Reassessing Gorbachev

The death yesterday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has caused a lot of comment about his role in ushering in the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s worth a few moments to think about those events that occurred more than 30 years ago and how they are perceived now.

The Washington Post obituary presents Gorbachev as the agent of change; it states that he “embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse.” He was a “towering figure” who engaged in “improvised tactics,” took “increasingly bold risks,” and “pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard.” The Post views Mr. Gorbachev as the indispensable figure in the end of the Cold War drama, stating flatly: “None of it could have happened but for Mr. Gorbachev.” That view is reflected in the fact that Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Others disagree with that assessment. They see Gorbachev as the reactor, not the actor; in their view, the true change agent was Ronald Reagan. This evaluation of the 1980s focuses on President Reagan’s decision to ratchet up the social, economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union and Gorbachev with events like his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987. As a result, they contend, Gorbachev was left with few options and really didn’t have much choice as he took steps that responded to the Reagan initiatives and the outbreaks of resistance and freedom initiatives that began to appear in Eastern Europe. The Post obituary indirectly acknowledges this with its references to “improvised tactics” and “increasingly bold risks”: the person who sets the tone doesn’t need to improvise.

Which view of Gorbachev is right? I think the honest answer lies somewhere in between, recognizing that President Reagan’s approach helped to create and nourish the pro-freedom movement that narrowed the options and forced increasingly difficult decisions by the Soviet Union, but also that Gorbachev did always have a choice: he could have unleashed the Soviet army, applied the extreme and brutal repressive tactics that the U.S.S.R. had historically applied, or taken things to the brink of nuclear war–but he didn’t. We’ll probably never know precisely how essential Gorbachev was to those decisions, and how much support, or opposition, he had among members of the Politburo in refraining from calling out the troops or pushing the button, but it all happened on his watch. If a more bloodthirsty, reckless leader had been in charge of the Soviet Union at that time, things might have gone down very differently.

Mikhail Gorbachev may not deserve the over-the-top accolades he is receiving in some quarters, but he clearly was an important historical figure who played a key role. Mr. Gorbachev may not have torn down the wall, but he ultimately didn’t interfere with those freedom-loving Germans who did, and the world should remember him for that.

One Pillow, Two Pillow

Lately I’ve been experimenting with different pillow combinations, trying to find just the right form of headrest for a good night’s sleep.

My pillow use history has been pretty vanilla, frankly. I started off my cognizant life with one pillow, because I’m sure my parents would never have thought of their kids having more than one on their beds. I stuck with one pillow through college, but at some point–I’m not sure exactly when–the notion that there could be more than one pillow per person swept the nation, like disco during the ’70s or big hair during the ’80s, and we ended up with multiple pillows on the bed. At that point, the question was squarely presented: do you continue with one pillow, or try multiple pillows?

I quickly decided that the choice boiled down to one pillow versus two pillows; more than two pillows seemed over the top and was uncomfortable, besides. I initially found it hard to get comfortable with two pillows, so I continued on the one-pillow track. This meant that, when traveling, I had to hurl many pillows off the bed in every hotel, because in hotels the beds sprout pillows like the ground sprouts mushrooms after a spring rainstorm. But recently, after long hours of driving, I rolled into a hotel late at night, exhausted, pretty much collapsed onto a bed with two pillows, and got a good, if abbreviated, night’s sleep–which made me think I should give two pillows a try, again.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. One pillow is what I’m used to, and seems to provide all of the head support I need. Two pillows, however, afford the luxury of quantity, and therefore provide more options you can flip to get to the cool side on a warm summer night. Two pillows, though, can fall into disarray during nocturnal movements, leaving you with a crick in your neck in the morning. On the other hand, one pillow can develop that dent in the middle that requires you to bunch up the pillow in a futile attempt to provide additional support.

One pillow, two pillow? It sounds like a Dr. Seuss book, but the experiment continues.

