Each Wage-Earner is Expected to Contract Covid AND “Tijuana”: A Review

Click to access NJP-Statement-Regarding-the-Obligation-to-Attend-Sunday-Mass_-July-15-2021.pdf

I promised to give this Catholic stuff a rest, and I will. I just want to to remind my readers that, in its infinite wisdom, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia expects you to attend Mass on Sundays in person starting August 15, 2021, the Feast of the Assumption. Nice. I think San Antonio has gotten with the program as well, but when did reality ever interfere with the sacral intentions of the Roman Catholic Church? We made JP II Santo Subito although he was cognizant of the cloud hanging over the abuser, Cardinal McCarrick. Not to mention the Legion of Mary’s Marcial Maciel, a real dirtball, even by Vatican standards. Can we decanonize someone? Deprive them of the Beatific Vision? Instead, we instruct the faithful to return to the pews–pray, pay and obey–even as the Delta variant of Covid II is just getting rolling. It gives new meaning to the old phrase, “Vatican Roulette.” That was the informal name we gave the “I’ve got rhythm” method of birth control under which a good number of Catholic boomers were conceived. Never mind. It’s something or other over the dam. This game of chance is about the end of life, not its frantic beginnings.

Actually, my intention is to give you a brief but professional summary of the Netflix series, “Tijuana.” When I say professional, I mean coming from someone who not only studies Mexican history, but who generally likes Mexican films. Mexico, with its distinctive cultural personality, is easily subject to caricature. Mexican film makers are as susceptible to the temptation to caricature as any–“they are in love with catsup,” a friend of mine says, euphemizing the B-movies penchant for blood and gore. “Tijuana” is, for the most part, an exception. If anything, it goes overboard in its effort to establish some novel positive cliches–like the crusading press, hungering for truth. It’s also awfully, sometimes pointlessly, long. And quite predictably, when the going gets slow, someone gets their rocks off or shows a little skin. At one point, ugh, accompanied by a saxophone solo. C’mon guys. No one does that any more, guys. I mean use the sexophone that way.

It’s also pretty funny to read one of those boilerplate notices on screen that “Tijuana”, which was filmed in Tijuana, is not supposed to bear any resemblance to any real place, person or thing. So I’m supposed to imagine this takes place in Peoria? And the politicans are local Rotarians? Dumb. Another cliche.

I may get into hot water with the four or five people who take the time to read this, but the series struct me as unimpeachably chairo. Neta, as the Mexicans say, chairo has no exact translation (“neta”: long story short, doesn’t either). Chairo, in contemporary Mexico, is a rather derogatory term for someone who is an unconditional supporter of left-wing populism, especially the brand retailed by the President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Or just plain AMLO. Or Andres Manuel. One of the nastiest scenes in “Tijuana” involves a struggling lesbian photojournalist, Malu, trying to explain her work from an exposition mounted by her partner, a gallery owner, who caters to what Mexicans now term “gente fifi” (accent on the second fi). Fifi comes out much the same way in Mexico as “Alamo Heights Blonde” rolls off my lips. A contemptuous way of characterizing intellectual wannabees who have more money or silicone than brains, or who take their pet ocelots for walks in once-fashionable Polanco. You know, vulgar. And obnoxious. “Tijuana” seemed unimpeachably chairo, if only because its central character, Antonio Borja, the crusading newspaper editor, is played–and well played–by Damian Alcazar.

Alcazar is a major star in Mexico, and he’s made a lot of films. The ones I’ve seen are well known: “La Ley de Herodes,” “Infierno,” and “La Dictadura Perfecta.” In “La Dictadura,” he plays a thuggishly corrupt, not to say murderous northern governor, who climbs the greasy pole of Mexican–especially PRI–politics by collaborating with an equally corrupt broadcast network (Televisa a clef, for cognoscenti) in a staged kidnapping of a the twin girls of a middle class, very white couple (if you think race in the USA is complicated, try Mexico) on his way to the Presidency. Alcazar plays a pig, no kinder way to put it, closely matched by those of the slim suit crowd from psuedo-Televisa, whose “journalistic” ethics are precisely what the ratings would dictate. Venal. I hadn’t realize that Alcazar was involved in AMLO’s MORENA (it means sort of dark skinned, among other things) all purpose political movement. Learning that he was put “Tijuana” into perspective. You know, so that’s what’s going on.

Neta, the main theme around which “Tijuana” revolves is the murder of a reformist “PTI” (PRI) candidate for governor by dark forces. What dark forces? Ho boy, take your pick. Narcos. Right-wing businessmen. Rival politicians. All of the above? This is what I would call a “Colosio-scenario”, the murder of the PRI presidential candidate in 1994 by said dark forces who feared he might put Mexico on a more virtuous, clearly less criminally profitable path. The PRI had a history of killing off ambitious reformers, although plane crashes had been the favored means (eg Carlos Madrazo, 1969, whose name is now a pun so dark I couldn’t possibly explain it). In this case, the reformist candidate was a union leader from out of the maquiladoras of the Otay Mesa, who simply got gunned down in the company of an aspiring and idealistic reporter, Gabriela, who ends up working for Borja. She is, truth be told, a reckless idiot, who manages to get the newspaper headquarters shot up as a warning that it’s not nice to fool with Dark Forces. Borja knows that, but then again, he values truth and courage and stuff. The reporter is the daughter Borja never had, because his son, Andy, is a spoiled brat (called a “nini” in Mexico, as in “neither a student nor employed”) who likes drinking, sex and working for a character named Mueller who bears a striking physical resemblance to a former mayor of…..you guessed, Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon. (Mueller is a gambling tycoon; so was Hank Rhon). A subplot revolves around Andy’s feckless efforts be an investigative cinema guy whom Borja ends up disowning. I guess family estrangement must be a thing in Mexico with this generation, but Andy, dimly self-aware that he is a jerk, elicits little sympathy. In fact, at a climactic moment in “Tijuana” when Borja is in mortal danger, Andy is bogeying the night away with his Gabriela, the pseudo-daughter. If you sense all kinds of Freudian crap going on here, join the club. I do economic history and would have no idea.

Interestingly, Borja has a friendly relation with a Catholic priest. No, he doesn’t attend Mass. No, he doesn’t ask for absolution in Confession. They play chess (cue heavy symbolism) and the priest, who seems awfully grown up and world weary, gives Borja advice. As usual, walking into a Catholic Church in Mexico can get you into deep trouble. I’ll let it go at that, cause I don’t want to be a spoiler.

Alcazar/Borja plays against type in this series, a decent, serious journalist who cares about truth, justice, and the Mexican Way. He has some good supporting characters, including Lalo, a functioning alcoholic and senior reporter, who has the inevitable heart of gold as well as the sketch police contacts. I kept thinking he reminded me of someone I actually knew, but I’m sure the suspect wouldn’t be pleased.

Netflix is also currently running a broadcast about Manuel Buendia, probably the first reporter rubbed out in Mexico for truly pissing off narcos. It’s pretty good, and you can get a sense of just how dangerous a profession journalism in Mexico has become. Once upon a time, reporters were mostly in the pay of the government, unless they fouled up big time. One of them, Carlos Denegri, is the subject of a very recent novel, and most interesting. He was not a nice man, but perhaps more representative of his type than Antonio Borja, who is sort of a cross between Ben Bradlee and Julio Scherer. If you have the time, you could probably find worse uses for it than “Tijuana”. Or you could read a book.

Altar Boyz

Enough of the “I survived a Catholic childhood” right? True enough. I’ll say no more. But after all the cynicism and all the cliches, I thought I might take a serious pass at the whole business one last time. This inspired by the current flap in the Church about the “extraordinary form” of the Mass, otherwise known as the “Latin Mass”. If you are RC and younger than 55, you may want to skip over the entire business. You may have never heard a Latin Mass. If you did, you may have had no idea what was going on since the entire performance differs quite a bit from what the people in the pews hear today when they attend Mass.

