The Scottish Saltire

The Scottish Saltire

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Scottish Independance

Yesterday was a good day. A landslide win for the Scottish National Party. For my American friends who (understandably) don't know the political workings over here, let me give you a wee primer...

Scotland was once a free and independent nation. In 1603 when the Scottish king, James VI, "inherited" the throne of England he also became James I of England and he moved his court to London. James VI/I ruled both countries from there, although each country retained its own parliament. History has shown that, from then on, in decisions made from London, Scotland usually got the short end of the stick. 104 years later, in 1707, the Scottish parliament was abolished (the reasons for this are complicated but many Scots still believe that Scotland was "bought and sold for English gold"). With the abolition of the Scottish parliament the parliament at Westminster in London made all decisions for the newly created 'United Kingdom". It was in 1707 that Scotland ceased to be an independent nation and became part of the UK, to the satisfaction of many modern day Scots but also to the very strong dissatisfaction of many others.

Calls for the re-establishment of the Scottish parliament (within the UK) began 'in earnest' in the 1970's by the Scottish National Party (SNP, founded in 1934) and in 1999 their efforts bore victorious fruit. The Scottish Parliament was re-convened after 292 years. Scotland remains a part of the UK but many of its laws are now decided upon by the parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Many others, however, are still made in London. This is called devolution. The Scottish parliament at Holyrood has limited 'devolved' powers. Again, some Scots are happy with this, some are not. Those who are not will be happy with nothing less than full independence and a return of Scotland's historic position as a free and sovereign nation. This is the ultimate goal of the SNP. (end of primer)

This past Thursday (May 5th) Scotland held a routine election of members to the Scottish parliament. As in any election, each party hopes to take control of the governing body. There are 3 other 'major' parties in Scotland. Before yesterday, although the SNP had control of the parliament they didn't have a clear majority (unlike U.S. politics the first does not necessarily equal the second). Yesterday that changed. The SNP took 69 of the available 129 seats up for grabs. Their closest opposition took 37 seats. In fact the minister for our area got more votes than all of his opponents combined. Needless to say I know a lot of people who are on a really big high right now (It reminds me of the euphoria felt by so many of us when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008). The reality of independence feels so close they can almost taste it. A majority in the Scottish parliament gives the SNP much more leverage to advance their goal of independence and gain additional support from the public. Currently a referendum is scheduled to be put to the Scottish voters in 2014.

This is where I make my disclaimer. I do not presume to know more about the desires of the Sottish people or the realities of their politics than they do themselves. This is simply my own perspective of the situation as someone who has lived here for a while and is keenly interested in the topic. Most who know me also know that I support Scottish independence 100%. The UK is not a homogeneous society, despite 304 years of amalgamation. Over the last three centuries and against all odds, Scotland has retained its culture, its national pride and its identity on the world stage. The people of Scotland deserve control of their own country, not just partial control as devolution provides, but complete. That being said, there is still a lot of work to do and a long road ahead before independence becomes a reality (and I believe it will).

Rather than re-writing what I've already written, here is a paper I wrote for my politics class last year on devolution and Scottish independence...

In the 1990’s John Major claimed that devolution would lead to
“ the break-up of the United Kingdom”. On the other hand, George Robinson believed it would “kill nationalism stone dead”. Eleven years after the re-convening of the Scottish Parliament neither extreme has yet happened. The United Kingdom remains intact, yet Scottish nationalism is alive and well. However, the future of devolution is still a much-debated issue in UK politics. The debate centers not on whether it should be continued; devolution is definitely here to stay. “The Scottish Parliament… has embedded itself in both the consciousness of the people of Scotland and the constitution of the United Kingdom.” Rather, the debate centers on how far devolution should be extended. Some would argue that the current balance between powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament and those reserved to Westminster is sufficient, at least for now. The Calman Commission has recommended that devolution be extended to give the Scottish Parliament more control over issues that directly affect the Scottish people. Yet the SNP led Scottish Government is calling for even further reaching changes toward full devolution and fiscal autonomy within the United Kingdom, which they see as an acceptable, albeit temporary, alternative to their ultimate goal of independence. To further complicate matters, in the midst of this debate sits the West Lothian Question: Should Scottish ministers in Westminster have the right to vote on matters that affect only England when like issues affecting only Scotland are now decided upon solely within the Scottish Parliament? Devolution may be ‘the will of the Scottish people’ but it is far from being ‘settled’.
In June 2009, the Commission on Scottish Devolution (or the ‘Calman Commission’ as it became known) published its review of Scottish devolution in a report that had been commissioned by the Parliament at Holyrood and supported by Westminster. The purpose of the Calman Commission was to explore ways of:

•“enabling the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better;
•improving the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament; and
•continuing to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom.”

Among the issues considered by the commission in Part Three of the final report was a focus on “Strengthening accountability in finance”. The main recommendations in this area were:

“The Scottish Variable Rate of income tax should be
replaced by a new Scottish rate of income tax, collected by
HMRC, which should apply to the basic and higher rates of
income tax.
To make this possible, the basic and higher rates of
income tax levied by the UK Government in Scotland should be
reduced by 10 pence in the pound…

Income tax on savings and distributions should not be
devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but half of the yield should be
assigned to the Scottish Parliament’s Budget…”

“Stamp Duty Land Tax, Aggregates Levy, Landfill Tax and Air
Passenger Duty should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament…”

It was recommended that all of these changes should be reflected in a corresponding reduction in the block grant made from the UK Parliament, which should continue to make up the remainder of the Scottish Parliament’s Budget but it should be justified by need. The commission also recommended that:

“The structure of the income tax system…should remain entirely the responsibility of the UK Parliament.”

