Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29, 2009--Rainy Day

I'll take the opportunity to sleep in. Back on Monday.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28, 2009--What Doesn't Work

First they messed up my Times Square, now my public schools.

I remember a time when the public schools in New York City were among the worlds best. And in spite of the myth that we were the children of immigrants who were wiling to sacrifice anything to enable us to wind up eventually and inevitably in medical school, this was far from universally true and further had little to do with the potential of the students who were my classmates.

We represented the full range of intelligence, potential, willingness to behave ourselves, and work hard as today’s youngsters. And about the same percentage of us were equally interested in screwing up—the streets and our peers beckoned just as some do today. College loomed for about half of us, the poolroom for others, and Sing Sing was literally waiting up the river for still more.

So the fact that the schools in the Big Apple are failing so many now has nothing to do with who attends and what life is like back in the neighborhood. For those from the poorest backgrounds, then and now, it was and is grim.

But in spite of economic inequality and often-rundown schools and classrooms, many of us beat the odds because we had excellent teachers and school leaders. Our principals particularly were frequently fine educators who ran tight ships. They held their teachers and us equally accountable. Even those who were arbitrary and on occasion tyrannical. They were in the education business and weeded out those teachers who weren’t getting the job done. Yes, because women had few other professional options at that time, schools were able to attract many who were talented and dedicated. But make no mistake, if it weren’t for the rigor that the principals required of them, what we experienced in the classrooms would not have worked as well as it did for so many of us.

This is more than anecdotal. Dozens of well-designed studies indisputably show that principals who are strong and effective educational leaders are perhaps the most significant factor that contributes to a school’s success—ones where students make demonstrably academic progress. Thus, all the attention paid to who is put in charge of schools and how to prepare them to be effective.

To meet this need, leadership academies for principals have been established around the country and here in New York. The New York City Leadership Academy was founded in 2003 when the mayor was given control of the public schools by the state legislature. He and his new chancellor, citing those studies, raised the more than $80 million to get it started and keep it running. Funders such as the Gates and Ford Foundation rushed to contribute to what was needed.

Local colleges of education raised questions about its potential efficacy—how could something not set in a university where there was a long tradition of preparing teachers and principals work? Some saw this as professional jealousy—if such an independent entity, directed mainly by corporate CEOs, could demonstrate that it could do a better job than say, Columbia University’s Teachers College, wouldn’t that then call into question traditional approaches?

Now, some years later, thanks to a recent independent analysis by the New York Times of the results of the city’s approach to identifying and preparing principals, there is gathering evidence that it isn’t working.

To quote:

An analysis by the New York Times of the city’s signature report-card system shows that the schools run by graduates of the celebrated Leadership Academy . . . have not done as well as those led by experienced principals or new principals who came through traditional routes. (Full article linked below.)

The schools chancellor did more than stream most new principals through the Academy. He also arranged to boost their salaries by more than 43 percent after adjusting for inflation. This, because it had been claimed, New York would not be able to recruit excellent candidates unless we did something about salaries. Further, he claimed, we needed to get rid of as much dead wood as principals’ contract with the city would allow and replace them with bright young graduates of the nation’s most selective colleges and graduates schools.

Now we know that neither the higher salaries nor the academic resumes of the principals hired since 2003 made a difference in the performance of their schools. Again, students in those schools did worse than those in schools led by traditionally-selected and trained principals.

What is especially maddening about this is that the chancellor, his education team, and the elite funders who provided the cash to yet again experiment with the children of the poor (while sending their own kids to private schools) should have known better.

There was evidence before they began that principals academies do not work, effective school leadership is not correlated with salaries, experience does in fact count, and just the fact of having gone to Yale or Princeton doesn’t make it more likely that graduates of these kinds of places would more effective leaders or educators than those who attended Brooklyn College.

Actually, from the evidence of the results it looks that if there are any correlations to be made, all of the assumptions that are at the heart of these kinds of approaches are false. More’s the shame.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27, 2009--Broadway Boogie Woogie

I don’t know about you, but the idea to turn Times Square into a pedestrian mall is to me another example of the blanding of America.

I’m OK once a year when they ban vehicular traffic from Broadway and 42nd Street so that New Years Eve revelers and Dick Clark can stand around in the freezing weather and not have to dodge cars and buses and taxis while the ring out the old. But to permanently declare this sacred piece of cityscape off limits to the very hustle and bustle that rampaging cabbies contribute to its magic and which in turn has inspired poets and novelists and song writers and artists is to take another step in the direction of homogenizing life in America.

Just this past week we had other examples of this cultural adulteration—on America’s two most popular TV shows, Dancing With the Stars and American Idol the winners were best known for being cute and textureless while the runners up were hot and funky and sexy and dangerous.

Times Square before its redevelopment—its malling and Disneyfication--was the home not just to Broadway (the American theater at its historic best and most entertaining) but also to flea and freak shows, strip joints and porn shops, hustlers and street thugs. All of whom rubbed shoulders with local characters of the sort made famous by Damon Runyan and represented in that greatest of musicals, Guys and Dolls. It was where the hoi polloi thrill seekers came to slum among the down-and-out and transgressive and where once the lights began to dim who knew what happened.

It was the kind of place, in other words, that a city needs if it wants to be thought of as someplace special, and to where, if you didn’t want to be in Kansas anymore, you could visit or migrate. Where a little bit of everything is welcome, even the forbidden, especially the forbidden.

So to see pictures in yesterday’s New York Times (linked below) of New Yorkers strolling down the traffic-free Great White Way was so upsetting that it made me wonder what might be happening out there in Kansas. Maybe it was worth a visit. And to see other images of Manhattanites lolling around on the asphalt in beach chairs, no less, where traffic has for more than a century rampaged, caused me to wonder if I want to live here anymore. Or better, since this is still my city, for whomever wants to sit around in a beach chair on Broadway, well for them there’s always Florida.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26, 2009--Gang of Three

Largely overlooked since we are having an important debate about waterboarding and Guantánamo and now North Korea’s A Bomb is a meeting that took place last week in Tehran. Between the leaders of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

This is the first time they have met as a threesome, and though that in itself is noteworthy, the fact that Hamid Karzai and Asif Ali Zardari came to Iran at the invitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marks the get-together as perhaps geopolitically shape-shifting.

Two of our closest allies—I say that with a mote of irony—made the trek there to meet in a country that is a key member of the “axis of evil,” had what they described as “productive talks,” and then were seen walking, smiling broadly, literally holding hands with President Ahmadinejad. This was quite a jolt to my system Sunday morning when I saw that photo of the ecstatic trio in the New York Times before I had a chance to gulp down my second cup of coffee.

But then to read about the meeting (article linked below) and to see what was said and, more important what didn’t get said, was upsetting to even someone like me who wants to see us use full-force diplomacy before any of the remaining chicken-hawks push us or encourage Israel to get into another war which we certainly cannot win.

They met to discuss how they could work together, cooperate to solve “regional issues.” They placed special emphasis on how they intend to do this on their own, without the help, in Ahmadinejad’s words, “of others who are alien to the nations and culture of our nations.” Though something obviously was lost in translation, it was a not so subtle rebuke to that alien nation, the U.S., which has been known to be active in the region.

Though a critic of our involvement in places where we are neither seemingly welcome nor know how to operate effectively—their three countries for example—the patriot in me, even without coffee, was roused when I read that when Ahmadinejad made his comments Afghanastin’s Karzai and Pakistan’s Zardari stood there silently, still smiling. Further, they signed a document which they see as so significant that they gave it an historical-sounding name like the Yalta Agreement or the Oslo Accords. The Tehran Statement, which calls upon them to pledge to work together “to fight Islamic extremism.” About this I could barely contain myself. I do not like to think of myself as jingoistic, but who if not Iran is a leading supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah?

After calming down a bit I began to think further about what at first glance seemed at best like a piece of diplomatic hypocrisy. Aren’t these countries in many ways regional rivals who, in spite of their disdaining alien cultures, in fact, to each other, are alien cultures? The last time I looked closely at the situation hadn’t I noted that Iran is a Shiite Muslim state and Pakistan a Sunni Muslim state that often supported other Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia in their conflicts with Iran? And that there was a very long history of many cross-border hostilities?

But then I also remembered that 9/11 not only changed things for us but also for them. When we invaded Afghanistan in order to overthrow the Taliban regime, which had been hosting our attackers, al Qaeda, both Pakistan and, seemingly-more-surprisingly, Iran joined the coalition. They too saw the Taliban regime to be a threat to them and we, in spite of our differences with Iran, then and now, found ways to work cooperatively. Having a common enemy—to Iran the Taliban were regional rivals and drug smugglers who shipped opium with impunity across their common boarder—brought us together.

So maybe, having us as a common cultural enemy is what is bringing them together. That was my first reflective thought. My second was that perhaps ironically (and I love diplomatic irony) this will turn out to be a good thing for us. With the Taliban resurgent in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has motivated the Obama administration to double down on the number of our troops there and thus threatens to lure us further into that quagmire, their turning to Iran for more involvement might help with the Taliban-al Qaeda problem and relieve us of some of the responsibility we feel to confront and defeat them.

President Zardari said, “There are many problems along our joint borders. We cannot underestimate the problems and we should look for solutions to all of them.” And thus they turned to each other.

Of course as with all things in this region there are dangers. Pakistan already has an extensive nuclear arsenal and the capacity to deploy it. Iran, in spite of its denials, is hot on the trail to developing their own. Afghanistan is unstable, has a corrupt government, and could easily fall back into Taliban hands. They already control much of the country. A successful working military and diplomatic alliance between these three countries, all of which could easily in the near future come to see the U.S. at the center of their version of a western axis of evil, might lead to more problems in the long run than they could contribute to solving in the short term.