And this is not about carrying a torch for a antiquated rite that is apparently yet another flashpoint for Old Style versus Woke Catholics. I confess my sympathies for the Old Style types, in part along aesthetic grounds. I always thought that the post-Vatican II rite in English was lame, from the choice of music to the hip vestments the celebrant now wore. Maybe the older guys were sending me to Eternal Damnation every week or so in Confession, but they seemed to appreciate they had a duty to point out the proverbial slippery slope in the moral life. To the extent that I think about what we termed categories of degrees of sin, venial and mortal, I owe it to the pre-Vatican Church and its shock troops. And mostly to my apprenticeship as an altar boy. I wasn’t good enough to make the CYO football team, but on Good Friday, I kicked ass at the Superbowl of Ceremonies where we prayed for the perfidious heathens. Those were the days. Now we are the perfidious heathens.

At some parochial schools, the really big city ones, getting to be an altar boy (there were no….girls) was a stiff competition, sort of like getting into Notre Dame. There was none of that at Prisontation. There weren’t that many of us, so Fr. Whoever had to pretty much take what he could get. That included the likes of my late, lamented friend Hornet, who inevitably screwed up even the ordinary ceremonies of daily mass. Shessh, Hornet couldn’t even manage to shake a decent sound out of the consecration bells. Talk about no chops. He inevitably rolled in wearing a wrinkled cassock and surplice, and he once produced a two-toned ceremony with me vested in red and old Hornet in black. The celebrant was not amused, seeing as how there was no conceivable explanation for the happy/sad combo. Talk about getting the ray from on high. It was a good thing it was at 7 AM on a winter’s morning, because only the truly devout were there. They didn’t really care, or joined me in mute amusement. They knew we were going to catch Holy Hell afterward.

But actually, this is about the truly devout, rather than about our slaughtering lingua Latina or nearly setting ourselves on fire whenever we were in the neighborhood of good old beeswax candles, not these feeb electric things in use today. Yeah, we messed up a lot, especially when we had to switch from the Latin dative to accusative in the Confiteor. One of the poor parish priests used to wince as we interchanged the two, which must have been like playing out of tune around a musician who had perfect pitch. Beatae Mariae….beatam Mariam semper virgine (-ae, -a), right, whatever. After all, this was a commemoration of the Crucifixion, and if it was Fr. Flaherty on the Cross, well, tough incense. It’s not like we were working on Cicero. Besides, no one took as much altar wine at 7:10 AM as that guy did. But you could see why he drank.

What I really wanted to write about were two very different people I remember at early Mass. And if you think I’m exaggerating, remember, we are talking sixty years after the events. So they made some impression on altar boy Salvucci.

One of them was a physician. I do remember his name, but I’d prefer not to use it, even though he’s now long departed. He was a daily communicant, which means he attended Mass every day and received the sacrament of the Eucharist. Even in the old days, this was no small thing, especially at 7 AM. It meant you were fasting, so no Tastycake beforehand. And, it meant you were in a state of grace. This was pretty impressive to a Catholic kid hitting puberty, because I couldn’t walk down the street and stay in a state of grace, or so I thought. Like Jimmy Carter said, you sinned in your heart, frequently, which was the same as actually…..Any event, it was a pretty rigorous program even for a devout Catholic, and not too many could manage it.

The doctor’s appearance was striking. He was about 5’7″ or so. He was olive skinned and not handsome, but boyish looking, probably in his late 30s or early 40s. He inevitably wore a dark jacket, white shirt and a tie, which was the only part of him you could see him kneeling. And he was crew cut, not quite military style, but a brush cut. What I remember about him was his face. It was like something out of a baroque painting, you know. How the artists manage to create an impression of light radiating from the canvas, usually centered on the principal figure’s face. He was like that. He looked straight ahead, with his eyes slightly elevated. He wasn’t trying to look pious or anything. In fact, he looked some combination of inquisitive, surprised and interested, watching the old Tridentine rite Mass–which could be pretty mundane at that hour of the day–but into it, really. No, he wasn’t obviously talking to the Man, but he was getting charged up for the day. Some people did it on coffee and cigarettes, but this guy did it with daily Mass. I don’t think I consciously envied him, but I do remember telling his daughter, whom I slightly knew–and this was years later–that I could see him as clearly as if the whole scene had played out the day before. And that was the truth. All I can say is, if you were his patient, you were both lucky and blessed. If he took medicine as seriously as he did Catholicism–and I suspect he did, because he was active in a Catholic doctors’ group in Philly–you were in good hands. I suppose you may be rolling your eyes and thinking he was as likely to be some tortured physician working out the principle of double effect on some poor pregnant Catholic girl in a novel like “The Cardinal,” and maybe he was. But this guy just radiated serenity. Man, what a gift.

One of the perks of being an altar boy at Prisontation was you got detailed to other gigs in the immediate neighborhood. The prize assignment was a bit of work, at least for me, because it involved a week of getting myself to the Convent of the Sacred Heart at City Line and Haverford for a week at 6:30 or 7:00 AM once every couple of months. (Note: It is now a Jewish Community Center) This was not a terribly long hike. In the Spring, it was, in fact, delightful, because you got to smell the azaleas and morning glories on the way from my home. But winters–and yes, there were winters in those days, dude: I know, because I’ve gone back and checked the records–man, that was another story. Dark, cold, windy, even snowy sometimes, and getting to the Convent was no fun.

Once you were there, though, man, it was another world. The nuns were not cloistered. In fact, they ran a convent school for girls, some of whom were resident there. Talk about mixed feelings. Here you are trying to look cool for the ladies while you’re wearing a dress, which was not easy to pull off. And you couldn’t stare either, especially at communion, when you got to approach some goddess who would never look twice at you in real life. The chapel looked like something out of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with carved woodwork and a sort of medieval choir, even though I think the place was built in the 1920s. The famous Mexican author Elena Poniatowska attended school there, before my time I gather. So did a well known radio personality on the WMMR of my later days, who went by the name Shelley. Maybe some of you will remember if you wrack your brains hard enough. Anyway, she was also part of the show, so I knew her when, sort of. But back to Elena and Mexico.

In those days, I didn’t know Mexico from Margate, NJ, so I never drew any connections. But the nun who watched over our altar boyly efforts was named Mother Mejilla. Man, she was a pill. Her name aside, I now figure she was probably Mexican, maybe even a refugee from the bad old days of Calles and stuff, because she was incessantly correcting our foul ups–you know, failure to go to the right spot, being asleep at the switch for the Canon of the Mass, that sort of thing, deking the celebrant into the wrong move on the altar–with a loudly audible “Tsssssssssssssss” that sounded liked one of the pipes in the chapel had burst. She must’ve done that at least three times a day, and recently, it hit me that this is a classic Mexican gesture of disapproval. But, like, I was from South-West-near suburban Philly, so how was I supposed to know that in 1963? I now wonder if there wasn’t some kind of pipeline to Mexico with the Order on the Sacred Heart Nuns? It would’ve never occurred to me then.

But this is all prologue. What I recall most of all was an ancient nun who received communion every day, which was not so unusual for a nun, after all. I guess even Mother Mejilla did, between hisses. But this one was different. She had to have been in her eighties then, maybe even more, because even though I was a young kid, she looked genuinely old. When she knelt at the rail–and the communion rail was a beautiful, marble topped affair, if I remember correctly–that’s where the magic happened. We’d go from person to person with the celebrant intoning “Corpus Domini” and the attendants, exclusively women, all had their own style. Some lingered a moment, some arose immediately, some averted their gaze, and one or two of the students brazenly made eye contact (no, unfortunately, not Shelley). But this one nun, I never learned her name, my God, I think I actually saw someone go into ecstasy at Communion. I mean that literally. The beatific smile that transformed her face was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Her eyes were closed and she was gone somewhere else. Even a dopey kid like me knew that. You know all that stuff you read about angels descending to the altar and the rest that the regular nuns dished out in religion class. Well, for this one, I’m pretty sure it actually happened. She just went into rapture. I could never hang around long enough to follow up, because by the time we had finished, she had gone back to her pew. Where I am certain she had her daily chat with My Lord and Saviour, for real. Man, I never got over it. It didn’t spook me or anything, but it clued me into the fact that for some believers, this was no game. I wish I could have talked to her now, but stupid me, I never even asked. No, I was too busy fending off the audible wrath of Mother Mejilla.

