All posts by alicemg2013

Critique of a Public Hearing – NJ Senate Health and Human Services Committee – February 7, 2019

This isn’t my first such critique! Much lip service is paid to democracy, and we are all enjoined to be active citizens. Public hearings should be a constructive opportunity to influence policy, but too often they are regrettably mismanaged.

I’m pleased to report this hearing, which dealt with the difficult topic of medical aid in dying, was well organized. It began almost on time. The committee members made only brief introductory remarks.

All citizens and organizations that wished to be heard were required to sign up in advance. In some ways, I didn’t like the fact that a citizen was required to indicate “pro” or “con” at that stage, but the committee plainly intended to balance the remarks.

Speakers were seated at a table for four, facing the committee of seven members. The chairman

  • announced a strict limit of 2 minutes per speaker,
  • controlled who was permitted to speak and
  • intended for the hearing to last one hour.

Initially, four speakers were called in support of the proposed legislation. Then four opponents. Most of the early speakers were affiliated with organizations, generally as officers. They continued to alternate “pro” and “con” until a total of 24 speakers were heard. In three cases, committee members had questions for speakers, but these were brief. In one case, the issue was interpretation of data.

Next, the names and stances of all others who had requested to speak were read into the record. I don’t feel strongly about the fact that I was not called to testify. Other people defended my point of view.

The committee voted. I don’t think the outcome was a surprise. The committee approved the legislation to be sent to the State Senate and Assembly for vote.

I approve of the way the committee handled this hearing. My time was not wasted.

I regret to report that Trenton still looks and feels like a DMZ.

I haven’t told you my position. Stay tuned. It’s too important and too complicated for a quick review.

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“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: a Flavia DeLuce Novel” by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery

I’m glad that I chanced upon Book 1 of this series, which now includes ten novels. Flavia de Luce is a delightful young heroine. Her absent minded and distracted family ignore the fact that Flavia has a passion for chemistry and, particularly, for chemical poisons. Their house is big enough that her laboratory is delightfully private. When a stranger is murdered in the garden, Flavia’s curiosity and scientific knowledge lead her to investigate.

Unexpectedly, she learns that her widowed father carries a burden of guilt and regret that almost shatters his life.

I appreciate the fact that Bradley writes about someone who loves chemistry and ISN’T a hopeless weirdo! I studied chemistry, and understand the appeal of things that sizzle and change color. I wish I’d had more chances to fool around in a laboratory like Flavia’s!

I plan to download the next novel in the series for my upcoming train trip. Just right!

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

“Under the Wire – Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment” by Paul Conroy

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Final Assignment

Journalist Marie Colvin (1956-2012) was an American war correspondent who reported on some of the most violent conflicts of our times – in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Libya. By the time she reported on the Syrian Civil War with photographer Paul Conroy, she had achieved iconic status. Blinded in one eye by a grenade in 2001 in Sri Lanka, she wore an eye patch and had a reputation for courage and fierce, incredible persistence. Her story has been told in books and a movie.

Conroy’s account of the Syrian Civil War (from the rebel viewpoint) is hard to read. The statement “war is hell” hardly begins to describe the conditions and suffering Colvin and Conroy saw and ultimately experienced. They escaped from the besieged rebel city of Baba Amr, but returned at Colvin’s insistence. She and a French photographer died there. Conroy escaped a second time, with terrible injuries and severe PTSD.

For another look at this book, see this blog entry. The author highlights important aspects of the narrative that I won’t attempt to cover.

Why do journalists do expose themselves to such nightmarish danger? Their answer is simple. They do it to bear witness, to see and to tell the terrible story of human suffering and in particular the suffering of non-combatants and the innocent – children in particular. Throughout Conroy’s book runs outrage and the frantic hope that someone is listening, that someone will intervene on behalf of 28,000 civilians trapped in Baba Amr.

Less idealistically, war zone journalists are adrenaline freaks, hooked on the chemistry of fear and often on other chemicals as well – alcohol, nicotine, etc. But where would we be without adrenaline freaks? Who would rush into burning buildings or fly into space? I don’t “understand” this behavior, but I respect it.