But then again, on third thought, what’s the better plan? More and deeper U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Attempts to further isolate and thereby motivate Iran, largely out of national pride, to become a nuclear power? We see how well that’s working. Unleash Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities? The U.S. military has already been clear to say that neither they nor we have the capacity to do that successfully. And what would that then unleash? Do we think that the version of jihad we now face would continue to be the only response to that kind of attack? Some of the bomb, bomb, bomb Iran crowd might get all pumped up for a few days until the full blowback swept over us and Europe.

Especially in dealing with insurgencies, or what some call “small wars,” being flexible and innovative and resilient is a better strategy than deploying ultimately impotent billion-dollar weapons systems. So maybe we should take a closer look at the Tehran Statement and see if maybe there are things we might do to help it succeed.

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Fear Itself

I was late for a meeting and decided to let the answering machine pick up the call. From the hall I could hear that it was my 101 year-old mother who was calling from Florida. When someone is that age, no matter the state of her health (which in her case is blessedly excellent) and from the tone of her voice on the machine, as agitated as she sounded, I had no choice but to race back into the living room to pick it up.

She was more breathless than I, “What’s up?” I asked, worried but still hoping to get to my meeting on time.

“I just heard them say that ‘They turned fear into policy.’”

“Them? What?” I had no idea what she was referring to.

“On television.”

I knew she kept CNN on all day, in the background, since she was eager never to miss any “breaking news,” especially if it was about a disaster. At her age all such disasters are personal—metaphors representing her day-to-day reality: one heartbeat from oblivion.

“Is there something in the news that has you all upset?” Actually, I was the one who was upset—though I was relieved to realize she didn’t need to be taken to the emergency room, I was annoyed that she had interrupted my getting to a meeting that was important to me. Thus, I wanted to make this short.

“What is it mom? What has you so aggravated?”

“I’m not aggravated,” she said in a voice that suggested how aggravated she in fact was. “It’s what he said.”

“Who? What?”

“I don’t remember names. You know that. How many people my age remember names? At times I even forget mine.” I was happy to hear her laugh at her own joke.

“OK, just tell me again what whoever it was said. I assume on television.”

“Yes, on CNN. I always watch it. Except at 8 o’clock when I watch that Reilly, what’s-his name?”

“Bill O’Reilly.” I knew she was devoted to him even though she disagrees with virtually everything he says. He amuses her, she always tells me. She watches for the entertainment.

“That that Cheney, who just made a long speech, right after Obama—did you watch them?” I muttered that I had. I didn’t want to engage her fully, still feeling we could talk about this later and I could get to my appointment. “Well the commentator said that Cheney and his so-called boss, Bush, took our fear after September 11th and turned it into their policy. And that Cheney is still trying to do it. He said that he counted how many times Cheney mentioned 9/11 in his speech—27 times I think he said. He’s still trying to scare us he said. And I wanted to know what you think.”

I decided I could reschedule my meeting for later in the day and told my mother to hold on for a moment while I made a quick phone call. This conversation with my mother promised to be too good to miss, so I placed my call. I thought, how many more opportunities would I have to have talks such as this with a mother so ancient?

“So, tell me again, what made you so aggravated?”

“Again you’re not listening to me—I’m not aggravated, I’m angry. There’s a difference.”

“You’re right. There is. So tell me.”

“It’s not what you expect. After the attacks on us we were all afraid about what had happened and what would come next. There is no argument about that. But that’s not what Cheney’s speech made me think about.”

“Go on.”

That fear I can understand. It’s all that other fear that concerns me.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you.” I had sunk back into a comfortable chair.

“I’ll give you a for-instance. Also on the news is all this talk about the flu. The one from Mexico.”

“The swine flu.”

“Yes, that one.” She paused to allow that to sink in.

“Again, I’m not seeing your point.” I really wasn’t.

“I know it’s a terrible thing when anyone dies too young or unnecessarily—not like here where we are dying all the time. But we are old and full of conditions. But, tell me, how many have died from this flu? I think maybe two or three in the United States. The latest one that school principal in Brooklyn.”

“Actually he was an assistant principal and it was in Queens.”

“Assistant, Brooklyn, Queens—stop correcting me. What difference does it make where he worked? That is not my point.”

“I’m not sure I’m getting your point,” I couldn’t help myself from snapping.

“My point is, if you will only be a little patient with me, is why are they closing all those schools? Why are all the headlines about this? Why has it been for weeks all they talk about on TV? All that breaking news about a few hundred sick people and a handful, may they rest in peace, deaths?”

“But mom . . .”

“Don’t ‘but-mom’ please. I know from the flu. When I was a young girl millions died from the flu. Some of my closet friends and their parents. It was in nineteen hundred . . . I forget.”


“Yes then. I was exactly 10 years old. Of course we were scared, but in spite of how terrible that was, I don’t think we were as frightened as people are today about something this minor.” She took a deep breath and before I could say anything added, “I know I may be sounding heartless, but this is nothing, thank God, by comparison. How many died then?”

“I think at least 25 million.”

“So what is all this fear about? How many have died this time? In the whole world? A few hundred?” I didn’t say anything. “Even in Brooklyn, where we lived, there were so many bodies that they had to put them out on the street. To wait to be picked up. That was something to fear. And so that’s my question and why I called you. As you said, all aggravated. Which, by the way, I wasn’t.”

“Your question? I know it was a terrible time then. When you were a girl. But I’m not sure I understand your question.”

“So let me try again—then millions died and, though we were of course afraid, we didn’t fear things in the same way we do now when only hundreds are involved. I know you are going to say it’s because I watch TV all the time. And I know that that’s a part of it. How they have to fill time and scare us with murders and hurricanes and flu’s like this one to keep us watching. But I don’t think it’s just that.” Again she paused as if to let me fill in the rest of her explanation.

“What else is it then if it isn’t media hype?”

“It seems to me that we have lost our toughness. Let me give you a few more examples.”

“That would be good.”

“Take that prison in Cuba. Geronimo, I think it’s called.”

“No, mom, it’s Guantánamo.”

“That’s the place. Where they have all the terrorists.”

“I’m not sure everyone there is a terrorist. That’s part of the point about closing it. To figure out who all the detainees are and bring them to justice.”

“I know that, but that’s not my point. I do understand why Obama wants to close it. Didn’t Bush also? But that’s neither here nor there. What I am thinking about is why everyone here seems so afraid about putting these men in prisons in America. Don’t we have child molesters and mass murderers in prisons in the United States? And isn’t it worse to have them living near people than someone who is maybe a terrorist? I heard about this small town in, where was it? The one with the empty prison that wants to take these terrorists so they can have the jobs that would mean?”

“I think it’s in Montana. Yes, I heard about that. They need the jobs there.”

“And so what did the two Montana senators say? Both Democrats I think. The one I saw on TV, who I believe is a rancher and looks like a cowboy, he said he would never allow even one prisoner from Geronimo to be put in his state. Can you believe that? That big strapping fellow afraid to have any of them there? Has anyone ever escaped from one of these prisons? What do they call them?”

“Supermax. High security prisons. No, no one has ever broken out.”

“You’re making my point for me. We say all these tough things about terrorists and going to war against them. As we should. Of course not in Iraq. But then when it comes time to do something to get involved—even in just this way—we shudder in fear. Of what? Don’t you have terrorists in jail up there in New York?”

“Yes, we do.”

“And are people afraid of them?”

“I don’t think so. Probably until now no one knew or thought that much about it. Maybe now that it’s all over the news, as you would say, people here will call for them to be transferred to Guantánamo.”

“Yes, that’s what it’s called. I keep forgetting.”

“I think I’m getting your point mom, and I don’t disagree with you. I too have been wondering what happened to us. I mean. As a people. You mentioned living through the 1918 flu when so many died, even right in your neighborhood.”

“And also in my house.”

“I know that. You told me. And you also told me how you lived through the Depression.”

“Yes, it was awful, and there was fear. You remember what Roosevelt said about fear—that it was what we had to fear. Itself.”

“Well, I wasn’t born then so I don’t remember that, but of course I heard and read about his first inaugural address.”

“That was it. And though it was a very, very difficult time—tens of millions I think it was lost their jobs and we didn’t have all the things we now have. Unemployment insurance, Medicare, Social Security. Things that should make people feel at least a little bit taken care of. That should allay some of their fear. But I hear so much gloom and doom. People are talking on TV as if this is the worst thing that ever happened to Americans. To any people. In all of history. Some people are talking about taking all their money out of the stock market and banks and buying gold and leaving the country. As if there is a safe place to go.”

“I’ve also heard these things. A lot of smart people who should know better are in a state of despair and panic.”

“Again, you’re making my point for me. Of course times are hard, very bad, especially if you are a certain age and lost your job or home. There is almost nothing worse than that. Though if you were here and had dinner with some of the girls, like I do every night, you would hear much worse. These ladies at Forest Trace have seen it all.”

“I can only imagine.”

“No you really can’t. You thank God never experienced what we experienced. Most of the girls are old enough to remember that flu and of course also the Depression. And don’t forget the war. Our war. And what happened to all of our families who couldn’t escape from Europe. You know of course what I’m talking about?”

“Indeed, I sadly do.”

“And don’t forget, and you are old enough for this, don’t forget the Cold War. Remember that one?”

“Yes, I do. Young people now don’t remember what it was like to be afraid that Russia would drop atomic bombs on us. Not just theoretically, but in reality. We had take-cover drills in school and every week or so the air raid sirens would go off in the city and we had to race to the basements of office and apartment buildings where food and water were stored.”

“And remember that one of your uncles, who lived in the suburbs and had a house on an acre of land, thought seriously about having his own air raid shelter built?”

“I do remember that. It was a very scary time. Especially in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

“Scary, yes, and we legitimately lived in fear. But we kept living in spite of everything going on around us. And these were real threats. Big ones. But we didn’t panic as I see so many people doing now when, though things are bad, they are not what we had to endure.”

