NOVEMBER 2017

NOVEMBER  2017
The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Friday, November 06, 2009

TINY BUBBLES


I guess it all goes back to the bubbles. They are what attracted that feckless paranoid lunatic Philip IV. As King he was responsible for the  economic collapse of medieval France. And the recovery, which finally came after 700 years of travails, can be traced directly to the Blanc de noirs stained front door of the Abby of Hauntvillers, bottlers of the monastic barfly’s inebriate of choice, the cheap bubbly booze of the pre-bubonic Benedictine generation, champagne.

You see, the Champagne plateau (about 100 miles Northwest of Paris) is so far north that the grapes ripen very late in the year. Now, in standard fermentation, the yeast eats the sugar in the grape juice. The sugar is converted into alcohol and the yeast farts cabon dioxide, until all the sugar is consumed and then the yeast dies. But the wine produced in Champagne was different in two ways. First, the grapes were very sweet, so sweet that the yeast farted so much CO2 that the wine was filled with bubbles. And second the wine was bottled so late in the year that there was always yeast still surviving when temperatures dropped low enough to stop the fermentation in each bottle.

Usually the monks drank the juice while it was still saccharine, and what a sad bunch of alcoholics they must have been. But in the bottles and the casks the monks could not consume over the winter (and they tried), the spring temperatures re-started the fermentation. Occasionally so much more CO2 built up that the bottles that come summer, they exploded.

Also the stuff just did not taste very good. And other than the few souls who would have drunk aftershave if aftershave had been invented yet, the residents of Champagne mostly drank Burgundy. Even the vino impaired English resisted consuming the “weird and foaming” wine the Counts of Champagne tried to unload on them. I suspect the vines themselves only survived because of tradition.

Once every generation a new French King was crowned in Reims, 37 Kings in all between 816 A.D. and 1825 A.D. They used the local effervescence to anoint their new monarch, and to drink a toast in his honor, a real test of their gag reflex, no doubt. But beyond that passing tribute, “dry and beggarly” Champagne remained a stagnant social backwater –until the importation of capitalism.

Did you know that the Muslims invented capitalism? The original dollar was the dinar. Muslims formed the first stock companies, the first banks and offered the first lines of credit. Very astute, these Muslims; because they were promoted based on talent rather than on blood lines. So the hereditary kings of Christendom were behind the eight ball on this one. Which is why it wasn’t until after the Northern Italians profited from the capitalist tricks they picked up from their Islamic trading partners that Northern Europe was finally opened for business.

The Champagne Fairs really got running smoothly about 1270, and they resembled the NASCA season. Every January the season opened at Lagny. This was followed by the Fair at Bar-sur-Aube, the May Fair in Provins, the “hot air” Fair at Troyes, then back to Provins for a second fair, a fair at Reims, and the “cold air” Fair at Troyes in November. Six towns and about a five weeks for each fair - a week for the set up; stocking the warehouses (the Fairs were strictly wholesale), establishing bank credit (everything was financed by the Italians), partnership contracts were signed, rates of exchange were agreed upon and stalls set up, where the actual business would be conducted. Then there would be a week concentrating on cloth sales (60 European towns sold their wool only at the Fairs), followed by a week of leather sales, a week for spices, and a closing week of hard commodities, grains, salt and metals. Then there would be a week taking delivery and paying debts and sharing profits, before moving on. It was a huge clockwork enterprise that developed over a century. But what made it all possible was that evil, evil, evil horror of all horrors to any modern capitalists – BIG GOVERNMENT!

As is noted in Wikipedia, the Counts of Champagne guaranteed “security and property rights of merchants…ensuring that contracts signed at the fairs would be honored throughout (Europe). The Counts provided the fairs with 140 Guards who heard complaints and enforced contracts…weights and measures were strictly regulated.…” The French King even granted free and safe conduct to merchants traveling to and from the fairs, for a cut of the profits, of course. It all functioned because the Counts of Champagne established the fundamental structure without which capitalism cannot exist; regulation.

It seems, having grown up in a capitalistic system, we assume a free market is the natural state of affairs. It isn’t. Regulations create the market. Regulations define the market. Regulations maintain the market. And when the regulations are not maintained and enforced, the market collapses. And the dinars hit the fan when control of Champagne passed from the reliable Counts to the King of France, Philip IV; the George W. Bush of medieval Europe.

