Monday, June 30, 2008

June 30, 2008--McCain & Abel

It is reported that an increasing number of Barack Obama supporters, as a way of expressing solidarity with him, are informally adopting his middle name.

As a result according to the New York Times, we now have Jaime Alverez of Washington, D.C. calling himself Jaime Hussein Alverez. We also have an Emily Hussein Nordling, a Kelly Hussein Crowley and a Sarah Beth Hussein Frumkin. (Article linked below.)

It is as if they are asserting that if the Republican Attack Machine is going to continue to emphasize his middle name in order to fuel the false rumor that he is a Muslin extremist in a Christian disguise, than I’m a Muslim too.

This reminds me of something Dick Gregory did back in 1964 when there was still much overt racism and discrimination. He titled his autobiography Nigger so, he said, whenever his mother heard anyone use that epithet she would think they were talking about her son’s best-selling book.

So in solidarity, until Election Day, I’ll be known as Steven Hussein Zwerling. And I’m thinking of calling my autobiography Kike.

But while on the subject, I’ve been doing some wondering about John McCain’s name. Does it hold any hidden meaning that might be revealed by deconstructing it?

The "John" part is easy. Those Fundamentalists who have thus far decided to back him in spite of their suspicion that he’s a closet abortionist are undoubtedly somewhat assured that he is as much named for Jesus’ Baptist as he is for his four-star admiral father and grandfather.

Though I wonder if maybe during his wild and randy days at the Naval Academy and thereafter calling him a “John” wasn’t also a clue about how he and his buddies might have spent many an evening. But since I do not want to be accused of starting rumors of this kind, I’ll move on to the “McCain.”

Again easy is the “Mc” of the “McCain.” He is after all of Scottish descent and pretty much all of their last names are McSomething.

It’s the “Cain” part, though, that’s really got me going. Of course you know where I’m headed with this.

If Senator Obama has problems because of “Hussein,” a common name for someone whose father when he was born was a very secular Muslim (he later oxymoronically became an avowed atheist) and fair game for right-wingers, what’s to prevent left-wingers from turning the tables?

It is any more of a stretch to ask if John McCain’s ultimate ancestor was Adam and Eve’s second son? You know, the one who murdered his brother and thereby ever after became known as “the progenitor of evil”?

Of course I’m being both facetious and silly. So also-silly Rush and Karl and John, can you cool it? How about just sticking to calling Obama a “liberal” and an “appeaser.” Won’t that get the job done for you guys?

Friday, June 27, 2008

June 27, 2008--Profiling

I think he’s asleep. But still I should keep an eye on him because the other guy, a couple of rows back, is talking more loudly than is usual to his seatmate. A stranger.

The third one, with the Virginia Tech cap, a row ahead, looks like he’s about to nod off. When that happens then maybe I’ll be able to relax.

To admit this about myself doesn’t make me feel very good. I’m not supposed to be that kind of person. Someone so suspicious and anxious just because of the way people look. But then there are objective reasons for this that perhaps reflect something other than just latent prejudices--the three of them got on the plane separately; even though the plane was half empty they clearly had chosen to sit separately; and right before takeoff they linked up in the aisle by the seat of the one right across from me exchanging, what, last minute instructions?

This is supposed to be a carefree trip. A happy one. To Fort Lauderdale. To celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday. But here I am finally drying off from the cold sweat I instantly broke out into when the three of them gathered together, within arms reach of me, speaking animatedly, all at the same time, in a language that sounded to me to be very Middle Eastern.

Never mind the VT cap and the fact that one of the others was wearing an “A-Rod” shirt. From the grainy airport security videos I remember seeing of the 9/11 hijackers weren’t at least some of them wearing baseball gear? A perfect way to blend in in America.

And just last night Rona and I were talking furiously about John McCain’s chief strategist claiming that if there is another terrorist attack before the November election it would help McCain. How outrageous, we said, for them to so blatantly play the fear card. What else does McCain have going for him? Unless he can manage to scare voters half to death, who’s going to vote for him? People worried about the economy? Folks in danger of having their houses foreclosed? Or worrying about losing their jobs or heath benefits or paying for their kid’s college education? No way.

He’s a loser for sure unless he can make us shake in our boots every time we hear a siren or a car backfires. Or . . . every time we’re on an airplane and see someone who looks like one of those 9/11 terrorists.

In other words, voters like me.

So in spite of last night's conversation and my ideological inclinations, when the plane pushed back from the gate and began to make its way to the runway, out of the corner of my eye I strained to keep all three of them in sight. Looking for any evidence that they might be up to something cataclysmic. Were any of them unduly agitated? Were any of them, like me, sweating and squirming in their seats? They obviously for other reasons.

I tried to recall the warning signs passengers who thwarted other potential terrorists had noticed. Who was that guy on another flight, Richard Reid was it, also to Florida, Miami I think, who had a homemade bomb in one of his shoes? Why had other passengers been suspicious of him and taken the initiative to pounce on him? Agitation? Yes. Nervous tics? Right. Though wasn’t he also bending down to light a fuse in his sneaker with a cigarette lighter?

My three didn’t seem to be perspiring, but they were engaged in lots of energetic talking across and down the aisle. Should I say something to a flight attendant? How would I manage to do that without making myself seem like a fearful fool . . . and, worse, a bigot?

So I decided to sit tight, not alert anyone—yet, not expose myself for what I was distressingly discovering about myself, and keep a close watch on the situation. What would I do if . . . . That I hadn’t figured out.

I was sitting in an exit row, by the emergency door, and by doing so had tacitly agreed to take responsibility to help fellow passengers in case of . . . . But this? A terrorist plot? That seemed much more daunting than merely helping people get out of the plane if we had to ditch in the Atlantic.

Quickly we reached cruising altitude and the captain turned off the seatbelt sign. We were “free” he told us, “to walk about the cabin,” in the archaic language of airlines. And quite a few passengers did. A line formed at the forward lavatory. A line that included one of the three plotters. The one in the VT cap.

He showed clear signs of nervousness, shifting from foot to foot and gesturing back toward the rear of the plane where I and his two companions were seated. They signaled back to him, and with that the one nearest to me sprang out of his seat. I thought that if he raced forward I would have to take action. To do what I wasn’t yet sure. But something other than just sit here in fear. My heart was racing and I was now soaking wet.

I frantically looked around to locate the cabin crew. I was relieved to see a stewardess up near the toilet. She was tugging the beverage cart out of its storage cabinet. That at least was reassuring though I was not happy to notice that she was about five feet there and seemed to weigh not much more than 110 pounds. What could someone that size do to thwart a plot that was about to be carried out by three hulking guys in their vigorous twenties. I assumed she and her partners were well trained for all circumstances. And I assumed the plan involved alerting the captain. Who I hoped was armed. Weren’t they authorized to carry guns?

As I was about to push the call button, while thinking in a rare moment of personal courage that I might need to intervene more directly, the fellow who had jumped up I feared to join his partner, turned back to his third companion and roared with laughter. And, in heavily-accented English said for him and all of us to hear, “He had too many beers. I think he peed his pants!

Relieved, I for the first time in half an hour exhaled and collapsed back into my seat. When I finally managed to stop shaking, I struggled to regather my shredded sense of self-respect and decided that there was no way, no matter the circumstanced, that I would ever even consider voting for John McCain.

It was so good to be able to paddle back to the safe ground of politics since I didn’t want to do too much thinking about what I had been feeling. This, after all, is supposed to be a happy occasion. And I, after all, am supposed to be a different kind of person.