“But surely there are equally real things for people today to fear. Iran is working on atomic weapons and just last week launched a new kind of rocket that could reach Israel and parts of Europe. There are already nuclear weapons in Pakistan that could fall into the hands of terrorists who might try to use them against us. These are real fears, not small or imaginary ones. So maybe you are doing a little exaggerating?”

“Maybe a little. I acknowledge what you are saying. And maybe in order to try to understand the larger issues I am focusing on some of the smaller ones. Sometimes that helps. Like fear of the Mexican Flu.”

“The swine flu,” I corrected her, “It only appears to have originated in Mexico.”

“Where it came from is not my point, but I understand what with so many people fearful about immigrants—another exaggerated fear I believe—that we shouldn’t make things worse by calling it that. I think Reilly does. Of course he would. Or is it that Dobbs person on CNN? I keep forgetting.”

“Both, but no matter about that. Your memory’s fine for someone half your age. But about your point—about how sometimes little things can reveal things about larger issues . . .”

“Yes that. I was trying to get to that when you distracted me. One last example, since I know you have an appointment to get to. You know how I love children.” She had been an elementary school teacher for much of her life and still keeps in touch with many of her former students who attribute their success to her being their first teacher. “So this is not an easy thing for me to say.”

“I’m listening.”

“Have you every watched that Nancy Grace?”

“Not really. I can’t stand her.”

“Well, you should try one day. Just to see what I’m talking about. All she talks about day after day is that beautiful child who was murdered not far from here, in Florida. For months she has been been going on endlessly about her and her mother who is accused of killing her. But who according to Nancy Grace, without even having a trial, is already guilty.”

“I know about this. Cayle Anthony. Who was just three years old. Whose body they just found.”

“So you see, you do know about this. Terrible, tragic. But as awful as it is—and I devoted my life to children like her—why are we so obsessed about this? Why is her TV program top rated? Why are so many parents fearful that their children will be kidnapped and murdered? That they won’t let them out of their sight for even a minute. I was a concerned mother but I always allowed you and your brother to play in the streets and to go into different neighborhoods and walk to school on your own. I think the only day I took you was on you first day in kindergarten. Other than that I encouraged you to be on your own. To gain confidence by being independent. Was I a bad or neglectful mother?”

“Just the opposite.”

“What has happened to all these mothers—I know I should say parents—that they are motivated by so much fear? This doesn’t mean that they should ignore dangerous situations, but their worst enemy is the fear that has taken possession of their minds.”

“I do follow that. And agree with you.”

“There—I’ve finally managed to say it. What I mean is how the biggest dangers we face are the ones that we have allowed to take possession of our minds. That’s what Dick Cheney was doing again in his speech. If we continue to allow this to happen to us, the terrorists will have won.”

“Again, I agree.”

“Isn’t that what terrorism literally means? To do things to people that so terrorizes them that they are ultimately disabled, defeated by their own fear? That’s what I am seeing all around me. This kind of terror. This kind of fear.”

I was glad I had rescheduled my appointment. This insight, this lesson was precious to me. At 101 my mother was still teaching. “So go,” she said, “Don’t forget your meeting. I know it must be about something important.” And with that she hung up.

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22, 2009--Obama v. Cheney: The Great Debate

For months I have been arguing with my Republican friends that they need to stop driving moderates from their party because if they do they will become so marginalized and politically insignificant that even the Democrats will lose something they and all of America needs—a vibrant opposition party.

From a partisan perspective, as a general supporter of the Obama administration and most times the Democratic Party, I am not looking for ways to help the Republicans come back to power; I am rather urging Republicans to find their voice again so that their opposition can become something more substantial than just saying no, that they will be able to more effectively serve as a check to those in the majority, and not only contribute ideas of their own to the debate but at times see these become part of domestic and international policy. Like welfare reform during the Clinton administration.

It is in this spirit that I welcome the efforts of former vice president Dick Cheney to participate in the greatest debate of our day—how best in this uncertain world to keep our country safe.

I know that he has a personal ax to grind—he is concerned about his and the Bush’s administration’s place in history; and he may very well, as I have speculated here, be attempting to so rattle and even terrorize the Obama administration and especially the Justice Department that they will decide to not even think about prosecuting him or members of his staff for alleged crimes he and they may have committed while in office (who in their right mind, at times like this, wants to grapple with such a fearsome foe?); I also know that the vast majority of Americans distrust him and hold him responsible for the things they least like about the Bush administration (he was, wasn’t he, really running things?).

All of these things I share and thus I needed to take a deep breath and force myself to listen to his speech yesterday, the one on his views about the Obama administration and how he differs with them on national security issues, the one that followed immediately Obama’s on essentially the same subject. After first listening to both and then reading the full texts of each of them, though I still mainly disagree with Cheney and mostly still agree with Obama’s approach (in spite of his most controversial, quasi-constitutional call for “prolonged detention” without trial, for the most-dangerous category of prisoners, or “detainees,” at Guantanamo—what, after is, is the best thing to do with them?) if one can get by the dislike, the disdain one may likely have for Cheney, it is this very kind of thing from Republicans that I have been urging—challenge the core ideas of the new administration and by so doing force them to rethink their most essential and complex positions and, if as the result of the reflection, they discover flaws or weaknesses in their arguments, press them to make adjustments.

After all, when it comes to national security it is not about winning quick political points or exerting dominance because your party is in power but rather figuring out the best ways to keep our country safe. And, if Dick Cheney can serve to play this role while all other Republicans who can get our attention via the sound bite-oriented media have little to contribute that can be taken seriously, than I say, “Dick, keep talking. We need you. If we can’t help mobilize a loyal opposition, then we’ll settle for the value we can get from just the opposition.”

Without dragging you through a textual analysis of both speeches (which, if you have the time would be interesting and rewarding), let me try to put aside the snideness and self-congratulation in the Cheney talk and mention just one of his points that Obama and we would do well to consider—his claim that what he calls “enhanced interrogation techniques” are the only ones that can quickly extract essential, life-saving information from terrorists.

I am skeptical that waterboarding and other forms of torture—because that is surely what it is—do what he claims but rather forces prisoners to tell you what they think you want to hear in order to get you to stop. But I am not certain that this is true.

As much as I hate the idea that Americans might be asked to perform torture—I also hate the idea that non-combatants are killed and wounded during even “good” wars—if, and only if it can be incontrovertibly proven that in certain very limited circumstances that it is the only thing that works—Cheney’s claim—than I am prepared to put aside my moral resistance, swallow hard, and grant the president—and it would need to be the president—the power to order torture.

In his speech yesterday, Barack Obama said that he has read all the relevant intelligence on the subject of waterboarding and that he has concluded it doesn’t work. While I am inclined to trust him, and thus believe him, and more than inclined not to trust or believe Dick Cheney (I feel that he has earned this distrust), about this subject I do not fully trust either of them.

I want to know, I want to see the actual evidence on both sides of the argument. Cheney says that the CIA documents Obama recently released have those parts redacted that speak to the question of effectiveness and that there are others, which would prove his case, that should also be declassified.

This coming from someone who was arguably the most squirrelly man in Washington, who was most comfortable leading from an undisclosed location, may seem ironic; but about this I agree with him—I want to see those censored passages and the memos he is calling for. Let’s find out what the truth is. I suspect that Cheney is either not remembering correctly or not telling the truth. It is likely to me that Obama is being honest. But if it turns out that Cheney is right, we need to know.

This is not about what Nancy Pelosi knew or didn’t know or what she did or didn’t do. That is a distraction, a Fox News-MSNBC sideshow. But the questions Cheney is raising—putting aside his motivations or nastiness—are essential ones, the kind a responsible opposition should raise, and are enriching our debate about some of the most important issues we face.

So again, “Dick, keep it up.”

(Though if you want a gloss on what may have be at the heart of Cheney’s real agenda see the fascinating New York Times article linked below.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21, 2009--M.P.'s Gone Wild

There’s a Website,, that takes great delight in keeping track of congressional transgressions. If you want to wallow in cynicism, when it come to Congress, this is not difficult to do.

With 435 members of the House of Representatives and another 100 Senators, pretty much all full of themselves, invulnerable when it comes to reelection, and pray to big money donors who are eager to contribute to their campaigns and life style, it should be no surprise that one was forced to give up his office after getting caught with his pants almost down (as Rep. Mark Foley [R--Fl.] did after it was discovered that he was sending pornographic emails to congressional pages); or had to resign after the FBI found thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in his freezer (which Rep. William Jefferson [D.--La.] did); or got caught in an affair of his own while demanding that Bill Clinton (D.—Ar.) be impeached for having sex with that woman, Miss. Lewinsky (as did Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich [R.--Ga.]); or was arrested while tapping his toes in homosexual code in a public men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (as Senator Larry Craig [R.—Id.]) did.

I am trying to be bipartisn here and of course could go on and on with other examples. But, in spite of this, in spite of my mockery, I was shocked (not really) to learn that American politicians are mere pikers when it comes to being caught up to their elbows in the proverbial cookie jar. As usual, in regard to political miscreance, the Brits have it all over us.

Have you been following the current scandals in Parliament? For generations the stiff-upper-lip English have been caught and photographed in various forms of corpus delicti, which though it literally means “body of crime,” it in more popular parlance means pretty much the same thing that happened to poor Mark Foley.

This time around, there is no “call girl” Christine Keeler in sight to bring down a contemporary John Profumo or a dominatrix hovering as in the recent case of Max Mosley who was captured on videotape engaged in S&M role-playing, with her in the familiar leather and him in Nazi regalia. No, this time, more like in gilded America, members of Parliament, many of them, have been embarrassed and are likely to be punished for padding their expense accounts.