You see Philip was drunk on his own hot air. To finance his dependency he spent his entire life looking for the next bank account to plunder. He gained control of Champagne province when he married 13 year old Joan I, the Countess of Champagne, in 1284. The Fairs supplied him with enough money for wars against the English and two wars in Flanders, one of which he won. The Guards became political appointees, who bought their offices from the King, and who became addicted to bribes just like the King. Tariff’s were now levied on every wagon load of goods bound to and from The Fairs. And internal border crossings, each exacting a tariff, began to multiply across France as Philip’s losses increased. Philip destroyed the Fairs by removing the regulations that defined the market, and piling on taxes not tied to their profits. And just as the profits from the Fairs began to drop off, about 1306, Joan died. There is some mystery about why. Some say it was while giving birth; some say that Philip had her poisoned. I’ll bet it was both.

A year later, Philip expelled the Jews from France - after seizing their property of course. A year after that, on October 13, 1307, Philip wiped out his debts to the Knights Templers by arresting all of them – and seizing their property, of course. Later, when their Grand Master refused to admit to even more hidden wealth which Phillip was certain the Knights had, Philip had him slowly barbecued, Texas style.

And then, because there wasn’t anybody left still doing business in France to steal from, Philip began seizing Church property. The church objected but that only slowed Philip down, it did not stop him. And when a French Cardinal was elected Pope, Philip had him placed under house arrest in Avignon, thus ensuring Philip could now plunder all the church accounts he could reach.

By the time Philip died of a stroke in 1314, he had reduced France and Champagne to a disaster area. The Fairs were history, France and the Champagne were broke.  A bright, brief shinning light had been snuffed out by greed and stupidity wearing a crown.

Things did not begin to improve again for the backwater province until 1688, when the Abby of Hautvillers received a new treasurer and cellar master, Dom Pierre Perignon. Pierre did not invent champagne. He did not discover it. In fact he saw it as his personal obligation to turn it into a dull flat dark wine. He failed miserably – Thank God. But it was Perignon who made champagne drinkable.

I should point out here the obvious, which is that until the 20th century far more people died drinking water than from drinking booze. Every drop of water was filled with pathogens, bacteria and assorted filth. ‘Passing water’ was not an idle description. You were safer drinking your own urine than from a clear rushing mountain stream. You still are. Without the addition of alcohol or chlorine, quenching your thirst with water is playing Russian roulette with bullets in five chambers.

Farmers, working the best soil available, grew wheat and hops to brew beer. And monks, who usually established their monasteries on poor soil, grew grapes and fermented wine. Without a source of potable water, meaning a drinkable fluid, a monastery could not survive. Without a decent tasting wine to sell, a monastery could not thrive.

After 47 years of – dare I say it? – religious attention to detail, Pierre turned the haphazard blending of wines in the Champagne region into an art. He perfected the making of a white wine from the best of dark grapes, the Pinot Noir mixed with the Chardonnay. Under Father Perignon the cuvee, or the vat, in which each blend was made, became the measure of Champagne, the equivalent of its vintage. He added an English bottle, stronger than the French ones, to restrain the 90 pounds of pressure per square inch generated by all that carbon dioxide farted out by the yeast. And by the time he died in 1715 Dom Perignon had created something close to the Champagne we drink today.

Today, just down the road from the Abby of Hauntvillers, lies the village of Epernay, on the banks of the river Marne. Within a few square miles of L’Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, in ssome 200 million bottles yeast is happily frarting away. Those bottles of that “weird and foaming” wine, make Epernay in “dry and beggarly” Champagne, the richest little village in France.

And they might have made it there sooner if Philip IV had just stuck to the rules, and gotten drunk on the vino, instead of the bubbles.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A LIFE IN SERVICE


I would say the 1870's were a very hard time for the women of Fort Abraham Lincoln. First there was the Saturday of June 25, 1876, when over two hundred and twenty of their husbands were left dead and mutilated on the windswept hills overlooking the Little Big Horn River. They called that Custer's Last Stand, but it killed several of the Custers. But the horror of that day would have been simple to deal with compared with the later problem. That happened in 1878 when the fort's women gathered to bury one their fellows, a wife and resident of "Suds' Row".  And on that day those poor women saw something which they had never expected to see where they saw it. And they must have been very confused. Very confused. When someone dies you wear black. But what do you wear when you find testicles on a dead mare?

