As we say above, this is mainly for friends and family. Michael's blog on the Middle East can be found here. Most of our other links can be found below on the right, but be sure to keep up as well with our family website, here. We also have discussion groups for genealogy, links to genealogical information on us, and our (semi-private) Flickr and YouTube accounts for those who are invited. You can also get a quick-navigation guide here.

Friday, January 30, 2009


As I mentioned, I've started a new blog for the Middle East Institute, and have spent a lot of time getting that started and filled with content, so naturally blogging on family matters in the evening isn't my first priority. It was an odd week anyway: two snow days where I missed work, plus my day off today, means I was only in the office two days, though I did work those days at home -- that's when I put the blog together.

Maybe I'll do more homeblogging this weekend.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snow Day II

Another Snow Day. Actually an ice day. So home again. This time I spent much of the day getting my new blog for work up and running, so those of you with any interest in my Middle Eastern commentary can check it out at this site. We're not quite ready for prime time yet, but then I don't imagine this private blog is going to start a land rush over there.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009



At any rate, Sarah no doubt was thinking in all caps and exclamation points. I, less so. I stayed home, though I probably should have gone in. Tonight is worse: ice coming in. The snow, by contrast, was nice.

Sarah played out in it quite a bit, and wanted to be out there most of the time she wasn't, but I found it pretty cold and tended to hover in the family room where I could keep an eye on her without going outside the whole time.

A photo of work on a (never completed) snowman, with, as usual, no face showing. And for old time's sake another link to Sarah's first snow back in 2002.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Birthday Weekend

Yesterday, Saturday, was Tam's birthday. It's been a busy week, starting with the MLK holiday and then inauguration day, ending (sort of) with Tam's birthday, though Monday will be Chinese New Year (Year of the Ox) which we also note in this household for obvious reasons.

Yesterday we went downtown and, after a visit to the Chinatown Fuddrucker's (go ahead, try to imagine it), which Sarah declared "awesome," having finally discovered that McDonald's is not actually the apotheosis of the hamburger, we went to a Chinese New Year's celebration in the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art/National Portrait Gallery, which cohabitate in the great old Patent Office Building where Abe Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held. We got there in time for a martial arts demonstration and a lengthy lion dance.

For dinner, Tam's choice as the birthday girl was a local Melting Pot, the fondue chain. Sarah had never been to one, and we splurged a bit on the "big night out" or whatever they call it -- cheese fondue, then a bunch of entrees (steak, salmon, lobster, chicken, pork, etc.) to dip in the oil, then a chocolate dessert. Sarah again declared it "awesome" -- pretty much her generation's standard strong approbation -- and suggested we go there often (not, for financial reasons, all that likely).

Today was a quiet day. Sarah had a big book report project to finish and, at 11:30, is not yet in bed, still working on it. We're stunned by the level of some of the third grade homework.

More soon I hope. Happy year of the Ox.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day & thoughts on the Presidents

Okay. I've been offline for a while. For the past several days the laptop has been dead due to a water spill: I was going to use today's holiday (here in DC at least) to take it in to Best Buy, but I managed to get it back up through my own efforts and, I hate to admit it, what seems to be a pretty good self-fix program in Vista, much as I want to hate Vista like everyone else does.

Today was Inauguration day and, following hard on yesterday's MLK holiday, the symbolism is hard to ignore for those of my generation: especially watching John Lewis and a (very aged) Joseph Lowery (87!) at the ceremonies brought a lot back.

I haven't written about Obama yet, and have just been swamped (not counting the downed laptop) for the past couple of weeks: two illnesses, including getting a sonogram of my knee (no, my knee is not pregnant) and other stuff.

Everyone tends to forget that it wasn't just the old Confederacy that had segregation. Brown versus Board of Education was a Topeka, Kansas case. Until Brown my home town had segregated schools, and long after had segregated movie theaters and plenty of restaurants that didn't serve blacks. Missouri was border south and you could still tell it. The Catholic schools weren't segregated, but we only had, at most three, and much of the time only one, black kid in the school -- all from the same family.

When I was in the early grades (first, second, third) I wanted to invite my whole class to my birthday party. Apparently (I don't remember this firsthand, only from being told) I was upset that Skip Gant in my class couldn't come. He was black. Years later my aunt said to me, "you didn't understand why a black kid couldn't come to your party." You know what? I still don't. We weren't a racist family, but everybody was concerned about what the neighbors would think. Skip's a bigtime criminal lawyer last I looked. Nashville or somewhere after a long stint in Chicago. Most of the kids who came to the party are still in Joplin doing, I'm sure, good things. But I'm sure Skip makes more than I do, or most of them. Good.

