The romance of a Guillotine

I'll admit that in all the years I was groomed to teach history I never really got the French Revolution. Sure, on some intellectual level I understood the forces involved in the greatest upheaval of European society in the history of the world. But, I didn't "get"all the violence. After all, the French Revolution was preceded by the American Revolution and despite a war we didn't tend to have a prolonged period of bloody retribution. Sure, there was a lot of neighbor getting even with neighbor, particularly in the south. But, there was no Reign of Terror and we didn't spend several years lopping the heads off people. I just couldn't fathom all of that.

Of course, it's comparing apples and oranges. The American Revolution was more a philosophical debate that degenerated into violence. There wasn't real oppression involved, more the idea of oppression. People spent a lot of time bellyaching about taxes and what not without ever considering that someone has to pick up the bill for their protection and infrastructure. It didn't matter that Americans paid far less in taxes than their British kin. No, much like today, Americans didn't want to pay for anything but have it magically appear when they needed it. I suppose the more things change the more they stay the same here in the colonies.

In France, though, they had some spectacular oppression. The gap between rich and poor or noble and common was astounding. There were two different worlds in France. In fact, it's a lot like it is today in the United States. We have the super wealthy 1% of the population who control well over 90% of all the money in the nation. Think about that, of all the wealth in the United States 99% of the people share less than 10% of it! One day of work for a CEO at one of the top companies in America (say Johnson & Johnson) equals the annual salary of the average American - $35,000! That's very much like what it was in France before the Revolution. That doesn't even take into account the retained wealth of the top 1% families who work tirelessly to make sure not a penny of their wealth gets diluted or shared with the masses.


Civic Boosters

If there is one group of people who can irk me to no end it would be the perpetually upbeat civic booster. You know the type. Wherever they live is the greatest place that has ever existed in the entire spectrum of human history!!! (Exclamation points are theirs.)

They're the kind of people who just chafe at the idea that anything in their town or city could possibly be inferior to another town or city. They consistently refuse to see reality because they're too busy "promoting" their town to people who don't care. It's not their job. They don't get paid by the tourism folks or convention bureau, they just feel the need to chirp on and on about the "uniqueness" and "charm" of their city. And, I swear, if I hear one more vomit forth some platitude about how "organic" the people who live in their city are I think I might actually vomit on their shoes. We're not talking pesticide free either. Organic has come to mean the local hippies throw some shindigs that are always in financial disarray but full of "spiritual" platitudes.

There are great benefits to almost any town or city. I loved Halloween in my hometown where hundreds of kids took to the streets of our historic neighborhood. That was "organic" in that no one organized it. Everyone just pitched in and made a great party for all. By the same token the local civic boosters would go overboard on things. When they redid a 19th century opera house to the tune of $6 million the boosters had a field day. They decided to start their own opera company in a town of 30,000 people and no established classical music teachers, singers or programs. Within months they had the temerity to compare themselves to the San Francisco Opera or the Met. Seriously, that is how deluded civic boosters can get! The operas were horrid by any standard but amateur, yet they wanted people to believe their quality rivaled that of Covent Garden or La Scala, and they had the ticket prices to prove it!

I now live in Tucson, whose Halloween sucks for trick or treaters incidentally. For the most part I like the city and its people. If I had my 'druthers I'd be in New England where I'd have some modicum of equality, but since I'm in Arizona, Tucson is the place to be. But the civic boosters here are quite a breed. The downtown is falling apart and dirty. Their development board can't get its act together so the place is a mishmash of uber trendy bistros, junk stores, abandoned buildings, and offices. It's all layered with a fine coating of dirt and grime that make me think of the flight from the cities in the 60's and 70's. The city has mismanaged millions of dollars on some development project for a convention center and hotel that dates back a decade or more. Nothing has ever come of their grand plans except lawsuits, recrimination, and wasted cash. It's like no one has a clue about downtown redevelopment here. Their general approach is to raze any building no matter how historic if they can't think of an immediate use and without any type of architectural board throw up whatever anyone wants. They tore down an historic hotel to put up a glass and steel monstrosity for the power company. When I mentioned it was a horrible waste not to mention blight in an historic area I was taken to task by a civic booster who thought the building would put the Louvre pyramid to shame. Seriously!

Signs from the Occupy Tucson rallies.
As the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread, a local group here joined in and occupied a city park. The protest has been moderately successful with a few hundred people the first day and about 75 the second. I'm sure the number will drop during the week but I hope it will rise again on the weekend. Yet, that has not gone without a goodly dose of civic boosterism. Of course, they don't seem to be decided yet whether a protest is a good thing or a bad thing. That, my friends, is hilarious to watch.

