Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Shallow End of the Information Pool

I'm getting very tired of journalists who don't understand insurance and don't understand websites, yet feel free to write authoritatively, or at least pompously, about health care reform.

Here's David Brooks in the Times today:  "Obamacare, as originally envisioned, mandated that people join the system in order to redistribute money from the healthy and young to the sicker and older."

That's true as far as it goes, Dave.  But what about a 22-year-old man who gets blind drunk one Saturday night and on the way home drives his car into a telephone pole?  Is he better off with health insurance or without health insurance?

When I was at Cigna there was a million-dollar baby getting ready to hit the lifetime coverage limit.  Without coverage, the baby was going to die.  Is the baby old?  No, just sick.

(While I'm at it, is it a good thing that we got rid of lifetime coverage limits?  Or a bad thing?)

Insurance spreads risk across the entire risk pool.  Yes, older people are more likely to have predictable -- and expensive -- chronic conditions.  It is also the case that many of the sick old are over 65 and on Medicare, which means they are not part of the Obamacare risk pool.

Bottom line:  everybody benefits from having health insurance.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

If You Have Insurance You Like

I've been thinking about President Obama and the line, if you have a health plan you like, you can keep it.

I don't think he knew he was wrong.  That's because I worked for an insurance company for sixteen years, and I didn't know he was wrong.

There are a couple of pieces to this.  First, back in 2009, I took this as a statement addressed primarily to people who had health insurance through their employers.  The idea was that the old employer-based health insurance system wasn't going away.  The same for people on Medicare.  And this statement is true for these groups.

Second, the individual insurance market was and is notorious.  It didn't occur to me that people covered here would prefer their existing policies to better policies that were cheaper.

Third, the junk policies, which are relatively recent and can be found in both the individual and the employer-provided market.  Among the worst of these policies are those that provide no coverage for hospitalization.

Without putting too fine a point on it, hospital stays are the expensive part of the health system.  (I know, I know.  Drugs are expensive.  Stay with me.)  Traditionally, hospital stays were what insurance was for.

It never occurred to me that anyone would like one of these junk policies.  They're better than nothing, but to my mind they're not real insurance.  They don't keep you from being bankrupted, and they don't keep you from being kicked out to die when you run out of money.

So I made two mistakes.  First, I was distracted by the fact that most people weren't affected by the new law.  Second, I thought the people who were affected understood the coverage they had.

On this second part, I should have known better.  And so should the President.  But I'm not going to lose sleep over this one, and I hope he doesn't either.

P.S.  I wonder if the insurance companies told the administration they were sending out cancellation notices before they did it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Crashed the Server: Thoughts on the Healthcare.gov Debacle

Benefits are complicated.  Really complicated.  I remember at Cigna there was a competition between the payroll people and the benefits people.  Payroll was always on top of its game.  Benefits was constantly floundering.

Payroll is complicated in a large corporation. Taxes in how many states -- we'll leave out international.  And local taxes.  And the deductions that the benefits people feed over.

Payroll was cocky.  Eventually they got their reward.  They got to take over the benefits operations.  And one day I was walking out of a meeting, and a senior payroll guy said to me, "You know, benefits are really complicated."

I think a lot of this complication is unnecessary -- just what you get when you leave insurance companies to their own devices for a century or so.  But it's not going away.

Split Eligibility
Here's an example.  You have a retired couple.  The former employee has just turned 65.  The spouse is 62.  They've both been on the retiree health plan, but now the retired employee is signing up for Medicare.  The spouse is not eligible for Medicare.  What do you do?

The answer is called split eligibility.  The former employee gets Medicare as primary insurance, and the company provides a wrap policy to pick up expenses that Medicare doesn't cover.  Meanwhile, the spouse stays on the old company retiree health policy.

But wait.  It's one policy.  Computer programs are written to provide one set of benefits for one policy.  What do you do?  You write a whole new, much more complicated computer program.

Did I tell you your head was going to hurt?  Mine did, for years.

Benefits are complicated.  And, let's face it, benefits are boring.  So are benefits websites. Who, other than computer geeks, could possibly want to play around in the guts of a benefits website?  Certainly not me.  And yet I went to the meetings for 16 years, my eyes glazing over, my mind wandering to the day I would walk the Elysian Fields.

For this simple reason -- the crashing boredom involved -- management tends to leave benefits websites to the IT people.  Bad mistake.

Remembering Y2K
IT people love it when they're left alone.  Remember Y2K?  Most of the world's computers were supposed to crash when 1999 became 2000, because they could not recognize a year that began in 20 instead of 19.  Big problem.  Created of course by the IT people.  And they solved it.  They said, give us a lot of money and go away for a couple of years, and we'll fix this.  Just don't ask us to do anything else while we're off playing with ourselves, fixing a problem that we created.

And that's pretty much what happened, at least at Cigna.

I Crashed the Server
IT people just aren't good at playing nice with others.  This brings me to the day that I crashed the server.  We'd been working on a new web-based program for some benefit -- I honestly don't remember what -- and we needed to do a launch.  This involved sending an email to our 40,000 employees, asking them to click on a button and go to the website.  Maybe just have a look, maybe do something.  But definitely click the button and go to the website.

Our group -- the communications geeks -- suggested that we stagger the emails to employees over the course of the launch day -- a few thousand here, a few thousand there -- so that we wouldn't overwhelm the system by sending 40,000 people an email at once, having 40,000 people open the email at once, and having 40,000 people click the button at once.  We were a bit worried about whether the website would be able to handle that.

No problem, said our IT confreres.  I believe the word "robust" was used.  As in "robust website configuration," or something.  So we sent out about 40,000 emails at once, and about 40,000 people clicked the button more or less at once, and the server crashed.

Or, more accurately, I crashed the server.  Someone needs to be blamed for such a terrible thing.  After all, the IT people had some cleanup to do, the site wasn't available for awhile, and management was terribly embarrassed that such a thing happened on their watch, while they weren't watching.

The Joy of Lunch
Shortly thereafter, I was at a nice communications meeting at a hotel near the office.  This involved lunch in a large room at tables with tablecloths, and of course an open and forthright dialog among people whose incomes varied by a factor of 100.

At one point the divisional IT vice president stood up at his table down front and said he was very unhappy that I had crashed the server.  I waited a beat, then stood up at my table (which was more toward the back, away from the dais), and said that I proposed to keep crashing the server until we got the systems support that we needed.  For what it's worth, he left the company before I did.

