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Shelby Foote, The Civil War

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The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Katrina Blog Project

Hurricane Harvey / Katrina 12 Years

I had a post ready about Civil War statues, but that may have to wait awhile. As a Katrina survivor, I feel the need to say something about Hurricane Harvey.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the people affected by Harvey. A total of fifty inches of rain are expected to fall in Houston this week -- an almost incomprehensible amount of rainfall. And Houston is a much bigger city than New Orleans is, meaning Harvey has a potential to do much more damage than Katrina did. Southeast Louisiana, the first landing point for Katrina, has about two to three million people living in it. Coastal Mississippi, which was also hammered by Katrina, had maybe another million. All told, including inland areas of Mississippi such as Hattiesburg and Jackson, Katrina probably directly impacted about four to five million people.

     Texas is much larger. Houston and its immediate area has at least 5 million people. Add all the people living between Galveston and Corpus Christi and we are looking at 10 million souls, or at least double the affected population of Katrina. So, even if Harvey is only half as destructive on a mile-by-mile basis, it can still cause the same amount of damage and loss of life.

     And so we offer prayers, good wishes, and our funds to support this disaster. I will be giving to the Red Cross, and the Catholic Archdiocese of Houston-Galveston for the recovery. And if any Texans flee the hurricane all the way to Jackson, Mississippi, I can assure them personally that they will get the finest medical care available.

Besides offering immediate help, now is a good time, while Harvey continues to pour rain, to think about climate change. Climate scientists have always warned that a warmer planet will mean a higher frequency of extreme weather events, and Harvey certainly qualifies as extreme weather.

     I am not arguing, nor can it be argued, that Harvey is definitely a result of global warming. Global warming increases the probability of bad weather, but it cannot be directly blamed for any specific weather event.

     If this seems confusing, think about it this way. High speed is generally associated with car accidents. This is because the faster you drive, the less time you have to react to an event in front of you, such as another car darting out into your lane. If drivers were to suddenly decide to increase their driving speed by 20%, one would expect a sudden increase in accidents. It would not be true that every accident in this case would be caused by high speed driving. But higher speeds would make for more accidents. It would be difficult to blame any one accident on high speed, but the overall accidident spike could be.

     Same with Harvey. In a warming climate, an individual storm like Harvey is not definitely a product of global warming, but global warming will make such storms much more likely. Hurricanes are caused in part by warm ocean temperatures. Climate change is going to cause warmer ocean temperatures for a greater percentage of the year, and ocean water will be warm enough to sustain storms further north than it has in the past. And, warmer air can carry more water than cooler air, so storms in the future will produce more rain.

     So the odds should favor more storms with more rain, often landing farther north than we are used to.

     And there is one more thing to consider: growing population. In the last half-century, Americans have been moving towards the coasts. According to NOAA, 39% of Americans live in a county along the coast, a number that has increased by 40% since 1970. The trend is expected to increase, with the coastal population growing by another 8% by 2020.

     This means that, at a time when climate change will be generating more hurricanes, more people are moving to vulnerable areas. By ignoring both climate change and infrastructure improvements to help cities cope with bad weather, we are setting ourselves up for more Harveys, more often.

     We continue to move to the coasts and visit resort towns on the coasts. We continue to drain swamps and cut trees for golf courses and water parks near the beach without asking ourselves what we are setting ourselves up for. We won't raise roads, build sea walls, install pumps, or restrict building to areas we can protect from bad weather.

     In politics, are ignoring the very existence of climate change. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has tried to limit all discussion of climate change by government employees. The words "climate change" and "global warming" are strongly discouraged; employees were advised to use terms like "sea level rise" and "weather events" instead.

     Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor who took office right after Katrina, dismissed climate science as "a Trojan horse" -- that is, as a false narrative to hide a more destructive liberal agenda.

     Haley Barbour, who was governor of Mississippi during Katrina, said in 2013 of climate change that "there are two sides to every issue." That is Exxon's position. It should not be a politician's position.

     While we watch Harvey bury Texas with rain and ask ourselves what we can do, let's remind ourselves that one thing we can do is demand that our politicians take seriously the idea that climate change might have something to do with it, and that rather than repeatedly spend billions on recovery and relief -- Katrina's bill was $120 billion -- we would prefer to spend that kind of money on preventative measures, limiting our risk in the future. This would save us far more.

     And it would prevent deaths, too. If anyone cares about prevention anymore.



