Wednesday, September 30, 2009

September 30, 2009--A Friend's Pique

My latest email exchange with a good friend who disagrees with me about almost everything political began with his sending me an opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal (linked below) which alleges that Barack Obama is being less forceful about confronting Iran than either his British and even French counterparts. My friend, traditionally not much of a fan about anything French—except their wines—must be really worked up about how wimpy Obama in his view is acting if he is feeling better about Sarkozy than our president.

To offer a flavor of the WSJ piece here are the opening and closing paragraphs:

President Obama wants a unified front against Iran, and to that end he stood together with Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown in Pittsburgh on Friday morning to reveal the news about Tehran's secret facility to build bomb-grade fuel. But now we hear that the French and British leaders were quietly seething on stage, annoyed by America's handling of the announcement . . .

We thought we'd never see the day when the President of France shows more resolve than America's Commander in Chief for confronting one of the gravest challenges to global security. But here we are.

With the Journal link, my friend wrote:

How many times do we have to learn that thugs only understand one thing, force? It appears that appearances are more important than substance on this issue for this administration.

A bit hotly, I responded:

If you want to actually know what is going on between us and the Brits and French, rather than reading opinion pieces in Rupert Murdock's WSJ, check out this piece from the NY Times of real reporting and you will see that what has been going on is far from just about appearances. (

Also, what evidence do you have that thugs (who here are you referring to?) only understand force? In some cases this is true and in others not at all. So to claim that "only" force works is ahistorical. And in some cases using force against so-called thugs doesn't get the job done--let's start with Vietnam and then jump to Iraq. I could make a longer list but you get my point: as in the past it's not to be so guided by a hot temper and ideology. Half the time it gets things wrong. Even produces the opposite of what we would like to achieve. And don't mishear me--I very much believe in the use of force when all else has failed and we are in real, as opposed to imagined or made-up danger. We may at some point have to use force against Iran but we are or at least I hope we are quite a ways away from that. It is still thankfully some years before they have actual deliverable nuclear weapons. At the moment I'm more worried about what might happen with Pakistan. Iran makes our blood boil but great powers are at their greatest when they do not let that determine policy. I could give you many examples from recent history about how ruinous that can be.

Even hotter, he wrote:

I'm not going to waste my time explaining why thugs only understand force. Thugs like Stalin, Hitler, Hussein, Mugabe have a demonstrated record of only understanding force and using diplomacy as a weapon for themselves or to mock others who value diplomacy. A thug is by definition someone who's values don't include diplomacy or fair dealing. I thought you understood that but I guess not.

Regarding great powers being at their greatest when they don't let emotions rule their actions, that's fine but if Iran is not an issue, then why is Obama wasting my time making them an issue? I personally don't give a damn about Iran and I think if they end up creating a mess, I'm glad to let others clean it up. I do know Israel is upset and I do know Obama is upping the rhetoric which is why this conversation started in the first place. Maybe you should write the president and tell him he's wasting his time and that there are other priorities to which he should attend such as flying to Copenhagen to personally intercede in the process to select Chicago as an Olympic city.

Though I tend to agree with him about the Olympics, I in turn said:

Sorry to see you so riled up and not wanting to engage in a discussion about the many ways to deal with threats or the meaning of history. I will leave you, then, hot and bothered, feeling that all “thugs” are the same and that since that to you appears to be true there is only one way to deal with them. I know this makes things clear for you but unfortunately this way of looking at things is neither historically true (sorry again to be mentioning history) or true to human nature. Sometimes, to give you just one example, deterrence works even better with thugs than force. One of your heroes, Ronald Reagan understood that and guess what--he was right and it worked! We didn't have to use force directly against the Soviet thugs but merely to scare them to death.

And so there things sit. I am waiting to hear back. But as you can see from this between actually very good friends, disputes can escalate very quickly. Over very little. Are there then lessons from his and my behavior that require attention?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 29, 2009--Where's Michelle?

I don’t like it but I can live with a delay in the government getting rebate checks to folks who turned in clunkers to buy new cars. But not with the fact, as recently reported in the New York Times, that hundreds of thousands of current veterans are being forced to wait many months to get reimbursed for the college tuition benefits promised them in the so-called New GI Bill. (Article linked below.)

The cash-for-clunkers program was passed on the fly by a Congress and a president wanting to do a quick host of things to stimulate our lagging economy and so there was relatively little time for the Transportation Department to gear up to handle the flood of inevitable paperwork. But the New GI Bill has been on the books for more than a year and thus the Veterans Administration had amply time to figure out how to make it work.

The program was designed to pay for tuition, fees, student housing, and books. Most of the costs associated with attending college. But because of governmental ineptitude most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are attempting to take appropriate advantage of the program, veterans who the leaders of both political parties with tears in their eyes always refer to as “heroes,” are being forced to lay out all the money required to enroll and are being forced to wait for many months to get their checks. This has meant that they have had to borrow money at high interest rates—which will not be reimbursed—or put off buying the books they need or dig into savings in order to begin college this fall when the program first took effect.

Back last August, when the legislation was approved (over the hypocritical objections of most Republicans, including initially John McCain) and the administration of the program was assigned to the VA, the Veterans Administration choose not to hire an outside contractor to run it even though the VA did not have the capacity to handle all the applications for benefits.

277,000 veterans have thus far applied. This was not a surprise—the VA correctly anticipated how many would submit applications and it also knew it had antiquated technology and thus would be forced to process the applications manually. They also knew, or should have, that as a result there would be significant delays in paying colleges and reimbursing veterans for their other covered expenses. In spite of this, they declined to hire an outside contractor with the capacity to administer the program quickly and efficiently. As a result, of the more than 200,000 applicants, only 20,000 have had their tuition paid and only another 13,000 have been reimbursed for their eligible out-of-pocket costs.

This is how we treat our heroes.

Though the Bush administration can be fully blamed for getting us involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and they were most cynical in their emotional exploitation of veterans, trotting them out for public praise while more privately not providing them with the body armor and other methods to protect and defend themselves; and they were fully responsible for the infamous situation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other VA healthcare and rehabilitation facilities. But this current fiasco is largely happening on Barack Obama’s watch.

He, and his wife Michelle, came into office proclaiming that taking better care of veterans would be one of their highest priorities. Michelle Obama, especially, made a big thing of devoting her energies to assuring that veterans and their families would be treated as their service and sacrifices deserved. But here we are with this unforgivable mess on our hands.

I cannot help but wonder how often the Obamas have checked out what is now happening at Walter Reed, literally walking distance from the White House. I cannot help but wonder what they have done—besides decrying the situation and making speeches about it—to alleviate the situation among the still nearly 200,000 homeless veterans. A full one-third of the total population of homeless Americans. I haven’t noticed any visits to homeless camps. I haven’t heard about new facilities for homeless vets. I do know there will be a conference on the subject in October, nearly a year after Obama was elected. And we all know what these conferences are about—posturing and promising and getting on the evening news.

Providing tuition benefits and providing homes for the homeless are solvable problems. Much less complex than fixing our industrial economy or figuring out what to do in Pakistan or Iran. I do not for the life of me understand why Barack and Michelle Obama don’t every week pound the table and demand these matters get taken care of.

A vegetable garden on the White House grounds we have.

After World War II, when all administrative work was done manually and on paper, fully 7.8 of the 16 million veterans went to college on the original GI Bill. Somehow the VA at the time managed to get the work done. 7.8 million. But now after all the progress we’ve made with computing and automation we cannot manage to process a miserable 277,000 applications.

I have a friend who runs a successful software business. He supplies systems to banks to help them handle their workload. I asked him to look into the current situation at the VA and to tell me how long it would have taken him to develop a fully automated system to handle the paper flow. A few hours later he called back and said he could have a designed a software system to handle this in less than two weeks. So much for change we can believe in.

Monday, September 28, 2009

September 28, 2009--Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran

What sense can be made of the Iranians desire to have nuclear weapons when they know that this will inevitably unleash the Israelis and/or the US, if I am getting the implications of Barack Obama’s tough talk over the weekend? And what beyond an increased sense of threat might be motivating Obama to speak out right now so forcefully when, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on CNN yesterday, we have known that the Iranians have been working on a uranium enrichment facility for, to quote him, “two to three years”?

Interrupting the G-20 Summit, with Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy at his side, a grim-faced Obama announced that we now know that one of Iran’s newer nuclear facilities is for certain being used to produce weapons grade fissionable materials and that if they do not allow inspectors to visit the underground plant within two weeks there will be serious consequences. Additional sanctions and who know what else, with the latter threat undoubtedly meaning the possibility of military action.

Anyone who knows even a little about the region understands that if the US and Britain and France are talking this way the Israelis must already be pressing to attack and that they are only being restrained because we are promising that we will do something about the situation. Direct talks with the Iranians are set to begin later this week and, it now appears, if there aren’t some quick concessions from the Iranians it cannot be too long after that that we give more than serious consideration to bombing their nuclear plants.

What logic might be driving Iranian thinking when they know the likely outcome is that they will be attacked? Don’t they know that the Israelis at a minimum will not sit still while they face the existential threat of being nuked by the Iranians? Wouldn’t any prudent leaders, when faced with such overwhelming opposition, look for ways to moderate their position while extracting all sorts of concessions from the West? None of this seemingly irrational, self-destructive behavior makes sense unless, seemingly perversely, the Iranians actually want to be attacked.