“The Scottish Parliament should be given a power to
legislate with the agreement of the UK Parliament to introduce specified new taxes that apply across Scotland.”

“Until such times as a proper assessment of relative spending need across the UK is carried out, the Barnett formula, should continue to be used as the basis for calculating the proportionately
reduced block grant.”

All of the commission’s recommendations were made with consideration of Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom, the constitutionality of such changes and the goal of bringing financial responsibility to the level of government closest to the people of Scotland.

In November 2009 Scotland’s SNP government published its own recommendations in what it called a ‘National Conversation’, a consultation process based on their previously published white paper titled ‘Choosing Scotland’s Future’ and aimed at addressing Scotland’s constitutional options. These options included:

•“continuing with the current constitutional settlement with no or minimal change;
•extending devolved power in Scotland in areas identified during the National Conversation; or
•taking the steps to allow Scotland to become a fully independent country.”

The Scottish Government, through the National Conversation, addressed the recommendations of the Calman Commission point by point agreeing with the commission’s list of additional powers that can and should be devolved. The National Conversation, however, took the process further by expanding that list to incorporate other powers it believes should be devolved or, in a few cases, shared with the UK Parliament, leading to full devolution within the United Kingdom. The preference of the current Scottish Government is first and foremost independence, with full devolution being seen as an acceptable stepping-stone to that end.
In considering full devolution the National Conversation addressed many issues including full fiscal autonomy for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government rather than the piecemeal proposals of the Calman Commission. They should be responsible for “raising, collecting and administering all (or the vast majority of) revenues in Scotland. "A remittance or subvention from Scotland to the United Kingdom would be required to cover common United Kingdom public goods and services, such as defence and foreign affairs.” A fully devolved benefits system is also recommended, citing devolved child support, social security and pensions in Northern Ireland. This would be dependent on “appropriate levels of fiscal autonomy in Scotland”. Further devolution on Transport is proposed, including Fuel duty and vehicle excise duty. This is in contrast to the Calman Commission’s single recommendation of a devolved Air Passenger Duty. The Calman Commission gave no recommendations for the further devolution of Scotland’s very limited responsibilities in the area of Energy. The National Conversation calls for extensive devolution in this area including the oil and gas industry and the Fossil Fuel Levy Fund to encourage renewable energy.
While the Calman Commission took no consideration of an independent Scotland, The National Conversation put it forth as the ideal alternative in every area: “Under independence Scotland would assume the rights and responsibilities of a normal sovereign state. This would include all decisions on economic and fiscal affairs, currency, the constitution, foreign affairs, security and defence. Scotland would be recognized as a state by the international community and be a part of the European Union as a full member state.”
Though the status quo of Scottish devolution was used, in both reports, as a reference point in relation to the proposed changes, it was never suggested as an option. There is, however, a minority population decidedly in favor of the status quo. In response to the recommendations of the Calman Commission Dr. Norman Bonney, of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, believes the argument that ‘further powers of taxation would make the Scottish Parliament more fiscally responsible’ is an argument that is often asserted yet “rarely justified”. Bonney argues that the Scottish Parliament should be required to show that they have “effectively managed the spending responsibilities they have before there should be consideration of additional taxation and spending powers”. He asserts that, until it can be shown that the money spent on healthcare per person in Scotland has “led to greater gains in health…compared to the period 1990-1999 in Scotland prior to devolution” as well as that local government expenditures have been more effective since devolution, “it is difficult to demonstrate that additional powers will result in improved outcomes for the Scottish people”.
Further devolution is likely to give rise to further discussion of the West Lothian Question. According to one constitutional expert, Bernard Crick, who addressed the WLQ in advance of devolution in 1995, the only “rational answer is a federal constitution with an English Parliament as well as a United Kingdom one”. That proving very unpopular with the English people, other options have been put forth, such as the Conservative proposal to restrict Scottish MP’s voting privileges on legislation that would affect only England. The counter argument to this proposal is that Scottish MP’s are full members of the UK Parliament and have every right to vote on all matters brought before the House of Commons. To exclude them from any stage of the legislative process “would create a two-tier Parliament, with Scottish MP’s turned into second-class members of the Commons”.
Devolution is a process, not a one-off constitutional settlement, perpetually set in stone. It remains to be seen, though, just how far that process will go. It is only natural that, over time, as the Scottish Parliament finds its footing it will believe itself entitled to more control over the issues and legislation that affect the Scottish people. But there is a limit to what powers can realistically and, more importantly, constitutionally be devolved while Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, the position currently favored by most Scots. The Scottish National Party, however, will undoubtedly continue to push the boundaries of devolution in its efforts toward independence and it remains to be seen whether John Major’s prophesy of doom for the United Kingdom will eventually be proven correct. Either way, devolution is, most assuredly, ‘unfinished business’ and will remain so for some time to come.


Commission on Scottish Devolution, Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, [15 June 2009].

Bonney, N., ‘Looming Issues for Scotland and the Union’ Political Quarterly, vol. 79 no. 4 [2008].

Chidwick, R., “Conservatives deny they plan West Lothian veto”, [15 April 2010].$1371420.htm

Crick, B., ‘Ambushes and Advances: The Scottish Act 1998’ Political Quarterly, vol. 66 no. 4 [1995].

