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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

No, Not Republicans

Warning: Rant.

I have been up since 5:30 this morning. I'm a night person, but I couldn't sleep for the anger. Anger at the travesty that currently passes for politics in Washington, D.C. Anger at the Kavanaugh "hearing" and "investigation" (quotes around both of those, please). Anger at party-line politicians who just "go along". Anger at Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Anger, mostly, at "Republicans".

No, NOT "anger at Republicans." I want to make this clear. Anger at "Republicans". Quotes around the name only. Those using that name in Washington right now are not really Republicans. They are usurpers who have latched onto a good name for convenience's sake, and are proceeding to stomp on it and drag it through the mud.

My parents were Republicans most of the time I was growing up. They left the party over Dick Nixon - not because of Watergate, but because of the anti-Catholic tirades from Nixon's supporters following his loss to John Kennedy. Nixon's own behavior later merely confirmed their decision. But Nixon was a Republican saint compared to Donald Trump.

Then there was Everett Dirksen. Back in the Nixon era, he was the Senate Majority Leader; one of the Senate's office buildings is named for him. My grandmother - a lifelong Republican - was his 4th grade teacher. "I didn't like him when he was nine years old, and I don't like him now," she told my mother in 1960, a few weeks before she died. But Dirksen was a pillar of Republican virtue compared to Mitch McConnell.

Politics used to be described as "the art of the possible." Trump and McConnell have made it the art of the bulldozer. It was once a delicate dance of honorable disagreements among lawmakers, resolved into laws through a well-honed and well-respected process. Trump and McConnell have trampled that process to bits, they have no apparent respect for honor, and they have all the delicacy of a rampaging elephant in combat boots. What are we to make of an "investigation" into the dispute between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford that interviews neither Kavanaugh nor Ford? That ignores all witnesses Ford and her attorney have tried to put forward? That refuses to even recognize the existence of complaints against Kavanaugh by other women? The FBI was clearly kept on a tight rein by its handlers, and told whom it could talk to and what it could ask; the result was not just a foregone conclusion, but something that was dictated from the beginning by the rules the investigation was required to follow. And now McConnell righteously stands up and proclaims that Kavanaugh has been "exonerated." There has been no exoneration - there has not even been a realistic search for one. The whole thing has been a sham. But the man who refused to even meet with President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court - the man who stole Merrick Garland's appointment to the Court by sitting on it for nearly a year - now complains that those who seek to follow good process, instead of ramming a nominee through without proper vetting, are "obstructing." What manner of human being can do that, and still sleep at night and look in the mirror in the morning?

Liberals such as myself are not the only ones who are getting angry about this stuff. Conservative columnists such as George Will and Nicholas Kristof have also lambasted the current antics in Washington, with Will going so far as to say that the only cure will be to vote the current Republicans out. (He stopped short of saying "vote for Democrats," but there is no other real choice.) Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain left specific instructions telling those planning his funeral to bar Donald Trump from attending. But their voices have largely been shouted down by the massed power of money. Money which is being poured into public discourse to spread the lies of men - they are almost all men - who already have plenty of the stuff but are greedy for more. Money that bought the Citizens United verdict, which released even more money into politics. Money that fuels Fox "News" and calls everything except Fox "fake news". It has been claimed that "money is speech." That is bullshit. Money is not speech: money is a megaphone. It selectively amplifies some voices over others, and there is nothing democratic - small "d" democratic - and nothing honorable about its political role. Nothing at all.

I have never been a reliable Democratic vote; my vote has gone to plenty of Republicans in the past. To Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall and Lenn Hannon, to name a few of my favorites here in Oregon. To Norma Paulus, an Oregon Secretary of State who was a strong Republican voice for equal justice and sane environmental protection in the late 1980s. (I found myself next to Paulus in a buffet line at an awards banquet once, but that was after she was elected, not before, so it couldn't have influenced my vote.) Most recently, my vote went to Alan DeBoer - whom I had worked with in city government and knew to be honorable - in the last Oregon State Senate election before this one. These were all honorable human beings, who looked at opponents as humans and at disagreements as challenges to be worked through. Trump and McConnell look at opponents and disagreements as obstacles to be bowled over, and they are perfectly willing to violate due process, standards of truth, and common human decency in order to do it.