In Search Of . . . Keys And Cellphones

Are you one of those people who constantly misplaces your keys, your cell phone, or other items, and then spends a lot of time searching for them? Do you regularly call your own cell phone, hoping that the ring or buzz will help you to find it? Are you to the point where you feel like the quest for your keys and cell phone should be featured on an episode of In Search Of . . . , as if they were as tantalizing as the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs?

An article from the U.K. offers some tips from a psychologist and well-being practitioner about how to stop the constant searching. (You’ll know the article is from the U.K. because it uses delightfully weird U.K.isms like “causing aggro” and “flatmates.”) The expert makes a lot of suggestions, from the very fundamental (get more sleep, because lack of sleep contributes to forgetfulness) to the very specific (consider putting a brightly colored ribbon on your keys to make it easier to find them) to the very technical (use key tags and find my phone apps), coupled with some reassurance (just because you regularly misplace your keys and your cellphone doesn’t mean you’re on the verge of dementia).

The best suggestion, in my view, is to give your cellphone and your keys a designated “home” and make sure that you always put them there, until you’ve formed an ingrained habit that becomes second nature. I always put my phone and my keys in the same place and never have to worry about searching for them. Of course, being such a creature of habit might make you worry about becoming too anal–but that’s better than fruitlessly searching for your keys and phone every morning.

“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

In 1787, as the Constitutional Convention was deliberating, there was keen public interest in what form of national government the delegates would decide to recommend to the individual states. According to a journal kept by James McHenry, a delegate to the convention from Maryland, on September 18, 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin whether the delegates would recommend a monarchy or a republic. According to Mr. McHenry, Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin’s famous response has a cautionary, but flexible, quality to it that makes it a perennial reference in American politics. Dr. Franklin’s quote was cited repeatedly, for example, during the Trump impeachment proceedings in December, 2019–so much so that some people created a drinking game requiring players to take a gulp whenever Franklin was quoted, again.

I thought of Franklin’s witty yet telling comment when I heard of President Biden’s decision to issue an executive order forgiving certain student loan debts for people earning less than $125,000. The President invokes the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students (HEROES) Act of 2003, a post-9/11 law that permits the Secretary of Education to waive or modify Federal student financial assistance program requirements to help students and their families or academic institutions affected by a war, other military operation, or national emergency. The Biden Administration says the COVID-19 pandemic is a “national emergency” that allows invocation of the HEROES Act to forgive the student loan debt. The precise price tag for President Biden’s executive order isn’t entirely clear. The White House says it will cost $24 billion per year over the next ten years, whereas a study by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania concludes that the plan could conceivably cost as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade.

Franklin’s quote comes to mind because the central idea of a republic is that the people will act through their elected representatives: the two houses of Congress. That is why the Constitution gives Congress a sweeping array of powers and responsibilities. In this instance, it’s clear that, in passing the HEROES Act in 2003, Congress did not contemplate that it was authorizing the President, acting through the Secretary of Education, to broadly forgive hundreds of billions of dollars in student loan debt for thousands of borrowers in the wake of a global pandemic. Congress never held hearings or debated, for example, whether a $125,000 income cutoff is appropriate, or how much debt should be forgiven, or whether other requirements should be imposed in order for people to qualify for debt relief. In a true republic, all of those things would have happened, and the people would have had a chance to be heard, too, by reaching out to their representatives as the proposal worked its way through two houses of Congress, compromises were struck, and amendments were offered before the final bill reached the President’s desk.

I know people of good will who have argued both sides of the issue of whether broad student loan relief is a good idea as a matter of policy. I’m more concerned, in this instance, with how the decision was made. If you value the concept of a republic, it’s extraordinary to think that a President can commit the government to take on hundreds of billions of dollars in debt with the stroke of a pen by invoking an obscure provision of a law that has never been used for anything remotely resembling the President’s sweeping executive order.

In view of this development, would Dr. Franklin think we are keeping a republic?

High Times With The Hat Band

We’re driving back to Columbus and stopped for the night in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where we spent the night at the Vassar Alumnae House, a favorite lodging spot from the days Russell was a student here. It’s a classic venue that is steeped in Vassar lore and tradition. It also has a lot of marvelous old photographs—and I like looking at old photos.

