Archive for the July 2008 Category


To this old Missouri essayist, it is a cardinal sin to grow older but no wiser. At this moment, there are four or five questions unanswered that are floating through the vacant space in my head. The first question has to do with wine.

In the early 1980s, a lovely saleslady at Svensk Glas sold some wine glasses to me. Her name was Mrs. Martinsson. The wine glasses came with a matching decanter. It is alleged that when wine is poured from the bottle into the decanter, it breathes and has a better bouquet as well as improving the taste. That may or may not be true but in any case, I presented the glasses and the decanter to Judith, my wife, who makes frequent use of them.

My question is a simple straightforward one. When wine is poured out of the bottle into the decanter, it is said that the wine is being “decanted.” From this fact it should be obvious that when the wine bottle is filled, the vintner must say that he is canting the bottles. The fact is that there are a number of meanings of the word “cant” listed in the dictionary. For example, if an object is placed at an angle, it is said to be “canted.” But there is not a single reference to canting the wine before it leaves the vintner. The term for filling the wine bottles at the vintner’s is called “bottling” it. “Canting” seems to have nothing to do with this process.

I have prayed to be relieved of this terrible dilemma but I find myself believing that when the wine is poured from the bottle it is called decanting. Obviously the antonym for decanting is canting. But the English language makes no provision for canting the bottles. They are filled at the vintner and are decanted when the bottle is emptied. The English language, which flows from a Saxon base, makes no provision for this circumstance. Apparently the Saxons either did not drink wine or, if they did, drank it straight from the bottle, much like our current Neanderthals drink beer from long-necked bottles. And so we will leave the decanting question unresolved and turn now to another question unanswered.

I pay my exorbitant real estate taxes to a place called “The Township of Millburn.” I suspect that “townships” were in vogue when Millburn was a town in the colony of New Jersey under the beloved George III.

I have lived in this town for 39 years and have yet to develop any warmth toward its being. To me, Millburn has always been a pass-through town, as distinguished from a place of destination. In the downtown part of Millburn there are two main thoroughfares. Main Street runs north and south, and Millburn Avenue runs east and west. Both are heavily traveled streets with busses, trucks, and automobiles of every description being driven with not much space between the bumpers. At the intersection of Millburn Avenue with Main Street, there is a traffic signal. At that point, Millburn Avenue is a one-way, three-lane street. Two blocks eastward from the Main Street crossing, Millburn Avenue narrows from a three-lane road to two lanes. Motorists leaving the Main Street crossing try to get ahead of through traffic in anticipation of the narrowing of the roadway. This means that engines race, tires skid to get a footing, and fumes abound in every direction.

Several eating establishments are located on Millburn Avenue in the general vicinity of Main Street. At the corner, there is a Starbucks coffee salon, while up the street eastward there is an excellent restaurant called Basilico. For reasons unknown to any civilized human being, both of these establishments have put tables on the sidewalk outside their doors where patrons may dine among the fumes, the honking of horns, and the skidding of tires. When the tables are on the sidewalk, pedestrians are obliged to walk in single file until they pass these tables.

Not being a coffee drinker, I have never patronized Starbucks, where one of the offerings is a $5 cup of coffee. For my money, $5 is an obscene amount to pay for a simple cup of coffee. Basilico, on the other hand, is a sophisticated restaurant where the cuisine is distinguished and elegant. As the trucks and busses leave the Main Street crossing, they inundate the patrons at Starbucks and half a block away they perform the same service for the outdoor patrons of Basilico. In addition, I suspect that the noise the traffic makes at Basilico is so great that a young male lover would have to yell at his sweetheart as to whether they should wind up at his place or hers. As a man of adequate years, I can assure you that this is no way to conduct a love affair, nor is it a decent way to drink a cup of obscenely priced coffee. But patrons of these two establishments seem to have a fascination with outdoor dining. If there is any one who can explain why this condition exists, it would be my pleasure to listen to his circumlocutions. And so another question goes unanswered, with which we now turn to cravats.

Cravats is a fancy word which denotes the use of neckties. Since time immemorial, men have worn a colored piece of cloth under the collar around their necks. When I served my hitch in the American Army during World War II, soldiers were obliged to wear a necktie with the ends being inserted between the second and third buttons of the shirt. This made no real sense at all but was in keeping with the rest of the Army regulations, which were often disconnected from reality.

During my business career, it would have been largely unthinkable to take a man seriously if he appeared in my office and did not wear a necktie. I know that this is silliness in the extreme but those are the facts. If a man had a presentation to make, he would carefully select a necktie that matched his suit. Even today I know of several physicians who when examining the most intimate parts of the human body, do so wearing neckties. If a young man set out to court a young woman, he would wear a necktie lest the young woman’s mother declare him persona non grata.

But now after wearing neckties for hundreds of years, it seems clear that neckties are being abandoned in great droves. Not long ago, when a man bought a new suit, the clothing salesman would hardly let the purchaser out of the premises without showing him the perfect tie to go with the new suit that he had just bought.

If confession is good for the soul, it must be reported that upon my retirement, I had something more than 60 neckties hanging on a rack on the back of one of my closet doors. In this territory, the Vietnam Veterans Association collects used clothing for resale. I donated the ties to the Vietnam Vets, not realizing that they would wonder what to do with them and might marvel at the donor who was so far out of touch.