As a coda—when we got up to retrieve our bags from the overhead compartment, Rona turned to the fellow with the fieriest of eyes who was wearing the A-Rod shirt and asked him where he and his companions are from. It turns out that they’re musicians from Brazil, Rio, and have been touring in the U.S. the last two weeks. In fact, they have a gig Friday night at a club in Pompano Beach. He gave Rona a couple of passes and after my mother’s birthday lunch, later tonight, maybe we’ll check them out.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

June 26, 2008--Obama-Clinton Prenup

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should have hired Donald Trump and not hotshot, high-priced Washington lawyer Robert Barnett to work out the details of their shotgun political wedding. He has a lot more experience with these sorts of matters. For example, Wife Number Two or Three, Marla Maples, reportedly got only $2.5 million when the billionaire dumped her for Melania Knauss.

In the Obama-Clinton case, though big money (Hillary’s campaign debt) is one of the sticky issues, perhaps even trickier is what to do about her Husband Number One—former president and currently Sulker-in-Chief, Bill Clinton.

It’s not entirely clear what’s bugging Bill and causing him to offer only the most tepid of written statements in support of Obama’s candidacy, but pissed off he clearly is; and his role going forward in the campaign is high on Barnett’s punch list of things to work out before Hillary and Barack can run away to New Hampshire together to consummate things in Unity where they each, Kismet-style, got 207 votes in the January primary.

Typically after the primary season is over and there is a presumptive candidate both sides agree to various joint appearances, some campaign debt relief, a primetime speaking spot at the convention for the also-ran and maybe even permission to have his or her name placed in nomination so supporters can get themselves covered in confetti, a private plane to jet around in, and sometimes a deal about what the loser will get if the nominee is elected.

In regard to Bill Clinton, he may still be smarting not so much because his wife lost the nomination and many in her camp blame a number of his faux pas for that (like overplaying the race card during the crucial South Carolina primary), the root of his upset may be more because Obama dissed his presidential legacy when he called Ronald Reagan’s “transformative” while dismissing Bill Clinton’s as nothing that special.

But Bill Clinton will get on board if and when Obama agrees to pay for a jet of his own and, if elected, acknowledges that he is just the second black president since Bill Clinton was the first.

Things will remain a little trickier with Hillary and so perhaps Barnett is a better choice to draw up the prenup than The Donald. She is out at least $11 million of her own money and wants some of that back. And Mark Penn, her discredited campaign manager, is owed upwards of $2-3 million. Obama has agreed to ask his big contributors to help bail out Hillary’s campaign but is refusing thus far to appeal to his millions of modest contributors who he claims are tapped out and would probably resent his asking them to give money to her and Mark Penn.

But if Barack Obama himself, the New York Times reports (article linked below), would write her a personal check for the allowed-limit of $2,300, she would feel respected and acknowledged and then get her staffers to stop referring to him as BHO. With the “H” standing for you-know-what.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

June 25, 2008--Royal Flush

Down where we winter in Florida one of our favorite restaurants is located on George Bush Drive. It’s a good place for local fish, but we have trepidations every time we consider going over there: What will our snarky New York City friends think about us if they know we're frequenting a place located on a street named after our fearless leader.

About ethically complex matters of this kind it’s good to have an MBA for a spouse. Actually, it’s even better to have a smart one. As evidence, one night as we were skulking over there Rona said to me that I should stop being so silly, “It’s not named after him; it’s named for his father. Can’t you see the street sign? There’s an ‘H. W.’ and not an ‘H’ between the ‘George’ and the ‘Bush.’”

Thereafter, without guilt, I was really able to enjoy my pan seared Pompano with mango sauce.

On the other hand, I’m glad we don’t live in California because out there, if the Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco is successful with its November ballot initiative, the currently-named Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Facility will be rechristened the George W. Bush Sewage Plant.

Though the more I think about it, if we did live there, potty time would be so much more pleasant when thinking about the ultimate destination of my flushes.

The Commission, of course, is being satirical. But, satire aside, they in fact need only a few more signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. And in overwhelmingly-Democratic San Francisco (83 percent voted Democratic in 2004), there’s a pretty good chance it will be approved.

Republicans out there are so concerned that they have resorted to using their familiar Karl Rovian attack tactics, claiming that the Commission came up with the idea by getting “a bunch of guys drunk.” (See New York Times article linked below.)

But these Commission folks are new, non-wimpy Democrats and won’t allow themselves to be swiftboated. Like Barack Obama said about himself in the current issue of Rolling Stone, they “don’t do cowering.”

So they fought back, admitting that, yes, in fact that’s how they came up with the idea—over drinks at a neighborhood bar where they wrote the idea down on a cocktail napkin.

They even have plans for the renaming ceremony—it will occur on January 20th at the moment when the new president is inaugurated. And at the stroke of noon when President Obama places his hand on the Bible (and not on the you-know-what) they plan a synchronized flush by thousands of San Franciscans, which will send a flood in the direction of the George W. Bush.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

June 24, 2008--Googling Orgies

By nature I’m not that suspicious. But there’s a trial about to begin in Pensacola, on the Redneck Riviera, that has me worried. It’s the State of Florida versus an alleged Internet pornographer.

As in these kinds of cases, the prosecutor has to prove that what the defendant is selling violates community obscenity standards, while the defense needs to demonstrate that what his client is peddling is not any different than what is commonly available and purchased in that seemingly conservative area.

In the old days, defense attorneys showed juries what was available for sale at local magazine shops and in nearby sex shops. If it was easy to get one’s sweaty hands on copies of Penthouse and Hustler or kinky videos, what then was the big deal if Defendant-X or Client-9 had a thing for oral sex?

More recently lawyers have been bringing computers into the courtroom to show how easy it is to access porn via the Web. Claiming that this allows folks with certain inclinations to enjoy their guilty pleasures in the privacy of their finished basements. This legal tactic one would think should be a winner since it does not ask a jury to look at publicly displayed magazines and DVDs. How are community standards violated when all the transactions occur outside of public view?

Well, since this strategy of bringing Internet sex into the courtroom has not been working, down in Pensacola the defense attorney is going to employ a new and very different tactic:

He is asking Google to release the data it has about the Internet browsing habits of Pensacola residents. How many, for example, have used Google to search the Web for “orgies”? In comparison, they want to know, with how often people there hit on “watermelon” and “apple pie”? Though I’m not clear about why they see watermelons and orgies to be meaningfully comparable—these do not seem equivalent to the more familiar “apples” and “oranges.” (See New York Times article linked below.)

Google is considering this request, surprisingly not rejecting it out of hand. Though I shouldn’t be entirely surprised--haven’t they also been quite accommodating to the Chinese government, among others, about what people there should be allowed to surf for using their vaunted search engine? But Google and juries looking over the electronic shoulders of sex shoppers in Constitutionally-protected Americans feels considerably more intrusive.

Nonetheless, the Pensacola defense strategy is brilliant. It’s going to be very hard for any jury there to find against the defendant when the Google data inevitably reveals that many, many of their friends and neighbors are spending untold hours addicted to raunchy Websites.

They may be going to church Sunday mornings to hear their preachers rail against smut and same-sex marriages, but then after lunch, while they are purportedly watching ESPN, they’re about as likely to be sneaking a peek at pornstar cheerleaders on the Internet.

Monday, June 23, 2008

June 23, 2008--Doomsday Machine

I was relieved to learn that I won’t have to cancel today’s doctor's appointment. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced late last week that we have nothing to fear when they switch on their Large Hadron Collider. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Until that reassuring statement those of us who worry about the unintended consequences of Big Science were worried that the LHC would generate so much energy that it would create a Black Hole in which the earth or perhaps even the entire universe would be swallowed.

