Swimming with the Manatees (continued)

I had seen them before in other Florida places. The one I saw from a few feet above was cruising the byways of a marina. Tapered at the front with a squashed-in face and tapered in the back with one fin that propelled it soundlessly, the manatee had a girth that would have required holding hands with several others to encircle it. It was huge, but maybe because it moved slowly and seemingly effortlessly, it seemed loveable, huggable. Crystal River, Florida, however, offered more than the opportunity of standing on a dock and looking down at one; it promised the chance to swim with manatees.

Crystal River is dotted with companies that offer the manatee experience. The spouse had booked us with one in advance over the internet, which was fortunate since many of the time slots were already filled. Eight or ten of us adventurers congregated in a little building a few blocks from the water’s edge at the appointed time for an introductory lecture and film about manatees and how to behave in the water with them, lessons that continued on the boat from the boat captain John and the in-water guide Shelley.

The half-ton mammals had once nearly disappeared from the Florida habitat. The full-grown ones have few natural predators in the sea, but humans have harvested them for food and run over them with their motor boats. Now, thankfully, Florida is working to preserve them, and their numbers are increasing.

In spite of their blubbery appearance, the half-ton animals have little fat. Instead, their digestive system is large and takes up a large part of their body cavity. The animals eat up to 15% of their weight each day, feeding on sea grasses and other vegetation on the bottom of coastal waters and brackish streams. Manatees do not see well, and they generally move slowly. As a result, they do not easily get out of the way of fast-moving boats. It is too common to see a manatee back scarred by a boat propeller.

We were cautioned not to attempt to touch one, but that we could put out a hand and a manatee might swim up and touch it. We also were cautioned not to stir up sediment on the bay’s bottom so that the water’s visibility would be as good as possible.

Without layers of fat, manatees are not well insulated. They physically deteriorate in water below sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. The streams and bays of Crystal River have many springs whose waters flow at a constant seventy-two degrees throughout the year, and the manatees are drawn to these life-affirming springs when other nearby waters are colder. We were there in March, which was the end of the Crystal River manatee season because the Gulf and inland waters were warming up. We were told that we would no doubt see a few of the creatures, but in cooler months dozens or more would congregate in one of the fresh-water springs that surround the bay.

After our introductory lessons, we were all handed a wetsuit and shooed off to dressing rooms. After getting into swimming gear, which was hard when zippers were in back, we, feeling a bit conspicuous in our new attire, trundled into a van for a short ride to a dock where we clambered onto a pontoon boat. As we slowly (“no wake zone”) went out into the bay, we did that tourist thing of announcing where we were from. I don’t remember all the travelers, just the bartender and his sister and mother, a mother and two high school girls from a small town in northern Wisconsin, and surprisingly, a sixtyish couple from… Hawaii. She explained why they were vacationing in Florida—perhaps relatives. It did seem odd. When either the spouse or I announced that we were from Brooklyn, we both felt that the captain tensed, became hostile and a bit snide about New York City. But charm (the spouse), wit (both of us), and self-deprecatory humor (me) won him over so he treated us just as if we were normal tourists from, for example, one of the Greenvilles.

Shelley and John told us that manatees swimming near the surface made a distinctive swirl that could be spotted on the water. Okay, if you say so. They could discern this a whole lot better than the rest of us, but they would direct our gaze, and we could pretend to see a few of the animals as they surfaced. Finally the engine was cut and an anchor was gently placed in the water. Our guides had spotted a number of manatees nearby. We were to quietly get out of the boat with mask, snorkel and supporting float (“the noodle”) and arrange ourselves on the noodle in a “dead man’s float,” so as not to disturb the creatures nearby. Here is where I confess my ineptitude. It turns out I can’t negotiate breathing with a snorkel. Had I continued trying, it was clear that I was going to drown myself. So I mostly stood quietly in the water (it was quite shallow), and one manatee swam soundlessly past my leg. The spouse assumed the dead man’s position easily but couldn’t seem to find a beast. Shelly, however, took her by the hand and brought her to several of them, including a mother and calf. The spouse held out her hand as instructed, and, after a questioning look to Shelly, touched one. She said it felt like an elephant. After seeing the manatees, the guides took us to two springs where the water bubbled up through the sand from some subterranean source creating crystalline pools so clear that you could see twenty feet to the bottom. After our adventures, we went back to the dock and then to change back into our civvies. I was happy to have seen a manatee a few feet from me, but mostly I was embarrassed by my ineptitude. The spouse, on the other hand, who had been unsure whether she wanted to do this adventure, was high from the experience. I was pleased at her smile and her happy babbling about the manatees as we went back to the hotel.

(continued April 14)

Swimming with the Manatees (continued)

          I live in a bubble. I was reminded of that again on our trip to Crystal River, Florida. We were enticed there by the possibility of swimming with manatees, but while in Citrus County we also set off to kayak on the Rainbow River. We did not kayak. I was not sure how my poor ol’ damaged and robotic knees would do in a kayak, so the outfitter’s proprietor suggested that we use a canoe with a kayak paddle.

          We had a great couple of hours. We were driven upstream in a decrepit ex-school bus that still bore signs telling students to be silent when approaching a railroad crossing. A couple of the outfitter’s men got us comfortably into the canoe and pushed us out into the stream, which flowed gently. We could paddle, but even when we did not, we drifted softly towards our landing place four miles away. We did not exactly feel like explorers, but the weather was nice, the river beautiful, and we were in a canoe in country not traversed by us before.

Rainbow River is spring-fed and crystal clear. We could see straight through eight or ten feet to the bottom. Strict rules are in place to keep the river pristine. Nothing disposable can be brought onto the river, or as one restriction put it, every container had to be something that could be put into a dishwasher. The strictures were working. We did not see one can or baggie or any other trash on or in the river.