There was an occasion in the late 1940s, I believe, when Edward, the Prince of Wales, became the man who ascended the English throne. Prince Edward was a bachelor until sometime near his 40th birthday, but one way or another he became entranced with a twice-divorced female who called Baltimore and St. Louis her home towns. Her full name was Wallis Warfield Simpson. My recollection is that the people who ran the newspaper society pages in those two towns considered Mrs. Simpson a part of not-gentile society. Divorce at that time was considered something less than an appropriate thing to do, and Mrs. Simpson had two ex-husbands who were quite alive. In any case, Wallis Warfield Simpson got her arms around Prince Edward, this innocent Englishman, and from that time on he was a goner. But that is not really the point of this story. The point is that Edward had developed a system for tying his cravats in a loose fashion that resulted in what came to be known as “the Windsor knot.” When I returned to civilian life in November of 1945, I began to tie my ties in “the Windsor knot.” People who did not use that method of tying the tie wound up with a much smaller knot at the neck, which was not only hard on the tie but not nearly as attractive as the Windsor knot.

I shouldn’t leave you hanging on the ropes here because you must know that Edward, the former King of England, became so smitten with Mrs. Simpson that he wanted to marry her and make her the queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury was outraged, as was much of the upper class of English society. The outcome was that Edward abdicated the throne and became the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson achieved her life-long desire to become a member of British royalty, as she was called the Duchess of Windsor.

While all of this business about the former King of England may be of some interest to folks who enjoy the antics of royalty, the fact of this matter is that it does nothing to answer why men used to wear ties but in recent years have abandoned them in droves. I suspect that my grandsons would regard neckties as quaint. For myself, I must confess that I believe that I enjoyed wearing neckties, which I purchased for myself here in the United States as well as in several European ports of call. Beyond that, women of my generation knew that a necktie as a gift had just the right combination of a slight bit of affection together with an arms-length attitude which said, “Don’t rush things.” When a man bought a new necktie, he could not wait to wear it, knowing that doing so made him feel better. At least that was true in my case. And so I regret seeing the demise of the cravats or neckties but there is not much I can do about it. If neckties are a thing of the past, such as $2 gasoline, I suppose that we will then all have to accept the inevitable.

The final thought in my unanswered questions has to do with Cubans. For reasons unknown to me, when I could see, I thought that females wearing Cuban heels were very attractive. Women wearing spike heels were to be avoided at all costs. But women with Cuban heels always struck me as fascinating. Now, while we are on the subject of Cuban heels, it naturally follows that castanets should also be considered. My unanswered question is whether any musical composer has produced a solo for castanets. I would also like to know whether there are soprano castanets or tenor castanets or bass castanets. But no one is around to give me that answer.

A final thought about Cuba has to do with why we have maintained an angry posture toward the Cubans for more than half a century. I know that screamers like Jesse Helms and Joe McCarthy grew violent when they were confronted with the thought of a communist state ninety miles off our coast. But the fact is that over the years we have come to do business with real communists who come from Moscow, starting with Joseph Stalin. Then in recent years, our sainted President looked into the eyes of the Communist dictator of Russia and announced that he could see his soul. But that seems to have made no difference to Americans who hate the Cubans, contending that all of them are Communists.

All things considered, I am an admirer of the Cuban people. They are energetic and bright. One of them is a senator from this great state of New Jersey. His name is Menendez. When it comes to being angry, it seems to me that the Cubans have more reason to be angry with the United States than we have to be angry at them. For all these years, the United States has been an occupier of Guantanamo Bay, which is part of the Cuban mainland. As long as we are occupiers in a foreign country, I believe we have very little to complain about to the Cubans.

But nonetheless, my final unanswered question is, “Why are we so angry with the Cubans and why has it lasted so long?” If we can get along with Vladimir Putin, why can’t we get along with Fidel and Raoul Castro? My question goes unanswered. And whatever happened to Cuban heels?

Well, there you have four questions that, as of this writing, are unanswered. It may well be that when my days have run their course, those questions will still remain unanswered. But I have done my duty in bringing those questions from the basement up to the conference room, where they can be debated. I know there may be no answers within my lifetime, but there may be hope. If Wallis Warfield Simpson, the twice-divorced St. Louisan could achieve her life-long ambition and become a member of the British royal family, there is hope that my unanswered questions will soon be answered.

July 9, 2008
Essay 326
Kevin’s commentary: I’m not sure why one would actually want to be part of the royal family in this day and age, but in the words of one Lillie Carr, I guess Ms. Simpson just had to do the best she could.

Pop recently asked me how I classify an essay as a “favorite.” One of the surefire ways to identify a favorite is when I learn something new. I’ve been tying Windsor and double Windsor knots my whole life; and I’ve known who the Windsors are for ages, but I’ve never put two and two together.

Contrary to Pop’s assumption, however, I’d say I wore a necktie at least a third of my weekends in highschool, for debate. Some kids eschewed them in favor of sweater vests, but honestly you really didn’t want to be a sweater vest kid.

As a bonus, I’d never heard the phrase “cuban heel” before. So there’s that.

And finally, as far as Pop’s other questions go, I’m about as far from an expert on coffee or traffic as one could ask for. Instead of answering any of these queries, I’m left with one of my own — why stay in Millburn for so long if you didn’t like it?


I suspect that most of you will recognize that the title of this essay has been lifted from the preamble to the American constitution. My best guess is that it came from the pen of Thomas Jefferson, a gifted writer. This essay is not about politics or governmental affairs. It is about a few items that, if they were ever achieved, would promote the general good and welfare of the American people. Further, they would provide an uplift to the feelings of the American people, which are currently below knee level. Let me give you an example or two of what I have in mind in this essay about making America a more perfect union.