You have one civic booster who touts the protests and is really into them. Tucson has the best around! Woo Hoo! Then you have another civic booster who comes from the "protesting is so messy" camp who delivers a backhanded compliment but quietly complains that Tucson has so much more to be proud of than protestors - after all the city is so "organic" and "while protests have their place" we should focus more on the "organic nature" of Tucson's "vibrant" scene. (ugh) Then a civic booster chimes in about how nice the police in Tucson are. After all, they aren't ACTUALLY arresting people. Just issuing them citations and summons that could include fines as high as $2000, a misdemeanor conviction, and jail time if the fine is not paid. They are also dating the citations so everyone who receives one will have to leave the park (if the protest is still going) to appear in court on the same day at the same times or face jail. Of course, those citations are for EVERY DAY the protestors occupy the park. But, hey, the police are the nicest police in the whole wide world because they're only using financial measures to squelch free speech, not pesky pepper spray and batons.

Seriously, this is how loopy civic boosters get. They must continually find the silver lining in every aspect of their town even if reality dictates there is no silver lining.

Let's face it compare your city to any other half dozen and you'll come up short in at least a few areas. No city is perfect and pretending problems doesn't exist or whitewashing them doesn't help your city improve. When there is a problem the rational thing to do is simply assess and address it, not shut your eyes and start pointing at something else while singing "See, that's good! See, that's good!"

Yes, Tucson friends you have a Blues Festival. I come from a place that has Spoleto USA, an international arts festival that brings in the top performers in classical, jazz, and contemporary music from around the world as well as performing artists, comedians, visual artists, and lecturers. Yes, you have the All Souls Procession which is way cool. But New Orleans and Mobile have Mardi Gras festivals that are world famous. Honestly, you need to have a little perspective. Just because it happens to occur within the city limits of Tucson, AZ does not make it the best version of anything ever done. And that goes for everything in every other city as well.


Face it, you'd oppose the American Revolution...

As a British Officer at Ninety Six National Historic Site in South Carolina.
When I did living history many years ago I was always either a British soldier/officer or, in my civilian role, a dedicated Loyalist. This may seem strange and I was one of the very few civilian interpreters to don the mantel of King and Country. But, it was natural for me. Firstly, my family were Loyalists for the most part during the Revolution. Sure, by the end of the thing they'd made peace with neighbors and nominally embraced the rebellion but at the outset they all fought in Loyalist militias or assiduously avoided publicly joining the revolution. Secondly, I loved tweaking the noses of ultra conservatives who saw themselves as natural "patriots."

As one of the few voices of the Loyalists at events I often took great pleasure in pointing out just how misused the word "patriot" is today. One of my exercises was to lead people who considered themselves modern patriots to admit they would have, without question, been a Loyalist in 1775. Today, with the Occupy Wall Street protests going on nationwide it seems a wonderful time to revisit those ideas.

Do you agree that protestors should not be allowed to flout local laws that govern when and where protests can take place? For example, if they want to protest in a park but don't have a permit or permission from the city should they be arrested or the protest broken up? Or if they stay past the park's "closing time" should they be subject to arrest or citation? If you do, you would be a Loyalist in 1775.

A woman is arrested in NYC for demonstrating in public.
In the 18th Century it was not uncommon for local officials of the crown to break up protests or demonstrations by people who were angry over some act of the government. Whether peaceable or not, protests were met with swift and often lethal force. Reading the "Riot Act" was not just a turn of phrase back then but an actual prelude to violence by militias or regulars against citizens seeking redress from the government. If you have ever waxed "patriotic" over the Boston Massacre but feel that the Occupy Wall Street protestors in various cities around America have no "right" to stage a protest without government permission, permits, or outside proscribed times - then you are a hypocrite and you would have been a Loyalist.

Do you think that a "flat tax" or sales taxes or other types of "equal" duties should be implemented or raised so that landowners and the wealthy can enjoy lower taxes? Would you rather have everyone pay higher sales tax and no income or property taxes? If you do, you would probably be a Loyalist in 1775.


National Coming Out Day

Today is National Coming Out Day in the USA. If you're in the U.K. please wait until tomorrow to come out. (Don't ask me why they're a day later.) Regardless, I can remember when this all begin it was sort of a big deal. October 11 was a big day for "the talk." I don't think it's quite so fraught with tension anymore because more and more people come out at younger ages. I can remember when it wasn't uncommon to run across guys in their 60's who'd never admitted to anyone they were gay. And let's not forget all the elderly "spinster sisters" who weren't really sisters at all.

