Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«May 2015»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


April 7, 2015


I am still digging around in the detritus of having moved 2000 miles across country. Now that I am ensconced in what I shall henceforth call my shedquarters, with a view of Ethne's new garden out the window, I am almost sorted out, but not quite. Yesterday I discovered bits and pieces in my bedside table-drawer that needed relocation. And I have pawed through a huge pile of clippings and rubbish that the movers scooped off my desk in Pennsylvania last October, and which I haven't looked at since. Among other things, it is evident that if I want to make a little improvement or update to my Encyclopedia I should do so immediately, rather than accumulating the clippings; but nobody is paying me to do that, so what the hell...

In the pile of stuff I discovered three issues of the Times Literary Supplement, which had ended up there because they had given me ideas for blog entries which were never carried out. Writing in this space is another thing I should do when I think of something, rather than letting it go; but more seriously, the older I get the more discouraged.

In an issue from January 17 2014, Stefan Collini was reviewing two books. The headline and strap were "For the common good: Despite differences of period and class, R.H. Tawney and Richard Hoggart shared a belief in the corrosive power of unchecked market forces." I had circled parts of certain paragraphs: a "share-owning democracy", ordinary citizens are besieged with injunctions to "safeguard your family's future" by placing bets in the global casino that is the stock market...focus was on how English society had allowed the unchecked pursuit of individual profit to become the overriding social goal...

And there was much more. Tawney was born in India, a product of Empire, became an economic historian and died in 1962; Hoggart was born into the working class in Leeds in 1918, became a cultural and literary critic, and died in 2014. What they had in common, Collini writes, was an "affirmation of certain deep, powerful truths".

Profit is a hollow and unworthy goal. The unchecked imperatives of the market deform and destroy human lives. The only force capable of resisting the destructive power of capital is the collective will to give expression to a common good through legal means -- or in other words, the state [...] they both recognised the obligation to "do" politics, to engage in public life, to work through institutions. 

Tawney could have written more history, and Hoggart more criticism, but they felt it their civic duty to chair committees and run institutions. It was a long book review and deeply moving, but I don't remember what I was going to combine it with a year ago, what point I was going to try to make. And now a year later I wonder if here is any hope for any sort of idealism.

Capitalism is all we have. It has created a world in which I can send out these words which will likely live forever, even if not many read them; and in which I can share beautiful music with like-minded friends all over the world every day. But we also see men who have grown unbelievably rich raping the environment and building casinos and who are buying politicians by the bagful, and both parties being suffocated by lobbyists in Washington, so that our boom-and-bust cycles will continue while the nation's moral and physical infrastructures fester.

And as for foreign policy, forget it; Eisenhower deposed the legitimate democratically elected leaders in other countries; Nixon committed treason by secretly interfering with the Johnson administration's negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris, so that the extraordinarily decent Hubert Humphrey lost that election and the war went on until a few thousand more young Americans had died for nothing. Reagan committed treason by secretly interfering in the Carter administration's negotiations with Iran over the embassy hostages, empowering the student radicals who had trashed international law and who are still in power there today, primitive misogynistic grownups who now want to become a nuclear power. And today's Republican Congress has committed treason by trying to interfere with Obama's negotiations in Iran. And while we can at least be grateful that Obama hasn't started any wars, he does not inspire confidence on the international front, going too far in the other direction by doing very little while Rome burns. 

All of which is my latest excuse for not writing here very often. Why bother? 


April 7, 2015

Long Live Lady

On Billie Holiday's 100th birthday, I'm listening tonight to Lady and Lester Young: 'This Year's Kisses', 'Mean To Me', 'Back In My Own Back Yard', 'I'll Never Be The Same' -- imperishable masterpieces from almost 80 years ago. She was just a kid, but knew what to do with a song, and Prez was the other half of her. May she live forever.