I've been amused in reading some commentary in various newspapers, especially of the small town variety, where people are saying, "what do you mean calling Barack Obama African-American. He's half white." They don't realize that they're showing the same kind of attitude (though reversed) that imposed the "one-drop rule" and said that if you had a black great-great-grandparent, you were black, and no arguing. It's a way of denying that the President is black, though he wouldn't have been able to board a bus in Birmingham in 1953, or, as he said in his inaugural, his own father 60 years ago would have been refused service in restaurants in this very town where he's being sworn in. (Even 50 years ago he couldn't be served at some lunch counters here or be hired as a bus driver by DC Transit: those were battles fought in the 60s.)

And one of my favorite things about the "one-drop rule" is the exception enacted by the Virginia General Assembly. Virginia recognized only "whites" and "nonwhites" and sought to categorize Virginia Indians as blacks. But it did add an exception to the one-drop rule, saying that you could be up to 1/16 Indian and still be considered white, provided you had no other "nonwhite" blood. The reason for this? Many "first families of Virginia," including the Bollings, Galts, and I think some others, claimed direct descent from John Rolfe and Pocahontas, and thus under a pure "one-drop" rule, they'd be nonwhite. And we couldn't let it apply to them: Woodrow Wilson (one of our most segregationist presidents)'s second wife was a Galt, with descent from Pocahontas.

It's kind of like when apartheid South Africa declared Japanese "honorary whites." They needed their trade and money.

I've talked before about watching the fires of the 1968 race riots here in Washington, and I know Sarah (who is impatient with my lectures about the symbolism and meaning of all this) doesn't get why it means something to those of us who remember even the last vestiges of Jim Crow.

Tonight, putting Sarah to bed and knowing she's been saturated -- at school and by us -- with the symbolic importance of it all, I told her for the first time of the laws that restricted Chinese Americans in the Western states: that barred citizenship, intermarriage, restricted jobs, etc. I didn't want to make her feel inferior, or oppressed, but to let her know that in the black American struggle for equality we are all trying to transcend the stupid racial categories that have divided us. Again, the letter-writers saying that Obama is only "half-black" are rejecting their own old categories (a black great-great-grandparent makes you black) in order to deny that we have a black President.

Race, I feel, is simply a categorization, a social construct: sure, I and my daughter and Martin Luther King had major differences among us, but I also remember a moment back in 1978 or 1979 when I was asked to discuss Sadat's peace initiative with a group of folks in rural Maryland. (I'll omit the town's name.) Someone came up sheepishly afterwards and said, "I don't know who else I can ask this question, but no one ever explains it. Anwar Sadat: is he a black man or a white man?" My answer, more or less, was "I don't know. That's really an American question." It isn't, totally, though, to be honest. Mohamed Heikal in his book Autumn of Fury claims that the fact that Sadat's grandmother was Sudanese and thus "black" in Egyptian terms always influenced him. He may be right, but the book's attitude towards Sadat is so hostile that it needs to be taken with a grain of salt, or a whole salt shaker. Still, race plays more of a role in Egypt than anyone likes to admit, but "race" here means not some clearcut distinction but, frankly, skin color.

That's what it's long meant here, too. If you could "pass" no one noticed; if you were obviously dark you might have to prove you weren't "black"; it hasn't been that long ago people speculated about whether somebody had "black blood" in them if they were a bit tawny.It is of course easy for us white Irish-Americans who sunburn easily to understand some of the odd racial categories Americans still harbor, but having a daughter who is, so far as I know, pretty much "pure" (whatever that means) Han Chinese means that I'm conscious of the way many people still categorize "race". Even her late maternal grandmother used to talk about how she would have different Jungian "archetypes" than a "white" kid. I'm glad Sarah never heard such talk. She's as totally Americanized as any kid in her class.

My own favorite anecdote that makes me think we are finally moving into an era when -- well, gosh, we might even elect an African-American President -- is the story of one of her classmates coming up to me in the second grade. Said classmate I won't give the full name of but the last name is Nguyen and she is of course Vietnamese. She was a good friend of Sarah (and if you came in late, Sarah is from Hunan, China) and knew both Tam and myself, Irish and Anglo as you can look. The friend comes up to me and asks, "Sarah tells me she's adopted. Is that true?"

In short, she paid no attention to the fact that Sarah, ethnically, looked a lot more like herself than either of Sarah's parents. The kid just didn't see things in "racial" terms. Therein is our hope.

The favorite names of Sarah's classmates for me are two siblings whose Chinese last name I will change to protect their privacy, and call them Liam and Grace Wong. The last name is not Wong, but the first names really are Liam and Grace, and the mother is redheaded and Irish, and the father Chinese. I think the future belongs to the Liam Wongs of the world.

One of my closest friends from college, whom I'll call Bruce (because that's his name) married a lovely Japanese woman in Japan, and had two daughters. One daughter has married an African-American, the other a Chinese (Taiwanese)-American.