Picture America as she was approaching her centennial year. She was a nation of about 45 million people. And even though they had no internet, no ipods, no eletricity, no running water, no antibotics and no gummy bears, they were not that much different from the 300 million who reside in America today. On May 5th, 1875 pitchers for the Washington baseball team surrendered twenty runs to their opponent. This was the fifth time they had achieved that mirserable distinction, in just the last five games. They could have been the direct ancestors of today's Washington Senators. But, perhaps in response to those and similar debacles, that same year Boston first baseman Charles Waite introduced the first baseball glove. The vast majority of machismo players, who caught bare handed, mocked Waite as a member of the 'kid-glove aristocracy', much as owners of the N.F.L. have resisted the idea that repeated blows to the head might be reducing the long term intellect of professional football players.

In 1875 the moralizing "Our Boys" opened on Broadway.  It followed the adventures of an Englisman and his butler and their pair of disapointing sons. A century and a quarter later the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" mined this same comedic vein, but better. And like a latter day "Lost", Jules Vernes' 1875 novel, "The Survivors of the Chancellor" told an episodic science fiction adventure story of a British passanger ship, lost at sea. The most popular song of the day consisted of the repeated lyrics, "Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children. Carve dat possum, carve him to de heart." Ala "Who Let the Dogs Out", this 19th century chart topper was offically entitled,  "Carve dat Possum". 

Oh, the future was coming. Just the year before, in far off Germany, Dr. Ernst von Brucke had suggested that all living organisms obeyed the laws of thermodymamics. He was wrong, course, since very few humans, other than politicians, behave like big clouds of hot gas. But Doctor von Brucke did invent the field of psychodynamics, which, while a medical dead end in itself, was to have a great impact on his student, Sigmund Freud.

But Freud's discovery of the subconcious mind and repressed psychosomatic phobias and dreams about locks and keys and mik maids and bows and arrows was still a decade in the future in 1875 - which was shame because a little Freud sure would have helped those poor ladies at Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1878. Or maybe not.  

The fort was on the west bank of the Missouri River, across from Bismark, North Dakota, where the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks and the telegraph lines ended because the "Panic of 1874" had bankrupted the company. The army post was at the very edge of the famous "Frontier West", and home to about 650 men and some 300 women attached to the U.S. Seventh Cavalry regiment. Robert Marlin tried to describe what kind of desperate people who would sign up for a year's service in such a place. “Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks. Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem…."

A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. Should he be such a glutton for punishment as to re-enlist, this was raised to $15. The trooper was now a “50-cent-a-day professional” soldier.  And it was a very long day, starting "...at 5:30 a.m.,” wrote Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00 p.m. with the bugle sounding Taps.”

The average recruit in the Seventh was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and about 10% had suffered from some form of healed head trauma, making him eligable to play in the NFL. Twenty-two percent of the privates had been in the service for less than a year.  And few of them would re-enlist. Lord knows, the diet did not help.

Each soldier received each day 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread and less than an once of ground coffee. Every ten men were to receive per month; 15 lbs of beans or peas, 10 lbs of rice or hominy, 30 lbs of potatoes, 1 quart of molasses, 15 lbs of sugar, 3 lbs 12 ounces of salt, 4 ounces of pepper and 1 gallon of Vinegar. This was not a diet, it was a ration, and had as much flavor variation as "Spam, spam, spam and spam".

As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. They were as much in service of their country as the soldiers they served. And the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress; a roof over her head, food in her belly and a new start in life.  And even tho it needed them, the army was not likely to encourage the women to stay a single day longer than necesessary.

Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerbility of such women in “Battle Cries and Lullibies; “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho describing how she had been arrested, charged as a murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed (afterward) was an axe…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon."

But the scramble to hold onto the fragil level of security a blue uniform provided only partly explains the woman known to history only as "Mrs. Nash". Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1866, she took up residence along “Suds Row” as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or one of the many other skin diseases common at the time. Besides earning a small income as a washer woman, Mrs. Nash showed talent as a seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. After she built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife “few births occurred (on the post) without her expert help”.

