Snippets

          Before this March, when was the last time you put “social” and “distance” in the same sentence? Social distancing seems to be an oxymoron, but perhaps there is no better term. Keep a respectful separation from others, but “a respectful separation” sounds like a divorcing couple trying to convince friends and relatives that everything is amicable. If there is social distancing, is there a remote intimacy? That sounds like many relationships in their tenth year.

          Do you think Melania has barked, “Social distance! Social distance!” so often, she now just utters, “SD! SD!”?

          Are there controlled scientific studies that support six feet as the proper social distance? I have not seen them cited. If good science backs up that amount of separation, I think the study would have been in the metric system. What is the proper social distance in Europe?

          Does anyone do a drinking game where a shot must be downed every time Vice President Pence mentions Trump in one of those briefings? Participants would be drunk within thirty seconds. After two minutes, they would have to be taken to an ICU that would not have open beds and need a ventilator that might be found by bidding on ebay.

          Only “essential” businesses are open in New York. Liquor stores are classified as essential. Only essential businesses are open in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. Liquor stores are not labeled essential there. Make of that what you will.

          I had the horrifying dream that during a coronavirus briefing, I lost a pound every time the president referred to himself. I saw myself shed weight and quickly I was at a desired poundage, but I sped past that into appearing anorexic. In a few minutes, I was a skeleton. I woke up in a cold sweat.

          Is Greenland free of the coronavirus? If so, maybe Trump should have bought the island after all.

          While COVID-19 has clusters, it is a national problem. However, the Trump administration has only lackadaisically tried to increase the production and distribution of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and ventilators for those who get seriously sick. As a result, life-and-death choices will have to be made as to who gets protected and treated. Where is Sarah Palin and all those who were entranced by her as she ranted delusionally about Obamacare death panels? Now we have planning for the life-and death decisions. And they should be called TPDs—Trump Death Panels.

          “He was like a cock who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow.” George Eliot [Mary Ann Evans].

The Forgotten Billionaire

          When A.T. Stewart, the department story magnate, died in 1876, he was worth more than $50 million, calculated to be the equivalent of $46.9 billion in the 1996 economy. Although Stewart was parsimonious, he gave bequests of millions of dollars in today’s money to a half dozen long-time employees. When he died, his fortune was the third largest in New York, behind a Vanderbilt and an Astor. But soon he was forgotten.

          Few are aware of his legacies that remain. Garden City, Long Island, is a thriving, sought-after community. A college roommate grew up there, and friends of mine have lived and worked there. There are monuments to Stewart in the town, but I certainly did not know that A.T. Stewart was the town’s founder, and when I mentioned Stewart to friends who had lived in Garden City for decades, they knew nothing about him. Perhaps if he had been egotistical enough to name the place after himself and put up entrance signs of his name in large, gold letters, he would be better remembered for this development.

          The building that housed his first department store at 280 Broadway—the Marble Palace between Chambers and Reade Streets—still remains. I have walked by the building countless times, but I associated it not with Stewart but a defunct newspaper. In 1917, the New York Sun bought the building and published there until the paper’s final demise (it was bought out or merged with other papers along the way) in the 1960s. At some point, the Sun hung a clock with its logo on the Chambers and Broadway corner, and it remains. I have glanced at the clock almost every time I have gone past this intersection, but the clock logo always made the structure the Sun Building in my, and others’, minds. I had no idea it was once a profitable, famous, innovative department store and no idea that it was built by A.T. Stewart.

          Stewart’s Cast Iron Palace at Broadway and Ninth was bought in 1896 by the Philadelphia retailer, John Wanamaker, who had an establishment there until 1954. Two years later in a two-day fire, the building burned down. A plaque at that location mentions that it was the site of the first cast iron building in New York City, mentions Wanamaker, but is silent on Stewart.

          Stewart’s palatial Fifth Avenue mansion no longer exists. Mrs. Stewart did reside in it until she died in 1886. Then the home became a private club but was torn down to make way for a bank at the beginning of the twentieth century.

          A.T. Stewart is partly forgotten because prominent landmarks don’t bear his name. In addition, he did not spawn a clan that carried his name forward. A son died a few weeks after birth in 1834, and a daughter was stillborn four years later. He died childless.

