Barefoot in the Grapes

I used to hate Chardonnay.

The main reason is a long, boring story, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

I grew up in a tee-totalling household. That was Mom’s influence. When I was young, Dad used to enjoy his beer or his glass of wine in the evening. Then Mom decided that wasn’t in keeping with God’s Will, so he gave up drinking.

The first wine I ever drank was in early high school. It was Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill Wine, at a party hosted by a free-wheeling student English teacher, and it gave me a case of indigestion worthy of film rights, plus an attack of bad conscience. I was underage, and I knew Mom would not approve. My stomach certainly didn’t.

But the real issue was the evening I was supposed to perform the Mozart #3 at a high school orchestra concert, and frankly, the cadenza was just a bit beyond my capabilities. I could muddle through it, but my hand was tight — so tight — on the double-stops, and it’s impossible to play double-stops in tune with a tight hand. Any run-through was a grab bag: sometimes, I’d nail it, sometimes I sounded like I was torturing a Balkan cat. And now, it was concert night, and practice time was over. Had I known for sure I was fucked, I’d probably have relaxed and done fine, but every now and again, I’d get the damned thing almost right when practicing. So I was a total nervous wreck.

I’d dropped by the home of the second-chair player on the way to the auditorium for some reason I can no longer precisely remember — I believe she and I were sort-of dating at the time, which is another story — and her father, a physician, prescribed a very small glass of wine to settle my nerves. It was a reasonable prescription, but a poor choice of wine for someone with a completely undeveloped palate: a chardonnay, probably a very nice one, but dry as a bone.  A cream sherry would have been a better choice. Or even a shot of Jack Daniels, neat, hold your breath and take it like a man. Or better still, an Inderal.

But they offered a glass of Chardonnay, and I took a polite sip or two, but could not manage any more. I found the extreme dryness offensive, and the fact that it was alcohol both worrisome and morally ambiguous in my young mind.

I should have just chugged it. That concert was not one of the times I nailed the Mozart #3 cadenza. In fact, I never played it again after that night.

So I’ve always associated Chardonnay with both extremely dry white wines, and with performance failure. You can imagine my general distaste.

Barefoot has redeemed the Chardonnay for me. I don’t know how it ranks on the scale of all Chardonnays in all of time and space, but it does get consistently good reviews, and it’s one of the least expensive wines you can find in the Colorado stores. Fruity, slightly tart, delicious, and not too buttery. Not at all dry.

And, to date, no performance failures.

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History or Propaganda?

You’ve probably all read about the flap over teaching history in the public schools in Jefferson County, Colorado, which includes portions of West Denver and extends up into the mountains: teacher “sick-outs,” student walk-outs, and the like.

Since the issue is so deeply politicized as a Left-Right issue, it would take a lot more time and investigative journalism skills than I possess to cut through all the yelling and get to the bottom of it, but my understanding is that there was a relatively recent rightward political shift in the makeup of the Jefferson County school board, and they decided to make changes to the curriculum to bring it more in line with a right-wing outlook, claiming (of course) that they are merely counteracting a left-wing shift foisted on them through the Common Core curriculum.

The crux of the matter is that the new school board thinks that history should be taught in a more pro-American, patriotic fashion.

I have a few observations.

First, I attended public elementary school in the 1960’s, and high school in the early 1970’s. I attended school in a town of 50,000 people, with a military base, in the West. My elementary textbooks were published in the 1950’s, and in high school, we might have been getting textbooks written in the early 1960’s. I grew up in the days when even Hollywood was putting out blockbusters like Stagecoach and How the West Was Won; television aired shows like Combat and The Untouchables; we recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, facing the American Flag with our right hands over our hearts.

I can only assume that returning to this is the right-wing educator’s dream. What I can say as someone who experienced it, is that it instilled in me an utter contempt for most of the “history” I was taught. Even at the time, I knew it was propaganda, and I was under ten years old. Kids are smarter than educators think they are, particularly when it comes to detecting that people are lying to them.

