The price of principles vs. rhetoric of empty platitudes

lone-bird

When white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine blacks inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston in 2015 there was a gnashing of teeth among some about how white society was complicit in Roof’s actions.

One journalist, a South Carolinian writing in the Washington Post, pulled no punches when describing how whites, particularly Southern whites, were responsible:

So I and every other white South Carolinian who has let the racist jokes go unchecked, who has looked the other way at some sanctioned act of bigotry, who has not taken the time and effort to listen to what black people have to say about their experience, is, in some sense, responsible for Dylann Roof – even as he remains responsible for his own actions. Every white South Carolinian … is responsible for Dylann Roof. He is our child. We should have never let him fall into whatever hell he occupied when he decided to go into that church. Of course, 99 percent of southern whites will never go into a church, sit down with people and then massacre them. But that 99 percent is responsible for the one who does. We white southerners – those of us who left, the others who stayed, and even those millions who have migrated to the Sun Belt – are all Dylann Roof. We are all responsible. We cannot shirk it. We cannot go forward until we fix ourselves. We must organize ourselves, educate ourselves and come together to fight against white supremacy. If we don’t, there will always be another Dylann Roof around the corner. And in the mirror.

At the time I disagreed, and I continue to disagree with the idea that every white South Carolinian, or every white Southerner, or all whites – take your pick – is responsible for the heinous actions of one, or a handful, of extremist bigots.

I was reared by parents who actively pointed out the errors of racism and bigotry, and I have done the same with my children. I was told right from wrong, warned of the perils that would befall me were I to commit such idiotic acts as using racially charged terms and expected to live it. My children have been imbued with the same expectations.

I’ve instilled in my children the idea that while we can’t undo the past, we can make the present more tolerable by realizing that we’re no better or worse than anyone else just because of our background.

We need to listen to those different from us, recognize that their experiences and backgrounds give them different perspectives, but also understand that self-flagellation for sins we did not commit doesn’t move the ball forward in terms of reconciliation, either.

Our society has many flaws, including racism, but I am not going to bear the cross of hateful acts committed by the intolerant, even if others insist I do.

So where is this going? Last week one of my daughters got a glimpse of ugliness that I never witnessed in my many years of schooling.

She attends a magnet high school in a well-regarded school district in South Carolina. I will not name the school, for reasons that hopefully will be obvious.

The weekend before last she received a group text from a friend’s boyfriend. It said simply, “Join me and (his girlfriend) as we kill all blacks with the KKK.” It was followed with a second text, an attachment that was an application for the Ku Klux Klan.

My daughter was upset by the texts and told the boy that it wasn’t funny and that he was to stop.

She showed it to me later and we contacted the school. The school took the matter seriously and took action against the boy, though it would not disclose what action.

However, my daughter is now being harassed by the kids who were part of the group text, and others, being called out in particular for being a “snitch.” Already shy, she now dreads going to school.

I can tell her all day long she did the right thing, but it’s not much consolation when she walks into class and kids are talking about her, or are sending her text messages about how she’s ruined someone’s life because she went to school officials about something she knew was wrong.

I can tell her that we don’t get many chances in life to do the right thing in truly difficult situations, and that most people take the path of least resistance when those few opportunities present themselves, but it doesn’t make it any easier to handle the glares, the whispers or being blocked on social media when you’re 16 years old.

I don’t know how this happens, that a 16-year-old boy, whether simply showing off in an utterly misguided fashion or displaying some very serious problems, thinks it’s OK to voice such views, never mind send them to others via technology.

Where does someone at the age of 16 even get such ideas? I don’t know.

But I do know that if anyone ever tries to pin the blame for the racially motivated actions of others, past of present, on any of my children, especially my 16-year-old daughter, who is currently dealing with being ostracized for speaking up when everyone else failed to so much as utter a peep of protest, they’re going to get a stern word or three from a certain father.