The unsigned note on the Columbia Legacy CD I'm listening to refers to "pianist-arranger Teddy WIlson, who served as leader on many of Holiday's record dates". They were not her dates; they were his. But never mind; the records were made quickly and cheaply for jukeboxes, and nobody dreamed they would still be selling in the next century.


March 31, 2015

We are all sinking into premature senility

Dogs wanted to be fed early this morning, and the newspaper wasn't here yet, so I caught up on some of the Times Literary Supplement. I adore the TLS; I read about fiction, history books, science books, biography, music and the other arts, and so on. Philosophy, not so much. My eyes glase over.
      In the February 27 issue (I am several weeks behind in my reading) there is a review of a book about mentalism versus animalism, that is, whether we are fundamentally psychological beings, and only incidentally humans, or most fundamentally a human animal and only accidentally a psychological being. Aren't we lucky to be higher animals, capable of squabbling about nothing? Talk about your big-enders and your little-enders: Jonathan Swift, thou shouldst be alive at this hour.

Then there's the new law in Indiana, simliar to laws in 19 other states, ostensibly about religious freedom, except that only Indiana's law explicitly enables discrimination against gays or anybody else a merchant doesn't approve of. Odd that in a nation founded on the principal of religious freedom we are using religion as an excuse to curb our freedoms; never mind, too many of our laws are unnecessary and even foolish. But when I go to Facebook to check on what my grandchildren are up to, I have to click through 50 or 60 posts from complete strangers about the Indiana law! So I go to the mothership and try to tighten up my privacy settings. I have enough friends.

And finally, tonight we watch the evening news. At five on PBS there's the BBC World News, then later the PBS NewsHour. On the BBC World News a considerable segment was taken up with a young woman plugging her self-help book about the importance of good habits. And on the PBS NewsHour there was an item about a journalist wrapping a gizmo around his head and getting an electronic jolt that (he said) had the effect of caffeine without the coffee. (What do they have against coffee?)
      Is public television going the way of network news? Are we all regressing into further retreat from the real world?


March 25, 2015

How to park, part one

How to park, part one

Patching up a 60-year-old house has meant a few trips to Ikea, which is always a busy place. Here is how one guy parked his boxcar.


March 24, 2015

An observation

It seems to be the case that the late Lee Kuan Yew, who was the enlightened authoritarian founding father of Singapore, suppressed freedom of the press as well as chewing gum, but allowed economic freedom. The same was true of South Korea, where Syngman Rhee and his like were essentially fascist dictators, who allowed their people to become more and more prosperous until they were able to purchase their political freedom.
      There is a reverse image in our mirror. Here in the USA we have been so prosperous for so long that we can now afford to sell our political freedom.


March 24, 2015

A jibe

Let us imagine a man who lives in Akron, Ohio, and teaches the history of the Italian Renaissance. It is dreadful to think what he has to reconcile.

         --Saul Bellow in 1957


March 24, 2015

Religious fundamentalism strikes again

Last Saturday night a fire in an Orthodox Jewish household in New York City cost the lives of seven children. The fire was caused by a hot plate which, it is speculated, had been left on because of Sabbath prohibitions against doing anything. If this is true, I cannot express my disgust at such idiocy.


March 15, 2015

How we live now

A new issue of The New Republic appeared on the newsstand, so I grabbed it, because it had me in it. I had been tipped off by my high school buddy Fritz Plous that David Hajdu had written an article about popular songs, and quoted me:

Donald Clarke, in his judicious study of Sinatra and his work, All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra, quoted his mother on the omnipresence of "I'll Never Smile Again" on the radio: "It was all you heard," she said. I relay the quote in part to show how the song was perceived by the public of its day, and in part to show that I am not the only writer on music who quotes his mother in a book.

The Billboard chart had only been launched in 1940, and in fact the song was the first number one Billboard hit. It was still number one on the day I was born a few weeks later, which Hajdu did not mention, perhaps not wanting to broadcast my age to the world, gentleman that he is. 