The photo above, found next to the elevator on our floor, is of the annual Vassar College associate alumnae luncheon at the Hotel Commodore in New York City on November 5, 1921. It obviously was an enormous gathering. You immediately notice two things about the photo, upon careful scrutiny. First, every woman in the photo is wearing a hat. Second, no one seems to be having a very good time. That’s probably because the photo was taken during the early days of Prohibition (which started on January 17, 1920) and it was hot and uncomfortable wearing those elaborate hats in a hotel ballroom.

The 1921 alumnae luncheon may have been serious business, but the Vassar students we saw around campus during our visit last night seemed a lot more fun-loving. The end of Prohibition and the elimination of the hat requirement no doubt helped.

Suggested Temptation

On this morning’s walk Betty and I stopped by the waterside parking lot below one of the shops in Stonington. I love the hand-lettered “Do Not Throw Rocks” sign there, perched as it is at the end of a field of rocks the size of a baby’s fist, with a beautiful stretch of water just ahead and lots of targets to measure the strength of your throwing arm. In short, it’s just about perfect stone-tossing territory.

I wonder how many kids, and adults, walk up to admire the scenery, see the sign, think “you know, that’s not a bad idea,” and glance around furtively to see if the coast is clear for one granite throw? Even though no one was around, I managed to resist temptation.

In Andy’s Voice

At some time or another, everyone of a certain age probably thinks about something aggravating in the voice of Andy Rooney.

For years, 60 Minutes closed with “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney.” Mike Wallace or Morley Safer would expose and humiliate some fraudster with a tough, no-holds-barred piece, and then there would be Andy Rooney, complaining about something in his very distinctive voice. It might be kitchen appliances, as in the photo above, or Daylight Savings Time, or Christmas, but whatever the topic Andy always had a few humorous observations and grievances to share that often got the audience nodding along with him. After the hard-hitting content of the rest of the broadcast, his descriptions of personal annoyances helped to get the viewers back in the mindset for the rest of the CBS Sunday night lineup.

Andy Rooney started many of his pieces with “why is it” followed by the topic of his criticism. Now, when a particularly irritating thing happens, I think about it in that distinctive Andy Rooney voice. I heard the voice yesterday when I was taping up a box for mailing, using one of those clear rolls of wide packing tape, shown below. Why is it, I thought in my moment of annoyance, that the tape on the roll that you’ve just cut off matches up precisely with the roll and bonds so completely that the cut end of the tape can’t be seen with the naked eye and you have to scratch the roll repeatedly to finally find the edge, but once you remove the tape from the roll it inevitably sticks to itself and puckers so that you can’t get a clean, sharp, unwrinkled taping of the center line of the lid of a box? You end up having to use multiple pieces of tape and a box that looks like it was taped up by a kindergartener.

If Andy Rooney had devoted “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” to the vexing qualities of packing tape–and for all I know he did, at some time or another–he probably would have ended up covered with wrinkled tape, looked at the camera with a heavy-browed, hangdog expression, and thrown his hands up in exasperation. It would have been comedy gold.

Looking Through Different Windows

Stonington, Maine, has its share of quirkiness. One of my favorite examples of that quality is found at this place on Church Street, where a solitary window freed from the structure of a house has been put on a rock outcropping overlooking the harbor. It’s as if the window escaped from its confines and decided to come to rest where it could enjoy a pretty scene. A window like this is so alluring, enticing you to scramble up onto those rocks and take a look through the other side, just to see that specific, chosen view. So far, at least, I’ve resisted the temptation to trespass and check out the lone window’s perspective.

But in a different sense, I feel like our time in Stonington has given me a chance to look through different windows and gain different perspectives. I never would have considered the plight of lobstermen, ensnared in regulatory and economic issues far beyond their personal control, if we had not come up here to live among them. And I’ve gotten some insight into how powerfully small towns can react when a locally supported facility, like the Island Nursing Home, announces that it is closing. For that matter, I’ve come to learn a bit about what it is like to live in a small town, having never really done so before.