As long as I can remember, I have been an admirer of the end pieces of bread, which are called heels. In our house in Richmond Heights, Missouri, there was a hot air furnace in the basement with pipes leading from the furnace to the various rooms. From time to time in the winter, my mother would knead the dough that would provide us with home-made bread as distinguished from the Wonder Bread which I detested. Once the dough was kneaded, she would place the platter on top of one of the warm pipes and the dough would rise, following which she would bake it. As a child, if I arrived home from school on a cold winter afternoon and found that my mother had baked another loaf of bread, she would cut the end of the loaf off for me, as she knew of my love of heels.

Years later, following the Second World War, the veterans returned to their former jobs. In my case, that was working for the Bell System in
St. Louis. Downtown St. Louis offered all sorts of eating establishments, ranging from the elegant Miss Hulling’s Tea Room to the dozens of saloons that offered food. Four of us returning veterans ate lunch together. They were Tom Laflin, Lloyd Rockamann, Gordon Ginz, and myself. More often than not, we found ourselves eating in the saloons because the service was quick and the food was inexpensive. They did not waste money on such fripperies as napkins and place cloths. In one place that we frequented, I noticed that the sandwich maker would open a loaf of bread and discard the heels. Screwing up my courage as a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States, I asked the sandwich maker if he would prepare my sandwich on two heels. The maker of the sandwiches looked at me as though he questioned my sanity, but in the end he complied with my wishes. From that day forward, he always made my sandwiches between two heels of bread and in the end, my companions were also persuaded to do the same.

As a long-term lover of the heels of bread, I would like to propose to the bread makers of this country that from this day forward, every loaf of bread should contain several heels. If it is possible to bake a loaf of bread having nothing but heels, I would applaud such an effort. For hundreds of years, bakers have produced loaves of bread with only two heels. If they were now to devote their efforts to producing a loaf of bread having heels at every turn, I would kiss their foreheads and the union would become perfect.

As life moves on, those companions, all of whom were veterans of World War II, are now deceased. I miss them.

Twenty-five years ago, before I became a vegetarian, there were times when I was required to participate in eating a roast of beef. From the beginning, I really never cared for meat products. If I were required to eat them, as at a banquet for example, I would hope that the meat provided to me would be as well done as it possibly could be done. Most meat eaters, who prefer their meat in a raw form, would chide me for eating a piece of beef cooked much like a piece of shoe leather.

As a young man growing up in the Midwest, where fish was not always available, it seemed to me that every hostess and mother would strive to provide a roast from time to time, either on Sundays or holidays. I gather that during the Second World War, women would save their ration stamps so that they could provide a roast on special occasions for their families and guests. On such occasions, I fervently hoped the gentleman carving the beef would provide me with an end cut. My recollection is that it is the most well-done part of the roast, with the juicier parts being in the middle. My proposition is very much like the one that I offered having to do with heels of bread. Can American cattlemen and butchers provide people with tastes like my former taste was with roasts having nothing but end cuts?

If I could have been guaranteed that at every dinner I would have been provided with an end cut of beef, it is possible but not likely that I would still be eating meat. But as things now stand, there are only two end cuts on a roast. If there were more end cuts on every roast, I might be tempted to try meat-eating one more time, but I doubt it. So the objective here is to have loaves of bread that provide nothing but heels and roasts that provide nothing but end cuts.

I suspect that there are hundreds of other improvements that might make this a more perfect union. For example, there is the ice maker that comes with many refrigerators. Over the years, we have had several refrigerators that lasted say 15 to 18 years. The ice makers never last more than five or six years. At that point they begin to leak and it is expensive to have them replaced. But that is not my complaint with respect to making this a more perfect union. My complaint is that when they are used to fill a glass, there is a terrible racket that takes place. Conversation has to stop and if there is any television being played in the kitchen, it will be drowned out. American manufacturing is known for hundreds or thousands of innovations. At this point I would ask all of the companies that manufacture refrigerators if in the future we could have silent ice makers. In exchange for their silence, I would be willing to put up with the ice maker spitting out a cube after I turn around and sit down on my chair. I would even be willing to put up with the ice maker that provides too many cubes or not enough cubes to fill a glass. May I suggest that silent ice makers would provide a means of making this a more perfect union?

My next two suggestions also have to do with silence. When the tree trimmers come by to take a fallen tree away, they usually bring a device called a chipper. Limbs and parts of the trunk are shoved into the maw of the chipper which grinds them into chips and makes a terrible racket, very much like the ice maker does when a glass is attempting to be filled. To make this a more perfect union, I would suggest that wood chippers be silenced. At the same time I would suggest that blowers used to gather leaves should also be on the list to be silenced.

Aside from the foregoing suggestions to make this a more perfect union, I might also suggest to manufacturers of support stockings that they make it easier to put their stockings on the legs of the affected individuals. Those of us who wear support stockings at the behests of cardiologists know that they are very difficult to manage. As a general principle, the heel of the support stocking often winds up on the instep. I realize that support stockings are silent, but those of us who must tug and try to position them correctly know that it is an athletic endeavor that leaves one largely breathless. And so I suggest support stockings that slip on as easily as a fielder’s glove should go on the hand of a shortstop.

I know there are perhaps thousands of improvements that would make this a more perfect union. It was not my intention to list them all because I am incapable of doing that. May I suggest that even a writer as skilled as Thomas Jefferson would also find it difficult to list all of them. At least my suggestions are based on making this a greater country with a better union. While there are many improvements that could make this a more perfect union, in the final analysis it seems to me that the place to start is in baking a loaf of bread that has nothing but heels. When that happens, the baker will have my undying gratitude and I will know that this country has come together in an effort to make this a more perfect union.