Don't Trust the Consultants
So don't leave these things to the IT people.  Number one.  Number two, don't trust the consultants.  Another story.

We were launching yet another major program -- I don't remember this one either, they all blend together -- and we were at a large meeting in a very nice conference room on a floor to which I had never been admitted before.

We were there with the program's chief consultant, to make sure our communications plans were in order.  I was reliably informed that this fellow drove a Rolls-Royce.  I hadn't expected to speak at the meeting, but Mr. Rolls-Royce, as he went down his checklist, asked a question:  What percentage of employees did we expect to reach with our elaborate program of communications?

Nobody spoke for a while.  Then a helpful vice president suggested that I should answer the question.

"Oh, 80 to 90 percent," I said.  I was mindful of riding in an elevator some time previously.  We'd been encouraging employees to move their 401(k) money out of a fund that we were discontinuing.  The fund had $200 million in it, and for a variety of reasons it was better if individuals moved their money out voluntarily, rather than have us do it for them.

Two men were talking in front of me in the elevator.  One asked the other what he was going to do with his money.  The second man asked the first man what he was talking about.  The first man said, Didn't you get the letter about the fund closing?  (The letter I wrote.)  The second man said, "Oh, I never read my Cigna mail."

As we used to say, again and again, attention to benefits information is very low.  (The low attention levels and the complexity of medical benefits explain why people keep saying on surveys that they don't understand Obamacare.  They never will.)

But back to the meeting with Mr. Rolls-Royce.  He pondered my 80-90 percent answer for a moment, then said he was sure that management would require our communications to reach 100 percent of employees.  And he wrote something on his paper.  I think it was probably 100 percent.

Consultants tell management what they think it wants to hear.  What they say may or may not have a connection with reality.
Some Classic Mistakes
So here's what I think happened with Healthcare.gov.  Lulled by consultants who had no clue of the difficulties involved in benefits websites, management deferred to the IT professionals, who also had no clue of the difficulties involved in benefits websites.

Some other classic mistakes occurred.  Benefits sites always have a hub -- medical, dental, life insurance, 401(k) all need to talk with eligibility and payroll.  Healthcare.gov, drawing from a host of government databases and dealing with a host of insurance companies in dozens of states, had that problem on steroids.  This is simply not an easy design problem, and I suspect that it's the basic one.

Bottlenecks.  Okay, who said, Hey, let's get everybody to open an account before they can browse.  Amazon lets you look at the books before you buy them.  Somebody help me out here.  Consumer behavior:  First you browse, then you buy.

Something that I haven't heard about -- and I don't know if it's an issue, but I suspect that it is -- is the ping-pong phenomenon.  At one point at Cigna, we decided to go with an outside vendor for our employees' annual enrollment.  The vendor was in Massachusetts; we were in Philadelphia.  A slender electronic pipe connected us.  Programs that had worked just fine when all the servers were in the same room all of a sudden didn't work so well.

Apparently the programs were used to chit-chatting in a very intense back-and-forth manner.  This round-tripping, as I think it was called, all of a sudden took actual time, and the delays just got worse as the communications pipe got more and more clogged.  Eventually the problem was fixed.  I don't remember how.

Last Story
One last story.  Eventually management decided it was time to do a complete overhaul of its pay and benefits systems.  A lot of the underlying programs we were using were quite antiquated, our hub had been jerry-built over the years with inadequate funding and unrealistic expectations, and frankly I thought a top-to-bottom overhaul was a good idea.  Until I heard about the consultants.

Yet another large meeting.  I managed not to say anything, and transferred to the international division shortly thereafter.  Much later I heard from an IT friend about launch day.  Unbeknownst to the consultants, my friend had stored a backup of the old system on a little-used server (Cigna had a lot of them at that point).   D-Day came.  The consultants triumphantly flipped their switch, turning off the old system and turning on the new one.  According to my friend (this is his story, but I believe him), the new system promptly crashed, and the consultants panicked.  They had no backup plan.  The system they had turned off had been trashed in the process of turning it off.  My friend let them sweat for a few minutes and then he flipped on the backup system that he had stored away.  Nobody on the outside ever noticed that the site had gone down, and a few weeks later the consultants had debugged their system, and the relaunch went seamlessly.

Unfortunately, my friend's option wasn't available to Healthcare.gov.  It wasn't replacing anything.  It was brand-new.  But the problems Healthcare.gov has been facing are not new, and they're not subtle.

How Do I Feel?
How do I feel about that?  I worked awfully hard to help get the Affordable Care Act passed, and I'm angry that the administration made such obvious mistakes with the implementation.  I feel President Obama let me down on this one.  I'm sorry, but it's personal.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

From Ben Tillman to the Tea Party

The Tea Party are an odd bunch, with their three-cornered hats and Revolutionary War flags, and their -- to me at least -- strange approach to politics.  Where do these people come from?

For a long time I assumed they were getting their political ideas, and possibly their practices, from the American Revolution.  Then one day I stumbled across a book that my daughter had read in graduate school:  Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, by Stephen Kantrowitz (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).  It's about something I've never paid much attention to -- the South after the Civil War.

This is where the Tea Party comes from.  I don't know anybody who enjoys studying American history from the end of the Civil War to the start of the Progressive movement.  But the industrial revolution in the North and the rise of Jim Crow in the South go a long way toward defining where we are today.

I've been particularly averse to Southern history in this period, mainly because I find it so depressing.  But we need to know.  How did they do it?  How did a defeated group of states get up off the floor and largely replicate their former way of life?

The short answer is, by not being Japanese.  When General MacArthur showed up to run Japan at the end of World War II, the Japanese more or less said, Well, they won the war, so I guess we need to do what this MacArthur guy says.  And they did.

Before the war, the South was basically owned and run by its planter elite.  Today we would call them the one percent.  They were a small minority sitting atop two populations, one black and enslaved, the other white and at least notionally free.

At the end of the Civil War, the "wealth and intelligence" of the South, as they were sometimes called, faced the very real prospect of becoming a displaced elite.  The Union army occupied their land, and the blacks -- no longer slaves -- moved rapidly to claim economic and political power.