Today, people tend to be more open, although there are lots of folks who insist on hanging out with the coats and hats in the back of the closet. Personally, I've been out publicly since about 1986. I never got to have the big "I'm Gay" talk with parents or siblings. Everyone knew I was gay it seems. My mother and father knew so well that they arranged for me to spend school vacations with my gay brother in San Diego instead of hanging around a little southern town. When I struggled at Clemson University - in part because I was gay and had a lot of trouble hiding or "fitting in" with the pussy hounds and party boys - they arranged for me to transfer to a college in San Diego. That's where I had my big coming out moment, for what it's worth.

I worked part time in my brother's travel agency in the Hillcrest area of San Diego. If you're not familiar with Hillcrest think tamer version of the Castro mixed with octogenarian Jews and Italians.  I was actually a natural with computers and this was the age when computers were quite the mysterious gadget. They hired me to compile their customer lists and eventually I began doing reservations and walk in bookings for flights, hotels, and weekend trips. Since I handled the walk in business which consisted of lots of old ladies needing a plane ticket to either Las Vegas to gamble or Fort Myers in Florida, I had the front desk. Each afternoon the letter carrier (postwoman) would come in and drop off the mail. She was a very, uh, butch lesbian. She was also really friendly and funny. One day she dropped the mail on my desk and casually said: "So, are you gay too?"

This was sort of to be expected. After all, the agency employed all gay men at the time. I thought for a minute then said, "Yeah." She smiled. "Cool! Well have a good day!" and walked out.

Behind me I heard one of the agents pick up a phone and begin whispering, "He's out! He came out!" Soon, the little office was abuzz. I couldn't figure out what the fuss was about. After all, in my mind I'd never been IN the closet. I never dated women to cover, I never told people I was straight. Of course, I didn't run around Clemson University screaming "I'm a faggot!" out of self preservation. Still, what was the big deal?

It seems to them it was a big deal. Until I had stated publicly my sexuality it was taboo for anyone to mention it. This was in the days when there was still a strict code in the gay community about "outing" people against their will. Until I'd said it aloud it was something that just couldn't be discussed in the open. Now that I was officially "out" I could become part of the group and I could also be invited to parties, events, or nights out.

I never got the tension fraught coming out scene, thank goodness. I feel sorry for people who do have to go through that and deal with family strife or friends who drop them or even hate them. I'm sorry for the people who come out to their churches or communities only to be attacked verbally or physically or even killed. I'm very lucky to have a family that supported me and friends who cared about me.

So, if you're not out, why not make today your day? Isn't it time to throw off the shackles of denial and kick open the closet door? Who knows, it may not be nearly as difficult as you think and the world outside is a beautiful place!


You'd think the guy was Jesus Christ

'Steve Jobs R.I.P.' photo (c) 2011, Todd Benson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/I swear, if I have to read one more "news" story, watch one more local reporter broadcast from an Apple Store, or hear one more pundit compare Steve Jobs to Edison, I'm going to scream.

I get it, he's a popular guy. I get it, he's as rich as god. I get it, his gadgets are super trendy and cool. But, the guy is not Edison, Einstein, Franklin, Tesla, or the guy who invented the wheel. In fact, I feel sorry for the guy who invented the wheel because he doesn't get any credit at all and he certainly didn't get a cut from all the various uses of his invention not to mention he didn't have the good sense to keep it a "proprietary" format.

Steve Jobs was a nice guy from all accounts. He was a little quirky but people seemed to like him for the most part. That's great. Sure his company produced some interesting gadgets but I contend he did not "change the world." Why? Because most of the gadgets he "made" were actually made by other people even if they were credited to him. Even worse were all the designs and gadgets his company took from others and then reworked under their own brand and sold. That's not invention, it's just tinkering. Edison at least invented a few of his things himself (although many were contributed by his employees too). The same can't really be said of Jobs whose gift was marketing and refining the ideas of others. He was a great businessman. Maybe he's the Carnegie of our time but he's not the Edison of our time.

One commentator I heard on NPR attributed the computer to Jobs. This is about as accurate as Al Gore inventing the internet. Seriously? The computer was Steve Jobs' invention? Funny, there were computers long before Jobs came on the scene. What he did was take something someone else did and refine it. Sure, that was a big deal and we all get to spend endless hours wasting time on Facebook thanks to Mr. Jobs (or more accurately Mr. Wozniac because as usual Jobs was the marketing guy). But, he did not invent personal computing - he simply took it from the realm of business to the realm of entertainment. Yay for him, but it does not make him Edison or Einstein.

