Boston Marathon: Terror Times Two

The Boston Marathon has noted what happened a decade ago. On April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the race. Three people were killed and about 260 injured. Three days later, authorities publicly identified two brothers as suspects. Shortly thereafter the brothers killed a college policeman and wounded several other officers, one of whom died from his wounds a year later. One of the brothers was killed as the police tried to apprehend them, while the other was captured, put on trial two years later, convicted, and sentenced to death.

The bombing, the capture, the trial, and sentencing all were big news stories.  After all, this was terrorism striking at an iconic American event on Patriot’s Day, which memorializes another iconic event, the day often regarded as the opening of the fight for American independence. And it was Islamic terrorism.

Books have been written and movies made about these events. This is as it should be. Lives were lost, limbs amputated, and nightmares endured. These are stories worth telling and remembering.

A few days after that Boston Marathon bombing another, almost unknown, tragedy occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage facility in West, Texas. Emergency service personnel were responding to a fire there when a horrific explosion occurred.  Fifteen died with up to 200 injured.  A fifty-unit apartment building was destroyed along with as many as 80 houses with many more damaged. A crater 92 feet wide and 12 feet deep was created.

Two American tragedies occurring almost at the same time. We know a lot about one, but few know or remember the other where there was a greater loss of life and the destruction of the equivalent of a small town. There are reasons for the different memories.  A bombing at the Boston Marathon makes us all feel vulnerable. We might not be spectators at that event, but we might attend other sports contests. We might sense that such a tragedy might happen outside a church or a concert or a rally. It might happen at a mall or a commuter terminal. It could easily happen at some place where we have been. On the other hand, few of us relate in the same way to an ammonium nitrate storage facility, or even to deaths at a work site, even though workplace deaths average nearly 5,000 a year in this country—much higher, of course, than deaths by terrorism in this country.

And, of course, Boston’s was Islamic terrorism, and that strikes chords that an industrial explosion does not.

There have been responses to the Boston bombing. Security has increased for events that bear any similarity to the Boston Marathon. I know of no cost estimates for the increased manpower and searches and barricades, but it must be immense. On the other hand, response to the West tragedy seems minimal. This is especially striking because an investigative report a year later stated that the explosive material was not safely stored, and that federal, state, and local regulations regarding such substances were inadequate. The explosion was labeled “preventable.” In contrast, was the Boston Marathon bombing “preventable”?

If Islamic terrorism had leveled a small American village resulting in fifteen deaths, there would be an outraged and rapid response, but we don’t seem to bother ourselves if it is merely an explosion in a corporate facility. But then a twist. Several years after the Texas tragedy, law enforcement said that arson was the cause of the fire that led to the explosion. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives posted a reward for information leading to the arrest of those who set the fire, but so far the offer only dangles.  Perhaps if the ATF had labeled the event as terrorism, there would be action.

Cup or Cone

The spouse and I have been together for so long because we are in sync on many important issues. For example, we agree that in an ice cream shop you should always buy a ice cream in a cone and not a cup. (We also agree that you should not even go in if the place says it is a shoppe.)

When I ruminate on an ice cream cone, my thoughts naturally turn to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Some may know the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 from the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. That classical musical gave us some standards including “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “The Boy Next Door,” and the melancholy, somewhat disturbing holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The movie is set–don’t be surprised if you haven’t seen it–in St. Louis mostly in the 1903 Christmas season. The planning for next summer’s World’s Fair is underway.

Of course, all musicals are fantasies on some level, but Meet Me even more so. The family at the core of the movie learns that the father may have to relocate them all to New York City. I can grasp that the family is upset that it might miss the fair, especially as everyone is abuzz with excitement about it. However, it is hard for me to suspend my disbelief so much to accept that the family would rather stay in St. Louis permanently than move to New York, but that is the plot. Of course, they stay along the Mississippi. The movie’s last scene is in the summer of 1904 with the family at the brightly lit World’s Fair. However, that scene is incomplete since no one, as far as I can remember, is holding an ice cream cone.

(Meet Me in St. Louis not only gave us some treasured musical standards, it also in essence gave us Liza. During the filming, the director, Vincente Minnelli, met the movie’s star, Judy Garland. The two would later produce Liza Minnelli, treasured by some, perhaps even many. I won’t digress to the time I saw — along with Jackie Kennedy Onassis — Liza Minelli in concert.)

Perhaps when you think of the St. Louis World’s Fair, in addition to ice cream cones you think of Thomas Jefferson and early American history. That Fair was officially the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It commemorated the centennial of President Jefferson’s purchase from France of what is now the heartland of the United States. Of course, since the Louisiana Purchase occurred in 1803, the centennial celebration should have been before 1904. However, while St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, may have had many go-getters, apparently not all participating in the fair could get going in time for the one-hundred-year mark and the Exposition started a year late. St. Louis might not often acknowledge taking inspiration from its rival city, but it did seem to be following Chicago’s calendar. The World’s Columbian Exposition also known as the Chicago World’s Fair commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the new world. However, it was held in 1893, a year late, as all of us who remember our grade school poetry know.