Mother Mejilla. The young doctor. The ancient nun. For too many Catholics of my generation, the Church was Mother Mejilla, all fussy rules and empty gestures to satisfy some pantocratic God that only a truly deranged person could worship, even then. You know, the kind who wanted to see a nuclear war break out so she could see Jesus coming on the Cloud, because it had to be the end of the World. Meanwhile, the people we should have been learning from we barely knew. Think about it. I still do. It explains a lot.

We Deserve The Truth, Dammit

Back in the Fall, I said to a friend of mine that I was afraid we were spiraling out of control in the United States. That we were headed toward violence. That I prayed to God there were still a few grownups left in the house. And that I had never been as depressed by what I had seen going in America. I lived through the Cuban missile crisis, scared to death. I lived through Watergate, angrier than Hell. And I lived through the disgrace of Reagan’s murderous intervention in Central America. I didn’t feel as if I could face my friends in Latin America. Oh, guess where most of my friends live? You’re not surprised, are you. I left Southeastern Pennsylvania 40 years ago. I have notional loyalties there, but my heart is somewhere else. And it ain’t in Texas.

Anyone who had spent much time reading the history of the twentieth century, or who had lived in Latin America–not visited–but lived–would’ve understand why I and more than a few of my remaining USA-friends were growing increasingly apprehensive.

There was–and is, by the way–the Pandemic. It’s not over, but that’s not for today. The sheer incompetence with which the Trump administration handled events–the denial, the lying, the self-deception, the partisan chest pounding, and the callous disregard for human life–was enough to make anyone sick, whether they claimed to be “very political” or not. I often wondered how some people would’ve reacted to the Nazi take-over in Germany. “Oh, sorry, I’m not interested. I’m not very political.” Not a good look is it?

And then there was the famous violation of “norms.” While it was never entirely clear who established the political norms that the Trump Administration was said to be violating (I had the amused suspicion that The Atlantic Magazine may have codified them), it was pretty clear that if, by violation of norms, the President of the United States would say or do anything in pursuit of maintaining his clique of gangsters in power, blood relations or no, then he’d do it. Subvert the Justice Department. Why not? Corrupt the Judiciary? Ok. Destroy the professional bureaucracy needed to manage a complex country in the midst of severe financial and ecological crises? Hell, yes. And most of all, whip its ignorant supporters into a frenzy of misogyny, racism, jingoism, all in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Sure. Go ahead. As JR Ewing once famously said, “Once integrity is gone, the rest is easy.” Welcome to America as Nightmare Theater. Enjoy the ride, if you can. Trump will keep the right people out of the country, and he’ll be sure that the right people get to hold on to their wealth, because, after all, that’s why he was President. It’s not as if he stood for anything palatable.

One of the particularly disgusting features of this little odyssey is its complete predictability. Early on in the sideshow, I can recall having one of those typically feckless FB conversations with a very old friend of mine, Gabriel Haslip Viera, who is a distinguished student of the Caribbean and knows a little history, or at least much as a PhD from Columbia University is likely to get from our mutual dear friend, Herb Klein. Gabe and I go back to the 1970s, and while we don’t agree on everything, our disagreements are of the old-fashioned, “Well, I take your point” kind. Both of us were deeply worried about Trump, and one of us, I don’t know who, brought up Hitler and the Reichstag. The thread went something like, so when do you thing Mr Trump is going to pull his Reichstag act? Who knew, other than there was pretty certain to be one, because Trump was Trump. Well, you would’ve thought we took the name of God in vain, especially in some quarters. I had to laugh the other night when I saw [ that the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apparently said “This is a Reichstag moment,” (Gen.) Milley told aides… “The gospel of the Führer.”

What can you expect from pigs but grunts? It was like watching the assault on the Capitol on January 6. Was I surprised? No. Trump and some of his minions in Congress had done everything but tell these lowlifes to go out and kill someone. Liz Cheyney’s reported reaction to Jim Jordan, “SOB, you fucking did this” is exactly correct. What the Hell did you expect? I used to tell some of my academic colleagues, “You play with rats, you get bit.”

Congressperson Cheyney, of course, has raised the 64,000 dollar question. “You did this.” You did this can, of course, be susceptible of diverse interpretation. I don’t think Jordan was actually out there with the creatures of the night looking to lynch Mike Pentz, was he? But then again, to create an atmosphere in which violence and insurrection is possible, what exactly do you have to do? Stroll down the land with a clench fist raised in sympathy with “the people” as one United States Senator actually did? Isn’t that encouraging rioters by signalling “I’m with you”? Or is simply encouraging not enough? I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not really certain how one becomes a co-conspirator in an insurrection, so perhaps a lawyer could explain this to me? Or if you give a tour to a group who show up as rioters a few days later–after you helpfully point out means of ingress and egress, you know, soft spots in the otherwise impregnable defenses of of the Capitol, well, are you just as culpable as the dude who used as flagpole as a deadly weapon? I don’t know.

I do know one Big Thing. We need to get to the bottom of this. Insurrection is no joke. It’s not a day of fun and games for bored Know Nothings. Or their facilitators, whether they are in the Legislative or the Executive or the Judicial . It is a federal crime, and it has to be rooted out and prosecuted. The people behind what happened–all of them–have to be exposed, tried, and if appropriate, convicted. The people engaged in this rebellion have to know that their civil existence in at stake. They have to know that you make a deliberate choice to exclude yourself from civil society if the rules of the game don’t suit you and you try to change them extra-judicially. Permanently. It’s not going to stop otherwise. Look at Texas. Look at the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The Republican Party has here–and elsewhere–undertaken a program of deliberate rescission of voting rights. The right that makes democracy ostensibly operative. That’s because they know they can’t win in a fair fight. So they don’t scruple about arranging an unfair one. Reality–the correspondence of existing things to their perceived status–no longer matters to them. It’s about power and wealth and holding on to them by any means possible. In Latin America, they used to call it the death rattle of the ruling class.

Welcome to Latin America.

Act accordingly. And wake the Hell up. Or it will happen again. And next time we may not be so lucky.

Come Fly With Me

The average market capitalization of Virgin Galactic Holdings over the past five years was approximately 2.8 billion dollars. If we look at the economic cost of Project Mercury over its life, and using the “Measuring Worth” internet site, which is fairly sophisticated, and convert 1965 dollars into 2020 values, we come out with roughly 8 billion dollars. Tomorrow, when a gazillion more or less sophisticated talking heads–probably less–are waxing eloquent over Mr Branson’s achievement, the Virgin’s market capitalization will probably jump to 14 billion dollars are so.

Think about it.

Not to take anything away from Mr Branson–it may not have been Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight of 60 years ago, but we’ve all seen what can go wrong with these stunts–it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the cost of getting up into the wild blue yonder has really come down. In 1965, they figured it cost roughly 383 million per flight to get a dude into space, a la project Mercury. Virgin Galactic is currently asking 250 thousand per seat. Yeah, you got that right. Basically zilch in Project Mercury terms. So the next time someone tells you prices never come down, they only go up, you might want to gently correct him or her. John Glenn never had it so good.

Now, I know, Glenn and Shepard had space capsules, for Heaven’s sake. Glenn was taking a wild ride on an Atlas Missile that could have well blown up. Hell, it’s general purpose was to rain nuclear Hell down on the USSR, and it looked it. Clunky, kludge, mean, smoking at every orefice. By comparison, Branson’s buggy looks like a modified Cessna riding a rocket engine. Not only does it not radiate testosterone from its phallic bluntness, but it even carried two women. What is this world coming to? Next thing you know, we’ll have a MickeyD on Mars, for those Big Mac Attacks that sneak up on you when you’re looking wistfully back at Planet Gaia. Just wait.

