Monthly Archives: May 2020

Personal History – Another Epidemic in my Life, AIDS/HIV – COVID19 #8

When I wrote my earlier entry about epidemics, I didn’t mention AIDS, and if asked, I might have said that the AIDS epidemic had little direct impact on me. But upon reflection, I realized that, though my contact with it was largely through one person, the impact was major.

Bill T hired me for my first (professional) job. I was 23 years old and had a new MSci degree in Chemistry. That might sound like a stretch for a job with the title “Environmental Protection Specialist”, but the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had left the country short of engineers, so the new Specialist title was created, open to anyone with a BS degree. Technically, I was overqualified (no one seemed to care). But more significant (and some people cared!), I was female. Engineering was a male dominated domain. The job I wanted was in a field office. I would inspect factories and institutions for air pollution sources, and investigate air quality complaints. Some potential employers would have discouraged me. Bill T didn’t.

Why did Bill give me a chance? Maybe because he was part of a different minority. He suffered from a chronic illness, hemophilia. In 1973, it was legal to discriminate against both women and the chronically ill. I’d already lost out on a well paid summer job because it was assumed to be unsafe for a woman to be in charge of a public recreational facility.

Bill T was working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (in part) because the private sector didn’t hire anyone whose health care might become expensive.

Bill talked freely about the ways hemophilia (aka “bleeder’s disease”) complicated his life, expressing some surprise that he had survived into his 40s. His background blood level of clotting factor was low but survivable, but any minor injury could cause persistent bleeding. A transfusion of clotting factor would resolve a bleeding episode, but damage might remain. His knees were stiff from bleeding in the joint, and his gait was somewhat awkward. Bill was a popular supervisor and colleague, and his staff was somewhat protective of him. We walked at his pace, and there was usually someone near him, in case he stumbled or lost his balance. This wasn’t planned. It just happened.

Bill offset the expense of clotting factor by donating his plasma for research, as he carried an unusual antigen.

I left my job in Pennsylvania in 1975, keeping in touch with Bill at the occasional professional meeting. Around that time, AIDS emerged globally. In the US in 1981, it was documented in gay men in San Francisco. In 1982, it was determined to be associated with two other populations, hemophiliacs and Haitians. I began to wonder what had happened to Bill.

For hemophiliacs (dependent on blood products for survival), AIDS was a catastrophe. The population of hemophiliacs in the US (1980) was around 10,000, and it is estimated that more than 4,000 of them died. In 1987, techniques to make donor blood safe were implemented, and the death rate dropped.

What did happen to Bill? The last time I saw him was around 1985. We met at a professional society meeting. Almost the first thing he said to me was “I don’t have AIDS!” I was spared the awkwardness of asking. I lost track of him after that, and his name was far too common for me to track him now.

Maybe I’m stretching the point when I say I got an important professional break from a man whose own professional trajectory had been impacted by discrimination. But I know that getting that job wasn’t a sure thing, despite my qualifications. I was lucky. Thanks, Bill!


“Holding the Line – Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis” by Guy M. Snodgrass – Covid19 #7

Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon with Secretary Mattis

This is another of the books I grabbed on my last pre-Corona visit to the public library, and one of the last that I read.

This is the third book I’ve read about the American military in the past six months. I didn’t plan this! See All Hell Breaking Loose (about climate change) and Inside the Five-sided Box (about Secretary of Defense Ashe Carter, immediate predecessor of Mattis).

Secretary of Defense James Mattis was appointed by President Trump on Inauguration Day in 2017. He disliked the nickname “Mad Dog” Mattis, used by Trump and some members of the media.

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

After his resignation at the end of 2018, Secretary Mattis (with coauthor Bing West) wrote his memoir Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. It was published in September of 2019. Snodgrass’s memoir about speechwriting for Mattis Holding the Line was delayed by Pentagon censorship until just AFTER Mattis’s book was released.  Holding the Line contained no classified material, but Snodgrass had to sue to publish his book. (Wikipedia)

All of this I learned AFTER reading Holding the Line. I’m pleased to report that Mattis’s book is also available at my library, which is closed due to the pandemic. It’s worth having (at least) two views of the Trump/Pentagon relationship through difficult times.