Fritz and I had subscribed to The New Republic for many years. It was a weekly for 85 or 90 years, then a bi-weekly, and the new issue is for March/April 2015. Hajdu is the only familiar name in this issue, almost everyone else having quit en masse late last year (see below, January 20). On the Internet I learn that Hajdu had been at TNR for 12 years, and that he joined The Nation in January. I wonder if his article is one that TNR had in the bank. The rest of the current issue is a general interest magazine, and not a very good one; I found nothing in it to read. Once billing itself as "A journal of politics and the arts", It has suddenly come down a long way. 

Coincidentally, the Baffler also hit the newsstand this week, and contains a depressing if hilarious article by Chris Lehmann about his short career as a news executive at Yahoo. Yahoo hasn't been of much importance for a long time, but it has a lot of money and a lot of readers; unfortunately it is run by the same sort of Silicon Valley whiz kids who purchased The New Republic a few years ago, and who don't even know what journalism is. Lehmann describes what is happening to American journalism as "a slow-motion train wreck."

The Baffler is what The New Republic once was, but funnier and more acerbic. The Washington Post said about it, "The writers possess a contagious enthusiasm for showing how today's profiteers have caked so much lipstick on the pig that you can hardly see its face." 


March 15, 2015

Bang Bang

Thriller novelist Stephen King was quoted on Facebook:

I guess the question is, how paranoid do you want to be? How many guns does it take to make you feel safe? And how do you simultaneiously keep them loaded and close at hand, but still keep them out of reach of your inquisitive children or grandchildren?

A Dave Einhorn commented, "Simple, Buy a lockbox. Duh." His comment was accompanied by a picture of a small metal box big enough for a single pistol. He doesn't get it. He thinks that when the home is invaded, the miscreants will stand around patiently while he finds the key and unlocks the box. He just isn't paranoid enough.


March 15, 2015

They're coming to get us

Domino's is a successful national pizza chain. It offers so many toppings that Patrick Doyle, the CEO, calculates that there are 34 million possible combinations. Now the Food and Drug Administration is insisting that  Domino's posts in every one of its 5,000 stores a menu board with calorie counts. Even if this would be of any help to customers, most of them are having the pizza delivered and will never see the signs, which will cost about $2,000 at each store and will have to be replaced every time there's a menu change.

Somewhere else, it was reported, a Chinese takeaway was closed down, because among other things the authorities want the busy owner to check the temperature of each ingredient every two hours.

Jim Duncan, our favorite food writer, reports that local authorities in Des Moines are undecided whether to allow food trucks around the city. Somebody commented that she would never buy from them: "How could you trust them?" she wrote. My comment was, "This year I shall reach the age of 75 without ever wearing a skidlid, using a hand sanitizer, or being afraid to patronize a hot-dog cart."

Which I did yesterday in front of a Home Depot: I had a quarter-pound jumbo weenie slathered with raw chopped onions, ketchup and mustard, served to me in the warm sunshine, and very good it was too. But we cannot know how much longer such freedoms will last. This has nothing to do with "liberal" or "conservative", by the way. What we lack more and more is simple competence.


March 15, 2015

The problems increase as you get older

Most of my adult life I have been covered by group health insurance plans (except while I lived in England, where they are unnecessary). Since coming back to the USA in 1998, Ethne and I have been covered by employer plans at Barnes & Noble, The Texas State Senate, Meredith Publishing in Iowa, Barnes & Noble again when Meredith decided to double the employees' contribution, and then at Rodale Inc. in Pennsylvania. When Ethne's employment at Rodale came to an end she had been wanting to go freelance again anyway, and I was only working part time, so we signed up for Medicare, since we were more than old enough.

We had to prove that we had been covered by adequate health care plans since becoming eligible for Medicare, otherwise we would have had to pay more for it. I don't quite understand that, since we had been saving Medicare money by not signing up, but okay, we obtained forms for each of us from four different past employers to the effect that we had been covered. This was a pain in the neck but an interesting experience: some of the people we had to deal with in the various human resources departments knew what they were doing while others were not firing on all cylinders. But when we turned up at the Social Security office in Colorado Springs on December 12 last, we had all our paperwork and everything was hunky-dory.