The Southern elite said, We liked it better the way it was.  This was particularly true when it came to the subject of blacks in politics.  As Ben Tillman put it, whites had a "God-given right to rule where any considerable number of his people sojourn among the colored races." 

And so, like the Bourbons of old, who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing (despite many teachable moments during the French Revolution), the wealth and wisdom of the South launched a counter-revolution.

Let's have a closer look at this Southern counter-revolution -- put it under the microscope, if you will.  Let's go to South Carolina, to the little county of Edgefield.  This is Ben Tillman's home.

Tillman served as governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 and then moved to the United States Senate, where he served until his death in 1918.  But before all that he was a thug.  A rich thug.  His family was one of the largest land-owners in Edgefield County.

His career in politics and terror started shortly after the end of the Civil War.  With other members of the county gentry, he rallied the white people of Edgefield to defend hearth and homeland against blacks and the federal government.  In this xenophobic world view, hatred of blacks and the federal government were intimately intertwined.  They were the two faces of the hated Other.  As long as the North pursued actual reconstruction in the South, Tillman said that white Southerners would have "no conception of the word 'nation' except that it is connected with the word 'nigger.'" 

The rhetoric of this movement -- and particularly Tillman's rhetoric -- was violent, irrational, and fact challenged.  Discourse with opponents was loud, inarticulate, and deaf.  Armed counter-revolutionaries would show up at their opponents' political meetings and demand that the meeting "divide time" between Reconstructionist speakers and anti-Reconstructionists.  They would then proceed to "holler down" the Reconstructionists and use their fists to break up the meeting.

This kind of behavior carried over to election day, when black would-be voters faced an increasingly hostile and volatile atmosphere at the polls.  And, as reactionary whites regained control of the electoral apparatus, those blacks who did succeed in voting could not trust that their ballots would be counted.

Suppression of the black vote was particularly important in South Carolina because blacks were actually the majority of the population.  (In the 1860 census, South Carolina and Mississippi were the only two states with black majorities.  They were also the first two to secede.)  If all the whites in South Carolina were to vote for one candidate, and all the blacks were to vote for another, the candidate of the blacks would win.  So shenanigans with the ballot box were not optional.

And violence was ever at the ready.  Even those, like me, who have never seen the movie Birth of a Nation have probably seen clips of D.W. Griffith's night riders in their white gowns and conical hats.  And of course their masks.  But the Ku Klux Klan was only one source of violence.  In South Carolina, groups called "rifle clubs" were particularly important.  These were armed units of mounted men who acted bare-faced and in daylight.

The violence escalated over the years, climaxing with the election of 1876, after which Reconstruction came to an end.  In July the rifle clubs earned their place in the history books with the Hamburg massacre; they engaged in a one-sided firefight with a negro militia unit (the rifle clubs had a cannon), and then massacred many of the survivors.  Tillman was there with the Sweetwater Sabre Club.

As Ben Tillman later put it, "In 1876 we shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes."

The 1876 election in South Carolina was critical to the outcome of that year's presidential race.  As a result of the Compromise of 1877, which put Rutherford Hayes in the White House, federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and Reconstruction came to an end.

And the counter-revolution continued.  The erection of Jim Crow took a while, but with the new Constitution that South Carolina adopted in 1895, the most important pieces were in place.  The new Constitution used property qualifications and literacy tests to deny the vote to most blacks, and to many poor whites.  Tillman was chair of the constitutional convention's committee on suffrage.

After a very long run, Jim Crow finally came to a close, but the Southern way of politics -- particularly the South Carolina way of politics -- didn't die.  Instead, with a little help from Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, it went national by joining the Republican party.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina helped lead the Dixiecrat breakaway from the Democratic party, which had adopted a pro-civil rights plank in its platform that year.   In 1964, Senator Thurmond became a Republican.  His father was Ben Tillman's lawyer.

Over the years, Republican ideas and Republican tactics came more and more to resemble the ideas and tactics of Ben Tillman.  And now we have the Tea Party.

I think some of you right now are thinking, Ben Tillman was a long time ago.  We've had the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, the Great Society.  It's no longer fashionable to hate black people in public, and just about everybody looks forward to Social Security and Medicare.

How can Ben Tillman's ideas, born of racism, elitism, and xenophobia, possibly have direct influence on our public discourse today?  It's even more ridiculous to think that his tactics might prove useful in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Well, as William Faulkner of Mississippi put it, "The past is not dead.  It's not even over."  Ask Jim DeMint.  Ask Lindsey Graham.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Maybe Lying Is Starting to Stop Working

Nearly ten years ago I had a car accident. My wife and I had just finished bringing the groceries into the house.  I got in the car to put it in the garage.  This involves driving several blocks, so I pulled up and stopped at the intersection, where there was a red light.  I was in the left lane.  In front of me, straddling two lanes, was a contractor's truck.  He was well forward of where he should have been, across the crosswalk, and poking a bit into the intersection.

We in Philadelphia are accustomed to shoddy driving, particularly by contractors.  I didn't think much of it.  Then the truck -- we still had a red light -- began to move.  Backwards.  Quite rapidly.

"I didn't want to block the box," he told me after he'd buckled a good part of the right side of my car.  Philadelphia had recently started a public information campaign about not blocking intersections.

We traded insurance information.  I called the police.  He left before the police arrived -- you can do that in Pennsylvania. I figured it was no big deal, since he'd already admitted that he was at fault.  The police report had my story.

And then, a few days later, I learned that his story had changed.  He hadn't moved.  I ran into him.  I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with my insurance company and his.  They both said it was his word against mine.  The arbitration split the costs between us, and I was out a couple of hundred unnecessary dollars. 

I've known my insurance agent for a very long time.  He tried to comfort me.  He told me that, in the insurance world, people lie with great frequency.  I actually knew that.  It had just never happened to me before.  I confess I was a bit stunned.

Lying, of course, is not confined to car accidents in Philadelphia.  Indeed,  it has become a major spectator sport.  I sometimes think that it will replace baseball as the national pastime.

Just look at National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who told Congress that the NSA wasn't doing massive data sweeps on American citizens.  Then Edward Snowden proved him wrong.  And Clapper apologized, saying he had responded to a question with the "least untruthful answer possible."

There's something about a personal declaration of moral bankruptcy. 

It's not just the Obama administration.  Apparently there's now an anti-Obamacare web video that shows Uncle Sam peering between a woman's legs at a gynecologist's office.

