Snippets

          I went to a theater production of “Paradise Lost,” based, it claimed, on the words of John Milton. I did not think much of the play’s quality, but the group putting on the play was a Christian group. On some level they succeeded with me. Eve was not initially naked as Biblical authenticity should have required but was clothed in a filmy fabric that moved and flowed and shaped over her body. She was lovely, and well before that consequential bite of the forbidden apple, all was foreshadowed because I was thinking about ripe, luscious fruit.

          Whenever the president speaks, I keep hoping in vain for more splendid flashes of silence.

          “Silence is the unbearable repartee.” G.K. Chesterton.

          At Madison Square Garden, Hammer of the Harlem Globetrotters got us in the audience to do a wave, then a reverse wave, and finally a slow motion wave. Even though this is all a hokey cliché, I hope you, like me, can still find pleasure in the wave.

          It’s such a surprise to hear people discussing cheating in American professional sports and find out that they are not talking about Boston.

          When I looked over to see who had sat next to me at the bar, I was surprised because he seemed close to my age, and few of the patrons of this place can remember Eisenhower, much less Truman, as president. He nursed his beer and was quiet for a few moments before he pointed to the book I had placed on the counter and asked what I was reading. It was clear that he was not really interested in that but that he wanted to talk. (Note. I did not say that he wanted to converse.)

          He told me that he was a retired real estate attorney from Atlanta and had been in a big firm. He was now living in Portland, Oregon, which he and his wife had picked after exploratory vacations.

          He was in Brooklyn to visit his son, who was a freelance cinematographer after graduating from Boston College. He has given his son, he told me more than once, advice about things the son should do to be a successful freelancer. I wondered what this big-firm real estate lawyer knew about either freelancing or cinematography.

          He was not staying with his son who lived in Bed-Stuy but at a downtown Brooklyn hotel. He said, “His apartment is even too squalid for me.” I wondered what he knew of squalid.

          I said that I was leaving soon. He was quick to tell me that he was meeting his son at the bar in a few minutes and said that I would enjoy meeting him. And then he said it again. I wondered if he was uncomfortable meeting his offspring. After a few more minutes, he looked at his phone and said that his son was not coming. He left three minutes later. And I wondered whether this was as sad as it seemed.

          “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” Fran Lebowitz.

The Road Through Morocco

In Morocco, we went through the Middle Atlas Mountains. A road through the mountains was built by the French. The construction took over a decade and was completed in 1939. Learning this made me think a bit about all the consequences of colonialism.  

A few days before this trip snow had unexpectedly fallen there. I did not expect to see skiers and sledders in Morocco, but I did.  

Along the way, we saw Berbers. Although many Berbers have now settled in villages and cities, a sizeable number continue a nomadic life of herding sheep and goats, which can graze on communal lands throughout the country. Morocco no longer has much, if any, of a Bedouin population. Bedouins are nomadic, too, but they are traders with, traditionally, camel caravans. 

When we got through the mountains to a high, desolate plain, the land looked surprisingly familiar, much like Arizona or Utah. I was not surprised to learn that when all the earth’s land masses formed one continent, Morocco was adjoined to Sonora Mexico and Arizona. 

The landscape stopped looking familiar when we got to the Saharan sand dunes. Yes, I rode a camel. Unfortunately, no one mistook me for Omar Sharif or Peter O’Toole, but maybe that would have been different if my eyes were not brown or I had kept my mustache. The sand-colored sand dunes stretching into the offing, however, were not the most memorable sight. As it always is for me in a desert, it is the night sky. As Richard Powers put it in The Gold Bug Variations, “There were so many stars that the sky seemed black gaps pasted over a silver source.” 