July 14, 2008
Essay 328
Kevin’s commentary: I’m no baker, but I think both the bread and roast beef “problems” could be solved to Pop’s satisfaction by simply preparing large discs of meat and bread instead of the traditional loaves. If, for example, dough was cut using a dinner plate, and then baked, it would probably be crusty throughout. The thinness would have the same effect on cooking meat. I think there would be a relatively small market for these products, but at least Ed would be happier.

So far as the icemaker goes, I see three options. The first would be a soundproof box that could be retrofitted onto the front of any existing fridge. You stick your hand and glass in the box, fill the glass, and withdraw them both. This seems like it’d probably be more effective than, for instance, designing a very soft or porous ice that would not clatter as much in the glass.


In this 232nd year of American independence, as I sit here on Independence Day 2008, I often wonder why we have given so little credit to the French for our freedom from the English. The French cheered George Washington’s efforts against George III, and in the final battles their fleet was anchored off the Virginia coast. That told General Cromwell of the English forces that he would receive no more help from England and that his forces might well be destroyed if they attempted to leave the American mainland. So Cromwell gave up. But again, I always wondered why we have failed to give proper credit to the French.

The French are a pragmatic people. In recent years they have declined to send their troops into the death maws of Iraq. For that gesture, they have earned the undying dislike and hatred of certain political forces in this country. You may remember that in the dining room of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, a congressman renamed the French fried potatoes as “freedom fries.” But the French have always been our friends and they have contributed some of the best wine and cheeses and other culinary delights for the world to enjoy.

These days, taking advantage of those culinary delights has become much more problematic for Americans. Sometime after the American invasion of Iraq, the authorities in Washington decided to devalue the American dollar in an effort to make our goods more competitive in world markets. This was done for balance of trade reasons. When the dollar began to fall in value, it didn’t stop at the first floor but rather went through the basement. For example, the Canadian dollar was never worth more than 75 cents, but now it takes $1.25 US to buy a Canadian dollar. When the Euro was established, it was worth about 69 cents as compared to the American dollar. Now, however, it takes about $1.59 to purchase one single Euro. The net result is that other countries which have gobs of dollars to spend, because of our profligate ways in the last few years, are now buying things that are American-made. Their appetite is so voracious that they have bought a good deal of our real estate and our manufacturing base.

The Europeans have so much money to spend that even the Irish, formerly the low man on the totem pole, have prospered and are buying up large chunks of New York City real estate. Not many people have heard of the Belgians, but in the past few weeks we have learned that the Belgians have launched a hostile bid to take over the Anheuser-Busch Corporation, which is known for the manufacture of Budweiser beer. To St. Louisans such as myself, keeping Budweiser in American hands becomes a sacred duty. But the fact is that when we devalued the American currency, it was an invitation for financiers and hedge fund operators to begin to gamble with American industry.

There is a parallel here in that we got into the Iraqi war and did not have a plan to get out of it. We began to devalue the American currency, but unfortunately we did not have a plan to stop its decline and restore it to its normal condition. The current job losses are a testament to that failure.

The two candidates for the presidency of the United States seem to offer almost no help in getting this country on the right track again. Senator McCain has just completed a campaign swing through Columbia and Mexico. Those two countries have no electoral votes but McCain seemed not to notice. On the other hand, Obama is planning a trip to Iraq and to other Middle Eastern points in the near future. I am distressed to inform Mr. Obama that the Iraqis and the Kuwaitis cannot cast ballots in the forthcoming American election.

At this moment there is great controversy over a remark attributed to General Wesley Clark. In an interview with more than one source, General Clark observed that being shot down during a conflict does not make the pilot of the downed airplane a good candidate to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Services of this country. As a survivor of two shoot-downs during World War II, I can tell you that General Clark is exactly right. With respect to this controversy, a New Yorker with his head on straight said, “If I get mugged in the Bowery, does that make me a candidate to become mayor of New York City?” If I can find out the name of that gentleman, I will buy him a bottle of Budweiser beer and urge him to run for political office, even up to and including Commander-in-Chief.

As this day draws to a close, so do my star-spangled ponderings for 2008 come to a conclusion. It has been my great pleasure to have another Independence Day to celebrate. If there are more Independence Day celebrations for me, I will again use them to urge my fellow Americans of the great debt that we owe to the French people. And, finally, if I can obtain French citizenship for that New Yorker who spoke of mugging, I will devote my efforts to having him installed in a palace on the Champs Élysées. A man such as the mugging man who thinks in logical terms deserves to be applauded by the people of France.

July 4, 2008
Essay 324

Kevin’s commentary: I took a trip to France when I was fourteen, I think. I only saw Paris, and a few places outside. It seemed like a nice place which I predominantly admired for its selection of pastries and other baked goods. At the time I was hurt by exchange rates, but as badly as it got in 2008. Overall though exchange rates have been good to me, as I’ve done more traveling in China than anywhere else and the Chinese currency has been pegged to the dollar since forever.


The Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of the United States testified last week, on July 17, that difficult times in terms of the American economy would be with us for a long time to come. In his play Richard III, William Shakespeare had a line that referred to the “winter of our discontent.” If Chairman Bernake is to be believed, and I believe him wholeheartedly, we are going to have several winters, springs, summers, and falls of discontent ahead of us. As we face this melancholy gloom, the American people can look forward to one source of laughter. That laughter comes from the buffoonery of our politicians. Here is just a small sample that has occurred in this summer of 2008, a period of great discontent.