I love the "he changed the world of music" analogy followed by the reference to iTunes. Really? iTunes was actually the creation of two other guys and Jobs and Apple bought their designs. Likewise, I'm getting sick of the "he created the digital music revolution" line. The iPod was not the first digital music player by any stretch. Jobs' company simply took what others were doing and figured out a way to make it proprietary at the outset. That tied in nicely with his other new business - selling music. He did not invent a single thing that "revolutionized" digital music. He simply repackaged what others had already done. And when you think of all the rigmarole over pirating, loss of revenue to artists along with the increased scrutiny of our own activity online because of file sharing, are we really that much better off? Not to mention the increase in general rudeness of people walking around 24 hours a day with their little earbuds in so they don't have to interact with a single other human being - unless it is post to Facebook or Twitter via their iPhone!

Let's stop for a moment to consider something. When Edison invented the phonograph no one had ever recorded the human voice before. Think about that. Until that moment in history once a word was spoken or a note played it was gone forever. We can never hear George Washington deliver his Farewell Address. We could never hear Lincoln deliver the stirring Second Inaugural Address. We couldn't hear Mozart play his own piano concertos. Until the moment that Edison sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into the bell of his phonograph no human voice could be recorded and replayed later. That is a pretty big deal.  Compared to that, being able to listen to Lady Gaga while power walking just doesn't rise to the same level.

Listen, I know Apple fanatics are devoted to Jobs and Apple. They think the guy shit gold bricks and peed Chardonnay. It's nice, even if a little creepy, to have that kind of devotion to a corporate guy. And let's face it, Apple's history of lawsuits to squelch competition blows apart the whole "hippie ethic" line that is being repeated like a New Age pseudo-Buddhist mantra. Jobs and company made damn sure that anyone trying to do what they were famous for (taking a design by someone else and reworking it to make a profit) would be met with legions of lawyers not incense and herbal tea. Heck, when they lost their prototype iPhone did they just shrug and release it to the universe? Hell no, they impersonated cops (illegally) and strong armed anyone who might have even seen the thing! Not too hippie cool.

Yes, it's very sad he died. Pancreatic cancer is a particularly horrific way to go. It's painful and agonizing and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. A day of reflection would be appropriate for a business person but weeks and weeks of what appear to be the beginnings of some beatification process are really over the top. Steve Jobs was not Jesus Christ, he was not Thomas Edison, he was certainly not Albert Einstein. He was a businessman who made a very large fortune entertaining people to the point of distraction. Think about it, is life really "better" with your iPhone and being plugged into a fake reality 24/7?


Day Trip: Apple Annie's Orchard & Farm

Apple Annie's Orchard in Willcox, AZ
Fall fell on Tucson in a big way. Sometimes it seems we have two seasons: Summer and Winter. It's either 100 degrees out and dry as a bone or it's chilly and damp! Today turned out to be the latter in Tucson.

I've been wanting to make a run down to Apple Annie's in Willcox for awhile now. They have apple orchards as well as a large farm that grows veggies. I figured it would be a great way to spend to a day and pick up some excellent farm fresh produce for the kitchen. Buying stuff at the market trucked in from Mexico and South America does get a little old when you're from the south a used to farmer's markets and roadside produce stands everywhere.

I'm not sure Michael was 100% convinced it was a good idea. It was overcast and drizzling rain in Tucson at noon when we finally decided to leave. The temp was hovering around 55 degrees and I had to go back inside and pillage through the drawers until I came up with some long pants! Good news, though, my weight loss is evident as I had to really pull the belt tight on the pair I haven't worn since March!

Michael in the Orchard
Despite the weather we hit I-10 toward Willcox and arrived about 2:30 in the afternoon. This was plenty of time to pick some apples for ourselves before closing time. Alas, being a weekday the place was dead. I finally found the one employee in the "bakery and fudge shop" and we got supplies to hit the orchard. It was a nice walk if a little windy. The sun was shining in Willcox and the temperature was about 70 degrees. But the apples were not to be seen. There were dozens that had fallen and were inedible but very few on the trees. We saw maybe one or two worth picking during our entire walk around the orchard. Finally, we decided to just buy some of the pre-picked ones they had in their bins. I got some Red Delicious which Michael enjoys, along with some Granny Smith to either bake or make into a pie or something. Michael also got some Apple Bread and Apple Butter in their little store. Amazingly, they also had cheese curds but since they were not made in Wisconsin (who heard of Cheese Curds from Ohio?) Michael wouldn't have them. 