But there is no record Mrs. Nash ever served as a prostitute. This was something not uncommon for the laundresses who needed the extra income but who could neither bake nor sew, and who showed more talent for the other half of the midwife equation. And as a practical matter prostitution by laundresses was not activily discouraged by the officers. This was the frontier and the only other option for amorous release by a trooper was with either his fellow troopers or the horses. Homophobic troopers tended to shoot first, and just say no afterward. And although the horses never complained, they were kind of important to survival on the plains and animal husbandry was discouraged. So prostitution by the laundresses was tolerated as long as the woman did not become really good at it or "notorious".

In short Mrs. Nash was a valuable member of the unit, and the rumor was that she had amassed a tidy little nest egg, too. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again.
Still it was natural that Mrs. Nash would be encouraged to follow the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory, in 1872. 
 
That was the year she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker”, or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer, younger brother of the regimental commander George Armstrong Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so.  During that year Libbie Custer, wife of the General noted “…a company ball...(was) organized...Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant partners”.

Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Libbie wrote that Tom Custer was very “put out” by this desertion. Persumably so was Mrs. Nash. But she did not remain so for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan. She kept a bright and tidy home for John, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds, and they were both a significant part of the post’s social life.

Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her conditioned quickly worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and re-dressing. The ladies reluctantly agreed. Who would dare to argue with a dying woman, to her face. But after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th the women decided they could not show her such disrespect.

Two of her closest friends began to strip her, in preperation to washing and re-dress her body. And that was when they made a most unexpected discovery. Underneath the veil and the dress and the petticoats Mrs. Nash was a man. The Bismarck Tribune went so far as to headline a story, “Mrs. Nash has b---s as big as a bull!”

Dispite the story being gramatically incorrect (Mrs. Nash no longer had any testicles at all, ownership having been returned to the manufacturer) and since the story was clearly based on hearsay and unqualified medical opinion, the eastern papers picked the story up, and you know how that goes. Every yahoo with access to a printing press felt obligated to pontificate. The less they knew of the facts the more opinions they had. Public morality is, it seems to me, an excuse for being ignorant, loudly. And in this case the volume was a thunderclap in a drought.

When poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of innocence and ignorance fell upon deaf ears. Quickly his grief, and the ridicule and the questions, asked and unasked, became too much to bear and two days after returning from patrol to find his wife”dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on November 30, 1878, shot himself to death with his rifle.

John Noonan now lies buried now in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone identical to all the others who died in the service of their country on the Western Frontier.  And rightly so.

But there is no headstone (no grave) for Mrs. Nash. There is no memorial of her years of service to the unit, of the babies she delivered, of the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" media to encourage her, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of being revealed, in exchanged for the privilage of living as God made her, internally and externally, perfectly and imperfectly. She was proof that with all our technology and insights and smothered under blankets of public morality, we are today just as screwed up as our ancestors  were.
 
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Sunday, November 01, 2009

NOT SO FAMOUS LAST WORDS


I think Gaius Caligula was the stupidest Roman Emperor of them all. According to Tacitus, who was never wrong about these things, in 41 A.D., after having been stabbed by his own bodyguards, the sovereign lunatic’s last ravings were a statement of defiance; “I am still alive!” Playing opossum never seems to have occurred to him. Neither did offering money to his assassins. Listen, if you are already falling to your death, what could be the harm in trying to fly? It's probably not going to work, but what are you afraid of - looking foolish? If your own bodyguards have just stabbed you why not at least try keeping your mouth shut until some guards who don't know you well enough to hate you yet, happen by. Needless to say, the instant his highness issued this update on his peronal health the bodyguards finished the job. What an idiot.

Last words such as those are self defining; you are dead because you deliver them. Consider Billy the Kid’s last words, delivered into a darkened bedroom he had just entered. Billy was looking for a little comfort in the arms of Paulita Maxwell. But Paulita was bound and gagged on her bed. And sitting in the dark next to that bed was Sheriff Pat Garritt and Paulita's brother, Pedro. As Billy stepped through the door somebody made a sound. Billy asked, “Who’s there?” And Garritt responded with both barrels of his 12 gauge shotgun, at close range. That may be the ultimate definative answer to that particular question.