Not that we or they for that matter have any idea how the universe is configured or its ultimate fate. At least about that we don’t have to have too much anxiety for at least another few billion years. So Dr. Kruger, I’ll see you later this afternoon.

Why you may be wondering did CERN spend billions and billions of dollars, actually Euros, on this largest-ever scientific instrument? A huge circular tunnel 150 to 500 feet below ground that is so big that it has a circumference of 17 miles and spans the border between Switzerland and France. And to make it work they have to cool it down almost to Absolute Zero. To 2 degrees Kelvin to be precise.

It is all about the search for the Higgs Boson, which is sometimes referred to as the God particle by the media. It is a hypothetical massive elementary subatomic particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. It is the only Standard Model particle not yet observed, but if discovered would help explain how otherwise massless elementary particles still manage to construct mass in matter. In particular, it would explain the difference between the massless Photon and the relatively massive W and Z Bosons. Elementary particle masses, and the differences between electromagnetism (caused by the photon) and the weak force (caused by the W and Z Bosons), are critical to many aspects of the structure of microscopic (and hence macroscopic) matter; thus, if it exists, the Higgs Boson would be proven to have an enormous effect on the earth and universe.

I hope you’ve got this in your notes since after the dentist I’ll be posting a short-answer pop quiz that will count for half your midterm grade. Though to tell you the truth I was only able to eek out a C+ in my college physics course when things within atoms were presented to us to be much simpler. There were just your basic Protons and Neutrons in the nucleus with your Electrons spinning around in their predictable orbits. Though this was well past Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s time and Quantum Mechanics was pretty much accepted by all physicists, to enable the pre-meds in the class to get at least passing grades so they could become gynecologists the kindly professors didn’t push us to learn anything much about why in fact Electrons were not to be easily found in knowable sub-atomic orbits. We were uncertain enough about which med school might be willing to admit us that to add anything about the complicated and deeply perplexing Uncertainty Principle would have been overwhelming.

So you can only imagine what being told about the Higgs Boson or Quarks or Charm would have done to our fragile equanimity. (Though the lit majors among us might have known that Quarks came playfully from the equally incomprehensible Finnegan’s Wake.)

As evidence of that lingering anxiety, and echoes of the fears everyone felt during the Cold War about whether or not the Russians would nuke us with their A or H Bombs, it is not surprising that the impending activation of the Large Hadron Collider has been worrisome. And though it is calming to have CERN assure us that we have nothing to fear, that they hired a consulting firm to test the safety of the machine and it has been given by them the green light to fire up, those of us who live in New York and just last week learned that the company the city hired to test the safety of the concrete in the new Yankee Stadium and the foundation for the Freedom Tower is rife with corruption and that their testing procedures are therefore not to be trusted, just to be safe, when CERN throws the switch later this summer I plan to be bunkered down in my fallout shelter. Hopefully the water and high-protein biscuits stashed there are still fresh.

Friday, June 20, 2008

June 20, 2008--Sodom In Jerusalem

At the very time when gay couples in California are rushing to marry before a federal court issues a stay of the state law that allows homosexuality marriages, Anglican bishops are tearing themselves apart over versions of the same issue.

Many conservative clergy are boycotting the once-a-decade International Anglican Communion because a majority of other bishops allowed the investiture last year of a gay bishop and support same-sex unions. They are holding their own counter communion in Jerusalem, where, ten years ago they passed a resolution which claimed that homosexuality was “incompatible with Scripture.” (See NY Times article linked below.)

In fact, how “incompatible” with Scripture is homosexuality?

I am far from a biblical scholar but even a little research reveals that it may be considerably less incompatible than religious conservatives and fundamentalists contend.

There seem to be just three or four allusions to homosexuality in the Old Testament. Most prominently in the Sodom and Gomorrah passage in Genesis. Sodom, recall, was destroyed by God largely because of rampant sinful behavior that allegedly though not explicitly included homosexuality.

As one example, to save his visitors from what appears to be sexual abuse, often interpreted to mean homosexual rape, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the angry crowd to assuage them by doing “to them what is good in your eyes.” Later, of course, Lot has sex with and impregnates them; so to most scholars the story and lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah is much more about condoning incest and rape than homosexuality.

In the New Testament there are perhaps a dozen references to homosexuality. I say “perhaps” since virtually all are open to various interpretations because of problems with the translation. Though fundamentalists in the U.S. and England read the Bible literally they obviously read literally the English versions. Not the Greek original. (Putting aside for the moment what we mean by “original.”). And I say “versions” because there are of course many competing English translations.

Be that as it may, take a brief look at Romans 1. It represents perhaps the clearest condemnation of homosexuality in either book of the Bible.

In Epistle to the Romans 1:26-27, in the New International Version translation, Paul writes:

Because of this [idolatry], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

First, this is the only place in the entire Bible where female homosexual behavior is mentioned. Which of course, regardless of one’s views, is not sufficient in itself to discount it. Though it does give one pause to see it brought in as an almost afterthought toward the end of the Old Testament.

But of considerable significance considering the heat and anger and hate and persecution that has been and is directed toward male and female homosexuals by religious fundamentalists, it is worth the time to take a quick look at some of the translation and interpretation issues.

According to one alternate view, even in this one most explicit of passages, Paul is not issuing a blanket condemnation of all forms of homosexuality but rather homosexual acts committed by heterosexuals—acts which for them might be considered to be “unnatural.”

Another interpretation of the Greek text suggests that Paul was condemning other specific types of homosexual behavior—for example, temple prostitution or pederasty.

If either is more correct than the traditional translations and interpretations it may be that the Bible actually accepts rather than condemns the fact that among some humans (as well as among some from virtually all other species in God’s kingdom) homosexuality is “natural.” Homosexuality as opposed to homosexual behavior by nonhomosexuals.

Maybe the good bishops gathered for their competing communions might revisit this and take another look at the Bible that they both say guides them. Perhaps someone there might even know some Greek and could, sorry, straighten, them out.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

June 19, 2008--Oily

From two side-by-side stories in today’s New York Times:

First, while politicians scramble to stake out positions on how to reduce the price of gasoline—more important now to voters than the lingering war in Iraq—with McCain reversing himself by calling for states to be allowed to authorize oil exploration along more of America’s coastlines and while Obama continues to advocate ways to wean us from our dependency on oil, the Times writes that even if we were to allow oil companies to drill wherever they want, even in the lakes of Central Park, there is such a lack of offshore oil-drilling capacity, and such a backlog with regard to exploring current sites, that it would take perhaps decades before anyone could turn to any potential new oil fields ones. Drill-ships are booked solid for the next five years. In fact, Brazil, which recently announced the discovery of an immense oil field off its coast, can’t get to it because of the dearth of rigs capable of drilling in waters that exceed 6,000 feet in depth. (Article attached.)

Then, the Times reports, the Iraqi government, such as it is, is about to strike a deal with five of the world’s largest oil companies to service their oil fields. To modernize them so that their spigots can soon be turned on full force. I’ve placed emphasis on “service” because by framing the contracts this way the government can engage them to do this work even before there is an oil deal in Iraq that would define how oil revenues will be split among the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. Also, by defining this work as service, which all agree would give Exxon, Mobil, Shell, Total, and BP a considerable leg-up when it comes time to turn to full-scale production, the Iraqis were able to make these no-bid contracts. (Article also linked below.)

While these shenanigans continue, consumers still want relief from high energy prices. Some like Tom Friedman are less concerned about the run up in the cost of gasoline, feeling that the only way to get Americas out of their SUVs and into Smart Cars and public transportation is by reducing demand. (He, though, wants to increase taxes, not profits, on gasoline so that the money collected can be used for infrastructural purposes.)