Bottom line: if we’re ever to reach any sort of understanding regarding the past, it will be through compassion, empathy and standing up for right, not by ladling out, or taking on, heaping doses of collective white guilt.

Protecting monopolies under the guise of reducing risk

tucson-homeless

To paraphrase English playwright William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an occupational licensing board catching wind of an “nonprofessional” practicing said profession.

In Arizona, for example, the state board of cosmetology is investigating Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after receiving a complaint that he gave free haircuts to the homeless.

Montesdeoca committed the deeds on Jan. 28 at a downtown Tucson library, after organizing the event through a Facebook group and soliciting help from volunteers. He did it “out of the kindness of my heart,” and in memory of his mother, who loved her hair, he told Tucson News Now.

That didn’t set well with the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, which began an investigation after it received an anonymous complaint alleging that Montesdeoca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.”

What one man views as charity another sees as unwanted competition, apparently.

The Arizona board is pulling out its big bag of disjoined logic in an effort to keep Montesdeoca and other “do-gooders” like him from helping those unable to afford haircuts.

Those getting their hair cut outside a licensed salon by an unlicensed person run a real risk, according to Donna Aune, the board’s executive director, adding that state law prohibits a person from practicing cosmetology without a license.

Remember, we’re talking about haircuts, not letting back-alley butchers remove gall bladders.

It wasn’t too long ago that those who wanted to braid hair legally in South Carolina had to demonstrate 300 hours of training. If one decided to use hair extensions as part of said braiding, regulations required a full cosmetologist curriculum, some 1,500 hours of class.

I’ve seen youngsters learn to braid hair in 15 minutes. What possible reason could there be to have required 300 hours of training, or to force someone who wants to apply extensions to take a 1,500-hour cosmetologist curriculum except to winnow out competition?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the costs of occupational licenses outweigh the benefits. For hair braiding, as for many other occupations, licensing appears to do little more than prevent some people from earning an honest living in the occupation of their choice.

In 2012, Mississippi, which requires zero hours of training, had more than 1,200 registered braiders. Neighboring Louisiana, which requires 500 hours, had only 32 licensed braiders – despite its larger black population, according to the Institute for Justice.

Reason.com had some pithy comments regarding the potential risks involved with having an unlicensed individual cut the hair of the homeless in Tucson:

“The risk of getting a bad haircut is certainly chilling. But these were free haircuts. Free haircuts given to people who were in no position to pay for one. I’m sure they were aware of the risk they were taking by letting the unlicensed Montesdeoca cut their hair outside of a licensed salon environment, but they were probably okay with that level of risk considering they were homeless and were getting haircuts for free,” according to the magazine.

A problem many homeless have when it comes to job hunting is presenting well when it comes time for an interview. A decent haircut can go a long way toward boosting self-esteem and making a good first impression.

But the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, whose members likely weren’t serving these individuals in the first place, is more interested in making sure absolutely no one infringes on their monopoly.

(Top: You could give this homeless man in Tucson food, money and a job, but not a free haircut – unless you’re a licensed cosmetologist – thanks to the heavy hand of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.)

Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

The kind of critter they make science-fiction movies about

crypt-keeper-wasp

There isn’t much in the wild that I haven’t tangled with, including arachnids and insects. Black widows, hornets, millipedes, cockroaches and scorpions are all fair game, though the more ornery the critter, the more circumspect I am.

Scientists have recently found a new bug, however, that sounds absolutely appalling.

Nicknamed the crypt-keeper wasp, it has a decidedly distasteful life cycle, according to online publication Red Orbit.

How distasteful? Researchers named it after Set, the Egyptian god of evil and violence. That will buy you some street cred among fellow creepy-crawlies, one imagines.

The adult wasp, shown above, lays its egg within the small, wooden compartments built by a different species, the gall wasp, inside live sand oak trees.

When the egg hatches, crypt-keeper wasp larva dig into the gall wasp and takes control of its brain. This forces the gall wasp to tunnel out of the tree, a task the crypt-keeper has a hard time doing by itself.