This from the people who brought us the state-mandated transvaginal ultrasound.  And so add hypocrisy to the charge of mendacity.

There's an old song from the Vietnam War, "The Ballad of the Green Berets."  I never liked it, because it's pretty jingoistic.  But there's a line in there -- "Men who mean just what they say."

I'm comforted by the thought that lying may be starting to stop working.  My contractor with his truck gouged me for a few hundred bucks, and got away with it.  Mr. Clapper will keep his job -- apparently lying to Congress is okay if you have the right job.  But the NSA's whole surveillance program is under serious assault, and American intervention in Syria is quite dead -- a casualty of George W. Bush's lies about Iraq.  Obamacare seems quite healthy, despite the assaults.  The budget battles continue, and the cover stories are unraveling.

Joseph Goebbels, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany, popularized the theory of the big lie:  Say something really wacky, and keep saying it, and sooner or later people will start to believe you.

I think that's over.  Or at least, I think it's beginning to be over.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Obama Plays Chess

President Obama has given Syria to Congress, and it appears most of the media has missed the story.  Possibly on purpose.  Lots of long faces -- Obama on the ropes etc.  I do have the feeling I'm being played.  Set up a cliff-hanger, then watch Houdini-Obama escape again.  Makes for good television.  Sells newspapers.  The White House is just fine with it.  John Boehner, poor sod, probably isn't so happy.

Boehner must know that Obama has just forked him -- it's a chess move.  If Congress approves bombing Syria, Obama gets to bomb Syria, and the responsibility for it -- and everything that follows -- lies not with Obama but with Congress. 

And if Congress won't let him bomb Syria, then everything that happens in Syria becomes the property of Congress.

Obama just dropped a little horsie-knight on a square that nobody -- not even his own staff -- expected him to occupy.  So Boehner can lose a bishop, or a badly positioned queen.  And Obama doesn't care which.

Congress owns Syria.  They're stuck.  I think I need some popcorn.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Syria and Queen Anne's War

I've been thinking about Syria. And the decrease in government's power to fight wars. I came of age during the Vietnam War, and I carried a draft card. When the draft was abolished, it was very meaningful for me.

Recently, I believe it was Prime Minister Cameron who told the House of Commons in London that President George W. Bush had poisoned the well of government credibility with his lies about the Iraq War.

Vietnam said no more mass infantry wars.  Iraq said -- what?  Maybe, we'll never believe you again.  I'm not sure.

There's a longer historical progression here. If you go back to the eighteenth century, the business of monarchs was war. Anybody remember what Queen Anne's War was about? I don't, but I'm sure it involved royal vanity, along with Kissingerian statecraft.  (Actually, I just looked it up.  It was about who should be king of Spain.)

The idea that governments should do things other than war -- say look after the welfare of the people -- really got its start with the American Revolution.

As I often do, I find myself feeling sorry for President Obama. He wants to do the right thing.  And here he is paying for George W.'s sins.

But maybe, long-term, we're on a good arc. Maybe government has other tasks, beyond figuring out who has the biggest missile.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lidice and the Power of Nothing

Lois and I and our friends Greg and Martha Cukor just spent a fabulous two weeks in St. Petersburg (the one in Russia) and in Prague, in the Czech Republic.  Greg is now known as Grishka, and I actually learned the Cyrillic alphabet (it's gone now).

From ballet at the old Mariinsky theatre to the Hermitage museum to Catherine the Great's summer palace to the old city of Novgorod to the Charles Bridge and Old Town Square in Prague, the blur of four-star experiences was becoming a bit overwhelming.  But then something happened.  On the way from Prague to the old fortress town of Terezin, we stopped at a little dot on the map called Lidice.

It used to be a farming village with a little more than 400 inhabitants.  Then it got caught up in World War II.  To make a long story short, there was a fellow named Heydrich, who was a very important Nazi.  If you want to know how important, read Laurent Binet's HHhH.

Some Czech soldiers parachuted in from England and killed Heydrich in Prague.  As a reprisal, the Germans showed up in Lidice one day, killed all the men, took away the women and children, burned the town, and then blew up anything still standing with explosives.

To paraphrase Tacitus, they made a desert and called it peace.  Or at least they tried to communicate the idea that they were very angry.  At any rate, Lidice was no more.

We got there pretty early in the morning.  It was a beautiful summer day as we walked through the colonnade to the plaza that looked down a slope to where the village had stood.  It was basically a large field of grass with a few statues, punctuated by trees, all strongly reminiscent of a Civil War battlefield in the United States.  I started to have that memorial feeling.  People died here, in this peaceful, grassy place, and it was important.

Lois wandered down for a closer look at the group statue of the children.  The rest of us went to the museum.  There wasn't much there.  But surely never has so much been done with so little.  I think the thing that did us all in was a group picture of the students and teachers at the local school, apparently taken eight days before the reprisal.

The Civil War battlefields still resonate, at least for me, communicating what happened there.  But let's face it, the Civil War is ancient history.  Lidice is within living memory, and what happened here still has raw power, despite the peaceful setting.

When we got back to the car, I said one word to our driver, Mirek:  "Tough."  He didn't have much English, but his look said he knew what I was going through.

We rode off to Terezin, which was a concentration camp where many people died.  I'm afraid I didn't give it justice.  I was still back in Lidice, on a beautiful summer morning.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

George Zimmerman, Giving Town Watch a Bad Name

I served on a Town Watch in my neighborhood years ago.  We were having a hooker problem.  I don't wish to be overly judgmental, but I and many of the neighbors felt the area was not an appropriate place for an open-air sex bazaar.  The people I'm talking about were rather uninhibited.  When Paul McCartney shouted, "Why don't we do it in the road?" they said, "Yeah, why not."

So we organized a local Town Watch under the supervision of the Philadelphia Police Department.

I was a bit surprised at how strict they were.  First, we had to wear identifying clothing.  Several Watch volunteers were graphic designers, and there was a competition for the logo that went on our caps.  The losers were very brave, and the winner was ecstatic.

Next there was the issue of guns.  The Philadelphia Police Department said we couldn't have any.  They did give us these huge mag lights that we all thought might make decent billy clubs in a pinch.  In the end we used them to shine light in dark places, and I saw things I wish I had not seen.

We always went in a group.  I forget what our minimum number was, but we usually had four or five people.