One of the most memorable manmade sights in Morocco, however, is devoid of the sky. A medina is the walled, old part of a town, and every city we visited had one. Fes had the most remarkable one. It has 9,000 streets, many of which are two to four feet wide, none of which seems to go straight for more than fifty yards. The buildings’ upper stories overhang the street slightly, and the sky was all but gone. This is not merely a tourist attraction. About 120,000 people live there. The streets are so narrow that there weren’t even scooters or bicycles. Goods were moved either in a handcart or by burro or donkey. The animals stop for nothing, and pedestrians have to leap aside. Of course, the medina could seem claustrophobic and frightening, or at least a set for an Indiana Jones movie, but the streets were teeming with life and were not scary. I would have liked to have seen an apartment there. I couldn’t imagine how you could get a stove, refrigerator, or even a big chair through the pathways and upstairs. I did vow, however, that I would never enter this medina without a guide. After only a few hundred yards into this medina, I had no idea how to get out. 

The second most impressive manmade sight we saw in Morocco was a mosque. 

Text BoxWe saw a lot of mosques in Morocco, or I should say, we saw the exterior of many mosques. We non-Moslems were not allowed to enter them. I found this a bit strange since I remember being in mosques in Turkey on a visit there ten years ago. But non-Moslems can enter only one mosque in Morocco. It is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. 

Text BoxKing Hassan II, father of the present king and regarded by our guide and almost all others as a tyrant, commissioned the mosque. Its construction started in 1986, and the mosque opened in 1993. We were told that the mosque, with a 690-foot minaret, was the third largest in the world after two in Saudi Arabia. 

It is spectacularly situated on a promontory on the Atlantic Ocean and is huge—more than two football fields long and one wide. Part of the roof is retractable, but, unfortunately, it was closed on our visit. It is elaborately decorated. 

This, of course, cost a lot of money to build. The fundraising caused controversy in Morocco, a country which is not rich. Almost every family “voluntarily” contributed to the construction. The mosque is expensive to maintain, and that is why I could see its interior. Visitors pay an entrance fee, money that is necessary for the mosque’s upkeep. And that is why this is the only Moroccan mosque open to the public. Of course, this is hardly the only place where principles bend under the weight of the desire for money.  

The Hassan II mosque, however, is a spectacular building. 

Snippets

          When I went to college, I heard for the first time the expression that someone was going to have “an ice cream.” I thought then and now that you can have an ice cream cone; an ice cream bar; a cup of ice cream. But not “an ice cream.” Once again, I appear to be standing against the majority in favor of common sense.

          I believe you should support Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar for the Democratic nomination. Only if one of them gets the nod can there be a meaningful debate with Trump about hair care. Wait. I am being closed minded. Bernie could participate in that debate.

          In one of my last public defender stints, I learned about a man in his 40s charged with murder who was being returned for trial after being found incompetent to stand trial two years before. His parents had been divorced but werestill living in the same house where he also lived. The father had a heart attack. The defendant called 911. When it became clear that the father might not survive, the defendant suggested to the mother that she ought to go to the hospital. She indicated that that was too much of a bother and said, “It’s pizza night; get me a beer.” (Larry the Public Defender thought that “It’s Pizza Night” would make a great title for his book.) The next evening the defendant apparently tried to stab the mother, or at least she had some stab wounds and a broken knife was found in the home, but he eventually killed her with a frying pan. He called 911 again and said that he had killed his mother and would wait outside and that he was not armed. (All true.) He then covered his mother’s head and placed a Valentine’s Day card on her chest.

          What question would you have asked?  The establishment prominently displayed a sign that read, “Voted the Second Best Chinese Restaurant.”

My favorite restaurant sign in Morocco was “O’Tacos, Original French Tacos.”

          At the Nespresso store I bought the decaffeinated capsules in a few minutes. As I was leaving, I told the salesclerk that I wished all my transactions were as efficient and as a pleasant as this one had just been. She replied, “Me, too.”

          The sidewalk graffito: “Today is a good day to have a good day.”

Does this scare you, too: 10% of U.S. children are Texans?

          “You turn your back on your parents for one moment and they get up to all sorts of mischief!” Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans.

          As he came into the theater lobby, the playgoer said, “Actually I didn’t think it was going to be this cold.” “That just shows,” his companion retorted, “how poorly you think.”

