Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Yankee at the Seder: a book review

I was first attracted to Elka Weber's "The Yankee at the Seder " by its artwork by Adam Gustavson, and then the subject matter intreagued me. As described on Amazon:
"The war is over, and everyone is saying the South lost. Ten-year-old Jacob would give anything to show those Yankees that not all Confederates are ready to surrender.

He gets his chance when he sees a real, live Yankee soldier walking down his street, on leave for Passover. But before Jacob can think of a way to be brave, the Yankee asks him for a piece of his matzoh.

This true story about a Jewish Yankee soldier joining a Southern family’s Passover meal shows how common values can overcome even the most divisive differences. Gathered around the seder table, the group discusses what it means to be free--a subject as relevant today as it was during the War between the States and during the Exodus."
I decided to give it a read; the viewpoint of a Jewish Confederate child seemed wholly original. Here's how I reviewed it:
This book goes beyond its subject matter by its wise choice of point of view: a child who naturally resents an invader.
The result is, first of all, entertaining; a book that does not entertain has no value, for it will not be read. The deeper result is that the reader feels empathy for those who are in the wrong, for who cannot understand that the child-narrator would naturally identify with his parents? Even as we understand the wrongfulness of the boy's support of the Confederacy, we naturally understand how he would come to this feeling. This can lead to some confusion, for do we not naturally resist empathy for those in the wrong?
The author resolves this confusion in the course of the Seder discussion. The customs of hospitality requires the boy to hear the adult viewpoints, and the Passover lesson gives ample space for discussing the Civil War in polite language. The former slaveholder suggests that Passover shows the rightfulness of rebellion, but the reply is that Passover is about the wrongfulness of slavery - the Seder hosts must not have liked being reminded that they had played the part of Pharoah! The tension is resolved through the lesson of the plagues: even though the wicked must be punished, we cannot feel at ease knowing that they have suffered.
What a masterful set of lessons, and relevant in so many realms today!
I doubt that most children will completely understand all that this book says, and that's o.k.; since it concentrates first on having a story, they may pick up the ideas and images for use later as they grow wiser. I certainly hope to do so myself.
Not being Jewish, I have not the first idea as to whether this book is theologically correct, but I will recommend it to all my friends who want to think about morality and the right attitude toward those who were - or perhaps still are - considered "enemies"!
I enjoyed the story, and its wise treatment of moral complexity ... how to give hospitality to an enemy, and how to treat with respect a family who was part of a great wrong ... makes this a good book for all ages!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Is Raising Taxes on Our Troops Really A Good Idea?

There's a New Front in the War on Vets:

Should we raise taxes on their survivors?
For decades, Marines at Camp Lajeune and their families were given drinking water tainted by carcinogens. This caused many sicknesses and some deaths. After endless studies, Congress is thinking about paying for the health care of the survivors, but there's a problem: money.
How should they raise the money? Who should pay?
Who do YOU think should pay?
If you thought that maybe this was a problem that ALL Americans should contribute to solving by paying taxes, think again! Everybody "supports the troops" but who wants to pay taxes! Which members of Congress wants to sponsor a bill that has the word "tax" in it?
The Caring for Camp Lejeune’s Veterans Act, S.277, will provide medical care for almost a million service members and their dependents who were exposed between 1957 and 1987. But it doesn't pay for the care by any means you might expect. Instead, the idea tacked onto the bill at the last moment (and without any puiblic hearings) by Sen Richard Burr (R-NC) is to raise the money from the troops themselves! 
Raise the money from the troops themselves! Genius!!
This is not technically a tax hike because it doesn't have the word "TAX" in it, but it is a way to make servicemembers pay the government more money ... so, after all, it is a kind of tax. Here's how it works:
Source: Military Times
Servicemembers, veterans and their families get lousy pay, but they have Commissary privilege: the right to buy groceries and stuff at "Commissary" stores that sell at cost, plus a small markup to cover expenses. This can be a significant benefit to poverty-stricken troops, many of whom are on foodstamps anyway. The bill seeks to streamline the Commissary system by merging it with the post exchange system, which has higher prices (because it is intended to raise money for programs like the USO.) This will result in Commissary customers paying the federal government hundreds or thousands of dollars more per year - and without any offsetting pay hike. What a brilliant way to increase taxes without voting on a bill with the word tax in it!
You may say that, even after the proposed tax hike, Commisaries would be a good deal ... but the Commissary has always been part of the pay package for servicemembers. If you increase the cost of their groceries but don't increase their pay, you are effectively taxing servicemember pay to cover health costs - are you going to increase their pay to compensate? And the veterans will be paying more too: do they get a pay increase as well?Is this really a good idea?
War Surtax:
Paying for our wars, and their effects like the poisoning of Camp Lejeune, should not be that complicated. If we're going to fight two-and-a-half wars, we need to pay more in taxes to cover them. The money is coming from somewhere, and it's just dishonest to pull it out of the pockets of our troops ... and/or our children. We could solve the problem with a simple War Surtax: whatever you pay in federal taxes, add a little more to help with our wars. If we don't want to pay a War Surtax, maybe we should re-think fighting these wars.
What we shouldn't do is raise taxes on our troops to pay for the results of our wars. 
Let Your CongressCritter Know What You Think On This. If you don't act, it's going to happen!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Boy And His Shop-Vac: Getting the Heating System Ready for Winter.

OK, this is way more
vac than I need,
but I kept it out of landfill!
Sometimes I am just a little too enthusiastic about my tool finds at the Mercer Island Thrift Shop, but I always find a home or a use for them ... eventually!
Today, I cleaned the furnace ductwork in preparation for winter, in part on the theory that "The time to dig a well is before you are thirsty!". and in part inspired by this week's Change The World Wednesday Challenge:
"This week clean and test the furnace. Did you know that your furnace needs cleaning? Yep ... it collects all kinds of dust and debris which not only affects it's performance but could cause a fire. Before you really need the heat, get out your owner's manual for instructions on how to clean it. No manual? Check here or call a furnace maintenance company. If you have a gas furnace, have it professionally inspected once a year."
This sounds like a grind, but it was just an excuse to get out the Too Large Shop-Vac! My furnace is in pretty good shape, but I noticed last year when the heating system started up, there was a dusty smell that went away after a few days. The most likely reason would be ... DUST! I figured there must be dust collecting in the system all the time; if only a little bit of it gets past the filter, over the course of a year it could really add up. It would settle out during the summer but when winter hits, the first run of the system would stir it up again, which I wanted to avoid.
I hauled out the filter and cleaned it by hosing it down good outside and letting it dry thoroughly. It's made of something that should be good for a long while if I treat it right. I then pulled all the grills over intakes or outputs to the system, cleaned them, and ran the shopvac hoses as far down the system as I could reason. I got a cup or more of dust out of the system - better it go into the vac than our lungs!
Dusty Fixture ...
The second biggest source of dust was the bathroom ceiling fixture, which combines a line and a heated fan. It disassembled easily but the dust on all the wires couldn't have been good for the fan motor. I'll have to remember to clean it yearly - if the motor ever burned out it'd be a bear to replace!
Cleans up nice!
The absolutely biggest source of dust was in the cold air intake, which is located just outside the bathroom. There was a long pile of dust which suggested that, as it drew air from the house, if fell would within the first yard or so of the system. This might be o.k. in normal operation since the air should go through the filter before being recirculated, but I can see how the initial pulse at the start of the season might pick up the dust pile and overwhelm the filter. The shop vac made short work of that!
All-in-all, this was a good use of an hour or two of time. I have a much better idea of how the system's parts go together, and feel better that I've checked for fire hazards and so forth. The system should be a little more efficiently having been all cleaned out. I even found a quarter that had slipped down a vent.
But ... to be honest ... it was mostly noisy fun with the vac!