The river is a “no-wake” zone, and the few power boats were compliant. We got close to birds and turtles. The stream was lined with many interesting-looking houses. This was the one place in Citrus County where I did fantasize about buying property. (The spouse spoke to a man at the river’s edge to compliment him on his house with a wrap-around porch. He thanked her and said that the only thing wrong with it is that he had to clear the seaweed that collected around the pilings of his dock. I asked how long he had lived there. He replied, “Twenty years.” I indicated that that was not all that long, and he laughed and said that at his age—he looked younger than me—it was “a blink of an eye.” His pleasantness made the thought of moving nearby even more desirable.) We saw kids playing in the water and the always-enticing rope swing that went out over the water. Peaceful.

          After two hours or so, we pulled into the outfitter company’s landing place. The owner was there. And here began the realization of my bubbledom. He helped us out of the canoe, and while doing so indicated that he had lived in many places in Florida and elsewhere. It was because he was an army brat. His father was now retired and living in Key West. A bit later, as I waited for the spouse to complete some ablutions, one of the young members of the outfitter’s staff said to me, “Did you like the trip, sir?” I indicated that I had, and he asked, “Did the kayak paddles work out, sir?” After I answered, he said, “Mention us on Tripadvisor, sir.” I said, “Which branch of the services was your Dad in?” He asked, “How did you know that?” “All the ‘sirs’” I said. “Oh,” he said, “that was drilled into me at an early age.” I asked about the places that he had lived, and he said, “Not many. My father retired shortly after I was born and became a corrections officer.” He named several incarceration facilities that meant nothing to me, but I did think to myself that there was something oxymoronic about a Sunshine State prison.

          I then realized that I don’t often speak to children of the military. I have friends and relatives, mostly my age, who have been in the military, but they did not make a career out of it. They put in their two, three, or four years and got on with their life. I have lived in small-town Wisconsin, Brooklyn, and Northeast Pennsylvania, places where the military has little presence. Of course, in some areas of the country and in some social strata, the military and the ex-military are ever-present and an important part of the society and the local economies. I know that these military people have had different experiences from me and others in my circles. I am also aware that they comprise a large chunk of this country, but I seldom interact with them or their children. Without that intercourse, it is easy for me to assume that I know what their attitudes and outlooks will be. For example, I told the young man whose father had become a corrections officer that I had done some work as a Florida public defender. I said that I was not very familiar with the Florida prisons but that I had worked on a capital case where the jury had voted for death, but the judge had overruled the jury. He replied, “Bummer.” This response fit my preconceptions of the son of a military man who went on to become a corrections officer. A couple other interactions on the Florida trip, however, showed me that my snap judgments might not always be right.

           An adult brother and sister were with their mother on the swim-with-the-manatees boat. The man, Jim, told me that his “partner was in the Navy.” He and the partner had been together for fifteen years and been married for three. They got hitched when the partner was stationed in North Carolina and soon after single-sex marriage became legal there. I asked if they had had to hide their relationship from the Navy when the two first got together. Jim said that they hadn’t, and the partner’s coworkers had been accepting of their relationship.

Jim and his partner were currently living apart. The partner was stationed in Virginia while Jim was living in Birmingham, but in six months, the Navy partner was going to get a new post in Tampa, and Jim was going to move to Florida to join him. I said, with a smile, that sometimes it was good to be apart, and Jim laughed. He said that he was neat while his partner could not go from the couch to the bathroom “without leaving a trail.”

          I asked Jim what he was going to do in Tampa. He had few worries about finding a job. He was a bartender, he said, and experienced bartenders could always find work. Later in the trip, he said that he was comfortable in the water because his mother had been a bartender at a beachfront place in Florida, and he had grown up swimming in the Gulf. His husband was going to retire in two years, after twenty-three years of service, when he would get his next promotion. I asked what the partner was then going to do, and Jim replied that he was going to do the same kind of work as a civilian that he did in the Navy. I asked if the civilians got paid more, and Jim, to my surprise, told me that his partner now made $110,000 and would get $80,000 as a civilian but, of course, the partner would also then be getting a Navy pension.

          His sister and mother listened to our conversation, and it was clear that they were completely accepting of Jim and his marriage. I saw that the mother had tattooed on her foot, “Love never fails.” I made a lame joke about the truth of this saying, and she said that she liked the whole passage, which she said came from one of the Corinthians. I did not recognize it, and I assumed that either the slenderness of my biblical knowledge or the increasing fallibility of my memory had let me down. When I checked on the passage after returning to Brooklyn, however, I felt better. “Love never fails” comes from I Corinthians 8, which is part of the famous Corinthian “love” chapter, but in the Bible I was given by my parents to me more than a blink of an eye ago on my tenth birthday (and which the spouse has recently rebound because it was falling apart), the passage is translated slightly differently: “Love never ends.”

          When I saw the mother’s tattoo, I wanted to ask her about her religious beliefs and about her reaction to the conservatives who now insist that their constitutional religious liberty allows them to discriminate against her son and his husband, but I decided that a boat trip whose purpose was to go swimming with manatees was not exactly the right time for such a discussion. (I do have SOME sense of decorum.) On the other hand, until I talked by happenstance with Jim, my assumptions were that gay people still had difficulties being in the military. (When I told the NBP about this encounter, they laughed at my naïvete: “Dad, it’s the Navy!”) And I would have assumed that it was the Navy spouse who was the neat one.

          Another encounter also taught me to question my unconscious assumptions about military people. The spouse and I had just come from lunch at a funky little tea house with a slight feel of Californian New Age-ism (it was a tea house, after all). On the way to our rental car, we stopped to look at the many decals and stickers on the back of an SUV in the parking lot. A woman behind me said, “It’s like a library.” I soon learned that the attractive woman who owned the SUV was a retired army veteran of over twenty years’ service; her car did sport a veteran’s decal. I saw other ones consistent with my assumptions about a former military person: “Support Your Local Police” and “Protect our Flag.” Others, however, did not necessarily fit my preconceptions of what I might read on a veteran’s car: “Don’t Abuse Animals.” And I would not have assumed that the car belonged to a twenty-year armed services veteran if all I had seen was the decal that indicated the owner was a Sierra Club member. I should learn by now that people are not always so easy to type.