With the Louisiana Purchase, the size of the United States instantly doubled. That territory encompasses all of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and North Dakota and portions of nine other states. Many of these places form our conservative heartland, and I wonder, as I am sure you do, too, if the people there reflect on the Louisiana Purchase, to which they are indebted.

France inhabited or held by occupation little of the land it sold. Governing control of the area was not turned over to the U.S. because France did not in fact govern it. Instead, as a matter of international law — which really meant European law — the Purchase gave America the right to try and inhabit and control the land and to exclude foreign — meaning European — countries from it. Of course, indigenous Americans were there, but they did not participate in the deal, and their rights were disregarded. Perhaps the Purchase should be seen as a green light (ok, that is anachronistic, so give me something better) for American imperialism.

The Louisiana Purchase provoked one of the country’s first constitutional conflicts. Indeed, Jefferson himself doubted its constitutionality. Nothing in the Constitution authorized the kind of transaction Jefferson made. Those who truly believe that our Constitution sets out a government limited to enumerated powers, as Jefferson supposedly did, have to doubt the Purchase’s legality. But as with many Constitutional disputes in our history, hypocrisy abounded. Those around Jefferson who supposedly believed in a limited government supported the deal while the Federalists, who were the big government folk, opposed it. Apparently, Jefferson was convinced that since nothing in the Constitution prohibited the purchase, it could go forward. That’s a long way from maintaining that the government only could exercise powers enumerated in the document.

Something else should be noted. The Purchase occurred only fifteen years after the Constitution was ratified, and the meaning of the document was already unclear even to many who had been active in drafting and adopting it. When they went looking for the original meaning of the Constitution, they could not agree on what it was. Yet today, more than eleven score years later, some with wondrous certitude and amazing hubris will tell us what was originally meant by the document.

The Supreme Court these days will resolve constitutional issues much as Jefferson did in 1803. Jefferson accepted the interpretation that allowed him to do what he wanted to do, and the conservative members of the Supreme Court will “reason” to a result that fits their philosophy and politics. The desired result drove Jefferson’s reasoning, as it will for a majority of the Supreme Court today.

There is also an irony in the fact that America did not have the money to pay France for the Louisiana Purchase. The United States borrowed the funds from Great Britain, which exacted a hefty 6% interest fee. In other words, the Louisiana Purchase, of suspect constitutionality, depended on deficit financing. Even so, many in Congress from the states whose lands were obtained in the Purchase have supported a balanced budget amendment. I wonder if they ever pause to reflect on the fact that if such a provision had originally been in the Constitution, they might have had to do their grandstanding, even if it were allowed in whatever country Iowa and Nebraska would now be in, in French or some other language than English.

So. While some might think of the movie Meet Me in St. Louis when they think of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Others might reflect on the Louisiana Purchase, which the Fair commemorated. However, the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 should be most honored for it its role in ice cream history.

There may have been something like ice cream cones before 1904, but the Fair made them an American icon. Different versions circulate about which vendor started using cones for ice cream at the Fair. (Origin stories are often disputed except by conservative Supreme Court judges who know with precision the original meanings of constitutional provisions.) But thousands upon thousands of ice cream cones were sold in St. Louis that summer. Soon they were appearing everywhere in the United States and new, ingenious machines were made and perfected in the United States for the fabrication of cones. Within a few years of 1904, the ice cream cone became an America icon. We may say something is as American as apple pie, but saying something is as American as an ice cream cone would be even better. And that stems from that St. Louis World’s Fair

In spite of what Heywood Broun said (“I doubt whether the world holds for any one a more soul-stirring surprise than the first adventure with ice-cream.”), I don’t remember my first taste of ice cream. I do know that I have enjoyed it in many ways. It has given me pleasure on top of a brownie or a slice of cherry pie or chocolate cake or peach cobbler. (The spouse makes a great peach cobbler.) I have loved ice cream in the eponymous ice cream sandwich. I have enjoyed it covered with chocolate or salty caramel sauce. It has been great with strawberries in season and in a banana split. Even though it is stupid, I have had admiration for it in a Baked Alaska. I have enjoyed it straight out of the carton with the light from an open freezer door. (A sage person has said, Never ask a woman who is eating ice cream from a carton how her day was.) I have enjoyed it in many flavors and in soft-serve and hard versions.

And, yes, I have enjoyed ice cream simply spooned out of a bowl. But if you want that, use a real bowl and a real spoon. Ice cream from a disposable cup with a little plastic spoon or worse, one of those wooden paddles, is not the same thing. (Yes, I have had many Dixie Cup ice creams, but they came from convenience stores where an ice cream cone was not an option.) And at home, the bowl and spoon can be washed and used again unlike disposable cups from an ice cream shop. A cone does not contribute to landfill problems. If you want to spoon ice cream into your mouth, buy some, go home, and enjoy it out of a real bowl.

You should buy an ice cream cone when you can not only because it is the American way (Do Russians stand around the Kremlin with a cone?), but also for the sensory experience. Licking ice cream from a cone is a different sensual pleasure from the other ways to enjoy it, and when a cone is available, take the opportunity. The ice cream cone, not that prissy cardboard cup and plastic spoon, is not only the American way, it affords pleasure in a way other servings of ice cream do not.