Anyway, you immediately notice that there appears to be a lot less overhead associated with Virgin than there was with NASA. I always had the impression that NASA and its appendages had more of a relation with the military than I wanted to think about, and if there was any part of the government that knew had to spend money, well, they didn’t call it Pentagon capitalism for nothing. Branson, as far as I know, has got none of that. I don’t think his Mission Control is set up for interplanetary travel quite yet. It’s more like a high tech theme park for high rollers, Astro Hertz or something. They put you in the driver’s seat, and, oh, the wonderful places you will go.

But there’s another, I guess, more serious point to be made about the declining cost of fly me to the moon. NASA and its crew cut military pilots and German scientists could only take so much technology off the shelf. Not being an expert in this stuff, I can only interpret some of the horrendous screw ups that occurred as evidence of just that. Branson’s earlier efforts involved a few lives. As late as the Space Shuttle, people were working at the frontiers of technology, and when you’re out there, the costs are high. Rockets explode. Capsules have short circuits and go up in flames. People (like Gus Grissom) die. I don’t know how close we really came to losing Apollo 13, but whenever I read sensational stories about Russian cosmonauts who ended up on a one-way trip to God knows where–and may still be going half a century later–I tend to think were may have been good, but we were also lucky. I could never understand the idea of sending an elementary school teacher into space for grins. Christa McAuliffe would’ve stood a better chance in the classroom, for a change. At least you can see it coming.

I can’t tell you exactly how much technology Virgin Galactic has been able to make use of as a result of not being a pioneer, with all due respect. I assume that whole business of command, control and communication is now pretty much “routine” as opposed to what it was back in the exciting days when you wondered if a capsule coming down in the ocean would ever respond, let alone sink. Someone told me once that a high-end laptop has more computing power that we used to send guys to the Moon. If that’s true, well, go back and read the story of the first moon landing and the malfunctioning computer that made the last 30 seconds to one small step exciting (little did we know). I’m not saying it doesn’t take guts, brains and a lot of nerve to go up in Branson’s Beautiful Balloon. But it’s nothing like what had to be done from scratch years ago. And for that, you can thank the military-industrial-aerospace complex. Branson ought to be giving some of us free rides. After all, in some ways, he’s getting one.

So when you hear all the grousing from certain quarters about government overreach, how the government is the enemy, builds bridges to nowhere, and all that, you might want to think again. About the Internet; civilian airliners, especially from Boeing; GPS, and now, for God’s sake, affordable space travel. It’s not a joke. The worst kept secret in economics–and even some big names like Ed Phelps seem to miss it–is how much the government and its economic spillovers have contributed to a rising civilian standard of living in the United States, and the world, in the last century.

You have a degree in Entrepreneurship? Oh Goody. Now all you need is for someone to show you the money and make sure the property rights in your creation are secure. And then, you too can be a “self-made” person. Just like Richard Branson. Maybe Branson will turn ought to be another Wilbur or Orville Wright. But it’s not like anyone is going to know for at least another century, so for God’s sake, let History decide.

My apologies if this is sort of a duplicate. Technical difficulties here.

Prisontation BVM

Man, some stuff you never forget.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see it. There was this kid, a ratty little dude with short black hair. He was wearing our regs, maroon jacket and gray slacks. He was sort of bent over with his hands raised over his head as if to fend off an incoming blow. Which was real enough. Behind him stood an irate Sister of Mercy, who was in the process of bringing down a corkboard over his head. As she connected, the damn thing fragmented into three of four pieces. The kid went running down the aisle as if he had been shot out of a cannon. The rest of us sort of ducked to avoid the shrapnel. The nun was bellowing something about the kid getting a month’s detention.

Who knows what the Hell he did? Maybe he flashed Sister (known usually as S’ter) the Bird? All I can tell you is that at least two of my classmates ended up in prison, two ended up dead (there was overlap), and various others in adjacent classes got indicted, murdered, God only knows. And all of this in a nice suburban Catholic school that opened in 1954 and was gone by, I guess, 1985. Sic transit gloria mundi. Welcome to my grade school. A training ground for Vietnam. My theory was that parochial school was like prep basic for the Marines. That’s why so many Catholic kids enlisted in the Corps. How could it have been any worse?

You know, it’s really no mystery to me why so many Catholics of my generation have, as they say, “lapsed.” I love that term. It’s like the validity of product date somehow expired; having Sister Mary Godzilla only worked to keep the mojo going for so long. Then you’d stop going to Mass and taking the sacraments, unless something else intervened. Like, maybe, a Catholic secondary school or, even a university. Somehow I don’t think so. Even the lifers I know have mostly fallen away–another term of apostate art–when Agustine and Aquinas had ostensibly replaced the Baltimore Cathechism as the basis for your faith, or when you no longer thought about your immortal soul as a spotted milk bottle (mixed metaphors much?). Well, it seems not to have worked that way. PPSD–Post Parochial Stress Disorder is a powerful thing. It takes more than a few good Jesuits or Augies to cure it. Frankly, they sometimes suffered from it too, and their example only served to make your case worse. In my case, I’m not sure watching Phil Berrigan and Liz McAllister at a Villanova study date in 1970–did they or didn’t they, only their confessor knew for sure–much helped the cause. Or knowing the head of your secondary school, a tough as nails Hungarian, took off with his secretary the year you graduated (1969). You know, you were raised in this amazingly rules-bound culture, and clerical nookie was definitely breaking all the rules. It didn’t help strengthen your faith, even if it really had nothing to do with it. Huh? The 60s didn’t help? No, they certainly didn’t, especially when you started out in the pre-Vatican system.

In any event, parochial school–Prisontation ICBM, I called it–surely didn’t help. Nor did the Sisters of, hold my beer, Mercy. I started life as a child of Saint Donato’s, 65th and Callowhill, which was Italian and familial and stuff, even if the Cabrini nuns belted you if you spoke Italian. That really wasn’t an issue for my assimilationist parents, so unlike Lino Gruglio, who may have lost a set of canines in my presence for swearing in Tuscan, I never got whacked. I can still recite the St Donato’s song, word for word. I won’t try your patience, but “Hail to the Blue and Gold, Colors So True”. Prisontation had a song, but I’ve represssed it. Louie, Louie tends to come to mind, cause we thought it was dirty and chanted it to the Girls’ Choir practice when the minders were distracted. Honest to God. It goes well to the melody of Tantum Ergo. Try it some time.

Now, I’m not really sure why Prisontation was such a nasty place, although I think that it was cafone had something to do with it. Now, cafone is not a nice word among Italian Americans of a certain generation: it literally means “peasant” or something close, but to me, it meant loud, vulgar, ignorant, probably nouveau, stuck up, and, God forbid, maybe even some mixed Irish-Italian family suffering from terminal identity disorder. There were a lot of nasty cafone kids at Prisontation, many with serious behavioral disorders. For some reason, a lot of them were the offspring of builders’ families, probably because they had a few bucks and could afford to live in Greenhill Farms rather than Penn Wynne, the other side of Haverford Road that was once part of, I believe, the old Morris-Wister estate. They, as my Mom said “put on airs.” The girls thought they were too cool for us (the opposite of the contemporary “hot”) and their brothers were bound for Malvern Prep, Notre Dame, or prison. Sometimes all of the above. A few were genuine thugs, and one got rubbed out in what I’m sure was probably a drug related collections problem.