One of the first shocks I remember was learning that the US had burned “undesirable” books in the 1950’s during the McCarthy hysteria. We’d heard plenty of stories about how horrible the Nazis were during WWII, which included (of course) the concentration camps and the book burnings. We’d never heard a single word about book burnings in the US, and it was unthinkable that the US would behave anything like the Nazis, especially as recently as ten years before I was in elementary school. When I found out that we’d been burning books, just like the Nazis, I felt horribly betrayed. When I learned, much later, of our concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, I was already so disillusioned I just shrugged and said, “It figures.”

It’s what I call a Santa Claus moment: parents spend years lying to kids about Santa Claus, and then one day the kids figure out that there is no Santa Claus. It’s a realization that serves only to destroy trust in adults and their stories.

So, why teach history in public school at all? Reading skill has self-evident merit, given the disadvantages an illiterate adult faces in such everyday activities as getting a driver’s license, or applying for a job. Basic math skills are needed to balance a checkbook, or count money, or buy enough seed to plant a field. But history? What is the point?

One reason, which the right-wing educators of the 1950’s and the right-wing educators of the 2010’s seem to understand, is acculturation — or socialization, or brainwashing if you prefer, but it’s an important part of living and working in any community. If you want to have a nation, you need a national identity: no national identity, no nation.

If you want to be a physicist, for instance, you have to know how to think like a physicist, which means you accept what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm: a collection of problems, solutions, methods, stories, and outlooks that all physicists hold in common. You can walk up to any physicist, anywhere, and ask, “Is momentum conserved?” and he will answer, “Yes.” It’s part of the physics paradigm, and it takes long years to learn the entire canon.

Likewise, you can walk up to any Evangelical Christian, anywhere, and ask, “Is Jesus Lord and Savior?” and he will answer, “Yes.” It’s part of the Evangelical paradigm.

So it’s important to be able to walk up to any American, anywhere, and ask “{…}?” and have him answer, “Yes.” That’s what collective identity means. I get that, as well as the fact that people don’t come to this “paradigm” by themselves — they have to be taught, whether it’s on Grandma’s knee, or in church, or in school, or on the job.

History and mythology are traditionally how this teaching is done, going all the way back to tribal societies of a dozen adults and a few children. History is a story of the past that informs the questions, “Who are we, how did we get here, why are we still here, how should we live?” It’s a story, not a random collection of disconnected facts. It has a beginning, a middle, and it ends with this time, this place, you and me, and then extends into some kind of future. It has themes, and a plot. It carries values, hopes, and beliefs.

It isn’t a bunch of dates and events that you dump in front of a bunch of kids, like Lego blocks, and tell them to “make up their own minds.” That’s absurd. You tell a story that says, “This is what it means to be a citizen of the United States — this is our paradigm.”

It’s an extremely biased story. And that’s just fine. I get that.

However….

The story, if it impinges on reality at all, has to be congruent with reality.

You could easily create a physics paradigm in which the Earth is flat and is fixed at the center of the universe, momentum is not conserved, and the sun returns from Winter Solstice only because of our prayers and drumming. Such physicists would not get very far with their studies, since this paradigm is simply wrong — meaning that it purports to say things about the physical universe, which do not match what the physical universe is actually like.

Similarly, when we teach a slanted version of history that is seriously incongruent with what actually happened, or with what is really important, it will lead to huge problems when we encounter the rest of the world.

I’ll give a simple, perhaps inflammatory example.

Why was the World Trade Center attacked in 2001?

Let’s not argue about what really happened, let’s just go with the “official story” of Al Qaeda operatives armed with box-cutters taking over the planes and flying them into the buildings. For this story to make sense as a story, these operatives need a motive. What is their motive?

Ask a hundred US Americans that question, and you’ll be lucky to find even one who can express a single plausible motive for the attack. The only thing most people will be able to provide is some variant on, “They were evil men,” which was the simplistic boogeyman the Bush administration pushed for six years. As we all know, “evil men” do things purely for the sake of being “evil” — their actions don’t have to make any sense, because they aren’t really men, they’re demons encased in flesh, and no one knows what demons are thinking. They’re just “evil.”