The cast of our buffoons is led by our beloved president, Mr. Bush. When our beloved president speaks extemporaneously, he usually invokes his cowboy mode of speaking. Everybody knows that cowboys do not put “g”s on the end of words where it is appropriate. And so it was that Mr. Bush appeared on July 18 in the Rose Garden of the White House to reassure the American people that everything was going swimmingly, or perhaps to use a Texas expression, peachy keen. The Duke of Crawford pronounced the American economy to be in good shape. He said that unemployment numbers were low and that there were “a lot of people workin’.” When George Bush tells you that the American economy is going great guns in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, he and his cowboy talk can be tuned out almost immediately. But nonetheless, the President of the United States, in contradiction to Chairman Bernake, said that our economy is steaming right along and every citizen should be greatly pleased. You can’t make this stuff up unless you happen to be the President of the United States in the year 2008.

A second example of things that are hard to make up occurred when former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas was interviewed by The Washington Times. The Washington Times is a right-wing neocon publication which is owned by the fabulously wealthy Reverend Moon, who has persuaded his followers that he is some sort of a god. I believe that Reverend Moon is just another Korean shyster who may in the end induce his followers to drink Kool-Aid in the manner of the Reverend Jim Jones. Whether Phil Gramm asked to be interviewed by The Times or whether The Times sought out Senator Gramm, it makes very little difference. The fact of the matter is that during his three terms as a senator from Texas, Gramm became the powerful chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. He was known widely as “the senator from Enron.” He used his terms in the Senate Banking Committee to lift restrictions on people who sought to borrow money. Because the restrictions on borrowing money were few and far between after Senator Gramm was finished, we now have the subprime mortgage crisis. Phil Gramm used his time in the Senate to lay the groundwork for the torpedoing of the American economy. That was yesterday. In the interview with The Washington Times, the former senator from Texas told all of us that we were “a nation of whiners.” In addition he diagnosed our problem as a psychological recession. Mr. Gramm and his cohorts never use the word “depression.” They say we are suffering from a recession, even if it is only a psychological one.

And so it is that the man who has lost his job and is suffering a foreclosure of his house will stand on the curb as his belongings are piled up there to be carted away. Interestingly, Mr. Bush in his Rose Garden appearance to cheer us all up also likewise failed to recognize home foreclosures and the fact that banks are failing right and left. Please remember that you should not give in to a psychological recession and, if you do, you will become just another member of the American nation of whiners.

Phil Gramm has been under a rock and always looked like a lizard as he peered forward, and has been unnoticed now for several years. However, when John McCain elected to run for the presidency, Senator Gramm became his chief economic advisor and was the co-chairman of his campaign. When the remarks about a nation of whiners and the psychological recession appeared in print, Senator McCain said that Phil Gramm did not speak for him. McCain said that he spoke for himself. In other words, John McCain chopped Phil Gramm’s legs off at the knees. While his departure as co-chairman of the campaign is reasonably clear, it is not obvious that Gramm has relinquished his title as chief economic advisor to Senator McCain. I realize that this is a bizarre set of facts but it again goes to show that this stuff simply can not be made up.

As the week drew to a close, two major changes in the policy of the Bush administration came to light. The first one involves our refusal over more than five years of warfare with Iraq to name a timetable for our departure. Recently the prime minister of Iraq has been beating the drums and asking us to please leave. When it was thought that the Iraqis had to have our presence, the Bush administration said that as soon as the Iraqis told us to leave we would leave. But in fact it was our belief that that day would never come. Now, however, that day has come and the Iraqis have asked us to please leave.

Apparently the prime minister of Iraq and the Duke of Crawford had a discussion during which it was clear that the Iraqis meant business this time. And so, as the week drew to a close, there was an announcement from the White House that was confusing in the extreme. Note that the announcement came from “a source in the White House” rather than a Rose Garden announcement. With respect to our leaving Iraq, it is now the official position of the Bush administration that our troops will leave as “time horizons for aspirational goals.” Your old essayist who has been praised or condemned as simply a wordsmith is completely at sea on the phrase “time horizons for aspirational goals.”

To settle this matter, I went to the train station in this town to ask the ticket clerk what “time horizons for aspirational goals” meant. The ticket clerk asked me to leave before he called the insane asylum. I then stood out by the tracks and as the next train pulled in, I asked the conductor what “time horizons for aspirational goals” would be involved in the arrival of this train in New York City. The conductor said that there were no such things and that if I wanted to go to New York, I had better get aboard the train as it was leaving immediately. But as you can see, it is difficult to make this stuff up. Clearly it just happens.

Finally, you will recall that for several years the Bush administration has attempted to isolate the Iranians. We do not have an embassy in Teheran and our diplomatic efforts consist of Condoleezza Rice telling the Iranians that “We do not wish to talk to you.” Our refusal to talk for no reason at all is in keeping with an ancient Irish children’s song. The song goes something like this:

It’s not because you’re dirty,
It’s not because you’re clean,
It’s just because your family
Eats margarine.

That little children’s song seems to make as much sense as our State Department has exhibited in the last several years.