          But perhaps the main reason we don’t remember Stewart is that his retail empire quickly disappeared, and that was the doing Judge Henry Hilton. Hilton was Stewart’s attorney. (Hilton had been a minor judge, but like other insecure lawyers, he kept the honorific even when he was no longer on the bench.) A.T.’s will bequeathed $1 million to Hilton while the bulk of the estate went to Mrs. Stewart. In a strange decision, in lieu of Hilton’s million dollars, Mrs. Stewart put him in charge of Stewart’s businesses. Almost immediately there was a problem.

          The Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, was one of the Stewart businesses. When Joseph Seligman, an important New York City banker, went to the hotel the summer after Stewart died, Seligman, who had been summering at the Grand Union for over a decade, was turned away and told that Henry Hilton had decreed that Jews were no longer welcome at the hotel. Newspapers ran with the story, and almost immediately a hundred Jewish mercantile accounts with Stewart’s businesses were closed. Jewish women boycotted the store. It was estimated that from $3 million to $5 million a year of trade was lost within a year.

          Blundering along, Hilton changed Stewart’s Manhattan hotel for single women of modest means into a regular hotel. In announcing that decision, he found ways to gratuitously insult women. Almost immediately, cards circulated for both men and women to sign, pledging not to buy anything at Stewart’s store for five years. The retail business plummeted further.

          Hilton made other mistakes, including a failed foray into the Chicago marketing world. Hilton’s reverse genius was immense. As J. North Conway writes in Bag of Bones, “Hilton was forced to liquidate the business . . . in 1882 because of the boycott-led atrophy of the enterprise. Considering the enormity of the retail empire Alexander Stewart left behind in 1876, its liquidation six years later represented one of the fastest mercantile declines in American business—all at the hands of the incompetent Judge Henry Hilton.”

          Even with the visible missteps, it is still mysterious to many that such a successful empire could be run to the ground, dissipating much of a vast fortune so quickly. Since Hilton had connections with the Boss Tweed ring, massive corruption was suggested but never proved. And while the business was collapsing, another mystery—this one involving Stewart’s dead body–occurred.

          Stewart’s corpse was buried in the churchyard of St. Mark’s of the Bowery. Sometime in the early morning hours of November 7, 1878, his body was dug up and stolen.

          Almost immediately Hilton on behalf of Mrs. Stewart offered $25,000 for the return of the remains. A vigorous and highly publicized manhunt for the perpetrators and a body-hunt for the corpse ensued, but after a few fruitless months, as the newspapers reported less and less about the matter, Patrick Jones, a former New York Postmaster and an attorney, reported that the grave robbers had contacted him by letter, saying that they had taken the body to Canada and would return it to Mrs. Stewart not for the $25,000 reward but for a ransom of $250,000. She, following the advice of Henry Hilton, who maintained that the Jones’ offer was a hoax, did not pay.

          For the next few years, the grave robbery sporadically came back into the newspapers, but in 1881, Cornelia Stewart supposedly had direct contact with the perpetrators. An exchange occurred at 3 a.m. on a deserted Bronx road. One or two masked men gave a burlap bag in exchange for $20,000 to Mrs. Stewart’s emissary. The bag contained bones that she had been assured were the remains of her husband. These bones were subsequently placed in a coffin and placed in a crypt in the foundation of the Church of the Incarnation in Garden City, Long Island, protected, it was claimed, by a device that would ring the church’s bells if the remains were disturbed.

          Of course, no one truly knows whether the bag contained Stewart’s remains. And no one knows who the grave robbers were. Some things remain a mystery.

The Forgotten Billionaire

          I was disappointed that Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign was so short, not because I was supporting him for the nomination but because he brought silos of fodder for discussion: the good and bad during his New York City mayoralty; what, if anything, his incredible success as a businessman told us about his qualifications to be president (Quick. Name me all the presidents you regard highly who had successful business careers. Name all the highly regarded presidents who did not have successful business careers.); his philanthropic choices; his comments about women; his proposed policies and priorities; the use of his money in the campaign.

          Even after his campaign ended, however, there was some breathless reporting on how much he had spent on his failed effort. Of course, he could spend enormous amounts because he has vast wealth. It has been widely reported that he is worth $54 billion.

