Sunday, November 22, 2015

A mere bump in the road

Out of context, the news that a minority of right wingers in Northern Ireland have shot down the right of gays and lesbians to marry there is just another story of homophobia.   You grit your teeth, shake your head at the latest evidence that gay rights are a long hard slog, and ask yourself, cynically, what else is new?

The good news is at least you can drive from Belfast, in Northern Ireland, to Dublin, in Ireland Ireland in a couple hours and get married there, now that marriage rights for lesbians and gays have just taken effect.  It’s a small place, Ireland.  Even if you are one of the 72 people who live in Ballyvoy in County Antrim, it’s only 54 miles to Londonderry and across into Ireland to Bridge End, in County Donegal.  I can’t say for sure, but it’s likely that at least one person from among its population of 497 might marry you if you ask them right.

I know.  The problem with that is you still have to put up with being a second-class citizen, since your straight friends can pop down to the courthouse and do it locally.  Northern Irish folk need to keep up the good fight.

68% of the residents of Northern Ireland are in favor of the right of lesbians and gays to marry, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, after four attempts to get the law passed, finally succeeded on the fifth earlier this month (Nov. 2).  The fact that the Assembly voted for gay rights is telling, since fifty-six of the members are Unionists, members of the party associated with the conservative Protestant majority.  Only 43 are Nationalists, the more liberal (Catholic) bunch, who would like Northern Ireland to reunite with the Irish Republic.  People who understand Irish politics better than I do may have an explanation for why the Catholic vote here should be pro-gay and the Protestant vote anti-gay.  It would seem that the Catholics of the North are as good at separating themselves from official Roman Catholic church doctrine as their fellow Irish to the South.

But the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” cover a multitude of sins.  The Protestants are mostly of the evangelical sort, doctrinaire literalists who ignore injunctions in the Bible against divorce at the same time they come down on gay people, missing the irony that their finger-pointing at “sinners” makes them a shoddy bunch of hypocrites.  As usual, the terms Protestant and Catholic actually misrepresent what’s going on.  The majority of both Catholics and Protestants are in favor of full rights for gays and lesbians.  Only the officials of the Roman Catholic Church – not the people in the pews – and the literalist-type evangelical radical branch of Protestant Christians would conserve the pre-enlightenment view of homosexuality as wickedness and use every means at their disposal to get their way.  When you hear of the religious war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, keep in mind how this important social and legal rights issue reveals the real line is between open-minded progressives (Catholic and Protestant majorities) and “the way we’ve always done it” conservatives (Catholic and Protestant).

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, one of the conservative lot pushing to prevent gay rights, has this remarkable quote on their website from Matthew 24:12: “Jesus describes days in which, “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”  Lawlessness will be increased?  No, dear.  The Assembly created a law actually extending rights to a minority previously denied those rights.  It was you guys who thwarted that extension.  And, that bit about love growing cold?  You need to get out more.  And read the papers.  Those gays knocking at the door are celebrating their love in all sorts of ways.  Just look at these crowds in Dublin.   

The subversion of the pro-gay vote reveals a conservative minority ignoring majority rule to get their way, a move neither Christian nor democratic.

You remember the “Troubles,” as the Irish called the three decades of deadly strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, which led to 50,000 casualties, including the loss of well over 3000 lives.  And the happy day when everybody agreed to lay down their arms and form a two-party peace government, where the two sides could agree to disagree on the fundamentals without offing each other.  Part of that agreement involved a safety valve.  In case the legislature should find itself on the verge of legislating against the rights of minorities, either party can file a “petition of concern” to protect that minority.

We are familiar in the United States with the chutzpah of the religious right when it insists that its right to discriminate against gays and lesbians is a “religious right.”  Well here’s the same thing going on in Northern Ireland.  The Protestants are a majority in Parliament.  But when some of their members vote with the opposition and the total number of yes votes is sufficient to get a law passed, the Protestants then submit a petition of concern,  effectively vetoing the majority decision.  What the petition does is change the rules and require a majority in both parties for the vote to win. 

Badges?  We don't need no stinkin' badges!  Or, in this case, rule by majority. We’ve got a god-given right to stop those gays any way we can. A mere 30 members of the Assembly can force a petition of concern.  The U.S. is not the only country where the Tea Party tail wags the congressional dog.