Racism Visits Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia was my home for more than eight years. It remains one of my favorite places on earth, and is the home of some of my most cherished memories. For this, and for many other reasons, I am greatly disturbed by the goings-on there over the last few days. Violence, murder, and the uglliest expression of hatred I've seen in this country since the segregationist protests in the 1960. All over a statue of Robert E. Lee. Not about schools, or where people are going to live, or who is going to vote. No. A statue.

Charlottesville is a college town, slightly left-of-center, as much Southern as it is the Liberal Northeast. It is so well balanced, North and South, left and right, rural and urban, that it is the very last place in America that I would expect to see a race confrontation. In all there years I was there, there was never anything like this. There was never the vaguest indication that something like this could happen. For me, this is as unexpected as if a gay pride demonstration broke out on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

I know Charlotteville extremely well. It is a sleepy, semi-rural, small town whose biggest worry is usually how to handle the weekend traffic during the Clemson game. It is a shock to me that a race riot could occur there.

But it did happen. It happened because our leaders have given us permission to hate other people. To insult and demean others based theoretically on our politics. But as we all know, politics is usually a stand-in for something more sinister.

On Friday, August 11, a group of white supremacist marchers appeared in front of the Rotunda at U.Va., the central structure of the Univeristy of Virginia. The Rotunda is an architectural landmark designed by Thomas Jefferson and completed in 1826, a UNESCO World Heritage site and symbol of free speech at the University of Virginia. The marchers claimed they were only there to prevent a statue of Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a local park, but their chant was "Blood and Soil," the English translation of "Blut und Boden," which was the motto of the Agriculture Department in Nazi Germany. They then switched to "You will not replace us," alternating with "Jews will not replace us."

I am not naive. Hatred will always be with us. But this kind of hatred used to be reserved for cranks, for people on the fringe of society. People who could be safely ridiculed and ignored. (Watch the movie The Blues Brothers from the 1970s if you want to see evidence of a time when Nazi sympathizers were an object of ridcule.) But you can't ignore people who show up on your front yard and parrot Nazi slogans under the protection of the First Amendment. 

The First Amendment, by the way, is one of the things thousands of American soldiers went to Europe in 1941-45 and died to defend. And the thanks these dead soldiers get is a violent Nazi protest in front of the Rotunda at an important center of higher learning.


I don't know what the answer is, but acceptance isn't one of them. Denunciation helps, and that's what I am doing here, but our dear President has declined to do. But until he and everyone else decides we want absolutely no part of this, nowhere, ever, it will continue to happen. I favor tolerance. Of speech. What happened in Charlottesville this past week was not speech.

I wish I could write more. But non-four-letter words fail me.


President Revenge

“When he gets attacked, he’s going to hit back… He’s not going to sit back and be attacked by the liberal media, Hollywood, elites -- and when they hit him, he’s going to hit back.” — Sarah Huckabee Sanders, June 29, 2017

Among his critics, the usual response to the President’s Twitter posts is to say that they are undignified. Not rising to the level of the office of the presidency.

This is missing the point. Dignity in politics has been dead for quite some time now. The last shred of it, in my view, vanished in the second presidential debate, when Donald Trump brought in several women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Others might counter another example, but it doesn’t matter. We can all agree that politics is a disgrace right now.

More to the point is the statement by Ms. Sanders, which obviously represents the opinion of the President himself. His wife repeated the sentiment in almost the exact same words on the exact same day. Hit the President, she said, and he will back "10 times harder."

Consider for a moment what this means. It means that the President’s political policy — in fact, the clearest political policy we have from him since “I will build a wall” — is revenge. His announced plan for handling political adversity isn’t to produce more thoughtful legislation, or to become a more magnetic leader. It isn’t to champion peace or ethics or equality or to lead bipartisan compromise. It’s to knock the crap out of anyone who tries to lay a glove on him.

Revenge. That’s it. That’s what his dialog with the press is all about. Don’t you dare say anything I don’t like or I will slap the skin off your face.

His defenders will probably use the more-sinned-against-than-sinning argument, but here is the problem with that: He is the President. Although his behavior in office suggests that he thinks the Oval Office is his own personal property and pleasure palace, this is not the case. There were 44 presidents before him, and there will be, God willing, many more presidents after.

He didn’t create the office. He didn’t win it in a contest. He didn’t earn it as the last man standing on a reality television show. The presidency is not his to do with as he sees fit. The powers of the presidency belong to the people. It is defined in the Constitution, the first three words of which are "We the people." A president acts on behalf of the people, exercising powers that the people confer upon him. Powers that can be revoked at any time. He no more owns the Oval Office than I owned the public park bench I sat on the other day.