US Americans cannot articulate why any foreign national would hate the US enough to want to bring down an office building in the US with people in it, much less why they picked the World Trade Center as opposed to, say, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the WTC was a highly specific target — if you recall, it had been hit with a bomb in the parking garage in 1993, again by “Middle Eastern terrorists.” They weren’t after just Americans — they were after that building. Why?

Understanding anything about the hatred the United States has engendered in various parts of the world, and the role the WTC played as a symbol in that hatred, requires pulling aside some of the curtains of “patriotic, uplifting” history that we teach our young and taking a long, hard look at the seamy side of the United States. Even worse, it’s not just about history — it’s about ongoing US policy. Stuff we’re supposed to be aware of in a democracy, so that we can vote for it — or against it.

There’s a huge Santa Claus moment lurking here.

I want to emphasize again, the problem with Santa Claus moments is that they destroy trust. If you destroy trust, you destroy loyalty. If you destroy loyalty — well, what is the point of “patriotism” if it isn’t backed by loyalty and trust?

Let me offer a different example that almost got someone killed.

A year or so ago, a friend sent around a first-person story about being a petroleum engineer in the late 1970’s, traveling in Egypt under a work visa. He had a guide with him who spoke the language, and one day, in Cairo, two angry men approached and began shouting at him. The guide managed to calm them down, and they went away. The guide then told the man he had just saved him from being kidnapped and murdered for being an American, by lying about his nationality. Later that week, an American student was killed, and his mutilated body was dropped off in front of the US Embassy.

This man could not conceive how these two men, two total strangers, could possibly hate him enough to murder him. He then segued awkwardly into thanking the US Marines posted in Egypt at the time for the protection they offered.

Let’s take this story at face value.

Apart from the fact that his guide saved him, not the US Marines, this highly-educated American engineer was at a complete loss to explain his brush with death. He clearly did not understand that these US Marines were most likely the reason his life was in danger.

From 1956 to 2011, Egypt had three presidents — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. All three were dictators, with increasingly corrupt and oppressive regimes. Mubarak was eventually ousted in the Arab Spring uprising when the populace, joined by the Egyptian military, forced him out of power.

All three regimes would have been thrown out much sooner, but for one thing: US military support. Those US Marines did not have boots on the ground in Egypt to protect American citizens. They were there to protect the Egyptian government, and every Egyptian who even briefly thought of overthrowing their own corrupt government, looked at the US Marines and thought, “Maybe we could take these guys out, but then what?”

Egyptians saw the corrupt Egyptian government and the US Marines as pretty much the same thing. They hated the US because they hated their own government. They hated their government because it was abusing them.

It’s worth noting that the event that triggered the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt was a shopkeeper who, having finally had enough of the personal abuses he had faced from his government, sat down in the middle of the street, poured gasoline over his head, and set himself on fire. I’d like anyone reading this blog to spend thirty seconds contemplating how bad things have to get for someone to even think of doing this. It was that bad under Mubarak. It was maybe a little less bad under Sadat, and Nasser was before my time.

The US supported these regimes. With money. With boots on the ground.

I would say that this US-educated petroleum engineer had been done a profound disservice by a poor education, a disservice that nearly got him killed. His education left him unequipped to handle himself in the world; it left him completely unequipped to process what had happened to him.

Matters are a little different these days. I have friends who travel abroad and claim they are Canadian, or from New Zealand, to avoid trouble. I have personally never had a problem as an American, but I’ve never ventured into truly dangerous waters.

If we’re going to educate our children at all, it needs to be an education that is congruent with the reality they are going to face in the world.

Exactly when do we pull back the curtains and look at the seamy side of US history in all its ugliness? I think there are two answers to that question.

On the one hand, we have to start on Day One: we do not want to lie at any point. The idea of a lie is also a lot simpler than cynical adults want to make it: it means, we don’t want to tell a child anything today that is going to destroy trust when they hear the full story later. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for twisted evasions about what is “technically” true. If it breaks trust down the road, it was a lie, even if it was mostly true.

On the other hand, we don’t need to paint a bleak picture for first-graders. Or even fifth graders. But we’d better have covered the bases by eighth grade, which is where mandatory education ends in (I think) every state, certainly in Colorado, and if the kids can’t handle reality in high school and college, their entire “education” was a fraud, anyway.