So the law extending the right of gays and lesbians to marry in Northern Ireland will be delayed a while longer.  And more pounds and pence will be spent on legal battles to fight this obstruction and bring progress to the fifth and last segment of those islands off the coast of France which are England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland – by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.  Already there is talk of taking the case to the courts, the way same-sex marriage rights were finally established in the United States.  At least three couples are prepared to take their case to the European court of human rights, if necessary.  

Meanwhile, down in the Republic of Ireland, they’re taking a more welcoming approach to same-sex marriage.  If you are already in a same-sex civil partnership, you don’t need to wait the usual three months after getting a license.  You can get married right away. 

The slog continues.  But these days, in the land where the fairies have beards and will fix your shoes for you – I’m talking about the leprechauns – there’s a rainbow to be seen down at the end of the road.

May that road rise up to meet you.  And the wind be always at your back.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hoàn Lão to Hpa-An (and back)

Dear CF (Chosen Family) Nephew:

I just realized that one of my favorite* CF Nephews (i.e., you) was living at just about the same latitude as one of my favorite CF Nieces, on the 17th and 16th parallels, respectively.  Moreover, you are less than 9 degrees of longitude apart, you share the same Indochinese peninsula, the same Southeast Asian land mass, the same Indomalaya and Australasian ecozone and phytogeographical floristic paleotropical region, and are thus readily accessible to each other by car, horse, tuk tuk, shank’s mare, or in your particular case, motorbike.

I have therefore taken the liberty to provide you with directions from  Hoàn Lão, Vietnam to Hpa-An, Myanmar (Burma) by road.  Should you find yourself taken with a wanderlust and some time on your hands, the trip, Google informs me, can be made in about 19 hours – two very long days, or three days of reasonable driving time, not accounting for traffic or possible tie-ups at border crossings, (i.e., better figure in some extra time.)  About 262 hours, if you make the trip on foot.

Here’s how.

Hoàn Lão
1. From Hoàn Lão, take the Ho Chi Minh highway, the TL 561, west to the Lao border.  It’s a tad over two hours, 142 km. Last rest stop before the Lao border is the Cửa khẩu Cha Lo at 12A, Quảng Bình, Vietnam, two minutes from the border.
2. Cross the border into Laos and continue on the same highway (there is only one, and from now on it is called Highway 12) to the Mekong River.  Crossing Laos should take you about two and a half hours (158 km).
3. Stay on the highway and cross the river on the Third Thai-Lao Friendship 3 Bridge into Thailand where Highway 12 continues, running concurrently, at times, with Highway 212 and Highway 22.
4. Stay on Highway 12/212/22 until you see the turn-off to Highway 2028.  Turn left onto Highway 2028 (Actually, it’s still Highway 12).
5. Just past the Artificial Insemination Station (Kusuman District, Sakon Nakhon), Highway 212 ends where it joins Highway 22. Turn right onto Highway 22 (which is actually still Highway 12).  The trip across Thailand from the Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Mae Sot (แม่สอด in Thai) , on the border of Burma, should take you about 12 hours.  It’s 858 km.
6. Stay on Highway 12 and at the Thai border town of Mae Sot, cross the Moei River into Myawaddy ( မြဝတီ in Burmesein Myanmar/Burma.  You are now in Kayin State, of which Hpa-An is the capital.
7.  From the border, it is about two hours (149km) on the AH1 to Hpa-An (ဘားအံမြို့ in Burmese).

Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll google you an answer.

Hope your motorbike has a soft cushion.

To get back, simply retrace your steps.

Have a great ride.



*All my CF nephews and nieces carry the designator “favorite”.

P.S.  You might want to check for insurrections, revolutions and weather disturbances before starting out.  And do make sure you contact CF Favorite Niece and tell her you’re coming.  She travels a lot and it would be a shame to go all that distance and find her vacationing in Bangkok.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

American Museum of Tort Law

My home town when I was 10 
Preamble: This blog entry comes with musical accompaniment, so in another window go to
same place today, 65 years later
 and listen as you read.  And when “The Hills of My Connecticut” finishes playing, you may want to avoid the following linked YouTube, “DaStreetz,” which would only bring you up to date on the current state of my birth state.  Which is not necessarily a good idea.  With some things you really ought to stop while you’re ahead.