Until we tried to get prescriptions filled. One of Ethne's prescriptions that normally cost $20 suddenly cost more than $300. Obviously we needed to get some supplementary insurance that covered prescriptions. I get that; Medicare has to pay for itself somehow, and you can't expect, at least not in this country, the kind of decent coverage you hope for after working and paying in all your life. So Ethne did the research (she's better at that than I am) and we signed up with Humana. We got cards from Humana, and the next time Ethne wanted that prescription filled, it cost $13. 

Now, there's obviously a scam going on here: if the drug company can lower its price that much for an insurance company that's charging us $10 a month or so, then somebody is being bribed or paid off, or the drug is grossly overpriced to begin with. But that's not our department; we know the score, but you get tired of the struggle. We were just glad to be with Humana, and have the problem solved.

But now Humana is sending me letters saying that I am going to have to pay a penalty.

Medicare's records show you didn't have "creditable" prescription drug coverage for 31 months, from 05/16/2006 through 02/28/2015. This happened after you were first eligible to sign up for Medicare prescription drug coverage. "Creditable" prescription drug coverage is coverage that's as good as basic Medicare-approved coverage.
As a result, Medicare requires us to charge you a late-enrollment penalty (LEP). Your LEP is $10.30.

I do not believe any of this. I take a thyroid pill every day, and the co-pay has always been nominal; the Social Security Administration (and Medicare) have had all the documentary evidence they need, but Humana wants to screw me out of another ten bucks a month for the rest of my life! And since we have both had exactly the same coverage all these years, why am I alone being penalised? I have been on the phone twice with Humana (and I suspect I am talking not to Humana but to a call center), and the second letter still started "Thank you for choosing a Humana Medicare plan. We appreciate your business and your trust." I don't trust them at all.

I cannot run and jump like I used to. There are a lot of things I cannot do too well anymore; we will not go into any detail. But must I also be punished with this bureaucratic incompetence for the sin of outliving my father? Don't they have computers?


February 27, 2015

Oblomov again

I am still savouring the Russian classic, Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1860), and still seeing connections with today's Russia. (see below, "Beware of Russian nannies".)

Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is sent away to school, but the village is only eight or nine kilometers away, and used to be part of Oblomovka, and is pretty much the same sort of place. It is already too late for him to be educated.

Perhaps Ilyusha had long been noticing and understanding what was being said and done around him; his father in his velveteen trousers and brown quilted jacket day in and day out, doing nothing but pacing the room from one corner to another with his hands behind his back, taking pinches of snuff and blowing his nose; his mother shuttling from coffee to tea and dinner; his father never dreaming of checking the number of sheaves reported to have been cut and harvested and calling the culprit to account for any inaccuracy. But let there be the slightest delay in bringing him a handkerchief and the would cry blue murder and turn the whole household upside down.

...These good people saw life as nothing but an ideal of peace, quiet, and total inactivity interrupted from time to time by certain unpleasant events such as illness, loss, disputes, and, yes, even work. They put up with work as a punishment inflicted long ago on their remote ancestors and inherited by them, but they never grew to like it and took every opportunity to avoid it, regarding such avoidance as right and proper.

So during the Soviet period the factory workers made a joke of it: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." This is what the Russians see in their beloved novel, and what they recognize in themselves.

Other problems, of course, presented themselves from time to time, but the people of Oblomovka confronted them for the most part with stolid passive resistance, and the problems, after hanging over their heads for a while, would just flutter away like birds...

So Putin and his crooked friends can steal the country blind and nothing will ever be done about it. If the economy collapses, so what? It collapsed in 1917, again in 1989; this too shall pass.

