“Shithole” Manners

I really would rather not write all the time about President Trump and his latest escapades.  I honestly would rather write about just about anything else.  But sometimes, President Trump is alleged to have said something that simply can’t be ignored.

donald-trump-gty-jt-180107_16x9_992So it is with the allegation that, during a meeting with congressional leaders about American immigration policy issues, Trump referred to Haiti and some countries in Africa as “shitholes” and said American policy should try to restrict immigration from those places.  Trump later issued tweets that seem to deny the use of that vulgar term, as well as disputing the notion that his remarks were racially motivated, although he admitted to using “tough” language during the meeting.  On the other hand, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting, confirms the report that Trump used the word “shithole” to describe the countries.

Could it really be that the President of the United States used the term “shithole” to describe another sovereign nation, however strife-torn or impoverished or economically or socially challenged it might be?  Could it really be that the President of the United States, who as the head of the executive branch of the government is the titular head of the American diplomatic corps, used such crass, inflammatory, undiplomatic language in an official meeting?  Could it really be that the President of the United States is so profoundly ill-mannered and graceless and brutal?  Could it really be that the President of the United States wouldn’t recognize that people would interpret such remarks as racially motivated and that world leaders would react with shock and horror to such statements?  It’s mind-boggling . . . but in the era of the Trump presidency the mind-boggling has become commonplace.

But let’s give our elected President the benefit of the doubt and accept his denial that he used that coarse term, and assume that Senator Durbin and any other sources for the news reports simply misheard whatever “tough language” the President actually used.  What’s equally bad, from my perspective, is that some Trump supporters have actually tried to defend the early reports of Trump’s alleged “shithole” remarks by arguing that the term accurately describes the countries.  Such arguments, which speak so dismissively and callously about countries where human beings live, and work, and struggle, solely in order to advance a political point, show an appalling lack of basic human kindness and decency and simple good manners.  Calling someone else’s country a “shithole” is almost sadistic in its cruelty.

It’s another deeply troubling sign of just how low and horrible our political discourse and culture have become.  Where is our humanity, and basic decency?

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My Inner Grandma

Yesterday Kish and I were talking about health, and before I knew it I used the phrase “fit as a fiddle.”  As soon as I said it, I realized that it’s a phrase that no American has probably used for the last 20 years,

That’s what happens when my Inner Grandma surges to the fore.

grandma-21“Inner Grandma” refers to the vast repository of sayings that immediately come to mind about the small realities of everyday life, like weather, and eating, and getting up in the morning, and how you’re feeling today.  All of the sayings were chiseled deeply into the synapses of my cerebral cortex as a result of spending huge chunks of my formative years with my mother and my two grandmothers, all of whom used some of the same core sayings.  I probably heard them hundreds of times as a callow youth, and was proud of myself the first time I used them correctly and participated in a conversation with Mom or Grandma Webner or Grandma Neal.  Now those sayings bubble up, involuntarily, whenever those everyday moments arise, even though the sayings themselves have long since lost their currency — and don’t even particularly make sense, come to think of it.

“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“I’m in the pink.”

“You’ve got an appetite like a truck driver.”

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine!”

“He’s happy as a clam.”

And that’s just scratching the surface.  I guess it shows how much of our thinking is shaped by our childhoods, and how we remain the product of our upbringing long decades after our childhoods have ended.  Mom and my grandmothers will always be with me.

A Blunt Instrument

As of January 1, 2018, Seattle has placed a tax — it’s officially called a “sweetened beverage recovery fee” — on sugary sodas and “sports drinks” like Gatorade.  Costco, the big box membership club retailer, has responded by placing signs showing consumers the specific impact of the tax on the Costco price for the product — and it’s a whopper.

video__sugar_tax_sticker_shock_0_10405324_ver1-0_640_360The Costco signs show that the Seattle tax adds $10.34 to a Gatorade 35-bottle variety pack — the kind you might buy if you were responsible for buying refreshments for your kid’s sports team to consume after a practice.  The price of the product was $15.99, but with the new tax the price is now $26.33.  The tax added $7.56 to a 36-can case of Dr. Pepper, bringing the price from $9.99 to $17.55.  Costco also helpfully added signage to explain the tax-related increase to its customers and remind them that they can avoid paying the additional cost simply by going to a nearby Costco located out of the city limits.  Some customers have told local TV stations they plan on doing just that.  There’s also been lots of social media chatter about the Costco signs and the impact of the tax on prices.