Devine, T., “Old Scotland took the high road. New Scotland is upwardly mobile” The Independent on Sunday [online]. [11 May 2008].

Jeffery, C., ‘An Outbreak of Consensus: Scottish Politics after Devolution’. Political Insight Magazine, [online] [April 2010].

Kirkup, J., “David Cameron to ban Scottish MPs from voting on English laws”, [30 June 2008].

McSmith, A., “The Big Question: What is the West Lothian question, and can it be resolved satisfactorily?”, The Independent [online]. [4 July 2006]. westlothian-question-and-can-it-be-resolved-satisfactorily-406571.html

This was an academic paper so I had to be very careful to avoid my own bias when I wrote it but I can tell you that for every point made in the Calman Commission's Report concerning certain powers that they felt should be retained by Westminster, the SNP responded with solid and responsible reasons why they should be devolved. Of course the commission did not consider independence as an option at all but the SNP, in their response, put it forth as the best option in every situation.

Here's the problem though. The Scottish people themselves are divided on the issue of independence. There is a minority who actually believe that there is no need for a Scottish parliament at all and that the UK parliament at Westminster should make all laws pertaining to the entire United Kingdom. There are others who think devolution is a good thing but that no further changes are necessary. Still others believe that more powers should be devolved to the Scottish parliament but they don't support full independence. Even those who desire independence are divided. The Scots who have been on a high since Thursday want independence and they want it NOW. Others would 'ideally' like to see Scotland gain its independence from the rest of the UK (which includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland) but they don't believe Scotland could survive and grow economically on its own so they prefer to remain part of the larger union. It's these people that the SNP needs to target! They need to be convinced that it is possible; that Scotland DOES have the capability to be politically and economically independent.

There are other small European nations who have flourished economically after independence. Certain tax breaks and incentives could be extended to draw international business and foreign investment to Scotland but under the current conditions Scotland does not have the power to make those changes. Those are some of the powers 'reserved' to Westminster. Many people site the oil industry as Scotland's cash cow. Unfortunately the oil industry is a diminishing resource and can't be relied on in the long term. But Scotland has other industries that, if it had full control over, could help to secure its independent economy.

As I said before, I love the Nationalist headiness that I have seen over the last couple of days but I believe the patriotic duty of every Scottish citizen who dreams of independence is to educate themselves so they can effectively lobby their fellow citizens when the subject of independence comes up!

The Calman Commission's Report can be found at

The SNP response to it can be found at

So that's my 2 cents. I applaud anyone who has gotten through my entire rant!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Mother's Letter

My mother died when I was 7 years old. I was adopted and raised by my grandmother. One of the pictures in our house was a framed 8x10 of my mother when she was about 19. One day when I was 15, I decided to take the frame apart so I could clean the inside of the glass. A letter fell out and I recognized my mother's handwriting. My grandmother knew instantly what it was. She said,"I forgot all about it. I put it there after she died for safe-keeping." This is the letter my mother wrote for my brother and me when she knew she was dieing...

My Children

Who is eloquent enough to set on paper what a mother's children mean to her? Not even the pens of poets, and composers and scholars; for there are no words which convey enough depth to relate that love which I feel for my precious son and daughter.
...and though I write volumes tonight, tomorrow they would be obsolete for my devotion is multiplied each day.
They are the whole of my every dream. They are priceless. There is no amount of money that I would trade for one freckle on my daughter's funny little nose or one flash of my son's impish dimple.
How can I say what I feel when they smile? When they wrap both soft arms around my neck and say, "I love you, Mommy."? When they insist that I take a bite of their candy? When my son says, "Lean all your weight on me, Mom. I'm strong enough." When my daughter brushes my cheek and says, "I'd do anything to make you well, Mommy."
There just are no words

This letter is my most precious possession and is kept in a scapbook dedicated to my two mothers. The scrapbook was in one of the boxes that suffered during our water leak this past week. I am so thankful that it was not ruined and lost forever.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We Never Met But I Loved You Anyway

Would we have been close?
Would I have thought you were a pest?
Would you have adored me?
Would I have trusted you with my car?
Would you have come to me for advice?
We never met but I loved you anyway.

The fates that conspired against us.
The adults who made all the decisions.
The course of life that was set for us.
The years that were lost.
The memories that were made apart.
We never met but I loved you anyway.

So excited when I found you.
So nervous making that first phone call.
So curious about your life.
So glad to hear that you had grown up with love.
So sure that someday we would meet.
We never met but I loved you anyway.

We would go to a baseball game.
We would have dinner.
We would laugh together.
We would exchange silly stories.
We would hug.
We never met but I loved you anyway.

We sent pictures.
We made phone calls.
We exchanged emails.
We wrote Christmas cards.
We wished happy birthdays.
We never met but I loved you anyway.

There will be no happy meeting.
There was a phone call.
There was a heart condition.
There was no warning.
There will be a funeral.
We never met but I loved you anyway.

I will think of you.
I will remember you.
I will dream of you.
I will cry for you.
I will treasure you.
We never met, little brother, but I loved you anyway.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wild Weekend In London!

The boys were invited to play at Hootananny in London this past weekend in honor of Burns' Day (today Jan. 25th). So a few of us decided to go along for the fun. Rory and Kelly offered to drive down so they could haul the band equipment and Sandra, Gordy, Ursula and I flew with the guys. Round trip flight was less than £50 and the hostel above the pub was only £14 a night. What a deal!