(continued April 12)

Swimming with the Manatees

          Several weeks had passed since we had received the two shots. Winter seemed longer than usual since this Covid one had not been broken up with a trip, so I agreed when the spouse said, “Let’s go somewhere.” We, of course, wanted some place warm and not too crowded. The spouse is enamored with “old Florida,” places that look like the towns she remembers from her youth – big trees, Spanish moss, water of some kind. Each of us came across an internet article that listed the “ten best small towns in Florida.” Both thought Crystal River might suit the bill, even though neither of us had ever heard of it before. That is not especially surprising for me, but the spouse has lived in many places in Florida and has visited relatives in even more—Gainesville, Leesburg, Lakeland, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Ft. Lauderdale, Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, Boca Raton, Sarasota, Bradenton, Vero Beach, Sebring, Marathon, Punta Gorda. You get the idea.

The spouse had one major concern. Crystal River is eighty miles north of Tampa in an area that the Florida PR people now bill as the Nature Coast, and she wondered whether it would be warm enough in late March for her to go swimming, which was an essential requisite for the trip. Internet research convinced her that while it was not guaranteed, the odds were that temperatures would be high enough to Australian crawl about. And then two other discoveries clinched the deal. An apparently nice resort within our budget had an available room, and Crystal River offered manatees. We read that the waters around Crystal River had many freshwater springs where the water bubbled up at a constant 72 degrees, that manatees collected at these spots, and that one could go swimming amongst those mammoth creatures. This seemed to be a real come-on for her. Me…not so much. Nevertheless, the spouse did her magic and booked us into the Plantation at Crystal River for a week and got us convenient flights and a car.

          The trip going was uneventful as was the return journey. We drove from Tampa International up to the Plantation (no one seemed the least embarrassed by this name that carries unfortunate echoes of more than just the gracious Old South of mint juleps, which were not on offer at the resort) in our Alamo Altima (a better car than we own) in the late afternoon. A rather ornate and large fountain graced the front of the entrance, but it was under repair. By the end of our stay, however, it had been put back together and delighted with water-spraying manatees and onlooking putti. We were disappointed that it did not have lights on it at night, but during the day, it was quite a sight.

          The resort had a collection of buildings, none taller than two stories, which had it fitting nicely into Crystal River, for the town is a low-rise place. One of the many reasons Crystal River felt different from other places in Florida is that there were no high-rise buildings. We had a first floor “room with a water view”; the water being a canal. The Crystal River area is punctuated with bays, streams, and protected marshes and wetlands that have access to the Gulf but are nine miles from the shore. But, as elsewhere in Florida, there are canals. This canal was about thirty yards from our backdoor (yes, we had a backdoor opening onto a miniscule patio) and featured a steady stream of boats, mostly pontoons and kayaks. Almost all the waters around Crystal River are no-wake zones, so the boats were blissfully quiet.

          We spent many happy hours sitting outside this door, which overlooked a croquet court. I learned that many people have no idea how to play that game, but they seem to have a good time trying. Two horseshoe pits were wedged between the court and the canal. A flawed beach volleyball court was off to our right. The flaw was not in the court itself, but in its placement. We saw many people hitting a ball over the net, but sooner or later, the ball would inevitably escape into the canal. Most often the players could retrieve it, but we also saw people walking along the canal frantically, but unsuccessfully, trying to retrieve a floating ball. Perhaps a collection of Plantation balls ends up on a Honduras beach. To the left of us was a shuffleboard court, and beyond that was the swimming pool, a hot tub, and a Tiki bar. A popular route from guest rooms to the well-utilized pool went outside our door, and each day we gave greeting to a large sampling of our fellow guests.

          On an early morning walk on our first day, I saw a trailer with “Royal Order of Jesters” on its side, and later that day I saw a goodly collection of men on the path and at the pool with “Jesters” on their shirts. On the second day, I asked a man about the Jesters. He explained that they are a subset of the Shriners, which are, of course, a subset of the Freemasons. Each year, Jesters from the Southeast come to the Plantation to initiate new members, and a mild form of hazing was going on. The initiates had to wear jester costumes and wait on the established members. To the spouse’s chagrin, some smoked cigars…at the pool(!). (The smoke smelled good to me.) Much laughter came from the group, but although they were drinking, no one was drunk, not at least in the late afternoon. However, I can’t swear that that remained true at night when the Jesters hung around a meeting room at one edge of the resort far from our room.

          Seeing the Jester logos, I was reminded how many people (out of proportion they are men) are attracted to organizations that have elements of secrecy, rituals, and initiations, and wonder why I don’t fall into this group. Instead, I am simultaneously amused and repulsed by them. I felt that in particular when the spouse reported the snippets of a conversation of three Jesters she overheard at the pool one morning. The men seemed to be planning next year’s initiations. She heard: “Can you see flashing lights through a hood?” “We can put plastic on the floor. Is syrup too sticky? We could use flour instead.” “We could use colored water. The audience won’t be able to tell what it is.” “We need to decide on costumes. How about transvestites? Yeah, they can be ladyboys.” Hmmm.

          Another conversation, however, reminded me that organizations with these sorts of initiation rites can serve more purposes than providing some sort of unappealing (to me) male comradery. I asked a man sporting a Jester logo how long after becoming a Mason it took him to decide to become a Shriner and then a Jester. He immediately corrected me. “Freemason,” he said, but continued by saying that when he was a young man, he accompanied his then father-in-law who took ice across a lake to a camp. He learned then that the camp was for what he described as “Shriner kids”—children with disabilities or under treatment for serious illnesses. He told me that he realized he wanted to be part of a group that sought to help these kids, and the Shriners did that through their hospitals and programs. He told me that he had not decided to become a Shriner after joining the Freemasons but became a Freemason in order to become a Shriner.