There was a meeting in Geneva this past weekend wherein the Europeans invited the Iranians to discuss their enrichment of uranium. Basically the Europeans said, “If you will quit enriching uranium, we will reward you. If you keep on doing that, you will face more sanctions.” In a startling reversal of form, the United States agreed to send William Burns, the third-ranking member of our State Department, to attend the meeting. But we announced that Mr. Burns was under strict instructions not to discuss any matters of substance with the Iranian delegate. At this writing, it is not clear whether Mr. Burns was free to discuss the weather in the two capitals. But he must have sat there like a bump on a log while the six European nations had a discussion with the delegate from Iran. But our man stood by the isolation of the Iranians and said nothing. Can any sane man, woman, or child imagine traveling 3,500 miles to Geneva with instructions to say nothing? Perhaps Mr. Burns monitored the meeting but he was allowed to say nothing to the Iranians. Ladies and gentlemen who read these essays: I am an old labor negotiator. I can not imagine anything more idiotic than sending the third-ranking member of the State Department 3,500 miles to sit in a meeting and be under instructions to avoid speaking to the Iranian delegate. This is idiocy at its highest level and once again I submit that you just can’t make this stuff up.

Plainly there was Senator Larry Craig from Idaho again intruding on us. Senator Craig called a news conference to denounce the suppliers of crude oil to this country. Those suppliers are generally Arabs, together with the Persians. The climax to Senator Craig’s performance was reached when he said, “We can’t let them jerk us around at the end of a gas nozzle.” Can you imagine Larry Craig, who was arrested for homosexual activities in a Minneapolis airport restroom, saying that we can’t let those people “jerk us around?” If I may say so, coming from Larry Craig this is about as good as it gets and it proves once more that this stuff can not be made up.

Well, there you have several examples of political buffoonery coming to the American people to reward them with a laugh during the hard times that Chairman Bernake has predicted. It seems to me that in the week starting with July 13, our politicians have outdone themselves when it comes to political buffoonery. But in the end, I appreciate their efforts because I was one inch away from becoming another American whiner. If Bush and Craig have rescued me from that fate, I can only say that I am truly grateful.

July 24, 2008
Essay 329
Kevin’s commentary: I’m sure Larry Craig’s comment was just misunderstood. His objection was not to being jerked around, but rather that he was having to do so at the length of a gas nozzle. If only the gas problem could be resolved, he might be jerked around directly.

I forget how good the country has it sometimes. Essays about Phil Gramm help me remember to be thankful for what we collectively no longer have to deal with.

As an update on Ezra’s Essays, I’m setting a potential temporal roughly diagonal horizon objective of “by 2015” for the aspirational goal achievement deadline for publishing.


I am painfully aware that cynics and critics will charge me with plagiarizing the ancient maxim of “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I plead guilty on all counts. On the other hand, I will contend that I have improved that maxim with the addition of “disimprove” as a wonderful neologism. These days wonderful neologisms flow out of the fetid swamp that used to be my brain. But in this case, “disimprove” is the neologism of the day.

Cynics and critics will join their voices in unison to ask, “What does ‘disimprove’ mean?” As soon as I answer this call from Noah Webster of dictionary fame, I will try to give you a few examples of what that neologism means. For example, let us return to the year 2000, which marked the beginning of the 21st century. In that year, I was a mere stripling of a lad of 78 years, with dark wavy hair and eyes that put the visual acuity of eagles to shame. The changes in the years that have taken place since the year 2000 are clearly disimprovements. In those years, my hair has become slightly tinted with gray, and a small bald spot has appeared on the back of my scalp. In addition, my eyesight no longer rivals the eagles’ but is much more like that of the bat. “As blind as a bat” is basically where I come out in the year 2008. So you see, the more things change, the passage of years has brought all of us eight years older and in my case the disimprovements are legion.

In that same period of eight years, many more disimprovements have come to pass. For example, in the year 2000 gasoline, which is known as petrol to Europeans, had moved from cents per gallon to costing slightly more than $1 per gallon. Most of us were wringing our hands and saying that it would be a disaster if gasoline were to cost us $1.15 or even $1.50. In the ensuing eight years, there have been many changes in the availability of gasoline. And all of them are disimprovements. Today we are paying for regular gasoline something around $4.10 per gallon. It is the prediction of this old filling station attendant that before long, Americans will be paying on the order of $5 per gallon and it might not stop there. This clearly is a disimprovement which everyone who owns an automobile will understand. I suppose that those who own large horse-powered SUVs and Hummers as well as pickup trucks may understand this thought better than the rest of us.

When the thought of “the more things change…” is applied to air travel, the disimprovements are even more volatile. The airline industry has increased its prices by a factor of three and no longer serves out-of-the-way places. In addition, airlines charge customers between $15 and $25 for checking a bag which the airlines may well lose. And, of course, there are no more free meals or even peanuts. Pilots and mechanics are being laid off in droves. The airline industry is now fraught with disimprovements and we are all the poorer for that development.

Those who say “If I can’t drive or fly to my destination, I will simply take the train,” will be in for a disimprovement in spades. In the last 50 years, including the eight year period since the year 2000, we have let our rail industry come unraveled. The successive governments of the United States have denied funds to improve rail travel. Service has been cut and the amenities of railroad travel from years ago no longer exist. But in the last year or so, railroads have become overwhelmed by the demand of those who used to drive or used to fly. So you see, the disimprovements are with us at every turn.

In recent years, Americans were encouraged to own a home. Banks and lending institutions were providing mortgages that seemed to require no monthly payment at all. Then, to their astonishment, many buyers looked at the fine print and found that in the third or fourth year of the mortgage, the payments became absolutely and ridiculously expensive. Certainly the mortgage holders ought to have their knuckles rapped for entering into an agreement about which they understood very little. At the same time there was no control over lending institutions making predatory loans. As a result, there are several million homes throughout this nation that are subject to foreclosure. This may be the ultimate disimprovement in terms of housing arrangements.