We’re moving into a new century, and a new era. The US is still on top of the world, but the tide has changed directions. We’re not likely to be King of the World in 2100. Not unless something completely unexpected happens.

How we come down from our high throne is going to depend a lot on the history we teach our coming generations.

If we go back to the simplistic, self-congratulatory “patriotic” model I experienced while growing up, we’re laying the ground for increasingly jarring Santa Claus moments. It isn’t going to promote patriotism, but rather cynicism and disgust. I’ve read that Niccolò Machiavelli — eponymous originator of the idea of “Machiavellian intrigue” — was in his youth an idealist and a strong supporter of the Florentine republic. It was only after the death of Lorenzo di Medici and the fall of the republic into the fanatical hands of Girolamo Savonarola, that Machiavelli became cynical and bitter, and penned his famous work, The Prince.

He, too, apparently had a Santa Claus moment.

As empires go, the United States really hasn’t been all that terrible, though part of that is that we figured out a way to do with a fountain pen what most empires had to do with a sword. But we’ve made deadly enemies, and they have damned good reasons to hate us. How we fare in our senescence as an empire is going to depend a lot on humility, and true humility begins with self-knowledge.

That said, the United States has also been a forerunner and a shining example of great things, many of which are as unique as a Beethoven symphony or a Renoir painting. It would also be a mistake to lose sight of that in the midst of our self-criticism.

But we are going to have to face the truth about ourselves. If we don’t, it will be rubbed in our faces, and there’s no reason to believe it will be done gently.

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Is It Satire?

It seems the US has come to a point where I have to ask if something is satire.

Satire is, at root, mockery through exaggeration. Done well, it leaves people with a very clear understanding that it is an exaggeration, and that it is poking fun at the thing it is exaggerating. Done poorly, it comes across as either churlish, or as lunatic.

The problem with satire today is that a lot of things going on in our so-called “public discourse” are impossible to satirize because it is impossible to think of any way to exaggerate, so bizarre is the thinking in the first place. This leaves me with the uncomfortable sense at times that I’m being led on by satire-within-satire. Then it turns out that I’m not — the people I suspected of being deviously clever are not being clever at all. They’re serious. And that leaves me feeling sad, and tired.

The latest example of this is a video that popped up on my Facebook feed, which can be found here.

Ellysa Maye is a cutie, with good, strong white teeth, and she’s charming and “hip.” As I watched, I chuckled a bit, because the video initially seemed so clearly satirical — like the first point, that Democrats want to take away people’s money so they can’t do “this,” which then cuts to a picture of a (fat) cat rubbing itself on a pile of catnip-laced money. That’s something you might expect from Stephen Colbert, though the message is a little… well, muddled. I figured, Ellysa is young, she’ll get better at it.

Then, as the video continued, viewing it as satire grew more and more tenuous. I started to get the really creepy feeling that I was watching a young Michelle Bachmann or Anne Coulter in the making. Or maybe that she was a young actress paid for by Karl Rove, Inc., to launch one of his insidiously inside-out Republican propaganda campaigns.

Or maybe — just maybe — this was a serious, “hip” young Republican who represents a significant number of our children, and this is the appalling depth to which our education of the young has descended. God help us.

I asked the person who posted this on Facebook if this was satire, and got a very curt, “No.” I’ll probably get unfriended after I post this blog entry. Which also makes me feel sad, and tired.

Here’s Ellysa’s top ten list of reasons she will never, ever vote for Democrats.

  1. They want to take more money from us
  2. Radical feminists
  3. History of the Democratic Party
  4. School lunch mandates
  5. Refusal to secure the border
  6. Democrats push for collectivism
  7. Obamacare
  8. Democrats don’t believe your kids are your kids
  9. Al Gore
  10. Because Nancy Pelosi, who leads House Democrats, is so scary

So let’s see: three absolutely naked ad-hominems (2, 9, 10), two deliberate misunderstandings (6, 8), one straight up ignorant blunder (3), one falsehood (5), one code-word (7), one shallow understanding (1), and one utterly incomprehensible comment (4). Though the llama was funny.