Why might that be? The ultimate leadership there, knowing full well from the violent dissent that racked their country after the recent national elections, realizing from this that their own hold on power might be precarious, they could be looking for ways to stifle that opposition and unify the nation. One way that would be certain to work would be to provoke an attack on their country. Nothing unites a people more effectively than being attacked by an external enemy. Look at how the opposition to what turned out to be the Second World War evaporated in Britain and the United States after the Germans bombed London and the Japanese Pearl Harbor. And closer to home, look what the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center did to the political opposition to George Bush after 9/11. When he spoke to Congress and the American people shortly after the attack he was received like a hero and his approval ratings shot up to more than 80 percent. I for one cried while listening to him speak and supported all of his actions right up until he unnecessarily manipulated us into invading Iraq.

So think about how after attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities the very same people who rallied in the streets in opposition to Ahmadinejad, while calling for America to intervene, will be back in the streets this time burning Obama and Netanyahu in effigy while extolling their Supreme Leader.

And then Obama himself may have some political motivations that are not at first apparent for getting tough with Iran. Most obviously his new posture might be designed to restrain the Israelis while giving the Iranians another last chance to come to the table ready to negotiate. This wouldn’t be a bad idea.

But then he has other, even more complicated foreign policy and military decisions on his plate. Foremost among these is what to do about Afghanistan. Clearly his generals and his Secretary of State and the hawks in Congress are pressuring him to send at least another 40,000 troops to the region. On the other side there appears to be Joe Biden who, thankfully, remembers Vietnam and who it is said is counseling Obama to rethink his current commitment to expand the war against the Taliban. Recall that just a few months ago, in March, Obama announced a new strategy for the region that called for the dispatch of an additional 21,000 soldiers, and now to reject the generals’ new plan for even more he would have to reverse himself. Never an easy thing for a president and even more complicated for a new president with few foreign policy credentials.

But perhaps Obama is having second thoughts about his own Afghanistan policy and wants to reverse course and focus on al Qaeda rather than nation building. To the militarists this would look like wimpy behavior. Like surrender.

If on the other hand, while changing course in Afghanistan, Obama was at the same time gearing up to bomb Iran, or minimally allowing the Israelis to do it as our surrogates, it would befuddle his opposition and maybe even serve to unite support behind him at a time when his own approval ratings have been falling and thereby jeopardizing the rest of his agenda.

Perhaps this view is all to Machiavellian. But what appears to be happening doesn’t make much sense if thought about in traditional ways. Perhaps then there is some other inner logic at work where the truth might be found. At least I hope that someone is thinking clearly.

Friday, September 25, 2009

September 25, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Exerting Force

“I only have a minute.” It was my 101-year-old mother calling from her retirement community in Florida.

“Is everything all right? You sound out of breath.”

“I’m fine for an old lady but like I told you I only have a minute to talk. I have so much still to catch up with. The Sunday Times, for example. I read Frank Rich, he’s such a darling, but I just began the crossword puzzle.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call him a darling. Did you see what he had to say about all the violently angry people in America?”

“I did read that and I did agree with him. Though I still think he’s sweet. When I see him on the television he’s so nice. His mother must be very proud of him. The way he behaves. But you’re distracting me from my point.”

“What is it then?”

“You can see some of these angry people right here in Florida. Even in the supermarket. So frustrated about everything. Not that I can disagree with some of this. There is a lot still to be upset about. In fact, this has been on my mind. I have been talking with the girls about it. About our problems and how very little seems to be happening. ‘Talking, talking, and more talking,’ is how Bertha put it. And I’m beginning to worry that she’s right. She’s one of the smartest ones. Reads Time magazine every week and never turns off CNN.”

“The problems we have are very complicated and so there needs to be a lot of discussion about the right things to do.”

“Maybe because I’m old that I don’t have patience for this. And it seems to me that most of the talking is not getting us anywhere. Maybe it’s getting us lost. So much of it goes around in circles. Take healthcare for example. We know that no Republicans are going to vote for it . . .”

“Maybe one. Olympia Snow from Maine.”

“All right then—almost no Republicans. So why don’t the Democrats just get on with it? They have 60 senators again. Taking so much time with this is keeping us from dealing with all our other problems. Like education. When was the last time you ever heard anyone talk about that? As you know, I think it’s a bigger problem than healthcare. It’s about our future. Not just whose going to pay for MRIs for us alter kockers.”

“As you know, mom, and we’ve talked about this in the past, the problems may be less with Republicans than with the Democrats. How . . .”

“Yes, how Obama is having trouble getting his Democrats to agree on anything. Some of them are also on the payrolls of the health insurance companies. Including some very powerful senators. But now this is my point.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s about Obama himself. There was a disturbing poll about him that I just heard about on the news.”

“You mean the one about how more than half of Americans disagree with his healthcare program?”

“That one too. But the one that has me upset is the one that shows that even though that’s true and his overall approval rating—whatever that means—though it is only about 50 percent, 80 percent of Americans still like him. Also, whatever that means.”

“But isn’t that a good thing? That although on some of the issues he has lost support—look, he is trying to do some controversial things and some of this is inevitable--he’s spending down his so-called political capital to get things done. Isn’t that what a good leader should do?”

“Yes it definitely is. But I’m not so sure that it’s such a good thing to be so likable. To get things done sometimes you have to take the risk to be disliked.”

“I get your point but isn’t it also a good thing to have a reservoir of good feelings that can be tapped into if necessary?”

“I’m not at all sure that this is how things work. Look, even the Republicans in Congress who violently disagree with him about everything and more than anything else want to see him fail so they can come back into power, even those—and I believe them—say that they like him. But what is that getting him? Maybe one, and I’m not so sure about her, perhaps one will support him on healthcare.”

“We’ll see.”

“That’s what you always say, ‘We’ll see.’ Well the girls and I are beginning to think we’ve seen enough. Being nice is not working. It feels like wheels spinning to us. Nothing is being accomplished and time is running out.”

“But he has been in office for what, a little over nine months. He still has more than three years in his first term.”

“This tells me you haven’t been paying attention. Politically, he has only maybe another four or five months to accomplish his agenda. I know this sounds ridiculous but in January they begin the midterm election campaign and we all know he is going to lose seats in both houses of Congress. Which will make it even more impossible to pass anything and then they will begin the next presidential campaign and the TV will focus all their attention on that. It’s their favorite thing. That horse race business. So rather than spending so much time on being nice he needs to twist a few arms and do some threatening. When was the last time anything got done in Congress? When Johnson was president and then with that Reagan. That’s when. And though people also liked Reagan, like Johnson he and his people were able to exert discipline. When they needed to they told people they had better get behind their programs or there would be trouble for them. And it worked. Especially for Johnson. How many things did he get passed?”

“Many. Civil rights, the War on Poverty, help for college students. Many things. But with Reagan he didn’t really get much done after his first year so by your theory Obama may turn out to be more like Reagan than Johnson.”

“It could turn out to be. In more ways than one. As you will see if you let me finish.”

“Sorry, but . . .”

“Let’s leave the ‘buts out of this. I don’t have the time for them today. Back to my point--with that actor most of what he later did was with the Russians. He got his tax cuts passed during his first year and then when he couldn’t do anything else he turned his attention to the Cold War. And whatever else I think about him—and most of it is not good—with that he was successful.”

“So perhaps with Obama . . . ?”

“I’m worried about that too. How people all over the world like him.”

“What’s so wrong with that? Isn’t that a good thing? That we are getting an opportunity to restart our relationships around the world, which were largely destroyed during the last eight years?”

“Yes, there are good things about that. But I want to see some results. Look at what that Gadhafi said about him in the UN yesterday. He called him his African ‘brother.’ And that Chavez. About how much he likes Obama. And the Arabs and even many Israelis. Plus the Russians now that he has ended that ridiculous Reagan and Bush Star Wars program. But what has this done for him? So far nothing. Bupkis.”

“Well at least he’s trying to accomplish things on many fronts and isn’t it much too soon to tell if any of this will bear fruit? As with Congress, it takes forever to get anything done overseas.”

“Actually, some things are already happening, and to me they’re not good things.”

“I’m listening,”

“Take Israel, for example. You know what the ladies here think about Israel. Me too. And for good reason. Some of them are survivors and all of us lost much of our families to the Nazis. So we support Israel. Not necessarily the government, especially this one with that ‘Nathan-Yahoo.’ That’s my name for him.” My mother chuckled at her own joke. “Obama started out with him in the right way—quote, ‘demanding,’ unquote, he stop all additional settlements. And when that obviously didn’t work, wasn’t it just yesterday he, Obama, backed off from that. Do I have that right?”

“I’m afraid you do.”

“Do you know what that says to Netanyahu? You see I know his real name. It says Obama is weak. He can be made to back down. And we know what Netanyahu and his ilk will do with that knowledge? They will continue to resist and resist and resist. And things will continue to get worse and worse and worse.”

“I agree with you about that.”

“And soon we’ll see what Obama does about Afghanistan. If he gives in to the generals and the right-wingers and sends more combat troops there. Like Johnson it will be his Vietnam if he does. Mark my words. He’s a smart man who knows his history. So doesn’t he know his history about them? About what they did to the Russians and to everyone else over the centuries? Disaster. It will be the end of America as we know it. So we’ll see what he does.”

“This does really worry me. His whole presidency may be hanging in the balance about that. Thankfully Joe Biden is making the case to begin to back off.”

“But then you heard what Hillary had to say over the weekend?”

“I did. And that too concerns me. How hawkish she still is about these things and how he may feel the need to pander to her. As he at times did during the campaign.”

“They need to focus on Pakistan. That’s where the real danger is with the Taliban and all those nuclear weapons they already have. What happens if the Taliban take over Pakistan? I’m glad I won’t be alive to see that.”