Finally, we were told never to confront.  I don't think pursuit even came up.  We were supposed to call it in, and that's what we did.

So, on the basis of my experience, I would say that George Zimmerman was not acting as a legitimate Town Watch volunteer on the night he shot Trayvon Martin.  Mr. Zimmerman carried a gun, he did not wear a hat with a silly logo, he acted alone, and he pursued.   Very un-Town Watchly.  Perhaps a better word for Mr. Zimmerman would be vigilante.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bastille Day for Trayvon Martin

I wonder if it's entirely coincidental that our Day of Vigil for Trayvon Martin -- today, July 14 -- is also Bastille Day in France, the day during the French Revolution when the people stormed the Bastille prison and released the prisoners.

France had been a conservative monarchy where the people at the top controlled everything and the people at the bottom starved. Now it is a liberal democracy where the people at the top control everything and the people at the bottom do not, by and large, starve. This is progress.

In 1955, a young black man named Emmett Till was beaten and shot to death in Mississippi. His crime was that he may or may not have whistled at a white woman.

In 2012, a young black man named Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Florida. His crime was that he refused to be intimidated by a white man. Trayvon stood up for himself.

And now I think we should all stand up for Trayvon Martin, and keep standing up until it is no longer open season on young black men in America.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Memphis Belle

Back in World War II our bomber crews would give their aircraft names.  Along with an appropriate picture, the name would be painted near the nose of the plane.

One of the more famous B-17s of the war was the Memphis Belle.  Air crews needed to fly 25 missions, and then they could go home.  The crew of the Memphis Belle flew their 25th and final mission on May 17, 1943.  That was the day my brother was born.

There's a movie.  It's a good movie, but my response to it is deeper than that.  Generally speaking I don't cry in movies.  I cry for the Memphis Belle.

Children tend to accept things the way they are.  I was born in 1947.  I had a mother and a father.  For the first several years of his life, my brother had a mother.  And, of course, she was a single mom.  What was that like?

Aerial combat is beautiful until it's not.  W. Eugene Smith, who became a famous Life magazine photographer, started out shooting the air war in the Pacific.  His photographs were gorgeous.  Then he switched to the ground war.  His photographs changed.  He changed.

The movie does a good job of juxtaposing the beauty and the mayhem in the air.  And then there's the yearning of young men who, having done their duty, just want to go home.

My father was a doctor, and he didn't get shot at a whole lot.  Mainly he patched up other people.  Still, I see a piece of him in this movie that I didn't see when I was growing up.  I'm very glad Daddy got home.

What if Romeo and Juliet Had a Baby?

David Brooks' article on mutts in the Times (June 27) really bothers me.  I have a few questions.

If an Episcopalian marries a Presbyterian, are the products of their union to be called mutts?  (My parents.  Me.  And my brother.)

If a Welshman marries an Englishwoman, shall we call their issue mutts?

If a Hungarian marries a Dane, do we call their kids mutts?  (My mother's parents.)

If an Irishman marries an Italian, do we get mutts?

If an Ashkenazi Jew marries a Sephardic Jew -- mutts?

If an Episcopalian marries a Jew, are their children mutts?  (Me.  And my wife.  And our children.)

If a Christian marries a Muslim?

If a white woman from Kansas marries a black man from Kenya?

I could go on.  In fact, I will.

William the Conqueror's father was from a Scandinavian family.  He was duke of Normandy in France.  William's mother was a townie from Falaise in Normandy.  William became king of England -- hence the Conqueror name.  What do you say?  A mutt?

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra had a baby.  Julius was Italian.  Cleopatra was Egyptian.  Was Caesarion a mutt?  Would you be willing to say that to his parents?

The concept of a mutt, or mongrel, derives from the idea of racial purity, which is pursued these days mainly by the likes of the American Kennel Club.  Race as a scientific concept has been exploded -- although many still quietly adhere to the old learning.  I think the attraction is the corollary concept of a master race.

I was attending a service in St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue years ago.  Wedding, baptism, funeral, something else?  I actually forget.  The minister touched briefly on sin, so it may have been a baptism.

He suggested that many of us probably didn't feel particularly sinful (we were Episcopalians after all).  But he said we also probably thought we were better than most other people.  And that, he gently reminded us, is a sin.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Runners Are Different

I got an x-ray a couple of weeks ago.  Not a big deal.  On top of my asthma, I had a bad cold, and I was feeling pretty miserable, so the abundance of caution thing kicked in.  No biggie.  The lungs were clear.  Nothing remarkable.

Something else was remarkable, though -- the radiologist's report.  For the last year I've been able to follow test results and trade emails with my doctor on a secure website.

My doctor got the x-ray results the same day I got the x-ray.  The online test results -- in this case the radiologist's report -- generally come along a few weeks later.  Here's what he said:  "The lungs are somewhat hyperextended and the diaphragms flattened.  This has been a persistent finding since 2004 and may be indicative of a very good inspiration."

Translation:  This guy may be a runner.  The previous report had centered on the meme "Probable COPD."  This stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease -- emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

It's interesting when the very same findings can mean either you're very sick or you're in very good shape.  Bimodal distributions -- statisticians hate them.  Mean and median become meaningless.

Runners are different.  It starts in the leg muscles.  Each cell has a lot more mitochondria than exist in the leg muscles of sedentary people.  Mitochondria are the cells' little furnaces, so lots of furnaces means you need lots of fuel.  Blood volume increases dramatically, and -- as suggested above -- so does active lung volume.  I could go on -- the heart, for instance.  Resting heart rate, maximum heart rate, recovery time.  I've even read that running decreases the transit time for food in the digestive tract.

People talk about running to lose weight, look better, feel better.  All true, but just scratching the surface.

People will or won't run.  Most of them won't, and I don't think talking about increased capillarization in the gastrocnemius will ever be a strong motivator either way.

But it would be nice if the medical profession in general understood runners better.  There are more of us than there used to be.  Maybe medical schools should have Runners Are Different Day.  Specialists could go through a review of systems.  I don't think any system would be left out.  The skin, you say?  Let me talk to you about sweat glands.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Guns Without Responsibility. How Does That Work?

People talk a lot about the original intent of the people who wrote the Constitution.  Often, though, it seems to me that we only give lip service to the fact that it was a very different world back then.