The ones who weren’t thuggish were generally not too bright. There was one kid, known as Hornet, who came to a very bad end. Poor guy. When we were having open review for “Diocesan Exams” once, there was a question about William Penn’s religious affiliation–Philly, right? The guy sitting next to Hornet slipped him a note telling him Penn was a Member of Tribe (of Israel). We had a lay teacher that year who scared the Hell out of most of us. Well, she asked Hornet, right, and he pipes up with “A Jew.” William Penn. Oh, man. She hit the roof because she thought Hornet was being deliberately disrespectful, and not just ignorant, and started yelling at him and threw him out of the room. This also happened when another kid (deliberately, I think) mispronounced Chicago as “Shee-Cah-Go” (accent first syllable). Another bold, brazen article who got banished, loudly. Of course the rest of us were laughing ourselves silly, and when you got 43 miscreants in a room, things will get out of control. This warder went around whacking kids with a yardstick until a respectful silence prevailed. This was about 1963 or 64, and that’s the way they rolled in those days.

The other thing about cafone kids was they didn’t take religion seriously enough, which I’m sure they got from their uber-cafone parents. And if you had to take anything seriously in Catholic school, it had better be religion. All the way from “Who Is God?” to “Why was Cardinal Mindszenty holed up in the American Embassy in Budapest.” I could write a book on the theology of parochial schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but it would be too depressing. Better I tell you about Hornet’s wisdom on Mindszenty. We were told by Sister that the Russians kept a car fueled and running outside the American Embassy, just waiting for the Cardinal to step out, since he had sought asylum there. So the nun asked us why it was they kept the car with the motor running (who knew)? Hornet’s bold sally: “To keep the heat on?” Holy God. You would have thought, well, God knows what, but once again teacher flipped on the poor kid, yelling something about this wasn’t a joke, this was a man of God, etc., etc., etc. So Hornet made the All Hall Squad again that day.

Now, by the time puberty struck, many things were getting, er, kind of touchy and if there was anything the Archdiocese liked less than Communism it was Sex, especially with women. Well, like who else were you going to have it with, other than a girl, right–or vice versa? At this point, let’s leave the horrible stuff out of it, because honestly, it never got anywhere near me, and I was truly shocked after years of being around priests to read the accounts. So, we’ll stick to the usual kind of vaguely risque stories–not the felonious assault part. Our class in Sex Ed consisted of Sister writing in HUGE letters on the blackboard (remember those?) “SEX IS SACRED.” Oh, oh. Now what? And she looked defiantly at us, as if daring some smart-ass to say something stupid.

Right. Count on Salvucci in a jam.

I don’t know what possessed me (this has happened several times in my life), but I turned to the young lady next to me, on whom I sort of had a crush anyway, and volunteered, “Do you want to go light a candle?” She burst out laughing, and, oh, you know, the “what’s so funny” inquisition began. When I repeated what I said, the nun got incandescent and threw ME out into the darkness, where I cooled my jets until school let out. Whereupon I was informed I was stuck with two weeks’ detention, and an automatic markdown on my conduct grade. I knew my Mom and Dad were going to be thrilled, although to tell the truth, I heard my father laughing as he repeated the story to a couple of his brothers the following Sunday morning at one of my aunt’s in West Philly. But to me, it was all business.

Some day I’ll tell you my State Department interview story. It’s even better. I didn’t get the job, obviously.

Of course, much of what sounds so ridiculous would not be viewed as amusing today. Sticking people with AHD in closets (where they continued to bop away and pretend they were airplanes) isn’t very funny. Pasting an asthmatic kid with an eraser loaded with chalk dust–we nicknamed one of the nuns Art Mahaffey because she really had an arm–as a way of maintaining order isn’t funny. Treating someone who couldn’t read aloud like a dunce when it’s quite possible the kid was dyslexic isn’t funny. Teaching by terror in general is really not a great idea.

And I’m afraid the whole idea of using religion as a method of immigrant social control under the guise of education really failed. People now tend to think that the Catholic Church’s problems in America started with birth control, and maybe they did. But I have to tell you, I can’t think of anyone I knew who was determined to stay in the Church who was going to let that birth control stop them. Sooner or later, if you looked around, you could find a confessor who didn’t think that, or any number of other ostensibly serious slap n’ tickle offenses was really a big deal. When you tangled with one of those types, you made sure you avoided them in aeternam. Believe me, you could. I could. And did.

But the damage was done, because unfortunately, there really wasn’t much substance to a lot of people’s faith. You know, you could have a PhD and maintain 3rd grade sensibilities about Catholicism, because that’s where they were formed. People fell away because they were losing nothing in a world that required SOMETHING. Their world view or system of ethics or even their sense of what was or wasn’t sacred had nothing to do with what they had been taught as kids. And once even educated people began to realize the games that the Vatican played with politics, sexuality in general, even with high finance, you weren’t likely going to scare them back into attendance by tales of fire and brimstone. Give a kid a physics book, and the odds were about 50-50 you’d end up with an agnostic, at best. Yeah, some people found the hand of God in mathematics, but they had to work at it. I may think self-creating universes sound a lot like Aquinas’ uncaused cause, but ontological proofs don’t get you through the night. I know. Faith does, and that’s an entirely different matter. I’m afraid what matters to me now is mostly self-taught and makes me a “cafeteria Catholic,” as if any sensible person could read the Syllabus of Errors and be anything but. Did any Vicar of Christ rescind the syllabus when I wasn’t looking? I didn’t think so.

Problem with the Church is that it always wants to “civilize” the heathen. The heathen usually have other ideas, and sooner or later, they act on them, or they die trying. Like Galileo said, “Eppur si muove.” If he didn’t say it, he should have. Si non e vero, e ben trovato. That I got courtesy of Saint Donato’s, not Prisontation ICBM.

A Modest Proposal, Finally

“In 2003, the San Antonio Symphony was again plagued with financial difficulties and canceled the last few concerts of the season. The Symphony declared bankruptcy, and the board of directors spent the 2003-2004 season reworking the Symphony’s business plan” Yes, that was nearly twenty years ago. It resides in memory because, as some of you may recall, another unwelcome viral guest, the known principally by its acronym SARS (but today, more accurately called SARS-Covid) had made its appearance in 2002. I’m not going to say that people didn’t take it terribly seriously, at least here, but I had friends in the orchestra who were accustomed to making dubious jokes about its spread among section plays of a certain ancestry. No, Trump did not invent “Wu flu,” although its consequences, plainly, have demonstrated what happens when you stupidly politicize a public health issue. We hadn’t quite advanced to that stage of political ignominy yet in the United States. Yet.

I can’t remember if SARS had much to do with the financial problems of the Symphony back then, although the Symphony had already enjoyed a history of financial problems. I was, however, a lot more involved, because I was then the parent of two aspiring musicians, both of whom ended up studying with symphony players. One of them, my daughter Rosie, is now a freelance classical bassist living in Berlin. So, in a manner of speaking, I came by interest in the Symphony’s finances honestly. A lot of the players were frustrated, and my daughter’s teacher, a brilliant player from Curtis, was actively involved in the negotiations. He was not happy. It was already becoming apparent that classical music in the United States was in for a rough ride, and that, perhaps, there were questions as to whether or not what was then regarded as a quintessentially white, European art form had much future in a part of the country where the emerging majority, may or may not have been called white, but their roots were in Latin America, not Europe.

I remember being really frustrated, not to say irritated by the discussion, because after living in Mexico and spending significant time in Latin America, I really hadn’t noticed that “classical” music had no audience. Actually, in Mexico, it seemed to be quite the contrary, and while it certainly wasn’t popular music, well, the Boss Jocks at WFIL 56 didn’t exactly spin Rachmaninoff to an eager audience either. So, you figured, why would it be that people in San Antonio or the Southwest wouldn’t support symphonies? Other than quoting Oprah Winfrey about blacks not liking classical music–I’ll let the irony sink in once more about generic people of color in America–nobody could give me much of an answer. “Ah, it’s a working class town,” some savant cautioned me. Well, sorry, but I came from a working class family in Philadelphia that listened not only to jazz and pop, but to opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra too. I won’t say that Eugene Ormandy was a household deity or anything, but I don’t think we were exactly unique in regarding him as part of the panoply of civic institutions. So, long story short, my reaction was “this discussion is ignorant, patronizing and misleading at best.” At worst, it was vaguely racist, and I don’t throw that term around lightly.