The First Was Not Always the First (concluded)

          First Amendment rights do not have primacy because they come first. The initial Congress submitted twelve amendments to the states, and our First Amendment was then the Third Amendment. The states in the eighteenth century, however, did not ratify the first two proposals, and the Third became the First. But, you ask, what about the two proposed amendments that were not ratified with the Bill of Rights? Each is an interesting story providing several lessons.

          The first proposal, passed by a two-thirds majority of each house, said that after the initial census, “there shall be one representative for every thirty thousand, until the number shall amount to one hundred; after which, the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall be not less than one hundred representatives, nor less than one representative for every forty thousand persons, until the number of representatives shall amount to two hundred; after which, the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress that there shall not be less than two hundred representatives, nor more than one representative for every fifty thousand persons.”

          Got that? The Constitution mandated that the original House of Representatives have 65 members, and after the first census, it grew to 105. It continued to grow but was capped in the early twentieth century at 435 members where it now stands. But what if that proposal had been ratified? (And it almost was, falling one state short in 1792.) Its meaning has been debated, but since that proposed amendment did not take effect, we don’t have an authoritative reading. Some scholars, however, have maintained that the unclear language would require a House of Representatives today with as few as 800 and as many as 5,000 Representatives. We dodged a bullet that the first proposed amendment was not ratified, and we should learn that those early constitutional drafters like James Madison and his fellows were not unbridled geniuses with accurate crystal balls.

          The second proposed amendment that did not get adopted with the Bill of Rights reads: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” Here the language and purpose are clear. Our representatives should not be able to raise (or lower, ha ha) their pay until the voters have had the chance to consider the remunerative change. Clear, and to the real constitutional nerd, the language is recognizable. It is the text of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, the last to have been adopted.

          Say what? The proposed second amendment was largely forgotten after it failed to be ratified in the 1790s, but in 1982, Gregory Watson, a University of Texas sophomore, wrote a political science paper contending that the old proposal could still be ratified since it had no time limit for ratification. His essay received a “C.” His grader thought Watson’s thesis was farfetched, but Watson set out to show up his teachers. He lobbied state legislatures to adopt the proposed amendment and met with success. States ratified what was once labeled the Second Amendment, and the amendment was certified as ratified on May 7, 1992, as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. A proposal submitted by Congress to the states in 1789 became part of the Constitution two centuries after it was first proposed because of an incredibly determined, or pissed-off, student. (Watson’s grade in the course was retroactively changed in 2017 to an A+.)

          There are lessons here. One person can make a difference. A liberal arts education can have value besides asking about French fries. Modern politicians can be responsive. A poor grade can motivate some students. Perhaps there are other lessons to be drawn, but I’ll leave them to you.

The First Was Not Always the First (continued)

          We take the basic right of freely exercising religion for granted. You can go to your chosen house of worship; read the Bible in any of the multitude of versions of it or the Koran or even Dianetics; pray together with others in your home or elsewhere; watch sermons on TV; give money to religious missions; solicit money for religious purposes; and so on. When people claim that free exercise of religion is under attack, they don’t mention that our right to worship whatever Being we want in the fashion we choose is as secure as it ever has been.

          Instead, claims that the free exercise of religion is under attack often come from those who maintain that their behavior must be exempted on religious grounds from the duties placed on the rest of society. For example, even though the law says businesses may not refuse to serve someone because of race, sex, or sexual orientation, a person claims that because serving a gay person violates his religious belief, he should be exempted from the law. An employer maintains that contraception violates his religious beliefs, and therefore although the law mandates that he provide health insurance that covers the costs of contraception, he feels he does not have to.

          The claim is not that the government has prevented anyone from being allowed to attend the church they want or study the text they hold sacred or pray in the form they desire. It is the assertion that because of their religious beliefs, they must be allowed to behave differently in society and ignore the laws that the rest of us must obey. Even though others must follow certain laws, they don’t have to because of their religion.

          The advocates for these kinds of free exercise claims seldom mention the First Amendment’s other religion clause, the one that actually comes first and is perhaps the most unusual part of that constitutional provision. It bars the establishment of religion.