“Now mom . . .”

“How much longer do I have? I’m more than 101 years old. But be that as I may, I have to get back to my crossword puzzle. It’s a good distraction, though I no longer can do it with a pen. I make too many mistakes.” She laughed at herself again. “So here’s my final word about this: he’s likeable and that in itself is not a bad thing; and he’s very smart, which can be a good thing—though not always since being too smart can sometimes stop you from acting; but so far he’s missing the other essential thing that all good leaders have—political leaders, business leaders, religious leaders—the ability to exert force. And I don’t just mean on the physical battlefield. We see where that kind of force can lead. But can Obama exert force in Congress? Can he do it with the American people? I know he would prefer to do it with ideas and civility, but in times like these that doesn’t begin to be enough.”

“I think about that you’re right”

“I have to go, but, quickly, changing the subject . . .”

“Sure. Anything. Our conversation depressed me.”

“Forget about that. In the meantime, I’m having trouble with 27-down. Give me a minute so I can get the Magazine section.”

With that she dropped the telephone receiver and I heard it echoing on the kitchen floor.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September 24, 2009--Poor Louis Vuitton

The other day we were walking in Soho after having been out of the city for more than two months and were informally trying to take the pulse of economic activity by seeing who was in the stores and on the streets and what shipping bags, if any, people were carrying.

It was quieter than we had hoped, but we were at least pleased to see that very few shops were for rent. We had expected to find many with "To Let" signs. Maybe things had picked up in spite of how things looked.

And then about a block south of where we were there was quite a commotion--out front of the Marc Jacobs boutique there was a crowd of young women who it appeared were waiting in line in order to be allowed to enter. Rona said that they must have reached capacity inside and before anyone else could go in someone had to leave.

This looked like an economic green shoot to me. "It must be a sample sale," Rona said.

"What's that?" I asked.

"In effect, they have items left over from the summer season that they put on sale so that they can stock up with fall goods."

As we got closer I noticed something else--virtually everyone lined up was Asian. Mainly Japanese. "What gives?" I asked.

Rona said, "Thank God for Asian girls—and notice they are really girls and not women. If they weren't out buying clothes we'd be in even worse shape."

On the other hand, if Japanese girls are keeping the high-end goods business alive in America, it looks as if buying habits in Japan are rapidly changing so that now their version of Wal-Mart, Seiyu, is growing while shops selling Louis Vuitton leather goods and Hermès scarves are in a crisis--in Tokyo it seems they can't any longer sell their $1,000 handbags and so the Vuitton people recently cancelled plans for a ritzy new shop in Tokyo.

The New York Times reports that the cultural obsession with luxury goods of all kinds may be coming to an end. (Story linked below.) Japanese fashionistas, it appears, are now happier mixing and matching garments found in secondhand clothing stores than traipsing around on four-inch heels in, well, Marc Jacobs.

Even sales of umbrellas have spiked. Japanese women used to take taxis everywhere whenever there was a hint of rain in the air. Now, with their new, inexpensive umbrellas, the streets are thronged with pedestrians even when it’s teeming.

As one put it, “People used to feel they needed a Louis Vuitton to fit in. But younger girls don’t think like that anymore. In the new environment, cheap is chic.” Cheap everything it seems.

Up until now this mania for all things expensive not only meant that designer goods of all kinds jumped off the shelves but there was even a passion for designer foods—Kobi Beef would go for more than $100 a pound and butchers couldn’t keep it on the shelves; Toro Tuna at $200 a pound sold like hot cakes at fashionable sushi bars; and special melons went for $100 each at fancy food shops. Now, supermarkets can’t keep enough bean sprouts and onions in stock to satisfy the new demand for cheap food.

So the new cry being heard on the barricades is “Let them eat cabbage!” Which used to go for about $4 a head.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 23, 2009--Day Off

Back tomorrow with an oblique perspective on the Japanese economy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

September 22, 2009--Horsing Around

Admittedly mornings are not my best time. Though I am a poor sleeper and wake very early, don’t ask me to operate heavy equipment before 9:00 much less make much sense of what I might be reading. This even applies to something undemanding such as the sports section of the New York Times—the Jets and Giants somehow on the same day managed to eek out victories, the Yankees lost as usual on the west coast, and of course the Mets lost by relinquishing the lead by making a raft of errors late in the game.

And, to quote from another story:

Martha Maxine might seem like an ill-fitting name for a 5-year-old, but there is an explanation. He used to be a she.

A 5-year-old who used to be a she? This sort of story will jolt one into full consciousness. I pride myself on being a liberal sort, including in the sexual-preference-transgender realm, but what parent, I wondered, would allow their 5-year-old son to become their 5-year-old daughter?

Rona was stirring in the bed next to me and, so startled and disturbed by this story, I muttered something loud enough to rouse her in order to share my outrage.

“What’s going on?” she asked, half awake and barely audible. “Are you OK?”

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” I fibbed, “but there is something that’s disturbing me.”

“A bad dream?” She struggled to sit up under the heavy quilt. “Something with your stomach?” A few years ago I had a serious intestinal problem and frequently woke up earlier than usual and thus Rona was having a sort of flashback to that distressing time.

“No, no. I’m all right. Go back to sleep.”

“But there is something wrong. I heard you moaning to yourself.”

“I wasn’t moaning but there is something in the paper that . . .”

“How many times have I told you not to read the paper so early in the morning? The healthcare debate can wait until later. And so can all the wars and murders.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t, but this time it’s about something else.”

Rona by then was sitting fully up and switched on her bedside light. “All right. I’m listening.” So I read to her the opening paragraph about the 5-year-old. This time without leaving anything out, realizing why it was in the sports and not the news section:

“Martha Maxine might seem like an ill-fitting name,” I read accurately, “for a 5-year-old male horse . . .” I paused, “Oh my, sorry, this is not at all about a boy, but a horse. A male horse who became a female horse.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I said I’m sorry. You see, I thought that this was about . . .”

“For this you woke me at 5:00 AM?”

“Sorry, but . . .” I heard her light switch off and she rolled over so forcefully and even angrily that she pulled all of the blanket to her side of the bed, leaving me uncovered except by the other sections of the Times. Which I continued to read.

It seems that Martha was doing so well racing against fillies that track officials, noting that “she” “carried a lot of muscle tone” for a female, suspected that she was being given illegal substances since, from a genitalia perspective, she looked totally female. While the doping tests showed no traces of steroids they did reveal elevated levels of testosterone and, after further examination, they discovered that Martha Maxine had testicles in her/his abdomen. (Story linked below.)

She was thus thereafter required to race against colts. Last year, competing against females, she did quite well for a trotter, earning more than $200,000. How would she do, racing against colts? At first, not so well; but two weeks ago, in a prep race for the $125,000 Tony Maurello Stakes, Martha won, covering the distance in record time for her . . . or him.

Please do not find fault with me for struggling with which pronoun to best use when writing about him. Even her trainer and co-owner is having problems. Erv Miller still refers to Martha Maxine as “she” and “her.” He said, “I tried it the other way for a bit, calling ‘her’ ‘he.’ It just mixed me up.”

Then there is the case of Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old South African runner who won the women’s 800 meter race at the 2009 world track and field championships. For some time she has been suspected, minimally, of being of mixed gender. If you can forgive the comparison, like Martha Maxine. And thus sports officials want to test her. If she is found to have both ovaries and testicles . . . what to do?

This case is fraught with more than integrity-of-the-sport baggage. Semenya is a black South African and, after their appalling racial history, some are claiming that she is being persecuted and suspected of, in effect, cheating by doubters who are acting in a sexist and racist way.

The inquiry has so angered many South Africans that they are comparing her plight to that of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman taken to Europe in the early 19th century and exhibited like a wild beast under the name “Hottentot Venus.” While in Europe scientists in public scrutinized Baartman’s genitals in the same that some assert sports officials are now wanting to humiliate Caster Semenya.

Rona, of course, is right—I should try to do something about my sleeping problem. Further, she says that if I can’t figure out what to do with myself when I wake up so early, I should do my blogging. Which I’m right now doing.

It is 6:29 AM, I’m done, and I think I’ll post this and try to go back to sleep.

Monday, September 21, 2009

September 21, 2009--Stopping the Line

I’ve been fighting around recently with conservative friends about some of the causes of our economic troubles. They are especially worried about government spending—pretty much all of it but more than anything else bout taxpayer money being used to bail out and, to them, take over major industries. The banks and other financial institutions and the Big Two of the Big Three American auto companies. They worry that this is not just adding immeasurably to our national debt but they also see Barack Obama’s alleged socialistic inclinations lurking in the background. And then, they ask with some credibility, when did government ever do anything right?

At heart, less for ideological reasons that they, I do not much like this either. More because we find ourselves held virtually hostage to these corporate miscreants and that, since these companies are “too big to fail,” there was little choice that makes sense to me between letting them collapse, a là Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, and attempting to pull them and us back from the brink.

And, like Frank Rich in yesterday’s New York Times (linked below), I too more and more am feeling the populist rage he is seeing sweeping the country. Rage against feeling impotent in the face of all we face and a sense that government, including the Obama administration’s, which we both supported and continue to more or less support (note the slipping in of these equivocating verb tenses and phrases), seeming inclination to care more, based on their appointments and policy decisions, about Wall Street and the auto assembly line than Main Street or retail workers.

As one put it in an email to me last week, “Did you listen to his kiss-ass speech to the United Auto Workers?”