          I wondered where this placed him among the richest Americans, and a list I found of wealthy, contemporary Americans placed him eighth, headed by Jeff Bezos, worth $114 billion, which we can all agree is whole river of money. I did not find a ranking, however, that placed Bezos and Bloomberg on a list of all-time richest Americans. I only knew of some older attempts to compile such a ranking.

          Of course, comparing fortunes over time is an inexact exercise, and compilers have done it in different ways. However, lists from 1996, 1998, and 2008 all agree that John D. Rockefeller was the all-time richest American followed by Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor, although not always in the same order. (A 2014 study had Stephen Girard in fourth place and dropped Carnegie to sixth.)

          These names were not a surprise to me. The others in the top twenty were not either, except for the one that occupied seventh place (eighth in a 2014 report): A. T. (Alexander Turney) Stewart. I had never heard of him, even though one study said that he was worth the equivalent of $55.6 billion in the 1996 economy, which adjusted for inflation would be $91.4 billion today, or less than Bezos but more than Bloomberg. (Rockefeller’s riches were calculated as $189.6 billion for 1996, which would equate to $311.74 today, making him by far the richest American ever.) I asked some friends, and none of them had heard of Stewart either. I wondered how someone who would still be ranked as one of the wealthiest Americans whoever lived could be forgotten. And then, by happenstance, I read a book about the fascinating Stewart and his corpse, Bag of Bones: The Sensational Grave Robbery of the Merchant Prince of Manhattan by J. North Conway.

          Alexander Turney Stewart was born in Northern Ireland in 1803 and raised by a grandfather there. Stewart came to New York City when he was twenty but briefly returned to Belfast to collect a modest inheritance when grandpa died. He bought laces and other dry goods, returned to New York, married Cornelia Mitchell Clinch, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and set up a small store on Broadway near City Hall. The store was successful–so successful that in 1846 he built a new store that occupied the entire block on the opposite side of the street. Faced with Tuckahoe marble punctuated with large windows, it was known as the “Marble Palace.” The interior had a central rotunda with a skylight, and the store was filled with natural light. He added European fashions and furs to his offerings and installed full-length mirrors for customers to view themselves. Perhaps most important for his success was that he changed the nature of shopping. He introduced the radical idea of one set price for all customers. Before this innovation a potential purchaser and a salesclerk had haggled. Stewart also allowed browsing. The salespeople, unlike in other establishments, did not try to intimidate anyone into making a purchase. As a result, his store became a fashionable place to spend time, and sales increased. Before the Civil War he was worth several million dollars.

          New York City was moving north, and in 1862, Stewart built a larger store a mile farther up Broadway between Ninth and Tenth Streets. This one was faced with cast iron, said to be the first building in New York City with a cast iron front. His first large store, on the corner of Chambers and Broadway, is often said to be the first American department store, but if so, he perfected the idea with his new uptown store. Now there were departments not just for clothing and dry goods but also for bedding, carpets, and toys. He employed two thousand people in the store, some of whom could quickly alter clothes people wanted to buy. He built mills in New England to supply his store with fabrics. He started a successful mail order business, paving the way for Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. And his fortune grew, some of which went into real estate.

          He built a Tuckahoe marble mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Fourth Street, taking up the whole block front and eschewing the brownstone rowhouses that the fashionable people had built until then. Lavishly decorated and furnished, “palatial” was often used to describe the home.

          He planned a Manhattan hotel for single women of modest means. His most ambitious real estate venture was Garden City. He bought seven thousand acres east of New York on Long Island. It was the country’s first planned workers’ community with streets, parks, affordable homes, stores and a hotel. He built a railroad from the new town to New York City so his workers could go back and forth.

(concluded 3/25)

Snippets

          The government proposes to send checks of a thousand or more dollars directly to Americans, but the Treasury Secretary says this money will not go to millionaires. I assume that if he is true to “conservative” Republican principles, those rich people will get a tax break instead.

          I have heard often of the “undeserving poor,” but never of the “undeserving rich.” Are you like me and think that that second category is quite large?