The point is this — since the powers of the office are not his, and he has no right to use those resources to settle personal scores. His "hit and I will hit back harder" mantra is an illegitimate and illegal use of the office.

Indeed, why is he spending any time at all tweeting out personal attacks? The reason most past presidents have been restrained in their public remarks is that they understood this. While Barack Obama may have been upset by the birthers, he didn’t spend time on the clock raging about it. Ronald Reagan got pretty harsh treatment about his age and supposed memory lapses and he shrugged it off. There are certainly examples of presidents who have settled political scores on the job. But there is a big difference between political conflicts, which are part of the job, and personal conflicts, which are not. Chris Christie is about to be unemployed for exactly this reason.

When you are the President, you don’t get to use the office to get even for perceived insults, even if they are unfair. It isn’t about dignity. It is about using the resources of your office on behalf of the people, not on your own behalf, as if the Oval Office were a newly acquired wing of Trump Tower.

Some would defend him by saying Twitter is not a public resource. Bull. He has millions of followers because he is President. And when he says something outrageous, his press secretary and many other government officials find themselves having to defend what he said. As Ms. Sanders did, on the public dime. Or as the First Lady did, through her own spokesperson, another public employee.

If the President wants to settle personal scores, he needs to quit his job. Then he can attack whomever he wants. But if he wants to engage in personal attacks out of his office, he is abusing his powers.

So, you ask, is the President just supposed to take it on the chin? Actually, yes. A big part of being President is knowing when to keep your mouth shut. When you are President, you speak for the American people or you don’t speak at all. This isn’t too much to ask of someone who could, with unguarded words, trigger a war.

Revenge is not acceptable public policy.


Out of the Paris Accord

To me, this is an impeachable offense. Considering the danger climate change poses to the American people, it is a crime to back out of the most important environmental agreement ever. Climate change is not a debate. The only debate about climate change is in the minds of people who have been paid off by oil companies.

But forget about oil companies. Forget about coal. Remember this: The days of oil’s supremacy are over, and I say this as someone who grew up in the oil patch of South Louisiana. All of Donald Trump's whining and foot stomping about what's fair for the American worker won't make a minute of its slow collapse any different. You can change politics, but you can't change facts.

Solar and wind power are advancing rapidly, and the third world will adopt them rapidly, because third world nations aren’t stupid. They will want technologies that do not cause dependence on oil-producing countries. Technologies that won't ruin their environment and make their droughts longer, and won't pollute their cities with impenetrable smog.

Oil has had its day. The future belongs to other technologies. Don't believe me if you want, but I know where I am putting my retirement money, and it isn't in oil. And coal? Please, don't make me laugh. Coal was cutting edge in the eighteenth century. Tell me about all the eighteenth century technology you used today.

I am driving a 12 year-old car and have no intention of buying a replacement that doesn’t get at least 40 miles per gallon. What I really want is a plug-in hybrid -- no, what I really want is an electric car -- but I am not sure if the ones on the market are right for me. So I will wait until I get the car I want. My car still runs. I have time. And I won't be waiting all that long, either.

This is a metaphor for world society. A good chunk of the world economy is using older fossil fuel technology and is waiting for the moment when it can install cheap renewable energy. The time is close. I saw a news story the other day about roof shingles that have solar cells in them. Another company is developing solid glass hexagonal bricks that can pave roads and generate power at the same time. There are now a few countries in Europe that can fulfill their entire energy needs with windmills alone. And we are just beginning to build out the infrastructure.

More solar panels appear on the roofs of houses every day. Cars are being sold with gas mileage rising into the 30s and forties. Not 5 years ago the Prius was the only car that boasted a 50 plus mpg; now there are at least a dozen. Natural gas, a less polluting fossil fuel, has displaced coal and oil as the main source of indoor heating in this country and is serving as a stopgap that has helped level out emissions temporarily.

No, it won’t be long. We all saw the computer revolution. In 1985 all we had were massive desktop machines that could do little more than word processing and organize your list of CDs. Now we have iPhones that give us directions to the movies and buy us the movie tickets in advance. Computers drive cars now. Is anyone so stupid as to think that this revolution won't sideline fossil fuels?