Not just by seeking to get reimbursed for an occasional meal that they didn’t have or claiming they drove 100 miles on business when in fact it was only 50.

According to the New York Times (article linked below), this time around, M.P.’s from the majority Labor Party have been routinely reimbursed for having their hedges trimmed, their tennis courts repaired, and their moats cleared. And here I thought Labor, like our Democrats, is the party of the people.

But there is more—they have been reimbursed for purchasing flat-screen TVs, bathrobes and massage chairs (it ain’t easy working all day in Parliament), and for workers to change their light bulbs. Landed gentry Members have been paid back for having manure spread on their croquet courts; and, since cricket whites get soiled when M.P. silly mid-offs scamper across the grass pitch, some have had to hire people to instruct them in how to use their washing machines—also paid for by taxpayers.

And, Brits being Brits, some Members have also charged pornographic DVDs to their expense accounts.

This has all been covered by their “second-home allowance,” which allows each Member, who may live elsewhere, up to the equivalent of $37,000 a year for costs associated with needing to have a flat in London. I can understand that—look, Sarah Palin has the same problem and has been reimbursed for living in her own home—but I draw the line on cleaning up people’s moats. They should be required to do that themselves. When parliament is not in session.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20, 2009--Recession Chic: From CBGBs to DBGBs

Nothing illustrates better the last gasp of the recent gilded age than the continuing metamorphosis of New York City’s fabled Bowery.

Manhattan’s oldest thoroughfare, it tracked along an old Indian footpath and by the end of the 18th century became New York's most elegant street, lined with fashionable shops and the mansions of the wealthy.

But by the Civil War the mansions and shops had given way to honky tonk concert halls, brothels, beer gardens, pawnshops, and flophouses. It had also become the turf of one of America's earliest street gangs, the anti-immigrant Bowery Boys.

More recently, it has been reverting back to its 18th century days—all but one flophouse have either been transformed into expensive condos or torn down and replaced by chic hotels, multi, multi-million dollar residential-lofts, and restaurants. When once if you said that you lived on the Bowery it meant you were down on your luck, for the past few years it has meant--how lucky can you get.

The Amato Opera is gone, for decades home to a noted family-run opera company that drew upon volunteers as well as professional performers; the Bowerie Lane Theater, home to the Jean Cocteau Repertory Company is no more, replaced by a chic clothing store; and CBGB’s has also been priced out of existence. The home of American punk and venue to bands such as the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, Blondie, the Talking Heads and Sex Pistols, that grungy venue for an era’s subversive sound is gone, no longer able to pay its many thousands of dollars a month rent.

In its place there is a John Varvatos high-end men’s boutique. The only thing encouraging about that is Mr. Varvatos’ pledge to “do justice” to CBGB’s legacy. I suppose that where thong sandals go for $225 and leather jackets from the JV Collection set you back upwards of $2,500, in such a shop the fact that he claims his clothes are inspired by rock n roll is what he means by paying homage. Or, that in September, at the store on the Bowery, the former site of CBGB’s, he will sponsor Free the Noise, something his website proclaims will be “a global search for the next great rock n roll band.” Sort of American Idol meets $100 a bottle cologne. Though God knows Joey Ramone back in 1974 was not know to ever use any.

And also on the New Bowery, not to be outdone, and also clearly ripping off the legacy of CBGB’s, über-restaurateur, Daniel Boulud in a few months will be opening DBGB’s (get it) right up the street from CBGB’s. I mean, from the John Varvatos store. Sorry, I mean boutique.

In a bow to Recession Chic, Monsieur Boulud, who charges $305 a person (not including tax and tip) for the eight-course tasting menu paired with wine at his eponymous restaurant Daniel, his four-star Upper Eastside establishment, down on the more proletarian Bowery, at DBGB’s, you will be able to get your hands on a hamburger for only about $25. This I assume includes cheese. (See New York Times article linked below.)

I can’t wait to call and make a reservation, assuming of course that their telephone number is listed. Though if I have to wait overnight to get in, I can always stay at the new Bowery Hotel, right across from the one remaining flophouse, the White House (can you believe it?) where rooms for the night range from $7.16 to $9.61. A room with a king size bed at the Bowery will run you a cool $575.

I walked by the other night and they were packed. No wonder the Dow Jones Average is feeling happy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 19, 2009--Little Pluto

I was saddened to learn that Venetia Phair died. (See linked New York Times obituary for her life story.) Though not a household name, she was well known in one very small circle—those eight or nine or ten individuals who gave names to our eight or nine or ten planets.

In her case, she named our then ninth planet, Pluto.

And not after Mickey Mouse’s dog. That came later. He was named after the planet; and because he, the dog, became so popular when Pluto a few years ago was downgraded from planet to dwarf planet status, those few fans of Disneyana who know anything at all about astronomy, weakly protested. The Disney Company made not a peep and let the whole matter rest. They had, after all, invested millions in developing and marketing cute Pluto products. Though how anyone could figure out how to make Pluto cute is beyond me. It is after all, was until demoted, our most distant planet, furthest from the sun in our solar system, and thus would not be a nice place to visit in the winter even if, as my mother would always urge, you were sure to bring along a sweater.

Mrs. Phair came to her one public distinction because in 1930 when she was only 11 years old she learned about the new planet’s discovery over breakfast from her well connected grandfather, Falconer Madden, the retired librarian of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, who had just heard that scientists at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory had photographed it. Dr. Madden wondered out loud what it might be called; and little Venetia, without much thought she confessed later in life, blurted out something like, “Why not Pluto?”

Madden liked the suggestion, passed it along to an astronomer colleague at Oxford who in turn offered it for consideration to those attending a meeting in London at the Royal Astronomical Society. It then made it way back to Arizona where the discoverers were struggling with what to call this orbiting chunk of ice.

The only other name under serious consideration was Kronos, but there were problems with it—Kronos is the Greek equivalent of the Roman Saturn and there already by then was a majestic ringed planet bearing this god’s name. So Pluto it became.

By comparison, Mrs. Phair’s life passed uneventfully. She did get a good education, studying mathematics at Newnham College at Cambridge and did teach economics and math at two girl’s schools in London, and she did marry well—to Maxwell Phair, a classicist who became headmaster at Epsom College, and she did have a son, but she will always be remembered by history for that historic breakfast.

Thinking of remembering, as an 11 year-old I struggled to memorize the names and order of the planets—these sorts of things were required back then—and was introduced to the world of mnemonic devices, which later in life, when I became a premed, came in very handy when I and my striving classmates attempted to remember the cranial nerves and other such scientific trivia. I won’t share any of these in mixed company—suffice it to say that at the time pretty much all premeds were of the male gender.

But when there were nine planets, the mnemonic I used for them was, “My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” This in spite of the fact that if we were lucky maybe twice a year my actual mother would allow us to have a slice. It was not considered by her to be food.

When Pluto was relegated to dwarf status a few years ago a new mnemonic was needed and, keeping with the tradition of mothers serving food, a retro concept, the most extensively used device became, “My Very Enthusiastic Mother Just Served Us Noodles.” This not only was a helpful device, but it was also closer to the culinary truth in my boyhood household.

But with the 2003 discovery of yet another planet, actually another dwarf out beyond Pluto, Eris (aptly named to represent our own strife-filled era, for she is the Greek goddess of warfare who is known in myth to stir up jealousy and greed) a new mnemonic was quickly crafted—this time leaving mothers out of the picture, “My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants.”

Not exactly poetic but it does get the job done.

Rest in peace Venetia.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18, 2009--The Perpetrator & The Enabler

The Truth Commission may turn out to be the ultimate example of not being careful about what you wish for.

The Truth Commission about torture and all the issues surrounding it that many on the left have been calling for in the hope that not only will it get to the truth but also lay full blame on the Bush administration (read, Dick Cheney) for the “crimes” they perpetrated after 9/11 while building the case to invade Iraq.

It will find, they hope and expect, that Bush administration officials knew there were no weapons of mass destruction nor a connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attack on America, in spite of what they were claiming in public, and so they pressed the CIA “to sex up the intelligence” and thus provide the “evidence” they wanted to justify their preemptive war.

They feel certain that rather than discovering that only “a few bad apples” were responsible for torturing “enemy combatants” and “detainees,” the Commission will find that the so-called “legal justification” and impetuous for waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation” (note this string of euphemisms), and the authorization to employ them, came directly from “the office of the vice president.” Yet another euphemism.

They are also now claiming that that “office” pressed commanders on the ground in Iraq to torture captured Iraqi officials to get them to “confess” falsely that Iraq was deeply implicated in the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. If true, those calling for the Truth Commission claim, this would “prove” that not only was the office of the vice president involved in what would clearly be a crime, but also so was the vice president himself. The real target of all this ire and maneuvering.

As one might imagine, Republicans have been resisting the pressure to establish this body. An independent commission of the sort that was formed after John Kennedy was assassinated (the Warren Commission) and the one named after we were attacked (The 9/11 Commission). That is they were resisting until the end of last week.

That was because, seemingly out of the blue, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was thrust front and center into the debate about torture; and by the end of the weekend the Republican counterattack on her was so successful—she, more than Dick Cheney, was emerging as the real villain in this sad drama—that now they too are calling for a full, independent investigation. But that called-for investigation (and it is a big “but”), according to, say, Newt Gingrich, who was all over the Sunday talk shows and who knows a thing or two about being tossed out of the Speaker’s chair, Newt who is rapidly ramping up his 2012 presidential campaign, is demanding a full investigation of . . . Nancy Pelosi!

Not Cheney, not the Bush White House, not the previous Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, not the CIA interrogators, not the offshore prisons and torture centers, but poor Nancy who can’t seem to get her facts straight about what she was told about waterboarding (nothing) and when she was briefed (never).

I will state it directly—minimally she is fudging.

