My dad would have been 101 this year

My dad, Karl Nemvalts, lived the last third of his life in Freeland, Michigan, from the 1950s to the early 1970s. In my memory of that time, Freeland was small-town America, where everyone knew everyone else. Where my dad directed the school band and the church choir and taught German at the high school.

But he grew up in a different world, in Estonia (Eesti in the native language) in the 1910s and 1920s, in rural northern Europe. Where the winter ride to town — this was about as far north as Juneau, Alaska — would involve a horse-drawn sleigh. His dad was a country schoolmaster. The details are sketchy to me. I imagine farms surrounded by birches and pines as in northern Michigan or Canada — dirt roads, horses, bright winter moonlight, rustic houses heated with wood stoves, saunas down the hill by the pond....

Sounds of Samuel P. Taylor State Park

S.P. Taylor State Parkphoto2photo3photo4photo5Last Monday afternoon, May 9, 2011, I spent some time in Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County, California, recording the sounds of a small side creek flowing down the north slope of Bolinas Ridge into Lagunitas Creek. I had been there the previous week with my friend Paul Vornhagen, and resolved to come back with some recording equipment to capture the sounds of the place while the creeks were still going strong with spring runoff. Here's the recording. Feel free to download it and put it on your iPod:

The new bipartisanship

Here's how it works. The Democrats (Obama and Reid) make a policy proposal that they figure splits the difference between the Ds and the Rs. The Republicans counter with a policy proposal (see Paul Ryan) that's way to the right of anything they've proposed before. Then they negotiate from there, with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party insisting on no compromise whatsoever. The final policy, arrived at through painful bipartisan negotiations, is — in spite of the fact that the Ds hold the presidency and a majority in the Senate (though not the currently-necessary supermajority) — well to the right of anything that George W. Bush could have pulled off.

A few things about London

Flickr photosThe climate is milder than you'd expect, considering the 51° north latitude — farther north than Vancouver or Calgary. The ocean currents temper the weather. When Connie and I visited in late March, we had expected the stereotypical fog and drizzle, but it was exceptionally sunny and warm, the grass was green, and the trees were budding out.

People are very courteous. If someone thinks they have inconvenienced you in any way (even if you are the one who has bumbled into their path) they will excuse themselves with a quick "sorry".

The city attracts people from all over the world, both as tourists and as residents. It's a totally happening, sexy, 21st-century, world cultural capital.

People smoke way too much, even compared with, say, Las Vegas. This in spite of the huge SMOKING KILLS labels on cigarette packs. Fortunately, smoking is banned in pubs and restaurants, though not at sidewalk tables just outside.

Toward a Palin-free news cycle

On February 6, 2011, the Huffington Post ran a story with the headline "Sarah Palin Blasts Obama's Handling Of Egypt". I admit up front that I never read it, and I'm not linking to it so that you, too, can have the pleasure of not reading it.

I would be surprised if Sarah Palin could find Egypt on a map, let alone have anything constructive, informative, or useful to say about it.

The key word in the headline is "blasts". Sarah Palin is very good at "blasting". If you were to read the article you would probably find that Sarah Palin doesn't think very highly of President Obama. But you knew that already.

Review: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe, subtitled "Man, Nature, and Climate Change," is based on a series of articles that appeared in the New Yorker over the last several years. As you can guess, it deals with the topic of global warming, or, as we have now been taught to say, climate change. Kolbert's writing is very vivid and concrete. She has traveled to research sites around the world — to the Alaskan tundra, the glaciers of Greenland, the below-sea-level towns of the Netherlands — and interviewed many of the scientists who are collecting the data that is used as input to climate modeling: core samples of glacial ice and ocean sediments, ranges of biological species, sea ice coverage, and so on.

On first reading in the New Yorker, I thought Kolbert made a convincing case that global warming is among the most urgent threats to human society and to the planet as a whole. But partly in response to "climategate," the November 2009 pushback by global warming skeptics, I read Kolbert's book with a more skeptical attitude. I am still a global-warming "believer" — just as I am a believer in the laws of physics and thermodynamics and the theory of evolution. But I tried to read at Kolbert's narrative as a global-warming skeptic might, looking for soft spots in her assumptions or data.

Lunar Glee Club remastered

Lunar gig flyerWhen you think of "Glee Club" today, you might think of a hugely popular TV show. But if you were in Ann Arbor in the mid-1980s, "Glee Club" might have brought to mind a nine-piece band anchored by two electric basses and electric guitar, three percussionists, and three horns — but no singers. The Lunar Glee Club got together in 1984, and different versions of the band played around the Ann Arbor area until the 1990s. The musical style was somewhere in the jazz/funk/fusion/worldbeat/latin/avant-garde range — everyone in the band had been listening to everything from salsa and afrobeat and samba, to Weather Report, to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and many other musical heroes. When I once described the band to the pianist Kirk Lightsey, he shook his head and remarked, "Nine different ways to go out." Which we did. Gleefully.

Remastered 1984 recordings of the band are now up on this website. A few of my favorite tracks are:

Extreme cuisine, an Estonian tradition

A recent article in the New York Times, Without Blood Sausage, It Just Wouldn’t Be Christmas, lays it out:

Siim Vanaselja, who was in charge of blood-sausage operations [at the New York Estonian House], said that in traditional Estonian village life, verivorstid [blood sausages] were made immediately after the slaughter each autumn, when the weather turned cold and the cost of keeping animals warm and fed became too high. Bacon, ham and smoked sausages were laid down for the winter, but blood is highly perishable and must be cooked right away. So the fresh blood sausage was boiled, frozen and saved as a treat for Christmas Eve.

Blood sausage was not part of my childhood — have I possibly repressed the memory? — but I do remember other challenging dishes. For example, there was sült — jellied pigs' feet.

No, it's not "class warfare"

One of the most inflammatory conservative talking points is that progressive taxes — higher tax rates for the wealthier of us — constitute "class warfare".  The mental image is of the common hordes overrunning the aristocracy, a very un-American notion, even if we're only talking about majorities of voters, if not peasants wielding torches and pitchforks and guillotines.

But when the issue is merely restoring tax structures to what they were a decade ago — raising the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 40%, let's say — the wealthy would most likely survive. To call this "class warfare" is just demagoguery.

To put this in perspective, let me give you an example of what might actually be considered class warfare.

Before World War II, my maternal grandparents owned and lived on a farm in Estonia. When the Soviets took power after the war, private land was seized and the owners were declared to be enemies of the people. My grandparents disappeared. They were presumably arrested and deported to Siberia.

GOP agenda gets bipartisan support

  • Extension of historically low tax rates for everyone, but especially the rich? Check.
  • Extension of historically low 15% top rate on capital gains? Check.
  • Huge reduction, from historical rates, in estate taxes for the superrich? Check.
  • Extension of unemployment benefits? Not part of the GOP agenda by any means, but conceded by Senate Republicans in putting together the The Reid-McConnell Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010. Senate Republicans had sworn to vote as a bloc against unemployment benefits extension if brought up as a separate bill. So this is usually listed as a win for the Democrats, even though to get it they had to yield to the GOP on almost every other issue. To be fair to the Democrats, everyone expects that, given the way politics is currently waged in the Senate, it only takes 41 votes to block any bill, and the GOP has 42.
  • Tacit endorsement of the idea that tax "relief" is the best medicine for a stalled economy? Check.
  • Tacit endorsement of the idea that allowing a temporary tax cut to expire constitutes a tax "increase"? Check.
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