          The First Amendment, apart from the Establishment Clause, guarantees individual expression and belief and helps ensure a responsive and responsible government. These rights are essential for a free and open society. The prohibition of the establishment of religion, however, arises from different sources.

          The founders knew that free societies and representative democracies could have an established religion. At the time the Bill of Rights was proposed by Congress, several states, including those ratifying the First Amendment, had established churches. These establishments were not regarded as inconsistent with a free, representative government. The Constitution’s Section 4 of Article 4 commands, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government. . . .” If established churches were detrimental to that form of government, Congress would have had the duty to disestablish the state churches. They, instead, did not interfere with the established churches. (Even today countries that seem to have at least as much liberty as ours have established churches, including Denmark, Iceland, Scotland, and England.)

          The Establishment Clause is striking because it has a purpose that is different from the rest of the First Amendment, but also because of its broad language. Picking a church to be established nationally would have been divisive—state-aided churches in the south were Anglican and in New England were Congregational—but the Bill of Rights does not just prevent an established church. It bars any establishment of religion, and it does not just prohibit a formal establishment of religion, it goes much further and says there shall be “no law respecting” such an establishment. The founders did not just want to prevent an established church or the establishment of religion; their language indicates that the United States should not even be on a road that could possibly lead to such an establishment. (This divorce from religion was also evident in Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Some states did have religious requirements for office-holding that lasted into the nineteenth century. New Hampshire, for example, required state officials to “be of the Protestant religion.”)

          Neither the placement of the Establishment Clause at the beginning of the First Amendment nor the fact that it serves purposes different from the rest of the amendment means that it is more important than the others. On the other hand, it should be viewed at least as equally important as the Free Exercise Clause. All interpretations of free exercise must consider whether a law respecting the establishment of religion is being made.

          The original notion of the free exercise right—I can worship as I choose–produces no tension or conflict with the Establishment clause. I can join the congregation of my faith; read my desired sacred texts; fill the collection plate of my selected church; label my god by my preferred title; worship more than one god; insist that women should be segregated from men during a service; maintain that divorce, homosexuality, contraception, and looking at the behinds of the opposite sex are sins. None of this raises an issue of the government moving towards the establishment of religion.

          The modern claim of free exercise that says a law cannot force a person to behave contrary to religious principles is, however, different. If a person is exempt from following the law others must obey because of religious beliefs, then that person is put in a favored spot over the non-religious or those with a different religion. Does creating this privileged position based on religion violate the injunction that there can be no law respecting the establishment of religion?

          If your answer is no, consider this possibility: Assume a law requires employers to provide insurance to employees when ten people are employed. Assume that Sam, the owner, believes in something akin to Christian Science and that healing comes only through prayers without medical intervention. He maintains that it would violate his free exercise of religion to provide the legally mandated health insurance. Of course, if he is exempted from that general law, not only do his employees not get the coverage, Sam gets a financial advantage over other businesses, and perhaps competitors might think about joining Sam’s church.

          I am not pretending that I know how those claims should be decided, but in examining them, we should realize that many of the free exercise claims bring a tension with the Establishment Clause.

(concluded February 12)

The First Was Not Always the First (continued)

          The rights of the First Amendment cannot be considered the most important because they come first; they were proceeded by freedoms in the main body of the Constitution. But perhaps we still should regard the First Amendment rights as the most important in the Bill of Rights because, of course, they come before all the other ones in those ten amendments. That placement, however, was not the intention of those who drafted these provisions. The First Amendment rights come first not because of the drafters’ design but because of a historical happenstance.

          The original Congress passed twelve, not ten amendments, by the required two-thirds majority of each House. These proposals were submitted to the states, but the requisite three-quarters of the states only ratified ten of the twelve, and those ten, the Bill of Rights, went into effect December 15, 1791. The two that were not adopted were the first two provisions passed by Congress, and not surprisingly, were labeled by Congress as the First and Second Amendments. What is now our First Amendment was labeled the Third Amendment. Indeed, well into the nineteenth century courts referred to the amendments by the numbers Congress used, and early judges wrote about our First Amendment as the Third Amendment.