Her story has, as they put these things in Washington, “evolved”; and traditionally, again as in Washington, when even those who do not believe in Evolution evolve their own explanations about an unsavory, craven, or potentially illegal incident (see Richard Nixon during Watergate and Bill Clinton during Monicagate as presidential examples, though of wholly different stripes), when this occurs they are surely covering something up. Now, Nancy Pelosi included.

So what will be the result of this new tempest? And what should happen?

Republicans, now perceiving some Democrat blood in the water are calling for an investigation, albeit one narrowly confined to the Speaker’s role, as if it is the moral equivalent of the Bush White House’s in this sorry mess. (See linked New York Times story.) And though Barack Obama and Democrat leaders in the Senate have been arguing that there is too much that needs to be done about our current problems that to “look back” would serve only as a distraction, there is now so much ironically bipartisan momentum to name a Commission that it is likely that one will be named, and not just to look at Nancy Pelosi’s role. There are obviously larger issues involved.

But, once established, I hope it will turn some, but not a disprortionate amount of its attention to Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who looked the other way when the Bush administration was considering the use of torture and then remained substantially silent during the early years when they were unabashedly using it. Because in that enabling silence they became fully complicitous in these daserdly deeds and this unnessary and ruinous war.

And, I hope, that a Truth Commission will result in getting at the truth. If they find, as I expect they will, that Dick Cheney did things that were illegal he will be prosecuted; and that if Nancy Pelosi is more than “fudging,” as I suspect she is, if it turns out that she is lying, she will be forced to step down.

Friday, May 15, 2009

May 15, 2009--Day Off

I'm taking the day off to catch up with other things. Back Monday.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009--Torture

Those who support the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or torture, pose the following question—

If one of your loved ones was in imminent danger of being killed by terrorists, and if you had in your hands someone who you knew (put aside for the moment how you “knew”) was involved in the planning, and if you knew that, as they would put it, that “the clock was ticking” on the plot that placed them in danger, and if you knew that by waterboarding that plotter you could get “real time” information that would save them and others, wouldn’t you be in favor of using torture?

This is the ultimate question. Presumably you would say yes if any innocent people were in equivalent danger, but the case for the use of torture is so much stronger if the person about to be massacred is a member of your family—a spouse, a child, a grandchild.

Though I am against the use of torture, I know I would say yes. “Waterboard the bastard so that my grandson and others,” I hope I would add, “can be spared.”

But then it gets complicated. The emotional response is clear and understandable, but if there were a little time to think things through—as there is now as we stumble toward a national debate on the subject—shouldn’t we be asking some of the following questions and demanding unemotional answers before the United States, a nation of laws, authorizes the use of torture? Since for many of these questions there are not as yet equally clear answers:

First, shouldn’t we separate the legal and moral issues from the practical?

It is true that the US for decades has passed laws and signed international agreements that forbid the use of torture. Ronald Reagan, for example, in 1984 signed the UN Convention On Torture, and he was no friend of the UN. I could site many other international and domestic law and treaties that forbid practices such as waterboarding. So it is clear that there is much bipartisan precedent that deems torture to be against US and international law and covenant.

But, if we put all of this aside, which is not a casual thing to do even in circumstances when that clock is ticking, we have to face the substantial practical question—whatever we think about these legal and ethical issues, does torture work?

Does it quickly yield reliable, critical information that is not obtainable in an equivalent period of time by other, legal methods? Because if it does, unless one is so objectively and dispassionately guided, so fervent in ones ethical or religious convictions, or so genuinely and totally pacifistic—all commendable—it is difficult to assert that in those thankfully rare circumstances when there is that incontrovertible threat to the nation—much less to those near and dear—a president (and for me to even consider this it must be the president) should be expected (not just permitted but expected) to make an extraordinary exception and personally authorize the limited use of torture.

If you are still with me and haven’t already hit the Delete key since this subject, or my apparent views, are so abhorrent to you, allow me a few more thoughts.

If this case can be made for a presidential exception and if lives could be thus saved, how could we say “no” to this option? Whatever we think about the wars in which we are currently engaged, haven’t there also been “good wars” that we might all agree we needed to wage? World War II is pretty much everyone’s favorite example. We faced indisputable threats on various fronts, we had been unceremoniously attacked at Pearl Harbor, most of Western Europe and South and East Asia and the Pacific Islands had fallen into Nazi and Japanese hands, and genocide of massive proportions was being perpetrated West and East.

So there was little debate about whether or not we should enter that global war; and once in it, we knew (really knew) that not only would we have to authorize the killing and maiming of enemy forces but we also knew, and approved, the bombing and killing of non-participants. Hundreds of thousands of whom were then killed and wounded.

Waterboarding in a relatively few instances in response to the asymmetrical threats we now face—against direct terrorist threats—pales, doesn’t it, by comparison to what we did between 1941 and 1945?

But, again, only if in certain limited circumstances it can be proven that torture uniquely works.

That is the central practical question, which, if answered in the affirmative, for me pushes aside the moral and legal restraints.

And to this we do not, as far as the public knows, yet have indisputable answers. In the halting debate to this time, this is in dispute. Some are saying that one of the two terrorists who was waterboarded, Abu Zubydah, allegedly chief recruiter for al-Qaeda, “sang like a canary” even before he was forcefully interrogated much less tortured—and gave up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 terrorists operations chief, while his wounds were being tended to. Perhaps out of relief that he was being treated, ironically, humanely.

But, with credibility, it is also asserted that KSM did not “break” while being interrogated legally, though harsh methods were used, and only gave important information when he was waterboarded, albeit 183 times.

I do not have an opinion yet about my practical question—do certain forms of torture work? And as far as I know, no one else does. Including the FBI and CIA and Department of Defense or members of the previous or current administrations. There is currently lots of self-serving posturing about this—most prominently by Dick Cheney (whose motives are suspect)—but little on the record that can be considered definitive.

We each know what we ethically and morally think and feel about torture, but none of us with certainty can demonstrate that it works, or doesn’t, in those limited circumstances that I have attempted to lay out.

Shouldn’t we insist on having these answers? Doesn’t it require us to suspend judgment and to take the dialogue for a time out of the partisan and ideological arenas so that calm minds can look at all the evidence, call for more study if needed, and then report their findings to us?

If certain forms of torture are the only way to get certain kinds of information in certain kinds of situations, than we must allow and expect our president to make the very occasional and circumscribed legal exception to carry it out. If the president and his administration unilaterally and without congressional approval and Supreme Court sanction attempt to redefine the law and thereby claim that they have made torture legal—as the Bush administration did—they should be investigated, impeached, and tried.

But if we find that torture, even in these extreme circumstances does not work, then it should be forbidden in all circumstances and anyone, including the commander in chief, who authorizes its use and carries it out should be held accountable and prosecuted.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May 13, 2009--Good Daughters

With her father defeated in his run for the presidency and now relegated to slinking around the Senate as a member of the minority party—meaning he has no real power—Meghan McCain is stepping out on her own.

She made a splash a few weeks ago when she spoke at a meeting of the Log Cabin Republicans—a self-described grassroots organization of gay and lesbian Republicans. I don’t know what the “log cabin” refers to—I associate “log cabin” and “Republican” in the founding myth of the GOP: Abe Lincoln was born in such a cabin and wound up in the White House.

But then I know that when he worked as a circuit-rider lawyer, traveling from town to town in Illinois, he often shared a bed with other men. Some claim this was a common way at the time to save money (and keep warm during the winter) while others contend that he was . . . Well, you know.

When Meghan spoke at their recent convention, she called for the Republican Party to broaden its tent if it ever wanted to return to power. Welcoming people of color and even homosexuals. This was cheered by some but castigated by others—not her father but of course by Rush Limbaugh. To her credit, unlike many Republican leaders—Congressman Eric Cantor and Party Chairman Michael Steele to name just two--when they spoke out in ways that upset Rush, the effective leader of the Party, she did not back down, genuflect, or apologize. She stuck to her guns. I even wonder if maybe she voted for Obama.

Also stepping into the public spotlight, Bristol Palin emerged as a spokesperson for the Candie Foundation, whose mission it is “to educate America’s youth about the devastating consequences of teenage pregnancy.” A subject about which Bristol is quite familiar, having given birth to an out-of-wedlock baby, Tripp, a few months ago.

Bristol joins Britney Spears as Candie’s other national spokesperson. Another inspiring example of restraint and responsible sexual practices and motherhood.

Besides wondering where the Palins keep coming up with funky names for their children, I also have questions about the relationship between the Candie Foundation’s mission and the line of clothing Candie produces and markets to teenyboppers—juniors’ “tops,” “bottoms,” dresses, a full line of sexy swimsuits, and what they call “intimates.” Somehow this doesn’t all fit together. But I feel confident that as time goes by Britney and Bristol will help me figure it all out.

And now, much more seriously, Liz Chaney has joined her dad’s media crusade to convince Americans that Barack Obama in slightly more than 100 days has already, remarkably made America “less safe.” That during the last seven Bush-Cheney years they kept us safe (notice how he fails to mention that they did not keep us safe during the first eight months of their administration—recall 9/11 happened on their watch after they were warned in August that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the U.S.) Cheney claims they kept us safe, among other things, by using torture, of it you insist, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” on suspected terrorists.

While thinking about motives to explain this unprecedented public campaign by a recent vice president, dutiful daughter Liz, on Morning Joe yesterday may have hinted at the real reason. When asked by another guest, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, why other senior Bush officials are not speaking out in chorus with her father, she said, with unintentional honesty, that “Maybe they disagree with my father or they are afraid they will be prosecuted.”