Dougie played taxi with a 9 passenger van and came round to pick each of us up on Friday morning and shuttle us out to the Inverness airport. Flight was, of course, delayed but only about 30 minutes, so not too bad. Unfortunately, sitting at the Inverness airport was the last time poor Sean ever saw his iPhone! Never figured out exactly how he lost it but nevertheless it was no where to found the next time he reached for it.

After landing at Luton airport just outside of London we took the airport shuttle bus to the train station, and from there the train into London's Victoria Station. Hootananny is located in Brixton just a few stops on the underground from there. Gordy and Ursula left us at Victoria as they had accommodations elsewhere. We arrived at the pub late in the afternoon and after getting settled in we took off to explore the city after dark. The guys ended up at the Duke of Argyll pub in Soho (of course!) and Sandra and I went to Trafalger Square and Tower Bridge. It was after 11pm when we got back so we didn't stay up much later as she and I planned to get up early to see the sights. I've been to London before but that was a few years ago. Sandra has also been to London several times but always for work and never really had time to play tourist. Although we were in bed just after midnight there was a band on downstairs and the music didn't stop until 3am! Not exactly a good night's sleep since we had our alarms set for 7.

We meant to be on our way the next morning by 9:30am but waited for the guys to get their butts in gear. After an hour we decided to leave without them. We walked to the underground, boarded the train and waited...and waited some more. Finally the announcement came informing us that the station was being completely closed. So everybody streamed off the trains and outside to find bus transportation. We emerged from the underground to find that the whole street had been blocked off with police lights flashing at either end of couple of blocks each side of the station! Never did find out just what had happened. As we were deciding which bus to take Kenny called to say that he and Stuart were on their way to catch up with us. So we waited...again. With all the delays it was 12:30 before Sandra and I got to Westminster Abbey (Kenny and Stuart headed for the Duke of Argyll again)! The Abbey and the Tower of London were the two places I really wanted to revisit on this trip. After the Abbey we headed for the Tower of London...which unfortunately was closing 35 minutes after we arrived so we decided to do the 30 minute river cruise down the Thames instead. We hadn't taken time to eat all day so by the time we got back to Hootananny we both really hungry. They have 'not too bad' Mexican food there (I had the chimichanga the night before) so we decided on burritos and Copperberg cider for dinner and then it was upstairs to get ready for the evening. Schiehallion was the headliner so there were two bands on before them. We didn't hear the first band but the second one was called Stax Dempsey...kind of Indy Rock. I really really liked their music (was talking to Stax, the singer, at the end of the night and he said I can find their music online). After Stax Dempsey we were treated to a, shall we say, burlesque dancer. She was pretty good and needless to say the guys paid VERY close attention!

The crowd was well warmed up when our boys took the stage and they received a resounding welcome. A bit of trouble with the sound equipment on the first couple of songs but once that was worked out they set the place on fire! Of course, everyone went wild for the piper! Callum said he felt like a rock star. You would have thought they were by the way the crowd reacted during and after every song! LOL...although there was one girl behind my on the floor who didn't look too pleased when the guys launched into '1320' (a very patriotic Scottish song that is not too flattering to the English) but everyone else just ate it up. Schiehallion always has been able to fire up a crowd but there was something magical about this night. The small town boys go to London and rock the house! It's wonderful to see your friends up on the stage in a strange town and getting such an electrifying reaction from a really big audience. The smiles on Kenny, Stuart, Callum and Sean's faces said it all. We were all on quite a high by the end of the night.

Of course, the night didn't end with the end of the music. After the gig Sandra and the boys and I all collected in the common room of the hostel upstairs to continue the party with 'refreshments'. There were already some other hostelers in the lounge enjoying their own 'refreshments' when we got there and we had quite the
after-party. At about 5am Lex, the manager of the hostel, came in to tell us all that we really had to keep the noise down. LOL! She ended up just joining the party! Evidently a hostel above a pub is used to a bit of noise! Sandra and I finally went to bed at 7am (Kenny had disappeared some time earlier) but Callum, Sean and Stuart stayed up for another hour with Tess (a cute young girl from New Zeland).

We were determined to see at least some of the sights so Sandra and I were up at 10am. One of the other girls in our room came into the bathroom while I was getting ready and said to me, "Connie, there's a guy in a kilt asleep on one of the couches in the lounge." "That's Callum" I said, "our piper." She nodded and said, "Yeah, I thought he probably belonged to you." I went in to check on Callum to be sure that he hadn't compromised his dignity but his kilt was modestly in place so I left him to sleep. Sandra and I were finally out the door at about a quarter past 11. We didn't make it to the Tower of London until 1pm because of all the maintenance work that is done on the weekends on the different Tube lines. We had to go "all the way around Robin Hood's barn" as my grandmother used to say, just to get to where we were going. After a tour of the fortress by one of the resident Yeomen Warders and some wandering on our own for pictures we left to catch the 'Jack the Ripper' walking tour (I love local walking tours!). When the walking tour was over we decided to go join the guys, who, of course, had found their way to the Duke of Argyll in Soho again! Rory, Kelly, Gordy and Ursula had also arrived and by the time we all left everybody was well buzzed (some more than others)! A quick stop for food and then back to Hootananny for an 8:45pm start. Schiehallion was the only band playing that night. A much smaller crowd because it was Sunday but I think we were all OK with that.