Friend Linda just sent me an e-mail with a heads-up on a major event in my hometown of Winsted, Connecticut.  Major events don't occur in these little outposts of the industrial revolution very often. There was a flood in 1955, when I was 15, that wiped out one entire side of Main Street.  The devastation was so bad it never got rebuilt.  By the time I got to high school they had torn down the train depot, where you once could take a train into New York or Boston, and the only time we left town was to go to Nova Scotia where my father could hunt deer and moose and my mother could be even more bored than she was in Winsted. We dreamed from early on, my friends and I, of escape from this Nowheresville.  It may have been hopping in 1900 when there were 100 or more factories and 9000 inhabitants in Winsted, but by the 1950s they were all moving South, where factory owners were able to find non-union labor.  Winsted and all the towns of "brass valley," where the nation's clocks, woollens, toasters, pins and brass products were generated, just sort of went to sleep.

But apparently, not forever.  These days Winsted folk can wake up in the morning knowing their little town has a brand new museum.   A Museum of ... wait for it... Tort Law!   The only one of its kind in the world.  Just opened a couple weeks ago.

Winsted has two sons of some repute.  And they actually grew up together.  One is David Halberstam, of Norman Mailer and Pulitzer Prize fame, author of The Best and the Brightest, the book that tore to shreds the ill-fated policies of Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam.  The other is Ralph Nader, who I assume needs no introduction or explanation.

Going back to Winsted always sends me into Future Shock.  I don't do it physically anymore; my 45th and 50th high school reunions were enough.   This online visit was no exception.  First thing I did was go to Google Maps and search for 654 Main Street, the address of this new museum. After some considerable confusion (see the addendum below) I discovered it was once a bank, and it is right next to the Methodist Church where I was a teenager wonder-organist.  Or so my grandmother believed, anyway.  I doubt I could have identified the bank even then.  Not on a teenager's radar.  So Ralph apparently gave up the original plan of using the old mill his family owned - I have no idea why anybody would want one.  In high school I worked part time in the Hosiery, pushing carts of yarn hither and yon, trying hard and often failing not to get the wheels caught in the gouges in the old wooden floors.

In any case, Ralph seems to have tossed that idea in favor of "one of the most attractive buildings in Winsted," if its web page can be believed.  It has "most of its original architectural features still in place...great stone work...dramatic custom trim work in the lobby," etc. etc. "Would make a great restaurant, dramatic office or gallery."

Ralph's father ran a restaurant.  We used to stop by the Highland Arms after school when I was in high school, well before we knew we would be citing that fact for the rest of our lives, so his three children could really go places, and I doubt he spent much time considering that possibility.  And, by the way, if you want to hear Ralph's reminiscences of growing up in Winsted, there's a wonderfully nostagic interview available here.

Go to the museum’s Face Book page and have a listen to Ralph explaining how excited he is about tort law, and why he thinks it is worth a museum.  It will make you glad you voted for him and maybe stop blaming him for giving the election to George Bush.  He blames it on Gore.  I blame it on the Democrats who didn’t vote.  He also explains why we are wrong to sneer at the million-dollar settlement to that woman who burned herself on McDonald’s coffee. (Turns out it was only half a million.)

You may have guessed that I’m a huge fan of Ralph Nader.  Not just because we both grew up in the same small New England town and went to the same high school – and because I ate many meals after school at his family’s restaurant.  But because he represents the values of New England a lot of people laugh at (because they seem so hokey) until they get past the obvious stereotypical thinking.  People we knew as Republicans when I was a kid.  The kind of Republicans Lincoln would have been proud of.  Also sometimes known as "Rockefeller Republicans."  And a whole bunch of other self-sufficiency types.  Not the knuckle-draggers who have taken over the party today.

Full disclosure: I have not been to this museum.  So this is a heads-up, rather than a well-founded recommendation.

But if you’re still driving around looking at the New England fall foliage, Winsted is plunk in the middle of the “Foothills to the Berkshires” and takes no back seat to anybody when it comes to the splendors of autumn in New England.  I can definitely recommend that.

And I’ll wager, the American Tort Museum will not be a waste of time, either.

The Museum was featured on the NPR comedy program, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where guests hear three highly unlikely stories and have to guess which one of them is actually true.  Comedian and satirist (and all-around right-of-center kind of guy) P. J. O’Rourke was brought in as one of the story-tellers:

O'ROURKE: What is it with painfully stupid museums? I mean, there is a roller skating museum in Nebraska, a hammer museum near Juneau and a dentistry museum in Baltimore. And now there's one that hurts even worse - Ralph Nader's The American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Conn.
O'ROURKE: I mean, America needs a museum of tort law like France needs a museum of military retreat.
O'ROURKE: On display is a 1963 Corvair - unsafe at any speed except this one, it's bolted down - plus fascinating interactive displays about asbestos, flaming Ford Pintos, overheated McDonald's coffee and car seats without seatbelts. There's even a kiddy corner full of toys called Toys That Kill. I'm going to the American Museum of Tort Law today and trip and fall on the doorstep.