Perhaps, just maybe, Dick Cheney shares these fears. He has never shown much personal courage—remember he sought and was granted at least five deferments during the Vietnam War, and spent months after 9/11 hiding out and working from an “undisclosed location.” It feels like his revisionist offensive is less patriotic than he claims—“I am doing this to help keep America safe”—and more to try to save his, well, ass.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12, 2009--Heads Will Roll

Various commentators have either criticized him or more benignly wondered if Barack Obama is tough enough to be an effective president. Maureen Dowd, for example, at times, has called him The One (as in the Anointed One) or Bambi (as in the Innocent, Wide-Eyed One).

During the campaign she suggested that he was so afraid of Hillary Clinton that he would lose the nomination. We know what happened with that. And then, in his Bambi mode, she worried that John McCain would win. Again, so much for that. Now it is time to legislate by negotiating and fighting around with a resistant Congress and to deal with often-unfriendly world leaders. Would this inclusive, nice-guy-president be able to show enough muscle, even have the capacity to threaten and punish people in order to advance his agenda?

Could such a seemingly detached, cool, No-Drama Obama, when necessary—and in Washington and around the world it is frequently necessary—have the ability to bang a few heads together? Or worse. Not maliciously, but to get the job done.

Anyone still wondering about the quality of the steel in his spine should begin by asking Rick Wagoner. Remember him, the former (underlined) CEO of General Motors. He was fired, recall, shortly after the Obama administration took effective control of the struggling auto giant. Put aside for the moment any feelings you may have about the appropriateness of the government running a company and reflect on the political lessons that can be learned from Rick Wagoner’s fate.

Then think about Louis Caldera, former (underlined again) Director of the White House Military Office. You may not know his name or remember what his office does. If not, let me remind you—the Military Office, among other things, is responsible for the airplanes and helicopters that fly the president around the country and world. The 747 that is called Air Force One when he is on board. The same plane that unannounced buzzed lower Manhattan last week and scared the bejesus out of all of us who live here.

After a brief investigation to be certain he had all the facts and his action was going to be appropriate and fair, Barack Obama a few days ago summarily fired him.

Then yesterday, if you are still wondering if Obama has the chops for the job, more significantly than with the earlier firings, he sacked the commander of our troops in Afghanistan. This time there was no fig leaf saying that General David McKiernan wanted to retire early so he could spend more time with his family. No, Defense Secretary Gates, after Obama decided it was time for new leadership, met with him and told him that his two-year assignment would end after just 11 months.

Again, whatever you think about Obama expanding our commitment there--would this turn into his Vietnam—after careful review, he came to conclude that this unconventional, asymmetrical war needed a commander who was deeply experienced in waging this kind of battle. So he chose General Stanley McChrystal to lead the effort since, as the former head of the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, he has a proven track record of successfully waging these kinds of frustrating battles. McKiernan, he concluded, was more suited to so-called conventional warfare; and, since the situation we are in in Afghanistan and Pakistan is anything but conventional, good man though he is, Obama concluded that he is not the best person for this assignment. Thus, he is now the former commander. (See Linked New York Times story for the background.)

We of course do not know how things will work out (I for one am not optimistic), but we know one thing for certain—Obama didn’t run for the presidency and get himself elected so he could enjoy the perks and comforts of the office. Agree with him, disagree with him, he’s smart, serious, tireless, personable, and can be merciless. All qualities successful presidents through history have had in abundance.

Monday, May 11, 2009

May 11, 2009--Fix the Schools!

Let me ask you a not-entirely rhetorical multiple-choice question:

Which represents the greatest threat to the United States and our future?

(a) Terrorism?

(b) The deficit?

(c) The lack of healthcare for 40 million Americans?

(d) Or, the failure of our public school system to provide a good education to one-third of our children?

If you answered anything but (d), you need social policy remediation.

There are about 45 million kids enrolled in our public schools and at least 15 million are falling further and further behind their classmates. But more significant, from a national perspective, they are not competing well with children from developed as well as developing nations.

This does not bode well for us as a nation as we try to remain the leading economic and political force in the world. And it does not reflect well on our national soul that these one-third who remain in dysfunctional schools come mainly from low-income, disproportionately minority communities.

This is not what America is supposed to be about. We have been that fabled land of opportunity for hundreds of millions where for decades the promise of a good education is available. Our founding myth promises that through hard work and developed smarts it is possible, within just one generation, to rise from poverty and become productive and contributing citizens. For too many, in recent times, the realization of this dream, mediated by an open and effective public school system, has turned out to be more rhetoric than reality.

There is no time in our history when this is more important to individuals and well as the nation’s security. In the past, when our economy was still largely based on manufacturing and agriculture, there were good options for work if young people opted not to get more than a basic education. They could work on family farms or in the steel mills, mines, factories, or auto assembly plants. We know that there are fewer and fewer of these jobs—most have been either mechanized out of existence or shipped overseas—and those jobs that remain and are likely to be created this century are going to require more and more, not less, education. And a decent one.

There is no better evidence of this failure to educate all of our children than the continuing disappointing results from the No Child Left Behind legislation that was passed during the first months of the last Bush administration. It was decidedly bipartisan—Senator Kennedy was an enthusiastic cosponsor—and he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the president at the signing ceremony that I was privileged to attend.

It was arguably the most sweeping piece of school reform legislation in decades. And it was “radical,” especially coming from any president much less a conservative, in that it focused exclusively on narrowing the achievement gap that gnawingly and persistently separated minority from white students.

All of us felt optimistic that it would produce good results because it, for the first time, taking on the teachers unions, shifted the focus of responsibility from children, their families, and the “culture of poverty,” to the schools themselves—they would be held accountable for the outcomes, which would be determined by achievement testing. Though many of us who supported NCLB had to swallow hard because we had questions about putting so much emphasis on high-stakes testing, we concluded that no piece of legislation is perfect, and that there had to be some way of holding school administrators and teachers accountable if there was ever going to be progress.

And there had to be consequences—if school districts and individual schools continued to “fail,” as there are consequences for students who persistently fail, they not only would just be held up to public scrutiny, but also they would no longer be eligible to receive federal money; they would be required to shut down the worst schools; and, key, parents would be allowed to withdraw their children from low-performing schools and enroll them in others that were doing well.

But now, the New York Times reports, the results are in and they are not good. Let me quote the salient paragraphs:

Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide. . . .
Although Black and Hispanic elementary, middle and high school students all scored much higher on the federal test than they did three decades ago, most of those gains were not made in recent years, but during the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. That was well before the 2001 passage of the No Child law. [Emphasis added.]

On reflection, the major reason NCLB did not work is because almost all the emphasis was placed on results—test scores. Very little was placed on methods—on those that generated real evidence that they worked with low-income black and Hispanic students.

Educators will not get good results unless they are required to employ effective methods. It was mistakenly felt that just to hold them accountable by testing kids every year would get the job done. But if teachers are allowed to teach in the same failed ways than in the past, we will see the same results. As we are.

Going forward, President Obama and his very pragmatic Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—former successful Chicago superintendent of schools—will be requiring just that: to dip into the bounty of money already available in the economic stimulus bill that Congress passed two months ago, there is the requirement that districts and schools will have to generate real data about student progress through high school and into college, and they will be eligible for money if and only if they come up with plans to use methods that have been proven to work.

Now, where have we heard this before—not so much the specifics, but rather that the schools are in crisis and we have to . . . fill in the blank. And what have we then seen X years later? That blank I do not have to fill in.

But this focus on real data and methods that work has a chance. At least let us hope so and work hard for it to turn out to be the case because, remember, the right answer to my question is (d)--The greatest threat to America, even greater than terrorism, is our failing public schools.

Friday, May 08, 2009

May 8, 2009--Meanwhile, Back In Karachi . . .

President Obama met recently with Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan to see if he could put a little starch in his shorts so that he would order the Pakistani army, which we are subsidizing, to go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces threatening to take over the Swat Valley, which is only 60 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

In addition, President Obama spoke with Zardari about the security of the 60 to 100 nuclear weapons Pakistan has stashed around the country—would they be safe if an Islamist government took over the country? “Sure,” he was assured, which makes me feel more secure. Maybe I’ll now be able to sleep at night.

All the while, back home, Pakistani citizens who have been passive about the threat Taliban militants pose, especially in regard to imposing sharia, a version of Islamic law in the provinces they control, all the while they recoiled in horror from a widely circulated video of radical clergy administering that religious law by whipping, with a leather whip, a young girl accused of “illicit relations with her father-in-law.”

In shocking images, the two-minute video shows the 17 year-old girl, wearing a veil, face down on the ground with two men holding her arms and feet. A third man in a black turban with a long beard whips her backside, causing her to scream: “Either stop it or kill me.” A crowd of men can be seen watching, having a grand time, as one of the Taliban shouts, “Hold her tightly!”

What we are now learning is that that whip was likely manufactured in Karachi, right next to a mosque and the offices of a radical Islamic organization, by a company named AQTH, which not only specializes in the manufacture of such instruments of “justice” but also has a line of other leather goods for a worldwide clientele who, how shall I put this, don’t get all their kicks from Champagne—the $3.0 billion dollar a year fetish and bondage industry.

According to the ordinarily staid New York Times (article linked below), two enterprising brothers started the business a few years ago and export most of their products—of course--to the West. And an occasional whip to folks in the Swat Valley. Perhaps that’s why the authorities allow the business to thrive--they are making millions of Rupees. The Qadeer brothers’ product line includes (are the children in bed?) gag balls (whatever they are), lime-green corsets, thronged spanking shorts, and the ever-popular Mistress Flogger. Are you with me Elliot Spitzer?

The dozens of veiled women who stitch these together have no idea what they are or how they are used—they’re just happy to have a job. Things are rough there too (sorry). Even the boys wives and mother do not know what they are up to. “If our mom knew,” Adam Ahmed Qadeer confessed, “she’d drown us.” Or say, “Boys will be boys.” If on the other hand, one of their sisters got out of line, we sort of know what would happen to her. One of the brothers’ products would then probably come in handy.