But politically, during a national election, even though Barack Obama is inclined in an alternative-fuel direction, he too has to say something about what might be done to help out right now.

One place to turn is the oil futures market. I am far from an expert here, but it is apparent even to me that the $135 per-barrel price for oil that we hear about daily is actually more a futures price than the actual current cost of a barrel at the wellhead. And that this is the result of deregulating by slight of hand back in 2002 the financial market through which these futures are traded.

Here’s how that got done and some of its current consequences.

At the time the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee was the Texan Phil Gramm and into the 11,000-page Government Reauthorization Act, without debate, he inserted an amendment called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. In effect, it deregulated the financial services industry. When it surfaced, Warren Buffett called the new financial instruments it enabled “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

These have contributed mightily to the cowboy-market in sub-prime mortgages and have also resulted in the roiling of the oil futures market. This latter effect is in part because of the so-called “Enron Loophole” that was also inserted into the Act by Senator Gramm. It allowed energy trading to escape federal oversight.

This loophole came into being in part at the urging of one member of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. One Wendy Gramm. Phil’s wife, who after she left the Commission became a paid board member of . . . Enron.

Many claim it is this loophole that is responsible for at least a third of the per-barrel cost of crude oil. Translated to the price of gasoline at the pump, if it weren’t for these financial manipulations, we would be paying no more than $3.00 per gallon.

This might not make Tom Friedman happy, but by closing this loophole and cleaning up the rest of the messes that Gramm made (by the way, he is co-chair of John McCain’s campaign committee) we might get some greed and corruption out of the system, which in itself would also be a good thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

June 18, 2008--Defiance

There is this fearful symmetry—

My mother will be 100 on June 28th and though until six months ago had seemed a version of “perfect,” recently she has been in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation facilities for a variety of serious ailments. And it is questionable if she will be able to regain her independence by her birthday, much less if ever.

Rona’s mother, though much younger, lives in assisted living because she has had the bad luck to be afflicted by various life-threatening conditions for a number of decades and has thus seen chipped away virtually all semblance of what it means to lead an autonomous life.

One mother 1,200 miles south of us, mine; the other, Rona’s, 75 miles to our west. We, plunked in the middle pulled daily, sometimes hourly, toward whichever one requires attention, advocacy to that heartless part of the medical world, or just pricks away at our concerns and, yes, guilt.

Guilt because of whatever we might have failed to do for them in the past (there is a longer middle-of-the-night-generated list than I am prepared to share); guilt because of how fortunate we are to be able to live such a comfortable and free life while they are trapped in their struggles; guilt for what we are still not willing to offer—more of our time and devotion—even though we are substantially unfettered from the pressures of traditional forms of work.

Every walk on the beach, every unhurried lunch, every afternoon nap, every new book, every friendship comes thus with a steep emotional cost.

Yet, there is fortunately more to report.

Late last week we were visiting Rona’s mother who was again in the intensive care unit because her doctors were unable to understand or adequately correct her low levels of hemoglobin though we were happy to see her perking up by the time she had received her third unit of whole blood. As we saw her moment to moment coming back to her old self, becoming more alert and gregarious, Rona took the opportunity to ask her why, when she knew she shouldn’t, why she kept attempting to get in and out of bed unassisted or on her own to transfer from her wheelchair to the toilet and as a result had begun to take dangerous falls. Falls that could very well jeopardize her life.

This woman, who for all of her adult life had played a traditional accommodating role in her marriage and in the larger world, who had unquestioningly seemed so comfortable tending exclusively to the needs of others, now hooked up to a web of drains and tubes, strained to haul herself up in her hospital bed and with unaccustomed sparkle, looking unwaveringly at her second daughter, said, “I was being defiant.”

Rona chuckled at this playfulness, relieved to again see evidence of the reappearance of her mother’s familiar self-mocking personality. But her mother, understanding the meaning of Rona’s smile, wanting to be certain that she had not misunderstand her true meaning, repeated that in fact she was being defiant. That she was not, as was usual, making a quip at her own expense or giving in to the pressure and demands of others.

* * *

Later that day I called my mother, back home again from her latest rehabbing. This time, at the family’s insistence, with 24-hour-a-day aides. A circumstance that she hates. To her nothing more represents decline than having to depend upon these remarkable “strangers.” But she relented when we asked her to do this for our, as opposed to her sake—so that we would not have to unduly worry about her.

“All right,” she said. “I will do it for you. For your peace of mind. But as soon as you feel I can get along on my own I want you to promise that I won’t have to have them in my house.”

We agreed while acknowledging among ourselves that we would play this, and her, week-by-week, stretching out the time of her altered reality sufficiently so that in a few weeks what she so dreaded would become familiar and make her feel more secure than invaded. That she would hardly notice that there was someone there to tend to her.

When I spoke with her the other afternoon, since it had been a full two weeks since she had returned to her apartment and since she had that day received a good report from her doctor, she was eager to see if it was all right with us to dismiss the aides since, she claimed, she had really never needed them and asked, as she earlier had my brother, did we now have enough peace of mind to be comfortable with her again living on her own.

After the call, when I conferred with my brother, on the evidence of his recent visit with her, he said that she was still objectively weak and that to continue the aides was actually more in response to her real needs than our fears.

I agreed, hung up, and that evening, as I was about to tell my mother that we still wanted the aides to be with her—yes, I would as a ploy continue to insist, for our sakes—my brother called back to say that he was having other thoughts:

That there was no way, we must come to realize and accept, that we can make things “perfect” for her; that she had led a remarkable life; that she was fully compos mentis; and that she was therefore entitled to live out the remainder of that life as she pleased. Even in the face of the obvious risks.

That this was about her, not us, he said. That what she was asking was for us not to get in the way of her fight to retain whatever independence she could muster.

Then he added, “And isn’t this remarkable and wonderful.”

“And,” I said, thinking as well of Rona’s mother, “Inspiring.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

June 17, 2008--Deficit Financing

When there's nothing much in the news, I sometimes get into checking out what the spouses of our candidates are wearing.

Take Michelle Obama for example. How as I wrote last week she is dressing in a way that is a kind of homage to Jackie Kennedy and also, cleverly, to suggest and assure us that in spite of the way some are mean-spiritedly attempting to portray her, she'll be OK if she becomes First Lady. We can calm down. No need to worry that she'll insist that Reverend Wright be resurrected and made White House chaplain.

And then take Cindy McCain. I'm no expert on women's clothes, or men's for that matter, but to me it looks as if it's a good thing she inherited a mega-million dollar beer company. Those St. John knits of hers cost a fortune. At least a $1,000 an outfit. And she never seems to wear the same suit twice! She must be some shopper.

But I now know how she pays for them. She uses her two American Express cards. That in itself is not all that noteworthy. Most Americans have more than one card. Also not unusual is the fact that she has run up debt on each of them. What is stunning, though, is that she is up to her eyeballs in debt--to the tune of between $100,000 and $250,000 on each card.

How do I know this? As a senator John McCain had to release his financial statements and, as reported by the New York Times, Cindy's charges had to be included. (Article linked below.)

Also, one of her so-called "dependent" children ran up a debt of between $10,000 and $15,000, and a credit card in both Cindy and John's name had unpaid charges in the same range.

For all of this debt the McCains are being charged 25.99 percent interest. That's correct--25.99 percent. That's about as high as it gets in the usurous world of credit cards and suggests that they have not been responsible personal money managers. Interest rockets to these levels only for people who are deemed not to be credit-worthy.

This is the same Senator McCain who rails against out-of-control government spending and bases his entire economic program on curtailing runaway expense budgets, especially of the Pork Barrel type. And, yes, extending tax breaks for the rich. For folks like Cindy, who had an income of $6.0 million last year but still can't seem to get along.