Holding the Line doesn’t really explain why Mattis accepted Trump’s offer to be Secretary of Defense. Mattis had retired from the Marine Corps as a four star general in 2013. When he interviewed with Trump in November of 2016, he found that he and the President elect disagreed on most matters of policy, including the use of torture, specifically waterboarding. Equally substantive, Mattis and Trump disagreed profoundly on the role of military allies in maintaining US security. Mattis felt that “America First” shouldn’t mean “America Alone”. Mattis was quoted as saying “The country that fights without allies, loses.”

Snodgrass, a Navy aviator, came to work with Mattis as his speechwriter and eventual Communications Director. In terms of age, they were a full generation apart; by military status they were separated by five ranks. Snodgrass had previous experience as a Pentagon speechwriter for an Admiral. His most notable accomplishment was the 2014 authorship of a study on retention of naval officers, a major concern of the military since around 2008.

Why a speechwriter? The Secretary of Defense oversees the vast American military, enacting the policies of the Commander in Chief, aka POTUS. Every move he makes, every word he speaks, carries weight and is intensely scrutinized not just in the US but around the world. NOTHING goes unscripted.

Mattis intended that his public statements be entirely aligned with Trump’s positions. Would he have accepted the job, if he had known how often important policy issues would be announced by Twitter? Snodgrass worked exhaustively to keep up with White House policies, but the occasional surprise made Mattis’s office a tense and difficult workplace.

During the early Trump administration, Mattis was part of the small group that Washington insiders sometimes called “the adults in the room”. The “adults” expected and intended to prevent some of President Trump’s apparently impulsive schemes from being implemented. Four other men fell into this category. They occupied the positions of

  • Secretary of State,
  • National Security Advisor,
  • Director of the National Economic Council and
  • Director of Homeland Security.

By March of 2018, Trump has dismissed each of these appointees. Mattis was the “last adult standing”.

It’s not clear to me why Mattis held on through 2018. He resigned after Trump announced unilateral withdrawal of the US military from Syria, against Mattis’s advice. Trump tried to claim Mattis had “retired”, but his resignation letter makes his position perfectly clear. He disagreed with the Syria pullout.

One thing this book makes very clear is the incredible mystique that surrounds the Presidency. (I’m pretty sure it is NOT what America’s founding fathers intended.) Even very intelligent and level headed leaders (like Mattis) act awed by the office, even when they are critical of the office holder.

The New Yorker magazine just published (April 27) a 14-page article entitled “Abandoned: America’s Syrian allies suffer after the US withdrawal”. One big problem was communication. In the absence of clear information, American military officers had provided reassurance to their counterparts, not themselves believing that Trump would side with Turkey against the Kurds. The article makes evident the extreme complexity of Syrian civil war and the ambiguousness of American involvement. Trump had promised to disentangle the US from the Middle East, without a plan, other than the intention to eliminate the ISIS caliphate. (The author of the article, Luke Mogelson, writes for the New York Times and won an award from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Watch for his work.) I recommend this article.

Much to think about, especially now, as we face a crisis of incredible magnitude in a totally different arena, international public health.

“Comedy Loses a Home: The Shuttering of the Upright Citizens Brigade” by Emma Allen, The New Yorker, April 22, 2020 – Covid19 #6

Comedy comes in many flavors. My Chicago based comedian son practices “stand up”, which is solo comedy performance. Improvisation (a team effort) ranks very high among aficionados!

The Upright Citizens Brigade was/is a “laugh factory” in the grand tradition of Second City and Comedy Central. The UCB “brand” grew to include a comedy performance group, theaters (in NYC and Los Angeles), a school, a television series, movies and a book, The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. It was the closing of the theatres, on March 12 in the face of the pandemic, that inspired this wistful New Yorker article.