No. Not Republicans. Not the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. Not even the party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The current Republican Party has become the tool and toy of dishonorable men who have wormed themselves into the seats of power, and are using the power those seats give them to destroy the process that put them there. To destroy the entire American political system, if that's what it takes to keep themselves on top of it. Not Republicans, only "Republicans".

Only "Christians," too. But that is a completely different rant. Read More 
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Some Thoughts on Third-Party Movements

(NOTE: this was first published as a Facebook post two years ago, on September 2, 2016. Because it remains relevant - especially so with the 2018 mid-term elections just over two months away - I am republishing it here on my blog, where it will be easier to find and refer to.)

Those advocating for third-party presidential candidates are taking on a harder task than they know. The structure of the American government virtually guarantees the dominance of two major parties. I'm not talking about the political superstructure that's been built up over the last 240 years; I'm talking about the basic structure of the government, as spelled out in Read More 
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What I learned in Washington, D.C.

This is a story from my long-past lobbying days. I'm telling it now because it has important implications for the current political season.

The story starts on a late April Monday in 1973, with a 6:00 AM phone call from Diane Meyer,  Read More 
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Here, hold my beer

Five days ago - on June 2, 2018 - two rock climbers fell to their deaths from a pitch a thousand feet up the face of El Capitan, the 3000-foot-high granite wall that guards the entrance to Yosemite Valley. Most people may have skimmed right past that item, but as a former climber myself I tend to follow news like that, and this one grabbed my attention. Despite its impressive verticality - which draws climbers from all over the world - El Cap is really pretty safe. The standard routes all have fixed bolts and well-established belay points; printed guides describe what to expect on each route, down to the individual holds. Beginners can get into trouble, but experienced climbers rarely have any difficulty, and according to the news reports these two were experts. They had been climbing together for twenty years, since meeting in college, and they had climbed that face, together and separately, multiple times. The weather was perfect. What happened?

It was down toward the bottom of the third account of the accident I read, on the New York Times website, that I finally got a clue. The two men, the article said, were "using a technique called simul-climbing in which both climbers are attached by a rope and move at the same time to go at a faster pace."

Simul-climbing. Climbing without a fixed belay. A thousand feet up the west flank of El Cap. Oh.

And suddenly my mind flashed to the old joke - the one which points out that the last words spoken by people who die too young are usually "Here, hold my beer."

I am not suggesting that the two climbers who fell, Jason Wells and Tim Klein, had been drinking. I am suggesting that Wells and Klein were taking unnecessary risks - the kind of risks taken by people who are far too confident of their own skills. Alcohol inflates confidence, but it's not the only thing which does that. Climbing with an old friend, in great climbing weather, on a familiar route, can do it as well. Hey, conditions are perfect! We both know this route like the backs of our hands. We know each other's moves like they were our own. Let's simul-climb! What could possibly go wrong?

Accidental deaths are not a proper target for sarcasm - no one should be ridiculed for a mistake, especially a fatal one - so I'll stop right there. I want to spend the rest of this post anyway on a much larger topic, a topic of which risk-taking due to overconfidence is only a small part: the universal, all-to-human fear of being wrong. That was a major factor here. Either Wells or Klein could have called off the simul-climb at any point; but if either had done that, it would have been an admission that it was wrong to start it in the first place. As soon as you've said the equivalent of "Here, hold my beer," it becomes far more difficult to back down.

This has implications well beyond extreme sports and alcohol-fueled machismo. All of us face our own "Here, hold my beer" moments multiple times each day. Every time a choice is made, that fear of being wrong is lurking somewhere in the background, preparing to wreak havoc. The choices may be minor (Which shirt do I wear this morning? What should I order for lunch?) or earth-shaking (Should I take that job? Should I ask her to marry me?), but they all trigger the same response: What's going to happen if my answer isn't correct? It's far too easy to blow that question out of proportion. Usually we keep things in perspective - smaller choices, smaller worries - but I've known people who could agonize for hours over which brand of toothpaste to buy. It is simply too uncomfortable for them to be wrong.