I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to see things from a different point of view and to better understand the concerns and motives of people living in a faraway place. I feel like it has broadened my horizons and made me a bit less judgmental, generally, because I’ve learned that there are typically two sides to every story. It also makes me wish that there was a way to ensure that more people could share in different perspectives and understandings before writing snarling Twitter posts or demonizing people they disagree with. and utterly dismissing their viewpoints. I think it would be helpful if more people tried to look through different windows before lashing out.

Simple Toys

One of the stores in downtown Stonington always seems to have some classic, vintage toys in its front display window. Last year the front window featured a balsa wood plane; this summer it is a glass jar of wooden tops. The tops drew me to the front window just as the Jetfire plane did, but I found myself wondering how many kids walking by even know what those wooden objects are.

The tops harken back to a day when many kids’ toys were made of wood–tops, Lincoln logs, train sets, and toy cars among them. (There weren’t many toys that required electricity in those days, save for E-Z Bake ovens and electric football; if you needed a power source for your robot or talking doll, then it was almost certainly those big D batteries.) Wooden toys were preferable, for both kid and parent, because they were solid and durable and pretty much unbreakable–unlike the flimsy plastic toys, which could crack or splinter easily, leaving a kid sad on Christmas Day.

I liked tops, because there was a certain learned skill involved in wrapping the string around the stem in the right way so that it didn’t get snarled and then giving the string just the right amount of pull. Too much of a yank,and the top went flying, not enough, and the top flopped over, but with the right tug the top would spin beautifully and stay upright for a while. A careful kid received an immediate reward for his/her patient attention to detail. That’s not a bad life lesson to be learned from a simple toy.

It’s nice to see that they still make wooden toys, like tops. From the look of that jar, I’d say customers have maybe bought a few, giving kids a chance to experience the simple pleasures of a top. Whether a kid will appreciate those pleasures in this era of video games and cell phones is anybody’s guess.

Downtowns, Up And Down

COVID still lingers–it seems like everyone has a friend or family members who has gotten it recently, or been exposed–and it’s looking like we’re just going to have to learn to live with it, long term. In the meantime, people are still trying to assess the impact of the shutdowns in various areas. One point of focus is looking at how cities–and specifically, their downtown areas–are doing in their efforts to bounce back from the prolonged 2020-2021 COVID shutdown periods.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley tried to answer that question by using a new form of measurement of activity. Rather than looking at an old-school measurement like office occupancy rates, however, they decided to look at cell phone user location data to see how many people have been going to the downtown areas in 62 American cities, and compare the data from pre-pandemic 2019 to the data for 2022.

The research team then used the data to calculate a “recovery quotient” for each of the 62 cities. The news isn’t good for many American cities, leading the research team to provocatively title their policy brief “The Death of Downtown?” Some cities, like San Francisco, have RQs that indicate that current downtown activity is only a small fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Happily, downtown Columbus is an outlier, with an RQ of 112, meaning that downtown activity in 2022 is above 2019 levels. That results puts downtown Columbus at the top of the list of large cities and third overall, behind only the downtown areas of Salt Lake City and Bakersfield.

The paper identifies various correlated explanatory variables for the different RQ scores, including the nature and mix of downtown jobs and the prevalence of remote work, commuting and public transportation issues, and the availability of downtown living space. The paper also notes the possibility of rethinking downtown areas and creating event spaces and destination areas to spur activity. Columbus has done a good job addressing these areas–particularly adding to the residential stock in the downtown area and placing sports venues, like Huntington Park shown in the photo above, in the city core–so I’m not surprised it scored well.

Policymakers have been predicting the death of downtown areas for decades but they are still here; I therefore wouldn’t be too quick to shovel dirt on downtowns. But the Berkeley analysis indicates that the COVID shutdown periods hit downtown areas hard. City leaders will need to focus on how to increase activity in their city cores as we move into the phase of learning to live with COVID.