Forget that I attempted to parry this jibe by trying to get him to agree that the mess we’re in in regard to cars and more generally manufacturing is at least the result of corporate, free market, ineptitude and arrogant decision-making than caused by sweetheart contracts with the UAW. He was not convinced. And to tell the truth, I could barely convince myself that I was making sense.

The frustration and anger at our general circumstances is so pervasive and deep that more Americans of all persuasions are turning, as Rich points out, to the populist ranting of Glen Beck. He’s beginning to give even Rush Limbaugh a run for his money.

Which brings me to our search for a new car. We do not own one but with it likely that we will be spending more time in Florida and Maine, and less in New York City, we feel the need for one. So this weekend we went car shopping. On the extreme Westside of Manhattan where one can casually wander within half a mile or so among Chevy and Chrysler and Ford and Audi and BMW and, in our case, Volvo and Toyota dealers.

At the moment we have narrowed our search to these. We plan to keep the car for at least 10 years and from our research the Camry and V50 small Volvo station wagon seem both appropriate for our emerging lifestyle and budget. There’s nothing sexy about either of these but they are built to last and we think we will be able to depend on them to start right up what it’s 100 degrees out or 10 below.

Both salesmen were informative and persuasive. Very proud of what they are selling, not just hustling to make a sale in a down market. Among the features they pointed out—beyond all the cup holders and heated seats and fancy speaker systems—was the fit-and-finish. “Look,” the Toyota salesman said, “Look at how these parts fit together.” He was running his finger along the narrow seam between the front fender and the driver-side door. “Toyota requires that it be consistent to only a few thousands of an inch.”

I bent over to take a closer look. I had never thought much about these kinds of structural seams; but if we wanted a car not to fall apart on Maine’s deeply rutted roads, I intuited that this feature might be significant. “Very impressive,” I said. Not quite knowing what I was being impressed by.

“And you know why Toyota can do this?”

“I haven’t a clue,” I confessed.

He leaned closer so as not to be overheard. “Look, you can see I’m an American and proud to be one. I’m originally from Buffalo and you can’t get more American than that. But with Toyota you don’t have unions.”

“What?” I said. Liberal that I am. “I’m not sure that . . .” I was already feeling guilty that our car search had narrowed to foreign cars and now to be contemplating buying a car made in a non-union shop, well that was feeling a bit too much.

“They don’t have unions. Which means that anyone on the assembly line can stop it whenever they see something they don’t like. Like a fit that isn’t up to Toyota standards. They’re actually encouraged to do it. Stop the line, I mean. You think UAW workers in Detroit do that? You think they care enough about their work?”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I muttered. “Where, by the way, are these Camrys made?”

“Let me look at the sticker. It looks like in Kentucky. There are no unions there,” he smiled up at me.

So, not feeling entirely good about the political correctness of this, we made our way up to Volvo to look at cars, which, though not made by an American company, would at least be manufactured by socialists.

And there we heard pretty much the same story—the fit-and-finish are up to “world-class standards” and one of the main reasons for this, the low-key salesman said, also whispering (did they both get trained in the same car-salesman school?), is because Volvos are not made by union workers.

“But I thought Sweden was sort of a socialist country. Wouldn’t that mean that everyone there is a member of one union or another?”

“Look at this label,” he said, with that familiar showroom conspiratorial smile. Which I stooped over to do. He was pointing out where it was assembled.

“You mean it’s made in Hungry?” I was incredulous. He was still smiling and now also nodding his head.

I did note, though, that the engine, at least, was assembled in Sweden from parts made in . . . Japan.

When I pointed this out to Rona, she moaned, “Talk about your globalization.”

So we are faced with a conundrum.

We want to buy American, but we also want a car that will last. And we want to act like liberals. So what would my Republican friends advise? What would Glen Beck recommend? I bet I know the answers to this. And what kind of car does Frank Rich drive? I think I’ll send him an email. I’m sure he did the right thing.

Friday, September 18, 2009

September 18, 2009--Day Off

For chores and catching up. More on Monday.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

September 17, 2009--'Rithmatic

For nearly two decades we have been told that the key to reforming public education is raising standards. For everyone involved.

Teachers and principals must meet more rigorous certification requirements—to teach math, for example, it is necessary in many states to major in math as an undergraduate and after that take a series of mandated education courses in theory and practice. Then with regard to students, they too must be held to higher standards. No more watered down courses, no more just getting by. If a kid doesn’t do well in third grade, make him go to summer school or leave her back to repeat the year. No more social promotion. No more social promotion. Tough love is what is needed.

We have an education crisis which is interfering with America’s ability to compete on the world economic stage, and unless we expect more from everyone, we will slip further and further behind. If we’re not careful, we will slip to Third World status and be forced to watch from the sidelines as the Chinese and the Indians and the Singaporeans in the fast lane pass us by.

And key to raising the bar of expectations has been the move to hold everyone accountable. The No Child Left Behind legislation gives individual schools and states a few years to get up to snuff and says that unless they do there will be real penalties--they will get cut off from various sources of federal money.

The states have been weighing in as well. If a school district here or a school there fails to improve according to strict formulas, they can get taken over or even shut down. Then to hold teachers and students accountable, there has been a massive move to require annual achievement testing. If too many of a teacher’s kids fail to learn, in some places their teacher can be reassigned or, rarer, even dismissed.

Since high-stakes achievement tests began to proliferate controversy has surrounded them. Anti-testing people claim that they are reductionist. They measure achievement in too limited a way and they are easy to defeat—teachers under accountability pressure will spend all their time teaching to the test. So, ironically, while attempting to raise standards, things will be further dumbed down. And of course, since the stakes for all are high, creativity will be used to find ways to cheat.

In the old days, cheating on tests was pretty basic. Kids used crib sheets or sneaked looks at their smart classmates’ answers; and when teachers or principals got involved, as they at times did, they slipped the questions to their students prior to administering the tests and then, when grading the answers, made a few changes before totaling the grades. All of this happened in my Brooklyn public school.

Now, with states and school districts being held accountable, and with politicians claiming fame by presenting themselves as Education Mayors or Governors, there are other motivations to cheat and other, subtler methods being employed.

Take New York City and State for example. One would think, chauvinistic New Yorker that I am, that places like Mississippi and Alabama would be at the top of the list of places puling fast ones. Not the Empire State with all is smarts and resources.

Think again. With a governor in political trouble (David Paterson) and a mayor seeking a quasi-legal third term (Mike Bloomberg), both claiming to be great advocates of education reform, it is probably a good idea to keep a close eye on how kids in public schools in New York are being tested and how the results are being tallied and reported. If Bloomberg, who gained control of the city’s schools during his first term can demonstrate that his schools have improved, he is a shoe in to be reelected, no matter how he manipulated the overturning of the term limits law.

So why was I not surprised when the New York Times reported the other day that after a few years of alleged improvement in math scores it may be that these gains have more to do with the state having lowered the number of right answers required to achieve a passing score than any real improvements in instruction and student achievement. (See article linked below.)

So much so that, to quote the Times:

The mayor has repeatedly pledged to hold back students who fail the test and do not meet even Level 2, a minimal standard. But the number of right answers needed to reach Level 2 has dropped, to the point that on some tests, a student could randomly guess and still stand a good chance of moving on to the next grade. [Emphasis added.]

This past year, seventh graders in New York could get a passing grade in math and be promoted by correctly answering just 44 percent of the answers. Embarrassed by this, education officials said that they had to lower the number required because the questions were tougher.

I thought that was the basic purpose of the standards movement—to keep raising the bar. But then again I was never that good at the New Math. Though now I get it. Which also demonstrates that it’s never too late to learn.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 16, 2009--It's A Snap

When the hormones are flowing, you have to keep an eye on those kids. Thirty years ago it was pull-tops from beer cans and then with Madonna throwing her hips around it was color-coded plastic bracelets. If you can get your hands on the Like A Virgin video, check out what she’s wearing on her wrists. That vixen!

But thanks to the principal of Angevine Middle School in Lafayette, Colorado, near Boulder (of course), though these “jelly” bracelets have reappeared among teenagers, he has taken the courageous step to ban them and thus out there all is again right with the world.

For the uninitiated, which very much included me until the other day, it is claimed that we’re talking about more than a retro fashion statement. Depending on the color of the bracelets, they are supposed to play an essential role in a sex conspiracy among the young and previously virginal.

Here’s how they say it works and why we have to be thankful to Angevine principal Mike Medina:

Back in the 1980s, girls carrying around an intact pull-tab were signaling to the boys that they were available to be kissed and perhaps fondled. Those bolder teenagers toting broken tabs were willing to go all the way. Clever those kids—they had learned from their English teachers the differences between similes and symbols and metaphors. Broken tabs. Get it?

But this had it limits—it was a nothing or all situation. What about gradations between a little kissing and hugging and getting laid? That’s when the plastic bracelets came into play. With them kids could signal a fuller range of things they were willing to do. So yellow indicated hugging was allowed; purple, kissing; red, lap dancing (again, those kids); blue, oral sex; and then there was black.

And though they faded out at about the time Madonna went on her Blond AmbitionTour, in these conservative times, as with so much else, they’re back. Including in places like Lafayette. Perhaps especially in places such as that where there’s not that much to do to keep kids interested in school or anything else. Except, of course, fooling around.

Leave it to the Paper of Record, the New York Times, to be on top of the story and provide all the news fit to print. You can see their report about this right here, linked below.

The 15 year-old girls hang out in the school cafeteria or loll around on the grass in nice weather while the pimply guys bop around checking out the bracelets. Assuming, unlike me who is totally color blind, they spot red and, if a lap dance would do it for them (to me unfortunately it would look like purple), they snap off the wristband and hang on to it until later when, presumably in private, it serves as what cultural anthropologists would call a “sex coupon.” Thus this teenage ritual is called “snapping” and the retained coupon can be cashed in for the kiss or the lap dance or . . .