Ways of dealing with the fear of being wrong tend to fall into two classes: perfectionism, or denial. We either try desperately to avoid making mistakes in the first place, or we refuse to admit we've made them even after they have become perfectly obvious to others. In perfectionist mode, I can labor for 15 minutes over which piece to move next in a puzzle app on my tablet; in denial mode, I've been known to drive several miles down the wrong road even after it has become obvious that it's heading the wrong direction (our family joke at times like that is that the destination must be "just over the next rise"). In my climbing days, I was able to deny and perfection-seek at the same time: I could exercise far too much care in route finding and in the choice of the next hold - care that slowed the whole party down - even as we continued toward what I had already realized was almost certainly a dead end which would force us to back up sooner or later and try a different approach.

Anyone can fall into either mode at any time, but people do tend to group their reactions around one pole or the other. This can explain a great deal of otherwise inexplicable and/or downright annoying behavior. Commitment-shy people are usually perfectionists, for example, but it's not the potential partner's failure to be perfect that drives them (much as it might seem that way) - it's actually the fear that they will make the wrong choice, thereby demonstrating that they, themselves, are less than perfect. Shy people in general are mostly perfectionists, not so much afraid of interactions with others as they are afraid of saying the wrong thing and making an ass of themselves. Cult members, on the other hand, are usually in denial - not necessarily when they join the cult, but certainly when they stay in it long after enough evidence has been presented to them about its nature to persuade any reasonable person of its folly. The same goes for abused spouses who return to their abusers. They are not necessarily either stupid or masochistic; they are at least as likely simply to be unable to deal with the realization that their original choice might have been wrong.

And now we come, as everything must in contemporary American life, to politics. What does the "Here, hold my beer" syndrome have to say about that?

A very great deal, as it turns out. Donald Trump is an almost deliciously perfect example of denial, not only because he appears to be constitutionally unable to admit that he has ever done anything wrong, but equally - more than equally - because of the way he makes others react to him. Consider how many of those on the Left who failed to vote for Hillary Clinton continue to insist that it wasn't their votes that were at fault for Trump's election, it was the Democrats' failure to nominate Bernie Sanders; consider also how many of those on the Right who voted for Trump continue to insist that their vote was the correct one, even as Trump tosses them to the wolves while casually violating virtually every campaign promise he ever made. Those are both classic examples of denial. So is the behavior of the current Republican-led Congress, which has failed to hold Trump accountable mostly because, well, he's a Republican, and if they tried to control his actions they would have to admit that nominating him was wrong. They have handed him their beer, and must now carry through with their plan, even if it kills them. People in the center constantly ask why those on both the Left and the Right seem to vote so consistently against their own interests: well, there you have it. If you cannot admit you are wrong, then you cannot admit your vote was wrong; and if you cannot admit your vote was wrong, then you must continue to vote the same way, because to change will be the admission of wrong-doing you have been trying so desperately to avoid.

It is possible, though not easy, to combat the fear of being wrong. The hardest step is the first: deciding to start. It is hard because taking that step is, in itself, an admission that we have been wrong about something. We go into defensive mode as soon as that suggestion is raised. That is natural, but it is not always wise. Doubt can be our friend: all great advances in human knowledge have come because someone doubted the conventional explanation and was able to come up with a better one. Your doubts are there for a reason. Listen to them.

After that first step it gets easier, but not by much. The key, as with everything, is practice. Perfectionists must practice letting go of tasks before they are perfect; those in denial must practice making decisions based on evidence, rather than on what is the most accurate continuation of their past actions. Especially as you begin the practice, you will fail. That's OK. We all fail; the world doesn't end. That is actually what this post is all about.

OK - time to stop writing and hit "Publish." Here, hold my beer. Read More 
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Fructans and Me

I knew from the moment I took the first bite that I shouldn't eat that sandwich.

We were out with friends in a brewpub in a nearby town. The beer was good and the conversation was better. Because I have a food sensitivity, I looked the menu over carefully. Good - they had a BLT. BLTs are always safe. This one listed a couple of extra ingredients, but not the one that I have a problem with, so I ordered it. It came, scrumptiously prepared. I bit into it.

Onions?! Who puts onions in a BLT?