Earliest Memories

The other day I was thinking about what I believe is my earliest memory. It’s a difficult thing to do, because typically human memories don’t quite work that way; it’s not as if they are kept in a chronological filing cabinet. Instead, memories seem to be stored in the brain in a way that causes them to be triggered by external phenomena: a song, perhaps, or a situation, or a physical setting might provoke an avalanche of recollection. It’s therefore possible that I have an earliest memory that just hasn’t been triggered yet.

That said, the earliest recollection I can muster involved sitting in a big leather swivel chair, next to my brother Jim, at our Dad’s office when he worked as a bookkeeper for a construction company. I remember sitting on the chair as we swiveled around, looking at a safe with a big combination lock and a handle that was kept in Dad’s office to store the cash receipts. We liked rotating the chair like a merry-go-round and messing with the big lock on the safe. I’m not quite sure why I have this memory–perhaps it was because we had never been to Dad’s office before, and it was interesting to see it–but it is definitely an old one. I’m not sure exactly when Dad worked at the construction company, but the time period would have been in the pre-kindergarten years, perhaps when I was three or four.

A recent study suggests that many people can identify memories dating back to the age of two-and-a-half, and that people also tend to misdate their earliest memories and assign them to later points in their lives. It isn’t clear why two-and-a-half seems to be the cutoff point–perhaps the brain just isn’t ready to begin significant storage before then, or perhaps the things that are happening before that age aren’t specifically memorable–but the authors of the study suggest that if you want to try to remember your earliest memories, you just need to work at it, because summoning up early memories often has a kind of cascading effect. But be careful: studies also suggest that what many people think is their earliest memory is fictional, particularly if it goes back beyond the age of two or so. Those “memories” often aren’t true memories, but instead are descriptions of family photographs or ingrained family stories that have been implanted in the brain over the years.

I’m pretty sure my swivel chair memory is a true memory, and not a later implant, but of course there is no way to know for sure. The “earliest memory” issue does make you realize that your brain is kind of like your grandmother’s attic, with all kind of weird stuff stored up there, and you’re not quite sure why some memories got stashed and others didn’t.

Finding A Meat Guy

Yesterday was circled on the calendar, because it was the day for the Stonington Farmers’ Market. As soon as we arrived, I made my customary beeline to the Sunset Acres Farm tent, because experience has taught me a happy lesson: Sunset Acres produces exceptionally good meat products (and their eggs and cheeses are pretty good, too). Every one of those orange tubs is full to the rim with the the succulent protein goodness–bacon, pork chops, hanger steaks, ribs, hot dogs, breakfast sausage–that is a meat lover’s dream. Yesterday I picked up two mouth-watering thick cut ribeye steaks, some hot sausage, and a few chicken breasts. They’ll all be going on the grill over the next few days, to be enjoyed when we are dining al fresco on our deck.

It’s not easy to find a good meat guy, the kind of guy who delivers fresh, dependable, high-quality offerings without cutting corners. And if the prices are reasonable, as they are with the Sunset Acres Farm products, so much the better! Once you find a good meat guy, you stick with him, savor the quality that he delivers, and don’t take a chance going anywhere else. I imagine vegans feel the same way about an organic farm that can be counted on to deliver a particularly strong crop of broccolini.

The Sunset Acres Farm van is a mainstay of the Stonington Farmers’ Market, which has expanded this year and drawn increasingly large crowds. We’ve seen new stands with produce, baked goods, and artisanal products–but the meat guy is the sun around which the other stands revolve, lit by his reflected glory.

Web Season

It’s spiderweb season in Stonington, and our decks–with their posts, and fencing, and many corners, and other nooks and crannies–are prime web-building grounds for our spidery friends. On damp mornings, like yesterday, the water molecules cling to the webs and create some outdoor art that has a delicate beauty and also the impressive tensile strength to bear many times its weight in water.

My attitude about spiderwebs has changed since my childhood. I used to take sticks and pull them down whenever I encountered one. Reading Charlotte’s Web helped to change that attitude, and I also realized that it didn’t make much sense for someone who, from time to time over the years, has been called “Webbie” by some friends. I’ve come to understand that spiders and their webs perform a valuable service for us, in ridding our neck of the world of the annoying, buzzing housefly. And you can’t help but admire the industriousness of spiders as they build and repair their elaborate webs and then wait patiently for their prey.