In this blog, dated October 9, 2013, you will find my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why does Baker choose that date as the end of civilization? Because it marked the end of a distinction between soldiers and civilians during war. He blames the change on the emergence of aerial bombardment as a primary military tactic.

  • Aerial bombardment was rarely accurate.
  • Each side killed civilians.
  • Accusing the foe of breaking the old “rules of war”, both sides proceeded to bomb cities indiscriminately.

The climax was the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action was NOT unanimously approved by American citizens.

The Syrian Civil War may be (almost) over, but peace is not assured and any form of “reconciliation” seems remote. The magnitude of human suffering is staggering.

If civilization ended in 1945, what has been going on since then? Civil wars seem more and more common. “Guerrilla” war is a new norm. Wars are no longer declared, and are not fought by countries, but often by “non-state entities”. There’s a great deal of “proxy” behavior. Superpowers are competing for influence and access to resources. The invention, production and distribution of weaponry has become a large and permanent feature of the global economy. What else? I’m not educated enough to take this analysis further.

The federal government shutdown – day 33 – work without pay

I wrote about the federal shutdown of 2013 on October 14 of that year. That was a 16 day shutdown, and I don’t know if employees worked without pay. 

I work (part time) for a public institution in New Jersey, and it is NOT LEGAL for me to work without being paid immediately. I’m limited to working 944 hours per fiscal year. One year in June, things got busy and I knew I would run out of hours a few weeks before the new fiscal year started. I OFFERED to continue working and collect my pay later. The answer was…

  • NO
  • Against the law
  • Can’t do it
  • Don’t even think about it!

A supervisor (in another department) who ignored this rule and delayed payment of (consenting) part time workers was reprimanded and had a strongly worded letter entered into his personnel file. He wasn’t fired, but he accepted a job offer elsewhere a short time later.

So this is the law in the State of New Jersey. Why it is possible for federal employees to work without being paid is completely INCOMPREHENSIBLE to me.

What’s behind the New Jersey law? It protects the employee.

  • The employee might (for who knows what reason) never get paid.
  • Employees might be pressured into accepting delayed paychecks.
  • A person might work enough hours to trigger mandatory benefits of which they would be unaware (and that the employer doesn’t want to pay).

To me, the present inability of our government to function is very, very ominous.

Atlantic City Women’s March, January 19, 2019

I made my decision to join the AC March at the last moment, on the morning of the event. Before that, I was distracted by family troubles. So I woke up on Saturday, ate well and dressed warmly, and headed to Atlantic City, without a buddy or a single protest sign.

I reached the New Jersey Avenue assembly point early, and the March started late. I got chilled but had fun, greeting many friends among the arrivals, talking to people about their signs, organizations and interests, and doing my usual informal demographic analysis. (I’m always, in some sense, counting and classifying. Is good or bad? Comment below.)

About half the participants came as identifiable members of organizations. These are some of the groups I spotted:

  • League of Women Voters
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Sororities – African American
  • Students in Stockton University’s Master of Social Work program. Stockton supported the March with free parking.
  • Young Muslim women, identifiable by head scarves
  • Men (maybe 5% of participants)
  • One Women’s Center (Cherry Hill)
  • Two dance corps
  • Local Democratic politicians
  • At least three unions – CWA, NJ Education Association, and government employees
  • Furloughed government employees – FAA
  • Admirers of Ruth Bader Ginsberg
  • Feminists and “girl power” advocates
  • Families
  • Immigration activists

Atlantic City suffers from poverty and political corruption, but the Women’s March brought out its wonderful diversity and multigenerational energy. I think it deserves the term “intersectional”. Of course, the various “stakeholder” groups have occasional disagreements, but the March was a positive and unifying event. The organizers dedicated it to the honor and memory of Fanny Lou Hamer (1917-1977), one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Delegation that bravely challenged the Democratic Party at its 1964 national convention in Atlantic City.