It was a nice night for things to be not quite so crazy too because I was looking forward to seeing a friend who happened to be in London at the same time and was coming to the pub that night. As some my friends will remember, I spent a month in Berlin a couple of years ago on a teacher training program (in fact, I just checked back through my blog and I was there exactly two years ago. I posted about Burns' Day from Berlin). Although everyone on the course got along very well, there were a few with whom I really bonded. Chad, my fellow American from Tennessee, and Charlie, Daniel and Tom...three young English lads. When the program was over and I returned to Mannheim, where I was living that year, I really missed these guys a lot. We've stayed in touch (hooray for FB!) over the last couple of years and I was very excited to learn that Tom is currently in London while he waits for his new teaching job in Vietnam to begin in March. That will put all of my Berlin boys in the same part of the world. Chad is in China, Charlie is in Thailand and Daniel is in Japan. But this weekend Tom was in London! So we planned to meet at Hootananny on Sunday night. There are some people who come into your life for only a brief time but you just know that you will always be friends. That's how I feel about these guys and I can't express how wonderful it was to see Tom again!

After the gig Sandra and the guys and I ended up back upstairs in the lounge again. Except somehow we never seemed to get around to going to bed at all that night! We needed to be packed and out the door by 7am to get to the airport the next morning so, at around 4am, we just decided to stay up. The disadvantage of that decision was that no one had the chance to sleep off the drink! Sandra and I were tired but sober as we all headed for the tube station but our guys were a little worse for wear. LOL! It was a very entertaining trip to the airport, to say the least! It wasn't until we got to the airport and all got some breakfast that everybody really sobered up. Good thing, too. I was afraid that Kenny and Callum might be denied boarding!

We were caught off guard by how long the line was to go through security. After a mad dash from there to our gate we were a bit frazzled but relieved when we were finally all on board. A few minutes later a family just sorted of strolled onto the plane. They didn't run(?) Then the pilot made an announcement to inform us that they were holding the flight because there was a long line at security and they wanted to give folks time to get to the plane! We killed ourselves running through the airport for nothing. And not exactly in our best form either! Ah well...

Dougie was waiting for us with the van when we landed in Inverness. As tired as we all were Kenny talked (almost) everyone into going to the Gellions for a few before going home! After a couple of hours I came home and finally fell into bed about 6:30. Slept until 10 this morning! There was a fair bit of sleep to catch up on considering I got a total of only 7 hours on Friday and Saturday nights combined and then, well, nothing on Sunday night. But what a weekend! We all had such a good time.

Some memorable quotes from the weekend that I'm sure no one who wasn't there will understand or think funny...

Kenny:"Sean, it's good that you've come out of the closet this weekend."

Kenny: "Look at my face." Everyone else: "Priceless!"

Callum and Sean: "POTATO!"

Callum to me: "We've had way too much physical contact this weekend not to have bonded."

Kenny to Sandra and me: "Did you enjoy the weekend?" Sandra and me: "Yeah, it was great!" Kenny: "It was (throws up jazz hands) fabulous!!"

Kenny: "The ankle is quicker than the elbow."

Me to Sean: "Sean, baby!"
Sean to me: "Connie, baby!"

Sandra: "There has been a lot of 'inappropriate' going on this weekend."

And remember everyone...You can lead a horse to a trough but you can't make toast in a washing machine!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

America's Wakeup Call

As my friends well know I lived in Tucson, Arizona for 15 years before moving to Scotland. I lived in Gabrielle Giffords congressional district and and my vote was one of the many that elected her to her first term as a United States Congresswoman in 2006. And so, the tragedy of last weekend hits very close to home for me.

I have been following the events online for the last couple of days and even posted a video on Facebook of Keith Olbermann's comments concerning the vitriolic political rhetoric that many are blaming for Saturday's shooting of Representative Giffords and 19 other people, six of whom were killed. While I agree with everything Olbermann said in his "Special Comment" segment I don't think he went far enough. Like most on the left he laid the blame squarely at the feet of people like Sarah Palin and others on the right who have used violent imagery to further their political causes. He only gave cursory attention to the same actions of those on the left...including President Obama who, in a 2008 speech said, "If they bring a knife to the fight, we'll bring a gun". And what does it say about me, as an American voter, that upon hearing that speech from the politician whom I admire more than any other, I didn't even bat an eye?

No one seriously believes that Sarah Palin actually intended for her followers to shoot sitting congressional members in order take back those democratic held districts when she used cross hairs to highlight them on a map on her website or that she meant it literally when she said in a campaign slogan, "Don't retreat. Reload!" Just like nobody actually believed that President Obama was advocating Democrats to "bring a gun" to the fight. But the fact remains that political rhetoric on both sides has escalated and become more and more violent and that we as American voters have become so used to it that it doesn't shock us when we hear it. Only when something horrific like the Tucson shooting happens do we sit up and take notice. Even then, everyone jumps on their own bandwagon and points the finger of guilt at the other side. Democrats saying that it's all the fault of Republicans because they encourage and incite this kind of action with their constant political references to guns and violence and Republicans saying that there is no proof that the shooter had any political leanings to the right and accusing Dems of using this to further their own political agenda of making all Republicans the personification of evil.

The fact is that there is enough blame to go around. If you read both liberal and conservative editorial and opinion articles, as well as blogs and other articles you'll find a plethora of examples citing inflammatory and violent rhetoric by both parties. Enough is enough! When will it end? Instead of stomping, screaming and pointing fingers like little kids, all of us, politicians and citizens alike, should simply make a promise to ourselves and our nation that we will no longer participate in hateful rhetoric.