It would be intelligent for the most technologically advanced society in the world to commit itself to new energy technology. But our leaders are not intelligent. Instead, they seek to damage the long-term competitiveness of our nation.

There is nothing to be gained in backing out of the Paris Accord. Of all countries signing, we have the most companies poised to make money off of this. We have the research facilities, the open land for wind farms and solar farms. We have the knowhow and universities willing and able to commit all resources to clean energy development. We have the world's largest nuclear program. (No, I don't think nuclear energy is out of the question. Fusion energy is the Holy Grail of clean energy. No time: Go look it up.) No other country has so many resources.

The only resource we lack in this new technology race is rare earth metals. Most of these are in China. Which is another reason not to back out of the Paris Accord -- China has signed, and if we pull out, China might retaliate by restricting our access to the rare metals needed for advanced computer and battery technology. That would be an ironic price to pay for being stupid, wouldn't it?

There isn’t a way we win with this. In backing out we commit ourselves to obsolete energy technology. We throw the door open to our competition to take the lead in energy advances that could revolutionize poverty in the third world. We lock our universities out of going all in on new discoveries that everyone in the world will be adopting soon.

And we will be saving the environment. I almost forgot about that one.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that you believe climate change is a hoax. Even so, consider that every one of the 190-plus nations who signed the Paris Accord feels differently. A smart nation is a nation who understands where everyone else is going with this and decides to get there first.

The city of Lynchburg, Tennessee is home to Jack Daniels Distillery, possibly the world's most famous bourbon manufacturer. It is also a dry county, which means it bans the sale of alcohol. Despite this local opposition to alcohol, Lynchburg has no objection to allowing Jack Daniels to make whiskey and sell it elsewhere. After all, the people of Lynchburg may not like alcohol, but they aren't stupid. They will take the money they make from selling Jack Daniels even if they won't drink it. And they have been cashing the checks for over a century.

You don't have to sell what you like. You sell what makes money. Clean energy is a huge business opportunity, maybe the biggest one in the whole world right now. Most countries in the world have little or no oil, and would love to have energy without creating dependence on countries who have. That's what this is all about. Even if you are one of those who doesn't believe in climate change.

There is a rumor around, hinted at by many people who know him, that our current president was never a birther. That he never at any time believed that Barack Obama was born in Africa. The rumor goes that he only said so because he knew the Republican base would buy what he was selling. If so, this may display an alarming lack of moral principle, but a keen business mind. Here was a man who knew he could profit from selling to others an idea he thought was bunk himself.

In the same way, wouldn’t it be smart for the U.S. to promote or at least encourage thinking that drives every country in the world into buying more of our stuff? How do we lose from this? Only Big Oil loses. And Big Oil will lose anyway, because if it won't help the world develop clean energy sources, someone else will. If Big Oil would take the untold trillions it has made selling oil and use it to develop solar, wind, and battery technology, it could profit, too.

All we are doing by exiting the accord is alienating our friends abroad, and crippling our domestic businesses in their efforts to compete in potentially the most lucrative business venture of all time: cheap energy for everyone.

Oh yes, and saving our planet from environmental devastation. I keep forgetting about the devastation part, but hey, that's the grandkids' problem. We'll be dead by then, right?


On Writer's Block

Waking up in the morning, my mind swirls with all sorts of things: turns of phrases, essay and novel titles, images -- whole paragraphs leaping out intact, sometimes even whole essays, complete-form.

Between the mind and the page there is a speed bump. It's not all that high, but that's the genius of speed bumps anyway. They don't have to be high. They don't have to forbid. They just have to discourage.

If I understood the speed bump, it would be easy to defeat. My sense is that it is a problem of organization, not of fluidity. It is easy to think of lack of fluidity as the heart of writer's block, the misery of squeezing for that drop that just won't come, but at least for me, that is not it. I am fluid all the time. I slosh from one end of my house to the other.

No, the problem is organization. Which is the opposite of fluidity. You can pour water into an ice cube tray, confining it and compartmentalizing it, and it will freeze and take shape easily enough. But there is the patient work of deciding to pour the water, of taking a moment to interrupt a non-structured day and do something structured -- pour water right now into a structured container with the expectation of enjoying an ice cube some time in the undefined future. It is easier not to be organized now for the sake of later, and so I leave my tray empty in the freezer rather than filling it up.

With writing, there is this ever-so-mild resistance to shape. The words flow, but you have to submit to limits and pour -- you decide this goes here, that goes there, that over there goes in the trash. We who flow are not amenable to that.

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