If that weren’t grim enough, crypt-keeper wasp larva then causes its host to punch out a hole not quite big enough for it to escape from the tree.

“After the bigger wasp is stuck in the hole it’s burrowed, the crypt-keeper eats its host from within, finally erupting from the host’s head and out into the world,” according to Red Orbit.

I haven’t seen any of these, but I think I’ll do my best to keep my distance from this member of the order Hymenoptera should I happen across any in the future.

Trying to recollect memories of fabled Milk Farm Restaurant

davis-1-23-2017-015For more than 50 years I’ve passed the old Milk Farm Restaurant sign near Dixon, Calif. The visits are less frequent these days, occurring on trips West when I visit family, but each time as I head along Interstate 80 south of Sacramento I see the venerable marker, all that remains of the once-famous eatery.

Those not conversant with area history have no way of knowing that the site was once one of the busiest stops between the state capital and San Francisco, where thousands were served weekly.

The 100-foot sign, topped with a cow jumping over a moon, once lit up with neon so vivid that it pierced the thick winter fog of the Sacramento Valley.

In my memory, I couldn’t recall the restaurant ever being open, and supposed that it had closed sometime in the 1960s. My parents said they had taken me there when I was around 18 months old, which would have been around the start of 1966. Yet, I would pass the site dozens of times in later years and could not remember the restaurant in operation, or even what it looked like.

So it was somewhat startling to find out that the Milk Farm, which began serving customers in 1919, remained in business until 1986.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Just down the road was another famous restaurant, the Nut Tree, in Vacaville, which operated from 1921 through 1996. I clearly recall that location and stopping there on more than one occasion. But the Milk Farm remains a void, except for driving past its iconic sign each time I headed north to such places as Davis, Sacramento or Lake Tahoe.

Fortunately, the world does not base historical judgment on what this author does or does not remember.

The Milk Farm began in 1919 as Hess Station, named for local rancher Karl Hess, who rented cabins to travelers in the days before motels.

The site was beside the old Lincoln Highway – Highway 40 – which was later expanded and renamed I-80.

Hess was apparently quite a promoter: he held milk-drinking contests, sold inexpensive chicken dinners and offered “all-you-can-drink” milk for 10 cents. He also helped make a named for the town of Dixon, where my grandfather and other family members attended high school, as the heart of the California dairy industry.

In 1938, Homer Henderson and his wife bought Hess Station and renamed it the Milk Farm. They added the cow logo which can be seen on the sign today.

“Stables, gas stations, an orange juice stand and a new restaurant all contributed to the Milk Farm being labeled ‘America’s Most Unique Highway Restaurant’ and to features on the radio and in such national publications as the Saturday Evening Post,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Celebrity visitors including crooner Bing Crosby, boxer Jack Dempsey and California Gov. and future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The sign still visible today was erected in 1963 at a cost of $78,000, no mean sum more than 50 years ago.

The restaurant was eventually done in by rising food prices and increased competition, particularly from fast-food chains.

It closed in 1986 following damage from a violent windstorm and never reopened. In time, vagrants began inhabiting the structure, and in 2000 what remained of the building was razed.

Only the sign remains, a witness to the pre-chain-restaurant era, when part of the fun of vacationing involved the journey itself, and eateries put more emphasis on the quality of their food than on gimmicks used to lure travelers inside.

Washington’s presidency set standard for future US leaders

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It’s inauguration day in the United States, and while there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the man who will take office today, I prefer to believe that the presidency has an ennobling effect upon those who ascend to the office.

Certainly, the aura connected with the presidency, with its corps of staff and aides providing assistance, has great potential to provide a stabilizing influence on those elevated to the Oval Office.

The position can bestow a solemnity on even the most political of beings, given the gravity and history connected to the office.

If the United States has an unusual place in the world, it’s due in part to its tradition of peaceful transition of power. Consider that even some of the world’s smallest nations, such as Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, are despotic tyrannies where leaders refuse to let loose of power.