I can already imagine the rejoinder. I don’t buy an ice cream cone for my kid because I don’t want my Mackenzie or Madison to experience that feeling when a scoop falls off and splats on the pavement. A kid who has not experienced a skinned knee has not truly experienced childhood. A child who has not suffered the tragedy of melting ice cream on the sidewalk is not ready for adulthood. Your snowflake will suffer worse than an ice cream cone mishap in life. They may have already by drawing overprotective parents.

Buy yourself an ice cream cone. Buy your kids ice cream cones. Be an American. Enjoy all that life offers.


That other woman . . . no, not that other woman . . . no, no, not that other woman . . . no, no, no, not that other woman. I am referring to that other woman known as Stormy Daniels. She is sometimes described as an adult film actress. That has made me think about the term “adult film.” It is used for movies with graphic depictions of sex, but, of course, we know that teens and pre-teens are so interested in that subject that they spend much time finding pornography on the internet. And, of course, the adults fascinated by adult films all seem to have an arrested development. On the other hand, there are many films, with or without sex, where the young and immature do not have the experience, knowledge, or empathy to be drawn into the movie. They are just bored if they go. These are films for adults, which, of course, are quite different from adult films.

I never feel more American than when I cannot speak a foreign language.

I like going into food stores in a foreign country. I wonder what the many products are that I don’t recognize and whether I would like them. Even the familiar products often come in packaging different from what I know, and it often seems amusing. I did notice warning statements on familiar and unfamiliar packages on a recent trip to Mexico that I had not seen elsewhere proclaiming Exceso Calorías, Exceso Azúcar, or Exceso Sal. One or more of those phrases seemed to be on an inordinate percentage of my purchases.

I enjoyed watching John Wick 2. The most obvious question is how can I enjoy a movie with a body count higher than a World War I film? Of course, the violence is choreographed and does not attempt verisimilitude. It’s a kung fu movie and reminds me of professional wrestling except that the wrestling scripts provide for more character development. Or how can I enjoy a movie with Keanu Reeves? I concede that he is a good action figure and luckily the movie does not require much dialog from him. But whenever he does deliver a line, I feel as if I am watching a high school play. How can I enjoy a movie with so many implausibilities? But I did, except I was left with one other question. Part of the movie is set in New York City, and like any city resident I enjoy the New York scenes and try to figure out where they are. In John Wick there were impossibilities. So, for example, you can’t walk out of a door in lower Manhattan and immediately overlook St. Patrick’s cathedral. That should have bothered me, but I gave the moviemakers license to show as many photogenic pictures as possible. I felt something similar when John Wick and one of the many people who is trying to kill him are in a subway station. That station was so clean and new, I thought it could not be a real New York City scene. The characters get on the train announced as a C train. The C is a real train. I know it well because it is the closest subway to my home and one that I have ridden thousands of time. The announcement says that the C train is going to Broad Street and that Rector Street is the next stop. The C train, however, does not go to Broad and does not stop at Rector. I saw no reason why if they were going to say it was a C train, they did not announce its real itinerary. On the other hand, I can’t say why of all the things in the movie that could have bothered me and did not, this did.

A Texas legislator has introduced a bill that would require the posting in all school classrooms of copies of the Ten Commandments in a version mandated by the legislator. I am wondering if he will also mandate how teachers should inform second graders about the meaning of adultery. Or what it means not to covet your neighbor’s ass.

“Tope,” She Exclaimed

I don’t like speed bumps. For most of my car-driving life this was not much of an issue because I encountered few. However, a decade ago, Brooklyn, my home, started putting in speed bumps on some streets I regularly drive. Mostly they signal a school that I am approaching. I understand the concern, but I was not aware that speeding cars had been wiping out schoolchildren in my neighborhood before the bumps were built. They did not seem necessary. However, now, on my way home, I have to slow to eight miles per hour or less and then go back to twenty-five and then back to eight three or four times on the last few blocks of my trip. I realize that this is a minor aggravation except when I am concentrating on a stroller or a bicyclist or the behind of a pedestrian, and don’t see the bump coming. I hit it too fast and fear my head is going to hit the car roof. However, I am restrained by the bruise-leaving, always-worn seat belt as I say various non-Christian oaths. On the other hand, I am grateful that many other blocks I drive do not have speed bumps, and on occasion I get home on a route that would otherwise be less convenient except for the absence of speed bumps.

I have become resigned to the Brooklyn bumps. I felt much yuckier about the Yucatan ones we encountered on a recent trip.

We had flown to Cancun, rented a car, and drove ninety minutes on a good road. We turned off the main highway onto a narrow, meandering street to get to the apartment we had rented on Akumal Bay. Our place was a little over a mile from the turn off, but it seemed much further because of speed bumps. There were many of them. I tried to count them but invariably lost track because of their number—more than two dozen but perhaps thirty or more. The bumps were not all the same. Some were nicely rounded and could be driven over at, say, five miles per hour without any danger of losing fillings. Some were plateaus with an incline, a flat space of several yards, and then an off ramp. Some, however, were not really bumps, but triangles with sharp tops that required extra care and speeds that matched a baby’s crawl.