A generation or so down the line we're going to be every shade of the rainbow, but if I listen to Barack Hussein Obama we'll still be loyal to the principles of our founders and our founding documents. And, I think, that's what matters. Alexander Hamilton was born offshore (Nevis), illegitimate, and there's even some uncertainty about his racial "purity," Tom Jefferson of course seems to have been more racially tolerant personally than politically, and Warren Harding may have had a black great-grandparent, but so what? The only dud in the bunch was Harding, and hardly due to some unacknowledged ancestor.

But, of course, there is a problem with "identity" politics. If we knew for certain that Harding had a black ancestor, and if Obama hadn't been elected, would that be a reason for blacks to celebrate Harding? Hardly. Harding certainly never advertised the fact, and did nothing to improve black rights. And was, of course, corrupt as hell, except when he was sneaking his mistresses into the White House closet. In fact, the only positive statement I've ever seen about Harding is, "He looked like a President." Blacks will do well to claim Obama, not Harding, I think.

And then there's Buchanan. It must be a comfort to former President (how nicely the first word modifies the second) George W. Bush (and to Harding's ghost, for that matter) to know that despite a great many people's current opinions, historians are not likely to rank them below Buchanan in terms of the worst Presidents. Buchanan presided over the collapse of the Union, acceded to the Dred Scott decision within days of his inauguration, and, once Lincoln was elected, pretty much let the Union go down the drain.

Yet Buchanan has had a certain renaissance in recent years because he has come to be known as, probably, our only gay President. Some deny this: after all, he was just our only unmarried President, his one engagement was broken off by the lady for reasons she would not state and seemed horrified by, and he spent years rooming with Senator (later Vice President under Franklin Pierce) William Rufus King, and they were called by others (some say even called each other) Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy, and papers referred to them as "Buchanan and his wife." Okay, they probably were gay. Unlike, say, a recent book claiming Lincoln was gay, it really isn't a case of inferring things from vague clues: at least to a modern it seems obvious. Problem is, of all the Presidents for gays to claim, Buchanan is the most disastrous. He is the man who keeps Grant, Harding, Nixon, and George W. Bush from the bottommost place: when all of them left office, half the country hadn't seceded. (Though I understand the Buchanan home in Pennsylvania staunchly denies he was gay. Why? I would assume they don't get a lot of Buchanan-lovers, Buchanan wannabes, Dred Scott decision fans, and such flocking there. If they promoted him as our gay President they might get more tourists.) (Then again, it may be the defender syndrome we see with the whole Jefferson/Sally Hemings thing. The Monticello folks just won't concede that even the DNA evidence is conclusive: there must be some other male in the Jefferson family who can have done the deed, even though rumors at the time, known evidence of who was where when, etc. seems to point to it. Sorry, folks, my doctorate is in history, and avoiding the obvious thrust of the evidence is bad method. We'll never know if Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings' kids, or some of them, but some male Jefferson did, and we'll never know if James Buchanan and William Rufus King were gay. But history is not a criminal court where "beyond a reasonable doubt" is the rule of evidence (though arguably these two cases are beyond a reasonable doubt): it's more like a civil court where "preponderance of evidence" takes the day. And how did I get here from Obama?

Okay, some personal rankings (I exclude William Henry Harrison, who only served a month and was sick the whole time): Best Presidents: Lincoln, Washington, FDR, Jefferson and (okay, I'm from Missouri), Truman. Worst: Buchanan, Harding, Pierce, Nixon, Madison (as President, not as father of the Constitution), Grant (again, as President, not as general), and (provisionally since it's too soon to be sure) George W. Bush. John Tyler probably belos i here somewhere: only President repudiated by his own party. Hardest to categorize: Andy Jackson, despite the $20 bill, TR, JFK, LBJ, Polk. All were interesting, strong leaders with successes; all had failures and conflicts as well.

Best string in our history: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Van Buren.

Second best string in our history: FDR, Truman, Eisenower, Kennedy, Johnson.

Worst (one exception) string in our history: Harrison, Tyler, [exception for Polk], Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan. (= Civil War).

Second worst string: Andrew Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley.

Third worst string: arguably Wilson, then Harding, Coolidge, Hoover.

Fourth worst string: Nixon, Ford, Carter.

Most overrated Presidents: Madison, maybe Jackson, Grant in his own time, Wilson, possibly JFK.

Most underrated Presidents: John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Polk (until fairly recently), Andy Johnson, Harry Truman (in his time), arguably LBJ, Nixon and Reagan could belong here too.

Smarts: One can't avoid Kennedy's line to the assembled Nobel (or Pulitzer?) prize winners that it was "the greatest intellectual assembly under this roof, except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." But our only Ph.D. President was Wilson and, frankly, I am not a Wilsonian. Our last President not to graduate from college was Harry Truman, and I think he was one of our smartest guys: he knew more history than a lot of what LBJ liked to call "the Harvards." Herbert Hoover, an engineer, also had some claim to intellectual accomplishment. And that certainly worked well.

