Book review: Under This Beautiful Dome

Under This Beautiful Dome by Terry Mutchler is a multi-layered book whose subhead, A Senator, a Journalist, and the Politics of Gay Love in America, merely hints at some of the layers. As I see it, they are the love two women have for each other but dare not make public, journalism ethics, raging, recurring and ultimately terminal cancer, sexual abuse of one of them as a child, and a family’s behavior toward one of the women when the partner dies.

The lovers are Illinois Senator Penny Severns and journalist Terry Mutchler, who falls for Severns the moment she sees her. Thus arises the ethics issues for as the women draw closer, Severns sometimes gives her Mutchler inside information. Quoting a journalist who spoke to one of her classes at Penn State, Mutchler knows that it’s one thing to cover the circus; it’s another thing to sleep with the elephants. (Yes, she was one of my students.)

Their love deepens, but they dare not go public, for both their sakes. After all, this is late 20th century Illinois (1993, to be exact) and a gay politician faces extinction at the polls no matter how good she is—and a friend in Illinois tells me that Severns was quite good. And no one can know that Mutchler, who is the Associated Press’s statehouse bureau chief, is sleeping with the elephants.

Severns and Mutchler eventually buy a house, but because deed transfers are public records, they agree that only Severns’ name will go on the deed and Mutchler’s contribution will be undocumented. They set up an elaborate routine to hide the fact that they are living together, although it becomes clear, perhaps more in retrospect, that some people had figured it out anyway.

Then Severns contracts breast cancer, which killed one of her sisters and has threatened the life of her twin sister. Mutchler blames herself and makes a one-way pact with God that she’ll atone for her ethical lapses by taking a job in Alaska. It is an unanswered prayer.

With the ethical issue out of the way, the two continue a very warm and loving relationship. Eventually Mutchler returns to Illinois, not as a journalist but as a student in law school. At the same time, she becomes Severns’ press secretary in her reelection campaign, which enabled them to be together in public, but not really the way they want to be together.

Five years after they fell in love, Severns dies. We know that will happen from beginning and we get a hint of the exclusion that Mutchler subsequently endures because few knew that they were partners, that they considered themselves married to each other. But as members of Severns’ family learn of the real relationship, that it’s not just a senator and her press aide, exclusion takes over.

Mutchler is not allowed to sit with the family at the funeral service, she is not allowed to deliver a eulogy, she is eventually locked out of her own house. The twin sister you thought would have been her standard-bearer turns out to lack the spine to stand up to her father, a bully and someone Severns never even wanted to include in her will. Mutchler barely survives, and it is to the credit of some of her friends that she eventually pulls herself together and gets on with her life, with the memory of her first love to keep her going.

The title of the book comes from a speech given by an Illinois lawmaker as the legislature considered a marriage equality bill (now law) in 2013. “One of the greatest love stories I have ever heard played out right here, under this beautiful dome,” the lawmaker said. “But it was a secret.”

Thanks to Terry Mutchler, it no longer is.


Practice Humility

We should be No. 1 in humility

Thousands upon thousands of Penn State graduates and fans were glad to hear that the NCAA has ended its bowl ban on the football team and reinstated scholarships. I am among those happy campers.

But I am also concerned that maybe—just maybe—we haven’t learned a lesson in all of this, and that is to be humble. Let’s be honest: Before the Sandusky scandal became public knowledge, there was plenty of hubris to go around.

Probably no one exemplified that more than Joe Paterno, who refused to retire and even bragged about kicking the president out of his house after the president and the athletic director had visited him to discuss retirement. (The funny thing is that the real story is much less dramatic and so it’s even more problematic that Paterno embellished it when he told it.)

Another big ego on campus was the president himself. I admired Graham Spanier, but you knew when you were around him that he did not suffer fools easily and found most people to be lesser mortals.

Both Paterno and Spanier became the face of Penn State and many Penn Staters behaved in kind.

Penn State has been wounded. Let us hope that in the future we do not put arrogance ahead of humility, that we do not leave ourselves naked to our enemies. We are Penn State, and we are humble.


Are Grandparents Passé?

We were dropping one of our teenaged granddaughters off at the airport and she was eager to get to her gate, even though the plane didn’t board for another 55 minutes. I wanted to say something and she took the time to listen.

We had just had a houseful of grandchildren (with two more coming in August). For us, it would be a perfect summer of visits by grandchildren. In fact, five of the seven visited without parents, which was our preference even if the parents didn’t show up for other reasons.

I told our departing granddaughter that we were delighted that she visited us and we hoped she’d come back next year. I explained that bother her grandmother and I had lived with some of our grandparents when we were young and we thought it was normal that grandchildren spent time with their grandparents.

My wife and I both suspect that today’s grandchildren don’t think the same way our grandchildren thought. Grandparents? Aren’t they the ones who send me money on my birthday?

To be fair to our grandchildren, they are scattered about the country in two time zones and getting to central Pennsylvania is not the easiest thing to do. And my wife and I did live with our grandparents so their presence was natural to us. I had friends whose grandparents lived in town and they saw them regularly.

I do wonder about today’s grandchildren. Do they think their grandparents are passé? I’m glad ours don’t.


Kicked to the Curb

The double doors on the right are the ones that need to be automatic. There's another set inside that's equally difficult to handle, although they are kept open in the summer. If you have a cart, you have to back out the doors.

Except for the people who could walk there, the move of the state liquor store from downtown Bellefonte to the Weis Market store near Interstate 99 on the road to Zion has to be considered progress. Not only is there plenty of parking, but the selection has improved so much that I refer to it as North Atherton Street Light.