          Republicans seemed to be hoping that Bernie Sanders would be the Democratic nominee so that they could run against “socialism,” even though Sanders refers to himself as a Democratic Socialist. I have been thinking about socialism as the government gets nearer to a bailout of corporations because of the present economic collapse. The words of Edward E. Baptist in The Half Has Never Been told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism have come to mind: “Privatizing the gains of investment; socializing the risk. This is a classic strategy for politically powerful entrepreneurs.” Socializing the risk does sound like socialism, but that does not mean that even if we see the corporate economic aid for what it is that we should not have it. Instead, we should ask if a bailout is good for society. If it is, then we should do it. I thought something similar when a while back I heard a panel on a news network discussing whether healthcare is a right. This was not the correct question. Instead, we should ask: Is universal healthcare good for society?

          On a recent trip, a fellow traveler to Sicily, who was my age, had come from Germany to the United States as a child when his father accepted a job with a brewery in Tampa, Florida. He said that it had been hard to leave his friends, but America was then very exciting, and, of course, it was the setting for the western stories he loved of Karl May (you can look him up) and for the American cowboy movies and TV shows he watched. He said that many Europeans view the United States differently today than they did back then and had no desire now to move to America. They do not want to live without universal healthcare; have expensive “public” colleges and universities and other “public” education that is supported with bake sales; and do not want to live where the middle class is shrinking.

          The government’s efforts to soften the economic decline will increase the already burgeoning federal deficit, which, of course, increased because of the “conservative” tax cuts a few years ago. (Prediction: “Conservatives” will care about the deficit when, and only when, a Democrat becomes President.) Buried in Trump’s last budget sent to Congress was the assertion that our deficits may be unsustainable; that by 2024 interest payments may be higher than defense spending; and that even now interest payments are higher than Medicaid spending. A goodly portion of my taxes, then, go not to the federal government but to interest payments. My money is being transferred to individuals, non-government entities, or other government who had the wherewithal to lend the government money. These are not the down and out. Surely, those lenders are wealthier than I am. Aren’t the interest payments, then, a form of wealth redistribution where the government funnels money from the less wealthy to the very wealthy?

          “Every evil, harm, and suffering in this life or in the next comes from the love of riches.” St. Catherine of Siena.

The Woman Who Laughed Out Loud

          It seems distant because it was before social distancing, but it was only a few weeks ago. I arrived ten minutes before the play was to begin at the 100-seat, historic theater in Greenwich Village. I had to crawl over four or five people to get to my seat. I sat down, but I could feel the eyes of the woman on my left glued to me. Soon, she spoke, starting to ask if I was in show business. I interrupted before she went further. I anticipated that she was going to ask what I have been asked several times—was I certain famous actor. Even though I have encountered this question several times, including being asked by a Brooklyn dentist and a waiter in a Sarasota restaurant, I am nonplussed by it because I don’t see any resemblance between that person and me.  And I wonder what the question means about how I appear to others. The actor asked about is not of the Brad Pitt or George Clooney type, but one best known for many for his portrayals of creepy people.

          I smilingly told the woman on my left, “My only connection to the theater or the movies is to be in the audience.” I settled down and picked up the one-paged credits and realized that I had misspoken. I thought that the only thing I knew about the cast of the play, The Confession of Lily Dare, was that it starred the marvelous Charles Busch, who had also written the play. But then I saw that another actor in the play was HM. I had a connection to him that was more than just being an audience member. I had met him and been in his house.

          When in the first or second grade, the child (the NBP) had play dates with HM’s son at HM’s home. I had met him there. I remembered that going home after one such time I had asked the NBP what Chris’s father did, and I got the response, “Maybe he is an actor or something.” I put it out of my mind—many people in New York want to be actors—until a month or two later the spouse and I went to a highly successful musical at Lincoln Center and discovered that HM was the male lead. He was more than a maybe-actor, but a leading New York theater person. And years later, I heard Jonathan Schwartz playing a song sung by that same man that had been recorded at a cabaret performance. I mentioned some of this to my left-side companion, and when I stumbled a bit on the Lincoln Center production, she immediately furnished the title and mentioned the co-star. My guess is that she knew a lot more about theater than I do.