We were hoping for better luck at the farm so drove the six or seven miles down the road. The pickings were better there. The fields were beautiful and full of peppers and sunflowers as well as gorgeous orange pumpkins.  We ended up with a huge bag of squash, zucchini and cucumbers. We also got some green beans and a big bag of sweet corn. They had huge displays of pumpkins and other squash so we got a little pumpkin and a larger one for our Halloween decorations. I'd seen some Apple Cider doughnuts at the orchard but managed to resist temptation. When I ran across them again at the farm, I couldn't hold out and had to try some. Yes, they are delicious! I did exercise some modicum of control though and did not eat the entire half dozen!

Lady Snow among the Pumpkins.
We decided to stop off at a Popeye's and pick up some chicken and have a picnic at a rest area between Willcox and Benson. Since we had Snow with us we didn't want to eat in a restaurant where we'd have to leave her in the car. We'd stopped at this rest area as we came into Arizona in 2008. At the time there was snow all over the boulders that surround it. Honestly, it felt almost cold enough to snow when we got out! The thermometer said 63 degrees but with the wind and being in the shadows of the hills... it felt about 30 degrees!

When we finally made it home Michael decided to try some of the corn and put on a couple ears to eat while watching TV. It really was worth the trip - sweet and delicious.

Despite a cold and rainy start to the day, we had a good time and it was nice to get out of town for the day. We've been in Arizona for 3 1/2 years now and there are so many places we've never even bothered to explore. Lots of places Michael has been to years before and he's the type of person that doesn't care to see some place twice. If he's seen it, that's it. So, I relish those times when we actually go somewhere further than the center of the city or the yearly jaunt up to Prescott Valley for the holidays. I inherited my mother's wanderlust but just like her managed to settle down with a man who prefers home. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.


Are they trying to kill us?

'Sugar Dish' photo (c) 2011, Steve Snodgrass - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/A few weeks after my liver transplant a study came out that linked High Fructose Corn Syrup which is used in nearly everything these days to liver damage and disease. It seemed that the HFCS in sodas, candy, fruit juices and other things labeled "healthy" was doing as big a number on the liver as guzzling alcohol like a college kid on a four year bender. The corn people immediately began to work to quash the research and that's why they launched all those commercials you now see everywhere.

I was a soda and sweets junkie my entire life. It's pretty reasonable to assume that HFCS had a lot to do with my liver failing. So, I've avoided it like the plague that it is. I switched to diet soda when I drank soda thinking at least it was lower calorie and didn't have HFCS.

Of course, the soda people can't even get that right. They almost universally use Asparatame in their diet drinks (the only exception is RC which uses Sucralose). I really didn't think much about it, though. However, for the past few months my liver enzymes keep taking bounces up and down. There were no signs of rejection so no one could quite figure out what was going on.

A couple weeks ago they bounced up again. It was right after I'd started my diet and I was drinking a good bit of Diet Sierra Mist because I enjoyed the cool and clean citrus taste. My doctor wanted me to recheck the enzymes with a blood test in a couple weeks and if they were still up I'd have to have a painful biopsy to figure out what was going on. Shortly after leaving the office I was thinking about the enzymes. She said that my AST (Aspratate Aminotranferase) was higher than the ALT. Something sort of clicked in the back of my mind. Aspratate and Aspartame. Could there be some connection? So, I decided to hit the scholarly research section of Google and found that there was indeed a connection. As early as 1975 when Aspartame was being tested there were signs it was toxic to the liver. Sure enough, over the years there have been lots of cases of liver toxicity from the artificial sweetener!

So, I stopped drinking or eating anything with Aspartame in it. I went back in two weeks for my tests. The results? Not only were my enzymes back in the normal range but they had dropped by 75% from where they were! They were the lowest they have been in a couple years!

While it's anecdotal, I certainly think that I was showing signs of toxicity from Aspartame. I've added it to my "To be avoided at all costs" list and have vowed to let others know what it might be quietly doing to their bodies. I'm unusual in that I have liver enzyme tests monthly. Most people go through their entire lives without one until it's too late. Don't let aspartame wreck your health (along with HFCS). If you drink more than one 8 oz. glass of diet soda with Aspartame a day, stop now and ask your doctor to check your liver enzymes. If you drink more than one 8oz. glass of regular soda with HFCS do the same! Your liver will thank you and it just might save your life!