Whether we want to or not, we do need to reconcile these two things:  the original intent of the Framers, and the application of that intent in the modern world.

Back in the time of the Revolution, everybody understood that, in principle, everyone was in the militia.  This was because there were no police, and there was no army.   So when marauding Indians or hostile Frenchmen turned up outside a frontier town (say Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704), everyone was expected to turn out and put his life on the line to defend the community.

Without that levee en masse, to use the French term, nobody's life in a frontier community was worth a tinker's damn.

That was then.  Everybody was in the militia, and everybody should have a gun -- and know how to use it.

Fast forward to today.  Let's face it:  The idea that everybody's in the militia, subject to call at a moment's notice, has been dead for several centuries.  But the National Rifle Association still says that anybody can have a gun.  (It's in the Second Amendment.)

Wait, wait a minute.  Wasn't there a connection between militia service and gun ownership?  Well, as a historical matter, there was.  The two ideas were intimately intertwined.

But the Supreme Court has said never mind.  If you want a gun, you can have one anyway.

As for the militia thing -- well, never mind.  As a practical matter, it's not happening.  So why worry about it.

Here's where I beg to differ with Justice Scalia, and offer my own modest proposal.  (Justice Breyer was headed in my direction at the end of his dissent, but he didn't get there.  See page 28 of his dissent.)

Okay.  If you don't want to have a gun, and you don't own one, then you're not in the militia.  But if you do have a gun, then you're in the militia, and that "well-regulated" thing kicks in.  The modern version.  No muster, no drills.  But maybe some training to be required of all gun owners.  How to operate a gun.  How to unload a gun (people underestimate the importance of knowing how to unload a gun).  Maybe a little target practice (this is where the National Rifle Association got its start, a very long time ago).  The law of guns.  The continuum of force -- something that's drilled into police officers; the typical gun owner doesn't have a clue.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  With a gun comes responsibility.  The NRA and its adherents want guns without responsibility.  I don't think that works.  I don't think that's right.

All the words in the Second Amendment should have meaning today.  Not just some of them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

So what does the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral have to do with gun control laws? Quite a lot, it turns out. The Earps and their friend Doc Holliday were actually enforcing a local ordinance against the Clantons et al. -- an ordinance that prohibited the carrying of weapons in good old Tombstone, Arizona.

It turns out that quite a few Old West towns prohibited carrying guns.  I found out about this from Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA who has written a book called Gunfight:  The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America (W.W. Norton, 2011).

Winkler is middle of the road, as gun things go.  He's okay with the individual right to a gun -- the core of Justice Scalia's Supreme Court opinion -- but he begs to point out that gun control has been around as long as the right to have a gun.

He also points out that the fear of gun confiscation is not entirely a paranoid fantasy:  It has happened in this country.  From the early days of the Republic and on through Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan to Ronald Reagan and the Black Panthers, gun control laws were used to disarm blacks.

Which puts RR in the odd position of being a conservative saint who favored gun control while he was governor of California, saying, "There's no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons."  

The National Rifle Association also used to support gun control.  In the 1930's the organization's president, Karl T. Frederick, told Congress, "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns.  I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses."

Justice Scalia's opinion turns on the original intent of the framers of the Constitution, and Winkler points out that America in the late eighteenth century had all kinds of gun controls:  "At the time of the founding, laws required the armed citizenry to report with their guns to militia musters, where weapons would be inspected and the citizens trained.  Authorities often required that militia guns be registered.  There were laws requiring gunpowder to be stored safely, even though the rules made it more difficult for people to load their guns quickly to defend themselves against attack."

The history of guns in this country is complicated, and we need to look at the whole picture.  Justice Scalia didn't, and his opinion suffers from that.  He wrote that, unlike handguns, machine guns could be restricted because they are "dangerous and unusual weapons" that are not "in common use."  And he ignored the fact that the federal government effectively banned machine guns in the 1930's, so naturally there are not many of them in civilian hands.

Monday, May 13, 2013

W. Only Second Worst

So how bad a president was George W. Bush? He was asleep at the switch on 9/11. He led us into two wars, both of which he bungled badly. His contempt for the Constitution gave us Guantanamo and many other wounds that persist to this day. He was clueless and uninterested in the frailty of our financial system until the collapse was upon us.

His hatred of the worker and war on the middle class were standard Republican policies, which the party pursues to this day. In the interest of clarity, I set them aside.

So how bad was he, compared to other terrible presidents? He was worse than Grant, who badly fumbled the job but can offer his Civil War service in mitigation. Worse than Harding, who presided over the Teapot Dome scandal but did not lead us into war. Worse than Franklin Pierce, whose fecklessness certainly contributed to the coming of the Civil War. But I would say he was not worse than James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, who presided over the arrival of the Civil War, and basically did nothing.

So George W. is only our second-worst president, in my opinion.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

School of Arms

I've been thinking about how to inject guns into the Pa. governor's race, and I think I've come up with something that may have legs: a proposal that all persons seeking a concealed-carry permit be required to take a firearms training course.

At present the only requirement for a concealed-carry permit is a background check. Pennsylvania is a "shall issue" state, which means the authorities are required to issue a permit to anyone who passes the background check. (If memory serves, New Jersey is a "may issue" state, which means the authorities have some discretion.)

I wouldn't mess with the "shall issue" business -- it appears to be very important to gun lovers. But who can argue with a training course, especially after the George Zimmerman fiasco down in Florida?

Such a course already exists in Pa. If you want to carry a gun in connection with your employment -- for instance, you're a rent-a-cop -- you have to take and pass a 40-hour course.

There are schools -- the whole infrastructure already exists. All we need to do is require all people who want to walk around with a pistol in their pocket to take the course.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rush Hour at the Endorphin Factory

4/11/13.  I had an endorphin rush this morning.  Thursdays are usually an easy day for me.  I don't need to be anywhere until 9:30, and so I can turn the alarm off and wake up when I wake up.  This is usually about 6:30.

It's nice to wake up naturally.  I'm usually relaxed and in a good mood and looking forward to a day where I will probably do some things that matter, but without rushing.

The endorphin rushes are apparently a gift from running, but at this point they don't seem to be connected to running.  They show up when they want to, although I think being well-rested, relaxed, and happy helps.