Back in my day yellow would have denoted hand-holding; blue, permission to put an arm around a girl’s waist; and red, if you got real lucky, would allow a goodnight peck on the cheek after going to the movies. Of course, my PS 244 tyrant of a principal, Dr. Siefert (he had no first name and wasn’t really a “doctor”), would have been all over that situation. Just as he made sure the closet was always locked where backboard erasers were vacuumed because if Heshy Perlmutter could manage to inveigle Carol Siegelstein into it, who knows what might have transpired.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

September 15, 2009--Trickle Up

Rarely do we get to see an economic theory tested in real life. Most are so nuanced or qualified that it is difficult to link evidence from experience to predictive behavior.

But there is one glaring exception—the fabled trickle-down theory that has guided conservative Republican tax policy and sought justification for itself for decades.

This theory, which came to considerable prominence during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, over-simply put claimed that dramatic tax rate cuts for the wealthiest were justified since these people are our most productive citizens and if they are allowed to keep more of their money it would be good for everyone. The benefits would trickle down.

The seemingly twisted logic of this—since there were at the time no comparable tax cuts approved for middle- or working-class people—that this tax relief bounty for the most affluent would work its way down to produce equivalent benefit for the less productive--was promoted to Americans by asserting that the affluent, with the money they would not have to pay in taxes, would in turn invest these savings and create businesses and jobs that would benefit everyone. Millions of new jobs would be established in the process, the middle class and working poor would see their lot in life improve, and those at the bottom of the economic pyramid would be rescued from the despair of poverty.

The almost religious belief in the power of the free market—unfettered by the interventions of government regulation and tax policy—was purported to be an eternal truth, which, if allowed to function freely, would be good for all. Thus it was asserted.

The latest report from the Bureau of the Census, the Current Population Survey, however, puts the lie to much of this.

Yes, while the wealthiest five percent have benefited mightily from both the massive Reagan and more recent Bush tax cuts, pocketing trillions of dollars (all added to our debt) and benefiting from the further concentration of wealth, the rest of us have slipped further and further behind and the net-worth gap between “them” and “us” has widened and widened. Though made worse by the recent Great Recession, if you look closely at the data in the Survey and especially its dramatic charts and graphs, it is sadly not difficult to find the economic and social wreckage that has been the real result of this theory.

The linked New York Times article offers a glimpse of some of the key findings. Let me here tick off a few.

Assuming ideological conservatives actually care about the rate of poverty, or if they more honestly allow themselves to feel that at its most blatant, according to the natural law of the Market, those who wind up in poverty are there because they deserve to be (they had every opportunity to succeed but didn’t), the Survey starkly reveals that between the 1960s, when the War on Poverty was implemented, poverty rates declined significantly—from about 23 percent in 1960 to “only” 12 percent by 1970. So in spite of all the ranting that this War initiated by political liberals failed, it in fact succeeded.

But then when trickle-down free-marketeers came to power—during the Reagan and first Bush administrations and then more recently with George W. Bush—the poverty rate soared. Up about five percentage points during each of these three presidencies.

In regard to the middle class, as evidence that trickle-down theory is not only bad for the poor, they too did not benefit. The Survey reveals that since 1999, median family income has not kept pace with inflation. In 2008, to cite just one year, even before the full impact of the recession, adjusted for inflation, it fell to $50,300 from $52,200. In the words of Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard, “We’ve seen a lost decade for the typical American family.”

No wonder tea-baggers are rallying in anger and shouting down any governmental attempts to bail out corporations or bring healthcare benefits to the under-covered and uninsured. They see this as more of the same—government claiming that it is our friend when all their experience tells them that it is a big part of the problem.

But ironically these understandably frustrated people are missing the real point—that the failed policies that have victimized them were not in truth designed to benefit them directly. Instead, they were supposed to be indirect, one-off beneficiaries. Bring relief to the rich, they were sold, and the rest of us would be helped by their entrepreneurship and largess. It seems that this hasn’t quite worked out as well as promised. The latest data are the evidence of that continuing failure, that deception.

Monday, September 14, 2009

September 14, 2009--Wither the Golden Rule?

As wrong as Maureen Dowd was last week when she criticized Barack Obama for being too much like Star Trek's passive Dr. Spock and not enough like Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, in her New York Times column on Sunday she got it, sadly, exactly right--the real reason many on the right of the political spectrum despise Obama is because he is . . . black. (See Dowd's piece linked below.)

They may resent his elite education, his grace, his high intelligence, his way with words, and his cool; but the fundamental reason they hate him and want to "break" him (in the unintentionally revealing words of South Carolina’s Senator Jim DeMint) is because of his race. They can’t stand the idea that a black guy is their president. They’re all right rooting for African-American athletes and paying to see Will Smith in every one of his movies, but a black man as president just sticks in the throats.

And thus to quote Congressman James Clyburn, also of South Carolina who knows them when he sees them, they are doing all they can to delegitimatize him and his presidency. That's what all the so-called birther stuff is about. If Obama wasn't born in the United States, he would be constitutionally not permitted to serve as president. (They did not have the same problem, however, with john McCain who was born in the Panama Canal Zone.) They are going after him with a fury on this account, claiming that his Hawaiian birth certificate is a forgery and that thus he is not our real president.

Then they are still after him in regard to the role ACORN played during the presidential campaign. The community organizing organization hired a few dozen part-time workers who phonyed up some voter registration applications in Nevada and Colorado—they were paid by the number of forms they turned in. ACORN, it is claimed, because of this fraudulent work tipped the general election to Obama and thus this is yet another reason why he is not our legitimate president. (All of these registration forms, by the way, were discovered and discarded well before Election Day.)

Though by this logic, since Vice President Joe Biden also benefited from the same alleged fraud, if these Obama haters had their way he too would be tossed out of office and the constitutionally next in line would become our president. In this case that would be Nancy Pelosi, who, up to this point, I thought was even more despised by these conservative radicals than the bogeyman Obama. So wouldn't it be ironic if she were to become our president? But on the other hand, to them, though she is a woman and probably a Communist, she is at least white.

Speaking of the Republic Right, which in almost all instances is synonymous with the Christian Right, what ever happened to their piety when it comes to the Golden Rule, which requires devout Christians to follow the ethic of reciprocity—to not only seek just treatment for themselves but also to work to assure that it applies to all others? To do unto those others as they would have done to them?

Or, for that matter, the even higher sanction to love they neighbor as themselves? That too appears to have been lost from their notion of public discourse and behavior. And here I am not talking about what they might be doing privately in public men rooms or along the Appalachian Trail, but rather what they are doing daily about the welfare of those who have fallen on hard times and who need a little assistance from the side of our better angels.

Where do we today find these noble Christian verities—these God-ordained directives—being carried out in the words and deeds of those of our public officials who so steadfastly and publicly proclaim them while in their behavior as legislators and leaders act as if they did not apply to them or for which, according to their professed beliefs, they will be eternally responsible and held accountable?

The hatred and mean-spiritedness that we are seeing today on such flagrant display, that they are so knowingly unleashing, is unworthy of them and their proudly asserted religious principals. I can only, therefore, assume that they are cynically insincere—proclaiming their beliefs only to benefit themselves and to manipulate and enflame others.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11, 2009--More Spocky

In a column titled "Less Spocky, More Rocky," Maureen Dowd faults Barack Obama for being too much like Star Trek's professorial Dr. Spock and not enough like Rocky Balboa. She writes:

President Obama is so wrapped up in his desire to be a different, more conciliatory, beer-summit kind of leader, he ignores some verities.

Sometimes, when you’ve got the mojo, you have to keep your foot on your opponent’s neck. When you’re trying to get a Sisyphean agenda passed, it’s good if people in the way — including rebellious elements in your own party — fear you.

Civil discourse is fine, but when the other side is fighting dirty, you should get angry. Don’t let the bully kick sand in your face. The White House should have impaled death panel malarkey as soon as it came up. [Emphasis added.]

(Linked below is her full New York Times column.)

Actually, he has struck exactly the right tone. It may not have been politically expedient and for sure hasn't produced the kind of testosterone fireworks media pundits thrive on or the under-stimulated Maureen Down seems frequently to crave, but if we are ever to make progress toward civility or to engage again in tough-minded rational discourse, someone has to act like the grownup. And for Washington Barack Obama, uniquely and thus sadly, appears to be one of the very few who welcomes the idea's of others and is, or at least has been, serious about working in a flexible and bipartisan way.

If the hollering and ranting and lying is ever to stop some one in charge has got to take the lead and be more like the thoughtful, self-critical, open-minded Dr. Spock. We have seen what we get when the Rocky Balboa's of the world are in charge. We wind up in wars that are ruining us; we get swaggering when we need reflection; and we are forced to endure the spectacle of muscle flexing and posturing when we should be listening to those with whom we disagree and perhaps have better ideas than we can generate on our own. We have seen self-interest overtake public responsibility; political cowardice and corruption replace courage and integrity; and greed overcome caring for, loving our neighbors.

And then there are all those anti-government government workers--right-wing GOP senators and congressmen. All on the public (government) payroll; all enrolled in the government-funded and run congressional pension system, all seeking eternal reelection, and all those over 65 (and there are quite a few of them doddering around) getting their medical care paid for via a form of socialized medicine--Medicare. That evil single-payer, government-run system. I haven't heard any one of them turning down their taxpayer-funded salaries, government pensions, or taxpayer paid-for healthcare.