There is a school of thought that last words reveal some insight into character. I’m not referring to suicide notes or pompous words meant for posterity, but the spontaneous utterances of those who know they are facing an imminent death. As one example consider Thomas de Mahay, the Marquis de Favras, who in 1790 was handed his death warrant as he climbed the steps to the guillotine. Thomas actually spent his last moments on earth reading the document, as if he were looking for a loophole. And his last words on earth were addressed to the clerk who had handed him the legal justification for his execution. The Marquis interupted his own demise long enough to point out the offiical, “I see that you have made three spelling mistakes.” That was not a helpful remark if he was hoping for a delay in the proceedings, but it did tell us a great deal about Thomas. As did the immediate observation of the clerk, who must have been heard to utter, "Touche".

Or consider the final words of Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor, the first female member the English Parliament. Lady Astor awoke on her deathbed to discover her family had gathered around her. Quite logically she asked, “Am I dying or is this my birthday?” Unfortunately, the family’s response was not recorded, and I am the kind of person who wonders what they replied to that question.

I have also wondered about the last words of Margaretha Geertfuida Zella, the little Dutch girl better known by her stage name, Mata Hari. She was a dancer who became a stripper because, as she admitted, “I could never dance very well.” During the First World War she became a famous spy merely because she was so bad at it. It is not clear even today who she was spying for, if anybody.

But at 5:00 A.M. on October 15, 1917, as she stood in front of the French firing squad, Margaretha was asked if she had any last words. Her reply was, "Il est incroyable."
This roughly translates as “This is unbelievable.” And then the idiots shot her. They did not even ask what she meant by that. What was unbelievable, unbelievable to whom? I would like to know. What, they couldn't take five minutes to ask?

There is a story told about the last words of Pietro Arentino, the father of modern pornography, and thus one of my personal heroes. Pietro was a good friend of the painter Titian. And it was helping out his friend that got Pietro killed. In 1556 Guidobaldo Il della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino, hired Titian to paint a portrait of his wife, Giulia da Varno. Titian needed the money, as usual, but the problem was that Giulia was not only middle aged but she was also “vain and ugly” and rich, and prickly about her looks; a very dangerous combination. If the portrait didn’t look like her she would be offended and Titian might be dead. If it looked too much like her, she would be offended and Titian might be dead. Luckily for Titian, Pietro came up with the solution.

At Pietro’s suggestion, Titian hired his favorite prostitute from a local brothel, and had her pose for the painting of the body. But in place of the prostitute’s head he painted a glamorized portrait of Giulia, based on paintings done of her as a young woman. It sounds like a bad joke but in the hands of a genius like Titian such absurdity can become a piece of great art, i.e. the Venus Urbino.

Giulia was thrilled with the finished product. But when the Duke saw the painting for the first time he was even more deeply affected. He confided, wistfully, to both Titian and Pietro, “If I could have had that girl’s body, even with my wife’s head, I would have been a happier man.” Pietro laughed so hard he had a stroke. No, he really did.

They carried him to a room out of the way and when it became clear that he was not likely to recover the Duke called for a priest to administer extreme unction. First the priest prayed for Pietro, and then offered to hear his last confession. But since Pietro was still unconscious, the priest continued, anointing Pietro with holy oil on his eyelids, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet, each time repeating the chant, “By this holy unction and his own most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sin you have committed.” As the priest finished the prayer, Pietro’s eyes flickered open and he clearly said, “Now that I’m oiled. Keep me from the rats.” And then he died. There was no doubt about what he meant, tho. And that he had died laughing.

And then there are last words for which no explanation is required because the act of dying is the explanation; such as when the great amateur botanist Luther Burbank delivered his last words on earth; “I don’t feel so good”, or the poet Hart Crane who delivered his last words, “Good-bye, everybody”, from a ship’s railing just before he jumped into the sea. What more explanation could you require from such people?

But I retain my deepest affection for the actor, poet, playwright and historian, Ergon Friedell, a physically ugly little man whose last words revealed a sweet and gentle heart, to go with the quick and facile mind he had exhibited his entire life. On the night of March 16, 1939 two Nazi thugs arrived to arrest Egron. His crime was that he was Jewish. And that he had mocked Hitler and the Nazi jackboots from the stage. While his housekeeper delayed them at the front door, Ergon climbed onto his bedroom window ledge and before he jumped to his death warned those beneath him in the darkness, “Watch out, please.” Then he jumped.

God bless him.

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