Before some of the bumps, but not all, a sign was posted on the side of the road—TOPE—which we took to mean “speed bump” in Mexican. We figured that this was a two-syllable word, but the spouse like to pronounce it as if it were that brownish-gray color, that, to me, should have a hint of purple. Her exclamation of “Tope” was sort of cute the first time and even the second and perhaps the third, but we drove this road multiple times each day. Her shouting taupe the thirty-fifth time had lost all cuteness.

The road had a posted speed limit of twelve kilometers per hour, but if that speed was ever reached, the brakes had to be immediately pushed hard for the next speed bump. You could drive the road faster than walking, but only by a bit, and the usual trip the length of our little road took up to fifteen minutes.

This road was not an outlier. Every town where we drove in Yucatan had speed bumps. Even main roads were mined with them. We decided to visit the Mayan ruins at Coba, which we had not seen before. Google maps correctly indicated that it was about a ninety-minute drive, but the mileage (or should it be kilometerage or kilometreage) did not seem that far. Google maps apparently knew of the many, many, did I say many speed bumps we would have to traverse even though almost all of the drive was on main roads.

I wondered if some sort of bizarre corruption was at work. Had some well-connected speed bump construction company “convinced” local officials that this annoyance was necessary? I concluded that if all the speed bumps we encountered on the drive to Coba had been stacked on top of each other, it would make an edifice higher than Coba’s pyramid, a structure that we were told was even higher than the one at Chichen Itza.* If the speed bumps survive, I wonder what future anthropologists will make of them.

On the other hand, I don’t remember seeing any evidence of traffic accidents in our drives.



We toured Coba in a pedicab. The spouse and I sat up front in the vehicle in what was a spacious area for the young but a little tight for us. Rodrigo, who lived in the nearby town of 3,000 also named Coba, narrated as he peddled.

We learned some natural history. Rodrigo pointed out two trees growing together. He said that the bark or sap of one was poisonous and caused a rash, but the bark or the sap on the other one contained the antidote. The two trees always grew side by side. At another tree, Rodrigo pointed out a barely discernible hole with a swarm of small, flying insects. He said the creatures were a native, nonstinging bee. Its honey is harvested by boring into the tree and is a delicacy of the area. 

As can be expected, we heard many different languages and accents at Coba. French predominated, but at the pyramid we met a couple from Bulgaria, who seemed thrilled that we had been to their country, even though it had been for a matter of hours on a trip down the Danube. They took our picture with the pyramid in the background. I fell in love with her, but she has not called me, and my ardor has waned.

Of course, we were primarily there to see Mayan ruins. While Coba’s pyramid may be higher than Chichen Itza’s, it does not now seem as grand because it is in greater disrepair than the more famous site. The stairs have crumbled to pieces. However, I only remember one ball court at Chichen Itza while Coba has two smaller ones that seemed almost intimate.

The Coba feature we had not seen elsewhere was a portion of a raised road. Rodrigo told us that this road originally extended fifty or more miles through the jungle to other Mayan cities. I realize that I was only seeing a small portion of the road, but in spite of my close inspection I saw no speed bumps. On the other hand, the Mayans did not used wheeled vehicles.

However, on the more modern Coba paths used by our pedicab, Rodrigo did have to maneuver over…yep, speed bumps.


One car horn sounded, and then another and another. I wished that the horns had been tuned to make harmonies instead of cacophonies.

The program told me that musical piece had its “world premiere” in Oxford, England, last September. Is there a difference between the premiere and the world premiere?

The street preacher told me, “Thank God for Jesus!” He did not look then as if he wanted to discuss the finer points of theology, but I wondered what his views on the Trinity were. Did he think Jesus was part of the Godhead? Was he saying, “Thank Jesus for Jesus”?

I expect to tip when paying a restaurant bill in the United States. (In some countries, a percentage is added onto the bill and an additional tip is not necessary.) I have my standards for what I should tip at a restaurant. I infrequently have food delivered to my home, but when I do, I expect to tip the delivery person. I am never sure how, however. I think it should be less than in a restaurant where the server not only brings me the food but also clears the table during and after the meal. And, of course, people are washing the dishes and utensils I have used. I have, therefore, concluded that the delivery person should get a lesser percentage than the tip in a restaurant, but I am still not sure what it should be. Now I have another tipping dilemma. When I am making the kind of purchase for which in the not-too-distant past I did not leave any tip, the credit card machine asks me if I want to leave a tip and lists percentages. For example, I went into a store and filled up some canisters with coffee without the help of a store employee. When I went to pay, below the price of the coffee, I was asked if I wanted to leave a tip. Should I? Is this a new tipping convention? Tipping conventions do change (I am unlikely to leave a ten percent tip at a restaurant as was once common) and vary by locations. On a recent trip to Yucatan, we found that people other than those ringing up the purchases bagged our groceries in the supermarket. We learned that we should tip these baggers although the expected amount was only a couple of pesos or so, which amounted to a dime. I don’t like bagging groceries, and this seemed just fine to me. At a gas station, someone pumped the gas, which I don’t mind doing, and we were told to tip them some pesos also. That was no big deal, but a bigger deal was that the gas stations did not take credit cards, and we had to make sure to have sufficient cash to get enough gas. I am still wondering, however, whether I should leave a tip when I buy coffee from the specialty shop.