Sometimes when I'm waking up I sense that I'm feeling particularly good, and as I gain consciousness I recognize that I'm in the middle of a rush.  It's important not to move.  I've found that any movement breaks the rush -- it disappears like a spiderweb, and then I might as well get up and have breakfast.

So I just lie there and have the experience.  It's a little difficult to describe.  The mind is very clear.  The body is very alive.  And coursing through every single fiber of my being is this incredible, palpable supply of wellness.

A gift from the pituitary gland, apparently, or at least that seems to be the primary source.  Or, frankly, it may not even be endorphins.  It may be something called anandamide.

I don't care what you call it.  I just know what happens.  And I'm a firm believer in the link to running.

I'm not convinced that I've ever had an actual runner's high, a euphoric state that occurs during a long run or after you stop.  But I have noticed some interesting things that happen to me at the end of marathons, and occasionally late in a long training run.

The definition of pain shifts.  I don't know if the pain actually becomes less, but it loses the ability to dictate what you do.  And time stops being something you measure with a clock.  It becomes I was back there, now I'm here, soon I will go there.  And sometimes it's just I am here.

If it's not endorphins, it's something that manages pain and reorients me to what matters.

And that's what happens to me every once in a while, on a Thursday morning or at some other random, unexpected time.  I can't summon it.  I can't schedule it.  I don't know when it's coming.  All I can do is pay attention when it shows up, and be grateful.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Send in the Englottogastors

I’ve hated the term wordsmith since I first saw it in a help-wanted ad in the New York Times, probably in the 1960’s.  It wasn’t the reference to craft – I often analogize writing to carpentry.  It was the flatness of the term.  There’s no resonance.

They were defining us – the bosses and their HR lackeys.  All of them with exquisitely shiny tin ears.

So I’ve decided to fight back.  Fond as I am of writer, editor – speaker, even – these times call for stronger stuff.  So, let’s send in the englottogastors.  Let them cleanse us of the wordsmiths, and possibly also the content managers, the repurposers, the people who brought us the squiggly macron (which I believe once again is the tilde).

It’s quite a few years ago now that I first ran across the englottogastors in Aristophanes’ The Birds.  The term made me laugh then, and it still does.

I remember mentioning it at the time to my daughter, Alicia.  But I made a mistake.  I thought they were eglottogastors.  Alicia loved it.  Later, I had doubts, went back and checked the text, and brought her the news.  It didn’t go well.  She preferred eglottogastors.  Ten-year-olds can be like that.  (Alicia says, “I still think eglottogastors sounds better.”  Hey, I’m not arguing.)

Anyway, the englottogastors show up in line 1694 ff., where the chorus is saying mean things about people like Gorgias, who make their living by wagging their tongues, rather than working with their hands.

Gorgias was one of the first practitioners of something called rhetoric, the art of persuasion.  I personally think that Aristophanes felt somewhat threatened by these rhetoric people.  After all, they were muscling in on the territory of the playwrights, who’d had a pretty clear field up until then, when it came to the wordsmith thing.

Aristophanes clearly intended englottogastor as a term of opprobrium.  But the odd thing, if you think about it, is that Aristophanes was himself an englottogastor.  He filled his belly by wagging his tongue – or, more accurately, causing actors’ tongues to wag.

So I say, let’s adopt the term with pride.  Fix bayonets and charge.  The same thing the Obama people have done with Obamacare.

I think it can apply to anyone who makes a living working with words – writers, lawyers, politicians – actors, certainly. 

Let us rejoice in this ridiculous appellation.  I think I may even get some new business cards printed.

Friday, April 5, 2013

It's Not Like Gunsmoke

Dodge City, Kansas, back in the cowboy days.  A tall, big-hatted man walks out into the dusty main street.  In the distance, another man squares off against him.  They draw.  They shoot.  Marshal Dillon wins.

This was the opening of Gunsmoke, a TV show starting back in the 1950's.  Every week, James Arness and the other guy faced one another honorably, according to unwritten but widely accepted rules.  And the best man won.

The Old West gunfight was often a lot messier and less honorable than the opening of Gunsmoke.  But the underlying idea was there:  the duel.

Historically, the duel was an affair of honor between two gentlemen.  Frequently, the gentlemen were quite young, and the dispute often revolved around the affections of a young lady.  But older men were available to make sure that the almost kabuki-like rules were observed.

The culture of dueling was very widespread years ago.  I've just finished reading Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, set in early nineteenth-century Russia.  Onegin flirts with his friend's beloved at a party; the friend challenges him to a duel; and Onegin shoots him dead.  Then he feels bad.  (Pushkin himself, the author, died in a duel in 1837.)

Probably the most famous American duel was between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.  At the time Burr was vice president of the United States.  Things did not go well for Mr. Hamilton.

During the nineteenth century, the duel petered out among the upper classes.  Nowadays, young men of good family play lacrosse instead.

But the idea, the little mini-movie, is still there.  When Wayne LaPierre of the NRA says the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, he's immediately taking us back to Dodge City.

The problem with this is that the age of chivalry is over.  People don't call you out into the street any more, to fight a fair fight, face to face.  They wait until you're tired, maybe distracted, maybe walking from your car to your front door.  And then they shoot you in the back.

If the other guy gets the drop on you, it doesn't matter whether you have a gun or not.  You're dead.  Bushwhacking 101.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The NRA and the Truth

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA said something on Meet the Press last Sunday that he shouldn't get away with, but it looks like he's getting away with it.

He was talking about the M16 rifle and its variants, which use a .223 (or 5.56 mm) cartridge. Using his usual "anybody that knows anything about firearms" ploy, he announced that the .223 was one of the smallest cartridges available, wasn't very powerful -- and he had no idea why people kept talking about large exit wounds.

I think he wants people to think the .223 is just like the .22 Long Rifle that kids used to shoot tin cans with, back in another world. A typical 40 grain .22 LR cartridge has an energy of 104 foot pounds of force. A 62 grain M16 cartridge has an energy of 1,303 foot pounds. The 9 mm Parabellum pistol cartridge -- the round you're most likely to be shot with in Philadelphia -- has an energy of 420 foot pounds.

It's true that the .30-06 rifle round, used in World War II's M1 rifle, typically has an energy of 2,820 foot pounds. The Browning .50 caliber machine gun round typically has an energy of 13,144 foot pounds. This is used in sniper rifles as well as machine guns.