When a few of these well-compensated public servants step up and rather than calling the president a liar when he was telling the truth and they were the ones doing the lying, when they rise to reject all their government subsidies and payments they seem to enjoy receiving, then and only then will I take them seriously. Until that happens I will continue to know them for what they are--hypocrites.

But, having said this, having given in to my own propensity to rant, agree with him, disagree with him, I continue to hope that Barack Obama stays on the high road and persists in setting this example of civility and open discourse. That still represents our best hope.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 10, 2009--Mid-Coast: Diversity

We were meeting with a real estate lawyer yesterday morning about the possibility of buying the cottage we are renting and when he learned we were from New York City he said, "How I love visiting there. There is so much diversity. Which I love. People from so many backgrounds all coming together. It's the great American salad. The best hope for the future. If we are ever to get along, we have to find ways to live together like that."

But at the risk of disillusioning him and not wanting to deter anyone from visiting--New York right now needs all the cash-paying visitors it can attract--I said, "In many ways you’re right, but don't overlook the diversity that’s right here." He looked at me curiously. Having lived along the mid coast of Maine most of his life, he clearly wasn’t thinking about things quite this way; and so I added, "If you had driven by the Bristol Diner this morning where we were having breakfast, and looked through the windows, even at ten miles an hour, it would have looked like a bunch of white people having coffee together." He nodded slowly, not yet getting my point, "And if you were to look in the window of Balthazar in New York City where we go for coffee when we are in town, it would look a lot more diverse. Mostly white people, certainly, but there would also be a smattering of Asians, African-Americans, and waiters and staff from Latin America and South Asia. People from all over the world; but staff aside, the customers, though they might look more diverse than those of us who were in the Bristol earlier today, and though at the diner there may have been eight to ten people and in Balthazar at any time there might be well over a hundred, I would suggest that there may be more diversity here than in Soho, in New York City."

“I’m not following you,” our well-traveled lawyer said, “How can you compare the two. New York is the proverbial melting pot while up here wherever you look you see your relatives. We’re that small a place. How diverse can that be?”

“Fair point,” I responded, “but let me try to spell this out a bit more. Admitting in advance that we are quite smitten with this place—why else would we be considering buying a house--and therefore my perceptions may be both superficial and influenced by romantic notions, I tried to explain.

“At the diner today we sat in a booth next to a retired school superintendent from central Ohio. He and his family vacationed here for decades, in part to be near other members of his family who lived in the area, and then when he retired they bought a house next to his brother’s and moved here permanently. That was about twenty years ago. He’s a remarkable man, Rod is, who is full of stories about his days in the Midwest and from more recent years about living here where, among other things, he spent time working for the sheriff’s department. I had wondered about that, his interest in both education and law enforcement, but then just this morning he filled in the connecting pieces. His father had worked for the Ohio State prison system, among other things transporting prisoners all over the country. Young Rod accompanied him on some of these trips and while on the road with his dad had a chance to visit many penitentiaries. In fact, before becoming a teacher and then a school principal he worked in a prison in Ohio and has some fascinating stories about his life there. Some of the stories are quite chilling, but he told some this morning with the same soft smile that characterizes him when talking about his family and the rest of his professional life.”

“I know him,” our lawyer broke into my narrative, “Rod Swank. He’s a very fine fellow and just as nice as you describe him.”

“Well then you know that he had a bad fall last January and broke his shoulder? It required surgery and he is still recovering from it. He needs someone to help him and thus with him today, as she is every morning since they like us come to the Bristol most days for breakfast, was a local woman, Lynne, whose family here goes back many, many generations. As she was telling us the other day, if you go to the South Bristol Historical Society there among their documents are hundreds and hundreds of old photographs taken by members of her family. And the current generation still pretty much lives in this area. In fact, Lynne said, that when she was in school there were only ten students in her class and many of them, just like you said, were her cousins. She is as nice and welcoming and as salt of the earth as you could ever hope to find. Full of passion for life and interested not just in local goings on but everything happening in the larger world. Again this morning, from the Portland newspaper that she was reading, she turned to us and with appropriate indignation pointed to a big ad for BMWs and said, ‘Can you believe anyone spending more than $70,000 for one of these big cars when you can get a perfectly good one for less than half that price and then you could use the rest of the money for all sorts of charitable things?’ Of course she was right and we know from other things she has told us about her own life that if she were the one tempted by one of these BMW guzzlers she would be just the person to buy a less expensive car and use the extra money to help others since that’s what she’s spent a large part of her life doing—helping members of her family when they’ve had needs and others as well. Including right now with Rod, who does need her assistance an which she joyfully offers.”

“I think I know her too,” our lawyer said. “Lynne Drisko from South Bristol. She is just as you say and many in her family are exactly like her. Fine people.” Then he added, “I’m seeing your point, but continue, you mentioned there were about ten of you at the diner today.”

“Well, I don’t want to keep you all morning. I’m sure you have other appointments.”

“I do, but please go on. Tell me about a few others.”

“Let’s see. Oh yes, there was this young fellow there who only comes occasionally, though usually he gets there earlier than we do. He’s a fisherman. As have been most members of his family, again for many generations. He’s a line fisherman, not a lobsterman. When the weather permits he takes his boat out about 20 miles and works the Gulf of Maine. I asked him earlier today if he had had any luck. He was sitting at the counter and swung around to face us. ‘Well, it just so happened I did. Yesterday I caught a tuna. A big one. More than 300 hundred pounds.’ “Wow,’ Rona said, ‘that’s great. How long did it take you to bring it in?’ ‘Oh, about 20 minutes.’ ‘That’s amazing, only 20 minutes.’ ‘If you know what you’re doing,’ he said to her with a grin, ‘that’s all it takes.’ ‘And what will you do with it?’ I asked. ‘I’m selling it. That’s what we do with them.’ ‘To whom?’ Rona wanted to know. And he went on to tell us about the Japanese tuna buyers who work up and down the east coast. From the east end of Long Island all the way up through Maine. That when he catches a tuna of this size he calls in to someone on shore and when he gets back to the dock a buyer is there who arranges to transport it to the tuna auction in Portland. Then if it tests out to be sushi-grade it gets flash frozen and is shipped off to Japan. “First class,” he said.

He smiled again, still working on his ham and eggs, “It can bring pretty good money. Depending on the fat content. The more fat it has means it’s been feeding on a lot of herring and this brings the best price per pound. Let me see,” he added without us asking, “a fish that size, if you get real lucky, can bring a few thousand dollars. That would be a good day’s work,” he grinned, “Wouldn’t you say? Though don’t mishear me, this sort of thing happens only occasionally. But it does happen. I’d be heading out there today if the wind hadn’t been so strong. It’d be rough out that far. But then there’s always tomorrow.”

“If you tell me his name, I might know him too,” our lawyer said, “Not that many from around here go out for tuna. Could be Isaac, though. Another fine fellow. Also from a good, hard-working family.”

Rona and I confessed that we weren’t sure about his name but Isaac sounded right. Then I asked, “Are you seeing my point now, about diversity?”

“Of course I am. From the beginning I knew where you’d be going with this. And of course you’ve noticed how most of us know each other. At least enough to know what’s going on in each other’s lives and families. But tell me about that place you go to in New York. I think you mentioned it’s Balthazar. I know about it. I hear it’s pretty good.”

“Well, it is. It's one of the hardest places in New York to get a reservation. But in the mornings, for breakfast, if you get there early you can always get a table, and thus many local residents like to stop by for morning coffee. That’s pretty much all we order. Coffee and a bit of bread. The eggs and other cooked dishes are so expensive—I won’t even tell you how much,” he nodded knowingly, having been to New York quite frequently, “that we don’t feel comfortable spending that much for just a couple of eggs. Maybe we’re a little like Lynne and the BMWs. But it’s a great place and we go there as much for the camaraderie with other regulars as for the coffee and excellent baguettes.”

“And your point about the lack of diversity there . . .?”

“As I said, a quick look around Balthazar would suggest much more diversity than on first glance you would expect to find here at the diner. But if you talk to some of the people there—people who we really like and with whom we have become good friends--as terrific as they are, and though they do all sorts of interesting things, you’re not likely to run into a tuna fisherman or someone whose family has been in New York for 300 years or someone who worked in a prison—except maybe as a volunteer—or someone who worked for the telephone company as an installer or someone who used to run a restaurant up in Alaska or someone who had been a big-time corporate accountant before ‘dropping out’ from that and, resettling up here, making a living for a few years as a house painter before working again as an accountant in a small firm of his own before again moving on to own and operate a successful manufacturing business with customers all over the world. That’s John Allen. Someone who is more up on contemporary literature than I who pride myself on reading pretty much anything noteworthy.

“And at Balthazar you’re very unlikely to sit next to someone who is as politically conservative as the contractor I sat next to last week who talked my ear off—without any aggression or attitude—about how Barack Obama is a socialist, who by the way, though he knows my views, continues to look to sit next to us and never fails to ask, if he is just there to get a takeout cup of coffee, how our house hunting is going. And here too, like Rona and I who are in the area for the season, coming to the diner regularly are folks who have second homes in the area. People from all over who love this region and who, back at home, are senior people in banking and finance, white-shoe lawyers (no offense), and of course the occasional writer or artist.”