Addenda: Since I wrote this yesterday, Boris Nemtsov, a brave, honest democrat and former member of the government who was organizing a demonstration against Putin's war in eastern Ukraine, was gunned down near the Kremlin, shot in the back by assassins who roared away in a car. Putin didn't even bother to put him in jail on phony charges; bullets are cheaper.  


February 27, 2015

My mancave

My mancave

I might be the luckiest man in the world. When my wife and son decided to buy this house in Colorado Springs last August while I was 2,000 miles away, they cared enough to first figure out how to accommodate me in it. Now David has carved one small room and another even smaller room out of a garden shed and the back end of the garage, and I am settling in at last. It's so small that it's hard to take a picture of it, and there's no curtain on the window yet, but I've got some pictures on the walls, and it's insulated so well that a single small wall-mounted electric heater is sufficient even when the temperature is freezing outside. 

What to listen to first now that I'm in my room? A rarity and oddity first: Lennie Tristano's Descent into the Maelstrom, a long out-of-print Inner City album that a friend dubbed for me years ago in Texas (I think it was Wes Marshall), a funky compilation of ten tracks from 1952-6, the title track a solo rant that sounds like the Devil is disturbed because his plans have been foiled again. Then there's Andrew Rose's excellent transfer of Jascha Horenstein's 1953 recording of Strauss's Metamorphosen, a poignant essay for strings by a very old man just after WWII, contemplating what the Nazis have done to his beloved Germany. And the new Nessa release, Silver Cornet, by Bobby Bradford and Frode Gjerstad, with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Frank Rosaly on bass and drums, recorded less than a year ago in Baltimore: 45 minutes of totally improvised postmodern conversation by four serious chaps.

Oh, there will a lot of music heard in these rooms.


February 27, 2015

I'll stay in this century, thank you

I don't believe in virgins giving birth or people coming back from the dead, but I will nominally include myself when I say that we Christians do not practice our religion properly. After all, it says in Leviticus that if you grow two crops in the same field, I have to get the whole town together to stone you. Same if you cut your hair, or if your wife wears something made of two different kinds of thread. And woe betide you if you want a bacon sandwich; I'd have to smite you good and proper if I were a good son of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The BIble also says that it's okay to own slaves.

An article in the current Atlantic magazine by Graeme Wood, and also a piece this week in the Wall Street Journal by Gerald F. Seib, make it clear that it will not do to describe ISIS as "un-Islamic", or Islam as a religion of peace. The fact is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is more Islamic than the vast majority of the world's Muslims. They want to follow the Qu'ran as it was followed 1,300 years ago. They are brutal psychopaths as far as I'm concerned, but they are not gangsters or criminals; they are well educated and very serious. (Secretary of State John Kerry also had a piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, but he had nothing to say; he was uselessly blowing platitudes.) It really is time to wake up: if the Palestinian problem wasn't bad enough, we destabilized the entire Middle East with our invasion of Iraq in 2003, and now we have to destroy ISIS or it will spend generations trying to destroy us.

There's a photo on the front page of the New York Times today of an ISIS vandal defacing an ancient Assyrian monument. The joke is that he is using a power tool, which he has to get from the West, along with his pickup truck, his machine gun, his cellphone and everything else, because Islamic nations have invented nothing for centuries. 


One weekend recently, more than 1000 Muslims formed a ring of peace around a synagogue in Oslo, Norway, as a symbol of protest against the murder that week of Dan Uzan, a Danish Jew, at a Copenhagen synagogue. This gesture should have been on the front page of every newspaper in the world, but it was mostly ignored. These are not the kind of Muslims who are sneaking off to Syria to help cut the heads off aid workers, and until we are unafraid to make distinctions among Muslims our own defenses will be inept. Political correctness be damned.


February 27, 2015

Step right up

Speaking of the New York Times, on its website this morning there was a squib that said "Italian doctor says first human head transplant is only two years away." If I were Bill O'Reilly I'd want to be first in line.


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