          It was still a few minutes to the performance. I opened the book that I carried. I read a paragraph or two, and the woman on my right, who was also reading, laughed out loud. I smiled and continued reading. She laughed again, and I asked, “What are you reading that’s so funny.” She held up the cover of the book, but I did not register it for the theater went dark, and the play began.

          At intermission, the woman was again engrossed in her book. When it did not seem too intrusive, I again asked what she was reading. She held it up again, and I saw it was the intriguingly named My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. The author, Fredrick Backman, initially meant nothing to me, but then I saw on the cover that he was the author of A Man Called Ove, a novel I had found charming as I had the movie made from it. My theater neighbor told me how much she was enjoying My Grandmother Asked. . . and how funny parts of it were. (She did ask me about the book I was reading, which was one I picked up on a lark in an upstate junk shop in the fall—Lincoln McKeever. To my surprise, it was pretty good.)

          I thought a book that might make me laugh would be an especially good tonic. The next day I went to Greenlight, my neighborhood bookstore. They had novels by Backman but not My Grandmother. . . . I had liked Ove and the woman in the theater was truly enjoying Grandmother, so I thought I might as well try one of Backman’s books that Greenlight had.

          I bought Beartown and have now read it. It is filled with insights about childhood and parenthood and about individuals and community. It starts out amusing but turns horrifying. And yet it remains insightful and touching. It made me want to cry. It presents the dangers and vulnerabilities of loving and that you can never love enough. It was marvelous. I am glad that I have read it.

          I don’t know your name, but to the woman-who-sat-next-to-me-at-the-theater-and-laughed-out-loud, thank you. Because of you I read Beartown. And I do plan to read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. And the sequel to Beartown.

Snippets

          A friend who spends time in winter in Florida said that he hoped that I could join him next year because there is a trivia night in some establishment where he goes. He is under the mistaken impression that I am still good at answering obscure, meaningless factual questions. I once was, but the times and trivia have changed. The bar I sometimes hang out in has a Tuesday trivia night. Usually I play tennis that night, but occasionally when tennis is cancelled, or I have some injury, I go to the bar and join a trivia team captained by the bartender. But I have become convinced that only those who are under 35 or 40 would know most of the answers. The trivia concerns TV shows or music or celebrities from the last twenty years, and I seldom know the answers. Hell, most of the time I do not even know who the people are being asked about. Almost none of the questions are about history or literature or geography. Occasionally, I do know an answer, but often bartender Brian or another teammate also has it. I consider it a good night if out of fifty questions I can come up with one or two answers they otherwise would not have. Worst of all, however, is when there is a question that an old guy ought to get, and they look at me, and I have that senior moment not being able to come up with something that I know is there, but it stays on the tip of my tongue. I could come up, for example, with “The Teenagers,” but could not retrieve “Frankie Lymon” as the singers of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” Trivia used to feed my ego because I was better than most. Now it makes me feel not just inept but old and inept. I only want to participate in a trivia contest if there is a chance that the correct answer is Bucephalus, Traveller, or Tony. That’s not the kind of questions that Trivia Joe asks at my local biergarten.

          When I want to feel special, I tell myself that I am one of the few people who knows that Tarzan lived in Wisconsin.

          In absolving himself, President Trump referred to it as a “foreign virus.” Do all viruses have a nationality? Would our government’s response have been different, or would the coronavirus be less threatening if it were an American virus? What kind of walls are being planned to keep out the illegal foreign viruses? Can a foreign virus get a visa to enter the United States? If that virus is here long enough, can it get a teeny, tiny green card? Does a second-generation virus in America get birthright citizenship? And by the way, nuclear bombs and other nuclear weapons were first developed in the United States. Should we refer to all nuclear weapons no matter where manufactured as “American nuclear weapons?”

“Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.” George Bernard Shaw.

Are you, like me, surprised by how well Vice President Mike Pence has performed at those news conferences? Are you then dismayed by being pleased by a performance that any competent politician—any competent person—ought to be able to do? Are you then shocked, and a little frightened, by how far the competency bar has fallen?

He scowled at the barometer: “Will it rain?”

None heard, with all that pattering on the pane.

John Frederick Nunes

Sunrise Over Chichen Itza (concluded)

The Mayan ball game, we were told by our guide, often replaced warfare. Instead of battles, the contending societies used the game to settle disputes, with the losing team, or perhaps only the captain, sacrificed. We saw some of the results. We passed a wall of skulls to enter the ball court.