You might wonder how they get away with this in a country swarming with conservative Muslim groups. Actually, last year four Islamic toughs threatened to burn down their factory if they didn’t close it in a week. The brothers explained that it is only a business and, not to worry, none of the items they manufacture are used in Pakistan. (At least not the bondage straitjacket that they make that’s jumping off the shelves.) The guys were convinced and, who knows, maybe took along a few samples, which they could study at their leisure to make sure they weren’t showing up in Zhob or Peshawar.

And, for safe measure, in the spirit of pure capitalism, it didn’t hurt that the Qadeer boys also greased a few palms of the leaders of a local Islamic political organization. Or should I say, made a political contribution in support of their efforts?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

May 7, 2009--An Exchange of Rants

I’ve been having an extended email exchange with a circle of relatives and friends of one of my dearest (and I mean that) Florida Republican friends. A few of these fellows voted for Obama, but even some of them are growing disenchanted with him—they appear to be mainly concerned about the rising budget deficit and how it will be retired and are worried about too much governmental intervention in the banks and auto industry.

Others, further on the right, fear (and I use that word advisedly) incremental socialism, though I can’t seem to get them to tell me what they actually mean by “socialism.” Oh well. I'm also hearing from them that they know more and more people who are cashing out and actually taking steps to leave the U.S., seeking safer havens.

I was wondering about all of this early this morning and thus wrote the following back to them:

It is of course very different now than during the Depression. Our economy is more globally interconnected and this makes things more complicated. But a case can also be made that this ultimately makes us more secure, not less, because everyone has a strong interest in seeing us and themselves succeed. There's no place to hide. Those folks ____ talks about who are leaving and taking their "money" with them do not understand this. Where will they go to hide? What assets should they take with them? Cash? Gold? Impressionist art? Their real estate? Stocks? Bonds? And what would they do with them if they could figure that out?

I understand, as you say, the impulse to protect our families, but we have to be smart about it. I also understand the desire to do things that help others and our country. I'm sadly not hearing very much about that. There's too much fear, a lack of historical understanding and how that relates to our current circumstances, and too much opinion pretending to be evidence-based. And I'm also not hearing anything much about how these are exciting times, full of opportunities. With risks of course. About how we have to get back to inventing things and working hard. There’s too much about passive investing, leveraging, and excessive dependence on the false bounty of the virtual economy where so-called wealth accrues via the inflation of various kinds of bubbles. In the 1920s case, inflated stock prices based on unsustainable lending (buying on margin) while more recently we have seen our bubble result from the commodification of real estate. Sort of our version of the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century. (Studying the history of manias, by the way, is very useful to understanding our own seemingly more intricate economy.)

Ironically, one tends to hear most of the ranting and whining from small-government types who are most comfortable participating in and benefiting from that portion of the economy that is almost totally dependent on governmental behavior--either via deregulation (which is a government function) or exploitive and unfair tax policies and advantages (also government derived). These inconsistencies and pass-along advantages to the already affluent depend more on government policy than entrepreneurship and hard work. The biggest whiners are those least inventive who want to make easy money without effort. Simple by clicking around on their computers.

Small government doesn't just mean how much the gov't spends or how many are on the gov't payroll. It also means how big a role government policy plays in the larger economy. And during the Reagan to Bush years (including Clinton, who was more a follower of Reaganomics than he would likely admit) the government's role was enormous. Getting out of the way, as via their ruinous tax polices, is actually a big-government role. "Big" also means how much power government has and exerts. And during those years it was enormous.

That's one of the downside aspects of the Reagan-Bush kinds of tax policies--the wealthy amass more money without substantial effort (mainly through investing) and do not do much with it that is truly productive. They simple roll it over into other secondary and tertiary forms of passive investment. How many use their vast new wealth for venture capital projects or to expand businesses? The evidence is strong that most of their contributions to the larger economy have been to that portion of it that is unsustainable and non-productive.

Having said this, partly as the result of current smart, historically-based government intervention, there are gathering signs that the economy is freshening. Just glance at today's news--more hiring is going on, fewer are becoming unemployed, housing prices in some of the hardest hit areas (say, Sacramento and South Florida) may be bottoming out, consumer confidence is rising, almost all of the biggest banks passed the "street test," and of course the stock market is sprightly.

Won't it be additionally ironic that those who have been looking for a place to hide and have been ranting the most about approaching "socialism" will be the first to benefit? What will they then say? I'm sure they'll figure something out. If they need help, Rush will tell them what to think.

I’m sure I’ll hear back from the gang before lunchtime.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

May 6, 2009--Always Talk With Strangers: The Three Louises

After driving more than 400 miles through Georgia and South Carolina, we were happy to get to the blue state of North Carolina. We did, though, have a memorable lunch at Maurice’s in Columbia, SC, where the pulled pork comes saturated in a vinegar and mustard-based sauce that the Kiplinger Letter allegedly named the best in the USA. We’ve had a lot of different South Carolina style BBQ sauces, and Maurice’s is for sure a contender for the all time best.

What Kiplinger didn’t mention is that Maurice’s houses what I am certain is incontrovertibly the only bookstore anywhere housed in a BBQ joint. Though this was unexpected—the only paper in these kinds of places is that used to wrap sandwiches and soak up the juice from dripping sandwiches—the books spread out on a table were what you might expect if you ever though a BBQ place would have even one book in sight.

There were at least a dozen about the “War of Northern Aggression,” or what we in the rest of the country still call the “Civil War,” including a couple that totally surprised me about Jews in the South who fought on the side of the Confederacy. Marcus Spiegel’s A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War, for example. I guess these were supposed to kosher things for someone of my persuasion who might come away from my ribs and hushpuppies feeling guilty about enjoying pork so much in the heart of Old Dixie. Or, to make the case that the Confederacy was not made up of just your usual bigots and anti-Semites.

And for those with a taste for revisionist history, Maurice’s had a full line of books that looked at things from the Southern perspective. James Ronald Kennedy’s, Was Jefferson Davis Right? was one. And for those with a pre-millennialist view of the upcoming Final Days, Armageddon, and the End Times, there were stacks of paperback from Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series of extraordinarily popular novels.

I’m a reader and actually have a deep interest in the history of this kind of End-of-the World thinking, but we stopped at Maurice’s for the food not the literature; and so we were glad to get out of the place in one piece so that we could enjoy the taste of the pork and especially the sauce as it repeated on us as we drove the next hundred miles, burping our way along a series of South Carolina’s scenic and bumpy back roads.

So when we checked into our motel in Charlotte, North Carolina and thought about what to have for dinner, Jay’s Fish Grill, which we spotted as we pulled into town, after the gastric demands of Maurice’s, seemed like just the right kind of place for us, though Rona, always concerned about the freshness of food, worried a bit about what kind of seafood would be available in a fish restaurant in a small shopping mall in a city far from the ocean. I thought, on the other hand, that it could turn out to be good—who would think of running a fish place in such an unlikely spot if they didn’t have good sources? With all due respect to Charlotte, it’s not exactly a fish kind of town; and in order for Jay’s to survive it had to be at least decent. Thus, feeling confident we wouldn’t be poisoned, we decided to give it a try.

Not only did the food turn out to be excellent—Rona had what she called “arguably the best crab cakes ever” (and she’s had hundreds in dozens of road-food places along Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere) and I had an incandescent catfish drizzled with a light mustard sauce—though the food was wonderful, the waitresses stole the show. Not the least of it being that all three of them had the same name—Louise.

Our primary waitress, Louise, after talking me into ordering the catfish—“To tell you the truth, I eat here all the time,” she winked, “and all I ever have is that catfish. If you don’t like it, I‘ll take it back to the kitchen and eat it later for a snack,” she licked her lips and theatrically rubbed her stomach, “And I won’t charge you anything for it.” When I raised my hand to signal I’d be fine with it no matter how it was done, she added, “And of course I’ll bring you anything else you want. No charge.”

The second Louise stood off to the side the whole time smiling and nodding her head in support of what Louise was promising. And the third Louise, her arms full of orders for the table next to ours, sotto voce, out of the side of her mouth as she rushed by, said to me, “You’re in the South now honey. So live a little.”

With the ordering done, feeling relieved from that pressure, Rona and I lifted our glasses of very decent Riesling to toast being in the South and living a little.

We were famished from all the driving and hardly said a word to each other as we devoured our entrees. “Um, um,” Rona said to no one in particular, “These are indeed mighty fine crab cakes. Why I remember the time we were in Delmarva. At what was the name of that place? The Captain’s Table, I think. Real down home. But these sure take the cake. No pun intended.”

I noticed that though we had been in the South for fewer than three days, Rona already had developed a thick drawl. Another two days, I thought, and I’d need a translator. We had better take up the pace of our driving since I was worried about what our city slicker friends would think about us if we came home sounding as if we had spent the winter on Hee Haw.

All the while, the first Louise hovered in the background, making sure we were showing sufficient appreciation for the food. It should have been obvious--only about ten minutes had passed since she had brought us our dinners and we had pretty much cleaned our plates. In fact, she spotted Rona licking her fingers and took this as a good sign. She skipped over to us. “Everything to your pleasing?” I saw Rona take note of this regionalism of Louise’s and knew I’d be hearing a version of it in a few days over coffee at Balthazar.

“This espresso is to my pleasing,” I was sure she would say as I cringed and looked in the other direction, shrugging my shoulders as if to say, I wonder where she’s been these past four months.

“Back home, over there in the hills where I live,” Louise pointed to the parking lot, a few miles beyond it I assumed were the hills. “My son is always catchin’ the best catfish imaginable. But I can’t do with them what they do with them here. Don’t you know?”

“They were delicious,” I said, tempted to lick my own fingers.