It's irresistible to wonder that if he can't control his own spending, and has run up such a personal deficit, how can he be expected to do better for the country.

So what about Michelle and Barack Obama? As a senator he too had to release his financial records.

The Obamas appear not to have any credit card debt. And in contrast with the McCains what they did do for their dependent children was invest up to $200,000 for each in a college savings account.

I am only guessing, but I assume this means that they want their girls to get a good education so that they don't wind up like Cindy McCain. Paying 25.99 percent interest and having the good sense to avoid plastic surgery, Percocet, and dresses that they'll only wear once.

Monday, June 16, 2008

June 16, 2008--Bush's Farewell Tour

It is seven months and four days until a new president will be inaugurated. But who’s counting? Among others, Europeans, including virtually all of their leaders.

We know this from recent Pew public opinion polls—an increasing number of people worldwide are looking forward to the end of the Bush presidency. And we can read this not-so-between-the-lines in the comments of European presidents and prime ministers as they host our president as he makes his farewell tour. (By the way, T-shirts, jackets, and souvenirs commemorating that tour are not exactly jumping off the shelves—we’re not talking Barbara Streisand.)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who George Bush tried to smooch-up in public during his first meeting with her, when asked if she would miss him praised him as someone who calls a “spade a spade,” but demurred when pressed to say how she would feel when he was gone from the scene. (See linked NY Times story.)

But the most noteworthy comments emerging from the final lap were reserved for the president himself.

There was curiosity among the press corps about how George Bush was viewing his legacy. In his inimitable way he said that that would be up to historians, that “I don’t do legacy.” In fact, in this regard, he reminded them and us that he never has “second thoughts.”

“First of all,” he said, you don’t get to do things over in my line of work.” Though he did acknowledge that if he had it to do over again he would have toned down some of his rhetoric. Things like saying Osama bin Laden was wanted “dead or alive” or, when strutting his macho to the A-rab world, challenging them to “bring it on.”

Tragically, though he’s right about the ruinous rhetoric he’s wrong about what presidents get to do in their line of work—they do, if they choose, sometimes get to “do things over.” Minimally, they get to do things differently if they have the capacity to learn from their mistakes. For example, not bomb or invade Iran.

But more subtly, they get to make midcourse corrections, which is a version of doing things over. Bush himself did this a few times. We heard that passive-voice admission after the 2006 midterm elections when the Republicans got trounced that “mistakes were made.” As a consequence Donald Rumsfeld was asked to step down and since that time there have been some adjustments in Iraq strategy. It is arguable how effective that has been, but for my purpose here there has at least been some new zigging and zagging.

More profoundly, as JFK did during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he backtracked and even reversed himself at critical moments and thereby contributed to saving the world from atomic warfare, Bush could have done a version of the same thing in Iraq—done things over.

After invading Iraq, forget for the moment if this was the right or wrong thing to do, and discovering that there were no weapons of mass destruction, he could have said that we accomplished our mission and we, like during his father’s administration, are leaving. We are satisfied that Iraq and Saddam are not substantial threats to Israel, Europe, and the U.S.

He could thus have demonstrated his don’t-tread-on-me cajones and his legacy, even though he pretends not to think about it, would have been much different than it inevitable will be.

But, I know, I know. This is much too simple a view of things. On the other hand . . .

Friday, June 13, 2008

June 13, 2008--"Bi the Way"

Back when I was in college, which was a while ago, there were only a few ways to make some extra legitimate bucks.

Actually, there were three ways—for about $25 you could sell a pint of blood at any number of commercial storefronts in Times Square; for twice that, if they accepted you, you could be a sperm donor; and then there were opportunities to participate for pay in various medical experiments.

I did all of the above. The first two are rather self-explanatory. The latter, in my case, involved having various parts of my body hooked up to electrodes, being shown a battery of soft- and hardcore pictures (mainly Playboy centerfolds and what at the time were called French Playing Cards), and being closely interviewed about what I was “feeling” as the images were flashed on the screen. Not much in regard to feelings, I can testify, in the closet-like lab they had put me in. Now, if they had picked another setting and the photos hadn’t been so grainy, at a rambunctious 19, my responses would have likely jumped off the charts. At least, that’s what I prefer to believe.

The exhaustive Kinsey Reports had already been published and I wondered what else they might be seeking to learn from me. Certainly not anything much from direct experience. I was still very much an innocent. Though maybe they selected me to be a part of the sample since they hadn’t been able to find too many boys my age who had never . . . how shall I put it?

All I knew was that I needed the money.

Looking back on this, I know that studies of this kind—about sexual responsiveness—revealed an unflattering truth: all you needed to do to get males aroused was show them a few erotic pictures. Even grainy ones. Females, on the other hand, responded in much more nuanced ways—they didn’t get stimulated by a few cheap pictures; they found more worldly and sophisticated things to be arousing. Things such as wit and intelligence. It was widely reported that for many women a man’s sexiest organ was his brain. The same brain, I came to wonder, that got turned on by a pair or naked boobs?

What a convenient (and sexist) truth—these so-called findings disputed carnal equality and justified to many men that there was no need to cut back on beer guzzling and get in shape because to attract women all you needed to do was appear to be intelligent or amusing.

But as we know, a lot of this has changed, we view sexuality more equitably, though essentialists continue to claim that there are in fact significant differences between males and females, including in the sexual realm.

Case in point, the new documentary film, Bi the Way. One of the researchers presented in the film says that, not unlike what was claimed in my early days, “For heterosexual women looking at a naked man walking on the beach is about as exciting as looking at landscapes.” (Quoted in the NY Times. Article linked below.)

To prove the point, women, also hooked up to electrodes, watching, say, athletic-looking naked men tossing stones into the ocean had similar reactions to when they looked at “control footage” of the snowcapped Himalayas.

On the other hand, and this is where it gets interesting, when the same hetero women watched naked women tossing stones by comparison they got much more turned on then men when they were shown those same Himalayas.

Even more provocative in regard to male-female sexual responsiveness, in a 2004 experiment, women were much more inclined than men to be aroused by film of the coupling of bonobo monkeys!

I don’t know what to make of this. In fact, neither apparently do the filmmakers and experimenters. Since this was all reported in the New York Times’ “Style” section, is the paper of record suggesting all of this is just about women and men adopting different lifestyles? Or, if they are probing toward some more profound truth, why wasn’t this reported in the Times’ “Science” section?

Apparently one of the film’s female directors is also confused. Reporting “embarrassment” with her own lack of this kind of experience, she said, “The sad thing is I desperately need to get with a girl.”

Also sad was how that also wasn’t one of the options they presented to me way back then.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 12, 2008--Give 'em the Gas

I don’t own a car and am fortunate enough, if I did own one, not to have to worry too much about the cost of gasoline.

But while snowbirding in Florida this past winter we of course needed to rent one and that swept us directly into the world of almost daily price-per-gallon price increases and thrust us into many conversations with frustrated and angry people struggling much more than we to pay their mounting bills.

And we were also temporarily residing in the one county in America where plummeting real estate values were perversely leading the nation and almost everyone, expect for the gazillionaires with houses right on the beach, were worried about foreclosures and the imminent loss of most of what they had through their lifetimes managed to accumulate. This reality hugely compounded the appropriately raw feelings.

In other words we were living for a time right on the cutting edge of how corporate, national, governmental, and geopolitical forces are conflating to undermine what is left of the post-Second World American dream of upward mobility, where the rising middle class could see their own way to a better and more secure life and knew that if their children succeeded in school and worked hard they would do even better.