But unlike the abundant store in Patton Township, the Zion Road store lacks two important things—a curb cut so you can push your cart to your car in the side parking lot and automatic doors so you can get out of the store in the first place. In fact, the store has extra-heavy double doors that you have to back through if you have a cart. You would think that a request for automatic doors would get an automatic “yes we can” response. Not from the monopolistic PLCB.

I was told via e-mail by Charles Mooney, the director of the Bureau of Regional Operations, “the glass front and door system was accepted in an ‘as in’ condition in order to reduce our relocation expenses.” However, the PLCB will look into my request for a curb cut.

It’s just another example of how the folks in state government, the bureaucrats as well as the elected ones, do their jobs backwards most of the time.

The message for those of us who shop at the Bellefonte state store: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.


Technology Serves Me Well

When I retired, my colleagues gave me a gold watch. Yes, really. Not to sound ungrateful, but you’d think that in the 21st century they might have come up with something different.

And then to add insult to injury, I stopped wearing a watch. After all, I had a cellphone and could easily check the time there—if and when I needed to know what time it was. Besides, there’s a clock on my computer and the cable company’s box tells me the time. If I want, I can click on a button on the remote and the time will appear on the screen.

Just before I retired, I entered the digital age of photography with a prosumer camera. That’s one that’s better than a point and shoot, but not quite what the big boys and girls use, although I would start upgrading quickly and now I’m using a fairly good digital single lens reflex camera.

But this is about the time, not photography.

The other Sunday my wife and I were headed home from our favorite breakfast spot when we spotted a 40-or-so-foot water spout in Bellefonte. I pulled over and went to look. At first I thought it could be the local fire companies cleaning out a hydrant. But when I saw it was a serious rupture, I called 9-1-1, was informed that I was the second caller, and then took some photos with my iPhone.

I also keep a basic digital camera in the car and after getting enough shots with the iPhone—enough just in case the spout ended—I crossed the street to my car and retrieved my digital camera. The water main break, far from ending quickly, spouted for the next 90 minutes and I took about 200 photographs. A lot of them are duplicates. After all, how many ways can you photograph a broken water main?

I shared them with the local newspaper and gathered some basic information for the paper. Later, the editor called and asked me how long the break lasted.
I had no clue.

In the old days, the first thing you did when, for example, you heard a fire alarm, was look at your watch and write down the time. Do the same when the all clear sounds. But I am rusty at this reporting stuff and never did that at the water main break, although I did get the name of a police officer and of the minister whose church services were cancelled because the break.

But then it hit me. The date and time are embedded in all of my photographs and I quickly checked the metadata of the first photo I took and the one of the trickle at the end of the crisis. I also could have checked the time of the phone call, which I did today and see that there was a minute’s difference between the call and the first photo.

Everything I used to do by hand was done for me.

Ain’t technology great?


Our Craven Governor

Pennsylvanians will elect a governor in November. If history is any indication, the voters will give the incumbent, Tom Corbett, a second term.

But Corbett’s not doing well in the polls, and in the primary the other day, his lieutenant governor got 26,000 more votes than he did—and both were unopposed. In my county alone, more than a thousand Republican voters (1 in 7) wrote in someone else’s name.

Corbett has a lot of baggage going back to his time as the attorney general pursuing pedophile Jerry Sandusky. People feel he mishandled that investigation or prolonged it for his own political advantage as he ran for governor.

But Corbett’s problems are much deeper than that. He doesn’t know how to lead.

He ran on the Koch brothers’ platform of not raising taxes, but near the end of his first term, he raised the tax on gasoline for all the right reasons—to fix roads. However, people saw that as breaking his pledge not to raise taxes. Corbett’s real mistake was making the pledge in the first place.

He was for voter i.d. and against same sex marriage. But when the courts struck down both, he chose not to pursue appeals. Either he’s a man of his convictions or he governs by sticking his wet finger into the air to see which way the wind is blowing.

But even before he lost in court, the wind was blowing against him; he just wasn’t smart enough to figure that out. And when he lost in court, he caved. His principles went out the window.

I’m personally glad he didn’t waste money appealing. He was sure to lose. But if he had been a real leader, he wouldn’t have found himself in the conundrum of turning on his principles in the face of adversity.

It’s an election year and I’m betting Tom Corbett will be redefining himself for the next few months. But one definition we won’t get is the one on leadership. He doesn’t know what it means.


Another GOP Failure

Once again the New York Times Wine Club has made me an offer I can’t refuse—and once again I must refuse. That’s because Pennsylvania is one of the 21 states that wine clubs are not allowed to ship to.

I’m a 9th-generation Pennsylvanian who except for four years of service in the Navy and 10 years in New Mexico have lived in Pennsylvania most of my 70 years. And I’ve been hearing for decades how the Republicans want the state to get out of the liquor business.

So I figured that with a Republican governor and a Republican legislature it was finally going to happen.


When my wife and I returned from New Mexico to Pennsylvania in 2011 and registered to vote, we decided not to register Republican, which had been our lifelong registration. Instead, we went with no affiliation.

After the George Bush years in Washington, we considered the Republicans a lost cause. They say they’ll reduce the size of government, but when they have the chance, they don’t. Washington. Harrisburg. Doesn’t matter. Promises made, promises not kept.

At least the Democrats usually carry out their promises—even when it’s things I don’t want.

I want to be able to order wine from clubs. The Democrats won’t give up their grip on the state store system and the Republicans will never deliver.

In vino veritas means nothing in Pennsylvania.