As I went to the first tee to start another bad round of golf (for I am a bad golfer), I asked the starter, “Got any tips?” “Yes,” he said. “Never bet on the Phillies.”

The spouse and I have talked about leaving Brooklyn for some place where old folks like us might live an easier life. A place we considered was Asheville, North Carolina. But then I learned that the closest Costco to Asheville was more than a ninety-minute drive. This might be a deal-breaker.

I was walking a block lined with many Indian restaurants. One distinguished itself by the clipping in its window of a glowing review by a famous food critic. I was not sure, however, if it told me anything about the quality of its food. It was from 1997.

Freediving for Medicine

“He’s very good-looking.” That is what the spouse said about Jose V. after she became his Ph.D. mentor, but she said it many other times as well. He was accomplished and ambitious. He was in a joint M.D./Ph.D. program. In addition, he was a ballroom dance instructor.

After obtaining his doctorate, he went to Harvard for a couple of post-doctoral fellowships, but then the spouse lost track of him. That is until Jose recently contacted her. He said that he was in Manhattan regularly and would like to take the spouse out to lunch. (Telling me about the invitation, she mentioned that he was good-looking.)

The spouse responded that she was partial to diners (true) and that Jose should find one near where he was staying. He replied several days later that all the nearby diners were booked (surely an untruth) and that he wished to treat the spouse to lunch at a Central Park South restaurant, one of the city’s most expensive. Sharing this news with me, the spouse mentioned that Jose was good-looking.

The spouse refrained from ordering one of the $70 entrees and had oysters, a salad, and a glass of Sancerre, continually wondering who ate at such a place. The conversation quickly turned to the catching-up stage. The spouse’s end was short since Jose knew that she had retired and quickly learned that the spouse had the same husband, child, and house.

Jose, however, had a fair amount to report. He had lived in many places and traveled much. He was married but was now separated from his wife who was back home in Colombia, the birthplace of both of them. Jose now is a practicing neurologist who fills in regularly at hospitals in North Carolina. It means that he has to be in NC for only a few days out of the month. He didn’t want to live in NC, so he lives in New York City for most of the time.

The spouse said that because she had not heard from Jose in a while and because she knew that he had taken up freediving (deep diving without scuba gear), she had assumed he had died in a diving accident. He conceded that freediving was more dangerous than ballroom dancing (which he no longer did), but averred that freediving was not as dangerous as people thought. He stated that only one professional freediver had ever died. Besides, he said, freediving was relaxing, blissful even. One’s heart rate declined (as low as five beats per minute), and one felt, well, free.

My ten minutes of internet research later found that that death statistic was not entirely correct. A website for “wild water sports” said there had been only one recorded death in over 80,000 competitive freedives globally. That site went on to say that there have been more deaths in running, cycling, and scuba diving than in competitive freediving, but I thought that this information left out some important context. My guess is that the number of people running, cycling, and scuba diving is much higher than it is for freediving and without per capita data the comparisons were meaningless.

However, the site also indicated that from 2004 to 2017, there was an average of fifty-one freediving deaths per year and some of these were professional divers in noncompetitive activities. Perhaps done properly, the sport is not overly dangerous, but it certainly has its risks.

Jose, however, was not treating his freediving as merely a hobby separate from his medical practice. Instead, he was convinced of a connection between them. He told the spouse that the cluster of symptoms surrounding the death of a freediver were the same as those accompanying seizure activity which he, as a neurologist, had encountered regularly in the clinic. Moreover, Jose’s prior research activities had made him something of an expert on the sympathetic nervous system. In short, he was uniquely situated to make this comparison. The symptoms included a spike in white blood cells, and increases in surfactant and something else I don’t remember. As a result, he was eager to develop a diagnostic kit that would predict seizure activity. But he no longer was active in research, and besides, he didn’t know how to create or market any kind of assay.

When I heard that Jose wanted to develop some sort of medical kit, I immediately thought that that explained the lunch. He was looking for an investment or loan or gift from the spouse. She assured me, however, after mentioning how good-looking Jose is, that I was wrong. She said that Jose is not looking to become rich; he only wanted to have his insight confirmed as true and made useful.

The lunch, however, revealed that Jose and the spouse had more in common than their scientific collaborations. Jose said that he is susceptible to seasickness, and this has affected his freediving. He has to find diving locations where he does not have to take a boat to get to them. The spouse encountered something similar. She did not grow up scuba diving, but, being a good swimmer, she thought she would enjoy it and became certified as an adult. However, she got seasick going out to diving sites and gave it up.

Jose, however, apparently knows every freediving place in the world that is within feet of the shoreline. He also has dived in cenotes that are scattered throughout Yucatan. Cenotes form when porous limestone naturally collapses, and groundwater fills the sinkholes. It often results in caves partially filled with water that invites scuba-diving spelunkers. In some, the water is very deep and beckons freedivers like Jose. Most who visit a cenote, however, stay on the surface of the water, as the spouse, the NBP and I had done only a couple of weeks before the spouse’s lunch. But our trip, including the cenote swimming, is a story for another day. (By the way, when the spouse came back from the lunch and when she told friends about it a few days later, she did not refrain from mentioning that Jose is still rather good-looking.)