So, well and surely ticked off, I wrote a piece whose intent was satirical. It was to suggest that San Antonio, by virtue of its proximity to Mexico, was remarkably well positioned to support a symphony orchestra if only the city leaders exercised a little imagination.

Welp, I sent it everywhere I could think of here, including the underground press. No one would touch it. I sent it to Nexos in Mexico thinking it might give someone a laugh. Nada. Now people who read it were really complimentary, it circulated among some of the orchestra people, and yeah, a couple thought it was hilarious. It was intended to be funny, but I guess no one got the joke. There were no blogs in 2003. You couldn’t inflict your half-baked ideas and crummy prose on some captive audience, much less a volunteer one. So, alas, you put such ephemera aside, chalking their production up to experience. Teechur writers, as Gore Vidal called us, get accustomed to rejection pretty quickly anyway. Or you don’t last.

In any event, now that I am retired, and having stumbled across of a copy of the text of the piece, I figured, “Hey, why not?” I’m not touching a word of it, and I’m going to make sure that my colleagues in Mexico get to read it. It proves that we are dos paises nunca distantes. Or something like that. You can download it here.

Downa Shore

You knew this was coming. No Philly city-kid life in the 1950s and 1960s could possibly be complete without it. You were inevitably part of the great chain of land-breathing creatures whose ancestors emerged from the cheap seats on Big Ships. And as soon as they could possibly afford to, they went back to the sandy fringe of the Jersey shore (Jersey, dammit, not Maryland) to sleep on damp sheets, get basted in greasy crap called Coppertone (“Tan don’t burn, get a Coppertone tan”), lay on the beach, get sunburned (Coppertone, surprise, didn’t work), dig holes in the sand (until other amusements drew your attention–more anon), get tossed around in the waves, eat hot dogs for lunch, collect seashells, see your parents half naked, and then go back to whatever mildewed bed-sit for an outdoor shower, some mystery dinner, and then an evening stroll on the Boardwalk. Stuff happened there: food, fun, the occasional movie, lots of people watching. Then back “home” rinse, sleep, repeat, only to start another day. If your family was hip (mine wasn’t), maybe a morning bike ride. If you were lucky, sunshine. If none of the above, rain, comic books, boredom, and the drone of the AM radio stations that excitingly drifted in from Long Island, or even, at night, some place called Canada. If you were working class, you maybe got a week. If you were fortunate, maybe two. And then there were those few, construction-money scented , indeed, blessed beings who had a place downa Shore for the Summer. Like as in June through August. Damn: Memorial Day through Labor Day. I knew one or two of them after we moved to the verdant suburb of Penn Wynne in 1960. But never before. Hell, you got a week and thanked God for it. We always went to Ocean City (New Jersey, NOT Maryland), but a lot of the South Philly contingent hit one of the flavors of Wildwood, Ventnor, or Margate. Almost never Cape May, except for one memorable summer to which I will return. A lot of firsts generally happened downa shore. They mostly had to do with rituals of childhood and adolescence. Be patient, and I’ll cop to a few.

Now be aware that there are many possible narratives, all necessarily age-adjusted. I’m gonna be conflating about 18 years of them. So don’t get confused. And pay attention, lest you think I was chugging Schmidts while still in diapers. Actually, it was Valley Forge (raw Schmidt’s), and that had to wait until 1967 when I was sixteen and a hotshot.

Getting downa shore before the Atlantic City Expressway (1964) generally entailed a romp through backwoods South Jersey, the Pine Barrens included. You took the Ben Franklin Bridge (before 1957) and then the Walt Whitman, which avoided lovely Camden, but included any number of motels out of Psycho (all since gone, I’m sure) along the Back Horse Parkway. As a bonus, you got to stop to take a leak in Cecil. These little garden spots had local constabularies whose agents would gleefully stop you (or my Dad), as well as the odd service station that specialized in fixing some mysterious ailment called vapor lock that I’m sure was induced by stifling heat, too much traffic, and the Jersey Devil. It was rural then, dotted with little amusement spots (See Little Mexico. We never did) and fruit and vegetable stands. At some point, as you escaped the Pine Barrens and their weird denizens, known as Pineys (you could’ve made Deliverance there), the soil started to change and the air perceptibly cooled. Maybe around Absecon, you’d start to smell decaying marine life, which was not exactly the same as the sea. I remember the great relief that greeted Somer’s Point and the Causeway across Egg Harbor Bay (Little Egg Harbor, I think), “are we there yet” no longer ticked off your parents. Cause you were there.

I should mention in passing that I think Ocean City was founded by Methodists, and the town was dry. That sort of made Somer’s Point a kind of Subic Bay fleshpot, with lots of booze stores (“Package Goods”), road houses, like Bayshores, the Dunes, Tony Mart’s, which were off limits to respectable people, but always jumping with college kids and other dissipated types by night. I was too young then, but, eventually, like the song says, I found out. A nice Catholic girl who had driven down to Ocean City with me and a few friends years later cheerfully announced “Here’s where we leave our morals.” I wouldn’t have known, at least then.

We usually settled into some dank rental, inevitably going out to the ACME to stock up on exactly the same stuff we ate back home. Exciting, right? But then, if you were lucky, you went down to the sea in your father’s old Hudson or Buick. You had to find a place to park because you never could afford to be near the beach. But you could now see it, and then hear it: The Sea! As we got a little more affluent, my parents stayed in a place called the Garden District–which I take it is wildly unaffordable now, but was still modest then. By then I was learning trumpet, and the landlord, a sax player, would drop by, critique and even jam some. But, again, this is getting ahead of ourselves.

Going to the beach as a little kid was always wild. You got to see your parents half undressed (and my Dad’s ulcer surgery scar, that really freaked me out), you ate sandy hot dogs, you avoided the water for at least an hour after eating (“cramps”–what kind of cramps you gonna get standing in water no higher than your knees?) and worked at excavating, shell collecting, and intermittent runs into the ocean under the watchful eye of your Mom (my Dad just wanted to sleep, poor guy) and some impossibly blonde lifeguard, sort of a Jersey Beach Boy type. Normally, there wasn’t much excitement, unless the surf was rough, or some idiot overestimated his (always his) swimming ability. At which point all Hell would break lose and the somnolent white boys on the stand turned into quasi-Olympians paddling out to get said idiot out of trouble. I never saw anyone drown, but there were a few close calls, and that was enough. Even when I took to body surfing, I made sure to know where the cross currents were. A few abrasions, unwanted doses of sea water. For the most part, it was tame. We’d loiter until the tide came in, and then back to the chateau. An outdoor shower awaited you, usually cold as Hell, and then a chance to clean up. Mostly, then, you went up to the Boardwalk for dinner, although I do remember a sit down restaurant once or twice over the years.

Ocean City opened my palate. I learned to eat pizza at Mack and Manco (it was Mack and Manco then, see) which had just opened. In fact, I think 1957 was a kind of breakthrough year. I ate pizza, saw The Curse of the Demon (which scared me half to death–I still can’t watch the damn thing), and learned the words to Patti Page’s “Old Cape Cod” which was like a summer version of White Christmas-dawn to dusk. My Dad, God love him, would indulge me in all sorts of arcade games on the Boardwalk, but sometimes we’d just walk en famille and watch the phosphorescent waves crash up again the pilings by Fisherman’s Pier. Look, I’m sure the normal tensions of family life had some tendency to get magnified under close quarters for a week, but the release from routine, work, “the pain in the ass innocent bystanders” who populated your life, obviously compensated for my parents. And I got to eat salt water taffy.

I inevitably enjoyed myself.