          The congressional framers of our Bill of Rights did not place our First Amendment rights first. And there is nothing to indicate that the states somehow concluded that the Third Amendment, as it came to them, contained the most important rights and consequently refused to ratify the first two proposals to bump that Third Amendment to the head of the queue. It is a mere fortuity that the protections in our First Amendment come first in the additions to the main body of the Constitution, and no importance should be accorded its placement. The notion that our country’s founders regarded First Amendment protections as the most important because they placed them first in the Bill of Rights is revisionist history.

          On the other hand, while the First Amendment’s placement does not indicate the importance of its protections, its rights are foundational to what we would consider a “free” society. That is not true for much of what is in the rest of the Bill of Rights. Many of its provisions are America-specific. We have them but other countries have not considered them necessary for freedom. Most nations do not have the constitutional equivalent of our Third Amendment, which restricts the quartering of soldiers in homes. Many free societies have justice systems that do not rely on juries as we do. Most countries do not have in their constitutions the right to keep and bear arms. Indeed, our overall structure of government mandated by the Constitution with a President selected by an electoral college, a Congress, and separation of powers has not been deemed necessary for many free societies.

          Free nations do not need all of what is in our Constitution, but it is hard to imagine a country we would consider free that did not have free speech and a free press. We may not think about the ability to assemble as much as speech and press, but people need to be able to come together for many reasons: comradeship, grieving, exchanging ideas, protestation, worship, laughter, dinner, and much, much more. Without a right to assemble peaceably, a society would not be free. And a society is not free if governmental communication only goes one way, from the government to the people.  In a free society, the government is the instrument of those it governs. Freedom requires citizens and others to be able to tell the government of perceived problems and improvements. Whether we label this the right to petition the government or something else, it is essential.

          But when Education Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Gonzalez were referring to the primacy of the First Amendment, they were not drawing attention to speech, press, assembly, and petition rights, guarantees that tend to complicate the lives of government officials. (Right now, I am looking at you, Mike Pompeo.) Instead, they were stressing the importance of the free exercise clause, a guarantee that may not be even needed when other First Amendment rights are preserved. When there is freedom of speech, a person can preach, pray, and proselytize. With freedom of the press, Bibles and Korans can be printed as can religious tracts of every sort. With a right of assembly, people can come together to worship, hear sermons and homilies, and join together in singing and praying. The provisions of the First Amendment that generally guarantee a free society also guarantee freedom of religion. Seventeenth century England had criminalized Quaker services. Even without the free exercise clause, that could not happen in America with free speech, a free press, and the right to assemble.

(continued February 10)

The First Was Not Always First

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

          Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, recently wrote in an op-ed piece: “There’s a reason why the First Amendment comes first. Our country was founded upon the ‘first freedoms’ it protects. The freedom to express ourselves — through speech, through the press, through assembly, through petition and through faith—defines what it means to be American.” 

          Her statement seems to say something learned about our country, and surely First Amendment rights are important, but can her words be profound when they are misleading and misapprehend and misrepresent history? DeVos says the collection of First Amendment rights “defines what it means to be an American.” DeVos should remember the old story in which the teacher asked, “Who was the first man?” Glen shouted out, “George Washington.” Miss Wilson responded, “What about Adam?” Glen, showing disappointment in his teacher, said, “Well, if you are going to count foreigners.

          America is not alone in what we label First Amendment rights. Citizens of many countries have the right to express themselves. If that right defines what it means to be an American, many foreigners must then be American.

          Perhaps what DeVos really meant to say is that we would not be Americans without these guarantees, but they do not define what it means to be an American. Happily, we are not the only people in this world with such rights. (The Democracy Index has scores for civil liberties and about twenty countries are ranked higher than the U.S.)

          DeVos made another point. These are our most important rights, she says, because the “First Amendment comes first.” Alberto Gonzalez, Attorney General for George W. Bush, said something similar years earlier, stating that religious freedom is the country’s first freedom because our founders saw fit to place it first in the Bill of Rights. We should give primacy to First Amendment rights because they come first, he said, and following that logic, we should give primacy to the religious provisions because they are the first of the First Amendment. It all seems so obvious a third grader using vouchers could follow the reasoning. But this elementary school reasoning is misleading and historically inaccurate.