I frequent a library that has moved into a new building in my neighborhood. It is in fact one of the oldest lending libraries in New York City. Although it has modern novels (the library is now called The Center for Fiction and does not house non-fiction), I become intrigued by older books when I browse the open stacks. Often there will be a series by an author whom I have never heard of, and I wonder whether I should have. Today while looking for a classic mystery, The Detective by Roderick Thorp, I saw eight or ten shelved books that immediately struck me as from another era. The author listed on their spines, or in this case I perhaps should say authoress, was Mrs. Belloc Lowndes. I never heard of her. My three minutes of internet research after I got home revealed that her younger brother was Hilaire Belloc, whose name I had seen before but is another person I have never read. She was born in London in 1868 and died in 1947. During those 79 years, she published more than forty novels and also biographies, memoirs, and plays. Most of the novels were mysteries, which, according to one source, are “well-plotted.” Several of her books were made into movies including her most popular book, published in 1912, The Lodger, based on Jack the Ripper. That book was also made into an opera after she died. Has anyone read a book by this author? Should I? If I go back to the library to take out one of the three dozen of her books it has, I will have to remember the library’s shelving system. Belloc was not the first name of the author. She wrote as Mrs. Marie Belloc Lowndes. Doesn’t that mean that the book should be shelved in the B’s?  I did happen on a book by Mario Vargas Llosa, and it was in the V’s. But Belloc Lowndes’s books were placed in the L’s.

Ron DeSantis says he wants the United States to be like Florida. He doesn’t mention that Florida’s homicide rate is higher than New York City’s.

The Wisconsin woman with a second home in Yucatan volunteered at a Mexican library, which functioned as a daycare center after the grade school finished its day. Suzette, laden with pictures of Whitefish Bay in January, was off to explain snow to the kids. I wondered how that could be done with those who had never experienced any temperature below forty-seven degrees.

Before packing for a trip, I try on pants and shorts I plan to bring. I have learned that the closet where I store them often shrinks them. However, on my last trip I did not try on my swimming trunks before leaving. I found that the back of the dresser where they had been pushed had sprung them out.

The spouse, to my amazement, brought shoes she had not broken in on our recent trip. Soon we were all looking without success for corn pads for her sore toes. The spouse decided there were none in Yucatan because the locals all wore flip flops, which she cannot wear.

A good thing about alligators: Sometimes, but not often enough, they eat little, yapping dogs.

Have you ever wondered how much dogs contribute to pollution, food shortages, and global warming? They do, of course.

I hope that you have someone in your life who makes you feel like sunshine on a cloudy day.

A Scopes Trial in Florida

I recently read Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson,which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Most of us know about the 1925 prosecution of John Scopes from the cartoonish but compelling 1960 movie Inherit the Wind. Of course, real life was more complicated than the drama, but the basic premise was correct: John Scopes was prosecuted for violating a Tennessee state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. The trial depicted huge personalities important in American history. The movie had Spencer Tracy in the thinly-veiled Clarence Darrow role and the oft-underappreciated Frederic March as the William Jennings Bryan surrogate. (Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and March forty miles away in Racine, three years apart. I have wondered if on the Inherit set they swapped reminiscences of boyhood romps on Lake Michigan beaches.) And in a daring bit of casting, Gene Kelly had the role of the acerbic journalist H.L. Mencken, who wrote commentary about the trial.

The movie seemingly portrays the triumph of rationality over the cramped world of closed-minded fundamental religion — the triumph of modernity over myth. However, the movie, based on the 1956 play, was aimed at McCarthyism more than fundamentalism just as The Crucible by Arthur Miller is not really about the Salem witch trials. (The opening cast of Broadway’s Inherit the Wind starred Ed Begley, Paul Muni, and a young Tony Randall as Mencken. It ran for over two years, and, of course, has been a staple of high schools and summer stock ever since.) Perhaps it was telling that one of the screenwriters for the Inherit film used a fictitious name for the credits because he had been blacklisted.  

Although William Jennings Bryan is portrayed in Inherit primarily as a religious buffoon, Summer for the Gods shows that he tried, given the populist he was, to cast the issue as one of democracy. He, and others, maintained that the people — speaking through their legislatures — had the right to control what was taught in the schools which they had created and funded.

The issues presented by the Scopes trial remain timely, most notably in Florida. Now, however, the issues are about more than science and religion. Religion may hover just below the surface, but Florida is raising again two of the most interwoven strands that have recurred throughout American history, sex and race.

The state, however, maintains that what is doing is not about religion, sex, or race; It is about protecting children. It is about who determines when children should be exposed to certain topics. It is about who determines the content of classes.

Indeed, a basic question about our public school is who controls the education? School boards, parents, state government, teachers, other educators, experts? There is no easy answer.

Few doubt that government sets at least broad requirements. And usually, educators determine how those requirements are to be satisfied. Perhaps a school board or the state legislature determines that a high school student must pass algebra to graduate. We would be surprised if that state agency developed a syllabus for the required course. Instead, the educators determine how the course is to be taught.