          In my usual life, I don’t intersect with Freemasons or Shriners often, and I don’t believe I have ever met a Jester before. Thomas Fuller said, “Travel makes a wise man better but a fool worse.” Of course, I would like to think I fall under that first heading, but perhaps my status really is somewhere between those two categories. Even so, I would like to think that my conversations with these men at the resort made me a bit more understanding of a part of society from which I am normally separated.

          The resort had another group of guests outside my usual social realm, and my observations of them definitely challenged some of my preconceptions and prejudices and perhaps made me a bit wiser.

(continued April 7)

Swimming with the Manatees (continued)

On our first morning in Crystal River, Florida, we went to breakfast at the Biscuit Barn, a small diner open from six in the morning to two in the afternoon, and, not surprisingly, known for its biscuits (they were delicious!). A line of what seemed to be only a few tourists and mostly locals was waiting outside, and after giving our name inside, we joined those waiting in a (very) sunny spot a few feet from parking spaces. Vehicles came and went but very few cars. The correct way to come, apparently, was in one of those four-door pickup trucks that seem huge to those of us who do not own one. We saw these pickups at this diner and other restaurants, in the resort parking lot, at the supermarket, and on the roads. They were ubiquitous, but their utility was not clear. (In my Citrus County week, I did not see one Prius. However, I did see some hybrid pickups.) Citrus County, unlike some parts of Florida, is not saturated with cattle ranches, and in spite of the area’s name, we saw no orange, grapefruit, or lemon groves where those vehicles would have a utilitarian use. Indeed, I never saw anything being transported in any of the truck beds. Since the median family income in Citrus County is well below the national and statewide figures and the trucks are pricey, they must put a strain on the budgets of many who drive them in Crystal River. I expected to see a lot of Trump and Confederate flag bumper and window stickers on the trucks, but few of the vehicles had them. The trucks were almost all shiny and pristine, and apparently their drivers wanted to keep them that way.

An aside: The relatively low county income may explain the wide variety of dollar stores we saw. This was great because the spouse and I love dollar stores. We seldom pass one up, and we went into one a couple times during our Crystal River stay.

Every visible person in the Biscuit Barn was white. That was not surprising. Citrus County has about a two percent Black and a two percent Hispanic population, with a smattering of Asians. Patrons wore Trump caps, and many of the items in the restaurant indicated that we were in deeply conservative country. I was not surprised to learn that 70% of the Citrus County vote in the last election went to Trump. Florida does not have a mask mandate, and only a minority of the diner’s customers wore one. I could not tell if one of those who did was being ironic. He had on a close-fitting face covering that said, “Trump 2020.” I wondered if whoever made them had registered a profit.

A few days later we went to Grannie’s, a restaurant similar to the Biscuit Barn, for lunch. As we waited to be seated (another line), a customer at the counter who had rotated his seat to face the booths behind him was holding forth: “In my experience [he did not elaborate on that experience and I could not tell whether his listeners in the booth, who seemed to be listening attentively, even knew him], Biden is sick, very sick. They are injecting him with steroids, probably in the thigh, but soon that won’t work any longer. Biden is a socialist, but he is not liked by other socialists on twitter and stuff like that. An Asian will take over after Biden, someone born in Asia. But Biden is beholden to the Russians. The socialists will disregard the Constitution and not leave after four years, just like Pol Pot. Remember him? When socialists take over, they will disappear all sorts of people, including all the gays.” Some of the customers, including a man wearing a “Trump 2024: The Sequel” cap, gave express words of assent, but no one challenged or differed with the counter-sitting crackpot. His rant, given as far as I could tell without a hint of irony, continued as we were seated out of earshot at the other end of the diner.

In some significant ways this “lecture” was different from similar ones I have heard. First of all, he didn’t mention Trump or any other nut-job conservative. While he railed against “socialists,” and while he made comments about “Asians” and “Russians,” his was neither the usual diatribe against “illegals” nor, using racial code words, about Blacks or Jews.

The ranter may have overlooked including Blacks and Jews in his tirade since few from those communities reside in Citrus County (see above). In our driving about, we saw many varieties of Protestant churches — Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, and Methodist. There was even an Episcopal church that described itself as Anglican. Roman Catholic Churches were not abundant, but there were one or two. On the other hand, we never saw a synagogue. While I did see a sign for a Bahai institution, not surprisingly, there was not a hint of a mosque.

The rant quieted as the man ate his lunch, so we settled down to ordering. Although we had lunch at Grannie’s and breakfast at the Biscuit Barn, our meals had strong similarities. We were not eating food prepared in a chain restaurant, such is IHOP, Denny’s, or Applebees. The food may not have been distinctive enough to attract Guy Fieri, but neither place had cookie-cutter food. In both places, the prices were cheap, and copious helpings were served. I got biscuits and gravy at the Biscuit Barn. Something covering the entire plate and three or four inches high came out of the kitchen. People at the next table, who had had one of the largest pancakes I had ever seen, asked if I was going to eat what had been served. I responded that my cardiologist, for whom I was paying his children’s college tuition, was hoping I would. Grannie’s had several lunch specials that tempted me. I asked a server which she preferred between two choices. She drily replied, “I don’t know. I don’t eat chicken livers.” However, I do and got them, and they came with two sides. Enough food was served to feed three people, and I carted out enough chicken livers for a lunch with leftovers the next day. The biscuit and gravy cost $4.99; the chicken livers were $6.99.