“You look like you’re ready for some dessert. I didn’t steer you wrong with the fish plate, now did I? So for dessert you need to have some of Jay’s chocolate bread puddin. He makes it right here. Well, not actually right here.” She chuckled and slapped her thigh, “But over there.” She pointed toward the back of the restaurant. “I know you’ll say you haven’t any room for another bite, but it’s on me. You just have to take a wee taste.” I was hoping the “wee” slipped by Rona as she was busy draining the last of her wine.

Without waiting for us to answer, she ran on her toes in tiny steps to the kitchen. Rona stretched her arms and yawned, covering her mouth. It had been a long day. “Maybe we should spend two nights here,” she said, “I sure would like to have another dinner in this place. I could go for some of that catfish of yours. And that way we could do a little moseying about.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “We do want to get to Virginia to visit with your sister and brother-in-law. We should do that over the weekend. Before the work week begins.”

“Oh, I forgot what day it is. You’re right. We should keep the pedal to the metal.”

I was glad to see Louise again with the dessert, which she held out before her with both hands as if it was an offering. I needed to get Rona back to the motel as soon as possible so she could watch some CNN to get her diction and vocabulary straightened out.

“If we were to stay on here abouts,” Rona asked Louise, “what special to see?” She glanced over to me to indicate she was just making conversation.

Louise motioned to the second Louise to come over to our table, the one with the spiky blonde hair and extra-short skirt. “These folks, Weezie, they’re askin’ what’s to see round here. Weezie knows everything. From the looks of her you can see she’s been around.” She slapped her thigh again and Weezie on her toes did a quick pirouette as if to show us that she did in fact know all the hot spots.

“But if you ask me—you folks did say you’re from up North?”

“Yes, New York,” Rona said. And added, “The City.”

“The Apple, the Big Apple, don’t you know,” the second Louise was all grins, “I can’t wait to visit there.”

“It’s only about ten hours from her, wouldn’t you say?” It was our Louise. “I made that drive one time with my daughter. Bet you wouldn’t believe from the looks of me that she’s already twenty-nine.” Before we could agree with her—she looked no more than her early thirties, she said, “You know us hillbillies, we get started with our babies when we ourselves are hardly out of diapers.”

At that, the third Louise, the one they call Lou, slid over to our table to get in on the fun. “Can’t believe a word that girls says,” she said. “You’d never guess that she’s fifty-four, now would you?”

Again before either Rona or I could say a word, the first Louise, who appeared to be called Louise, began to tell us about that trip. It was last year and she took her ten year-old granddaughter with her. “Smart as a whip, you can believe me. Though there’s nothin’ very special about her grandma. Me, I’m talking ‘bout. Never finished school. I mean high school. So I have to do this all day.” With her arm she swept the full expanse of the restaurant.

“There’s nothing wrong with . . .” I was trying to say that there’s nothing wrong with this kind of work but she cut me off.

“That’s OK,” Weezie said for her, “She’s fine here. Really is. Why there’s Lou and me. So what else she need to get through the day? We’re good company. Make the time pass. Then there are nice folks like you all.”

Louise smiled at that and went on, “As I mentioned, I took my little Lois along. She so smart and loves her history so much that we stopped in Washington. DC. And I told her we’d do whatever it is she wants to see. So she did all the research and came up with how she wanted to visit all the places where Abraham Lincoln was at. Of course the White House. We got on line early so we could make that tour. How I wish Obama and Michelle had been livin’ there at the time. Not that old George or Laura showed us around. I can’t tell you what I would have said to him. Two of my cousins got shot up in Iraq. One can’t walk no more.” She paused to contemplate that.

“Then of course there’s his memorial, where Lois read all the words carved up there in stone. From the Gettysburg Address. And from something else which I forget. Actually, she knew all the words and recited them so beautiful that a small crowd gathered ‘round her and applauded when she got done. I was so proud.”

“I can only imagine,” Rona said.

“But that’s not the best part. More ‘en anything she wanted to go to that place where he got shot. The theater. Ford’s. And then to the house where they took him. Where he died. There were park rangers or somethin’ who told about everything. It was fascinatin’. Would you believe it but Lois had questions for all of them. Like how long did it take to catch his assassin? I forgot his name. And why did he shot the president? And how did they think things would have been different if Lincoln had lived? That one really stumped them. One said no one had ever asked him that question and it would take more time than he had to try to answer it. He suggested a book she might want to read. And don’t you know, first thing when we got back, she went to the library and took it out. ‘Couse I forget the title. But she read every word of it. Looked to me that it was at least a thousand pages long.”

“She sure is proud of that girl,” Weezie said. Lou smiled, nodding.

“So you gals should take your own grandchildren up there. Not that either of them have anyone back home like my Lois.” She winked at them to make sure they knew she was joshing. From all the laughter and back slapping it was clear they did and that this kind of bantering went on all day, all year long.

“Can’t figure how someone like my Lois could be related to me. If I didn’t know better I would thing my Lucy, her mom, had adopted her or somethin’.”

“Why do you say that?” Rona said, trying to make her feel better. “You seem . . .”

“I’m nothin’ special. This place is good, but as I said, I never completed school.”

“She’s right about that,” the third Louise said, “she’s not very special.” She poked our Louise in the ribs to indicate she was just kidding. “Actually, she is, tell these nice folks about all your collectin’,”

“Yes, please tell us,” it was Rona again, still thinking maybe beneath all the kidding Louise was feeling badly about herself.

With that Louise lit up. “Well they tell me that I have one of the finest collections of 1950s furniture in the county. Been gatherin’ stuff for more ‘en twenty years. I’ve got so much stuff—and I have a big place, Lou don’t I—that there’s no place there to put a napkin.” I saw Rona take note of that expression. “Got lots of tables, mind you, but as we say down here, there’s no place for a napkin.” I knew from her repeating this phrase that it would quickly be incorporated into Rona’s growing regional lexicon.

“I s’pose I should start sellin’ some of that stuff. I have all sorts of big time dealers who know about my things buzzin’ ‘round like hornets. Why there was some fella come by from up by you the other day who offered me all sorts of money if I’d let him back a truck up and haul it all away. I knew, of course, that what he was offerin’ was about a tenth of what he’d be sellin’ it for in his fancy place. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.”

“Not yesterday, for sure,” the second Louise couldn’t help chiming in, “but fifty-four years ago.” At that our Louise and the second Louise rolled with laughter.

“That Weezie sure can kid. I do love that gal.”

“But you were sayin’, I mean about you collection,” Rona asked, “Where do you find all these things?”

“Well, they’re all over the place down here. The old folks are either dying out or movin’ into homes and they can’t take their stuff with them. Their children think it’s all junk and can’t wait to get rid of it. So they call me in. They think I’m a junk dealer or somethin’. I hate to take advantage of their situations, but they’d give it all to the St. Vincents if I didn’t take it off their hands. And I try to pay them good money for it. Not what it’s worth, I know that, but among the good stuff there’s a lot of real junk and I dispose of that for them. Leave their momma’s place all cleaned out and spick and span. As my brother is always sayin’—“Even-up is no robbery.’”

“And since you were askin’ about things to do ‘round here, there is one place you might want to visit. It’s over in Flat Rock.” She gestured again out toward the parking lot. “Not too far from here. ‘Bout forty minutes or so. A pretty drive. It’s Carl Sandburg’s place. You know ‘bout him of course? The poet. Not that I know all there is to know about him or his poetry, I did leave school early as I told you.”

“I didn’t know he was from these parts,” I said. “I somehow thought he lived up in Vermont.”

“That I can’t tell you. But he did live here, in Flat Rock I mean, from about 1945, the end of the war, till he died in 1964. I remember when that happened. I was about nine at the time. And that wife of his, she was interesting too. She was from a famous family. Her brother was that famous photographer, Edward Steichen, I think that was his name. Took up, didn’t he, with that artist woman, Georgia O’Keefe? Well, his wife raised goats. And he helped out with that. Folks who knew him said he was salt of the earth. Always willing to stop and talk with. Even to those like me who didn’t know too much. But he always had a good word to say to everybody. My folks knew him a little bit. They were farmers and used to by some of their goat milk. Made cheese from it. They’re gone now, but I can still taste that cheese. They called it ‘Mrs. Sandburg’s cheese.’ She was sweet too, my mom told me. How I miss them. My folks, I mean. They were everything to me. But I’m not complaining. I have a good family, a good job, and those two gals over there keep me on my toes. And I have my collecting. No complaints at all.”

“I can see that,” Rona said, “It sounds as if you do have a good life here.”

And I said, not able to engage the emotion on a full stomach—Jay’s bread pudding was everything Louise had claimed. While we were talking I finished all of it. “Maybe we will drive over there tomorrow morning. It sounds interesting.”

“And while you’re there, you’ll see in the little shop that they have his books about Lincoln. You know he wrote, how many books was it—I forget—at least three, four about Lincoln. I don’t know, of course, but people say they’re still among the best books about him. Especially ‘bout the war years. I think that’s the title of one of them. And he wrote them just over there in Flat Rock. You can still see the place where he wrote them. They kept it just like it was when he died. And you’ll also see,” she smiled broadly. “that they also have some pretty nice 50s pieces there. Not all as nice as mine, but they were modest folks.”

“Yeah, just like our Louise,” it was Weezie, “real modest.”

“We’ve kept you long enough,” Louise said, “You still have a long trip ahead of you.”

“No, no,” Rona said, “It’s been great bein’ with you all. I hope we pass through these parts again. It’s been some special evenin’. And I hope back at your place, Louise, you’ll find a place for that napkin of yours.”

The three Louises, now with their arms around each other, at that rolled with laughter. “Have fun, you all,” they said in unison.

“And when you get back home,” our Louise said, “take a big bite out of that apple. Like we said, you gotta live!”