However, when issues of religion, sex, or race are present in a course, sometimes, as with Florida now and Tennessee in 1925, the government wants to control the course’s content. The state may say that the majority of people want them to control such content. However, since this happens primarily with issues of religion, sex, or race, and not with other topics, this is not really about majority or even parental control; if it were, the state would control content on all topics. No. It is only about religion, sex, or race.

Florida, however, is not merely mimicking 1925 Tennessee. It is going beyond the Volunteer State. Tennessee did not extend its meddling beyond the public high schools. It apparently assumed that its college students were rational enough, mature enough, and educated enough to be able to think for themselves. They did not require protection from whatever the state legislature thought pernicious. Ron DeSantis’s Florida, however, has taken this a step further. The Sunshine State’s governor does not believe that its college students are smart, educated, or mature enough to be able to come to their own decisions on these matters. DeSantis is seeking to control the content of university education as well as that in the lower schools.

Indeed, Florida has not stopped there. It seeks to mandate what can occur in corporate programs. This, of course, turns “conservatism” on its head. Promotion of free enterprise and minimal government regulation is a core tenet of conservatism. We should not be all that surprised that concerns about sex, race, and religion intrude into public education, for that has happened many times in our history. But it is a brave new world when the state decides to control corporate training in these matters.

Of course, we should be concerned about what is taught in our schools. However, as we consider who should determine curricular content, it is worth reflecting on what Curtis Wilkie reports in When Evil Lived in Laurel: The “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer. “In the middle of the twentieth century,” writes Wilkie, “any Mississippi schoolchild who achieved an eighth-grade education had been exposed to a state history textbook [Mississippi through Four Centuries] that told of the glories of the Klan.” In discussing Reconstruction, the textbook acknowledged that the Ku Klux Klan whipped and even killed Blacks “who had been giving trouble in a community. . . . The organization helped the South at a difficult time.”

However, now, a hundred years after the Scopes trial, I can imagine a prosecution of a Florida teacher who teaches the fact that on a per capita basis Florida had the most lynchings in this country.


Tennessee has criminalized drag shows that might be seen by children. I am relieved. This will stop a major danger to our society that I had not known existed. On the other hand, will the vigilant Tennessee guardians stop there? Will Chattanooga women continue to be able to wear pants on the street and perhaps even button-down shirts? But if they are concerned about kids encountering cross-dressers accompanied by sexual innuendoes, they should be concerned about what streams or is broadcast into homes. Even if it makes best-ever lists, Some Like It Hot should never be watched by parents with their offspring. Any parent that allows such a thing should get solitary confinement. Go watch the last two minutes of it. That final line by Joe E. Brown, “Nobody’s perfect,” surely must have corrupted many. Preventing children from watching Some Like It Hot would return Tennessee to its good old days of 1960, which seems to be the goal of the anti-drag legislation. When the movie came out, Memphis did not allow children to see it. (Kansas, ah Kansas, actually banned it for people of all ages.)

Does anyone still serve wheatgrass? I am happy that I have not seen it for a while.

His father had been imprisoned in Poland as part of the Solidarity movement. When he was released from jail and granted an amnesty, the father was given a choice of countries where he and his family could immigrate. He chose the United States and was settled in Boise, Idaho. The son felt at sea, he told me; The language, the culture, the TV shows. But that changed when he was able to understand and appreciate the opening sequence of the sitcom Night Court, which he still admires. He lit up at the name Harry Anderson, but I forgot to ask him whether he likes Mel Tormé.

Only once in my life have I met a person who was in a low dudgeon.

He met her in Berlin on his junior year abroad. She was Romanian. She complained that while she knew a lot about the United States, he knew almost nothing about her country. I told him that when I was his age, I knew a girl from Brazil, and I felt bad that while she knew a lot about America, I knew very little about Brazil. But, I continued, I realized that people from all over the world learn about America from their studies, the news, and popular culture, and there is no way I can learn as much about every other country in the world. I doubt, I said, that my Brazilian friend knew any more about Romania than you did, and that your Romanian friend knew no more about Brazil than I did. I concluded to him, however, if you want to get laid, you have to at least pretend you are interested in her country. His eyes twinkled. He told me that he had gone home that night and read every article he could find on Wikipedia about Romania. He then gave a satisfied smile.

China is the traditional gift for a twentieth anniversary, and I am told that platinum is the more modern thing for that commemoration. But the first seems ironic and the second inappropriate for acknowledging that it was two score years ago that we invaded Iraq. What?! You aren’t celebrating that event? Don’t you remember? We accomplished our mission (or so we said). Surely you must feel more secure and safer because of our actions. And don’t you delight in the spread of democracy that we achieved?

A couple from Alberta, Canada, and a man from Wisconsin I met on a recent trip to southern climes fit the snowbird cliché. They talked about the freezing temperatures back home as they sat around the sunlit pool. While I try to avoid trite discussions about the weather, that does not mean that I do not look at the Brooklyn weather when I am in a tropical setting. And this time I was more than a little irritated that it was unseasonably warm and dry — springlike, in fact — in New York City while I was out of town.

The woman from Alberta said that she had been to New York City for one day and had been amazed by the number of people. I did not know how to respond and simply smiled.