On misty mornings I’ll make the rounds, taking a look to see what the spiders have been up to and admire their handiwork, like the effort above on our upper deck. Care must be taken, however, to avoid inadvertently getting a face full of webbing.

Getting Direction From A Food Compass

We used to be told to pay attention to a food pyramid. Now Tufts University has developed a different mechanism for assessing what to eat, called a food compass. And, like any good compass, it’s definitely suggesting a change in direction when it comes to preconceived notions of healthy eating.

Tufts describes the food compass as “a novel nutrient profiling system developed by researchers at Tufts University” that evaluates foods across various domains and uses an algorithm to determine a score. The approach results in an assigned Food Compass Score (FCS) between 1 and 100 (with 100 being the most healthful) to nearly any food. You are encouraged to eat and drink items with scores over 70, consume items with scores between 31 and 69 in moderation, and minimize your intake of foods with scores under 30.

It’s probably not surprising that spinach scores a perfect 100 on the food compass, that raw fruits and nuts all receive high scores, and that snacks and sweet desserts are at the bottom of the scale, but some of the other results aren’t quite as expected. For example, the media has noted that a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts gets a higher food compass score (35) than a coconut and chocolate granola bar (15). The chocolate ice cream cone with nuts contains proteins and nutrients, whereas the granola bar is “mostly refined starch and sugar.” The chocolate/nuts ice cream cone even outscores frozen yogurt, which comes in at a measly 23. (The frozen yogurt is one point better than a thick crust pizza with extra meat, which ekes out a 22.) And according to the food compass, an egg omelet (51) isn’t as healthy as a bowl of plain Cheerios (95) or instant oatmeal (75).

One of the issues about food compasses, food pyramids, and other devices to help us achieve healthier diets is that it’s not easy to use them when you are out and about, making dietary choices. But any rating system that says a chocolate ice cream cone with nuts is healthier than a granola bar is bound to turn some heads and, potentially, cause people to pay attention and develop healthier eating habits.

Rereading Dune

Lately I’ve been taking a break from my Shakespeare Project–I’ve been on the road, and my Yale Collected Works of Shakespeare volume is massive and not exactly travel-friendly–so I’ve been reading other things. Most recently I picked up an old paperback edition of Frank Herbert’s Dune that was on one of our shelves and have read it for the first time since my college years.

I enjoy rereading favorite books, and Dune is a good example of why. When I read it as a youth, I was pulled in by the story and read it as fast as possible, wanting to find out what happened to Paul Atreides (aka Muad’Dib) and his mother Jessica and the evil, repulsive Baron Harkonnen. Reading it again, knowing how the story ends, allows for a much more leisurely journey, appreciating the really good writing and–especially–the monumental task of creating such a fully realized world, as Herbert did with the desert planet Arrakis, its melange, its sandworms, and its Fremen.

It’s an amazing accomplishment that, perhaps, isn’t as obvious to a young reader as it becomes to someone who has read a lot over the decades. There simply aren’t that many books out there that have captured an entire previously unknown civilization–its culture, its people, its ecology, its economy, its religion, its institutions, and its politics–so completely. Most fiction builds on the foundation of our existing world and its history and doesn’t have to create a civilization from the sand up, as Herbert did. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books are another example of that kind of accomplishment that show just how rare such books are, and how difficult they are to create.

And writing Dune clearly took a lot of work. The back story of Herbert’s creation of Dune should encourage unappreciated writers to keep at it. According to the Dune Novels website, it took Herbert six years to research and write Dune, and the book was rejected by 23 publishers before being accepted for publication. You can imagine how dispiriting it must have been to get those rejection letters are so much time and effort. Yet, according to one ranking, at least, Dune went on to become the best-selling science fiction book of all time and continues to hold that spot, nearly 60 years after it was published. Herbert’s years of labor produced a sci-fi classic that people will be enjoying for decades to come. I wonder how the publishers who casually rejected it feel about their decisions now?