Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for December, 2015

Snap Out of It

December 6, 2015

Snap Out of It: 80%! 80%! 80%!

You know, if the Spanish government ever had a chance to try and put the Catalan issue to rest once and for all, if there had ever been a golden opportunity to hush the tide of independence enthusiasm, the period right after the 2014 illegal referendum, slyly renamed “Consulta”, was the perfect time.  But before I get to that point, let me enlighten you on how the vote came to being, because it really is quite comical.

    The Catalan separatists had petitioned the Spanish government the right to hold a referendum on self-determination.  The national parliament rejected the proposal on the grounds the constitution did not allow for it.  As a consequence, a playful battle of terms and nuances invaded the process.  Instead of calling it a “referendum”, Catalan leader Artur Mas, a man who seems bent on becoming the founding father of his own country, decided to refer to the plebiscite as a “consultation”.  In other words, they were just asking the people what they thought, on a Sunday, in the hope they could circumvent the prohibition. However, since the whole idea was being promoted by the regional government (which seemed wholley bent on being its own nation), Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, appealed to the Spanish Constituional Court to impose a determination, and the judicial body, in foreseeable fashion, concluded the plan was illegal.  Totally bogus.

      Mas, who, in addition to being bent of become the first president of a new nation, was almost equally bent on outwitting the rest of Spain, immediately called off the “consultation” but suggested that an “alternative consultation” be celebrated which could only be organized by non-official groups and associations.  From the nationalists point-of-view, the scheme was pure genius; from a centralist’s perspective, it was painfully frustrating and a touch childish.  For the Rajoy administration, it was a first-class conundrum.  Tension continued to rise as the date approached, but short of intervening directly through the use of force, a measure which would have spelled disaster for the national government no matter how you sliced it and was both strategically and historically unthinkable, there was little for the pro-Spain supporters to do but let it take place.

       From a pro-Catalan standpoint, this pretty much amounted to a win-win situation.  The faction based its actions on the ground they were defending their constitutional right to freedom of speech, and there is certainly something to be said for that.  As much as it irritates the rest of Spain, the Catalans do have a right to express their opinions and feelings.  And, no matter what happened, they knew that was going to be their sole argument.

       They also knew beforehand that the results were going to be in their favor by a landslide because the majority of the voters were going to be pro-independence.  Wouldn’t this be an ideal opportunity for the opposition to voice its, well, opposition?  Indeed, but that would also mean legitimizing a vote which had been rendered unconstitutional by the country’s highest court, so that option was pointless.

        What happened in the end?

        Approximately 6,300,000 people had the right to vote.  The pro-Catalan goups had extended suffrage to 16- and 17-year-olds, possibly figuring that the younger generations owned a deeper sense of independence since they had been born and educated in a highly pro-Catalan climate.  Of that number, 2,305,290 individuals exercised that right, of which 1,861,753 voters said “yes” to independence.  That constituted 81%.  A walloping 81%.

        The nationalists jumped for joy as they championed a victory for freedom of speech and their cause.  The central government cried foul, dismissed the consultation and its results as a non-factor, and vowed to take everyone and their grandmother to court for civil disobedience.

         Now, what I like about this information survey is that it brings together so many elements of this major national affair, and explains why the Catalans want to leave, why the Spanish are making it easy for them to leave, how the Catalans manage to capitalize on what is in reality terrible news, and how the central government bumbles flubs every time they actually have victory at hand.

          First of all, let’s look at the numbers.  That 81% which appeared to represent a resounding triumph (even the BBC plastered the number as the number that “backed independence” in a bizarre showing of shoddy journalism) is based on the percentage of those who voted, which was little more than 37%.   While there is no, nor should there be, a minimum voter turnout to make a referendum valid, considering the separatists were working hard to prove to Spain and the world that the people of Catalonia were sick and tired of being run by Madrid, they certainly didn’t show it.  In fact, 81% of that number, means a paltry 29% of the potential voting population actually favored leaving Spain.  Those aren’t just discreet numbers, they are outright pathetic when pitted against other great movements of the world, like Scotland and Ireland.  If we were to sense that the nationalists were really as numerous as their proponents claimed, you’d expect something like at least 40% pushing to say “adios!”.  Instead, they could even get that percentage to the polls in the first place.