The plate or bowl on the chak mool statue’s tummy, we were told, held the remains of sacrifices, including human ones. The heart is usually mentioned. These sacrifices were to the gods, perhaps as part of regular rituals, such as on an equinox, or as a special pleading as, for example, for rain.

Human sacrifice. That always seems to get the attention, and perhaps the most frequent takeaway from Chichen Itza is that the Mayans sacrificed humans. Our guide, a Mayan, however, quickly and frequently maintained that it was only late in the history of Chichen Itza, which, for mysterious reasons, was abandoned in the 13th century B.C.E., that human sacrifice was instituted. He said that Mayans adopted the practices from the Toltecs, who had come from the north.

The modern reaction to human sacrifice frequently is: How barbaric! How primitive! Really? Are wars that kill and thousands better than a ball game for deciding disputes? Aren’t we moderns more barbaric in this regard?

The guide maintained that the chak mool sacrificees gave themselves up willingly. They believed in the religion that asked for their deaths and believed that they would end up in paradise as a result. The reaction again might be about the barbarism and superstition of the Mayan religion, but how many Christian or Jewish or Muslim martyrs have you been told about? Are these martyrs really so different from the willing Mayan sacrificees? And how much different is it when people volunteer for war or a “suicide” mission in a war? We “civilized” people regularly honor martyrs for various causes. Shouldn’t those Mayans be regarded as martyrs for their religion and society as we honor war heroes and Christian martyrs?

But as I wondered if we modern people were less superstitious or less barbaric than the Mayans, I also wondered about modern American religious claims. Proponents of religious “freedom” often contend that religious people must be exempt from various duties that society imposes on the general populace because following the duty conflicts with their religious principles. An employer, for example, may contend that he does not have to provide birth control coverage for his employees, even though the law mandates such coverage, because his religious principles ban birth control. If these assertions of religious rights become established, must we accept as religious freedom human sacrifice as part of a religion if the sacrificee is willing? Why not? (The United States Supreme Court in 1993 found unconstitutional a Florida ordinance, aimed at Santeria church, which banned religious animal sacrifice. Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye v. Hialeah.)

But as we looked at the Mayan sites, I wondered how much we really know about the Mayan culture. Knowledge has come from deciphering surviving hieroglyphs carved into stones, but much we might have known about the Mayans has been lost because of religion—not the Mayan religion, but the Christian one. Diego de Landa was the bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatan is the sixteenth century. Much of what we know about the Mayan peoples, culture, religion, and writing comes from a book de Landa wrote about the Mayans in about 1566. The original is lost, but abridgements were found in the nineteenth century that were valuable in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs. But de Landa is widely seen as a villain today in Yucatan. He instituted an inquisition during which many Mayans were brutally tortured, and he destroyed much Mayan culture.

The Mayans had produced many books on paper made from bark. We don’t know the number of these Mayan codices, but Bishop de Landa built a pyre and burned every one he could find. He said, “We found many books with these letters, and because they contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery, we burnt them, which the Indians greatly lamented.” Today only three codices remain. They are in European museums. A fourth, the authenticity of which is in some dispute and is only a fragment, is in a Mexico City museum.

And with that fire ordered by de Landa, much of what we might know about the Mayans became ashes blowing in the wind. We often say that one person can make a difference. Bishop de Landa did make a difference. And he did it in the name of the “one true religion.” And the Mayans were regarded as barbaric primitives?!?

Sunrise Over Chichen Itza

On a recent trip, we entered Chichen Itza, the most famous Mayan ruins in Yucatan, at 5 A.M. We were there to watch the sun rise over the famous pyramid and other structures. It was still dark in the east, but it was not completely dark. A full moon hung low in the west, giving a lovely glow to the setting. However, it was dim enough for our guide to hold a light pointing at the edge of the pyramid to mimic the sun’s rise at the equinox. The head of a serpent’s head is carved at the bottom of the structure’s steps, and the shadow cast by the guide’s light, and by the sun at the change of the seasons, resembles the lengthy body of a serpent culminating at the carved head. The Mayans knew the placement of the heavenly objects, and the pyramid was carefully constructed to commemorate the snake the Mayans revered.