The guest got the right answer.  This story was the real one.

Nader spent years raising money for the museum and put in $50,000 of his own funds.  Eventually he reached something like two million dollars and was ready to roll.  Most of the donors were lawyers, although Phil Donohue is listed among them as well.  Punk rock-and-roller Patti Smith, an old friend of Ralph’s, sang at the opening ceremony.  Patti speaks of her love for Ralph as a person who can make you feel "happily ashamed."  

Nader’s goal is easily flipped off as an ego-trip.  How often do you get a museum in which all your professional successes are featured displays?  Like the Corvair of Unsafe at Any Speed or the infamous Ford Pinto with a gas tank that was likely to blow up if the car was rear-ended,  or the Dalkon Shield, the unsafe intrauterine device.  Seatbelts.  Air bags.  So much history of consumer protections.  People today may be more likely to remember the McDonald’s coffee story.  But what you remember says a lot about whether you see Nader's life work as heroic, and to what degree.  And, of course, whether you can forgive him for running for president.

The idea came to him, Nader says, when a friend asked him once what happens to all those splendid exhibits he constructs when making his presentations in court.   What a shame, he commented, to let all that work go to waste.

The museum, if you've followed his career, probably honors Nader’s loyal team of Nader’s Raiders, as much as it does Nader.  And while it may boost his ego in the process, it is also proof that Nader, now 81 years of age, is still going about his business poking a stick at irresponsible government. When asked why his name appears nowhere on the face of the building or the exhibits, he demurs. The successes represented here are due to the labors of thousands of hard-working lawyers, jurors, brave witnesses.  It's an American story, not an individual's story, he says.

Lately, the world has come to see lawyers as down there with car salesmen and TV evangelists. And that's a terrible injustice, Nader feels.  Tort law, he insists, is democracy on the ground level, where the little guy gets somebody to listen to an injustice that has befallen him. A "tort" is a wrongful injury. It is deserving of a remedy. "Tort reform" is in the zeitgeist.  Big government is trying to persuade us that the cost of medicine, health care, and ultimately higher taxes, are all due to "frivolous law suits" and the American self-centered focus on rights instead of responsibilities. There's no doubt Americans are a litigious lot. But Nader is convinced if we're not careful, the pendulum will swing too far in the other direction and the little guy will lose out.  He has described the conservative agenda of tort reform, which seeks limits on lawsuits and financial awards, as “the cruelest movement I’ve ever encountered.” 

This museum is Nader, at age 81, still going strong.  Still looking out for the little guy.

To see photos of the exhibit, click here.  For Nader's website, click here.  For his blog, click here.

Cost of admission is $7.00.

photo credit: Winsted in 1950


If you type in “654 Main Street, Winsted, CT” on Google Maps, you’ll discover that the town has a number of eccentric features (besides Ralph Nader, I mean.)  One of them is that little pockets of the neighboring town of New Hartford, some six or seven miles down the road to Hartford, has Winsted's zip code 06098 mixed in among its own New Hartford 06057 zip code, and if you are not in possession of the right four-number code that follows the main zip code, you’ll go astray.  The Museum is at 654 Main Street in Winsted, 06098-1552, and not 654 Main Street in New Hartford 06098-1507.  Got that?

06098 zip code, Winsted
and New Hartford
06057 zip code, New Hartford
showing spots of 06098
That’s actually a minor eccentricity of the place.  A bigger one is the fact that Winsted is actually a city within a town.  The City of Winsted is contained entirely within the Town of Winchester, and in fact, on some maps you won’t see Winsted at all.  (See below.)  Just Winchester.  Somewhere in Winchester's history somebody decided to call this settlement between Winchester and Barkhamsted by the head of one and the ass-end of the other.  Winsted not only isn’t a real name (there’s no General Winsted who fought in the Revolutionary War, for example), it doesn’t even have exclusive rights to its own zip
See?  No Winsted!
code.  That means if you travel down Route 44 you go from Winsted 06098 into Barkhamsted 06063 and then into New Hartford 06098.  Quiz on Monday.