This hopeful, and even realistic vision, they could daily see literally draining away as they strained to pay the 40 to 60 bucks it was costing to fill up their tanks. Not to mention the pass-along inflating cost of everything else that needed to be trucked in that they required to sustain themselves and their families.

Over coffee every morning we would hear people railing about what they saw to be a system rigged against them and designed to pad the bottom lines of rapacious oil companies. All of this aided and abetted by politicians in Washington who were in one way or another on the payrolls of Big Oil.

And although by early winter even folks who had voted twice for George Bush had turned against him and what they then saw to be his mistaken war, few were putting all the pieces together—the effect on the larger and daily economy of the connection between turmoil in the Middle East, corporate greed, governmental posturing and corruption, and, yes, their own consumption habits. All connected; all playing their role.

My coffee companions were just too angry and frustrated to find a calm moment to figure it all out.

There may now though be that opportunity to do so. If the media would only allow the two presidential candidates to duke it out over policy issues and resist supplying us with a steady gotcha-diet of misspeaks (McCain yesterday saying that it doesn’t matter when the troops will be withdrawn) and petty scandal-du-jours (the resignation of one of Obama’s vice presidential vetter), we may get a chance to see how all the forces at work are conspiring to rob us and the rest of the world of a more hopeful future.

In regard to energy dependency, almost lost in this hyped news reporting was the recent announcement by General Motors and Ford that they will soon be closing a number of assembly plants that manufacture most of their gas-guzzling cars, trucks, and S.U.V.s; and, more significantly since this does not bode well for the American economy, Toyota reported that they will introduce commercially competitive plug-in hybrid cars as early as 2010 (less than two years from now) and thereby inevitably increase their domination of the automobile market by producing cars that will be cheaper to run while being more environmentally forgiving. (See linked NY Times article.)

So we’re getting it half right—stopping to make big vehicles that no one any longer wants but allowing foreign manufacturers to again beat us at a game that we decades ago invented.

Thus the urgent need to turn our civic attention to the real stuff.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

June 11, 2008--Mother-In-Law Care

We're off to help her through a medical procedure. She should be fine.

Blogging resumes tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

June 10, 2008--Michelle Obama's "Big Pearls"

Sometimes when you want to understand the cultural issues that lie just below the surface of a political campaign, forces that powerfully influence the direction of voters’ perceptions, you have to turn away from newspapers’ op-ed pages and check out their style sections.

Case in point—this past Sunday’s New York Times’ report about Michelle Obama’s wardrobe—“She Dresses to Win.” (Article linked below.)

With some voters worried that Barack is a Muslim or closet militant and suspicions that Michelle is worse (there are scurrilous and unconfirmed Internet postings that say she appeared on a panel with Louis Farrakhan and railed against white people, calling the Whitey), the echoes in her wardrobe that evoke Jackie Kennedy and even Barbara Bush (!) do not just reflect her personal tastes but also are designed to emit subliminal messages that she is mainstream, ladylike, and therefore can be trusted not to be a “problem” if her husband is elected.

When she appeared with him Tuesday night after he secured the nomination she wore a simple Jackie-like sleeveless purple A-line sheath dress and her now signature big pearls. And her hair was more reminiscent of Donna Reed’s flip than say Angela Davis’ Afro.

But, to be clear, she was not sending out little-First-Lady messages. It appeared that she was not wearing stockings and her very hip Azzedine Alaïa belt was not something Jackie would have chosen. Michelle seemed to be saying—if I read the cultural signals correctly—that she may be OK being Mrs. Obama but she will also be respectfully independent.

Culturally at least as interesting, and widely talked about, was the Fist-Bump that they exchanged when they appeared on stage together. At one end of the political spectrum, some folks at Fox News are speculating that this is a version of a “terrorist handshake”—which reveals that no one there has ever been to a sporting event—while others think it is youthful, playful, and above all cool.

I’m in the latter group, especially since Barack also gave Michelle a tap on her butt as she exited the stage.

We’ve had our fill of presidents who fooled around on the side, from Thomas Jefferson to William Jefferson Clinton, but now it feels so good to have a potential president who, even in public, at that historic moment, took so much pleasure from touching his wife’s body.

This was underscored the next day when someone asked him what he had planned for the weekend and he said, “Spend time with the kids, and go out on a date.”

Sounds like family values to me.

Monday, June 09, 2008

June 9, 2009--Obama & the Jews: Oy Vey

On the very day after he secured the nomination. Barack Obama did two significant and contradictory things—

He proclaimed that as leader of the Democratic Party it would no longer accept support from lobbyists and PAC groups.

And then he appeared before one of the most powerful PAC groups—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—to assure them that he was an unwavering friend of Israel.

He is if nothing else a practical politician and this appearance was deemed to be a smart move since he, it is said, has a “Jewish problem.” It is alleged that fewer Jews than in the past are likely to vote for this Democrat because some think he might be a closet Muslim, or worse that he might be willing to talk with Hamas. He has already expressed willingness to engage in “tough diplomacy” with Iran, which also makes him suspect to the Israel lobby.

But while genuflecting (sorry) before AIPAC he misspoke about the future of Jerusalem, saying that it should remain undivided and serve as the eternal capital of Israel. Though the AIPAC crowd lapped this up, giving him a standing ovation, it was immediately seized upon by John McCain, who himself has an unclear position on Jerusalem, and by various parties in the Middle East who see the fate of Jerusalem to be a negotiable issue. So Obama the next day had to do some backtracking and clarifying. (See NY Times article liked below.)

Conventional wisdom claims that Jews vote as a block in a few key states, most notably in Florida where we know what happened in 2000 when thousands of folks in retirement communities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties wound up hanging enough chads to tip the election to George Bush. So if Obama is to have any chance at all of carrying Florida he has to be sure that Jewish voters there know how to cast their ballots and, more important, are inclined to vote for him. At the moment a lot are inclining toward McCain, feeling he is a more reliably ferocious defender of what they see to be in Israel’s best interest.

That same wisdom says that to appeal to Jewish voters a candidate must:

• Assume that even more important to Jews than their health care is their unanimous belief that Israel must be defended by the U.S. both politically and, if necessary, militarily in pretty much the same unquestioning manner as we have pledged our support for 60 years.

• Insist that Iran and Syria give up their plans to obtain nuclear weapons and that we refuse to deal with them until they do that as well as recognize Israel’s right to exist.

• Related to this, we continue to ignore the fact that Israel for decades has had its own arsenal of atomic weapons and rockets all pointed at targets in Iran and Syria.

• And that we continue to wink at the walls Israel has built to contain the Palestinians while at the same time cast a blind eye on Israel’s continued occupation and settlement of portions of the West Bank.

If a candidate proclaims all of these things, Jews en masse will vote for him. At least this is what both McCain and Obama believe.

Before I proceed, I need to say I am Jewish, hopefully not a “self-hating” one, and also insist that Israel not only has a right to exist but also, if necessary, to be protected.

The question is how best to help Israel survive. I contend by not submitting to the conventional wisdom. It may be good politics but it is not a geopolitically winning strategy.

To truly support Israel, as their best friend, we should play an honest broker role in the region, actively seeking to talk with and work out deals of benefit to both Israel and ultimately the U.S. Syria appears ready for a version of this—not wanting to see their country totally dominated by Iranian mullahs—and these very same mullahs may also be ready for a deal to protect themselves from their own secularized, restive populations.

I understand that Obama can’t say this in public because he would be demonologized even more than he is currently being caricatured, but I am hoping that this is how he is actually thinking about the Middle East.

But he has more than an Israel problem when it comes to appealing to Jewish voters. Yes, there is more racism in the Jewish community that Jews would like to acknowledge. And there is more anti-Semitism in the African-American community than blacks would like to admit. Obama has spoken about this and that is a very good thing.