        Did the political pundits and members of government point this out and throw it in the Catalans face?  Nope.  They just went on about the vote being illegal, illegal, illegal.  And the pro-Catalans kept shouting, “80%! 80%! 80%!”  And that’s what reporters from international channels like the BBC sent over the waves.   Essentially, the Catalans got their butts kicked all over the field, but still won the game.  Often that’s all that counts.

         And that’s what I meant when I said all the way up top about 900 words ago, remember there was a point to this, that the Spanish government had a golden opportunity to say, “OK.  Let’s go for it.  We’ll hold a referendum in a month.”  Those in favor of remaining with Spain probably would have won hands down.  Or at least by a margin larger than the slim advantages that kept Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the United Kingdom.  While it’s not totally impossible, it certainly seems very unlikely that there is a hidden 21% of pro-independence supporters lurking that simply didn’t bother to voice their opinion.

       But who cares?  The Catalans still won, and in so many ways.  They did so by stealing hours of national and international TV coverage, which is just the kind of free publicity they like.  They also got a great deal of sympathy from the world for defending their right to exercise their freedom of speech.  Moreover, the civil disobedience lawsuits that followed did little more than fuel the movement even more.  People thrive on these actions and foster more ways frustrate.  They thrive on their opponents’ frustration.

       The event also made the separatists look like underdogs (which they are anything but intheir region), and everyone likes to root for the underdog.

Forensic Files

Files, Feuds and Funerals 21

We sat down and talked about Dad.  From an administrative perspective.  Richard produced several forms and pulled a pen, clicked it and began to jot down all the information that we needed to provide.  The personal data, his education, his identity numbers.  All sort of details which seemed irrelevant at the time but which actually told us something about him.  Starting with his birth.  Dad was born and raised in Meriden, Connecticut, a small and unassuming town in the middle of the state.  He lived on a street called Windsor Avenue, where he belonged to a neighborhood gang of childhood pals aptly known as the Windsor Avenue Gang.  Typical childhood conduct, probably coupled with classic childhood antics, I assume.  His father was a physician and highly regarded in Connecticut.

       I don’t think I remember very much more of the town or that street other than the fact my father vividly recalled the day the 1938 Hurricane (back then they still weren’t named), which is still the deadliest tropical storm on record to strike New England.  More than 600 people perished in the cyclone.  The center made landfall somewhere around Bridgeport which meant quiet Meriden was placed right in the path of the most destructive winds just to the east.  According to Dad, not a single tree on the street was standing in the end.  Sounds to me the product of an impressionable 11-year-old’s mind, but it does give you a pretty good idea of the amount of destruction inflicted on the town.  Nothing like it has devastated the region in such a way since, it gladdens me to say.

     Other than that, and the fact my uncle lived there until he died just about ten years ago, he was a fanatic of the Sunday word jumble puzzles, Meriden meant very little to me.  As it did to Dad.  Though his family’s plot was just about 15 miles away, he had expressed a desire to be buried in my mother’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa.  That pretty much says it all.

     During our talk with Richard, I also learned that Dad could also receive some benefits from the federal government as a war veteran.  Dad didn’t go to fight, he didn’t watch his buddy have his cheek blown off in his face, he didn’t have to pick up someone’s arm and return it to them. My Uncle Keat, his brother, saw active duty.  He was picked up by the navy, ascended to the rank of officer, and served on the USS New Jersey.  He didn’t talk much about it, but I remember he said he was unnerved by the enemy shells that  had been fired from so far away you couldn’t even see the ship they came from.