What’s the point of the tax?  Seattle evidently is concerned about obesity, which some studies have linked, at least in part, to the consumption of sugary soft drinks.  Seattle hopes that by imposing a substantial tax on soft drinks and “sports drinks,” it will incentivize people to make healthier choices.  But get this:  the tax exempts sweetened products from certified manufacturers with annual worldwide gross revenue of $2 million or less, and products from certified manufacturers with gross revenue of more than $2 million but less than $5 million pay a much smaller tax.  That exemption is a purely political decision that doesn’t make sense as a public health issue, because the size of the producer obviously doesn’t change whatever the impact of the product might be.  Seattle’s approach also focuses only on sweetened drinks, and doesn’t address products like ice cream, candy bars, “snack foods,” or frozen pizza that might also be said to contribute to “unhealthy lifestyles.”  And, of course, it doesn’t begin to address other issues that contribute directly to obesity, such as lack of exercise.

Other cities, like Chicago, have tried soft drink taxes and dumped them in the face of business opposition.  Costco is providing a salutary service by alerting its customers to the specific cost impact of the tax so they can factor it into their decision-making.  The Seattle experiment, as illuminated by the Costco signs, reminds us, yet again, that taxes are a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to trying to change behavior and achieve broader policies — and that taxes are always going to be affected by political considerations, too.

A Catastrophe In The Making

President Trump has indicated that trying to get Congress to pass a bill to fund meaningful restoration of America’s infrastructure is one of the top priorities of his second year in office, and political pundits say there may just be a bipartisan consensus to do just that.

It’s long overdue.

penn-stationIf you don’t think the nation’s infrastructure needs immediate attention, read this Bloomberg article on the condition of the tunnels leading into Penn Station, one of the country’s busiest rail junctions.  It’s terrifying, because it indicates that one of these days the crumbling, 107-year-old tunnels — that’s right, 107 years old! — could give, causing the Hudson River to flood the tunnels and the station itself.  It’s hard to imagine what the toll of such an event would be.  And anyone who has been through Penn Station recently will tell you that the place is an overcrowded, smelly, appalling dump.  I went through the station recently, and I’ll never use it again.  When Candidate Trump was talking about the nation’s Third World infrastructure, he was talking about our airports, but he just as easily could have included Penn Station.

Penn Station isn’t alone.  In every major city, you could identify bridges, highways, and tunnels that are in desperate need of attention.  So, will our state and local governments actually tackle this infrastructure challenge?  And, if we do, will we do it in a way that makes sense, rather than having legislation that becomes a Christmas tree, with every Congressman and Senator and state representative insisting that their pet projects get funded in the name of infrastructure reform, so that the big problems — like Penn Station — end up getting deferred while other, less pressing construction projects like Boston’s “Big Dig” are funded to the tune of billions of dollars.  According to the article linked above, the Trump Administration has backed away from an Obama Administration commitment to fund half the cost of a new tunnel, with New Jersey and New York funding the remainder.  It’s not clear whether the Trump Administration thought it was a bad deal for the federal government and New York and New Jersey should foot more of the bill, or whether it concluded that a new tunnel isn’t the best approach from an environmental, traffic management, or resource allocation standpoint, or whether it found some other perceived problem with the plans.  Whatever the reason, nothing is happening.

In the meantime, Penn Station and its tunnels continue to deteriorate, thousands of Amtrak customers whose train trips are subsidized by taxpayers flood into the station, and a harrowing disaster looms right around the corner.  And the crucial question remains:  if we can’t take care of the basics like our infrastructure, can we really be said to have a responsible government?  And why are we spending money on things like “Click It or Ticket” ad campaigns instead?  As a country, we need to get our priorities in order.