He, though, also has a cultural problem: Jews, especially older Jewish women, are always suspicious of anyone who doesn’t eat. There is a lot of truth to the Jewish-Mother stereotype. They worry if you don’t eat enough.

Just come to my mother’s retirement community in Lauderhill. Sit with those ladies over dinner in their dining room. If you don’t eat everything on your plate and ask for seconds they cast a worried, even a skeptical eye on you.

“You’re not sick, are you? Have you had a checkup?” Or, “She’s so thin; she eats like a bird.” Or, “Eat, eat, it’s good for you.” What you’ve heard in the movies or on TV is not fiction, it’s being said right now at Forest Trace.

So to win over hesitant Jewish voters Obama not only has to make nice to AIPAC, he also has to let these women feed him. My mother and her tablemates Selma, Rose, and Esther would love to host him and load up his plate. And he’d have to finish everything.

I’m being serious because if he did that then I guarantee that in November he’d carry Florida.

Friday, June 06, 2008

June 6, 2008--“I Was Like ‘Aaaahhhh’"

“I will tell her, ‘Tonight is the night that all Americans became one.’ ”

* * *

“We as black people now have hope that we have never, ever had. I have new goals for my little girl. She can’t give me any excuses because she’s black.”

* * *

“Our children need to be able to see a black adult as a leader for the country, so they can know we can reach for those same goals. We don’t need to give up at a certain level.”

* * *

“When my 21-month-old daughter’s out in, God knows where, some small town in rural America, they’ll think, ‘Oh, I know someone like you. Our president is like you,’ ” Ms. Kane said. “That just opens minds for people, to have someone to relate to. And that makes me feel better, as a mom.”

* * *

“Probably the most powerful story I heard was today at a conference, a woman came up to me and said her son teaches in an inner-city school in San Francisco and that he has seen a change in behavior among the young African-American boys there in terms of how they think about their studies.”

* * *

“You can never change everybody’s minds, but it is going to help a lot.”

* * *

“A lot of people think things will be different for the black community now. It’s great.”

* * *

“If kids see this, they will think it’s something they can do. Otherwise, they look up to rappers.”
* * *
“I was like, ‘aaaahhhh.’ Never in a million years would I have thought this was possible.”

Quotes from, Marcus Mabry, “Many Blacks Find Joy in Breakthrough,” New York Times (article linked below).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

June 5, 2008--Heading North

The sun has just cleared the Atlantic horizon and we need to get to the airport. So no typing for me today.

More tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

June 4, 2008--Hillary For Vice President!

I’m in Florida again to help my mother deal with some medical issues. She’ll be as fine as one can be just three weeks short of turning 100. So you can calculate from that and from a glance to your right at my picture that I’m no longer as young as I’d like to be.

I am thus old enough to remember my first trip to Florida more than fifty years ago. To visit an aunt and uncle who fled south from New York seeking opportunity in a place that still had many characteristics of an open frontier.

As Aunt Fannie drove me around some of what was left of my innocence was forever shattered.

We went to Miami Beach and along the causeway that linked it to the mainland I saw a sign along Biscayne Bay that said Colored Beach; and when we stopped for gas and I wanted some water I saw the signs that said For Whites and For Coloreds; and when we lingered on the beach and headed home at dusk and I asked why only colored people were lined up at the bus stops on Collins Avenue Aunt Fannie told me that that was because they were not allowed to remain on Miami Beach after dark.

I didn’t fully understand what this meant but I knew it was not a good thing. I also knew that within my northern family the women who cleaned our apartments were referred to as swartzers. Also not a good thing. We too had our problems with race.

So it was personally fitting and soul-satisfying last night to be here in the South again when Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the cliché goes, I never thought I’d live to see the day that . . .

He only alluded to the historic nature of this achievement—his as well as ours—which is appropriate since just looking at him is history lesson enough. But the good news for us is that he and we achieved this not because of that, his DNA, but because he turned out to be a remarkable candidate who has the potential to do remarkable things that we desperately need to see realized at home and in the larger world.

Hillary Clinton was not shy about pointing out the historic nature of her own campaign and Obama was more than generous in his many explicit references to its meaning, including to his two young daughters. Though her comments about this and her continuing campaign at times seemed delusional his about her were appropriate, appreciative, and politically smart. He knows he needs to attract her supporters if he is to succeed against John McCain.

So let me at this truly historic moment talk about the history of what will really count—his winning the presidency. Otherwise he will be relegated to footnote status: In 2008, Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois, became the first African-American to be nominated by one of America’s major political parties blah, blah . . .

If he were white the election would in effect already be over. Did you hear McCain’s speech last night? End of discussion. But he is wonderfully black and I do not have that much innocence left to believe that in itself is not an electoral problem. We’re no longer moving in the realm of Democratic Party maneuverings. We’re already out there in the world that Karl Rove knows so well.

Thus, if we are to be practical now and not become mired in either ideology or spite, for Obama to be elected in November it is essential for him to ask Hillary Clinton to run with him.

The conventional wisdom says that it doesn’t matter that much who the presidential nominee selects to be his running mate. Unless that choice is a Dan Quayle and has the potential to hurt you (though the first George Bush did manage somehow to win—OK he ran against Dukakis and a sea turtle could have beaten him). It is contended by the pundits that vice presidential candidates do not deliver votes and rarely even help carry their own states. But as I have written here conventional wisdom this time around may turn out to be more conventional than wise.

This time around the Democratic candidate may win a few southern states that for decades have gone solidly for Republicans; this time around young people are not going to ignore the election and spend all their spare time polishing up their Facebook sites and posting YouTube clips but rather will not only vote but work their butts off in the Obama campaign; this time around many more than 60 percent of African-Americans eligible to vote will turn out. And this time, if Hillary Clinton is on the ticket, she will in fact deliver votes. Votes that Obama needs to win.

I know well the awful things both Clintons said and did during the past six months—playing the race card, intimating that Obama might be assassinated; making up stories; personally demeaning him--and have railed about them here; but Hillary Clinton did extraordinarily well in the campaign, coming in in a virtual dead heat with Obama, and mobilizing almost as many new and passionate voters as he. Voters very personally connected to her and upon whom, as with him, they could project their own aspirations and fantasies--characteristics essential to all successful candidates.

Thus, to be practical, to win, he needs her.

What, all of you who oppose this idea, is the downside? Those who are most suspicious of her believe that she still wants to be president—of course she does, wouldn’t you--so she would subtly undermine him. How? What would she do? What could she do?

She will demand to be a version of co-president and thus make political trouble for him. What can a VP actually do that is not sanctioned by the president? The last time I checked the Constitution the only independent power the vice president has is to preside over the Senate—which the Democrats will easily control. So if Hillary (or Bill) were to step out of line all a President Obama would have to do is pull the rug out from under whatever it is he assigned her to do. A few of her most fervent supporters would be furious, but would he really have to care? Who would be sitting in the Oval Office?

Is this too cynical? Perhaps. But also practical. Obama himself the other day referred to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln—Team of Rivals—and about how after he was elected Lincoln put together a cabinet of his principal political opponents so that they he could draw upon their wisdom and experience and also so that they would be on the inside hopefully helping him rather than on the outside attacking him. This more or less worked and he turned out to be a pretty good president.

Don’t we need a Lincoln now? Things are pretty perilous. Perhaps not as dangerous as during the time of the Civil War but dangerous and complicated enough. Who seems most like Lincoln? McCain? Obama? Easy. Now, let’s be practical and get him elected.

Hillary for Vice President!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

June 3, 2008--Snowbirding: Sunpass

"How’s business?”