I don't believe Sarah Palin is evil (incompetent to hold office and more than a bit of a whack-job...yes, but not evil). I believe she is as shocked and repulsed as the rest of us by the actions of a clearly mentally unstable young man. I also believe that it is unfair to single her out in this situation when there are so many others who are just as guilty as she is (in both parties) for pandering to this ugly dimension of the American psyche.

Why does this kind of political rhetoric work so well in America? There are those in other countries whose only exposure to American life is what they see on television or in the movies churned out by Hollywood. I think their answer to my question would be "Because America is a violent culture" but that's too simplistic. My life, nor the lives of anyone I know, is not even remotely mirrored by what Hollywood produces. If you judge America by what you see on television and in the movie theater then as far as I'm concerned you don't even belong in this conversation. I have lived in Scotland for a year and a half now and have spent that time studying the history of this country, including its culture, its wars and its politics, and not for one second would I ever presume to tell a Scot what is wrong with their country or what they should change. Every society has crime and bad people and negative aspects to its culture. America is no more guilty of these things than Britain or France or Germany or Russia or Italy! But it's crime and violence that sells movie tickets...not just in America but in other countries too... so that's what Hollywood puts out.

I lived, for most of my 53 years, in the country of my birth. Our culture and our people are as flawed and as perfect as that of any country. There are good and bad people. There are criminals and law abiding citizens. There are those who will steal and those who will give. There are those who would take a life and those who would give their own life in defense of another. The ordinary American is no different than someone from any other country. The people I know are kind to their neighbors, will go out of their way to help a friend, care about the welfare of others and would stop to help a stranger in need. We want security in our lives and a safe future for our children. So why does the vitriol of recent politics work so well on a nation of basically decent human beings? I don't even have an answer to my own question. It would take someone much better trained in the field of human psychology than me to answer it with any authority. I just know that something has to change in our political system!

I also believe that last weekends event highlights the need for stricter gun control laws in the U.S. This is an issue that polarizes us as a nation. There are people who will immediately cite the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." At the time that the Constitution was written we were a nation that had just fought for its freedom...much of that fighting having been done not just by the regular army but by militias; an army of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers. It is my belief that the founding fathers also meant that people should have a means of protecting not just their new nation but also their families and property. However, times have changed. We don't live in the times of the Revolutionary War or the Wild West anymore. I have never owned a gun nor have I ever felt unsafe in my own home without one tucked away in the top drawer of my bedroom dresser.

That being said, the right to "keep and bear arms" IS in the Constitution and will likely remain so (making changes to the Constitution is not impossible but it is a difficult and complicated procedure). Nor would I necessarily like to see the Second Amendment changed. But I do believe with every fiber of my being that gun ownership should be much more strictly regulated! There are many law abiding citizens in the U.S. who are avid hunters. Hunting is definitely not my cup of tea but that's not the point. So I can see the need for rifles. A rifle can also be used in defense of one's home or family if the need should arise. What I can't see is the need for handguns. Handguns have only one purpose and that is to kill people. The same goes for automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Their purpose is solely to kill people. Sure, there may be a percentage of crimes that are committed with shotguns but their numbers are way fewer than those committed with hand guns. I see no good reason for hand guns, automatic or semi-automatic weapons to be legal.

Even if handguns are never completely outlawed the laws governing gun ownership should be very strict. NO ONE should be able to just waltz into a store and buy a gun! A 3 day waiting period is a joke. If someone has murder on their mind 3 days isn't going to deter them. Anyone wanting to buy a gun should be thoroughly scrutinized. The gun owners I know are all decent people and have nothing to hide. I'm sure they don't want crazies or criminals to get a hold of a gun any more than I do. Most of the massacres like that which took place in Tucson a few days ago have been shown to have been committed by mentally unstable people. If the U.S. had stricter gun laws then these people would, in all probability, have been prevented from obtaining a weapon in the first place. I also think that there should be laws governing how guns are stored in the home. Arizona has laws that say you must have a 6 ft. fence with a child-proof latch on the gate to prevent a child from getting to your pool. What about laws protecting them from their parents guns?

I think Saturday's tragedy highlights two very important issues that need change in our country. Even if the shooter was not in the least motivated by the current political rhetoric his actions have brought it to the forefront of the collective American conscience. It is a subject of public awareness now and I'll bet you dimes to dollars that, in the future, our politicians will be more careful about the messages they put least I hope so. Gun control is another matter. We are a country divided on that one and I see no solution in the near future. I just hope that one of my loved ones, or yours, is not the next victim of a gun crime.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hyperbole and a Half

I have recently discovered a hilarious blog (thanks to Shauna). Every time I think it can't get any funnier I read another past post and find myself writhing with laughter and struggling to breathe. Enjoy...

Hyperbole and a Half: This is Why I'll Never be an Adult

Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas 2010 Part One - The Adventure of Getting There

Every year we hear about someone's nightmare adventure trying to get from point A to point B or people stranded for days at some airport or another. I've always been fairly lucky with winter traveling. Always seemed to avoid the mayhem and get where I was going with very little fanfare...until this year.

My travels plans were to take a bus from Inverness to Edinburgh, fly from there to Heathrow airport in London and then on to Frankfurt. From Frankfurt it's a 30 minute train ride to Mannheim and then a short Taxi ride across the river to Nikki's place in Ludwigshafen.