One year, 1961, we did go to Wildwood Crest to stay at a property a great uncle had rented for the summer. That was really memorable because, for the first time, a kid saw the outside world intrude on fantasyland. For one thing, we went to the beach in Cape May, and I got to see the harbor defenses and the bunker that had gone up to protect the coast during World War 2, which still wasn’t twenty years in the past. I asked my Dad a lot of dumb questions, and I recall he told me that he thought a German U Boat had gotten into the Delaware Bay, which just around the other side of the point. As if that wasn’t enough, I distinctly recall Jack Kennedy making an address about Berlin. Well, I wasn’t wrong. That was July 25, 1961. And man, he scared the Hell out of me. He made it very clear that a lot of young men might find themselves in harm’s way if worse came to worse. Do remember we had a draft. I may have only been 10, but virtually every male member in my immediate family was a veteran of World War II, some wounded and decorated multiple times. My Dad and I watched the speech in complete silence, along with a couple of friends of my cousin, who were definitely draft age. They exited immediately afterward, I guess to get a stiff drink. I asked my Dad if there was going to be a war. “Let’s hope not, Rich. Let’s hope not.”

https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKWHA/1961/JFKWHA-045/JFKWHA-045

I can see all of it, the furniture, the cottage, the black and white tv, and a grim-faced Jack Kennedy. And an equally grim-faced Dad. The holiday was over for that year. We went home soon after. I thought about that night a lot for the rest of the summer.. In October, the Russians set off an ostensible 100 megaton bomb in some God-forsaken part of Siberia. The Summers were warm and memorable, but the winters, man, they were cold, dark and long. You had to go downa shore to stand them. Or, at least, I did.

More to come in my next post.

The Ides of Texas Are Upon You (Sorry)

Full Disclosure: don’t submit this for serious publication anywhere, even in your local newspaper. These are all back of envelope calculation. The numbers are pretty crude and I haven’t revisited their sources. This is just more a kind of Saturday in Summer WTF meditation. Read at your own risk.

Ok. When I last checked, I figured that “defense spending” accounted for about 5 percent of Texas’ state product (just as a ratio). If we guessed a reasonable fiscal multiplier of 2, we might get this all the way up to 10 percent. That’s a pretty big number, given that the state product of Texas is around 1.7 trillion dollars (around 10 percent of US GDP, roughly, which is huge). Now, Texas’ “exports” are about 17 percent of Texas’ state product, and a third of them go to Mexico. So, we’re talking, what, 5 or 6 percent as a ratio, or more or less what defense spending adds up to. Again, very crudely, figure a similar multiplier. So, at a first pass, defense spending and exports to Mexico might account for 20 percent of income (production) in Texas. Again, that’s a lot.

Now here’s the thing, Texans are reputed to hate government. Hell, “government overreach” is nearly a four-letter word. And, believe me, so is Mexico (six, actually). To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many owed so much to so little–especially to so little little they have so little regard for. An outsider (believe me, you can live in Texas for 30 years and still be an outsider) might be forgiven for thinking the locals are a little confused. And that’s being kind. An outsider from the evil Northeast (waving my hand) may be thinking there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the Lone Star State. We love the sin, but we hate the sinner. Not very Christian, is it?

In any event, there are bigger fish to fry. Texas, you may have noticed, is a red state. As in Trump Red State. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I had the impression that Donald Trump really didn’t understand (among other things) economic theory. Trump was one of the exports good, imports bad guys. A mercantilist, in other words. Now, that’s ok. The left of the Democratic party, which professed to detest Trump, has it’s share of mercantilists too. I never could quite understand why they and The Donald couldn’t get along. Except, apparently, in Texas, where the “natural” Democratic constituency of Hispanics, Latinos, whatever in South Texas, is called the Red Wave by some. It is, justifiably, considered a big problem. What’s wrong with these people. Don’t they know that “people of color” have this mystical abstract almost Louis Hartzian love of Liberalism? Ha. Tell them. They–imagine–may well keep Texas from turning Blue. Traitors. Why aren’t Texas Hispanics naturally Democrats? Funny you should ask.

When I worked for Barack Obama, I made a lot of phone calls. Because I will talk to anyone in almost any language I have a chance of speaking, I made a lot of calls to people of the Spanish-speak. Urging them to vote for my man Barack. Sure enough, some were sympathetic and pledged their vote. But, would you believe, some of these people had their own ideas about politics, and their vote wasn’t necessarily going to El Negrito. Oh, my. You never heard that phrase? That was Texas-Latino talk for Obama. I bet you can figure out what it meant. If not, call me. I’ll straighten you out.

That was my first inkling that those people down there along the border weren’t necessarily Democrats, People of Color they might be. Oh my. Republican Mexicans in the Valley. Nobody told the DNC about these people. Especially the people in Texas–with names like Castro or Cisneros–whom you would’ve expected to raise the alarm. No. They had careers to make, didn’t they?

Meanwhile, I watched, awestruck, as another Negrita went to Central America the other day to tell our brothers in Honduras, Guatemala, Salvador, who knows, “Don’t Come.” Except this wasn’t any negrita. This was the Vice-President of the United States. Was iot the right message? Of course it was. Was she the right messenger? Dude, unless your head is stuck in Wilmington or Delco, God forbid no. Imagine the GOP spots in 2022 with Mamala telling the bros “Go home.” That’s just brilliant isn’t it? And even if the people in the Valley are secretly in agreement, well, they can cluck and say “Those white Democrats aren’t our people.” Right. As if some Republican is? Never mind. We’re talking politics, not logic. And on this one, Biden screwed up big time. Really big time. And if you’re one of the people who has the ear of an ear of an ear, you might want to say something. Like, our expat in Texas says you screwed up. For what it’s worth.

Let’s try this again. Henry B Gonzalez, whom I liked and admired, and with whom I corresponded extensively, voted AGAINST NAFTA. Why, in a state, with such large connections to trade with Mexico, would he do such a thing? Economic theory, something else Democrats don’t much like, suggests an answer. People vote in their own interest. And if they’re going to lose by trade and immigration, then they will vote against it. Labor in America is the “scarce factor” and trade punishes the scarce factor. No kidding. Henry B’s people were going to compete directly with the goods (and people) that NAFTA brought into Texas. Of course he opposed it. Henry B may have been crazy, but he was no fool. Texas may be resource abundant, but in economic terms, it is labor scarce. Just because labor appears to be powerless changes nothing. This is Latin America, in case you didn’t know. A white oligarchy, not a popular democracy.

So now we wonder why “those people” in the Valley don’t vote on the basis of some mystical connection to the great community of People of Color? You mean money is thicker than blood? Imagine that, if you can. It takes far less than a PhD. Sometimes I think a PhD keeps otherwise intelligent people from getting it. Like many of my colleagues.

Meanwhile, I keep wondering why we can’t just get on with it and start by renaming Ft Hood “Ft Jesse Benavides”? And telling people that Joe Biden sends his greetings. And that there is plenty more where that came from if people are willing to listen. And they will listen if they have something other than abstract nonsense to sell them. It may work in Austin. It won’t work in Mission, TX.

Wake up. You’re going to lose the House in 2022 and the Presidency in 2024. You’ve been warned. Texas is sending you a message: beware the Ides of Texas.

Bring Back the Reserve Clause. Save MLB

C’mon man, are you serious? Bring back the reserve clause to major league baseball? Are you nuts? Well, not exactly. Next you’re gonna want to see the airlines reregulated. Well, from time to time, especially when confined to a miserable modern airport, the thought has crossed my mind. But I digress.

When I started college teaching, 1978 more or less, I had a brilliant, but rather eccentric office mate. He held a Phd in Economics from Virginia Tech, and had been a student of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Virginia Tech was considered Chicago East at the time. My office mate, may he rest in peace, was a true product of the VPISU Economics department. He was dogmatic as Hell, believed in the Market the way I believe in God, and never let the facts stand in the way of a good economic argument.

Well, I left Villanova, where I started out, for the greener, but ultimately deceptively greener fields of what David Lodge called Euphoric State. That’s the subject of a future post. Here we gotta stick to baseball and the reserve clause.