          The rights of the First Amendment don’t come first in the Constitution. They come after the seven articles of the Constitution that were drafted in 1787; the initial amendments were drafted in 1789 and went into effect in December 1791. Our Constitution granted rights before the Bill of Rights existed, and if rights are to be measured by their placement, then these original freedoms coming years before the First Amendment must be more important than the religious and speech provisions.

          Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution prohibits the suspension of habeas corpus except when a rebellion or invasion may require it. The next paragraph prohibits a bill of attainder or an ex post facto law. The next Section 9 provision gives another right: No direct taxation unless it was based on the census. This was an important right until it wasn’t a right. The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, wiped out the no-direct-taxation provision by explicitly authorizing an income tax. Our rights, it turns out, are not immutable.

          Section 9 contains two other provisions that we seldom think about but were truly essential foundational rights for this nation, because without them we would not be one country: “No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State. No preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another; nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one state, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another.” We are welded into one entity because goods and transport can freely travel among the states. Without that, we would only be a collection of fifty fiefdoms.

          The founders also placed important rights in Article III, which provides a narrow definition of treason and requires “the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open court.” It also eliminated punishments for treason that had existed in Europe. Finally, Article III, Section 2 guarantees jury trials for crimes. (If the importance of a right is measured not by its placement in the Constitution, but by the frequency of its protection, then juries are the most important constitutional right since juries are guaranteed not only in Article III but also in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments.) In other words, First Amendment rights should not be given primacy because they come first; they don’t.

(continued February 7)

Phosphates and Lessons from Phosphates

On the recent trip to Morocco, the guide told us that Morocco did not have oil but that it did have the world’s largest reserves of phosphates. Some of those deposits are in Western Sahara, which Morocco claims and on its maps is the southernmost part of the country. Other nations, including Algeria, dispute Morocco’s assertion of sovereignty over this area, which was controlled by Spain until near the end of the twentieth century. This conflict has fueled tensions between Algeria and Morocco, and the long border between the two countries is closed. Various factions have fought in Western Sahara, but a tenuous cease fire has been in place for over a decade. As far as I can tell, the land is one of the most sparsely inhabited places on earth. But, although the amounts are not clear, it does have phosphates, and that apparently means it could be worth fighting over. The Western Sahara phosphates, however, are not the only Moroccan ones. There are also plentiful phosphates deposits in the rest of Morocco.

Phosphates are important to you and me for several reasons, including that they are an essential component of artificial fertilizers that help produce the food we need. I had not given phosphates much thought even when it was mentioned on the trip, but in a minor small-world moment I read a passage about the substance in a novel I started reading soon after returning from Morocco.

In The Gold Bug Variations by Richards Powers, published in 1991, Jan O’Deigh, a main character, is a reference librarian in Brooklyn. Back in the day, these librarians would answer factual questions on all sorts of questions or help patrons find the answer. What was Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average? What is the highest point in Florida? She is asked a question about what countries are more affluent than America. She posts an answer: “Nauru, a Pacific Island whose eight thousand inhabitants are far wealthier per capita than the U.S. population. They make their money on one product, phosphates, which run the industries of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The Nauruans extract the chemicals from huge deposits of seafowl guano laid down over thousands of years. Such affluence has a price. The island is itself largely a guano deposit, and the more than two million tons of phosphates exported each year eat it away rapidly.”

Nauru—never heard of it. To my mild surprise I found out it was not a made-up place. I sought to learn a bit about it. I did what we now do for a little information. I turned not to a reference librarian, but to the internet. I learned Nauru is a Pacific island only eight miles square with its nearest neighbor, another mere speck in that big ocean, only 190 miles away. But the good news for the Naurans with wanderlust is that the Solomon Islands are only 810 miles away. The republic is geographically smaller than all other countries except Vatican City and Monaco, and its present population of 10,000 is the world’s second or third smallest of the world’s nations.