It isn’t especially hard to do this. Let me give it a shot, from the other side…

  1. They want to shut down Social Security so all the old people will starve
  2. Old, white Republican neighborhood association Nazis in shorts with suspenders
  3. History of the Republican Party (image of a Communist flag)
  4. No Child Left Behind (image of marines pulling a child out of a classroom)
  5. Trying to shut down our military
  6. Deficits don’t matter
  7. (Can’t think of anything, Republicans have done nothing since Truman dropped the atom bomb on Japan)
  8. Republicans think the police need to shoot more black people
  9. Dick Cheney
  10. Because John Boehner, who leads House Republicans, is so orange

Now, if I were young and hip and cute as a button, like Ellysa Maye, with strong white teeth and a pink stripe in my hair, I’m sure I could sell this load of anti-Republican rot to a whole bunch of studly young men out there: they’d go out of their way to avoid implying I was full of crap. They’d die for a chance to chat me up, even in 140 characters or less. And the girls would flock to me, too, because I’m so hip, and smart, and have my own v-log with millions of hits.

Alas, I’m old, and crusty, with a white beard and too much waistline, and bloody-handed ignorance does not sit well with me. So let’s pick this apart, shall we?

The Right has finally learned the term ad hominem, which is good, because they use this rhetorical technique almost as often as the fanatical Left: it’s nice to be able to point it out tersely. Ad hominem is the fallacy that the bad men are always wrong about everything — or in this case, not even bad men, just people who make an adolescent girl go, eyeew. Ad hominem is a sophisticated form (if you want to call it that) of name-calling. So three of the ten points go down without effort, and if you really want to get into ad hominem fest, sweet Ellysa, remember that the Republicans have Dick Cheney, Donald Trump, and Newt Gingrich to live down.

The two deliberate misunderstandings are just that: twisting words with the intent to deceive.

Only an arrogant, ungrateful fool thinks he has ever accomplished anything in business (or much of anything else) on his own, and Obama should not — in my opinion — have minced words. The video clip attached to point six came up, as I recall, during the 2012 election in reference to Mitt Romney, who somehow managed to overlook his father’s fortune, his own education, his wife, his friends, his business partners, his employees, and two hundred years of law in this country to make the common Republican claim that “I built this business all by myself.” Obama should have looked him right in the eye and called him an arrogant, ungrateful fool and left it at that.

As for point eight and raising kids, the issue is that it’s almost impossible to raise a child without community, and it is impossible to raise a child if the community is busy tearing your family apart. The comment in the video clip comes from the title of a book by Hillary Clinton, published in 1996, which makes the point that a shitty neighborhood makes for a shitty childhood, even if the parents are the best in the world — and then makes a call to make neighborhoods less shitty. Scary Democratic plot, for sure, making neighborhoods less shitty for children and parents.

In both cases, Republicans took the words, stripped them out of context, and made them mean very nearly the opposite of what they meant in context. It always shocks me that people are dumb enough to fall for ruses like this. I want to think better of them: Karl Rove always proves me wrong.

The ignorant blunder in point three is typical: the “history of the Democratic party,” followed by a picture of the KKK. Yes, indeed — Democrats were the Party Of The Deep South. In 1860. Guess who is the Party Of The Deep South today? Ever hear of respected Republican David Duke? Strom Thurmond? Jesse Helms? Sorry, Ellysa sweetie — fumbled and lost the ball on this one.

The border controversy is just plain wrong. Get your facts straight, sweetheart. Ten yard penalty.

Then there’s Obamacare. Which is terrible, and they should have enacted the Affordable Care Act instead. Damned Democrats. What’s that? The ACA is Obamacare? What? Was that a trick question?

Let’s just turn this around and say: “Fine, Obamacare sucks. Propose something better. Anything. Anything at all.

Of course, that’s not really fair, since the entire complement of Republicans in Congress has remained completely silent when faced with this challenge. So I can’t really ask you, dear Ellysa, to answer it on your own. But I would expect you to be smart enough to understand that the Republican party has nothing to offer here. As in nada.