I’m pretty sure the incident in question occurred after I went to California, because I heard about it from my former Chair, a good guy who deserved better faculty members than me and my office mate. It seems my late colleague, because he had won some sort of well deserved teaching award, had been invited to the VIP reception after graduation. Oh, oh. Bad move. He was really smart, but, well, not housebroken. And you know how that goes.

Apparently one of the guests at the shindig was a certain Paul Owens, GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. Owens was what they used to call “a good baseball man.” That means he was a hopeless reactionary, mainlined Wild Turkey, and probably made Cardinal Spellman look like a hopeless panty-waist. More importantly, he had been brought up in the days of what Major League Baseball called “the reserve clause.” I’m gonna explain this in brief for my younger readers. If you’re over 60, feel free to skip ahead. I’m going to defer to https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Reserve_clause

The reserve clause was a clause in player contracts that bound a player to a single team for a long period, even if the individual contracts he signed nominally covered only one season. For most of baseball history, the term of reserve was held to be essentially perpetual, so that a player had no freedom to change teams unless he was given his unconditional release

That changed with Curt Flood. Flood, an outfielder for the Cardinals from 19581969, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. Flood was outraged, both because he had put down roots in St. Louis and because the team hadn’t even told him about the deal; he found out about it over the radio. Instead of submitting, Flood challenged the trade in the courts with the backing of the MLBPA. This time, the players were acting together and refused to be bought off. The suit eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flood and the players lost.

Although the players lost the Flood case, they were still able to make progress. In the 1972 strike, they were able to convince the owners to accept binding arbitration for contract disputes. Several players then tried to refuse to sign contracts, play through one season under the reserve clause, and then demand free agent rights in arbitration. The owners, understanding that the reserve clause was under threat, were able to convince several players to relent, but in 1975 both Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith played through the season without a signed contract (actually, McNally retired partway through the season, then refused to accept a proposed salary increase in order to see his case reach arbitration).

Arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled for McNally and Messersmith. In essence, Seitz ruled that since the owners had written the contract, it was their responsibility to spell out its terms exactly. Because the reserve clause didn’t explicitly state that it would be applied to the season played without a signed contract, he had to accept the players’ interpretation that the clause only extended for one season and not in perpetuity. The owners challenged Seitz’s ruling in court, but it was upheld, ending over 80 years of the reserve system.

Now, my office mate, being a good free market guy a la Virginia Tech, had no time for stuff the restricted competition, of which the reserve clause in baseball was a shining example. Owens, steeped in the whiskey-sodden traditions of MLB, thought that baseball depended on the reserve clause, and he hated free agency, aka, “the free market.” He had distinguished company. Sparky Anderson, the long-time manager of the Reds and the Tigers, detested free agency. He thought it was ruining baseball in the 1990s, and bailed out of the game, saying he couldn’t stand what it had become. Oh, God, Sparky, if you could see it now.

Now, Villanova lore has it–I wasn’t there, you see–that my office mate and Paul Owens tangled at the post graduation reception over the reserve clause. I’m sure Owens was three sheets to the wind. My office mate didn’t need liquor to be outrageous. Ownes apparently told my office mate that baseball needed the reserve clause because it spent so much in training and grooming young players–only a few of whom would ultimately make it to the Bigs-that the reserve clause made perfect financial sense. My office mate, LOL, proceeded to tell Owens that this was precisely the justification that the Soviet Union used in its refusal to let skilled Jewish scientists and intellectuals emigrate to the West. In other words, Owens, red-white-and-blue American baseball man, was a Commie. Much merriment ensued.

I take it there was a scene. On graduation day. Between an Honored Guest of Villanova –and some smart-ass VU pointy head economist who was a libertarian. I only heard stories about it, but, damn, I wish I had been there. The two of them deserved each other, but, nisi sed bonum. I missed out on a great time. Years later, I got my revenge on Owens, who had come down to field-managing the club after firing somebody, at Candlestick Park. I stood up and called him every name I could think of, much to the chagrin of my sweet wife, who was my date, not to say of the San Francisco Giants security people, who were getting ready to remove me. Payback, Owens, is Hell. I called him every name I could think of, in honor of my office mate (strictly speaking, at this point, he was still alive). At one point, going out to the mound, Owens stopped, looked around, and he stared straight at me. I gave him the finger. It felt good.

Now, what has all of this to do with economics, the reserve clause, and saving baseball?

Glad you asked.

Look, I don’t claim any expertise in baseball. I’m just the average fan. I’m always astounded at how much real students of the game know. I don’t consider myself a real student of the game, although I’ve watched my share. In fact, I guess all I do is follow the Philadelphia Phillies. That is hardly the same as being a serious fan. And even there, it’s been years since I’ve listened or watched every game. Probably the last season was 1980, which is when my life got turned upside down and I left Philadelphia. Probably for good. Anyway. I watch baseball when I can these days. And I follow the Phillies via the Inkwire. That’s about it. Too many other things call, and the caliber of the Phillies play is not such as to give up some more productive use of my time–like going to the head. Honestly, they stink.

I think back to when Ryne Sandberg managed the Phillies in the early 2010s. He was a HOF player and a true pro. I remember him trying to do base running drills with one of the teams he manged. The players didn’t like it. Ok. Maybe Sandberg, as good as he was, wasn’t cut out to be a manager. It happens. But then consider what Mr. Philly, Larry Bowa said–and Bowa flopped as a manger in Philly too

“When Ryno came up, I thought he was going to be a good player,” Bowa said. “But did I think he was going to be a Hall of Famer? No. He worked. A lot of Hall of Fame guys have natural ability. He had the ability and he worked. I think he thought if he worked that hard, why can’t everybody work that hard? He was shocked at not everybody, but some guys that were on the fringe. He’d look at them and say, ‘Why don’t you work harder?’ That bothered him a lot.”

Yeah, I get it. I looked at a lot of my students, especially the undergraduates since 2010. You’re not stupid, I thought. But you’re lazy and lack motivation. And I can’t give that to you. Nor can I give you the fundamentals you didn’t get in grade school. A lot of my students couldn’t do stuff that I had learned to do by the time I was in junior high. Spelling, grammar, organization, thinking in a straight line. Forget it. They were hopeless. And I couldn’t give them the fundamentals that they didn’t have. It was too damn late. You need five years of Sister Marie Suzanne. And you’re not about to get it. Frankly, they don’t pay me enough. They expect a scholar and a babysitter? Forget it. It’s not happening. Sister Marie Suzanne didn’t have a professional reputation to worry about. I did.

But then I watch the state of modern baseball. Oh my God. I watch the Phillies (among others) make mistakes that Little Leaguers shouldn’t make. Where is the play? What are the rules? How many outs are there? Do I cut off the throw from the outfielder? Where do I throw the ball if I do? How does a catcher block a low pitch? And on and on and on. They may be better athletes, bigger and stronger, but they play stupid, as if no one ever bothered to teach them the fundamentals. And then I wonder.

The idea idea behind the reserve clause, an “exclusive services contact”, was that you spent an awful lot developing players knowing full well very few would make it. But when they did, you had their services for the duration. Maybe that was–and I think it was–an abuse–but any decent economist can explain why an exclusive services contract exists. You invest a great deal in some raw talent. Most don’t make it. But you are compensated by the few who do. Economists call it monitoring your dependencies. And, alas, it makes more than a little sense.

I sometimes wonder how much teams spend these days in actually developing their players? Do they figure they can’t hold on to them that long anyway (I think maybe 12 years max, both minor and major leagues), so there’s a limit to how much you want to spend developing a player? I don’t know. I’d welcome someone coming in here and telling me this is complete nonsense, like most economic theory is. Go ahead, make my day. Otherwise, I’ll keep wondering if the reserve clause was really as bad an idea as the players made it out to be. Meanwhile, enjoy your next bat flip. That, they can do.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

[Note: I apologize to early readers for so many typos. It’s true. You really see what you think is there. Not what is there. Like a lousy umpire calling balls and strikes]