From the start, the US has followed a protocol in which opposing parties have handed off power without incident, even when election results didn’t go the way the majority of voters had wanted.

That is due in no small part to George Washington, the US’s first president and one of the history’s most remarkable individuals.

Washington, who took office in 1789, remains the only man to receive 100 percent of the electoral votes cast under the US system.

His accomplishments were legion even before he became the first chief executive.

Against almost unfathomable odds, he led a rag-tag collection of volunteers and state militia troops to victory over the then-greatest military force on the planet, enabling the Thirteen Colonies to secure their independence from Great Britain.

He also presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and his support convinced many states to vote for ratification.

As president, Washington avoided the temptation of war. His farewell address has been cited as a primer on republican virtue and as a warning against partisanship, sectionalism and involvement in foreign entanglements.

He reluctantly began a second term in office in 1793 but afterward retired to Mount Vernon, Va.

Few men, given the opportunity to hold office for life, as he was, would be able to walk away in the manner of Washington.

Washington did it twice, first after the American Revolution and again after his second term as president.

That didn’t escape the notice of British monarch King George III. Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, George asked painter Benjamin West what Washington would do next and was told of rumors that he’d return to his farm.

The king responded by stating, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

There has been no other president like Washington and there never will be. But Washington set a standard for the office which all who follow in his steps would do well to attempt to emulate.

(George Washington being sworn in as the US’s first president in 1789 in New York City.)

Study shows purple sandpiper to be tough guy of bird world

cornell-bird-study

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not only documented the migratory movements of more than 100 western hemisphere bird species but created a fascinating animated map which shows the approximate location of each throughout the year.

This is the first time data of this sort has been compiled on such a scale. It includes such extreme migrations as that of the Lapland longspur, which travels well into the Arctic Circle in July and August, and the dark-faced ground-tyrant, which makes its way to the tip of Tierra del Fuego from November through February.

There are others that migrate from Brazil and other South American countries all the way north to central Canada, a distance of 7,000 miles or more.

“We used millions of observations from the eBird citizen-science database,” said lead author Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab. “After tracing the migration routes of all these species and comparing them, we concluded that a combination of geographic features and broad-scale atmospheric conditions influence the choice of routes used during spring and fall migration.”

(You can access a second map here, which will provide an index through which you can follow different species on their year-long route.)

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Perhaps the most unusual migration is that of the purple sandpiper. This species winters near the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, than spends its summer on Baffin Island, in far northern Canada.

While not limited to Canada, in North America the species’ breeding ground is the northern tundra on Arctic islands in Canada. They also breed in Greenland and northwestern Europe, perhaps in part to cement their role as ornithological tough guys. Anyone or anything that purposely winters in the Canadian Maritimes and also spends time in Greenland has my respect.

It appears, according to Cornell’s interactive map, that purple sandpipers have little interaction with other species, as none have migratory patterns that bring them within a couple hundred miles of the small shorebirds.

An important discovery of the study is that bird species that head out over the Atlantic Ocean during fall migration to winter in the Caribbean and South America follow a clockwise loop and take a path farther inland on their return journey in the spring, La Sorte said. These include bobolinks, yellow and black-billed cuckoos, Connecticut and Cape May warblers, Bicknell’s thrush, and shorebirds, such as the American golden plover.

“These looped pathways help the birds take advantage of conditions in the atmosphere,” he added. “Weaker headwinds and a push from the northeast trade winds as they move farther south make the fall journey a bit easier. The birds take this shorter, more direct route despite the dangers of flying over open-ocean.”

The study found the spring migration path follows a more roundabout route but the birds move faster thanks to strong tailwinds as they head north to their breeding grounds.

Species that do not fly over the open ocean use the same migration routes in the spring and fall. Geographic features shaping this pattern include mountain chains or isthmuses that funnel migrants along narrow routes, according to the study.

(Screen grab from Cornell migration study, showing location of different species on April 9. The purple sandpiper is the blue dot seen in the far eastern reaches of Canada.)