I invariably chose fried okra as one of the sides. The spouse proudly proclaims her southern heritage at the merest provocation, and will then lapse easily into a southern drawl. Even though I know her family’s Alabama roots, I have been somewhat dubious of the strength of her ties since she adamantly avoids okra. We were in the Seafood Seller & Cafe our first night out. I ordered blackened Mahi-mahi, although I remember when that fish in Florida was labeled dolphin or dolphinfish. Apparently, someone in the fishing industry decided that selling this species would be easier if the Hawaiian moniker was used and servers did not have to explain, “No, not that kind of dolphin.” (Which are you more likely to order: Chilean sea bass or Patagonian toothfish?) Our dinner came with the standard two sides. I chose fried okra as one of mine. The fish was perfectly cooked with a delicious rub. The okra was as lightly breaded as any version I had ever had and perfectly fried. With some insistence on my part, the spouse tried the southern vegetable and pronounced it not just good but delicious. At other restaurant meals we also got fried okra, and while that first night’s may have been the best, the spouse liked all but one, which she criticized for “tasting too much like okra.”

Inexpensive, large quantities, and fried food is a recipe for being overweight. At the resort where we were staying, we found that many guests, both men and women, were grossly overweight. Too many smoked or vaped, and many were blanketed in tattoos. I presumed that few held down a job that required a college degree. I do not know where these tattooed tubbies came from, but I assumed it was reasonably nearby because they blended well into the Crystal River milieu.

So, without consciously thinking about it, I found myself judging these people by their appearance, assuming that they were somewhat ignorant folks who didn’t take care of themselves or their families. One day, however, I realized that I needed to reassess those assumptions. Most of the adults at the resort were part of a wholesome nuclear family. A mother and father were routinely accompanied by two, three, or four children. One white couple had what appeared to be four children – two of them black. I had been looking down on these people, but then I realized that I had heard no unpleasantness between any couple. The kids were uniformly well-behaved as they laughed and splashed in the pool or played volleyball and shuffleboard. Parents patiently tried to teach kids how to use an unfamiliar croquet mallet. Parents did not find it necessary to yell at children to keep them in line, and siblings regularly looked out for each other. I heard no child cry. My biases about the way they looked presumed a bad family life, but my observations had proven me wrong. And I felt a bit wiser, for I am always a bit wiser whenever I recognize and adjust my prejudices.

(continued April 9)

First Sentences

“Pa used to say that any piece of history might be made into a tale: it was only a question of deciding where the tale began, and where it ended.” Sarah Waters, Affinity.

“If you visit the lovely Alpine town of Bolsano you will often see long queues outside the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.” Margaret MacMillan, War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

“The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.” Britt Bennett, The Vanishing Half.

“On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, Seguine Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville, Mississippi woke up to the sound of running water.” John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America.

“Behold the man.” Ian McGuire, The North Sea.

“Once you start to see them, you’ll never understand how you hadn’t noticed them before.” Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design.

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth.

“Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved.” Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

“Virginia court records for September 18, 1800, mention a certain Mr. Moseley Sheppard who came quietly to the witness stand in Richmond and produced testimony that caused half the States to shudder.” Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder.

“No one had any doubt that the bombers would come.” Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs.” Margaret O’Farrell, Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.

“When I think about my time in the Senate, I see a broken man.” Adam Jentleson, Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.

“My town sat on top of a small hill by the side of a river whose banks held only sand.” Phil Klay, Missionaries.

Hail, Hail Hillsdale (concluded)

(This entire essay will be posted again in order on Wednesday, April 1.)

The last two questions of the Hillsdale College survey on the Electoral College were not about the constitutional provision but were meant to promote Hillsdale’s outreach efforts. However, the last question about the Electoral College, was, in technical polling terms, a doozy. It said I could check any or all the answers to the question, “Why do you think the movement to do away with the Electoral College has been so successful as it is?” You might wonder about their definition of “successful.” The Electoral College is with us. No constitutional amendment to abolish it recently has even passed Congress and been sent to the states. The odds that the Electoral College will not be with us for our next presidential election are about as large as me winning the 100 meter race at the Olympics. Or me being mistaken for Marilyn Monroe. (I’ve been thinking about Rudy Giuliani again.)

The answers, however, were doozier than the question. First, I could pick that civics education has been neglected. I can’t tell if Hillsdale thinks American civics has always been deficient or if they think that is a recent phenomenon. If recent, then views about the EC should vary significantly by age, and those of us of a certain age should have markedly different views of the Electoral College from those whose knees still work because our civics education was not neglected. Although there are many reasons why views of the Electoral College might differ by age besides changing civics courses, Hillsdale might have found it useful or at least interesting to capture the age differences of the respondents. However, the poll, while asking for my name and email address (Why? They already have that information or I would not have gotten their poll. Or did they want my name and email for some big brother thing? Cue Jaws music again.), did not ask for my age.

The second choice for explaining why the movement to rid us of the Electoral College had been so successful is that because “too many Americans are so overcome with partisanship that they forget how the Electoral College works to unify the country” and ensures representation of all regions and interests. On the one hand, according to this answer, the Electoral College unifies; on the other, the country is split by forgetful partisans. They are going to need to explain to me that positive unification function again because they have told me in the same sentence that it is not working.

 The third choice offers me an explanation that all of the left-wing media and in particular “The New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’” has undermined “informed patriotism by promoting a biased distortion of our nation’s history and our Constitution.” I wondered how many Kevin Bacon degrees of separation it takes to get logically from The 1619 Project to efforts to reform the Electoral College. It can’t be a straight (nor logical) path. In addition, those Times articles are eighteen months old, and almost all adults surely must have formed impressions of our presidential selection process long before that. Efforts to change the Electoral College existed well before The 1619 Project was published or printed. And surely, if The Project caused this reaction to the Electoral College, Hillsdale must think that since the 1776 Commission report is now available to all, everything is looking rosy. (Cue “Put on a Happy Face.”)