Maybe it's just a tiny amount in the sauce? I took another bite. Maybe it's some combination of ingredients mimicing onion flavor? Another bite. Maybe there's not enough to trigger the reaction? I finished the sandwich.

I definitely shouldn't have. Two days later, I was just beginning to get over the effects. Bloated abdomen. Foul taste in my mouth, foul odor in my nose. It felt as though foulness was seeping from all of my pores. And, of course, there was the gas. Copious, foul-smelling gas. Stools...I don't want to talk about the stools. The bottom line (and notice that word, "bottom") is that my digestive system, from my mouth all the way through to the other end, was feeling deeply abused and was telling me so. In no uncertain terms. Pepto-bismol was my friend. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to sleep for at least two nights.

And now it's probably your turn to ask: Onions?! I've heard of peanut allergies, and gluten sensitivity, and dairy intolerance, but onions? Who is allergic to onions?

A lot of people, it turns out - including a lot of people who probably think they're having problems with something else. But "allergy" isn't the right word, although many people use it that way. True allergies - the life-threatening kind - are usually triggered by proteins, and they cause rashes and swollen tissues. Food sensitivities are usually triggered by sugars, and all they do is upset your digestion. Which is not life-threatening, but is otherwise quite bad enough, thank you very much.

With onions, the culprit is a group of sugars known as fructans: so, technically, what I am troubled with is not onion sensitivity, but fructan intolerance. And this is where things begin to get confusing - because not all fructans, and not all fructan-intolerant people, are built the same way.

Fructans - also known as fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS - are complex sugars, built from two kinds of simple sugars, fructose and sucrose. The fructose molecules form chains which grow until they are capped off at their growing ends by sucrose molecules. These chains may be either long or short, and either straight or branched; the length and branching characteristics of the fructose chains are one factor contributing to the different effects of fructan-containing foods on different people. There are two other factors: differences in the amounts and types of other chemicals carried by a food, and differences in human metabolisms.

We'll take the human factor first. Humans have problems with complex sugars in general - we lack the enzymes necessary to break them down. Nearly all of the complex sugars that we ingest go straight through the stomach and small intestine and end up in the large intestine, which is the home of most of our intestinal fauna - the bacteria and other microorganisms we count on to do the final stages of digestion for us. A normal human digestive tract has a well-balanced community of intestinal fauna. People with food sensitivities do not. Something present in the body - some byproduct of metabolism, some secretion from an overactive gland - tilts the mix, either by selectively killing certain species of bacteria or by making it difficult for them to reproduce. Either way, some necessary components of the intestinal fauna disappear. And the rest proceed to go haywire.

The problem is not, actually, that the fructans don't get eaten by bacteria. The problem is that they get gorged on. By bacteria that produce huge amounts of gas. They also produce solid waste products that are hygroscopic - that means "water-absorbing" - which draw water from the body into the lower intestine, accounting for both the bloated abdomen and for the diarrhea which follows.

So that's the second factor: the tiny differences in cell metabolism that are part of the normal variation across any species, humans included. It's the third factor where things start getting really screwy, however. It turns out that if fructans are accompanied by certain other chemicals, balance returns. The trouble is that it is difficult to identify those chemicals, because they also vary according to invidual human metabolisms. Sucrose appears to be pretty universal - the more sucrose a food contains, the less likely its fructans are to cause problems. Other things? Your guess is as good as mine - or as the guesses of the scientists who study them.

And now we have three variables - fructan content, human metabolic differences, and other food chemicals - interacting more or less randomly with each other - only one of which, the fructan content, is quantifiable to any significant extent. As a consequence, fructan intolerance is wildly unpredictable. The effects are always roughly the same, but what triggers them varies enormously. Tiny amounts of onions cause me serious problems, but I can eat moderate amounts of garlic - which contains up to 17 times as many fructans per unit volume as onions do. Other fructan-intolerants can eat onions, but not garlic. Wheat is moderately high in fructans, but causes me little difficulty; others react strongly to it, often mistaking their reactions for gluten intolerance. I have to avoid the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc.); others can eat them without harm. Sometimes what causes the symptoms to appear is a mystery, in which case it is usually put down as "irritable bowel syndrome" - a condition which is probably largely, if not completely, a form of fructan intolerance rather than a separate syndrome.