FINALLY we started to walk. My feet warmed up and I forgot about the weather. We moved south towards Boardwalk Hall by fits and starts. There was some chanting, usually “call and response”, my favorite being

  • “What does democracy look like?”
  • “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

I was surprised by the lack of organizational guidance. I expected to be told “We have a permit and these are the conditions – stay on one side of the Boardwalk, cooperate with marshals and police, medics are on hand…” I remembered marches when no sticks (for signs or banners) were permitted. And no bags or backpacks…

There was no supervision except for an outside group performing some “marshal” type functions. I spotted about 25 women and men, wearing bright orange hoodies with “The PeaceKeepers Global Initiative” written on the back and “I AM PRESENT FOR PEACE” on the front. They were extremely tentative in giving directions about leaving a clear lane for non-participants and emergency vehicles. I wondered if they were in any way ready to deal with the unexpected.

On the other hand, it was unlikely that they would need to. The Atlantic City Police were present in good numbers and seemed entirely supportive of the March. If they had been hostile to it, they could easily have called the whole thing off, since Governor Murphy had declared a statewide emergency based on the expected harsh winter storm. But with his Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver a featured March speaker, was that going to happen? Nope. (The state wide march in Trenton, regrettably, was cancelled due to weather.)

I’ve written about my fear of demonstrations – see blog entry dated January 22, 2017 that includes my grim memories of a march that “went bad”. Any public demonstration can “go bad”. There was little at this March to trigger my anxiety. I kept an eye out. The crowd wasn’t so dense that I feared being trampled. There was no counter protest.

But what was it like in Charlottesville, VA? Would I have bailed out because of the huge crowd and the terrible, obvious hostility?

When we got to Boardwalk Hall, I hesitated to enter because I was tired and didn’t want to have a problem getting back out. After most of the marchers had entered, I followed. Upstairs, I finally had a chance to ask one of the orange garbed marshals who they were and how they got involved. I approached a small group and found a man who was happy to talk and who introduced himself and his companions, including a woman I probably should have heard of, a singer. They described themselves as a “local” group that supported community organizations, especially those oriented towards youth activities. He was truly local, and we uncovered some mutual acquaintances in the facilities management field. We might have talked longer, but I really needed a restroom break, and my new friends were able to send me in the right direction.

Refreshed, I entered the Ballroom. (We would have been a very tiny group in the giant main arena used for shows and sports events and national political conventions!) The rally was slow to get underway, and the crowd began to disperse. I circulated, finding more friends to greet and sizing up the speakers on the podium, but I ran out of energy, and left.

I made a quick Starbucks stop to fuel up, and walked alone to my car. Later, a friend offered the opinion that the speakers I missed had been long winded and, in some cases, repetitive. In other words, I’d have been fine if I had brought my needlework!

An event like this March takes so much work! I admire the organizers and think their efforts bore fruit. A large crowd in Atlantic City supporting progressive interests is a good thing, and I look forward to seeing what happens next for my region. New leadership is emerging.

“The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.” by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.: A Novel

I’ve read four books by Neal Stephenson.

  • Seveneves
  • Anathem
  • Snow Crash
  • Cryptonomicon

All are LONG. I almost bailed out on Cryptonomicon. Too long, too many characters, etc.  (See my blog entry dated September 27, 2017.)

Stephenson benefitted from having a coauthor on this book (or maybe he found a better and more assertive editor, or maybe he just improved). The story had a more comprehensible narrative course. In the middle, the plot began to wander, but the ending was captivating. And “only” 742 pages!

A recurring theme in D.O.D.O. is language. Protagonist Melisande Stokes is a hardworking graduate student in ancient and classical linguistics when she is recruited by a “shadowy government entity” to translate some very, VERY old manuscripts. Everything about her work is “classified”. Soon she is deeply involved with…time travel and witchcraft!

The authors single out academics and government administrators for scathing parody. If you’ve worked in either of those settings, you may enjoy seeing pomposity punctured.

I haven’t read Nicole Galland, but I’m looking forward to checking out her contemporary and historical fiction.