     Dad, on the other hand, was drafted at the end of World War II and stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and helped supervise the demilitarization of a nation.  Apparently the fort was comprised mainly of Georgians, but why in hell they would ship a Yalie down there is beyond me.  But they were unusual times, I must admit.  Like so many parts of my father’s past, details were sparse.  I know the military asked him to stay on for clerical work, which would have suited his preparation, far more than trying to stick a bayonet in a combatant’s chest, but he declined.  I also know he was appalled by the language he heard, all that swearing, words he had never heard before.  It slipped out at a time when he was getting a lot off his mind.  It just slipped out.  It told me a lot about my father, in just a handful of words.

     We planned out a bunch of matters in that session.  We ironed them out too.  There was a lot to do, and a short span of time to perform the task.   Pending tasks were: settling on a day and time for the funeral, preparations for the funeral, cremation, viewing or no viewing (and if so, what clothes to bring down), urn, obituary, media outlets, financing by the state, future pensions, insurance, final resting place, people to be notified, people not to be notified, and, of course, who is paying for it and how.  No matter how gracious Richard was, and he excelled as a human being, that little issue had to be settled almost before we could walk out the door.  It was a matter of custom.  It was expected.

Forensic Files

December 5, 2015

Files, Fueds and Funerals 20

If you check with the American Board of Funeral Service Education, about eighty-five percent of students enrolled in funeral service education had no prior relationship, be it via family or friend, with the sector of preparing the deceased for final disposition and assisting the family with dealing with the loss, which naturally brings me to inquiry: what in God’s name would possess anyone to come to that unequivocal moment of illumination and say, “You know what? I’d really like to be a funeral director.”

     But the calling apparently comes to a fairly large portion of the population.  More than anyone could possibly imagine.  In 2012, the number of occupations rounded off at about 33,200.  And while it’s safe to say that this is a sector that will never become obsolete, as long as there are humans around to pass away, the outlook for the profession is particularly bright thanks to the ever-increasing population in America and the ever-aging Baby Boomers who are reaching the final stages of life.  I am waiting for a pilot episode of “Dying Something” to air at any time.  The government projects the number of jobs to increase by 12% over the next ten years.

      In fact, you could say that never was there a better time to buy a shovel and start practicing digging holes.

     While disposing of corpses may not seem to require demanding formal training, for centuries in established civilizations like England’s gravediggers used to pile bodies upon bodies in the most haphazard way (regardless of lifelong achievements), and cementaries were notorius for their rotting stench, filth, and pestilence.  Honoring the dead, back then, seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds.

       Nowadays, you will need to spend some time at the higher education level if you want to have a fighting chance at landing a job.  There are 57 accredited Mortuary Science degree programs, most of which are two-year programs, but 7 are apparently full bachelor degrees.  That’s a long time to spend learning about cadavers and their final resting place.  I can only imagine the hours of practicum sessions.  The following is a list of some of the subjects that students have to sign up for to complete the academic requirements:

  • Sciences, including microbiology, pathology, chemistry, anatomy, embalming andrestorative art
  • Business and funeral home management, funeral directing, accounting, business communications and computer applications for funeral service
  • Social Sciences, including history and sociology of funeral service, funeral service psychology and counseling
  • Law and Ethics, including business law, funeral service law and funeral service ethics

    Another unquestionable skill which doesn’t appear to figure anywhere there but must be inserted some place is sympathy.  And even empathy at times.

     The minute my brother, sister, Mom and I walked into the funeral home, this quality was made evident by the level-headed, soft-spoken, practical and yet sympathetic kindness of the man who received us.  His name was Richard.  Beecher & Bennett is located in one of those classic 1960s plain brick one-story buildings that seemed so popular in New England towns years ago.  Some people find them appalling, but I am equally unnerved by the trend toward southern mansions as a way of dignifying death, as if fat white Doric columns are really going to make the difference between a humble a departure and one that has bizarrely resembles an epic Hollywood film about antebellum America.  You half-expect to see Scarlett O’Hara herself pressing the button labeled “Start Incineration”.

     Richard, just like his place of employment, brought everything down to a ground level.  And underground one, in fact.  He invited us to meet in a conference room in the basement, which meant descending a steep stairway that made us feel like we were entering a crypt.  It was a fitting setting to talk about what to do with Dad.