UCB provided training and community to many aspiring comedians and produced some highly successful performers.  Amy Poehler, one of the original UCB partners, said

“We all think we’re in control of our lives, and that the ground is solid beneath our feet, but we are so wrong. Improvising reminds you of that over and over again.”

In 2016, author/editor Emma Allen took an eight week introductory course at UCB and wrote about it, also in The New Yorker (Sept 5, 2016). The title was “You had to be there”. UCB has been described as resembling a cult or twelve-step program or even a pyramid scheme. Initially uncomfortable and embarrassed, Allen ended up enjoying her classmates and their activities. She said it was like going to summer camp, but you didn’t have to sleep in the same room with your buddies.

Her final comment, “I felt that the class had made me a more careful listener, and that I recovered better after doing something embarrassing in public, like falling on an icy sidewalk.”

I enjoyed these articles so much I looked up Emma Allen and learned that (at the young age of 30) she is the cartoon and humor editor of The New Yorker! On a site called The Gentlewoman’s Club, I found this from an interview:

Q: What’s it like to have a job in the humour business during perhaps the least funny moment in modern American history? 

Emma Allen: Well, first, you have to satirise power in order to chip away at it, and we’ve never had greater goons in charge, so you can either hide under the covers and despair or go after them with the funniest and most scathing lines you’ve got. And then, when every single second seems to bring even more depressing news, humour is a great source of relief.

This was written well before our present calamitous situation. Long live humor! The Upright Citizen’s Brigade will survive. Comedy is making a comeback!

Rumor reached me that a club in Kansas City plans to open TONIGHT. Activity will be scaled down. It’s an experiment. But live comedians will perform in front of a live audience! Good news!

“Dead to the World – Sookie Stackhouse Book 4” by Charlaine Harris

Dead to the World (Sookie Stackhouse Book 4)

291 pages, published 2004, ACE Fantasy/Mystery

Vampire fiction… not my usual genre, but the pandemic is a great excuse for reading absolutely ANYTHING! As vampire fiction goes, this book is old. No cell phones!

I was pleasantly surprised by how well this book held my attention. It’s highly inventive. Sookie is a young woman “gifted” with telepathy. She can read minds, a mixed blessing which makes her a misfit.

Background… The invention of synthetic blood allowed Vampires to“come out” as part of the human race, because they can thrive without killing, at least most of the time. Other supernatural creatures, like werewolves, shapeshifters and even fairies (!) are beginning to mix openly with the general human population. The action takes place in rural Louisiana.

Sookie’s only living relative is her reckless, charming brother. He disappears, and Sookie’s efforts to find him are complicated by a power struggle between witches and werewolves. With one chapter remaining, I couldn’t imagine how the book would end.

I liked “Dead to the World” so much I may dig up the earlier novels in the series, all of which have “dead” in the title.

“Lovely War” by Julie Berry

“Lovely War” by Julie Berry

This book is marked YA for Young Adult, a category that troubles me because most of the young adults I know read all kinds of books.

For starters, I hate the title of this book. War is not lovely. I’m often accused of being overly literal… And we are often told we need to read/think/live outside our “comfort zones” in order to grow/learn/whatever. Was this title an intentional manipulation? I’m not in the mood for such.

This book is a romance about World War I. It is interestingly framed by a “trial” among Greek gods, the Olympian crowd – Aphrodite, Apollo, etc. The interventions of gods into the lives of mortals are interesting.

Fine! But is it necessary to be so didactic? I don’t think the reader needs to be told (in 12 pages of historical notes) what to think about war, race, gender, ageism, etc. The Bibliography (14 titles) is quite sufficient for the reader who wants to go deeper into that time period. Doesn’t Julie Berry realize that her readers can find supporting/interpretive/analytic material with a few keystrokes?

Right now, a wrenching romance about World War I is not what I need. Maybe I’ll finish this book later.

I just want someone to tell me a good story!