Today’s news brings the report that Starbucks is proposing to close 600 of its stores and leave as many as 12,000 of its workers without employment. I was never much of a coffee drinker and it boggles my mind to believe that people were paying five bucks for the privilege of drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee. But be that as it may, when a person loses a job in this economy, he must feel helpless, knowing that there are millions of other people also looking for work. Starbucks employees are not alone in their disimprovement and agony. There are hundreds of people who used to work on Wall Street who are in the same situation. I suspect that to a person who has lost a job, my neologism of disimprovements may be of negligible comfort. But I would like them to know that I understand and sympathize totally.

And, finally, we come to the reading of the will of Leona Helmsley, who is celebrated as “the Queen of Mean.” Leona was the widow of the founder of the Helmsley Hotel chain. She was a very wealthy woman who said that only little people pay taxes. I am a little person, so I suppose that means that I have no choice but to pay my taxes while Mrs. Helmsley thumbed her nose at the Internal Revenue Service. When Leona died last fall, she left an estate worth several billion – that’s a “b” – dollars. Any of her relatives or any of her former employees who were expecting to enjoy a small windfall with Leona’s passing were in for a great surprise and a disimprovement. Literally and figuratively, Leona’s will provided that her billions should go to her dogs. I have no idea what a dog would do with a billion dollars, but Leona has bequeathed the dogs more money than they can chew. Leona seemed to revel in being known as “the Queen of Mean” and her association with disimprovements, even after her death, seemed to fit her personality.

I suppose I could name many more examples of disimprovements. But I think these few examples may give the literary world an understanding of why I hold that the more things change, the more they disimprove.

Now, when it comes to the issue of plagiarization, I must contend that this is a family matter that is not the concern of outsiders. The maxim that “The more things change, the more they remain the same” was the product of the brain of a Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr. I understand that Mr. Karr with a “k” was a poet and a philosopher and he may well have been a French boulevardier, who frequented bistros buying aperitifs for his mistresses. If that is the case, I salute him. But no matter how you cut it, his name was Karr and that makes this a family matter. So to cynics and critics who contend that I plagiarized Monsieur Karr’s maxim, I would say in my most polite manner of speaking, “Please butt out.” If Monsieur Karr composed a maxim and I improved on it by adding a neologism, I believe I should be offered champagne for the rest of my life. I know that where champagne is drunk, mistresses abound. I will do my best to make every American proud of my performance.

July 7, 2008
Essay 258
Kevin’s commentary: Let’s hope Pop never has to fly Ryan Air; he’d have a heart attack.

In other news, this is what the “objections to modernity” tag was made for.


Dearly Beloved:

The sermon today comes to us from the King James version of the Bible and has to do with two writers who appear in that version. The first is Matthew, Chapter 20, Verse 16. That verse says, “So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

The second writer is Luke, who writes in Chapter 13, Verse 30, “And behold there are last which shall be first and there are first which shall be last.” As your preacher, I can tell you that Matthew and Luke were so friendly that one could finish the other’s sentence after it was started. On the other hand, cynics and non-believers may conclude that Matthew and Luke were guilty of plagiarisms in the holiest of books used by the Protestant faith. Your aged preacher is going to stay out of this argument about plagiarism and leave it to the congregants to decide where the truth lies. In any case, I hope that your contributions to the collection plate will be generous, regardless of whether you support Matthew or Luke.

This essay is being dictated on a Monday afternoon. Everyone knows that sermons are delivered on Sunday, and are entirely inappropriate on Mondays. So we will now proceed to three or four examples of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

The first example involves the Bell System. At its peak, the Bell System had one million employees and untold wealth. It was represented in every corner of the United States by what were called associated companies. There was the New York Telephone Company, Illinois Bell, etc. In addition, the Bell System owned a manufacturing arm that was gargantuan in size and was called Western Electric. There was also the Bell Laboratories which was renowned throughout the world for its discoveries. Finally, you may wish to recall that the Bell System was named after Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. The Bell System had an enormous influence in the various states of the union as well as in the Congress of the United States. Organizations at that time, prior to 1984, with one million employees were considered behemoths. But this behemoth was a gentle giant who sponsored first radio, and then television programs to uplift the masses. The “Bell Telephone Hour” was one full hour of excellent music with no hard sell being involved anywhere in the programming.

The Bell Laboratories was considered the sine qua non of all the laboratories in the world.

I worked for the Bell System for 43 years, and from what I could see the company operated well and provided Americans with superior communications services at reasonable costs. But there were opposition forces who considered the Bell System a monopoly in spite of the fact that it was tightly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. For several years, there had been an effort to break up the Bell System. That end was eventually achieved by the Telecommunications Act of 1984, which in fact caused the Bell System to spin off its properties.

The net effect is that, for example, Western Electric eventually became a subsidiary of a French concern called Alcatel and is now clearly just a junior partner. The Bell Telephone Laboratories seem to be have been scattered to the winds and when we drive by the main building of the Labs, the parking lot is empty and the lawn is populated only by passing geese. The individual companies of the Bell System did not thrive and in the end tended to seek partnerships of their own. The point is that at one time there was an organization that provided excellent telephone service to the American people, but it ran afoul of jealous competitors who wanted a piece of the action. Perhaps this is the price of progress but such progress is unattractive to this long-time observer.