And as you age, all of this grows worse. At my current age - rapidly approaching 76 - it has become bad enough that I no longer try new foods unless I know all of the ingredients, and know that all of them are safe. This means I have to pick restaurants carefully, and must check the menu thoroughly before I order. I have to avoid almost all ethnic restaurants, especially Asian, African, and Middle Eastern (including Greek, which I love) - they use too many ingredients that I have no experience with and, as a result, nothing on their menus is predictably safe. Vegan cuisine is now also out, as a result of a recent incident. Clam chowder - a longtime favorite - has recently become suspect (I have had to drop from bowl-sized servings to cup-sized servings at my favorite seafood place). I still eat Mexican food, but I always order the same thing, cheese enchiladas without salsa - usually safe, though I have been fooled a time or two by cooks who included onions in them. Onions in unexpected places, like enchiladas - or BLTs - are my constant fear. Macaroni and cheese? Who puts onions in that? But some people do - and I can no longer order it without checking.

And, of course, this affects my social life. Other people's cooking is dangerous, unless they cook with the same foods I do. I stopped attending potlucks years ago; as of this month, I have also decided to stop accepting dinner invitations unless I can control the recipes used (because I dislike being a control freak, this will probably actually mean I decline all invitations, period). I love sharing conversation over food, but from now on, I will have to do it only in restaurants - and then, only in those restaurants I have reason to believe will be safe.

So this is a long, long explanation of the plea I am about to make to all my friends: please do not be offended when I turn down your invitation to dinner, or to lunch, or to your favorite restaurant (unless it is one I already know and trust). I am not being unfriendly, or eccentric, or even picky; I am just trying to keep from getting sick. Read More 
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We are better people than this.

We are not so poor in material goods that we cannot share with others, nor so poor in spirit that we will refuse to share.

We are not so shallow that we care only for wealth, nor so short-sighted that we will destroy the only Earth we have to obtain it.

We are not so fearful that we must build walls against immigrants, nor so intolerant that we will shut our doors against neighbors who are not exactly like the rest of us. Read More 
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I'm Sticking with NoteWorthy Composer. Here's Why.

(NOTE: if you are a non-musician, you may safely ignore this post.)
(ADDITIONAL NOTE: Noteworthy did not pay me to write this.)


If you are a musician in today's world, you use music notation software. That is a given. You may still use staff paper and a pencil to write down your ideas, or even to compose whole pieces; but if you are going to share them with the world, the world will expect the scores you produce to be computer-engraved. From this it follows that, when musicians gather, sooner or later the conversation will always get around to  Read More 
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Of The People, By The People, and For The People

I am a former government worker.

That's not a confession, that's a point of pride. I was a librarian; I worked for a county library system. For eighteen years, I helped people find information they needed in a collection of books and journals and other documents which they owned but  Read More 
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Wake-Up Call

Are we awake yet?

As I write this, there are 22 wildfires raging
- that word is accurate - raging through California's Sonoma and Napa valleys and the eastern part of the Central Valley, along the base of the Sierra. At least 3500 homes and businesses have been destroyed. Thousands of people have been evacuated, including the entire city of Calistoga. Much of Santa Rosa is in rubble. The official death toll currently stands at 23, and authorities expect that to rise "significantly" when they are able to go into areas that are currently quite literally too hot to enter.

Two days ago, the smoke from those fires briefly reached my home in Oregon, 400 miles to the north, driving air pollution counts into the "unhealthy for sensitive groups" range for  Read More 
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Smoke

As of last night, there were 1,194 wildfires burning in the United States, almost all of them in the West. Most of them are in the five states that form the western and northern border of the West: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Yosemite National Park is burning. Glacier National Park is burning. Crater Lake National Park is burning. The Columbia Gorge is burning. The Columbia Gorge fire was caused by some idiots playing with fireworks, but almost all the rest have been caused by lightning. Record heat and lack of rain have turned the western forests into a tinderbox. Thunderstorms have intensified in recent years. We are currently living with the result.

More than 100 of those 1,194 wildfires are within 80 miles of my home  Read More 
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