Perhaps the Democrats will come up with a better idea in a few years, and we can watch the Republicans try to repeal that 54 times.

There’s the school lunch thing. I have no clue what that is about. So I matched it with the No Child Left Behind program all mixed up with the marine ethic of not leaving soldiers behind. You’d have a child sitting in a classroom, all alone, coloring with crayons, and then a full platoon of marines bursts in, firing wildly out the windows; they grab the kid and rush him out the door. Funny, right? What’s that? The llama was funnier?

Fine, be that way.

Finally, there’s the money thing. You know, Ellysa, I can’t really fault you here. It’s complicated, and it’s taken me a few years, myself, to get any grasp on what’s going on. Given the level of the rest of your complaints, I’m sure you haven’t the time or the inclination to learn any of that, so the simplest I can make it is this: there are no longer any tax-and-spend Democrats, nor any fiscally responsible Republicans. Those all died out in the 1980’s — every last one of them. They’re extinct. All we have now are borrow-and-spend politicians, and taxes go toward paying down debt. Period.

Oh, except for FICA taxes. Those are the only true taxes we have left, and those DO need to be raised by 2%. Do you know why? So that we Baby Boomers can pay our own way through retirement, instead of dumping the whole load on you kids. If we don’t raise that tax by 2%, and soon, while we’re still working, what’s going to happen in about 15 or 20 years is that we’re going to see Social Security checks drop suddenly by about 25%, because we Boomers didn’t put enough into the Social Security Trust. We won’t be working, then, so it will all land on your shoulders like an elephant riding in a brick airplane.

Of course, you could go out at that point and shoot all the old people. Or just let them starve to death. That’s surely the mark of a glorious free society, shoveling useless old people into trenches with backhoes. All to avoid a 2% increase in taxes, so that fat cats can roll in catnip-scented money. (Dang, this has got to be satire.)

Ellysa Maye, I sincerely hope that I’ve totally missed the point of your video, and that this was intended as a satirical piece, and that I’ve just been punked. I’ll laugh with you. A little hysterically, perhaps, but I’ll laugh.

Otherwise, I’m feeling pretty sad. And tired.

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Crasto

I am not happy with Crasto wine, from the Portuguese Duoro Valley.

Someone brought a bottle to one of our parties, as a gift, and I fell in love with it from the first sip. It’s a blend of Spanish/Portuguese grapes I’ve never heard of: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca,  and Tinta Barroca. The Douro Valley is the Portuguese version of Bordeaux, or Sonoma. They take their wines seriously, and this is no exception to that rule.

I hesitate to compare it directly to anything. It’s a red wine, of course. It’s livelier than a Cabernet, not as spicy as a Zinfandel, and nothing at all like a Merlot or a Pinot Noir. It’s a bit like a Garnacha, but fuller, richer. It’s a lovely wine.

The problem with it is that I seem to have a mild allergy to the darn thing. Curses!

Sigh. Oh well. Another day, another wine….

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Old Vine Red

Marietta’s Old Vine Red wine has been one of my favorites for a long time, and I’ve been with this one long enough to have noted some big swings in quality.

It’s a blend, made up mostly of old-vine Zinfandel. I generally like Zinfandels, anyway, but some of the wines I’ve liked best of any have been old-vine Zins. I don’t really know what qualifies a vineyard as having “old” vines. But the wines that get labelled “old vine” usually have dark, almost raisin-like notes and enough complexity to keep your head spinning for several minutes.

Marietta labels these by “Lot” rather than year, and they’re up to Lot 60. I think the first I ever tasted was in the low 50’s or high 40’s, and I seem to recall that Lot 54 was one of the best. Then they had a couple of bad years, and there was one lot — I think it was 57 or 58 — that was hardly worth drinking. But in the last few lots, they’ve brought it back.

I don’t think 60 has come all the way back to the legendary Lot 54, but it’s darn fine wine, and something I want in the rack if I start experimenting with odd labels. That way, if all my adventurous choices are terrible, I can just dump the swill, open a bottle of Old Vine Red, and soothe the raw palate.

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