So, yes, there are more powerful rifles out there. But the M16 was designed specifically to produce maximum mayhem at short ranges. It does this, first, by allowing the shooter to fire a lot of bullets quickly. Second, the round is designed to yaw and fragment in the victim's body. It's like inserting a small fragmentation bomb inside a human being and then exploding it.

And, yes, there are large exit wounds.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What Is to Be Done?

The new pope likes poor people.  I'm glad.  I just hope he's able to see them as individuals.

I think a lot of people tend to see the poor as a herd.  What happens when that happens?

Let's say we're out in the middle of America, in the middle of the nineteenth century.  There are all these buffalo (bison actually).  Wolf packs always knew what to do with the buffalo -- eat them if you can catch them.  The railroads came along and didn't like the buffalo standing on their tracks.  So they had a chat with the buffalo hunters.

Extermination is no longer considered politically correct when the victim is defenseless.  Exploitation, however, remains a gray area.  And, boy, do we exploit the herd of the poor.

That's not usually what you hear about the poor, of course.  Exploited masses, my goodness, that sounds like Karl Marx (and we know he's bad).  No, we demonize them.  I don't think the language about "the criminal classes" is still current, but we don't need to go beyond Johnny Cash's song "Welfare Cadillac" to get an idea of the way many people see the poor.

It would help if we could see the poor as individuals -- fallible, certainly; grasping, every once in a while; vicious, yes, there are a few; trying to navigate through a difficult life, perhaps to know love and find some happiness, yes, there are many.  I think I could walk into a bank on Wall Street and see the same picture (plus money).

The poor are not The Other.  They're people.  They're individuals.  We need to see them. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Refusing Social Security

Here's another story from my father.  It happened at a cocktail party, possibly in our apartment on 79th Street in Manhattan.  Or it could have been at the Donahues', downstairs.  I found myself, along with other children, at such parties with some regularity.  And it was definitely better than the home alone thing, watching television.  In fact, it was a whole lot better than television.

Daddy was talking with a friend about an older colleague who was very opposed to Social Security.  Opposition to Social Security is pretty much a fringe thing nowadays, but it's important to remember that this wasn't always so.

Anyway, Daddy teed the story up pretty nicely -- he was a golfer, after all.  The older colleague, never a fan of President Roosevelt or the New Deal, had often proclaimed in the doctors' cloakroom at the hospital that he would never, ever collect Social Security benefits under any circumstances.

Here's the kicker.  The older colleague had recently retired.  And, yes -- very quietly -- he had begun to collect Social Security benefits.

I think that's how social welfare gets accepted in this country.  The Foghorn Leghorns never climb down from their fiercely held positions.  They just quietly collect.

I think this was the night that I looked at my father's hands -- they were probably about eye-height -- and actually saw them.  He was a surgeon.  His hands looked like boiled lobsters.  I looked at his friend, also a surgeon apparently, and his hands also looked like boiled lobsters.

Decades later I was on a train somewhere between New York and Philadelphia, talking to a very nice R.N. who sold medical supplies.  I asked her about my father's hands, and she smiled.  Contact dermatitis from all the scrubbing in.  Occupational hazard.  These guys literally had their skin in the game.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Where Not to Drive Your Rolls-Royce

My father told me this story.  He was a doctor.  We lived on the East Side of Manhattan, where the tone of genteel prosperity was pervasive.  Daddy worked on the West Side of Manhattan, where things were a bit different, back in the 1950’s.

Central Park lies between East and West, and, to make things easier for people like my father, there are a number of transverse roads (I think we used to call them “cuts” because they run largely in trenches below ground level). 

One of these cuts leaves Central Park at 97th Street and Central Park West.  Thanks to urban renewal, 97th Street is quite wide as it heads toward Columbus Avenue.  This was a favorite route for Daddy and his doctor friends as they commuted to St. Luke’s Hospital.  They could go over to Amsterdam and turn right, or they could turn right on Central Park West.  St. Luke’s is less than a mile north on Morningside Heights, nestled in with Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. 

When I think of my father I often think of an old French movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.  Not for the movie, although it’s quite a good one, but for the title.

Daddy didn’t believe in showing off.  We lived well, but not extravagantly.  And that was on purpose.  You showed just enough for the world to see you as a member of the upper middle class.  And you didn’t show any more. 

Daddy drove a Buick.  He would never drive a Cadillac.  Too flashy by half.  One day he came home and told us that a very successful colleague had purchased a Rolls-Royce.  Daddy wasn’t one to criticize a colleague.  I imagine him shaking his head and chuckling, as he often did.

And then one day he came home and told us the story.  Again, it was not his way to take joy in the suffering of others.  Not so much as an I told you so.  Just a shake of the head and a rueful smile were enough for him.

As I recall, it was summer, and the nights had been warm.  Dr. Rolls-Royce had been on his way to the hospital at the end of the day to see his patients.  This was called “evening rounds.”  He drove through Central Park and emerged on to 97th Street, where it appeared that an informal street party was going on.

As I mentioned, the street here is quite wide, so it’s a natural place for a crowd to gather.  You can put a lot of people on the asphalt and still have room for cars to get through. 

Perhaps it was a very large crowd.  Or perhaps people looked at the car and felt unmotivated about moving out of the way.  I don’t know.  But Dr. Rolls-Royce found himself having trouble getting down the block.  Rumor has it he may have honked his horn once or twice.  Then he accidentally bumped someone.  And the next thing he knew, strong hands were pulling him from his mobile castle and beating him.  Whaling the tar out of him would perhaps be an appropriate phrase.

I don’t actually know how all this was resolved.  Perhaps the police arrived.  I don’t know.  But Dr. Rolls-Royce managed to get out of there with his car, which apparently didn’t suffer so much as a scratch.  And when he got to the doctors’ cloakroom at the hospital, he waxed indignant for all to hear.

This story puts me in mind of a scene in the movie Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart says to Major Strasser, “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”

I think it was then that I began to understand there was more behind our lifestyle than simple modesty.  My father became a grownup during the wretched excess of the Roaring Twenties, and then he lived through the Great Depression and spent a few years touring Europe during World War II.  He’d seen a lot, and he knew when to keep his head down.

The rich of his time also seemed to have learned this lesson (with a few exceptions).  Then, somewhere perhaps in the Reagan administration, they forgot.  And I think we owe much of the more tedious aspects of our politics today to that forgetfulness.