Nauru’s phosphates were easily strip mined, and around 1980, the time The Gold Bug Variations is set, the GDP per capita was about $50,000, which placed it second in this category behind Saudi Arabia. However, the phosphates were playing out. A trust was set up from the phosphate revenues to support the population once the guano deposits were exhausted. The trust was mismanaged. It once had $1.3 billion, but now the fund is less than a tenth of that. The country has struggled to find other sources of revenue, and the GDP per capita (different estimates are given) may be one-twentieth of what it was in its heyday.

The strip mining not only depleted the phosphates, it caused severe ecological damage to the island. Australia concluded that it had a responsibility because of its role in the devastation and offered to move the population of Nauru to an island off Queensland, where the Nauruans would have become Australian citizens. The populace wanted their own sovereignty, however, rejected the offer, and stayed put. (Staying put seems to a favorite [non]activity on the island. Nauru, I learned, has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.)

I know little about the Moroccan phosphates industry other than I was told that the deposits are vast and can meet the present world’s supply for more than the foreseeable future. I do know, however, that extensive natural resources have not always led to a lasting widespread wealth for a country. Nigeria and Venezuela both have sizeable oil deposits, but both are plagued with poverty, corruption, and civil unrest. Oil has not led to nirvana in either place. Riches from natural resources are often too easily spent instead of being invested in ways that improve the economy beyond the extraction of a valuable substance. Think of Spain and all the gold and silver it once got from the Americas and how that wealth was used. It did not lead to a thriving Iberian economy. And, of course, there is the history of tiny Nauru.

I wondered if the Nauru story held any lessons for Morocco, but I don’t know how the profits of the Moroccan phosphates industry are being used. I don’t even know if the Moroccan phosphates are reached through tunnels with the risk of life and limb or through strip mining, as in Nauru, with the potential for ecological doom. But I did notice that the Nauruan phosphate came from guano deposits—bird droppings. I learned that humans and animals excrete almost every bit of phosphorus they consume, a reason manure was returned to the fields. The excrement fertilized the soils. One report says that there is enough phosphorus in a person’s urine to help grow more than fifty percent of the food a person needs. Not surprisingly, there are scientists and companies working to extract phosphorus from wastewater. Just as the wealth from growing broomcorn used in whisk brooms dissipated with the whoosh of vacuum cleaners, new technological possibilities may mean that someday the demand for phosphates could dramatically decrease.  

I hope Morocco is taking this under consideration.

Snippets

          How upset would you be if there were an outbreak of the coronavirus on the Senate floor?

          Do Rudy Giuliani and Alan Dershowitz share the same brain?

          The spouse asked the NBP what kind of vacations the NBP most enjoyed. Options were laid out: to beautiful natural spots; trips that covered many places; trips that went only to one location; and so on. The spouse finally included in her cataloging a trip designed to visit museums or other cultural sites. The NBP immediately labeled that last option a “nerdcation.” I don’t know if the NBP has already trademarked that designation.

          The reason I can’t speak a foreign language is that I grew up watching American television. A few years ago, I asked a Portuguese waiter how he had learned to speak his excellent English. He said that Portugal, not a rich country, did not dub English television shows into Portuguese but took the cheaper route of having Portuguese subtitles. He said that watching such programming had made his English better than just from school studies. “Yes,” he said, “I can speak English because of Friends.” In the last month I asked a man from the Netherlands about his flawless English and he said that he first learned the language from non-dubbed American cartoons on Dutch television. I only watched Bugs Bunny, Sky King, and Father Knows Best in English, and therefore I only speak a version of English.

          A Mayan guide in Yucatan said that the Spanish brought hammocks to Mexico, and before that Mayans slept on the ground. Mayans quickly adopted hammocks because sleeping on the ground, which had a heavy concentration of lime, caused health problems. The guide, as do other modern Mayans, still sleeps in a hammock. I did not know him well enough to ask about hammock sex.