Sweet Home Ashland, Alabama (concluded)

Ashland, Alabama, where the spouse’s grandmother lived, felt like the South for many reasons. One was its number of churches. There were a lot, but I am used to that. Wherever I am in Brooklyn, I am almost always within three or four blocks of a church, but in Ashland, as far as I could tell, they were all Protestant ones, and probably more than half were some sort of Baptist or Methodist. I don’t remember seeing a Catholic church, and the nearest synagogue was a county or two away. Mom’s house was literally surrounded by churches. Out her front door and across the street was her Southern Baptist church. (Mom was clearly pleased that I, although not a Southern Baptist, was raised in the Baptist tradition. (See post of June 22, 2020.)) Out her side door and across the street was the Methodist Church.

One Sunday when we were visiting Ashland, that Methodist Church was welcoming its new pastor. The spouse and I were out and about that afternoon and cutting through the Methodist parking lot on our way to somewhere when we realized we had been spotted by the new minister and his wife. The couple looked like a caricature out of certain kind of movie. Neither seemed old enough to drive. Both were thin, and I expected to see acne on him as he approached with what appeared to be a brave smile. His white shirt might have had some cotton in it, but it was too big and gapped at the neck. His suit was also too big and looked as if it had been bought two days before from the southern equivalent of whatever was two steps down from Robert Hall. And if the tie was not a clip-on, it sure fooled me. The wife was tiny and retiring, but also had a brave smile fixed in place. They looked like a newlywed couple dedicated to the new path on which they had embarked. As he approached, he started to introduce himself, but we interrupted saying with big smiles, “We are from out of town. You don’t need to spend time with us.” It was as if a wave passed over them both, and in an instant they looked more relaxed but also incredibly tired. They thanked us and told us that he had performed his first service as the new pastor and had been meeting people all day. After a few moments of pleasantries, we parted. I had wanted to tell them, “You look like you need a drink.” But this was neither the right town nor the right couple for such a suggestion.

Perhaps we would have chatted with the new couple in town longer if their church had been Mom’s church, but on Sundays Mom headed out her front door. I only remember one time that the spouse and I went with her to the Baptist church across the street. The spouse’s sister and her husband were also in Ashland at the time. The brother-in-law is Jewish, although not religious, but he looked quite nervous as we all got ready for the morning service. I told him to relax, no one was going to know about his religious heritage, explaining that probably they all thought Jews had horns, and they would not see them on his head. I added, however, that perhaps his quite luxurious head of hair was hiding them and perhaps I ought to give him a trim first. He did not see the humor in my tremendously clever wit.

I remember little of that service, not the sermon or the Bible readings, but I do remember the hymns, or really the introduction to them. As we got to the point where we were to rise and rejoice in song, the minister announced that the usual choir director was away and was being replaced by “Shotgun Miller.” I was only half paying attention and was not sure that I had heard it correctly, but “Shotgun” just seemed to hang in the air. What looked like a solid Ashland citizen stood up and led us in song. At the second hymn, the minister merely said, “Shotgun,” and I could not help smiling. At the third hymn, when he said, “Shotgun,” I had to restrain myself from chuckling out loud, and I thought to myself, “Are they just messing with this northern boy, bringing out the clichés, and giving a good show?” But I knew they weren’t.

I shouldn’t mock Mom’s church, however. She was a wonderful person—warm, caring, amusing, charming, tolerant, accepting. She seemed at peace, and part of the reason for that was her religion. When I think on some of the bad aspects of religion, I think of the spouse’s grandmother and what her religion and her church gave to her. From her, I know that for some people religion is meaningful and life-supporting.

I don’t want to seem as if I am mocking Ashland, the South, or small-town life in general. Mom lived until she was 97, and at least in the last twenty years of that time, she resided about half the year with the spouse’s mother in Florida and the rest of the time by herself in Ashland until her final illness, which was short. She could live by herself in her house because she was not really alone. Every day people from the town would look in on her, make sure that she was all right, and ask if she needed some lemons from the grocery or aspirin from the pharmacy. Many people cared about her enough to make efforts on her behalf in ways that I do not expect will happen for me in Brooklyn. She could remain where she wanted to be in a place that held memories.

The visits to Ashland, however, did not make me want to give up my big city life. On the first day of our first visit to Ashland, the spouse and I were heading off to the town square. Without thinking Mom said, “Now y’all be careful. It’s Saturday. It’s market day. There’s a lot of traffic.” And then she stopped and smiled and said, “But you live in New York,” and laughed at herself.

After seeing the courthouse, we wandered around the square and went into a few shops. In each and every one, an owner or clerk said, “You aren’t from around here. Who are you visiting?” We would answer and explain our relationship to Ms. Herren. They would ask where we were from. Each one of them would comment on how far away, how big, and how foreign New York seemed, but how much they liked seeing it on the Today show. And when we were leaving, all of them said, “You all have a blessed day” or “You give Ms. Herren my best.” By the fourth or fifth exit, I started muttering expletives when I got to the sidewalk. Their sweetness, their niceness was getting under my skin. I knew I was a Big City boy. I was longing for some of New York City’s curt anonymity.