Interior Exercise

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We’ve reached the depths of winter in the Midwest, and the part of that dismal season when changes in temperature mean melting snow, then refreezing, then melting again, then refreezing again.  It makes walking outside a treacherous exercise that is not for the faint of heart — especially if you’re walking on ever-slippery brick.

But there is an alternative to outdoor exercise for those of us who are too cheap to get health club memberships but who desperately need the exercise if they hope to stave off the condition of Rapid Waistline Expansion.  It’s called the stairs.  And if, like me, you toil in an older building where there are lots of stairwells with different designs, like the stairwell shown above, the stairs can be a pretty cool option aesthetically, too.

According to the medical experts, taking the stairs does have the effect of burning some calories — although not enough to allow you to rationalize eating a Snickers bar a day, unless you’re walking to the top of the Empire State building on your way to work — and other health benefits as well, including building and maintaining health bones, muscles, and joints and improved aerobic capacity.  I like doing it because it gets me moving and gets the blood flowing during the day, and I feel like I’m at least doing something to maintain or even improve my health while at the office.

Of course, it’s a lot easier taking the stairs going down, than going up.

True Space Art

juno-jupiter-15If you like the notion of space travel, and wonder what it would actually be like out there among the planets, take a gander at some of the photographs of Jupiter taken by the NASA Juno probe, and you’ll get the answer — it is stunningly beautiful, like an artist’s canvas hanging out in space.

I can just imagine hanging out on the observation deck of some orbiting space station, sipping Tang and watching that lovely view slowly rotate in the window.

Celebrities For President!

In case you hadn’t heard about it — that is, in case you were stationed in Antarctica — Oprah Winfrey gave a moving speech at the Golden Globes awards show on Sunday night, and now lots of people are saying she should run for President in 2020.  Sources are saying that Winfrey is “actively considering” making such a run.

telemmglpict000150742729_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqm4jyxbdwa13jcdosysta2-snmrgcd6wdaswajbpatnmIt’s interesting that a speech given at one of those ever-present, self-congratulatory Hollywood awards shows, in the center of the culture of harassment, misogyny and denial that gave rise to Harvey Weinstein — who incidentally won a lot of those self-congratulatory awards, including a Golden Globe at a prior, glitzy ceremony — should be seen as positioning one of our country’s most well-known, well-liked celebrities for a run for the country’s top job.  It tells you something important, I think, about how many people are searching for someone to lead the country in a different direction — and obviously aren’t finding anyone compelling in the current crop of American political leaders who have followed the more traditional gubernatorial and senatorial paths to a potential presidential bid.

In the age of President Donald Trump, it’s hard to argue about what constitutes being “qualified” for the presidency anymore.  Trump was a wealthy businessman who became a celebrity; Oprah Winfrey is a celebrity who became a very successful businesswoman.  If Donald Trump can run for President, then so can Oprah Winfrey.  We’ll have to wait and see whether she wants to expose herself and her friends and family to the kind of relentless, withering scrutiny that presidential candidates receive in the modern world of 24-hour news channels, internet news outlets, and political blogs.  With Oprah Winfrey’s years of TV broadcasts, magazine articles, and long career in the public eye, the campaigns of other contenders in 2020 will have a lot of  material to sift through to try to find one or two damning statements or issues that always seem to be the focus of presidential campaigns these days — and somewhere, some flunky has probably already started that task.

So while we wait to see whether Oprah Winfrey actually decides to throw her hat in the ring, let’s reflect on what the outpouring of adulation she received says about the other people who might be contenders.  It’s not a positive endorsement, is it?  People may be turning to the notion of celebrities running for President for a lot of reasons — like fighting Trumpian celebrityhood with other celebrityhood — but one obvious impetus is that they aren’t finding anyone exciting among the politicians who are thought to be lining up for a shot at the job.  Given the performance of our political class over the past few years, can anyone blame people for hoping that celebrities might be the answer?