          I have heard reports that 500,000 animals have been killed in the Australian fires. (Don’t ask how anyone could know the number or even give a reasonable estimate. And are fish, birds, beetles, and centipedes “animals” for this purpose?) Other reports put the dead animals at a half billion. On a first reaction, does one number seem more devastating than the other?

          When the pontificating ass gets to be too much, just say, “I bow to your superior sciolism.”

          “‘One can be cleverer than another, not cleverer than all others.’ (La Bruyère?)” Leonarda Sciascia, Equal Danger.

          Why is it important to learn how to fold fitted sheets, when you can just ball them up and shove them onto a closet shelf? Or do you, as my mommy used to, iron your sheets?

Let It Snowball (concluded)

My youth is far, far behind me, but I still throw snowballs when given the chance. I still see if I can hit a tree or pole, but shoulder surgeries have made my throwing, like other activities for other reasons, a relatively limp experience, and my targets are much closer than years ago. Even so, each time I pack together a snowball, I feel close to my boyhood and lessons snowballs taught me—how to make a good snowball; how to throw; how to lead a target; how to bob and weave to avoid thrown snowballs; how snowball fights could test my courage; and how my lying skills needed improving.

When I heard the news reports that snowball throwing was banned in a Wisconsin town, I could not believe it. Only a snowflake would want to do that.

On the other hand, I might support a ban on the Dreaded Ice Ball. We learned about the Dreaded Ice Ball through our experimentation in igloo building. We set out in the backyard to build a snow hut. At first, we just mounded snow, but it did not take long to see that walls could not be made in that way. Then someone had the idea of getting a cardboard box, filling it with packed snow, and unmolding it to make a large building block. Better, but no matter how much we tried to compress the snow, the block would crumble when another two or three were placed on top. Third idea: Take the snow block and douse it with a bit of water. Mom’s watering can was rescued from the house; the block was sprinkled; and after it froze, quite a good building material was made. In a normal cold time, when the temperatures were eighteen or twenty degrees, it took a bit of time for the freezing. After a few blocks were constructed and we were waiting around, someone wondered what would happen if snowballs were watered. The experiment began, and the Dreaded Ice Ball was formed. We learned that we had to make the snowballs a little bigger than normal because the sprinkled water shrunk them a bit. They felt heavier. They felt awesome. They felt dangerous. After some had frozen, we threw some against a tree. We heard a Thwak that sounded like a mini-explosion. These could hurt. We instantly realized these could never be used in our snowball fights. We did not want to get hurt, and we did not want to hurt our friends, and these could hurt. In these Cold Wars, this was a forbidden weapon.

And then one day right before the home room period began, whispers went around: “They are waiting for us after school.” No one defined “they.” It had to be the greasers, which in our town did not have the ethnic connotations it did elsewhere. It meant the tough kids. The kinds who had greased-back hair coming to a point in the back. In our provincial place, the hairstyle was a DT, a duck’s tail. Only the greasers could have been out to waylay us. No explanation passed as to why they had planned an ambush. In fact, my friends and I seldom intersected with the greasers. We didn’t have fights with them. But the warning struck fear. We did not want to admit it, but we believed they were tougher than we were.

As the morning went on, it was said they would be waiting at Tenth and Geele. But then the word changed; it would be Twelfth and Bell. The intelligence system was hardly perfect.

By noon, the word was around that they had stockpiled ice balls. The Dreaded Ice Balls. You could hear fear as this was whispered when the teacher’s back was turned.  We would be underarmed. Snowballs are made on the spot, but Dreaded Ice Balls must be made in advance. A source of water is needed, and time is needed for the ice to form. This was dangerous. We did not have adequate means to fight back. That flinty taste of fear was in our mouths the rest of the day. Some were about to cry. What would we do when the school day ended? Would we take our normal ways home and pass the listed combat zones? Would some cowardly classmates take long detours to get to their houses? How would we fight? What if a Dreaded Ice Ball poked an eye out? It was the longest day of our young lives.

So I say, let there by snowballs. But ban the dangerous Dreaded Ice Ball.