What should have been a 13 hour door-to-door trip turned into a 3 day odyssey! When I checked my flight status online before leaving home I got conflicting info about the flight from Edinburgh to London but I knew I had no chance of getting anywhere by just sitting at home so I figured I'd at least get to Edinburgh and then hope for the best.

The Edinburgh airport was a madhouse. Almost nothing was flying. Everyone was trying to get rebooked and the lines at the service counters were soooo long! I really didn't think I was going to get out of Edinburgh that night but a few of us got wind of a flight going to London City airport. Nothing flying into Heathrow or Gatwick but the smaller airport was operating? Hmm...

Landed in London about 9pm. Nikki had found me a hotel room near the airport. I shared it with a young girl whom I had met at the Edinburgh airport who had also decided to take the same flight. She studies at Edinburgh University and was trying to get home to her parents' house in Ohio for Christmas. She has flown, of course, but had never experienced the confusion of severe weather and canceled flights so she was a little overwhelmed and not quite sure how to navigate the madness. So we kind of 'buddied up' for as long as we could. We ended up saying good-bye at Heathrow the next morning - different airlines, different terminals. I was happy to get a text from her later on saying she had managed to get on a flight to Chicago that was leaving within the hour.

I was not so lucky. British Airways was doing nothing for their customers at the airport. If you didn't have a confirmed flight that was leaving within the next 3 hours you were asked over the loud speaker to leave the airport(!) and contact BA over the phone or on their website for a refund or a rebooking. Fat lot of good that was going to do anyone! People trying to get through on the phone were finally giving up after more than 2 hours on hold and the BA website alternately crashed or said to see someone at the airport for rebooking!

I realized that if I was going to get out of Britain before Christmas it was not going to be by plane so...time for "Plan B". Plan B was hopefully to get a train from London to Paris, then from Paris to Mannheim. Hmm....evidently the first part of my Plan B was also the first part of everyone else's Plan B. The trains from London to Paris were completely booked until after Christmas. Okaaay....Plan C! Rush to the Victoria Coach Station in hopes of getting a bus to Paris. Stood in line for quite a while (but I was used to that by now) and held my breath as I finally reached the counter and asked the nice lady for a ticket to Paris on the next available bus (crossed fingers, crossed, toes and by that time I'm pretty sure crossed eyes, too, although that part had less to do with superstition and more to do with traveler's mania I think). Before she could answer me her pushy colleague approached her from behind (holding a ticket) saying that her brother wanted to rebook his trip to Paris for Wednesday. Nice lady #1 looks up from her screen and says, "Perfect! Then I'll just give his seat on tonight's bus to this lady." Huzzah! Thanks, pushy colleague! Nice lady #1 had been just about ready to tell me that there were no seats available until the next day. Nice lady #1 and Pushy Colleague coordinated very carefully the cancellation of "Brother's" ticket and the issuance of mine so it wouldn't slip away from us in the computer. When Nice lady #1 handed me my ticket I felt like I had just won the lottery! The last seat on the last bus to Paris leaving at 10:30 that night. Of course, being sure that everyone behind me in line was also trying to get to Paris and had overheard our conversation I was careful to clutch my precious document close to my bosom and not to make eye contact as I scurried past them to the door.

The next trick was to figure out what to do with myself for the next 6 or 7 hours. Too cold and slushy to wander the streets of London, especially dragging my suitcase which was extra heavy because I had carefully bubble-wrapped and boxed 6 pint bottles of selected Scottish beers for Bert, which had necessitated bringing the largest of my suitcases to accommodate said gift box and all my own bulky clothing for 10 days in the snow. I had expected to check my bag at the Edinburgh airport and be done with it...not drag the damn thing all over London and Paris! I kept thinking throughout the whole adventure, "Man, Bert better like these beers!" LOL! Steve said if it was him, he would have just drunk the beers!

In search of coffee and a warm place to sit and catch my breath for a few minutes I ended up at Victoria Place, a nice little shopping mall connected to Victoria Station, which should not be confused with Victoria Coach Station. I had earlier realized this after circling Victoria Station a couple of times, inside and outside (through the slush), looking for the bus ticket counter (all the while dragging the beast behind me). After finally giving up and asking at a 'local tour tickets' office I was informed by a nice man that it was a common mistake and that the Victoria Coach Station was out those doors and about 3 blocks down.

So, having found the Victoria Coach Station and managing to obtain the scarce and coveted transport ticket out of Britain and being in great need of something hot to drink I settled at Costa Coffee with an obscenely over-sized cuppa. From there I called my friend, Larry, who lives in London. Larry and I grew up together in Salem and have remained good friends through the years. I was hoping that he would have a free evening and we might be able to get together. They say there is a silver lining to every cloud and getting to have dinner and spend a few hours catching up with a dear friend was certainly an unexpected treat for me that day. Larry and I share the same social and political ideology so the conversation was enjoyable and interesting. I felt rejuvenated and ready to tackle the next part of my adventure.