“And,” Rona added, “when we have contentious discussions in New York City they are not about Obama’s alleged socialism—everyone there voted for him and presumably still supports him—only one waiter during the campaign voted for McCain, though reluctantly after he choose Sarah Palin to run with him. The arguments we had were whether we were for Hillary or Edwards or Obama. Everyone eventually voted for him. If you can believe it, the fiercest fights have been about books and movies. Did we think No Country for Old Men was the best movie of the year or just one of the best. We almost lost a friend ‘fighting’ about this. I mean that literally. When I said I thought it was only OK she stomped out and didn’t return for two weeks. I’m not making this up!

“And one more quick thing,” I continued, checking my watch, “I know you have to go in a minute. And then of course adding to the diversity here there is you and your wife and family. Not only do you have members of your family, as you told us, who are Asian and Middle Eastern, but look what you told us that you and your wife do at Bowdoin College. Your do volunteer work there with students. Didn’t you tell us that you bought this really big house so that there would be room to have students come for visits and stay during some weekends and holidays when they can’t get back home to their own families? I’ll include you, then if I may, in the case I’m making about local diversity. You too help fill out the spectrum here.” I winked at him.

But he had this already figured out, which is one of the reasons why, he told us, that he decided to spend his life here. After law school he of course had all kinds of options but decided to make a life here. “I pretty much agree with you. We do have a very rich life in the area. As you’re saying it’s not all that homogeneous. At times it can get a little insular since there are so comparatively few of us—that’s why I like my visits to places such as New York so much—that diversifies our lives,” he smiled again, “but the interdependence here is something I really like. We’re sort of tribal. How we need each other. Every one of us. They need me to do some of their lawyering and I need them to take care of my health, my house, my morning coffee.”

Rona said, “So that means we might be seeing you one morning at the Bristol?”

“You never know. I’m curious about how your fisherman friend does with his tuna. How much he gets per pound for it. So I might just be stopping by.”

“Well, you had better do that soon. We, unfortunately, have to leave in a few days; but if you help us buy this cottage, well then . . .”

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

September 9, 2009--Nice Work If You Can Get It

How does this sound to you--you have a totally secure job where you can't be fired for any reason unless you commit a felony and on that job you work eight to nine months a year and then every six years you get a year off at either half or full-pay?

You mean that your employer doesn't offer this benefit? That then tells me you aren't a college or university faculty member. This means your company, your plant, your firm doesn't offer sabbaticals. Institutions of higher learning, on the other hand, do this routinely.

This was brought to mind by an interesting piece in the New York Times about why college tuition continues to rise beyond the rate of inflation even during a deep recession. (See article linked below.) This deflationary year, private colleges across America raised what they charge parents and their children by 4.3 percent, shamelessly noting, according the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, that this is the lowest rate of increase in 37 years.

The cynic in me, considering the tattered state of the economy, wonders why there was any increase at all. At a time when other businesses, and colleges are businesses, are cutting costs and prices to attract clients and customers, why are colleges continuing to charge more?

For a number of reasons. First of all, they can get away with it. As long as there is strong demand for their services (mainly having a monopoly on the granting of credentials), they will continue to do whatever it is they want to do regardless of the state of the rest of reality and the larger economy. Colleges are a classic example of the free market at it’s self-indulgent worst.

Then, though on most campuses there are individual faculty members and academic departments that are in effect going out of business in that they cannot attract customers--i.e. get any students to take and pay for their offerings—department chairs, presidents, and trustees cannot easily cut them back or eliminate them. If no one is any longer interested in studying exotic languages or ancient history, they feel compelled to keep the professors who teach them on the payroll because invariably they have tenure which means they cannot be let go without going through endless law suits and being sanctioned by accrediting agencies. Sort of like in the old days after the railroads switched to diesel engines they were still required to retain and pay the firemen who used to shovel coal into the boilers even though there was nothing much for them to do except sit around and drink coffee.

Then there is the issue of what those in the education business call “faculty productivity.” In business and industry this is not a complicated concept. One can keep track of how many clients a broker attracts and how many trades he or she initiates; in a textile mill managers can quantify how much is being produced and how many people were required to get the job done. And there are things that can be done in these cases to increase productivity through innovation, computerization, and, like it or not, speeding up the flow of work.

But in a college, faculty members’ productivity is measured in essentially three ways—how many courses they teach in a year, how many students they advise, and how much committee work they do. In most colleges professors teach four to five courses a year (two during the fall semester and three in the spring), advise a handful of students, and try to avoid as much committee work as they can get away with. And they typically are on campus three to four days a week and work just two14-week semesters. Twenty-eight out of 52 weeks a years. By the measures of most workers this looks like an essentially a part-time job with full-time benefits.

Any attempt to increase productivity by requiring they teach, say, six courses a year, is typically met by strike threats, law suits, and again sanctions by regional accrediting associations. So no administrators who want to protect their reputations ever suggest this or try to implement these kinds of cost savings. In fact, on most campuses faculty members try to get what is called “release time,” approval to teach even fewer than five courses per year, to “compensate” them for committee work or allow them to engage in research projects. In fact, at elite institutions in order to attract and retain faculty “stars” (that’s what they are called) deans often have to make deals with them to release them from virtually all teaching responsibilities.

And then of course there are those delicious sabbaticals. Presumably to allow faculty to seek intellectual refreshment, engage full-time in a research project, or simply rest up from the rigors of working eight months a year. But then there are those nagging studies which show that in most cases no significant academic work gets done during the sabbatical semester or year; and that even when it does, it does not lead to improvements in classroom teaching. In other words, sabbaticals are another personnel benefits not all that different than paid holidays. And most faculty members see them that way—as an entitlement.

Another reason for university inefficiency is that during the past three decades the size of the administration has swollen. At a much higher rate than any increase in the size of the faculty. It is claimed by the self-interested (with some validity) that this is largely because of governmental red tape. So much money streams to colleges from the federal government via grants and various forms of student financial aid that it takes more staff than in the past to manage this. And then with tuition rising so fast students and their tuition-paying parents are demanding more student services and activities—healthcare, sports teams, clubs, and career counseling. In the past, after graduation, students pretty much on their own were expected to find jobs. Now they require a great deal of help with this and this takes more staff time.

So if you experience tuition sticker shock after you drop your daughter off in Cambridge or in Easton, Pennsylvania (where Lafayette College this year will set you back $50,000 in after-tax dollars), perhaps pop into the president’s office to see why he approved any sabbaticals this year when everyone else is being forced to cut back.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

September 8, 2009--The Fourth R: Ridiculous

The silliest story of the week involves the building criticism among extreme conservatives of Barack Obama’s decision to broadcast a message to the nation’s school children. He plans on Wednesday to speak to them via the White House website about the importance of staying in school and working hard. President George H.W. Bush did pretty much the same thing back in 1991 and I don’t remember many getting their pants in a bunch, though it is true that a few hyper-partisan Democrats in Congress, probably while on junkets, moaned about the $27,000 it cost to produce the broadcast. Since it seemed appropriate for the president who went to prep school to do that, isn’t it even more appropriate for our first African-American president to do something similar? (See linked New York Times article for the details.)

But not to the crazies on the right. They are ranting about this all over the talk radio dial, claiming that this is another example of Barack Obama wanting to go over parents’ heads in order to indoctrinate their precious little ones with socialist ideas. Ideas such as staying in school. Now that’s what I call socialism!

As an example of this latest hysteria, here’s an excerpt from a recent Washington Times editorial:

In a move suggestive of the Pyongyang public school system, the U.S. Department of Education recommended that before the speech students collectively brainstorm questions like, “Why does President Obama want to speak with us today? How will he inspire us” Classrooms are to be festooned with “notable quotes excerpted (and posted in large print on board) from President Obama’s speeches about education,” presumably alongside benevolent-looking images of the dear leader.

Yes, Barack Obama is the most recent incarnation of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. I can see their portraits side by side in every American classroom.

Then Florida’s Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, said that he “was appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.” And Chris Stigall, a talk show host out of Kansas City sneered that since he “wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to me kid alone, I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.” You can draw your own conclusions from the seamy parallels this pundit is insinuating.

Now, there is much to criticize about Obama and we are hearing it from the left, right, and center. Among his supporters there is concern that his presidency has lost significant momentum in just eight months, but even at its outer limits most of this criticism has been reasonably sane. This on the other hand . . .

Monday, September 07, 2009

September 7, 2009--Day Off

More tomorrow with a back to school special.

Friday, September 04, 2009

September 4, 2009--Labor Day Weekend

I will not be laboring here until Monday. Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

September 3, 2009--Thunder From Progressives

Liberal though I confessedly am, at times here I’ve raised questions about the direction of some of Barack Obama’s polices. A few of my conservative friends, though, affectionately continue to call me a “Commie.”

What would they say about the critical perspectives of folks who are even more progressive than I? Here’s an example of this sort of progressive thunder from a diary in yesterday’s Daily Kos written by someone very close to me who I dearly love.

From this you can see one reason why Obama is slipping into deep political trouble. His so-called base may be deserting him.

(From the attached link you can find your way to Joe Beese's sources.)

Bush's Third Term
by Joe Beese

Wed Sep 02, 2009 at 12:13:24 PM EDT

David Swanson examines the miseries of Bush's third term:

Unilaterally rewriting legislation through signing statements.

Violating the rule of law.

Expanding and formalizing indefinite detention.

Ongoing torture.

Continued domestic spying.

Further increasing a military budget larger than all other countries' combined.

The continued employment of his henchmen Robert Gates and Ben Bernanke.

Lies about withdrawing from Iraq.

Escalating the war in Afghanistan.

Continued government contracts for Blackwater.

The Pentagon dictating war coverage.

The White House and Justice Department riddled with corporate cronies.

No change to the predations of NAFTA.

New Orleans left to rot.

