drove me into private fits of insanity.

via New York Times public editor to leave in September – Erik Wemple – The Washington Post.