When I arrived back at Victoria Coach Station the place was packed. More long lines and anxious travelers. Checked in by 10:00pm and, of course, the buses to Paris were late arriving from the great beyond. As the first two buses arrived a wave of people flowed toward them in hopes of getting a 'good seat'. It was then that we realized that we had each been assigned to a specific bus. Folks began scrambling to retrieve their luggage from the wrong bus and find the right one. "This is 'O' bus" "What bus are you on?" "I'm on 'P'." "Where is 'B'?" Is that 'O'?" "'O' is over there? Where is 'W'?" "What bus are you on?" My seat was on the "W" bus. The "P" bus loaded its passengers and luggage as did the "O" bus. As they pulled away the rest of us stood in the cold like anxious puppies waiting for the "B" and "W" buses. By 11:00 the lucky "B" bus passengers were on their way but the mysterious "W" had yet to appear. We waited and waited...and waited. A bus would pull in and we would all crane our necks to see the destination. "Manchester" or "Edinburgh" would elicit an audible sigh and after a while more than one groan. Eventually we just started laughing. Finally the "W" appeared and we actually cheered.

After loading 'the beast' into the luggage compartment I managed to get a window seat on the bus and waited for the rest of my fellow travelers to settle in. I was immensely relieved when at last we pulled out of the parking lot. The guy who sat down next to me turned out to be a young U.S. Air Force officer who had only just arrived in Europe about a month ago and was stationed at Geilenkirchen Air Base in Germany. He and his friend were traveling for the holidays. You could see his surprise when he found out that this middle aged woman sitting next to him was ex-Air Force. We talked for about an hour and then both decided to try to get some sleep. About 90 minutes into the trip the driver pulled into the "Euro-Tunnel Center", something like a really big rest stop. It was 1am and we had to wait there until it was our turn to be loaded on the train going through the tunnel. I remember when the tunnel was being built so I was kind of excited about finally getting to experience it. Unfortunately, we were told that we would have to wait for about 5 hours before our turn to cross! Most people just stayed on the bus and tried to sleep but some of us got off and went inside for coffee or in search of electrical outlets to charge various electronic gadgets.

When it was finally our turn to cross, it was...well, creepy. The driver drove the bus into something that I can only describe as a boxcar. No windows and only about 3 feet wider than the bus itself! So the ride through the 'Chunnel' was on a bus, in a box, on a train, in a tunnel, under the water. I don't have many phobias but I do have to admit to a certain amount of claustrophobia so this was more than a wee bit unnerving. The crossing took about 35 minutes and then - Voilá - we emerged in France and eventually arrived in Paris. What should have been an 8 hour bus ride turned into 13 hours. However,I was slowly but surely getting closer to my destination!

From the bus station in Paris I made my way on the subway to the Gare de l'est train station (dragging the beast of course) where I bought a one way ticket to Mannheim, Germany. There were seats available on the train that was leaving in less than an hour but only in 1st class. The difference in price between 1st and 2nd class easily convinced me to wait for the 5:17pm train. No matter, though. I had gotten very good at waiting. So I found one of the many sandwich stands in the train station, bought a sandwich and a coke and found a place to sit, eat my sandwich and people-watch. I love the baguette sandwiches in France. Somehow the bread just tastes different. "Jambone et Fromage, si vous plait." As 5pm approached I began watching the board to see which track my train would leave from. As I continued to track number, no track number, no track number aaaannnnd.....train delayed. Then train delayed again...and again! Waaaaa!!!! I'm so close!! Finally the train arrived and just before 6pm we pulled out of the station. It was a smooth and uneventful ride to Mannheim. I really wanted to try to sleep but I was afraid I would oversleep my stop. I think it says something about travel fatigue that it didn't occur to me to just set the alarm on my phone! So I read instead. I had started a new book on my kindle as I left Inverness on Sunday morning and finished it just before arriving in Mannheim Tues night! As the train pulled in about 9:30pm I put away my kindle and wrestled 'the beast' off the train, through the train station and out to the taxi rank. "Now let's see. Where did I put those German language brain synapses? Oh yes, there they are!" I had a nice conversation with a very friendly taxi driver who delivered me to my final destination where I was met outside by a happy daughter who had been following her mother's odyssey via text messaging for the past 3 days. We lugged the beast up to her apartment where there were more hugs from Bert and Steve. After about 30 minutes of excited chattering between us all (and a shot of tequila for me!) the ever thoughtful Bert told me that it was time for me to relax and pushed me toward the bathroom. His arrival gift to me...a hot bath had been drawn and the bathroom was glowing softly in candle light. Oh the bliss! I carried in another shot of tequila with me and Nikki sat on the floor chatting while I soaked away the all the travel miles. When I emerged from the bathroom all clean and relaxed and in my 'comfy' clothes Bert got another big hug. That was so thoughtful of him!
Just a few minutes later Shauna arrived from Zürich. Steve was working in Munich so he had arrived earlier in the day. More hugs and kisses and chatter and laughter. It was well after midnight when we finally all fell into bed.

I had made it to Ludwigshafen just in time. Our train reservations were for 6am the next morning! Steve and Bert took Bert's little car filled with everybody's luggage and all the stuff we would need for the next 10 days. The girls and I took the train to Leipzig to pick up Michael who was landing there at noon. He flew from the west coast of the U.S. and HIS travel all came off without a hitch! Then the 4 of us continued on the train to meet up with the boys at the house we had rented for the holidays in the very small village of Cranzahl, a stone's throw from the Czech border in Saxony. Bert grew up in the town of Sehma next to Cranzahl and was excited to show all of us where he came from. Nikki has been there many times but this was the first time Bert had brought home the 'whole passel' of Ami's. It was beautiful. So, at last, we were finally all together and our Christmas celebrations could begin...