The Snake. Photo by the BNP.

As the moon set, its light was replaced by a purplish tint to the eastern clouds. Then the rim of the sun pushed its way up from the surrounding jungle. I hadn’t liked getting up in the dark, but this magic was worth it.

Sunrise over the Pyramid. Photo by the BNP.

After the sun rose, our guide, who was necessary for the early morning entry, showed us around the main ruins. The spouse and I immediately recognized a change from our other visit forty years ago—visitors were no longer permitted to climb up the pyramid’s steps as we had once done. We had even walked through an opening and entered the inside of the pyramid, which is really the outer pyramid of a Russian doll nest of structure upon structure built over centuries. Unknown then was the fact that underneath the entire structure is a cenote, an underground freshwater lake.

Even back then we were amazed that clambering over the pyramid was permitted, thinking that thousands going up and down and entering it had to do it harm. We also felt a danger. Climbing up the hundred feet was hard enough, but when I got to the top and looked down, the heart beat faster and sphincters tightened. The steps are steep and narrow, less wide than the length of my foot. It looked more like going down a ten-story ladder than descending steps.  I paused and looked unavailingly to find another way down, but there were only the treacherous steps. I proceeded cautiously, sort of sideways, one slow step at a time, but then as I was crabbing my way downwards, I looked about me and saw teen-age Mexican girls, dressed as if for a date, scampering up and down in high heels. Even so, my deliberate, frightened pace did not increase.

The pyramid dominates the Chichen Itza landscape, but the ball court and chak mool (chakmool, chak-mool) are photographed nearly as much. The main ball court has two parallel walls with a viewing area above. A ring is attached high on the wall. The teams competed by passing a hard, heavy (nine pound) rubber ball through the ring without the use of implements or hands—a hip bump was used to propel the ball. The ring is high, above head height, and I could not imagine ever being able to score.

Chak mool is a statue of a reclining man leaning on his elbows with the head turned ninety degrees, I think always to the right. A plate or bowl is on the stomach of the man. And just as Chichen Itza has more than one ball court, it contains several chak mool statues.

Chak Mool. Photo by BNP.

The ball court and chak mool are linked together by human sacrifices.

(concluded 3/16)

Snippets

Happy Birthday Doug was written and performed by Drew Droege. Mostly we hear the one side of guests’ conversations with Doug at his celebration in a Los Angeles wine bar. As an actor, Droege was superb in creating the different characters with his body and his intonations. His writing was equally as good. In a few sentences, I could grasp the  essence of each character was. But I was confused by one thing. The credits, of course, listed Droege, a director, a production stage manager, and an assistant stage manager. But the credits also told me there were eight producers and an associate producer. The set was a few tables and glasses, and the play was sixty minutes long. I wonder what the eight producers and an associate actually did. I just don’t understand show business.

 “We all indulged in wine and were soon astonished at our scintillating wit.” Daphne Phelps, A House in Sicily.

Have you wondered what Covid-18, or Covid-12, or especially Covid-7 is?

I increasingly see “survivor” with discussions of sexual assaults. Apparently, this is the politically correct term instead of “victim.” Why?

Spring comes again. I think that’s nice.

It is a season of which I’m fond.

Soon the beer bottles on the ice

Will disappear into the pond.

                   Richard Moore

          In my running days, I ran a lot of races, most often ten kilometers long and more in Central Park than anywhere else. I was running 10K races before I tried marathons. When I started doing those long races, I saw the 10K races as speed workouts for a marathon. My goal was to run the 10K in 6-minute miles, and on good days I accomplished that. 10K was basically one loop around Central Park, but it was a tough 10K because the road went up and down with a big hill on the north end of the park. My indelible memory of that hill came from a couple of winter races.  We ran counterclockwise, starting on the east side of the Park near the Metropolitan Museum.  The hill came fairly soon with the road climbing and turning to the left. I could not see far ahead and was always unsure how much more of the hill was left. As I was struggling during those races, I would smell a cigar up above and around a bend. Then he would appear running against our traffic. He was older than most of the racers, maybe mid-50s. He seemed thirty pounds overweight. This was less of a guess than it might have been because even though it was well below freezing, sometimes in the teens, he was running bare chested.  And he was smoking a big cigar with a grin as he ran.  I saw him at least during two races, and each time I had not yet crested the big hill.  Seeing him made me smile, and somehow made the struggle to the top easier.