I then came to the fourth and last option for an answer to why Electoral College reform proposals have been so successful. It allowed me to check off “Unsure.” There were no more responses. I was not given any options such as the movement to change the Electoral College has been “successful” because a) it is a good idea; b) because “the people” want a more democratic country; c) because the Electoral College was an unfortunate historical accident; d) because each vote in our country should count equally; e) because each voter in the country should have an equal incentive to vote; or f) any other reason. I was reminded of Stephen Colbert’s regular shtick a decade ago when he would ask liberal guests whether George W. Bush was merely a great president or whether he was the greatest.

The Hillsdale poll is not a serious one even though it purportedly “will help Hillsdale College more clearly understand the views of mainstream Americans concerning this issue—views we will make available to policymakers and opinion leaders.” Apparently if I fill it out, I can now count myself for one of the few times ever as a mainstream American. That is a mighty incentive to do so, but I need a few more options in the answers than the ones I am offered, and any American, mainstream, sidestream, slipstream, upstream, or downstream, should feel the same if they do a modicum of thinking or research about how we select our president.

I have gotten and seen other polls that are equally as partisan as this one, but almost always these are from overtly advocacy groups. (I have been approached on the street by solicitors for the American Humane Association, for example, with, “Do you love animals?” They never seem to think mine is the right answer: “I love to eat them.”) I am not surprised when political parties or other partisan groups send me senseless, leading questions. Hillsdale College, however, claims not to be an advocacy group or a clown show. It claims to be an institution dedicated to upholding and promoting the standards of a rigorous education, and therefore it should be held to different standards from partisan or advocacy groups. It should be seeking to enlighten not indoctrinate with shoddy history and worse logic.

However, if this drivel on the Electoral College is meant as an example of the historical knowledge or critical thinking Hillsdale imparts, this conservative college is failing its students and, sadly, the country. And my ladies and lassies, perhaps you can join me in shedding a few more tears for the further dumbing down of America.

On the other hand, some of the Hillsdale online lecture offerings still intrigue me.

Hail, Hail Hillsdale (continued)

Hillsdale College, which had mailed me a free copy of the Constitution, sent me an email about an “urgent matter” that’s “vital to our nation’s future.” I could almost hear the Jaws music as I read, “A movement is growing, led by progressives—but supported by many well-meaning Americans—to change the way we elect our president. In effect, it seeks to do away with the Electoral College as devised by the Framers of our Constitution.” I immediately noticed the absence of “other” between “many” and “well-meaning” in that sentence, but I did not know if that meant progressives were not well-meaning or that they weren’t Americans, or both. The email warned that states were joining “together in an attempt to undermine this constitutional bulwark of liberty.” This dangerous movement “has grown largely because of the failure of America’s schools to provide young people with grounding in American civics—too many Americans simply don’t understand the importance of the Constitution, including the Electoral College, to liberty.” (Quick. Tell me how the Electoral College is essential to liberty.) Presumably, this lack of understanding would be corrected if schools started following the recommendations of the 1776 Commission.

The email urged me to take a survey on “Presidential Selection.” I was curious because I have studied and written about the Electoral College [see the end of this post for references to some of those previous posts], so I clicked on the link in the email. I knew from the very first of the ten multiple choice questions that I had a problem. It asked initially if I agreed that we “should continue to elect our president through the Electoral College as devised by the Framers of our Constitution.” There is no way to answer this. You can’t continue to use something that is not being used. Our present Electoral College is not the one adopted by the Constitutional Framers. That one was so flawed from its inception that it was changed by Amendment XII (classical education useful here) within fifteen years after the Constitution went into effect. We do not use the flawed Electoral College created by the shortsighted Framers.

The second question did not ask about presidential selection, but about American civics classes. The next query returned to the Electoral College, asking if Americans understood the Electoral College “and its role in preserving free and representative government.” Quick. Tell me again how the EC does that. If it does so, it is not obvious how, or at least it is not obvious to many well-meaning Americans.

The fourth question asked if I agreed that the EC’s elimination would “disenfranchise citizens in large parts of the U.S. and increase the intense partisanship that is already dividing our nation.” Of course, that is two questions, and I don’t understand the first one. I don’t think that any proposal to reform the Electoral College would prevent or even make it more difficult for any citizen to vote. In fact, the serious movement to prevent or make it harder for citizens to vote in all elections including the ones for the Electoral College has been coming from conservative state legislatures seeking to gain a partisan advantage and make government less free and representative.

Then I was asked if I agreed that the “Electoral College requires candidates and parties to form broad coalitions that represent the interests of many Americans rather than just those of particular regions or urban areas.” And I asked myself: “To be successful in any nationwide election system don’t the parties have to represent the interests of many Americans? It seems to me that if they fail to do that, they won’t get elected. However, it begs the question of whether the EC does that better than, say, a direct vote?” As I have written on this blog, the Electoral College makes it easy to disregard the voters of a minority party in a solid Red or Blue state, and that would not be the case with a direct election of the president. I also noted “urban areas” in the question. I wonder how those who take this poll would feel if they were asked if they agreed that the Electoral College should be retained because it enhances the political power of poorly educated rural whites. Of course, such tendentious questions should not appear in any serious poll.

I felt something similar about the next question which asked if I agreed that the movement to eliminate the EC by “progressives” was politically motivated to “give an advantage to one political party over another.” That is a perfectly fair question, or it would be if paired with the flip side: “Is the movement to retain the Electoral College motivated by the right wing to give a political advantage to one party?”