The whole Bell System was gathered under the name of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. From its lofty heights having more than a million employees with untold wealth, the Telecommunications Act of 1984 was its death knell. A few years back, the entire American Telephone and Telegraph Company was purchased by one of its former subsidiary companies for a grand total of $16 billion. If you read on, you will find a much smaller organization that was sold this past week for $52 billion. So you see, when it comes to the Bell System, the first shall be last and if your telephone needs repair you will find that it will take perhaps three or four days for your new telephone company to get around to that work. So as a Bell System pensioner, I can only say, “Matthew and Luke, where are you now?”

In telling the faithful about the Bell System, I almost forgot that for many years AT&T stock was considered highly desirable. It tended to grow in value and, more than anything else, it paid a handsome dividend. Mothers of prospective brides always considered a Bell System man a good catch. But at this moment, that is neither here nor there because the Bell System no longer exists. Again, the first shall be last.

The second citation I would like to make for the congregants here today has to do with the General Motors Corporation. For all the years since I came along, General Motors was the rock of American manufacturing. They manufactured the Chevrolet automobile for those getting started out in life. As they succeeded, customers could proceed upward from the Chevy to the Pontiac. If a promotion or two were involved, they could graduate to an Oldsmobile, one of the oldest American marques in the car business. When a man moved from the Oldsmobile to a Buick, it would be said that he had arrived. For many years, General Motors manufactured a small sportier Cadillac called the La Salle. A man who drove a La Salle would possibly be mentioned in the society pages of his local newspaper. And finally, at the top of the line there was the Cadillac, which told the world that you were at the top of your game.

Over the years of my driving career, I drove each one of those automobiles except for the La Salle. Unhappily and unfortunately, as I drove the more expensive cars in the General Motors line, they proved to be less dependable. In 1986, I bought a Cadillac coupe which supplied inferior service during my years of ownership.

But now General Motors has fallen on hard times. It kept on building the gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks. It would not take a Rhodes Scholar to point out that in the last few years hybrids were being developed by the Japanese automobile industry and that sooner or later economy would become the name of the game in the automobile business. But General Motors kept building its gas-guzzling models. It had plenty of company in that the Ford and the Chrysler organizations did the same thing. At the same time, they did not improve the quality of their regular automobiles either.

In the automobile industry in this country, there have been gigantic layoffs. Whereas General Motors stock used to sell for around $50 a share, its most recent price was slightly under $10 per share. General Motors needs a cash infusion because it is having trouble converting its SUV assembly lines to lines that will produce fuel efficient automobiles.

And so General Motors, which used to be the crème de la crème of the American automobile industry, now comes at the end of the line and Matthew and Luke are correct when they say the last shall be first or the first shall be last, whichever applies.

A final example involves Budweiser beer. Yesterday it was announced that the Anheuser-Busch Corporation, which manufactures Budweiser, had been sold to a Belgian organization called InBev. Because of the devaluation of the American dollar, the Belgians had all kinds of money to invest in the Anheuser-Busch Corporation and in the end they walked away with the prize brewery in America. To add insult to injury, they will now market Budweiser with the word InBev on the label as an additive to Budweiser. The loss of Budweiser to the Belgians is a terrible insult to St. Louisans such as myself. Matthew and Luke didn’t say the following piece of doggerel about St. Louis, “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League.” I am not a writer of scripture but it seems to me that the poem about shoes and booze and last in the American League would lend zip to the Holy Scripture as sculpted by King James of England.

A few years back, Budweiser was so big that it could brush aside a law suit filed by the citizens of Budweiss City in the Czech Republic. For many years the citizens of that town had manufactured a local brew which was called Budweiser. If the citizens of my home town of Clayton manufactured a local brew, I suspect it might be called Claytoner. But the judges were unimpressed by the arguments of the Czech producers of that Budweiser beer and the Czechs were told to get lost and pay court costs.

And so it is, my fellow congregants, that I have offered you three examples which tend to prove that Matthew and Luke were on the mark when they wrote, perhaps several hundred years ago, about the first shall be last. There was the Bell System, the General Motors Corporation, and Anheuser-Busch. As your clergyman, I regret the demise of the Bell System and of the General Motors Corporation, and when it comes to Budweiser, I can only say that lips that touch Budweiser-InBev shall never touch mine. On the other hand, St. Louis is not last in the American League because years ago, the St. Louis Browns were sold to investors from the Chesapeake region and are now called the Baltimore Orioles. But that is small consolation and I still grieve when I think of the Bell System, General Motors, Anheuser-Busch and the
St. Louis “Brownies.”

It all goes to prove that Matthew and Luke were right when they said several hundred years ago that the “First shall be Last” and sometimes those displaced from the lofty positions at the top of the ladder are also forgotten and recalled only by those with feelings for nostalgia.

July 14, 2008
Essay 327
Kevin’s commentary: Okay, but what about the second part? I’m seeing plenty of firsts head to last in this essay, but not a lot of lasts seem like they’re coming in first. I guess Japanese cars used to be considered as pretty awful, and they’re beating the heck out of GM these days, but that’s a stretch.

Also the $16b price tag mentioned in this essay was particularly eye-opening in light of Facebook’s recent acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion. WhatsApp is a fairly simple peer-to-peer messaging service with a staff of about 55 people. It’s valuation is mind-boggling to me when put next to a lot of other “real” companies, especially other companies in the communication industry. Tech valuations are friggen out of control these days.

P.S. — “Matthew and Luke were on the mark” is either very clever or very unintentionally clever.