          Joseph Chamberlin, the elderly leader of the Opposition in the British House of Commons, supposedly replied when asked how he kept his seeming youth: “Never walk if you can drive; and of two cigars always choose the longest and the strongest.” (He collapsed shortly afterwards, and his health declined rapidly.)

Democracy Indexed and Flawed (concluded)

You might also say that the increasingly undemocratic representation in the Senate is what the founders of the country created. Yes, of course, those who wrote and adopted the Constitution mandated that all states, big or small or in between, would get two seats in the upper house. And perhaps that provision was necessary to get the thirteen states to meld into one country, but that, of course, does not mean that it is right for today. Those founders, unless they were on substances much different from the copious amounts of cider they drank, could not have imagined states with populations approaching 40 million.

The Constitutional framers did not create a Senate with hopes that a small portion of the population would control the Senate. A national census had not been undertaken when the Constitution was drafted, but the drafters’ views of the relative populations of the states can be seen in the Constitution’s Section 2 of Article I where the document prescribed the allocation of Representatives for the original House. New Hampshire would have three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island one, Connecticut five, New York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three, for a total of sixty-five.

The framers thought that the three largest states (this calculation included the infamous three-fifths clause) would have twenty-six representatives, indicating the belief that Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania had 40% of the population. Both Maryland and New York were allocated six Representatives. These five states, the framers believed, had about 57% of the population. Together, of course, they had ten seats in the twenty-six-person Senate, or about 38% of the Senators, while the states with 43% of the population would have 62% of the Senators. This, of course, was an imbalance, but it was nothing like the coming disparity where 50% of the population is expected to live in just eight states by 2040. They will only have 16% of the Senators, and, of course, the minority of the population will have 84% of the Senators.  

Whether or not two-Senators-per-state is a good provision today, it is what we have because of what happened in 1787, not because we of today have determined it is the best policy for our governing structure. But even if almost all of us conclude that we should have some other way of allocating Senators, it won’t be changed. Of course, the Constitution can be amended, which requires approval from two-thirds of each house of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. The states are treated equally, and the lack of approval from thirteen states, no matter what portion of the population they contain, dooms an amendment. The amendment process in general is difficult, but in reality it is impossible for changing the Senate’s composition. The Constitution’s amendment provision, Article V, says that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” I don’t think that I am being overly cynical by concluding that Alaska and Wyoming and other states will not give up their “equal” Senatorial representation.

There is another possibility for ameliorating the increasing undemocratic governmental structure. Large states such as Texas or California could divide themselves into four or six separate states, each with two Senators. The Constitution’s Section 3 of Article IV, however, says that such division can only be done with the consent of Congress. Again, I don’t think that I am being overly cynical by concluding that the Senate, where the overwhelming majority of Senators will come from the smallest states, is not going to approve the admission of such new states into the Union.

So . . . a smaller and smaller minority of the population will select a majority in the Senate. What, if in addition, the electoral college deviates further and further from the majority’s vote? Will “the people” see their government as legitimate? With these governmental structures unchangeable within our Constitutional confines, what will then happen?

The famed philosophers John Lennon and Paul McCartney seemed to advocate a mind change instead of a revolution when change might be desirable but difficult: “You say you want a revolution/ . . . But when you talk about destruction/ Don’t you know that you can count me out/ . . . You say you’ll change the constitution/Well, you know/We all want to change your head/You tell me it’s the institution/Well, you know/You better free your mind instead. . . .” But at least for me, I don’t think I can change my mind so that rule by an increasingly small minority in my country will really be all right. I don’t want to live in the equivalent of a banana republic.

But then what’s left? With no constitutional method for change, perhaps only the words of Jefferson show the path to a better democracy: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. . . . It is medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

Or perhaps we should contemplate the words of Bobby Kennedy: “A revolution is coming—a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough—but a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.”

We should start considering the extra-constitutional changes we are assuredly going to face.