Then came a question that made no sense: Was I aware that Washington legislators had “introduced legislation to abolish the Electoral College and that 15 states and the District of Columbia have already voted to do away with the Electoral College as devised by the Framers of our Constitution.”  Your first reaction might be: Well, I am now. But hold on. No one is seeking to abolish the EC devised by the Framers because, as cited above, that original failure was tossed aside by the Twelfth Amendment more than two centuries ago. Moreover, the current Electoral College is embedded in the Constitution. It could only be abolished or done away with by a constitutional amendment, as it was reformed before, not by legislation.

(concluded March 30)

April 10, 2019 “What if We Abolish the Electoral College” What if We Abolish the Electoral College? – AJ’s Dad

March 4, 2020 “Democracy Indexed and Flawed” Democracy Indexed and Flawed – AJ’s Dad

October 28, 2020 “The Shortsighted Electoral College” The Shortsighted Electoral College – AJ’s Dad

November 13, 2020 “Voter Turnout” Voter Turnout – AJ’s Dad


 [RJ1]

Hail, Hail Hillsdale (continued)

          For my own academic projects and out of a general interest, I have read many of the founding documents, histories on the constitutional formation period, and commentaries on the Constitution. I watched the lectures on the Constitution from conservative Hillsdale College not expecting to learn a significant amount but hoping instead to understand better how some modern conservatives interpret the founding period to suit their present partisan predilections. For that purpose, the lectures were reasonably illuminating. You might find them interesting, too, but if you watch, beware. They are filled with confident assertions that are often wrong or would at least be contested by serious historians, and the lecturers do not even hint that anyone anywhere might take issue with anything they say. The lectures were not heavy on nuance. It was also surprising to me how infrequently the Hillsdale historians referred to the actual words of the Constitution since conservative Supreme Court justices often maintain that their interpretations are compelled by the constitutional text. [I have written about the Constitution and its interpretation on this blog several times.See the end of this post for references to some of them.] Another surprise was how deeply the Hillsdale historians detest progressives, who are demons in their constitutional cabinet. Hillsdalians (Hillsdalites?) are not much concerned with modern-day progressives like Bernie Sanders and AOC. They do have concerns about the New Deal, but the progressives, according to the lecturers, who started ripping apart our freedom-bestowing Constitution are Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and lesser known intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth century although it is not completely clear what these gentlemen did to draw such twenty-first century ire. Apparently, our liberty is still waiting in vain to come back.

The Hillsdale emails, however, have mostly suggested — in a nice way — that I should give them money or that I would benefit from taking one of their online courses. A recent suggestion about a new offering was typical. It answered the question I had not asked: “You may be asking yourself, why produce a free online course on ‘Mathematics and Logic: From Euclid to Modern Geometry’? The answer to this question is simple—because public life is no longer guided by reasoned argument, but instead by feelings, emotion, or who has the biggest ‘platform.’ Without reason or logic, how can we arrive at certain knowledge? [Hillsdale emphasis.] How can we distinguish truth from falsehood?” Let’s pause here. Geometry proofs do require logic, and they may lead to certain knowledge, but only in a limited sphere of mathematical inquiry. However, the logic needed to solve geometry proofs does not necessarily transfer to other forms of knowledge. And certainty is often elusive. When we use inductive reasoning to understand the empirical world, e.g., we achieve only greater or lesser certitude. Is it going to rain tomorrow? Will Anika pass the course? Will Hillsdale make its fundraising goal? Will a tax cut skewed towards the wealthy improve the economy for most? You can study Euclid forever, but it will never lead to certainty about those types of questions. In spite of what the email implies, Euclid does not provide the foundation “to answer fundamental questions with precision and clarity” such as what role blood plays in our bodies; what is the earth’s age; why did Rome collapse; and what keeps Trump’s hair in place.

The knowledge, logic, and reason of the email’s writer further comes into question with his next assertion: “The beauty and seriousness of his discoveries have made Euclid’s Elements the second most published book in history—behind the Bible.” This is presented as certain knowledge, but nongeometric problems, Euclidean and otherwise, abound. What does “published” in that sentence mean? Does it mean “printed”? Unlikely since Euclid’s book was around for a long time before printing as we understand it came into existence. Does it imply a large number of copies? Does it mean multiple editions? Perhaps the writer meant “reproduced,” but without reasonable precision in language, and precision is one of the virtues that one might gain from studying Euclid, the meaning of the sentence is unclear.

Even if, however, the writer was referring to editions or reproductions, ask yourself how he knows that Elements comes in second on this all-time list. Who is the recordkeeper? I punched “second most published book” into a search engine. One of the responses gave me Euclid, but there were many other answers, with several sites plausibly telling me that it was the Koran, although some had Allah’s scriptures as first and the Bible second. No one can know with certainty the validity of the confident assertion that Euclid’s Elements is the second most published, and this fact tells us something about precision in research strategies as well as language that it would be wise for Hillsdale to teach its students.

(continued March 26)

March 20, 2017 “Originalism to Textualism” Originalism to Textualism – AJ’s Dad

August 22, 2018 “Originally It Was Not Originalism” Originally it was not Originalism – AJ’s Dad

June 5, 2019 “A Civics Examination” Search Results for “civics” – AJ’s Dad

March 22, 2019 “ Principles and Partisanship” Principles and Partisanship – AJ’s Dad

August 10, 2020 “Pence and the Demise of Conservative Jurisprudence” Pence and the Demise of Conservative Jurisprudence – AJ’s Dad

October 19, 2020 “Let’s Get Women Off the Supreme Court” Let’s Get Women Off the Supreme Court – AJ’s Dad

Hail, Hail Hillsdale

          The Constitution was missing. I work at two different desks, and in easy reach on both desks I keep a pocket-sized copy of our fundamental charter. I was at one of those desks participating by Zoom in a history book club discussion. Wanting to make a point, I reached for the ever-present Constitution, but it was not there. After the meeting, I searched unavailingly for it. I assumed that I had inadvertently mingled the little booklet together with other papers slated for disposal. This straighten-up-the-office routine does not happen often. A few weeks before, though, I had put sheets of paper into a cardboard box for recycling, but the box remained on the floor next to the desk. I went through it. The Constitution was still missing. I did not regard the missing Constitution as a metaphor for our recent politics, as I might have done—I considered it merely mystifying.