Secret sweetheart deals with large corporations.

Refusing to release visitor logs.

Immunity for the high-level authorizers of torture.

Expanded claims for the State Secrets privilege.

He didn't include second-class status for gays, mountaintop removal, and some additional corporate cronies - but maybe he was on a deadline.

On the other hand, who knew his Supreme Court pick would be so moderate! What a change!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

September 2, 2009--The Dancing Policeman

Traditionally, travelers to Italy have not only returned with stories of the wonders of Rome and the art of Florence, but also delighted in telling about all those gorgeous small town policemen in tight pants who, while atop their sun-drenched pedestal stages, pirouetted and danced as they directed surging seas of traffic.

How handsome was the one in Perugia? He could have been Marcello Mastroianni’s twin brother. And what about that lady-killer with the erotic baton swinging his hips on that twisting coastal road near Rapello?

Not only was this good for traffic safety—who was not prepared to slow down to take in these shows—but also reminded us of the sensual Italian way of life, half the reason we made our way there. (The other half being the Fettuccini Alfredo and bold Barolos.)

Now all of this may be imperiled. According to the New York Times, this display of male ego and splendor may be about to be replaced by, what else, art. (Article linked below.)

In towns and villages all over Italy, claiming they contribute to safety, municipal leaders are presiding over the construction of traffic roundabouts, or what we here in America refer to as traffic circles, and within them the erection of public art. I, myself, have never felt them to be very safe—to enter you have to launch your car into a swirling stream of traffic already rampaging around the circle. Drivers frustrated by the fact that they may have had to crawl toward the roundabout at ten kilometers per hour to even get to it, once there, floor the accelerator as if they had just entered the Milan Grand Prix. But if there were at least a dashing traffic policeman in full flagrant display awaiting them, it would have been worth the wait.

But now, more and more, what the weary driver will encounter is a piece of sculpture. Something usually quite awful—we’re not talking pietas. For example, in Buguggiate, just south of the Swiss border, town officials have installed a piece that is supposed to represent a pack of bicycle riders. Actually two-dimensional cutout silhouettes of riders that are arrayed in the roundabout as if the were biking around it. This, to be sure, does have the effect of slowing drivers down. In large part, it seems, because painted on each piece is a portrait. Not of a local count or cardinal, as it likely would have been during the Renaissance, but in this instance of the very politicians who commissioned the work.

This, as you might imagine, has unleashed a firestorm of protest. Especially from rival politicos. So, as a form of compromise, the elected officials are considering the addition of bikers from the opposition party. I assume they will be arrayed bringing up the rear.

This of course got me thinking about another roundabout, Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. It too could use some spiffing up and a bit more traffic management. With the Democrats in charge, if they were to poach this public art idea from Italy, what might we find on our next visit to the capital? Surely a cutout of Barack Obama in the lead, but with that lead narrowing as his popularity is slipping. Followed closely by . . .? Joe Biden? Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? Barney Frank? Or Michelle? Actually, maybe she should be at the head of the pack.

And bringing up the rear, nipping at the proverbial heels of the Democrats, maybe . . .? This one is more difficult. Certainly not John McCain any longer. What about Sarah Palin? Remember her? Of course not Larry Craig or Mark Sanford. How about, then, Rush Limbaugh, the de facto leader of the GOP? And, as another benefit, he could surely use the exercise.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

September 1, 2009--Ladies of Forest Trace: Teddy Kennedy

“All weekend long, it was Teddy Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy.” It was my 101 year-old mother on the phone from her home at the Forest Trace retirement community. “Not just on TV, but also in the dining room here. All the girls wanted to talk about were the Kennedys.”

“It’s understandable. As everyone was saying, not only did he die too young but also it was the end of an era.”

“That’s part of what was upsetting me.”

“About him? Or the Kennedys? I’m not following you.”

“Be a little patient and let me get to my point.”

“Sorry. You’re right. I need to give you a little time.”

“And stop treating me like an old lady. I may be old but I’m not that old!”

“Sorry. You’re right. As you keep telling me, ‘Age is just a number.’” In truth, in her case, it’s also the result of a lot of good doctoring and, even more, good fortune.

“About him, Teddy. Or Ted. I can’t figure out what his name was.”

“Well, both I think. It depends on who’s talking about him.”

“But that’s not important. What is important are all the things I learned about him. The girls can’t forgive him for that Chappachipmunk business.” I choose not to correct her malaprop for fear that she would chastise me again for treating her like someone who has lost some of her marbles, which she very decidedly hasn’t. “And for all his drinking and womanizing, which was of course terrible and inexcusable; but from what they said about him on CNN he overcame that and became a remarkable senator.”

“I agree with that.”

“And I kept trying to tell the ladies that they wouldn’t have their beloved Medicare if it wasn’t for him and their grandchildren might not have been able to pay for college if it wasn’t for him and that millions of poor children wouldn’t have healthcare if he hadn’t taken the lead to pass those laws. But all most of them wanted to talk about was the drugs his children took and his cousin or nephew who raped that girl in Cape Cod.”

“He was found to be innocent at his trial for that.”

“Yes, that’s so; but his Uncle Ted or Teddy was out in a bar and grill drinking with him that night. Isn’t that true? What kind of a thing is that for a grown man to be doing with his nephew?”

“Nothing good. I admit that.”

“But this is exactly my point—how we are talking about him. As if that was all he was. A spoiled, rich boy in a man’s body. And I understand all the tragedies he had to endure. All his brothers were killed and even some of his sisters. And look what happened to his wonderful mother? Poor thing. With that husband of hers. But that still is no excuse for him behaving the way he did. But again—will you listen to me—I’m doing exactly what I got fed up with the TV doing and about what most of the girls wanted to talk about. Too much gossiping about this part of his life.”

“And, what did you say to your friends?”

“I asked them why when we talk about Thomas Jefferson—but to tell you the truth we never do—why do we talk about the Declaration of Independence and all the good things he did when he was president? Why don’t we talk only about all the slaves he owned and that business with Sally whatever-her-name-was?”


“Yes her. Not that I’m comparing the two of them. Why don’t we talk about all the babies he had with her? No, that only came up recently when everyone in his family had a reunion or something. It wasn’t in the headlines forever. Not like with Teddy Kennedy. Especially if you watched that Fox. And what about Franklin Roosevelt and his girlfriends and which president was it who had an illegitimate child?”

“Harding, I think.”

“Yes him. We now know all of these things but they are only a part of the story. Not the main part. I heard someone say that when Bill Clinton dies Monica Lewinsky will be mentioned in the first paragraph of his obituary. Like Nixon and Watergate. Shouldn’t China be in the first paragraph? What’s more important—Watergate or China?”

She paused for a moment to give me a chance to respond. “I see I have given you something to think about.”

“Always.” Which is true.

“One of our problems now is how the news is given to us. Everything has to be about sex and crimes and scandals. Why is this so? Are they afraid that if they talk to us like adults we’ll switch the channel? Is it all about that? Being afraid that we won’t watch or listen if they talk about important things?”

“I think you’re right. It’s all about ratings. They know that people slow down to watch traffic accidents. True, some will get out of their cars to help, but most of us can’t take our eyes off the wrecked cars.”

“My point exactly. And this is dangerous. We have many, many problems here and overseas and we have to deal with them as serious people. Not as people who only want to be entertained. Yes, we need our distractions, but we also need to be informed.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more. But, as you were saying, in addition to Chappaquiddick, they also told us a lot about Senator Kennedy’s accomplishments. You mentioned that you pointed this out to your friends at dinner.”

“Yes, I did. And I hope some of it got through to them. As I told you I told them, they and their families have been his beneficiaries. Not that he did these things on his own. But he was a leader for these causes. So the full story was quite a story. But,” she continued, quickly shifting gears, “there is something else that the television did that I disagree with.”

“What’s that, mom?”

“About this end-of-an-era business.”

“Go on.”

“Be patient. I’m getting to it.”


“I don’t think that’s true.”

“What’s that?”

“Are you again in a rush to run off the phone?”

“No, I’m fine on time.”

“So just try to keep quiet for another minute.” I took a deep breath. “That era didn’t end with his death.”

“We’ll, he was the last of the . . .” As the words tumbled out of my mouth I realized I should just shut up and let her tell the story in her own way.

Ignoring my interruption, she continued, “Yes, he was the last of the male Kennedys of his generation, and that is part of the story, but only a part. The era of the Kennedys, really the era that began much earlier with Roosevelt, that they were a part of, that ended a long time ago. A time when we cared about the poor and the elderly and children, that era came to an end much earlier than now with this Kennedy.”

“Tell me more mom. I sense where you’re going with this but I want to be sure before saying anything.”

“That would be a first.” Before I could say anything she laughed and reassured me that she was just having a little fun with me. “I mean that that era came to an end when that actor Ronald Reagan was elected. It was then that he and his cohorts, including many Democrats it grieves me to say, began to take everything apart. What the other presidents did.”

“You mean the New Deal of FDR and the Fair Deal of Truman and . . .”

“And yes whatever it was, I forget, that that Lyndon Johnstone did.”

“The War On Poverty. Or Kennedy’s New Frontier.”

“Yes, all of those New things and those Deals. When they began to cut the rich people’s taxes and changed welfare, which maybe wasn’t entirely a bad thing, that’s when that era ended. Not this past weekend.”

“I see your point and think it’s a good one.”

“So why didn’t we hear more about that on TV?”

“There was I think some of this.”

“But not enough. People have to know the truth. I suppose that’s really my point. That we’re entitled to know the truth. No matter how painful it is. Then they can entertain us!”