There were no cars behind us as we glided into the toll plaza so there was no hurry to rush through. The toll collector, a rumpled woman of about 60 tossed us a weary smile and shrugged, looking back over her shoulder to the off ramp as if to confirm that business on the Turnpike was indeed slow.

“It’s the gas,” she said, “No one’s workin’ and with gas more than four dollars a gallon, there’ no one on the road.”

She was clearly eager to talk so I put the car into park so we could settle in for a few minutes to hear what was on her mind. “Look at me. You think I made a career out of this?” Her gesture took in the three-by-four tollbooth. “I worked for a screen company for 27 years. You know down here lots of folks have screened-in patios. It was a good business. Especially after hurricanes. You know, the first thing that goes, even before the roof, is the screens.” She chuckled to herself at that—appreciating how other people’s misfortunes was good for her business.

“But now, and today’s the first day of hurricane season, right, even it we get hit by an Andrew or a Wilber I’ll bet you, since most folks don’t have any hurricane insurance any more, the last thing they’ll fix up will be the screens. So here I am. Sittin’ out here Friday nights and weekends collecting 25 cent tolls. They least they coulda done was give me a booth where you collect half a buck.” Again she laughed mockingly at her reduced circumstances. “But now that no one’s driving anymore, unless they have to, I bet they’ll close down this here booth and let everyone through for nothin’. They’re not takin’ in enough to cover my pay. That would kick things in the head for me.”

I glanced at the rearview mirror and still no one was in line behind me. So I looked back at her. She was wearing the regulation Florida Turnpike shirt festooned with garish-colored palm trees and baskets of citrus fruit. She had a radio with her and it was playing music from the 50s. It was pretty clear from the lines on her face and her cigarette voice that life for her had not been a lot of laughs. No even that many smiles. I could see on her brass nametag that she was Gladys.

“So,” I said, “how’d you find this work? I assume a lot of people these days would be happy to have it.”

She snorted, “I know someone who knows someone. Simple as that. That’s the way things work. I always hated that. Had too much pride to want to ask anyone for anything. Made my own way, thank you very much. Never asked no favors and none were extended. Wasn’t easy, but I raised two kids after that prick ran off. Worked six days a week during the season. When folks had money. And when I hd to waitressesd Saturday nights and Sundays.

“Things coulda been worse though. Both kids are doin’ all right. That Jimmy Junior did do some time. He was into a drug thing for a while. But he’s clean now. So am I. You know I too had my problems. But I haven’t touched a drop for six years, three months, and seven days. But who’s counting. As they say, ‘One day at a time.’ I say, ‘One hour at a time.’

“One thing I know, you never know what’s commin’ next. Nothing good. That much I can tell you. Not for me anyway. For you and your misses,” she leaned down from her swivel-stool so she could look over at Rona, “I’m sure things are different.” But before I could say that our lives too have had their ups and downs, she quickly added, “I know, I know. You at least look old enough,” she winked at the much-younger Rona, “to have had some of your own spills. And don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my good times. That was a while ago I admit but still I did have some fun. If I had the time I could tell you a few things,” that made me wish that the Turnpike Authority had already decided to close the exit so we could hang out with Gladys. “Even with Big Jimmy. Like the time we drove all the way out to Vegas. We had a blast. We did cut up and did some things that I wouldn’t describe in polite company.” This time she rocked back roaring in laughter.

“But that was before his accident which scrambled his brains. I never told the boys about those early days. They wouldn’t believe me. They only knew him after. He beat up on them pretty fierce. He didn’t know what he was doin’, poor bastard, but still the boys never forgave him. Not that I blame them. I never forgave him either. He sent me to the hospital at least half a dozen times. I had to get a restraining order, things got that bad. But I guess lucky for us before he killed all of us he took off with some slut he’d been poppin’ on the side. Someone he met at the AA. Can you believe that? There I thought he was goin’ to his meetin’s religiously to keep straight but all the while he was playin’ hide the salami. But as I said I guess we were lucky he took off.”

“It sounds that way,” I said, realizing how inane I must have seemed; but I didn’t know how else to respond that didn’t sound insincere or patronizing. And back about a quarter of a mile I saw a pair of headlights approaching as a car slowed onto the exit ramp and realized that unless he had a Sunpass that would allow him to zip through those dedicated lanes that did not require drivers to pay cash tolls we would in a moment have to pull away from Gladys.

She noticed too. “I guess I’ll have to get back to work in a minute. But before you go, I want you to know that I do not regret my live or feel sorry for myself or unfairly treated. I made all my own choices and take responsibility for them and my life. I’m proud to say that. I may not have much, but I do have my self-respect. And that’s worth a lot.”

With that she smiled and looked radiant even in the harsh fluorescent light of the booth.

“I agree. You’ve clearly accomplished a lot. I hope your boys appreciate that.” She nodded back at me. “And having self-respect is important and sadly rare these days rare.”

“You got that right.”

The car that had been approaching was behind me now and flashing his high beams to nudge me to move along. I shifted back into drive and crept forward. I was hoping, as we waved and Gladys blew us a kiss, that if we came this way next week we’d still find her there.

As I drove us off, Rona said, “Now aren’t you glad we didn’t get a Sunpass?”

She was right. I was glad.

Monday, June 02, 2008

June 2, 2008--Shortchanged Again

First a little history.

Community colleges, then called junior colleges, began as just that—junior versions of four-year colleges. Early in the 20th Century they were established as extensions of high schools and offered the first two years of a college education. Those students who completed their freshman and sophomore studies and aspired to complete a bachelor’s degree needed to transfer as juniors to senior colleges.

Among the strongest advocates for the creation of junior colleges were senior colleges that wanted to purge themselves (that’s the word they used—purge) of general education offerings so they could concentrate on transforming themselves into American versions of European universities. These emerging universities would then be able to focus on research and advanced studies,

After the Second World War and the GI Bill, which provided college scholarships for millions of returning veterans, millions of non-veterans also desired to attend college so as to prepare themselves to be viable in the post-war economy.

State higher education systems were thus confronted with a conundrum—how to expand college opportunities without having to shoulder the expense of expanding existing four-year institutions or creating new ones. Most came to the conclusion that it would be cheaper to see most new enrollees go to community colleges. So literally hundreds of new ones were established, most within commuting distance so states would not have to incur the additional expense of building dormitories.

By the end of the 1960s, more than half of first-time freshman were beginning at community colleges, and by the end of the 70s disproportionate percentages of low-income and minority students were attending two-year colleges.

But if one looked carefully at how these students were faring, especially those who aspired to college degrees, there was significant evidence that students who began in junior colleges were being shortchanged—there was at least a 25 percent lower degree completing rate for academically equivalent students who began their studies at community colleges as compared with those who began at senior colleges.

This continues to be true—

• Most students still begin at community colleges

• Low-income and students of color continue to be disproportionately enrolled

• There is still a disadvantage to community college students seeking to earn bachelor’s degrees

To make things worse, the New York Times today reports that banks that have been the major source of student loans, banks such as Citibank, are retreating from offering these loans to community college students because they can make more money and more easily by offering assistance to four-year college students. (Article linked below.)

This, they claim, is because loans to senior college students tend to be larger (thus there is less administrative work), they can charge more interest, and since four-year college students make more money during their lifetime they default at a lower rate.

In addition to the socially regressive consequences of this shift in policy, since the interest and principal on the loans are fully protected by the federal government, the banks’ argument, to be kind, is at best disingenuous.

As a consequence, two-year college students who already tend to be older, take more time to complete courses, and for the most part have at least one before or after-school job, will now face other hurdles while they attempt to attend what had in the past been called People’s or Democracy’s Colleges.