          I felt out of sorts without my Constitution. I did find that the fundamental charter was printed in the back of one of my legal books. I knew that it was easy to find online. I know there are apps that provide the Constitution. But I knew that for me sought-for constitutional provisions were more easily found in the pocket-sized booklets than elsewhere. My local bookstore’s website said that the store had something akin to a pamphlet-sized copy, but I was going to have pay ten bucks for it, and I feel that the Constitution should be free. A friend who is teaching a college course in legal history had obtained a trove of Constitutions to hand out to his class and offered me one, but with the coronavirus, I was not seeing him except on Zoom and that would not get me a copy.

          Then I remembered that some organizations online offered free, pocket-sized Constitutions. I went surfing and quickly found two sources. I don’t think you can really draw a statistical conclusion when the n is 2, but both were from conservative entities.

          I ordered the document from each source. Both told me that my free Constitution—no requirement to pay even shipping and handling—would arrive in six weeks. There was no explanation from either as to why it would take so long, and they did not tell me how I was supposed to fight for freedom in the interim. Two months later, a copy from each has finally arrived. But, of course, emails from both organization started appearing within hours of my requests. And surprise, surprise—although the Constitution is free, each organization will be willing to take money from me; indeed, they regularly beseech me for donations. They do more than that, however. One sees itself as a fighter for religious freedom, and they send me articles about that topic. The other is Hillsdale College, a small, private liberal arts college in southern Michigan. Known for a curriculum that stresses the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, Hillsdale got national attention several decades ago when it gave up all government moneys and therefore no longer had to comply with federal and state laws concerning racial and other discrimination. Hillsdale’s college president is Larry Arnn, best known nationally these days for chairing Trump’s 1776 Commission on “patriotic education,” which was formed in response to the New York Times “1619 Project,” detailing America’s racist history. (The executive director of the 1776 Commission was Matthew Spalding, a Hillsdale vice president.)

          Hillsdale has kindly emailed me a copy of the 1776 report, but I have yet to read its forty-five pages. The college has also encouraged me if I visit their campus to tour, not their library or their biology labs, but their John A. Halter Shooting Sports Center, completed during Arnn’s tenure as president. The shooting center surprised me because I was not aware that rifle ranges were an essential component of the classical Greek or Roman world or that skeet traps were part of traditional Judaism. On the other hand, I did know that since the Reformation, guns have played a large part in helping believers in Christ impose their religion on native heathens around the globe; fight other Christians who believed in some different and therefore unholy doctrine; use them often in crimes; and of course, employ them in suicides.

          Hillsdale also touted an array of free online courses. Many seemed of interest: “The Genesis Story: Reading Biblical Narratives”; “Winston Churchill and Statesmanship”; and “The Young Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey.” Since I came to Hillsdale to get a copy of the Constitution, I thought it only fitting that I take “Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution.” The course had accompanying texts, most of which I had read and did not read again, but I did watch the twelve lectures, which averaged about thirty minutes each. The presenters, sitting in a room with burning candles presumably to give a colonial feel, were good. I was never bored. At the end of each lecture, a multiple-choice quiz of about a dozen questions was offered. (You will be shocked, shocked I say, but I did not always get 100 percent.) I took another test at the course’s conclusion. I passed and got a certificate announcing my constitutional proficiency. I did print it out to show one and all (one and all in this case was the spouse), but I have not yet (?) had it framed for presentation.

(continued March 24)

Snippets

          For some, “cancel culture” means that someone who says or does something that is not deemed politically correct can suffer negative social or economic consequences. But for the last 150 years workers who spoke in favor of unionization or against unsafe working conditions have suffered, including losing their jobs. Blacks speaking out on a host of topics throughout our history suffered many, many social, economic, and physical consequences. Weren’t these situations the original cancel culture?

          The book I am reading “was set in Monotype face called Bell,” named for John Bell who died in 1831.

          A small warning card in English and five other languages I could not read was attached to a newly-purchased pair of beach shoes. It told me how to avoid “severe personal injury” on escalators and moving walkways. I looked again at the Crocs searching for their dangers, but I saw nothing that seemed likely to get caught in the moving stairs. Is this warning just now standard for footwear? Whose behavior changes because new shoes come with the advice about moving walkways, “Step carefully when getting on and off”?

          Does anyone like the carrot slime that develops on the “baby” ones after the package is opened?

          Brooklynites redistribute wealth not by throwing unwanted items into the trash but by placing them at the bottom of the front steps in hopes that neighbors will have a use for them. This is how I came to possess a book of excerpts from Elizabeth David’s writings, which was compiled in 1997. The first sentences of the Introduction made me wonder if the Brits today still had the same class definitions of a generation ago: “Elizabeth David was born in 1913, one of four daughters of Rupert Gwynne, Conservative MP for Eastbourne. Her mother was the daughter of the first Viscount Ridley. She had a middle-class upbringing, with a nanny and governess, and later went to a girls’ school where the food was decidedly inferior. . . .” 

          Writing on a T shirt worn by a female jogger that I don’t believe I would have seen a decade ago: “Eat pussy. Its organic.”

Elizabeth Barrett, meeting Wordsworth for the first time, supposedly said, “He was very kind to me and let me hear his conversation.”

“Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?” Sarah Waters, Affinity.

“He is a prince.” That doesn’t sound derogatory; it is, in fact, a compliment. But compare: “She is a princess.”

There was such a difference between a woman’s magazine and a girlie magazine.

I jokingly told my thrice-married friend that I would teach him all about women. He responded, “I’ve learned a lot about women. . . . I just don’t believe it.”