Some of our Presidents feigned lack of erudition for populist reasons: Dwight Eisenhower, who had been a speechwriter for goddamn Douglas MacArthur, had a reputation for fumbling with words and mediocre oratory: some of his biographers think it was fake. Harry Truman worked hard at the common-man theme, and Lincoln, of course, was a railsplitter who could quote the classics easily. Teddy Roosevelt was a namby-pamby elitist who wanted us to see him as personally wrestling bears, and LBJ was a shrewd politician who acted like a Texas clown when it helped. William Henry Harrison was born in one of the finest mansions in Virginia, and ran a "log cabin and hard cider" campaign centered on killing Indians. Reagan may come to be seen in this category as well. Except for Jefferson, the younger Adams, and Wilson, nobody who ran as an intellectual ever won. JFK ran as a touch football player, despite his quotations.

I therefore won't judge our smartest President (though Jefferson is on the short list). Dumbest President? Well, leaving recent figures aside until history has time to sift them out, let's say that wonderful string of Taylor-Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan, that gave us the civil war, couldn't have won a debate against Dan Quayle.

Coming soon: Franklin Pierce, "hero of many a well-fought bottle," the only President who ever ran down an old lady in the streets of Washington while both 1) drunk, and 2) commander-in-chief.

Sorry to you Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur fans, I never mentioned them.

Okay. Late. More sometime.



Sunday, January 4, 2009

99, 100...?

After posting the last post, the first of 2009, I happened to look at the archive listing (over in the right column) and noted that in 2007 Tam or I posted 99 posts, and in 2008 an even 100. Hmm... an increase of only one, and averaging in other words fewer than two per week. I'd like to do better but life keeps getting in the way. Sarah has expressed an interest in posting on her own (to give advice to her younger cousins, she says) so perhaps we'll do better in '09.

It also means that the last post, the first of 2009, was number 200 overall. This, I guess, will be 201.


Happy New Year?

Okay, by all available evidence anyone who actually reads this blog will have assumed that I vanished without trace in Philadelphia on December 27. That is not exactly what happened, but a whole lot of stuff intervened to stop postings.

Sunday the 28th Kate and Brenda had a lot going on so we spent the day as just the three of us, going to the Reading Terminal Market for lunch, then spending the afternoon at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia's natural history museum, seeing dinosaurs and other fun natural stuff. The Academy claims to be the oldest natural history museum in the country and so far as I could tell, is. We had intended to stop at the Franklin Institute as well, but didn't. The Academy took up the whole afternoon.

Then we got together with Kate and Brenda for the evening. They had focused in on a menu delivered to our hotel by a Chinese carryout which had low-sodium and otherwise healthy stuff on it, so after checking to make sure they had an eat-in capability we took a cab there. It was good enough as a Chinese carryout but obviously did not cater to eating in; there were about three or four tables, tea was served in styrofoam cups, etc. We ate and then adjourned to a tavern on the corner. This redeemed what could have been a rather silly side trip to a Chinese place, because Kelliann's Bar and Grill, as the reviews linked to note, is a real neighborhood tavern, the find you find easily in Baltimore or St. Louis or Cleveland or Boston, but that are pretty thin on the ground in DC (except in all-black neighborhoods). Irish (-ish) with a significant proportion of the people there in Eagles jerseys [the Eagles had just clinched a wild card slot in the playoffs that day: I see now they've beaten the Vikings, so they must be happy at Kelliann's], with flat-screen TVs positioned so that no one doesn't have a view, and all generally on the same channel. Though we'd all eaten at the Chinese place most of us ate something again. Kate had a peach cider (not exactly standard draft most places). Guinness was served slow-draw. A serious little neighborhood joint.

Since Kate was tied up all day Monday we decided to take a longer route home and avoid the I-95 corridor. I knew Gettysburg had opened their new visitor's center in the past year, so we decided to amble out through Pennsylvania Dutch country and down through Gettysburg.

I woke up Monday morning, though, with a sore knee and ankle. At first they felt like I'd twisted them, and perhaps I had. By Gettysburg I was limping and in some pain. I have a tendency towards gout, but medicate for it; this did not at first feel like gout, but my doctor has told me that if I stub my toe or twist an ankle, that can lead to gout in that spot. Sure enough within a couple of days it was swelling up. The doctor wasn't around during the New Year, but I took what pills I had and am limping back to normal now. Kind of put a damper on the new year, though, as my norovirus put a damper on the runup to Christmas. I only spent one day in the office in two full weeks -- on December 30, but wasn't exactly having a lot of fun some of that time.

Happy New Year. More as I can.